[The War of the Sheaves] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, January 13, 2011, 12:53:31 PM

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Ron Edwards

Zac Dettwyler's The War of the Sheaves is like a big salad or stew. It's impossible to evaluate as a whole without eating it as a whole, but I don't really have the time for that in this case. As I see it from my limited reading perspective, the game might be a cohesive whole, but I think that is unlikely. At present the mix seems to have little hierarchy among its parts, which to my mind creates, or would in play create, a jostling effect rather than a system. There are a lot of pieces which I think should either not be there, or if there, should be radically revised, usually minimized.

As is often the case with the Ronnies, focusing on the terms seems picky or trivial to start, but actually opens the door to major points. The term use isn't strong in this case. Some characters may be older among other equally-playable options, but it isn't an issue at all. Soldier is significantly vague, and in this case that's quite important. In Big Model jargon, Situation is the immediate circumstances of play, clearly a very specific sub-set of the more general concepts of (these) characters in (some local part of) a setting. I have called Situation the 800-lb gorilla of Exploration; it is literally the fictional content of play that every participant must grasp in order to contribute at all.

Let's start with one small but crucial aspect of Situation: the transition between prep situation, by all participants in whatever degree, and play situation, the triggering event in the text. This game includes a canonical triggering event ... which turns out to be uncompelling, and in fact the text is contradictory. First it says a stranger is found. Is that a problem? The description of the community makes it clear that they don't live in isolation, merely that the empire hasn't bothered them since they rebelled. There's no reason to think they don't ever meet strangers. That's the uncompelling part. The contradictory part is found in the discussion of whether the stranger is a man or a woman. First, finding a woman is not dealt with in the text and is therefore either itself uncompelling or its problematizing content is assumed to be obvious, which I think it's not. Second, regarding finding a man, the text begins by saying it would not be problematic as such (and hence uncompelling), and then the very next sentence explains why it would be. This is not highlighting ambiguity as a source of interesting in-fiction tension; it's waffling. A triggering event must problematize the situation, or there is no game. This paragraph leaves me jinking forward and back, not knowing what the problem is and facing contradictory arrows pointing the way(s).

The literal incoherence of that paragraph is a microcosm of the Situation problem for the game as a whole. By definition, that means looking at the characters in general (what any playable character has in common with any or most others) in the setting in general (social, political, geographic, historical, et cetera).

It all comes down to the Ronnies term: are the characters soldiers or are they not? The text describes them as such here and there, but if they are, why? Soldiers are different from, for instances, citizens who muster for community fighting needs. They're all different from merely "fighters" associated with a given community, who can be socially defined in many different ways. My take is that despite calling them soldiers, they simply aren't. For instance, nothing in character creation has anything to do with being a soldier.

So that takes me to setting and characters. Furthermore and crucially, as soldiers, whom do they fight, and about what? This last question seems to me to have been entirely undercut by the setting description material:

QuoteAsk yourself - did anyone ever come looking for the missing quartermasters? Did anyone ever come to take the next yearly tribute from the provincial governor?
Of course, there's another question we could ask ourselves: if none of those things ever happened, why not?

And there's the problem. By not having the answers be part of the setting, the soldiering component of who these women are is punted out of the text. And the follow-up question, bizarrely given the italics for emphasis, kicks any interesting questions or concerns about Durum aside in favor of suddenly focusing, again, strangely, on the White City. This whole section effectively shifts away from Durum as the setting, and in a particularly hand-waving way which obscures the issue of external pressure on the people who live there. The same issue crops up throughout the next few pages, especially in #2 in the Where That Leaves Us section. What I'm saying is that the whole title of the game suddenly becomes obscure: what war?

This leads to a larger question concerning an old point of mine, specifically that a given play-experience does well to start by either problematizing characters in a relatively sketchy setting, or by problematizing the setting in which starting-sketchy characters have to deal with it. (Example of the first, Sorcerer; example of the second, Hero Wars/Quest). Zac, I think it definitely matters a lot which way you want to go with this, and remember, I'm only talking about the starting point; the corresponding component can become quite rich as well as good 'n problematized as play proceeds. Many RPG texts suffer from trying to do both, generating an indigestible mess for generating Situation. This text, though, is different - it is so on the fence about this issue as to create a whole new kind of paralyzing ambiguity.

Unfortunately, I'm not a good candidate for suggestions to fix this, in this case. I loathe Second Wave feminism (I'm an unreconstructed First Wave libber) and my inclination is to seek problematizing the whole paradigm as a direction for play.* So count me as abstaining and saying only, "Zac, choose." I think you should think about that starting point rich vs. sketchy issue, and also about the bigger picture, whether the game treats setting-based external stress as genuine, and to what extent it puts the bite on personal-internal stress.

