Games vs. Stories: FIGHT!

edited February 2006 in Story Games
Ok, I’ve done PTA a couple of times, and it’s fun. Thing is, we finished up and pretty much decided it wasn’t for my group. No sleight to the game – among other things I think it is the single best illustration of how to set up meaningful conflicts out there, so while I’m using it as an example, I’m absolutely not busting on PTA.

So, when we finished up a session, we hung out on the back deck, shooting the breeze, and my players and I were trying to put their finger on exactly what it was that hadn’t really worked. We knocked it around a bit, and one of my players pretty much summed it up. “It was like telling an interesting story, but the thing is, I can do that already. That’s not what I want in a game.”

Now, every group’s experience is different. I’m somewhat lucky in that I have a large number of players who I would consider skilled storytellers (in the traditional sense of the word), and at least one (the gentleman I quoted) I would consider exceptional. But the end result is that using a game to create a story is more or less excess baggage.

Now, that said, we absolutely are possessed of storytelling sensibilities, so many of the things that make a good story (Strong characterization, compelling situations, meaningful conflict, thrills, chills and spills) are things we also look for in a game, so the big question really seems to be what is making the game something different than sitting around, telling a story collectively.

Now, right off the bat, maybe it’s just a matter of different media. Books, oral storytelling, movies, plays and whatever else springs to mind all have a lot of those elements in common, so from a certain perspective, perhaps “story” is sort of the meta content, with multiple ways to express it.

If that’s true, this seems like a pretty easy resolution. Storytelling is one lens, Roleplaying is another, there’s enough overlap that it’s easy to confuse them, even to the point of conflating the two at times. Thing is, while that’s pretty straightforward, I’m uncertain it’s a useful conclusion.

I come back to our original problem – presumably there is some sort of difference that is at the heart of why my group prefers to game. Of course, some of the answers are obvious – we like to get a little bit of our competitiveness going, we like the thrill of the dice, we like the strong identification with the characters. In fact, for all that storytelling/narrative crap we look at as central to the experience, it’s all that other stuff that puts the spin on it for us. They’re the things that define the experience for us – they prove far more complimentary than contradictory.

I dunno. Gaming really is it’s own thing in my mind. The difference is clear enough that I’m always gonna feel a little bit of warping when I try to run it through a filter better suited for a different medium. Despite that, those filters tend to be much better developed than the ones we have for games, so they’re still mightily useful. And hell, I know that some folks think we’ve got some damn fine filters for gaming too, but that’s its own argument.

-Rob D.

Comments

  • OMG NO ONE SHALL INSULT TEH HOLY PTA! THOU ART BANNED FROM MY KINGDOM!!!

    Hey dude, yeah, I'll totally show you mine in a bit (I too have a bit of background to share, so it might be tomorrow), but in the meantime I'm really interested in what games Rob's group plays. Can you tell me what games have been really successful for your group, and any particularly cool moments that came out of them because of how that game was wound up?
  • Well, to note, the single thing the circles I run with have played more than anything else, in one for or another, is Amber. We wandered the desert of dicelessness for many a year before finding our way back to the green lands of dice, and I think that leaves a mark.

    Recent run of Exalted, of all things, was the real winner. Was a long running campaign of on a pretty basic premise, bunch of Dragon Blooded nobles sent to an obscure satrapy to not embarrass their families any further get caught up in swirling events culminating in a world-shaking battle.

    The foundation for success (which was honestly a strength of the DB book, one of the better setting books for any game) was that it had many classic adventuring elements (mismatched band thrown together, lots of fighty) but also discarded a lot. The characters were not disenfranchised loaners or scrubs at the bottom of the social (or power) ladder. They were all strongly tied into the setting from the getgo, with a solid baseline of relationships and a sense of duty from their house, coupled with the fact that they were treated with _respect_ (as an aside, my personal theory is that in character respect is one of the most potent tools a GM can bring to bear, but that's it's own thing).

    Over the course of the game, there were some pretty cool fight scenes, but the bits that stick out in my and other memories were the NPCs and how those relationships grew. There were enemies that got turned into friends, rivalries and grudging respect. There were old heroes brought back from the brink, and o course, there was a helping of betrayal. There were more than I could possibly go into here, but I'll say this: The players never needed to check their notes for whose these people were. They were invested in this network which they were only part of.

    When the finale came, there was a wargame in the backdrop. Nothing fancy - glass beads of different colors on a flat piece of whiteboard - enough to give a sense of the shape of things, and to get the occasional moment of "holy crap" out of the players when they saw the scope of something. The fighting and the wargame was well and good, but what really worked was that this was also the opportunity for closure. Every Player had 2 cards to play, one red, one black, when things got bad, with the sole qualifier that the black one was only for after the red one, and only if desperate. As each card got played, a thread that had rolled out over the course of the game got tied off. A promise was kept. An ally arrived in the nick of time. Debts were paid. Only one black card got played, and that ended a thread, but even that was as it should have been.

    Thing is, just the simple mechanic of putting that in the players hands, if only as a trigger, drew them in all the more. They weren't controlling the outcome, but it was the right outcome. On some level, that sounds like a horrible, railroading thing to say, but it worked, and worked well.

    So that was awesome - but the punchline is that we're now playing another Exalted game and the GM of that is building on how that game unfolded, while at the same time bugging me for another game on the same tangent. Social rewards are the best of all.

