decoupling Reward Systems from broad-scale Story Arcs

Started by David Berg, October 16, 2011, 03:13:43 AM

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Ron Edwards

Settling on a real goal
I'm posting now in the assumption that "Story Before + Participationist" is the thread's play-and-design goal. Here are some thoughts that have occurred to me over the past week, and some threads, some very old, which I think might be useful reading.

As a minor point, let's not leave Story After behind in the dust. I think that in trying to work out techniques for the stated goal, a person may find himself or herself trapped in something they don't want to do, and seeking Story After instead. A useful although immediately-unproductive older thread about Story After can be found here: Facilitating illusionist retcon story techniques. Maybe it could be the foundation for a sister thread.

We might do well to leave various concerns about Creative Agenda behind. Not because the combination of techniques is CA-neutral - it's not - but because Forge discussions have usually brought it up in the context of trying to distinguish between Simulationist and Narrativist play, and learning not to get distracted by the shibboleth of "story." The whole Participation/Illusionist terminology was worked out in that context. However, once we treat the CA issue as a door to walk through, and once through it because we're saying for the moment, nertz to Narrativism, I think we can talk strictly in terms of these play-and-design goals without letting that be a source of conversational breakdown.

Major point: dials, dials, dials
One of the insights I've extracted so far is to turn some of the assumed necessary features of such play, or rather, historically present features, into options. Such that different designs toward the goal could display rather different techniques-sets. It'd be quite a revolution to see ten different versions of Story-Before-Participationist with not only different settings but with genuinely different rules and hence facilitated play-experiences. Contrast that with the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the hamster-wheel production of Shadowrun imitators reached the level of self-parody.

My point is not to eliminate any of the following, but to identify them as dials that can be spun quite freely without violating the goal.

i) The desired amount of play in real time associated with "the story," especially assuming either nigh-infinite lengthy play or single-session over-and-done play as the defaults. That said, though, I think this kind of role-playing may benefit from a certain amount of attention to "how long we're doing this," without specifying the length as a universal principle.

ii) Specific genre/source expectations that have historically been associated with such play, particularly adventure-module based play. One of them is obviously the team concept; instead, opening up conceptual frameworks for the characters' role in the story seems to me to be one of the great design opportunities made available. It'd be fascinating to see a means of establishing through play which character will or might become the dickweed, for example. (see Examples of GNS in application w/respect to play if you aren't familiar with my use of the term; beware, though, these old GNS discussions are very swampy muck)

iii) How to arrive at a fictional situation, which is pretty much the same old Murk issue. Historically, this kind of play has been relatively non-Murky because "get into the mission, dammit" has often been a requirement for play in the first place, reinforced by the prevalence of published adventures. People who can't get behind that are tagged "uncooperative" and "disruptive," and are either grumpily tugged along or get left out of play. Is railroading a symptom of design?. This is a detailed, relatively recent thread in which I present my own take on the issues explictly and gradually to a person who is understanding it bit by bit. I think applies well to this topic.

Shooting sacred cows
In line with prior posts of mine concerning bucket seats ...

i) Obviously, total player naivete has to get jettisoned. As long as the story's "spine" is being maintained by the GM (or whatever the story-guy-Force-in-charge person is called), there's plenty of room for player input given that the players aren't merely recipients. It's a different kind of input than seen in straight-up Narrativist play, but certain techniques could easily be opened up over here as well: Director Stance, cues for certain things ("I have a flashback," who knows), or whatever.

ii) "Characters can do anything!" No, they can't. The story at hand, or rather, its production via various agreed-upon means, is no longer simply visited upon players who have alleged "free agents" who turn out to be not free after all. That's the heart of the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. Instead, we're saying, "The GM controls the story and the players know it." Where "controls" is no longer necessarily considered synonymous with "writes, delivers, takes a bow," which is one of the reasons we're having this conversation at all.

