[PTA] Players wanting their PCs to fail?

Started by Halzebier, June 28, 2008, 06:09:10 AM

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Universalis has some formal challenge mechanics that allow players who want to reign some crazyness in to use a formal game mechanic to do so.

PTA doesn't have that sort of mechanism so its very important for players to police themselves, and not be shy about gently policing others...in a sense every player has that responsibility.  The producer also can't shirk it.  PTA is so easy to run that it can be very tempting for the producer to just sit back and let the game play itself, but its important not to do that.

The initial pitch should be your guide.  If you do a thorough job of setting up the pitch...including examples of the kind of tone you want (This should be more Dark Angel and less Buffy), the the producer shouldn't be shy about pulling people back in line with that pitch.


A couple of points:
1. I agree with the craziness as a symptom of sudden freedom.  I know of no known cure but time.

2. Even Buffy had a couple of lousy episodes.  Your show can still be the Aw3some.

3. Hugh has "Mysterious Origins" as an Issue?  That sounds far more like an Edge to me.  An Issue should have sides, or at least a pass or fail.  (ex: Drinking Problem; Wants to Live a Normal Life)   I would ask Carl if he minds rephrasing that Issue as "finding out the truth about his Mysterious Origins" or "haunted by his Mysterious Origins"  Then, the conflict isn't about whether or not Hugh finds out that he is the long-lost Prince of Beasts (or whatever Carl had in mind).  It's really about what does Hugh do with that knowledge once he gets it.  Is he still haunted by his Past?  Does his past determine his future?  And how do his Mysterious Origins deal with the circus. 

3b.  Although I love the surprises that players pull when I am the producer, I would have asked Carl for a side moment, and gotten the spoilers ahead of time for what he wanted for Hugh's origin.  You're the Producer, and part of your role as I see it is to push the script to provide exciting TV around the Issues.   You are not the Dungeon Master, and the relationship between the Protagonist players and the Producer should not be adversarial.  You're not trying to provide them challenges(*), you're trying to make them be Interesting.

4. Here's a thing about challenges: I find they are most effective when they are all about what the character does or doesn't do, not about affecting another character.  However, always phrasing a challenge as character centered is very, very hard.


(*) Whether or not PTA is aligned to support "Step On UP" play or not is another whole discussion thread, and one I'm not really interested in.


Quote from: FredGarber on July 03, 2008, 08:42:04 PM
3. Hugh has "Mysterious Origins" as an Issue?  That sounds far more like an Edge to me.  An Issue should have sides, or at least a pass or fail.  (ex: Drinking Problem; Wants to Live a Normal Life)   I would ask Carl if he minds rephrasing that Issue as "finding out the truth about his Mysterious Origins" or "haunted by his Mysterious Origins".

Well, the actual wording in German is "Rätsel der Herkunft" (Riddle of Origins), which I sloppily translated in my account. So finding out about his past was his issue, just as you suggested. If there's a second season, he'll have to come up with something else, of course, but he knows that.

QuoteAlthough I love the surprises that players pull when I am the producer, I would have asked Carl for a side moment, and gotten the spoilers ahead of time for what he wanted for Hugh's origin.  You're the Producer, and part of your role as I see it is to push the script to provide exciting TV around the Issues.   You are not the Dungeon Master, and the relationship between the Protagonist players and the Producer should not be adversarial.  You're not trying to provide them challenges(*), you're trying to make them be Interesting.

But shouldn't Carl fill in everybody -- as everybody can contribute to the narration (and introduce a surprising turn, for instance)?

It seems to me that the problem is that Carl wanted authorial control over something which is, by the rules, up for grabs. Spending copious amounts of fan mail - of which Carl had more than any other player - certainly helped make things relatively legit, but narration rights (highest single card) can be fickle.

If another player had won narration rights and had started taking the story in a direction Carl didn't like, he could have expressed his disatisfaction in a number of ways and thrown out some alternatives. More likely though, Carl would more or less have prompted and/or coached the other player through the narration. Or tried, anyway.

QuoteHere's a thing about challenges: I find they are most effective when they are all about what the character does or doesn't do, not about affecting another character.  However, always phrasing a challenge as character centered is very, very hard.

I agree. At one point two players, Violet and Gary, started using their narrative powers to screw over each others' characters (i.e. they narrated the other's failures in an unfavorable way). I requested that they respect each other's protagonists, but next thing I knew, they asked for opposing stakes to influence each other. I refused and they cooled down a bit (I think).

I should point out that this was mostly, though not entirely, in good fun. Gary likes to tease Violet, but also to put her down. Violet gives as good as she gets and their exchanges sometimes go a bit far. Gary had some difficulties getting into the game, so he riled her partially out of boredom and/or frustration.



