2005-05-02 : Person vs. Protagonist

At The 20' by 20' Room, Neel Krishnaswami has posted a really sharp little piece about the difference between a person (or a made-up person) and a protagonist.

You get a story when you have protagonists and antagonists in conflict, and they are in a situation which compels them to take action to resolve that conflict. This is exactly the opposite of what actual people try to do in actual life.

Read the whole thing: Running Regular-Folks Games.

By the way, this post of Neel's is part of an ongoing conversation about genre and "lasersharking," started by Matt Snyder, here at Heads or Tails: Lasersharking My Ass.

I'll take sides: what matters is the people, not the superpowers; superpowers are suck if they substitute for real characters, but fine if they don't. I welcome as many games about real characters without superpowers as we can collectively create, alongside as many games about real characters with superpowers as we can collectively create.

So far, in the former category, we have ... zero? It's a design challenge and a manifesto worth rising to. If I weren't already designing a science fiction game I'd be right there.

Either way, superpowers or none, Neel's right that regular people in regular circumstances is no story, because in regular circumstances you can avoid story and you will every time.

1. On 2005-05-02, Chris said:

Funny enough, me & Matt were emailing on this subject, and I had this to say:

I think the other part that people are missing is that, as you pointed out with Ron's games, the fantastic can make excellent spice to the human element, but the human element still needs to be there.  Personally, I love the fantastic as a way to distill themes, but I understand that the if its just fantastic for its own sake- then there's no real meaning going on.

Media wise, I think we can point to 3 extremes:

Normal people, human situations- Strangers in Paradise, The Wonder Years, The Notebook, etc. etc.

Fantastic elements as themes of human situations- The Dark Crystal(watch it and look at the gelflings as people of color, particularly indigenous people...)

Fantastic elements as empty pastiche- The D&D movie, most of the Gor/Conan Ripoff books, most of the fantasy rack at the bookstore, etc.

We spoke on a bit more, but an interesting issue that also came up is that I think most of the people who sit in the third category -really want- all the cool stuff from the second one and don't seem to understand why adding new and more powers doesn't get them there.


2. On 2005-05-02, Emily Care said:

Either way, superpowers or none, Neel's right that regular people in regular circumstances is no story, because in regular circumstances you can avoid story and you will every time.

In breaking the ice, which is as every day as you get, the narrative is very much structured by the mechanics. Each scene is a resolution phase, in which players gain resources for narration of positive & negative events.  Consistently, the bad stuff is the most fun to play out.  The trick is finding mechanics that ask for a satisfying balance of the two.

So, I am inclined to think that although it is a natural response to back off from conflict, it is not the only way things can work.  We are finding new ways to structure our play to provide incentives for moving *towards* the drama/conflict/story. The expectations of players may be shaped differently in days to come.


3. On 2005-05-02, Vincent said:

Oh, I don't mean to say - and Neel either, I think - that regular people in real-life situations don't make a story. It's that they don't automatically make a story. The people have to be locked into conflict, where they can't and won't duck or ditch out. You have to choose your people and your circumstances to fit.

Breaking the Ice is a perfect example! These regular people, in just this situation.


4. On 2005-05-02, Jeff Rients said:

I must stand up for the lasersharks.  I would certainly play a game about regularly people in dramatic circumstances or a game about extraordinary people in dramatic circumstances.  But I also like taking Me the Fighter down into The Random Dungeon to kill the Faceless Orc Menace.  I would not dispute the fact that such activity can be considered the least sophisticated style of play available but I cannot dismiss it simply for being juvinalia.  I will also grant that this mode of play has been done to death and I heartily encourage designers and publishers to explore other options.  Still the lasershark has it place even if that place isn't seating upon the golden throne it currently occupies.


5. On 2005-05-02, Emily Care said:

Oh, I don't mean to say - and Neel either, I think - that regular people in real-life situations don't make a story. It's that they don't automatically make a story.

Check. Regular people, in ordinary circumstances, where conflict is avoided is no story. I'm just saying the obvious thing, that the the "locked in part" comes from the rules & mechanics.


6. On 2005-05-02, Vincent said:

Oh by the way, Em, I've got Breaking the Ice in the "we don't have it yet" box in my head, right there beside The Mountain Witch. That's true, right? The little red book isn't the final design?


7. On 2005-05-02, Neel said:

1. Vincent read me exactly right.

2. There's a quote from Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead (which I just saw last night), which is really appropriate to this discussion:

PLAYER: Well, no, I can't say it is really. We're more of the blood, love and rhetoric school.

GUIL: Well, I'll leave the choice to you, if there is anything to choose between them.

PLAYER: They're hardly divisible, sir - well, I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrently or consecutively, but I can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory - they're all blood you see.

Violence and death give you a conflict that will almost always build into a story (because kill or be killed is a conflict almost all characters will respond to, and which has a clear resolution: someone dies). That's the why of "why superpowers?"—almost all superpowers in rpgs focus on violence. I don't think this is "less sophisticated"—Macbeth is one of my favorite plays ever, and it's chock full of superpowers and murder. But: this is not the only story-frame I want to mess with. And that's why I'm interested in this subject.


