Post Pre-Play Uncertainty

Started by Rustin, December 29, 2008, 05:48:48 PM

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I could still use some more advice.  Related discussion here.
My group met yesterday. We offered examples of play we enjoyed.  I tried my best to facilitate, but it is hard when you're also invested in the outcome-- most facilitators take the roll of neutral helper.  Anyhow, facilitation is a tangent point.

One player described a scene in a Gurps game. The party had found themselves in a nasty ambush.  The NPC sniper takes aim and, Click- GM rolled a critical fumble.  Next round the same sniper, rolls again, Click - critical fumble.  Player found this very satisfying.  There was not much mention of whether they won or lost the battle, it was just that moment of seeing the world work and the incredible consequences that it produced.

I think, "Sim priority is tops for this player."

Another player requested a flexible system, such as Ars, where he could use his imagination to work out tactical advantage and effects that he wanted.  I asked, "To beat the GM?" And he quickly said, "Yes."  Though, this player also writes rich, complicated histories (i.e., Kickers) for his characters.

I think: "Ok, Gamism for this guy, but maybe also enjoy Nar too?"

A third player mentioned he likes intra-party conflict, and enjoyed, as GM, putting characters to moral tests.  Though, he also strongly shared the enthusiasm of the Gurps player.  (This player also wrote a Fantasy Heartbreaker).  Over the years, I've showed him some Nar helpful techniques (IAWA, Keys, etc...) and he did not like them.  "I would not enjoy that game, at all" is what he said in response to IAWA.

I think: "Narrativism is important for him, but maybe needs some important Sim sub-hybrid elements? Not sure though, since any introduction of Narrative promoting mechanics either don't register or rubs some other gaming need he has the wrong way. This player's roleplaying goals are still a mystery to me."

I know I'm a Narrativist junkie. I might be kidding myself, but I'd like to try to play toward other agendas.  If I know what I'm getting into, if my expectation is sound, I don't think I'll get frustrated. 

The last player brought up his collection of published world materials: Warhamer RPG, Harn, 7th Seas d20, etc...  He really likes these established settings-- with loads of near encyclopedic content.  And picking "just the right character that interests him" is also very important.  He's likely to cycle through many characters whenever we game. Each character usually gets a good 2 page history.

I think: "Sim, maybe?" 

From there, I thought, OK, I'll keep in the back of my mind a Sim type focus, and I'll have to do some research on Sim, because I really had thought these guys were more about the Gamism-- and maybe that is why things fell apart so much in previous attempts. 

Time passes and the Gurps player needs to leave.
By then we've agreed to try the 7th Sea setting and go back to 3.5 d20 since 4e bites.
They start working on a shared backstory, but with enough wiggle room for individual character growth.  Somebody mentions the virtues and flaws of the 7th seas setting. 

I mention that I liked Aspects better. I try to explain them.  The player who liked Ars mentioned how he liked Keys from when we tried TSOY a few years back, and then offers an idea of Keys and Flaws, where players can tag other player's Flaws for some mechanical benefit.  The talented GM player had reservations about Keys or treating Flaws like aspects.

Suddenly we're all brainstorming rules to bring in Keys and Flaws. We come up with a Fate Pool. You can build it up by tapping other's flaws, or working your Keys.  (Totally optional mechanic since the Gurps player would probably not use it much).  Fate pool points could be spent to modify dice rolls or re-roll.

I went from thinking Sim, to the conversation ending with a flurry of Narrish type mechanical creation. 

So, I'm on board to run this game.  But I have some reservations, as I think the pre-play discussion never really nailed anything down.  Do I try to go Sim?  I read Ron's Sim article and it hurt my brain.  I'm still not sure what you're supposed to do (as GM, As player) to highlight a Sim effect.  If anything the Keys and Flaw talk (which got me the most jazzed) seems to butt up against Sim, and caught me off guard with the enthusiasm that flowed from the brain storming of rules.


