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Conversation: Rules, Authorities, and PbtA

If you were following the development of Champions Now a while ago, you may remember the memorable game played at the Gauntlet which I adapted into the examples in the game text (Values and family, not necessarily family values). Pawel played Grimfire in that session, and a lot of his input found its way into the developed concept for the book.

Play and design discourse has been booming in Poland, and Pawel contacted me for some discussion because my old Forge essays are getting worked over there. This is the first of our conversations about his experiences and how my ideas might relate to them.

My first point to anyone reading this is that "playing on purpose" (formerly Creative Agenda, formerly "GNS") is not at all the place to start. Back then, for me and people talking with me, it was the right place to start because we did not struggle with the medium, and issues of purpose were easy to clarify. Unfortunately, the hobby had been through a dreadful wringer during the 1990s, which I had missed due to focusing on play rather than purchasing culture, and the people arriving to the conversation were unable to discuss playing on purpose, because the medium itself was eluding them.

Zac Porcu gets credit for pointing this out to me - that addressing the medium as such was the right place to start. I put that idea into practice with everything I've done here at Adept Play.

Therefore although Pawel's proposed point for discussion look very GNS-y:

I'm very interested in understanding why I love some games like PbtA and don't enjoy others like Warhammer, DnD or Genesys. If I like PbtA, then why don't I enjoy Fiasco or other GM-less titles? I would describe myself as loving Narrativism, but not enjoying Gamism or Simulationism, but according to what you wrote, is that statement false? or not how RPG theory should be discussed?

I often find myself in position of teaching or showing RPG games to new players or introducing new players to for example PbtA games, and I wonder how should I introduce them, show them the difference - because they are very different and playing PbtA as if it was DnD is not working. So how do I talk about differences not using Narrativism or Simulationism as my main reference?

... we focused this time on what he experienced across a range of PbtA titles, and how that related to Authorities and the general medium of play. We've talked about some of these issues before (see Monday Lab: Engine Rev, as well as the sundry post about Dungeon World) but I think I'm finally getting my feet under me about the topic.

From here, Pawel and I are going to continue into the "purpose" issue soon, and I hope the eventual series will serve as a good orienter for anyone who encounters those essays and wonders how they may apply today.

 

Department: 
Seminar

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Pawel and I met again to address some topics he listed on Discord, including my current applications of the topics at the Forge and how people struggle with unfamiliar arrangements of Authorities.

The video is here. It is a real beast of content, arguably too much and too dense, even for us as the participants let alone someone watching it. As a production, anyone with sense would go back and mine it, then stitch the pieces together into something punchy, possibly with intertitles. This is where my tendencies toward cinema verité are probably doing me no good, as far as presentation is concerned.

Even more so, there's some parallel with the Dobre Rzuty interviews, so the two sets of conversations are almost one big one, as if Maciej and Pawel were a dual interview team.

Even worse, there are parts I left out, as they are really a big subtopic and very thorny: my thoughts on Fiasco and other named names as vehicles for colorful isolated performances rather than producing "fictional stuff" (I believe I am supposed to say "diegesis") in a responsive way among one another. In this case it really would benefit from editing it down into a less-naturalistic form, and if I do that, I'll do it honestly with lots of presentational framing, and if I do that, that's a lot of freaking work and isn't happening today or tomorrow.

All that said, it's a great example of, as I see it, how people should be digging into anything I've said that interests them, with strong questions and readiness to address whatever seems unsupported or incomplete.

Sean_RDP's picture

I enjoyed the listen and took some notes on things I wanted to ask about.

Skilled Group

Pawel mentioned that and I see it come up in discussions here and there. I am not saying its a foriegn concept to me; the idea of an experienced group is something I have used in the past. But what constitutes a skilled group? Why is it (or is it not) important. 

Hero Before Fortune

In the second part (I think) there was brief talk about points or dice used to change outcome. I thought of the Hero Point discussions. But would getting the bonus dice before knowing the result, be a similar abrogation of the result or would that be a much better way of handling things like bonus dice and hero points. Right now those of us playing Heavy Gear have run into Emergency Dice by spending XP, but it is spent before the outcomes are known. I say run into, but I think I am the only one using them so far.

Character Authority vs. Player Authority

When the conversation about authorities was taking place I thought about what authority a character has and is that important to system and or play, or just part of the color? My thoughts went to a Magic User in Holmes vs. a Wizard in D&D 5e or even 4e (or 3e).

A Magic User in Holmes (and the elf) has almost exclusive domain over magic in the party. Where the Wizard in 5e barely has any interesting abilities let alone any cache regarding magic. Another example could be a Melnibonean sorcerer vs. a beggar. Both charcters have different authority in different situations. The Jedi/Sith and the Force the same thing.

Maybe this is niche protection or maybe Character authority is interesting just not in the way I am presenting it.

What is the Book For?

Towards the end I think there was some discussion about GMing and pedogogy. I was writing a blog post at the same time where I was talking about "rubbish" that is included game presentation (I hesitate to use the word design) and why there is ever any GM secret sauce. This may be just me thinking out loud, but I do not think you can distribute authority if some of that authority is behind a page-wall (in the same book) or a pay wall (buying the GM book). Though I do think there is merit in a section that talks about techniques in play or authorities. I dunno.

I do know that RDL is now going to have a more extensive "how to play" based on that conversation. 

Page-walls and Pay walls and distributed authority.

Sean wrote:

" I do not think you can distribute authority if some of that authority is behind a page-wall (in the same book) or a pay wall (buying the GM book). "

I'm kind of confused by this statement. How authorities are distributed during play depends on the understanding shared by the players and, to my mind, has nothing to do with who has the book. Can you explain further?

