Tag Archives: sockets

Soaps vs RPGs

Over on LJ, Jim Henley was talking about improv and its proximity to RPG’s and ended up asking me some questions about the improv soaps I used to do a lifetime ago. It made for an interesting brain dump, so I thought I’d post it over here in case y’all found it interesting (edited for format, readability and atrocious grammar).

Jim: It occurs to me that I need to know everything about your soaps. I know you’ve referred to them before, but they seem like a whole extra level of ambition beyond the creation of a play at a time, which is a level of ambition above “let’s make up a skit from scratch.” Some nosey questions that come to mind: Am I correct in inferring continuing characters across episodes?

Mo: Yup, constant characters. The soap would generally run for about 12-16 episodes. Sometimes they were like daytime soaps, sometimes Sci Fi, sometimes horror. When Vampire and Mage came out, we used their source material as a base… before they made them in to LARPS!

Jim: Were these performed for an audience or just within the troupe?

Mo: A faithful, if exceedingly rowdy and badly behaved audience. They would pay every week to see the next installment. Typically shows were late at night following another play (often other plays that some/all of the cast was in!), and had to be flexible enough to work off of whatever set and audience was in the theatre space at the time – which made for some fun challenges. Usually they were on Friday or Sunday nights, but one of them went nightly over the course of the week. In some of the soaps, the audience would shout out instruction or direction that the actors would feel free to take or ignore.

Jim: You had a set scene list to go through in performance? Would that mean that Scene X had to come out a certain way to justify Scene Y, but the actual beats of Scenes X and Y were still improvised? Did plans for scenes ever gang agley? What then?

Mo: We’d come in 1.5 – 2.5 hours prior to the performance, and do a quick physical warm up, then the director would post the scene list. The scene list would be skeletal, kinda like: “SCENE FIVE: X character encounters Y character in Z location. X tells Y this bit of critical information and leaves. Alone on stage, Y determines to do this thing about it.” Yes, often there would be subsequent scenes in the same episode that would directly depend on the outcome of your scene, but sometimes the scene was just for colour too, or set up something for next episode.

Usually scenes were between 1-3 people, thought sometimes we would have larger groups or the whole cast involved. Sometimes it would start with a couple, and one person would leave and another would come in. Each scene would take anywhere between 3 and 10 minutes, give or take, occasionally longer for very complex scenes.

After the director posted the scenes, everyone would crowd around and find out what they were doing that night, figure out which scenes they were in with whom and about what and have a few scarce minutes to talk about the scene, or block it out, if it were very physical.

I remember one particularly memorable scene where my character killed another character in a beat down drag out fight, complete with squibs and pre-scored costumes and props and stuff. We blocked it on an unfamiliar set in 10 minutes and never had time for a test run of course – crazyiness! For that scene, of course, because one character would be removed from play, it had been decided at the rehearsal three days before, so we had time to gather props and such. We didn’t know how the death would go down, just that it would. (edited: Of course, also when any scene where big props or big special effects were needed would have to known it was coming at least partly in advance. Once: homemade pyrotechnics!)

So we’d talk, brainstorm, block, then go get into costume and makeup, and then have five minutes of a voice warm up, often backstage as the audience was coming in.

Scenes occasionally went very wrong indeed, though much less than you might think. Someone once, because they were a late comer to the scene, missed entirely that he was supposed to be in that scene, and so the two people on stage ended up stranded. The funniest part about that one was that there was no backstage area in the theatre that episode, so all of the actors were sitting on a long bench in a darker nook but in full view of the audience. When it became obvious that something had gone awry, the other actors pointed him to the stage him, he got up, went to the post, read the scene made a “Well, here goes nothing” face and then jumped in… to gales of laughter from the audience, who always loved it when we’d fuck up.

If something went wrong, well, we’d just have to get it back on track, which demanded some quick thinking at times. Usually though, especially when there was a backstage, people would review their scene objectives just before going onstage, so when things went wrong they didn’t affect continuity of the whole show.

Jim: Let’s talk Socket Theory! Or maybe MB&G. Did you “attach” to the soaps differently than you attach to roleplaying games? Would you say your MB profile within the soaps was the same as your RPG profile, your real-life profile, or was it a third profile?