    God, I dunno. Other war stories tend to be things like...well, ok, you know that moment in a game where you get back with the holy MacGuffin and everything looks good but whups, there's the dark lord and he'll kick your ass if you fight, so he'll be taking that and leaving with a snotty comment about foolish heroes or some-such.

    When Fred ran his last Amber Game, that happened. Thing is, _we_ were the ones who got to do that to someone else. There were a lot of other awesome moments in the game, ranging from fights at the edge of the universe to people getting beat up with fish but that was the one that really stuck with me and said "This game will rock". It was all about upsetting a _gaming_ expectation.

    Of course, to contrast it, in yesterday's game I think my favorite part was ripping off a guys face with my kung fu, so it ain't all shakespeare. :)

    BEvery time I look at a game that's really worked, it's all about context. The story is good, but creating a reason for it to matter - people the players care about and who seems to have lives of their own seems to really light the fire. Striking that balance between "the players are the only impact on the setting" and "The players can do bupkiss about the setting" is the challenge I think is the most rewarding.

    -Rob D.
  • Rob,

    Recently, due to some posts about Immersionism and Narrativism and a lot of talk with Mo about both subject, I've been thinking about this bit quite a lot:

    "we like the strong identification with the characters"

    I think there are some different forces going on in RPGs now (shock and surprise to everyone who knows me!) -- and one of the big ones is the difference between a storytelling game and a roleplaying game (shock and surprise, we're on the storytelling games forum).

    One of the things that is going on in that area is a difference between experiential gaming and (for lack of a better word) authorial gaming.

    It hit me really strongly while I was listening to Matt's podcast of his Nine Worlds Skype game that the degree of external negotiation about the game was far greater than in my Nine Worlds games. It also occured to me that in Nine Worlds or PTA, even the way I play them, the degree of external negotiation about the game was greater than that of something like Everway or Amber even when I played those games with a strong social contract.

    A lot of games, and a lot of creative agendas, are set up to let us be the characters. They give us the experience of playing the character: the identification at a personal level with a person doing the things and facing the challanged that the character is facing. This is slightly different than immersionism, as I see it, because it doesn't mean you feel like the character or try to live inside the characters head -- it is just to get the vicarious experience of the adventure. (However, I don't think it an accident that immersionism fits so snugly into the mode.)

    Many other games, however, are now being set up to tell stories at the external and constructivist level. In Polaris, for example, you still have the focus of the Heart, but much of the play of the game doesn't have to do with being your heart or experiencing your heart, or even identifying with your heart -- it has to do with constructing the story of the heart. The way Matt plays Nine Worlds gives a similar focus -- in the Skype podcast he narrates everything that happens after the cards are played, making the game far more an issue of authoring a story than of experiencing anything directly.

    At first I'd put this down to a Sim/Nar split -- but the more I've thought about it the more it became obvious it isn't. You can address premise through character in an experiential mode, games like Dogs and Burning Wheel do so very well. You can also do world and genre simulation authorially, games like Aria and Matrix games point the way to that.

    I also don't think this is a binary split. It's more of a continuum. It is possible to partly author and partly experience, so long as you have good systems in place to do so. But at the far ends of things we do seem to be facing the opposing issues of "do you want to tell the story" and "do you want to be in the story."

    (I'd also say that too many people have seen them as binaries, rather than a continuum, and that has lead to a lot of the unease, crappy systems, and confused goals of years of RPGs. If you know you can do both, and figure out the level of which you want in your game then you can conciously and intelligently address the issue.)

    Which, because it amuses me, I can't help but compare to the endless debates about if God made the universe and therefore lives inside the universe, or if God had to move aside to create the universe and therefor lives beyond the world of causality.
  • edited February 2006
    An illustrative example from "As Seen As Tv": The Television Drama RPG, at the Forge:
    The idea behind this is, even more so than the maniacal impulse to create a game where you could play your typical daytime television soap opera, is to remove the focus in RPG's from success to creating drama. This is why cast members (characters) in ASAT don't have attributes or skills, and why the Producer (gamemaster) doesn't roll die to simulate the randomness of fate and probability. Because I beleive that in a game, as with on television, you don't want reality as it would be but as you want it to be. The idea of playing a scenario is not to test out a hypothesis through a logical simulation but instead is to entertain everyone involved.

    Disregarding the actual game being talked about, note how he typifies the focus of games as "success" or "drama." The way I look at it a lot is the difference between playing to achieve something or playing to create something. Lest I be misunderstood, this is certainly a spectrum and not an either/or proposition.

    My question for the masses, though, is thus: if the focus of a given game is to facilitate the players creating a narrative that presents some sort of belief or thematic statement, there is something being done there, much like writing a novel or something, and the time can be seen as being invested in something of value. If the focus of a given game is to allow the players to succeed at fictional challenges, what is the game beyond mental masturbation? Mendel Schmeidicamp likes to say that the players "learn" things through the experience of playing in his games, but I don't see them learning anything outside of the World According to Mendel. So -- Rob specifically and anybody else who wants to jump in -- what's the appeal of focusing on character success and/or engaging in something that does not actually exist? Is it mere distraction and entertainment, or does it somehow eventually apply to or affect real life in some way?
  • Josh,

    What do you learn and/or do of value when you play Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, or Poker?

