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Author Topic: Ruminations on the Impossible Dream Before Breakfast  (Read 4520 times)
Daniel B
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Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« on: September 19, 2010, 10:59:11 PM »

I have no expectations of anyone responding to this post, but I'll gladly reply to anyone who does. I'm really more expressing a conclusion I've come to, because I thought it might be interesting to other people out there.


From the Forge Glossary:
Quote
Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, the

    "The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists." Widely repeated across many role-playing texts. Neither sub-clause in the sentence is possible in the presence of the other. See Narrativism: Story Now.

It's something I've thought a lot, a lot, a lot about because I know that it is a logical contradiction (and therefore truly deserves the title "Impossible Dream.."), but I also deeply feel that I hunger for something that the definition seems to describe, or at least relates to. Fine, so, I started to wonder what exactly is that something? Well, part of the attraction of non-computer RPGs is complete and utter control over your character in the game world. This is the "players direct the actions of the protagonists" part, but it's bigger than that. You also direct the actions of a virtual avatar. In a Pen & Paper RPG, you can do absolutely anything!

So, if the real meat is PC-freewill, why do we even want the GM to be in control? Who cares?

Sure, we could get rid of the GM, and do or build or destroy stuff in the game, but it lacks bite. It's a sandbox. "The GM is the author of the story" bit is intended to fix that, since the GM could (theoretically) turn it into an interesting story, but again this is a contradiction. I'm not willing to give up PC-freewill, but I also want some of the story-bite, so what to do?

A bit of a tangent, but it's relevant. One of my absolute favourite videogames in existence was the N64's "Banjo Kazooie". If you haven't played it, I apologize, you'll have to just try and empathize in order to relate. Like pretty much all computer games, it was an example of pretty heavy-handed illusionism, but computers have finite memory so we all accept it and play anyway. For awhile now, I have understood that the reason I found the game to be so much fun is that it was built (possibly unintentionally, but I strongly suspect otherwise) according to certain principles of learning and growth. A chart showing the stages of growth can be found here.

Pretty much the central core of the game is that you learn about and practice a specific set of skills available to your bear & bird. By beating each level, you prove to yourself that you have mastered that particular skill set. Anyone who played it should have noticed that when you take on the final boss of the game, Gruntilda, you have to use each and every skill you've learned in a high-pressure environment. The enjoyment of that game came from having learned the skills yourself and used them to defeat the challenges that were presented to you, especially the last challenge. The game had bite, but it was pure illusionism (.. and poor illusionism at that.)

It sounds like I'm arguing in favour of illusionism, but I'm not. What I'm trying to do is identify what it is about illusionism that satisfies the hunger I mentioned earlier. I claim that the enjoyment achieved in this way is through the "celebration of identity", or in other words, learning more about yourself by mastering the character and seeing yourself through that character. Incidentally, the idea of enjoyment through exploration of identity was not originally my idea. I'd wondered for a long time what made that game so much fun, and made the connection after reading "Designing Virtual Worlds" (Richard A. Bartle). (Check it out. It's intended for electronic worlds but it's a great resource.)

So if this pattern of growth and character mastery is what is truly important, illusionism is no longer a prerequisite for getting that bite. In fact, illusionism would seem counter-productive because the players are no longer free to explore their own identities, instead being forced to explore the roles assigned to their characters as required by the plot of the GM's story. Multiple paths are forced to converge to meet at one single end point. (I suppose illusionism can be made to work if it is handled very delicately, and the GM knows his players.)

An alternative, then, might be turn to illusionism on its head; I propose a sort of reverse illusionism? Although the PCs (naturally) start at one place, they explore the world as they wish. The job of the GM is to track what skills the PCs are gaining and how they are using them. At some point, each given suite of skills solidify and the GM then presents the PCs with a challenge tailored to those skills. After a few iterations of this, the adventure would naturally feel like it was nearing an end, so the GM would present a final challenge that would require the PCs to take advantage of most or all of their skills in order to succeed.

Is this just another form of illusionism, in disguise? Hrm, maybe, but I don't think so. The world would adapt to the players, rather than the players' having to adapt to the story.

Daniel
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #1 on: September 20, 2010, 07:31:19 AM »

Fascinating post! I hope people do respond to this and discuss it. It's pretty theoretical, though, and you might better serve your ideas by posting some actual play that illuminates examples of what you mean. CRPG actual play is kinda-sorta okay for this, but not really, ya know? The difference between a CRPG and a TRPG is larger than most people think.

First of all, the real meat of play is not "PC-freewill." It's player free will. For a game to be fun, players need to believe that their choices matter. Illusionism sets up a game where players believe their choices matter, but they really don't, because the GM is forcing things behind the curtain. When the players inevitably realize that the long serious of decisions they've made had no actual impact on the story, things usually collapse.