Mo: (What’s MB&G? Myers Briggs?) Hard to compare them, because at the time I did them, I wasn’t gaming. I came back to gaming (had played D&D as a kid) just at the tail end of them. Because the last few we did used games as source material, I ended up meeting a number of local gamers and started to play again. However, I would say my relationship to game grows directly out my time in the theatre in general, and out of the soaps in particular – especially my socket.

To prepare for the soaps, well before you’d hit stage, we’d have a couple of rehearsals that fleshed out the idea of the soap, the themes, the setting, the basic locations, the kinds of characters that would be needed. We’d play handfuls of characters in endless freeze games, and then pull characters we really liked, or were particularly effective (funny, scary, poignant, melodramatic, etc) out and make a cast of them, sometimes creating new characters to fill in the gaps.

Then there would be a whole bunch of rehearsals where we’d have character interviews. You’d literally go up on a hotseat, on stage, under a spot, and the rest of the cast and crew would rapid fire questions at you. In an hour they’d have dragged all this character history out of you and under pressure, you’d often find your character voice developing. There were also some funny, and always repeated questions like: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” or “So why do you want to join the secret service?” You were supposed to stay in character for the whole time and react to the questions as if they were really being asked. Some of the character history would be retained, some discarded.

Then there’d be a series of rehearsals where we worked on movement and voice, getting down the physicality of the character, the voice of the character, the idiosyncrasies and twitches. Then we’d have improv as your character in the world scenes that didn’t have to connect to one another – real sandbox stuff. Usually there’d be 1-2 months of ramp up before the soap, depending on the commitment of the director. By the time you got to the actual performances, you knew your character’s inner workings, and could slip in and out at a moment’s notice. Ideally, by the time it came to opening night you’d have done this so well you couldn’t really be caught off guard because you’d really immersed in the personage of the character. – So yeah my socket to character and my immersive tendencies both grew directly out of this world.

However, these days gaming is a deeply personal thing for me. The catharsis that I dig for is something very different than I used to have back then. The payoff of the soaps was performative, while the payoff of my games today is experiential. There’s more intimacy and nuance than ever would have been possible in front of an audience, even when that audience was very well behaved.

Jim: Hiding behind all the above questions is the ur-question of how the soaps were NOT essentially RPGs of some sort.

Mo: Really, I’d say that the biggest way in which I’d delineate RPGs and the soaps would be the expectation of a quality, finished and coherent product (that was worth purchasing). This idea includes the idea that you’d spend ten times the preparation time investing on the fiction than you’d ever spend inside the fiction itself. It also includes the “draft”ing of the fiction, or the willingness to input things that will never be incorporated, or will be edited and distilled down to a story that makes it something that’s not just worth doing (important!) but worth both having other people find it worth watching (the point) and worth paying to come and see (the way we keep afloat doing what we’re doing).

We look at RPGs in the rosy hindsight of post-interpreted narrative where we selectively remember the elements of play that make most sense to keep based on their retroactive meaning and importance in relation to the story that won out in the end. The soaps had to hit the ground running with a linear, developed narrative (for that episode) in place from the get go, no real room for (critical) error, and no second chances. (As a side note, it’s worth noting that a couple of times our soaps were then further distilled down into plays and re-performed like a traditional, scripted play after the season had ended.)

Also important to this difference is the collectivist approach to the process. There was no need to mitigate authority or have mechanical intervention to gateway events because our collective goal was the performance, and whatever you had to give up to achieve that goal, be it character autonomy, narrative input, spotlight time, whatever, the goal came first. RPGs, in my more general and current experience, have too much individualist practice/inclination to work the same way that the soaps did then.

That said, within the intimacy of my playgroups, be it solo with Brand or the small, cultivated playgroups I play in most and enjoy best, that collectivist impulse is still, mostly, beating it’s hummingbird’s heart.


So my Great Aunt Gertrude keeps asking me to get on with writing more about that body of post-immersionist theory (thanks Mick, great way to put it!) I’d been working on last year, and it just so happens I have a couple more things I’ve been itching to talk about: The first of a pair is context. The second will come in a later post.

