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Star Wars: Dark Times

Ok, so I wanted to report on a couple of gaming experiences, looking for any interesting analysis and observations from y’all, and particularly with an eye towards understanding the difference between intuitive continuity and bangs.

The first game I want to describe is a session of Star Wars: Dark Times, which for rules uses my hack of someone else’s hack of Cthulhu Dark. The session was a one shot at a recent con, and there were no pre-gens or any adventures prepped. In this game the players play Jedi during the time period after Order 66 was enacted, and before the events of Rogue One and Episode four, so in other words the Empire is in strong control and it’s illegal to be a Jedi. If interested you can check out the write-up of the game rules in this folder: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1--3-xR07BXaS-iAfUa_QEulRf5I0fy3M

 

After the players created their characters and I drew up a quick relationship map (I was the GM), we started play with two of the Jedi hiding out on the same planet, albeit unknown to each other. One was passing himself off as a local healer, who used herbs and so on to help the community but secretly used his Force healing to cure them; the other on the same planet was basically a Robin Hood type of thief. Jedi #3 (I forget their names) joined a smuggling gang. 

 

So as a GM these were my thoughts: ok, I need to get the characters together, and there needs to be a central problem to be confronted by the time the session ends. How can I bring them all together to face the same problem? What would compel the Jedi to come out of hiding? After that, for the session to be satisfying, it’d help if there’s either an interim goal the PCs need to accomplish, or they try to solve the problem only to discover there’s an even bigger problem they need to fix. The final climax should involve the character’s tragedy and other background, combined with a strong temptation to the Dark Side. 

 

Ok, so my first question is this: is the line of thinking I described above intuitive continuity, or something else? It’s certainly not bangs, it seems almost like a total railroad actually (although I was ready to switch the story around if the players went in a different direction).

 

I asked the players if they had any particular ideas, or anything they especially wanted or didn’t want in the game, but no one expressed any preferences. What I decided to go with as the central problem was: Force-sensitive children were being actively sought for and hunted by Imperial agents; these children would then by brought to a central location and trained to become Sith, or experimented on. Even the most jaded Jedi would be hard-pressed to resist doing something about this. 

 

The first scene took place on planet A (having trouble with keeping all those names straight at my advanced age :-) ) in a cantina (of course!), with Jedi #2 (the thief) in a hooded cloak, alone at a table in the corner. A bruised and battered fellow enters the bar, and asks if he can find <Jedi#2’s code name>. The bartender nods towards the table. The bruised guy sits across from him and after a few pleasantries tells him why he needs a Jedi: an old friend of his in the Imperial administration came across a secret project that disturbed him, so he leaked what he could. He proceeds to tell the Jedi that Imperial agents are enroute to capture some Force-sensitive children on Tatooine, to be taken to some secret location for training or experimentation. Jedi #2 uses his Force sense to see whether the informant is tricking him, but the player rolls well and everything seems on the up-and-up. He is disturbed by what he hears, but mentions that this job is too big for just one person. Who should happen to pass by then but Jedi #1 - hey, Force synchronicity and all that :-) After their joyful reunion, they agree to accompany the informant to Tatooine on his fast passenger ship.

 

Jedi #3 is with her group of smugglers when their boss calls them all in: they’ve got a special commission from a branch of the Imperial Security Forces, very hush-hush - pick up a “package” from Tatooine and deliver it to an Imperial naval vessel at a rendezvous point. If they do well, they’ll be given more missions in the future with increased pay. The smuggling crew is thrilled, and they set off on their freighter for Tatooine. 

 

Both ships exit hyperspace at the same time, and the Jedi sense each other. Jedi #1 rolls particularly well and realizes that Jedi #3 is aboard the freighter, while she senses that there is at least one force-user on the other ship, but nothing more than that. Without any easy means to communicate, they can only speculate about each other's intentions. 

 

From my perspective as GM, this was the most uncomfortable part of the session - I had to struggle a bit to come up with how to get everyone together, and to some extent it felt like I was forcing people into it; I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d do if one of the Jedi wanted to go off and do something completely different. If it were one session of an ongoing campaign, I would have relaxed more and just went with whatever, but in a one-shot I felt considerable pressure to get everyone on the right (railroad?) track. 

 

So they all land at the spaceport, and Jedi #1 and 2 leave to scout the location where the children are being held. Meanwhile, Jedi #3 discovers the awful truth about her smuggling mission, and resolves to thwart her employer and rescue the children. She also discovers where the children are being taken to, an Imperial black site on the edge of the galaxy. 

 

I guess this account is getting kind of long, so I'll abbreviate things. The first two Jedi find the kids and rescue them with the judicious use of Jedi mind tricks (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”) and some Force telekinesis. On the way back, they have a run-in with the group of smugglers, but Jedi #3 turns the tables on them and together the Jedi and the Force kids flee the area.