Sean_RDP's picture

I do not think that you can have understanding without access to all of the information. And yes one person can buy the text (book) and share it out as needed, but if your design secrets some information as GM only I think that creates a cult of the GM mentality in the design. It may be nothing more than symbolic, but in my mind it creates a disparity in power that does not lead to good play. 

Maybe the easiest fruit to pick, sorry D&D, is a player knowing monster stats. "Don't read the MM" or "Forget the stats please, don't use what you know!" It relies on keeping the player ignorant. Well as the DM/GM I have authority to make changes to monsters, so who cares if the players know all their weaknesses?

Ron Edwards's picture

I am also completely confused by what you're writing here, Sean. It doesn't seem to have much to do with the term "authority" as I've been careful to specify. And I've tried, but I can't figure out what you're saying even when I put my own meaning/definition aside.

Sean_RDP's picture

Well let me marinade with it a bit and see if I can explain what I mean better. 

Sean wrote: "I do not think that you can have understanding without access to all of the information. And yes one person can buy the text (book) and share it out as needed, but if your design secrets some information as GM only I think that creates a cult of the GM mentality in the design. "

Are we talking about a case where the GM secretly knows some authority he has and doesn't share it with players? There's certainly one common authority that many texts recommend to GMs: fudging dice rolls in service of some agenda. This sets up the mechanic that is purported to decide outcomes as a smoke screen for GM fiat. No wonder the GM becomes a mystic figure! 

However, aside from secret changes the GM can make to details only he can see, I have a hard time thinking of any other authority that does not require player buy in. Any game requires that the players (including GM) have concensus on the rules, otherwise it is no longer a game. You can't play tennis if one person thinks hitting balls into the net scores points while the other is focused on getting over the net.

Also, I don't think your example of "Don't let the players know the monster stats" is a useful example. It seems to me that monster stats are part of backstory. If the GM is understood to have authority over backstory, as many very functional and enjoyable games require, then that's just the tennis net.

I think your assertion "I do not think that you can have understanding without access to all of the information" is too broad to make a meaningful point. I have a feeling that you do have a point to make, but I can't see it yet. Can you be more specific about what kind of information you're thinking of and what specificy handling of that information you're thinking of?  

Ron Edwards's picture

I pulled this from the middle of the conversation to be its own thing: Constraints for consequential play.

I'll admit: I'm kind of scared. One does not lay the hammer down on Blades in the Dark and Fiasco without self-excommunicating from indie-ness, in today's RPG subculture.

As I mentioned to Pawel, this topic is in dialogue here at Adept Play, rather than my thoughts in the cnversation being my mountaintop pronouncement ... with the chance that anyone would appreciate that point being exactly zero.

Toward the end, you'll see that Pawel rightly brings up purposes of play ... but it takes me a second to realize that he's going down what I consider to be a heinous rabbit hole - indeed, the very essence of what I consider the ruination of Forge thought & action at Story Games and related places, and I wrap it up a little bit, knowing that all of us, agree or disagree, can work it over here in the comments.

Ron Edwards's picture

I need to make a big sticker and stick it onto something that displays prominently during my videos:

It's not a question of what the next player or the GM can do. It's a question of what they have to do or have to take into account.

Twenty-five years ago, I was confronted by the claim that whatever unhelpful or outright non-functioning presences or absences may be found in an RPG's rules, it's OK "because a good GM can always do something right here and make it work." Same thing right here.

Simon Pettersson's picture

I'm very glad you posted that excerpt. I find it hard to get myself to listen to seminars or conversations that are many hours long (unless I'm in them!) but this was just short and focused enough to get me to watch it and have some thoughts. So:

I haven't played Blades in the Dark, but I absolutely recognize the phenomenon you're talking about, and this excerpt really helped me understand what you mean when you talk about one situation imposing constraints on what happens next. When this happens in improvised, GM-led play, I've been calling it "Gromit railroading". This happens when I GM Lasers and Feelings. I'm improvising, but I'm just throwing obstacles on the characters and none of their decisions are really meaningful in terms of the story. This also helped connect the concept to Fiasco, which I hadn't thought about, but absolutely recognize, and helped me figure out (more than before) why I don't like it. I had previously talked about how the prep we do is inconsequential, but I think that's just feeding into the larger problem you're discussing here. So thanks! Now, two comments:

First of all, having the next scene depend on the last is not something you need mechanics for. I don't think you explicitly said it in the video, but sort of implied it. It's quite obvious that, for example, in our Hantverksgruppen game of wagnerian myth, when I set a scene of the wedding between the trickster Jarmir and the princess Sighild, and another player (I forget who) bursts in as the tricked warrior Odo and slays all the guests and Jarmir himself, that's going to put some serious constraints as to what happens next. In many turn-taking scene setting games, I find people saying when it's their turn "Well, I had a scene planned, but this thing turned everything upside down and now I have to rethink". I think this consequential play is quite natural, but it can be removed by various mechanics. It can also be created or intensified, of course. And of course it's system in general that does it, not just mechanics. The prepared dungeon of a dungeon crawl creates it. The improvised GM style of Lasers and Feelings removes it. I know you hate me talking about "mechanics" as a separate part of rules, but I needed to make this point. :D

Second, an important part of this is "consequential for what?". One of my favorite games is Montsegur 1244, known in my playgroup simply as "The Best Game", and it's heavily railroaded on the larger scale. The episodes in the game are pre-scripted to the point where there are texts to be read aloud at each chapter. You start by assassinating the inquisitor, then the castle gets sieged, then it goes from bad to worse, when the gascognes climb the hill and you lose the tower, then the catholics win, then everyone in the castle has to choose between forswearing their faith or burning at the stake. Nothing the characters can do can ever change that sequence. It's scripted. You cannot win.