Ron Edwards

Hi Hal,

At last.

Since I don't know your group and haven't played anything with them, please take all of the following as my interpretation of what you've posted, not as an attempt to psychologize the real people in a direct fashion. Whatever doesn't fit can be ignored. The difficult part of this post, though, comes from making points about more general issues, and relating them to what I'm perceiving from your posts. Therefore, I've broken the ideas I want to present here into two parts. The first deals specifically with your game and your group, and the second deals with the relevant principles in general.

Also, here is a cestus. I'll be using a verbal version.


1. Upon re-reading, I realized that the original D&D game context for the PTA show may well be a core problem. Not because it was D&D, although the characteristic disproportional emotional intensity regarding successes and failures with that game may be involved, but because your posts suggest that this was and is an unsuccessful game experience. That is a very dubious foundation for the first and important criterion for starting to play PTA: to pitch a show which everyone actually wants to see exist.

(Quick side questions: is the DM for that game one of the players in the PTA game? If so, which one? In a later post, you referred to "our regular fantasy game" that you dropped out from. Was it the same one?)

It smells like "use PTA somehow to fix our aggravation with our D&D," which is emphatically not the same thing as "come up with a show you'd like to see on TV." Imagine yourself to be a television executive producer, and someone came in and pitched "our old D&D game that isn't going so well" as a show for you to produce. I know what I'd say.

Even if that were a good pitch, it's a lost cause. Based strictly on your brief references to the other game, the players, you included, have expressed frustration with character ineffectiveness, lack of engaging events (which is what "slow pace" means), and a lack of fruitful outcomes for the events which do occur. In other words, the subject of the PTA show is not itself something that anyone involved actually likes. So the point of play cannot actually be to enjoy it as a creative act, but to respond to it in some way.

What I'm seeing is that your PTA game is not so much a PTA game as a weird symptomatic fallout from this other game. Given the issues in that game, it's not surprising that what's happening in PTA play is (a) power-creep and extravagance in the SIS and (b) power-grab regarding authority among the people.

2. Regarding Carl and his character's issue, Fred has brought up the right point, but I am going to be more forceful about it. Mysterious origins is not an issue, and this is not merely quibbling, it's like saying "that opera singer is dead." There is literally no way it can do what it's supposed to, because "solving the riddle" is pure information. It isn't "mysterious," it's merely absent, and as such, is solved when the hole is filled. Compounding that, Carl even already had the answer made up! How much less of an "issue to be resolved through play" can you get? By definition, under these circumstances, playing must simply be about Carl grabbing enough authority to explain the origin in his own good time. No wonder any aspect of collaboration, whether about scenes, conflicts, character actions, or narration of outcomes is being broken regularly whenever this character is involved.

3. You asked me how I'd handle the "fake ink" scene. The answer is that I wouldn't have to. Since the character literally has no issue, there can no conflict about it, and hence there isn't a way to handle it. What that situation at your table was about, was solely about seizing authority in order to maintain control over the back-story.

Now, so I won't be seen as cheating, what if player has her character wanted to find a tattoo on someone's back and the other player says, OK, fine, she finds it. My call is that we need to know whether this is a conflict of interest between the characters. That's what was lacking in your game because, frankly, there are no characters, just shuttlecocks for power games. Technically, we have an announcement by one player which is basically an "investigation roll," and an announcement by the other of how that "roll" is supposed to turn out. This does not fulfill the requirements for a draw in PTA and in fact is making a hash out of all the scene and conflict rules from the get-go.

It's hard to imagine a successful version of this scene because of all kinds of things (an "invisible tattoo?" What the fuck? What's the point of a tattoo if you can't see it? never mind). Anyway, I dunno - I think I can only say that (a) you need characters with issues, (b) you need conflicts of interests among characters (not preferred outcomes) in order to have a draw, and (c) you need to follow the PTA rules in order to enjoy PTA's strengths. Your solution was basically to invent (a-b-c) out of whole cloth yourself in order to enjoy it yourself, which makes sense in the same way that getting under a boat with your friends in it, heaving it onto your shoulders right there in the water, and paddling along with it as they do nothing permits you and your friends to "go rowing together."

I see the other scenes you describe as illustrating the same fundamental issue. When I see "narrating the conflict's outcome and then adding lots and lots of things such as having visions of the future," I interpret it as seizing narrational time in order to control the SIS of future play. Regarding the cut-scene with the master villain and his pet demon, I interpret it as everyone realizing that they could influence a huge amount of "what's going on" by controlling the villain, traditionally the key means of GM influence on play, and of course they wouldn't stop - a prize like that is way too valuable to let go of before squeezing all you can from it.