So (i) and (ii) work together: neither GMs nor players do "everything," "nothing," or "anything." The various group-distributed means of enjoying and contributing to the enactment and enrichment of the delivered story are wide open for development.

iii) Nothing about this sort of play requires an elaborate setting. This is largely why I included my essay in this thread, getting away from the idea that Story Before play is necessarily about transmitting setting at all, especially a big and detailed one. Presentation of light setting isn't a very deep or detailed thread, but it asks the right questions.

iv) It is likely that someone reading the thread to date will interject that the obvious goal of Story Before Participationist play is "immersion," with the corollary point that the job of the GM is to induce this state among the other participants. If anyone is leaning toward saying this, then I suggest that immersion as an obvious and automatic goal be treated as a sacred cow and shot, and the phenomenon be treated as a dial, subject to the desires and experiences of a given group, as well as to the desired outcomes of a given game designer. See On immersion, fascination, and precious moment for the definitive discussion about it, including the links to older threads.

Data, we got
I'm seeing a lot of "but how can this be done" posts. It's time to do some data-mining and make use of the Forge's potential for institutional memory.

I've done it, mainly in the short-term, e.g. [Arrowflight] Pixies, poison, and duty; see also Arrowflight and illusionist game texts and . I think my Fvlminata review and my Godlike review are relevant as well, although the points I'm thinking about are phrased there in terms of GNS questions. If you apply my above point about relaxing the "Sim-or-Narr, oh my God!" concern, or at least choosing and getting on with it, then the bits about story-creation in those reviews turn out to be part of this discussion.

Frank has done it a lot! See [Vampire 2E Sabbat] Of Evil and of Simulationism, The players' role in Participationist play; see also his comments in A small clash of vision which is a useful thread about some stumbling-points, and his and my unintentional tag-team posting in [NWOD][VtR] New Game - New Possibilities - New Questions! .

Well, if I keep working on this post it'll be another weeks-long process. I'll stop here for now and hope for some feedback. I have another batch of points though, regarding - counter to my historical posting - how not to get diverted into Narrativist play while considering what we're considering here.

Best, Ron
edited to fix a link - RE

David Berg

Hi Ron,

I'll have a more substantive response eventually, but I just wanted to chime in and say that we are very much on the same page here.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on October 27, 2011, 04:16:13 AMneither GMs nor players do "everything," "nothing," or "anything." The various group-distributed means of enjoying and contributing to the enactment and enrichment of the delivered story are wide open for development.

This is exactly why I'm excited about this topic and raised it here.

A few quick notes before I go off to begin reading those links you provided:

"Story Before" definition:

I've been using "Story Before" in a very unspecific way, to refer to any range of planned outcomes, from "the GM planned the beginning and end of every scene before play began" to "the GM has a general vision for how things ought to go, and occasionally steps in during play to dictate outcomes that serve that vision".  Hopefully that's yet another dial, and the full range is under discussion here, but I just wanted to make my usage explicit in case others are thinking of something different.  I'll be happy to refine my usage if that seems more productive.


As for my personal favorite version of immersion, I'd say that Story Before Participationism (SBP) likely covers the entire spectrum from "most immersive" to "not immersive at all".  SBP is quite capable of housing creative configurations that are optimal for a sort of guided thrill ride where players are maximally receptive to an affecting sensory barrage... and it can also house Todd's "make a movie and think about the audience" performance and showmanship.

Diversion into Narrativism:

Ron, huh?  I don't see that as a risk at all here.  I'm all for your earlier suggestion about leaving G vs N vs S out of this for now.  (Not because I'm not interested in how it relates -- I am!  Just because I fear it'll wrench a few billion words out of me and others to the detriment of the goal at hand.)

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

Ron Edwards

That's true - I'll start a daughter thread.

I encourage others to do the same with whatever auxiliary or extension issues they've perceived in the discussion so far. I'm not stopping this thread, but I do think that it's time to start new ones about related stuff rather than keeping it all here.

Best, Ron

David Berg

I'm having fun reading through those links.  Some of it's old news to me, but those threads with Frank are pushing into just enough detail to maybe be useful here.  The bit here about the Han Solo clone betraying the Alliance is fantastic.  I also like the mirror analogy in that thread.  Each player holds a "wonderfully flawed" (thanks, Callan) mirror up to the shared material of play, reflecting back their personal take on it.

