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Author Topic: Aesthetics and Conveying Reality  (Read 21342 times)
Harlequin
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Posts: 284


« on: May 07, 2003, 10:29:56 AM »

If I read the conclusion of the Aesthetics and Reality thread correctly, then Chris and Emily tried to pin down a specific tension, between two things: a Baseline, which is basically reality-as-understood-by-the-participants, and a Vision, which is the endpoint of perfect emulation of "source material" if any, or the analogue if no source material exists.  (Interestingly, one could make a case for the latter as being reality as understood by the characters, but that's a different riff on the subject.)

I like this a lot and would like to pin it down to a little bit stronger frame, and then move from there to talking about the tension and balance between these two, because I think that this is where we'll find tools for aesthetic design emerging.

By a stronger frame, I mean that I think these two terms apply to a single act, and that rather than leaving them hanging in air, we can pin them down to that act and discuss them in that context only.  Both terms apply to the process of conveying the game reality.  I don't know if this has a place in the current understanding or not, but it means that these apply to conveying something slightly more encompassing than Setting as we dissect things... they apply to conveying the Setting, the Colour, the appropriate Situations, the physics (Rules), and the appropriate types of Characters.  Conveying the game reality.

(Is that equivalent to just conveying the whole game?  Not quite, because it excludes any input the designer might want to have into, for example, the social contract of play, and much of the manner of play itself.  Unless you consider "the usual way people play RPGs" to be the Baseline, and the designer's Vision to be the mode of play he seeks to support.  I think this is probably spurious extension of the terms Baseline and Vision, especially because that listed Baseline is, as we've established, an exceedingly fast-moving target.  The question of Baseline and Vision interacts with GNS coherence, because you should tune the tension between them to support the desired GNS modes, but GNS coherence addresses more than the "realism/game realism" issue which is what Baseline and Vision are helping us describe.)

It certainly seems like the actual game reality rests somewhere on a sliding line, with Baseline and Vision as the endpoints of that line.  The originating thread covered good reasons why we need both ends of the line, rather than just pinning the game reality to one and leaving the other to flop.  Baseline ("realism") primarily helps make people comfortable, give them a known starting place to jump off from, and often functions in a contrasting mode - it makes the Vision more clear because the following elements contradict the Baseline.  Vision ("source material or analogue of same") is the pattern of ideal things in the game designer's head which he is trying to communicate.  Without Vision there's no point in buying the game book.  (I postulate that even hyperrealistic settingless games of GURPS or whatever have both of these elements, it's just that in this case the Vision differs from the Baseline on only a very few points - primarily the ones concerning what kinds of stories get told.)

So far, so good.  In these terms, we can recast Fang's original post about realism-based rules... if most of the game reality sits quite near the Vision, then realism-based rules tend to draw it back toward the Baseline.  Whether this is good or not depends on whether your game needs a shot of Baseline (something to help make it more accessible, f'rex), or would suffer for being dragged further from the Vision by the subtle effect of those rules.  Fang holds out for striving to land as close to Vision as possible, but it certainly seems like this varies per game.  (Games about really alien topics like Elder Gods tend to desperately need a shot of Baseline right around the intro section, because otherwise players never "make the jump" to the game reality from their own.  Usually manifests as the game never coming off the shelf and being played.  Curiously, this is exactly what my poor Talislanta set suffers to this day.)

Can we do anything more with it than this?  I think it's possible.  Chris and Emily got the beginnings of it, with talking about issues of balance between the two, desirable tension, and even possibly reassigning the Baseline once players' comfort zones include more of the Vision than originally true.  

(I can see that latter applying to supplements in particular.  In fact, if the rules in a core book were high-accessibility, with a strong Baseline in realism and reality-derived physics, but the rules in its supplements were more Vision-based, this would be one design suggestion we could come out of this with right there.  Also true, and perhaps more usefully within conscious design the learning curve of a game.  Make the first rules people learn, the most realistic and closest to Baseline; make the extensions and corollaries more Visionary.  I think that conscious design of the learning curve is one thing we will want to crack open, not necessarily in this thread, but not necessarily not.)

In terms of aesthetics, I think there's most meat on the bone of tension between Baseline and Vision, used to strengthen the game reality as a whole.  You might build up that tension in a few ways... you could stress the constrasts between the Baseline and this game's vision, not only textually but coherently with the message of the entire book.  Or you could play subtler games by allowing the tension between the two to increase through play.  [An example of the former might be Pendragon, with its fairly straightforward Vision; the deliberate omission of an Intelligence stat helps stress the differences between Baseline expectations, and the Vision of the Arthurian world.  An example of the latter would be WFRP, which - as I understand it - conveys a brutal, hostile world, which is not immediately apparent until the results of the charts start to creep out through their probabilities.)

This is far from a trivial dissection, simply because accurately conveying the game reality you desire is one of the hard parts.  Communicating a Vision is often difficult, but even in those cases where it's easy, such as directly source-material inspired RPGs, the game reality necessarily diverges from the Vision (see originating thread).  In those instances, it's communicating the game reality that becomes the hard part; I suspect that this problem lurks beneath the surface of it being difficult to convey the Vision as well, in many cases, and is simply one difficulty being masked by another.  Look at Nobilis; the Vision is clearly, artfully presented... but the game reality, the appropriate balance between Baseline and Vision, is reasonably elusive in play.

Does anyone have any thoughts on specific guidelines as to how to convey this balance, where to choose the balance point(s), or how to increase/manipulate/make use of the tension, between Baseline and Vision in the composition of a game reality?
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #1 on: May 07, 2003, 12:31:08 PM »

I'm a bit tentative about posting here, So I'm going to be probabtive rather than give my take on this. We'll see if it's profitable.

First, I'm curious as to whether Fang thinks that your take on these things as relating to Reality is really what it's all about. I think he may have had a broader meaning, but I'll leave that to him to clarify.

In any case, my general question is why do you see a need to pin the point on the spectrum after the fact? I mean, couldn't you just start with an assumption about how realistic you want it to be, and then work to that goal? Am I wrong in assuming that we're talking about a sectrum here? At one point that seems to be what you're talking about, and then at others you seem to be saying that it's two things.

Could you restate in your terms (as opposed to simply referencing Chris' and Emily's ideas) what you mean by tension? How is this not a bad thing? I mean dramtic tension is all well and good, but is that the sort of tension you see being created here?

It's been said that the Social Contract is not part of game design, and I think that's true, personally. The players come together and agree to play, and then agree what to play. It's not the game that causes this to happen. And the "how to play" seems to me to be the entirity of the text. According to the Lumpley priciple, the text exists soley to deliver the power division amongst players so that we know how the game reality is established. So what does that leave? How is this not about the game as a whole? (I fear that this will bring up shades of the last post, but I'm legitmately concerned with the answer).

Why do you feel that Vision is relatively uncomfortable? IMO, it's completely a matter of player preference as to what point on the spectrum is most comfortable. Consider Freeform play that have no "realism" mechanics at all. This is a common form of play. Why do you feel that people need to be "taken" from one point to another? Is this to convert "traditional" players? (Your point about learning curve is well taken, and I'd like to see that thread).

