Storygames Ahoy!

This weekend we have been playing a trio of storygames. I have the Admirals at Black Armada to thank for my general introduction to their new school / indie / prepless / GMless hippy games, but it’s still unfamiliar territory.

Archipelago

As I mentioned in the comments here I don’t think I’ve found a Nordic game or a concept that I didn’t like.

Archipelago is free. It is a “game of epic stories” about heroes and their inexorable journey towards their destiny. It’s now in it’s third edition, and for a free game with a minimalist page count it’s absolutely stunning to read. Lovely black and white art, a nice section at the back with the Resolution Cards (also used in Itras By, apparently) and generally good pagenation in an iPad-friendly size.

The author conceived the game as a way to tell stories in Earthsea, but it works for any world. Of course you need to agree on a world you’re familiar with. We couldn’t. Many of the proposals weren’t familiar enough to all the players, and the ones that were (Buffy was considered) were vetoed. Instead, we created our own.

This proved to be more fun than actually playing (for me at least). World creation is not what Archipelago is about per se–there is a single page on Defining a New Setting with a rudimentary workflow:

  1. Choose genre
  2. Choose themes (e.g. culture, geography, magic), assign one to each player
  3. Draw a map on a big piece of paper
  4. Choose at least 5 locations, name and describe them 

Unfortunately we didn’t follow this approach (which to be fair is more implied than explicit in the book), and instead decided on New York for our magical post-apocalyptic setting, then argued whether there were bridges over or just tunnels under the Hudson River and other details. After four hours we had at least created a world, but it might have gone much more quickly if we’d done themes before map.

The character creation requires thinking about extraordinary characters with great destinies ahead. Regardless of power level they will be at the centre of events. They have relationships to other characters, locations or events; at least two PCs must be connected via this third party. That means there’s no direct relationship between PCs. Relationship building is another collaborative effort for this reason.

Next we generated our destinies. Other players each anonymously write a destiny for a given character, and that player then selects the one they like best. This part feels like a fun party game (as in you guess who wrote the most provocative, interesting destiny). A quote towards the end of the book tells you to “be bold when writing destiny points for other players” as if there’s a risk of players writing weak destinies. That certainly wasn’t a problem.

Then we started play, and it went downhill from there.

To be fair, we didn’t have enough time after faffing with the world and our characters to play more than one round of scenes, meaning we got nowhere near our stated destinites. However I found the structure we followed–and on later reading it, the structure given in the book–just wasn’t enough to drive us towards an exciting story.

A scene is directed by the player controlling the in-spotlight character. Their actions are narrated and they bring in other players to play NPCs, describe detail, provide advice on features (magic, culture, etc) and so on. The other players also get to use “ritual phrases” that challenge the story, such as “try a different way” if they feel a piece of narration is incongruous to the shared story. If you take it seriously (as I expect those dour Scandinavians do) I guess it can produce challenging but coherent storytelling; the trouble is when you release a ritual phrase like “harder!” on a gaggle of hysterical Brits, the results are inevitable.

Scenes are introduced by each player with an objective–and interaction, overcoming an obstacle, and so on. The problem I have is that this almost never gives rise to a cliffhanger because the scene is supposed to achieve some sort of closure. Our host argued that a player can choose to end on a cliffhanger, but since the player is always in control of their scene they can’t be surprised by someone else saying “cut!” in the middle of a life-or-death situation. If the player is driving the scene towards closure, an abrupt stop in the middle of that scene is the opposite of the normal procedure, and tricky to judge. Using Hamlet’s Hit Points‘ terminology, this inevitably gives rise mostly procedural beats and few drama beats.

But what struck me about Archipelago was not the metagame, nor the directorial style of play. It was the way I’m stewarding my “PC”, but I’m treating him as an NPC with an agenda. When I bring in other players to play “NPCs” to fill scene roles they are reacting to my character with an agenda; their behaviour is more PC-like than my character’s. In other words, it’s an almost complete inversion of our accepted roleplaying dynamics.

This game displayed what is probably the number one issue for all story games; the supporting players knowing what the narrating player expects of them at the point they are drawn into the scene. There’s no off-narration negotiation; all the player has to go on is the scene objective at the start. Probably this is intended to throw in surprises to the narrator as they use the other players as wild cards in their scene, but unless the group is intimately knowledgable of each other’s preferences and communicating at peak, this won’t happen.

The single biggest issue I had was the relationships. With no direct PC-PC relationship, players can drift around their sandbox and never encounter each other, each pursuing their own plot thread. This I assume is deliberate since one player can’t narrate another player.

Overall I wasn’t sure what to make of Archipelago. It’s a great concept, but is it even a game? I considered how it might be used to provide a behind-the-scenes look at political interactions as a backdrop for a traditional game, but even then it’s a bit diffuse to be useful to me. Possibly we set our boundaries too wide when we drew our map in the first place, giving this sense of individuals adrift in setting, rather than as essential moving parts in a story engine. 

A Taste For Murder

This is Graham Walmsley’s prepless, GMless storygame of murder in a 1930’s country manor for 4-6 people (though you can play with more). 

Where Archipelago is diffuse and very open, ATFM is absolutely watertight. There is no latitude to negotiate location (one player wanted to set a scene in their club in London, which won’t happen), there are no opportunities to bring in speaking characters other than the players (you assume there are servants etc. but they never speak) and crucially all of the relationships are directly character to character.

Character creation involves a bit of negotiation, since relationship descriptors must match each other where they appear on both party’s sheets. The descriptors go beyond simple family or employer-employee relationships and need to include some active part of that relationship–such as “I will inherit the estate from him” or “she beats me” or “we are lovers”. All of these are essential for constructing motive for murder in the later stages of the game.

This relationship mechanism includes influence, which is a number of dice allocated to that relationship. Players get six dice total to distribute, and these dice are always in play–they can be won or lost from other players as various side scenes are played out, but the total number of dice remains.

