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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Simon C on March 18, 2010, 02:11:27 PM



Title: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 18, 2010, 02:11:27 PM
Probably one of the most successful "traditional" games I've played was about seven or eight years ago.  It was a Traveller-inspired home-brew science fiction game.  It went through several iterations, a couple of different game masters (I was one of them for a while), and stretched over a couple of years of weekly play.  The exact situation changed a lot, but the characters were usually some variation on uncrupulous space mercenaries, kicking around in the Galaxy looking for jobs.  I think it's a pretty common setup.  We had a lot of fun play out of the game, fuelled, I think, by a strong shared creative vision of what "good play" looked like.  The system we used shifted constantly, as we attempted to find a system that would adequately match our vision for the game.  What we were looking for, I think, was a system that would give us the right mix of expected and unexpected results.  We wanted things to come out "right", such that the decisions we made for our characters would have logical and consistent consequences.  At the time we called this "realism", but I think what we really wanted was predictability and verismilitude (i.e the ability to match resolution to in-fiction causes).

So, it seems like we had a pretty coherant creative agenda, in the sense that we knew what we wanted (even if we didn't always know how to get it).  Until recently I would have been super comfortable calling this agenda "Right to Dream", on the basis that we had this shared vision of the setting and a lot of play was about affirming the "rightness" of this vision.

But I've been thinking a lot recently.  Luke Crane said a thing about how all roleplaying games have a moral dimension.  At first I didn't really see how this was a useful insight into play, but as I play more, and having designed a couple of games and seeing what works and what doesn't, I'm coming around to his point of veiw.  The question I'm coming to is this:

Are "Right to Dream" and "Step on Up" useful descriptors of play? I'm not arguing about whether they do exist or whether they can exist, I'm asking if they're a useful way of thinking about games. 

Going back to my example of play.  It seems to me now a far more powerful explanatory variable to think of this game in Story Now terms, as a game with a strong central theme that informed play.  That theme was something like "How does a person make their way in an indifferent universe?" Many things start to make sense in the game viewed through this lens.  Our insistance on predictability but also randomness in resolution, our desire for PCs to be no different from NPCs in the view of the rules.  Our "you make your choices, and you live with the consequences" ideal of play.

A good example of this last was a moment in game when a player chose to pilot the spacecraft through an asteroid belt at high speeds.  As GM, I laid out the possibilities.  A skill roll would be required.  Bad things would happen if they failed.  They rolled a 1.  I explained that they would collide with an asteroid, and that another roll could be made to mitigate the damage.  They rolled another 1.  The spacecraft was destroyed, and all the characters died.  We all loved it.  We were a bit disappointed, but the event, our willingness to let all the characters die, and the whole game come to nothing, affirmed our vision of an uncaring universe.

So I think that seeing this game as an exploration of Premise makes a heck of a lot of sense.  But if this game is Story Now, what's left for Right to Dream? Thinking back, I can work out a premise for all my successful play.  Now maybe I'm post-hoc justifying myself, and making those past games fit with my current preferences, but I don't think so.  Maybe I've just never played Right to Dream, and so I can't imagine what it looks like?



Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Callan S. on March 18, 2010, 03:03:54 PM
Hi Simon,

There may have been a premise there, but was it integral to the fun your group was having? Or was it more like a garnish?

I'm inclined to think that game sessions actually have a set of priorities rather than just one agenda. So you could have a first priority sim, second priority nar and third (or fourth?) priority gamism game. Indeed some of the essays refer to riddle of steel as having a sim 'spine', which means it supports things, but it doesn't come first. But to note, the current GNS essays don't describe a priority system - I'm just putting that idea out there myself.

I mean, you might also be able to think of a point in the campaign where you did a clever move or someone else did and you acknowledged it at the table - not your character making a clever move, but you, the player. But that doesn't make it gamist play either. Not primarily gamist, anyway. That's my take. This sort of thing has cropped up with Capes play as well, where since it has alot of currency strategising and even payoff, it seems confused on whether its a nar or gamist game session.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 18, 2010, 06:01:54 PM
Yeah, I don't think this is exceptional for sim.  But it doesn't look like Story Now.  Sure meaning can be atrributed to events, they can validate your sense of the experience of play, of the purpose, but thats not really creating morally signifcant, premise adressing moments right there in front of you.  I don't think Sim means a complete absense of meaning anyway.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Jeff B on March 18, 2010, 06:33:28 PM
Simon,

I think you present mainly two questions:

1. Was the campaign you described an example of Right to Dream, or was it Story Now?
2. Are the expressions "step on up" and "right to dream" useful descriptors of play.

1) My opinion is that you were describing the strength of Simulationist play (Right to Dream).  Of course, it may have included Narrativist (Story Now) content and activity, but the part you're talking about seems like Simulationist to me. A key element is wanting reasonable predictability (but not total predictability) in the dice system -- you wanted some consistency in the game and a good chance of having the game system support the story and actions of the players.  If I have understood Ron's essay on Simulationist Gaming correctly, that is classic Right to Dream stuff.  The great thing is, you had a whole group wanting to share that simulation. 

You consider whether that story-sense is actually Story Now instead.  In terms of GNS theory, you are perhaps confusing Story with Setting.  What you had was great Setting, in which great story could take place of course.  But the setting enabled by the simulation is what really made things move for you.

2) I wonder this myself.  It took me quite a while to understand why these expressions were applied to the styles of play.  I believe now that I understand the intent, but I'm not 100% convinced that they are the best descriptors.  It was Vincent Baker's spin on the concepts that helped things finally fall into place for me.  To paraphrase his paraphrasing, regarding the three styles of play:

A. Player wants to Prove something (Gamist)
B. Player wants to Say something (Narrative)
C. Player wants to Be There (Simulationist)

I found these more meaningful than the descriptors like "Step on Up".  I also wonder if Narrativist and Gamist aren't both merely different expressions of "Step on Up", and if "Setting Now" wouldn't be more appropriate than "Right to Dream" for Simulationist play.  While some might say that Setting is a component of Scene, I'm of the opinion that the game system acts as a meta-setting, in which other settings (those associated with scenes) can be portrayed.

A fondly-remembered RPG campaign is a many-splendored thing!


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 18, 2010, 06:36:02 PM
I'm not trying to say "I don't think this was Right to Dream".  I'm really not invested in diagnosing the game as a particular agenda.

I think my point is more that calling it Right to Dream doesn't give me any tools for examining play, working out what the fun parts were, and finding out how to make other games similarly fun.  Treating it as if it were Story Now, and looking at the premise of play, does give me those tools.  It's more useful to me to ignore Right to Dream as a thing, and just treat all my play as Story Now for the purpose of examining my play.

In other words: Cool.  It's Right to Dream.  What use is that to me?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Jeff B on March 18, 2010, 08:45:40 PM

GNS is a tool for dialogue and investigation into the nature of roleplaying and the goals of players.  If you can only think of it in terms of "how this benefits Simon's game now", you're likely to miss much of the value.



Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 18, 2010, 08:59:19 PM
Hi Jeff,

I hate to be all "argument from authority" on you, but I feel like I understand GNS pretty well, and I've read a lot of discussions of roleplaying that reference GNS.  I've got a fair amount of experience in which conversations about roleplaying games are productive and useful, and which ones aren't.

I'm not intending this thread to be a discussion of what the theory says (though obviously if I'm saying the theory says something it doesn't, that's useful to know).  I'm saying that what the theory says isn't useful with regards to Right to Dream.  We have a lot of very useful tools for understanding Story Now play, and what I'm saying is that these tools are useful for understanding Right to Dream play as well, which leaves me wondering what the Right to Dream label is for.

Can anyone give me a good explanation of why it's useful?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 18, 2010, 09:17:13 PM
Hi Simon,

Thinking about "Right to Dream" gets me asking questions like:

1) Are all participants fully enabled to make meaningful creative contributions?  Do their contributions get interacted with and appreciated?  If not, why not -- do they have no means, or are they unaware of the means they do have?

2) Are all participants on the same page about our frame of reference for what's important and inviolate in the fiction-making?  Do we care more about style (e.g. noir), genre (e.g. horror), process (e.g. physics), interactions (e.g. teamwork + bickering), or specific emulation/twists (e.g. X-Files meets Lord of the Rings in Iceland)?  If we're not on the same page, how do we rectify that?

3) Is our process of "playing right" and meeting our aesthetic goals smooth and effortless, or demanding and distracting?  If the latter, why?

I can't really compare these questions to your "useful tools for understanding Story Now play", as I'm not sure what those are.

This thread (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=25453.0) discusses how "Right to Dream" functions as an agenda.  It contains some good explanations from Ron of his concept, and some good illustrations from me about how it applies to a specific instance of play.

Hope this is useful,
-David


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Motipha on March 19, 2010, 08:23:00 AM
While not the most versed in the model, perhaps I might make a few points.

When used as analytical tools, the creative agenda's really just outline how tools are applied, or to what purpose, rather than what tools are available.  So to say "In terms of Right to Dream, what can we say about this campaign" you would probably do a similar type of analysis, just to a different end.

Or, perhaps:  rather than "Man, I really did enjoy creating a story about a man surviving in an indifferent universe" the result would be "Wow, I really dug exploring what it means to be a man surviving in an indifferent universe."  Or maybe that Story Now analysis shows how the game helped or hindered the players in creating compelling elements/ideas/encounters.  In contrast Right to Dream analysis shows how the game helped or hindered in creating a living breathing environment in which the players found or explored compelling elements/ideas/encounters.

The questions themselves would be different I guess.  In terms of premise, the question would be "Does this set of rules and the situation that it models actual express the premise we wish to play such that actions taken within it felt right" rather than "Did the premise get expressed through the events of the story in such a way that satisfied our desire to see the premise in action."

The example you give seems to suggest that what your group sound so satisfying about the game was the sense that "accurately" or "realistically" portrayed a world.  Because the game provided an acceptable and stable environment in which your game was played, you guys were willing and eager to enter that world, and able to explore the stories that take place in that world.  So the analysis of that game might easily be about what made that world such a good environment for telling those stories, both thematically and structurally, rather than what was so compelling about those stories themselves.  You could even say those stories were so good because they did express the environment that was being simulated, rather than the environment representing what those stories were about.

Gah, I'm not sure if I'm making any sense.  But I'm sure I had a point in there somewhere.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: FredGarber on March 19, 2010, 10:11:24 AM
Hi Jeff,

I hate to be all "argument from authority" on you, but I feel like I understand GNS pretty well, and I've read a lot of discussions of roleplaying that reference GNS.  I've got a fair amount of experience in which conversations about roleplaying games are productive and useful, and which ones aren't.

I'm not intending this thread to be a discussion of what the theory says (though obviously if I'm saying the theory says something it doesn't, that's useful to know).  I'm saying that what the theory says isn't useful with regards to Right to Dream.  We have a lot of very useful tools for understanding Story Now play, and what I'm saying is that these tools are useful for understanding Right to Dream play as well, which leaves me wondering what the Right to Dream label is for.

Can anyone give me a good explanation of why it's useful?

I think looking at your game with a StoryNow frame of mind does give you some useful tools, especially for analyzing the dramatic (little n narrative) elements in your play.
But there are different questions that David posted that pertain to RightToDream play, and they tell you different things.

Asking the RightToDream questions allows you to evaluate the contributions that the players made to the Setting,
Asking the Gamist questions allows you to evaluate the explorations of the players into System.
Asking the StoryNow questions allows you to evaluate the explorations of the players into Character.

Even in, say, a game of PTA or DITV, which are generally understood to be StoryNow games, you can ask the other questions. 
       For example, let's look at my own PtA game of "Switch", where the characters are supernatural creatures living in an urban setting.  Think "Supernatural" from POV of the monsters, except the monsters have souls and free will.  What potential for Moments of Awesome were there and got mised?

Now, I can keep looking for extracting the best StoryNow moments by looking for where the players really got into the "I am not (or I am) a Freak! I am a good person!" Theme of the game.

But I can also look at the game from a StepOnUp perspective, and notice that my players are really bad at remembering to give FanMail, which means they are often really short of cards in the final scenes, since they've blown their Edges earlier.   I've tried blowing more of my Budget in the opening scenes, which means that I would have less in the final scenes too, but that just made the problem worse.  So maybe I can take a couple of moments after each scene, and prompt them to give out FanMail.  Then maybe I can let them stop the flow of scenes to give out FanMail, and eventually the FanMail will start.  That will give them another source for cards, to make them more Effective in later scenes.  Maybe that will make those conflicts at the end less like "Fred decides how things will end up, and more collaborative (which is the idea of the game)

I can also look at the game from a RightToDream perspective, and I notice that J---- adds a lot of details about the "Street" : house parties, and the response time of the cops, and of the off-book ways the characters can make income.  H---- doesn't add a lot of details.  I've already noticed that J--- considers herself an Expert on how the Street works, and doesn't appreciate either me or others introducing things that break her vision of these scenes.  So, maybe I can introduce some scenes in places where H--- is more the Expert, so she can contribute and J----- won't feel the need to 'fact-check' all of H----'s offerings.
>>> However, H---- doesn't seem to care too much about how she can contribute to the Dream, just about her chances to really put her character in between her life as a Normal and her Freak life.  So maybe I don't introduce those scenes, because H won't care. I won't get any Moments of Awesome out of it, because H---- is really into the StoryNow agenda.

Each set of analytical questions allows me to extract look at some of the Moments of Awesome that came out of play (or that could have been, and failed), and if there's anything I can do to advance more of them, or to make sure that the moments that do come aren't Moments of Fail.

-Fred


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 19, 2010, 11:06:00 AM
I guess there's no non-assholish way of saying it, but there sure are a lot of weird viewpoints on the Big Model floating around here nowadays. I'm nobody to ruin anybody's terminological and theoretical entertainment, but I do suspect that Simon and everybody else would get more out of this thread with less fancy terminology and more transparent language. Simon's central question is not easily considered in concrete terms, but neither is confabulating new meanings for the Big Model terminology very useful; I'd rather see new terms or just plain language rather than incessant reinvention of the same heavily loaded terminology.

(I do realize that I'm just telling everybody to shut up and listen to my infinite wisdom instead - if anybody has a better suggestion of how to approach a thread that seems to be quickly devolving towards weird heterodoxy in how Big Model terminology is used, I'm all ears. On one hand I could just focus on the main issue and ignore the background noise, but on the other hand it's difficult to choose clear words to use when the same terms are being used any which way by other participants of the discussion. So by all means, don't let me ruin the discussion, just remember that I'm not building on the definitions and application expressed in the thread so far in my own answer to Simon.)