As you might have suspected, I’m really big on context – all my theory’s heavily invested in the idea that play success is wholly dependant on the contextual positioning of the player in relation to everything else: other players at the table, social contract, system, preferred payoffs, goals, modes of play, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the word context contextually: what I’m specifically looking at here is the player’s requirement for context. Also, while I absolutely think this discussion has application with some of the other sockets, mostly I’ll be talking about character socket play, because, well, that’s what I like & know best, and so focus on. So in a nutshell, what I’m looking at is how much or how little contextual establishment a player requires for her character in a game, and how I think that might relate to her payoff, goals and modes of play.

So what is contextual establishment? Well it has to do with how a character relates to herself, the world, the story, the other characters. As a person, you have a context in every moment of every day. That context is critical to your understanding of the world and to your ability to interact in it. It is built by all of your past experiences, by an inventory of your present situation, by the expectations which you invest in the world, and your ability to forecast future outcomes.

Picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You’re counting out the money on the way to make sure that you have enough.

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You know that John has compulsive habit of punching people in the head when he sees large sums of money and taking it because he’s done it to you a half a dozen times. Are you still counting out the money on the way? (Why, you’re probably asking, am I even with John at the mall?)

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through Compton. You’re on the way to the store to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars. Are you carrying 500 dollars in cash? If you are, are you counting it there in the middle of the street? Are you still with John, given that he’s a reckless head-punching bastard?

So yeah, as a person, context affects how we feel about things when they happen and how we decide what to do in response to them. Most of the time we don’t notice our internal relationship with context. We have long-tuned instinctual processes built to deal with it like the one that makes you flinch in fear when that head-punching bastard moves his arm quickly but doesn’t when your cat Buster darts across your lap.

When context changes radically or inexplicably, the instinctual processes can totally break down. And as anyone who’s ever traveled extensively can tell you, being deprived of context (cultural context, for this example) over a long period of time can be disorienting or even frightening. Learning to intentionally work through differences in context (rather than instinctually coasting through sameness in context) causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

When I lived in Brazil or India everything I did, no matter how simple, took energy and focus because I had to work to understand the cultural context of everyday life and try harder than usual to act within that model. The propensity for failure to understand the context and then act inappropriately also became greater, which caused a heightened sense of latent (and sometimes acute!) anxiety than I would otherwise feel.

So in roleplaying context is important too. All players need at least a little context to get traction in play, and some players need a lot more than that. At a broad and basic level, context is established through setting, system, genre, and past play (among others). Telling you the game we will play takes place in the real world, gives you different building blocks to build a contextual model than telling you it takes place in Narnia, Glorantha, or aboard the Millennium Falcon. Telling you that the game will be a pulp, will affect your mental model differently than if I’d said western, noir, or space opera. This is really why RPG’s loves them some genre and why games in general are prone to setting books, splatbooks, archetype lists etc. etc. They are all ways to shortcut communal context around the table and get people in position to play together.

You can cut context a thousand ways but where I want to get to in this discussion is that beyond the communal context at the table which everyone needs and which makes the game possible, some players require specifically higher degrees of context to achieve their goals in play, interact with their character in mode or get at their payoff. Some examples:

  • Higher context players might require historical context in character (like a background), to provide a contextual sense of where the character has come from and who the character is as a person whereas a lower context player may prefer the character to be a blank slate that’s fully open to interpretation.
  • Higher context players might require in character social freeplay to get a sense of the contextual relationship between their character and other personas (PC or NPC) in the fiction while lower context players might find it just as satisfying to invent those relationships on the fly.
  • Higher context players may need contextualization before conflict to position themselves to be able to experience the interaction whereas lower context players might more fully enjoy the experience if they’re given the thrill of in medias res scene framing.
  • Higher conflict players may prefer moment-to-moment or event-to event play while lower context players might find time lapsing or sudden time jumping a happier pace.

