2008-03-01 : Respecting the fiction

I'm writing a short story, inspired by Poison'd. Here's an excerpt. The narrator is one Ned McCubbins, murdering pirate.

I have my opportunity the night following. I come upon deck to relieve Filthy Peter of his watch and he's leaning against the railing, watching the lights of Kingston on the far horizon. He's no reason to fear me so I have none for stealth; I draw my pistol as I approach him, place its muzzle square against the back of his head, and blow his brains out through his face.

But, I don't know what - but the discharge still ringing and he spins on me. Blood pouring down the side of his head but his brains still in his skull, and now his knife's in his fist. He's on me, and is his howling or mine the louder?

I put it to you that not one person here had any trouble following the action. Everybody here understood that "blow his brains out" meant "pull the trigger." It's trivial for any adult reader to understand "I blow his brains out through his face" as a statement of action masquerading as a statement of intent or consequence. Furthermore, nobody felt like Ned had betrayed and misled us, his readers, when the second paragraph opened with Filthy Peter unmurdered.

"But ... but ... Ned McCubbins, murdering pirate, you just said that you blew his brains out through his face, and now you're saying that you didn't? Which is it?" Absurd.

This is Ron Edwards now, talking about the rules for PCs dying in Sorcerer:

As I keep saying, and which people only really understand once they've been through a few games, Sorcerer resolution and narration is very contingent on things that were narrated or established earlier in play - often which were not presented with any intention of being so important later. That's the key concept, I think, that keeps judgments about "is intensive care available" away from GM fiat. That question should not be answered by whether the GM suddenly invents a team of paramedics who dash in from off-screen; it should instead be answered by checking around all the details and circumstances of that particular location in the setting. Given all that, is intensive care available? That question can usually be answered without controversy.

I'm still working out how to explain and discuss this issue (geez! eight years after the rules for it were finalized), so all questions and comments are welcome.

I think that this is a much more widespread, common, maybe even fundamental thing than just a peculiarity of Sorcerer ... unless you limit yourself to looking at indie games.

Indie rpgs are hypermechanized. Imagine a couple, dancing, and they're the fiction and the mechanics. Indie rpgs are strict ballroom, and the game mechanics are the man. He leads.

This isn't a problem with them. I'm not impressed with anyone who criticizes them on those terms - if it's not to your taste, that's cool, play other games. No, in fact it's a clear feature of their design. The problem is when we take a feature of the design of some games and promote it, by repetition and laziness, up to a design principle.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, you take fallout dice of a size depending on the specific details of the blow you took, NOT depending on which arena you've escalated to. This point was controversial when the game was new, and it still occasionally pops up as a question. But no, it just calls for tiny moments of you, as a group, objectively assessing the fictional material of the game.

In the Wicked Age, you know when you say your character's action that its consequences will be no worse than exhausting or injuring her opponent. Nevertheless, saying things like "I chop your head clean off, you backstabber" is how to play the game best. This point is controversial as we speak, it's the first question I have to answer whenever someone new finds the game. But no, it just calls for tiny moments of you, as a group, reading the narrator's voice with some sophistication.

In all of my rpgs, the fiction is relatively coequal with the mechanics. Moreso than in, say, Psi Run, Shock:, Primetime Adventures, or any of a number of other games I love dearly. Of my games, though, it's in Poison'd that the fiction actually leads.

1. On 2008-03-01, Vincent said:

Here's Ron's Sorcerer thread, you should probably talk about Sorcerer with him there, not here: Special Damage Less Lethal.

I'm not really writing a short story.


2. On 2008-03-01, Meserach said:

This is an interesting thing.

I think this feature-promoted-as-principle has come out of the (laudable) aim to demystify much of the "murk" of RPGs - the impulse to take many of those decisions that were unclear, that were hand-waved and provided by "good GMing", and bring them out into the light where we could actually examine them.

It's like, that role of interpreter, the person who takes the fictional events and interprets them in rules terms, and says "now is the time to use the rules" - that's been part and parcel of the GM thing.

