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[Dust Devils] A brutal morality play in pre-San Francisco

Started by Ron Edwards, July 11, 2007, 09:09:22 PM

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Ron Edwards

Tim K, Chris, and I convened about two months ago with a very strong desire to play Dust Devils, using the new book. Now, my experience with Dust Devils is extensive, but it pre-dates the 2002 GenCon version, if you can believe it. In fact, here's my old play-account, Dust Devils - first session in March 2002, which may have been the first time the game was ever played. And in fact, all three of us had played the game, but not together and not with the new book; you can read about the game run by Tim A in the fall of 2003 which included Chris in [Dust Devils] Malt & Tease. A lot of enthusiasm went into this.

Our first step was to decide on the setting, in sketchy, good-enough-for-movie terms, and Tim and Chris both favored the earlier Old West, well before the Civil War and even before the railroads. I suggested the California coast, in the San Francisco area, because I've always thought my generalized home-area (I'm from the Monterey Peninsula) has been overlooked in western film and fiction. I knew that San Fran had been a true den of wonderful iniquity, but wasn't sure when. I also have a thing about how Mexican and Spanish culture were (a) co-opted by U.S. California culture but (b) totally swept under the carpet, historically.

Anyway, we did a quick Wikipedia check, and since the guys actually wanted the story to precede the Gold Rush, I was surprised to learn that San Francisco before that time, when the coast was part of Mexico, was a little hamlet called Yerba Buena. It was founded in part by an Englishman and (of course) featured a gorgeous mission; it included a lot of American settlers including (surprise!) a passel of Mormons. I also knew about the seafaring Russian population further north (Russian River valley, Bodega Bay), and was pleased to see that they often appeared in the area. Cool! We discussed this material briefly and fell to making up characters.

As the others put their pencil-ends in their mouths and looked upwards, making up their player-characters, I quickly bashed out four NPCs with a few sidekicks each. The following text is taken straight from my notes except for one bracketed comment.

hot Spanish-Mexican woman
Maria Isabel de la Cruz del Río
Hand 3, Eye 3, Guts 2, Heart 5
More woman than you'll ever know, Fierce as a panther
Used to be a nun 1
Now is running the place 3
Devil 2: Love
(I wrote the following names on the side: Pablo, Mota, Cesar)

hot Mormon woman
Amberly Blessing
Hand 2, Eye 5, Guts 3, Heart 3
Cold as the Pacific, Keen as the edge of a knife
Used to be a wife 3, Now is a religious fanatic 1
Devil 2: Power
I wrote the following names on the side: Bradyn, LaVine, Bryson)

tough-ass Russian
Timofei Yakovich Petrov
Hand 4, Eye 2, Guts 4, Heart 3
Tough as the Siberian winter, Cunning as a Californian rattler
Used to be a sea captain 1, Now is an extortionist boss 3
Devil 2: Spite
(I wrote the following names on the side: guys, Vanya, Kesha, Stas; gal, Nastya)

head priest at mission
Father Domingo
Hand 4, Eye 4, Guts 4, Eye 2 [note he has an extra point; I either made a mistake or just felt like it, don't remember which]
Peaceful as a still lake, Watchful as a hawk
Used to be a Federales killer 2, Now is a priest 2
Devil 2: Wrath

I made these folks up without much plot in mind, but it seemed clear to me that the two women would quickly be at odds, probably through people loyal to them, and that the Russian guy might well be a good instant-Bang crisis kind of character, by showing up and raising hell around town with his crew. I had included the name lists knowing that I'd need a lot of them as play proceeded. I ended up not using any of the Russian ones except briefly, as that side of things didn't become very complex. I got all the Russian and Mormon names from quick internet searches (I'm pretty good with Spanish and Mexican names on my own; and no, they're not the same).

