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Author Topic: [Lacuna] OK so I tried it... [SPOILER ALERT]  (Read 6370 times)
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #15 on: January 22, 2008, 09:41:08 AM »

Hi JC,

First, a minor comment in your favor: I think it’s a little hard on yourself to say “I was wrong” about Forge games and GM prep; it’s more like “hey! What an interesting mis-perception I was carrying around.”

Now for the neat stuff.

Quote
the reason I'm "arguing", is that I think that Lacuna allows for a mode of play where both GM and players contribute to the back-story during the game

true, there's nothing in the rules to support this, but they also don't state the opposite

so why not?

All this brings up the concept of “can” as an issue. The trouble is that the answer is “yes,” but it’s a trivial answer. You or I can play D&D with exactly the same technique in action, and it wouldn’t cause a damn bit of trouble there. Sure, the GM would have to be flexible and keep a lot of components either vaguely-defined or developed “on hold.” Sure, the labor would be annoying and the GM would have to be damned fast at making up (for instance) monsters. But it could be done, and I suggest that in some groups it’s being done a lot more than their members would care to admit.

I suggest that the question is not “can,” but rather what works best for Lacuna given its other features and rules. Sort of: sure, one “can,” but is it an added motor or a wrench in the spokes?

Here’s the feature that I think is most relevant. The GM is expected to be the only person to have read the book and apply the information in it. It’s also expected that the GM use that information to construct many aspects of the back-story. If Lacuna were played as you describe, then it’d be like one guy with a big Moog organ and a bunch of “helpers” with penny-whistles – and not necesssarily tuned ones, either. To fix that, if everyone were to read the book and thus transform play into basically a bunch of Lacuna GMs, some of whom have player-characters, well, I think that would entail throwing out quite a bit of the other rules and text about play. It’d require major Drift.

Now for a subtopic of this issue, based on your examples and phrasing. I noticed that your examples are immediately situational, like being followed by person A, not really back-story. We should distinguish between (a) being able to bring Agent Chambers into the scene via a roll, which is Situational Authority in my terms; and (b) stating that Agent Chambers is trying to assassinate a given character, via a roll, which I call Content Authority.

I suggest that Situational Authority might not be much of a stretch, as a general thing, and isn’t much different from the common phenomenon of suggesting such things as a player, with the GM having the final call. When people play like that, it’s often no big dal, as long as the suggestion doesn’t contradict what prep and play so far has already established. It’s always interesting to consider how trivial this technique is, and how often it’s informally employed (and typically instantly forgotten or denied that it was employed).

I think that Content Authority is the 800-lb gorilla of our current conversation, though, and so all the rest of my post is pretty much going to focus on it.

Quote
then, if we can agree that Lacuna can be played like this, I'd like to talk about the possibility of playing the game with a "mixed" group: some players contributing to the back-story, and others not

Let’s take The Pool, which is a little bit ambiguous about these techniques because it’s so short, but can be useful as an example.

In playing The Pool, when a player gets a successful roll, he or she has the choice to let the GM narrate the outcome and add a die to his or her personal Pool, or to narrate the outcome. Let’s customize the text a little, and say that “narration” in all  those cases typically applies to the details of that particular conflict outcome, but that a player might, if desired, use the narration rights actually to narrate in stuff about the back-story or to set up the next event of play, as long as it respects what came before (or maybe there’s a set of stuff that’s only the GM’s which is off-limits, too). The point is that there’s some opportunity to do this, and it’s functional for that group, not causing acrimony or contradictions.

My point is that in playing that game in this way, messing with or adding to the back-story is an option, not an obligation. (That’s different from InSpectres, if I’m recalling correctly; if you investigate the funny noise and succeed, you say what it is.) So clearly how a given group of players uses the game, as described here, might be very differently from another group. In the one group, players end up contributing at least as much to the back-story and scene transitions as the GM, probably more. In the second group, they just describe things like whether the bad guy’s head was cut off vs. knocking the guy out, which is still very significant but not in the back-story/event zone that we’re talking about. In yet another, some players do more of one way and some do more of the other way.

The diversity among the players, in that third group, is no big deal! As long as that kind of narrational authority is an option, having some players really grab it and having some say “eh” and sticking more with their character is perfectly functional. In my experience, I actually prefer it, because you’re never put on the spot, but if you’re inspired, you can act on it too.