Some caveat words in there, like "usually" and such. Yeah, sometimes players just want to be entertained, let the GM to tell them a story, and go along for the ride while adding bits of color for their characters. And full-on 100% Illusionism is pretty rare, I think, because even Illusionist GMs react in some part to the actions of the players. However, tossing in occasional "free will" consequences where it doesn't matter to the GM can strengthen the GM's power over the illusion. It makes the players believe their actions always make a difference, but the GM knows that isn't true.

Additionally, as long as players are having fun, I don't have much bad to say about Illusionist play. I think, in most cases, adults who play in this style probably know what's going on but don't want to spoil the fun for themselves. They're pulling the curtain shut tight for themselves. It's not exactly Participationism, but it's pretty close.

Given two choices, however, which path would you take?

A) Your GM has a story he will tell. You have a little leeway to maneuver within the grand story the GM is telling, but no matter what you do, the story will turn out the way the GM has planned it. Your actions cannot influence that greater story in any way.

B) Your GM has no story. You have complete control over the decisions you make for your character, and those choices have meaning. Whether you make "good" or "bad" choices, the GM will apply the consequences of those choices. The story will shift accordingly.

Given those two choices, let's assume for a second that both potential stories will be of equal quality. That is, at the end of play (a session, a month, a year, a decade, whatever), you will look back at "the story" told along each path and judge it excellent. Given an excellent story, would you rather have free will as a player or would you rather have no influence on the story at all?

I realize the justification for GM-force / railroading / illusionism often is that it guarantees a good story. It keeps the characters alive. It produces a more "story like" story. It paces a story properly. And so on. Let's assume for a second that the illusionist method will produce an excellent story, guaranteed, but the player-agency method may or may not. Do you want to role-play a character for a decade through an excellent story in which you have no control? Is that what role-playing is to you? I'd prefer to take my chances that the story might turn out in a way I didn't expect but know that all my choices (and m friends' choices) led to that end.

So I have a group of friends together, and we're going to tell stories. That's role-playing, in my mind. We're going to share the responsibility for telling the stories. And hopefully we're all in agreement about the kind of story we want to tell--and the kinds of creative choices that matter to us. Really, "the story" is the destination, not the journey.

At the end of an evening of play, I want a personal story that is about me, not just about my character. After a night of playing D&D 4E, I want to talk about how my sorcerer pwned the dragon--but that story is really about how I built a kick-ass character and played him effectively, working closely with other players to create tactics that effectively overpowered a dangerous opponent. After a night of playing Apocalypse World, I want to talk about how Ebb the Operator sold out almost everything he believes in to survive another day, and how he's okay with that--but that story is really about how my friends and I are slowly drawing this terrible, horrible world and "discovering" its details and themes. After a night of playing My Life with Master, I want to talk about how the evil Master forced everyone's minions to kidnap children and distill their life force--but that story is really about how the players and GM addressed some difficult subject material (like co-dependence and abuse and violence) in an extremely poignant and disturbing way.

I like your "celebration of identity" idea. Is that your own phrase or did you see that somewhere? I think skill mastery is a clever technique for improving player-character identification. As the character masters a skill, so must the player, who mentally correlates his mastery with the character's. Look at D&D 4E. As you learn how best to use your PC's powers, you become a more effective player, but your character also becomes more effective. Then you level up and you have new powers to master but also tougher challenges to face. That's the reward cycle for that game. It's definitely not the reward cycle for all games, though.

For your "reverse illusionism" idea, you should take a look at the Burning Wheel game, which I think does exactly what you're proposing. It goes one more step, though. Characters get Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits which serve as beacons for the GM to know where the player wants to take the story--or really, what the story is. The player can rewrite them during play, too.
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2984


« Reply #2 on: September 20, 2010, 10:50:53 AM »

Given two choices, however, which path would you take?

A) Your GM has a story he will tell. You have a little leeway to maneuver within the grand story the GM is telling, but no matter what you do, the story will turn out the way the GM has planned it. Your actions cannot influence that greater story in any way.

B) Your GM has no story. You have complete control over the decisions you make for your character, and those choices have meaning. Whether you make "good" or "bad" choices, the GM will apply the consequences of those choices. The story will shift accordingly.

I would take A.

Quote
Given those two choices, let's assume for a second that both potential stories will be of equal quality.

But that is precisely the question.  I don't think they will be of equal quality.

Quote
Do you want to role-play a character for a decade through an excellent story in which you have no control? Is that what role-playing is to you? I'd prefer to take my chances that the story might turn out in a way I didn't expect but know that all my choices (and m friends' choices) led to that end.

I think that's a gross exageration, and will counter in kind.  The players make some decision and oh dear, they all get killed.  Character A didn't get its revenge.  Character B did not resolve it's issues with its father.  Whatever.  But you all made your "choice" right?  You brought about your end by your own agency, is it therefore satisfying?  No, I don't think it is.

