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Title: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 04, 2011, 11:55:14 AM
My current secret design project is a rich setting RPG aimed at longer term play. Thirteen sessions into internal playtesting I'm noticing a vague pattern of player behavior which I don't think is a mechanical problem I need to solve, but which I'm pretty curious about. Examples:

One character is in the employ of an NPC who desperately wants forgiveness from a woman he hasn't been able to find for his own inaction against an injustice a few years ago. He hired the player character to find this woman, and it turns out she is dead. But the player character has come to possess a seed that grew on a plant creature on the grave of the deceased woman, which will instill someone who consumes it with her personality for a time. Well, the player character meets with his employer, tells him the woman is dead, and about the seed, and then proceeds to fake consuming the seed, pretend to embody her personality, and argue that no forgiveness is needed, her own actions against the injustice weren't noble of purpose, but were out of revenge, and that the employer should just get over it.

The player enacted an elaborate head game on the NPC, with no real purpose, and which wasn't particularly creative or dramatic.

Another character is employed by an NPC who reveals that he wants a specific woman killed and then tasks the player character with the murder. Well, the player has his character intentionally flub the murder attempt. Then he makes an inquiry into the life situation of the intended victim, finds out she believes her deceased husband still might be trying to harm her, and starts an unfocused, low energy investigation of the husband. When he ultimately goes to confront his employer, the character he actually knows wants this woman killed, he attempts a bunch of weird head games on him. He suggests the employer's other employee might have been the one to flub the murder attempt. And then he suggests he's arranged a meeting between the employer and a friend of the woman he wants dead, because the friend "has information you need to hear". The arranged meeting is a spontaneous invention. He works hard to convince his employer to go to the meeting. But why, when it's not like the friend is actually going to be there, or that the player character is going to drag her there or something. All that he's going to do is confront, and probably fight the employer himself at the meeting. So why the investigations and weird fictions that just pad things out with delays without adding drama?

Do you see players doing these kinds of weird head tricks on NPCs in your games? Do they think it's dramatic? What motivates this stuff?

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Caldis on March 04, 2011, 12:30:35 PM

I'm getting a hint of a film noir tone to the game, old time detective shows with Humphrey Bogart.  Those things always had bizarre twists and turns to the mystery, is it possible the players are trying to create those kinds of scenarios?



Title: Re: head games
Post by: Chris_Chinn on March 04, 2011, 12:36:54 PM
Hi Paul,

Ugh.  Yeah, I've seen these, and usually I figure it comes to a couple of things.

First, abused gamer syndrome.  There's a ridiculous amount of adventure/scenarios which involve "the big reveal" that the NPC you're working for, is actually evil.  It's a pretty piss-poor plot device in rpgs at this point, but it's still common enough that a lot of players have learned to assume that NPCs are either against you or exist to be rescued.  Hence the need to keep all info from NPCs as well as subvert any stated goals they give.  

The second part of that, is an attempt to sabotage railroading, or at least, make the GM work very hard to succeed at it.  "I am a skillful player because I outsmarted your plot and tweaked your nose!"  The plots are always convoluted because the goal is to be as opaque as possible with regards to the GM.  (Also, notice that these things are always a social mind game, something that for a lot of traditional games, you don't have to worry about mechanics getting in the way of this hustle.)

Obviously, if you're not playing a game that has either of these things going on, it's a very "Um what?" moment.

I remember a few years back, running a Legend of the Five Rings game, in which everyone wanted to play the sneaky, intrigue-y Scorpion clan.   The player who was most enthused, and also very familiar with the setting, decided to play a character totally against type- honest, straightforward, cast out from his family, etc. etc.  

I assumed the player either a) was going to play a tragic character against the world or b) had a really sneaky plan to use his honesty to outwit the problems.

Instead, he proceeded to do all that weird convoluted stuff, not at all focused on his stated goals in any way, and was both confused and frustrated when I followed up on all the plot hook/problems he set up for himself during character creation.   The rest of the players were also wondering where he was going with it as well, and he ran out of the room in frustration at one point.  I never managed to get him to articulate what he wanted or what he was trying to do in the game.

Overall, I see this kind of stuff as the example in the flesh of the problems of long term play under Illusionism, especially when it's promoted as the ideal method of storytelling.   For players who want character agency, it builds up more and more frustration and the only coping mechanism most have developed is bizarre acts in the fiction that are "unreadable" as a form of "gaining agency" (or, the illusion of it).

This is one of the major issues I was thinking about during the giant kerfluffle about White Wolf play impairing the ability to create and interact with stories and fiction in a normal sense- people lose the ability to either trust the fiction presented to them as well as the ability to communicate honestly and clearly their own fictional input, and often, the thought processes or motivations in play.

Chris


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Cliff H on March 04, 2011, 12:45:06 PM
I run into this stuff a lot. The player who's the main perpetrator doesn't usually go so far out of his way as either scenario you describe, because he doesn't want to be responsible for intentionally derailing everything, but he does have a serious love of playing head games with my NPCs, and in some cases they're both elaboate and time consuming.

In his case, I'm pretty sure the reason is that it's his way of establishing superiority. He likes to be better than others, but unlike many people, has no particular interest in being the toughest fighter around. His characters are routinely frail and borderline incompetant when it comes to violence.

But put him in a social situaiton, and he's a terror. He loves to fast talk, and pairs excellent role playing with solid character builds to back it up. While he uses this to help the party, he also can't resist getting a "neener neener" moment on any NPC of importance. Where one of my players needs to beat down every even mildly hostile NPC, this one needs to out manipulate those with any kind of power.

I've taken it as quasi-gamist play, with the objective being establishing superiority over those who aren't immediatley subservient. Might your player be trying something similar. In the last situation you mention, for example, the character could just throw down with the employer, but by tricking him first he gets one additional kind of victory over him, besting him twice and proving himself that much better.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: David Berg on March 04, 2011, 02:39:57 PM
Hi Paul,

Responding to fictional situations in non-obvious ways sounds creative to me.  In the right games, I've had immense amounts of fun doing exactly that.  "Okay, GM, now what?"  When the GM's enthused about that, the results are dramatic and interesting, with a nice "yes, and" vibe developing.

In my own case, head games were a natural (to me) offshoot of the fictional positioning.  If my main leverage is an information advantage, one of the most fun things to do with that is to trick people.  Caring that much about what NPCs know and believe also seems in keeping with a focus on "rich setting".  Throwing around monkey wrenches to see how the world reacts is a nicely interactive form of setting exploration.

Without knowing anything else about your secret design project, it sounds to me like you just need to give the players more incentive to do whatever it is you wish they were doing instead of playing head games.  Either that or help make the head games fun.  (Or your players are just dicks who refuse to engage with the actual game, but I assume you wouldn't be posting this if you thought that was the case.)

Ps,
-David


Title: Re: head games
Post by: jburneko on March 04, 2011, 02:48:17 PM
Paul,

I think what you're seeing is a variation on what I sometimes think of as Therapist Play.  I'm very fond of anxiety-ridden, obsessive, and guilt-ridden NPCs.  Then what happens is that there comes this point in play where the PCs stop taking action and engage in an attempt to persuade, deceive, intimidate or otherwise emotionally manipulate the NPC into giving up his "stupid" emotional dysfunctions.  And yeah, it of sucks from a dramatic perspective.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on.

Here's the conclusion I came to.  The problem is that often these NPCs would make better PCs.  But what I end up doing is attempt to have these NPCs *project* their neurosis on to the PCs by asking them for favors or hiring them for jobs that will fulfill their obsessions.  Then wonder why the PCs (a) say "No" and (b) turn around and attempt these weird psychological plays to try and get the NPC to "get over himself."

What would be *better* is if these NPCs took clean, directed action *on their own* and let the PCs decide what to do about that.  When I catch myself doing the weird psychological projection thing, stop, and course correct into direct action what I sometimes discover is a big gapping black hole of play.  Suddenly, I realize that the NPC is either perfectly capable of solving the problem on his own, the resulting problems his actions cause are only of relevant to himself, or his actions will ultimately result in his own self-destruction.  Effectively, I'm playing with myself and there really isn't any reason for the PCs to get involved at all unless they decide to buy into the NPCs psychological problems.

Paul, are you GMing these games or otherwise running these "employers"?  I would like to make the suggestion that what you're seeing may be the result of you and I sharing this problem.

Jesse


Title: Re: head games
Post by: David Berg on March 04, 2011, 02:52:24 PM
I should amend my last post to note that in addition to using an information advantage, lies are a way to create an information advantage.  Confusing your enemies and potential enemies often seems like a good way to stay one step ahead of them while you figure out what to do next.  Specifically, I'm remembering a game where my group got the werewolves to think that the vampires were behind the government nuking Staten Island.  We didn't know what this would accomplish, but it seemed generally advantageous to hide our own involvement and to get other factions mad at each other or pulling in the wrong directions.  The GM responded by having the werewolves hire us to kill vampires.  Not exactly what our characters wanted, but as players we loved seeing the consequences of our machinations ripple outward in that fashion.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 04, 2011, 06:41:43 PM
Jesse,

Yes, I'm running the game and roleplaying the NPC employers. And I can see how this may be true:

What would be *better* is if these NPCs took clean, directed action *on their own* and let the PCs decide what to do about that.  When I catch myself doing the weird psychological projection thing, stop, and course correct into direct action what I sometimes discover is a big gapping black hole of play.  Suddenly, I realize that the NPC is either perfectly capable of solving the problem on his own, the resulting problems his actions cause are only of relevant to himself, or his actions will ultimately result in his own self-destruction.  Effectively, I'm playing with myself and there really isn't any reason for the PCs to get involved at all unless they decide to buy into the NPCs psychological problems.

If so, what's your solution?

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 04, 2011, 06:56:48 PM
Hi Paul,

Jesse's answer is right there in the text you quoted:

Quote
What would be *better* is if these NPCs took clean, directed action *on their own* and let the PCs decide what to do about that.

This is a big part of playing Trollbabe for me, and also Sorcerer. I'm finding it hard to answer some of Moreno's questions in the Adept forum for exactly that reason. He seems to be asking me about how to keep making Trollbabe players get their trollbabes to buy into NPCs' problems. And I spent pages of text in the book repeating that this is not how to GM, to do X, Y, and Z, in which Z is extreme and desperate action on the NPCs' parts, and let the trollbabe involve herself however she wants to, whenever she wants, including not at all. And there are explicit instructions about how to deal with the latter, all aimed at not trying to force the player, and letting the scenario's chips fall where they may without her, and that's OK.

I think a lot of people GM at two arms' length, or maybe it's better to say, through a double thickness of if's. The first if is whether the PC buys into the NPC's problem. The second if is if the PC does what the NPC wants/tells them to.

