[In Exile] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, April 18, 2011, 04:28:17 PM

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Ron Edwards

Jacob Bouvier's In Exile, Queens of Time and Space, and Queen of Thorns make an interesting trilogy: respectively, restoring a deposed queen who is still very much the leader, serving a passionate and possibly tyrannical queen for one's own purposes, and defying a tyrannical queen. I like the terms use quite a bit in this case. It led me think of queen distinctly - much more than a ruler, all about one's emotions directed toward her and the emotions she inflicts upon others as policy.

The design concept is really strong: the terms juxtapose "queen" and "chains" by combining them into a character to be freed, yet who is still the player-characters' unequivocal authority figure, and is also the open instrument of the GM in moving the developing story along. It's also alluring (and similar in this way to the two games I mentioned above) because simply hacking and fighting your way to success isn't the primary activity. Instead, it's about one's reputation, which may engender, in combination a across the characters, sort of a dynamic referendum on what the queen's rule is about.

Participationist play
This game can serve as a core reference for one of the most interesting and difficult discussions throughout the history of the Forge: how to play Participationist, removing what we called the Black Curtain from Illusionism, but preserving the core power dynamics of such play and celebrating them rather than pretending they weren't happening.

To summarize, Illusionist play is characterized by one person exerting full authority over how the events of play turn out over the course of a session and in time, throughout the entirety of play, and by the polite fiction that those same events are being produced, in emergent fashion, through the decisions of the players and the outcomes of their use of the system. As a family of techniques and even of aesthetic standards, it is very, very well-developed in role-playing texts, particularly prepared adventure modules or scenarios which are not landscapes or dungeons, and particularly those which are supposed to be part of some long-term chain of adventures or chapters for the players to experience.

Illusionist play is not well-loved among most people who've posted at the Forge. People who prefer Story Now play utterly despise it, and even less intense people usually agree that over time, the Black Curtain between the (untrue) "players are free to play how they like" and (all-too-true) "the GM controls the story" can wear very thin and lead to many not-especially-fun coping mechanisms, various passive-aggressive challenge or control mechanisms, and the fizzling or blow-up of play itself, in that order. On the other hand, Mike Holmes clarified that instead of the reflexive attempt by the GM to restore and protect the Black Curtain against various frustrated players' attempts to tear it down, the group does well instead to dispense with it entirely - leaving the power dynamics intact. He called this Participationist play, meaning that we all freaking well know it's the GM's story but we are OK with that. So now it's not Illusionist and we can all enjoy this sort of play without power-struggles developing.

If you want to read more about this, check out [NWOD][VtR] New Game - New Possibilities - New Questions!, specifically my post on October 1, 2008, as the thread is about a lot of different stuff; and [D&D 4E] Basic Understanding Of Roleplaying This Character, which adds depth. My present point is that In Exile looks to me like it could be a very fun, very effective Participationist game, but for that to happen, the mechanics need to be more consequential and less superficial relative to the GM's absolute control over the plot. That's exactly where I am suggesting that the system needs its bubbly fizz.

I tried to explain this idea in [Queen of Thorns] Ronnies feedback; Jacob, let me know if it makes sense to you. My concern with this game is that a number of the mechanics look usable at first glance, but at the second glance, they turn into colored lights and don't really affect play much, certainly not the progress or events of the story as such.

1. I'm still trying to dope out how Loyalty and Reputation interact. The latter sets the basic dice pool, varying it up or down from 3d6. Whereas I think spending a Loyalty Point to utilize a Fact on my sheet doesn't affect the dice, but instead permits stated actions which would otherwise be barred to me. Do I have that right?

I also have some concern about each one individually.

2. Regarding Reputations, one of the three categories seems to me to be "not like the others." When using an Otherkind-type dice system in which one choice to be made with assigning dice is, "Who narrates," then the relative importance of who narrates should come under scrutiny. In other words, if it doesn't matter who narrates, then that category can serve as a "damage soak" for low-rated dice. Narration only matters when there are certain distinct constraints or guides for its content which are different for (in this case) GM and player. If there's no difference, then narration is effectively generic Color for what gets determined by the other dice and so one of the categories to be assigned carries less weight, as a priority, than the others.

