Push vs. Pull

I think it’s called Indian Wrestling, at least I’m pretty sure that’s what we called it as kids. You face your opponent, right leg forward, left leg back, your inside right foot touching your opponent’s inside right foot. You clasp your right hands together like you are about to arm wrestle, and count off. At go, you try your damnedest to throw the other person off balance. The player still standing at the end is the winner.

That game, minus the winning or losing bit, summarizes my internal picture of the process of playing an RPG. Mostly I am referring to the process between the player and the GM. Instead of the winning, the point of the game is to throw or tug each other as off balance as possible without making anybody fall down. The up and down and side-to-side, near fall and save is the story. The harder we both work to drive each other off balance but still keep each other safe and on our feet, the better the story will be. So. That movement, dynamic, fluid, always connected, in endless struggle, rife with moments of certain failure and gasps of almost victory, is how I feel about RPGs when they are at their very best.

Are you with me? Good.

Now, some people are better at the game than others. My cousin who introduced me to the game seemed like the King of Indian Wrestling. He was three years older, a foot taller, and twenty pounds heavier than I was. For two or three consecutive years he whupped my ass at it. Because we lived nowhere near each other but have cottages on the same street, we only ever got to play it in the summer. Every year he was still three years older, a foot taller, and twenty pounds heavier than me. Every game ran through the same process: he gloated his advantage, let me have a full swing at trying to push him off kilter, him neatly resisting my charge, him rubbing it in verbally, and then slowly, exerting his superior strength to force me backwards, out of my field of gravity, and on to the floor.

I was a stubborn and optimistic kid. I never gave up. Eventually I figured out the knack. It’s easy to look at that game and think that strength and power is the road to victory, but as I got older and my body coordination and lateral thinking skills improved, I realized that if I couldn’t out-force my opponent, I could try and outbalance him. Over the course of the next summer, I probably didn’t take his King’s crown away from him, but I enjoyed the game hell of a lot more once the playing field evened out. He would wait, I would wait, he would nudge, I would nudge, he would push I would push, he would push, I would drop my centre of gravity and pull, taking him to the floor. It was a lesson years later that I would be re-taught in Judo.

It’s a lesson that over the years I applied to a lot of things. Push never has been my thing. When Brand first started “going on” about Narrativism, I was very worried. I had finally managed to import my very own GM from California, and had just gotten him to a place where I could command he do my bidding, when he started talking about something that really didn’t sound like fun. The GM’s whole job is to push, he said, and players push back, and as a result of all that pushing, conflict, choices and stories come to be! To me, it sounded a whole lot like schoolyard bullies and football field chest thumping – frankly, it sounded stressful. So I went to the Forge, and I read a lot, and could understand why the Narrativism Brand was talking about had grown out of it. Even when just talking about the ideas of Narrativism, people on the Forge love to push each other around.

Now, I’m not saying the Forge is a bad, terrible place that no one should bother with. If you’re a pusher, you’ll probably find your niche there. I’m not a pusher, I ‘m a puller, and that means that the style of discourse on the Forge, and the style of discourse in many Nar games is really not for me. I’m not Forge diaspora adrift in the blogsphere, I’m just a girl that thought she could open the discussion a little wider, and couldn’t find her place at the Forge.

So what is pull? It’s the act of creating space that something can fall into. It’s the act of pulling yourself back to allow another to step in. It’s collaborative play rather than competitive play.

Lets take a look at both:

Dust Devils and Nine Worlds (not to pick on Matt Snyder here, it’s just that I have been thinking about Nine Worlds since our not-so-successful experiment this past weekend) are very much Push games. A mechanic in them that illustrates this very neatly is that when you win a conflict you win narration rights, which give you the authority to push anything in the game.

GM: You’re going to the Saturn Palace to retrieve the Oracle of Poseidon, but you know the chimera is in the area and hunting for you.
Player: I can deal with the chimera, I want a conflict to overcome it.
GM: OK, Let’s go.
(Cards are pulled, Player wins the conflict.)
Player: The chimera does spot us, and attacks, but I use the magical words that Hecate taught me to bind the chimera to my will, so that when we get to the palace, it fights with us.

That’s a push conflict. The player has taken it from the GM’s conceived scene of a Han Solo on the Death Star variety and pushed it by enforcing his will on the game. Lots of people, such as Brand, love push conflicts, which is why so many games have these kind of mechanics. There’s nothing wrong with push conflicts… unless you’re a puller and not comfortable with them.

In contrast, Breaking the Ice has many pull elements:

In Breaking the Ice, you must please the other player, rather than beat the other character to get bonus dice to make attraction happen. You must be willing and open to step back and let another player please you so you can grant the dice because your granting dice allows the other player to try to and attract you. It’s collaborative. An especially good example of a pull is the mechanic for Complication:

Player 1: OK, my dice hate me.
Player 2: I guess I do too.
Player 1: No, lets see here, it’s the end of the night, things have been going only fairly and Mark has walked you to your door. He tries to tell you he had a good time, but the words just stammer out. He flushes deeply red in a hot embarrassment and turns to go, but at the last moment, screws his courage to the sticking place and kisses you.
Player 2: That’s sweet! You get a re-roll.

Rather by making yourself more aggressive, you make yourself more fallible to win. You don’t get to push on the rule. You can’t make the other player give you the re-roll, you can only please them enough to make them want to give it to you. Similarly, the other player can tempt you to let them contribute to your story by making suggestions and offering bonus dice, but they can’t force it to happen. They have to pull you to pull them to put your ideas in play.

The first is like a boxing match, the second like a ballroom dance.

