Mechanical and Social Incoherence

2008 Sep 10

Theory ahead! But I think this is important. I was struck by enlightenment while watching SGBoston play Misery Bubblegum.

So Ron’s original GNS stuff described this idea called “incoherence,” which is to say: sometimes different players approaching the same session of play with vastly different expectations and intentions. Whether you agree with Ron’s three categories of expectations and intentions, I think most people’s play experiences have witnessed at least some degree of incoherence.

For my money, there are two categories of expectations and intentions that I find clash the most strongly and consistently in my own play experiences: competitive and cooperative play. If, amidst a group of players, at least one player is playing mostly competitively and at least one player is playing mostly cooperatively, the game is almost always unsatisfactory for a number of players at the table, often including those players. This shouldn’t be controversial, I hope.

Here’s the recent insight, though: most games — including most of the post-Forge indie games are mechanically incoherant, meaning that they, at various points, encourage players to approach play both cooperatively and competitively. Misery Bubblegum does this with the two ways you can play cards — invoking the words on them, which adds to the fiction collaboratively, and invoking the numbers on them, which allows you to win authority in a dispute. Dogs in the Vineyard does this, as Dev has recently detailed, by often requiring players to make mechanically non-optimal choices in order for conflicts to reach satisfactory conclusions. Geiger Counter also requires players to make non-optimal decisions a lot, while also pretending to be competitive.

Now, you can make up for mechanical incoherance with social coherence. That’s exactly what Dev describes in the case of Dogs. Players, knowing that playing the game for mechanical victory will lead to less than fantastic results, choose to make non-optimal choices so that the game can continue to function well. I imagine this would work well for Misery Bubblegum as well. In Geiger Counter, I made the point of saying to the players explicitly: all the competition is fake; ignore any sign of inter-player competitiveness and play the game in a cooperative fashion.

However, many play groups are not socially coherent all the time; SGBoston sure isn’t. Between Dev, Eben, Eric, April, Neil, Richard, Robert, Adam, Angela, Eve, and our other regulars attendees, we represent just about every play preference under the sun and, unless we’ve played the same game with each other a bunch recently or the game is really explicit about how you’re supposed to play it, we’re not usually on the same page. So when we have a socially incoherent group and play a mechanically incoherent game, we often run into problems.

So we basically have three options: play games that are mechanically coherent (and there are very, very few of those out there — PTA, Agon, and a few others), play games in which the author / GM / organizer very explicitly tells you how to approach the game (which doesn’t happen very often), or hand-pick players for a specific game with the intention of creating a socially coherent group that can bridge the incoherence in the mechanics. I can do the latter, sure, but it means I end up playing the same games with the same people all the time, which is boring.

Here’s what I want:

Please, please can we have more games that are mechanically coherent, instead of ones that have these competitive bits in them that totally break if you play with them too hard. Designing deep, rich and mechanically nuanced games without competitive mechanics is totally possible now, if you’re not really interested in the competitive aspects. You don’t have to include dice battles just because you don’t have any other option.

Also, if you’re going to design a mechanically incoherent game (which is fine, really, I do it all the time), please, please, please do me the favor of telling me how I should approach and play the game. I can’t bridge the mechanical incoherence in your game with the social coherence of my play group, unless I know how to pitch the game to them so we all know how to approach it. Don’t make me fiddle around with your mechanics until I figure it out for myself because, most likely, I’ll find several ways to play your game that break it entirely or aren’t particularly fun before I stumble upon how to actually play it (and get sick of trying in the meantime). If you can’t tell me how to play your game, don’t publish it until you can, unless you explicitly mark it as an ashcan or for a specific audience that only includes people who know how to play it already.

51 Responses to “Mechanical and Social Incoherence”

  1. Eric Says:

    Excellent discussion of the subject, and I hope people take it to heart.

  2. bignose Says:

    > Designing deep, rich and mechanically nuanced games without competitive mechanics is totally possible now

    How do you distinguish “competitive aspects” from “conflict between players”? Is there a difference?

