2009-04-27 : Dice & Cloud: a Symmetry

(These are, as it happens, the diagrams that started this whole outgushing. I drew them on a napkin at Packard's during a conversation with Emily. Again later with Rob and J.)

Say I'm prepping to play Ars Magica. I go through character creation and duly create this elaborate character sheet, 2 pages or 4 pages long and covered with numbers and jargon-words. My character's Creo is 6 (which means it cost 21 pts), his Herbam is 3 (which means it cost 6), he has Piercing Gaze and Cyclic Magic (-3 to +3 winter to summer), he has an archer's short sword and his Soak is 3. Pages of this stuff, and since this is troupe-style Ars Magica I might make 3 or 4 characters to start with.

Now I sit down with my group - Meg and Emily - and we play. It turns out that what our game is about is the personal relationships between our various characters, their ambitions and treacheries and love affairs, and about the political relationships between this group of our characters and these other groups.

Ars Magica can go other ways in play. This is my group I'm talking about.

How many times in the game do we care that my character's Creo is 6, Herbam is 3, Soak is 3? Approximately none. But I'm a stickler by nature, so for a long time into play, I try to make sure that everybody's character sheets are fair, legal and up-to-date. I demand XP, for goodness sweet sake, and I improve my character's Soak even though why on earth?

When we roll dice, it's kind of a high-good-low-bad thing, although I insist that at least we take the character sheets out of the drawer and pretend we care what they say.

I maintain the character sheets as kind of a record of what's happened, but they don't contribute meaningfully to play.

Eventually I let the official Ars Magica character sheets go. It takes me an embarrassingly long time, and worse, for another long time I keep trying to replace them with something else. "If we make our characters as Pendragon characters," I say, "surely then we'll use the character sheets?" Yikes. The truth is that for each character we need about as much information as will fit on a post-it, and for dice we need a high-good-low-bad scheme (Otherkind's). That's how our game works.

Character sheets? Mechanics? Complicated dice schemes? Who needs 'em.

"We're playing this great game! We roll dice once a session at most. We leave the character sheets in a binder in the drawer. The roleplaying is fantastic." This common, common kind of play is a result of character sheets and dice mechanics and rules that don't contribute anything meaningful to play, and so disappear.

Again, Ars Magica or given game X doesn't have to go this way. It's when Ars Magica's rules don't contribute anything meaningful to the group's play, then Ars Magica goes this way.

Symmetry! Here's Frank Tarcikowski again (from this Forge thread):

...I'm saying that one should invest in the SIS, and specifically, in Situation, moment-by-moment. Who's there, what's going on, what does it look like, sound like, feel like? In my experience, if you have a game system that works perfectly well without investing much in the SIS, people may tend to rush the story and their imagination of the actual in-game situation gets rather blurry. Such games still sound great in a write-up but to me, they're leaving a bad taste, like reading a good book way too fast.

(emphasis mine)

Like reading a good book way too fast.

And as you know, I agree with Frank about what's to blame:

The game's rules don't refer materially to fictional things, they work perfectly well without the players' investing much in the SIS.

If the minute details of your game's fiction don't contribute meaningfully to your play, then even if you're a stickler, over time you're going to let those minute details fall away. Where your character's standing, what he's doing with his hands, how his eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, whether clouds pass in front of the sun or it glares down unmitigated - these things come to be like the character sheet that you leave in a binder in the drawer.

1. On 2009-04-27, Perry said:

Hi.  Quick question.

Do you think that your group, in reaching this level of interactive fluency, needed a complicated set of player-constraints (PC record sheets, explicit benchmarks, etc.) to get you started?—Or, asked another way, might such a detailed structure be needed if only for the stepwise purpose of pruning it back? Or, do you think that the *same* dynamic could have been reached in your group with only the minimum set in place from the getgo?


2. On 2009-04-27, Emily said:

That's a chilling post, Vincent. I take it as a warning.

And also,  you should play Number Reducer sometime!


3. On 2009-04-27, Vincent said:

Perry: Good question. Very good question!

For my particular group, we wanted and used the conceptual constraints and spurs, not the mechanical ones. Like, my main character was a young mage of House Verditius, raised by a "kept" enchanter at Durenmar, Domus Magnus of House Bonisagus, who used to blow off his studies to brawl with the covenant guard in the yard. At the end of character creation, THAT's what I knew about him that had any value. To my group, each of those points of fact - his youth, his house, his former master's status, his former home, his relationship with the grogs - was rich with implication.

The game's mechanical benchmarks, like what level spells have to be in order to do certain things, those did more harm to us than good. I think if we'd simply written off Ars Magica's magic rules, letting ourselves develop a more intuitive approach, the game would have had better magic in it than it did. In play, a character's casting a spell would highlight the tension for us between how we were playing and what the book said, which was more trouble than it was worth, so mostly our characters cast spells only when it wouldn't really matter.

So, yes, Ars Magica's structure let us play that game, but its game-world structure, not its mechanical structure.

Now I need to make clear: it was a fun and long-lived game, but it absolutely was not a success of game design. Don't aspire to design a game where its players ignore its rules (or feel free, you don't answer to me, I'm just saying). This wasn't successful Ars Magica play, and I don't admire Ars Magica's rules for it.


4. On 2009-04-27, Moreno R. said:

Very good post, Vincent.  I experienced both kind of "half play" in the past (one with "traditional" prgs, the other with some forge games) but I never noticed how they mirror each other.

This is the point where we start to make some indie games examples who have this problem (or to debate about it), or do you prefer to avoid naming names at this point?


5. On 2009-04-27, Perry said:

Gotcha.  Thanks, Vincent.


6. On 2009-04-27, Vincent said:

Moreno: I'll happily name In a Wicked Age. Shock: is an interesting case we can talk about. If you want to name other games, or anybody else does, that's cool, but I'm going to limit myself strictly to games I know well.


7. On 2009-04-27, Moreno R. said:

I played too little "Shock" to be able to talk about it, but I would be interested in your take on it, seeing that I would like to play it more in the future. And my group experienced some different problem with IAWA (but maybe they are two faces of the same problem, so I am waiting for your comments on IAWA too).

The two games where I noticed more the "lack of a meaningful SIS" problems were 3:16 and Contenders.  I have read some actual play threads about both games full of detailed and colored narrative, but both games need a very strict "discipline" from the players, a dedication on building and caring about a coherent SIS that has really little impact on the rest of the game, that my group simply lack. After a difficult start we ended playing both games almost as boardgames.

Keeping the symmetry you talked about, these games need a discipline from the players that mirror the one you had when you continued to keep the Ars Magica player's sheet up to date.

(by the way, do you still have the old post you made on the Ars Magica mailing list? I searched for them bit I never found them...)


8. On 2009-04-27, Vincent said:

Oh hey, everybody, some required reading for this thread: Emily's old but still-definitive post about freeform reward mechanisms over at Story Games.

So Moreno: In a Wicked Age and Shock: are (no surprise) pretty similar in this regard. There are some places where you're supposed to follow the fiction with the mechanics - choosing forms in the Wicked Age, using Minutae in Shock: - but unless you adopt it as a discipline, you can gloss the fiction over in practice. In both games, the rules outside of resolution are much more fiction-responsive than are the resolution rules in immediate particular.

