Re: Interview with Vincent and me

Started by Clyde L. Rhoer, January 01, 2008, 07:58:07 PM

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Clyde L. Rhoer

Hi Marshall,

If you want to send me an email at theoryfromthecloset via a place called gmail dot com, and reference this conversation I'll burn a CD and mail it to you. I can't afford to have transcripts made.
Theory from the Closet , A Netcast/Podcast about RPG theory and design., Clyde's personal blog.

Ron Edwards

Hi Christopher,


I hope that interview spurs, at least for one person at one site, some positive action about agenda and comportment. I agree that if all people want is an internet version of a self-affirming, go-nowhere hangout, then there's no reason they can't have one, or a hundred. My hope is that if some one or few folks want something else, they recognize what it takes to get it, and start taking steps.

Here's my nagging personal question about that issue, though: why do people who know full well the problems and hassles that we're discussing here, continue to frequent the sites in question? Why did you, for instance, post and post as the "do it right" bully for so long? Why does Matt Snyder go bang his head against the wall at a site in which defying and frustrating him with illogic has become a status symbol? Well, these are rhetorical questions and not answerable except for a given person about themselves - no one owes me an answer about them. And maybe the phenomenon reflects the people's degree of good will that they bring to a site, which is commendable. But at this late date, I think it's time to reconsider the effort.

Your points about calls for actual play bear special attention. Looking at what happens at Story Games, when someone poses some idea or makes some claim about role-playing, and when another someone says "Where's the actual play," I typically see it read as meaning, "Prove it!" I think that's counter-productive and, well, rude; at the very least, it's not going to serve as a door to understanding a valid idea. A lot of my ideas have been used as big sticks by over-eager Forge participants on other sites or among their acquaintances, and the net result is to piss people off and, incidentally, to get me personally vilified as some kind of cult leader. The actual-play concept for discourse is just another in that long line.

Which is not to diminish the primary point that the proposition is most likely not very strong anyway. Again, based on my readings of the posts, the first someone is often talking out of his or her ass, if not actually dishonestly (also sometimes the case). I think a given website can be tagged as a place where either this sort of thing gets head-smacked at the very outset, or it doesn't. If it does, then cool. If it doesn't, then bringing the desire to critique at all to that site is a vain hope from the start, because the person is probably just angling for status at the site, or trying to say something without saying it, as with a case we've discussed privately in detail.



Regarding identity politics, check out this article from Zmag, ten years ago: Editorial: The personal is the political?!

Great, isn't it? I'm restraining myself from unleashing bolts of rage at what that article criticizes, left and right, all and sundry. Talk about cultural malaise; this is the curse of our times. "I sleep with rutabagas, that makes me political. I'm done!" "I shop at XYZ supermarket, that makes me political, I'm done!" "I have this haircut, that makes me political, I'm done!" Fucking consumerism co-opting dissent. Who would have thought it would ever have become this complete? In retrospect, I might even be able to point to the month, I think, when I heard a nasty wet "snap" in the atmosphere, denoting the inflection point of the transition, sometime in 1985-86.



You're a bit harsh on how dull "other people are," don't you think? Well, OK, this is the tequila forum, after all. A bit of excess is part of the fun.

QuoteI'm not sure any fruitful discussion could come of this subject -- especially on the Internet -- but it does baffle me. Is it really just RPGs? Gamers? People in general who don't want this responsibility of accepting the fact that they make decisions every day that have consequences and it's simply dumped out into the open in this weird little hobby?

You know my thinking on this. I think there's a general subcultural flaw in gaming, as currently constructed, which I think got fairly well outlined in the Infamous Five postings. The good news is that this flaw is rapidly disappearing, internationally, due to about a dozen activities which emerged from this site. I also think there's a specific pathology that applies to the little part of it that you and I like the most, which is the whole brain-damage issue. That concept is steadily progressing through the usual steps which end at "Everyone knows that, it's obvious" - about the 70% mark, at this point. All of this is highly specific to gaming, however.

