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Author Topic: System Transforms Situation... And Situation Informs System?  (Read 4353 times)
jburneko
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Posts: 1429


« Reply #15 on: December 08, 2008, 12:10:29 PM »

Marshal,

I don't play with these people and I'd love to punch in the face.  Baring that, I still want to have reasonable things to say about the phenomenon which I agree with you feels like the tip of something larger.

The phenomenon I don't think is much different from the that no one calls for "Climb Check" if there's no wall in the fiction.  No one should reasonably pull Black Dice in "It Was a Mutual Decision" unless they feel the situation at had warrants it.  But some would argue that the former is "objective." Some one (usually a GM)  declares that wall is or isn't there to be climbed and that "feelings" are ephemeral and there can't be "counted on" for making game mechanics work.

It's that second notion I'm calling "bullshit" on but I don't know how to explain it.

Jesse
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #16 on: December 08, 2008, 01:28:02 PM »

Jesse,

In your Dogs example, it sounds to me like the (potential) conflict you observed was between what the Lieutenant, as you imagined him, would do, and what he could do via the game's mechanics.

I emphasize "could", because it's not what he had to do.  The mechanics weren't "trying to force you" to do any particular thing.

I would guess that this particular choice is constant in every game all the time.  What's more important?  Fidelity to an NPC's in-fiction concept, or competition via mechanics?  I suspect that having a specific Creative Agenda shared among all the players in a group will cover this.  It also strikes me as a great place to look for manifestations of CA Clash.

Narrative Wall, to me, just sounds like CA in action, unifying the usages of various techniques and ephemera (e.g. resolution, narration, and just plain talking) toward a common end.  I mean, how could Situation not inform how we use System?

I do think Narrative Wall is a catchy phrase, though, and I might use it in the future when discussing player choices to not "game" the system.

I apologize if I'm missing your point re: how all this matters in play.  It seems to me that a lot of your concerns here are more in the realm of labeling and talking about this than in playing it, and so I've responded in that spirit.  If you can think of an instance of play where the group shared a creative agenda, played a game that supported it, and yet ran into real trouble with the dynamic you're discussing, that might clarify for me what exactly needs solving here.

I think the only games where I've run into "I think I'm supposed to roll these dice now, but if I do, the game could be ruined!" are games without clear agendas, or games with resolution systems not matched to their agendas.  The design solutions to those problems would seem obvious (design for CA coherence), and the play solutions if you wanna play broken games are what roleplayers have traditionally come up with -- ignore the rules when they get in your way.

Hope this rambling was useful...
-David
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here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development
Marshall Burns
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American Wizard


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« Reply #17 on: December 08, 2008, 01:32:43 PM »

Jesse,
Yeah, I think I see what you're getting at.  Thing is, none of it is really objective, is it?  It's all subjective, at its root, and that's why we have rules to say who's got authority over what, and how we should treat their contributions.  (And even those rules are subject to Social Contract)

Any mechanic that says, "THIS is how you treat this thing I'm contributing," is what I would call an Expression mechanic.  The different ways of Expressing the thing tell us different ways to treat it.

In the Rustbelt, a Vice with Grip 10 is different from one with Grip 11.  The mechanical effect of withdrawal is greater, for one thing.  The other bit is that the Vice's impact on the character's behavior is greater as Grip increases, but this is left entirely in the hands of the player.  It doesn't force him to do any particular thing, but he's supposed to look at his sheet and say, "Okay, I'm Gripped for 11, how can I convey that in my depiction of my character?"  It doesn't get you any bonuses, or any penalties, or anything like that.  So why should the players care to do it?  Because it makes play richer.

And let's look at a "climb check" in the Rustbelt.  I totally reject the idea that it's "objective" in this game.  The GM sets the target number based not on "how difficult this wall would be to climb," but on how important it is to the character to get over the wall.  Having decided on a target number, then the GM describes why it's so hard to get over the wall.  If it's not hard, then the wall is sturdy, and there's plenty of handholds.  If it's hard, then the GM decides that the bricks are loose, and some of them pull out when you touch them, and some are falling down on you from above, and over the lake comes that strong, icy wind (they call it The Hawk) that comes searing through your clothes, whipping your hair into your face, and bringing tears to your eyes.

