2011-05-11 : The Un-frickin-welcome

Split from We are creative equals.

Here's where I'm coming from:

Designing a roleplaying game means more than designing rules that we can all agree to play by, and that are playable. It means designing rules that capture us - rules that become a vital part of our experience of play.

The purpose of a game's rules is to supplant the group's default interactions.

As far as I'm concerned, the purpose of an rpg's rules is to create the unwelcome and the unwanted in the game's fiction... You want things that if you hadn't agreed to abide by the rules' results, you would reject.

Here's where we join the conversation already in progress:

Textual guidance can take you so far. To go farther, you need real game design. You need something more compelling than instruction and tools to overcome a person's or a group's best interests.

I need to talk to you about real game design more, I guess. It'll take some doing, though, if "when we want to let our characters off the hook, we need rules to threaten them; when we want to kill our characters, we need rules to protect them" doesn't already communicate it to you.

1. On 2011-04-30, David Berg said:

Regarding "want to kill characters; need rules to stop us", I feel like perhaps I'm missing some context.  Is there some previous discussion where you've laid out an example in more detail?

Without context, to me it sounds like "we need a rule to get an Overall Want that conflicts with an Immediate Want", to which my response is that "learn and follow principles geared toward your Overall Wants" would be a suitable option.  I mean, I have no trouble protecting asshole characters for the good of the game...


2. On 2011-04-30, David Berg said:


Rules of Play defines a game as a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.

So I guess you could say that anything in the text that contributes to that is an Operational Rule as part of the game's design, and anything in the text that doesn't contribute to that is mere advice/guidance.  Evaluating those contributions in RPGs is hard for me, though.


3. On 2011-05-01, David Berg said:

>> I'd like to think that a few minutes of reading that principle in text form
>> could also work, though I don't have any proof of that being the case.

Crap, wait, I do have proof that reading principles in text can powerfully affect play.  In playing various games with Burning Wheel fans, we've repeatedly invoked "Let it Ride" to great effect for trouble-shooting differences in how players viewed the fiction.

And "say yes or roll" kinda makes or breaks Dogs, right?

I guess the real question is how much such principles can contribute to freeform play.

It's hard for me to believe that no combo of "let it ride", "say yes or _", "play to find out what happens", "we are creative equals", "plausible is close enough" etc. can be worth my while and get me good play that I wouldn't get otherwise.  But I don't know.  That's the thing I have no proof of.


4. On 2011-05-01, David Berg said:

Okay, I feel like a dick for writing a 5th straight post, but it just occurred to me that perhaps I should simply be asking "how and when ought a game overcome a person's or a group's best interests?"

Everything I wrote above hopefully explains why I'm asking, and why I'm wondering if such overcoming is really a necessity.

Aaa!  Or maybe this is the wrong thread entirely for this!  I don't wanna curtail y'all's principle-recalling if there was more coming...  "Vulnerabilities are opportunities" and "Everything is interesting" are gold!


5. On 2011-05-02, Vincent said:

Ha ha! I'm making you nuts.

You're right that that's the key question. The answer, case by case, depends upon the details of your insight into your subject matter and your insight into real human nature and experience. Do you want to talk about that? If you do I'll bump it up to the front page.

I don't know how many more principles you'll get out of us. They're kind of a pain to figure out and write clearly, and they don't generate much conversation or response at all - except for nitpicking and second guessing. It's not very rewarding work you're asking us to do.


6. On 2011-05-02, David Berg said:

If you're just churning out principles for my sake, all I can say is, "Thank you!  I think I get it better now."  I was assuming it'd be fun (and at least potentially useful) for you guys too.  Sorry if that wasn't the case.

I have some thoughts about building supports into freeform by fixing certain setting elements and divisions of authority, and I thought some hypothetical "would this have helped?" might be interesting for this Ars Magica game.  But maybe there's no point unless you're into designing for freeform.  Anyone?  Emily?

Vincent, I'm happy to discuss overcoming best interests with design, but I have a major fear that we've got a terminological disconnect around "rules", "interests" and more.  Since you stated your "rules should sustain in-game conflict vs player unity" position 6 years ago, I'm sure you've had to explain that to people.  Could you link me to such an explanation?  Thanks!


7. On 2011-05-02, Vincent said:

Last time I talked about it, you were there. It made you a little nuts then too, I think.


8. On 2011-05-02, David Berg said:

Oh, yeah, I think my confusion about "overcoming" is related to my confusion about "unwelcome".  I'm not sure what you mean by either term.

Maybe we could nail this with an example?

Apocalypse World.  Matt MCing for me, Abel, and others.  Abel's Driver leaves his car to go hit up some NPC for work, while NPC Jack minds the car.  Abel rolls (can't remember what... Manipulate?), gets under a 7.  Matt says, "While you're spending time haggling, Jack steals your car."

"What the fuck?!" I thought.  "Without that car, Abel can't do all his character's cool stuff!  Wouldn't this Driver be used to keeping it secure from half-trusted folks like Jack?  He's not a moron, right?"  So, that was unwelcome to me.  Matt thought it was great (so, no group unity being overcome here).

I then looked at the MC moves, and saw "take their stuff away" on the list.  And then we played through Abel's Driver's quest to get his car back, which was fun.  At some point, I went, "Oh!  As a player, doing any action that counts as a move, and then picking up the dice, invokes a social contract whereby the MC can fuck with me on a low roll.  And the MC having the freedom to fuck with characters in such varied and dramatic ways is a big part of the game."  So, from then on, every time Matt fucked with us in interesting ways, I welcomed it.

If all you're talking about by "overcoming group's best interests" is my initial "What the fuck?!" reaction (plus the group unity that Dave shouldn't be sitting there going "What the fuck?!"), then I'm with you, given the caveat that a game should eventually turn "What the fuck?!" to "Oh!"

P.S. I can re-post this if you'd rather stick it in another thread.


9. On 2011-05-03, Vincent said:

David: Oh my crap, no, that's not what I'm talking about at all.

Can you think of a time when something that you really didn't want to happen, happened, but you had to admit that it was perfectly likely and plausible?


10. On 2011-05-03, David Berg said:

No.  I can't.

My only objections to the fiction were matters of narrational taste—plausibility, detail, vividness, whatever.

I mean, all sorts of stuff happened that sucked for my character.  But I was playing the most stubborn, impractical, trouble-making Hocus you can imagine, so I signed up for things to fall apart.  I mean, plans should go FUBAR in the apocalypse, right?

I'm trying to think of my character's biggest failures.  He tried to con a biker gang into being his minions, but instead they conned him into being their hostage.  But I dug that, and instantly hatched a plan to knife his captors the second he realized he was a hostage and not a guest.  What else...  He promised his cult a way into paradise, but then failed to manipulate paradise into letting them in...  So he told them to wait outside while he took paradise over.

If you had asked me beforehand, "Wouldn't it really suck if the bikers trick you?  Wouldn't it suck if your followers are turned away?" I might have said, "Yeah!  My character would be screwed then!"  But I would have said it with a big smile.

The only hypotheticals I can think of objecting to would be stuff that'd make play less fun going forward—"Your cult members are all wiped out," for example.


11. On 2011-05-03, Vincent said:

Can you imagine a time when losing your followers could happen, and be fully plausible, even though it would make play less fun going forward?


12. On 2011-05-03, David Berg said:

Sure!  Not hard at all.

Example: I could be acting under fire inside paradise, botch the roll, and have the MC rule that I spent so long with my followers in a risky position (in the monster-filled jungle outside paradise), that they were all eaten before I finished.

If Matt had done that, I wouldn't have said, "That's not plausible, you're a bad narrator!"  I would have said, "That's not fun, you're an asshole."  If he had then pointed to "take away their stuff" on the list of MC moves, I would have said, "So?  Pick a different move!"