I can well understand Simon's fundamental question - exploring the nature and innermost workings of simulationist play is an exciting venue for many reasons, one of them being that we have less firm theoretical understanding of what happens in the agenda than we (Forge theory geeks collectively, I mean) have for narrativist or gamist play. When you say that categorizing a game experience as simulationistic is not actually useful, I think I understand what you mean: if we said that an instance was narrativistic, say, then we could formulate a clear picture of what each player's duties and goals in play seem like moment-to-moment. The same goes for gamism, we understand the viewpoint an individual player brings to the moment of play. Do we have this sort of understanding for a simulationistic case? I've played highly functional and fun simulationistic sessions, I think, but I have to confess that on my own part I wouldn't pretend to any deep understanding of the creative processes and motivations that go into it; definitely not when I compare to the way I understand and appreciate advocation-based narrativism (http://isabout.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/the-pitfalls-of-narrative-technique-in-rpg-play/) or adventure model gamism (http://isabout.wordpress.com/2007/11/01/challenge-based-adventuring/) or other such generic Creative Agenda frameworks. I might say that I can appreciate and successfully play powerful simulationistic games like Dread, Dead of Night or Time and Temp, but I couldn't really create such a game - or rather, I suspect that I could, and I have some things in my desk draver, but I've yet to formulate any firm and verbalized internal model of how simulationism "works" in any game I've played or am in the process of writing. Would you say that this is what you're after here, Simon? The idea that we do not, generally speaking, have quite the depth of perception and vocabulary on simulationism that we do with narrativism and gamism, and therefore categorizing an individual play experience as one of the latter is attractive simply because even ill-fitting data can be more comprehensively analysed by using the tools that exist for these other modes?

For what it's worth, Simon, I think that it's entirely believable to come to the conclusion that all of your roleplaying has, generally speaking, been narrativistic. I do not say this of you specifically, but as a general observation: many roleplayers have only ever experienced one Creative Agenda (while some haven't even gotten the one to work well). This causes obvious comparative difficulties in classifying play experiences, as it's pretty difficult to recognize something without prior context. The AP context you provide could believably be either simulationistic or narrativist, I think - I for one would be like a hound on prey on a nihilistic, cold space scifi narrativistic-realist roleplaying game with the premise you postulate, so I find it entirely believable that that might have been what you were about in this case. But then again, I could easily see the opposite case as well, it all depends on the actual focus of the players at the time; I know that I've myself played simulationistic games that have ended in a total party kill along the lines you describe.

Still, as you yourself said there, the specific CA categorization of your play experience is not really the point here, but rather: even if this is simulationism, is that useful for us as an analysis outside of sticking a label on it? Can we say something useful about simulationism, perhaps in the context of Traveller play? Do we actually have any understanding of simulationism beyond knowing it when we see it (or, as some say, knowing it by the absense of other agendas)? Perhaps something that would be useful in constructing new simulationistic games?

This is an interesting question and I might have some thoughts on it. I'll stop here for now, though - do tell me if I've phrased the central issue clearly, Simon! Also, if anybody actually has understanding of the internal framework of simulationism, something concrete and useful, I'd love to hear about it myself. I'll write a bit about how simulationistic games I know function and cause simulationistic fun in a bit, assuming I'm not just full of shit with my paraphrasing of the question.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Callan S. on March 19, 2010, 02:23:28 PM
We have a lot of very useful tools for understanding Story Now play, and what I'm saying is that these tools are useful for understanding Right to Dream play as well
Are they? To me you've applied story now tools to understand a 'garnish' that comes with your play, not the heart of your play.

So I'm skeptical story now tools are really examining your campaign directly. I mean, you can tell me that they are, and I can't think of any method of proving beyond just taking your word for it. But are they?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 19, 2010, 03:56:45 PM
I'd pretty much agree that we have very few tools for examining sim play, in the way that we have for Narr, but that doesn't suggest the category is not useful.  There's no getting away from the fact that it is a form of play with different interests.  I'm somewhat sympathetic to the idea that there might be a few things you can say of sim by analogy to insights about narr, but you would have to keep in mind that they are by analogy and not directly applicable.

Sure the state of the art for sim play wanders somewhat in the wilderness.  Quite naturally, perhaps, the excitement of exploring narr overtook examination of a style that was in some ways fairly well known.  I've proposed some concepts myself - imposition, alienation, didactism - but they have not gained much in the way of support and opportunity to discuss them is few and far between.  We have not invested that much time in it at all; and we have fewer proponents of the style now than we used to, and so discussion is even less likely to break out.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Jeff B on March 19, 2010, 06:21:49 PM
Eero, if you're going to criticize the discussion method, you need to be specific.  Right now your just casting a blanket accusation over everyone in the thread of misusing Big Model language, and then continuing on to speak in very large, dense words about something that may or may not be on topic.  If your goal is to clear communication, the attempt is backfiring.

That, combined with Simon's periodic re-structuring of his original question, is rapidly making this thread moot.  It now appears the original post was simply a request by Simon for someone else (anyone else) to do more work on Simulationism, so that he can reap the benefit of that research.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 19, 2010, 06:47:14 PM
You are no doubt correct, Jeff - however, knowing that Fred's characterization of GNS theory in particular sounds weird to me isn't too pertinent for this thread, is it? I just wanted to draw attention to the fact that theory terminology is being mangled here - perhaps unnecessarily, when plain language would suffice - before engaging the actual topic. The basics of GNS can always be handled in detail in another thread if there is interest, there's no reason for me to start nitpicking about it in this thread. Let's rather hear more from Simon, I'm interested in whether I've understood his topical thrust correctly.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: ThoughtBubble on March 19, 2010, 07:26:00 PM
So, I have an example for you. We're in the middle of some Right to Dream play in my current game.
My overarching goal for this game is to make the world feel as real and reasonable as I can. Real and reasonable meaning "like the original, adventurous, cartoon inspiration."

For example. I've done a re-working of some of the basic monsters in the early dungeons. The dungeons were set up as a training exercise, and the monsters were at a pretty good level of challenge for the party. However, the monsters were too challenging for the expected targets of the training. So, I re-did all the monsters, apologized to the players, and blamed a mischievous NPC. I think this would be generally counterproductive in a Step On Up sense, and meaningless in a Story Now sense.

The best moments in the game are when some details come up, or are added, and there's a sudden revelation. For example, due to some art, it turns out that one of our character's family is a group of reformed pirates. One of the side NPCs, is (in her unrevealed history) also a reformed pirate. She's been rather nice to the character, mostly because he gets in trouble. But now there's a connection there that we're going to explore. And the world is a little richer for it.

This game is very concretely about the slow revelation of a world, enjoying the taste and texture, and finding out what these hidden secrets are.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Caldis on March 20, 2010, 07:16:17 AM
I think my point is more that calling it Right to Dream doesn't give me any tools for examining play, working out what the fun parts were, and finding out how to make other games similarly fun.  Treating it as if it were Story Now, and looking at the premise of play, does give me those tools.  It's more useful to me to ignore Right to Dream as a thing, and just treat all my play as Story Now for the purpose of examining my play.

In other words: Cool.  It's Right to Dream.  What use is that to me?

What help is "story now" without the further detail that focusing on premise brings?  The words on their own are more a motto than indicative of a deep understanding of the subject.  The right to dream requires similar attention and you see a lot of it in many traditional games, including probabilities of dice rolls to get that feeling of realism or a focus on whats important in the game. 

So how do you build the dream and get that realistic feel you want?  Well you move from systems like early D&D where hit points are an abstract measure of how hardy your character is and an attack roll is supposed to represent a series of attack and defensive actions to later systems where more detailed systems that got you in the feel of every sword swing and parry.

I think there are a lot of "tools" that came with right to dream think, a lot of them have become so ingrained in the hobby that it's hard to see them as anything more than just part of how roleplaying is done.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 20, 2010, 11:36:37 AM
This thred is moving a little faster than I'd like.  I'm not really able to keep up with so many different points of view, and as Eero pointed out, people coming in with radically different interpretations of what the Big Model says (or should say) is making the thread even more confused.

Probably something I should have started out saying is that my thinking on Right to Dream is pretty heavily informed by Vincent's (somewhat) recent writing on the subject, mostly contained in these two posts:

http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=444

http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=443

It's hard to tell, but I think Vincent's thinking has progressed (diverged?) from the Forge orthodoxy on Right to Dream to some extent, which might be causing some of the confusion.

One of the important things that I take from Vincent's posts is that "simulation" in the sense of having mechanics that recreate the feel of real-life situations, or else enforce genre tropes is a technique that can fit within any creative agenda.  That's I think causing confusion because people are saying "Of course Right to Dream is useful - with Right to Dream you can think about simulation and appropriate emulation" and I'm all "nuh-uh, that works for ANY game".

Let me talk more about what I'm trying to get at.  Here's Luke Crane's (incredibly controversial) definition of RPGs:

"[An RPG is] A game in which a player advocates the goals, priorities and survival (or doom) of a persona who, in operation of the game's mechanics, is confronted with one or more ethical choices."

Here's Vincent talking about game design:

"When you design a game, you're taking three different positions, expressing three different insights, putting forth three different opinions. Saying three different things. First, you're saying something about the subject matter or genre of your game: something you think about adventure fiction, or swords & sorcery, or transhumanist sf, or whatever. Second, you're saying something about roleplaying as a practice, taking a position on how real people should collaborate under these circumstances. Third, you're saying something about real live human nature."

So what I see in both of these is that there's a moral dimension to RPG play, by definition.  Making a clear space for that moral dimension within your design, or within your play, isn't a question of agenda, it's a question of good play vs. bad play (in the sense of more or less fun).  I think that a lot of the thinking on Story Now has monopolized discussion of the moral dimension of play, such that the thinking is that it's only relevant to Story Now games.  In other words, I think that a lot of the insights about how to make good Story Now games are actually insights about how to make good games in general.  I'm not sure if there are a lot of insights about how to make good Right to Dream games, but I think that probably many of those apply to all games too.  (David, I'm still getting to that thread you linked me, but thanks for doing so, I think it will be useful to me).


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 20, 2010, 12:37:34 PM
Wel, of course Narr etc can take advantage of tight causality and emulation.  That should, I would have thought, go without saying.  But it's not a priority, and so to a great or lesse degree it can also be downgraded in significance and importance by comparison with attention focussed on premise.  And similarly, Sim and Gam games can and do partake of moral concerns in some respects, but they too can afford to downgrade it by comparison to the real driver which is provoking interest and engagement.

Do all games say something about human nature?  Hmm, maybe, I'll even go so far as probably, while rejecting Luke Cran's formulation out of hand.  But I point to these caveats: we might well be saying about the world rather than human nature as such, and that it's only there in an implicit, mood music sort of way.

I agree with your point that "moral dimension" as you put is under investogated for sim games.  I totally agree that they can benefit from this, but primarily in the sense of filling out human in-game interactions and motivations.  They will be a thickener added to the existing material, and in some cases the actual conduct of play may become superficially similar.  But I don't think they will be engaged with the same way; they will be lumped in with other forms of cause-and-effect rather than explored in their own right.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 20, 2010, 12:49:44 PM
people are saying "Of course Right to Dream is useful - with Right to Dream you can think about simulation and appropriate emulation" and I'm all "nuh-uh, that works for ANY game".
I agree (that it works for any game)!  It's not uniquely true for Sim, it's just especially true.

If you get your challenges and premises rolling, you might be able to get by with less perfection on the simulation/emulation/etc. front (as Gareth just said).  If the simulation/emulation/etc. is the point, your standards might get more exacting.

It's also worth noting Constructive Denial (willfully experiencing the fiction as an active arbiter of what can/can't happen in play, rather than maintaining awareness that it's just people making shit up) as a limiting factor on the tools available in Right to Dream play.

So, all the stuff I mentioned in my prior post can help or hurt any roleplay, but it can absolutely make or break Sim play.

As for a moral dimension, isn't that endemic to sentients in conflicts?  The only way to lose it would be to play automatons or encounter zero resistance.  Otherwise, "What will you do to get what you want?" is out there.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 20, 2010, 12:58:42 PM
David, briefly: "Isn't that endemic to sentients in conflicts?" I think so.  Therefore, what matters is treating the characters as if they were sentients.  "Ethical choices" is Luke's very clever way of talking about a shared imagined space, I think.  It's very clever because it highlights exactly what a shared imagined space is for.

Here's another reformulation of what I'm talking about:

I'm not seeing any differences between Right to Dream and Story Now design and play that couldn't also be described as differences in premise within a Story Now agenda.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 20, 2010, 02:20:50 PM
Good stuff, Simon - I think that this is an interesting and worthwhile discussion. I do not agree with Luke on ethical choices, but I do agree with Vincent about robust fiction; I do not think that this is a particular development in comparison to Forge theory from, say, five years ago, but more of a clarification: a robust fiction, which at times has been called "realistic" or "simulational" or whatever, is a necessary ingredient in developing Color and thus communicating the SIS effectively among the participants of a roleplaying game. This process of Exploration can be streamlined in some ways by heavily engaging genre expectations and other narrative shorthands, however, which might make it seem like some games are more or less concerned with the robustness of the fiction. In fact, though, Exploration is, no matter how detailed and realistic, a rather agenda-neutral activity: it's just the process of constructing a fictional environment, a Shared Imagined Space, and the extent to which you do it doesn't really comment on what you do it for.

The key claim, the most interesting one to me, is the idea that there is a moral dimension that is effectively engaged by any and all roleplaying. This might be the case for a certain understanding of "moral", but then that's not controversial - the exact model of Premise-cum-Theme is there exactly because just referring to a moral dimension vaguely can be understood in so many ways. For instance, take a purely immersive Nordic-style roleplaying game. Some game where the whole point is to imagine that you're a polar expedition that's slowly freezing to death while occasionally butchering a dog for food, say. (Not very hypothetical, waiting for death is a very popular premise in the Nordic scene.) What is the "moral dimension" of this game? Is it just that we as people are interested and engaged by impending death and desperation? If it's just that, then it's much more transparent to say that all roleplaying games need to "engage the players by being interesting". Mostly people are interested by people, so I guess you could also say that "roleplaying games need to have room for human action". That's still pretty far from any exact meaning of "ethical choice", unless you construe any and all choices as ethical, in which case that word isn't even needed.

(Personally I think that insofar as it matters for us, both Luke and Vincent are speaking of strictly narrativist rpg design in those discussions. Vincent actually has clearly stated as much - unless otherwise clarified, his blog concerns only narrativist design, which is his forte and main interest.)

Getting back to simulationism, my take is that it's pretty much experience for the sake of experience that seems to drive the simulationistic games I'm familiar with. "Right to Dream" is a very on-the-point description. The GM has a powerful image of being there, one he wants to transmit to the players; the players have a powerful interest in being there; the group together uses a range of techniques to build a Shared Imagined Space efficiently, and then engages it around the creative aspects that originally motivated the practice. The tableau is moved forward and progress is made in the game insofar as the art form is narrative in nature; events occurring and their temporal relationships are the interesting thing, not just still snapshots. Sometimes the stills are actually the interesting thing, like when you're playing a highly stylized superhero game and all you want is for your character to get to grandstand. Even then the whole game can't be just grandstanding, you need context that is created, ideally in efficient and cooperative manner.