 

As GM, I didn’t have to do much in this particular sequence: I asked myself where a logical place to hold the captives would be, what were the bad guys doing, how would the smugglers react, and so on. Basically pretty easy. Now as the group heads back to the spaceport, I wanted to add in some tension, so I came up with the idea that a force-sensitive imperial agent on the planet felt the Jedis’ use of the force, and reported this to the nearest Star Destroyer. Knowing they had an important asset on the planet, the Imperials sent a ship right away - so I announce to the players that they hear the roar of TIE fighters and an Imperial shuttle headed for Mos Eisley. 

 

The heroes book it for their ship in the spaceport, calling their informant and instructing him to prep the ship for takeoff on the way. The loading ramp is down as they hustle the kids to the ship - only to be greeted by the sight of stormtroopers and a black-robed Sith headed towards them in the docking bay. Commands are issued and ignored, blasters are fired, lightsabers flash, stormtroopers are knocked down like bowling pins, but the Jedi successfully get everyone on board and take off with only a couple of wounds. 

 

Unfortunately, before their ship’s navi-computer can make the necessary calculations to enter hyperspace, the TIE fighters are on them. Their ship loses both front and rear deflector shields and takes out two of the TIEs before they’re able to make their escape. Their destination is the black site Jedi #3 found, where other captured children are being made to join the Dark Side or being experimented on. 

 

The Jedi tell the informant to remain onboard with the rescued kids, while they infiltrate the imperial base. Jedi mind tricks and Force Stealth are used liberally. Eventually they reach the floor where the Force-sensitive kids are kept. As they begin freeing them, they sense the strong presence of the Dark Side. Three Sith enter the room, one of them a Sith Lord/Lieutenant/Big Baddie. He mocks the Jedi, saying they knew some Light Side fools would eventually come here, and that the Sith were more than ready for them. Everyone draws lightsabers. Big Bad attacks Jedi #2 with Force lightning, smashing him to the ground while continuing to mock him: “you are weak! If you only knew the power of the Dark Side, you would not have let your apprentice be killed; her death is your fault,” and so on. Similar things happen with the other two Jedi, the Sith trying to tempt them to the Dark Side by bringing up their tragic past, taunting them into giving in (“release your anger! Only your hatred can save these children”), and so on. Lightsabers strike, block, and clash; people are Force-pushed into equipment, sparks fly, walls crumble.

 

Now it started to become very interesting for me. The players began to use their Force senses to gain information on their opponents’ backgrounds, and try to bring them to the Light Side. Jedi #3 doesn’t get much luck on her rolls doing this, and her Sith is largely unmoved. Jedi #1, on the other hand, has his Sith (let’s call him Sith B) on the brink of turning - this Sith was bullied and mistreated as a child, and turned to the Dark Side once he began intuitively using the Force; it gave him the power he felt he was so sorely lacking. “Look,” the Jedi says, “those children in there are just like you, as powerless as you once were - and you’re abusing them, just like you were abused in the past. Join me, and let’s save these children together, to do for them what no one did for you.” We come to a major climax point, where both the Sith and this Jedi are at their last health point. The Jedi’s player rolls - and fails! Since his Light Side connection is also minimal, he now has to choose: embrace the Dark Side, become a Sith, and use it to deflect the incoming strike, or reject it and get taken out. “I’ll never join the Dark Side!” he cries out, and gets run through with a lightsaber. This was a big moment of awesome for me, as it was for the rest of the group. “Wow! Awesome!” were the common comments.  

 

Jedi #2 is getting badly beaten by the Big Bad, but turns desperately to Sith B. “I can feel the conflict within you,” he says, “these children will suffer horribly if you don’t save them. You want to save them, I know you do.” Sith B replies that it’s for the greater good, fewer will suffer in the long run if the Empire maintains the correct order, but his resolve is clearly weakening. Jedi #2 gets wounded again by the Big Bad and collapses to the ground, on his last legs. He rolls well, however, and Sith B turns. Together, the two of them beat Big Bad Sith back. Jedi #3 cuts down her opponent with some lucky rolls, and together the three of them defeat the Big Bad. Force Healing saves Jedi #1 from the brink of death, but he’s changed and marred by the experience (his player has to pick a new flaw). In short order they free all the kids and escape the Imperial base. Roll credits. 

 

For me, these final conflicts were the most interesting: the characters were put under tremendous pressure, and we got to see how they responded, who they really were and wanted to be. This part of the session was also relatively easy to do as GM: I looked over the PCs’ background tragedies, and thought about how a Sith would use them to corrupt the Jedi. I also found this fun (maybe I’m revealing my inner Sith nature?). I also got to make up interesting reasons for why these Sith chose the Dark Side, so they weren’t just generic mooks.  The players all expressed their happiness with the session as well, and there was universal agreement that this was better than any of the prequels :)

 

As always, I’m looking for ways to do things better, and to understand why what worked did and why what didn’t work didn’t. I’m especially interested in understanding how things might be different if I’d adopted more of a Bangy style instead. I was originally going to contrast this session with what I do during my D&D 5E campaign, but this is a bit long so I’d better do that in a comment or a separate post. Anyway, I’m interested in whatever observations or analyses you all have.    

 

 

 
Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi! A good reply may take a little while, but I printed out the post and I'm scribbling on it.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Thanks Ron! I look forward to it.

robowist's picture

I’m impressed by the amount of territory you covered in this one-shot, and the climactic finale seems quite satisfying, especially because the players were pressing the action.