13. On 2011-05-03, Vincent said:

Can you imagine a time when it would be the only plausible thing? When Matt could not, in integrity, choose anything else? Even if he hates it as bad as you do?

Can you imagine a time when you would hate it, but integrity would demand that you accept it?

Look at the rules for augury, for a mechanical possibility. It's also easy for me to imagine fully in-fiction setups.


14. On 2011-05-03, David Berg said:

Looking at the Augury rules isn't giving me any ideas, sorry.

I can imagine fictional situations where the only plausible outcome is no fun, but I can't imagine opting in to the steps that would create those situations.  "Do you leave your cult where they'll clearly be eaten if you're not back in 5 minutes?"  "Uh, no."

You got any ideas for a non-stupid "must lose followers" situation?


15. On 2011-05-03, David Berg said:

It's easy for me to think of unwelcome outcomes in systems I hate!  Random deaths of low-level characters in some editions of D&D, for instance.  That's the stuff my GMs often fudged out of existence.


16. On 2011-05-03, Vincent said:

Matt's established over sessions of play that the maelstrom tears the minds and lives out of anyone who displeases it. He's written it in the blood of many NPCs. In a desperate circumstance, with lots to win, and knowing that it's always a risk, you use your followers as a psychic antenna. You blow the roll. The move says that your antenna - your followers - suffers the harm, and at this point in play there's no denying that the maelstrom murders whom it harms.


17. On 2011-05-04, David Berg said:

Hmm.  Maybe I'm just thinking too broadly in calling stuff welcome.  I mean, if this is a game where tough dilemmas are the norm, and Matt puts me in one, I'll be like, "Sweet."  And so I decide that it's actually worth it to risk losing my followers.  I grab the dice, still hoping I'll keep them.  I roll.  Crap!  The maelstrom eats their brains!  Cool!  In character, I'm tearing my hair and declaring a holy crusade into the maelstrom to get them back!

So, the lingering reaction is "cool!" but sure, there's a moment of "crap!"  Much as I know that failure needs to happen so that there's real risk in play, any given failure could still cause an instant of disappointment.

Does that qualify as an unwelcome outcome in your book?  (It certainly wouldn't be unwelcome to anyone else at the table!  My character's a dick who deserves to lose his followers.)


18. On 2011-05-04, Vincent said:

Oh, bullshit. Now it's cool that you're losing your followers? Two comments ago you were whining that Matt's an asshole and threatening to quit the game if he didn't take it back.

How about, your character's fallen in love with an NPC down in the neighboring hold, and their relationship is your favorite part of the game. And Matt, who isn't beholden to such things, casually mentions that in Dremmer's last slaving raid, between sessions, she was one of the people killed.

He doesn't do it to give you a tough choice or inspire you to revenge or anything like that, and indeed it's just another senseless death. He does it because even though it was your favorite part of the game, it's just plain not his job to keep any NPC alive.

Unwelcome, right? You know how in roleplaying games, sometimes something happens that you wish hadn't?


19. On 2011-05-04, David Berg said:

I think you've misunderstood me.  I'm trying to get at what you mean when you talk about game rules producing unwelcome results.  I think we've already agreed that this isn't just any type of negative response to any moment of fiction for any reason.  It's something more specific than that.

In trying to pin down that negative response, I'm drawing heavily on context.  My response to having my character put in a desperate, costly scenario will vary greatly depending on the group context of play.  I'm talking here about context from the general ("we're playing to have fun") to the specific ("the MC shouldn't force lose-lose situations on players").

My second response about losing my followers was different from my first because of a change in context: "if this is a game where tough dilemmas are the norm."

In our actual game, that wasn't the norm at all.  Everyone would have viewed "risk your followers or lose something else just as important!" as a dick move, and Matt never did that.

A constant across both contexts is that initial moment of "Crap!  I lost my followers!"  What I'm asking now is whether and when that counts as the "unwelcome" experience you're talking about.

Is it dependent on anything?

Does it matter if I'm going "Cool!" a second later because I see how losing my followers contributes to enjoyable play?

I've read your responses thus far to say that it does matter.  But I'm having trouble seeing a viable alternative.  If I stay upset because I'm not getting enjoyable play, that's a problem.  So perhaps our only disconnect is over the process of getting over disappointment and enjoying play?  Maybe I move on unusually quickly, so my descriptions sound weird or something?


20. On 2011-05-04, Vincent said:

Nope! The thing you don't think is viable is the thing I mean.


21. On 2011-05-05, David Berg said:

Staying upset because I'm not getting enjoyable play?  That's what you want rules to produce?


22. On 2011-05-05, David Berg said:

Or do you just want to hide the connection between a bad outcome and a fun game?  So it's there, but I can't see it and go, "Oh, now I'm cool with it?"

If you're seeing an alternative to these, please tell me what!


23. On 2011-05-05, Vincent said:

> Staying upset because I'm not getting enjoyable play?
> That's what you want rules to produce?


Now: you can stay upset, or not. That's on you and the circumstances. It's not your upset that I'm talking about, it's irrelevant one way or the other. I'm talking about the unenjoyable, upsetting thing, the unwelcome thing, the thing that happened but you genuinely wish it hadn't.

My job, as a game designer, and your job, as a game designer, is to change the group's social relationships so that (a) unwelcome things can happen, and (b) when one does, it's nevertheless so compelling that everyone accepts it and keeps playing. Since this is counter to the players' normal best interests, this means, and I hope it's finally obvious why, overcoming them.

Are you finally with me? I don't expect you to accept it, but by damn I expect you to finally see what I'm saying.


24. On 2011-05-05, David Berg said:

I do like that phrasing way better than your previous ones that I've read.

Here's my understanding:


"Unwelcome" here is not about the overall experience that follows a fictional outcome; it's about the preference, both immediate and ongoing, that the fictional outcome had gone otherwise.  "Unwelcome" applies to outcomes that are in fact credible, and could be accepted into the fiction without violating standards such as plausibility.

As a definition, I'm content to call that good enough.

For me, in functional play, that sort of occurrence tends to cause nothing more than a very brief moment of "crap!" before I'm off to enjoying the next moment.  It barely makes the list of things that I can remember from a game as "unwelcome".  I think that's been the cause of our disconnect.  I wish we had better terms for this.  Oh well.

As for enjoying the next moment, if I clarify that by "cool!" I mean "I am happy, and I've lost my followers," and not "I am happy that I've lost my followers," I think we're all good.


I dunno whether "compelling" needs precise defining in this context or not.

I think "cool!" is my reaction to compelling fiction, and I think "compelling" is dependent on the social context I referred to.  Hopefully that fills in any remaining gaps that vexed you in my previous descriptions.

Overcoming best interests

I worry that if I embark on another quest to pin down what you mean, you're gonna shiv me thru my monitor... but on the off chance that I already get it, here's one attempt:

In my social group, without a game design changing our interactions, the unwelcome loss of my followers would not be compelling.  Our best interests, sans game, would be to keep my followers around.  Thus, a game design needs to overcome the "keep the followers" interest, and it does this by creating a context of play in which the loss of the followers, though still unwelcome, is now compelling.


25. On 2011-05-09, David Berg said:


...and of course, the game design should only bother to make the unwelcome loss of my followers compelling if that loss is part of some insight the designer wants to offer.  "Apocalyptic fiction relies on instability, where what you value most could be gone tomorrow," or, "Real people reveal themselves most when the rug's pulled out from under them," or some such.


26. On 2011-05-10, Vincent said:

Okay, cool. Unwelcome things, overcoming the group's best interests, in service to your insights as a designer. You're with me that far.

