: Creative Tension
It seems to me that within a group's ongoing general agreement about how to play, especially about what to contribute and how to treat one another's contributions, there can be a lot of small creative differences and struggles between individual players. If they're issues in the group - that is, if the individual creative differences threaten the group's ongoing general agreement about how to play - that's one thing. A thing, in fact, that I think we've written as much about as we need. We've pinned it to the board, labeled by family and species, and I'm not really interested in exploring it further here.
But if they aren't issues, they're texture, moments of creative struggle or dissatisfaction that don't threaten the endeavor overall, then that's a different thing.
I believe that that's where we're situated when, in this thread, Callan talks about the speaker thinking something's cool and the listener not, and Ron talks about the group's judging the mutually-shared coolness of its participant's contributions.
But I don't really know where to go from there.
I do know that in Dogs in the Vineyard, the rule is that the GM is to back the judgment of the most discriminating player ... but what on earth does the GM's backing count for? I also know that one of the most important dynamics in both Dogs and In a Wicked Age is the group's development of shared critical standards over the course of the first few sessions. I think it's a reliable process (or else the group will stop playing the game), and I have a couple of things to say about it, but I haven't yet managed to articulate them well enough to post.
Oh but I'd better back up and start here: Callan, Ron, am I understanding you?
1. On 2008-09-29, Ron Edwards wrote:
You're understanding me, I think. What interests me is the *disconnection* between this level ("texture") and the level you were invoking in the previous thread ("foundation," "fabric," whatever we call it). In other words, at the texture level, a certain dynamic uncertainty seems to me to be desirable. Does or doesn't my "tough" trait apply in this situation, so I can use its bonus for my roll? In Hero Wars, Dogs, and many other games, that's a fun question partly due to the fact that it *is* a question. Ongoing, nigh-psychic consensus at that level strikes me, in imagining it, as dystopian happiness.
But what makes that texture work and be so fun, I can't say. And how game design encourages and makes it possible to be fun, I also can't say with certainty, although I did identify some ways that it can be structured in the Forge thread. I'll also go to the wall and say that pure "use my trait, add to my dice pool" usage as in Wushu is dull and annoying for me.
I find the point at which everybody disagrees on these issues to be exactly where the game gets interesting on a meta level.
This very issue is actually something I believe is foundational to good design. When there are disagreements as to whether the tough trait applies, does the game have effective procedures for making that decision. If the answer to that is no (and for many games...especially many indie-gm-less games...the answer is no) IMO that's a bad design. Asking players to make a judgement without providing any framework to make the judgement in I find to be sloppy design.
Admonitions to just "talk it out" or "reach consensus" are nothing more than a cop out. All such decisions require system, and such declarations merely punt the issue. Instead of the game providing a system, the players have to provide their own social system with all the pitfalls and dangers that such entails.
That's not to say players shouldn't be expected to render judgement. Just that I think such judgements are most effective when they're made within a specific, understood, and mutually accepted framework.
In this sense "The GM is always right" is such a framework. A fairly boring, inflexible framework...but IMO a darn sight better than "players should reach consensus" (without any other system provided).
The Challenge rules in Universalis, and the Appeal rules in Dirty Secrets are both ways to systematize the application of social judgement. I think that tension is where a huge source of fun comes from...especially for players who find the social bonding experience of roleplaying to a big part of why roleplaying is fun.
But from a design perspective, I think each and every time the game calls for a judgement to be made, it should also provide the framework for making that judgement. Whether that framework is to invest all authority in a GM with guidelines as to what good judgement looks like, whether its putting it to vote, whether its allowing fate to decide with a random roll...the framework should be provided for within the text of the game.
Not doing so means that the only people who could possibly have the same game experience playing the game as the designer are those who wind up using the same framework as the designer...by shear coincidentally or by prior exposure. Everyone else will struggle to make the game work, and may well declare the game to be "broken"...when really its not broken, its just incomplete...missing that vital framework.