Okay first of all let me say I feel your pain.  I was where you are now about two or three years ago.  My solution was a lot more radical which was pretty much to dump my play group and commit to playing only things that interested me among whoever was willing to buy into that thing.  My total amount of gaming has probably gone down but my satisfaction and quality levels have gone up.

That said, you're playing 7th Sea which I have a fair amount of experience with but not the d20 version.  Let me say this: trying to *make* Creative Agenda happen is a really, really bad idea.  First and foremost Creative Agenda can not be made to happen or found in Techniques alone.  Here's a bit of Zen: I would suggest that the best way to understand Story Now (Narrativism) is to achieve it using a system wholely unsuited to it, and then you'll understand why other systems are MORE unsuited to it.

So let me tell you how I basically achieved Narrativism using 7th Sea and without the players being any the wiser.

First thing I did, was throw out any canon NPC labled as Hero.  I didn't write the setting assuming they didn't exist or anything like that I just ignored their agendas and exploits.  Instead I turned my attention to the characters labeled as Villains.  There's some really exciting stuff going on in there.  Those characters agendas and methods for achieving them are really well spelled out.  Again, if their agendas involve doing something specific to some Hero NPC just ignore that bit.

The second thing I did is a bit socially risky and I don't recommend it unless you really consider these people friends.  What I did was I ignored the character sheets and made a list of personal real-life issues I know the individual players care about.  I then went back to the character sheet and wrote in scenario elements that basically connected the character to the setting along those lines of personal issues.  This worked out way better than I had intended.

Let's take my friend Amy as an example.  Here's what I know about Amy: Amy has a lot of power issues.  She wants to be a powerful person.  In games this usually manifests as her taking the most magically potent character she can get her hands on.  In fact, she had been teased about this SO much in this game she was deliberately playing a NON-magical character.  She was playing the most martial potent character she could get her hands on instead. ;)  I also know that Amy doesn't like children.

So what did I find on Amy's character sheet?  First of all she choose the Background Orphan.  No clue who her parents were.  She's not magical but martially competent and Eisen.  Huh.  You know what?  Sorcery travels in bloodlines.  Do you know what THE most powerful Sorcery in the 7th Sea setting is?  The supposedly extinct Eisen one.  So here's what I did.

I decided that Heilgrund (a canon villain NPC) wanted Amy's character to breed (read arranged marriage) with another NPC Heilgrund was blackmailing because Amy's character carried the "gene" (for lack of a better word) for the lost Eisen Sorcerous bloodline.  Her character didn't have magical powers but with the right marriage her CHILDREN might have THE most powerful magical power in the entire setting.  She had the key to a weapon that could potentially reunite all of Eisen under one ruler and all she had to do was be a mother.

I did this process with each and every one of my players and their characters and as I dropped the key "bang" on the table they all looked at me like they were going to kill me.  And you know what?  They loved it.  They dived in and they fought like hell to get whatever it is they decided they wanted out of each of these situations (they weren't all individual, the scenario weaved the elements together).  They were all pretty united in the end caught up in Heligrund's machinations one way or another.

Did the system get in the way?  Hell yeah.  First of all the damn "Act" structure for healing was a pain in the ass to manage because when you're playing Story Now you have no idea where the "Act" breaks are.  There was a lot of situations I had to make rules up for because the core system didn't handle them.  I basically ignored anything that wasn't an opposed roll.  The pre-designation of characters as Heroes, Henchmen and Villains really screwed things up because the players were constantly allying themselves with so called "Villains" and it didn't really make much sense to mechanically treat them that way anymore.  One of the key confrontations involved a canon setting demon for which no rules existed because he's supposed to be a protected GM plot device and right now the LAST thing I needed was for him to be was protected and I wished to god I was playing with Sorcerer at that moment.

My point is that what made this situation "go" was player buy in, including my own.  So what is YOUR buy-in to the 7th Sea setting.   Bring that in.  What is the player's buy-in with there characters bring that in.  If you want Story Now identify the issues expressed there or if you and they trust each other enough bring in an issue you know they have personally.  Build those issues into the setting and character buy-in points.