If I go back to "when we want to let our characters off the hook, we need rules to threaten them; when we want to kill our characters, we need rules to protect them," are you still with me?


27. On 2011-05-10, David Berg said:

I hope I can parse that, but man, it's hard.  Usually I don't really want to kill characters or let 'em off unless it's good for the game.  And I usually try to set my "good for the game" standards based on the game itself.

This is why it was so hard for me to attach the word "unwelcome" to anything that happened in my AW game.  Matt and Mendez, when I asked them, "Were there any outcomes in the game that you found really unwelcome?" also said no.

Anyway, here's my best shot:

If the designer's insights dictate that characters be threatened or protected at certain times (always, never, when it's dramatic, whatever), then the designer should evaluate (guess, then playtest?) whether that accords with the players' natural best interests (in the context of the game as designed thus far).  If not, then rules are required for those times to provide those threats and/or protections.

"My insights pertain to characters who hit rock bottom and are then shat on further.  In this game, with the people I expect to play it, in the circumstances I expect them to play it in, I expect they'll want to let their characters off the hook when they hit rock bottom.  So, I will make rules that don't let them do that."


28. On 2011-05-10, Vincent said:

> This is why it was so hard for me to attach the word
> "unwelcome" to anything that happened in my AW game.
> Matt and Mendez, when I asked them, "Were there any
> outcomes in the game that you found really unwelcome?"
> also said no.

Is this because:
(a) You would have been perfectly content to lose your followers, even unjustly, because who cares?
(b) You might have lost your followers unjustly, and you wouldn't necessarily have been content, so thank goodness it didn't happen!
Or (c) nothing unjust could have happened, because as a group you would have kept things just?

Don't answer (a)! If you do, I'll ask you to explain your comment 12.


29. On 2011-05-10, David Berg said:

Was my best shot close?

From a/b/c, I'd have to say (c), but only because of our particular takes on what qualifies as "unjust".  "I rolled badly" would definitely not ever count as unjust.


30. On 2011-05-10, Vincent said:

It did in comment #12.

Your best shot was kind of close, but damn, you're shy of what you need to be seeking. As a designer you should be flying into the arms of the unwelcome like a long-parted lover. You're thinking always like a player instead.


31. On 2011-05-11, Ben Lehman said:

Can I talk a bit about welcome and unwelcome?

The most recent time I played Bliss Stage, I was playing a guy for whom marriage was really important so that, even at 15, he knew he wanted to get married before he passed (which, in the setting, happens around 18-20) and that he wasn't going to have sex before marriage. These beliefs put him in stark contrast with the rest of the group.

(Since sex is a mechanical thing in the game, this is pretty important.)

There was a whole build-up between him and this other girl, who was kinda ditzy but very kind to him. We had a scene where he was picking through the rubble of a jewelry store looking for a ring, etc.

And then, due to some bad dice luck and poor strategy, she died.

So our whole story about marriage vs. non-marriage, what's it like to get married at 15, etc just completely derailed. It sucked. It felt like the wind was taken completely out of our sails, and I really flailed around as a player, trying to figure out what to do with the character. The character really flailed around too, trying to figure out what was best for him?

Would I have fudged it? Not in a million years. It's important that that sort of thing can happen because it makes it all the more rewarding when it doesn't.



32. On 2011-05-11, Ben Lehman said:

Let me expand on the last bit, a bit more.

So let's imagine that somewhere there's an alternate universe where, by different die-rolls, Jennifer (the girl in the above example) didn't die. Would the game be better off for it? Probably.

But what we do when we fudge the result isn't enter that universe. Rather, we render Bliss Stage toothless. A toothless Bliss Stage is not very fun at all.

I think that this is true for all games. Consequences are important. Render consequences toothless and you render the game flat and boring.



33. On 2011-05-11, Josh W said:

Any way you could have incorperated stuff that was happening into the rules? Eg could you make a "toothy" version of bliss stage that preserved that storyline?

Or is not knowing if people will survive a basic part of how the game works?


34. On 2011-05-11, Ben Lehman said:

Consequences are a basic part of how any game works and, in Bliss Stage, consequences can include death of most characters.



35. On 2011-05-11, Vincent said:

Ben! Hooray!

I have a story too. I'm playing a hardholder in Apocalypse World named Barbecue. Meg's the MC.

One of the things of our apocalypse is weird animals. We've encountered these giant metal-eating underground centipedes, these mossy huge silent cyclopian wolf things, bats with little human faces, and a little girl with no eyes who eats the scraps and shavings from our metalworks. Meg says that she knows what's going on, what underlies all this, but I have no clue.

Barbecue really hates this stuff. These critters offend and terrify him. His gang boss, Hooch, gets along with them fine - he's able to take the world as he finds it - but not Barbecue. To Barbecue they're the breakdown of the world, and his whole thing is to hold his little piece of the world together.

In this last session, it came out that the little girl with no eyes who hides around our metalworks is the daughter of two of our people. They've been hiding her because they know that if the rest of the holding finds out about her she'll be in danger, but sometimes she sneaks out.

That's it for Barbecue! He can't be the hardholder anymore. Meg - all unknowing, with no roll or warning, but irrevocably - put Barbecue in an untenable position, and it's taken his holding away from him same as if she'd burned it down and murdered everyone in it. If the breakdown of the world is inside us, in our children, then Barbecue is done.

My choice is to deal with this, ask Meg to take it back, or quit the game. It'd be unforgivable whining bullshit to ask her to take it back, and I'm not going to quit the game.


36. On 2011-05-11, Chris Chinn said:

The unwelcome stuff pushes us outside of our boundaries.  You think you know your character, but the unwelcome pushes you to the space where you go, "I don't know!".  And then - you end up discovering something about your character you didn't know.

Yes, your character is created by you, so in a way, you're discovering something about yourself as a player, as a creative person.

Obviously, this applies to Narrativism.  Gamism's unwelcome stuff is losing.  Sim's unwelcome stuff involves hewing to the Dream, though there's a lot of Sim that doesn't require unwelcome stuff as well.  The Happy Fluffy Bunny game is an exaggerated, but accurate example.


37. On 2011-05-11, Vincent said:

Oh, I can't go along with that!

If you're designing a Right to Dream game, and it doesn't bring anything unwelcome, its players are better off abandoning it and freeforming instead, just the same as for Story Now and Step On Up.


38. On 2011-05-11, Chris Chinn said:

Hi Vincent,

I'm not actually disagreeing with you there.  I'm not saying that people ought to waste time designing for that, just that historically it's happened a lot.  Which is why a lot of groups end up abandoning the rules anyway.

The Happy Fluffy Bunny game is an example of what NOT to design and shows off exactly why it's pointless to put the energy into it.


39. On 2011-05-11, Emily said:

So, how would you distinguish compelling from satisfying? And are unwelcome and satisfying mutually incompatible?

I guess my question really is, are you including permissions & expectations based on styles & communities of play, non-mechanical structures and player investment as ways that a game can be designed to enforce unwelcome outcomes?

Some of those might accomplish it, but accepting the first and last seems at odds with the issue of supplanting a group's default interactions. But Ben's Jennifer might well have died in a freeform scenario or jeep played by players who are not hunting fluffy bunnies. What means of enforcement takes something from a happy accident to good design?


40. On 2011-05-11, Ben Lehman said:

Em: We're running up against the barriers of terms you're using (jeep and freeform.) A rule-set prejudiced against die rolls or tactical play doesn't necessarily exclude the unwelcome: it just has to generate it via another means.



41. On 2011-05-11, David Berg said:

Vincent, what I'm saying is that, if I roll badly, and then the MC violates our social expectations but the rules didn't force him to, then my group would blame the MC, not the rules.