I just spent an hour writing a response. It was eaten by the net.
The very short form of it is that I think the sausage grinder effect is linked to this. A game that takes an area that should, for a given group, be a source of creative tension and overly mechanizes it to spit out a generic result, isn't doing the best job that the system could be doing. Games should provoke towards creative tension, not remove it by reducing to the lowest common denominator or removing the process of judgment.
I also think some games have trouble, in their design, in telling whether they are provoking or controlling the substrata or the texture, and in so doing either become too heavy handed or too hands off.
So we're playing Dogs, it's the first session, and there's an enormous bonfire in town and it's a problem (I forget the details why). It's my raise. I say "I put my hands into the fire and I say 'peace, be still,' to extinguish it."
Like all right Dogs players, we haven't talked about the supernatural up-front at all. Never, ever talk about the supernatural up-front, except for the GM to say only "hey, supernatural things might happen, we'll see."
So. Peace, be still, to extinguish a bonfire.
a) Is it a legit move on my part? YES. I am clearly within my rights to say that my character does that.
b) Is it a legit raise, though? YES. The GM rolled demonic influence against me; ritual is how you make raises against the demons.
c) Is it tacky? UP TO YOU. Ron thinks it is, probably. I think it's cool. I think, most importantly, that it's true to the stories of my childhood and respectful of my family's faith and mythology.
d) Does it work, though? HERE'S THE FUN. This is why you don't set the supernatural dial up-front, but through play.
What dice did I push forward? High dice? Then I'm making a bid at nudging the supernatural dial upward. Low dice? Then I'm making a bid at nudging it downward.
How does the GM see? Both the dice he uses and what he says matter a whole lot. A block like "you can't bring yourself to put your hands in the fire" is a whole different thing from a block like "the fire leaps away from your hands but burns up more brightly elsewhere." So here's the GM participating in nudging the supernatural dial one way or the other.
And then, how often, over the first few sessions, do people get up to shenanigans like this, and what are their outcomes overall?
We played one game where, by luck and synergy, the raises we all made with magic were crap, but the sees we made with magic were good. In that game, the supernatural was there to protect you, not to let you advance your agenda. After three or four sessions of that pattern, it becomes what you expect and what you look for. The GM screws around with that expectation at his own peril.
I think this is the same thing. I think that, if I were to play Dogs with Ron, his considering my moves tacky would be a fruitful component of our play, a productive, or at least not destructive, tension between us.
I REALLY like how the raise see mechanic in Dogs serves to provide a framework for judgement. Combined with the instructions to abide by the opinion of the most critical player at the table (that's actually in the rules right, not just part of the oral support for the game), I find that to be a very solid system to use to support the passing of social judgement on player creative contributions.
Um, not to derail the useful point being made here, but I *agree* that in playing Dogs, the system has its own corrective features regarding the supernatural dial. I'd rather not be cast as the dissenter in this case.
My mention of Dogs in this thread doesn't concern the supernatural dial.* It concerns much simpler things - for instance, one of my favorite moments during play, when my character crashed his horse through a stream in a "go" during a chase scene. I pulled in a trait, specifically the one I'd created in my character's initiation scene, "My hat stays on." (It wasn't a d4 trait either, by this time.)
The issue of whether it was "good enough" or not was *not,* I think, addressed in system terms. I called in the trait, period. No one objected, and I don't really know if anyone *could* object by the rules. That issue was addressed only in the same way that Maura's "can talk for hours" was approved as an augmenter: group consensus expressed in grunts, little cheers, thumbs-up, or similar. In this case, we all liked the image of the horse and the water-spray and the all-action imagery with the utterly stable hat at its center. But what if half of us, or the GM alone, or all of us but me, didn't?
That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.
* To forestall possible misunderstandings of my views toward the supernatural dial, my historical claim is that it can be spun to any position via play *without* affecting the baseline "GM as if there's no God" principle. I have also explained to people that you can use the rules for the rituals in full without glowy eyes and bolts of light *if* you want to. None of this should be interpreted as a hatred of supernatural narration.
