2005-05-03 : Creating Theme

Topical! Wicked topical.

Here's my new essay about creating theme: Creating Theme.

It couldn't be more topical.

It's so topical that it's already obsolete, I had to throw in a postramble to bring it up to speed.

1. On 2005-05-03, Victor Gijsbers said:

Am I allowed to simply say: "Wow, this is great!"?

Not these-are-world-shattering-new-insights-great, but this-is-the-clearest-presentation-I-have-yet-seen-great. I'm going to use this as a reference in many future discussions; I can just feel it.


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

Just as a note:  I'm going to chew your ass about The Far Side of the World in the PS.

Good stuff.

The one thing I can think to say is that often character, situation, setting, color, and premise all sort of emerge at the same time.  Like, when you sit down to play a game of Polaris, you're not like "I have this problematic character, what's the situation" or "I have this premise, what's the character."  You just play.

This is the same with InSpectres, I think.


P.S.  Who is the protagonist of The Far Side of the World: Aubrey or Maturin?  Look at it from Maturin's perspective, especially the last scene.


3. On 2005-05-03, Victor Gijsbers said:

Wait, I do have something more useful to say. You say that theme has the structure: "... causes ...". Does this mean that players in a narrativist game must not only have control over thematic choices of their characters, but also over the results of these choices?

Ron always explains things this way, I think: "There is value A and value B, and here is a situation in which they are in conflict. What do you choose? A? Good. Now, what about this situation? Still A, eh? And what about this, even worse, one?" Here it is the choices that create theme.

But in your scheme, the actual results of the choices figure in a major way. Is this necessarye in roleplaying games? How do current Nar-games empower the players to decide on the effect of their choices?


4. On 2005-05-03, Neel said:

I'm like "yes, yes, yes!", except for the bit where you say you don't get to decide what happens ahead of time. You can make that work, too.

I ran a game called Aquinan Angels, once. In Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, he writes that angels had a different kind of free will than humans. Angels, at the instant of their creation, got a full, comprehensive, and accurate vision of the entire history of the universe, and then they chose whether to accept God or reject Him (ie, fall and become a demon) based on this vision. Once they make their single choice, they will never change their minds, because they can never learn anything they didn't already know when they chose.

So, I wanted to run a game like this. The players made up their angels and demons, and then we spent a session just deciding what would happen in the session of play. That is, we worked out who would go where and what they would do, all ahead of time. Then we played through that, and roleplayed the conversations and gunfights and crises of faith and stuff like that, all knowing how it would turn out. This knowledge was important to have, because we wanted to play angels and demons who knew how everything would turn out before they did it. That way, we could kind of get at the mindset that

The reason this worked was that the plot is not the theme. The action illustrates the theme, and it's up to the players to actually do the work of interpreting the events and deciding what the theme is—and different players can come up with different themes from exactly the same sequence of events.


5. On 2005-05-03, Neel said:

Victor: IME the important thing is not being able to control the effects of your choices. The important thing is that the consequences fall into two categories.

One, some of them have to be consequences that you, the player, could have forseen. This foresight is what makes the choice between alternatives interesting—you can weigh alternatives because you actually have some basis for comparing them.

Two, the consequences you didn't forsee have to be but-for causes. Lawyers have this idea they call a "but-for" cause, in the sense of "But for X's decision, Y would not have happened."  So you have to be able to a) see the causal mechanism at work, and b) that mechanism could have been affected by your choice. This is what makes hypotheticals about the action much richer—you can geek out about what might have been, and those might-have-beens illuminate the actual action.


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

Vincent?  Are you going to submit this to the Forge's Articles section?



7. On 2005-05-03, Ed Heil said:

Wow.  That's, like, really really clear.  I appreciate that.

"addressing premise" was always one of those magical phrases that got bandied about till it was meaningless, like if you said the same word over a thousand times.  It's good to have somebody sit down and say "here, here's what it means."


8. On 2005-05-03, xenopulse said:

Great job.

I am not quite through, but one thing just hit me—remember how I said that my problem with freeform play over the past 9 years is that people stay in their comfort zone and don't play out the fun conflicts? That totally correlates to the "no way out" part of your essay, where you say that people in real life try to avoid the conflict and go with an answer that lets them safely deposit the friend before they pursue the enemy.

That's *exactly* what's happening in a lot of freeform play. People have all the narrative power they want. A conflict arises. It can have great potential, but then, the players wimp out and make up some Deus Ex Machina to defuse the situation. Is that human nature? Maybe. But it takes the oomph out of the game.

And then we get situations where players get frustrated with one another because they ruin each other's conflict with easy resolution ("I insta-heal you so you don't have to sacrifice yourself!"), or they ignore other players' input so that they can go through with their theme.

So that's what I would love to get out of design: allow for the most creative freedom while at the same time making players get out of that damn comfort zone. And keep them from pushing me into mine, too!