I think it’s important to notice that the first game is created by a male designer and the second by a female designer. I’m not saying that one game is male domain and one is female. That’d be a stupid thing to say. I can’t help but think though that this fact has some relevance based on the different ways that boys and girls are socialized. What we are talking about here is the ways in which we are skilled in dealing with conflict resolution. I’m a very strong woman who was raised by a very strong woman who taught me to stand up and represent myself when the situation called for it, and as Brand can attest, when aggression is called for (heh, when push comes to shove), I can call it on in spades. But my preferred method of approaching conflict resolution is by negotiation, approach and collaborative effort. I was taught that, most girls I know were too.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t women out there who love to get their push on. Of course there are, and perhaps that too is a reaction against – a pushing past – socialization. Conversely, there are guys out there that would land in the middle of a primary pull game and relax for the first time ever because pushing is not really their thing. Neither is weak or strong, neither is good or bad, neither is only for men or only for women, they are just preferences, or skills, or safe space in playing a game.

Maybe, just maybe (positing not declaring here) push vs. pull is (one of) the answer(s) to the age old question: why don’t more girls game? I do think that it is one of the primary reasons most girls don’t come to the Forge.

Anyway, enough for tonight.

Next up: Pull in Practical Application.
p.s. Read this to Brand and he reminded me: Please don’t mistake Pulling for passive or aimless play. It is a conscious, deliberate act on my part to encourage the story to become more dynamic and create more drama. I’ll get into the hows of it later.

46 thoughts on “Push vs. Pull”

  1. Huh. I know that game, but we called it push-hands.

    I’m going to continue your metaphor.

    You really can’t do anything with just push or just pull. You need pushing and pulling. If both people wait to recieve force in push-hands, they just sit there, staring at each other. It’s dull.

    I would argue that most Forge games have as much of a pull element as a push element. Consider the “say yes” in “say yes or roll dice” from Dogs. Consider the loser-gets-narration in Trollbabe. Consider the enormous power of “and that was how it happened” or even not starting conflict at all in Polaris.

    Am I reading you right? All of these seem like “pull” elements to me.

    (I would call them yang- and yin- play, myself.)


  2. I’m with Ben, Mo. Pull only works if somebody’s willing to do the pushing. I’ll go further – most of the pull tactics I’ve seen in actual play are of the form where the Pull-er refuses to commit to anything until the Push-er (usually the GM) gives them a clear opening. It’s a destructive form of passive-aggressive play unless it’s done collaboratively.

    Which is not to say it can’t be collaborative – just that I see the passive-aggressive form a lot more often in the wild.

  3. Ben,

    “Say yes” and “say yes or roll the dice” are, interestingly, pull elements on the GM’s side. I’ve always found this fascinating — as pull is usually relegated to the players side of the table. What Dogs has done, so far as I can tell, is given a more equal push/pull dynamic across the table. Rather than having the agressive GM and the defensive players, it has a more equal ability for both to do both.

    Polaris is also an interesting case. When you are not in conflict Polaris works best as a pull game. Hell, if you’re good enough at pull in Polaris you can get your way without a conflict a large amount of the time. However, once you get into a conflict you go into the realm of push, push, push. How often have we been given the advice to go for the throat, knock the other person on their ass, hit them where it hurts and other very male, very push elements in Polaris conflicts? Polaris, I think, works because the structure of the game encourages you to do both in cycles.

    Of all the examples, however, I find Trollbabe the most interesting. The idea that you can win OR say what happens is just utterly brilliant. I mean really, just boom.

    All of these games do assume both pull and push. They also assume, however, that all players will do both. Which may not be what all players are looking to do. I do not think it is accidental that many Forge games work best when played with a group the members of which have all had significant experience as GMs. In fact, a lot of the discourse around the issue revolves around “I want to have the kind of control (push) normally reserved for GMs in other games when I am a player in this game.”

    What about those that don’t want that, but do want formalized and negotiated power structures? I think if we look more at pull, rather than concentrating mostly on push, we might be surprised what we find.

    (Remember the disucssion Emily had about how Breaking the Ice was/wasn’t particularly vulnerable to abusive players? What happens when we strive to make game design vulnerable, and how does that influence the whole recent discourse about ritual and safe space in RPGs?)

    Mark W,

    What you are talking about is not pull. If people are not doing anything until given permission, they are being passive.

    Pull is not passive. It is active in a different direction than pushing. It helps to stop thinking about it as recieving without motion, and start thinking of it in the dynamic terms of aikido.

    Which, ironically, I had karate buddies tell me was a useless martial art because “it mostly only works when you wait for someone else to do something to you.”

    As for the needing push and pull in a game, I think it does make it easier if you have both. Of course, that works in all directions: if you have nothing but push then games tend to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Games that have nothing but pull tend to be very circular and regressive, working ever back upon the mobius trail.

    Now both of those games can be enjoyable, if that is what you’re looking for. However, I find it best when there are cycles of action in both directions. Which, you’all may notice, is one of the things Mo said at the top of the essay, durring the Indian Wrestling metaphor — that it works best when people are pulling and pushing in alternation.

    All of this, of course, is in a very “typical” RPG experience. Breaking the Ice I find to be almost all pull, with very limited and specific push, and it works brilliantly. OTOH, Dust Devils works best with lots and lots of push (in my experience) and I love that freaking game.


    Do you think the push/pull, ying/yang dynamic could be why Sarashsatra worked so well? We had G and me, Pushers, and N and you, Pullers, who worked in circles to move the game forward. I’m thinking in particular of the last couple of scenes in the game, where you pulled so hard you nearly knocked the game off its hinges and Gary and I had to push back with everything we had to keep it on balance. Which left Nicole free to find her “zen state” and narrate the final moments of the game.

