2005-03-09 : Traditional vs. Commie Roleplaying


What, exactly is the benefit of freeform roleplaying vs. a more traditional structured roleplaying. ...your games have little in the tradition of a few players and a gm... is this because you are sick of it, because commie-storytelling is better, or because of something else entirely (such as, it just happens to fit your games better, as a coincidence).

Let's say that "traditional structured roleplaying" means that the GM is the final arbiter of everything. The players say what their characters try to do; their input is subject to the rules; the rules are subject to GM fiat.

Let's say that "freeform roleplaying" drops the rules out of the hierarchy and replaces "the GM" with "fellow players," thusly: the players say what their characters do; their input is subject to the fiat of their fellow players. That's certainly how I'd understand "commie-storytelling" and, as usual, I've played that game quite a bit.

Commie-storytelling is better than traditional because it's more transparent. The biggest personality still wins all the time, but in commie-storytelling everyone can see it happen, it's not disguised by a smokescreen of we-manipulate-dice and the-GM-is-impartial.

Both kinds will suck without functional rules.

Functional rules: the magic of Universalis isn't that it's co-GMed and all the players have equal power. Nope, it's that the rules of the game make the players active and enthusiastic fans of one another's contributions. You can't play Universalis and ignore what other people are doing. If you have the biggest personality, your stuff doesn't win. Instead, the rules make you throw your big personality into very constructive criticism of your fellow players' stuff.

It's hot. If you've never seen it before, it's startling. And there's no reason you have to be co-GMing to get it. A GM can treat your contributions just as well as a fellow player can.

So: no GM, or a GM and a few players - I could care. All I care about is how the people treat one another's contributions. I like "constructive criticism" as a name for it quite a bit, by the way. Dynamic, positive, aggressive, fruitful criticism.

1. On 2005-03-09, TonyLB said:

To elaborate a little in the direction of one of my own personal pet peeves:  Most GM-ful games do a sadly inadequate job of giving the role of GM a proactive agenda that they can whole-heartedly pursue.

Take D&D for instance.  What's the GM agenda?  Try to hurt the party?  Damn, it better not be.  Because if they whole-heartedly pursue that (i.e. find the nastiest monster available in any of the books, then have one hundred of them ambush a part of first level players) then it ruins the fun of the other players.

Instead, the GM in D&D is walking a constant mental tight-rope between making things too hard and making them too easy.  They cannot whole-heartedly pursue any one agenda, because their goal is inherently conflicted:  the game does not give them the structure to unleash their full power without risk of damaging the players fun.

It is like telling an olympic runner "Okay, go out and run with these folks, but make sure you don't finish more than five seconds ahead of the second place runner".  They can do it, but it's not likely to be fun for them.

By stark comparison, let's look at My Life With Master.  The Master's agenda, as described to me by Michael Miller, is to torture the players.  So if they want their characters to be happy, you punish them.  If they want their minion to be miserable, you reward said minion.

There is, as far as I can see, no extreme to which the Master can go that will make the game less fun for the other players.  In fact, the nastier the Master is, the better horrific fun it is for the minions.  That's a game where the GM is allowed to actually cut loose.

If a game has that, I don't care whether it's entirely GM-fiat or as freeform as possible.


2. On 2005-03-09, Neel said:

D&D is a badly-chosen example, because it has rules telling the GM what kind of opposition they can properly send against the PCs, and then assumes that, given those resources, a GM plays as hard as he or she can to win.

The Challenge Rating system a lot like DitV's town-creation system, really.


3. On 2005-03-09, Michael S. Miller said:

Tony said:

There is, as far as I can see, no extreme to which the Master can go that will make the game less fun for the other players. In fact, the nastier the Master is, the better horrific fun it is for the minions. That's a game where the GM is allowed to actually cut loose.

You took the words right out of my typin' fingers, Tony. One of the reasons I so deeply, truly love to GM MLwM is that I don't need to walk that mental tightrope. I have one job and I can focus all my energy and creativity on doing that job, just like an enthusiastic player might in that traditional RPG.

A functional, creatively-constrained GM role takes the doubt out of GMing. You don't have to ask yourself "Is this what I should be doing now? Am I being too hard? Am I being too soft?" The game tells you what you need to do. Just do it.

