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Author Topic: Mike's Standard Rant #7: You Can't Sneak Up on Mode  (Read 9798 times)
Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« on: February 16, 2004, 11:38:51 AM »

As usual, I'm posting this as shorthand for a post that I make all too often. It's not intended to generate feedback, but I'd be glad to debate it, or clarify any questions people have about it. Also, as is usually the case, a particular thread tripped this off, but what matters is that it applies broadly.

----
You Can't Sneak Up on Mode!
Frequently I see people trying out a new mode of play - OK Narrativism (no surprise as it's the one people are unfamiliar with), and trying to sneak into the mode. That is, they take a game that's familiar to their players and do one or more of the following:
    [*]Talk to the players and ask them to try to use some stance that they're unfamiliar with.
    [*]Add a few rules from another game that matches the mode.
    [*]Try to encourage the mode in play as GM. [/list:u]I've never seen it work. Sometimes it ends up a horrible train wreck. The reasons are simple. These slight changes do not constitute a clearly stated Creative Agenda. In fact, if you're coming from a coherent creative agenda, then these sorts of messages that the players get only serve to confuse matters. I think that, typically, players feel that they're supposed to do what they were doing before, plus some other things.

    So, if you're game is going fine now, don't change it. You may be messing up a fine thing.

    The most common thing that happens when you do make such alterations is that no change in play mode occurs at all. The players still only see the game's original message, and they don't adjust in any way. Which is hugely frustrating to the GM in question as they really thought that the little changes would be fun and get the players to participate in the desired mode. Often whole rules just get entirely ignored.

    The second most common thing is that the players alter their mode a little, but then complain that they're being made to do things that are uncomfortable, boring, or just not what they expect out of play. Canalized players know what they want, and even when they're presented with something thatís potentially fun, they might not see where it's fun. Especially if it happens to conflict with what they normally consider fun. Again, this is just making things incoherent.

    And it doesn't matter how long you discuss matters like this outside of the game. Play of any mode has an intuitive sense that one can only obtain through participation. Remember those people you introduced to RPGs, and their first awkward moments with it? None of it is really "natural" and so expecting to be able to talk someone into an understanding of it is just asking too much.

    Prompting in play can be the worst option because then the player may come to resent the GM for the above reasons. They "just want to have fun" and here you are trying to "fix" their play.


    Does this mean that you can't change the play mode of a group? No, actually there's a simple solution. Just play a game that strongly supports that mode from the ground up. This has all sorts of advantages as a solution, but primarily, the players will have transmitted to them a coherent Creative Agenda of the sort that you'd like to see. As such, they usually latch on right away, and have fun playing in that style. Which means that your odds of a "conversion" are much, much higher.

    In fact, I'm of the opinion that almost all players really want to try all three modes (whether they know it or not), and would love most games in the other modes if they were coherent. Yes, there will be a few curmudgeons, old dogs who don't want to learn new tricks. But once you've played a game like this, you'll know who they are. With the "sneaking up" method, it takes forever to determine who will like a particular style, if you ever do find out.

    Now, what if you want to play your own vision of a CA, and that doesn't exist in a published game? I'd suggest playing one session of the proven game first. Fortunately this can be very short. You'll be able to tell in that one short session all you need to know. You'll have given the players a view of what one Creative Agenda incorporating that mode is like, and they'll have responded in such a way as to show you whether or not they'll enjoy play of that sort in the future.

    Now, what about the curmudgeons when discovered? Lot's of people have suggested ways to "bring them about" but if they don't see the value in playing a tested game that others like then it's likely that they'll never be a fan of the mode. Time at that point to make the hard decision about how you want to accommodate that player's choice of mode. I don't intend to talk about that here, but it should suffice to say that at this point you really don't need "more play" of the mode in question or any other convincing.

    In short, don't "sneak up", just play a coherent game in the mode you like, and move on from there. One session, very easy, best results. By the way, one of the reasons I'm so sure of all this? Because I've made the mistake myself. I can tell you frok my own experience, as well as that of many posters here, that sneaking is a big waste of time and effort.

    Mike
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    Scripty
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    « Reply #1 on: February 19, 2004, 02:48:55 PM »

    I second this. Great points, Mike. From my own experience as well, I can tell you that attempts to "narrativize" d20 and other games were met only with frustration on my part and confusion, at best, on the part of the players.

    I would've been better off running the Pool or running Donjon, which both switch mode as a matter of course.

