[UA] I think I grasp Creative Agendas now!

Started by Simon_Pettersson, September 05, 2009, 08:18:52 PM

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This game happened some time ago, but I'd like to get some theoretical input on what it's led to. Here's the thing:

I've been reading a lot of Big Model stuff for quite a long time, and I've had many, many misconceptions of what a CA really is. Several times I thought I had a grasp of it and then I read something somewhere that makes me go "What?". So here's a game I played a number of months ago:

We were going to play some Unknown Armies. I was attracted to the setting and the fact that the system had been lauded as a "functional version of BRP". I've been getting into the indie game scene a lot in the last few years and I've played and enjoyed many focused narrativist games. I've got a good enough grasp of the theory to know that I'm really into some good Story Now play. The others were less indie games experienced than me, but all of them had played several indie games, including some narrativist-oriented ones. One of them had even completely tired of roleplaying but gotten a new spark from the indie games and is now all over it again. Warms the heart. The only reason he was willing to play UA is because I was GMing and he assumed that would mean some good drama play (and I told him it would).

Anyway, here's the interesting stuff: I was thinking "I'm gonna go totally storyented on this and address the Premise and get some solid narrativist play." The thing is, except for this guy who really likes indie, I hadn't really communicated it to the others. I wasn't consciously thinking this, but was I was doing was trying to "sneak" the narrativism into the game. I was gonna get them to address Premise without them noticing it. A terrible idea, to be sure (and possibly impossible by definition), but as I said, I wasn't really aware this was what I was thinking.

So we started to game and I was setting them up with some interesting situations and play happened, as it does. And it wasn't until after two sessions that I realized we weren't playing narrativist! It was all functional play and we had some fun, but it was totally and completely coherent simulationist play. Which kind of boggled me a bit, since I was all the time thinking it was narrativism we were doing and that was what I was aiming for.

(If it's important to the discussion I can fill in what sort of things I was doing and how they were responding, but I'm not sure it matters.)

A good while after this game, I was reading the illuminating thread Frostfolk and GNS aggravation. And it dawned on me: Creative Agenda isn't an agenda at all, is it? It's an activity. My agenda in the above example was totally narrativist, but the activity I was doing was simulationist, because the other players were playing the game (which was a trad game) the way they were used to play trad games. We were all into the world and the characters and Exploring and all that jazz and they were all in actor stance. I guess there was an agenda clash waiting to happen, but I was sort of sweapt into all of this and I, too, played like in the olden days.

So my question is: does this ring true to you? That a CA is really more something you do than something you have? 'Cause if it does, I think I might have finally grasped what a CA is. It sure feels like I have.

Ron Edwards


That's actually why I used the term "agenda," because it can be used to mean what people are evidently doing in order to avoid being misled by what they say they do, or say they intend to do. Language is aggravating - since agenda can also mean "plan," or "scheduled outcomes," I think that you were misled by the term instead of helped. All I can say is that at the time, in the context of the debates and people here, when I said "hey let's call it Agenda," everyone involved said "Ohhh!" in the very terms that you expressed in your post.

But that was then, and now, people come to the terms without being involved in the debates and dialogues that led to them. So they encounter the terms naked (the terms, not the people) and I don't care what terms are employed, there simply is no such thing as a term which obviously means exactly what the writer is communicating, not all by itself as a word.

Well hell, now I'm writing as if the whole point were to quibble about words. Whereas the real point is the good news that yes, what you're saying is perfectly right, it's an activity, not a motive or attitude. (I think you can see this in my essays and the relevant threads, if you look back over them.)

When I played Unknown Armies, I found that no real Premise raised itself to be addressed. That's not to say that any group couldn't simply prioritize something along those lines, but nothing in or among the textual components (character, setting, system, situation, color) actually goes there. We had fun mainly by appreciating how thoroughly and wackily the game designers had integrated certain pop culture motifs, and seeing whether the system, my GMing, and everyone else's willingness to go with what I presented could pay off in terms of a completed movie-style plot. It did, probably in part because I'd not only prepped a starting situation, but created all the characters myself.

I'm interested in knowing more about the game's content. What sort of 'mancies were involved? Did you all use wholly original characters? Did you use any of the prepared scenarios? And especially, as GM, did you find yourself using hard-core scene framing and narrations of resolution as a way to move things forwards? I'm basing that last on looking back at our game and how we got things done.

Best, Ron


I think my confusion with the term "creative agenda" largely stems from the fact that there is an identical word in Swedish, which does not have this other meaning of an activity. This might be the reason for a lot of the misunderstanding of the Big Model in Sweden, so I'm doing a "Big Model school" at a Swedish web forum right now. Hence my wanting to make sure I had the right idea on what a CA really is. I might not have a perfect grasp of all the subtleties of the model, but compared to many of my countrymen, I've spent a lot of time reading about it and I've found it helpful to my own gaming.

Anyway, you asked about the game content. Here's how it went down:

I pitched the game as a "conspiracy game" and didn't talk a lot about the setting, since I wanted to let the players discover it together with their characters (yeah, this isn't that great an idea if you want to get some author stance going, I know). I said it'd be easier if the characters were a group that wanted something, and they made a punk rock band that wanted to get famous. Thus, there were no 'mancers at all, though I had plans to let them start getting some mojo going once they'd discovered the Street level info. In fact, one character bought "Avatar: the Flying Woman" after the first session (without knowing what that meant).

I did some very aggressive scene framing to get the action going. I set the first scene as the characters waking up with a terrible hangover and partial memory loss. They find a smeared contract that they have apparently signed, but can't really make out what it is. Then in a series of flashbacks, we establish that they've signed a record deal with this sleazy 80's-looking guy.

