Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fuck Stratification

(originally published on Imaginary Funerals, February 12, 2014)

So I keep starting to write my first post for Imaginary Funerals, and I keep coming up against this… thing. I used to talk a lot on my old, and now-defunct blog about immersion. I spent a lot of time and focus on ways to understand and articulate emotional agenda to get play groups through the foreplay of social experience building and into the sweet spot with play. I talked about wanting to diversifying play experience and design… at the time I didn’t consider that the stuff I was talking about was particularly radical. But after a while, from the reaction I was getting, it became clear that it was – because the very notion that there can be a legitimate and inclusive multiplicity of roleplaying experience is a threat to a dominant paradigm that inherits power and legitimacy by policing the way we play.

Back then I was writing because I was seeking community. I wanted collaboration and idea exchange with people interested in building forward with me. I still am – very much – but I’m less naive than I used to be. I understand better now that we – all of us – need our games very badly and that people in general respond to diversification with scarcity fear:

  • If people want to make games for someone not me, there won’t be games for me.
  • If there is no one legitimate game, than what I am doing is not legitimate.
  • I don’t like what you’re doing and I don’t want it to reflect on me – our hobby is already vulnerable.
  • I need a sense that my experience is authentic, please don’t take that away from me.
  • I need to feel like people are with me, and by making radically different things, you are telling me that you are not with me.

I understand those fears. I am not neither mocking them nor trivializing them. If you feel that sense of scarcity, I do not feel that you are weak. In fact, if you do feel it and can recognize, admit and own it, I think you are incredibly powerful and resilient.

But while I too feel scarcity, while I empathize that fear, I don’t buy into the idea that it should stop us from diversifying. Not diversifying just privileges who it is that feels scarcity. And while I think that the emotional response is real, I reject the idea that it is accurate. Making different kinds of games to support different kinds of play and different kinds of people shouldn’t de-legitimize the kinds of play that already exist. It should learn from them and give back to them and in doing so, legitimize them further. In my world building out creates opportunity, potential and community – if we want it to.

So if these ideas are political whether I want them to be or not, let me go all-out political with a god damn manifesto:

  1. Fuck stratification. Make play personal.
  2. Our creative desire is to make a multiplicity of experience and a diversity of play.
  3. We come to make games that fit our needs and desires of play.
  4. We hope that we can play our games enthusiastically and harmoniously beside others engaging enthusiastically with games that fit their needs and desires.
  5. We are happy to cheer on others who are designing games that fit their needs (even where they don’t fit ours) and we hope that they are wildly successful doing so.
  6. We consider our play objectively neither better nor worse than the way others play.
  7. We consider play experience to be both subjective and deeply personal.
  8. We do not assume that difference means dysfunction.
  9. We will not declare other kinds of play wrong by nature.
  10. We only challenge the way others choose to play where there are clear moral or ethical reasons for doing so (e.g. player abuse, social injustice).

If you like to play at cons with kinky mechanics – power to you!
If you like to play fifteen year campaigns in legacy systems and playgroups – power to you!
If you like to larp alone and in the dark – power to you!
If you like to play queer bleed games – power to you!
If you like to dress up and fight with boffer swords in the woods for 15 days straight – power to you!

Whether you stand up or sit down, play for laughs or play for art, in homage or for transgression, in illusion or in transparency, in railroad or distributed freeform, by immersion or from a distance, dress in costume, don’t, or even go naked – if you play what you enjoy and enjoy what you play, POWER TO YOU!

That is all.

Now that thing is taken care of, I can get on to writing knowing you and me are clear with each other.

The Media is the Method (and the Message)

Originally published on Gaming as Women by Mo, August 21, 2013

I like my games long duration, high context, and personally intense. I like to be gut-punched by my interaction with them, explore difficult subjects, experience catharsis and earn my emotional hangovers. I like complex, nuanced and difficult characters, stories and worlds.

And here’s the problem with that: in the last number of years, my gaming group has reorganized it’s priorities – and for good reason! Marriage, kids, careers, diversified hobbies, travelling: we have a lot of things going on in our lives. That’s awesome, but it can also make it hard to carve out a slice of time to be together, even in small groups. It’s even harder to find a slice where everyone is fully awake, and has the kind of focus and energy it takes to make a game that ambitious.

Also, as the availability of my meatspace gamers wanes, the community of awesome folks I discuss games with online (such as my GaW compatriots) has grown, largely because it’s easier to find time to interact asynchronously through social media. As that social community grows, so does my opportunity to game with them in Skype or Hangouts. This is also great, but has it’s own challenges. New folks working together really have to work to earn the right to be ambitious, and that can be especially hard because while technology is great, it’s not as socially facilitative as playing across the table, or down the couch.

