2010-08-19 : One of my favorite GenCon conversations

...Recorded so you can all listen!

Theory from the Closet: Show059: Interview with Vincent Baker

Like three times, Clyde had me going "holy crap, that's a good question, you're right. I gotta think a minute." Good conversation.

1. On 2010-08-20, Jesse Burneko said:

Hey Vincent,

When you sum up The Forge as, "Role-playing should be personally and socially fulfilling" it sounds so obvious and trite.  What astounds me is how many members of the hobby still cling to the notion that, achieving that with ANY configuration of people should be possible.  They seem to be of the belief that if a group can't play together it's only because someone in the group is being a stubborn asshole.  Or that naive solutions like rotating the spotlight so that Tactical Tim gets his fight and Narrative Nancy gets her character time is sufficient.

On a separate note, your ideas about fictional causality combined with Ron's color first thing have me thinking a lot.  I run into this issue A LOT in my own designs because my designs often hinge on an point of emotional philosophy that I want the group to be considering.  And often it's a wholly internal one.

There are two questions I'd like to explore in RPG format:

What do we do with inactionable guilt?


What role does deception, and particularly self-deception, play in our lives?

Silent Sound is my attempt at getting at the first.  And my recent Little Game Chef game, Bread Mold Might Be Medicine, is an attempt to get at the second.  However, I think BOTH games teeter on the edge of Dice Referencing Dice mechanics.  If nothing else both games are HIGHLY constrained.

I usually look at Dogs in the Vineyard with envy as a game that addresses something internal (Faith) in an external and actionable way.  However, the more I think about it the more I realize it isn't really about faith; at least not in that existential waking up in the morning, look at the world around you and questioning how you can go on believing in god way.  It's about religion as a basis for community.  It's the community aspect that makes it external and actionable.

Anyway, as I was saying, almost none of designs begin with imagined fiction or as Ron puts it color first.  They all begin with some issue of deep personal importance to me that I then kind of flail around trying to paste evocative fiction over.  The ONE exception to that is my game Thornes which began purely as a desire to remix The Three Musketeers and Sin City.

I find it VERY telling that it's the ONLY game in my design stable I can routinely drum up interest for when I explain it to other people.  I think that may relate to your point that almost all of the "trait invocation" games never make it to final publishable form.

So all that was a long way to say, I think you're on to something with that whole fictional causality thing.



2. On 2010-08-20, Hans said:

I am so glad this got recorded. I'm pretty sure I understood clouds-and-arrows from the Rob Bohl interview, but this discussion of it was so much more down to earth and way more intuitive. Jesus, Clyde, where did you learn how to interview?

It's very cool to hear people "finally talking about design." Even though my head is spinning a little and I'm not entirely sure I know what you're talking about. Even though I know what you're talking about when you're talking about aligning yourself with a game as the GM & Apocalypse World & such.


3. On 2010-08-20, Teataine said:

"Finally talking about design" is sooo exciting to me.


4. On 2010-08-20, JasonN said:

I liked the clouds and arrows synopsis.  Very clear.


5. On 2010-08-20, Josh W said:

Hmm, appropriate mindset, creative agenda:

Take this mindset, because you want something like this?

Can you set up a happily chugging game just by telling everyone, "if you play this game you'll have to treat it like this" and if they don't get why they'd want to, play a different game with them?

But if you want to fend that kind of conversation off with a barge pole for a bit, that's cool!


6. On 2010-08-22, ndp said:

This was a great one. Thanks dudes. My mind is blown.


7. On 2010-08-22, Simon C said:

In Stroking the Wizard's Tower, the GM's agenda isn't just "see if they win" though right? Otherwise all those great tables of "what is the monster made of" would be for nothing. In fact, all of the colour would be for nothing. Why does it matter to the agenda of the GM that the monster has, say, fire breath rather than ice breath?


8. On 2010-08-23, Vincent said:

Well, sure, I'll probably give the GM's agenda in 3 parts in Storming the Wizard's Tower (thank you), same as in Apocalypse World.

But fire breath vs ice breath is what makes "who will win?" interesting. "See if they win" is the whole point of those tables.

Maybe ask again in different words?


9. On 2010-08-23, Simon C said:

Different words:

If the different things, like fire breath vs. ice breath were just numbers that increased or decreased your chance of winning, you could just make them that, right? There's a reason that it's interesting that the monster has one vs. the other.

I mean, there's stuff like "I dive into the water to evade the fire breath" and such, where players use fictional positioning to give themselves an advantage against the thing. So it's interesting in that sense. But my experience is that the more singlemindedly the game focuses on competition - on whether you'll beat it - the less satisfied players are with unreliable currencies like fictional positioning.

