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Back again, back again…

Thanks to the intervention of Dave Cleaver, SA is back. WordPress had auto-updated, causing a fatal error in one of my dumb widgets. Dave did some quick surgery and it looks like we’re live again.

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Character Diversity Classification System

So, like we do many weekend mornings (which usually take place in the afternoon), a few weeks ago Brand and I end up in a long discussion about life, the universe and gaming. In this particular discussion, we ended up building a rather nifty (if I do say so myself) character diversity classification system. Like Myers Briggs, it uses a set of four dyads to create sixteen archetypes. Unlike MBTI, it also uses an activity gauge and an influence scale which I’ll probably tackle in a later post. I’m also not likely to get into each individual archetypes in this post (we’ll see if I ever bother to go that deep).

So first: the point.

The point is that I love heuristic systems that help you look at play and play structure from different angles and learn something new from it. The point is that I love rich diverse worlds full of rich diverse people – especially NPC’s. The point is that I love shorthands that carry a punch in the middle of play. Lastly, the point is that it would be handy to have a system with which to evaluate your games for diversity and simultaneously help you expand it.

This is a system built out of our current game, which is the new novella of our pseudo historical swashbuckling bodice ripper. We ran it through superheroes and sword and sorcery and horror and other action genres in general and it seems to work for many. There are probably other dyads which work better for other genres specifically.

So second: The four dyads.

Disclaimer: There’s no good or bad of any pair. Neither path is more effective. If you have good or bad associations with any word, or find yourself wanting to privilege one word over its pair, get over it. If you hate classification systems or personality tests or archetypal processing, it’s also a good idea to either get over it or go read something else on the wide world of the interwebs that will be interesting or compelling to you. That said… we’re off!

Strategic / Tactical

Strategic characters are long range, systemic thinkers. They look well ahead, prepare resources, plan for the use of those resources before, during, and after an action. Their strategies may be, and often are, contextually complex and based on investigation – that is to say that their stratagems need not be simple nor rigid, but they are based on forethought and planning.

Tactical characters are people who excel at dealing with problems encountered in the middle of action. they don’t waste their time planning things out ahead of time, because they’ll do best just dealing with it as they arrive. They don’t design and smuggle in a plastic gun to kill the enemy spy, they know that there’ll always be a handy beer bottle or ballpoint pen that’ll do.

Offensive / Defensive

Offensive characters are, well, offensive. They don’t sit back and wait for their nemesi to come
to them, they go after them (and whatever else they want) head first. They’re ambitious; where there is no apparent opportunity they make or force an opportunity.

Defensive characters are then, defensive. They look for ways to protect their fortunes, their loved ones, their duty or themselves. Spider man is a defensive character. He responds to trouble and tries to keep the world secure in it’s present state. He goes after the bad guy because the bad guy has MJ, or because the bad guy’s dangling a bus full of school children off a bridge, not because he’s known to be bad and is out there somewhere.

Physical / Social

Physical characters respond first in a physical way. they punch their opponents or order their deaths. They favour war over diplomacy. To console their loved ones, they hug them, to seduce they brush up or go in for the kiss. They consider the body or physical arena as the first and best course of action.

Social characters respond first in a social way. They try to talk their way out of trouble. They undermine their opponents by starting rumours about them, or having their debts called in. They cajole or incite through social manipulation. They seduce with a classic line, a killer smile and impromptu poetry. The first instinct is to talk, and they often talk a lot even when a confrontation turns physical.

Rational / Intuitive

Rational characters do things for reasons. The reason doesn’t have to be a sane reason, it just has to come from a rationale. If you stop them and ask them why they are doing what they are doing, they’d generally be able to articulate it. They are often self-reflective, and can tell you what and why they feel the way they do.

Intuitive characters do things because they do things. The things that they do may well be (and often are) the most logical things to be done if you were to sit down and analyze it, but the intuitive character wouldn’t necessarily be interested in or able to tell you why. They follow their gut without evidence or a reason to back it up – it is what will happen.

So pick a character that you’ve played, PC or NPC and identify their preferences among the dyads.

