Category Archives: examining play

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 7 – The X Card as Care Overlay

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women, October 23, 2013.

Last time I talked about ways that care and justice players could come into agenda conflict in games while discussing some personal experiences in White Wolf LARP and MUSH. I’m reaching the end of the care and justice part of the series (at least for now) as it’s only one of the topics I wanted to explore and has gone on longer than I had originally intended! In this last article I’ll be talking about the X-Card, how it relates to care and justice, and how discussing it reveals things about our orientation.

For those unfamiliar with the X Card, it is the brain child of John Stavropoulos. John is the President of NerdNYC, one of the team leads for Games on Demand GenCon, and was part of the team (along with fellow GaWdians Jessica Hammer and Meguey Baker) that went to Ethiopia last year to develop practical social justice development games for Girl Effect. He is an all-around awesome guy and a GM for literally thousands of players a year. The concept of the X card is simple: There’s an index card with an X on it. It sits in the middle of the play table. At any time, if any person involved in the game becomes uncomfortable, they can tap or pick up the X card and the thing in progress will stop – no questions asked, no explanations required.

The X card is a mechanic – one that negotiates social play. But it’s a mechanic that is independent and transferable. It can be used in conjunction with any system. It serves as an overlay to the game as it exists – a rule zero over every other mechanic in a game’s system. The X card works functionally at several levels:

First and most powerfully (IMO), the X card frames play and shortcuts social contract of the game. Introducing the X card initiates a conversation among all participants at the beginning of play. It sets (particularly when introduced as recommended) a clearly communicated set of priorities to everyone involved. Directly from the X Card document: “The people playing are more important than the game we are playing.” Participation within this framework – effectively achieved only via buy-in – establishes a firm group commitment to tend to the emotional and social needs of the people at play, even, if necessary, at the expense of the fictive outcome, the flow of play, the play experience, or the game’s design.

Next, the X card enables and facilitates social safety at the table. It is a particularly important and powerful answer to dealing with hard psychological triggers being set off in or around the fictive content of the game (e.g. rape, child abuse, addiction) which could slide an otherwise happy play experience towards trauma. However, it is also fully legitimate to use the X card to overcome barriers to social enjoyment (e.g. undesirable subjection to in or out of game racism or sexism) or personal comfort (e.g. a player experiencing too much bleed).

Thirdly, with most playgroups, even talking about the X card in a way that frames the priority up front will influence the social environment in a way that makes the participants more mindful of monitoring comfort and distress around the table. This can create an environment that is more inter-personally supportive, and in which the X card is actually less likely to be used(1).

I shouldn’t have to explain too much at this point about what kind of facilitator this overlay can have for care oriented people, especially in unfamiliar groups where relationships are not pre-established (e.g. con games, first time groups) or where relationships may be known but the system is unknown or may feel dauntingly justice-oriented. It states upfront that even if the rest is unknown, the priority is that we as a group will take care of you, and will make sure our relationship with you is OK. This kind of overlay can literally make access possible for some players and some games or communities. I personally don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the X card grew out of John’s wealth of experience in communities of play that have an explicit – and successful – agenda of attracting and promoting diversity among participants.

Unsurprisingly, the X card does also have its critics. As an example, players who find their fun in an agenda that prioritizes brutal (but consensual) brinksmanship legitimately don’t want safety nets to overlay the game. Players who find their fun in unsafe (and again, consensual) edgeplay with strong bleed and do not want anyone to have an out(2). There are many games that are at legitimately at odds with X card use. That’s not surprising! All mechanics, both core and overlay should serve the goals of the participants and their desired outcome of play. The X card can actually help clarify terms for players that like these kinds of games. Right up front, the X card is a clear and present signal that the game does not support their kind of play, and allows them to opt out.

But back specifically in terms of care and justice: some (often strongly) justice oriented people find the concept of the X card deeply uncomfortable. Remember that justice orientation assumes separation, prioritizes self , serves goals around autonomy, agency and is deeply concerned with rights management as mitigated and enforced by an external system. This all means that the X card inserts a fundamental short circuit into their desired game structure. It says: “At some point in the game, I may suddenly and unexpectedly lose my right to safely proceed in pursuing my goals without any explicit justification”. And because justice oriented individuals reach to universalized principles or points of view rather than localized ones, creating a mechanic that specifically prioritizes the needs of an individual in the moment over the global laws of the game can seem extremely arbitrary, and feel violating to their base need for fairness – and justice – in the game.

Notably, this is a barrier for some justice players and not others, largely because as an accepted overlay it is part of the express and explicit mechanical system of the game, and as such can comfortably fulfill many justice-based players’ conceptual understanding of what fairness means as the course of the game. But if that is not that case, and we come across a game where there is a critical divide between actual players at the same game, what then? This is the point that things become political. To quote Leonard Cohen: (i)“it’s the homocidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”(/i). Whose needs will get met, how will they be met and why? (3)

To me, it’s critical to evaluate these situations contextually. As an overlay to an existing system it should be contextually compared to that system’s degree of support for care or justice. For example, an X card may be a small ask when used as an overlay on a system that offers strong justice support, especially one that also restricts care orientation. But when the situation is reversed (strong care support with strong justice restriction) the X card may further disenfranchise a justice player at the table. Whose needs are more consistently being met, who needs more support, and what is the X card doing in service of those goals? Also, worth considering is the context of the game. Within the community of practice (organization, con, single group’s history) what is the level of systemic support for players of each orientation? Will offering concessions like the X card create an environment where fair access and inclusion can be more equitably be distributed until more care supported games are designed and offered?