In Super Action Now!, let's say that one guy has the trait "Fastest stapler in the West 1d20" and another guy has "Staples really fast 5d12."  That second guy has the potential to roll 5 successes when using that trait, while the first guy can get 1 at most.  Does this mean that the second guy is a faster stapler?  NOPE.  It says right there on the sheet that Guy1 is the fastest, so bygod he is.  The issue of speed is Expressed entirely through the textual description of the traits.  What the dice Express is actual Effectiveness -- they tell us that Guy2 is, while not faster, better able to solve problems by using his stapling skills.

I wish I could apply this line of thought to It Was a Mutual Decision, but I don't know enough about it.  What, precisely, would you say that the black dice are supposed to express?  Because it seems clear from here that they are tools for the players to use to express some particular thing.  Which suggests to me that if they are used for any other purpose, that is breaking the rules.

But here's a cool thing where Vincent applies this principle to Dogs:
Quote
So we're playing Dogs, it's the first session, and there's an enormous bonfire in town and it's a problem (I forget the details why). It's my raise. I say "I put my hands into the fire and I say 'peace, be still,' to extinguish it."

Like all right Dogs players, we haven't talked about the supernatural up-front at all. Never, ever talk about the supernatural up-front, except for the GM to say only "hey, supernatural things might happen, we'll see."

So. Peace, be still, to extinguish a bonfire.

a) Is it a legit move on my part? YES. I am clearly within my rights to say that my character does that.

b) Is it a legit raise, though? YES. The GM rolled demonic influence against me; ritual is how you make raises against the demons.

c) Is it tacky? UP TO YOU. Ron thinks it is, probably. I think it's cool. I think, most importantly, that it's true to the stories of my childhood and respectful of my family's faith and mythology.

d) Does it work, though? HERE'S THE FUN. This is why you don't set the supernatural dial up-front, but through play.

What dice did I push forward? High dice? Then I'm making a bid at nudging the supernatural dial upward. Low dice? Then I'm making a bid at nudging it downward.

How does the GM see? Both the dice he uses and what he says matter a whole lot. A block like "you can't bring yourself to put your hands in the fire" is a whole different thing from a block like "the fire leaps away from your hands but burns up more brightly elsewhere." So here's the GM participating in nudging the supernatural dial one way or the other.

(complete thread on anyway)

-Marshall
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #18 on: December 08, 2008, 02:23:29 PM »

Hey there,

You guys are getting a litttttle bit extreme, I think. Because you've had bad experiences with system-first thinking, doesn't mean it can't play a positive role - and indeed, provide a way into a given SIS that would otherwise be unavailable, for a given person at a given time, through fiction-first inspiration alone.

This may operate at two rough levels: (1) as a corollary and reinforcing element of the kind of play you're talking about, and (2) as a primary mode of play which generates SIS, particularly impetus and the unexpected, from the other direction.

So consider before you punch anyone's face. I fully understand your desire to do that to someone specific you've played with, especially if they've indulged in the mind games described so far in this thread. But it's misplaced if you're talking about means and desires of SIS-valuing play.

Best, Ron
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Marshall Burns
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American Wizard


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« Reply #19 on: December 08, 2008, 02:46:46 PM »

Yeah, okay, Ron, okay.  To clarify, I'm not sure what "system first" means in terms of actual rules-application in play, so I don't know if that makes me want to get the face-punching started or not.  I just get mad at people who don't assume responsibility for the way they use a system (especially if they then blame the system for it). 

-Marshall
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #20 on: December 08, 2008, 03:54:41 PM »

Ron,

I agree.  But that's why I want a way to discuss that.  Hell, people probably, much like stance, bounce around in a fairly sophisticated manner between using the mechanics to probe the next bit of fiction and leaping from the fiction to grab the next bit of mechanic.

