2005-11-14 : Dangerousness

Long and Short, that's where the discussion should be, but here's Charles cutting to the heart of the other question:

As you've upped your play of short games, has your play of the onrunning notArs Magica game become more or less frequent? Has the play during those sessions become more powerful or less powerful?

I don't have a sense of more or less frequent - less, I'm sure, but not super less, and certainly it's not all on the head of the other games we play. But powerful - there you're onto it, and it's why I said "dangerous" to Kip, not something neutral like "difficult."

Our notArs Magica game has become more powerful. FAR more powerful. But less fulfilling too.

No, it's not at all the case that taking the time away from it to play Forge games has taken away our time and investment. However much time we've taken away, what we've learned has more than made up for it. Our game has absolutely profitted, in terms of power and our engagement, from our other play, from our theorizing, and from our design work.

But it surely does suffer by comparison.

1. On 2005-11-15, Chris said:

Hi Vincent,

Could you elaborate what you mean by more powerful but less fulfilling?  Is it less fulfilling because of the rules/lack of rules compared to the other games you're playing, or am I missing something here?


2. On 2005-11-15, Vincent said:

It's less fulfilling because we've seen more clearly how much potential roleplaying has. It fulfills more of its potential - it's more powerful - than ever, but it still falls short of what we've seen well-designed games do.

(I should maybe emphasize here that I'm the one who feels this most, of the three of us.)


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This makes...
Chris go "Ok- gotcha."

3. On 2005-11-16, Charles said:

I know the feeling. Even just from doing theory, not from playing the games well designed off of theory, I feel that the games I play are using system that is not optimally designed and I wish they worked better (were better designed).

However, optimizing really big things is really, really hard (and I haven't even played around with optimizing small games), and optimizing things in progress is even harder, so we both continue playing our respective really big thing games in unoptimized form. :(

Interesting to hear that less frequently hasn't meant less powerful.

I promise I'll write more sometimes soon, this outbreak of discussion has happened to correspond with my work being crazy busy.


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This makes...
MDS go "Optimization would not be easy"*
CS go "system v mechanics"*
MDS go "Shhh..."*
KM go "Fiat?"*
MDS go "Shhh..."*

*click in for more

4. On 2005-11-17, Vincent said:

Kip: ...and anyway we're supposed to be keeping these to one sentence long, so.

You may not realize it, Charles Matt and Kip, but we're all following your conversation here closely and with interest. It applies to us too! We all struggle with the exact same issues, and lord do I mean the exact same issues.

So please use the comments! Make yourself at home. It'll be easier for us to participate that way.


5. On 2005-11-18, Kip Manley said:

Okay, fine, so I was mostly making a joke with that postscript, but I'm finding I do need to hash this stuff out, and in public's as good a place as any, right?


The game is Ars Magica, except all we really use is the kernel of the Order and the noun-verb magic system. The character is my mage, Perdix.

What was known before:

M124 (the 124th mage in House Manere, our Tremere/Tytalus analog) is the student of M72, who also taught the named magi Ostyea (M103) and Familicus Lupus (M128a). M72 teaches at Bethelion, the university covenant in the city of Evasendia. M124 was the loreat (valedictorian) of the class of 413, and did not join a covenant upon graduation, but remained a "hermit" in the city of Evasendia, becoming the nucleus of an urbane circle of magi and students known as the New Cosmopolitans. —All that was already noted in the various notecards and histories that have gone into the database of magi.

I also knew I was creating a character who'd end up moving to Gaetan, the southernmost back-of-beyond, to help a rather motley band of magi rebuild an ancient covenant overlooking a simmering former warzone.

And I knew I wanted to play something of a tragic figure, or at least tragicomic; I settled on twins, one a mage, one not, and the horrible accident that happened when the mage tried to do something never done before, and bond another person, their twin, as their familiar, leaving them as one personality, one sentience, with two bodies.

(Actually, that's sort of backwards: I knew I was creating someone for a game outlined in point two; I had point three in mind; I found point one by combing the mage lists looking for the right combination of age, smarts, and background. So.)