Was what I did Story Now?  Hell yeah.  Did the players know?  Fuck no.

Did we like it?  Yes we did.




Thanks for the reply.

I've heard the "dump your group" advice a lot.  In fact, over several years I have found other groups and played great games of TSOY, Polaris, My Life with Master, etc...  So, I did and do get my Nar fix.
But I never dumped this group, and, under the assumption that I can enjoy other creative agendas (Sim, Gam), I don't think I need to dump them.

Your approach to get Nar going sounds like an interesting way to do that. 

I just want to make it clear, I'm not interested in injecting Nar to this group, as
1) I tried it in the past and it did not work, and
2) I do not think Nar is the Reward that keeps this group of people coming back to the table every two weeks. (*this does not imply that we have yet achieved any consistent CA Reward from play -i.e., just because we did not get Nar does not mean we managed to get Gam or Sim Reward).  Unlike your group, I think even if I magically could produce Nar by sure innovation and force of will, this group would not see it as Reward.

From my best inference, I think this group wants Sim.  I'm reading up on Sim. The various posts and such scattered about the Forge and Storygames, makes for very disjointed and complex reading. 

I think we have Color in Setting.  Not quite sure if the d20 7th Seas System really feeds to the Color as well as it could.  Sure some of the classes and feats say Swashbuckle.  But more of it says "neat character builds to get your game on!" (ala Gam).

I'm not sure about Reward (and now I'm talking about In-Game Changes as a feature of system that would not clash with Sim.  As I know this group loves to get magic drops and they love to level up -- which again, hints at Gam, --though I know such system rewards are not mutually exclusive to Sim as long as leveling and magic encourage more exploration, or offer different "zones" of exploration and so long as they don't break the archetype of play or genre).

On top of this, still lingers the talk of Keys and tapping Flaws for something like Fate Pool Points; a sore temptation to me to go for some type of literary type Narrative at the expense of plausibility in Genre. 

Paul T

I wonder how much the GNS vocabulary is helping you, here. I don't know you or your group, but from what you've typed up, it doesn't sound like it's really gotten you anywhere (at least not with your players).

The categories of G, N, and S are just that: categories. Like boxes, or containers, or labels. They're not that meaningful if you don't know the contents of those boxes, or what objects have those labels on them.

It sounds like you're trying to figure out whether your players all like this "Sim" thing, and now you want to "play Sim" with them. But "Sim" is not a game. You can't "play Sim", just on its own, like that.

(Not to mention that I'm not sure why you're focused on Sim when even your own "diagnosis" of your players is hardly even 50% Sim.)

You've got to figure out what it is, specifically, in the game that is fun. Then you pitch that.

Sometimes it's helpful to use language that is not familiar or comfortable for gamers. For instance, most of us would cringe (or at least take a long pause) before gathering up the courage to say something like:

"How about we play next Tuesday--you guys make characters, and I'll make up a story. You'll get to fight the people I decide you'll fight, and speak for your characters, and maybe come up with something clever now and then, but, no matter what, you'll go through exactly the series of super cool events that I have prepared."

We're trained to hide that kind of thing behind other language.

I find it helpful to take that kind of exagerrated mocking tone you would use when talking about a game you really look down upon, and then try to use that to describe the gameplay you're offering or suggesting.

Pick up a couple of games (whether game books, or specific campaigns you've run or played in) and pretend you're writing a mocking, ranting review of that game. You might find that the language you're using communicates very clearly what play is about.

Because, after all...

"OK, I'm going to put together a dungeon of monsters that don't make sense and could never live there together, but are nasty, tricky brutes, and you'll make a bunch of stereotyped characters that are just excuses for cool combinations of powers, and then you'll run through the dungeon and we'll see if my monsters can kill you or not..."

That sort of thing? That will really get you a response. And many players will go: "Heck, yeah! Let's go!"

Much better than talking theory at a bunch of people who probably don't want to hear it.

Let me know if that helps!


Thanks for the reply.  Quite helpful.