Here's something that struck me right before we began to play: I didn't want to know anything about the player-characters. Tim and Chris were both surprised when I started right into play, describing a foggy spring morning on the small coastal mountain south of what would later be the Golden Gate bridge, and asking Chris whether his character was already in town or was arriving there, and how that character looked. For whatever intuitive reason, I decided that with these four NPCs in hand, and with real Dust Devils player-characters arriving or already there, I was loaded and ready to go. I didn't want to know the player-characters' names, what they looked like, their scores, nothing. I didn't even want to know starting Devils.

To be clear, I'm not talking about keeping anything on the sheets secret. I'm talking about disclosing that information steadily through use alone. "I'm using my Trait, which is 'twitchy as a horsefly,' so gimme a card." That kind of thing, in whatever order and in whatever way.

Information from the sheets, such as what a character "used to be," or a given score's value, and of course the Devils, appeared through dialogue as play proceeded and features of the sheet were used. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I checked out the sheets, but in retrospect that wasn't actually necessary. No one at the table really needs to know it all, and as long as everyone utilizes stuff on the sheets and announces what they're using as they go, then the game works fine. I hadn't realized that safety-net was even there in my mind, until a game this well-designed showed it to me.

Anyway, here they are, almost verbatim from the sheets:

Averiy (a Russian), played by Tim K
Hand 2, Eye 2, Guts 4, Heart 5
Twitchy as a horsefly, Brave as a soldier
Used to be a farm boy 2, Now is a hired gun 2
Devil (2): He can't trust no one, and he'll stab you in the back if he thinks you crossed him

Harlan Maccabee Haight (from back east somewhere; Kansas I think), played by Chris
Hand 4, Eye 1, Guts 3, Heart 5
Tongue as sweet as honey, Strong as an ox
Used to be a preacher's son 3, Now is a Marshall 1
Devil (3): Corrupting the innocent
(Chris also wrote on his sheet, "Everybody always listened, no matter what Harlan said")

Looking at Tim's old thread, I think Chris initially reprised his Jebediah Moore character a little bit, but actually Harlan turned out to be rather different. (Chris, you did play Jebediah in the game Tim wrote about, right? Or am I way off?)

In retrospect, it's pretty cool to see how these two high-Heart characters with rather disturbing Devils worked out tremendously appropriately, as you'll see in a minute. Dust Devils is wonderfully re-playable - we could play again with (for instance) one high-Eye character and one high-Hand character, hypothetically in the same scenario, and geez would things have been different. Not to mention the roles of the Devils.

About those Devils - because all player-characters have them, all you need to play is what I have tried to outline above. At one point,when we chatted about how I'd been reluctant to know much about the PCs and hadn't even looked at the sheets before we began, I think it was Tim K who said "But you have to know the Devils, right? To drive hard at them during play?" My sense at the time, and still is, that the answer is actually no. One only has to play even a single NPC's Devil hard as hell, and the PC Devils will be there and firing on all cylinders in response. How will they fire? What will happen? It can't be anticipated, and in fact to enjoy the game fully, all of our ingrained habits of know-all-prep-appropriately can be thrown right out the window. The only way to find out is to play.

(first post of three)

Ron Edwards

We enjoyed every minute of our two sessions so much that as soon as we were done, one of us insisted on listing all the scenes on paper to make sure we didn't lose the experience to the vagaries of memory.

Session #1

1. Harlan arrives at Yerba Buena and is greeted by happy Mexican children; he interacts with them in a strange way, even flipping a coin to a little girl for no apparent reason. We did not yet know Harlan's Devil, so this was a spooky, intriguing scene.

2. Tim K now told me that his character lived in Yerba Buena, and did a lot of odd jobs for people. I therefore framed Averiy as waiting at the dock (of the bay) with LaVine, one of the Mormon men, who tells Averiy to watch for some men arriving soon and to bring what they give him to him (LaVine). I then had Father Domingo show up and pester Averiy, as he suspected him of connections with people causing trouble. Little did I realize that Averiy's Devil is all about trust, and that I was kicking that Devil right in the face with these two characters. Averiy made a very significant choice not to come clean with Father Domingo, again (like Harlan) firing his Devil hard without me knowing it, just seeing it and thinking "that's interesting."

