Archive for February 3rd, 2009

Exploration of Player

2009 Feb 3

So I threw some Forgespeak at John Harper and he threw some back at me, which is only fair I guess. John said that while IWNAY Gamist play may be part of Eric’s preferred play style, that he suspects that a significant part of it is not “exploration” (there’s the Forgespeak) at all. I’m gonna delve into some more Forgespeak to respond, but I think this is an important point in general.

First, Ron’s definition of exploration is — according to the Forge glossary — “the imagination of fictional events, established through communicating among one another. Exploration includes five components: character, setting, situation, system, and color. See also Shared Imagined Space (a near or total synonym).” Basically, Ron’s exploration is near-synonymous with the act of roleplaying, since it exists directly below the level of the social contract. If John’s right that a significant portion of Eric’s play preferences aren’t exploration-based, then I guess they could involve something like a competitive social priority to prove he’s better. But I feel like that’s naturally part of a lot of Gamist play (as well as, like, a lot of life) and not too surprising. It’s true that Eric has clashed with other folks with strong personalities — like Ben and Jared — but that’s not that unusual in indie circles or in life. Strong personalities tend to clash.

Second, Emily and Vincent complicated Ron’s model of exploration when they redefined system (one of the five components of exploration) as “the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” But while the Lumpley Principle is generally only considered to apply to system, its insight is — I would argue — generally applicable to the other four components of exploration as well: character, setting, situation, and color. Exploration in general, the imaginary content of roleplaying, only exists as 1) the individual experiences of the players involved and 2) the interactions between them. Ultimately, then, what’s being “explored” in roleplaying (in the actual meaning of the word, not Ron’s specialized definition) are the other players across the table from you as well as yourself. That’s why its so powerful.

Third, a number of different games and play styles are specifically interested in jumping right into exploration of others and self without having that be mediated by Ron’s five elements of exploration. Or at least, the mediation is significantly lighter than it is in most cases. Jeepform and its new American derivatives — A Flower for Mara, Under My Skin, etc. — are obvious examples, but some play focused on immersion may also drift in this direction, focusing on how a self experiences being a character, for instance, rather than simply exploring character. Ben’s recent tendency to design games that draw on the actual experiences of the players at the table — Bliss Stage, Land of 1000 Kings — is also related, I think.

Finally, to bring this back to Eric, a key component of Eric’s play, I suspect, is exploration of self and others in a Gamist fashion. That is, he plays to test his own mettle against that of others and, ideally, learn something new that makes him smarter or more effective than he was before. In the process of this, he also learns a lot about other people and shares a lot about himself. It’s like that bullshit Seraph says in the Matrix Reloaded about not really knowing somebody until you fight them. There’s also a tough-love teaching aspect involved, which I think may be overlooked by many of his potential opponents, in that he’s giving others the opportunity to improve themselves by competing with him. I saw some of that twinkle, I think, when I saw him give this short presentation about different modeling schemes. Since that impulse is grounded in the foundation that dwells underneath Ron’s types of exploration — i.e. exploration of players (including oneself) — I personally don’t doubt that it’s roleplaying, but that may be a subjective conclusion.

I Will Not Abandon Y’all

2009 Feb 3

Yes, that’s the plural form of “I Will Not Abandon You,” unless you’re from NY/NJ and it’s “I Will Not Abandon Youse.” Eric and I were chatting about how IWNAY is implemented pretty differently outside of the normal Nar / Jeep / immersion / high drama contexts that you normally see it discussed in. For example:

  • In an IWNAY Nar context, I might turn to Eric and say, “Okay, so we should probably play out the scene in which we smother the baby,” and Eric has to be there for me and support me through doing that scene;
  • In an IWNAY Gam context, if Eric is staying near the back of the battle map where I can’t get him and throwing javelins at me over and over again, it’s my job to figure out a way to stop him, not to whine that it’s “not fair” or quit in protest; and
  • In a IWNAY Sim context, if the group arrives in the same farmstead that we visited 23 sessions ago, I should pull out the same map that we used them, with a few small changes illustrating that, say, the wheat has been harvested and the chaff has been bound into bundles, and the pig isn’t here because he’s been slaughtered and smoked for the winter.

To do otherwise is to betray your companions and the IWNAY social contract. It also points, I think to the dramatic differences that can exist within a single one of Ron’s creative agendas. John Harper may have written Agon, but is he ready to play it IWNAY Gam style with Eric? Probably not.

Oracles: Piecing Out Content

2009 Feb 3

Shreyas is talking about the weaknesses he perceives in setting material derived from oracles (along with a bunch of other cool folks, check the comments). The discussion is going in multiple different directions there, so here’s my response:

Oracles are, I agree, an imperfect method of generating a deep, vivid setting. You get these little snippets semi-randomly and are supposed to assemble them into a whole. If the setting ends up being any good, it’s probably because 1) the little snippets were good to begin with or 2) the stuff you can up with on your own, to connect the snippets together, was really good. But if there’s depth or real life in the setting, it’s something the group inserted into it, because the little snippets themselves don’t really give that to you. Even if you’re talking about Simon’s culture-generation thing that we used for HBC (which is basically an oracle), the power of it comes in the players implementation of the snippets, not the snippets themselves. So oracles are basically like, “Here are these interesting tidbits; make a setting,” and if you don’t really know how to make an interesting setting, they don’t help you that much.

However, and here’s my main issue with the discussion so far, I don’t think oracles are intended primarily to be a setting generation method (though it’s possible that folks are using it as such). I think oracles should be primarily thought of as a way to bring setting content to the table, which I see as the far more difficult aspect of setting. Sure, generating setting material that is good is no simple task. Most of the setting stuff you see is cliched or overblown. But, even assuming you have setting material that is good, the much more difficult part is figuring out when and how to bring it into play. Oracles are helpful in this regard because they break down setting material into snippets and apportion them out to players in manageable amounts, instead of giving you 20+ pages of setting material and no instructions on which bits to start with. An oracle might tell you that this session, this scene, or this character is dealing with issues XYZ and, boom, you’re ready to go.

The weakness, as folks have pointed out, is that oracles — at least as they have been implemented so far — are rather indiscriminate about which bits to give you next. There’s not a natural progression from one snippet to another or a way for the oracle to sense what you’ve already done and generate a snippet that is appropriate for your needs. So there is this sense of getting a whirlwind, surface-level tour of a setting, jumping from bit to bit without exploring any of them especially deeply. In order for an oracle to really have real depth, it would have to be multi-layered and massive in scope, probably too massive for it to be elegant to use.

I think complaining about the weaknesses of oracles is mostly useful as a way of pushing for more tools that help people implement setting at the table. Oracles were definitely a major step forward in this regard, as the acclaim shown to In A Wicked Age and Simon’s cultural differences oracle indicate. Personally, as a designer and player I was like, “Wow, this just made my job a lot easier and less stressful.” Oracles are much more empowering, in this way, than any 20 pages of setting description. However, yes, there should definitely be many other tools for helping folks implement setting or other bits of pre-determined content at the table.