[Theory] Let's have a good look at Colour, again

Started by Christoph Boeckle, October 11, 2009, 05:56:58 PM

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Christoph Boeckle


A fair warning: this thread is going to be heavy on the theory.

A little bit of history
I like putting up links and give a general context when I write posts I consider serious. It makes me look serious. This is one of those posts.
Some things Ron said back in the November results for the Ronnies stuck in my head ever since. I have been trying to make sense of them. Specifically, I'd like to pick out this fragment;
Quote from: Ron EdwardsIf I can see the bigger reward system, grasp the Currency, and get bug-eyed to transform the Color into System through play (think about that one!), then the hard work is over, and it's all playtesting and refinement from here.
This one got me thinking about what Colour could really achieve in play.

Let's see the Provisional Glossary definition:
Quote from: The Provisional GlossaryColor

    Imagined details about any or all of System, Character, Setting, or Situation, added in such a way that does not change aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene. One of the Components of Exploration.
Something was missing, but what? I mean, how can Ron be so excited about Colour if it's something that doesn't change aspects of action or resolution? I just did some searching on the various forums, and could barely find any topic where I found somebody really demonstrating they understood Colour in a way that could help me make sense of Ron's idea of Colour being transformed into System. In most discussions, this potentiality is not even evoked, it's usually about "things that do not really import, but make the game more interesting". Ben Lehman wrote an Introduction to Forge Theory in 2005 where he writes:
Quote from: Ben LehmanColor is all things which are not character, setting, situation or system. In other words, color is all parts of our play which are not really central, but nonetheless of some interest.
I find this to be very representative of most of the views on Colour I could find. It's not that I think it's wrong, it's just that I'm not satisfied by it. Maybe the thing I'm trying to put my finger on is not definitional after all, but I need to get this out first to be sure.

An opening?
So, Ron comes back with a very interesting discussion about Colour and Reward:
Quote from: Ron Edwards(...) sure, you can have great characters, great setting, and great system, but without Color that rivets one's attention on those before they are experienced in full, then they'll never get into action. Color is superficial in some ways, but crucial in other, cognitive ways. In Sorcerer, the Color is all about arrogance and whether it can be heroic. Everyone knows it can be disastrous, sure; but you look at the red-haired woman on the cover and wonder ... can she do it? Could I? What might lead me to try? Combine that with the visceral response to the word demon and now you've got the Color. (...)
(BTW, note the way Colour is described by example rather than by a formal definition)

"Coincidentally" there's also the Color-first character creation project thread and it's subsequent discussions. Important to my point is that this came just after the discussion of Colour and Reward. I smelled something on the move, but I got distracted by the density and technicalities of the discussions.

More important still, is that it seemed to me that Colour was gaining a more fundamental role than it had up to now, in some special way, and it could be tied to Reward somehow (but Ron was essentially discussing initial buy-in for role-playing a specific game, which is not quite what I want to discuss, or rather, I'm saying that buy-in is a given in what comes next). It was still quite vague for me.

The tip-off
Recently, a guy going by the screen-name Nocker (real-name Guillaume) arrived on the Francophone forum I moderate, which is heavily inspired by the Forge for moderation, content discussion and aim of supporting indie game development. We're having a very good discussion about the role of Colour in his last play of Shock:.
What struck him was that the Exploration of Colour had been unusually powerful. He is quite versed in the seminal texts of GNS and Big Model (you might have seen him talking about his French podcast on the topic) and also explains Colour in the Provisional Glossary fashion.
Again, the notion that Colour is lots of interesting but ultimately "inert" detail grated my sense of things and we discussed this some more. Our discussion over there is not only about that topic, so I'm creating another topic here to specifically discuss Colour, hopefully with some of those who were instrumental to bringing this element into theoretical discussion in the first place.

Some actual play
Two examples should provide some context to my reflections.