- Christian


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

I have to admit I got kind of teary eyed reading that.

I have this very strong feeling that one of the things that makes you such a fantastic writer on this stuff is that you are one of the rare fundamentally decent people in the world. I'm not sure I can explain that, but I have a strong feeling it is so.


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

Oh for goodness sake.


11. On 2005-05-03, Meguey said:

(I agree with Charles. Deal.)


12. On 2005-05-03, Collin M. Trail said:

That was great Vincent, I found this very helpful.

One thing I was happy to see is that you aren't suggesting that anyone come up with theme ahead of time, because in my experience that hasn't worked.

In fact, this essay has provided me with some concepts that are helping me understand the development of my own gaming style. I usually am the one running games for my group. When I first became interested in trying to address weighty human issues in gaming, I tried to do so by either creating a theme or an issue, and putting the characters in situations which addressed these issues. I found that they usually didn't buy into it. I realized that this was because the theme/issue was all in my head, and had been created independently from whatever characters they were playing.

My next stage was to wait until the characters had been designed, try to guess at what their issue was, and create situations addressing that issue. The difficulty with this has been that sometimes I can't identity their issue, or they don't have one, or the issues addressed by the different characters are so diverse that the situation becomes schizophrenic.

Now that I am a little more conscious of what is going on, I can see that I need to communicate with the players about what issues we want to address. I'm a little worried, though, that we will have difficulties finding an issue that will be engaging to all of us. It strikes me that there are at least two ways to build a consensus about any of these issues- either everyone works cooperatively to find something that will be acceptable to all, or some authority decides unilaterally. Now, traditionally the person running the game decides the situation, and players are used to letting authority on that subject be centralized, as long as the situation seems somewhat appealing. But the character and the issues that character is 'about' are traditionally controlled by the player of that character, so I suspect people will be hesitant to give up control in that area. Especially since traditional gaming follows the model of a facist god for the gamemaster, ceding relatively little control to the players, they may want to have full control over the one area they normally are fully in charge of. (I think this is also at the heart of why many people resist rule mechanics which influence the mind and emotions of a character- so much is usually taken away, that no one wants to give up the one thing they still have control over). Any thoughts on this?

It also makes me wonder whether addressing multiple issues is a good or a bad idea. It might increase player buy in, but at the possible cost of fragmenting vision.

You wrote ?I've written about this quite a bit:  resolving the immediate conflicts that make this situation unstable transforms this situation into a new one.? Any suggestions on good posts to read to review that? Certainly something I'd like to be solid on.

I found Victor's comment about how this may imply that players need more control of consequences in narrativist play interesting, and would like to discuss this more. That seems to follow, but... being able to decide what the consequences of your conflict are somehow make it seem flat to me. If I can predict all of the consequences when I make my choice, then I'm just choosing the consequences as well... I'm not exactly sure why, but it seems like it would deflate the tension.

Finally, you mention wanting to use dice to create and build tension without harming causality, and say that we have some good ways of doing this. Any resources you could suggest for more information on this subject?

Again, good work, I found this very useful and look forward to discussing it more.


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

It strikes me that there are at least two ways to build a consensus about any of these issues- either everyone works cooperatively to find something that will be acceptable to all, or some authority decides unilaterally.


This is exactly what we have system for!  So we don't need to slowly and painfully build a group consensus about what the game is "about," and the poor GM isn't left high and dry trying to guess.

I'm going to reccommend that you check out two games:

Sorcerer (check out the Kicker mechanic)
Riddle of Steel  Just the first book, not the supplements (check out the Spiritual Attribute mechanic)

Once you have purchased and read these games:  See how these mechanics tell the GM exactly what is going on with that character, and what to do about it?



14. On 2005-05-03, Collin M. Trail said:

Oh, and I also wanted to ask- what is the best way to introduce more topics for discussion? I've had a couple of thoughts I've been chewing up for a while and would love to discuss with a community interested in the subject. Just put a comment at the bottom of the freshest topic? Or is there a better place?


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

Collin—I forgot the most important thing.

I've been through that same thing *exactly* as you describe it.  Like, the whole trying to guess what the character is up to thing *sucks*  There is all this pressure on you.  But, if you don't do it, the game doesn't jam.  Man!

That's why the two above games (and a lot of others, too, like Vincent's Dogs) are just awesome.


P.S.  Another game is Primetime Adventures  Look at the Screen Presence and Issue mechanics.  This game makes it so easy it feels like cheating.


16. On 2005-05-03, Collin M. Trail said:

Thanks Ben. I way already interested in checking those out, I'll have to make sure I get around to it soon.

I may get a better answer by doing what you suggest and buying and reading those games, but since I'm impatient I'll hit you with some questions now...

I can imagine that a particular game could have a set issue which it supports and directs the game towards, but wouldn't this mean that each game could only be address a particular issue? And wouldn't whoever chose the game be dictating an issue that the rest of the group might not buy into?