    The other thing I'd note is that I have heard many, many people make the same arguments you make as a reason not to write or read fiction at all -- because nonfiction is where the noble and lasting things go. Or, at a lesser degree, the reason we should always read Shelley and Chabon, and never bother with Howard or King.
  • I concur that "Strong Identification" is a fairly fuzzy cloud that can contain a gamut of behaviors ranging from putting yourself in the character's shoes and viewing the world through that lens to just having a really firm idea about how thing's _must_ go for the character. I'd even go so far as to say that it's really composed of 2 indices, ownership and investment. A wargame-y character may have huge amounts of ownership and minimal investment, whereas a character in a more collective game might be better defined as offering little ownership, but deep investment. My personal taste wants to have both knobs turned up a bit, though I imagine you could make a fairly interesting magic square out of it.

    That said, I'll buy your assertion that there is a split emerging. The priorities of a game of PTA and a game of Exalted are so far apart (even though there are many areas of overlap, and even though you could potentially tell the same story with both) that I frequently have difficulty reconciling them both as the same thing. In some ways (and I do not mean this as a sleight) the structure of PTA is much closer to a writing exercise than a game, so "Authorial" is an apt choice of term.*

    In fact, I'd take it a step further and say that whatever PTA might be, it is being held back from that by the trappings of the game. Does strong character ownership and the introduction of a weighted randomizer actually improve those things that people find appealing about PTA? Tony had an excellent thread on the forge recently where he basically asserted that all the stuff he got jazzed about was the collaboration and that the cards hitting the table was where his interest was lost because that was less interesting.

    I figure traditionally, dice are used to create tension. There's some question as to how things will go, and the dice are the expression of that. However, that hinges on the idea that one outcome is less satisfactory to the players than the other, usually in some measurable way (like lost hit points or the like). In PTA, if you're doing it right, the whole point of a conflict is that both potential conflicts are awesome, or at least meaningful and interesting. Given that, you create a lot of tension in the players. You pit their own protagonization (I want the outcome that favors my character) against their sensibilities (but this is the scene where he _should_ get his ass kicked) creating confusion where there needs be none.*

    Interestingly, I think this is what fuels the "macho narrative". If your players have strong enough storytelling instincts that the conflicts don't polarize them, then something must be wrong, and you must make the conflicts even MORE brutal, and the consequences less and less tenable, so that you force the players to care. The problem with that is twofold. First, plenty of players can get invested in a conflict or situation without getting their back pushed to the wall. They make their own pain, and they enjoy it. Second, in ramping up the escalation, you can only succeed by violating the idea that both outcomes are equally cool, at which point you that means someone (usually the stakes-raiser) is forced to champion an outcome that they know is less cool, and I question how fun that can be.

    (Now, that said, I'm intrigued to see Polaris in action because it seems to take that escalation to heart, and does some fun stuff with that, but scheduling has kept that a curiosity for the moment.)

    Anyway, Just as gaming isn't making movies, maybe this is a genuine split into two different things rather than just a schism within gaming. If so, we run the risk of creating a lot of pain for ourselves by trying to use the rules of one for the other. If not....well, a lot of definitions need to get tossed out on their ear. Not that I have any objection to that. :)

    -Rob D.


    * - In fact, in my own PTA games, the randomization was a source of frustration because whenever we narrowed down a meaningful conflict, the resolution that players wanted was determined far more by their sense of where we were in the story - things are _supposed_ to go badly early on, and we ended up with players wanting to pitch in against each other, or against themselves. Arguably, this was a sign that these things shouldn't have been conflicts then, since we were on the same page, but if I went with that, we never would have gotten to a by the book conflict, because we could find a satisfactory path without the dice.
  • Brand, I'm not trying to dismiss one because the other is "better." I know why I enjoy that authorial focus; I'm hazy on why I and others enjoy the experiential focus. I'm honestly trying to get at what we as players get out of that experiential play.

    I play Catan to fiddle with the strategic elements and to kibitz with the other players. Is the experiential focus a pretense to socialize, and to create something to socialize about/around?

    On the other hand, I play Poker to win money. Poker without winning is ... pretty dull.
  • Rob, you said:

    "I figure traditionally, dice are used to create tension. There's some question as to how things will go, and the dice are the expression of that. However, that hinges on the idea that one outcome is less satisfactory to the players than the other, usually in some measurable way (like lost hit points or the like). In PTA, if you're doing it right, the whole point of a conflict is that both potential conflicts are awesome, or at least meaningful and interesting. Given that, you create a lot of tension in the players. You pit their own protagonization (I want the outcome that favors my character) against their sensibilities (but this is the scene where he _should_ get his ass kicked) creating confusion where there needs be none."

    Personally I go back and forth on this. There are a couple of issues that I see around this.

    First is the narration rights and the concept of winning them vs. the concept of your character succeding. Many game have pushed these together to one degree or another: in Dust Devils you have to check to see if you succede, but you also have a chance to win narration rights either way; in Trollbabe you can win or you can narrate; in PTA you win and you narrate or you lose and you don't. However, I think we're starting to move away from that now -- who gets to narrate is becoming more important than which character (if there are characters) succedes or fails.

