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Fictional Positioning 101

March 8, 2008

The last few months, a lot of folks have been talking about Fictional Positioning. It’s not really a new idea, though, it’s probably one a lot of folks take for granted. It’s also something which has been misunderstood pretty terribly by a lot of people.

What it be

Let’s say my character wants to cut a monster with a sword, right? There’s a lot of things we have to consider for that to happen. Most games have a set of mechanical procedures you go through- roll the dice, pull some cards, move a mini, etc.

But aside from the rules, there’s important stuff that has to work in the imaginary stuff- the fiction, for it to even be an option- my character has to have a sword, the arms and hands to wield it, the monster has to be within arm’s reach, etc.

These are common sense things- but it’s crucial to play. For something to happen, it has to be both mechanically possible and make sense within the fiction for the group.

Fictional Positioning as a verb, is considering the fiction, and looking at ways to shape it to fit what you want out of play- this can be from a tactical and/or creative standpoint. Fictional Positioning as a concept, is where everything stands in relation to each other in the fiction- the things the group has agreed to have happened/exist ala Baker-Care principle, the feel for the characters, the situation, the gameworld, etc.

Misunderstandings

So if you keep in mind that in play, for things to happen, they engage both the fiction and mechanics, what do you have left if you take away the mechanical part? Historically, in games where there either were no mechanics or the group does not want to engage mechanics, all you have left is the fiction, and Fictional Positioning to work with.

So you see Fictional Positioning working as the sole pillar:

– When a set of rules is so punishing that the players seek to avoid taking the risk (avoiding combat in older D&D)

– When the rules do not match what the group wants, so they discard them for freeform or GM Fiat

– Classic GM railroading (“And the pass is blocked by a landslide, I guess you’ll have to go another way”)

So, historically it only stands out, alone, when we’re talking about really bad or broken play, though it is used for good play as well.

So you often find people who, for instance, maybe never found working rules or rules that have done what they wanted, and Fictional Positioning is king and dice are the devil. You see these folks beam with joy when they say, “And we only rolled the dice once that night!”.

The flip side, you’ll find folks who have had bad play with folks who have abused Fictional Positioning (mostly through railroading and GM Fiat) and for them, it’s the devil and mechanics are king. (Though, they’re actually using it all the time with mechanics, even though they’re not aware of it).

It is both incorrect to either think of it as everything that matters in the game, or nothing that matters in the game. It’s simply one important factor in how we, as a group playing the game, figure out what happens.

Examples

In gamist play, Fictional Positioning is stuff like, dropping a barrel of tar on a beholder, to blind it’s eyes (well, all but one, but that’s the one you need to deal with right away). Ben Lehman has been talking about this for awhile, especially in terms of using it in older D&D play.

In narrativist play, FP is stuff like, in Dogs in the Vineyard, though the mechanics say you and I can pull guns on each other to get our way, we’ve built up this deep friendship and so, we’re not going to do that, because it would violate our sense of character- the fiction we’ve built around them. This is what Emily Care Boss means when she’s talking about Story Capital.

In simulationist play, it’s stuff like, “My knight refuses to kill his foe, instead capturing him and treating him with hospitality!”, “Don’t bother rolling the dice, he was caught in a small area with a grenade- no chance to survive.”

For Sim, FP is core to the play itself! Sim play is highly focused on the fiction (though it can use buckets of mechanics to get there), and the outcome of having fiction that fits within the idea of the game, that it makes sense given the fictional world. The most important thing is that the fiction is true to whatever sim ideal is being aimed for. So, if it’s realism, the fiction must fit with the group’s ideas of reality, if it’s western movie genre, then it has to fit with what the group expects from westerns, etc.*

(*Usual caveat- do not assume that Nar or Gam play doesn’t value being true to it’s fiction or plausible, just that Sim play it’s the focus, whereas the other two styles are looser or more willing to widge on it to fulfill what they’re doing. Ok? Ok.)

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