Archive for August, 2011


Stances 101

August 31, 2011

I’m rereading Sorcerer and the Sword, and reminded how much good stuff is in that book. I figured I should write a 101 post to point friends to.

Actor Stance

I will only play my character with motivations based on what my character knows and from my character’s POV

This is the default for most rpgs, and often lauded as the only “right way” to roleplay.

This has a long history in competitive dungeon crawling games where a lot of play depends on poking around and getting information to get an advantage. In these types of games, this specific stance has value.

Thing is, it also got championed as the right way to play for games aimed at making good stories… which it’s not so great at for two reasons.

One, because the default assumption is that you don’t know anything unless we show it in play, a lot of play ends up revolving around poking around to get info (and often, wasted on investigating useless or boring things), and then repeating this info back and forth to various characters.

Even if you skip all that, the second issue is that of all the choices a character could reasonably make, only a subset are actually going to be good story material- many will be boring, safe, non-dramatic choices, or, foolish, stupid, non-dramatic choices – a lot like we do in real life.

Let’s compare it to Author stance.

Author Stance

I will play my character to choose to do the entertaining, but still plausible choices, motivated on what I, as a player, think will lead to a good story

Notice that this shifts the primary motivation from “who my character is and what she knows” to “What I think would be entertaining and still plausible with who my character is and what she knows”.

Also notice this doesn’t mean the choices need always be “good” for your character.

Example #1: You decide that your character, Alice walks in on Bill and Clarice at the end of their conversation, which, taken out of context sounds like they’re having an affair! Misunderstandings and hijinks abound.

Example #2: You decide that your character Alice walks in at the end of Bill telling Clarice he’s been using you this whole time. A long built up series of lies and manipulations, which you, the player knew about, but your character didn’t, comes tumbling down.

Basically, the motivating driver is, “What would be the most awesome thing that could happen right now?”

Author stance more consistently produces better stories in play, because the group as a whole is all aiming for “better story” instead of the confusion that “my guy doing my thing with what I know” creates.

Director Stance

I will create/describe events, actions, or facts about the game world beyond just my character

This somewhat scares some folks. If you’re playing a competitive game, this kind of stuff would need serious restrictions to avoid destroying challenge completely.

But if you’re playing a game based on creating fun stories? It means everyone has that much more input to work together.

And this input can be very mild (“When he disarms me, my sword goes flying and lands in my family crest… still dripping blood!” “Cool!”) to very significant (“My gun fires wildly, I miss, but I accidentally hit the zeppelin above us, setting it ablaze!” “Oh shit.”).

The range of significance will be different depending on the game and what’s appropriate. Some games give specific restrictions, and some are more loose about it.

How to use these

My suggestion is to consider Author Stance in whatever game you’re playing.

Some games make this a part of the mechanics, usually by putting some kind of motivation mechanics or Flags in use- “My character has ‘Needs to prove himself’, so I’m not going to do the cautious smart thing, I’m charging straight in!”, so those are good to go with. The Shadow of Yesterday, Lady Blackbird, or Burning Wheel, for example.

If you want to play with Director stance, and haven’t done so previously, I usually recommend the sorts of games that offer “narration trading” mechanics: The Pool, Prime Time Adventures, Universalis, for example.


L5R Apocalypse World: Bayushi Samurai

August 16, 2011

I’m slowly chugging together some playbooks for the hack. I’m starting with the samurai because the shugenja will require some funky moves and I haven’t tried to think about that just yet. For the most part it’s pretty easy to come up with 3-4 abilities for a given playbook, it’s the last ones that are hard… and the fricking stats.

I really like the idea of different Moves giving different information to the various Clans- the Crab move is all about Shadowlands lore, while the Scorpion here, are all about digging up dirty secrets and sowing division.

Obviously, this is all stuff in rough form. I’ll have to go back over it once I get a couple of the playbooks together and see if they fit well against each other, and polish things with play.

Anyway, a look into the abilities for the Scorpion samurai- playing around with Shame and manipulation:

Bayushi Samurai

Mask without Shame
You never gain Shame from associating with individuals with 4 or more Shame.

The Heart is always a Target
You may roll + Hx (vs. PCs) and + Insight (vs. NPCs) in Duels instead of + Spirit

The Poison of the Tongue
When provoking, insinuating, or slandering in public, roll +Hx (Vs. PCs) or + Presence (vs. NPCs). 10+ They must pick one below. 7-9 They pick one but someone else steps up to defend them as well.

