2009-12-18 : Seed content

Another #rpgtweory assertion transplanted from Twitter: Content doesn't arise from people + creative process. It arises from people + seed content + creative process.

Giving the group a creative process - a set of rules - doesn't give them everything they need. They also need an initial something, seed content, to work with.

If you don't provide seed content yourself, you're not leaving it up to the group, but to the random media crap-soup we all swim in.

"I'm not making a setting for my game. The group gets to make the setting, so they're guaranteed to be interested in it!" Yeah, no, it doesn't really work that way. More like the group gets to make the setting, so they're guaranteed to be pulling easy elements from movies and TV they've seen recently, with no possible attention to usefulness, value or quality. Like in Universalis: "tenet: zombies!" You know I love zombies, but zombies are very rarely a good idea. They're almost always an easy bad idea.

You also deny the creative process a solid grounding in content, forcing it to rely upon process-as-such instead.

The more concrete in the fiction you can make your rules - escalation rules, resolution rules, exploration rules, development rules, whatever your game requires - the more concrete in the fiction, the more momentum they can build in play. In each moment of play, the seed content can be, if you design your process to work with it, last moment's content, live and electric.

Otherwise, what you get is the abstract, mannered, flatly interpersonal and over-explicit "conflict resolution" that has such a presence in the games of our little scene. I've been banging on about this one for a while now.

Finally, you limit yourself to expressing only your insights into roleplaying as a practice. You cut the legs out from under your insights into your game's subject matter and into real human nature.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a game about crime fiction and early Mormonism, and a game about human violence, judgment, faith and mercy. It's also a game about how to GM. But if it were only a game about how to GM, it wouldn't have the currency it has. Its content, not its structure, is what brings people to play it and brings them to play it again.

Nobody loves a game, like I say, just because it manipulates their social interactions. If you want people to love your game, you have to give them something to love it for.

1. On 2009-12-18, Jesse Burneko said:

If I may, I think this is tied into the Adversity issue as well, particularly when it comes to GMing.  There seems to be a pervasive problem of GMs trying Burning Wheel, Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, whatever and thinking, "Okay, so this is supposed to be player driven: Go Players! Go!" and then are left wondering why nothing happened.

They mistake aggressive adversity for GM driven plot when aggressive adversity is really just the seed content for player action.


2. On 2009-12-18, Brennan Taylor said:

Interesting, and definitely one of the reasons I am very tired of running Mortal Coil these days. I do find that if I leave everything up the players when I run it at conventions I end up with a lot of the same things over and over. I guess this is just me saying you've got an excellent point there, and I agree wholeheartedly.


3. On 2009-12-18, Ben Lehman said:



4. On 2009-12-18, Brand Robins said:

Also worth noting, some people seed content from different context levels. Thus, one man's seed content is another woman's "too much fluff."


5. On 2009-12-19, Robert Bohl said:

Vincent, I'm not sure I agree, or at least not in the absolute way you're putting it. I mean, yes, without the system including sand out of which to build pearls, it is more likely to be dead, but I don't believe that every group creation effort is going to be dead.

Systems that support and give interesting choices during that group creation are the best at avoiding that, I think.


6. On 2009-12-19, bg Josh said:

This problem with creativity is well known in creative writing.  If you tell someone they can write about anything, they won't think of anything.  If you give them a topic or a limitation, it will inspire them.  "Creativity via limitation" is what this is called.

Trad GMs have been doing this for years with all of those lists they love to make.  "Things in a barrel" "100 NPC names" "20 types of fish."

Of course, it is not absolute.  Some people have lots of ideas and are very creative.  They are the kinds of people who become writers, and for that matter Game Masters.


7. On 2009-12-19, Matthijs said:

I don't know if I'm getting what you're saying, Vincent, but from this, it seems to follow that Archipelago can't work, nor PTA? These games let the group generate the setting; the rules are often on a meta level, and fairly abstract; some of the most important ones are about manipulating social interaction.

It seems to me that the whole point of "say yes" and "be obvious" exercises is that one person's obvious idea is seed content for the next person's unexpected twist; the sum is greater than the parts. If we're generating setting, and I say "uh, zombies?", and someone else says "...which are stuck underground, unable to move", and someone else again says " they control people's dreams", and then it becomes a game about trying to find out what our underground dead ancestors want so that humanity can sleep in peace once again, we're not just talking zombies anymore.


8. On 2009-12-19, orklord said:

Great post, Vincent.  This is exactly what I have found daunting about games like Universalis and Primetime Adventures where everything is up for grabs.  There has to be a point to the story, something agreed upon, a skeleton for people to use.


9. On 2009-12-19, Christian Griffen said:

Yeah, but... I kinda do love PTA, Shock: and Contenders just for manipulating our social interaction.

I'd maybe soften the whole thing a little: it's not impossible to have a meaningful gaming session without seeds that come with the game, it's just harder.

And like Robert says, some games make this easier—like Shock:.  Those games are very conscious of the fact that seeding is difficult, and that if you don't provide a setting, you need to provide a very good mechanism for the group making one on their own.  That mechanism in itself often is limiting creativity, in Josh's words; Shock: guides you through creating sci-fi seeds of a certain kind, PTA guides you through creating dramatic TV show seeds of a certain kind, Contenders guides you through creating Raging Bull kinds of seeds...

I actually think this is why Contenders is the most hit-or-miss of the three, because the guidance isn't as strong.


10. On 2009-12-19, Brand Robins said:


I find that Shock works when people coming to the table have recently been thinking, rather seriously, about some SF enabled issue. And if they haven't, much less so.

If you get folks at the table who are thinking "wow, I just read this article about how pregnancy rates in the developed world are so down that nations like Canada and France won't have the populations to sustain their infrastructure by 2056" and "I worry about having children, will I be a good parent" then you may end up with something like Children of Men.

OTOH, if folks just sit down and think "well, feminism is interesting" and "um, robots?" the game can easily end up in that mass cultural stew that Vincent talks about.

So there are times where a well prepped group can certainly seed its own material. We can all do it some of the time. But I've known very few groups who can do it consistently without significant support.

So, if you're designing a game to be played by a lot of people a lot of the time... it makes sense to figure out how best to give them that support, right? Really, I think you have to take Vincent's posts about this stuff as a commentary on the aggregate. He isn't so much saying "no one, not ever" as much as "most folks, most of the time."

Oh, and as far as PTA goes, its been my experience that a lot of folks I know who are actually playing the game start off with with some external seed. "Lets play Scion using PTA" or "Lets do a game that's like the Wire, but in the space station from Outland."


I love your zombies idea. I have seen that happen at tables. I've also seen it not happen at tables, and end up with just zombies. And I've seen the second more often, out there in the wild rather than in theory land.

(I've also seen no small amount of "zombies!" "yea, who eat dreams!" "yea, and ride on elephants!" which ends up with a completely fuckwited game about elephant riding zombies who eat dreams for no fucking reason at all. But that's another issue with the dynamics of group creativity....)

Well established groups with strong creative methodologies for working together obviously do better at this. I do know a handful of groups who can pretty consistently end up with zombies as a metaphor for the alienation of the moder human in the urban environment and how dreams are our last refuge, but being attacked there represents the final succumbing of the human spirit....

But the honest truth is, at that point, its more them doing it than the game doing it. If you're designing a game for that group, then relying on that ability is a safe bet. If, however, you're designing for a more generalized audience, then you might need to help them out more.

And back to Christian,

I think your love of games for manipulating the social interaction is a socket all its own. Folks who are into that are going to get some joy out of it. Fuck, I've seen it happen myself. It dumbfounds me in the way that a lot of folks seem to be dumbfounded by immersionists. I so cannot understand the point or the joy of it that I just sort of sit there and blink.

But anyway, I think that does show that one of Vincent's axioms here has to do with joint story creation in a way that is supported for non-exceptional groups. Which is worth considering when you're not doing that.


