What is Right to Dream for?

Started by Simon C, March 18, 2010, 10:11:27 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

David Berg

P.S.  I play a ruthless character.  By game's end, he winds up all alone.  So, was this simply realizing an extension of my vision for the character?  Was it the fiction providing genre-appropriate conseuqences for my character's actions, even in ways that surprised me?  Or was this a moral judgment by one or more players?  I don't think you can answer this question without looking at how the game was played; and I think the distinction from my last post is a crucial dimension of that "how".
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Frank Tarcikowski

Simon, this is a great thread. Thanks for starting it.

You linking those discussions from Anyway has been very important to me for seeing where you're coming from. I remember reading them back then and thinking, 'Wow, Vincent, you have no idea.' So maybe I'm just that guy he mentions who identifies as Sim, but then, I've read all the constructive denial stuff and discussed this with Ron on the forums and in person, I daresay I've advocated the merits of The Right to Dream on these forums on more than one occasion, and all I can say is, that thing Vincent is describing there sounds terribly dull to me.

Now I'm sure there is a functional way of playing with a Creative Agenda that is The Right to Dream, constructive denial and all, that also matches Vincents description. But that's not a comprehensive view on the Agenda, more like an example. Vincent is explaining the difference between one particular way of playing Story Now, and one particular way of playing The Right to Dream. Simon, you said you do not want to make a point of labelling your session and I am not trying to, all I am saying is, don't get caught up in Synecdoche. I might offer this post as an example where a paladin just wouldn't do that got thrown straight out the window, in a game that I would consider as Right to Dream as it gets.

That said, what's the use in The Right to Dream, as a term? Well, that's a very fundamental question about GNS, the most fundamental one, in fact, that you can ask. I'm certainly not the one to answer it.

Concerning the moral dimension, I guess three things should be kept apart: The moral dimension of player actions (at the table), the moral dimension of the characters' actions, and how much (or little) the players care about the moral dimension of the characters' actions. I used to think that players caring about the moral dimension of the characters' actions was Story Now, because moral was present in a lot of examples and discussions. But Luke's angle is an interesting one. Moral is maybe best looked at like Exploration: It's part of any role-playing, but is it what play is all about?

To make a guess, I would say your Traveller game wasn't about answering the question you phrased as Premise and thus creating Theme. The moral questions were present in your game, were part of it, part of the fun. They colored your expectations and the way you added to your "package" of shared imagination. As such, it makes a lot of sense to look at your play that way, but then, check out what you wrote there: "How does a person make their way in an indifferent universe?"

There you got Setting ("an indifferent universe"), you got Character ("a person", meaning, I suppose, a character with something of a personality), and you got Situation ("making your way", meaning, I suppose, a struggling but self-determined existence). So, if I'm guessing correctly, that was your "package" right there, your "Dream", the thing play was all about. Phrasing it as a Premise-like question just helped, in this particular instance, to get a grip on it. Does any of this make sense to you, Simon?

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Simon C

This thread is garnering a surprisingly positive reaction.  Perhaps my intentions aren't clear enough? Essentially what I'm arguing is that the label "Right to Dream" isn't a useful one, and should be discarded.  My next thread is gonna be about Step on Up. 

Let the flames begin?

I want to explain why I think Luke's definition of an RPG is useful.  His focus on "ethical choices" lays bare what I think lies at the core of what a Shared Imagined Space is for.  We don't need a shared imagined space to enjoy the details of a world.  We can do that by just writing about it (and I think a lot of obsessive setting designers are doing just this).  We don't need a shared imagined space to imagine ourselves in a different world.  We can read books for that (and I think a lot of obsessive setting book readers are doing that).  The key factor that a shared imagined space allows us is to act, and to have that action interpreted within the ethical framework that all human acts are interpreted in.  That's what it's about.  Roleplaying gives us the illusion that our characters' actions are human acts, and subject to the interpretation and judgement of the other players.  Even the strictly immersive, zero action games that Eero talks about are like this.  Our characters act (or fail to act), and we think about the meaning of those actions - their significance to ourselves.  I think all the acts of a character in a roleplaying game are symbolic acts.  They have meaning only through our moral judgement of them. 

