I encounter a lot of certainty on the Internet, and no doubt convey no small amount of it myself – especially in posts like these. Hopefully, what registers that I am certain about is that we can rarely be certain of anything. Last week, I shared some ideas on gaming that seemed to register with a wider audience than usual, and motivated not one, but two interesting bloggers to re-blog my posts. Thanks go out to Frank Frey and the inimitable Black Campbell for taking the time to read what I write and share it with others. A deeper thanks is owed to Black Campbell’s blog for also writing a response based on these articles, which firmly moves them from the realm of one person’s ideas, into real discussion. His timely experiment with the two iterations of the Firefly roleplaying game, Serenity for Cortex 1.0 and Firefly for its own spin on Cortex Plus, brought my Spectrum of Play article to life in a way that I was unlikely to ever do. In response, I will follow his example and offer up an example of my own, drawn from a different stance on the spectrum of play.
Never change, Man~
Unsure and quite curious about how his group would respond to the Cortex Plus Firefly RPG after their several years’ experience with the initial version of Cortex, Black Campbell, (known in some circles as Rhymer – Scott Rhymer) put both games and the group’s impulses to the test. Where that got particularly interesting for me was not in the comparison of the intricacies of the systems, but in the two things it brings clearly into view: not all players want the same amount of ‘freedom,’ and not all stories have equal requirements for freedom.
The experiment was a fortuitous one in that it was an opportunity to test the same group of gamers, with the same story, the same characters, the same setting, but under two different versions of the same rules set. These rules share a lot of common points, but ultimately are designed to produce a very different feel, focus, and flow of play. To highlight the distinctions I put in my Spectrum of Play, nothing could be better. Because of the interaction of the group with the game systems, we could clearly see the pull of the Cortex Plus system to the right of their typical stance on the spectrum, and the urge of the players to move back to the left in response. Preferences were identified both in the players and in the design of the system, and for the purposes of the play test that was very helpful. The group could make a choice of which version of the game to play and how to interact with that system to keep them all happy. That works for me.
You want Freedom with that?
The stereotype of the GM for a lot of years has been one of a controlling personality that has all the power in a game. Significant steps have been made to mitigate this, and a trend has been ongoing to produce games which have greater Player freedom as a design tenet. A lot of articles have been written on how this view pretty much completely misses the point of what was really going on (and I agree with those articles because a tyrant is a tyrant regardless of the rules; and whatever empowerment rules give people, those who endure tyrants willingly surrender). One thing that Black Campbell’s experiment showed clearly was my point that we all have our preferences and expectations. While we can learn to expand our perspectives and experience, after a certain amount of experimentation we come to an understanding of where our more static and long-term preferences lie. Coupled with a preference for systemically supported amounts of player freedom, is the preference for types of story. Not all stories have the same requirements, and some function very poorly when mismatched with inappropriate levels of freedom – in either direction. Discovering ‘whodunnit’ loses its appeal when you can spend a Plot Point and tell the GM who it was. The thrill of a narrow victory over a tough opponent fades away when the GM rolls no dice and the enemies have no stats. A rousing and challenging seduction loses its tumescence when all its glistening innuendo is unleashed in a simple, single thrust of the dice across the table trying to beat a target number. If I don’t know how to match a scene to what my players want to be able to do with the system and what that system actually encourages, how do I even begin to talk about it effectively and efficiently?
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
The more things change, the old among us note that the more things stay the same… except for the sudden influx of crap on my lawn which needs to get off. Regardless, we now have a wide range of games with a broad spectrum of stances for play built right in. We still have games with lots of detailed rules that require system mastery to get right and make shine. We still have lots of games with procedures and outlooks, instead of reams of rules, that require skill as an adjudicator and improviser to get right and make shine. We also have lot more GMless games, and cooperative/collaborative games, and games which consciously play with traditional concepts of who does what in an RPG session. As a result, it’s getting harder and harder to know if you will like a game before you read and test it.
Not all game design has been predicated on breaking the mythological power of the GM. The more people learn about games, about what they like about them, and about how to bring those things to the fore the more innovation, alteration, and experimentation we see. As a consumer, it’s getting more likely you will be surprised by a new concept or a new presentation of a concept. It’s getting more likely that if you want to try a licensed game you will need to learn a new system and likewise more likely that you may not be familiar with, or worse – may not like, that system’s approach if you follow an IP and find an RPG is available. My lack of love for Fate means I will not be playing Dresden Files, nor paying much attention to the impressive Mindjammer. My friend’s lack of love for 2D6+modifier systems means he will miss out on A Time of War, and those who feel uncomfortable with dice pool systems suffer the agony of how slow gaming can be if it isn’t powered by Ubiquity.