You know, I've now read a goodly few AP reports of the sort of play you describe, player directed, "choice" rich, yada yada, and I still don't know where the fun is.  To me, they look boring, deathly dull.  Maybe you could say thats because I wasn't there, was not playing, but other people have commented approvingly and expressing interest, and I just don't know why.

So, whatever else might be said, the kind of game you describe is not for me.  Following on from that, I think a lot of the criticism directed at Illusionist play is simplistic and wrong, relying on the worst possible examples from a range of real behaviours and therefore drawing erroneous conclusions from them.
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Daniel B
Member

Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #3 on: September 20, 2010, 09:51:27 PM »

Actually, I in no way meant to pan illusionism. Truth be told, it's the technique I use regularly as a GM !

Also, I do agree that the ability to choose by itself is not a magic bullet, for precisely the reasons Contracycle has described. TPKs just SUCK. If they're rare and in my mind well-deserved, then so be it, but I don't want it to happen just because "the universe is a cold and unforgiving place". Screw the universe. I want to have a good time.

However, that attitude of "screw the universe, I want to have a good time" is why I'm trying so hard to walk that fine line between player free-will and mechanisms for organically emergent bite. I think it is simply illuminating to separate the latter from illusionism, because they don't have to be the same thing.

At the end of an evening of play, I want a personal story that is about me, not just about my character. After a night of playing D&D 4E, I want to talk about how my sorcerer pwned the dragon--but that story is really about how I built a kick-ass character and played him effectively, working closely with other players to create tactics that effectively overpowered a dangerous opponent. After a night of playing Apocalypse World, I want to talk about how Ebb the Operator sold out almost everything he believes in to survive another day, and how he's okay with that--but that story is really about how my friends and I are slowly drawing this terrible, horrible world and "discovering" its details and themes. After a night of playing My Life with Master, I want to talk about how the evil Master forced everyone's minions to kidnap children and distill their life force--but that story is really about how the players and GM addressed some difficult subject material (like co-dependence and abuse and violence) in an extremely poignant and disturbing way.

Adam, I like this. It "tastes" like what I'm looking for. On the other hand, in reading it, it kinda makes me wonder if this is all just beating down paths that have been beaten down before; i.e. concluding that Sim is just undecided Gamist/Narrativist. Unfortunately I don't have more Actual Play yet so it's all still just theoretical anyway. (I had to stop game designing and playing for a long span due to strife in my life, but it is coming to an end.)

I like your "celebration of identity" idea. Is that your own phrase or did you see that somewhere?

Not mine and not available on the web unfortunately. Check here. (I dislike taking credit for other peoples' ideas, so don't anyone else think I'm advertising please.) Nah, there's got to be something more to Sim. I'm convinced that "celebration of identity" is truly on to something deep in the human psyche .. or mine at least.

Dan
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Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
masqueradeball
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« Reply #4 on: September 20, 2010, 10:20:18 PM »

I'm starting to think that the pursuit of "Story" is the biggest red herring that *certain* role players can try to chase after. Why do we need to be telling a story at all? Is a dungeon in D&D really a story? Sure, we frame the fighting in the context of the PC's being lured into the dungeon with promise of loots or whatever, but that is all that is, framing.

When I run games they might seem like stories in the traditional sense, thats because I borrow a lot techniques from other forms of fiction to help create the kind of player experience I want, but I have one method of running games that works for me and the people I've played with, and everything else I've tried was sort of like Jack Skellington's attempt at Christmas...

That method. Make up difficult or interesting situations and throw them at the players, who have made difficult and interesting characters who then respond to the shit that's being thrown at them. There's a sense of continuity, the events in the games could be related like a story, I use dramatic techniques to keep the experience interesting, but I am NOT IN ANY WAY TRYING TO MAKE A GOOD STORY, or address themes or otherwise attempting to create a product that can be examined or appreciate outside of the experience of play.

Does this mean that this is the method that everyone should use? No, of course not, I'm just putting myself out there as an example of a gamer who's made years of fun for himself and others without ever once stopping to think about whether what he was creating was good stories... though thats something I've become interested in lately, like I said at the beginning, I'm starting to think that for me story has been a red herring.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #5 on: September 21, 2010, 01:07:54 AM »

And then, instead of skills, you could get at what the character uses the skills to get at! Like he has great planning and fighting skill, yes, but it's because he wants to end a war! So hey, perhaps we could just write down 'wants to end the war' on his character sheet! And hey, as he tries to do that, his 'wants to end the war' levels up! OMG, and he can add it onto his normal skills, making him stronger at what's important to him! And then we could go buy a copy of the riddle of steel and ogle the spiritual attributes section like it's porn, cause it's awesome!