Shock: has the advantage of naming stakes, which are in its case strongly fiction-responsive. (Not in every case.) The Wicked Age has the advantage of a GM, which works out just right if that person already knows how to make it work.


9. On 2009-04-27, Vincent said:

Oh and, no, I don't have anything from the Ars Magica mailing list. I was active there for only a short time, back around 2000, I forget which year precisely.


10. On 2009-04-27, Robert Bohl said:

I'll add here what I've said in person: I've been playing games a lot since 2005 and not having this experience, except for very rarely. Actually, Contenders and 3:16 were examples of me having that experience.


11. On 2009-04-27, Judd said:


Having what experience?


12. On 2009-04-27, BG Zeke said:

I have experienced this phenomenon many times in a variety of games. I think it comes down to game choice rather than game design, there are games which do facilitate certain styles of play. I feel that if the rules do not support the in character interaction, than you're not really playing a game, you're just talking to each other.


13. On 2009-04-27, Roger said:

This is entirely consistent with the Lumpley Principle.

System is this big huge cloud with 'the rules' inside it, yeah?  So this is what happens when that big cloud detaches itself from the firmament of 'the rules' and goes floating away.

I'm not sure if anyone's spoken before about the Shared Concrete Space, but I think that's what this is about.  If this concept has come up before, I'd love to read more about it.


14. On 2009-04-27, Marco said:

"If the minute details of your game's fiction don't contribute meaningfully to your play, then even if you're a stickler, over time you're going to let those minute details fall away. Where your character's standing, what he's doing with his hands, how his eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, whether clouds pass in front of the sun or it glares down unmitigated - these things come to be like the character sheet that you leave in a binder in the drawer."

There is something complex and profound here and I'm not sure we'd agree on what it is (alas). I think that there is a shifting dynamic of play wherein things become important in some cases and not in others. For example, where "I am standing" when we are all by the bus-stop planning how we're going to jump the enemy martial arts school may not matter too much.

Where "I am standing" when my NPC girl-friend tells another PC she's actually in love with him and I can maybe be seen (in which case she says it in front of my face) and maybe can't—in which case she doesn't—could mean a lot.

I've never felt that combat was detailed in traditional games because they were "about combat." I felt it was detailed because detailed combat is exciting (in a visceral immediate sense) and exciting (in that same sense) things in the games often have detail (see the car chase rules in James Bond).

Anyway, the ability of the game's imaginary narrative to bear mechanically on the situation is key to my enjoyment of gaming.



15. On 2009-04-27, Matt Wilson said:

Some playtest groups had this problem with Galactic, which is part of the reason why that version is currently shelved.


16. On 2009-04-27, valamir said:

Vincent, I think you may be linking this phenomenon with rules too tightly.  I think it has less to do with what the rules are having one do, and more to do with how one's
imagination is trained to work.

For instance, I totally have not seen this phenomenon in IaWA.  Our play of IaWA was one of the most successful campaigns producing some of the most powerful fiction I've been a part of since our Polaris game.  The only off session we had was because we were trying to force the game into a dramatically climactic finale, and wound up producing a weak session that we didn't even finish and retroactively deleted from the canon.  But at no time did the resolution seem divorced from the fiction to me at all.

I've seen similar claims about how rules do or don't intersect with imagination in discussions of immersion where people will identify certain techniques as breaking immersion, and I think...hmmm...they don't for me.  I can use those techniqes and get the exact same immersive thrill that I'd get playing with mechanics that are traditionally held to be immersive enhancing.

In both cases I don't think its the mechanics that are what's actually effecting things...I think its how you've trained your imagination to process its imaginings.  Mechanics that refer materially to fictional things IMO are more like crutches in this wheels if you prefer.  But once your imagination is trained to keep the fictional movie in your head playing no matter what else is going on at the table, I don't think such rules are inherently any better than any other rules at contributing to a fully realized SIS.

But then I also happen to think that the lion's share of a game's fiction actually occurs in the unshared part of the Imaginary Space and the Shared part exists only as periodic touch points to synch up the story board.  If you and I play a game we may story board the events of the game the same...but the movies that are playing in our respective heads can be quite different...and that works just fine too.


17. On 2009-04-27, Moreno R. said:

Talking again about the two games that caused the most detachment from the SIS (the SIS, not "the fiction") for us, I noticed that they both were Ronnie winner from the exact same month: September 2005.

Taking as a given that game design in a community is always subject to movements and waves (or fads)...  what happened in that period to devalued mechanics that "follow the fiction" against mechanics that dictates the fiction?

P.S.: @Valamir: I don't think you are saying something very different from what was already said: I used the word "discipline", you used "trained your imagination". In both cases is something that you have to work to learn, not something that would came naturally.


18. On 2009-04-27, Moreno R. said:

"Ronnie winner from the exact same month: September 2005."

Sorry: October 2005...

@Matt: Yes, our playtest group had that problem with the draft we used.


19. On 2009-04-27, Weeks said:

Yeah!  Thanks for writing this up.  This thing has been happening in my games with indie-MN recently where it feels kind of like playing a board game.  We do all the rules right and it's hit or miss whether the narrative was worth a shit.  3:16 was most recent and IaWA right before that.  I keep being disappointed that we're playing wrong—which is right, but it's nice to identify the natural phenomenon and work against it.


20. On 2009-04-27, Emily said:

I've had this experience too. It is odd to feel the story drift off into space, and watch the mechanics keep pumping right along. It's not immersion that's being broken, the the fiction being lost. The fiction doesn't require immersion—feeling a character deeply doesn't have to happen, and rules can be as engaging any virtual experience.

I think if we'd simply written off Ars Magica's magic rules, letting ourselves develop a more intuitive approach, the game would have had better magic in it than it did.

We did do this eventually. Instead of looking at levels, we would ask eachotherquestions: what does it feel like to cast the spell, what form does it take, what goes wrong? Those were good things we did, I think.

Where "I am standing" when my NPC girl-friend tells another PC she's actually in love with him and I can maybe be seen (in which case she says it in front of my face) and maybe can't—in which case she doesn't—could mean a lot.

Ah.  This is part of the reason why live play can resonate so strongly. The body is a cue, and everything about what you do in the play field "matters" all the time. Playing in the shared concrete space. :)

To my group, each of those points of fact - his youth, his house, his former master's status, his former home, his relationship with the grogs - was rich with implication.

This is important. How much are our mechanics representing what we need and really use in play? What do they point us at? I think we've come a long way in this respect, actually. But it would be an interesting exercise to look at a char sheet and see what you have been playing to and off of. What are the important bits?


21. On 2009-04-27, Robert Bohl said:

Judd: Good point. I've very rarely had the experience of a lack of rightward-pointing arrows leading to loopy, right-focused, box-focused play.


22. On 2009-04-27, Ben Lehman said:

So here's an interesting thing: the rules that link the interactions do not need to be mechanical. For instance, if we have a shared sense that the numbers of the game matter, it does not matter whether or not the system of our play provides a means for them to matter: we will bring it into our play regardless. This is how Amber works, sometimes: you're playing freeform, mostly, but Gerard is still stronger than Corwin.

