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Author Topic: What Does Sharing Narrative Control Show?  (Read 13355 times)
Cliff H
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« on: January 29, 2011, 05:51:25 AM »

In another thread I spoke about the odd ways in which my players would use the limited narrative control I handed them to gimp their own characters. Over the past two sessions I had an opportunity to try something different with them, and it's been revealing. I'm just not sure what it revealed.

I'd been hammered in real life, and was left with little time to prep our game, so I tried a trick I read in John Wick's Wilderness of Mirrors, which has the players script the adventure and then hands it to the GM to muck with. The idea here is that the players perform legwork prior to hitting a mission, and the GM gets to mess with the details by claiming bad intel.

We're currently playing 7th Sea, and the group belongs to a secret order of church assassins clearly based on the Templars. To date, however, they've not had an assassination mission. I figured one of those would fit the bill for this kind of adventure setup perfectly, and rather than make it overly involved, their first time out could be a reasonably vanilla run. So I made the basic objective: assassinate those gathering to set up a smuggling ring, and make it look like someone else did it. I created the ring leader and left everything else in their hands.

They huddled up and passed ideas around for most the session. By the end of the night, they handed me their list. I had to do a double take and ask "Really?"

"Oh yeah!"

They handed me a list of 10 separate targets, each of whom had some sorcerous or technological power that was special. All of them had entourages ranging from 10 to 30 men, and one of them was a local government official. This was far more than I would have put them up against, but they seemed pretty enthusiastic, so I said okay, have at it. There was some head scratching once they had to face their own opposition, and though one party member never gave up on the idea that they could just storm the meeting with everyone in attendence and slaughter them all in a grand melee, the eventual plan was to split up and attack four of the members en route to the meeting, and converge at the spot where they'd take on the rest as a party.

Because they were splitting up, and because they had created these people they were going after, I decided to hand play control of the NPCs to those players not currently playing someone "on camera." When needed I told the players what dice were available for the NPCs, based on quick approximations of their descriptions, and otherwise let them run the show themselves.

Two sessions later, only one target was dead, and that assassin was captured alive (because he stuck around to fight all the guards who showed up, even though he had a free round to dive out a window without being seen). Another was insane. Someone else had a broken sword arm, and the last was now a wanted man throughout the city, with a description and name floating around. This was only from the solo missions; no one's gotten to the meeting yet, and two of the four players won't be showing up to that, obviously.

What I noticed was that when the players got the control of the game, they stopped being goofy. There was no tripping over untied shoes or any such thing. Failures were greeted with a quick nod or maybe a "Damn," and play moved on. But the other thing that came out was how amazingly vicious they were to one another. One player went out of his way to kill a player character when he was playing the bad guys, and it's hard to die in 7th Sea. Another time, players playing the part of guards began asking reasonable but very sharp questions of one of the would be assassins trying to make his way toward his target.

In my games, I have a reputation for being out to get my PCs, but I have never put them in situations like this. To be completely fair, I don't think they realized what they were getting themselves into at first, but even when it became apparent, there was no backing off, and if anything they got rougher with each other as we moved around the table and dealt with each solo foray. My quesiton is this: is this indicative of gamist play? Between the way they went for the throat when handed control, and the one character's refusal to leave when he had the chance until he took out every single guard in the compound, it certainly began to look like a game where they were trying to win against some standard, be it each other or a kill count.

The other question is: if this is gamist play, what can I do with that information?
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Cliff H
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« Reply #1 on: January 29, 2011, 06:56:19 AM »

I should clarify my last question. Clearly, if my players are gamist, then they'd enjoy seeing a more competitive element to the game. Seeing as how I'm most interested in character exploration and transformation though, is there a game, method, or anecdote that can help bridge this divide?

I realize this might be trying to accomplish narrativist and gamist play at the same time, which doesn't work, but given that any method can tell a good story, I'm hoping there's a way to do that enough to give me my jollies as well.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #2 on: January 29, 2011, 10:15:41 AM »

With the usual reservations about my psychic powers and their ability to divine what others are thinking based on textual descriptions, what I would be thinking myself were I one of your players and acting that way would not be gamist thoughts; rather, I would be putting my character up against serious, colorful threats and heroic, impossible challenges for dramatic reasons. If our characters are heroic assassins and the GM explicitly gave me the task of prepping some adversity, it wouldn't occur to me to make this adversity commonplace, boring or minor in the setting. The mere fact that I'm given the chance to set up some adversity pretty much means that I have to make it memorable and unique - what would be the point of deviating from normal procedure if I was expected to turn in something common?