So how to cope with this? There’s a million ways I’m sure, but I wanted to talk about one shortcut that my homegame peeps use to get on the same page and in the same headspace quicker: media emulation.

We all already use shortcuts when we game. Rituals are a form of shortcut to emotional preparation. Splatbooks are shortcuts to allowable fictional input, or for norming in character behaviour. Genre emulation (Swashbuckling, Sword and Sandal, High Fantasy) shortcuts us to fictional colour and theme. Media emulation – by which I mean roleplaying via emulation of a particular media (other than just roleplaying) – is a way to shortcut emotional tone, focus and pacing.

One of the most obvious media emulation styles would be cinematic. Many of our broader games use this. When we play in cinematic style, there is an obvious emphasis on visual description. We include descriptions of big vista shots, we sometimes talk about how the camera pans, who the camera follows or where it is focusing to point out what’s important in the scene or the story. We might describe the filter used or lighting on the opening “shot” of a scene to signal an emotional change in tone. We might describe an action moment going into slow motion to draw attention and excitement into a moment of play. In cinematic style, there is also sometimes an expectation that the scenes move at a cinematic pace: meaning that they serve the telling of the story in a cinematic way (appropriate to the genre).

If you want it to really be effective as a shortcut, it’s important to know what genre of cinematic media you’re aiming to emulate. Emulating a Michael Bay movie will mean different things (fast edits, special effects, technicolour, characterization and plot serve the action) than emulating Bergman’s oeuvre (slow transitions, high contrast, monochromatic, setting, music and cinemetography serve the exploration of the theme through observations of the characters) – and neither will be accessible to all players. But the benefit here is that people – especially we as geeks and gamers because of our investment into such things – are generally much better at pointing to media as the kind of experience we want to have rather than having long, drawn out, expectation setting conversations where we it would take time, energy and difficulty to identify and articulate things we want and need in play.

In many games, we emulate graphic novels. Here again is a strong emphasis on visual description and the arc of telling a story package. However graphic novels have many different conventions that cinema does not (as often) employ. Images are isolated and pointed, transitional visuals are absent. The idea of action is important, but the detail of it is not so much. The “gutter” can collapse or expand to indicate the transition of emotional or physical states, 0r transitions in time. The media emulation of graphic novels are particularly well suited to roleplaying as a modular process: you can “pick up” or “put down” the act of emulation as needed to emphasize certain moments, bring kairotic (critical moment in time to character development) emphasis to a character, to overlay an emotional state, or to cut through action or activity that is not important to the players at the table.

For example, in one graphic novel style game we played we used emulation to frame, focus, and skip. In framing, we’d set up the tone, colour and situation of a scene. Once we would get in, play would be more general RPG. Not every action would be described in the graphic novel style. When it was important, we would cut back to emulation – describing panel by panel to focus on an important moment to in play. Eventually we’d return to general play, and when we’d come up against some part of the story that was undesirable to us – like the details of combat . The panels and gutters would allow us to skip over what we didn’t want to play without losing what we did want – the intrinsic affect and effect of strife. Of course, mileage will vary on what’s important to group to group: the bottom line is that the media emulation can be used to draw out things you do like and cut out things you don”t like.

In a one-on-one game, my husband and I have been emulating a serial novella in the genre of a swashbuckling bodice-ripper romance. There we have a lot of description of settings, we describe body language and tone of voice. We have explicit narration of the character’s (especially the focus character’s) internal state. Interpersonal scenes have more attention and combat, while flashy and appropriately awesome in genre style, serves the development of the character – descriptions of combat have less emphasis on the physiology of the fight and more on the impact to emotion, relationship and status. The series is expressly a bildungsroman in the form of a roman-fleuve (we’re lit geeks) meaning that it aims to episodically tell the story of a single protagonist’s life from childhood to full development (in this case, old age – so the novellas have years of gaps between them and focus on specific eras of the character’s life and development.

We’ve also played games as comic books, as anime, as TV sitcom, as TV drama series. We’ve designed and played bits and pieces and whole games based on Reality TV, on playlists, on volumes of poetry. In as much as I usually use media emulation to simplify and shortcut, I also use it to enhance and intensify when I have learned the right to be ambitious. I’d love to try out other media genres too, like radio serials and even photography collections. Where there’s a media, there’s a method to expand, diversify, and shortcut your play. I’d love to hear if and how others do this!

Content on the Margins: How we know what’s in.