Contrariwise, if we have a strong shared commitment to the fiction mattering for our rules play: if the fictional is compelling, in other words, the other arrow will necessarily be forced into existence. Ralph: my hunch is that this is why you had a good time with In A Wicked Age: Polaris uses a similar system but implicitly teaches you how to target things your fellow players care about in the fiction. I'm not surprised in the slightest that those skills are portable to In A Wicked Age wholesale: in fact, I'd go so far as to say playing In A Wicked Age after Polaris is a much better game that Polaris.

So here's an exercise from another game of mine. In Bliss Stage, if you're on a mission (in a dream world, fighting aliens), the game mechanics look like this:

If you're playing an interlude (in the real world, dealing with your relationships) the mechanics look like this:

Anyone playing along at home want to take a guess as to the outcome of this design choice in play? Or share their experience playing it?



23. On 2009-04-27, Callan said:

I was a contributor in that forge thread, and as I see it, it was like this

Player "Hmm, I don't care much about the fiction - I'm just going to follow this procedure, adding up numbers, rolling the dice it says to roll, etc"
GM/Frank "Damn this easy to follow procedure, THAT's the problem!"

When to me it seems the player doesn't give a stuff! Or how Ralph put it, they haven't trained their imagination, or cared enough to train it. Or like Moreno's 'discipline', they don't care to. A nice, solid procedure they can follow even when they don't put the care in, isn't the root problem.

While Franks solution seems to be to remove the net/break the procedure so we don't know what to roll next and have to latch onto the imagined space to know what to roll next/what procedure to do next. And if we haven't worked on the imagined space, in terms of procedure it all crashes and burns, thus giving negative feedback to people who don't invest in the imaginings.


24. On 2009-04-27, Moreno R. said:

No, Callan.  "caring" is not enough. I play with people who like to use their imagination. But we have found out that "imaging for the sake of imaging" isn't fun. It's a more general version of the Czege Principle, I think: it's not only about conflicts: when narrate something and it doesn't "push" against anything else, simply floating around, play isn't fun. These systems lack something very important. In every game, not only ours.

What the people who "have that discipline" are doing is, like Ben put it, "pretending that it does matter". It's a lot like learning to play with traditional rpgs: there are big holes in the rules, the procedure doesn't work, but you can make it work if you are "good enough" to know how to add what the game is missing. I think that it has a lot do to with having played a lot with games that had that sort of problems: you learn to compensate it.  Me and my group maybe are simply lucky enough to have discovered indie games late enough that there a lot of games that work very well without that discipline, so we never did learn it.

That forge thread was very strange when people began to talk about games "crashing and burnings" if people didn't imagine the SIS.  We are roleplayer. Why know how easy is to imagine a SIS. If the game make we want to. It's not "this one work with a SiS, so it's weaker than that one who doesn't need one". It's "this one CREATE a SIS, so it's way stronger than this one that doesn't, by itself, if you don't play a lot of other games before that teach you how to do it even when the game do nothing to help you do it"

Nothing of this apply to IAWA, I think. The problem with IAWA is more nuanced. IAWA do a very, very good job of creating a SIS with the oracles and character creation, so that the GM is pushed to think that he has a very "hands-off" role, letting the people build all this beatyful world together... and then when a conflict start that SIS vanish and the conflict go straight to the player's level!


25. On 2009-04-28, Jono said:

I'm de-lurking.

> Anyone playing along at home want to take a guess as to the
> outcome of this design choice in play? Or share their
> experience playing it?

My experience playing:  The missions were intense.  Nail-biting.  But it was really vague what was going on.  Little more than a few glimpses of scenery, aliens, robots in action.  Motifs were repeated a lot, details were lacking.  Aliens and robots alike were narrated doing cool moves, but it was just color.  Everything had a feeling of disconnect, floating in white space.  When playing my pilot, I was very focused on how to allocate my dice, secondarily focused on making my robot sound cool, minorly focused on anything else.  I had butterflies in my stomach every time I rolled.

Interludes were relaxing, almost sleepy.  I was focused on immersing into character.  There were some really good characterizations and some fun dialogue, but with little or no conflict it felt aimless at times.  The setting felt more concrete, because we were always in the same place (the Field Museum in Chicago), and it mattered what you said to people because they would remember it later.  When playing my pilot, I had some agendas I wanted to pursue, but I was reluctant to push too hard on other characters because I didn't want to threaten my relationships, so I backed down from potential conflicts a lot.

The intensity plus vagueness of the missions felt dreamlike.  The aimlessness plus concreteness of the interludes felt like mundane reality.

Was this intentional?  Was it a happy accident?


26. On 2009-04-28, Callan said:

Hi Moreno,

I think you touched on a few points and I'm not sure which to address in relation to the thread topic without making a long post that covers everything, but in doing so it overtakes the thread.

I will say that for years I've seen people take a procedure that "dead ends"(ie, it doesn't direct you to any further piece of procedure to follow) and declare that what they did in their session upon reaching that point as a group is "how the game works" or that they were "good enough to get the game going", often refering to the imagined space for how you'd "obviously" do it. At best, this is creative denial ( ), at worst it's flat out denial that they are not playing the game (indeed, it is impossible to continue, as it's a dead end. It's a blue screen) and what's "obviously the way to do it" is sheer invention on their part. However, the notion that it was the right way to do it is, apparently, incredibly dear to these people, making conversation usually taught or outright hostile (usually in the pretend friendly terms, though).

So that's another reason I wont get into it lightly, unless I know that perspective is shared between us. Because often the person with the firmly held belief is perceived as a victim.


27. On 2009-04-28, Vincent said:

Yeah, good to hold off.

Callan, which of the following do you own, and which have you played?
Dogs in the Vineyard
In a Wicked Age
Storming the Wizard's Tower
Misspent Youth
Primetime Adventures
The Mountain Witch
Ars Magica
Millenium's End


28. On 2009-04-28, Callan said:

I'm in Melbourne, Australia and have asked at the city store about a few of those titles. They've never heard of the ones I asked about (dogs, sorcerer, as a couple of examples). Do own universalis, by chance. Could not internalise all the rules, though the procedure as I recall had no dead ends. I suppose I should be into ordering overseas stuff like all the cool kids do. Have played shadowrun once, a fair bit of rifts, some AD&D, a fair bit of D&D 3.5, cyberpunk, warhammer, underground, a smattering of others. Used to look for the, back then, different games like pantheon and extreme vengence and others like it that didn't repeat the same patterns that I already owned.

Having said that, the question seems off? Paricularly if the question is if there's ambiguity in the use of the word 'play'?


29. On 2009-04-28, Gregor said:

@Moreno, RE: Ronnies winners in Oct 05
'...what happened in that period to devalued mechanics that "follow the fiction" against mechanics that dictates the fiction?'

I have no idea why Ron Edwards selected both 3:16 and Contenders to be the winners of the second round of the Ronnies. Similarly, I have no idea whether Ron chose them based solely on their mechanics. I mean, you would have to ask Ron, right? I always, naively I guess, believed it was because he thought they were the two best entries overall.

