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Bricolage APPLIED (finally!)

Started by clehrich, February 16, 2005, 05:14:18 PM

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RPGs and Bricolage: Theory and Practice
In Jay's recent thread on a 1/3-baked idea, a surprising (to me, anyway) agreement was reached about Simulationism, reflexivity, and so forth.  In many other threads lately, there has been some discussion of Claude Lévi-Strauss's famous analogy of bricolage, which also came up in the 1/3-baked thread.  One thing that has been borne in on me by these discussions is that a lot of folks don't see the point of this analogy, at least in RPGs.

There are two reasons for this.  First, it's not entirely clear to everyone what bricolage is anyway.  Second, it's not at all clear what if any application this has to RPGs; I have discussed it mostly as an analytical category for understanding how some gaming activity happens, but haven't tried to turn that around and see it in practice at all.

So I want to do three things here:
    [*]Explain bricolage in (as soon as possible) strictly RPG terms
    [*]Give some practical applications, including some from my own game Shadows in the Fog (see weblink)
    [*]Open it up for more general discussion and argument[/list:u]Now this quickly became an essay, which I hope eventually to polish and put up in the articles section or something.  I've cut it into two VERY LONG pieces.  The first lays all the groundwork, both (briefly) not in reference to RPGs and the second (longer) strictly about RPGs.  The second moves directly into actual concrete issues about actual play.  

    My hope is that after these first very long posts, this will not be a "Chris teaches everyone" thing but a "let's all think about what sorts of implications this might have practically" sort of thing.  But posts requesting clarification are certainly very welcome, at the very least because they will help me polish it to be more effective as an article.

    Lévi-Strauss and bricolage
    The first thing to get is not what bricolage is, but what it is intended to explain.  Although I consider that Lévi-Strauss altered his conception of these issues significantly over the course of his later career, I will try to remain faithful to the first comprehensive formulation, that in La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind).  If nothing else, this means that if you should want to follow up these ideas and dig deeper into them, you only have to deal with that one book, and most particularly the first two chapters.  I am not covering the whole range, or all the implications, or anything like that.  This is a teeny fraction.

    Note: this section is not about RPGs directly; see the next sections for that.

    So, a little background on the question.

    An old difficulty in studying "archaic" peoples (e.g. Australian aborigines, South American and African tribal cultures, etc.)  is magic.  It seems that the natives think a rain dance, for example, produces rain; to us, it's pretty obvious that it doesn't.  (I'm setting aside modern magical and occult perspectives here, and sticking with a kind of baseline materialism.)  So the first theory is that the natives are stupid, in part because they're the wrong color.  That explains nothing, and is unlikely to boot; it's also of course racist.

    Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, proposes something he never gets credit for.  He says that they do believe these things, but not because they are stupid.  It's because they do not think abstractly or theoretically, two qualities of thought that he largely equates to scientific thought.  So let's say the natives have a hundred different magical practices, including curses where stick pins in dolls, and rain dances where you pour water on the ground, and so on.  To the natives, these are a hundred distinct and not especially connected practices.  But we, with our learned tendency to abstract, collect all the data into one big pile and infer (induce) a rule or principle: the Law of Similarity, for example, which says that two similar things may affect each other at a distance because they are similar, thus the doll looks like the target, and the falling water is like falling rain, and so on.  The point is that we have made a significant abstraction, which we learned from historical developments in our intellectual history, beginning way back with early religion and so on.  The natives do not do this, their intellectual history not having developed significantly, so they do not see that all these practices are founded on one principle.  If they did, they would stop doing the practices, because the principle is, as a law of nature, quite obviously ludicrous.  If you have a Law like that, it's obvious how you test it, and then you quickly see that it doesn't work, and so you discard the practices.

    Now Émile Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, says that this is wrong in principle.  "It is a basic postulate of sociology," he says, "that no human institution can be founded on error."  In other words, if these practices don't do anything, people will stop doing them.  Since the rain dance doesn't produce rain, it must do something else, or nobody would do it, and chances are it wouldn't have been invented in the first place.  And what he suggests is that these practices promote the unification and cohesion of the social group.

    Bronislaw Malinowski, in many works but especially Magic, Science and Religion, goes another step.  He, and the later functionalists and structural-functionalists, says that there are three possible functions (empirically observable effects) of a practice, which may or may not correlate to their purposes (why the natives think they do it).  The purpose of the rain dance is to make rain, but it has functions the natives don't know about.  There are basically three kinds of function: practical, psychological, and social.  Something that has a practical function achieves what it claims to achieve, empirically: you ameliorate soil to get a practical effect, i.e. better-growing plants.  A psychological function is usually catharsis of anxiety, and is definitive of magic: you perform a rain dance or a weather-charm because you are worried about drought or storms, and the magical rite helps you feel you are doing something about what you cannot control.  If you've ever pushed the elevator button again and again to make the elevator come faster, that's what Malinowski is talking about: it doesn't do anything practical, but you feel as though you're doing something, so you feel better.  Then the social function is to maintain order, stability, and continuity in the society; for example, men perform couvade (ritual simulation of labor and/or confinement) in order to express paternity (which he can't prove) and have that be accepted socially.

    Now an implication of Malinowski's theory, accepted by later thinkers in the main, was that there is a third component: purpose, function, and meaning.  Meaning is rooted in myth, but includes also all the weird symbolic structures that appear there.  What myth does is provide a precedent for the practice, whatever it might be.  So you ameliorate soil that way because the gods did it first; you perform the rain dance that way because the gods created rain that way; you perform couvade because some god told you to; and so on.

    All of this leads to a problem.  From the natives' point of view, every practice is rooted in myth; the distinction of function is not theirs but the analyst's.  Yet some of these practices have practical effects, such as soil amelioration or pottery or copper-smelting, which are extremely complex and could not have arisen randomly.  And the natives seem to think that rain dances and soil amelioration are in some sense the same thing.  So how did they learn to ameliorate soil?  Why don't they see these as different, since one is totally practical and another isn't?  How come these blur and blend in native life?

    So Lévi-Strauss takes all that and goes back to Frazer's idea. The natives do not think in abstractions.  Except that they do, as the invention and testing of the amelioration of soil proves.  So he proposes that they think in abstractions by means of concrete objects.  Which is totally at odds with any normal sense of "abstraction."

    Bricolage is an analogy intended to show that this kind of abstract thought with concrete things is not in any way bizarre or unusual.  We do it too, but don't recognize it.

    To remind you quickly, bricolage is a hobby in which you build complicated and beautiful things using only what you already have, including taking apart previous projects.  You may not acquire new things, except by stumbling on them in your neighbor's trash.  So you interrogate every object to see what it could be used for, and then work to make whatever use you want applicable to the machine you're building.  Because these objects have intrinsic qualities and properties that have nothing to do with what you want, you have to build around those, making the machine very complicated, with all sorts of self-correction methods, again using more objects, which then carry their own oddities, and so on.  You are allowed to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate your objects, but you cannot undo that, so any change now means that change has already happened the next time you build something.

    Lévi-Strauss contrasts this with normal abstract engineer-thinking, which analyzes the problem and comes up with a required effect, then constructs an element of the machine, from raw pieces, that does this and only this, efficiently.  Thus what the engineer constructs ideally has no extraneous properties, and its elements are perfectly tuned to do exactly what is required and no more.  This is an ideal case, but the distinction should be clear.