That's completely fine, though, because that's not what the story is about. The story is about these individual people and their faith and their hopes. If Garnier loves Esclarmonde and tells her he wants her to renounce her faith so they can live on together, that's extremely consequential for what the story is about. It's all about what Esclarmonde and Garnier will answer when the inquisitor asks them if they renounce their heretical faith and accept the Heavenly Father's forgiveness. The game has pregen characters (though sparsely detailed) and an extremely scripted procedure, but we've had some amazing and very different sessions when playing it. In one session, I play Pierre Roger, who's responsible for the defense, as an arrogant asshole, and in another, another player plays him as a tortured man, crushed by his failure to defend the castle. That difference is extremely important for what the game is about, and the fact that it's impossible for Pierre Roger to actually defend Montsegur doesn't take anything away from it.

Importantly, though, the game is completely transparent about this. Everyone knows that this is what's going to happen. There are no rolls where we see how the defense of the tower goes, even though the castle is going to fall even if we defend the tower. There are no scenes about how the defense is going to happen. Should we storm the attackers or stay behind the walls? That's, again, not what the game is about, and it doesn't pretend like these things matter when they don't.

And I think this is important. Decisions can be consequential on different levels and in different ways. You could have a game where the decision whether to charm or kill the guard is hugely important, even if it doesn't affect the success of the game, because it affects who I am and what I'm prepared to do to get the money, and that's what the game is about. It doesn't constriain the next scene when we see if we succeeded in the score, but it does constrain the scene where I come home to my family after having killed a man. That's not a defense of Blades, which I again havent' played but I absolutely recognize the phenomenon and I suspect I'd agree with you it's bad design, it's just a comment on how different games and different themes can make choices consequential in different ways.

Ron Edwards's picture

So. Much. Agreement. When I first encountered your game designs, this is what I was interested in knowing, because it is always what I'm interested in knowing. And it's why I like them, and why I like playing with you.

Briefly and one-two-three punch style:

  • Uncertainty (as per Rickard)
  • Constraint (specific to my use of the term "authority")
  • Lack of consensus regarding the use and outcomes of any procedure

The latter is still "in progress" regarding how I articulate it. I'm not talking about the necessary interconnections and listening that apply to play as a whole, as a social-creative phenomenon. That's not consensus, it's much bigger and more important, and should never have to be negotiated during play. I'm talking about the way a given job to do (to say a thing, ultimately), belongs to a given person during play, and given whatever constraints are in operation (rolling a die, reading a table, considering the just-stated fiction), it is their job to do it.

I completely agree with you that no physical instrument or pre-coded information is necessary. The prior fiction serves very nicely as such a constraint, if it is obligatory to use it. It means when person A says X, then if it's my "go" to say what happens now (by whatever constraints, et cetera), then X fucking well stands in terms of what I can and cannot say.

Here's what I just wrote at Discord, following the comment I posted above.

You know, an actively bad textual rule is something I can live with and is easily solved. I say, "Hey people, look at this, it's ass, or at least, it's not right for us. Let's do it differently." And from now on, whatever we say about it in this conversation, that's the rule. But anything which looks like action or activity or resolution, but which generates nothing that "next person" has to take seriously as an established thing that happened ... that's worse than merely broken or messed-up mechanics. That's an active flaw in the actual game.

And:

And you know what? It's the same thing if some kind of resolution or "you say it" step in the game turns to someone and says, "create something," but there is nothing to work with. It's what Rod called "making the GM jump through an s-shaped hoop" when you roll 7-9 in some PbtA games. Again: no working content, which is a productive constraint by definition, means the ball hits the floor and goes flat, and guess what, pick it up, pump it up, toss it up again.

I am extremely grounded in saying this.

Also, I really, really don't mind about your particular use of terms like "techniques" or "mechanics," I am not an ogre who insists everyone must use my terms. I think the most important thing is that when I read your term "no techniques" for Hantverks, I know that you are absolutely talking about this exact issue. You are not saying "no constraints." You are saying "by setting aside familiar constraints, let's discover what other constraints we already use, or can discover."

Ron Edwards's picture

Who does the obliging? Not the textual rules. Textual procedures can never make anyone do anything. At their best, they inspire and delight, and are therefore worthy of being used as rules by the humans. At anything except their best, they are merely raw material for the humans to do real game design at the table; oh yes, and at their worst, they present terrible things which no one should do, not because I "like" or "dislike" them, but for extremely solid social and creative reasons. There is no such thing as "adequate" or "OK" RPG design.

No, the obliging is among us, ourselves. I need to know that you will take what just happened seriously, with any and all procedures for how we found out what happened being set aside in a lovely bag to sit in together, for purposes of this point. You may assess them for relevance and consequence, you may interpret those things differently from what I might, but that is OK - it's your turn, not mine, and you have this job to do. What matters is that you do not have the option to decide whether what just happened is worthy of consideration - no matter what "amazing conflict" you dreamed up a while ago and have been ready to deliver, or whatever other non-attentive content you have just spitballed just now.

There is a lot of material here at Adept Play to assess in this regard, especially in Consulting. I really had a hard time helping with Tales of Entropy on this basis, and our recorded sessions very definitely show why. Most of the time it works well: House of Spiders, Compact Stories ... even the title for the latter play-and-consult sessions says so: How "right now" turns into what happened. I think that went extremely well, and I also think Finding direction, about Directions, was a great two-way street for BPG and me. Over and over, I have to try to communicate that what they think of as freedom is actually a curse - that freedom to create thrives on constraint regarding the procedure, from any of a zillion possible angles, whether harsh or loving or weird or gentle.

I use the Gromit analogy myself, as expressed first in some discussions (see links to videos, especially Emergent plot techniques, at the start of Workshop: The Plot Thickens , then developed in Monday Lab: Intuitive Continuity continued.

I've only read BitD so far and have been very enamored of its setting and various mechanics, but you make an excellent point (not just about Blades):

If I'm reading you correctly, a BitD caper will more or less play and ultimately play out the same no matter what, just like an Ocean's 11/12/13 movie. Maybe your crew will get a little heat, maybe they won't etc., but the details, while entertaining to come up with and listen to, don't matter much (i.e. they neither doom the entire enterprise nor cause a wild goose chase etc.).

With a classic dungeon and Holmes' D&D, you could get anything from A Simple Plan to The Raid or whatever. More importantly, the moment to moment decisions cannot help but deal with what's happened before -- you can't just pull out the perfect tool for the job at hand via flashback; you either brought a crowbar or you didn't.

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes!

With a couple of fun footnotes. First, that I think the Holmes D&D is head-and-shoulders above all the others by that name regarding this specific thing, which is definitely an opinion and preference, no argument presented.

Second, that I think the very concept of reproducible results has been a terrible thing for RPG design. It is not only important for a good RPG to vary in use due to usage, but for it to possible to be played badly or failed. This is nothing more nor less than the standard for musical instruments, and it is a great thing.

Ron Edwards's picture

I decided this part needs some more work.

Your final point about the crowbar doesn't follow, and shouldn't be included in my "yes." At the level of analysis I'm working at for this topic, retroactive techniques, with or without some determining mechanism ("roll to see if you have it" vs."I just have it"), are not different from preparatory ones ("Did I buy it? Is it on my sheet?").

It doesn't matter when the act of creation occurs in terms of the "thing's" functioning as an active part of play (diegesis, fiction, SIS, whatever you want to call it). That does matter in terms of the technique's interaction with other aspects of the system, which is why the prior purchase logic works fine in the Holmes D&D, but that is very game-specific and can't be addressed in terms of basic principles of play for the medium.

The question is, regardless of when the crowbar is invented and made ready for use, whether its production is subject to any constraint of the sort I'm talking about. Seeing the crowbar on a list in the text with a price in gold pieces or fractions thereof, and reducing your money currency to put it onto your sheet, is a good example. Another good example is Cover in Sorcerer, which permits a character to have whatever thing or knowledge or social details goes with that particular description, during play. In that game, the Cover description operates as the constraint.

A constraint may be quite soft and permissive. The negative casual use of the term is not correct - people confuse "constraining" with "restraining," that's all. The key point that I'm hammering here is, all that matters is that there is one, not how deterministic it is in terms of what you can specifically say.

If you haven't, check out Simon's work - he focuses hard on constraints that arise mostly from the prevailing aesthetic and the prior fiction, rather than things like crowbars on sheets, but absolutely on their presence and how they get established. His use of "freeform" is diametrically opposed from the concept that anyone can "just say what they want."

MasterRPG's picture

Hi Ron,

nice to meet you - I'm Matteo, a player from Italy (that's not really important but you know... maybe you will find it useful to know, to understand why my English will be no perfect). 

I read with interesting all comments (and of course, I watched all videos).
Also, I lurked a lot of time Adeptplay but I never wrote anything - most of the time I read, I thought about the messages and I established "oh, cool, I understand - I learned something new".

This time I have a couple of questions because in the conversation you never talked about something that - in my opinion - creates constraints during a score in Blades.

First I want to clarify that I think I got your point of view and I agree in a certain percentage: there are circumstances where what I said at the table doesn't create a constraint for the player who will talk after me.
In your video, the example is right: I killed the guard, the next player is not forced to use this fact as a starting point for his action - and there is no constraint for this player about that. The next player's action is not related to my action.

Your statement is "It's a question of what they have to do or have to take into account" - and it's a really interesting point.

So, let's go with my two questions.

1. the framework of position/effects and how they change and force players (and GM) to talk about the situation is not a constraint in your opinion?
If a score starts in a desperate position, and with my action, I change it to "risk position", that should be a constraint, both for the next player and the GM.
The GM rules force her to use this information (the position) to set the consequences and the obstacles (if we are in a desperate or controlled position the GM must choose from a different pool of options).

2. the NPC (both factions and single NPC) have an agenda. The players' actions can influence it, but the reactions should be based on the agenda.
So, i.e., if an NPC has an agenda "Avenge Roric’s murder" (I copy and paste an example directly from the rulebook), the reactions to the players' actions must be drive by it.
And that's a constraint - in my opinion. For the GM (she must create an emergent reaction based on the NPC's agenda and traits) and for the players (player's action -> NPC's reaction -> next player's action MUST take into account the reaction).

Or I'm missing something about these two rules parts?

Thank you so much for your time.

Matteo

Ron Edwards's picture

That's what I'm asking you! As well as anyone else who's played the game extensively.

First, let's get something clear. I am well aware that I've triggered the "diss the game" switch that activates people's worst argumentative behaviors, especially in an activity that's been captured by commerce as badly as RPGs in the past decade. Do not come here looking for a pit fight over whether Blades in the Dark "sucks" or "does not suck."  I shut that shit down about Dungeon World a couple of years ago and I'll do it again now. Believe it or not, I do not care about this or that game being good or bad in some hobby or popular sense, and I have no power to diss or harm any game or the people playing it.