Originally published by Mo at Gaming as Women on June 16, 2014

I’ve been having many thoughts recently about stories and gendered (and other marginalized) content, and the practical challenges that groups and individuals face in introducing diversified content to games. While it comes out of a long history of reading and musing and discussions with other Cultural Studies geeks, its recent momentum to get it out of my head and on to Gaming as Women was sparked by (the very smart and articulate) Samara Hayley Steele’s talk Beyond Lords and Ladies at the Living Games Conference in New York City this February, a recent social media discussion that was initiated by GaW’s own Rowan Cota about “the call to adventure”, and after I have just completed a playthrough of Ubisoft’s new video game release Child of Light.

When we come to gaming (or any activity) we come to the table with a framing context. We have a pre-established understanding of what a “game” is and what it does, about what a “story” is and what makes for a good one, and about what behaviour appropriately constitutes the “heroic” or “protagonistic”. This understanding is developed through our lives via a cumulative and learned process. It is influenced by our locality, our community, our media environment, our critical and educational institutions, and very, very strongly through the process of our socialization (in gender and other attributes).

Our understandings are maintained performatively: when we play or even when we talk about games, stories and characters, we create and talk towards the ideas that confirm our understandings, and casually – often unconsciously – reject those that don’t. When gaming with others we are in a constant process of negotiating, cultivating and policing our communal and personal understandings (even if we never have an actual conversation about or can articulate what we think they should be). Social feedback can come as overt and direct policing: “This plot sucks, dude”. However, the majority of feedback is more subtle and subtextual: ideas get picked up by the group’s attention, excitement, or engagement… or they don’t. As communities form and operate, they are in a constant state of reinforcing communal standards of many things, including what a game, a story or a protagonist is and should be.

Some play communities exist in more isolation than others. For instance, some localized groups have been playing the same game for 25 years with each other who might not be engaging with the culture of gaming as part of their hobby: they don’t talk about it online, go to conventions, or really know anybody outside their home group that plays. However, it’s important to note that even groups like this aren’t operating fully in a vacuum; they will watch movies, read books, and have life experiences that will influence their individual understandings and the way their communal standards evolve over time.

Highly cultivated communities like this will likely have strong network of community standards. Standards will be custom-fit to the needs of the community in question (1), they will feel consistent, be more entrenched and will change with greater difficulty. If newcomers come, they will be more likely to be subject to the community’s standards than to be able to use their own. In short, strong community standards are established enough to form a contextual social gravity. That social gravity is also strong enough in the gaming context to override appeals to the standards of society-at-large.

On the other end of the continuum there are play communities which exist in much more open field. Games may be short or long with a continual ebb and flow of different players that have more, but weaker (and even sometime absent) ties in the gaming context. These players intermix across many different types of games and styles. Greater transitional movement also brings a wider network of ties to the wider culture of gaming through conventions, community events, social networks and social media. Less time in play with specific playgroups provide less consensus-making effort resulting in a more diffuse common core understanding of ideas like game, and story and protagonist. This creates a greater propensity to directly use inherited definitions and recreate power structures from dominant culture and mass media as a shortcut to play.(2)

All this is to say a number of things. Every participant’s experience in the game is subject to some kind of (strong or weak, custom or inherited) definitions of what appropriate play, stories, and characters are, and of what they should do and what they are permitted to be. As I move forward, this is the basis in which I’ll be evaluating how marginalized content, especially gendered content) might meet that model and experience challenge and resistance in integration.

(1)This is not intended to imply that standards in an entrenched community will serve all community members equally; the standards we create recreate and reinforce of the power and status dynamics existing within the community. Socially powerful members of a community will have a greater say in legitimizing standards than others.

(2)This reflection about re-creating the dominant paradigm within open systems is sparked by Samara Hayley Steele’s talk at NYC Living Games. Steele was addressing the propensity for players to recreate dominant power structures within the games fiction when playing in an open world. Once the Living Games publications are available, I highly recommend checking it out. On an unrelated note, you should also check out her talk on LARP and Leisure Labor, it is fascinating!

50 books

By way of Eric Weissengruber (thanks Eric!) here’s a link to the Edge compiled list for 50 book reading list for everyone in the game industry.

Never did get to my relief post over the holidays. Consider that this speaks well of my holidays. More when I get around to it.

Café Game Exchange

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

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

Dance me to the end of game.

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

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

Playing at Cons

So Brand and I have signed up for Camp Nerdly, and have every intention of going to Gencon this summer barring, you know, random acts of India or whatnot.

This is where I make my first confession: I’m a con virgin. I’ve not been to a single, solitary one. I was asked, years ago when I was writing for Tribe 8 to come to Conthulhu in Toronto and sit on a panel for Women in the “Industry” but I quickly declined. I’ve never really been big into fandom on that kind of scale, and the excitement of cons was pretty lost on me.