As a practical example of a very simulationistic game that I've played in several sessions, I'd like to name Dead of Night. This is an useful example in that most times I've played the game we have in fact had situations that could be construed as narrativistic when isolated from the overall game. For example, in Hair II (Hair is this serial killer movie series I'm GMing with Dead of Night now and then, centering on a legendarized Charles Mason / James Dean who pops up in different parts of the USA for acerbic, bloody social commentary splatter stories) we had a situation where the serial killer had cornered a local artist at an art gallery, tied him in a chair and tortured him. Another player character, a police officer, stumbled on the scene in progress. Now, had this been a narrativistic game, in hindsight it's obvious that the issue of the scene would have been clear: will the player character, who'd earlier been entangled in a romance with the killer, try to save the innocent victim, or will he just escape as far and fast as he can?

However, this is one of the most coherently simulationistic games I've known, so nothing like the above question was evident in our play: my point in bringing the scene was to display my favourite serial killer, the scene was full of his fictional trademarks, the player's thing was to feel the fear and despair, and nobody really stopped to hesitate when we were all so busy in experiencing the story. Dead of Night has less railroading than many simulationistic games because of some very clever structural techniques, but it's still very much the GM's show in that he's responsible for the powerful horror elements, while the players are mostly responsible for experiencing and reacting and making choices as to the angle and velocity of the situation exploration in the game. In our session (which I really should write AP for despite its age, it's that cool) the creative drive came from our common willingness to experience a slasher story situated in an American mid-west small town, nothing more and nothing less. This was executed, and that's that - thematically the game was pure Hair, entirely pre-established by the GM. I've characterized this style of Sim as akin to computer adventure gaming: the GM provides a limited amount of subject material while the players have their characters walk around and click on various parts of the game. Just like a computer adventure game, the GM controls  the content, but the player controls the pacing and focus at which that content is explored.

Hmm... I should actually write a bit more about that Monkey Island metaphor at some point, it sounds like it might develop into an useful design framework.

But anyway, I think that experiencing things is really a central quality of Simulationism in that when you play a simulationistic game, what you have at the end is an experience devoid of external measure such as dramatic arc or finished challenge. This is really powerfully seen in some immersionistic play: you pretend to be an elf just because you want to pretend to be an elf, and that's it, no external measuring stick to it. In the same way I want to play another session of Hair just because I'd like to "enjoy" another night of rebellious, pretentious pretty boy slashery (the next movie will be set in San Francisco, incidentally).

Am I even on the topic anymore? Sometimes it feels like this whole Simulationism thing is so under-developed that we really should just talk about simulationistic game experiences at length before even trying to figure out any second-order things like the actual topic we have here. At least I touched on the central question: Simulationism is separate from Narrativism, and I don't think that it is constructed of ethical choices like Narrativistic play largely is. While we don't really have superbly clear simulationistic design frameworks, at least we have some good games and gaming skill; for instance, I'm pretty certain that I can replicate a simulationistic gaming experience any day with the narrow range of simulationistic gaming tools I understand and appreciate myself. Same probably goes for others.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 20, 2010, 04:28:01 PM
I'm not seeing any differences between Right to Dream and Story Now design and play that couldn't also be described as differences in premise within a Story Now agenda.
I'm pretty sure that to describe them as such would be using the terms in a very different way than Ron intends them.  Ethical choices resulting from sentients facing obstacles gives you Story Eventually, but that's vastly different, socially, from Story Now.

Fred Simster and Joe Narrster might both want to explore what happens when cult members are exposed to their leader's hypocrisy.  But they might drive each other nuts if they tried to do it together, because Joe wants every scene to take that exploration one step further and then cut, while Fred wants to let the exploration go wherever some colorful character play takes it.  (I'm not saying either of these preferences is definitional of a CA, I'm just going for examples that might be familiar.)


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Caldis on March 21, 2010, 07:08:53 AM

I'm sort of with Eero about Luke's thought on ethical choices, my take is that while ethical choices may have been made by characters in all role playing games if the players dont really care about the ethical choices during the game then it doesnt tell you that much about the game in question.  I think it misses the distinction between just having a theme and exploring premise as its done in Story Now.

Let's take it back to your play example.  You stated the theme as "How does a person make their way in an indifferent universe?"   It's formulated as a question here but in play is this really a question?  Are the characters questioning how they should make their way in an indifferent universe?   Does the player make an ethical choice for the character in the game or has the decision already been made?

Your example where they crash into the asteroid, that was special because it reaffirmed that it was an uncaring universe but was there ever really an ethical choice involved?  You started the game as unscrupulous mercenaries so it was pretty much guaranteed from the get go that they would be making bad ethical choices, did it say anything about the characters that this specific incident did them in rather than some other point?

I think considering morality and ethics is probably a good thing and inevitable in most RPG's, so yeah it's probably a good thing to consider in design but there are different ways they can be used in play and you have to consider how you want to use them.

 


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Anders Larsen on March 21, 2010, 09:00:31 AM

I more and more begin to think that describing Simulationism as genre simulation/emulation is not very useful, because while genre simulation is important in Simulationism, it is not that alone which make it fun. It is like in Narrativism where it is not the moral choice alone that create the fun, but what you do with it and what consequences it creates.

I have experienced two approaches to Simulatonism in my own gaming life that I have found interesting:

The first one is the same that Ron explain in the thread David Berg links to. This is where you challenge everyones understanding of the fiction by throwing in a new element, that with the first glance seems to be out of place; it does not completely fit with what is already established. The fun is then to, through play, find hidden connections that can explain how this new piece of fiction actually fit into the established understanding. It is especially exiting when a number of pieces does not quite fit, and suddenly something is reviled than make everything fit perfectly in an unexpected way. A murder mystery is a perfect example of this.

The second one is more about exploration. It is where you explore how new pieces of the fiction relates to other elements of the fiction. And to explore what causally consequences the new piece have for the character and the rest of the fiction.

Genre/setting simulation is a very important ground rule for those two approaches, but it is what you do with it which make it fun.

 - Anders


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 21, 2010, 12:21:20 PM
I think a thing that's causing confusion in this thread is that there are two kinda-overlapping but disparate ideas of what Right to Dream is.

There's the one that Ron proposes in his essay on the subject, and which has been developed a little since then, which is all about the experience of the "Rightness" of the "Dream": Building a fictional world, and testing the limits of what it can contain.  Enjoying the resilience of your vision.  Probably this also contains the kind of immersive, experiential play that Eero talks about.

Then there's what Vincent talks about on his blog.  I think this is an attempt to define the same thing in a different way.  Vincent talks about play where moral judgement of the characters is off the table - play is entirely "wish fulfillment" in the sense that you have a vision of the character, and everyone else acts to affirm and not challenge that vision.

Here's my take on these.  I don't see how the first formulation of Right to Dream is incompatible with Story Now play.  I don't see how you can't enjoy and test the resilience of your vision, while also exploring premise.  Those two things don't seem mutually exclusive to me.

That's why I think Vincent reformulated Right to Dream as about not making moral judgements of the characters.  That is, clearly, incompatible with play where you do make moral judgements of the characters, which characterises our current understanding of Story Now.

So what I'm saying is that I think this second definition of Right to Dream isn't exclusive of exloring Premise either.  I think that not making judgements of characters is a technique, a technique which makes it impossible to explore many of the Premises that I personally find most interesting, but that does allow you to explore other Premises.  These are typically pretty bland, phatic statements: Can good triumph over evil? What does it take to be a hero? Can a few people working together change the world?

I think you can reformulate many of the problems that have been called Creative Agenda clash as actually a clash about what premise is being explored in the game, and what techniques are appropriate for doing that.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 21, 2010, 12:34:12 PM
Caldis,

Those are good points.  For sure, ethical considerations were not at the forefront of our decisionmaking.  The premise was not "Can you be a good person in an uncaring universe?"  But I think every decision that the players made on behalf of their characters was answering the question "What do you do in an uncaring universe?".  I think that's why we cared about what happened in play.  We cared about the characters making some kind of mark, doing something significant.  Not, I think, for the Gamist challenge of the thing (though that's possible), but because that's what gave the characters' actions some kind of meaning.  The fact that it all ended in a fireball achieving nothing, was, I think, significant to us on that level.

Anders,

Simulation as something seperate from creative agenda is right on.  Vincent talks about it in one of the posts I linked before.

David,

I'm not seeing the distinction you're talking about.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Lance D. Allen on March 22, 2010, 03:33:41 AM
I'd like to weigh in briefly, as Simulationist play is still my primary preference.

I've probably fallen behind the bleeding edge of what GNS means these days, but I've got a decent grasp on the foundations. Sim play and Nar play can look very similar. The events of play can be identical. The difference is in the priorities of the players playing those events. Nar prioritizes asking thematic questions and answering them through play. Sim prioritizes exploration. I should say Big-E Exploration, in the Big Model sense. Every CA utilizes Exploration extensively, but only Sim makes Exploration the point of playing.

It's the difference between asking "How far will you go to save your family?" and "What would this character do in this situation to save his family?" Or more explicitly "What would it be like to be in this situation, forced to make a hard decision about saving my family?"

Also, exploration of character, situation and setting are only some of the types of exploration prioritized by Sim play. As Eero pointed out in his example of stylized superheroes, sometimes it's about exploration of color. Other times, it's about exploration of mechanics.

So, if I understand correctly, you're asking what tools this gives us? I'm assuming you mean tools to explore what went wrong/right in a given instance of play, and tools to improve future instances of play. If I'm right, we have a few tools. You can still keep the "moral choices"-centric focus, even. How does setting force/encourage moral choices? How do given character archetypes deal with moral choices? How do the mechanics reward/constrain moral choices?

I've more thoughts, but less time. I'd also like to make sure I'm in line with your goals, Simon, before going further.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Caldis on March 22, 2010, 05:45:10 AM

Vincents talk about moral judgements being off the table isnt anything new.   Take a look at the Right to Dream essay, it's big and there's a lot to go through but if you read down aways you'll find this.

"In Simulationist play, morality cannot be imposed by the player or, except as the representative of the imagined world, by the GM. Theme is already part of the cosmos; it's not produced by metagame decisions. Morality, when it's involved, is "how it is" in the game-world, and even its shifts occur along defined, engine-driven parameters. The GM and players buy into this framework in order to play at all."

So Vincent isnt talking about anything new he's just breaking the ideas down into bite site pieces.

I think your on to something important about games and possibly game design.  That thematic question that you are getting at is a necessary component in having a game at all and makes it compelling to the players, gives the action meaning like you said the ending in a fireball did for your group of characters.   I think it's been talked about in terms of design and having an idea of "what your game is about" and having it shared amongst a group is integral in having an active creative agenda.  What you do with that question depends on the CA and how you are going to use it.

So looking at the thematic question again that your play posed. "What do you do in an uncaring universe?"  For your group that question was already answered for the most part.  They were unscrupulous mercenaries who I'm guessing would do pretty much anything.  Play revolved not around how they answered the question but on the ramifications of that answer.  They've chosen to go outside the law and morality, put themselves in dangerous situations, what's going to happen when they do that.  Story now play on the other hand would be about pushing that question and it's boundaries and taking an ethical stance about the question for this character.    Will your character break the law?  Will he murder if pushed hard enough?  Will he turn on friends and family?    That type of questioning doesnt work well if the ones being questioned arent interested in the questions, conversely if someone is looking for those questions but they arent getting them they may lose interest or turn the game in an unwanted direction. 



Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 22, 2010, 08:06:26 AM
Simon,

A Story Now version: the players want every scene to push toward addressing "What do you do in an uncaring universe?" and they want to answer that question (or a chosen sub-premise thereof) in a single session.  If the premise gets ignored for a while, players get bored or antsy.  If they can't answer it in a way that makes a statement, they feel unsatisfied.

A Story Eventually (specifically Sim) version: Putting their own unique spin on space mercs, exploring the setting, and celebrating the genre is quite enough for players to enjoy scene after scene and session after session.  No one gets bored or antsy if "What do you do in an uncaring universe?" is barely recognized, pursued or developed.  The fact that it's explored eventually is good enough.  In fact, it's good enough even you already could have known what the answer would be (as Caldis describes).

(Again, these are just examples, and not definitional of the CAs.  I'm just trying to highlight the difference in priority.)


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 22, 2010, 08:41:12 AM
P.S.  I play a ruthless character.  By game's end, he winds up all alone.  So, was this simply realizing an extension of my vision for the character?  Was it the fiction providing genre-appropriate conseuqences for my character's actions, even in ways that surprised me?  Or was this a moral judgment by one or more players?  I don't think you can answer this question without looking at how the game was played; and I think the distinction from my last post is a crucial dimension of that "how".


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on March 22, 2010, 10:23:50 AM
Simon, this is a great thread. Thanks for starting it.

You linking those discussions from Anyway has been very important to me for seeing where you’re coming from. I remember reading them back then and thinking, ‘Wow, Vincent, you have no idea.’ So maybe I’m just that guy he mentions who identifies as Sim, but then, I’ve read all the constructive denial stuff and discussed this with Ron on the forums and in person, I daresay I’ve advocated the merits of The Right to Dream on these forums on more than one occasion, and all I can say is, that thing Vincent is describing there sounds terribly dull to me.

Now I’m sure there is a functional way of playing with a Creative Agenda that is The Right to Dream, constructive denial and all, that also matches Vincents description. But that’s not a comprehensive view on the Agenda, more like an example. Vincent is explaining the difference between one particular way of playing Story Now, and one particular way of playing The Right to Dream. Simon, you said you do not want to make a point of labelling your session and I am not trying to, all I am saying is, don’t get caught up in Synecdoche. I might offer this post (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=25449.msg245368#msg245368) as an example where a paladin just wouldn’t do that got thrown straight out the window, in a game that I would consider as Right to Dream as it gets.

That said, what’s the use in The Right to Dream, as a term? Well, that’s a very fundamental question about GNS, the most fundamental one, in fact, that you can ask. I’m certainly not the one to answer it.

Concerning the moral dimension, I guess three things should be kept apart: The moral dimension of player actions (at the table), the moral dimension of the characters’ actions, and how much (or little) the players care about the moral dimension of the characters’ actions. I used to think that players caring about the moral dimension of the characters’ actions was Story Now, because moral was present in a lot of examples and discussions. But Luke’s angle is an interesting one. Moral is maybe best looked at like Exploration: It’s part of any role-playing, but is it what play is all about?

To make a guess, I would say your Traveller game wasn’t about answering the question you phrased as Premise and thus creating Theme. The moral questions were present in your game, were part of it, part of the fun. They colored your expectations and the way you added to your “package” of shared imagination. As such, it makes a lot of sense to look at your play that way, but then, check out what you wrote there: “How does a person make their way in an indifferent universe?”