 

I wasn’t familiar with the term “intuitive continuity,” but I looked it up at the Forge Glossary: “A method of preparing role-playing sessions in which the GM uses the players’ interests and actions during initial play to construct the back-story of the scenario retroactively.” One problem with applying either “bangs” and “intuitive continuity” to your scenario (at least in the initial stages of your game) is that both of those terms suggest a strong player-driven component. Your description is that the players initially did not express any strong individual preferences in the early phase. That’s probably a result of the situation: Any time you have a new group of players coming together at a convention for a one-shot, they are most likely going to be looking to the GM to take the lead.

 

I might use an oxymoronic term like “generic bang” to describe your opening technique. While bangs are technically rooted in the individual characters, your elegant solution involved coming up with a situation which would demand action from any Jedi in the area. In other words, that initial ploy that you used to get the story rolling (and to get the characters together) was something that was not dependent on their relationship maps, back stories, or any other individualizing factors. Rather, it was dependeing on the fact that they were all Jedi.

 

You said that you drew up a relationship map, and it is clear that the players were thinking of their characters as separate individuals with very different lives and foci initially--a healer, an outlaw, and a smuggler. But these elements only seemed to really come into play during that final battle with the Sith. That’s when the individual character components seemed to be most crucial for the action. It is at this point that “intuitive continuity” might apply, but the odd thing here is that you were applying this technique on the fly as opposed to during preparation. I would be interested in hearing about how much the relationship maps and other established character elements factored into that final encounter.

 

I’m not sure whether a more Bang-oriented style is feasible in this type of one-shot convention setting. Ron includes a “training scenario” in Sorcerer, and he notes how artificial and constraining that type of approach is. Your solution (the “generic bang”) for the convention one-shot seems quite solid and effective to me. The fact that the players got to a point where they were increasingly driving the narrative (making your job easier) is a sign that you were doing an admirable job. The fact that play got to that point in a one-shot is awesome.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Folks!

 

@Robowist: thanks for your comments and the kind words! Regarding the relationship map, there weren't any mechanics attached to it; I used it just as a way to organize information, really. During chargen the players described what happened to their Jedi when Order 66 (the command to kill the Jedi) was issued; one of the players mentioned something about the Jedi Temple, which made me think of the younglings and thus children in danger, which is where I got the main plot idea. 

 

Are there any relationship map mechanics (or games that use them) that you find most interesting or helpful?

Ron Edwards's picture

Here's my video reply! Warning for rough edges; it's been a long day. As you'll see, my interest lies less in "was this intuitive continuity" as the answer is easy (or at least for the first part of the session), but rather, "what precisely led it to be/seem necessary?"

One thing I didn't say in it but should have is that [starting far off + intuitive continuity to get there] is more controlling than [starting close + oriented action to be there], rather than less.

That may strike people as backwards. Isn't the alternative to scruff people and more literally force them into doing what you want? Go here! Go there! Feel this! Decide that! Isn't it less controlling not to build the railroad first?

And I'm saying no. I'm saying that both are railroads, pre-built and Gromit-laid alike, both are controlling, and the latter is more so because it's deceptive.

When we're talking about non-railroaded play, it's not just about whether to turn left or turn right. It's about prioritizing, deciding - very much so - who you are, speaking in character. The second half of the described session is lovely, just full of such stuff, which can include physical mechanics or not, as it happened to do so here.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Ron,

Thanks again for your detailed reply! 

 

First, <insert forehead slap>. You've nicely identified a complete blind spot for me. Not only did the game not have to start where it did, with the PCs separate, but I could have had the players collectively create their own starting point. During chargen, there's a point where I ask the players how they've been making a living, and where they are now. I could just as easily have inserted a question about how they all got together, and how they received the news about the current problem, and so on.

 

You might get a kick out of this, Ron: I went to sleep shortly after watching your video reply, and I had a dream that night that I got pepper sprayed (not clear who did it or why). Then I get the sense that someone had come over to help me, and my blurred eyes clear to reveal none other than you, who is helping flush my eyes clean with a bottle of fresh water :) So here's to more eye-opening conversation!

 

Now to your questions about why the starting point seemed necessary, and what might be lost by not having such a starting point. Well, part of it is that it was just an unquestioned assumption on my part, based on the fiction of the setting I just assumed all Jedi would be hiding out alone and separate. But that's easy enough to change; general trends have exceptions often enough. 

 

The other, and perhaps larger issue for me, is that I tend to have story structure in mind when GMing like this - i.e., I think there needs to be an intro/inciting incident, progressive complication, rising action, climax, etc. for a session to be satisfying. So, I'd be very wary of starting the adventure too close to what I anticipate to be the final scenes (at the imperial black site in this case), because without appropriate build-up the game wouldn't be satisfying. 

