blast from the past: agency

This post is a reprint from 2010, part of the lost archives of blue collar space. I’m bringing it out because it’s right at the birth of the whole play structure of Hollowpoint, a game of which I am very proud.

Story and RPG and Protagonism

Warning: this may ramble.

There is a lot of work on the table that tries to understand role-playing games in terms that we already know from trying to understand story. We’ve been trying to understand story (and story has been changing over this time, but also not, if you get my meaning here) for a really long time and so it seems natural to apply this knowledge to role-playing games. They do look like stories, after all. Well, at least after we finish playing and think about what happened, we hear a story in our heads. When we type up an actual play report, we present a story.

When I listen to the audio of an evening’s play, however, I mostly hear a social event in which a game is being played and some great scenes are being described. In a way it’s rather more like geeks talking about a film they loved and re-hashing their favourite parts than it is like an actual story.

So when people use theory to try and make role-playing games better at delivering story, I have to wonder if that’s really on the right track. Maybe role-playing games shouldn’t be stories.

The reason this struck me recently (it has struck me in the past too) is because we are in the process of critiquing the Game That Still Has No Name But Likely Will Be Called Hollowpoint or Ruthless (GTSHNNBLWBCHOR) and one of the criticisms external to play experience is that the tactically solid choice of sacrificing a character for resources and consequently getting a new character de-protagonizes the character. It creates a greater disjunct between player and character than we normally expect. The unstated implication of this critique is that this is a bad thing.

So this actually has several hidden premises which I will try to reveal in order to understand why this issue is not actually an issue in play.

One premise is that being the protagonist is a valuable story element to bring to a game. This is the deepest laid premise I think and one which is taken for granted in most games, so let’s look at it.

A tabletop game with four or five people interacting is not usually about a single hero and her sidekicks. Instead it is less artificial and more natural: it is about people who perceive themselves as the central element of the story even though they are not. This does not work well in a traditional story because the author is trying to forge a relationship between the reader and the story and the cheapest and most effective way to do that is to have her identify strongly with a character. We might call this character the protagonist. So having half a dozen protagonists dilutes the effect of the story by trying to sell the reader on investing in multiple characters. The difficulty here multiplies if the characters have opposing motivations, asking the reader to sympathise not just with multiple characters but with multiple distinct perspectives.

So, from this we have to conclude that when a role-playing game is not explicitly about a single protagonist and her henchmen, we have a disjunct between traditional story-telling and what we want for fun play at the table. Fortunately, however, we are not speaking to a single reader — the whole table comprises a communal audience-as-author — and so we are not bound by elements of storytelling that assume one. As this is a novel (though not unique) form of entertainment — a story that is told only through its construction and that therefore has to be compelling in its mechanism (the process of construction) as well as in its output (the story, though clearly we want a better word) — it perhaps merits a more novel analysis.

This doesn’t speak to the fact that a player might want to cling to a character. That’s all cool and should have a reward attached so that they get something for fulfilling that desire, so that they don’t feel that striving for it is pointless. But shucking it does give you something that clinging to it doesn’t: the heroic sacrifice. If we hold the player-character connection (protagonization) as a sacrosanct feature of gaming, then we lose the capacity to have a heroic sacrifice, an ironic fatality, and all that other good stuff in the middle of play. And (as we will see) if we assume “play” means “long-term play” then we can only have it if we wait a long time first. And then we risk only doing it when we’re bored of the character, perhaps deflating our experience of the irony or the sacrifice.

The other premise is that this character will last longer than one or two sessions. If the game is run as a one-shot, then there is no strong binding between player and character anyway. This seems to allow us to emphasize the “life is cheap” motif of the game and deliver samurai-story gaming rather than long term heroic gaming. For sure there is no “hero’s journey” to be had here. There are no heroes, period.

Now this is not to say that feeding the character-player connection is universally (or even usually) wrong! Far from it. It’s a design principle that is common for good reason. Indeed it’s arguably the primary reason for all character advancement systems (the zero-to-hero model has always smelled like horseshit to me in the context of gaming, but that’s another post). But we need to occasionally wonder if there’s not some other things to experience that are also fun by dissociating ourselves just a little. By reveling in the superstructure in which characters play their roles as well as in the characters themselves.

