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Author Topic: [Capes] Gamism and Narrativism  (Read 12237 times)
Eero Tuovinen
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« on: July 14, 2009, 03:19:06 AM »

I am still interested in someone posting about Capes in these terms, because as far as I can tell, Capes does not promote Narrativist play at all regardless of a certain amount of promotional rhetoric suggesting it does. It is simply and flatly competing for story control, which seems a little bit like what you are talking about here. "Story control" is actually the last imaginable, and quite likely the most disruptive technique possible for Narrativist goals; it's basically railroading, and a game which competes for railroading privileges is just as un-designed for Narrativist goals as a game which grants them to one person throughout play.

When I've played Capes, it's been Narrativistic-coherent. I've also followed along on all sorts of incoherent Capes play; the game holds definite fascination among a subset of Finnish rpg theorists, who view it as a true hybrid or some such. Personally I'd say that Capes seems to work in practice as an incoherent Nar/Gam game which is likely drifted by a given group into something where the one maladjusted guy gets to flex his mojo by trying to ruin the story the others are building; this will be perceived as pleasing or non-pleasing basically based on how high the players set their expectations of play and how well they can play around the disruptive influences of the minority. It irks the hell out of me when the game text defends frivolous interruptions (that's what the non-committed and neutral rules on scene framing and character introduction boil down to; a right to be a jerk), but some players seem to absolutely adore the seeming autonomy they can have from what the other players are trying to do in the game. Ultimately the issue is that you can play a Pool-like vanilla narrativism very successfully, provided that a minority fraction of the players manages to take on a GM-like role to provide adversity; in this case the game quite resembles something like Fastlane, with a strict GM budget. However, if several players try to play adversity at each other with nobody taking on protagonist duties, a narrativistic situation does not emerge because everybody is basically just slinging points at each other, colored a bit by whatever narration they feel like including. It is notable that while Narrativistic Capes can be made to work quite successfully, I've never seen a Gamist version that didn't involve player dissatisfaction with the resulting story; could be that I just haven't seen a group that would have been uniformly committed to enjoying the competitive aspect. This is not surprising, as I don't really see an interesting Gamist hook in the game: there is nothing in the fiction that'd set up or encourage challenges, it all comes from players with a desire to railroad, just like Ron said.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: July 14, 2009, 06:01:34 AM »

I split Eero's post from Gamism and Narrativism: mutually exclusive? because this topic is definitely worthy of its own thread.

Best, Ron
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Alan
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« Reply #2 on: July 14, 2009, 06:17:12 AM »

I played Capes at Go Play NW last month. I have a half-finished actual play text somewhere, but I have to be brief right now.

My experience was this: 1) Investing debt chips in a conflict tended to produce emotional investment in that conflict. 2) the primary reward cycle ended with the conversion of debt into story tokens. 3) story tokens can only be used to add a character to a scene or take an extra turn. 4) extra turns lead to more ability to manipulate conflicts or resolve them.

I believe that the emotional investment focuses the players attention on the narrative events and may condition them when it comes time to decide what to do with story tokens. They nudge players towards Story Now.

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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #3 on: July 14, 2009, 08:32:53 AM »

That's a good analysis, Alan. The opposite effect happens with story tokens when players revel in their ability to dominate the game socially; I fully admit that I might be misreading the people's intentions, but it has a whiff of sadism for me when somebody crows triumphantly about how he managed to gain resource superiority in the game and use it to ruin the story. I'm reminded of a campaign my brother played in Helsinki; the group included at least one player for whom the greatest attraction of Capes seemed to be the narrative perversity of being able to "play" an abstract concept like "forgiveness", which then allows one to force all sorts of influence on what the other players, playing characters with actual intent, were trying to do. We discussed the campaign in question pretty extensively over time with the people who played it, and my impression was that there was a definite clash between people who wanted a Narrativist game, and those who wanted to use narrative power to garner attention and bully others. This comes to the fore when a player gets a bunch of story tokens and can really dominate a situation; if that power is used merely because it is there, the end result conflicts with Narrativist goals.