    What are some examples of rulesets that avoid inter-player conflict? Are they “games”, or collaborative storytelling?

  3. Matthijs Says:

    From Archipelago:

    “Who is this game for?
    If you like the story-telling part of games, and enjoy the creative challenge and inspiration that comes from working with others, this game is for you. If you like tactical mechanics, resource management, or player-vs-player competition, there are other games that might work better for you.”


  4. Anonymous Says:

    Zombie Cinema is real clear about expectations, too.

    The Roach is a prime offender here; what you are saying about mixing competition and cooperation is very true.

  5. Eric: We appreciate your support.

    Matthijs: Nice! I’ll have to check your game out.

    Bignose: Almost all games include conflict between the players over what happens at some point. Often this can be resolved by discussing it, coming to a solution, and moving on. Games become competitive, in my mind, when you create a mechanic that players can engage tactically in order to force what they want to happen on everyone else. Almost all conflict resolution mechanics are competitive, for instance. Rolling dice in 1001 Nights is not.

    As to whether you’d consider cooperative or non-competitive games to be “games,” I don’t really know. In my mind, a “game” is simply a way of structuring play, so, yeah, I would call things like 1001 Nights, Shock:, PTA, Nobilis, Transantiago, Mist-Robed Gate, It’s Complicated, etc. “games.”

    Anonymous: Zombie Cinema is a great example of a game that would be mechanically incoherent, perhaps, if it wasn’t so explicit about how to approach the game. Also, The Roach may be mechanically incoherent, but I’m not really trying to assign blame here. Sure, it would be great if designers were better at communicating “how hard can I push these mechanics before I should stop” or make games that you really can play as hard as you want. But I’m sure that, with the right group or the right sense of how you want to play it, The Roach works just fine.

  6. Fred Hicks Says:

    I think games have been “mechanically incoherent” for the last 20 years, and a lot of us like them that way.

    I say this while enthusiastically agreeing that more games need to explain how they play. :)

  7. Jmstar Says:

    Ha, that was me. Anonymous, above. Sorry.

    I think that the distinction between competitive and cooperative components, or the continuum between the two modes, is usually pretty apparent. Eero only spends a paragraph calling this out for clarity, but it’s enough.

  8. Neat topic, JWalt. This is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the context of Tokyo Rain. It is an explicitly competitive game, really drawing breath from Agon in particular. The method for me was to crack the effect of narration completely apart from the mechanical elements of the game.

    From the playtest doc:

    Narration in TOKYO RAIN follows a very simple formula. In any given situation, one player has narrative rights. He gets final say over the narration. However, in every situation, the other player should contribute ideas and suggestions to yield the best possible narrative. Squeeze every last drop of “win” out of the mechanics and every last drop of “cool” out of the narration.

  9. Judd Says:

    I’ve never had an instance with Dogs where a player at the table felt that they could not push their dice as hard as they could in order to both win and create cool shit at the table. Could you or Dev give a for-instance?

    I don’t think incoherence is simply the instance of more than one agenda at the table. It is one or more agenda at the table in a way that causes strife and dysfunction. G, N or S mix at the table all of the time from decision to decision.

    Saying mechanical and social incoherence is like saying, “There is an uncomfortable chair and the grumpiness that ensues from sitting in an uncomfortable chair and they are two separate things.” Maybe they are different and it is worth parsing, I reckon. Maybe.

  10. Fred: Sure, there are lots of people who really dig the mechanically incoherent mish-mash of various modes that roleplaying traditionally is. I often dig that as well; I’m just saying it can be problematic when you have a group that also doesn’t have a clear sense of direction.

    Judd: Did you read Dev’s post I linked? What about a character with the trait “I’m a Dog, 5d10”? What does that say about how they’re approaching the game? Would you want to play with them if they’re just playing to win all conflicts with traits that are universally invokable (and therefore tactically superior)?

    I guess I feel that social incoherence doesn’t always result from mechanical incoherence. Often, it’s something that was there beforehand. It’s not just that the mechanics are leading folks in several different directions at once, but that different folks are already leaning in various different directions before they even know what the mechanics are.

