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Theory Context:”Say Yes or Roll the Dice”

April 12, 2016

Back in 2004, Vincent Baker released Dogs in the Vineyard.  It had quite a few good design things in it, but an idea which found it’s way into the general tabletop scene is “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.

Like many of the things that spilled out from the Forge forum crowd, it would become a thing people say, shifting the idea and losing the original context.  Now you can find people arguing “But if a player wants to have their character punch the planet in half in my gritty realistic detective game, do I have to say yes or roll the dice?!? This is ridiculous!”…  So, context.

Structure

First, it’s important to know the basic structure of Dogs in the Vineyard – the player characters are special religious deputies, whose job is to go into towns and fix their conflicts and problems.

There’s basically two axis’ of conflict: whether the situations violate the social norms of their religious society, and whether the situations are morally bad as you personally judge them (as players, as characters, etc.).   The characters are basically put in a tight spot to make things better for the community, while much of the community actually resists or is in the midst of internal strife.

Ok? That’s the mission structure.  The actual dice rolling conflicts are pretty involved, often lasting 30 minutes or more.  Along the way, the characters make a lot of choices, mostly involving whether it’s time to use violence or time to use words, and how much consequences they’ll risk.

You are set up to run into conflict, and conflict is an involved affair.

Say Yes or Roll the Dice

Now, here’s the actual section on Say Yes or Roll the Dice:

Drive Play Toward Conflict

Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.

If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing.  Just plain go along with them.  If they ask for information, give it to them.  If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there.  If they want it, it’s theirs.

Sooner or later – sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis – they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like.  Bang! Something’s at stake.  Launch the conflict and roll the dice.

Roll the dice or say yes.  Roll the dice or say yes.  Roll the dice or say yes.

So…that context…

Notice how the primary point here is that it’s about character agency and figuring out when and where to use conflicts.  If there is no conflict, if the characters are unopposed?  They succeed.  Period.  If they are opposed, then it’s time to set the stakes, and then push through the mechanics to see what comes out on the other side.

Also notice that this isn’t about avoiding the use of mechanics, rather, it’s about making sure you’re not blocking the players from getting to the meat of the situation – which, when you reach it, is exactly what the mechanics are for.

This doesn’t say anything about genre breaking things, or impossible by your judgement of reality… it’s with the assumed group understanding of what the genre and character capabilities are (the book has 2 chapters laying out tone, social structure, etc. on this), and here we’re just talking about pacing and pushing towards the point when the player characters and the NPCs come into conflict with each other, and choices have to be made about what you’ll do about it and prices you’re willing to pay.

Broad Application

If you want to export it, then there’s basically two ideas you’d be using:

  1. Characters succeed at things within their ability unless something is at stake that matters for the focus of your game.
  2. Drive play towards those conflicts about the things that are the focus of your game.

If your game is tightly designed, this is pretty easy because the mechanics and the advice in the game are already pushing you this way.

If your game is designed without a tight focus, or, worse, just badly designed, then you have to do a lot of work to figure out what the focus of the game you are going to run is going to be, and you’ll end up ignoring a lot of the skills/powers/mechanics, etc. that aren’t going to be used.  You’ll need to tell the players about this so they don’t waste time creating characters with abilities that won’t get used, or spending time learning rules that won’t matter.

 

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The continuing problem

April 3, 2016

This woman recounts several instances of violent sexual assault, harassment, and racism in tabletop gaming, both roleplaying and minis, etc.   Trigger warning.

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem

The common thread across all of this is: a) The act of violence, b) that there are witnesses or a community which dismisses the victim and protects the abuser, c) and whatever authority she turns to, also does the same.

It’s the commonality of B and C which makes this a community action, as opposed to “one rotten individual”.

Notice also that she doesn’t go into the details about the online harassment, but it’s there.  The desire to do emotional harm and physical harm both base in the desire to do harm.  That’s the problem right there.

Until you fix that, Hatebros will thrive, and the rest of us will continue to leave.

 

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Writing the Other online workshop Mar 13th

March 5, 2016

K. Tempest Bradford just hipped me to the Writing the Other workshop coming up this Sunday.  The workshop is aimed at giving creative tools to writers on how to approach creating characters in ways that are human, respectful and broadening beyond the creative pitfalls it can be easy to stumble into.

And, if you’ve been reading my blog or writings for any time, you know that a lot of times I’ve seen perfectly decent game design get mixed with horrible portrayals and hateful messages.  If you’re a designer and actually interested in broadening your creative tools and doing better, it might be worth your time to check out.