Of course, I shouldn’t have to say this because if you’re reading my blog you should already know that it’s implied, but: there’s no objective right or wrong, better or worse in this equation. Whether high or low, the threshold of context required by a player is relational to their enjoyment of play and the only place better/worse comes in is in how well the player’s payoff was realized.

Calibrating context correctly is an important process to enjoyment in game. Like me in India, the farther away you are from the context you’re expecting the less comfortable the game will be and the more detracting from fun. I suspect I understand how this trends with other elements of the emotional agenda, but I’m not ready to point at it until I’ve established the piece it’s (fraternally) twinned with.

Next up: Relief.

Disruptive Emergence & the Impassioned Character Socket

**Warning** This post will contain a spoiler about season 3 of The Wire. You’ve been warned. Also, if you’re responding, please don’t spoil seasons 4 or 5 of The Wire for me. K?Thx. **Warning**

So last night, Brand and I are watching the last three episodes of Season 3 of the Wire, and along comes the scene where Pryzbylewski is standing, gun in hand, looking at the dead body of the cop he’s just shot. (For those who don’t know and didn’t care if they were spoiled, Pryz is a misfit wildcard inept cop that got through the Academy on nepotism, who early in Season 1 nearly beat an innocent kid blind for sassing him, and ended up behind a desk. His becomes a real redemption story when turns out, despite everyone’s best guesses (including Pryzbylewski’s) that he’s actually “real po-leece” when it comes to the analytical trace work involved in Major Crimes. The first time he’s out of the office in like two and a half seasons, he gets involved in a random chase and ends up mistaking a cop for a perp and shooting him dead.)

At this point, I hit pause on the g-d-clickybox and turn to Brand. “That there is what Vincent’s looking for when he talks about mechanics that bring on undesirable emergent story.” There wasn’t really any lead up to the scene, just a few quick shots interspersed with the other scenes: McNulty and Pryz eating Chinese food and getting the call, McNulty running through a back ally while Pryz round out in the car to head him off. Then there’s McNulty on the walkie, and he hears the shot fired, and finally there’s Pryz standing there with his gun out, looking freaked out of his mind. The killing is out of the blue, and all the lead up and shooting itself don’t even happen on screen. It’s obviously the work of disruptive mechanics.

Brand loved it. I didn’t. …. Shocking, I know.

But it did make for this great two hour conversation before we ended up getting back to the show. There’s a lot from that conversation I won’t get to in this post, might get into later if I’m up to it.

There ensues this real clear articulation that happens over how we interact (differently) with media – mainly movies and TV, but touching on print stuff too. He likes this scene with Pryz because it’s dramatic, because it moves the story, and because it lends a kind of realistic satisfaction to the series. In real life, our shortcomings come out to haunt us in the moments we think we’ve overcome them. When life is at its most brutal it often is over before you know what’s happening. It’s swift and explosive and afterwards nothing is the same. The Wire also (mostly) strives to provide a sense of real-lifeness as cop dramas go, so this makes the presence of this kind of event even more satisfying, in his eyes. He feels this turn of events is full because it’s a value add. It provides another kind of drama that enriches the story overall.

Brand, through his story socket, connects with the event and appreciates it cognitively. It’s intellectually fulfilling.

While I totally get why he likes what he likes there (and see it as valid) I don’t like it because it feels empty. It feels like the show has witheld. I’m engaged with the show, and I’m very much enjoying it because it does a very good job of creating complex characters in all shades of grey, and then all of a sudden, it changes the rules on me and I’m not allowed access to the character experience. On a dime, the character’s life is changed forever, I have no access to understand what really happened, nor to make the transition with the character (because I have been sharply and emotionally decontextualized from him). All of a sudden Pryz feels foreign to me and I can’t empathize with him properly. Sure, I can step away from it and type now: It is an interesting narrative device. I can cognitively appreciate what they were trying to do, and even how they succeeded in doing it. I even mean it when I type that, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was unfufilling to me in the moment of engagement.

I, through my character socket, became unconnected to the event which prevented me from appreciating it in the impassioned moment. It’s emotionally unfufilling.

Character Disposability

(or, variations on an old theme.)