In our AW game, Matt didn't choose to violate our social expectations, and the rules never forced him to.  Thus, afterward, everyone spoke of the game as "not producing unwelcome outcomes".

Thinking like a player

When I work on design problems, I do tend to start with, "If I was playing, and this rule or procedure came up, what would I do?"  What orientation do you take?


42. On 2011-05-11, Vincent said:

David: Jeez. It's like you can't accept that I'm saying what I'm saying, so you chase the terminology around instead.

A game should sometimes force the group to violate its social expecations. That's what supplanting the group's best interests means, or changing its social contract, or introducing the unwelcome into play.

It didn't happen to happen in your Apocalypse World game, but it might have - if, for instance, Matt had felt that butchering your followers had been the right thing to do, and you hadn't. The game's rules say that Matt doesn't answer to your social expectations.

Your only recourse, at that point, is the same as my only recourse: abandon your commitment to play the game by its rules and tell Matt (or Meg) to take it back, quit the game, or keep playing anyway. Right?

What do you make of Ben's and my examples?


43. On 2011-05-11, Vincent said:

Emily: It's so frustrating! I'd love to talk about how game design transforms the unwelcome into the satisfying by overriding a group's best interests. But first I have to chase down the bedamned unwelcome, and chase it down SO HARD that when I finally say "and NOW we get to talk about how game design transforms the unwelcome into the satisfying," certain people WHO ARE DAVID won't be all like "so it's not really the unwelcome, is it," like he tried to do up at #10 and #17.


44. On 2011-05-11, David Berg said:

Wait a second.  "It didn't happen to happen?"  We played Apocalypse World for like 16 sessions.  If your position is that a game delivers value by introducing the unwelcome, and that a functional game should in fact do that, then, by those standards, AW didn't function and we got no value from it.  Which sounds crazy to me.  We got all sorts of value.

None of us are petty quitters, but all of us realize that we have tons of game options.  Not getting what my character wants is no reason to quit.  Especially if it's tied into a rewarding moment of choice like Barbecue ditching his hardhold.  But the game suddenly becoming un-fun for one or more players, for reasons completely outside their control?  Yeah, our whole group would probably go, "Maybe we should play something else."

I don't know Bliss Stage well enough to say if Jennifer's death would have been compelling rather than a reason to play a different game.


45. On 2011-05-11, David Berg said:

I thought we found a definition of unwelcome we could agree on back in post #24.

I'm not sure what else you feel the need to communicate before moving on to game design.  I tried to do that myself in that same post.  No reason to not answer Emily now.


46. On 2011-05-11, Vincent said:


Emily: My position is just that you need to override the group's natural social dynamics and expectations if you want to give them something they can't get without you. You need to introduce the unwelcome, make it compelling (meaning that the group chooses to see it through instead of ditching out), and then ultimately make it fulfilling.

To override the group's natural interactions you can use content, explicitly stated principles and instructions, procedural cues, and mediating cues, (and quite possibly others that I haven't thought of).

The conclusion I've drawn is that explicitly stated principles and instructions aren't very strong, compared to constructed cues. Confronted by the unwelcome, a group is far, far more likely to ignore explicitly stated principles and instructions, and fall back on their natural interactions. Remember how you scrutinized my play when I had Puliarus break Murinus Mus' gift? Procedural or mediating cues would have made that unwelcome thing much easier for you to accept.

Thinking about Jeep makes me think about the differences between explicitly stated principles and instructions on the one hand, and constructed interactions without cues on the other. "There's a GM, and it's Meg," for instance. I'm going to add it to my list:
Explicit principles and instructions
Constructed interactions without cues
Procedural cues
Mediating cues

Make sense?


47. On 2011-05-11, Zac in Virginia said:

If we were talking about straight-up fiction, this wouldn't be so difficult to grok, imo. (said the latecomer... ^_^)
I was watching House, MD recently, and there's this bit where Dr. Cutty's pregnant surrogate has complications, and needs an emergency C-section that will endanger her life.
The alternative is that the baby will definitely die, but the surrogate would be somewhat better off having a stillbirth than the C-section.
Cutty makes a gamble - she'd rather have the baby live, so she pushes for the C-section - and both baby and surrogate survive. Then the surrogate says that her brush with death (courtesy of the C-section) has made her decide to keep the baby, and not pass it off to Cutty.
Cutty gnashes her teeth, pulls her hair; cue the high strains on them violins!

When there are dice involved in a game, we take very literal gambles. When there are not dice involved in a game, those risks are more hidden, maybe, but there's still a gamble involved by doing anything. It's related to Sorcerer's "fail forward/no whiffing"; it's related to AW's "Say/do what honesty/integrity demands". In Polaris (my almost-diceless example), the Mistaken's job is to make the Heart fail, break, and die. Cue the violins! :)

Just because nobody is happy about an outcome doesn't mean that it's the wrong outcome. A game that can't do that is a game that can't nail risk, reward, and consequences.


48. On 2011-05-11, David Berg said:

I completely agree that when faced with the unwelcome, mediating cues tend to hold up better than principles.

My blather about unwelcomeness is largely about when that is and isn't the case, and why.


49. On 2011-05-12, David Berg said:

Hey, here's a thought.  Perhaps a clear connection between what we did just now to produce this unwelcome outcome and what we're here to do is key to rendering the unwelcome compelling.


50. On 2011-05-12, Josh W said:

Ok Ben, consequences:

I'm going to spout like I know what you're game is all about even though I've never played it! (It's just easier that way) I hope you don't mind.

The game has consequences realised for certain kinds of interactions, it makes them get remembered, it makes people react to them now knowing they will stick.

The kind of things people get into affect loads of stuff, and the game depends on making things depend on each other and inter-relate in a way they normally don't do, through a kind of activity your interested in;
love, sex and relationships, (that whole bundle)
have consequences on life and death
via mecha battles

the mecha battles mediate between those two spheres, so the love/relationship stuff that guy was interested in had to relate to life and death, because the game mechanic was there to do that.

In another game he would have been able to still try to get married in a post apocolyptic world, and maybe would have succeeded. But in this game strategic pressure was put on his relationships, and if he avoided that, or chose to sacrifice utalising/exploiting his relationships to their fullest extent, there would probably be consequences.

So you were risking a stall by playing the core of your character that close to the games pattern of consequences, and that potentiality materialised.

Now if I'm right on that (and I could easily not be), it seems like you could have had a game where the connection between relationships and life and death has more advanced warning, say by having collateral damage precede personal consequences. In that way, the core character of the game could present itself to all the players (and importantly, the characters) in real events before it goes so far as to collapse a character. Now you probably didn't need any warning that this was risking death, you know the game, but perhaps your character did? Then you could have in character had exposure to the posibility and so time to work your way towards dealing with it.

On the other hand maybe he had all the warning, was fully in the shadow of potential disaster, and was just taking that edge consiously (as an in character decision) or ignoring it. In that case the existential powercut he went through is sort of implicit in the character, in your decision to play this guy in this game. Hard to resolve, but neccesary to preserve the weight of the risk he took. It's sort of paying a price in current gameplay difficulty to support the quality of previous play, and maybe make it even more memorable.

(it does the same for the play in other plays of the same game too)


51. On 2011-05-12, Josh W said:

Now to bring that back to Vincents point's, how does that relate to "unwelcome" stuff?

I'm more than capable of making stuff for myself I don't like but will stick with, by just clashing two patterns of causality. I don't need a game design to do that, or more strictly, I don't need to play a designed game to do that, many struggles of game design can be exactly that!

But actually, what I do there sort of is what game design does: On two different levels I commit to events that are at one point mutually exclusive; I want to play this game here and now, and see the consequences of it's rule structure, and I also want to play this character this way.