I was playing this Protagonist who had been beheaded in the icy wastes. I did not even try to get my Protagonist out of that situation, happy to be able to go all Sleepy Hollow. So Minkar loitered around some more, with his head tucked under his arm, going about minding his own business. The rules of Polaris guaranteed that this didn't change aspects of action or resolution in play. It sure distinguished Minkar from all the other characters I have played in some interesting way, but, hey it wasn't really important.
Up to the point where he returns to his home. There, my Mistaken suddenly has a Kafkaesque bolt of inspiration and frames a scene that basically goes like this: the administrative heads of the city remnant have a problem because their law states that dead people are not allowed to mind their own business in the city and surely Minkar was dead since his head had been severed from his body, but it was legally impossible to judge a dead person. I was quite interested by this interesting legal loophole, found it quite adequate with the "Colour" of Polaris and accepted, invoking my character's last strands of loyalty (the protagonist was already Weary) to the polarian hierarchy and system, to be submitted to some experience which could then allow the judges to deal with Minkar.
For some reason I forget, the bureaucrats decided that Minkar's falcon could be used for a soul transfer into a living being, after which Minkar-falcon could be judged. This was getting way too stinky for my character, but conflict being what it is, Minkar did end up in the falcon's body. I managed to obtain a major debate amongst the would-be-judges. Disgusted by this bunch of wankers, I declared Minkar flying away from their grasp, far into the sky and direction the sun, full South...
This was how it ended for Minkar (betrayal of the people).

This is a game nearing end of development by a friend, Frédéric Sintes. It's only available in French for the while being, but essentially it's about playing some slightly supernatural individuals who go about a fictional world mending all the disharmoniousness in the environment. It feels very zen and contemplative to play, characters being essentially a vehicle to explore rich settings with emerging human settlements running into conflict with nature.
At the start of each new "Painting" (episode), the players should decide upon an object in the room to be used as a seed for inspiration.
For this snippet of play, it was a sextant. Thus I decided that my character, who pre-dates the choosing of this symbol, called "He who returns the souls to whom they belong", would use a kind of sextant in his job. We have a scene where he observes an incoming ship from the lighthouse in a port. Something seems fishy with the souls of those on board. So far, sextant or no sextant, I could have done this narration however I wished, it has strictly no effect in the essential evolution of the situation.
We play some more, and gradually, through the combined narration of the players, it becomes apparent that my sextant is probably more a cause than a relief! Everything goes surrealistic from there, time-walking, philosophical discussions held by the two other characters with an owl under one great swinging pendulum ensues and spiritual quantum-physics ensue (measuring the souls seems to be the thing that actually cast the souls into their undesirable state). Finally, the two other characters return, back before the point where my character observed anything at all. I again narrate the first scene, but this time the sextant slips from my character's hands before he actually observes the arriving souls and is destroyed meters below. In effect, my character had indeed returned the souls to the seafarers!

My point
See how elements who at first were pure Colour wound their way gradually into Situation and eventually into a fundamental resolution for play? I suggest that if Minkar had been injured differently (say, a wound to the belly), he would never have been considered dead by the bureaucrats in the first place. I believe that if "He who returns the souls to whom they belong" had not had a sextant, our session would have worked out completely differently.
Then again, with some other game texts, these elements would have been formalized by the rules from the start (this is especially evident with the sextant who would have been considered a piece of equipment in a lot of games). So sometimes it's not quite clear at a given point in time if something is Colour or System. Only play can tell, and some games try to make "predictions" on what shall become System (for all I know, had we been playing a game where the sextant was a piece of equipment, I'd have gotten a bonus to a roll and that would have been it: a pretty minor contribution to the changing of the state of the fiction).
So, retroactively, I see how Colour has become System and I'm starting to think I understand what Ron was talking back when he organized the Ronnies.

However, if this is really what he was talking about, then the definition is really lacking in some way. Sure, I don't contend that some elements of Colour never change actions or resolution in the imagined scene, but every now and then, something grabs a player and goes all the way through the whole of Exploration and back up into the Reward cycle!
This has to go into the definition somewhere, I think it would make Colour a much more useful concept if we recognized the potentiality it has to become System at any time.

By the way, while I was doing some research today, I discovered a post where a certain Jason Lee had already basically said what I was intending to say:
Quote from: Jason LeeColor affects Situation in all play.  Many elements we might refer to as genre are classified as color.  Color is instrumental in determining character motivations and how players resolve Situation.  There is no Situation outside color in Nar and Gam either.  It affects all aspects of play, even System.  The divisions of Exploration are purely artificial.  The categories don't actually exist in the sense of having boundaries.
[The] part: added in such a way that does not change aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene, is just trying to say "Color is a different category from System and Situation" and not "Color is inhert in regards to Situation."  I could very well be wrong, and the definition does mean Color is inhert.  I which case, I think that definition sucks and I reject it based on Actual Play.