Here's what happened.  I put out a description of  Sim priority play. I tried to make it sound appealing, but I did just what you described; a quick summary of Sim Play in non-GNS terms.  (Which is not easy since Sim is sort of elusive).

I got my first response which was basically: "What? Are you crazy? I want everything-- I want balanced combat, I want plausibility true to genre and make sure I can discover my character too."

I'm now seeing everything turning on buy-in to the issue of creative agenda trade-offs. (I.e., There is G and N and S, but you can only make one the priority). Which is a tough argument to make, and I don't want to argue.

I'm thinking I need to see if the group agrees that there are trade-offs in play and if we can only focus on one agenda.   If they don't agree to that, then I may, indeed, need to bow out of the group.

How would you present the issue of GNS trade-off?

I have written up specific examples of this group's play showing how lack of priority and focus made for unsatisfying fun, but I fear they will take this as examples of "bad GMing" or something or other.

Paul T

Do you absolutely need to focus on the specifics of things like GNS priorities?

What happens if you just present really focused situations, mechanics, and/or settings/fictional premise?

I mean very, very tightly focused, so that there is no doubt left over other details, like whether combat will be balanced or not.

I think that players with a lot of experience playing very incoherently tend to associate fun with specific details and/or techniques. Maybe they haven't yet experienced a game that was fun despite the fact that combat was unbalanced, for example? But I doubt you can convince them of that--they have to learn it through experience.


Last time I GM'd I tightly focused on Gamism. It fell apart because they wanted "more from the roleplaying."  Maybe I didn't run it as tight as I should have. Or maybe I ran it too tight. 

When the usual "let's talk about the next campaign, what setting, who GMs etc..." discussion happened, I thought that the recent failed experience would encourage more joint buy-in. And it has, to be sure. Yet, as from my Facilitating thread points out, I wasn't sure how to drive that without bringing GNS or even using it at all.

And now, here I am, back dooring GNS into the discussion.  I don't know if I "need to focus on" GNS. Rather, it is just a hard issue to avoid when discussion what kind of game you want to play.

I could try to take the reigns and just drive toward focused situation (Sim), but without everyone on board I doubt, alone, I could pull everyone along.   Any suggestions? Have you ever done this in the past?

Joel P. Shempert

Dammit. I had a fairly chunky reply written up, like Friday or so, but there was a weird error preventing me from posting it. And now Paul's gone and said something similar, and you guys've moved the discussion beyond that point. So I'll just note that I too thought it looked like the terminology was impeding discussion. It sounds now like you have been using "plain terms" to talk about this stuff with your group, which is good, but I'd say it might not be a god idea to even be thinking or worrying too much about the GNS framework at this point--you're still wrestling with some concepts, so using them as a baseline for your thought and discussion is perilous. Even if you're putting it in different words when you carry discussion to your group, you're still thinking "SIm" or whatever in your head, then translating it into your group's "language," perhaps imperfectly. That could even be one reason they're turning up their nose at your description. You might be garbling the description to the point where something they'd enjoy looks totally unappealing.

Trust me, I've been there. I still don't think I've quite undone the damage I did to our shared understanding and game enjoyment when I excitedly went to my brother with all this new Forge stuff and GNS and blah blah blah, and he heard my descriptions as, for instance, "Narrativism is where you act out of character for the good of the story." Ugh.

One thing I've learned from that and some years of Forge discourse is that it's best to, as Paul says, describe something you'd really like to play from a position of laser-sharp focus and enthusiastic advocacy, then see if it jazzes 'em. That's what Ron's talking about as "Color and Reward" in my thread, Cascadiapunk Postmortem. I found it an insightful formulation of just what someone is "buying into" when they buy into a game, which in turn becomes a handy way to pitch it. We can't talk about a think unless we know what we're talking about.

I'd probably avoid negative descriptions ("it's not about balanced combat"); at their best they're absolutely true but unnecessarily off-putting, like saying "In this game you don't do this list of potentially fun things!" And at their worst they're not even strictly true ("Balanced combat" or "genre-appropriateness" do indeed feature in a lot of Narr play!), so you wind up with a false dichotomy that even more unnecessarily alienating players with the impression that all their fun stuff has no place in your refined gaming--like I did with my brother.