I could also imagine that a game could include a way of communicating the issue between the player and the gamemaster, but in this case would there be any way to support consensus on the issue between players?

I guess what I really want is a mechanism that allows all the players to have input about what the issue will be, and also foster communication between the players and gamemaster about what the issue is. Do you think either or both of these games do that?


17. On 2005-05-03, Judd said:

I'm not sure the issue can be decided on before the game starts and stay static.  It shifts, becomes something different and in the end the moral isn't where you thought or even where you wanted it to be.

I think the best games start with a theme and take it to a place no one was fully expecting.  That's the beauty of it all, not knowing where it is going to go or what the answer is going to be.

Luke's con scenarios, The Gift and Poisonous Ambition are really good at examining fantasy tropes in that way, not sure what the answers are but asking:

Why don't Elves and Dwarves get along?


Why don't Orcs rule the world?

This is a great article, Vincent.  Thanks.  My wheels are turning.


18. On 2005-05-04, Ben Lehman said:

I guess what I really want is a mechanism that allows all the players to have input about what the issue will be, and also foster communication between the players and gamemaster about what the issue is. Do you think either or both of these games do that?

All of the games I mentioned do that very very well, which is why I picked them.  Let me describe the mechanics simply.

Sorcerer's Kicker mechanic works like this:  The player writes a "Kicker," which is a description of the event that boots his character into action at the start of play.  It is literally the thing that happens just before play starts, that moves him into action and makes him a character.

Example Kickers:

"I woke up this morning and my dresser was entirely filled with human hands."

"I got a date with the prettiest girl in school"

"The priest-cult of my city-state will execute me at dawn for challenging their power."

Riddle of Steel's Spiritual Attribute mechanic works like this:  You have five (5!) "spiritual attributes" which define things that are important to the character's storyline.  Mostly these are things that the character cares about, but they can also be things like destiny and conscience.  These are the source of your bonus dice (and very significant bonus dice—in a 4-10 scale they can give up to +25!) and your experience points, so SAs are a way of telling the GM "Hey, I will jump at this thing if you give it to me."  Also—you can change them on the fly, during play, at no penalty.

Example Spiritual Attributes

Faith: Christianity
Faith: Class Superiority
Drive: Be the best swordsman
Drive: Drive the Moors out of Spain
Passion: Love of Buttercup
Passion: Hatred of the Six-Fingered Man
Destiny: Rule as King
Destiny: Die hungry, friendless, and alone
Destiny: Drive the family to ruin

That sort of thing.

Primetime Adventures... man, someone else take this one.  The mechanic is so tightly wound up with everything else in the game it is hard to explain without just rewriting the rulebook.  You have an Issue, which must resolve in the course of 5 or 9 sessions, and a Story Arc, which shows exactly how important you and your Issue are to any session in particular.  It is genius!  Genius!

Do you see how these things work?



direct link

This makes...
best P go "Only at best Poker games such as Texas HoldEm best Poker games such as Texas"*
BL go "They're in the marginalia!"*
SLB go "At least..."*
roulet go "When you truely want to play roulette basics look no further"*
SLB go "Dammit."*

*click in for more

19. On 2005-05-04, Ninja Hunter J said:

Primetime Adventures requires everyone to write down 5 things about their character: two or three people you can count on for whatever reason to do stuff for you, and two or three things about you that are incontrovertable truths (No one dares lie to me. I'm the fastest gun in the West. I'm a robot.)

You use those things to confront your Issue. This is something unfulfilled that you want. Vengeance for the death of my husband. A Red Ryder BB gun. I will find the Two-Armed Man.

Your ability to confront your Issue is determined by your Screen Presence for the given episode, determined at character creation. You're a background character for two episodes, a secondary character for two, and the pivotal character in one (for a 5-episode season. I guess you can play 9? I didn't remember that.)

What that means is that it can confront any theme you can work into a character concept. It might not do Trust as well as Mountain Witch, or Judgement as well as Dogs, but it's a theme toolkit that lets you work with whatever theme you dig up for Your Guy.


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

Speaking of PTA . . .

When Vincent says "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," he's oh-so-correct.  In the Moose in the City PTA game last GenCon, my character was approached by the Moose with a dilemna.  I had her ignore the Moose.  Because of my characters' Issue (personal connections vs. career goals, as I recall) and where that story arc was during that episode (building but not resolved - I forget what number that is), folks were able to figure out that I was taking on the issue, not just ignoring it.

Seems to me that having some way (system, social contract, SOMETHING) to distinguish between the take-on-by-refusing and the just-refusing is really important.


21. On 2005-05-04, GB Steve said:

In the games I play, more often than not it's C+(A+B or B+A).

That is, the dynamic situation creates the tension and forces the player to chose a side for his character.