Capes is not the only game in which I encounter this phenomenon of "narrative bullying", it can happen in any game that encourages absolute player right to self-expression. For example, just last week in my TSoY playtest a player went on an amok run in a manner very reminiscent of my second-hand Capes experiences. In TSoY this sort of thing ultimately ends with the character dying an unsympathetic death (caused by the consequences the Story Guide piles on his actions), followed by a frank group discussion of why the player's play failed to captivate or interest the other players. Capes can easily be read to actively encourage this phenomenon as the focus of play (as Ron does), so the dysfunction can be much longer-lasting as the players all, while playing exactly by the rules, try to achieve opposed goals. I suppose it could even be functional if all players were equally disinterested in character protagonism and just wanted to exercise some rhetoric with dice.

On the other hand, in my own play Capes was very clearly Narrativist. I don't necessarily ascribe much of that to the game itself; I'm nowadays rather accomplished with Narrativist games, and our group was pretty experienced overall, and we were expecting a Narrativist game (with a sideways eye open for Gamism), so it's no great surprise that what we got was Narrativistic. Probably the most important technique in making this work is a shared group concern for narrative continuity and firm player role apportioning; when we played, it was clear that scene framing and introducing character components to scenes had to relate meaningfully to the story we were developing; if players did surprising turns, others would demand explanations (and takebacks, though those were not needed in this case, as everybody was on-board). Perhaps the most important and non-obvious part of this playstyle is that everybody needs to either play a protagonist character in a scene or clearly commit to providing adversity for a protagonist; the narrative bullying phenomenon I describe above happens when and if players are just along for the ride and get to play whatever element of the scene they might desire, empty of meaning. The problem disappears if the whole group plays meaningfully instead of just trying to provoke others (which, as the rulebook of Capes correctly states, is actually rewarded mechanically).

Thinking about this in that way, it's actually really easy to understand what is going on with dysfunctional Capes - I mean, nothing in the rules or prep of the game actually encourages or supports the creation of protagonism, so if a player approaches the game without that presumption, it's actually completely reasonable to grab "the roof of that house" as your character for the scene and then proceed to disrupt other players as much as you can to provoke conflicts and get points. In this regard Capes is a sort of model example of an incoherent game; the players have to know why they're playing, and they have to be able to bring a protagonism model and a reasonable division of labor into it to make story emerge. This is so obvious to some people and so unclear to others that it's no wonder at all if the game gives different impressions to different people.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: July 14, 2009, 08:52:10 AM »

I greatly appreciate this thread, and Eero, especially your attention to the distinction between text and play. The similarity to Once Upon a Time is quite striking. The main exception is that in the rules text of the card game, there is absolutely no encouragement to dominate the story in a ruinous way in order to win - but the fact is that you're playing a card game with ending win conditions, so how you do that in the crunch is certainly open to that interpretation. Whereas I find that element or instruction to be explicitly present in the Capes text, as you point out as well.

Best, Ron
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: July 14, 2009, 09:22:33 AM »

I've only played Capes a couple times, but both times the game collapsed due to unbearably dull play focused on the "narrative bullying" that Eero mentions and "token whoring". We all realized we could make some adjustments (of our play and/or to the system as written) to promote the sort of play we would find non-boring, but really couldn't be bothered to do so when there are so many other games without the same incoherence.

My experience with Once Upon A Time has been hit and miss. Sometimes the competitive aspect eclipses the storytelling aspect and sometimes it doesn't. I think my main issue with Once Upon A Time and Capes is that if only one player places the competitive over the narrative then it is fairly simple for them to "win" the game. Basically, there's no allowance, no "braking" mechanism, in the rules for keeping the game challenging for a competitive minded player among narrative minded players. Unless most everybody is on the same page, it becomes a situation of a wolf among sheep.

Oddly, I've never experienced this problem with Soap which seems to have many of the same characteristics in play.
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Jasper Flick
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« Reply #6 on: July 14, 2009, 09:29:31 AM »

How does the Comics Code and Gloating factor into this?

Eero, did you have an explicit Code and did Gloating get used or aimed for in your Narrativist play?

