Pull|Push: The Moment of Crisis

This article is archived from Brand’s Yudhishthira’s Dice post of May 16 2006.

This should be the last post here. After this I will be moving to a new blog (at long last). But I couldn’t get it up and running before I went out of town on vactaion, so I figured I’d post this here. So away we go:

Since Mo brought out her first article on push and pull, there has been a lot of talk about the subject. Since she came out with the short definitions, with the help of Chris, there has been (possibly) even more talk. A lot of it centers around the divide between push and pull and when and where and why that happens, leading to a lot of confusion.

One of the key issues I see being mulled is something that is implicit in theDeep in the Game discussion (which is why it helps to read the whole thing) that may not be clear in the definitions if you haven’t actually read where they came out of, is what I am choosing to call the moment of crisis. The way the moment of crisis fits into push or pull is pretty simple to say, but may take a bit longer to explain. So stay with me here, and actually read the whole thing.

Push and Pull can both lead to collaboration (pull inherently, push with any degree of skill) but the point at which the buy-in and investment happens is different. If you get the other people’s investment before bringing the moment of crisis by soliciting input, buy-in, and authority sharing then it is pull. If you get the other people’s responses after you have already brought the moment of crisis by using your authority to force something, then it is push. Thus the way the definitions are phrased:

Push is an assertion of individual authority.

Pull is a directed solicitation for collaborative buy-in and input

Could be read as having the addenda “before the moment of crisis” – because with Push assertion of authority comes first, and with pull solicitation comes first.* After you’ve pushed comes the moment of crisis, which others must respond to. After you’ve pulled, you work together to create a moment of crisis. So the GM saying, “You go to see the king” is a push, because after that you’re seeing the King, the GM has that authority and has used it to bring the crisis. But the player asking “Can we go see the King” in a game where the players have no authority to scene frame is a pull — because it may lead to the moment of crisis with the king, but only after the GM buys in and collaberates.

The tricky part here, really, is what the moment of crisis is. Some people have been looking at in only in terms of inserting something into the fiction. That is, if you say something and it happens in the game, it must be a moment of crisis, right? Well, no, not really. Also, it is easily possible to have a moment of crisis without anything being inserted into the fiction.

Which brings us to the tricky issue of what a moment of crisis is. To give my simplest definition: a moment of crisis is when something that strongly matters is decided or formalized. If it doesn’t matter, if it isn’t strong, if it isn’t something that is going to bring reaction or change in a real way, it probably isn’t a crisis. It’s just something that happened.

As a note, my experience with Trad RPG play vs. directed Forge style play tends to be that trad RPGs are willing to spend a lot of time between moments of crisis, working up to them organically, while Forge style play tends to scene frame right up to the crisis. Consider the hours long D&D; talking in the Inn scene vs. the PTA “you’ve got 15 minutes to find, contest, and narrate a conflict that is interesting to your character.” In different games moments of crisis may come slowly, or they may come every action.

So, how do we know if something is a moment of crisis or not? That is tricky, because it depends on the social and creative situation around the table. You absolutely cannot tell if something is a moment of crisis without knowing what is going on in and around the game, and to help demonstrate why, I’m going to encapsulate a conversation between Alex F and myself that happened on the 20×20 room.

In the Deep in the Game post Chris had given an example of someone pulling by doing something in the fiction – so they’ve already done something, and Alex immediately went to the issue of if it is a moment of crisis or not, though he didn’t use that exact term. What he said was:
“My fighter leaves his most valuable magic ring out at the campsite and falls asleep while your thief stays awake.” (from the Deep in The Game discussion, right?)
I cannot see how this is purely “a solicitation for input from other players”.
If I’m playing with a strong Narr agenda, stealing that ring affects my character, and my notion of her. But so does not stealing that ring. Similarly, all the duel examples being given, are direct challenges in terms of Step on Up – and to refuse to take it says something just as sure as not taking it. I am being forced to respond, just as surely as I am forced to respond if you say “I challenge you to a duel” or have your thief steal my ring in the night. (Admittedly, this gets less clear if you are playing to explore/celebrate the fiction, though I suppose a decision not to explore the implications of inter-party thieving sends a message about your preferences).

See how right away he gets at the heart of it? Did what the fighter’s player did bring it to a moment of crisis by his authority? If so it is a push. But if he didn’t, if the important moment hasn’t happened yet, it is a pull. My response to Alex went like this, though I’m modding it here to update it to the language we’re using now:
It depends on social contract and background at the table. This goes right back to the first essays on push and pull, and the fact that it can be really damn hard to know if a given example is a push or pull unless you know a lot about the background of the game.

So, if the social contract at the table is hardcore Nar, in which it is assumed that your character must respond and must make a thematic choice to every opportunity presented to him, then the example is a push. If the fighter player’s goal is to force you to make a choice, any choice and not to actually get you to steal the ring, then he has already used his authority to push it to the moment of crisis. Under that setup, once the fighter leaves the ring out, you have no choice but to respond to it, and no matter how you respond to it you will have made a choice. If that was his only goal, then he’s pushed you into it.

