Push and Pull – One Last Time

(This was posted over on StoryGames, I thought since I put so much work into it, I should paste it in here, too. It helps me, continuity-wise, too.)

Chris and I have been knocking Push and Pull out very fruitfully over on Deep in the Game. Thanks Chris!

Here are your no-nonsense definitions:

Push is an assertion of individual authority.

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

Both Push and Pull are a part of fundamental human communication patterns. They are tools used in social interactions that provide movement to the interaction and provoke response and action within it.

In a RPG context, Push and Pull happen both as they do in a non game context (socially and incidentally because we are still people engaging in interaction), and as techniques used to affect the game, the social environment and the drama. Both Push and Pull can be mechanically or non-mechanically supported, functional or dysfunctional, effective or non-effective. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, though people can have preferences for one or the other.

A player, using a Push technique, uses his own authority to put something out there. This something could be an assertion of an element or action into the fiction, it could be something in the social contract that causes or prevents something from happening (E.g. identifying that an NGH or TTP line has reached a hard stop) or in other ways (I’m not going to categorically list them here, that could be a discussion for a future time, suffice to say that although a push can be used as a technique to address the fiction, it’s not tied to it).

Push Example #1:

Game: Truth & Justice

Situation: The heroine has just found out that she has a long lost brother, and that her brother idolizes her secret identity for her work in the same science area that he is studying in. She, a precog, has a vision in which her estranged father and long lost brother are in a mall when a group of assassins break in and try to kill them. She could go save them, but if she does a whole busload of schoolgirls who have been captured by an evil cult will die terrible horrible sacrificial deaths. She chooses to go save the schoolgirls, because the ritual that they are being killed in may prove very, very bad for the world. In the vision where her brother and father are, the guns ring out, the bullets fly, and the father and brother are gunned down, their blood splattering.

The player (me) takes 4 hero points and hands them to the GM (Brand), declaring “Major Detect & Discover. Josh [the brother] is a mutant. He doesn’t die.” Brand cackles and gives time powers to Josh, so that when the reality of the precog vision comes true, he rewinds time in the second before he dies and uses his power to take out the villain, saving himself and their father.

I didn’t want the brother to die without having my character have a chance to interact with him, so I used a mechanic available to me to make it not happen.

Push Example #2:

Game: Unbreakable (A home-styled nar game) that’s loosely styled on the themes of M Night’s movie Unbreakable.

Situation: Our hero has been putting his ass on the line to make his Alphabet City neighborhood a safer place. In doing so, he’s pissed off a number of gangs in the area. In a previous bang, he had seen a member of the gang that has been hunting him down being shaken down by three guys of a rival gang over mule-ing drugs through their territory. Arjuna had interceded, scared the rival gangs off and saved the kid’s life. He even gave him back the drugs, as a show of good faith/bribe to leave his block alone.

The kid, afraid of what would happen if the leader found out about getting his ass saved by an enemy hadn’t passed the message on, so in another scene, when Arjuna’d come face to face with the sociopathic leader of the main gang, and had pointed out his show of good faith, the fit hit the shan. The gang leader thanked him for the interaction, and declared the feud between them over. He told Arjuna he would take care of the discrepancies.

Coming home that night, the GM (me) declares that in the vacant lot behind his house, the kid is dead – gutted – and has been left on display for him. The area has been police taped, and cops are on the scene. Alongside the body: the knapsack, likely still carrying his prints.

I put something down in front of him that said: Here, deal with that shit.

A player, using a Pull technique, solicits another player’s buy-in or input. This can happen by catering input to the other player’s tastes, by enticement, by reward, by negotiation, by collaborative mutual decision (and I’m sure there are other ways) Again, the Pull can be used to influence the fiction, but Pull techniques are not limited to the fiction.

