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Author Topic: Setting and emergent stories  (Read 3612 times)
Frank Tarcikowski
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« on: October 29, 2011, 04:44:14 AM »

Hi Ron, as James pointed to your new article over in his actual play thread, I figured I'd just start talking about it here. When I was reading your step-by-step instructions, I kept thinking, "hey, this is exactly how I've been running my Gothic Fantasy Sorcerer game". So, it's still good ol' Bass Playing, isn't it? But what's different about it, to me, seems to boil down to the following two important points:

1) "Local" characters who have the inherent conflicts of their region built into them, and
2) Transformation of Setting instead of transformation of Character.

In particular the second point strikes me as an interesting aspect of Narrativist play, and one that, as you also point out, has not been addressed very much in terms of innovative designs. I was thinking about the Reign Company rules but they're not really a Narrativist design, I'd say.

Your point about TSoY is quite interesting comparing my actual play experiences with the game. I played the game in four distinct set-ups, two of them being more or less classical "travelling party" set-ups and two being "locally embedded" set-ups, and the latter really worked out much better end ended up escalating all by themselves until several characters made really huge decisions (some backed up by buying off Keys) and also transforming the balance of power in that spot, though I'd say that was Situation and not Setting. Whereas the former played more or less like a classic "adventure", only the characters had a little bit more personality than your average lvl 1 fighter.

I posted a link to the essay to tanelorn.net and one of the German posters was surprised that Railroading and Illusionism should be such a big topic in American discourse. Apart from Dragonlance, he had thought this was more of a German thing due to the dominance of Das Schwarze Auge and the crowd of pretentious "Besserspieler" (aka ROLEplayers, not ROLLplayers) who essentially proclaimed the almighty GM as the guardian over what was "appropriate" and "atmospheric". I pointed out that the entire "impossible thing" discussion was actually quite important and formative to the Forge. I might even go as far as to say that Railroading and the Impossible Thing have been the main antagonist for you, personally, throughout your work as an RPG publisher. Would you agree?

- Frank
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: October 29, 2011, 10:01:48 AM »

Hi Frank!

You're right that I'm directly calling attention to two specific techniques, in combination, and otherwise not saying anything different than Story Now oriented material I've written so much about in the past. The essay is definitely aimed at people who've either begun or become quite skilled at games like The Riddle of Steel or Dogs in the Vineyard or Sorcerer, yet are frequently baffled by, for instance, The Shadow of Yesterday, who perceive the extensive setting material of Glorantha as a deterrent, and who would probably not go near DeGenesis with a three-meter pole.
Let's take a look at the two techniques you've spotted:

Quote
1) "Local" characters who have the inherent conflicts of their region built into them,

This is a more complex technique than a short statement can capture. The ordering of my steps is crucial. First, to have local player-characters, one must have a location, and specifically, a location relative to other locations that we didn't choose. You're somewhat familiar with DeGenesis, I think, so I can point out that the choice of the Balkhans in my example sets up tremendously different parameters for conflicts and characters than Franka. In other words, the hypothetical group chose the Balkhans for a reason. Second, I'll clarify what I'm pretty sure you already meant, that we're talking about player-characters, not merely any characters.

Very few, if any role-playing texts are written to emphasize these steps. So a person needs to exert a certain amount of leadership and to explain the setting-centric orientation to the other people, specifically, that they may not choose freely from the provided character options. There may conceivably be Anabaptists in the Balkhans. The existing text suggests they have little cultural presence or effective economic interests there. So - no player-character Anabaptists in the Balkhans.

To the credit of the DeGenesis text, it does list the most likely and relevant Cults that a character of a given Culture would have; it doesn't do what most texts do and imply that anyone from anywhere can be anything. The best textual material for such thinking (the good kind) is found in Hero Wars / HeroQuest.

Quote
2) Transformation of Setting instead of transformation of Character.

Maybe "instead of" is too strong. At least the addition of the setting's transformation, and possible replacement - which or how much depends on an individual game's design, and as we're agreeing, the possible range of that design remains open for examination.

One thing I'd like to do is use some of the interesting existing fantasy settings out there, even if one is a bit generic, that's OK as long as I see scope for setting-relevant conflict. The setting for Dungeoneer comes to mind, possibly because it has snake-worshipping priestesses (a minor obsession of mine) and the chance to play cute, feisty amphibian humanoids.