It’s also important to contextually evaluate the whole X card frame structure rather than just looking at individual moments of its mechanical invocation. The X frame as asserted in the social contract emphasizes a responsibility to tend to the communal social environment. This means that as well as creating opportunities for players to invocate their safe space, it should socially influence the participants towards containing misuse. In practice, those that have greatest opportunity to report on the X card’s use in actual play (like John) report that the X card itself gets used very infrequently. I personally think that people who have been socially conditioned towards care orientation are by the same conditioning more likely to invoke the X card, more likely to respect the boundaries of accepted use, and more likely enact autonomous acts of reciprocity(4).

And that’s some of my thoughts on the X card! Next up: Who knows? I’m going to choose a new topic for the next chapter of posts.

(1) For an first hand use of the xCard in game, see Brie Sheldon’s article on her X card experience
(2) There are strong similarities between the X card and the Nordic larp safewords Cut/Kutt and Brake/Brems both in terms of desireability (for use in emotional situations), and in the mechanisms themselves.
(3) This conflict is also at the heart of many of the con harrassment policy debates.
(4) Please be clear that I am not implying that care orientated people are any more immune from personal dysfunction, transgressive or coercive behaviour than justice folks. A person’s quality of behavioural interaction is not determined by their orientation, the orientation is only the paradigm we see their choice of actions enacted through. There will always be assholes on all sides!

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 6 – Self Organization with Care and Justice

Last time I talked about how care and justice models can come together in harmony and I used Powered by the Apocalypse hacks as examples. This post I want to talk about a few experiences I’ve had where care and justice disputes were at play, what players did about it, and how play environment was affected. This post is where my personal experience meets the heuristic model I’m using to explore, so mileage may vary.

When I was a kid, I played D&D at a creative cultural centre. There were several groups that played at the venue weekly. I was the youngest of all the players, and the only girl. Eventually there came a time where I couldn’t return, and since I didn’t know anyone who played at school or my neighbourhood, I drifted off. I had a brief sojourn into Paranoia in high school after discovering the box set in a bookstore, but my friends weren’t into it. It wasn’t until university, when I was deeply involved in theatre that I came back to gaming.

My coming back story is a little unusual: I had acted in a number of “soaps” (improvisational serial theatre in which a dedicated audience would come back to watch week after week). In many ways, they were not unlike modern Nordic art-larps, but staged for a paying audience. One of my friends from the soaps who happened to be a gamer decided to make a new soap out of a tabletop game that had just been released, Vampire: the Masquerade. The series ran for 12 episodes, had a consistent audience and was a lot of fun to do. Later when Mage: The Ascension came out, we did a five-part “miniseries” based on it, too. So when V:tM (Mind’s Eye Theatre) LARP was released, it seemed natural to get the cast and some of the old audience together to give it a try. Back then, we played pervasively in a square six block radius in the city we lived in, and used our theatre and an art gallery as safe spaces to play scenes that might otherwise “spook the norms”. I was hooked.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of women who talk about coming back (or to) gaming through these games, and when people talk about this, it seems most often attributed to theme and genre. This was a draw in my era, for sure. Back in the first wave of V:tM most of us had been fans of Lost Boys, the Buffy movie, The Hunger and Dracula, and most of my female friends were die hard fans of all things Anne Rice. For the group of women I re-entered gaming with, dark romance was absolutely core to the attraction. I am sure is still true of young Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood fans today. Genre and theme can not be underestimated, but I also don’t think it’s the whole story. While many of the women who came to LARP went on to play tabletop White Wolf games, a good many more did not. So what was sticky for us about LARP?

The feature of pervasive play was an important factor to the new-to-gaming female players in these particular games. Because respecting the “masquerade” was critical to your in-fiction survival, the everyday people surrounding you at the bar, cafe or city street shouldn’t really be able to tell that you’re a vampire. Because being subtle and pervasive was critical to the smooth continuance of the game, random cops, business staff, and private property owners shouldn’t really ever get concerned about your behaviour in their space. This generally meant a large volume of quiet play in small groups with a close focus on relationships, social structures and political maneuvering. It also meant considerably less physical combat overall and less invocation of the formalized system. It also meant that private zones (like the Masquerade-lifted theatre and art gallery, and their rooms occasionally used for blackboxing) were often intense, full of combat, and where the “main plots” and Storyteller attention were focused.