Pull Example #1:

Game: The same Truth & Justice game as Push #1

Situation: Heroine encounters a villain for the first time. The game has a very graphic novel feel, and the social contract of the game has it established that there is (like many comic books) usually a pattern wherein at the first meeting, the villain will gets away, eluding the heroine.

The scene is set in a bank with a robbery underway, the mooks present are human goons for hire with lots of bad ass weaponry, the main villainess is a sexy succubus-y she-devil that is enrapturing the Bank Manager. The character comes in with great pith and daring do, and faithfully begins to kick the asses of the mooks en route to the main villainess. The mooks prove to be too numerous and too underhanded and threaten the innocents in the bank, but if she doesn’t do something about it, the villainess will get away with the booty!
The heroine takes the only action she has to spare to do a single attack on the villain, knocking her away from the bank manager, and into the vault and as part of her description says:

“Paper bank notes and bills flutter away from the hefty vault door as it slams shut with a satisfying THUD and a long series of clicks that lock the Hell Queen in its deep heart, keeping the bank’s patrons safely clear of her terrible, evil tactics!” The player (me), turns to the GM (Brand), raises an eyebrow and says in overly accentuated, sarcastic way:

“And Déjà Vu turns back and focuses her FULL attention on the members of Terror Inc, FULLY CONFIDENT that her “safe deposit” will be waiting for her once she has taken care of the gunboys!” Wink wink, nudge, nudge.

Brand, grins and says “Revolting Development?” and I agree, roll my dice and cash in on hero points which I then use to lay a righteous smackdown on the Terror Inc boys. When I get back to the vault to collect the villain, there is a hole melted in the floor, and the villainess and the booty are, of course, long, long gone.

If the villain got away, I wanted her to get away because something completely unexpected (to the character) had happened while my character continued to do the righteous smackdown. I was also low on Hero Points and knew that the Revolting Development would pay off. So, because I wanted these things, I created a situation where both requirements could be fulfilled, and one that I knew would be appealing enough for Brand to pick up on.

I wanted to go in a direction and so I made it a direction that Brand would like so that we could go that way together.

Pull Example #2:

Game: Breaking the Ice

Situation: It’s getting on to the end of the third date, and the fates of the lovers are being decided. They’ve racked up a pretty high attraction score, but their compatibility rating is low. This is reflected in the game’s fiction. The characters have never been ambivalent about each other; they’ve never fully managed to make it to a place where they click romantically, but they end up in bed despite that. Afterwards, one of the characters (mine) shows a bit of the desperation of the act by drawing a parallel between watching the woman he just lay with as she slept and the love of his life that died in a car accident (in which he was driving in heavy rain) a year ago. The other player (Brand) finding the earlier silly-ish game ending on too dour a note, wanting a chance at a bonus die, and knowing that I have a penchant for elegiac romance, wakes his character up and has her comfort him, saying in character:

“I can’t promise that I’ll be here forever, or even that I’ll love you forever, but I’m here now, and I love you now, and that’s enough. It’s a mistake to think you were driving then, or that you are driving now. Life is hydroplaning, and there isn’t any control to be had.”

And he earned the bonus die, and in their mutual comfort earned the one last compatibility (#3) that gave them at least a slim shot of making it.

Brand wanted something with more hope, and he wanted the characters to have a chance, so he found a way to appeal to my tastes in game to use a mechanically supported tool that allowed me to reward his pull.

Why is any of this important?

Well, if you’re designing, analysis of these kinds of social transactions and how they differ from each other helps you understand what kind of game you are creating, and who will be happy with it.

Now, I’ve never used the Power 19, because my brain naturally does this sort of thing without needing the tool, but it seems to me that if it represents a list of the things that are important to consider in game design and theory (which it seems to be, considering how many talk about it/use it), that discussion of social transactions such as Push and Pull are intrinsically connected to the following questions:

6.) What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?
7.) How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?
9.) What does your game do to command the players’ attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)
10.) What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?
11.) How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?
14.) What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?
19.) Who is your target audience?