Olivia, my character in the swashy bodice ripper is a Tactical Offensive Social Intuitive. She swings into action with her sword and a plan and the iron clad belief that she’ll succeed. As soon as she has enough information to know who she’s up against or where the thing she wants is, she goes after it head on, asap. She tries to talk, taunt or seduce her way in or out of any trouble she comes across; even though she is a sword master, her school is based on tagging and seductive distraction. She feels powerful things, very powerfully, but couldn’t ever really identify or articulate why she’s feeling that way and is about as reflective as a rock. I might know exactly why she does the things she does, but she most often doesn’t have a clue.

Try it out.

Suggestions for you out there who might be grooving on this, some of which I might dig into later:

  • Have a look at the kinds of archetypes the combinations produce.
  • Type out all the NPCs in a game you’re running and use the empty slots for new characters to expand the breadth of the cast
  • Type out the NPC’s against gender, race, or other criteria and see what your game is inadvertently saying by concentration or absence
  • Type out your past PC’s and look for ones you’ve never tried for a future adventure.

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Agents of their own Salvation

ABC’s Castle is a fluffy show. On Monday nights, fluff is about all I’m good for.

Tonight’s episode was the second of a two-parter, and I wanted to recommend it to folks looking how to create tension and jeopardy in action genre games without reducing female characters to hapless, helpless, sardoodledum-y plot devices for the male protagonists.

*Spoiler alert for Season 2 Episodes 17 & 18* You have been warned.

The three scenes I’d like to draw your attention two are, well, the three big women in distress scenes. The one at the beginning of Episode 18 where Beckett’s apartment goes boom, the one at the end of Episode 18 when Beckett and Castle go in after the killer and Dana Delaney’s character who he has kidnapped, and the third that happens immediately after the second when Beckett falls at the mercy of the killer and they manage to take him in.

In all three of these scenes, I’d invite you to notice how the women in question are bad-ass agents of their own Salvation, and how in all three scenes, the male protagonist isn’t undermined by their agency at all.

In the first, Beckett, is going to get blown up by a bomb planted in her apartment. Castle, through his magical novelist skill, figures it out in the nick of time and calls her, letting her know that the bomb is there. Cut to her reaction, and the killer’s recorded voice telling her goodbye, cut to the building exploding and Castle’s reaction. Castle heroically busts into the burning building to save her life, but really she’s saved herself by throwing herself into the cast iron bathtub. Sure he helps her out of the burning building, but she’s not really in imminent danger while they go. He’s still a hero – he saved her life by giving her the chance to save herself, he had the hero man action shot: braving the burning building to come after her. He loses no hero points at all, and at the same time, Beckett has been the smart, resourceful, kick-ass cop we’ve always known her to be. Both of them come out of the event more bad-ass than they went in – neither earns their rise in stock at the expense of the other.

Later, once again (it’s his shtick after all), Castle figures out the serial killer’s motive by novelist mojo and he and Beckett go in to save Delaney’s character…

Oh yeah, before I go on with that scene, let me point out that the NYPD have been able to put the storyline of what happened to Delaney’s character because she elbowed the killer in the face and bloodied his nose badly – after he’d pulled a gun on her from the back seat of her car. It isn’t her blood, it isn’t random scuffs of a struggle, it’s an indication that the woman in distress didn’t go into distress without courage and competent physical resistance.

Back to the scene. So Beckett’s given Castle a gun (which has been an ongoing thing in the show) and told him she’s going to lure off the killer and that she wants him to get Delaney’s character free and out and get backup. She confronts the genius killer, and outsmarts him thereby saving the lives of all of the male SWAT team that are about to be unbenownstly blown up in the decoy building. The killer dives for his gun but doesn’t get it because the woman in distress (Delaney) contributes to her own salvation (even though she is tied to a chair) by kicking his gun out of reach. The killer runs off and Beckett follows. Even here when it’s a woman saving another woman, the victim gets to play a part in getting her freedom back. Neither Beckett nor Castle lose any stock or appear any less the heroes for the action. Also, Castle doesn’t rush the scene or steal the thunder. Beckett’s there to do a job and she does it; she’s the kick-ass cop after all. Delaney sends Castle after Beckett to back her up.

Next scene, Beckett’s chased down the killer, there’s a confrontation and a hard-hitting fistfight. The killer does get the better of Beckett, but not until they’ve exchanged a number of forceful physical blows. It’s not an easy for the killer to get the better for her just because she’s a woman. Then he has her gun and he goes to shoot her, Castle who has finally caught up yells “No!’ and gets off a shot which hits the killer. It’s not a killing shot, just enough that the killer drops the gun and scrambles to the ground after it. And here it’s Delaney that takes the last save, with a pulpy high-heeled shoe stepping on the fallen gun, and a gun of her own trained on him.

