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Conversation: Purposes, playing, the name with no thing

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 11:00

This is a leftover from the original plan of having sign-up paid activities, which I'm not doing any more. I've edited the original post, and some of the language and the comments won't make much sense without knowing that.

Vincent asked me about the Right to Dream, and why it was absent from my fifth segment in Phenomenology, "Playing on Purpose." We had a fine talk which you can view here and comment about.




Okay, so I think this is true:

Human beings like to create stories, so games where you get to create stories with your friends are fun.

I think that this is a normal, small-c creative impulse, like "human beings like to draw, so games where you get to draw with your friends are fun." Or "human beings like to laugh, so games where you get to make your friends laugh are fun." It's available to players and creators as a hook for engagement at every level of play and design, top to bottom, minute to overarching.

Ron, what makes creating stories with your friends more than a small-c creative impulse, instead a capital-C Creative Agenda?

What do we gain by promoting any of our various creative impulses up to Creative Agendas, what do we gain by choosing which ones instead of considering any of them, and why these two or three in particular?

Ron Edwards's picture

You want to go here? In front of God & the internet and & everybody? All right then.

I'll get to it when I'm not chasing my kids telling them to turn off and turn in their iPads. Which probably isn't going to be until they're in school a couple days from now.

Ron Edwards's picture

So here's the video: Reply to Vincent

Fun analogy which is not in the video: we can talk about all the modes of preparation of dead flesh, and about the local and different objects of preparing meat this or that way, but I'm gonna point to two major larger categories irrespective of every local and specific object, which is to say, ritual disposal of the dead vs. eating yummy food. And even if you did mix'em into one activity, they'd still be two different basic things "to be doing."


Well, "the point of the object," I get you completely.

Why do we Martian anthropologists distinguish between light, fun social competition, and light, fun social storytelling, those two things in particular? Why aren't we like, "humans sure do play"? Why isn't to play together the point of the object, basically no matter what the object is?

If we sat down and made a list of things that we can do while we play together, creating stories and competing would appear on the list. Why do they, and they alone, also appear on the list of things we play together in order to do?

As far as the history of this hobby goes, setting aside simple creative differences, I think that unclarity, indecision, and disagreements about the objects of games can account for a LOT of our historical stuckness, grief, and pain. Possibly, just maybe, all of it that needs accounting for.

Ron Edwards's picture

Because when they play together and don't share that larger category, and I mean share, not merely ambit one another while 'satisfying' it internally, they get confused and frustrated, and it messes up the fun. And this one little underground scabby subset of them, for some reason, seems to have based its claim to fun on messing up exactly that way. So "object of the game" or not, procedurally speaking, they huddle up rather than gather, and pretend to play more than they play, glumly or determinedly or hysterically or borderline-angrily.

Also, let the record show: the Phenomenology series takes down the Creative Agenda idea a considerable notch. It allows for looking at such purposes as merely emergent procedural properties, much as you describe, with my interest in identifying a couple being a personal quirk rather than a big-ass feature. You acknowledged that what I identified, i.e., that humans do these things, was not wrong.

In other words, you're the one who's elevated this into the status of a debate about the older notion of Creative Agenda, not me. "Ah ha, there's good old GNS with S missing, hiding out in Phenomenology, just smoothed out a little without capital letters - but I see it!" Textually, no you do not. What I say in "Playing on purpose," the exact words and the exact logic I used, permits the full range between the positions we present in the video.

That brings those positions into the category of individual spins (object of the game, Creative Agenda) on the same raw material (the Phenomenology series). And what's the point of pressing harder and harder on "why do you think that" for any individual spin? I could be asking you the same thing you asked me in this comment: "Oh yeah? What makes you think the Martian anthropologists wouldn't see that, when it's in front of their (however many) noses?" It wouldn't be any more or less reasonable an inquiry ... but all it does is seek some psychological "inside me" who meant or believes something. I genuinely don't care about that alleged "inside me" person.

I was careful in the video not to relegate the difference in those spins to a mere ideological contrast between typing is bad vs. types do too exist. For one thing, those two ideologies talk past one another and aren't actually a real opposition, and for another, their relative merits or demerits are indefensible articles of faith and not of real interest to anyone. You agreed to that as we spoke, and I got the idea it was for the same reason, that there's no point to wrangling over what amounts to metaphysics, especially when (I think) neither of us leans that way philosophically.

Assuming that we're not going to elect ourselves the individual representatives of either ideology, or otherwise oppose "well I think there are types at that level and you can't prove there aren't," and "well, I say there aren't, and you can't prove there are" ... and I know I don't want to go that way for lots of reasons, e.g., it leads straight into Oprah or for that matter Trump land when the crowd members raise their hands in what they think is "democracy." Ahem. Assuming we're not going to do that, then what's the point of pressing harder into the individual spins?

I stand by the Phenomenology talk because I think there's room for what you're saying in it. And for what I'm saying (now, i.e., in this more personal space). I think it's the single best presentation about this angle on what table-top role-playing is, to date.

My two cents...