So Brand and I have been playing Vincent Baker‘s new game In a Wicked Age. It’s a load of fun, very intuitive, fiction forward and non-fiddly for those of us who like the system to get out of the way in the moment of play. I might write up some AP of the game at some point, but for right now I want to talk about one specific rule.

In a Wicked Age has Forms of action (Covertly, Directly, For Myself, For Others, With Love, With Violence), that serve essentially as your character’s stats. Two of these Forms (Covertly and For Others) can be injured and two (Directly and with Violence) can be Exhausted. When your aims in game are thwarted in a final (final in the scene, not overall) way you get injured or exhausted, which means that the dice size of those Forms are reduced by one level (e.g. a d6 becomes a d4). When two of your Forms’ dice size are reduced to 0, that character is out of the adventure. (There is room in the game for the players on either side of the dice to negotiate a different outcome than being exhausted or injured, where both sides are willing to give a little).

The game also has something called a We Owe List, which stores names of characters that the game commits to coming back to include again in further stories. Players get on the We Owe List by being the underdog in a fight and managing to stay in it until the end of the first round. That how doesn’t really matter one way or another to this post; what’s important is that there is the possibility that you can come back at some point if A.) You have managed to get your name on that list and B.) you get knocked out of the game by being exhausted or injured.

For me, this all brings up an issue around character disposability: at what point can a character can be removed entirely from play, and by who’s agency is that removal performed? In A Wicked Age, the player can make a character choice to walk away or narrate their character’s death (though that choice might be contested by another player) but it can also be determined by the mechanical system alone (exhaust or injure a character sufficiently to remove the character who is not on the We Owe List from play. These mechanics bother me a great deal as a player.

As an impassioned, other kind of player who makes deep emotional connections to the characters I play and who prefers, for the most part, gestalt over emergent play, this can be very disorienting. This isn’t a criticism to In A Wicked Age, which Vincent Baker designed (and pretty elegantly from what I’ve seen so far) to do specific things that aren’t necessarily targeted at me or the kind of player I am. It also isn’t a phenomenon particular to IaWA. Clinton R. Nixon’s TSOY has a similar mechanic that is triggered whenever a character achieved a Transcendent success (rank 7) which can only really happen once the character has become a Grand Master in the skill being rolled. When transcendence happens, the character is not immediately removed from play, but must be retired within 24 game hours. Of course, all of the combat oriented traditional games, such as D&D can bring on the immediate end of a character by attacking it, preventing it’s escape, and killing it.

The crux of the matter for me is that the work of my playstyle focuses on the loopback between myself and my character which is formulated via an intense emotional investment that enables the cathartic play I seek out. Even if the character is not a real person, even if the character and I do not share a meatspace, or know each other as people, my relationship with (most of) my characters is one of deep emotional connection. She may not be an actual person to be available to be known but I do know her, understand her, feel her, am her.

While sudden, seemingly random (read mechanically mandated) death might emulate the world as it really is or “should be” or provide a more tangible sense of verisimilitude into the danger of the world, I’m not looking to emulate or experience the world as it is but to tell the story of my character or tell the story my character is part of. I don’t need tangibility in danger, or to feel like the game world has gravity, but I do need to feel like the game is robust enough for me to push hard and hurt my character dramatically and drastically without feeling like the game’s going to just take her out from under me because I rolled too well, or just didn’t roll well enough in this moment right here. Knowing that condition exists actually serves to make me more guarded and inhibited in play. When we play TSOY, we hack the rule (currently we’re playing Fortune’s Folly, 7th Sea source material using TSOY’s rules and where Transcendence normally happens we have put a “fate lash” – a mechanic that seriously complicates the character’s life, but leaves her living) if I can’t hack it (heh), I never ever take a Grand Master skill. In IaWA, I’m just not comfortable until I’m on the We Owe List, and if death were to come up, I’d do my best to negotiate a different outcome.

I can also totally see how more emergent players might find this to be a satisfying game driving contribution to their story. But for me, I need time and space to find the closure of a character. Partly that closure provides time and safety to come back to the I before character death (ritualistically important, I think, in high emotional, serious or dangerous play). Also, that closure helps me to retain my emotional investment in the story overall because it gives me a chance to refocus the conduit into my secondary story socket.