This is where I make my second confession: Cons scare the jebus out of me. Though my self of early 90’s theatre geekiness would be shocked to hear me say this, the truth is that I’m really a big introvert. When I think of a convention hall with milling people everywhere, a bazillion hours of small talk and non stop 24/5 interaction without a quiet, thinky space to retreat to? I get a little woogy. I like me the small nooks and long conversations over dinner, not the frenetic chaos of the con floor. Besides, I used to say, I’m never going to even talk to those people again, so why should I bother?

But then, I started getting into design, and talking to all of you freaks, and started thinking that meeting people would be a very good thing. Also, I started thinking about releasing a game, and about coming out to represent what I’ve produced and this made approaching the idea of going a lot more palatable, even… exciting. But, when Gencon came around last year, I was on the other side of the world, so that turned out not to be so possible.

This is where I make my third confession: I know that one of the things that make you all most happy about going to cons is the games that you get to play together, and I want to feel like that too, but deep down I know that cons produce an atmosphere of play that is pretty antithetical to produce the kind of play I like, or want most, or want to exhibit to others. This is one of the reasons I wanted to go to Nerdly before I go to Gencon.

Nerdly’s got less going on in general: there’s a max of seventy people all there to concentrate on one thing. There won’t be thousands of random people from other fandoms contributing to the chaos at Nerdly. There won’t be shifts of demoing games and working the booth that will inevitably drag out all my best socializing energy before I actually get around to the socializing. There will be things like communal cooking and non-gaming group activities and such that build a better sense of community. People will be there with their partners and their kids, which will foster a better sense of them as whole people. Plus, there’s three days dedicated to just that kind of easy socializing and to games, which means even if I don’t get to play where I normally play, there’s a good chance that I’ll get to play closer to it than I will at Gencon.

And while again, this wasn’t the post I meant to write, this time it’s brought me right to the doorstep of the one I did mean to: Intimacy and the Impassioned Other.

Guess Who’s Back, Back Again?

This is an archived copy of Brand’s Yuhishthira’s Dice post from Sunday, May 21, 2006.

Brand is back, tell a friend.

Ottawa was lovely. Now I’m back, and this is the post in which I’m going to be dealing with a lot of the issues that you noisy monkeys have brought up in the 4 days that I was out of town. You’d think I’d been gone a month, not a piddly little half-week, with the volume of discourse you’ve all been generating. Oy.

So here are my thoughts and responses. It’s long and long, but please actually read the whole damn thing before you start to respond, or else I’m going to get cranky really fast.

Also note that I’m going to be moding conversation on this thread for at least a few days, and limiting comments to specific folks. I don’t want to talk about this as fast as fast can be, I want everyone to actually take some time to think and formulate and feel confident and safe about what they’re saying. The break-neck speed that we use in our discourse on the net is a lovely thing for getting energy up and building networks, but it is lousy, lousy, lousy, for people actually getting to understand what others are saying.

So, here we go:

Push and Pull vs. DitM and DatE

My current thoughts on this one are that Vincent’s takes on DitM and DatE are all good ones, and do relate directly to push and pull and the moment of crisis in a very real way. They are also, for the moment, the parts of push and pull that I want to look at.

However, I don’t think that DitM/DatE is all of push and pull. If you look at the history of the discussion of P/P you’ll see that there are a lot of different levels being looked at. Jess Pease in here 20×20 Room article was looking at them as two possible modes of interaction (out of possibly many) in the greater social sphere. Mo and Chris in their Deep in the Game discussion looked at them as techniques to be used in game in order to move the game in a direction. This is a much narrower definition than Jess’s – but it doesn’t negate Jess’s, it just focuses it down another level. Similarly my moment of crisis was another step down from Mo’s definitions from the Deep in the Game thread. Now Vincent’s ideas about DitM/DatE are the newest narrowing and tightening of scope.

To be specific, at this moment with DitM/DatE we seem to be mostly concerned with technical issues and how those effect game play. P/P did this too, though probably less directly stated, but P/P was also concerned with emotional and social issues and how those effect game play. DitM/DatE hasn’t gotten to talking about that yet. Not that it won’t, in time, but it isn’t yet because we’re just getting started and are looking at the process of how things work. In time we may get to talking about how those processes contribute to the social and emotional resonance of game, but we’re not there yet.

So if you’re looking at DitM/DatE and P/P and saying, “I can see how they’re related but they don’t feel the same” there is a good reason for that – DitM/DatE is just starting to explore on area and figure out how to use it mechanically and technically. That gives talk about it a very different tenor than talk about the whole of P/P and the emotional investment/social construction angle. So if your intuitive objections come down to “well, maybe, but I don’t think it feels the same” then you could well be right. It doesn’t feel the same because it isn’t 100% the same discussion, its an exploration of a new direction that came out of the old discussion.

