2008-02-19 : Willing, provoked, inspired

I believe this deserves to be bumped up to an actual topic:

So we're all pretty comfy by now with "a game's rules organize who gets to say what about what, when," right?

A game's rules also, on top of that, dependent upon that, organize who's willing, who's provoked, who's inspired to say what about what, when. We haven't talked much about this - it's hard! - but it's the real work of rpg design (who gets to say what about what, when, being the dead simple rudiments of rpg design).

(from the Sorcerer conversation at the bottom of this thread.)

Also related, I believe, and brought to my attention by Ben: the Overton Window. Em's promised me an essay about permissions & expectations in Poison'd, too, but she's a busy monkey these days, so no grief that she hasn't.

"Permissions & expectations" is what I like to say about rpg design in person. I say that an rpg's rules give its players permission and create in its players expectations, and when the two don't match well the game doesn't work. But when they do match well, playing a game where your friend has her character stab yours in the throat is as good for your friendship as when your friend promises to pick your kids up from school and then does so. Expectations fulfilled = good for friendship.

Anyhow, permission, expectations, willingness, provocation, inspiration, rpg rules. What do you think?

1. On 2008-02-19, Luke said:

Tangentally related to your query: Jared and I recently gave a presentation on game design to some high school students. I ran the Imaginary Can of Peaches exercise for them—aka Crypto-Permissions and Expectations—and then we played a game.

They got it, dude. Maybe not intellectually yet, but in their collective gut they understood.  It was amazing. I was terrified they were going to laugh me out of the room, or simply stare at me when I started in with the "imagine there's a can of peaches on this desk..." But they got it.

Good times.


2. On 2008-02-19, Ben Lehman said:

So what?

I mean, yes. Permission, expectations. That's true, that those are things that games can do. What's controversial about that? Why would someone disagree?



3. On 2008-02-19, christopher Kubasik said:

I think you're right.

I was just thinking about this very thing during three days of gaming at a Con this weekend.

I'm very aware of when the folks at the table are cutting loose with evocative color, situation, character details, gestures and traits.  Some games seem to encourage it, others don't.

I would say that In a Wicked Age did it better than any game I'd ever seen.  We were all stumbling over the resolution mechanic, but I tell you this: EVERYONE was inspired to great description and detail.  Not gassy descriptions, but real content that capture details and pumped conflicts in strong, visual ways.

I think the way play is structured, so that the group begins with the Oracles—evocative phrases that open out into more evocative details as described by the group—has a lot to do with this.  It starts everyone down the habit of saying, "This game is about this—growing more color from simple seeds."  It encourages, gives permission and empowers people to do this.  (Not everyone needs that permission or empowerment—but it's there for those who do.  And those who don't need it just get to go to town.)

I think HeroQuests's rules definitely touch on this matter of Willing, Provoked, Inspired.

I ran a game for three players this past Sunday morning.  One had played HeroQuest and knew Glorantha. The other two had not played HeroQuests and knew nothing about Glorantha.

So, I start laying out the world details, hammering down the situation between the Heortlings and the Lunar Empire.... And they're looking down at their blank character sheets, and I'm like, "And personalities can be a trait, and relationships can be a trait.... And it's all about family and connections and your tribe, blah, blah, blah, Glorantha."

And one player who had never played before said, "Okay.  How about if we're all family.  Like I"m the father and you two are sons."  I jump in really fast, like, "Guys if you like that idea, cool.  But right now we're just bouncing ideas, so know we're going to keep coming up with stuff and by the time we're done, it's going to be great.  Just keep tossing ideas.

But the guys like the ideas of being sons, so we go with that.  Then the first guy says, "Okay. My wife died a few months ago. And I'm already courting another woman."  The second guy jumps in with, "And I'm really upset about that." And the third guy goes, "What if she's secretly worshipping the goddess of the Scarlet Empire."  And the second guy goes, "And I'm in the secret organization getting ready for the revolt against the Empire and dad and my brother don't know."  And the first guy goes, "And the new girlfriend I'm involved with—she's already pregnant."

Okay. That rocked.  I was the happiest GM at a convention you could imagine cause I knew these Players were going to carry a lot of water.  But I also knew the game system was helping a LOT.  Because we had things like, "Ashamed of Son 13," and "Angry at Father 13" and all this stuff that HeroQuests system can handle and encourages—because look at those blank lines on that character sheet waiting to be filled in with stuff just like that!