I was thinking about my earlier comment and it occurred to me that I've a friend that cannot easily play In A Wicked Age from the oracles. Give her the Wicked Nights oracles, however, and she's off to the races. She's never read a single Conan, Tanith Lee, or Edgar Rice Burroughs story, so the seeding in the normal oracles just doesn't spark off against her brain well. But she's read a lot of Charlaine Harris and Nancy A Collins, so those do.


11. On 2009-12-19, Matthijs said:


Yeah, I agree that there are many ways of playing collaborative games that won't work. But I want to design for people who like that sort of game, and have the necessary basic skills or are willing to acquire them. Of course it's them doing the work! That's the case in all role-playing games. If I play Dogs, and can't or won't engage with my character's issues, well, that game isn't designed for me. If I do engage, it's me doing the work - the game is just helping me do it better.


12. On 2009-12-19, Matthijs said:

About PTA: I think it was Ben Lehman who said that he never started a session until the group had found a pitch that everyone actually, really liked. That's probably key here: Some sort of quality control. Just like Dogs has the "most discerning player", there should be a person or process in the group that makes sure that what's brought to the table is actually engaging, actually good enough, before play proceeds. In Archipelago, that's the "do it differently" phrase, I guess.


13. On 2009-12-19, Vincent said:

Exactarino! Brand wrote my reply for me.

I'm not saying that PTA can't work (duh, I'm one of PTA's first and biggest fans), I'm saying that sometimes it doesn't work and here's (part of) why. Same with Shock: and Misspent Youth, also games that I love with all my heart.

If you're learning game design from PTA - which you should! PTA has TONS to say about game design - seeing where it's weak is as important as seeing where it's strong.


14. On 2009-12-19, Vincent said:

But "groups won't always come up with good stuff" isn't the worse problem.

The worse problem is that if you don't know in advance generally what the game's content is going to be, it's very difficult to design rules for escalation, development, resolution etc. that treat the game's content concretely. What you get are games where pushing someone down has the same range of possible consequences as setting fire to a planet's atmosphere, and where "my mother is the moon and my father is the evening wind" is mechanically equivalent to "I have a motorcycle."

In a Wicked Age suffers from this, even though I provide good seed content, because I stuffed too much possible content into too few game procedures. I wrote rules that treat the endeavors of a village midwife and the endeavors of an ancient god of vengeance and war the same way - which meant I wrote rules that are abstract, mannered, flatly interpersonal and over-explicit. I referred way too much back to the social level.

Constricting the range of possible content would let me treat it concretely in the game's mechanics, but so would expanding the mechanics. If I redesign the game, I'll do the latter.


15. On 2009-12-19, Vincent said:

And finally, because this is the kind of thing I guess you have to say sometimes, I AM NOT THE BOSS OF YOU. I'm just some guy saying what I think I've observed, I'm not the arbiter of what makes a game good, what makes a game popular, or what makes a game worthwhile.

Even if you agree with me, I'm still not the boss of you. How much content should you provide? What content, precisely? All I can say is, provide the right amount, and the right kind, to give your three insights their full expression. Nobody can judge that but you, your muse and your audience.


16. On 2009-12-19, Ben Lehman said:

I think there's a neat thing about PTA here.

PTA succeeds when we take seriously that this is about good television. PTA fails when you treat it as "GURPS with a different reward system."



17. On 2009-12-19, Christian Griffen said:

Thanks Brand, Vincent.  Looks like we're all on the same page :)


18. On 2009-12-19, Meh said:

I love DitV for everything you say nobody shouldn't. I don't love Mormonism. Nobody I've ever played DitV with loves Mormonism. We love how the game plays.

Your final assertion is untrue.


19. On 2009-12-19, Vincent said:

You're going to have to say more to convince me. "How the game plays" doesn't tell me enough - what do you love about how the game plays?


20. On 2009-12-20, Ry said:

I was thinking: is there a way to help groups find a real agreement on something and avoid the random media crap-soup?

But then I thought... well, yeah.  If you had a few movie nights, and agreed on a book everybody would read, maybe two books.

I can see a game without seed content being a heck of a lot stronger if it had that kind of slow lead-in.


21. On 2009-12-20, Roger said:

There's a few things I don't like about this, but I will mention that this is one thing that I think all editions of D&D (and lots of other games the kids are calling "old school" these days) got pretty right.

On the social or meta-social side, also note that the more concretely seeding a game is, the easier it'll be for disparate groups to have meaningful discussions about their games.

Something that's related to this (I think) that's been on my mind a lot lately is the difference between these two rules:

1.  If you're standing on the high ground, get a +1 bonus to attack a lower opponent.

2.  If you're standing on a rug, get a +1 bonus to attack someone who isn't.

As far as the pure mechanics of the game is concerned, these rules are identical.  Why and how they're not identical is what I've been thinking about.


22. On 2009-12-21, Judd said:

I have found that collaborative setting generation goes much, much smooth when someone puts their hand firmly on the tiller and lays a foundation for everyone to build upon.  In PTA, this could mean saying, "I'd like to play a game that is the hot new series sci-fi series that takes the place of BSG on the sci-fi network, a re-imagining of a classic in a cool new way." or in Mortal Coil when Brennan said something like, "What if the magic was Rock & Roll and it was founded when Jack Johnson made a deal with the devil at the crossroads?"

A blank page is generally too much for a group to deal with and we end up with zombies riding elephants or whatever.  But with a solid foundation, we can feel free to build with our friends.

Shock: does this by giving us the big ideas that make up the world and the rest we just have to make up in bite-sized chunks before and while we play.

Rather than starting a BW game by saying, "What kind of fantasy game do you want to play?" it is better to narrow down the stocks (Elf, Dwarf, Orc and Human) and then say something like, "The artifacts necessary to slay a dragon have been lost to your people and now a dragon squats in your finest mountain-keep.  You are the ones who are going to get them back.  Who are you?"

Also of interest, Questions Based Setting Creation

Collaboration isn't some kind of holding hands and singing koombay-ya bullshit.  It needs a leader too.  I think we are often so busy busting down the patriarchal blue-lighting bolt throwing Dungeon Master that we forget that creative endeavors need leaders.


23. On 2009-12-21, Matthijs said:

So much stuff I agree with in Judd's post.


24. On 2009-12-21, misuba said:

You mean good, original fiction is hard? **falls over in shock**

(also: when Jack Johnson made a deal at the crossroads? That'd be hysterical. Better than Yacht Rock even.)


25. On 2009-12-21, Vincent said:

Here's me waving my arms and pointing at the worse problem. Worse problem, anybody?


26. On 2009-12-21, Ben Lehman said:

Let me restate.

Let's say your group does come up with some idea that's cool and original and great. The generic game you're playing will let you down, because it doesn't have anything to say about your idea, just about—at best—ideas in general.



27. On 2009-12-21, misuba said:

Vincent, do you mean this? "You also deny the creative process a solid grounding in content, forcing it to rely upon process-as-such instead."


28. On 2009-12-21, misuba said:

Ah, you mean a post that I missed somehow.

The worse problem is that if you don't know in advance generally what the game's content is going to be, it's very difficult to design rules for escalation, development, resolution etc. that treat the game's content concretely. What you get are games where pushing someone down has the same range of possible consequences as setting fire to a planet's atmosphere, and where "my mother is the moon and my father is the evening wind" is mechanically equivalent to "I have a motorcycle."

(Pro tip: on the internet no one can see you wave your arms)


29. On 2009-12-21, Vincent said:

Ben & Misuba: that's the one, right on.


30. On 2009-12-21, Jesse Burneko said:

Actually, I have very recent first hand experience with this.

I own the game Fantasy Flight Boardgame, "Android."  I love it.  I'd really like an RPG that works with the same material.  I decided to try running a game myself using games currently available to me.

First we nailed down some tenants of the setting using a list of questions I put together.

Then we played one story arc using The Pool.  (Note: I used Dogs in the Vineyard's Town Creation rules to produce the back story).  It was... okay.  Enough that the players wanted to do try it again with a different game.