So, whilst you might be a rebel against the Empire but when you find out that your previously-thought-dead dad leads the Empire, you have to make a choice. It's premise in play. I'd even argue that in most mainstream games this is what happens.

Most games tend to have implicit notions of what the theme is. You're all freedom fighters against the Empire or knights who must way duty against feelings. These work perfectly well as long as the GM has an explicit understanding of this and applies his craft to the areas where the system supports the creation of tension.

As for dice being dangerous to this tension, they are often seen are enablers/resolvers of dramatic tension (e.g. in Pendragon when you roll a trait or in Cthulhu when you make a SAN roll). There's much invested in dice as a driving force and I'm not sure your argument is strong enough to counter that. I know I've tried it!

For example it can be argued that the players have signed up to the model of the world that includes dice as a resolution mechanic and so anything they indicate is per se logical.

Nice as your article is, I'm not sure it's saying anything new, or even packaging the whole in an exciting fashion. I don't think it's news to anyone that roleplaying is about putting characters in interesting situations to see what happens.


22. On 2005-05-04, Emily Care said:

GB Steve wrote:
Most games tend to have implicit notions of what the theme is. You're all freedom fighters against the Empire or knights who must way duty against feelings. These work perfectly well as long as the GM has an explicit understanding of this and pplies his craft to the areas where the system supports the creation of tension.
Exactly. It's dependent on the GM having an understanding of the process that Vincent outlined. It may be that if you already apply this process it seems obvious. But, unfortunately, it is not so to everyone.

Collin's post gives a perfect example of the oh so common progression that GMs go through:

When I first became interested in trying to address weighty human issues in gaming, I tried to do so by either creating a theme or an issue, and putting the characters in situations which addressed these issues. I found that they usually didn't buy into it....

My next stage was to wait until the characters had been designed, try to guess at what their issue was, and create situations addressing that issue. The difficulty with this has been that sometimes I can't identity their issue, or they don't have one, or the issues addressed by the different characters are so diverse that the situation becomes schizophrenic.

Now that I am a little more conscious of what is going on, I can see that I need to communicate with the players about what issues we want to address. I'm a little worried, though, that we will have difficulties finding an issue that will be engaging to all of us...

Now, instead of making ever individual game group go through all these lessons, stumbling through in the dark & maybe never getting there, rule sets like the ones Ben described let any group do this simply & easily.

Neel K's post on 20X20 expressed a very similar experience with gaming about "regular situations", except he has found the formula that works for his goals: the one V. outlines above.



23. On 2005-05-04, Ghoul said:

As an active diceless player who also seriously loves probability and dice, I have to say I really like your points re: the 'split personality' role of dice.  You make some of the points I was stiving for in the 20x20 thread but with a whole lot more clarity and economy of words.


24. On 2005-05-04, Vincent said:

I think this is mostly housekeeping:

Collin: any topic you want to discuss, post it in the Ongoing Open House up top. I don't get to everything in there but I try.

For more about conflict resolution, maybe start here: Participant Resolution vs. Author Resolution. Post questions in the open house.

GB Steve: I hope I'm not saying anything new! I'm happy if I'm just saying it clearly.

This essay has a particular small place in my overall agenda. It's ... what did I say, Hello Sailor? ... step 3 of 5, part 1? Something like that.

I lay out the steps in a comment, um, about exactly halfway down this page: As Author and As Participant in Context.


25. On 2005-05-04, GB Steve said:

I'm sure that theme awareness makes a GM's job easier but there are other some rather thorny issues that are glossed over:

- if the theme is implicit to the players, they might not be taking the same direction as the GM. You might say, "Well then, make the theme explicit" but that isn't always popular and might throw up more divisions than it heals (e.g. explicit themes can be seen as 'spoilers').

- there isn't generally just one theme in a game. The beauty of different characters (and players) is that a common situation will likely throw up several different and possibly competing themes. Can the game support them all? If not, which theme do you go with?

- if dice are theme spoilers and players like dice, then how is this issue to be resolved?

- even in vanilla fantasy there are common themes, such as what to do with the good orc or should good characters kill (in other words, themes are already there). Even when the theme is explicitly something else, how do you keep the focus on that rather than being sidetracked into one of the many implicit themes? And in any case, should you even try? In other words, are all themes equally worthy of exploration? And if not, what makes one theme better than another.

I'm not saying your analysis is unhelpful. It's a good starting point but it doesn't really get to grips with anything contentious.


26. On 2005-05-04, Vincent said:

Steve, "a good starting point but it doesn't really get to grips with anything contentious" is exactly what I was aiming for. I'm very pleased to hear that I hit it, even that I was anywhere near.

Those are all thorny issues, yes! Once we're solid about what a theme is and how to make one, we can start taking them on.


27. On 2005-05-04, Collin M. Trail said:

Ben, Ninja- Thanks for the suggestions. I had heard a little about the Kicker and Spiritual Attribute mechanics, but I didn't know so much about PTA. I look forward to reading more about all three.

