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Author Topic: [A Penny For My Thoughts] Audience Investment and Distributed Fictional Entities  (Read 4821 times)
jburneko
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Posts: 1429


« on: July 06, 2009, 01:24:50 PM »

I played A Penny for My Thoughts this Sunday.  Present were myself, CK, Eric and Laura.  Unfortunately, due to a time restriction we didn’t quite get to finish.  We got through three of the four developing narratives.

Eric ended up with a man who was slowly subsuming his brother’s life to the point that in end he had completely forgotten who he originally was.

Laura ended up with a woman who had an escalating competitive relationship with her sister.  In the end she challenged her sister to shoot her because she believed herself invincible.  When her sister refused she shot herself and then had the police arrest her “weakling sister” for attempted murder.

I ended up with a man who was morally crippled by the love for his wife even though they were divorced.  First he covered for her when she tried to kill their kids.  Then when his son forced him to confront her about it years later he chose to try and kill himself instead.

CK’s story was the one that didn’t conclude.  It was going down the path of a man who had abused his daughter and gone to prison for it and was seeking redemption.

Of those who finished, Laura and Eric decided they didn’t want to remember.  I chose to remember.

I think this game definitely experienced the first-play “gonzo” issue described in the book.  There were a lot of guns and knives and death and violence.  That’s okay but I want to play again.  More importantly, I want to play again with people who’ve played before.  This is a game that takes practice.

One advice I would give to future players is give people names.  There was a lot of “my daughter”, “my brother”, “my girlfriend” and so forth and I think it lent a very detached feeling to things.  Early on I made a very deliberate point of calling my girlfriend who later became my wife “Cheryl” and I think that gave her a weight that I think was lacking in some of the other characters.

Laura also pointed out that she found it very disconcerting that none of the PCs had names.  To that end I also recommend naming your PC by having someone in your developing narrative call you by name.

Eric was the one who ran into the time limit wall so I didn’t get to debrief with him.  However, Laura, CK and I talked for a bit afterwards.  I was surprised that they both of them expressed a lack of investment in the developing narratives.  Laura compared it to her experiences with being the Authority in Dirty Secrets where because of the lack of ownership, a character that you were developing might suddenly go in a direction you don’t necessarily like.  My friend Colin had a similar reaction to being the Authority in Dirty Secrets.  And if I’m not mistaken CK kind of said the same thing about the one time we played Spione (although that was kind of a bad Spione session for other reasons).

All this talk has led to me beginning to think I might have a unique creative skill that my friends don’t have.  That skill is the ability to invest in a developing fictional entity independent of the real-world voice speaking for that entity.  As an example, see this thread here where I totally forgot that the character David was being played by two different people: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=27595.0

Consider, for example, that we’re playing a Sorcerer game.  Theoretical player Joe is playing theoretical PC Balthazar.  The GM throws down a Bang because we as the group want to see how Balthazar will react to that Bang.  But!  Part of that anticipation includes Joe.  How is *JOE* going to MAKE Balthazar react to that Bang.

That can’t happen in a game like Penny and it can’t happen with the supporting characters in Spione or Dirty Secrets because the primary decisions for those characters are distributed across the group. You have to be able to invest in the character and his fictional situation and choices independently of the social entity who speaks for that character at any given time.  This takes a tremendous amount of creative trust.  Trust that your fellow players see the same things you’re seeing and trust that when they don’t they’ll take it somewhere equally as compelling.

Consider again the highest abstracted layer of how a game like Sorcerer works.  The GM presents a thematically charged bang.  The player has his character takes thematically revealing action on that situation.  The system is deployed and thematically relevant consequences fall out from that action which leads to the GM presenting a new thematically charged bang.  (This is basically what’s outlined in Sorcerer & Sword).

This is the key:  I don’t see that process as being all that fundamentally different from the one presented in Penny.  All that’s different is who’s speaking for what fictional entity.

In Penny the player presents, in the form of a first person narrative, a thematically charged bang for the “I” entity to react to.  A randomly selected player then has the character take a thematically revealing action on that situation.  The player then describes the thematically relevant consequences that fall out from that action which leads to them presenting another first person bang.

