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Monday Lab: (AA)IIEE 2!

Zac has not retreated from his call that IIEE (intent, initiation, execution, effect) is the "beating heart of the activity," and Manu - the very soul who prompted this discussion at the Forge fifteen years ago - is still on task. Armed with these stalwarts, we embark upon another Monday Lab to investigate best practices.

Zac began it with this message:

My question is basically this: 

Given how consequential ordering is, both in the fiction and in the actual experience of play, what are the best practices in design and execution?

I understand the answer in game design is almost always, "whatever the game needs"/"whatever fits with what the game is doing", but I think the above question still badly needs fleshing out because: 

  • Some ways of doing ordering are just bad (the "initiative roll" in      DnD et al) and most games work that way.
  • I'm not convinced all the different kinds of ordering have been explored, let      alone exhausted (choosing the right ordering model for a game is difficult      when there's only 1-3 major techniques on offer).
  • Enemy and player characters don't need to have symmetrical design when it comes      to ordering techniques (especially in GM-less/GM-full games).

I can't vouch for how far we got, but we definitely hashed out a number of shared and contrasting experiences, and Zac arrived at, if not a library of "best," at least a starting taxonomy.

Before you begin - it takes us a while to hit a really good discussion groove, and fair warning, there is one (1) minor dust-up concerning the merits of apocalypse-ia. If another person had started it, I probably would have edited out the whole thing, but I didn't want to favor myself with that method. I was careful with headings throughout for those who want to skip it. I do think the majority is a solid piece of discussion work.


Zac's picture

Hi folks! 
Here’s my summary and some take-aways from the notes I took during our discussion.

Ordering is critically intertwined with IIEE, and needs some sort of explicit design. While we can point to any number of bad or worst practices, solutions for best practice seem to come in three varieties:

  1. “GM says”: The GM handles who goes first, and when, and makes the call on when die rolls are required to determine these things, if ever. We mostly mentioned Apocalypse World, but this also can and often is implemented implicitly or explicitly in any system, sometimes on top of existing systems. This is a functional procedure provided that all players (especially the GM) are fair and considerate, and that the group makes sure less extroverted players don’t get left out of action. A good group covers a multitude of sins, but the system will not help you explicitly. Works fine in many games and groups, but isn’t the best practice for every type of game.
  2. “Spotlight”: focuses on one player acting at a time, and mostly sidesteps the issue of ordering by expanding the scope of the action in question to much less fine-grained actions (or at least much more consequential actions, as in the Riddle of Steel where you probably just killed someone). Examples include My Life with Master, Cold Soldier, Trollbabe, Riddle of Steel, and maybe Primetime Adventures (from what I’ve heard). Provided correct Creative-Agenda focus and player buy-in, there’s no boredom in waiting for your turn because each of the spotlights are engaging and interesting to watch regardless of whether it’s your character. I’ve also seen something like this come up in Sorcerer at the macro level where none of the PCs are in the same scenes, so we take turns having scenes and enjoy the show as it plays out. Definitely functional but also not the best practice for every game.
  3. Explicit Fine-Grained Ordering (EFGO?): This means: ordering freaking matters, the action is fine-grained, and there is an explicit system to order players. This is the category with the worst designs and which consequently needs the most help. Worst practices from this category include the following:
  • “Rolling for initiative” such that ordering is largely arbitrary due to randomness.
  • The freeze-frame issue where each character goes through an entire IIEE sequence on his or her own turn, and then the NEXT person does it again for his turn, etc. Lumping reactionary sub-systems on to this only does so much, if anything, to fix the problem.
  • Trying to give players a lot of options and granularity by making everything extremely fine grained, where “wait your turn” becomes an agony of bookkeeping.
  • Etc. And there’s a lot of cetera.

Best Practices for EFGO
We said three things looking toward best practices in this category. 