To me, Gloating appears to be the untimate goal when playing Gamist Capes. The reward is huge.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #7 on: July 14, 2009, 10:16:48 AM »

Huh, that's a really interesting idea, Jasper. I think we had an explicit Code, but it was not interesting, and although there might have been a Gloat (been a while now), it didn't feel particularly rewarding. Most essential, however, is my convinction now that if we actually had had a real legitimate reason to break the Code (whatever it was, some arbitrary stuff about non-killing), we'd have done it without hesitation. In fact, I'm not absolutely certain that we didn't - the actual necessities of the story and its style were pretty powerful (this was a highly successful game, we played like maniacs for a weekend), and I don't remember anybody paying any attention to the Code in the latter parts of the game.

It is notable that Capes wants you to set down the Code before the game actually begins. This is, of course, only possible if you're prescriptivist about the content you want to appear in the game. What's worse, listing attrocities in the Code takes much of the tension out of having the potential for those attrocities to appear later in the game. Seems obvious in retrospect that it might be a better idea to only create the Code dynamically through play, by having the players hold a veto on unacceptable conflict outcomes. That way it'd have some narrativist teeth.

I definitely think that you're onto something here.
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jburneko
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« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2009, 10:52:47 AM »

Hello,

I figured I'd weigh on this because one of the greatest moments of my role-playing play history happened in a Capes game.  Here's the story:

At the start of play one player, Meghann, created three characters right off the bat.  A man who was just a regular grease monkey.  His genius gadgeteer son and the robot boy he had built.  We were about three sessions in and things weren't going very well.  I had finally had a light bulb moment go off about how adversity works in the game.  So what I did was I picked up Meghann's grease monkey guy and had him try and set his gadgeteer son up on a date, clearly pushing that he thought his son needed a "real" family.

I lost that conflict but in the middle of it Meghann had brought out the free conflict attached to the robot which was "Show genuine human emotion."  So I turned my attention to that and fought it pretty hard pushing that the gadgeteer son needed to stop playing "pretend" with that machine and start I real family.  I lost again.  Meghann turns to me and as an expression of "the robot shows genuine human emotion" has the robot say to the grease monkey, "I hate you."  I was blown away.  I almost cried.

Now here's the thing: I read the Capes text very charitably.  With all it's talk about "provoking" and "competitive empathy" and the like I think Tony is talking about providing adversity.  By "provoke" he's just using rather strong language to mean "confront the players with protagonist defining choices." The reason I think that is because (and here I fully admit I'm playing armchair psychologist) I don't think Tony really understand the "narrative bullying" phenomenon.

I followed the Capes forum very very closely for a very long time.  And time and again I saw people raise the "narrative bullying" issue and time and again I saw Tony dismiss it.  He either dismissed the behavior as a symptom of a rare kind of problem player.  Or he rationalized it by reframing what was going on in terms of functional adversity that he felt the group must just not have caught on to.  Each and every time this issue came up Tony demonstrated a blind spot expressing a kind of, "I don't understand why anyone would do that, so they must have been really contributing meaningfully and you missed it" attitude.

So no, I don't think the text promotes "narrative bullying" because I don't think Tony knows what "narrative bullying" is.  That's my reading of things anyway.  Also, Tony, if you're reading this please correct me if I'm misreading you.

Jesse
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Jasper Flick
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« Reply #9 on: July 14, 2009, 12:20:27 PM »

It might be that how people treat the Code is decisive or an indicator for which way the game swings. This is from thought, not experience:

1) If you want the emergent story to be unrestrained, then the Code is like a limitation that you do not want. The concept of Gloating seems weird, as it is the moment you bump your head at a ceiling while you want to go higher.

2) If you want to be safe, then the Code is like a comforting barrier keeping all the nasty stuff out. The concept of Gloating seems bad, as it is the moment when someone deliberately bangs against that barrier.

3) If you want guts-to-the-wall creative wrestling, then the Code is like a battle line, a hot zone you want to claim. The concept of Gloating equals success, as it is the moment you are most dominating the narrative and reaping the greatest rewards.

When I initially read Capes, I understood the Code in de context of option 2. But Gloating didn't make any sense. Then I sat down, thought about it, and read it a second time, and I came to regard it in de context of option 3. This made me believe Capes primarily supports Step on Up.
Sadly, my play experience is no more than a few get-to-know-the-rules sessions, so I have no idea whether my musings are on target.
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #10 on: July 14, 2009, 12:36:29 PM »

I have some strong contributions for this thread, but it's outpacing me considerably. I hope to be back soon with a solid post based on my experience.

