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Author Topic: Mechanics, Emotion and Amberway II  (Read 9332 times)
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« on: September 02, 2001, 05:23:00 PM »

The strong version of "System Does Matter" is that a game's design must do more than not impede a desired play goal; it must support it with fostering mechanics. I count Ron, Seth and the Scarlet Jester among those who affirm this - smart fellows all, and people I admire. (Speak up if you feel I have misstated, boys.) If you want a game about what it is to be human, you need "humanity" mechanics. If you want a game about the corruption of power, you need "corruption" mechanics, if you want a game in which people speak in clever quips, you need a reward system for clever quips.

I remain skeptical. To that end, I repost with permission the following message from my PBEM, posted yesterday by Ginger, who plays Orinda. A bit of background: During Gerard's Regency, Gerard and Random's wife, Vialle, fall in love. Random is off at the wars. When he returns ahead of his brothers, Gerard kills him in a jealous rage. Being an Amberite he tries to cover it up; being the Amberite whose lips move when he reads, he does so badly. Random's son Martin lays claim to the throne and, quicker than you can say "Aeschylus!," initiates a rebellion against the Regency as cover for a blood feud. A year later, Gerard marries Vialle. Various PCs choose Martin's side or Gerard's side and the campaign is joined.

Now Martin's side has won, Gerard is dead and Vialle is the remaining loose end. For unclear reasons, Martin's NPC son is trying to save Vialle from his father. Meanwhile Martin has sent Orinda to bring back Vialle's head. It's also relevant that part of Orinda's backstory - centuries ago - was an incest-in-ignorance affair with her Uncle Random. Orinda and "Valgard" (not his real name - Martin's son) are debating what should happen:

Quote
Sic scribit Jim Henley:

>> "I hate what's happened to all the people I love. If that makes me hate
>> her, I guess I do."
>
>"And my Da too, apparently."

"Your father," says Orinda, "has been ill-used by our family.  As in some
ways has Vialle, and-- others. I'm not sure your father knows how someone
can disagree with him and still love him."

Orinda hesitates for a moment, then says: "Your father hates her for what
she did before your grandfather's death.  That I don't care about.  If she
went looking for comfort somewhere else, that's no crime. But it's what she
did afterwards that I hate. They say she loved him. If I could ask her one
question, it would be: how does it feel to have the man who slew your lover
touch your body?  The hands that held his head under the water caress your
hair?  The fingers that wrapped around his throat part your legs? How could
you *do* that?"

She looks at Valgard. "You can always say no. The choices may be between
bad and worse, but you can always say no.  I said it to Gerard.  You are
saying it to me.   Why didn't she say it somewhere down the line?  I tried
to help her, but she betrayed me to Gerard. Why did she *help* him?  That's
what I hate -- the helping him afterwards."


Okay, my desired play goal is stuff like that. I can think of all sorts of things a GM can do to foster that kind of thing. I can think of all kinds of things players can do to foster that kind of thing. I think the structure of PBEM play alone contributes to it - the player can edit if she feels the need, and she can shape her rhetoric secure in the knowledge that no one will interject "No Luke! I AM your father!"

But I still think that the only thing a game design can do is get out of the way.

Thoughts?

Best,


Jim
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: September 03, 2001, 06:23:00 AM »

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« Reply #2 on: September 04, 2001, 06:42:00 AM »

A further thought, after looking over the example of in-play dialogue again.

What you've provided is the OUTCOME of various mechanics' interaction, as expressed in role-playing (dialogue, in this case).

I contend that that particular sequence may be arrived at via (a) Drama-heavy, (b) Karma-heavy, and (c) Fortune-heavy mechanics.

[Edited this in later: I don't mean that ANY mechanic is admirably suited for ANY type of play, but I do mean that SOME form of Drama mechanic, SOME form of Karma mechanic, and SOME form of Fortune mechanic, as well as SOME combinations, would do well at generating the dialogue and emotion behind it that Jim has presented.]

We are discussing the larger issue off-forum, at present, so I'll cover most of my thoughts there, but in-forum, my point is this: because cool or heartfelt dialogue occurs, does not mean that any mechanics that helped to bring them about must have been, themselves, dialogue-verbal-Drama mechanics.