Quote
the latter really worked out much better end ended up escalating all by themselves until several characters made really huge decisions (some backed up by buying off Keys) and also transforming the balance of power in that spot, though I'd say that was Situation and not Setting.

I suggest that if the group continued to play that game, building upon what had occurred, and if everyone continued to be interested and study the textual setting, that you'd see some larger-scale changes happening within another scenario or two. The material for Near provides quite a few opportunities for this - resolving the seven-family strife of the Ammeni, gaining a powerful combination of Zu words, perhaps uniting a necromantic army in Qek ... all of which are well within the scope of player-characters after a few improvement cycles.

Quote
... one of the German posters was surprised that Railroading and Illusionism should be such a big topic in American discourse. Apart from Dragonlance, he had thought this was more of a German thing due to the dominance of Das Schwarze Auge and the crowd of pretentious "Besserspieler"

I definitely recognize that it's a German thing, but it's a serious issue throughout role-playing culture. DSA is best understood as a refined combination and version of several important influences: Dragonlance, Rolemaster, and others that were considered "the leaders" in 1985 or so. So I see it as a representative and special case of a more general phenomenon. As I mentioned in the essay, one of the key culprits would be Shadowrun, whose impact on many other games within a year of its publication has yet to be studied in detail.

Quote
I might even go as far as to say that Railroading and the Impossible Thing have been the main antagonist for you, personally, throughout your work as an RPG publisher. Would you agree?

Yes. Besserspieler make me want to vomit. If they actually created anything interesting or generated an experience that was observably fun (about the creativity, not merely real-life soap opera), then I'd be fine with it. I regard them like Metallica regards Bon Jovi. My view is that in the late 1980s, role-playing was deeply, although inadvertently betrayed, by a double-hit of (i) distributor takeover of commerce and (ii) a naive generation of practitioners who were influenced by a very few texts. I am old enough to know how narrow a bottleneck the hobby went through at this time. I and others, many of whom preceded me and did not know me, consider the effects of this double-hit to be both a subcultural disaster and a personal insult.
That's why Shadowrun is important, because we're talking about a particular kind of instructional content and about a particular kind of marketing and collusion with distribution, at the same time.

Best, Ron

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Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #2 on: October 29, 2011, 12:18:43 PM »

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the reply! I'm following you, obviously with your elaboration of the two core ideas and also concerning my TSoY games. The “local set-up” games were both convention games, and most of the players had not read any setting material before we played, but if we had continued and they had gotten into the setting, before long we might have had a ruthless word-thief elf with an army of Ammeni thugs set up an outpost in the middle of Khale to exploit a large moon silver deposit, and the Sons of Hanish might have joined forces with the Panther Clan in order to stop him. So, yeah.

You make an interesting point about Shadowrun, in particular because it remains one of the most popular RPGs in Germany, along with Vampire and of course DSA. There's a reason 4th edition DSA was turned into a point-buy system (and an awful one at that) as Fantasy Productions was behind both DSA and the German Shadowrun at the time. Personally I have only very limited experience with Shadowrun and Shadowrun players at the actual gaming table (the little I have is disastrous), so I'd love to hear some of your thoughts about it. (Also, I do think that your setting-driven Story Now recipe could do wonders combined with the Shadowrun setting, and maybe some decent rules-set.)

Another point that occurred to me reading your article, kind of a tangent, was about the distinction between “Story Before” and “Story Now” as you outline it. As you know, I've been working a lot with Participationist techniques in many of my earlier games and my current design project, Danger Zone, is bound to be my “final tackle” of that particular mode of play. These games are certainly centered around a “Story Before” kind of GM-prep and set-up, but in my experience many groups like to add some personal issues and conflicts for their characters into the mix which are cooking “on the side” and working more along the lines of the character-centered “Story Now” approach as described in your article, and tend to outlast the typical “monster of the week” main plot. So how'd you describe that mode of play? Primarily Story Before with a little supportive Story-Now-ish fun? Or real Hybrid?

I've played that way with a number of very diverse game systems, with more or (mostly) less support by the rules, but it would seem to me that FATE is particularly aimed in that very direction. A few people over at tanelorn.net wondered why you did not mention FATE in your article. Was there a particular reason for that?