Regarding pop culture in general, my first response was to disagree with you, because I think over-blown symbols and extreme fantasy can be powerful vehicles for dissenting views or at least for grappling with problematic conditions. But maybe that's a matter of definitions, and maybe I'm thinking too broadly. To focus on here-and-now today, I agree with your point, because I think our current pop culture, well, isn't. I think it's a consumerist effluvium from yesterday's pop culture, and that we as a culture are currently struggling to create a new one, in extremely adverse conditions. As long as the conceit that one (or anything) can be apolitical persists so widely, then we'll have to keep struggling.

QuoteIt makes The Other too convenient, too easy, and absolves us of all responsibility for our actions and examining our responses to threat.

In that, we are agreed in full. There's a reason that my creative energies are now turned toward communist spies, Arabic terrorists (as we call them), Cuban soldiers, and Asian insurgents, drawing upon different but related points in my and my parents' lifetimes. I am also discovering, over and over, the truth and nuances of Walt Kelly's phrase: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

QuoteWhat fascinates me about the reaction to Dogs is how, for so many, the game exists in a null set of logic for so many, where the game simply doesn't work, or, perhaps more strangely, gets reinterpreted into a religious tract where the GM forces the players to be gun wielding religious fundamentalists who have no choice in how to behave. I mean, even here, it's like asking people to do a Mensa puzzle to wrap their brain around the game's logic. What is that about? That's a really interesting question to me.

As you know, I agree with you, although my reaction is usually one of frustrated expostulating rather than interest, so my real interest lies in seeking successful play-accounts as counter-examples. We're blessed with a bunch of them lately. Jesse's current thread seems like a perfect example of people who share your agenda, understand the rules of this particular game, went into play with no pre-conceptions about what the story would be, and emerged as authors of a story they'd created, there and then, about important stuff.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 02, 2008, 11:54:22 PMRegarding identity politics, check out this article from Zmag, ten years ago: Editorial: The personal is the political?!
Pretty tangental, but that article describes and also continues a particular blindspot, from how my eyes read it. I mean, if someone came and yanked your your wallet out of your pocket, you'd see them as an assailent - as an enemy, at least for that moment. The article instead describes, from one example, the civil rights situation of black people as a fault in the system. It's like describing the guy yanking your wallet as sharing some sort of system with you - but there's just a fault in the system. For me the disturbing bit is just behind that - it's treating what their doing as if its part of something, some system you agree with. It would seem horribly easy, with just the right pressures and forces, to reverse the complaintents proposal that it's a fault and instead put extra emphasis on their agreement with the system. Ie, in the heat of the moment get them to just think about how they agree with the system and legitimize it - institutionalise the wallet grab. Even if the offender does change behaviour, it's not acknowledged they were wrong, they were just following the system 'incorrectly'.

On topic, jesus, no wonder when it gets that murky a whole bunch of shit turns up in various associated activities.

Christopher Kubasik

Hi Ron,

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 02, 2008, 11:54:22 PM
Here's my nagging personal question about that issue, though: why do people who know full well the problems and hassles that we're discussing here, continue to frequent the sites in question?

Although I don't "owe" you anything, I already discussed this with you on the phone, so I'll post here: For me it was because the people I know in real life and meet with at local cons post on those threads.  I think that connections made in the flesh trump (or lead) Internet connections -- at least for me.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 02, 2008, 11:54:22 PM
...when another someone says "Where's the actual play," I typically see it read as meaning, "Prove it!" I think that's counter-productive and, well, rude; at the very least, it's not going to serve as a door to understanding a valid idea.

When I ask it, it's because I can't figure out what the person is saying.  Someone on Story Games can say, "Let's talk about Thematic Calibration..."  But I need  pictures to go with the words to know what's going on in that thread.

Do people use the "actual play" request as a stick to beat people up?  I'm sure they do.  People do all sorts of things.  But now we're in the realm of intentions and what the person meant.  It still doesn't seem too much to ask that if people are going to talk about RPGs they are able to reference something from the actual play of RPGs.  This isn't String Theory.  It's like Football or Pokemon -- it either happens in play or it doesn't.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 02, 2008, 11:54:22 PM
Regarding identity politics, check out this article from Zmag, ten years ago...