I threw out both if's long, long ago. Now I have NPCs do stuff, say stuff, and affect stuff, and I say to myself, fuck the PCs anyway. I don't GM player-characters any more, not one little bit. If they want to do something, they do. Then I only respond mainly by scene-framing, crossing, and weaving, i.e., making paths and effects come into contact with one another to provide maximum opportunity for doing something. But that's all. If they do nothing, I don't stall out. If they do some kind of weird pseudo-mind-game shit, I don't flounder there with them. My NPCs aren't codependent; they're active, and if they get fucked with in the way you're describing, they'll most likely decide they have bigger problems than they were originally working with, namely the player-characters themselves, and take action toward them. This isn't a punishment for the players - it's just the way things go based on what they did or didn't do.

All that said, I do wimp about doing this every so often. My Dice Dojo GMing is often quite poor in this regard, as I described in the Rustbelt thread.

Best, Ron


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 04, 2011, 07:08:40 PM
Hey Ron,

I think Jesse lays out the potential play consequence of your strategy as well:

Effectively, I'm playing with myself...

And I've definitely had that in the current game, when I have handled NPCs as self-directed characters. I've had to roleplay whole conversations among groups of two and three NPCs while players just observed. In one case I had to roleplay a conversation between a woman and her lover who were trying to decide what to do about her deranged husband. It's not un-fun when it happens. But it feels like a weird violation of group expectations somehow.

Paul



Title: Re: head games
Post by: stefoid on March 04, 2011, 07:10:05 PM
Just beat me to it.  I was just going to say, Paul, that if you think the PCs attempts at headgames were 'silly' (to sum up the various negative vibes you describe them with) then chances are the NPC would also, and the reaction would likely be simple and direct -- basically 'cut the crap' in one form or another.



Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 04, 2011, 07:25:23 PM
I was just going to say, Paul, that if you think the PCs attempts at headgames were 'silly' (to sum up the various negative vibes you describe them with) then chances are the NPC would also, and the reaction would likely be simple and direct -- basically 'cut the crap' in one form or another.

Now that, is good advice. Because of the way the mechanics enable players to sometimes force a favorable tone on outcomes from the resolution system, I may be over indulging some of the bullshit. And there's no reason I should. I can reject wimpy victimization of the NPCs via head games, as you suggest, and still accommodate the sometimes "favorable tone" mandate from the resolution mechanics. I think.

Needs some thought.

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Renee on March 04, 2011, 10:01:46 PM
As a player in the game (but not one whose scenes were cited in this example), I think we should probably talk about whether or not the people involved are having fun or not. If they are, then I'm not sure there's a huge downside here; perhaps you didn't find these scenes dramatic or creative, but they haven't been the only un-dramatic or non-creative scenes we've had. God knows, I've had more than a few scenes that were much more blase than either of the scenes you describe (both of which I kind of liked), and did the exact opposite of playing "head games"...I engaged the conflicts head-on, in ways that were obvious and, I think, expected. Point being, not every moment is going to be gold for everyone.

Matt is sitting right next to me and I just asked him what he thought. His response: "How was that scene undramatic? It was awesome." So what I think we have here, at least in part, is a question about fun...what is fun, and whose fun gets prioritized during play (moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene, session-to-session, campaign-to-campaign, etc.). Sounds like a creative agenda issue to me. Not an irreconcilable one, but one that may require compromise.

Best,
Renee


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Renee on March 04, 2011, 10:17:09 PM
Oh, and one addendum to my previous post:

From a game design perspective, I'm not saying design a game that produces play you don't like. Just that as an actual play topic, functional play is going to depend on players with different agendas and/or aesthetic concerns occasionally stepping back and appreciating each others contributions. I immediately got a tone in this thread that one style of play was "better" than another, and I don't think that's true.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 04, 2011, 11:02:43 PM
Paul, what do you think "would" have been dramatic in those scenes. Was there something you expected to happen?

Maybe my character should have really ate the seed, or just handed the seed to the NPC, but those were pretty obvious choices and to be obvious isn't dramatic at all.  I'm not even sure doing either of those things would have brought about a satisfactory solution to the situation. For one, the NPC was waffling about whether he wanted the seed or not. Based on what my character knew and my view of the situation I didn't think forgiveness from the woman was a guarantee or even useful in solving the NPC's emotional problem, especially since there was a pretty high probability that the spirit in the seed was bat shit crazy.  My character took the initiative and tried to remove that risk and actually help the guy. I tried to do something different, non-cliche, not boring. Yes, my character bullied the NPC around and maybe that's mind games, but so what? I found it compelling and I think the other players did too.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Alfryd on March 05, 2011, 06:26:12 AM
Paul, what do you think "would" have been dramatic in those scenes. Was there something you expected to happen?

Maybe my character should have really ate the seed, or just handed the seed to the NPC, but those were pretty obvious choices and to be obvious isn't dramatic at all.
I'd just say that, while I agree the second example Paul gave did seem overly convoluted, I agree that the seed-eating choice doesn't seem particularly non-dramatic to me.  I mean, if you wanted to interpret this from a narrativist-thematic perspective, "sweet lies are preferable to hard truths" would seem to be the thrust of that decision.  What's wrong with that?  *shrugs*


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Alfryd on March 05, 2011, 06:28:54 AM
...I agree that the [faked] seed-eating choice doesn't seem particularly non-dramatic to me...
Whoops, fixed.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Jeff B on March 05, 2011, 02:33:06 PM

Great topic.  I think the earliest days of RPG's misled so many of us in so many ways.  For example, the NPC-Employer quest model was over-used from the beginning.  Perhaps it has taken decades to figure out that this format has certain weaknesses in actual play.

