2011-06-13 : A roleplaying game has two centers

Oh, of course it does! It has the center of what we're here to do with this game, which is the core of its reward system, and it has the center of what we're doing right this minute, which is the core of the creative relationship it creates between the players.

Its rules are elaborations of these two conceptual cores, including any mediating systems between them. Gameplay spills out of their interaction.

1. On 2011-06-13, Zac in Virginia said:

So, it's kind of like,

1- Where the game gently or roughly nudges us
2- What we get up to while we're on our way there

F'rex, I'm playing AW and I'm not sure what to do with my Operator. In the same session, she gets 3 more barter from gigs, AND hits an Advance, so she buys a sword and takes Easy to Trust (to make more use of her Cool).
This quickly leads her in a more ronin kind of direction, where she's poking her nose in folks' business and carryin' steel to back it up. The character has transmogrified through a combination of chasing Rewards (by using highlighted stats) and being true to the fiction (she wants to protect herself and be more effective, hence the particular choice of that Move and that weapon).



2. On 2011-06-13, Ron Edwards said:

Vincent, I think the two are more alike than you're saying.

In the other thread, I mentioned a trade-off among hope, security, and knowledge. Sure, in the long term of play, we might expect to see something like a grand tapestry of plot including several protagonists, perhaps some telling endings for some of them along the way, certainly some regional passion plays, and a much richer articulation of what the Apocalypse is and what the World is.

But the whole is made of smaller parts, themselves formed of the tension among those elements. That's what sessions do, right? Zac's character's minor changes, as he describes, are in response to such tensions and what happens in the course of play. In this case, it's hope and security. The character has limited or no hope beyond treading water, then finds a way to bring about change; the character lives in dangerous and brutal circumstances, then finds a way to protect self & others (perhaps by killing certain others) - trading that off with a certain risk of a certain, chosen kind. In this case, knowledge doesn't come into it, but certainly the circumstances of prep - particularly the formal, content-heavy prep for the game - can bring that tension into things quite hard, and so can the player's own input if he or she directs the character that way.

I'm hoping to articulate that immediate circumstances such as "shit, I'm outta gas," and "double shit, there are hungry mutants living in that gully," are more than merely a video-game set-piece in this game. They are local and personal versions of the bigger issues.

If the knowledge side of all this seems thin, add a Hocus player-character to the barter-happy Operator, and I think that rounds it out: "ooh, loopy shit, those mutants do drugs which open windows into the past!"


3. On 2011-06-15, Josh W said:

Ron, could you expand a bit more on what you think makes that happen? What is the bit that helps you see the broad sweep in the moments of play?

Ok, I smell a forge thread in that question, but the basic reason I ask is if Vincent's design intentions involve picking two different "points" to the game, and pulling them closer together, then you saying they are the same in his game is nice, but just a confirmation of success. In other words I'm seeig the end and start of a process in this thread, but I can't see enough of either to fill in the middle.


4. On 2011-06-16, Ron Edwards said:

Hi Josh,
Minding three small active children, all under four - can't blink - really interesting question - I have lots I want to say - will try later.
(seriously nuts here although fun) (they decided the guy mowing the lawn was a monster like in Scooby Doo and tried to tie him up with his extension cord when he came inside)
Best, Ron


5. On 2011-06-16, Judd said:

"And I would have mowed that lawn if it wasn't for those pesky kids!"


6. On 2011-06-16, Ron Edwards said:

OK, I think I have a bit of time. There are three ways to look at this, one of which is two-centered but messed up, and the other is one-centered but messed up, and maybe, just maybe the last is one-centered but valid and is maybe synonymous with two-centered as Vincent is describing, if I'm reading it right.

1. Two-centered but messed-up. The most extreme form of this is best described as "fun later." We've all seen it a hundred times I'm sure. It could be classic fantasy party play, in which we fuck around for hours and maybe fight a little here and there, and some kind of corridor puzzle keeps us occupied, and all the while I'm looking at my character's twenty-page back-story and wondering why I did it, or if I know that, why I'm doing this.

That example represents a particular disconnect between what we do now and what we're doing it for, but there are lots of others. Sometimes it's a CA thing in that the rules we're using right now are actually quite great for CA 1, but since you or I or the GM is playing in hopes of CA 2, it's going nowhere. Or other times it's just that the rules suck and go nowhere despite the pretensions of the main text (and our goals at the table), as I've criticized the early versions of Vampire and Mage at length, but it's not restricted to them.

So that's two-centered, but we need that like we need an extra pair of elbows. Probably less.