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I must confess I have a hard time wrapping my head around a Sim game where the players have authority over the back-story, but if you say it can be done, I believe you

out of curiosity, could you provide an example, or a link or something?

or should I just look up Dead of Night?

Dead of Night is always worth a look because it’s very good, but I was referring to one option of play listed in the rulebook, not “the game” as a whole or even as a driving central part of it.

To answer your question, maybe it’s more common and more easy than you might think. Let’s say we are playing Call of Cthulhu, and all of us are pretty well-read in Lovecraft, and all of us really enjoy the Lovecraft/Derleth canon and enjoy seeing its bits and pieces during play.

Traditional game, right? Totally bog-standard, right? No pervy narrational this or weird-stance that? Look again at the group, in action and in practice.

Based on my experience, you’ll see someone at the table say something like “I bet that freakin’ butler knows more than he says,” and the GM says to himself, “H’m, that’s a good idea.” Whether it’s the next scene or waits until the next session, the GM comes up with a lot more about that butler and might even twist around the scenario in a major way.

Now, that was covert and not exactly what we’re talking about, but it does happen a lot when playing that game or similar games, in some groups. I bring it up to point out that we are looking at something done covertly – perhaps even guiltily! – and pulling it out into the open.

Here’s a good example. In Underworld, Gareth-Michael Skarka describes the technique he calls “intuitive continuity” – the back-story and scenario are not even invented as the characters roam around the initially prepped setting and situations. The GM simply pays attention to what interests the players and where they drive their characters to go, then uses all that information as a means to cobble up the components of the adventure.

(Granted, in that book and also in Periphery, where I think he first describes it, the “adventure” that seems to result is remarkably pedestrian, but that does not have to be the case. Dav Harnish, when GMing Obsidian, did it masterfully and generated real eye-popping, meaty crisis situations. He didn’t make a big secret of doing it at the time either, and glory be, that didn’t spoil anything.)

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finally, on a related topic: if players can't contribute to the back-story, how does Lacuna facilitate Nar?

the only thing I see are the Static rules, that make characters choose whether to stick with an incompetent or even hostile Company

(and I see that Nar does not equate "players contribute to back-story", but "players contribute to back-story on a succesful roll" does seem to me like a Nar-facilitating rule)

I see what’s up here – you’re looking for techniques, like back-story narration or authority over situation or whatever, which you are thinking of as “makes Narrativism.” This is a big deal, actually, so I’m glad we can talk it over.

I’ll start with your parenthetical statement first: the answer is “no.” If players could have contributed to back-story in, say, my long-running game of Hero Wars (now HeroQuest), or in any of the many Sorcerer games I’ve played in, then the Narrativist power of those games would have been damaged and confounded, not enhanced.

Narrational authority over the back-story, which I have chosen to call Content Authority, is a means of constructing the SIS, all the communicated/imagined stuff. It has to be done; no question. The questions are, by whom (specifically one or many), and when (during prep or during play). What I’m saying is that since we are talking about techniques, they cannot and do not define what Creative Agenda is in action – or even which one might be “best.”

Now, the answers to these questions (by whom and when) are necessarily extremely integrated with other aspects of the game, specifically character creation and changes in characters, so they can’t be examined in isolation. Examining them in light of those other things, though, and thinking about a whole set of interrelated techniques in that game, is often like lighting a beacon that illuminates a Creative Agenda kind of sitting there begging to be done. No single technique can light that beacon, and even one that plays a big role in doing so in one game can be a real beacon-smasher in another game, based on the other rules-components which are present.

I think that’s what Lacuna is like, even and most especially without that technique of letting players contribute to situations and back-story. I’ll go into some detail about my thinking here, so bear with me in interpreting the text as I think is most likely: back-story and in fact setting-creation in general are set during prep, by the GM, in fact quite secretly. What makes the damn thing so all-fired Narrativist, then? The answer must be the same as if those techniques were present: the relationship among the game’s “moving parts,” whatever they might be.

