Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

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RPGs and the limits of verbal communication

March 10, 2022

Over the last few weeks I got a chance to play some videogames, which hasn’t been the case for several months.

I was poking around and looking at the cool environments in a few games, and playing “virtual anthropologist” – looking at symbols and decorations, trying to figure out stuff about the society/world in the game. This sort of environmental storytelling is something I enjoy, however, it did highlight something that visual mediums are good at, which tabletop RPGs, as a verbal medium is not.

When you watch a movie, or play a videogame, it’s possible to have multiple layers of information happening at the same time; the most critical elements can be made very clear, and small details for the attentive people, can also be available, and not get in the way of each other. In all comes in simultaneously. The high detail and low detail parts can both arrive, together.

However, if we’re playing an RPG, the spotlight, or the focus of the conversation, can only be in one place at one time. If we want to cover more things, it takes up more time because talking only lets you put the information out serially – one chunk at a time, not layered like a visual thing would be. Detail is harder to deal with, because you have to speak more, to give more information, and, if someone has questions, it’s a back and forth to clarify.

This also highlights why it’s critical to get on the same page about what the point of the game is, so that people don’t drag the spotlight to non-important things. If the game is mostly sword and sorcery action adventure, and someone keeps inspecting each book in the library, it becomes a problem because it pulls time away from the core experience people are expecting.

Now, something that verbal communication is great at, is summation. What visual storytelling has to do with montage, a few words can encapsulate immediately. “It was a hard winter. Tight supplies, short patience in the whole village. Ugly words were said and you know not everyone will be friends or even family, anymore. That’s when the tax man and his retinue appeared.” – that short bit sums up months and many relationships, and the players can all paint these ideas in their head pretty easily.

Anyway, I think about this right now, as I often see people get excited about a videogame, and want to make a TTRPG experience “just like it” but there’s a lot of places where you can pick 1-2 elements out of a game and make them your tabletop game, just not ALL of the elements, because not all of them translate over well. Consider what elements only work because it’s a single player, or a continuous narrative isn’t expected, or, as I’m pointing out, because the information that is immediate and apparent in a visual representation is 20 minutes of questions and clarifications in verbal description.

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Emotional Signalling

December 8, 2021

I wrote some ideas on Twitter about an idea in RPGS and figured I would just copy/paste and then expand here.

Had a thought about TTRPGs and mood/emotion mechanics. I think we need more games that differentiate between being placed in a mood/attitude vs. a depth where you start changing the direction of how you live your life. Because these two things are very different.

We all have up days, down days, frustration, etc. That shifts how we speak, and some decisions about what we do daily. That is not the same as stuff that has you doing career changes, breaking up relationships, etc.

Although I think there’s a pretty big field to explore mechanically, mostly, I think this difference is useful to highlight specifically in player to player communication.

When we roleplay, our dialogue and choices are distilled and not always best communicated. Other people in the group have to navigate that and try to read the difference. Is your character just angry and yelling or are you going to make serious choices? It’s not always clear.

And it’s important bc if the group is supposed to help with creating the appropriate dramatic situations, the proper reactions by the other characters? Knowing what level we’re talking is useful.

And if you want to talk about mechanics feeding drama, having your character catch a small penalty for being discouraged is not the same as “your character is about to throw out their own career” and provides a different level of threat/cost.

And this mirrors a lot in fiction; when a character is in a temporary mood, they either get over it or have something opposite come their way. It’s a turn but not a big deal. When characters are changing direction in life, or near to it, it’s a Big Deal and core conflict.

If we’re co-creating as a group, it’s really important to know what weight we’re throwing at this.

Emotional Centers

I think it’s also worth thinking about how characters in fiction and stories, have an emotional center – the personality, values and attitudes that make up who they are and are where they return to as a person. Now, yes, characters can and do change over time, which is part of what good storytelling does – the maturation and growth of a character is the journey of how they become a different person; for better or for worse.