There is a lot to parse between the videos (and take even a longer time watching them because I often have to rewind to understand a word or two) and the long texts, so I am not sure I am getting everything right, but my take on the Martians is that, if they would watch humans play, they would say "wow, these humans really like competitions, among themselves or as a group against a game". Among thousands and thousands of games, I think that they would not notice anything even remotely so present in each of them and so necessary. And they would notice that the other "pleasures" of playing are subservient to that, socially (nobody would play Chess with someone who would care more about touching each piece for the tactile pleasure that winning the game)

So, for MOST games, what we call "step on up" would be considered predominant and common.  The object of every game would be in service of this overarching "purpose".

Vincent probably would not agree to this bit of RPG exceptionalism, but I think that rpgs ARE a very particular type of game, one where what we could call "group-shared creative story-making process" CAN be more important that step on up. Not "more important " as in "there is more", but more important in the sense of "what is more important for us", "what does it means 'to play well' in this game?".

I know A LOT of "storymaking games" where this don't occur. "Once upon a time", for example: you create a story, but the competition is more important than the story. Always.  I know others like that (the titles are italians so they probably would not say anything to you) where the object of the game is discard all the cards, or making more points, and the story created is used as a mean to that, as rolling a dice would be in another game. These games have "creating stories" as a "lesser" pleasure, on the level of "rolling dice" or "looking at the colored chips"

Games where it could be possible that the creative story-making process is more important than competition (with rpgs as a subset of them), can be said to being made for another purpose. And to "defeat" competition" as a purpose, it has to be on that same higher level.

The short version: if you look at Step-on-up (that is a way more common in games), it's easier to see that it's on a higher level. And if you look at the story-making process in step-on-up card games, you see that in these cases "making a story" is nowhere near the level of importance it has on story now games.

About probably the most important point: "does talking about this has any purpose? Don't you only need to know the object of the game", I have to agree with Ron that the rpg hobby is still way, way, way behind on that. D&D is still the "only rpg" for most players after all... and most rpgs don't state their object (or they don't have one and it has to be brough in by the players)

John Willson's picture

What I got out of this discussion:

Story-Now, Step-On-Up, or Right-To-Dream (if it exists) is not a property of the rules or mechanics of the game.  It's in how you play the game.  So we can't say "Game X is a Story-Now game."  This was a new idea for me... well, not exactly, but it revealed some inconsistencies hidden in the way that I thought about this issue.  I.e., I held the following conflicting ideas:

-- You can play D&D either Story-Now, Story-Before, or Story-later.  And/or Step-on-up.
-- Sorcerer is a Story-Now game.

Well, certainly any particular game may be more suitable to one creative agenda (or are we saying "purpose of play" now?) than the others, especially if the author had that mode of play in mind when writing it.

And, beyond the rules and mechanics, there's the game text.  I often find the GMing advice to be the most valuable chapter of any rulebook, and one of the most influential parts in how the game gets played.  The game text of Sorcerer, for example, definitely and explicitly guides the GM towards Story-Now play.

How is this discussion useful?  (I mean, it's also fun).  It's useful to be clear about which purpose of play you're going for, when you're creating a new game.  If your game is confusing or dissatisfying players, it may be because you are targeting multiple agendas, or have not clearly communicated the agenda to the players (which doesn't have to be done explicitly or in the terms used here).  Is that all?

Simulationism/Right-to-Dream doesn't exist?  It may exist in theory, but nobody plays that way?  Ron and Vincent seemed to agree on this point.  I'm trying to think of a counter-example.  What about wargamers, striving for maximal "realism" or "accuracy" in their recreations of battles?  How about rennaissance LARPers who speak in middle English, walk toes-first, and eat quince?  Maybe these are too far outside of tabletop role-playing to be relevant.

Certainly when I discovered D&D as a kid, I thought of it as an accurate simulation of medieval life and combat (I had no other point of reference), with logical extensions to cover elves and whatnot.  And when I discovered the Encumbrance rules, I wholeheartedly adopted them.  More accuracy is more better!  Everything on my chr sheet had a weight next to it.  Then I discovered that some spells required material components; I sought them out in markets, and tracked them on my sheet as well.  I loved every minute of that accounting work.

Although I'm all about Story-now play these days, and just can't ponder developing "balanced encounters," I sometimes feel a hankering for a good-old nostalgic tactical crawl.  Players vs. GM.  My character sheet vs. your dungeon.  Mark off another day's rations and bundle of torches.  Aah, so many games, so little time.

Ron Edwards's picture

You're right in your summary about "in" the game vs. "about how you play" the game. The crux, for all of this, is the meaning of how rules may be suitable regarding the latter. Especially when every imaginable attempt to divert or subvert that topic immediately gets squirted into the conversation, for reasons I will never understand.

My argument concerning utility is that, historically, no one really has had to choose between - for sake of argument - Step On Up vs. Story Now, when it comes to any fun/group human activity. It's been a given. And there are even interesting cases to enjoy considering, such as pro wrestling which looks like Step On Up but is actually Story Now (and that's not a derogatory statement, to the contrary, it awes me).

Whereas here, in this odd little thing we do, the crusty little street urchin of the Greater Gaming Industry, it is remarkably possible and easy to do either. And both are done. Maybe other "big types of how humans have fun" are done too, for all I know. And then there's murky shit in which nothing is done, conducted either in agony as people try or in an anesthetized haze.

