Happy Calvinballing?

edited December 2008 in Story Games
Prompted by the "express yourself clearly" stuff...

I've been wandering around looking for a good way to express the underlying playstyle that a couple of my games (Cog Wars most especially) are meant to support. I've been trying to avoid the phrase "Happy Calvinball", since the use of that term elsewhere is almost purely negative.

But the thing is, it fits.

The idea that the rules aren't something you play in, but something you play with - that the group, fully aware, can make statements about the importance, desired detail, and handling methods of a given fictional thing by picking and choosing the rules to apply to suit that. That's what I'm build rules to support, more and more.

You could say that I'm talking about "Mechanics that are reconstructed by fiat, mid-play". Or you could talk about "The art and craft of applying the rules" - both of those, to me, read as identical statements.

Thing is, I'm not sure I'm expressing this clearly, even now.

Anyone know what the hell I'm talking about? Anyone know how to express it clearly?

Comments

  • Sure. It's a mentality similar to that expressed by Howard Whitehouse in his minis games, or Paddy Griffith in his Mugger Games.

    You seem to want to break it out of the referee-only paradigm, though, which, IMO, is goodness-cubed.
  • edited December 2008
    Posted By: komradebobSure. It's a mentality similar to that expressed by Howard Whitehouse in his minis games, or Paddy Griffith in his Mugger Games.
    Okay... so, er, how do they explain it?
    Posted By: komradebobYou seem to want to break it out of the referee-only paradigm, though, which, IMO, is goodness-cubed.
    In my experience? Many players are ready to do this - to throw together "How to handle X" in a fashion that is just as much fun, in a let's-throw-ideas-around way, as some kinds of group character creation.
  • This reminds me of playstorming, except that in playstorming it's intended you're gathering grist that will eventually be milled into a complete, static, non-Calvinball game.

    Still, in my opinion, when you playtest or playstorm, you're not playing the game in question, you're playing the game of making the game in question.
  • All games are like this no matter whether they're intended to be or not.

    Every choice to follow or not follow a rule, after all, is made by people actually playing the game, not thinking about playing it, or writing down how they vainly hope others will play.
  • Posted By: Robert BohlThis reminds me of playstorming, except that in playstorming it's intended you're gathering grist that will eventually be milled into a complete, static, non-Calvinball game.

    Still, in my opinion, when you playtest or playstorm, you're not playing the game in question, you're playing the game of making the game in question.
    Right. You finish the game by playing it. But in this case, the "finished game" created is the group tradition.

    I've been tempted to call TCW "A gaming toybox", instead of calling is a "game", and decided against it because chances are, nobody would have a clue what I meant.
  • edited December 2008
    Posted By: JDCorleyAll games are like this no matter whether they're intended to be or not.
    Maybe.

    But they pretend not to be, and groups find comfort (and even a measure of stability) in that pretense.

    I'd rather embrace that wholeheartedly.
  • I have no idea what you're talking about Levi. It sounds like you're talking about what already happens in roleplaying games but you want to change all the words around.
  • Maybe you could talk a bit about how to make good informed choices about the rules you choose to include.

    When you're playing your own game, how do you decide which elements to include? Maybe more usefully, how do you decide which elements to exclude? For bonus points, I'd explain why you bothered to even include rules in the text for things you normally exclude -- why did you include then when you yourself exclude them from play?

    That all might help provide some insight into your intended use for the rules.

    p.
  • Posted By: Bret GillanI have no idea what you're talking about Levi. It sounds like you're talking about what already happens in roleplaying games but you want to change all the words around.
    I'm talking about something that already happens in roleplaying games, yes. And I'm saying, that thing? That is the game.

    Not sure if that helps.
  • Oh wait I think I get it now. Let me think about it.
  • Posted By: Levi KornelsenPosted By: komradebobSure. It's a mentality similar to that expressed by Howard Whitehouse in his minis games, or Paddy Griffith in his Mugger Games.
    Okay... so, er, how do they explain it?
    Posted By: komradebobYou seem to want to break it out of the referee-only paradigm, though, which, IMO, is goodness-cubed.
    In my experience? Many players are ready to do this - to throw together "How to handle X" in a fashion that is just as much fun, in a let's-throw-ideas-around way, as some kinds of group character creation.

