2012-12-07 : Positioning: Legitimacy and Occult Co-ownership

Positioning series table of contents: Where were we...?

"Occult" in the medical diagnostic sense, meaning that the condition doesn't have symptoms or has symptoms that do not point back to the condition. "Occult co-ownership" then means that co-ownership is the underlying reality, but it doesn't present itself as co-ownership.

Here are two examples again of the Monster of the Week move Angel Wings. I'm playing the Divine, and Meg's the MC:

Example 1
My character's past has never come up in play in any way.
Me: I use my move Angel Wings. I go to my mother.
Meg: Okay.

Example 2
Two sessions ago, there was a fancy dinner in the home of one Sebastienne DuLane, which ended in a fight with a vampire.
Me: I use my move Angel Wings. I go to Sebastienne DuLane's dining room.
Meg: Okay - wait actually. You weren't there that night, were you?
Me: Oh that's right! I wasn't! I was researching while the other PCs went to the dinner party.
Meg: So, nope. You can't go there.

In these examples, why do I get to invent my character's mother and insert her into my character's past so seamlessly, but I don't get to - don't even try to - invent and insert a visit to this particular place? What's the difference? Why?

So far, I've been talking about fictional positioning as positive, assertive: your position as a player is the set of all the moves you could legitimately make, and your fictional positioning is all the fictional factors that contribute to your position. Here's how Tim Ralphs puts it:

At any point in our play, we have a whole host of gameplay options and moves. Some of these are available to us because of established details in the fiction. We can describe the fictional details that give rise to those gameplay options at that particular point of play as being the fictional position.

This is another simplifying convenience, and it's time to use this idea of "legitimate" moves to turn it inside out to get at what's really going on.

Here's a restatement of the lumpley principle (construction 2): When you say that your character does something, no, she doesn't. Not until every person at the table agrees that she's done it.

Implication: You don't know what your available legitimate moves are! You don't know whether a move is legitimate until after you've tried to make it, and either the group has affirmed it as legitimate or rejected it as illegitimate. Every single move is a risk, a guess, on your part. Some safer than others - in fact, some almost guaranteed by the game's design - but none all the way guaranteed.

Another way to say it is that saying that your character does something is just one kind of move available to you, and challenging what someone else says is ALSO a move available to you. In roleplaying, fictional positioning contributes fully to both, not only to the assertive moves.

So that's the reason why I get to invent a mother for my character but not an earlier visit to Sebastienne Dulane's dining room: I don't actually own my character. In this game, played to this game's design, our respective fictional and real positioning gives Meg the basis for a strong challenge against the latter. If I want to write into "my" character's past that she's visited the dining room before, and Meg wants to write into her past that she has done no such thing, the game's system takes the fictional timeline as we've constructed it into account and backs her strongly against me.

1. On 2012-12-07, Vincent said:

When it comes time to connect fictional positioning to the process of design, in the distant future, I'll need to really truly nail this down, but meanwhile:

"...Anywhere you've visited before."
"...Anywhere you want, if you invent an earlier visit."
"...Anywhere you might possibly have visited before."
"...Anywhere you want, but this means that you've visited there before."
And others.

These all make for subtly different moves, even though the technical process for all is identical (or close). I think that the difference is in how the various constructions orient you with regard to your fellow players' input.

The first tells you that the GM might make a strong challenge, if you choose a place your character only might have visited before.

The second tells the GM to make no such challenge, but to insist that you do invent the past visit if she doesn't already know about it.

The third tells you both to chill out and go with it.

The fourth tells you that if you choose a place, the GM might invent your character's previous visit for you.

The first version, the version as written, best suits Monster of the Week. Which version would best suit your game? It depends on very precise details of what you're trying to make your game do.


2. On 2012-12-07, Vincent said:

For instance, the Maestro D' in Apocalypse World has a move that uses the third construction, that lets her poison anyone who just might possibly have eaten something she just might possibly have handled. The reason it works that way instead of using one of the other constructions is specifically to disempower the victim's player, to pre-refute the victim's player's objection that wait, how do we know that my character ate some of the poisoned food? Maybe she didn't!

We don't know, the move says, but that's fine. We don't have to know. You're poisoned anyway.


3. On 2012-12-07, TMC said:

Vincent, are there differing levels of dysfunction when it comes to "When you say that your character does something, no, she doesn't. Not until every person at the table agrees that she's done it" during play?  Let me give you a for instance, one I'm not too proud of.

The game was D&D 3.5.  I was playing an elvish blade-singer, another player had a centaur druid.  There were 6 players and 1 DM total.  The player of the centaur had been annoying me and the other players by playing his character totally inconsistent with what the group had previously established.  He began to love the undead.  His actions fit a more lawful evil character than a true neutral character and so on.