But I feel like there should be someway to break that process down and discuss how various games approach it, how to design for it and how to playtest it.

I mean Dogs in the Vineyard generally can survive the blackjack dealer approach to GMing.  Where as It Was A Mutual Decision can not.  Why?

I just get mad at people who don't assume responsibility for the way they use a system (especially if they then blame the system for it). 

Yes.  And while I regretfully, resentfully and reluctantly admit that there's nothing I can do to *make* them take that responsibility it bothers me when I can't even adequately describe something to myself.

Jesse
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JoyWriter
Member

Posts: 500

also known as Josh W


« Reply #21 on: December 08, 2008, 07:21:56 PM »

On the "climb checks when there's no wall" thing;
System-light games often don't specify a lot of the causality of the world, they tend to leave that up to player's internal feels for how those things work, and then adjudicate between them.

This means that when people see a situation, and say "what is the implied future of this situation?" it's their own one. Now when you have flat conflict with systems that do specify you get "that's not realistic" or people just compartmentalise this world as one where different things happen.

But sometimes you can run out of implied future; this place doesn't go anywhere for you.

In system-heavy games you can just go back to the rules. In certain collaborative ones you can throw it open; "Woah, I don't have a clue how this guy would deal with this." soliciting ideas with final veto. But in other games you are required to provide some kind of adversarial position and so it's all on you. In this case you sometimes have to go deep into the situation, inventing/exploring stuff until it gives you a handle, something that ties to experience or other stories you know of, and gives you a set of places to go.

Now some people take the heavy-rules approach in all their games; the role of the rules to them is to provide possible futures for them to choose between, and if there aren't any, they think it's a bad game. Some people can look at their sheet and see it as an expression of the dimensionality of their world, the routes to choose between set in stone. I believe these people simply have not discovered the other solutions to creative block, or are not experienced with them. Either that or they don't have enough authorial control to expand the situation like that; they can't say "This guy had a disagreement with his father" because the game or DM tells them their character is an orphan. (Ok there can be other reasons, including pride and false ceilings, but you get the point)
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #22 on: December 08, 2008, 07:57:52 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.

So, I'm reading this thread and discover that, lo, my name is invoked. Oh no! And it's about that game of It Was A Mutual Decision. Oh no!

And so, I'm dealing with angst. There's a part of me that wants to be defensive. There's another part of me that wants to explain how the social dynamics of that particular game of It Was A Mutual Decision had significant impact on me, and how I see that as a different thing from A Flower For Mara....

And in the middle of all that, I think I actually figured out something useful and germane to this thread, beyond simply protecting my ego. (Grin!)

And it has everything to do with the social dynamics of a particular game, and the repurposing of mechanics.

But I feel like there should be someway to break that process down and discuss how various games approach it, how to design for it and how to playtest it.

I mean Dogs in the Vineyard generally can survive the blackjack dealer approach to GMing.  Where as It Was A Mutual Decision can not.  Why?

Because the mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard can be repurposed with interesting effects, while the mechanics of It Was A Mutual Decision cannot.

Right now, we're doing beta playtesting on Ralph Mazza's latest game Blood Red Sands. For those of you who don't know, it's an over-the-top macho swords-and-sorcery competitive roleplaying game. It is the heavy metal apocalypse, if you follow me. And, at the heart of this game, in the conflict system itself...sits the Dogs in the Vineyard dice system.

Oh, it's been seriously monkeyed with. Now, dice also have aspects, which have special powers. You don't take Fallout; rather, your dice are Battered or Devastated as a result of Taking the Blow. But, the basic "I advance a pair, and you have to deal with it" mechanic is in full effect.

Why?

Because it's a fun system to game. It's a blast to engage this system, to figure out how to come up with clever dice moves, to try to draw out your opponent's big dice while conserving your own. It's a little wargame that you play with dice.

And so is Dogs in the Vineyard.

My point is that there's nothing inherent about judgment or morality in the Dogs in the Vineyard mechanic. That's all attached to the mechanic by the players. If the players don't connect any emotional weight to "going for the gun", then escalation won't have any emotional impact. It'll just be a matter of logistics. But it'll be fun logistics.

This doesn't even take into account the fact that certain Dogs in the Vineyard Towns are really just elaborate Call of Cthulhu scenarios with PCs that won't go insane. We ride into town, poke around a bit, and then we get to lay down some Righteous Judgment of the six-shooter variety. There's no deep engagement with the moral context. We're Dogs; ergo, we're right and you're wrong. Shooties!

And the game will do this just fine.

Now, is it what the game is "supposed" to do? Not really. Rather, the game has been repurposed. You might even call it thematic Drift. The mechanics stay put, but the purpose is altered. What is left is still fun, because the mechanic that runs it is fun in the repurposed context.

Constrast this with It Was A Mutual Decision. I'll admit to being a little hazy on my recollection of the rules right now, but, basically, apart from the fiction, what mechanical choices are there? Basically, you choose your stat, burn Trust for a bonus die if desired, add black dice if you want, and roll the dice. High roll wins. It's simple, straightforward, matter-of-fact, and functional.

And boring. By itself, there's nothing fun about this mechanic. As Jesse noted, trying to make the wererat appear is not all that mechanically interesting. Rather, the mechanic gains its impact from how it structures both the SIS and the ongoing conversation about the SIS. I'd put Spione in the same category. The mechanics (strictly speaking) are just an abbreviated game of Accordian Solitaire. It gains its impact by structuring the conversation.

See, at its heart, a roleplaying game is a structured conversation about a particular topic. The mechanics are how the conversation is structured, but that simply won't matter if the people at the table don't want to talk about the topic. Spione fails if the players don't care about The Cold. It Was A Mutual Decision fails if the players don't care about the characters.

But here's the tricksy bit. Using this definition, it's possible for the "structured conversation" to become about the mechanics. That's why Dogs in the Vineyard still works without the moral context.

So, what am I saying? One thing is I wonder if the "interesting mechanic" can become a problem if it isn't intimately tied to the conversational topic: e.g. The Cold, a breakup, etc.

Jesse, I know that you are familiar with my games, so here's how I evaluate a couple of my designs, in this light.

I think that Dirty Secrets limps along in the middle here. On the one hand, if there isn't a dedication to "the mystery", then the game will flop. However, between the Crime Grid and the Liar's Dice, there are enough "fun" mechanics that a group can play through a story of a single-minded investigator, beating confessions out of people and crawling through gunfights. The game doesn't actively require that you engage the deeper issues of judgment, power disparity, and corruption. Now, I think I'm okay with that. Some people will enjoy the game on that level, and they will be happy. However, they will also run into odd edges of the System that simply don't make sense to them. The comments in this blog post illustrate this point.

A Flower for Mara doesn't have any "interesting mechanics" that are fun to poke at. Therefore, if someone decides to play, it's because he is attracted by the topic of conversation, not by the nifty mechanics. And, really, who is going to get into a game, saying, "I really just want to play with the mechanic of confessing a personal grief of mine to everyone"? My goodness, at that point, you're halfway to being interested in the game.

So, this is perhaps a cynical conclusion, but I wonder if part of the answer to "How do I design to engage my players emotionally?" is by removing other means by which players engage. If the only way to engage with your game is through resonance with the thematic material, then potential players will self-select out.

Whether this is a good thing or not, I'll leave to others to decide.

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
GreatWolf
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« Reply #23 on: December 09, 2008, 07:52:37 AM »

Hey, I think that my last post needs a clarification. Here it is:

System is bigger than just mechanics.

Yes, this is probably a "well, duh" moment for most of the people reading this thread. But I wanted to make sure that I pointed it out. My discussion in the previous post was about mechanics as commonly understood (i.e. the manipulation of Effectiveness and Resources by players to affect the SIS), not System.