    This historical linkage between naration and character success has, I think, partly lead to the double-bind you're talking about. If you are playing to be able to say what happens, then you have reason to fight for it. If you are playing to see if your character succedes, then you have reason to fight for it. If you are playing to split narration and to see if your character succedes in a way that you have to have your hands bound in one area in order to gain success in the other area, it can put you right into the catch 22.*

    Dogs and Polaris both have interesting methods of dealing with this, and Capes does as well. Capes layers the conflicts and uses the "say what happens" vs "say if it works" as a social leverage socket -- making the mach nar you talk about work functionally. Polaris makes it all about who gets to say what and when, and the fact that it happens to focus mostly around a character is almost incidental. Dogs makes character action and who gets to say what the same thing, but does so in small (task sized) incraments that build towards a resolution. I'm sure as we go we're going to see even more ways of messing about with this. (Falling Leaves and other such third generation games excite me.)

    The other type of dice-use I'd bring up is the "resource driven structuration" mechanism -- something like HeroQuest's extended contest. (Dogs works in a vaugly similar way, I guess.) In HQ it often works best to start off a scene at the same time you start off a conflict, or at least to move quickly into the conflict in the scene. This is because what HQ's extended contest rules really do is structure a scene rather than determine simple pass/fail. (Of course the text isn't real clear on this, and the example make it sound pass/fail.) When you start burning through APs and using them as a way to push and pull the story and the pacing, rather than just a bean-counting method to win, the system really comes to life.

    So in cases like that the system is important to the "storytelling" and authoring aspect because it gives form and structure to the story. It is, I think what moves it from pure storytelling into storytelling game -- a place where you have play and competition going on to determine who gets to say what and when. That structure and push/pull will create different stories than those you create on your own, and has the nice benefit of creating stories that really surprise you, which fully colaberative stories rarely do.

    *No, I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I'm just saying its a thing you have to be aware of so you can make the games work. PTA is one of those games that goes into the mid-left of the spectrum we were talking about, and knows that it is doing something between "tell a story" and "play a character" in a pretty overt way. This makes PTA functional, so long as you realize what it is doing.
  • See, that's an awesome question, Josh, and one I was kicking around after Brand's post. See, a question that keeps bugging me is whether gaming a performance art, or a creative one, or something else. Put another way, is the experience of gaming closer to writing a good book, or reading one?

    I mean, as you watch, a game is very much like a performance, and the comparisons to improv will always arise for this reason. To say it's "improv with different rules" is to exalt improv, but that's what some people dig. But it sure feels like you're creating as you go. So I don't have an answer, but I like having the question.

    Which leads to the question of facilitation, and that you've already answered. The goal, as noted from the excerpt, is to entertain. The means are where the variation enters, so one needs to be careful about confusing the two. In this specific case, it is not investment in character _success_ that i speak of, but investment in the character itself. Character failure or even muddlign along can be equally compelling if you are invested in the character. To some extent, if you are purely invested in character success, then I would say your priority is something other than the character, because focus is then on the challenge.

    (That said, If you want something outside Mendel, check out Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun", where his main premises is that one of the main sources of "fun" for humans is the process of learning. I infer from it, that traditional rpg advancement (a la D&D) is effectively an accelerated simulation of learning, as measured by the ability to do and experience more, which may explain why it holds such appeal.)

    -Rob D

    PS - I didn't really touch on the "Why invest in something that doesn't really exist" because that one is pretty much an all or nothing point. Assuming you accept that gaming creates a fiction of some sort, then it answers itself. People invest in fictions of every stripe, whether it's character identification, a narrative or a political process. That one's pretty much a baseline, and if someone wants to say "This fake thing you care about is less valid than this fake thing I care about" well, that's just asking for trouble. So questions of mental masturbation are just nothing I can ever take that seriously. I have already bought into the value of play, and things build from there.

    Which is, amusingly, the One True Way that _I_ buy into (That play has value).
  • Josh,

    Experiential does seem to have a high degree of escapism and wish fullfilment as one of its primary aspects. You do it because you don't want to be a tax accounant for an afternoon, you want to be a mighty thewed barbarian who ravishes the voluptuous princess.

    John Kim has also talked about it as a celebration, a passionate exploration of something you love in a way that lets you reflect after the fact in order to determine how you really feel about and interact with the material. Thus is almost forms the mythic counterpoint to the englightenment rationalism of authorial story.

    Um, by that I mean that in most authorial stories you go in addressing premise, saying something, or looking for confrontation of ideas to generate meaning -- it's almost a scientific method of logical analysis. In the experiential you go in looking for fun and involvement, and afterwards peice out what the things you did and did not do mean -- much more the way that historical humanity dealt with deriving meaning from mythology.

    So in that way you can use experiential games to learn something -- though its more likely you'll learn about yourself than anything else. OTOH, I'd argue the same is true of all types of games and fiction: we learn more about ourselves and the authors than about the thing being written about.
  • Rob said:

    "Which is, amusingly, the One True Way that _I_ buy into (That play has value)."

    Lila.

    I studied Hinduism too much, I guess. But yes, I would agree.
  • Ah, and Josh, that clarifies the question greatly, but it merely inspires another question: Is there value in writing things that no one will ever read?

    I think any writer will tell you there is, but it gets kind of tricky to justify as anything other than self serving, because, well, it is. And that's ok.

    Gaming falls into that niche too. Aside form war stories no one cares about, there's really nothing carried away form a game besides the experience itself. In that context, it's not about meaningful, it's about what's fun. And hell, I don't think that anyone would object that fun is the ultimate (if hardest to measure) yardstick of whether a game is exceptional or not.