The process of play itself sounds to me like it's very rooted in the internal logic of the fiction: the things the players do in your tale are nothing I wouldn't do just to express my vision of the fiction when I've bought into the fiction in the first place. Thus it's not a given that the players are fucking up each other's characters for gamist, challenge-based oneupmanship reasons. It could be, of course, but it wouldn't probably be why I'd do those things in that campaign you describe.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #3 on: January 29, 2011, 02:58:50 PM »

Hi Cliff,

To me it sounds gamist, rather than trying to be faithful to genre for the sake of being faithful to genre. Particularly that example of the player playing the bad guys trying to kill the other players PC, going out of his way to do it. Particularly that 'kill every fucker in the room' guard take down attempt.

I'll throw in a side comment about 'gamist', as in it sounds like a series of mini games with fictional relation between them, rather than one, big game. But that's just stating it to make the distinction.

I think you can gear shift between gamism and nar, but for the love of god don't try to do it non explicitly and just somehow convey it purely in scene description! I'd actually recommend being as blunt as saying 'Okay, were stopping adventure mode and now this is drama mode' then latter 'okay, drama mode is over - adventure mode now!' and so on (I'm trying to avoid forge jargon - I think everyone kind of gets adventure and drama to some degree). I know it sounds blunt, but this is actually using the explicit clutch to shift gears.

So I think you can get your jollies too, but the shift between each is going to be (necessarily) obvious.

Also this is just a shift to which comes first as the most important thing were doing in the moment of play. You'd probably find nar like stuff sits in the background of the gamist play. But it just doesn't come first. I'd say it's a bit like Asimov's rules of robotics - which priority/rule comes first and overides the rest is the important one and the rest it's bitches. But it probably sounds confusing to say that!
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masqueradeball
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« Reply #4 on: January 29, 2011, 06:45:23 PM »

If I were a player, and it was the first time the GM had me take authority for the antagonism, especially if I hadn't run a lot of games myself... I would probably go too strong just to make sure that I didn't go too soft. So many players are taught from various game text that "meta-gaming" is the most evil thing in RPG's, so, if for a second they do anything that the bad-guys "wouldn't do" is cheating, so, if this guy would is a guard he's "got to" ask hard questions, if he's an evil smuggler he's "got to" go for the kill...

Of course I'm just saying what I would do (and have experienced myself), but it seems like it might be part of the equation. I wouldn't be surprised if some combination of all three of these factors (wanting it to be dramatic (Eero), wanting to win (Callan) and wanting to "play right" (myself)) all contribute to the problem.
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stefoid
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« Reply #5 on: January 30, 2011, 03:08:10 PM »

Hi Cliff. 
 
I reckon the difference between the gag cracking players and the 'serious' players is that you gave them some control, which is a bit like them becoming a stakeholder in the game -- its not your game anymore its our game.   Sorry to say I think the gag cracking and so on is the players getting whatever fun they can out of a game which is otherwise boring them or frustrating them.

The insane level of opposition they came up with is because they want to play characters that CAN deal with that.  In their imaginations, their PCs can chop their way through hordes of mooks to get to the big bosses, manga/chinese martial arts style, and after a climatic battle, emerge triumphant -- in other words they want a dramatic style of combat rather than a mechanical cause and effect style that will leave most of them dead or whatever after two whole sessions of play. 

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Callan S.
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« Reply #6 on: January 30, 2011, 04:12:42 PM »

Cliff, I'm assuming that so far they have enjoyed it, despite the PC body count/damage? Like they are leaning forward in seats during play? I mean, on fails they say dammit then get back to business pronto, compared to before with the fail song? Are they responding to the PC body count as if the whole point of the activity has failed? Or are they responding in a way that...well, they just wanna play it out and still try and win this thing? It doesn't sound like they think the point of the activity has been failed.

I'd say everyone wants to play characters that can wade through guys and emerge triumphant. But to them the activity hasn't failed if that doesn't occur the first time through?
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stefoid
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« Reply #7 on: January 30, 2011, 04:26:20 PM »

Callan, theres two reasons why the players might want to get 'serious' - one is that they are really into the game and the other is that they defined the opposition and help play it out, so they have to treat their own input seriously.  either would be an improvement, while both would be fantastic.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #8 on: January 30, 2011, 08:52:50 PM »

My gut tells me that their up-front knowledge of the full scope of the opposition is a factor in their newfound seriousness.