The important point is to me is that, since either of those two important humans-have-fun-together purposes is available to this medium, - as you say - it's kind of stupid to be seeking both at once, or being utterly internally mentally borked about such goals at all (which since 1999 I have come to realize is more common). By definition, that's going to gum up the human fun.

It seems to me you aren't looking "up" enough. To you, it's still about whether you have encumbrance rules or not, and that's never been what it's about, not even back in 1999 for me. I submit that you could still play balls-on coherent Story Now with every bit of that accounting whatnot in there and highly tuned, integrated into that very purpose of play.

Granted, the precise design of a game very well suited to it wouldn't be the same as one which uses much of the same language and much of the same fine-grained mechanics, but is better suited to people playing Step On Up. That's important and I'd like to talk about it - have been wanting to talk about it for two decades.

But talking about the differences in those two designs isn't going to work if people think it hinges on whether, e.g., encumbrance rules are present or not. It would be about what those rules happen to do.

Ron Edwards's picture

Oh yeah - regarding your "what abouts" re: verisimilitude or thespianism, the presence of such behavior is no indicator of purposes of the sort I (but not Vincent apparently) am talking about. I have never advocated the "tell" method of talking about these purposes; such talk was always a wrong direction at the Forge that I argued against. To answer clearly: during role-playing and therefore necessarily focusing on the production/development of the fiction, doing or not doing such things is not going to tell you anything about the social-and-creative purpose at hand. They may well qualify as "why" someone or someones do it at the psychological level, which is not important to me, so again, so doing any of that could be there, might not be there, I don't care.

I could have begun all that by saying, "that's not role-playing," but in order for that not to be perceived as a dodge, I answered regarding role-playing with those things in it first. So now, regarding those other activities you mentioned, none of those things produce fiction so the single question I have raised, about social-and-creative purposes for doing exactly that, can't even be asked.


I found this discussion extremely interesting, and particularly so because I can see the strength in both Vincent's position and Ron's.

I simply cannot believe that a simplification like placing the creative impulse driving us to gaming in the first place into two or three neat boxes (although Ron's point that they are not necessarily all that *neat* is well taken) is ever going to be an accurate reflection of reality.

On the other hand, Vincent's "objects of play" seems to discard some of the explanatory and design power of Creative Agenda analysis. Perhaps, once we have a better formulation for how to discuss and describe "objects of play", that point of view will become a stronger tool. 

"Objects of play" say: "Here's what we're trying to do when we play this game, now let's go about it. What are we playing to find out?" The flexibility of discarding rigid categories and the potential to expand well beyond RPG exceptionalism is very appealing.

This seems particularly useful in terms of game design and in terms of marketing.

The concept of Creative Agenda, on the other hand, seems to ask: "What fundamental human drive might be behind our desire to play in the first place? Can we cohere around that as we play, or do we experience dysfunction because we misunderstand each other's motivation to play this game in the first place?"

This seems particularly useful when it comes to troubleshooting problems at the table, and figuring out what sorts of "objects of play" might be effective in hooking players, in the first place.

Some observations and a question about Simulationism:

1. I only recently learned that my understanding of the Big Model was somewhat "heretical", in the sense that I considered Creative Agendas to be somewhat fluid and overlapping. (That, for instance, Jane's Story Now game might have more elements of competition in it than mine, and that removing those elements might ruin it for the players.) 

I saw the necessity of cohering around the *particular game's* Creative Agenda (as opposed to "which category of Creative Agenda it falls under") as being of primary importance.

For this reason, I find myself in an awkward middle ground between the two positions you're presenting here - my original, personal understanding of Creative Agenda seems to straddle the divide between these two points of view anyway.

2. Ron, I really appreciated your description of play which hangs tightly to the procedures of the game themselves, and replicating them reliably, as the goal of play, instead of looking for creative or emotional payoffs. I've seen this a LOT in gaming groups, including one I just recently joined for a handful sessions and then had to quit.

It sounds incredibly familiar when you put it that way, and really resonates with me.

3. The incredibly angry and acerbic reactions people have to the discussion of such theory *at all* is also just as incomprehensible to me as it is reliable. It's beyond me to understand, but it is ever-present. If someone could ever explain that, it would be an incredible breakthrough (and perhaps a first step towards world peace). I've seen it in real life as well as on the internet.

4. My question:

To say that there are games which support and focus on satisfying a Step on Up agenda or a Story Now agenda (thanks to Ron, the Forge, and the whole Story Now school of game design which came out of that!) seems almost self-evident at this point.

What about Simulationism? Are we to leave it by the wayside?

I can see that argument. I used to identify myself as a proud "Simulationist" (in the Threefold sense), and the idea of modeling virtual worlds and playing out stories in them seemed like the ultimate goal of exciting gaming.

Over time, I have seen what you describe here: never has a game I've participated in actually delivered creative and emotional payoffs simply by modeling in-fiction causality. Either it becomes a playground to showcase cleverness and to face challenges, or someone has to step up and introduce some thematically or dramatically interesting content - that's when the game really takes form. 

Much of my GMing history consisted of such play: set up a "virtual world" or playground, and then expect exciting play to result. Eventually, I'd have to drop the facade and introduce dramatic elements (even if it was just "ninjas jump through the window") in order to actually get the ball rolling. The players had a blast, but I felt like I had let myself down every time.

