2005-01-21 : Archive 160

Quite out of the blue and absolutely positively with no provocation whatsoever, Matt Wilson says to me:

Post on your blog about these non-person-to-person conflicts and why they're stupid. I am ready to disagree. "Can I climb the wall?" Maybe stupid. "Can I believe in myself?" Not stupid, but not necessarily person-to-person.

Am I allowed to just take on your examples, Matt, or do I have to state my position clearly?

I bet you ten dollars: in the wild, "can I believe in myself?" is either a) a conflict with a person who has something to lose if you do believe in yourself, or else b) stupid.

1. On 2005-01-21, Matt said:

You can - and please do - use whatever means necessary to state your position. Those were just me saying "I don't think X is stupid." Half the conflicts I can think of for any given Primetime Adventures show would be having to do with a single person and some sort of stamina conflict.

Consider: Charlie, heroin addict on "Lost."

And thanks for granting my wish!


2. On 2005-01-21, Ninja Hunter J said:

I haven't seen Lost, but here are conflicts I've seen come up PTA, listed with their quality as elements of the story.

- Does Calla get any useful information out of the little girl? (grade: D. What the conflict did was make dead air. It's not an F because something good comes out of it if Calla wins, but if she loses, the story just skips a beat.)

- Do Alex and Buck kill enough bandits to scare them off before they kill any of the cowboys (Alex and Buck's friends)? (Grade: A. If they succeed, hooray for them! If they fail, they've got issues of duty and responsibility to deal with - it adds story.)

- Does Buck get free of the ropes tying him to the chair? (grade: C. If he doesn't, well, the story just didn't go anywhere this round, other than having a scene with Buck struggling.)

- Does Buck get free before the guards come back? (grade: A. It's about his relationship with the guards. Untying the ropes is irrelevant; what's relevant is what they'll do to him when they get back, including his fear of it.)

- Does Calla discover if there's poison in the tea? (Grade: F. What, if she doesn't, everyone dies mysteriously? How stupid is that? Or it's not poison, and she's being suddenly paranoid?)

- Does Calla discover that Fawn, their trusted comrade, has been poisoning all of them as part of a vision-inducing ritual? (Grade: A+! Man, I'm glad I changed that conflict. That way, there was a conflict between characters, not Calla and her otherwise unimpeachable understanding of chemistry).

I really, really want Matt to come up with some good reason that fighting against the encroaching snowstorm isn't really a story about the character's resolve. And if it's resolve, what is the resolve for? If it's resolve just to get across the desert in a snowstorm at the beginning of the story, that's exposition and shouldn't be a conflict. If it's because someone sent you out there to die, it's between you and them, with the snowstorm being a weapon they're wielding.


3. On 2005-01-22, Matt said:

Hey, uh, Ninja:

Your examples are all purely plot driven. What about character stuff, which is equally as important, if not moreso?

Can Preston get over his self hate in order to be at his friend's side when she's sad?

Either outcome is fuel for future episodes.


4. On 2005-01-22, Ghoul said:

re: Charlie on Lost, I consider it interesting that, while I agree the primary conflict was Charlie's Will vs. Charlie's Addiction, the writers staged it on the show as Charlie's Addiction vs. Locke's unyielding promise ("You will ask me three times, and the third time I will give them to you.").

That would argue (though I'm not sure I agree with it stated this absolutely) that, while the conflict is person vs. non-person, it is improved in presentation by externalizing it into person-vs-person.


5. On 2005-01-22, Vincent said:

I haven't seen Lost. What's at stake? Charlie's life? What else?


6. On 2005-01-22, Matt said:

The grounds of this whole discussion seem to be that everything related to character growth can be measured or perceived externally, as in via the wants of friends or opponents. But that's not something I personally agree with. To suggest that character growth is only valuable to the story in how other people benefit or suffer is kinda sucky.

I will accept that character vs. self may not interest many people without interpreting some tangible effect on the environment, but I'm not going to accept that it's stupid otherwise.