On the other hand, there is this pervasive belief in roleplaying culture that you can and indeed, SHOULD) just "have it all," and that somehow all the competing desires and priorities will work themselves out and satisfying play will "just happen." That's an idea that should be killed dead. It's not an attitude that has any legs in any other creative endeavor OR leisure activity, and even good examples of mixed-media or mixed-genre creativity are based on artful combinations, not kitchen-sink whatever-ism.

Now as for how to kill it dead, I'm afraid I'm stumped. Especially as, like I said, it seems like a good idea to keep negativity out of the conversation. Perhaps if we examine your dialog-to-date we can shed some light. Bear in mind that I wasn't there and certainly don't know all the nuances of communication that occured. But anyway, I'll start with terminology mixup of yours, only because it's pretty endemic of your approach:

Quote from: Rustin on December 29, 2008, 05:48:48 PM
this player also writes rich, complicated histories (i.e., Kickers) for his characters.

That is not, in any way, what is meant by a "Kicker." A Kicker is an immediate situation that the character must respond to. It's an opening scene pregnant with crisis or decision. "rich, complicated history" is it's own thing and not necessarily bad, but it's not even veering into Kicker territory. The rich history can either be a fertile backdrop for proactive play (like Kickers), OR it can be a paralyzing amber-drop that the character is frozen in, because everything interesting has already happened, or the beautiful creation is too fragile to risk marring or destroying. this is a good example of new, half-digested concepts tripping you up.

The bottom line, though, is that it's pretty perilous to deduce Creative Agenda from individual techniques. There could be any number of reasons a player develops complicated histories, for example. It'll probably take some probing to get at what the players are really after. Which is tricky, because as you point out you've got an interest in the proceedings. Like when you asked one player that rather leading question, "to beat the GM?" It kind of cuts off any reason he would've given instinctively, on his own. You may have been on to something, but I'm dying to know what he would've said without the prompt.

Just asking "Why' or "Why not?" might go a long way toward getting good solid and useful answers without leading the discussion too much. For instance:

Quote from: Rustin on December 29, 2008, 05:48:48 PM
"I would not enjoy that game, at all" is what he said in response to IAWA.

I'd love to know why he thinks he wouldn't enjoy IaWA. Just asking him might yield some understanding. It might even be that something in the way you described it turned him off, but he'd actually enjoy it in play after all! But who knows, unless you ask?

Maybe that would help your further attempts at dialogue? I hope so.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.



Well, yours and Paul's comments were a bit prophetic.

They glommed onto the negatives and didn't really address the issues of prioritizing play.
I've made a terrible mess of things. 

On a side note, the rich history included a kicker (man wakes up in front of an alter with no memories). He also included some back-story (excessive by Sorcerer standards) and that's where I got muddled.

Since I can't go back in time, I still think I need to focus on the "you can have it all" issue, and describe it in terms of ranking, so that it is not a negative. Maybe depict it in a way where other aspects are not eliminated, but support the top level.  I think that gives it a positive tone.  I do have several actual examples of our play where I think lack of priorities squelched the fun.  I might bring those examples up, but I worry that it will make whoever was GMing at the time, feel bad.  And that bad feeling is all they will focus on (try to defend themselves, etc..).

I'll ask more "why" questions rather than try to leap to the GNS conclusion.

On a different topic, if I was to do this again, with a clean slate. Can you expand on your understanding of laser-sharp focus and enthusiastic advocacy? I think I get it, and I think I see how it ties into Ron's Color and Reward, but I'm not sure.

Ron's description of Color and Reward focuses primarily on Sorcerer. I think I get the Color part, but when he starts in on Reward, he talks of the "four outcomes in the book" which I don't have handy right now.  I assume he's talking about a CA reward (gam, sim, nar)? Or rather, payoff for getting a result that happens to fall into a CA category.  Is that your understanding?  I'm not confident I could summarize Reward in terms of games like d20 Swashbucklers or other more mainstream materials.  Leveling your character? Buying new Gear? Maybe get a magic drop? Somehow, I feel those are not exactly the rewards Ron was talking about. 

