Posts Tagged ‘severe delays’

Some semi-formed ideas have been bubbling around my head recently, about the boundary between a LARP and a tabletop roleplaying game. What differentiates the two? My friend Mo posted this write-up of a game I played in the other day – an absolutely fantastic game called When The Dark Is Gone – in which he suggested that despite its tabletop appearance, “When the Dark is Gone pretty much is a larp, apart from the fact that you’re sitting down”.

I can see where he’s coming from. The premise of When the Dark is Gone is a group therapy session, exploring the childhood memories of the (now adult) player characters, assisted by a game facilitator in the form of the group’s therapist. This premise allows play to remain completely in character at all times – players negotiate discrepancies between their memories by disagreeing in character rather than by appealing to an external arbitrator; the game’s pacing and direction is managed through the mask of the therapist; even the “I need a break” emotional safety mechanism can (very deliberately) be interpreted in-character even though it’s used for out-of-character reasons. So yes, I can see why it could be called a LARP. (Typically the players are sitting down, though, it’s true.)

The thing is, I don’t actually think the LARP / tabletop distinction is all that useful. After the setup phase, play in When the Dark is Gone is entirely in-character – in other words, the players develop the situation solely through improvised acting. But it wouldn’t be true to say that 100% acting is a characteristic of LARPs. Many LARPs require players to appeal to some kind of system in order to resolve certain things that simply can’t be acted out – combat being the obvious example, but there are plenty of others, varying by game. Even the highly-immersive Nordic school of LARPing frequently uses “metatechniques” like drawing a window to introduce an internal monologue – clearly not a direct  “in character” performance, but rather a theatrical technique to allow the player to portray a perspective that simply can’t be acted out directly. To my mind this isn’t so different from a tabletop player rolling a die to get their character to climb a wall – both are character-breaking mechanical techniques that allow players to introduce particular types of content that they can’t introduce while staying in character. The types of content differ between the two styles of play, sure, but the principle of breaking character to do it applies to both.

Describing a game as LARP or tabletop doesn’t really tell me very much about it. I’d rather simply know what proportion of the game time you expect players to spend acting in character. At one end this covers games like Microscope, another brilliant game but which tells the story of a world or a setting rather than a specific set of characters, and so most of it is developed through narration rather than in-character scenes. (In fact to my mind the acted-out scene mechanics are the weakest part of the game.) At the other end of the spectrum are games like When the Dark is Gone that aim to be 100% in-character once play starts – actually a very difficult goal to achieve outside of very specific game scenarios.

And once I know how much acting I’ll be doing, the next and more important question is: What will I be doing the rest of the time? Most roleplaying games include at least some time spent acting. What the designer chooses to include for the other, character-breaking, parts of the game is possibly the clearest indication of what they intend the game to really be about. Do they include rolling dice for physical actions I can’t directly perform? Must be an action-heavy game, then. Or are they including hand gestures to indicate internal monologues? Seems like that game will be psychological and introspective. If I’m considering playing your game, I don’t care if you call it a LARP or a tabletop game – I just want to know what the gameplay is about. (And, of course, whether I’ll be sitting down.)

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I don’t know if you’ve been following Vincent Baker’s posts on the object of a game (and a roleplaying game in particular). I’d recommend them. There’s a bunch, but this post and the next one are probably a good place to start.

I won’t link them all, but later there’s one about Recipes vs Games, which says this:

In a game, to get the object, you must contend with the rules.

A super easy example: in the Doomed Pilgrim game, your goal is to see me to my doom, but you can only answer my direct questions, so you may not be able to do it.

In a recipe, to get the object, you must follow the rules.

A super easy example: to make a PB&J, spread two slices of bread, one with PB, one with J, then press them together PB to J.

[Nom nom nom PB&J… But I digress.] I struggled to understand this. Mainly the phrase “contend with”; to me that suggests the rules make it less likely you’ll achieve the object – true for some games, of course, including Chess and Doomed Pilgrim, but not for games like Apocalypse World where the object is (as Vincent himself said) “to find out what the characters will make of their world”. In those games, the object’s given; the rules just make you do particular things to get it.

I asked him about this and he kindly posted his response, including the point:

It would be much, much easier for you to find out what my character Barbecue will make of his world if you could just ask me.

“Hey Vincent, what does Barbecue make of his world?”

“Oh! No sweat. He creates this oasis of normality amongst all the weirdness. He enforces it with good humor and violence only when it’s called for. Gradually his people become wealthy, and some of them set off to establish their own little oases after Barbecue’s model. It turns out that in the face of cheerful normality all the weirdness in the world breaks down, and doesn’t invade, and that creepy-ass metal-gnawing eyeless child was just a figment of his imagination after all. Ta da!”

But no. In Apocalypse World I don’t get to just tell you like that. You don’t get to just ask.