7. On 2005-01-22, Vincent said:

Matt: "To suggest that character growth is only valuable to the story in how other people benefit or suffer is kinda sucky."

Well, no, that's not really what I mean, and serves me right for not stating my position, huh?

I'm thinking of David in season 1 of Six Feet Under (which is all I've seen). We want him to come to terms with being gay for his own benefit, not because it'll be good and/or bad for the people around him. But it's the goodness and/or badness for the people around him that creates the conflict - without that, he'd just do whatever he wants.

I may be out ten bucks at the end of this conversation!


8. On 2005-01-22, C. Edwards said:

Was it Martin Luther King Jr. that said something like "I can't be the person I need to be until you become the person you need to be, and you can't be the person you need to be until I become the person I need to be."?

I believe that internal conflicts do have an effect on our environment, those around us. But regardless of that, while I do think that you can get by with non-person-to-person conflicts in an rpg (or movie, t.v. show, novel, etc.), I think that the conflict becomes exponentially more interesting and engaging if it is contrasted against another active agent in the game. It is also more likely to produce a reinforcing feedback loop that promotes even more conflict in the game.


9. On 2005-01-23, Matt said:

Hey V:

I disagree with that too. The way I see it, David's whole gay thing really boils down to self hate and his struggle to conquer it. Meanwhile, there's nobody on the show giving him anything but support. Who do we see that benefits from him continuing to hate himself? Who has a stake in that that has any meaningful role on the show?


10. On 2005-01-23, Vincent said:

...Yeah, okay. That makes sense.

Too bad we aren't going to be in the same place at the same time ever next weekend. I'd make good over dinner.


11. On 2005-01-23, Ninja Hunter J said:

I had a whole big post, but Matt's last post irrelevanted it.

So, what happens if he succeeds or fails at the internal conflict?

Success: he overcomes his self-hatred and learns to confront the world without feeling like he's doing wrong.

Failure: His self-hatred overcomes him and prevents him from doing something that, presumably, had to do with the plot and the development of his character.

This sounds good.

... does what you're talking about include the "do you get through the storm in time?" conflict?


12. On 2005-01-24, Amnesty for Ninjas said:

The storm, well, meh, I'm not a big Jack London fan, so the whole "braving the elements" thing isn't so interesting to me regardless. However, you could just as easily put David out in the woods and have a corpse tell him that he's better off just dying out there.

Some therapists would say that any loud criticizing voice that really rings true is only doing so because it amplifies an inner voice telling you the same thing. So if the character imagines his dad saying "you're a lousy boy scout," the conflict isn't really about his dad. It's about what he really believes.

Then again, roleplaying is no place for feelings. Let's talk about the equipment list for V's skiffy game. How much damage do proton blasters do?



13. On 2005-01-24, Neel said:

If you look at transcripts from black-box recorders of crashed planes, you usually don't see much inter-personal conflict, or even much in the way of emotion influencing decision-making. The pilot and co-pilot are usually trying one thing after another, and one fails they go on to the next thing that might work, and they keep going down the list until the plane hits the ground and their dialogue stops in mid-sentence.

These things are utterly gripping, and it basically as pure a "can I climb the wall?" thing as you can get.


14. On 2005-01-24, C. Edwards said:

I guess I've been misunderstanding the "can I climb the wall?" example.

The reason the black-box recording is gripping is due to context, what's at stake. In my head I've been using the "can I climb the wall?" example as the default for fruitless resolution mechanic use that doesn't contribute anything to the interplay of drama during play.

Does the black-box recording type of situation become more engaging or is it more likely to promote continuing and interesting conflict if it goes beyond a check of pilot skill? If it revolved around the pilots' resolve or desire to see their family's again would the conflict be likely to result in more dramatically fulfilling play?

Given the proper situation, I have no doubt that the "can I climb the wall?" is thoroughly gripping. But does it serve to reinforce and propogate a continuing dramatic dynamic during play? Does it result in more potential dramatic conflict than the sum of its parts would indicate?