But I am concerned with a phenomenon, not this or that game as a topic for thumbs-up thumbs-down. Regarding that phenomenon, if I were to target any game as definitely representative, it would be Fiasco. Blades is on deck for talking about the phenomenon, not on the block waiting for the descent of the axe or for rescue from it by a daring intervention.

With that said, let's see what you're talking about. I ask - again - people who have played the game extensively, including you: what does "force" in your description actually mean? It makes no sense as written. A game text cannot force anyone to do anything; as I like to tell the students in my design courses, when you publish a game, people are going to get naked and run off into the woods with it, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Nitpicking the text legalistically is not the point, however much it may appeal to those focused on attacking or defending the game. I definitely call out the Italian RPG community for being addicted to exactly that sort of legalistic masturbation, in chopping-block mode, and missing the point of understanding play.

The design question is always whether the game's textual procedures inspire you to use them as rules, and when you do, what happens. This particular discussion concerns whether activities during a caper provide non-negotiable constraint upon what the next person to talk says, or whether it's a matter of "well, they can if they want." I am not the right person to answer this or even to address it knowledgeably. I am the one with real but minimal contact asking this question.

For a relevant example regarding a game I do know better, I played a solid, complete saga of Dialect recently. The game text provides distinct authorities and constraints for its procedures ... except for one critical spot. When we applied the text as our procedure for that spot, it killed play at that moment to a significant degree. We had to step into that spot and effectively create a table-rule with its own authorities and constraints. (And I cast my eye at Robbie, who plays a lot of this "family" of games, and who I think does this quick-create management quite a lot when playing them.)

I think your description of the NPCs and Agenda is very strong. Help me to understand what you mean by this "forcing" you're talking about. Work backwards from play, not forwards from the text.

MasterRPG's picture

Hi Ron,
thank you for your reply.

First of all, I'm not super sure I'm using right the forum - is it right to push the "reply" button to my old post, keeping everything in a sub-thread? I hope so (in case I'm using it wrong, sorry for that).

I want to clarify I'm not here because I'm triggered - at all :D
I'm here because as a player (and as a game designer), I'm really interested in understanding what you're saying.
So, if some part of my previous post seems "rude" it's because I'm trying to avoid English mistakes and I guess there is some "formal style" in my write ^^"

But I assure you: I'm here to learn and to have a confrontation about the topic you're rising.

Speaking of: I will try to explain how the two points I wrote before - in my opinion - can answer the question: has Blades some sort of procedure that forces constraints for the next player who has the authority to talk?

In the video, you use as an example a dungeon-crawling situation:
* Player1: ok, I go left, opening the door. -> that changes the fictional situation (inside the room there is something that wasn't outside) and the next player (GM or PC) must take into account that.

Let's try to have similar examples in Blades - I'm taking them from my sessions.

1. Player1 is trying to unlock some sort of magic door in a haunted manor. Short version: position is risky and effect is standard. The player rolls the dice and it's a failure (1-3). As GM I cannot ignore their position, so I have used it as a constraint to narrate some sort of complication (an alert is triggered and a ghost hound now is seeking them - I drew a clock) and I changed their position in desperate.
Then I asked another player "what you do?". The other player cannot ignore the new situation (there is a ghost hound seeking you) and she decides to perform a ritual to create a ghost barrier. Again we need to roll the die. As GM I already know the position (desperate) because is part of the previous dice's roll consequences. And the player cannot ignore this information when she will decide what kind of skill she will use (or how many bonuses dice she will try to grab, in order to avoid a new failure).

2. The players in the past had covered the clues of a homicide. Someone killed Roric, and the players helped the killer to hide the proof.
There is a knowledge on the street" (you know, gossip, etc.) that somebody is investigating the homicide and seeking revenge. The players are a little bit concerned because they know their job wasn't clear at 100%. Someone, during the scene, was watching them.

After a couple of sessions, the players are trying to ask another NPC helps to improve their drug's market.
But this new NPC has an agenda. In the past, she was the lover of Roric and she's hunting the killer and whoever helped to occult details about the death of her ex-lover.

As a GM, I cannot ignore this fact - and also if in the players plan there is an interesting contract to improve their possessions (or if in my mind it would be more epic to give the players this contract because I'd like to see what they will do with more powers) I have a constraint and the NPC now - in response to the players' offer - is trying to kill them all.

In my opinion, these examples are very similar to your dungeon crawling example - if I understood right your example, of course.

Ron Edwards's picture

I am not sure whether you are seeing my point and disagreeing, or missing the point. It is in the text above which accompanies posting the video.

I need to make a big sticker and stick it onto something that displays prominently during my videos:

It's not a question of what the next player or the GM can do. It's a question of what they have to do or have to take into account.

Twenty-five years ago, I was confronted by the claim that whatever unhelpful or outright non-functioning presences or absences may be found in an RPG's rules, it's OK "because a good GM can always do something right here and make it work." Same thing right here.

I repeat it here because you are commenting in detail about what the group can do, which is not what I'm describing. I can do that too, probably since before most people reading this were born.

I suggest you focus directly on this core issue in one of two ways.

