[Beholden] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, April 14, 2011, 11:07:42 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Ron Edwards

Baxil's Beholden is a Runner-Up this round. For the record, an adaptation of someone else's game is a viable design approach; some of the best games out there started life as another person's and I don't call that stealing. 'Specially if it's acknowledged.

So my criteria for judging is definitely affected by that particular origin or inspiration for a design, but I hope constructively - to see whether the new design yields up particular strengths of its own and isn't just a new set of clothes for something we already have.

First off, your use of the terms is way better than you think. There is nothing wrong with dedicated gender content for a game, regarding characters or players. And what's with this all too common perception that a gay person would be incapable of playing a character in a straight romance?* (I suddenly realize that you may not know about my book Sex & Sorcery which deals with this explicitly, or my game It Was a Mutual Decision which has scary rules about that stuff.) That actually strikes against the game: your hesitancy about this matter in the text was one of several instances of backing off a little too much from where your concept would reasonably lead, as I'll try to explain as I go along.

One interesting implication of the Ronnies terms requirement, too, is the absence of lust. I'm not claiming that either the man or woman would feel no shred of it, but rather that the issues of play don't concern it - it's Color for other stuff that the game is concentrating on. That's ... neat, actually. It really throws the whole courtship and identity thing into the realm of power.

Another neat, fundamental thing is that it looks like one is playing a maiden on a pedestal ... but it's anyone's guess whether she actually turns out to be a femme fatale. The game therefore includes discovery about the man, sure, but also about the woman and the latter has to be emergent from play. I like that a lot.

Other details that work for me ... (i) if the monster has to take the hero seriously, then he will get hurt and he will indeed win; and (ii) deciding whether the guy accepts her once he sees her in a new light.

I hope it doesn't tag me as too, too psychotic, but I suggest that the rules might include a way for him to kill you ...

However, here's the part which really tripped me up, and made me say, "Awwww, not a Ronny." It stopped me in my tracks to read the part about "locking away" some aspect of the woman because he has defeated some expression of it. That is ... well, it's weird. It's kind of like he's coming at you with illusions, which slough away and that's great, but he's also, well, killing parts of you too as he goes. Why not stick with teh fundamental issue, which is whether he "sees me as I am" and how much?

Anyway, all of that seems a little brief to me. I'll see if I can round it out more later, but for now, let me know what you think. Again, I am saying that I do not merely see a curiosity here whose only virtue is to put a different hat (dress?) onto Beloved. I'm seeing a commentary on the relevant issues which makes it a totally different thing.

Best, Ron

* I believe it was in one of Harlan Ellison's long ranty essays from the 1970s ... paraphrasing from memory, something like, "A man needs a good woman and a woman needs a good man. I suppose I should acknowledge that a man might need a good man and a woman might need a good woman, but then, hey, a man might need a good chicken and a woman might need a big dog, so let's just cut the shit and move on, shall we?" Very insensitive, yes, but in terms of simple prose and communication, he has a point.


Hey Ron,

Thanks for the kind words and perspective.  I'm currently blocking on one particular part of your feedback, so I'd like to touch on it in order to get it out of my system and address the rest more cohesively.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on April 14, 2011, 11:07:42 PM
And what's with this all too common perception that a gay person would be incapable of playing a character in a straight romance?* (I suddenly realize that you may not know about my book Sex & Sorcery which deals with this explicitly, or my game It Was a Mutual Decision which has scary rules about that stuff.)

I would like to state quite firmly that this has nothing to do with capability.  (It's not about homosexuality, either,* which is an interesting disconnect.)

My approach to the gender question was: Is the value of specifying gender roles great enough to this game to justify the exclusionary message it would send to people who do not match the roles in the text?

We've had decades of mainstream RPGs with chainmail bikinis, and decades of complaints about how male-dominated the hobby is.  The issue there has never been whether women can play chicks in chainmail bikinis, it's whether they want to -- and that's a question about the culture surrounding the games, and how the game texts reflect and produce that.  I'm pretty sensitive to that.  So my threshold for "lock gender choices down hard" is high.

I'd be open to hearing your clarifications, or some good Forge links, on the "capability" issue, but I will not be further debating it in this thread.  I think there's a much more constructive conversation to be had here about the rest of the game (specifically including the value of specifying gender roles, and my judgment thereof).

I will make a point to read S&S and/or IWAMD; I have not yet read either.

And for the record, in my current playtest of Beholden (after much internal debate on the gender questions) I am a female goddess with a male belover.

- Bax

* The game text never explicitly states you are a goddess.  RAW leave your deity gender-ambiguous, and explicitly specify to choose your belover's gender based on personal romantic preference.  The net effect of those is completely agnostic on hetero vs. homo.

Ron Edwards

Let's discuss the game. What happened in your playtest?

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Wait, I changed my mind. I'll address your concerns that you outlined so clearly.