Now, compare this to, say FASA's Shadowrun line.  Shadowrun might not have as much inked spilled describing the setting as Glorantha, but it has a lot.  A lot and a lot and a lot.  The setting stuff is good.  Jordan Weisman and his elves at FASA did a really great job of creating different groups in conflict with other groups, tons of societal detail, and all the stuff, frankly —of a kind—that you find in Stafford's work on Glorantha.  (The four pages history of the Awakening in the core book still strikes me as incredibly evocative and cool.

But—here's the thing.  When you've finished making your character sheet, and you look at your sheet, nothing you've filled in is tied to that setting!  You are adrift from all the color.

This struck me fiercely in contrast to HeroQuest on Sunday because I had never played it before, two of my players had never played it before—but they were grabbing setting details and situation details left and right and slapping them down onto their character sheets.  I encouraged it as best I could—but since I was new to the game I'm assuming a lot of their response to the setting and how they created their characters had a lot to do with the mechanics itself.

And then, of course, already encouraged by the game to write down situation/conflict/relationship details as functioning traits in the game, they only went further and started using them, driving terrific narrative content and conflict all on their own.

I'm assuming this is the sort of stuff you're talking about, and so when you ask, "What do you think?"  I think, "Yes."  This is the stuff I left the con thinking about—thinking about how to encourage it socially independent of the game mechanics, and how to have mechanics that encourage it in and of themselves.



4. On 2008-02-19, christopher Kubasik said:

Ah, well, so much for formating.


um, why does it have to controversial?  Could we not, perhaps, be embarking on how to do it better?  How to handle it on purpose?


5. On 2008-02-19, Vincent said:

(I fixed your formatting.)


6. On 2008-02-19, Ben Lehman said:

Chris: We're already doing it on purpose.

I dunno. I heard this "willing, provoked, inspired" thing several years ago. I totally agreed then. I just want to see if there's been any development since.

I bet dollars to donuts that Vincent has something he wants to say about this topic, but isn't saying yet for some reason. So he's got to give up the goods first.



7. On 2008-02-19, Meserach said:

Yeah, I'm nodding along here, but I feel like there's another shoe waiting to drop.


8. On 2008-02-19, Vincent said:

Nah, I got no more shoes. I'm still just groping.

There's a super fun mechanism in Poison'd where Chris is like "I stab Ben's guy in the ear!" and (I'm the GM) I'm like, "okay, Ben, are you fighting or are you enduring duress?" and if you haven't heard it before your eyes light up. "I'm enduring duress! Hell yeah!" And now the two of you are allies in the ear-stabbing instead of opponents.

Ben, you already know all this! What are you doing waiting around for me to say something new? I've been following YOU.


9. On 2008-02-19, misuba said:

Also I am not certain how Overton windows are related, unless you just mean that we have to adjust people's expectations one step (or one game) at a time. But that seems to open yet another conversation.


10. On 2008-02-19, Ben Lehman said:

Well, crap.


11. On 2008-02-19, misuba said:

Also also, is there any online reference for the "imaginary can of peaches" example that Luke cites?

(It took all my will not to write that in Lolcat)


12. On 2008-02-19, Vincent said:

What I want to talk about eventually is creative differences within a creative agenda within a group, and by "a" group I mean my group, but I'm still working up to that.

So, like, yeah, Overton windows.

So here you have five people with their own unique roleplaying histories, and accordingly their own set of expectations about what roleplaying is, what it isn't, what's acceptible, what's weird but fine, what won't fly no matter what. They're like the colorwheel, right? Where the circles overlap, the players share expectations.

So then you have a designed game, like a thumbtack stabbed into the paper. Does it land where everyone's circles overlap? Does it land where only mine and Julia's do?

How much power does the thumbtack have to move people's circles of expectation?


13. On 2008-02-19, Vincent said:

14. On 2008-02-19, Meserach said:

Oh dude, the thumbtack can totally move the circles.

The thing is that you don't necessarily realise at the time - it takes a little self-reflection. Like, you come to a game like InSpectres having previously believe that the GM must have primary responsibility for the plot, and then you play this at it doesn't conform and you're like "huh, what a weird little oddity".