So what's creative agenda? I think the distinction of Right to Dream, Story Now, and Step on Up has distracted us from a more useful understanding of creative agenda.  To clarify, my understanding is that creative agenda is the skewer that holds together all the other parts of play.  Exploration is "what happens next".  Creative agenda is "why do we care?" I think that "why we care" is always about the symbolic meaning of the characters' actions, their relevance to a theme, a premise.

So in my Traveller-esque game, our theme of "How does a person get by in an uncaring universe" informed all of our play.  As Frank puts it, it gave us setting (an indifferent universe), characters (people unfettered with obligations or scruples) and situation (making their way).  I think Frank's right that our play wasn;t really about "answering" the Premise, but then I think a lot of canonically Story Now play isn't either.  The premise was a framework for interpreting the acts of the characters - a lens, an organising principle.  A creative agenda.

Some games are tightly wound around their premise.  The premise is tightly defined, even if it is unstated. They have system that makes the relevance of character actions to the theme explicit, and helps players interpret actions in the context of the theme.  They have characters that are appropriate to the theme (in the sense of being invested in issues that reflect on the premise), situations that will impell those characters to action, and a clear space for the judgement of those characters according to the theme.  Historically we've called this kind of play Story Now.

Some games are loosely built around their premise. The premise is loosely defined, broad, probably bland or phatic, and almost certainly unstated.   There may be more than one premise.  They have systems that allow the characters to act, but not neccesarily that drive those actions to refer to the premise.  They have characters that may be relevant to the theme, or that may not.  Some of the characters' actions are relevant to the theme, but others are not.  I think we've tended to call this kind of play Right to Dream.

Between these two extremes there's a broad area of intermingling. 

Sometimes we're all on the same page about what that theme is, and we can easily appreciate each others' characters' actions in the game as relevant to the theme and thus worthy of our care.  Other times we each see the theme differently, our characters' actions seem hard to interpret to the others.  They seem to act at random.  I think that's what has been called creative agenda clash.

So that's what I reckon. 

David Berg

I'll buy that the G/N/S distinction has distracted some folks from possibly adopting the focus you're proposing: varying approaches to Premise and Theme.  So how exactly is your proposed focus more useful?  I'd be happy to see what it's good at that GNS isn't...
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Simon C

Excellent question David.

I'm torn between starting a new thread, and continuing this one.  There's another piece of Actual Play that I'd like to refer to.

I'll do it here, with the understanding that it might get split to a different thread.

A friend of mine is a fan of the White Wolf game Exalted.  I don't really see the appeal myself, but he's a good friend so we often end up talking about his plans for play, his prep for games, plotlines, NPCs and so on.  Exalted's a big old mess of stuff, with so much going on in the world that there seems to be no room for characters within it.  It's a mess thematically as well, with all kinds of different things going on.  I've had really bad experiences with the game where play was just an unconnected string of events - things happening with no meaning or significance.  There were moments where fun almost emerged, but there was so much stuff present that wasn't connected to anything to do with the characters, and the characters were so disparate in their goals, that nothing felt meaningful.  In terms of my new understanding of creative agenda, play didn't coalesce around a theme at all.

And yet, people seem to have consistently fun play with the game.  What are they doing to achieve that?  How do my friend and I capture that?

What I've found, using insights from this new understanding of creative agenda, is that selectively editing down the content of the game, creating a contained situation, and NPCs appropriate to that situation, makes for a better game.  In other words, to make a fun game out of a whole mess of possible content, you need to edit with an eye for theme.  We've done that with the game he's currently planning.  We looked at the range of possible elements to include, the characters that the players were interested in, and some of the issues they evoked, and created a tightly bound situation around those characters.  There's no "Premise" in the Story Now sense, but there is a theme in the sense that I now understand it.  It's something like "Can the powerless, working together, defeat the powerful?" or maybe "Does 'the system' always win?"  We have characters all with their own vendettas against those more powerful than them, a vast and ever-unfolding conspiracy involving the highest levels of power, a contained place for all the events to take place, and a triggering event that sets the actors in motion.

