Category Archives: Uncategorized

Brand Pushes and Pulls and Blows Himself Down

This is an archive of Brand’s Brand Pushes and Pulls and Blows Himself Down from Yughisthira’s Dice January 6, 2006.

Okay, there’s been lots of discussion since Mo first started talking about push and pull. I’m going to try to put my thoughts on it in here, after talking with Mo and running this post by her, to deal with some of the confusion that’s come out of the mingled enthusiasm and misunderstanding that’s come from the posts. Sometime in the next few days Mo should be doing a companion post to this one that talks about push/pull in actual play that we’ve done or seen, which gives the practical grounding to this otherwise aetheric bit of jabber.

First, let me say that a lot happened with push/pull in a very short time. Mo started talking about it in terms of social dynamics: the way that players approach the process of making decisions in game. It then quickly morphed to become partly about techniques, ephemera, and ideas around how this may be codified in game and the ways in which games may have already mechanically reinforced one or the other. Some people hooked onto the social angle, some to the ephemera, some to the mechanics and some to he theoretical possibilities. So when they all started talking to each other there was a lot of miscommunication because they weren’t all talking about the same thing anymore. Maybe I can take a small step towards fixing that.

To start with the social level, which has to come before the mathematical game theory level in my brain because that’s the way the discussion started, let’s look at Mo’s comment about “a space to fall into,” as it has become pretty infamous. That one is an interesting social/rhetorical bit, and not one I see a lot of mechanics to point at in terms of providing clear examples. That one more has to do with the way that the person at the table is working with others in order to get their desired response. So, let me try to elucidate in terms of rhetorical strategies.

When you are in a debate, or giving a speech, the commonest method of getting your point across is to build your fortress of logic, maintain it against assault, and then wear down the opposition before you to drive your final point home and win the duel of wits. You point out the gap in their reasoning, and then fill it in with your superior logic. (Or just superior ability to manipulate through words, but lets assume some honesty for now.)

When you are a teacher, a parent, or someone trying to Rorschach someone else, however, there is another common method. You build your fortress of logic, move it forward to the point that it fascinated the other person, and then before you reach the final point you pull back and let them reach the final point all on their own. This is the stereotypical “So you know if A is B, and B is C, and C is a dog….” A moment passes, a grin “Then A is a Dog too!”

That first one is a push, you overwhelm their argument. That second one is a pull, you create a space and let the other person overwhelm themselves. Obviously sometimes one technique works better than another (you rarely change an entrenched opinion with the second, but it is far easier to build process understanding with the second than the first). That is what Mo was talking about, more or less, with the gap. You do still build something, you do still put ideas forward, but in the end you let the other person decide if they are going to buy into those ideas or not.

Now, at the start of the conversation the reason this is at a different level than mathematical game theory is that we are, for the nonce at least, talking about social dynamics that go outside the normal role of mathematical game theory. Let us take, for one moment, the prisoner’s dilemma. Those of you who know the logical structure will know that it does a very good job of describing the logical choices that the prisoners have to make. It lets you know what the strengths and weakness of each position are. It also doesn’t tell us a lot about why emotional human beings in real life chose as they do. We’ve all watched Law and Order, right? How often do the confessions have to do with the logical structure of “if I squeal and he doesn’t” and how often with “I’m gonna screw the bastard because he was screwing my wife” or something similar? Push and pull were not, initially, looking at the moves of the game in logical sequence – they are looking at the motives behind, and the methods around, ways of gaining and using influence.

There is a real way in which, when discussing P&P; I’m reminded of something that Ron (I think) said about looking at the script of a finished game and trying to say if it was G, N, or S. Basically, he said that you couldn’t. Because GNS doesn’t have to do with if a story is told or not, it has to do with who got to say what, when, and why. So if you’re looking at the finished product, you’re looking in the wrong place. Same deal with push and pull – if you’re looking at a lot of statements after they have happened it can be really hard to tell if they are push or pull, because you have to watch the dynamics of it as they are ongoing. It isn’t so much about the result as it is about the power dynamics between the human beings that lead to that result.

So when on anyway Tony LB said that you couldn’t look at chess and say which move was push and which was pull that is because, by the rules at least, there is little pull in chess. You can bait someone in, but that’s just so you can spring on them and overwhelm them in the end. The point of chess is to push. The game theory of RPGs, however, is a little more complicated by the mix of modes and the interactions of people, stories, and power discourses. Even then you can push and pull outside the realm of game theory, in the social sphere (Illusionist GMs who are good at keeping the PCs from knowing they’re on the railroads are really good at it) – but with those understandings I think we can look towards some mechanics that may reinforce push and/or pull as viable ways to play the game.

Lets take a simple case at the mechanical level: Dust Devils vs Breaking the Ice. Both are very fine games, and both could not rock harder. I say this to dispell any lingering misconceptions that anyone is saying that pull is better than push or any such silly thing. Both are good, both have their place. They just are different ways to move things, is all.

In Breaking the Ice, you want Kate to love you. To do this you must convince Kate’s player that you’re doing cool things. You have no way of forcing Kate to love you. You have no way of forcing Kate’s player to give you bonus dice, or re-rolls. And yet you need those bonus dice and re-rolls, so you have to do things that please Kate’s player. You have to entice him to give you dice by doing things that please him. Similarly, Kate’s player cannot force you to do anything. He can suggest, he can entice, he can bribe you with dice — but in the end its all bribes and enticement.

The kick in the head about Breaking the Ice is that even if you entice each others dice out, you may still not have Kate fall in love with you. That is because in BtI the push all comes from the system. There are a limited number of dice, and a limited number of rolls. So even if you work it, you may fail in your mutual goal. That’s where the tension comes from. But both players pull all the way through. Neither gets to force anything on anyone at any time.

Now, otoh, in Dust Devils, you want Kate to love you. You start a conflict with the stakes “Kate falls in love with me.” If you win that conflict Kate falls in love with you. If you get high card, you get to say how Kate falls in love with you. This is push. You see what you want, you get it. (Or don’t get it, based on how the game goes.) By the rules the GM may or may not be able to refuse the conflict on its face, but once it starts (is accepted) he who wins, wins. If you push your system and take the stakes, regardless of what the others may want you to do, you can happily have Kate love you. You don’t have to entice points out of the GM, you don’t have to work to gain his approval. You pushed, you won, you get.

Now, there are obviously going to be social contract issues that mess with this. There are ways of others at the table pulling you back (or pushing you back), socially. There are also probably social pulls around the table where people sweet talk you into the ways you do and don’t handle your narrations (or social pushes, for that matter…). However, in the absence of a problem, you push, you win, you get.

So, in terms of mechanics working on their faces, there it is. At the grossest level of mechanics, pull means you have to bribe, entice, sweet talk, and lead someone by the nose to get them to where you want them. Push means you can bowl them over and take what you want, if you can win it. We already have lots of push mechanics, and people are starting to work on some nifty bribery based mechanics (like here and here) that show some of the possibilities for pull as bribery — you can tempt, you can build holes and step back, but you can’t force and take.

Now, I am certain that there are more subtle levels of push and pull – but the difference between gaining narration rights over someone else’s character, and bribing the player of that character to do what you’d like to see are at least a step towards the differentiation. It’s harder to do that “open a space” thing with mechanics, as of yet, because… well, because I’m not quick enough to think up a way to do it. I’ll bet money that it can be done though.

Now, to turn to that enigma which is Capes. A push game. A pull game. A pully pushy game. Tony LB is demented, and a genius, and this game makes use of both pull and push, at different levels, at almost the same time. The cycle of the game seems to be, after watching the flash demo, to go something like this.

You start with mechanical push: introduce a conflict that changes play at least until it is resolved, and which will change play more after it is resolved. It is a push because the simple act of introducing a conflict does change the flow and course of the game, and you can see your chance and take it without getting permission or help from anyone else. However, the first part makes it a weak push, at best, because nothing has been resolved yet. The second, however, is the iron hand in the velvet glove – and is very important to the next step.

