Descriptive systems (for freeformers and the people who love them)

edited October 2006 in Story Games
Long, long ago, I was in a game session with my friend and co-podcaster Chris, and many of his frequent fellow RPG travelers. Our mutual friend and sometime-podcast-guest Brian was running. Brian likes Fudge, and had put together a number of characters in a Battlestar Galactica vein, along with the various spacecraft those characters piloted. Now, I was unprepared for the session and unfamiliar with the tropes of the new BSG (I plan to correct that latter problem soon), but I don't think that completely explains the problem I had in the session.

Basically, these guys were good. Really good. They were not just completely driving events through freeform, with Brian the GM just giving things an occasional nudge, but they were doing it like kung fu masters. They'd throw out one joke, or one sentence of description, and throw its weight through the rest of the scene. The scenes were action-packed, too, not the sort of stationary emoting that I tend to associate with people who are really attached to freeforming. I guess they were just really in tune with one another and good at a certain kind of improv. Whereas I was very trepidatious... I didn't know what I was allowed or expected to do and so didn't do much of anything. (It didn't help that my character was, through only a little bit of fault of my own, "my thing" - a reserved, brainy type.) I was waiting to be fed an obvious course of action.

I have more or less processed what this all means for me as a player: I really like, and need, rules that push me out of my comfort zone and make me take action. But the other issue that's been bothering me is this: how could we extract for export the kind of play going on at that table?

Chris and I had a separate conversation last week that helped crystallize things for me. He's just played (actually run) his first game of Primetime Adventures, and while I think the problem he was having was really that they weren't building conflicts around issues, he expressed a lot of frustration that players were in a rush to find conflicts rather than to stay with "story" - which I put in quotes because, as he explained when I made "er?" noises, it turns out he meant freeforming. (Although when conflicts aren't built around issues in PTA, they don't really serve story at all. So maybe he was also saying what he meant. But! Not the point.)

Suddenly this all gelled with my earlier Mridangam thoughts and the notion of out-of-band communications at the table. Also I'd spent the weekend finally reading and absorbing all the awesome that is Capes. And I thought, hey, maybe the way to get system out of the way for Chris and his action-freeforming buddies, but still have system present and helpful, is just to... get it out of the way. Have it literally sitting there on the table, ready to be used when needed, just sitting there when not. And we will quite naturally do this by writing things on index cards as they come up in play, ho ho.

So in about an hour's time, I'd written this. I am not looking for any specific comments on that system (but to address your first complaint, I am likely going to rename it the Freeballin' Fudge Framework). What I'm wondering is this: is there any future in the idea of a set of game mechanics being descriptive rather than prescriptive?

I've created these rules out of what I remember about that BSG-oid game. People would improvise, riff off each other, talk about their characters and play their characters more than try to be in them. And very gradually, one thing - in the first scene of our game, a dogfight between two squadrons of fighters - became important enough that it seemed like time to make a roll for it. People were on the edge of their damn seats for that roll, and had a blast narrating (together!) what came out of it, whatever that was. And then Brian nudged us toward what was next.

I wrote the system linked to above with GMlessness in mind, just because I had so much Capes on the brain, and the act of silently marking things with coins just naturally put me in mind of Universalis. But I think it could just as easily be run with a GM. For the other players in the BSG game, that would have been a bit like having, I don't know, a graphical readout on the table of how they were behaving anyway. Am I wrong to think that'd be useful for them? All I really know is that, as someone who was having a hard time finding a systemic "in" into what they were doing, it would have been a boon for me: a place where we could have met in the middle.

Finally, where else could the notion of a descriptive system go? I've been trying to think of a useful way that an at-the-table system could act like a recorder for play. (This could potentially be a way to fool freeformers into using mechanics without realizing it!)

Not completely sure if I've said what I set out to here. Help me firm up my thoughts? Have I completely reinvented some obscure (to me) wheel?


  • Mike, it looks like a reasonable facsimile of the kind of play that freeformers that are well-experienced with each other produce already -- in other words, I think you captured something worthwhile. Note that it's not entirely descriptive -- it does prescribe when to roll a conflict.