As an audience, I’m invested in the narrative in the identical way between the two methods.  I’m curious to see what the character is going to do next and what consequences his actions will bring him.  This is the unique skill I think I must possess.  I’m able to abstract my participation as an audience member of the developing fiction away from my participation in the activity that is being used to create that fiction.

Now the details of the activity of Sorcerer and the activity of Penny are completely different.  That matters.  My investment as a participant has to be in totally different places between the two games.  To me that is a matter of learning how to use the tools appropriately to create the compelling fiction that I’m processing as an audience member.  It’s taken me years and years to learn how to use the tools in Sorcerer to bring effective focus to the developing narrative.

As I see it, here are the key skills to develop *if* you’re interested in producing thematic narratives with A Penny For My Thoughts.

As the Traveler the single most important skill to develop is to consider yourself “GMing” for the “I” entity in the fiction.  Paul said to me, “Penny is the game where you GM your character and everyone else plays your character.”  He’s absolutely right.  Focus on what choices you want to see the “I” entity confronted with and use your massive scene framing and NPC authority to put them there.

The strongest example of me doing this in our game was just after my character’s ex-wife Cheryl had tried to kill our kids.  I found myself wondering if “I” would turn her to the police.  So, I cut directly to the hospital after the shooting and narrated a police officer walking up to me and asking me exactly what happened, “What did I say or do then?”

That decision process was absolutely no different from the one I would have made if that scene were happening in a game I was GMing and a player had just had his NPC ex-wife shoot his kids.  I would have cut to the hospital and said, “A police officer walks up to you and wants to know what happened?”

Working within the constraint of first-person thought, feeling and perception is tough to get used to but what you really want to do is ask yourself what choices you’re interested in seeing “your character” confronted with and cut as cleanly to those moments as possible.

As the Guide I found myself fighting against my GMing instincts when I realized I had absolutely no control over what situations the current Traveler was going to face.  There were times I wanted to see more of Laura’s character interacting with her sister and no way to make that happen.  Laura had a similar problem because she kept trying to include other character’s actions in her response to “What did I say or do then?”  Like at one point Eric’s character’s brother pulled a gun on him.  Laura’s response to the Asking for Guidance was, “When your brother tried to shoot himself, you wrested the gun from him.”  I had to remind her that she couldn’t do that.

However, it’s a bit of a lie to say you have NO input.  Because the Guiding Questions you get to ask about the Memory Triggers are you one and only opportunity to push the situation you want to see on the Traveler.  If you want to see the Traveler deal with something put it in your Guiding Questions.

For example, Eric’s first memory was about how he covered for his brother’s mistake when they were kids.  I wanted to keep that dynamic alive.  So when Eric pulled, “The sound of leafing pages” as his second memory Trigger I asked, “Was it your brother’s diary?”  Similarly, there was a Memory Trigger for Laura that was developing into her character skydiving.  Her previous memory had been about the tension between her and her sister, so I asked, “Were you doing it because your sister dared you to?”

Reincorporation for this game is fucking key.  In fact, if I have one criticism of the text it’s that while it does an excellent job developing the conceptual tools you need within a single memory, it does very little in developing the tools you need to properly chain the memories together into a single story.  But that’s a quibble.

Jesse
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Noclue
Member

Posts: 351


« Reply #1 on: July 06, 2009, 10:00:16 PM »

Yes, I agree the ability to invest in the character as an entity apart from the player is one of your super powers.

The difference between Sorcerer and Penny that you describe as being "not fundamentally all the different" is fundamentally completely different. Sharing the control over a PC the way Penny does is completely different from how Sorcerer behaves.
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James R.
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2009, 08:20:13 AM »

James,

I think you mistook my point.  I was talking in the most abstracts of abstracts.  I'm saying that Sorcerer (and certain other games) and Penny share an underlying cycle of narrative development and that what excited me about Penny was seeing that cycle distributed in a different way.

Obviously, the resultant play experiences are NOTHING alike.  Yes, totally and vastly different.  As I said the way one invests as a participant is totally different.  And that difference may be a deal breaker on ones ability to enjoy the two different experiences.