Crap, suddenly my athlete's got a broken leg and has lost her job. Everything my character was to me just went up in smoke. Ok looks like if I want to stay here, I need to dig into this character and rebuild her interest to me.

Now if the game works for me, it will not get in the way of me solving that double bind, maybe it will even help. It will provide some way to keep playing the character if I want to, and start her new life training to do something else.

So like with your guy Vincent, presumably you had to go back to the core of how he worked and find a new tack, build depth by imagining underneath what you'd already made.

But I don't think that's the sum-total of how games can add new focus content and dynamics to a group though. Or more productively, I think there are other good ways too.


52. On 2011-05-12, GB Steve said:

I tend to view worthiness in the same way as I view clues in GUMSHOE. Here, the idea there is that in an investigation there is always a lead to follow. So, in a similar way, whatever happens in a given situation is fine, as long as the next thing I do has some worth to it, or the promise of some down the line. For me, the promise of something worthy is as good as something actually worthy, even if it all goes horribly wrong (as it might in Fiasco).

However, I realise that from playing with others that this is a far from universally shared pov. Some players invest a lot more in winning each situation or not having their character goals disrupted or denied.

As such, I don't think you can design a ruleset that caters to all these points of view at once. For example, I get put off by FATE and Burning Wheel paying me for making specific bad things happen to my character when I'm very happy getting into a whole wide spectrum of trouble. Why the narrow focus, and why the extra bookkeeping (partly written so I could include bookkeeping which could really do with another 'p')?


53. On 2011-05-12, Gordon said:

I'd throw this into marginalia, but I guess it's not a current feature (shows you how often I post here).  Some reactions over at my paltry blog.


54. On 2011-05-12, Vincent said:

Gordon! Good to see you.

Good quibbles, too.


55. On 2011-05-12, Emily said:

That's great, Vincent. And I like the list. We can add to it, in addition to Content, fictional structuring or some-such. Content as what's generate by the group through all their processes; fictional structuring as agreed upon narrative arcs, points or elements that are built in. (Fate play for example).


My position is just that you need to override the group's natural social dynamics and expectations if you want to give them something they can't get without you.


We're running up against the barriers of terms you're using (jeep and freeform.) A rule-set prejudiced against die rolls or tactical play doesn't necessarily exclude the unwelcome: it just has to generate it via another means.

Exactly. There are many, many techniques used in jeep and other European freeform trads that do just what Vincent's saying he thinks mediated (mechanical) procedures do best. (There are many folks there who would 100% disagree about that by the way! But I'm not sure how strictly you're holding that position.)

My question is about player investment (in accepting the unwelcome) and in communities of play and the expectations and permissions a given one promotes. In our context, where rpg has primarily grown from effectiveness-based play (d&d via war games), you're more married to doing well so you can continue contributing and participating. In other contexts, where there is more appreciation for having "unwelcome" outcomes happen, it gets embraced more. To the point that Happy Ends was written to help people counter their (now natural) tendency to bring their characters to uncomfortable, unwelcome ends and means.


56. On 2011-05-13, Vincent said:

Oh, yeah, no. I'm saying that explicit principles and instruction alone are weakest, and that mediating cues are sometimes best, not that mediating cues are always best. You can clearly accomplish an awful lot with just content and constructed interactions, for instance.

Player investment seems to me like a product of process, whatever the process is. My guess is that you can start building on player investment quite early in your process - Apocalypse World surely does - but not first.


57. On 2011-05-13, ndp said:

I have a (long) story - I don't know if it'll be useful, but it's the first thing I thought of with having unwelcome things happen in games. Actually, two stories, contrasting what it seems to me that David is talking about, and what Vincent is talking about.

I was playing Vampire: the Requiem with my buddies back in Boston. J was the GM, and I was one of three starting-level (neonate?) characters, a musician who had been embraced mere months before the game started and still had strong ties to the mortal world. In my first scene of the first session, I blew a don't-freak-out-when-you're-hungry roll (Composure+something) and the rules-based result was that I ended up killing the guy I was trying to feed on. This wasn't at all how I saw the character, but the game rules inexorably led to this scene - I made a guy with low composure, he had really low blood points so he needed to feed, I gambled on doing it "humanely", I lost and killed a guy, right out of the gate. Oh man. Harsh.

Later in the game, there was this mortal woman who my guy had recorded some songs with before he was embraced. J started threatening her, both as a fictional way to get my character to agree to some bad shit he didn't want to do, and because he knew that I was invested in this woman not getting hurt. He used his GM authority to target her, and I used all my available resources to fight to keep her safe, even though it was a fairly tangential issue to the main stuff going on. I, as a player, was invested in keeping her safe. Like, sitting-on-my-hands-squirming invested. In the game, she witnessed some freaky shit (I think a Nosferatu vampire feeding on someone), and she freaked out, and I had to decide how to deal with it, and the ONLY viable option (other than her going mad, essentially) was to use my vampire mind powers to make her forget about the whole thing, which meant forgetting her relationship to my character.

Oh, how I agonized about that decision! It violated every conception of my character, which had ALREADY been violated by that early murder! I was all "well, sure, it's not really in his CONTROL to freak out in a blood rage, but he would NEVER destroy an innocent persons mind". And then he did! It was so unwelcome, but so the only satisfying way to solve the situation!

So, um, that second story is what I think Vincent is talking about. I hope that helps in some way! (or, if I'm wrong, I'm listening...)


58. On 2011-05-13, Matt Wilson said:

Good TV kicks your expectations and assumptions right in the ass ( I know, for fucks sake with the TV examples dude), and sometimes when it does, it permanently changes those assumptions and expectations. How fucking cool is that?

Like, remember when Warren shot Tara? Now it's still kind of a big deal, but it's something we prepare for mentally, just a little bit, when we watch other shows.

I think about that every time I watch Justified. Shit, who might die? Back in the days of the A-Team, it just wasn't a concern.


59. On 2011-05-13, David Berg said:

Nathan, that is a great story!  Wow.  Man.  If I played that mind-eraser moment in a Vampire game with my emo-veteran buddies, it would be fantastic.  If I played it with my college power-gamers, it'd make us all quit the game.

At the same time, my emo-veteran buddies are kind of used to moments like that.  "Lose your lover or let her go mad," packs less punch the 50th time it happens.

Perhaps you're describing the perfect in-between?  Where you go into play kind of knowing that tough moral dilemmas might be on the table, but not flat-out expecting them?  So you get a genuine "Oh shit!" reaction, but not the, "This isn't what we agreed to play, guys, let's stop," reaction?

I wonder what the key to finding that in-between is?

Maybe it's to introduce outcomes that are in fact compatible with the game's point, but not in an obvious or predictable way?  So those outcomes could be unwelcome, but won't be game-ruining?

The designer's secret insights on top of their obvious ones?


60. On 2011-05-14, Ian Charvill said:

The unwelcome will break your character's heart and if you identify with your character, even a bit, it will break your heart too.  There are ways you can deal with that afterwards—quitting the game, withdrawing from the character emotionally, rationalising it—but it will get you in the moment.

When I'm playing old-fashioned DnD I might lose in any given encounter, certainly I might lose the scenerio.  Death's ever present as is just being forced to retreat back to town to hire new retainers and heal.  Now, I don't play to lose and I don't an any time want to lose, every fibre of my being is pulling in the opposite direction.  If I lose just because the DM decides it's time for me to lose, that's pathetic because I can't strategise against that.  But if the system doesn't have the ongoing risk, that's bathetic—you'll win until you're sick of winning.  What's the point of playing in either case?  Losing is unwelcome in old-fashioned DnD, but if it isn't there then what's the point of playing?  Two different scales: I don't want to lose but I need to lose.