First is the role of randomness. Randomness is highly desirable because it creates uncertainty and excitement. The question is the place of that randomness. I ventured the following as a best practice: 

  1. An initial choice (regarding your explicit intention or even general stance) --> 
  2. Randomness to determine ordering --> 
  3. Meaningful responses or modifications to your action given the results of the randomness.

I think all three are important, but Ron’s insight here was that one should be wary of putting too much complexity on both sides of the randomness, and should probably prioritize either 1 or 3 as the “main” choice-making moment, as it were (else you run into the problem where, for example, your choice in 1 isn’t that consequential if you can just maneuver out of it in 3).

Second, that the “wait your turn” agony is very much downplayed provided,
All the action of all the characters unfolds “at once”. Technically speaking this is impossible (without literally making real-world dexterity matter as in Slapjack, etc.), but it seems to mean that, from a player perspective, everyone’s intentions are locked in together and then we see what the ordering is, are are given some room to respond (or from a fictional perspective, everyone is launching into action simultaneously and then we see what exactly happens with ordering). Sorcerer is obviously the main one here, but Ron cites his influence from Zero, and Luke Crane uses scripted actions to achieve a similar result in Burning Wheel / Mouseguard.
Players have things they can do when it isn’t their turn. e.g., boosts they can give and receive, ways they can jump in with small helpful “interrupt” actions, etc. DnD 4.0 did this very well (despite other elements in the system that we wouldn’t necessarily consider best practices). The point is you need to be (and are invested in) watching what’s going on so you can decide if/when you want to jump in and help. I assume this works in any Creative Agenda, though obviously Step-on-Up comes to mind here.

Third, in situations where ordering matters, people often want to have explicit mechanical interaction with the order of play, i.e., with “Speed” as a stat that directly translates to ordering. For this to be balanced, “speed” has to be one metric of ability among others. i.e., speed must be related directly to ordering and NOT also to damage, effectiveness, etc. Sorcerer, interestingly, doesn’t really make this distinction, as priority of ordering and effectiveness of execution are essentially the same (which works very well for Sorcerer). Another option (as Ron pointed out) for balance is using resource points as the cost for increasing your priority in ordering (or effectiveness in action, etc.) so that there’s a real cost to such boosts and they can’t be done indefinitely (being able to go first, for example, but then later requiring your character to take a round catching his breath).

While there’s plenty more detail to be explored in each, I’m pretty comfortable with these general conclusions as a start for fleshing out best practices in ordering. What do you guys think?

Areas for further research/investigation:

  • Asymmetry between players vs. GM-controlled characters. Perfect symmetry in how ordering works is by no means a requirement. This could mean a system where only the players take turns and the enemies react, or only the enemies take turns and the players react (for anyone who’s raided in World of Warcraft, the latter could be a good impression of a boss fight).
  • GM-less/GM-full designs. What if there’s no GM? What are the best ways to determine intention for the enemies in order to incorporate them into ordering? 
Ron Edwards's picture

Hey Zac, I’m regretting allowing the discussion to address best practices. It’s evident in how you’re focusing on big-picture combinations. I think we need to reverse that lens, so that the goal is to dissect out as many small-scale techniques as possible, to understand that referring to any given game title is necessarily a profile of them. This is crucial to keep any single technique from being pilloried as bad practice when it is merely guilty by association, or rather, as part of a poorly-built profile. I see this arise in your phrasing in this comment, “not the best practice for every type of game,” which is a false variable – looking for any such thing is Holy Grail talk.

In the discussion, you consistently dismissed the initial fixed order of action. Early in the session, I noted to myself “we better get back to that,” but other topics overwhelmed it. Ross saw it too and tried harder than I did, at one point speaking up without getting traction.

We did all agree that a result at the table of being frozen in place, doing nothing and incapable of anything until your turn, and then having all of IIEE at that moment and no other, is not good. And unlike Anthony (see below), I do think many game texts are unforgivably guilty of promoting/designing this very thing. In courtesy to Anthony, I’ll allow that many of the authors probably assumed certain behaviors and responses at the table that led them to think their textual presentation was enough for anyone to “get it,” although I think his gaze is too rosy.

