: Mechanics and Flinching
Down here, Sydney Freedberg says:
Personally, I think my desire for "strategic" mechanics linking here-now to everything-eventually is about wanting the possibility of being hurt: I don't want to have a subjective decision as a circuit-breaker between "I do this thing here and now" and "as a consequence, I lose what I love most in the big picture." It's also about wanting the risk of hurt to be systematized and depersonalized: If the here-now linkage to everything-eventually is subjective (Drama, structured or un-), then the person making that subjective decision -- the GM in a traditional game, the whole group in Prime Time Adventures, my character's "underwriter" in the notional Ars Magica knockoff, whoever -- is really on the spot and likely to flinch away from the "unsafe" outcome, deciding not to hurt me for pure social-decency reasons even if I'd honestly prefer it.
Which is awesome.
Here's my thing.
Some roleplayers think that adversity is blocking. Throw adversity at them, they feel like you're blocking their creative input. Ask them to throw adversity at you, they won't do it.
But me, I have this character who I think is cool. I want to show off how cool she is and I want your help. What that means is, I want to show what she's made of and I want you to test her to breaking; I want you to do your worst and no screwing around. I want you to destroy her, tear her down, ruin her, shatter her, gut her - Sydney, if you're using "hurt" and "unsafe" to refer to this kind of passionate adversity, then I'm totally with you.
I want us as players to be cheering together as you ruthlessly, flinchlessly, hurt my character. A well-designed formal system makes that possible to a degree that friendship, collaboration, and an informal system probably can't ever touch.
So yeah, if that's what you're talking about, yeah.
But I wouldn't use "hurt" and "unsafe" to refer to that, myself. Delivering passionate adversity to my character is a loving, generous act; it's anti-unsafe, it's you living up to and going beyond your side of the bargain. Failing to do so is much more unsafe, socially, between us.
What's unsafe to me is ... something else. And it's something that I don't think can be made impersonal. I'm not sure I'd want it to be, if it could.
Like, consider the Shock: game about the vacuumorphs. Joshua and Ben conspired in play to confront me with a fact of my own personality; their contributions to the game made it into fiction that criticized who I am. It wasn't a safe thing for them to do. I might have been really hurt, I might have had to throw the game instead of going through with it. I didn't, but I was NOT cheering along with them.
I think that game mechanics can open the door for genuinely unsafe play. But I think it takes an act of will to step through, an act of will that is never systematic, always personal.
1. On 2006-03-22, Matt Wilson wrote:
Any game can do that latter thing that you're talking about, can't it? I mean, I can't think of games that prevent it.
But what PTA doesn't do, that Dogs I think does, is say, look, adversity is fun, because as a result you get to write neat new things on the sheet. And if I understand what Sydney is saying in the previous thread, it also applies to future conflicts the way he would like because you can take specific traits like "I'm really pissed off at Sebastian" 1d4* or whatever and then use them the next time there's a Lego-related conflict or whatever.
I really like the concept of 'when the character is screwed over, I get cookies.' Especially if -- and Dogs doesn't have this, I don't think, or does it? -- especially if there's a feedback loop. Like what if I'm the GM, and I provided adversity that allowed you to take that trait, and now when you use it, I get some kind of cool biscuit thing? It'd be like Fallout and Fan Mail combined. I guess Dogs has fallout for NPCs too, so that kinda works.
"But I wouldn't use "hurt" and "unsafe" to refer to that, myself. Delivering passionate adversity to my character is a loving, generous act; it's anti-unsafe, it's you living up to and going beyond your side of the bargain. Failing to do so is much more unsafe, socially, between us."
I find it interesting that I have heard these exact words used by folks into B&SM to describe the needed commitment to each other. I guess that Chris was onto something: http://bankuei.blogspot.com/2005/12/where-roleplaying-can-learn-from.html
I think that for a lot of players this degree of intensity in game, and this dedication to it, is something that requires a lot of focus and work. We're all so used to the difficult teen-years geek-trope mentality of supporting each other* that the idea that we should openly and honestly toss shit at each other is a difficult one to accept at first.
