Guess Who’s Coming to Donner?

Arctic Adventurers

I had a little discussion with my friend Kevin a while back on Livejournal about the place that “challenge” has in role-playing games, story games, and the like. It’s a discussion that comes up a fair amount, and Nathan took a good stab at it. I’d like to make some parallel coments.

This article grew out of that discussion. In it, he said that he was rummaging around the D&D 3.5 books to see if they still even talk about “roleplaying”. They do, a little. I challenged him that roleplaying (defined by another friend on his Lj as “giving your character a personality”) was contrary to the rules of D&D, and that you don’t need two big, hardbound books to tell you to use GM fiat for that stuff. But there are games that concentrate on that stuff, like Dogs and PTA.

He said,

But with Dogs in the Vineyard, I felt the same squishiness [as I felt in PTA]. Arbitrary amount of equipment + dice for all of it = bring in a truckload of equipment, then concoct hare-brained uses for it in-game. Better dice for big things = everything big. Add two together = my character’s Big 2d6 Hair. It still felt like the only thing holding back my character was me.

This is the perfect example of this kind of thing. See, it’s hard to find equipment that works in social situations in Dogs, plus guns automatically give you an extra die. But! Those things Kevin mentioned aren’t solutions… they’re bait! You’ve got a little girl who won’t take you to see her brother, who you know is doing grievous wrong and he’s gonna kill someone if you don’t find him. You gonna shoot her?

Let’s make some hypothetical games!
Now, let’s consider the picture at the top of this post. This is a bunch of people who traveled to the North Pole. Now, imagine a couple of ways of making a game about that situation.

1: Will they survive? In this game, we’ve got a couple of different things in opposition to us. There’s the cold, there are polar bears, and there’s a diminishing storage of supplies. These are inputs into the challenge of survival. Maybe we’ve got a list of things that can go wrong and it’s one player’s job to make life really hard, but we guarantee that the explorers can get to the North Pole and back to tell the tale. The game is played by husbanding supplies, taking risks, and planning properly.

When the supplies run out, all members of the expedition who haven’t already died, die. If they survive the experience, they get rewards. Let’s say those turn back around, so next time they’re more likely to succeed. So they have a reason to call it quits, count their blessings on their seven remaining fingers, and try again next year (which is, to say, next week on Game Night).

In summary, our goal here is to properly manage our supplies so that we can deal with the unexpected in the form of challenges made up by another player, likely a GM figure.

2: What will they do to survive? This is a different game, though the situation is the same:a bunch of explorers are going to the North Pole, but our resources, rather than representing your sleeping bags and Power Bars, are the psychological characteristics of the protagonists. In this game, you don’t win by surviving. You win by accomplishing goals you’ve set out for your character: “I want Julie to fall in love with me.” or “I want to kill Bill, that motherfucker, for Julie loving him.”

Perhaps we can even posit that we know that the party will not survive. This will end in snow blindness, murder, and cannibalism.

Furthermore, when your character dies, you don’t lose your ability to affect the story: the more you’ve affected other characters, the more say you have in what they do. Maybe you put this idea in their heads about eating Dave because he’s weak and fatty and holding us back, and they killed you for it… but you can have these dice to roll if you eat my corpse. And if you ate mine, what’s the objection to eating Dave?

In summary, our goal here is to follow up on stuff we care about as people. Moral stuff, emotional stuff.

Let’s compare.

The fictional events of these two games might wind up being exactly the same. That’s entirely possible. What’s different is the intention the players have when sitting down and whether they can use the rules of these games to get what they want. A lot of people might enjoy playing both games. I would. But here’s the thing: you can’t do both at once. If I’m playing to survive, get experience, and try again next time, and your character’s going apeshit and fucking my girlfriend and hitting me on the head with a rock while I’m sleeping and trying to eat my buddy, I’m gonna be annoyed. It’s going to be, why… it’ll be like we’re playing different games!

Likewise, if I’m thinking about our relationship, and putting dice into “You don’t deserve Julie” and you’re not giving me the opposition I need, I’ll be similarly peeved. Cuz you’re thinking, “I’m already carrying 78 pounds of gear (and suffering a -3 to all rolls because of it), and Joshua’s character has to carry the tent and 2 pounds of food, so I’m not gonna engage with his crazy shit.”

