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[apocalypse girl] - getting unsafe, with safewords

Started by Sydney Freedberg, January 18, 2006, 03:48:16 PM

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Sydney Freedberg

apocalypse girl is my November 2006 Ronnies submission, which I'm now revising (slowly) in light of the excellent suggestions from many people in various threads (listed below), especially Unco Lober, B.J. "Ramidel" Lapham, and their playtesting crews. The new mechanics will be barely recognizable -- not broken, to start with (I hope) -- but that's not my question for today.

What I've spent the last few evenings working on is the introductory stuff -- not the opening fiction bit, or the description of the three Roles (Girl, Dragon, World), but the part meant to ease the reader from the cool fictional stuff into the mechanics of actually playing the game. While this section does the work of the "what is roleplaying" blather at the beginning of your bog-standard RPG, the real objective is to help the players construct a solid Social Contract around the mechanics, particularly with regard to the issues of "getting unsafe" that Ron Edwards raised in his comments. I had the great good fortune that Meguey Baker, whose work on ritual in RPGs I was already trying to incorporate, recently tackled this very topic on her blog Fair Game, drawing a tremendously useful distinction between "nobody gets hurt play" and "I will not abandon you" play.

I've gone and posted the relevant sections of the draft below, for convenience and because I couldn't put anything up on a website to save my life. (Anyone want to tutor me, please send a PM...). My key questions for everyone are these:

1) In general, does this text do a good job of explaining "what we the real people do around the table when we roleplay in this particular game"
  1a) to someone with no RPG experience or
  1b) to someone with only traditional (and possibly disfunctional) RPG experience?
2) In particular, where do the explanations and procedures (the "real rules" in boldface type) need to be stronger to really support potentially dangerous, "I will not abandon you" play?

Prior threads, for reference:
Official Ronnies feedback -
First playtest reports -
Unofficial Ronnies feedback -
Original rules draft -

And the actual excerpt from the current draft:

Quotea note: most of these rules aren't rules
   This may look like a lot of rules, compared to games like chess, poker, or even boardgames like Monopoly™ or Risk™. It's really not. In most games, the written rules are just a reference, and you actually learn to play from other people – the legal moves, the sound strategies, even the etiquette – but since a lot fewer people know how to play apocalypse girl, these written rules have to walk you through all that themselves.
   So most of these "rules" are just suggestions, explanations, examples, and advice to help you understand the real rules that you actually need to learn. Those real rules are marked very clearly in the text, like this:
   Anything in boldface type, with a number set out in the margins and a title in small caps, [which I can't figure out the formatting code for...], is a rule you have to follow to play the game correctly.
   Anything written in
regular type is just a suggestion or an explanation, for you to take or leave as you like.
   Anything written entirely in
italics is an example – one possible way to play that is legal by the rules, but just one way out of many.
   You've just read your first real rule. There'll be another one along in after a page or so.

game and story
   This is a game about telling a story. This is a story about playing a game.
   When you play chess, you don't describe your knight charging across the battlefield and make little clip-clop-clip-clop hoofbeat sounds. But chess might be more dramatic if you did.
   When you make up a story just out of your head, you don't have any rules or dice rolls to tell you, "No! The thing you thought would happen, didn't: This other thing happens instead." But your stories might surprise you more that way.
   As you play apocalypse girl, you roll dice to see what happens as you move your playing pieces. But those pieces also represent things that you've imagined – people, places, institutions, even ideas and moods. The die rolls tell you what they're doing in the story – which may not be what you expect. You care more about what happens to your pieces because they're people, and the die rolls suggest changes to the story you might never have thought of on your own.
   Sometimes you think of something you want to add to the story, and then you have to figure out a game move that makes it happen, even if it's not the best strategy: That's fine. Sometimes you do something just to get ahead in the game, and then you have to figure out what that means in the story, even if it seems like a stretch: That's fine, too.
   Telling a story by rules may seem strangely self-restricting, but having clear guidelines actually makes it easier to imagine things (as opposed to, "Make up something cool – oh, anything you want – now! Go!"). And these rules are written to shape the story in a certain way, to keep confronting you with choices about what you value, what you fear, and what you are willing to betray.

telling the story together
   Everyone playing a game of apocalypse girl is telling a story together. If the game's going well, then all of you are participating all the time: acting out your imaginary characters' reactions, suggesting what should happen next in the story, urging each other on when someone has a really great idea, telling each other honestly "nope, try again" when someone has an idea that stinks, and, above all else, really listening to each other, all the time, even when – especially when – you disagree intensely. So:
   Treat your fellow players with respect: Give everyone a chance to contribute and really listen to what they're trying to say.