  11. Judd Says:

    I did not see the link.

    Hold on, lookin’ it over.

  12. Judd Says:

    Dev’s post is really interesting (as is this one, thanks for posting it up).

    Funny, I was just talking to Vincent about how we don’t need so much chargen choices in Dogs as you have because fallout changes characters so intensely.

    Could you do something similar in almost any game? Could a player in PTA take edges and connections that are so vague as to be useful in any scene?

    I don’t think so, not as intensely as what Dev is describing in Dogs.

    Something to chew on.

    So, social incoherence is like when the wrong people sit down together to play the wrong game?

  13. DevP Says:

    In PTA, as long as the edge/connection isn’t itself breaking genre, then it doesn’t distort the game all that much if it comes up in every scene. (While, I’ve seen how pulling in the same traits / too many traits can sink a scene.)

  14. DevP Says:

    (In dogs, i mean.)

  15. Yeah, both PTA and Agon are hard to break by playing them really hard. We’ve had good luck with 3:16 too, partially because it’s of the Agon-school of competitiveness. Also, 1001 Nights and other games that aren’t really competitive at all.

    I think the “social coherence” I’m talking about is more when people don’t really sit down “together” at all, if you get my meaning, when they’re sitting down with individual expectations that are not brought together by either 1) really coherent mechanics that you can’t break by misusing them or playing them too hard, or 2) social stuff, like people saying: “So, for this game to work really well, we need to approach these mechanics like this and those mechanics like that.”

    It’s not that everyone needs to share the same favored play style or that it needs to be consistent over the entire game. Sometimes scenes need one thing and mechanical fights need something else. But everybody needs to be playing by the same (Lumpley Principle-style) system, including all the unspoken stuff.

  16. Paul Tevis Says:

    Jonathan (in response to Judd) said: “What about a character with the trait “I’m a Dog, 5d10″? What does that say about how they’re approaching the game? Would you want to play with them if they’re just playing to win all conflicts with traits that are universally invokable (and therefore tactically superior)?”

    To answer the last question: I would.

  17. Brand Robins Says:


    I don’t know that its always as much incoherence as tension.

    There is a dual axis in most story games these days that runs one way between story and game and the other between cooperation and competition. Games that go pretty clearly one way or the other are easy, games that fall between aren’t as easy. Not easy, however, doesn’t mean incoherent — it just means the tension has to get resolved somehow.

    Agon, for example, is pretty high on the game/competition grid and that’s probably one of the reasons it plays so well for you.

    Though, I find it interesting that the game of PTA I played a year or so back got some real tension, which your groups don’t seem to get, as folks started really pushing to win conflicts because narration resolution (rather than conflict or task resolution) flew right into the middle of my group’s social bond. Characters winning or losing is fine, but when you start rolling for who gets to say things, we start to get loopy. (Houses of the Blooded would be fuck murder with that group, I shit you not.)

    Which is the other thing, I agree with you about social coherence being able to make up for mechanical tension. However, its also interesting how a group that is socially coherent in one situation can quickly start to break down in another. Give most of my extended group Dogs, Unknown Armies, or World of Darkness and we’re cooking with gas. Our social bond has the tensions of those games covered. Give us Agon, however, and there will be some tension because our cooperative style doesn’t fit with the competitive bias of Agon. And give us Houses of the Blooded, where you have to make bets to be sure you have narrative input, and fuck….

  18. DevP Says:

    I think it’s important to note, in the case of the person who’s rolling up to “I’m a Dog, 5d10”: this player is not making any statement, except for “this is effective for winning conflicts”. This is *not* the case where a player pursuing the trait telling us something about our character or what they value. We can choose to read that into their character, but it’s not supported at all. They’re playing a game where the trait-mechanic is not used for making statements at the expense of effectiveness.

  19. Paul: Can you talk more about your response to those questions? Eric hasn’t been excited about playing Dogs for fear of becoming the 5d10 I’m a Dog zealot who walks into town and starts shooting people, because the mechanical incentives all point that way for him.