    For example, to get a local heating element, the bricoleur might use a toaster (cut open) or an iron, and whichever he chooses carries baggage, i.e. the many other properties of the object.  The engineer would sit down and design a local heating element that is ideally suited to exactly what he wants, and no more.  Suppose we want a machine to heat something, and we want it to be lightweight.  If the bricoleur only has an iron, he has to compensate for its weight by other means, because the iron is heavy.  The engineer designs a lightweight heating element.

    And to be clear, a myth or a ritual is the machine.  It is the result of such a process.  The concrete objects are things in nature, like flowers and animals and such.

    Bricolage and RPGs
    What I've been ducking in all that discussion, apart from RPGs per se, is the question of structure.  That's because the concept is both so difficult and abstract, and also so simple, that it is very difficult to explain through more abstraction.  Rather than get into Lévi-Strauss's examples, which are mostly irrelevant to us in RPGs, I'm basically going to stick to RPGs from here on in.

    Let's set up the analogy.  I'll use some Big Model terms, because they're so useful, but this really isn't quite a Big Model theory; it applies without respect to CA, for the nonce anyway.

    So everything described by the Big Model, with the notable exceptions of CA and Social Contract, is a concrete thing.  A Technique, for example, might be likened to an iron: it can be used in various ways, in various contexts, to do a range of things, but it cannot be used at all times to do absolutely anything at all.  Remember that Setting and Character are also elements of the Big Model, and are perhaps the most obvious "things" and sets of things.  But any mechanic, let's say a way of resolving bullet to-hit probabilities, is also such a thing: it does something, it is applicable in a range of ways and situations, and yet it cannot do everything nor be applied always.

    Consider gaming as a process, the way we usually do.  When a particular situation (not capitalized) arises, we need to decide how to resolve it.  And so we interrogate our shed (the total game system) of things to decide what is appropriate.  Maybe we decide that although this is an arrow being fired, the best way to resolve its to-hit probability is to apply the bullet system, but we have to make some modifications because arrows are not bullets.  The bullet system has now changed, ever so slightly: every time we use it to resolve bullet to-hits in the future, it is a specific application that we have retained, of what is now a larger and slightly differently constructed mechanism.

    Now we might eventually decide that this mechanism is so clever and so useful that we want it to apply to any ranged combat.  But the problem is, maybe laser guns don't work the same way, so we cannot simply apply it directly.  One way to do this would be to construct a completely new system, from first principles, to handle laser guns.  In play, as opposed to design, we find this practically a pain in the ass; in design, we may find it aesthetically annoying, because it seems more elegant to have one mechanic rather than a zillion different ones.  Now in design, which is nearer the engineering end of things, we may just go back to the drawing board and invent a whole new general to-hit system.  But in play, we don't want to stop and do this, because as I say it's a pain, and it distracts from what was the point of all of this, which was to figure out whether Dave's laser shot did indeed take out Big Fred's kneecap.  So we use the good old-fashioned chewing-gum-and-twine method: we adapt the projectile to-hit system to apply to energy weapons.  And maybe we announce, "Okay, so the first two steps are the same always, but from now on in the third step projectile combat goes on table A, which we already were using, and energy combat goes on table B, which is just like table A except without lines 1-3 and 12, which leaves 8 options instead of 12 so roll a d8 instead of a d12."

    I'm not going to ramble on here.  I hope it's clear why we can treat both mechanics and the imagined objects of SIS (characters, weapons, monsters, etc.)  as concrete things in the sense of bricolage, and have some practical sense of what that entails directly in play.

    All we have done, thus far, is establish the analogy.  This is something my students constantly get wrong: by establishing the analogy, you have done no analytical work, really.  You have laid the groundwork for it, but actually achieved nothing.  We now know that bricolage can be applied to RPGs, and we could go on and on demonstrating this, but all that would have no effect.  So what?  It's just another model. This is an important point I'll be returning to.

    So now we have to take into consideration what bricolage is for, theoretically and practically.  Theoretically, we've seen that bricolage is an analogy intended to explain the nature of a special kind of abstract thought in the concrete; so what does that entail for RPGs?  Practically, we've seen that bricolage produces myths and rituals, but what if anything does that say about practical RPG play?

    Remember how I set CA and Social Contract outside the realm of things?  That's because they're best understood as structures.  (If you've read Lévi-Strauss, you know there's something wrong here, but I'll get back to that.  This is heuristic, for simplicity's sake.)

    Essentially a structure is two things.  First of all, it is a pre-made machine, already pretty well tuned and running just fine.  We can slap it into any machine we want to build and know it will run in particular ways.  Second, it is the abstract formulation entailed by the machine.  This is the hard part.

    Suppose we step back from the actual machine for a minute and look at it like the engineer.  Yes, that thing there is an iron, but from the perspective of the machine in which it is placed it is really a meaning: it means "local heat, heavy, etc."  We may only be using "local heat," but it's still heavy.  But from this perspective it isn't "iron."  So the structure of "iron" put this way is (Local Heat)&(Heavy).  If we look at a whole big elaborate machine, we'll see a long column of such meanings intersecting.  We'll also see some apparently contradictory meanings: because we wanted the heating thing to be light, we have both Iron (Local Heat)&(Heavy) and Helium Balloon (Really Big)&(Delicate)&(negative-Heavy).  In this machine, Heavy and negative-Heavy cancel out, so we get a light total.  You see?

    The thing is, any structure like this is a horrible mess if it takes into account every single potential meaning, because every thing we use has a huge raft of potential meanings, i.e. is structured densely.  This isn't true with engineering, because you design things to have one meaning and little else, but in bricolage you're stuck with the vast entailments of actual things as they really are.

    So in addition to structure being a quality of the machine, it's also an aesthetic constraint on what the machine ought to look like.  This has many, many layers—which we can roughly break down into those functions (practical, psychological, social) and some intellectual and aesthetic ideals of how we like things to be.

    Back to RPGs.  I did promise, I know.  And yes, I'm getting on toward practical implications.

    So CA is basically this kind of aesthetic constraint structure.  It says that of the many possible games we could play with our mechanics and characters and so on, we only want a limited set of them.  Others will be counted failures, even if there are no rules-violations or anything like that.  So every time we dig into the shed of System or whatever to get something, we choose not only what could work but what works well under these constraints.

    Now that means we're always thinking CA no matter what we're doing.  It's no good trying to build a light heating machine with an iron if we don't actually own a helium balloon.  Just so, it's no good trying to develop an on-the-fly rule for handling energy weapons in a Gamist game if it creates a "you automatically win if you have an energy weapon" rule.  But on the other hand, that might be just fine in other games: maybe part of the Premise in a Nar game is about the uses of absolute power, so by creating a new absolute power we actually encourage the addressing of that Premise.

    Over in Social Contract, we have the real crux of the matter.  Unlike CA, we really cannot fully understand social structure, because it entails too many things.  Thought of as a machine, it has just far too many bits and pieces that extend way out into stuff we don't want to deal with, like culture and history and sociology sorts of things that we don't want to make a point of debate or contestation within play.  So Social Contract constrains how we think about what is and isn't in the shed of things to play with, but it does so without calling attention to itself as much as possible.  As soon as you go and make explicit the fact that you're not going to draw in national politics during the game, you make that a point of debate, which the whole point of such constraint was to avoid.