- Frank
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Judd
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« Reply #3 on: October 29, 2011, 09:43:08 PM »

Frank,

I am not going to speak for Ron but I'll say that my experience with FATE games is that there is no real mechanic for the characters changing through play.  Aspects can be re-written but it feels like a ham-handed eraser rather than the organic way beliefs change in Burning Wheel or how a character can be torn up and re-born through a Humanity 0 event in Sorcerer, or how conflict changes characters in DitV.  These things happen through play in a way that does not occur in FATE and is my main problem with aspects, not even getting into my frequent problems with the way the dice feel flat to me at the table.

Thanks, Frank, for pointing out the link to the article.  I had no read it yet and it was neat stuff, very much a reflection of my experience in the past year playing Burning Wheel with friends using the grey Forgotten Realms boxed set.  There is no doubt an AP thread in that.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: October 30, 2011, 06:59:33 AM »

Hi Frank,

I'll answer your last question first: it didn't occur to me. FATE doesn't enter my thinking very much, for examples or for interest in play, or any other way. I'm not exactly sure what those other people are asking, for instance, why (in detail) does FATE occur to them in the context of my essay? We can pursue this after clarification, if it has something to do with the topic. I sense a drastic thread-drift, however, so everyone, I ask that we wait until or if that happens.

Quote
... These games are certainly centered around a “Story Before” kind of GM-prep and set-up, but in my experience many groups like to add some personal issues and conflicts for their characters into the mix which are cooking “on the side” and working more along the lines of the character-centered “Story Now” approach as described in your article, and tend to outlast the typical “monster of the week” main plot. So how'd you describe that mode of play? Primarily Story Before with a little supportive Story-Now-ish fun? Or real Hybrid?

That's a very dense paragraph. I want to step back and verify, first, that we are talking only about Story Before, setting-centric play, specifically the second part. Because your later phrase "monster of the week" is not compatible with that model, at least not if the monster and its associated set-piece arrangement are the central material. If that phrase was thrown in for spice, then I can address your question, but if it really represents the take-home, what-we-did, "the story" material, then all I can say is that your question doesn't apply to any of my points in the essay.

Second, it would be a disaster to interpret my essay as "Story Before = setting centric, Story Now = character centric." That's precisely the dichotomy that I was attempting to demolish with the essay. Your question is very hard to understand, because Story Now/Before is not the same thing as character/setting centric, and it looks to me as if you're mashing them together.

I'm 99% certain that you understand this perfectly, and I'm simply having trouble with the phrasing. I really do want to talk about many things that could emerge from your question, but we have to deal with those issues first, maybe even to re-write the question in detail.

Now for the first part of your post ...

Quote
You make an interesting point about Shadowrun, in particular because it remains one of the most popular RPGs in Germany, along with Vampire and of course DSA. There's a reason 4th edition DSA was turned into a point-buy system (and an awful one at that) as Fantasy Productions was behind both DSA and the German Shadowrun at the time. Personally I have only very limited experience with Shadowrun and Shadowrun players at the actual gaming table (the little I have is disastrous), so I'd love to hear some of your thoughts about it.

"My thoughts ..." That's really general. I will be brief with each, but I hope this is helpful.

1. At first glance and arguably at its most straightforward and functional, Shadowrun is "D&D with guns." So whatever you were doing with a pre-1985 version of D&D, you can do it with Shadowrun. And again, at its most straightforward, that means running fight scenes.

2. It was a golden opportunity for many people to continue to play D&D without admitting it, and to talk a lot about being modern and realistic and cyberpunky, which was a very important consideration in the late 1980s geek scene.

3. As a completely unrelated variable, setting was the huge consideration of role-playing at the time. With GURPS and Rolemaster perceived as the cutting-edge designs, and with the genericization of the Hero System (including calling it that) and even RuneQuest (a complex topic, BRP and Avalon Hill, and I don't know all the details), the question of system was presumed to have been solved. All publishing from now on was to be setting and planned adventures. Dragonlance, Star Wars (WEG), and Traveller are obvious examples.

4. FASA turned out to be the front-runner of this new priority, particularly in the new economic context of pumping out small, high-end, expensive supplements for setting and scenarios (Champions and Villains & Vigilantes had been publishing this kind of material for a long time, but in a kind of stapled punky fellow-practitioner way that I liked).

5. As an emerging property of the preceding points, the classic Shadowrun adventure supplement is a bizarre hybrid of D&D tournament module and metaplot-based Story Before script. You get a dose of confirmatory setting material (e.g. "such and such" corporation), a fixed situation in terms of set-up, including a back-story and many assumptions about the characters themselves, a fixed situation in terms of scripted plot (this happens, then that happens, and now they have a choice, after they've chosen X, then this happens next) with a very defined final-twist and fight scene, and a ready-made bunch of mechanics for NPCs and weapons and whatnot.