    Scott
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    John Kim
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    « Reply #2 on: February 19, 2004, 06:47:36 PM »

    Quote from: Mike Holmes
    That is, they take a game that's familiar to their players and do one or more of the following:
      [*]Talk to the players and ask them to try to use some stance that they're unfamiliar with.
      [*]Add a few rules from another game that matches the mode.
      [*]Try to encourage the mode in play as GM. [/list:u]I've never seen it work. Sometimes it ends up a horrible train wreck.

      Hmmm.  This seems to describe my Vinland game, which uses modified BRP/RuneQuest with the addition of Whimsy Cards.  So I added in Whimsy Cards.  I didn't know about GNS when I started, but I think I encouraged what in retrospect is Narrativism as GM.  I guess a differences was that my players weren't very familiar with RQ.  

      I'm not a big fan of narration mechanics, for myself at least.  I have played HeroQuest, Over the Edge, Everway, and Theatrix -- though only the last in an extended campaign.  I'm willing to try them out, like my playtest of Shadows in the Fog.  But while I love seeing the diversity of new designs, I'm not dying to try them for my long-term campaigns.  At the same time, I love moral choice and meaning.  

      So I don't really agree.  As far as I've seen, Champions and James Bond (for example) are fine for Narrativism.
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      - John
      Ron Edwards
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      « Reply #3 on: February 19, 2004, 10:42:31 PM »

      Hello,

      As my experiences with the Hero System (or rather, Champions) parallel John's very closely, I tend to agree ...

      But then I realized something else. Mike, if I'm not mistaken, you're talking about a fairly sudden shift to (e.g.) Narrativist play-expectations on the part of the GM. Sure, he says it's a gradual change, and he's perhaps introducing such stuff gradually, but he really does expect that the others' mode of play will ... you know, just transmogrify. And I agree with you that it's unlikely.

      And John, if I'm correct that our uses of Hero System are similar, then we're talking more about a group evolving its own preference for Narrativist play of some particular stripe, going more by the seat of our pants, our shared love of whatever thematic meat the imaginative content prompts for us, and a willingness to shift a thingy or two about the system if it meets a need. By "our," I'm referring to the members of our respective groups.

      If I'm right about the difference in the above two approaches (the latter can't even be called an "approach," really; no one attempted to achieve the goal in question), then there's no real disagreement at work.

      Best,
      Ron
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      james_west
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      « Reply #4 on: February 19, 2004, 11:22:23 PM »

      Hello, all -

      I think I'm going to strongly disagree. I think you're thinking that to be narrativist, the players (or the rules) have to include directorial stance on the part of the players. This is profoundly unnatural for most traditional players. However ...

      Say you're playing a normal, simulationist-designed game (GURPS or something). You design your game around a complex moral situation. You let the players approach it however they like. I can't imagine that the players will object to this.

      In what way is this not a narrativist game? And you've imposed it on them, by fiat, without them even noticing, or even changing rules. (Note: it is -not- narrativist if the players essentially refuse to address the moral questions; it's kind of hard to imagine this happening, though.)

      - James
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      montag
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      « Reply #5 on: February 20, 2004, 07:11:05 AM »

      in what way is this rant different from saying "system does matter"?
      I found James' West argument concerning simulationist systems very convincing (in that it _is_ possible to drift) and I doubt anyone is going to deny that it takes time to shed ingrained habits (for instance wehn introducing the group to Narr play).
      Now, going through a series of games with progressively more player empowerment (to reach "pure" Narr games, ultimately) and having a slight drift within each seems a perfectly reasonable approach.

      So, could you clarify a bit on that rant?
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      markus
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      Andrew Norris
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      « Reply #6 on: February 20, 2004, 10:23:49 AM »

      I personally read the original post is more than "System matters". I take it as saying that trying to change modes by changing System alone isn't going to do it.

      It also (for me, at least) reinforces the idea that satisfying play comes from having a *consensus* on what mode will be used. A GM can't jump to a new node simply for his own sake. There have been several Actual Play threads in the past which exhibited this issue (a GM trying to unilaterally shift to Narr), and I've personally been guilty of it.
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      xiombarg
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      « Reply #7 on: February 20, 2004, 12:34:41 PM »

      I dunno, I thought this was more along the line of "if you want to break a habit, make a clean break first". If you're used to playing Vampire a certain way, it's real easy to slip back into that, while if you've nver played Sorcerer before, it's tough to have old habits -- and your "generic" habits are harder to fall back on.