The reason that this is important is that most of the games that I mentioned push a large amount of their design into the social realm. The rules give clear direction; they simply aren't about the manipulation of Effectiveness and Resources. For example, in Spione, one of the rules is "During Maneuvers, every player must narrate the principals further into The Cold". That's not play advice; that's a rule. If a player isn't doing that, he's breaking the rules. As another example, in A Flower for Mara, one of the rules is "During a Spotlight Scene, if you are still holding your flower, you must play out how your character is still struggling with his grief." Again, that's not play advice; that's a rule. If you don't do that, then you're not playing the game correctly.

Of course, the problem is that we're not used to seeing these sorts of things as being rules. Instead, we tend to think of the mechanics as being the "rules" and the broader social dictates as merely being advice. But that's not accurate, and I think this idea has led to a lot of confusion about a number of quality games. Personally, I think that this is pretty nifty design space, and, honestly, I learned a lot of it from Ron's games, especially Spione. (For example, the Demographics from Dirty Secrets and the Griefs from A Flower for Mara were directly inspired by Spione.)

And so maybe this is a better way of putting my point from the post: If you're wanting your players to engage emotionally, then you need to design the social structures to encourage that engagement, not just mechanics. Part of that is being aware of how your mechanics could be repurposed by the players of the game, and then deciding how to work with that issue.

Hopefully that helps explain where I'm coming from.

Also, here's an interesting question: is the ability for mechanics to be "repurposed" a strength or weakness? I'm raising the question, partly to get a ruling from Jesse if he considers that to be off-topic for this thread. I seems relevant to me, but I wanted to see Jesse's thoughts before continuing.

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #24 on: December 09, 2008, 12:16:24 PM »

Seth,

That is absolutely not off topic.  In fact, that's the very kind of "line in the sand" I'm trying to draw.  I don't think mechanics that can be re-purposed are necessarily a bad thing.  It does bother me when (a) people re-purpose them with trying them out in their original form and (b) when people re-purpose a mechanic and still assert they're playing the same game.

Like, to me, the phrase, "We played Dogs in the Vineyard set in the Firefly Universe" is an absolute false statement.  You can not play "Dogs in the Vineyard" without Town Creation, without The Faith, without understanding sin and the King of Life.  You can use the cool Rasie-See-Raise mechanic to resolve conflicts in a Firefly Universe inspired fiction, but you are not playing Dogs in the Vineyard.

Which is odd when looking at something like Sorcerer which is infinitely customizable but not easily re-purposed.  Although, CK is in the process of trying to do it using Traveler, so perhaps the operative word there is *easily* since the level of analysis and careful consider on CK's part goes above and beyond the simple knee-jerk, "Ooooo, I could totally use this to play X!" you see so often.

All that said even I've thought up "escalating" It Was A Mutual Decision to be about full on divorce and replacing the wererat with a ghost.  And I've similarly considered the social ramifications of allowing Mara to be a ghost in A Flower For Mara as well.  But that's cause I love ghost stories not the "Boo!" scary way but in that cool "I'm haunted by something" way.

Jesse

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Callan S.
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« Reply #25 on: December 09, 2008, 03:26:50 PM »

1. System first, as I'd put it, would be that if by the mechanical rules the GM can decide what skill check is involved, he can indeed call for a climb check. Even if there was no wall in the SIS. Indeed, it means you have to start imagining a wall now - not because the 'events' of the SIS meant a wall happened to come up, but because of raw mechanics use. The SIS follows mechanics mechanics use, or your playing wrong. This is no doubt anathema (perhaps abomination) to most roleplayers, where if there isn't a wall, then you mustn't be able to call for a climb check/the SIS controls what mechanical options may be chosen.

It's something I was getting at back in 2004, where I proposed the sitution that a vase is pushed off a balcony - what happens? Well, if it's up to the GM whether it lands safely and intact or smashes, if he chooses that it lands safely and intact, you have to imagine that, even if it landed on concrete hundreds of feet below. That, or you decide to cease playing entirely.

I could go into the features, but briefly the primary one would be breaking stagnant imagination. Because a stagnant imagination will just keep restricting the mechanical choices so as to produce more stagnancy. System first breaks that tyranny.