Jesse
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Noclue
Member

Posts: 351


« Reply #3 on: July 07, 2009, 09:32:28 PM »

Jesse,

Well, I think I understand the point and I think it is valid in so far as relates to bangs. So, in Sorcerer the GM throws Bangs at the Player responds with a thematically relevant action. In Penny, the player throws a bang at their PC and other players provide a choice of actions for the original player to work into a thematically relevant narrative.

What I see as a fundamental difference is that the Sorcerer player sets up the PC with flags and a kicker, which signal premise to the GM. In Penny, the character is a blank slate, there's no Premise for the character and the narrative at the start of play. Premise is crafted through incorporating the suggestions at the table and weaving them into a theme during play. There's really no way to judge if a suggestion is thematically relevant or not. Things are just harder or easier to fit into a narrative that the player is building in real time. That's an interesting exercise, but one that is profoundly different from Sorcerer and that difference is distinct from how narrative control is distributed.

 

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James R.
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: July 09, 2009, 07:25:01 AM »

Hiya,

As a possible trivial interjection, Geez! Jesse, have you seen the movie Swimming With Sharks?

Bset, Ron
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ptevis
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« Reply #5 on: July 09, 2009, 06:10:42 PM »

I'm reading in fascination, but I haven't had time to compose a reply. Coming soon, I promise!
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Paul Tevis
Have Games, Will Travel @ http://www.havegameswilltravel.net
A Fistful of Games @ http://afistfulofgames.blogspot.com
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #6 on: July 10, 2009, 10:16:24 AM »

James we're either in fierce agreement or talking past each other.  Because, I agree with what you're saying.

Ron, I haven't seen that film, so I looked it up in the IMDB... and now I think I might be giving the wrong impression.  Maybe I'm trying to communicate something too subtle?

Paul, I await your thoughts eagerly.

Jesse
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ptevis
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« Reply #7 on: July 13, 2009, 08:23:52 PM »

Jesse,

I think your analysis is pretty spot on. A few comments.

GMing your character: You've got the right of it, especially with regards to agressively framing "your character" into relevant situations. Also, I've started to use this explanation more, as it seems to click with people.

Input from the Guides: You can be a little tricky about it. If I we're in Laura's place in your example, I'd probably say, "You wrestled the gun away from him, terrified he was going to shoot himself with it." I don't have to narrate his actions, I just have to plant the seed in the Traveler's mind about what might happen.

Multi-memory stories: You're probably right, the advice text could be stronger, particularly in chapter five. Did the stuff on reincorporation in chapter three not work for you?

--Paul
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Paul Tevis
Have Games, Will Travel @ http://www.havegameswilltravel.net
A Fistful of Games @ http://afistfulofgames.blogspot.com
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2009, 12:09:54 PM »

Paul,

I think what I find "lacking" in Penny's text would have required to you break the in-character conceit of the text.  The reincorporation material in Chapter 3 is good in making sure that the developing narrative doesn't go off in a 1000 unconnected directions.  However, I'm looking at something even higher than that.

What your game does (at least on my reading) is produce a three act play.  As such the narrative "goal" of the first memory is not the same as the narrative "goal" of the second memory.  I was surprised that the questionnaire was simply "Pleasant Memory" and "Unpleasant Memory" as I was expecting something much more strongly worded suggesting of Act I and Act II of the same narrative.

Now there's a lot of implication there.  Pleasant->Unpleasant->Trauma implies a decent especially when combined with the reincorporation material.  I think the natural storyteller in us recognizes that pattern, seizes hold of that pastern and uses it.  However, given the limited scene economy it is not sufficient to construct ANY unpleasant memory from the details of the first memory.  To have any kind of thematic thruline you have to construct a second memory that specifically represents a turning point on whatever emotional commitment was made in the first memory.  Basically you need to know what Act II in a three act play does.

In my case the strongest thing from the first memory was that my character had found strength in the love his girlfriend.  I knew in the second memory I had to put that strength the test.  The thing is I almost missed it.  I got very wrapped up in the "shock" of my ex-wife trying to kill our kids that I almost forgot to ask the question.  Fortunately, I caught myself and used my last penny to jump to the scene in the hospital with the police officer.  After that scene I had my answer; the strength I valued from the first act had turned into a moral weakness.  And I harnessed that full force in third act.

