2012-06-12 : Color and Currency!

A reader* wrote me:

Are your color and currency posts organized somewhere? I want to read them.

The answer is, some of them! I've been talking about very little else since 2010. Let me see what I can do for you.

Here's a basic look at color from way back in 2006:

Color is the concrete details of character, setting, situation and system.

What might be going on is that you're accustomed to thinking of a character's color as the character, etc.

Here's a character (with a hint of situation): a person having an illicit affair.

Here's the character, colored in: a man in his early 30s, well-off, married, educated, owning property, childless, having an illicit affair with another man, with whom he is not in love.

Here's a setting for him: a city with a substantial economic gap between its rich and its poor.

Here's the setting, colored in: London in the early 1700s.

Making sense?

So your concern - how do we make color important without turning it into character, setting, situation, system? - is groundless. Color is important, it's what makes character, setting, situation and system real.

(from this comment)

Currency just means the relationships between your game's subsystems, but what's especially interesting are the relationships between your game's subsystems at different timescales. How does your character's success or failure in this moment change the landscape of play? How does it become real in the longer term?

In early 2010 I did a whole series about currency, which (no coincidence) is all about color too. The first post explains what currency is, and then I go chasing after something I called "unreliable currency":
2010-02-16 : Things on Character Sheets (2)
2010-02-18 : Currency - Spanning Divide and Range
2010-02-19 : Shared Positioning at the Micro
2010-02-23 : Can your brains just do it?
2010-03-01 : Reliable vs Unreliable Currency

Questions very welcome.

1. On 2012-06-12, Vincent said:

* It was Bret.


2. On 2012-06-14, David Berg said:

How did you decide which parts of AW ought to be reliable currency and which parts ought to depend on immediate fictional circumstances?

For the latter, what efforts did you make (if any) to try to limit the range of circumstance->currency possibilities?

Or, if those questions seem nonsensical, and all that stuff falls out from other decisions, what were those other decisions?


3. On 2012-06-15, Vincent said:

I have no idea what you're talking about! Give me an example or two. Which reliable currency? Which range of circumstance->currency possibilities?


4. On 2012-06-15, Tim Ralphs said:

Re-reading these, I?m struck that you make Unreliable Currency do two jobs and I'm trying to tease them apart.

So let me ask, if the rule was: ?Spend a point from your Tactics Pool. Roll 2d6, and on a 10+ you get +2 to your attack roll.?

Would that be a rule of reliable or unreliable currency?

(I took out the ?say what feature of your immediate surroundings helps you? deliberately. It seems like that should create a moment of judgement, but that experience suggests it fails to do it reliably or well.)


5. On 2012-06-15, Vincent said:


edit: Go on, please! I'm curious what you're getting at.


6. On 2012-06-15, Tim Ralphs said:

Oh man. I was just going to reply with "Thanks, that makes a lot of things make sense and sorry for the sloppy formatting."

But you asked.

So on the one hand, you've got rules of unreliable currency bringing in mechanical risk, which is exciting. The dice rolls matter, they may introduce the unwelcome, they may make situations snow-ball, all of that. On the other, you've got rules of unreliable currency that call for moments of judgement, which give us a visceral sense of the game world's integrity. (With your caveat, that judgement creates unreliable currency "maybe inherently and inescapably, but maybe just overwhelmingly, I don't know.")

It feels like there's something more that needs to happen for a moment of judgement to be satisfying though, and I asked my question because I wanted to be sure I understood reliability before taking the next step. It feels like there's something maybe grounded in the Czege principle at work. In Apocalypse World, if a player successfully reads a situation then it is on the MC to create certain details. The player has to do some sort of interpretation of those details to get the +1 modifier. In my experience that subsystem works, and I wonder if there's a link between both creative parties being engaged with the fictional circumstances and the system incorporating both kinds of unreliability.

And then I wrote a load of stuff, got to the end of it and doubted I'd grasped what I was talking about. Let me ask another question, going in the opposite direction. Let's say we're playing Apocalypse World, but the rule is different. If someone reads a situation, then we treat it like they got a hit, always. They're guaranteed an answer to their question. If they act on that answer, then we assume they got a 10+ on whatever it was they were doing next. Is the currency reliable or unreliable? Did we lose the moment of judgement?


7. On 2012-06-15, Tim Ralphs said:

Is the "?" thing just me? I previewed that time and the 's were displaying fine.


8. On 2012-06-15, Vincent said:

I got 'em. The problem is your smart quotes outsmarting my dumb homebrewed blog software. When I brew myself some new blog software, it'll know how to deal with them.

So: Reading a situation is always a hit. You always get an answer. If you act on the answer, you get an automatic 10+ on whatever you did.

That's unreliable too, because of "if you act on the answer." When you ask your question, you don't know how useful the answer is going to be to you. Maybe an automatic hit, maybe not! We'll have to wait and see what you decide to do with it.

We didn't lose the moment of judgment, but it's an excellent question: did we lose part of what makes that move good? Is this new notional move weaker, less compelling, less fun than the real one?

Am I with you?


9. On 2012-06-16, David Berg said:

Oh, interesting stuff, Tim.  I'd been looking at unreliable currency and moments of judgment as the downsides of treating immediate fictional situations seriously.  "Does this rule apply now?" seems to be a great bugaboo of RPG play.  Seeing you look at it as a creative opportunity and challenge is neat.  I wonder... is the design-relevant question "When is such judgment fun, and when is it a pain in the ass?"?