Maybe this was clear for lots of readers and this is just a "say it yourself" kind of post, but in any case I'm eager to discuss this further, because this is like rediscovering Colour (or some other part of the Big Model if I'm mixing concepts up) for me.

Callan S.

Quoteand get bug-eyed to transform the Color into System through play (think about that one!), then the hard work is over, and it's all playtesting and refinement from here.
Was that being said as part of a playtesting process itself (ie, a process where floaty ideas in the mind eventually get transfered to cold, hard paper/writtenprocedure), or being said as something that's to happen during regular play? Probably sounds an obtuse question, but I'd think it pivotal.

Also this seems to be mixing up colour at the end, by describing it as rediscovering colour. It's discovering it's conversion to system or such, isn't it? Yeah, I know, boring and pedantic of me, but it might matter alot.

Simon C

Is Colour another way of talking about the fiction? What's the difference between the two?

Or is Colour more like "style" - not what you say, but the way you say it?


Christoph, I get what you're saying.

What made me understand Color as something more than pretty-but-"useless" bits of fiction was Ron shooting down an idea I had to formalize the bonuses and penalties to the martial arts stances one could take in Sex & Sorcery, by noting that the stances taken (and take-able) in the fiction already drastically impacted the results of conflicts as part of the momentary situational context of play. That there was a real difference to a character deciding to use a Throw as opposed to a Grab, even though there was no mechanical difference between them, depending on the previous and current combat situation, and even narrative situation.

Which made me go "dur..." for a moment, until it clicked and I had a moment of enlightenment.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Christoph Boeckle

Hello Callan

I think it would be best that you check that post out for yourself or else that we wait for Ron's clarification, lest I introduce unnecessary bias. Nevertheless, I interpreted it as Ron looking out for specific points while reading and evaluating the Ronnie submissions, with their plausible effects on playability (minus the polishing and tweaking) in mind. Especially, he was looking for opportunities to transform Colour into System, the point which I'm indeed talking about. This potential that Colour has to become more than Colour, is what I am suggesting is a fundamental aspect worthy of figuring in any basic discussion of Colour. It has been mentioned a number of times in the past, but, it has perhaps more often received the short end of the staff.

Cheers Simon

I don't use Colour as an other way of talking about fiction. As far as I know, the term fiction is problematic (I try to slap myself behind the ears each time I use it in a sloppy manner, with visible effect), because it can just as well mean a series of events, a given point in that series and a number of variations on the general concept of "backstory/background/written story in book-form".
Colour is part of what the Big Model designates as Exploration (the act of role-playing if you will) and permeates through all the other four components: System, Situation, Setting and Character.
I have quoted two definitions of Colour produced by important contributors to the theory and have stated that I find this definition a step short of what this component really does (but perhaps these definitions precisely eschew the function and prefer to describe the nature of the beast for a good reason I'm missing).
So I'm not sure I can answer your question directly (since this thread might just be the result of some knot in my brain), but I hope I've given you enough material that you might answer it yourself or find the interest in helping out in this thread.

Hi Raven

Yeah, I think you do indeed get what I'm saying. Do you still believe that the two definitions of Colour that I have quoted are sufficient? I'm not trying to say "uh, these definitions suck, they should have incorporated my point from the start", I appreciate that I've quoted the Provisional Glossary on the one hand and an Introduction to Forge Theory on the other. I also fully acknowledge that others have understood and even talked about this in the mean-time (especially Ron which we both cite), and basically I just want to have a direct discussion about how central this idea that Colour is clay waiting to be shaped into other stuff (resulting in Reward even!) really should be. I mean, it did take a specific interaction with Ron pointing out specifically what he meant for your click to happen, and it has taken me a good deal of research and actual play to figure it out for myself.

Simon C

Is narration in Dogs colour? What about in MLWM?

Why is it useful to define Colour?

Is colour all the parts of the fiction (by which I always mean SIS) that haven't become relevant to the system yet?  So, for example, when the Dogs show up in a town, and I as GM say "it's early winter, but there's already the bite of snow in the air", is that colour? What about when later a Sorcerer raises "If you don't leave now, you'll be trapped by the snow"?

Sorry for these drive-by questions, but I'm finding it hard to get to grips with what's actually being asked in this thread.  Maybe tying the discussion more closely to a piece of actual play would help?  Can someone describe a moment of play and point out which bits are purely colour?


Quote from: Christoph Boeckle on October 12, 2009, 06:52:03 PMDo you still believe that the two definitions of Colour that I have quoted are sufficient?..I mean, it did take a specific interaction with Ron pointing out specifically what he meant for your click to happen, and it has taken me a good deal of research and actual play to figure it out for myself.