Maybe your bad experiences with the “frozen” phenomenon have led you to identify it with a fixed initial order. However, there’s nothing ipso facto wrong with establishing a fixed initial order either by referring to numbers on the character sheets or by rolling to set it up. What the design allows you do with it and what else you do has to be addressed. I don’t think the presence of a learning curve for that is itself a problem, whether for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition or for Circle of Hands. I think you were looking for “the bad” so determinedly that you interpreted our mention of a learning curve as a failure-feature.

An important secondary topic is that arriving at the order via Initiative+Execution (1st edition Star Wars, Zero, Sorcerer) is not the same as flexible responsivity as the order proceeds in play. That’s a different variable. Considerered in isolution, it necessarily produces a more dynamic result than, for example, referring to the same order turn after turn like Champions does, but the other details of such a system could result in the “frozen” problem too, just as Champions happens not to due to its orthogonal free-timing speech rules with their subset of Presence Attacks.

I’ll talk about the GM/player issue in another comment when I can get a moment. It’s Sankta Lucia here in Sweden, the busiest holiday of the year.

For historical reference, since I've been looking at these games recently:

James Bond RPG (1983) requires combat participants to declare in order of lowest Speed to highest (Intent and Initation) Speed stat. Declarations must be specific and can't be changed. Then actions are resolved (execution and effect together) in order of highest speed to lowest. Player characters _only_ have the option of the "draw" which means if they have unexpended shots when an NPC tries to shoot them, they can roll d6+Speed to shoot first.

Star Wars RPG (WEG, 1987, First edition only). Combat has several phases: Decision (where players and GM decide silently what their characters will do), Declaration, where players are asked to declare, then the GM declares for NPC. Players aren't allowed to change their minds. (Intent and Initiation). The Action (Execution) where everyone rolls skill rolls. Effect is then applied in order of highest roll to lowest.

(Sorcerer is very similar, except that declaration phase includes Free and Clear, which allows players to change their minds until everyone decides to Initiate. ) 

Star Wars radical "initiative" system was ditched almost immediately (I think even in the second printing of the first edition) for a more common roll for initiative.

Zac's picture

That's very intersting. How did these designs feel in play, in your experience? 

Also, any idea why Star Wars ditched this? Players hated it or something? 

How did both games handle defensive actions?

I don't remember if Star Wars initiative prompted reaction in reviews or among gamers at the time. I do remember that my response was "Hunh? How could that work?" I can only speculated that many people had the same reaction I did, steeped as I was in AD&D, DragonQuest, and Champions, which all has strict ordering of actions.

I just searched the Bond RPG and see no mention of defensive actions. One can declare you're ziggzagging to increase your opponent's difficulty, and you can hold back shots so you have a chance to draw and fire first, but it looks like the only other way to defend oneself was to spend Hero Points to reduce the enemies success level.

WEG Star Wars had "reaction skills" like Dodge, which you could roll any time, but would reduce subsequent dice pools by 1d6 until the end of the round.

Ron Edwards's picture

The WEG Star Wars obviously scooped Sorcerer, during the brief flash of its first edition. I wish I could say I just adopted it from there, as it would make perfect sense, but the sequence isn’t that simple.

All the way until the very late stage of design, Sorcerer’s combat sequencing was different, using what I called “mutual carnarge,” which tried to establish attack/defend for both opposed combatants simultaneously, with each making a single roll. Various role-playing games have tried this, especially when influenced by Magic: the Gathering, and my old Gray Magick text is an obvious example, as is The Riddle of Steel (which Jake called “real-time combat”). This never worked quite right for Sorcerer – everyone mostly gutted everyone – until I switched out after playing Zero, which I didn’t do until 1997-1998.