In terms of the rules and structure of our game, I'd followed them by selecting a "node," a specific entry in the mage lists, and doing my best to fit my concept to it without violating what was already known—and doing some explaining and fleshing out along the way. (Naming M72, for instance, and figuring out a bit about her character and place in Order and House politics, which helped with the two previously named background mages, rippling und so weiter.)

Also, in terms of the rules and structure of our game, I'd made a stab at figuring out where my mage stood in terms of the various intellectual and political currents swirling through the Order here and now. This isn't nearly so quantified or quantifiable as picking a node. Because Perdix was the instigator of the New Cosmopolitans, urbane, fond of intellectual salons, I decided politically they fell in with the plenilunials: liberal, egalitarian, etc.; magically, they were conservative: in the essentialist tradition (our term for anyone who studies the five verbs; like elementalist, for anyone who studies the five elements). (Also, that their sigil would be the sound of bells: when they cast magic, somehow, somewhere, a bell rings.) —Because of the urbanity and the parties and the love unversity-types have for epatering le bourgeois, I figured Perdix would be into Dawnish style: lovely vaguely Middle Eastern stuff from the sophisticated but diabolic trading cities to the north. But I figured the accident would have left them confused and muddled (of course) and clinging to the redemptive grace of the church.

(You can perhaps see a theme. Still not entirely sure where the living-in-a-dollhouse thing comes in, though. Actually, I've got a pretty good idea, but let's leave that alone for now.)

The last thing I needed to begin play was a voice; it's not so much that I speak in funny accents (though I do, sometimes) as it is that I need to be able to feel how the character speaks so I can put myself there and, well. For Perdix: druggy, distracted, prone to fluster, with shifts from one set of vocal chords to the other, and the occasional gestures at overlapping and interrupting dialogue.

What I didn't have: hard numbers as to their scores in the 5 verbs and 10 nouns, or a list of spells known.

After a couple of sessions, I did want to have a better idea of what they'd studied, and when—I knew they knew enough to have created an apartment in a steamer trunk that shrinks anyone who steps inside to about a foot high; I knew they'd enchanted a clapperless bell and a pair of farspeaking mirrors as an apprentice. So I sat down with the (4th ed.) book and did a year-by-year approach to apprenticeship, figuring out how much a brilliant theory-mad student would have learned who could slack off on learning spells by fudging spontaneous effects. But I haven't carried the year-by-year past graduation, to figure out what they've learned in the 12 years since. But I did figure out something more important: the underlying metaphor of how their magic works: they have to in some small way open up to or surrender to or take in part of something to then be able to affect it. (Metaphorically. More an approach or a style than at all or ever a mechanic.)

—A side note: Charles proposed picking other people to "run" your magic; another player supplying the effects you're trying to cause; another specific person to ratify or block your fiat. We haven't systematized it to that extent—no one's explicitly picked anyone else to always play that role for them, but we are a little more conscious of doing that sort of thing when magic's in play.

But! Here's the thing. What's been done so far has been fine as far as it goes. But I still don't have a clear idea of how, exactly, being this steeped in magic theory affects what they do from day to day. (They don't travel in clouds of birds, say.) They've been in a depressed funk most of the time, lounging about stoned, obsessively fiddling with their toy castle, getting into political arguments, and somehow collecting a lapsed local and a dangerously troublesome apprentice—okay, they've been busy, but they haven't been trying to be busy. Playing the lexicon game (a side game, in which we're writing up the books in the covenant's library) has helped me build up more of an idea of the literary and philosophical world they're moving in, so that's good as far as it goes.

But here's the real thing, the specific trigger: they've acquired an apprentice almost entirely by accident, and this apprentice comes with all sorts of nasty baggage, including an all-powerful Monkey-antagonist who only (so far) appears in dreams. (The apprentice, Ilba, is played by Dylan; the Monkey, by Barry.)

  • Barry wants to play an imposing, frightening figure, not easily dismissed or blocked;
  • Dylan wants to learn the group and the game, invest in the situation, prepare for her own mage character, and torment Perdix;
  • I want to (slowly) draw Perdix out of the shell they've been in since the incident.

So when the Monkey appears in Perdix' dreams, and draws Ilba in, for a "conversation," what happens?