I had decided that the Russians were about to wreak havoc on the town, focusing on the mission, at Amberly's behest as she's trying to pull a power-play and diminish the priest's authority. The Russians have brought a little gift for LaVine, too - a bottle of vodka. When they appeared, being all hairy and scary and with Timofey sporting a knout (I scared the players by describing it), Averiy realized that he was into something quite bad way over his head, and (doing a turnabout) ran to give the bottle to Father Domingo instead.

3. I stated that Harlan rode past Amberly's place, spotting her from the road, and that as he rode on (as Chris said), she sent LaVine to invite him to stay with them. Without my trying (and now that I think of it, in spite of all my role-playing being about Amberly), Chris developed the idea that LaVine was really the main character in this situation. The upshot was that he did decide to take up their offer, and totally missed that Amberly was the powerful figure of the household and indeed the community.

At this point, we all now knew many details from the sheets, or some of them, just by announcing what they were as we used them in play.

4. The next scene was a pretty complex, multi-step affair, in part because both player-characters were finally more-or-less involved in the same bits. We got to see Maria slap both Father Domingo and Harlan, without explanation for the former and the latter for no reason (she kissed him, too, just to annoy Father Domingo, then slapped him to show him what it meant to her). Avery showed up one step ahead of the Russians, incoherently trying to warn Father Domingo and waving around the bottle of vodka. (Remember, I hadn't seen Harlan's sheet yet and was mildly wondering, about this point, why he seemed so interested in the mission and the priest.)

5. The next scene was phenomenally brutal. The Russians attacked the mission, shouting and relying heavily on raw personal brutality (I used Timofey's draw for himself and a stud hand each for the more generic bands of attackers and defenders). They hoped basically to break the communal will and maybe get a shot in at Father Domingo too. It took a number of card-draw conflicts to resolve at various steps, including a brief scuffle among the "named" characters as Averiy was explicitly forced to choose sides. The net effects included:

i) Averiy switching sides yet again and duplicitously attacking Father Domingo at Timofey's behest! This actually put Father Domingo into the End via his Eye score, and I narrated it to indicate he'd fallen against a stone step, hitting the back of his head and being blinded.

ii) Timofey meeting his End in full, in two steps: first by Harlan taking his whip away from him and then beating the crap out of him, kicking him across the courtyard and out of the mission; then by re-appearing only to be shot by a rifleman. All told, Maria and Harlan finished the send essentially heroically as defenders of the mission.

6. Averiy, somewhat to my puzzlement, went running off in some weird direction again, to beat up LaVine who he sees as the main problem in all of this. He was somewhat surprised, I think, to discover that LaVine was merely a lowly stud hand, i.e., not a formally-named-and-Devil character. Regardless, he lost that conflict in a heartbeat and I narrated that LaVine beat the shit out of him and stuffed him into a gunny sack to get rid of later. I think Averiy entered the End at this point or just before.

Here's where we all finally took a look at the player-characters' sheets in full. Ah! I said, no wonder Averiy is such a bee-stung jump-around no-impulse-control bizarro character to be Dealer for. And h'mmm, Amberly and Harlan look like a match made in Hell, whereas Maria's Devil has obviously aimed her at exactly the wrong man.

Session #2

I'd looked over the sheets again, thought about Ends and rules and all sorts of other stuff. I had a couple of Bangs in mind.