In general, many more women than men held a sort of stationary court in the bars and the cafes, and many more men than women roamed from site to site and filled up the space in the masquerade-lifted zones. I think that’s significant, and that there were probably a lot of causative factors involved in that behaviour. Most of the female players were brand new to gaming, and public spaces probably felt more accessible. The Masquerade-lifted zones were often loud and aggressive, and you knew if you hung out there that you would end up drawn in to conflict eventually which for some was less desirable. Many women were drawn to the transgressive nature of pervasive play (being in a place that expected you to be yourself, and being able to subvert that by being someone else) and I remember a lot of discussion about how doing it changed the way people felt about the places themselves and their relationship with other people. I also remember that when complaints came about pervasive play, that the complaints were always from guys and usually about how having to think about who was watching / listening in public spaces and act accordingly limited their play. I see some Care and Justice themes in many of these factors.

I also have a sense that MET LARP, as a very loosely governed system provides some freedom due to a wide player to storyteller ratio. That gap means that there’s plenty of room for characters to cultivate pockets of play that suit their their own micro-cultural preferences. If a subgroup is content to be non-demanding of Storyteller time and not to feature in the main spotlight , they’re mostly free to do their own thing on their own terms. As we looked at before, care-orientated folks may navigate more comfortably within the fiction through freeplay(1) and choose to engage the justice-oriented system as they have desire and confidence. Because LARPs are so big and populated, and particularly geographically dispersed pervasive LARPs like this one, they give room and rise for care-oriented players who are good at this kind of thing to go do it on their own.

But while the nature of LARP allowed micro-communities of care to be symbiotic at times, this structure could also create conflict. As the Camarilla organization rose up, and LARP tourism started to occur, status mechanics were introduced to track and enforce social status within Vampire society. I remember this being a particular place where care and justice oriented players would end up coming to hard odds. Care players, deeply concerned with the cultivation of relationships, necessarily awarded characters who did the in-game social work a natural respect and social status independent of the game’s mechanical system. Meanwhile, some justice-oriented players who had high Status stats (and were therefore mechanically supported) expected that their social standing should be in effect even though they did not invest in the social fostering of the relationships with other characters (and players) around them. Mechanical system status and social system status – even though they were ostensibly supposed to be the same thing in the game’s context – were obtained, enforced and respected at the expense of one another.

I’m going to switch here to MUSHing, another form in which I played White Wolf games (here primarily Changing: the Lost). Here we have an even greater player to storyteller ratio. MUSHes (online, text based multiplayer games) have a few staff members that interact as Storytellers with players to varying degrees, but in general would do so very rarely. More commonly, the staff would play important QPCs in the setting that maintained the status quo, and occasionally run special events or code more play area on the in-world game map.

MUSHes of this type had a consent-based policy (you could consent or non-consent to aspects of play) with strong caveats about the need to accept in-character consequences for your in-character actions. Interaction on these MUSHes were primarily social, mostly via in-character interactions about the characters’ relationships, and were exploratory of the tropes of the setting. Each player had a private “home” space to go to and invite people into, and gathering places like cafes, bars and freeholds became the local hotspots to meet-up and talk with other. This is an extremely different model for play than WW tabletop with a focus on plot that is driven by a Storyteller, but closer in nature to the micro-culture freeplay in LARPs as described above. However unlike LARPs, where low-system, personal freeplay developed as an ad hoc alternative to the systemically supported play, this kind of cooperative freeplay was the primary mode of the MUSH. As an example, a quick search online found me the consent policy at War Dawn that was typical of the MUSHes that I am referring to. The end line of the policy says it all: “Please be aware that no combat system is a substitute for cooperative RP.”

However, this was complicated by the idea that despite the fact that this was the primary mode, these games were also ostensibly based on the mechanical system of the tabletop games: Your character had character sheets and stats, you could use the system to roll dice, but where the system was (rarely) invoked it was done autonomously and negotiated by the players in conflict. Also significant to the consent-based play, XP was earned by earning other player’s votes for good roleplay. This dichotomy often created a strong clash of agendas in the game. Often this clash was described disparagingly as “roll play vs. role play” or “plot vs inertia” some times this plot was about “playing grim” vs. “playing light”. There were a lot of agendas smacking uncomfortably into a lot of other agendas, but underpinning many of these clashes was the idea that the ethos on a MUSH often boiled down to concepts such as “we work things out between us” or “we build harmonious relationships” or “everyone must make room for one another” and the value/reward system tied to it coming at harsh odds with “This should be arbitrated by staff/system”, “I am pursuing my goals/plot/development” or the “the system says I can” of independent players.

Now one last note: I’ve spent a lot of time talking here and in the series so far about freeplay, or micro-cultures, or ungoverned space as a place that care oriented players can make their own way in. These spaces may not restrict care oriented play, but they also don’t systemically support care play either. Those two concepts are very different things. I believe that while the former might sometimes suffice care players, that the latter is a vast and largely unexplored design space that could bring real innovation in RPG game design and in doing so, open up a whole new level of appeal to care oriented folks that are already players, and a powerful new draw to new players.

Next up: the X card and how it relates to care and justice.

(1) I personally think there are all kinds of people who take advantage of micro-culture LARP space to find fulfillment for kinds of fun that the system can restrict, or just don’t support – not just folks concerned about care-orientation. ↩

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 5 – Hybrid Care and Justice (Powered by the Apocalypse)

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women September 25, 2013

Last time I talked about Nordic larps and provided an example of a game (Mad about the Boy) that had a care mediation bias, though did so not because it expressly provided support for care mediation, but did not constrain care-mediation values and did constrain justice mediation values.