1. First, some perspective on me. My book Sex & Sorcery's premise is that real people seated at the table, equipped with gender, gender interactions, genitals, romantic urges, and all such related matters, and that these phenomena are disruptive if not acknowledged and put to good use regarding the role-playing and the fiction. This is a complex topic and required a whole book to develop from several different angles.

It opened a flood of game design. I am not exaggerating to say that prior to that point, various aspects of these designs had been pillloried for decades as evil and wrong, e.g., rules which say "the guys do this and the gals do that" (regarding the players), or "the guys do this and the guys do that" (regarding the characters), or "character X must be male/female." These games ushered in a whole generation of female authors and publishers as well as a depth of sexual, gender, and social creativity which had never been seen in the hobby before. So I claim some ownership over perspective regarding these issues, and that the whole chainmail-bikini thing is miles behind the work that's been accomplished. Not that my perspective is the only one, or that it takes precedence, but it has been powerfully tested and validated over the past eight years.

My perspective is perhaps better understood as well in light of my essays Naked Went the Gamer and Goddess of Rape, available at the Other essays section of the Adept website. Although Sex & Sorcery is the biggie.

2. My comments in my post are exclusively based on the parenthetical part of the game's first paragraph. I read that paragraph to say, "If your preference for admirers is female, then change the fictional admirer's gender to female." I am saying that this proviso is not necessary - that a person with any gender preferences regarding romantic partners can play the game without changing a thing, and that this is OK.

I am also saying that I think gender specification for the characters (my character is female, the person courting her is male) is a good thing - specifically because it sets up a particular power dynamic which is worth investigating, and which any person out there may enjoy investigating.

Without having read Sex & Sorcery, the above paragraph may seem heterocentric. It isn't. It says the default content (I call it that based only on reversing Beloved) is productive and interesting on its own, and that trying to adapt it or provide flexibility for someone based on their romantic preferences is patronizing to that person. That's my take - to be gender-specific in the fiction of a given game design and to recognize that this doesn't exclude potential players, not if it's done right. Which is to say, if the game provides some really neat mechanics which highlight the frustrations, struggles, and miscommunications of such a situation, which Beholden does.

I dunno - it seems to me as if I'm fighting for your game against its own author. I don't really want to be in that position.

Best, Ron


Ron, I appreciate your response.  The additional information on your perspective just confirms my desire not to start a debate on misogyny/heterocentrism and gamer culture, not until I can catch up on my reading.  And my reaction to that button being pressed has been adequately defused.

So!  To Beholden.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on April 15, 2011, 11:59:19 AM
It seems to me as if I'm fighting for your game against its own author. I don't really want to be in that position.

I was independently coming to a similar conclusion, and that's a great place to take the discussion.  I think what's happening is that Beholden is simultaneously, legitimately, two different games, and we're each reading one. 

You're talking about Game A, and say that it has strong potential for X and is being held back by Y.  I'm talking about Game B, which is built on Y and weakened by X.  I've either created an Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or this ambiguity is a weakness in Beholden's design; and I'm guessing it ain't the former. ;-)

Not to drag Ben into this, but this is a dual nature that I carried over from Beloved.  The (much-discussed) original draft specified a female.   The revised draft, my starting point, specified ambiguity in the same way I do. 

In his text, a female Beloved provokes thought on some deep cultural tropes: the noble knight riding to the rescue of the helpless maiden.  (Game A.)  A gender-nonspecific Beloved lets every player make it good-and-goddamn personal, and provoke thoughts on their ideals.  (Game B.)

I think Beloved requires playing the latter.  I don't think there's enough opportunity for reflection on your heroism to make game A hit hard, and that's fine; the tough questions it asks are designed around B.  It's possible to hit A while B is going on, if you're playing a game about a het male hero, but I don't see that as its point.

Correct me if I'm wrong: the strength you're seeing in Beholden is that my new context throws open the doors of Game A.  You see me as having written a game that Beloved wasn't meant to be.  And that's great!  If I didn't see value in Game A, I wouldn't have included the elements that make it possible.

But: My original motivation for Beholden was so that I could play (some version of) Beloved.*  I've got my own issues with personalizing Beloved adequately.  So recontextualizing it is allowing me to play Game B under my own rules, and that's the game I'm playtesting.

That session is still in early progress, and it's by definition personal, so it's a little weird to share a window inside my head ... but I'm going to put my money where my mouth is.  I'm cleaning up my playtest notes into a Google doc, so others can follow along as I play.  I'll post that to Game Dev, probably next week (will be away with family).

I am not rejecting Game A, and I think your optimism on it is a good sign.  I would like to also explore this game of mine that you like ... just, y'know, in a different headspace from the Beholden I'm playing now.

Here's a specific question: Do you agree with my assessment, and if so, to what extent do you believe Games A and B are incompatible in my rules?

