lumpley games: Roleplaying Theory

Roleplaying Theory

A Penny for Your Thoughts
Read & Post Comments

back to lumpley games

Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore

I haven't written the all-encompassing essay yet, which so it goes and ever shall. Instead, how about a running chronicle?

(I've put them oldest to newest, and foof to blog convention, foof I say! The newest is The Narrative Stances?, 5-27-04.)

Doing Away with the GM

You need to have a system by which scenes start and stop. The rawest solution is to do it by group consensus: anybody moved to can suggest a scene or suggest that a scene be over, and it's up to the group to act on the suggestion or not. You don't need a final authority beyond the players' collective will.

You need to have a system whereby narration becomes in-game truth. That is, when somebody suggests something to happen or something to be so, does it or doesn't it? Is it or isn't it? Again the rawest solution is group consensus, with suggestions made by whoever's moved and then taken up or let fall according to the group's interest.

You need to have orchestrated conflict, and there's the tricky bit. GMs are very good at orchestrating conflict, and it's hard to see a rawer solution. My game Before the Flood handles the first two needs ably but makes no provision at all for this third. What you get is listless, aimless, dull play with no sustained conflict and no meaning.

In our co-GMed Ars Magica game, each of us is responsible for orchestrating conflict for the others, which works but isn't radical wrt GM doage-away-with. It amounts to when Emily's character's conflicts climax explosively and set off Meg's character's conflicts, which also climax explosively, in a great kickin' season finale last autumn, I'm the GM. GM-swapping, in other words, isn't the same as GM-sharing.

Any solution to this is bound to be innovative. There's not much beaten path.


Roleplaying's Fundamental Act

Roleplaying is negotiated imagination. In order for any thing to be true in game, all the participants in the game (players and GMs, if you've even got such things) have to understand and assent to it. When you're roleplaying, what you're doing is a) suggesting things that might be true in the game and then b) negotiating with the other participants to determine whether they're actually true or not.

So you're sitting at the table and one player says, "[let's imagine that] an orc jumps out of the underbrush!"

What has to happen before the group agrees that, indeed, an orc jumps out of the underbrush?

1. Sometimes, not much at all. The right participant said it, at an appropriate moment, and everybody else just incorporates it smoothly into their imaginary picture of the situation. "An orc! Yikes! Battlestations!" This is how it usually is for participants with high ownership of whatever they're talking about: GMs describing the weather or the noncombat actions of NPCs, players saying what their characters are wearing or thinking.

2. Sometimes, a little bit more. "Really? An orc?" "Yeppers." "Huh, an orc. Well, okay." Sometimes the suggesting participant has to defend the suggestion: "Really, an orc this far into Elfland?" "Yeah, cuz this thing about her tribe..." "Okay, I guess that makes sense."

3. Sometimes, mechanics. "An orc? Only if you make your having-an-orc-show-up roll. Throw down!" "Rawk! 57!" "Dude, orc it is!" The thing to notice here is that the mechanics serve the exact same purpose as the explanation about this thing about her tribe in point 2, which is to establish your credibility wrt the orc in question.

4. And sometimes, lots of mechanics and negotiation. Debate the likelihood of a lone orc in the underbrush way out here, make a having-an-orc-show-up roll, a having-an-orc-hide-in-the-underbrush roll, a having-the-orc-jump-out roll, argue about the modifiers for each of the rolls, get into a philosophical thing about the rules' modeling of orc-jump-out likelihood... all to establish one little thing. Wave a stick in a game store and every game you knock of the shelves will have a combat system that works like this.

(Plenty of suggestions at the game table don't get picked up by the group, or get revised and modified by the group before being accepted, all with the same range of time and attention spent negotiating.)

So look, you! Mechanics might model the stuff of the game world, that's another topic, but they don't exist to do so. They exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table. That's their sole and crucial function.


Aside: GNS

So you have some people sitting around and talking. Some of the things they say are about fictional characters in a fictional world. During the conversation the characters and their world aren't static: the people don't simply describe them in increasing detail, they (also) have them do things and interact. They create situations - dynamic arrangements of characters and setting elements - and resolve them into new situations.

They may or may not have formal procedures for this part of the conversation, but the simple fact that it consistently happens reveals some sort of structure. If they didn't have an effective way to negotiate the evolution of situation to situation, their conversation would stall or crash.