Best,
Ron

[ This Message was edited by: Ron Edwards on 2001-09-04 13:44 ]
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #3 on: September 07, 2001, 10:26:00 AM »

Jim,

Interesting. I see your side of the argument, especially that there is a difference between getting out of the way and actively promoting certain parts of play. But let me ask you, do you have a problem with mechanics that propell a certain style of play forward? I mean, do you think that they somehow detract from play, or never achieve their desired effects? Because if you do see that mechanics which promote  certain style of play are potentially possible and useful, then isn't that tantamount to admitting that it is better to have such mechanics than to simply have a game that allows such play?

If you really wanted a system in which the only thing that it did was to "get out of the way" wouldn't the best thing to do be just doing it as interactive literature, collaborative storytelling, or whatever the proper term is. Or in other words no system at all (other than perhaps mechanics for who goes next, if even that)? Is that how you runb your game? Have you considered it?

I think that what Ron is saying is that a good mechanic is one that gets you closer to your design goal (assuming that the goal is a worthy one), one that makes the game play more like how you want it to play. Which is really pretty obvious on the face of it.

Does this make sense, or am I missing the point?

Mike
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« Reply #4 on: September 08, 2001, 05:42:00 AM »

Hey Mike, let's talk!

I'm going to copy the forum now on the bulk of the PM I sent to Ron about some of these issues. The cliff's notes to what I have to say amount, as a response to your own insights, to this: That some "styles of play" are more amenable to mechanical propulsion than others; that particularly, what I'm calling the human concerns for lack of a better, less pretentious term, are by their nature less suited to mechanical "support" than other things-one-can-include-in-a-game.

I have been informed, accurately IMHO, that the following represents a simulationist way of thinking about mechanics. My only response to that is that my interest in getting the human concerns into gaming and my view of their nature makes me whatever degree of simulationist that I am. That is, my views are not a result of my simulationism but its cause. Ron makes interesting objections about the commensurability of an RPG player's "thoughts, feelings and principles" with her character's. I think subjunctive mood states make that a more manageable distance than Ron does, and I think that holds true for authors, players and audience. I think this is why Aristotle thought catharsis was a working concept. I also think that the human concerns (thoughts, emotions, principles, ideas) are multidimensional qualities and scores are scalar quantities.

Enough preamble. Here comes the amble. I'll be keen to know what you think:

I think there's a big danger that "rules that support X" turn out to be "rules that replace X with something else bearing the same name." IOW, a mechanic - especially with an associated score - for Honor, Loyalty, Love etc. is not Honor, Loyalty, Love etc. The principle can be trivially demonstrated with reference to combat. Clearly, combat mechanics replace actual violence with something else bearing the same name. And by golly we need them to! Combat mechanics are an intellectualized abstraction of what the designer considers to be the determinative elements of a violent encounter. D&D's combat mechanics are different from Swashbuckler's because the games view the determinative elements differently. It's not too much of a stretch to say that both games actually mean different things by the word "combat."

I think that if you give "Loyalty" a score, and create "test of loyalty" mechanics that can move the score up or down, you are probably replacing Loyalty with something else that has the same name. You have an intellectualized abstraction of the determining elements. Paradoxically, I think this is most okay if loyalty doesn't interest you all that much - that is, if you would rather most of the emotional and intellectual energy go elsewhere, a loyalty mechanic "takes care of" loyalty while you worry about what interests you. "What makes us human?" is a great question for a roleplaying game to ask. The actual Humanity score and the rules for its fluctuation strike me as the least interesting of the means Sorcerer provides to explore it.

I'll draw my preferred alternatives from Forge-friendly terms: "Hook the players." Hook the PCs too. Create a situation, setting and/or (ahem) plot that engages players and characters emotionally, ethically and intellectually. Relationship maps are a fabulous, non-quantitative way of supporting a powerful set of what I keep calling human concerns. The only relationship map for AWII is in my head, but I could have benefitted from making one had I known about it at the time. Choose your "band" carefully and set the tone. Pick a premise (or premises) that is contested and open-ended.

Those are all things that designers can advise users about. They're powerless to make it happen, though. The thing that designers can force on users is a quantified mechanic. I think that it's a temptation to avoid when it comes to "serious" issues. We need to replace physical acts with something else bearing the same name because we can't go around hitting each other and jumping across chasms and flying spaceships on game night. But the domain of the human concerns are ideas, emotions, thought, speech and debate - reflection, expression and feeling. Those are things we do have access to in gaming. The hooked player will have all of them, really by definition. That is, the hooked player will generate what the poets call the Felt Thought.

(Note that since Felt Thoughts can lead to actions, and since actions do need to be replaced by something else with the same name, you probably still want rules that model the physical. This is in line with having mechanics to "take care of" what doesn't interest you so much, as discussed above.)

Just about every Amber campaign seems to embed the question "How shall we treat each other?" Mine certainly does. I think Wujcik knew that this was the central question of the saga. As a critic, I believe (pace Wujcik, apparently) that the point of those books is that these folks' ways of treating each other were cosmically unsustainable. What has happened in my own campaign is that the chance to act on that realization has been short-circuited by, he said pretentiously, tragedy. The tragedy consists in the short-circuiting.

But the fact that "How shall we treat each other?" recurs from Amber campaign to Amber campaign shows that the Wuj did something powerfully right. What he didn't do is design mechanics that directly quantify the question. It's possible to imagine an Amber game that "supports" the question with scores for Guile, Forthrightness, Aggression, Feminine Wiles and so on. My contention is that this alternate Amber would have generated much less insight and engagement with guile, forthrightness, aggression, feminine wiles and so on than the game we have.

Best,


Jim
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« Reply #5 on: September 08, 2001, 09:25:00 AM »

Jim -
I can see your point, but...eh. Some players do mentally make a link between the mechanic and the abstract quality. Some of my l5r players did connect their Honour score to acting honourably, and having a concrete representation worked for them. Others ignored their Honour stat, and simply acted as they thought the character should.

So, my amazingly wishy-washy answer is "it depends on the player". Maybe the solution is allowing the player to alter the stat at will. My Sorcerer has a humanity score, which is affected by the game mechanics. However, if I don't feel my current score is precisely in sync with my mental representation of the character, I can change it...basically, you give the mechanic, and you also put a label on it saying "throw this away if you want"...
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« Reply #6 on: September 08, 2001, 05:08:00 PM »

Quote
I can see your point, but...eh. Some players do mentally make a link between the mechanic and the abstract quality. Some of my l5r players did connect their Honour score to acting honourably, and having a concrete representation worked for them.


Hi Gareth, thanks for the response. I don't doubt that having an Honour score will help guide some players' actions in-game. To bring it back to the goals stated and implied by the first post in this thread, and to get all artsy-fartsy about it, what I'd like to know is:

given a conflict between Honour and some other value;

given a conflict between two aspects of Honour;

given a conflict between the forms of Honour and its essence;

given a conflict between a lesser, easier fulfillment of Honour and a harder, greater fulfillment;

how do you feel the Honour mechanic helps make the difficulties and ambiguities vital to the players? IOW, how does having an Honour score that can go up and down contribute to the birth of Felt Thoughts (TM...) - about Honour, or another interesting topic? And how do you keep the score from being an a priori resolution of the difficulties?

Best,


Jim
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« Reply #7 on: September 08, 2001, 06:13:00 PM »

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« Reply #8 on: September 09, 2001, 06:25:00 AM »

Quote

I think that if you give "Loyalty" a score, and create "test of loyalty" mechanics that can move the score up or down, you are probably replacing Loyalty with something else that has the same name. You have an intellectualized abstraction of the determining elements.


Jim,

I think what you're really on about here, at least after some thought this is how it seems to me, is the mindset of the player.
It seems you are worried that quanitifying the emotional or cultural aspects of the character will in some way intrude upon the ability to experience or play those emotions or aspects, that quantification, in effect, becomes not so much "how do I feel?" as "how do I win?"
That is, the player or GM begins looking at the character's emotions as a resource/mechanic to be utilized, not as an aspect of character to be felt or explored.