15. On 2005-01-24, Ninja Hunter J said:

A ninja named Matt said,

'The storm, well, meh, I'm not a big Jack London fan, so the whole "braving the elements" thing isn't so interesting to me regardless. However, you could just as easily put David out in the woods and have a corpse tell him that he's better off just dying out there.'

... well, the thing here is, why does he feel this self-hatred? It didn't magically appear in his psyche. There's somebody - probably lots of somebodies - who have impressed their hatred on him and he's internalized it.

What I'm talking about with the storm is where the storm won't kill him; his loss of resolve will. If he gives up, the storm will kill him. It's a large-scale wall-climbing problem, really. The point is that no one is making the storm happen (in this example), no one put him there, he didn't even know the storm was coming up. You know, the kind of crap that happens in real life but only occasionally in fiction.

How would you build a character with this kind of issue in PTA?

Issue: "I don't know if I have the courage."?Trait: "I'm afraid of my own potential."?

(This whole discussion is superinteresting to me because it shows how mechanics can actually effect the psychology of the characters. It also shows how psychological RPGs are at their best.)


16. On 2005-01-24, Matt, unemployed and full of free time, said:

You can trace many issues back to core concepts like self hate or self doubt. For the sake of accessible stories, you'll probably want to go up one level, putting a specific face on the issue. With David, it's all about self hate, but the focus is accepting that specific part of himself.

It's kind of hard for me, though, to build a PtA character backwards, thinking of a scene and then an issue that would work well for it. Much easier to go the other direction.


17. On 2005-01-25, Neel said:

C. Edwards wrote:

Does the black-box recording type of situation become more engaging or is it more likely to promote continuing and interesting conflict if it goes beyond a check of pilot skill? If it revolved around the pilots' resolve or desire to see their family's again would the conflict be likely to result in more dramatically fulfilling play?

I think the answer to all of these questions is normally "no, not in the slightest." If the pilot screws up, then he or she will die. Learning about the pilots' love of their families doesn't change the conflict in the slightest, because it's not going to change how they respond, and to suggest that it will takes us into bad movie-of-the-week pop psychology.

When I LARP'd with the MIT Assassin's Guild, there was a common problem in scenario design called "plot trumping". So, you'd have a scenario and characters in wonderful conflicts—two women in love with the same man, KGB and CIA assassins playing a deadly game of cat and mouse, and so on. Then you'd have some cultists trying to summon Cthulhu and destroy the world. And when the players found out about this, everyone would put their own priorities on hold while they cooperated to stop the cultists from blowing up the world. Saving the world trumped every other plot, because all those other conflicts presupposed the existence of the world.

Likewise, all that family stuff is trumped by the plane crashing, because you've got to land the plane to hug your kids. Trying to throw it into a game just gilds the lily—it's almost always irrelevant detail, and adding it just makes the narrator look histrionic.

I say "almost always", because it is possible to add personal detail that is useful. But this is always going to be stuff that works against the desire to live. For example, in a crashing airplane scenario, the pilot's family love is useless, unless you know that the family is deep in debt and that the pilot has a very large life insurance policy. This moves you into radically different thematic territory, though, and as such is not always a good idea.


18. On 2005-01-28, C. Edwards said:


What about games where the mechanics of a character's success are, or can be, based upon internal processes or emotional connections? To use a simple example, the plane crashing scenario played out with The Pool could look radically different than if it was played out with GURPS. The only applicable traits the pilot character might have in The Pool would be those that lead to the "bad movie-of-the-week pop psychology".

While I think that the thematic territory you propose in your last paragraph is a great deal more engaging, the "bad movie-of-the-week" stuff has its own audience of significant size. Soap operas, sit-coms, pulp romance novels, they all tend to ooze thematic mundanity. They're also quite popular and not going away anytime soon.

I would say that many people find a situation more rewarding with a character's emotional issues in play than otherwise, regardless of the stakes of the conflict. Those issues serve to enhance, to magnify the importance of what is at stake.