Why are they doing this? What do they get out of it? For now, let's limit ourselves to three possibilities: they want to Say Something (in a lit 101 sense), they want to Prove Themselves, or they want to Be There. What they want to say, in what way they want to prove themselves, or where precisely they want to be varies to the particular person in the particular moment. Are there other possibilities? Maybe. Certainly these three cover an enormous variety, especially as their nuanced particulars combine in an actual group of people in actual play.

Over time, that is, over many many in-game situations, play will either fulfill the players' creative agendas or fail to fulfill them. Do they have that discussion? Do they prove themselves or let themselves down? Are they "there"? As in pretty much any kind of emergent pattern thingy, whether the game fulfills the players' creative agendas depends on but isn't predictable from the specific structure they've got for negotiating situations. No individual situation's evolution or resolution can reveal a) what the players' creative agendas are or b) whether they're being fulfilled. Especially, limiting your observation to the in-game contents of individual situations will certainly blind you to what the players are actually getting out of the game.

That's GNS in a page.

I don't think I've said anything here that Ron Edwards hasn't been saying. I do think that I've said it in mostly my own words.


Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution

In task resolution, what's at stake is the task itself. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you crack the safe?

In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

In conventional rpgs, success=winning and failure=losing only provided the GM constantly maintains that relationship - by (eg) making the safe contain the relevant piece of information after you've cracked it. It's possible and common for a GM to break the relationship instead, turning a string of successes into a loss, or a failure at a key moment into a win anyway.

Let's assume that we haven't yet established what's in the safe.

"I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
It's task resolution. Roll: Success!
"You crack the safe, but there's no dirt in there, just a bunch of in-order papers."

"I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!"
It's task resolution. Roll: Failure!
"The safe's too tough, but as you're turning away from it, you see a piece of paper in the wastebasket..."

(Those examples show how, using task resolution, the GM can break success=winning, failure=losing.)

That's, if you ask me, the big problem with task resolution: whether you succeed or fail, the GM's the one who actually resolves the conflict. The dice don't, the rules don't; you're depending on the GM's mood and your relationship and all those unreliable social things the rules are supposed to even out.

Task resolution, in short, puts the GM in a position of priviledged authorship. Task resolution will undermine your collaboration.

Whether you roll for each flash of the blade or only for the whole fight is a whole nother issue: scale, not task vs. conflict. This is sometimes confusing for people; you say "conflict resolution" and they think you mean "resolve the whole scene with one roll." No, actually you can conflict-resolve a single blow, or task-resolve the whole fight in one roll:

"I slash at his face, like ha!" "Why?" "To force him off-balance!"
Conflict Resolution: do you force him off-balance?
Roll: Loss!
"He ducks side to side, like fwip fwip! He keeps his feet and grins."

"I fight him!" "Why?" "To get past him to the ship before it sails!"
Task Resolution: do you win the fight (that is, do you fight him successfully)?
Roll: Success!
"You beat him! You disarm him and kick his butt!"
(Unresolved, left up to the GM: do you get to the ship before it sails?)

(Those examples show small-scale conflict resolution vs. large-scale task resolution.)

Something I haven't examined: in a conventional rpg, does task resolution + consequence mechanics = conflict resolution? "Roll to hit" is task resolution, but is "Roll to hit, roll damage" conflict resolution?


A Small Thing About Suspense

I have no criticism cred to back this up. Just amatuer observations. So kick my butt if you gotta.

Suspense doesn't come from uncertain outcomes.

I have no doubt, not one shread of measly doubt, that Babe the pig is going to wow the sheepdog trial audience. Neither do you. But we're on the edge of our seats! What's up with that?

Suspense comes from putting off the inevitable.

What's up with that is, we know that Babe is going to win, but we don't know what it will cost.

Everybody with me still? If you're not, give it a try: watch a movie. Notice how the movie builds suspense: by putting complications between the protagonist and what we all know is coming. The protagonist has to buy victory, it's as straightforward as that. That's why the payoff at the end of the suspense is satisfying, after all, too: we're like ah, finally.

What about RPGs?

Yes, it can be suspenseful to not know whether your character will succeed or fail. I'm not going to dispute that. But what I absolutely do dispute is that that's the only or best way to get suspense in your gaming. In fact, and check this out, when GMs fudge die rolls in order to preserve or create suspense, it shows that suspense and uncertain outcomes are, in those circumstances, incompatible.

So here's a better way to get suspense in gaming: put off the inevitable.