Are you afraid to write about characters whose racial heritage, sexual orientation, or religion differs from your own? Do you think you’ll get it wrong or cause offense?

In this renowned workshop, basis for the classic text Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, authors and editors Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward teach you to write sensitively and convincingly about characters of diverse backgrounds.

Appropriate for all fiction writers, Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction combines lectures, discussions, and writing exercises in a safe, supportive atmosphere.

PLEASE NOTE: This is an introductory workshop for the concept and practice of writing the other, and it is the basis for the writing handbook Writing the Other. If you have read the book, this workshop repeats the information given there in a different format and offers students the opportunity to do the exercises and get feedback from the instructors and your peers. It is different in scope from the 6 week and weekend intensive workshops.

The class will cover:

  • Identifying differences from the unmarked state that are, in this culture, considered to be deeply significant differences
  • The Dominant Paradigm
  • The Marked and Unmarked States
  • Parallax
  • Categorical Thinking
  • Congruence
  • Resonance

This workshop is appropriate for all writers (fiction, plays, comics, screenplays, and games included) from all backgrounds and any skill level. Technical requirements below.

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A Formula for Narrativism

February 27, 2016

Narrativism: It’s like this

Narrativism:

  1. Your character has values that are emotionally important to them*.
  2. During play, you express and wrestle with those values as a key focus of play
  3. A story arc is fulfilled as part of play

Values – your character’s vs. your own

Narrativist play, in general, boils down to “What does your character care about, why, and what are they going to do about it?” – with the actual playing of the game being where we find out those answers.**

Maybe your character is really obsessed with mastering a particular martial art move – but the emotional reason is that it was the one thing they felt left them a connection to their deceased father.   The action only holds meaning by reason of the context.  The fun part of play is questions like “Will you work with this sketchy master who will teach you the technique, but only if you help them in crime?”***

So one of the basic things to this is buy-in – we’re agreeing to play characters who care about SOMETHING and we also agree that we, the players at the table, care about how our characters care about those, in some way.  We also agree our characters might change, grow, or fall – they’re not 2 dimensional characters who never change.

This isn’t to say you have to agree with your characters’ values – but rather they are compelling.  That character you love to hate, but you can’t stop watching/reading about them?  They’re compelling.  So, you care about what they care about, even if that’s the care of complete disagreement.

It’s also important to recognize that these values are not locked in – it’s not the classic alignment or Paladin’s Code from which your character doesn’t stray.  These values are things which your character is going to wrestle over – maybe outgrow, maybe reject, maybe commit harder.  We play to find out.

The Starting Values vs. the Real Values

One of the things I’ve noticed in play is that what you often think your characters’ core values are, are only starting as an approximation, or a guess.  It’s a direction to strike out in, and usually in a few sessions you find a more accurate idea, or that the real value is something very different than what you started with – but that initial direction allowed you to find it.  It’s important to be aware of this idea because people will often over-think their characters initial values or attempt to hold onto them when it’s time to move on.

A Story Arc

What I’m referring to here is not a full campaign, but rather enough of a story that would fit into a TV episode, a comic book issue, or a chapter in a novel.

Enough happens that you can say you felt there was a significant development and something came to a conclusion or consequence.  You know how the end of a good chapter or episode hits those notes that leave you fulfilled in some way?  That’s what I mean.  That doesn’t necessarily mean everything is wrapped up, or that the story has “fully been told”.

Consistently hitting this experience is what makes great Narrativist play.  As a player, you can talk about it as “I struggled, I tried, win or lose, but damn, I did something.”   When I’ve had people tell me that “we did more in this one session than I’ve done in most campaigns” it’s simply that the story arcs found conclusions – choices had consequences, characters developed and so on.

I’ve found the trick to success here is not so much in the epic long term issues, but delivering on this experience every session.  Seeing consistent closure to smaller arcs gets people excited and eager to keep playing, and to shape the larger arc.

Thematic Focus

Given that the sorts of stories you could create are infinite, how do you get it to hang together well with these different characters with different values and beliefs?

Some Narrativist games give you a single set of values to play from.  This is often a code or set of cultural expectations that the characters subscribe to, but not as an unchangeable set of rules, but rather a set you test, live up to, fail, reject, or reinterpret.  Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouse Guard all do this – the thematic focus is seeing all the different ways these characters navigate these codes they’re involved with and often finding the gaps between what the codes say and what actually makes you a “good person”.

