May 30 2011

My trouble with fiction

I have a problem. It’s not your problem. What I describe below as the effects of my problem are not necessarily your effects. But whenever I find that I think a certain way, I wonder if I am not a category (since it seems less likely that I am absolutely alone, as the internet constantly proves for sexual preferences). So I’m going to talk about my problem with the hope that it might explain larger scale behaviour in some gaming subcultures.

I don’t like fantasy gaming much. It’s okay for an evening or two, but it has a…lightness, I guess, that I don’t like in large doses. I don’t mind refereeing it, though. In fact I like doing that a whole lot. I love science-fiction and modern gaming.

When I was fifteen, the obvious reason for this was that I was vastly smarter than all other gamers and that I had deeper and more meaningful interests that were explored in science-fiction, rather than the escapist and romantic interests present in fantasy settings. Obviously this argument has holes in it, and these became apparent when I went to college and discovered that I wasn’t all that smart.1 In fact I regularly encountered people I respected brain-wise who loved fantasy.

More recently I discovered that I don’t like fiction all that much. I like it as a critical pursuit — I like thinking about it, disassembling it, tracing references, researching the author’s background and intentions. But I don’t much like just submerging myself in most fiction. There are exceptions. Some are laudable and many are embarrassing. I can’t explain my preferences. But certainly one thing I don’t like at all is fantasy fiction. And I have a very low tolerance for bad fiction. Or even weak fiction. Except for those aforementioned embarrassing bits.

Recently I thought about both of these things, wondering if there was a connection. I think there is.

When I game, I don’t read the fiction. If it’s a fantasy game, I skip the setting sections or if I read them, it’s a chore. Actually, even if it’s an sf game I probably fall asleep in the background material. I really don’t give a shit. And when I realized that was my default behaviour, I got a big fat clue about my preferences.

If I don’t read the fiction for an sf game, I can still count on a ground-state reality that is part of the setting. That means that I can, as a character, plan and plot in detail using knowledge I have with the certainty that anything derived from facts is also a fact. If my character has access to the information underpinning the fabrication of gunpowder, I can find a way to make gunpowder. This is essential to my fun: I like to construct solutions that are outside the framework of the combat system or even the skill system. I like to manipulate my knowledge of reality to create solutions. When this works, the dice rarely hit the table to solve a problem.2

Unfortunately, I can’t count on this ground-state in fantasy. Any given piece of the puzzle might be arbitrarily barred to me — it could be (and often is) that gunpowder “just doesn’t work” in the game setting. But I need to know the setting in detail (and, worse, in similar detail to my knowledge of the real world) in order to have my kind of fun. But the setting information is boring the hell out of me. Hence, no fun.

This suggests a counter-example that illuminates the situation for me even more: I do like fantasy with strong player authority over the setting. I really enjoy myself if there is a mechanism for me to state facts. Maybe that’s why I still break out Nine Princes in Amber occasionally, despite (apparently) hating fantasy fiction: the arbitrary gunpowder logic problem in the setting (gunpowder doesn’t work in Amber) is subverted by what amounts to a player authority mechanism in the fiction (I’m still talking about the novels here–it’s just that Corwin has a kind of player authority): Corwin finds (creates, declares as fact) a material through his arbitrary magical powers that behaves exactly like gunpowder when it’s in Amber. That’s my kind of solution.

And it’s a solution that has a narrative that aligns with my interests: even though I (player) didn’t go through the logic of making gunpowder, I (the character) did as part of my story explaining my declaration (there is another magical way to make gunpowder that I am clever enough to know about). Being able to declare truths in the context of the fiction is as powerful for my fun as being able to rely on truths I already know. This also explains why I’m not averse to running fantasy games at all — as referee I have that declarative power practically by definition.

This probably underscores another problem and, in a way, my aversion to fantasy is a solution to it: when I do start to understand the setting material for a fantasy game and yet am denied declarative authority within the setting, I will hunt edge cases. Places where the story breaks down under logic and yields unintended super-powers. And these places must exist because, logically, fantasy is necessarily broken: the fiction is a limited fabric (it must be — reality is so very much bigger) that cannot hold its shape beyond the intended focus of attention. This makes me a dick at most tables, and I don’t like being that guy.