I think that’s the place where GTSHNNBLWBCHOR wants to be. Emphasizing that life is cheap, that fatality is a tool, that you can’t sustain an adrenaline rush forever, and that the new guy, arriving with a history, has a story too.

ghost ship

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Did I mention the graphic design is great? It is. See?

Jay Iles wrote this awesome game.

It’s called Ghost Ship and it’s in alpha right now. You should go read it and play it. There are nearly 170 pages of it so set some time aside.

You were a person but now you’re dead. Fortunately for you, they scanned your brain and installed you in a space ship’s computer. Unfortunately for you, it’s not really your ship. You’re property, software, a commodity. But maybe you can become more than that as you gain memories and maybe some humanity. Providing your memories don’t become irretrievably corrupted. Or just wrong.

Right now Ghost Ship is kind of a box of parts (something the author herself has said). But wow, what cool parts. And the graphic design is vibrant and stark and evocative. And Juan Ochoa drew the robots.

It feels like a hack of Blades in the Dark but it runs pretty far afield (or maybe just far abroad), though keeping the mission + downtime (At Ease in this game) structure. There are subsystems for managing yourself, your software, your drones, and your ship. It’s quite complex and I can’t help thinking that it would benefit from a little refactoring: find some commonality and restate some of these detailed subsystems as special cases of some easily described structure. But then these subsystems are wicked cool and any one would be a very hard darling to kill.

I also got the feeling that Jay hasn’t quite decided what kind of game it is — it feels a little like there are different intentions colliding but I can’t put my finger on why. Do you feel that way? Have a better intuition for what’s causing it.

The highlight for me is the memory system: you have memories and they can be used to influence a die roll under fairly specific circumstances. But you are software and your memories are volatile and be corrupted which can change them in fairly specific ways (like, say, reversing the tone: your positive memory is now a horror). And it can get worse and worse until you lose the memory altogether. But you can try to repair it (complicated by the fact that you don’t remember what it was supposed to be). One could build a whole game around just this.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

i made a mistake

In one of my recent Sand Dogs playtests I made a grave error.

Our heroes got lost in the desert and suffered from a risk realised: HARM. The realisation was that they all suffered from sunstroke from the extended time exposed to the elements. They each get a WOUND: sunstroke. That was fine.

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An appropriate Soft Horizon wound gives you a real problem to solve.

The mistake was I decided that realistically, once they found water and shade they were fine. This completely undermined the system, which depends on a WOUND being a significant drawback and requiring time and narration to resolve since its resolution introduces a SCAR which is a net benefit.

I was still thinking old school, still cheating to move the narrative towards success, towards the existing established goals. The system doesn’t reward that. It rewards leaning into the problem, dealing with disaster. I should have made the WOUND worse to keep myself from doing this: dying from exposure, maybe.

The result of my error is that a potentially interesting problem which needed solving and would divert the narrative in a new direction got trivialized in order to let me pursue the existing narrative. And the result of that was that play sputtered for a bit unnecessarily and, worse, the players were deprived of a new twist to handle.

Those twists are the beating heart of Soft Horizon game play.

So I had a session that I felt a lot of stress starting because it didn’t start anywhere interesting and that’s a failure because reducing my stress is exactly why I wrote this system the way I did. I undermined my own solution to make me and no one else happy! Old habits are so very hard to break.

So don’t do that. Lean into it. If the dice say things are awful, make them awful. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

sand dogs v0 doc

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Time for a break then back to the digging.

The first draft of the playtest doc for Sand Dogs is now publicly available! If you give it a spin or even just a read, please reach out. And share as far and wide as you like.

This doc is obviously incomplete but it’s also certainly enough to run a game — it’s all we’ve been using for the past six weeks or so. Much more is coming, including ways to develop tomb artifacts, gods, and stuff like that.

If you dig it, consider grabbing a copy of The King Machine (same system), which is on sale for less than 5 bucks in PDF until next year. You can have a very monkey Christmas with that.

wormholes and waystations

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My art, but it feels thematically consistent.