There you got Setting (“an indifferent universe”), you got Character (“a person”, meaning, I suppose, a character with something of a personality), and you got Situation (“making your way”, meaning, I suppose, a struggling but self-determined existence). So, if I’m guessing correctly, that was your “package” right there, your “Dream”, the thing play was all about. Phrasing it as a Premise-like question just helped, in this particular instance, to get a grip on it. Does any of this make sense to you, Simon?

- Frank


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 22, 2010, 04:30:29 PM
This thread is garnering a surprisingly positive reaction.  Perhaps my intentions aren't clear enough? Essentially what I'm arguing is that the label "Right to Dream" isn't a useful one, and should be discarded.  My next thread is gonna be about Step on Up. 

Let the flames begin?

I want to explain why I think Luke's definition of an RPG is useful.  His focus on "ethical choices" lays bare what I think lies at the core of what a Shared Imagined Space is for.  We don't need a shared imagined space to enjoy the details of a world.  We can do that by just writing about it (and I think a lot of obsessive setting designers are doing just this).  We don't need a shared imagined space to imagine ourselves in a different world.  We can read books for that (and I think a lot of obsessive setting book readers are doing that).  The key factor that a shared imagined space allows us is to act, and to have that action interpreted within the ethical framework that all human acts are interpreted in.  That's what it's about.  Roleplaying gives us the illusion that our characters' actions are human acts, and subject to the interpretation and judgement of the other players.  Even the strictly immersive, zero action games that Eero talks about are like this.  Our characters act (or fail to act), and we think about the meaning of those actions - their significance to ourselves.  I think all the acts of a character in a roleplaying game are symbolic acts.  They have meaning only through our moral judgement of them. 

So what's creative agenda? I think the distinction of Right to Dream, Story Now, and Step on Up has distracted us from a more useful understanding of creative agenda.  To clarify, my understanding is that creative agenda is the skewer that holds together all the other parts of play.  Exploration is "what happens next".  Creative agenda is "why do we care?" I think that "why we care" is always about the symbolic meaning of the characters' actions, their relevance to a theme, a premise.

So in my Traveller-esque game, our theme of "How does a person get by in an uncaring universe" informed all of our play.  As Frank puts it, it gave us setting (an indifferent universe), characters (people unfettered with obligations or scruples) and situation (making their way).  I think Frank's right that our play wasn;t really about "answering" the Premise, but then I think a lot of canonically Story Now play isn't either.  The premise was a framework for interpreting the acts of the characters - a lens, an organising principle.  A creative agenda.

Some games are tightly wound around their premise.  The premise is tightly defined, even if it is unstated. They have system that makes the relevance of character actions to the theme explicit, and helps players interpret actions in the context of the theme.  They have characters that are appropriate to the theme (in the sense of being invested in issues that reflect on the premise), situations that will impell those characters to action, and a clear space for the judgement of those characters according to the theme.  Historically we've called this kind of play Story Now.

Some games are loosely built around their premise. The premise is loosely defined, broad, probably bland or phatic, and almost certainly unstated.   There may be more than one premise.  They have systems that allow the characters to act, but not neccesarily that drive those actions to refer to the premise.  They have characters that may be relevant to the theme, or that may not.  Some of the characters' actions are relevant to the theme, but others are not.  I think we've tended to call this kind of play Right to Dream.

Between these two extremes there's a broad area of intermingling. 

Sometimes we're all on the same page about what that theme is, and we can easily appreciate each others' characters' actions in the game as relevant to the theme and thus worthy of our care.  Other times we each see the theme differently, our characters' actions seem hard to interpret to the others.  They seem to act at random.  I think that's what has been called creative agenda clash.

So that's what I reckon. 


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 22, 2010, 06:02:53 PM
I'll buy that the G/N/S distinction has distracted some folks from possibly adopting the focus you're proposing: varying approaches to Premise and Theme.  So how exactly is your proposed focus more useful?  I'd be happy to see what it's good at that GNS isn't...


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 22, 2010, 06:56:05 PM
Excellent question David.

I'm torn between starting a new thread, and continuing this one.  There's another piece of Actual Play that I'd like to refer to.

I'll do it here, with the understanding that it might get split to a different thread.

A friend of mine is a fan of the White Wolf game Exalted.  I don't really see the appeal myself, but he's a good friend so we often end up talking about his plans for play, his prep for games, plotlines, NPCs and so on.  Exalted's a big old mess of stuff, with so much going on in the world that there seems to be no room for characters within it.  It's a mess thematically as well, with all kinds of different things going on.  I've had really bad experiences with the game where play was just an unconnected string of events - things happening with no meaning or significance.  There were moments where fun almost emerged, but there was so much stuff present that wasn't connected to anything to do with the characters, and the characters were so disparate in their goals, that nothing felt meaningful.  In terms of my new understanding of creative agenda, play didn't coalesce around a theme at all.

And yet, people seem to have consistently fun play with the game.  What are they doing to achieve that?  How do my friend and I capture that?

What I've found, using insights from this new understanding of creative agenda, is that selectively editing down the content of the game, creating a contained situation, and NPCs appropriate to that situation, makes for a better game.  In other words, to make a fun game out of a whole mess of possible content, you need to edit with an eye for theme.  We've done that with the game he's currently planning.  We looked at the range of possible elements to include, the characters that the players were interested in, and some of the issues they evoked, and created a tightly bound situation around those characters.  There's no "Premise" in the Story Now sense, but there is a theme in the sense that I now understand it.  It's something like "Can the powerless, working together, defeat the powerful?" or maybe "Does 'the system' always win?"  We have characters all with their own vendettas against those more powerful than them, a vast and ever-unfolding conspiracy involving the highest levels of power, a contained place for all the events to take place, and a triggering event that sets the actors in motion.

I want to make it clear that what we're creating is NOT a recipe for Story Now play.  There's explicitly no doubt that the characters are the heroes of the story, no question that uncovering the conspiracy is a good act.  We don't care what it may cost the protagonists.  But a tight theme is still a recipe for better play.  Diagnosing my friend's preferred play style as "Right to Dream", and then going on to tell him about what that entails isn't going to help him make a fun game at all.  Talking about theme and editing to clarify theme does.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 22, 2010, 09:44:58 PM
Simon,
Ah!  I like this technique a lot.  It sounds to me like you're talking about using theme to inspire character/setting element selection/creation to contribute to the situations that the theme anticipates.  (I could happily go on about how this is cool, but for the purposes of this thread*, I'll restrain myself.)

I agree that calling a game G or N or S doesn't get you that, specifically.  What does G/N/S get you?  I hope someone else chimes in on that.  I can only quote from theory; my personal experience is very inconclusive.  My understanding of the theory, though, indicates that the G/N/S distinction is good for something other than what your technique is good for, and the two can happily coexist.

*Maybe another thread?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Silmenume on March 22, 2010, 10:37:21 PM
Hi Simon,

As the old Sim crank in the desert, I am going to agree with your premise that “Right to Dream” as a descriptor and potential guide for play of a particular creative agenda (ostensibly Sim) is a crock for a great number of reasons.  Unlike “address of Premise” where there is a fairly solid of what “Premise” is and whole rules systems that guide the “address” process, the phrase “Right to Dream” offers no definition of what “Dream” means nor does phrase “the right” shed ANY light on the process.  Adding to the problem is that the word “Dream[ing]” connotes a passive endeavor of letting one's mind wander.  It's just as empty a phrase as “the emotional problems of rocks” is.

I also agree with you that Theme is a vital part of what we are referring here to as “Sim” play.  The game I've played in and have written about over the years has powerful thematic elements running through it all the time.  One the positivist side the themes are part and parcel of why we role-play this particular setting (Tolkien's Middle Earth).  One the constricting side (I'm not sure of the appropriate vocabulary word) having Theme's does edit down the content of the game helping to create a contained situation making a better game for all the reasons you indicated.

As you indicated this is not Story Now.  Premise has been tossed around quite a bit on this thread and I want to make clear that as “defined” here is a question about the human condition.  Theme is a statement about the human condition.  In role-play process this means that Theme is a constrictor on player choice.  This isn't bad as this is where the challenge (not in Step on Up terms) to the player comes in.  Can the player resolve the Situation while confining his choices to Themes of the game?  The aesthetic, the beauty, the awesome comes from the creative manner in which a player deals with Situation while at the same time limiting their choices to the Themes being celebrated.

The key is that we are not “making statements” about the human condition, rather we are living (role-playing) our commitments to those statements or beliefs or fantasies about human behavior.  In my game for example we cherish the Theme of the epic heroic character.  By epic heroic, in Thematic terms, I mean something like that struggling against wrongs of vast consequence (that failure is not  just personal but will effect many) and will mean risking your life is worthy and noble.  For this to have emotive impact sometimes failure is necessary or there is no risk.  So question at hand is not what is the player saying by his choice, but rather is the player going to be able to resolve Situation and Theme?

Why is Theme so important?  Because we players are social beings and we are keenly interested about human behavior – even when the character's raiment is “non-human.”


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on March 23, 2010, 01:26:08 AM
Hey Simon,

Surprising or not, I guess none of the people participating in this thread right now were part of the crowd who were around in the discussions up to 2001 or 2002 when the terminology was developed. I guess many of these terms have grown from those discussions and were what seemed to work at the time, for the people involved.

Personally, I always found it to be problematic that terms like “Premise” and “Theme” suddenly had a very different meaning from the one they would have in a normal conversation. Perhaps they were giving me so much headache because I am not a native speaker. Ron and Vincent starting using the terms “Story Now” and “Right to Dream” more and “Narrativism” and “Simulationism” less, because that was working better for the newer people. But I think you are getting at more than just wording issues here. Creative Agenda has sometimes been described as aesthetic goal or preference, and you are shifting the focus in looking at such aesthetics.

Discourse at the Forge seems to have leaned heavily towards explaining the real world interactions between the real people, because back in the day, these real world interactions seemed to be neglected a lot in discussions about role-playing. Therefore, the Model focuses a lot on the real people and not so much on the fictional content. What you are doing now is, with a clear understanding of what’s going on at the gaming table, reconsidering the fictional content and looking for a red line, for an aesthetic goal or preference that holds the fictional content together and makes it worthwhile to the players, whereby it is already understood that it’s about the players, not about the characters, and that some things need to work out at the gaming table in order for play to be fun. You are doing the next step, zooming into Exploration, leaving Social Contract behind. And you’re using premise and theme (not capitalized) as very valid and sensible terms in discussing what you are doing, only unfortunately there has already been another, capitalized meaning attached to them at the Forge.

It makes a lot of sense to consider Exploration that way when discussing Sim, and in particular, High Concept Sim. And I’m looking forward to you applying that same “second step” at Gam, where I suspect you are going to take a hard look at Challenge.

As concerns the ethical dimension of the fictional interaction, I’m not sure if the connection is just as mandatory as you are making it. I sure follow you that the capacity to act and interact is what makes role-playing unique and interesting. I didn’t take philosophy classes but my understanding of moral is basically the Categorical Imperative, which looks specifically at actions and interactions. Now this could mean that the moral dimension of actions and interactions is what makes them interesting in the first place. Or it could just mean that actions and interactions are interesting per se, and happen to have a moral dimension, too. I for one think that the ethical/moral dimension of character actions is a great topic that deserves looking at (I have a great example in mind, actually). But is it really the defining factor for theme (not capitalized) and aesthetic preference, as we look at the SIS? Or even Creative Agenda all the way up to Social Contract? My impression is rather that you are making two important points in this thread that are, however, not necessarily connected.

- Frank


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Anders Larsen on March 23, 2010, 01:52:05 AM
Simon, I find that I both agree and disagree with you.

I agree that CA is rarely useful to bring up when you try to fix a boring/broken game. Here it is probably much more useful to do it the way you describe.

I disagree, though, with your description of CA. It particular go against my understanding, when you say that the common description of Sim ("enjoy the details of a world") does not need a SIS. The thing is that you can just as well say the same thing about Nar, that confronting ethical choices don't really need a SIS; you can just write a book about it. My problem here is that I can not agree with any understand of the CAs that does not require a SIS.

So here is how I see it: A Creative Agenda is not found in what the single player do, but in how the group together build up the SIS over time. Or to say it in an other way: Your Creative Agenda is not the input you put into the game, it is what you would like the the group as a whole to do with that input.

If the group take the consequences of the single player's choices, and use that to build a story, you have Nar.

If the group take the fictional elements the single player provide, and use that to fill out their understanding of the fiction as an whole, you have Sim.

In my mind these are two distinct (and, for that matter, equally valid) activities, that can not be separated from the SIS. You can of course have moral choices in both Nar and Sim, but the difference is in how the group treat it when it is incorporated into the SIS.

(Disclaimer: I am not sure that my understanding of CA is correct, this is just how I currently sees it)

 - Anders


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Caldis on March 23, 2010, 08:55:45 AM

It sounds like you've found an approach that works for you in regards to Exalted and that's great but is that necessarily indicative of truth for all players of a sim game?    You even said that tons of people seem to have fun with Exalted even if you didnt understand it, is it possible they enjoy the random mix of stuff that puts you off without having to hook onto a theme?

If you understand GNS as a classification system of how people play then those who are finding enjoyment without looking at theme there play still has to fit into the classification.   So clearly Right to Dream still does have a use at least for classification purpose.

I think your making a mistake in conflating theme with Story Now, maybe that's your point that it has been all along.  Theme isnt the same as addressing premise and just because you have it doesnt mean you are doing Story Now anymore than having a detailed system means you are doing Right to Dream.   Furthermore I think your idea falls apart if you dont consider what agenda will be in play.  If you are developing all of play with the idea of focusing on the theme but you dont know whether that theme will be questioned in play or reaffirmed then you dont really know how to move play forward, what direction to take play once those initial thematic developed situations are resolved.



 


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 11:09:38 AM
A lot of good replies.

I'm going to focus on Caldis, because those questions are the easiest to answer.  Hopefully my answers will work for the others too.

I don't think GNS is a useful classification system because it attempts to make distinct and incompatible some kinds of play which I think in fact overlap. 

I don't think any players play ignorant of theme.  I think some players play games with a loose connection to theme, with multiple or shifting themes, and with a low emphasis on their theme.  I think some players also play "phatic" play, in the sense that making original statements about the theme, or even questioning the theme very hard are not the focus of play.  Either or both of those things can happen.  I don't think that either of those things is inherently less fun than play with a tightly focused, original and challenging premise.

The reason I think that this is not compatible with GNS is that this presents a model of why players care about what happens in play (creative agenda) that is not a categorical difference, but rather a field of possibilities.  You can play a tightly wound, phatic game. You can play a loosely bounded game where you challenge your themes hard.  I think this picture more accurately captures what people experience in play, and, crucially, is more useful in talking about play, fixing problems, and designing games.