This post will look at some mechanics in games Powered by The Apocalypse and how they are using interesting hybrid models that provide at least partial support to both. By Powered by the Apocalypse, I mean games such as D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker’s open source system Apocalypse World, and some of the other games that hacked its engine: Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts, Gregor Vuga’s Saga of the Icelanders, and Jason Morningstar’s game (in development) Night Witches.

The Apocalypse World engine and all of the various hacks have interesting design elements in them that manage, articulate and govern relationships between characters in the game. As relationship management is a core component of care mediation, it makes the suite of games a fruitful cluster for evaluation. In the original game, player characters earn Hx (history points) with other PCs whenever they engage in emotionally intense activity (E.g. sex, healing, harming etc.). You can use Hx as a modifier in certain rolls to help or interfere with their actions in the game, and earning Hx with others is a vehicle to earn experience points. In addition, through special mechanical moves on your character sheet, you can earn Hold on another character (PC or NPC) which allow you to influence mechanically them in play.

This is interesting, because it clearly combines several elements of both care and justice mediation. There is an external system that is built to support the resolution of dispute (justice), and provides tangible tracking for how the relationship is affected (care). It provides mechanical incentive to invest in relationships in the game (care) and mechanical incentive to build a sense of reciprocity when making others do what you want (justice and care).

Notably, while Hx tracks changes to a relationship and creates an idea of providing mechanical support for relationship development (and this seem likes care), what it actually doing is systematizing the relationship. This can actually be used with justice-oriented playgroups to shortcut over relationship management altogether. At the same time, the mechanic does not necessarily constrain care-oriented playgroups from deeply engaging in relationship management. So this mechanic may not interfere with each orientation individually, but by it’s nature it could create cohesion breaks in mixed groups. Also, I am willing to bet that many care-oriented individuals might conceptually struggle with the way Hx gets turned into XP (+3 Hx with a player automatically pays out in 1 XP but Hx returns to 0 as a result) because it conceptually violates the way relationships work (I know you better, it pays out, now I don’t know you at all.)

In Monsterhearts, Avery Alder’s “storygame about the messy lives of teenage monsters”, the relationship mechanics are changed. Hx and Hold are gone. Instead, player characters earn “Strings” on each other through a wide variety of interactions (that are served by mechanical moves) and those Strings can be spent in a variety of ways. You can hinder their actions, you can reduce their successes when they try to hurt you, when you successfully hurt them you can intensify the harm you do. You can use them to put conditions (which can act like hindrances or social stigmas) on others. There is no mechanic in Monsterhearts to manipulate another into doing something, but you can use your Strings as pull incentives to get the other player to make choices you want to see (note that this is both fair and reciprocal). Unlike Hx which is a feature of Apocalypse World, Strings are the driving force behind Monsterhearts. They drive drama and focus into the relationships at the table. It’s a really interesting mix of care and justice sensibilities, and as a care-oriented player, I love the tangible effects that Monsterhearts’ system gives relationships in play – especially as a GM.

In Saga of the Icelanders, Gregor Vuga does some interesting thematic things with gender that I’ll likely explore in another post outside this series, but for the purposes of this article, I’m concerned with the care and justice elements – again, around relationships. In SotI, Hx and Strings are all replaced by “Bond” (Hold is still present, acting as a measure of influence). Bond expressly represents intimacy and social connections and are intended to give the relationships mechanical weight. You get bond by time passing with characters, making moves that focus on your relationship, gaining leverage, giving them gifts, etc. The system asks you to define what about significant relationships are important to you, and asks you to update it with the fiction. This draws players to evaluate and reevaluate relationships over time.

Also, the system has mechanically driven incentives to use moves – essentially hard actions – against the characters that you have relationships with that will put pressure on them and drive social action and relationship change in the game. And while all of the AW hacks have community in their thematic core, SotI manifests it most cleanly. With its saga era settings, players are not just asked to build and maintain relationships with other individuals, but to maintain status, face, and relational standing with the community as a whole. In AW or Monsterhearts, threats and menaces that serve as your situation catalysts are outsiders, often monstrous. They demand your players stand together against the external threat. In SotI the community itself is the threat. It is the life and lives of the people that you live with, who themselves decide your fate and who you must mitigate conflict with.

Night Witches, by Jason Morningstar, is a hack that is still in development, so anything I say about it now may change by the time it gets to publication. Jason shared a copy with me due to our mutual love/obsession with the Soviet Female Fighting Aces of WWII. In the system there is a Bond mechanic which powers relationship management that is similar to SotI. However, what I’m interested in for this article are two differences he’s introduced. Like SotI, Bond is associated with significant relationships in the character’s life. In Night Witches while that includes other characters it also includes the plane you are invested in. Second, the menace/threat positioning models something closer to Apocalypse World in that threats don’t come from inside your community but from outside of it. Here though, a new mechanic is introduced which couples directly with Bond: Stress.