    Brand: I suspect you’re right about different groups being able to “socialize away” different types of mechanical tension. That a more sophisticated and probably more accurate version of the point I’m trying to make here. If it’s okay with you, I’ll just pretend that’s the point I was making in the first place :)

  20. Marshall Burns Says:

    I’ma dissent a bit here.

    I think that this so-called “incoherence” is actually where collaborative, story-based games get Really Really Hot.

    See, the mechanical inventives are balanced by in-the-fiction consequences. Let’s say that I’ve got “I’m a Bad-ass 5d20” written on my sheet. Assuming that I am advocating for my character to get what he wants, that incentivizes me to roleplay him as a bad-ass in conflict situations so that he can succeed more often.

    But, let’s say that I’m up against a little old lady. Do I *really* want to be a bad-ass to this little old lady? Should I risk not getting what I want by pursuing a less-optimal tack, or do I do the ugly thing to get what I want? Which one is worth it? And will the dice even agree with me once I roll them?

    THAT stuff is awesome. Mechanical incentive vs. in-the-fiction CONSEQUENCE. That’s what Sorcerer is all about, that’s what Dogs is all about, that’s what my game the Rustbelt is all about, that’s what Poison’d is all about.

  21. Marshall: That only works if the players actually have sympathy for imaginary old ladies. I’m going to have to quote Eric on this: “I know intellectually that sometime people do things in these games that bother them or distress them on a moral level, and other times they face moral choices that are disturbing or unsettling. I know this intellectually, but I feel like I’ve lost part of my ability to empathize with that experience emotionally.” Fictional consequences and the morality of doing imaginary things to imaginary characters don’t always work for some people.

  22. Marshall Burns Says:

    I don’t understand. If that’s the case for a given player, why would he want to play such a game in the first place? And why should designers of such games take players like him into consideration when writing the games?

  23. Eric Says:

    Marshall: For me, mechanical imperatives trump fictional concerns every time (I’m the Eric that Jonathan is referring to). For more information, check out this thread:

    To summarize the salient bits: when in conflict, I choose mechanical incentives over fictional ones every time. Putting a win condition in front of me is like waving the proverbial red flag in front of a bull. I’ll happily follow those mechanical incentives down the garden path, even when it creates a story that I myself think is stupid at the time (as opposed to after the fact).

    Feel free to say “fuck you, Eric, these games aren’t _for_ you.”

  24. Eric Says:

    A bit more detail:

    I’d very much like to feel bad for the little old lady, assuming it’s good for the fiction. PTA lets me do that – it’s not set up with any sort of tactical mini-game that I have to weigh my investment in the fiction against. Dogs forces me to weigh my investment in the fiction versus my investment in shedding my preconceptions about what “ought” to happen and submitting to the reality of the mechanical structure and the rules. I want A, but the rules tell me to want B. To me, the rules are right.

    Being a scientist has trained me to disregard what I think is true when nature and experiment disagree, no matter how attractive or elegant the result. I bring the same perspective to games. For me, every game is (among other things) listening to the rules first and myself second.

  25. DevP Says:

    “Mechanical incentive vs. in-the-fiction CONSEQUENCE.”

    Some players don’t find that to be an intrinsically well-balanced choice. One side of that just outweighs the other, and some games indeed fall flat if you always choose one of those over the other. It sucks to find that out in play.

    Also, see my comment just above. So a player might not use “badass 5d20” against an old lady, and will consider that a limit of the trait (just as a “flame!” trait is limited underwater), but for some kinds of player, that 5d20 does *not* mean that they’ve invested their character as a badass. For them, it only means that they’re pursued effectiveness for their character’s goals.

    (Which is different from my style, because I’m all about putting 9d12 into unhelpful traits like I Have Poor Vision in order to represent the traits. But, then I’m being driven by other fictional goals here.)

  26. DevP Says:

    This isn’t just Eric though; there’s a class of players I bump into where they just go for one side of the equation over the other. My 5d10 example comes from a game I played, and the character was a fine one, except that the fallout/experience mechanic provided no interesting inputs.

