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Author Topic: decoupling Reward Systems from broad-scale Story Arcs  (Read 5244 times)
David Berg
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« on: October 15, 2011, 06:13:43 PM »

I've been chatting recently with some GMs who pre-plan all the major plot points in their scenarios, and communicate what they're doing to the players in such a way that no one gets any unpleasant surprises.

This has made me wonder how the players can care about what their characters are doing.  But then it occurred to me: determining where the game goes has nothing to do with gaining XP in D&D or losing Sanity in Cthulhu.  And it says nothing about the smallest scale, where Cthulhu's primary social rewards operate: the portrayal of encountering alien horror and going mad.

The group jumps on the GM's railroad, and then plays to find out and determine what that looks and feels like.

I kinda always knew this was definitionally possible, but it was only recently that I read a thorough description of how it could go.  Todd F. says:

From my Hollow Earth Expedition scenario for this year. At the start of the session, I explain to the players that this adventure focuses on action, a la an Indiana Jones movie. Their job is to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. I then open the adventure with bad guys stealing a crate of something from a university. The PCs see the bad guys from a distance as the bad guys load the crate into a truck and start to drive off. My intent is to have an exciting car chase with lots of over-the-top stunts.

About half the time, it doesn't occur to the players to chase after the truck. Some will react as if it's a real-world situation ("I write down the license plate number"). Some will attempt to bring the action to an abrupt halt ("I shoot out the truck's tires"). In those cases, I usually say, "Rewind. Remember two minutes ago when I told you to make an action movie? A truck is driving away with stolen property? What would Indiana Jones do?" That's always been enough to make the lightbulb go on. I've never had to tell players, "Chase the truck!" Although I would tell them that, if I had to.

The Good That Follows: I want an opening scene that shows off what the game system can do and sets the tone of my movie. That's my job as the GM of a convention game. I've planned events within the car chase that will give the players opportunities to be creative and will give them something to react to. This scene will also let them discover how I apply the rules to over-the-top action, because no two GMs use the rules of a game in exactly the same way.

But here's where the real GM fiat comes in. As soon as the car chase starts, I say: "Here are the rules for the car chase: (1) The bad guys are going to get away with the crate. That's just the way it is. (2) Pretend you don't know that. Make the car chase as exciting as you possibly can. If you come up with an ingenious idea that should stop the truck from getting away, you'll also need to show the audience why that idea fails. Any of the resources that you spend this scene (Style Points, ammunition, whatever) will be returned to you at the end of the scene -- plus additional Style Points, the number of which will depend upon how exciting a scene you make this. (3) The car chase will last exactly as long as you want it to. When you're ready to move onto something else, the bad guys will get away."

Most of my players have played out the car chase scene for about an hour and a half. It's almost half of my adventure.

In case it's not obvious, the second half of the adventure is the recovery of the crate. The reason the bad guys' escape is by fiat is so there's something to recover. Happens all the time in action movies.

The Good That Follows: Once those rules sink in, my players have a lot of fun with the car chase. Because they don't have to think about tactics (since the bad guys will get away anyway), they focus on making the scene fun and exciting. Some players will come up with stunts that hinder the PCs, thereby helping to explain why the bad guys were able to get away. I reward those players with extra Style Points, of course.


As a reader, I have all sorts of alarms going off, but then each is addressed.  The players don't have the type of agency I'm used to, but they do have a type that works for this game.  The game's creative constraints aren't what I'm used to, and they aren't presented in a way that I'm used to, but they are nevertheless functional.

At the end, the PCs win.  Todd doesn't fudge any rolls or have the badguy turn into a moron, but he stacks the odds enough in the players' favor that the outcome is essentially a given.  But the players do get to spend all their earned Style Points to stamp their unique signature on the victory, to fill the movie with good scenes of action and dialogue, which is what this activity is really all about.

Kind of like how Cthulhu gaming can be all about generating the key touches and details and expressions to make a gripping Lovecraft story as opposed to a perfunctory one.

I'm not aware of any game texts that support the functional version of this type of play, so I'd like to consider what sort of design could produce that. 

Does anyone want to discuss that?