To respond from another angle, what I don't see mentioned in the play example is direct communication on the social level.  If I were running that scenario, and the player faked the seed-swallow and then began to play head games, I would probably call for a pause in play and interact on the social level for a while:  "It's difficult for me to respond to your character's actions without understanding your motive.  Can you tell me about what your character wants to accomplish?  Is the gameplay working for you so far?"  This kind of communication can help ensure that the player is only messing with the NPC, rather than messing with the GM or just expressing superiority in a gamist way (as pointed out earlier in this thread).

In addition to the great comments I read here, tossing in my vote for direct player-to-player communication about goals and preferences.




Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 01:10:59 PM
Hey Matt,

I think that non obvious character actions aren't an important part of the recipe for drama. Graham Walmsley writes about this in Play Unsafe. Aiming for non obvious actions has pitfalls.

Graham writes, "Be obvious....When you respond obviously, 90% of the time, you'll carry the story forward naturally. If you'd tried to be clever, 90% of the time, you'd have thrown the story off course. And when you're obvious, one time in ten, you'll be brilliant." Also, "Be average. Don't try to be good at games. Don't try to play well....If you're trying to scale the heights of Awesome, we don't see Awesome: we see you trying."

Anyway, drama doesn't come from the non obvious and unexpected. It comes from creating expectations about things that are going to happen and managing and releasing tension about how and when the expectations will be satisfied.

So I can't say specifically what would have been dramatic in those scenes. But I think that protagonists create expectations by pursuing things that are important to them, and trying to solve things that are problematic or troubling to them.

I understand how fucking with NPCs feels thrilling because I've done it myself as a player. But it's not drama. I think David nails it in his comments. His answer to my "what motivates this stuff?" question rings true to my experience. It's thrilling because it's about power dynamics: having an information advantage, and throwing monkey wrenches around. But monkey wrenches aren't expectations that will be resolved, and information advantages that won't ever be released don't feed into the flow of drama.

Audiences get hooked on characters who seem human, because their pursuits are important to them. Stories are about an audience figuring out events that will come to pass, and anticipating and dreading the inevitable events because the flow of the story manages and releases tension about how and when.

That's why the fuckery was seeming weird to me. I don't see the thrills, because I'm not on the inside.

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Renee on March 06, 2011, 02:10:20 PM
Okay, so here's another wrinkle we haven't addressed: What about the role of resource management?

What I mean is that it was established early on that these seed pods are Pretty Fucking Cool(tm), and that possessing one was a fairly unique and interesting thing. Now, I'm not going to say that this was what Matt was doing, but maybe it makes sense to want to hold on to those things until you get maximum bang for them. And that bang could be a lot of things...not just using them, but bartering or trading them for other things or whatever. They are, after all, kind of a Big Deal in the setting (or so I've been led to believe).

And while that suggests yet more gaming of the situation, I don't think it's necessarily in disservice to the narrativist agenda (in fact, I'd say it's a gamist technique in service to narrativism...the seed pods have no system value whatsoever, they're wholly a story device with no other purpose in the game). We talk about "story now" and bangs as sussing out and doing whatever is most dramatic at the moment right now, but if the situation as presented wasn't dramatic (or dramatic enough, anyway) to inspire and provoke Matt, why would he be inclined to blow a valuable resource that he could later pull out for a bigger and more (personally) satisfying punch later on? The situation has to warrant pulling out the stops in that way.

And yeah, I know I'm kind of deflecting that back at you, and my intent isn't to defend Matt by fingerpointing in your direction...I mean this earnestly, as a topic for exploration. I don't know what Matt's read on that particular interaction was - whether he didn't think it was dramatic enough to go full tilt with his resources or not - but I know I've had scenes like that. My character doesn't have setting resources (like cool seed pods) available to him anyway (which is maybe why I keep going back to the jungle when I find myself creatively stymied...it's the ultimate, setting resource) but if I did, I wouldn't have been blowing them in hope of the scene becoming dramatic somewhere along the way...there has to be a promise of a payoff that I care about for me (using my favorite Ron phrase) to Step On Up in that way.

(Note: None of the above should be read as any kind of disappointment in the game. You know I really enjoy it. But it's a Pasta Flinger, not a Sausage Grinder, and an inherent characteristic of the Pasta Flinger is that some stuff is going to be good and stick and some isn't. And maybe sometimes we've glommed on to stuff we don't find that interesting and in so doing made it seem like it is, because we think maybe it'll become good, or at the very least, we know something better will eventually come along. But we're not going to waste our really cool stuff on story threads we're only mildly invested in because, you know, we may want that stuff later.)

(And here's a question for you, although I'm sure I know the answer: Suppose everything I wrote above does apply to Matt...that he just wasn't that invested in the scene/conflict/story arc of that NPC and as such, didn't want to waste his uber-cool seed pod right at that moment? Did he miss his one opportunity? Will his attempts to use the seed pod later in a cool and awesome way be undercut because he didn't use it in when the story most obviously was calling for it? I know you, so I'm pretty sure the answer is no, that seed pod isn't going to be relegated to the garbage pile of missed opportunities and forgotten about. The fact that something with that much dramatic potential is still in play is pretty cool to me.)