In this case, my reading of the text is quite clear that the GM is not an adversary, and in fact, can be considered something of a shepherd for the player-characters. In that case, I cannot see why I as a player might be inclined to put a 4-6 die on Narration at the expense of one of the other two, especially Progress. The Narration category looks to me like a way to soak off a low-scoring die, or even more so, like a non-necessary mechanic. I think play would lose nothing if there were two categories, not three, and you place two dice, not three.

3. Regarding Facts and Loyalty, I'm not sure how that's supposed to work, i.e., when do I know, as a player, that I'm not allowed to state a given action, such as breaking down a door in the example, at all without making use of my Fact, or more extremely, am barred from doing it at all because I don't have a relevant Fact. Without this being an issue in play, then there's no teeth in the loss of Loyalty Points.

Or to put it differently, if I drop to 0 Loyalty Points, so what? Why do I care how many Loyalty Points I have, and therefore, who cares whether we get a letter from the queen or not?

4. The Conditions rules are quite problematic, displaying all the classic Trait problems discussed by Markus, Callan, and myself in Can someone explain the true reason behind "traits" (PtA style) to me?; of the several follow-up threads, I think [Space Rat] Femme babe action at GenCon is most relevant to this thread. In a nutshell, they are too loosey-goosey in terms of whether they are applied or not.

5. Ultimately, I don't know whether or how the events of play, as they proceed, causally contribute to whether our characters succeed or fail in restoring the queen. It seems to me that play lacks end conditions, or for play itself to produce end conditions apart from the GM's judgment that we've played enough tonight by a certain point.

I think you've made one core step toward good Participationist design, specifically the non-adversarial GM role. However, most of the system's details fail to give the GM material to work with, which makes the story produced by play nothing but what he or she has to lug to the table and deliver in full, and makes the application of the mechanics little more than a momentary pretense of rattling dice and trading around narration rights with little genuine effect.

I think your next steps would be (i) to reconsider or even abandon the conditions and the narration category, (ii) to establish very distinct (and desirable) standards for when Facts are required to perform certain actions, (iii) to provide considerable negative consequence regarding the queen's fate if Loyalty points get too or stay low for too long. Given those changes, the strengths of the initial premise, the system, and the vision of play can shine.

Best, Ron

Jacob Bouvier

First off, I want to thank you for the feedback and the time involved in reading through everything. I'm glad to see the use of terms came through as well. There were certainly some things going on in my head that I see now did not come through clearly, and hopefully my response here can start me on my path to fixing those issues.

First off, Participationist gameplay (from what I'm reading at least, most of these terms are new to me,) is exactly what I was going for. I can see how certain design elements lead to illusionist gameplay, and while some of those are nice and easy to fix, others I'm not so ready to give up on quite yet. In the interest of telling a little more about myself, 90% of my RPG experience has been either Illusionist or Participationist, split roughly 60/40 between the two. To be honest though, neither one has exactly produced the games I've enjoyed the most. Story Now seems, from the essays and discussions I've read, to be where I would naturally fall, and often, having grown up on munchkining 3.5 DnD, I fall into Step on Up out of habit. So creating In Exile was my first step in trying to create a Participationist game that I would enjoy playing in. Thank you for the links, just having the terminology to explain what I've been thinking in a way that people here at The Forge will understand is a huge relief.

Onto the points about fermenting (I'm still not entirely sure I understand the term, but I understand the feedback and that's much more important to me)

1) Reputation and Facts were supposed to be used in two different types of scenes. In "encounter" scenes, you would use your reputations to move forward, modifying the dice pool either positively or negatively (more on that comes in during the Conditions section), and in scenes where something simple relating to one of your facts came up, you could simply state that you were doing it, no need to start rolling dice. I see now that this can be very problematic, where perhaps you want to break down a door in the middle of an "encounter" style scene, or whatever else, or where you feel like you can't ever break down a door because you don't have a Fact relating to strength. I still feel like the basic structure is sound, but I need to think over the interactions between them in more detail, rather than assuming they exist completely separate from each other.