I also have no idea whether the entries overall in the Ronnies of Oct 05 mostly had games devaluing "follow the fiction" mechanics or not. That would be a better indicator of a subset of the design community rather than the ones selected as winners of the High Ronny.

For 3:16 I find that the character sheet, minimal though it is, does affect my roleplaying. And similarly what happens in the fiction does have an effect on which resources I bring to bear on my character's side (Do I use a Flashback now, or later? Do I Fight or Not-Fight? Does the GM give me a +1 for the next roll or not? and so on).

Contenders, for me, has also been a rich role-playing experience. I would say that Joe Prince enjoys/values immersion more than I do, but I don't know if that comes across at all in the two game texts.

Of course, some disagree and that's fine. If people want to use 3:16 as a worked example then I quite happy for you to do so.

@Emily: Yes, Number Reducers! The future of gaming/arithmetic.


30. On 2009-04-28, Vincent said:

Callan: I ask because what Frank was talking about in the Forge thread, and what I'm talking about here, and others, isn't the thing you're talking about. I agree with you about the thing you're talking about, of course, but I'm talking about something else.

Frank and I (and others) share an observation about, seriously, a particular set of games, a particular fashion in these games' design. It's very frustrating to try to have a conversation about that observation, when you, who don't own and haven't played those games, and have therefore no basis for evaluating our observation of those games, keep interrupting to question it.


31. On 2009-04-28, Vincent said:

It seems pretty likely to me that 3:16 is like In a Wicked Age: some people come to it primed, somehow, and for them it's bang-on. Others don't, they miss some crucial piece of tone or some subtlety of action, they don't realize that when the rules say do this they mean do this and I mean it or do this but do it consideredly, and so when they try to play it they slide past the line scratched in the dirt instead of flowing down it.

I haven't played 3:16 so I can't talk about it, except that reading the text confirmed for me everything John Harper said about the game, so that when people have a bad time with it I scratch my head.

(I love, love, love the writing in 3:16. Love.)


32. On 2009-04-28, Gregor said:

Oh, yes, and thanks!

Thinking about the cloud to dice bits that link in 3:16... would that be where the GM doesn't use the Ambush ability because it no longer makes sense based on what the PCs have done? (Say they've set up a potential Ambush themselves in their actions between encounters, so using the alien ability wouldn't be *right* to use.) Or making the next encounter only have 2 Threat Tokens because the PCs are being more cautious in their actions? (Even though this means that they'll more probably get through the encounter uninjured and get to heal again.) Or the GM gives them a +1 because they've said their taking cover in the bushes rather than wandering about in the open? (So it feels like they should be rewarded with a bonus.) The GM needn't do those things unless their satisfied, right?

If you play without that stuff it might as well be a boardgame (or a computer program) with the GM just putting the Threat Tokens down in a pre-ordained pattern (or to maximally "win" against the PCs) and using alien abilities to best mechanical effect. For those that had trouble with it, does that seem likely? It does have a GM because if it were GM-less I don't know who could make those cloud-to-dice calls impartially. (I reckon we could narrate the dice to cloud stuff without a GM, because we're describing what the dice have tell us to our satisfaction.)


33. On 2009-04-28, Moreno R. said:

I love the writing in 3:16, too. It's for this reason that I was so frustrated when it didn't work for us.

What happened was that..  I don't know if I can explain it well enough in English...  but narrating something to get the +1 for the next roll didn't feel like what we were narrating made any difference. Narrate SOMETHING, get the +1, roll, get from the game the number of kills, narrate how you kill them...  it made no difference whatsoever what you narrated to get the +1 and how you killed the aliens. After a while we simply stopped the narration and used the numbers alone.

In DitV when I narrate something, the other players can build on it to make other raises or see. (once, at a convention demo with a player who had never played dog before, the player did choose to describe a fallout of 12 after debating with a possessed person as having broken his hand hitting it hard on the table to make a point. Then, I asked him if he wanted to wait for the doctor before making his next action or if simply had the hand bandaged by his friend right there. He asked me "what difference it make? It's not like I lost hit points...", and I answered "but you are leaving yourself right open to this possible future raise: "your hand was not bandaged well enough, and so..."
It's this "building on the narration", this perception that what you narrate MATTERS, that I felt missing from 3:16 and Contenders.

It's not the fiction. The fiction still stands. You narrate _something_ or not, but even if you play it like a boardgame, it produce fiction. What it doesn't produce it's a "real" vibrant, dramatic Shared Imagined Space of "what it's happening right now to us". In IAWA, for example, during the conflict what we narrated was very, very important, and we cared about it a lot: but it was detached from a sense of "what it's happening right now to us" so it tended to go over-the-top and was subjected to senseless escalations ("I cut your hand" "I cut you leg" etc.)

@Gregor: I tried very hard to not make what I write about these games seems like a "there are bad games". What I wanted to say was instead that these games didn't work for us because they lack a feature that we need to play. They didn't work FOR US, But I know that they work very well for a lot of people that don't need that feature. I am sorry if I was not able to convey that and it came out like I was saying that these games are "bad" (that it would be the same as saying that every game in the universe should be done following my own tastes and desires, and that would be silly)

I know why Ron Edwards did choose them for the Ronnies: he did wrote rather extensively about both games, both at the time of the Ronnies and at the time of publication, and many times about his actual plays after that. And I did read them all before playing them (I have found very useful, usually, to read what Ron say about a game before trying it, it's very rare not finding some very useful observation or advice in his actual plays). It's the fact that in all these threads he never cite this specific aspects of both games that make me think that it was somewhat "normal" at the time. Even the way Vincent talked about "leading with the fiction" in past blog posts make me think that, for a time, in Indiegamesland was considered normal having the fiction subservient to a boardgame-like interaction between players and cues. I was simply curios about why and when this happened, seeing that this isn't true for many indie games before and after. But it's only a curiosity of mine, and it's tangential at best in this discussion.


34. On 2009-04-28, Chris said:

Hi Vincent,

I found what you're talking about to be exactly why I find Primetime Adventures' Fan Mail to be awesome and Shadow of Yesterday's Gift Dice to be kinda flat.

PTA makes that reward on you pushing those details in a way that the other players like, while TSOY's is based simply on "someone wants to give you one" which, while input, generally happens more because someone wants things to swing one way or another without the implicit approval reward.

Naturally, I find PTA to regularly hit those good points of perfect fiction stuff, while TSOYs not as much.


35. On 2009-04-28, Gregor said:

@ Moreno, no problem, I see where you are coming from. Thinking on it, when I play it's normally the GM who says yes or no to any +1s (so they are not automatic), and the GM might ask for an NFA roll if it's only arguably an advantage.

So, we get...
* a +1 when the GM says "Yes! That's a good idea.",
* maybe a +1 if we pass an NFA test when the GM says "Umm, roll NFA and tell me if you figure out how to make it work for you",
* and no +1 when the GM says "That isn't going to work or get you an advantage."

Would that help any?

(For some groups they'll have a strong sense in the group of the SIS and feel they can objectively judge the +1s. But the key thing is that the answer to the +1 can be "no!".)