This had nothing to do with what I was talking about -- but you clearly wanted to share, and I'm glad you had the opportunity!

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 02, 2008, 11:54:22 PM
You're a bit harsh on how dull "other people are," don't you think?

Yes. I was.  Good call.  I was thinking of all the 40 page Dogs threads I've read on this point-of-confusion, but I was overstating by a long-shot.  Thanks for the reality check.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 02, 2008, 11:54:22 PMbecause I think over-blown symbols and extreme fantasy can be powerful vehicles for dissenting views or at least for grappling with problematic conditions. But maybe that's a matter of definitions, and maybe I'm thinking too broadly....

I'm surprised you thought that's that I was dismissing "over-blown symbols and extreme fantasy" -- I mean, what???.  But I'll move on, and your point about "consumerist effluvium from yesterday's pop culture" is my point exactly.

On the other end, No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, The Shield, and other movies and TV shows deliver what I want in spades. 

The problem with "extreme fantasy" at the movies is economics -- the more expensive the budget the greater desire to never, ever offend anyone.  The job of a summer blockbuster is roll everyone in, give us a lot of visceral jolts, and roll us back out into the sunshine.  That's not a function of fantasy or overblown symbols.  That's about the contemporary economics of Hollywood.


"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Larry L.

Okay, I got some technical glitches worked out and finally listened to this thing. Good stuff. This thing Clyde does is nice.

There were several topics that came up I'm interested in discussing, I'll have to organize my thoughts on these first. (But the gist is: Yay!)

Marshall Burns

Ron, Vincent, and anyone else,
Ok, I got to listen to it now (thanks again, Clyde), and here's something I'd like to talk about.  It was mentioned that, in DitV, if someone makes a lethal-force move against your character, you can "Give" and take the bullet between the eyes and just die.  Self-authored character death? That is fan-frickin'-tastic!

Now, maybe people are looking at me like I'm crazy at this point, so I'll explain where I'm coming from.  Why would I voluntarily let my character die?  Simple:  for the sake of the emotional and aesthetic impact of the story that is being created through play. 

I'm trying to get this kind of dynamic into one of my own games (The Rustbelt), to even a radical degree as one of my design goals: I want to see at least one PC die in every session.  Not because of bad rolls or "rocks fall and everyone dies," but because it benefits the story so that the players let it happen.  I'm beating my head against the wall trying to figure out ways to encourage this. I've come up with a resolution system in which you roll not against a difficulty but a "Price," such that your rate of success is determined ultimately by how much character is willing to pay for it in blood, sweat, tears, and humanity. (And that "willing" is explicitly provided entirely by the player, as blatant, pretense-free Author Stance).  If the Price is high enough, it means death, but accepting that death also means accomplishing whatever the goal in question was.

But I worry that this isn't enough.  There's a trait I've seen among many, many roleplayers I've met, that I think of as the "My Guy mentality," where they become attached to their character as something beyond a tool for achieving the aim of play.  You can tell these people from the way they say "My Guy slew a dragon" or "My Guy became the king"; they really say it with capital letters.  It seems that most of the time the character is an extension of their ego and adolescent-like power fantasies -- which disturbs me.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with it, but it disturbs me.

Then there's also this strange mental tautology I keep seeing:  "Death = Ultimate Failure."  I don't get it.  Maybe it's because I'm largely ignorant of the history of the hobby, but I just don't get it.  Especially in the Story Now mode of play.  I mean, consider ANY of Shakespeare's tragedies, and the role that protagonist death plays in them.  Now, who in their right mind would say that those deaths are failures on Shakespeare's part?  And, of course, in Story Now the players are in Shakespeare's position, sitting in the author's chair.

I get the impression that though voluntary PC death is mechanically possible in DitV, it doesn't happen very often, if at all.  I'm guessing that it's related to those two things I mentioned above, but there might be more to this.  Which is what I want to discuss:  why people are reluctant to do this, and how can a game encourage them to break through that reluctance?