None of this to say that mechanically mandated character disposability should never exist, but just to write out the experience to offer it as a design data point of interest.

Some Notes on Being Human

Now of course, the place you find yourself on either the Cognitive / Impassioned scale and the I / Other scale is not a static thing. If you gamed 10 years ago and you’re gaming now, chances are that there are a handful of things about game back then that you’d just as happily not import into the present. Likewise, in next 10 years there are things you’re doing now that you probably won’t be doing then and vice versa. Like my Wargamer cum LARPer friend of a couple of posts ago, the things we do, both in life and in game change us (at least if we’re doing it right) and changing as a person often means a shift in goals and priorities. What makes us happy now may not make us happy tomorrow or next year; what made us happy last year may never make us happy again.

Also, just because you put a dot on the scale that is meant to represent you doesn’t mean that you are not capable of shifting to accommodate the situation at hand, or that you never act outside of the placement of that dot. When playing with strangers, I tend to play down the emotional scale to ensure that I don’t make anyone at the table uncomfortable. I also tend to play closer to the “I” than usual to ensure that I am making directive decisions that will foster the fledgling social situation at the table.

Why does my dot wander? Well, because in that situation, my payoff and my goal are different than they usually are. My payoff might be “advance the social milieu of the group at hand, and have a fun, un-awkward night in the process”. In that case, my goal isn’t a cathartic one, it’s entirely socially based goal that has little to do with the game. In that case I may not even be character socketed; I might adopt a social or story socket for the night, because the payoff is powerful enough to make it worth it.

Likewise, under constraints imposed by other players or by system, my dot might have to wander in specific situations. About six months ago, Brand and I introduced a group of our friends to My Life with Master. The point of the night wasn’t even really to game, it was just to hang out. The point of playing MLWM was not to get impassioned or cathartic, it was to introduce some of our traditional RPG friends to some of what the Indie scene had to offer. It was a one shot, with a lot of players, so there wouldn’t be a lot of time to create catharsis anyway. So my goal, my socket and my payoff weren’t what they normally are, so my dot was in an entirely different place.

This is all to say that there is a difference between what you have occasionally done, what you did all the time a long time ago, what you are capable of doing, and what you do on a regular basis. When you’re examining your goals, sockets and payoffs, it’s important to identify if the situation you are analyzing is atypical, and therefore not representative of what you normally do to get your RPG rocks off.

When you are looking to place yourself on the scale what you’re looking to do is to identify: when you are playing for the payoff you most often play for or the payoff you want most (note that these might not be the same thing), how do you want to experience the game and through what method will you interact with it? It may be very useful to you in the moment you are playing an atypical game to understand how your payoff is different than normal and how you respond to that shift, but to start with, it’s most useful to trend yourself over the course of the payoff that you are trying to achieve most of the time.

Getting in the Cockpit

So, the second axis I wanted to have a look at is the place that you position yourself to drive your actions in the game. I’m going to talk about this a lot more in future posts, especially about the wording I’ve chosen to describe it: I and Other. For the sake of understanding this introductory post, remember that I am currently working on trying to map the body of play that I once (unsuccessfully) tried to shoehorn into the word immersion; Other could at some point have further application, and will definitely have a more detailed meaning than this, but for the sake of this one post, think of Other as your object in the fiction: your PC, a communal character that you inhabit in the moment, an NPC with which you drive the game as a GM. The I, of course is you as you (though even that will become a little more complicated later on).

You all (except maybe my Great Aunt Gertrude) will be utterly unsurprised to hear me say at this point that the first indicator of where you sit to drive your play is your socket. A person with a primary character socket and no secondary socket is likely going to sit right up at the top of this scale, especially if their goal is Kenotic, and their payoff has an escapist bent.

Likewise, a person who has, say, a primary system socket, a secondary social socket, and a tertiary story socket might never actually make their contributions to the game through a game object, but will instead, contribute directly to the game. I’ve heard some actual play recordings where the players involved never actually inhabited a character object all. Characters, PC or NPCs were never referred to in the first person, and never had an actual voice in play. Even if the character spoke and was not just paraphrased, the player narrated the speech as if it were dialogue in a novel, rather than a character to inhabit.