What I'm saying is that people at your table, mainly Carl in your examples, are not playing anything, much less PTA. They are grabbing, as if the whole game posed the SIS as a prize. Whether it's back-story, others' characters' actions, outcomes of scenes, or visions of what is to come, they are using scene framing, establishing conflicts (actually pre-narration), dice rolls, and final narrations as methods for that competition. They are not actually framing scenes to play in, in the sense of not knowing what will happen in play itself; nor are they posing conflicts as opportunities to see character issues in action; nor are they utilizing the system as written as the opportunity for non-negotiable collaboration that it is.

4. The "stakes" issue is a means toward that end. I'll explain more about it in the second part of the post, but here, I'm saying that "stakes" in your game is nothing like what it means in the rules text of PTA. I think I went over it pretty well already in the previous post, and I'm saying that it's a symptom of the conditions of your game. In other words, the game is diminishing in fun not because people are interpreting the rules incorrectly, but because they are doing something that isn't fun for much larger-scale reasons and using these alleged "rules" as a cover for doing it.

5. The issue of over-the-top, almost silly content is not exactly the same thing, but it can become a problem because it gets folded into the power-grab issue as a means of display and pissing on turf. Therefore I think Hal did raise the right point, but got the causality reversed.

The scene with Violet and Gary indicates to me that this is not about one person causing a disruptive problem. My take is that what I talked about in #1 applies to everyone in the group, and therefore that everything about play is going very badly awry. I see no creative commitment here, or interest in playing PTA - just leftover social baggage from an unsuccessful, previous game.

(next post coming)

Ron Edwards


1. I often refer to PTA as "doing TV better than television does it." What I mean by "TV" is the pleasure and experience of a good ongoing show/program, given the constraints and opportunities of the medium. What I mean by "television" is the physical object and the various historical outcomes of the technology and production of the medium, i.e., the reasons that a good show comes along so rarely and why it is not reliably good for long. I am not talking about emulating TV; I'm talking about using its widely-known features and the equally-widespread hope among real people that it be good as strengths for a successful role-playing experience.

Here is a particularly teeth-grinding thread which illustrates the resistance people can bring to the problem, and in which their determination to play PTA is continually countered by their training and mental programming which make them equally determined not to do it: [PtA] Heritage - fun, but oddly unsatisfying play. The title is misleading: the group may have had some "fun" in the sense of not being bound by the murk of their previous role-playing experience, but it was short-lived and floundered quickly into not-fun.

2. I have noted some general confusion about protagonist issues in PTA, and this business about "mysterious origins" allows me to work it over. Let's take a look at Shepherd Book in Firefly. He has mysterious origins, all right, but it's not an issue because he does not actually struggle with it. He merely keeps it private unless it's absolutely needed as a conflict-resolving mcguffin. Fred is absolutely right that in game terms, such a thing is an Edge. It gets alluded to, deepened, and occasionally utilized, as time goes by - but whether it's eventually clarified quickly, slowly, or not at all actually does not matter. Frankly, not knowing is more fun than knowing.

I hope that makes sense, because it leads to a more general confusion that I see all the time. To stay with the example, what is Shepherd Book's issue? He's a preacher, right? He talks about God and reads the Bible all the time, and rather determinedly acts as other characters' conscience. So, it must be faith! Right? The answer is emphatically no. Faith cannot be an issue because he does not struggle with it as an ongoing crisis. His issue is Violence - when to do it (or rather, whom to), how much, and whether that is compatible with the things he is committed to. I concede that it took an episode or two for this to become clear. (Sometimes I think PTA play would benefit by having the issues be identified after the pilot, not before.)

An issue is not the character's primary motif, nor the character's origin, nor what other characters get bent out of shape about, nor the character's deeply-committed belief or code, nor a guide to how the character will reliably act. It's the thing that the character often deals with in different contexts, for which we don't know how they will act. The best way to understand a protagonist's issue is to see what the character can and will sometimes do, but not always, and not necessarily well, or if well, not necessarily at the appropriate times. On those rare occasions on which they (a) do it, do it well, to the right target, and at the right time; or (b) abstain from doing it when it's not appropriate - those are a really big and exciting deal, because we know the protagonist is not able to do either reliably.

All right, as long as we're geeking out (what's a PTA thread without a little spazzing out about Firefly?) ... Therefore Mal's issue is not independence but rather faith, Jane's issue is neither honesty nor brutality but rather belonging, and Simon's issue is not family but rather social class. Yes, I wrote them out for all nine characters, and related them to the entire show and movie with circles & arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, but will restrain myself for purposes of staying on topic.