These unique reflections are incredibly valuable to a Participationist GM!  This is why you bring your story to the game table -- to see people react to it with strong emotions, yes, but also to express their understanding and appreciation of it by taking it in new directions.  "Star Wars made you take your hotshot smuggler in that direction?  Wow.  My vision of what Star Wars can encompass just expanded.  It was a little uncomfortable at first, but now I'm trying to see what you must be seeing, and hey, that's pretty cool."  That's a pretty meaty interaction already.  Now take "Star Wars" and replace it with "my story" -- that's a back-and-forth with some serious creative oomph.

To be a Story Before Participationist GM, you can't be too possessive or protective of your baby.  If you can't move past that initial discomfort and see what the player sees, you're in trouble.  "No, don't do that!" is a natural urge.  I'm not sure a mere text instruction is enough to overcome it.  A mandate to overcome that urge (or reward for doing so) might be a crucial part of an SBP rule set.

On the player side, orientation to the fiction is key.  Of course I can give you my take on Star Wars -- I already have a bunch of attachments to it.  There are parts I love or hate, parts that interest or bore me, parts I think were done perfectly and parts I can do better.  Give me a channel to affect the fiction -- any channel, even just acting in character -- and my reflections on Star Wars will pour right out into play.  But when it comes to the GM's story -- well, that can be different.  When have I seen enough of it to form an opinion on it?  In which situations are my opinions welcome?  Do I share enough touch points with everyone else that the thing I want to contribute will even make sense to them?  Should I play tentatively?  Should I play with reckless abandon so I don't get tentative? 

The issue is twofold: getting the group on the same aesthetic page (important in any RPG, but especially so here, I think) and also communicating what sorts of reflections will play best.  I suspect some modeling would be a good call here.  Picture this: the GM plays out an intro scene by him/herself.  The GM either designates a stand-in for a player character or (if the game's player-character relationship supports it) takes control of one or all PCs.  The GM then has some events unfold, and demonstrates how the PCs respond.  So, when actual group play begins, the players have seen the world, experienced the pace and tone of the story, and been given at least one example of how they can interface with it.  Hopefully this will get them started on the right foot, ready to act with some orientation and confidence.  (Of course, it would nee to be made clear that the GM's example is just an example, and not the only way players are encouraged to interact.)

I wonder if calling out types of reflection would be useful?  Let me see what I can remember appreciating when I GMed this way (kind of) in high school. 

There's Emotional Response (how does my character feel about this?), Curiosity (what questions can I ask?), Extension (if we saw this, and we saw that, then here's my assessment of what's going on that we haven't seen), Fishing (I have any idea for what might fit well here; I look around for it), and Processing (here's my story about what's happened so far) -- and these can all be done from Actor Stance.  If the players ever use Director Stance (Todd hands that out for spotlight moments), there's the chance to author whole new locations and characters to express a new take on the GM's story.  Perhaps this is why Todd does it!

More reading to do, more ponderings to ponder...
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Frank Tarcikowski

Hey David,

Thanks for pointing this thread out to me. Also, curse you, for now I spent the whole morning reading and typing, instead of working as I ought to have! *shakes fist*

The topic is one that I have been writing about for long, and I've actually come around recently to finishing my new game Danger Zone (in German, unfortunately) which is about the very mode of play Todd describes in your first post. A lot of great points have been made in this thread and I mostly agree with what Dan, Gareth and Ron have said. From your summaries and follow-up questions, David, I gather that you and I are very much talking the same language here. I cannot possible try to address every point that has been raised in this thread, because even if I limit myself to a few, what comes out is four pages.

1) Existing games; rules leading or fiction leading?

You are probably familiar with Vincent's "strictly ballroom" analogy, wherein he makes the distinction between games where the rules lead, and games where the fiction leads. Some of the suggested "new Participationist designs" seem to lean into the direction of "rules leading", though to be fair, I have only read a few reviews and haven't played any of them. These would seem to include Trail of Cthulhu, Final Hours in a Storied Age, and Ingenero, which were mentioned in this thread. A game where the rules lead has a very different "feel" than a game where the fiction leads, and, in my experience, Participationist play is all about the fiction: Getting "into it", appreciating it, investing in it. I've been talking about this, and the role fiction-based resolution mechanisms may play in it, in the thread [Liquid] Well, I just rolled the dice for show. (You may remember the thread from Vincent's series of posts about the "Moment of Judgment", it somewhat went South but some good points were made.)