So I don’t go there any more.

–BMurray

  1. This is not strictly true. I discovered in college that I was pretty smart but also that I was surrounded by peers as well as superiors — I was certainly no longer unique or even close to it. Bear in mind I was (and probably still am) measuring others’ intellect by my own experience with people. So no intellect was actually being measured.
  2. I am certain that many a referee who has tried to manage my behaviour has vowed never to let me near their table again. This is part of why I describe my preference as a problem.

Feb 14 2011

Ideas regarding theory and theoryism

You are probably familiar with the Big Theory and The Forge and Simulationism. I’m not, really, but rather am more in the larger camp of people who are vaguely aware of it, have been baffled by a couple of the essays, impressed by a couple more, but generally uninterested in further discussion of it/them. I’ve been in flamewars related to it and have thought about it a great deal. I have two significant problems with it and I don’t think either are controversial and neither are really direct criticism of it (which is good because I have already admitted partial bafflement) or its application. I think, however, that discussing these issues might be revealing on two axes, which we will see are further multiplied. We will discuss many axes, none of which are actual axes.

I will talk specifically about Simulationism, without discussing it in detail, because I don’t understand it. I don’t, however, care much about what it means exactly, because my complaints are at once tangential to and deeper than just criticising its definition.

My first problem is political. We will pause while you laugh this off as obvious.

The political problem starts at “ism”. I have talked about this before but I do a lot of technical writing and sometimes repetition is powerful. So here you go. The problem with isms is that they create ists.

This is not the intent of the Grand Model. I think it’s even stated explicitly several times. It doesn’t matter, however, because it’s like saying you didn’t expect water damage when you turned on the sprinkler system. That’s what happens, even if you intended something different. That’s what happens even when you accomplished the explicit goal.

This is because isms are about ists. The suffix means that. The language works that way. So when you describe and ism it is automatic that readers think about whether they subscribe to it as a philosophy and whether their sworn enemies do. They become ists or counter-ists as soon as they barely understand the ism. It takes genuine intellectual work to not do this and (HMI1 auditor hat on) it is broken to force people to do that work. You have given the wrong tool because this one makes ists.

So my first beef with Simulationism (and the other isms in the Humungous Idea) is that it is intrinsically, by feature of the language, divisive. It does not declare what it intends to declare (though I suspect the word and specifically its suffix was not chosen at random and did indeed intend exactly this at first) and instead has destructive side effects. Words matter.2

My second strangely tangential problem (today) is that the attempts to define Simulationism are amazingly muddy and bizarre. Learned adherents describe multiple contradictory things as definitive of Simulationism. The essay appears to say several things and one can’t help but wonder if it’s not really a bucket for “everything else” or “stuff that doesn’t fit elsewhere”. However, the quality of this and related essays is not really what I’m interested in here. My problem is (again linguistic, in a way) that it’s an especially distracting mis-use of the word “simulation”.

All games are simulations.

All games attempt to simulate something. They can be more or less abstract and the subject being simulated can even be more or less abstract. But they are all simulations and so all game designers (and most players) are in this sense simulationists. Our hobby is simulating things. What simulation seems to be asserting, however, is that certain kinds of simulation are favoured. And this is muddy because the thing being simulated is pinned down on at least two axes, and the position on each axis is a range and not a point. And so there is a kind of region of simulation for any given game that is the polygon created by connecting these points (somewhere between square occupying the whole graph and a point for some hypothetical laser-sharp game). If you try to graph your favourite games I think you will see just how muddy this space is.

I’ll offer two axes to play with (be careful with these axes3). A game simulates some range of conceptual space between Setting and Theme. It also simulates some range of tactical space between Story and Physics.

The conceptual space is the space that the game simulates as a whole. This is what, as a gestalt 4, the game intends to fabricate. For example, a Star Trek game probably tries hardest to simulate the setting of the old TV show5. A clever one might, however, identify the theatrical dramatic structure of the old series and the way in which it is mirrored in a lot of written science-fiction at the time. One might want to pin down that essential feature, where a modern issue is addressed by cloaking it in space+alien+gadgets. This is a far more thematic space.