We talked to him about alignment shifts and multi-classing his character.  He refused to entertain the idea.  Eventually it hit a boiling point, where I decided to force a conflict between my character and his.  This resulted in a dual between us my character's stats easily overwhelmed his.  The cleric resurrected the centaur, and then we had a discussion about what happened.

The player of the centaur up front said the he was going to pretend the dual never happened.  We agreed that was fine for him, but the rest of us would remember and reference it as necessary.  And the DM did enforce the stat penalties for the resurection.  The campaign went on from there and concluded in a satisfactory way for all of us.

So how would a situation like that square with the lumpley principal?  Not everyone at the table agreed to what happened.  So did it happen?  How dysfunctional was it?  Is it possible for everyone to not agree but still continue playing?


4. On 2012-12-07, Vincent said:

Good story! Good example.

Yes, it's possible for the game to continue without everyone coming to agreement. It happens all the time, and rarely does anyone notice or care.

I reserve "dysfunctional" for "I kept playing even though I hated it and got nothing out of it and it was an ongoing miserable fight, but I had to keep playing because the needs of the game came before my own." Any other resolution to a problem is functional, as far as I'm concerned. So it sounds to me like you arrived at a functional resolution (although the centaur's player might feel differently, I don't know).

Thanks! Very good example.


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5. On 2012-12-07, Ben Lehman said:

Comment one is quite insightful!



6. On 2012-12-07, rabalias said:

So, just to be clear, in the case of inventing your mother and your sufficient closeness to her that you can use Angel Wings, Meg could have blocked you, right? I mean, your last sentence implies that she has final authority. So the reason you couldn't invent the visit to Sebastienne's dining room in example 2 is that you'd already established that you didn't visit it on a previous occasion; the fact that you didn't challenge that by attempting to invent an even earlier occasion is another contextual cue to the fact that Meg has the final authority in this game, 'cause when she says "so no, you can't go there" she's effectively saying "I am declaring that there is no other, earlier occasion that you are entitled to invent", and you don't challenge that.

If this had been some other game, maybe you would have replied "hold on a second, though - I think I'd like Sebastienne to be an old friend of mine and I've been to her dining room lots of times", per the second example in your comment #1.

Just checking I'm following ok.


7. On 2012-12-07, Vincent said:

Rabalias: That's not how I'd say it, no. I think that the idea of "final authority" in roleplaying game design is disastrously off-rails, and is responsible for some of the worst games ever created.

So no. In THIS game too, maybe I would have replied "hold on a second, though." I didn't, not because Meg has "final authority," whatever that means, but because in this case I agree with her that my character's never been there.


8. On 2012-12-07, rabalias said:

Or to put it another way, in that game, the fictional positioning in generalised terms is:
Meg can invent details about Vincent's character's past, except where they would contradict previously invented details.
Vincent can invent details about his character, except where they would contradict previously invented details, or if Meg invents something different.

In your example 2, Meg saying "you weren't actually there that night, were you?" is contradicting your assertion of a previously invented detail. Meg saying "so no, you can't go there" is her inventing the detail "Vincent's character has never been to Sebastienne's dining room. The latter is what makes example 1 different from example 2; without it, you could have said "yeah ok, but she and I are old friends so I've visited there previously".


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9. On 2012-12-07, rabalias said:

Sorry for the cross-post.

You said "[B]ut I don't get to - don't even try to - invent and insert a visit to this particular place". I think that "I don't get to" was what made me think Meg had "final authority".

So no. In THIS game too, maybe I would have replied "hold on a second, though." I didn't, not because Meg has "final authority," whatever that means, but because in this case I agree with her that my character's never been there.

Hmmm. I guess what I meant by "final authority" was that she's the GM/MC/whatever in this example and therefore in principle you'll agree with Meg more than you would some other player. This is what I thought you meant by "the game's system... backs her strongly against me".

I'm not sure whether by the above italicised text you're saying that no, Meg has no special position in that example, it just so happens you agree with her, and that's what makes the two examples different; or that she does have a special position in the example but in principle you could disagree with her because nobody's authority is final.


10. On 2012-12-07, Vincent said:

Oh, yeah, no, she's not contradicting me, she's reminding me. I'd remembered the dinner party because I'd been sitting at the table while the other players' characters were there, but my character had never visited Sebastienne's dining room. When she reminded me, I remembered the fact, and we agreed at once that it wasn't a move I could legitimately make.

I would have immediately agreed with any other player who'd pointed it out. In the example it just happened to be Meg.

In example 1, I definitely meant to assert that my character has a mother, even though she'd never come up in play. In example 2, I didn't mean to assert newly that I'd been in Sebastienne's dining room. I misremembered and thought that it had already been asserted and taken as true, when it hadn't.