HEX/Ubiquity and FATE are two games mentioned above that seem to produce good results for Participationist groups who already know how to do it. I think that's because both games have this sort of fiction-based resolution, low points-of-contact, and also some tools (FATE points et al) to overrule the resolution and the GM, where needed, in an up-front way. What they are lacking, as David correctly points, is a reward system and clear communication of goals to facilitate Participationism. As an aside, I only played Ubiquity (HEX) once, in a convention game, but I thought it was pretty half-ass: Beginning PCs were largely incompetent, style points didn't make much of a difference and in a fight, generally the most effective thing to do was "just roll an attack". PDQ works better in my experience but still lacks the features David was asking for.

I think WuShu is a special case, it is a hamster wheel as Ron has repeatedly pointed out and it doesn't really facilitate anything but a competition of who can give the most ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of an action sequence. (Which can admittedly be fun for an hour or two, every other year.)

2) So, why bother rolling an attack at all?

Happysmellfish wrote:

QuoteIf telling people, "Look - this is the outcome we're heading towards, just play it out and have fun" works so well, why bother letting the rules creep back in?

Yeah, why indeed? Long story short: Because it's fun. There is no contradiction here. I don't want the basic "feel" of role-playing, of "how we negotiate the fiction", changed. Just because I enjoy Story Before doesn't mean I want to sit down and do a story workshop instead of just, y'know, roleplaying. Look at that truck chase scene in Todd's game. You think they'd keep doing that for 1.5 hours straight if they were just "narrating it"? If single actions couldn't fail, if clever ideas weren't rewarded, if being an appropriately kick-ass action hero didn't need to be earned? (Hint: No, they wouldn't.)

Sure, nobody will die. The bad guys will get away. But it makes a whole lot of a difference whether you give them a memorable chase where they only escape by improbable luck, or whether the GM has to fudge things just so none of the PCs gets killed. That's an ambition every good Participationist player should have: to give the GM a run for his money. To live up to their PCs' roles and be kick-ass (or emo or whatever the deal is). Take that away, you take away all the fun.

3) How I did it

Another post that's probably repetitive at this point but totally on topic is  
[nWoD]Post-Apocalyptic Participationism in Salt Lake City
in which I talk about the actual play experience I was looking to facilitate with Danger Zone. So, how did I do it?

3.1) Resolution

The stuff that FATE, PDQ et al do well, I do, too. Characters have a few very broad stats that say what they are good at. Resolution is very simple, but there is a bonus dice mechanism that relies on fictional details alone. Fiction leading, check. (Also, David's point about Details, check.) There is a subsystem for fights and chases with a fun little initiative mechanism, too.

My variation of FATE points are called Daring Points, and are basically awarded by the "Rule of Harrison Ford" (strikingly similar to Todd's approach).

3.2) Transparency

I think Gareth is dead on when he says:

Quote(...) just as story-now had to break away from the quest for system to "better model reality" and instead discover "how to preserve protagonism and agency", I think story-before will have to figure out "how to communicate scope and constraint". 

So, the "Rule of Harrison Ford" is in place to show players what kind of thing is expected from their characters. Also, the fact that there are subsystems for fights and chases says explicitly, "there will be lots of fights and chases in this game".

The GM is explicitly allowed to use Force, but the rules say when he uses Force, he must put a number of Daring counters equal to the number of players into the pot (the pool of Daring Points). So as GM I have to say aloud when I use Force, and the text encourages me to do it at the beginning of a scene (my example is actually a chase where the GM says at the start, "Just so you know, they're going to get you", dropping a number of tokens into the pot.)