I don't have any concrete ideas yet, but I think it might be necessary to relate rewards to the fiction by way of aesthetic rather than factual criteria.  Like, instead of, "use these mechanics when you try to pick locks/fire guns/manipulate someone", perhaps, "use these mechanics when you do something badass/clever/shocking/stylish."  Or maybe that's just a feedback issue, and not a reward issue.
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #1 on: October 16, 2011, 01:04:08 AM »

Oh, isn't this participationist genre simulationism with or without a focus on unique snowflake PCs? FATE does that, at least with the snowflake PCs, all the way to Timbuktu and back on under three gallons a day. Spirit of the Century, say.

I myself am not very interested in doing this with adventure fiction, as it's so difficult to break out of the Hollywood pigpen in that genre. There probably aren't enough players for a whole group on this planet who'd be sufficiently educated on adventure cinema to play efficiently, but not so much as to yoke their imagination into an endless regurgitation of the tropes. However, I've had some very satisfying horror genre roleplaying with essentially similar creative agenda. Dead of Night and Dread are two excellent games for this sort of thing in the horror context.
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stefoid
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« Reply #2 on: October 16, 2011, 12:12:13 PM »

Wushu? 
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happysmellyfish
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« Reply #3 on: October 16, 2011, 02:43:23 PM »

I'm intrigued by the gear-change that the GM seems to be implying. So the first scene is basically a time out from the rules, with the outcome explicitly pre-determined. All of the resources expended are returned to the players - it's a space basically outside of the usual mechanics. Then, the "boss fight" or whatever turns those rules back on. Or does it? Or, more to the point, why does it?

Quote
At the end, the PCs win.  Todd doesn't fudge any rolls or have the badguy turn into a moron, but he stacks the odds enough in the players' favor that the outcome is essentially a given.

If 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? The numbers are stacked so that the players are very likely to win, but what if they still lose? Is the GM willing to let that stand?

I believe Todd, if he says this kind of play works; I'm just interested in the bipolar approach.

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David Berg
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« Reply #4 on: October 18, 2011, 03:15:09 PM »

My example aesthetic mechanics aside, I think the most interesting design goal here is actually the participationist structure, not the genre sim. 

Do you know any games that help a group communicate in that respect in the way Todd describes?  I mean, tons of games allow you to do it you want to, but the whole history of our hobby speaks to the mixed results of that.  I'm looking for something that actually helps it go well.  Todd had to do a lot of years of crappy railroading to get where he is now, and I'd consider it a fantastic service to cut that phase out.

As for the genre sim angle, Eero and Steve, I know plenty of games that support that by modeling fictional causality in genre-apt ways, but I don't know any that say, "If stabbing that guy right now would be good for the movie, we don't care how good you are at it or how difficult it would be."  If Wushu or FATE do, please let me know; I haven't played either.

HSFish, Todd's take on the bipolar approach is that different creative constraints serve the game best at different phases.  I suspect that knowing they'll be able to win the day by the rules at the end is part of what makes players feel comfortable accepting different constraints earlier on, but I'm not sure.  I should ask him whether players ever ask, "Will you script the ending?"
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Callan S.
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« Reply #5 on: October 18, 2011, 06:04:28 PM »

Quote
Do you know any games that help a group communicate in that respect in the way Todd describes?
I would think you just need to point them to a document in advance that outlines it (even just pointing to this thread or the story gamers thread). And the important thing is, if they haven't read it or don't agree with it, they can't play. Sure, it'd be better to have it in the book and they have to read the book (and either agree or don't play), but hey, were a bit of a makeshift hobby still, that aint so bad, is it?

I've got an uncomfortable itchy feeling though, that you mean a text that lets anyone sit down, but it magically turns them around into wanting, at that very moment, to do participationist play. Every single time. No bad ralroad games (just good ones). No 'ostrification' needed. Works every time.

Can't be done.
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David Berg
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« Reply #6 on: October 18, 2011, 06:40:53 PM »

Callan, I agree with your takes on both options.  I'm looking for a third option, though.  Not a game that will make everyone want what it offers, but a game that can deliver on what it offers for those who are interested.

A document that says, "Players, here's what you need to know up front about what the GM will be doing," is but one component.  Rules that make it easy for the GM to create those parameters and for the players to take meaningful action within them would also be required.
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stefoid
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« Reply #7 on: October 18, 2011, 07:37:41 PM »


As for the genre sim angle, Eero and Steve, I know plenty of games that support that by modeling fictional causality in genre-apt ways, but I don't know any that say, "If stabbing that guy right now would be good for the movie, we don't care how good you are at it or how difficult it would be."  If Wushu or FATE do, please let me know; I haven't played either.