Then you talk a little theory - not jargon soaked theory, just people going like "hey what's interesting about this is..." or "I just figured out why this works!" and boom, window shift.

Or you can do the theory first, and then you see it in the play. But you do have to do both. Theory alone won't convince you of any damn thing, you gotta apply it.


15. On 2008-02-19, Ben Lehman said:


I dunno. I can't totally help you with that. Most of the problems of expectations I come across in my own play are good old-fashioned GNS problems.

Ultimately, I know in a very personal way that as a designer I am powerless to overcome the expectation dynamics in your group without me sitting at the table and going "hey, guys, you need to play by the rules that I wrote in the book, rather than your own previously established rules."

That said, let me look at how I generally set that up in play. What do these things mean?

Okay, so in Polaris there's this thing where everything your character loves is destroyed and she ultimately dies or betrays her oaths. So that's just in the mechanics of the game.

I also made the decision to have the game text constantly reinforce that this was going to happen. It didn't necessarily have to be that way. I could have left the mechanics sitting there and had the decline and failure happen as a surprise, which for a different game may well have been the right choice. Why I made that choice was the build a particular expectation, because I think from previous games we have the general expectation that we are heroes, and thus we succeed, flat out, period no questions asked.

So basically I'm building into the social contract the idea that breaking the protagonist down into pieces is good, a fulfillment of the game. Why did I need to do this? It's because of the rotating GM system. A singular GM can carry the expectation of "being rough" to the players. But a collective contract draws on the party "we're all in this together" thing, where if someone makes your life hard it's a "screw." I needed to break that down in order to get the game to actually fire, otherwise it's just a love-fest, and the ending will splat suddenly and for no reason, so I included all the text about eventual failure.

Right now in Thousand Kings I'm struggling with creating the expectation that we're here for an experience, rather than for a story. Similarly, I'm trying to get people to interact with the world as a world, rather than a setting, and interact with the people in that world as themselves, rather than a pre-defined character role. Not sure how I'm going to do that yet.



16. On 2008-02-19, Jonathan Walton said:

Personally, permissions and expectations don't wow me.

The wow factor, for me, is hidden in "willing" (and, to a lesser extent, "inspired").

How do you make people willing and able to contribute?  Therein, I think, is the rub.  That's about agency, not about permission or expectation.


17. On 2008-02-19, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

>Right now in Thousand Kings I'm struggling with creating the expectation that we're here for an experience, rather than for a story. Similarly, I'm trying to get people to interact with the world as a world, rather than a setting, and interact with the people in that world as themselves, rather than a pre-defined character role. Not sure how I'm going to do that yet.

Ha HA!  And Thousand Kings takes another step closer to gelling in my mind!

Actually, the first part was becoming somewhat obvious to me, but it's helpful to see you say it.  The second part, well, we'll see about that.

**Pretend this is marginalia.  :-)


18. On 2008-02-20, Emily said:

19. On 2008-02-20, Vincent said:

Willing and able, yes, Jonathan!

Also: receptive. How do you make people go along with each other?


20. On 2008-02-20, Jonathan Walton said:

Receptive is a good one too, and not just in the "go along with" sense.  How do you make people listen to each other?

Like if I say X and, for the game to really sing, you should say X+Y fifteen minutes from now, to show that you heard me and appreciate my input. Most of the reincorporation mechanics that I've seen are still fairly clumsy or only refer to specific images or characters instead of more general stuff (like the give-and-take of building a relationship between two characters or building descriptive relationships between setting elements).  How do we encourage listening without just plopping a reward mechanic on it ("2 XP for reincorporation!")?


21. On 2008-02-21, NinJ said:
Jonathan, I think you're ignoring the way reward mechanics work. I mean, "+2XP" assumes that the reward is *leveling*. That's unlikely to be interesting. So, let's say you want a happy-type death spiral: Let's say that it costs you to introduce an element so it's cheaper to use pre-existing elements. And let's say every time an element is incorporated, it loses a die, starting at 5, but declining to a cap of one. That means that you want to use the stuff people have spent on. So elements will either be neglected (in which case, they're worth brownie points to use anytime), they're used up (in which case, they're firmly in everyone's mind) and get used all the time anyway, or they're shiny new ideas that someone just threw down on the table and people have an opportunity to flesh out with each other. I'm thinking that an elements starts worth, say, 5, and reduces to 1. Once it's lost its last die, it joins the pool of well-established facts and any number of them are collectively worth one die. If the system doesn't encourage enough use of other peoples' stuff, that probably means that you need to incorporate more stuff to get things done properly. So, if you need, like, 7 dice to get something done, you can use your own just-introduced idea and an old idea of your own. If you need 15 dice to do it, you'll be looking around for other elements to reincorporate. (These numbers are obviously totally arbitrary since they're ... holy shit. I have to start designing *right now*.)