   Once you've really listened to the other players, though, you have no obligation to agree with them, or to give them what they want, or even to keep them happy. What you are obligated to do is keep them engaged in the best story you can tell. And apocalypse girl is based on the idea that you get the strongest stories by asking the hardest questions. So:
   If someone plays apocalypse girl with you, they have given you to right to challenge things they really care about. That does not give you the right to be a jerk.

   You can challenge and engage the other players by making them smile, laugh out loud, gasp, flinch, think, anything. If your group is built on rock-solid trust, you may sometimes even make them cry. It's all good.
   What is not good is boring the other players. What's worse is freaking them out: then you haven't challenged and engaged them, you've upset them so badly that instead of rising to your challenge, they have to disengage.
   Where that fine line lies between playing too hard and playing just hard enough depends on you and the people you're with. It's worth talking about it before you begin to play – but once the game really starts, you may be surprised by what you can take and what you can't. You need to pay attention to each others' reactions and to watch out for your own over-reactions. If someone does something that upsets you, give them the benefit of the doubt and asume they didn't mean to – then speak up and ask them (politely!) not to do whatever-it-was again.
   If somebody keeps on putting things into the story that you find upsetting, even after you try to discuss it and get that person to listen respectfully – or if somebody introduces something really upsetting out of nowhere and there's just no time to discuss it – you can and probably should ask the other players to pause the story and talk through the problem. If even that doesn't work, then, as your last resort, you have the right to stop play, like this:
   If you are ever simply too upset to keep playing, hold both hands out in a double "stop" gesture and say, "whoa!" or "wait!" or "stop!"
   Everyone immediately stops playing the game; play only resumes when you are willing.
   You have to tell the other players what upset you. You do not have to explain why it upset you.

   The "Rule of Whoa" gives each and every player a veto over every other player's contributions: "Play in a different way or we can't play anymore." Only the most daring or disfunctional groups should ever have to use it. It exists to give the seriously unhappy player an option short of just walking out: It is a big red panic button to stop play, not a routine tool for play.
   At any given moment in play, by contrast, there is one and only one player who has the right and responsibility to veto or accept the other players' contributions: the "narrator." With everyone contributing together and challenging each other, someone has to have the buck-stops-here authority to say "yes" to some ideas and "no" to others. Each player gets a chance to be that final arbiter at specific times.
   When you make a move in the game, you and you alone have the ultimate responsibility and the final authority to say what that move means is happening in the story (within limits set specifically for each type of move; see below). How exactly you tell your part of the story is up to you: You can literally narrate events like a campfire storyteller, or speak in character like an actor on an old-time radio drama, or ask the other players to portray the characters they do best as if they were actors and you were their director, or anything else you want to try.
   When you're narrating, you can and should encourage the other players to make suggestions. If you like someone else's idea better than the one you had at first, fine: use theirs and thank them. If you still like your idea best, fine: reject theirs and thank them anyway. If their idea gives you an even better idea, great: That's the best part of collaborating with other people. Sometimes, when you're the narrator, all you have to say is, "yeah, what you just said, that's what happens." Sometimes, you need to say, "no, what happens is this." So:
   For any given move in the game, after everyone has had their say, the player who made that move has the final say over what it means is happening in the story.

   What are those moves and moments? That's what the rest of the rules are about.

engines drive the story
   Everything that does anything important in the story is represented by two numbers and two phrases written down on a regular 3"x5" index card, along with an ever-changing collection of dice. These cards are your playing pieces in the game, and they are called "Engines" because they drive the story.
   If something isn't written down on a card as an Engine, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist: It just means it isn't important to the story – yet. If you decide that something that matters to you is missing, you can add it as a new Engine. If you decide something that matters is a problem, you can try to change its Engine, or take it away from its current player and control it yourself, or remove it from play entirely. But remember that the other players can do the same to Engines representing things you care about: If you put it in play, you put it at risk.