None of the above addresses what went on with Jason's scene obviously, and as I noted, it may have nothing to do with Matt either. But it's at least something interesting to discuss.

edited twice, once to correct a typo and once add the last sentence.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Alfryd on March 06, 2011, 02:15:30 PM
Anyway, drama doesn't come from the non obvious and unexpected. It comes from creating expectations about things that are going to happen and managing and releasing tension about how and when the expectations will be satisfied.
Paul, it's entirely possible this is all going straight over my head, but the general impression I've gotten is that putting the PCs in dramatic situations, more or less by definition, creates a certain amount of unpredictable, divergent behaviour on their part.  Because you're focusing on the consequences of players' choices, and those have to be real choices, and that means you can't possibly already know which way they're going to choose.  This is why you can't combine a railroad plot with playing narrativist.  ...At least, that's the impression I get, stop me if I'm wrong.

Now, sure, drama also (to my understanding,) requires a focus on the players' internal motivations (and the potential for conflicts between them,) so if the player is just screwing with the NPC gratuitously, then that's a problem.  But if they're doing it as an expression of some underlying ethical stance or realisation or moral epiphany, then, again, I don't see the inherent problem.  *shrugs*  Again, I don't know the details of exactly what happened during this session, so maybe I'm talking out of my ass.  But I find it very difficult to reconcile the concept of story ownership with the idea that PC responses should always conform to the 'obvious' and 'expected'.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Alfryd on March 06, 2011, 02:17:34 PM
Because you're focusing on the consequences of players' choices...
Shoot, I should arguably be saying characters' choices here.  But you get the picture.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Ben Lehman on March 06, 2011, 03:02:04 PM
Hey, Paul.

This is a game in playtest, right?

1) What are the design goals of the game, exactly? Are you trying to replicate "old school" play?

2) How well are the present mechanics answering that design goal?

I know you said it wasn't a mechanical problem, but I'm of the opinion that everything is ultimately a mechanical problem (or a social problem: I'm giving you and Matt and Renee the benefit of the doubt here.) I ask because this is a problem I see a lot in old-school setting rich games, and I think it's a pretty natural response to the disconnect between such systems and their promises.

yrs--
--Ben


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 03:44:32 PM
Hey Ben,

It's a rich setting game with traditional style GMing but non-traditional resolution mechanics. The mechanics are fun.

If the solution is mechanics, then what's the mechanical solution to the disconnect in the old school setting rich game?

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Ben Lehman on March 06, 2011, 03:59:07 PM
So, traditional GMing means a lot of things, but my experience with it in concert with rich-setting games is that it tends to be the single-step-removed from dungeon crawl thing where various NPCs give players missions and they complete them, with no particular purpose or goals on their own (you take the mission because, you know, that's what we're doing here, just like in a dungeon crawl game refusing to go into the dungeon is refusing to play.)

Is this accurate?

The thing about this sort of setup is that it can't deliver on its promises to everyone. The rich, textured world gives an implicit promise to the players about "go anywhere, do anything" and the ability of their own characters to make meaningful choices within the broad scope of the setting. But, ultimately, their choices are restricted to "take this job, do it," with any meaningful choice being just "how to do the job." There's a mismatch in setting as presented and the players ability to, you know, play in it.

(This is contrasting with a dungeon crawl, where the meaningful choices are on the same scale but the setting is small to match: your choices influence the setting as a whole because it's extent ends at the walls of the dungeon.)

This sort of set-up consistently results in two problematic things: The GM playing with himself while the players watch (this is because, in this sort of set-up, the NPCs are the real agonists of the situation, and thus to advance the story {as such} the GM must act out all parts) and the PCs engaging in random fuckery of NPCs, simply because it is the only way that they are given to play in the setting at all.

Your game has both of these issues, so I'm pretty sure that that's the disconnect that's going on.

There are several historical resolutions to these problems, but ultimately all of them are a shift away from "old-school GMing" or a shift towards even older-school GMing.

yrs--
--Ben


Title: Re: head games
Post by: stefoid on March 06, 2011, 04:29:30 PM
This is a great thread. 

So the summary is, Ben, that if you see players pissing about with (assumption) irrelevant headgames, its because they lack clear direction about else they could/should be doing?   Assuming the game is not broken, and this is a temporary hickup, the response should be 'something happens that the players cant ignore and takes obvious priority over the headgames'  bang!


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 06, 2011, 05:00:21 PM
I think Ben hit the problem right on the head


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 05:08:16 PM
Renee's characterization of the game as a pasta flinger rather than a meat grinder is dead on. The promise to the players isn't that they can go anywhere and do anything, but that they can have an impact on situations created by the GM, and that they can switch into different situations fairly readily if they want.

And I think it's also that they can be a protagonist if they want to. If you believe the definition of drama as tension over time about the when and how and outcomes of certain expected events, they don't start the game as protagonists, but more as proto-protagonists. Matt's character in particular has been across the landscape of the game and back, across numerous situations. The point at which he chooses to create some expectations, that's when he'll be a protagonist. There's no way that when Matt makes his purpose clear, that certain future events don't become installed by the social contract as inevitabilities.

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Ben Lehman on March 06, 2011, 05:11:19 PM
How would a player go about having a real impact on a situation (mission) created by the GM? Use the dead-lover-magic-seed mission as an example? What does actual engagement look like?

yrs--
--Ben


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 06, 2011, 05:48:51 PM
Paul,
My character's primary focus since the beginning of the campaign has been his relationship with with the NPC Kaya. From his very first scene in fact. Yet over and over he is confronted with NPC after NPC that have continually led him away from that story.  I kind of agree with Ben and Renee about the situations placed before our characters. Many times they are distractions or obstacles that clutter up our story, yet we feel compelled to participate in them, especially since we know how much effort you have put into creating those story arcs.
 
