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Author Topic: System Transforms Situation... And Situation Informs System?  (Read 4260 times)
jburneko
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« on: December 05, 2008, 01:09:40 PM »

We talk a lot about how System transforms Situation.  What we don’t talk a lot about is how Situation limits or informs our choices about how to employ the System.  This is a topic that is becoming increasingly important to me and I’ve tried to address it in various ways in various places never really to my satisfaction.  Reading all the talk about Traits and Color/Reward buy in has inspired me to try again.

The most straightforward example of what I’m talking about from my own play is concerns a session of Dogs in the Vineyard, I was GMing.  A Lieutenant of the Territorial Authority was investigating the rumors of a “vigilante organization” (i.e. The Dogs).  He had a young girl, a member of the Faithful who had a grudge against The Dogs, housed in a Hotel guarded by armed men.  The PC Dogs wanted the Lieutenant to turn the girl back over to them.

There are a couple of things you have to understand about my mindset going into this situation to understand the example.  First of all, I was very committed to the idea of not playing the Lieutenant like a tyrannical military ideologue.  Second of all, at the top of the scene I was highly committed to pushing things all the way to gun-fighting.

One of the two Dogs in the situation rolled very, very badly and Gave after just one or two exchanges.  The tension at the table was so thick you could cut it with a knife.  The second Dog held out and eventually came up with this raise, “I take hold of the Lieutenant’s gun, place the barrel in my mouth, and dare him to pull the trigger.”

I Gave.  Here’s the important thing, mechanically I had the dice to keep going.  I didn’t even need to escalate.  However, from a situational stand point I felt emotionally trapped.  Yes, I could have done other things as a See other than pull the trigger but nothing felt satisfying.  Nothing felt, “true to how I wanted to play the Lieutenant” if that makes any sense.

I’ve told this story to various people and sometimes I’m met with a very interesting criticism.  It’s been suggested that what I did reduces the game to being about pushing the GMs buttons rather than ridding the system out to its conclusion.  The attitude seemed to be that a Dog’s GM should more or less operate like a black-jack dealer who has to push while under 17 and must stand over 17.  Basically, that the GM should, no matter what, keep going until either the Dogs Give or it become mathematically clear that the GM can’t deliver any more fallout.  That’s a baffling mindset to me because it seems to come from the viewpoint that the game is not a tool for expressing something but rather is a machine that creates something on its own.

Ron’s games seem to employ subtler, harder to define aspects of the same principles.  I’ve played two games of “It Was a Mutual Decsion” one game that was awesome with aspects that I consider in the top moments of my entire play history (in the same category as the Lieutenant experience above).  The other game was much, much weaker.

The reason for the second game I chalk up to the fact that I was playing with people who really didn’t buy into the “break up” aspect of the game and were only there because they wanted to see what this whole “wererat” thing was about.  As a consequence, what they did was pretty much grab black dice at every turn with almost no regard for what was happening with the actual relationship in the fiction.

I even tried to discuss this at the time and was met with serious resistance revolving around the idea that if they were doing something wrong the game needed elements to counter-balance their behavior.  They even went so far as to point to the sheet with the characters and their friendships on it and said something like, “this isn’t very interesting” and then pointed to the pile of black dice and said, “this is VERY interesting” then pointed back at the sheet and said, “if this is supposed to be the focus of the game there needs to be more to keep me focused on it.”

Spione takes the principle I’m getting at here to an even higher level.  There’s wonderfully clear social mandate to “put the spies in the cold.”  And then a wonderful tool is provided to do just that, namely, the Spy and the Guy sheets.  All you have to “to do” is split the spy’s priorities between the elements on the Guy sheet and the elements on the Spy sheet.  There’s even a built in throttle to make the story go faster or slower: how much pressure you put on the spy’s Supporting Cast.

But there are no mathematical meters for these things.  There are no Cold Points like the Static in Lacuna or Tension in Dead of Night to measure how “deep into the cold” the spy is or to track or constrain individual player input.  Supporting Cast do not carry any kind of “stress” determinate like Pain in Darkpages or even “checking them off” as in Trollbabe.  These elements (when combined with the fun “wind up toy” resolution system) have a palpable systemic effect even though they are wholly fictional components.