Before I leave the setting, I should mention something I really like: the powerful issue of whether Banner-level change can lead to reform or whether it devolves into hyper-conservative circling the wagons. That's a great fuckin' issue and I'd love to see it develop through play. Again, though, in design terms, if I were to slip my own leash, I'd be so focused on problematizing this that I'd be in danger of trashing certain starting-point concepts which for your game and your themes shouldn't be trashed.

Wow, that was a whole lot about Situation and its components. Let's turn to System, characterized in Big Model terms as whatever we do to make the otherwise static or snapshot Situation go along in time via play.

Well - talk about a salad. It's a Burning Wheel + Dogs in the Vineyard + Polaris + The Shadow of Yesterday mashup, more-or-less in that hierarchical order, from small-scale to big-scale. Is that a problem? Well, I think it could well be insofar as some of the reward mechanics of each of these influences seem to be firing off like Roman candles all over the place.

The TSOY Keys, for instance, operate in their original fashion regarding character effectiveness improvement. I'm not particularly convinced that this - the highest-level reward system in your arrangement - is really all that important relative to the possible situations of play. TSOY is a cartoony-epic character-centric game, in which personal improvement, current psychological makeup (and its attendant vices), and literally ultimate action are the point of play. This simply isn't that kind of setting and these simply aren't those kind of characters. I can't see personal Experience Points being a driver, and if they do become such a driver, then I see attention to the main issues presented in the text diminishing in practice.

As a minor point regarding the Keys, what's with permitting them to be picked up again once bought off? "You could do that" is all the text says, and I don't find it convincing. "The road left behind" is a major feature of TSOY character arc, highlighting again why the mechanics supporting such an arc are probably not well suited to the The War of the Sheaves.

The dice mechanic has sort of the opposite problem. BW dice, when "naked," are subject to savage failures. They are whiffy, which is why every version of the Burning Wheel focuses heavily on a deeply honed secondary-layered mechanics concerning character psychology and other Positioning details, which tweak the rolls, making them viable for play. Here you don't have it; the Keys are doing all that psychological stuff and they don't affect the dice in action.

Or rather, if you do, it's found in the Dogs material, i.e., bringing in implements. Here's the problem with that: in Dogs, bringing in traits and stuff is deeply linked to the issues of Fallout - consequences well beyond the immediate conflict itself. Even more importantly, Dogs dice always operate in the context of possible escalation, which in its most common manifestation carries profound tension concerning the use of violence, at two distinct levels. Here there's nothing like that unless I'm missing something. Without these two elements, bringing in traits for dice devolves into Wushu-like talk-to-roll, roll-to-talk, which is boring and exhausting to play.

The Polaris stuff comes closest to the issues of play insofar as I interpret them, and I suggest you make it (and Banner conflict) the main engine of Situation in play, and have individualized conflict mechanics be sub-sets of that.

That's what I was after by talking about how certain mechanics, if they remain included at all, should be minimized, i.e., made into subroutines of mechanics which tie more directly into reward mechanics. For instance, if Banner-level conflict is to be the primary thematic engine of play (as I indicated was my inclination above), then the personal, dice-driven mechanics should be subroutines of it much like "It shall not come to pass" is a subroutine of the spoken phrase-matrix in Polaris - not an alternative. I'm not suggesting you include something identical to this phrase in Polaris; it could be substantially more crunchy for instance or triggered in another way. My point is about it as a subroutine.

Whew - this was kind of a heavy feedback post. Strange how much less stressful I found all the no-less-heavy, in-your-face political confrontation material in Death's Head. Zac, I eagerly await all thoughts and responses.

Best, Ron


Thanks so much for the level of detail and consideration you put into this review. I found myself chuckling quite a bit as I read this - I kept thinking "Yep! Good point," and getting really excited about where I could go with this design.

When you implore me to choose, I have to concede that as a necessity. I need to edit the thing to clear up confusion around the discovery of the stranger, and I really, really need to decide whether the place has been totally isolated for 200 years or not. My impulse is to say they haven't seen a single outsider in all that time, and see where that takes things.
Oh, and here's a clarification: the seemingly schizoid text regarding a male Stranger is meant to read more like, "Durumian women aren't going to fawn all over the Stranger just because he's a man. If anything, they're going to see him as a threat." That's what I meant by "going crazy over A Man!!!" - they aren't going to be all Jessica-Rabbit-in-Toon-Town about it (forgive the obscurity of the reference, if applicable).