One of my favorite things about Danger Zone are the Dramatic Scenes. In the default Normal Scene, rules application is optional. Everyone is allowed to take some liberties in narration and Daring Points may be spent to just skip a roll and succeed at any task (within reason). At any point, any participant can put the red "Decisive Scene" card on the table, and from there on, rules will be applied more strictly. Daring Points can still be used for re-rolls and other stuff, but not to fudge outcomes. Negotiation of the fiction is more strictly, you can fail even if you don't want to. (Note that it's totally up to each group when to call for a Decisive Scene. In particular, not every Decisive Scene has to be a fight or chase and not nearly every fight or chase has to be a Decisive Scene. If a group does not feel they need any Decisive Scenes, ever, that's also perfectly okay. These rules are supposed to be "convention building", for each individual group.)

Even in a Decisive Scene, your character can't die. The only way that can happen is if the GM specifically announces a Life-or-Death Decisive Scene, slamming the black card down on the table and saying, loudly, "Life or Death." (It sounds cooler in German.) The rule is that this can only happen when the players actively decide to press a fight against terrible odds, letting slip a chance for escape or surrender. The GM must never force a Life-or-Death Scene. By no means is a Life-or-Death Scene needed to complete any given adventure.

I also have smaller "talk about it" bits in the rules but the above are the main, rules-enforced transparency aspects.

3.3) Reward System

On a small, session-length scale I have the Daring Points and the Rule of Harrison Ford. I did not feel a need for any further incentive to complete the GM's plot. I mean, if the players are interested in that kind of thing at all, they should be able to catch the clues, and if not, no Reward System however elaborate could change that. D&D doesn't grant XP for accepting the mission, either. (I did include a couple pages condensed GM advice, though.)

I also wanted to include a larger Reward Cycle that would work on the "campaign" or "chronicle" scale. As character improvement was bound to be slow, given that characters had few stats and the range was only 1-4, it would have to be a slow advancement, not as quick as, say, Keys and Advances in TSoY. I also wanted it to be more of a subtle thing in the background, not as dominant as Keys. So I made up something called "Destiny", where the player names one or two, well, destinies for his character and you gain Advancement Points by getting closer to your Destiny—or struggling against it. You can also abandon your Destiny (much like Key buy-off). But these things are supposed to be cooking on the side, and then sometimes to be picked up and integrated by the GM into one of the "Before" stories, not something that would be resolved in a single (or couple of) sessions.

Unfortunately, I only had single session playtests, so I don't know if it works. :P It does resonate with an analogy Ron once came up concerning Participationism and character development: The GM and the player are riding a tandem.

4) Getting on the same page

I just realized I did not cover this in the Danger Zone text, but it's important. David wrote:

QuoteThe issue is twofold: getting the group on the same aesthetic page (important in any RPG, but especially so here, I think) and also communicating what sorts of reflections will play best.  I suspect some modeling would be a good call here.  Picture this: the GM plays out an intro scene by him/herself.

I actually did this for a couple of my games (e.g. Dead of Night), only I didn't talk to myself. (Aside: The GM in the above mentioned HEX game did that and it was awful.) Instead, I provided a written intro about half a page long. This reminds me, the original Star Wars d6, already mentioned in this thread, suggested to write an intro dialogue like a screenplay, for the players to read out aloud.

One of the most useful means to get everybody on the same page is, of course, source material. I recently announced a game of Danger Zone with the tag line "True Pulp" and went on to say: "No steampunk—gasoline. No gadgets—guns. Tough mustached guys with suspenders and greased hair. (...) You seen Peter Jackson's King Kong, you know what I'm talkin' about." I'm fairly sure this will get everybody exactly on the same page.

I think given the GM role in Participationism, it's important for the GM to develop and communicate that aesthetic vision to begin with, but also, as David very correctly points out, not to be possessive or protective about it. Do you need a rule that specifically addresses this point? What more would such a rule say than "don't do it?" Are FATE points and their ilk, by granting limited director stance to the players, already doing the trick? Interesting questions.

Again, great thread and thanks for keeping the discussion up and contructive!

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

Ron Edwards


I'd like to call for splitting things into daughter threads now. I've reviewed this one, and there's at least two distinct steps of redefining the issue. Which is not a bad thing, but it means this thread will serve best as a foundation for others.

If you are reading this and thinking, "But wait, the thread just got good," then that's exactly what I mean. Take whatever it is you think is the good thing to talk about, and start a thread with a distinctive name about that. With some actual play referenced to illustrate it or to counter-illustrate it.

Best, Ron