The Monkey appears first in the dreams of Perdix' lapsed henchman, played by Charles, and demonstrates his power in an off-hand fashion by taking the henchman out of play. He then appears in Perdix' dreams, asking me what they're dreaming and then inserting himself into the flow, then summoning Ilba. Perdix and Ilba are sleeping in the trunk-apartment, which is warded, and, it's been established, against dream-intrusions; Barry deals with this with a compliment from the Monkey as to how hard it was to get in. I point out that Perdix is very strong with rego, which is what you need to kick things out; in an earlier session, they rather off-handedly banished a large incursion of the local shadow monsters (irritated, still half-asleep). Charles immediately counters with yeah, but Perdix is no good with dreamstuff.

Which gives me pause.

I tipped my hand to the group: here's my plan of action, anyone see a problem? Charles flatly countered with fiat: ain't gonna. I don't recall having established that point directly myself, being crap at dreams, but a) it's not impossible that I said something like that in passing; dream-magic is a rare and esoteric art, but one we've dealt with a bit recently, since the last main story involved a visit from a group of magi that includes an authority on dreaming. Or b) it's entirely possible that in my reactions to the dreamstuff, I gave the impression of being a noob at that end of the magic spectrum. Being good with dreams is something you decidedly are, not something you might have picked up on the side, and Perdix ain't that. And it puts a nice spin on the bravado they exhibited on the last jaunt into dreamstuff, with the aforementioned guide, confronting a weak shade of the Monkey—all prelude to this encounter now, which renders that bravado false and hollow in this reading. So that's all to the good.

So I assent, but believe me, most of the analysis above happened after-the-fact. I proposed; I was blocked assertively; I folded without contesting, since I had nothing to back my play. No numbers. No clear idea of the character's history in this particular regard. No dogs left to throw into the fight.

What was left was conversation and negotiation, which, to a certain extent, I think Barry wanted, but which me and Perdix aren't ready for. I want them to slowly be drawn from their shell, back into dealing with the world; acquiring a henchman and an apprentice are major steps which haven't been explored much yet. Testing them to the breaking point now makes no sense and doesn't feel right.

But that analysis came after-the-fact, too. What I knew then was this Monkey was in my head and my apprentice's head and he was asking questions and while I could not answer them my apprentice couldn't. So I said, Perdix does everything they can to wake up now, and Barry allowed as how they could, and I said bells start ringing all around the covenant, since that's Perdix' sigil, and some little magical energy had been expended to snap out of the dreamstate. Only the Monkey's still there: they hadn't woken fully. Barry again acknowledges Perdix' power with a compliment, and says as how he doesn't want to fight; Perdix says the Monkey wants something they don't want to give him (they don't know what it is, but he wants something, and whatever it is, they don't want to give it to him), so they will fight, and—scene.

What's bugging me? Immediately, I'd thought it was not having the knowledge for sure whether I could have blocked him with sheer power or not. Kicking myself for not having worked out the numbers. For not having the pieces to back my play. —Of course, I might not have had the numbers. In which case I wouldn't have tried the play.

But there was still a crucial piece of negotiation in having tried it, and I did figure some stuff out. Key being that while the interaction with the Monkey is a nice encapsulation of a lot of things about Perdix' contradictions (yes, I'm seeing the situation through their eyes and from their perspective, there's a lot there for Dylan's character and Barry too, I'm sure, but I'm just selfish that way), it's too much too soon: I need to establish the relationship between Perdix and Ilba (who've launched a fifteen-year commitment on an almost criminal whim, and it's been, what, three weeks? Four?) before that relationship is significantly tested. It's not a bad thing this happened, not at all: foreshadowing, hallmark of great literature, etc. But an equilibrium needs rapidly to be reached that does not involve too much compromise yet, the better to feed the dynamic with end-game interactions so that, later, down the line, when it blows up, it will blow the fuck up.

TV-wise? The Big Bad just got revealed at the end of episode two. After that, the Big Bad fades a bit, only to pop out for a sweeps stunt or two, shift the plot at the second act hook, and then bide some seriously menacing time until the finale. —Of this particular season of the Perdix show, mind. Remember there's also the Calvus show and the Sonata show and the Gi show and the Ishta show and the Murry show and the Nil show and and and. And the seasons don't all synch up. And we're channel-surfing. And there's the Big Crossover Events.

To thoroughly mix metaphors.