    In the Big Model, this works largely top-down.  Social Contract lays down big constraints, then CA narrower ones, and so on.  One implication of bricolage is that this is not actually the case.  In fact, bricolage as an analogy entails that this all works cyclically and dynamically, so as to construct the notion that this is top-down.

    The way this works is by further analogy, but this time analogy within the bricolage process.  That is, it's a kind of analogy we actually draw in play, usually without really knowing we're doing it.

    When we look in our range of mechanics and so on, seeking something to accomplish a given purpose without violating CA, we're apparently thinking theoretically.  But this is not the experience of actual play.  We don't, that is, reach in there and say, "Hmm, how about this?"  "Nah, that's going to violate that aesthetic principle."  "Oh, right, how about this other thing?"  "Hmm, maybe, but we'd have to twist it."  We just do it, in the main, and we do it oddly well.  Now partly this is because we're very clever, really, and we have a lot of practice at doing this stuff.  But we know of all kinds of examples where this process doesn't work, where in fact we do get an aesthetic violation.  Can it really be that there are only perfectly successful and thus invisible manipulations, and total failures that show?  The bricolage analogy proposes otherwise.

    In order to ask the question, "Will this work without violating CA?" we must apply the structure of the thing to the structure of CA, in a hypothetical sense.  But if we're doing that, then we're already putting it into practice, and if there's a failure, it will arise as a failure, cocking up the play moment by drawing attention to exactly what we don't want.

    So instead, what we do is ask a different question.  We ask, "Is the structure of this thing analogous to the structure of (part of) my CA?"  And "Is the structure of this thing analogous to the structure of (part of) my Social Contract?"  We can answer this question immediately, because the way we got that thing into the game in the first place was by understanding it as a structure, as range of possibilities rather than an iron, so we've already done the structural work.  We just say, "structure A, structure B: are they close?"  Sort of like saying, "this is blue, that's blue, they're both blue."  For the same reason as we can see that both are blue, or both are trees, or both are mechanics, we can also see that this mechanic will not violate CA without ever posing the question directly.

    But... wait a minute.  That means that there is no difference in kind between Social Contract, CA, and all those things that lie under them. Correct.  All of these are things and they are also structures of relations.  Any difference in kind is something we impose, not something intrinsic.  (The Lévi-Strauss readers just said, "Oh, is that how you got round that one, gotcha.")

    But, again, wait a minute.  That means that absolutely everything here, from soup to nuts, is a vast structure made up of lots of intersecting structures, each with its own entailments and weirdnesses, and it's also a big machine made up of things interacting dynamically and yet carrying their own histories and peculiarities.  So what's the total structure?

    Let's hypothesize for a moment that the total structure is the Big Model.  The whole schmear.  Does that work?

    Well, in a sense it does.  The only immediately apparent problem is that the Big Model does not include any actual play things, only classes of actual play things.  To some degree we can get round that by pointing out that a class of actual play things is itself a thing, because a structure made up of structures (which is all the things are) is also a structured thing.  But somehow that seems like a weird answer.  And it may sound also like I'm saying that the Big Model is perfect or something, which I'm not.  Let's look again.

    We've said that particular things have entailments constituted by their intrinsic properties and their prior uses in bricolage, but I've been avoiding somewhat the issue of such entailment.  Now we have to get into that, and suddenly the rubber is going to hit the road.  In order to do this, we have to stop using large-scale structures (like those described in the Big Model) and get down to small-scale structures (like "Fred the player" and "+2 Bastard Sword").
    Chris Lehrich


    RPGs and Bricolage: Theory and Practice, part II
    Practical Applications and Issues
    In my game Shadows in the Fog, all this mess is quite deliberate and conscious, because I designed it significantly on structuralist principles.  So it makes an easy example.  Here's a piece of the game-rules text explaining it concretely:
      Sir David Fulsham (played by Sarah) is trying to break into a house, and he ends up with a lot of Concessions [negative effects that must be narrated by the player].  Sarah decides that a policeman has seen Sir David entering, and is coming up the steps to discuss it with him.  In the course of the conversation, Sarah plays [the Tarot card] The Emperor, and says that she means this in terms of authority: Sir David asserts his authority, as a member of the nobility, to make the policeman bow to his will.

      Now what does The Emperor mean?  As always, it's a
    relation, in this case between two kinds of authority.  There is the policeman, an authority in one sense, and there is the nobleman, an authority in another.  So it seems that The Emperor here indicates a power-relationship between types of authority.

    A little later, John Keightley (played by Janet) encounters a policeman and wants him to do something.  Janet plays The Emperor, again asserting authority.  But based on the last use, it seems that John Keightley must already have some authority to assert.  Fine, suppose Keightley is a Barrister, i.e. a courtroom official; he thus asserts that his authority as such should make the policeman do what he wants.

    Now what does The Emperor mean?  Much the same as before, but now it seems that the relation is specifically legal.  In this last case, it was a relation within the law; in the previous one, it was also a legal relation, because as a Lord, Sir David is inherently a power under the law.

    A little later, John Keightley again wants to make a policeman do something, but this time the policeman is a Detective Inspector.  Simply asserting that Keightley is a Barrister isn't going to help, because the Detective Inspector is an important legal authority outside the courtroom, and can't be pushed around so easily.  Okay, so Janet plays the Emperor again, and says, "Detective Inspector, I think you'll find that the situation here is entirely level and square.  [I give him the grips and handshakes of a Master Mason – he's a Mason too, but not at that rank.]"

    Once again, The Emperor has come to mean the assertion of one authority over another.  The legal aspect declines a little, but on the other hand it's an assertion of a higher authority than the law, and draws on the fact that Masonry represented a kind of higher power within the law because senior policemen were so often Masons.

    Now let's look at another example.  Sir David Fulsham encounters a lady at the opera, and he'd like her to switch boxes.  Sarah plays The Emperor, and says that Sir David is asserting his authority to make the lady move.  But this jars considerably with the sense we've developed of The Emperor.  The ploy may not work, or it may produce a kind of backlash: the lady leaves the box, but then summons an attendant (a local authority) to complain about this man's boorish behavior.  When we started the campaign, The Emperor could very well have been used in this way, but now it seems contrary to its meaning.  Thus the accretion of history to the meaning of the card as a relation changes and narrows the way it can be used.

    One final example.  John Keightley encounters a gentleman at a bar who has some information, but the gentleman is not very willing.  Janet plays The Emperor, and says, "I'm John Keightley, barrister-at-law; you'll find my offices in Thavies Inn.  The information you have could be critically important in a criminal case, and I urge you not to impede the law. <Noting that he's wearing a Masonic tie-tack, I give him the grips of a Master Mason.>" Because Keightley is asserting the majesty of the law, and furthermore the gentleman is a Mason (a legitimate invention by Janet here), The Emperor fits perfectly, and the gentleman promptly tells all.  Because the history of the card's prior uses are so exactly in accord with this present usage, Janet's invention that the gentleman is a Mason carries considerable weight, and furthermore this card-play should be tremendously successful.  If Janet had done this without any history to the card, it's possible that the man might (quite reasonably) have said that Keightley had no right to assert this sort of authority over a private citizen.  Thus the history of card-use has both narrowed its future uses and also increased its power within that narrower range.