So I think we can easily see how any given game might express its dedication to this kind of simulation as an interval rather than a point, though of course degenerating to a point. Joshua C. Newman’s fascinating work, Shock: Social Science Fiction is close to a point on the thematic scale, and pretty far down the extreme. Most games are more likely to lean towards a small range on the setting side. Actually now I’m wondering if this isn’t its own graph — those intervals imply multiple axes.6 Oh well, I’ll leave that for another day maybe.

The other axis of simulation is more familiar. This is the opposition of story simulation and physical simulation. These do need to be in opposition because every attempt I have seen to reconcile them has been crap. It looks like a rocket on a submarine. Rockets are cool. Submarines are cool. Rocket-powered submarines are awesome, but not in the sense of “useful”.

FATE is ostensibly a story simulator, using aspects to simulate effects by drawing them into play only when there is a dramatic outcome and paying with drama-enabling currency. It is also one of the most common submarines to suddenly sport rockets. I’ve bolted a few rockets on it myself occasionally (though for meta-genre7 reasons).

D&D is a physical simulation. You can tell because when you criticize the system you ask questions like “would that really happen?” and “would it really hurt that much to fall 10 feet?” You never ask “why do I have to make a saving throw if both outcomes are boring?” You make a saving through because a physical effect is being simulated. You drank two potions. Now we find out what happens when you mix them. In your belly. Actually that’s not a good example of “boring” but it does underline physical simulation–a very different question is being asked and answered. Its justification is always the simulation of physical action. By contrast the story simulation is justified by pursuing the drama.

So that’s my issue with Simulationism. It’s a petty diatribe in a way — it’s the wrong word and it hides an essential and complex truth about games, and maybe that’s not all that interesting. Certainly, with my own understanding of simulation, you are stuck saying “oh I like this more sometimes but this more other times, and this other bit always irritates me” rather than “I am a Simulationist and you are a Gamist. Prepare to die, even though these two isms are actually intuitively very similar but you are trying to win while I am trying to create verisimilitude though I do also very much want to win within the context of this verisimilitude but I might win by dying at the right time, even though that might be treading on the space of the Narrativist and he and his might kill me in my sleep, for they are cowards but ruthless.”8 Or something like that.

–BMurray

  1. Human Machine Interface
  2. Hilarious allusion noted for posterity.
  3. Pink Floyd, for some of you.
  4. Bonus points for using “gestalt” I think.
  5. There is only one Star Trek, of course.
  6. Do you need to express these two design intentions as opposing? Does simulating setting better reduce the ability to simulate theme? Am I using “theme” correctly? I think there may be cases where setting and theme are interdependent but also many cases where they are not or where setting is deliberately absent from the game design and so not relevant. I’ll mark this as fuzzy and ill-thought. Remember that this blog is free.
  7. Note to self: talk about meta-genre some day. While there are genres of fiction like “science-fiction” there are also meta-genres in games. That is, a game might be in the genre of science-fiction but it (say Diaspora for example) might also be a meta-genre of games that emulate a particular kind of science-fiction–the meta-genre consists of games and not stories.
  8. I have deliberately mischaracterized these for much the same reason that I spell “definaaaaeeeeate” the way I do.

May 21 2010

Stunts (really)

So last night we did a playtest session of Soft Horizon. A playtest session usually means that we do a “first session” and then talk about the results and about mechanism and then maybe divide up duties to progress the project. If the last session was a “first session” then it will be a regular session instead and we’ll probably discuss mechanism in the context of our play. We haven’t been together for a Soft Horizon game for a while, so last night was a “first session”.

No, this is not another trick post that appears to be about stunts and then turns out to be about Herman Melville.

So we got cool characters and places. We have a world that is an enormous living buddha, his lap forming a still ocean and his head crowned with castles. We have a place where the mountains move as slow, slow, giant things lumber across the world. We have a place where winds whistle and flute through the intricate caverns that men now inhabit and where they harness the wind for power — one of these caves crosses the planes, terminating in the buddha’s ear, and is to him the soft whisper of the shakahachi. We have a character who has vowed to never again lead his clockwork armies in war and whom the gods envy. We have a terrible fighter of the monsters at Spyglass, now seeking peace. And we have a diplomat known to everyone who can broker bargains between the very elements but who cannot find for himself a goal worthy of effort.