Paul
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Cliff H
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Posts: 49


« Reply #9 on: January 31, 2011, 05:52:04 AM »

Cliff, I'm assuming that so far they have enjoyed it, despite the PC body count/damage? Like they are leaning forward in seats during play?

They certainly seem to be into it. Everyone half expected the first guy to go down, but when the second character got captured, that was unexpected (until he refused to leave, then one of the players whispered to him: "Just so you know, you've officially crossed the line from brave to stupid. Carry on."). When that didn't go well, there was a serious question as to how viable the second half of the mission, which relied on the team coming together, but that was still two solo missions away, and they wanted to see those things played out. When they went just as badly, I must have gotten a look on my face, because one of the players started pointing at me and yelling. "This is not over yet, and you are not ending this campaign! We are going to pull this out, even if a particular person at this table needs to get The Hand of Fate involved. You hear me?"

So yeah, they seem to want to keep going with it, and apparently they've taken the planning offline to work out in between the sessions. Attitude like that speaks to them liking it. If they weren't enjoying themselves, this would be the perfect opportunity to say it wasn't working out and walk.

Quote
I mean, on fails they say dammit then get back to business pronto, compared to before with the fail song? Are they responding to the PC body count as if the whole point of the activity has failed? Or are they responding in a way that...well, they just wanna play it out and still try and win this thing? It doesn't sound like they think the point of the activity has been failed.

The mission  has certainly been failed. Even if they do everything else right, they've screwed the pooch pretty badly here. But the point of the game is what's got me posting here. Just like I never sat down with my players and worked out a mutually agreed upon tone for a game, I have never sat down and asked them what they're looking for, and really pressed it. I've asked, but I usually get "I just wanna play and have fun," and it's gone nowhere from there. However, since encountering the analyses of play approaches found here, I'm looking at my groups behavior (which strikes me as more indicative of what they're after than anything they say) and attempting to identify their drivers from there.

What I see is one player who, when confronted with brutes (which drop easily), is never content to leave one standing, no matter the circumstance. There's 20 of them and he said he'll buy time for the rest of the group to run from the tavern? He will, but that doesn't mean he'll leave. That means he'll fight all 20 himself. Oh, they're on an island surrounded by 30 angry natives? It's go time. This last time saw him up against 35 well trained guards (in two waves, and they were still brutes). He could have run, but he instead charged away from the exit to chase them down, and ultimately got overwhelmed.

I've got another player who is all about fabulous hair, being suave, and being a ladykiller. Rather than play that from a character angle, though, I'm beginning to think it's gamist. How many women can he bed in a day? Can he use his charm to create an opening in this particular organization? Can he seduce the wife of the local trade baron and his sworn enemy? When we played a FATE-like game once, he grabbed an aspect called "I'm cooler than you." All his actions look like they're pointing to getting one over the various characters, mostly NPCs.

I've always looked at role-playing as an opportunity to create and explore a character that I expect, or at least hope, will be pushed to grow in interesting ways. This initially myopic view left me thinking that situations like the ones described above were because people weren't "doing it right." Now, I'm just trying to get a handle on how to run games that speak to that play style. I myself don't naturally think along those lines, and would likely default to something like deeper dungeons and bigger monsters, which sounds interminably boring to me.

And let me hasten to add, I don't see this stuff as a problem. I'm not looking to "fix" my players. I'm trying to understand them and ascertain if I'm properly identifying gamist behavior. Once I have that, I can look to create a game experience that better suits their mentality, and hopefully gives me a little something too.

Quote
I'd say everyone wants to play characters that can wade through guys and emerge triumphant. But to them the activity hasn't failed if that doesn't occur the first time through?

They've all got their arenas in which they want to shine; they're not all combat monsters. But in general, yes, it does seem that way. The failures of the individual missions has left them in terrible positions, and it could spell the end of the campaign as they know it, but no one seems to want to see that happen, and as I noted earlier, I've already been hit with vociferous pre-emptive arguments against just that. So while they acknowledge their missions didn't go well, there is a clear line between failure of mission and failure of game.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #10 on: January 31, 2011, 11:56:33 PM »

Hi Cliff,

Quote
When they went just as badly, I must have gotten a look on my face, because one of the players started pointing at me and yelling. "This is not over yet, and you are not ending this campaign! We are going to pull this out, even if a particular person at this table needs to get The Hand of Fate involved. You hear me?"
I was going to just say this is an awesome accolade! A grand result!!