But there’s another wrinkle in place, because one of the people I talked with constantly about role-playing throughout this period was John Marron, who was a long-time WEG player and grieved for its lost original dice system. He’s the one who told me about the pool-splitting techniques that I talked about in the video. You’d think that if the influence were direct (Star Wars to John, John to me, me to Sorcerer) it would have shown up more directly, and I’d like to think I’d be crediting it as consistently as I do for Zero. Still, given John’s enthusiasm for the original system, and the extent of our conversations, I can’t believe there wasn’t some almost-direct line of influence there.

WEG Star Wars multiple actions are available to all characters, not just Jedi. Skills are rated in number of d6. To do multiple actions, a character first declares, at the beginning of the round, how many skill uses he plans. All rolls are then reduced 1d6 from each action declared after the first. So for example, a smuggler with 5d6 Blaster skill can try 3 shots at -2d6 each, allowing him to roll 3d6 at three different targets. This applies not just to attacks but any combination of actions attempted in a single round. 

WEG:  Although D6 Star Wars changed often and sometimes significantly given how quickly the editions appeared. The first major changes came out almost immediately, changing initiative, changing multiple actions, introducing assistance, and so on, with other changes coming out afterward and then significant revision again for 2nd Edition which was then 'fixed' in a Revised and Expanded Edition. Generally speaking, these changes "fixed" problems of math, procedure, or outcomes, but could be known to introduce entirely new problems. I put 'fixed' in quotes because the idea of broken or not with this set of rules depended as much on bias as it did with actual problems.

This game is an early part of a lineage where actions are declared by everyone before they are resolved and this method for handling initiative has a direct effect on stated intentions and their execution in play as one could wind up with having to change the stated action (at penalty or otherwise) or with having to accept that there was nothing one could do (suddenly) due to outcomes taking place higher up on the iniative order. It has a secondary effect where regardless of character type or training, etc the characters who declare last have an unintended benefit of being able to make the most-informed decisions and so are granted a form of tactical knowledge denied to characters who declare first. This is interesting when compared to games where having the first spot in the initiative order means declaring and reolving before the next player declares, allowing for revelations and opportunities for the so-called (but perhaps misrepresented) 'slower' characters. 

FFG Star Wars (Genesys): In this game, initiative is rolled but only rolled once per combat scene (barring some in-fiction reason to re-roll). It is done individually with each participant getting to roll a pool of dice generated by their relevant attribute and skill. This generates an initiative order with 1 blank slot per participant per side which can be assigned and reassigned as the players wish throughout the duration of the combat. This feeds directly into a lot of genre considerations which are relevant to the broad category of properties of which Star Wars can be considered a part, and specifically to the Star Wars films themselves. Although there are obvious differences in combat effectiveness between the different characters, there are moments during a combat where the non-combat characters are all that stands between the group and certain death. While they are not trading flurries of blaster bursts with the enemy, they are interacting with the environment and information, making deductions, getting blast doors and trash compactors open, reparing or persuading hyperdrives, and so on.  Turns have no specific duration but are explicitly more than the time it takes to make one discreet action. This is similar to the spotlight notion, but including the idea of editing from film where we may be describing the same moment in time from different angles or presenting a series of sequential actions, or both. 

This is a point which I would like to use to point out that rolling initiative does not have to be seen as arbitrary or to lead to a sense of being frozen or ineffectually slow. Each game, intentionally or not, will influence play and figuring out how a given mechanism can contribute to the game can go a long way toward circumventing dissatisfaction or identifying it early enough to make it clearer that a different game is needed for the group. Pulp heroics of various types often have a broad mix of character ability, experience, and professions which, when modelled faithfully by a game, might easily lead to a sense of frustration among players when in scenes less-suited to their characters. We see similar seeds of dissatisfaction in cyberpunk with lots of body modification, and in high fantasy among others. If the dice or cards or whatever, used once per scene or once per turn, indicate the order of action, we can fight it because of bias, or we can 'roll with it' and use it to inform the fiction just like all the other inputs in the game. 