22. On 2008-02-21, Ben Lehman said:

this is a test. ???


23. On 2008-02-21, Ben Lehman said:


Okay, so I'm working on this game right now whose title I can't type because anyway doesn't support non-latin characters. I'm going to talk about that, too, since it turns out that writing these things is a great way to crystalize design goals.

The game is about an elite special-ops team trying, through a series of terrorist actions, to bring down on a savagely oppressive military dictatorship that they helped establish. In the game, I expect death is, you know, going to be a thing. It's going to happen fairly often. I haven't tuned the death and injury mechanic yet, so I'm not sure how often, but it's pretty fucking bad. If things go very pearshaped it can easily turn into a complete wipe.

Dying takes you out, as a player, for the rest of the mission. Missions are maybe one two hours long. It's potentially a lot of downtime, although you're only likely to die once things really go to shit.

I've been playing a lot of Moldvay's D&D recently, too. And character death is totally also a thing in that game, even more frequently than in game-whose-name-I-can't-type. But I've watched and people get very upset when characters die. Even I get a lump in my throat, and I'm superhardened about character death in D&D.

So the thing about game-whose-name-I-can't-type is that there's no fixed GM. At any given session one player is picked to be the "Target," and the target has the role of controlling the other people in the world, setting the scene, etc. The target has considerable discretion in how and when to hand out pain to the team.

You can see, probably, that if people feel bad *at all* about characters dying, then the target is going to be all super soft and not go for the throat. Because, you know, you don't want to make your friends feel bad.

So my goal, clearly, is to create the expectation and appreciation of character death, even as you are punished for it (because, after all, you really did screw up.)

My stab right now is to frame everything in terms of the team, rather than the characters. So characters don't have any backstory other than a name, but the team has a long history and hard-core motivations. Characters, basically, don't exist except inasmuch as they are resources (or liabilities) to the team. My thought is that this going to make people go "damn, we took a hit there rather than "damn, I took a hit there." We'll see how it goes.



24. On 2008-02-21, Jonathan Walton said:

NinJ: That was just an example.  I meant all types of reward mechanics.  They're cool I guess, but I find them really clumsy in practice when tied to reincorperation.


25. On 2008-02-21, valamir said:

Ben, what about a different tack.  In Blood Red Sands players play generic "Factions" that can be created Universalis style into anything you want...but I've found they really aren't interesting unless the characters are interesting.  I think hanging too much on the teams and not enough on the people might actually be sub-optimal.

What if when you die you aren't out of the game with down time, your role at the table changes...taking over Target Characters seems obvious, but there are potentially even better options.  How well you do at this other role then feeds into the effectiveness of your next character.

That could also address some of the reluctance to go for the throat.  The initial Target Player may be reluctant to go for a TPK, but if TPK allows that player to come back as a total badass team leader then there's a motivation.

Also, a player whose character dies late has less opportunity to "earn credits" and thus more likely their next character will be a newb, so there's actually a reward for being the first to go down.  Also since dying late would be worse than dying really motivates players to go into "survive this at any cost" mode towards the end so they can preserve their character and not come back as a newb.

Anyway, that dynamic sounds fun to me, but I don't know how PvP you want the game to be.


26. On 2008-02-21, Ben Lehman said:

Ralph: I'm worried that rewarding the losers immediately (and, let's face it, if you die you are a loser) will lead to a see-saw dynamic which will make missions take way too damn long. I'd rather have a fast wipe than an extended fight.

Now, the thing about being rewarded for how long your guy lasts ... that's really interesting ...

We'll see how my plan works. I think I've got a pretty interesting background for the team that people are going to instantly hook into: it exploits a lot of aspects of the American experience (guerilla warfare of a free people against an imperial power) to inject sympathy for the group.



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