The structure makes use of a group scene to draw the characters together, from where the various side scenes happen in turn. When everyone has taken a turn at inviting another PC into a side scene, the round finishes and begins again. During the side scenes one party attempts to influence (or later investigate) the other. This is the “roleplaying” aspect of the game although it’s not really roleplaying–there is only one outcome which is an influence attempt leading to a dice-based challenge. The only thing either side can do to skew events in their favour is to try to win the Black and White Dice, which are tied to certain emotions. When the influence attempt is made conversation stops, and the other players decide who deserves which die based on their thespian efforts.

Act one contains two full rounds after which someone is killed. This is determined by secret ballot. The Victim then takes the role of Inspector Chapel–a character who must investigate and cannot influence or be influenced. Investigation is mechanically the same as influence, but the outcome is revealing detail on suspect records. Once a character has three lines filled in on their suspect record, they become a murder suspect. Once two characters have become suspects we move to the Denoument where Inspector Chapel gets to outline the case and the suspects make a final challenge, following which the loser gets clapped in irons and manhandled into the back of a black maria.

I made a mistake with how dice challenges are made, assuming it was a contest between the two characters invovled in the scene. It’s not. Anyone with influence over the character being influenced rolls dice against them, and the player with the highest score–in scene or external observer–chooses whether the influence (or investigation) succeeds or not. In other words the dice are intentionally stacked against the person being influenced or investigated, and while that might not matter for influence once investigation happens all of the other players have a vested interest in making investigations succeed and revealing more of the suspects dark secret (if only to see more blood on the walls).

A couple of other important points emerged. One was the effect of conversation. Even with the slightly silly mechanics it still feels like a narrow-field roleplaying scene, but the side-scenes are reliant on some give and take between the players. Since I was “hosting” (i.e. reading out the rules) I decided to run the very first side scene–and since my relationship with the other character was abusive, I started out by clipping them around the ear before making my demands. Their (reasonable) response was not to wait for me to speak but to begin shouting and make it impossible for me to attempt to influence because I couldn’t get a word in–making it almost impossible for me to seize the black or white dice.

Also I felt that we’d negotiated an abusive relationship but when we came to play it out, they unilaterally changed the relationship by resisting. The rationale was that they’d been away to London and had a new perspective and grown some backbone–but it was effectively the same as having a “we are lovers” relationship only for one side to announce “no, we ended that months ago” in the conversation. Relationships need to be static and a statement of fact, and side scenes are not a psychodrama where game-changing stuff can be made up simply by roleplaying. This is not how we are used to playing our games, however. (It doesn’t really matter, since there’s not much “strategy” in choosing a side scene–no-one’s actually cheated if a misunderstanding about a relationship happens, since the influence remains the same). 

Overall the side scenes are amusing thespian events with one aim only–to weaken one side’s influence over the other, and therefore make them more susceptable to investigation and suspicion and drive the game towards a conclusion. They’re a way of shuffling the influence dice around the table.

Like Archipelago, ATFM has mechanisms for slowing the game down, but none for speeding it up. Towards then end the group scenes were silent as we’d completely run out of amusing smalltalk (I was a bit drunk by then). But unlike Archipelago I can see myself playing this game again, and next time it will hopefully go faster.

Mostly our post-game analysis consisted of arguing whether Sir Ian McKellan would manage to game the system unfairly on account of always winning the black and white dice. Various inducements involving blood orange jelly were made towards Sir Ian and Graham Walmsley on twitter for a play session to test the theory. We remain hopeful…

When The Dark Is Gone

The game is free from the Black Armada, written by Admiral Frax. It concerns a therapy session for adults who, as children, travelled to a fantasy world and who as adults have actualy mental disorders that threaten their life and family.

Several variants have been proposed in our social network, some sensible, some not so sensible. My contribution was When The Orcs Are Gone, to do with retired dungeoneers who are wealthy but with deep-rooted mental problems based on their past professions. Sounds familiar?

Having both played and discussed this game with the designer I know that just wouldn’t work. WTDIG relies on a real-world approach to therapy and mental illness; furthermore it requires ambiguity on whether the fantasy world actually exists. Though you can expect most of the participants to agree that yes, the fantasy world did exist, there are no objective measures to verify that. It’s all in their head.

WTDIG treats mental illness very seriously. It’s intentionally dark and intentionally treats the therapy process with respect. It also allows the players to veto certain themes in advance (like mutilation, or other triggers for player’s phobias). Thereafter character generation includes the collaborative relationship building that’s present in Archipelago and ATFM although with some twists–these relationships are a bit more three-dimensional and involve betrayals, hurts and dark secrets. All of the characters know each other, and have a shared memory of an event in the fantasy world as well as some descriptive keywords or phrases (“Dark Woods”, “David’s Coronation”, “The Weather Was All Wrong”) which are also developed collaboratively.

The game is designed to enable a two-hour group therapy session. There’s no steering mechanism beyond the time limit and the therapist occasionally asking leading questions (otherwise they keep to the background as much as possible).  There’s no stated objective other than to have the therapy session; fixing the characters isn’t an objective, nor is exposition of the shared world, though both can happen. In our game very little of the world was uncovered and no-one was fixed, with one character remaining in denial throughout.

What then is the point of this game?

Frax has previously attested that conversation and generating emotion for its own sake is a valid goal that is seperate from the Threefold model. This game is a proof of concept. Even though no real narrative has been generated (aside from the fragments of shared history) and no external challenges have been overcome, characters have been changed through conversation.

This game includes both elements of shared world-building and psychodrama and avoids gaming staples of overcoming external obstacles. Some have interpreted it as not a roleplaying game, which is starting to be a popular argument in some corners of the internet. Yet everything I was doing in WTDIG was from an in-character point of view, including the imagining and building on fantasy world details and interacting with other characters. I’ve played freeform LARPs with exactly the same dynamics.

Anyway, Frax calls it a roleplaying game. That’s all.

WTDIG has a defined time limit–two hours, framed by opening and closing questions from the Therapist, so at least you know it’s going to be short. That does constrain the number of PCs–we played with five, which was slightly too many as it limited participation time per player. The defined timing and the lack of pressure to get to a defined point made the game more worthwhile, not less.

Final Words

<

p>Three very different games with both roleplaying and collaborative elements that are lumped under the category of “hippy games”. Archipelago is freeform creation of narrative; ATFM is a gamist’s game masquerading as a narrative game; WTDIG doesn’t fit any of the threefold definitions and proves that other gaming goals and priorities can and do exist.