7. With Chris' permission, I began the scene with Harlan in Amberly's house, sleeping, waking up to find her in his bed. I was ... um, a bit graphic. The conflict concerned a basic clash of personalities: who would "rule" the other. Now, this raised a minor concern over conflicts about affecting other characters' behavior. I've thought a lot about this issue regarding Dust Devils, and here's my call:
i) no conflict can dictate future behavior
ii) it can, though, affect behavior in the immediate situation

Now, in this particular case, there wasn't anything else going on the immediate situation, so the conflict wasn't really about anything that would happen later, so much as what went on between the two people here-and-now. It still mattered mechanically in another way, though, because during the first session, Chris had managed some pretty huge draws and some pretty damn good hands, but at this point, he was facing Amberly at the height of her maximal card range. So Harlan finally lost a conflict and took some damage ... and I had Amberly tell him to go and kill LaVine (to shut him up about the Russians).

During the next few scenes, I gave some deep thoughts as to what was up with Amberly. I decided that she was basically sliding into insanity, and may well have had an abusive history with her former husband. Throughout a lot of the dialogue with and about her over the next few scenes, I managed to inject quite a lot of portent into the casual phrase "used to be a wife," implying a rather active role she might have taken in making that into past tense.

8. We then turned to Tim K, who as you may remember was in a bag; I stated that he regained consciousness as LaVine instructed another fellow, Ryson, to throw him over the cliff into the sea. I should tell you, if you don't know, that Tim K has a penchant for playing characters capable of phenomenal berserker/grotesque potential. Averiy went after them with a knife, and the narration was quite harrowing, very much 28 Days Later, as they were discussing drowning him, as he rises up behind them with knife in hand ... Anyway, right after that is when a band of angry Mexican guys attacked as well, as they'd learned (from Averiy, somehow, as I recall?) that LaVine had helped arrange the Russians' raid. And then Harlan arrived too. (Note that Averiy is indeed in the End, but this and other conflicts, for a while, did not require him using the 0-value score.)

I admit, I did some rather cheesy framing for this scene, dictating who showed up when pretty much by fiat with no more than superficial permission. I had to think about this during play, though. How to do it without throwing the scene framing into a basically-freeform who-wants-what session?

i) I could have done it in a weird retroactive way with cards, basically framing straight to the fight and then having the narrator say how it played out in retrospect, but didn't want to. That's OK for Dust Devils, in my opinion, but it's not something one has to do all the time.

ii) The Sorcerer way doesn't work that well in Dust Devils, unfortunately. In Sorcerer, I'd have simply had the arriving and/or active characters (Mexican guys as a group, Averiy, Harlan, Ryson, and LaVine) all roll relevant scores against one another to see what order they arrived in, and maybe had victories roll into the actual rolls of conflict. But given Dust Devils' high-damage mechanics, it's clear that they're not available for use as an ordering mechanic except in the capacity of (i) above.

So it kind of comes down to (i) vs. fiat, and this time I went with fiat. Not my favorite way to go, but it worked out OK.

9. This scene concerned Averiy going to see Father Domingo, which involved a conflict concering forgiveness, and which by definition ended his story. (I am also confused a little bit in remembering the scene, too; so see my comments below about Redemption to round it out.)

10. This scene faced off Maria and Harlan as she tried her best, and as her Devil took hold, to appeal to him - remember, she was under the impression that Harlan was a good man as he'd helped to save the mission. It turned out to be the big moral shift for his character too. I didn't plan for the previous and this scene to be so pivotal, but it worked out that way based on Tim's and Chris' decisions and desires. I kind of took a deep breath here and reached for the potential which I'd felt when writing up Maria originally, and spoke "for her" without any premeditation. Chris does this a lot when playing anyway (something I admire) and so the conflict for Harlan's soul was incredible, especially in the Narrativist context of having stated totally sincere goals for the characters (or aspects of their personalities), but not competing for the outcome in any way at all. As it turned out, I think Maria won, further reducing Harlan's Heart score. I included Maria's revelation to Harlan about how Amberly killed her husband, too, inspired by the novel The Chinese Nail Murders. Very gruesome.

11. This was the most complex scene of the story, with at least a couple of complicated conflicts and criss-crossing goals of different sorts. I'm probably not going to be able to outline it terms of identifying conflicts and card-draws in the way they sequentially appeared.

i) Harlan did manage to keep peace among the Mexican and Mormon townspeople

ii) Amberly, quite bonkers with rage and frustration about that, actually managed to convince the hard-core group with her that she could marry a man and then sacrifice him, yearly, as a New and Improved Church of the LDS (I've read a little bit about fringe Mormon groups in the U.S., and some were quite extreme; in this case, I merely dipped into Corn King stuff though)

iii) Averiy is in the End, remember, and he shot Amberly which as it turnd out put her in the End even as it ended his story (beaten to death by the crowd). It was a tragic ending for Averiy, but note that at this point, Amberly was 100% villainess in terms of the effects of her actions.

iv) Harlan actually tried to save Amberly from herself in some way which I'm trying to remember, too ... can't quite remember.

I wrote a minute ago that Amberly had become a villainness, but keep in mind as well that I really was playing Amberly to the hilt in this one with a great deal of personal sympathy - she was utterly in the Medea moment, pure defiance, grief, hatred, and the desire for justice without believing it really exists.

12. So we entered into the next scene in which Amberly and Harlan are essentially confronting and needing one another, through two conflicts. I don't remember the goals very well, unfortunately, but they were pretty intense. It was subject to a very interesting rules effect: he entered his End during the conflict itself, which by the rules is also finishing hers, ... and Chris opted to redeem her. So then the next conflict was his End, from which there was no escape. I remember pleading, as Amberly, for him to keep her from ever hurting anyone else again. I really, really thought this was going to be "redeem her with a bullet," but wasn't sure just how Chris was going to narrate it, as technically, all of this was also the end of the story in the larger sense. He narrated it cinematically, panning from the burned and ruined house, up the mountain to where Amberly and Harlan sat on horses, and then they turned and rode away.

At the end of this session, and of the story, we all drew in deep breaths and then exhaled, looking around at one another wordlessly.

(second post of three)

Ron Edwards

The first thing we eventually debriefed about was the initial impression, from reading, that any character with a Devil is doomed to face his or her End quite quickly during play. I mean, you always take damage, and you enter the End (if not finish it) the moment one of your Traits hits zero. I mean, geez! But as it turns out, I think it works quite well. It's hard to imagine someone not hitting the End during any scenario that I'm able to conceive of, but it's also not guaranteed to happen to everyone. The following effects all permit a lot more staving-off or prevention of the End than I would have thought from reading the rules alone.

- Once in the End, one can spend chips to use as "not finishing the End yet" score values in conflicts that would otherwise be the character's last. To get chips, one acts counter to one's Devil, which makes a lot of dramatic sense. It's helpful to think of a Devil as a limited range of actions and many others can be considered "counter" to it. So the character's range of actions during this time can be very interesting, less about what he or she does than about what he or she is trying not to do.

- One can certainly choose actions which lead to non-zero scores being used, which means that although you're in the End, you're not finishing it yet. This turns out to be yet another situation in what looks like a tactical decision is actually a dramatic one instead.

- Redemption is a big deal. Although it didn't happen in our game, it strikes me that having so many NPCs with Devils (four) actually gave me a lot of room to redeem player-characters if I'd wanted to. In retrospect, it seems right that Father Domingo would have redeemed Averiy ... Tim K, is that what happened? The more I think about it, the more I think it did, and that you went into the End again for some reason ... but that doesn't sound right either. Was there some reason that he didn't redeem your character? Or did we just not think of it at the time?

Dust Devils relies upon but also promotes a very productive synergy between mechanics and narration, concerning who hit the End when, what could be done about that, and what that led to in the very next scene or action. The best thing is that that this effect occurs at all scales: action by action, scene by scene, and overall for the decision-based steps of a given story. It also occurs across characters in a way (e.g. even when they have nothing to do with one another in a given scene, and even if the characters don't even know one another exists) which I think only happens consistently in very few games - My Life with Master and Sorcerer, in addition to Dust Devils.

In this case, I was also quite moved by the intensity with which the female NPCs really shone, not necessarily because of what I did with them so much as their impact on the decisions of the player-characters. I thought it was especially cool that the moral voice which transformed Harlan came from Maria, but he ended up with (and redeemed) Amberly. To be clear, the conflict with Maria didn't dictate Chris' authority over how to play Harlan, it only concerned a particular conflict at the moment. He chose, however, to have it be a transformative moment. I also thought it's at least possible (fictionally speaking) that Harlan realized that he, himself, was no-damn-good, and thus would only bring Maria pain. Well, who knows - all of this may well be only my own interpretive imagination, post-play. But it takes a really good story to provoke it in me.

Best, Ron

(last post of three)

Christoph Boeckle

Beautiful story!

The way you described your GMing really wants to make me try it out. The fact you don't need to pull your punches and that by playing the NPCs  you automatically hit on the relevant scale of actions is very nice. With some games, I tend to succumb to the meteor shower syndrome: big setups in which the characters can prove themselves, but that have the risk of being overwhelming (or very costly to character credibility). This AP made me realize that I could go a long way if I concentrate more on NPCs.

How was your scene framing authority important to play? From what I understand, a lot seemed to grow organically from the characters (both PCs and NPCs) and the rules (the End for example) and I think I'm missing the ingredient which makes all the difference.
From a lot of angles, this report makes me think that you were all just playing your characters and that it was a chance effect that two players only had one of them each and that the third player also happened to frame scenes.

Ron Edwards


There is a very specific series of influences in RPG design that are founded on that exact observation. It goes like this:

1. Ron decides GMing Champions and Cyberpunk  like he did won't achieve the experience he and his friends want; they know those results do appear intermittently but can't figure out why they aren't consistent.

2. Ron reads and/or plays Over the Edge, Zero, Prince Valiant, Castle Falkenstein, and The Whispering Vault; he throws out all of his Cyberpunk-like rules for Sorcerer and re-writes it from scratch. (some time passes; Sorcerer gets sold and played and stuff)

3. Matt Snyder decides that Werewolf: The Apocalypse needs to be shot in the head with a silver bullet yet struggles with an elaborate game design intended to "heal" it and/or Mage; but then he reads Sorcerer and The Pool and busts out the alpha version of Dust Devils right here at the Forge. Ron and some friends play the bejeezus out of it.

4. Ron then busts out Trollbabe specifically based on the lessons learned from playing Dust Devils. Legends of Alyria (which was inspired in part by Sorcerer & Sword), and his own The Sorcerer's Soul, including some techniques about scene and conflict construction (no one except maybe Jared had ever written a game formalizing any of that beyond vague-ass GM fiat; PTA did not yet exist). A whole bunch of people play the bejeezus out of Trollbabe.

5. Vincent Baker, dizzy with rage after years of White Wolf and Ars Magica, convinced he'd burned his bridges with role-playing via writing kill puppies for satan, reads Sorcerer, The Sorcerer's Soul, and Dust Devils, then busts out Dogs in the Vineyard.

This is only one of the little paths one might find upon looking at who played what, who discussed what, who entered the community when, and who wrote what, but it's an important one. We all know scenes and conflicts must occur, we all know that the SIS must be verbally constructed including outcomes, and we all know that conflicts may be thought of in terms of internal driving external and vice versa, in a twisting, escalating-commitment way.

That particular path "chooses" certain techniques and combinations of techniques regarding those issues. The results, for this "path," look like this:

i) Extreme Fortune-in-the-exact-Middle resolution rules, with a range of scale that includes rather short-term actions

ii) A certain degree of reversibility in stated actions and efforts inside the resolution system, which produces the effect that no one ever really knows how things will turn out when a conflict starts

iii) Conflicts must arise organically; there is no rules-driven "what must be achieved" or "missions," even if the characters think they're in such situations

iv) Similarly to (iii), there is absolutely no external structure at all beyond a given character's story (see v next), i.e., no "chapters" or stages of play as a whole; even so-called scenarios are not required to be solved or beaten or completed or anything like that

v) Characters' behavioral mechanics do not limit actions or attitudes, but actions may carry heavy consequences upon oneself or upon one's helpers or both; those consequences are perfectly capable of ending a player-character's story; similarly judgment of a given character is often explicit and may involve injustice or justice in the eyes of the real people involved

vi) Narration, by whoever is designated to do it (or deliberately left open in that sense as in Sorcerer), is tightly constrained in terms of a specific conflict, but extremely wide-open in terms of how it happens, and that particular openness often sets up new conflicts and new opportunities at all scales

vii) Character creation sets up nigh-unspeakable levels of hair-trigger tension, not among different characters so much as among that specific character's options, at all times

viii) During play, the ability to start and stop scenes is centralized to one person, but within a scene, the ability to start conflicts is 100% equal among everyone; in practice, conflicts are begun all the time, by anyone, any time within scenes

xi) No single person has any disproportionate authority whatsoever about the outcomes of conflicts; the rules for resolution and narration are simply applied at all times and any given person abides by his or her role as dictated by those rules

Playing in this fashion is often explosive and cathartic, interspersed with long and very understandable rising action; it is associated with an approach toward Social Contract that Meg Baker calls "I Will Not Abandon You," which to many people looks like "I'll Look at Your Guts if You Look at Mine," and it often feels extremely in-the-moment, to the extent that people feel like their characters' actions were the only thing they could possibly have done.

It's my favorite way to role-play.

I think your missing piece is the minute-by-minute interactions that make (viii) possible. That's an incredibly profound piece, which continually trips up people who are used to the idea that a given scene is begun by person A because there waits a given conflict which is intended by person A to be faced by everyone else. The interactions for Dust Devils, for example, often involve consultation. Compare these.

"All right, next morning, you are splashing your face in the horse trough, as the sun beats down."

"I want to talk up Sally, she seemed friendly."

"You find Sally in the stables ..."

Now, any and all of that may have a background chatter of consultation about any number of things. Did the player want to do something before "next morning?" Did the GM decide that Sally was killed during the night? Or whatever? Any and all such negotiation or asking about is-it-OK-if goes on all the time, and statements like "All right, the next morning," are tacitly considered to be offerings, not decrees.

Now, in Trollbabe in particular, the GM does have the gavel concerning scene framing, but that usually concerns staying closer to the end of the last scene, rather than skipping farther. "I want to go to the farmhouse," says the player, and the GM says, "On the road to the farmhouse," and it's accepted that the GM does this - but it's also accepted that he or she did not do it just to maintain control or without considering that maybe skipping straight to the farmhouse is a better idea.

Because all that consultation, offering, negotiation, consideration, and so on is usually tacit, it can appear as if one person is dictating everything, or that some kind of incredibly subtle railroading is occurring just out of sight, when it's not. Since what we're describing is an absence of prep and play with such need for order and planning and outcomes, it's really hard to describe in an actual play account - and it's doubly hard, maybe even impossible to convince people that it's happening when they've never experienced it, and have only experienced extremely structured, planned sequences and thought of that as "good GMing."

I don't know if that's helpful, but it's what comes to my mind in response to your post. Let me know.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

The historical build-up to and the break-down of your favourite way of role-playing were very interesting! This will provide a great context to explore my question more precisely.

You're absolutely right that my reaction was based upon point (viii). You've described it the way I see it and apply it. While I appreciate this distribution of roles among participants in games that support it well (say, Dogs which I've played a few times), I fail to see why this way is so adequate in conjunction with the other points.
Seeing your AP, I was wondering what made it different from an alternative point which could be something like:

(viii.b) During play, the ability to start and stop scenes is given to a participant according to systemic cues. Within a scene, the ability to start conflicts is 100% equal among everyone; in practice, conflicts are begun all the time, by anyone, any time within scenes.