What I’m trying to get at is that the emotional commitment of the players to the SIS can be relied upon as a limiter for engaging the more mechanical aspects of the game without having to fall back on Pavlovian rewards or over structuring the acceptable player input.  In other words, the *designer* can lock down and position certain elements of the SIS as part of the nature of the game and the evocative nature of that positioning is, itself, part of the System that drives play in a meaningful manner.  I want to talk about how to more deliberately harness this phenomenon.

Jesse
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #1 on: December 05, 2008, 01:36:40 PM »

This is something I've been thinking about a lot for the past few months.  It came up because I was trying to write an article about constructing resolution mechanics to facilitate particular "shades" of action, so t'speak, and I realized I couldn't write that article until I tackled this issue.

It revolves around something that, in my head, I'm calling "Expression."  It's a part of System, and it's specifically the system(s) by which we express things in the SIS in actionable terms.  Statistics and numbers, from attributes to damage, are part of this, but most if it is done without numbers, in wholly qualitative terms.

This is just me getting a foot in the door here to say that I've got something I want to contribute to this discussion, but I've got to pry it out of my brain first.  Hopefully, I'll be back.

-Marshall
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: December 05, 2008, 01:46:56 PM »

Hi Marshall,

The concept you're calling expression is already terminologically present in the term Shared Imagined Space - it's the "shared" part, meaning spoken, heard, and spoken again.

The new term seems like a good idea as a property of System in and of itself, though. The IIEE concept is definitely a part of it, although limited to resolution.

Best, Ron
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #3 on: December 05, 2008, 02:02:45 PM »

Yes, IIEE definitely is part of it.  Effect is particularly important.  And the whole issue of the application of Traits?  That too.  And using Psyche scores to guide your roleplaying in the Rustbelt, as well as applying Injuries, and deciding what stat to roll.

But I ain't quite buyin' this:

The concept you're calling expression is already terminologically present in the term Shared Imagined Space - it's the "shared" part, meaning spoken, heard, and spoken again.

I'm talking about the way we share things, and how that has particular effects that can be assessed & gauged by the players, and prompted & reinforced by clever design.

As a quick example, something I discovered while playing kill puppies for satan:
Despite the book's explanation of the stats, Mean is NOT strength & dexterity, nor is Cold intelligence, and the same goes for the "correspondences" given for Fucked Up and Relentless.  When Crypter brought that TV down on the pawnbroker's head from behind, her player didn't roll Mean because that required strength and dexterity.  She rolled Mean because Crypter was being a mean motherfucker.  The way she described the action, things like "is she strong enough to knock him out with it?" didn't matter; the question was, "is she mean enough?"

But that's just a small reflection of this thing that I've been grappling with for a long time now.  (It won't come out of my head!  Arrrg)

-Marshall
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jburneko
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Posts: 1429


« Reply #4 on: December 05, 2008, 03:32:25 PM »

Marshall,

I sadly don't know Kill Puppies for Satan very well but your basic example brings up an interesting illustrative hypothetical.  Assume for a second that a player makes his highest score Mean.  I've seen two basic attitudes about that.  One I call System First, the other I call Fiction First.

The System First approach looks at this and says I want my character to be Mean a lot so I will make his highest score Mean.  In addition such a player usually puts a lot of effort into "jiggering" the fiction so as to justify being able to act Mean.  They also tend to use a lot of language like, "Being Mean is what the system rewards me for doing."

The Fiction First approach looks at this and says when my character is Mean, I want him to be scary effective, but the score itself says NOTHING about how often or how much they desire the character to be Mean.  Indeed they might want to try and play the character as cool as possible allowing their feelings about the fiction to dictate when they actually decide to be Mean up to and including never.  Such a player is usually also asking the group to apply pressure in an effort to find the character's Mean boundary.

Does that line up with what you've been thinking about?

Jesse
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Callan S.
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« Reply #5 on: December 05, 2008, 07:50:35 PM »

Didn't we have an AP account here awhile ago, where the author of it just wanted to see the wererat? I can't remember who gave it?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: December 06, 2008, 07:13:22 AM »

Callan, the answer is "no." I'm the author, and the way to play this game is exactly as Jesse describes in his first example.

I suspect you're thinking about the thread [It Was A Mutual Decision] [Forge Midwest] Scared by rats, in which Seth did some push-button play and quickly realized he shouldn't.