However, the Big Model definition of Simulationism/Right to Dream is much broader than that.

If we are to throw out the Right to Dream as a potential motivation for play, how do we explain playstyles like the following?

a) Immersionist or "dollhouse" play, where the joy comes simply from inhabiting an unfamiliar character or unfamiliar circumstances, absent clear conflict, theme, or challenge.

I've seen people enjoy forms of play where nothing really *happens*, but a Shared Imaginary Space is created, people embody characters, and the resulting experience is enjoyable. Many LARPs come to mind (as John Willson mentions, above), but the same style of play could be done at the table.

Rickard Elimaa's game "Imagine" comes to mind as an example.

I don't have a lot of experience with this kind of play myself, however.

b) Games which seek to emulate or recreate familiar tropes and success is felt to have been achieved when a "typical story of type X" is successfully recreated.

I liked Ron's use of the word "celebrate" in descriptions of this kind of play: we like a certain thing SO MUCH that we just want to have more of it. Perhaps, at some level, it's akin to rewatching a familiar film or TV show simply because we have good memories of watching it the last time.

I see a lot of play take this form, and some games (e.g. FATE, like Spirit of the Century) provide tools to recreate the same thing over and over (if my Aspect is "I like to break things!", we can play session after session where I... keep breaking things).

We draw joy from the familiar, from the recognizable. A Call of Cthulhu adventure which gives the players opportunities to act out their characters quite predictably going mad and dying at the end of a nonsensical but evocative descent into madness comes to mind. 

Something like the extremely popular "Critical Role" campaign on YouTube (quite a remarkable phenomenon!) comes to mind, as well. The players are there to experience the GM's pre-written story and they draw creative satisfaction from recreating a certain character stereotype over and over. Much like a sitcom, we laugh or grin because Kramer entered the apartment in *that particular way* yet again, just like he always does! (I see a lot of this in the few session of Critical Role I've managed to watch, and it's genuinely delightful, at least to the participants.)

Where do we see such play as belonging, from the perspective of a Big Model with only two Creative Agendas? I could see arguments to the effect that it is not functional gaming, but that seems like an awfully condescending position to take when so many people play in this style.

Thanks for the excellent discussion, gentlemen. I look forward to more.

Ron Edwards's picture

I hope my imminent reply to Vincent will address your first points about objects of play vs. purposes of play. Briefly, we are obviously not talking about the same things. Therefore finding a middle ground is unnecessary, as nothing he’s saying about procedural and interactive objects within games is refuting my points about social and creative purposes of games. Nor vice versa, which I trust is not important to say because I wasn’t trying to.

I completely agree with your point that focusing on the object is better for play, for design, and for promotion ... as long as one is not borked and twisted up in easily-identified subcultural myth regarding what I’m talking about. I stress again that phenomenology is not the same as what it feels like to do or the same as what you go through in crafting the methods for one. People who study phenomena are forever enduring others’ complaints that they’re not getting “what to do” instructions out of the conclusions. Understanding at this level is more about what gaping stinking pits you don’t want to fall into, and about clearing the air of historical vapors from those pits, not a directive for precisely what to do. At that point, I merely say, now that you know what’s real, go do something.

I think Vincent’s so past that point that he’s forgotten what it was like to be all knotted up in the hassles, when one’s best efforts to play and design were hampered at a root level, for oneself and for the others involved in the game. That goes with what I was saying at Santiago’s Cthulhu post too, that understanding my “purposes” tends to render them non-problematically invisible, after not too long, so the person is saying, “but that’s not a thing.” It isn’t – now, to them.

Regarding your “a” question, I’m still waiting for a role-playing example. LARPs don’t produce fiction any more than “Host a Murder” does; fun as they may be, gaming as they may be, they’re not in my zone of discussion. And as soon as you find the LARP-y things which do, e.g. a lot of Jason Morningstar’s work, or Jeepform, OMG, there we are at Step On Up or Story Now.

Your “b” is a lot like where I landed after a few years of disucssion at the Forge, which you may remember from the “constructive denial” concept (I’ll include the links if you don’t). It still qualifies as the hypothetical case I allowed for both in the Phenomenology presentation and here in this video.

However, the reality does not yield much for me to follow up on the hypothetical. I caution you to avoid cherry-picking those short-term convention moments or other play events which set the bar for play quite low at “get enthused about X, declare victory when X is depicted, stop.” I call attention to what you already said so perfectly:

… never has a game I've participated in actually delivered creative and emotional payoffs simply by modeling in-fiction causality. Either it becomes a playground to showcase cleverness and to face challenges, or someone has to step up and introduce some thematically or dramatically interesting content - that's when the game really takes form.

Replace “in-fiction causality” with “genre and trope production” and I think it applies perfectly to playing as you describe in “b.”

Gordon C's picture

First part of the video, I was thinking all about Big GNS vs. little gns. The object of the game and the point of the object of the game both exhibit/include similar features. Often making it a mess to talk about.

As far as Step-on-up NOT being a source of furious offense? Admitting to all sorts of complexity, but - there's at least one GIANT counterexample. Look for those thread(s?) on the Gamism essay where someone deleted all their posts.

Simulation, as either or both of a) pure experimentation as it's own reward and b) pure genre/trope emulation as it's own reward: I'm quite certain I've seen 'em and can cite periods of play that're all about 'em. But press me as to whether or not they're sustainable, distinct objects/points of objects ... I dunno. MY enjoyment of "let's see how this understanding of/rules for FTL drives plays out" or "yup, just like Lovecraft!" as THE fun-thing seems to time-out before I could say "yes, I'm all about that." But that's just me. Both structured experimentation as a thing to enjoy and confirmation/reinforcement of what-I-already-enjoy seem like pretty high-level, very human-behavior sort of things we can observe humans enjoying, so certainly they're in RPGs. Agenda? Maybe. (Part of) Objects? Sure.

Jeez, I'm back in Forge-thinking mode (a thing neither all bad nor all good). So I'll get my "thanks to Ron and Vincent" and my "hope I say/said something useful" out of the way now!

That done ... here's where I'm left. Let's say:

1) Human beings have Agendas (I expect Ron wants to say something like "we see Agendas when humans play", which is in many ways better, but for here/now, imma gonna merge the phenomenolgical and the psychological. So I can split on a different axis).
2) Games have objects of play (There's also the designed game/system vs. the Boss-Baker Principle system, but again here I'm just merging 'em).
3) Games are designed by, and played by, Human beings.
4) Differing Agendas can keep play from being fun (no detail required here - I mean, I'm pretty sure you can say a LOT more than just "sometimes yes, sometimes no", especially considering the historical legacy of RPG play, but I think just "sometimes this is an issue" is enough here).

So I'd say that what matters is when the Agendas across humans (in the design vs. in play and/or among players) conflict. The things is, we don't really see the "Agendas in design", we see the object of the game. And we don't see the "Agendas in play", we see people playing. A lot of the time, it doesn't matter - a good object can align Agendas, as can good play ("good" being a placeholder for much complexity). But it's worth pointing out this potential Agenda conflict hidden behind some levels of indirection because it explains one (ONE!) easily missed source of less-enjoyable play.

It's tricky that this one type was both a) pretty easy to see as common in a lot of RPG play, and yet also b) at least slightly over-diagnosed at the Forge.

Hmm... another way to talk about it is to say if we COULD just focus on the object of the game, we'd all be happier. I *think* I don't believe that to be possible, though - the Agendas are always there, too powerful to be simply displaced by the object.

Also, reposted/rephrased from YouTube on the "answering Vincent video: I think there's a SLIGHT overstatement about the disappearance of "purposes of play" in sit down, have fun, play-cards-with-friends activities. I think of playing poker with different groups in different contexts, and: why and exactly how are we doing this fun poker-thing can matter. I've seen the need to distinguish a friendly game from a cut-throat game.  Not sure that aligns with Agendas, but discussion-of-purpose happens. Not always, but also not rarely. See also, maybe, just about any game of Diplomacy I ever played. And come to think of it, as was discussed at the Forge (right?) "Once Upon a Time", the card game.

Ron Edwards's picture

You're demonstrating, I think, why we don't have to get bogged down in any of this. Sure, click on any one thing either of us said, and it expands into a few nuances and footnotes. But your phrasing,

if we COULD just focus on the object of the game, we'd all be happier. I *think* I don't believe that to be possible, though - the Agendas are always there, too powerful to be simply displaced by the object.

is both necessary and sufficient, making all those footnotes completely irrelevant except insofar as one wants to be a Forge/related-sites scholar or otherwise dabble in-and-around how gamers have confused themselves.

It's time to grow up. The Forge/related-sites were grad school, and grad school turns into kindergarten II way too easily. As far as I can see, Vincent in however friendly a way is trying to drag me back into that ... and I'm not gonna go.

Right now, you and I are playing two rather exciting games, especially since each is notable for its brutally-well-playtested complexity. Each therefore requires a learning curve, and each is blessed by that learning curve proceeding nicely in tandem with feeling one's way into the characters and setting. This is real meat for discussing what we're doing, why we like it, and how it works. Right now, not in the past; right here, using the plain language as I've done in the talks.

Wasting my time on whatever neurosis specific persons chose to inflict upon us at the Forge is not.

Gordon C's picture

Ron -

Yeah, you picked a great "this is the important part" from my post. Getting more or less certain, and more or less detailed, about the importance and/or nature of Agenda vs. Object is perhaps interesting, perhaps valuable, but it's also an invitation to pettiness and going-nowhere discussion. Part of me is easily drawn in anyway, maybe beacuse the Forge&etc discussions close to that mode ended up having practical, real-play benefit for me personally.

But ... again yeah, we can certainly talk about play without resolving nuances of (to be reductive) Agenda and System, and history says we probably should. I'm in the camp where both Agenda and System Matter, and have some interest in the hows and whys of that, but I'd like to think I can enjoy/get value out of talking about play in any way, requiring only agreement on the idea that Play Matters. looks as it risk losing its job!

My experiences with this kind of play mirror much of what Paul said: for a long, long time I did search for the perfect "emulation", tinkering with rule systems to "get it right" (from modifying Runequest to various versions of Harnmaster), but it was always a personal desire, never expressed in any sort of group activity (after a while I realized that this personal desire, being ONLY personal FOR ME, was simply a way to get more frustration from my old playing group)

These days, when I am in a generalist gaming convention and I have to demo some indie games (and in Italian conventions a demo is a full game, lasting hours), one of my to-go games is "A taste for Murder" by Graham Walmsley. The big attraction for me is the reliability. After some very bad experiences, when in my enthusiasm I tried to play story now games with players I did not know (and after having a lot of games totally ruined even by only one or two of the players at the table), I stopped trying to show people the "best" games, the ones I liked more, and I started to use games that were reliable: that worked even with the players you could find at a generalist convention. (by the way I think this divetail into the discussion about games that are wind-up toys:  "A taste for murder"  probably qualify, but this only add to its reliability. And the gaming-at-convention scene, with a lot of people stuck playing D&D in their home group and only playing story games at convention - and even the way it's easier to demonstrate these games - could be a good explanation of their success).

A taste for murders works almost every time (I think I had only a single session fail, with a couple of players that were forced into play by a third but only wanted to show her that the game was bad. In every other occasion the game worked, and I am talking about maybe twenty sessions at this point, I played it at least four times just at the last Lucca...). Everybody know the tropes its based on. The "story" is rather fixed (after two turns there will be a murder, and the murder will be solved, always in the same way), and the creativity of the players is used only in imagining very bad things in the backgroud of the charaters they play and into thespian "acting out" as cartoonish parodies of english nobles. Everybody has fun doing that.

I don't play it with my home group. In part because I play it really too much at conventions, in part because with my group I want to try things a little more ambitious, the games that I could not play at these generalist convention (by the other hand I search specialized indie conventions to be able to play the rpgs that are too much even for my group...).  So it's a game that I value for its reliability, but not one of the one I like best.

The list of the games I prefer is topped by a long list of story-now games.  Even if it's not in the first places, A taste for murder is probably the first game in that list that is not story now. So I often have used it as an example of "right to dream" game, expecially when I was talking with comeone still fixated on the "simulationism = simulate reality" concept.  It's a fun little "pain by the numbers" game, that create a story but with no thematic play that I can discern, everybody has fun acting out funny characters and making fun of old Agatha Christie stories. It's celebrating the source material, right?

So, one possible explanation: right-to-dream exists, but I like story now more, it's for this reason that this little very reliable game don't get me excited like playing other story-now games (not every story game in existence of course...)

New possible explanation: right-to-dream doesn't exist, the fun we felt playing A taste for Murder is simply the fun of play-acting funny characters and making up terrible backstories

Problem: how could I could be able to see, in practice, the difference between these two cases? In both cases I would see what I see playing that game: reliable fun, but not as much as in playing my preferred games.

So... how we can say which explanation is the right one? We need someone who actually prefer these "right-to-dream" games, and not only as a forum stance or misunderstanding, but after playing and understanding both step-on-up and story-now games. Do you know anybody that qualify?

Ron, in the past you referred to right-to-dream play when you played some games, i remember your actual play posts about Dead of Night at the Forge for example. How would you characterize that game (and the way you played it) these days (you can use another game if you want, I cited it only as an example)

Ron Edwards's picture

I do not care.

I don't know how to say it any more clearly. This obsession with "what agenda was this session, what agenda is this game," is understandable as a stage of learning. As an endeavor, as an ongoing topic of analysis, as a subject that seems to command this level of attention - it's a sickness.

I downgraded purpose in the Phenomenology talk, not because I think it's trivial, but because talking about it is trivial - unless one is a role-player. I think you were absolutely right that the role-playing medium is ... sure, special, interesting, exceptional, in offering more than one purpose. It's an observation. But staying with that observation as anything but a relevant, easy point ... to wrangle over it, to dissect it, to get mired in whatever legacies others or we tangled ourselves in ... that's not interesting or important, it's sick. The point is to get out of that past; this incessant picking of scabs and eating them needs to stop.

Anything and everything important to be discussed about object of the game vs. playing on purpose is found in our game of Cold Soldier. That's what we should be doing.

Ah, but I am in "a stage of learning" at this point... I am trying to better understand the changes in your (and Vincent's) thoughts from that time. But OK. Let's talk about Cold Soldier.

I already replied to both your posts about that Cold Soldier game, when the discussion was on Patreon: it's your turn now.

Jesse Burneko's picture

So, I've been thinking about this video, a lot.

Thing 1: When I hear Ron and Vincent talk, I am very much reminded of the old college discussions about scientists vs. engineers.  Ron is the scientist observing the phenomenon of actual play, somewhat idependent of the game design components of the game at hand.  Vincent is the engineer looking at the design elements of the game at hand, somewhat independent of how they get put to use in actual play. 

They are literally looking at two different things.  Which is cool for me because I can sit and say, well, yeah Ron's talking about play and Vincent is talking about design and they work great together!

Thing 2: The Sim Thing.  When I think about Simulationism (or whatever) I think of two things.