Acknowledge up front that the PCs are going to win, and never sweat it. Then use the dice to escalate, escalate, escalate. We all know the PCs are going to win. What will it cost them?

My game Chalk Outlines was a stab at this, and Otherkind was a better stab, but where it's really coming home is in Dogs in the Vineyard and the Good Knights.


A Small Thing About Character Death plus a mini-manifesto

Along the precise same lines:

When a character dies in a novel or a movie, it's a) to establish what's at stake, b) to escalate the conflict, or c) to make a final statement. Or perhaps some combination. It's never by accident or for no good reason, unlike in real life.

I've been thinking about examples. Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars? This, his death says, is worth fighting for. Boromir in the Fellowship of the Ring? The right death redeems betrayal. Brad and wha'sname at the beginning of Pulp Fiction? The cop in Reservoir Dogs? All those random people in Total Recall? Tara in Buffy? To escalate conflict, plain and easy. Leon and Gary Oldman's character in the Professional? Final statementville, but Matilda's family? Escalation plus some stakes.

So that seems pretty solid to me.

Before I go on (I'm sure you've already figured out what I'm going to say anyway) but before I go on, my mini-manifesto.

First: if what you get out of roleplaying is a) the accomplishment you get from rising to the challenge, not letting yourself or your friends down, learning the rules and just frickin' owning them, or else b) the satisfaction of peer-appreciated wish-fulfillment, you're off the hook. None of what I say applies to you, you're happy.

If, on the other hand, what you want out of roleplaying is suspense, resolution, story, theme, character, meaning - listen up.

Second: conventional RPGs can't give it to you. I'm sorry.

So, third: that stuff you want? You get that by approaching roleplaying as though it were a form of fiction, a form of literature. All that stuff is well known to fiction writers and they can tell us how to do it. Roleplaying isn't like writing, just like singing pub songs in a pub isn't like composing songs, so the skills themselves are different. But the same structure underlies both. You can't ignore the structure and still get consistenly good results.

So that's my mini-manifesto and here's character death in RPGs:

PCs, like protagonists in fiction, don't get to die to show what's at stake or to escalate conflict. They only get to die to make final statements.

Character death can never be a possible outcome moment-to-moment. Having your character's survival be uncertain doesn't contribute to suspense, as above, just like we don't actually ever believe that Bruce Willis' character in Die Hard will die. Instead, character death should fit into what it will cost. This thing, is it worth dying for? Obi-wan Kenobi and Leon say yes.

Here's a piece of text from Dogs in the Vineyard:

Also, occasionally, your character will get killed. The conflict resolution rules will keep it from being pointless or arbitrary: it'll happen only when you've chosen to stake your character's life on something. Staking your character's life means risking it, is all.

In fiction, You never die for something you haven't staked your life on.


Practical Conflict Resolution Advice

My friend anonyfan asks: "Do you have any ideas on how to effectively and meaningfully implement 'what's at stake' in a non-narrativist game?"

I sure do.

You won't have any trouble at all, and in fact your group will wonder how you got along before, if you find the magic words. I don't know what your group's magic words are but here are some I've used:
"The danger is that..."
"What's at stake is..."
"What you're risking is..."
"So what you hope to accomplish is..."

Say the magic words every single time, when the dice are in their hands but before they roll 'em.

At first, you'll need to finish the sentence every time yourself, with a period, like:
"The danger is that you'll set off the trap instead of disarming it."
"What's at stake is, do you make it to the ferry in time or do you have to go the long way around?"
"What you're risking is being overheard by the goblins on the rooftop."
"So what you hope to accomplish is to get through the doorway, whether this ogre lives or dies."

But after you've said it three or four or ten times, you'll be able to trail off with a question mark when you want their input:
"What you're risking is...?"

And then, once the dice are on the table, always always always make it like this:
- If they succeed, they win what's at stake. They accomplish their accomplishment or they avoid the danger.
- If they fail, they lose what's at stake - and you IMMEDIATELY introduce something new at stake. It might be another chance, it might be a consequence, but what matters is that it's more serious that the former.

"The danger is that you'll set off the trap ... and you do! A dart thocks into your shoulder. The danger now is that you'll succumb to its poison!"
"You reach the dock as the ferry's pulling away. Do you want to jump for it?"
"The goblins overhear you and start dropping in through the skylight. They scramble all over you, biting and screeching. The danger is that they'll get you off your feet!"
"Not only does the ogre keep you away from the doorway, it's pushing you back toward the chasm..."