I like your ideas about this all being a design preference. If it's a preference, however, then why, as I asked above, should we need to set the target after simply chosing to go with our preference? I mean shouldn't our preference be out target?

This is still all very unclear to me. It's quite possible I still am just failing to see some important part of this idea that will make it crystalize. Can you help? I fear the questioning method won't help make me seem any more sympathetic, but I was unsure how else to proceed. My apollogies in advance.

Mike
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Harlequin
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« Reply #2 on: May 07, 2003, 01:23:59 PM »

No worries, Mike... many of your questions are the very ones I asked myself as I posted that.

I'll try to drill past them to help clarify things.

I do flag it as a spectrum, but it's a little bit funny as spectrums go.  One end is a little bit variable ("reality" as perceived by players), the other end pretty heavily variable (your game vision and/or source material, as (a) communicated by you and then (b) interpreted by players).  So it's a sliding scale with moving endpoints.  You also move around on it based on when during the process of picking the game up you look.  As such, part of what I wanted to raise was whether simply "picking a realism level and designing to it" was a sufficiently clear description - for us - of what's happening, or whether we would do better to pay some attention to what'll happen to the two endpoints of the scale as they shift, and where the game will land at what points in its progression, etc.  Simple model vs. complex model, basically; I'm interested in what the complex model might look like and whether it offers any insights we can use.

I read much of the core of your questions to come down to whether there's any benefit in going to the complex model at all, and that's one angle I definitely am not sure about myself.  This may indeed all be a waste of electrons.  I think, in this as in other things (I'm a physicist by trade), that it's worth trying out the complex model, seeing whether it produces anything worthwhile in terms of additional information, and chucking it if not.

FWIW, I disagree pretty strongly about the social contract not being part of game design.  GNS mode is a social contract issue, on which the game designer (if he's designing a coherent game) has a strong voice.  Even the original Lumpley Principle thread seemed to divide evenly on whether the "rules" (I read that to say the designer) gets a voice at the table or not.  However, I think it's also an agree-to-disagree which need not impact this thread at all, and probably speaks most strongly to styles of game design itself.

What this is getting at is, at core, ways to communicate your game vision (cf. Creative Agenda, there's a wide mishmash of concepts caught up in either term, but at heart this is the communicated entity which includes your themes, moods, GNS stance, et al).  More clearly, and in such wise that people Get It.

The issue of Getting It is part of why I say that straying too far toward the Vision end is "uncomfortable."  It definitely ties into the learning curve, but I think it may apply even within the context of a single game session.  [It's the distinction between starting an evening's session with "You waken in your apartment, hearing a faint sussuration in the pipes, unshaven and hung over" and "You emerge from your meditative state to find that your sensory cilia, despite being kinked up from the previous annum's debacle, are trembling in a way that is suggestive of movement somewhere in your Bao Kae (apartment)."  Neither is better.  One is more accessible, closer to Baseline.  The other might be closer to the game's Vision - these could, after all, be from the same game!]  My primary reason to suggest operating closer to Baseline is accessibility, and I reiterate that lower accessibility is not none, any resistance can be overcome - but the way the game is designed will affect this resistance-to-concepts.  Often (the insertion of "always" is assumed untrue but not proven either way) this seems to be a tradeoff against the vividness of the Vision end of the spectrum.

Which is where I see tension, and I think that my image of why tension in this is good has to do with the use of contrasts and foils.  The tension between them is what makes it useful to use a little Baseline somewhere - the hangover a powerful sorcerer wakes up to - so as to ultimately heighten the game Vision, when he goes about his high-adventure, high-magic day.  Or, less commonly, the tension also shows up when you use an aspect of nonrealism, of your Vision, to bring things down to earth.  The high magus gestures vividly while chanting in Latin, and in his hands appears... his pipe, which he proceeds to knock on the heel of his boot and refill.  Fantastic element used to contrast and heighten a sense of accessible realism.  

This may all be a special case of dramatic tension, but I don't think so... I think it has to do with the tension generated anytime we have nonrealistic and realistic elements together in a game, whether they be aspects of the Setting, Colour, Rules, or something else.

Tension probably isn't the only way to view it, just as contrast isn't the only way to communicate either of those touches I gave above.  In fact, I suspect that harmony between your Baseline and your Vision is another way to go... it builds to a different game experience instead.  Times when, rather than jarring by their contrast, the realistic and the fantastic (in the generic sense meaning nonrealistic) elements of the game both help produce the same effect on the reader.  Ummm, example, lessee... giving comparable in-game prices for clothes and countercharms, to help reduce the divide between the fantastic and the realistic sides of the universe.

None of my examples have to do, exactly, with the level of realism you choose, they have to do with how you communicate what realism you include, and when, and why.

Does that help clarify why I'm flailing toward a little bit better conception of the Baseline-Vision spectrum, and its uses and characteristics?  I hope so - it did for me. :)

- Eric
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #3 on: May 07, 2003, 01:39:03 PM »

Huh.

Well, the best "how to" stuff that I've seen is actually Fang's Genre Expectations. That is, a game should have something that serves to establish these expectations. In most games it's the text. This is certainly problematic in terms of the fact that not all players will read the book. What you often end up with is the GM saying to the player "It's like X book, but with the feel of Y movie," or somesuch.

But even though that last looks problematic, I don't think it is. That is, I think that's about all you need to get a player to the comfort zone or near enough that they'll be into it ten minutes into play.

Because the other thing is that System Matters. That is, the system will inform the player. So, not to be too redundant, but make the system make the players do the right things, and it's all good.

How do you make a system do what you want? Well that's the thousand dollar question that get's asked every day. And there are a jillion answeres. To which I can only refer you to the Indie Design forum. If we had a formula for how to do it game design would be dead already. The only thing we'd need to do is to come up with new genre's to emulate.

It seems to me that this is the "complex" model. But again I may still be missing it.

If you look at the Lumpley Principle thread, you'll find that I was the one arguing for the text to be an empowered participant. But even I had to admit that the players have to agree on the Social Contract level to commit to the text before it was so empowered. And all Ron had ever said is that GNS "bridges" the social contract level and actual play.

Put it this way, give me an example of something from a text that isn't "how to apportion credibility in play".

Mike
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #4 on: May 07, 2003, 01:45:43 PM »

With respect, Eric, no, I'm not finding this especially useful.

Can you provide some examples of existing games or -- better yet -- games in progress as they relate to what you're getting at? As a game designer, I'm simply failing to see how this is practical and useful on that nitty-gritty, just-do-it level of creating a game. I had the same problem with the Deliberateness and Elegance ideas. I see concerns about aesthetics as something that just comes very naturally to me, and I'm concerned it's a method to codify "art," which is so much windmill tilting.

 I acknowledge that not everyone creates "Stuff" in the same way, and therefore I may be shrugging where Fang is screaming "Eureka!" But even if that's true, I still can't see how you guys are going to put this into practice yet. (And, yes, I know that's why you're discussing it here. I just want to see some steps toward playable games.)

