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Prescribing the kicker

Started by Seth L. Blumberg, June 05, 2002, 12:34:22 PM

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Seth L. Blumberg

There seem to be a fair number of N/S incoherent games which use a sort of Kicker, but with the peculiarity that the Kicker is prescribed by the game's rules rather than being chosen by the player. Nobilis comes to mind (Kicker: "Yesterday, quite without warning, you became a demigod"), as does Maelstrom Storytelling if you use Newcomer PCs (Kicker: "You just woke up in an unfamiliar place with near-total amnesia"). I even designed a game myself once with this sort of Kicker ("Last night at around 2:30 AM, almost everyone in the world except you mysteriously vanished").

What experiences have you all had with this technique? How does it compare to player-chosen Kickers?
the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue

Jared A. Sorensen

I don't believe that the examples you cited qualify as Kickers.

Why not? Because a Kicker propels a character into action because that character is now faced with an important decision. I think emotional context is also good but not necessary.


Compare "You found out your wife is having an affair." with "You come home from work and find your wife sprawled out naked across the coffee table with Larry, your best friend."

Ron and others will no doubt tell me I got it wrong now. Hah. Maybe I do this on purpose, so there!
jared a. sorensen /

Seth L. Blumberg

One of Ron's examples of a Kicker from the Sorcerer rules is "You come home from the airport, open your suitcase, and find that your clothes and other belongings are gone, replaced by a quarter of a million dollars in small, used bills." I don't see how that presents the player with any more of an immediate choice than "You wake up in an unfamiliar place with near-total amnesia"; in both cases, the player is faced with the same question: "What the fuck do I do now?"

I suppose I should rephrase my original question for greater clarity.

One of the goals of using Kickers is to enhance player engagement. Can a Kicker prescribed by the game designer achieve that goal? If not, is there any point to having a prescribed Kicker? Is there anything that a prescribed Kicker does better than player-chosen Kickers?
the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue

Jared A. Sorensen

"You wake up with total amnesia and people are chasing you (ala Bourne Identity)..." -- I think THAT'S a Kicker. There are questions to be answered,  decisions to make and an unknown outcome to face...
jared a. sorensen /

Ron Edwards

Hi Seth,

I have to clarify something about this - you're using "Kicker" pretty generically, and I think we need to clarify things a bit.

There isn't any such thing as a GM-provided Kicker. A Kicker, by definition, is a player's creative investment in a Situation for his or her character. Now, a GM may provide tons of Situation too - and you are describing a form of doing that which might be called the "Crisis Situation."

I used Crisis Situations to begin play for years and years - still do, especially for games in which Premise arises less from characters and more from setting.

My favorite example - the first time I decided to get aggressive with the idea - comes from 1988, using first edition Cyberpunk. Everyone made up characters and provided the five-plus page story-writeup those rules encouraged (with the lifepath rolls). Previous play of many games had convinced me that pages and pages of pre-play character story did not necessarily result in what I now call an effective Kicker. So ...

I began the first session with the characters all disarmed and stuffed into body bags, slammed around in the back of a van as it drove speedily along.

I was surprised by a few things. For one thing, the players had no problem with it - as contrasted to the usual tactic I used back then, which was to hose them all in initial solo scenes, knocking them out by using subtle and not-so-subtle GM power, then having them "wake up" in the van later. For another, it established a sense of excitement and grit which was a big deal in that game.

Over time, though, I realized that a Crisis Situation was still not what I was looking for, which was player emotional commitment to the Situation. Simply tweaking players' desire for their characters to live and be interesting by threatening their potential to do so (ie endangering the characters) was not enough.

Now, I think that Crisis Situations are successful only insofar as it engages each player's interest in (a) his or her own characters and (b) everyone else's characters. They can be constructed to maximize these effects, in a number of ways.

1) Alyria does a wonderful job of incorporating characters into Situation by going Situation-first, as created through dialogue among the whole group. Player-characters are chosen from the numerous persons engaged in the Situation, created moments before by everyone.

2) Engage the players with the NPCs of the Situation as rapidly and deeply as possible. Use their reactions and statements of interest as cues for which NPCs to develop and bring further to everyone's attention. (For example, in my Cyberpunk example, the initial excitement of the Crisis Situation would be utterly bankrupted if the guys driving the van were just goons. At least one had to be an interesting, informative, Premise-provoking person.)

3) When the immediate Crisis is over, provide the players lots of free time and leeway to deal with things as they see fit, rather then shepherding them from Crisis Situation I to Crisis Situation II. Doing that I-II-next Crisis thing is rightly perceived, in many cases, as railroading.


Ron Edwards


Looks like some dialogue got going while I was composing that last post.

Seth, there's a big difference between the suitcase/money example and the wake-up-amnesia example - specifically, the number and ethical content of the possible options.

The character who wakes up with amnesia has no options. All he or she can do is, (1) escape from the clutches of whoever nabbed me, and (2) try to figure out who I am. That's it. They can do it violently, subtly, whatever. But there's nothing else to do, and there's no ethical dilemma involved in doing it. [I also would like to point out that a player in this situation knows full well that if they do nothing, the GM will be forced, sooner or later, to provide them with more information.]

The character with the suitcase has tons of different options. Call the police or the FBI. Keep it. Get in touch with underworld connections. Call his parents. Tons, tons, tons of things, none of which immediately suggesting itself as tactically superior or inferior. Each of them carries different ethical content and illustrates a lot about the character as a person.


Christopher Kubasik

Hi Seth,

Something that occurred to me when posting a reply to Jeff (down in Actual Play on his RoS scenario thread) was the idea that when the player creates a Kicker he or she is developing the habit of protactivity, and thus protagnism.  

I'm really big into habits right now, and it seems to me that the more time the players spend making choices about where their character is going (even before play begins!) the more they'll make choices during play.

On the other hand, they more the game or GM shoves a starting point at them, the more they start the habit of waiting for the game or GM to give them more.

This to me is one of the huge differences between player chosen Kickers and "stuff" handed to the players.

Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Hi guys,

A question.

Chris posted this as a prologue/framing device down in actual play:

QuoteStart by giving your players a definite goal. Let them "know" how its going to end, generally... You can do it very easily by either doing a flashback, or a journal.

For example" June 14, 8th Year of the Fallen King, the sacred mirror was restored to the holy temple of Behem. I write to chronicle the living and the dead, and of that night in the tower...." And then play it out.

Now, would this *preclude* the use of Kickers.  Clearly we're prescribing something, but not the Kicker.  But would a Kicker still work.

Also, which would come first, Kicker or Prologue?

Finally, note that this is very different than the time switching covered in S&Sword's Chapter Seven, because in this case the determined future and the Kicker are occurring in the same story unit.  This may or may not be a problem, which is why I'm asking the question.


"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Off the top of my head, I would not think it would necessarily be a problem - I would think it would just flavour the types of kickers players come up with. FWIW.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci