White Wolf and "system doesn't matter"

edited January 2011 in Story Games
So as I think about the dialogue around system does/doesn't matter, I have this little history in my mind:

1) White Wolf pushes the motto that "system doesn't matter" - either through the marketing for Vampire et al. or through public comments by their designers. This is ironic because they're trying to sell you a new RPG system, but what they mean is don't get bogged down in how much damage weapons do in this ruleset do vs. that ruleset: the thing we want you to get excited about is the art and the fiction and the setting and concepts that occupy more space in this rulebook than, you know, rules.

2) The Forge adopts "system does matter" as a manifesto for game design in which the rules are tightly written to produce specific play experiences with the overt expectation that players will have a better time the more closely they follow the rules, as a reaction to contemporary predecessors like Rifts (or perhaps Vampire, I don't have the experience to say) where the covert expectation is that you'll have a better time the more you pick and choose from this big smorgasbord of loosely-written rules and mechanics and one-man's-treasure which would make you hork if you tried to swallow it all indiscriminately.

3) Further discussion at the Forge leads to an expanded definition of system as all those things that individual groups use to decide what does and doesn't happen in the imagined space, which vary between groups even when they're both trying their best to follow the same set of rules faithfully. This is ironic because it represents kind of a return to the original White Wolf position: we agree that things should be this way regardless of rules because that's what feels right based on the pictures of vampires and the canon of fan mythos and the fact that we're in a group that's playing this game and not another one because something in the way it was presented and marketed appealed to us.

Here are my questions:

- Is this factually true? A little Googling of "system doesn't matter" +white wolf didn't turn up much that looked like an official endorsement, and re-reading Ron's original article I saw that he talks not about this idea having come from Vampire but rather having been around for 20 years.

- True or not, is this analysis "dreadfully jejune" (as Chip Delany once remarked on one of my essay-question exams when he was teaching undergrads at UMass Amherst)?
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Comments

  • My take - there are two orthogonal sets of concerns that are usually muddled together when these sorts of conversations about "system" come up. One is "story-oriented play vs. PC-oriented play," while the other is "more complicated rules vs. more spontaneity." White Wolf's fans tend to favor character-oriented, spontaneous gameplay, whereas Forge types tend to favor rules-heavy, story-oriented play. What neither group favors is PC-oriented, rules-heavy gameplay, but thanks to D&D, this is the model of gaming that about 90% of the RPG community tends to take for granted.

    And just FYI, when I saw Delany give a talk in Toronto some years back, he tried to argue that Moby Dick isn't about a whale at all, but instead, is really about about "every other novel ever written." He also wore a leather belt that was covered with shiny metal studs. Hard to imagine how anything on your essay could have been that jejune.
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: TavisWhite Wolf pushes the motto that "system doesn't matter" - either through the marketing for Vampire et al. or through public comments by their designers
    No they didn't.
    Posted By: TavisThe Forge adopts "system does matter" as a manifesto for game design in which the rules are tightly written to produce specific play experiences with the overt expectation that players will have a better time the more closely they follow the rules.
    No, it didn't.

    The main point of the System Matters essay (and thankfully the only one that has survived) was that aesthetic preferences could be fulfilled or not fulfilled by a system on many, many levels, from handling time to character effectiveness, from preferring a particular sort of die type to a particular outcome. System matters because it helps or hinders you on your way to your goals.

    White Wolf's material supported this by organizing campaigns along the lines of Themes and Tones.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyPosted By: TavisWhite Wolf pushes the motto that "system doesn't matter" - either through the marketing for Vampire et al. or through public comments by their designers
    No they didn't.

    Sure they do. I don't recall having ever seen exactly this phrase, but the nWoD books (especially supplements like Midnight Roads, Ghost Stories, etc., that aren't for a specific game within the product line) are full of advice about when and how much to use the rules, and when to ignore them for the sake of keeping the game flowing. It ain't Paranoia, exactly, but this free-and-easy attitude toward rules is something for which WW games rarely get enough credit on these forums.
  • Quick answer to the original question: No(t exactly).
    Posted By: lordgoonWhite Wolf's fans tend to favor character-oriented, spontaneous gameplay, whereas Forge types tend to favor rules-heavy, story-oriented play. What neither group favors is PC-oriented, rules-heavy gameplay, but thanks to D&D, this is the model of gaming that about 90% of the RPG community tends to take for granted.
    I agree about the orthogonal thing in general, there are all kinds of (true or false) binary oppositions in gaming and people all too often mash them all together etc. But I find the above analysis absolutely incoherent with my own experience. All the games I played with WW fans were heavily pre-scripted and story-oriented (which is supported by the official metaplots and campaigns). All my experiences with "forge" games were rules mid-to-light and very character focused.

    I'm not sure what the exact distinction between PC and character is here, but the "rules heaviness" of D&D varies a lot from edition to edition. D&D is a hard-to-define chimera.

    So, I dunno. I'm not trying to disagree, just my experience.

    Back to Tavis: Imo Jason is right. "System doesn't matter" was never anyone's stated agenda or design ideal or whatever. It doesn't exist as such.
    "System matters" was a reactionary move to certain games and design patterns, yes, but those were emergent, observed properties, not part of some clearly declared manifesto.


    --
    Marginalia/Related anecdote/PS:
    I'm was having lunch with a friend of mine just a few days ago. He has played a lot of D&D, and he has been recently running a little WHFRP. He has almost no experience of any other systems, and isn't into any kind of "theory". So... he tried running Mage a few weeks back for a couple of friends, his first time with the game. He loved the setting, the ideas behind it, the magic system. But then he started talking about dice rolls. I'm going to quote him more or less verbatim:
    "We only rolled dice four or five times during two sessions. Both times I didn't know when to ask for a roll or what it meant. It seemed like rolling dice was pointless, like it didn't matter. Most of the time I just said yes to whatever they were trying to do, I felt bad asking them to roll the dice. Once or twice, when they failed, they just rolled their thumbs a bit and looked around and then asked if they could try again."
    I had different but similar experience with running and playing WoD games for the first time ten years ago. The mechanics were apparently not satisfying or fulfilling in any significant way. Sessions often felt hollow.

    In this aspect I think it can be seen how Storyteller system can very much seem "not to matter". But as Jason said, there were other parts to the White Wolf System which pushed its own aesthetic goals. I don't think WW is saying "sytem doesn't matter" it's just that its techniques and ephemera seem divorced from the elements of the exploration to me. And the techniques and ephemera prescribed by the game text is usually what ends up being a given group's system. So subsequently you have strong seeds of setting, situation, colour, probably even character but system seems all just "Eh, whatever.".
  • I have to think that 'system doesn't matter' was a zeitgeist thing, because I had very little to do with White Wolf and I still came across it (hell, I thought it many a time).

    My take is that it grew out of the fact that all 'trad' systems address basically the same concerns. Chrgen, combat, skills, magic/tech, foes. They did them with their own philosophies and styles, but ultimately RQ and GURPS would do 99% of the same stuff.

    You could either zealously maintain the superiority of a particular system (RQ fanboy here) or see this as nonsense. But in my circles it led to a definite feeling that 'roleplaying' was a thing that existed outside any particular ruleset.
  • Posted By: lordgoonI don't recall having ever seen exactly this phrase, but the nWoD books (especially supplements likeMidnight Roads,Ghost Stories, etc., that aren't for a specific game within the product line) are full of advice about when and how much to use the rules, and when to ignore them for the sake of keeping the game flowing.
    That's not the same as "system doesn't matter" under the normal meaning of the phrase, or even the meaning in the System Matters essay.
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: lordgoonPosted By: JDCorleyPosted By: TavisWhite Wolf pushes the motto that "system doesn't matter" - either through the marketing for Vampire et al. or through public comments by their designers
    No they didn't.

    Sure they do. I don't recall having ever seen exactly this phrase, but the nWoD books (especially supplements likeMidnight Roads,Ghost Stories, etc., that aren't for a specific game within the product line) are full of advice about when and how much to use the rules, and when to ignore them for the sake of keeping the game flowing.

    Mouse Guard says this too; I guess system doesn't matter in Mouse Guard either.
  • edited January 2011
    I seem to remember lots of people saying "system doesn't matter" in the context of "My GM Herbert makes a game fun, the system doesn't really matter that much." Which is related to the way in which many RPGs give explicit advice to GMs to ignore rules or fudge dice rolls, thereby elevating the GM to a point where fun or not fun depends on them. That is, if the game wasn't fun, it's because the GM didn't ignore rules enough and let them get in the way.

    The reason I don't like that is that I was the main GM for my group of friends for 10 years, three to five days a week, and this responsibility wore me out. I don't want it. Give me rules that are fun without me having to fudge or overrule and that spread responsibility among all of the players, and I'm much happier.
  • White Wolf was linked to "system doesn't matter" because their games had Rule Zero. Some of the early discussions and essays on The Forge were partially in response to Rule Zero. White Wolf never had a "system doesn't matter" motto, and never used it in marketing materials.

    (I think Rule Zero is a ridiculous thing to put in your rulebook, but still, Vampire is a great game with a system that is very effective in play. It's a shame that it gets trashed by some story-gamers so much.)

    The lumpley-care definition of system is not the same thing as Rule Zero, but that's an interesting parallel that I hadn't noticed before. Worth further thought, for sure.
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: John HarperWhite Wolf was linked to "system doesn't matter" because their games had Rule Zero.
    What's funny about this is that AD&D2e had a rule zero, too: right in the Foreword, Zeb Cook takes several paragraphs to hammer in the point that there is only an "official" AD&D game when there needs to be for tournaments and conventions and so on; beyond that, you should make things up, add, create, expand, and extrapolate whatever rules you think are appropriate for your own game. Dude even says, "The rules are only guidelines." This sentiment gets repeated several more times in the text, so they really wanted people to notice it. (Feel free to hate me for having a 2e DMG handy. I'm getting an early start on spring cleaning and moving some boxes around.)

    So, given that AD&D dominated the marketplace and nearly everyone who owned dice played it at least a few times, why did White Wolf somehow end up as the Evil Rule Zero Boogeyman, and not TSR? Was it just that AD&D2e was so frickin' awful that everyone agreed it needed all the rule-zero help it could possibly get, or was it because that crazy little dot in Mark Rein-Hagen's name annoyed everyone so much? :D
  • edited January 2011
    "System does matter" was only kinda linked to White Wolf, like John said. In my mind, it was more about the attitude that resulted from a lot of design work in the late 1980s and early 1990s being more or less the same. Like, circa 1998, it seemed like every system you encountered was:

    -- "Splats" or character classes based on ethnicity or philosophical orientation
    -- Attributes
    -- Skills
    -- Magic or powers
    -- Character Quirks of some kind
    -- Some morality system
    -- Some form of resource points that you could spend to be awesome ("hero points" etc.)
    -- Mechanics that supposedly covered everything but mostly revolved around 50 pages of combat rules
    -- Described themselves as "make-believe for adults" or "storytelling" games (despite the huge combat focus)
    -- Hundreds of pages of setting that wasn't really set up to be directly implemented in actual play
    -- Terrible, super-railroaded adventure writing
    -- Assumed endless campaigns that would go on for years
    -- Etc.

    And, because most roleplaying systems were very similar, written for the same set of "general purpose" GMing and player techniques, often with the same assumptions about what the content of play would consist of, people started feeling like it didn't really matter what game you were playing. Everything was essentially interchangable. Why bother learning a new system? Why bother DESIGNING a new system, if it was just going to be a slight hack of the status quo?

    Really, the games that really started to raise questions about these assumptions were ones like My Life With Master, Primetime Adventures, and the like. Games that looked REALLY different from those mid-1990s assumptions about what roleplaying was about.

    To be fair, actually, White Wolf's design work, while having a lot of these traits, was really more different and original than a lot of the other stuff that was being produced at the time. Yeah, they had Rule Zero and they used more or less the same rules system for all of their games, but they recognized that their various lines weren't really mechanically compatible with each other (like, playing Mages and Vampires together never really worked). And some of their later lines (Wraith, Orpheus, Promethean, etc.) did a bunch of experimental stuff that was very cool for a "mainstream" (ha!) game company.
  • edited January 2011
    I don't recognize that description of late-90s games. 1998, your exemplar year, contained (for example) Deadlands (no morality system, classes based on occupation), The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (nothing on your list matches Baron Munchausen), the two SAGA games based on Dragonlance and Marvel (which used a card-based character building system), QAGS, Star Trek: TNG, Dark Conspiracy (both of which used lifepaths instead of splats), and so forth.

    In fact, I don't remember any other morality systems being too significant in the mid-90s other than in White Wolf games? Maybe Everlasting had one? Sorcerer had one. Star Wars games had the Dark Side, but the 90s were the long dry spell for Star Wars RPGs.

    Edit: Here's our previous discussion of how great the 90s were in every possible way forever. :)
  • JD: The New Style games from Hogshead (including Munchausen but also Puppetland and the rest) were clearly a very different thing and, really, the predecessors and direct inspiration for the post-2000 indie revival. Also, I'm not really describing the truth about everything that was being published so much as I'm trying to describe a general feeling that -- at least in my experience -- seemed popular among RPG fans at the time. I mean, I discovered Continuum, Fudge, and Nobilis pretty soon after that, which blew my world open completely, so there were definitely other things happening.
  • Hm, well, my experience was super different, then, so we can leave it at that.
  • edited January 2011
    AfT: Good point. The earlier form of Rule Zero (in V:tM 2nd Ed. - "The Golden Rule") more closely resembles the AD&D advice, too (it talks about "fashioning" the game you want from the rules provided).

    I always think of Rule Zero as being more about in-the-moment ignoring of dice rolls (that don't suit "the story") rather than the toolkit approach, but that could just be me mis-remembering the old texts.

    (EDIT: Ah, here it is. The "ignore the roll" advice is in an earlier section of the game, "Breaking the Rules" p. 60-61, not under the Golden Rule header. Man, V:tM is such a good book, marred by weird contradictions and about six different uses for the word story.)
  • Yeah, it was very contradictory, especially in the essays at the end on "how to play", which I therefore took to mean that I should use it in my way and for my benefit.
  • I don't think System Doesn't Matter was ever a philosophy held by game designers and as far as I know, no one ever said it was. If it existed at all, it was amongst some game consumers/players. All of the writing from people in-house at WW that I've read makes me think that they really tried to make their systems matter, I mean, what was the point of Humanity et al. if that wasn't the case?
  • Thanks for the info, everyone: if I trace where I got this set of ideas from I'll let you know. I think the argument I was trying to make about New Wave SF was equally counterfactual if you were there & paying attention at the time, which Delany was: this co-exists with and is not invalidated by the fact that he used to wear a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches and a lapel pin with a ring of blinking red LEDs to class. Harder to reconcile is that he gave me an A on that exam: perhaps there was a curve such that 'dreadfully jejune' was among the best comments anyone got.
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: TavisFurther discussion at the Forge leads to an expanded definition of system as all those things that individual groups use to decide what does and doesn't happen in the imagined space, which vary between groups even when they're both trying their best to follow the same set of rules faithfully. This is ironic because it represents kind of a return to the original White Wolf position....True or not, is this analysis "dreadfully jejune"?
    Maybe narrow your scope a bit?

    The regular 4E game that I DM has some minor houserules, but that's completely irrelevant in the universe of, say, RPGA play. On the other hand, in the smaller universe of that single game, I believe that cleaving to a consistent, well-documented system from week to week has helped make play more enjoyable.
    Posted By: TavisHarder to reconcile is that he gave me an A on that exam: perhaps there was a curve such that 'dreadfully jejune' was among the best comments anyone got.
    Sometimes Chip just kinda ... says stuff, y'know? :)
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: Accounting for Taste
    So, given that AD&D dominated the marketplace ...why did White Wolf somehow end up as the Evil Rule Zero Boogeyman, and not TSR?
    (TL;DR) From my own experience I believe White Wolf (and Vampire specifically) had it coming.

    I remember Vampire putting a lot of pressure on the Storyteller to be an auteur, to make ART, comma, Period. The Chronicle needed to be beautiful and tragic. It needed to make angels weep and devils reconsider. I remember feeling that pressure when I ran it, and so whenever players threatened my narrative, I would be scared. In fact, I liked to run Vampire one-on-one to minimize the players' disruptive influence.

    De-emphasizing rules, making them impressionistic and contradictory and broken and then relegating them to an advisory role anyway, was another useful method of player neutralization. As Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering had it:
    Rules sets in which crunchy hits predominate give power to the players...Rules systems that limit the impact of crunchy bits give power to the GM.
    And of course some players who didn't want to be neutralized got neutralized1, and so we have the Forge and Fuck Rule Zero and so on.

    AD&D2E, on the other hand, brought no such pressure. None of the main rules texts really got into how a campaign is supposed to appear or feel. In fact, the word "campaign" isn't even in the index of my copy of the DMG! Is the campaign it a urban sandbox or a dungeon railroad? Is it an arena of endless monsters? Is it happy, funny, beautiful, tragic? Is it PVP? AD&D2E didn't say, and (subjectively) it didn't add a lot of value to any of these approaches anyway.

    TSR might have had the sales, but White Wolf, with their tighter focus and cocksure attitude, had the mindshare. I remember being so pumped when GURPS Vampire came out because I wanted the cool gnarliness of White Wolf to be ported to my grown-up respectable game system.

    Maybe Microsoft / Apple is a useful analogy? Seems like no one has an opinion about Microsoft anymore; Apple not so much. And I remember being so pumped when OSX was built on awesome Unix underpinnings. :)

    1Standard JDCorley disclaimer applies: this is not universal truth, and might not be majority truth, but it is at the very least minority truth, and is true for me as both a player and a DM, and continues to inform my approach to this day.
  • Keep in mind that different authors within White Wolf had and continue to have different attitudes towards this concept, and publish them. I can cite specific individuals and examples if you guys are interested but I don't have to tl;dr at you guys if it's all obvious and shit.
  • Here's another pair of very different yet tantalizingly related concepts that are often conflated (often under the aegis of "Rule Zero"):

    The toolkit approach where you modify the game's rules to suit your table's needs.

    Ignoring or fudging rolls in the moment.

    Matt
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: Accounting for Tasteor was it because that crazy little dot in Mark Rein-Hagen's name annoyed everyone so much? :D
    I'm sure it didn't help. But isn't it really because White Wolf gained such a large share of the market?
  • @Matt:
    of interest to me is the fact that there are game texts that call for one or both of those approaches explicitly. Guides to GMing seem to encourage dice-fudging, too, in my limited experience of them.

    And now, the gauntlet:
    Is dice-fudging ever useful, assuming high system quality?
  • That's too subjective a question, Zac. Can you rephrase it? I mean, useful to whom? What do you mean by "high system quality"?

    Matt
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: droogBut isn't it really because White Wolf gained such a large share of the market?
    Possibly, if "gained" is the most important word in that sentence. White Wolf, for all its sales and growth back then, was still a teeny tiny chihuahua next to the ginormous dire wolf that was D&D, right? If it was market share that mattered, then TSR would be the first and only name anyone would ever bother mentioning.

    But yeah, White Wolf grew during that time, and was visibly more successful than the other little game studios around them, so if it's growth that matters, then that makes more sense. Everyone pays more attention to motion and change, and so a tiny company becoming less tiny will seem more significant than a big company staying big.

    Putting this together with johnzo's observations above, I'm wondering if this weird perception thing that White Wolf stepped into really is the pretentious little dot in Rein-Hagen's name, at least symbolically. Where TSR and FASA and Steve Jackson Games and lots of other publishers took a professional, "We're just here to sell gaming books to you, our fellow nerds" stance more often than not, White Wolf was always waving its arms around playing the gaming evangelist and flying a more pretentious-looking flag, and while everyone loves an underdog, no one really likes an evangelist.
  • Good questions, Matt.
    What I meant was:
    1- Why would I ever want to fudge dice rolls?
    2- Maybe I'd want to because the game system seems to consistently produce thematically erroneous outcomes. If the dice seem to interfere with what we've got going on as a play-group, we might blame the system, and want to work around it.
    3- Assuming 2 is not the case in one's subjective experience of a game, what are some other reasons that come to mind to fudge dice rolls?

    Does that help?

    Oh, and "thematically erroneous" is distinct from "what a twist!" It's more like "Oh. That's weird and annoying." As in, say, a system using Humanity Points wherein it's possible to lose all your Humanity Points on a single roll of only moderate significance, suddenly becoming an NPC.
    Let's say I design a system in which you consult a chart every time you break one of the Ten Commandments, and the number associated with a commandment (we'll use Roman Catholic numbers, since I was raised Roman Catholic) is how many d10's you roll when you break said commandment. If you get a 5 or lower on a given die, it's a failure. If you roll all failures on all your Commandment Dice, you become, I dunno, an apostate, and renounce Yahweh.
    So! You go big, and worship another god besides Yahweh. Roll a d10 - rightly so, there's a 50% chance that you abandon your faith. Seems appropriate.
    But then you go out and steal from a guy, and roll 7d10. It's really, really unlikely that stealing would make you lose your faith altogether, ,but it could still happen. If it does, this system (very limited, and that's the point) could be kind of screwy.

    So. Point being, we might find ourselves in a situation in which coveting my neighbor's ass (Commandment 10, in any Judeo-Christian tradition) could cause me to renounce my Lord God. And the GM might say "Gee, that's kind of excessive. Maybe we fudge that one bad roll, but keep using the system itself?"
    In this instance, fudging was useful because, damn it, we're playing this hot new game, Decalogue: Twilight of the Idols, and we don't want John's character Obadiah to get bumped from play because he commented longingly on the strength and fine coat of his neighbor's ass.

    Clearly, Decalogue could use some work. But if we can only secure a short-term commitment, it'd be easier for a given play group to just tweak and it keep going. I been there.
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: LulaKeep in mind that different authors within White Wolf had and continue to have different attitudes towards this concept, and publish them. I can cite specific individuals and examples if you guys are interested but I don't have to tl;dr at you guys if it's all obvious and shit.
    Well, it was pretty obvious from the essays on "how 2 play", as the kids today say, that lots of people had different approaches. I took this to mean that I should develop my own approach. Other people felt a lot of pressure to do something right, surely all these different people saying different things are talking about the same thing?

    Edit: Weirdly, I never recognized this with TSR materials, although they were written by a similarly insanely diverse group of people with a similarly insanely diverse set of approaches.
  • Posted By: Zac in Davis3- Assuming 2 is not the case in one's subjective experience of a game, what are some other reasons that come to mind to fudge dice rolls?
    One reason -- possibly the most common reason -- is because you fucked something up, and only just realized it when the dice hit the table. You called for a roll, and then suddenly knew that you had nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing even remotely interesting that you could do with the result that came up. All you can see in that moment is the yawning chasm of your mistake, and all the negative consequences stemming from it that will kill your fun and everyone else's fun and derail the game and make this the worst game any of you have ever been part of.

    So you think, the hell with that stupid little piece of plastic, there's no way that the random giant rat just critically hit and insta-killed the only PC who actually had a real reason to go after the bad guy. There's no way that the murderer could have managed to clean up all the blood so well that even the World's Greatest Detective can't find any evidence. There's no way that all thirty cops chasing the PCs will miss their driving rolls and end up in a giant smoking pile of Comically Bad Drivers at the bottom of the cliff. There's something better, or at least something less stupid, that could happen instead, and if you were a smarter GM, you would have known that before you rolled the dice.

    And maybe you're right about that. Probably you're right about it most of the time, in fact: people make mistakes every day, it's what we're best at. What separates good dice fudging from bad dice fudging in my opinion is whether you learn something from the experience and don't make the same mistakes again. If you're always fudging the dice to keep the PCs alive instead of figuring out why you're constantly throwing them into unwinnable fights, you're doing it wrong. But if you're doing it once and then your immediate next reaction is thinking "Where did this go wrong, and how am I going to keep it from happening again?", good for you.
  • The toolkit approach Matt mentions is much more in line with White Wolf's modern approach than Rule Zero and fudging dice rolls, which I have to believe are an artifact of a system that grew too large for the line developers to manage. Books like World of Darkness: Mirrors introduce rules hacks which you can choose to apply or not apply to your table's system and details the specific ramifications of each approach. That book also contains my favorite piece of White Wolf text: Matt McFarland's guide to min/maxing your character for fun and profit in nWoD, and explanation of why it doesn't make you a bad person and is actually a pretty cool approach to gaming sometimes.
  • See, I think the 0.1% chance (2^10 is 1024, right?) of turning away from God because you coveted your neighbor's ass would make it pretty awesome if it actually came up! That falls squarely in the category of "oh what a cool and unexpected twist." I totally get what you mean about producing thematically erroneous outcomes. But a truly well-designed game won't have that problem, for 2 reasons: 1) the basic math is correct. 2) You get a thematically appropriate outcome regardless of success or failure. See PTA, Polaris, BW, AW, or any number of other games. (This is primarily a matter of conflict versus task resolution, BTW. We might not buy it that my awesome Jedi is a punk who consistently can't even swing his lightsaber well, but we're much more likely to buy into the idea that despite his bad-asseosity, he just can't win every battle.) #2 is necessary because even in the present of condition 1, sometimes the dice are just really out of whack. (Using a dice-pool rather than roll-and-add helps flatten out the probability curve a whole heck of a lot, of course. White Wolf gets some credit here!)

    Matt
  • Posted By: DeliveratorYou get a thematically appropriate outcome regardless of success or failure. See PTA, Polaris, BW, AW, or any number of other games. (This is primarily a matter of conflict versus task resolution, BTW. We might not buy it that my awesome Jedi is a punk who consistently can't even swing his lightsaber well, but we're much more likely to buy into the idea that despite his bad-asseosity, he just can't win every battle.)
    Neither PTA nor BW guarantee this outcome, since humans set the stakes and humans are fallible creatures. Have you never had a PTA conflict fall flat because something you thought would be great turned out to be horrible? Sure ya have.
  • JD, can you share an example of such a conflict falling flat?
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: Zac in DavisJD, can you share an example of such a conflict falling flat?
    We are playing Curtains, a comedy horror game set in a 19th century Parisian theater. The put-upon director, M. Guilemette (Traits: Harried Producer, On The Cheap, Connection: The Widow Hudon), comes rushing in (M. Guilemette rushes everywhere) to the dressing room of famed Italian diva Signorina Ricci (Traits: I AM The Diva, Etiquette Applies To Everyone Else, Connections: My Sweet Admirer Andre) where she is being terrified by the floppy-necked spectre of an actor, Bernard, who was strangled by loansharks.

    Excitedly, the director's player yells, "I order Bernard to desist, this is my production and I'll not have him torturing the diva. He can understudy for one of the minor parts."

    The Producer says, swept along by the excitement, "If you lose, Bernard has free rein to poltergeist up the room!"

    We start playing cards and chips and such and the Producer wins! Bernard poltergeists up the room and Ricci swoons, muttering about her contract.

    .....meh. I guess that's a semi-okay scene, much as particular die rolls in particular other games lead to semi-okay results that don't really do much for the larger picture. It's pretty crap though. It's like the director didn't do anything at all.

    But if everyone had taken some time they might have realized one of two things:

    1 - One of the outcomes (attaching the ghost to the production) was objectively better than the other for everyone, since it leads to future scenes and conflicts. The Producer never should have started the conflict, he should have changed Bernard to really wanting a part.

    2 - In the event the Producer does think a conflict would be a good idea, a much better result would be for Bernard to possess Signorina Ricci, which would give her a strong push into future scenes and conflicts, plus a scene where she has to be exorcised in her flimsy nightgown.