But as the GM role has been increasingly blown up, it's been replaced not with the GROUP interpreting he fictional events to the rules, but instead with the fictional events not causing activations of the rules at all.

Instead we end up with a position in which rules procedures activate other rules procedures in specified sequence, like a board game, and the fictional stuff grows OUT of that, but doesn't feed back INTO it:

when people are comign up to you with their confusions about ditV and Poiosn'd, what I'm seeing is a lot of confusion between "terms that describe stuff in the rules" and "terms that describe stuff in the fiction".

Like in the DitV thing above; people are thinking what's relevant to the question is the arena of escalation (a rules-procedural term) and not the nature of the blow taken (an in-fiction concept).

In Posion'd, you talked about "if you have a deadly wound, make a bargain or die" and people hunted all round the text for the bit where you say what a "deadly wound" IS in rules-procedural terms, and didn't even think to just interpret that as an in-fiction description, and then play accordingly.

I dunno what the solution to this is, beyond very laboriosuly laying it out when you mean "in the fiction" and when you mean "in rules terms".

Like, if the rule was "whenever you get a wound that seems, in terms of the game's fiction, to be deadly, make a bargain or die", that would be clearer? But ugly. Very ugly.


3. On 2008-03-01, ethan_greer said:

As an aside, where did you get those smiley face graphics, Meserach? I always loved those things, and the explanations that went with them. Is there a place I can go that will let me download a pdf or something? Thanks.


4. On 2008-03-01, Meserach said:

ethan: I got them right here on anyway.

Here, in fact.


5. On 2008-03-01, Chris said:

Hey Vincent,

I think this is really strongly tied to what Ben Lehman's fictional elements for strategic choices thing, or Emily's story capital thing.  At it's heart, I think it's about where the play rides on straight Baker-Care principle- the fiction says this, and it makes sense to us, as a group, that the following results should happen.

Though I think a lot of folks conflate that with the usual cop-out to dodging broken rules or fiat-y behavior, which historically has been the case for a lot of play, instead of being used in conjuction with the mechanics & cues.


6. On 2008-03-01, Ben Lehman said:

I've been trying to say this forever. Thanks.



7. On 2008-03-01, Brand Robins said:


Please stop spying on my Google Talk conversations and reposting them on your blog, thanks.

Seriously though, it is a little creepy/funny/cool that Dave, Mo, and I had almost exactly this conversation last night.


8. On 2008-03-02, Georgios said:

I agree, although I think you're making a Designer mistake there in locating this quality in the game's design. It's really not a property of the game how fiction and rules feed into one another, or which one leads which.

It's a question of implementing the rules into the fiction created at the table, something that players decide upon and do on their own. It is something that a great number of roleplayers actually resist being told how to do. Ironically enough, I've seen people opt to screw up the gaming experience, instead of changing how they put rules and fiction together.


9. On 2008-03-02, Vincent said:

"It is something that a great number of roleplayers actually resist being told how to do."

I know it! I'm telling them anyway. I presume that it limits my games' popularity, but that's never been my foremost concern.


10. On 2008-03-02, Georgios said:

It's a gamer's pride thing, I think. I have yet to meet a non-gamer who refuses to let the rules of the game tell him how to play said game.


11. On 2008-03-03, Mendel said:

I called it Continuity when I wrote about in in Coming of Age. It always seemed one of those basic roleplay procedures that we expect, but never talk about. And it does enough heavy lifting in CoA that it seemed worth some text, rather than just subtext.


12. On 2008-03-03, Marco said:

RPGs are fairly unique amongst other games in that the fiction is so highly prized. Even if the fiction "follows" in a lot of games it's still regarded as crucial.

Also: on the pissing people off front.
(a) Anything you do will piss a lot of people off (I was amazed to see someone upset by break points in JAGS! No! There must never be a mathematical break point!)

(b) How clearly it's said will help a lot. Unfortunately it's almost impossible to be as clear with others as we are with ourselves.



13. On 2008-03-03, John Harper said:

Man, there must be something in the air. I've been writing notes for an interview with Mel on this very topic. "Leading with the fiction," is a great way to say it, which I will happily steal.