8. On 2005-05-02, Ben Lehman said:

I am deeply frustrated by the appropriation of the term "lasershark."  Can I just say that again, here?

I'd like to add a fourth category to Matt's three—Games which are ordinary people and don't contain a human story element, being that they are empty pastiche / direct simulcrum of real life.

My point here is: Whether or not the people involved are superhuman has zip to say about the creative agendas that the game could be used for.  Zip!  Nada!  Ling!  Zero!  Nothing!

Games which are about ordinary humans (no super powers): Boot Hill; Top Secret; Twilight 2000 (despite being SF); Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes; Gangbusters; How To Host A Murder and more.

No word on whether these would be satisfying to a Narra... uhm... player looking for engaged story.



9. On 2005-05-02, Emily Care said:

V: Yup. Not done yet.


10. On 2005-05-02, Vincent said:

Ben: I dunno. Doesn't "lasersharking" just mean trying to make a dull conflict more interesting by adding random "high power" crap to it, instead of by making it be about something? The only appropriation I see is applying the term to the protagonists as well as the shark.


11. On 2005-05-02, Ben Lehman said:

Done soon, though, right?  Done soon?


P.S.  I have a longer page of design thoughts to send you, but not today.  Short version: I don't think you should limit the number of scenes per date.


12. On 2005-05-02, Ben Lehman said:

I remembered the term "lasersharking" to mean introducing a random disparate genre element to maintain interest.

In other words:

A hard boiled western?  Not lasersharked.  A hard-boiled western with zombies and magic and demons and and and..?  Lasersharked.

A fantasy D&D game?  Not lasersharked.  A fantasy D&D game with robots and spaceships?  Lasersharked.

A game about a killer shark that haunts the beach?  Not lasersharked.  The same situation with a flying, laser-shooting shark?  Lasersharked.

The etymology of the term (laser + shark—two disparate, mismatched genre elements) reflects this.

Sadly, the brouhaha over Matt's post has surely destroyed this rather useful term and replaced it with "not Narrativist" in the minds of RPG folks everywhere.  To this, I must throw up my hands and sigh.  I seem destinied to lose every terminology battle, ever...



13. On 2005-05-02, Chris said:

Hi Ben,

The three categories were my invention, but yeah, let's toss the fourth on there as well.

Ultimately this whole thing comes down to misunderstanding the nature of what elements make things "engaging".  Big explosions make nice effects, human issues make fulfilling drama.  You can have one, the other, or both, but at no time will big explosions make fulfilling drama, or human issues make nice effects.  (yes, this is a poorly constructed analogy, but you get the point).

What is really neat to note- is that the hobby is finally getting past the terribly stilted ideas of how conflict is introduced and kept up in play.  Before it was simply on a map, random encounters, or GM fiat.  Then we got railroaded or branching events.  Now we're finally coming into group negotiated conflicts, shifting authority, and all kinds of potential options.

I hope to see the day when the mainstream folks figure out that no matter what kewl powers or nasty monsters you put in the game- it doesn't change the structure of conflict if you're still using the same old stuff to make it happen...


14. On 2005-05-02, Sydney Freedberg said:

Emily wrote, but I don't know how to do italics so I'll use quotation marks like an old-fashioned person, that "We are finding new ways to structure our play to provide incentives for moving *towards* the drama/conflict/story."

When I read this, besides nodding vigorously (which I usually do when I read Emily's stuff), I think "situation, situation, situation." Games like "Dogs in the Vineyard" and "My Life With Master" slam you headfirst into situations of inescapable conflict; all those "universal" games where the back cover blurb reads "combat? intrigue? trade? sex with farm animals? In Genericotopia the RPG, you can do anything you can imagine!"... well, they don't.

Oh, and I like Kewl Powerz (and fairy tale magic, and mythological heroes). But primarily as a means of amping the volume on the human emotional problem to 11—not as a focus in themselves. Some versions of X-Men and Batman do this beautifully, where superpowers are actually manifested pathology, e.g. Rogue is a lonely adolescent who doesn't dare touch anyone.

Whereas a shark with a laser on its head is just... excessive and extraneous.


15. On 2005-05-02, Sydney Freedberg said:

Excessive and extraneous because the quality of "laser-ness" does not accentuate, complement, or contrast in any interesting way with the quality of "shark-ness."


16. On 2005-05-02, Ninja Hunter J said:

This discussion fucking rocks.

I was asked by my dad some 15 years ago why the games I played had so much violence in them. So I tried figuring out how to make them non-violent and came up with politics - but it turns out politics is interesting because where half of politics is the carrot, but the other half is the stick.

Then a couple of years back, it occurred to me that what violence does is that it gives you a shorthand for conflict between characters where they care about what happens. Bullying (which really hasn't existed much in my games, except as an example of petty abuse of power) isn't the same as violent conflict because it's inherently inflicted on someone who doesn't have the power to resist, and is therefore irrelevant to the story. It's a digression in almost every case (barring those expository moments that show that the character is a bully).