Okay, so, actually, I think I have a better idea now of what it is I want and why I was so stymied by that particular interaction. I just need to make sure can synch what I want with what everyone else wants, and we're good.

But I should really figure out the magicstuff. No excuse for that.


6. On 2005-11-18, Charles said:

Hmm, I was blocking in defense of Barry's stated preference that the Monkey not be easily vanquished. The "not good at dream magic" was a reflexive defense of Somnex's importance.

As an aside to the audience, Somnex is a character who has been in the back of my head for 13 years, since I created the Manu Tenere mages while Sarah and I were in Swansea, Wales, and Sarah was creating the Order history. I recently handed over control of the Manu Tenereans to my fellow players, as it didn't make sense for me to play the entire neighboring covenant. Or rather, since the entire point for me of this game being co-GMed is so I don't have to GM, me running the Manu Tenereans would be exactly what I don't want. Anyway, Somnex is a savant of Dream Magic, and the one dream sequence we've done previously has been under his guidance. While Kip had never previously established that Perdyx was bad at Dream Magic, he had never established that he was good at it. My feeling is that Dream magic in the Order is very rare, so anyone not established as good at it is bad at it.

Also, once you are in dream under somone else's control, I think you are at a huge disadvantage magically. The actions you try to take are already under their influence, so they can easily drain off your power as you try to collect it, or poison it with their own dream power. If you want to work dream magic, and you aren't hugely proficient in it, you need to have prep'd yourself beforehand, ensorcelling yourself to be able to work effective dream magic. Or anyway, that's how I think of it. It also allows an out. Perdyx had warded the box against dream attack, and so almost certainly was otherwise unprepared.

What happens when Perdyx is well prepared is still up in the air.

Mostly though, the Monkey needed to be established as powerful, and appearing in a dream only to be immediately banished didn't sound like it would accomplish that. Probably I shouldn't have blocked, and should simply have let Barry play out the Monkey's response to being banished, but I wanted to see where Barry's Monkey was going to take the dream exchange. Probably there was a selfish component to that as well. For Sonata's Monkey plotline to go interesting places, we need to see what it is the Monkey's are doing, and this seemed like a scene that could get us some steps in that direction.

Would stats and dice have gotten us somewhere better? Possibly, but magic stats for Perdyx wouldn't have helped much. I have Sonata's magic fully stat'ed out in AM terms, but I don't think it gives me much more guidance. For your stats to matter, you'd need for the Monkey to be stat'd out as well, and to have a mechanic for comparisons. We don't have that.

On the Perdyx-Ilba relationship, I think the current scenario set needs to reach a major resolve on the Monkey issues (not a final resolve, but a big one). Sonata is pushing the Monkey question hard, and there is pretty much no way for that to not spill over onto Ilba and Perdyx that I can see (unless, I suppose, it turns into primarily a confrontation between Sonata and the Monkey, drawing the tension off of Perdyx and Ilba by temporarily resolving Ilba's monkey issues).

Also, the Monkey issue is definitely Ilba's first hurdle to entering the order. For her to truly become an apprentice, she needs to get past it. If it just gets pushed down, it will blow up badly at some future point.

Not there is anything wrong with that.


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This makes...
NK go "You guys have a cool game."

7. On 2005-11-18, Matt Schlotte said:

From my purely selfish PoV let me say I as well wanted to see where the scene was going to go. My interpretation is that dream magic is extremely rare and only those born with it are good at it or those who have extensive training in the use of Virginis In Litus' dream berries. How literal of me. This view is what I hold though as these events escalated over the scene for my own character who barged into the room to find out what was going on.

Okay, so my mage is Calvus, a military (Flambeau equivelant but as a house not so pyromaniac) mage whose magic is geared towards affecting large groups of people. Oh, and he has stats. As I was trying to think what his response to all this is what I came up with was a desire to find basic dream warding spells to cast upon himself when he goes to sleep, but that any true learning or deep understanding of dream magic is beyond his abilities now that he is a ~24 year mage and is set in how magic works and operates. His magic is mathematical working mostly with geometry, except that some of his magic is much more natural, is what I've been thinking, though we've see very little of his magic casting in game.