The one time I made a concerted effort to ignore one of those obstacles the system kicked me back and I was forced to waste a scene on it. Which by the way are huge resources to us. With 4 players who usually do not share scenes we only get a few scenes per session, sometimes only 1, so what we do in those scenes HAS to matter to us.

I have hoped that ultimately all of the different story arcs placed before my character would lead him back to the Kaya storyline, that they somehow all tied together, but either they're not or they're taking too long. I've been saying it for weeks that there are too many NPCs to keep track of and that's a result of adding more and more story arcs that seem to be cluttering things up and preventing us from grasping on to a single goal to focus on. I think the new feature that we recently added about our goals might help curtail this kind of thing and more clearly alert you to what we find compelling. I now find myself forcing the issue trying to get back to the story which has clearly been at my character's core.

Going back to the scene with the seed, my character's actions were in part influenced by his desire to return to that original storyline with Kaya. While impersonating the dead woman he took the opportunity to convince his employer that he (the employer) needed to find some kind of quest to give him fulfillment. I knew full well that I'd be offering up that very opportunity once the scene reached a conclusion.  That quest was to help my character find the woman he loves. And since his employer is indeed accompanying him on that quest, I consider the scene to have been a success. The fact that you forgot that he was even with my character the next session highlights that we clearly see different aspects of the campaign interesting.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 06:11:59 PM
Hey Matt,

Your relationship with Khaia is the most dramatically powerful thing about your character. I think every player has been waiting on the resolution of that situation. If other NPCs are a distraction, my advice is to bypass them and pursue the things that are important to you.

(I lost track of Amycus because you scrambled his head. I have no idea what he's thinking. Maybe you and I need to talk through the ending of the quest scene so I can figure him out.)

Paul



Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 06:22:44 PM
This is a great thread. 

You know this is what The Forge is all about? Everyone confronting gaming with honesty, and getting your hands dirty with game design and creative challenges in an effort to be a better gamer and create better games.

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: contracycle on March 06, 2011, 06:46:48 PM
Wrote a moderate sized post about why I thought Ben was wrong, but I've had to ditch it due to subsequent remarks.  This thread makes me think of two things, one that I'm having some sort of flashback to 2001, and two that it serves as a fine example of why the word "story" should be taken out and shot and never, ever referred to again.

Will say this though.  There's old school GMing and there's new old-school GMing.  Contrary to Ben's description, that stuff worked perfectly well until someone got the bright idea that play should conform to some sort of "story".  It was that novelty that lead to most of the impositional GM control that seems to give it its bad name.  Players and GM's in an open world type of game can have a perfectly healthy relationship based on the explicit understanding that not all the world is prepped and that the GM, by offering jobs etc, is flagging up the bits that are.  And players too can flag up to them which bits they would like to see detailed for future play.  Given Matt's account of the experience, it does not seem to me that there was the kind of pernicious game-sabotaging rebellion against the GM that Ben alludes to, but more a mismatch in terms of recognising interests and expectations.  If so, that should ber a much easier problem to solve.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: stefoid on March 06, 2011, 06:48:26 PM
This is great for me to hear, actually, because it is reinforcing a design decision in my own game that I am currently working on -- to have players set explicit goals for their character and then to explicitly reward the player for (a) introducing them (b) elaborating on them and (c) achieving them.  As well as instructions for the GM to concentrate dramatic action specifically around those goals and to mix in hooks and revelations concerning the goals whenever possible.

This is possibly getting tangential, but are there any games out there that reward desired GM behaviour explicitly?

Paul,
My character's primary focus since the beginning of the campaign has been his relationship with with the NPC Kaya. From his very first scene in fact. Yet over and over he is confronted with NPC after NPC that have continually led him away from that story.  I kind of agree with Ben and Renee about the situations placed before our characters. Many times they are distractions or obstacles that clutter up our story, yet we feel compelled to participate in them, especially since we know how much effort you have put into creating those story arcs.
 
The one time I made a concerted effort to ignore one of those obstacles the system kicked me back and I was forced to waste a scene on it. Which by the way are huge resources to us. With 4 players who usually do not share scenes we only get a few scenes per session, sometimes only 1, so what we do in those scenes HAS to matter to us.

I have hoped that ultimately all of the different story arcs placed before my character would lead him back to the Kaya storyline, that they somehow all tied together, but either they're not or they're taking too long. I've been saying it for weeks that there are too many NPCs to keep track of and that's a result of adding more and more story arcs that seem to be cluttering things up and preventing us from grasping on to a single goal to focus on. I think the new feature that we recently added about our goals might help curtail this kind of thing and more clearly alert you to what we find compelling. I now find myself forcing the issue trying to get back to the story which has clearly been at my character's core.

Going back to the scene with the seed, my character's actions were in part influenced by his desire to return to that original storyline with Kaya. While impersonating the dead woman he took the opportunity to convince his employer that he (the employer) needed to find some kind of quest to give him fulfillment. I knew full well that I'd be offering up that very opportunity once the scene reached a conclusion.  That quest was to help my character find the woman he loves. And since his employer is indeed accompanying him on that quest, I consider the scene to have been a success. The fact that you forgot that he was even with my character the next session highlights that we clearly see different aspects of the campaign interesting.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Judd on March 06, 2011, 07:55:38 PM
This reminds me of the player-version of running zig-zag patterns so that the GM can't get a bead on you and can't hit you with the trap that is set.  I have played with folks who do things like this and it feels like they are trying to avoid something terrible I have planned, rather than trusting that I am going to enjoy what their character would do.