I want to make it clear that what we're creating is NOT a recipe for Story Now play.  There's explicitly no doubt that the characters are the heroes of the story, no question that uncovering the conspiracy is a good act.  We don't care what it may cost the protagonists.  But a tight theme is still a recipe for better play.  Diagnosing my friend's preferred play style as "Right to Dream", and then going on to tell him about what that entails isn't going to help him make a fun game at all.  Talking about theme and editing to clarify theme does.

David Berg

Ah!  I like this technique a lot.  It sounds to me like you're talking about using theme to inspire character/setting element selection/creation to contribute to the situations that the theme anticipates.  (I could happily go on about how this is cool, but for the purposes of this thread*, I'll restrain myself.)

I agree that calling a game G or N or S doesn't get you that, specifically.  What does G/N/S get you?  I hope someone else chimes in on that.  I can only quote from theory; my personal experience is very inconclusive.  My understanding of the theory, though, indicates that the G/N/S distinction is good for something other than what your technique is good for, and the two can happily coexist.

*Maybe another thread?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Hi Simon,

As the old Sim crank in the desert, I am going to agree with your premise that "Right to Dream" as a descriptor and potential guide for play of a particular creative agenda (ostensibly Sim) is a crock for a great number of reasons.  Unlike "address of Premise" where there is a fairly solid of what "Premise" is and whole rules systems that guide the "address" process, the phrase "Right to Dream" offers no definition of what "Dream" means nor does phrase "the right" shed ANY light on the process.  Adding to the problem is that the word "Dream[ing]" connotes a passive endeavor of letting one's mind wander.  It's just as empty a phrase as "the emotional problems of rocks" is.

I also agree with you that Theme is a vital part of what we are referring here to as "Sim" play.  The game I've played in and have written about over the years has powerful thematic elements running through it all the time.  One the positivist side the themes are part and parcel of why we role-play this particular setting (Tolkien's Middle Earth).  One the constricting side (I'm not sure of the appropriate vocabulary word) having Theme's does edit down the content of the game helping to create a contained situation making a better game for all the reasons you indicated.

As you indicated this is not Story Now.  Premise has been tossed around quite a bit on this thread and I want to make clear that as "defined" here is a question about the human condition.  Theme is a statement about the human condition.  In role-play process this means that Theme is a constrictor on player choice.  This isn't bad as this is where the challenge (not in Step on Up terms) to the player comes in.  Can the player resolve the Situation while confining his choices to Themes of the game?  The aesthetic, the beauty, the awesome comes from the creative manner in which a player deals with Situation while at the same time limiting their choices to the Themes being celebrated.

The key is that we are not "making statements" about the human condition, rather we are living (role-playing) our commitments to those statements or beliefs or fantasies about human behavior.  In my game for example we cherish the Theme of the epic heroic character.  By epic heroic, in Thematic terms, I mean something like that struggling against wrongs of vast consequence (that failure is not  just personal but will effect many) and will mean risking your life is worthy and noble.  For this to have emotive impact sometimes failure is necessary or there is no risk.  So question at hand is not what is the player saying by his choice, but rather is the player going to be able to resolve Situation and Theme?

Why is Theme so important?  Because we players are social beings and we are keenly interested about human behavior – even when the character's raiment is "non-human."
Aure Entuluva - Day shall come again.


Frank Tarcikowski

Hey Simon,

Surprising or not, I guess none of the people participating in this thread right now were part of the crowd who were around in the discussions up to 2001 or 2002 when the terminology was developed. I guess many of these terms have grown from those discussions and were what seemed to work at the time, for the people involved.

Personally, I always found it to be problematic that terms like "Premise" and "Theme" suddenly had a very different meaning from the one they would have in a normal conversation. Perhaps they were giving me so much headache because I am not a native speaker. Ron and Vincent starting using the terms "Story Now" and "Right to Dream" more and "Narrativism" and "Simulationism" less, because that was working better for the newer people. But I think you are getting at more than just wording issues here. Creative Agenda has sometimes been described as aesthetic goal or preference, and you are shifting the focus in looking at such aesthetics.