Today I’m going to look at Joshua Kubli’s magnum opus, Wormholes and Waystations. Joshua keeps a current set of links in its own doc, including contact info. This is an enormous tome, nearly 400 pages of material, that delivers a space-opera OSR experience. It cleaves close to type, not providing rules that guarantee the theme but rather providing extensive rules for making characters, vehicles, and equipment that are consistent with the theme. That is, we build all the things that live in this universe and get a data dump of the state and history of the universe and then go. We don’t get rules for how to push the narrative to deliver the theme but rather trust the simulation to provide it as an emergent property.

Except in one little section you could almost miss, a gem: the type of ship the characters fly determines the mission type, and the mission is ultimately the driver, or at  least the kick-off, for the emergent narrative.

I usually have a problem with these kinds of games because they lack the focus to deliver what they claim they will deliver — they claim to generate a certain kind of story but in reality they set up the precursors for that story and then mostly hope that’s what happens. Fortunately, whatever happens is usually fun — it’s the claim that the game makes a particular thing happen when the game doesn’t actually have rules to do it that I find irksome.

However, in this game that one page of information out of nearly 400 does what it says on the box. Some examples:

Noble: Luxury vessels are manned by the wealthy, so the crew might be guards and servants for a pampered dilettante, or an idealistic and meddlesome
diplomat.

Odd Jobs: Give the PCs a Multi-Purpose ship if the plan is for them to travel from one world to another, taking any sort of job they can get. Multi-Purpose ships are also
good for piracy and smuggling; they’re fast, well-armed, fairly tough, and can still carry a fair amount of cargo.

Patrol: Patrol ships are good for a lighter-duty military campaign, or for law enforcement and bounty hunter vessels.

Scout: A new planet every week to explore and exploit! Give them an Exploration ship if they’re going to boldly go seek out new beings and new societies every few sessions.

Right there is the heart of the game: this is what you’re going to do and the system will provide all the pieces needed to deliver it. And most of the game is those pieces.

Character generation is enormous and detailed an a lot of fun. I’d compare it to Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera except this is more fun and less tedious. I’m a sucker for the bits of games where you make things and this game has tons of that.

This is a complete game but could benefit from your eyes on the text: does it do what it claims to do? Is it clear what you should do during character generation? From moment to moment in play? Is there more here than there needs to be? Not enough?

I’m certain it plays just fine: the basic model of play is time-tested. Does the text deliver it?

My personal observation is that it would be a better game if that mission section had more detail, even if just some oracles, some charts that triggered ideas in the ref’s brain. Develop each into a genuine inspiration for jumping into the action rather than the tantalizing but tiny offering that’s there now. If it had the same energy applied to it as other sections of the game have I’d be very enthusiastic about giving it a spin.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

too good to be true

2g2bt-titleThe first game in progress I’d like to highlight is Michael Prescott’s intriguing Too Good To Be True. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game but very interestingly it centers its focus on the battlefield: it’s a kind of narrative wargame! I wish I’d thought of that. You can grab the 0.14 beta of it if you want to give it a read or, better, a spin. Judging by the blog posts I’d guess that it’s progressed since that document having collided with a bunch of actual play through The Gauntlet.

Players are members of a mercenary company that has a randomly generated history (my favourite kind of history, obviously) and hopefully some built-in problems to solve.

Players get both a character and a mecha playbook to start with — so you are both the person and the machine — and each has very distinct features and functions. Mecha, for example, have armament, armour, and auxiliary equipment categories that carry over to the battlefield rules. Mercenaries have a lighter set of stats since the set of moves are essentially common to all. But they are distinctive, having a list of “specials” that they can choose from as they advance.

I find the idea of taking PbtA to the wargame environment downright delicious.

This material is certainly in a playable state and I think that’s what Michael needs now: play to test both the material and the text. If you dig the idea of tromping around a battlefield in a giant machine, I’m going to ask you to grab this and read it and, if you can, take it to your table. Even if you just read it, report back here–the author has said that there is some concern that it’s too terse. Is it? What needs padding out? Let’s make sure Michael gets some visibility and maybe even some concrete input to work on.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.