But (he said) I contend this is mindset, somewhere along the GNS axis, and it seems you are most worried about the injection of an obviously gamist element into explorative/simulationist play, and you are uncertain how to deal with the repercussions of that.

However, I am not certain there would be any repercussions at all.  I will take, to provide an example, a character from my 3E game, a princess of a royal house who has a low Charisma score, yet a high Diplomacy skill.

Obviously, glibness of tongue and harshness or likeability are both emotional or role-playing aspects of a character, in this case, both of those aspects have been quantified.  However, the player has yet to behave in a manner, with that character, which could be described as gamist...that is, looking at her scores and using mechanics instead of role-playing.

There is some blending of mechanical usage into the playing of the character, but it is not a blatant attempt to make the best of the situation, or describe all situations via the mechanic, with no emotional investment into the character.
I offer that this is because the player is not, by nature, a gamist individual, and thus even though we have described personality characteristics mechanically, there is no thought of utilizing them as mechanical resources...that is, there is no replacement of "Glibness" with "Glibness 18" or replacement of glibness with mechanics that are an intellectualized abstraction of it.

Hence providing descriptions and mechanics for things like "Loyalty" and "tests of loyalty" are not subtractive from the experience of the character by themselves, but only in conjunction with the mindset of a particular player.

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« Reply #9 on: September 09, 2001, 07:15:00 PM »

Quote
It seems you are worried that quanitifying the emotional or cultural aspects of the character will in some way intrude upon the ability to experience or play those emotions or aspects, that quantification, in effect, becomes not so much "how do I feel?" as "how do I win?"
That is, the player or GM begins looking at the character's emotions as a resource/mechanic to be utilized, not as an aspect of character to be felt or explored.


Hi Raven. This is a good summary of an important aspect of what I'm saying. I would extend it beyond "aspect of character" to ideas or values generally. Frex, in the speech Ginger wrote for Orinda, an ethical principle (refusal to countenance wrongdoing) is instantiated in a sexual/gender context - it is a specifically female horror of a specifically female betrayal of the principle - and given motive force by the personal jealousies and guilts Orinda herself feels. It's also, and this is key, a way of looking at the situation, and at female responsibility, that I had not anticipated and could not have known to ask for in advance. It merits the favorite encomium of a poet friend of mine: "It adds to the available stock of reality."

This is what Ginger herself had to say in her and my e-mail discussion of it:

Quote
When you approach the
conceptual heart of a game with a mechanic, average players stop playing from the gut and start intellectualizing to
maximize their likelihood of getting goodies (experience,
whatever). Playing from the forebrain kills playing from the reptile brain,
and the reptile brain is the source of the best play.


I'd want to add the mammal brain in there too. And Ginger's forebrain works fine. I know that she edited that speech before posting it. It contains a rather nifty allusion to the famous closing speech in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That's good writing because the allusion is pointful - Rosencrantz is a descendent through Hamlet of the Oresteian line. (Orinda says, "You can always say no." In Stoppard, Rosie - or is it Guilder? - says, "There must have been some point, back there somewhere, when we could have said - No." Or says something very close to that anyway. In Stoppard, the speech comes on the point of death. In AW2, Orinda's speech comes on the point of Vialle's death.)

This brings up a side point: Actor play is creative play too, and the same "emotions of composition" that the author player experiences are there for the actor player.

Quote
Hence providing descriptions and mechanics for things like "Loyalty" and "tests of loyalty" are not subtractive from the experience of the character by themselves, but only in conjunction with the mindset of a particular player.


I snipped your example but I take your point. I think what you say is true for some mechanics and some concepts, to the extent that the in-game or metagame effects of the mechanic (task resolution or reward system, frex) don't punish the player for taking the more explorative approach. Also to the extent that the mechanic doesn't ball up all the ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes of an emotion or idea into a unidimensional scalar.

Best,


Jim
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« Reply #10 on: September 10, 2001, 06:50:00 AM »

Wow, I find myself (as I am wont to be) really ambivalent on this subject. I think that it adresses some deep issues regarding Uberstyle of play, if I might, that being tabletop, LARP, Interactive Fiction, Collaborative Storytelling, etc.

