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Author Topic: Play like you MEAN it!  (Read 10876 times)
TonyLB
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« on: July 21, 2005, 07:34:51 PM »

This will be peripherally about Capes, but only because I play so much of it.  I think I've noticed a pendulum swinging here in a direction I really like, in all the systems I'm running, and I want to know if I'm the only one experiencing it.

When I was a very young gamer, all the emotions ran straight from my character to me and back, and they all showed immediately on my face.  If Drommir, my deep-dwarf ranger (orphaned and raised by kindly were-rabbits!) took a wound, I hissed in pain.  With each enemy he vanquished, I celebrated.  And, of course, since we were teenagers, each time anything went wrong between characters I took it personally, and we all made it a problem between friends.

As I grew older, and my gaming circle aged with me, we all learned to not take things so seriously.  At the same time that we were learning to "immerse" in our characters, we were also learning the perils of revealing our own feelings.  I played emotionally stunted, defensive, closed-off characters to try to bridge the gap between "be your character" and "don't take the game seriously."  Games of the era (Vampire particularly) made a mint facilitating this.  And if we lost a little (or a lot) of the raw joy, we gained an ability to play with each other and not tear our social unit apart.  Which is huge, of course.

And then, recently, I've found myself in a lot of situations that feel much more like my young gamer days.  Particularly, at DEXCON I ran a seven hour demo/game of Capes with five other people.  There were conflicts all over the place, and everybody cared about them, as players.  We were yelling and laughing and carrying on, and fighting each other tooth and nail.  And when we lost it hurt, even though it all still felt good.  And when we won it was glorious. 

It felt almost exactly like having fans from rival teams sit down with some beers and snacks and watch a tight game between their teams on television.  Yeah, you don't storm out in a huff because your team misses a field goal.  That would be stupid.  Nobody even thinks of doing that.  But if you don't groan, sincerely, and the opposing fans don't crow at your team's misfortune, you're missing out.... you're deciding that the game doesn't matter to you.  And if it doesn't matter, really, why are you there?

I played a sidekick, to Chris's spectacular Major Victory.  And Chris and I were exchanging grins, and flashing "V for Victory" signs across the table, and just generally being insufferable.  Which everyone ate up with a spoon, of course, at the same time they were plotting our downfall.  And then Chris said something that just flat out made a Premise moment for me (about identity, and what their relationship was, and whether this sidekick was special or just a replaceable cog in the Major Victory machine).  So I betrayed Chris.  Incidentally, Johnny Faust betrayed Major Victory, but there's no question that the big thing was that I screwed over Chris, foiled his intent.  He gave me this absolutely priceless look of surprise and shock and anger and happiness and appreciation, and I knew that (a) he was never, ever going to let me live this down and (b) I hadn't hurt or angered him in any way, because it was part of the game.

There are two simple facts going on here.  First, I've grown up.  I don't go out looking to be offended or hurt by trifles any more.  You make a joke about my thinning hair, and I'm going to laugh at it, because hey it's funny.  Second, the rules have gotten so much more powerful in how they deal with the social aspects at the table that I no longer have to be armored and battling on the social playing field just to preserve my right to participate.  If I laugh at myself, and everyone else laughs at me too, and we all agree that I'm an idiot... well, I'm still in the game.  I don't need to convince anyone I'm smart or savvy in order to be in the game.  I don't need to hide from them the feelings that make me look childish.

That's extremely liberating.  I'm not hurting myself or anybody else by caring... openly, loudly, passionately, about absolutely everything.  And it's tremendously fun.  Why would I do anything else?

So, seriously... am I arriving late to this party?  Is everyone else already there?  Or am I the only one feeling this?  Is it a dysfunctional breakdown of decorum that's going to doom my gaming?  Or what?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2005, 08:13:56 PM »

Hey Tony,

It buys a beer and a hug from me, anyway.

... not that there's anything wrong with that.

For some interesting comparison, do a quick search to check out comments by Lisa ("theGM") about Playing On Purpose, which I think is synonymous with what I call Coherent play. You'll recognize some of her points, I think.

Best,
Ron
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Frank T
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« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2005, 06:54:54 AM »

I love the "fans ot two teams watching a tight game" analogy. If players feel that way, perfect. Also, thumbs up on playing like you mean it. I have written my share on intensity in roleplaying, and think it creates the most delightful experiences. However, I'm afraid it's not really all that easy to get to the party. I have played the same game with the same people and the same agenda and still produced quite different results on that account.