It is, in my experience, playing to the GM as another player, rather than staying in character and playing to the situation and fiction at hand.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: David Berg on March 06, 2011, 08:02:53 PM
Pretty much everything Gareth just said resonates with my own experience.  I just wanted to highlight this:
players too can flag up to [the GM] which bits they would like to see detailed for future play
as a particularly effective technique to combat the failed promise Ben spoke of.  I've seen it work perfectly with this:
The promise to the players isn't that they can go anywhere and do anything, but that they can have an impact on situations created by the GM, and that they can switch into different situations fairly readily if they want.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: David Berg on March 06, 2011, 08:03:59 PM
Hi Paul,

It sounds to me like you and Matt have an important disconnect about roles.  He thinks he's supposed to look to you for where the plot's at, you think he's supposed to make decisions that dictate the plot for his character, and neither option is fully supported by what you guys are doing at the table.  I don't know whether the lack of support is causing the disconnect or the disconnect is causing the lack of support.

My own solution to this tends to revolve around signalling to the players "here's what you can get out of my various situations" so that they can make an informed choice between them.  I can trace pretty much every between-missions lag or weak mission buy-in in a Delve session to a failure on my part to do that.  (Of course, it's also necessary to signal opportunities the players actually want, but I've found that part far easier.)

I'm saying all this based on my reading that you like this:
Matt's character in particular has been across the landscape of the game and back, across numerous situations.
less than this:
The point at which he chooses to create some expectations, that's when he'll be a protagonist.
If I'm wrong, then never mind.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 08:11:21 PM
David,

I'm saying all this based on my reading that you like this:
Matt's character in particular has been across the landscape of the game and back, across numerous situations.
less than this:
The point at which he chooses to create some expectations, that's when he'll be a protagonist.

Absolutely. All those numerous situations is just me throwing more pasta hoping something will stick, because to me it seemed obvious that Matt had back-burnered the situation with Khaia.

I do think that once a character's protagonism is established by everyone knowing about an inevitable event--in Matt's case his reunion with Khaia--then the management and release of tension about when and how that inevitable event will occur is a joint effort by all. But Matt and I haven't been playing that...it hasn't felt like anything but a back-burnered thing.

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 06, 2011, 08:22:20 PM
Hey Judd,

It is, in my experience, playing to the GM as another player, rather than staying in character and playing to the situation and fiction at hand.

Can you play to the GM as another player in character?

Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 06, 2011, 08:47:03 PM
I think part of the disconnect is that is that my character has "back-burnered" the Khaia situation while he tries to get his head together about how he's going to deal with it, but I as a player never intended to back-burner the story at all. I always intended it to maintain it's place in the spotlight while my character kind of stalked his way around the situation. Their ultimate reunion is going to be awkward as she doesn't feel the same way he does and that is something he's concerned about. He's been stalling in a sense.

I think part of my problem with the whole spaghetti launcher concept is that the pasta isn't flavored right. I think your story arcs are interesting and pretty entertaining, but ultimately they rarely tie in with my character. They consistently focus on NPCs and quite consistently with NPCs that have no ties to the Khaia storyline. That leaves me in the situation that Ben mentioned where I either go with the story arcs placed before me or don't play.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: David Berg on March 06, 2011, 09:19:06 PM
Matt, do you think my signalling idea would help that?


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 06, 2011, 09:31:07 PM
Matt, do you think my signalling idea would help that?

I don't think that would work in this game. I don't need to know what the possible outcomes are as much as I need to know that those outcomes are going to advance my character's story in some way.



Title: Re: head games
Post by: David Berg on March 06, 2011, 09:42:34 PM
Er, wait, aren't all options potential opportunities to advance your character's story?  Is there any reason to have ones that aren't?


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Renee on March 06, 2011, 09:54:07 PM
This has been a really fun thread, and I hope it continues. Paul, Matt, and I have been discussing the situation all day long.

My summation of the problem is that there are two things going on:

1. We're not communicating what interests us very well. We're an experienced group and we've been through the ringer together, but part of what's getting in our way is that chargen explicitly denies the use of flags, and there's very little in the way of author stance (and no director's stance...do we even use those terms around here anymore? It's been so long...). There is a game mechanic that, among other things, can be used to flag stuff we consider important or cool, but we're not necessarily using it all that well (and that goes both ways...we need to use it, but it also needs to be noted and implemented effectively by the GM). At any rate, our failure to communicate our interests and/or see them manifest in the game leads us to enact certain "defense mechanisms"...mine is to sit there and let Paul talk to himself until something changes, while others try to engage in the best way they can (but not always with universal approval, which leads me to my second point).

2. Sometimes we fail to appreciate each others contributions. This is pretty normal, I think; everyone in our group has a slightly different aesthetic sensibility, and sometimes a thing that seems cool to a couple of us falls flat for the others. As a group we can work on being more appreciative, or at least not critical, of others contributions, but for the purpose of advancing Paul's design, we do need to identify which parts are merely this failure to share the love and which parts are legitimate failures to communicate via the game's rules. Not always an easy task.

And we're not the only ones involved...there are two other players who haven't chimed in, so there may actually be additional phenomena that haven't been teased out yet. But those are my feelings on day two of this conversation, which really aren't that different than my feelings on day one (and do not necessarily reflect the views of Paul or Matt).

In reply to stefoid, I think your question is an interesting one, but I do think it's too tangential to be included in this thread. Maybe something for a new thread?