Another thing is: some games want you to sometimes lead with the fiction, and sometimes to lead with mechanics, and sometimes they're coequal... and maybe the text tells you which is which and maybe it doesn't. Teasing that out, house ruling, establishing your own procedures at the table for what is leading what—all stuff that comprises a huge chunk of "how we play" and which games click for you and yours.


14. On 2008-03-03, Valamir said:

"Teasing that out, house ruling, establishing your own procedures at the table for what is leading what—all stuff that comprises a huge chunk of "how we play" and which games click for you and yours."


I think that's very true.

However, I think leaving it to be teased out, house ruled, and established at the table is a mistake.

I consider it the duty and purpose of the game text to inform the reader how the game is to be played...and lead with fiction / lead with mechanics can often be incompatible and thus lead to really bad experiences without guidance as to which it is.

Players can always decide to do it differently if they want, but they ought to at least be told what the default assumption built into the design is.


15. On 2008-03-04, Vincent said:

Ralph, do you imagine that I disagree with you? Of course I don't.


16. On 2008-03-04, valamir said:

Actually, I was just commenting on John's post.  He left it open ended as to whether he thought the teasing-it-out part when the mechanics don't say was a good-and-necessary part of roleplaying, or a bad-but-often-the-case part of roleplaying.

So I was pointing out that I consider it a bad-but-often-the-case part of roleplaying which designers should work hard to avoid.

To put it more explicitly, the text is there to tell players how to play.  Whereever the text leaves important parts out (or vague, or hard to parse, or easy to overlook) there will be holes in the players' understanding of how to play.  Since play requires those holes be filled, players will fill them with whatever assumptions they can to make the game functional.

If the players' assumptions are close to the assumptions the designer used when they designed the game, then the players will enjoy effective functional play and may not even notice the extent to which they had to invent the game themselves, believing that the rules worked just fine.

If the players' assumptions are different from the designers' they may still manage to move forward and have an enjoyable time, but play will tend to be somewhat lurching and players' will be more aware of struggling with the incompleteness of the text.

If the players assumptions are very different from the designers', and the holes are frequent or critical enough, its possible that play won't happen at all, or suck if it does.

All text, no matter how carefully written will have some holes...perfection is unobtainable.  But if a text has so many holes and in very critical places as to render the game unplayable unless the group just happens to be channeling the same set of assumptions as the designer, and so "luck into" how to play...I consider that text to be fundamentally flawed, incomplete, even broken, regardless of how good the underlying game is.

If, by your comment, you were wanting to tie this back to our previous thread on Poison'd; yes, I consider the Ashcan text of Poisn'd at this time to be be full of excessive holes in critical places relying on the players to channel your assumptions about how to play in order to make the game work...or more bluntly put, fundamentally flawed, incomplete, even broken.  But I'm reasonably certain you already knew that was my opinion.

I certainly don't imagine you disagree with me.

I do imagine that you don't think the holes in the current text are as extensive or critical as I do (would I be wrong about that?)

I don't think our problem was an obsession with leading with the mechanics and an inability to lead with the fiction (especially given who was at the table), but I do think the main problem was an inability to determine which you intended from the game text.

In any event, it was not my intention to turn this into a Poison'd thread, except that I didn't know how else to take your post, so I'm happy to leave it there if you like.


17. On 2008-03-04, Vincent said:

Let's leave it there, then. It's not that I think the current Poison'd text should have worked for you, I think that it's a lot more easily fixed than you do. That's a fine place to leave it, I think.


18. On 2008-03-04, valamir said:

Cool, nothing will make me happier than for you to be right about that.


19. On 2008-03-05, Vincent said:

I'm thinking about a next post. How does everybody feel about this sum-up construction?

In any given game, the continuity of its fiction is functionally one of its subsystems.

(Thanks, Mendel, for "continuity.")

How any given game design treats this subsystem is the same as how any given game design treats any given subsystem: highly individual, fully depending on the precise needs of the game design in question.

Sound good?


20. On 2008-03-05, Ben Lehman said:

Hey, Vincent: Continuity throws up, like, fifty red flags for me.