And I see his point. So in a sense the rules do make it “more difficult” for you to achieve the object – in that they make it a little more laborious. But they don’t make it less likely; you’re constantly achieving it, just not in the straightforward obvious way – which, of course, makes the outcome more interesting. You’re still gonna get from A to B, but the rules force you to take the scenic route. Even in win/lose games like Chess and Doomed Pilgrim, where the rules do make it less likely you’ll achieve the object, they do so to make the process more interesting.

So how about this restatement:

A recipe’s rules tell you the most efficient way to get the object.

A game’s rules tell you the most interesting way to get the object.

Thoughts?

I’ve been re-reading the clouds and dice series on lumpley.com. It’s a series of posts about how rules refer to fictional material and to real-world cues (like dice and character sheets). It’s a lot of material but I’d strongly recommend reading it if you’re interested in writing game rules that encourage good fiction.

I was reading part 6 – “Now where WAS I…”, especially the comment thread, when a couple of exciting questions hit me.

To summarise the context:

  • Mechanical effects that emerge from the fiction (“if you have the high ground [fiction], you get a +2 bonus [mechanics]”) help encourage good fiction because they mean the fiction matters – players have to create detailed fiction in order to use the mechanics effectively.
  • But being able to invent your own fictional bonus-producers whenever you want (“err, so, there’s probably a table, right? I jump on it for +2 high ground bonus”) can result in fictional details that are trivial and transient – only there for the bonus, not for the lasting effect – so that in fact the fiction no longer matters after all. (This is an effect I see – and dislike – in Dogs in the Vineyard, sometimes, although I think it is deliberate there in order to encourage escalation for bonuses. But I digress.)

So, ideally, we’d prevent players from creating fictional details on-the-fly just to get a bonus. My questions are:

  1. Can we enforce a system where players have to establish something a few “turns” before they use it?
  2. More interestingly, can we enforce that bonuses can only be taken for statements other people have made?

Note that both these questions are pre-empted by Vincent’s suggested mechanics in comment #43 on that thread (which I read after having the above light-bulb, but you’ll have to take my word for it). What I’m really wondering is can we make better mechanics than those somewhat simplistic teaching examples. In comment #46, Moreno suggests that point 2 is in fact mandated in Spione – I’d better check that out. I wonder if any other games do anything similar?

I think there’s a risk that unless your fictional detail is specifically angled toward someone else getting a bonus for it (e.g. “I provide covering fire”), then it may not be that usable for mechanical effects in most cases. Perhaps I’m being narrow-minded, though – I need to think about it some more. I think a bigger risk is that if such details can be used to get mechanical bonuses against you, then you might be encouraged not to provide them, which would be totally counter-productive. Hmm.

However, I’m particularly hot for Jesse Burneko’s comment #55 – it’s all about communication. By using such mechanics, players are encouraged to communicate effectively – both providing fictional input that has meaningful implications, and considering the implications of the fictional input provided by others.

I think we can rely on players to pay attention to others’ input in order to trigger mechanics (e.g. bonuses). My concern, though, is that it may not reliably get players to give that input in the first place. What encourages that, beside the hope that others will reciprocate for you?

Alright, enough theory. During my blogging hiatus a few tiny ideas have bubbled up in the cauldron of my brain, and some of them might turn into actual games. I thought I’d post them here in case anyone’s curious or has any thoughts to add.

These are all in very early stages of development – most are just nagging little thoughts that might never make the leap to being a real project. I’ve certainly no idea yet what insights they might show. But here they are.

CIC

This is the one I’ve thought about the most; a game that portrays the kind of military sci-fi seen in stuff like Battlestar Galactica, the Mass Effect series, some bits of Star Wars, maybe even a touch of Firefly. The stuff where there’s this big military operation going on, with all its tactics and plans and gunfire and “take cover!”, but what actually matters is the relationships and interactions between the people involved. (Alright that doesn’t matter that much in Mass Effect, but they’re trying.)

I think Apocalypse World will be a good model for this – it’s nice and simple, and its partial success rules fit perfectly with the “nothing ever goes smoothly” feel that is so prominent in the source material. With that in mind, I’ve adopted a “moves”-based pattern like AW, and I’ve started listing the moves I’m going to want for this game. In keeping with the military theme, I’ll probably need a slightly more detailed combat system than AW – but hopefully not too much so.

Horde

In my notes this game is literally no more than that single word: “Horde”. I guess it must have been just after I watched 28 Days Later for the first time (I know) over Christmas.

I think what I’m interested in here is mechanics that really make a story out of a zombie apocalypse. Can I make an endless sea of repetitive enemies into an engaging and ongoing plot? I guess I’ll have to look to films like that for my inspiration – if they can make a story out of it, then I’ll bet it’s possible to make a game that makes those stories.

Shadow

I came across Carl Jung’s concept of “the shadow” recently. Very (very!) roughly, the theory is that shortcomings and instincts that we consciously repress from our personalities linger in a “shadow” in our unconscious mind. This got me thinking.