Chris, I have the same problem with Wushu, I think. If I get a dice for saying something then it becomes an exercise in saying anything to get the dice.


36. On 2009-04-28, Vincent said:

Talking to Rob the other day, and Rob you can correct me or expand on this, of course, he said that as GM he doesn't want to make those kinds of calls. It's uncomfy and he wants commoditization instead, so he isn't the one judging others' contributions. He said that ", that just doesn't seem worth +1 to me" is a difficult thing to do.

This same thing strongly contributes to some failed In a Wicked Age play. That game requires the GM to say "hey hold on, back up, no, your character hasn't done that yet. Keep talking, convince me." Not every GM will.


37. On 2009-04-28, timfire said:

Thinking back to "what happened" in '05...

Well, '04 saw the first wave of successful "short form" games (after MLwM, of course), with Polaris, Fastlane, The Mountain Witch, With Great Power, and whatever else I'm forgetting.

Following that revelation of sorts, I think there was a general desire to see just how "tight" game design could be pushed. I think that interest is still present today, but now I think designers have learned a couple lessons that weren't fully internalized back in '05.

In particular, now I think there's a bigger focus on structuring social interactions, while back in '05 there was still a pretty big focus on guiding play through mechanics. I think that's why those games tend to involve a lot of interaction between the people and the cues, and less between the people and the fiction.

(Hmm, was there a reaction against that type of design in '06/'07? Vincent, do you see IaWA's focus on fiction-people interaction as reactionary at all?)

And for the record, that crop of games in '05 have long been criticized as being rushed to market. There was a ton of complaining in '06, and many people ended up doing revisions of their games.


38. On 2009-04-28, Robert Bohl said:

You're right, Vincent. I don't like having to be the one guy that says whether or not something is true. I'd like my ability to dictate truth to be mediated by either being shared, or being a result of my expending resources or using arbitrary rules.


39. On 2009-04-28, Moreno R. said:

I actively DESPISE being that kind of GM (the GM who judge other people's contribution to the game).  I had to be a "traditional" GM for almost twenty years (because I was the only one who could do it in my old group), and at the end I was a bitter burn-out illusionist that improvised everything because I really didn't care anymore. My Sorcerer game failed because I really didn't like to call for humanity rolls. The games I most like GMing these days are DitV, Steal Away Jordan, One can have her, and for the rest, I play GM-less.

But I wasn't the GM in IAWA, and Contenders is GM-less.

With 3:16, I was the GM, so maybe I wasn't "traditional" enough with my GMing, but thinking about it, the narrations weren't "weak". Being more strict about these +1 wouldn't have helped in any way. Any player worth his salt can narrate a good reason for a +1. The problem is that is's ONLY and ALWAYS a +1. It's not a broken hand that you can build on.

(if the bonus would be variable, from +1 to +5, for example, as in the "old style" GM-ing Vincent talks about in these thread, I would have simply refused to be the GM)


40. On 2009-04-28, Alex D. said:

To Moreno: What if, instead of just giving an immediate +1, you could give a +1 "token", which could be saved for later?

The trick being that the use of the token needs to refer back to how it was earned.

I don't have 3:16 in front of me right now, but it might be a step towards a fix that'd make the game more enjoyable for you.

RE GMing: I don't really like judging player input in this way, either. Exalted's Stunts gave me this problem. Also, (IIRC, Rob and probably quite a few others feel the same) I want to be able to push as hard as I can against the player - which is one of my primary gripes about D&D (at least 3.X and 4th). There are guidelines for what to do, but there's nothing to stop me from dropping an uber-demon on a 3rd level party.


41. On 2009-04-28, Matt Wilson said:

When people write about not having fun with 3:16 the text becomes invisible to me. I had so much fun with that game that it's impossible for me to read about someone's unfun experience.


42. On 2009-04-28, Vincent said:

"...the use of the token needs to refer back to how it was earned" isn't the solution. It calls for the same GM judgment, only then instead of now, and it's vulnerable to the same GM's failure to make good.

"...And you have to justify it" has been the default solution, I think, but it's not a good one.


43. On 2009-04-28, Alex D. said:

Oh, I didn't mean that as a solution to the problem of judgement calls.

I meant it as a solution to his issue about the +1s not having any future affect (on the fiction).

Now you do some cool fictional stuff and get a bonus and then... no one thinks of or uses it again.

With this rule, you could do some cool fictional stuff, and then - later on - you'd say "remember when I did X? well, it set me up to do Y." or something.

It's a difference of fire-and-forget (how it works now) and load-the-gun-then-fire (my rule), I suppose.

It's a stop-gap solution, I think, and I don't think it'd make the game much better for Moreno and his group.

(Also, I'm not trying to say I find 3:16 to be a bad game. I'm also not trying to "fix" 3:16 in general. I was just trying to suggest something that'd slightly, possibly, help Moreno [and those like him].)


44. On 2009-04-28, Moreno R. said:

@Alex D. : I can't know if it would work without trying it, but I don't believe so. It's very difficult to keep track of a lot of different +1s and the reason for each one, and they would wreck the dice economy. And the tactical reasons would be very difficult to reuse after a fight without breaking the suspension of disbelief ("I get a +1 now because two months ago I placed a land mine on another planet...")

Thinking about it, it's the turning into the +1 one of the problems. When we play Spione, for example, where you NEVER turn the narration into numbers or cues, we don't have this problem, and the SIS stay into focus.


45. On 2009-04-28, Alex D. said:

Yes, I think you're probably right on all counts.
Let me see if I'm understanding properly (about how you play, at least, if not the games in general:

3:16 - Narrate for a bonus, regardless of whether it has any fictional impact or makes any fictional sense.

Spione: Narrate whatever has fictional impact and makes sense, without regard to bonus.

Dogs: A blend of the two? Narrate for a bonus, but it makes sense and has an impact in the fiction?

Am I on-track for understanding how you've experienced these games and enjoyed them (or not, as the case may be)?


46. On 2009-04-28, Moreno R. said:

@Alex D.  : no, it's not like this You are completely out of track. I will try to address each game you cite:

The players and the GM have to narrate "something" following the dice rolls. For example, the dice says that you killed 4 Aliens. Right. Fast, fast, tell me how you killer them! "Ehmm... I killed the first one with a bullet to the head, the second... oh, who cares? It's not like it make any bit of difference! I shot them!"
The GM could be an asshole and force him to narrate something more detailed, but he can't really say to him why he should...  after all he's right, there is no difference at all. Next, they roll again. You kill 6 aliens. Fast, fast, tell me how you killed them...
In between the rolls to kill aliens, you can narrate a lot of fictional stuff. If you convince the GM, all this stuff can get you a +1. How much is a +1? Not very much. There is some difference in narrating that I dig a trench or I place a land mine or I make a inspiring speech or I clean my rifle? Not a bit. Who cares? Let's roll.
Think about Monopoly. Think about playing it like a rpg. Every time you have to pay rent, you narrate a little encounter with a npc that work at the desk, and other people you meet there. Would you enjoy it, or would you stop narrating these encounters after a while?
I think that the people who don't need an Arrow from the fictional stuff are the ones who could enjoy playing Monopoly like this indefinitely, because they would enjoy the narration even if has no effect on the rest of the game. Just for the fun of it.
I would go mad after a while.