None of this is new, but the effect is widening, and it is widening in ways beyond how dice are manipulated or if the skills section is 0 pages or 50 pages. It has intentionally branched into areas where the narrative itself is consciously affected by one or more people at the table. More than this, now that these ideas and approaches are gaining more exposure, and being described and encoded in games more clearly than ever before, we are faced with the choice of playing old games differently, or switching our new perspectives on and off to fit each game. The genie is out of the lamp, and refuses to be sealed up again. So many of the hot new things in gaming are 30 to 40 years old. We could laugh and talk about how we were already doing things ‘back in the day,’ or we could notice that the practices and procedures under which we played far fewer games, were often more cultural than intentional. Often more accidental and fortunate, than planned and replicable. These old techniques are being rescued, refined, and repackaged for long-term lifespans. They are also changing expectations of play, in an environment where the spread of new ideas is faster than ever. Shouldn’t we have a language to talk about this that is less cumbersome than comparing the names and genres of other systems to each other?
Vaughn: Well… my game is sorta like a cross of Fate and GURPS, with the lifepaths from mechwarrior 3rd Edition… but don’t worry… we still use the iconic D20.
Gail: As a player, will I have a lot of Agency?
Vaughn: You can play as an Agent from any 1 of 200 carefully crafted Agencies!
Gail: Uh… no thanks.
Vaughn: What did I say?!
I enjoy it when a game has a good flow. Part of that flow comes from the harmony between the expectations of its players, and the workings of the system. Another huge part is the comfort of the GM in facilitating play and working the narrative elements which develop into something coherent. A good GM is the tarot card reader at the fair who may not really know the deep meanings of all the cards, but can weave a tale that touches you out of the interplay of random chance and suggestion. Some GMs might be far on the left on my spectrum of play and load the deck so that although you don’t know what is coming, they do. Others shuffle like mad, but salt in a few gems. Still others play it straight, shuffle, pass it to you to cut, and play things as they are revealed. Still others, toss the deck and just do the whole thing by reading your tea leaves and the way you squirm in your seat. A growing number are chucking the deck altogether and crossing to your side of the table to say, “Let’s figure this out together.” All of these things are basic preferences, the standard and typical stances we will adopt when we have the choice.
This is not all that there is to it. Stances shift and are shifted in play.
Whether by narrative necessity, or by the pressures of the system, the stance the group adopts shifts and will be shifted in play fairly regularly. The way a campaign begins might be less or more constrained than how it runs. Some stories might be driven by player whim, while others by huge currents of pre-determined plot. Some scenes might be inviolate because they are good fiction, while others can be bought off and redone because it could go either way. Stances are classic postures that serve us well, but no one stance can do it all.
In my RuneQuest Campaign, A Season for All Things, there are two levels of play going on, and we are about to add a third. The first level I could call the design level. The second would be the discovery level and the third would be the exploration level. While there is some overlap between them, their purpose and the experience of them is distinct.
- In the design level, the players in the campaign were given agency to build on the simple frameworks of culture, history, biology, and imagery to create the nations, religions, societies, cults, and occupations their characters and other people from a specific part of the world came from. The rules guiding this were to not contradict what had been established, and to not shift to a different genre. Players were given free reign to create cuisine, churches, economics, attitudes, handshakes, musical tastes, heresies, fighting styles… you name it. To varying amounts, each player seriously contributed some excellent setting material, and continues to do so. Everything they have produced and are producing has had a serious impact on the implementation and presentation of the campaign world. This level does not involve active play of characters, but does dip very deeply into the creative side of roleplay. This level is on the right of the spectrum, and is focused on setting versus plot.
- In the discovery level is play of their first characters. We started each character far from home and so enabled them to be experts in the culture they were from, but still learning about the cultures they were meeting. We explore the system, the overall setting, and the setting each of them is contributing. This level has no real agency over the setting or the emergent story, apart from the limited dramatic editing allowed by the Luck Points which are supplied by RQ6’s system. There is no established plot or story arc, and each decision the players have their characters make is actually charting the course of their adventures and the outcome of the campaign. In a sense, they are creating the story, while I am merely an arbiter of events already in motion. This level is settled near the center of the spectrum, veering to the left at times as circumstances, such as mysteries and zones of limited information or choice (a huge desert full of monsters!), dictate.