  4. hey Mo,

    Great discussion.

    Enticing is a great word for it. Creating your own openings is what I think of. So many times in our free-form games, we would discuss our characters & offer something about them, or about someone elses’ and see whether they bit. Or suggest something with that upturn to the voice that says, “if you like”. That kind of melding of vision is so different from having hard and fast boundaries that get clashed together.

    Though there have to be connections. Pull mechanics need to have hooks that give the pull grab or traction on the other side. Without that it can be simply refusing the push that Mark talks about, blocking until you hear an option you like (this is a real problem with free-form play). Or isolated toy building that doesn’t intersect meaningfully.

  5. Emily,

    I agree. Actually, I’d say its fundemental to the concept of pull that you have something to pull on and that the other person feels it happen. If you aren’t upsetting the balance, you aren’t pulling. You’re standing.

    Actually, one of the things that is interesting in watching Mo play is that she is often very pull in game, but can push pretty hard out of game. She yanks the social contracts, she explicitly points out and comments on things, she lets you know -exactly- what she thinks the game is doing and what it should be doing, she grinds people into the game. But get into the game, and she entices rather than demands. The combination of the two makes her very influential around all the games I’ve ever seen her play, even when it isn’t immediatly obvious how.

    So my question is how we go about making this a formalized process. And how we train people to do it. Most RPGers know, conciously, a lot about pushing — but don’t have a clue how to pull effectivly. Breaking the Ice does this by making you work together to a mutually desired goal where the system, rather than the other player, gives you difficult opposition to overcome. So when you pull the other person has reason to respond — as Mo said, if you don’t pull to get the bonus dice they can’t give the bonus dice, and if you do pull and they don’t respond, then your characters will never hook up. The difficulty of making a lasting relationship drives the pull, gives it those hooks.

    So what other ways can we do this?

  6. First off, about Pushes: If I get this then pushing is when you exert your will during play. A game like With Great Power is a push game. During an enrichment scene you want Connie to go out with Purge. You and the GM chose cards to play, high card wins. If you win than you get to decide how Connie responds and if you fail the Gm gets to choose.

    Inspectres is also a Pushing Game, one I’m uncomfortable with because not only is the Gm and the players in a pushing match, but the players can suddenly push each other with the testimonial addition to the game.

    Now I like WPG and I dislike Inspecters, I like My Life w Master and I dislike Troll Babe. All of these are pushing games.

    Is WPG also a Pulling game? In WGP by failing early conflicts you strengthen your hand to succeed when its really important. All the players including the Gm can make suggestions for your character but ultimately you decide what ideas get put into play.

    PTA also has Pull elements but is primarily a push game.

    Now there are these other questions: Why don’t more girls game? Why aren’t there more girls on the Forge?

    Where are the Girls?
    Lets look at Gen Con.
    Go to the Miniatures Rooms. Look at the ratio of men to women. (admire the sets and the pretty painted miniatures) few female faces here.
    Someone else will have to go to the CCG room I’ve never been there, but I suspect mostly males.
    In the RPG rooms you will find more females,
    Boardgame room. Lots of Females.
    But if you stray into LARP land the estrogen levels raise to almost 50%.
    Games that draw females are games like Amber Diceless RPG, Vampire, and Buffy.

    In RPGA land you’ll find many females among the “Living” Splat adventures, and the Live action games.

    This I know because this I’ve seen.

    Larps generally don’t have many mechanics; they are mostly pull. You have something I want, I have something you want and we negotiate, except at the beginning I’m not sure if you really have the thing I want and your not sure if I’m one of the people hunting you, so the negotiation is tense and very fulfilling.

    Last year I was a Pixie with big banging sword skills and a couple of spells (this to a larper is window dressing promptly ignored, I have an agenda, I have important things to find and people to avoid and trouble to make) I spent 31/2 hours limping (my pixies left foot had been turned to stone before play began). My combat skills were used once during the game because another character (a guy) forced me to. (he gave the game a push). I resented being forced into the position, but struck him down anyway, and in the end it didn’t matter because he was ignored by the other players after the incident. Larpers don’t like Pushers.

    Anyway my theory on the matter involves studying LARPS. Females are drawn to them. Why? Put some of that into your RPG and you’d be on the track of designing a female friendly rpg.

    I’d also love to know what the female/male ratio of Computer RPGs, and which ones have a larger female pool of players. I know that PBEMs are heavily female. And there are a lot of them out there.


  7. Kat,

    With Great Power does have a lot of push, but it also has a lot of pull.

    Look at the way that the Strife Aspect works. When you chose your Strife Aspect you pull the game in a direction. You want your Loves Johnny Stone to be the focus of the game? Set it as your Strife and bingo, bango, boingo, you have made sure the GM must react to that. The rules of the game require that the GM respond. And yet, you didn’t push it on him, you didn’t win it and then force the game in that direction. You set something up, opened your character, and then wait for the other person to send trouble at you.

    That’s pull, all the way.

    I’d also say that there is a lot of pull in assigning suffering. The aspects you make suffer the most will be the ones other people start to focus on — because they want to push them to devestated, if nothing else. The text focuses on the pushing aspect (“nail those aspects to the wall!”) — but there is a strong element of pull there as well. Putting one of your aspects up to Imperelled is screaming, yanking, and tugging “bring shit this way!” You are helping define where the next push will go by the way you pull your damage.

    In the end I’d say WGP probably has a little more push than pull, but it certainly has a nice cycle of things.