We played an interlude in the same setting using Dirty Secrets.  It worked a little better but had some strange results like when we randomly generated a romantic relationship between a guy and "male" android.  Gay robot sex was not exactly something we had in mind when we started playing.

Finally, we did a third story using Primetime Adventures.  This was going a little better but it was definitely Law & Order in Space rather than the kind of Cybernoir I was hoping for.  We ended up abandoning the game after the second episode.

So yeah, I still really want a custom game that really speaks to the ideas of Cybernoir and the material found in the Android Boardgame because no less than *three* different system applications didn't cut it.



31. On 2009-12-22, Matthijs said:

The worse problem: Isn't this what Sorcerer handles, with Humanity? You can play sorcerer in lots of settings, and you always use Humanity, Tells etc. But for each setting/campaign, the group has to define what Humanity means for that instance of the game.

It's a sort of loose coupling, where the system says "stat X and process Y must be present, and will have such and such mechanical effects. The group defines the fictional content of stat X and process Y".

So you have a system where in one campaign, coveting someone's oxen has the same mechanical effect as killing them; in another campaign, none of these have mechanical effects, but putting cyberware into your head does.


32. On 2009-12-22, jaywalt said:

You've hit on exactly why Geiger Counter isn't done yet.

I've run it a bunch and other people have run it a bunch.  Sometimes it works super duper great. Other times it's just mediocre.  And it totally has to do with framing the setting content, since the procedures are somewhat flexible but the key is knowing HOW and WHEN to flex them.  And in cases where the setting isn't strong conceptually, where it's somewhat generic or just weaksauce with no bite, that flexibility becomes vagueness and doesn't provide enough structure to keep things running along.

Lately, I've been strongly considering having a default setting, something that I know rocks hard, and then just letting people drift it to do other things, because you know they're going to do that anyway (as with Dogs, Dust Devils, etc.)

My own experiences writing Geiger have honestly reinforced experiences I've had with Shock:, Mortal Coil, PTA and other setting-agnostic games, but I'm not sure I could have put my finger on the issue without having sat down and tried to write one of these myself.


33. On 2009-12-22, Matthijs said:

Jonathan, that's what Jason did with Last Train. He took Archipelago, which has no setting, and made a grabby setting for it. Real eye-opener for me; every setting will require some rules tweaks, to better present what that specific setting/game is about.

Danish scenarios are very often a combination of situation and scenario-specific rules, written for that scenario.


34. On 2009-12-23, Joel said:

Regarding the "worse problem," I think I'll look at my own design, since that's been the fruitful way to approach Anyway posts these days:

In Spectre of the Beast, you play Champions whose ambitions will change the course of history, throughout successive Epochs—play a Champion in one epoch, achieve your ambition or don't, see how that affects your culture's development, play a Champion in the next epoch, achieve your ambition or don't, etc.

So how does SotB handle the issue of treating its content concretely? Well, at the outset it's pretty dismal: a "create a setting, any sort of setting you want!" kinda deal, reminiscent of PTA and such. I do recall at the time of Game Chef somebody in feedback asked me why you couldn't set some dials for your Culture, make this Culture strong in science and that one strong in warfare, and so on. I resisted it then and still resist it now, because I don't want to get too fiddly with the background material. I'm fairly confident that this is compensated by the rules for Champions, who DO have different strengths along those lines, and who will affect the Cultures' values by their actions. Still, creation of Cultures and the world they exist in, i.e. the "setting," isn't "handled concretely" by the rules, and it's always the roughest, most floundering part of play.

Things look better after that. Everyone plays scenes with their guy with a single roll to see if they achieve their goal, but! that goal is defined as "a step toward achieving their ambition." So yes, it does mean that "shooting an elk to feed the tribe" is mechanically equivalent to "landing on the moon," that one constraint means that "things related to achieving an ambition" are mechanically differentiated from "things not related to achieving an ambition."

The other but! about that roll is that it tweaks a lot of variables beyond simple PASS/FAIL. It tells you what terrible cost (if any) violence in the pursuit of ambition incurred. It tells you what cultural undercurrents are developing for and against your Champion's ideals. And it tells you how much the overall conflict over the Ambition is escalating, and in whose favor.

Yeah, I'm pretty happy with that.

The other major system of the game comes inbetween the Epochs and in the Endgame (where the fate of the world—armageddon or utopia—will be decided). Here's where all those cultural undercurrents, suffering from violence, and specific aftereffects of Ambitions will chart the course for the next Epoch. I'd say content is pretty squarely rooted in concrete system here. There're different cultural development areas and they advance either complimentary to or in opposition to the Ambitions, while hopefully generating some Hope in opposition to the Beast points all that suffering generates. All this gives you prompts for developing your setting without prescribing specific content.

So! By self-diagnosis I'd say your precept maps pretty well to the area of my design that's been weakest in play. Once play gets rolling downhill content seems to be no problem, but that initial push is a bitch. I'd be curious to know your thoughts Vincent, at least inasmuch as you can say from my overview here.



35. On 2009-12-23, Robert Bohl said:

I think the trick here is that if the game is going to be any good and not rely on the vague alchemy of interpersonal reactions churning out a good session and good initiating situation, the game really really needs to give reliably good seed content. 'Cause, like, system matters, right? So collaborative-creation parts, their systems matter too. If they don't provide the players with specific-enough feedback to make things up, and if the designer cannot design to what their actual play will be like as a result, you have a serious, significant challenge.

E.g., if the seed content pushes you toward playing a motorcycle gang and the designer hates motorcycles and travel and designed a system where travel sucks and doesn't work right, and I know of at least one specific case where this happens, you have a serious, significant challenge.

But it's not a game-killer. It's "just" a serious, significant challenge. If you structure your seeds such that they push people to the kind of play you are able to design to, and if your rules and mechanics are concrete, specific, and fiction-aware, then you have a chance.

To me, wide-open collaborative creation (with good structure to it) is just privileging group buy-in and investment over in-session smoothness. The trick is not to let that privileging explode into an awful play experience.

No, the trick is to maintain that emphasis on buy-in while making sure in-session play can be fun all the time for the largest set of players you're designing for.


36. On 2009-12-23, Vincent said:

Huh. Do you really figure that group buy-in and investment is opposed to in-session smoothness? That you have to privilege one over the other? I would have said the opposite, that privileging one over the other detracts from the ideal - smooth and fully invested play.

I may be optimistic about that, but I AM pretty sure that, whatever else, in-session non-smoothness is destructive to group buy-in.


37. On 2009-12-24, Robert Bohl said:

Well yeah, of course it's true that in-session bumpiness fucks up group buy-in. But that's not what I'm talking about. Here:

Ridiculous extreme game 1:

You have an amazing world and character creation system that simultaneously lets anyone do any story they want (perhaps only shading tone or presentation a la Primetime Adventures). People are quite excited after world and character creation and can't wait to play. When they do, it's unsatisfying because the mechanics are very far from the fiction, because they in turn don't "know" what the game will be about.

Ridiculous extreme game 2:

You have an amazing world pregenerated for you and a bunch of really cool characters to choose from, but since the game is and can only be about the process of sorting stamps, very few people want to play it (let's ignore for a moment that the audience for stamp collecting is probably quadruple or more that of the one for RPGs). Or at least, I don't want to. Furthermore, it's a nightmare to hack because the needs of meaningfully replicating philately with the level of precision this game provides means there's no wiggle room.

Note I labeled both of these games as ridiculous extremes. I don't think either game exists, or represents a realistic "side" to the "argument." I do, however, think they illustrate the tension I was trying to indicate in my earlier post. If you bake in the situation and it's boring and unhackable, you're fucked on audience, if you make a game that can do anything it might as well do nothing.

My personal preference both as a designer and as a player is for the world/character creation section to be wide open enough that I get that wonderful feeling of buy-in that I have come to love from Forge-derived games, yet constrained by a certain feel, genre, whatever. The constraint may exist to market the game, to capture the "aboutness" of a purpose-designed game, or to allow the designer to write targeted rules that will have to do with what will happen during play (in other words, the argument you're making).