I’ve barely read anything about it (yet), and the game is by no means meant to be an accurate representation of the theory, but I did think it would be interesting to have two different players playing different aspects of the same character – kind of like Sorcerer but where the demon is played by another player, not the GM. Obviously this could easily get frustrating; it might not make a workable game at all.

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

Some roleplaying games leave you tingling, walking home after sessions still immersed in the fiction you’ve been creating. The games that have done this for me most consistently have been those in contemporary horror settings where the GM has succeeded in producing a real sense of menace lurking round every corner.

… And I’d like to try my hand. The biggest challenge will be writing a system that actively contributes to the evil-is-everywhere mood. No clunky dice pools or sanity checks to get in the way here, please – just simple mechanics that allow the horror to emerge through play rather than being rated on a sheet. I’m quite intrigued by the Unknown Armies setting; while bits of it were absurd, a lot of it was interesting and its flavour text was often really sinister. So I’ll look at that for inspiration.

From little acorns…

So there’s a handful. There are a few other mini-ideas rattling around but until they’re a little clearer this lot will do. I’ve done a bit of work on CIC already, so more on that in future posts. Meanwhile, do drop me a comment if anything piques your interest.

I’m totally going to come back to that Drama Points thing sometime. But I have a lot of other things to say, so I think I’m going to drop it for a while and get back to it later.

The first thing: I’ve finally got round to editing my “here’s some RPG theory links” post into a proper reference page (with more links!), which can be found at:

The RPG Theory Primer

Take a look! There’s an awful lot of material there (and plenty more on the same sites) so book a week or two off work or something. There’ll be loads of stuff I missed – let me know if you have any recommendations!

Insert whiny excuse about life getting in the way of blogging here. Now let’s move on.

After much searching, I have found myself. Too pretentious? Yeah, I know. But in fact it’s actually been quite a relief. Hang on a second, I should probably give you some context…

I’ve been reading a load of articles about RPG design (see the last post for a selection), and one of the key concepts I’ve found useful was Ron Edwards’ three suggested Creative Agendas. (Agendae? I’m pretty sure Agenda is plural already, actually. Aaanyway.) The three agendas are the three (he suspects the only three) core reasons why people play a roleplaying game. They are as follows:

  • Gamism – “Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk”;
  • Narrativism – “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”;
  • Simulationism – “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements”.

The definitions – from the Forge Provisional Glossary – are by necessity quite broad; I’d strongly suggest reading the articles to get a better idea of what they mean. I had to read and re-read before I got it –

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. What I want most from roleplaying games is:

  • a realistic experience of being a person in a different world or situation to my own
  • provided that situation is interesting and/or exciting.

This confused me, because of the following sections from the Forge articles. Firstly, this about Narrativism:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme.

… and this about Simulationism:

The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.

What I read there was Simulationism is about presenting a realistic world (which fits perfectly with my first bullet), and that Narrativism is about producing a story. While a story should be interesting and/or exciting, and hence is related to my second bullet, to me it sounds like more than that – it sounds like a laborious and precise construction with three acts (maybe) and a conclusion and all that jazz. I’m not fussed about that – I just want my experience to be interesting.

Therefore I thought of myself as a Simulationist but a Simulationist who wants to simulate a world where the laws of drama apply, in order to keep things interesting. I was thrilled; I thought I’d discovered a new branch of Simulationism and was about to revolutionise RPG design. Unfortunately not. Something didn’t quite sit right with me – such as this example of “Simulationism overriding Narrativism”:

The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain’s bomb does blow up the city.

That seems totally wrong to me. So perhaps I wasn’t a Simulationist after all? I certainly think too much focus on realism can detract from the excitement. What to do?

Well, I read and I read and I read. I read about “El Dorado”, a term used to describe a game that (reliably) realistically simulates a situation but still produces a good story. And then I read this:

I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such “Vanilla Narrativism” is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as “Simulationist-by-habit,” exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.

That’s me. Right there. Hi, I’m Blackrat, and I’m a Narrativist.

I hadn’t understood that “story” in the context of these articles was a much broader concept than I’d picked up initially. I’d guess that’s why Ron Edwards changed the definition to the one at the top of this post, about addressing premise (rather than story). “Addressing Premise” is equivalent to my “making things interesting / exciting”, but much better defined – my version is meaningless and given meaning only by the reader’s personal taste :-)

A long way round to a simple conclusion. One thing I realised along the way, though, is that I want my Narrativism to be focussed on consistent in-character experience and reactions, not on creating the story out-of-character and then justifying it in-character. And that’s useful.

The next thing to do is to work out how to apply these aims to the system I’m (slowly) designing. So, next time, ACTUAL GAME DESIGN at last :-) I hope your patience hasn’t worn out yet…