Oh, no, I didn't figure you disagreed. On the phone I've been like "folk magic yay" and you've been like, "eh, tacky," so I was using that merely as a (hopefully) fun personal example. Pretend like I made a confessional in InSpectres, the bonus die is yours if you accept the adjective, but if you don't, it was just me saying whatever.
The rule in Dogs is that the GM should back the judgment of the most discriminating player, case by case (and it might be the GM). The book specifically mentions body language and nonverbal reactions as guides. That section isn't in the very first edition, but I realized quite quickly that everyone wasn't already playing that way and needed it to be spelled out, so I added it. I'm pretty sure that it predates the illustrations, but it's possible I'm misremembering and it doesn't appear until the illustrated edition.
This business of "the GM should back the most discriminating player," though, is pretty vulnerable to social pressures. I haven't heard of it being a problem for anybody, but that doesn't mean it's never been.
Huh. My reply disappeared. Near as I can figure, it said ...
See, the thing is, I consistently see that it's *not* a problem. As long as there's some kind of structure (I list some in Markus' Forge thread), anything to go by like what you describe, the texture works. Really consistently, too, and here I'm thinking of the bezillion Space Rat demos I did at GenCon, which features traits very much like the ones Markus is criticizing - except that Pool-like, you can only choose a limited number at a time. Group after group after group, people instantly got it and seized upon trait use without any confusion.
But there's clearly a failure-line too. At least for me and I know for others. I think Wushu is boring and annoying. Why?
Do you think it matters if the players are aware of this actually happening at the gametable? I don't mean being able to articulate that you are right now setting the supernatural dial, but that something is being negotiated that will affect how we look at the fiction for the rest of the game.
I'm beginning to suspect that in many games there exist some very intricate and clever processes, only because the group has become aware of them without being told so explicitly in the rulebook. It's this strange, vaguely related paradox I've run into with Primetime Adventures. If I don't explain Agendas to new players, some (though not all) inject it into their requests automatically, fitting it into the on-going storyline and the general tone naturally. Whereas if I do address Agendas beforehand, not one of them gets them right until half-way into the first episode.
Which is why I can see where Valamir is coming from, with wanting games to provide a framework to judge creative contributions; but I've also seen people completely immobilised when faced with such a framework. Mostly if it covers something that they weren't aware included some kind of judgement on their part.
In Polaris, I almost put in a "no, no, no" key phrase that would have allowed three players to directly override the last players' input without systematic recourse. Basically just "no, that's not cool."
On the one hand, this does protect against stupidity.
In the end, I decided not to include the phrase. At the time, it was a combination of gut instinct, a desire to remove sub-systems, and a general though that, if I mentioned it, it would probably be over-used.
However, now having played the game more, I think that it was a better idea not to include the phrase than I originally thought. In short, the fact that, in Polaris, it is possible for one player to contribute something to the fiction without the oversight or say-so of any other player (hard, yes, but possible with proper systematic maneuvering) is a good thing.
Even if everyone else thinks "that's lame, let's not do that," the game gives a space to basically say "no, trust me guys, it's going to be cool eventually." And, from what I've seen, that trust (placed by me in the players of my game) isn't generally violated: letting someone endure the eye-rolls for their "uncool" contribution often pays huge dividends later, when it turns out to be an important hinge of the game.
I'm not sure which comments are commenting on something I wrote and which are independent observations. But I will note for clarity that when I speak of a framework...or a text base system...I'm specifically not talking about a specific kind of framework designed to build consensus or ensure everyone is satisfied with everyone elses contributions. Its perfectly fine for the framework to be designed to specify who exactly has the authority and to tell everyone else to shut up and trust that person's judgement. As long as its not just left to wonder.
I really think that's silly and damages my fun.
I now think "ok...I really don't like that...what can I do about it? What are my options within the spirit of the game?