I think some concrete, hopefully robust, and familiar examples would go miles toward helping folks see if all this so-called "flailing" this is useful. I'd much prefer some design examples to which you're privvy to the actual intent of the designer(s).

In other words, I'm not especially interested in discussing all this as it relates to, say, Nobilis unless Borgstrom & Co. chimes in and says, "Yeah, that's how we did it." Well, maybe a bit much, but you get the idea. I'd like some support to your best guesses of a designer's intent.
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Matt Snyder
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Emily Care
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« Reply #5 on: May 07, 2003, 04:00:53 PM »

Quote from: Harlequin
If I read the conclusion of the Aesthetics and Reality thread correctly, then Chris and Emily tried to pin down a specific tension, between two things: a Baseline, which is basically reality-as-understood-by-the-participants, and a Vision, which is the endpoint of perfect emulation of "source material" if any, or the analogue if no source material exists. (Interestingly, one could make a  case for the latter as being reality as understood by the characters, but that's a different riff on the subject.)


The question arose around a couple of sticky subject of  "realism" in games. Fang began discussing the way that design can detract from play if mechanics included to "simulate reality" or realism are used that contradict (that other hoary goat) "genre expectations".  An example from the original (Fang's thread) was a superhero game that included mechanics for the superhero dying.  The conflict was not about whether "realism" mechanics were good or bad universally, but whether they were appropriate to use in that instance, and what might be a better choice of mechanics.  This sparked a lot of conversation about realism, what it is, whether it's right to try for it, whether it's possible etc.  Many old chestnuts.  Chris Lehrich suggested the proposed terminology to help get us out of the rut of perceived realism, so that we could start looking at the dynamics between design and play, and genre expectations and realism.  

Baseline was proposed as an alternate term for "realism". All the things that one would probably assume to be true in a game world unless one is told otherwise specifically. Ie that water will run down hill, that characters will die when they fall 50 stories, etc.  

Vision was proposed to be replace for "genre expectations", or "source materials".  This refers to aspects of a given game world that may break "realism" or put emphasis on specific aspects that could be "realistic" but that are important in some way to play. For example, detective fiction is fairly realistic, nothing fantastic happens, it's all explanable by normal physics and human psychology, but there is a very specific feel to texts that emulate the genre.  Vision must be communicated to the participants in order for them to experience it.  Being able to refer to a given source, like a film or novel is an easy way to clue them in to what to expect, but as came up in prior discussion, it will still only be a ballpark estimate.  

So, how I see it is that the baseline may start set on "reality" but can travel to wherever the common conception of the game world goes.  That's where Eric's "moving end points" come in, I believe.   I like that by the way.    I think Chris L. had fixed endpoints in mind, in between which the game itself existed, so that the end points were more like landmarks--a way to navigate and communicate with one another, but not really the true boundaries of in game material.

Concrete example:
Ars Magica.  
Baseline: europe in the middle ages
Vision: magic works (in an empirical sense) and there are organized orders of mages afoot.
Tensions or conflicts between reconciling the two:
1) having an order of mages such as described in the game texts in europe would have changed the political dynamics completely.  
2) although ostensibly reflecting magical thought of the period, the AM magic system reflects modern ways of thinking. So putting it in the setting doesn't feel "realistic".
Fixes in the system:
1) making all members of the order swear to keep the order secret from mundanes
2) ignore it and write supplements that encorporate more of contemporary and earlier magical traditions.

Caveat: I'm not harping on AM! I actually chose it because I have enough experience with it that I could actually think of a constructive example.  Feel free to disagree with my opinions and let this simply be an example.  

Other ways to handle it:
1) Using medieval europe as a baseline has a lot of advantages. There is a ton of source material to draw on, it's  easily understandable by most folks, and you get all the scadians to buy your game texts.  The reason their fix as a problem is that it has felt artificial in play.  Every covenant will have some contact with outsiders: villagers they trade with, cities they buy their supplies from, stone-masons who build the gothic manse, what have you.  In all the games I've played,  the interactions between the "mundane world" and the magical community have been fascinating.  And, honestly, some of the best stuff has come from just this problem--you can't keep that many wealthy eccentric people secret easily.  Anyway,  although I do not know what their intent was, it seems that the choice made in this case was to choose Baseline over Vision.  I think that the choice to make the mages swear secrecy was done to maintain the history of europe as we know it in our world, not because of what it would add to the in-game setting.  

2) The ars magica magic system is the heart of the game.  It is intuitive and easy to learn (I mean the arts/techniques structure, not necessarily the mechanics of rolling/levels etc).  Here they chose Vision over Baseline.  Later on,  rules were made for alchemy and other systems that are more IMO true to setting.  I'm glad they chose their vision over fidelity to setting, their magical engine is what makes the game so enjoyable, not that it 's set in europe. An accessible setting made the magic system more robust.

Matt: as I said, I don't have access to the game designer's intent. I am infering it.  My apologies.  This was one I thought of that I could illustrate the point with.

Regards,
Emily Care
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #6 on: May 07, 2003, 05:04:06 PM »

Quote from: Emily Care
Matt: as I said, I don't have access to the game designer's intent. I am infering it.  My apologies.  This was one I thought of that I could illustrate the point with.



Emily, no problem. I think your example is helpful in shedding some light on the purpose and possibly the use of these discussions.

Just so I understand, not being intimately familiar with Ars Magica (and yet familiar enough to see what you mean): Are you saying that things you list under “Fixes in the system” are actually components of the published game (rather than “house rules”)? I just don’t remember enough about the game to recall whether magi are supposed to keep things a secret. I’ll assume that’s the case.

Now, what I find interesting is whether these “fixes” were included in the game as such, rather than being included in the game because the designer never thought otherwise and included them because they were nifty or because he just knew that was how to do it all along. I know I would. I might unconsciously recognize such tensions (I doubt it), but I don’t think I’d made conscious decisions like this often, if at all.

In other words, in creating a game, I don’t think of these kinds of tensions between what you call Baseline and Vision. I just seem to know what I want and do it (though certainly not without critique and revision). And, in the case of Dust Devils (my only complete and available game), I think I generally succeed.

I have a hard time, based on my own styles and intentions in designing a game, thinking so objectively and analytically about design. This is why I find these discussion about aesthetics largely unhelpful. It all seems to me to be a wag the dog scenario, or design in reverse. These all seem to be analytical tools for existing games, and I can’t wrap my head around how one will apply these to a game design-in-progess

On a slightly different issue: I believe you equate Baseline with “realism” and Vision with “genre expectations”. In reading Eric’s post above, I kept seeing them as associated (though not necessarily equated) strongly with Social Contract and Premise, respectively. I don’t think Eric or Emily would agree. I think it’s because discussions thus far have implored that these issues supercede GNS in some cases, yes?

My thinking of it as Social Contract and Premise terms stems from the fact that I do disagree with Eric about whether one can “design for” the Social Contract. I agree with Ron, et al, that the design merely facilitates at one level, and the group takes it or leaves the system at another level.