Kewl Powerz are the same kind of shorthand. They say "This is how this character conflicts with hir antagonist." Mind control powerz aren't violent in the literal sense, but they're a popular choice; so is, I dunno, having a stretchy body. It defines the arena in which the character conflicts. As long as the conflict is earnest, where the characters have something to lose (at least nominally - is Aunt May really gonna die at the hands of the Scorpion?), you have earnest, dramatic conflict.

Naturally, this is what we avoid in our lives: staking the things we care most about on our moment-to-moment actions. But it's what makes a story.


17. On 2005-05-02, xenopulse said:

That discussion regarding drama, naturally, mirrors fiction. Why do you think that in so many fantasy stories, the whole world is threatened? It's a cheap way to create a conflict to care about.

But it also eliminates choice, which is why it often makes for poor stories, unless the author has a lot of smaller conflicts going on where people can choose sides.

This is where Dogs shines: meaningful choices. In regular D&D play, you have strategic choices, but few meaningful ones. The system certainly doesn't promote them.

So I would suggest that yes, you can create drama when the bad guy kidnaps your girl. But the real high point of drama is not the question of whether you manage to rescue her—it's when the bad guy throws her off one side of the bridge, and a bunch of kids off the other side, and you can't save them both.

- Christian


18. On 2005-05-02, Ben Lehman said:

Christian—I agree with you.  It's about what is meaningful to the players, and that is not about the genre contents except in a very few cases.


Can we find another word, like maybe "literary," to describe human-problem-choices in RPGs?  "Meaningful" is a big fat flaming pre-judgement of creative agenda.  Players make meaning.  The decision between the girlfriend and the kids may not be meaningful at all, to some groups, and the interest would be in how you're going to leverage your powers against the villain.

in another terminology argument—


19. On 2005-05-02, Vincent said:

Well, there's meaningful to the players, and there's meaningful in an absolute by-the-definition sense of having meaning. I vote for using the latter for things like "meaningful decision" and the former for things like "the decision wasn't, y'know, meaningful, but it was meaningful to me!"

You're in the home den of a big fat flaming pre-judger of creative agenda, after all.


20. On 2005-05-02, xenopulse said:

I guess we can just call them "thematic" choices.


21. On 2005-05-02, Matt Snyder said:

This discussion has dragged on for a little more than a week now on various blogs. I find it really interesting, and occasionally frustrating.

I want to take this space to clarify some issues that I thought at the outset were pretty obvious. I'm amazed, excited, and frustrated all at the same time that the following are not obvious:

1) I'm clamoring for more games of the "regular people, regular situations" type. NO WHERE have I bashed, well, anything at all. I have said, repeatedly, I'm all for you and your fun, all for D&D, all for genre, geekdom, and on and on. I enjoy those things often. Yay! I'm not criticizing anything except the utter lack of sufficient games of "regular people, regular situations" type.

2) Genre has been a huge terminology problem. I wish I had never used the term. Oh well. What I have been talking about all the time are dramatic situations of the kind found in, say, literary fiction, TV drama, or movies found in the Drama section. It's a "genre" of its own, sure. I wasn't trying to avoid or bash "genre." But, I was trying to point out this genre's "un-geekness." As in, geeks aren't usually very interested, but regular folk seem to be. (shrug)

3) It's the situation, stupid. For some reason, I sense people took me as saying "just regular people doing boring stuff in regular life ... BORRR-RRRING." Um, no. I'm talking about regular people involved in tense situations that produce a powerful story. And, the games I'm imagining and clamoring for damn well better do a good job of setting those situations up so players can knock 'em down.

4) Isn't it strange that people seem to need to "protect" themselves from meaningful (or literary, or thematic, or whatever term you like) creation of "regular people" stories in gaming? I've already read at least two posts/replies that say something to the effect of "I don't want to explore that stuff; it's too close to home. I'd rather do it in some funky way with superpowers." This in the same breath as "It's ok in movies." Why do we feel that collaborative creating a story via characters in a role-playing game is more "threatening" to one's psyche than watching sympathetic characters on the screen? WEIRD.

5) Isn't it strange that we must argue a bit and flounder around for an appropriate word akin to meaningful to express the bloody obvious? We're talking about a process in which we create stories. We struggle with the words, and we constantly explain our statements, like I'm going to do in this next sentence: I'm using story here as a constructed narrative that expresses a profound theme. God, why must we do that? We are too geeked. I hate that!

6) Ego trip time: I find it fascinating that at no point in this broad discussion no one has recognized Dust Devils as a completely appropriate type of this game. It's not exactly accidental that the guy who wrote that damn game started all this lasershark mess. Dust Devils has a strongly recognizeable genre. It has ZERO supernatural or otherwise typically "geek" elements. It's "regular" people in "regular" situations, if we sorta fudge the Old West as "regular." There are no lasersharks in Dust Devils, to be sure (Ben, look, I used it correctly! Nyah nyah!)

So, all the while I'm bitching about this, I already put my money where my mouth is—about three years ago. MOre to come.

Happily, the discussion has brought up Wuthering Heights, SOAP, My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls as possible "ungeek" games. HeroQuest and Dogs in the Vineyard have also been discussed; both include obvious "geek" elements like supernatural magic. Of course, they also feature incredible systems for wonderful Narrativist play.