In other words, I want something between those two extremes. Thankfully, nearly every game I've ever bothered to play twice in the past five years fits the above-outlined personal preference, so I'm good.

Your "call to action" on this, though, is great. I may not necessarily agree with the slippery slope that parts of your argument went to in my head (i.e., open world creation is immoral or whatever), but you're very good at making me think about this kind of shit. I don't think I agree with the final arguments you come up with all the time, but I do learn a lot.


38. On 2009-12-24, jaywalt said:


On every setting requiring rules tweaks, I definitely feel you in many cases. There's an actual step in the process of crafting scenarios, I think, where the group needs to assess the setting and the written rules and make a few obvious tweaks to provide the necessary structure for moving forward. You don't need to fix everything in the beginning, but I think you sometimes need to tweak something to set a precedent for any later changes, stylistically. "This is the kind of thing we might think about fiddling with slightly."


39. On 2009-12-24, Ben Lehman said:

Rob: Your examples make no sense to me at all. You haven't argued why there's an logical connection between the extremes you present. Why does a detailed world require a stamp-collecting system?


40. On 2009-12-24, Chris said:

I'm also not following the connection.  It doesn't really matter if the seed material is produced by the group or pregenerated elsewhere, for people to buy in and use it.  (see: many convention games, Lady Blackbird, Clover, etc.)

When the group has to create character or situation, it's effectively a design process- as much as creating levels for a videogame.  It doesn't matter if the group makes it or if it's already there, provided it is fun and works.


41. On 2009-12-25, ThoughtBubble said:


Would this be like when my friends and I made a complex, political, mythological, magical setting and then tried to play it in D&D? And my spymaster friend couldn't really do too much long term proactive spying, and my paladin's messed up family relationships couldn't come to bear, and our kung-fu master's style rivalries couldn't play a role. So the only character who really could do his thing was the guy who built as a "spellcaster". And it stunk, and we stopped as soon as we tried to figure out where to start because we realized that the rules couldn't support this world.

Because that's the best example of seed content not matching rules play that I've got.


42. On 2009-12-27, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

or in Mortal Coil when Brennan said something like, "What if the magic was Rock & Roll and it was founded when [Robert] Johnson made a deal with the devil at the crossroads?"

Curious example, as that was my idea, and I wasn't the GM. If I recall, it was more or less a pitch session, with everyone throwing down ideas, and that one happened to stick. That's the nice thing about pitch sessions. Shock: lets you make those pitches mechanical with Praxis, which PTA doesn't. (There are some flaws in the way Shock: players make Praxes, which accounts for some large proportion of crappy Shock: games, so it's not like it's a complete solution.) Significantly, though, you do everything the same way ? in choosing Praxis, you don't say, "Oh, this one uses the Escape mechanic. And this one uses the Seduction mechanic." Picking from that list of subsystems would work fine, though. Huh.

Another good one, from Remi: "This is going to be the filthiest, most Cinemax game of PTA ever played." And it turned out to be one of the best roleplaying moments (well, six solid hours of moments) of my life.

If you can figure out your seed content on the fly and then pick/assemble appropriate mechanics on the fly, you get the benefit of everyone's throwdown pitch with the benefit of the match.


43. On 2009-12-28, Vincent said:

J: in choosing Praxis, you don't say, "Oh, this one uses the Escape mechanic. And this one uses the Seduction mechanic." Picking from that list of subsystems would work fine, though. Huh.

That's VERY interesting.


44. On 2009-12-28, Robert Bohl said:

Rob: Your examples make no sense to me at all. You haven't argued why there's an logical connection between the extremes you present. Why does a detailed world require a stamp-collecting system?

I'm surprised that they make no sense to you. I mean these are not realistic games you'd design, they're ridiculous platonic (un)ideals.

The point is that there exists a pole of too much prep without rules that are enough about the action to be satisfying, and another pole where the entire situation is determined ahead of time but the in-game play features tightly interwoven mechanics and fiction.

My point is that a) I think that the middle of those extremes is a more productive area to design in and b) I sit in the middle of that, and possibly closer to the create-the-world-together end.


45. On 2009-12-28, Ben Lehman said:

I dunno, Rob. I don't see your second case as, uh, mattering. As in: I can't think of a single game that over-interweaves its mechanics. I'm not saying that there could not be such a game, just that it's hardly an epidemic.

I think you're creating a middle space for yourself in the discourse because it's a comfortable place for you: it means you don't have to re-examine your own game designs.



46. On 2009-12-28, Robert Bohl said:

And I think you're incorrect, Ben.

I already said several times that neither of those two games exist.

I understand your critique. Thanks.


47. On 2009-12-28, Vincent said:

So J...

I'm all bouncing in my seat and I'm like, "praxis: time travel vs taking your medicine!"

And you're like, "okay. For time travel, let's see... Let's say that time travel uses the 'death-defying stunt' rules. Taking your medicine obviously uses the 'sucking up pain' rules."

But then you could be like, "oh wait, you know what would be really fun for time travel? Time travel uses the 'making something of value' rules. Hot sweet bippy boo!"

And then you're like, "praxis: CGI hyper-violence vs holding hands and singing."

So I'm like, "so yeah, let's do CGI hyper-violence with the 'action-violence' rules (not, for instance, the 'murder' rules, although how about the 'creating a distraction' rules? Hmm). But for holding hands and singing, I'm going to go with the 'forcing another's hand' rules, not the 'united group action' rules. Cool?"

And you're like, "cool. Mean. Cool."

So what the designer's done, then, is designed a whole buttload of distinct subsystems...
- action-violence
- creating a distraction
- death-defying stunts
- forcing another's hand
- making something of value
- murder
- sucking up pain
- united group action
- and probably many more, along the same lines
...Only four of which will appear in our game, based on our judgment of the content we've chosen.

Am I reading you?


48. On 2009-12-28, Vincent said:

(It gives me perverse delight to make fictional-J say exclamations like "hot sweet bippy boo.")


49. On 2009-12-29, Avram said:

Vincent, have you taken a look at the various games derived from version 3 of the FATE rules? Specifically Diaspora, which started out as a port of Traveller to FATE?

I ask because the designers of Diaspora included four resolution systems (which they call "minigames") in the game, one of which is more-or-less the standard FATE 3 conflict system. But one of the new systems, designed for handling social conflicts, has also been suggested for use to handle Cyberpunk-style computer hacking, or assassinations attempts. I could totally see a later version of Diaspora just including a half-dozen resolution systems with recommendations about when to use each.


50. On 2009-12-29, Troy_Costisick said:

Heya Vincent,

Your original post talked some about Setting from a design standpoint.  I'd like to get back to that for a second.  In order to plant seed content in a Setting resource for an RPG, would phrases like the following likely be helpful in achieving that end:

-Legend has it that....
-No one really knows for sure why....
-This area remains unexplored....
-The truth of the matter has never been discovered...
-Rumors state that....
-The original puropse of... is unknown...
-Not even the scholars know what happened to....
-Whatever happened to.... is still a mystery.
-Ancient texts speak of....
-One of many possible explanations is....
-....has been lost for centuries/years/eons.
-The true nature of.... has not yet been revealed.
-Many are still seeking....

I hope those aren't too abstract and out of context for you.  I'm working on techniques that point players in a direction but doesn't given them directions on how to get there.  Make any sense?




51. On 2009-12-31, Josh W said:

Some well meant drive-by comments:
original post- sometimes I love to use the media soup, especially if I've been surrounding myself with the more unusual corners of it. (corners of a soup? a weird picture!) Coming from totally different places causes more thoughtful pauses during starting setting creation, but can lead to some pretty amazing stuff if you all play the composite streight.

37- Rob I get that, definitely, but in the olden days games were closer to extreme 2 but didn't always work for what they were supposed to be for!