– They are enraged and must fight back with words or deeds
– They remain silent and are implicated by rumor and doubt
– They attempt to defend themselves and reveal a secret

When engaging with someone over time, or witnessing them engage with others, you can ask questions. Roll + Insight. (“Who” questions always involve the people present). 10+ Pick 3. 7-9 Pick 1.
– Who do you care about the most?
– Who do you trust the most?
– Who do you think has more than they deserve?
– What makes you a good person?
– What do you think I want?
– Which is more important to you (name a goal or person) OR (name a different goal or person)?

Taste of Betrayal
When poisoning another, roll +Hx for PCs, + Insight for NPCs. Default is Harm 3. 10+ Pick 3. 7-9 Pick 1.

– Only the target got poisoned, no one else.
– It’s not obvious it was poison, it looks only like illness
– It’s delayed (pick: hours or days)
– It’s not lethal (Harm 1, targets incapacitated for a few days)
– It’s very lethal (Harm 5)

On a miss, the GM chooses either: the last person you’d want gets poisoned instead; the last person you’d want to get blamed gets accused; you’re put in a sticky situation; the person suffers no ill effects, as if someone knew ahead to administer the antidote, and you’re not sure who…

No one need ever know…
When hiding evidence of a crime or deed (your own or others’), roll + Presence.
On a 10+, it’s gone to any but the most dedicated investigation, and the path points to another.
On a 7-9, half of the evidence is gone (the body but not the blood, etc.) and there’s a plausible alibi on hand. On a 6- your contacts are unavailable, or, worse, bumble the process.

+1 to Presence


L5R by way of Apocalypse World

August 14, 2011

There’s setting and concept stuff I really liked about L5R, that the rules never really did well for me. This week I realized Apocalypse World actually would be a good rules hack to do L5R with.

For example, duels! Duels are supposed to be a big deal, but L5R’s rules keep all the tension around a sort of bidding up/chicken mechanic, which ended up being generally meh for me in play.

When you look at media that does duels well, it’s usually an excuse to do all kinds of character exploration through internal monologues and flashbacks- it’s about the why and the personal consquences of the duel. (Sword of Doom, Vagabond, even stuff like Battle Angel Alita and Naruto do this).

So, I’m playing around with stuff like this:


Roll + Spirit. On a 10+ ask 2 of your opponent On a 7-9, ask 1 of your opponent, your opponent asks 1 of you. On a Miss: Your opponent asks 2 of you.

These questions are played out as flashbacks and monologues- your character doesn’t learn these facts- this is all for us, the people playing, the audience:

– Who do you aspire to be like and why?
– What are you running from?
– Who do you care about the most, and how have you failed them?
– What would happiness look like for you?
– Who else suffers if you lose this duel?

Whoever has to answer a question receives Harm +2 from their opponent- no armor or special ability blocks this.

For each question you answer, pick 1:

– Do Harm -1 to your opponent instead. Hold 1. Spend it anytime in the future to have a flashback scene of a conversation from before the duel. This can happen even if your character died.

– Ask a request of your opponent- if they do it, they gain 1 XP, if they refuse, it’s On Dangerous Ground

– You impress everyone with your bearing and spirit, if anyone outside the duel insulted you before this they take 1 Shame.

– Make a Read the Heart move on your opponent as your last action (as wounded or before killed)

– Bow out before blades are drawn; No one takes Harm, but your opponent erases 2 Shame and gains +2 HX with you. You may never challenge them to a duel again.

You’ll notice that this Move is a way to get us into genre tropes in the choices you have.

It’s also more complicated than most Moves in AW- it’s really two Moves in one.

The first one forces us to examine the characters who are up on the chopping block. The second one gives the players controlling said characters a chance to determine what the long term consequences are in return.

I’m going to probably tweak stuff and clean it up a bit, but I’m ok that it’s a little complicated, given that duels won’t be happening all the time anyway.


What Narrativism Isn’t

August 6, 2011

This is the partner to Narrativism 101. Actually, it’s more like the “Myths about Narrativism” section.

Not “I can say anything!”, Not revising the world

The biggest confusion I see is confusing rules or mechanics that allow the players to narrate the world or change setting aspects for actual Narrativism. This almost always also ties into the strawman argument that you’d have players declaring their characters are gods, shoot down the sun, and magically have money come falling out their asses.

If you read Narrativism 101, it’s pretty clear that the only “power” the players HAVE TO HAVE is the ability to let their characters act freely within their ability. There’s nothing new about that.