  27. Yeah, I would suspect that “in the fiction consequences” trumps mechanics almost every time for Dev, because he’s a dirty hippie freeformer at heart :)

  28. Eric Says:

    “Also, see my comment just above. So a player might not use “badass 5d20″ against an old lady, and will consider that a limit of the trait (just as a “flame!” trait is limited underwater), but for some kinds of player, that 5d20 does *not* mean that they’ve invested their character as a badass. For them, it only means that they’re pursued effectiveness for their character’s goals.”

    Indeed. “Badass” or “I’m a Dog” are both tactical choices for someone like me – vague and open-ended things that I think I can always get away with using. If I’m thinking tactically – and if someone used the word “win” then I probably am – then those words were chosen to maximize the chances that they’ll apply to any conflict. That’s a statement about my impression of the GM and genre conventions, not about the fiction we’re creating.

    I’d really like to have traits like “Poor Eyesight” and “Closeted Cross-dresser” and so on, and I happily write them down if the mechanics don’t punish me tactically for those choices.

  29. Sometimes you can actually see Eric sitting there having this internal war over whether to be effective or expressive, because clearly the game intends for you to do a mixture of the two or more of the latter, while providing strong mechanical incentives for the former.

  30. Matthijs Says:

    I have one major dislike, which is when a game goes “in order to win this, you push these numbers just so, and roll these dice, which will help you in this way if you’ve done everything right for the past two sessions – but listen, it’s NOT ABOUT WINNING, OKAY? it’s about getting emotionally invested in the fiction!”

    To which I say, meh. If you want me to care about stuff in the fiction, let me play with that, not your fiddly bits. (Or, to be exact, the fiddly bits of your game system). Competition trumps everything, and having to ignore it in order to get satisfying play is, to me, like when I used to play D&D and skip the rules I didn’t like – which, after a while, meant most of them.

  31. Brand Robins Says:


    While you’re one of the folks I’ve seen who expresses your stance the most clearly and strongly, you’re not the only person I know who has that same stance.

    For me, context is king. I read the table, I go with the table. But I know for others that when there is a chance to do something, the logical and emotional gravity is to do that thing. That could be tactical play, that could be emotional play, or whatever — but the weight is there.

    So, when you hit a game that has a tension that moves things back and forth between poles, it makes total sense that folks with a certain preference or stance will feel the game pulling them hard in the direction they normally go.


    I hate that too.

    However, there is some structural logic to it. For many people there is an investment that comes from struggle, or from earning, or fiddling with things. A tension you feel when you roll the dice and the outcome is in doubt that has a mirror with the tension that your character might feel. An excitement or dejection when you win or lose. So a lot of games want to use the game aspect of play in order to build your emotional investment, hoping that you’ll then channel it into investment in the fiction.

    For some folks it works. For others it is fucking kryptonite.

    Personally, I can work with it well when I’m rolling for my character’s success or failure — I need to win this roll so my guy can win. I do not deal with it well when I have to fiddle to have a say in the game at all. (The Dust Devils effect of, hey not only does my character lose, but I don’t get to say shit about what happens in the conflict either!)

  32. Elliot Wilen Says:

    Bingo, Jonathan.

    With regard to Dogs in the Vineyard, I can think of two specific examples off the top of my head. One is the rule that says the GM can opt either to take Fallout for NPCs in the “normal” fashion (which may make them stronger), or give the two highest dice to the players for use in the next conflict. Maybe this has been fixed since the edition I have, but as it stands, the way the GM swings makes the difference between having the NPCs get stronger and stronger, and having the PCs get bonus dice.

    More important, and basically a concrete example of something that I believe’s been raised: The narrative wall. Continuing here.

  33. Moreno R. Says:

    Taken for granted (as that initial hypothesis) that in rpgs you are both author and audience, if you don’t feel any emotional connection to the people in the story, the game already failed, no matter what is the system: as an audience, you didn’t connect with the characters, they didn’t feel “real” to you.