Oh right, Ive never played Wushu but I dont think that it does what you said just then.  It apparently gives you over the top bonuses for contributing over the top fictional means of achieving something (mostly oriental martial arts style achievements) - so you get rewarded for fictional style contributions in the form of increased chance of success.  but yeah, now that you have explained yourself as in teh above quote, thats not quite what you are talking about.

I guess actually Ingenero has some element of what you are talking about above, as the game is split into two phases - story phase and challenge phase.  During story phase, the emphasis is not on whether the PCs can achieve something in a success/fail way - there is no formal conflict resolution mechanic used in that phase.  The emphasis is on the complications and consequences that result from PC intentions.

So if the PC wants to stab the guy in Story phase, well then by golly, stab stab, hes dead.  No rolling, no skill checks or whatever.  In challenge phase, however, if a PC's stated goal is to kill that guy, then the focus is directly on "can he do it?" using conflict res mechanics etc...

with Ingenero, though, whether the stabbing occurs in story phase or the challenge phase is not the decision of the GM, but through players explicitly stating their character goals.  If stab-guy is turned into a goal, then the GM must consider it challenge phase when that scene is close to playing out.  If stab-guy is not an official goal, then PCs are free to stab away during story phase. 

So... it depends what you consider as 'good' for the story.  Ingenero's view is that the players define the important thigns with their character goals and that these should be played out using conflict res mechanics and have no predetermined outcomes.  Whereas other things can be 'pushed through' during story phase to keep the story moving ahead.
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David Berg
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« Reply #8 on: October 18, 2011, 10:07:50 PM »

I just realized that my "communicate in this way" phrasing was misleading.  I didn't only mean "spell out the framing of the activity" (vital as that is); I was also thinking more like, "sustain this type of inter-player interaction thanks to the game system".
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stefoid
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« Reply #9 on: October 18, 2011, 10:17:55 PM »

huh?
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Callan S.
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« Reply #10 on: October 18, 2011, 11:54:18 PM »

A document that says, "Players, here's what you need to know up front about what the GM will be doing," is but one component.  Rules that make it easy for the GM to create those parameters and for the players to take meaningful action within them would also be required.
From what I read, you don't get to do meaningful action, David? You just get to play as mildly ad libbing actors? Have you played in one of these games? You might be attributing more to them than is actually there?
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contracycle
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« Reply #11 on: October 19, 2011, 01:30:24 AM »

Theatrix?

There is an RPG net review here that discusses the system.
http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/reviews/rev_6.html
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David Berg
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Posts: 997


« Reply #12 on: October 19, 2011, 04:19:50 PM »

Thanks, Gareth.  I heard a lot of interesting things about this game a while ago, then forgot the name.  I'll think on that review and see if I can come up with anything useful to say here.
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Paul T
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Posts: 383


« Reply #13 on: October 19, 2011, 05:16:37 PM »

Dave,

How does Trail of Chthulhu fit or not fit these criteria? I'm asking because I've never played, but many elements of the design sound like they're headed in this direction.

Also, some jeepform games.

Interesting discussion, in any case.
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Filip Luszczyk
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« Reply #14 on: October 20, 2011, 04:05:29 AM »

David,

I believe Todd's account, decoupled from the accounts of "his" players, is largely unreliable. The fact that it exclusively refers to convention environment gaming doesn't help. We're talking about a heavily time-constrained activity with people he knows barely, if at all, and no real space for involved communication. Knowing little to nothing about Todd himself, there's also no reason to trust his ability to accurately judge people's reactions.

But perhaps I'm posting this only because reading the account makes the described activity feel repulsive to me. With rules like that outlined up front, I believe I would just walk away from the table. Otherwise, based on my past experiences with activities of this sort, I would likely feel a strong urge to totally, totally, oh so totally put my unique stamp on all that - by totally ruining it, just trying to see in how many ways the guy's assumptions could be undermined within established limits. Also, should other players actually have fun during the activity, I believe I would notice at least some of them enjoying GM's charisma more than the actual process itself.

Incidentally, I consistently feel in a similar way reading Fate stuff or even people posting about Fate.

Note that I've been in games largely concerned with moment to moment genre aesthetics (Exalted or Bliss Stage come to mind). Works fine for me, as long as there's some actual gameplay behind it. The activity described in Todd's account appears artificial and pointless to me, this whole minor aesthetic input all things but meaningful.
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