And that's the question, isn't it? I think that the official definitions are wonky. But I'm not sure if that's because my own ingrained gaming biases made me blind to what the definitions were saying, or if the definitions really are wonky.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Christoph Boeckle


Okay Raven, we're in the same boat it seems. What would you suggest in helping me make progress here?

Simon, I'd rather you use my two actual play snippets and ask some more precise questions about them, rather than introduce your own situations, because since I've actually played them, I can develop easily.
In the games you cite, Narration is never only Colour. It's always tied up in getting dice, in describing specific character actions in a given situation. Your first Dogs example is probably Setting (Winter), Coloured (bite of snow in the air). The second one is the sorcerer (Character) giving a warning about the weather (Setting) with perhaps some menaces in between the lines, but not much Colour as I see it (all of which amounts to some kind of beginning of a Situation, but we need more: how the Dogs position themselves, what has been established before, etc.)

When you ask "Is colour all the parts of the fiction (by which I always mean SIS) that haven't become relevant to the system yet?", I think you're precisely approaching my own question in this thread.
By the definitions I reported in the first message, we actually don't know if Colour can become relevant to the System. It says that Colour should not "change aspects of action or resolution", or by Ben's definition "not be really central". It doesn't necessarily mean that it cannot become System, but it also doesn't suggest that it could (I believe that a lot of Colour stays inert in practice, and some gets picked up in a central way like I described in my AP snippets). Often when people talk about Colour, they go so far as suggesting that it's all the bits that are never really important, and that's a point I just can't abide with, given my experience. Maybe this is just some definitional thing. As soon as some stuff in Colour becomes central or changes aspects of action or resolution, then it changes status to something else. Either way, there is some dynamic between the components I haven't fully grasped yet.

Does that help to get more in-line with what I'm attempting to address? Central to that point is what I suggest happens to elements of pure Colour in the two AP vignettes.


Ben Lehman

In hindsight, I think my "not really central" is kinda crappy.


Christoph Boeckle

Hello Ben

I was just thinking about something: both Polaris and Prosopopée are very poetic games, that is, sometimes a metaphor can be taken literally, stars really do sing, blood can make trees grow, etc. These two games are particularly flagrant about allowing a player to transform Colour into other Exploration components. I believe it happens in other games nevertheless, perhaps in a subtler way.

I recall reading some implicit statements about a specific design goal in Polaris regarding Colour in various blog and forum comments, of which you weren't too sure but seemed to be quite eager about (alas I can't find those comments, those probably date back quite a bit). If this is not some figment of my imagination, would you care to elaborate?


Here's my take, ie the key that allowed me to meaningfully engage with people's discussions about colour:

Colour is the overarching stuff that the system doesn't define the workings of.

In other words you get this:
                 /                  \
Character(s)                   Situation

System defines how they change each other, colour defines how they are part of each other. But also System defines the general pattern of change, and Colour defines the general moods/themes/similarities.

Now this definition is false some of the time, ie the style of the setting obviously requires patterns of change; you can build the colour into the system. But when the game is in flow that still distinguishes the stylistic stuff that is in the game from the stylistic stuff that is "activated", providing you have a constant system. If you have a changing system, then the definition must be time stamped, so things can be colour "for now".

Using this to look at the Prosopopée example, the sextant was a sextant, and that meant stuff to you over and above what the system said it could do. But instead of that extra meaning sitting on the side, it jumped right into the middle of the game, and the colour became a part of system; the relationships you observed between setting and situation (as well as their relationship to other stuff outside the game) implied a pattern of change, and you were able to make that dynamic of change a part of the in game changes you explored, turning colour into system without breaking anything!

Now on that "stuff outside the game", did anyone explicitly state why they thought it fitted for it to be doing that, or was the colour slowly matched up and layered from all of you until you could all make the same implications? In other words did people say "I think it could be cool if that causes this to happen because of ___", or did you spend most of the time just getting the visions to match up, so that when actual rules changes happened everyone was OK with it?

My suspicion is the latter, as the slow and surreal game would give you space to do that, by hinting at stuff and then developing those hints, but if it was the former I'd be interested to hear how this was communicated.


Oh, just noticed my definition of situation and setting diverge from the forge language, just substitute "setting" for situation in my diagram and you shouldn't loose any meaning.