    One essential point about cards, then, is that they don't represent single things or situations; they are relations, not objects, signs and not meanings in Lévi-Strauss's terms.  This is, in fact, one of the weaknesses of the Assumption alternate rule (see next chapter): it encourages thinking of cards as specific things or ideas.  When it comes to magical forces and powers especially, this greatly limits the ways in which a card can be used.

    Let's consider a famous card, The Tower, often taken to mean disaster.  The imagery is of two people falling from a high tower which has been struck by lightning.

    Now if we think of the card as simply a meaning, it's difficult to see how it can be used in any but a limited number of circumstances.  For example, in a combat situation, it could be taken as disaster for one of the combatants.  But if we think of it as a relation, there are lots of possibilities opened up to the cunning player.

    Suppose the card has been used for the following:
      [*]A thug came to grief in a gunfight with a middle-class professional
      [*]A spell to summon power from the Thames went catastrophically wrong, and the spell-caster was flung from the docks and drowned.
      [*]An attempt to climb the tower of Big Ben went wrong; the climber fell to his death.[/list:u]Okay, so clearly all these fit the description, Disaster.  But there are other possibilities if we think of it as a relation.  In every case, two adjacent spheres have commingled disastrously: the lower-class thug with the middle-class professional, the caster on the docks with the Thames beneath, the climber in the air with the land beneath.  So we could in fact read this card as meaning a bringing-together of separate spheres.  If the spheres are close together, this is disastrous, as we've seen.  But suppose the spheres are far apart, and bringing them together is a good thing?

      Sir David Fulsham (a Lord, as we know), confronts a thug (lower-class).  The spheres here are far apart.  Rather than interpret the Tower as disaster for the thug, Sarah could interpret it as bringing the two spheres into conjunction, making the thug feel higher-class than usual and read Sir David as a guy like him.  This could cause the thug not to attack Sir David, but in fact to unbend and deal with him in a more constructive manner.

      Now of course, it takes a cunning player to make this sensible, and Sarah's going to have to do some fast footwork to get the idea across.  To do this, she's going to have to draw on all that history of the card's usage: this is what Interpretation is really about.[/list:u]Now that we see a practical application of bricolage by a cunning player, what does this mean more generally, i.e. in a game not deliberately constructed on these principles?

      In order for any of these applications of Tarot cards to work properly, the player must assert that the card already carried these proposed implications.  But this always happens in all RPG play.  This is the Lumpley Principle, in fact.  Every time any action is submitted to the SIS, the group must accept together that this is an appropriate analogy: the structure of what you are doing matches the structure I have in my head of the total game.  We may think we are doing this exclusively at a Situation level, in terms of characters and physics and mechanics and so on, but in fact it's happening at the total level of the whole game.  If we consider it at all, and remember that this implies at least a possible breakage—that is, most of the time we don't even consider it deliberately, because it's automatically accepted and cannot break anything—we consider it at a narrow level, not as a totality.  On the rare occasions that we consider it in terms of the whole thing, right up to CA and Social Contract, there is a tremendous potential for breakage.  That's when instead of getting a potential failure like "No, that spell requires 3 seconds to cast and you have only 2", you get a potential failure like "No, that's not acceptable to me personally and you need to stop it or I'm leaving," for example "I am not comfortable with this, in a personal way, and you are breaking the game for me."  You know, big problems.

      Now this means that any normal submission to SIS confirms that the game works.  But what do we mean by that?  Under ordinary, successful play, this means simply "That's cool, now I do this here."  After the game, or in a minor potential break-point well resolved, this means "These rules work, this is a good game/system/setting/GM."  But what rarely arises is "This group plays together well, we make this game work."  It's there, and can be discussed of course, but it's in the background; it's a high-level abstract concern that we usually set aside.

      So consider instead breakage.  Under ordinary play, this means "You miss."  "Oh, bugger, I coulda sworn...."  Under minor potential-break play, this means "You can't do that, the mechanics say no."  "No way, see here on page 87 it says d8, not d20."  "No, hang on...."  Under the high-level concerns not normally expressed, this means "My game sucks, I hate this, I don't want to do this any more."  We hear a lot of this, or used to, in Actual Play.

      Now the Big Model diagnosis system kicks in.  We first adequate the Model to the situation, by analogy (bricolage at work).  Then we say (we hope), "This is not a high-level concern, but a second-level concern: you have a CA difference, not a personal difference."

      So just like in regular play, the Big Model operates diagnostically to shift down the level of concern away from straight-up Social Contract.  If it's really Social Contract that is disastrously breaking the game, we have to say, "Get new friends, these people and you will never get along," or "You're an asshole, it's your fault, go away."  Nobody wants to say that, if nothing else because it's not tactful.

      But why not?  That sounds like a stupid question, but it's quite serious.

        Because the whole elaborate structure here is socially constituted from the start to the finish, bottom to top and in reverse[/list:u]Which means...
          The whole structure of gaming is socially reinforcing[/list:u]Eh?

          Every time the Big Model succeeds in formulating a strong analogy between described play and the Model's structure, we think we have done something.  Analytically, we haven't; that's just the grounds of analysis.  So why do we think we've achieved something?  Because by doing so we demonstrate the adequacy of the model.  Now this makes no sense if we are talking about proper analytical abstraction.  That's fallacious.  But if we're talking about bricolage, about the Science of the Concrete, treating the Big Model as a structured and structuring thing, the very formulation of the analogy reinforces the structure itself.  That is what bricolage is really for, you see: to demonstrate the adequacy of the structures already present (in the shed, the social system, the game, the discourse) by reducing apparent change to something always already within the structure.

          In ritual or myth, this means that the ability to think through concrete objects to analyze an apparent contradiction in cultural or natural reality proves that the social structure is just fine and doesn't need to change, so now the social structure is better than it was because it's the same as it always was.

          Within gameplay, as I've said elsewhere about Sim play especially, this means that the ability to handle apparently trivial problems of gameworld physics and such proves that the Dream or the system or whatever was already perfect and complete, and we just didn't yet see that, so now the Dream (or whatever) is even better than it was because it's the same as it was.

          Within RPG theory of the Big Model form, with its deliberately practical gameplay and diagnosis orientation, this means that the ability to explicate apparent social problems as aesthetic problems (for example) proves that the Big Model was already perfect and complete, and we just hadn't seen this particular example, but this change in the Big Model isn't a change but a demonstration that we already knew this.

          Really Actual Practical Implications
          So this probably all sounds still very abstract and pointless.  It probably also sounds like a criticism of the Big Model, which it isn't, especially.  So the question becomes, how if at all does this actually affect gameplay and design questions?

          First of all, absolute in-play incoherence is not possible except as an extra-RPG issue.  That is, the only way you can get absolute breakdown at the CA level is if it is founded on a breakdown at another level, outside of gaming itself.  We would rather not recognize this, of course, because it pushes those Geek Fallacy sorts of buttons: just because you play well together doesn't mean you're friends, and just because you don't play well together doesn't mean you're not friends.  The problem is that the latter sort of isn't exactly true.  If there is no possibility of two players agreeing at a CA level, your disagreement extends well outside gaming; you may be friends in other ways, but as you even near the kinds of broad aesthetic and other concerns that inform gaming, including lots of social issues we don't want to deal with in gaming most of the time, you simply cannot get along.  The only way to solve such a problem is outside of the game: you've got to sit down and hash it out, and you may not end up friends, because you discover you weren't to begin with but thought you were.