Sorry, couldn't help but tease! Maybe it's not applicable?
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Vulpinoid
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« Reply #6 on: September 21, 2010, 03:27:18 AM »

Great series of posts (up until the last one), this is one of the things I've been trying to dig at with my posts on a "Vector Theory" of game design (over at my blog).

The story of the individual doesn't have to be the story of the GMs intent.

If a GM is basically just pushing their characters toward goals through smoke and mirrors, are the characters truly developing. Or are they just as caught up in the machinations of the world at the end as they were at the beginning? Only they appear to be more capable of addressing the GMs assigned obstacles during the later stages of the game.

I know that I'm one of those players who likes to see characters develop through the course of play, switching a character from chaotic to neutral when they see the destructive results of their activities. Or switching away from lawful when we see how the laws in the land are being used to oppress the people. Other players say..."but you can't change alignments!!" or some other thing that they've seen in the rules, but I like my characters to have a level of emotional depth, a changing story can bring that even if the regualr game rules don't back up this style of play, or if the GM's story is about that.

If I can get a bit of personality and tell my own story within the context of a larger story, or within the context of a string of meaningless encounters, then that's where I derive my fun. I get my fun from trying to tell stories despite the system, if I can use this method to tangle other characters up in my stories, so much the better.

I'm probably playing a different game to everyone else on the table, and sure there will be times when the relations between my character's actions and other characters create friction, but that's also a part of the play dynamic I enjoy that simply isn't quantified in the rules. When I run games, it's a different story altogether. Because I draw on the players actions to weave something together on the fly. I'll have a vague idea of a few key scenes that I think would be cool, but I rarely know when the right moment will come for introducing them into the plot. I run on instinct, and when a player makes a moves that might segway nicely into a scene I've been thinking about, I just need to offer a little extra prompting and suddenly the players are trying to work out whether everything was planned all the way along, or if their actions have really generated the cool scene that they've become a part of...it's hard to explain that both of these opinions are right. Similarly, I'll have a couple of nice end points to a story, I'll never know which one is the "right" ending to a campaign, I just let the actions guide toward one or another, framing up things along the way so that any climax could remain viable, dropping hints for all of them into the story. In this way, players really feel like they are contributing because they are contributing. Their choices do matter, but within the framework of possibilities that I've laid out for them.

I like to think of it as less like a railroad and more like a river.

You start at one end, and work your way to the other. You can't push past the left or right bank, but you've got a decent amount of leeway between the two of them. Different plot lines are like currents in the river that might draw you in, or push you toward certain sandbanks/obstacles. At the end of it is like a river delta, with a wide array of paths to follow, but eventually you'll reach the end of the river crossing into the sea. It's more a game than a story in the traditional sense, because it isn't defined from the start of play, but it's more than just a game. You need to pay attention to the feedback loop between narrative and game mechanisms.

It's interesting to see other people's perspective on the matter.
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #7 on: September 21, 2010, 12:18:40 PM »

So it's clear, I'm not outright panning illusionism, either. If people are happy, then whatever. But I've seen -- in games I have run and in games I have played -- minor and major breakdowns that I attribute largely to hidden GM Force.

Gareth,

My "two paths" aren't meant to be the only possible paths. It's reductio ad absurdum, admittedly, but I'm not trying to prove anything there. I just wanted to illustrate my points. There are a lot of crazy assumptions I make for that argument, and I know they never occur, but I think it makes my subtler point clear, right?

But given your "gross exaggeration," I would say that I don't want my input as a player to be meaningless, and that I cannot have fun if I find out this was the case. That is, if as a GM you're going to take my input, ignore it, and then force the game in whatever direction you wanted in the first place, you better damned well keep that fact hidden from me, or it will ruin my play experience. Because any fun I was having was predicated on the idea that I was participating as an equal, and that my choices meant something.

I speak about illusionism as a GM who ran games using those techniques for 10-15 years, so I am not ignorant about the topic. These days, I still use some of the techniques I learned, but I do it as participationism, with the players in on the joke.


Daniel,

I'm definitely NOT saying that "Sim is just undecided Gamist/Narrativism." I'm very familiar with all three kinds play and I understand them all very well.

Let's talk about the TPK. I don't think it's a meaningful discussion without talking about it in the context of a creative agenda.

If I'm playing D&D 4E by the book, embracing its Step On Up ways, not drifting it, then a TPK is totally all right by me. It is very strong reinforcement of my choices as a player. It means we [I and my player friends] did not Step On Up. We failed to meet the challenges set before us. We made choices during play, and those choices were not optimal. If the Dungeon Master just handwaves away our deaths, it cheapens the experience for me. This is not a theoretical situation! I played in a 4E game with a heavy Step On Up agenda shared by the group, and we had a near-TPK and my character died. The DM basically made it not happen -- I can't remember if there was NPC healing/resurrection or we were left for dead but not actually dead or what. I talked with the group after that and made it clear that next time, just let my PC die. Fuck story continuity. It's meaningless to me if my Step On Up choices don't matter.