Moment-to-moment I'm never going to choose to lose—or if I do I'm going to lose at the least meaningful moment.  Moment-to-moment I'm never going to choose the outcome that gives me the best long-term result.  System can take that out of my hands and give me the best long term outcome by making me lose at the time I least want to.  It means that I don't have to juggle all of my best-interests at once, and I can focus on the moment of play.


61. On 2011-05-14, Marshall B said:

The unwelcome moment is an interesting thing in the Rustbelt. It happens when something so horrible happens that it really hits home with the player that all the talk about desperation isn't just hype—it's what the game is really about. You can see the actual despair—the complete failure of hope—on the player's face. If I'm GMing, at this moment I'm always feeling like, "Oh shit, I took it too far," and I'm always this close to taking it back.

But I don't. And you know what happens? That player soon proceeds to come up with the coolest damn thing that has happened in the whole game. It's something scary and exciting everytime, and it's when we really (as the text repeats to brainwash you) when he "reveals all of [the character's] most monstrous and most admirable qualities."

If that true despair doesn't hit the player, then we don't really see those qualities revealed in his character. We just kinda play at it until then. We aren't really playing the Rustbelt until it happens.

We get there by a combination of GM providing escalating adversity, death spirals in the damage mechanics, gradual rules-mandated (but player modulated) intensification of PC behavior, and player buy-in on failure. These all interact to create a web of unpleasant consequences that gradually back the PC against a wall, and for real, not for funsies. All the "unpleasant" stuff that happened up to that point was just genre trappings and fun stuff, and wasn't actually unwelcome. It's not until the Spike is driven all the way to the heart that something happens that's truly unwelcome.

By the end of it all, we're grateful that it happened. But we're not when it happens.

I'm actually having difficulty with this with Rustbelt's evil Gamist twin, MADcorp. I can't seem to overcome the players' social expectations, especially regarding combat and character death. Despite preparing them for it, making sure that failure is always due to their decisions, reminding them multiple times that running is a viable option, suggesting they play multiple employees, and warning them not to get too attached to employees until they've survived long enough to get some experience perks.

Nope, I just get whining about things like how easy it is to get killed, how some (most, actually) character classes are unsuited for face-to-face combat, the lack of resurrection, and so on. And I'm thinking, "What the fuck were you thinking, letting a Sawbones go toe-to-toe with a bear? This isn't the game where everyone's a fighter except there's one guy called 'Fighter' who kills things faster. Fuck."

I could change things to make these people stop whining. (Actually, I'm putting in limited resurrection, but only because it creates choices like, "Do we carry this dead dude who's, like, heavy back to safety, or do we carry more treasure?") But I look at the stuff and think, damn, if I do this it will be too easy. You guys are supposed to accept failure, learn from it, and then get back in there. If I spoonfeed you, you won't learn. C'mon, work smarter, not harder.

So far, I haven't got the design to the point where it overcomes their social expectations. I'm really not sure what to do. Hell, maybe I'm testing it on the wrong people.


62. On 2011-05-15, David Berg said:

That Rustbelt dynamic sounds great.  "I knew this game was gonna beat my character down, but I didn't know it'd beat him down that much."  It makes sense to me that that's ultimately rewarding just as you describe.  That'll only work once, though, right?


63. On 2011-05-15, Valamir said:

This seems like yet-another-clearly-true-thing that Vincent has taken the time to codify and which now will produce much wrangling and wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth until everybody finally realizes its obviously true, and starts to talk about it as if they bought in all along...remember all those "system" discussions.

This point about "real design" seems a complete given to me.

If I as a player am totally wanting to get something out of play and you as a player are totally wanting to get something out of play, and I'm dedicated to seeing you get what you want and you're dedicated to seeing me get what I want, and we're both skilled enough to read cues and flags and body language...then what the fuck do we need rules for?  We can just sit around the camp fire passing the conch and being awesome.  And maybe that produces a magnificent experience, or maybe its lame because everybody getting what they want out of play all the time can lose its luster after awhile...but either way...we don't need rules for that.

We might be pretending to use rules and roll some dice and record some stats, but ultimately the social contract of our play and our dedication to fulfilling each other's expectations is going to trump whatever the rules say any at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what set of rules we're pretending to use...the real rules are the system we've created for ourselves socially.

So as a game designer you have two choices.  One is to be a pretend designer making rules that don't really matter (or need to work well anyway) because you know that people are only going to be pretending to use them.  For examples see just about any game you can find on the internet that describes itself as "rules light" or "transparent" or "getting out of the way of play".  T

Or you can be a real designer making rules that do matter.  And by "matter" that simply means "yes they are fun/compelling/engaging enough that I want to use them and am committed to seeing it through" AND "they're giving me something that I CAN'T get from just you and I sitting together and playing pass the conch while being committed to delivering on each others expectations.

And here keep in mind that "delivering on expectations" could be any thing from heroic victory to emo tragedy...if what you want is your character to die a painful death with all of their ambitions unfulfilled, and I'm committed to helping you realize that...then that's still fulfilling the desires of the players through play.

Everything Vincent has written in this thread is nothing more than an attempt to discuss how a game design can deliver something we can't get without it.  Whatever our social context is, there are just some outcomes that will never ever ever happen if that social context is all that's driving play.  Maybe that's because there are things that we'd just plain never think of doing.  Maybe that's because there's a line there that we really truly need to cross but are too chicken shit to do it.  Maybe that's because I would never bring myself to just dicking you over and breaking your heart in play.  Whatever, there are some places any given group at any given time just can't get to within their currently existing social context.

So for a game design to matter, it has to be able to take us to those places (or some subset of those places) and it has to do it in a way that won't cause us to over ride the itinerary and bail on going there or simply quit playing.

That's what Vincent is calling "Real Design" (please correct me if I'm missed the mark here).  This seems non controversal to me.


64. On 2011-05-16, Gordon said:

I'd just add to Ralph's comments that by my reading/understanding, it's not so important that non-rules-driven social context CAN'T ever deliver.  In fact, I have a recent play experience in mind where I'd say it did, mostly.  But good rules are better tools than bare socializing - more reliable at producing the result, with less accompanying baggage, and less work required by the playgroup ('cause the designer already did some of it).

That superiority for the desired purpose is what's important - not absolutes of can/can't.


65. On 2011-05-16, Valamir said:

Just to be clear, Gordon I wasn't saying that social context CAN'T deliver ever.  In fact, it is quite possibly superior at delivering those things that that social context is expecting from play.

What I was noting is that there are some things that are outside of what a given social context is expecting from play, and those are the things that you'll never experience if your games are driven by social context alone.


66. On 2011-05-17, Josh W said:

Hang on, if you reduce the idea of unwelcome stuff to unexpected stuff, then yes, surely everyone agrees.

You need rules to get to an outcome that none of the participents expected (at any time).

You need rules to get players to agree to stuff other than what they will potentially agree to without rules.

But that's not to say that a set of game rules won't encourage players to produce stuff that:

They don't normally expect to do, but will accept and enjoy when confronted with it.

Or come up with familiar stuff but actually accept it this time rather than not knowing how to proceed with it.

Both of those can be massively welcome.

Both can add something new that people don't get without picking up your rulebook.

But right at the start of this thread Vincent kept going back to focusing on the specific emotional reaction to the stuff people created, it didn't feel good, it seemed a bad idea, it didn't seem like what people were hear to play, but they stuck with it.

If "real design" is marked primarily by producing that, then I'd say that "real design" is a pretty macho construct. :P


67. On 2011-05-17, Vincent said:

Everybody likes to focus on how game design creates unexpected things. But once in a while, inevitably, the unexpected thing your game creates will be unwelcome to its players. It may happen one session out of ten, one session out of a hundred, one session out of a thousand - but if your game's really creating unexpected things, it WILL happen. THAT'S when your game design has to hold up, and that's why I'm more interested in the unwelcome than the mere unexpected. Any game holds up when it creates something unexpected and welcome.