2) This is the part where I both agree and entirely disagree with you. I understood going into this design that narration was a "dice soak," or in other words not mechanically necessary. The reason I kept it in was that I wanted there to be an option for lots of strong player narration, if they had a particularly cool idea, or a bonus that they got to choose the narration if enough of their dice were rolled high. In short, I want players to be able to choose to take over full narration rights for actions that they are completing especially. It was inspired by Otherkind primarily, but somewhere in the translation, the meaning of the "narration" slot got lost and it became meaningless. So I agree with your diagnosis, it's the treatment that I disagree with. I don't particularly want to cut out the option, nor turn it into something that players do every action. But I would like to find some alternative where it could actually matter, or where it isn't seen as an unnecessary mechanic. Perhaps this is impossible, and I'll end up cutting the narration anyway, but I'd feel like I was cheating myself if I didn't try to save it.

3) Yes, you're 100% right. It seemed like a great idea at the time and looking at the Facts/Loyalty mechanic now, it just doesn't hold up at all. Loyalty points were supposed to be the fuel driving 1/2 of the character (their facts), and so losing Loyalty would be a penalty only in that you didn't have it to spend later on using your Facts. I like the idea that you put forward about other negative consequences for consistently low or 0 Loyalty, but I have no clue how to go about fixing Facts. This ties back into #1, and I'd love to hear suggestions from people on how to resolve this.

4) I again agree with your assessment of the Conditional Modifiers rules. This is where I talk about the original design of Reputations and how it morphed into something that admittedly works against the design of the game. The first concept for Reputation was that you would be able to assign an arbitrary number to it (within a certain range) that would work either for or against you depending on if you worked with loyalists or those supporting the new regime. This was a concept that fascinated me, with the ability to make something work strongly for your character came the necessity of it being able to work exactly as strongly against them. As I tried to broaden the Reputation rules to include things that weren't directly about the Queen, it lost a lot of what made it unique and fun to me, and in an effort to add that back in, I threw it into the conditional modifiers table. That was a mistake. I may have to re-work Reputations a bit to recapture the idea that got away from me. My initial thought is that each character should have 1 Reputation which directly relates to their relationship with the Queen, and this will work for or against them as originally conceptualized. Then any reputations beyond that will not be assigned arbitrary numbers, and will only work for you.

5) Play lacks end conditions. I had thought a bit on this right before I submitted the game (or possibly right after, the whole 24 hour period is a blur to me), and I'm not quite sure what to say about it. I like the fact that there is no set "win condition" that the players are gunning for, but as it stands I've thrown open the barn door when perhaps opening a window would have done. I was thinking of including a guideline for the Queen in Chains that a certain number of Queen's Blessings given to the players was probably a sign that they should be able to achieve their goal of freeing her, in whatever manner they chose. But maybe that's not enough. This is another place I'm open to suggestions.

One side note, I'd love a little feedback on the Queen's Blessings mechanic, as it was the one thing that went unaddressed in the post, and was also one of the story elements I wrestled the most with trying to explain what I meant.

Thank you again for taking the time to do this, the feedback was very insightful.

Ron Edwards

Hi Jacob,

1 & 3. This all ties into fixing Facts. Right now I'm seeing a hamster wheel: you use Facts in some way by spending Loyalty, you regain Loyalty when a Queen's Blessing comes along, which implies (see #6 below) "the beginning of the next scenario." In other words, you only have so much Loyalty at hand for a given adventure, i.e., a given set-up provided by a Queen's Blessing. But it's a hamster wheel because frankly, play is going to proceed whether you use Facts or not; as far as I can tell, they are merely Color. Similarly, play is also going to proceed whether you run out of Loyalty or not.

OK, fixing this can come from several angles. One might posit eliminating the Fact issue completely, along with the Loyalty mechanic. Note that the Color issue is already accounted for (see #2 below), so it's not like you need Facts to provide in-game content. And if I'm not mistaken, the character's in-fiction loyalty to the queen is not actually under question, so "Loyalty = 0" would, if taken literally, actually remove the point of play from play, which is not a fun thing. So at face value, there's no reason to keep either and nothing to lose. The question is if you do this, whether there's enough game left.