 

I am open to the argument that story structure analysis may be getting in the way of my gaming, and that it's something better applied afterwards, rather than as something to be referenced during play. The thought strikes me that if we take my account of the SW game above, and remove all my references to what I was thinking during play, we'd have no idea how the story was generated - there'd be no way to tell what rules or how much intuitive continuity or how much of anything else was used. So a given story underdetermines the rules or mechanisms of how it was created, suggesting that trying to play well by using an analysis of the end product of playing may be off-base. I'd love to know your thoughts on this.

 

One point of clarification: if I understand you right, intuitive continuity always involves railroading, it's just a matter of degree and aesthetics. Is this correct?

 

 

Ron Edwards's picture

You caught me on the way out the door to Lincon! I'll reply when I get back, as I'm (gulp) not taking my computer there.

A couple of people have initiated intuitive continuity discussions with me recently. Seems like it's time to make a more viewer-accesssible presentation than the Lucca workshop, and to organize a Monday Lab.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Manu,

I want to abstract this out into a less sensitive form, so not about “you did this and you could have done that.” I’m happy with how far we went with that.

OK, here’s our concept to dissect: “You could have started with them all together,” vs. “where then is the choice, because drama requires choice.” Let’s break it into two angles of view.

First is about fiction (subset: story) in general, which is that everything in it is always framed. Any time constraint, any logistic necessity like distance to be traveled, any coincidence in time or place, anything that “is happening” at first encounter ... all of it is framed. Arbitrary. Contrived. Manufactured. Force-fed. No choice.

Drama in the most ordinary and interesting sense of the term is present when enjoying fiction because something within that frame represents a character’s fictional agency.

The agency is still something of a deception, because the story as we usually consume it is “fixed” before we ever got there as audience. Think in terms of having just made that story. In this “made” thing, whether Han Solo will show up to fight at the Death Star is not a question; it is only an unknown to the people who experience it as audience, i.e., until it is known to them.

To that audience (us), it is very easy and fun to imagine Han, in the unseen portion of that story, after he takes his pay and fucks off, but then going through some process of deciding to return and to join the rebel forces in the assault. Again, we don’t see that, but we know it happens and that is the part that engages the “drama,” without which, there is no story. (Simplifying slightly here by focusing on one character; stay with me, please.)

Some stories like this one make this character-agency transition fully implicit, evident only after the choice is made; some make it very explicit, i.e., think of disturbing, crescendoing music as the focus narrows onto the character’s tense face, perhaps with a flashback to some wise words earlier; and obviously, there are many shades in between.

The point I want to nail into your brain is that in any of those cases, the agency and its outcome are a fixed piece of the already-made plot, and we are accustomed to speaking of it (“he does this, he does that”) only in the context of it as how it is presented as a transition – when it is not, in fact a transition except inside the fiction. As a “real” thing, i.e., a created item, that event was and is and always will be a done-deal.

Trained as we all are in this transitive model of story-ness, we are limited to considering the agency as a:

  1. separated and private production of
  2. how the audience experiences the change from an unknown to a known.

The author’s action is invisible; we never see the story “occur” in the sense of not having one, and then having one. The audience engages with the fixed-and-done presentation of it. All discussion of story structure, of theme, of characters doing things or changing, of caused events, of the very word “plot,” is taught to us and processed in this context of #1-#2, and in no other way.

The second point is about role-playing, especially given the shared purpose of play which in this account was non-problematic, obvious, definite, and effortless.

You can probably see where I’m going with this, as I’ve been talking about it almost non-stop for two years: that precisely the private and invisible actions of #1 above are what stand naked and attenuated as a group activity in role-playing. This means that all those terms like “story,” “plot,” “theme,” and even “this happens,” are not going to help us because we’re used to considering them only as experienced in #2.

Very bluntly, and this is specific to this purpose of play: the collective activity in the role-playing group is exactly in the position of the creator’s invisible, private, and (by comparison) very safe moment of deciding what Han does and how he does it. Before knowing it.

And the very worst way to do this (as far as that purpose is concerned) is to shift into the old model of story-making and to kick it into some person’s private and invisible capacity to impose it in full onto the rest of us as audience.

That event, agency, decision, and the drama is in pieces during role-playing, not as a “full” thing. Consider these:

  • What is framed in time-and-space and what isn’t
  • Looking at what isn’t framed: what might or might not happen
  • Looking at what might or might not happen, whether these are played as such, i.e., resolved by what we do [as opposed to window dressing]
  • Looking at resolution: by whom and how

There’s going to be framing: stuff that is presented as where we are, what has and hasn’t happened, what is going on per person of interest. These are always framed. They always will be. This is fiction, they have to be. (whether it’s a single-person thing or a group thing, or prepped vs. improv, are all irrelevant; those are merely “how” topics)

But what isn’t framed, i.e. what might or might not happen? That’s where you are in this whole question.

Right now, our discussion so far is in danger of going off to stupid-ville. The stupid version would be the devil’s choice of:

  • Starting with the Jedi teamed up, with plenty of knowledge of why they’re there, on-site, ready to assaul the place; or
  • Starting with the Jedi utterly separate, with no knowledge of one another or even that there’s a crisis of interest to them anywhere, with various individual problems of their own

It’s a devil’s choice because the first has no agency of the kind we’re talking about whatsoever, thus obviating our purpose of play; and the second requires the destruction of agency in order to get things into a situation worthy of our purpose of play. You are incorrect to identify this as an issue of the degree of railroading. There are no degrees of railroading: it is happening, or it is not. The devil, in this case, is present because railroading is embedded throughout the entire construct of the choice.