I am very excited about this bit:
QuoteI suggest you make it (and Banner conflict) the main engine of Situation in play, and have individualized conflict mechanics be sub-sets of that.
Banner conflict was something I was particularly excited about, but I was really stuck on how to develop it further. I concur that the solution could very well be to push individual conflicts down to a subordinate level.

Additionally, there's something about Banner conflict that didn't make it into the draft at all: preparation rolls. Essentially, I was going to have it so that Implements could be used to massage or manipulate Banners so as to make them more pliable to one's agenda, or to position them more effectively for Banner conflict.
Basically, you either use an oratory Implement to make the clan guards willing to die for you, or you use a hunter-tracker Implement to find the best possible spot for them to wait in ambush. For example.

What I'm seeking is, basically, play that focuses on how individuals matter, but ultimately the actions of groups are necessary to change society. I think the Keys could be replaced by something as simple as "Orientation: outward or inward?", and leave it at about that level of complexity. My first, first draft of this game was actually about blue-collar, unemployed Greeks, circa Right Now, and the whole economic austerity package being forced on that populace, and others. Hence the Keys, as written (excepting the more fantastical names I swapped in).
It could be tricky to do that Orientation bit, though - it sounds like victory conditions of some kind could result in a very short game, indeed. If the Stranger is killed by the "inward" faction, is the game over? Wouldn't the subsequent fate of the "outward" faction (leave the community, start some shit, get imprisoned, or other) be more of a denouement than something to really be wrangled in play?

I think what I'd have to do is encourage or suggest the "outwards" to leave the community, possibly with the stranger in tow, in order to go and see what's out there. That would give the "inwards" more dynamic goals: stopping the expedition, laying hold of the stranger, somehow further isolating Durum, and so on.

Regarding waves and feminism, I have to admit that I'm in a bit of a corner as to where to proceed, thematically. I really like (and prefer) female protagonists in media, especially when they pass the Bechdel test (two women have a conversation for at least a minute of screen time without mentioning any men), hence my inspiration here. But I'd feel like an ass if I went in the direction of wagging my finger at the bad old matriarchy, if I chose to position the society as a Bad Thing - I suppose I'd have to talk more about the White City, or at least patriarchy generally, to at least complicate the discussion and not be some kind of reactionary pedant. And, really, is matriarchy vs. patriarchy really a gripping, relevant issue? Something tells me it's not gripping - what's interesting is life *in* such a society, and the problems it creates.

It's a little weird coming back to this setting idea - it's been rolling around in my head for several years, and writing it all down showed me the political epochs in my own head. When I devised it, I was an anarcho-feminist, and now I adhere to Marxist Leninism (hence the communal farms).  I think it's important that I not try to "correct" the politics at all, lest I find myself throwing the whole project away.

That aside, the weird "why not?" question was intended to be more of a "hey, gang, let's go find out!" rather than "let's all sit and decide on this before play". I will definitely clarify that in the text.

I have a lot of things to decide. One thing that may start me off on subordinating individual conflict could be some ground rules - something to do with further polarizing the community. Each Banner might have to be determined to be inward, outward, or middle, and there could be a list of player-character transgressions (murder jumps most readily to mind) that could change the orientations of their Banners, such that pc's who break taboos become more and more isolated from the wider community.

Hm. Thanks, Ron! I have lots to think about.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/


I just noticed - do you consider this game to have some in-your-face political content?
I guess it just felt more fantastical than confrontational to me.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/


Oh, jeez - I'm starting to see why it was so hard for me to write a well-integrated set of rules - - I had to sit and think really hard to imagine how a group based conflict would really work.
Maybe it's a little embarrassing that I didn't have a clear picture of how play would work? I considered this while writing, and I may be a lameoid for this, but I figured, "this group-thing, I've been trying to express it in a game for years! I have to at least get something down on paper,"  and this was the first, tentative result.

here's a sample Banner conflict (wherein O is an Outward Faction player, and I is an Inward Faction player):

the Outward faction wants to mount a military expedition and storm the valley, holding it for Durum long enough to fortify against any possible White City aggression. the Inward faction wants nothing to do with this, and one of their leaders is a Planner for the sword-smiths' guild (a high-ranking administrative official).