So it is very likely that there will be much more to talk about with regards to P/P than the DitM/DatE discussion. However, for now I want to table that so that we can focus on the DitM/DatE line of enquiry and work it out and figure out how to use it in play and design to maximum potential. Once we’ve gotten somewhere with that, then we can come back and look at other issues under the bigger umbrella as seems useful or fun. I will talk about why this is causing some disconnect later in this essay, but I don’t want that to be the point – I’m just going to offer it up in way of explanation under the Digression header below. That’s just to see if I can’t help people get on the same page, and not because I want to get back into the whole issue of what P/P are and every nuance of their being.

Seriously, I mean it. Especially because a lot of people seem to get it intuitively, and just have trouble talking about it. I’m really hoping that when they start seeing some technical system issues that gradually build into social and emotional agenda issues they’ll be able to start putting names to their intuition. (Though even if they can’t, I’m not too worried. I’ve talked with several people already who, though they have a hard time isolating if “this specific little nit here” is push or pull or ItM/AtE already know the basic ways of using it in game, and that’s fully cool. It’s only really the hard-core designers who need to know huge amounts more than that.)

Also, I’d like to note that I’ve been talking about what Push and Pull are for six months now, and like Mo I’m healthily tired of the endless talk about “if this particular close to the line example is push or if it’s pull and what are push and pull anyway.” I want to move on now and start looking at things they do in game and how to use them, and DitM/DatE is something that does just that. Maybe as this develops the new angles we figure out and the new games that come out of it will help people twig to the rest in time. (Like how I didn’t really get Nar until I played Dust Devils and went “OMG!”) Maybe it will lead to something completely new. Either way its something cool that came out of the conversation, and I’d like to be able to talk about it rather than the same things for another 6 months.

So, on with DitM/DatE and the issue of resolution.

Resolution, you tricky bastard

We all know what resolution means, right? Well good, because I don’t. Or that is, I thought I did until Vincent and Ben exploded my head. Now, in terms of this whole issue and things Ben and Vincent have been talking about, I’ve been forced to reconsider some things.

To explain why, lets look at some issues, shall we? Won’t that be fun?

The Stakes Example

In stakes resolution you resolve a conflict by setting up stakes and then using a method of resolution (usually framed as fortune – the dice) to decide what happens from those stakes. So you make stakes about an issue, you consult the oracle, and you get a resolution.

Example: If Jon makes this roll then Mo will write commentary for his new magazine. If Jon fails the roll then Mo will never speak to him again.

Seems simple enough, right? We’ve got stakes, and now we’re heading towards resolution.

But, um, from where did we get those stakes? Did they magically appear out of the air? Did Jon say them, in exactly that manner? Did Mo? Did Jon say what he gets if he wins and Mo say what she gets if Jon loses? Did I, the GM in this little drama, get to modify either or both of their statements? Did the other people in the group? Did Jon start off by saying, “If I win you’ll co-write When the Forms Exhaust the Variety with me” and then get negotiated down to the commentary angle? Did Mo start off by saying “If I win, I’ll kill you, you bastard” and then get negotiated down to just not speaking to him again if she wins?

Here’s the thing: by the time we get to resolving the stakes, we’ve already had to resolve something – the stakes themselves. We’ve had to, as a group, come up with what we want the stakes we’re going to resolve to be. Some games may give one person the authority to just say the stakes and have them stick. In some games the whole group may have to agree that the stakes are good, and even non-participating parties can mess with them. The way we, as a group, get down to actually making the final stakes for the stakes resolution is, in itself, a resolution.

Judd has often come onto stakes and conflict resolution threads and given good advice. One of the best pieces is to make stakes that lead to goodness if they are won or if they are lost. In this view the group should set it up so that if Mo comments or if Mo never speaks to Jon again it will drive the story forward. Is it just me, or does it sounds like using group Drama resolution at the social level to set the stakes? If that’s true, by the time we’re whipping out the fortune to say if Mo is going to speak to Jonathan again or not, we’ve already used Drama resolution to set up stakes that we find interesting.

If I, as GM, had the ability to set those stakes myself and no one else could say anything once they were set, is that DatE of the issue of setting stakes? If I could suggest stakes (or others could) but the final stakes didn’t get set until we all agreed what was most dramatic and fitting, is that DitM of setting stakes? By the time we get to resolving what’s going on in the fiction, haven’t we already had to have some resolution at a meta-level?

The IIEE Example

Okay, the thing is not all games use stakes resolution, especially not in the way I was talking about above. (Polaris doesn’t even come close, for an easy example.) But what about IIEE? Oh that lovely IIEE. It will make our lives in this discussion even more fun and interesting.

Vincent recently talked about IIEE and how it relates to ItM/AtE, and said, “IIEE is about what happens in the fiction, ItM/AtE is what the players actually do at the table.” That is true, and I do not dispute that. What I will say is that the matrix of how they work together can be a lot more complicated than one ItM/AtE exchange determining the whole IIEE.

We all know that a game can have separate steps for resolving different parts of IIEE. The classic example is rolling to hit and rolling to damage in D&D.; You roll to hit to see if you can execute the “I hit him” action, and roll to damage to see how much effect it has. You can succeed or fail at either step along the way. That’s a nice easy example.

The thing is, once you get into it, the examples don’t stay easy for long. That’s because at each stage of IIEE you can have a different resolution for that stage, depending on the system of your game. So, you could do something like this (using one, multiple, or all of these for check points for blocking/rollback/authority):

Intent: You get to say what your intent is, once you’ve said it no one else has anything to say. That’s Push/At the End.

Initiation: You have to negotiate with someone else to actually start the action, even when you’ve said you’re starting, other people can still modify it or cancel it by choosing not to buy-in. That’s Pull/In the Middle.

Execution: Once you’ve started it, you may then have the ability to say how it goes until it hits the moment of effect. Your narration is thus Push/At the End.

Effect: You could then have to stop and negotiate with others to see, now that the action is done, what the effects of its completion are. That’s back to Pull/In the Middle.

To make it worse, you may be able to use different types of resolution as well. You could use (probably normally do, in fact) Drama to determine the intent, karma to determine the initiation, fortune to determine the execution, and drama again to determine the effect. Like this:

Intent: You roll against a chart to see what the NPC’s intent is (fortune)

Initiation: You have them go about that intent in a way that seems the most likely to cause conflict (drama)

Execution: You play cards against the PCs to see if the NPC can do what they want (fortune)

Effect: Having succeeded or failed at your execution, you now narrate what happens based on how well you think the others responded to your challenge (karma)

At this point we’re starting to make a matrix, a big list of choices for things that can be combined and recombined to make that process of working through IIEE work very differently in different systems. Who has authority at which level of IIEE to say what? Is their say the end of it, or only the start of the negotiation? When do they use dice? When do they use drama? At what point is it even an issue? You can make a game, I’m sure, that always goes right to effect. (I don’t know if it would be a fun game, but I didn’t claim that either.) At that point things get simpler, but not necessarily for the best.

In Nine Worlds, for example, you use drama to set up your stakes and intents and then (depending on how you have framed it) use fortune to determine who has narration rights, and then that person gets to use DatE to determine initiation, execution, and effect. (Though I’ve noticed that most NW’s APs I’ve seen never have the narrator stop the initiation of the other person’s effort – they just stop them before they get their desired effect. It’s an interesting social gambit, don’t you think?)

OTOH, in Sorcerer you frame up your intent dramatically, roll the dice and start playing to see if you ever get to execute (Ron’s talk about how in Sorcerer you may not get to have an action every round goes here – we assume that we should get an attempt to execute every pass, but that isn’t how all games work), and after the dice are done use part mechanics (damage, currency, etc) and part narration to decide what the dice actually mean in terms of effect.

Then, combine that with the stakes issue from up above, and you start getting a “resolution tree” rather than a simple resolution. Every time we go about resolving something in game, we’re really resolving a whole host of tightly interconnected issues.

(Also, it’s probably worth noting the ways in which Intent and Stakes framing work together, but that’s a different issue.)

So, um, when are things actually resolved?

So, if you have a resolution for stakes, or a resolution for II that then leads into another resolution for E and then another for the E after it, and one of them is something in the middle and two of them are something at the end, when the hell does something actually happen?

Well, lets look at Polaris. With Polaris you can get into a scene without specific preset stakes (in fact, you usually will), have people go back and forth in multiple turns of adding, modifying, negating, and doing things in the middle. Some things will get resolved as you go – a big stack of “but only ifs” for example, may all come to pass in the fiction when someone else pulls an “and furthermore.” But even then the resolution of the whole conflict isn’t over until you hit an end phrase. When that end phrase comes up, you get your final resolution. Be this fortune at the end (“It Shall Not Come To Pass”) or Drama at the end (“And that Was How It Happened’) you know you’ve hit the end and the whole unit of conflict is resolved because you’ve gotten your end phrase.

I think there are probably invisible end phrases at the end of a lot of resolution trees. Much as it can be confusing to think about the multiple levels of resolution that may go into deciding a conflict, we all know when we get to the end – it’s when the thing at hand is finally decided. Once the conflict has been staged, with all the resolutions needed to stage it, and then acted out, with all those resolutions, and then finalized, with all those resolutions – you’re done. Now lather, rinse, repeat.

Okay, so how can pushing me off a roof be pull?

One of the issues I’ve seen brought up over and over is how can something like “I push you off the roof” be pull? Isn’t it something that demands a response?

