Posts Tagged ‘101’


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.


A Way Out

December 19, 2009

ETA: I’ve started to develop a tool to help groups coordinate play: The Same Page Tool.

It’s really easy to reliably have fun role-playing…when you ignore the 30-odd years of “common wisdom” in the hobby, and instead, embrace the idea of how games have worked throughout history throughout the world.

See The Roots of the Big Problems for context.

A Common Ground

Games work on a very simple principle- a group of people agree to a set of common rules.

Much of the problems in the hobby are rooted in failing this fundamental concept.

Imagine if you sat down with your friends to play “Cards”… one of you is playing Poker, another is playing Hearts, and the last person is playing Go Fish.

You’re all playing cards, right?

It’s not going to work.  No one is going to get the game they want.  The problem is that no one agreed to a common set of rules and no one is organized with each other.  The common group activity that makes anything a game, doesn’t exist.

You don’t see this with cards because everyone understands you have to be playing the same game for it to work.

But you see that in roleplaying all the time.

“OH GOD POWERGAMERS.”  Wait.  That’s like going, “OH GOD GO FISH” at a Poker table.  It’s a discussion that shouldn’t even have to happen- someone wants a different game – why are they playing this game with you?  If you agreed on the game, there shouldn’t be problems with people trying to do different things than what was agreed to.

But for roleplaying, the key problem is a majority of the rules sets aren’t actually games.  They give you rules to put scores to characters, resolve some fictional events but no larger picture.  It’s like having numbers, faces and suits on cards- useful tools, but doesn’t actually organize what makes the game.  What are the roles of the players?  What is the goal of play?  What is the intended play experience?

Start with a game that has rules that do ONE THING.

Just like every other type of game in the history of humanity, this has been a proven method.

A game that explains what players can and cannot do, what the goal of play is – whether it’s beat up monsters and get treasure or tell a tragedy of pride and downfall.  How do you create scenes?  What kind of conflict makes sense?  What do players DO with their characters?

Complete and focused rules become a meeting point for a common set of understanding.   It also means that players can decide right here, and right now, if they want to play this game or not.

Most of your “problem players” are just people who want to play a different game and are either under the illusion that you were playing a different game to begin with, or that different games could be mixed.

This is why you see so much talk about the process of “forming a group”- it’s a process of trial and error trying to find people who want the same game as you.   As 30 plus years of the hobby have shown, it’s about as efficient as buying lotto tickets as a serious investment method.  Instead of recognizing the fundamental issue, the hobby has tried to dress it up, “Oh, roleplaying is difficult, only special people can master its intricacies…”

Let’s Agree to This

Now for the second part.  If you’ve clarified what the game is, and how it works, the other part of this is the social agreement about playing.

Games work because the people playing want to play this game.  Implicit in this agreement is that we’re all actually interested in this game, we want it to work, we want it to be fun.  It’s really easy because we’re all working together to make it happen.

If my friends are playing Poker and I want to play Hearts, I have two choices:  Play Poker and get whatever I get from it, or play with them another time when my mood and their game matches.

What isn’t a functional choice is for me to play half-assed, or worse, sabotage the game.  It’s also not ok for me to suddenly start trying to play Hearts in the middle of their game.  That’s me breaking the agreement to play the game in the first place.

On the flip side, if I was told we’re going to play Hearts and suddenly we’re playing Poker, the agreement about what game we’re playing got broken going the other way.

At the core of both of these behaviors is a lack of trust.

I don’t trust you enough to tell you how I feel about what I find fun” and “I don’t trust you enough to tell you the truth to make your own decisions about what you find fun”.

That’s a terrible place from which to try to build any activity of fun.  For it all being “just a game” that’s a lot of distrust and dishonesty.

If you can’t honestly talk about the game, something is wrong.

Fun is reliably had when people are doing what they want to do- not because they’re tolerating it to please their friends, not because they’re secretly hoping for another activity, not because someone else is trying to “show” or “convince” them.

You cannot make anyone, including yourself, like something they do not like.

When people make that agreement and put in effort to make things work and don’t receive the expected play experience, whether the result of clarity, a lack of communication, miscommunication, or out and out misrepresentation – they get frustrated.  With time, that becomes resentment.  (This is also true of relationships, personal, professional, romantic)

Human nature is such that we operate on the assumption of an implicit agreement- a social contract, whether or not we actually sat down and discussed things.  Regardless whether the group sat down and started “trying to play cards”, or actually agreed to a set of terms, when those expectations are broken, the feeling is betrayal, and eventually, complete distrust with repeated violations of those expectations.

Trying to hide the rules, not talk about the issue, or lying about how people feel or how the game works doesn’t fix the problem – at that point it feels like betrayal because it is.

The initial agreement can only be held if people can honestly talk about how they feel the expectations are, or are not, being met.  Hence the need for a clear, complete set of rules.

Reasonable Expectation of Commitment

Part of agreeing to any activity is an idea of how much you’re committing to it.  Are we playing 6 sessions?  I can think about my work and personal life and schedule to make that happen.  I can gauge my own interest and see if I’m willing to commit that.

Establish and agree to a set time period.

“Indefinitely”, “Forever” and “Unstated” are not terms people can make meaningful decisions about.  These especially don’t work when the social expectation is that participation is equivalent to friendship and non-participation is non-friendship.  People get busy, people’s moods change.   The timeline can be exact or flexible- “3 months” is meaningful, “6-8 sessions” works.  “A campaign” or “A story arc” is not. (This is also assuming your game doesn’t have an in-built endgame mechanic.)

Again, as I spoke about above, you have to give an idea to make a meaningful expectation for people to make decisions and negotiate with.

The Formula:

  1. Use a complete set of rules that do one thing.
  2. Honest agreement about those rules.
  3. Establish and agree to a set time period

Play, then theory

August 6, 2007

There is a crashcourse of games I recommend to just about anyone really interested in the roleplaying hobby.  It’s Inspectres, 1001 Nights, Primetime Adventures, Riddle of Steel (or The Shadow of Yesterday), and Dogs in the Vineyard.  In that order.  (there’s more, but those games I find are both easy to get into and easy to digest)

Each of these games pushes and breaks traditional assumptions and boundaries and shows you a different way to play as well as some great design decisions.  If you want to know a broad range of ways to play, and ways to design, those games will show it to you, usually in the span of a single game.

A variety of play, this becomes paramount to both play theory and design theory.  If you’ve only played games that fall into a narrow range of play, it’s rather like trying to talk about music theory having only heard/played one kind of instrument- you’re not  going to do so well, even if you’ve spent 20 years mastering the clarinet.

I thought I’d just repeat this idea, especially while helping out at the First Thoughts forum at the Forge and watching yet another round of folks agonize over whether they should use 4 dice or 5 dice in their game, or whether their elves’ ears should be 2.5 inches or 2.75 inches long, all the while imagining they’re breaking boundaries.  I don’t think these guys aren’t intelligent, they just need to play some more games is all.

Because I really look forward to seeing anyone break boundaries in rpg design & theory.

That’s when the real fun starts.