      It's like the difference between quitting smoking cold turkey and trying to quit cigarettes by smoking cigars.
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      love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
      Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
      M. J. Young
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      « Reply #8 on: February 20, 2004, 07:31:24 PM »

      Correct me if I'm wrong, Mike, but this rant is about trying to modify a system with incremental tweaks to move players toward a different mode slowly; that is what Mike says doesn't work. I would be more inclined to say that such tweaks are usually non-productive, but in the main I agree.

      If I've got the concept right, this would be an example (one I use frequently). The group plays a lot of games in which you kill monsters and get treasure to build experience points which make you a more powerful character at killing monsters and getting treasure. The referee wants the players to "role play" more and "become more involved in the story"; so he modifies the reward system so that you'll get experience points for "good role playing" and "exploring the story". He wants to take the emphasis off building powerful characters and put it on building interesting stories. What happens is that his players start exhibiting the sort of conduct he wants, but not for the reasons that he thought would underpin it: they learn to play their characters more vividly and to add to story elements because it increases the rate at which they can build powerful characters. You have created conduct that is more "role playing oriented", but it's still gamist--you haven't moved toward narrativism at all.

      A change of mode is a fundamental change in play. You can drift between modes, but only if the players are jazzed by both/all and adjust their play accordingly, and the system doesn't hamper their efforts to do so.

      --M. J. Young
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      Rob MacDougall
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      « Reply #9 on: February 20, 2004, 08:07:55 PM »

      I take the rant to be less about system and whether you can make incremental changes to it and more about how all the individuals in a game group relate to creative agenda. In particular, the impossibility of one player (the GM) tricking or cajoling or luring all the other players into a change in creative agenda. Creative agenda is shared. You can't sneak it on people.

      If that's a fair reading of Mike's point, then I would say I agree in full.
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      james_west
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      « Reply #10 on: February 20, 2004, 08:54:43 PM »

      Hello, all -

      I still think y'all aren't thinking about how things generally go in your 'standard' RPG; the GM presents a problem, the PCs resolve it. If they're used to resolving problems involving a roomful of orcs, that doesn't mean they won't be equally happy to tackle thorny philosophical issues that plumb the depths of their souls.

      It is true that you can't sneak up on fancy mechanics; they're there, or they aren't; if you try to tack them on, they feel like tacked on problems. But, I've never failed to see a roomful of players get engaged in premise, if strongly presented, even if they didn't know that was what they were getting into.

      To phrase this a different way: certainly, games designed for narrativist play give players tools to further their own creative agendas. But at root, there's no particular reason why you can't run pretty strong stuff using nothing but the rules you've always used.

      - James
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      Mike Holmes
      Acts of Evil Playtesters
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      « Reply #11 on: February 24, 2004, 02:36:24 PM »

      Go away to a Con for a couple of days... I thought this one was going to end up with no comments at all.

      I think people are getting me closely enough. Basically, yes it's System Does Matter, but as it pertains to this particular case. John, as Ron says, it's about trying to convert players who aren't really "narrativists" mostly because they're really not used to playing like this. That is, if Hero System worked for producing narrativism for you, then likely you were already a group who were playing narrativist at least in part. IOW, you weren't sneaking up on a mode so much as empowering one that was already there. But the assumption of the thread is that those trying to make this change are assessing their groups correctly, and are trying to do what they say - change the mode of play of the group.

      Because Andrew is right. If changing the system alone were enough to change mode, then those nifty alterations would work. For example, John, in my own experience, I put in something very much like Whimsy cards (got them from a magazine, IIRC - Shadis?) in my Rolemaster game. They were actually ignored, even at times where they could have been used to save character's lives. The problem wasn't that the cards were ill designed, it was that the players were still thinking in their old patterns. Where in "what would my character do?" does the player consider when to play his "News From Afar" card? He doesn't, actually.

      It's not that these systems that I'm suggesting are better systems particularly, it's that they represent a cognitive break. They're significantly different enough from the ones that the players are likely playing that they can't help but change how they approach the game. Think of trying to change to Gamism. What if you had a group who had only ever played Sorcerer and you wanted to get them to Step On Up? Would putting in little puzzles and extra mechanics do it? No, they'd still be stuck on the overall premise. Throw them into D&D, however, and see if they can ignore the gamism then. Not likely.

      So, yes, Kirt is right. It is the cold turkey approach. You can't "wean" somebody off something that they enjoy and see no reason to change. There's nothing wrong with the mode that the players in question are playing now, so they're entirely justified in wanting to continue to play in it. Only by getting everyone to agree at once to try something else will they consider the new mode on it's own merits.