22. On 2005-05-02, xenopulse said:

Why do we feel that collaborative creating a story via characters in a role-playing game is more "threatening" to one's psyche than watching sympathetic characters on the screen?

That's the big difference between active and passive immersion. It makes perfect sense to me.

I can read a DitV transcript and think, whoa, cool. And then there's actually playing it, i.e., making the thematic ( :p ) decisions. I'm no longer just a spectator. I share/discover something about myself. Ain't that what the big N is supposed to be about?

- Christian


23. On 2005-05-03, Charles said:

I'll put in my usual plug for situations that don't resolve, situations where characters don't step up to the plate, situations where the characters just aren't willing to go through with it in the end.

Consider James Joyce's short story The Dead, or the IF game Rameses, or many of the sequences in the IF game Galatea, or the novels of W.G. Sebald, or to some extent the novels of William Vollman.

However, I'll agree that what matters is putting characters in situations where they have to think about stepping up to the plate. What is much more typical of everyday life is that we insulate ourselves from having to even think about it at all, not that we don't actually step up when the time comes (although mostly we don't do that either, but the process of not doing is interesting, while the process of being insulated isn't process at all). I just think it is important to not over-protagonize characters (by which I mean, create characters who are always "Do Do DO, must find the conflict, must have the confrontation, must face my dark past right now." Such characters may be fun for a short run, but even for that, there is no reason they should be the only flavor. For one thing, they are no more realistic than super heroes and wizards.

I also think that proceduralist and effectivist games are particularly well suited both to handle normal people, interesting normal situations, and also to support characters who won?t step up being interesting. In technical simulationist play, the flow of play is determined directly by in-game actions, so a character who refuses to act loses their player the ability to control the flow of the game, but a proceduralist game uses formal mechanics to handle game flow, so my character can refuse to have that confrontation, while I the player spend my points to ensure that we play out that refusal in detail.

Whether that refusal is interesting for the rest of you, and what you can do about it if it isn?t, is something a proceduralist game also supports in a way a technical simulationist game does not. My promise is that, given the mechanics to let me have the internal monologue, I will make my failure to engage interesting.

Oh, one more example, which may require a bit of back reading to understand the setting, but not the meaning. This is pretty far from normal people in normal situations, but it is beautiful, beautiful refusal to step up. Give me a game where a player delivers that internal monologue, and I really won?t care whether laser sharks are battling Santa?s mole-man army in the background, nor will I require that Jack someday overcome their refusal to engage, and win out over their antagonists.


24. On 2005-05-03, Charles said:

Oh right, meant to add that for normal people, interesting normal situations, the major conflict is frequently "Do I step up? Do I dare to eat a peach? Shall I get married, shall I be good?" Not stepping up needs to be an interesting possibility, because it is what the protagonists keep doing until they finally (if they ever finally) step up.

I'm arguing that the "Do I step up?" question is much more important than the "Does it turn out well when I do" question, and that real people games (in particular) should support that. Come to think of it, MlwM (which I've still never played) seems to be all about "Do I step up?" (and ends when you finally absolutely do).


25. On 2005-05-03, Charles said:

"nor will I require that Jack someday overcome his refusal to engage, and win out over his antagonists."

[Jack being the protagonist and narrator of the learning to be dead monologue]


26. On 2005-05-03, Vincent said:

Hey Matt! I was afraid you'd see my post as continuing misunderstanding of you. Nope! No worries. I'm right there with you about your points 1-5, and I'm like "hey you're right, big duh on me" about your point 6.

I'm going to do the ego trip thing too: the supernatural in Dogs is so essential to my experience of the subject matter that I can't understand it as geekery. The game isn't western + supernatural at all, even though people who haven't been there will see it that way. It's just plain early Mormon, fictionalized but essential.


27. On 2005-05-03, Matt Snyder said:

Vincent, to clarify—I didn't read you specifically as, um, misreading me at all. Just the sum of all the replies to various blog posts for several days.

Also, thanks and COOL re: #6! My ignorance of DitV-in-play and Mormonism (is that -ism right?) especially shows through.


28. On 2005-05-03, Vincent said:

Charles, "failure to engage" may certainly be a kind of engagement, if the issue is there and not engaging with it is a pronouncement upon it. Stepping back can be a kind of do do DO!

So let's distinguish between slow play and directionless play.

Slow play is fun. Every situation needs to be adequately established before it can be resolved, and "adequately established" may take a hundred pages of text or hours upon hours of play. It may include very small scale interactions that in isolation seem directionless. They're not though!

Directionless play is boring. And I'm going to do my sweeping generalization thing and say that for humans, directionless play is boring. Identifying whether your play is boring or fun is how you identify whether it's directionless or directed and slow.

I'm talking about the act of roleplaying itself, here, not the social context, by the way. It's possible to have boring play but to have lots of fun around it, making up for it. If that's the case it might be really difficult to figure out whether your play is directionless or merely slow.

But Charles, honestly - when I played with you, it was all conflict all the time, urgent urgent urgent. Maybe your play's changed since then, I suppose. But to me your sticking up for directionless play seems like identity politics!