    My Life With Master I’m less sure about. It has lots of both, I think. The Master must push. PUSH PUSH PUSH. The minions, otoh, start off pretty helpless against that push and must learn to pull in order to scramble out from under the master. So you get a situation in which the GM pushes, the players pull, and eventually they pull the GM off balance and kill his character. Things like the less than human are great pull mechanisms, as well, as they basically say “send trauma here, please.”

    I’ll also note that both of these games have very defined places where the push and the pull goes. It doesn’t happen randomly, it’s all part of the system.

    Trollbabe, otoh, I can see being problematic now that you bring it up. It’s very set towards pushing, and limits pull, essentially, to what the loser does. The winner pushes, and the loser gets a chance to use their aikido to turn the winners force into a different direction. But even then you’re bound by the fact that the stakes must be given, and you actually need some degree of skill that is not system supplied/strongly supported in order to turn it into a proper pull. In some ways its easier just to use your loser based naration rights to push right back. So you get push-push lose-pull, lose-push, win push, push-push. Much more pushing than pulling.

    As for the rest, I’ll let Mo cover it. I’ve played the above games, so I thought I’d put in my two cents about where the push and pull happens.

  8. Fanfic/narrative rp is also overwhelmingly female patronized & the guidelines are all pull (negotiate plots ooc, all conflict is ic only, extreme stop-at-the-skin conflict resolution in that only I can narrate harm to my character).

    As pull as it gets.

    Other ways:
    Bribe mechanics are pull. “I’ll give you a d8 if you play your character as sultry & seductive.”

    I see the “but only if” from Polaris as pull. Additive (another key element of free-form collab play, I believe) rather than combatative.

    Supporting, from Diplomacy, is a pull move.

    JBR’s Conquer the Horizon is very pull oriented: you float resources in the new world that others may invest in.

    Kat wrote:
    First off, about Pushes: If I get this then pushing is when you exert your will during play.

    This seems right to me. Push gets lumped in with providing (in character) adversity, but that can be/is an aspect of pull too. And push need not require it at all.

    “*bam* It’s a nice day.”
    “No it’s not.”
    [dice roll]
    Told you it was nice out.”

  9. Hi,

    I believe Flags are a good example of clear Pull mechanics. I noted Flags as a concept after paying close attention to how people would build their characters in HeroQuest, and how certain traits kinda jumped out and the player would toss them out a bit in play, like a fishing lure.

  10. I’m a little uncomfortable with how pull is getting defined, based on the comments. Particularly in Kat & Emily’s comments on live-action and fic rp, what they’re calling pull I see as simply Drama resolution – in order to get your desired content into the fiction, you must impress another player with its artistic merit.

    I can see things like Flagging as Pull mechanisms – “here, if you push on this, it’ll be cool” – but I’m not sure we’re all on the same page if a lack of binding, formalized conflict resolution is also mixed in there.

  11. Mark,

    You can pull with fortune and karma as well as drama. Most work so far has focused on dramatic pull, but that is because drama tends to be the loosest area — and the one least dominated by easily defined pushing.

    The problem, as you seem to be leading towards, is that so far most systems have not had good, defined pull mechanisms. They are in the “white space” of the lumpley principle — the stuff that exists in the realm of skilled play around the table rather than in the rules in the book.

    However, that is a far different thing than saying that because there are not yet a lot of good defined pull mechanisms that there cannot be good defined pull mechanisms. Breaking the Ice, as stated, has defined and very much resolution centered pull mechanisms. With Great Power has a story-level structural pull mechanism (you chose what the game is about with your Strife, and you cannot destroy the villain until the last scene, so must learn to pull the villain in the direction you want).

    So really, I think we’re getting at the point where looking at how pull works and how it can be systemically defined as part of resolution is precisely the point. It hasn’t (often) been done (well) up to now, but maybe it is time that changed.


    Yes, flags can be a pull mechanism. They’re still a fairly simple one, as there is more to pull than saying “push here.” It’s just that most games, so far, are better at saying “push here” than “pull here.”

    Nine Worlds Muses are pull elements, but they are also pull elements that you push. Which is cool. However, they then set up a situation where you have a push based narrative rights system where you have to have a lot of skilled play in order to use that part of the system for pull. It’s that area right there where I keep turning my eyes to and wondering how to build games off pull as a defined mechanical entity.

    I’m reminded of something a martial artist friend once told me, “it is possible to throw a guy on his ass with the lightest of touches. But when you start teaching someone to do it, you teach them by showing the grab and pull methods with lots of contact. Just telling someone to become a master isn’t helpful. You have to show them the process from the start up.”

    We’ve people that are very skilled at pull, but those of us who aren’t (I’m not, in many ways) can’t just become masters. We need tools to help, and formalized tools we can see and understand are a great tool for that.

  12. I think we’re getting at the point where looking at how pull works and how it can be systemically defined as part of resolution is precisely the point. It hasn’t (often) been done (well) up to now, but maybe it is time that changed.

    Yep. Which is why I’m picking and poking at what precisely it is as opposed to the means by which it usually achieved in play. I think I know what it is, but some of the comments are pointing at something which doesn’t look like pull to me – what it looks like is “deniable/subtle push” or “blocking.” Which may be important things to explore as well.

  13. I suspect that a good deal of pull skill has been developed through tight knit groups and reading of subtle cues- which is not unlike a master’s ability to feel a person’s movement before shifting them off balance.

    I think we’ll see a lot more of pull techniques developed now that we have games that clearly hand the power to anyone and everyone to input into play.

    When you’re not sure what kind of input is appropriate, or even available, pulling becomes harder to really achieve.

  14. I’m with Mark, I’d like it nailed down more too.

    Is pull suggesting something you’d like & eliciting other player’s assent about it?