I can see how this mechanics can help me reach two of my goals- communication between the players and gamemaster about the issues to be dealt with, and thus give input about what issues will should be addressed.

However, there is one other thing I'd like to do, and I don't see that these mechanics would be enough for it- build some kind of consensus, or at least compatibility, of vision for the game. I don't see anything that would keep the players from each choosing a completely unrelated issue for their character, making it nearly impossible to come up with situations that address them all, and giving the story a schizophrenic feel. I don't mean to attack these mechanics, both because I haven't seen them yet and they may do more than I realize, and because they seem like a huge step forward compared to where I am now, but they don't take me all the way to where I want to be.

One way in which they certainly do help this goal is by fostering communication. If I can see what each player's issue is early, I can try to troubleshoot conflict and encourage communication between the players. I could just try to solve this through normal human communication- we all sit around and hammer out what some fun, compatible issues would be before the game- but the idea seems to be that systems can help smooth these things out, and give a stronger framework to start from, which seems like a good idea.

Also, a comment on something I noticed in some of the above replies- I might have misunderstood the comments, but there seems to be some confusion between what is meant by issues and theme. I've been trying to apply these terms as closely as possible to how I understand Vincent to have used them in his essay. So although it might not be a good idea to define the theme ahead of time, it seems that not much is spoiled by picking a particular issue. When me and my group decide to play a game based around the conflict between a conservative and progressive political faction, we have settled upon a situation, but we have also tightened the issue a little as well. We could even tighten it further, to 'conflict between tradition and justice' or 'when is revolution necessary?' without 'spoiling' anything, or dictating the themes that will be suggested by the game.


28. On 2005-05-04, Ben Lehman said:

I don't see anything that would keep the players from each choosing a completely unrelated issue for their character, making it nearly impossible to come up with situations that address them all, and giving the story a schizophrenic feel.

To some degree, that technology is still in development.  Design a game for it!

But, also, reaching that consensus is actually a lot less of an issue now that the Issues of the game are on the table.  Other players can look at your Issues and go "Uh, hey, that doesn't jive for me.  Maybe you could do this?"  Though that process is not mechanicanical, that's a huge step up, and often all that's needed.

All of these games rely on you making characters together, with everyone engaged in each other's stuff.



29. On 2005-05-04, JasonL said:


Whoot!  This essay threw me for a loop for lots of reasons, but most of all because it's the best explanation in (mostly) layman's terms of why a game needs some kind of focus to reliably and consistently drive toward theme-laden play.

This was the line that did it for me:
...initial setup and situation-to-situation escalation are the game designer's.  As a game designer, I reach into your group and I influence how you set up your situations and how you resolve them..

I'm reading into this that, as a game designer, you also potentially reach into the group and influence the characters.

Anyway, kudos.

How and when do dice break logic or causality?  Is this just Task Resolution all over again?  I.E. if I'm playing the captain from Master & Commander, no way I'd slip on the decking and be swept off the boat, even if I *did* fail my Acrobatics (or whatever) check.  But, if instead of being swept out to see, that failure meant that there was some other meaningful consequence (I couldn't get to the mainmast in time to prevent my friend from getting swept out to sea!), then the dice don't violate the causality.  Is that a correct example?


What Ben said is key:
All of these games rely on you making characters together, with everyone engaged in each other's stuff..

Without this, yeah you could end up with a chaotic mess that isn't easy to control.  The Relationship Map technique that's spelled out in Sorcerer's supplement "Sorcerer & Soul" is a great way to close the loop between group character creation and GM prep in a way that provides lots of meaty potential situations of the type Vincent talks about in this essay.


"Oh, it's you...


30. On 2005-05-04, Collin M. Trail said:

Alright, so as a gamemaster (and as a player, hopefully) I keep in mind what I know about the structure of dramatic conflict to make the game meaningful. I can support this through mechanics that encourage addressing the issue, and which communicate the issue clearly between the gamemaster and players. We design characters together in order to communicate the issues we want to address, and hopefully find either a common issue or set of compatible issues to work on together. (Actually, I can see a possible place where a Gamist agenda could conflict here. Desiring not to share a characters goals so as to prevent being controlled by another character. I guess this could also have a Narrativist agenda- fostering tension by concealing information about characters- how could this be resolved?) I'd like to have a better mechanism for coordinating the issues of the characters, but getting them out in the open is a good start- maybe I'll need to innovate my own...

Some other things I'd also like to talk about...

Does it hurt to address too many issues? When does this work, and when doesn't it?

What is all this about dice and how they help and hurt the process?

Do players need to control outcomes in order to determine theme? Or is it sufficient to make choices about priorities? Is judging the decision part of where the rest of the group comes into the process of determining your character's take on theme?