Stress is a measure of your relationship to your environment. For the night witches in WWII that means a charged, often oppressive and unbearable relationship. Characters get stress out of battle, when their close comrades or planes take harm, but more fascinating in the context of gender: they take stress when they act like a lady. This mechanic is set up specifically to underscore the struggling dichotomy that patriarchy exerts on women living and fighting in a world traditionally dominated by men, and (I hope) will serve to illustrate one of the reasons why relationship management is a core value for most women. Stress is relieved through intimacy, contact with family, by fulfilling your story (and also by acting like a hooligan). I don’t know if these extensions to relationship management (the plane, the environment) technically “count” as relationship management for the purposes of care-orientation, but they conceptually and emotionally line up for me on a personal level.

So yeah! I am loving on these games that all really put an intensely satisfying and system supported emphasis on care-oriented values, while respecting justice-oriented resolution. One day I plan to write a series on Gender and GMing, and I will come back to these games to talk about some concepts that are related to this post. But in the meantime: Onward!

Next up: Some of my personal experience around how Care and Justice can interact, in both not so bad and not so good ways. I’ll talk specifically about non tabletop forms of White Wolf: in Mind’s Eye LARP and MUSH play.

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 4 – Care in Action?

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women on Sept 11, 2013

This is part four of a series. In the previous posts I talked about how sociology and sociolinguistic studies on gendered communication styles could be useful heuristic tools to evaluate game systems and mechanics. I began with discussing two conflict resolution styles that trend differently by gender (care and justice). I looked at how traditional modes of RPG conflict resolution seem to be justice-oriented, and had a look at how that might affect the experience of care-oriented players at the table. In this post, I’d like to look at mechanics or systems that might have a stronger care-oriented bias, and at hybrid models which seem to combine elements of both.

As a reminder, care mediation is focused on relationship management. It assumes: connection between individuals, prioritizes modes of resolution that are internal to the community (rather than external rules or laws) and emphasizes the need for reciprocity. Tolerance, empathy, and active listening are encouraged and each conflict is seen as particular and contextual (rather than universal). Also, in pretend play, it was noted that girl playgroups generally used care mediation through the fiction rather than stepping outside of it.

So in terms of RPG conflict resolution, what would this look like? I think we could assume that a “pure” care-oriented system(1) would likely not depend on an external arbitrator like a dice roll. We would for certain expect that the system would help make it clear how the relationship of the participants (possibly including any and all of: the characters in conflict, any characters observing the conflict, and all players involved in the game) changed as a result of the resolution. We could assume that conflicts would resolve through a process of talking where being heard is prioritized, and all the participants’ needs are understood, and met equitably well. The conflict in question would likely be understood and considered by participants as a particular conflict (examining context) rather than a “genre” of, or universalized conflict. And ideally, given the tendency to play through the fiction, players should as much as possible be able to reach a resolution on conflict without stepping out of character, or at least out of the fiction of the game.

Are there systems that employ something like this? Recently I played in an all-feme Nordic larp in Sweden called Mad about the Boy(2). The larp was (for the most part) a 360 degree immersive drama game set in a real-world near-future post-apocalypse involving strong emotional themes. The in-game play spanned two full in-character days and the vast majority of conflicts were not governed by mechanics. at all Conflicts between individuals not involving a weapon were handled naturalistically.

When characters came into conflict, they resolved it through discussion in character, much like one would do in real life with another person. Characters did not have stats or abilities, players did not roll dice, roshambo, or do anything but talk. Any player in the vicinity could weigh in as an interested party. No GM/Storyteller/Producer monitored, mediated or interfered with the conflict’s resolution. There was no way for one character to force another character to do anything that they didn’t want to do without the support of, or consequences of the community, unless the character was armed and ready to use explosive violence to do it. Even where weapons were involved (limited to three guns present in the fiction of the game), the rules governing their use were extremely simple:

  • One person pulling a gun assumed control of the room.
  • A second gunholder pulling a gun on the first before the first could train the gun back overtook control of the room.
  • Where two people with guns ganged up on a third with a gun, numbers ruled.
  • A person shot at would be hit, but had the right to determine the severity of the wound received.
  • Is this care mediation? Let’s see: This system is based in talk. It allows players through their characters to negotiate their needs and the needs of others. Meta-techniques in the game like windowpaning (drawing a window to make a dramatic aside to your fellow players) are even present to ensure that where your character is unable to ensure their needs (or your as a player) are articulated, the player can still enter them into the fictive space for consideration. It encourages active listening and tolerance of other players (even when not their characters). It places a strong emphasis on, and provides a strong approval power to the community of play and it’s self-regulating skills (both in and out of character). Because all fiction is expressed naturalistically, the players must confront the changes evident in the relationship as a course of play, or not, as to the dramatic action.

    It certainly supports a lot of care-mediation values, or put more aptly: it does not constrain them. It does constrain some justice-mediation values. While characters in the game could logistically appeal to the authoritative body in the fiction to be a point of resolution the conflicts (there is a government entity in the setting but one that does not have immediate martial power to exert) the game does not provide a source of systemic resolution that clearly determines outcome. Autonomy and independence are constrained by the need to garner and maintain community support to keep power. Reciprocity might equal out to fair but it might not; rights of any individual may not be respected as a matter of community interest inside a charged situation powered by a collective.