Eero Tuovinen

Speaking of story-game mode, as you put it, my experience is that people will throw their characters off a cliff if that's what the story is about. Simple as that. You don't get it often in DiV because it's not really worked up as a tragedy, but try Polaris; I haven't yet heard of a Polaris campaign arc that didn't involve one or more characters dying horribly and wholly with player-authorization.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Marshall,

Your points about self-authored character death and My Guy (spoken of as a "syndrome") are foundational here. These were two seminal insights which helped the original creation of the community which is now informally thought of as "the Forge" as distinct from the physical website. The third related insight dealt with multiple-person contribution to the situations and descriptions of play.

Key members of that discussion included Scott Knipe, Mike Holmes, Paul Czege, Jared Sorensen, Mark J. Young, Josh Neff, Dav Harnish, and a few others; key games were Soap (Ferry Bazelmans), InSpectres (Jared Sorensen), Sorcerer (me), Schism (a supplement for Sorcerer, Jared Sorensen), Wuthering Heights (Philippe Tromeur), and The Pool (James V. West). Key events included GenCon, Origins, and DemonCon during 2001. Dust Devils, Universalis, and My Life with Master were not yet a-born, and Vincent Baker was not yet a part of the discourse community.

All of which is to say: "Yes!" You're gonna like this place more and more ...

Regarding the gamer-culture baggage of character death = failure, I think the answer lies quite clearly in one procedural feature and in one aspect of the historical context of early role-playing. The procedural feature is that, if your character dies, you cease to play. So that's pretty un-fun, case closed ... unless you want to cease to play, based on intrinsic satisfaction (Sorcerer's Kickers are designed for this). However, now for the historical context: the tourney D&D game, in which dozens if not hundreds of people are scattered, twelve to a group, across a sea of tables, each with a staff GM who runs precisely the same tactical challenge at them, and they are all scored upon how many characters live, how many foes are defeated, and how much treasure was gained (this is the origin of classic experience points). In which case, character death is a dead loss in Gamist terms.

Taken together, it's fascinating how hard it stuck – even for games like Champions, which was exemplary in how it abandoned hundreds of assumptions of pre-existing games, but which could not manage to deal with character death in ways that superheroes or supervillains "die" (i.e. not die) in comics, without relying on what-rules-GM-says-so.

Alternatives vary quite widely. Here are just a few, in order of publication date.

- The Castle Falkenstein way: characters typically cannot die due to resolved outcomes, but on occasion, if failure seems like it would have to be lethal to the GM, he makes it clear that character death is now "on the table." The game is a little bit unclear about whether and how the player can opt not to enter that particular zone of play, once announced.

- The Elfs way: a modification of the above way, the GM designates a particular situation as lethal well before any rolls or actions occur; note that only players roll in Elfs, and usually their announced actions signal rolls to the GM, rather than the other way around.

- The Soap way: characters are immune to death as long as their Secrets haven't been guessed, but after that, they freaking die all the time, whenever anyone says! However, notice that a big part of Soap is screwing with others' characters situation, so you keep playing perfectly fine after your character bites the big one.

- The Schism way: characters have a score which can go up or down due to various things (all ultimately under player's authority, if not total control in detail); when it hits 0, that character's next scene of play must kill the character, regardless of any dice outcomes.

- The Universalis way: all game components, characters included, are measured in "coins" spent to buy them and to increase their value. If a character is narrated as dead, it can mean either (a) the player has spent enough coins to buy the component out of play forever, or (b) the player has spent a coin or more on adding "deadness" to that character. In the latter case, the component is still a consequential and usable piece of play, it's just that you have to include the deadness. (E.g., the character may be quite influential as a memory.)

- The Trollbabe way: players have the option to move characters further and further along a line of repeated tries, but incurring increasing risk culminating in character death. If you don't want your character to risk dying, just don't move far enough along that axis.

- The Mountain Witch way: when a character dies, the player continues to play the character as a memory or other influence, perhaps even a ghost most literally but least interestingly. Nearly all the rules are preserved just as they are for that player, as the only things affected are the details of narration. It's kind of fun to have your character automatically be in every scene. (I've always wanted to see the situation in which only one ronin is left alive, but effectively haunted by the memories of his fallen comrades.)

Quotewhy people are reluctant to do this, and how can a game encourage them to break through that reluctance?