- In the exploration level the players benefit from the previous two levels and can really begin to play the game. At this level, the system is known and comfortable as is the setting. New characters are added in and a troupe of character options is built. Some sessions will follow the original characters, while others will follow the new characters. Here the story will truly emerge and the balance between system, players, and GM will become autonomic, and float in and around the third stance on the spectrum.
Unlike the Firefly example presented in the Black Campbell’s article, the stance we will have as our ‘resting stance’ will not require me to set up a defined arc, or have a mission-oriented structure. In addition, with the exception of one of the players, the group is new to me, so I am not in a position yet to predict where they will go or what they will do there. Where the esteemed Mr. Rhymer can predict the story which will naturally emerge, and so lend the appearance of Stance 2 while actually offering Stance 3, I cannot yet. I could opt to use Stance 2 to get to know the players better, run them through mazes, and figure them out. I have opted to use Stance 3 and keep things surprising for myself as well as them.
Identifying what stance we need and want is important. For example, to say that we want a stance far along the right of the spectrum, providing lots of agency over the narrative, but also identifying a love of mysteries presents a problem of preparation for the group. If these mysteries are to end in surprise for the players, how can they be conducted? How will they be conducted?
Tools for Targets
Practice a combative sport long enough, and you will discover all the painful reasons why a punch to a man’s skull is pretty low on the list of things you want to do with your hands. Unless you train in a real pit, your instructor will provide the tools you need to get the job done, and the insight into what they are intended to do before you need them.
Not all hobbies are so well established, and few hobbies seem to have the culture of resistance to analysis that ours does. In a sense, our established training culture is to fumble around in the dark looking for a group of people who are similarly foundering in the dark, but will not suggest looking for the light switch. We seem content to move around until we find either find the exit, or get comfortable in the dark. As long as it’s a fun romp in the stygian blackness of gaming, none of us will call you on it, I hope… but what if it’s not? What if people are slipping off to play other games, or stop gaming altogether because – for them – roleplaying has not been magical, it has just been, “alright.” Can you imagine thinking that roleplaying is just, ‘alright’? In these sad cases, choosing to ‘just play’ costs us souls for our lords Gygax and Arneson. Their avatars, Jackson, Perrin, Petersen, Stafford, Tweet, Rein-Hagen, O’Sullivan, Combos, and the legions more who join them each quarter will wither and fade with us if we cannot practice and preserve our best practices while leaving room for the innovations and aspirations of the coming generations. It doesn’t have to go that way, of course, and there is a glimmer of hope there as well. With books and research projects out or in progress now that chart the history of the industry, the history of the designers, trace the path of design, and really assess the differing cultures of play, we are on the threshold of understanding who we are as a group better than we ever have. It’s not too much farther from that point to a culture where it is acceptable to seek training in doing things we have not figured out on our own. To seek help in becoming better players. To become more aware and knowledgeable about the many wonders which fill all the dark corners of our hobby. We can see signs of that already in the growing number of GM Advice books. It may take some time for there to be mentors suitable for every basic style of play, but work in progress seems to be another hallmark of the RPG hobby~
By taking a concept like the Spectrum of Play, and using it to assess how you want to establish and run a specific campaign, or story, or scene – or even if you want to have a defined campaign, story, or scene at all- you can be better prepared for how the interaction of players and system will turn out. Placing a character in a death trap and ending on a cliffhanger, expecting the player to chew enjoyably on that conundrum all week to think of an amazing escape for the following session will be completely foiled if with a point spend for a dramatic revision of the scene they have help arrive to free them. It might still be a cool story, but it’s focus has shifted without your intent, or sometimes much thought on a story-scale from the player, from the hero as heroic, to the hero as lucky…or organized. All hail the organized hero~
When sessions or whole series of sessions go wrong, and you cannot put your finger on exactly why that is happening, it is possible that there is a mismatch between what the group wants, what the group has chosen as its delivery method, and the stance from which it is being undertaken . If it’s not because someone broke up with someone else, or taxes are due, or bio-rhythms are low, it could very well be because the story is offering too much or not enough of what people are there to experience. Knowing, refining, and sharing the tools to use to re-align the mismatch, is worth the time and effort, I believe.
Not satisfied with just this amount of engagement, Black Campbell and I will seek to take the conversation to the next level.
Next Up: A/B Test of Firefly and Serenity RPGs – Black Campbell
Firefly vs Serenity: the RPG Smackdown – Black Campbell
Is there a “right way” to game? – Black Campbell
Charting a Spectrum of Play – Casting Shadows
The Right Way to Play – Casting Shadows
Darken others' doors: