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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 169 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: [spontaneous system] rocking in at GenCon  (Read 6720 times)
Emily Care
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« on: August 30, 2007, 01:50:08 PM »

We wrote a new game at GenCon--right there at the table at Embassy Suites--that let us seriously rock in.

I'm looking at the artifacts of this game:

  • Four green sticky pad sheets with character name and a few thematic events written down
  • Our "board", a sheet of paper with shapes and words like "Temptation" and "Hope" and "Return to the Beginning" scrawled on it among the Sea of Doubt and the Ray of Hope and Forgiveness.

After I played a hilarious game of Zombies at the Door, I was in the mood for something a little deeper and sweeter. Finland and the Swedes left me with this longing.  I nabbed James Brown, Jonathan Walton and Marc Majcher who, though it was unplanned, turned out to be the perfect trio for the job.

We started out with nothing plus a feeling. No known system, plus wanting to play real people, real feelings. Social realism in a quiet contemplative way.  I'd been itching to see Jonathan's fortune-free structured freeform rules in action, so he brought the rules we used and most of the ideas about how we'd organize play. It was simple, collaborative and easy.

Close to Someone's Home
We chose characters, playing close to home at Jonathan's suggestion by picking real people we knew--though not too well--as the starting point of the character.  It was made explicit that this wasn't really that person, but our imaginations about what their life might be like based on the aspects of them that mattered to us.  I think Jonathan chose someone he'd known in school who he hadn't seen in years. He got to play out the car wreck of what his friends life might be by now if some things JW saw kept up or got worse.

After the person's name, we wrote two aspect of them and their life we were interested in: one concrete, one abstract.  For mine I wrote "camera" and "leadership", for a dear friend I met while traveling who is a photographer and larpwright. I wanted to explore the issue of taking a stand via art, and I'm not sure why I chose camera, but it took me in very compromising directions that had nothing to do with my friend: peering into windows, catching intimate moments on film from unsuspecting "models", losing a gallery show due to having this indiscretion found out.

Next, the board of thematic goodness.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #1 on: August 30, 2007, 02:46:18 PM »

The Sea of Doubt
The board was an adaptation of Jonathan Walton's freeform avatar game.  The design at the center of the character sheet on that page was the inspiration for the board we used.  It had shapes and words, but instead of a simple diamond, the shapes were scattered all over the page. The words were themes. We each took turns adding one. Jonathan started with "betrayal". I added "temptation". James added "self-discovery", Marc "I see the truth". The rule was that you could add a shape and or you could connect two that you hadn't created.  Pathways started criss-crossing the page, connecting "betrayal" with "returning to the beginning", "forgiveness" with "self-discovery".  Hope was in a star, waaay off far from everything else. No direct paths to it, instead a great area that Jonathan created: the Sea of Doubt. The sea was full of rocks, but the star of hope cast a light across the board, like a light house. 

Adrift on the Sea
Our characters traversed the themes by means of a token on the board. We had two for each character, one for each aspect we'd written on the character sheet. With each turn we would play out a scene in the character's life, inspired by the aspect and informed by the theme. After the scene we could choose to move the token, or leave it where it was. For each of the aspects of the character, we had one more item: a goal or objective.  Part of the stated structure was that we would not gain that goal. JW bases that on the Avatar show, and real life. Smiley But reaching for the goal would bring us somewhere new and unexpected. Some of us left the goal open at the start of play, filling it in when we got to play a scene out.

My character's abstract aspect was "leadership", in running/writing larps.  This aspect came into play with its token on "betrayal".  So I framed  a scene where my character was collaborating with another larpwright to write a scenario with strong roles for women.  James took up the role of the other (male) larpwright, who was condescending and patronizing.  With input from Marc and Jonathan, we played out a scene where my character stood up to him and ended up abandoning her role in writing the larp because he brooked no compromise.  I chose the goal for this aspect "make change", and moved the token from "betrayal" to "self-discovery".

Diceless development
We took turns playing out scenes, framing the first one for each of our aspects, then after that framing one for another player on our turn. There were no guidelines for how scenes got played out. Mostly we played our own character, but felt free to suggest things for each other. When we framed scenes for one another, I noticed that the framer often naturally fell into the role of playing out the adversity or a key role in the scene. 

We finished when each of us had had some kind of resolution, breakthrough or major cockup with at least one of the aspects. We closed up an aspect by drawing a line after it, then writing a new aspect.  James' character moved from "live up to punk ideals" to "alcoholic" after losing his new relationship his other relationship.  When did we do it? Just when it felt time. No fortune involved. All the arbitrariness in the game came from suggestions by other players.

Unanswered questions
How did we collaborate? We had no set rules for how things got decided to have happened. It was just free-form. I remember it feeling pretty good, but is that really sustainable? The other major issue I have with the game is talking about it afterwards: since we used real people it feels like a betrayal of privacy, in some ways to just write this up.  Notice I didn't give the names of any of the characters.  I wish we'd noted the place on the board the scenes took place in, that would have made it easier to remember what happened.

But, I'll play this, or something like this again. And keep refining. And keep mining that simple, real life gold.

best,
Emily
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #2 on: August 30, 2007, 04:20:53 PM »

How did we collaborate? We had no set rules for how things got decided to have happened. It was just free-form. I remember it feeling pretty good, but is that really sustainable? The other major issue I have with the game is talking about it afterwards: since we used real people it feels like a betrayal of privacy, in some ways to just write this up.  Notice I didn't give the names of any of the characters.  I wish we'd noted the place on the board the scenes took place in, that would have made it easier to remember what happened.

Em, I think expecting the game to be sustainable -- when we just pulled it together in 15 minutes from pieces of a completely different project -- is not really fair.  I don't mean that in a hurt-feelings way, but I don't think you should rule out the possibility of extended play based on a single, haphazard playtest.  I feel there is a great deal of promise in this style of design/play and would be glad to help formalize a set of guidelines that would better allow for sustained play at some point in the future, once I have the opportunity to playtest various aspects of this kind of design work.  I'm just beginning to really walk down this road, really, though I've been loitering around the edges for a while.

I agree that, in highly personal games, you run the risk of not being able to adequately share experiences of play, even to the point of sometimes not being able to explain to your fellow players why a particular passage of play was especially meaningful to you.  Honestly, I feel like that's a small price to pay for play that is so strongly effecting.  Playtesting Bliss Stage was kinda like this for me, actually.  I can talk about what play was like, but there are many aspects of how it effected me emotionally that I don't feel comfortable explaining in a public forum.

Noting the theme-ographic "location" of scenes is an important point.  This is something you're supposed to do in the Avatar game, though it's easier then because the "chakra," the board that your character's pawn moves around, is much simpler.  I'm just starting to experiment with chakras that look more like maps or paintings than boardgame boards, so I'm unsure how best to deal with noting "location" in that kind of play.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #3 on: September 02, 2007, 07:55:04 AM »

Quote
Em, I think expecting the game to be sustainable -- when we just pulled it together in 15 minutes from pieces of a completely different project -- is not really fair.

This is a question for me, not just about this game, but about the approach in general.  Talking to people at Ropecon reminded me that most the greater bulk of my actual play experience was in minimally rules adjudicated freeform.  But 6 years of play with Vincent and Meg convinced me that unstructured drama can be a dead end. 

So here we are experimenting with structured drama, and I'm entering the arena with a questioning mind. What are the roadblocks we hit? What are the structures we need when we move away from fortune?
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #4 on: September 02, 2007, 08:12:27 AM »

Em, I'm totally interested in these questions too, but I'm a little confused right now.  Six years doesn't count as sustained play?  What was it about how that all went down that made you suspect that it was a dead end?
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Emily Care
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« Reply #5 on: September 02, 2007, 08:33:55 AM »

The play over those 6 years was great--fully co-gm'd, collaborative character and world creation, minimal rules.  But we hit roadblocks over time, the biggest of which for me was that we were not all doing our share (read "I wasn't..") of delivering adversity. Our stories were great, but not all of them got good payoff. We were enjoying our characters, but some of them got lost or misplayed over time: one character (Avis) decided to leave the main group and go back home (via a player's decision), which I see as directly coming from us having had warring authorship ideas about what should happen to him--which killed all of his story potential. 

I'm proud of what we did. A lot of our approaches to game design and theory came out of that game. And loooots of good story and quality friendship time too. No complaints.

But...we needed to stop. We had hit dead ends.  The structure we had was not helping us tell good stories together, was getting in the way of us having good in character experiences.  We ended the campaign, and committed to playing with other people too. Our gaming with Julia and Joshua came out of that. JiffyCon came out of that. Good, good things.

I feel like I've learned the skills I need now to be able to identify and press adversity in games. I'm still learning other aspects of being able to inhabit a character and recognize and receive offers of protagonism and interaction between characters that good players and gms I know do naturally. Writing and playing strongly mechanically structured games has taught me these things.

So, when we start to write structured free-form, that's what I want to bring to the table. I want to offer a game to someone else to play that will help them press someone else's character on their shit like Judd does at the table. That helps someone see the way to hook into someone's character's weak spots, like Vincent does.

So there's my baggage. I'm glad you shared your techniques with us, Jonathan. It sounds like you've had good success with these simple guidelines. I'd love to hear about that.
« Last Edit: September 02, 2007, 08:41:30 AM by Emily Care » Logged

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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #6 on: September 02, 2007, 02:15:59 PM »

I'm really glad we're having this conversation.  I'm not sure this is the best place to have it, since it's not really about the playtest any more, but since we're already having it here, hopefully we can just keep going, yeah?

Thanks for sharing your freeform baggage.  Here's mine, because I think it might be helpful too:

When I discovered the Forge, I was overseeing a bunch of related play-by-email games for a "collaborative fiction" ensemble called World Weavers.  WW's started out as a Pern community where people would write collaborative fiction about dragon-riders but had expanded to cover a handful of other settings as well.  I was running the In Nomine wing for a while.

My formative freeform experiences, then, were with online freeform (as opposed to face-to-face collaboration), and they have strongly influenced the kind of structured freeform mechanics that I've been working on lately.  Many of my freeform-inspired mini-games involve:

  • guidelines that work as well (or better) online as they do in person, which seems like an obvious thing to do in this day and time,
  • explicit turn-taking, where only one player "speaks" (narrates, posts, manages resources, moves tokens) at any given time and the other players wait their turn to provide input, inspired by the kinds of time delays present in play-by-post formats,
  • a strong focus on language use and the written word, which is much easier to pay attention to when you're working in text-based formats, also seen in the way Code of Unaris has "word hacking" rules,
  • complete lack of fortune-based mechanics, even though such things are widely used in freeform systems like the original German version of Feder und Schwert's Engel, because implementing fortune mechanics in play-by-post can be awkward,
  • traits that are primarily descriptive and not quantitative, since they will primarily be used as suggestions for narrative content that will be written into the game, so comparing numbers or gaging ability levels is irrelevant (this also means not using the "number of traits" as a manageable resource or pulling other quantitative tricks, since it's hard to keep track of which traits have been used or how many you have left if you're coming back days later),
  • a limited scope and fixed end, based on my experience with most play-by-post games stalling within a few months due to people losing interests or being too busy with other things, leading me to write games that can be completed in less than a month of play-by-post,
  • and a few other things, but those are the ones that are obvious to me now.

I want to offer a game to someone else to play that will help them press someone else's character on their shit like Judd does at the table. That helps someone see the way to hook into someone's character's weak spots, like Vincent does.

I fully agree.  I don't think we have to give up most of the tools we've developed in order to design in a structured freeform style.  For example, I was just thinking about how you could run a freeform hack of Dogs in the Vineyard.  See if this helps at all:

Town Creation happens as normal, since it's already structured freeform, basically.  You create descriptions for townsfolk, but you don't really have stats or traits or assign dice to anything.  Same goes for the Dogs.

Conflict resolution works like this.

1. Set stakes.
2. Characters See and Raise as normal, without dice.
3. You can't Raise more than twice in a row without Escalating.
4. Whoever Raises last wins the stakes.
5. At the end of the conflict, Fallout for conflict participants is determined by a third party, based on what happened.

That's a basic outline.  We'd probably want to make it more colorful by encouraging players to work in bits of character history or relationships or ritual by putting more specific guidelines on how Sees and Raises are worded, but that wouldn't be too hard.  You could have a two lists of the forms in which Sees and Raises could take (like "See #3: describe your character being physically, emotionally, or socially harmed" or "Raise #6: invoke a ritual" or "Raise #8: get more intense, stop fussing over it and just do it").  You could have more structured Fallout guidelines if you wanted.  It all depends on how much "crunch" you want in your freeform Smiley

Now, I realize that you're interested in also modeling structures that are present mainly in individual or group play styles and not explicitly in the mechanics of Forge-style indie games.  I think that's totally awesome and very possible too, but it's just easier for me to reach for a familiar example in this case.  I haven't played with Judd or Vincent enough to really know how to model their table behaviors in structured freeform, but if you'll tell me more about what you're interested in modeling, I'd be willing to give it a shot.
« Last Edit: September 02, 2007, 02:20:50 PM by Jonathan Walton » Logged

Emily Care
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« Reply #7 on: September 03, 2007, 07:27:59 AM »

Quote
Town Creation happens as normal, since it's already structured freeform, basically.  You create descriptions for townsfolk, but you don't really have stats or traits or assign dice to anything.  Same goes for the Dogs...

After playing Shooting the Moon with me, the jeep form folks I met at Ropecon had similar suggestions. "That was so good, now if we could just get rid of those dice." Thor and Tobias suggested just having people accept the offers for turnarounds and upsets rather than rolling for them. I'll have to try it.

Quote
Now, I realize that you're interested in also modeling structures that are present mainly in individual or group play styles and not explicitly in the mechanics of Forge-style indie games.  I think that's totally awesome and very possible too, but it's just easier for me to reach for a familiar example in this case.

It's not their play styles I want to emulate, it's their skills and insights that I want to distill down and incorporate into guidelines for games, if that distinction makes sense. More bottled Wincent. Skilled players use techniques that everyone could benefit from. And maybe it is not that easy, maybe there are things that only come with play, experience and insight.

Bringing this back to the playtest we did, based on our game I think it has the amount of structure it needs to be short form and limited scope. Let me break down the implications of some of the structures it already has:

The board Everyone is given a dramatic arc to follow. It's not a limited, defined arc, which allows the story to be fluid and not feel contrived. But, since the players have the same pool of issues it makes it possible to easily create resonances and satisfying parallel structure among the stories.  Crossovers and mirroring of events could easily happen, if desired. But each character is free to follow their own path.

Shared scene framing Having someone else frame the scene for you puts the story into the hands of the group, creating a cross flow of ideas and antagonism. It also makes it possible for others to commit to your story voluntarily, which creates a kind of gming by interest rather than by assignment that I find intriguing. 

Character aspects and resolution The characters are in motion. You begin with a heading for them that its player and the others can steer by.  It's interesting that there is no structure in place to ensure that the development for the character will be escalation or elaboration of their issues. It's just left up to seeing what happens in play. But if you have a character with some kind of meaty issues, the native intelligence of the other players (and oneself) will likely see that this wouldn't be resolved simply and quickly. At least leaving time for several iterations of the process.

And if it is tied up quickly--it's probably because that aspect left the character's life. Like James' character's girlfriend leaving him, his descent into alcoholism took over the characters life, losing him the aspects he entered with. But that's a major escalation, rather than a resolution of the issues.
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Blankshield
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« Reply #8 on: September 10, 2007, 08:21:34 AM »

Heya,

I keep intending to participate in this discussion, and it keeps being hard for me, because play was so close to home.  As Emily and Jonathan both note, parts of play were intensely personal and it's difficult to talk about it.  I keep feeling like [person I used] will come up and start assigning blame.

One thing I will note though, and I can't say for sure but I expect it was the same for the others at the table, is that my character quickly took shape as someone very different from the person I flagged him off of.  What was especially interesting to me is that the direction he took led straight into issues that were present in my life.  I don't recall driving play in that direction, but in hindsight, alcoholism and related issues to how it can destroy a life are very central to me right now, and that's likely part of why this was so powerful for me.

One thing that struck me about the structure of play is that, while there wasn't any explicit method at the table to give each protagonist a scene [rather, each player took a turn to frame a scene, and even that was pretty loose], it shook out fairly evenly it terms of spotlight time, but still allowed us to follow a story through a little more tightly when it seemed warranted.  This is one place where I'm pretty sure things would have been constrained non-usefully by a rules structure around which character scenes were directed at.

An area that worked out for us at the table, but seems like it might be a potential troublespot is in 'plot arc ownership', for lack of a better term.  We had very little discussion around it, and seemed to mostly run off non-verbal cues (although not exclusively, I recall at one point, someone expressed that they wanted to know where I was taking Em's character's story).  I was reluctant to frame scenes for Marc's character, because it seemed like both Jonathan and Emily had some strong ideas and were running with it very well.  Conversely, I had some strong ideas for Emily's character, but didn't want to shut out other people's input, so felt oddly a touch guilty about monopolizing her scenes.  I say oddly, because it was really internal - I wasn't feeling pressure from anyone else.  I think this is one area where, even if there is nothing mechanical put in, it would be a good idea to discuss ahead of time and get a feel for how the group wants to manage that.

I would totally do this again, without changing anything, but would also really like to see how it would work with one specific change to how scenes were framed.  What we did at the table was set a scene that started in a particular place on the map, and played it freeform.  Afterwards, the player whose protag featured in the scene would move (or not) their token on the board as seemed appropriate.  I think it would be an interesting shift to the dynamic to frame scenes by giving both ends at the start.  "Ok, this is at betrayal, I'd like the scene to end up at self-discovery."

James

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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #9 on: September 10, 2007, 08:46:27 AM »

James, to just touch on your latter suggestion, I think framing the mechanical move (from location A to location B) before the scene would work great, as long as we left ourselves open to the possibility that the scene wouldn't necessarily go that way, so you might find yourself inclined to move in a different direction after the scene was over.  One of the key points of this methodology, to me, is encountering the unexpected and that process of self-discovery.  In fact, you could totally tack on other mechanical or structural elements to those unexpected changes (Unexpected Move = Do Other Thing Y or Gain Resource Z), making them especially significant.
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