    I'm shocked that anyone thinks conflict resolution makes men perfect, it does not. You can make a shitty mistake setting stakes just as you can anywhere else in your life?
  • Knowing nothing about the mechanics of PTA, it seems appropriate that the Producer should have said something like "If you lose, the poltergeist terrorizes everyone until you promise him the lead!"
    The stakes of conflict need need need to lead to other events that are interesting - when you win, demand more of the opposition or take things in a new direction. I hope, someday, to read the text of PTA closely wrt stake-setting and find advice to this effect. If not, it reflects badly on the game.
  • Oh, there's plenty of good advice in PTA, just as there's plenty of good advice in White Wolf products, it doesn't mean people don't fuck up when playing them.
  • Sure, fair enough. I don't think Matt's claiming human infallibility. I think that good GM advice focuses us fallible humans better than bad advice, though.
  • Posted By: Accounting for TasteIf you're always fudging the dice to keep the PCs alive instead of figuring out why you're constantly throwing them into unwinnable fights, you're doing it wrong. But if you're doing it once and then your immediate next reaction is thinking "Where did this go wrong, and how am I going to keep it from happening again?", good for you.
    This is where it really, really can depend on the mechanics. For instance, in high-level D&D you don't get instant kills. In high-level RQ you certainly do. GURPS I'm not sure about but it probably depends on options. Running high-level RQ is an exercise in on-the-spot judgement about when to fudge (IME), at least when you have hundreds of hours of investment in the chrs.

    Cf. two games that are as old (and traditional?) as the above: Villains & Vigilantes, in which it's almost impossible to die, and Pendragon, when the question is not if but when your chr will die. Why fudge in either case?

    Again, you're playing RQ, and the only mechanics are combat mechanics (because everything else comes down to a single roll and a GM judgement), and if you want to avoid the possibility of sudden death, you must step away from those mechanics. And because there's no mechanical way of handling anything else, why, who needs rules? You get used to a certain way of handling everything except combat, which has a System.

    To go back to Pendragon, if you want to step away from combat you find that there are indeed mechanics for other activities, many of which are merely rolls on tables, it's true, but provide structure and purpose for your chr. You can actually play a little mini-game or even solo game with these tables, and never have to touch combat. Even better, these activities support and reinforce the theme of the game, which is 'life in Arthurian times'.
  • (In V&V, of course, you will never face that moment of 'OMG I'm about to kill Kenny' and so you can throw unwinnable fights at the chrs all day. The players might not enjoy never winning, but it's highly unlikely their chrs will ever die.)
  • Posted By: DeliveratorSee, I think the 0.1% chance (2^10 is 1024, right?) of turning away from God because you coveted your neighbor's ass would make it pretty awesome if it actually came up! That falls squarely in the category of "oh what a cool and unexpected twist." I totally get what you mean about producing thematically erroneous outcomes. But a truly well-designed game won't have that problem, for 2 reasons: 1) the basic math is correct. 2) You get a thematically appropriate outcome regardless of success or failure. See PTA, Polaris, BW, AW, or any number of other games. (This is primarily a matter of conflict versus task resolution, BTW. We might not buy it that my awesome Jedi is a punk who consistently can't even swing his lightsaber well, but we're much more likely to buy into the idea that despite his bad-asseosity, he just can't win every battle.) #2 is necessary because even in the present of condition 1, sometimes the dice are just really out of whack. (Using a dice-pool rather than roll-and-add helps flatten out the probability curve a whole heck of a lot, of course. White Wolf gets some credit here!)
    I don't think this varies that much with system, though advice varies. All these systems depend on the group setting up the resolution so that all the resolution outcomes are appropriate - sticking to theme isn't usually a part of the mechanical results.

    For example, most resolution systems leave the question of how one fails up to the group, rather than being mechanically defined by the rules. In Dogs in the Vineyard, I might fail in a Raise of shooting someone (i.e. be Blocked or Reverse the Blow). That could be portrayed as me looking like a punk - or it could be that I look like a great shot and I failed for circumstances beyond my control. The same is true in the Storyteller system or most other systems. The character may fail a roll, but that could be portrayed as them looking stupid or it could be they did really well but it wasn't good enough for some reason.

    Many traditional games as well as Forge-inspired games tend to give advice like "Don't roll if the outcomed aren't appropriate." I think the difference is that traditional games tend to put the burden of judging appropriate outcomes more on the GM, while games like Dogs in the Vineyard say that the group should negotiate conflicts that have appropriate outcomes.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyThe Producer says, swept along by the excitement, "If you lose, Bernard has free rein to poltergeist up the room!"
    Ehm... there are no counter-stakes in PTA conflict resolution.

    What happen in case of failure, is decided by the player (or the GM) who win narration.

    Using counter-stakes is a sure way to devalue tension and imagination in conflicts. I am not surprised that you had problems playing that way. Try playing without using counter-stakes.

    (the list of games with absolutely no counter-stakes that get routinely played "wrong" by people is almost endless. It's a very common error)
  • Yeah. I used to do this with Dogs, to my eternal shame.

    Counter-stakes do work great in the games that have them, of course! Like the Burning games.

    Matt
  • I forgot to add: if you had not (wrongly) used counter-stakes, the narrator would not has been tied to a boring result, he would have been able to imagine the best results, with help and suggestions from all the other players.