So, I think at that point that good rules for dealing out the adversity and pushing things to the limit can make good training wheels. I do not, as you, think that the outer limits of the issue should be systematized because they have to come out of the folks around the table with us. But I can also see Sydney's point in so far as it goes to training people with mechanics until they see that adversity and difficulty are not a bad thing.
*Outwardly, while using loopholes in the system to cut each others legs out from underneath each other.
I've seen fanmail push the story in the flinch-inducing direction despite individual quibbling. That's actually a neat thing about it--since everyone has say the group may take a more courageous leap than one might on their own.
Polaris makes you love the hurt, and gets you to invest in it since it lets you negotiate for what you want, too. It's full of additive adversity, mostly. But the brutal nature of the game can get watered down if you wander from the mechanics and get caught in informal negotiation.
It's hard not to use the word hurt here, but what I'm meaning by it is the first sense, not the second, definitely. Hurt to the character, not to the player.
I cross-posted with you Brand. You wrote: I do not, as you, think that the outer limits of the issue should be systematized because they have to come out of the folks around the table with us. But I can also see Sydney's point in so far as it goes to training people with mechanics until they see that adversity and difficulty are not a bad thing.
What do you mean by outer limits?
And have you experienced in play people coming to internalize dishing out adversity & then being able to do so to one another outside of formal structures, reliably and uniformly?
By outer limits I mean things like Vincent's "Joshua and Ben conspired in play to confront me with a fact of my own personality; their contributions to the game made it into fiction that criticized who I am."
That's pretty extreme. (Though his recounting of the linked AP is less harsh than he makes it sound above. I'd love to hear more detail there, actually.) I'd also wonder about Ben and Clinton's aforementioned Dog's game.
Anything in which you are commenting on the other player as a person (directly) rather than on the story or situation is right up to the edge of what I'm going to go with in RPGs.
As for the second issue: Yes, but not in games. I have, in dojos, controlled therapy sessions, and ritual spaces seen people learn to deal with issues by using a formalized (and often externally imposed) system of interactions who over time became able to deal with things without that system.
Matt: "Any game can do that latter thing that you're talking about, can't it? I mean, I can't think of games that prevent it."
Oh, I can think of lots. To prevent it - and I'm talking exclusively about narrativist games, of course - to prevent it, all you have to do is make sure that I get to decide what my character's about. Any game that protects my ability to do that, protects me from the kind of unsafety that existed in that Shock: game.
So like, it's a narrativist game and my character's a protagonist, so guaranteed my character is about something. My character makes a moral statement. But does the game make me the sole decider of the moral statement my character makes, or does it make me share with the other players? If the latter, how level is the field - do I have more say than they do, or the same say, or less say?
If the game gives me more power than my fellow players over the moral statement my character makes, then it's a safer game for me to play. As my power over my character's moral statement declines, my friends have increasing opportunity to make the game's fiction challenge me.
That game was hot. It's a big example in the game text now.
Now, the funny thing about that situation was that it seemed like where we were all going at the time. I wasn't, like, "Oo! I'll push Vincent's buttons!" I mean, not exceptionally. We were playing an RPG together, so it was bound to happen. But I just thought it was a neat idea at the time that your enemy (remember, you chose your antagonist to be the priest!) would have his whole, own bag going on with religion. I like recursive stories, I think; "As we are to Cthulhu, Cthulhu is to..."
I loved that Ben and I were just putting pieces on the table and you built something with them.
Now, the thing is, you'd told us to make that story. Your antagonist was a priest who told lies about a stupid, made-up religion. He's a liar! that means that what he's saying is related to what he actually thinks, but not in a predictable way. It was our job to make the problem interesting. You told us what you wanted to talk about.
I don't think it's a great word to describe a GM (or other author-of-adversity) not pulling the trigger on adversity.
There are lots of reasons one might not pull a trigger. And "he flinched" doesn't cover the variety of reasons well. For example, "he couldn't even find the trigger" is common.
I think Flinching is a much better word to describe when a Player doesn't react to the adversity in the gung-ho "gimmie more!" way that Sydney & Vincent do:
I played with a woman who played a Thief in her very-first rpg experience. When we switched to Dogs, she played a thief again. She really, really wanted to explore that guise. But she would have been crushed if her thief had been caught, punished, killed. "Normal" amounts of adversity made her flinch. Literally flinch.