Taking the killer in to custody, Beckett commends Castle on the shot, and Castle confesses that he’d been aiming for the killer’s head. Here again, the stock goes up on all three characters. Not one of them is ever reduced to a plot device. They all, even the special guest star who could have been red shirted, maintain competence through the episode. Both genders get to be all things: smart and resourceful and physically competent too.

It might be fluff, but as prime time network television fluff goes, that’s some pretty balanced manoeuvring from a character agency perspective. Give it a view through that lens.

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Laban Movement Types

Brand and I do a lot of description in our RPG’s – not surprising as we both are writers and we play emotion centric games in which we often want to have things illustrated, but not verbalized in play. We use description cues in an NPC’s movement to give them characterization and depth. This is especially true of the two games we’ve been playing recently. One is a pseudo historical swashbuckling bodice-ripper done in a quasi-novella style and the other is our home brew So You Think You Can Dance game, in which- as you can imagine – character movement is particularly important thing to describe.

One of the tools we use to get at characterization through movement is a methodology of analysis I learned back in my theatre days so long, long ago. A dance dude by the name of Rudolf von Laban provided a system of language to describe and understand movement by breaking it down into a set of Basic Effort Actions made up of component binaries based on weight, space and time. According to him, movement was some degree of heavy or light, direct or flexible, sudden or sustained. In all combinations, this produces eight basic effort actions descriptively called Float, Thrust, Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press.

These terms are used to describe individual actions in Laban Movement Analysis, but they have been adopted by acting methodology to shorthand emotion through movement in theatre. Brand and I use them in RPG’s to shorthand the emotional state of a character, but we also use the ideas in them to shorthand their personalities as well. I thought one or two of you might find the model useful in your own games, so here’s a list:

Press (direct, sustained, heavy) is my favorite effort action, and I always start here when describing them. It’s heavy, so the movement has weight and bearing. It’s direct so it goes at a goal, and it’s sustained, so it is not as much quick or sharp as grinding ever forward. Press is a presence-y commanding push, a slow, relentless dominance of action, a grinding down under forward progress. Press is a bulldozer, press is a marching army, press is a dominant seduction. In our games, press people are great people – An emperor, a general, a calm, intense, ambitious person who is unafraid of grinding anything in his path to dust to get at what he wants.

Thrust (direct, sudden, heavy) is an easy one to describe. It has at it’s goal with speed, efficiency, control and deadly intent. It’s the final blow of a driving blade. A bullet to the brain. A knockout punch. In our games. Thrust characters are intense people. When they are good guys they’re often proud and capable and exceedingly restrained.

Slash (flexible, sudden, heavy) is a neighbour of Thrust. It’s heavy and fast, but where Thrust is controlled, Slash is wild. Slash is a back alley knife fight. Slash is a swashbuckling, bottle smashing, drunken brawl. In our games, Slashers are arrogant, audacious, sexy rakes with big reputations.

Wring (flexible, sustained, heavy) is the last of the heavy actions. It’s sustained like press, but it’s not direct. It’s flexible and twisting, like wringing a wet towel out. Wring is an inward churning individual. Wring could be a twisted malcontent. Wring is an strategic herder. In our games, wrings are often scheming villains, twisted and evil.

Glide (direct, sustained, light) is light, graceful, and directed. Gliding is a ballroom dancer. Gliding is an ice skater. Gliding is a courtesan on a gondola. Gliders in our games are socially adept, dangerous people who get you to do things you didn’t intend to do and yet somehow have you respecting them for it.

Float (flexible, sustained, light) is like Gliding without direction, Wring without Weight. Float is lazy cumulus clouds. Float is puppy love. Float is collateral damage waiting to happen. Floaters in our games are benevolent friends, hapless tarot fools skipping off cliffs, and sometimes the maddening few that can not be encumbered by you.

Flick (flexible, sudden, light) is like Float, but without the ease of sustained action, or Slash without the threat. Flick is lick of fire. Flick is toss of hair. Flick is an always distraction. Flickers in our games are most often maddening, mercurial creatures who must be cajoled, convinced or connived into commitment, or loyal, but somewhat inconsequential allies.