On the runway from the I to the Other, there are lots of ways to funnel participation through the character as a game object. I’m going to run some of them down for you using the best analogies I have at my disposal. I am peripherally aware that they are similar to some terms already in use in immersion theory. I want to be clear that I’m not at all trying to adopt those terms and their associated meanings (or baggage). Remember that I don’t read rpg.net or the Forge and I’m not a big forum girl. As such, please do your best when you read on to disassociate what you have been taught I might mean and to concentrate on reading them as simple analogies:

As a marionette, where the player does not inhabit the object, but dances it through the fiction with a directed will, there is a distinct emotional and sensory distance between the player and the character. The two share nothing; the marionette is nothing more than a tool with good aesthetic value.

As a puppet, the player inhabits the object only partially, all decisions are unmitigated by the puppet and are made for the direct, unencumbered benefit of the player or the story or something external to the character object (even if that benefit is the player’s sense of the character’s continuity in the story). The player has some amount of emotional investment in the character object and may have a very detailed blueprint of the puppet but is not influenced by the character object directly. Influence on the game is equally (qualitatively and quantitatively) made via the character object and directly without it.

As a mask, the player maintains a distinct identity within the character object, but has established an emotional, often empathic connection with the object and uses it as the primary vehicle to influence the game. The player is influenced and informed by the character object, and the character object is willfully given a measure of transformative power over the player as a goal of play. The player can take intentional action in the game that is uninfluenced by the character object, but optimally will do so only through the funnel of the character.

As a possessing force, the player abandons a personal identity and surrenders to the character object as a goal of play in order to directly, experience the full subjective reality of the character. The more intensely this is done, the less able the player is take any self-directed action as it does not originate from the (the player’s matrix) of the character’s subjective reality. This is all the way up the Other scale.

I / Other Scale

Once again, the purple dot is me (my trended behaviour, mind not an absolute that doesn’t exist). The empathic connection to character object is critical to my goal and my payoff, because it is in the ability to feel the emotionality of my character object’s response to the story that my impassioned engagement is fueled and the cathartic response is won. However, it is just as important to me to not then extend to allow the character to be a possessing force because to create really effective cathartic situations and get my Epicaric Virago on, I must have the freedom to manipulate the character and drive her towards badness and strife.Brand is the red dot again. He doesn’t need to be up close and personal with any particular character object in order to get his groove on. In fact, having to live within the confines of a character can sometimes hold him back from getting at his payoff. The character is a very rich source of story bits and momentum tools that make the story hot, but they are not usually gratifying to him in and of themselves.Also it’s worth noting that as a GM, Brand interacts with the Other as if it were a marionette, while as a player, he leans closer to being a puppeteer. I have a similar shift, though not as pronounced: As a player I solidly mask the Other, while as a GM I interact with the Other as both mask and puppet.

So, you can affect the game directly as your self, or you can affect the game funneled through an interaction with a character object. These modes of play are determined by the kind of payoff you are looking for, the kind of goal you set to achieve it and most importantly, by the socket that you use to engage with the game. Now that only two of you (of the original three) are still reading, I’d also like leave you hanging by noting, that while I’ve talked about the Other as character object, I do think it might be possible that other kinds of sockets can also become the Other. Setting is a particularly intriguing one when you think about how no-mythers might marionette the setting while deep setting socket folks (Elliot, I’m looking at you here) may well be considered to be possessed by the setting. If you have ideas on this, post them. Somewhere down the line I’ll likely be coming back to this.

Covering the Bases

I’m pretty sure that the three of you that read Sin Aesthetics understand me when I use words like sockets, goals or payoff, but just in case my Great Aunt Gertrude decides to check in on me and is having trouble understanding what the heck I’m talking about, this post is a quick run down. For the sake of my lazy ass, I’m going to quasi cut and paste some from a couple of public conversations I had with Thomas Robertson, who asks too many damn questions for his own good, but as such is useful in getting me to explain my damn self.