Now, I'm assuming A LOT here.  I'm really honing in on, "how to construct a three act play" with A Penny For My Thoughts and maybe that wasn't a concern of yours.  But both CK and Laura expressed a lack of investment in the developing narratives and I think really focusing on what you need to do in Act I, how to develop that in Act II and what that amounts to in Act III is the key to fixing that problem.

Jesse

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Christopher Kubasik
Member

Posts: 1159


« Reply #9 on: July 14, 2009, 01:04:33 PM »

I've been uncertain how to enter this thread -- I've been waiting for some sort of big uber-crystalization of all the things in my head....  and so far it hasn't happened yet.

So I'm going to just jump in with little bits.

First, Paul, congratulations on the game.  While the conceit of the instructions might not work for other games, you certainly built an engaging read that taught us all how to play the game.  Moreover, as I said to everyone at the table, "This game does exactly what it set out to do."  I think the gang thought I was damning with faint praise.  But I wasn't!  I'm a fetishist about design elements -- design in fine art, design in screenplays, design in RPGs.  I truly believe you knew what you wanted, and built it.

Second, I'm still not sure where my derailment of investment came from.  It might have been the game, or it might have been the way we played.  As Jesse suggests, practice would make the experience very different.  Next time around I might go in thinking, "Okay, I want more this THIS, so if I do X, I'll probably get more of THAT."  And so on.

Third, off the top of my head, here's a thing... which might be a matter of the game or a matter of lack of practice:

After thinking about it a bit, I suspect my lack of involvement came in part from a lack of forward motion on the part of the protagonists.

Let's examine: The protagonists have no backstory, no context, no relationships already baked in.  ALL of that will be added through the creation of the story.  It's not like many stories with these stuff is added through the TELLING of story -- "Oh, he has a girlfriend," we find out three minutes after the movie started.  No. In this game this character has NO CONTEXT at all until it is added. 

The protagonist has no agenda.  I mean, nothing.  Even in a movie where the problems don't become clear till later there is something going on.  I usually use the movie ALIEN to illustrate this.  Everyone says, "Nothing happens till the middle."  But this is not true.  The crew of the ship is on their way home -- and want to get home -- and this is true even before the credits have and made clear to the audience in the first seconds of the movie.  But in PENNY there is not context at all.  So the there is nothing to push against or toward as a pseudo-GM or pseudo-player of the PC.  (Or however we want to phrase this.)  I was somewhat at sea about what the heck to focus on.

One story -- the story of Eric's character -- really seemed to have a structure to it.  And I think it's key that once everyone picked up on this notion of the sibling rivalry we were ON IT as a group.

My character, on the other hand, seemed to just skid on ice for a while.  I didn't know how the first memory tied to the second.  And even now, I'm not sure what I would have done to kick off the second memory to make sure it grew more narratively out of the first memory.  (Which I think is the key.)
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"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield
GreatWolf
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« Reply #10 on: July 14, 2009, 01:15:14 PM »

Let's examine: The protagonists have no backstory, no context, no relationships already baked in.  ALL of that will be added through the creation of the story.  It's not like many stories with these stuff is added through the TELLING of story -- "Oh, he has a girlfriend," we find out three minutes after the movie started.  No. In this game this character has NO CONTEXT at all until it is added. 

The protagonist has no agenda.  I mean, nothing.  Even in a movie where the problems don't become clear till later there is something going on.  I usually use the movie ALIEN to illustrate this.  Everyone says, "Nothing happens till the middle."  But this is not true.  The crew of the ship is on their way home -- and want to get home -- and this is true even before the credits have and made clear to the audience in the first seconds of the movie.  But in PENNY there is not context at all.  So the there is nothing to push against or toward as a pseudo-GM or pseudo-player of the PC.  (Or however we want to phrase this.)  I was somewhat at sea about what the heck to focus on.