On the one hand, you posit that a mechanical representation of something may damage the sensation of that something. I think that you must be right to an extent in that the simulations that we provide are far from perfectly detailed, and do interpose themselves between the player and the thing. The question is the degree to which this interference is acceptable given how it affects actual play.

OTOH, you're statement about combat reveals an obvious paradox. That being the fact that when you give detailed mechanics for combat, you tend to get a lot of combat. This is born out by the testimony of many who understand that inclusion of specialized mechanics for combat inform the player that the game is about combat. The obvious example is the descent of D&D from wargaming, and its prediliction with combat in the rules (and subsequent combat laden play). This would argue for mechanics that represent abstracts about loyalty and such, because these sorts of mechanics do inform the users that the game is about these things.

Also, your claim that because combat is personally dangerous that it needs mechanics to represent it is ridiculous. I'm not advocating real combat, but instead I'm advocating what you would for loyalty, and that is a player portayal of it verbally. Why should combat be any different from excahnges of loyalty and require that there be mechanics? Because it isn't as consequential in your game? It seems non-sensical to give a special mechanic to something simply because it isn't important to play. Given the D&D example, you would seem to be working against yourself. And much simpler to instead just have players describe combat verbally (or in your case in written form).

I can't reconcile your position. Of course, I have a bias in that I like to design games, and I would prefer that it be better to have mechanics. Your viewpoint would seem to advocate the Collabotative Storytelling method. Which is certainly valid in its own right. (Edit: The fact that some find mechanical representations of combat to interfere with its enjoyment explain the phenomenon of Boffer LARP; you don't need a mechanical representation). As I said, the question is a deep one, essentially, are mechanics worthwhile at all, and why?

Mike Holmes

[ This Message was edited by: Mike Holmes on 2001-09-10 10:56 ]
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« Reply #11 on: September 10, 2001, 08:43:00 AM »

Mike,

I think you're off-base in terms of finding a "paradox" in Jim's position.

First off, you suggest that including detailed mechanics for something in a game tends to bias that game towards the "something."  (e.g. combat in D&D).  Assuming this is true, it has nothing to do with Jim's point, which is that the stand-in (e.g. rolling D20's to hit and various polyhedrals for damage) that the mechanics provide is not the same thing as what they're modelling (i.e. you don't get a lot of actual combat in D&D, you get a lot of dice-rolling).  Thus, while it may be that including mechanics for, say, loyalty in a game means that the loyalty mechanics get used a lot1, what Jim's saying is that such mechanics don't mean that actual player exploration of loyalty will come up particularly often.

Similarly, you suggest that Jim's being "ridiculous" in suggesting that combat and other physical actions are a special case requiring abstracted mechanics, suggesting, instead, that he use a freeform task resolution system.  Again, I think you miss the point.  Jim's saying that his purpose of play is for the players to experience, as much as possible, the events of the game -- experience them on a visceral, gut level.  You can do that for (our workhorse example) loyalty by talking about loyalty and describing situations, because that can provoke real feelings of loyalty and betrayal.  However, "talking about it" for combat does not provoke real feelings of being in combat -- talking about it is still an abstracted mechanic.  Thus, the comparison you draw ("You can talk about combat in the same way you talk about loyalty"), is, it seems to me, valueless.

Epoch

1 I've never seen this contention: "If there are a lot of mechanics about something, the game will feature it heavily" be well-supported.  I've heard a lot of people postulate that this is the reason combat is so prevelant in many games, but my own feeling is that adventure gamers simply like combat.

[Editted to fix a mistake of grammar.]

[ This Message was edited by: Epoch on 2001-09-10 12:46 ]
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« Reply #12 on: September 10, 2001, 11:19:00 AM »

Epoch,

Why do you insist that combat and loyalty are so different? To use the (overused and, yes, obviously imperfect) analogy of literature, combat is provided for us in books without any other form of stimulus and I'll venture readers still find it entertaining. Yes, RPGs are not books, and it would be difficult to include dice and such in a book and get people to learn rules, etc., but I find it hard to believe that mechanics work better for combat but worse for loyalty. Why should that be? What is the difference between these two sorts of interactions? In each of them you experience sensations. Mechanics either get in the way of sensation, or they don't.