31. On 2005-05-04, Valamir said:

Its especially interesting, and not at all surprising, that you can see this entire progression occur in movies, TV and novels and identify where they work and where they fall apart and draw direct parallels to the role playing experience.  Completely in the face of those who claim role playing is so different from those other art forms that we can't make direct comparisons.

I've been watching episodes of the old 80s TV show Tour of Duty on DVD (its amazing how well that show has stood up to the passage of time relative to most 80s shows).  A recent episode I watched involved a USO chopper crashing in the jungle and the survivors being discovered by the heros.  One could immediately identify the thematic choice "Safety of the civilians vs. completing the mission objectives".  One could also immediately see Possibility One rear its head.  The most sane choice any real world person would choose would be to call for a chopper to take the civilians back and then proceed with the mission.  So you KNOW as an intelligent viewer that there's a big catch coming that will prevent that or there will be no show.  The trick is that the catch has to be one that leads to possibility 6 and not possibility 5.  In the show the radio's batteries were dead and they couldn't call for a chopper.  I don't know how common a problem dead radio batteries were in nam, but one can easily see how that could wind up going either way.

Of course you build your RPG sessions and design the games this way.  This is basic drama 101 type stuff.  The ancient Greeks knew how to do this, its astonishing that we RPGers need to relearn it as if seeing it for the first time.

This essay also neatly targets why Task Resolution is such a failure for this sort of play.  The whole idea is to get your A+B+C all firing together so you have a meaningful conflict to address.  Random elements are good so long as no matter which way the dice fall you either maintain, or resolve the A+B+C issue.  Any random element that has a chance of breaking the A+B+C relationship can thus obviously be seen as being counter productive to what you're trying to achieve.  Since Task Resolution is typically applied with complete disregard for A+B+C, many of the occassions where it will be called upon the roll will have the potention to completely breat the relationship.  Conflict Resolution on the other hand has as its entire point ensuring that no matter how the randomness falls out there is still a meaningful A+B+C (perhaps altered) to work of off.

Good stuff.



32. On 2005-05-04, xenopulse said:


You just made a connection for me that totally clicked. When I think about the parts of my regular RP group sessions I don't like, I think at least half of them come down to using a task resolution system (the other half having to do with player input limits). My character is deprotagonized, i.e., failure just sucks (whereas with conflict resolution, failure could kick ass). And we waste too much time resolving tasks (orientation, picking locks, blah blah) that have absolutely no value for me in terms of story or theme.

- Christian


33. On 2005-05-05, Kat Miller said:

I just wanted to say thank you.

I think I got it now (which means I probably don't, but I THINK I do and thats the important part)

This Explains why some of the FFRP between me and My SO has been flat.  Some of it is really good.  Emotionally turmoil-y good.  I was playing a throw away character- She only had name when it was necessary- She was the Kings "Chambermaid" and had been so for the last 16 years since his wife had mysteriously died.  She just discovered she was pregnant.  Her issue is the Man that she idolizes vs. the Child she wants to have.  Her Dynamic Situation- the king is possessive and he loves her (just not publicly)  The scene started with Me announcing my resignation.

The next two hours of play were full of urgency Because er love of the King includes that of his Reputation and she's wiling to protect him from himself if need be but she can't bare to give up a second child (which is when the King learns that she gave away her first one 16 years ago.)

This was back story play.  The play was supposed to center around the 16 year old that the Chambermaid gave away.  Her issue is she just discovered that her real mother comes from the Great country to the east, she's been living a Cinderella lifestyle as an Inn Drudge.  Her choice to stay or go? not really conflict-y.  We played out a flat hour of her challenging the overbearing Drunken Inn keep and getting Smacked Down then she was whisked away by the young son of the Inn Keep and even being captured by slavers didn't help much.  The Story was flat.  It lacked theme.

SO thank you.  Cause this stuff is not intuitive.  I've been gaming a long time, and with some people you click and everything works itself out giving the illusion that good play is natural.  Ive played with enough different people and have shifted the power of play in enough different direction to strongly believe that good play is a skill, and anything that you learn which improves your skill can only benefit everyone you play with.



34. On 2005-05-05, GB Steve said:

One of the things I've picked up on here and that is very apparent if you play octaNe is that conflict failure is an important part of the game and should not be discounted.

It's very easy in octaNe to always narrate conflict success because the players generally have narrative control but if this happens the game becomes, as Ron Edwards discovered, very flat.

If you look at task resolution systems, conflict resolution usually depends on the overall success in a series of task resolutions. At any point you might encounter heroic success or dismal failure through a fumble or critical. In effect, task conflict resolution is always in the balance. This is part of what makes task resolution so exciting.

In octaNe in particular where you could just take your narrative control and narrate a resolution to the entire game it's important that the players and the GM be aware that a good narrative involves some kind of failure along the way to make it interesting.

So how can conflict resolution stay as exciting as task resolution? There are probably a number of ways of doing this.