29. On 2005-05-03, Ghoul said:

I have often described the bronze age setting I've been working on lo these many years as having "deniable magic".  That is, everyone in the game believes there is magic, but if observed from a sceptical PoV, it could all just be "trade secrets" and "faith-driven self-confidnence" and, in fact, there could be no gods and no magic.

I bounce back and forth between this and a "low but obvious magic" being the better choice, and have debated (mostly with myself) just what changes this decision makes.  My inability to make it and stick to it is part of why the project flounders.

Part of this conflict has been my likely players, some of whom are big on the "clean" setting, but some want the broader elements of gods and magic to be real and vital or they aren't interested.

In some ways, I think it's all down to one of the things Joss noticed when creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer...  Remember those early episodes where all the supernatural elements were very obvious metaphors for standard teen issues?  Girl is ignored by everyone, actually becomes invisible.  Evil influences on the internet actually are a demon living there.  Girl sleeps with her boyfriend and he actually does become a different person.  All these supernatural elements were used as levers to magnify existing drama, not to create new.  But RPG players so used to having their drama magnified (or replaced with flash and noise, as it too often is) do seem to have a problem stepping back down to the "tamer" level.

It isn't that the situations aren't just as dramatic, perhaps even more dramatic...  It's just that they aren't as immediately obviously dramatic.

And so, my internal debate continues (though this whole thread is serving as a nice boost for the "scale it back" argument).


30. On 2005-05-03, anon. said:

Hi, Matt!

Thanks for using the term right!

Totally with you wrt 1-4.  6 is a source of considerable embarrassment to me.

5) Isn't it strange that we must argue a bit and flounder around for an appropriate word akin to meaningful to express the bloody obvious? We're talking about a process in which we create stories. We struggle with the words, and we constantly explain our statements, like I'm going to do in this next sentence: I'm using story here as a constructed narrative that expresses a profound theme. God, why must we do that? We are too geeked. I hate that!

This doesn't strike me as odd at all.

Given that we are appropriating the terms of literary theory to describe something totally different (rather like using cooking terms to describe a play—"I found Macbeth medium rare, I think") we're going to need to poke around at the terms and try to define them, rather than just being "Why aren't we right all the time, no matter what?  It's the geek's fault!"

It is a hard process, developing new theory.  Frankly, RPG theory has it easy.  If you think this definitional shit is hard, I invite you to read some Levi-Strauss.

There are at least two totally reasonable things that "story" can mean in the context of an RPG.  Both of them are totally valid wrt the original meaning as a non-theoretical term.  There are at least three mutually exclusive things that "meaningful" can mean, and I'm not allowed to name them on this journal.

God damn it, people, this is what Big Model Theory is about!


I have some questions about what you mean by "ordinary people games"

By "ordinary people games" do you mean "games about ordinary people" or "games that ordinary people would like?"  Do you consider the two categories to be the same.

Either way, do you mean wrt:

Creative Agenda

And, if you mean more than one and see them as the same thing, help me understand how they are connected.



31. On 2005-05-03, Matt Snyder said:

(Jack, right?) That Buffy info and insight is really cool. I have never watched the show, and have no interest in doing so. But, the example really illustrates what I'm talking about in action. I think we geeks do often find that "magnified" drama. Sometimes we get distracted by all the spandex, sometimes we don't.

What's interesting to me, though, is the apparent need for spandex (or whatever other geek magnifier) to enjoy stories. I have no problem with it as a preference, but the outright claims that people "would not play" sans geek elements baffles me.

(And, what I mean is, yeah, I get it. I understand it. But, it's disappointing to me. I think we've trained ourselves so far into what's "cool" that we're missing a whole bunch of stuff that's still cool!)

Ben: I hear you. I'm bitching about it while I'm doing it. I'm just longing, tragically, for the days when I don't have to explain what I mean by "meaningful" and "story."

By "ordinary people games" do you mean "games about ordinary people" or "games that ordinary people would like?" Do you consider the two categories to be the same.

I'm interested on both of those things. And, they are not the same categories (though they overlap, I'm sure).

I'm interested in games that are about "ordinary people." Simultaneously, I'm interested in those games as played by non-geeks / non-gamers. And, I'm interested in those games played by gamers, of course. Who else is gonna do it initially? Probably will be gamers, of course.

But, I'm not sure I understand the remainder of your query there. Can you try it again? I want to answer; I'm just not getting your questions about Seting, Color, Situation, and Creative Agenda.


32. On 2005-05-03, timfire said:

This is a bit tangent, but why are super-whatever elements "geeky"? What were some of the most popluar movies as of late? Spiderman, LotR, Star Wars. Look at videogames, they're all about violence and super-stuff. Videogames are totally mainstream.


33. On 2005-05-03, JasonL said:


Re: Directionless v Slow play

This hits me as key to the development of games that deal with 'real people' sans the spandex.

Pacing is one of the key things that drives fun for me in gaming.

I'd have a hard time playing any game that didn't continually escalate the tension.

In a game sans spandex, real people, real issues, how do you continually ramp up the tension without some serious timing considerations?  I mean to say, how do you do this without the game being structured around a series of time-discontinuous events in the real person's life?  We'd have to have pretty specific situation or character focus to get these kinds of drama-full stories that happen one right on top of another for the same person/character, wouldn't we?