In combat, you'll probably want to have an overall what's at stake for the fight, and little tactical what's at stakes for each exchange. When you describe the setup, mention two or three features of the environment, like hanging tapestries or a swaying bridge or broken cobblestones, plus an apparent weakness of the foe, like worn armor straps or a pus-filled left eye, and then when you say what's at stake for an exchange, incorporate one of those: "the danger is that he'll push you back onto the broken cobblestones" or "so what you're hoping to do is to further strain his armor straps." This is on top of hitting and damage and whatever, just add it straight in.

It's especially effective if you always give a small bonus or penalty for the exchange before. What's it in D&D now, +2/-2? Give it every single exchange, linked to whether they won or lost the what's at stake of the previous exchange. "The broken cobblestones mess up your footing, so take a -2." "He has to shrug and shift to adjust his sagging armor, so take a +2."

In Forge terms, you've used a couple of nonmechanical techniques to build a conflict resolution system around your game's task resolution rules. Guaranteed plus-fun.


Arranging the Pieces of a Game

This is another straight transplant from the Forge. You'll have to forgive the GNS talk, or not, I mean, it is how I think about things:

How do you treat Character, Setting, Situation, System and Color in Narrativist game design vs. Simulationist vs. Gamist, is that what you're asking?

After setup, what a game's rules do is control how you resolve one situation into the next. If you're designing a Narrativist game, what you need are rules that create a) rising conflict b) across a moral line c) between fit characters d) according to the authorship of the players. Every new situation should be a step upward in that conflict, toward a climax and resolution. Your rules need to provoke the players, collaboratively, into escalating the conflict, until it can't escalate no more.

Character creation in a Narrativist game might work by creating characters who, in some key way, have nowhere else to go. Life o' Crime, the rpg: create a character who owes somebody more money than he can repay.

Setting in a Narrativist game might work by applying pressure to that key point in the characters. Life o' Crime: there's recession, few jobs, no way up or out, but worse class difference than ever before anywhere. You see wealth but no opportunity.

Situation in a Narrativist game works by increasing the pressure. Life o' Crime: Someone depends on your character to bring home groceries and pay rent. Someone else has just been evicted and is facing homelessness. Someone else asks you if you know where to get drugs. Someone else just got beaten by the authorities. Someone else just got beaten by the guy you owe money to. Someone else offers to cut you in on a job. Someone else wants the whole take for himself. Someone else knew you'd never amount to anything. Someone else can't be trusted. Someone else can be.

System in a Narrativist game works, again, by resolving one situation into the next. Life o' Crime: what do you do? How does it work out for you? Does it a) hurt? b) give you breathing room? c) piss someone else off? d) hurt someone else? and/or e) set you back? How does it increase the pressure? Remember the moral line defined by your Premise, and remember that the players are the authors!

And Color permeates a Narrativist game same as any other. Life o' Crime: is it Thatcher's England? Victoria's England? Shakespeare's England? Bush's US? Hoover's US? Colonial Massachussetts? Mars? The Kingdom of Thringbora? The details change, but the core of character situated in setting - the fit characters locked into conflict defined by a moral line - doesn't.

I've had fun writing this! I hope it's at all an answer to your question, and I should probably make clear that it's just how I think about it, and other people no doubt think about it in whole different ways.

I imagine you could break down Simulationist and Gamist games in a similar way.


Pre-play / Play / Post-play

In your game, the game you're actually playing, a) in which stage does invention happen, and b) in which stage does meaning happen?

Invention - creating setting, character, nifty toys, potent powers - invention can happen before the game or during the game. (It can't really happen after the game, can it?)

A game where the invention happens mostly pre-play would be one where there are maps, characters, factions, technology, societies, interests, all in place when the game begins. I can't think of a good example of this in fiction - maybe Babylon 5? - but clearly lots of roleplaying happens this way. Look at all the dang setting books!

A game where the invention happens mostly during play would have the same list of things, maps characters societies etc., but they'd be created at need as the game progresses. We have one serious bazillion examples of this from fiction: Howard wrote Conan this way, their writers wrote Farscape and Buffy this way, and lots of roleplaying happens this way too. It's underrepresented in rpg books because it doesn't call for or produce 'em.

And it occurs to me that, in JRR Tolkein, we have an example in fiction of post-play creation, where he created a bunch on the fly, and then extensively rewrote and filled in to build his world. Apparently the Hobbit changed a lot to match what he'd written for the Lord of the Rings, for instance. Can't really apply to roleplaying though.

