Archive for the ‘Forsaken Conversations’ Category


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.


Maybe not the right question, definitely the wrong answers

February 17, 2013 : “What is the most inclusive RPG setting on the market?”

As some folks point out, “inclusive” by itself is a little broad. To really talk about this, we have to understand there are basically three levels we can set the bar at, especially since, if you read a lot of the replies you can see these are very different things:

1. Acknowledgement of existence (AKA – The Chinese people in Firefly)

Games that point out you “could play” any gender, or that you “could play” any race, or some kind of setting that says racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. is gone. The reason that this is such a low bar is that saying this without any further details basically puts all the onus on the group to try to figure out what that looks like. It also means no real thought was put into the setting itself if this is the only real place where it shows up.

If you SAY all sexual preferences are accepted, but your setting only SHOWS heterosexual relationships, you’ve now put all the work of actually making that true onto the people playing your game while not accepting the same responsibility yourself- a disingenuous ass-covering move if anything.

I’ve seen a few RPGs do this really interesting thing where they say the characters in question are supposed to be brown people, and then proceed to have no art depicting them, or, art that would suggest otherwise. In this sense, this is the same thing where it’s an invisible acknowledgement without actually having to have them there…

2. Portrayal

Ok, so you include the actual folks – artwork, characters, setting bits, etc. Good for you! Now come the harder questions – are the portrayals negative? Are they based on stereotypes? Are they only there to serve the privileged audience rather than the people who they’re supposed to represent? (The difference between lesbians as hot media icons for straight men vs. lesbians as characters for lesbians…) Are they only secondary or minor characters?

3. Good portrayal

If you get through the questions in the previous bar, you should reach good portrayal. What defensive privileged folks often confuses is the idea that “good portrayal” should mean some kind of spotless 2D idealized figure, when in fact, all folks are asking for is real humans who are not based on the caricatured stereotypes are NOT real.

Anyway, when we look at these 3 potential levels of inclusiveness, you can see that stuff like, “Play a transhuman game, you can play ANYTHING” is a shitty response that doesn’t really do much of anything.

Ben Lehman once asked why I enjoyed playing the highly problematic Legend of the Five Rings and I pointed out it’s one of the few games where I could play an asian character and no one would look at me and think, “You’re just doing that because you’re asian!” (Of course, the horrible white folks’ Japan fetish in that game scene is a whole other issue…) – but the point is that there’s plenty of games where problematic representation can be had, and it’s really kind of the roleplaying equivalent of “You can have space in our imaginary world as long as your heroes conform to our racist stereotypes.”

Escapism and fun for all, indeed.

Personally, I’d rather look at the 3rd tier as the one to aim for. Inclusive means it’s actually got people in mind, not appropriating things through a stereotype lens for the entertainment of the privileged nor simply hitting a checklist of inclusiveness for show.

In that space, I think of these games as inclusive – Dirty Secrets, Steal Away Jordan, Dog Eat Dog. There’s maybe 1 or 2 borderline games I’m waiting to see which way they fall. Maybe there’s some I’m forgetting, and if so, I’ll add them later, but, yeah, it’s a small small number.


Playing with good intent

October 2, 2012

About 2 or 3 times a week, I see various people online, asking “How do I deal with this play issue?” – when the issue is pretty much having a person, or multiple people playing with bad intent.

What do I mean “bad intent”? (I hear people crying about judgmental attitudes, etc.) Well, think of it this way – we’ve gathered to play a game in some sort of fashion. There’s probably spaces where you’re going to find edge rules of play, or things which are technically legal, but not in line with the point of play.

For example, competitive chess has a time limit for moves, so you don’t have someone simply walk away from the board and decide they’ll take their next turn 20 years later. While it’s “technically” legal to do this if you’re casually playing without a time limit, but we all understand that it’s basically saying “Fuck you! I’m not playing” rather than actually playing the game.

I’m very much for playing hard within the limits of the rules and the point of play – it’s stuff where you have players spending 10 minutes trying bullshit up a reason they should get an extra bonus die, etc. People often try to call these folks “rules lawyers” but they’re actually not- the people who are good with the rules usually don’t have to argue their case – they’re not always trying to get over. You play hard, you take your lumps when they come, and you either play better or hope for better luck next time.

You could say that these sorts of folks are griefing (such as people basically fighting for social dominance, which I’ve seen), that they’re trying to play a different game and pushing these edges to do it (also when they try to avoid engaging the rules), or that they’re acting out of a proactive abused gamer syndrome – they’re not pushing the boundaries of the rules – they’re pushing the boundaries of the people playing because they don’t trust them and need to know how to “work” the group in play (including the GM).

That said, none of the above are people actually there to PLAY the game with good intent.

Notice that if someone is confused about the rules, they go: “Hey can I get X?” “No, because Y reason”, “Oh. Ok.” which is very different than: “Hey can I get X?” “No, because Y reason”, “Well, what if Z? Huh? What if Y was different? What about this unrelated rule? Wait, wait, give me a minute to look through the book. Hold on, give me the other book….”