The first is semi-scripted play.  The local LARPS around here have story staff members whose job it is to decide what big things are going to happen in the next session.  This often includes little personal things for individual players like, "Oh, Jon is going for Level 10 Necromancer, he needs his death ritual set up."  But it's also about big things, "The globin army is gonig to invade at 2pm" 

Then play is about enacting those things.  There's little risk of either winning/losing or of conflict stakes going in an unexpected direction.  If they need the goblin army to take hostages, they'll talk to those players in advance and say, "Hey we need you guys to take a fall."  It's basically heavily improvised live theater performed for each other with whatever little bits of side-drama indiviual sub-cliques want to play out for each other.

The other thing I think of is players getting huffy because play doesn't meet their outcome expectatoins.  You here phrases like, "It's not realiastic..." that such and such would happen.  Or "My character is all about..." something or other and thus and thus should happen.  Or "I thought this was..." this kind of genre and that would never happen if this were really that genre.

You can see this "appropriate outcome" fetishising in some game designs.  Mook rules come to mind.  They don't make things challenging (just the opposite).  They don't provide narrative conflict (just the opposite).  They are only there so the players can live out their fantasy that their swashbuckler (or whatever) can take on a dozen men by himself because that's what swashbucklers can do.

But the more I think about that, the more I find myself asking, is that fetishiszation of satisfying outcomes, really ever truly SHARED?  Or does it only come up so often because it's actually a defense mechanism substituting for "something happened in the game that I don't like" and rather than owning that, blame is laid at the feet of someone else for violating what "ought" to be a shared expectation.

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes and yes to all that, but beware, I'll be able to hand off that guy to you now, the one who always pops up and brandishes the old "Simulationism and fear" thread from seventeen years ago like it was some kind of moral lapse I'm supposed to be embarrassed by.

Plus, what I said to Moreno about caring about any of this "if there were Sim what is it" talk - doubled.

Zac's picture

Hi Folks!

Zac here, of the infamous Legend of the Ten-Thousand Pages Vincent mentioned. I think the most important, centralizing question in this whole issue about creative agenda and phenomenology is the one that got asked in the video ("Who the hell cares?") and I want to make an attempt to answer that question based on my extended reflection on the issue.

First, as a clarification, Ron said that the people in these sprawling phenomenological discussions weren't the people who are feeling the pain of game design mishaps, which is untrue in my case! What drove me to the internet to eventually stumble on the Forge and those ancient "GNS" essays was, at that point, multiple years of failed playtesting in the effort to design a roleplaying game that met our specifications. Even when several prototypes were very well-liked by playtesters, we found that design had, somehow, mysteriously deviated from our objectives and we couldn't get a handle on why this kept happening. This was compounded by the fact that we had designed many other non-RP games without issue.

Ergo, the whole reason I took to the phenomonology discussion with the many-paged zeal I did was with the goal of discovering what about RPGs, their medium, their mode of play, etc., made them different from other kinds of games in an attempt to shed light on the design and play process so that we could design strong games without issue and play without all of the many weird problems that seem to always come up when people try to engage this medium.

This is what I see as the real answer to the question "who cares?" Phenomenologyis an interesting topic, but as a purely academic activity, I see it as completely secondary to the real concern of grasping this new medium so that it can be played and designed well. That the industry as a whole still doesn't have a real handle on this medium is, to me, the reason it has always scaled poorly from a commerical perspective and remains a final, niche holdout in the increasing move to mainstream accessibility of virtually ever other major "geek" culture activity.

This is to me the central point of these discussions: how can we understand the medium enough to make it work? Whether or not any given player is "enlightened" by the Cult of Creative Agenda or whether we have mapped out and demonstrated every observable phenomen at the table is irrelevant to the most important game design question: did it work, and did the participants have a good time? Do they want to play again? Jann has been suggesting that the phenomenology discussion is, ultimately, a discussion for designers only, as much as all the complex math and logic for balancing a game like, say, Magic: the Gathering, need not be foisted on every player.

This is why I see the argument between Vincent and Ron (or anyone else) about "how many creative agendas are there?" to be mostly tertiary, which I think is what Ron has been saying in his repeated insistance that he doesn't care how many Creative Agenda there are. Vincent, I appreciate your concern that every RPG has its own unique dynamic life, and that, say, Sorcerer, Dogs, Trollbabe, and Cold Solider are too different to pin down to one totalizing creative agenda. However, it does seem that there's a real incompatibility issue that can arise when there's a conflict of interest about what people want to do at the table when it comes to what we've called "Step on Up" in the past. Here's my proposed articulation:

  1. Games have goals. "What's the object of the game?" is the standard question. We all get this.
  2. Traditionally, in every medium (card games, board games, video games, sports), games are about winning. Roleplaying games can certainly be about this too.
  3. However, because of their unique medium, rolelpaying games can also easily facilitate alternative objects of play rather than "winning" in the traditional sense. This is possible because of the emergent, collaborative, creative qualities of play that the medium allows.
  4. What form these alternative goals can take varies by game. How much, to what extent, and whether each one is uniquely different or whether there are possible sub-categories, is mostly an academic question and, my guess is, not super fruitful.

Conclusions: Roleplaying games are distinguished from other games by their imaginative medium, and can either have a "winning"-oriented object of play, like all traditional games, or an alternative object of play that's based on the satisfaction of various dramatic, story, character, setting, exploration, narrative elements, whatever you want to call them. 