With such different approaches and goals, the underlying structure present in all three is relationships. Relationships (with mechanistic properties if possible) are also essential for some commercial freeform games if only to encourage the players to talk with one another.

49 thoughts on “Storygames Ahoy!

  1. Three very different games with both roleplaying and collaborative elements that are lumped under the category of “hippy games”. Archipelago is freeform creation of narrative; ATFM is a gamist’s game masquerading as a narrative game; WTDIG doesn’t fit any of the threefold definitions and proves that other gaming goals and priorities can and do exist.

    Interestingly while these are all billed as “Story Games” none of them seem to fit the definition of “Narrativism” as it’s defined by the Forge. Even /Archipeligo/ – which seems to be the most freeform-story-buildy of the three doesn’t seem to contain the elements of Theme and Premise which (if I remember my RPG-Theory essays right) are supposed to be essential to Forge-definition Narrativism.

    Similarly in Forge terms I suspect that /When the Dark is Gone/ would wind up being categorised as fairly uncomplicated Simulationism. From what I see here, you’ve got characters in a particular situation, and you explore that situation. You might be exploring that situation through the medium of a therapy session, but there’s no obstacle to be overcome (Gamist) or thematic question to be answered (Narrativist).

    Of course this isn’t necessarily a *useful* definition, but that’s a wider problem with the Threefold.

  2. Dan H: Important to note that narrativism is a category of creative agenda. It is orthogonal to game design. There is no such thing as a “narrativist game”, only games which may lend themselves to narrativist play. (These are all things that Ron Edwards, the author of GNS and the Big Model(TM), says himself in the foundation essays on the subject.) The term “story game” is not a GNS term, though it may have been invented on the Forge, and is these days used more-or-less synomymously with roleplaying game by many, and more-or-less synonymously with indie game by the rest. (Where “indie game” means “hippy game” as opposed to “independently published game” and stands in opposition to “trad game”). These three games are all story games under either usage.

    Semantics aside, all three games in practice do tend to promote a “story now” approach, and definitely *not* simulationism which is concerned with a focus on exploration of the game world, characters etc as the primary motive rather than the heightening of dramatic situations. In any case, though, WTDiG is aimed at a distinct category of play which Frax terms “emotivism” – you can find her article on this subject on Black Armada.

    • “used more-or-less synomymously with roleplaying game by many”

      I know it’s a badge of honour for some people to vehemently deny that storygames are rpgs, but I think the distinction is actually useful–it does a lot to manage expectations.

      As I said above, my experience was that the Archipelago method of PC-NPC interplay was the inverse of what I’d expect from a trad RPG. That doesn’t mean we weren’t all roleplaying, but it was from a completely different direction. That’s a massive curve ball to throw a newcomer. I think the people who insist that storygames are rpgs are being glib, just as the people who insist they aren’t are a bit lacking in creative interpretation.

    • Well, to recapitulate my usual position on this issue, I think that it is simply silly to say that story games are not RPGs (mostly). Equally though, I quite agree that there is a real distinction to be made between “trad” RPGs and “hippy” RPGs, which are indeed radically different. I simply feel that the term “roleplaying game” is quite self-explanatory and any game where you roleplay is one.

    • I completely agree that it’s “silly” to pick and choose what to call an rpg when there are roleplaying elements in many kinds of games. If anything I think these games have outgrown the term rpg. The fact remains that the games we’ve played for what–30 years?–have satisfied a certain need in the pen and paper gamer, and these games are not the same. Thus I can totally see why certain people resist including storygames in the definition–they don’t fill the need or meet the expectation. They could be a bit more polite about it, perhaps.

    • Dan H: Important to note that narrativism is a category of creative agenda. It is orthogonal to game design.

      Fair point, although I think people also often use the -isms as a kind of shorthand for “primarily -ist facilitating”, which is what I think I meant.

      Semantics aside, all three games in practice do tend to promote a “story now” approach, and definitely *not* simulationism which is concerned with a focus on exploration of the game world, characters etc as the primary motive rather than the heightening of dramatic situations.

      I think my understanding of “Story Now” might differ from yours. The way I understand it “Story Now” means specifically engaging with some kind of thematic “question” (like the classic “how far will you go to protect your community?” from Dogs or “what will you sacrifice for power?” from Sorcerer) and that the “story” comes from the players’ *engagement* with this thematic question.

      But I confess that I could be defining it too narrowly, and I haven’t actually read Edwards’ original articles for *years*.

      I should add that I actually think it’s an extremely positive thing that people seem to be reclaiming the idea of “story” from Big Model Narrativism, and I have no problem with games like these calling themselves whatever the heck they like (although I don’t think it’s helpful to refer to *all* RPGs as “story games” – that seems like a bit of a retrograde step, one of the good things about GNS theory was that it recognized that people want different things out of gaming, and that “story” isn’t always one of them).

    • Frankly I think Edwards could be a lot clearer in his original essays. His more recent stuff is marginally clearer but still (to me) fucking opaque.

      My understanding based on a relatively thorough reading of old and new essays and abit of forge thead-age is that “story now” means exploring issues (as opposed to content or challenges) as the primary aim of play, meaning the actual roleplaying rather than any kind of meta-themes or pre-prepared plots. In other words, it ain’t story now unless you take a position on the issue or issues live, in the moment, roleplaying your character. The “issue” I’m referring to here is what Edwards refers to as “theme”, and what you describe as a “question” (all valid terms to use). But it is not necessary that there be a pre-decided issue or even that there only be one question, and indeed Dogs specifically asks the MC to focus on the issues that seem to interest the players.

      Anyways, my point is that WTDiG, to the extent it addresses ay of the Forge agendas, is focused very much on the issues faced by the characters e.g. “you betrayed me and I cannot forgive you for that”. I see that as closest to narrativism, not simulationism, though even Edwards admits that the two can be hard to distinguish at times. It isn’t just “portray my character as faithfully I can”, it’s “zero in on the interesting conflictc between our characters and explore *those*”. That’s narrativism.