But then the 'hand of fate'? Who's the particular person at the table and what is the hand of fate?

I'll just state my pesimistic fears (which could be wrong and I would actually prefer if they are wrong). Is the hand of fate simply fudging the rules and they are refering to you eventually doing it? Or is the hand of fate some sort of 7th sea mechanic thingie?
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Cliff H
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Posts: 49


« Reply #11 on: February 01, 2011, 05:42:32 AM »

But then the 'hand of fate'? Who's the particular person at the table and what is the hand of fate?

You guessed right. "Hand of fate" in this case is his allusion to me having an NPC come in to save their collective butts. I never do this, as I've absolutely hated it when it's happened to me as a player. Normally this group feels the same as I do about it, and in fact a number have said this would be a cheap move. That includes the person asking for it, in fact. They all want a chance to correct course, but if they can't this one player thinks I should make things happen such that they can keep going, as opposed to the captured assassin being tortured into divulging the existence of his order and the 400 year secret finally being revealed to the world which would then precipitate a witch hunt. They don't dispute the plausibility of that world reaction, they just don't want to see it happen and think that if they can't prevent it, I should in this case. Before I do that, however, they want an opportunity to pull their own bacon out of the fire. Only after all is lost should I come in and save the day.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #12 on: February 01, 2011, 12:37:31 PM »

I would read that as you saving the setting/saving the cool secret order from being unraveled, rather than saving them from losing as players. Which is cool for gamism, AFAICT, as it's just setting repair and not interfearing with the players own win/lose result.

What I wonder is that this is all pretty organic for them so far - as you say, you asked them what they wanted before and they just say 'to have fun' or whatever. They haven't really thought about these things they do as gamist goals or whatever - they just have naturally gravitated to them. Now in terms of the game as I understand it, there is no point in the rules that will say they have lost? I wonder when they will organically come to such a point, how many more battles and twists and turns? I just wonder if they'll undercut their own gamist agenda by continuing to play - because really if you can't die and you keep playing, eventually your going to meet the goal. And if the only thing you can do is eventually win, you've undercut gamism. Or have they already admitted to themselves that they failed the assassin task?

Anyway, did my idea on gear shifting from before seem applicable to any small degree?
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Cliff H
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« Reply #13 on: February 03, 2011, 06:26:40 AM »

Now in terms of the game as I understand it, there is no point in the rules that will say they have lost?

Like many RPGs, there's no specific win/lose metric. Winning is largely a matter of perspective. You move the story forward toward an end, and if you consider how it all turned out a victory, you won. What I'm noticing however, is that the players are invested in the story to a degree, but that what they're actually shooting to win are the smaller, self-made conflicts.

One player steadfastly refuses to let a potentially violent confrontation go without pushing it into a fight, and then will not leave, no matter what, until every last opponent is down. Only when confronted with a virtual god of the setting did he ever consider not pulling steel and going to town. When fights turn against him, he'll push on anyway, even when afforded the opportunity to flee. I believe these small goals, winning big fights, are his win/loss metric.

Another player is far less combat-worthy, but has built up a suave manipulator. He routinely seeks to sleep with any female NPC they encounter. For the longest time I thought that was just him being him, but as I've watched the game unfold with a GNS eye I noticed that he approaches this with what looks like a competitive eye. When they had a particularly bad time at sea, he came back to port, picked up some dice to roll seduction and declared he was making all sorts of raises to land a threesome, because he was good enough to get to ladies at once. Similarly, when he employs his social skills toward other ends, it appears to be largely confrontational or at someone else's expense, universally someone who annoyed him. He's become a slander king. If I introduce a villain, all it takes is one encounter before tales of all sorts begin floating around the globe (because he makes sure to spread them at port where ships can carry them elsewhere). While it looks like he plays a shallow character into debauchery and pettiness at first, I think these are actually his "win" metrics.

In neither case are these provided for in the rules outside of the raw mechanics of task resolution, or combat resolution in the case of the former.

Quote
I wonder when they will organically come to such a point, how many more battles and twists and turns? I just wonder if they'll undercut their own gamist agenda by continuing to play - because really if you can't die and you keep playing, eventually your going to meet the goal. And if the only thing you can do is eventually win, you've undercut gamism. Or have they already admitted to themselves that they failed the assassin task?