If you compare, say, early editions of D&D with the most recent one, you'll see a big move away from any kind of unreliable currency, as the competition aspect of play has become more important.

I'd say that the reason fictional positioning matters so much in early D&D, and why it should matter in StWT as well, is because there's a tension between two goals - competition, and also exploration. There's this sense, as a DM, that you've built this amazing thing, and your agenda in play is to show that thing off to the players. I think that's the agenda that informs fire breath vs. ice breath, as much as "see if they win".


10. On 2010-08-24, Erik Weissengruber said:

Vincent, you and Clyde talk about how all participants in a game have to have a common approach that is appropriate to a given game.

Then you go on to say that a particular approach—let's call it X1—is needed to play 3:16.  And, approach—X2—is needed to play Poison'd, but the limited size of the text didn't allow extended discussion of the appropriate GM-ing style.  And then you go on to say that the GM-ing approach discussed in detail in Apocalypse World—X3—is applicable to all of the games that need approach X.

Is there any way you can lay out the magic of X for me.  I am going to GM Poison'd shortly and I don't want to leave my players X-less.


11. On 2010-08-24, Erik Weissengruber said:

Vincent, you and Clyde talk about how all participants in a game have to have a common approach that is appropriate to a given game.

Then you go on to say that a particular approach—let's call it X1—is needed to play 3:16.  And, approach—X2—is needed to play Poison'd, but the limited size of the text didn't allow extended discussion of the appropriate GM-ing style.  And then you go on to say that the GM-ing approach discussed in detail in Apocalypse World—X3—is applicable to all of the games that need approach X.

Is there any way you can lay out the magic of X for me.  I am going to GM Poison'd shortly and I don't want to leave my players X-less.


12. On 2010-08-25, Vincent said:

Simon: Ah. Sure!

Erik: I take it you don't have Apocalypse World, where I do lay it out.

Well, "know the rules, follow the fiction," from Poison'd's How To GM section, isn't terrible. Does that section make sense to you?


13. On 2010-08-26, Erik Weissengruber said:

It makes sense.

But I guess you ain't giving out chunks of Apocalypse World for free.

Time to talk to Mr. Pay Pal


14. On 2010-08-26, Vincent said:

That's not what I meant! I'm happy to talk about it, I'm just looking for a starting place. Have you read this?


15. On 2010-08-26, Mathieu Leocmach said:

So the GM has a creative agenda and the player have an agenda. Is it "the same", or are they distinct and compatible ?

What about Rock of Tahamaat ? Tree distinct agendas for the GM, the Tyrant and the players ? And in Polaris, can we consider that there are 4 agendas and the players are looping through them ?

Or is it pushing the letter of your saying too far ?


16. On 2010-08-26, Vincent said:

Distinct and compatible. Yes, there are three in Rock of Tahamaat and four in Polaris. Three in Shock: too.

These aren't Big Model Creative Agendas. These are just jobs.


17. On 2010-08-26, Mathieu Leocmach said:

The last line makes a lot of sens. That's what was confusing me.

So a part of the design is to define the agendas (or jobs) needed by the game and to make them interact in a constructive way.

Do you think that a game can work with a single agenda for all the participants ? Or a constructive dialog between at least two agendas is needed to move the game forward ?


18. On 2010-08-26, Josh W said:

Mathieu, what I was thinking was that in a functioning GNS-happy game, the family of roles in the game would have an underlying value structure that was the same, or at least compatible.

Actually that's not quite right, basically the people would be taking on these roles for reasons that were compatible, and because of them taking on those roles in the appropriate kind of spirit the roles would be compatible. (So people don't run smack into each other in the game, and when they talk about it afterwards they can agree roughly why it was good) That compatibility, and the similarities in reasons for being there that underwrite it, is what I understand as "creative agenda".

So in my mind really good play, of a well thought out game has a three tier structure, playing by the right rules from the right mindset for the right reasons. (and when I say right I obviously just mean "that works", but hopefully the game gives you keys to a set of each that work together)

I only just really got the middle layer after hearing this podcast, despite being able to talk about it to friends for ages! For some reason it was only just now that I was able to apply it to my own GMing mistakes. So thanks for that Vincent!

Also, would I be right in saying that all the tables in STWT for what monsters are made of are there to properly support the victory possibility? Do you want something there to support a fun defeat, or are you going for just a general "you die, gutted, lets start again" angle.


19. On 2010-08-26, J. Walton said:

Hi Vincent,

I'm having trouble agreeing with your "conventional games are really good at fictional positioning" claim when thinking about my experiences with 4E and the little of 3E that I've played (the only D&D I've ever played, actually).  Can you help me figure this out?