11. On 2012-12-07, rabalias said: which case I'm not clear why you couldn't invent a previous encounter in Sebastienne's dining room, a la your mother. Are you just refraining from doing so, or is there some reason why you can't?


12. On 2012-12-07, Vincent said:

I could try to invent one and see if the group goes for it, sure. That's what I did with my character's mother. I'm not optimistic, though. "I have a mother" is something that fictional positioning is on my side of. "I snuck out while the GM wasn't looking and presciently reconned just the place I'd later want to go, surprise!" is a stretch at best.


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GcL go "On the other hand"*
VB go "Right on."
Llb go "I was going"*
RQ go "Ok, gotcha. Thanks."
GP go "What about a twist?"*
GcL go "Maybe the design will help indicate ..."*
GP go "But my point is..."*
GcL go "hmm, that point ..."*
GP go "I do it whichever RPG I play"*
GcL go ""Can do it" vs. "are encouraged/supported in doing it well""*

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13. On 2012-12-08, rabalias said:

So, conclusion (for me and my slow brain): plausibility/credibility* is an important part of positioning. Which, given the LP, is shorthand for saying "what the group finds plausible/credible is an important part of positioning" - but in the case of your example it not-coincidentally happens to be something that most people would agree on.

*I started out with just plausibility, but then I realised there wasn't anything inherently implausible about your having been to Sebastienne's dining room before. The context, that you would have only just mentioned it at a time when it would be useful to you, makes your claim not credible. Or maybe it just makes you not credible.


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14. On 2012-12-08, DWeird said:

I don't disagree on any particular point, but something bugs me. Isn't framing co-ownership in terms of the ability to challenge another's statement a bit weird?

I mean, someone, including the challenged player, can always challenge the challenge, no?

Meaning, well, there could be a situation where every other player disagrees with an assertion, and you could in turn legitimatelly(?) disagree with their disagreement.

So, well. Fictional positioning means actual player options - check.
Fictional positioning means challenge/blocking options for other players - check.

But it doesn't feel like there's all that is to it.


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15. On 2012-12-09, Dan Maruschak said:

Maybe this counts as disagreement that you're not interested in engaging, but it seems to me that framing everything in terms of ownership and authority and glossing over the orientation thing is problematic. To me, there's a huge subjective difference between asking mid-game "Where did ____ grow up?" and saying "Now invent a home town for your character". Sharpening up details of a previously unexamined backstory feels more like perception or recollection while whole-cloth authorship of the fictional reality feels like a very different process. And I think this orientation effect also impacts how much credibility others at the table are inclined to lend to your contribution. Humans aren't black boxes that spit out fictional details—our confidence in the process that other people appear to be using to produce fictional details influences the credibility of those fictional details.


16. On 2012-12-09, Vincent said:

That's the opposite of disagreeing! Authority is a terrible way to organize roleplaying and I'm glad to see the end of its prominence. Ownership is a convenient illusion, not the reality.


17. On 2012-12-09, Dan Maruschak said:

OK. I guess I read the focus on "objecting" in the original post as being about the capabilities of the black box rather than looking at the thinking/cognition that might lead to the objection (i.e. to me it seemed to be glossing over the "receive and process what was said" step by pointing at the thing they might do or say next after trying to process what was said).


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DM of Credibility Building Blocks
DM of Psychological Compliance Techniques

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GcL go "If I understand at all"*
GP go "Not just the designer"*
GcL go "Defintely not JUST"*

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18. On 2012-12-10, GB Steve said:

I'm very much enjoying reading this discussion as positioning is very much part of how I think of gaming as a response to constraints. Legitimacy is also something I've been thinking about a lot recently and in particular how it is transmitted from the designer to other players of the game. For example, it turns out that no one else seems to play Monsterhearts the way we did but only one of us (who had previous Monterhearts experience) was bothered by this. There was a clear issue about what was legitimate. Our views of the constraints were different.

It is possibly more helpful to talk about positioning and legitimacy than constraints, because it sounds more positive.


19. On 2012-12-10, Carsten said:

An observation, not an objection, because to object here would be doubting the legitimacy of your personal playing style. (So, discussion of authority deleted.)

With the two timelines, we were still in empirical / descriptive territory. With questions of legitimacy and ownership it's moral philosophy. Who can do what is an ethical question of some importance, a personal embellishment on the analysis of effects and technique in earlier posts. It it your considered opinion that authority is a "terrible" way to organize things, I am not saying that yo may not render these judgments, I say we are leaving descriptive theory for the realms of moral prescriptive advice.


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20. On 2012-12-10, Vincent said:

Carsten: You're right.


21. On 2012-12-12, Ben Lehman said:

Huh. So this just occurred to me.