If I'm playing Sorcerer by the book, embracing its Story Now ways, not drifting it, then a TPK is totally all right by me as long as I got to make meaningful statements -- got to address the premise -- along the way that lead to my character's death. I want that death to say something. I want all of the characters' deaths to say something. I don't know what; it depends on the fiction, obviously. If the GM starts using Force to invalidate the statements I'm making with my character, I don't care if my character lives or dies. The game will suck.

If I'm playing Basic D&D in some kind of Right To Dream way, then a TPK might not suck. It might be the Right thing for our game. It might Make Sense. If it isn't, I would think the group's constructive denial would trump it. "Aww, there's no way we should have all died. A dragon couldn't even fit down in this cave. Where does the thing shit, anyway? We didn't even smell it down the corridor?" The main way to make a Right To Dream game suck for me is to use GM Force to invalidate my judgment of the SIS. If I tell you that it makes no sense that a dragon should be down in a 10x10 room and you use Force to hand-wave my concerns away ("He was teleported into the room, long ago, by a strange wizard who enchanted the dragon so he doesn't eat or excrete!") then I'm going to be upset. The important choices I make in a Right To Dream game are those that help guide and affirm the correctness of the SIS.

Important Point: The trouble in Sim games -- even more than Nar and Gam games, I  think -- is that you're accreting all this "right" material over time and it's often tied closely to a particular storyline or set of characters. If you kill off a character, that "right" material gets disconnected. It's more than just the kind of investment in Exploration that you see in non-Sim games. This material is the point of play, so losing it feels like a step (or ten) back. I think GM Force in service to "the story" is often a code word for "we need to preserve all of this material we've constructed together!" and it's more about Right To Dream than story continuity.

Possibly Silly Point: You said, "(I had to stop game designing and playing for a long span due to strife in my life, but it is coming to an end.)" I hope you meant that the strife is ending, not your life!


Nolan,

In my post above this one, I'm carefully using "story" (not "Story") to refer to a retelling of events after the game about what happened at the table.  "My fighter totally locked down that elite solo boss and the rogue and the sorcerer were able to blast it to pieces in two rounds!" That's not a story about the fiction; it's a story about D&D 4E players Stepping On Up.

It's a kind of code word for "creative agenda," if you look at it the right way.


Michael,

I like your river analogy. Realize that the longer the river, the less meaningful my contributions are to the destination.

Let's say the GM has this plot arc mapped out: we'll start off as nobody peasants and fight our way up to renowned heroes who save the world from a race of conquering monster overlords. And the GM knows that we're going to survive all those battles along the way, and he knows that we'll save the world and drive back the overlords -- because, hey, it wouldn't be fun otherwise. After a year or two of play all culminating exactly how the GM planned, distinctions between rivers and railroads are kinda lost on me. That river can't be wide enough.

One of three things is likely happen (and I won't exaggerate profusely this time, Gareth):

1. The illusion holds. No one in the player group finds out that nothing we will do will change this world-saving outcome.

2. The illusion breaks; trouble ensues. The player group figures out that there's a fixed end for the game and this bothers people.

3. The illusion breaks, but business as usual. We figure out that the GM is railroading us and we don't care. We're having fun tooting along in the wide "river" the GM lets us maneuver in on our way to heroic greatness.

I believe that #1 is very rare. It's hard to maintain completely hidden GM Force for a long time without players getting wise. I suspect that a lot of #2 happens on the way to a sort of dissatisfied #3. The one player who isn't happy sucks it up and plays along so as not to ruin the game for everyone else. Fine, whatever. If you're just gonna end up in #3, why not substitute illusionism with participationism and avoid the risk of #2?
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at foundry.legendary.org 7777
Daniel B
Member

Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #8 on: September 21, 2010, 03:17:07 PM »

@Adam   Yup, totally with you on TPKs. I suppose my addition "If they're rare and in my mind well-deserved" covers a lot more possibilities than I'd implied.



Our use of the word "story" is making me nervous. From everyone's posts, I'm thinking we really are on the same page here (or at least a similar one) but there's a bit of vagueness in that word story. There are really two ways (or more) that we could interpret it. The first way to define "story" is as a single linear sequence of events, or at least a collection of main events that lead to a predetermined conclusion. This is illusionism and, although you can certainly get some really fun games out of it, I don't think anyone here disagrees with the fundamental point that it competes against player freedom.

The second interpretation of the word "story" is quite, quite different and is really what I'm driving towards. Michael, I think you touched on it best in the first half of your post:
The story of the individual doesn't have to be the story of the GMs intent.

The "story" of the individual? Is this really the same definition of the word? No: the conclusion is not predetermined. The sequence of events that occur are entirely the result of the choices of the individual. We're using it here in that vague "the story of my life" sense, where it only becomes a story when it is finished and romanticized.