          But this is actually very rare, because if we agree that we like to play RPGs, chances are we are sort of close enough to get along in play.  What do we do about CA incoherence in play?

          Here's where I think bricolage puts the rubber to the road.  Our natural tendency, stemming from a long intellectual history in the West (circling all the way back to poor old Frazer), is to abstract the problem up to higher-level structures.  There's a disagreement at a low level ("I hit him," "No, he hits you first") so we shift up the hierarchy to handle it through higher-level abstractions: ("Initiative rules say his dex is higher so he goes first," "Oh crap").  And in fact, that's a pretty good way to handle things, as we know.  But it isn't the only way.

          Remember that this hierarchy of abstractions is an imposed structure.  The difference between "low level" and "high level" concerns is not intrinsic, but an adequation of the issue to a structure, through analogy.  Now think about it as the machine made of bits and pieces.  Changing a big chunk of the machine is difficult, because it's got all those bits.  Changing one thing is easy—but it ends up changing everything, because if we replace the iron with a feather-light hair dryer the helium balloon is going to pull the whole machine up into the stratosphere.  So we in the West, with our engineering-type tendencies, get into the habit of practicing assiduously at changing the larger structures without much changing the small, unless a big drastic change is needed in which case we retool from scratch.  But in "savage thought" you do it the other way around: you change the iron for the hair dryer and deal with problems as they come, perpetually deferring the need for a drastic retooling.

          Putting that concretely in gameplay terms, this means that sharp disagreements about nearly anything need not be dealt with in the abstract.  You can do it that way, but you don't have to.  If we have a disagreement at a low level ("I hit him," "No, he hits you first"), we do not have to shift up the structure to resolve it.  For example: "I do too hit him first," "Okay, you hit him first, because his swing took him past your sidestep, but he gets a backswing you can't parry, okay?"

          This is such a slight and silly example it seems like nothing.  But think about what you've just done.  You've chucked the mechanics—the part where high dex goes first—by creating a variation that accepts both that he has higher dex and swung first and the player's insistence that his character hits first.  You've done this entirely piecemeal, case by case; there is no higher-level retooling done.

          But now that helium balloon is lifting the machine.  Next time any situation analogous to this one—remember the importance of analogies—arises, we have a new possibility: what if I get a sidestep that allows a first hit but leaves me open to his backswing?  Well, tactically, if my strength and weapon are so devastating that I can kill him at one blow, I want this to happen; if my back is badly defended and my front heavily armored, I don't want this.  And the whole combat system is beginning to alter, bit by steady bit.

          What's going to happen, in the end, is Drift, broadly construed.  We'll end up with a weird mess of house rules and strangeness that works only for us, that no sane person would have designed (in fact, we didn't design it either), and may in fact be totally incoherent if looked at from a design stance.  So why does it work at all?  Because each piece has now been tooled by us, ever so slightly, and that tooling and tweaking has told us, deep down, that we are okay as a game group.  The fact that it's a horrible mess means nothing; we don't care.  What we care about is that on a case-by-case basis, we can handle things in a way that makes us feel positive about our gameplay, which means that we feel positive about ourselves, individually and especially as a social group.

          And you know what that implies?  It implies that the longer a group plays together, even if overtly they switch systems and settings and so on, the more their play will become self-affirming and socially reinforcing.  If, as is often (unfortunately) the case, at least some of the players do not feel so positive about social interactions and structures outside of RPGs, the game will increasingly come to feel like a safe haven.  Does that sound familiar?

          The practical point of this is you can let it happen.  There are far too many specific variations on the theme to classify, but there is a social technique here that is devastatingly effective to long-term gaming health. Every disagreement can be handled locally.  It does not need to be, of course; clearly in a great many cases, even in the majority, a quick reference up the imposed structural hierarchy to mechanics or something will resolve the problem without difficulty.  But in every case, at least theoretically, such a choice to refer upwards is a matter of efficiency not necessity.

          There are always, somewhere deeply embedded in the vast nightmarish mess of little fiddly bits of a game as it gets actually played by actual people right here and now, a great many possible ways to chewing-gum-and-twine any disagreement whatever without referring upward in the hierarchy.  Many of the GM techniques discussed here over the years clearly demonstrate this.  The GM, in such a formulation, is emphatically not merely an arbiter, the mechanics guy who decides the implications of a higher-level set of concerns to the lower-level specifics of the moment.  Rather, the GM becomes a facilitator of ongoing bricolage.  His job, and it is a difficult one, make no mistake, becomes rather to see in every disagreement the possibility of a choice: to refer up, or to tweak across.  Every choice to refer up carries immediate danger, because the more of the structure we expose to consciousness, the more obviously a house of cards it becomes.  Every choice to refer across, however, carries very long-term implications.  The GM's job, then, would be to balance these.

          My suggestion, practically, is that the local tendencies and preferences of the players be observed and followed.  It's going to turn out that this group here tends to refer these kinds of questions up the chain, and those across to other bits.  Don't violate that.  If you are referring upward, by checking the rules or saying "No, there aren't any telephones in Victorian London," be very watchful: look for signs of discontent.  If you see them, tweak your way out, and encourage other players to help in this.  Keep track of such twists and turns and tweaks, too, and encourage players to do so.  Taking the sidestep-backswing as an example, remember always that having set this up once, having cut the toaster in half to get its heating element to an object too big for the slot, you cannot put it back again.  To do so will, in this case, prompt higher-level thinking at a social level: "Is he just playing favorites with Janet because she's his girlfriend?"  "Is Janet just being a whiner and a cheat?"  You don't want those questions ever to be asked.  So when Dave proposes to use the sidestep-backswing trick, he must be permitted to do so.

          And, at a higher level of concern, in between games, stop worrying about whether you are sticking to the system, or whether there are CA conflicts.  The more you think about these abstractly, the more you can't manipulate them concretely.  And the more they become abstract, the more they have to have social implications.

          Here I am much less confident in my analysis.  I do think that Fang Langford's Scattershot was moving in a valuable direction, but it never really came together.  I also think my Shadows in the Fog works pretty well for this, but it's not applicable to everything.

          I guess my first suggestion is that designing for CA coherence isn't always a good thing.  It's an approach that can generate very successful results, for much the same reasons that a good engineer can make a really efficient machine.  But that machine will be of quite limited application.  If you're okay with that, if you don't mind that the game is carefully tuned to require a narrow range of play methods and results, that's great.  But not everyone wants this.

          If you want a much more wide-ranging game, you kind of need to set aside CA in favor of stuff.  You need a lot of little bits and pieces for people to screw around with.  The clean, stripped-to-basics system cannot do this easily; it's possible, but difficult.