My idea was that this guy was an avatar of the Puppeteer or somesuch (I found it more fun to make up avatars and 'mancies) and the contracts he signed were unbreakable. So when they showed up at the first gig and some weird stuff was happening, they found they couldn't stop playing, triggering some juicy Unnatural, Self and Helplessness checks. At the second gig, they started finding some really weird stuff, like their manager sitting in a circle of symbols with some wires connected to a hamburger. They had previously discovered that their audiences seemed to get an unusual craving for McDonald's (yeah, I didn't use those kids putting magic in the happy meals, but did this instead).

So, yeah. The basic idea here was to set up some interesting conflicts between their punk ideals of rebellion and "fuck the system" on the one hand, and the control and commercialism of this guy on the other. See my attempts on creating Premise here? I had some more stuff like this planned, like the vain singer learning some music mancy from a down-to-earth zen-like kind of guy, seeing wether he could overcome his vanity.

Inbetween, there was a lot of freewheeling, as I always improvise most of play. The Sleepers got involved and weren't too happy about what the characters were doing. A friend they invented I made into a chaos adept (entropomancer?) and he became a big influence on the story, eventually fleeing the country to get away from the Sleepers. There was also the side story of the guy who was an ex adept who had been working for the Sleepers but wiped his own memory and planted himself (and memories of himself) in the group. Of course, me having this secret about his character didn't do much to promote narrativism.

As you can see, I was using lots of techniques that really didn't encourage for them to go into author stance. I attribute this to old habit induced by the traditional system. The players were inventing lots of details, but they weren't doing it to influence the story, so even though I was improvising and really going with what they did and suggested, they weren't inventing details with a purpose (or, I'm tempted to say, an agenda). They just added to the setting, which was of course fine for getting some good simulationist play (which we did).

What I did as a GM was basically to see what they were doing and try to tie in the stuff they were inventing into the bigger story. One character introduced his mother and I had her insist on coming to a gig and then buying everyone burgers. They also invented the friend, as I said, and I made him an adept. They were quite active, so I didn't have to do aggressive scene framing to keep the action going, but rather do a lot of plot weaving to keep the story tight.

Simon JB

Wow, thank you for starting this thread, Simon! Just like you I used to read the "Agenda" part of Creative Agenda as meaning "intended outcome" or something like that. Probably because of the meaning of the Swedish word, as you point out.

I'm one bit happier about RPG theory now. Thanks again!

- Simon

Ron Edwards

By coincidence, I was just re-reading this thread yesterday ... anyway, now I know exactly what to clarify at the very beginning of any discussion of the Big Model with Nordic languages are involved.

My current, daily study of Gunilla Wolde's Totte series has not yet brought me to the point where I can actually discuss it in Swedish, but that day will come.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

I'd like to add a footnote, in case this mutates in a few years time like the LP. What someone is evidently doing can be just as missleading as what they say they do or intend to do. The observer can start inventing missleading things that are 'evidently' happening just as much as the subject can misslead with what they say or do. I think the strength in the word 'evidently' refers to physically measurable qualities of play and taking recordings of those. Those can then be compared to particular patterns. However, it's possible for the idea to mutate into the notion that an observer somehow is any better than the subject, in terms of the 'what they say they do or intend to do'. Or maybe this wouldn't apply, but I've kept it at a relatively tight paragraph that's easy to skip.


Hey, Simon! I had the same kind of experience with Creative Agenda as you, I think - I thought I needed to very actively determine the sort of game I liked, classify it carefully, and then play that.
This led to me only trying out Story Now games, among other things ^_^
When I finally got around to playing a Step On Up game (specifically, Storming the Wizard's Tower), I realized what a CA really is - it's something you observe when looking back at home play went, for the whole group, over the period of play. The other half of it is that your preference for one CA over another (if you have a preference) will not manifest easily - just because you don't like a game doesn't have anything to do with the CA, although of course if you have a strong preference for one or against another, that is important.
With games like Exalted and D&D3.0, I realized I wasn't having fun because the game didn't address what I thought was interesting. It finally clicked, and then I forgot it again, and then I went through this realizing/forgetting process a couple more times, and then started to see how big and small CA is.

The big part is really coherence and the clarity of the game text - D&D4.0 is perfectly coherently Gamist, but the designers don't quite acknowledge this in any way, not wanting to confuse folks who are used to a heavy Sim/Gamist hybrid design.

I think it was actually *good* Gamist design that made me appreciate Gamism, at long last - Storming has lots of Color to play with, but fundamentally the stuff covered by the mechanics is all about setting goals and challenges and overcoming them to show how awesome you are. That doesn't mean my experience of it has to be *only* about that, but it means that's where the game can support me. It can only tentatively support exploring theme or mood or setting (a friend and I used the Interrogation rules to help create a lovely little subplot about a secret pregnancy!), but, I learned, it won't try to STOP you from doing so if you have cool ideas. I learned what Color is, too, because of this game: it's not unimportant or peripheral, and in fact can be quite central to your enjoyment of the game, but it just has minimal direct interaction with the mechanics, or none at all. [checked the Provisional Glossary. Yep!]

I have yet to play a really crystal-clear, well-done Simulationist game, but when I do, I think it'll actually give me a much better idea of what Sim really is. Polaris was not my favorite style of game, but it definitely supported Story Now quite handily - the focus is not on the tactics, or on the setting (If you can readily change the setting and subject matter and the game is still very much intact, I daresay it's not focused on SIm-support), but the emerging tale of woe between the characters. Good. Stuff. ^_^

Gee, all I needed to do to get the Big Model was to actually play games! Whaddya know!
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/