Is this the sort of game where I interrupt you and say "whoa whoa...I'm not feeling that, how about this?" and we resolve via kibbitzing until we're both happy?
Is this the sort of game where I say "whoa whoa...I'm not feeling that, how about this?" and we resolve with a vote or spending of resources.
Is this the sort of game where I say "you know...you could do that...but then I'm totally going to make you regret it on my turn..."?
Is this the sort of game where I should just shut the hell up because it isn't my turn and I don't get a say.
or any other such thing.
I don't really care what the answer IS (as long as its appropriate to the game)...but I do care that there is an answer. Even if that answer is nothing more than the textural record of how the game designer handles it...because that's what his group likes.
Having a well playtested game is great. But unless I know how the playtesters answered the above, I'm going to have difficulty recreating the success. Its going to LOOK like poorly playtested game that just doesn't work right...because my answer may well turn out to be incompatible with the designers answer.
I think, Ron, that this issue was at the core of our failed attempt to play Poison'd. We got to a point in the game that required judgement, there was no textural indication of how to render that judgement...so we came up with our own system for how to decide...that was so far off base that the game screeched to a flaming halt.
For me, this all ties into procedures of play...and what I think RPG designers can learn from board game designers in terms of making those precedures crystal clear.
I think that the default that a lot of "freeform" groups end up defaulting to is somewhat similar to my "no, no, no," but maybe more stringent: if a certain number (one or more) people significantly object, it doesn't happen.
Looking at it in that regard, my job as a designer is not to facilitate group consensus (everyone gets a say!) but facilitate a single person's direct contributions to the fiction, even if it "damages someone else's fun" because the latter is less common and more endangered than the former.
I think that my design bears this out pretty strongly.
In chess, a pawn can take a carelessly placed queen. No one thinks to influence that through body language if they happen to think, you know, a lowly pawn taking a queen doesn't seem right. They do tend to respond to it with body language (a groan, usually!), but not with the intent of influencing. Indeed, taking a small, polite amount of delight in their pain is typically accepted as part of the reward structure of the game/part of the system.
You just don't tend to see this in roleplay culture. Instead a majority think any and all moves need to be run past them for clearance through the body language system (or just direct arguement). When something isn't cool for them, it's a matter of 'What's going to be done about that?' rather than accepting it just happened and just feeling whatever the move makes them feel.
However, there's something else that's like the chess/gamist example where enjoying your opponents pain is part of the reward structure. In a story making game, other peoples emotional responce to certain moves can be part of not just the reward structure, but the palette available for story writing. Like in the chess example, I'm talking about showing an emotional responce not to influence play, but just genuinely feeling something because of the move made. In story making games, the moves might produce a range of emotions, which grants the person who made the move (within the mechanical framework), a wide palette to work from in his authorship, should he care (dare?) to use it.
Using body language to influence play undercuts this process, I'd hypothesize (it undercuts the palettes formation). As much as were all used to doing it - after about the third session where my early GM's inserted/forced a NPC into the party (who then betrayed us, by default) or a preditor in all it's glory, yeah, I groaned along with everyone else and have kept influencing like this since then. However, I think the game systems did grant the GM the ability to play the one note (the betrayal, the preditor, or in Markus' thread, the Bobba Fett dad), over and over again. It reminds me of "Number 9, number 9, number 9...". It does make you feel something, but it gets mind numbing very quickly. It's a question to ask about any particular game - without players trying to influence each other via body language (which, I suggest, undercuts the authorship process), does it succumb to Number 9 syndrome?
In hopes that it's related - I think it is - I realized a while ago that my game design relies on reducing consensus. Sorcerer has a lot less of it than most games that influenced it; Elfs removes the need for consensus to establish the actions of selfish characters; Trollbabe has practically none. I've spent my design effort shooting for the maximum yield in collaborative imagination with the minimum "vetting" or negotiation possible in the process.