(Again, Shadowrun didn't invent this, but rather refined it in a given style of publication. One smoking gun for those interested in origins is The Coriolis Effect, a Champions adventure. One of these days, someone is going to do a wonderful publication-by-publication dissection of Call of Cthulhu adventure scenarios to show how they began more like hefty chunks of raw setting full of incipient situations, and ended up more like little scripted run-through movies; it wouldn't be a linear story and would yield much insight about how different priorities of play feed into what's perceived as a single vision-driven publishing line when it really isn't.)

6. Clearly, and as brutally demonstrated by the fraught publication and writing history in Traveller, the Hero System, and many others, the hybrid isn't really viable. This led to two things: (i) complicated core book revisions for a given game, leading to a kind of crazy-quilt of preferred rules-sets across the user-base; and (ii) continued refinement of the way such supplements are written, as if they were in fact coherent (both big "C" and small "c") when they're not, and a great deal of attention to branding as new publishers entered the field with new games, which is obviously the cue for my mention of White Wolf.

7. And to consider the German scene as such, I have two points. (i) If I may be permitted a certain chauvinism toward the West German gaming scene, they are suckers for production value, to the extent even of identifying "shiny" with "good." "It can't be shit, it's very expensive."(ii) Without any of the comparative and experiential context of literally a hundred existing games from which all these influences are drawn, Shadowrun landed in Europe, specifically Germany, as if it were a new, unique, and original thing. As such, it is awarded a cultural presence that vastly outstrips the game itself.


Quote
(Also, I do think that your setting-driven Story Now recipe could do wonders combined with the Shadowrun setting, and maybe some decent rules-set.)

That's true, if and only if one is interested in playing Story Now in the first place. This point reaches back to my long-standing suggestion that much Gamist and much Narrativist play are similar, even indistinguishable, in their techniques, and so incompatible in agenda that they cannot even clash; they simply don't exist together at the same table. The metaphor I employed was the two similarly-charged ends of two batteries.

I hope that was interesting! Let me know. And say hello for me at GroFaFo ... I miss Germany, Berlin, and all of you there.

Best, Ron
« Last Edit: October 30, 2011, 07:01:54 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #5 on: October 30, 2011, 09:21:05 AM »

Hi Ron,

Quote
I want to step back and verify, first, that we are talking only about Story Before, setting-centric play, specifically the second part. Because your later phrase "monster of the week" is not compatible with that model, at least not if the monster and its associated set-piece arrangement are the central material. If that phrase was thrown in for spice, then I can address your question, but if it really represents the take-home, what-we-did, "the story" material, then all I can say is that your question doesn't apply to any of my points in the essay.

Right. Many of the examples I had in mind were not, actually, setting-centric. They're still interesting to discuss, but if you'd like to stay with setting-centric stuff for now, I have an example for you: This game of The Pool, set in the Potterverse. There was a "main plot" that was Story Before (some Death-Eaters' scheme going down in Hogwarts, obviously). There where riddles, things to discover, some "scripted" scenes like a Death-Eater attack on new year's eve, and a dramatic final which I initiated by applying Force. But there were also teenage quarrels, romance and personal issues that played a pretty large role, some of the greatest scenes in that game had nothing to do with the "main plot" but were character scenes, totally not scripted, totally open-ended, personal development and all.

Interesting perspective on Shadowrun. I guess you're right about the production value thing, too. Have you seen the stuff the French make, though? Damn, it's pretty.

- Frank
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« Reply #6 on: November 04, 2011, 12:27:20 PM »

Hi Frank,

The issue you're raising all boils down to two things.

1. Whether the Force you applied resulted in the story.

2. whether "some of the greatest scenes we played" were actually the story.

I must define very carefully what I mean by story. I mean this: acknowledgment of relevant conflict, focus upon that conflict, rising action, unavoidable climax, resolution of conflict, final perspective; all of which result in emergent theme. For #1, I am especially interested in whether focus upon the conflict ("this is what the story is about"), and resolution of conflict ("this ") were induced, introduced, or otherwise simply dictated through Force. For #2, to the extent that the answer is "yes," I am especially interested in what the story might be.