    So that said, there's another question: What do you really want to know? I mean, some people just find characters more interesting than plots, and consider it an opportunity to explore that. Some people like to project themselves, and that is. I hope, self evident in it's appeal, unless "The secret life of Walter Mitty" is really that inaccessible.

    That all seems so evident to me, much as it is evident that some enjoy a more authorial stance, that it sounds less like a question and more like a request to justify one's fun, and I don't think you actually mean it that way.

    -Rob D.
  • Quick thought: Role-playing as group "journaling."
  • Brand,

    You're right, I hadn't considered the outcome/narration split as a means of addressing the macho Nar, but you're right, it's an excellent balance for it, though I think it does work well in games that still have strong traditional RPG elements (So that, say, there are concrete threats in things like combat) or are very open in their meta-play, as capes is.

    Also note, Macho Nar is only a problem, to my mind, if the group is already at a point where they don't need help because they're invested in throwing up obstacles and conflicts in front of themselves. When that happens, it's counterproductive, but up til then? It's a powerful tool.

    Similarly, the resource depletion model, as in HQ or even in more abstract games like "Above the Earth" can also have a lot of power. When the game moves away from "Do you succeed or fail" to "How much does it cost you to succeed?" it really shakes things up. One of my favorite thought experiments is what you do with a game where the characters are genuinely invincible warriors - the fights might look cool, but voltron-like, they will _always_ win. Given that, what do you do?

    The answer is, of course, accept that and move on to presenting conflicts that presume the character can always win, and which either don't hinge upon his ability to fight or, perhaps more interestingly, on whether or not the character _should_ win.

    And here's where we get into the really meaty stuff that I think PTA and the like offers as lessons for gaming. That crystal clear focus on what really matters to the group and to the game is such a potent, powerful tool that my emotional response is to want to declare PTA an RPG by sheer force of will. Look at what it says! Look at what it does! We want to OWN THE AWESOME! it must be ours!

    But that response aside, ti still doesn't answer whether PTA is expanding what RPGs are, or if it's something new that's offering fresh insights. For me, the real limitation on determining that is that, gun to my head, defining RPGs is still going to be a fuzzy thing for me. But I honestly dunno if that's bad. After all, we're still a fringe. Playing fast and loose with things is one of the benefits that comes of that.

    Anyway, all that said, I'm not sure if a storytelling game is about means or priorities. If I have the priorities of a good story (meaningful conflict, etc.) in my D&D game and I back them up in play, is the absence of mechanics backing that up going to keep it form being a story game? Or is it that it might be a story game, but the force of decision making in D&D (fights are won by tactics and dice, not narrative logic) going to _force_ me to violate the principals of story? But what if I have somewhat gritty sensibilities, and think that a cruel, brutal world is part of the story I want to tell, because the real story is in how the character's respond and react in the face of it?

    Life would be easier if I had a straightforward answer to that.

    -Rob D.
  • Ron.

    As for the "fuzzy" issue -- it is, and it should be, and it probably will be for a long time. Look at the history of the novel. For a long time it wasn't clear what was a novel, what was non-fiction, what was a prose epic, and so and so and so on. It was only after a couple hundred years that the novel was finally split away from other forms of writing and genre codified as its own thing.

    I don't know if it'll take us hundreds of years, but I don' t think we can (or even should) try to force things out immediatly. At the same time, however, I think that being open to the idea that really different things are going on can ease a lot of misunderstandings and assumptions.

    As for story game vs non story game, your questions seem to point towards a lumpley principle answer. It's all system -- the question is just how close is your system to the mechanics in the book.
  • Yeah, I'm content with not having answers yet. it gives me an excuse to kick things really hard and pretend it's intellectual curiosity rather than childish glee in knocking things over. :)

    -Rob D.
  • edited February 2006
    I don't buy "Play is Fun" or "Play is Valuable" or "Play is its Own Reward." It's not that I don't accept that those can be true, it's that I can't accept those as first principles. There has to be something about Play that makes it Fun, Valuable, or Rewarding, and I want to get at that.

    When applied to a game with strong authorial tendancies, play is fun because it allows me to "fiddle" with thematic statements, propose them to my friends (whose opinions I generally care about), modify them, develop them, and so on. This falls into the category of "learn about oneself" and also gets a little shading of "learn about the other players." Both of those I can apply pretty directly to my existence as a human being, to get all grandiose about things.

    On the other side of the spectrum, however, experiential play seems to me to be fun as a replacement for my existence as a human being. What do I get out of playing, say, a wholly alien character engaged in conflicts that are so exotic that they are nothing like what I experience in my day to day life?

    It's the difference between playing a superhero as an avatar that externalizes character and personal choices to a grandiose scale and playing a superhero as a set of blast-em-up powers who has to fight badguys who have their own blast-em-up powers. The second superhero may have just as developed rationales for his decisions, but unless those decisions relate in some way to my life or my take on life, what am I getting out of it? Just a power rush?

    Roller Coasters are fun, too, and say nothing about "life" or the human condition. Is experiential play the pen-and-paper equivalent of a roller coaster, that lets us buy in, race our hearts up and down, release some endorphins and feel good?
  • You keep framing the question in a way that makes it sound like you _want_ an answer that says "Authorial play is meaningful, character play is escapism" and I'm not sure where that's coming from.