I should mention that her father was a prominent white-collar criminal who hid embezzled money in her name when she was a kid, unbeknownst to her. When the Feds came, they treated her as a full accomplice; despite her obvious youth. They came to her school & took her away in front of everyone. Utterly traumatic. And she still has holocaust-nightmares about gestapo-types taking her away.
I think that biographic detail sheds much light on her flinching, and why she chose to play a thief. I think that just chosing to play a thief at-all was her serious attempt to confront her personal issues, limits. Sure she has issues. Ron Edwards would say she's "brain damaged". Vincent would say she's "not safe here". But I think they'd both be wrong to diagnose folks like her as clueless about the role of adversity in good narrative. I think she's an expert in adversity, like a drowning man's an expert about water.
I was raised to not respect flinching. If I wanted to give someone something that I KNEW was a "loving, generous" gift/ and if they flinched/ I was taught to bulldoze right over the social contract & Impose the gift on them, For Their Own Good, until they learned to apprecitate it.
This flaw is mine, not Vincent's or Ron's or yours. But it's the reason that -I- flinch, when Forgeites write things that smack of My Way Is The Only Way.
Now, Ron & Vincent & you have rpg'd with many times more people than I have. So they may have run into players who are allergic to adversity in ways which I haven't seen.
But when I see a player flinching from receiving adversity, I fault the game; not the player. I choose to conclude that the game is lacking because it isn't tailored to the amount of adversity the player can handle. I don't pathologize the player as not being good-enough for the game.
If I didn't empathize enough with my thief-friend's cautiousness, then I'd find playing with her to be frustrating. But because I do empathize with her quite a bit, I find each of her baby-steps to be electric. All the ways she plays wrong just make it more satisfying when she is able to do it right. That's true of everyone I play with. We all have our limits, our top speeds.
Thanks Vincent & Ron for making games that can dish out as much adversity as a gung-ho player can handle. But not every player in the slow lane is a brain damaged lamer. It's a mistake to generalize.
RE go "Too quick on the trigger"*
Curly go "I thought your essay was clear"*
RE go "Nope - no deal"*
Fucked if I know. If you were to ask me, I'd say that the one pathologizing your friend is you. I didn't say that her ability to deal with adversity in roleplaying was traumatized by her crappy dad, for instance.
Want to talk about when hard adversity is a loving gift and when it's bullying? I'm right there. That's a great topic, it matters a lot, it's something we all deal with, and it's absolutely the kind of thing that concerns me as a game designer and as a friend.
It would have been better to say that the 'Dynamic' part of Dynamic Conflict of Interest-- is a matter of taste.
And that Flinching (as I used the term) is a sign that the fiction is Too Dynamic, too fast, for a particular player.
Which, yes, brings us to the question of what to do about different appetite-levels for Dynamic Conflict. Slow down the game, or drag the slow player along. What's bullying, what isn't?
But please don't deny that you pathologize static fiction that just stews in its own juices, finding no new equillibrium. You do. You judge that fun. So does Ron Edwards.
Whereas, I don't have as much problem with that kind of fiction. (Andy Warhol movies where 'nothing happens', Burroughs rejection of the notion of character development, Kerouac's 'snapshot' writing technique, that imitated the static tension of Japanese poetry. Post-modernism. A thief who doesn't do anything.)
You do not need to defend static fiction from me. I am no threat to post-modernism. It's really okay.
Please find a way to reframe what you're trying to communicate, without the defensiveness. I'd like to hear it. If it's about game mechanics, passionate adversity vs. bullying, and/or pulling your punches, this is a fine thread to post it in. If it's about something else, like whether Burroughs' fiction counts as thematic, please post it in Ask a Frequent Question.
And please leave Ron Edwards out of it. He's a guest here same as you; if you have a problem with him, you should take it to him, not to me.
I'm not here to bait you into pet debates about Ron Edwards, post-modernism, or anything else.
I think I've said as-much previously. But I can see why you'd suspect otherwise: Static theme smells suspiciously like Simulationism. 'Brain damage' is a third rail. The story about my thief-friend was waaay too provocative.