We narrate a story. We are interested in the story. The story usually grab me by the balls, and everything I say get used by the other people at the table. Everything matters, everything has "weight". There is no bonus, there is no hit points, skills, or numbers, there is only the story, or better yet MY GOD, LOOK AT WHAT IT'S HAPPENING NOW!

Dogs: exactly like Spione. The SIS is never dissolved into numbers. Never disappear into a bonus. You win conflicts by raising with "you drop the gun and run away screaming, abandoning her", not by rolling a 10.

And I don't think I have a "problem". There a lot of games for all kind of people. I already have more games that I will be ever able to play at length, thanks. I didn't want to derail this discussions from IAWA to my experiences with other games


47. On 2009-04-28, Alex D. said:

Okay, I see what you mean now. I don't think I was completly off, but I did have it wrong.

Anyhow, I've derailed enough. Thanks for clearing things up, though.


48. On 2009-04-28, Jono said:

Vincent: this is a really, really important topic.  Thank you for bringing it up.  It's a problem that I've run into lately in some of my indie game play, but I haven't had a good way to describe it until reading this series of posts.

I've definitely encountered the lack-of-rightward-arrow problem in PTA, Polaris, and Shock.  (I haven't yet played 3:16 or In A Wicked Age.) It hasn't happened in every time I've played these games, but it's happened often enough that I believe I need to find a solution.

I very much love all three of the games I mentioned, and I'm not claiming that PTA or Polaris or Shock lacks in rightward-pointing arrows.  But I have a theory that in these games, the rightward-pointing arrow can easily be ignored if you do not discipline yourself to use it.

E.G. in Polaris, there have been times where my guy, a senator, gets into a political argument with a rival senator.  We invoke the conflict system... and when it's done, my wife is dead.  She wasn't in the scene, the political argument had nothing to do with her, but my Mistaken thought that would be a good price to ask for.  How did she die?  Who killed her?  I don't know.  I just know the Mistaken said "But only if your wife dies" and I said "that was how it happened".

Conflicts like this damaged my immersion, because they introduced events that didn't flow in any logical way from the events of the scene.

Is Polaris "...a game system that works perfectly well without investing much in the SIS"?  I don't know.  I don't think it is.  Polaris is a weird case because even when you're resolving a conflict, you're doing this thing with fictional statements.  Where does the "but only if your wife dies" belong in the cloud-dice diagram?  It's not a physical cue on the table, but it's a statement with mechanical weight just like "Make a save or lose 10 hp".  Anyway, it was a case where "...the minute details of your game's fiction don't contribute meaningfully to your play", as Vincent said, because "your wife dies" didn't come out of anything in the game's fiction up to that point.

As a result, my "...imagination of the actual in-game situation gets rather blurry" and it felt " reading a good book way too fast.", to quote Frank again.

Our Polaris play was enjoyable in direct proportion to how much we imposed on ourselves the discipline of asking for consequences that could plausibly flow from the current scene.  Analagously, I've found that PTA is enjoyable in direct proportion to how much my group chooses stakes that plausibly flow from the current scene, allow Trait use only when it really fits the fiction, etc.  In proportion to how much we honored the rightward-pointing arrow.

I've also noticed that in games where the other players were more experienced with indie games than me, honoring the rightward arrow was never in question, and we never had the disconnected-fiction problem.  In games where the other players were less experienced with indie games than me (and I am a relative newbie), our rightward arrow was more hit-or-miss.  So I think "honoring the rightward arrow" is a skill that needs to be studied and learned and taught.

Cuz if we don't, then the danger is not just that our fiction is failing to influence our mechanics (who cares?) but that our fiction is failing to influence our subsequent fiction (and maybe it could be said that the mechanics exist as a proxy for how earlier fictional events affect later fictional events).  Like Moreno said, the fact that your hand is bandaged has to have an effect on later play, or else you're just narrating a series of disconnected events instead of telling a story.

Finally, this:

"...Where your character's standing, what he's doing with his hands, how his eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, whether clouds pass in front of the sun or it glares down unmitigated - these things come to be like the character sheet that you leave in a binder in the drawer."

Describes a good bit of my play lately, and I'm sad about it.



49. On 2009-04-28, Jono said:

Oh, yeah!  Moreno said:

"Think about Monopoly. Think about playing it like a rpg..."

This reminded me of something.  I used to play Warhammer 40k.  It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an RPG, but it has a sort of fiction.  Players have all read the same "fluff" (background, setting material, etc) and have an idea of how their own army fits into that fluff (reinforced by their unit selection, customized modeling, painting, naming their characters, etc.)

Sometimes this interesting thing happens in play.  Somebody rolls an extremely unlikely result.  Like, say, a single Grot slays a Demon Prince in one-on-one combat.  In between laughing and cursing, the players will make up a story about what just happened.  "Oh yeah!  My grot was posessed by a moment of insane heroism, so he climbed up your Demon Prince's back and found the loose coolant tube connected to the fusion reactor of the Demon Prince's power armor, yanked it out, and jumped to safety before it exploded."

Nothing in the game text tells players to do this, yet they do.  Even in a tournament setting.  It's almost inevitable that this happens.  What's more, moments like this become WH40k players' most treasured memories.

They were creating fiction based on game mechanics.  Warhammer 40k has a left-pointing arrow.

But the grot's insane heroism and the loose coolant tube and the fusion reactor explosion don't have any effect on play.  They can't.  If you tried to refer back to one of those narrated events to justify giving yourself a die-roll bonus, people would look at you like you were insane.  It's not an RPG.  It doesn't have a right-pointing arrow.

It's not an RPG because it doesn't have a right-pointing arrow.

Am I going too far if I say that the existence of a right-pointing arrow is definitional of role-playing games?


50. On 2009-04-28, Callan said:

Hi Vincent,

"It's very frustrating to try to have a conversation about that observation,"
Was the original post stating a fact or simply an understanding between you guys? I thought it was the former, and in that case being told you have to be from a certain club or you can't disagree or question with the 'fact'. If your instead working on some understanding between you - well, that didn't show up too well in the text. Okay, I'm in the wrong place, but I honestly didn't realise you were working out some understanding between you. If I post in future I'll ask and not post anything else unless I know.


51. On 2009-04-29, Moreno R. said:

@Matt: "Some playtest groups had this problem with Galactic, which is part of the reason why that version is currently shelved."

I don't remember if I already suggested this to you after the playtest of if it was only and idea that I got and kept to myself, but... why don't you do it as a Boardgame? Or do it in two versions, like Emily did with Under My Skin (tabletop and Jeepform), you could do a Galactic Boardgame, AND a rpg in the same setting, scratching both "itch" at once...  the boardgame could be all about the fixed story-arc, and the rpg would be more similar to the "module" you posted a few days ago in Story-games.


52. On 2009-04-29, Ben Lehman said:


Is that the only division? Board game or RPG (no rules)?



53. On 2009-04-29, Moreno R. said:

#Ben: "Is that the only division? Board game or RPG (no rules)?"