    I think that this is the initial problem, solved by finding why you can’t care for these imaginary people. The rest I think are symptoms of this initial problem.

  34. Matthijs Says:

    OMGZ Brand, great comment. Taking some thoughts over here.

  35. Matthijs: I think that shared dislike unites a certain swath of American players/designers, the Jeep folks, a lot of freeformers and online folks, Nordic larpers, and a host of others (people who play Amber), even if the resulting games and play look quite different from each other.

    Brand: I usually take a “go with the table” approach too, which makes it interesting sitting at a diverse table, when there’s no overall consensus.

    Elliot: Great couple links. Mike’s post about whether mechanically-supported narrativism is actually possible (at least as far as traditional RPG mechanics are concerned) is brilliant and something I hadn’t seen before. Definitely gets into that conversation with Brand (which I can’t find) about “whether this is me/us or the game” that creates certain results.

    Moreno: We know that Eric has a hard time emotionally connecting to the fiction when he’s also trying to win, so we’ve pegged that problem.

  36. Marshall Burns Says:

    Here’s what I’m saying.

    If you’re not gonna have emotional, moral reactions to your character’s actions and their consequences on himself and others in the fiction despite incentives, then don’t play games like Dogs or Sorcerer or games that follow their lead. THEY HAVE NOTHING TO OFFER YOU. They are not for you. You are not their audience.

    Those games are designed to ask you tough questions by offering objective rewards for subjective prices. In judging the subjective prices, and putting that judgment into action, you make a thematic statement. To make a wild simplification of a Dogs situation:

    Objective reward: Get Brother Thomas to repent, thus performing your duty to the community and to God.
    Subjective price: You might have to shoot him.
    Thematic statement: It’s worth it. *or* It’s not worth it.

    This isn’t incoherence of any kind. It is a deliberate function of the design. It was made that way on purpose.

    Now, the people who are the audience for this game, the people who will have emotional, moral reactions to this stuff, the designer doesn’t have to tell them that it works this way. They will usually realize it just from reading the book, and if they don’t then they will realize it as soon as it comes up. Plus, these games are all pretty explicit about this in the *blurb text*, even. “Sometimes you have to cut off the arm to save the life. Do you have what it takes, Dog?” “How far are you willing to go to get what you want?” “Are you willing to swallow a telepathic cockroach bent on the enslavement of mankind? No? Even if it will get you tenure?”

    The only people that might need this explained are people who are NOT the intended audience for the game. In other words, NOT the people the designer is writing the game for. Why on earth should the designer be obligated to take them into consideration when designing? Why on earth should he write the game in a manner that is convenient to people who are not his audience?

    He shouldn’t. There’s no percentage in it.

    I apologize if any of this comes off as unfriendly. To be honest, as the designer of a game that operates on this principle (and I worked *hard* to get it there), the suggestion that this sort of thing is a flaw due to any sort of designer negligence — well, it struck a nerve.

    For the record, it’s perfectly okay to not be the audience for these games. It doesn’t make you an evil person or anything.

  37. Marshall: You’re talking about something entirely different there. Eric is perfectly capable of engaging in all those issues you discussed there — are you willing to shoot someone, etc. — though more based on “what should happen next in the story?” rather than “what is the moral decision here?”

    The real problem is when mechanical incentives are brought in, supposedly to support making those kinds of tough decisions. Like, “Oh, the mechanics clearly state that I should shoot him — in fact, that I should always shoot people — because I get more dice for that.” In those cases, he plays the game, not the fiction, if that makes any sense, because there’s no game-fiction tension in his mind, because the concrete success of “winning the game” always overrides creating interesting fiction.

    Basically, I question the assumption that mechanical and narrative/moral incentives can always be juxtaposed in a way that creates interesting tension. In many instances, for many people, it just may not work.

    I totally agree that Eric probably wouldn’t get a lot out of games that require you to instantly relate to the moral or emotional situation of the characters, though I think he does build up attachments over time in games that don’t give him strong mechanical incentives to throw emotional concerns under a bus in order to win more effectively. For example, after playing three sessions of PTA with the same characters, you might be able to do those kind of moral/emotional conflicts with Eric and they’d have some teeth based on things like “character consistency” and the bond he’s developed with the characters over play. But that means there can’t be mechanical incentives to just use them as pawns.