- Frank
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2005, 07:19:35 AM »

yes.
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Mark Woodhouse
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« Reply #4 on: July 22, 2005, 07:21:00 AM »

I hear you, Tony. One of the most frustrating things about some of my less satisfying play has been the sense that there was not enough social trust to just GO, all out, and do what I cared about. Sometimes mechanics can help with that, but sometimes it just takes the right people and the right vibe.
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John Harper
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« Reply #5 on: July 22, 2005, 02:11:11 PM »

My best gaming has been like that. It's what I want every time I sit down to play. It's what keeps me coming back, even if I don't always get it.

The big revelation for me was: Only play with people who feel this way too. Don't bother wheedling and convincing the ones who don't. Man, has that ever made things better.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #6 on: July 22, 2005, 11:40:12 PM »

I love the two teams analogy too (in my little forge file now).

Second, the rules have gotten so much more powerful in how they deal with the social aspects at the table that I no longer have to be armored and battling on the social playing field just to preserve my right to participate.  If I laugh at myself, and everyone else laughs at me too, and we all agree that I'm an idiot... well, I'm still in the game.  I don't need to convince anyone I'm smart or savvy in order to be in the game. 
This just seems the pivotal part. You have a currency other than social, to effect the game. Thus you can be pushed back at the emotional level, but mechanically your still strong and can still participate fully. When everyone knows everyone else is mechanically strong, they can start pushing each other, knowing they aren't pushing each other right out of the game.

In some other games a social death spiral can occur, where the more emotionally pushed you are, the more events that can happen to push you even further emotionally. Except in those games you need social input to participate.

Or way off?
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Joshua A.C. Newman
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« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2005, 10:04:53 AM »

Right on, Tony.

Many of the folks I've played with are stuck at the stage of development where they say "I don't want to hurt or be hurt by the players around me." They never get to the point where they can appreciate that a) rules can buffer player - character - character - player conflict, and b) player - player conflict is the same as in any other game: it's not an insult, it's something you do in a game. Never mind c) challenging yourself and your friends emotionally is very good for you.

So right on. I'm there with you.
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the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: July 24, 2005, 11:10:30 AM »

Hey Tony,

I'd like to know some more about the actual dice back-and-forth in the game you talked about.

For instance, did you find yourselves providing more stringent/urgent adversity to one another because you liked and understood the character issues more fully, across one another's characters?

"Objection! Leading the witness!"

Um, sustained. But if you did that, tell us about it.

Best,
Ron
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TonyLB
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« Reply #9 on: July 25, 2005, 06:09:44 AM »

Ooooh, that's a good one.  I ended up writing so much more of a response than you wrote as a question.  That's like question-acupuncture, is what that is.

Like many leading questions, that one seems very innocent until you look real carefully at the wording.  And, though I hate to be nitpicky, I really do have to take issue with the wording.  Did we provide adversity because we liked and understood the character issues?  Uh... Either "No, that's not the whole story," or "Yes, but that's not the whole story," depending upon which gets you more ready to hear the whole story.

That phrasing can be read to imply that liking and understanding the character issues came first, and the increased adversity happened afterwards as a consequence.  And, to some extent, that's true because the intensity of both fed upon each other as action stretched to action and consequences and desires played themselves out.  But I could just as easily say "we learned to like and understand the character issues because the intensity of the adversity forced us to it as a tactical necessity," and that would be just as true and just as incomplete.

Side-note:  If you're happy, there are bits of your brain that make you move your muscles in a way we name as "smile."  And, if you smile, your muscles hit about half a dozen nerve points in your face that release endorphins and lower blood pressure.  It makes you happy.  In a given instance I can say "Yes, I was happy first and smiled because of it," or "I forced a smile, and it cheered me up."  But over a day (or worse, a lifetime) all I can say is "People who smile more are happier people."  I can't draw any causation, because of the nature of the feedback loop.