If the idea is to intentionally build games that cater to the target audience to maximize the potential fun that could be had by them, then it would be extremely helpful to consider whether the game coexists peacefully with the skills of your target audience and provide extra, explicit support to the skills that are not inherent to the group.

Conversely, if your target audience is “As many people as goddamn possible.”? Well, then, understanding the kinds of different play out there helps you to identify where support will be needed to get different players to peacefully co-exist in the same game while achieving the maximum potential for fun.

Example in Action:

I put my observations of Push and Pull into direct application in Crime and Punishment. In life, I like Pull. It’s energizing, it builds. I am less comfortable with Push, it feels confrontational and space invading. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t find Push useful… obviously I do, because I employ Push techniques in my games.

Crime and Punishment is designed to build collaborative environments that build investment between members of the player group to provide a basis and support for applying hardcore Push.


Read the game. The entire first half is all built on Pull techniques, contributing ideas, soliciting investment, earning the approval and buy in of the other players to create a communal endeavor. The second half of the game is all Push. In this environment of investment and reinforced by the framework we have built together, players can now Push hard against each other to maximize the potential of the storyboard. To make the drama come to life. The mechanics support it here, too. You use the investment of other players that you have earned, to bid and buy and win how you want things to happen in the game.

Please go read C+P with all of this in mind.

While you’re at it, if all of this has finally made some semblance of coherent sense, you might want to go read a bunch of stuff again:

Push & Pull
Pull Clarification and Promises
Brand Pushes and Pulls and Blows Himself Down
Push & Pull on The 20×20 Room
Push | Pull The Moment of Crisis
I think that’s all I have for now.



11 thoughts on “Push and Pull – One Last Time”

  1. Mo,

    Thanks! These are some dang good examples. But, as is so often the case, I want to quibble. I figured I’d do it here, on your turf, where you’re more likely to tell me to shut up (and where I hopefully won’t derail profitable directions of coversation). Also, this is going to be pretty pushy, for which I apologize. So, without further preamble.

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

    This… strikes me as a terrible definition. I think you know what you want to say, but I don’t think this is the way to say it, and here’s why: Push interactions can also be directed attempts to generate collaborative buy-in and input. Not solicitations, at least not in the regular sense, but all that other stuff in your definition? Push can do that too.

    In some games I have the authority to push using characters you care about deeply. I can push in such a way that I’m primarily focused on getting you to buy into the story and add something of your own.

    Personally, I think it makes way more sense to talk about pull as being tied to authority as well. The definition you have above just strikes me as ambiguous…

    Does that seem right to you? It seems totally intuitive to me, but then again it’s taken me four months to figure out what I think about your idea.

    (Oh, I’ve just been assuming that you saw my formulation of the distinction yesterday, but I figured it would probably be smart of me to double-check. Assuming you have, what is it about your broader, non-authority-based definition of pull that you think makes more sense than my definition?)


  2. Thanks for working so hard on this, Mo. I still don’t think the Push/Pull thing is as real and as important as some people do, but if it’s a useful metaphor for others, great. I’ll try to encapsulate my issue with it as tightly as possible, and ONLY as possible fodder for thinking, not as a challenge.

    I think that a whole lot of what you’re talking about as Pull interactions are just unstructured Drama-resolution, using largely unexamined kinds of currency related to social relationships between players. There is power there, getting used by the Pull-er, it’s just not a kind of power that’s acknowledged by formalized mechanics. I question whether it is really useful to talk about this kind of subtle, covert authority as NOT being authority, or as somehow the OPPOSITE of authority.

  3. Gentlemen,

    Where, oh where, do I explicitly divorce authority from Pull? Where oh where, do I explicitly divorce collaboration from Push? Just because I am defining what Push and Pull must be does not mean that it can’t be more.

    I was asked to provide a base definition, not say everything that needs to be said.

    Stop reacting to what you think I am saying and read it again like you’ve never heard of the concept before. Then go and reread C+P and the original posts.

