[Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about

Started by Ron Edwards, March 24, 2010, 05:51:17 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi Paul,

What I see as the challenge - and here I stress the negative usage, meaning "pain in the ass" - is as follows. I don't know if this is the best way to explain what I mean to you, but at the moment, I'm coming up with an artsy analogy.

If we went out to the back yard and played any game involving a rubber ball, like bouncing it back and forth in foursquare (which I don't know how to play), or just tossing it (if for example my little kids were involved) around, or something as complex as basketball ... then I want that ball to bounce. Bouncing means it gains momentum from something in addition to what a given person provided in throwing it. It means sometimes, the ball is going to seem to "behave" on its own, spinning or going somewhere different from what one thinks. It means that people's use of it is going to vary, not only from person to person, but along the history of how one person uses it. It means that when the ball goes from one person to another, there's going to be a little difference from the last time it went from that person to that person.

So when I GM, I want our game to have some bounce to it. Whatever GMing means in that game, whatever player statements mean, whatever the mechanics do ... they should generate outcomes and effects which escalate our interest, develop the imagined material, close the door on some things, and open the door on others. With a bouncy system, things that were introduced as Color become crucial components, or things that were crucial components meet fates which themselves are consequential. System, Character, Setting, Situation, and Color all become a kind of moving thing. I'm not talking about the pace of play - what I'm talking about doesn't mean frenetic action - but rather about the degree of attentiveness involved, as well as the continued interest in utilizing mechanics, and enjoying what happens.

There are a lot of games that are full of dice rolling, full of tables, full of point systems, full of character types, full of maps, and full of long-winded discussions about how to play ... which lack bounce. For me, Rolemaster is one of them, and Vampire is another. These are useful to mention because getting my character's throat cut by a sword-slash in Rolemaster is too easy, and lacking in any reason why it happened this time based on what was just played. And based on what I see and read, a lot of Vampire play (and Shadowrun too) is characterized by massive flurries with too little effect. So I'm saying there are lots of ways to fail to bounce, including both arbitrary extreme effects and softened-up, minimal effects. And that's just one variable; I'm also thinking about games which rely on so much consensus and consensus-checking that they become either endless committee meetings or dictatorships. They too lack bounce.

It's like standing around playing any of those back yard games I mentioned with a flaccid, deflated ball. You can play catch with one of those ... but it's annoying. The ball itself won't do anything. If it hits the ground, then it stops there, and you go exactly there, and you pick it up, and impart every bit of the "content" of your throw to the next person. When they catch it, and hold it, it doesn't matter whether they caught your throw or picked it up off the ground. It's as if, in order to continue, the game must return to its starting point (kinetically speaking) with every single throw.

Does that make any sense?

What Williams is describing has no bounce, to me. I am the story-guy. They are the don't-die guys. It looks as if it might have some bounce, if I keep using player-character actions (and especially rolls) as inspiration for what I have happen next, and yeah, that can spice things up a little. But notice that I, as GM, am the only person who's making that happen. Their job is to stay alive, individually, and to work as a team ... but a team that does what? Not to defeat me in any way, because it's not a competition. But to enjoy what I give them, and to be cooperative enough to enter into whatever I give them.

Granted, if they do stuff that engages hard with what I give them, then they bounce the ball back to me a little, but only a little. I am in charge of keeping it in the air, in charge of where it goes, and most especially, in getting it back and throwing it again. The players are kind of like my slightly obstreperous group/team partner in catch, and although they may jump around and yell regarding the ball I throw to them, it gets returned to me the same way every time - a limp rag, handed back over to me. They're further kept occupied by adding a built-in attention-absorbing detail (individual character death, which is totally not an issue for me), and the events as they move forward can only go the way that I make them go, scene by scene, on and on. I don't think I'm parodying Williams' text which I quoted. I'm describing how I experience that kind of play when I put it into practice.

I'll revisit your term "challenge." It's not a challenge. The problem is that it's not a challenge, and that my biggest concern is making sure that everyone else is entertained enough to keep paying attention to me. That's not only boring, it's annoying. When I play a sport with other people, I don't have to worry about whether the way I'm playing is "making" them interested. I simply know they're interested in playing too, from the get-go. My concern is to deal with them in the context of this wonderfully-bouncing ball.