2. One-centered but messed-up. The most extreme form of this can be seen in many of the story games (I hate that term as it's more of a clique-identity label than a substantive descriptor, but OK), in which the theme is X, the situation is fixed with X glowing in the middle, each character is a different fixed take on X (or the same take with different funny hats), and the currency and endgame are all about resolving X in this instance. Even the customizable ones are merely genre-switches of no consequence. My take on playing these is that I go through the motions and we see what happens, and my only enjoyment is at most an appreciation for the designer's foresight in taking care of us via the system no matter what we did, and upon that appreciation, asking, "Well, so what."

For reference, I think Dust Devils isn't one of these games although it *is* genre-heavy, issue-heavy, currency-heavy, and personal end-game heavy. There's a certain limitation and for lack of a better word, "mere curiosity" in the sense of a strange little widget, to the games I'm talking about, whereas Dust Devils is more like a blank canvas with a well-chosen arrray of paints and brushes. So playing it won't yield a "mere curiosity," but rather your group's own original western, measuring up as well or as poorly to the existing texts as you can manage.

3. I suppose I've already moved into the third version, then: one-centered if we're thinking about the fiction, two-centered if we're thinking about play procedures and real time. Whether it's Sorcerer, HeroQuest, Dogs in the Vineyard, Dust Devils, or My Life with Master, and in the revised versions, The Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel, the big themes and issues play may be found at a "big" level: personally philosophical, setting-heavy, or anything like that, quite abstract when articulated. But play is then drilled (refined? distilled? baked?)  into an imagined situation which expresses these issues not only as mere representation, but giving some *spin* to them - what I've called in another essay, "Oh yeah?" You read the rules for Sorcerer, especially character creation. Even going that far is taking the rules as general phenomena ("the rules for Sorcerer," full stop) and turning them into an "Oh yeah?" even before play begins. In fact, the process I'm talking about occurs at a kind of among-persons interactive membrane concerning session prep and character prep, as I began to discuss way back in those Color-first threads.

So one is not merely taking the big questions/issues/Premise as given and then doing "it" yet again merely with another kind of hat. Rather, every single time one plays these games, it's almost like a whole new game, because the circumstances of *this* setting and *these* characters yield an utterly different moral or tactical landscape, with different stuff on the line for both the characters and for ourselves.

What about the two centers in all this? In this case, I think it's a matter of time. It may *seem* as if early play is more procedure-first, resolution-roll first, as characters begin to act and stuff begins to respond to the outcomes. And it may *seem* as if later play is more thematically-full, character-arc first, as the scenes and sessions look more and more like novella or movie endings. But I'm seeing it more like concentric circles as opposed to two centers.

Vincent, I may be butchering your initial idea very badly and totally missing the point. If so, head me off, shut me up, and get all this back onto your intended track.

Best, Ron


7. On 2011-06-19, Will said:

Vincent, how do these two centers interact with notions of GM alignment with the game, what the game is there to do, what the game is built to accomplish? If you're aligned with one center and not the other, are you out of alignment with the game?


8. On 2011-06-20, Vincent said:

Waah! Every time I try to write more and answer your excellent questions, I hit up against another tangled problem. This idea is proving to be a lot of trouble for me.

So I'm going to just try to lay a bit more foundation first, talk about a couple of non-roleplaying game examples.

You know the card game Hearts? What we're here to do is: play hands to find out who gets 100 points first, and they're the loser, and then whoever has the fewest points, they're the winner, and you get points by taking tricks with hearts or the queen of spades in them. What we're doing right now is: sometimes shuffling and dealing, sometimes leading with a card, sometimes following with a card, sometimes taking the trick.

Hearts' gameplay spills out from the interaction of those two things. Which card do you choose to lead with? Which card do you choose to follow with? These are decisions you make right this minute, but you make them by constantly considering what we're here to do.

Now, you know the card game Spades? Moment to moment, it's almost exactly the same game, but what we're here to do is entirely different. In Spades, we're here to find out who has the high score at the end, yes, but that person's the winner not the loser, and instead of getting points by taking tricks, you get points by predicting how many tricks you'll take and then taking that many tricks in fact.

Spades' gameplay, then, is very different from Hearts'. While the moment-to-moment mechanisms are the same, the choices you make while you're enacting them are based on a whole nother set of concerns.

So, Will! Good question. Being aligned with the game as a GM means playing the game to do what the game's designed to do, overall. Being aligned with Hearts means playing moment to moment trying not to get points; being aligned with Spades means playing moment to moment trying to take as many tricks as you predicted you'd take.

What would it mean to be aligned with Hearts' what we're here to do but not with its what we're doing right now? Would that just mean not playing by the rules? Like, following a spade with a heart, even though you have a spade in your hand? If you're trying to minimize your points, and you're breaking the moment-to-moment rules to do it, then yes, you're out of alignment with the game. You're cheating!

