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Flags: A critical misunderstanding

July 31, 2014

What Flags are

Many years ago, I coined a term on The Forge to talk about a type of RPG mechanics that were coming out – Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys… all these mechanics have a simple thing in common – they’re a way for the players to explicitly tell the GM what they want the story to focus on.

I coined the term “Flag”, because it’s like waving a flag or marking a spot.

What Flags are not

When I first mentioned this (2005? 2006? geez, I can’t remember), I remember immediately the first thing that people did, was start suggesting the idea that any old stat or skill or power on the sheet could be a “Flag”.  I see this misunderstanding keeps popping up… (ETA: looks like 2005 – here we can see the problem showing up way early…)

Problem is, that these aren’t explicit, and there’s a lot of room for misreading those scores/choices.

Does the player have a high combat skill because they want to fight a lot?

Or is it because they’re used to having their character die so much that they decided they needed a high skill just to keep the character around?

Or did the player have a character who once was a great fighter, but now is trying to find a peaceful life, and only took a high skill to reflect that past?

If you need the player to tell you why they’ve chosen what they’ve chosen, you don’t have a Flag.  

You have… exactly the same problem you had before Flag mechanics were created.  It’s not Flagging anything -it’s guess work.   Flags are one of the most powerful and useful types of mechanics produced in the last decade, and seeing the word get twisted around to mean the exact opposite of what it’s intended is deeply frustrating.

Not just design, useful for picking a game to play

Part of the reason I’ve pointed them out is not just from a design standpoint (“Here’s a better way to coordinate players and GMs in Narrative story goals”) but also from  a play standpoint – if you want to know how to engage your players, if you want a fairly reliable system for narrativist play, for player input, take a look at games with Flag mechanics.

You structure your scenes, your campaign and the events around the Flags, which means you don’t have to pre-plan your scenes or events.   You improvise by following the conflicts and issues the players are interested in – which they give you through Flag Mechanics.  When you reward players for pursuing or addressing their Flags, you get a powerful reward cycle – suddenly everyone at the table knows what the cool thing is to focus on.  These can transform relatively traditional game systems into very player driven and story focused ones, even while keeping everything else intact.

I’m sure I’ll just have to post something like this once a year, as a reminder, since it seems to keep recurring.

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