The answer is, and I want you all to say this out loud, IT DEPENDS ON THE SOCIAL SITUATION AT THE TABLE WHEN THE STATEMENT IS MADE.

Okay, maybe I need to calm down and stop shouting. Let me back up here and address something that a lot of people have been having issues with, and see if I can clarify it in a very brief way. In communication theory one of the very basic models of how communication works is that you say something, the other person hears something, and the aggregate of those things is the communication. So if you say something meaning “Come to dinner on Friday” and I hear “come to dinner on Friday” then the communication was “come to dinner on Friday.” But if you say something meaning “Come to dinner on Friday” and I hear “Come to lunch tomorrow” then the communication is a mess of signals that involves you and me having an indeterminate meal at an indeterminate time. It’s the thing in between the intent of the speaker and the perception of the listener that is where communication happens (or doesn’t happen).

Push and pull work much the same way, they take up the middle space between what you intend to do and what the other person thinks you are doing. You can intend to push, and if I know that you’re pushing then the push can go through. You can intend to pull, and if I know you’re pulling, then the pull can go through. But if you go to push, I think it’s a pull, and start treating it like something to be negotiated over, we’ve gone into muddle land. Most of the time this probably gets resolved by whoever has the better ability to argue/coerce/convince/plead coercing the interaction into the type they wanted it to be. So you could intend to push, I could intend to pull, and we could end up pulling or pushing depending on who gets their way in the end. (We’ll also probably both be unhappy.) Thus if you’re my GM and say “It’s raining” and mean “I am saying it is raining, that is said and done don’t argue” and I say, “It would be better if it is clear and sunny” and mean “I want to modify what you said because I think you want my input now” then we get into issues. If you force it over me anyway, then it stays pull. If I get you to mod it, then your push got subverted. As with communication it’s the thing in the middle, the thing we end up communicating, that is where push and pull sit.

Luckily for us this does hook up with the resolution theory pretty well. If you think that you’re getting to do DatE and say something, and I think that you’re going to DitM and try to mod what you’ve just said… we end up with issues. If we have a good social contract and/or explicit system to fall back on then we can use that system to figure out what we are doing and why. If we don’t, we’ll end up in the same muddle as above – with the one of us that can finagle the best getting it out over the other guy. Knowing what you are doing, what the other person is doing, and who has rights to do which is thus key to keeping things flowing smoothly. So at that level being able to have system/social contract that says “we can push/DatE in situations t, u, and v; but must pull/DitM at situations w, x, and y” is just making sure we’re on the same page and doing the same thing so we have fewer miscommunications and abuses of those miscommunications.

Thus all the confusion over “is it push or pull because I say it or because the other person perceives it” is missing the point. It is both, and neither. What you intend matters, what they perceive matters, but what the social dynamic/resolution method of the game ends up actually being because of the fusion of intent/reception/and social force is what determines if it was a push or a pull.

So, given everything I’ve said above, lets consider a game where you cannot even finalize your character’s intent (first I in IIEE) until you have the approval of other players AND everyone at the table knows that explicitly. At that point we’ve got an In the Middle for resolving Intent. You say, “I push you off the roof.” But, every single one of us at the table knows that you aren’t doing any such thing. In fact, what you’re really saying is, “Can my character want to push yours off the roof?” Because until you’re done with the system for resolving intent, you haven’t even gotten the authority to want to do anything ICly yet. You don’t have authority to push me off the roof, or even have you character want to push me off the roof, until I’ve bought into it or had a say about it. Because you have to get my buy in before it happens, then it must be….

I chose this example on purpose, because most of us are used to games in which our intents, and the intents of our characters, are fully under our authority. Much as someone may be able to stop us from executing the push over the roof, they can’t stop us from saying that our character wants to. But, if even intent is something that must be done ITM, then you can’t even form an intent as a final action until after others have had a shot at it.

OTOH, if you have the authority to say “My character wants to push your character off the roof” then you’ve made a push/ATE at the intent level. Once you’ve said that is what your character wants, there ain’t nothing I can do about it. However, even then we now know that is only one part, and that it can still get turned into a pull/ITM at the Initiation level with any number of responses.


However, I think that here we also are seeing another issue with the current discussion and why people have a hard time seeing the connection between P/P and DitM/DatE – because one dealt with a lot of issues, including the emotional resonance of the action, and the other is focusing very specifically on the systemic expression of the resolution. To put it in bastardized Forgese, DitM/DatE are dealing with things at the level of technical agenda and large parts of P/P were dealing with things at the level of social/emotional agenda. However, the two overlap heavily (especially in the P/P arena where they weren’t clearly defined), and one leads into the other.