21. On 2008-03-05, Ben Lehman said:

So, uh, to elaborate:

Treating all this stuff like it's one big lump of "continuity" seems to be to be the express train to crazytown. I'd rather divide it up like this:

The fiction has:
State (what's presently imagined this moment.)
Action (what's going on in our imagination.)
History of Play (what we've done in the past: 'established.')
Expectation (what sorts of things are reasonable for parts unrevealed)
Hidden Information (the above four things, but some people know it and others don't.)

Each of these is, functionally, a different subsystem.



22. On 2008-03-05, Ben Lehman said:

Which, come to think of it, probably map roughly to the elements of exploration.


23. On 2008-03-05, Vincent said:

I'm cool with all that (although I wouldn't'a jumped to the elements of exploration, I'm going to think about that). The important part to me is that it or they is its own subsystem, available to the other subsystems of the design.


24. On 2008-03-05, Ben Lehman said:

Yeah, that's cool. It's just treating it all like one big lump—from my past experiences—is a dangerous, dangerous road. More particularly, each of these bits is a different subsystem, and interactions with the game's other subsystems in different ways.


25. On 2008-03-05, Jonathan Walton said:

It's further complicated because memory is an unreliable, biased construct, especially channeled through such a blindered locus as a player character (I'm imagining a game that still has those).  So what people remember happening and the context of those actions in their head—whether they happened 5 seconds ago or 5 years ago—will be wildly divergent, yet people will tend to assume that everyone experiences a given set of events in the same way.

That makes a continuity hard to talk about.  Continuity of what?  Continuity within the Lumpley System of "what the group collectively agrees has happened" (while each individual imagines their own unique version of those events)?  I might be able to buy that, but it's a complex thing to talk about, right?  Because an unchallenged aside that one person considered table talk could be reincorporated as a major component of play and really piss people off, yeah?


26. On 2008-03-05, Emily said:

I just wrote this to Ben:

"Continuity is short-hand for a large, un-manageable piece of shared, vaguely overlapping mass of experiences interpreted as a narrative."


27. On 2008-03-06, Brand Robins said:

I think it was Neel Krishnaswami who said to me one day something like "Well, isn't that one of the big differences between an RPG and other types of games? That in an RPG the fiction is part of the rules?"

And really, as I've been talking about with some folks recently, the more a game doesn't lead with the fiction the more I think of it as a boardgame.

(Note this does not mean "bad" it means "I like to have words for things that do different things.")


28. On 2008-03-06, Georgios said:

"Continuity is short-hand for a large, un-manageable piece of shared, vaguely overlapping mass of experiences interpreted as a narrative."

Emily, this is brilliantly put. Except that I would swap narrative and experiences in the sentence to make it fit with my observations.


29. On 2008-03-13, Josh W said:

Actually I did have a problem with the excerpt, for a split second, the two mental images jostled for position and I gave the new description priority based on its more reliable providence. But then I am one of those (perhaps) rare people who can articulate mental goings on.
But onto the idea of continuity: Why do people record stats? Or health? Because they consider these details important enough to include in the set that is recorded. If you run on a strict scene by scene basis, as many do, then the only details that need to be recorded are those that continue from one scene to another, the changes to fictional elements and their relationships to each other. If you do not, then you either need to record them or summon them procedurally from a rulebook. The game system could then be considered to be an interface that allows you to properly record the state of the world and still be able to "read your own handwriting" on the important details, whichever those might be!


30. On 2008-03-13, Vincent said:

In fact that moment of jostling images, which doesn't affect your final understanding of the text at all, is a stylistic technique. It contributes its piece to tension, pace, voice. That split second of confusion, in other words, contributes to your understanding and experience, it doesn't detract from it. It can be the same with roleplaying.

"Properly record the state of the world" drives me insane. If you ever want to see me foam at the mouth and grapple with invisible foes, corner me in person and tell me about properly recording the state of the world.

What that stuff records is the players' positions. It may do so by referring to stuff in the game's fiction, but that's incidental. Your hit point record is like the position of your queen's bishop on the board. It's all about you the player, not your character or the fiction she's part of.


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