Irony: An Outcome Contrary or Converse to the Expected

The heart of every moment in Shock: is its potential for irony. That irony comes from the toothy compromises you make as you create your world, as your *Tagonists resolve Conflicts, as Audience alter outcomes, as a Protagonist approaches their Terminus.

These articles are part of the process of working toward Shock:2 and I’d love your help. Subscribe to the xenoglyph Patreon to start getting stuff playable!

But those moments aren’t where the players decide that they’ll concede a point “for the sake of the story” or “for the sake of the game”. They’re compromises between the ideal outcomes of the players, in a proportion determined by the outcome of the mechanics of the game.

Not a Cost, but a Compromise

In a game of Gō, players don’t compromise because they want the game to go on longer, or because they want to savor the drama. They make compromises because every move you make necessitates a response from one’s opponent, and eventually you see on the board a drawing of your compromise: the borders between your areas of control that (along with the pile of captured stones) tells the story of the conflict.

In a roleplaying game, those open, internal spaces might be moral stances. Above, Black might have had to give up the moral assertion on the right (“Family comes first”) in order to capture the top center (“I can only do right if I’m in a position of power to do so,”) and the bottom right (“One must pay for one’s wrongdoing.”) White has made compromises appropriate to its own context that has evolved in play.

Where, exactly, in the imagined moral space one winds up by the Terminus in a game of Shock: is determined by the play. Your plans do not give you a right to specific outcomes. That means that the outcomes can be different from your intentions though you may find the outcome satisfying.

Concession is not Compromise

Despite the position Shock: is given in the history of Story Games, it does some things really differently than many of its descendants do. A lot of that misinterpretation comes from my inability to describe my objectives for the game at the time. A lot more comes from the obfuscatory language the Story Game scene wound up using, like “The object is to have fun,” or, “There’s no way to lose,” or, “The object is to tell a story.”

Those assertions are untrue of Shock: Like many roleplaying games, you can lose a game of Shock: in two ways: by your Protagonist failing to get what they were after (or, more often, the achievements of the Protagonist not changing the world in the way they expected), or by the story turning dull to the players.

The second failure mode, dullness, comes about as a result of player inflexibility, of making demands of the events of play other than those that evolve. The game fails to gain momentum when players exceed the recommended setup time, building a world with no room for characters or events to influence it. At other times, it shakes apart when players refuse the outcomes of the dice and softpedal the resolution of stakes. When I discover techniques that might reduce the likelihood of the dull kinds of failure, I can implement them, but Shock: is a toolkit for making personally affective science fiction stories. If you break it, it will stop being personally affective or, if it is, you’ve just designed yourself a new game and should tell everyone how it works so they can do it, too. (See: Mars Colony, by Tim Koppang) And sometimes there’s simply no creative chemistry, or there was a misunderstanding between players that sapped their social courage. Or players can’t agree on the tone of the game.

In the case of Protagonist (as opposed to player) loss, though, my job, as designer, is to make it so that pursuing your objective, hard as it may be to accomplish, is a fun game to play. Like, I don’t want to make a game that’s only fun to play when you win, right? Who would want to play that? That’s a game that breeds bad sports who I don’t want to have to sit down at a convention table with.

Shock: finds that fun in the spaces between “What I want” and “What I thought I wanted.” Those spaces, the vacuums and eddies induced by players moving the fiction in ways that don’t directly oppose each other, are where Shock: play takes place. Figuring out how to maximize those moments is my challenge as I move toward Shock:2.

The Fun Of Grudging Acceptance

Compromise is interesting because it is difficult. If a game features coöperation without compromise, the game does not include coöperation at all, but some sort of social dominance. It might effectively be a single-player game where the players come to a social agreement through an undesigned procedure to decide what to do based on the social consequences of pursuing one’s extraludal interests. That is, you do what the most experienced player or the player with the most forceful personality says to do because the consequences of defying them is that you’re the reason you all lost or you’re the reason we got in an argument.

But as soon as players need to compromise with each other’s in-game interests with in-game currency, things get interesting. You have the means and opportunities to thread needles, to plainly defy each other, to seek advantage in your plurality. That can only come about in non-zero-sum games, which is why Shock: requires all Intents to be mutually compatible.

That is, a game that says, for instance, “When your character trusts another character more, add a die to your ability to help them. If they move against you, though, they roll those dice against you,” might be an emotionally difficult, affective game that requires informed consent to play, but it’s far safer for the players than actually betraying your real friend where there are no apparent bounds on means or motive.

You play Shock: to find where that compromise happens and what unintended consequences show the nature of the compromise; what the Protagonists were, in the end, willing to accept in pursuit of their objectives; what they gained; what they lost, perhaps including their objective. And those compromises only matter in the context of those objectives, the relationships of the *Tagonists, and their Links. Generating that context is the reason play works. It’s the reason that Antagonist players don’t say, “OK, you want to convince the Replicant leader that you’re a Replicant. I want the universe to get sucked into a black hole.”