Big stuff! This game is ostensibly FATE, though there are deep changes, huge elisions, and constant debate over whether Fudge dice are right for it (they still are, for carefully and repeatedly considered reasons). There are skills with a crafted structure that is even more pyramid than the pyramid (that is, even more deliberately designed to guide into the apex skill). And there are aspects, though again with more structure, using the scope concept from Diaspora as a central feature on the character sheet.

There are no stunts.

But maybe there are. See, stunts are so nebulous in definition that this other thing we have, Duty, can easily be called a stunt without confusion.

A stunt is, in its heart, an ancient form of game-design complexity. It has some deep-rooted appeal in human brains. It is permission to break a rule. It has boundaries: you can only break this rule, and you can only do it in this fashion or at this time. When you get “taken out”, if it happens off-screen, you can show up in the next scene, dusting yourself off (under some circumstances, taken out for just means “skip to the next scene” rather than “out of the game”). You can use your Surgery skill for Laser Weapons when fighting the animals you studied for years (probably humans). Once per session you can use your Amazing Thing as though it were any piece of gear (you are not strictly bound by the implicit logic of gear: that a thing does what you think it does and that you only have things you say you have).

I say ancient because I can trivially trace it to chess, where pawns have at least three stunts I can think of (they attack on a different axis than they move, they can kill in passing in very special circumstances, and if they reach certain squares they change into a more powerful piece) and the king-rook pair have one (the formalized dance of castling). But many (most?) games have something like it. Some use it heavily (card exceptions in Monopoly spring to mind, as do instruction squares in Candyland) and some are almost composed of the concept (Magic: The Gathering where every card is a kind of stunt/exception and the basic rules are in manipulating these exceptions).

You could also look at stunts (and all these other examples — I want to keep the mapping) as new and highly specialized rules that have owners. Sometimes the owners are tied to a game artifact (a space on the board or a kind of playing piece) which is a weak version, and sometimes the owners are the players (a card or a character feature) which is a stronger version.

Obviously, looking at them this way and with the eye of a software designer, these look like patchwork kludges glued into the system as it evolved over time as ways to make the rules more finicky, more novel, and more distinct per player/place/time. They are cheap ways to increase the need for mastery, I guess, as they are all special cases you have to know about. However, because they are pervasive, they are no longer this thing because they are also now an expected part of game design. So now we have mechanisms that attempt to undo the mastery requirement: in chess you still need to know about en passant, an obscure rule for novices, but in Magic: The Gathering precise instructions for how to wield your exception are printed right on the playing piece that grants it to you.

Now with that as the core concept of stunt, FATE stunts have two problems that I have danced around before. If you own Diaspora, you already know part of that dance. First, because they are unrelated kludges, they become shopping lists. I don’t like shopping lists in most of my gaming. Second, they lack a deep relationship to the rest of the system.

However, beyond being just kludges and expected, they deliver something useful and are analogous to something interesting (precisely because they are not deeply related to the system): they differentiate the character by giving him something novel even within the rules (because they are exceptions) and they provide a way to make exception/supernatural/magical powers be analogously exceptional in the rules. To analyze this further would require deep wondering about what magic really is in games — to think about why we try to balance it and attach costs to it that are far more onerous than we would apply to mundane skills. Doing that makes us further think hard about the nature of supernature and decide whether it is appropriate to treat magic as an exception. In some settings the answer will be YES! In others NO! I think rarely will the answer be other than all-capped and exclaimed. Well maybe you can damp no.