Here are what I think the moving parts of Lacuna are:

1. Established setting, of which there is quite a lot, more than anyone admits because they’re usually all wet-up about the alleged “no setting.” It is set, for instance, that the player-characters were the first experimental subjects during the discovery of Blue City, and that they were the ones to encounter the Girl. This also means that they were, before play, hideous psychopathic criminals (a bit of interpretation to add to this: look at their alias names in this light; it’s kind of scary). It is also set that the Agency has been penetrated and that its hierarchy is currently a deadly battleground of petty power over the dreaming-process (draw out circles and arrows of the mentors and their hierarchy; you’ll see). It is also clear, and again without any need for debate or interpretation, that the Agency’s hostility toward the spiders is internally generated, and that they have chosen to identify them as “the enemy” through paranoia alone.

2. Setting components which demand GM interpretation and enrichment, of which there are also a lot. Here are a couple.

The Black Zone – given that the setting already identifies this with the unconscious and unexamined or suppressed memories, it is rife for potential for the player-characters to discover stuff about themselves. I chose to treat it as a kind of bad part of town, reachable only by special train lines, or through suicide, occult rituals, or drugs in Blue City, and to portray it as horrifically surreal and run-down.

Purple Clearance – in my game, using CIA history as inspiration, I chose to regard this as the secret counter-intelligence branch of the Agency, particularly as run by James Jesus Angleton as a policy fiefdom during the 1960s.

3. The key stuff on the character sheet: the mentor, the quirk, and other stuff – the point is that the character sheet is not who the character is, it’s who the Agency says they are, and expresses a disconnection between the character’s past and his or her present role as an Agent. An Agent sheet is not a fixed component of play which gets added powerz as it goes, it’s more like a situational time bomb. To play an Agent character is to see the sheet disintegrate and a new person emerge, possibly through recovery of his or her past, possibly not. (Lacuna has a lot in common with the brilliant 1994 game, Zero.)

4. The inherent confusion of the mission, which is composed of (a) incompetence or secret agendas on the parts of the people the agents can communicate with, (b) stuff about the mission they haven’t been told, (c) what they encounter in Blue City with content of its own (especially the spider-guys), (d) the inherent injustice and squickiness of brainwiping people because they were convicted of crimes, and (e) the fact that the agents are themselves merely ciphers, with unsuccesssfully imposed personalities, who “create” themselves through action and in fact may quickly come to disagreements with one another and with Control.

All of this is why Lacuna is not about hunting monsters in a cool special-effects landscape. It’s about serial killers and other unrecoverable criminals who’ve been redeemed through some unknown and beautiful means, but who are now facilitating a vicious and incompetent agency to perpetrate injustice through a perversion of that process. The GM must enrich and customize that basic idea into something uniquely his or hers. Then, once that’s established, play then concerns, who will these people become? How will they do it? What will they do?

That is the Narrativism: the richness of the crisis being faced, and the fact that the crisis is not fantasy, but rather touches upon ethical conundrums we face because we are people. In addressing it, which is to say, in the GM’s prep and presentation, and in the players’ chosen actions for the characters and how they work out, people may tap into highly motivated, highly engaging ways to answer those questions, in ways that probably cannot be arrived at through (say) boring abstract dialogue about those same issues. Even if people do not articulate that as they play, or afterwards, when they do it, it’s unmistakable.

I submit that these questions, and the Narrativist power which they can generate, are best conducted in the fog of disinformation, mental and physical stress, and desperation based on ignorance. I also submit that that fog is best played in the context of a single person having authority over the back-story, and having at least rubber-stamp authority over the set-ups for situations (who’s there, when is it, what do we see), whereas each player has authority over what their characters choose to do and hence a great deal of decisive impact on the developing story itself.

So as I see it, Lacuna hits its strongest Narrativist stride in part because it does not include player contributions at the level you’re talking about.

None of which contradicts your basic point that you “can” play it with such contributions. I’m not telling you what you should or have to do. It might even be lots of fun, who knows, and I’m not the one to dictate otherwise. And hell, for all I know, maybe there’s some particular way to organize those player contributions so that those questions and issues are even better brought to the fore, although I tend to think not, in this case.

Whew. I had no idea this post would turn out to be so long or about so many things. I hope it was interesting, and I’d like to know what parts made sense and which didn’t.