Best,
Renee


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 06, 2011, 09:58:41 PM
Er, wait, aren't all options potential opportunities to advance your character's story?  Is there any reason to have ones that aren't?

No, not if the scene had nothing to do with my character's story. I most cases the scenes have been about the NPC's story that I happened to be participating in.

I guess you can argue that simply being in the scene makes it part of my character's story, but only in a tangential way.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: stefoid on March 06, 2011, 10:01:22 PM
Im a recent convert to establishing the game premise as 'thing 1'.  Like, a lot of indie games have a very specific premise. this is what the game is about and nothing else.  So you woulnt run into this problem of a character having goals, whether explicitly stated or assumed, that are at odds with what the game is about.  

But if you arent playing one of those games, then everybody can specify it up front :  In this game , the characters try to (general description of character aims)  by (general description of how they intend to achieve aims)  Or (general obstacles they will face to achieving their aims)

So using that structure, Paul, what is the (unstated?)  premise of the game you are currently playing?  and does Matt's love interest character motivation fit into that premise?


Title: Re: head games
Post by: C. Edwards on March 07, 2011, 10:55:16 PM
Is there something specific about the game that keeps the players from just having their characters pursue exactly the course of action they want to take? For example, if I were in Matt's shoes I'd probably point my character directly towards reuniting with Kaia. Any NPC that was handing out distractions without helping me reach that goal would probably get a pretty cold shoulder.

Matt, are you actually being that direct but getting caught up in the ever increasing branches of the setting tree that leads you farther from your goal?

Paul, from what you say the game sounds very sandbox-ish to me. But then Renee and Matt talk about story arcs and such. Is this just a big misunderstanding about the style of play the game is designed to accommodate?



Title: Re: head games
Post by: Alfryd on March 08, 2011, 06:47:57 AM
Your relationship with Khaia is the most dramatically powerful thing about your character. I think every player has been waiting on the resolution of that situation. If other NPCs are a distraction, my advice is to bypass them and pursue the things that are important to you.
I think part of the disconnect is that is that my character has "back-burnered" the Khaia situation while he tries to get his head together about how he's going to deal with it, but I as a player never intended to back-burner the story at all... ...I think your story arcs are interesting and pretty entertaining, but ultimately they rarely tie in with my character. They consistently focus on NPCs and quite consistently with NPCs that have no ties to the Khaia storyline. That leaves me in the situation that Ben mentioned where I either go with the story arcs placed before me or don't play.
This.  I mean, this is akin to the role of BITs in Burning Wheel- it's not just a way of defining your character's personality and motives, it's a signal to the GM about what the players want the story to be about.  The NPCs here should, at least a fair percentage of the time, be presenting dilemmas that centre around the players' interests as expressed through their characters' Positioning (I think that's the term anyway?)  The characters can't just go off and 'do their own thing', or pursue goals solely on their own initiative without GM involvement, because then they'd have to fabricate both impetus and adversity out of whole cloth- i.e, play with themselves.  And if GM involvement is needed, then it's the GM's responsibility to prime conflicts so they hit the PCs' emotional buttons.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Matt Gwinn on March 08, 2011, 08:20:24 AM
Is there something specific about the game that keeps the players from just having their characters pursue exactly the course of action they want to take?

Our characters are assigned positions of employment by the GM which we have no control over. You can change your job status, but doing so  requires a manipulation of the mechanics and the use of game resources and takes at least two scenes to get through the process. The the GM then  assigns you a new employer that may or may not be of any more use to you than the first one.


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Paul Czege on March 08, 2011, 11:23:58 AM
Chris?

Paul, from what you say the game sounds very sandbox-ish to me. But then Renee and Matt talk about story arcs and such. Is this just a big misunderstanding about the style of play the game is designed to accommodate?

Yeah, it's sandbox-ish. It's a rich setting RPG aimed at longer term play with no authorial powers or overt out-of-character flag-setting powers granted to players. But it's sandbox-ish in the way that Gareth describes, promising the players impact on what the GM preps, and that the GM will prep stuff when character actions make it clear what the players are interested in, and not sandbox-ish by the unrealistic "go anywhere, do anything" definition from Ben.

At this point I'm thinking Matt and I have just been having a miscommunication. He played along with all the stuff I've been prepping, thinking it was important to me and trusting me to bring it back to what he cared about, and also because he knows I'm using this playtest to build out the setting a bit, even though he wanted to be pursuing his inevitability with Khaia. And I prepped and kept throwing out new stuff because to me it seemed like he'd back-burnered his interest in Khaia, and I was trying to find something that would hook him.

When Matt and Renee use phrases like "story arc," I think it's in keeping with the definition of character protagonism that I articulated earlier: the players create expectations of inevitable future events with their characters and then we play with the managing and releasing of tension about how and when.


Paul


Title: Re: head games
Post by: Renee on March 08, 2011, 02:24:28 PM
Quote
When Matt and Renee use phrases like "story arc," I think it's in keeping with the definition of character protagonism that I articulated earlier: the players create expectations of inevitable future events with their characters and then we play with the managing and releasing of tension about how and when.

This is correct, in how I use it.

People should keep in mind that when we say "story arc", that that's not something we start out with, because the game literally does not allow for any flagging of any sort before play begins. Rather, you find an arc from among the stuff the GM throws at you. It's old-old school in that way and while I suspect some people may have a disconnect with that, I've found it really, really satisfying when communication is good and we (the GM and I) are hitting all the right notes.