    In terms of currency balance, you'll need some means of recouping coins off of the cards that get two coins and then get forgotten, and a means for getting coins back from rolled conflicts in general, but those are minor issues.
  • Hey Mike,

    We must be dipping into the same river* here, brother. My [SECRET PROJEKT THANATOS] game has something exactly like your "Timer" cards, and something very similar to your "item" cards (which I call Elements). "Consistent freeform" is pretty much my design goal, too.

    So, rock on.

    * That river would be Capes, as well as Jonathan's recent forays into Avatar and Exalted. There's something in the air.
  • John: yes indeed, yes indeed. (but finish stranger things first okthx)

    JBR: I'm dubious about the need to recoup coins at all, unless there's some need for people to have more coins going into later scenes than in earlier ones... which... I guess there probably will be. *sigh* Anyway it's all stuff and nonsense until I playtest.

    Hmm... I'll have to look at Fudge again to see if it's even necessary, but maybe a simple balancing system for chargen is in order to complete the picture for GMless play. Let the theft from Capes re-commence, la la la
  • I watch this with interest as it's similar to some stuff I'm turning over at the moment too.
  • New cut, with the principle of "simplest thing that could possibly work" in mind.
  • This is a little bit hilarious because the "writing important things on cards so you can come back to them later" thing is now how you title stories in the Exalted Hack.

    Yay for structured freeform, though. Glad we're finally getting this train moving down the track together.
  • It is? Dude. Everythingiversalis!
  • Wow. This is very close to something that I started thinking about (so not even a nascent plan, just a 'vague idea') based on an experience playing Star Wars d6 with the Experimental Group last week.

    Here's what happened. The adventure was awesome, action-packed and rocking. We consciously made an effort not to "think about solutions to problems" too hard and instead solve problems like in the movies; Quickly.

    The game had us as ARC Troopers. I know little about the Clone Wars era SW stuff, but the GM was super-versed. ARC Troopers are basically super-super-elite clone troopers tha exhibit individuality and free thinking. And yet they're also like Army Rangers combined with Navy Seals. So we were kicking ass and taking names. Our starting characters were probably 2x (at least) more powerful than any Star Wars d6 character I had ever played.

    But it soon became apparent that, by the classic rules of the game, there was little that we were doing that we could fail at. And by the standards of d6, when failure happens it's usually lame. But on the other hand, the constant strings of successes felt a little weird, too. So what the game quickly became was some serious freeform roleplaying of action and social scenes, with a lot of "Yes, And" and the like. When die rolls were made, it was only to give the GM basically not even a sense of "Success or Failure", but rather an almost sheep-intestines-oracular experience on how things went, very fortune-in-the-middle like: A very low roll? Then the Situation Somehow Changed Dramatically which prevented success. A very high roll? Then things went spectacularly; that droid you shot was propelled back, got caught in the gearworks of the invader's landing shuttle, causing it to crash into the hull and explode. Basically, shit that the rules Totally Don't Cover.

    I'm loving it, we play the second and final session next week, and it's probably going to be a "go down in a blaze" ending.

    But I was thinking afterwards, In the future I'd love to run the same kind of thing again with a system of my own devising: Where everyone had "Their Character" like traditional RPGs, and there was a definite GM with her very specific defined role, so not total hippie group storytelling. But dice... dice would basically be like casting oracular sheep knucklebones or whatever. The GM looks at the results, thinks for a second, and decides how things happen from there, storyteller style.

    There would definitely be room for PC skills and the like, at least some room anyway, perhaps simplified a lot. But I see the GM rolling a bunch of, say, Crystal Caste d4s (those cool squarish ones) with a few d6es representing the characters. Depending on the roll, the GM makes shit up: Maybe the Yellow Time die was high, and the Blue Luck d4 die was low, and the PC's green d6 was medium, and the PC's Green Die landed next to the Yellow Time die: The GM might say something like "You have a difficult time drawing upon the ship with your sniper scope, because of all the turbulence on the ship you're on. However, the enemy ship is pulling away slowly, so after a few seconds you're able to crack a shot! It doesn't hit anything to cause it to explode (your original target), but it does damage the engine enough that it limps away, and you can close in on it soon".

