[Pitfighter] SBP: is there anything better to roll for than success?

Started by David Berg, November 09, 2011, 06:31:36 AM

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David Berg

"SBP" stands for Story Before Participationism.  It's basically gaming where (a) the GM makes certain things unavoidably happen in play as a part of getting across a "story" (by which I mean a plot, experience, or other sort of vision) they've conceived, and (b) the players are aware of this and are engaged in contributing meaningfully to that story.

In this thread about SBP, Frank T. made an interesting assertion that rolling dice for momentary success and failure of character actions can be fun even in a context where major plot points are never in doubt.  You can't stop the jewel thieves' escape, but you can reveal your character in ways that enrich the story, or all sorts of other good things.

So what play contributions qualify here as good things?  One way to look at it is that they ought to offer meaningful reflections of both the GM's planned content and the content of the fiction to date.  A reflection, in this sense, means expressing a unique interpretation of what's come before, and a unique choice of what can and should follow.  This needn't be explained (and is probably better if it isn't), but it does need to be expressed.  Frank's Star Wars game provides a perfect example, when the Han Solo clone sells out the Alliance.  That player saw a Star Wars in which that can happen, and through her actions got everyone else to see it too.

So, here's the question for this thread: Yes, rolling for success can produce these good things.  But are there better ways to produce them in more regular and rewarding fashion?
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David Berg

In high school and college, I ran a homebrew I called Pitfighter.  It was a severely abashed Story Before Illusionist game, using resolution rules derived from AD&D2.  The particular kick I was high on at the time as GM was "my world, my conspiracies".  I'd filled the globe with cool factions doing various covert things to rule the world.  The players' job was to discover enough of my hidden info to save the world.  Which I pretty much ensured, doling out reveals at just the right moments to elicit gasps and outcry.

None of that had anything to do with the dice.  The PCs winning a fight or picking a lock just determined how much I'd need to intervene to get the PCs to the next reveal.

The players eventually realized that the game was most fun when they engaged with my world and my conspiracies, and they found various ways to do this.  Giving emotional responses to my reveals.  Asking questions and expressing curiosity about my facts and factions mentioned but not yet seen.  Theorizing about how my world worked and what must also be true based on what they knew.  Processing what had just happened, providing their unique stories and takes on what had happened, what it all meant, and how it all mattered.  Proposing additional material to me by fishing around for it in-character.

Again, no connection to the dice.  I maximized the emotional responses by timing my managing my reveals.  I rewarded fishing that matched my vision of my world with free resources.  Processing, theorizing, and curiosity all tended to happen after some conversation with some NPC, and en route to a decision about what to do next or how to prepare for what they'd do next.

We stuck with the dice because they performed several important functions.  They took the social responsibility for simply deciding "You succeed" or "You fail" off of anyone at the table.  (Well, most of the time.  When I couldn't let something succeed, I had various techniques for that, most of which seem weak now.)  They created anticipation and suspense, as they were picked up, shaken, and rolled.  Whenever the extremely unlikely happened, it was neat to be greeted by a situation we wouldn't simply have come up with ourselves.

That's all good generic "play a game instead of just making stuff up".  But it has nothing to do with Story Before, nor with the Illusionism I practiced then and the Participationism I'm interested in now.  There's got to be a more optimal solution, right?  There's got to be a better way of looking at what to resolve, and how to go about resolving it, and how to view outcomes, and what outcomes to produce.  A way that inspires meaningful, reflective interactions between the players, the GM's plot, and the fiction thus far.

Whatcha got?
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I use the example of the rickety, decrepit rope bridge across the chasm to get to the castle.  Theres no other way around, the bridge must be crossed, but for some reason a challenge is warranted.  Perhaps a character is afraid of heights , or overloaded with loot or something else that makes rolling worthwhile ( as opposed to narrating crossing the bridge and etting on with it). 

So we're rolling, but failure isnt an option - a character falling to their death on the results of a dice roll isnt acceptable.  So we dont roll for WHAT happens (as in, does the character get across the bridge at all)   -- we know they do, thats a given.  We roll for HOW.  In what manner does the character proceed across the bridge?  Do they conquer their fear and stride across?  Or must they be carried at great inconvenience and humiliation?  Do they manage to get their great sack of loot across or is something dropped, never to be recovered?