So, despite the fact that the “I push you off the roof” in the above example is clearly something you have to buy into before it can happen, it feels very forceful to someone who is used to playing under a different social situation than the one described above. Because of that people want to “pad” the issue because they want to use a method of resolution that gives a certain emotional resonance. For example, the second example above can lead to a much different game than the first because in one you still have to deal with the fact that another PC wants to kill you. In the first you don’t. OTOH, it may help some people if the first was phrased as a question rather than a statement, even though (and let me emphasize this part) phrasing it as a question does not change the logical or technical structure of the statement, it can change the emotional or social structure of it.

I’ve seen this happen over and over in getting abused players from illusionist games to open up to Nar. They will take everything you do DitM/FitM/pull/whatever in whatever to be a big pushy DatE that only the GM can use. When the GM says something, that’s law. The GM is always right, and always has final word, and very often his first word is the final word. So people get a certain social/emotional habit towards game and when they move to games where they have rights and can use DitM or even DatE themselves they still feel like they’re being pushed and don’t have the right to push themselves. A lot of us drive ourselves nuts trying to figure out why they won’t use the rules to let them do what they can do – but the reason is really pretty obvious: we haven’t given them the emotional ability to deal with what they want to do yet. Part of that may well be their own bad past experience, but part of it may also be the way we frame things and the way the game feels. In a very real way that confidence doesn’t come from what you can and can’t do by the rules, it comes from what you feel you can and can’t do under the rules.

And now that I’ve brought up that issue, I’m going to table it for the moment. I do think we very much need to talk about how to use itM/atE and such to make people feel confident in the game, and all that other stuff that Mo was pointing towards with P/P – but I also don’t want to do it until we have some more development of how the rules would work to structure play. Once we’re to a point where we can talk about different modes of structure, we can talk about how those modes support different social agendas. (Funny, isn’t it, how much we talk about creative and technical agenda and how rarely we have discussions of the same depth about social or emotional agendas?)

So, I promise we’ll get back to that. Social and emotional agenda are important. Anyone that thinks otherwise is being silly. I just want to have some more detail and surety on the whole DitM/DatE before we get there. Okay?

end digression

Right, so back to discussing the structure of resolution, where we’ll stay until we get to the point were we’re solid enough with mechanics and systems and how they’re actually working to get back to the discussion on how they effect social and emotional agendas.

So The Thing Is

I think some of us have gotten used to thinking of resolution in terms of “conflict resolution” – which is a good thing in some ways. We should be able to resolve conflicts, and have coherent systems for so doing. But, we can’t overlook the fact that resolving a conflict is made up of a series of smaller resolutions. Many times we overlook those because they are assumed, or because someone has the authority to just make them happen. Things like framing intent, for example, aren’t often thought of in terms of resolution because in most trad games you have the authority to frame your character’s intent however you want. But if you acknowledge that in some game somewhere you could have to negotiate with others to even frame your intent, you realize that there is, in fact a choice there, and that choice is actually resolving something.

From that point, you have to play and design to make a resolution that gives you what you want out of the game. If you don’t want people to be endlessly figuring out what their intent is, make it so they have authority over it. If you want people to have to work together from the first moment, however, make that intent framing something that happens in the middle.

Now I’m sure you all have many questions. Good. For now, however, I only want comments from Vincent, and Mo so that they can tell me all the errors I’ve made, and we can work this out. From there I’ll open up a thread where others can comment. I may do this in waves, adding a few new people to comment each time, so that the thread can get multiple input without getting drowned in the competing (and not really listening) voices that tend to crush so many threads in the cold, nasty world of the net.

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.



Brand and I have had our hotel booked since February, and although the reasons that we were planning on going have changed (Suryamaya will not be released but Crime and Punishment came into being and will) we were both totally hyped about going. Since Jonathan asked what my plans were around boothing it, I’ve been a flurry of emails with what seemed like the whole world about the ins, outs and upside downs about Gencon distributing.

I’d like to thank Jonathan Walton, Ben Lehman, Emily Care Boss, Ron Edwards, Luke Crane and Brennan Taylor for all of their help, advice and encouragement over the last week. It’s made me very excited about the release of Crime & Punishment, and very happy about the coming of Gencon.

Which is why this is so dissappointing. 🙁

I regret to say that Brand and I will not be able to go to Gencon this year. Life has taken a strange and wonderful turn and we will likely not even be in the country at that time. I can’t really discuss the details of what’s going on as of yet, but suffice to say, our plans for Gencon have been well, and truely scratched.

That said, I still plan to release Crime and Punishment in time for Gencon, and hope to have it distributed in my absence, though I haven’t figured that one out quite yet.

And for all those folks that Brand and I promised games and drinks and strange times to? Well, you’ll have to go back next year to collect, because we will be there with bells on.