The considerations you raise above are exactly why I brought up the idea of removing the safety net from the campaign. I'd put one in for the individual PCs with an agreement that unless I established a scene placed them in "grave danger" (using those exact words), they wouldn't die. I'd hurt them, maybe permanently, but never kill them. I say "grave danger" and death became a possibility. I was asked to remove that and place them in grave danger all the time.

Yet when the assassination mission began to go bad, stray comments here and there began filtering their way to me. How are you going to save this situation? No game this week on account of snow (we've had a lot of that lately), well, you've got another week to figure out how to get us out of that. Etc. I'd come back to them with the idea of removing the safety net from the campaign overall as well as the characters. That is, you screw up badly enough, and the game ends badly for you. I said I wouldn't be specifically gunning for them, but that I wouldn't take specific action to course correct a bad outcome due to player action.

That was not met well. I got everything from "You created a story and we should see it through to the end," to "I think that would lead to a disconnect from games, all of which would be ridiculously short." Maybe it's a matter of trust, since they feel like I do in fact put them in the crosshairs all the time, but if they want that thrill of potential death to be with them constantly, this seems to be a natural extension of that. I'm very seriously considering pushing the issue back into discussion, because I find this assumption that I'll always right their boat more unsatisfactory the more time I think on it. It removes any sense of victory, as you note, and more than that, it takes all responsibility and consequence out of their hands. No matter what they do, no matter how inane the action, it'll all ultimately turn out okay for them. That, more than the potential that the story could come out badly for them, seems like it would create a disconnect from the game.

As to whether they've failed their assassination mission, not yet. Weather's been a bear for us, and we've cancelled twice in a row due to icy driving conditions, so what should have wrapped up two weeks ago is still out there in limbo. We've all got our fingers crossed next week will work out better. No one has high hopes coming into this final phase of the mission, but they do think they have a way to still achieve their objective, if only partially. It'll cost an ally his life, but half the party is inured to that sort of thing, so in the end I think it won't be a rough decision for most. If that fails, there's still the expectation that I do something not necessarily to complete the mission for them, but to keep them out of trouble enough to keep the game going. If one or two people need to switch characters, however (which they freely admit may be necessary), they're okay with that.

Quote
Anyway, did my idea on gear shifting from before seem applicable to any small degree?

It does, though I wonder how that would go over. Any time I've tried to bring up slightly deeper elements of role-playing I get a lot of pushback. One player seems quite interested in those discussions, and he said he's actually learned a lot about his own play style and grown because of it. For everyone else, we go back to "It's just a game Cliff. Play." They're content to come up with their own metrics for victory and work at those. And really, that's fine by me. I just wonder if there's a better way to do it, because with multiple players pursuing multiple divergent goals, it can make for scattered play. Unifying them in a single win/lose campaign goal would be ideal.

A related question: I'm unfamiliar with gamist games in general. Are there any particularly good examples of this design out there?

edited to fix tags - VB
« Last Edit: February 03, 2011, 06:42:49 AM by lumpley » Logged
Jeff B
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« Reply #14 on: February 03, 2011, 01:06:21 PM »


Cliff - D&D (all versions) is considered a gamist design.  In my own opinion, it is more accurate to say "almost all D&D games are carried out in gamist fashion", but I think the more savvy members here would simply state that D&D itself is gamist by nature.  So that gives you an easy example (and also a very large straw dummy for battering with narrativist weaponry).

This thread highlights two especially valuable insights (my opinion, of course).  One is that vesting the players with control over the adventure gives a huge burst of energy and participation from them.  I think this would prove true in general, in any group where players were accustomed to having little control over setting and plot. 

Eero identifies the volatile caveat to player control:  They feel obliged to make the adventure 'larger than life'.  Suddenly they have a chance to make gaming as it should be (in their minds), and they have perhaps no experience at designing a large-scale or high-power adventure.  The more ambitious their characters are, the grander the scale of action, regardless of the system's ability to support that level of action.  They see it as a shortcut to long-term success, perhaps, and fall into the same trap as any GM who tries to make a single adventure that is far beyond the scope of the "normal".  There is simply too much power in play, goals that are too large in scope to be handled in a practical manner, short of creating an entire campaign around those goals. 

I enjoy gamist play but would like to see *some* elements of narrativism included, and especially of player involvement (and investment) in the story world.  Given the pitfalls of your example, I think it shows the great potential in opening up campaign control to players at different levels.
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