Having rules or not has nothing to do with this (and I have never seen a rpg without rules, even the so-called "ruleless" session I played in the '90s had as a rule "This guy here is called The GM and has the final decision"). I am talking about a playtest of a version of Galactic where we felt that the roleplaying was absolutely unnecessary, and the play was absolutely board-game-like.

Now, there were a lot of cool ideas in that draft, but a lot of them were what caused that detachment from the SIS. I simply suggested that these bits could be used in a Boardgame Version of the Game, instead of being simply dropped.

To be perfectly clear about that "having rules" bit: Contenders is much, much, much more Board-game-like for me than D&D4.

I am talking about how much the rules feed on the narrative, not about how many rules there are.


54. On 2009-04-29, Mathieu Leocmach said:

My own experience fits quite well in the whole discussion.

I discovered indie RPG a few months ago, through Ben Lehman's blog and this blog. So I bought their reference games : Polaris and DitV along with My Life with Master and the mountain witch. All of theses append to be "generation 2004-2005" games as said timfire.

And because I append to be very far away from the people I play with (Japan is far from France, sure), I decided to experience these games though internet. Starting chronologically with MLwM.

So I was accumulating :

  • very tight "rules dictating the fiction"
  • lack of training in indie games
  • a playing media far from ideal to commit to a SIS

Because this was turning a disaster and thanks to Vincent's first cloud&box post we stopped. We are now trying to implement strong right pointing arrows.

What I want to stress is that the "commitment to SIS" is a technique difficult to acquire. When I play at a table to traditional RPG, I am mostly in case 1 of Vincent's original post : never looking at the character sheets we spent hours to fill in with numbers. Despite of this strong tendency of mine, despite previous shared roleplaying experiences with my group, we fell in the case 2 : vanishing SIS.

So I can confirm that this technique is media-dependent and must be explained in and supported by the text rules.

P.S.: You all are writing too fast ! ^_^

P.P.S for Callan : if your shops don't know indie games, try IPR. They deliver all over the world via postmail.


55. On 2009-04-29, Moreno R. said:

"Contenders is much, much, much more Board-game-like for me"
Galactic. I wanted to say Galactic. Contenders has no right-ward arrows for me but it's not boardgame-like.

@Mathieu: Paul Czege clarified, in a "letter to Italian role-players" that was included in the italian edition of My Life With Master, that MLWM wasn't intended to be played that way (with the rolls dictating the fiction) at all, at it was very much a "follow the fiction" game. But at the time it was published that kind of play was "normal", so he didn't feel the necessity to say it. In any case, even if you play it like a PTA hack, the sincerity, desperation and intimity dice are very strong right-ward arrows.

You post address, I think, a part of the problem I did choose to ignore until now to avoid complicating the discussions even more: sometimes, the rightward arrow is RIGHT THERE, but people ignore it because they don't see it, or they believe for some strange reason that there is not right-ward arrow and refuse to see it (I played a very strange demo of DitV with a guy like this once), or because it's not very clear in the rules.  As always when there is a text and a reader, sometimes the misunderstandings come from the text, sometimes from the reader, and most of the time from both working together.

I have seen this problem most often with MLWM and PTA, because both games with historical reason (they were published before this became a problem) don't explain this very well. I have still doubts about my playing of 3:16 about this (but I checked all the actual play posted here and on the forge and they confirmed my reading of the rules)

And, exactly as there is people who need no rightward arrow in the rules, there are people who LIKE to play without any rightward arrows, and they would not consider playing playing PTA o MLWM as a sort of "narrative workshop" (re-using Paul's terms) as "wrong".


56. On 2009-04-29, Moreno R. said:

Returning to IAWA and Shocks.  I have played much more IAWA than Shock, so maybe I am missing some fundamental aspect of Shock play, but I see these problems as basically different for another reason: in Shock's case, the player have to ignore a specific rule (in the use of Minutiae) to remove that right-ward arrow. Maybe the game encourage them doing it, maybe that rule is not pushed enough in the game text, I don't know, but it's there.

In IAWA's case, that right-ward arrow require something from the GM that it is not spelled clearly anywhere in the game text. It could be even argued that the game text imply that the GM should do another thing instead...


57. On 2009-04-29, Vincent said:

I don't know what you mean. What's the other thing the IaWA text implies the GM should do?


58. On 2009-04-29, Moreno R. said:

I am going to quote myself from comment #24:
"Nothing of this apply to IAWA, I think. The problem with IAWA is more nuanced. IAWA do a very, very good job of creating a SIS with the oracles and character creation, so that the GM is pushed to think that he has a very "hands-off" role, letting the people build all this beatiful world together... and then when a conflict start that SIS vanish and the conflict go straight to the player's level!"


59. On 2009-04-29, Vincent said:

Ah, I see. Thanks!


60. On 2009-04-29, Guy Shalev said:

Something broke up at the RSS feed from this post to LJ, resulting in the newer post also not transferring.

And I found myself nodding at the opening post. I often discuss this... issue, which is very prevalent in Israel. People say they play a game, such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse, but they're only playing in the world. They boast how much they don't care for the mechanics one whit.

And maybe it resulted in me adopting a bit of a hard stance, regarding "Mechanics are everything", heh, usually espoused sometimes on Story-Games. That advice and such should not supplant mechanics, and if it isn't created by mechanics then it's not part of the game - as striving towards us (disparate groups) playing the "same game".

Now, I think advice is great, and cuts a lot of the time it takes to reach the final goal, but it should help coax what's already there, not bring forth stuff that isn't. How can you say the "game" is about madness when the only thing making the players bring it up is advice, which could be applied to any game (Game here means system, not session)? It also flies IMO in the face of "System does matter", when it's not the system that brings forth the proper theme, or rather, only the Social Contract brings it forth, and then why get any new book?


61. On 2009-04-29, Matt Wilson said:

Poor off-tracked thread.

Moreno, thanks much for the suggestion, but I have a solution in progress that makes me very happy.


62. On 2009-04-29, Jim Henley said:

MLWM is a great case to consider here, IMHO. The bonus dice, most especially the Sincerity Die which is the greatest possible prize mechanically, come straight out of a right-pointing arrow, correct? The player has to put sincerity into the fiction to get the polyhedron.

AND THEN, it's worth considering that the mechanism by which this happens is GM judgment. The GM gets to decide whether your approach merits the designation "sincere." You can imagine an alternate-world version of MLWM where the Sincerity Die is commoditized. In that game, you have a resource - maybe based on your Love score - that lets you buy the Sincerity Die however many times, and when you buy it, you're earning the right to narrate your minion's sincerity into the fiction: a left-pointing arrow.

That game would be much more "objective" and free of that much more taint of "Mother May I" play. I have a hard time believing it would be a more fulfilling game to play.


63. On 2009-04-29, Callan said:

Thanks for the link, Mathieu!


64. On 2009-05-05, David Berg said:

Just to back up Vincent's assertion:

If the minute details of your game's fiction don't contribute meaningfully to your play, then even if you're a stickler, over time you're going to let those minute details fall away. Where your character's standing, what he's doing with his hands, how his eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, whether clouds pass in front of the sun or it glares down unmitigated - these things come to be like the character sheet that you leave in a binder in the drawer.