    A system as PTA can't promise you some Mythical "best results in absolute", but it give the playing group the means to get the best results FOR THEM, at that time and place.

    Rule Zero is often praised as a way to "get the best story", but in that case, it's the idea of a "best story" inside the GM's head. All you get is frustration when you see that your "best story" don't work in that moment at that table, and fall flat. So you use rule zero again to try to get the player interested, and fail again, and again, and again, and again...
  • Good point, thanks for the correction, but my point was that the Producer is mistaken about what's best, not the exact timing of the mistake. He could win, and narrate a crap result, not intentionally, nobody would do that intentionally, but mistakenly, without thinking enough, without thinking it through, forgetting good advice, etc. Have you heard people narrate crap results in PTA? Of course you have, at least once an episode or twice a session someone gives a complete dud.

    This is exactly, exactly, exactly, precisely the same as the Rule Zero-using player mistakenly tossing out a result when they should use it, or using a result when they shouldn't. They have applied their aesthetic preferences to the scene and fucked it up, whoops. Whether it's done with conflict or task resolution doesn't matter. We all must muddle through on this fallen earth, nobody and nothing made by the hand of man is perfect.
  • I agree that groups can mistake even how to set up stakes mechanically, such as setting counter-stakes. However, I don't think that just enhances fallibility. If they can't get the basic mechanics right, then they also may mess up the advice and have some stakes that give less interesting results. Taking JD's example without the counter-stakes, it still could fall flat if the conflict is just over whether the ghost accepts the understudy role - i.e. the PC again fails, and the ghost refuses the offer.
    Posted By: Moreno R.Rule Zero is often praised as a way to "get the best story", but in that case, it's the idea of a "best story" inside the GM's head. All you get is frustration when you see that your "best story" don't work in that moment at that table, and fall flat. So you use rule zero again to try to get the player interested, and fail again, and again, and again, and again...
    It is certainly possible for a GM to use "Rule Zero" to push their own story, but it's not necessary. A GM can use "Rule Zero" to say "yes" to the players, allowing them to incorporate things. So, for example, rather than requiring a roll - a GM using Rule Zero in JD's example could say that the ghost accepts the offer. That's a player story idea, and the GM could use Rule Zero to adopt it. That is the explicit advice in a number of games, such as Champions.
    As a GM, you'll find it all too easy to get caught up in your story, the great story you've got planned out, and to make sure you tell that story -- no matter how many improbable plot twists you have to throw in or player actions \
    you have to ignore to make sure that your story takes place. But the player characters are the focus of your story, and therefore they and their players are the most important elements in your story. You should slant the story to suit them, not the other way around. Learning how to do this, and do it well, is one of the hardest things about good GMing.
    ...
    Similarly, when a player asks, "Is there a so-and-so nearby?", he usually has some neat idea in mind for using it, something you'll likely enjoy. Unless it's impossible for that object to be in that area, tell him yes. He'll feel like he's contributing to the story and the world, and you get to have fun seeing just what he has in mind.
  • An excellent point; like most things in gaming, whether something is sublime or terrible depends on the people involved. People matter, too.
  • edited January 2011
    Tavis,

    I'm way late, but my two cents:

    Most "system does/doesn't matter" internet discussion I've seen is rhetorical confusion around the definition of system. I've never heard anyone argue that system in the "means by which we play" sense doesn't matter; it definitionally matters. Instead, I've heard it argued that certain mechanics (especially resolution) don't matter. Like Vampire's combat system. See? There's that word again. "System." I wish the Forge people had picked a different one.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyHe could win, and narrate a crap result, not intentionally, nobody would do that intentionally, but mistakenly, without thinking enough, without thinking it through, forgetting good advice, etc.
    That's why the whole group narrates outcomes in PTA, with the conflict winner as the buck-stopper, not the sole narrator or auteur. In other words, the game is designed specifically to help you more consistently avoid the problem of Rule Zero, where a single player has most of the responsibility over correct rulings and outcomes. From a design and play perspective, Rule Zero judgments and PTA conflict resolution are total opposites.

    Basically, your PTA example sucks.

    (Hint: If you want to compare Rule Zero with the hot story game of the moment, JD, maybe consider Apocalypse World. There are actual parallels over there.)
  • edited January 2011
    Well, I haven't read AW, so maybe you should do that?

    Anyway, surely you're not saying the whole group can't make a mistake too? And that's not how I read the "high card narrates" rules in PTA anyway, it doesn't say "everyone does it together" anywhere that I remember? It puts the authority in the hands of the person with the high card. If they blow it, make a mistake with the use of their authority, the rest of the group can't fix it, they don't have the authority to (unless you Rule Zero PTA, of course.)

    I am still shocked that people think PTA makes angels of men, surely you all can't be serious about this, that you have never, ever heard anyone say anything in a PTA game that was stupid and bad. Have you not played a lot of PTA?
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