Also, these “moving points” that anchor the spectrum being discussed aren’t anchors at all. They’re moving targets. So, I see a need for clarification. Are these end points moving targets because separate groups approach a game with different assumptions and Social Contracts regarding a game, OR are these points moving targets because a single group’s assumptions change as it experiences the game. (Or is it something else entirely – that the points move because the unfinished game design evolves and the points therefore move as the designer approaches completion?)

If it’s the former, I submit one cannot design to hit the moving target (again, “designing for” what I see as Social Contract at least in part). If it’s the latter, I submit that one must design such that the moving target stays relatively still one the game is complete. I.e. the game should be coherent and have a solid premise. If I’m missing some larger issue here, please let me know.
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Matt Snyder
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Harlequin
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« Reply #7 on: May 07, 2003, 06:39:49 PM »

Okay.  I'm glad this has gathered some momentum...

Matt, nobody's claiming to have insight into developers' heads.  All we can do - barring personal conversations with them, or perhaps trepanning - is try to look at their work and figure out what there is in them that works, or fails to, and try to find ways to emulate that.

As for whether this helps with the design process, it's almost certainly dependent on how readily you selfanalyze during the design process, vs. the Go Do It school.  I'm not writing for the Go Do It school, and won't even pretend otherwise.  I know I'm guilty of a certain amount of overtheory... I ought to be working on my RPG, not on theory here. (Grin.)  So, for self-professed Go Do Itters, by all means go to and don't waste your time on theory here.  On the other hand, phrasing all this is helping one specific process of game design - mine - at the very least, and hopefully others too.

So.

My conception of the two endpoints is basically synonymous with Emily's; it has a lot more to do with the realistic vs. the fantastic than with overt Social Contract issues.  I especially like her phrasing, "Vision must be communicated to the participants in order for them to experience it." That's bang-on with what I'm looking at here.  In the moving endpoints idea, I'm looking at the spectrum as something akin to an elastic band stretched between two posts, with the posts having some, but not an incredible amount, of movement in their own right.  Moving, because different groups put them in different places; moving, because their position changes over time for a given group.

Even in its "initial" role as Reality[TM], the Baseline moves, because a cop and an Arnie-movie fan will have different Baselines on guns.  I'm less enamored of moving the Baseline based on group exposure to the midpoint we call Game Reality than Emily, but I'd grant it as another mode in which the Baseline does indeed move.  The Vision 'moves' (differs) primarily group-to-group, but also person-to-person, due to the fact that the Vision must be communicated and interpreted.

But just because the elastic band is strung between moving targets does not mean that we can't do useful things with it - pick a spot ("what's your realism level"?), twang it for tension (use of Vision/Baseline contrasts to highlight things), or let it lie straight and use it like a pointer (use of Vision/Baseline symmetries and harmonies to convey other impressions).  Mostly, pointing out that these are moving targets is tantamount to pointing out that even the simplest "pick a realism level" is not necessarily as failsafe as it might sound, but the other techniques are what have me really excited.  Since I don't want to make this post too long, I hope you'll forgive if I show some concrete examples of the use of the Vision/Baseline spectrum in existing works for those last two uses - contrasts and harmonies.

Contrast Example: Ars Magica, Specific arena: Rules
Baseline and Vision are as Emily described.
Effect Desired: Focus attention on the fastastic elements - the magic system - over issues of mundane skill use.
Technique Used: Contrast between the Baseline (which, in a rules context here, would be the rules covering all actions which could be performed in medieval Europe) and the Vision (the magical society and its main acts, those being basically twofold - the use of magic, and the study of magic.  Note that in my text the two get practically equal weight).  The length and emphasis differences between the two sections themselves could be argued as contrast or tension between their respective associated realism-poles (Baseline or Vision), but this is something we've seen before (never mind that this construction puts Mike's Rant as part of a broader technique - his Rant remains an excellent example of the method).

However, there's a subtler rules detail used in contrast instead, which I'll single out for my example.  Both the casting of magic, and the use of a skill, use basically d10+stuff, higher is better.  The die varies from a 'simple die' to a 'stress die,' in both cases.  Some character stat adds to the roll, in both cases.  But the contrast comes in when you look at the other numbers.  A good skill is five, an excellent skill seven, and more than that is definitely out of reach for your average starting PC.  So an expert skill-user with good stats could roll as much as d10+12, but most of them will top out at maybe d10+8 in their specialty.  In magic, however, you add not only a stat and sometimes a skill (an Affinity or Magic Theory), but also a Form and a Technique - each of which starts high and goes up very quickly compared to a skill.  So a skilled magus in their area of choice could readily, at start, be looking at d10+20 or more, and will probably have d10+12 across several areas which are outside, but related to, their specialty.  Players notice those numbers.  Moreover, skill TNs are "must equal or beat" to do something; magic TNs are "must come within 10 to cast spell, though equal or beat is better."  So magic TNs are really high, and a player casting a level-30 spell feels a real sense of accomplishment, even though in real terms that's equivalent to a skill TN of maybe 15.

The contrast between mundane actions and magical ones is played up - heightened - for effect.  Player attention is concentrated on magic, which is where the designers want it. Was this intentional? You tell me.  But if you spot something like this in my game, it probably is, because I'm going to go over it with a fine-toothed comb looking for this sort of thing.

Symmetry/Harmony Example: Shadowrun, Specific arena: Chargen
Baseline: North America (default setting of the game), with very familiar living conditions and lifestyles; currencies and faces may change, but capitalism and democracy remain familiar.
Vision: Magic and cyberpunk (esp. the Matrix) both run rampant as transformative forces on the world.
Effect Desired: Make "normal" characters, homo sapiens sapiens without overt toys, feel equal in cool-factor to the more fantasical options, whether they be the Elven Decker or the Combat Mage.  More importantly, play up a trope of cyberpunk, that "the street finds its own uses for things," and that even high technology and, in this case, magic will find street niches which are more ordinary than they are elite.
Technique Used: Parallelism and symmetry.  The game recommends the use of Archetypes for chargen, and even if many players skip to the custom rules, each Archetype is still a nice one-page spread with a colour image of the character; everybody will flip through them, guaranteed.  And, subtly but tellingly, the presentation of every archetype is the same.  The figure is in the same place with relation to the text, is drawn with comparable use of colour, is basically the same size, and its stat block is laid out exactly the same.  By placing the fantastic elements side-by-side with the more familiar ones, with an overt intent to balance their power levels, the game also communicates the "street finds its own uses for things" concepts beautifully.

In D&D, and possibly LOTR:RPG (haven't read it), this is arguably a failure of the Vision; nobody wants to hear about the street finding its own uses for wizardry as wielded by Gandalf.  As such, implications that warriors like Boromir and wizards like Gandalf are somehow equivalent come across poorly.  But in Shadowrun, having magic be just one more thing that ultimately comes down to gritty bloodsports in back alleys is a theme unto itself, and so implying that everybody lives on basically the same level - the lowest one - is golden.  They use graphical methods to imply direct harmony between the fantastical and the realistic types of characters, and it pays off.

Each of these is distinct from the act of simply picking a realism level; they're finer-scale manipulations of the Baseline/Vision spectrum, which take into account that there is a distinction between the two, and play with that distinction for effect.