10. On 2012-06-16, David Berg said:

Vincent, with my earlier question, I was just curious about how you factor in reliable vs immediate-fiction-based currency when you design.  Is it an issue you consider when working, or is it simply a way of talking about the work after it's done?

"Unreliable currency will frustrate my audience", "very reliable currency will cost my audience engagement with the fiction", "this subsystem needs to be reliable while this one doesn't", etc.

I simply picked AW as an example, as one of your games I know well.  If it lacks reliable currency, maybe it was a bad example.  I also know Dogs well and IAWA sorta.


11. On 2012-06-17, Vincent said:

Oh. Yes, I consider it constantly. "Should this rule depend on the details of the characters' actions and surroundings? If so, how? If not, then what?" Constant.


12. On 2012-06-17, David Berg said:

Right on.  Any examples of a tough call come to mind?  Any time where you changed your mind on whether a rule should depend on fictional details?  I'm curious what factors you weigh in making those determinations.


13. On 2012-06-18, Vincent said:

Nope, it's never a tough call. I can't think of a time I changed my mind. What's to weigh? Either the rule should depend on fictional details, or it shouldn't.


14. On 2012-06-19, Tim Ralphs said:

Vincent, you're with me and I follow what you're saying. (Also, it's becoming clear that there's a sliding scale involved. Some subsytems make your currency more or less reliable than others.) And to answer your rhetoric, of course the move is less fun. Less risky, less likely to snowball, less useful for highlighting differences between playbook strengths etc.

Thanks for waiting, it's been a long weekend. I had a bit of a realisation on Friday. Firstly, I think the Czege principle stuff I was flailing for at 6. is probably about whether a subsystem should call for a player to judge their own fiction. The "Spend a point of Tactics, describe the situation that gives you an edge, get +2" should have a moment of judgement in it, implicitly. If the subsystem fails, I suspect it's because it calls on a player to judge their own fiction in response to them wanting a bonus.

To clarify, the problem that I see you talking about is not that the player spending Tactics points can't judge their own fiction critically or well. (Though that is a risk.) The problem is that if they jump ahead, if they go straight to giving themselves the bonus without describing the situation, then there's nothing in the subsystem that's going to stop them.

Secondly, and sort of conversely, I think the strength of the "Read a Situation, act on the answer for +1" subsystem is that it contains (at least) two moments of judgement. When asked the questions, the MC has to judge the fiction in giving the answer. When coming up with their next action, the Player has to judge the fiction to see if there's a way to get that +1. That sharing of the task of creation and judgement is powerful, and there's no way to skip any step in the process.

Does that make sense? I can't even remember whose job it is to actually award that +1. I don't think it's ever been contentious. By that point in the flow, things have always been obvious.

Incidentally, have you ever had that situation in Dogs which goes:

- Oh crap. Alright, I'm rolling for my "Beautiful singing voice." Oh, a 2. Damn, I need more dice. *scans sheet for traits that have not yet been used.* And I'm rolling for high quality Book of Life. 2 and 3? Bah! And "I'm a Dog". 4. And "Haunted by the dead." 6! I raise a 4 and a 6.
- 10? So what actually is your raise?
- I can hear the voices of those innocent children begging me not to let her get away with this. And I hold up my Book of Life and tell her to stop in the name of the King.
- Yeah. Erm. Your raise is meant to bring in all the traits you rolled.

Followed by either moments of awkwardness, uncertain raises, challenges with lots of bitty parts to them etc.

It's never been a big deal, but it's happened a couple of times and I suspect it's something to do with the moment of judgement taking place after the relevant currency transaction has happened.


15. On 2012-06-19, Moreno said:

- Oh crap. Alright, I'm rolling for my "Beautiful singing voice." Oh, a 2. Damn, I need more dice. *scans sheet for traits that have not yet been used.* And I'm rolling for high quality Book of Life. 2 and 3? Bah! And "I'm a Dog". 4. And "Haunted by the dead." 6! I raise a 4 and a 6.
- 10? So what actually is your raise?
- I can hear the voices of those innocent children begging me not to let her get away with this. And I hold up my Book of Life and tell her to stop in the name of the King.
- Yeah. Erm. Your raise is meant to bring in all the traits you rolled.

It's funny, this is one of the parts of DitV that I like more. restrictions foster creativity, I have seen incredibly beautiful raises "forced" by the desire to get these dice, by players that in other games have an hard time coming up with something more detailed than "I roll to hit".

And I not disturbed a bit by a player using the system to help his character, one of the very nice things about coherent systems is that you don't have to forget the rules that could give you advantages to "play well" (a too common occurrence in my past rpg history..)

I think, reading the rest of your comment, that you wanted to talk about something different, but maybe you did choose the wrong example: in DitV the "moment of judgment" is collective, when you make a raise you have to do it in a way that seems believable to everyone at the table, because everyone can refuse to accept it and make you change the raise (It's another thing I like about the game, I don't want to have, as GM, the entire responsibility to judge the player's contributions)

But I agree with your previous point about players having complete judgment about their contributions (the initial judgment is obviously always from the player, but if that is all that is needed, it seems more a monologue than a dialog)


16. On 2012-06-21, Vincent said:

Tim: Yes, yes and yes.


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