45- Ben perhaps that viewpoint is like the programmer who says "of course I made this program to suit my own needs, but all you need to do is edit and recompile the source-code" it's easy for you cause you do this stuff; the pool and heroquest have some of their strength because they don't do that. They are like blogs for people who really want a different kind of website, but don't know how to program any.

47- vincent, I think that second one is mist robed gate! (or at least a relative)

Here's my take on buy-in vs working play:

To me the example of the Android game is one of people wanting to play their game for which they have pre-established bye-in via their own esoteric processes.

But how to actually play it? Do those players shift from their specification to accommodate a designer? Preferably only if the extra voice of the mechanical structure is a nice addition. Do they grab-bag-hack a selection of other games together to make their new version? That's design, and a lot of people already do it, but the next tricky bit is finding ways to meld that stuff together: If you make a list of sub-systems, do they have a standard linking framework, or do they have alternative suggestions for attaching them to each other?

I suspect there is a whole category of people for whom playing an rpg is an expression of a creative desire, and they form groups based on that. Their engagement with the process is based on their hope that it will result in them producing something together that matches up to what they want. If they at least produce something together, well that's something, but really they are about how that something matches up with what they intended.

That's one version of a group having their own esoteric buy-in, I'm sure there are other forms, and no doubt compound forms etc etc.

But I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that sometimes we don't get captured by someone's gorgeous game, how ever much our designer egos might prefer it, we get captured by our own visions that we find a game (or hybrid of games) to serve.

How does that relate to the original idea, of giving a game some part for people to love? Well how about sometimes people bring their own thing they love, and that needs embodying, something to make it actual experience, and that seed defines certain features of the structures required to express it?


52. On 2009-12-31, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Am I reading you?

Yes! And I think you can even choose the fulcra the same way. You have these known inputs. That means the systems need to take as input:

> A number between 3 and 8
> Your number of Features, divided between "for me" and "against you". They're not necessarily d10s and d4s, but they represent that same choice.

Also, I think this is how we're going to get Shock: Human Contact. I'm looking to have a prototype by the time we're done with Dogs.


53. On 2009-12-31, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Also, sweet bippity boo.

PS Bring back Marginalia with your Voigt-Kampf!


54. On 2010-01-04, Vincent said:

Troy: Too abstract and out of context for me, yes! But two can play at that game. Here's what I think: that won't do what you hope. It might make space for a tool that will do what you hope, though. Just make sure you put a tool that works into that space.


55. On 2010-01-05, Susano-wo said:

"And my spymaster friend couldn't really do too much long term proactive spying, and my paladin's messed up family relationships couldn't come to bear, and our kung-fu master's style rivalries couldn't play a role":
RE: Spymaster: why not?
RE: Paladin: why not?
RE: Master: Why N—ok, there isn't a whole lot to truly create different styles in AD&D, so that would be hard to bring into play, aside for must saying that the styles are different ^ ^
Now, just to make sure I am clear: I am assuming from the context of the thread that you are saying you couldn't because you were trying to do these things with the AD&D system. If that is not the case, than my questions still stand, but my 'answers' might be different or non-existant


56. On 2010-01-06, Joel said:

I can't speak for ThoughtBubble's experience, but I can speak for mine: sure, in D&D you "can" do long-term spying, and you "can" do messed-up family relationships, and you "can" do rivalries. But the rules aren't necessarily going to help you. If you hit a fictional thing that the rules don't help you resolve, then you're basically just powering through on the strengths of the participants. In that case strong participants = strong play experience, and weak participants = weak play experience. If rules function as a tool to strengthen your play, then strong participants + strong rules = really awesome play experience, and weak participants + strong rules = well, at least a stronger experience than they would have otherwise had.

Personally I'm more satisfied with play if the rules in use do something interesting (not just adequately functional) with the material I'm jazzed about. Yeah, I and my friends can come up with stuff ourselves, but the rules are there to give us something we might not have come up with on our own. So if you're playing a game and all the interesting rules results are coming up in the area of say, "spellcasting," I'm going to be bummed that my, say, messed-up relationships aren't achieving the same "punch."

The "system" is the whole body of means by which play events are established (Vincent's "Lumpley Principle"). What we're looking at here, I think, whether the part of our System called "the rules of D&D" is interestingly supporting our fictional content, or whether it's essentially saying "Eh? Oh sure, you can have style rivalris, good luck with that!"


57. On 2010-01-14, Susano-wo said:

"And my spymaster friend couldn't really do too much long term proactive spying, and my paladin's messed up family relationships couldn't come to bear"

Thanks what I was...I don't want to say disagreeing with...but was probing. I was probing why to see if I disagreed or agreed.

As far as facilitation goes, I think its great, when it can feel organic. but there are a lot of areas that I don;t think even need rules-based facilitation—spying, for instance. Or messed up family relationships.

The style one..yeah, that's one that needs facilitation. There needs to be a difference in the styles mechanically for it to matter to me


58. On 2010-01-14, ThoughtBubble said:

Susano and Joel,

Sorry for my delay.

Joel hit on why I thought that game might be a good example of seed content/rules mismatch. We started with "Let's make overpowered Gestalt D&D 3.5 characters with high stats! Hm... We need a world first! Let's make a world!" The stuff we ended up focusing and caring about those characters wasn't that they were awesome - but what the awesome was tied into. We got caught up in things the D&D 3.5 rules didn't specifically handle well, like relationships. Now we've handled this before. But there was kind of another twist to that D&D game. Here goes...

I'm our group's habitual GM, Rules Authority, and Creative Director. And I was getting pretty burnt out. The game started as some ?what if? group collaborative building. We built the whole world bit by bit and each person got final say over 2 areas or groups. One evil group, one good group. Following that, we made characters, tied them in, sketched out the major conflicts and generally had a fun time. The anticipation left a tingly excitement to play. We got through our characters, we had an epic, fantastic world with good villains, our characters were tied together well enough that we'd stick together and dive into each others' plot twists. And everyone was excited. For the first time in over a year, everyone was excited.

There was one insurmountable problem though. My role in as a player vs my role as an organizer. Remember that bit about being the habitual GM? I realized that even if we managed to split things up, I was still going to be in charge of the whole thing. I felt too big a responsibility to honor the other player's contributions to just do what I wanted. Which meant that we weren't going to focus on the conflicts that interested me, because the paladin's family was related to my character, and I was still ultimately in charge. To make this work out, I was going to have to make the most appealing character I'd ever made into a supporting NPC. And this was my attempt to get away from being in charge and play a little more.

What I needed for this to work was rules that would constrain my freedom as "ultimate creative guy" and give me more freedom to push towards conflicts I found fun (by protecting the other player's interests?). It's a little more tangled than that. But basically, the only way that anything other than our spell caster's spell casting would have come up is if I'd made it. And I was sick to death of doing that.

Hope that answers your probe!


59. On 2010-01-15, Z-Dog said:

"I wrote rules that treat the endeavors of a village midwife and the endeavors of an ancient god of vengeance and war the same way - which meant I wrote rules that are abstract, mannered, flatly interpersonal and over-explicit."

I love how a lowly peasant playing his lute can tame the god of war. Why not? That's the story I'm trying to tell.


60. On 2010-01-18, Joel said:


So I hear you saying that D&D wasn't bringing you anything special to make spying fun, or messed-up relationships fun, or kung-fu rivalry fun; YOU had to bring that. And after awhile it was too much for you to be the "make everything fun" guy?

If so, that hits what I was trying to say square in the big warty nose. I've definitely been in that place. Susa (disclosure: Susano is my brother, and we have a long and checkered play history), maybe TB's use of the word "couldn't" is hanging up communication here? It seems that the true issue is not that it "couldn't" happen, like, in all possible universes, but that it didn't happen for TB and his pals.