  1. Addressing what the textual procedures actually are. I am mildly interested in this topic, but I also think it's on me to read and play the game in order to conclude anything, so I don't need you to do it for me. Whether I do that depends on a lot of things - but I can tell you it's not a high priority. I'm not invested in Blades in the Dark. I do suggest reviewing the text yourself, only because here you are, clearly, invested (and that's not a bad thing, I know the word is used accusatively but I don't mean it that way). Please note I am not talking about advice, best practices, et cetera, but about directed obligations.
  2. Considering who establishes, models, and monitors the positive practices you're describing during play. It is at least one human being - "the game" does not do it and can never do it. The answer might be "all of us," or it might be one person who consistently does it for this or any game. As I tried to state in the previous comment, the question here is about what you and the others actually do.

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding play is the admirable, understandable skill people have developed to fill in what's needed, procedurally. That sounds crazy, right? How can that impede understanding? It is because they effectively redeem or at least custom-tune the textual procedures and enjoy themselves at the table ... then become defensive about the game as text or entity when its textual procedures are criticized. Why do they do that? Because they identify with ("know") the game as they play it, not as what it is as a text, and perceive the critique as an attack on playing the game at all, and without realizing it, reacting to a perceived attack on themselves.

The characteristic phrasing is something like this: 1. You cannot say that, this game is excellent, and your criticism is false. 2. That thing you identify doesn't matter, because a person "can" play it well (i.e., differently from what it says), like we do. 3. That criticism is textually valid, but if you do it the way I will explain to you ("understand the game"), then you will stop criticizing it and making people feel bad for liking it. 4. I and my immediate commuity can identify this textual point and criticize it, but you cannot, for we have solved it, so I "own it" as a topic and will defend the game to the death from now on.

LorenzoC's picture

A small reflection on something that was mentioned.

Ron wrote:

Twenty-five years ago, I was confronted by the claim that whatever unhelpful or outright non-functioning presences or absences may be found in an RPG's rules, it's OK "because a good GM can always do something right here and make it work." Same thing right here.

I have developed the opinion that what feels like good game design to me not only does not facilitates that "good DM makes everything work" process, but actually make that process much harder. The harder it feels like "fixing" a situation in a game as a DM, the better it's probably working.

 

Silly example: the D&D fanbase hate 4E's skill challenges, because they were "too structured" and "unpredictable".
I read that as: I can't go say "roll for this skill" and not care for what you roll because I'm thinking of what I will say no matter what, thus the game doesn't work.

Moving to Blades in the Dark, my experience with it is that it makes this process of self-fixing the core of the game.

And the core of the problem mirrors that typical D&D issue: outcome precedes the roll. I won't digress on how I feel some good principles of Forge game design went astray over time, but I feel like BitD is a very good example of a game that takes the "let's make sure what we're rolling for" idea to possibly undesireable consequences.

I think Harper is a talented designer and he identified and dismantled the issue on a macro level, particularly by having the principle that nobody makes a plan before the score begins, and we begin in the middle of things.
Many people protested this and most people I know do not play that way - they generally argue it's not literal, or more honestly say that "the cool thing about heist movies is seeing them make a plan and then seeing it go in a completely different way". Honestly, the biggest disappointments I've seen people having in actually playing BitD come exactly from this: the process of pre-planning how things should work and then rolling dice to see if it does doesn't work in actual play. I'm convinced Harper was well aware of this (and I wouldn't rule out there's something in the book about it, but it's been a while since I've read/played Blades).

However, the problem still remains on a micro level, ie when we're taking turns and doing things. Fiction is front loaded: we say what we want to do, often in painstaking detail due to the staples of the genre - we don't say "I try to sneak into the kitchen", we say "I find a waiter, then I take a couple champagne glasses from it and move through the room until I find the ambassador, and spill a drink on him, and then in the confusion I sneak into the kitchen". At that point, what am I rolling for? And so the game gives me incredibly generous odds of success and asks me to complicate things for myself or someone else in case I didn't roll well enough. But play happened before the roll, and this is so prevalent in modern game design. Sometimes, I feel like play happened when the author wrote the book, and it's pretty much exausted by the time we actually sit at the table.
So what happens next? Since I can pretty much trace the outcome to my pre-roll declaration, I could have anticipated the "consequences" at that stage, before the roll. 

I know this my sound extreme but I think we could experiment play in BitD by having us run a situation with people just declaring what the want to do, resolve eveything by having the content of those declarations happen, then go back and roll the dice and add all the complications and resource losses and extra narration that fills in for when a roll fails, and notice that the final outcome doesn't change. I'll admit that I've never seen a score fail or radically change, but I think the thing that doesn't really work (as I think Harper intended) is that you never see things go off rails. I think the idea behind the game is that sometimes you're trying to steal the diamond during the ball of the ship and you're imagining yourself smoothly going in and out, and instead you end up setting the ship on fire and fighting off the duke on the rigging while it sinks... but I've never really seen it happen. 

To borrow Ron's words, I don't know if what if feel like is that you're bouncing the ball and it flattens. But it definitely feels like you have the ball in your hands, you bounce it, it goes back to your hands, and you pass it around. And play mostly happens when people are holding the ball in their hands and thinking about what they want to do with it.

Just like the DM who says "roll for this" while thinking about what they'll have happen... except it's everyone playing this way.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Thinking about it some more, I guess this is part of the whole "musical instrument" thing. If the game is supposed to guarantee a good story from just following the procedures, you need to invalidate player choice, right? If the player choices are consequential, they might make the wrong choices, and then we don't get a good story! So let's make sure the choices the players take don't have the possibility of derailing the story. Removing the constraints is a tool for the game designer to make sure people don't "play it wrong", where to my mind, the possibility of playing it wrong is essential for it to feel meaningful to play it right, just like the possibility of dying in the dungeon is essential for the OSR crowd to feel it's meaningful to have survived. Removing the consequences of choices removes skill from the game.