    Is it surprising to find a structure which has a care-mediation bias written in large part by women (2 of 3 larpwrights were women) for an all-female cast that prioritizes themes about women and their values and communities? I don’t think so.

    Also, it’s worth noting to find that this kind of structure is not uncommon among art larps coming out of Nordic countries, all five of which rank in the top 10 in terms of gender equality(3).

    Just sayin’.

    Next up: Hybrid Care and Justice in Powered by the Apocalypse games.

    (1) By “system” I am talking about the process play is resolved including social system rather than just mechanics. ↩
    (2) Trine Lise Lindahl, Tor Kjetil Edland, and Margrete Raaum, Mad about the Boy, 2010 ↩
    (3) UN International Human Development Indicators for Gender Equality 1-10: Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Slovenia, France, and Iceland ↩

Stance Crap and Authorial Intent.

I’m going to say something very unpopular. Ready?

Actor stance and Author Stance are different names for what are two streams of the same authorial act and only really exist to explain and define each other. They are NOT different things.

OK. Disclaimer time. I am talking the only way that anybody can with any degree of certainty: out the framework of my own experience. While my experience is varied and diverse, it is decidedly west of the pond. I know that there are freeform LARPers and experimental gamers that will fight me tooth and nail on this – and perhaps rightly so. I’m willing to admit that I don’t know what that is like and so can not really test the idea. I let y’all fight it out among yourselves.

With that in mind, I think this is the way, and the only way that Actor stance exists: In an old 7th Sea campaign. I had a character Livia who had fallen in love with two different men. She was extremely conflicted about it, and when it came down to having to make a decision, had a terrible time choosing between them. All the while, I as a player, knew that she was going to end up with Fortuno, because damn it, he’s one mofo sexy rogue, and me? I’m a complete sucker for a mofo sexy rogue. The latter is, of course my author stance and the former my actor stance.

That statement up there about Livia feeling conflicted is something that I have made up, because the character is fictional. I’ve come to the statement through a very different process than the statement about the mofo sexy rogue, but it’s still something that I have constructed, made decisions about and chosen. Giving it the name Actor Stance only helps delineate it as a parallel thought process that is occurring in my head beside the one about the sexy mofo rogue. The terms “Actor Stance” and “Author Stance” is a tool that helps me clarify to the listener that I feel or think two divisive things about one situation.

Now, say in the same situation, I did not think or feel two divisive things. Say, Livia, my character was just as clear about choosing of Fortuno at the time as I, Mo, was about what she should do. Then the terms “Actor Stance” and Author Stance” is used, again, as a tool to illustrate something: of course being that there is no disparity between the thought processes

The problem arises when we talk about Actor Stance and Author Stance as if they are not related, or as not products of one single source (my brain). Actor Stance does not exist separately from me, it is a product of me, just like Author Stance is. If I talk about what Livia thinks as if it is divorced from my self, then I am creating a fallacy. I created the character, I have made choices about the way she has pushed and pulled on the world and about how these events have changed her. I own her, and her process is a part of me.

Still with me, even if you do or don’t like it? Good… I’m going somewhere.

There’s an old argument that’s been going on between Nar GM’s and Players that have come to Nar games (particularly Immersionists), that says that the Players don’t Author, and that is destructive to the story. The converse is often thrown back that Nar games destroy the immersion process (or socket character enjoyment ) by either demanding authorship and bring the immersionist out of the immersive seat or meddling with the “integrity” of the character. Neither of these statements is necessarily true.

Here’s the situation:

It’s a super heroes game. The Player has expressed a strong, Author Stance desire to meet Superman, but has never expressed such a desire in Actor Stance. The GM is putting the opportunity on the table.

GM: OK, So you hear that Superman is in Metropolis.
Player: OK.
GM: Are you going to go?
Player: No.
GM: But you want to see him meet Superman, right?
Player: Yeah, but John has no reason to go to Metropolis.
GM: Come on, just make him go. You never author your character!!

Everybody’s frustrated.

Here’s what’s happening. There are three Author Stance statements that the Player is saying. Only one is articulated in a way the GM is understanding.

1.) I think it would be cool for the character to meet Superman, (for whatever reason) and I would like that to happen. The GM has obviously heard this quite clearly.
2.) It is important to me for the character to feel “organic”, or play naturally. This may have been an articulated statement at one time, but it’s not clear to the GM at the moment, or is not valued by the GM at all.
3.) Because of 2, I need you to give me reason in game to go and fulfill my desire.

There are also a few things the player is misunderstanding:

1.) “Authoring your character” in this case has relatively little to do with authoring or with author stance. The player has authored, and employed author stance by declaring a desire to meet Superman. What the GM is actually saying is: “It’s not my job to change your Actor Stance to meet your Author Stance. This is a Narrativist Game. Employ your Director Stance to insert a reason to go to Metropolis.
2.) In many games, the “organic” declaration is stated frequently by the Player, but is not heard by the GM as an Authoring Statement. Instead it’s heard best as a statement of enjoyment of the game, at worst, an episode of MyGuyism. All too frequently it’s just ignored, which makes the player feel like the statement has been made and accepted, and therefore should be respected.