Mutual Decision represents a departure from that, but perhaps not as much as it looks - I've let some consensus back in, but only in limited doses about very specific things. Spione is as ultimate an expression of no-consensus full-collaboration as I think I am capable of.
Listening to each other? Check, at maximum. Processing and utilizing what one another contributes, as a *requirement* for the next contribution? Vetting each other, negotiating about what's good or not good? Nix.
Thanks for the insights, everyone. I'm putting together some thoughts about what I do. It also explains why I attack that "stakes" horseshit so savagely, above and beyond its evident dysfunction in play - it's because I know *why* it's dysfunctional at a deep creative level.
I think that it's one of Mortal Coil's great strengths (some might rather uncharitably say only) that it attempts to sort this kind of issue out at the start of the game through the development of the theme document and during play by asking players to pay to introduce things they care about.
It doesn't make the problem go away, but it does give you a framework in which to talk abot it.
Just a note to people who happen upon this thread, doing their proper pre-purchasing research: Valamir's talking about the Poison'd ashcan, which is no longer available. His bad experience contributed a very good section to the game available now.
Oh but to finish MY thought, Callan: I've always presumed that the body language for "I wish you hadn't said that" is different from and distinguishable from the body language for "that's not legit." I expect the Dogs GM, for instance, to be able to make that determination. But maybe that's optimistic on my part.
It doesn't really matter for Dogs in particular, but it might matter in the abstract. In Dogs, the "that's not legit" call is weak weak weak. All that you can affect with it is what someone has to say before they get to roll dice for a particular trait. You can't make them take back their raise or anything significant. You can't even make them stop talking - if you're like, "nah, weak," that only means that they have to say more.
It doesn't really matter for Dogs in particular, but it might matter in the abstract. In Dogs, the "that's not legit" call is weak weak weak. All that you can affect with it is what someone has to say before they get to roll dice for a particular trait. You can't make them take back their raise or anything significant
Could you talk a little bit about the system that backs this up, and maybe a little bit about the process of it in play.
From what I remember, Dogs just has "GM, back up the most picky player." Which includes, to my reading, "that's not legit."
So, for instance, let's say we're in physical violence. I say "I do a flip over his head and karate chop him in the back of the neck!" as my raise. It is met with, let's say, eyerolls and uncools. You say now that the GM can't make me take back my raise. As far as I read the rules, that's exactly what he *should* do, on the grounds of "that's weak!"
The One Rule, originally formulated by Char (stryck), is really more of a principle or guideline than a rule. I t runs, roughly:
"You should accept anything another player says about your character in /some/ fashion."
This is very different from the "your right to narrate ends at my nose" rule, which also sounds like a common one for online nar rp. But it seems like the addition of your rule would make the other much stronger.
In story making games, the moves might produce a range of emotions, which grants the person who made the move (within the mechanical framework), a wide palette to work from in his authorship, should he care (dare?) to use it.
Great image. This takes your term even further, Vincent. From the destructive breakdown of concensus to expressing the full creative interplay possible between the players. The emotions are the plane in which the creative tensions in a game play out.
We create formal (non-diegetic) procedures and structures in response to the emotional responses we think likely. We can choose them to eliminate or de-accentuate responses (frex having a gm to reduce wrangling over outcomes by having one person responsible for determining them) or to accentuate them (using Jenga to create feelings of suspense in players).
I'm not thinking so much the author deciding whether there's a jenga tower. I'm talking more about rules where a player has a choice to resolve something via the jenga tower over some other method. And he may do so because the tension it develops is the one he wants to author into the session. That's not a terribly sublime example, but its around that area.
Also if he makes that move, people don't try and influence him out of it next time/this time by groaning or whatever. People just suffer the move/feel what it makes them feel, instead of dabbling in the social contracts nuances to try and shape the play they want.
Of course, over most of roleplays thirty year history, just feeling what a move could do was/is often a brutal affair. Most people don't want to be forced to feel something, and look for some way to fight back, even if it means reaching outside the games rules and into the social contract.