This, in my mind, is part of where the spandex helps, because it's got a ready made reason to hop from one conflict to another to another.

Whereas playing "papers and paychecks" without some other, outside influence, just won't generate the conflict we need to have fun.

For what it's worth, I agree that real people, real situations, sans spandex games are doable, and we should have more of them.  I just think they have to have a laserlike focus on some other factor that brings inherent tension/conflict with it.


"Oh, it's you...


34. On 2005-05-03, timfire said:

BTW, I think its funny that most of this discussion was spurred by Ron E's comments. Look at his up-coming game "Spione." It's not about everyday people, it's about spies in Cold War Berlin. But it's definitely focused on the human element. It focuses on character choices and character relationships, not "action". I think that was what Ron meant.

Anyway, I think it's funny, I think many people just misunderstood Ron's original comment.


35. On 2005-05-03, Matt Snyder said:

Jason, are you suggesting, therefore, that it's ok to have a game that's more unfocused in terms fo tension and conflict so long as we have spandex (or something else to grab onto)? That's what I'm reading, and I find that problematic. ALL games, spandex or otherwise, should be as focused as you suggest for just the "regular folks" games. Am I reading too much there?

Tim, I hear what you're saying. Yes, Spiderman was a mega-hit. Yes, I loved it. Yes, Return of the King won the Oscar for best film. That's great! Totally mainstream, certainly. I love both movies more than I can say!

But, consider, have you ever met a person who just wasn't interested in those movies? I have met dozens, if not hundreds of people in that vein, people for whom Spiderman's love for Mary Jane does less than nothing. My co-workers. My parents. Many, if not all of them, are adults, often baby boomers. These people (no, not all baby boomers) just don't care about all that geek stuff. They aren't interested.

These are the same people who take the following view: Role-playing ... er, excuse me ... D&D is a for ridiculously nerdy, socially offensive goons who still live with their parents. (They have no idea other games exist, and if they do realize it, they are similarly LAME games played by LAME people.) They are the people you (may) try to avoid discussing role-playing with altogether. Why? Not least of all because there ARE ridiculously nerdy, socially offensive goons playing the game. But not you, you claim, while hiding the books in the backpack!

Meanwhile, these are the same people UP TO THEIR NECKS in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code or Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele or the lateset Julia Roberts flick. They are the people who tape The West Wing and watch Survivor live every week.

They're not interested in role-playing because they associate it with anti-social morons. Ergo, the game must also be anti-social and moronic.

Clearly, I disagree that the games and the process of role-playing are anti-social or moronic. I find them to be precisely the opposite of that. It is an entirely healthy social hobby and an intelligent hobby. (Or, at least it has considerable potential to be.)

So, in part, I'm interested in doing my small work to break down that barrier of ignorance to get just a few more people to see that the process is really, really cool. It can do some amazing things. The games, the characters and their situations, will knock your socks off better than ol' Dan Brown any day!

It ain't for everyone, sure. But, as a hobby, we're proceeding with complete and total acceptance of geek culture as divided from the rest of America (and beyond). We retreat into that geek-identity because it makes us feel good. We're embracing it, in part as a big Fuck You to the other people who look down their noses at us. We laugh at all the in jokes, and giggle a bit (and feel uncomfortable a bit) when NBC's new show, The Office, makes fun of us, just as dozens of show did before that.

That's ridiculous, anti-social behavior. We're fulfilling their prophecy about our "STUPID hobby" all in the name of finding like-minded souls.

I get it, I understand that desire. I want to find like-minded souls, too. But, my hobby and my interests are rapidly diverging. It's so high school!

And, I really, really think this happens. All the time, all over the place. Generally speaking, we, as gamers, retreat in our safe basements and safe living rooms with our safe group of like-minded, geeked-out pals. And, we're comfortable.

But, we're also close-minded, defensive hobbyists who lash out when, oh, someone points out that it's absurd we must geek-out all our stories with superpowers and Lovecraft and the Force.

WE are doing this. Not YOU. I'm as guilty as the next guy or gal. Absolutely.

Like I said, I'm both fascinated and frustrated by these observations. I realize I'm slinging mud all over the place now, but I'm covered in my own mud here, too. I have no easy solutions, but I hope to work in my very small way to produce some ideas that break down this great divide as humbly as I can.

Wonderfully, I'm not forced by money to stay on "this side" of that great divide. I can't imagine White Wolf risking a game like Americana for fear of its revenue loss. Small indies like me can avoid all that mess and take a risk with some ideas like that. That's exciting to me! I can be wrong, and not lose my shirt. Cool. It's a risk I can accept gladly. If I even move the needle, fantastic. If I don't accomplish much, but inspire other designers, fantastic.

What happens if I'm completely wrong, and fail entirely? I still have the basement and the living room, and I keep on doing what I enjoy as often as I can enjoy it. In case it wasn't clear, I love America for that reason. I love the hobby for that reason. I'm sure Eero over in Finland gets it, too. It's why I'm making the game I'm making.