So I'll tell you what happened in this game, on a rough, programmatic level.  This is going to get a bit detailed, because my final conclusion borders on the mystical, and I want a nice solid chain of logical steps to show people that, if I've walked off into la-la-land at least I was walking there on a clearly delineated road:

  • A group of conflicts get introduced and contested over.
  • When they resolve, some number of these have Debt Staked (because people care about them).  At the beginning of the game, Debt is scarce and these are rare.
  • People who created adversity that folks care about get Story Tokens.  Again, in the beginning, rare.  At that point the Story Token mechanic is pure positive reinforcement... they're mana from heaven.
  • This repeats.  More debt is generated.
  • The game enters mid-phase (pacing-wise) when people accumulate enough Debt that it is more common for a conflict to have stakes than not to.
  • By this point, people are starting to learn how to link their adversity to what other players care about.  Past positive reinforcement by Story Tokens encourages them to do this.
  • In mid-phase, the remarkable thing is to not gain Story Tokens from a round of resolution.  At that point the Story Token mechanic gains some elements of negative reinforcement.... if you don't get rewarded, it's because you were the least interesting player that go-round.  That stings people into further involvement.
  • I very seldom see a given player fail to get Story Tokens two pages in a row.  Being stung motivates them to dig deep and figure out how to engage the other players on the level of their character issues.
  • The game enters climax-phase (pacing-wise) when people have so much Debt that almost every conflict is staked on both sides.  This usually lasts only for one, very dramatic, page.  Some people walk away with a pile of too-much-Debt and a pile of Story Tokens, and other people walk with a few powerful Inspirations but otherwise as naked of resources (debt or Story Tokens) as at the beginning of the game.
  • The former people (stocked with Debt and Story Tokens) will drive the early game of the next cycle of pacing.  The consequences of their defeat (usually in the previous scene) will be the focus of everyone's attention, for the simple reason that that's where the resources are to be harvested.

At every phase of this, the people who more enthusiastically and accurately toss adversity at the character issues of other players are the ones who profit (win or lose).  But once you're "playing like you mean it," there's no meaningful distinction between caring about the character issues and engaging the character issues.  Like I said back in the first post, the emotions go straight to your face and out into the world.  If you do care you can't help but provide the right adversity.  If you don't care, you can't fake it.  So, really, what you have is that a purely emotional situation (caring about what happens with the characters in the game) is the only winning strategy. 

You achieve mastery over the rules system by feeling a certain way.

Returning to your first point (paraphrased), in light of this:  Did we engage with the rules and provide adversity more intensely because we felt a certain way?  Well, of course.  But that's not causation ("A implies B"), it's identity ("A is B").


Now, a specific example:  Chris and... I think his name was Dave.  Didn't have a name-tag.  TJ's older brother.  Man, I'm lousy with names.

Chris played Major Victory, to the hilt and beyond.  Flashing grin, always an annoying bon-mot, and the constant "V-for-Victory" hand signs.  Dave played Starlight, once ally of Major Victory, who had eventually realized that she was always going to be a 1950's stenographer, and that the virtuous life was one of constant, unending, horrific hardship.  Major Victory, of course, playboy millionaire in his secret identity.  Starlight decided that after forty years she'd given heroism a fair shot and it had never failed to screw her over.  Villain time.  The two had Issues, as characters, but at the beginning Dave wasn't terribly into it.  He just wanted to play Starlight on a "my guy" basis... what she'd do, but it wasn't him doing it.

So Dave tries to have Starlight beat Major Victory to a pulp.  Chris won't let it stand, and wins with Debt.  Because he won, he narrates it in this entirely unacceptable way for Dave:  Starlight has a moment of weakness wherein she remembers all the good times and willingly lets Major Victory escape her coup-de-grace.  Because, remember, Chris needed to stake Debt to win this, so it can't just be about pummelling.  It has to be about JUSTICE!  And Chris is so into it that Dave can't help but see that as a personal failing on his part.  So now it's not just MV beating on Starlight, this becomes about Chris impinging on Dave.  And, of course, Dave gets Story Tokens... so he starts plotting his revenge.

Dave makes a conflict to take Major Victory's V, a metal symbol (and weapon) that Chris had been touting for the past hour.  Take a moment with me to savor how far Dave had already gotten into Chris's character, in order to be able to conceive of that conflict and see how perfect it is.  Chris reacts with horror to the mere threat of such an abomination.  Both sides stake Debt, Dave wins out.  Major Victory is dealt a stunning defeat on multiple fronts, loaded with Story Tokens and Debt, and sent back to his manor in disgrace.  Victory for Dave!  Victory for Chris!  Defeat for us other poor schlmiels, who failed to engage either side on as powerful a thematic level.