(In the flash demo this is shown as a push most clearly by Claire introducing the “Vindicator and Claw Fight” – by doing this Claire has already interjected her will into game by making sure that there cannot be a fight until the conflict is done. That was a push, as I see it, because it has already changed the flow of the game. If she had done a different conflict, the game could have gone to the fight as a conflict. But now it must happen differently, and Claire did not have to by your leave to get it.)

At the same time as you are introducing your subtle mechanical push, you need to match it with a social pull. That is to say, as Tony tells us over and over, you need to introduce conflicts that the other players will care about enough to contest. You can maybe win something that nobody cares about over in the corner if you want to – and if it is important enough to you, that option is open. However, if you want to get significant resources from the event you have to pull the others in at their social level, by grabbing the things they care about and dangling them over that open space, so that they fall in. This is, I must note, a particularly brutal way to pull (a pull with big spikes and fangs and shit), but it really does seem to be pull based.

Next, there is a mechanical tug of war (mostly pushed based, using the system to enforce your will) over who gets control that ends when one player wins the conflict. They then get to narrate the resolution. Pretty clearly push again – you won by forcing the mechanics to support you, now you take what you won. This is often a much stronger push than that at the start of the conflict, and goes to the Dust Devil’s model above.

So, in this model I see Capes as being very judo. There are several throws in judo in which you start with a moderate push, and when the opponent responds to readjust their balance, you use that energy to take them down. If you then kicked them on the way down, you’d have something like what Capes does. In the end push is more mechanically enforced, but if you can’t play the social pull game you won’t do as well. Without both the mechanical push and social pull elements, Capes would be half the game it is.

Now, MarkW also brought up some good issues about Proposing and Judging, and some worries about how P&P; fits into that category. He felt that if you pull you refuse to propose, and judge instead. This, however, is not always the case. In push or pull you can defer and renegotiate who is proposing and who is judging as you go – it doesn’t have to do with one or the other, so much as it has to do with how you deal with one or the other. For this example I’m going to use Polaris.

You’ve entered conflict in Polaris, and someone proposes “And then she falls in love with me.” This, in Polaris can be met with judgment (either acceptance, or “This Shall Not Come To Pass” or other key phrases). However, it can also be met by another proposal. “But only if it turns out that she is your sister.” In that case I find “But Only If” to be a bit pull mechanism – you accept what they say, but hang that acceptance over the hole of “if this thing that I want too” and so use their initial proposal as an enticement. The initial proposer can then judge that statement, or propose back, and so the cycle goes.

Eventually someone will hit a judgment point, or a push phrase, and the whole cycle will get judged and decided. In this context “It Shall Not Come to Pass” is probably the strongest push in the game, as it sends it to dice. If you do it at the right time and win, you see it, you want it, you win it, you take it. The whole cycle of proposal and judgment then becomes like footwork and body position in aikido, something that works on multiple levels and with more than one possible direction.

It isn’t as simple as “every time there must be one propose and the other person must be the judge” and so there is no need for the puller to refuse to propose, or to ever judge (though they can also do both, propose and judge, judge and propose, propose and propose and judge and propose…). You don’t refuse to engage in propose and judge by pulling, because Polaris lets the cycle work round and round in footwork until the final blow is struck.*

P.S. A note, thanks to alephnul, it is also possible to, in a more simple setup, just read a pull as a counter proposal with pre-acceptance. That is, something is on the table, the puller proposes that the other person fill the void, with the understanding that the new proposal is accepted. Thus when you pull in this mode you give something, and the other person does not have to push in response because there is no resistance to overcome. Essentially the pattern becomes “I love someone, tell me who it is” (proposal, judgement already made that your response will be accepted), “Well, it’s Kate!” (proposal, accepted on its face because the judgement that it was good enough was made before it was said).

When used in that way pull requires a lot more trust, openness, and vulnerability. It isn’t the only way to use pull, but it is a very strong statement when it is made. That is a pull of a very different kind than the “competetive pull” of Capes, or the coercive pull of a bribery system, and may point the way to a mechanic based “open up a space for them to step into.”

So, that’s four games with mechanics, some social backgrounding, and ideas about bribery and opening holes. What do I need to do next guys and gals?