  38. Marshall Burns Says:

    I’m not talking about something different. I said “If you’re not gonna have emotional, moral reactions to your character’s actions and their consequences on himself and others in the fiction DESPITE INCENTIVES.”

    PTA is a totally different animal from Dogs and Sorcerer. It doesn’t use the objective reward vs. subjective price dynamic because it’s a different kind of game with a different kind of Premise.

    There’s not another way to do “How far are you willing to go to get what you want?” and still have Sorcerer-level intensity. It’s not just asking your character that question, it’s asking YOU that question.

    In games like that, you can’t use the “what should happen next in the story?” approach. You have to put yourself inside your character’s head and make decisions from his point of view. You have to contact, feel, and identify with him on that level, and then judge the options for yourself (because the character can’t judge; he’s fictional!).

    If you are a person for whom this dynamic does not work, the solution is simple: DON’T PLAY THESE GAMES. Play games that you can enjoy!

  39. Marshall: Okay, I see what you’re saying clearer now and actually think you may be right as far as games like Dogs and Sorcerer go. There’s this sense of “civil disobedience,” right, where the rules say you should do one thing and your conscience says something else, so you intentionally go against the rules incentives. And that’s going to be really hard for folks like Eric.

    But I’m also not saying that games that contain narrative / moral / mechanical tension are inherently bad (see my last paragraph in the original post), just that the group needs to know how to approach the game to make that tension productive instead of being unproductive and damaging. I think Dogs does a fairly good job of telling people how to approach it actually, even if it doesn’t suggest the kinds of decisions that Dev lays out, which I do think are necessary for the game to go really well.

    In the game of Misery Bubblegum that I watched on Wed, the group wasn’t sure what that tension was supposed to be about, so players interpreted it in their own fashion, which led to a rather disjointed conclusion.

  40. Marshall Burns Says:

    Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. But I’m inclined to believe that, if this dynamic will work for you, you don’t need it explained. You will understand the first time that an argument over an interpretation of the Scriptures turns into a firefight, f’rinstance. If it won’t work for you, then no amount of explanation will make it work.

    I mean, Eric *knows* how it’s supposed to work, but it still doesn’t work *for him*, right?

    (I can’t speak to Misery Bubblegum; I don’t know enough about its rules)

  41. Marshall: See, that was Vincent’s tactic for In a Wicked Age and Poison’d, but I don’t think it’s true, in those cases, that the people who didn’t understand the games initially were never going to enjoy them. In talking with Graham and Brand about it, I think it’s the case that, with some additional helpful guidance, the audience that successfully hooked into those games would have been much broader. Now, it may have been Vincent’s intention to target a narrower audience, but I don’t think he had to do that, necessarily, due to the nature of the games.

    In any case, my personal experiences with those games make me more doubtful that there are “natural” ways to resolve mechanical/narrative tension, ways which are immediately obvious to people who might be interested in taking advantage of them.

    As for whether Eric gets how Dogs is supposed to work, I’ll let Eric speak to that.

  42. Brand Robins Says:


    My experience with Dogs, Wicked Age, and Sorcerer says that you’re wrong about getting it instantly or not getting it at all.

    I’ve had a lot of players who didn’t get those games the first go round, even with my heavy-handed guidance. However, several of them did get them over time and play and being able to sit at the table and talk about it, or sometimes by reading things online.

    Some of them got it and it made playing fun for them. Some of them got it and decided it wasn’t for them and quit. Some of them got that it wasn’t for them, but because it was what their friends were playing wanted to try to play anyway.

    That’s where things get tricksom. It’s also why I called it “tension” instead of “incoherence” — because for many people the tension works, for many people the tension needs to be resolved, and for some people the tension will make the game difficult to play.

    If you’ve got a group that can support and smooth that difficulty, even a game whose tension runs against you can be fun. But if your group can’t make your clash work in their context, then you’re going to be up a creek.