Discourse at the Forge seems to have leaned heavily towards explaining the real world interactions between the real people, because back in the day, these real world interactions seemed to be neglected a lot in discussions about role-playing. Therefore, the Model focuses a lot on the real people and not so much on the fictional content. What you are doing now is, with a clear understanding of what's going on at the gaming table, reconsidering the fictional content and looking for a red line, for an aesthetic goal or preference that holds the fictional content together and makes it worthwhile to the players, whereby it is already understood that it's about the players, not about the characters, and that some things need to work out at the gaming table in order for play to be fun. You are doing the next step, zooming into Exploration, leaving Social Contract behind. And you're using premise and theme (not capitalized) as very valid and sensible terms in discussing what you are doing, only unfortunately there has already been another, capitalized meaning attached to them at the Forge.

It makes a lot of sense to consider Exploration that way when discussing Sim, and in particular, High Concept Sim. And I'm looking forward to you applying that same "second step" at Gam, where I suspect you are going to take a hard look at Challenge.

As concerns the ethical dimension of the fictional interaction, I'm not sure if the connection is just as mandatory as you are making it. I sure follow you that the capacity to act and interact is what makes role-playing unique and interesting. I didn't take philosophy classes but my understanding of moral is basically the Categorical Imperative, which looks specifically at actions and interactions. Now this could mean that the moral dimension of actions and interactions is what makes them interesting in the first place. Or it could just mean that actions and interactions are interesting per se, and happen to have a moral dimension, too. I for one think that the ethical/moral dimension of character actions is a great topic that deserves looking at (I have a great example in mind, actually). But is it really the defining factor for theme (not capitalized) and aesthetic preference, as we look at the SIS? Or even Creative Agenda all the way up to Social Contract? My impression is rather that you are making two important points in this thread that are, however, not necessarily connected.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Anders Larsen

Simon, I find that I both agree and disagree with you.

I agree that CA is rarely useful to bring up when you try to fix a boring/broken game. Here it is probably much more useful to do it the way you describe.

I disagree, though, with your description of CA. It particular go against my understanding, when you say that the common description of Sim ("enjoy the details of a world") does not need a SIS. The thing is that you can just as well say the same thing about Nar, that confronting ethical choices don't really need a SIS; you can just write a book about it. My problem here is that I can not agree with any understand of the CAs that does not require a SIS.

So here is how I see it: A Creative Agenda is not found in what the single player do, but in how the group together build up the SIS over time. Or to say it in an other way: Your Creative Agenda is not the input you put into the game, it is what you would like the the group as a whole to do with that input.

If the group take the consequences of the single player's choices, and use that to build a story, you have Nar.

If the group take the fictional elements the single player provide, and use that to fill out their understanding of the fiction as an whole, you have Sim.

In my mind these are two distinct (and, for that matter, equally valid) activities, that can not be separated from the SIS. You can of course have moral choices in both Nar and Sim, but the difference is in how the group treat it when it is incorporated into the SIS.

(Disclaimer: I am not sure that my understanding of CA is correct, this is just how I currently sees it)

- Anders


It sounds like you've found an approach that works for you in regards to Exalted and that's great but is that necessarily indicative of truth for all players of a sim game?    You even said that tons of people seem to have fun with Exalted even if you didnt understand it, is it possible they enjoy the random mix of stuff that puts you off without having to hook onto a theme?

If you understand GNS as a classification system of how people play then those who are finding enjoyment without looking at theme there play still has to fit into the classification.   So clearly Right to Dream still does have a use at least for classification purpose.

I think your making a mistake in conflating theme with Story Now, maybe that's your point that it has been all along.  Theme isnt the same as addressing premise and just because you have it doesnt mean you are doing Story Now anymore than having a detailed system means you are doing Right to Dream.   Furthermore I think your idea falls apart if you dont consider what agenda will be in play.  If you are developing all of play with the idea of focusing on the theme but you dont know whether that theme will be questioned in play or reaffirmed then you dont really know how to move play forward, what direction to take play once those initial thematic developed situations are resolved.