    Is push making things happen to elements other people (usually) have control over? (this gets at the playerlessness issue)

    Is pull acknowleding/ceding credibility to what others narrate? (if so then the turtling is exerting pull, so I’m agin it)

    Is push about providing adversity on the player level? Is pull?

    Is asking questions pull vs asserting things being push?

    It is!

  15. Mo, are you familiar with my game, The Mountain Witch?

    If I’m understanding you correctly, on the surface, it appears very push-y. You roll, highest die wins & gets tons of freedom to narrate whatever they want.

    However, the real conflict of the game isn’t about storming a fortress and killing the mythical Witch. The real conflict is whether the characters are willing to trust one another. And that conflict is pure player choice. There are NO mechanics to force trust. Again, if I understand your terms, the heart of the game seems to be PURE pull.

    Does that sound right? What do the people who are familiar with my game think?

  16. Tim,

    I haven’t gotten Mo to play Mountain Witch yet.

    However, I do think that Trust is pull. I’m waiting Mo’s newest (big ass, from the look of it) reply before commenting further (as I may be wrong about any number of things) — but Trust seems like good pull stuff to me.

  17. Ack! Tired brain and so… many… things… it wants to respond to!

    I do think that combined push/pull elements are more powerful when combined (BTW Ben, I like your yin/yang way of putting it). I also think that it would be very interesting if push and pull could represent alternate paths in a game that would allow players to choose what was more fun and effective for them and for the story. Brand and I have talked through some ideas in 1000 Stories – in some ways the majority of our system is Pulled by the player – collapsible mechanical structures that can be called on as a tool or dismissed by the players at will. Since we haven’t finished settling this out, I’ll just let it stew rather than ramble on about it.

    Brand said: What happens when we strive to make game design vulnerable, and how does that influence the whole recent discourse about ritual and safe space in RPGs?

    What a terrific question this is – it makes my brain want to answer six ways at once. Does competition and push in a game encourage competition and push in the social milieu of the players outside game? I know that some of the hardcore push-push-push make me stressful when I play. That stress can make me feel more guarded and less open to risk.

    Would an atmosphere of vulnerability result in the opposite for me? Could I be braver there? Would there be push players who felt exactly the opposite, being less able to fully risk from a vulnerable state? I don’t know, but I’d put money on it. Once I played a character in Mage named Colette (an extremely borderline character that was all vulnerable train-wreck) and I was very well supported in it by the rest of the players. I both pushed and pulled harder in that situation than in most other RPG experiences I’ve had. If the system itself was vulnerable, what would that do to me?


    I really do think that it was one of the keys to success in Saurashtra, but I also think it is very important that you are particularly skilled at responding as a GM to both push and pull play. Everyone could choose to push or pull as they liked and were validated in doing so, which let the players pull a little on each other because such a safe space had been created. By the end of the game, bang zoom… there we were, pushing and pulling the game from its axis.

    Also, that’s a very astute observation about my push out of game/pull in game tendencies. That’s really rather neat and I hadn’t noticed it before. You’re bang on… I wonder why it is?

    Emily said: Pull mechanics need to have hooks that give the pull grab or traction on the other side. Without that it can be simply refusing the push that Mark talks about, blocking until you hear an option you like (this is a real problem with free-form play). .

    I absolutely agree. I also think that conversely, push mechanics need a safe place to land against (which is really a part of what you and Meg were talking about in the ritual space/psychology threads on the Forge) or else the push can just turn into bullying. The point of RPG Indian Wrestling is not to fall down at all – it’s to keep the struggle dynamic without anyone landing on their ass.

    Kat: I’ll have to think about LARPs, you’re right about the social pulls. The pulls, (as I remember them from Vamipre LARP) aren’t really mechanically supported. Do you think that the Live-Action physicality of the game naturally leashes the push aspects? If push is force, aggression and control, perhaps it can not manifest as thoroughly in a LARP because it’s conceived as threatening, whereas in a TT game, it’s more conceptual, and therefore more fun.

    Bankuei said this: I think we’ll see a lot more of pull techniques developed now that we have games that clearly hand the power to anyone and everyone to input into play. When you’re not sure what kind of input is appropriate, or even available, pulling becomes harder to really achieve.

    And it’s a great observation. I think that power is a central idea, and one that all of the indy designers have done a great deal with already. Rapid redistribution of authority, accountability and power in a game system makes room for a lot of innovation. When you’re just beginning, and have just had those things dropped on you (authority, accountability and power) it is more immediate to push on them to feel the limits of what they are capable of doing. Pulling on the other hand may seem contradictory in the situation: “I have to give up something to get what I want?” However, it makes sense in a social transactional sense. Give to receive.

    Shreyas: Glad you got something out of it!

    Mark: For me, examining the methods it is achieved in play helps me get at what it is and what it’s doing. I want to refine it too, however. It would help me (and maybe others) if you could put it to specific questions, kinda like what Emily did above. Then we can start figuring the specifics you seem to be after. The one you were uncomfortable with… “ in order to get your desired content into the fiction, you must impress another player with its artistic merit.” Would you feel differently about it if you took it out of it’s power-based artistic discourse and put it into more goal oriented terms such as: “in order to win the ability to put your desired content into the fiction, you had to appeal to the tastes or desires of those at the table”?

    Tim: Hiya! As Brand said, I haven’t played it yet, but Brand had told me about it on a number of occasions as it made it’s very crazy ass epic voyage across the states, southwise to get to Canada. It’s only been actually on the shelf for a month or so. It sounds intriguing. We’ll have to see how it works in light of this line of thought.
    I am musing over my answers to Emily’s questions, but I have to have time to think, maybe after a nap and some dinner. Thanks everybody for getting my brain working harder about it. 