That's where I have difficulty with a statement like "there are a lot of areas that I don;t think even need rules-based facilitation—spying, for instance." My experience leads me to believe that practically anything can benefit from rules facilitation, and practically anything might be, for a particular game, the thing that needs it. Take our Over the Edge experience: speaking as GM, if I had "Rules for Spying," I could have handled a lot of material in that game more deftly and enjoyably. Remember all the flak and jeering I got from a lot of players over perceived flaws in my portrayal of black ops/espionage stuff? And Colleen, the primary espionage player, was much more polite about it, but I know she would have had a more fulfilling experience if I could have riffed off her spy content in a more sophisticated and elegant way, without the floundering and fumbling.

With a ruleset that doesn't address spying, even just a general framework, it's up to me, the GM, to bring the espionage awesome. If he happens to be really good at it, great. If he's me, though, he sucks at it, and it shows. That's one place where rules facilitation can help us.



61. On 2010-01-18, Susano-wo said:

Well, to start with something very positive, I don't think there is a real communication breakdown (though I suppose hang up could be accurate in the sense of delaying it). Thoughtbubble's clarification is exactly why I didn't launch on a tirade about how you really can do all these things in D&D—He really is saying that D&D doesn't help, and their group dynamic sabotaged it. Which makes sense, though its too bad.

And now to something still fairly positive :D
RE: Spying. I agree with about everything you are saying RE: COlleen's politeness and that it would have been much more satisfying if you could have given her that. But I don't think spying rules owuld have helped. YOu can have a framework for it, which might facilitate what to roll when, but the meat of it is still the content and interactions—stuff that the framework wouldn't really help you with.
Though we are, of course, dealing with only hypothetical frameworks, so its hard to make a conclusive argument. :P


62. On 2010-01-19, Joel said:

OK, I'm glad we're communicating on that. I do think maybe we're dealing with different concepts of what sorts of things rules frameworks can provide.

NON-hypothetical example: Dogs in the Vineyard gives you Town Creation and GMing rules: create a town in trouble using THESE steps, then in play reveal the town THIS way. That gets you a certain result in terms of play content and the rewarding experience thereof. Now, I've still got to play the interactions on my own; Vincent's not gonna feed me my lines like Cyrano. But because of that framework in the book, I always have a guiding principle that gives direction to the moment-to-moment bits of roleplaying and narration. I'm never just "stuck," wondering how to do my part to move the game forward.

That kind of framework for running espionage stories would have worked WONDERS for me in the OTE game. (Which is not to say that OTE is a faulty design; it's basically William S. Burroughs: the Game, not John le Carr?: the game or Tom Clancy: the Game. I'm just saying for what we ended up doing with it, I was in sore need of guidance.)

Anyway, if Thoughtbubble, Vincent and everyone are done, maybe I should pack it in too. This is basically a conversation we can continue over the phone. :)



63. On 2010-01-20, Vincent said:

Your call. I don't mind hosting the conversation, and these kinds of conversations can be useful to people following along or coming after.


64. On 2010-01-20, Joel said:

OK, that's cool. I just didn't wanna wear out my welcome when I could continue elsewhere. But I like having the conversation in this space.


65. On 2010-01-20, Rachel Kirkpatrick said:

I am looking for Jesse Burneko.  Please email me at, I am pretty sure you were the Jesse I went to high school with.  I would like to talk and this is the only way I can contact you, apologies for the non topic.


66. On 2010-01-22, Bwian said:

If you don't provide seed content yourself, you're not leaving it up to the group, but to the random media crap-soup we all swim in.

This seems a little harsh.  There are all kinds of limitations on group and individual creativity etc. that vary from person to person.  The 'crap-soup' is some kind of indicator of the content that interests people?

Won't some groups want (or need) more (or different) seed content than others?  And individuals within a given group probably vary too.  In what I think of as traditional RPGs, much of the seeding is left to the 'GM' (or whatever) - which might connect to the 'necessary leader(s)' someone mentioned early on.

(Thought: maybe part of the problem with relying on inputs from the 'crap-soup' is that these inputs are not 'seeds' - they are finished products, full-grown trees as it were, grown from a seed someone else planted and nurtured.)

The more concrete in the fiction you can make your rules... the more momentum they can build in play.

Some RPGs are so burdened with rules concrete-in-the-fiction that those rules disperse momentum.

I think the idea of 'seed content' is a very useful one.  If anything, I want an image or a reference or a constraint or hint (or... rumour :))  that gets me moving, without giving me a destination.  But this is just me.

In each moment of play, the seed content can be, if you design your process to work with it, last moment's content, live and electric.

A very attractive and interesting concept... if achieved the need for 'initial' seed content would be minimal.

Finally, you limit yourself to expressing only your insights into roleplaying as a practice.

I take your point as: Are we designing for designers?  Or for role-players?



67. On 2010-01-22, Marshall Burns said:

Which is not to say that OTE is a faulty design; it's basically William S. Burroughs: the Game

I am fighting very hard to repress the urge to rant and rave about why that's not true. And also cry.


68. On 2010-01-22, Joel said:

Well, that's what Jonathan Tweet says it is; I read Naked Lunch and could see where he was coming from. Address rants to him, I guess. Is David Lynch: the Game more apt?

(Though now I confess I'm deathly curious what the rant is, though. Are you weeping 'cause I've shortchanged the game? or Burroughs? Or something else? dancingbanshee AT gmail DOT com if you wanna elaborate.)

Anyway my point is that OTE wasn't about ultra-slick black-ops wetworks, but rather about making your confused way in a brutal and surreal city, so it gave me no tools to address the former.



69. On 2010-01-23, Ben Lehman said:

Marshall: Amen to that.

I think that the closest thing to a naked lunch game is probably Spione.


70. On 2010-01-23, Marshall Burns said:

(Hey Vincent, I'll take this elsewhere if you want.)

I weep about it because I really want it to be WSB: the game. Because I would love that game. But OTE is, as written, an adventure game with Burroughsian Color, which just isn't the same.

The central thing in WSB is conflict with forces of Control. Control demands that you subjugate and degrade yourself to get by. Burroughs' later books are about fighting Control tooth and nail rather than just trying to get around it or survive it (like Naked Lunch is), but it's still the central thing. OTE almost has support for this with its power groups, but they're really kindof pathetic—if any of them are competent, why are there so damn many of them that can't do anything about each other? Nah, they're really just minor players scrabbling for tiny advantages. Which is part of a Burroughsian universe, but not enough. It's missing the capital-C Control. The time, inertia, entropy, shit-death-and-taxes Control on a cosmic level.

The other thing is a different kind of logic. WSB didn't believe in linear causality—he called Cause and Effect a "monumental lie." He believed in synchronous causality, which is hard to briefly explain, but boils down to events occuring because of abstract, unknowable causes outside of time and space. What we perceive as the effect and the cause happen synchronously, are determined and created in the same breath, no matter how far separated in time or space (even going backward through time). This belief is reflected in WSB's work, and roleplaying WSB requires a system that can deal with this idea. A system based on logistics is no good, and I for that matter one that requires keeping so many secrets from the players won't work, especially where it recommends things like concealing from a player the fact that his PC was affected by a fringe power. You end up with players being cautious and careful and calculating, things that just don't count for much in WSB. Not nearly as much as nerve, open-mindedness, and sheer audacity.

And, for a minor concrete example (there are plenty), the whole issue of guns in OTE. Guns are usually illegal in WSB books too, but everyone has one anyway. William Lee is constantly getting hassled (usually by those two recurring cops—Hauser and O'Brien, I think?) about his .38 snub-nosed revolver. In OTE, players are pretty much instructed that they shouldn't have guns or else the GM will spank them. In fact, that sort of audacity is dis-encouraged by OTE's whole structure, because it will get you killed. In WSB books, audacity keeps you alive and relatively free, albeit at increasingly horrible cost.

Ben, I've been suspecting for a long time that Spione has the pieces I might need to run a WSB game. Thanks for confirming that I need to buy it, darn you.


71. On 2010-01-23, Joel said:

Hey, Marshall, thanks for explaining. That feels a whole lot better than me fidgeting in embarrassment at some mysterious faux pas while those in the know nod in dismayed agreement.