At which point the text is intended without any interruption into describing the mechanics.

Mark Woodhouse

As one of the designated CrankyPants on the foggy land where Rules meet Social Contract, let me say that that's one of the best treatments of the topic I've seen. You're intending To The Pain as default mode, right? Seems appropriate for apocalypse girl.

Josh Roby

Sydney, my comment here is totally down-the-line in layout, but I think it's important nonetheless.  If you have boldface lines that are numbered out on the margin, they're going to look like headers.  In your manuscript here, though, you're not using them as headers at all and in fact most of the time they're following up the explanatory text rather than preceeding it.  I think the page would be a lot easier to read if you pulled the rules in rather than stuck them out -- maybe box them with a little indent on either side -- so that they 'tuck in' to the flow of the text block (which is how they work logically).

In more developmental terms, I think you need to elaborate the Challenge bit a little more.  An example might be nice, but mostly I'm looking for what kind of challenge we're talking here.  Challenge in terms of obstacles to overcome, or challenges to statements I make, or challenges to things I believe, or challenges to who I am?
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog

Sydney Freedberg

Quote from: Joshua BishopRoby on January 18, 2006, 05:21:26 PM
I think you need to elaborate the Challenge bit a little more. An example might be nice, but mostly I'm looking for what kind of challenge we're talking here. Challenge in terms of obstacles to overcome, or challenges to statements I make, or challenges to things I believe, or challenges to who I am?

The last two, primarily, expressed as outright attacks on the Engines you've created -- one of which, your "Core," is pretty much your philosophical surrogate in the game (quite possibly as the embodiment of everything you despise, but still something you care about). The original version allowed you to rewrite the description of an Engine if you captured it; this version allows you to rewrite it any time you manage to knock down its stats.

And yeah, examples.

Of course I should be writing all this stuff instead of writing about it, but... head cold... sick baby waking up at all hours ... so tired...

Quote from: Mark Woodhouse on January 18, 2006, 04:32:42 PMAs one of the designated CrankyPants on the foggy land where Rules meet Social Contract, let me say that that's one of the best treatments of the topic I've seen. You're intending To The Pain as default mode, right?

First, thanks. "If I see further it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." (Ron, Vincent, Meg particularly on this issue).

Second -- ironically -- I'm actually not too sure about the proper degree of "safety" for this game. I want it to be capable of really hitting hard issues, if and only if all the players are ready to go there (hence the "Rule of Whoa"), but to be honest, pretty much all my personal experience is "Nobody gets hurt." That said, the two recurring characters I keep playing over and over -- the violent, vulnerable female who tends to self-destruct and take the party with her, and the dutiful, duty-bound male who tries to control everyone else except, possibly, one much-deferred-too superior -- are definitely working out my own psychological issues, including some pretty painful family stuff. But even when play has hit those issues hard, I've always felt the other players were responding to my invitation rather then attacking me (hey -- I'm a "pull" player after all!),  I've always felt safe doing it, and I've almost never felt any emotional distress. Maybe that's just a question of me having a fairly high pain threshold rather than playing "wimpy," but then again I could be deluding myself.

Mark Woodhouse

Sydney, I'm pretty sure apocalypse girl has a margin of safety around really getting deep into trauma. There's no avatar as such, and the rules structure mitigates against strong identification with the fiction. The game pretty much invites Director Stance as the main play method. As long as you've got a healthy tap-out environment and some guidance with regard to the sexual politics that have been discussed in the past with regard to the game's premise, I think you're on solid ground.

I have some hunches about the usefulness of this kind of slightly alienated relationship between player and fiction when trying to play with touchy content, which is part of why I've been so interested in the convergence of Push/Pull/Give/Resist, the "Alphabet Soup", and Vincent's "destroy all ownership" thing.