Best, Ron
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JC
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« Reply #16 on: January 22, 2008, 12:53:08 PM »

hey Ron,

thanks for another detailed answer

I definitely feel we're getting somewhere


I suggest that the question is not “can,” but rather what works best for Lacuna given its other features and rules. Sort of: sure, one “can,” but is it an added motor or a wrench in the spokes?

OK, agreed


Here’s the feature that I think is most relevant. The GM is expected to be the only person to have read the book and apply the information in it. It’s also expected that the GM use that information to construct many aspects of the back-story. If Lacuna were played as you describe, then it’d be like one guy with a big Moog organ and a bunch of “helpers” with penny-whistles – and not necesssarily tuned ones, either. To fix that, if everyone were to read the book and thus transform play into basically a bunch of Lacuna GMs, some of whom have player-characters, well, I think that would entail throwing out quite a bit of the other rules and text about play. It’d require major Drift.

(editing mine)

good point

I wasn't necessarily thinking about a balanced Authority though

I think players can, for instance, functionally contribute to the back-story, without knowing about Static


It’s also expected that the GM use that information to construct many aspects of the back-story.

and in one of your previous answers:

Quote
My reading of Lacuna is that it explicitly says, "This game book does not provide a back-story or explanation, but it does provide an immense amount of stuff that's going on. The GM will have to fill in the gap of the big picture by himself." This isn't actually all that wild or kooky; it's pretty common among games written in the early 1990s, for instance. I think the book is pretty clear that playing requires the GM to bust his butt, either before or during play, to generate some semblance of sense "behind it all."

I see what you mean, but where does it say it’s up to the GM to come up with it all?


Now for a subtopic of this issue, based on your examples and phrasing. I noticed that your examples are immediately situational, like being followed by person A, not really back-story. We should distinguish between (a) being able to bring Agent Chambers into the scene via a roll, which is Situational Authority in my terms; and (b) stating that Agent Chambers is trying to assassinate a given character, via a roll, which I call Content Authority.

I see the distinction you make

I think I was talking about Content Authority as much as Situation Authority, though

in one of my examples, the players narrates not only how his character spots Agents Chambers following him, but also, as a consequence, that Agent Chambers is alive in Blue City, even though it’s already been established (during char-gen) she is dead in the real world


I suggest that Situational Authority might not be much of a stretch, as a general thing, and isn’t much different from the common phenomenon of suggesting such things as a player, with the GM having the final call. When people play like that, it’s often no big dal, as long as the suggestion doesn’t contradict what prep and play so far has already established. It’s always interesting to consider how trivial this technique is, and how often it’s informally employed (and typically instantly forgotten or denied that it was employed).

interesting point


(snip stuff about how allowing players the option to add to the back-story can be functional)

OK, great, that’s exactly what I was talking about!


(snip how players can contribute to back-story in Sim games)

interesting!


I see what’s up here – you’re looking for techniques, like back-story narration or authority over situation or whatever, which you are thinking of as “makes Narrativism.” This is a big deal, actually, so I’m glad we can talk it over.

I think you’re right

I mean, I know now that Techniques don’t equate CA

like, using bangs doesn’t make a game Nar

but yeah, I’m struggling to see how Lacuna facilitates Nar, so I’m looking for easily identifiable stuff, hence the mistake


I’ll start with your parenthetical statement first: the answer is “no.” If players could have contributed to back-story in, say, my long-running game of Hero Wars (now HeroQuest), or in any of the many Sorcerer games I’ve played in, then the Narrativist power of those games would have been damaged and confounded, not enhanced.

could you expand on this a little, please?

I have a feeling that this might be what I’m missing


(snip how Lacuna facilitates Nar)

OK, I see what you mean

I guess I was just looking for rules, when in fact all aspects of the game contribute

to go on a bit of a tangent: can a game facilitate Nar even if its rules do not?

or would the answer to that be that a game’s back-story is part of its rules?


I submit that these questions, and the Narrativist power which they can generate, are best conducted in the fog of disinformation, mental and physical stress, and desperation based on ignorance. I also submit that that fog is best played in the context of a single person having authority over the back-story, and having at least rubber-stamp authority over the set-ups for situations (who’s there, when is it, what do we see), whereas each player has authority over what their characters choose to do and hence a great deal of decisive impact on the developing story itself.