I weep about it because I really want it to be WSB: the game. Because I would love that game. But OTE is, as written, an adventure game with Burroughsian Color, which just isn't the same.

OK, I can buy that. It squares with my constant feeling during play that OTE was pointing toward something cool and amazing, that I and my fellow players didn't know how to implement.

I readily cop that I'm a total Burroughs novice, having only read Naked Lunch and that only in an attempt to make sense of OTE. Now you've got me much more interested in reading further.

OTE almost has support for this with its power groups, but they're really kindof pathetic—if any of them are competent, why are there so damn many of them that can't do anything about each other? Nah, they're really just minor players scrabbling for tiny advantages. Which is part of a Burroughsian universe, but not enough. It's missing the capital-C Control. The time, inertia, entropy, shit-death-and-taxes Control on a cosmic level.

The text hangs a lampshade on this, basically telling the GM that he's gonna have to come up with some plausible reason why the groups don't just squash the PCs flat. But yeah, it's a problem. I was constantly struggling in play to maintain player agency without the groups looking silly and incompetent.

The Cut-Ups supplement (written by Robin Laws) seems to move further toward what you're talking about, especially with the audacity of its surrealist heroes. But it doesn't much for Capital-C Control other than postulate its existence.

That "audacity keeps you alive" theme reminds me a lot of the Invisibles. And the forces of Control definitely don't feel limp-dicked there.



72. On 2010-01-23, Ben Lehman said:

I wanted to write a game called Homosexuality is the best cover an agent ever had about Burroughs but I couldn't get very far. Part of the problem is that Burroughs is deeply caught up in cold war society (hence the appropriateness of Spione.) In order to really write a Burroughs game that's not just pastiche, I think it would have to take into account the modern corporatist international politics (Like, say, being set in Azerbaijan, which is itself at the moment basically Interzone.)


73. On 2010-01-24, Josh W said:

Marshall, funny thing is, I find that description totally uninteresting to play, yet I like rustbelt (which includes a lot of that "life'll grind you down" vs "refuge in being hardcore" stuff) and the feel of over the edge!

I think it's the mono-chrome universe; I love the idea of a big ball of conspiracies all constantly sabotaging each other, caught in a situation where no-one wants to be kingmaker. No-one's in control, and no-one's got the big conspiracy, because anyone who gets too big gets taken down. I've seen badly designed boardgames that descend into that, and it is in it's own way hilarious to see people continue by stubbornness in a situation where each of them's intransigence to the others has locked them in some kind of loop without end state. It's absurd, and it's in that absurdity that I would run something like an over the edge game; the more opponents you have, the more likely you are to survive, if you can keep them confused enough to crash into each other.

And in rustbelt, where all that grinding doom is going on in the background, people in the foreground are still gunning in their different directions; the rust is breaking all the support cables, but the frayed edges and swinging gantries are where the interest is, at least for me.

In both of those settings (as I imagine them) the real challenge is maintaining control yourself; keeping something of your own even as you surf the avalanche.

I'm bored of being a crazy rebel against a great conspiracy, it feels too teenage to me, I'd rather be Liet-Kynes in the desert; politically manoeuvring to keep people's gaze off the plants I'm growing, the hope of a new world.

In GMing rustbelt, I'm always interested to see if the players can do something that defies my actions, if they can make something that'll last, with a little beauty in it, despite all the encouragement to destruction and the poverty of the situation. In my spin your never choked out by the forces of banality, corruption, apathy and lazy malice, because you're moving faster than it, and maybe seeing a little clearer. The real trouble is dealing with the desperation of others.

Do you see what I mean? Is there something cool I'm missing in the William S Burroughs stuff that is as engaging as that?

And as a tap in passing to the starting post, the reason I don't set up over the edge games is I don't yet know how to pull off that "self-sabotaging multi-conspiracy" vibe in play.


74. On 2010-01-24, Simon C said:

Hey Vincent,

So if Seed Content is good for settings, it's good for characters too, right?


75. On 2010-01-24, Vincent said:

Oh a world of yes. Yes!


76. On 2010-01-25, Marshall Burns said:

Hey Joel, sorry, no faux pas; didn't mean to imply that. Oh, and the Invisibles is highly Burroughsian, so yeah :)

Yeah, I'm pretty much with you on that. I'd also really love to see what Burroughs made of contemporary politics.

WSB isn't really being a rebel against a great conspiracy. Well, sometimes, but that great conspiracy is just a small symptom of a larger problem. He really gets into this in his later books (although he hinted at it in everything he wrote), especially the trilogy of Cities of the Red Night, Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. What he's really talking about is rebelling against much bigger things: time, death, the body/mind construct (or, as he calls it, the Human Artifact), the entire idea of parties nations and other tribes, fate, the laws of nature. The implication is that all of this is being forced on us by a cosmic conspiracy that is beyond human. And he repeatedly states that if this fight means the end of existence as we know it, "LET IT COME DOWN."


77. On 2010-01-25, Joel said:

Marshall, cool. Glad we worked out the disconnect.

You know, the whole time I was reading the Invisibles, I was thinking man, I wish my Over the Edge game could be like THIS!

Also, thanks for the further reading list tips on WSB stuff.

You know (I ponder as I gamely try to bring this back around to topic), it seems to me that one of the great difficulties with Seed material—with playing RPGs at all with people who aren't clones of you—is the issue of disconnect over the same Seed—what it means to you, what its salient qualities are, and how to bring it into play satisfyingly. Say we'd none of us heard of OTE before, but both read Burroughs: I call you up and say, "hey I found this great WSB themed game, come over and let's play it." ANd you do, and hate it, and I'm going, "what? It's got all the Burroughs stuff." But for you it doesn't—what really makes it tick for you is missing. So both of us started from the same Seed, but we have a shitty time together because of divergent expectations.

You hear about this stuff all the time, of course: some people wanna play Firefly for the snarky crew having wacky adventures, some people wanna play it for the putting of pressure on people whose lives and beliefs are in crisis. I remember when I first came into my college game group, I quickly found that there was exactly one member who'd read Lord of the Rings. I thought we could connect, until I realized that I'm more into the spiritual struggle, the unbearable ache of things lost, etc. etc. while he just, y'know, likes Balrogs 'cuz they're badass. Our gaming together reflected that disconnect heavily.

So how does one address that issue? I guess one way is to come out and say, "Star Wars means this to me, you guys on board with that? I'm reminded of Ron Edwards' conversation with, hmm, Clyde Rhoer, I believe? where he talks about what he means by "story-impairment" (AKA the Damage that rhymes with Drain) in gamers: (paraphrasing) "You ask them what a story's about and they get hung up on a litany of details, instead of identifying the emotional core of the story."

In my experience, it's really difficult to have that conversation, but it's also necessary for a successful and rewarding experience. I've had games of Sorcerer and Dogs, for instance, fail for the lack of that conversation, and had the conversation successfully with Nicotine Girls and Burning Wheel.

I guess what I'm wondering at this point is how to use Seed material for a "buy-in" conversation, without it being a shorthand for the themes you actually want, thus easily leading to a hidden disconnect.



78. On 2010-01-25, Joel said:

Dangit, open italics tag. Shoulda previewed. :/


79. On 2010-01-25, Vincent said:

Got it for you.


80. On 2010-01-25, Joel said:

Thanks, Vincent!

ADDENDUM to Marshall: I was just realizing how this whole Burroughs discussion has given me a lot of closure and perspective on how and why that OTE game failed. So thanks for that.


81. On 2010-01-25, Alex D. said:

"So if Seed Content is good for settings, it's good for characters too, right?"

I played Donjon with open, player created classes.

I also played a game of Donjon where I wrote up ten classes with 4 sets of attribute scores to pick from, a number of abilities to split points into, and a handful of specially written abilities the player could choose from (the whole thing was reminiscent of, and inspired by, Apocalypse World).

The second game was a whole hell of a lot more enjoyable and coherent.
Just my personal experience, here.