Some games have rules that give players more power to narrate or control the story, but a) that’s not Narrativist anymore than rolling a D6 would be, and b) many of those games also don’t have people doing ridiculous things to break the fiction.

A secondary issue is that while Narrativism puts dealing with human issues as the point of play- that doesn’t mean the “realism” or genre of the game is thrown out – the human issues are addressed while holding TO the fictional expectations for your game. (That is, if it’s completely realistic, then no one will go flying in the air because they’re in love).

Not pre-thinking out a moral of the story or thematic focus

The second biggest thing that seems to be out there is the idea that Narrativism means we all sit down and decide to play a game to tell the story of “War is Bad” or something.

Nope! Part of Narrativism’s freedom to act on and make choices of human issues means that:

a) If it’s an obvious issue that’s not a question, there’s no choices/statements to really make about it, or;
b) If it’s not known, then the point is for us to play the game and see what themes/statements emerge FROM that.

No one has to have a major discussion to “pre-decide” these things.

Not Rules Light

Narrativism can be rules light, or rules heavy. Burning Wheel and Riddle of Steel are two rather crunchy games that are avowedly Narrativist in design.

Even though a lot of their rules have nothing specific to do with human issues, but rather, stuff like combat rules or skills, the overall reward structure of the games means all of that crunch is used in service to the human issues focus.

Not “Part Time Narrativism”

A common mistake is the assumption you can mix Creative Agendas – which ignores the basic definition of “The whole point of play is to do X”. It’s like saying because you had lettuce in your hamburger, you were eating vegetarian.

Either dealing with human issues was the POINT of play or it wasn’t.

Not “Numbers = Feelings”

Towards the further end of extreme misunderstandings, there’s the idea that all Narrativist play requires putting feelings and relationships to numbers, and that you can’t control your character.

Nope! Some games put numbers to feelings, but that’s not a requirement to Narrativism. Sometimes those numbers are descriptive (saying, how MUCH you care/feel that way) and sometimes they’re simply resources/pacing mechanics (“Yes, you totally totally love him, but we just had you spend 3 scenes on that, so the rules encourage you to focus on other characters”).

As I said – “Narrativism is a style of roleplaying where the whole point of playing is to have player characters freely make choices and actions based on human issues.” – the whole post above? Is basically cutting out the strawmen arguments based on folks either stuck in one understanding of how games work or One-True-Wayism.


Narrativism 101

August 6, 2011


Narrativism is a style of roleplaying where the whole point of playing is to have player characters freely make choices* and actions based on human issues.

There’s your one-sentence definition. It’s pretty simple.

Most of the confusion and complexities about this mostly sit around narrow assumptions about how roleplaying games can and can’t work.

You cannot predefine choices

You can’t have the players freely make choices if the choices are already made. This means techniques like Railroading/Illusionism will not work here. It also means “preparing an adventure with multiple paths” also doesn’t work, because freely means just that- freely.

You may have restrictions about the situation or the characters that somewhat confines things (“You are all police, dedicated to protecting the public – no one should be, or become a crooked cop in this game”), but that’s the buy-in to the situation, not the same thing as preplanning situations and having a limited idea of how it can be solved/dealt with.

There’s a second important thing that comes of it- if the responses and choices of the players are freely available, there’s no way to really predict where things can or will go – which means play (and the role of a GM) has to be based in improvisation and flexibility. This stands in sharp contrast to many games which assume the only way to play is to have a pre-defined story or outcomes.

Human issues must be the overall focus of play

This means that the problems that show up for characters, and situations, eventually aim towards producing situations that require choices on human issues.

While any sandbox type game might allow characters to freely make choices, the focus on the human issues is a second, and critical aspect.

This focus on human issues can be, and often is, a playstyle choice of the group- and can be done with anything from freeform rules to GURPS to whatever. That said, most of modern Narrativist game design focuses on rules to help keep this focus.

These first two issues are pretty much the big hurdles for folks not familiar with Narrativist play. Many groups find their way into Narrativism even without knowing it had a name, or playing any Narrativist games. (My high school Feng Shui game did this, and we had a ton of fun).

Next: What Narrativism Isn’t.

The in-depth look at Narrativism is Ron Edwards’ Narrativism: Story Now article.

*Obviously, I mean the players make choices through using their characters, but as far as the fiction is concerned, it’s the PCs “making choices” within the fiction.