You can break down the overall conflict into smaller chunks so that there's no global resolution in one go. (Players tend to do this naturally anyway but I've been seeing some strange results in the Capes game examples where players deliberately choose conflicts that break the natural idea of storytelling.)

You can institutionalise failure. I've written a system called the token system. It's narrative and based on the structure of film narratives. There are two parts to this.

The first is that you can't get a success until you've had a failure (when you fail you take a token which you can later pay back to succede). The second is that the scope of failures and success has to become bigger as the narration progresses (typically as things progress in a film the stakes become higher) so you need to fail ever more spectacularly to earn a token. You could introduce dice to make the use of tokens less certain if you like.

You can introduce some kind of overall threshold for success. My Life with Master does this. The endgame is not triggered until Love>Fear+Weariness. It's quite easy to export this to other types of game so in a Cthulhu game you might say that the endgame starts when Knowledge>Corruption+Fear for example.


35. On 2005-05-05, Sydney Freedberg said:

So the basic structure is, "A or B? A or B? Choose!"

And you've already said, based on Charles's comments, that refusing to choose is a choice, right?

So let me take that further:

The essay implies (I think) that if the story/game asks "A or B?" and the character walks away with both A and B (e.g. Master & Commander), that's a cop-out. Maybe that's not what you meant, but if you didn't think that way I'm sure some people here are, so I'll address it.

Getting A+B is obviously the dream-comes-true-huge-sigh-of-relief-off-the-hook outcome. But it's not necessarily a cop-out. Sometimes, in life, the world gives you a break. And sometimes you outgrow your old dilemmas.

Consider my daughter, 14 months old Tuesday. Right now, her A vs. B is "stand or move?" Because if she stands up to see better and grab things, she can't get very far; but if she goes down on all fours and crawls, she can't see far or grab things. And right now, she's pretty cranky a lot of the time, because A or B? A or B? Stand or move?

But very very very soon she's going to learn to walk, and then, BAM! A+B. Move while standing up. Stand up while moving. The heavens open. The Red Sea parts. The scales fall from the eyes.

And it's not an easy out not only because it was hard getting there, but because it throws her into a whole new world of A's vs. B's she couldn't have imagined before.

This happens all over the place.

The abused child who grows up to have a series of abusive relationships is constantly having to choose, free but lonely or together but abused? A or B? And then one day you might a decent person and suddenly you can be together and free. A+B.

And the Gospels are all about this. Do good or avoid suffering? A or B? You even have Peter going "B! B! I do not know that man!" and choosing life over virtue, and Judas choosing the 30 pieces of silver to betray his Master, whereas Jesus keeps on healing and preaching and restraining His followers from violence until the nails slam through His skin. BUT. Judas hangs himself—so neither A nor B—and Peter repents and Jesus comes back, so the answer to the dilemma is not just "A+B," virtue plus life, but in fact "if not A then never, lastingly, B; but if A, then, ultimately, by the grace of God, B."

Which may be too-good-to-be-true-wish-fulfillment-treacle. Or it may be outgrowing the limits of the old dilemma.

Aaaaand... dragging this back around to roleplaying:

This is where your "not knowing the answer before you start" comes in. This is where the dice, or other means of injecting uncertainty, come in. The one time my group played Dogs (see, we ended up facing down a teenaged sorceress, a kid really, a huge threat to the whole community, plus she was killing us; and one of us fired (not me; I couldn't bring myself to) and took her down... but the fallout dice rolled low and she lived and had a chance to repent. Afterwards I told the player who'd decided to fire, "You shot her just enough to save her soul"; and he said, "No, I got lucky."

If the all-powerful narrator (GM or freeformer) says, "Okay, fine, A+B," it's too easy, it's a cop-out. But if you roll the right result against all odds.... well, maybe that's luck, and maybe it's grace. And it's definitely not an easy out if you walk away with the nail marks in your hands.

Short form: A or B? A or B? Sometimes A and B.


36. On 2005-05-05, Valamir said:

"but because it throws her into a whole new world of A's vs. B's she couldn't have imagined before."

Sydney, I think that's your key right there.  A+B is not a cop out if and only if it opens up a whole new world of A's vs. B's.

If not.  If it just ends with A+B...then its a cop out.  From a nar stand point premise was never addressed.


37. On 2005-05-05, Sydney Freedberg said:

Yeah, you're right... I think. Acceptance of grace is not the happily-ever-after; it's "now you really begin," it's "the peace of God / it is no peace / but strife closed in the sod / and yet us pray / for but one thing..."

Question: What does it take to get your final A+B and the happy ending without copping out, though? Is it simply that the nail-marks have to show?


38. On 2005-05-06, pete_darby said:

rambled about at length here:


39. On 2005-05-08, Valamir said:

"Question: What does it take to get your final A+B and the happy ending without copping out, though? Is it simply that the nail-marks have to show?"