I think that a lot of the things that people point to as indicative of Creative Agenda are in fact techniques (challenge, player empowerment, GM content authority).  Techniques are powerful things, and I think they say a lot about how the game will be played, but they're not a creative agenda.  They don't tell you why the players care about a particular action. I think theme explains that better than CA does.



Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 11:12:23 AM
Frank, you make a lot of interesting points, but I think maybe I don't quite understand them enough to reply.

Also, I'd really appreciate some input from some of the "old guard" that Frank's talking about.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 23, 2010, 12:40:51 PM
Let the flames begin?

I want to explain why I think Luke's definition of an RPG is useful.  His focus on "ethical choices" lays bare what I think lies at the core of what a Shared Imagined Space is for.  We don't need a shared imagined space to enjoy the details of a world.  We can do that by just writing about it (and I think a lot of obsessive setting designers are doing just this).  We don't need a shared imagined space to imagine ourselves in a different world.  We can read books for that (and I think a lot of obsessive setting book readers are doing that).  The key factor that a shared imagined space allows us is to act, and to have that action interpreted within the ethical framework that all human acts are interpreted in.  That's what it's about.  Roleplaying gives us the illusion that our characters' actions are human acts, and subject to the interpretation and judgement of the other players.  Even the strictly immersive, zero action games that Eero talks about are like this.  Our characters act (or fail to act), and we think about the meaning of those actions - their significance to ourselves.  I think all the acts of a character in a roleplaying game are symbolic acts.  They have meaning only through our moral judgement of them. 

Well you did ask for it.  Utter bullshit IMO.  See previous commentary on Narr-derived brain damage.

No, I don't really think you can enjoy an imaginary world by writing about it.  That is an act of creation, not experience.  Totally different.  It would be more accurate to say you can ejoy an imaginary world by reading about it, which is certainly true; but as we know, the draw of RPG is to be more than just a passive observer, but to be an actual inhabitant, seeing it from the inside.   Of course the SIS allows us to act, but why this action be be interpreted in an "ethical framework"?  This is sheer nonsense, as is the claim that all actions are interepreted in this light.  I've just made myself a sandwhich, what are the ethical implications there?  No, that is NOT what its about, and I cannot imagine that many people spend all day considering their actions in ethical terms.  Indeed one could argue from any number of political positions precisely the opposite, that most actions most of the time are not considered even slightly to posess an ethical component, whether that be clothes sticthed by indentured child labourers or eating blue-fin tune, etc etc ad nauseum.  "Moral judgement" can go hang, I have zero interest in wasting my time with such self-indulgent, navel gazing trivia.

I am somwehat more sympathetic to your argument to theme but I still think you are at 90 degrees from what is significant about it.,  Sure Sim games can wander without focus, absolutely.  One of their undesirable features is the lack of an end point, or chapters, etc.  Now way to tell when you are done, which elads to a rambling style of play that often burns GM's out.  But this makes theme useful as an organising principle, a simple tool, not a point of play.  "Does the syhstem always win" is not a meaningful proposition here becuase that presupposes that the setting is in some way representative of the question, and it is the question which is important rather than the experience.  This is completely backwards IMO.  It may be meaningful to organise play around (what amounts to) a demonstration of the system winning or losing, but that is worthwhile purely experientally, and cannot and should not be seen as some kind of answer that goes any further than the specific instance.

Your mistake is to move the important locus from play out of the SIS and into the heads of the players.  That of course is somewhat tautological but the fact remains is that what is significant is the IS itself, not what we might feel about it.  To withdraw from the IS and consider a moral judgement is to undercut the point of the activity in the first place.  It's not that such insights can never come, but they will come as a result of considering play post facto, not while doing it.  They are just another thing that might be learned, of no more inherent significance than any other detail that might have come to light.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 01:48:44 PM
Cool.  I think you correctly identify the key point I'm trying to make, but I don't think you make a convincing argument that I'm wrong.

Maybe it's my social science background, but I find it pretty uncontroversial that we understand all acts in the context of a symbolic framework.  I think maybe using the words "moral" and "ethical" is causing people some hang-ups, because they carry implications of right and wrong, of objective morality.  I'm not saying that we interpret all acts within a framework of good and evil.  That's not what I'm saying, because you're right, that's stupid.  I'm saying that we give meaning to actions (and in fact to everything we perceive) by referring to our cultural frameworks symbology.  By "meaning" here I mean "import", "significance".  I mean that we interpret actions as "signs" that signify something.

You're right, your making a sandwich doesn't have a lot of symbolic or ethical resonance, but then we don't see a lot of sandwich making in rpgs either.  If all acts were equally significant, we wouldn't have any kind of theme at all, and the kind of unstructured, meandering play I'm talking about wouldn't happen.  It's precisely because some acts carry more symbolic impact than others that theme is such a useful way of understanding play. Theme is how we give meaning to the things that happen in play.  Otherwise it's all just making sandwiches.

The "waiting to die" Nordic play that Eero talk about is, far from a counterexample, a great demonstration of this in action.  The actions, thoughts and feelings of the characters have meaning because of the situation the characters are in, close to death.  They're not just making a sandwich, they're making their last sandwich.  The action carries symbolic importance: "Faced with death, I make a sandwich". 


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: ThoughtBubble on March 23, 2010, 08:13:35 PM
Simon, here's my take.

I agree with you that CA is overrated as a tool for figuring out what to do in a campaign.

I agree that theme is a useful tool to figure out how to select Situation, Setting, Characters and Color. As such it's way more useful more of the time than CA.

I disagree with your conclusion that "Thus CA is worthless."

There are three fundamental disconnects as far as I can tell:

First, I get the feeling that you're treating Creative agenda as proscriptive instead of descriptive. My take on CA is that, when push comes to shove, my group, in this series of games, will choose/reward one set of activities over other ones. That's it. Compare this to "Since this is Gamist, this means..."

Second, I also think that you're trying to say that certain aspects of play only appear in specific Creative Agendas. I disagree. Theme is present in every CA. So is Setting. So is Character. So is Color. So is Morality, even if it is sometimes just "Killing evil things is AWESOME!"

Third, It also seems like you came to this with the idea that looking at Creative Agenda can tell someone why a game did or didn't work. From many failed games of personal experience, only 2 ever had Creative Agenda issues. Most of the bad games I've participated in were failing on raw exploration, or social contract.

My personal use for Creative Agenda has been "Keep aware of what the prioritized aesthetic choices are." Which is a handy thing to do. But knowing a Creative Agenda is much like saying "I want to write a monthly adventure novel." I still have to put the words on the page myself. And I still have to have the skill to know what words to put where and how. But now that I put a solid Creative Agenda on top of a game with functioning Exploration, and a solid Social Contract, I've been finally getting the "I can't wait until next game!" feeling that I've been searching for. But everything else had to be in place before that could start to work.

It feels to me like you're saying “This ruler is a poor hammer! We should get rid of all rulers!”

Aside from that conclusion, I think you're on to something. Keep applying this rigorous chain of thoughts. And tell us some more times about how you used theme to clear up a problem.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 23, 2010, 08:38:15 PM
Yes, I think that I'm getting what Simon's saying. Let me paraphrase for added understanding: All roleplaying necessarily has an "ethical dimension" in the sense that we will for the most part only care to play games that discuss human issues: whether narrativist or simulationist (or gamist, I guess), the game will regardless center on the human condition. There are exceptions that are sort of important in demonstrating that this isn't an inherent property of Creative Agenda, but it seems that the great majority of roleplaying is focused on discussing humanity.

If the above is a correct understanding, then I'll have to agree with the basic observation: we don't usually play games that don't have interesting content, and for the most part the interesting content can be considered to rise from the human condition. However, I don't know that this'd make Simulationism a mis-categorization; we've known for a long time that simulationistic games can and often will deal with the human condition, the ethical dimension: what makes it qualitatively different from narrativism is exhaustively analyzed by the premise-theme model of Narrativism; simulationistic games might have - and often do have - a theme, but it's preset and the purpose of the game is to express that theme, not to create it.

Bringing this back to Simon's original Traveller example, the question is pretty simple: did the game have a theme saying that "the universe is uncaring and what we do only matters to us", or did it have a premise of "how do we react to an uncaring universe?" In other words, insofar as the game dealt with the human condition, was it affirming an unstated ethical viewpoint, or was it looking to elicit an ethical statement from the players? The difference is usually pretty simple to observe in actual play by looking at the choices made by the players: do they choose how to interpret the game's style into concrete fiction, or do they make choices as to what the theme should be by observing the fiction?

If this is addressing Simon's point in a meaningful way, then a further observation can be made: correctly recognizing a simulationistic, themeful game as such is useful because then we can ask the right question: how can we make this game expose the theme more naturally, reliably and powerfully? Some basically simulationistic games, such as Call of Cthulhu (played as sim) go to great lengths in their game texts to answer this question. The equivalent thematic question for narrativism is different - namely, how can we make this game address (in the technical sense) this premise more efficiently. It's a different question, with different techniques in answer.

The interesting theoretical question here seems to be whether themeful simulationism and a presumably existing themeless simulationism are actually appreciably similar, contiguous and compatible in actual play; many people have, with varying degrees of understanding on the basic issues, criticized GNS-simulationism as a concept exactly because they think that it's actually miscategorizing several Creative Agendas under on umbrella term. Probably beyond the scope of this discussion, that.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Silmenume on March 23, 2010, 09:00:58 PM
For myself only, well said!


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 09:02:14 PM
Eero, I'm really glad you posted this.  I think you make a good summation of my basic point, which is helping me to pin down exactly what I'm getting at.  I'm still feeling my way through this discussion.

I'm hanging on to the idea that theme IS inherant to creative agenda, and that the concept of Right to Dream (and by extension Step on Up and Story Now) isn't a useful concept for describing play.  I think a far more useful concept is the idea of phatic versus engaging theme.

By phatic, I mean that the theme is present, but there's no expectation of meaningful challenge to the theme, we are less interested in what statements are made about the theme, and more interested in the process of making those statements.

By engaging, I mean the theme is a genuinely challenging proposition for the players.  We don't know how we feel about the issue, and in the course of play we find out.  We're interested in the statements that the players will make about the theme, through play.

This looks a lot like Right to Dream vs. Story Now, but there's an important difference.  A theme can exist on a continuum between phatic and engaging.  Some aspects of a theme can be engaging, and others not.  Players can be more or less engaged by the theme.  This, I think, encapsulates my experiences of this kind of play in a way that the "seperate and distinct" GNS categorisations do not.

How does that work for you?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 09:06:16 PM
Oh, also Eero, I'm interested in examples of "Themeless Sim".  I don't have a good idea what that would look like.  Are we talking about Turku school stuff?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 23, 2010, 10:22:10 PM
That's interesting what you say about accepted and challenged theme. Speaking strictly of definitions, it seems to me that if there is the sort of continuum you propose, then your initial claim that "sim doesn't exist, it's all really narrativism" is also correct. So let's look at that:

The usual claim about the separataness of the experience in simulationism versus narrativism is that strongly themed simulationism wants to celebrate and affirm the theme, not challenge it. My own best experience in this comes from when I've played a few short sessions of Vampire: the Masquerade, which is chock-full of a priori theming and theme affirmation as the content of play. I suck at playing that game! I just become extremely disruptive even if I don't want to be because I never seem to come upon the game truly willing to swallow the pre-delivered theme and the "right way" of doing things. As a consequence my character doesn't obey his betters, plot and betray, or even sit dimly in some corner angsting about the beast within. This, of course, is bullshit in that game's context, the idea is not for your character to walk into a research lab and donate his body to science. It just seems disruptive if you play the game without honoring the genre.

For a more general take, Star Trek gaming seems to suffer from this break in experience a lot, as does Call of Cthulhu. The idea in these games is not to take a human choice at face value, it is to affirm the theme by making the choice ascribed to your character role by genre convention. Superhero rpgs tend towards this direction often enough as well, I used to get into trouble with ill-conceited simulationistic superhero games that other players fucked up by grabbing at nar-style choices, killing villains and doing other no-no things. This sort of thing could be just crossed genre expectations (something that can happen within a single CA easily enough), but there is a clear dividing line: when your genre determines what your protagonist choices are about and therefore what the theme will be, then there's no narrativism possible, and only simulationism is left.

OK, so let's assume that everybody gets that part - why sim and nar can clash in that sort of exercise. Simon speculated above that what I describe above is not a binary condition but a continuum where a theme actually exists from the start, and it's just a matter of how engaging the theme is as a target of critique for the players; on the one end of the continuum we have a fully internalized theme (phatic theme) that is executed as a matter of course, while on the other we have a very contentious theme (engaging theme) which the players want to comment on and rebel against. To me the key question here is whether the latter is functional in the first place: what does it mean that we have an "engaging theme" that is, however, a theme and not a premise like in the narrativistic model? By asking this question I mean, how is it possible for this thing to be a theme if it is not being accepted, celebrated and affirmed by acting it out? Is the term "theme" meaningful as an art critique concept if we do not require the outcome of the play procedure to actually affirm this theme?

A supposition about the idea of continuum between phatic and engaging themes: it seems to me that a theme that is worthy of the name is necessarily completely phatic - that is, internalized by the group and enforced in play. If the group allows breaking the theme as a matter of procedure (such as by allowing player characters to kill villains without being villains themselves), then the theme loses its authoritative structuring power over the process of play and actually turns into a premise: no longer is the point of play in Exploring this fiction, theme included, but rather a new choice is entered: the GM obviously allows and appreciates it if I break the theme, so should I? It's an important choice, and if the group considers it an interesting one, then the game is well on its way towards narrativism.

The above might misunderstand something about Simon's idea, but assuming I got it correctly, I think that I'll have to disagree about the idea that there is a continuum from simulationistic thematic adherence to narrativistic creation of theme through play. At best we can say that there is a continuum in simulationistic play over how well-verbalized and abstracted a theme is; some games only have an implicit theme that emerges by correctly using the game mechanics (or setting), while others have clear mission statements posted in the game's introductory foreword. Similarly we might say that there is a continuum in narrativistic play from a focused universal premise pre-loaded into the game into a situation where the premise is only isolated through play and addressed organically. As an example of the latter, in Sorcerer you basically know in rought terms what the premise is and what you need to do to bring it to the fore, while in The Shadow of Yesterday you actually don't when the game begins; you'll only find it out through play, as players get into their roles.

--

Themeless simulationism: I agree that it's probably not possible to create a play experience that is completely themeless, insofar as we understand the term to mean human significance that makes us interested in fictional events (drama). Still, it seems to me that the existence of theme is fruitfully rejected by certain types of simulationistic play; we pretend that there is no theme, in other words. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that the concept of theme is creatively counter-productive to a game like Twilight 2000, as a big part of the game's enticement is an uncompromising objective realism that the players need to trust to get their kicks out of imagining the barren post-war anarchy painted by the game. Bringing up something like theme in a game like this would be a direct reminder that a narrative cannot be the same thing as objective reality.