      I tend to agree with you about the use of “story games”, BTW – but I also think people can and should call their hobby whatever they like. Language is organic, and all that.

    • “story now” means exploring issues (as opposed to content or challenges) as the primary aim of play

      Story now means the story emerges as a consequence of certain triggers, and how the players roleplay the response. It explicitly opposes Story Before where the GM has a plot in mind and the players are just participants with no real ability to move the plot, only to have their PCs be big players in the plot. Is that what you meant?

      I also think people can and should call their hobby whatever they like

      Totally agree–but you have to consider your market. If you want to use very specific language you’ll attract people who get your language (the minority) and risk putting off everyone else. So if you want to convince people that storygames are rpgs, you need to find a good way to communicate that.

    • It isn’t just “portray my character as faithfully I can”, it’s “zero in on the interesting conflictc between our characters and explore *those*”. That’s narrativism.

      I think this is genuinely just a minor semantic difference. I see *both* of those as Simulationism – it’s just that one is more focused on exploring particular *aspects* of the character rather than the character as a whole.

      To draw a spurious analogy, it’s like a dungeon-crawl where you carefully map out every room, and a dungeon-crawl where you just cut to the interesting stuff. They’re both (at least potentially) Simulationist, it’s just that they’re interested in different things.

      And as you say, Edwards’ essays are maddeningly opaque and borderline contradictory, so I don’t think there’s a particularly clear answer here.

    • Story now means the story emerges as a consequence of certain triggers, and how the players roleplay the response. It explicitly opposes Story Before where the GM has a plot in mind and the players are just participants with no real ability to move the plot, only to have their PCs be big players in the plot. Is that what you meant?

      As per usual Forge terminology is unhelpful here. I do not think that “story” in “story now” means “plot” in the sense of “a series of events and shit that’s going on in the game world which form the focus of play”. “Story now” is *not* just another way of saying “roleplaying where you don’t railroad the players or force them down pre-determined decision trees”, though it is a necessary condition of “story now” that that description applies.

    • Dan: Bastard Blogger ate my first attempt at replying to you. Precis of the original comment is:

      Insert rude comment about Forgespeak here. Nevertheless think there is a real distinction.

      – Dungeon = vehicle for challenge, gamism
      – Dungeon = location and characters to interact with, simultionism
      – Dungeon = vehicle for moral/social/aesthetic quandary, narrativism

      You can do more than one at a given moment but if you try to consistently prioritise one you’ll inevitably end up deprioritising the others. Faithful portrayal of character isn’t always morally/socially/aesthetically quandaracious, focus on said quandaries means sometimes departing from faithful portrayal of character.

      Sorry, original answer possibly better.

    • As you say, Insert Rude Comment About Forgespeak Here.

      I think I basically agree, except that I think moral/social/aesthetic quandries are actually a very important part of some kinds of Simulationism, and that they manifest slightly differently to the way I’d expect them to manifest in a Narrativist framework.

      I think that, as you say, there’s a difference, but I think that the difference is between “how does my character respond to this moral issue” (Simulationism) and “how do I use my character to engage with or take a stance on this moral issue” (Narrativism).

      So I’d agree that Narrativism can roughly be defined as “issues first” but I think it gets complicated because *some* (but not all) forms of Simulationism can be defined as “character first” and a whole lot of moral scenarios are all about the interaction of a character with an issue.

    • As per usual Forge terminology is unhelpful here. I do not think that “story” in “story now” means “plot” in the sense of “a series of events and shit that’s going on in the game world which form the focus of play”. “Story now” is *not* just another way of saying “roleplaying where you don’t railroad the players or force them down pre-determined decision trees”, though it is a necessary condition of “story now” that that description applies.

      I do think that story = plot for the most part, and I don’t have trouble with story before/now/after concepts. I don’t think Story Before is a bad thing per se. I don’t care to define what Story Now is or is not beyond this.

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. We know the Forge terminology is arcane, but the before/now/after suffixes are pretty straightforward.

      If story != plot, what is story?

    • I think you may be misunderstanding me. I’m not saying story != plot, I’m saying that when the Forge talk about Story Now they don’t mean plot. QV crappy terminology. They shouldn’t call it Story Now, nor should they call it Narrativism, but there you go. Incidentally I believe it was originally going to be called Dramatism, but a different theoretical model gazumped that term. A shame really, as I think that term is a lot more helpful.

    • You brought the Forge up, and you said what Story Now isn’t, but I don’t think you’ve offered a definition of what it is. We could spend a long time second-guessing what a third party means by their jargon and then debate how it fits with our jargon.

      I think Story Before, Now and After are pretty clear distinctions that illustrate a problem–whether that’s a problem for real-world use is neither here nor there. Also I’ve heard Edwards interviewed on the subject and I’ve based my interpretation on what he said.

    • In fact it was Dan H who brought the Forge up, and my comments were directed at him. Further, I too am basing my views on Ron Edwards’s public utterances. The first hit when I google “Story Now” is the original essay, which has this to say:

      Story Now

      Story Now requires that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of role-playing. “Address” means:

      * Establishing the issue’s Explorative expressions in the game-world, “fixing” them into imaginary place.

      * Developing the issue as a source of continued conflict, perhaps changing any number of things about it, such as which side is being taken by a given character, or providing more depth to why the antagonistic side of the issue exists at all.

      * Resolving the issue through the decisions of the players of the protagonists, as well as various features and constraints of the circumstances.

      Can it really be that easy? Yes, Narrativism is that easy.

      Wrt WTDiG (must keep dragging the discussion back to WTDiG), I think the issue is “mental illness, trauma and the consequences for us as individuals and our relationships with each other” (can be broken down into such things as “the fact that I cannot get over murdering the doppelganger clone of my childhood friend Penelope”). The fact that they can only be placed in the shared imaginary space through post-hoc discussion and can only be resolved through the same medium does not change the fact that there’s a strongly narrativist streak there.

    • I think we’re in complete agreement. I also think Edwards took an awful lot of words to say

      Story = Theme + People + A Series Of Fights Over Stuff

      For me, that expresses plot pretty well. Of course the dictionary definintion of plot is the component events that make the story, but I think those are one and the same. That might not be enough for Ron, since one of his symptoms of brain damage is the inability to view the sequence of events as a whole story. Most of us take a holistic view of the string of events and do fine calling that “story”.

    • @rabalias

      Guilty as charged on the “bringing-the-Forge-into-it” front. Apologies.

      The definition you cite is pretty much the one I work from as well, but I think I interpret it very differently to you (there’s something a little like biblical scholarship involved in discussing the Forge, except that Ron Edwards is less “messiah” and more “very naughty boy”).

      Specifically, I think that while a great many RPGs *involve* themes, very few of them “Address” those themes as Edwards defined “Address”.

      The way I read Edwards’ definition of “Address”, a game only Addresses a Theme if the Theme is (paraphrasing):

      * Hardwired into the game world
      * A direct cause of conflict
      * Resolved through player action

      Obviously I don’t want to go too far down the road of drawing conclusions about a game I haven’t played or read, but from what Becky says below the point of WtDiG isn’t really to Address Mental Illness in the Edwards sense, so much as to use the scenario of “people who are in group thereapy as a result of their traumatic shared experiences in a fantasy world that might only exist in their heads” in order to create an emotionally rich environment to facilitate emotionally rich roleplaying (or something – I very much don’t wish to put words in Becky’s mouth here).

      Sorry, intended to post in more detail but time has crept up on me and I have a class to teach.

    • Well, we’re geting sufficiently into the detail of Forge theory that I’m unable to effectively engage, but your three bullets above sound too demanding; I’m not saying RE never said that, but it could be that this is part of the inconsistencies inherent in his writings.

      In particular, the first bullet strikes me as a very hard requirement to meet. DitV is the archetypal Narrativist game that I know of, but it has no themes hardwired into it (beyond the very broad topic of “community versus individual versus religious requirements”). The themes it directly addresses and resolves in play are required to be selected by the players through their actions, and are likely to be much more specific e.g. “is it ok for a woman to want more for herself than motherhood and family life?”. I’m not sure whether the fact that women being required by religious law to pretty much not have anything more than motherhood and family life counts as it being “hard wired”. At any rate, I can’t see what the point of this requirement is; and it more-or-less contradicts the dictum that creative agenda is about your priorities in play not game design.

      I think I essentially agree with the second and third bullets. I think only Frax can comment on the point of WTDiG and since she says it is about heightening emotional experience I can hardly disagree with you there, but I guess my point is that regardless of the author’s intentions the game in practice works very well at addressing certain themes, in particular in relation to mental illness, betrayal, and so forth; it supports Narrativist play, whether it intends to or not. It most definitely does *not* support Gamist play; I think it’s an open question whether it supports Simulationist play, primarily because that term is so very obscure and poorly explained by RE et al.

    • In particular, the first bullet strikes me as a very hard requirement to meet.

      Perhaps “hard wired” was the wrong term to use (I didn’t necessarily mean built into the game mechanics so much as built into the world/setting/scenario as appropriate). On its most basic level, I just meant that if you want to explore the question of whether a woman is allowed to want more for herself than motherhood and a family life, the game should probably include … well … some women who want more for themselves than motherhood and a family life. And probably a bunch of people who have opinions about whether a woman should want more for herself than motherhood and a family life.

      And actually this is a pretty good example of how a what I would see as a *narrativist* approach to a particular theme differs from a simulationist one.

      Hard-wired into Dogs in the Vineyard are a whole bunch of assumptions that facilitate (what I understand as) Narrativist engagement with a Theme. Chief amongst these is the fact that you are explicitly playing people whose entire job is to make moral judgements, and you have a very clear framework within which to *make* those moral judgements.

      While I’m aware that creative agendas aren’t about game design, the escalation mechanic and the game’s use of whole-conflict resolution are also really important here. The whole dice mechanic means that you not only have to pick a *side*, but you have to decide just *how far you will go* in support of the side you have chosen.

      If I tried to introduce the same theme into – for example – my Sunday AD&D campaign, it would be borderline impossible for the players to engage with it on a Narrativist level. Yes, they might decide that it is morally right for a woman to want more for herself than motherhood and a family life, but it would be such a no-brainer for most of the party that it would scarcely register as a moral choice at all (this is why the hard-wired moral code in Dogs is so important). The focus of gameplay would either be enjoying interacting with NPCs for its own sake (Simulationist) or deploying in-character resources to help this hypothetical woman out (Simulationist/Gamist).

      For what it’s worth, my first bullet point here is (roughly speaking) my interpretation of Edwards’ first point in the essay you quote above (“[Address means] establishing the issue’s Explorative expressions in the game world”). I think it actually comes back to your point above when you observe that “Story now” is *not* just another way of saying “roleplaying where you don’t railroad the players or force them down pre-determined decision trees”. Part of this, I think, is that the Themes and Issues which are Explored in the game have to be built into it advance. If they come out post-hoc then that’s “Story After”.

      To go back to my own D&D campaign as an example, there have been several situations in the game in which the players have had to make Moral Decisions concerning Themes, and where their choices have ultimately been based on their moral assessment of the situation. Examples include “does the right to self-determination include the right to freely follow a religion that is objectively evil?” “is it right to unilaterally reshape the world in an effort to make it better?” and “should the dead be judged?” These haven’t been Narrativist decisions, because those themes aren’t “fixed in the imaginary space” – they emerged organically from the Exploration of Situation and it’s only in hindsight (“Story After”) that they emerge as themes at all.

      So I’m not suggesting that Forge-definition Narrativism has to be built into the game *system*, but I take Edwards’ first point above as suggesting that it *does* have to be built into the scenario, because if you look back on an instance of gameplay and extract a theme afterwards, it’s Story After.

    • Oh, forgot to add, I agree that the question of whether WtDiG supports Simulationist play is largely moot because Simulationism is abysmally poorly defined. I’d describe it as Simulationist because I tend to feel that “Simulationist” is the “none of the above” Creative Agenda, so anything that isn’t by-the-book Gamist or Narrativist is Simulationist by default.

  3. Dan H:

    Interestingly I wrote WTDiG specifically to explore elements of creative agenda which I felt were glaring omissions from the threefold model.