But I think rules can be made to have a less brutal emotional impact. However I think no one makes rules that are less brutal, because they are used to reaching into the SC to shape play. Then if you point that out, they say how brutal it would be if they didn't do that, therefore its part of the game! (bah!)
Well, I'll try to describe part of it, and we'll see where it falls down.
I think we'd agree rules can be designed to have more or less emotional/aesthetic impact. I'll just move on from that.
In terms of the next bit: If someones in the habit of grunting when a rules used in a way they don't like, then rather than accept it (then latter on make a rule that works they way they like), they will tend to just maintain the habit and keep grunting each time.
The next bit reinforces that habit. But I wont jump onto that yet. Does this habit seem a plausible one? If so, I'll just go onto the reinforcement.
Some notional person dislikes how her group uses a certain rule. She's like, "I hate it that we players can just shout out 'my guy has high ground!' and we get the +2, when nobody's established beforehand that they have the high ground," or whatever. So when someone in her group uses the rule that way, she grunts her displeasure. Instead of negotiating some new rule or other solution with her group (like "when we haven't already established it, could we please flip a coin for high ground?"), that's all she ever does, grunt and frown.
If that's what you mean, then sure. I imagine people like that exist. Go on.
Hmm, I didn't get at what I meant very well, on review. In terms of grunting, I mean (but failed to articulate) that they do not accept the result of the rules use.
It's the lack of acceptance that's the key point - whether they just grunt and grunt, or grunt and go to immediately negotiate a rule change, or grunt to try and stop a person using a rule a certain way isn't the main thing. It's the lack of result acceptance that is.
Not accepting valid mechanical result of rules use can turn into a habit.
Then theres the reinforcement of that habit. But I failed to articulate this the first time, so I'm probabaly wearing your patience now, understandably. Thanks for asking, I can leave it if you want and I'll say sorry for meandering :)
"Not accepting valid mechanical result of rules can turn into a habit."
So now you're talking about someone who would accept this particular result, but out of habit, they don't? That is, this particular result is just fine, but the player's so used to disliking the way a rule works out that she grunts and doesn't accept it anyway?
If so, still with you. I think people sometimes do that, yes.
"So now you're talking about someone who would accept this particular result, but out of habit, they don't?"
That's a good question. Made me draft a paragraph then delete it, in thinking about it! :)
I think most people can control whether they accept a result or not, in the moment the result happens. But if they are in a habit, they lose alot of this control. It's like smoking - I don't smoke, so if someone offered me a smoke, I have alot of control in whether I accept it. However, if I had a smoking habit, I'd have alot less control over whether I accept the cigarette. Someone with a result rejection habit has little control over whether they accept a rules result.
"That is, this particular result is just fine, but the player's so used to disliking the way a rule works out"
It could be in relation to just one particular rule. But I'm suggesting it tends to spread - once someone is in the habit of rejecting the result of a certain rule, all rules results tend to start facing this rejection. Usually stated with "Well, if the rules get in the way of the fun/drama/story, we get rid of 'em! Hurrah!"
And that takes us to the reinforcement. Because if getting rid of rules/their results leaves you with fun, and the game is supposed to be fun, then it's stated dropping rules is part of the game. Usually it's stated as "The GM can change whatever rules he wants!!11!!" or suchlike.
It's a really strong reward loop - the game is supposed to be some kind of fun, the group presumes. A rules result makes something yucky happen. Rejecting it would mean whatever fun is happening, continues uninterupted. Therefore, the group infers, rejecting the rule is part of the game (to not do so would mean less fun, and the game is all about the fun, so therefore...). And oh, here's the golden rule to support that notion.
The thing is, if the author of the game designed it to produce some yucky results in order to challenge players to morally deal with that (or in gamism, to step up on against it), the group doesn't. They all say they've played this morally challenging game, when really they castrated it. It's like people who go overseas, then spend all their time drinking in the hotel pool...okay, I'm venting in saying that, even though it's a valid comparison.