How do you fix it? Social Contract of course. If there is a strong, crystal clear directive at the beginning of the game, everyone has expectations down: “There may be times for you in the game to change the way your character thinks or feels or acts for the good of the story. If that situation arises you are responsible to change those things in a direction more friendly to the game, and to find your own means of accomplishing this, either by simply changing your character’s mind or by employing your Director Stance in a way that is acceptable to the GM.” Players with any experience in trad games at all have been enculturated to:

1.) Express all desires in Actor Stance,
2.) Abandon any hope of control over the setting,
3.) Just enjoy the ride via the character and
4.) STFU Newb, I’m the GM.

Therefore, if the social contract does not expressly re-negotiate it, this will end up as the unexamined default, and everything will run amok..

Up next: Push vs. Pull

Agenda Affirmation

I saw this over on Deep in the Game and thought it was a really useful exercise, so I yoinked it. Thanks Chris!

Social

  • I like it when people approach the game with a commitment to social responsibility.
  • I like it when players make firm emotional commitments to game and allow themselves to move and be moved by the game, by the story, by their characters and/or by each other.
  • I like it when everybody around the table is adult enough, sensitive enough and friendly enough to be able to have games where strong, brutal situations can happen and we can be affect by but not destroyed by the impacts.
  • I like to make falliable characters who can sometimes make bad choices without the other players assuming that I am stupid because I am not making the “correct” strategic choice.
  • I like to make strong opinionated moves in character that say much about my character without the people around the table assuming that the choices my character is making are the choices that I personally believe are right. (Eg. I might have a Dog that believes in capital punishment for capital crimes, and I don’t want the players to assume Mo feels the same way. I know that I am making a statement about religion and capital punishment, but it doesn’t mean that it would be my real life choice because I am not in the situation nor of the religion.)
  • I like to play with folks who I genuinely like out of game too.
  • I like playing with folks who have a similar sense of cultural reference.

Creative

  • I like to have the freedom and support to go *way* outside of the box.
  • I must be able to immerse to fully enjoy any long term game.
  • I must be able to make characters that are dynamic and able to change with the support of the system.
  • I like to explore the psychology of characters.
  • I like powerful conflicted characters that clash head to head with other powerful conflicted characters often with elements of romance, sexuality, politics or strong, unique visions of the world.

Technical

Overall, I’d say I’m pretty Vanilla:

  • I like games that let me learn as we go rather than having to “take a course” up front.
  • I don’t like games that have a lot of modifiers, reference charts or lots of pre-determined or group determined difficulties and conditions.
  • I don’t like to have to fiddle with a lot of crunchy math.
  • I like it when games nest task resolution inside conflict resolution (i.e. Dogs) rather than being all one or all the other.
  • I like being able to throw rules out the window when they impede the dramatic quality of the game.
  • I like optional mechanics that allow me and others in the game to be able to tailor to the style and comfort of individuals at the table. (1000 Stories aims to do this)
  • I am stressed by systems that require me to perform a lot of resource management (e.g. Nobilis, extended contests in Heroquest).
  • I like games that reward players for being socially responsible and supportive to each other.
  • I don’t like hidden target numbers. I especially hate it where death is involved. I like knowing death is on the line and choosing to go there if I want to.
  • I don’t like (what Bankuei refers to as) “bunk choices” (things that look like choices but aren’t really choices at all).
  • I like multiple paths to success.
  • I don’t like mechanics that interfere with the process of play, because they interfere with my ability to immerse.
  • I like my rewards as instant reinforcement (Fan mail in PtA, Hero Points in Truth & Justice, Drama points in Buffy or 7th Sea, Bonus Dice in BtI)

Ephemeral

  • I have real problems with mind control or possession plots that usurp my sense of protagonism. (I.e. Polaris might be OK because I still play my character when she is posessed, but “You are now a Nazi” is not fun for me).
  • I don’t want my personal plot to be in competition with the group’s goal (I often don’t like big group goals anymore). I would like my personal plot to affect the game, but not in a way that undesirably puts me at odds with another player(s) , unless it happens by agreement between the players.
  • I like having rich and colourful settings that serve as backdrops to the story.
  • I do not want to have to keep track of time, logistics, and other Simmy details, especially where they conflict with our ability to concentrate on the story or on character interaction.
  • Although I like strong, dynamic stories, I do not like to push, push, push endlessly towards conclusion. I need to have interludes of reflection and interaction to keep sane and to make a more “literary” sense of pace.
  • I am not so interested in one shots, as they don’t allow me to immerse and so don’t let me plug in and get what I like of game.
  • I HATE when games just die without resolving. I like campaigns long, or mid length, but with good, satisfying conclusions.
  • I really like solo games.
  • I like kewl powers and colourful abilities when they serve to enhance the human drama, and generally lose interest in them when the focus is on them in and of themselves.
  • I can be entirely happy playing real human non-metanormal characters so long as they are set up in a suitably dramatic fashion.
  • I like either a certain degree of fantasy wish fulfillment or strong feelings of dramatic catharsis, and when they come together it rocks my socks.
  • I am fetishistic about character sheets and handouts. I love good art that helps to illustrate characters and places in very visual, beautiful ways. I keep all my character sheets in a binder (a.k.a. “the menagerie”) which has come to look like a gallery of my gaming exploits over the years. I love to draw my characters and the other PC’s or NPC’s in the game. Note: its not that I fetishize the numbers on the sheet. Instead, graphic design, visual image and layout on the sheets is almost like a ritual for me that allows me to express the character on multiple levels. Dogs would still be Dogs in Times New Roman on a stapled pack of 8.5 x 11 white bond, but there’s something between the funky Dog’s coat picture on the front, through the dimestore novel, bibletext-font finished final product that makes it come much more alive to me. Same goes with my character sheets. (If you are interested, look at Amalkau, Ravi, Deja Vu, Eva, Morgan, Katya, or Liz. )