Does that help indicate why I'm kind of excited about this?  Especially when you combine that with the thoughts about learning curves which we've still red-flagged but not explored?  I suspect that the choice was in neither instance perfectly conscious, at least not in these words... but at the same time, just because those designers did it "by feel" does not mean that you can't learn to do it more consistently through analysis.  I think of this a lot like colour theory; you can put contrasting colours side-by-side to one effect, and complementary colours alongside one another to a very different effect, and if you know this, then when you want a hard edge, you can skip over the complementary colours and look only at the contrasting ones.  Some painters will do this instinctually... but they still teach it.

- Eric
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Emily Care
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« Reply #8 on: May 08, 2003, 01:15:28 PM »

Hi Eric,

Wow.  That's an awesome aplication.  I dig it.  The fact that one can look at how the tension plays out and is addressed in many aspects of design (rules, color, setting etc.) makes it more complex. I'm mulling that over and will say more as it comes to me.

I was careful in my post here to represent what Chris L. had originally intended by the terms, because in the other thread I realized I saw them differently, and I wanted to preserve the distinction.  I think you and I are on the same page with respect to them, but let me say a little more so we can be sure.  

I see baseline as an arbitrary choice.  Baseline most often starts at "reality" for the simple reason that that's what everyone will assume to be true unless told otherwise.  This masks the fact that that lump sum of assumptions is actually going to vary considerably from person to person, based on experience & knowledge, and also priority of what "realism" means.  For Ron, human nature ringing true is most important, for someone else making sure that the physics of artillery is dead on might be what matters.  Any given game could hypothetically deliver all these myriad types of realism, but it would be quite the game that could deliver them all.  

So, baseline is going to be what a) the system and b) the users make of it.  So, earlier today I was thinking of this line with endpoints we're talking about, with on end-point tagged on to "reality" as the primary baseline, and an infinity of other  points that connect to all the possible visions out there for games.  Now I see that really there are as many baseline points as vision.  Really all that we are talking about is taking the many ideas about what the game world & experience are going to contain, and bridging that gap.  If you don't have just one gm, but many, then the line could become a network or polygon, connecting the visions/baselines of all the participants until they align.  The vision can be another point to which all of those baselines connect.

Whew. That's more esoteric than I meant to get here.  The main thing I wanted to communicate is that as I see it, and this may not be the most useful way to define Baseline, it may start at "reality" as default, and then get shifted to whatever the setting/premise of the game is (ie Ars Magica, the immediate shift of the Baseline is to "Medieval Europe", the next shift is "where magic works and there are organized orders", etc.) The vision of whoever is holding the reins, or rather, all those who contribute to it, which includes game designers, gms etc. is communicated to those who are participating in the game experience, and they then give feed back on what they have to contribute.  The sum is the new baseline.  

So that's how I see it.  How Chris presented it, I think, is that the Baseline is common perception of reality, and the Vision is the source material (genre text, period etc.) and the game exists in between all of that.  

Thoughts on which is a better/more useful way to conceive of this concept?


Regards,
Em
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clehrich
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« Reply #9 on: May 11, 2003, 11:57:58 AM »

Hi, sorry I'm late, got caught in traffic....

Thanks, Eric, for taking this ball and running with it.  I'm liking where I see this going, and think it could potentially be quite useful.

A note on practicality is in order, however.  I do think this addition to the Grand Unified Theory could have practical utility, for the same reason that GNS does, or Stances.  The more clearly you know what you are trying to achieve, as a designer (or GM, for that matter), and the better you know what the implications of those choices are, the more efficiently and smoothly you can select the elements of game design that support these goals.  Because, as we all know, system does matter.

Back to your regularly scheduled program.

I'm not particularly wedded to either the moving-point or fixed-point versions of the model, but as long as everyone seems to like moving-point, let me make a pitch for the other side.

The first point is what I've called dynamic tension.  I see gaming, like any artistic form, as existing in a perpetual state of tension.  This creates drama (thus dramatic tension, for example), it creates excitement, and so forth.  Suppose we imagine a superhero campaign, of a relatively low power-level, just as an example.

Now on one end we have Baseline, a mutually-agreed upon general sense of what's possible, realistic, etc.  You don't have to get cute about this; the point for me is just that if Baseline is our modern world, and your game happens very close to Baseline, you don't simply charge people who are firing machine-guns, nor do you seriously expect you will see a lot of people firing machine-guns.  Similarly, you expect that while it is perfectly possible for someone to run blindfolded across a busy highway and not get hit, you expect that (a) it will be very dangerous and he might not make it, and (b) if he does, it'll be because a lot of people have good reflexes and powerful brakes.

On the other end, we've got Vision: "relatively low-power supers," say, a little more powerful than "Unbreakable," but a little less so than "Dark Knight Returns."  Our Vision is also that it's gritty, it's violent, and that people's personal issues will tend to be more on the side of "I'm traumatized by accidentally killing that kid" than "I'm agonizing about whether my sweetie wants to marry me."

Now some have suggested that Vision is Premise, which I deny; I think that Vision may very well include Premise if there is one, but I don't know that every game is founded upon Premise.  Even in Sorcerer, in a particular campaign, I don't buy that the Premise is all there is to Vision, because Demons, and Summoning, and all that is part of Vision as well, as is tone, and color, and so forth.

At any rate, the point is that the game exists in a state of tension between Baseline and Vision.  When a dramatic situation comes up, it's dramatic because it's unclear which side is going to win out.  For example, suppose our superhero character is Very Tough -- that's his power, it seems.  So when he runs across that highway to save that baby, we've got a dramatic situation: (1) does he make it alive, unhurt, etc.? (2) does he save the baby?

Baseline is pulling toward (1) no, and thus (2) no.
Vision is pulling toward (1) yes, though maybe dinged a bit, and (2) probably yes.

So here's a thought: in the relatively low-mechanic games, how do you know when die rolls (or whatever) are required?  I mean, you don't need dice to tie your shoes.  So you know, I argue, because you intuitively sense a tension-point, a moment in which Baseline and Vision are pulling in different directions.  This requires resolution of some sort.

As far as Baseline and Vision shifting, i.e. being moving end-points, I'm not quite sure what's being referred to.  At times it seems as though we're talking about different games, at times about different runs of the same game, at times about diachronic change within a single campaign.

My push for fixity referred only to the last of these.  Of course D&D and Sorcerer have Baseline and Vision in really different places, and of course two different Sorcerer campaigns may well have really different Baselines and Visions.  No worries there.  My argument was, and I suppose is (as I say, I'm not all that wedded to it either way), that part of what constitutes Exploration is the constant push back and forth between Vision and Baseline, to see how and where they tend to pull back.  The better you know this, the less you're likely to push on the extreme outer limits of the two, I suppose, but even that doesn't strike me as necessary (just usual).

---------

Now let's talk practicality again, for a minute.