At the Forge, we call these Creative Agendas and there are three of them. These two that I’ve mentioned are called Gamism and Narrativism. The third is called Simulationism and has to do with replicating Buffy or Star Wars or My Big Binder of Fantasy Stuff in play. The reason these have been identified is because these are the things that someone wants out of play in a given game. They are not identities: I love playing Agon (which supports Gamist play) and I love playing Shock: (which supports Narrativist play). These are things I like, but they are not things that I am.

So when I sit down to play a game, I don’t want any mystery about what Agenda is being supported. D&D, GURPS, Cyberpunk, Agon, and even Fudge, don’t support a Narrativist agenda, so I don’t want to address theme while I’m playing those games. I want clear rules where the clever application of them is rewarded. Likewise, I don’t look to Dogs in the Vineyard, Prime Time Adventures, Shock:, or Breaking the Ice to prove to myself and my friends how awesome I am strategically and tactically. There may be shared elements, to be sure: a sympathetic character in a game of Agon, or figuring out how to get as many dice as I can on the table in Dogs. But these are techniques used to make play move on a moment-to-moment basis. They don’t address my Agenda at the time.

What does this mean for this week’s game?

Talk with your players and figure out what they want. Do you want character drama? That means the players are working with a Narrativist agenda this week. Does one guy want to explore a hero’s youth and what made him become a hero, but everyone else wants to slay dragons, already? It looks like you’ve got two separate potential agendas here. Maybe this week we’re playing Agon and next week we’re playing Hero’s Banner. But don’t make that guy try to tell his story by using combat rules, and don’t make everyone else play out a teenage drama when they want to be one-upping each other in bloody asskickedness. For Jebus’ sake, play different games. Don’t shoehorn one into the other. Here, I’ll say it again in its own paragraph:

Don’t use a system that doesn’t support the creative agenda of the players. Those players are flexible people; they like lots of different things. Discuss it, agree on something (and probably agree to play something else next), and play the game that does what you want to do tonight.

13 thoughts on “Guess Who’s Coming to Donner?”

  1. You are wise, sir. Long-winded too! 😉
    But you write good stuff, so you get to live. But that is the last time i go on an expedition with you! At least i got to keep the thumbs.

  2. Yeah, it was rather long for a “this is so simple!” post.

    Blame the examples. Also, blame the fact that this so badly needs people to understand it. It’s a problem that’s plagued RPGs for literally decades and has come to a head as the sensibilities of the players have matured and the games have evolved into fiction engines.

  3. Oh, i am in complete agreement with you. Its taken me a while to figure it out, too. It finally sunk in when i was half way through “statting” out a supplement for the M&M Superlink when i just stopped and literally said out loud “Why the fuck am i doing all this math and bean counting to play a game!?”. Its like i have to complete a homework assignment before i can go out and have fun or something.

  4. That is a good example of a total mismatch between what you want and what you’ve got.

    The bean counting this is really fun to some people. They like the logistical planning challenges. They like the challenge of knowing the rules really well, and probably knowing them better than their friends.

    But it’s not the only way to play a story game, and it’s certainly not the way I’d want to play a Superhero game. For that, you have to look at With Great Power….

    So, what have you learned? What do you want out of a game, Bard?

  5. Well, my tastes have evolved from when i first started gaming. I used to be a big Champions/Hero System/Palladium freak back in the days. So i am used to rule creation/altering “on the Fly”. But these days, any game that doesn’t let me get to the story creation and memory building without having to sing and dance around game mechanics to do it, arouse my ire. 🙂

    Truly, i begin to wonder if roleplaying games are even getting it done for me these days. But i’ve read a lot of game design debates/discussions on message boards and podcasts lately (Blame Sons of Kryos). So i’ve been looking at “Indie” rpgs for a little while now, to see if i just need a change of venue. Rather than just an wholesale exodus. 🙂

    Now who is long-winded! 😀

  6. What are you into? Maybe I can make some recommendations.

    Now, most of the games I know are all about mechanical support. But you sing and dancie with the, rather than around them.

    What have you liked about games you’ve played? What do you wish you could do?