36. On 2005-05-03, Chris said:

Hi Jason,

I'd have a hard time playing any game that didn't continually escalate the tension.

In a game sans spandex, real people, real issues, how do you continually ramp up the tension without some serious timing considerations? I mean to say, how do you do this without the game being structured around a series of time-discontinuous events in the real person's life? We'd have to have pretty specific situation or character focus to get these kinds of drama-full stories that happen one right on top of another for the same person/character, wouldn't we?

It's really a matter of suspense of disbelief... all stories are contrived to a degree, but at certain levels we can accept them as "real enough" to enjoy just the same.  Likewise with gaming "real people" you can keep the tension and escalation of problems, just minus the super powers, spooky stuff and high tech, and still produce a decent conflict.  We can go across the boards with movies ranging from Requiem for a Dream, American Pie, Unforgiven, Boyz in the Hood, The Notebook, etc, etc. which keep amping up tension, sometimes with highly contrived situations, but still work.

I mean, for a perfect example, try reading Shakesphere.  You need incredible amounts of suspension of disbelief for what happens in his plays.

What is the key jump we're talking about here is getting play to -stay- focused on the human issues and pacing it correctly.  PrimeTime Adventures does it, Dust Devils does it, so does Riddle of Steel, and if you want to get into the fancy-schmancy powers area, so does Sorcerer, Mountain Witch, Trollbabe and MLWM.  It's not the powers that make the games here, its the resolution and pacing mechanics that keep the focus on the human issues that make it happen.

When we look at most games that try to emulate resolving some form of "physics", there is nothing inherent in physics to encourage the addressing of human issues.  That's why most of our real life lives are usually ho-hum and boring interspersed with really cool or wack shit, unlike TV or movies where technically everything should be engaging.

In order to make up for the lack of pacing mechanics, many games come up with reasons why monsters can appear at any time(flight, teleportation, rifts, time travel, conspiracies "they're everywhere", random encounters, etc. etc. etc.)  Likewise there is some "end of the world" BS going on as well, because no particular relationships are focused on or made a part of play, so everything becomes abstracted...  Consider the difference in emotional engagement between Maximus from Gladiator who just wants to A) be with his family and B) keep his word compared to Nameless Superguy who saves the world...  Sure he saved the world, but its not the same as saving the world just to save one person.  That's drama.


37. On 2005-05-03, Charles said:

Vincent, it is true to some extent that our play is conflict conflict conflict (although our current game is maybe a little bit less so), but it is also true that there was a lot of interesting not stepping up going on. Asonder and Elias may have spent hours of game time yelling at each other, but nothing ever budged, and in the scene in which they faced each other down over Elias's mistreatment of covenant servants, and Asonder told Elias that Elias needed a good spanking, both of them really really wanted to escalate to violence and didn't. You may say, "Not exactly the Dead," and its true, but I'm saying the pleasure was the failure to escalate further, not just the escalating as much as we did. I'm also saying that it was the failure to resolve that made it interesting. Furthermore, I'm saying that a game in which Tydfal's unwillingness to confront Elias at all was given equal screen time, and was equally supported by the system would be a cool system. Tydfal's unwillingness was rich and complex unwillingness, not just "I'm not going to worry about that" unwillingness, but we never really got to see it.

I'm not really arguing for my play style, and I'm not arguing for some sort of s*********ist identity politics (how could I be, when I'm saying that not stepping up makes good thematically rich story? Or was that not the identity politics you meant). What I'm arguing for is better methods for dealing with not stepping up, because not stepping up, handled well, makes for powerful, thematically rich stories. And it can be a lot less of not stepping up than Asonder and Elias not actually attacking each other.

We agree. Not stepping up is cool. Not stepping up builds tension. I go one further and say, sometimes, not stepping up can be resolution (so long as it ends the situation for the moment). "I walk away, having not confronted my demons, leaving the argument for another day," can be resolution.

What I'm saying is that people building real people games (whether those real people also battle laser sharks or not) should pay attention to the interesting aspects of not stepping up. Not stepping up is something that most existing games (including free-form games such as my groups) don't address very well. Perhaps this is obvious. It certainly isn't obvious from the way that most people talk about dramatic games, and it isn't obvious from the way Neel was talking about dramatic real people games.

One of the reasons? How many games give good support to internal monologue? Very, very few that I've ever heard of, but internal monologue is where the really interesting parts of not stepping up generally happen.

Oh, by the way, I think this is a point where maybe I'm saying "you win," cause I think I'm saying formal mechanics might be able (even though they generally don't) to give better support to this than free-form system.


38. On 2005-05-03, JasonL said:

Matt & Charles:

I'm saying that Spandex (defined as any added supernatural element not to be found in your average high-school science book) often provides that setting or character focus needed for enjoyable, tension filled, meaningful and dramatic paly, which makes the rest of it easier.  Remove the Spandex, and finding that focus could be a lot harder, and result in a game that's a lot narrower in scope.  Maybe a lack of meaningfully dramatic content in my own life makes it hard for me to see otherwise...*shrugs*

I agree, Charles, that mechanics (like in the games you mentioned), help to drive this type of rising tension.  But I don't think it's the whole ball of wax.  Divorce DitV's mechanics from the setting, and they'd work to drive tension, but maybe not as well.  Same with Dust Devils, for that matter.