          I see two basic ways to handle it.  One is the old-fashioned way: write lots of bits and pieces, especially lots of setting bits and lots of mechanics bits. AD&D was masterful at this, and I think the anecdotal history of play demonstrates the social reinforcement through house rules and tweaking. Champions was less good on the setting bits, but exceptional at the mechanics, because they were simultaneously very precise and intricately intertwined and also very open-ended and fiddly.  It was obvious in Champions that you were supposed to fiddle with the bits, which prompts bricolage.  I'm sure you can all think of lots of other examples.

          The other way seems to me to follow Champions's lead rather farther, which is what I've tried to do with Shadows in the Fog.  What's needed is deliberate ambiguity.  You need some bits in there, which are clearly powerful and important, that are sufficiently constrained that people don't say, "Um, I have no idea how to use this at all," but are sufficiently open that players can readily bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.  You also need a system that, in its mechanical and rhetorical design, makes clear that such mucking about is intrinsic to play.  This is what I've tried to do with Interpretation as a core rule.

          My next suggestion is that the "Golden Rule" is a big, big mistake.  It tries to do something useful, by saying that the system isn't rigid and inflexible, but it does so not constructively but destructively: it says "throw it out if it doesn't work."  You don't want to get rid of the things in the shed.  What you need is a New Golden Rule: "If it doesn't work, bend it, but do not throw it out."  The practical upshot is likely to be the same at a basic level, but the conceptual point is very different.  My proposed New Golden Rule essentially says that if you think the encumbrance rules don't work or are silly, you should keep the system around and see if at some later point you can't mine it for the new "carrying unconscious friends out of danger" rule.  Obviously these are very old-school examples, but I think the point can be generalized.

          Finally, I suggest that design encourage on-the-fly tweaking rather than systemic changes.  This is a variant of the New Golden Rule, of course.  Basically I mean that you want to encourage groups to bend rules when the need arises in actual play; what you want to discourage is the group sitting around outside of play and coming up with a whole new system to handle initiative.  The thing is, if they do that, then the next sessions are basically playtesting, to some degree, and necessarily operate at a higher level of abstraction.  Somebody pointed out recently that playtesting often doesn't work well as an actual play session, and I think this is why.  So encourage players to screw with rules during play rather than between sessions.  Encourage them to do bricolage, that is, not engineering.

          I'm sure there are other implications, but I'm going to leave that to people who do a lot more design and have more experience with it than I do.


          Anyone actually get this far?  Responses?  Questions?  New applications and suggestions?
          Chris Lehrich

          Eero Tuovinen

          Quote from: clehrich
          Anyone actually get this far?  Responses?  Questions?  New applications and suggestions?

          Oh yes, that's some good stuff! The first part was largely self-evident, at least to me; that's how I'd figured it when you first suggested the analogy of rpgs as bricolage. But the second... that's some challenge you have there... I'm sure that people will get a lot of food for thought from this.

          One question people will probably have concerns the desirability of the bricolage effect. We're many of us designers here, and there's really deep roots to what that means. Bricolage easily becomes the antimatter of rpg design, and much of what we think of as good design - unified rules systems, flexible and covering techniques - is very much about bricolage control. They're there to ensure that bricolage does not and need not happen.

          I've designed some somewhat bricoleurish games myself, though. One was a formalistic exercise called Intertext: the rpg where pretty much the whole point was to draw in a bunch of cultural intertext, create some new associations and use them to generate implications in the game world. Practically this meant that the game had rules for introduction of illustrations, music and poetry/prose, which each could be imbued with in-game relevance ("My character has Like a Virgin at 5 points, that kind of thing) and had to be appreciated by the players to be used mechanically. The bricolage (which is the same thing as recognition of intertext, really) happened all within rules structures and was arduously controlled by players using a resource bidding system in actually making connections. I wonder how that kind of thing'd work without the formalistic primary structure?

          Another example of an intertextual/bricoleurish game is Jonathan Walton's Humble Mythologies (Where's the beef, Jonathan? You already have all the pieces you need to playtest that, you know...), in which we again see the abstract symbolic structure, which is then freely interposed by the players on the game world. These examples, and Shadows in the Fog, overall would seem to indicate that successful formalistic (meaning essentially Forge-type minimalism) bricoleurish designs work by separating clear representative levels, that are then connected dynamically in play; for example, the SitF tarot cards and the in-game reality never meet, except through the medium of interpretation. Contrast this with the AD&D example, and it would seem to me that the bricolage is much more intermixed in that kind of game: there's a variable amount of different levels of abstraction (for example, you could opt to use either character level or proficiencies for a given task, not to speak of thief skills, ability checks or saving throws, or pure tactical arbitration) that interconnect wildly and have all kinds of assumed and official connections. You may well end up using practical rules in interpretation of other practical rules, which is pretty different from the demarcated nature of SitF. The difference compared to the modern designs is quite obvious.

          The question is: considering the difference between how bricolage happens in AD&D and SitF, for instance, is it a desirable effect in the former? The latter uses the effect intentionally, but for AD&D it's not nearly so clear-cut.
          Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
          Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


          Quote from: Eero TuovinenOne question people will probably have concerns the desirability of the bricolage effect. We're many of us designers here, and there's really deep roots to what that means. Bricolage easily becomes the antimatter of rpg design, and much of what we think of as good design - unified rules systems, flexible and covering techniques - is very much about bricolage control. They're there to ensure that bricolage does not and need not happen.
          Yes.  I think this is because designers think like engineers.  As Levi-Strauss predicts, the engineer and the bricoleur are fundamentally at odds.  The thing is, I think bricolage a basically self-policing mechanism.  Once it gets rolling as a social process of thought, it handles itself just fine, thanks.  Derrida's sly shot that the engineer is another invention of the bricoleur is very, very telling.  Practically speaking, I think a lot of this bricolage damage-control in game design is unnecessary and potentially limits the range of possibility undesirably.  As I say, if you want a game that's engineered, that reliably produces X with a minimum of fuss and trouble, you engineer it.  But I think a lot of gamers like the fuss and trouble, and even find that among the most fun bits of gaming, and engineering may be counter-productive for that.
          QuoteThe question is: considering the difference between how bricolage happens in AD&D and SitF, for instance, is it a desirable effect in the former? The latter uses the effect intentionally, but for AD&D it's not nearly so clear-cut.
          I keep mentioning, lately, that I have this plan to sit down and really read, critically and analytically like an academic, all my old AD&D books.  So I can't say for sure, not yet having done this.

          But you want my honest opinion?

          I think there is very good reason for why AD&D was such a success.  Sure, Ron is dead-on about the cultural situation, and Xero has made some lovely additions to that with his remarks on the rise of the popular notion of the auteur in George Lucas and such.  But I don't think that's a full answer.

          Honestly, I think AD&D has an enormous learning curve, and I don't mean what you think I mean, or rather, I don't mean what people would usually mean if they said that.

          I'll start again.

          I think AD&D has a steep learning curve, because you have three quite independent things to learn, and only one of them is in any way explicit in the texts.  

          First, you have to learn the rules as a system of messy and not entirely coherent or cohesive bits and pieces.  This is sort of explicit, though I think the idea that players should not read the DMG and so on undermines this; I do think a lot of players went right ahead and read it anyway, sensing somehow (from their neolithic minds, perhaps) that this rule should be observed in the breach.

          Second, you have to learn how your group plays, and the ethos of the group and its context of other groups, and how all of that works as a social system.  Nothing about this, that I know of, is explicit.