Marshall, you're agreeing with me. You're right to start investigating how it's done; my point is that the what is already present in the Model to tie your questions to. Not that the questions are already answered.

Best, Ron
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Adrian F.
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« Reply #7 on: December 06, 2008, 10:19:49 AM »

I think he meaned the author of the post.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #8 on: December 06, 2008, 01:01:24 PM »

Aye, that I did! The author of the post (Seth) wanted to see a wererat :) And Ron's pulled out exactly the thread link I was thinking of. It almost seems the same thing - a person latching onto the first big fantasy element they can find, despite the relationship soaked title (if I can put it that way). It's interesting to compare.
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Christoph Boeckle
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« Reply #9 on: December 06, 2008, 06:34:00 PM »

Hi Jesse

That scene with the lieutenant sounds brilliant! I was thinking: "Yes, Dogs is all about pushing peoples' buttons!" Would I have had the trigger pulled or not? I don't know!

I agree that Situation informing System is a very interesting topic. Here's a potentially out of topic consideration: isn't the fact that situations informs system a defining characteristic of RPGs? Other types of games are about system informing system, some of which even feature some bits of narration or fiction as part of the system or have narration or fiction as a side process, making it unclear if they're RPGs or not (I don't consider Once upon a Time an RPG for this reason). I'm not trying to make a point about a cool abstract definition, this actually has quasi-physiological extensions when I encounter it in play (I remember playtesting a friend's game and feeling it wasn't an RPG, only to realize later on that the system was independent of the fiction).

This might yield a principle to harness the phenomenon you're talking about: if what the game is about is addressed via rules-rules feedback loops, then the designer should consider making the situation (which allows player judgement and creativity on a wholly different level) part of that loop, at least to some degree (sounds like the Fruitful Void to me).
I haven't read nor played Spione, but introducing Cold points might very well take away the significance of Situation in the process of play, whereas Tension in Dead of Night is good because it's a tool for pacing the horror story (but doesn't produce or represent the horror by itself).

Am I making sense here?
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Regards,
Christoph
jburneko
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Posts: 1429


« Reply #10 on: December 07, 2008, 07:54:42 PM »

I went and read Seth's posts about that "It Was a Mutual Decision" game.  Interesting stuff coming from the guy who later went on to write "A Flower For Mara," a FAR more dangerous game than "It Was A Mutual Decision."  But yes, what Seth was doing so were the players in that second game I played.  Only, I had two, one on each side of the table, and neither came to the realization that Seth did.  The attitude of, "Wererat?  I want a wererat!  Let's get a wererat going!" was present and unchecked the entire run of the game and was met with extreme disappointment when it didn't actually happen.

Furthermore, when I presented the idea that the people at the table need to buy into the couple as real people and care about the state of their relationship and make mechanical decisions from there rather than making mechanical decisions and seeing "what happens to the fiction," I was met with extreme resistance.  The underlying principle seemed to be that if everyone at the table was that committed to the fiction from the outset then the rules were effectively unnecessary.  Those people would have created an awesome story anyway, so why the rules?

Just the other day with regard to Spione I saw this comment, "All the awesome seemed to come from the people I was playing with, and not from the system."  I've heard the same comment applied to Sorcerer and indeed underlies much, of my discussion about Sorcerer and how the elements are not just "ideas" that drive GM fiat.  My notions about how "Giving" in Dogs in the Vineyard is this incredibly powerful thematic magic marker are met with raised eyebrows.

I'm tired of it.  So, I want to develop a method of talking about that phenomenon of how the fiction feeds into mechanical decisions in an understandable and intelligent manner.  I've tried giving it a term.  I call it the Narrative Wall. That sometimes, given the state of the fiction, certain mechanical decisions simply make no sense.  There are no "rules" stopping you from making those mechanical "moves" but your own commitment to the fiction won't let you.  Why IS it that pushing the wererat button as often and as hard as you can to "see what will happen" makes the game suck?  And why does that not prove the game is "broken"?  Just what WAS going on systemically that made that first game sing so loud?

I'm curious because there's a next step question.  How do you design and playtest the Narrative Wall?  If a playtest group comes back and says the game sucked how do you distinguish between, the rules really aren't doing their job and they weren't relating to the fiction properly to allow the rules to do their job?