O "It is their duty as a guild of Durum to provide for the common defense. They receive a purchase order for armaments, horse re-shoeings, and the like, and set to work."
I "CLEARLY I COULD stop work on the floor of the guild. 'I'm in charge, here!' I exhaust my guild Implement."
O "I KNOW the shop warden BETTER THAN THAT! She's on our side - she and a few of the apprentices bang out what we need, on the sly. I exhaust my 'Farhat, Shop Warden' Implement."
I "AND THEN the extra shifts take their toll, and we notice the missing materials. Farhat's in big trouble for forcing nonessential labor on her workers."
O "AS YOU SAY. Hey, we're kitted up and ready for adventure. Let her twist!"

Implied in the frame of the conflict: player-characters should definitely be important members of one of the two factions, in that mandatory
Quote"The players' characters aren't lowly nobodies, they're the town's boldest and most capable"
way that Storming has going on (p38). 
Implied in the meat of the conflict: I think this is where we learn a lot about what sort of place Durum is, beyond the initial framework given. We learn about how the Durumians' communitarian, matriarchal, reverse-polygynous society actually functions, at least from a very systematic, who-bakes-the-bread sort of way (as opposed to what, I don't know). The "annum", Durum's legislative/executive body, should be where Planners hang out.

I am working on making individual conflict a way of disrupting the relationship between a pc and one of their Banners. That struck me as a Thing, and adding on something about exhausting/refreshing Banners, not just Implements, got me thinking about what happens to leaders in a situation where you can't readily leave:  rather than expelling the old leader, that person just kind of sinks into a passive-aggressive, cold-shouldered malaise, floating inside the group but not occupying any particular position.

I have yet to decide if Implements and Banners can actually be discarded or removed in some fashion - the latter seems to need addressing so as to deal with a true separation from one's social group, while the former seems to be a major shift for the character personally - they can no longer lay claim to a certain relationship, or field of skill. It happens.
Removing a Banner shuts a character off from a whole pocket of society - when you walk away from the sword-smith guild, that's an entire sphere of influence you're losing. Whoa! What the heck made that happen?

I can't yet imagine some kind of efficacy-related reason to drop a Banner, as a player, but it makes perfect sense inside the fiction. Of course my over-demanding shop warden would eventually get bounced out of metallurgic production altogether, and become a Planner in some other field, or maybe her clan would have different plans for her - stripping her of responsibilities as an "anilum", or senator, and putting her in the long-house, where she can't do any more damage.

Some mechanical ideas include:
- Keys were going to cover refreshing Implements, and now also Banners, but now I'm taking Keys out. Maybe discarding a trait causes refreshes in some fashion? Probably multiple ones, but maybe of a "reverse" nature - discarding an Implement lets you refresh your Banners, and discarding a Banner lets you refresh Implements.
- Given the previous idea, I don't know how many Banners folks are going to have, but character creation says they get one. This also begs the question: how do you get new Implements and Banners? I have not thought of that yet. Back to the Polaris text for some inspiration, I think.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

Ron Edwards

Hey Zac,

I'm struggling to get the last three feedbacks under way. I'm not ignoring this thread or your questions, but it has to take a back seat for me at the moment. I'll be back to it.

I guess I should clarify that the most visually or emotionally stimulating part of the Ronnies, the submission and immediate feedback period, isn't the main event. The main event is the work that comes after. So it's not like this round will be over and done, with the main event finished and gone. Whichever entries have gained traction in their authors' minds, and whatever playtest and discussion threads have started, that's when the main event is under way.

Best, Ron


Hey Ron,
I wasn't worried at all that you were ignoring this thread, but I appreciate the clarification regardless. Mah skin's thicker than it used t' be! :)

Additionally, I can see exactly what you mean about the "Main Event" being ahead, not behind. I stayed up until an absurd hour last night (as the time stamp on my post will attest, most likely) because ideas were swarming. I went back and read some of the Infamous Five, I read Vincent's latest stuff, and something clicked. Not just about the social layer, either - my brain said, "Hey, there's got to be a way for this stuff to be more integrated". Very cool, indeed.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

Ron Edwards

Hi Zac,

It's a little tricky conducting dialogue with someone as deeply in the throes of creation as you seem to be at the moment. By the time I post, you'll probably have moved past what I've read and replied to. I'll try to restrict myself to clarifications of stuff I've posted already and also to direct inquiries, and not get into forward-moving design itself, which at this point, is best left to your own processing.

My only major suggestion
Look again at your title. What war is undeniably and urgently happening? Who is it against, and about what?

Without any implication regarding your actual mind, your text about this issue continues to be cognitively dissonant. Examine this:

QuoteI really like (and prefer) female protagonists in media, especially when they pass the Bechdel test (two women have a conversation for at least a minute of screen time without mentioning any men), hence my inspiration here. But I'd feel like an ass if I went in the direction of wagging my finger at the bad old matriarchy, if I chose to position the society as a Bad Thing - I suppose I'd have to talk more about the White City, or at least patriarchy generally, to at least complicate the discussion and not be some kind of reactionary pedant.