      So, James, if you did switch to GURPS or Hero System and did put in that moral situation, then you might get the effect you're looking for. OTOH, System Does Matter, so you might get something else like exploration of system - that's what you get from me when I play Hero System. I love exloring Hero System so much it actually distracts me from most anything else thats going on (I'm far more fascinated by the fact that my character flying at 250 MPH can ballistically penetrate three levels of a factory, and a concrete floor of a sub-basement than I am with what he's fighting about). So, switching to such a system is better than not switching, but, well, see System Does Matter. Why swim upstream. Anyhow, not the point here.

      Montag, I've seen players adopt narrativism, not having previously realized that it was even an option in play previously, in just ten minutes. Play SOAP. The first time a player says, "What happens next?" just stare at him expectantly until the light in his eyes goes on. Instantly you've made the player understand. Now, this is extreme, but that's the sort of cognitive shake up that I think many players need. And when you do it, they can play narrativist just as well as anyone instantly. We all have all the skills we need to play in any mode. All we have to have is a ruleset saying to play that way and we're off and running. Instantly.

      Why take the partial approach when that just takes time and may confuse the player? Why not show him the clearest example possible? There is no downside. If the player at that point says that they don't like it, then at that point you can determine if it's director stance that he doesn't like, or just the metagame presence, whatever. And you can adjust. But at that point you all will know as much about the subject as you're ever likely to know. Part of going to a more "extreme" sort of game is so that the cognative break is more certain, so that the player will see the difference clearly. Once they have that you can fine tune to your heart's content.

      Doing things partially seems to only make people wonder what you're trying to get at as they assimilate the differences. Again, we see it time and time again here, and it never works. IOW, MJ has it right. Small changes mean that players will take those changes and make them into adjuncts of their original style - assuming they acknowledge them at all.

      Rob says it very clearly. If you did actually get a player to understand mode and all the theory, then, sure, you could all just agree to change consciously to a new agenda with whatever system. But the problem is that players don't understand mode, and won't likely short of having them log on here and become theorists. Worse, it seems that doing so tends to alienate players (much like a lot of people who are new here). So just skip the talking about it, and take the shortcut to agreeing on a new Creative Agenda - play a game that has it encoded inexorably in the rules.

      Does that make more sense, James? I'm worried that the sort of phenomenon that MJ talks about will occur - they do occur. Sure another system might do, but why not use a system that makes it inescapable? Just for that one run, mind you, just for the "test" if you will. Because in doing so, the players are presented with a game that not only says, "It's OK to play this way," which players will tend to ignore for their original mode, but a game that says, "You must play this way." Your way relies, as does John's on the idea that the players will, given the opportunity, play narrativist. But that won't always work, many times they don't, and then they don't get the lesson. What I'm promoting here is a way to teach mode quickly. To educate players so that you can then move on to deciding whether or not it's something that you're all interested in.

      Put it another way, I think I know the theory as well as just about anybody, but I personally wouldn't trust to my own skill to ensure that the players will follow my lead. I'd rather have a system that required them in this case. Much moreso for the GM who isn't really all that certain about this mode stuff himself.

      This is important, because it works, and the other method doesn't seem to at all. Not just from my own personal anecotal evidence but from numerous posts here and elsewhere. What going at it half-heartedly tends to result in is people who don't understand what the attempt was about, and who may even resent what the attempt represents. Bad sessions of incoherent play make players never want to hear again about narrativism. And that's too bad. Because even if they really don't prefer it, we don't really know, because they haven't really tried it.

      Mike
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      John Kim
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      « Reply #12 on: February 24, 2004, 04:30:39 PM »

      Quote from: Mike Holmes
        Montag, I've seen players adopt narrativism, not having previously realized that it was even an option in play previously, in just ten minutes. Play SOAP. The first time a player says, "What happens next?" just stare at him expectantly until the light in his eyes goes on. Instantly you've made the player understand. Now, this is extreme, but that's the sort of cognitive shake up that I think many players need. And when you do it, they can play narrativist just as well as anyone instantly. We all have all the skills we need to play in any mode. All we have to have is a ruleset saying to play that way and we're off and running. Instantly.  

      Why take the partial approach when that just takes time and may confuse the player? Why not show him the clearest example possible? There is no downside.  