Why is this conundrum even possible? Because of #1-#2. If you think of “story” as #1-#2, you are doomed. You will always be trying to present it when the activity in question, for this purpose, demands that you will collectively make it.

And yes, to make it, you need framing. And whatever isn’t framed becomes available to agency, permitting the concept of plot as a question rather than a presentation. As experienced only by the author, deep inside #1, and never by the audience.

Therefore providing some framing which permitted strong agency play would have been perfectly viable, indeed – necessary! Any story with agency needs some framing, because all fiction is framed. In this case, the decisions about “how we met” and “how we got there from a standing start” didn’t have to be made from a standing start, but from a little bit more content, so they didn’t have to be guided to get there. Crucially: without losing the agency of interest to your specific purpose of play. Exactly where they would have started, and how much they knew, doesn’t really matter much – any amount would have been fine, and you could have concentrated on relevant and active adversity, with your cool prepped NPCs, instead of from-the-hip fake dangers that were actually nudges and prods.

When a person is blinded by our #1-#2 training, they cannot think of themselves as anything but a professional entertainer who must make and present the story, and is thus trapped in that devil’s choice. Faced with this activity which has agency embedded in it, they say, H’m, we have to have a story here. Let’s get back in the invisible writer-closet, know “where it’s going,” and pretend they get there through agency. At least it’s better to medicate than to strait-jacket, right? They’ll think they have agency. So they’ll be happy, and the purpose will be, if not fulfilled, at least “fulfilled.”

That’s where your structural thinking disabled you. That structural thinking arises entirely from authorial craft in presentation of the done-deal story to the eventual audience, not in author-experience of arriving at what characters do.

In your case, you did this for the start of the session, only because, basically, you were wary of the first horn of the dilemma (straitjacketing). But like all devil’s choices, the other horn of the dilemma was merely its even nastier twin (medication).

However, to your and all the players’ credit, you all switched into genuine agency-play for the second half. I’m sure you know plenty of groups and may have particpated in them, for which that second half never happened. And for whom, they proclaim “we don’t railroad” just because it’s fogged by barbiturates.

Let me know what you think!

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Ron,

 

Thanks for your detailed reply! That was a lot to take in, so let me summarize what I think you’re saying in my own words, and please correct me where I’m wrong or fill in the gaps of my understanding. 

 

First, you’re making a distinction between a completed story, and the process by which that story was created. If we’re talking about a novel or movie, this process is something internal to the author or authors; the audience doesn’t see this process, only the results of the process (the finished book or film). Whether for example the novelist is a discovery writer or an outliner is something we as the audience don’t experience, and is largely irrelevant to us. Traditional story structure analysis applies to a completed story, it does not apply to the internal creative process of the author of the story. 

 

However in playing an RPG, this internal creative process is the main part of what we as players experience and do, except that it’s not internal anymore, it’s now public and a community project. Therefore, story structure is not only irrelevant, but one can do violence to play if we try to impose it on play. That’s because the latter requires that one withdraw from the communal creative process, make some significant decisions about the story oneself, and then present it to the rest of the group - even if we do so by nudges or subtle hints and so on, this is still always railroading, because it removes player agency (even if they’re under the illusion they have it). 

 

Have I got that right as far as it goes?

 

All right, so in the specific case of the Star Wars session in the OP, the beginning was a railroad - the players were going to have to go to Tatooine, so had little to no agency at the start. I could have just framed the first scene with everyone already on Tatooine, but that doesn’t get to the core of the issue, namely how much agency the characters have; if, for example, I “knew” that they had to get to the right warehouse to get the right clue so that they could save the kids, and I nudged them there via various tips and encounters, that’s still just another railroad - because I already had an internalized idea of the story’s sequence, and was imposing it on the players thus reducing their agency. 

 

Ok, so how could the beginning have been done differently, in a non-railroady way? 

 

You wrote that “...the decisions about “how we met” and “how we got there from a standing start” didn’t have to be made from a standing start, but from a little bit more content, so they didn’t have to be guided to get there. Crucially: without losing the agency of interest to your specific purpose of play. Exactly where they would have started, and how much they knew, doesn’t really matter much – any amount would have been fine, and you could have concentrated on relevant and active adversity, with your cool prepped NPCs, instead of from-the-hip fake dangers that were actually nudges and prods.

 

So what would that “little bit more content” look like? In this case, I’m imagining something like this:

 

“You each receive a coded message from a reliable source saying that [insert message about Force-sensitive child abductions here], and the next targets are on Tatooine in 3 days’ time.” I could then ask questions, like: Where are you when you get the message? What does getting that message look like for you? Are any of you together? Etc. And finally, What do you do?

 

Is that basically all it would take? It seems to me that from that point on, all I’d have to do is play the Imperials doing what they do, and responding to the PCs’ actions appropriately. 