But the example as Chris stated it did not assume that. It assumed that the fighter’s goal was to get you to steal the ring in order to create a plot. Not to make a choice about stealing it or not in a thematic way, but to actually steal it in order to drive the story in a new direction. The moment of crisis hasn’t come yet, because the two of you together haven’t decided if you are going to move the story in that direction or not yet. So simply saying “I do not steal it” is not saying “I am making a strong moral choice about my thief” it is just saying, “I’m not interested in going there right now.” Because it wasn’t at the moment of crisis you still have to buy in before it can get there.

Also, in the first case you may not be able to say, “I just don’t notice” but in the second case you can. If you can say, “I say my character doesn’t notice because he’s (insert any reason here, like ‘thinking about stealing the cleric’s holy symbol’), so my character doesn’t have to make a choice about that ring” then you aren’t being forced into any response in game.

Under that social agenda the thematic choice of your character stealing it or not to define his moral compass is not the challenge to you, is not the goal of the other player, and so simply having to make an OOC choice is not forcing you to define anything other than your OOC interest at this moment. There is no crisis yet, it only gets to that point after you collaborate.
If your social contract makes that particular example something that you must respond to because it is a fiat accompli, the moment of crisis has arrived because of what they already have done with their authority, then it is probably a push. If it is not a fiat accompli, because the moment of crisis cannot arrive until after you buy in, and what is on the table is an invitation (or even a bribe), then it is a pull.

So at that point your example and Chris’s example aren’t actually the same example because you assumed different social situations and backgrounds. Yours is an assertion of authority (“I have the right to make you chose, and choice is the thing the game is about”) and his is a solicitation for buy-in (“Hey, if you steal it this cool thing can happen”). His comes before the crisis has been reached, yours after.

Another person that gave me a useful example of this just yesterday was a new member of the Foundry who was talking about new techniques he’s been picking up since he started reading the Forge and other theory articles. (I’ll note that he came to it through Bruce Baugh, so despite any recent difficulties there are still bridges to be built!). One of the things he said was along the lines of:
So I know the player wants some adventure, but the character isn’t going towards anything I had ready. So I stopped the game and asked OOC, “What do you need in order to get into this?” and the player told me. After that I was able to setup the situation and the player was all over it. In the old days I may not have been willing to stop the game, because I thought I had to do everything without talking about it or negotiating it.”

In the “old days” all he knew how to do was push, to drive it to the moment of crisis and hope the players bought in after the moment of crisis had been established. And without flags even! (Flags are so nice for letting you target pushes that you can feel more confident about getting buy in over after the moment of crisis. Without them you’re stabbing blind.) But this time rather than using his authority to bring something on and hoping it would hit the player’s buttons, he stopped and got the player to buy-in and help by investing their authority over the character before the moment came. So when the werewolf (I think it was) finally showed up, the player was already all over every inch of it.

Push can lead to collaboration. Hell, it can lead to POWERFUL collaboration. But it does so by getting the other person to buy in after you’ve already forced something to crisis. And the downside of push is that without skill, tools, or both you run a risk of making something that other players are really not happy about. How many skilless pushy GMs in the ages have forced moments of crisis that made every player’s eyes roll back in their head?

Pull gets the collaboration before the moment of crisis. It does so by getting the other person to buy in before you bring it to crisis together. And the downside of pull is that without skill, tools, or both you can run a real risk of people never letting you get anything you really want without endless concessions, or end up manipulating you into agreeing to things you didn’t actually want. How many manipulative players in the ages have gotten people to buy in with them and then after the crisis was over had everyone else realize they’d been screwed?

It is also worth noting that you have to have authority to push. You can’t force a moment of crisis unless you have the authority to force. You do not have to have authority to pull, because if you can get other people to buy in then their authority can carry it to crisis — but only if you get the buy in to happen first.

So, there it is. The moment of crisis is when something important to the game, under your social and creative contract, is brought to a head. Pull gets people to buy in before that moment, and then brings everyone already invested to the moment. Push gets people to buy in (hopefully) after that moment, because the moment is brought about by the individual authority of the pusher and other reactions come after.

*Note that this works differently between the “techniques of RPGing” use of push and pull, and the general social use of push and pull. The difference is illustrated in one of Mo’s responses on the Deep in the Game discussion in which she said:
I agree with you, wherein we are talking about the general, directional transaction of the act. So “Pull” at it’s base, social classification is a soliciitation for buy-in and input (in or out of game, really). It’s a classification used to analyze the interaction.

However Pull used as a technique, is something more than just that, which is why I think I was making the qualitative distinction earlier. “So what kind of character was he?” is a pull in social classification, but it’s not a technique. It’s not constructed, it doesn’t really lead anywhwere specific; it encourages a particular kind of feedback in return, but it does not give any guideline for the input it expects.

So, pull as a technique is: “solicitation for buy in and input enacted to go to in a specific direction in a collaborative way.”

Finding a moment of crisis for social push and pull is much harder. Doing it when you have chosen (consciously or not) to use a technique to move a game shouldn’t be as hard.

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