I know that I'm one of those players who likes to see characters develop through the course of play, switching a character from chaotic to neutral when they see the destructive results of their activities. Or switching away from lawful when we see how the laws in the land are being used to oppress the people. Other players say..."but you can't change alignments!!" or some other thing that they've seen in the rules, but I like my characters to have a level of emotional depth, a changing story can bring that even if the regualr game rules don't back up this style of play, or if the GM's story is about that.

If I can get a bit of personality and tell my own story within the context of a larger story, or within the context of a string of meaningless encounters, then that's where I derive my fun. I get my fun from trying to tell stories despite the system, if I can use this method to tangle other characters up in my stories, so much the better.

I'm probably playing a different game to everyone else on the table, and sure there will be times when the relations between my character's actions and other characters create friction, but that's also a part of the play dynamic I enjoy that simply isn't quantified in the rules.
Boldface is my own.

Here's the meat. You're not "telling your own story", because you don't have a predetermined conclusion for your actions. Instead, you are making free-willed decisions which, in hindsight, were pretty cool just on their own merits. The fun you are eking out of the larger structure is independent of that structure and all the illusionism that comes with it. This is the kind of thing I've been thinking about. I want to identify this kind of fun more strongly and take advantage of it, and have nothing to do with the traditional story (i.e. the linear sequence of events leading to some predetermined conclusion) not because a traditional story is wrong, but because it is superfluous to and competitive against this kind of fun.

It seems we've come right back to simple player freewill, but now here's the interesting bit.

In identifying this kind of fun and removing it from the illusionist structure, we are free to build on top of this a different kind of structure that continues to support player freewill while injecting bite. It might be difficult to imagine defining bite without referring to the old illusionist structure, but Michael revealed it and it is what I've been referring to all along. Celebration of Identity. Michael was looking at the game universe through the eyes of his character and reflecting on how he (as a player and PC) would feel, change, and grow based on what his characters sees and experiences. Here is where we can find opportunity to build games that support growth of the whole PC, by which I mean the character and the player. I'd like to study this kind of play further and build structures that actually encourage and support it, so that we don't have to be reduced to scavenging it from within games built for other Creative Agendas.


Dan
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Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
masqueradeball
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« Reply #9 on: September 21, 2010, 03:22:00 PM »

Yeah, I think I understood that, but the impossible dream is only impossible if the word "story" means story in the traditional sense. What the players in my games take away is a story, and you could call what I do as the game master storytelling (White Wolf does) but it isn't, so I create a "story" and they create the protagonists and its all functional.

I mean, look at most of the conversation on this thread, its about illusionism. Why, when a GM has an infinite budget and an infinite set of options to choose from, is it not possible for him to take your players actions into account in a meaningful way and be able to make the whole thing feel like a book or comic or whatever.

Were playing D&D and I have an adventure path where I expect the party to travel down the main road where they'll encounter a blockade. I want them to encounter the blockade so they discover the existence of the evil warlord. The adventurers instead decide to go through the woods. I, as the DM, still want them to learn about the warlord, and I want them to discover the blockade, so, viola, there are a band of wild elfs traveling through the woods that are heading the the blockade to tear it down.

Is this illusionism? Are the encounters in the woods meaningless? Is discovering a blockade on a road the same thing as discovering a band of wild elf rebels in the woods who want to destroy it? I don't think so. The GM gets what he wants, the players actions meaningfully effect the content of the game.
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contracycle
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« Reply #10 on: September 21, 2010, 06:00:45 PM »


I've been ranting for some time that "story" means too many things and serves only to cloud discussions rather than illuminate them.   One salient question to ask in terms of this disuccion is "Why is story a good thing?"  It's taken as read that a "story" is what we want to come out of play, or that "story" should be the result of player actions, but what does that MEAN?

It means something specific when we talk about Story Now.  That is a clear and precise usage which can be used meaningfully and constructively.  Story now is essentially the characters as protagonists addressing premise.  The story which then emerges through the action of play is then NOT a sequence of events as such; it is specifically a moral or understanding derived from the answer to the premise which the players chose to give.

Note that this has nothing to do with boss monsters, or 3-act play structure, or the Hero's Journey.  Because all of these are structures used by a single narrator, who uses them in linear narrative to engage an audience that in direct, Story Now play does not exist separately from the author.  In this specific sense, story is the point of Narr play and story is therefore, in that context, a Good Thing.

The unanswered questions are these: what is "story" FOR in Gamist or Simulationst play, if indeed it is for anything?  Why should we ever talk about story when discussing non-Narr games?  What kind of specific actions and behaviours would we call on to produce whatever kind of "story" this is?