      OK, I've seen this suggested many times now, and I still don't get it.  What makes SOAP Narrativist?  Because I can't see anything about it which suggests Narrativism at all.  To me, it seems somewhere between Gamism (competition over control of story) and Simulationism (imitating the soap opera genre).  The game encourages players to play to their PCs traits and hint at -- but not reveal -- their secrets.  But nothing encourages hard moral decisions for the player -- and in fact the fixed goals for the PCs seems to do the opposite.  

      Yet here you seem to cite it as the "clearest possible example" of Narrativism.  It seems like there is a really major difference in our views of what Narrativism is, which questions the whole thread.
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      - John
      Valamir
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      « Reply #13 on: February 24, 2004, 04:43:14 PM »

      SOAP is a player empowerment thing.  Player empowerment on some level is required for narrativist play.  Players cannot address premise unless they have the freedom to effect the game world in a way that actually matters.

      Traditional roleplaying generally stiffles player empowerment.  Sometimes it goes to great lengths to actively discourage it (like the text of Arrowflight which goes on at length instructing the GM how to avoid having players ruin their game by doing strange things).

      Many players are so used to being on a GMs leash that when put into a situation where the GM says "heres some empowerment" they're literally like deer in the headlights and have no idea what to do with it.

      If those people happen to still be surrounded by the trappings of a comfortable familiar game system, they're most likely reaction is to simply ignore these strange words coming out of the GM as him having eaten a bad burrito for lunch, and slip comfortably back into play-as-usual.

      In order to teach players like this how to use player empowerment in a traditional game, you first have to completely shatter their leash-trained habits.  And often the best (perhaps only) way to do this effectively is to throw them into the deep end of the pool.

      You literally can't slip into comfortable old play-as-usual habits in a game like Soap...or Inspectres...or Universalis...etc.  Its just not possible.  The game won't work.  But because player empowerment is so easy to do...in fact, I'd say MUCH more natural and easy than learning to play on a leash, most players can pick up these games pretty easily and go on to a rollicking great game.

      In the process they learn about player empowerment.  They learn that its OK for the PLAYER to get his views into the game and how to do this through social interaction with other players who are also expressing their views.  

      Once they master the more obvious, overt, pervy, in your face, unavoidable, no where to hide aspects of player empowerment...they're much better equipped to return to a traditional game and employ those techniques more subtley, yet still effectively, in their traditional games.

      Once they have those techniques mastered, they can begin to truly explore Narrativist play.


      I get the feeling from your posts over the months, John, that you've never been a leash-led player and never been a leash-holding GM, so you may not be seeing the benefit of such training exercises to break players of old habits.
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      John Kim
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      « Reply #14 on: February 24, 2004, 06:09:17 PM »

      Quote from: Valamir
        Once they master the more obvious, overt, pervy, in your face, unavoidable, no where to hide aspects of player empowerment...they're much better equipped to return to a traditional game and employ those techniques more subtley, yet still effectively, in their traditional games.

      Once they have those techniques mastered, they can begin to truly explore Narrativist play.  

      OK, so you seem to agree (I think) that SOAP isn't Narrativist -- but you think of it as a learning tool for skills which are necessary for Narrativist play in traditional GM/player games?  That at least makes sense to me.  I am inclined to think that there are other approaches to learning Narrativist skills, though.  

      For example, the players in my James Bond 007 game are mostly (2 out of 3) accustomed to Illusionist play.  However, they pretty instantly got into taking charge to a degree.  This wasn't because of any narrative power (they didn't even have Hero Points yet), but because of character power.  As 00 agents they have powerful status within MI6 and outrageous competance to do what they want -- and they are quick to use it.  It remains to be seen what will happen with that game, but I think of it as a good sign.  

      In part, I am biased because I am an immersive sort of player.  If given Whimsy Cards I tend to let them sit on the table, say.  So I haven't found such mechanics very Narrativist-generating for myself -- though I can see that they may be pivotal for other people.  

      Quote from: Valamir
        I get the feeling from your posts over the months, John, that you've never been a leash-led player and never been a leash-holding GM, so you may not be seeing the benefit of such training exercises to break players of old habits.  

      Well, it's true that I've never been much of a leash-holding GM.  But I have certainly played in plenty of games which are GM-lead.  As a player, my experience has always been that in traditional games, I have the legal power to break the GM's plan under the rules.  However, most often the other players give out social pressure that we should follow the path that the GM prefers -- out of respect for the GM and the time that he has put in to the game.  So to get along with my friends I have my PC go along despite my tendencies otherwise (though not always).
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