The socket is the place in the RPG which serves as the participant’s locus of enjoyment. It’s the place where people plug themselves into game and give and take their focus and energy to and from. Obviously character can be a primary socket, because immersion wouldn’t be such a problematic word without the character being an extremely invested locus.

It’s also easy to identify what some other kinds of sockets are. Setting is obviously a socket for a lot of people. System is an obvious one too. We can be pretty damn sure in our community that there are Story socket players. There are other kinds, too: Social socket people, Choice socket people, probably a lot of others too.

I think that many/most people have more than one socket, that is, more than one place that they can plug into the experience of the game, but I suspect that there is always a primary socket, one that is preferred above others. I would say of myself that character is my primary socket, but that I also have a distant story socket as well. Farther still, I could have a social socket and a setting socket, even a choice socket… but the farther down the road a game pushes me to go to find a socket, the less like an RPG it will feel like to me, the less it will fulfill the body of what I come to games to for, and if always pushed to a different socket, the less likely I will be to continue playing the game.


This one’s simple, though figuring it out often is like pulling teeth. We all have one reason that we play RPG’s. Regardless of the kind of player we are, or the kind of play we do, our reason is one in the same: We come to the game to get out of game what we want out of game. People talk about the concepts of “art” or “game” or “play” as lofty ideals but in reality, gaming has a payoff for everyone who engages in it, which is why we play RPG’s rather than golfing, stamp collecting, worm breeding, singing in a choir or whatever else might have had an appealing payoff if RPG’s didn’t exist, or more importantly, didn’t give us what we want.

That payoff will differ vastly from person to person. For some, the payoff is simply “completely forgetting I am me for a couple of hours”, for others “engaging in an actively creative co-operative endeavor with people I like” might be the payoff. “Feeling fully, really challenged in a social engagement while making something that feels lasting to me” or “proving that I have the biggest dick at the table” might be the thing you want. “Being validated by other people recognizing my talents as a really good GM”, or “participation in creating an epic that was worth telling” might also be what keeps you coming back.

If some of those sound more important than others, if some of them sound right and some wrong, then you’re missing the point of why I am talking about payoff. There’s no right/wrong/better/worse/worthy/not worthy/valuable/not valuable when it comes to you and what keeps you coming back to the game. You want what you want. It’s whether or not you are being honest about what you want, both to yourself and to other people where things can get to being wrong. If my payoff is: “working hard, winning big, and lauding my victory” and your payoff is “non-conflict co-operation towards an emotionally engaging experience” we’re not going to play well together unless we really, consciously work at it. That doesn’t mean that either of our payoffs are better or worse, it just means we like different things out of the hobby.

You’ll notice too, that many of those payoffs in the list up top sound like they would align really well with the kinds of sockets I was talking about earlier. Is that surprising? It really shouldn’t be… we do most what works to get us the payoffs we desire, after all. In my case, with a primary character socket, a secondary story socket and a penchant for highly emotional cathartic play it shouldn’t be at all surprising that my payoff is something like: “to experientially feel a sense of emotional euphoria as a result of a powerfully engaging story”.


Back in this post, I talked about some possible goals of play, though they were certainly not meant as an exhaustive list.

Goals in this context define what the end experience of the game is that you work towards, and may imply or suggest a method you use to move towards achieving it. Ideally, your goal should closely align with your payoff. I’ve seen lots of situations in reality where that wasn’t the case, but each and every one described a very unhappy player.

I had a friend who came from a heavy competition war gaming background who stumbled upon and came to really like the social dynamic of the LARP scene. Playing in it drastically changed the kind of payoff he expected from RPGs. He went from a payoff of “validation of my intelligence and cunning through hard won challenge” to something like “escapist enjoyment of being someone else in a highly theatrical mode”. The problem was that when he came back to table top, he employed his old high challenge, high competition skills and techniques towards his old goal, but could never, unsurprisingly, achieve his new payoff. He doesn’t play anymore, and most of the people he used to play with (post LARP) aren’t really sad about that.

So there you are. That there’s the basics: sockets, goals and payoffs. There will probably be more as I ramble on, but that’s where I’m starting from.