Please understand that I spend many hours composing my reactions using this comment form on your site. And more often than not, I give up without hitting the Submit button at all. I don't quite get why my comments tend to come across as abrasive rather than constructive.
If I could make a better impression, I really would. Not just on this forum. But the more I focus on how to bridge the conceptual gaps between myself & others/ the more I find myself focussing on the differences between us. ("Vincent doesn't like Starship Troopers. That's nuts!") And those differences are probably then over-emphasized in my comments. At least that's the hypothesis I arrived at while typing this. Thanks for the insight. Sorry for the tsoris.
Yep, they're in DC. We hung out at the Zoo! Coolness.
1. Hurting me
Having sparked this thing, I wanted to wrest the topic back round to something Vincent asked me about how I'm using "hurt" and "unsafe," particularly in reference to:
"I want us as players to be cheering together as you ruthlessly, flinchlessly, hurt my character...But I wouldn't use "hurt" and "unsafe" to refer to that....What's unsafe to me is [for example, when] Joshua and Ben conspired in play to confront me with a fact of my own personality; their contributions to the game made it into fiction that criticized who I am. It wasn't a safe thing for them to do. I might have been really hurt, I might have had to throw the game instead of going through with it. I didn't, but I was NOT cheering along with them."
I think my own experiences with Whatever This Thing Is have been in the borderland between "hurting my character" and "criticized who I am." I'm thinking of incidents where I really, really wanted "my character" to develop one way, and someone else -- Tony Lower-Basch, actually, every time -- said, "Nope, your character's not like that" and confronted me with something else.
In each case, I flinched before accepting (surrendering to?) Tony's idea: I had stomach-flipping, adrenaline-releasing "you can't do that!" moments before I let go -- and of course, once I let go, it was supremely cool.
"Hurt my character"? It was more than that. "Criticize me as a person"? Well, I'm not sure quite what Tony was thinking, actually, but in each case, after the game, the experience led me to criticize myself as a person.
In one case, in our longrunning Capes game, I was playing my typical brooding heroine, Doomed To Suffer, and suddenly Tony forced her face-to-face with the possiblity of escape -- absolution, even. I fought with everything the system gave me to hang on to her doomedness before I realized that the dice were not with me, the third player (Eric) wasn't with me, and that I needed to stop punishing my (surrogate) self and let other people give her a chance... something I, in my real life, have spent decades struggling to do: "If you take away my pain, there's nothing left of who I am!" I responded, out of a lifetime of training; and Tony went, "Really? Let's find out!"
Second case, same campaign, different character, either the session before or the session after: My attempt to play a noble, heroic straight arrow -- a male character even -- except he ended up being a controlling dorkwad to all the other protagonists. Okay, I thought, I got it, I'll reform him, have him let go, and make him a true hero . And Tony and Eric essentially said, "No, he's not doing that, he's still an asshole" -- and backed it up with system-enforced stuff that didn't even give me a chance to roll dice to avoid the intentions they imputed to my character. After, I realized I'd been asking, out of my own life, "so if I try to control people, but I really do like them, I'm a good guy, right?" -- and gotten a resounding, "no!"
Third case (last one, I promise): Our Prime Time Adventures game, with me playing a dishonorably discharged military officer (female, of course). Her Issue was "honor," and my spotlight episode was full of flashbacks to discover what she'd actually done. And I had some ideas for her trangressions, all about her failing to do the right thing according to her military code of honor. But Tony kept pushing and pushing the character into situations where no course of action was honorable, where there was no good choice: Ultimately we found out that my character's unit had been mobbed by angry refugees, mostly women and children, and she'd given the order to open fire rather than be torn apart. I'd been asking the question, "how can I be a good person? How can I choose right?" and gotten the answer, "sometimes, you can't."
Here's the thing: In the two Capes examples, the conflict system gave Tony the power to force the change in my character on me, and he used it. In the Prime Time Adventures game, he didn't have that power and we were simply brainstorming together -- at least, not the way we interpreted the rules -- but I had trained myself to trust Tony and rode out my flinch reaction to say, "yes, that happens."