Peace,
-Joel
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #11 on: July 14, 2009, 02:28:36 PM »

OK--it seems to me that there are two things that are being conflated in this thread: Capes as social bullying, and Capes as functional Step on Up. I'm reading a heavy rhetorical approach, primarily in Eero and Ron's posts, that slants the language toward "not Narrativist equals social bullying," at least in the case of Capes. I'm finding this language difficult to engage with. i assert that it's quite possible to Step on Up in the arena of "story control" without playing to "dominate the story in a ruinous way in order to win," and I feel the implicit exclusion of happy and functional Step on Up is a detriment to the discussion.

So what we're looking at is really a whole spectrum of possible play, yeah? Functional Story Now, dysfunctional Story Now, Functional Step on Up, dysfunctional step on Up. And of course, the hypothetical Equally Alloyed Hybrid. In this thread we have some reports of functional Story Now, and dysfunctional Step on Up, or perhaps more like dysfunctional incoherent play, where Step on Up priorities derailed the Story Now priorities.

I've played Capes a good chunk of times, all single-session games across a variety of players. Thinking it over, I think I've had perfectly fun and functional Story Now, AND Step on Up. But not together.

I was a player in Alan's Capes game. I'm not sure we had a strong CA payoff at all in that game, though it was fun for everyone. Alan, it sounds like you feel that game had a Story Now payoff. I'd say it was either a Right to Dream payoff (reveling in the bombastic tropes of these colorful heroes and villains, without really addressing much of a Premise), or Story Now play without a payoff, or maybe a weak payoff (that is, characters aimed at Premise-addressing but without a strong Thematic "aha!" moment in that unit of play).

But that session was the most hazy (in terms of Creative Agenda) I've had, I think. I've had two sessions with some (different but overlapping) members of one friend group, that were both very Step on Up. The social esteem for winning your character's goals was something of a gambler's rush, but inasmuch as the components of play (tokens, split dice, conflict declarations, etc) could be manipulated for an edge, this was appreciated. The end result was a lot of "that's such a cool action and narration!" especially at the session's climax, but it was definitely a "you won!" kind of esteem, not just a "that's nice, what you made up" narration. I'd say esteem was focused on an even blend of mechanical victory and cool narration to accompany it.

I've also had several games amongst a different friend group that were squarely settled in Story Now territory. The most memorable took place at Gamestorm 2008, as chronicled on Story Games. In it, we had five players portraying three heroes and two villains, as the former defended their headquarters against incursion by the latter. But most of the characters were pregnant with problematic issues and hangups, ensuring something above a mere slugfest. I played Dr Calamitous, whose issues were purely Faustian, but ended up just being the agitator for the real drama: Buzzbomb, a now-aging WWII hero, is grandstanding to recapture his glory, and is confronted on it in mid-battle by his more honorable teammate; Buzzbomb saves the day but his rep is tarnished. And meanwhile, the "side villain," Solaron, is a sentient star enslaved by an alien civilization who seeks to liberate OTHER stars from those who would harness their power, but when the heroes defeat him, he is enslaved anew--as the HQ's new power source! it was pure Story Now in the focus of game actions, and in the esteem around the table.

I can isolate a couple key factors in what differentiated the Story Now sessions from the Step on Up games: first, the play group. The pool of players I've drawn from for my Story Now games are those predominantly interested in that Agenda. No surprise then, that that's what I get! The coherence hiccups I've had in those games have been precisely from players that, it turned out, didn't really value or understand Story Now play. The Step on Up sessions of Capes have come from another play group whose play is generally plagued by heavy Murk; when the haze clears enough to identify a CA it generally looks like Right To Dream, with occasional instances of Step on Up.

Second, I used different rules. The Step on Up games used the Capes Lite quickstart rules, which leave off a lot of the mechanics for driving Premise-play, and basically just say "Everyone make a hero real quick! OK, now I'm a villain, and I'm startin' some shit. Whatchagunnado?!"