Then there are the situations where a roleplaying game doesn't get concerned with the human condition at all. (Remembering here that I'm operating from the Big Model definition of what a roleplaying game is - it'd be entirely fair to decide that these edge cases are no longer roleplaying games.) This might be controversial, but I've been thinking lately that a certain sort of weird genre simulation seems to be the order of the day in 4th edition D&D: some groups seem to play the game not from a gamist viewpoint, but with the idea that the DM's duty in the game is to achieve a "perfect dungeoneering adventure experience", specifically limiting the idea of "challenge" into a simulation of the same by carefully balancing (balancing tools are probably the largest break these newer D&D editions make with the old) and cheating his way into the proper outcomes in play. This is simulationism insofar as I can see, but it's a very system-focused sort that doesn't have much in the way of engaging fictional theme. To play this sort of game you don't have to be concerned with the human experience of a dungeon adventurer, you just have to be able to visualize the dungeon environment correctly to use it to your advantage. Theme or no theme?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 11:21:47 PM

A supposition about the idea of continuum between phatic and engaging themes: it seems to me that a theme that is worthy of the name is necessarily completely phatic - that is, internalized by the group and enforced in play. If the group allows breaking the theme as a matter of procedure (such as by allowing player characters to kill villains without being villains themselves), then the theme loses its authoritative structuring power over the process of play and actually turns into a premise: no longer is the point of play in Exploring this fiction, theme included, but rather a new choice is entered: the GM obviously allows and appreciates it if I break the theme, so should I? It's an important choice, and if the group considers it an interesting one, then the game is well on its way towards narrativism.

The above might misunderstand something about Simon's idea, but assuming I got it correctly, I think that I'll have to disagree about the idea that there is a continuum from simulationistic thematic adherence to narrativistic creation of theme through play. At best we can say that there is a continuum in simulationistic play over how well-verbalized and abstracted a theme is; some games only have an implicit theme that emerges by correctly using the game mechanics (or setting), while others have clear mission statements posted in the game's introductory foreword. Similarly we might say that there is a continuum in narrativistic play from a focused universal premise pre-loaded into the game into a situation where the premise is only isolated through play and addressed organically. As an example of the latter, in Sorcerer you basically know in rought terms what the premise is and what you need to do to bring it to the fore, while in The Shadow of Yesterday you actually don't when the game begins; you'll only find it out through play, as players get into their roles.

Eero, I think your understanding of theme is a little different to mine, because I'm not seeing how theme must be phatic to be worthy of the name.  I think of theme more like a framework, a reference point against which we give meaning to the actions of the characters.  If the group allows the superheroes to kill the villains without becoming villains themselves, maybe they're just playing with a different theme?

I think in labratory conditions or something you might find a theme that was never challenged at all, but in actual play this happens all the time.  Now sure, I think there's a big difference in the feel of play depending on how this challenge to the theme is handled, whether we like it and go with it, or whether we shut it down and enjoy the reaffirmation of the rightness of our theme.  But I think those two things can happen in the same game at different times, without it being definititive of a radically different agenda.  What typically happens is that some genre conventions are up for grabs, and others aren't, sometimes it's ok to challenge the definitions of the characters or the setting, and sometimes it's not.

I'm really struggling to see the distinction between Right to Dream and Story Now that you're trying to maintain.

Twilight 2000: Ask yourself, why are the players playing this game, and not another? Why play a game of survival in a post-apocalyptic world, and not, for example, a game about college-age American gamers? If the only goal is objective realism, they'll be much more successful in the latter endeavor.  I argue that they're playing Twilight 2000 because they enjoy the idea of survival in a world stripped of the "softness" of contemporary society.  It's the testing of themselves to see if they could "really" survive in such a world (except that I think actuall testing is not the goal, but rather proving that, without the strictures of society, the gamers would be powerful and fearless).  The supposedly "realistic" and objective rules are key to addressing that theme.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 23, 2010, 11:30:45 PM
I'm hanging on to the idea that theme IS inherant to creative agenda, and that the concept of Right to Dream (and by extension Step on Up and Story Now) isn't a useful concept for describing play.
Dude.  Why?  Why are you hanging onto this? 

Seriously.  None of the productive portions of this thread rely on it.

If you care about whether the G/N/S distinction is useful or it isn't, please do some research, find out, and tell us.

Back to theme: in my own RtD (or "RtD"; whatever) play, observations on the human condition come and go in various scales. 

1) My game Delve is embedded with a basic "What will you do to get what you want?" theme, with "evil magic" color hung on "what will you do" and "rise from peasanthood" on "what you want". 

2) The players customize "not peasanthood" before play, coming up with goals like "become a famed and feared slayer of evil", "become the leader of a new political power not based on noble titles", and "become the grand vizier to a great leader".  So now the campaign takes on potential themes of narcissism, vengeance, revolution, manipulation, and selling out.

3) The characters meet some guys who are like them, but with more experience.  These veterans are extremely helpful, but also a bit condescending.  The players' reactions to them linger, as the veterans are a frequent topic of discussion and questions in planning.  "Should we find those guys and tell them this new info?  Should we work with them on this mission?"  I'm stunned by the amount of animosity the players generate.  The human concerns of jealousy and respect somehow become a recurring part of play.

4) The characters are doing something else when they witness a murder.  They capture the murderer, take him out to the woods, take all his stuff, interrogate him, and debate letting him go.  Finally one character steps up and kills him, gleefully exacting justice; another character helps, grimly resolved; the third dislikes it but goes along for practical reasons.  The human concerns of justice and mercy showed up for a few minutes and then went away.

5) One character starts humming a battle ballad on his way into town, and mentions that the hero's name fits the same meter as his own name.  The human concern of being remembered popped up for a handful of seconds.

So, I see human concerns being tackled hither and yon, resulting from game design, char-gen, GM adventure design, and inspired roleplay of the moment.  That last happens a ton, because each player is simultaneously looking to (a) express their character vision, (b) think as their character and really dig into the experience, and (c) respond to everyone else doing the same.

How can high-color, character-driven play not address human concerns at every turn?

Open-ended situations, where players have no "right answer", and must choose, and comment on the human condition while doing so!  Sounds like addressing premise and creating theme, right?  However... I've done all these things in a Marvel Superheroes game too, where we really did emulate those comic stories.  You know that the Punisher kills people, but who knows if he gets jealous of better vigilantes?

On the other side of the spectrum, long ago I had some games where everyone was focused on coming up with engineering projects to maximize effectiveness.  Not much character portrayal, more color on objects in space than on people; human concerns few and far between.

There's a spectrum, but I'm fuzzy on what it'd mean to say it goes from "phatic theme" to "engaging theme".  Maybe "more engaging themes than phatic themes" to "more phatic themes than engaging themes"?  Or do we need a term other than "theme" for commentary on the human condition that only takes up a few minutes of play?

Looking for one single theme ("phatic" or "engaging") that defines each game I've ever played seems completely impossible.  What was the theme of my GURPS game where we played vampires, aliens and robots bent on world conquest, helping each other but also competing?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on March 24, 2010, 02:23:38 AM
Hi Simon,

I’d so much rather talk about the positive ideas you are bringing up, than argue the usefulness or uselessness of Creative Agenda and, in particular, the distinction between Nar and Sim at the intersection (or overlapping) of thematically charged up Sim play, and richly imaginative Nar play. I have actually struggled with that distinction myself, to a point where I wasn’t even sure which of both it was I was playing (or was it a Hybrid?) Let me put it this way: GNS is an angle. It has been a good angle for some people to see where they were itching. For you (and me), at this point other angles may be more useful, but where’s the point in asking others to justify how GNS has been of use to them? In particular as GNS is actually giving us a framework right now so I can know where your angle is located, and compare it to mine.

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A theme can exist on a continuum between phatic and engaging.  Some aspects of a theme can be engaging, and others not.  Players can be more or less engaged by the theme.  This, I think, encapsulates my experiences of this kind of play in a way that the "seperate and distinct" GNS categorisations do not.
   
That’s an interesting observation. I think it’s important to note that “unchallenged” Sim themes can still be dynamic and engaging. That’s also my issue with Vincent’s explanation of Sim play (and, less so, with Ron’s terminology of “preset” theme): They make it sound static and lame. But in Sim play, theme doesn’t have to be static, it can evolve as all participants add to it. That is constructive denial at work. However, opposed to Nar, the point of play is not to challenge thematic statements once they have been made. In Sim play, you enlarge on theme, you modify and evolve theme. In Nar play, you question and challenge theme, tear it down and build it up again from scratch.

I would suggest this distinction can be there and can be fine and isn’t the same as the distinction between phatic and engaging theme, which is an interesting and useful observation in and of itself.

So in a Sim context theme can be quite dynamic (thus, “engaging” by your terms, Simon) if the game is highly thematically charged up and a lot of the players’ contributions are geared towards evolving the theme. The GNS expectation would be for it to still be disruptive if someone tried to throw the established theme out the window entirely, that would be a Nar thing to do.

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What typically happens is that some genre conventions are up for grabs, and others aren't, sometimes it's ok to challenge the definitions of the characters or the setting, and sometimes it's not.

That’s my experience, too. So you could say this is maybe just constructive denial at work, or maybe it’s a hybrid, or maybe it’s Story Now where sometimes the participants just sometimes chose not to challenge theme. I agree the distinction is rather pointless at that instance, and it’s more useful to focus on theme itself. Still I would say it’s useful to be aware of when theme is affirmed/evolved and when it is questioned/challenged, so you can know what happened when you challenge something and you see your fellow player frown.

It’s just dangerous to take it as simplistic: “You either never challenge theme, or you always challenge it.” That’s of course bogus.

- Frank


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 24, 2010, 09:37:01 PM
I'm really tempted to agree that my understanding of theme and GNS can coexist.  It'd certainly be easier and possibly even more productive in the short term.  But the core of what I'm saying is essentially contradictory to GNS as I understand it, and I don't want to be burdened with maintaining allegiance to the old understanding simply for convenience.  Discarding GNS feels like lifting a weight off my shoulders.  I invite you all to try it.

For fun, I invite you to try discussing this idea without reference to GNS terms, and see if you find communicating any more difficult.  I suspect you won't.

Also, I think it's fair to point out that I'm essentially arguing for a null hypothesis.  GNS claims that there are (at least) three seperate and distinct creative agenda types, while I argue there are not.  I think I've demonstrated effectively that creative agendas are broadly overlapping and similar, and the burden of proof is on GNS to demonstrate that that's not the case.

Frank,

I think "throwing the established theme out the window" is a disruptive thing to do in any kind of game.  Many recent games are designed such that it's very hard to do this (Dogs, My Life With Master), but imagine a Sorcerer game where a player has their character ignore their Demon, and shirks on their Kicker. Instead they're off doing some other thing entirely.  Sorcerer is set up to as strongly as possible point you in the direction of a theme, but it's possible to avoid the theme entirely, and it derails play completely.  Dogs has a very simple mechanism for protecting its theme.  As soon as a Dog makes a choice that puts them outside the thematic scope of the game, they cease to be a Dog.  You don't keep playing while your Dogs go off to fight a futile war against the Territorial Authority.  You don't keep playing a Dog who has decided that actually the Demons are right.  If you kept playing these characters, you'd be derailing the theme of the game in an unproductive fashion.  How robust a game's theme is to various character and player actions is a function of design largely, and theme partly, I'm thinking.  There's no need to create a classification system that puts very robust games in one category, and very fragile games in another. 

Unquestioned aspects of the theme essentially become part of situation, is my thinking.  In Dogs, the situation is that you will play characters who make judgements about the people they meet.  In most modern D&D, the situation is that you will play heroes who fight against evil.  In most older D&D, the situation is that you will play hard-up adventurers hungry for gold.  In Sorcerer, the situation is that you will play people with strong desires, and ways of achieving those desires that will cost them.  In any of those games, questioning the situation can derail the theme.  Some of them are more robust to it than others.

David,

I'm not saying that all play has a single theme.  In fact, if you look you'll see that I said the opposite of that.  I also am not saying that all play is relevant to a theme.  I said the opposite of that as well.  What I'm saying is that meaningful play is play that's relevant to a theme, and that some games have that quality more than others.

It seems like all the things you mention in your Delve play could fall under the "what will you do" or "what you want" parts of the game's overarching theme.  Does that sound right to you? I don't think it's essential that they do, since I think that multi-theme play is probably a common thing, and "one theme per character" is probably a pretty common thing too.  But what I'm getting at is that theme is the "skewer" that holds together the other elements of play.  Small moments of play, where your characters make choices like "kill the hostage or not" or moments of seeming colour, like the character humming the ballad, are given meaning by their reference to the overarching theme(s).



Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 25, 2010, 04:26:16 AM
Also, I think it's fair to point out that I'm essentially arguing for a null hypothesis.  GNS claims that there are (at least) three seperate and distinct creative agenda types, while I argue there are not.  I think I've demonstrated effectively that creative agendas are broadly overlapping and similar, and the burden of proof is on GNS to demonstrate that that's not the case.

No you haven't, you've simply asserted it.  As I have explained, your perception that theme or premise or anything like that are significant in sim play does not describe the way it actually works.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on March 25, 2010, 06:58:43 AM
Simon, sure, I agree. I didn’t mean that theme. I meant the other Theme, the answer to Premise. But I’m probably the wrong person to argue about this because the whole concept of Addressing Premise never really worked for me. It’s just not a useful angle to me.

I was thinking the other day that I would like to hear your take on Step On Up. That’ll maybe clarify what exactly you mean by “theme”, too.

- Frank


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: ThoughtBubble on March 25, 2010, 11:28:22 AM
Hey Simon,

I'm a little lost. Are we still on "There is no Right to Dream play"? It seems to me like we could be talking about any and all of the following:

  • All play is Story Now Play
  • There aren't 3 discreet and separate Creative Agendas
  • discussing games as they sit between "Challenging theme vs. Following theme"
  • Creative Agendas are worthless for anything
  • What is Role-Playing really about

Where do you want this conversation to go? I'd really like to say something that can help you out here.

- Daniel


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 25, 2010, 11:41:01 AM
How robust a game's theme is to various character and player actions is a function of design largely, and theme partly, I'm thinking . . . Unquestioned aspects of the theme essentially become part of situation
Yeah!  This makes sense to me.  Let me see where this gets us:  We already have the ability to talk about baked-in situation.  Like, Dogs' missions of judgment, D&D's dungeon crawls, and any game's "Here's what the characters will be doing."  So, what's added by viewing this thematically?

By being aware of the human questions implicit in the game's overarching situation, we can create specific situations in play that address those, adding a fuller resonance to play.

If you have a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff, how is that interesting in the context of real-world player concerns?  Maybe folks are interested in how buddies bond through facing danger together.  If so, the group might opt to play through things like fight aftermaths and medical care, which might otherwise be skipped.