    Howard largely dodges the issue in his main rules text, other than describing the feel of the games as he plays them. I'll try to find links to freeware versions of his games, but honestly, his rules appear to be there mostly as a starting point/training wheels for the GM and a possible security blanket for the players. OTOH, I've read articles he's written for minis wargaming magazines where he basically describes his rules as "an eye towards whatever seems fun and a simple die-roll to do, well, whatever"

    IOW, a straight up, old-skool rpg mentality.

    With Paddy Griffith's Mugger Games, he makes it pretty clear from the get-go that the ref is there mostly to create applicable mechanics on the fly. From second-hand discussion ( with Howard Whitehouse and Chris Engle, among others, by way of the TMP message boards, the actual method seems to resemble a very simple set of outcomes provided by the players, officalized and possibly modified by the ref, then assigned ranges on a die which is thrown.

    So, not completely dissimilar to stake-setting. Other mechanics are created ad-hoc at the table.

    Chris E's Matrix Games are essentially a refinement on this, with more formalization.

    Interestingly, both Mugger Games and Matrix Games are, to a certain extent, a reaction to a desire for even more Simmy Goodness than wargames typically provide, in an easier-to-use format.

    Howard is more of a "fun and cinematic-in-the-Saturday-Morning-Serials-sense" guy.
  • Posted By: Paul BWhen you're playing your own game, how do you decide which elements to include? Maybe more usefully, how do you decide which elements toexclude?
    You just... Do. Okay, fast run-down (Cog Wars).

    To do something with mechanics, you make a throw - opposed roll. You name the things helping you, get dice for 'em, roll. If you win, you say what happens. Your opponent (person, place, or thing) can block your victory by taking a condition, which you describe. If the condition is big enough, they can't block.

    So far, so good?

    Okay. Now, the group decides if the actions of your character merit the victory. The conditions you place can have intentions of their own if they get big enough (though the intentions are always hostile); conditions and intentions are made up on the fly.

    The GM can also (or instead) go "hey, you can block with duration"; you can say that this victory-effect of their will only last such-and-so long - and that duration can be messed with, too.

    So, I could decide to convince the local area to not like you. Maybe this would be opposed by you. Maybe it would be opposed by a general difficulty. My success might spawn a condition on you, or on the region. Taken high enough, the condition might start doing things. Or my actions (or the condition, if active) might spawn some kind of duration-based effect.

    All these "mights" and "maybes" are handled by picking or making up whatever would best track and manage the thingummy in question, on the spot.
  • Levi: I'm still not getting it. :-( I'm sorry.

    p.
  • edited December 2008
    Selected passages from Science vs. Pluck, where H.W. gives tips for new referees:
    The primary requisites for a successful umpire are an outgoing personality, a lurid imagination and a certain deviousness around the thought process. Given these elements, being an umpire is easier than you might think!

    You do not need to be an expert on the Sudan, the British Army or, indeed anything at all. If your group contains someone who knows more than you, ask him to help run the scenario, or at least be supportive during the game when you announce that the Black Watch is a unit of African gentlemen with binoculars --- after all, you can read up on it later.
    You do not have to know all the rules at one time (your humble game designer still doesn’t!); start out by emphasizing movement, melee and firing - disorder markers and visibility checks can wait. Work on making play flow smoothely. Roll dice for no reason and get into the spirit of Free Kriegsspiel, which is German for making it up as you go along.

    [snip]
    6) Set the tone for the game. Make sure the players are ready for a genial, “social” kind of event. Some groups enjoy a roistering, “silly hats and funny voices” type of game, while others prefer a subdued, problem-solving approach with little overt role playing. Go with whatever fits the mood.
    [snip]
    11) Above all, remember that the idea is for everyone to be entertained. This might mean ‘hilarious fun’ or ‘nail-biting tension’ or ‘ironic commentary on the vanity of imperialism’ or all-of-the-above. What matters is that the umpires and players should want to do it again, with fresh ideas and inspiration. If you achieve that, it doesn’t matter how many rules you got wrong or whether the historical research was spot-on. Those things will look after themselves. Enjoyment, however, has to come first!
    Science vs. Pluck, earlier edition.