So in Soft Horizon one of the unspoken conceits is that magic is absolutely, totally, understandably, consistently, real. It is not an exception to natural law. It is part of (if not the basis of — there is no science skill, after all, but there is a sorcery skill) nature. It is therefore not appropriately a stunt in this game. It nonetheless needs constraining because all natural skills have constraints — it’s just that the ones we are actually familiar with have constraints like “physics” which we understand at least intuitively. I can’t use my talent for firearms to conjure a bunny. But, unconstrained, I could probably convincingly narrate puncturing my enemy’s liver with magic.1 So there’s no intuitive constraint but a constraint is necessary. We solved that with a couple of rules and observations and it’s not what this post is about. I’ll tease though: magic only operates on elements, which are different per plane and the character sheet is drawn such that the place sorcery resides on it implies things about what it does and to who.

So, anyway, we don’t have a strong need for stunts in the usual sense. Here’s what we do have, though: characters in Soft Horizon are propelled through story by their Duty. Duties have three components: an obligation, a punishment for failure, and a power. The obligation is doable but requires deliberate action. The punishment is harsh but negotiable. The power is interesting, engaging the player.

Obligations include things like changing a statistic on a plane: your duty demands that you organize the entropic or return natural dominance to the satanic mills.

Punishments are all of the form: achieve your obligation or be taken out. When taken out you can always negotiate a concession. So when you fail you can retire your character or establish some new complication to her life and her world. But you have to do something, and something big.

And the powers are cool. In a lot of cases they are pure player-stroking, which I recently discovered is amazingly satisfying in play. You want to make players feel like their characters achieved something really important? Have an NPC that they like tell them that they are awesome. Seriously that’s it. No gold pieces, no experience points, no fate points, no level-ups, no potions, no coins, no dinguses. Have a kid come up to them after a successful mission and exclaim she wants to be just like you when she grows up! You want proof that this works? Fire up World of Warcraft or you XBox or practically any other multi-million dollar gaming property (unlike our austere and therefore comparatively under-explored niche). Now look at achievements. For the most part all they do is announce to others that you’re special. Other players. They codify bragging rights, and they are generally adored. Well, so implies the flow of money, anyway.

So while some powers are mechanical to provide certain niches not appropriate to skills (like Horizonwalker, whose power is the ability to move between planes without using a gate), most are things like “Everyone knows you” or “If you want to talk to a god, the god wants to talk to you”. These are narrative attaboys that constantly apply as well as being story facilitators. In a way they are bits of authority stripped from the referee — a character with the Noble Role is known everywhere — the referee can’t contrive a place where she is unknown unless the player is complicit because the player owns that fact.2

So are Duties stunts? Well, we didn’t call them stunts, so maybe not. But they fill a similar role. They differentiate, certainly. They provide the player with ownership of a piece of the rules (or an exception to them, depending on your viewing angle). So yeah, kinda. Kinda not. But most stunts are kinda and kinda not. They are aggravating little kludges that reek of shitty design. And they rock.

–BMurray

  1. Actually this reveals that a “magic” skill is a lot more like a “physics” skill than a “firearms” skill, implying the ability to manipulate all physics. So specialization is a way to limit magic as a skill without making it a list of exceptions too.
  2. Yeah yeah rule zero. Of course the GM (really the table authority, but some like the pointy hat that you get when the table pretends the authority is solely invested) can override this and change the rules. So what. Everyone can and does do that. As a designer I only care what my rules say. What you do with them is your business. Rule zero is the most obvious, boring, and useless statement ever. It’s like saying you’re allowed to play cards instead if you want to. Duh.

Feb 22 2010

Story and RPG and protagonism

Warning: this may ramble.

There is a lot of work on the table that tries to understand role-playing games in terms that we already know from trying to understand story. We’ve been trying to understand story (and story has been changing over this time, but also not, if you get my meaning here) for a really long time and so it seems natural to apply this knowledge to role-playing games. They do look like stories, after all. Well, at least after we finish playing and think about what happened, we hear a story in our heads. When we type up an actual play report, we present a story.

When I listen to the audio of an evening’s play, however, I mostly hear a social event in which a game is being played and some great scenes are being described. In a way it’s rather more like geeks talking about a film they loved and re-hashing their favourite parts than it is like an actual story.

So when people use theory to try and make role-playing games better at delivering story, I have to wonder if that’s really on the right track. Maybe role-playing games shouldn’t be stories.