New scene, the villains come back to the manor.  Dave creates a goal for MV of "Get the V back."  When Chris indicates that he's a little more concerned about other goals (such as "Remove Major Victory's Brain") Dave comments that in the week between the scenes, Starlight has decked out the V with gold plate and rhinestones.  Dave puts up two fingers in the V-for-Victory sign and chirps "Bling, bling!"  Chris flushes and just stares, appalled, before jumping in heavily on that conflict.  He loses his brain, but BY GOD!, he gets back his V.

By the end, after another cycle of "Dave comes out on top, Chris gets Story Tokens, Chris comes out on top," Starlight had been thoroughly humiliated, and Dave was flush with eight story tokens.  We couldn't keep playing, but he eagerly told us his plan for the next scene:  two goals "Public loses confidence in Major Victory," followed by "Major Victory loses confidence in the public." 

Is that not beautiful?  This from the guy who started out firmly mired in "my-guy" syndrome.  But in order to contest at all with Chris, he had to ramp up his animosity toward Major Victory, his emotional need to see the man humiliated.  And that meant knowing MV so perfectly that he knew exactly where to stick in the knife and how to twist.  And then, knowing that, Dave found that he didn't need "his guy" at all any more.  The knife was the important thing.  Who knows what character he would have played in that hypothetical scene?  But I know he would have smacked Chris around really nicely, whatever was played.

So here's the false dichotomy that makes it hard to describe this system:  Was he able to work the game system that well because he cared so much about beating Major Victory?  Or did he care so much about beating Major Victory because it was the only way to work the game system?  To which, again, I would argue, not "A implies B" but "A is B and B is A."
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: July 25, 2005, 07:43:03 AM »

Hi Tony,

I agree with all that stuff.

My most recent comments on the topic you raised at the end can be found in Narrativist games and "winning"?, and I'm sure you're familiar with Jesse's excellent Two thoughts on Capes, as well as similar threads. I also like to go back and read your own posts during Capes' early development, which were all about Gamist/Narrativist hybridizing, and then during its early play, in which you switched to strategy-subordinated-to-Narrativism.

Best,
Ron
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TonyLB
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« Reply #11 on: July 25, 2005, 09:42:31 AM »

Yeah, I know you think we're talking about the same thing.  From my point of view we aren't.  Isn't communication a quirky beast?

For what it's worth, I know that we were trying to beat each other as players.  Not Dave trying to beat Chris (feh!  there's no victory to be had there) but Dave trying to beat Thor, who was playing the Iron Brain.  They both put forth adversities that Chris could get morally vested in, and he had to choose just one to put his main attention on.  Two players Step On Up, one wins, one loses, objective, crystal clear and the focus of play.

So, yeah, you write in Narrativist games and "winning" your reasons for looking at anything that includes the address of Premise and seeing it as not-Gamism.  I respectfully disagree with your reasoning, but I hope I understand it.  I don't think there's a flaw in your logic, I just dispute some of your axioms.
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Justin Marx
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« Reply #12 on: July 26, 2005, 08:26:54 AM »

Is it possible to set your goal of winning as having a better narration than someone else? It only works if it answers the premise (Narrativist), but you still rise to the challenge (Step on Up) even though you are applying it against another player instead of story or GM elements.

Not much of a master of the GNS conundrum, just a question I thought may apply.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #13 on: July 27, 2005, 07:36:46 PM »

Heya Tony,

Probably way off: Is this like watching a film maker at two levels? Like you could watch how he organises the shoots technically, spends the money effectively, organises it all so well and think "Damn that guy is so good at stepping up and getting this film together". Note: The film makers thoughts while organising are not "I must get my address heard!". It's stone cold "Let's get this damn thing inside budget!" thinking.

The other level is in watching just what he's addressing in the film and being wowed at that.

And then you have a cross level, where the guy brings in a certain theme, because he knows that one will increase his budget. But the theme is just a great theme to bring into the movie!

So your left with the question of how do you admire him for getting both done? Which result do you admire most? Is that the question?
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TonyLB
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« Reply #14 on: July 28, 2005, 05:31:36 AM »

Callan:  I don't know.  That metaphor doesn't exactly work for me, because it's such a spectator sort of metaphor.  And I haven't done enough film-making to know whether you get the synergy of "Making the shot from this angle and expressing the theme are the same thing!", so I don't have any mental hooks to hang the active side of the metaphor from.  But if it works for you, great!
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