So your SBP is like one giant bridge - you pretty much know WHAT is going to happen, your just looking for those points where HOW is important, and focusing on those moments.

David Berg

Steve, yeah, game-appropriate measures of HOW could definitely be a good thing to resolve!  In my Pitfighter game, I'm not sure what that'd be.  Maybe how much a character behaved like a given faction?  (Domineering vs manipulative, perhaps?  Using murder or using misinformation?)

Here's a thought:

In many RPGs, a mechanical resolution produces an outcome.  Player creativity then fills out the details of how that outcome specifically occurs; that is, what it looks like.  These details are mere color, with the outcome itself being the fuel for the next situation of play.

What if we exactly inverted that?  Mechanically resolve color, and then player creativity fills out the details of success/failure?  Because, in SBP play, the outcomes of character tasks don't have to be the main ingredient for subsequent situations.  In fact, the purpose of play might come across more clearly if they aren't.  An alternative is to look at it as the GM's plot dictating situations, and the characters' progress in that plot only that dictates the next situation. 

So, in my Pitfighter game, what mattered was progress in the characters' understanding of my factions and their schemes.  Where they were along that arc dictated what situation could happen next.  So, if we're going to give the dice a similar role to the one they perform in most "roll to succeed/fail" RPGs, the appropriate thing here would be to "roll to advance your understanding or not".

What if, whenever you had a chance to learn truth or be fooled, there was a fun mechanic for that?  And everything else was just "say what happens"?  That might be putting the focus in just the right place.
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Ron Edwards


I am concerned that you have not yet processed Story Before as a concept. Here and as I now realize, in your previous thread, your description is way, way too broad - it basically says, "When the GM puts in important stuff happening." That is not what I mean by those terms.

Story Before means the players have no power whatsoever over the story. They get to be in the story, and that is all. So this is a double-check - are you sure you're really getting this?

It's an important issue. I'm just now working up some pretty massive posts about it. I'm worried that you're lunging forward without internalizing the single most important point.

Story Before does not merely mean "prep cool things to happen." It means prepping cool things to result, during play, from what happens.

Best, Ron

Frank Tarcikowski

Hey David,

Personally, I'm not too big a fan of that whole "hidden conspiracy" theme. As a player I hate, hate, hate it when I don't really know what's going on but am still forced to make decision on how to act. It doesn't much help knowing that the GM is going to reveal what I need to know, eventually. I'm having a hard time contributing meaningfully. So much for my personal preference.

With regard to what the rules can or should contribute, I think your example highlights two different aspects:

1) Interaction of resolution mechanisms and so-called "social conflict"

As probably everybody knows, it's a recurring discussion between trad gamers whether to roll the dice or "role-play it out" in what is commonly called a "social conflict". Can I fast-talk the guard into letting me pass? Can I seduce the lady? This is a pretty complex topic but I think it's enough to note, here, that it may well be, in an individual group's case, that these "social situations" are mostly resolved by acting and good judgment, while "action scenes" are resolved by rolling some dice. If you're interested, I got a little deeper into this topic in the thread Roll-playing Versus Roleplaying and the follow-up, [Reign] In-Character Acting and the Higher Level.

It's always fun to think up interesting new ways for rules to handle this or that but on a purely speculative basis, I don't know how worthwhile that is.

2) Amount of impact of character success or failure, the Fruitful Void

The way I run SBP games, the story isn't planned blow-by-blow. It's more of a general scheme with maybe a couple of bottlenecks and a staged "grand final", but there is quite a bit wiggling space. So a genius idea or a lucky roll by a player will affect the course of events, it will be adopted into the planned story flexibly. On rare occasions, it might even break the planned story completely if it became too much of a stretch to still squeeze through the next bottleneck in a plausible way that wasn't entirely blatant "my way or the highway". This has happened maybe two or three times over the years in my games, but still.

When I explained Bass Playing to people over at the German forums, they kept saying, hey, that sounds pretty hard to do. And I said, it's not a no-brainer, but good Bass Playing is way easier than good Railroading. To run an SBP game is an elaborate dance. You have to be elegant, you have to force the story with a light touch, you have to incorporate the players' contributions without making them meaningless, you have to understand the players' vision of their characters to provide them with the necessary stage to pursue that vision, and so on.