Ron Edwards's picture

I agree. I think I'll go a lot further with the "skill" concept and say we are talking about whether people are removed from the game, meaning, the played/created activity.

Twenty-five years ago, I was confronted by the claim that whatever unhelpful or outright non-functioning presences or absences may be found in an RPG's rules, it's OK "because a good GM can always do something right here and make it work." Same thing right here.

Back in the bad old days, RPGs made promises they couldn't keep (The GM tells a story! The players can do what they want!) which led to dysfunctional power struggles (Illusionist GM vs. Problem Players) unless a charismatic/competent participant firmly took the reins as a GM to entertain everyone. (Byebye, agency, though.)

Today, various story games consistently deliver the narrow/focused experience they promise, at the cost of true agency (more precisely, a true back-and-forth which entails that one's contributions matter to the next guy's), right?

That does seem to be an improvement: expectations are met, there is no power struggle, nobody needs an auteur GM. The experience may fall short of the medium's potential but many people seem content. So what am I missing?

Simon Pettersson's picture

I see it a bit like this: In any game, some decisions will be taken by the formal procedures and some by the participants around the table. A large part of game design is to portion out these decisions and choose who decides what (where "who" can be "a die roll"). In the 90s there was a movement towards one extreme, where you'd make the participants take all the decisions and ignore or override the formal procedures. That's the "System doesn't matter" movement. Then in the 2010s maybe, there's another movement going in the opposite direction, taking the participants out of the picture and getting the formal procedures to do everything that's important ("System is all that matters"). These "movements" obviously don't cover all designs produced during these times, nor are they completely confined to those eras, but as a broad overview, I think one could describe it this way.

The way Ron (as I read him) and I prefer games to be, is that the formal procedures make some decisions, affecting the play and giving it a bit of structure and/or unpredictability (bounce), but that the decisions of the players should still have a profound impact on what happens in the game (ass in the chair/authority). That way you get this rich mixture where the game throws you some curve balls that you have to react to, keeping the game unpredictable and interesting, a sort of give and take.

I love that kind of game, and it's the kind of game I like to play. I think you can do a lot of the same thing by simply letting different players throw curve balls to each other, reacting to each other's ideas, without much need for the formal procedures to do anything but mediate this exchange. But that's just one way of playing, and I love getting bounce from the formal procedures, too. Just having the game throw the ball around while we all watch, however, is not very satisfying to me.

Ron Edwards's picture

(to Johann) I don't know whether you're missing anything. I don't think I agree with your characterizations, but I don't feel a big need to argue about it.

Presented strictly for comparison, not debate, so neither of us stands to win or lose: my view is that various story games are exactly the same as the 90s games. Both are transitive entertainmet both as texts and as procedure, both are purchase/product based on rising scale of continued investment, both deny agency in favor of improvised control. Shifting specific content creation from preparation to during play is not relevant, and it was the preferred way to GM anyway (see my analysis of what they called "intuitive continuity"), so it's not even new or different. Shifting creation from one person to round-robin is not relevant either - if you're railroaded, who cares if it's one person or five people or whether you get your turn to do it?

LorenzoC's picture

I'm bringing over some considerations that were made on the Discord server, pertaining the issues with game structure and consequential play.

To me this appears as a recurring problem with many structured games.

This of course being a complicated issue, a very basic observation I'd make is that there's several ways of creating games and making them work, but my impression is that there's a marked difference between games whose structure is a product of rules through play, and those whose structure is a product of rules, period.

Case in point: My Life With Master. The rules do tell you what to do and how the game will play and end, but once you start playing, you find out that it's people playing that makes the numbers add up and the situations change, and the rules do handle and integrate that play in the momentum, to the point that at some moment the game may change or even end with nobody really anticipating or gasp wanting it.
Now this is a complex process, that requires a lot of playtesting in order to see how people plays and what kind of play the rules produces, and how to make sure the rules don't lose that momentum but react to it and capitalize on it.

So a lot of designers seem content to have play happen in many discreet moments that work like clockwork within themselves, with no real foresight on how play bleeds from one scene to the next and how write rules that produce that kind of momentum, and replace that organic structure with something that says "ok, and now the next scene needs to be this" or "draw a card and create a new situation" or some general randomization model that ultimately means "DM, make up something".
And if for any reason they forget to write down that step, or if they don't have rules that create momentum, it sticks out like a sore thumb because play isn't telling you what to do next, and the rules aren't either.

Sean_RDP's picture

My impression is that this comes from an over-reliance and over-emphasis on technique as opposed to craft. Designers used to relying on improv as a survival technique as game masters, incorporate that into their games when going into design. Improv, which is a good technique to learn I think, too often becomes a crutch in play and thus becomes a crutch in design. That is just one example. 

And that is why I am learning to step back a minute from some of my designs. I need to forget all the lessons learned by maneuvering around a missing or badly designed feature and instead allow the design process to determine what healthy techniques to suggest in the game design itself.

Karaburan's picture

Ron,

I think I understand your point and agree with your analysis in regards to Fiasco. My experience with the game, the 6-7 times I have played it over the years, has never given me much satisfaction precisely because of its extreme freedom in procedures and the resulting workload delegated to the players at the table to reinsert their characters into a coherent and understandable situation. In practice, the total freedom of the next player to insert a scene in the past, in the near future, or in a location totally disconnected from the previous scene, has repeatedly canceled the efforts promoted by the previous players in developing their characters, forcing them to think in terms of "here and now" as a simple search for the black/white dice. In short, I happened to rethink the play in terms of totally disconnected scenes, almost like a "reset" of the characters in progress. I think the unfortunate role of "director" that I've happened to take on during some games, and even worse the pauses between scenes to think about "what would look good as a scene now", are clumsy attempts to reinsert procedures into a game that relies heavily on solid extra-diegetic arrangements.