I'm not trying to covertly talk about GNS or Creative Agenda, or anything like that. I think the terms I've used above, exactly literally, without any of the conceptual baggage of the old Forge terminology, is a strong starting place going forward.

What do you guys think? Vincent, does concur with your concerns? Ron?

Ron Edwards's picture

That's all the sort of stuff I was prepared to discuss as the paid-in seminar. I realize I made a huge mistake with this post - I should have answered everything with "that's good, it's going into the syllabus, see you in the seminar," and had Vincent do the same.

Hi, Zac! Good to see you.

Nope, not mine! Plenty of non-rpg games play out in their players' imaginations, and plenty of non-rpg games' objects don't involve winning. To me, you've said the equivalent of "sonnets are distinguished from other poems by their iambic meter, and they can be about love, like all traditional poems, but they can be about the wordplay instead!" I'm like, uh.

How about this: you've identified some features of games - an imaginative medium, objects that don't involve winning - that rpgs make interesting use of. Can we start there instead?

...Or, sure! That's good. Add it to the syllabus, see you there.

Santiago Verón's picture

My take on this, after reading what Zac said which strikes me as powerfully lucid, is that it's not enough to come at roleplaying games from a game design standpoint. I think Ron's and Vincent Baker's researches are at the cusp of breaking open our categories of thinking about fiction and games. In precisely the cultural time where that have been being eroded for quite some time. Greg Costikyan (and others, I assume) put it precisely at the 1970s, with the transition from wargames to roleplaying games, soon to be followed by computer games. Arguably one could point at earlier occurrences like Oulipo, Borges' writings, parlor games; and these days it wouldn't surprise me in the least if someone found out that the separation between stories and games is a European artifact of the 1800s, it something like that. Others might go further back, and out, and talk about how theater and sports have ritual origins, how it's all performance with a sacred function within. Or go way in, perhaps anthropologically, and talk about little kids and their meddling in bedtime stories. Or get all confused thinking about betting, about the identification in investment, and how people watch sports and want their team to win, or (again) little kids pick sides while following a conflict between characters in a cartoon and teasing one another about who won one the story is over (you guys ever did that?).

The thing is to approach this as game design you'd have to expand hand design as to include whatever the person did who made up the rules of improv theater. I guess Vincent, for instance, works with a very broad definition of game design since I've read him saying that what I'd consider marketing worries about how your game is received is also game design. (At least that's what I understood.) Like game design is all about predicting human behavior and building structures that help towards a given result, which doesn't have to be "be fun" or "have winners". My opinion is that Ron's at his most lucid when he says RPGs have put in the table for the first time the non separation of author and audience. And Vincent's peak of lucidity might have been when he invented the Two Timelines theory and applied it just as well to RPGs, platform videogames and movies.

So I guess my point is, and this is perhaps obvious, that I think it is completely possible to have a theory of game design that allows one to create board games, card games and videogames, but fails spectacularly at roleplaying games because it turns out to have been restricted after all.

P. S. With all theories, I think it's very telling to look at what they define out of them. I've seen scriptwriting theory that leaves out narratives that aren't stories (good luck planning a music video), comics theory that leaves out one-panel jokes and photonovels (did you guys have romantic fotonovelas, back in the day, like we did?), and game design theory that leave out "software toys", puzzles, and of course, roleplaying games.

Ron Edwards's picture

Again, that's a fine thing to develop in the structured discussion format of a seminar event. For example, I would be prepared to chainsaw the hell out of it to see if you could preserve anything really strong in what's left.

But as I replied to Zac, that's not going to happen here in these comments. I'm reconsidering the format and promotion of my pitches for seminar sign-ups, so that people know "this is it," they can't just pop stuff up here in the proposed seminar thread and expect a full-on university-grade treatment as a free or very-nearly-free forum activity. No more intensives by email either.

About the seminary scheduled for the 7th of February (I didn't sign up), it's still not clear to me what happened:

1) The seminary did happen as scheduled (and will be able to watch it later)?

2) The seminary was posticiped to a later date, still undecided?

3) The seminary was canceled?

Ron Edwards's picture

No one signed up so there was no seminar event. Vincent and I did have a Skype talk but mainly about other stuff, and mainly for fun.

This was a very painful and expensive lesson for me. I've learned the following things.

1. No topics discussion in Seminar sign-up threads. The only response I and whoever else is officially involved should give is, "good question, if you sign up, we'll add it to the topics to address,."

2. In the sign-up post, I need to outline the activity that the seminar will entail: what kind of discussion, what kind of lab-type activities, what kind of work, what topics are primary. It's not just a hangout and chat-up; people need to see that this is something that they can't find anywhere else.

3. I somehow need to get it across that it's not a live-streaming event that you can just come watch when it's happening, but an off-site, recorded event that will be posted later. Therefore without sign-ups, it won't happen at all.

4. Obviously it needs some external promotion and the right kind of timing and build-up.

Figuring out how to do all of that is my next task, although at the moment I'm pretty demoralized and upset, to the point that helpful suggestions will infuriate me. I have buckets of helpful suggestions from people who won't do anything. I'm open to very tangible, very real help and action.

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