That's what we did with Legendary Lives, played it with bounce, by tossing any notion of "my adventure" out the window and focusing instead of simply playing out what was already there to be played based on the characters' backgrounds, given only a little more "go" by their stated goals and how I played the NPCs. The thing is, for that game in particular, the bounce is in fact there if this is how you choose to play it. It can be found in the character backgrounds, obviously, but also in the consequences of rolls. The best examples are the various Lying and Sincerity rolls we did, which defined the environment of decisions for every character, and resulted, just as Larry described it, in a dark comedy of errors with a rather punchy thematic core, when all was done.

I knew it at the time, that in that one particular way, we had gone off-text in terms of what the game book provides for people to do.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Thanks, guys!  I think I get it now.  I've played some PtA convention one-shots that developed in a vaguely similar way.  Ron, I hear you about playing NPCs as characters.  This is after said NPCs have been designed as situation generators (via hitting character issues), right?  The playing seems easy to me; the designing, less so, but ultimately manageable.

Scene framing seems trickier.  My con games have had plenty of abortive "Oh, gee, I guess there's not much conflict here" scenes, as well as plenty of pre-scene pondering and discussion in an effort to avoid that.  I assume "find the conflict" is a learned skill, and I wonder how much that learning curve varies.

Perhaps I'm biased by my own techniques for working characters into missions.  I try to create reasons why they'd want to do the mission, rather than reasons why they have to; and within the mission, I try to introduce the same sorts of issue-hitting conflicts you've described (though at a less regular pace).  Like, if we're on a mission, and there are two doors leading to the objective, and one door is guarded by a slaver, and the other is guarded by a wife-abuser, then the characters get to argue about which one to kill and which one to bribe etc.

If Legendary Lives advised such techniques, thus wedding the setting- and character-based inspirations for play with the prescribed mission-based activity of play, would it cease to be a fantasy heartbreaker?  I mean, that sounds pretty functional to me (though no doubt less fun for your particular group given your success with other methods).

I also wonder whether I would have latched onto "highly personal, neurotic, PC-centric conflicts" from amidst LL's sea of possible inspirations.  Ron, do you think you focused on that because the book focused on it, or because you recognized it as grist for the sort of play you already knew you could do well?

I've tried to keep this post short because there are tons and tons of topics here that I could easily go off on for pages.  Fun stuff!  Anyway, I hope the trimmed-down version makes sense; please pardon a few oversimplifications.


P.S. Regarding bounce, I find that succeed/fail and survive/die tend to fall short if that's all there is in a mission.  However, supplement that with some real choices about where the characters go, what they do, and how, and I really enjoy riffing off that as GM.  "You decided to interrogate that guy?  Huh!  Neat!  His perspective will give you a very different take on the Main Badguy you'll face later."  I wonder how close that is to the intent behind the Khaotic text Ron quoted.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


I like the stuff about bounce, and emergent effects, because I hadn't really considered how player roles fitted into that before:

If a bouncy system is bouncy because it has a bit of "little details amplify to big effects" in it, and those details can come from all over the place, then players have to be providing details in all those different areas for the system to work.

One way you can do this is put that kind of creativity in as a constraint within the system; you make it so the tactics and choices that players make, though directed to a mundane end are so twisted by the mechanisms of the system/the dynamics of the challenges, that they end up reproducing the same interesting effects as if people were doing weird throws. For another analogy, sort of like those play-doh extruder things; the interest is in the pattern created when amorphously flexible potential is pushed up against pretty looking constraints.

If this was such a system, then it could be a system for packaging uninspired players so that a inspiration hungry GM can play with them.

Reading through Khaotic, it doesn't seem to be so much like that; resolving conflicts is resolutely straightforward and there is no expectation that the players will build on their characters quirks. It's sort of like the game will hopefully slide them into a more experience based or celebratory mode just by virtue of their existing investment in the peculiarity of the characters.

Legendary Lives seems to be more happy for players to play around with their characters, even as they follow the pre-arranged track. I notice mentions of "after you've played published adventures" in there, and I presume this is where the different extrusion-molds are supposed to be found, although given the time it was written I doubt they mesh with the inspirations coming from the character creation. It'd be interesting to see if it's possible to make "adventure books" that mix seed content and resources with a style of interpreting the player's created background, so that they change substantially with different characters.