Simon C

A lot of good replies.

I'm going to focus on Caldis, because those questions are the easiest to answer.  Hopefully my answers will work for the others too.

I don't think GNS is a useful classification system because it attempts to make distinct and incompatible some kinds of play which I think in fact overlap. 

I don't think any players play ignorant of theme.  I think some players play games with a loose connection to theme, with multiple or shifting themes, and with a low emphasis on their theme.  I think some players also play "phatic" play, in the sense that making original statements about the theme, or even questioning the theme very hard are not the focus of play.  Either or both of those things can happen.  I don't think that either of those things is inherently less fun than play with a tightly focused, original and challenging premise.

The reason I think that this is not compatible with GNS is that this presents a model of why players care about what happens in play (creative agenda) that is not a categorical difference, but rather a field of possibilities.  You can play a tightly wound, phatic game. You can play a loosely bounded game where you challenge your themes hard.  I think this picture more accurately captures what people experience in play, and, crucially, is more useful in talking about play, fixing problems, and designing games.

I think that a lot of the things that people point to as indicative of Creative Agenda are in fact techniques (challenge, player empowerment, GM content authority).  Techniques are powerful things, and I think they say a lot about how the game will be played, but they're not a creative agenda.  They don't tell you why the players care about a particular action. I think theme explains that better than CA does.

Simon C

Frank, you make a lot of interesting points, but I think maybe I don't quite understand them enough to reply.

Also, I'd really appreciate some input from some of the "old guard" that Frank's talking about.


Quote from: Simon C on March 23, 2010, 12:30:29 AM
Let the flames begin?

I want to explain why I think Luke's definition of an RPG is useful.  His focus on "ethical choices" lays bare what I think lies at the core of what a Shared Imagined Space is for.  We don't need a shared imagined space to enjoy the details of a world.  We can do that by just writing about it (and I think a lot of obsessive setting designers are doing just this).  We don't need a shared imagined space to imagine ourselves in a different world.  We can read books for that (and I think a lot of obsessive setting book readers are doing that).  The key factor that a shared imagined space allows us is to act, and to have that action interpreted within the ethical framework that all human acts are interpreted in.  That's what it's about.  Roleplaying gives us the illusion that our characters' actions are human acts, and subject to the interpretation and judgement of the other players.  Even the strictly immersive, zero action games that Eero talks about are like this.  Our characters act (or fail to act), and we think about the meaning of those actions - their significance to ourselves.  I think all the acts of a character in a roleplaying game are symbolic acts.  They have meaning only through our moral judgement of them. 

Well you did ask for it.  Utter bullshit IMO.  See previous commentary on Narr-derived brain damage.

No, I don't really think you can enjoy an imaginary world by writing about it.  That is an act of creation, not experience.  Totally different.  It would be more accurate to say you can ejoy an imaginary world by reading about it, which is certainly true; but as we know, the draw of RPG is to be more than just a passive observer, but to be an actual inhabitant, seeing it from the inside.   Of course the SIS allows us to act, but why this action be be interpreted in an "ethical framework"?  This is sheer nonsense, as is the claim that all actions are interepreted in this light.  I've just made myself a sandwhich, what are the ethical implications there?  No, that is NOT what its about, and I cannot imagine that many people spend all day considering their actions in ethical terms.  Indeed one could argue from any number of political positions precisely the opposite, that most actions most of the time are not considered even slightly to posess an ethical component, whether that be clothes sticthed by indentured child labourers or eating blue-fin tune, etc etc ad nauseum.  "Moral judgement" can go hang, I have zero interest in wasting my time with such self-indulgent, navel gazing trivia.

I am somwehat more sympathetic to your argument to theme but I still think you are at 90 degrees from what is significant about it.,  Sure Sim games can wander without focus, absolutely.  One of their undesirable features is the lack of an end point, or chapters, etc.  Now way to tell when you are done, which elads to a rambling style of play that often burns GM's out.  But this makes theme useful as an organising principle, a simple tool, not a point of play.  "Does the syhstem always win" is not a meaningful proposition here becuase that presupposes that the setting is in some way representative of the question, and it is the question which is important rather than the experience.  This is completely backwards IMO.  It may be meaningful to organise play around (what amounts to) a demonstration of the system winning or losing, but that is worthwhile purely experientally, and cannot and should not be seen as some kind of answer that goes any further than the specific instance.