Since the game Charles had told me how the power unknown Monkey has caused him some concern and we discussed what would and wouldn't work against this powerful dream working Monkey. Again I dealt with this conversation through a selfish Calvus view, though I not once cared about Gerard's concerns in this. He isn't a mage and the Monkey can mess with him considerably.

Now with the Monkey I was worried he would come into Calvus' dream and what would happen. Calvus has good stats in what affects dreams, noun + verb wise, but in my view besides throwing raw power at him is not good with dreams. Instead if any stat I would rely upon his absurdly high Parma Magica which is a blanket defense against other worldly powers and dulls ones senses to colors, emotions and such. This I felt was his best defense in two directions, first that his dreams would be dull and probably lack the substance to be turned into anything too interesting or effective and secondly as the designed effect of being a good block against this unnatural magic.

As this plot is concerned I am less concerned as it involves my characters less then others. Sure Gerard, Heshi, Smelly or Calvus could be dragged in and actually two of those could be involved a good deal but I have so many other fish to fry. However setting of power levels is important to me as many of my fry fishing plots will involved different powered creatures, peoples and places and perhaps we should develop a mechanic which will deal with this to some extent or another. With most of my plot ideas though I have been running them past Charles since he is the "Creator" of Gaetan, however since this is a co-GMed (de-centralized GM?) game I guess I could pass things by with other people to get them involved in the plots. It is however how I play. Kim and Barry are better at creating their own plots without pestering others about their ideas.

I feel bad that one of Perdix's plots was pushed forward faster or in a slightly different direction then Kip was hoping for but I still think its a good plot line that does advance Sonata and Ilba's plots along.

There is more I want or should say but am busy right now so more later.


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This makes...
KM go "Not so fast."*
CS go "Can you elaborate on "too far"?"
MDS go "Here comes the balancing act"*
KM go "Too far."*
CS go "responded in main thread"

*click in for more

8. On 2005-11-19, Charles said:

Kip (in marginalia):

The Monkey is in their head. Not in a sly and subtle and easily-dismissed-until-it-is-too-late way, in but loudly and threateningly in-your-face and wake-up-screaming-if-you-can-which-you-can???t-because-he-won???t-let-you way. A nigh-omnipotent servitor of the theocratic demon-god of their childhood nightmares is leaving footprints in their brains and threatening their henchman and apprentice. Something must be done to secure this situation. But I do not want this thing to drive Perdix mad; disrupt (as opposed to discombobulate) their relationship with Ilba or Ishkin; immediately remove the Monkey as an antagonist or threat. Any of those would be too far. At least, now they would be too far. Later? That???s what I???m talking about.

Ah, I see what you mean.

Yeah, I always forget that Perdyx is sort-of-local, so their reaction to the Monkeys is as extreme as it could possibly be. Sonata views the Monkeys as interesting and threatening, but not really scary.

Actually, I think that removing Third Monkey from all of our dreams is pretty much going to have to happen, and not that far from now. I don't think Ilba's position can become solid until we get rid of Third Monkey (and Ishta isn't the only one who will be calling for Ilba's head pretty quickly if a powerful Monkey is driving us all mad in our sleep). That doesn't mean that Ilba will have been made safe from Monkey interference (although we'd all like to think so). It doesn't mean that Third Monkey has been completely defeated even. We just need to get to a point where Third Monkey isn't willing to risk a direct confrontation with the mages again, and the mages know how to fend off the penumbras.

I think its doable, and I don't think it will push things too far.

Does any of that seem too far to you?

We definitely don't want to break Ilba's Monkey shotgun, but I think we need to unload it for the moment (possibly by having it go off).


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This makes...
KM go "Agreed."*

*click in for more

9. On 2005-11-19, Barry said:

What I want out of Third Monkey - or Insomnium, as his name might be rendered in Cholaic - is a Monkey that the magi have to talk to on fairly even terms; a villain who undermines the "magi are all-powerful" feeling without having to kill or be killed; and an antagonist who it will be possible for Magi to build a long-term relationship with. A dream-monkey is attractive to me because he can't kill or be killed, which limits the threat he poses while at the same time limiting the magi's ability to get rid of him altogether.

I should have explicitly discussed these goals with the other players before proceeding.