In my experience, the fights in 4E never really entered the fiction at all.  They were all about the DICE portion of your diagram: minis on a map, moves listed on the sheet, real things in the real world.  It was only between fights that we ever really seemed to encounter the fiction rather than minis-on-a-map.  And the fictional parts seemed to have very little impact on the minis-on-a-map parts of fights; they seemed like two disconnected games married uncomfortably together.

Are there places where the rules direct you to feed back into the fiction that we were ignoring?  Because that feedback-into-fiction seemed optional and not critical, which left me really frustrated with 4E in the same way that the kinds of "naked trait invocation" games could be frustrating.


20. On 2010-08-26, Vincent said:

Oh yikes. Yeah, I don't know about 4E at all, all my D&D is Moldvay. I suspect and understand that 4E's dice game is as impervious to the purely fictional as any story game's.


21. On 2010-08-26, Simon C said:


I blooged about that very point, here.

In short, yeah, not much interaction with the fiction in 4E combat (or skill challenges, really).

3E, depending on how you play, actually has a heck of a lot though. In the DMG there are all these things listed under each skill, like "Climbing: If the surface is slippery, the DC is +5. If you have a rope, you get +2" and so on. Not everyone would use those though, since it was so cumbersome to look up each time you wanted to use a skill. Far more often the DM would just pull out a number that made for a good challenge given their skill level and how important it was to the plot.


22. On 2010-08-27, J. Walton said:

Cool. It may be, then, that losing connections to the cloud happened across an entire swath of rpg design, then, and not just a certain group of small press games, if it's spread as far as 4E.  Not sure, though, because I don't feel like I have enough knowledge to make that call.

BTW, Vincent, as one of the folks who didn't get IAWA and Poison'd, it was fun to hear you talk about those games and how AW is different (and I think it really is) in terms of how you approached making certain things explicit or not.

I will admit, though, that even now, my reaction is like "even if it takes 10 or 20 or 50 pages to make this kind of stuff explicit in the text... isn't that the most important part of writing the text? Aren't those the most important, most worthwhile pages? Aren't those pages the ones that make it possible for us to acknowledge and talk about different styles of play?"  Maybe that's not true for all projects, but I'm really, really glad it's true for AW, at least, and that I can now go back and understand what you were doing in those other games (and maybe 3:16 too).


23. On 2010-08-27, Chris Chinn said:

In my experience, the fights in 4E never really entered the fiction at all.

Pg. 42 is a vastly underused set of the 4E rules, and is basically where all the fiction comes in to the mechanics.  I look at it the same way Spiritual Attributes gets overlooked in Riddle of Steel - it's just a few pages but it makes a world of difference.

That said, 4E is pretty terrible about feeding -back- into the fiction by itself.


24. On 2010-08-27, Simon C said:


I think what you're talking about (the move away from fictional causes in Trad. and Non Trad. games), is an interesting historical quirk. In both cases, it's about unease with unreliable currencies, but for different reasons I think.

The non trad. scene inherited a distrust of GM authority which made it unpopular to rely on the judgement of a GM to influence the outcome of a conflict. There was such a movement away from the idea of GM controlled story that the idea of the GM having any influence over outcomes was discarded.

In the trad. scene, I think the distrust of unreliable currencies comes from players who are invested in a strongly competitive mode of play, where the GM just "deciding" that you get +2 or -2 or whatever feels like it's cheating them out of what they're entitiled to. Imagine in chess if your pawns could move an extra space if you described them doing something cool, or if you couldn't capture pieces if someone declared they were atop a hill. Weird and disruptive of the agenda of play. I've only really seen this in 4E though, and maybe the new Warhammer game.


25. On 2010-08-29, Curly said:

Stroking the Wizard's Tower!  haw!


26. On 2010-08-31, Paul Czege said:

Years ago I started playtesting a game I was calling Wake the Drake. Greg Stolze mocked that title mercilessly after a playtest session to convince me it was a problem. So after much brainstorming, I switched the title to Acts of Evil. But ultimately I realized that the Acts of Evil title was telegraphing player behavior that was problematic for my design goals. Instead of roleplaying the emergence of an occult identity they were roleplaying abrupt, sociopathic brutality. Titles are as important a piece of game design as mechanics.



27. On 2010-09-01, Simon C said:


When I first started posting on the Forge, I looked at people's sig files, and wondered who all these evil playtesters were, and what acts they were guilty of, that everyone was talking about them.

"Acts of Evil Playtesters" shouldn't have been ambiguous, but it was.


28. On 2010-09-03, Porter said:

Best description of Bill O'Reilly ever. ... Oh, and you were all right too, Vince.


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