Ben Lehman

I have no idea what I was talking about then. But Polaris has very strong color, and very loose resolution (precise resolution, but loose) which means that there's a color -> ad hoc system transition which happens very easily. Polaris relies on this as the primary engine of play.

My frequent example is in one of our games we had this huge giant. We were all really into how big and tough he was. So thus, despite the fact that we *could* have just killed him according the raw rules, killing him because a huge quest-focus for the game: we had to travel to the sky, make a deal with the moon, get backstabbed by the moon, etc.

The color there is basically informing our systematic decisions so strongly that it basically becomes ad hoc system.

I think that there's something theoretically worthwhile in the color -> ad hoc system transition, but I can't quantify it any more than to point at these AP reports and go "yeah, that."


P.S. I don't mean to imply that this is a unique feature of Polaris. I'm pretty sure that all games must do this to some extent. Polaris was designed, explicitly-if-unconsciously, to rely and exploit this phenomenon.


I think the amount of Color that can transform into System is Social Contract dependant as well as System dependant.

I think your play examples are from two systems that encourage that sort of behavior, however,  In Polaris, what the players DO is transform Color into system.  I can't tell about the other one, but the "selection for inspiration" for sure seems like it's part of the game.  In other systems, that sort of behavior isn't the primary engine of play.

Color pushes into System? Play Example 1
The DnD party goes into the Tavern, and the bard offers to sing for our suppers.  He sings, rolls well, and the DM adjucates that the innkeeper gives us food.  The next day the characters are still talking about dinner as they hike, the stereotypical Legs of Beast, etc.  The DM calls for an Endurance Saving Throw.  Some of us fail, and the GM informs us that the food was badly cooked, and all fails result in being Food Poisoned, with decreased Effectiveness.  The party goes on to give a terrible impression when they meet the King, since half of them are running off to the toilet in the middle of Court.

Example 2:
The DnD party is wondering where to go next, to cleanse a castle of Skeletons or to hire ourselves out as Caravan guards.  My priest decides to vote for being caravan guards.  Everyone looks at him. A Cleric (who has Anti-Undead powers) avoiding the Undead?  My cleric explains that the group is low on funds, and being a caravan is steady pay, plus the chance to loot the robbers' loot.  Skeletons, on the other hands, do not have pockets, and so probably don't have a lot of monetary reward for the risk.  Everyone laughs, and we go off to the Castle anyway, my cleric grumbling.

In example one, our group saw this as Bad Play.
On one hand, the rules for poisoning are there.  On the other hand, DnD is all about choosing your challenges and Stepping On Up, and usually the Encounters (or potential encounters, like Wandering Monsters) are clearly marked as such. On the other hand, this was a memorable encounter and certainly had impact for our campaign and on the SiS. "I check the food for Traps" was often said.

In example two, our group saw this as Good Play.
My character was very Effective in the Challenges, and yet offered to not Step On Up, based purely on Color: I didn't know what Gold Pieces there were in each Encounter, and the System tells the GM to make it up anyway.  "Does the [monster name] have any pockets?" was often said.

Posed back to the Forge:
We were taking Color and pushing it into System.  In both cases, it happened, but in one case, it was Bad Play, and in the other, it was Good Play.    Could a different group defined them differently?  I believe so, and therefore I think that Social Contract is somewhere where you should look for this issue too.

Joy: I like your model.  How strong those links are between the words is where I'm focusing: some Systems and Social Contracts strengthen some of those links and weaken others.


Callan S.

This is where I recall how all encompasing the idea of 'system' is, and whether it's worthless in practical terms because of it. For example, if you forget to add a bonus while playing and the resolution roll happens, isn't that the means by which the group agrees to imagined events? Isn't that system? Or is it just shit happens? What if someone goes out for a smoke at a vital juncture, misses something said and acts latter on on it and everyone agrees to how he acts (no one realises it was because of misses something said/no one corrects him), isn't going for a smoke part of that system? Or is it just shit happens?

Shit can happen and then people agree to what is the aftermath of shit happening - that doesn't make that shit a system, though. If I used a RL weather vanes direction as a randomiser in a game, the rule that makes it a randomiser is system, the weather vane and it's direction are system, but the wind itself is not a system. It's just shit that happened.

I'm really just noting a different perspective which I think is important to this, but I think it would take the thread off it's topic, so I'm only noting it. I'm thinking up how to start a seperate thread on it, or whether to.