The black hole, in that context, is a smaller, more distant, and irrelevant threat. But if the Antagonist says, “The Replicant leader wants to send you back to the police station,” suddenly you have an opinion. The police station is a bigger threat than a universe-swallowing black hole because it’s within the context. To go big in Shock: is to go close. To go small and personal and fine-tune the threats to the interests of the Protagonists.

Like many indie RPGs from the mid-200*s, the Shock: text is ambivalent about the nature of those compromises. Specifically, it was a time when players were glutting on tragedy after decades of experiencing RPGs as a tension between triumphalism and frustration. But Shock: gives you the tools to cast a person you really dislike as a Protagonist, conspiring with the Antagonist player to make their character bleed, or redeem themselves, or make right the wrong they’ve committed.

But what happens if your shitty Protag wins? Sometimes that happens! And what about when your Protagonist represents your hopes and dreams, and then they all turn to smoke?

It took me a long time to start feeling good about the question of whether it was legit — if it would result in a fun game — to “play to lose”. But I’ve experienced many Shock:games where this stuff happens and they come out just fine specifically because we don’t have to agree that we want it to agree that it happened, that it was a powerful set of events. The shitty Protag reflects an injustice that the player feels is real, and the game turns out to be an example of that injustice, with the fiction as a metaphor that describes it. And when your Protagonist represents your hopes and dreams and they fail in their objective, it says much the same thing.

In those cases, it is the outcome of the character’s arc, cast against the player’s explicit hopes, that give the game teeth of irony.

The way it doesn’t work is when you try to do “what’s right for the story”, not angling for what your Protagonist wants. Let the Audience do their job: make sure things fit together according to their editorial impulses. Let the Antagonist do their job: place self-revealing choices in front of you.

And then pursue your Protagonist’s interests.

Do Not Adjust Your Set

At each moment in Shock: the Protagonist players ask themselves these questions to make sure they’re doing what they set out to do:

  • What do I want, given the current context?
  • How do I feel about what my opposition wants?
  • What can I do so the fickle Audience will slide their Minutia dice my way?

Before games like The Pool, Dogs In the Vineyard, and Shock:, “What I want” had, historically, been something that RPGs didn’t want to touch. But the advent of Conflict Resolution (in contrast to Task Resolution) started to change the design landscape. Very often, the solution came in the form of stakes and fallout. Those remain an important part of Shock: play and will probably, in some way, remain in Shock:2 because I want every scene to simultaneously reveal something about the characters and setting, and the players want to provide material that, in retrospect, will have been the plot of the story.

All three concerns are devoted to establishing expectations among all the players. Like the setup of a joke, they are there to be violated in such a way that the outcome makes sense, but surprises everyone involved.

We Control the Horizontal

At each moment in Shock: the Antagonist players ask themselves these questions:

  • Which of the Protagonist’s interests — their Terminus and Links — are threatened by the Protagonist’s actions or neglect?
  • How do characters and events transpire in such a way that the Protagonist will have an opinion about them worthy of their action?
  • How do I connect the events in such a way that my own stakes will require the Protagonist to decide?

We Control the Vertical

At each moment in Shock: the Audience players ask themselves these questions:

  • What outcome is funny to me?
  • What’s amazing? How do I shine a spotlight on it?
  • What makes sense in this context?

All three of these roles are invested in the production of the joke structure of the game: establishing context and expectations, then violating them while retaining context.

Vertical Disintegration

Among these roles, the least creatively productive is the Audience role, but not irreparably. It puts players on the spot to create before a Conflict can be resolved, requiring them to be creative without knowing that their role will even allow them to express their ideas. While many Audience-borne Minutiæ have blown players away (sociosexual hosting etiquette among Europan prospector families, Time Traveling Abraham Lincoln, weird alien bioweather), many more have fallen flat (“Uh, I dunno, but I rolled a 4, so, uh, it doesn’t work?”). I think this is partly a problem with the order of operations and partly with my earlier reluctance to let fictional events take the lead in the procedures of play. I strongly suspect that Audience players might have to roll before anything happens in a scene, as they describe a cool phenomenon that’s going on, and then they tell the players what they would have to do to gain the die for their own. You can see some of this working in The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, and you can also see its origin in Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast & Starlit when a move is Difficult.

And, in general, that’s how I expect Shock:2 to work. The creation of expectations necessarily happens in the fiction, which then must inform the formal procedures what to do when the fiction has characteristics worthy of formal action. The violation of those expectations, taking place also in-fiction, seems to be where Shock: already works best. Minutiæ can be used, then, to either gain advantage and, if they behave themselves, continue to suddenly alter the outcome of events.

I look forward to altering the creative process and seeing Shock: becoming “Science Fiction, Socially”.

The only Solarpunk RPG I've ever seen.
The Fifth World is on my very short list of real science fiction RPGs. It sits with FreeMarket, Paranoia, and Shock: and not much else.

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