Ron Edwards

I think that's extremely insightful, Josh. I don't have much to add critically speaking, but I wanted to post to acknowledge that I think you've phrased your points in a very helpful way.

Best, Ron

Paul T

Great. The "bouncy ball" analogy resonates very strongly with me; reflecting both my good experiences and the bad ones.

David Berg

Quote from: JoyWriter on April 17, 2010, 03:50:13 AM
the tactics and choices that players make, though directed to a mundane end are so twisted by the mechanisms of the system/the dynamics of the challenges, that they end up reproducing the same interesting effects as if people were doing weird throws.

Huh.  I get this only in the abstract.  Can anyone share an AP example of this in action?

The Lying and Sincerity rolls in this Legendary Lives game weren't covered in enough detail for me to grasp it there.

I can think of tons of examples where a game system guided and inspired me to throw the ball weirdly, but none where it did that for me.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Sadly most of my actual play for that is second-hand and woolly, I've been trying to recall information about this vampire larp where the GM did this role between players; where they twisted and obstructed everyone's strategies so they were forced to play clever and political (including playing along with the characterisations done by other players) to have any chance of success in a pretty straightforward feud. I can't remember enough of the detail of that to really get into it, but if there were systematic rules to how people do that kind of thing, then perhaps it can be done as a default rules requirement, leaving the GM to just follow the rules and enjoy what the people are flinging back at him.

Maybe someone else can give a clearer example?

Ron Edwards

Hi David,

I'm sorry to say that your post left me semi-shocked into silence. I really don't know where to start, although your point goes a really long way to clarify for me why our exchanges here have required such detail.

Don't get me wrong - they were all productive and fun threads. My point is that now I understand better why certain things I was writing seemed to me to be bouncing off some kind of wall. I'm glad you posted it because it may prompt a very useful discussion - essentially the heart of "system does matter."

I'll try to reconstruct the sequence of various Lying and Sincerity rolls in our session, because I think it will be a good example for you. If one of the other players could post too, that would be excellent.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Hi Ron,

Cool.  Looking forward to it. 

Regarding my last post, I hope my "guiding" vs "doing (bouncily)" distinction won't lead us down a road of semantic fuzziness.  I've been trying to think up better terms, but no luck thus far.

Possibly relevant: personally, I tend to like guidance-oriented play procedures.  Randomly picking words in Sign in Stranger, interpreting cards in Ganakagok, mapping dice color to fictional color in PIE -- these all get me more excited than any succeed/fail task resolution mechanics I can think of (e.g.).

As for a larger-scale disconnect between us, I'm curious about what you're seeing.  I can't put a finger on it, myself.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Larry L.


I've been trying to reconstruct some of the "social" contests for a few days now. I remember observing at the table that these were pretty nifty, but I can't recall exactly why these were more interesting than what has been described above. Which honestly sounds like every other system with a skill for "diplomacy" and what not. Gootch had pretty excellent scores in most of these skills, so I used them a fair amount.

If it jogs your memory, one such exchange was used when I convinced Ben's guy I didn't have anything to do with the dead serpentine, despite having the bloody murder weapon right there in my hand. There were a couple amusing interactions with that hapless Hob. Another was when I was trying to talk Ben into "loaning" me all his money.


Looking back at my pseudo-example, I think I made what I'm thinking of sound too advanced; a more mundane and incomplete version of that kind of thing would be tagging strategies with ethical connotations, like computer games are currently doing, and then having ways to let those influences play out. By giving the players with choice over this stuff and some insight into it, then their strategising can be indirectly engaging with social issues. At the same time, if there are ethical tags linked to their characters fundimental strategies, then players following those strategies will be automatically exhibiting a worldview (as systems that give people bonuses for acting in accordance with a certain concept do more explicitly).

Still no concrete real world example yet, but that method can be seen in any game that ties setting constraints and symbolism as an extra weight of decoration to the axe that someone just wants to split things with. The next stage is to insure you suggest ways for that decoration to become an active part of the system, so it's not just dead weight, but a curiously functioning additional property of the axe, which influences how you cut with it.