So the sorts of things people complain about in this regard aren’t a matter of lack of understanding, it’s a matter of a social behavior.

Clinton R. Nixon once said something along the lines of, “If everyone’s there to have fun, WHY would a player choose to fuck up the fun?”

When everyone understands what game you’re there to play, and wants to play it, you don’t have certain problems. When someone isn’t… well. There’s no rules that will fix people who aren’t there to play the game.

One of the most basic lessons, that came out of the Forge, often emphatically stated by Ron Edwards was, “People have to WANT to play THIS game.” as the baseline social standard to meet for any kind of game to work. And more than anyone’s words about their intent, how well they try to make the game work, vs. fight it, will show you more about what they really want – as much as the guy who gets up and walks away for 20 years in the middle of chess then says you lost when you put away the board.


Steampunk Racism: The RPG Edition

April 30, 2012

Just because there seems to be a roll of these, I guess it’s time to point them out again:

Into the Far West attempts to take the Wild West and add wuxia. But they decided they didn’t want to include any Indians at all, because they were "afraid they couldn’t do them justice". But apparently they can do Chinese folks justice, or something. Oh, and add white people doing kung fu with steampunk stuff.

Um. Ok. It makes me think of the all too repeated argument against showing black folks as thugs, pimps and hookers on tv- "But then we wouldn’t be able to put ANY black folks on tv at all!". Oh, I see.

Steampunk Musha: Victoriental Adventures

Well, if the name wasn’t enough, by the description alone, apparently Japanese and Chinese are interchangable languages and so are the cultures.

I mean, oh god asking Steampunk, where people will research how clothing was dyed and stiches were done by hand, to have to look up the fact that China and Japan are… like… not the same.

And of course, Wolsung‘s art can speak for itself:

So, anyway. It’s one thing to want to have an idealized alternate history of your culture where you’re not, like, a major cause of suffering that lasts centuries and has effects to people to this day. But it IS a whole other thing when your idealized fantasy history also means that POC are non-existent or fulfill the EXACT SAME RACIST STEREOTYPES of the 1800s. See, that’s where you go from escapism fantasy to racism.

But hey, the your imagination is the only limit!

And what does it say about your imagination that it’s stuck in the centuries old tropes?


Better Than That

April 14, 2012

It’s time again for white gamerdom to fret about the lack of people of color and then find a way to explain how it’s really no one’s fault and nothing need ever change.

It begins with a reasonable Modest Proposal for Increased Diversity in D&D. The discussion is being moderated by Teresa Nielsen Hayden who, just 3 years ago, threatened to use her position as editor to make sure “people would pay” who were criticizing her husband’s racially problematic statements. Oh. Ok.

There’s always multitudes of “arguments” made to dismiss any call for something better, but I’m just going to come down to two points.

Who is harmed by more diversity?

Will more people of color and women in your games and media destroy all spacetime and existence as only division by zero can achieve?

Here’s what really happens:

Women, POC, WOC, etc: “Hey, look, we actually show up in this game/world! Cool. Maybe I can ALSO have an escapist fantasy for myself.”

Non-racist/sexist white guy: “What? Oh, there’s different people in this game/media? Oh, I guess it’s true other things are pretty bad at that. I wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t bring it up.”

Racists/Sexists: “Wait! This game/media about an imaginary world is showing other people on par with white men!!! HOW DARE YOU put this in my escapism fantasy!!! I can’t imagine white male supremacy anymore!”

I’ll just leave this link and quote Nora K. Jemisin’s summary of this attitude breaks it down nicely:

“We don’t really believe everyone is created equal. Ohhhh, it’s so hard; such a burden to have to think about all this. See how it harms us, stifles us, to give a damn about others? It makes us less creative! It damages the genre! And all these policies that say we can’t harass and belittle and exclude whole groups of people in order to make ourselves feel superior are just so much. How can we function under the bootheel of such oppression?”

It’s just a game/story/cartoon/etc!

It’s always interesting to me how this argument is brought up, typically by people who just wrote a few thousand words explaining why no one should ever ask for changes to rpgs, videogames, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.

Like, literally it’s an argument that destroys itself- if it’s such a non-issue because it is media, why is it so important to make sure people stop asking for more diversity? At that point, what are you really defending?

Sometimes a variation of this is “Why don’t you go fight ‘real racism’?!?” Of course, that one also sets up an interesting turn around – “Why are YOU arguing against fixing this, instead of out there fixing ‘real racism’ since you’re such an expert? Oh, ok.”

As always, the arguments aren’t really based in any logic, just a desire to shut down the conversation and derail anything that brings us back to the simple issue that games and geek media in general – are basically white male fantasies that cater to white men and where anyone else shows up, they’re often a stereotype or sex fantasy as envisioned by white men.

And, of course, the very telling reaction of “HOW DARE” anyone else suggest they might want an escapist fantasy of their own.

Who’s being the thought police here again?