Good question.  I'm thinking that players will generally have a sense when their character's story is over.  When the book of their time in the spot line is finished.  If at that time they manage to finagle an A+B ending...that's probably a good thing.

Or looked at from the other side.  If you've managed to make your thematic statement, address your premise, AND wind up with an A+B situation...thats probably a good indication its time to retire the character.


40. On 2005-05-08, KingstonC said:

Getting A+B is a cop out when the player buys into the A+B paradigm, but gets A+B anyway. A+B is not a cop out when you create a different conflict (X or Y) one where X is "I can have A or B but not both" and Y is "A or B but not both is a false dychotomy" and the player chooses B.

The presence of a hard choice doesn't change, but what the hard choice is about does.


41. On 2005-05-08, Vincent said:

Also, "here are the two sides of the issue, I must choose one" is only one of many different ways to have a stake in the issue, and a simplistic one at that. Having a stake in the issue is practically always more complicated and nuanced than "do I choose friendship or duty?"


42. On 2006-01-27, Roger said:

> You need a character with a stake in the issue. "I take one side of the issue very strongly" is a stake in the issue.

I've seen this messed up badly too many times.  It usually looks something like this:

We have our good friends, GameMaster G and Player P.

G:  So, we're going to do one of those Narrative games.  I'm thinking of an issue something like Honour vs Family.

P:  Sounds great!  How about if I'm a samurai?  I'll take the Honor side of the issue very strongly.

G:  Sounds good to me.  Alright, you are summoned by the lord to whom you've sworn fealty.  He orders you to kill your wife, who, it has been discovered, is a spy for a foreign power.

P:  Alright.  I slit her throat while she sleeps that night.

G:  What?  But what about the importance of Family?

P:  My character feels very strongly that Honour is more important.  Look, it says so right here on my character sheet.

And then it's just any one of a dozen common bitter arguments.

These sorts of zealot characters are incredibly easy to build within most Narrative systems, and they're problematic in all of them.

I'm probably sounding pretty hard on Player P right now, but I really shouldn't be.  He's followed all the rules and recommendations.  He's done exactly what his friend G has asked him to do.  He's playing in good faith to the best of his ability.  And yet he somehow ends up the bad guy most of the time.

Some games manage to dodge this issue.  Sorcerer is particularly clever, though that cleverness hinges on Humanity.  Of course, it doesn't work unless you take some care defining Humanity.  At its heart, it's something that has to be inherently as least as important as any other thing in the character's life.

This produces a choice for the character, which is, to some degree, what Narrative games are all about, and what zealot characters inherently avoid.

Now, I'm not saying that it isn't possible to set up the crazy samurai situation in Sorcerer.  But I believe it's designed such that it's conducive to setting up issues of [Issue X] vs Humanity, and the characters, who care deeply about Issue X, also get this default deep concern about Humanity.

I would suggest, therefore, that any decent character really needs at least two stakes in the issue, one on either side.  A character with a single stake is insufficient.

I know this is probably stuff that has Vincent and a lot of other Narrative-experienced people saying "Well, duh, of course it has to be that way."  But I'm not kidding when I say that I've seen lots of good intentioned people walk down this unmarked dead-end.


43. On 2006-01-27, Trevis Martin said:

I'm not sure that they are problematic at least I don't find the example given to be problematic.  The choice taken in your example seems legit to me.  My immediate response as GM would be "Wow, okay, so the next day her brother comes to visit"  And have a ton of NPC's, her family for example, take the Family side of the issue.  Maybe have someone reveal that she is not, in fact, the spy and the accusation was false.  Talk about consequendes galore! I mean, if a player wants to be zealous, let him.  Dogs hits this all the time.



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This makes...
SLB go "Ditto."

44. On 2006-01-27, Roger said:

Hmmm.  There's definitely a potential for a story there— probably the plot I've heard referred to as "bastard get what he deserves."  I'm not entirely sure it succeeds as "a game consisting of interesting choices" in the sense that the character is defined by the maxim "In any situation, I will always choose X over Y."

The play is definitely thematic.  I think it falls down in the player participation area.  Once the character is defined, he's more or less on autopilot.  The player is so non-participatory that he's no longer required.


45. On 2006-04-02, Curly said:

I watched Master & Commander tonight.

It seemed to me that the Captain faced a mutually-exclusive choice—between noble War/ to keep the vile French from taking-over the world; vs. noble Science/ so his Doctor friend could unlock the mysteries of the Galapagos, 30 years before Darwin.

That the Doctor was briefly allowed to set foot on the Island only serves to heighten tension, not scupper it: since Doc gets so-close-he-can-taste-it to the islands' mysteries... only to have to veer-away to War, repeatedly... before ever achieving the profound scientific breakthrough that we-the-audience know is waiting to be found.

It's like that Eisenhower quote:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children...
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

(From the Chance for Peace address delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953.)


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This makes...
NinJ go "Great quote!"

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