When we’re talking about these ideas of characters expressing short term moods or being knocked completely off axis for life? That’s about how these things in play are affecting their emotional center; a mood or even a longer term arc that doesn’t threaten to change who they are, is one thing, while the sorts of experiences that might place their sense of self or values at risk, that warp or transform their emotional center, is another.

(My memory around 2013 is still pretty poor from the chemotherapy treatments at the time, but a worthwhile idea that is related to this is Emily Care Boss’ Story Capital which I briefly wrote about. As some fictional elements in play are loaded with meaning and importance to the play group, they gain “story capital” and this sort of fictional “weight” becomes strong enough to potentially change characters’ emotional centers.)

Sometimes Flags, Sometimes Not

Now, I’ve been one of the biggest proponents of Flag Mechanics, however they are not always the right tool for this, and when they are, they might work in different ways.

For one, some games use your characters’ values or beliefs as the Flags – in other words, their emotional center, but it may not be clear to the group whether you, as a player, are using those values as something that might change, or simply a target to draw conflict. To use a simple pop culture example – if you are playing a Jedi and you have a Flag “will never succumb to the Dark Side” is that designed because you MIGHT eventually toy with the Dark Side or is it just to make a lot of dramatic scenes around it? Both can be fun, but they’re actually different play goals.

The other issue is that some games do not allow you to change Flags in the moment; so if a scene or situation has occurred that you personally think is critical and might change your character forever, you might not be able to adjust a Flag to let everyone know how important it is. Or, perhaps the situation is just a subset of an existing Flag and there’s no “change” that says this is more or less important.

Tenative Labels

Unfortunately I don’t have an easy, quick tool in mind for play (I’m exhausted, it’s a pandemic) but I figured I’d share what I’ve got in mind so far. I basically see these things as having 3 levels of potential weight or importance to a character.

Mood – A mood is a short term expression or attitude for a character and they are not really in danger of changing their core values or personality. Roleplaying banter or expressions of affirmation/care are fine but it’s nothing to push hard about.

Jolt – A jolt is a situation that has knocked the character slightly off from their Emotional Center and may last an extended time, and eventually result in changes as to who they are. It’s not critical and life changing yet, but it is something that has dislodged their sense of certainty in their boundaries and views of themselves. It’s a pretty good space for character roleplaying over time.

Crash – A crash is a situation that has the character in existential crisis. They may act in extreme ways and other players should recognize this is very important and that lines have been crossed for the character.

Now, do I think everyone should be filling their RPG scenes with “Hold on, that’s a Jolt for my character”? No, that sounds awkward and weird. I’m sure something like hand signals or other mechanic procedure would probably better suit navigating these issues. I do think it’s useful to have conceptual framework first because it also helps you understand what’s happening in a game, especially when you are trying to create a story collaboratively without traditional fiction’s tools of planning and revision.

The tropes of action genres

Finally, mainstream RPG space is mostly built on genres of male-focused action adventure and often does an incredibly poor job of demonstrating protagonists actually wrestling with their emotionals and values. A lot of the stories are “emotionally safe” in the sense that the protagonists are never shown to be knocked off their emotional center; you might have the “screaming in the rain” scene but after that they are never out of control in a way that is detrimental to them. Because these stories don’t actually show character development or processing emotion, the narrative language around them can be under developed in both seeing them in play or communicating them.

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Structural vs. Fictional Engagement

October 12, 2021

I’ve been thinking about a strong play preference issue that generally hasn’t had a good set of tools or common language to talk about.

The Tavern Brawl Example

Let’s say we have two different action-adventure fantasy RPGs and both are dealing with the classic tavern fight. In both games, the barbarian hero breaks a stand holding up a keg, causing it to roll and slam into some bad guys.

In Fantasy Game A; there’s rules for figuring out how hard it is to do the action, and what happens to the bad guys when they get hit with a rolling barrel – these could be charts and specifics, or a generic chart with some GM guidelines, but either way, there’s some kind of solid mechanics in there.