    The Astounding Tales Yahoo Group also has an early copy of the title game in the files section. It's definitely worth reading the intro and final words to get an idea of Whitehouse' style and approach to "rules".
  • Posted By: Paul BLevi: I'm still not getting it. :-( I'm sorry.

    p.
    Froth! Okay, another stab...

    Got a copy of Dogs in the Vineyard?

    Remove "Say yes or roll the dice". Explicitly allow counter-stakes, whenever the group likes. Explicitly allow all sorts of kinds of fallout as the stakes. Explicitly allow the group to frame conflicts as "this can't be escalated; we're just focusing on this part". Continue in that vein.

    All those stated constraints are there to block the group from using the mechanics to track whatever they like, whenever they wish. (In this case, because blocking them in those ways creates thematic choices. In other games, such blockages are placed for other reasons).
  • Nope, still not getting it. I promise I'm not being willfully stupid or anything!

    Start from the beginning, assuming you're talking to someone who has only ever learned how to play Risk (for example). It feels like maybe your assumptions about how "everyone" plays are so deeply ingrained that you literally can't explain rules and procedures without that shared, common understanding -- which may not be as shared or as common as you think.

    Like, when I asked how you decide which elements to include or exclude and your answer was, "You just...Do." Really? You have absolutely nothing to say to help guide a new player through those decisions?

    p.
  • Posted By: Paul BStart from the beginning, assuming you're talking to someone who has only ever learned how to play Risk (for example).
    ...Dude. You're talking about a whole chapter worth of stuff.

    I'm only trying to find a faster way to sum up and go "Look, this RPG is different in that it puts the emphasis here", when talking to other gamers.

    It's a playstyle-support difference, not a revolution.
  • Levi, have you read Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse?

    It is very specifically predicated on rules you play by versus rules you play with.

    What makes role-playing games wonderful is that they are "a little bit infinite" - there's an open loop in the rules you play by, that allows you to insert a little bit of playing-with in the form of fictional material. What makes role-playing games historically so very, very troublesome is, well, kind of implied by the inherent contradiction "a little bit infinite."
  • Posted By: misubaLevi, have you readFinite and Infinite Gamesby James Carse?

    It is very specifically predicated on rules you playbyversus rules you playwith.

    What makes role-playing games wonderful is that they are "a little bit infinite" - there's an open loop in the rules you play by, that allows you to insert a little bit of playing-with in the form of fictional material. What makes role-playing games historically so very, very troublesome is, well, kind of implied by the inherent contradiction "a little bit infinite."
    Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
    Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful.
    A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.
    A finite player consumes time; an infinite player generates time.
    The finite player aims for eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.

    ...Huh.

    Sexy.
  • edited December 2008
    Well... yeah... portions of the book lionize the infinite side of things a little too much for my taste. I mean, some boundaries are healthy, if only momentarily; if you're digging one and it gets taken away, then it's, um, highly social-context-layer dependent whether the taker is a Zen master or just an asshole.
  • Posted By: misubaWell... yeah... portions of the book lionize the infinite side of things a little too much for my taste. I mean, some boundaries are healthy, if only momentarily; if you're digging one and it gets taken away, then it's, um,highly social-context-layer dependentwhether the taker is a Zen master or just an asshole.
    Ah. I should maybe avoid it as a reference.

    Ranting from the deep end when trying to discuss playstyle is enough of a thing that I don't need to add to it.

    Er, any furher.
  • Well, it's still got plenty of crunchy bits that I think would be rewarding for RPG theory; it's just one of those philosophy books that gets a bit poetic, is all.
  • Posted By: Levi KornelsenPosted By: Paul BStart from the beginning, assuming you're talking to someone who has only ever learned how to play Risk (for example).
    ...Dude. You're talking about a whole chapter worth of stuff.