Here's a thread about mysteries in play which includes a wealth of links to important older threads: [Mage: The Awakening] Here goes nothing ... (split). The issue is more about GM-prepped mysteries, but I think they apply just as well, perhaps even better, to player-prepped ones in protagonist-heavy, power-sharing games like PTA. And here's a really old thread in which a number of us hash this stuff out for the first time: frustration with "enigmas".

3. I introduced my thoughts on authority in Silent railroading and the intersection of scenario prep & player authorship. To be clear, I don't mean authority over one another at the people-level, but rather responsibility over particular tasks and topics regarding the fiction, with the strong corollary that that what is not your responsibility is really not. See also You've landed on the gaming group "Park Place," pay $15 rent for related issues about leadership, which is indeed about personal interactions and their hierarchies in role-playing. Here's an older thread which illustrates someone really suffering in the grip of confusion about it: Obvious choices.

My point in those threads is that clarity and ultimate enjoyment of play relies on non-ambiguous understanding of how authority is distributed at any given moment of play, both over what and among whom. Not "is facilitated by," not "may be enhanced by," but relies. Without it, play is unclear ("murky") and ultimately not fun. Although I don't think it's a very successful thread, some good points are raised about this issue in Bangs&Illusionism - in which Ron beats down Confusion.

It's most important in this thread in two contexts. The first is actually widespread and not specific to PTA at all: conflicts about making characters do things, especially player-characters. In other words, not chopping off limbs or getting through doors, but making someone else's character act the way you want them to act. It is, effectively, about the difference between borrowing them with permission to generate creative ferment vs. stealing them to exert hostile, I-run-what's-yours dominance.

In other words, I'm not saying that playing someone else's character is always abominable. It can be done well in a wide variety of ways, for instance, if everyone knows up-front that making an Influence or Diplomacy or whatever-it's-called-de-jour skill roll means that "borrowing" must now occur. It's when that up-front knowledge is absent that disaster strikes. To go back to the root of the problem, the relevant skill rules in 2nd Edition D&D is a horrific mess, and it's reflected throughout all later editions and hundreds of other games influenced by it. What does "I roll Diplomacy - I get a success!" really mean? The rulebooks themselves offer amazing and stupid contradictions that only become crazier and more inapplicable as the editions and imitations accumulate. (See my points in [D&D 3.0/3.5] Spells and swords - fight!, which is notable because the other posters are certain that "the right way" is both obvious and textual, even as they misquote and misapply the actual text. You should have seen that raft of near-hysterical private messages I got, too.)

4. The whole issue of "stakes" is the same problem extended far past merely the actions and emotions of a given character, out to issues of setting features and back-story, what I called "content authority." Being able to manipulate this is a primary power-grab issue in a lot of role-playing history, and fear about it is a common reaction when encountering games influenced by The Pool, such as PTA and The Mountain Witch. The other reaction, sadly, which is far worse, is perceiving rules like those in these games as an opportunity for sanctioned power-grabbing of the old school.

That's really what the abominable "stakes" bullshit is all about - a mis-reading and mis-use of the concepts developed in independent design into something that is not actually represented by any of the games, but socially generated and reinforced by people who are sticking with their dysfunctional notions of how to grab power from (and therefore over) others at the table. It is about control issues and total screwups over authority - the mistaken notion that conflict resolution is about taking authority away from one another.

This is what it looks like:

i) character actions are not being incorporated as imagined events, but rather phrased halfway as almost-announcements: "oh yeah? then I do this!" - often, this is occurring in the absence of a scene (imagined location, time, events, other characters)

ii) the conflict itself is negotiated rather than initiated: "we should have a conflict about whether she finds out about the thing," "well, maybe later" "no, I say it happens now, and Bob is there too," "maybe not about whether she finds out but whether she feels ashamed by it," and so on and on for half an hour - the point is that the SIS, if any, is produced later, rather than the conflict occurring within it (i.e. out of what is happening)

iii) outcomes are presented, essentially pre-narrations, as binary alternatives for "who wins" the upcoming roll or draw - "if I win, then Taffy falls down and loses the fight!" "if I win, she kicks the vampire's ass with excellent fu!" (note the difference from simply "she wins or she doesn't")

iv) those outcomes are then escalated in a number of ways, extending to more consequential details ("oh yeah? well, if I win, she tears the vampire's arm off!"), inner states about how characters feel, elements of backstory ("oh yeah? well, if I win, the vampire turns out to be her father!"), setting up the next scene, introducing pre-narrations of far-later play, including yet more consequences for yet more NPCs, and so on

v) finally, the roll or draw occurs, and guess what? we're done - the whole near-novel of results is now established as having happened, happening now, and happening in the future, to the whole truckload of PCs and NPCs that have ultimately been included - note as well that the alleged narrator in the rules has nothing to do and effectively vanishes; the group house-rules the system to say that the winner always narrates, because they equate that with getting one's way