    Whether or not the rules work in any situation is almost never just a matter of a person mystically getting it or not, it is a matter of their interaction with the rules, the group, the setting, and all of the groups interaction with the same. When things go right its because everyone in the group has found a way to use the tension right, or close enough for hand grenades, to build fun.

  43. John Harper Says:

    Sweet zombie Jesus.

    Look, Eric, don’t play Dogs, okay? You don’t want to play it. We’re getting that, loud and clear. “Manipulating the system to win the dice game” is not the same thing as “Playing Dogs in the Vineyard.” Yeah? Agreeing to sit down and play DitV is an agreement that encompasses more than just what mechanics we’re going to use to resolve a fight.

    Eric, you are not agreeing to play Dogs, plain and simple.

    Among people who are all actually playing Dogs together — YES you can play as hard as you want and push very very hard. It works great and is a joy.

    But listen up! Eric is never, ever going to play Dogs. He can play the DitV dice mechanic — but so what? He is capable of only ONE THING at the gaming table, according to his own admission. That thing does not encompass playing Dogs in the Vineyard. At all. Not even close.

    We don’t need a new piece of jargon and theory to explain why Eric can’t play Dogs. It’s because he doesn’t want to.

    In short, I think this whole “Mechanical Incoherence” thing is way, way off base.

  44. John Harper Says:

    Wow. I crossposted with a bunch of people. Sorry if I repeated some things already said.

  45. John Harper Says:

    In other words, gaming is this:

    Not this:

    The “mechanical incoherence” thing seems to refer to something like the second image. If that’s the thing that you’re going for… I don’t know what to tell ya.

  46. Guy Shalev Says:

    I’ve discussed it a couple of times, usually disjointed, but that point I did make clear.

    My ultimate goal, my holy grail, is a game where you have the competition and story* side by side, where you can go as hard as you want for one without sacrificing the other.

    * The story is what I find to often be the “Cooperative” piece, where you want to create a story together, or at least, its needs often run counter to that of mechanically outrunning the other players.

    For the time being, I’m mostly looking at competitive games, with a reduced story element.

  47. Brand Robins Says:


    How do we know what playing Dogs in the Vineyard is? I mean, as opposed to how we know what playing Vampire is?

  48. John Harper Says:


    That is SUCH a good question. It’s, like, a fundamental question for successful roleplaying, I think.

    Actually… damn. It’s also a BIG question. Lemme kind of hit it from the side first before we talk knowing about Dogs vs. Vampire and such.

    There are several ways we can “know” what playing Dogs in the Vineyard is, but the most important element (to me) is that the group is in agreement about what it is. As long as we are all in agreement (explicit or implicit) then we can successfully play together.

    This “knowing” and agreement doesn’t happen down inside the orange box (techniques, mechanics) and can’t be addressed there. The mechanics of an RPG aren’t social-manipulators, somehow encoding “good” behaviors and propagating them up from the orange box outward to the blue ones.

    It works the other way. FIRST, we establish what “playing Dogs” is and agree to do that thing, and then we get down to Exploration and Techniques. As we go, we’ll refine our definition of “playing Dogs” (up at the dark blue box level) and adjust our Exploration and Techniques to suit us better as we play.

    Playing, then, is a reinforcement of our (possibly implicit) agreement — not a challenge to it! Playing to challenge or subvert the group understanding of “playing Dogs” is, dare I say it? BAD play.

    Jeez. This is long and I haven’t answered your real question. More to come.

  49. John Harper Says:

    Brand: My answer to your question got long, so I made it a blog post:

  50. Brand Robins Says:


    I’m talking with John about how we learn to RP over on his blog now. His reply was long and good, and my reply to it may have been even longer.

    So, to avoid spamming up this blog some more, I’m taking my part of the conversation about learning to game over there.

  51. John Harper Says:

    I just went back and read all this again, and I actually agree with, like, 95% of what you wrote here, Jonathan.

    I think I just needed to rant on this topic and you gave me the excuse. Thanks.

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