Suppose I want to design a game that's sort of like Unknown Armies but set in the Victorian era, and in which I have no intention of coming up with a whole vast back-story as UA did.  My idea is to have this sort of twisted magical conspiracy stuff be (1) less coherent, and (2) co-designed by the players and GM during the course of play.  [This game is called Shadows in the Fog, and a draft can be found at the WWW button below -- this is not a hypothetical example.]

Now as a designer, and as a GM, I have some problems to solve.  Let's look at some of the ones that fit neatly into this sort of modeling.

Baseline:  I know that the reality of the Victorian world is rather different from the reality of our world, but if I just announce that we're going to do everything "Victorian," nobody will really know what I'm talking about.  So what I do is to think about what things are actually different, and importantly so, between an ordinary Victorian sense of reality and ours.  I select as few of these as possible, and only the ones most important to me (because of Vision), and on these very few points I make an explicit plea for a shift of Baseline.  Otherwise, I don't challenge or bend an ordinary sense of reality; in fact, I emphasize that one ought to assume that Baseline is the reality an ordinary person (i.e. a player) has come to expect, insofar as physics, color, human behavior, etc.

Thus in this case, I make clear that getting shot tends to kill you, and all that.  But I do make a few points about how the law works: you can carry concealed weaponry all you like, and you can even fire it, but if you shoot somebody you'd better be of an appropriate class and/or have an enormously good reason and lots of witnesses.  Similarly, I remind people that there are no telephones; on the other hand, the London mail has between 5 and 7 deliveries and pickups per day, and thus within the main part of the city you can expect that a letter mailed in the early morning will receive a response by evening.  As to human nature, it may be true that Victorians wear their masks rather more strongly than modern Americans do, but don't think for a minute that the guy whose girl you just took at the ball doesn't mind, just because he was so polite and charming about it.  Your ordinary notions of humanity apply: you steal somebody's girl, that somebody gets pissed off.  Don't be fooled because he's better bred than you.

Vision: Now I do have a vision for this game, but (I can't stress this enough) there is no text I can point to and say, "Yeah, like that."  None.  I have a lot of such texts, but none of them is quite what I want.  So how do I convey the sort of game I want?

First, I make some negative moves.  NOT Victoriana chintz silliness with people saying "Gad, sir!" and wearing foofy clothing for the hell of it.

Second, I set a relatively far point, or rather group of them, through examples.  Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll and Hyde, Poe, Huysmans, Wilde; now some history: Jack the Ripper, the Golden Dawn, the Parnell Affair, Crippen, Cream, historical Freemasonry, the Poor Law, etc.

Third, I start suggesting ways to pull toward the Vision end of the spectrum, through examples of magic, heroism, and so forth.

Fourth, I go into considerable mechanical detail about how to bend the universe through magic and manipulation of Tarot cards.  This is back to Mike's Rant: by putting this in the mechanics, where little else is actually mechanically represented, we clearly emphasize that this game is largely about magic.

Dynamic Tension: If this works, the idea is that the players will now help formulate Vision by contrast to Baseline.  When something happens that seems seriously out-of-kilter to Baseline, they should be able to decide, aesthetically, whether it "feels" right in the sense that it's a strong pull toward Vision where it varies from Baseline.  Similarly, if somebody starts doing the whole cheese-whiz pseudo-Victoriana nonsense, it should pull so hard against Baseline (people just don't act that way, period, and never did) that the whole group more or less acts to suppress it.

Eventually, the hope is that the this balancing act will become very subtle: it only takes slight tweaks out of reality (off Baseline) to hint that something extraordinary and probably magical (toward Vision) is happening.  Even the most minor occurrences start to become clues to hidden conspiracies and so forth.

Now this is admittedly a somewhat extreme example.  It's deliberately so.  My point is:

1. This Baseline-Tension-Vision model directly affects design.
2. System matters, and is strongly supported here.
3. Baseline is not Social Contract, nor physics, nor reality as it actually is; it's a perception based on comfort and the "ordinary," and can be tweaked a bit as desired.
4. Vision is not Genre, unless you want to limit it so; there is no established genre for SitF, since there is no example at all for SitF.
5. The excitement and interest of the game lies in Tension.
6. One can treat the endpoints as fixed, and still have this make sense.

On point 6, I suspect you can treat them as moving, but as somebody noticed, it's a lot harder to design toward a moving target.

Okay, that's more than enough for one post.  I look forward to continuing the discussion....
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Chris Lehrich
John Kim
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« Reply #10 on: May 11, 2003, 02:53:07 PM »

Quote from: clehrich
  My point is:

1. This Baseline-Tension-Vision model directly affects design.
2. System matters, and is strongly supported here.
3. Baseline is not Social Contract, nor physics, nor reality as it actually is; it's a perception based on comfort and the "ordinary," and can be tweaked a bit as desired.
4. Vision is not Genre, unless you want to limit it so; there is no established genre for SitF, since there is no example at all for SitF.
5. The excitement and interest of the game lies in Tension.
6. One can treat the endpoints as fixed, and still have this make sense.

OK, as expressed thus far, I don't see how this would apply to a lot of games.  The examples have all been on Earth with some changes.  But take Amber, for example.  What is the Baseline and what is Vision?  Then you have other cases: like Toon, Paranoia, or Star Wars.  How would you define the Baseline for these games?
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- John
clehrich
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« Reply #11 on: May 11, 2003, 05:48:30 PM »

Quote from: John Kim
But take Amber, for example. What is the Baseline and what is Vision? Then you have other cases: like Toon, Paranoia, or Star Wars. How would you define the Baseline for these games?

As far as I'm concerned, there's really not a lot of difficulty here; that's why I like the fixed-point model.

Amber: Baseline is ordinary reality, period.  The only oddity about Amber, really, is that the Baseline comes in lots of odd flavors, with variants and so forth.  But at least in the books, the point is that Corwin and so forth act like pretty much normal people -- with a BIG twist.  Thus the opening of the first book, right?  So the whole drama of it is discovering how Amber is ordinary reality, it's just that ordinary reality is thinner and less real than it seemed; only Amber itself is truly real.  That's Vision, man!

Paranoia: What makes it funny is that Baseline is ordinary reality, but paranoid.  The regular characters assume that dangerous situations are dangerous, and that everyone's out to get them.  Nevertheless, the Vision part of it is extremely weird: the Computer, and all the wackiness of Alpha Complex.  The whole fun part is that despite the characters' certain knowledge that things will shortly go very bad, they are nevertheless forced to go through with the idiotic plans and jobs assigned to them.  What I'm saying is that if Baseline is not ordinary reality, i.e. there is no shared conception of the real world to bounce this Vision off, then there's nothing funny or paranoid about it; it's just another world.