I strongly suggest examining the behavior of the real people at that very moment. How much interpersonal drama, in the negative posturing sense of the word, do you see? There may be laughter: is it really fun laughter, or tense? There may be engagement: is it really in the fiction, or in the chance to dominate? There may be expressions and tones you've been selectively forgetting: a certain hysteria, a choked kind of breathing, a weird "you got me" letdown for the loser, and often, facial expressions that connote resentment and aggression. I say again - I have observed all of these, and then been surprised to see people publicly proclaiming how good & awesome their experience was, only they never seem to want to play that particular game again.

Here's a kick in the head: this overall procedure is not present in any game published prior to 2005, then showed up only in examples in direct contradiction of the rules in the same book (carry, PTA 2, The Shab al-Hiri Roach), and is only now showing up as rules, specifically in some games presented last year at the Ashcan Front. You won't find it in the rules of any of those three, nor in Capes, nor in Trollbabe, nor in Universalis, nor in any other game of that time or before.

I think it's not hard to understand that this struggle can concern any or all of (a) past events and their meanings, i.e. backstory; (b) character actions and emotions right here and now; and (c) how things will turn out and occur long after this conflict and scene is over. In other words, over the whole of the SIS, past-present-future. It's also not surprising to see it start small and within-scenes, then escalate to the wider scales (interestingly, the real rules for Polaris include a method to prevent this). The sources of such struggle are many. In your case, at least based on the posts, it may come from the previous game, but based on my observations of others' play, it very often concerns trying to impress someone else at the table, such as person 1 trying to impress person 2 by establishing dominance over person 3, when 2 and 3 are romantic partners.

Why would anyone do this at all? It certainly did not arise out of game design itself. I think it is a secondary problem arising out of the Murk that characterizes so much role-playing prior to the independent revolution, most particularly when struggling with the texts of the late 1980s and 1990s (Shadowrun and AD&D2 being primary culprits). Given that background, the very fact that anyone can establish anything as SIS at all is revelatory - such that doing so in the first attempts of play is perceived as So Amazingly Awesome that it's mistaken for actual successful fun. To go back to the boat analogy, it's as if people figure out that if we all stay in the boat, and use these funny oar things, that play might actually happen? And then, tragically, trying to beat one another with the oars, or to keep one's oar in the water longer and more consequentially than anyone else, because the only association with "making it go" that people have is to establish complete control. That's a pretty good analogy, actually.

I have not presented a thread list for this topic, because I came up with so many that touched on it from different angles. The Adept Press forum is particularly full of them, especially when juxtaposed with discussions of conflict resolution; here's just one or two: [Sorcerer] Questions about stakes and Amazing Series of Sorcerer Threads on SG. I could also swear that there was a very deep thread about it after GenCon 2006, including an external link to a big conflict-resolution diagram I made, but I could not find it at all (remember the "chesting" term, anyone?).

I will briefly mention that the problem arose from a confluence of different things that happened in 2004-2005. (a) The so-called Diaspora, prompted by me, which suffered from a number of people failing to recognize what moderation is and must be for a internet site to be intellectually successful. (b) The simultaneous publications of PTA 2nd edition, Polaris, and Capes, which were very badly confused among one another by a number of new players, resulting in a mix that is found in none of them. (c) The 2004-2005 wave of new participants in the discussion and publishing who were themselves introduced by near-newcomers, who did not go through the "door" of playing specific games, and whose priorities were often turned toward being hipsters in with the cool kids. (d) Over-enthusiastic internet dialogue which more-or-less defined "Stakes" as pre-roll narration of outcomes, butchered "say yes or roll the dice" by applying it to content rather than conflicts, and co-opted the term "conflict resolution" for this hideous struggle over authority of any kind.

I do assign some responsibility to the second version of PTA, specifically its examples. I am pretty convinced of what exactly happened to the text between the first and second versions, and why I think Matt's vision was actually subverted by input from people who were resisting rather than critiquing. I would like to present a comparison of the two versions side-by-side, but that would take another week of preparation and thread-scrounging, which I do not have time for. I'll be happy to bring both to GenCon for a thorough discussion and quite possibly play if anyone is interested.

John Harper, if you're reading, I'd like to know your thoughts on the whole megillah. You've chimed in during various earlier threads about it, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not, depending on the precise points. Anyway, since now I've laid out my views in better detail than before, come on in if you'd like.