In a way, these games could be seen to "lessen" the role of the GM. Getting closer to "banker" of a board game and farther from the "GM is god" role of traditional games. It is wonderfully counter-intuitive that less power brings less responsibility to make everything fun, and thus greater enjoyment. Give me a stripped-down and clearly-defined GM-role any day.

Tony also said:

If a game has that, I don't care whether it's entirely GM-fiat or as freeform as possible.

I'm going to assume this was a flash of rhetorical exhuberance, since "entirely-GM-fiat" and "creatively-constrained GM role" are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Am I right?


4. On 2005-03-09, Michael S. Miller said:

Screwed up the blockquote tags above. Sorry. I'll keep it simple from here on out.


5. On 2005-03-09, xenopulse said:

Both kinds will suck without functional rules.

I assume you are refering to System (a la your very own Lumpley Principle). It can definitely work well without mechanics, I've seen that a lot in my freeform time. But yes, you need to agree on basic rules of credibility. In true freeform, this usually comes down to total character ownership and some form of courtesy, plausibility, and/or creative judgment decisions on non-character input. Often, blocking is deeply frowned upon.

I care about how the people treat one another's contributions.

That's exactly on point. With the right people, this can work in most games (which is why a lot of RPers always talk about how great their GM or group is). But with the right kind of game, this can be assured much more profoundly (like Tony said). So that's definitely one area good RP design should focus on.

- Christian


6. On 2005-03-09, Kat Miller said:


I've done quite a bit of "Freeform" role play with GM Fiat.
When it was good it was natural and amazing so that I thought all Freeform role play must be good.

Change playmates without adressing rules and WOW what a difference. . .less fun.  Much invested time to learn why. Much, much, much invested time.

I thought that "Freeform" meant no rules, but there were a whole bunch of implied rules that when it worked well, never needed addressing and when it didn't work, since we never really address "Rules," it came down to "Either I must suck, or you must REALLY suck!"

Now that there are words and ideas to describe why things sucked, WOW what a difference.



7. On 2005-03-09, Vincent said:

Christian, Kat - exactly.

"Rules," means something like "reliable procedures of play." They don't have to be written down or even said out loud.

Saying them out loud, as always, is a very good way to make sure everybody knows what they are. (Writing them down is a minimum first step toward making them portable to other gaming groups.)

Now to go a little further:

Formal rules can create dynamics in your group that you could never create socially. "Formal rules" means reliable procedures calling upon cues: dice, numbers, life stones, turn taking, stuff like that.

Some such formally created dynamics make for better play, depending what you want out of a game. Particularly, if you want intense in-game conflict, formally created dynamics will always serve you better than socially created ones.


8. On 2005-03-09, Ninja Hunter J said:

(did this fix the quote thing?)


9. On 2005-03-09, Ninja Hunter J said:

(Whew. I was reading this whole post as though it were said in a tense whisper.)

JasonN, I think we can assume that asshead formal rules like the ones you just described are out of the picture. Nonetheless, if you had informal rules (as in a gaming group of mine from years ago) that were that assheaded, I'd take the formal rules anyday. There'd be less sleeping-with-your-girlfriend-gives-me-+6-because-it-proves-I'm-bigger kinds of rules.

I think what Vincent is saying is that, without formal rules, the big personality wins. That can be the guy who's always negative about everyone else's ideas, but forwards plausible enough ones himself. It can be the guy who brought the chips. It can be the one you want to sleep with*. Whatever.

With formal rules, all those people are, of course, still playing their games - it's what we monkeys do - but that system matters so much less to the experience, the story, the world you create when the mechanics encourage contribution and everyones' use of those contributions.

*I'm not talking about literally sleeping. It's a euphemism.**

** For sexual intercourse.


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

Jason, no, not every set of formal rules is going to be better than any set of informal rules.

But the best formal rules are going to be for certain better than the best informal rules, for my one precise objective: maintaining intense in-game conflict of interest, without hurting the real-world relationships.

It's a matter of permission and expectation. If we treat play as an extension of our usual interactions, our real-world commitment to agreeing and willingness to work together will become, naturally, agreeable and not-very-contested events in the game. It takes an unnatural structure - the right formal rules - to create in-game conflict out of our real-world collaboration.

Somehow we have to grin together and cheer each other, enthusiastically embrace, while you're dedicated wholly to hurting my character and hurting her until she's transformed by grief and pain. This doesn't come instinctively to us! We won't just fall into it by treating the game as a natural conversation. To accomplish it, we need a well-designed, formal, unnatural structure.