Jesse

Jesse
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Callan S.
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« Reply #11 on: December 08, 2008, 09:06:16 AM »

Hi Jesse,

It's funny - I agree with your original post, right until the last paragraph where you take a complete right hand turn to me. Or perhaps I'm taking a right hand turn. Because the majority of roleplayers I've talked to on forums seem to have their narrative wall reinforced by most roleplay games. Roleplay games have actually eroded my narrative wall over the years. If there's a button here where I can give and a button over there where I can pull the trigger of the gun in the dogs mouth, I might feel I have to give...but why??? The presence of the trigger pulling button QUESTIONS that feeling. That extra button means I cannot pretend to myself I was only ever going down one path - that extra button is a different path I could choose. And in being able to choose it, I have to question why I did not? Why? The multiple choices system gives me make me question the choices I *feel* I must take. And questioning the narrative wall, erodes it. Note: I see this as a philisophical feature of roleplay games, not a bug.

Strangely you seem to be on the other side (or I'm on the other side - either way) and your line "Why IS it that pushing the wererat button as often and as hard as you can to "see what will happen" makes the game suck?" seems to reinforce the narrative wall. The assertion being "If the game sucks without a narrative wall, then the narrative wall must exist and be important!"

So it's strange - I mostly agree with you, I think, because the people you talk about are neither interested in narrative wall eroding introspection, nor are they interested in reinforcing a narrative wall. Although I'm interested in eroding narrative walls, I'm still interested in walls and so essentially agree with you! These people have no interest in narrative walls at all. Funny parallel weve got going on there!?
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jburneko
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« Reply #12 on: December 08, 2008, 10:44:12 AM »

Callan,

I think what you're getting at is that the system in Dogs in the Vineyard makes it *safe* socially to pull the trigger.  The uniformity of the mechanics means I can pull the trigger and it isn't just an automatic kill.  I have options with what dice I Raise with and the player has options with what to See with and even taking d10s in fallout isn't very likely to kill you outright.  There are choices and those choices are out in the open.

That to me though strengthens the narrative wall, not erodes it.  I know I can pull the trigger will full commitment if I want to.  I'm not backing down because the mechanics will screw up someones fun with an auto kill or whatever.  I've done that in the past with other games.  I've been in a situation where I would have liked to have played the character and situation more ruthlessly but didn't because I was affraid the mechanics would fuck over the player too badly.  But that to me only socially strengthens the decision to back off.  The players know I don't have to.  It's clear that my choice is genuine role-playing of the lieutenant and not just the GM protecting them, "in case".

Jesse
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #13 on: December 08, 2008, 11:22:27 AM »

Jesse,
Urrrg... That's a touchy topic for me, right there.  I think that there are "right" ways to create a character, and that there are "wrong" ways.  The "right" ways are a) to create a character, in terms of actual, y'know, character, and then use the Techniques provided by the game to describe (Express) him, or b) to take a not-entirely predictable result that the System gives you (random chargen, lifepaths, etc.) and then think of what character in terms of actual, y'know, character, is described (Expressed) by that data.  The wrong ways are everything else.  Those guys that say things like "Being Mean is what the system rewards me for"?  Punch 'em in the face, as far as I'm concerned.

(Yes, if you're playing Gamist, you should almost certainly write the character for effectiveness, but if you aren't also thinking about him in terms of actual character then I will punch your face refuse to play with you.  I follow the way of the Disco Samurai.)

But, of course, that's my personal karma, and I don't expect anyone else to agree to it, unless we're going to be playing together.

I'm still wrestling with a way to get this Expression thing out in a coherent form.  I think it's something that most roleplayers understand on a non-verbal level, but I sure as hell want to investigate it.  Problem is it's an iceberg -- I see it's peak all over the place, but there's a hell of a lot underneath that.

In the mean time, there's this thread I started over on SG that is grounded in my Expression theory:
Story Made Simple
See in particular the section labeled "Character Techniques," and Eldir's post towards the bottom, where he insightfully picks up on what I'm about to (try to) say next.

-Marshall
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #14 on: December 08, 2008, 11:25:47 AM »

(shit, hit the button too soon;  Jesse, in case it's unclear, I was responding directly to your response to the KPFS thing)
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