5. Regarding the craziness, I think there are two kinds. One is the over-the-top extravagance that Ralph is describing, which at its most extreme completely loses track of any protagonism or premise at all. It is typically experienced as a phase by everyone in a group and they typically soon get over it. This very old thread goes right to the point: Narrativism: what's beyond the sillyness (the title reflects early confusion between Narrativism and Director Stance). The other is what I called the "batshit" phenomenon in Learning the interface. If what's happening in your group were merely these two things, then they'd be no big deal.

However, neither is the same as outright disruption of one another's input, seizure of input for oneself (often the same thing), and essentially ignoring the actual rules of the game one's allegedly playing, while claiming "just" to be using them. Unfortunately, Hal, what I'm seeing in your posts looks more like these more serious problems, with the craziness, harmless in and of itself, being folded into them when it's present.

Best, Ron

Arturo G.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on July 16, 2008, 01:05:33 PM
I could also swear that there was a very deep thread about it after GenCon 2006, including an external link to a big conflict-resolution diagram I made, but I could not find it at all (remember the "chesting" term, anyone?).

I remember this thread at SG Big Gencon stakes discussion. It immediately came to my mind as I was reading the discussion.

The link to diagram is on its first page of comments. I copy it here for reference: Ron's diagram of conflict resolution.

Ron Edwards

Whew! That explains it.

Thanks, Arturo, I thought I was going utterly mad. (cue smart-ass commentary)

Best, Ron

Paul Czege

Hey Ron,

We've really been chewing on the "stakes" issue for over two years? And still it's at the stage where those who've experienced the issue are yet groping about for language to describe it! (My own recent effort is here at the Narrattiva forums.) Clearly it's an entrenched wrinkle of human (gamer?) psychology, as you seem to be suggesting.

I think where I was trying to go, in part, with my letter to Italian roleplayers was positive advice. Not only "don't drive for conflict, don't 'workshop' the scenes (in my parlance), don't negotiate conflict outcomes before you roll," but also advice on what you should do, "give yourself time to experience the scene," etc.

You use phrases above like "conflicts of interest" to stipulate what must be in play before the PtA resolution system is consulted, and I think you're exactly accurate with them. But I'm interested to know whether you think it's possible to put players into a constructive and fun frame of play behaviors more with good advice than with admonishments and stipulated requirements? And if so, what advice you'd give to achieve that?

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Ron Edwards

Hi Paul,

That's the very issue that's informing my rewrite of Trollbabe. I think the original text wasn't half-bad in that regard, and now, with the huge wealth of actual play and questions over the last five-plus years, I'm writing, or trying to write, much as you describe.

One point seems to be: do not provide a checklist of what is supposed to emerge from play. Instead of playing, people will simply go down the checklist. So with PTA, it's true, specific scenes are designated as Conflict Scenes from the outset. I see that as an agreement for everyone to be mindful, as we play, of the possibility of in-fiction, among-character conflicts of interest coming to be expressed by the characters in word or deed.

That leads to another point, concerning the phrase, "driving toward conflict," which, as I understand and have used it, is a good thing - but somehow gets translated into "negotiate about conflict entirely outside the context of the SIS." See, it's hard to go back and forth about this phrasing. In Trollbabe, one should use game-speak to one's fellow players, by saying "Conflict!" But the very next two requirements are the trollbabe's Goal and the Action Type for the conflict, which are necessarily couched only in fictional terms ... which is then clinched in the purely visual, purely fiction-creating "fair and clear" phase. So one only hops up out of the SIS for that formal one-word statement.

But what about before that? We're playing, and there the trollbabe is, helping a farmer heave a wagon out of the mud or something. Let's say a troll is underneath in the mud, holding the wagon down. Let's say the farmer's brother, who hates him, shows up drunk with their father's sword. Let's say the farmer decides he's sweet on the trollbabe. Let's say the magic curse lays its icy breath upon her. Let's say nothing happens.

Which? How? Who says? Why? These are very fundamental questions about the medium and activity itself, and the first thing I'm sure about for Trollbabe is not to pre-arrange them, not to pose them as a checklist, and not even to dictate them. A lot of the text I'm working up is how the adventure's Stakes (the original use of the term, which applies to a feature of GM situation-prep and not to conflicts) are the best guidepost to answer them for this game. I think identifying such guideposts and then discussing how dynamic decisions in play "spark" from them, is the way to go. RPGs are not toys. You don't wind them up and watch them go. You have to do something while playing, I think. That something, the author/audience blend that I claim is found elsewhere only in music, is what mechanics make possible - not what the mechanics do.

This makes the design-in-progress of Stranger Things very interesting, because it does treat some of these things like a storyboard. The question is what it leaves open such that the contraints would be fruitful.