  18. A concreat rules example of push vs pull just occured to me, as it has manifested in a game Mo and I play.

    In Truth and Justice, there is a mechanic called a Revolting Development. By the rules of the book this basically allows a GM to do something nasty to the PCs at the worst possible moment, more or less in order to ensure the plot goes to plan. As a “soothe the pain” measure the PCs get Hero Points, which act as currency to increase effectiveness. This is a “push with a soft place” — the GM can knock you down, but has to give you a reward for the hard landing.

    However, when Mo and I started playing I didn’t do it that way. I never actually conciously changed the rule, but what happened in our game was the Revolting Development became a bribe. When Mo was at a critical moment, I’d offer her a Revolting Development. She didn’t have to accept, but if she did she’d get HPs. Sometimes she’d take them, sometimes she wouldn’t. It was up to her. That’s a pull with hooks — because every time she turned it down she’d have to think about how not having those HP would effect her later.

    (And, for the record, it usually did. The worst beat down she ever took was 2 scenes after turning down a RD, when she ran out of Hero Points and got beat like she stole soemthing. She wasn’t upset, however, as she realized it was her choice to be in that situation.)

    Now that’s fairly low level. Push it up a notch and you get something like Xenopulse’s court intriuge game. In that you get to bribe to your heart’s content, but you can’t control. It’s a pretty hard-coded system there, but all looks very pull with spikes.

    Imagine the difference between: I do a conflict with you, I win. I tell you the woman seduces your character, and your wife finds out VS. I offer you a bribe if the soman seduces you and your wife finds out, but you get to decide if you take it or not.

  19. I’m… really not getting this. It sounds like pushing and pulling are two ways to get what you want out of a game.

    Are they both proactive?

    Are they both means of making player statements that can be assigned credibility?

    Is pulling just suggesting that somebody else doing something would be cool?

    Are push and pull specificly dependent on playing a character? Or rather, can you pull without a character?

    I’m reminded of Dogs‘s definition of a raise as something that your opponent cannot ignore. Does this apply to pulling as well? Making a suggestion / opening up / revealing a vulnerability that your partner cannot ignore?

    If you pull, can I decide to not be pulled? If I push, your refusing to be pushed is often more or less ignoring the ‘proper’ effects of what happened in the game (you rolled intimidation but I’m not scared of you) — does pull prevent this, or promote this, or not give a shit about this?

  20. Josh,




    No, Yes. (I pull as a GM all the damn time)

    Most of the time, I’d say pull is something you can ignore — but well done pull is something that it will cost you to ignore. Push is force, pull is influence.

    Pulling normally requires you to have bought in before effect, where pushing doesn’t. So if I pull you may resist, but that’s okay because I was trying to bring you in not push you down. I bribe you to be intimidated, and if you don’t want to be you say no. Or try a reverse pull of your own.

    Or, check out the link to Xenopulses game that I gave above and compar it to Comment Number 10 on anyway’s thread. In one game you can try to bribe someone to take the points for the thing they want, in the other you can force them to take the thing you want.

    Now, this can get into ying leading into yang flowing into yin territory — especially when you get into things like Trust in the Mountain Witch. Trust is something no one can force you to take, and is even something that can screw you — but it is also something you cannot win the game without. No trust, no win. So you have to take trust, eventually. But you decide when you do and do not take it.

    On the other side, from the sounds of it, in Tenra Bansho people can force you to take Trust. But then they can’t force you to play it, but you do get bribed to play it. So the push becomes a pull.

    However, that initial question can be a huge one. Can I say anything I want about your character if I win the challange? Or can I bribe you into saying things about your own character without initiating a challange? Both? A combination?

    It isn’t about creidibility vs not, nor active vs not. It is about different ways that all of those things can be approached.

  21. Is a pull then just a player creating a situation in which another player can gain some sort of reward (fictional resource, player resource, player enjoyment) if they do what the first player wants?

    Are these all pulls:

    A GM says “There’s a chest on the other side of the room full of snakes.”

    A Changeling MUSH player says “I need thanes and I have a big freehold overflowing with unused glamour.” (Is MUSH culture all pulls like LARPing — Brand’s RP aside?)

    A Dogs player has his character make a statement about stealing (and then the GM asks “What about now?” in the next Town).

    A FLFS Player says “I chose ‘Myopic’ for my thematic battery, so incorporate my glasses into your narration to gain spoils/XP.”

  22. Josh,

    Maybe. Weak ass if it is a pull. Sounds more like just flat crap. Unless, of course, the GM knows that someone is obsessed with snakes, chests, or whatever.

    The second could be a pull. Once again it seems like a weak pull. I’d also have to contextualize it — is it something being posted to the bboard? Said to the ST?

    (In both cases, probably pulls. But you can pull badly, just like you can push badly.)

    I’d say the third is a push, that the GM turns into a pull by bringing it back. Dog pushes, says THIS. GM pulls, says “Still this?”

    The fourth could well be a pull. Actually, the script and thematic battery section seems very much like a way of pushing and pulling in alternation.

    Also, that isn’t all there is to pulls. It’s just that the “bribe” aspect is most easily explained. Pulling can go deeper than that, especially in the drama areas. Most illusionist GMs, for example, get really good at steering plot via pull.

  23. First example is bog-standard dungeon crawl, terribly simplified. An illusionist GM might say something more like “Your sister is tied up on the other side of the room, behind Jed the Sorcerer, with giant pits of snakes between you and them.”