In Apocalypse World, as GM, what you're here to do is: make Apocalypse World seem real, make the characters' lives not boring, and play to find out what happens. If instead you're playing to tell a story you've already layed out in prep, for instance, or if you're trying to make the characters' lives safe, obviously you're out of alignment with Apocalypse World.

What you do right now is: say what the rules demand, say what your prep demands, say what the principles demand, and say what honesty demands. Can you be out of alignment with Apocalypse World here, moment-to-moment, but in alignment with it at the larger timeframe? You're here to find out what happens, but you don't say what honesty demands, for instance? Maybe! I'm having trouble thinking about it. Anybody have any leads?


9. On 2011-06-20, Vincent said:

Here's a weird one:

Once upon a time, very soon after Magic: the Gathering, there was a Sim City collectible card game. What we're here to do was something about getting points by building blocs of railway, roadway, and electrical connectivity in the city, to see who had the most points at the end. What we do right now was some technically specific instance of draw a card, play a card, where maybe your hand size or draw varied by the cards you had in play. I forget.

At about the same time, there was a Cheapass Game called Starbase Jeff. What we're here to do in Starbase Jeff was, at core, the same as in the Sim City CCG: get points by building blocs of connectivity in the space station, to see who had the most points at the end. What we do right now was the same at core too: some technically specific instance of draw a card, play a card.

Starbase Jeff was a MUCH better game. It was the same game at core, but it had more clever, brighter rules, easier scoring, and it cut more cleanly to the heart of the core game's tension. You could play three games of Starbase Jeff in the same time as one game of Sim City CCG, and all you'd be missing was more irritating, cluttered, and uncertain gameplay.

So this shows what I mean when I say that a game's rules are elaborations of its conceptual cores, including the mediating systems between them. Sim City CCG took these conceptual cores, this core tension, and elaborated them into this ruleset. Starbase Jeff took the same conceptual cores, in the same tension, and elaborated them into this other ruleset.

Ron, does this make more sense of what I'm saying? Hearts and Spades share their what we're doing right now core, but their different what we're here to do cores make them different games. Sim City CCG and Starbase Jeff, though, share both cores, they're just elaborated into different rulesets.

Check me on this? You know how Dogs in the Vineyard could have been a Sorcerer mini-supplement. What happened was, I wanted some different effects in play than Sorcerer would give me, so I elaborated the same cores and core tension into a different ruleset.


10. On 2011-06-20, Vincent said:

One more example. Tablut (pdf) is an ancient game, a member of a Northern European family of board games called Tafl. What we're here to do in Tablut is tantalizingly like what we're here to do in Chess, but cut in half: I'm here to beseige and capture your king, and you're here to win your king to safety. What we're doing right this minute is a little like in Chess too, but all our pieces are like Chess rooks, certain places on the board have special significance, and most excitingly our sides aren't symmetrical. Your king starts at the center of the board, surrounded by your pieces. I get twice as many pieces as you do, and they're surrounding yours.

I've written a tiny bit before about what it's like to play, here.

So where Hearts and Spades are very similar at the moment-to-moment but different in the full-term point of play, Tablut and Chess are similar in the full-term point of play but pretty different in the moment-to-moment.


11. On 2011-06-21, David Berg said:

It makes most sense to me to view a game as having a single filament, which is composed of both enough "what we're here to do" and enough "what we do right now" in order to be somewhat playable.  That's what I liked about Vincent's AW example in the Concentric Design post.  The core included some basic procedural stuff, and wouldn't have cohered without it.

In the end, I guess it doesn't really matter if we talk about two filaments, as long as it's acknowledged that you need both, and they're both housed in the same bulb.


12. On 2011-06-21, Vincent said:

Uh, what?

"Cores" and "filament" aren't the same thing. They're related, but let me come back around to the whole filament-bulb-table-room thing once I've laid some ground..

Sorry to lose you!


13. On 2011-06-22, Vincent said:

David, everybody else, just to make sure: are you with me that Hearts and Spades are like one another and different from one another, Chess and Tablut are like one another and different from one another in a different way, and Sim City CCG and Starbase Jeff are like one another and different from one another in a third way yet?


14. On 2011-06-22, David Berg said:


This whole thing makes total sense to me.  If you've lost me on something, it's just on how you want to apply the lightbulb analogy, and what you want to call center vs core vs filament.  But no need to sweat that stuff just now if you've got more to say!  I can still follow ya.


15. On 2011-06-24, C Luke Mula said:

Quick question.

To put this in Forge jargon, would you say that these are the two levels of situation? Like immediate situation versus extended situation?

So chess and tablut are different on the immediate level, hearts and spades are different on the extended level, and SimCity CCG and Starbase Jeff are different in the dynamics between these levels.

Is that right, or am I way off with calling these cores "situation"?


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