Some other games build the values you need to wrestle with into the mechanics.  For example, The Drifter’s Escape has you constantly making bargains with hostile forces of the universe, and having to take a gamble anytime you want to get through without indebting yourself to them.  The core question of what will you accept, what will you fight for, and what will you run from is deeply built into the conflict mechanics.

Many Narrativist games, and any other game you drift into Narrativism, however, leaves it wide open.  In those cases, I find it’s useful to start with unified situation and draw some rough lines about factions/sides/issues and let that be the focus.

I’ve screwed up a few games by forgetting to get this in place before play starts.  Often it’s in trying to run one shots or pick up games without good forethought.  Without the focus, it’s like dropping characters from entirely different emotional genres into the same story, and nothing quite clicks (Imagine a game with grimdark Batman characters and Adam West Batman characters trying to interact.  It doesn’t work.).

System Driftable

You can get this experience with a lot of different games, or sets of mechanics.  However, don’t confuse that for “any and all”.  Being able to get that focus on emotional values and playing with them requires focusing the “camera” on those issues scene to scene.

This means any game where you preplan the scene-to-scene events and outcomes stops that from happening.  So this often becomes the most important thing to eject from a game if you’re trying to get Narrativist play from a system that doesn’t support it.

Although you can simply go from there, you get more reliable success if you have some kind of Flag Mechanics to help focus what kinds of scenes and conflicts you should focus on.  This is also why a lot of people find games like Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel or Sorcerer are confusing as far as Creative Agenda – the functional mechanics are fundamentally the same as many other games, until you hit the point of their Flag Mechanics and how you construct scenes and the events in play – the things the characters emotionally value are what drive the direction of the story.

The second common issue is that if the scene to scene conflicts aren’t attached to the characters’ emotional values, then you don’t actually spend any time playing with them.  This is a common issue when the focus of play is mostly dictated by survival and logistics.  For example, a common concern I hear from a lot of 5th edition D&D players is that the Inspiration rules often are forgotten or fall by the wayside in play – the scene to scene events are usual D&D stuff – dungeons and fighting, but the Inspiration rules are often tied to much larger story arcs you don’t necessarily get to hit on every session in play.

All of these are reasons why games that are specifically aimed at supporting Narrativism hit this play mode better than “generic” mechanics.  You need to coordinate the group on the values, and making them show up in play consistently.  Flags make it easy to target the right things in both scenes and conflicts.  Narration trading allows players a lot of power in shifting the camera and the outcomes to focus on things that matter.

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* This is a rephrasing of my past use of “human issues“.

** Players who are used to being blocked or denied this opportunity in play often end up making giant character backstories or making the equivalent of fanfic outside of actual play itself.  If there’s no actual avenue of expressing and playing with those values in play, then it ends up having to happen outside of play, or not at all.

***Notice that this has nothing to do with whether you get to have control over the plot, world, or facts outside of your character.  You can have the usual standard RPG set up of “One GM controls the NPCs and environment” and “Each player controls one character and only that one character” and still get this kind of play.   The idea of control beyond your character is called Director Stance, and the usual mechanic which applies it is called “Narration Trading”, and while these are pretty good tools for Narrativist play, they’re not required.  See my past post What Narrativism Isn’t.

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Systems that work

January 30, 2016

Supported Design

A system that supports your goals in play does three things:

  1. Makes it easy to generate moment to moment situations and events of interest
  2. Creates interesting choices for players to make
  3. Creates appropriate, but also sometimes surprising, outcomes

You’ll notice all three of these are highly dependent on what you’re looking for in a game, and the specific game itself.

In Action

For example, a classic dungeon crawl works like this:

  • Moment to moment situations are created between the hazards, the monsters and the logistics of navigating the dungeon
  • Strategic and logistical choices about how you face threats and overcome obstacles creates choices
  • Outcomes include: surprise encounters, traps, utilizing resources or found objects in novel ways, etc.

Whereas, say, Primetime Adventures works like this:

  • Moment to moment situations are created by players taking turns setting scenes
  • Choices are around how you approach the situation and express your character, as the tension/issues build, secondarily, how/when you choose to spend resources
  • The classic succeed/fail outcomes are further adjusted by narration trading – different people get to narrate the outcome and define what happens in ways that creates unexpected results.

Breakdowns

When the system fails on one of these three fronts, you have some common problems.

If you fail to have moment to moment situations being created, there’s either a lot of dragging along of play, as no real interest is being produced, or that the situations all have to be pregenerated, shoehorned in, and much of the work is spent trying to keep these together and not have them fall apart or be “used up too fast”.

