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Creative Agendas

December 3, 2010

Creative Agenda

One of the most useful and most misunderstood ideas to come out of the Forge is the idea of Creative Agenda.

Let’s start this way: think back to a time, when you’ve played a roleplaying game and the entire group played great;

- Everyone knew what the game was “about”
– Everyone knew what “good play” looked like for this game and pursued it
– Everyone WANTED this game to work THIS way

This is what it looks like when you’ve got a functioning Creative Agenda – regardless of whether the group ever talked about what it would look like, or not.

Here’s three commonly recognized Creative Agendas:

Gamism

Gamism is an easy to understand Creative Agenda; it’s identical to every form of “game” outside of roleplaying – there’s a challenge to be overcome and the fun is in overcoming it well! Chess, cards, boardgames, are all examples of this in action.

Gamism tends to catch a bad rap, yet, ironically, it’s the Creative Agenda that often sees the most functional play because it’s so widespread as an understanding of “what you do with a game”.

And that’s not to say gamism is a simple thing, either. Within it, not only do you have a lot of variation, much along the lines of the Timmy, Johnny, Spike preferences from Magic the Gathering, but also players love to get specific about what -kinds- of challenges and tactics are interesting to them – which is where you see divides – D&D gamist players talking about the choices and strategies in AD&D 1st Edition vs. 3rd. Edition vs. 4th edition is a good example.

Simulationism

Simulationist play specifically puts “fidelity” above everything else. Fidelity could be to a setting, to a genre, to “realism”, to immersion. While all roleplaying has limits on what could or couldn’t happen in play, simulationism puts the fidelity above all else.

If you were playing a Sim Star Wars game, the most important thing would be that play “feels” like Star Wars (whatever that means to your group).

If the dice or mechanics don’t consistently produce results that fit with “What Star Wars Feels Like” the group either fudges or changes the rules. If the choices players make for their characters don’t “feel like Star Wars” the players are either chastised or not invited back. This fidelity comes at the top of all things.

People often mistake Simulationism to be talking solely about realism or complex rules to simulate some genre, but in reality, whether the methods used are simple or complex, it’s about maintaining that fidelity that drives play.

Although widely supported in terms of general game advice, Simulationism often has a hard time forming functional play groups. Whereas Gamist play talks primarily about concrete procedures (in the form of mechanics), Simulationist play often has a wide range of things it COULD apply fidelity to, and rarely good tools to talk about it.

This is why you’ll run across groups, who, basically stick together in their small group, rarely admit new players, and play the One Game They’re Into, because they’ve often spent many years going through different players to find Just The Right People Who Get It.

In other words- the people who also buy into the same fidelity they’re looking for, and don’t attempt to break those boundaries, knowingly or unknowingly.

Narrativism

Narrativist play is about one thing above all else: protagonism.

Not “protagonism” as in heroism, but protagonism as focal character(s) who face conflict (-agon) and make choices and take action in the face of it.

The role of the protagonist, as hero, as villain, as noble, as flawed, as broken, as anything in-between is up in the air – the choices she makes, the actions – this is all going to show us who she is, or who she becomes in the process of the conflicts.

Notice that two things have to exist for this kind of play to work – the freedom to make choices, and conflicts which present choices. Most games out there often have advice about limiting or forcing choices and/or conflicts upon players which has often made Narrativism more difficult to maintain or talk about in the face of these assumed practices.

I can only talk about the long-running group I know- my own from the mid-90’s. We were splintered from general rpg culture primarily due to not wanting to deal with white gamer’s issues. I imagine other long standing groups were probably in the same situation as the Sim groups – isolated by virtue of lacking language and tools to consistently sort and teach their play to other gamers. For us, we had a good pool of non-gamers who joined which meant there was no clashes nor shortage of players to deal with.

Broad Descriptions

As I mentioned above- these are broad descriptions. You can easily find two Sim groups who would never play well together for other reasons- The Big Model talks about game play on several levels, issues like whether a game is crunchy/not crunchy, whether everyone should talk in first person or not, etc. there’s tons of other modifying factors that also help groups get on the same page or not.

That said, a lot of the writing about “problem players” often falls into clashes from those broad categories. When everyone is there for the same reason, those issues don’t even come up.

Describing Play

So, the important thing to remember is that Creative Agenda, and the whole Big Model Theory, is talking about the experience of a group playing a specific campaign. A different campaign, with the same game, or even same people, could end up with a different Creative Agenda.

That said, most people tend to really like only one or two Creative Agendas. This might make you a “Gamist Player” as much as liking to eat pasta makes you a “Pasta lover”… for some reason people like to use labels on each other and treat it like it was a bloodtype or something unchangeable. Whatever.

Design

Go back and read that first section at the top of this post.

Good game design makes it easy for a group to get on the same page.

Historically roleplaying texts haven’t been so good at that, nor has the culture that has grown up around it, and people are often left to figure it out on their own.

All that said, a lot of modern design has been damn good at setting up better ways of hitting a specific Agenda, reliably. Games that consistently support a specific CA are often simply labeled as such, while games that do not are labeled “incoherent”. (As in, coherent vs. incoherent like light- a laser is coherent light – focused. Not coherent vs. incoherent like babbling.)

This is one of the reasons Reward systems can be a crucial organizing force in play- they provide a motivating direction for players, and at least, an idea of what “good play” looks like. The other side being the issue of Directive Rules, which sadly, are often the first ignored when people drift play without thinking.

Misunderstanding these ideas is how games like Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel get mistakenly labeled Gamist (for tactical combat rules) or Simulationist (because of charts and crunch) and not… well, Narrativist because the entire game rewards build on protagonists facing conflicts and making choices amongst goals and ideals.

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