    Maybe I’m just still in reinforcement system headspace, but everything so far sounds like “do this, get that” propositions, even if it is more elaborately rendered as “see, I make my character vulnerable here, which would be really neat if you twisted the dagger like so.”

    Am I correct to say that this happens in a sort of level above IIEE? This isn’t resolution so much as it’s what you do with the unfolding events?

  24. I’ve been thinking about similar issues in terms of fostering group character creation online, particularly for people who are used to creating characters is isolation and who take the view that it’s the GMs job to ensure that these characters created in isolation can fit into the same game and result in fun roleplaying, and any attempts to make them cooperate in character creation are unreasonable. My first thought was to require players to make a minimum number of suggestions for other people’s characters, and similar requirements for them to accept a certain number of other people’s suggestions. Then I thought it would be better, given the target group I was thinking of, to give mechanical bonuses to players who take on other people’s suggestions, and to players who make suggestions that are accepted. Which both encourages people to make suggestions that they think the group will like, and to be open to other people’s suggestions. And I like that both sides get an advantage from collaborating, since I was aiming to promote the idea that collaborating did benefit everyone, rather than one person being ‘disadvantaged’ by giving up the ‘secrets’ of their character.

    Now reading this article, I think I rejected my first idea because it involved too much push in a context where I was expecting people to be initially unenthusiastic about the changes.

    Another thing that could be worth looking at is in what situations is push appropriate and when is pull appropriate? I think that at the moment we use instinct, experience and intuition. But are there ways for the inexperienced to learn to pick up on which approach might be better in a situation?

  25. Josh,

    The tangible levels that we’re able to concretly define, for now at least, are about a give something to get something transaction. (As opposed to push, which is usually get something to get something, or just take something to get something.) So yes, for now that’s where we are. I hope to get past that eventually, but am still struggling with the basic levels, so…

    And yes, I do think it happens outside IIEE. Or, that is to say, it can happen outside IIEE. Often in non mechanical ways it happens fully on the social and social contract level — much like most of RPGing did before the folks at the Forge decided to open up the monkey and see how it works.

  26. I’m not sure it’s entirely right but the way I’m thinking of pull at the moment is ‘creating an opportunity to get what I want’ and pull as ‘imposing what I want’ but that seems a bit extreme. How does that sit with others?

    Another idea floating around in my head is of positive and negative space, but I think I need to think about that metaphor further.

  27. Claire,

    That is certainly part of it. However, you can be a bit more assertive with pull, and a bit less agressive with push. You have the broad strokes down, it’s the fine shades where black and white mix into grey that get confusing.

  28. Nice work, Mo. There was a Forge thread a looooong time ago where I accused Universalis of being a Yang-style game and said that wasn’t really my thing, but I didn’t have the words to really talk about the alternative. Now I do (: Thanks.

    Also, Rebecca Borgstrom, who’s one of my favorite authors because she’s more into Yin-style mechanics, wrote something in Nobilis called The Chamomile Law (honestly, I swear every major recent development in RPG theory is prefigured by a Law in Nobilis*). The Chamomile Law reads, “There is energy in adversity” or “When a Handicap makes life difficult for a Power [i.e. PC], they gain miracle points.” Note that, in practice, this means that players can narrate difficulties and bad things happening to their character and gain extra resource points. You win by losing! Long live PULL!

    * For reference, another major law is the Monarda Law, “Never say ‘no,'”otherwise known as “say yes or roll the dice.”

  29. Okay, I can see two types of mechanics that could support the process of “pull” (note that the process of pull itself is a social process, so we should be talking in terms of mechanical support for it, rather than as if the mechanics themselves were pull.)

    1) Flags for Pushers. These are things like Beliefs, Spiritual Attributes, Kickers, the Cosmos, etc. They essentially say “push me here and I will pull.” There aren’t mechanics which support pull directly, but the facilitate communication, which is good.

    2) Actively supporting mechanics. These would be mechanics that allow / support / reward players for taking other people’s input and running with it in various ways. The up-front bribe, frankly, seems to be the clumsiest of these approaches. Better would be something that awards the pull while it is going on. Favors/Demands in Drifter’s Escape may have this property: “Pull on this and I will pay you afterwards.”


  30. Josh: You’re a lingo maniac, and while I love your energy of participation, half the time I’m at a loss for what you’re saying. I’m going to let Brand negotiate the finer points with you as you seem to talk the same language, just don’t make sure you didn’t take my lack of response as though I were ignoring you.

    Claire: Those are some good ideas. They’re the kind of thing that I was referring to on my very first post: approaching the idea of socially engineering (system supported) virtuous cycles in RPGs. It’s the reason I started thinking about a blog in the first place. Nice to know there are lots of people generating lots of ideas like this.

    Jonathan: That’s hysterical, I was bang on. I know I don’t know you yet from a hole in the ground, (what we’ve talked in like, four posts?) but just today when talking with Brand about this post and the response to it, I said to him: “You know who I bet is a pull player? Jonathan Walton.” No idea what exactly led me to it, but pulling/yin play and receptiveness of character in my mind are linked, and it just seemed to fit you.

    I enjoyed a lot of parts of Nobilis, but had some difficulties with its resource management bits – something that tends to distract and preoccupy my brain. I’m thinking these days that maybe with what we’ve learned since we last played it (3 years ago) that maybe we could make it work well with a couple little tweaks.

    I think Rebecca Borgstrom is mighty neato too.

    In theatre improv, we had a variation of the Monarda Law (who’s Monarda? I immediarely think Miranda and expect someone to jump out and say “You have the right to say Yes.” “You have the right to roll the dice.” “Anything you blog may be used against you in a game of Dogs.”) that was pretty much: Don’t ever say No. Re-direct to action.