Quotethey have given you to right to challenge
I think that should read "they have given you the right to challenge"

  I think the term "move" seems a little awkward. Maybe you should use it once in the beginning and then transition into whatever terminology you want the game to use.

  I think for novice/traditional Roleplayers, challenge might be a lot to digest. Maybe you should discuss rules of gameplay and die rolling with examples and build up to Challenge rule. So it has some context.

  And the Rule of Whoa (while necesary) may give potential players the wrong impression about what your game is about.

Finally, players want to challenge Character's values, not other Players values. I know that for some players that distinction can be accidentally or intentionally blurred, but I think your rules/description would do a lot more for the Social Contract to make/reinforce that distinction than to push/pull the player's behavior.

  That's just my opinion though, please do what you feel is best. Good luck!
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Sydney Freedberg

Good comments; thanks. Specifically:

Quote from: dindenver on January 20, 2006, 12:17:38 PMthat should read "they have given you the right to challenge"


Quotethe term "move" seems a little awkward.


Quotethe Rule of Whoa (while necesary) may give potential players the wrong impression about what your game is about.


QuoteI think for novice/traditional Roleplayers, challenge might be a lot to digest.


Quoteplayers want to challenge Character's values, not other Players values.


The relevant section isn't in this draft yet -- though I'll probably retain most of what's in the original 24-hour Ronnies version -- but while your main "character" (or "Core") certainly does not have to express your values, and may well embody the exact opposite, they have to express something you care about, and that something is what the other players are supposed to challenge. If you challenge the character without challenging the player: boring.

Or am I misreading you?


  Well, I see what you are saying, but I think you may not be reading enough into my statements, or I am reading too much into yours, lol
  Seriously though, players normally invest SOMETHING into their characters. So, challenging the characters at all is challenging something they care about. I think trying to inspire the players to take it to a personal level might be toxic.
  Fred is a colege student and he uses his college network to steal music and software. He knows that this might get his school, the Lab admin, himself or his parents in trouble. Obviously his respect for the law and personal property is not very significant.
  But when Fred plays a Paladin, his character is righteous and upholds the law.
  Other players WILL be challenging Fred by stealing in his paladin's presence or by having his paladin investigate a theft. Even though in real life he would not care about such acts.

  But you are absolutely right, challenge without context is boring. BUT, taking a fun game between friends to a personal level will probably not be fun either. I don't think encouraging players to push each others buttons is advisable. Or am I misunderstanding you?
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Sydney Freedberg

It's a hard balance to achieve, and even harder (for me, at least) to articulate. I think the whole "push vs. pull" discussion, especially combined with talking about "flags," boils down to the importance of each player, however implicitly or even unconsciously, putting things into play with an invitation to the other players to beat on those things -- but without extending that invitation to "please upset me in any way about anything." With the "challenge" rule (and you're right, it needs work) and the Engines ("you make it, you stake it"), I'm trying to make that invitation explicit and unmistakeable.

Unco Lober

Its all okay, but, in my opinion, not suited enough for those lacking RPG experience. And even for those who roleplayed, but never had a game outside of D&D, this may seem just a dorkish restriction.

What I disliked (in this context) is the "game and story" paragraph. They probably wouldn't like this. And I think one needs to be either a fiction writer or a GM to at least understand the point. After all, this paragraph says nothing but "you can make up a story all by yourself, but now you have the rules so that you won't". Indeed, an ordinary dude would probably read this and presume it to be something like "how to draw manga" e-stuff.

I think, the idea of _creating a story together_ should be stressed more - in the very first paragraph dealing with the whole idea of that kind of "nonstandard" roleplay! Creating a story together, and AG makes _resolving arguments_ (that would otherwise hinder the whole process) turn into a _game_. Thus, AG is a game, they should understand, that is around resolving arguments. Mentioning that arguments are also not on the author, but the character level, shall probably do the deed. IMO.
(Oh my, Lober's English failed multiple time in a row. Sorry.)

P.S. Thanks again for the game, Sydney, and waiting for the new version of the ruleset! We here had just recently thought of playing AG again, and the only thing that held us back is that we wanted use the new rules {:{)= . If that would be possible for us to lay our hand on the rules the next week, we shoul most probably playtest those on the spot :), because all of us seeem to be getting less busy for a couple of weeks, and are going to game.