The reason this struck me recently (it has struck me in the past too) is because we are in the process of critiquing the Game That Still Has No Name But Likely Will Be Called Hollowpoint or Ruthless (GTSHNNBLWBCHOR) and one of the criticisms external to play experience is that the tactically solid choice of sacrificing a character for resources and consequently getting a new character de-protagonizes the character. It creates a greater disjunct between player and character than we normally expect. The unstated implication of this critique is that this is a bad thing.

So this actually has several hidden premises which I will try to reveal in order to understand why this issue is not actually an issue in play.

One premise is that being the protagonist is a valuable story element to bring to a game. This is the deepest laid premise I think and one which is taken for granted in most games, so let’s look at it.

A tabletop game with four or five people interacting is not usually about a single hero and her sidekicks. Instead it is less artificial and more natural: it is about people who perceive themselves as the central element of the story even though they are not. This does not work well in a traditional story because the author is trying to forge a relationship between the reader and the story and the cheapest and most effective way to do that is to have her identify strongly with a character. We might call this character the protagonist. So having half a dozen protagonists dilutes the effect of the story by trying to sell the reader on investing in multiple characters. The difficulty here multiplies if the characters have opposing motivations, asking the reader to sympathise not just with multiple characters but with mutiple distinct perspectives.

So, from this we have to conclude that when a role-playing game is not explicitly about a single protagonist and her henchmen, we have a disjunct between traditional story-telling and what we want for fun play at the table. Fortunately, however, we are not speaking to a single reader — the whole table comprises a communal audience-as-author — and so we are not bound by elements of storytelling that assume one. As this is a novel (though not unique) form of entertainment — a story that is told only through its construction and that therefore has to be compelling in its mechanism (the process of construction) as well as in its output (the story, though clearly we want a better word) — it perhaps merits a more novel analysis.

This doesn’t speak to the fact that a player might want to cling to a character. That’s all cool and should have a reward attached so that they get something for fulfilling that desire, so that they don’t feel that striving for it is pointless. But shucking it does give you something that clinging to it doesn’t: the heroic sacrifice. If we hold the player-character connection (protagonization) as a sacrosanct feature of gaming, then we lose the capacity to have a heroic sacrifice, an ironic fatality, and all that other good stuff in the middle of play. And (as we will see) if we assume “play” means “long-term play” then we can only have it if we wait a long time first. And then we risk only doing it when we’re bored of the character, perhaps deflating our experience of the irony or the sacrifice.

The other premise is that this character will last longer than one or two sessions. If the game is run as a one-shot, then there is no strong binding between player and character anyway. This seems to allow us to emphasize the “life is cheap” motif of the game and deliver samurai-story gaming rather than long term heroic gaming. For sure there is no “hero’s journey” to be had here. There are no heroes, period.

Now this is not to say that feeding the character-player connection is universally (or even usually) wrong! Far from it. It’s a design principle that is common for good reason. Indeed it’s arguably the primary reason for all character advancement systems (the zero-to-hero model has always smelled like horseshit to me in the context of gaming, but that’s another post). But we need to occasionally wonder if there’s not some other things to experience that are also fun by dissociating ourselves just a little. By reveling in the superstructure in which characters play their roles as well as in the characters themselves.

I think that’s the place where GTSHNNBLWBCHOR wants to be. Emphasizing that life is cheap, that fatality is a tool, that you can’t sustain an adrenaline rush forever, and that the new guy, arriving with a history, has a story too.

–BMurray


Feb 12 2010

Agency

So I feel a little guilty.

A little.

Sometimes when JB and I get together for lunch we talk about games. You know, specific games, gaming theory, mathematics, social effects, what we like, what we don’t like, that kind of thing. It’s fun. It’s productive.

Now, JB is working on a game so sometimes we talk about his game. We don’t do this very often — you know, we’ve done it a couple of times. Things is, each time we’ve come up with something cool, I’ve stolen it. The first big one was Deluge where I stole the whole post-apocalyptic community salvaging idea. I consoled myself that it was sufficiently different from what he wanted that he’d probably still be my friend. Now Deluge was just an experiment (at least partly in licensing) and so it’s not expected to sell millions of copies. And it isn’t. So that’s cool — JB’s game isn’t going to deal with a market that’s already seen this.