Dab (direct, sudden, light) is like Thrust without deadly intent. Dab is a bon mot. Dab is cutting remark. Dab is a Lady Macbeth. Dabbers in our games are devastating social creatures. They’re political powerhouses, and deft manipulators.

Let me know if you find this useful, or if you’re using anything like this in your own play or discussion around play. If you’re one of the folks (Jim, Emily, Jason, I’m looking at you) that has a late interest in theatre or improv that grew out of RPG’s I’d recommend you spend some time physically playing with the eight Basic Effort Actions. It’s a great movement exercise, and an enlightening emotional technique.

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Soaps vs RPGs

Over on LJ, Jim Henley was talking about improv and its proximity to RPG’s and ended up asking me some questions about the improv soaps I used to do a lifetime ago. It made for an interesting brain dump, so I thought I’d post it over here in case y’all found it interesting (edited for format, readability and atrocious grammar).

Jim: It occurs to me that I need to know everything about your soaps. I know you’ve referred to them before, but they seem like a whole extra level of ambition beyond the creation of a play at a time, which is a level of ambition above “let’s make up a skit from scratch.” Some nosey questions that come to mind: Am I correct in inferring continuing characters across episodes?

Mo: Yup, constant characters. The soap would generally run for about 12-16 episodes. Sometimes they were like daytime soaps, sometimes Sci Fi, sometimes horror. When Vampire and Mage came out, we used their source material as a base… before they made them in to LARPS!

Jim: Were these performed for an audience or just within the troupe?

Mo: A faithful, if exceedingly rowdy and badly behaved audience. They would pay every week to see the next installment. Typically shows were late at night following another play (often other plays that some/all of the cast was in!), and had to be flexible enough to work off of whatever set and audience was in the theatre space at the time – which made for some fun challenges. Usually they were on Friday or Sunday nights, but one of them went nightly over the course of the week. In some of the soaps, the audience would shout out instruction or direction that the actors would feel free to take or ignore.

Jim: You had a set scene list to go through in performance? Would that mean that Scene X had to come out a certain way to justify Scene Y, but the actual beats of Scenes X and Y were still improvised? Did plans for scenes ever gang agley? What then?

Mo: We’d come in 1.5 – 2.5 hours prior to the performance, and do a quick physical warm up, then the director would post the scene list. The scene list would be skeletal, kinda like: “SCENE FIVE: X character encounters Y character in Z location. X tells Y this bit of critical information and leaves. Alone on stage, Y determines to do this thing about it.” Yes, often there would be subsequent scenes in the same episode that would directly depend on the outcome of your scene, but sometimes the scene was just for colour too, or set up something for next episode.

Usually scenes were between 1-3 people, thought sometimes we would have larger groups or the whole cast involved. Sometimes it would start with a couple, and one person would leave and another would come in. Each scene would take anywhere between 3 and 10 minutes, give or take, occasionally longer for very complex scenes.

After the director posted the scenes, everyone would crowd around and find out what they were doing that night, figure out which scenes they were in with whom and about what and have a few scarce minutes to talk about the scene, or block it out, if it were very physical.

I remember one particularly memorable scene where my character killed another character in a beat down drag out fight, complete with squibs and pre-scored costumes and props and stuff. We blocked it on an unfamiliar set in 10 minutes and never had time for a test run of course – crazyiness! For that scene, of course, because one character would be removed from play, it had been decided at the rehearsal three days before, so we had time to gather props and such. We didn’t know how the death would go down, just that it would. (edited: Of course, also when any scene where big props or big special effects were needed would have to known it was coming at least partly in advance. Once: homemade pyrotechnics!)

So we’d talk, brainstorm, block, then go get into costume and makeup, and then have five minutes of a voice warm up, often backstage as the audience was coming in.

Scenes occasionally went very wrong indeed, though much less than you might think. Someone once, because they were a late comer to the scene, missed entirely that he was supposed to be in that scene, and so the two people on stage ended up stranded. The funniest part about that one was that there was no backstage area in the theatre that episode, so all of the actors were sitting on a long bench in a darker nook but in full view of the audience. When it became obvious that something had gone awry, the other actors pointed him to the stage him, he got up, went to the post, read the scene made a “Well, here goes nothing” face and then jumped in… to gales of laughter from the audience, who always loved it when we’d fuck up.