          Third, you have to learn how to bend the system.  In other words, you need to learn how to do bricolage with it.  Not only is this not explicit, I'm pretty sure it's explicit that you shouldn't do it.  Again, it sounds anecdotally as though an awful lot of gaming groups, probably including the very first originating groups, observed this in the breach.

          The thing is, there is just so goddamn much to parts 1 and 2, and they are so powerfully riddled with fractures and intricate weirdnesses that just beg for exploration (how do you use the magic item creation rules, anyway?), and there are so many inconsistencies just waiting to be put to good use somewhere.  And so once you get to stage 3, it's like a whole world opening up.  And I think that because there were so few other choices, and those groups had a social structure that kept their core players bound tightly, a surprising number of players did reach stage 3.

          And I deeply believe (I hope I am never proven wrong!) that players who got to stage 3 of this process, with that game or those sort of like it, are the tiny but fabled minority who played those endless, year-after-year games, the ones that people still tell stories about.  They genuinely did create something disturbingly similar to myth, in a ritual process.  And that is so powerful that it created a legend of its own, without which this hobby would long since be dead.

          I love seeing all this cool engineering and cleverness going on in design around here.  It's fantastic.  It keeps the hobby vital and vibrant and exciting.  But those guys were doing something very different, and I think we are painting ourselves into a corner---a very exciting and fun and valuable corner---from which we can barely even see that stuff.
          Chris Lehrich

          Clinton R. Nixon

          Quote from: clehrich
          Anyone actually get this far?  Responses?  Questions?  New applications and suggestions?

          First, great job. This is exactly the sort of article I've been wanting to see.

          So, you've reassured me on my design aesthetic, which is (to me) a good thing. See, all the games I design have these huge gaping holes in them where I'm really thinking "This sort of thing right here is usually established as a hack by the game group anyway, so let them go ahead and do that." In The Shadow of Yesterday, there's a good example: the range of actions taken within one intention, and the specific-ness required in a stated intention. Of course, I release the game and someone immediately says, "Hey, what about that?" and I feel like a schmuck. I now have a better idea of what I'm trying to do upfront. (This also leads me to believe that Eero's suggestion that bricolage is the "anti-matter of design" might be off: I purposefully made TSOY as a game that took the parts that worked well from the systems I loved and shoe-horned them together. What is that, if not what Chris is describing?)
          Clinton R. Nixon
          CRN Games


          See, this is precisely the sort of thing I mentioned in the "too much theory" thread.  I was reading it and just when I was a little bit into it, I found myself wanting to talk not about gaming but about philosophy, and the interpretations that Chris uses.

          To talk about the gaming part of his post, then, requires me to accept his theoretical postulates, which I don't.  So I can't really talk about what he is talking about without talking about something that is not gaming.  To enter into his discussion about bricolage and gaming I have to accept his various interpretations.  If I don't accept his interpretations, to discuss them moves the conversation away from gaming.

          I see this as a system of control.  The front end of the discussion is padded with a lot of authority based ramblings that one must accept in order to talk about the gaming part of the post.
          -- Chris!



          I think you need to take some session transcripts (or just actual plays) and apply the ideas here to them. I hink some mroe practical application would be valuable.


          Quote from: Clinton R. NixonFirst, great job. This is exactly the sort of article I've been wanting to see.
          Thank you.  I'm glad!
          QuoteSo, you've reassured me on my design aesthetic, which is (to me) a good thing. See, all the games I design have these huge gaping holes in them where I'm really thinking "This sort of thing right here is usually established as a hack by the game group anyway, so let them go ahead and do that." In The Shadow of Yesterday, there's a good example: the range of actions taken within one intention, and the specific-ness required in a stated intention. Of course, I release the game and someone immediately says, "Hey, what about that?" and I feel like a schmuck.
          Hmm, interesting.  Historically speaking, I wonder if this is less do-able now than it used to be, when (my impression is) it wasn't really thought of as a serious option to get in touch with E. Gary Gygax or whoever and say, "Hey, how about this gap here?"  Anyway, I know this never crossed my mind back then.

          I do think what you're describing as a design principle is a good one.  My hope would be that we can continue thinking about this directly, here or in other threads, so that you can help clarify for me and others what that might look like successfully in practice.  You've had intermittent success, it sounds like; maybe this will help you formulate a way to get more consistent success---and then you have to tell me all about it, because I'm dying to know!
          Chris Lehrich


          Quote from: CPXBSee, this is precisely the sort of thing I mentioned in the "too much theory" thread.  I was reading it and just when I was a little bit into it, I found myself wanting to talk not about gaming but about philosophy, and the interpretations that Chris uses.

          To talk about the gaming part of his post, then, requires me to accept his theoretical postulates, which I don't.  So I can't really talk about what he is talking about without talking about something that is not gaming.  To enter into his discussion about bricolage and gaming I have to accept his various interpretations.  If I don't accept his interpretations, to discuss them moves the conversation away from gaming.

          I see this as a system of control.  The front end of the discussion is padded with a lot of authority based ramblings that one must accept in order to talk about the gaming part of the post.
          I'm not sure what you mean by my "interpretations."  My reading of Levi-Strauss in reference to gaming?  Go ahead and debate it---I'm still trying to figure it out myself, as I made explicit at the top.  If you aren't interested in the history of the question (one of them, anyway) Levi-Strauss was dealing with, it's not that important; I always find it helpful myself to have an intellectual context to a new idea being presented to me, but you may not feel that way.  That is also why I mentioned in boldface that the section was not specifically about gaming: so you could skip it without direct impact, and I tried to compose the section to permit this.

          I don't think it's really fair to say that you have to accept my interpretations and postulates.  On the postulates, I wasn't intentionally burying them; feel free to reveal them and I can confirm, deny, debate, etc., but I'm not sure what you're referring to so I can't say whether it's relevant to gaming.  On the interpretations, as I say, I'm not sure what you mean by that.  If you don't buy the initial setup, the first analogy between bricolage and gaming at the outset, then unless you can critique that specifically I don't think this discussion is going to be interesting to you.  Sorry; you can't please everyone.  If you do want to critique that analogical formation, though, I think that's very relevant to gaming, and I'd like to hear about it.

          If you just don't buy bricolage as a notion in the first place, you have two choices.  One, you can go read Levi-Strauss, who puts it a lot better than me and infinitely more richly and elegantly.  Two, you can decide, "Here we go again" and drop the discussion.  I'd prefer you not take choice three, which is to knock me in broad strokes and in the third person.
          Chris Lehrich


          Quote from: JereI think you need to take some session transcripts (or just actual plays) and apply the ideas here to them. I hink some mroe practical application would be valuable.
          Well, I can try, but I find that Actual Play posts rarely provide enough detail for this.  They tend already to be abstractions away from the exact detail of what happened.  But I can certainly keep an eye peeled.  Lee Short's ongoing SITF playtest might provide fodder, as after all I sort of know how to read that game in these terms....
          Chris Lehrich

          John Burdick

          I've wondered before whether any theory discussion would say anything about the rapid acceptance and widespread fun reports of Guardians of Order's games. To establish that the games have had remarkable success, I'll summarize the basic history.