    The setting of the game is as real as you can get it, as in any group therapy session you are simply a group of people sitting around talking and behaving in-character. From the outside I can see how this would be mistaken for simulationism as there is an attempt in the set up to create as realistic a therapeutic space as possible. However (and this is a biggie!) The realism is mere window dressing to allow people to go as deeply into character and emotion as they feel able to do. The ONLY things which happen in the session are conversations, the only point to the game is to explore the emotions of your characters and experience how they change through the conversations. The only creative agenda available to you is to engage with the other characters on an emotional level and to facilitate bleed (i.e. that both the character and the player experience the game emotionally).

    Hence why I maintain that a) WTDiG sits outside the threefold theory and b) that the threefold theory does not fully describe the range of creative agendas we bring to games.

    If I had more data to back me up then I would also suggest that the threefold theory is a traditionally male set of creative agendas for gaming and that my extension of the theory is to bring another perspective (female) to the theory table. But I don’t know that for certain, that it just the way it seemed to me when I read the Forge materials.

    • “If I had more data to back me up then I would also suggest that the threefold theory is a traditionally male set of creative agendas for gaming and that my extension of the theory is to bring another perspective (female) to the theory table.”

      I guess that would be incredibly difficult to get evidence for given the overall gender imbalance in the hobby–the signal to noise ratio would be weak at best. But it’s excellent to talk about. GNS theory is a bit muddy for me, but it does at least talk about priorities which I consider synonymous with preference–and therefore a useful starting point for customer satisfaction.

      So, I would encourage you to continue to explore female motivations for playing rpgs that are distinct from male–because if you don’t I don’t think anyone else will, and whilst I’m an ally I just can’t do it.

    • Interestingly I wrote WTDiG specifically to explore elements of creative agenda which I felt were glaring omissions from the threefold model.

      I think we’re probably actually agreeing here, just using different terminology. The way I understand it, the Big Model is a closed belief system – all creative agendas can be defined in terms of Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism *by definition* because that’s what the model is based on.

      Effectively I think you see those elements as being left out of the model, whereas I see them as being bundled unhelpfully into a box called “Simulationism” alongside “overcomplicated grappling rules” and “thinking dragons are cool.” I think this is basically the same conclusion in different words, a lot of things you might want to get *out* of an RPG (which you can call Creative Agendas if you want to use Forge terminology) aren’t adequately described by the Threefold. “I want to explore dungeons” and “I want to explore my character’s inner turmoil” are two very different approaches to gaming but in GNS as I understand it they’re both “Exploration of Character or Situation”.

      The realism is mere window dressing to allow people to go as deeply into character and emotion as they feel able to do.

      That’s pretty much why I thought it was Forge-definition Simulationist, not because of the realism, but because of the character-focus. Again I should add that I think GNS treats both realism *and* character-focus *really badly*, the only thing we disagree on is that I think The Big Model has a label for them.

      If I had more data to back me up then I would also suggest that the threefold theory is a traditionally male set of creative agendas for gaming and that my extension of the theory is to bring another perspective (female) to the theory table. But I don’t know that for certain, that it just the way it seemed to me when I read the Forge materials.

      I think it’s certainly true that gaming in general, and RPG-theory/the indie community in particular are *very* male-dominated, and the Creative Agendas do give the impression of being designed around a very traditional all-male gaming table (although I don’t know how much of this is just residual stereotyping).

      I certainly don’t want to go down the “men-rational-women-emotional” road because gah-horrible-essentialist-nonsense-gah but there’s a lot that’s very Male Alpha-Nerd about the very over-intellectualized way the CAs are presented.

    • Dan H: I think GNS treats both realism *and* character-focus *really badly*, the only thing we disagree on is that I think The Big Model has a label for them.

      Well I do agree that GNS treats both realism and character-focus very very badly. But this is where my theory does diverge from the GNS model and WDTiG sits outside the seemingly closed belief system.

      Because a large part of the creative agenda of WDTiG is experiencing emotions and connections through conversation as a player. Not merely exploring character. In this WDTiG has a lot more in common with Jeepform and Nordic LARP which I think GNS similarly completely breaks down in relation to.

      Think less “I want to explore my character’s inner turmoil” which sounds pretty cool but intellectual and more… “I want to experience the emotions of my character’s inner turmoil” and you start to see the dichotomy.

      So I would say that GNS describes a small set of things, but instead of squeezing everything into GNS (which I think we both agree is a flawed approach) we should be looking outside it. As a closed model when you try to use it in conjunction with Jeepform it just doesn’t work.

      For example one of the interesting features of Nordic gaming is that one of the creative agendas can be the exploration and education of controversial political issues such as immigration and AIDs through the medium of the game. Trying to cram that into the closed box of GNS starts to look faintly ridiculous I think at which point we are probably better off recognising it isn’t really a closed belief system.

    • Think less “I want to explore my character’s inner turmoil” which sounds pretty cool but intellectual and more… “I want to experience the emotions of my character’s inner turmoil” and you start to see the dichotomy.

      I agree that there’s a difference there, and that the difference is not well articulated by lumping them both under the same heading of “Simulationism” (particularly not when that heading also includes *so much other stuff already*). I’m just pointing out that I’m pretty sure that a person who believed in the Big Model would say that the agenda in WtDIG is fully encompassed by the Big Model, either as a subset of Simulationism or Narrativism.

      So I would say that GNS describes a small set of things, but instead of squeezing everything into GNS (which I think we both agree is a flawed approach) we should be looking outside it.

      Again, I think my only disagreement here is a small issue of semantics. You say it describes a small set of things, I’d say that it describes a large set of things, but from a very narrow point of view. Or perhaps we could split the difference and say it describes a small set of things reasonably well, and a very large set of things really quite badly.

      Trying to cram that into the closed box of GNS starts to look faintly ridiculous I think at which point we are probably better off recognising it isn’t really a closed belief system.

      Sorry, I should probably have defined “closed belief system” better. What I meant was that you can’t really describe any flaws in the Big Model that a person who *believes* in the Big Model can’t refute by reference to the Big Model. The Big Model is right because the Big Model says it’s right.

      I think there’s plenty of rooms for alternative theories that *aren’t* the Big Model, but I don’t think the Big Model itself can be built on.