Feel free to comment on mine, or share your own.

Intro to Immersion 101

I’ve been promising an essay on immersion to a bunch of people for a while now, so as much as I hesitate to use any word so formal as “essay”, I guess this is where it starts.

Hrm, OK. Lets start here:

It can be said that:

  • Narrativism requires active rather than passive participation in the process of the game.
  • Narrativism requires enhanced emotional commitment to the story in order to make it powerful.
  • Narrativism requires strong, dynamic, pulsing characters that make strong, dynamic, pulsing choices to make the story out of.

And I find:

  • Immersive players, by nature of their immersion have clearer ideas and often fuller articulation about the wants and needs of their characters, which can lead (with support) to fuller, more dynamic kickers, and choices.
  • They have techniques, which enable them to make strong emotional investments into the game (via their characters).

And yet, much of the theory around Narrativism seems to suggest that immersion is antithetical to Narrativist play. To this I’d like to say: WTF?

I concede that immersive players who create full, cohesive, complete backgrounds in which their stories are already told and there are no choices to be made, or who’s rich internal dialogue never comes out of their heads and into the story do not make good additions to a Nar game. However, I’d go further to posit these behaviors don’t make good additions to any game at all because they are dysfunctional behaviors and are not complementary to any mode of play. Essentially they’re just the immersionist version of turtling.

Does that mean all immersionists will exhibit these behaviors? By no means. Many immersionists will employ the techniques used in Narrativist games to enhance both their immersive play and the story. They will do so consciously, and functionally, and the game will be better for it.

The problem is, that immersion’s a difficult thing to pin down. It’s hard to talk about because it’s an instinctual and emotional process – that by which we find the place that we can most satisfactorily “plug in” emotionally to the game. I don’t think that those who use characters as their emotional “socket” are the only kind of immersionists, but I’ll talk more about that later. For the rest of this entry, I’ll stick with these folks alone. I’ll also show my biases up front: I consider myself a character immersionist, and I believe that we are frequently given a bad rap.

There seems to be this perception out there that all immersionists talk about their relationship to character as if it’s a magical or mystical process that cannot be explained, and that this leads many of the theorists to get exasperated and decide that immersionists simply are obfuscating because object to the analysis of their play. I disagree with this, and I find it rather dismissive.

There’s a reason why so many immersionists express their immersion experiences in mystical terms: the immersion process is in a secular sense, extremely mystical in that the process is enigmatic, obscure, and it often inspires a sense of wonder in the person who experiences it.

I think that this mode of expression means less that “I object to you analyzing my play” and more a statement of one or more of the following:

  1. I don’t necessarily fully understand the process myself
  2. I have major trouble expressing it analytically because it crosses over from the left brain to the right brain, and I have trouble finding language for it.
  3. It feels less authentic and emotionally satisfying to me when I try and force it language around it.
  4. I’m sensitive about because I’m emotionally connected to it and while I don’t object to subjecting it to the process of analysis, I feel like people are frequently dismissive or belittling about the process and I fear that people will dismiss or belittle me for engaging in it.
  5. It’s an emotional process and I’ve been socialized against discussing emotional things.
  6. I’m doing it for dysfunctional reasons and I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m being dysfunctional
  7. I’ve learned to do it not out of choice, because of dysfunctional stimuli and I don’t feel safe talking about it, or I’m dysfunctional about how I do it because of dysfunctional stimuli and I don’t feel safe talking about it.

So, how do we get around that? I don’t know… yet. I do know that I am a character immersionist, I don’t object to analysis of my play, and while I do have a dose of A, a hefty chunk of B and a little bit of D going on, I recognize that games are being created by both myself and others, and if I want those games to support my style of play. In order for that to happen, we need to find a way to get at what it means. So, this post and the posts to follow will be me talking about the bits I’ve figured out or am trying to figure out.

Some of the stuff that I’ll be talking about in later posts:

  • Description of what immersion means for me as a player, how I came to it, why I like it, and some techniques I use while doing it.
  • Different substyles of immersion
  • Immersion and GNS modes
  • Other immersion “sockets”
  • Mechanics that support immersionist play and mechanics that detract from it (specific to Nar games and actual play examples, possibly more)
  • Probably a whole lot of other blather.