"Oh, it's you...


39. On 2005-05-03, Vincent said:

Charles: "We agree. Not stepping up is cool. Not stepping up builds tension. I go one further and say, sometimes, not stepping up can be resolution (so long as it ends the situation for the moment). 'I walk away, having not confronted my demons, leaving the argument for another day,' can be resolution."

Yes! Yes! Absolutely. You also said "I'm arguing that the 'Do I step up?' question is much more important than the 'Does it turn out well when I do' question..." and yes! yes! absolutely to that too.

I'm uncomfy with the "you win" part, but otherwise I agree with every word you just wrote.

"Not stepping up is something that most existing games (including free-form games such as my groups) don't address very well. Perhaps this is obvious. It certainly isn't obvious from the way that most people talk about dramatic games, and it isn't obvious from the way Neel was talking about dramatic real people games."

Very true. When I talk about taking on the issue - well, it's not obvious that I include "taking on the issue by refusing to take on the issue." It's not obvious that there's even a difference between "taking on the issue by refusing to take on the issue," which I fully support, and "not taking on the issue," which I think sucks.

But there is. I do.

Everybody: Some enterprising designer should please take up Charles' internal monologue challenge. You could handle it kinda like the confessional in InSpectres, maybe.


40. On 2005-05-03, Charles said:


The difference between refusing to take on the issue and just not taking on the issue is a subtle on in sound, but I agree that it makes all the difference in the world.

Oh, and I realize that Matt Snyder was specifically getting at refusing to take on the issue as a cool thing, since he remarked on someone else's description of their weekend including declining a dinner invitation (which sounded like he was seeing potential refusal to engage fodder to me).

And don't worry about the "you win" thing. I don't really see you as saying formal mechanics are better than free-form. Its just that I've previously verged on saying that I thought that there was nothing a formal mechanic could do that a free-form couldn't do just as well. Actually, come to that, I still think that. I think I actually just agree with you that formal mechanics are better teaching tools. Somewhere out there, some one plays free-form with kick ass soliloques, but that doesn't help you or me do it. If someone writes the kick ass soliloque game (with formal mechanics), I'll probably never play it, but I will use its rules as inspiration to develop a free-form equivalent.


41. On 2005-05-03, Sben said:

Man, I read all these responses, and I keep thinking The Sopranos.  No spandex, unavoidable issues, escalating tension.  Is this an example (not the model) of the kind of "regular" people games being discussed?


42. On 2005-05-03, Ben Lehman said:

Apropos of your last response, send me an e-mail.

benlehman at the domain gmail with the suffix com.



43. On 2005-05-03, Matt Snyder said:


Sopranos? Certainly. I've seen only a couple episodes. It is my understanding it is far more family drama than it is gangster show. If so, perfect!


44. On 2005-05-03, Vincent said:

Ben, who is it that you want to email you?


45. On 2005-05-03, Ben Lehman said:


Charles, e-mail me.


46. On 2005-05-03, SK said:

The Civilitas RPG's Arnold Peasgood is a good example of a role-playing character who will never step up to the plate of his internal conflicts, yet whose "Do I dare to eat a peach?"ing has yielded some quite spiffy roleplay.

Written media is simply much better at handling internal monologue than visual/oral media.  If you want an RPG that handles internal processes well, then I believe you'd be far better served by one of the written models of RPG than by one of the improvisational acting models.


47. On 2005-05-04, Gordon said:

I highly recommend reading Ursula K. Le Guin's essay "A Citizen of Mondath" for insights on this topic.  Here's a brie passae - replace "science fiction" with RPGs for maximum effect:

"That is a real danger, when you write science fiction.  There is so little real criticism, that despite the very delightful and heartening feedback from and connection with the fans, the writer is almost his only critic.  If he produces second-rate stuff, it will be bought just as fast, maybe faster sometimes, by the publishers, and the fans will buy it because it is science fiction.  Only his own conscience remains to insist that he try not to be second-rate.  Nobody else seems much to care.

"Of course this is basically true of the practice of all writing, and all art; but it is exagerrated in science fiction."

Lasersharking/superpowers/not normal people are bad to the degree that they contribute to this effect, usually irrelevant if they do not, and occassionaly, when used well by a skilled practioner, a weapon to be used in combating it.


48. On 2005-05-04, Jasper Polane said:

[i]Everybody: Some enterprising designer should please take up Charles' internal monologue challenge.[/i]

My game does this: Characters accumulate Danger during the course of play. At any point, another player can use your character's Danger against him by making an aside to the audience. Basically, you have your CHARACTER explain to the PLAYERS what he's up to.

For example, the villain says to the audience: "Little does he know I have put a bomb in the car! When he starts the engine... Kaboom!" His enemy then has to roll against his Danger to see if he can escape.

However, I think it can be used as an internal monologue as well: Have the character say: "I refuse to take on the issue", and use another character's Danger to show the consequences.



49. On 2005-05-04, Matt Snyder said:

Gordon, you had me at hello.


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