Eero's right! A lot of people aren't reluctant; they simply have never seen it before or never conceived that such a thing could be part of what they think of as role-playing.

I'm currently composing a post for Joel's (Melinglor) actual play thread, and my answer here is related to the same issue. The answer isn't actually much fun to say or to receive: you must abandon your goal as it's currently stated. The game can facilitate and provide means, but it cannot provide the ends, i.e., the desire to do it. The most it can do is make the options/techniques available for people who want to do it, and would love doing it, but don't realize it yet.

My advice to you is not to write Rustbelt to encourage or educate people who don't want to do it, or who never heard of it, or who can't see it. Write it for you, and for me: people who love the idea upon hitting upon it themselves or hearing about it from others. There's a hell of a lot of us, and we'll all "get it," and we'll all enjoy playing the game.

I also recommend reading the discussion The Fruitful Void, based on my phrase and illustrated in a variety of neat ways by Vincent. His Role-playing theory hardcore also has stuff you'll enjoy.

Best, Ron
edited to fix link format

Marshall Burns

Wow.  I don't know what to say except that all of this is quite heartening, and also a tad stunning.  Thanks.


Marshall Burns

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 21, 2008, 12:23:33 PM

note that only players roll in Elfs, and usually their announced actions signal rolls to the GM, rather than the other way around.

Hey Ron,
Can you clarify that?  I mean, what is "the other way around?"  See, the way I've always done things is this:  the players announce their actions, and the GM (usually me) says, "Okay, you've got to make a Response roll vs. X difficulty for that to succeed; if you fail, (blank) might happen," and then the player rolls their dice.  How else is it done?


Ron Edwards

It can be done lots of ways. The specific difference I was talking about is more complex that my quick comment could capture.

The first issue concerns who rolls at all.

In many games, the GM rolls for his or her characters' actions much as players do for theirs. This is neither good nor bad; it's what happens in Sorcerer, for instance, just as much as in GURPS or whatever.

I think the first game in which the GM never rolls, just the player, was Legendary Lives. There are a few others too. Elfs is like that.

The second issue concerns who calls for rolls, or rather, when someone rolls, who had to speak before that. In most of the play I experienced before 1996 or so, this was highly tuned by a given group. In one Champions group, for instance, people played much as you describe - the players say lots and lots of stuff, and when some of is a conflict or difficult in some way, the GM says "roll." In another group, it might be very different - during most of play, the GM hits the characters with a lot of stuff that absolutely demands specific rolls, most typically Perception or defense rolls of some kind, and the player-prompted rolls usually occur only within the strict framework of combat routines. (One can also find these extremes, and the spectrum between them, across Call of Cthulhu play.)

Now let's put these together. In Elfs, only players roll. Taking damage, for instance, is the result of an abysmally missed attack roll. Also, in Elfs, what the characters do is fantastically wide open across all the options, regardless of the situation, and there's really no way for the GM to say "X happens, therefore you have to roll for [whatever]." Although the GM can and should set up outrageously funky mini-situations (the model is early AD&D modules, in fact), what ensues is indescribably unpredictable. That's so because the players do God Knows What and the GM has the fun of responding totally verbally, riffing off and mechanically applying the results of their rolls.

Does that make sense? I'm fond of Elfs and I am sad that it hasn't been more widely played. It ain't parody; it's satire, and as such can cut pretty deep.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns

Okay, yeah, that makes sense.

And it seems I'm gonna have to check out Elfs at some point.  I won't lie to you, when I saw the ad for it in Sorcerer (which I bought not too long ago) I went, "ern."  Ordinarily, I'd go, "arrgh," because I don't like fantasy in general (I like Tolkien, Bradbury, Gaiman, Dunsany, Howard, and that's pretty much it), and because I absolutely HATE the way the word "elf" is used by fantasy; it makes me want to punch things (Tolkien had his thing and he did it well, and he knew what the word really means, so I'm cool with that).  The reason I said "ern" instead of "arrgh" is because I suspected that maybe this was something different -- which it seems it must be.

And I'm way off the topic of the interview.  Which I rather enjoyed, by the way.