 

Please let me know if I’m getting the gist of it yet :)

 

 

Ron Edwards's picture

Super gist success! Which is not a surprise and doesn’t really merit patronizing praise from me, as you have been in on the good fight and fighting it hard for many years. So this is a fellow warrior shoulder-clasp.

Therefore, story structure is not only irrelevant, but one can do violence to play if we try to impose it on play. That’s because the latter requires that one withdraw from the communal creative process, make some significant decisions about the story oneself, and then present it to the rest of the group - even if we do so by nudges or subtle hints and so on, this is still always railroading, because it removes player agency (even if they’re under the illusion they have it). 

Yes, although with one clarifier which was too footnote-y for the previous comment: elements of story structure can be part of a functioning system, as an incomplete scaffold which permits maximum attention on the missing parts. This is where rules for “chapters” mechanics come in, such as the Endgame for My Life with Master, or the four Chapters in The Mountain Witch. Similarly for many games with formal ways to end or organize scenes, or with switches in personal authority which translate into structure. These aren’t damaging when they operate as useful constraints or springboards for everyone and aren’t associated with the imposed/preference system-overrides or deceptive systems that we’re talking about.

My presentation Primetime Chat is precisely about this: how the textual scene-setup rules aren’t damaging, in the sense you’re talking about, but the way it’s often played – which is grossly counter-textual – very definitely is. I suggest that the same is true for Apocalypse World.

So what would that “little bit more content” look like? In this case, I’m imagining something like this:

“You each receive a coded message from a reliable source saying that [insert message about Force-sensitive child abductions here], and the next targets are on Tatooine in 3 days’ time.” I could then ask questions, like: Where are you when you get the message? What does getting that message look like for you? Are any of you together? Etc. And finally, What do you do?

Is that basically all it would take? It seems to me that from that point on, all I’d have to do is play the Imperials doing what they do, and responding to the PCs’ actions appropriately. 

Yeah! With the important condition that by “the Imperials,” you mean active and interesting NPCs, i.e., the ones you’ve prepped and are all relationship-mappy and otherwise full of motivations, even possible disagreements with one another, and capable of flexible responses. So not goons you invent and throw in as a speed-bump, or some looming threat you hover over everything for an atmosphere of urgency.

The point is that you get to enjoy whatever these NPCs decide and do based on, you know, playing them instead of managing them relative to the PCs. And the system becomes a method by which things happen, not by which one lands “where the story goes” like a balky airplane.

Another wrinkle, not really a condition but allowing for “who knows what” to be involved from the player-side, is to have each player receive incomplete information and therefore to be making decisions that intersect with the other players’ decisions rather than just running in parallel. It doesn’t even have to be deceptive, merely relevant in different ways, and it doesn’t have to be “tuned” to a player or character unless you really wanted it to be, or if the system allows for it or calls for it (as with Hunteds & DNPCs in Champions and the many, many games that have adopted that).

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Ron, sorry for the long delay in responding, I’ve been exhausted from work lately.

Regarding:

 

Yes, although with one clarifier which was too footnote-y for the previous comment: elements of story structure can be part of a functioning system, as an incomplete scaffold which permits maximum attention on the missing parts. This is where rules for “chapters” mechanics come in, such as the Endgame for My Life with Master, or the four Chapters in The Mountain Witch. Similarly for many games with formal ways to end or organize scenes, or with switches in personal authority which translate into structure. These aren’t damaging when they operate as useful constraints or springboards for everyone and aren’t associated with the imposed/preference system-overrides or deceptive systems that we’re talking about.

 

Perhaps Montsegur 1244 or even Fiasco can be examples as well. I had this weird thought, you could make the following kind of game: take one of the many outlines of story structure - the typical kind of thing, i.e., introduce the protagonist, have the inciting event here, have progressive complication of so many scenes, rising action for this long, the climax, the denouement, etc. - and basically do Microscope with it (with the intro and denouement as end points instead of the historical ones the game usually uses). Whether this would be any fun I haven’t a clue, but if I’m right it doesn’t have any of the problematic elements you’ve identified. 

 

I will try to check out your chat about Primetime Adventures soon, tomorrow if I have time, as this is overall an interesting and rather foundational subject it seems to me. 

 
Ron Edwards's picture

Perhaps Montsegur 1244 or even Fiasco can be examples as well.

Leaving Fiasco out for a number of rabbit-hole reasons, yes, Montsegur 1244 is a good example and there are many others.

I suggest checking out Jeepform, or more specifically, games by Tobias Wrigstad, which are built on an established structure with unusual things left open – e.g., you may know that a murder takes place in scene 3, but who kills and who gets killed is left for play to determine. I say “unusual” because it subverts the common audience/critic expectation that building plots proceeds from character motivations. Emily Care Boss has worked in the same zone for a while, e.g. Under My Skin.

... you could make the following kind of game: take one of the many outlines of story structure - the typical kind of thing, i.e., introduce the protagonist, have the inciting event here, have progressive complication of so many scenes, rising action for this long, the climax, the denouement, etc. - and basically do Microscope with it (with the intro and denouement as end points instead of the historical ones the game usually uses).