It also makes me look at Spione and feel good. For example, Moreno and some friends played it a while back and realized they had to get out of this "stakes stuff" entirely and simply do what the rules said to do ... and wow, not only did the characters do things, but where they did them, and how it looked, was all going full blast, and they found themselves generating fictional conflicts left and right without having to dredge them up through some kind of story-conference chit-chat. This seems to be a consistent experience for people in our community who try their hand with it.

Best, Ron


I think Ron's analysis of the social issues resulting from the misapplication of Stakes is brilliant.  For a while now I've been calling this phenomenon, "player-side railroading."  Players build characters and then pre-play get all invested in the story their going to tell about that character.  Then they use Stakes as the arbiter of who gets to deliver the next bit of their story.

This is the biggest hurdle I have when introducing Sorcerer to players who came to indie-games via Stakes oriented games taught to them badly.  They end up whining about how little *direct* control over the direction of the narrative (i.e. outcomes) they really have.  They feel like they're wrestling with the system to tell *their* story.  They bitch about how they can't *make* anything happening.  We're seeing this played out with In A Wicked Age... as well.

It's all classic Story Before except instead of one one person herding a group of players together it's six people fighting over who gets to herd next.


Ron Edwards


I wanted to emphasize one point I made earlier as well as on the Story Games thread: that the actual game rules rarely, if ever, instruct people to do what I've been criticizing. I maintain that actually using the rules-instructions of (say) Polaris, Mortal Coil, Hero's Banner, Shock, Primetime Adventures, carry, The Shab al-Hiri Roach, The Mountain Witch, Primitive, and many others are not only functional, they are wonderful - and in fact, quite different from one another in key and exciting ways.

The problem is not these games and how they are designed. The problem lies solely with something out there among people, psychologically speaking, which seizes the games as excuses to do this other, horrid thing. I think Jesse is right that it's same-old Story Before, and it's characterized by the same smug "by the rules" justification that absolutely ignores the rules, which we are all probably familiar with in play with older games in which one person is designated the sole herder.

It's tragic that the same shit is being carried out using (or "using") games that were written specifically to get away from the shit's original manifestation.

Now for a totally different point ... as it happens, there may well be an enjoyable version that bears mention, which we might call "story conferencing" without the negative connotation I've been including with the phrase. Imagine playing PTA with little or no in-character depiction, taking the designated Conflict scenes very seriously as such, and having nearly every step be highly influenced by an all-included talk among the participants. I'm still pretty sure that pre-narration of outcomes would not be functional, but perhaps character goals would be stated in such detailed ways that they were almost pre-narrations.

Would this be fun? Perhaps not for me. Ralph told me recently that he enjoys PTA played this way. I'm tossing it into the mix of the discussion to acknowledge that the situation may not be as 100% bipolar as I make it out to be in my posts above. I do think there is a very hard line between (a) fun play and (b) the crap-ass rotten phenomena that I've observed so many times and described above. I also think there is a very hard line between (a) actually using the rules as they stand, or close to it, and (b) not doing so specifically along the lines I've described. There may, however, be modes of enjoyment on the good side of both hard lines that do include elements of story conferencing.

Best, Ron


That's not exactly what I was saying about PTA.  I don't think you have to play only at the meta level and leave all of the in fiction stuff behind to get at what I was suggesting.

PTA is ostensibly a game about a TV show.  TV shows often have teams of writers and producers who gather to story board upcoming episodes.  The "behind the scenes making-of" extra found on the Deadwood DVD gives a wonderful glimpse of this process in action.

There is nothing wrong with, and in fact, I think PTA works best, when you approach the conflicts being mindful of this sort of process.  One can easily imagine one writer saying "and this is the scene where he finally kisses her" and the producer saying "no, not yet, its too soon to release the tension on that thread, lets have them about to kiss but then they get interrupted."   One can easily imagine two player kibbitizing about this as an aside in play.  Either way can lead to good entertainment and a good story so its more about which equally good road are they going to go down.  One can easily see the writer and the producer wrangling about this issue before deciding.

In PTA the game, there is no writer and producer wrangling.  Instead the card draw mechanic essentially determines whether the writer or producer won and whether the kiss happens or is interrupted.  You don't have to step out of character here, you don't have to portray the character of the writer and the producer wrangling.  But I think PTA works best when players remember they are playing out a TV show not immersing in characters we're pretending are "real".  All players of PTA know they are not playing their character.  They are playing an actor playing their character...this is TV after all.  If I'm playing the character trying to get a kiss and I say "I kiss her" and the producer says "I think you get interrupted before you get your kiss, lets take it to cards"...I think that is not only perfectly functional PTA play but extremely effective PTA play.