68. On 2011-05-17, Simon R said:

I've got two examples of the unwelcome, both many years ago.

I was GMing D&D, and through wild magic, one player transformed himself into a horse, and was teleported off to a random location. That was droll, and only slightly unwelcome.

He spent the rest of the session persuading steppes people that he was intelligent. Eventually, they dug a pit and put the horse in it, and the shaman dispelled magic. He failed his system shock, and his favourite character was dead. Neither of us wanted this at all. That was to us an unbreakable rule - we considered fear of eternal death was essential to the feeling of risk. He never enjoyed playing nearly as much with other characters. A few years ago, we agreed he should come back, nobody minded, and it didn't affect our enjoyment.

Same player, a paladin character. I had a silly but useful rule that if you as a player said the name of an infernal creature at the table, their character had, too, whatever the circumstances. They whisper in your ear, you know. There is a one in twenty chance something will turn up.

So, this guy was said Lolth accidentally, she turned up and they took a couple of sessions hunting her down.

He was tried for demon summoning, and in his trial, he said it again. It really was an accident, and quite funny, but he had to lose his paladinhood. That was unwelcome to everyone. In the end, though, the roleplaying opportunities that provided were worthwhile.

The question is - does the risk of entirely unwelcome things improve the rest of the game? Even if such unwelcome things don't lead to enjoyable play at all?


69. On 2011-05-17, David Berg said:

Now I get what Vincent's saying.

The idea that unwelcomeness can be super important to a game design even if it never arises in a typical play session is counter-intuitive to me.  That was part of the communication hurdle.

My instinct is to focus on designing the unexpected, but perhaps "could this ever be unwelcome?" is a good yardstick for measuring that.  The idea that 100% welcome outcomes are unlikely to be really unexpected does make some sense to me.


70. On 2011-05-18, Marshall Burns said:

That Rustbelt dynamic sounds great. "I knew this game was gonna beat my character down, but I didn't know it'd beat him down that much." It makes sense to me that that's ultimately rewarding just as you describe. That'll only work once, though, right?

I dunno, man, you'd be surprised. Shit has a way of getting deeper than you could imagine ahead of time, and it tends to still be a shock (and unwelcome) when it does.

Not every session, or even every Yarn, but rather consistently.


71. On 2011-05-18, Gordon said:

I think in my point about absolutes I was trying to get at the unwelcome as a thing of degrees rather than a mere on/off switch.  I take part of Vincent's point to be that the unwelcome can't be merely trivialy unwelcome, it must be have some sting to it.  On the other hand, I'd say that if you regularly get majorly unwelcome outcomes, well . . . not many groups will find that enjoyable.

Perhaps your particular subject matter, the group esthetic you're designing for, and all the usual design goals will influenece the degree and frequency of "sting" that you want the game to create.  But I think Vincent has put his finger on something that, when *entirely* absent, really does make play kinda pointless to my taste.  I can easily think of games where I knew no one would let the unwelcome happen, even if it meant breaking the rules.  And that was no fun.

I'd say that making the game/fiction work despite the unwelcome is an important aspect of both design and play.  Even if (or because of?  Maybe, but that seems like a less important debate) there's the possibilty that we'll fail to make it work.


72. On 2011-05-19, Josh W said:

Fair point Vincent, so even if your not going for unwelcome stuff for the sake of it, unwelcome stuff is a failure mode of pushing players in new directions creatively?

Well in that case it's not very macho at all!

To pick up the semi-unsaid threads here, I'm guessing you think that's a problem because when that happens, the natural freeplay response of some people is instant retcon, or in archipelego-speak, "try something different". That's an issue because it breaks stuff your game needs to be good;

weakens the in-fiction chains of causality your working with,
destabalises events that the game needs to be solid,
means people are editing moments out, (that are important to the kind of stories you want the game to help build)
it shifts decision making and can make it harder to identify with characters

or whatever.

Right? I'm sure there are probably other ways it could mess things up, like people compromising in the middle of character conflicts or something!

Seems a productive point to go from.

Sometimes people won't like a bit of the track, even though you hope to get them somewhere good, and you're just navigating. So you need to ....

And then there's the thing with people sticking things out cos you're the designer, when they are actually using the game in a way you didn't intend, and they'd be better of using their own moderating system stuff...

To my mind this suggests a compromise, that there are areas of the game where you might be happy for players to retcon, and other areas where you'd be like, "for this game to work, if you get to these things, stay the course, I've come across them before".


73. On 2011-05-30, Joel said:

So, I have a lot to say about this, but I just got caught up on the discussion.

First, some personal experience: I have numerous examples of the Unwelcome cropping up in my long years of D&D play, here it didn't feel valuable, rewarding, etc. to allow for those situations at all. Here's a blog post from a couple years back where I grope and fumble at what made one of those experiences so frustrating:

Paying Your Dues

tl;dr: We're playing a long-running campaign, player who's been a passive-aggressive jerk in the past wants to join, GM lets him, he creates a character who's all about killing vampires, assists us in rescuing a PC from vampires(which we've been waiting months of real time to do), wants to kill him when he sees he's been turned to vampire, we, in character talk him out of it because we're taking him to get cured, said jerk bides his time, then attacks and kills said PC, exploiting combat rules to circumvent my character's precautions against him doing just that.

So: there's a lot going on there including a shitty social dynamic with already-broken trust being broken still further. So I'm not trying to blame the game rules (D&D 3.5) for that, though I might be inclined to blame D&D play culture. But what's relevant here, maybe, is how the rules enabled this unwelcome outcome, and why it felt crappy.

It's not so much the outcome (We work hard to rescue our friend, only to have him killed by our new ally) that I object's HOW the rules brought it about. The rules gave me no meaningful tools for achieving my desired outcome. The other player knew this, and so took an action he KNEW as undesirable for others at the table, and that he KNEW the others would have no means of opposing. It was a zero-risk action for him. He knew that my having a crossbow pointed at his back did not in the slightest prevent him from delivering a single punch to a helpless opponent—all I could do was deplete his hitpoints, but not enough to drop him. And when he ran away, he knew that the movement rates meant I could never catch him.

(in reviewing the incident, I realized there were some different, creative rulings the GM could have employed, or I could have suggested, that could have brought about a different outcome. But our best interpretation of those rules in the moment gave us that flat, lifeless piece of unwelcome.)

I should state, btw, that we weren't doing challenge-focused play, by a long shot. Our priority was, insomuch as play was coherent at all (which is to say, not much), to play our characters with integrity to their fictional goals, and thereby explore the story and the world.

So, Vincent, when you talk about wanting to look at game designs right at the point where they produce the're not saying "if it produces the unwelcome, it's good;" rather you're saying something like "the parts of the design that produce the unwelcome are the crucial components, which make or break the game," right? So, does this example sound to you like an example of a game design producing an unfruitful unwelcome, at least for our group with our set of play priorities? Or am I just a whiner, or what?

Meanwhile, I'll follow up with an example of a "fruitful unwelcome" from my own play.



74. On 2011-05-30, Joel said:

So, here's an experience of the Unwelcome I consider far more functional and rewarding:

The Dreaming Crucible: Trauma and Celebration

In this game, Lisa's character Susan had a creepy uncle living in the garage who kept making advances when the folks were away, culminating with him drunk late at night banging on her locked bedroom door while she hid in her closet. I thought play might be veering toward rape or sexual assault, but it didn't. This stage of the game is mostly free play with a couple of scene-framing constraints, so the only way for it to go there is through our verbal descriptions (with me, as the Dark Faerie, playing the uncle).