The other day, though we came up with a pretty cool idea. Basically, if you start with a big wack of dice, how about you donate some to a communal pool that represents “teamwork”? And when you want to act you can take some dice from there. Nifty I suppose. Now what if when you did that you got to tell one of the other players that they are helping you and you were encouraged to order them around? So they’d buck. And what if, should they tell you, “Fuck that,” the dice are destroyed? So there’s both a tactical and a social stake in the process. That strikes me as pretty funny and I figured my table would engage it enthusiastically.

So I went home and banged out a couple thousand words that would serve as a playtest document. And then last night we played. And it rocked.

So of course now I’m thinking that this is a pretty fun little game and I’d like to share it and maybe make back a fraction of my time in cash and, well, do some artwork too, and maybe come up with a cool little layout for it and…yes, it’s another project. I stole from JB and made a thing again.

Sorry, man.

–BMurray


Feb 5 2010

Mumble mumble narrative authority

As soon as you say “narrative authority”, a large body of gamers get all sweaty. After last night’s session of Deluge (played with A Dirty World for the system again), I wonder about the immediate rejection narrative authority sometimes suffers. I wonder this because I’m not sure it’s actually all that novel an idea, so I wonder what the adamant persons on both “sides” are actually on about.

I don’t often get a chance to play. I’m very frequently the GM. But recently the others at my table have been more and more eager to take up the mantle, and so I’m playing, and so I’m thinking about playing. Here’s one of the thinks I thunk. In A Dirty World, your character’s capabilities are always changing because when you lose a contest, your “skills” change. So if you get punched in the eye in a fair fight, your Courage goes down one and your Wrath goes up. This might change what your best option might be, which has the nifty side-effect of avoiding the “I hit him with my sword. I hit him with my sword. I hit him with my sword.” effect. But it does something else, too.

When I play I am well rewarded by success. And here’s where the sneakiness of narrative authority comes in. Whenever I am declaring an action that I know results in a mediated conflict — that is, whenever I say “I shoot her”, knowing that the dice will come out to decide what happens as a result of this shooting — the fact that we go straight to system for resolution means I am stealing narrative authority from the GM! Granted I am placing it in the hands of the dice (you die, I die, we flee, they get polymorphed into frogs — whatever, when it’s system-created it’s narrative authority out of the GM’s hands!) but even that is slippery.

I like to win, like I said. That means that, while I am playing a personality I want to explore, I built the character to reflect the personality, and I did that by making her good at the things I want to succeed in. That also means I am going to steer most conflicts towards these strengths if I can and that means I get rewarded (by victory) and I play this character. Because I steer towards my strength and therefore victory, though, the outcome of a conflict is skewed by my tactical ability. That means that while I don’t mandate narrative direction, I do certainly have enormous say by way of this indirect method. And so can anyone else, in practically any game. Perhaps especially in ones that place all authority explicitly in the hands of the GM but then have nice clear resolution systems. When I say, “I would like to persuade her to give use the books by bribing her with my shotgun,” I know I have skewed the likely direction of the story in favour of getting those books. And the better I am at playing the game, the more control I have.

I noticed this because any time I want my character to accomplish anything, the first thing I do is look at my character sheet and ask myself, what am I most likely to succeed with? That is, I know what I want to accomplish and see my character’s abilities as a toolkit for doing that. Naturally I pick the best tool for the job. After a long fight, Charity had taken a lot of hits to her Courage which slid to Wrath — she’s tired and bruised and on a short fuse. Kam is looking to take her down a notch in front of her compatriots by mocking her. I look at the sheet for Charity — I get by far the most dice on the table with Graceful Wrath — shooting the unarmed.

There is no hesitation — Charity is mocked after a long and dangerous night, and she goes straight to the shotgun. “Now is not the time.” But that’s me making the narration happen. The GM didn’t necessarily want the scene to go there and the ramifications might be deep (but I am partially in control of that now). As long as I have the authority to declare my actions, I have the ability to take (probabilistic) control of the narrative.

It delights me every time I discover that a conflict is mostly smoke, or can at least be seen from an angle that makes it look that way.

–BMurray