Your mistake is to move the important locus from play out of the SIS and into the heads of the players.  That of course is somewhat tautological but the fact remains is that what is significant is the IS itself, not what we might feel about it.  To withdraw from the IS and consider a moral judgement is to undercut the point of the activity in the first place.  It's not that such insights can never come, but they will come as a result of considering play post facto, not while doing it.  They are just another thing that might be learned, of no more inherent significance than any other detail that might have come to light.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Simon C

Cool.  I think you correctly identify the key point I'm trying to make, but I don't think you make a convincing argument that I'm wrong.

Maybe it's my social science background, but I find it pretty uncontroversial that we understand all acts in the context of a symbolic framework.  I think maybe using the words "moral" and "ethical" is causing people some hang-ups, because they carry implications of right and wrong, of objective morality.  I'm not saying that we interpret all acts within a framework of good and evil.  That's not what I'm saying, because you're right, that's stupid.  I'm saying that we give meaning to actions (and in fact to everything we perceive) by referring to our cultural frameworks symbology.  By "meaning" here I mean "import", "significance".  I mean that we interpret actions as "signs" that signify something.

You're right, your making a sandwich doesn't have a lot of symbolic or ethical resonance, but then we don't see a lot of sandwich making in rpgs either.  If all acts were equally significant, we wouldn't have any kind of theme at all, and the kind of unstructured, meandering play I'm talking about wouldn't happen.  It's precisely because some acts carry more symbolic impact than others that theme is such a useful way of understanding play. Theme is how we give meaning to the things that happen in play.  Otherwise it's all just making sandwiches.

The "waiting to die" Nordic play that Eero talk about is, far from a counterexample, a great demonstration of this in action.  The actions, thoughts and feelings of the characters have meaning because of the situation the characters are in, close to death.  They're not just making a sandwich, they're making their last sandwich.  The action carries symbolic importance: "Faced with death, I make a sandwich". 


Simon, here's my take.

I agree with you that CA is overrated as a tool for figuring out what to do in a campaign.

I agree that theme is a useful tool to figure out how to select Situation, Setting, Characters and Color. As such it's way more useful more of the time than CA.

I disagree with your conclusion that "Thus CA is worthless."

There are three fundamental disconnects as far as I can tell:

First, I get the feeling that you're treating Creative agenda as proscriptive instead of descriptive. My take on CA is that, when push comes to shove, my group, in this series of games, will choose/reward one set of activities over other ones. That's it. Compare this to "Since this is Gamist, this means..."

Second, I also think that you're trying to say that certain aspects of play only appear in specific Creative Agendas. I disagree. Theme is present in every CA. So is Setting. So is Character. So is Color. So is Morality, even if it is sometimes just "Killing evil things is AWESOME!"

Third, It also seems like you came to this with the idea that looking at Creative Agenda can tell someone why a game did or didn't work. From many failed games of personal experience, only 2 ever had Creative Agenda issues. Most of the bad games I've participated in were failing on raw exploration, or social contract.

My personal use for Creative Agenda has been "Keep aware of what the prioritized aesthetic choices are." Which is a handy thing to do. But knowing a Creative Agenda is much like saying "I want to write a monthly adventure novel." I still have to put the words on the page myself. And I still have to have the skill to know what words to put where and how. But now that I put a solid Creative Agenda on top of a game with functioning Exploration, and a solid Social Contract, I've been finally getting the "I can't wait until next game!" feeling that I've been searching for. But everything else had to be in place before that could start to work.

It feels to me like you're saying "This ruler is a poor hammer! We should get rid of all rulers!"

Aside from that conclusion, I think you're on to something. Keep applying this rigorous chain of thoughts. And tell us some more times about how you used theme to clear up a problem.