If something went wrong, well, we’d just have to get it back on track, which demanded some quick thinking at times. Usually though, especially when there was a backstage, people would review their scene objectives just before going onstage, so when things went wrong they didn’t affect continuity of the whole show.

Jim: Let’s talk Socket Theory! Or maybe MB&G. Did you “attach” to the soaps differently than you attach to roleplaying games? Would you say your MB profile within the soaps was the same as your RPG profile, your real-life profile, or was it a third profile?

Mo: (What’s MB&G? Myers Briggs?) Hard to compare them, because at the time I did them, I wasn’t gaming. I came back to gaming (had played D&D as a kid) just at the tail end of them. Because the last few we did used games as source material, I ended up meeting a number of local gamers and started to play again. However, I would say my relationship to game grows directly out my time in the theatre in general, and out of the soaps in particular – especially my socket.

To prepare for the soaps, well before you’d hit stage, we’d have a couple of rehearsals that fleshed out the idea of the soap, the themes, the setting, the basic locations, the kinds of characters that would be needed. We’d play handfuls of characters in endless freeze games, and then pull characters we really liked, or were particularly effective (funny, scary, poignant, melodramatic, etc) out and make a cast of them, sometimes creating new characters to fill in the gaps.

Then there would be a whole bunch of rehearsals where we’d have character interviews. You’d literally go up on a hotseat, on stage, under a spot, and the rest of the cast and crew would rapid fire questions at you. In an hour they’d have dragged all this character history out of you and under pressure, you’d often find your character voice developing. There were also some funny, and always repeated questions like: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” or “So why do you want to join the secret service?” You were supposed to stay in character for the whole time and react to the questions as if they were really being asked. Some of the character history would be retained, some discarded.

Then there’d be a series of rehearsals where we worked on movement and voice, getting down the physicality of the character, the voice of the character, the idiosyncrasies and twitches. Then we’d have improv as your character in the world scenes that didn’t have to connect to one another – real sandbox stuff. Usually there’d be 1-2 months of ramp up before the soap, depending on the commitment of the director. By the time you got to the actual performances, you knew your character’s inner workings, and could slip in and out at a moment’s notice. Ideally, by the time it came to opening night you’d have done this so well you couldn’t really be caught off guard because you’d really immersed in the personage of the character. – So yeah my socket to character and my immersive tendencies both grew directly out of this world.

However, these days gaming is a deeply personal thing for me. The catharsis that I dig for is something very different than I used to have back then. The payoff of the soaps was performative, while the payoff of my games today is experiential. There’s more intimacy and nuance than ever would have been possible in front of an audience, even when that audience was very well behaved.

Jim: Hiding behind all the above questions is the ur-question of how the soaps were NOT essentially RPGs of some sort.

Mo: Really, I’d say that the biggest way in which I’d delineate RPGs and the soaps would be the expectation of a quality, finished and coherent product (that was worth purchasing). This idea includes the idea that you’d spend ten times the preparation time investing on the fiction than you’d ever spend inside the fiction itself. It also includes the “draft”ing of the fiction, or the willingness to input things that will never be incorporated, or will be edited and distilled down to a story that makes it something that’s not just worth doing (important!) but worth both having other people find it worth watching (the point) and worth paying to come and see (the way we keep afloat doing what we’re doing).

We look at RPGs in the rosy hindsight of post-interpreted narrative where we selectively remember the elements of play that make most sense to keep based on their retroactive meaning and importance in relation to the story that won out in the end. The soaps had to hit the ground running with a linear, developed narrative (for that episode) in place from the get go, no real room for (critical) error, and no second chances. (As a side note, it’s worth noting that a couple of times our soaps were then further distilled down into plays and re-performed like a traditional, scripted play after the season had ended.)

Also important to this difference is the collectivist approach to the process. There was no need to mitigate authority or have mechanical intervention to gateway events because our collective goal was the performance, and whatever you had to give up to achieve that goal, be it character autonomy, narrative input, spotlight time, whatever, the goal came first. RPGs, in my more general and current experience, have too much individualist practice/inclination to work the same way that the soaps did then.

That said, within the intimacy of my playgroups, be it solo with Brand or the small, cultivated playgroups I play in most and enjoy best, that collectivist impulse is still, mostly, beating it’s hummingbird’s heart.