I happen to remember one sample adventure: the PCs are asked to guard this super-powerful ultra-tank with an AI.  So step one: Baseline says, "Why the hell do they have to guard an ultra-powerful self-sufficient hyper-intelligent tank?  Can't it guard itself?  And anything that can take the tank can vaporize them in a second, right?  This is stupid!"  Vision says, "This is an important duty, citizens!  Go To It!"  So we've set up the whole paranoid stupidity of the ultra-bureaucratic mind.  Now we get part two: the thing wambles on and on about how powerful it is, and how sucky they are, and then suddenly a little tiny piece falls off and the thing goes dead.  Baseline: "Oh god, we're in a lot of trouble; should we try to (1) cover it up, (2) fix it, (3) run like hell, (4) admit it and hope honesty works?"  Vision: "Oh god, we're so hosed.  Options 1-3 sound insane, but option 4 is not an option."  Welcome to Alpha Complex.  The point is that the whole thing balances between reality and Alpha Complex; if the characters were really Part Of The Machine, like they're theoretically supposed to be, there's no tension at all, because they just accept things the way the Computer wants them.  The whole point is that they're not machines, but people, and people are people wherever they are; this creates tension between Baseline and Vision, creating (in this case) paranoid silliness.

Star Wars: Again, the whole point is that it's ordinary.  You just have to expand your mind a bit to take into account a few basic scifi tropes: aliens, rapid transit across the stars.  So when you go into a really seedy bar in a backwater hell-world like Tatooine, you just know, dollars to donuts, that some sleazy guy is going to pick a fight.  It's scifi, so he's wearing a funny rubber suit; otherwise it might just as well be a really bad part of L.A. (and I hear these things about L.A., actually...).  So Luke is just this dude working on a moisture farm in the desert, with his boring aunt and uncle, and he meets this crazy old dude who starts talking about the Force.  Now Vision comes into it: it's not normality at all.  And not everyone even believes in it, actually, even within the universe.  So when big coincidences arise, or this old guy just vanishes when cut in half, or a voice says, "Let go," you know for damn sure that it's The Force.

Toon: Never played it, never read it.  It does sound like something where baseline is more than a little skewed.  But assuming we're talking Bugs Bunny and Road Runner, what makes it funny is that when you drop an anvil on somebody's head, he doesn't just get really really low to the ground; he gets hurt.  The tension is in seeing how, this time, Wile E. Coyote will use one of Acme's products and have something totally normal happen -- but mysteriously survive it.  I mean, so he puts rockets on his roller-skates and lights them.  Big surprise, his feet go first, and he goes flying.  This is normal, folks.  What's not normal is that (1) he even thinks of this in the first place, (2) he survives it, and (3) he mostly ends up with really long legs for a while.  Oh, and (4) he does it again.

My whole point is that if you want to communicate Vision, you're trying to communicate how things vary from Baseline reality.  Here and there, some of these will have to be specified: there are aliens, you can't die, stuff like that.  But otherwise, you want to leave the tension: if James Bond is climbing a cliff, we know he won't die, but the scene is tense anyway because it's like reality (in which he really might die); if he can't die, the scene sucks.

Does this help?

Incidentally, just to be spectacularly unhelpful to 99% and I suspect very helpful to about 1%, it occurs to me that this is how Ricoeur thinks of the hermeneutic circle in literature.  Reading literature is a process of moving from the reader's world [Baseline] into the world "in front of" the text [Vision] and then returning for reflection.  This circular process continues throughout the reading, and culminates in some sort of sense of meaning, formulated dynamically somewhere between the two.  This is part of why reading does not discover the subjectivity of an author: all that is present in the text, to any reader, is a world in front of the text [Vision], and even that can only be appropriated in terms of the reader's world [Baseline], such that whatever meaning you find in the text is a dynamic, created product of your own hermeutics.  End jargon.

As to the moving Baseline approach, Eric or Emily, want to jump in?
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Chris Lehrich
Mike Holmes
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« Reply #12 on: May 12, 2003, 07:09:18 AM »

So tension here is based on how unusual the non RL elements are to the inhabitants of the world? That is, it seems to me that Baseline is what the inhabitants expect, and Vision is what we really get. Tension, then is the difference between the expectations of the inhabitants and what really happens?

Stll seems mighty nebulous to me. I'm certain I'm not understanding something.

BTW, premise is somewhat an outmoded term which is starting to be replaced by the phrase Creative Agenda becasue of the confusion it caused. But, simply stated, all games have Premises. It's the "what do you do?" of the game.

Mike
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Harlequin
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« Reply #13 on: May 12, 2003, 10:25:46 AM »

I think I can speak to this somewhat.

First off, the moving-endpoints thing really is a small part of the whole.  We've been using the moving term to mean "different if you ask different (playgroups or players)" and also to mean "different from moment to moment within the same group, both due to the initial learning-curve of picking up the text, and due to a shift in the group's expectations as play progresses."  Sure, these are distinct, and sure, it's hard to hit a moving target... but I think that more importance is getting assigned to this than needs to.  Chris L. is quite right that the whole idea makes sense even if you treat them as stationary.  I think that the "moving endpoints" refinement is of most use to us in one specific application: a caveat.  We will talk about things being "nearer to the Baseline" or being "strongly indicative of the game's Vision" or what have you... but never forget that neither of these is truly a fixed point, and assume that you need some slack.  Like with the idea of resiliency as discussed elsewhere, you need to assume that two groups will read your Vision differently, and try to make your Vision-dependent elements of design able to adapt to either one.  Other than as used in this one caveat, "moving endpoints" will only become really useful once we have a more solid understanding of this set of terms, at which point I'll crack open stuff like the learning curve discussion and we can come at those with proper tools in hand.  Moving endpoints will be a lot more relevant then, but is not otherwise (IMO) all that important to us at the current level of understanding.

The other is that I disagree slightly with some of Chris L.'s examples of Baseline, and Mike's last question lands right at the disconnect, so we certainly need to address it or get muddled.

I think the important part for me is that Baseline always refers to player comfort zones, player expectations, realism and default context as understood by the players.  Never to something the characters, whether they be the PCs or the general inhabitants of the setting, believe to be the case.  This ties directly to one of the primary functions of the Baseline - to be the point of contact, the accessible context, for the readers/participants.  Chris, I may not even have a functional definition of the word 'hermeneutic,' but your sideline about Ricoeur still speaks to me very clearly and clicks with - and expands upon, with its thought of things as cyclical - my understanding here.  This is not something we should let go by without some look at how it works into all of this.  And the first thing I emerge from it feeling is that we could, perhaps, define Baseline as that subset of the game elements with which the gamers at the table can directly relate, and which require very little suspension of disbelief or immersion in the world.

It's rather circular, but the Baseline should always make sense directly, without needing the Vision explained to the reader.  The Vision is the component which the game designer must impart, from his mind into theirs; the Baseline is that which they themselves bring to the table, in terms of their real-world experiences and their intuition.  The designer can say, The following things work as you would expect them to; they are the Baseline.  The following things violate your intuition about the way things work; they are the Vision, and I will explain them to you.

We can look at that last in context of Ars Magica, very clearly.  There are two parts to the setting text in AM, and I suspect that although they are not perfectly well separated in the layout, textual analysis would reveal strong distinctions between the two ways of describing things - they do use quite a different tone of voice.  Part one is where they say, "This game is set in a variant of mediaeval Europe.  If you aren't familiar with mediaeval Europe, here's an overview to get you started."  Part two is where they say, "Except that, because magic is real and magi, faeries, and these other elements exist, here are some ways in which the setting is not mediaeval Europe."