This elaborate dance, when done skillfully, is really fun and rewarding for both sides. If you are looking for game mechanisms which support it, I think you should mainly look at Reward System. You don't want Resolution to take this out of the players' hands. That's the Fruitful Void, right there.

- Frank
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Dan Maruschak

I wonder if the term Participationist is clouding what you want to talk about, Dave. If you figure out ways to make the game system carry the load of making Story Before work then you don't necessarily need active "participation" to make that part of the game functional (as least that's what I usually assume is important about Participationism).

I think I mentioned it in the other thread, but my take on Mouse Guard's system is that you usually aren't rolling to succeed or fail, but rolling to avoid a cost (i.e. avoid becoming Angry, Hungry, etc.) or to avoid a deeper, involved focus on a related situation (i.e. avoid a twist, which usually turns into more skill rolls or a conflict, both of which will tempt you to use resources to win).

It's not exactly rolling, and I haven't played any of the games myself, but I think Gumshoe games guarantee the backstory revelation that's characteristic of a mystery story but lets you optionally get "extra detail" by spending a resource. (I've never really understood this design direction myself, since it seems like it's asking the GM to do a lot of work to make up details the players may not choose to pay to see, but since I don't have any direct experience with the games I may be missing something). I think Graham's Cthulhu Dark uses the same "guaranteed clue finding" paradigm, but has you roll for how much detail you get with the expectation that the GM will improvise at least some of it. The sanity rolls in Cthulhu games are another variation of the "roll to see if it costs you" idea.
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Ron Edwards

Hi Dan,

The term "Participationist" specifically refers to the players not being fooled by the GM's thorough authority over how the story turns out. That's all it means. Important secondary outcomes include the facts that (i) they don't feel railroaded because their authority over many character choices (at varying levels of subtlety) is ceded outright, (ii) there's no need for the GM to trick them into thinking they're really exerting control over "what the characters do" at certain levels, and (iii) intrinsic conflicts of interest between player announcements and GM goals are not assumed to be the default of play.

All of this is embedded in the sub-subset of play which includes explicit "make a story" as a goal, and one person having complete Outcome Authority.

I would not ordinarily be such a stickler about my jargon, but this thread is founded upon my recent essay, and David is working with it directly.

Best, Ron



Just speculating about the pitfighter scenario - mechanical progress in understanding the conspiracies, just so we can maybe have something of a concept to bat around.

So, there is a precedent in the "tech tree" from sundry RTs games.  Lets imagine you have a chart of the conspiracies and their interactions.  Not just operational links though, also things like layers of doctrine and initiation.  The tech tree example thing works well here - so, you have different trees for different conpiracies.  Each layer has a number of points of "insight" you need to gain before you know it.  So, knowing that a major bank is in fact run by the Freemasons needs like 8 points, knowing that the Freemason are controlled by the Illuminati needs 20 points, that sort of thing.

Now players take actions as you usefully defined them - theorizing, processing, fishing.  Essentially, the first two amount to make guesses to the GM and, if correct, being awarded with a point of insight.... or something like that, its breaking down a bit.  Fishing is presumably shoe-leather detective work.

Could that sort of thing work for you?  I guess the idea would be to structure a set of (eight) clues to reveal to the players that this bank is controlled by the Freemasons.  They can investigate, or guess, or whatever, in the course of actual play.  That's the real action.  When the get the 8 points the entry on the "tech" chart is opened and it is confirmed that they know this thing, and to express a visible form of progress.  What is happening in the physical world the characters inhabit can be governed by some other set of rules or left to free play, or something.

Obviously, as abovem, this is not presented as a real game concept but as a sort of vague silhoette of what the features of such a game might be.  How does it look to you?

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Callan S.

QuoteFrank's Star Wars game provides a perfect example, when the Han Solo clone sells out the Alliance.  That player saw a Star Wars in which that can happen, and through her actions got everyone else to see it too.
I'm not sure I get this in relation to 'story before'. It seems to be 'story now', despite the assertions it's just regular simulationist genre convention breaking fun? It really seems to put the integrity of the character, however the character turns out (soley at the purview of one player(not the GM), the player playing the PC, regardless of any planning the GM might (or might not) have made), over and above the integrity of the setting and how the setting is 'supposed' to turn out.