Similarly, meaning:

A game where the meaning happens mostly pre-play is one in which somebody or everybody has something to say and already knows what it is when the game starts. You can always tell these games: the GM expects his or her villains and their schemes to be absolutely gripping, but they aren't; the players keep wanting to play their characters as well as the characters deserve, but it's not happening. I make my character a former slave but when it comes up in play it's because I force it to, and my fellow players dodge eye contact and the GM wants to get on with the plot.

A game where the meaning happens mostly during play is also easy to spot: everybody gets it and is engaged. Other players than me are into my former-slave character, and when she gets passionate about something, the other players hold their breaths. The GM lets the players pick the villains through their PCs' judgements, then plays them aggressively and directed-ly and hard. Every session is hot. Nobody sacrifices the integrity of his or her character for the sake of staying together as a party or solving the GM's mystery - the action comes right out of the characters' passions.

And a game where the meaning happens mostly post-play - telling it is better than it was. Sometimes there'll be one person, the GM or the GM's favorite player, whose needs the game mostly met, and if you talk to that person the game will sound rockin', but if you talk to the other players, it'll sound eh. If people talk afterward about how cool this kind of game was, they'll talk about highlights that happened once every three, four, five sessions - as though a game with one gripping, thrilling, passionate moment per twenty hours of play were a successful game.

My goal as a gamer and a game designer is to push both invention and meaning as much as possible into actual play.

Problem: the hobby, represented by the books in your game store and the conventional habits of most gamers, prefers the pre-game over the game.

Seriously. How many times have you created a character who was far cooler in your head than he or she turned out to be in play? How many times have you prepped a campaign only to find that, in play, it didn't go as well as you'd hoped? Have you ever thought that, y'know, reading game books and imagining play and preparing for a game is almost as much fun as actually playing? Or even more fun than actually playing?

The hobby doesn't value or teach collaboration. It values and teaches competing sole-authorship. Pre-game invention sells books but robs players of their ability to contribute; pre-game meaning is thrilling to imagine but dull to actually play. This arrangement we've got going is frickin' broken.

The solution is to design games that're inspiring, but daydreaming about how much fun the game will be to play seems pointless and lame, and you can't create extensive histories or backstories because that stuff's collaborative -

- so you call a friend.


Burning Down the Firewall

Conventional wisdom: if your character's not in the scene, you can't participate.

Text from Dogs in the Vineyard:

The game calls for lots of free table talk, with you and your fellow players calling out suggestions, kibitzing, and expanding on one another's descriptions. Don't shut your mouth just because your character's off the stage.

Conventional wisdom: if your character's not in the scene, you shouldn't let information from the scene influence your actions.

Text from Dogs:

The game works even better when you bring your own metagame knowledge into your character's actions. If you're choosing between two possible, realistic actions for your character to take, don't limit your decision-making to your character's point of view. Choose the one that you prefer!

Conventional wisdom: when your character's surprised, you should be surprised.

I can't beat Ron Edwards' answer to this one. The whole answer's here on the Forge, but here's a quote:

I'm now going to say something very harsh - traditionally, the focus on "must ... surprise ... players!" is trying to solve the basic problem that the encounter with, e.g., the goblins, is fundamentally a stupid and irrelevant event in the game. Gotta have a fight. Goblins. Must make it exciting. Um, well, I guess the only way is to "get into character" and "be surprised," so I gotta figure out how. OK, tell them to immerse, surprise the characters with GM-rolls-it Perception checks, and thus the players will be surprised, right?

Wrong. The perception check is a big fat meaningless waste - the encounter only takes on player-relevance if, in fact, the goblins are relevant to the Creative Agenda of this group.

Conventional wisdom: it's boring when your character's not in the scene.

Text from Dogs:

Like every social fun, playing Dogs in the Vineyard depends on constant feedback and demonstrated enthusiasm. When somebody says something cool, show it. When something's funny, laugh. When you have a suggestion, shout out. (I know, I know, duh, right? I only mention it because I've played other games where you didn't, y'know, do things like that.)

Also, to really deliver, the game shouldn't be isolated from your regular socializing, it should blend in. Chat about the game before and after, just like you would a book or TV show or movie. Chat about books and movies and catch up with each other, during! You can think of it as commercial breaks if you want, but tied to the social rhythms of your little group, not on TV's 15-minute cycle. If the game's worth playing, it'll draw your attention back in. Interspersing some time of just hanging out like friends can be pretty effective for maintaining a pace, prolonging suspense, and giving payoff moments real punch, so don't worry too much about digressions.