    So, setting aside that your examples dwell on the power-trip end of things, take a second to look at what role playing is used for in the non-gaming community. it's a way to adopt a perspective different than one's own and, in doing so, gain sympathy or empathy or at least some small understanding for that other person.

    That's potent, potent kung fu, and it makes for an awesome, meaningful game.

    is _every_ game gonna be like this? Hell no. Sometime we _want_ the roller coaster, much the same way that sometime an authorial game is about really delving into themes and stories, and sometimes it's the latest thing in fanfic.*

    -Rob D.

    * yes, there's good fanfic. No, that's not the fanific I'm talking about.
  • Josh,

    Back to Plato and "you learn more of a man in an hour of play than a year of conversation." He wasn't talking about addressing premise games.

    You do learn about who you are and what you want in escapism, you just do so less directly than in thematic play.

    If you don't believe this, answer me this: how often does your wife like to play the muscle bound barbarian who fucks every barmaid in town while enjoying the thrill of feeling a man's neck slowly crush between her powerful hands, and how often does, say, Brand, enjoy playing that?

    If you think that your wishes don't say something about you and what you want then you haven't been paying attention to your djinn/lepercaun/monkey's paw stories.

    The things that experiential games offer are power trips, escapism, challange (there is a reason why gamist principles often get mired into experiential games that aren't supposed to be about gamism -- facing the challange your avatar is facing by pushing up against a system that gives a virtual representation of the fictional difficulty is important to the challange aspet of fun), projection, the ability to see the world through what you consider to be someone else's eyes (not likely, but it isn't likely in premise based play either), the ability to celebrate a genre from the inside or to challange it form the inside (where authorial play tends to attack things externally), the ability to "experience" alien worlds and immaginary places and vistas (one of the things that video games are slaughtering us at, as being able to actually see the thing is a big advantage), and various other things I probably can't identify.

    Really, Tolkien's writings on escapism probably apply here -- it isn't just about power tripping, it is about getting away from the grey world to a world of internal symbols that shine brightly. If you want to do that to tell about it you can go authorial, but there is a significan percentage of humanity (including Tolkien himself) who talked about the value in it being in experiencing it.
  • (I frame questions as challenges. It's an unfortunate habit.)

    I can buy "Experiential play provides perspective." I've even argued the same as one of the more dangerous and positive aspects of the hobby.

    I can buy "Experiential play provides escapism, because taking a fucking break from life is necessary for sanity." I mean, I still play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on occasion for just that reason.

    But to turn this back around to your original post, what was it that PTA wasn't providing your group? It doesn't sound like it was perspective or escapism that they found wanting.
  • "I can buy "Experiential play provides escapism, because taking a fucking break from life is necessary for sanity." I mean, I still play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on occasion for just that reason."

    Ah, I understand you now Joshua.

    Oh, btw, the Tolkien quote I was thinking of was "the flight of the deserter and the escape of the captive" -- does anyone remember the full thing?
  • Ah, much clearer!

    In short, PTA provided us most of the same things we would have gotten by sitting around and collaborating on a story*, and those are good things. However, that wasn't what we wanted to be doing.

    PTA was an excellent hamburger, but we like Italian, so to speak.

    -Rob D.

    * Arguably, PTA's restrictions interfered with our capability to just jam on a story, but that's not my objection because, after all, that wasn't our goal in the first place.
  • So Rob, was your issue with PTA because you wanted experience and got story telling?

    I mean you've told us what you didn't get, but what exactly did you want? What kinds of things (techniques, stances, whatevers) would you have needed to hit the sweet spot?

    And why is that your sweet spot?
  • Rob, I don't see it as having anything to do with jamming or storytelling or whatever.

    Tell me if I'm wrong, I don't game at your table but it sounds like your group likes its crunchy bits. There's nothing wrong with that. PTA doesn't have crunchy bits to play with.
  • I play a _lot_ of Amber. Not just because I'm the person at the table who is known for the critical failures when rolling dice (and often, I'm the DiceMaster...I mean, DM/GM/OGL&M.) We participated in a BESM game recently, and as much as I like diceless, as much as an event can create a "Player Legend" ("The time Damascus bit the ghost,") it was the events of dice rolling that built the "Player Legends" ("The time Damascus hit for more damage than a small meteor,") the fastest. Why is this?
  • MtFierce,

    On the functional level, I think there may be some level of step on up or something similar going on there. If you've fiddly bits, and you use those fiddly bits and your storytelling coolness all together, you get a pretty impressive display. Sometimes it can feel like what you do is what you do, but what you earn by confronting and overcoming a challange is worth more.

    In my groups it tends to be the things people do, rather than the results of mechanics, that get the legends going fastest. But even with us there are the legends of the time that Kika beat the God of Gambling at Poker when she rolled 19 successes on 11 dice....

    On a less functional note, it could be that we're just conditioned to do that. We come to associate success with success on the dice and so get a power dynamic going on with the way we value things.

    I can't say which it was for your group.
  • I'm really enjoying this discussion. I can definitely see different kinds of fun in different styles of play, whether we frame it in GNS terms or as experiential or whatnot. I know that I can be in different modes, and that's what different games are for.