It is irrelevant that there is no other character actively resisting.  It is irrelevent that there is no "conflict of interest between characters"  My character wants to kiss, your character wants to kiss, the person who interrupts us wasn't trying to prevent anything, they just obliviously stumble in at the wrong time...there is NO conflict of interest between characters...and yet this is EXACTLY the stuff that TV has been built on since the days of I Love Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore.

"If I win this happens, if you win that happens" is 100% effective play in PTA, not at all toxic and IMO a FAR FAR better model of portraying a TV show than obsessing about conflict of interest at the character level.

I have a whole soap box about the notions being expressed here that there is some corrupt version of stake setting that has taken root and needs to be stamped out (short version:  I think that's bunk), but I'll refrain from derailing this discussion with it.



First a question: In the situation you provide what is the role of the High Card player?  From what I can see all that person gets to do is maybe add a bit of detailing.

Now a comment: You're right, that the situation is describe is exactly what TV has relied on.  And frankly, that's the cheap-shot shit that makes for weak-sauce storytelling: Drag the audience along with pseudo-conflicts and keep them coming back because maybe this week something will really happen.  I think that's what Ron means by "It does TV better than television." 

The prime example of this is the show Lost.  I happen to know that Lost was pitched as an anthology show with rotating genre.  That whole flashback thing?  Yeah, that was supposed to be the focus of the show.  This week it's ER.  The next week it's the Fugitive.  The week after that its 24!  Each character was designed to be separate genre.  The island was only supposed to be an excuse for those genres to all end up in the same place.

Except it all backfired and the audience got caught up in the suspense of the island's unexplained mysteries.  What's the monster?  Who are these people?  WTF polar bear!?  To me, playing PtA the way you describe the group would spend all their time playing cards over whether or not the monster is a living creature or a machine.  Whether the polar bear was real or an illusion?  Instead of playing cards on the actual honest to god good parts of Lost which were the stories about all those individual people.



Well, yeah Jesse, I picked the most cliched trope I could think of to illustrate what a good fit it is.  You can plug whatever you want in there that is a "fit" conflict.  The point is that the format "if I win X happens, if I lose Y happens" is perfectly functional.  Saying its "just storyboarding" isn't a valid criticism.  Its not "just" anything.  Storyboarding is a perfectly valid way of dealing with resolving conflicts...it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but we know that already.

I think the whole history of this discussion starting at GenCon 2006 (yes I was there) has been nothing but the byzantine confounding of two completely unrelated things in a process largely driven by the personal relationships and perceived relationships between the people representing (or called upon to represent) the various "sides".

Throughout these discussions there've been an inexplicable and undefendable amount of blame placed on "story conferencing" "bullshit stakes setting" "setting outcomes before you roll" "borrowing characters".  As if somehow these perfectly reasonable and functional techniques were some how responsible for...or even a contributing factor towards the power grabbing, asshat, manipulative behavior that is what is really being criticised.

What I see when I follow these discussions is this:

1) Actual play that sucked...or at least was sub optimal
2) Techniques being used that don't match the observer's preferred techniques for that game / situation.
3) Those techniques being blamed for causing the suck
4) Gallons of electronic ink being spilled bashing those techniques.

Which, IMO, is bunk. 

The two topics have nothing to do with other.  Dysfunctional play is dysfunctional play.  Blaming dysfunctional play on "abominable story boarding" makes as much sense as some old schooler blaming dysfunctional play on author stance. 

Oh, as to your question.  Yeah, I don't really see a problem with that.  Add some color, throw in an unexpected twist, give a nice "Yes, and also", or "Yes, but" addition.  Its only a "thing" when the player who didn't win has the high card, and I think that's a fine opportunity to flavor your loss in a way that leaves the door open for a follow-up of some kind.

Ron Edwards

Hi Ralph,

Regardless of any polemic or conviction in my posts about it, the point of the discussion is not whether I'm right or not. If you think what I'm saying is bunk, that is OK. We can both make our cases and let it stand for people to read and think about. I disagree with you quite a bit about PTA, but I'm not here to engage in gladiatorial combat about it.

The point is the discussion is how well any (meaning quite likely not all) of what I'm saying works for Hal regarding his group and what's going on in the game. If he hadn't indicated that I was on some kind of right track, as he saw it, I wouldn't have tried to apply my notions further. Now let's see what he thinks of the new stuff.

Um, to be clear, I'm not saying "everyone shut up until Hal posts." All thoughts on the issue are welcome. My immediate point is to say that this isn't a bear pit and I'm not the bear. I'm happy to clarify what I mean, but will not be defending the points against all comers.

Best, Ron