I think that the procedure of attribution of the black/white dice should be considered on the same level: several times I have witnessed scenes that were cut short because a player, even though he had not finished expressing what he wanted to say, was blocked by another player and his dice, with the aim of closing quickly and moving on to the next scene. 

It would be interesting to connect these issues also to the Prologue: I found this phase much more tiring than expected if we compare it to a normal session 0 (and also quite long, I think it took us an hour in most cases). I think the problem was that as the connections and details were distributed at the table, there was a huge struggle not to slip into bargaining and pre-narration, going into defining even events much later than the game phase. But that's probably a topic for another thread. 

- Adriano

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Adriano, I greatly appreciate these comments and they fit well right here.

Karaburan's picture

I'm glad to hear it! I think I'm getting closer to understand some of the propositions developed during the video, and being able to draw a comparison with Blades. I'm especially pleased to see these two games addressed, because of their apparent opposition in terms of rules detail: it seems to me that we can more clearly understand how respect for the authorities in the game is not exclusively the result of the volume and detail of procedures written in the manual (the fictional division between "freefrom/rules light" vs. "storygames/rules heavy", whatever those terms mean), but the way they can influence how we take seriously or not the contributions of other people at the table. It would be interesting to extend these thoughts to my other personal experiences, though I need time to reflect further.

Unfortunately, my experience with Blades is much more limited compared to Fiasco: I read the manual and played a few demos, exclusively focusing on single scores. It seems to me, though, that I can see that same pattern unfolding whenever we refer to spending stress as a way to regain control of the outcome by the players, thus denying the unexpected, the surprise of a dire failure. As an example, when I GMed the game, the players triggered an alarm while trying to break into a vault on the second floor of an Iruvian politician apartment. The one who failed the action quickly corrected me by spending some of his resources; and like that, we now had a "softened" result, a mild disconcertment among the servitude downstairs. The fact that the outcome can even be completely denied (no alarm or noise at all) instead of being reduced makes me think that we're fighting for more control over the development of the score, where results become much more predictable for the participants. I wonder if it is the same for other games offering some sort of metacurrency (hero points, karma score, you name it), and if it isn't, what sort of criteria establish the difference.

I would like to talk about the Devil's Bargain, but I didn't have the occasion to use that mechanic. Similarly, I'm not sure if the results of the score effectively influence the rest of the game in a significant manner or not, like you mentioned in the video, since I didn't play past the guns-blazing scenes. But I'm following the topic and looking at other contributions of the participants, so far I'm liking what I'm seeing.  

Ron Edwards's picture

Fortunately lots of people here can help regarding Blades, so you and I can go into student mode for the specific and probably differing outlooks.

Regarding Hero Points and similar mechanics, take a look at these: Dice: the love, the hate, the fear, the need, which has a lot of content, but sets up very well for Hero Points in play, Hero Points and IIEE (2), and The Paris Lift.

Ross's picture

I've been a player in quite a lot of FitD sessions (Blades and also Scum and Villainy), so I have views about the system. About this:

The fact that the outcome can even be completely denied (no alarm or noise at all) instead of being reduced makes me think that we're fighting for more control over the development of the score, where results become much more predictable for the participants.

I'm not sure it actually plays as adversarial as this sounds. Certainly in my experience there has been a tendency for failed rolls in play, which as I understand it are supposed to mean both that your character fails in what they were trying to do and that there is a consequence to failing, to focus on the consequence bit. Certainly the people I have played with were reluctant to let these consequences stand and almost always used reaction rolls, and armour or special armour, to cancel them out. At which point having narrated a consequence, done another roll again with additional narration and cancelled the original consequence I think there is a tendency for murk to encroach regarding any actual failure, and the original action just becomes a non-event. This then means that the cycle described previously, where rolls and results contribute to establishing the position and effect for future rolls, doesn't really kick in.

I think this is not helped by the guidance on consequences for the GM being a bit sketchy, so very often defaulting to harm from a risk which hadn't previously been established, moving further away from the actual content of the original action. Incidentally, Blades GMs, this is me begging you to apply literally any consequence that isn't level 2 physical harm. Also, having just reviewed the rules I note that on a 1-3 result it is actually stated as being up to the GM whether the action itself is a failure, or not, or if it still has some effect, I think pretty much guaranteeing a murky outcome.

About Devil's Bargains - perhaps understandably given the other things they have to be doing, I can't recall ever being offered one by any of the three GMs I've played with. I've come up with a few of my own, although I tend to think the examples in the book aren't very evocative and so its difficult to get inspired. I'd also point out that mechanically they basically bake in a consequence to your action before you roll, and possibly on top of consequences from failing / getting a mixed outcome, so really only make sense if there's a "bad" consequence / complication that you actually would quite like to see happen. As I noted, other players have tended to shy away from any consequences, so for example, when I proposed a Devils Bargain for my skovlander cutter that his warhammer would shatter as part of a battle they all looked shocked and it got scaled back to being a bit broken, but probably fixable. Obviously it was nce that they had all bought into my character enough that they cared but still.

I've been getting a lot out of this discussion but haven't got much to add. In the absence of a Like-button (which would not fit the level of discourse of the site, I admit) - I resorted to "I get it!" and, unfortunately, a very sweeping statement (not unlike an overeager student summing up the history of the Roman Republic in a single sentence). Thank you for response.

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks to you for joining in! This is way better than a Like.

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