Putting it this way, with expectation as a strong element of the Baseline, I think we might find that games which strongly derive from source material, such as Star Wars, are a kind of a special case.  Because you need to speak to two groups of people, one - fans of the source matter - for whom the tropes of that material are expected in a game about this universe; and two, the people who don't know Luke from Adam, for whom our own reality remains 'that which is intuitive' and for whom it is a much, much bigger jump to the Vision.  This is probably just the single most severe instance of a moving endpoint we know, and is part of why such material is typically (a) difficult to write, and (b) difficult to do sophisticated things with.  Among its other awkwardnesses, it makes playing any games with Baseline-Vision tension very difficult, when the line between them could be quite short, or extremely long, for any given group.  And this is not laughable; think of my examples above, which either heighten the differences or minimize them, for effect.  Putting lightsaber stats alongside sword stats could help make them more comfortable for one group, who don't go into it knowing what a lightsaber is... but it would grate on the other, for whom that's all playing around within the Baseline itself, and indeed for whom the inclusion of ordinary swords at all is a kind of failure to meet expectations.

Treating games whose Vision is internally derived is probably simpler, for now, because it lets us approach the dichotomy unclouded by the above.  The same thing goes for Toon, I think... some people come at it with this merry Baseline they want to emulate, who don't need the game to have much Vision at all ("you can play these characters" may be it), while others come at it from a closer-to-home perspective, and the merry pranks come from the communicated Vision messing with their expectations of the laws of physics.

Regardless, if we stick to talking about Shadows in the Fog, Ars Magica, or other games all of whose Vision is contained in the game text and not invoked through specific outside sources, I think we can keep things clearer for now.

Which brings me back to:
Quote from: Chris Lehrich
So here's a thought: in the relatively low-mechanic games, how do you know when die rolls (or whatever) are required? I mean, you don't need dice to tie your shoes. So you know, I argue, because you intuitively sense a tension-point, a moment in which Baseline and Vision are pulling in different directions. This requires resolution of some sort.


I love that.  Yes.  And also Yes to the bit, slightly later, about how...
Quote from: ...as he also
...part of what constitutes Exploration is the constant push back and forth between Vision and Baseline, to see how and where they tend to pull back.


Or, to put the emphasis elsewhere, relevant play only occurs in the space bounded by the Baseline and the Vision.  Take a look at a few examples of dysfunctional play:
- Jill and Amos start from the same Baseline, but each read the text differently, and head toward what they see as the Vision.  Those Visions are very disparate, probably the result of poor communication on the part of the designer or poor reading (assumptions etc) on one of their parts.  Each one sees the other's play as inappropriate, because it does not occur in the space between their Baseline and Vision.
- Leo and Bertrand start from very different Baselines when it comes to gun combat; Leo is a cop, Bertrand is an aficionado of very bad action movies.  They read a game and agree on its Vision just fine, and play together contentedly so long as they remain near the Vision end of the spectrum.  Their characters both run out of Magic Points and have to rely on guns instead.  The rules (which focus on magic) assume that, for such very "ordinary" actions, a high level of common sense and player intuition should be used.  Trouble ensues because they can't both stand on the ribbon between Baseline and Vision at once.
- Sam is a lover of the Star Wars universe, he cracks open a rulebook and finds lightsaber stats sitting next to ordinary swords, and - to him - insufficiently distinct from one another.  He is being subtly bothered, because for him, lightsabers are intuitive, and so we're using a manipulative technique - putting their stats side-by-side so you can't help but compare - on two things which both fall within his Baseline.  In fact, steel swords break with his vision of the universe, are on the opposite side of the Baseline point, from the Vision. (Jim, on the other hand, is able to grasp what a lightsaber is, much more quickly, because of this same juxtaposition.)
- D&D3E releases a sourcebook for characters over twentieth level.  This essentially breaks with the existing Vision, because the extant visualizations all assume struggling through dungeons, all assume that the universe is bigger than the characters, and this has ceased to be the case.  They have to retool the Vision, and in doing so, many people find it no longer the same game.  Their 'relevant to play' space - the gap between Baseline and the D&D Vision - does not include this stuff.

So it's not trivial to say that we do our Exploration 'within this space'... because it's quite possible to step outside that space and offend, and in fact the moving endpoints make this sometimes rather tricky to avoid.  Moreover, our sensibility seems to have an auto-zoom function, expanding or contracting such that our Exploratory perception "fills the space" regardless of scope.  In a game of Millenium's End, our sense of that which is being explored expands such that the (relatively small) gap between Baseline and Vision fills our viewfinders.  In a game of Exalted or Talislanta, our viewfinder expands and our exploration has essentially the same importance in our eyes, covering a larger space by taking bigger steps.

As such, to Chris' six points, I would add:

7. Play is only relevant when it occurs within the region of this Tension, and any contrast or detail is irrelevant to us if it does not fall within this space. (This could be considered an expansion of #5.)
8. The tension can be made locally stronger at any single point of play by contrasting the Baseline and Vision, or locally lessened by paralleling the two or otherwise playing down contrasts.

- Eric
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #14 on: May 12, 2003, 01:20:41 PM »

OK, wait. Lightsabres are Baseline? How are they not part of the Vision?

If Baseline and Vision are a player thing entirely, then the Baseline for every human is their experience, right? Well, then, yes it's a "moving point" for the indivisual in terms of how "realistic" they'll see the baseline elements. But I'm not sure that's something one can worry about too much. I mean I guess it's an esthetic consideration, but in terms of the text, you're going to choose a fixed aesthetic and stick to it. No two ways about it. And that includes "elastic" Baselines, which will annoy some people as much as a hard and wrong Baseline.

What I'm saying is that we can debate the nature of this beastie all night, but in the morning we have to design a game, and there's nothing here that tells me where to put the baseline at. And there never will be.

As far as the Vision, this now seems to me to be "those elements of the game that don't coincide with our reality (baseline)". Well, these elements have even less rules about what's good and what's not. Because some people like each element and others do not.

My favorite example is FTL travel. Almost nobody balks at this one. Oh, they'll have problems with humans with Psionic powers or something else they term "soft", but then ignore the fact that FTL travel is just as "soft". Basically there's no telling what'll turn one person on and another off.

So you just have to choose. And go with what you decide sounds like a good combination of elements.

Yes, the region between Baseline (that which every player knows is possible) and Vision (that which the game tells you is possible), is the bounded region of play. But that's just saying that a game is "about something" that there's a "what you do" in each game. That the text of the game defines the "what you do" in the context of what the player knows.

It's always been a point here at The Forge that good game design entails delivering to the player the "what do you do". The term we formerly used was Premise. Now we use the less problematic Creative Agenda. Which is defined as "that which is to be explored, and how to explore it."

The whole tension issue seems concocted to provide a meaning for this whole structure. I think there's something there, but that you don't need the term's Baseline and Vision to describe it (unless I have it very wrong as to what it is). I could define this tension as the fun that one has exploring the differences between our world and the game world.

If I'm still missing it, I'm still listening.

Mike
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