The first sentence makes perfectly good sense and is not problematic. We play women. Got it.* However, the second sentence is framed with "But" so as to be an oppositional or countervailing concept to the first ... and it's not. It has nothing to do with the first sentence. Whether we play women (which we do) does not match to whether the matriarchy is or is not being problematized.

It also rings an alarm bell for me, which is that you apparently equate any problematizing of a matriarchal society with male chauvinist backlash. This is nonsense. Nothing is wrong with raising issues which you think may be inherent to such a society. For what it's worth, I also suggest that all attention toward the White City, and most especially demonizing it for cred so one's view toward Durum will somehow be perceived as "balanced," is badly misplaced. Let it be off in the distance.

Quotedo you consider this game to have some in-your-face political content?

I would love it if it did. What I'm seeing is a kind of desperate dancing to raise issues without offending imagined ardent second-wave feminist advocates. It could use a healthy dose of in-your-face.

Perhaps it's worth considering, in-your-face towards whom?

And also, I don't see any contradiction between fantastical and confrontational. My interest in fantasy is anti-escapist; to me, fantasy is at its most powerful when it distorts existing issues productively, i.e., provocatively.

Minor points about rules and stuff
I think that Banner conflict is crucial and powerful, and that you seem to be talking about dropping them for some reason, for a given character. I consider that to be something of a red herring. Work on how they function before tailspinning into talking about getting rid of them.

Regarding implements, I really don't see why you have all this stuff about exhausting them, aside from fanboy excitement about Polaris. Why not just treat them as ordinary abilities in the sense of HeroQuest and leave it at that?

Best, Ron

* Also, non-problematic for me. I believe I am the first RPG author to mandate female characters for the entirety of a game.


Ah, good points and good questions. Thanks!

So - what I meant by "talking more about the White City" was talking about how it, too, is fucked up.
And yet, I am moving hard in the direction of leaving it a complete mystery - play must be first and foremost about the fault lines that develop in this hermit-society when the Stranger arrives.
What I'm shooting for is this: the Stranger should be the equivalent of a goddamn Martian crash-landing on a world that thought it had seen the last of interplanetary contact.
For one thing, it would make sense that the Stranger, very explicitly, be a male soldier or warrior. If he has some sort of livery that proves he's from the White City, so much the better, but the point in all that would be to make his arrival a credible threat that people have reason to be worked up about.

As far as the title is concerned, I'm thinking it'd make a bit more sense to call it something like "Banners over Durum". The original title is an artifact, at this point - it sounded snappy when I was first drafting that initial spiel about the origin of Durumian matriarchy. At this point, I can dump it.

With regard to the Bechdel test, etc., I am stressing out over imaginary political ghosts. I have no particular reason to worry, and I really don't give a shit what the women's separatists of the world might think - upon reflection, the matriarchy is a Shock, anyway. The point is to explore this idyllic, if somewhat fucked up (yes, both. Elements that are awesome, and elements that are pretty bad, side by side) society, and decide what direction you want to take it in, assess the stakes involved (will I hunt down my former kin, even my blood-sisters, if it means I can get the society I've always wanted?), and act.

Mechanically, I have no intention of getting rid of Banner conflict. What I was trying to say before was that I had come up with something that was very new and weird to me, and I needed to spend a lot of time thinking about how play would look. I have a clearer vision of that now, much more so, and I'm very excited about it.

WRT exhausting traits, I think I'm still under the yoke of some rampant fanboy-ism. I'm not trying to do a Polaris hack, not at all, really, but I've been stuck in this mind-set that key phrases were necessary (they may or may not be; I might like them, but they're proving troublesome), and I took that thinking a step further in assuming that key phrases mandates using Themes, also. Not true at all. If HeroQuest can seamlessly incorporate groups and followers into conflict rules that prioritize tracking individual efforts, then I can figure this out.
I want Banners to have a momentum of their own - whether you're in command of them or not, they still have their own interests and goals. They aren't terribly dynamic, on their own (we're interested in how the players handle things, after all), but I'm trying to make it so that if you take a Banner in an interesting direction, you can't just take it back somewhere else without effort. That's kind of what I mean by momentum - if your clan follows you to civil war, and you suddenly get a case of nerves, they've still gambled on fighting, and on winning. If you leave them behind, they're going to still be vulnerable to opposing forces, and on a martial level.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/