- Bax

* A side note: I think the context of the Ronnies is the driving factor in Beholden's Game A.  Specifically interpreting Beholden in the context of "queen" compels a lot of your positive response.  The reason I was so pessimistic about the terms use is that I saw a game with very little to do about gender roles, that can be pressed into service to discuss them.  I wrote it for the Ronnies, but I didn't write it for the Ronnies, if you know what I mean.

Ron Edwards

The Game B version of Beholden is what you want to do, so OK. I don't see much need to debate the point because the Ronnies are about you designing the game and you're stating your vision and values for it quite clearly.

QuoteHere's a specific question: Do you agree with my assessment, and if so, to what extent do you believe Games A and B are incompatible in my rules?

I agree with your assessment of the basic descriptive difference between Games A and B.

I've only read the original draft of Beloved, and my comments here apply there as well: I think introducing ambiguity, or rather, customizability, to the fictional set-up is counter-productive. I see it differently from you: that Game B doesn't make it personal, it makes it safe.

I do see A and B as incompatible textual concepts. You either permit such customizing or you don't - you can't make "optional" into an option to make the game "both."

Again, please don't read this as advocacy. The game's yours and should reflect your own ideals or visions.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on April 19, 2011, 04:55:53 PM
I've only read the original draft of Beloved, and my comments here apply there as well: I think introducing ambiguity, or rather, customizability, to the fictional set-up is counter-productive. I see it differently from you: that Game B doesn't make it personal, it makes it safe.

Now that is fascinating!  Can you elaborate, on "safe" in particular?*  I'd like to listen (not debate).  And if that means you advocating for Game A, I am explicitly asking for it.

The truth is -- once I finish my current playtest -- I'm not very attached to Beholden.  It's an experiment.  Extending the experiment by rewriting/replaying it once I'm "done", and seeing how a few specific changes can turn it into an entirely different game, I think could be a great exercise for me as a game designer.

BTW, if what I just said contradicts what I've already discussed here - I'm sorry, I'm seeing myself do that with this game (throughout my playtest notes).  It's squirming around like an embraced eel.  Getting outside perspectives is helping me tamp down the flailing parts, and also to figure out where it's trying to go when I'm not fighting to make it be what I currently want.

- Bax

* If the answer involves "read such-and-such in Sex and Sorcery," say so; I ordered a copy on Friday.

Ron Edwards

As you squirm with the embraced eel called the game, I squirm with the embraced eel called you ...

A lot of this does have to do with the content in Sex & Sorcery, but my precise point here is more of an elaboration or position statement rather than what's described or claimed in the book.

I'm suggesting that given the opportunity to customize (for instance) the characters' genders in either Beloved or Beholden, it is very easy for a person to choose some combination which is in a comfort zone for them. This can arrive in several forms, depending on whether the person is more comfortable opining superficially about their own preferences, or if there is some combination which is so "other" for them that they can objectify it. I've observed the latter frequently when het players wax eloquently about their characters' gay romantic or sexual content in play, but somehow never stray from portraying it in idealized or caricatured form.

My reading of both games is that each presents a (or different facets of a) specific kind of romantic interaction: the pursuit of an ideal.* And it's framed in the gender combination of man-courts-woman, which happens to be the combination most observed and more importantly most institutionalized and situated in terms of power. And as if that weren't enough, we have an exceptionally-developed literature, both classical and modern, which hammers home that "love," i.e. seeking romance and sex via pursuing an ideal, is itself an ideal in specifically this man-courts-woman form.

That is one dense fucking package of claims, expectations, societal norms, and leave-us-not-forget laws to contemplate. And I suggest that it's relevant to everyone, whether in grappling with its internal contradictions when trying to do it, or in grappling with others' expectations or retaliations when doing something else, or whatever. In that sense, it is very real.

My suggestion is that making the game about that will refract into many different - but all confrontational - responses across the range of everyone who plays the game. I also suggest that specifying any other specific gender combination might do the same, and be interesting on its own hook, but that this one is especially punchy because of its direct association with institutional power.

Whereas (to continue with my suggestion) permitting the game to be itself refracted across the range of players encountering it would to some extent, meaning in some I think large percentage of people doing it, result in literally neutering it by removing the "you must confront this" aspect of the original version of Beloved and my perceived version of Beholden.

So that's my advocacy for Game A.

Best, Ron

* It so happens that my own experiences have led me to think that combining (i) seeking romantic or sexual contact with (ii) pursuing an ideal is much like taking a barbecue fork and shoving it inches deep into my own eye, so I am not really a target audience for either game. But that's enough "all about me" for this discussion.

Ben Lehman

I think that there's some weirdness here because Beholden and Beloved have very different rules.

In Beloved, the main character is you. Not, like, some abstract figure. You. The player.

In Beholden, unless you are a shape-changing goddess, the main character is not you. It's some other character.

I suggest that this means that the solution for Beholden is not the solution that Beloved uses.


Ron Edwards

That's a good point. Not having read the revised version of Beloved, I don't think it's reasonable for me to include any comments about it.

So let's stick with Beholden, all by itself.

Best, Ron