Another option is to incorporate Facts differently, not as a resolution mechanic at all. One way is to make them up and then hand them to the GM as required components of scenario and situational prep. So when the GM is preparing for a new adventure (as defined by Queen's Blessing, see #6 below), he or she gets a Fact of the player's choice from each player and has to fold that into the content in any way. As well as a commitment to utilize those stated Facts as finer-scale features of scene framing, which is pretty easy.

All that disconnects Facts from Loyalty, so if you do something like that with Facts, then either you jettison Loyalty or make it do something else, or integrate it with the new Fact idea. At the moment I'm inclined to make it do something new.

OK, Loyalty starts at 10, and it gets used up. How? Ha! This is where a third dice-outcome category might be restored! Instead of Narration, use this table instead: 6 = lose no Loyalty, 4-5 = lose 1 Loyalty, 2-3 = lose 3 Loyalty, 1 = lose 5 Loyalty. This might be best understood as energy, rather than emotional commitment. In other words, the character is always totally loyal, but his or her ability to push through is getting worn down. And once it hits 0, the character can keep playing but his or her rolls must always place the highest die in Outcome and are forced to consider the Outcome a failure (1).

Those are all merely suggestions, but I hope they illustrate some of the options and possible ideas.

2. I think I understand your points about narration completely. I suggest removing the player-narration option from the resolution system and keeping it as a feature in some other easily-accessed way. It might be as simple as this: "The GM narrates outcomes unless the player feels like contributing, in which case they narrate together, with the GM as junior partner with closing-rights." I mean, phrased more elegantly, but I think that concept preserves what you're after without tying narration to a resource.

4. I agree that the original notion of the Reputation as either positive or negative is the way to go. It's nearly identical to the Devil mechanic in the seminal game Dust Devils.

Assuming for the moment that we're removing the Narration category from resolution, let me think about how that might play:

i) Each Reputation is rated 1, 2, or 3.
ii) You roll 3d6, subtracting or adding the appropriate number of dice for each Reputation that's involved. The GM lays down the law about which Reputations are involved and whether positive or negative, prior to your final commitment to roll.
iii) You assign dice to Outcome and to Unintended Consequences, presumably your two highest. If you have only one die or no dice, then the missing slots are considered failures.

5. I agree with you that a fixed ending mechanic along the lines of those in Queens of Time and Space, Queen of Thorns, or Her Son is probably not what this game needs. My take is that in this case, the story needs room to grow in a kind of wild, emergent way so that the GM is neither laying down a prepped sequence nor locked down by an "end it now" signal. I am leaning toward the part of my sentence about play itself producing end conditions. Perhaps it might be as simple as the GM keeping track of the in-setting outcome and consequences of each unit of play defined by a Queen's Blessing letter, and when the emergent consequences of all of them, considered together, seem to call for "one last climactic push," announcing it, and providing a final Queen's Blessing that might be called the Queen's Fate or something like that, which will determine her fate, the realm's fate, and those of the player-characters.

6. The Queen's Blessing is effectively a chapter or scenario-starting technique, and it's one of the game's strongest Participationist components. I didn't want to bring it up until I understood whether that's the direction you were going with the design. What matters most, though, is not the Blessing, but rather the finishing of the circumstances and opportunities provided by the previous Blessing, which is to say, how does the group as a whole know or establish that a given adventure is finished. I think that could use a lot of thought, especially if Loyalty is going to be a significant resource.

Best, Ron

Jacob Bouvier

I keep meaning to come back to this, but I keep not being able to find the words. In Exile is very important to me, and I think I'm letting that get in the way of just looking at it with an objective (and dare I say market oriented) focus. I'll be back around in a couple of days when things have died down in the rest of my life, and I'll try again to compose a response. This is just to let people know I haven't fallen off the grid or abandoned In Exile to the winds.