In Fantasy Game B; there’s a checklist of tropes – “Use environment in a fight” and the player just checks that off and describes what they’re doing.

In both games, the fictional events are the same, but the way the player and the group has to engage with the rules to get there is very different.

Structural vs. Fictional Engagement

In Game A, the players have to engage with the mechanics and some system mastery to figure out how to get the effect they want. It’s a very game-mechanics orientated way to get the outcome (which is not to be mistaken with Gamism as a goal). In Game B, the players mostly have to think about how to make something fit within the fiction – there’s very little system steps or strategizing around the process to get there.

Now, this is actually kind of a strong game preference issue, and it’s not necessarily that a game will be all structural or all fictional; rather, that different games choose when and where they want to do one or the other, and different people dig into them accordingly.

While I used the trope of the Tavern Brawl, you can see how this links to things like games with social “combat” or influence rules, or resource management, or political alliances, or romance, or motivation mechanics… So maybe a very useful tool would be looking at what subjects a player has preferences for structural engagement vs. fictional engagement? I need to develop this out more to build that, but it is helping me better understand what I like about certain games vs. dislike (which… isn’t the same as “the game is well/poorly designed” – someone can make a world class version of a dish you don’t like, you probably still won’t like it.)

It’s probably a good exercise to sit down with a couple of your favorite games, and note where they sit on that scale and what you like vs. wish were a little different for you and you might see some interesting trends/ideas about the RPGS you like and why.

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Situation Mechanics and Interactivity

September 13, 2021

Quite a few games have mechanics to randomly introduce events or elements into a situation; that could be a chart you roll for weather, or the classic random encounter chart. More modern games move into stuff like immediate conflict/situation shaping elements; (“Roll this chart – Oh, Aunt May has been kidnapped!”).

It’s a good way to broadly emulate genre expectations, however, depending on the group’s preferences, this could either be awesome and low-crunch ways to make play flow, or it could be undermining a key point of what they’re interested as the focal point of play.

To be clear, I’m also not talking about the issues of random tables producing inappropriate or ridiculous outcomes, nor that they might be outside of a group’s comfort zones, etc. based on their own personal lines/veils or genre expectations, rather, I’m talking about interactivity.

The nature of most of the random event generator style mechanics is that players don’t have an interaction before the point of effect; they don’t really have any way to modify or mitigate it, or, that it only happens behind the scenes and they’re not really aware of how/what they’re doing modifies those odds.

You could say that a key point to any focus of play (in old school Forge terms, the Creative Agenda), is that there’s interactivity with it.

Consider the classic Gamist vs. Narrativist split – “The story is just nice fluff to get me to the fights where I can make some tactical decisions” vs. “Fights are cool but the buildup and fallout of what happens with my character is where I make the important choices”. The part that isn’t a focus of play can often fall by the wayside with non-interactive elements that simply skim over it, and the part that is critical people want to have choices and options about.

I think this is one of the reasons the Apocalypse World style countdown clock has become a popular mechanic; the events are telegraphed, repeatedly, and players have opportunities to interact and stop problems (or, to realize, often too late, that they took too long in dealing with them and now they’ve blown up into a bigger crisis).

I’m going to have to come up with a stronger classification for these, but I think it is something very useful to nail down in terms of which games people prefer or don’t care for based in mechanics and systems. There’s a million and one dungeon crawl games, but even people who are into the genre might only like a narrow subset based on WHERE they want interactivity vs. WHERE they don’t.

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GDC talk: Indie RPGs and Narrative Design

May 28, 2021

This talk is from 2019 but now is available on Youtube. A very cursory overview of some ideas in RPG design, focused a lot on games and the folks who came out of the Forge and Storygames circles. This is a lot of what helped develop my Same Page Tool and you can also see on the right hand side of this blog, the link list with Forge Theory entries if you want to read about the stuff around Player Agenda or Big Model Theory.