  7. Well, i enjoy most genres really, though i prefer more darker or moody to four color type gaming (Hellboy vs X-men, Pitch Black vs Star trek, etc) themes. I guess i am more interested in games whose mechanics reinforce the mood and tension in the actual game. I’m not much into highly detailed combat systems that take more time resolving the conflict than the scene that started the fight.

    That is probably not very clear. I am thinking of picking up Cold City, since its “trust” mechanics and background really seem like it would fit my tastes, if that helps at all.

    Shock (what lead me here, of course) also seems very interesting, even if i’m not sure i understand what its about, completely. But it seems like what i am after.

  8. Shock: is about the moral and ethical concerns we have for our society and the high relief into which it gets thrown when radical culture change takes place. You know. Science fiction.

    My creepy internet research has led me to believe that you live not too terribly far from us here in Western Mass. We’re having a little convention over here called JiffyCon. Maybe you can hook up with some Ithacans or Rennsaleari on the way out? There’s no method better than real play to determine what you like. Plus, we go out for yummy beer and food afterward.

  9. Can you explain to me what Brechtian drama is?

    Google isn’t overly helpful:

    Brecht was both playwright and producer/director of his own, and others’, plays. He also wrote extensively on dramatic theory. You should explain his theory in terms of his practice in writing and production. You may be confused if you assume that the theory matches the reality of the plays in production. The theory, arising from a Marxist notion of drama as a vehicle for rational didacticism, describes theatre as Brecht, in a sense, wished it to become. This theory is only partly realised in his own work. Brecht would say that this is the result of the theatre’s (and society’s) not being ready yet for the final, perfected version of epic theatre. Modern theatre critics might say that Brecht’s practical sense of what works in the theatre has (happily) overruled the more extreme applications of his theory.

    I mean, as far as I can tell, he had a sociopolitical goal for his theater, which, were it a role-playing game (or an associated type of thing), would place it firmly in the realm of Narrativism: it deals with human issues. Assuming that that’s what the players do when they play the game, that’s Narrativist play.

    To be sure, the examples I have above are not directly political, but politics is Theme.

    [Edited from my underclear response on RPGtalk.]

  10. The trouble with making Brechtian technique narrativist is that the ideal in Brechtian drama is a complete lack of sentimentality. The issues are “human issues” but the emotional content of the political elements are not inherent in portrayal. That’s what makes Brecht and Stanislavski handy poles in any discussion about theatre.

    In a Brechtian take on things, the stakes would not be based on how to resolve a difficult situation, but how to express the resolution of the situation in a way that establishes a broad political position. In other words, theme happens at the *end*, not the beginning. Costikyan’s scenario was rigidly determinist for this very reason, so that you are basically deprived of choice within the setting, but when those choices happen the extremity of the scenario forces you to adopt a justifiable position. The story is not actually about anything except for the situation until those elements come up. For example,(Brecht’s play) The Caucasian Chalk Circle has one character who you might sympathize with, because she’s lost a child — but you’re not supposed to. The character is a cipher for something bigger and is supposed to exhibit that in play.

    Brecht’s focus on Chinese theatre and intentional alienation might be a handy tool for this kind of thing. Brecht saw these as ways to emphasize the artificiality of the dialectic.

    You could fold these into narrativism, but it would not really do justice to the form, given that it is acknowledged in other disciplines as being distinct from sentiment or even conventional moral tales.

  11. In a Brechtian take on things, the stakes would …[be]… how to express the resolution of the situation in a way that establishes a broad political position.

    That’s a matter of system support for competing views. I’m more confident now that this is unusual, but downright fun.

    The core question of Narrativist play is “Can the players make the primary moral choices in play?”

    Choosing (probably by mechanical process) which political statements are made is hardcore moral choice in play. Sentiment is only one tool for Narrativist play; it’s certainly not required, and this is firmly in the realm of the moral dialogue that emerges through play.

    Now, if the political statement is pre-generated by one player and the other players are just along for the ride, that’s not Narrativism at all. If everyone knows what’s going on, if no one thinks they can make a political statement but are cooperating to illustrate someone else’s vision, I’m inclined to say that that would be Simulationist play: you’re replicating and exploring something preëxisting. But I doubt that’s what you’re talking about.

    One question will help me understand better: has this game ever been played? Or was this game a thought experiment?

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