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Fiction Matters, Cues Matter

May 4, 2009

Watching people flounder at Vincent’s recent discussions has been making my head hurt. I suggest reading the links, the podcast is not so informative.

Fiction & Cues, simply

Fiction is the Stuff We Imagine. Cues are the Tools We Use In Play. Cues could be your character sheet, the dice, poker chips, or more abstract like hitpoints or a set of powers.

If you’re designing roleplaying games, this is useful stuff- for example there’s a reason D&D tracks how much equipment you have on your character sheet, but not how many siblings you have, though if you were playing a game of noble houses, maybe it would make sense to track the other way, right? Basic design logic there.

Why we had System Matters in the first place

So, let’s step back timewise. To the 90’s or so. A lot of gamers, and game advice basically proudly proclaiming “Don’t use the rules!”. Vincent gave the example of his Ars Magica game. You have a group, they want a type of play, and the rules don’t provide it, so they play in a way that does, usually abandoning the rules and most or all of the Cues that go with it.

Nothing uncommon there. What does come up, is the illusion that “System doesn’t matter”, since, no one appears to be using the written rules anyway (of course, they’re actually playing by SOME rules, unspoken, but in place, as social contract).

So, the first big push with the Forge diaspora games was basically against this mentality- design rules that actually do what you want, and use them.

But Fiction Matters too!

So, we get a lot of design focusing on how to use Cues to affect Fiction. Especially since a lot of poor design previously, and dysfunctional play had used Fiction as a mask (“I’m just doing what My Guy would do!”, “That’s what would realistically happen!” etc.). Cues are upfront, on the table, and no widging about with them.

On the other hand, this produces a one-way flow- it doesn’t matter if I have my character hide in the cave if I don’t have any Hide Tokens- the fiction then becomes superfluous, and Vincent’s suggestion is that when that happens, the fiction starts to wither away, as much as Cues for unused rules. (See complaints about 4E Skill Challenges where it’s just rolling back and forth).

In the end, you have this sense of disconnected play- the events in fiction are all widgey and rarely well narrated – which I had simply assumed was the result of people still not being fully comfortable with trading narration games, or the fact that a lot of play was one-shots and short term stuff where groups hadn’t developed a full groove.

(I didn’t understand it at the time, but Ben Lehman had been telling me how much he missed applying Fictional Positioning in rpgs, though I believe it was Emily Care Boss who first nailed it down.)

Return to Lumpley Care Principle

So we have a call to design both mechanics for Fiction affecting cues AND to consider ways to make Fiction crucial to play.

The rub of it is, that someone at the table has to decide when/how the fiction “counts” enough to affect the Cues. Traditionally this has been a GM deciding when “high ground” counts and other such basically subjective things. Though this role could be a variety of players (Great Ork Gods is a good example), or a shifting role (judging Scenes in Bliss Stage, Awarding Fan Mail in PTA, etc.).

Trust and Functional Play

I remember Clinton Nixon talking about Inspectres and narration trading overall- “You can trust your friends to not fuck up the game because fucking up the game is not fun.”

It’s a simple concept that works with a functioning social contract*. Vincent’s suggestion that having a single authority/referee/umpire to implement the Fiction to Cues flow as one viable solution also works on the same premise.

Likewise, extended outward, this is also where general group consensus as that “authority of judgment” works- we see it in the “Free and Clear” rules in Trollbabe and Shadow of Yesterday, or in cases of collaborative freeform that sits with equal-ish power amongst the participants.

(*Things you have to take as assumed: that the group is non-abusive, not using the game to play status games, that the group agrees to an authority person per the rules, that the group is mature enough to handle the idea that the authority person may not judge things perfectly every time, but often enough that it’s worth it, etc. Remember, good rules help functional groups reliably have fun, but there’s no rules that can reliably help dysfunctional groups.)

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