    I'm only trying to find a faster way to sum up and go "Look, this RPG is different in that it puts the emphasishere", when talking to other gamers.

    It's a playstyle-support difference, not a revolution.

    Er...don't you only really need to tell that to the indie-rpgers?

    I mean, pretty much all mainstream-only gamers I know treat rules as very, very much optional. Maybe, at best, as training wheels until they get the game+setting under their belts?
  • We run whole countries this way, indeed, whole empires.

    I figure a lot of this is social-box-meets-text and with maybe some luck, author intention actually ends up in the mix, too.

    Imagine your typical EU country. A given person is subject to civic, provincial, national, and EU law, and constitutions at those levels as well. And of course, the legislated law doesn't count for much, it's case law where the nitty really meets the gritty.

    In that metaphor, any given gaming group operates mostly via an unrecorded body of case law. "No Character Death Except by Choice" might be one group rule that will override any game text; and it may not ever be recorded or even explicitly agreed to. Canada has all the appurtenances of royalty without, really quite, actually having royalty. So they don't matter--except when they do, as when our Prime Minister recently prorogued Parliament to get out of being ousted by a coalition.

    Back to the point, even though all this stuff tends to go unrecorded, and exist only as tradition, even when it is in fact desperately important, nonetheless it seems to hang together okay. The social pressures keeping it going are effective and real.

    I really think this is a big thing with RPG's--any game, it's true, will have areas where you make judgment calls. RPG's, even fairly strict ones, are full of those judgment calls, whether they are entrusted to the GM or equivalent, or the "table" (thanks Brad, great use of synecdoche) as a whole.

  • Levi,

    Are you talking actually changing the rules or are you talking about rules that require artistry in their application. Those are two very, very different things in my book.

    For example, consider that we're playing Sorcerer and your character has just been poisoned. We want to know if you survive. That could be a Will roll vs. a handful of GM chosen dice. That could be a Stamina roll vs. a handful of GM chosen dice. It could be a Cover vs. Cover roll between your character and the person who poisoned you. Which, all depends on the fictional context of the poisoning and the player's description of how they're dealing it with.

    Just because we have to pick one based on our aesthetic commitment to the developing fiction doesn't mean we're "changing the rules." We're applying the rules.

    So you really mean *changing* the rules? Or do you mean applying the rules aesthetically?

    Jesse
  • Ah. So non-procedural rules. At one time, wasn't almost all of the RPG sphere made up of games with almost no procedural rules? Nearly all decisions ad-hoc, based on poorly articulated aesthetic criteria? I have a hard time seeing this as an advance. Possibly a refinement.

    Also, a terminology quibble. In the usage I am familiar with, "Calvinballing" denotes manipulating/changing rules in order to subvert system. Changing/manipulating procedural rules in accordance with a higher layer of system or in accordance with social contract isn't the same thing at all in my book.
  • edited December 2008
    I believe that's why "happy" has been added before the term.

    In any case, officially opening it up to the group as a whole rather than (leaving in the hands of one person/sticking one poor bastard with it), seems like an advance to me.
  • edited December 2008
    (misposted, sorry)
  • Posted By: JesseSo you really mean *changing* the rules? Or do you mean applying the rules aesthetically?
    First, I mean that many groups, in choosing to apply the mechanics they play with aesthetically, often act in contrast with the texts of the games they are playing. I don't think that's a strange statement at all.

    Second, that rules can be constructed which mesh more smoothly with, and better support, that behaviour. I also don't think that's odd.

    Third, that it's possible for a significant part of the fun of the game to come from "playing with rules" in such a fashion. Which might be a little odd to say.

    Fourth, that rules can support that, too.

    And fifth, that developing rules which do so well, and expressing it clearly, is a goal of mine.

    ...