I don't think that this is quite fair. After all, we do know at least one thing about each protagonist: they each lost their memory because of a traumatic experience. The conceit (mostly unstated) of the game is that the roots of that tragedy can be seen in the memories that lead up to the final trauma. So there's that to work with, at least.
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Christopher Kubasik
Member

Posts: 1159


« Reply #11 on: July 14, 2009, 01:44:02 PM »

Seth, good point, but before I continue I really want to make sure this doesn't become a attack/defend thread.

Okay?  Okay.  Because I'm not attacking.  I'm making an observation. And I feel pretty rock solid about it.

So, when I wrote what I wrote I meant it in the context of -- and I thought clearly -- a character with some sort of agenda, moving forward, toward something.  Even a protagonist with a subtle agenda at the beginning of a story has this. 

The fact that we know that the NARRATIVE ends up with the loss of memory tells us nothing about who the character was, the circumstances of the character's life before the memory loss, and -- specifically -- any kind of agenda moving the character forward.

Essentially -- and importantly -- the characters (as represented by the players) -- have an agenda in the present to recover their past.  But there's no story on that end -- there's no resistance, no drama, no choices.  That part is procedure.

My point is that it might be up to the Players to plant a useful agenda for the character as quickly as possible.  Or maybe not.  With this game, I don't know yet.  And this concern might be only a concern for me -- so it might all be moot.


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"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #12 on: July 14, 2009, 01:59:44 PM »

I want to back up something CK said.  My ideas about a "three act play" are specifically about what I want out of the game.  That's why I really consider my point about the text not really being focused on how to link the memories properly is a "quibble" because it's only necessary for the effect I'm talking about which may not have even been a design consideration.

But CK reminded me of something else.

Paul, how do you view Table Chatter working in this game?  Given the very strict division over who can speak when and about what it seems very anti-table chatter.  Some of the text suggests even special seating arrangements and lighting leading to a feeling of "trance narrative."   By "trance narrative" I mean there is intense focus on the current Traveler who sort of loses himself as much as possible in his story until the critical moment when he asks for guidance.  Until that moment the Guides sit quietly absorbing the narrative being spun.

Because of that feeling I was very reluctant to offer suggestions.  I could tell CK was lost in his second memory but I knew what direction *I* would have taken it.  His first memory was all about the fame he received as child star.  His second memory implied that success had continued into his adulthood because he mentioned his "Hollywood bungalow" or something like that.  Then he got arrested.  BAM!  I would have focused on the change over from Famous to Infamous.  I would have brought in tabloid reporters and talent agents with dubious agendas and stuff like that.

But I didn't say any of that because it seemed to be over-reaching the tone of the game.

Jesse  
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Christopher Kubasik
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Posts: 1159


« Reply #13 on: July 14, 2009, 02:09:23 PM »

Some of the text suggests even special seating arrangements and lighting leading to a feeling of "trance narrative."   By "trance narrative" I mean there is intense focus on the current Traveler who sort of loses himself as much as possible in his story until the critical moment when he asks for guidance.  

Okay.  This is very interesting to me.

When I was heading over for the game I thought, "Hmmmm.  I wonder if we're going to be playing the patients who are attempting to recover their memories."  That is, adopt personas of the patients in the "present tense" who are working to recover their memories.

As it was, there was little of this.  Jesse, we might not have had as much table-chatter as possible, but we had a heck of a lot.  Now, part of this was because it was our first time through. It was very much, "Here are Jesse and Laura and Eric and CK talking words to make up stories."
 
But I'm wondering what the effect on the session would have been if we'd treated it more like a session.  If we'd gone over the living room area, sat in the comfier chairs, spoke only "in character."

Paul, I'd love your thoughts on this.
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"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #14 on: July 14, 2009, 02:14:35 PM »

But I'm wondering what the effect on the session would have been if we'd treated it more like a session.  If we'd gone over the living room area, sat in the comfier chairs, spoke only "in character."

On MY drive over, I was trying to decide whether I was going to have us going to the living room area and take turns on Eric's couch.  I decided against it because it was our first time through and I knew the boat loads of questions that would likely occur would have clashed with that.

And yeah, Paul's thoughts on this would be great.

Jesse
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