When the choices are not interesting in and of themselves, people just go into automatic mode and disengage.  This could be because there’s no real choice (railroading and Illusionism) or because the choices are bunk choices anyway (“Time to do the one attack my character is built to do.  Again.”).

Alternatively, the system supports choices that don’t fit what you’re trying to do, in which case, you either have to slog through a lot of mechanics and procedure that is a waste of time, or else you simply excise/skip it.

And finally, when the outcomes aren’t appropriate… well, this is where people really love to talk about how bad systems are and freeform is the one true way.  GMs can either spend a lot of time fudging or creating new rules or just fiating everything to try to keep things within reason.

Work for Play

You might notice a lot of what I pointed out above sounds like a great amount of play for a lot of games.

That’s because a lot of games are built on incomplete design – they’ll give you rules to make a character, to make skill rolls, have combat, get some more powers… but all the stuff around what creates good situations, pacing, how to drive points of play that highlight choices, or create outcomes that feed back into that?  Too many are absent it.

When people have to create their own solutions, you quickly find that game groups that are “playing the same rules” actually have very, very different games involved altogether.  This can also be made worse if the game itself gives contradictory or actually non-functional advice/procedures for play.

High Hurdle, Low Return

All of this extra work to make the game work… is a high tax for play.  It’s one of the reasons lots of tabletop RPGs get poached by boardgames, card games and videogames – you don’t have to work to make the game work.

A few years back, I thought that a key part of the problem was the creative load that was part of what TTRPGs stay with small groups, however, between all the amazing creativity you see pretty much everyone doing online for so many things, I’m more likely to just chalk it up to this hurdle of work to make the game work (plus the usual issues of high expected time investment and toxic gamer culture).

At Your Table

If you have a system you love, it’s worth considering how it does these three things and why they work for you – it will help you understand what other games do differently, or similarly.

If you’re struggling or not entirely satisfied with a system, it’s worth considering where it’s dropping the ball, and if other games don’t have this problem, and why.

If you’re designing a system, well… it’s worth asking yourself how these things work for the game you’re about to make.

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Monsters, Beasts and Peoples

January 4, 2016

One of the interesting points to navigate when you deal with the issue of “monsters” in the vaguest sense is that there’s a core idea that defines how the audience (and in tabletop RPGs, the people playing) should consider them.

Monsters

“Monster” in the sense of a terrible evil.  It cannot be truly reasoned with or change of it’s own accord.  The stuff of myth and legend.   Surviving encountering it is victory, killing/destroying/trapping it is miraculous, and bargaining or trying to co-exist is folly.  Many horror movie monsters/killers are this sort of thing, and they fill the same role as old folklore monsters.*

Beasts

Beasts are like animals – they may be harmful, as much as a hungry tiger is harmful, but they are not evil, nor capable of making a moral choice in any direction.  On one end of the scale, they might be a danger that can be kept at a distance and people could live with, on the other end of the scale they are too invasive/harmful to endure – the xenomorphs from Aliens, for example.

People

These are “Monsters” might be what the things look like, what they can do, or they may need to survive on blood or dead flesh or fear, or something similar, but they’re actually fully cognizant and capable of making moral decisions as much as anyone else.

Importance for creators

Think of these 3 categories, and you can probably think of movies or stories with classic monsters where they have filled these different roles depending on the way the story wanted to treat them – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, orcs, aliens, demons, Lucifer as a character, etc.

While there’s certainly a good number of stories around people mistaking categories – either as a note about bigotry (mistaking People for anything else) or horrific naivete (mistaking anything else for People), when you are the person creating the events in play – as a GM and as players, you don’t want to be mixed up about it.

The general trend in stories in the last 20 years has been to make more of the classic monsters into the People category, so it’s not new, although it has shifted the landscape drastically.  The stories you tell about people surviving EVIL vs. people dealing with dangerous nature are NOT the same as people dealing with other people.

I think this is one of the reasons we’ve seen more stories about zombies -these stories still accept the monsters as either capital M-Monsters or beasts operating on some kind of instinct and not conscious choice.  Although you can find stories where these are considered people, for the most part the expectation is that they are NOT people, and the issues in dealing with them and the entertainment value of fictional violence can be had without guilt.**

The Troubling Space of Stand-ins

Creatures in all three categories have long been stand-ins for human interactions throughout history, though it’s a fraught area to navigate.