Thanks for the replies, I really appreciate them. 

Joel P. Shempert

Hey, Rustin! Sorry to hear things have gotten so muddled. But the reason I was able to be so prophetic is that it's a verrry familiar situation to me, unfortunately.

Which reminds me! I reused some material from my post that wouldn't post, but not the P.S.! And looking it over, I think it'll be helpful in an encouraging comeraderie sorta way. So here it is:

QuotePS. Let me just echo with Jesse that I feel your pain. I've been in that awkward spot of pursuing barely understood concepts and finding the right group dynamic to try something new. in some ways I'm still in that place; I still play regularly with a group that doesn't necessarily "get" me and my play goals. It's only by improving my communication methods that I'm gradually getting to the point of playing in mutually fulfilling ways.

That's all I've got time for now, but I think I'll put some effort soon into compose a "Color and Reward" pitch for a game I know and love that isn't Sorcerer*, as a hopefully helpful example. And it'll be a good chance to practice the skill for myself! That should give you an inkling of how to construct one for your D20 game. I'm pretty versed in D&D/D20, but it's not my darling or anything, at least to the point where I could do a good pitch. I'd look forward to be informed by yours, actually. But first things first.

If you want to give input, you could tell me which of these games I'm considering would be most instructive to hear a pitch on:

Shadow of Yesterday, Dogs in the Vineyard, Capes, In a Wicked Age. . . or Heroquest.


*The "Four Outcomes" are the four categories of eventual story resolution for Sorcerer protagonists, which Ron lays out in the final chapter, "Theme and Meaning, under the heading "Thematic Points." The are: Retribution (hero fails, sorcery has disastrous outcome), Remorse (Hero succeeds but it's an empty, broken victory), The Outlaw Prevails (hero succeeds, sorcery kept under control) and Redemption (hero wins by putting aside sorcery). As for CA, while I'm sure Ron would tell you in no uncertain terms what CA that game progression facilitates--and I agree with him--I maintain that right now you should focus on the direct appeal of such a progression to your sensibilities, or the appeal of whatever  progression a given game has, to you and your fellow players.
Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.



So I sent out a long email to them about troubles when trying have all the GN&S in gaming.

I then shifted gears. I suggested we try a new game, on a different day with no intention of it replacing our current game. I offered the Color and Reward of Storming the Wizard's tower.

Here's what I said:

Its called Storming the Wizard's Tower.  It reminds me of old school D&D, if D&D were thought out a bit better.  You play adventuring groups in a Fantasy setting where you fight monsters that threaten your home Town.  You get to spend XP on improving skills, gear or maybe even magic or even opening up new character classes that you can then roll up as you can have more than one character.

I'd be interested in hearing your Color and Reward for Heroquest, as I've never played that game.

Joel P. Shempert

Your pitch sounds pretty good. I'd probably elaborate a bit more on the Color myself, but if your group functions on an implicit understanding of "D&D" as you described then it could work. Just be careful of the old  mismatched expectations problem: you all go in thinking "it's like D&D! Cool!" but then all too late you discover that each person is holding a different "what D&D is" assumption in their head--often incompatible ones.

Also, in the case of that particular game, I'd talk a bit about the long-term reward as well: the whole "Monsters, then Wizard, then Dragon" progression. it's a key feature of the game to have that very clear series of conflict stages frame gameplay, and you want to give people a chance to go "Sweet! A Dragon at level 3! Eat that, D&D!" and also to make sure nobody's gonna go "WHat? You already know what stuff's gonna happen, step by step? LAME!" That's the twin-edged blade of Buy-in; people need to have room to know if they want to buy out.

I'll post the Heroquest thing tonight or tomorrow. Not that it'll take long to write, but I'm thinking about other stuff just now.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.