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Post Secret D&D

Saw this secret on the post Secret list today and thought it was funny….

… too bad whoever it is isn’t having his/her best games now… (or better sex!).

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50 books

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Café Game Exchange

So I was reading on Meg & Em’s blog about Epidiah’s terrific idea and have the perfect café in Toronto in mind to try it out with.

If I did the ground work here and the café in question agreed, would any of you who has a published game be interested in sending me a comp copy to put in the exchange?

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Dance me to the end of game.

“Enjoying roleplaying is rather like enjoying dancing: At some point you have to throw your inhibitions to the wind, admit you might look like a fool to passing spectators and enjoy the moment. Also like dancing, which at first may seem like a fairly limited activity, roleplaying has almost infinite depth and variety in the experiences it provides.”

From this week’s the Escapist. Check out The Dice They Carried for a fun article.

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Context

So my Great Aunt Gertrude keeps asking me to get on with writing more about that body of post-immersionist theory (thanks Mick, great way to put it!) I’d been working on last year, and it just so happens I have a couple more things I’ve been itching to talk about: The first of a pair is context. The second will come in a later post.

As you might have suspected, I’m really big on context – all my theory’s heavily invested in the idea that play success is wholly dependant on the contextual positioning of the player in relation to everything else: other players at the table, social contract, system, preferred payoffs, goals, modes of play, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the word context contextually: what I’m specifically looking at here is the player’s requirement for context. Also, while I absolutely think this discussion has application with some of the other sockets, mostly I’ll be talking about character socket play, because, well, that’s what I like & know best, and so focus on. So in a nutshell, what I’m looking at is how much or how little contextual establishment a player requires for her character in a game, and how I think that might relate to her payoff, goals and modes of play.

So what is contextual establishment? Well it has to do with how a character relates to herself, the world, the story, the other characters. As a person, you have a context in every moment of every day. That context is critical to your understanding of the world and to your ability to interact in it. It is built by all of your past experiences, by an inventory of your present situation, by the expectations which you invest in the world, and your ability to forecast future outcomes.

Picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You’re counting out the money on the way to make sure that you have enough.

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You know that John has compulsive habit of punching people in the head when he sees large sums of money and taking it because he’s done it to you a half a dozen times. Are you still counting out the money on the way? (Why, you’re probably asking, am I even with John at the mall?)

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through Compton. You’re on the way to the store to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars. Are you carrying 500 dollars in cash? If you are, are you counting it there in the middle of the street? Are you still with John, given that he’s a reckless head-punching bastard?

So yeah, as a person, context affects how we feel about things when they happen and how we decide what to do in response to them. Most of the time we don’t notice our internal relationship with context. We have long-tuned instinctual processes built to deal with it like the one that makes you flinch in fear when that head-punching bastard moves his arm quickly but doesn’t when your cat Buster darts across your lap.

When context changes radically or inexplicably, the instinctual processes can totally break down. And as anyone who’s ever traveled extensively can tell you, being deprived of context (cultural context, for this example) over a long period of time can be disorienting or even frightening. Learning to intentionally work through differences in context (rather than instinctually coasting through sameness in context) causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

When I lived in Brazil or India everything I did, no matter how simple, took energy and focus because I had to work to understand the cultural context of everyday life and try harder than usual to act within that model. The propensity for failure to understand the context and then act inappropriately also became greater, which caused a heightened sense of latent (and sometimes acute!) anxiety than I would otherwise feel.

So in roleplaying context is important too. All players need at least a little context to get traction in play, and some players need a lot more than that. At a broad and basic level, context is established through setting, system, genre, and past play (among others). Telling you the game we will play takes place in the real world, gives you different building blocks to build a contextual model than telling you it takes place in Narnia, Glorantha, or aboard the Millennium Falcon. Telling you that the game will be a pulp, will affect your mental model differently than if I’d said western, noir, or space opera. This is really why RPG’s loves them some genre and why games in general are prone to setting books, splatbooks, archetype lists etc. etc. They are all ways to shortcut communal context around the table and get people in position to play together.