We get a lot of leak from Narr inspired discussion that does this debate no service. For example, the issue of player control over characters.  It is true that without direct control by the player of their character, they cannot address premise, and therefore in Narr play there cannot be Story Now.  But if we are playing in G or S, then the question of whether or not we can address premise is moot.  What precisely then is the function of player ownership of the character?  Surely that should should be expressed in terms that relate to exploration or challange, not "story" at all.  And therefore, objecting that the GM rejected your input in terms of story is also a meaningless statement.  I'm perfectly willing to concede control over "story" to the GM because "story" is not primarily what I'm there for.  That doesn't extend, though, to ceding control over Exploration, if exploration is what I'm there for.

I think Nolan has summed up neatly when he says "I use dramatic techniques to keep the experience interesting".  This is story as a technique, not as an agenda or goal of play.  It is ancillary to and supportive of the real goal of play, which is Something Else.  Is it useful to do so?  I think it is, for the same reasons he mentions.  It borrows, in a way Narr does not, from the traditions of linear narrative story telling.  Things like the three act play structure may well be useful when seen in this light, whereas they would be actively destructive in the context of Narr.  So we end up with a "story", and we have to take the One Ring to Mordor or whatever, and therefore we have reason to go places rather than just wander around willy nilly, and we have objectives to pursue, and we have reasons to talk to NPC's, and so the whole thing acquires some structure and direction that pure undiluted exploration and challenge would not have on their own.

None of this has to mean that the players get frog-marched  through a set of scenes imposed by the GM to present some sort of narrative or moral lesson.  Certainly that kind of thing has happened, and is the basis for all the hostility that is directed at "Metaplot".  But I would suggest that this mistake arises from failing to see story, in G and S, as supportive rather than the point of play.  It is attempting to impose the outcome of Narr onto games that are really pursuing other goals.  This, I fear, is for the most part what people think of when using Illusionism as a pejorative, and I don't think it's valid.

When we suse story as if it is always the desired outcome, when we apply story to both the individual player actions and the work as a whole, when we use story in a way that fails to distinguish between goals and techniques, when we conflate story with player freedom - all of these mean we end up talking in circles.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #11 on: September 21, 2010, 07:08:14 PM »

Great series of posts (up until the last one)
If the tone didn't carry across in the text, I mean look at the spiritual attributes section like porn like I look at food shows on TV as food porn. In a good way! I look at the spiritual attributes section like it's hotness. Otherwise, shove off, atleast to me your acting like your judgement of a post is above mine. And to me, that's vulgar.
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Vulpinoid
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« Reply #12 on: September 22, 2010, 03:50:23 AM »

Michael,

I like your river analogy. Realize that the longer the river, the less meaningful my contributions are to the destination.

Let's say the GM has this plot arc mapped out: we'll start off as nobody peasants and fight our way up to renowned heroes who save the world from a race of conquering monster overlords. And the GM knows that we're going to survive all those battles along the way, and he knows that we'll save the world and drive back the overlords -- because, hey, it wouldn't be fun otherwise. After a year or two of play all culminating exactly how the GM planned, distinctions between rivers and railroads are kinda lost on me. That river can't be wide enough.

Ahh, but this is thinking two dimensionally.

And that's something I've been meaning to get to with my Vector Theory.

Let's twist that analogy a bit.

Instead of a river, we're looking at a flight path. The aircraft has to stay within a fixed horizontal boundary imposed by the flight controller, but they are free to fly at whatever altitude they desire.

That's actually what I try to get at when I'm running a game...whether it's a three act structure, a hero's journey, or any other structure you choose to name. In fact I wrote my first game "The Eighth Sea" to specifically restrict play to a five act structure, but then allowed a whole heap of narrative framing rights to fall into the hands of the players so that they could fly or crash according to their whim. It wasn't a complete success and I've been meaning to rewrite it based on dozens of playtest sessions, but that was one of the main objectives.
The ship's captain (the GM) sets a basic plot, and we know where things are going ti generally end up, but we have no idea what this will mean to our characters or what it may reveal along the way. We might get to the ending that great for the crew, but it ends up being a pyhrric victory for most of the individual characters with them losing so much and sacrificing along the way. The same ending might be reached by a crew who flew high and reached the lofty heights of character satisfaction. The same ending for the crew in each case, but a very different story experience for the players involved.

With this in mind, who's to say we can't play narrativist on the vertical axis, developing story as we play, while we play simulationist on the horizontal axis, playing strictly to the relevant tropes and paradigms of a setting. The important thing is making sure everyone is on the same page about what we're doing. One player gets their fun from sticking to the "established realism" of the setting and making their decisions in context, another player gets their fun from the moral dilemmas and unveiling of their character through interaction with the various tableaux and scenes offered by the GM or prompts provided by the other players.

The players make their story on one axis while working within the framework and scenes provided on the other axis.
   
That's the way I'd play if there were two versions of me; one of me playing in a session, that the other of me was running.