          In 1996, Mark MacKinnon, grad student in chemistry, started Guardians of Order. In 1997, he took his second book to Gencon. The name of the book was Big Eyes, Small Mouth, an anime themed game. It was nominated for Origins Best RPG in 1998. The second edition was nominated for Origins Best RPG in 2000. By 2003, I bought the revised second edition in the local Barnes & Noble. My local game store continuously stocks the book, and other GoO titles.

          Even though the game was written with an anime theme, very little in either edition was tied to anime. So many people played supers with the rules that Silver Age Sentinels was written for the supers market. People play these games, they aren't fluff books for reading or collecting. The company has books about specific anime called Anime Fan Guides, but no show content is in the regular game book. Given that so many people report having fun, what can we see in the text?

          The games are sometimes called "rules lite". The first edition of BESM was 96 pages and was almost entirely rules. The revised second edition BESM is 208 compact pages and is almost entirely rules. For comparison, my Hero System Sidekick has 128 pages of larger size and double column text. My friend's Champions 3rd is also about that size. The mechanical system in BESM, called TriStat, is a point buy power system. You put points into three stats(Body Mind Soul) and attributes (powers, perks, talents, advantages and so on are all mixed together). Disadvantages return some points. You roll under your stat on 2d6 plus difficulty modifiers to do things.

          Quote from: clehrich
          The other way seems to me to follow Champions's lead rather farther, which is what I've tried to do with Shadows in the Fog.  What's needed is deliberate ambiguity.  You need some bits in there, which are clearly powerful and important, that are sufficiently constrained that people don't say, "Um, I have no idea how to use this at all," but are sufficiently open that players can readily bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.  You also need a system that, in its mechanical and rhetorical design, makes clear that such mucking about is intrinsic to play.  This is what I've tried to do with Interpretation as a core rule.

          Here's why I introduced the subject. BESM isn't rules light; it's rules ambiguous. Here's a line of rules text from the first edition: "Level 1 Item offers a small advantage to the character". That's from the mechanical portion, not flavor text. There's no tricks with using words as stand-ins for numbers happening either. The rule really is that open. You spend your points for powers that may be completely open as to what they do.

          The second edition BESM greatly increased the available precision. For example, you can optionally use skills. Some players refused to accept the second edition because of the emphasis on precision. Even this more mechanical edition still has rules text like this line from Dynamic Sorcery "Level 4 can cast medium-duration spells of some power (flight, wards of protection, limited invisibility. etc.)"

          I can recall responses to this system falling mainly into these categories:
          "I had a blast."
          "I hate anime, I wish I could buy a copy without the ugly art."
          "It's so vague, you can't do anything without improvising."
          "I liked it before they ruined it by trying to nail everything down."

          I can easily believe that Chris's deliberate ambiguity was important in the success of these game books in producing enjoyable play.




          Wow.  Cool!  I've heard of this game, but not being an anime fan all that much never looked into it.

          Do you happen to know, anecdotally, whether it tended toward long campaigns or toward one-shots?  Actually, anyone out there have an impression on this, in general?

          It sounds to me like something that would have a steep learning-curve and then run smoothly for quite a while---when it ran at all, but it also sounds like groups that didn't like it didn't like it real quick.

          Any GoO players out there want to pitch in with examples of what this beast actually ran like?  I just love the fact that you've got 208 pages of dense mechanics that don't quite explain things clearly, and it's billed as "rules-lite."  :)  

          The other thing I wonder is what it was like if you had an ongoing GoO campaign or group, and you tried to introduce a new player.
          Chris Lehrich

          Nathan P.


          Chris, you continue to blow my mind, in the best way possible. What's even better, is I think I'm starting to see some very useful applications of this whole bricolage thing to my game, Timestream. So thank you.
          Nathan P.
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          Quote from: clehrich
          Any GoO players out there want to pitch in with examples of what this beast actually ran like?  I just love the fact that you've got 208 pages of dense mechanics that don't quite explain things clearly, and it's billed as "rules-lite."  :)  

          Never played it, but I read it, and my brother ran a campaign using Silver Age Sentinels. I'm not going to try any in-depth analysis specifically because I've not played it, but I feel a need to set the record straight:

          As far as I've seen by reading Tri-Stat rules (SAS, Authority RPG, the free lite version), it's unambiguously nothing special in the rules department. The ambiguousity of the rules is just the same as it is in GURPS, Hero or the Storyteller system. I would classify the examples John supplies as resulting from the universal nature of the system; of course you have to give guidelines for rating powers and items when it's not practical to list all the quazillion possibilities. GURPS and Hero do this, too. Any system with room for adaptation does. All those system emphatically want you to do the adaptation between sessions and with the GM in the lead.

          Furthermore, I'd like to note that the GoO games drive perhaps the most aggressive line of any mainstream publishers in offering GM-authority and the Golden Rule as solutions to the Impossible Thing. Just read the gaming manifesto they put in all their books. From that perspective it's doubtful whether bricolage is favored by the games: I would think that you'd need a more balanced negotiation platform for bricolage to take place. From what I've seen the GoO games play more in an illusionistic manner, with the GM bridging the potential bricolage situations with Force. Admittedly illusionistic immersionism is perhaps a magnitude more common here in Finland (wouldn't know, but Lord is it more noisy), so that might just be a local curiousity.

          Anyway, most of that is off-topic. I suggest a new thread if any of you want to discuss GoO design (or their financial problems) in more detail. The interesting question here is whether Tri-Stat is a bricolage-friendly environment regardless of my above points. And does this mean that actually any of the '90s mainstream games are that? Would we see bricoleuring commonly taking place if we looked for it in GURPS or WW games? And if so, then does that mean that bricolage is really the status quo, and we've just not noticed it as important because the Forge draws only engineering-type people to discussions?
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          Quote from: clehrichAnyone actually get this far?  Responses?  Questions?  New applications and suggestions?

          Excellent work, Chris. A few comments:

          - You forgot the "define rpg" clause again. :)
          But in this case it's actually beneficial: the bricolage interpretation applies beyond tabletop rpg. It seems to match rather well to any game that uses a detachment-based approach to rules (the structure of rules being both stable and all-encompassing enough to support interpreting them as needed; MIT Assassins Guild material is a good larp example of this).

          Where it doesn't functionally apply are games using eidetic reduction as their primary approach to how the in-game "reality" is seen. (Exeperience creation -oriented larps, mostly) In those games the bricolage tools are not within the reach of the interpreters. They may actually exist, of course, but cannot be accessed during play without the play being interrupted. (This can be countered by saying that a GM always has the option of restructuring the tools used, I know. That's why there's the "functionally" clause in the beginning. The GM's "omnipotence" is a distinctive issue, one not based on game element interpretation.)

          An opposite also exists, in the form of tabletop games such as Aftermath or old Rolemaster, which seem to have been intentionally designed with the precise idea of avoiding the need for interpretation and adaptation by making systems for everything.

          - The key problem I see with this model is that when a game moves into more and more acceptance of bricolage, the need for conracts increases. For example, as soon as the possibility of interpreteting cards as relations is accepted, other incompatible uses (especially that of them as symbols of meaning) have to be ruled as "not acceptable". If that's not done, system elements become just replacements for contract-interpretation arguments instead of tools that solve such arguments. In a sense, to enable further bricolage, you actually have to engineer new parts. How do you get past this?