On the other hand, the Story Now games have emerged when the pitch was explicitly, "Power is fun, but do you deserve it?" from the beginning of the text, and when the rules for Drives and Exemplar Relationships are front-and-center. (Capes Lite ditches Drives in favor of a generic Debt Pool, with no real attention to what Debt means narratively.) With that as the motor of play, both the heroes and villains will have ample material for confronting problematic human issues in that inimitable superhero fashion, and that's what I've seen happen, time and again.

I believe the text does indeed support this kind of play, and support it well. That motor of Drives and Exemplars that I made central to my play, is also central to the text. it's what the book tells you to do. If you play on that footing, a group that wants Story Now can easily get it. I think Jesse's nailed it on the talk about provocation and competition--total adversity-providing, all the way. the thing about Capes' competitive model is that the economy's set up so you "win' by providing what other players want and need. Which in a Story Now context is fit opposition for one's thematically-charged characters. The book's pretty clear about that.

I think the one truly problematic aspect of the text is all that talk about having YOUR story you want to tell and pushing/manipulating toward that. That may just be an unfortunate wording on Tony's part (i.e. he may just mean Protagonism or Character Advocacy), or may be a deeper issue. But even so, this fits pretty functionally into Capes' mutual back-scratching system: you get your story told by helping others tell theirs.

That's my experience with reading the text and with play. I've never once had a bullying player who tried to ruin the story to 'win." It strikes me as a strange critique to level at a game: "it doesn't work when someone tries to undermine it." There isn't a game on earth that isn't subject to some dickhead pointing to some rule and saying, 'look, it says here that I get to. . ." in defiance of the group's intent.

Peace,
-Joel
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Callan S.
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« Reply #12 on: July 14, 2009, 03:22:45 PM »

Jeez, what are they thinking, bullying other peoples resources as if they were pushing other people back so they are closer to a finish line and trying to get attention for doing that? It's like they were hitting someone with a (dodge)ball and crowing about hitting someone with a ball! Wow, how does it make sense to make other people be further away from a finish line!? Not at all! So they must be jerks!

That said and sarcasm (in the pursuit of a constructive point) aside,
Quote
but it has a whiff of sadism for me when somebody crows triumphantly about how he managed to gain resource superiority in the game
I've read atleast the lite rules of capes and...it has no finish line? It just goes on and on and on? Do these players realise this?

I have to say in real life, a bunch of kids with a ball will eventually start kicking it, then one will crow about how far he kicked it and then everyone tries to kick it further, or try and aim it at another kid then everyone aims at each other. They start making a game, in other words. These capes accounts seem to be primordial gamism, probably rising up either because the person has no interest in nar (which I think is rare - everyone kind of likes soap opera) or...perhaps a hard option to look at, they detected no nar stuff going on at the table. They only detected people making stories - and stories can be part of all agendas.


Hi Joel,
Quote
There isn't a game on earth that isn't subject to some dickhead pointing to some rule and saying, 'look, it says here that I get to. . ." in defiance of the group's intent.
Perhaps if that rule is there, the groups intent is missplaced? Also, the guy reaching for the rule is part of the group - isn't his reaching for it part of the groups intent? Or are you talking about how some other people in the group decided for themselves what the rest of the groups intent will be?
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Alan
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« Reply #13 on: July 14, 2009, 03:24:25 PM »

I want to respond about my experience of the game (which I felt had a very satisfactory Story Now engagement) and contrast it with a moment of Step On Up I revelled in at Wil's old school DnD game the same weekend. I don't have time to do it justice now. I hope everyone will refrain from pushing on ahead until I have a chance.
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #14 on: July 14, 2009, 04:19:10 PM »

Alan, I'm glad you got a satisfying payoff. I think part of my reluctance to assign a strong CA to that play experience is that you and the other players were relative strangers to me. So the social aspect of CA payoff wasn't there nearly as strongly as when I play with folks I know better. I'd love to hear more about your experience of the session.


Callan, that remark sits firmly within the context of the "bullying" folks have been talking about in this thread. I readily believe that people who have described disruptive players ruining the story for social dominance ate actively reporting malicious behavior. There;s no need to be pedantic; if you like you can substitute "the REST of the group's intent" in my statement. I'm just saying that when one wishes to disrupt, it's always possible to invoke the activity's procedures as a cover. It's "I'm not touching you! I'm not touching you!" for grownups.
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