    As a sidenote, when I play card games (I don't like poker, and prefer something crunchier like Skat), it's definitely Gamist fun. Step on up, take risks, outwit-outplay, pat each other on the back for good plays.
  • Joshua BishopRoby wrote:
    When applied to a game with strong authorial tendancies, play is fun because it allows me to "fiddle" with thematic statements, propose them to my friends (whose opinions I generally care about), modify them, develop them, and so on. This falls into the category of "learn about oneself" and also gets a little shading of "learn about the other players." This falls into the category of "learn about oneself" and also gets a little shading of "learn about the other players." Both of those I can apply pretty directly to my existence as a human being, to get all grandiose about things.

    On the other side of the spectrum, however, experiential play seems to me to be fun as a replacement for my existence as a human being. What do I get out of playing, say, a wholly alien character engaged in conflicts that are so exotic that they are nothing like what I experience in my day to day life?


    Well, the simple answer is, don't play wholly alien characters. I mean, why would you? No one I play with does that. Virtually all the characters that I see are always expressions of self. When playing the impulsive scoundrel, the player is always bringing out not some alien radio signals, but rather the impulsive side to herself. I appreciate that you like to fiddle, but that doesn't increase meaning. Indeed, I think that the ability to fiddle reduces meaning -- because it's exactly the mistakes and spontaneous bits that show the parts of yourself that you wouldn't ordinarily show. If you want to learn something about yourself that you don't see in daily life, you have to break down some of your barriers. You can do this by means other than role-playing, but role-playing is a good way to do it.

    Conversely, there's nothing inherently meaningful about authorship. Simply because you write something doesn't mean that it has new insight into you as a person. If you author conflicts which are so exotic that they are nothing like what you experience in day-to-day life, then you're not learning about yourself or about others. You're just creating something for escapism or for the challenge of trying to emulate a particular genre or style.
  • Hnh. Ok, repeating because I have failed to be clear.

    I think telling a story, individually and collaborative, is a fun thing to do. I think PTA give an interesting and game-like method to do so.

    I do not, however, think that gaming, however much story/narrative/whatever there is in the game, is the same activity.

    I enjoy both, but I don't need PTA to do the former. I need some coffee, beer and comfortable chairs. More problematically, while I expected some elements of the former in PTA, I discovered that there was _too much_ of it in play. So my objection is not that the PTA experience was bad, it was that it was not the experience I want out of gaming. Brand sums it up nicely - I expected experience, I got storytelling.

    Now, here's the thing. Seriously, I do love my crunchy bits when I bust them out. I'm dwelling on Weapons of the Gods because we played it last night, but my mode just as easily goes to diceless or Risus or whatever else works for the moment. I entirely believe in using a system that best supports the genre and style of game.

    But that decision, in my universe, has almost no bearing on how much story, however one measures such things, there will be in the game. It will certainly impact what _sort_ of story it may tell, but that's another matter entirely.

    So I balk at any implication that it was any lack of crunch that made PTA a mismatch for me. God knows I've had amazing games on less crunch. It's not that crunch is good or bad, but rather that this is simply not about the crunch. And I'll keep repeating - playing PTA was fine and fun, but it brought nothing to the table that we couldn't have done without it. This isn't a poor reflection on PTA, or even an assertion that PTA is lacking, just that it is a poor match for us.

    -Rob D.
  • Brand --

    Tolkien, On Fairy Stories:

    "I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which "Escape" is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter."

  • Ok, there are two directions I could have gone from PTA.

    If I wanted it to be more of what I wanted for storytelling, it would have had more concession to narrative sensibility, possibly to the point of disposing of randomization entirely. I'd let players lose more, and let the players rather than the turn order decide where the focus is. Overall, less structure.

    If i wanted it to be more like I want out of the game, I would have opened things up to more scenery chewing. I would shake up the framing sequencing a bit more, and mix and match so that conflicts vary more in importance (variable stakes, say). I'd play up enemies and encourage more player ownership of NPCs and props, and possibly open the door to troupe style play. Since I'd be trying to keep it like PTA, I'd change structures more than add or remove them and I'd keep certain odd things (like binary resolution) because it's a specific, stylistic choice that i think bears fruit. I dunno if it'd work - there's a certain amount of round peg-square hole thinking here.

    The reality is, I took away from it some excellent examples of the nature of meaningful conflict and stakes, and I use that in other games I like more. I consider that praise, but I figure people can take it however they like.

    -Rob D.
  • Rob said:
    And I'll keep repeating - playing PTA was fine and fun, but it brought nothing to the table that we couldn't have done without it. This isn't a poor reflection on PTA, or even an assertion that PTA is lacking, just that it is a poor match for us.

    So PTA "got out of the way," and that's fine and all, but you want your games to do more to support your play goals. Right?
  • Hi Rob, I have to admit I really have no idea where you're coming from here:

    I need some coffee, beer and comfortable chairs.

    Do you mean you drink beer and coffee at the same time? Or do you start off with one and then go to the other? Or do you just alternate? Or do you mean that some people do coffee, and others do beer? :-)

    I put the smileyface there to indicate that I mean that as a fun series of questions, but I am serious them; I'm really interested in the coffee-beer relationship.

    -Andy
  • Nah, just some of us drink beer and some of us drink coffee. Anyone drinks both at once, now _that's_ dysfunction!

    Adam, that's almost right , though it's tricky to put otherwise. I'm generally happy when a game gets out of the way - with PTA it got out of the way, but more or less directed traffic someplace I didn't need to go.