I don't think that I missed the point about consultations and discussion that leads up to the scene framing. For example, when I play the Pool, I'll regularly ask players if they've something on their mind that they'd want their character to address, or I'll ask them if it's okay to go directly to the car-chase now that the enemy has escaped. Sometimes I set a scene out of pure enthusiasm and just check the player's body language before continuing. Things like that.

Polaris does (viii.b) in part. Anyone can frame a scene for their character or their "opposing" player's character. Ben explicitly says that seating should never be changed, and I agree, there's this thing about continuity and reciprocal adversity that makes it hum very well. I only played the three-player variant once and it fell a bit flat. I'm ready to put money on the fact that this was at least in part due to the breaking of the symmetry in adversity (we did the three-player variant because one player dropped out).

I just don't understand why.

Reading your report, I was really thinking that each one of you was playing characters, and that's all. Now one point I had missed until today was that NPCs don't seem to get scenes framed for them. If they appear, it's always with at least one PC. And duh, that's the way I play too.

A game such as Universalis would be out of the scope of this discussion as far as I understand (I've never played it but I've read it). Indeed, there are no PCs as such and a lot of the enjoyment of play seems to come from manipulating the SIS outside the characters (Facts and Gimmicks and stuff).

So, I could definitely imagine play that works along the lines of (viii.b), but mine and others' experiences seem to indicate that for the way or role-playing you described in this thread, it would fall flat. Is there something fundamental in the way humans interact that makes this so, or is it just a historical artefact or me having completely missed a family of games?

Or more to the point, what, in your two sessions, made it crucial that scene-framing was held by one player? Has this anything to do with the fact that he played the NPCs rather than one PC?

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

It's all about ownership. Vincent tried to address this at Anyway one time, but people freaked out and gave birth to little green frogs all over the place. I don't think the culture is ready to talk about it. People associate ownership with Me-My-Character and cannot quite grasp that ownership is crucial during play ... but that characters are not actually the units of interest. Series of decisions are the units of interest, and the combination of elements that I like to code as [Situation [Character + Setting]] can be structured in an infinite number of ways to arrive at decisions.

For series of decisions to matter, they have to be owned, which is why we typically don't simply hand characters around from scene to scene. Also, they have to occur in a context of constraint. When the character's behavior is fully owned (i.e. that's one angle into owning the series of decisions; there are others), then it's crucial that the adversity and structural fiction giving rise to the adversity also be owned - by someone else. I think that's why, for instance, Primetime Adventures needs a Director, and why My Life with Master needs a GM. A person must own the adversity-side of the meaningful decisions in such a way that they are creatively contributing by providing them. Just as ownership of a given character relies on the person being able to say "I hit him! Now!!", the ownership over the adversity, whether spontaneously on my part as GM or in recognizing it as present when a player has his character do something, relies on me saying, "This happens! Now!!"

Now, that's not the only way to do it. If we spend some time together some time, I'll sketch out a diagram of some of the "paths" that have occurred since 2000, like the one I described above, so you can see what other options have shaken out over time, so far. For instance, Universalis and a number of games that have taken "pathways" from it do actually transfer character ownership from person to person. But I think it's interesting that such games also feature a very, very explicit and in fact indispensable currency of game-input (power over "what happens") that does not transfer with the character and is fully owned by that particular person.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

Ok, this blew me right out of my socks. I was looking too closely at the Character part of [Situation [Character + Setting]] and forgetting the other parts and their relative dynamics. I haven't digested it yet, but it's an eye opener!
And it makes perfect sense with my experience of "pass the character around" type of play.
What's more, that's probably the exact issue I need to nail for my game-design too, so consider it a hat trick!

Yes, and that diagram... I've been wanting to see it since I first heard of it. I will find a way to meet you, even if I have to build a canoe with my own skin to cross the puddle.

Thanks for your help!