Your game will have an overall story, made up of the interwoven individual stories of your characters. If it's not as fun and engaging as the best TV shows, I haven't done my job.


Resolution, Why?

Well kids, I think it's time for the biggie.

Here's some stuff I wrote on the Forge:

The only worthwhile use for rules I know of is to sustain in-game conflict of interest, in the face of the overwhelming unity of interest of the players. Read this to include the in-game conflicts that drive Gamist and Simulationist play too, not just the Narrativist ones.

Any rules that don't do it, you're just as well off if you ditch 'em and play freeform. Lots and lots of RPG rules don't reliably do it.

Startling or very bad outcomes are pointless, sometimes disruptive, if they don't serve the game's conflicts. Hence fudging. Very good outcomes, or even very expected outcomes, vindicate the group's use of the rules, if the outcomes serve the game's conflicts.

You know the thing that happens where a group starts out playing Ars Magica (say) by the book, but gradually rolls dice and consults the rules less and less, until the character sheets sit in a folder forgotten? At first the rules served to build the players' unity of interest, so they used 'em. Now that the group's got unity of interest, it doesn't need the rules anymore. The only thing that's going to win that group back to using rules is something better than unity of interest.

Unity of interest plus sustained in-game conflict is better than unity of interest alone.


Let's say that you're playing a character who the rest of us really like a lot. We like him a whole lot. We think he's a nice guy who's had a rough time of it. The problem is, there's something you're trying to get at with him, and if he stops having a rough time, you won't get to say what you're trying to say.

Our hearts want to give him a break. For the game to mean something, we have to make things worse for him instead.

I'm the GM. What I want more than anything in that circumstance - we're friends, my heart breaks for your poor character, you're counting on me to give him more and more grief - what I want is rules that won't let me compromise.

I don't want to hurt your character and then point to the rules and say "they, they made me hurt your character!" That's not what I'm getting at.

I want, if I don't hurt your character, I want you to point to the rules and say, "hey, why didn't you follow the rules? Why did you cheat and let my guy off the hook? That sucked." I want the rules to create a powerful expectation between us - part of our unity of interest - that I will hurt your character. Often and hard.

We have a shared interest in the game - we both like your character, we're both interested in what you have to say, we both want things to go well. We also have an ongoing, constant agreement about what's happening right this second - that's the loody poodly. The rules should take those two things and build in-game conflict out of them.

You can see it plain as day in a bunch of games. Look at how My Life with Master's rules create the expectation that the GM will constantly have the Master "hose" the PCs. In Universalis, getting coins back into your bank depends on your participation in conflicts. In Primetime Adventures, the characters' Issue plus Screen Presence tells the GM just what to do - if I back off of the Issue, I'm not playing the game. (And then Fan Mail brings everyone in, so - like in Universalis - it's not just between you and me.) In my game Dogs in the Vineyard, the escalation rules force us both to play our characters passionately - there's tremendous pressure on us to, y'know, stick to our guns.

What a bunch of other games do is stop short. They establish our agreement about what's happening right this second, they contribute to our shared interest in the characters and setting - and that's it. They don't provoke us. I can, by the rules, back off your character's issues, let the conflicts fizzle, compromise and go easy, and we sit there going "I dunno, what do you wanna do?" all night. Or just as bad, the dull "things work out for the best this time too" characteristic of Star Trek: the Next Generation and games where we all like each other's characters and nobody's provoked by the rules to inflict pain.

So: resolution, why?

The answer is: because interesting play depends on good conflicts, and creating good conflicts means hitting characters you like right where they're weak, and hitting a character you like, whose player is someone you like, right where she's or he's weak - it's not easy.

The right rules will show you how to do it. They'll make it the only natural thing.

Here's when I knew that Dogs in the Vineyard was good: I was showing Meg the dice mechanic. We played through the conflict in the book - does your brother go and shoot the woman? She knocked her brother down and took away his gun, but their back-and-forth suggested an essential follow-up conflict. Meg was psyched. She was diggin' it. Now you know that Meg and I are happy long-time freeformers, and Meg especially doesn't have any patience for noncontributing rules. She launched straight into the follow-up conflict and reached for the dice.