David Berg


I find the label helpful, but if you'd rather think of it as "Story Before that's also a game with something meaningful for the players to do", that's pretty damn close!  I should talk about Gumshoe in a bit.  I've thought about Trail of Cthulhu a lot, played twice, and read the book multiple times, and I can't tell whether my problems with it are more system or presentation.  In the end, I'd put it in the "compatible with SBP, but not much help" category.


That breakdown of player progress does seem to me like it might be useful. 

That such progress would be made by players making guesses makes me nervous.  But maybe that's not because it's a bad idea, it's just because I've never seen it done well.  As long as a wrong guess isn't a meaningless waste of time, and as long as the players have enough material to make FUN guesses, then it could work!


A few separate points:

1)  GM secrets and player ignorance

I hear you that GM secret-keeping CAN definitely produce disoriented players.  But that's a problem I'd like to solve! 

I think one of the big GM appeals of SBP is Reveals, and one of the big appeals of a Reveal is that you get to answer some Big Question that the players have been lugging around with them and investing in.  In other words, a Secret.

It seems to me that it shouldn't be too hard to give the players both secrets to be mystified by AND enough orientation to, y'know, do stuff. 

Like, I dunno, your character is a spy but also a dad, and everything he does as a spy impacts how we see his past, present, and future fatherhood.  So when the spy trail grows cold, you can still use your larger character vision to move forward (e.g. "here, a good dad would...").  I'm not thrilled with that example, but there are probably better ones out there already in the gaming world...

2) Reward Systems -- later?

I definitely want to talk about this, but I was planning a separate thread.  Here I want to just talk about resolution.  Maybe I'm doing this in the wrong order.  I'll try to get an SBP Rewards thread started soon.

3) Fruitful Void

Your point there sounds important, but I don't quite understand it.  What exactly is the fun thing that you see being taken away from the group by the approaches I've proposed?  My thought was that the skillful dance of play was just being moved, not eliminated.  So it'd be, I dunno, more about skillfully describing outcomes within resolved color parameters, and less about skillfully describing color within resolved outcome parameters, or something.

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Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 09, 2011, 01:47:29 PM

I am concerned that you have not yet processed Story Before as a concept. Here and as I now realize, in your previous thread, your description is way, way too broad - it basically says, "When the GM puts in important stuff happening." That is not what I mean by those terms.

Story Before means the players have no power whatsoever over the story. They get to be in the story, and that is all. So this is a double-check - are you sure you're really getting this?

It's an important issue. I'm just now working up some pretty massive posts about it. I'm worried that you're lunging forward without internalizing the single most important point.

Story Before does not merely mean "prep cool things to happen." It means prepping cool things to result, during play, from what happens.

Best, Ron

I guess I dont get it then.  I figure Story before is prepping what happens beforehand - scene 1: players interrupt bank robbery in progress, and bank robbers get away

I figure the purpose of this thread was the question - given that nothing the players do is going to effect that outcome, what is there to roll dice about?

My answer to that question is "HOW the PCs perform their various activities".  Maybe they are able to prevent innocent bystanders from being shot.  Maybe they are able to determine clues about the robbers that will come in handy latter.  etc...

Ron Edwards

Gah! David, not Stephen. I did it again! Will do better.

My post was directed toward David. Your post was peachy (American English, means "fine") and you clearly understand fine.

David, I want to stress that I am seeking confirmation only out of nervousness and the desire for the meaning of the term not to slide off the rails.

Best, Ron


Hi David,

Are you familiar with those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books?  It sort of looks like you're describing a GM-moderated CYOA experience.  Does that seem sort of accurate?


David Berg

Hi Ron,

I spelled out how I'm using "Story Before" here.  That hasn't changed.

If you're worried that I'm talking about any ol' prep, like, "And then you see this thing in the distance that I planned!", I'm not.

If you're worried that I'm talking about play where the GM doesn't plan every single encounter and its outcome, I am indeed including that.

The place where I've drawn the line is at the group agreement that the GM will make big important things happen that directly concern the players' and characters' primary matters of interest.  "The bad guys you wanted to catch do get away, you do find clues about their plan, your searching and fighting does lead you to them before they can destroy the city." 

How often the GM does this is less of a concern for me right now.  If I'm GMing my story but I leave the final scene's outcome up to the dice or the players... well, I still want support for all the play that led up to that final scene.

I wouldn't want to be misusing an already-defined term, so if you've got a better one for me to sub in for "Story Before", just let me know!

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