You can cut context a thousand ways but where I want to get to in this discussion is that beyond the communal context at the table which everyone needs and which makes the game possible, some players require specifically higher degrees of context to achieve their goals in play, interact with their character in mode or get at their payoff. Some examples:

  • Higher context players might require historical context in character (like a background), to provide a contextual sense of where the character has come from and who the character is as a person whereas a lower context player may prefer the character to be a blank slate that’s fully open to interpretation.
  • Higher context players might require in character social freeplay to get a sense of the contextual relationship between their character and other personas (PC or NPC) in the fiction while lower context players might find it just as satisfying to invent those relationships on the fly.
  • Higher context players may need contextualization before conflict to position themselves to be able to experience the interaction whereas lower context players might more fully enjoy the experience if they’re given the thrill of in medias res scene framing.
  • Higher conflict players may prefer moment-to-moment or event-to event play while lower context players might find time lapsing or sudden time jumping a happier pace.

Of course, I shouldn’t have to say this because if you’re reading my blog you should already know that it’s implied, but: there’s no objective right or wrong, better or worse in this equation. Whether high or low, the threshold of context required by a player is relational to their enjoyment of play and the only place better/worse comes in is in how well the player’s payoff was realized.

Calibrating context correctly is an important process to enjoyment in game. Like me in India, the farther away you are from the context you’re expecting the less comfortable the game will be and the more detracting from fun. I suspect I understand how this trends with other elements of the emotional agenda, but I’m not ready to point at it until I’ve established the piece it’s (fraternally) twinned with.

Next up: Relief.

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Caw!

So Jonathan Walton started up a quick design contest this week, and I guess my creative juice was itching because I took the bait.

Crow, an aesthetic socket living poetry game, for your perusal.

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Simon Says…

So Simon Carryer rocked my socks earlier this week with this Culture Builder that he posted elsewhere on the Interwebs. I thought more of the world should know about it.

Here’s the idea:

First, you need to come up with 13 “rules” for your culture. They should range from really broad, general, and non-intrusive, through to very specific, all-encompassing laws. You can crib them from existing cultures if you like. Depending on the game, maybe everyone can help come up with these. Number them 2-10, then Jack, Queen, King.

For example:

2: People wear blue for mourning.
3: Women always get first choice of food, and the eldest choose first.
8: There is a tribe called the “Gazzir” who provide guards to aristocratic families. The tribe is renowned for honour unto death, and fanatical loyalty to employers.
9: Swords are forbidden to be carried by anyone not of noble lineage. For this reason, pole arms are common.
Queen: Those who are sentenced to death, or contemplating suicide, can opt to join a sect of monks called “the Nameless”. They give up their old identities, and live ascetic lives of servitude.
King: The Emperor’s word is law, and none may question it and live.
(of course, you’d have 2-K all done)

Now, in game, when you need an off-the-cuff NPC, or if you’re preparing NPCs for a game, draw a card. Referencing the number on the card and check the suit. Take the rule you’ve drawn and interpret it according to the suit:

Hearts: The character embodies, enacts, or enforces the rule.
Diamonds: The character twists, alters, or avoids the rule.
Spades: The character’s life is altered (for good or bad) by the rule.
Clubs: The character breaks the rule.

So, drawing from the above list:

2 of Diamonds: Alaric the Mason wears blue every day, and has done for years. No one knows if he’s mourning a long-dead wife, or if he’s just weird. Though he seems perfectly normal in other respects, it makes people suspicious.

3 of Spades: Gwen is the mother of five hungry children, and poor. She lives with her mother-in-law, who always chooses the most food for herself, leaving very little for Gwen and the children. Gwen is forced to eat almost nothing, so her children can survive.

8 of Clubs: Numun the Betrayer was a Gazzir guard who betrayed his employer, a cruel and merciless man. Numun and a few of his friends slew the man. Now Numun’s tribe is hunting him down to restor their honour.

9 of Hearts: Darran of Everwood is a young nobleman, and an expert swordsman. He itches for a chance to test his skill against the best in the land.

Queen of Diamonds: Aliea is an advisor to the Emperor. Though she wears the garb of the Nameless, and claims none of her former identity, forgoing even her name, she is often present at high-level meetings, and has a strong voice in the Emperor’s war-council.

King of Spades: Beatrice, a serving-woman at the palace, is sentanced to death for refusing to go to the Emperor’s bed.

Aces: Aces are a special case. Come up with a previously unknown rule, and then refer to the suit to find the character’s relationship to the rule.

So the idea is that you get a whole lot of characters with kind of intertwined fates, different stakes in the culture.