Sydney Freedberg

Quote from: Unco Lober on January 22, 2006, 03:18:24 AMI think, the idea of _creating a story together_ should be stressed more....AG makes _resolving arguments_ (that would otherwise hinder the whole process) turn into a _game_...

Now that's a brilliant way of putting it: creative disagreements drive the game. "You're all going to make something up together, and of course you're sometimes going to disagree, but instead of either getting paralyzed or having to find a vague, mushy consensus, the rules make resolving those disagreements into a game." Or something very close to that. Thanks!

QuoteIf that would be possible for us to lay our hand on the rules the next week, we shoul most probably playtest those on the spot .../quote]

That's a great incentive for me to get my act together and finish the revisions. Again, thank you.

Sydney Freedberg

I've decided to rewrite these rules in three ways:

1) add another "hard rule," that of majority rule, so that whenever two of the players agree that the third one's breaking the rules, the odd-man-out has to defer to their interpretation.

2) emphasize the positive aspect of challenge and disagreement: the more intensely the different players hold different ideas, the more exciting the game, and when I challenge your ideas, that's the highest praise I can pay you, whereas my just accepting them would be a disappointment for you.

3) make the "safewords" and so on not be just about Scary Stuff -- because, as Dindever especially noted, just talking about that possibility so much may scare people away from playing -- and extend the "rule of whoa" circuitbreaker to anything that's causing you to "disengage" from play: you can be too upset to keep playing, or too confused to follow what's happening, or just too bored to keep paying attention. ("20 minutes of fun in 4 hours" is justifiable cause to interrupt the game and say "hey! whoa!" in my book).

But in the meantime I've been focusing on the mechanics, which I've started a separate thread on:

Andy Kitkowski

Not much to say but that i really like this.  I'm working on kind of a dark game right now, and lifting something like this wholesale and modifying it for my own uses might happen.  It's a great step forward on getting friends together to game, and remain friends if one of them starts going too far. Admittedly, yeah, they might read that section and go, "Uh... What the fuck did I just buy?  Is this gonna be worse than like HOL meets KULT" (which would have benefitted from Safety Word rules), but still I think it's a good step.  I'll be interested in seeing how you flesh this section out.

The Story Games Community - It's like RPGNet for small press games and new play styles.

Ron Edwards

Hi Sydney,

I think Meguey Baker is absolutely correct in her construction of I Will Not Abandon You as opposed to No One Gets Hurt. You've probably seen it, but for everyone, here's the source: More alphabet soup. I'd like to stick to her definitions, but to ignore most of the responses and any other blogs that have picked up the topic. This post is not a continuation of blogspace debate, but working only from her points and input.

So - which is it to be? You seem to me to be continually scuttling toward No One Gets Hurt, socially and psychologically, although the color text and basic procedural ideas tend toward I Will Not Abandon You. They aren't compatible. To someone oriented toward the latter by preference (i.e., me), repeated tendencies toward the former are sort of annoying. To someone oriented toward the former by preference, some of the mechanics you've presented really shouldn't be there and cannot be "saftied" reliably, safewords or not (in fact, I suggest, especially not).

You know what I'd do with your safe-words, in play? First, I'd never use them. Second, I'd fail to respect them. See what I mean? They just don't play any part of what I'm there to do.

I recognize that this outlook is going to be multiply misinterpreted. To someone who's into NOGH, it sounds confrontational, competitive, or even pushy. But to IWNAY preferenced-folks, it's comfortable. It's not, actually, competitive at all, it's ... well, safe, from the get-go. No words necessary.

I'm not suggesting that a given person, me included, can't enjoy both forms. I can. But unless I know that it's NOGH, and unless the procedures are strongly focused in that direction, then I'm inadvertently going to be making NOGH-preferring folks' experience a living hell. Absolutely no "fixes" are going to be able to stop that.


Sydney Freedberg

I was worried about precisely that; thanks for confirming it, Ron. I believe the term of art here is that these mechanics are "abashed"?