    Note that I'm not claiming that I can report especially impressive success in this regard, any more than some existing games. Just that I can sort-of see there from here, and want to find ways to dig into that.
  • isn't this kind of self defeating?

    correct me if im misinterrepting, but you want to make a game that better supports playing with the rules and where part of the fun is playing with the rules.

    The problem is that those rules your making are going to be played with, ignored, athestically reinterpreted, etc, etc.

    I think you may be trying to tap the fruitful void or something and wondering why nothing's coming out. The closest thing I can think of is a toolkit game ,where the rules are quite explicit in saying that the game is in some very important sense not complete. So go finish it yo lazy bastards.

    If that's what your going after than all the optional rules, rules fragments , rules that rhyme with lavender (including sidebars, panels and discussions about the true intent of the rule ) doesn't help you because your trying to codify a meta concern into the topic of the meta discussion. You said it yourself

    First, I mean that many groups, in choosing to apply the mechanics they play with aesthetically, often act in contrast with the texts of the games they are playing. I don't think that's a strange statement at all.

    if the joy is in being off the leash so to speak, how is a big book ful of leash gonna help.

    it seems like your trying to write about the rules or some artistic thing when what your after is the boundry of it, While technically still part or related of the original thing (rpg's and rpg texts), all that calvinballing (which does seem to be a bit of a missnomer ) is different from them. Like satire, I can tell a subverted text from the genuine. Starting with a subverted text doesn't change this.

    Anyway those are my thoughts, best of luck with it.
  • edited December 2008
    I don't think I agree that there isn't any point in making rules that support or encourage customization, it's a matter of conveying the ethics of your rule set, the things you think should matter in your rules-space (like the oft repeated "combat in this game is lethal" phrase, or the equivalence of successes and bonus dice in Sorcerer) so that when individual tables extrapolate your rules they do so in a way that keeps the game consistent with your original intents.

    I mean often new rules fall naturally out of the rules described in the game text, without that meaning that the text is incomplete because it didn't have the rule before. If I know that a contested success in your game involves us rolling pools of dice until one of us accumulates a certain target number, and that penalties to this usually involve giving one or the other a penalty on each roll we do, then our group can have a particularly unfair contest resolved by giving each side a different target number of successes without breaking from the spirit of the mechanics. Does that rule need to be in the text? No ... because the rule in the text works fine too ... but I believe the text could be written to be more or less supportive of us adding that new rule and remaining in the spirit of the text.

    So yes ... if you make a game that's amenable to change and customization then it will get customized, but the core mechanical-style probably will not. It's like how each game of Fluxx has totally different victory conditions and rule-sets, but those rules are built from a consistent toolbox, so that in each case we are still playing Fluxx.
  • Posted By: HituroFluxx
    Oh, yeah, man.
  • edited December 2008
    Levi, have you seen my thread about rules teaching you how to break them? That's basically what you're saying here, which is similar to Fluxx. You want the group to implement new guidelines within the same tradition that you have laid out, yeah? Basically, you want to train them in the school of Dutch impressionist painting and then have them paint whatever they want, influenced by the skills you have taught them, but not completely constrained by them. It's like apprenticing to an artist, yeah? You don't want to paint exactly like them, but you want to learn enough from them that your own work gets better.

    But, specifically, in your game, the fun is similar to being, I don't know, a Fluxus artist. The fun in is playing with the medium formally, like, uh, Little Nemo in comics or certain parts of Metal Gear Solid. It's like being Humberto Eco.

    image
  • Posted By: Jonathan WaltonYou want the group to implement new guidelineswithin the same tradition that you have laid out, yeah? Basically, you want to train them in the school of Dutch impressionist painting and then have them paint whatever they want, influenced by the skills you have taught them, but not completely constrained by them. It's like apprenticing to an artist, yeah? You don't want to paint exactly like them, but you want to learn enough from them that your own work gets better.

    But, specifically, in your game, the fun is similar to being, I don't know, a Fluxus artist. The fun in is playing with the medium formally, like, uh, Little Nemo in comics or certain parts of Metal Gear Solid. It's like being Humberto Eco.
    Marry me.
Sign In or Register to comment.