82. On 2010-01-26, Simon C said:

Here's a thing I was thinking:

So, seed content can "push", like "All the characters live in a big ol' castle called Gormenghast" or "There are guns made of bone and they fire bone splinters that grow on your flesh when they hit you", which is pretty neat.

But there's another kind of seed content, I think, which "pulls".  That's stuff like "If your character is a dishonoured Knight, add a black card." or "If you carry a Lady's favour, roll an extra die" (both examples from the Arthurian Romance game I finally finished a draft for).

What I mean is that you can write content into the game by saying "this stuff is here, and this is how it works", or by saying "this specific stuff matters to the rules of the game, so you're going to have to deal with it".

Does that make sense?


83. On 2010-01-26, Ben Lehman said:

Simon C: I think that those are rules, not seed content.


84. On 2010-01-26, Simon C said:

Sure, but it's rules with concrete content, and I think it fulfills some of the same functions.


85. On 2010-01-26, Simon C said:

Oh! Here's an illustration of what I'm talking about:

So, you could make a game that says something like:
"When making a character, choose one of the following classes:
WARRIOR: +1 to attacks
PRIEST: +1 to prayers
WOODSMAN: +1 to hunting

and choose two of the following items:

SWORD: +1 to attacks and defense
BOW: +1 to hunting and attacks
VESTMENTS: +1 to prayers and defense
SHIELD: +1 to defense and pushing

Which is seed content, right? Not very evocative seed content, but whatever.

OR, you could do it like this:

"Are you attacking? If so, answer the following questions:
Are you trained in combat? If yes, +1
Have you survived a battle? If yes, +1
Are you armed? If no, -1
Is your weapon honed and ready? If yes, +1

So it's the same kind of thing - making some elements of the fiction more significant to the rules than others. In the first example it "pushes" classes into the fiction, by telling you to choose if your character is a WARRIOR or not.  In the second example, it "pulls" classes from the fiction, by marking a clear mechanical distinction between characters with combat training and experience and honed weapons, and those without.

Is this a useful observation?


86. On 2010-01-26, Joel said:

Josh, that strikes me as, basically, what you DO with seed content, or if you will, how the game TREATS it. So yes, stuff like that tells you something about the fiction while relating it to a rule, which is rad. Hmm, maybe it's a way of teaching seed content that gets you engaged with it in a practical way right off the bat instead of "reading the setting dump," processing THAT, then learning the rules as a separate venture? Basic "learn by doing" stuff, right? This is the sort of stuff that my friend Willem Larsen and I think about all the time with what we call Fluency Play. Things like introducing one game step at a time, going at the pace of the slowest learner, introducing new concepts only as they come up in play, and so forth. Setting (or "Seed Content") can be notoriously ponderous to assimilate across a group (the age-old problem of only one guy reading the book) without some sort of aid, like streamlining it—Dogs' Seeds can be communicated very quickly and don't sweat the details, f'rinstance—or welding it to gameplay like you're talking about.

Another thing about rules and Seed Content, is how a set of rules accepts input from outside Seeds—how the system handles them and makes them relevant. I'm remembering Ron Edwards' (unfortunately unfinished) Color First Character Creation Project about a year ago, where he posted an evocative piece of art and asked people to make a character of her in whatever game system, detailing all the steps in each ruleset for fleshing out the character and bringing her into active play. One of the things that emerged in the discussion was how not only can different people take the same aesthetic Seed and go in vastly different directions with it in terms of tone and theme, but the rules you use to define the character will have a huge impact on how her attributes will be realized, and how they'll impact play itself. In D&D you've got to define her Race and Class in a way consistent with the visual; ditto somewhat with Equipment. In Sorcerer she needs a Demon (I picked a Parasite manifested in her etherial gaze), plus Price, Cover (Past for &Sword), and so on. All those things make a difference and tell you different things about why she has blue hair and icy eyes, why she wears skimpy rags, what that sword is and what's up with those discs across her waist.

Rules function as fruitful constraints for realizing Color/Seeds. I just thought of that.



87. On 2010-01-27, Mathieu Leocmach said:

So if Seed Content is good for settings, it's good for characters too, right?

I speak for the devil :
So if Seed Content is good for settings and characters, it's good for scenario too, right?

Ok, ill phrased. Scenario not an element of Exploration.

But I remember well very good one-shot games where almost everything was constrained : characters, situation, setting, color. Not necessary rules, because it was mainly so-called "rule-less" games ("no explicit rule" can anyway be considered as a constrain on the rules).

In particular, I wrote such a one-shot for a convention. It was played 3 or 4 times there, like 10 times afterward by several groups and GMs. It went wrong one or two times. Not terribly wrong, but not very satisfying. And each time that was because GM dismissed a constrain.

The constrains were necessary to have a game lasting no more than 6 hours. But not only. They were necessary to have a good game without relying solely on player ability and experience.


88. On 2010-01-28, Alex D. said:

So, the other way isn't good, either.

Played a game tonight that was 95% seed content, and 5% rules.
And the rules didn't quite work.

We had fun, but we *brought* the fun.

Again, personal anecdote.


89. On 2010-01-29, Josh W said:

Marshall, I had a nice reply for you but it got eaten in a browser crash. In short, I can see how such a situation could be interesting, it's like a rebellion against the world as we understand it through being bodies in it, as opposed to how we want it to be. Very existential, (I still think a little childish, as there is so much value in the real world) but it opens up interesting opportunities if that grand conspiracy cracks a little, and the world of imagination gets a few more tools to fight the tyranny of actuality. It's also cool because in (presumably) privileging the eye's closed idealist world, it has a chance to focus on it's special value. I can definitely see myself playing with that! And even in it's most brutal unrelenting absurdism, I could enjoy it for a short time, although I'd eventually start trying to turn it into a better implementation Mage the Ascension or something.

Mathieu, I tried to emphasise this distinction before, but tripped myself up in amusing ways looking for the "right word". Seed content is both restriction and inspiration, because it defines a space in which we can create stuff, often pushing out cliche to make room for newness. At least, that's what I've found.

Simon, I can imagine that; just as seed content can have influence as stuff we "hold in mind" while picturing and narrating this stuff (with great effects on dramatic irony and stuff like that), it can have all these intermediary effects on how things change; requirements for the system's mechanics that embody it.

One big advantage about putting it directly in the system is that it sits there and invites people to take advantage of it. There are a lot of setting elements in games that are like "oh and by the way you can't fly any higher than mount olympus" wheras changing it into the system element "flying higher than the peak of mount olympus causes your biplane to get wrecked by lightning" suddenly makes it something people can make matter. In that case the borders of the setting are something that can empower the players, and just as importantly something that sits somewhere in continuing play; it's been considered as a part of flying in that world, with consequences other than meta-game rewind! There are many amateur tolkiens, who add all kinds of details to their books they have no idea how to implement in game stories, which can be fun; allowing the players to be more creative than you with this awesome thing you think livens the game, but it can also lead to players who don't do that getting disappointed.

I wonder whether it's an idea to add a section of "setting elements I couldn't find a way to implement", as a sort of accompaniment to advanced or experimental rules, encouraging players to take your game on and expand it.


90. On 2010-01-29, Simon C said:

Josh, there's something more to it than that, but I'm struggling to articulate it.

Building your setting into your rules means that instead of making definitive statements about how the world is, "You may NEVER fly higher than Mount Olympus", you can make things that are complex - able to be interacted with.

The Olypus thing isn't great for illustrating that.  I guess I think back to the NPC generator thing I wrote:

We don't have the setting layed out for us when play begins, we discover the setting through interaction with the rules.


91. On 2010-01-29, Josh W said:

That reminds me a little of one interpretation of quantum physics; that the uncertainty principle and the general under-definition of particles is because a finished answer requires the things they are connected to; you when observing them. So such a setting-system might be one that pulls or implies setting details from how people play, or just starting selections people make (perhaps in character generation). This setting could be this that or that, but for you it is this, because you are you.


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