Sandbox play...I run that very differently, forgetting the river and basically offering an ocean of possibilities. In this style of play I deliberately don't know which port the characters will set down in, but I make sure I've got a few of the nearby ones planned out just in case they land there. And I make sure to lay down a couple of currents that will gently nudge boats in a certain direction if they lose the wind and would otherwise be caught adrift in the doldrums.
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A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.
Adam Dray
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« Reply #13 on: September 22, 2010, 07:42:01 AM »

Instead of a river, we're looking at a flight path. The aircraft has to stay within a fixed horizontal boundary imposed by the flight controller, but they are free to fly at whatever altitude they desire.

Yes, but the pilot knows where the plane is going to land before it even takes off, right? He's filed the flight plan and can fly around in non-restricted airspace but has to land at a certain airport. And there's an invisible hand tugging the plane magnetically towards that airport, right? Because if there's not, we're not talking about the same thing at all. A GM who hopes that someday the players will end up saving the world but never uses Force to accomplish it is not what I'm talking about here.

I don't think talking about "playing narrativist" or "playing simulationist" (especially both at the same time) is going to clarify anything specific about The Impossible Thing. I think you're really talking about techniques, not creative agenda. If everyone is on the same page about what you're doing and has the same creative priorities over the complete instance of play, then that is the creative agenda. The Impossible Thing isn't about Nar-Sim conflict, anyway.

Let me go on record as saying that I believe that 99% of epic "Save the World" games end before the world gets saved. I'll also state for the record that I believe that more of them would succeed if everyone at the table knew that they were going to save the world as a foregone conclusion.

"But where's the excitement in that?!" you cry. Fair enough. What happens if saving the world isn't a foregone conclusion?

If you want to play in a game where the world needs saving, and maybe your character is the one to do it, then you need to own that maybe you won't be the one to do it. "Maybe" cuts both ways. Choose one:

a) It doesn't matter whether you save the world (maybe it's a foregone conclusion, but maybe it isn't; doesn't matter). What does matter is that the players get to make a real life point about something meaningful to them (some kind of Nar thing). As long as the GM doesn't trump your ability to address premise, you probably don't care too much about whether the world gets saved. Force applied to achieve a certain ending doesn't matter as long as the GM doesn't step on that. As soon as the GM invalidates anything you've done to address premise, though, players will be throwing dice across the table.

b) You're going to do all you can as a player to save the world. If you fail, you failed as a player--that'll suck, but it's a possibility (some kind of Gam thing). Here, if the GM just lets you save the world, he's just letting you win. It's like you played chess for months or years and finally beat the Master, only to find out he let you win the final game. Your victory is hollow. (Consider: if it's okay for the GM to "cheat" this way to achieve a successful ending, is it okay for players to cheat for the same reasons?)

c) You're going along for the ride to find out if your character has what it takes. If he fails, it's because the character wasn't strong enough, or lucky enough, or clever enough, and so on  (some kind of Sim thing). If the GM has an ending in mind, there's a good chance that he's breaking many of the "rules" that the players have blessed as Right. The game logic that they've built, session after session, isn't the logic that's really running the game. Your character has what it takes because the GM decided it and hid the fact from you.

Now, I grant that a lot of people are fine with option c. I get that. I don't understand why the GM has to hide it as illusionism, and not just convert it to participationism with a few words to the players at the beginning of play. When you watch a movie, you are participating in the lie; you know it's not real. You eat your popcorn and suspend disbelief and let yourself fall into the director's constructed reality, and it's a sweet, sweet thing. You do not need the director to show up at your house with actors who you think are real people and trick you into thinking that some drama is happening (though I suppose reality shows have been built on less).

Note that option c is impossible under participationism, because you know that your character will succeed. Consider:

d) The GM told you that the game ends with your characters saving the world. You block that out mentally and go along for the ride. There's plenty of other stuff to be excited about, like the way the GM's story unfolds, the clash of battle, and playing your character through this epic tale. (And it still can be some kind of Sim thing, sure.)
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
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contracycle
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« Reply #14 on: September 22, 2010, 08:48:48 AM »

Thr difference between participationism and illusionism is not, AFAIK, just a case of issuing a disclaimer up front.  It's overt and explicit use of force or concealed use of force.  You must go here, you must go through this door, follow these flashing lights to the next encounter.  So disbelief is not suspended when this is happening all the time; it's the difference between a movie and a rollercoaster.  The function of the illusion is to allow the suspension of disbelief.

Secondly, Adam I think you've fallen into the trap off thinking that this is "about the character".  Why should it be?  The character is just a vehicle for the player.  If your goal as a player was "I wonder what it would be like to be a crewmember on the starship enterprise", then this stuff about whether the character matches up to some supposed standard or not is irrelevant.  You get what you want just by "being there".  The GM's plot can be anything as long as it doesn't do something strange like introduce The Force or whatever.
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"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
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