For example, the vampire-as-abuser dynamic is a common one, though with good consideration it can be a great critical look at abusers.   On the other hand, you have stuff like “orcs” where the descriptions of orcs turns out to be lifted nearly word for word with the terminology used to justify colonialism and genocide in the real world.  So… then the stand-in factor is basically an expression of real world racism transposed to an “acceptable” target.

This becomes even more pronounced when the given story/fictional world is absent said people as well – “Group X doesn’t exist in this world, just the Horrific Monster People who have all these traits that neonazis and white supremacists attribute to Group X…”

So… you end up with this rather twisted space of “I’ll create a fictional creature group as People and then ‘un-People’ them using the exact same logic folks use in the real world against real people… for FUN!” (the even thinner version of this is to create stand-in fictional humans and declare that in this fictional world, these walking stereotypes ARE “like that” and therefore, it “isn’t racist”.)

What’s this mean for your game?

If the game revolves around playing, or interacting with a given creature set, it’s good to set the expectations of what category things fall into, or that you’ll be playing.

Vampires as People vs. Vampires that are People that can devolve into Monsters vs. Vampires as Monsters are three very different kinds of stories to play in.

Games that have a lot of different types of creatures may have all three categories covered, in which case, you have a different problem about considering when/where/why some get some treatment and others get a different treatment despite being more-or-less the same.

The classic problems of D&D’s “evil alignment races” has always been along this line.   My usual cop out is to redefine such things and either firmly put creatures into the People category, or make them some kind of creation of magic where they are Monsters or Beasts – not sentient folks who have kids and hopes and dreams, etc.  It still means a bit of work both on the backend of creating it and explaining to players.

This is one of those things any pre-existing setting should have already handled and made clear, but for many games and settings, it’s a nebulous or unclear thing, often the result of a mishmash of many people creating a setting without much consultation or consideration of overarching narrative themes or real world biases.

And of course, in the classic tabletop RPG fashion, it’s left to us at the table to fix what shouldn’t have been absent/broken in the first place.

Side Notes

* There’s occasional stories of the horror movie monster finding redemption or being released from their role of evil, however that happens primarily through the actions of protagonists, and not the agency of the monster itself.  The monster will not change without someone else forcing it to change.

**Zombie stories complicate this a little by questioning the time of when someone “turns”, but you don’t see people turn BACK after they become zombies.  And of course, the whole zombie mythos being used that way is EXTRA fucked up in regard to “guilt free violence” when you consider it’s original mythology of the horror of dehumanization and eternal slavery…

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Building Tutorial into Play

January 3, 2016

Although I’ve been writing a lot less here, I’ve been doing a lot of research into game design.

One of the things we do a lot in tabletop games is give a lot of description in how the rules work, and examples of the rules working, but not so much in terms of considering building play in a way that progressive teaches/builds skills for play in the process.

Boardgames that have variable scenarios will often have tutorial scenarios where you learn a few rules at a time, or highlight a few key strategies that are necessary for proficient play.  And of course, that multi-billion dollar industry of videogames has a lot of development…like this short analysis of Nintendo’s design consideration in Zelda: Link to the Past to teach about how combat works.

While videogames are definitely a different medium, there’s certainly a lot of design ideas we can backport to tabletop games.  In that example alone, consider the fact that the encounter is designed to put all the advantages to the player between giving the player a free ambush, and the option to run.  It’s not just about numbers, it’s about framing the situation, and giving the players information and time to consider their options.

At least for RPGs of the tactical Gamist bent, there’s plenty to draw from in terms of designing to teach tactics or strategies by encounters.  But what about other types of games?

For Narrativist games, Vincent Baker’s Poisoned does a good job with the starting scene of play. For Poison’d, the pirates are in a highly charged situation – there’s an assassin to deal with, someone needs to be nominated Captain, and the Royal Navy will soon be upon them…The game basically revolves on making Bargains and committing violence, and those two are well primed to happen in short order.  Beyond mechanics, however, the situations also set you up to make a lot of moral choices, which is the thematic core to the game.

Narrativism has the advantage that the core skill of expressing a compelling character and their development is something people have a lifetime exposure to, in the form of stories, and the real trick is mostly getting players to think about how the wield the rules towards that end.

Simulationism’s spectrum of creative expression within the genre expectations and the experience of character identification…  The genre expectations part is probably easier by priming situations that fit within it easily, but the latter has always seemed so subjective to me I don’t have any way to consider a full approach to it.

Of course, this all depends on identifying what the core point of your play is to begin with, before you can figure out how to provide situations that best orient and train players.

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