    • Do you happen to have a good link that summarizes the definitions of GNS? The wikipedia article seems useless, it describes G and S as motives/agendas for play, but it describes N as being a technique for play without stating its purpose.

      I think it’s too late for me to enter this debate here, but I’d like to at least form an opinion (a) where, if anywhere, TDIG fits into GNS and or the Big Model; (b) whether I agree with you that GNS has a hole that needs EC to fill it.

      I certainly agree already that WTDIG encourages EC (essentially by guaranteed that players motived as described for G or S will get nothing from the game). What I’m not clear on is why WTDIG gives nothing to Narrativst players, because as far as I can see from the wikipedia definition, which I assume is defective, WTDIG is a narrativist game in which the narrative concerns a conversation held between several people experiencing strong emotions.

    • Oh, and the reason I ask is because if I end up agreeing with you (thanks to WTDIG) that GNS has a hole in it that needs at least EC to fill it, then I will not bother trying to find out any more about the Big Model. Because if you’re right then I’d go rather further than your conclusion that it needs 2 new taxa, and conclude that the whole thing is nonsense.

      If GNS’s definitions indeed *are* insufficiently broad to account for people who play RPGs because of EC (as you say they are and Dan says they aren’t because the terms are flexible by fiat) then I would imagine that millions of people who play RPGs would come up with a few dozen more agendas that they might like a game to cater to, and the whole activity becomes futile, of trying to identify which of a handful of motives any given game caters to.

  4. Possibly we set our boundaries too wide when we drew our map in the first place, giving this sense of individuals adrift in setting, rather than as essential moving parts in a story engine.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. I think building our epic setting put us in the mode of thought that led to creating characters more to explore bits of our world than with a story in mind. Somewhere in the Archipelago rules it says something like “create a character who is at the start of a story”; I’m not sure any of us did that. (Actually I think perhaps I did, but I didn’t follow through on it very effectively.)

    [I]t’s not really roleplaying–there is only one outcome which is an influence attempt leading to a dice-based challenge.

    Bit of a strange thing to say! I was certainly roleplaying. Sure, I was roleplaying with an end in mind, including snarfing extra dice, but I don’t see it as “not roleplaying”. Maybe I’m just reading too much into a casual turn of phrase, especially in view of your later comment about the “it’s not a roleplaying game” fad. (Apropos of which, I’ve often thought that if anything D&D isn’t a roleplaying game since you can play it as essentially a complicated board/wargame without any roleplaying at all; WTDiG, meanwhile, literally cannot be played without roleplaying a character.)

    • Is every contentious point we make a “strange thing to say”?

      We were not roleplaying with any of the accepted degrees of freedom of roleplaying–no chance of changing another character’s mind, or redirecting the discussion, or negotiating on different terms, or substituting another action (e.g. physical assault) to deflect influence. Yes, we were grandstanding for the other players just to win the dice, but it amounted to a series of cute one-liners and at times we accepted that we just couldn’t work a particular emotion in so didn’t bother.

      Compare it to the IC agency of WTDIG and we were completely railroaded in that system. The fact that we could do a bit of thespian stuff made it all great fun, but it had all the roleplaying content of charades–we were trying to lead the other players to a conclusion that we’d been displaying a kind of emotion for a particular reward. Otherwise it was about as useful as roleplaying in, say, Arkham Horror.

      Your point about D&D is well made. And with that analogy ATFM can be played with the same competitive approach and disregard for any roleplaying.

    • Perhaps, but I think that ATFM would function very poorly indeed without the roleplaying content. I aso dispute the point that there is no chance to redirect the discussion or negotiate, since both of these things in fact happened during our one session of the game (albeit relatively unusually).

      I can certainly agree that the roleplaying in ATFM is highly constrained and focused in a way that is very different from most other RPGs.

    • OK, there was a redirection that was essentially a “judo move”. There was no negotiation that I saw. You couldn’t for example negotiate with someone not to try to influence you.

      ATFM would function fine as a game with a lower level of thespian content. The spectators would still have influence even if the participants didn’t. As I said the system is stacked in favour of investigating and influence succeeding.

    • I wasn’t exclusively referring to the judo move; there was at least one instance where a player changed their mind about the influencing move they wanted to make in response to the in-scene interaction. But for me it’s important that the game would essentially suck without the roleplaying. It would be significantly less engaging than a game of snakes and ladders and about as tactically challenging. The roleplaying is *the* thing which drives play. I decide who to target based on in-character motives and that is key.

    • I decide who to target based on in-character motives and that is key.

      That’s completely fair. From your POV the game would have sucked without roleplaying.

      I decided who to target entirely based on who my character was most likely to succeed an influence or investigation against. The payoff for me was nothing to do with roleplaying–it was the group exposition of the motives for murder, which were a group decision and nothing to do with roleplaying.

      Both are valid approaches.

    • Interesting! I hadn’t appreciated that was your approach. It’s definitely valid, but I’m surprised you enjoyed the game as much as you seemed to; it’s pretty trivially easy to identify the best victim so where’s the strategy?

    • I think you’re straying dangerously close to the brain damage and you don’t know how to have fun territory. How I enjoy a game is my business.

      And if it’s easy to identify the best victim and I choose to act on that, what’s the problem?

    • My apologies, I didn’t mean to imply that your fun was wrong in any way. I just genuinely don’t see sufficient tactical or strategic depth to ATFM to play it as a gamist, so was wondering if I had missed something. I’m also surprised to hear you were going at it in a gamist way because you didn’t appear to be going after the dice all that hard. Not a criticism at all.

    • No apology necessary. And no, it’s not a particularly deep game for competitive play but nonetheless it can be played that way, and I already outlined the payoff–which was not a tactical victory, but the exposition of the murderer.

      If it were necessary for every competitive game we played to be deeply tactical, we’d only play chess.

  5. Thinking about it, I think it will make a better tactical game when played with the “everybody rolls” rule, because there will be a game centred on building your “gang”, as you put it yesterday. However that gang-building will itself be dependent on roleplaying, which kinda supports my point. Clearly you could do it without the roleplaying by just saying “you three join my gang and we can suck the influence from those two and subsequently make them the prime suspects” but I think this merely reveals how crucial the roleplaying is even concerning gamist play.