Is this along the lines of what you're thinking, Simon?

In the monster-killing example, there are lots of potential themes.  I'm not sure how is best for the group to tackle one or more of them.  Maybe they need to actually discuss "how does this resonate for you?" pre-play?  Because maybe it turns out that this group of players is interested in the morality of dehumanizing their adversaries; but the game never raises that concern, and the GM doesn't prep for it, and no one scene-frames toward it, so it never sees play.

Small moments of play, where your characters make choices like "kill the hostage or not" or moments of seeming colour, like the character humming the ballad, are given meaning by their reference to the overarching theme(s).

I'm quite disoriented on this point.  What qualifies as an "overarching theme"?  Is it a human concern that exerts an influence on the whole of play, a la your "skewer" formulation?  Or is it just any old human concern that happens to arise at a given moment?

That was my point with the Delve examples.  It seems weird to think of ballad-humming as having meaning in reference to "How much evil magic will you do to rise from peasanthood?"  I wouldn't know how to prep or frame scenes toward encouraging an act like humming.

If we ditch the specifics and generalize the game's theme to "What will you do to get what you want?", then we're back to the land of theme that's so dilute and universal that it seems meaningless to discuss.  Or, maybe discussing it isn't the point: the point is providing for it in terms of meaningful choices and obstacles, and that's true regardless of color or genre.  (A la Luke's "All roleplaying" contention.)

What do you think?

Ps,
-David


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 25, 2010, 12:31:34 PM
Contracycle.

We could go back and forth with "I proved it" and "no you didn't", but I don't think we'd get anywhere.  Read what I've written so far.  If it seems like a compelling and useful way of understanding gaming, let's talk.  If it doesn't, maybe we could just go our seperate ways?

Frank,

The Step on Up thread is in the works.

Daniel,

I guess this is a "what is roleplaying really about" conversation, at the heart of it, though it's kind of a fatuous question.  What I'm saying, I think, is that the core of a coherant game's creative agenda is one or more themes, which are explored through play, where "explored" can mean anything from "challenged, addressed and questioned" to "affirmed, celebrated and reinforced".

David,

Yeah! You're asking some exciting, challenging questions.

I think that "design" means both what game designers do, creating system and often "baked in" situation, and also the work GMs and players do, creating characters, positioning them in the setting, creating opposition and opportunities.  For example, when you sit down to play Cyberpunk 2020 and you say "let's play a team of off-license paramedics scrambling for insurance money!" I think that's an act of design.   And yes, when you as the GM or as a player choose to play out a particular scene rather than not, or choose to apply a particular rules subsystem or not, you're making an aesthetic judgement according to your sense of theme.

I think the appeal of many traditional designs has been their ability to be shaped by the individual groups to address the particular theme(s) they're interested in, to allow play to shift over time and to cater to individual players.  I think the trade-off for that is that they often don't offer particularly strong system tools for addressing theme, and that they leave a lot of the design work in the hands of the players and the GM. 

An "overarching theme" is what turns the individual moments of play, the actions of the characters in the world, into a meanigful story.  I mean "meaningful" in the most basic sense, as in "able to be understood".  The events of play are no longer just "things happening" but rather events in a narrative.  I'm invoking some literary and psychological theory here that I don't understand super well myself.  Is this making sense to you though?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 25, 2010, 03:00:58 PM
We could go back and forth with "I proved it" and "no you didn't", but I don't think we'd get anywhere.  Read what I've written so far.  If it seems like a compelling and useful way of understanding gaming, let's talk.  If it doesn't, maybe we could just go our seperate ways?

Not as such, because your argument is that the terminology used here should change.  I have an interest in that; I have even more of an interest that you seem to be arguing that Sim should be downgraded to merely being a subset of Narr, and that Narr is "true" roleplaying.   I've read read you've written, and I don't think your taking on board the objections that have been raised.  Thus...

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I guess this is a "what is roleplaying really about" conversation, at the heart of it, though it's kind of a fatuous question.  What I'm saying, I think, is that the core of a coherant game's creative agenda is one or more themes, which are explored through play, where "explored" can mean anything from "challenged, addressed and questioned" to "affirmed, celebrated and reinforced".

OK, you think that, I don't think that, and I'll explain why.  As I've already pointed out, you're shifting the interest of exploration from the game wotld as imagined to some meaning which is interpreted onto it.  I don't think this is at all descriptive of a sizable chunk of RPG that actually goes on.  I've often seen people interested in and excited by a setting as such; it is the setting which engages their interest.  What they therefore want is an excuse to go and wander about in that setting, explore its internal causality and consistency.  This is exploration for its own sake not in service to addressing or questioning some alleged theme.  If there is to be a theme, which I don't consider strictly necessary, I would contend that it operates only at the Technique level - it is a tool as much as the pencils and dice.  It is not the point of play, and it is not central to the CA.  It is something which provides the excuse they are looking for, a framework for the action in play.  But it's a convenience, a pretext, no more than that.

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I think that "design" means both what game designers do, creating system and often "baked in" situation, and also the work GMs and players do, creating characters, positioning them in the setting, creating opposition and opportunities.  For example, when you sit down to play Cyberpunk 2020 and you say "let's play a team of off-license paramedics scrambling for insurance money!" I think that's an act of design.   And yes, when you as the GM or as a player choose to play out a particular scene rather than not, or choose to apply a particular rules subsystem or not, you're making an aesthetic judgement according to your sense of theme.

I totally agree thast what you decide there is an act of design, and I have on many occassions pointed out the fact that we've done a lot of work on system design, with good reason and results, and relatively little on how the actual game-at-the-table is designed.  Yes indeed, a game about off-license paramedics is going to be very different to a game about mercenary street-samurai.  All of this is true, but that doesn't imply that the resulting appreciation of the game is anything remotely resembling an aesthetic judgement.  It still seems to me that appreciation can be, and is, often located in exploration for its own sake, or in pursuit of challenge.  The presence (or otherwise) of a unifying them to the actually represented action doesn't alter this central purpose of the activity.

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An "overarching theme" is what turns the individual moments of play, the actions of the characters in the world, into a meanigful story.  I mean "meaningful" in the most basic sense, as in "able to be understood".  The events of play are no longer just "things happening" but rather events in a narrative. 

Which of course begs the question, why should the output be story at all?  Why is a "narrative" a necessary outcome?  A lot of my play has had no narrative, never resembled story in any sense.  As mentioned previously, I do see utility in importing some elements of story and narrative structure for various purposes, but it simply cannot be said that that the purpose of play was the creation of a story.  It is evident that for story, anything that doesn't contribute to and drive that story forward  should be cut, but I would contend this is wholly inimical to sim play.  If the purpose of play is primarily exploration, then many incidents in play may be interesting to the participants without having any pertinence whatsoever to any alleged or presumed story.  When asked why he climbed Everest, Mallory replied "Because it's there".  I think that alone is sufficient to make experience of the IS meaningful.

Some elements of theme may be useful as Techniques, but I cannot see how it can be claimed that it is necessary.  Your argument keeps coming back to the ideas of story and judgement, which are precisely the elements which make it unconvincing for me.    You're imposing something which is central to narr as a universal good applicable to all of RPG.  I don't think this is at all true.  Time and again, RPG's have been built on things like Tolkien or Star Wars not because players were particularly interested in telling stories in those settings, but because they wanted to immerse themselves, or more precisely re-immerse themselves, into that setting.  They're interested, essentially, for the toys and the cool colour.  None of this is necessary or indeed particularly relevent to theme or premise; the narratives of these properties could easily be reproduced in other settings.  That's just not what drives the interest for many people; what drives it is the setting itself.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 25, 2010, 03:58:41 PM
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You seem to be arguing that Sim should be downgraded to merely being a subset of Narr, and that Narr is "true" roleplaying.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It would be more accurate to say that what I'm trying to do is show that there's no kind of play that occupies a special and unique position.  There are just themes, and techniques for realising those themes. 

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I've often seen people interested in and excited by a setting as such; it is the setting which engages their interest.  What they therefore want is an excuse to go and wander about in that setting, explore its internal causality and consistency.  This is exploration for its own sake not in service to addressing or questioning some alleged theme.

Why are they interested in that setting? You seem to be saying that for people who want this kind of play, one setting is as good as another.  But my experience is the opposite. People are interested in experiencing a particular setting, for a particular reason.

Furthermore, if the purpose of play is internal consistency and causality, why are these people roleplaying? Aren't there better places to observe and experience that in, for example, real life?

There is a reason that people are interested in experiencing and interacting with a particular setting, and I think that is because the setting is meaningful to them.  Meaningful means theme.

Perhaps a more useful word that theme would be "metanarrative"?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 25, 2010, 04:26:18 PM
Nothing could be further from the truth.  It would be more accurate to say that what I'm trying to do is show that there's no kind of play that occupies a special and unique position.  There are just themes, and techniques for realising those themes. 

I'm not sure that's really a rebuttal.

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Why are they interested in that setting? You seem to be saying that for people who want this kind of play, one setting is as good as another.  But my experience is the opposite. People are interested in experiencing a particular setting, for a particular reason.

Because it's got lightsabres, or elves, or whatever.  Becuase it is interesting in any number of ways that happens to grab them.  For me, a strong draw is historicism, exploring the different ways in which different societies have lived.

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Furthermore, if the purpose of play is internal consistency and causality, why are these people roleplaying? Aren't there better places to observe and experience that in, for example, real life?

Because real life has neither lightsabres nor elves.  Because the control implicit in RPG allows you to construct your own experiment.  Becuase the feedback from other players can validate or challenge  your own interpretations and conclusions.

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There is a reason that people are interested in experiencing and interacting with a particular setting, and I think that is because the setting is meaningful to them.  Meaningful means theme.

Meaningful, yes.  Theme, as you use it, no.  As I have, I would have thought, quite forcefully made clear, the kind of things which you bundle into theme excite no interest in me whatsoever.  Sure it's meaningful, it's meaningful as a representation of an environment which is alien and interesting, something worthy of exploration.  That has nothing to do with story or narrative.

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Perhaps a more useful word that theme would be "metanarrative"?

No.  A setting is just a setting - any number of stories could be told within it, assuming that telling stories is what interests you.  You can maybe make the case, tenuously, that there is an implicit metanarrative for the properties prebviously mentioned, but if you look at an established sim game like L5R it seems pretty clear that the prime draw is the setting and colour: tools and weapons, clothing, different ideas of social good and right behaviour, even right thought.  No doubt story of the type you describe can be constructed in such a game, and the text certainly attempts to encourage that, but I'd confidently bet that that what attracts people is its other-culturalness.  And for many people, that is quite enough.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 25, 2010, 06:18:59 PM
We seem to be getting to a point where I'm saying "I think it's like this" and you're saying "no it's not it's like this", and we've given our arguments for why we think that's the case.  I think maybe any further discussion is just going to be us restating the same opinions more emphatically. 

How about you keep using the terminology you like, I'll keep talking about games the way I like, and we hope it's not too confusing?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 25, 2010, 07:30:21 PM
Well of course.  You're entirely free to coin your own iconoclastic terminology or develop a personal point of view.  Neither I nor anyone else can prevent you from doing so.  That said, you would presumably not have begun a thread to discuss the point unless it was your intention to make your case more generally.  Furthermore, this being a public discussion, you can't then demand that your argument be priviliged and protected from counter-arguments or illustrations of (what I see as) its weaknesses or incompleteness.

I'm quite struck by your inability to respond to my description of my own experience of play.  I'm not sure what that means, but for your position to hold one of two things must be true: either I don't play as I describe, or I'm not actually capable of reporting my own experience of play.  Neither is a proposition I'm likely to accept any time soon.

And that underlines the problem with the premise of your argument, the essential unity and likeness of all RPG play.  As a historical artifact, GNS arises from the Threefold Model of r.g.fa, which itself arose from the fact that when gamers were introduced to direct contact with one another through the internet, it rapidly became clear that everyone certainly did not share a common idea of how RPG should be done and what constituted good and bad play.  That is to say, both the Threefold and later GNS are attempts to grapple with the observable fact that people do not all play the same way.  This split in opinions is not something that GNS proposes, it is something that both models have attempted to reconcile into a comprehensible framework.

You claim that the distinction that GNS makes between forms of play is a distraction, but I suggest that this is a faulty perception.  Theme does not IMO offer the same explanatory power.  A given group might play games 1, 2 and 3 with themes A, B and C, but then that helps us not at all with what makes these games, played by this group, similar to each other and distinct from those played by another group.  Either groups have set of universal themes which they always apply - in which case theme simply becomes a rephrasing of GNS - or theme is independent from play style, as the current view would have it.  Your theme-based concept does not, to my mind, sufficiently explain either this similarity between instances of play, or differences between groups.

Consider, you propose the very decision to play 2000AD implies a theme of some sort.  But it seems to me, one could detach 2000AD and its setting of the 5th Mech Inf bogged down in Poland and write a Sim game, a Narr game, and a Gam game that all made use of the same setting and the same theme.  Doesn't that seem plasible enough?

(And incidentally, Frank and Simon, I was around in 2001, and on r.g.f.a before that.)


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 25, 2010, 09:23:28 PM
It certainly is my intention to make my case more generally.  I was just suggesting that the discussion was getting into point-by-point rebuttals which I don't think are good for productive dialogue (and are also specifically disapproved of on this forum), and maybe it would be better if it was carried on by other people.

Regarding your desription of your experience of play, I think that you're missing my point more than I'm missing yours.  Presumably, the experience of play is meaningful to you.  Forget any GNS implications of the words I'm using here.  As a human being, you construct meaning by producing narratives.  By narrative, I mean a series of events put in a sequence.  Like, "This happened, then this happened".  I want you to understand that narratives don't just happen, they're constructed by us.  Narratives are sensible to us (i.e. we are able to make sense of them), they become more than just "things happening", because they refer to cultural metanarratives, to "deep structures" to quote Levi Strauss, or "grammar of narrative" (Barthes and Greimas).  I'm calling that "theme".  I hate to be all "argument from authority" with those references, but I want to make it clear that what I'm suggesting isn't my own crackpot theory, it's how (some) people understand the process of human understanding. I think it's a compelling and useful way of understanding this.

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Consider, you propose the very decision to play 2000AD implies a theme of some sort.  But it seems to me, one could detach 2000AD and its setting of the 5th Mech Inf bogged down in Poland and write a Sim game, a Narr game, and a Gam game that all made use of the same setting and the same theme.  Doesn't that seem plausible enough?

Yes, I propose that the decision to play 2000AD implies one or more themes.  There are many different techniques for handling those themes, some collections of those techniques will look like what gets called Story Now, and other collections of techniques will look like what gets called Right to Dream.  Those techniques will affect the theme of the game, and how it feels to play.  It's possible that one game will focus on one theme strongly, and all the moments of play will be relevant to that theme.  The other game might focus on a number of themes, and have large portions of play that don't strongly reference one of those themes.  That's a thing that happens, and it's how some people like to play.  I'm not saying that it's a thing that doesn't happen, I'm saying it's a quantitative, rather than qualitative difference.