When another player who didn't have that rapport with Tony disagreed with him on something, though, the game seized up because PTA's system didn't give either a lever to impose his or her will on the other. Tony and the other player were on the spot, unwilling to back off their desired outcomes but unwilling to hurt the other person by taking away their outcome, either -- until Tony gave. But that was not a decision channeled by the system, and it was at least a little painful for him.
So the parts of PTA that make it "safe" and help avoid "hurt" -- that everyone brainstorms together, that no one can impose an answer on anyone else -- were the very things that let us bog down in the disagreement with nothing in the written system to extricate ourselves. We were faced with a choice between "I hurt you to get what I want" and "I will let myself be hurt to save the larger endeavor." The safety factors, in the end, guaranteed hurt.
Awesome cases, Sydney. As if I didn't know already, Tony rocks!
When another player who didn't have that rapport with Tony disagreed with him on something, though, the game seized up because PTA's system didn't give either a lever to impose his or her will on the other.
I've seen this happen a couple times with PtA. When we were able to "bring it to the mechanics", it worked out.
Just last weekend I hit this with someone else's view of my character. I wanted to like what she saw in it (for my slayer vampire to truly be ee-vil), but my heart wasn't in it, and was having a hard time playing her that way. So instead of half-heartedly doing what she wanted, I brought my unwillingness in. It was her spotlight episode, so towards the end of the session there was a chance for her to save a young P.I.B. who had befriended her, and I put myself on the side of saving her, and Meg (the gm) and the other player--and everyone else playing : )--put themselves on the other side. So my character gave in to the dark side, but I felt good that I'd put all I had in to my interpretation. It just wasn't in the cards.
Somehow, that is sooo much better than having someone else say "do it this way" it takes the implicit "because your ideas sucks" right out of it. It felt good, too, to really own my side of the issue. That was what I wanted damn it! And I lost fair and square.
ecb go "that is, it was my character's spotlight"
SF go "Yes, Tony LB rocks"*
When Tony and the other player were deadlocked, my first, instinctive response was to say, "Well, that can be resolved by the stakes." And everyone just looked at me funny.
I can see why, though: We had gotten used to collaborative brainstorming on the "agenda" for the episode -- the things we wanted to make sure happened -- and then the agenda for each scene, and then the stakes for each conflict, and only then engaging the conflict resolution mechanics. Which worked damned well most of the time, actually.
Now, I'm not sure if this is the way you're supposed to play Prime Time Adventures or not, but I do know it let us get stuck in that "destructive pre-play" phenomenon that's been talked about.
Matt (Wilson, obviously), if you're reading along, can you set us straight on whether we "drifted" away from the game you designed?
SF go "Not threadjacking, really"*
BL go "Canon PTA works a little differently..."*
SF go "Aha - tricky"*
BL go "Especially because..."*
So it's DaddyCon a couple of months ago. We're sitting down to play PTA about bootleggers (somebody who can still search the Forge forums from work, find "Quicksilver" and pop a link in marginalia, please?). It's me, Joshua, Clinton, Judd, and my local friend Tony Page. We've listed a bunch of characters we want in the show and we're talking about who'll play whom and what'll their issues be.
Clinton says that a) he's going to play the cop, b) the cop's gay, and c) the cop's lover is Tony's character the driver. I get all bouncy in my seat. I'm like, "yeah! and I'm going to play the boss' daughter! And I'm Tony's character the driver's girlfriend." And everybody's like, oh fuck.
There's me creating adversity for Clinton's and Tony's characters. If I'd flinched instead, maybe I would've said "...and I'm in love with Tony's character the driver," offering the adversity if they want it but not, y'know, making it be. I'd've respected their ownership of their characters and not impinged on their vision blah blah blah.
So that's my baseline for flinching - flinching prevents you, as a player, from doing what's called for.
Now on top of that we have these two levels of unsafety. Shuddering is all about perceiving the genuine unsafety of personal contact with challenging subject matter, right, so flinching away from THAT unsafety would be, for instance, White Wolf's denial and adolescent bogosity you talk about. You flinch to protect yourself from whatever it is made you shudder.