    Emily: I haven’t forgotten your questions, still musing. I think what I’ll do is just work through the ideas from them and the other comments and my original ideas, into my next post.

  31. My favorite aikido seminar was where the experienceof being thown wasn’t that I was being thrown, but more like my partner was opening a new path for me which happened to include a tumble. Without my partner, I would not have been able to take that path.

    In RPGs, we can either resolve conflicts or create oprotunites for others to resolve conflicts. DitV is a good example of this. The GM creates a situation, but it is the players that set the stakes.

  32. By the way, it’s not a coincidence that I wrote that court intrigue game in that way and also have a strong background in the narrative RPs that Emily mentioned. Contrary to many designers with a main background in traditional RPGs and the power structures that those engender, most of my experiences in the past 10 years are based on play in “freeform” environments with that character ownership and at-the-skin authority. That overall leads to my approach to design from a different starting point, i.e., beginning with that kind of authority and moving away from it only insofar as it helps achieve a design goal.

  33. Great discussion, to which I’m linking.

    I recognize the yin/yang techniques as where I am most comfortable running as GM. It’s not that push doesn’t work, since so many games are about power and winning, but it is fun to do the ‘Enticement’ mechanic.

  34. Nice post, Mo. Very interesting stuff here.

    I heard only a brief bit about the Nine Worlds experiment gone awry. I heard (and hope) you’ll give it another try. If you do, I’d love to hear about how you handle Muses. Because, as I read your post I kept thinking “Yeah, but Muses PULL.” And then Brand said as much. Well, he’s got it right — they mix it up. Pull to push, so to speak.

    But, generally, I think this is a really interesting way to think about the issue … and challenges my man-brain. 😉

  35. Bradley “Brand” Robins,

    Yes, I read that and I’m still not sure I follow.

    I need some more AP of push and pull, I think.

  36. Brand,

    Let me see if I can find any links. I’m not sure if people have written extensively on this subject. In fact, I’ve been meaning to post on the Forge in AP and describe things, but it’s quite a bit of ground to cover.

  37. I just started a big ole thread on 20×20, called Push/Pull, Yin/Yang, and All That Jazz, where I link to a few similar Forge discussions and say a few other things.

    Mo: Ha! You know me all too well, apparently. That’s hilarious! Especially, of course, because the new roleplaying journal I edit is called Push, which just makes me a walking contradiction. But, yes, I tend to dislike confrontational or competative consensus creation, which gives me some clue as to why I had such trouble in one of Luke Crane’s recent convention games. Hmm… more to think about.

    I have no idea who Monarda is. All the other Laws are named after flowers, though, so that’s probably a safe bet.

    It’s interesting that you had so much trouble with resource management in Nobilis, because my (mostly female) players have tended to have resource issues, being afriad to spend points even when they have bunches, forgetting that they’re even there, etc. Often, we ended up mostly ignoring them, simply using them as a general guideline for how much crazy shit we could do without resting or taking a break. Our current IRC game seems to be taking a similar approach.

  38. ed

    Good analogy. I especially like: Without my partner, I would not have been able to take that path.

    xenopulse: Have you playtested yet? Is there a released copy I could skim?

    Matt: Ah, Brand was a little to hard on himself around the game. It was the weekend before coming back to work after a long vacation and neither of us we’re focused. We just got our wires crossed, and it was aggravated by trying to do something new. We will likely play again. Besides the relationship between Warder (my major) and Chapel (the lover with whom she has a four point muse to make him leave her) is just to tragic not to play with again.

    Judd: The AP of Pull is coming. Just got to have an hour or two to think it through and my work hates my hobby.

    John: Thanks for the links. i had a glance at Mark’s but haven’t had a chance to look at yours yet. I will definately tomorrow.

    Jonathan: Thanks for the shout out over on 20 x 20. Thanks for the links. I’ll chase them down tomorrow and have a looksee.

    Funny that about Nobilis. I wonder why? Your way of playing sounds better to me.. maybe I’ll wave it at Brand.

    Thanks everybody!

  39. Is the push/pull distinction reliant on the stewardship of the imaginary material? So if I have stewardship of a character I can pull you into effecting it, but if you initiate an effect on the character then you are pushing. Conversely, if I effect an imaginary thing I do not have stewardship of, univited, I’m pushing.

    If I’m invited I’m not pushing, what am I doing? Entering? I suppose the counterpoint would then be yielding — if someone pushes and I give way.

  40. ijc

    Over on tigerbunny’s lj, I suggested giving and resisting as the way you meet either a pull or a push (where giving is either in the sense of a gift (as a response to a pull), or in the sense of falling back (in response to a push). I know its a very bad idea to try to introduce teh same word in two completely different senses into technical discourse, but I just like it.

    Jonathon Walton and mo

    Monarda = beebalm

    to whom it may concern

    I have a weird metaphor for push-pull that has been running round my mind today, which maybe has the advantage of being less competition based than Aikido or Judo or push-hands (since I think pull is related to collaborative play, it might be good to give it a collaborative metaphor):

    In between the players is the imaginary space. At the start of the game, the space is full of bread dough. As the game goes on, the players stick things into to the dough. There are two different styles of putting something into the dough. In one style, I push things into the dough, challenging anyone else to prevent me from doing so. In another style, I pull open the bread dough, creating a space, where anyone else can easily put something if they want to.

    In push style, other players can either try to block what I put forward, or they can passively allow it to be added, but they never help me put anything into the dough.

    In pull style, I offer the other players help in putting in something that I am interested in. They can refuse my offer, or they can accept my offer, and add something to the dough.

    Does that add anything?

  41. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
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