This has, in fact, been my experience playing IAWA and Shock:, despite having been "trained in imagining" as per Ralph's counterpoint.

If I had been playing IAWA in a group where every other player shared my desire to see how my character's eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, I do think it would have happened, just as Ralph describes.  But without everyone bringing that priority to the table, the game's rules certainly don't encourage them to develop it.


65. On 2009-05-06, Zebediah said:

have any of you read any of the psychology on "Active Perception?" It's a theory about how human minds use their senses and their imaginations.

The essential notion is that, far from being passive flows of visual or auditory data, the eyes, ears (nose, skin...) are being run by a very fast process that keeps asking the world questions—far faster, but not unlike, a roleplayer asking a GM what they see in the 20'x20' room next to the orc.

This explains why people, especially given brief or spotty visual input, wind up "seeing" very different things.

Imagination, creating that SIS, is a process of using the same perceptive "schema" to build up the notion of what's there...with the side note that there's no actual there, there.

For example:

I look at a dog.  I notice whether it's angry or friendly, how loud it is, how slobbery it is, and whether or not it's jaws would fit around me head.  (I have a mild phobia of dogs).

My girlfriend looks at a dog, and she notices whether it's a male or female dog, what breed it is, whether it's well trained or not.

Another friend of mine is a vet.  When she looks at a dog, she sees how old it is, how healthy, any injuries or signs of abuse.

In contrast, a D&D DM looking at a dog sees it's base attacks, how many hitpoints it has, and what it's movement rate is, and it's alignment.

Unless it's a dog working for the party, in which case he also notes it's carrying capacity and relative loyalty to the party.

Or at least, that's how the D&D player sees it if it's in his game.  He might not even notice what color it's coat is...or he might, if he's wondering whether it can blend into the underbrush.  It depends on what details feel important...on which you care about imagining or perceiving.

If there's no weight to a fact about the dog (it's a long, pointy-nosed blue-grey hound) then that fact can vanish.  If there is (that means it's probably a tracker!  Good if we're following someone, bad if we're on the run...) then these facts get established and matter.

Keeping up the "discipline of imagining" is a case of what sorts of perceptions matter.  You can keep asking questions about what color the dog is, but if it doesn't matter and doesn't contribute, after a while you stop asking those questions.

Now for me, games (including simple let's pretend) have the nifty feature of being able to determine how things always were when you need to know.  7th Sea has the "ask, don't tell" rule related to this—your character looks around and you narrate that there's a beer stein there, and lo and behold, there is and there was.  If the dog's color matters, we can agree on what color it is at the moment that it matters.

The degree that we detail the SIS depends on what drives us to do it, whether those are internal urgings, social support from our friends at the table, or the required constraints of the system we're using to help enforce consistency.

Which in turn is based on what lens you're seeing the world through...what questions your Active Perception schema ask.

The corollary to this is, systems in which many details can be made relevant by citing them, especially with consistency, help push the brain to track as many things as possible—you're never sure what will be relevant.  A bandaged hand might be, even if we're not tracking "hitpoints."


66. On 2009-05-07, Josh W said:

Vincent, how frequently do you play a specific game, and how long does it take to warm up? We've been playing pretty freeform for a bit and my characterisation is seriously shoddy, or at least inconsistent, whereas somehow when I have rules, even D&D 3e, because I have made them symbols of my own alphabet, they remind me of my characters mannerisms, of his history, and allow me to get back into their skin. If you don't use the character sheet as a reminder, how do you get back in character?

When you talk about the cloud, I picture it as when people go glassy eyed, staring off into the distance for a second, because the world they are imagining has taken up their visual attention. It's like they are expending effort to inflate this balloon of a world in front of their head. And what for? Well if they are a dreamer, it's because that is awesome, but for other people, it's doing something else. Now working out what that other thing is and making it concrete, making it supported by the rules is what "rightwards pointing arrows" should be about: What things do players wish mattered? What parts of the imaginary world do they want to activate? Now by activating, in a sense I mean they are co-opting them as a part of their sphere of influence just as much as their character is, and they are being used as a vehicle for their purposes in the same way. In a way the character has temporarily gained the trait appropriate to that element, or more abstractly the player's store of agents has been expanded to include this new element, whether it be a hill, a guilt or an empire.
But what is the appropriateness of this appropriation? Does it fit the game element to be used in this way? The player character is the main game component designed with this in mind, if it turns out not to be any good for what the player wants they will generally retire, replace or rebuild them through events. I would say that character generation is probably the only source of rightwards arrow in IAWA: You create them based on fiction, give them appropriate stats, and then try to use them to do your thing. I think the dice on one side are a bit confused, I would suggest that instead of being identified by being physical they are about mechanical power. If there is player opposition, it appears here. Actually that is I would say the core of the picture, on one side players can fight like mad, because it's a world of discrete resources set up in that way, and on the other side players have to share the same imagination. On the right-hand side players don't need to co-operate.

If I'm right, all your saying, in terms of order of events, is that you narrate first. And it is a condition, a cost if you like, for the bonus, or for the mechanical event. By this I mean it must be justified first as a appropriate part of the setting, and then it has competitive function, rather than something being created in the setting to fit your allowance of competitive advantages. It means that setting information becomes a resource, something that people use to do stuff. Now the moment you make that happen, people can fight over that resource. So what do you do? Well your method seems to be to make the GM the guardian of that resource, rather than a participant in the struggle. It's his job to insure that the fictional element doesn't get swallowed up into player competition land, and instead remains anchored and justified by it's links in the imaginary world.

And you do that by putting that into the "how to GM" part of the game, making it a serious code of conduct "GM's oath" type thing. Now in Dogs you encourage him to stay in that role by explicitly making him the audience of the players, in that his real creative activity happens before play, and by virtue of appearing in his world the PCs are expressing it. So during play he's just playing out what he has already created, and players are doing up to the minute "course changes", being protagonists and all the rest of it. The course of the world is set out in advance, and the GM trusts the game's mechanics to respect his creation. Once he does this, and gets all zen about his characters, then he has sufficient detachment to play that role.

Now that's just one game, and I've pretty much paraphrased your podcast explanation, so what if GM as an actual player wants to make course corrections of his own? What if he is trying to decide "how things turn out" at the same time as the players? Now at this point he is completely able to run head-first into that old conflict of influence, because truth now has functional value to him; he's like a ref with money on the game. If I'm right, by the distinction you have created, he has to keep his roles separate with extreme integrity, so that on one hand he is trying to get everyone to see the same picture in their head, and on the other hand he is trying to make best use of that picture to his own advantage. And that advantage is classically represented in physical objects, because as a disputed item, it can't be entrusted to memory. Now that last bit may sound bizarre, but what I'm talking about is that concrete bit where an disagreement gets all heightened and you can point to a physical object that holds the answer and that you can both see, or where you entrust a fact to something outside of yourself so you cannot fudge by accident.

Would you agree that the two defining characteristics of the left hand side are consensus and imaginary consistency, and on the right hand side are competition and physical representation of resources?


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