That’s exactly Premise by Randy Lubin; he has a lot of work at Diegetic Games that pokes at related angles of this idea.

As a general point, games of this sort need more than "OMG we made a story" in order to be fun. I've played more than one in which I can say that, as well as "And boy was it sure the genre we agreed upon at the outset," but also, "Well, so what?" Montsegur 1244 is a good example of packing enough meat for this effort to matter.

Ron Edwards's picture

Let’s get this into the open air!

The thought strikes me that if we take my account of the SW game above, and remove all my references to what I was thinking during play, we'd have no idea how the story was generated - there'd be no way to tell what rules or how much intuitive continuity or how much of anything else was used. So a given story underdetermines the rules or mechanisms of how it was created, suggesting that trying to play well by using an analysis of the end product of playing may be off-base. I'd love to know your thoughts on this.

The answer is “yes.” I’ll go back to 2004:

Let's say that the following transcript, which also happens to be a story, arose from one or more sessions of role-playing.

Lord Gyrax rules over a realm in which a big dragon has begun to ravage the countryside. The lord prepares himself to deal with it, perhaps trying to settle some internal strife among his followers or allies. He also meets this beautiful, mysterious woman named Javenne who aids him at times, and they develop a romance. Then he learns that she and the dragon are one and the same, as she's been cursed to become a dragon periodically in a kind of Ladyhawke situation, and he must decide whether to kill her. Meanwhile, she struggles to control the curse, using her dragon-powers to quell an uprising in the realm led by a traitorous ally. Eventually he goes to the Underworld instead and confronts the god who cursed her, and trades his youth to the god to lift the curse. He returns, and the curse is detached from her, but still rampaging around as a dragon. So they slay the dragon together, and return as a couple, still united although he's now all old, to his home.

The real question: after reading the transcript and recognizing it as a story, what can be said about the Creative Agenda that was involved during the role-playing? The answer is, absolutely nothing. We don't know whether people played it Gamist, Simulationist, or Narrativist, or any combination of the three. A story can be produced through any Creative Agenda. The mere presence of story as the product of role-playing is not a GNS-based issue.

The above was concerned with Creative Agenda, which I typically call lower-case purpose of play these days, but it also applies to specific techniques. Regarding those techniques, and to the consternation of people who wanted to know “what is a Narrativist game,” the hard-and-fast concept is not found in what techniques define or facilitate it, but instead, in what techniques ruin or stop it. Techniques which facilitate it are found throughout the set of “anything else,” which is wide-open and expanding.

If I’d managed to articulate that back then, maybe some grief could have been avoided. Then again, the point about “getting a story doesn’t mean or demonstrate anything about how or why you did it” didn’t sink in anywhere either, and I think it was pretty well articulated.

While I’m still in “if only, back then” mode, here’s another thing: “Gyrax” was not a reference to Gygax. It was nothing but a funny fantasy name.

So ... moving on. Due to the exact conundrum that we’re discussing here, people run face-first into the notion that discussion of play-purposes concerns what you want to get as a product in terms of the fiction itself. What the fiction looks like. This is related to the occasional exclamation about how what we played “could be a great movie !!” in the sense that doing so would validate the process, both completing the creative act and legitimizing it socially. It is also related to the notion that creating a story is a great and awful experience that mere mortals could never endure, full of mind-blasting secrets and terrible prices to pay.

That’s why I’ve been focusing hard lately on the notion that playing with “we make stories together” as purpose necessitates the chance to vary in success. This is precisely in the same sense that “we make music” certainly produces a range of quality in our ongoing output and also the possibility that we simply fuck it up once in a while. To continue that analogy, a musical instrument that guarantees that you “get a song” every time you blow into it isn’t much of an instrument and the activity isn’t much, or anything, in terms of “we make music.”

That’s why I tend to be pretty binary about the whole idea of GM or game organizer as entertainer. You have to choose whether this is something you do or something you don’t. All three cons this past month are a good example: I’m not sitting down to guarantee you a good viewing experience which happens to be finagled into some form of participation.  I’m here to do this thing with you, and however well we do, that’s how good it will be. From the musical point of view, sometimes, it’s not even about the quality (stealth: marketability) of the outcome, but about whether we meshed and hit a good stride at some point, and perhaps even if we tried something pretty out-there and enjoyed the attempt even if it didn’t fly high this time.

This ties a bit to my preference for The Pool over The Questing Beast. The former is skinny-dipping as far as conflicts and rising action are concerned: nothing makes you do it, but once in there, there’s nothing else to do but to do it, and if you don’t, play wobbles or flattens for a while, and possibly falls on its face. The latter addresses a certain concern over whether the outcome is going to be any good, and it has both front-loaded and ongoing procedures to “make sure.” Having recently revisited the text, to play it, I would interpret a few phrases or rules as minimally as possible.