I don't think that it was Jim's contention, anyhow, that combat was better when done statistically instead of narratively. He pointed out how it's OK to do stats for inconsequetial things like combat (I'm paraphrasing here) but not for the consequential stuff of the game.

My point is that, yes, the mechanics make you experience something slightly different than the actual feeling, perhaps, but that what the mechanics make you feel is nearly as interesting. What the mechanics do is to cause those sorts of elements to more likley become elements of play. Which is what we're about here. We're trying to find out ways to cause good play to occur. You can either try by inserting mechanics, or you can just not have mechanics.

Interestingly, I'm somewhat on your side. My argument is simply that I think that it's all or nothing. Either all can be handled with mechanics, or none can. And, possibly because I've spent the last couple of decades playing this way, I come down on the side that says that mechanics can be developed to enhance any part of play, if designed correctly (D&D does a superlative job of that for which it is designed). I have no problem with Collaborative Storytelling, but it is not my cuppa. So, I find the loyalty mechanics in Pendragon to be sublimely applicable, as do I detailed combat models. Just depends on what you are going for.

Mike Holmes
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« Reply #13 on: September 10, 2001, 11:50:00 AM »

Well, Jim should, of course, feel free to smack me down if I'm misrepresenting him.  However, I think that his contention is not that "such-and-such is uninteresting/unentertaining if it is abstracted with mechanics," but, rather, "such-and-such is not real, does not provoke the emotional response that real things do, if abstracted by mechanics."

I think that Jim's goal is to provoke real, from-the-heart player responses on emotional or ethical issues which are interesting to him.  So combat is less consequential to him, yes, but that's not the reason that he abstracts it to mechanics -- the reason is, quite simply, even if he were interested in it to a large degree, to provoke real, from-the-heart player responses to it would involve putting the players in real danger, which, obviously, he can not do.
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« Reply #14 on: September 10, 2001, 01:22:00 PM »

In one Paranoia scenario the GM is instructed to actually have the player do jumping jacks in a scene where the characters are doing jumping jacks. In boffer LARP you can really get hit, and it can really hurt.

To the extent that Jim is unable to put players in real physical jeopardy, neither can he put them in jeopardy of having their sense of loyalty be broken. Why? because the characters are not real. Even in the most "Immersionist" (if I might use that dirty word) games I have ever personally played, I still knew deep down, that I was not my character, and that the other characters were just as fictitious. To that extent, the distance is the same.

That being said, there is no reason why you cannot still make the leap, suspend your disbelief, and still act as though you'd been attacked or been betrayed in a realistic fashion.

Jared once said (and I think that you may have been one who objected) that you can only really accurately play yourself. While I disagree with him in general, in principle, he's correct in that the closest that someone could come to a game in which they were to be able to perfectly feel what the character felt would be to play themselves*. Even that one caprice of playing someone other than ourselves starts putting distance between ourselves and the character.

However, this is only in principle, and I think that we can allow ourselves the conciet here that we as humans have the ability to extrapolate beyond our own personal experience and produce something that is entertaining. Certainly the mechanic may get in the way slightly, but not significantly, not if well designed (another argument entirely). And I have seen how they can be a catalyst for certain sorts of action in games. At the very least I'd think that you'd allow that such mechanics are good for teaching other styoles of play. For example, Ron often points out how the mechanics of SOAP are great for teaching players to take on Directorial power, a fact which I've seen in action myself as well. So we should get rid of those mechanics because they make only an imperfect simulation of a Soap Opera? I think not.

Mike

*Just thought of a really dangerous thought experiment related to that game that came out a while ago where all you did was roll on charts and then did live whatever they instructed you to. Anyhow, my idea is to just have several players play themselves just as they are now, but to agree that everything that they say to each other was just a game and not real. Then proceed to interact with each other, and see what happens. Scares me just thinking of it.
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