So here's the most Narrativist possible version of what you're saying: The GM provided a chain of imposed events, yes, often involving scene framing and hence the placement of the player-characters in space and time. Many of those events demanded direct response, yes. And in the eyes of a fictional observer (i.e., within the fiction), those events would be thought of as the most important, yes. However: the engaging conflicts remained, for us as authors and audience, the emotional obligations and responses of the characters among one another.

For example: Although a dark lord's identity has been shockingly revealed, although the dark lord's plan has come to fruition, although the dark lord is rearing his nightmarish steed over two of the heroes, although the minions have beaten the other heroes away and prevented them from helping, and although this last moment of confrontation will make or break the dark lord's success in his vile plan ... what matters to us is whether the two heroes, in the shadow of imminent death at this very second, kiss or not. Because that kiss will speak volumes about each character's actual heartfelt commitment regarding every single other character. It may even be that the kiss is so powerfully moving that we as authors or audience more-or-less hope they die in the context of framing its forlorn beauty in external catastrophe, or alternately, it may even be the act which damns one of the heroes irrevocably in our eyes. Or anything like that, of a thousand possibilities depending on what has happened so far. Among those possibilities, one of the most important and flexible is whether until that moment, no one at the table had even dreamed of "whether they kiss" was going to happen; or alternately, that it has come up before in a variety of ways, who knows. *

And here's the least Narrativist possible version of what you're saying: The GM provided a chain of imposed events, involving scene framing, and hence the placement of the characters in space and time. And what was imposed set up and established the relevant context - as well as outcomes - regarding our story's drama and theme. Along the way, the enjoyable interactions among characters added tremendous "watchability" for all of us, as well as adding to the sense of tension and satisfaction to the rising action, climax, and resolution of the conflict. We therefore had a better story due to those character interactions.

For example: The revelation of the dark lord's identity, the tension of the way his plan has come to fruition, the circumstances of the fight such that two of our heroes are directly threatened by him without the aid of their friends, and the question of whether their efforts will indeed defeat him and/or save their own lives ... all of that was a great story, to be in and to remember. And for them to kiss right there at that moment, it made us all go "Yeah!" because it underscored their determination to value their defiance of him no matter what else happened.

I really hope that no one misunderstands me to think that opposing the dark lord couldn't itself be the story in a Narrativist context. Of course it could. I will begin another thread, I hope, soon, to explain how things change around us can facilitate Narrativist play. For this thread, however, both of these examples should be heavily underscored by the line I included to introduce each one: version of what you're saying, referring to Frank's precise phrasing regarding that particular Potter-U game.

Best, Ron
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Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #7 on: November 05, 2011, 09:45:08 AM »

Hi Ron, thanks for the reply! I get what you are saying. So, in our Pool game, we were leaning more towards your "most Narrativist possible version", but still the "main plot" as forced by the GM (me, as it were) was much appreciated and enjoyed by all participants, to the degree that the players complimented me on creating a genuinely "Potter-ish" story for us all to enjoy. There were certainly many "yes, of course" moments in play, but also real "you do what?!" moments in the personal interactions between the characters, with relationships changing through play, in neither planned nor expected ways.

This combination is really one of my favorite modes of play, and to this date I don't really know whether it's Sim, or Nar, or a Hybrid. Not that I really need to define it, as long as I know how to do it.

- Frank
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: November 05, 2011, 03:29:12 PM »

Narrativist.

I've been battling the confusion over "is it Narrativist when the GM introduces adverse changes into the setting?" since before the Forge was founded. It's a much simpler question than people make it, probably due to the agonizing history Moreno outlined so well in the other thread.

I'll be addressing it (again) in the "discontents" thread I have going presently.

Best, Ron
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Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #9 on: November 06, 2011, 01:02:37 PM »

Yeah, I guess I expected that answer by now. Just out of curiosity: Is the Hybrid still a thing? Because to my current understanding of GNS, it's more of a relic.

- Frank
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« Reply #10 on: November 06, 2011, 02:45:02 PM »

Hi Frank,

No hybrids.

I described my position on that issue in Gamism and Narrativism: mutually exclusive, especially on page 3. The fellow who started the thread took a while to read my posts and thread references, so maybe the best way to understand the thread is to read his final posts in it.

There's more to talk about for us, particularly the apparently innocent but actually quite deadly phrase "the main plot." It turns out that the brief time I had for posting has turned into no time, so it will have to wait.

Best, Ron
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