So ... carrying on, and you out there, stop visualizing skinny-dipping now, the issue here becomes, well, stories do have structure, and it’s a pretty damn fixed structure no matter how many postmoderns try to flimflam out of it. So how do you “get” that if you don’t put it in there? I suggest the answer arrives through the doing – that yes, people do put it in there, but they do so piecemeal and driven by instant, non-articulated motivations. Very much like that passage in the solo section: “Hey Blues Master, why did you riff like that right there?” “Aw man, I just felt it.” “Hey Renowned Author, when and how did you decide to make the hero reveal his secret right then?” “Well, paying fan whom I’d like to buy my next book, here is an amusing and bullshit anecdote about my dog which you may now tweet copiously, but ultimately means, aw man, I just felt it.”

The big point here being that people may be extremely inclined to do this very thing as long as they know their agency to do so is invited, appreciated, necessary, and consequential. In other words, people can be trusted to do it and to do it pretty well, especially when they don’t try to elevate/legitimize it into traditional authorship or acting. You saw it yourself in your own games as you describe it here.

That’s why so many first-time role-players are super good at it, because it’s before they have it pounded out of them and they resign themselves to just getting a good movie or TV episode viewing experience out of their time spent in this hobby, or using it as a way to improv fanfic about the movies or shows.

I’m not saying everyone wants to do that, which is my whole point with purposes of play – not only do they differ, they really incredibly differ. But I do think that any purpose of play needs that agency insofar as it permits that purpose, including its necessary chance for not working out too well this time.

So what does that have to do with our hobby? I suggest that a lot of it isn’t concerned with purposes of play, not out of preference but out of failure and subversion into that delivered form of fiction. Zilchplay is the norm and Agenda Clash is deemed bad not because we didn’t get our shit together, but because having Agendas in the first place is deemed bad. I submit that you can see the anticipated excitement die on the faces of newcomers during the second session with the Awesome Game Master whose Stories are Almost as Good as GRRM or JMS or WoT or whatever shit-ton of well-known output they are regurgitating. These newcomers then split into the majority of vanishing out of the activity and the minority of saying, “Well, this must be the good way, everyone says so, and I get to be a fellow-member of this group, so I will be a good player now.”

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Ron, regarding:

 

That’s why I tend to be pretty binary about the whole idea of GM or game organizer as entertainer. You have to choose whether this is something you do or something you don’t. All three cons this past month are a good example: I’m not sitting down to guarantee you a good viewing experience which happens to be finagled into some form of participation.  I’m here to do this thing with you, and however well we do, that’s how good it will be. From the musical point of view, sometimes, it’s not even about the quality (stealth: marketability) of the outcome, but about whether we meshed and hit a good stride at some point, and perhaps even if we tried something pretty out-there and enjoyed the attempt even if it didn’t fly high this time.

 

I’m actually starting to wonder whether the “we’re making a story together” description of role-playing may be completely wrong-headed, and that might not be what we’re doing at all. What you’re describing above, in musical terms, is I think close to a jam session. But in music there are also concerts, right? There is a conductor who has in mind precisely what notes should be played, at what time, and by what particular instruments. In a classical concert everyone knows and understands this, there’s no pretense that the individual musicians are making any kinds of choices about notes or timing independent of what the conductor wants. So in roleplaying games, there’s a problem when what everyone thinks they’re doing is having a jam session where we’re all improvising in the moment, but actually one person is acting like a conductor and pretending they’re not. 

 

Ok, so people participate in musical jam sessions vs. concerts for different reasons. The concert is mostly played for an audience, in the same way a movie is. But with a jam session it usually doesn’t matter if an audience is there or not; it’s about the participants having fun playing instruments. Whether the final result of a jam session has the correct structure for a symphony or a fugue or whatever is irrelevant; yes it’s nice if we hit some nice harmonies and things resolve, but we’re not aiming for anything else, really. If we are sufficiently thrilled with some of the music, we might try to turn it into a formal song later, which will require some work. I think I’m mostly just rephrasing your points here in my own words. 

 

But if this analogy is on point, and I think it is, then saying “we’re making a story together” as a description of what we’re doing when we play - even for a Narrativist Agenda - is as off-base as saying “we’re making a symphony together” is a correct description of what we’re doing when we’re jamming together with our guitars. No, we’re not making a symphony, we’re not even trying - and how much fun we have jamming doesn’t depend on our successfully generating a symphony. Further, if we try to learn how to jam better by studying symphonic structure, we’ll just be left confused; learning what makes a harmony would be better. 

 

So exactly what are we doing when we play, if we’re not trying to create a story? Is it: we’re role playing characters trying to achieve their goals, and finding out what happens when they meet challenges or obstacles to them; said challenges are provided by someone roleplaying a character or characters (some of which may be elements of the setting, like a rope bridge, a storm, a ship, etc.). Perhaps you already explained all this in your phenomenology talks, and I just need to look at those again :)

 

My heretical thought is maybe we could avoid at least some of the Zilchplay, and improve at least some people’s experience of roleplaying, if we dropped the story talk altogether, and described roleplaying in other ways, such as “you and some other players take on the role of characters having adventures, and together you find out what happens to them”. Or something :) 

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues!

 

Ron Edwards's picture

Sorry for the delay - weekends are never good response times for me, and this reply required a couple of drafts. Let's see if I got anywhere with it: Fiction and music analogy.

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