When we say someone "owns" something or "has authority over it" what it really means is "one of the factors in our assessment of credibility wrt that thing is that you said it / you confirmed it."

So when Bob says "I have authority over my character Bobnar" what we mean is "when considering Bobnar's actions in the fiction, 'what Bob said' is one of the things we consider."



22. On 2012-12-13, GB Steve said:

It could mean that, or it could mean "has the final say on". Different games draw the lines in different places over who has authority on what.


23. On 2012-12-13, Ben Lehman said:

GB Steve: There's no such thing as final say resting with one person, though. That's what we're discussing here.

Even if I am purported to have final say over my character Bennar, if you hate what I just did you are free to ask me to revise it or simply deny it flat out. This may break the game's written rules but if you're willing to take it to a social level that doesn't matter.


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24. On 2012-12-13, Gordon said:

Hmm.... two functional uses of what's usually intented by "has final say on."

1) We can get all bogged-down and/or tangled-up if people just keep debating, quibbling and qualifying.  Let's avoid that by giving "say" about certain elements to certain players.  As for what we mean by "say" - perhaps better than ownership OR authority is ... leadership? Responsibilty?

2) This game asks a particular player to put more imaginative effort into a particular element (e.g., a PC in games with 1 character per player). We want to reward that effort and support evolving identification with that element by that player via ... acknowledging their responsibilty?

It's still not final say resting with one person really (Ben #23), but the weight of the consideration in Ben's #21 is acknowleded as "heavier" for certain player/circumstance/element combinations.

Non-functional (as I see it, for the kind of play Vincent is talking about) use of "has final say": here's the rules-endorsed bludgeon with which I can lay into the other players to get what I want.  And possibly other more subtle issues that are escaping me right now.


25. On 2012-12-16, GB Steve said:

There is some kind of final say, as in last, otherwise there'd be no progress in the narrative, but I can see that it's not final as in definitive.


26. On 2012-12-16, Simon C said:

This is a good conversation. This is tangential, but a thing I've observed is that play where ownership/authority is unclear or muddled (or rather, where the normal occult co-ownership becomes explicit) is often really exciting.

Like, when your character goes and visits his mother, and I get to play your mother. Suddenly I'm making up all sorts of things about your character because I'm inventing details of your relationship with your mother. Sometimes that's difficult and sucky, but sometimes, if we're on compatible wavelengths, if I read your cues, and I'm making up things which you like or which you don't like but you don't like them in a way that's fun for you, then it's really incredible and revelatory, and that's one of the things I like most about roleplaying games.


27. On 2012-12-17, Paul T. said:


Will you talk more about "final authority" and how the concept is responsible for some of the worst roleplaying games every invented?

It seems like we're skirting the topic, but there's a lot of room to misinterpret what you're saying.

What do you mean by "final authority", and how does it lead to Bad Things?


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28. On 2012-12-17, Ben Lehman said:

Simon: I think that's very sharp.


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29. On 2012-12-17, Chris Chinn said:

I feel like this is a good conversation that ends up digging into a lot of what Mo was pointing at with Push and Pull in terms of play.  Assertions and cues for types of assertions, and how that falls out down through the group to affirm, challenge or modify things.


30. On 2012-12-20, Roger said:

Hmmm.  There's some interesting things going on here, so here's an omnibus comment.

I'm reading 'assent' as something slightly (I think) stronger—'adopt as currency' (to harken back to some earlier anyway.)  There's probably a spectrum, I suppose, from embracing something to not really caring to vehement opposition.

One of the trickeries of the two timelines is that it sort of implies that the fictional timeline keeps marching along forwards along with Real Time, which of course is not the only way (or even a very common way, I might suggest) to do it.

I withdraw my earlier objections about 'yeahbut what about fanfic etc etc.'  In fact, audiences regularly refuse to assent to the authority of nominal canon—'There was only one Highlander! etc'  Which comes as some surprise to me.

I think there's something sneaky going on with what I might call 'assent in abeyance'—like, in the moment, I'm not really sure if your current move is kosher or not, but I might be willing to let you run with it for a bit until I can tell.  Or maybe I'm not.

Hiding in the corner behind the couch I can see an elephant: the basis on which a particular person comes to conclude the legitimacy of a move.  I have a pretty strong hunch that it's the same elephant we all know and love: Creative Agenda.  But maybe I'm just seeing what I expect to see.

That's probably enough for now.


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31. On 2013-02-06, Weeks said:

I was just reviewing some old Forge threads and stumbled across this one and it reminded me of this more recent conversation.

So apparently you've been thinking about this formulation of the Lumpley Principle for a while, Vincent.  Nine and a half years ago, you wrote:

Our characters in play aren't our own, they're co-owned.


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