Insomnium definitely made a mistake by approaching Perdix first. Insomnium's short-term goal is to open relations with the Magi. I was very unsure whether to have him approach Sonata or Perdix in the last game session. I eventually decided that it made sense for Insomnium to decide to approach Perdix first, both because of Perdix's connection to Ilba, and because of all the Magi in this location Perdix is the one who comes closest to living in a waking dreamstate (Insomnium thought that Perdix might therefore be more open to talking to someone in dreams).

From Insomnium's point of view, the conversation was a total bust. So although he plans to try again, he's not planning to approach Perdix again. Or at least, that's my current thinking.

At this point, it's a question of balance: How do I create a genuinely kick-ass antagonist without stepping on other player's toes? In retrospect, rather than just imperiously saying "it doesn't work" to what Kip and Dylan were having their characters try to do to get rid of Insomnium, perhaps I should have suggested low-odds die-rolling (i.e., "roll a six and it works"), which would have left it clear that Insomnium was extremely powerful in the dream-state without making it seem that everyone else was totally helpless.

I'd type more, but I've hurt my arm and it's difficult to type much, so forgive my abruptness and incompleteness.


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This makes...
KM go "Fiat was fine."*

*click in for more

10. On 2005-11-22, Vincent said:

Now that I've (finally) read through, let me say: this sounds so familiar to me from our group's Ars Magica play that I can't even blink.

Here's Barry: How do I create a genuinely kick-ass antagonist without stepping on other player's toes?

How indeed!

What you need - by which I mean, what I need - is very clear permissions and expectations about when (not if) I will step on another player's toes. I'm convinced that effective antagonism pretty much means toe-stepping and no way around it.

Choosing "character ownership" as the underlying structure of your play - by which I mean, my play - creates terrible anxiety around antagonism. In order to create an antagonist, I have to build her out of my own character ownership, right? I have to make it so that my character is on a trajectory guaranteed to bring her into conflict with yours - she wants something your character doesn't want to give her.

But then what I've done is, I've cast my vision for my character against your vision for yours. When all we've got to work with is our character ownership, my character wanting something that your character doesn't want to give her is a social-level crisis. It automatically steps on toes, and we don't have any way to deal with that productively. It becomes "I want it! I take it!" vs. "you can't have it! I keep it!" - the only possible compromise is a compromise of vision.

Here's Charles: Would stats and dice have gotten us somewhere better? Possibly, but magic stats for Perdyx wouldn't have helped much. I have Sonata's magic fully stat'ed out in AM terms, but I don't think it gives me much more guidance. For your stats to matter, you'd need for the Monkey to be stat'd out as well, and to have a mechanic for comparisons. We don't have that.

Consider my Otherkind dice again. They aren't a mechanic for comparing stats, but rather for creating tradeoffs.

Kip: I banish you, monkey!
Barry: The three things are banishing the monkey, harming yourself, and keeping your apprentice safe.
Kip: Harming myself isn't okay, how about squandering my resources?
Barry: How about, squandering the covenant's resources?
Kip: Ouch, but yes, I can deal with that.
Barry: Throw down!

I find negotiating about the bounds of what can happen easier and far less disruptive than negotiating about what finally happens. Again, that's probably just because we aren't negotiating a conflict directly between our visions, we're negotiating a common ground.


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This makes...
WMW go "Shoutout for inspiration"*

*click in for more

11. On 2005-11-25, Vincent said:

I'm concerned that the excitement about the seriously social issue pushed this thread off the front page, and thus interested parties missed my above comment. I think it's a smart comment, so I'm pointing it out just in case.

If nobody's saying anything because nobody has anything to say, though, for good or bad, that's awesome. Carry on!


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This reminds...
KM of Followup! (Down at the bottom.)

This makes...
KM go "I noticed, anyway."*
VB go "good, just as long as you noticed."*

*click in for more

12. On 2005-11-25, Chris said:

It's interesting- I've been thinking about this topic for a bit.  I ran Dogs, used the system all over.  One of the group is now running Dogs- but it's like he's afraid to use the dice- or more importantly- to explicitly rely on those clear permissions to drive play.

Before your post, I was calling this sort of thing, "Floaty play" because none of the lines are on the table, nothing is clearly at stake, it sits in some strange space of "What the GM says" with the players begging for scraps.


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