    Note to everyone: Just because I posted this over here to make sure those following Push/Pull who are not on Storygames can keep the continuity, does not mean I won’t Godmod the hell out of this thread. It’s not an invitation to circumvent Andy’s requests.

  4. Apologies, Mo. I posted here before I even saw the SG thing.

    I tried to make it clear I wasn’t challenging your definition – I think it’s a good one, and the concept obviously is meaningful to a good many people. It just doesn’t mesh with my own understanding of what happens when we play.

    I’ve been fully engaged with the Push/Pull discussion since the beginning, and I don’t think that I’m disagreeing with you because I don’t understand what you’re saying. I disagree with you because I don’t find what you’re saying useful to me, and I’ve been trying to find a way to acknowledge the AP that informs it in a way that IS useful to me. I’m glad that others DO find it useful.

  5. Thomas,

    To clarify something. The word “authority” is in the definition of push and not of pull because to push you absolutly must have a least enough authority to make the statement and have it stick. Without that, you can’t push functionally. It is not in the pull definition because even without authority you can try to get other people to buy in.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t pull with authority, or that push needs overwhelming authority to work. It just means that in the bare bones definitions of them the word gets used because it’s clearer than leaving in a blank “Push in an individual assertion.”


    ‘s cool man. You’ve been around the block a few times, for sure and you and I have really gotten to know each other mostly because of this discussion. (Which, btw, I’m glad of.)

    But let me ask you a question, now, if’n you don’t mind. You seem pretty clear at this point that push/pull isn’t useful for you — and I personally have no problem with that. I never found most realist philsophy useful to me, so I can totally get not finding a way of looking at things useful.

    So, with that in mind, why is it important to you to still be in the discussion? I mean, if it isn’t giving you anything, but is giving something to others, why not let them talk about it while you focus your energy on things that will be useful for you? Do you still think that you might get to a point where it will be useful, or do you think that isn’t going to happen for a while?

    You can email me about this, if’n you don’t want to talk about it here. thebrand at gmail dot com.

  6. Mark,

    No apology necessary, the note in bold was just to ward off future badness, not to yell at either of you.

    If you don’t find the discussion useful to you, that’s cool.

    The reason I said go back and re-read was not because I wanted you to capitulate and agree, but because you were disagreeing with points that I did not make (that pull could not contain authority, that pull did not have power).

    Honest question… What does the following mean?

    “I’ve been trying to find a way to acknowledge the AP that informs it in a way that IS useful to me.”

  7. Mo, the Actual Play stuff you’re describing in the p/p discussions is exactly the stuff that bedevils and fascinates me. p/p doesn’t reconcile easily with my own understanding of the interactions I see happening. I’m trying to reconcile my own (power-distribution/flow-centric) understanding of the stuff with your understanding to see how and whether I need to adjust my own ideas.

    I’m NOT saying that you need to centralize power in your discussion, or that you have ignored/disavowed it. I’m trying to link up my own interest in power/authority with the discussion.

    Okay, I’m also trying to problematize Pull. But mostly for my own thought process. Sorry.

  8. Hi Thomas,

    Consider this: when Pushing, you’re not soliciting. You can be adding something that everyone likes, or helping collaborate to the direction everyone else is going- but there’s no solicitation in it.

    When Pulling, you can solicit whether you have authority or not. If you don’t have authority, (“I’d like your thief to steal my ring”), you are asking the person who does. If you do have authority, you’re asking for input that will affect your authority, or perhaps, even giving authority over.

    Push is defined as such because if you have authority- you don’t need to ask. Pull is defined as such, because it doesn’t matter whether you have authority or not- you’re asking for something. This is why authority alone is not the hinge by which these two swing- it’s assertion and solicitation.

    Naturally, in group effort, we’re talking about the difference between areas of authority and consensual negotiation and p/p are applications of how that works.

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