So yeah, people play differently.  I argue that it's a difference in techniques to adress themes, and a difference in the kinds of theme that are preferred in play.

What makes something worthy of exploration? What's cool about lightsabres? What do you find interesting about the different ways societies have lived?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 25, 2010, 10:31:18 PM
Here's a little thought experiment, that I hope will illustrate some common ground:

I dig lightsabers.  I might pick up, buy, and sit down to play a game because it has lightsabers.  So then we play, and I want to enjoy my lightsaber.  Part of this might be asking the GM how it works and what it looks like, and maybe trying to build my own.  Maybe everyone else in my group feels the same way, and we have a lively and exciting session!  Maybe the next session we do the same with Star Destroyers! 

But this can't go on for too long, can it?  I mean, I've never heard of a group actually maintaining shared interest and excitement in this sort of unchallenged exploring and learning.  I guess it might be possible, if the GM was really adept at hooking curiosity, and then milking it, and creating suspense over the ultimate reveal.  But I've never seen it, nor heard of it.

Usually what happens is that I want to do something with my lightsaber.  Why did I like it in the first place?  Probably because I liked the idea of waving it around and looking badass.  But to look badass, you need an audience, right?  And you don't know how they'll respond.  So now you have a goal, and some uncertainty.  Maybe this goal is trivially easily met, but then I probably want to form another goal.  "Now that the PCs agree I look cool waving this blade around, I bet I'll look really cool killing stormtroopers!"

In theory, this could continue indefinitely as pure wish fulfillment.  "You kill stormtroopers!  Describe how awesome it looks!"  But, again, I've never seen that.  I suspect it's a social dynamic issue.  What's the likelihood of a few friends wanting to all learn about Star Destroyers and live out lightsaber-waving fantasies together, and really appreciating each other's contributions?

Maybe there are 2-person games that work this way, where a single character-player asks and performs, and a single GM answers and gives audience approval.  I guess that could be fun.  But it'd clearly be an extreme outlier for our hobby, right?

What normally happens is conflict.  You can't always just get what you want, at least not without some uncertainty and struggle.  And once you have that, you have narrative.  "Want, try, fail, try again, succeed, celebrate" is narrative.  And, as with any narrative, you have the option to view it in terms of theme.  At this end of the play spectrum, thinking about theme probably isn't terribly useful.  But who knows?  You might not have to go very far into the conflicts of characters played by real people before some narrative adds up to resonate with the real people's real lives.

It seems at least plausible that a certain degree of human familiarity and relevance might be more conducive to a shared group endeavor than educational touring or living out wishes.  And, y'know, maybe that gets more conducive with a little theme-nurturing.

Personally, most of the exploration-of-setting type games I've played in have gotten boring when the characters weren't also pursuing goals that the players were jazzed about.

Ps,
-Dave

P.S. I am not claiming this says anything about GNS.

P.P.S. Simon, I'd like to continue discussing types of thematic influence in play, but I'm not sure if this thread's the place.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 26, 2010, 12:10:21 AM
Dave,

That sort of thing is exactly what I want to be talking about, and arguing about semantics and shit is exactly what I don't want to talk about.  I seem to keep letting myself be drawn into those arguments though.

I would be an enthusiastic participant in a new thread if you started one, or you're welcome to keep posting it here.

Needless to say, I agree completely with your characterisation of play.  That sounds like something I've done too.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 26, 2010, 08:38:02 AM
Simon, although I have some quibbles, I don't have any particular objections to the arguments articulated by the writers you mention, but I still think you're confusing applications.  Essentially you seem to be imposing the process of understanding story onto the process of drawing insight from experience.  David, I think, highlights precisely what I think is a mistake when he asserts that if you have conflict you automatically have narrative.  That is true IN STORIES, it's not true of practical experience of reality.  If I get randomly mugged in the street, I may well go on to locate that experience in some broader narrative about what I think about society and modern life, but I can also just go, "huh, shit happens".  Likewise if I slash my finger wihile slicing an onion.  There is no need to apply social narratives to such prosaic events in order to understand them.

You ask what it is about historical societies that interests me, and it's specifically the point that their metanarratives are not ours.  Their perceptions of their world and the logic which governs it is not identical to those with which we are familiar, not because of any inherent difference in psychology or physiology but because of the social constructs which surround people.  For my purposes, then, interpreting events in the light of my, modern, metanarratives is counterproductive - what I want to do is learn and internalise theirs.  This is the point at which mechanics enter - the mechanics themselves attach logic and consequences to certain actions which endows them with a meaning that probably would not have naturally arisen in my mind, aculturated as it is to modernity.

You propose that the selection of Twilight2000 as a setting implies selection of theme.  But doing that, having a sort of theme-before, would totally defeat the purpose from my point of view.  If there is something, a schema, which endows action with meaning to be derived from this setting, then it is a schema I wish to discover in play.  As I've already pointed out upthread, if theme is to be a meaningful term when applied to this sort of play, it can only be something that arises from play itself and is only understood post facto, and if you can even be bothered to distill it out of the action.  So I think your assertion that the selection of setting implies theme is groundless.

David, you say that ""Want, try, fail, try again, succeed, celebrate" is narrative" but I think you are making an erroneous normative statement here.  That is indeed a common structure of narrative, that doesnt mean that all actions are automatically narrative.  So yes, absolutely, games like this are powered by conflict, by goals about which the players are jazzed.  But they are jazzed through the prism of the character and the mechanics.  It is absolutely the case, as I have also already pointed out upthread, that I think this sort of game can indeed make use of some aspects of narrative structure to avoid certain pitfalls of this style of play.  But thats a long way from saying that because of the utility of these concepts as tools, the fundamental nature of the activity has become story-like.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Motipha on March 26, 2010, 01:19:05 PM
So, I'm wondering what you gain by removing GNS.  Yes, you now talk about games in terms of a unified continuum, but what does that actually afford you?

Let me explain.  I'm not arguing that Simon is incorrect in his underlying premise, that all game can (should?) be described in terms of the premise, narrative, metanarrative, theme or whatever descriptor you want to assign to it.  But what does it get you to identify or focus solely on that level of the game?  I've always seen the Big Model theory as being useful for providing us a set of tools of analysis by which we can talk about games meaningfully.  By saying that I enjoy playing Story Now, I'm providing a description of how I enjoy gaming.  Same thing with Right to Dream or Step on Up.  Regardless of what the deep, underlying arcs or premises of the game session, by using those terms I'm saying something about HOW I want to approach the game.  It tells me which techniques and stylistic choices I am more likely to enjoy, or less. 

Removing those terms doesn't seem to win me anything.  Perhaps this is because I don't see the three categories as being ABSOLUTELY mutually exclusive, and perhaps thats part of where I tweak Eero's alarm at theory heterodoxy.  For myself, I am coming more and more to realise that I have much more Right to Dream motivation than I thought I did (in part because of this thread and the exploration it has sent me on) while I still believe my greatest interest is towards Story Now.  But I can talk and identify different play preferences of my own and my groups because I have terminology and referents that highlight significant difference.

I just don't see what you get by dismantling that framework.  Yes, you can talk about things in terms of phatic versus engaging themes.  But now you are asking people who do not see things in those terms (and to whom those terms are intensely disinteresting) to reframe their perspective in those terms that seem explicitly contrary to what they enjoy.  And more to the point, I don't think you could use those terms to really talk about play in a way that would work for them, regardless of how you interpret the nature of their play:  If it doesn't jibe with their own interaction, and doesn't provide a way for them to identify and work with what they want in a game that is at least as useful as what the Big Model provides, then it provides less material for productive discourse.  What use is it for me to talk about the thematic nature of the right-of-passage events of my characters play when I at no time, while playing or thinking "this would be fun" ever did or wanted to address that directly?  Just because it was a cool thing I realised about the game after the fact doesn't mean I would have had mroe fun playing towards that, rather than towards my own perceived goals of constructive denial and simulationism, or whatever my Right to Dream style happens to be.

So, recapping one more time.  GNS theory provides you a method of analyizing and describing games.  Are you claiming that the model provides no benefit to discussion that is not covered by simply talking in terms of following premise and theme, and is in fact hurting discussion by making false distinctions?

Or perhaps I just don't buy in to "what is roleplaying all about" as a universal.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 26, 2010, 02:21:29 PM
Hey Contracycle, I can't tell if we're actually disagreeing here.  I'm just saying that once there's conflict we have the option to think in terms of theme, and that maybe doing so helps people play well together.

When I said "...then we have narrative" I just meant that we have the raw material for a story.  The potential is there.  I'm not saying we must realize it.  Just that we often do, and maybe there are good reasons for that.

Maybe I'm misusing the word "narrative"...

I totally hear you on experiencing an alternate reality without the filter of a familiar paradigm.  But I have no idea whether that means no theme, weird theme, familiar theme, or says nothing about theme at all.  In some ways, stripping away familiar context can pare priorities down to the basic concerns of sentient beings (as far we understand those), which could be a thematic goldmine if a play group was so disposed.  If you have a good AP example, I'd love to discuss it in a new thread.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 27, 2010, 04:52:19 AM
I certainly agree we have that option, but I don't agree with what I see as a the prime assertion in this thread, that translating in-game events into narrative story is an inevitable and fundamental function of play.  I'm not ruling out the possibility that a series of in-fiction events, when recounted or remembered, will tend to be structured in a story-like way, just as an experience of the real world would be structured if recounted.  But we do not actually experience reality in that form; storytelling is an art because it is NOT just a bare recounting of What Happened, but is so constructed as to be entertaining.

Entertaining in this sense must, so LitCrit has it, contain some element of personal and moral relevance.  Fine, I can buy that, not least because the audience is passive.  Seeing as the audience is NOT involved in creating anything, NOT involved in doing or saying or even, really, thinking, the payoff they get for sitting there for 2 hours or whatever, and which an artist must deliver, is that the production they then passively consume contains personal relevance.

But when playing in RPG, just as when, say, performing tricks on a snowboard or building a model yacht, the person executing the task can be fully engaged with the task.  The task does not need to be imbued with narrative, with moral philosphy, with assertions about constants of human nature.  None of that is needed as the payoff, because the task is itself the payoff.  It's not excluded as the payoff either, I hasten to add, but it's not necessary.

I had a good experience in which I could say I learned something in a game of V:tM.  What I learned had nothing to do with the human condition or anything along those lines, but I found it interesting.  V:TM doesn't get enough love, IMO, not least becuase it bills itself as a game about those issues of human condition, but I approached it in a very different way: via the trope of a "secret world", a conspiracy-type concept.  It fails as a game that wants to address proper Narr, but as a Sim game, which is what it really is, in the hands of Sim players, it worked more than well enough (concerns about system aside).  In one of the few games in which I can answer your question from the players perespective, I played as the Prince of a city, not something I planned but which the GM dumped on me.  Fair enough, I was up for it.  In the canon, a Prince makes certain demands of people entering their territory, namely to report in and request permission to feed, which is amostly a pro forma thing.  It happens becuase the Prince needs to keep track of how many vampires are in the city and what impact their feeding has on the human population, so they can keep things under wraps.  What I discovered in play is that this isn't enough.  Due to the action of the plot, I was aware not only of the arrivals of itinerant vampires from various places who checked in, but also that there members of the population who had gone missing.  This poses a problem; I can't asses the impact of feeding if I don't know whether someone is still here, is dead, or has left etc.  As a result, I started getting in contact with the Princes of neighbouring cities to see if they were of so-and-so entering their territory, which would at least firm up my own numbers.

This is not a historical example, but is I think analogous becuase it demonstrates how, by engaging with the problems of fictional people in fictional worlds, you can learn something about them.  It is this principle I am especially interested in extending to historical contexts, although the opportunity is few and far between, not least because of RPG's concentration on OTT magic and kewl powerz and all that jazz, none of which interests me much.  If I played V:tM again as GM, I would certainly incorporate this insight into how I portrayed Princes and their concerns.  Also, being engaged with this sort of thing made me a much more active player, with my own concerns, trying to get certain kinds of things done.  That, too, is an element I'd like to extend.  Sure, when you're wandering from room to room in a dungeon there is no need for that sort of proactivity, or indeed when going from encounter to encounter in a plot.  But when I had ownership over my characters own place in the imaginary world, stuff to do and worry about appeared organically.

I found all of this interesting and entertaining.  I really can't say that any of this impinged upon what Simon descibes as themes of human concern; they were procedural and practical.  But they were more than enough to sustain engaging play, and it is one of the games I remember most fondly.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 27, 2010, 11:09:51 AM
What did the other players do while you were figuring out how to be an effective Prince?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: contracycle on March 27, 2010, 11:41:21 AM
They were my assistants, so I sent them to do stuff, find out things, etc.  Plus, because I was self-driven, I didn't take uo a lot of the GM's time, and he could therefore use a lot of it on personal plots for them.  Probably a fair bit of what they did may have gone against my wishes, but it was coinducted between them and the GM.  In addition, there was a conventional plot uniting the characters; as mentioned, this was not initially built as a game intended to have a PC prince.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 27, 2010, 11:53:42 AM
Ah, interesting.  So they got to kind of act as your extended senses and the instruments of your experiments while you were learning how to be a good Prince?  So that kept you interested in what they were doing?  Presumably, they weren't just interested in helping you be a better Prince.  So the shared fun seems contingent on the stuff they were interested in doubling as Prince-intel.  Is that correct?

I'm looking for alternatives to human concerns / themes as far as glue that keeps people interested in each other's play.  So I'm curious about whether your Prince stuff was a weird, momentary aberration, or something sustainable.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Lance D. Allen on March 27, 2010, 12:25:37 PM
Gareth,

I think further specific discussion of this V:tM game may derail a thread that may be winding down to conclusion.. But I find myself very interested in further discussion and dissection of it, and it appears that maybe David is as well. Would you be willing to start another thread to talk about this?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 27, 2010, 01:04:18 PM
Yeah, I'd be very happy to see new threads spawn from this one, but I think this thread has gone on so long that it's hard to follow. 


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 27, 2010, 08:20:12 PM
Simon, do you think the Delve game I posted about would make a suitable case study for a discussion about theme in play?  If so, I'll start a thread on it.  If not, I hope you post your own AP for that!

I'd also love to poke at Gareth's Vampire game in a new thread.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 27, 2010, 08:47:11 PM
I'll probably start a thread of my own, but I'd also like to talk about your Delve game.


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: David Berg on March 27, 2010, 08:56:47 PM
If we're exploring the same topic, I'd prefer to discuss one game at a time.  Which game would you like to start with?


Title: Re: What is Right to Dream for?
Post by: Simon C on March 27, 2010, 10:27:57 PM
Let's do yours.