So as I see it, Lacuna hits its strongest Narrativist stride in part because it does not include player contributions at the level you’re talking about.

so what you’re saying is that it’s all about choices, and that, for the characters to make interesting choices, the GM has to have total control over the back-story?

hmmm…

don’t you think that a player’s contribution to the back-story can be part of the way he has his character answer a given bang?

for instance, let’s say the player wants his character to betray the Company

why not let him narrate a rogue Agent into the story?

or is this what you mean by “rubber-stamp authority”: the players can add stuff, unless the GM really deems it outrageous, and veto’s it?


None of which contradicts your basic point that you “can” play it with such contributions. I’m not telling you what you should or have to do. It might even be lots of fun, who knows, and I’m not the one to dictate otherwise. And hell, for all I know, maybe there’s some particular way to organize those player contributions so that those questions and issues are even better brought to the fore, although I tend to think not, in this case.

hey, you’re the expert here :)

when I started this thread, I was hoping people would say “sure, players should contribute to the back-story!”

that way, I could have played again, with not too much work for the GM, and been confident I was going to have a good time

now I’m going to have to try out the different possibilities, and see which one works best!
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FredGarber
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« Reply #17 on: January 22, 2008, 01:23:46 PM »

I'm trying to follow this, and the phrase "Back Story" is getting me confused.

Are the players trying to muck around and Create a Past and History for their characters?
Or are they mucking around with the Setting of Lacuna?
Or are they mucking around with the current Plotline of the GM?
Or are they mucking around with the Motivations of the NPC (Mentor) characters?

-Fred
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JC
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« Reply #18 on: January 22, 2008, 01:55:30 PM »

hey Fred,

I'm trying to follow this, and the phrase "Back Story" is getting me confused.

Are the players trying to muck around and Create a Past and History for their characters?
Or are they mucking around with the Setting of Lacuna?
Or are they mucking around with the current Plotline of the GM?
Or are they mucking around with the Motivations of the NPC (Mentor) characters?

well, the way I see it, or at least saw it initially, the players would have full freedom to do any of the above

they just wouldn't be allowed to change anything that's been previously established in play

that means that anything that has not yet been established in play is up for grabs by either the GM or the players

I don't want to put words in Ron's mouth, but essentially, I believe he's saying "sure, you can play that way, but it's probably not what the game was designed for, and it's probably not the best way to for it to facilitate Nar"
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #19 on: January 23, 2008, 06:34:29 PM »

Hi JC,

Damned interesting thread you started.

I wrote, and you quoted,

Quote
I’ll start with your parenthetical statement first: the answer is “no.” If players could have contributed to back-story in, say, my long-running game of Hero Wars (now HeroQuest), or in any of the many Sorcerer games I’ve played in, then the Narrativist power of those games would have been damaged and confounded, not enhanced.

You asked me to expand on this. I think the most important point is that I’m not stating a general principle, but rather focusing on successful play of these particular games. They aren’t being cited as Narrativist paragons to which all Narrativist play can be generalized, but as good examples of a specific way to get into that particular agenda. Other games like them, in this way, include Dust Devils, The Riddle of Steel, The Shadow of Yesterday, and (with one crucial rules-exception) Dogs in the Vineyard.

I should also say that by “contribute to back-story,” I don’t mean at all, but rather in the particular authoritative, mechanics-driven way that characterizes InSpectres, Universalis, Polaris, and other games in that vein. Those games serve as a good collective contrast to the ones I’m talking about.

OK, all that said, now for the expansion, which is going to be a challenge. In those games, conflicts are powerfully present in any imaginable play-situation. Either they’re relationship-based (e.g. Sorcerer), setting-based (HeroQuest), or both (The Riddle of Steel, a lot of the time). Any scene can be a powder-keg and there’s no question about how or why after even a few moments into it. It’s not like PTA in which someone can or indeed must say, as a starting point during the process of play, “what conflict shall we face in this scene.” They are there. How they explode, how they are acted upon, and how they turn out are emergent.