I had a #2 about 'It's breaking the rules if you don't show grief' and demonstrating the policing power that'd require also makes the policeman the only real artist at the table. But it got a little empassioned and I'm working on it still...
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masqueradeball
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« Reply #26 on: December 11, 2008, 12:40:11 AM »

This is interesting in I think that certain consideration are being overlooked here. I think CA is important enough to this conversation to get a mention. I'm completely clueless about most of the games that are being talked about here, so I'll have to pull out some examples from my own play history that use more traditional games as their basis.

Let's take, King Arthur Pendragon for instance, the goal of a player in Pendragon, any player portraying a knight character, is to gain Glory. If a player makes a "roleplaying" decision for his character where he refuses to gain Glory because of his character's personality, when this wasn't enforced by the games trait system, I would say whole heartedly that that player was playing Pendragon, as written, wrong. This is an issue of CA because all of Pendragon's mechanics (literally, all of them) exist to allow player to take a "front seat" in "creating" an Arthurian style adventure tale. They are not there to explore theme through character, or to create "good" (as defined by Narrativism here on the Forge) stories. They're there to randomly generate outcomes and fill in the gaps and see what happens and to enjoy the exercise.

Now, some could deny Glory because they felt like an action was out of character even when there traits didn't demand it, but they be doing the game a disservice.

Simulationism.

Now, with DtV, even though I haven't played it, my understanding is that the game is about addressing them and creating "story" in the Narrativist since. It seems to me that letting the die mechanic trump the story would be a mistake because of the implied (explicit?) CA of the game design.

And that would seem to be where the divide would be.

Am I of base here? Or does this have some merit?
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Caldis
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« Reply #27 on: December 11, 2008, 10:46:43 AM »

Now, with DtV, even though I haven't played it, my understanding is that the game is about addressing them and creating "story" in the Narrativist since. It seems to me that letting the die mechanic trump the story would be a mistake because of the implied (explicit?) CA of the game design.

That would be my feeling on the situation as well.  The die mechanic is a small part of the system as a whole in the game and the system includes the ability to give.  If you are intent on playing the game without the option of giving it seems to me like you are getting to wrapped up in the die mechanic and drifting the game to something else.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #28 on: December 11, 2008, 02:31:33 PM »

Quote from: Seth
Rather, the mechanic gains its impact from how it structures both the SIS and the ongoing conversation about the SIS.
From my perspective, the games designed for conversation that isn't about the SIS, it's for conversation about break ups/relationships. Its just using the SIS as a means to that end - the SIS is not the end itself, it's just a means to an end. Indeed, the SIS is disposable - but in terms of conversation about break ups, it can be helpful as a distance and perspective mechanism.

It's what I'd (probably incorrectly) call a simulationist fixation on the SIS that is part of the problems root, in the original account. If not THE problem!

I don't know if it's just pure missassociation, where people dealing with the SIS get a strong feeling because what their talking about ties into real life issues - but because they are dealing with the SIS, they associate the strong feeling with the SIS. It's like the reverse of the old saying "Throwing out the baby with the bath water". The SIS is the bath water, the real life problem is the baby. Here people treasure the bathwater and keep it rather than throw it out, and thus by chance, do not throw out the baby as well.

Many of the posts in this thread advise really valuing the bathwater if you want a good game, IMO. And some of that bathwater reeks....
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #29 on: December 11, 2008, 02:42:54 PM »

A quick clarification about something I said.

Quote
Rather, the mechanic gains its impact from how it structures both the SIS and the ongoing conversation about the SIS.

In this statement, I'm distinguishing between the SIS and the conversation. The SIS (aka the "fiction"), is the space where the game "takes place", like a boardgame takes place on a board. We move our "pieces" on the "board" through talking to each other. That's the "conversation" that I'm referring to. I'm not talking about thematic statements being made through the game or dealing with real-life issues or anything like that. D&D combat works by structuring the SIS and by structuring the conversation, by saying who gets to say what when.

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
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