    Here's a maybe weird assertion - I kind of feel that most any group that can enjoy playing PTA could enjoy playing _without_ it. The kicker is that there's no really good social framework for "let's sit down and really get into hashing out a story" so PTA provides that initial gateway that initiates the behavior. But once you've done it, does you really need the rules any more? Put another way, when I hear people's excitement about PTA it's about really getting into talking out and working out the story. People aren't excited about the rules or resolution (well, aren't _as_ excited) so much as they're excited about that "ah!" that comes of seeing what PTA opens up.

    I think that's pretty awesome thing, it's just a bit jarring when you're expecting something else. :)

    Anyway, I may be overly projecting my own impressions, but here's the question. If you enjoy PTA, do you really feel like you need the rules to keep it up?

    Now, the beer and coffee thing reminds me of another question I had, but for that I'll throw up another thread.

    -Rob D.
  • Rob,

    For me the rules of PTA mostly act as a shorthand for the system of storytelling in the TVish structure. Sure, I could do it without them -- but having them makes it easier.

    This seems to agree with you, so on to the second question: why do I like the resolution rules and why do I use them when I could just be telling a story instead?

    Because I like surprises. Not just when other people spring them on me, but when I spring them on myself. The conflict resolution of PTA makes me reanalyze things, makes me push things, makes me think harder about what I want and work harder to get it. It lets people get competetive and still work a story together (pushing with fan mail!) and it makes us take the story in ways we might not have initially. The system adds uncertainty, and I like that.
  • Re structure: Yes, we're in agreement. And I agree it's useful for doing TV, and some structure helps.

    And ah, surprises. That is, I think, the very rub.

    Were you to ask me if I can surprise myself, I'd say no, though I'd say i can _delight_ myself ("ah ha! That clicks!") but if you were to ask me to really analyze the difference there, I'd be hard pressed to say what it is.

    I look at it much the same way i do any sort of collaboration - the real joy of it is the unexpected result of ideas and people bouncing off each other. That sort of active, energetic discovery is awesome and, yes, full of surprises.

    And ah again - the surprise issue, in my mind, is less the surprise than the unknown.

    Now, noting that I like high trust GM'd play, the element that makes it sing for me is not power, but rather the transparency and opacity of information. That creates tensions that can be a lot of fun.

    I was thinking about this in the car today, and framed the idea as follows: Suppose, in your game, there is a bright red button and you don't know what it does.

    In a collaborative story game, there is almost no question that the button will be pushed. It's a gun in the first act. There's no reason for it to exist unless it is to be pushed. The thrill of it is in knocking around all the things that could happen and finding the one that rocks the most.

    In a traditional game, the source of interest is that the GM knows what the button does, so the question is "_should_ the button be pushed?" and the coolness comes out of the tension that generates and makes for an excellent seed.

    Theoretically, the story game could be run around _not_ pushing the button, but then it just becomes the briefcase in Pulp Fiction - it's interesting, but because it could be anything, it doesn't matter much what it is.

    It's also possible for both of these scenarios to suck. The group may have no cohesion or the GM may be an idiot, that's just a risk you run. Either path, however, -can- be fun and interesting, but the do (i think) clearly indicate different sets of priorities and paths to fun.

    And that rocks. The group that has both these clubs in their bag is pretty well off in my mind, but I like to emphasize that they're two different clubs.

    -Rob D.
  • I feel pretty strongly that RPG stories are different animals from traditional stories. There are three major factors that come into play.

    1. Very little Revision. In a collaberative screen-writing effort we would still see a process of refinement as people go back over and re-write and re-tool aspects of the plot. This can be done to build stronger themes, remove unecessary digressions, etc.

    In RPG-dom (traditional, anyway) it's possible to get a scene that people feel doesn't really add a lot to the stronger story-structure or build on themes that are present but is still a positive part of the game.

    2. In most collaberative story telling there is a very discrete difference between author and audience and RPGs blur that line considerably. Consider the game where each person around a campfire tells a different part of the tale. Person A puts the character in jeopardy and Person B has to get them out of it.

    Even in this role-play situation the speaker is (in a standard form of this game) unconstrained by either randomizers or direct conflicts of authorial power with other players. His input might be rejected if it isn't cool or doesn't make sense but he's still free to narrate anything he wants within that boundary. More importantly, he is still the speaker and the audience is still the audience.

    Most trad-RPGs don't play that way.

    3. Presence of goals alien to story: challenge and immersion. Story telling competitons are certainly "competitive" or "challenging"--and authors may imagine characters in an immersive way. However, in the RPG context both of these goals *may* (but not necessiarily *will*) exist in ways that traditional story-making doesn't have.

    Challenge against imaginary obstacles (especially with random elements) is almost unknown in normal story-making as far as I am aware. This can *strongly* shape a narrative and the kind of risks a person takes (if I am writing a Sorcerer story I, as the author doesn't experience risk *as the author* in having the character use magic--if I am playing Sorcerer I do).

    Immersion not only blurs the author-audience perspectives but, as a goal, it may implicitly mean giving up some control to another person in what I think is a unique way.

    These elements are among those I think make traditional RPGs a unique medium for "story"--one to which most standards only partially apply.

    I think it is not surprising that Rob's group, comprised of "skilled storytellers" might, in fact, want something RPG-like and less story-creation-like.

    -Marco
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