11. On 2005-03-10, Matthijs said:

I haven't been smoking, but...

The formal structure is like an amoeba's cell membrane. The stuff I need to play is what's inside my amoeba. Around it is a protective wall to make sure nobody else messes with it. When my stuff meets your stuff, the cell wall keeps us from hurting each other for real. Without it, we could still play, but we couldn't play rough at all. (Because our mitochondriae would get entangled).


12. On 2005-03-10, Emily Care said:

"Good boundaries, good neighbors make..."


13. On 2005-03-10, Emily Care said:

Or rather, good membranes. : )


14. On 2005-03-10, Chris said:

Hi Vincent,

Do you think the "unnatural-ness" of it all is rooted in the fact that as a group everyone is cooperating while at the same time conflict is produced through (a form of) competition?  People learn to do one or the other throughout life, but doing both at the same time seems to throw people for a loop?


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

Chris: "Do you think the 'unnatural-ness' of it all is rooted in the fact that as a group everyone is cooperating while at the same time conflict is produced through (a form of) competition?"

No, not really, not competition. When I'm trying to hurt Emily's or Meg's character to death and rebirth, it's not a competitive thing. It's more like super-constructive criticism, like I say.

Hm, yeah. Kind of like how a painting class will create a formal, unnatural structure for criticism. Outside of class, your friendships with your fellow painters are based on supporting and loving. Criticizing your friend's paintings can be hurtful. But when everybody's paintings are on the wall and the teacher's established that it's that day, the expectations and permissions change: it's hurtful if you don't criticize.


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

But - jeez, this is hard, this is unestablished vocabulary.

Me being Soraya's GM is not the same thing as me criticizing Emily's contributions. I'm not saying - here, here's how you could make Soraya better. I'm not Emily's teacher or anything fucked up like that.

Me striving to hurt, hurt, hurt Soraya is me doing my part to fulfill Soraya's potential. It's me doing my part to give Emily what she wants out of Soraya.

So in that sense, it's not like portfolio review day in a painting class at all.


17. On 2005-03-10, Emily Care said:

s'all good. Portfolio day is just peer review.  It's feedback. Not on what is good or right, but just more information.

An audience watching a show gives the performers an idea of what is working, and more energy to go on to do what they want to do. If you're protagonizing someone's character, you're doing that too, but you're also making creative contributions that you think mesh with what they've already put into play. It's more like jazz or a drum circle than a concert.

An opponent when you're sparring helps you push yourself to your real limits, and there are all kinds of formal limitations on that.  This seems most analogous to the way the GM role has been used to push players. This


a very competitive model. If the model we use was something like dance, then how we look at it might be very different.

And if you say "how could dance be collaborative, it has to be choreographed to work", check out contact improv. (didn't know it originated at Oberlin, cool.)


18. On 2005-03-10, Chris said:

Hi Vincent-

Right, competitive isn't the word, constructive opposition perhaps?  Maybe just constructive conflict, after all, that's what it is.

In terms of unnatural-ness, I mean generally in society at larger, we're taught either competitive/antagonistic conflict or non-conflictual(word?) cooperation.  Of course, there is such a thing as "good sportmanship" or "constructive criticism" but we see how rarely both of those happen compared to not...


19. On 2005-03-10, JasonN said:

Permission and expectation - that's the missing piece I needed.  Thanks.


20. On 2005-03-10, Ben Lehman said:


We need need need to seperate out two roles:

Critic—person who says "no, that's dumb, let's do this."  This is usually the GM.  Also, the person who says "yeah, that's cool!"  The arbiter of cool, essentially.

(In Polaris, this is the role of the Moons.)

Shit-giver—person who gives opposition, gives the character things to do, to make the character cooler.  This is, usually, also the GM, but it is a different role.

(In Polaris, this is the role of the Solaris Knight / Ice Maiden.)

So that's that.



21. On 2005-03-10, Eric said:

You beat me to it, Ben, though I think that's another discussion than this one.

As it happens I spent a couple hours today writing "how to" text for those roles in my game, separated (like in Polaris) among different people.  Hope to finish the document tonight (knock on wood), in which case I'll post a link here as cogent to that discussion.

One role is in validation of contributions.  Another is in contribution itself - of adversity.  The latter, plus the role of that adversity as an additional contribution to the protagonist, is the main thrust here.  I suggest we leave the first role - validation of cool - for a different thread.


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