Ron Edwards

Hi David,

Here's what I was thinking about when I wrote about the "bounce," for this game. After the introductory scenes, in which Ra'ed almost had sex with his dead girlfriend and in which Ctine faced off with phantom snakes, the two characters met. Ctine used Sincerity to explain to Ra'ed the help she wanted from him, to steal the Brownie device. Ra'ed used Lying to her to assure her that he would do exactly as she asked. Her roll failed. His succeeded.

What that means, fictionally, is that both characters went into subsequent play with misconceptions, Ra'ed because he didn't believe the truth she was telling, and Ctine because she believed the lie he was telling. The neat thing is that the rolls could have gone in four ways:

- Ra'ed believes the truth she tells; Ctine sees through his lie about it.
- Ra'ed mistrusts the truth she tells, thinking it's a lie; Ctine sees through his lie about it.
- Ra'ed believes the truth she tells; Ctine is fooled by his lie about it.
- Ra'ed mistrusts the truth she tells, thinking it's a lie; Ctine is fooled by his lie about it.

Each of these outcomes would generate a very different basis for the decisions each character would make, not least about what action each would take next, and also not least about what precautions or defenses or counter-moves each would (or would not) set in place for the other. Since the fourth was the case, Ra'ed went and did something overly sneaky when he didn't have to, and Ctine was too trusting. That's exactly what led to the "dark comedy of errors" that Larry was talking about.

The fun thing for me as GM is that any of the four outcomes is OK; all I have to do is scene-frame and play NPCs so as to generate more stress upon the player-characters anyway, and enjoy whatever happens, and do it again.

Now, given the later events of play, the whole thing was compounded further when Gootch successfully Lied to Ra'ed about not killing anyone on his mission, which means Ra'ed bound Asp's spirit into the machine without ever realizing it was exactly the same person who'd commissioned the machine in the first place.

So that's what I mean by "bounce," specifically that any of the four outcomes of the initial meeting scene would be functional both in story/fun terms and in practical terms, itself both in how-to-GM and what-my-guy-does-next terms.

Let me know whether that makes any sense.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Hi Ron,

Thanks for that account.  That absolutely sounds fun and functional to me.

As for the role of the game system in this bounciness... 

It looks to me like you guys looked through some setting material and latched onto the specific bits of it that would help with "highly personal, neurotic, PC-centric conflicts", which in turn led to framing scenes with PCs at cross purposes.  So then you have PCs trying to convince each other to do consequential stuff, with the GM (having no preconceived plot) prepared to facilitate fun from any outcome. 

This sounds like a win-win to me.  I'm trying to think of what would make one resolution method more "bouncy" than another in this situation, and all I'm coming up with is suspense, and accordingly, uncertainty.  If we don't know who will convince whom, and we pick up some dice, and we shake them, and the rolls really will resolve some uncertainty (no 99% success rates), then we're building up some energy and anticipation!  We roll!  Boom!  Payoff!  Bounce!  Right?

Conversely, a resolution system where the group just discusses "what would make the most sense here?" and agrees on the outcome... while that maintains "four different paths to different fun", picking a path isn't a "bouncy" experience.

So a game which (a) helped you frame scenes where PCs try to convince each other of important stuff, and (b) helped you roll with any outcome of said convincing, would be ripe with potential to bounce.  And then (c) a fortune resolution system for "who convinces who?" would realize that potential.

Are we on the same page here?

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Paul T

It sounds like this "bounciness" in this case is some combination of rules which move the players in directions they wouldn't themselves:

1. The System produces outcomes that the players would never consider on their own (e.g. one side doesn't believe the truth AND the other trusts an obvious lie--simple negotiation might have brought such a situation back to a compromise, not allowing both sides to be mistaken).

2. The System limits options moving forwards, providing creative constraints for future input.

I think that in a lot of play, various cues provided by the game's structure help to inspire and motivate fictional input. For instance, Keys in the Shadow of Yesterday help remind players of options they might not have considered (in this situation, you could take the cowardly path and stand down... OR you could be so cowardly as to put your friend in danger... OR you could reveal that your character is no longer a coward! -- all interesting options it's easy for a player in the heat of play to forget about).

So, are we all talking about the same thing? That's how I interpret this "bouncy" concept of play, in any case.