Then (as happens in Crucible) Susan was pulled by mysterious forces into a magical shadow realm, where she had to confront her worst fears and deepest pain while trying to escape. In this instance I made the Dream directly a shadow-version of Susan's own town, and when shadow-people's whispers led her to the shadow-counterpart of her own house, she ended up trapped in her bedroom with her shadow-uncle.

So far this was all just narration back and forth. But then by the Crucible rules, I framed this as a Peril, which means putting some Dark stones and Light stones in a bag, and having Lisa draw one out. If Light, she describes passing through the peril happily, if Dark, I describe it unhappily.

Lisa pulled a Dark stone. And I realized that I had just, through the game rules, engineered a situation here I had to describe a 14 year old girl getting raped.

It was unwelcome. It was SO fucking unwelcome. Nobody at the table was happy with it. e sat there looking at each other all grim. But it was what had to be. It as the only way to honor the thing we had created together up to that point. So that's what I did.

This moment turned out to be immensely rewarding later in the game when Susan stood up defiantly in the face of her trauma. Not sure if that's a necessary component of the Fruitful Unwelcome," but it sure as satisfying for us. I'd say that, even though the Unwelcome might not always turn out to be satisfying that way, perhaps it's necessary to provide for the possibility of such fulfillment?

Now, here's where my example addresses something David brought up, with the Hocus and the dead followers: Could I have described something besides child rape? Yeah, sure, the rules just say I have to describe something "traumatic or detrimental." I could have come up with some traumatic or detrimental thing that wasn't sexual assault. But the spirit-rape was the only thing that fictionally felt right, and we all knew it. One of the Dreaming Crucible's (continuous, procedural) rules is "Say what you see." So just because, frex, the MC has a whole list of moves he can bust out on a failure, doesn't mean they'll all be the fitting, right thing to happen in the moment.

Now, after writing them both out, I see one HUGE frikkin difference between my two Unwelcomes: communication of expectations up-front. I begin each dreaming crucible game by reading Meg's description "I Will Not Abandon You" play (which is in my text. Everyone knew what sort of game they were in for, what kind of dark places play might go, and embraced it. Whereas in my old game we had a whole chaotic mishmash of expectations that nobody communicated at all, or else communicated passive-aggressively "in character." So there's that.



75. On 2011-05-31, Vincent said:

Joel: Yep. Good examples.


76. On 2011-05-31, Christian Griffen said:

I know I brought this up before, but let me reiterate: as someone who's GMed many "freeform" games (which in this case simply meant the GM determines the outcome of all actions), I swear I will never do that again without putting in place some mediating cues that take the responsibility off my shoulders. The part upthread, where David says he and his friends would have blamed the GM for making too harsh a call absent the rules forcing him to? That's exactly why. I've been there so many fucking times, where it comes down to a) making an unwelcome call and get blamed, or b) making a boring call. It leads to utterly safe and boring play.

The reason that mediating cues work better for me than principles is related to this: calls based on principles are subject to interpretation, which raises the fear of being blamed. Give me a clear "if you do this, roll a die to see how badly you get hurt doing it" any day.


77. On 2011-05-31, Joel said:

Vincent, cool. So what would you say is the crucial difference between the functional or non-functional (or fruitful and unfruitful, if you like) Unwelcome in a game design? For instance, between the two examples I described?



78. On 2011-06-01, Vincent said:

Joel, good question!

I don't think there's any one crucial difference. There are a bunch of things we could look at, top to bottom, from way up in the social setting way down to how the game's rules coordinate interaction moment-to-moment.

It's significant to me that in the unfruitful example, somebody got their way over others' resistance, and in the fruitful example, nobody got their way but the game design. But I wouldn't draw any sort of general principle from that.

This is weird to talk about, but I'll give it a try: this whole unwelcome thing, it's really about how I design games, not about how I expect people to play them. Trying to understand it from the players' point of view is like trying to understand, I dunno, writing from the reader's point of view, or filmmaking from the audience's point of view. It will take you so far, and no farther. There's architecture to a game's design that is hidden from the game's players, just like there's architecture to a novel that's hidden from its readers and architecture to a film that's hidden from its viewers.


79. On 2011-06-01, David Berg said:

Vincent, can you offer an example of a moment in designing a game where the unwelcome was a factor?

"I must inject the unwelcome!" or "Hey, that could be unwelcome, cool," or, "Nothing here could be unwelcome, I must try again," or however it's come up for you?

Or, if you're not consciously thinking in terms of unwelcomeness while designing, what are you thinking that leads you to introduce the unwelcome?


80. On 2011-06-01, Vincent said:

Oh, sure. I'm working on a thing right now. Two PCs dueling. When you have the initiative (not a technical term) you can choose your approach. Draw your enemy out, make a spectacle of it, go hard and direct, use misdirection and subterfuge, whatever else. It's like:

When you draw your enemy out, what?

On a win, you get something good, your enemy has to suck up something bad, and it should sting.

On a tie, you should both have to pay. A tie should be equally uncomfortable, not equally comfortable.

On a loss, obviously you haven't drawn your enemy out, you've exposed yourself to your enemy and now your enemy's in control. That should sting too.

So as I'm trying to nail these possibilities down in my design, all I'm thinking about is, how bad can I make it? How bad can I make it, but most people will keep playing? How can I buy them into the badness instead of turning them off to it? How can I further and further unbalance the players' interactions, and how much of my potential audience am I willing to sacrifice for it?


81. On 2011-06-01, Joel said:

Theat all makes sense to me, Vincent.

It's sometimes a weird experiences, as a designer of games (or just one who thinks about design), to play a game. You'
re always going "hey, I see the hidden architecture of this game!" or else "hmm, I wonder what the hidden architecture of this game is?"


82. On 2011-06-03, David Berg said:

Nice.  I love that example; that's something I can relate to.

Let me just see if I get you right on "unbalance the players' interactions".  Do you mean that the two dueling characters' players start on even footing in terms of their game play options, and the process of playing the duel introduces inequality?  So after a few rolls (or whatever), one player has more resources, or mechanical options, or narrative authority, etc., than the other player?


83. On 2011-06-05, Moreno R. said:

I would like to try an example from a very old game, to see if I understood what you mean, Vincent.

In D&D, from 1974 onward, having the character die suck. Suck a lot. It' REALLY unwelcome, not only for the player (who has to create a new character, and in OD&D had to start from the beginning) and for the other players, too. (they have lost the mage, or the cleric, or a warrior that protected the mage, etc.). Not even the GM is happy, all the backstory he had invested in that character is lost.

Nobody is happy, but playing D&D without having the death of a character a possible event at the table would be meaningless.

(and when people began to "save the characters" faking rolls behind the screen, the effect was destructive of the game and on the social level)

It's a good example? Or I am wrong?


84. On 2011-06-06, Vincent said:

Dave: Yes.

Well, 3 notes:

1. The players start on relatively even footing, not always on genuinely even footing.

2. The "etc." is as crucial and full of possibility as the "(or whatever)".

3. Particularly, don't leave the characters out of it. The player whose character is winning the fight might be the one losing mechanical choices, for instance. This is very common in my games.

But yes! That's what I mean.

Moreno: Yes. Good example.

I think a bunch of people would disagree with you about how to play D&D, including me, but given your starting assumptions, yes! Good example.


85. On 2011-06-11, David Berg said:


Okay, I've taken my understanding of the stuff we've discussed in this thread and others lately, and done a little design exercise on my livejournal.  I'm afraid it's a very long post, but hopefully it's interesting enough to be worth the read.

"trying new design approaches (from Vincent Baker)"

Thanks for all the food for thought!


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