Simon says… “I think it’s an interesting way of doing “show, don’t tell” in a fantasy game, where the culture, and how it works day-to-day, is revealed by the characters the players meet, rather than dictated from on-high. If nothing else, it’s a great prompt for imagination. These characters were all thought up on the fly as I was typing this, but I’d be happy to have any of them in my games. I like how they really act as plot-hooks, but they’re plots that are firmly rooted in the culture. So often I think fantasy cultures are treated as this monolithic thing, where all members of the culture adhere to a set of guidelines unerringly. What I like about this idea is that it introduces the complexity and moral ambiguity of real cultures, without endless complications to the game.”

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Disruptive Emergence & the Impassioned Character Socket

**Warning** This post will contain a spoiler about season 3 of The Wire. You’ve been warned. Also, if you’re responding, please don’t spoil seasons 4 or 5 of The Wire for me. K?Thx. **Warning**

So last night, Brand and I are watching the last three episodes of Season 3 of the Wire, and along comes the scene where Pryzbylewski is standing, gun in hand, looking at the dead body of the cop he’s just shot. (For those who don’t know and didn’t care if they were spoiled, Pryz is a misfit wildcard inept cop that got through the Academy on nepotism, who early in Season 1 nearly beat an innocent kid blind for sassing him, and ended up behind a desk. His becomes a real redemption story when turns out, despite everyone’s best guesses (including Pryzbylewski’s) that he’s actually “real po-leece” when it comes to the analytical trace work involved in Major Crimes. The first time he’s out of the office in like two and a half seasons, he gets involved in a random chase and ends up mistaking a cop for a perp and shooting him dead.)

At this point, I hit pause on the g-d-clickybox and turn to Brand. “That there is what Vincent’s looking for when he talks about mechanics that bring on undesirable emergent story.” There wasn’t really any lead up to the scene, just a few quick shots interspersed with the other scenes: McNulty and Pryz eating Chinese food and getting the call, McNulty running through a back ally while Pryz round out in the car to head him off. Then there’s McNulty on the walkie, and he hears the shot fired, and finally there’s Pryz standing there with his gun out, looking freaked out of his mind. The killing is out of the blue, and all the lead up and shooting itself don’t even happen on screen. It’s obviously the work of disruptive mechanics.

Brand loved it. I didn’t. …. Shocking, I know.

But it did make for this great two hour conversation before we ended up getting back to the show. There’s a lot from that conversation I won’t get to in this post, might get into later if I’m up to it.

There ensues this real clear articulation that happens over how we interact (differently) with media – mainly movies and TV, but touching on print stuff too. He likes this scene with Pryz because it’s dramatic, because it moves the story, and because it lends a kind of realistic satisfaction to the series. In real life, our shortcomings come out to haunt us in the moments we think we’ve overcome them. When life is at its most brutal it often is over before you know what’s happening. It’s swift and explosive and afterwards nothing is the same. The Wire also (mostly) strives to provide a sense of real-lifeness as cop dramas go, so this makes the presence of this kind of event even more satisfying, in his eyes. He feels this turn of events is full because it’s a value add. It provides another kind of drama that enriches the story overall.

Brand, through his story socket, connects with the event and appreciates it cognitively. It’s intellectually fulfilling.

While I totally get why he likes what he likes there (and see it as valid) I don’t like it because it feels empty. It feels like the show has witheld. I’m engaged with the show, and I’m very much enjoying it because it does a very good job of creating complex characters in all shades of grey, and then all of a sudden, it changes the rules on me and I’m not allowed access to the character experience. On a dime, the character’s life is changed forever, I have no access to understand what really happened, nor to make the transition with the character (because I have been sharply and emotionally decontextualized from him). All of a sudden Pryz feels foreign to me and I can’t empathize with him properly. Sure, I can step away from it and type now: It is an interesting narrative device. I can cognitively appreciate what they were trying to do, and even how they succeeded in doing it. I even mean it when I type that, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was unfufilling to me in the moment of engagement.

I, through my character socket, became unconnected to the event which prevented me from appreciating it in the impassioned moment. It’s emotionally unfufilling.

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All the cool kids are doing it…

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Real Roleplay

As usual, Chris Chinn over at Deeper in the Game rocks my world with his post “A conveniently shifting line. Go read it. Grasping what he’s saying there is critical to reading me.

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