    So, in other words, kinda like EVERWAY, but with dice instead of cards. And mechanisms where certain dice can be ignored (like "just use 4 of the 6 dice to make your oracular storytelling judgement; don't get hung up on Using Them All"). And without a lot of fiddly bits like coins and damage/influence scales to even get in the way for even a second.

    I'd want definite ways that players can interact with the system more themselves, and yet maintain a great see-saw balance between Total Hippie Interpretation ala AMBER/EVERWAY (like 80%) and having the dice Mechanically Do Stuff with their numbers shown (20%).

    If I get any further, I'll post more in my own thread. It's just cool to see a bunch of people take the same "core want/desire" and do different things with it.

  • Awesome stuff.

    (I totally wanted to get that "Oracle of Eight" thing that was at the dice booth at Gen Con and Origins... all it was was a list of cryptic phrases, one to go with each possible outcome of rolling 3d8... and three d8s. It was too pricey but now I wish I'd done it. At the very least I guess I need to haul out that copy of Everway that I ebayed last year.)
  • What if you had "connection" dice, with arrows and circles and stuff on them, and when the arrows pointed to dice (no matter whether they were close or not) they created connections between them?
  • Interesting, and not to take away from what Mike's offered up, but I wanted to present a different perspective on the scenario in question that kicked this off for Mike.

    I was the GM for that particular ditty. The game was run with Fudge - specifically with Now Playing, which is a solid enough distribution although it doesn't present much mechanical innovation (six stats plus skills). of the six players, three had gamed with each other and myself previously. For one person, the game was their first RPG session ever. The fifth player was great, but I had never played with him prior, and the sixth was lucky Mike.

    The scenario and the PCs were all done as genre pieces. The game was very much constructed and intended to run as a BSG / Star Blazers / Robotech style situation, and I put together PCs intended to match: the Captain ("the Old Man"), the XO, the CAG, the Hotshot Pilot, and the Raptor Crew.

    While I'm certainly thrilled that Mike took away so much, from my perspective, the flow of the session had much to do with genre-familiarity and sign posting. Well, yes, and excellent roleplayers.
  • Vax, that's a great idea...Do you know where such dice could be found?
  • Well, I think some wargames use them... Warhammer 40K/Fantasy maybe?
  • Warhammer 40K uses dice with arrows as "scatter" or "artillery" dice. One of the sides (maybe two) show circles marked "Hit" instead.
  • Posted By: John Harper
    * That river would be Capes, as well as Jonathan's recent forays into Avatar and Exalted. There's something in the air.
    You said it. I've got similar design goals for Sign in Stranger. It's a natural movement away from turn based play back to loose, free-flowing story.
    And very gradually, one thing - in the first scene of our game, a dogfight between two squadrons of fighters - became important enough that it seemed like time to make a roll for it. People were on the edge of their damn seats for that roll, and had a blast narrating (together!) what came out of it, whatever that was. And then Brian nudged us toward what was next.
    It makes me think, too, of Mo's Iron Game Chef game, Crime and Punishment, in which you adopt the role of screenwriters to brainstorm material that you then act out in play. Slipping between those levels is something that (at least I've found) that you do often in free-form. It can sound anti-immersive, but it works just fine when you're used to it.
  • edited November 2006
    Posted By: Emily CareSign in Stranger
    New Emily Care game!

    Oh, Shit, I'm turning into a fanboy.
  • Connection dice as Vax spec'd them are very interesting... I like them as a way of maybe making a gamist-leaning player feel a little more invested in what strikes me as a fundamentally narrativist thing to do (telling people what characters their characters are connected to). And I wholeheartedly support the subversion for new purposes of any and all special-purpose GW products.

    Brian, thanks for jumping in. See, here's what's been on my mind: suppose we had run that game both with you as GM and with the F3 system, or some other reasonably passive means of reflecting interest and raising flags (or signs, if you prefer), in use on the table. What effect, if any, do you think it would have had?

    I'll tell you what I think: I think it would have been redundant, but not chafing, to everyone on the table except for me. I would have found it incredibly useful to have the "in" for game influence that I didn't have otherwise due to my lack of genre familiarity and general quickness on the uptake.

    And a whole other discussion: I think that very redundancy would make this system lend itself well to ritualizing the game.
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