Related to that, no one knows how any particular player-character is going to act toward that potential, going into it. Now, that’s not itself different from (say) Polaris, PTA, et cetera … but these games are also characterized by the fact that announced player-character actions are absolutely non-negotiable at the table: unlike My Life with Master, such actions cannot be overridden by an NPC; unlike Polaris, such actions cannot be negotiated away or into different forms; unlike Universalis, such actions cannot be debated via a bidding war of currency.

In my experience, anyway, player identification arises organically in these games, to a degree one might even think of as uncontrolled-thespian or (according to Clinton a while ago) therapeutic. The best word I can think of is cathartic, at a dramatic, non-intellectualized level. That’s on top of the more author-like approach which operates as the baseline of play for them; the cathartic stuff is typically reactive – unpredictable both in terms of its presence and in terms of its content. (This is also why it’s crucial not to play-before-play – doing that drains the juice from play before it starts.)

Here’s why I think that is probably the case for Lacuna, in terms of play experience: [Lacuna Part 1] “Nine gram medal”, particularly Tim Kleinert’s experience. I also think it’s structurally present due to the feature I mentioned before – the dedicated player ignorance which the text not only recommends but requires, as an authorial expectation of the text’s use. (You know what I’m talking about – few other game discussions require spoiler warnings to the extent Lacuna does, and no one told you it was a good idea to include one in your thread title, did they? You decided that for yourself.)



Quote
I guess I was just looking for rules, when in fact all aspects of the game contribute

to go on a bit of a tangent: can a game facilitate Nar even if its rules do not?

or would the answer to that be that a game’s back-story is part of its rules?

H’m. As the final line suggests, it all sort of depends on what we call “rules,” right? After all, the Kicker in Sorcerer is a rule, but by definition it must become related to the back-story in some way – ranging all the way from peripheral to central, but related, no matter what. In Universalis, back-story is created as we go, using rules. So the distinction you’re drawing in that second line is a little hard for me to see as a general thing, and although I might not embrace the third line right off the bat, it’s closer to the way I see things.

Or to get all Big Model for a minute, the SIS is constructed of Situation (a derived combination of Character and Setting) multiplied by System (stuff happening, in-game time, effects), all multiplied by Color. Since back-story is a feature of Situation, it has a powerful role in that first multiplication by System, which includes “rules,” imprecisely speaking.



Quote
so what you’re saying is that it’s all about choices, and that, for the characters to make interesting choices, the GM has to have total control over the back-story?

Depends on what you mean by “it.” Narrativist play is always about choices (hell, all role-playing is, but here I think it’s OK to say we mean choices of a particular creative/thematic kind). I’m not saying “interesting choices = total GM back-story” in general, but I’m saying that particular Techniques-spin is a strong one, for some games rules-sets, and especially as it relates to their imagined content (setting, character, et cetera) too.

In playing Sorcerer, for instance, authority to contribute to the back-story reduces the focus on the demon-human bond, and how well it’s working out relative to the character’s goals and self-image. Isolation to this person’s choices, in the absence of control over the pre-existing environment, is a device for that game – it’d be a terrible device for any number of other games that are just as Narrativist-facilitating, because they aim in that direction in such different ways.

Quote
don’t you think that a player’s contribution to the back-story can be part of the way he has his character answer a given bang?

Sure! In other games besides Sorcerer, HeroQuest, TROS, et al. How about Lacuna, though?

I dunno for sure, despite all of my points in this post, and despite my overly didactic first post in this thread. My experience is with Part 1, not with the Second Attempt, after all.

Again, thanks for your willingness to engage about all of this. Sometimes people (wrongly) get a little shy about demanding rigorous answers from me , and sometimes they get stubborn because they score internal points for (shallowly) disagreeing. It’s a pleasure to have to examine what I think critically through dialogue, as an honest and interested process, like we’re doing here.

Best, Ron
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JC
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« Reply #20 on: January 24, 2008, 09:26:07 AM »

hey Ron :)


about players contributing to back-story being bad for Sorcerer's Nar etc.

OK, I see the distinction a little better now

thanks for clarifying that



about spoiler warnings

it's true that I had Lacuna's background in mind when I included that spoiler flag

however, the aspect I was most anxious not to spoil was the Static mechanic



about being sure if Lacuna is best played without players contributing to the back-story

I plan to investigate this in the future, by giving the players the option to contribute to the back-story if they like

I'll let you know how it pans out!
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