  6. “it was effectively the same as having a “we are lovers” relationship only for one side to announce “no, we ended that months ago” in the conversation.”

    For what it’s worth, I saw this a little differently as a bystander. Your stated relationship was, “I terrorized him when he was a child”. So I’d draw a different “lovers” analogy, which was that it was like you having a stated relationship “we had a short but intense affair in Paris”. Bogey shows up expecting Bergman to still feel about him essentially as she did when they parted in Paris, albeit time has passed. He thinks they’re going to do wistful nostalgia for a better time in their lives which can never be regained, tightly mirroring that the world has gone to hell in handbasket since. He is (you are) rather surprised when Bergman walks into the bar and announces “Seriously, I cannot believe I ever slept with you. What was I even thinking?”. The relationship plays out wholly unlike Bogey’s plans.

    In the game we played and in my example above there are two honest but contradictory interpretations of what a statement about a relationship *in the past* means for the relationship between the characters *in the present*. I didn’t check the exact text of the game book when I had it in front of me, but if it doesn’t already say so I think the players should assume that they are negotiating what their relationship is *on the day the game starts*, to avoid such crossed wires.

    Obviously that relationship will be strongly influenced by their past, but if either player has expectations about what that means in the present, they need to be stated. Similarly if either player plans that the present relationship significantly differs from the past relationship written on the character sheet, that difference needs to be stated.

    • Excellent comments, and I think you’re right–the analogy I used above isn’t correct, and both interpretations of “I terrorized him as a child” were completely fair. It just threw me for a moment and made the first influence challenge a bit difficult.

      The measure to avoid crossed wires is a good suggestion.

    • FWIW I was also surprised by rabalias’s choice. I had expected him to be an arse in public and a sniveller in private with you. That’s probably why in my analogy I cast you as the person who envisioned the *actual* plot of the movie and him as the one who changed canon.

      Surprise is a good thing, and another good thing is having a creative concept that survives more than ten seconds contact with gameplay. The two being mutually exclusive in this case was the not-fun kind of obstacle that get thrown up in games.

  7. I’d also like to say that, either by luck or because I fixated on what little I knew of the rules at the time, I think that the set of relationships I ended up with in that game was really strong as a whole:

    – “We get ferociously drunk together and behave badly”. To be honest, this relationship barely arose in game and so I’ll say no more about it. Onwards.

    – “We are co-executors of the estate”. This said absolutely nothing about our emotional relationship. It turned out that Dotty hated me and had always thought me a bad influence and a burden (entirely predictable given my character description and other relationships, but I did not in point of fact try to predict it and I enjoyed the moment at which she made a comment and I realised “aha, *that’s* what this is now going to be like). It also turned out, due to a happenstance placement of the dice, that I had always Envied the fact that she had continued with the pieces of my life-long best friend’s life after his death, and I had not. I had no idea at the start of the game that this would be the case. Great stuff, and completely different from almost all roleplaying characters I had ever played before, in which back story informs my emotional responses to the events of the game rather than the other way around.

    – “She is blackmailing me”. I deliberately resisted discussing in advance what she was blackmailing me about, or how frequently, or for what kinds of amounts. I think this was wise, it’s window-dressing that is irrelevant to whatever kind of game ATFM is in the grand taxonomy of everything.

    – “I sent her older brother to his death”. Fairly obviously, I expected her to hate me as a consequence, and she did, so this was a case where the emotional relationship was partly predetermined. This relationship was with the victim, and so it was the one most explored in Act 2, but in fact I think what we did in that case was not what the game said we should do. Again due to the placement of one of the dice, I decided that I had been in an illicit relationship with the brother, who had broken it off. This was all very well, but it created so much material that my suspect sheet ended up not having all that much written on it about *her*. It worked for me, and I very much doubt that Walmsley objects to players doing things they enjoy, but it’s not what the game actually said we should write on my suspect sheet, and I think we knew that as we were doing it.

    – “We are embezzling the estate”. This relationship didn’t loom large in the game, but it did give me somewhere to start when I wanted to initiate my first scene. It also created the most arcane piece of “plot” in the game – you were helping me to steal money from Dotty to give to my blackmailer Markhampton, who used it to buy drugs from you.

    I say all this because I think the relationship you defined with rabalias was a little different. You saw it as defining an emotional relationship (like “We’re high-spirited drinking buddies”), but he saw it as a chunk of backstory that would later be used to define an emotional relationship (“We are co-executors of the estate”). For me, the latter kind was (as it turned out) successful as a spur to improvisation. This might be because I was paying too much attention to the black and white dice, but because I didn’t know in advance what emotions my character “should” feel towards others, I was free to *choose* that my character would feel the emotions on the wheel.

    • Heh. My version of “We are co-executors of the estate” included “… so I’m stuck with him”, and I only realised I’d unilaterally added that when I said “How lovely it’s been to have you here, I do hope you’ll stay longer” to mean “Good god, man, do you have no home of your own to go to?” and you took me at face value 😉

      My surprise about that relationship was the very last exchange, which sort of ended up back at your original conception of the relationship, in a way partly prompted by that fortuitous ‘Envy’ die.

  8. That said, I did find the black and white dice mechanic *extremely challenging*. I am not a great actor, which is why I posited Sir Ian McKellen as a straw-man player who would find the mechanic extremely unchallenging at least on its face. I am in fact no kind of actor at all, and the aspect of this game as an acting contest didn’t attract me at first.

    Fortunately I didn’t give a crap about the results of any of the dice rolls, at least not until we got to the point where we just needed the game to finish before anyone fell asleep. Thus was my performance anxiety silenced.

    Sometimes the mechanic pissed me off, like when the black die squatted on “blood-letting” for several scenes because nobody wanted to award it for half-measures. The mechanic seem to think the game would be improved had more PCs made the long and lonely trip to HR to fill out an accident report, and I disagree. Or when the white die sat on “hysteria” because nobody really wanted to play it. This might just mean that we weren’t quite the right group of players to play that game by that time of night.

Comments are closed.