Likewise, the notion of characters being frozen while other characters are free to act is a form of fighting against the mechanisms and procedures of processing the information produced by a turn in a scene. Multiple actions, varied movement rates, casting times and spell durations, mixed scenes of melee, ranged, and vehicular combat and so on all have demands which need to be met in order to resolve them and how that information is processed does not have to dictate how that information is described and put up as a finalized part of the unfolding fiction. Just because we process all the attacks of a single side and abstract defences into the 'to hit' roll, or just because each player gets to process all of their multiple attacks at once, does not mean that it occurs in a linear sequence like that. That people fall into the habit of thinking of it, imagining it, and then describing it like that is an undeniable truth which has driven a lot of interesting game design (such as D100 and Tunnels and Trolls and Genesys and Circle of Hands, and...) but I think we can lump a lot of that into incomplete understanding and acceptance of the interactions of the elements in the design rather than an inherently 'bad practice' such that we could say it is a worst practice to roll for initiative when tracking IIEE in a granular fashion. It is a practice and it has a use. The best practice is perhaps to learn the use. After that, preference can rightfully take hold and a decision can be made about continuing to play the game.

Star Trek Adventures (2D20): In this game and the others using 2D20, initiative is set as being the characters' actions being resolved first in an alternating sequence of sides. One player character gets to declare and resolve, then one NPC, then one PC, and so on unless either side declares that they will spend one of their resources to alter that to go first or to retain initiative and act again.  Specifically in Star Trek Adventures we can see how this plays directly into the game's conceit that sessions should feel like episodic television and what we are 'seeing' is less a faster/slower ratio or better/lesser trained ratio, but we are following the camera in a sequence determined by the fictional needs of the scene. As with Genesys above, the players determine which character among them will act on the next PC turn and can offer assistance or resources as needed. 

I quite enjoyed this discussion as it explored practices and the effects participants noted from the use of those practices. When it got specific about Game X and practice Y in terms of 'best', it opened up too much room to debate based on personal preference rather than these practices. That strikes me as having less utility outside of specific discussions with a specific group about a specific game. 

Either way, a good lab that I enjoyed! I will now go look for the first one on the topic~

LorenzoC's picture

Regarding Genesys, I think the first iteration of the system was introduced by FFG in the Warhammer Fantasy RPG (3rd edition, 2009). I've seen the system gain a certain popularity and being commonly referred to as the "slot" system.

I think it's important to point out that WFRPG was a game that gave some enfasys to the idea of "group" (to the point you had your group sheet) and this is reflected in how that system behaved in play. When you have a fixed order that repeats over and over across rounds, when initiative reaches the player he's fundamentally dealing with a snapshot of the current situation and a very focused process of analyzing what happened till now and what he can do right then. 

The WFRPG/Genesys slot system forces players to move from "What do I do now?" to "What do we do this turn?". In our year or so of playing WFRPG3rd edition we saw that in full effect and it's a fairly radical shift in mentality compared to fixed, personal initiative slots, and in a positive way I'd wager. The order in which we decide to use our slots (who goes first, who goes second and so on) naturally leads every turn to begin with a battle plan of sorts, and people reasoning like a team to see how to best optimize their synergies or how to find that one plan that saves the elf's life before the orcs get to maul him. 

The side effect is that while shifts in strategy remain common and bounce provides the need for constant changes of plans, I've noticed people tend to be invested in the plans they made and become reticent to change them. When they need to do so, often you get moments where plans get discussed again and the people who already got to act get locked out of the game, possibly for a long while. So it's not exactly immaculate because it possibly makes the "waiting for your turn" process longer, at times, and it frontloads a lot of the excitement of making decisions (like the declaration-that-locks-you-into-your-decision systems do, which is my favourite explanation of why people don't seem to like them much despite of how much sense they make), rendering the processes of initiation and execution less thrilling in turn.

Another potential problem is that since the GM is listening to all this unfolding, he's fully equipped with the intents and expectations of the players, and this is potentially problematic because if he does what they declared they expect him to do, he's removing the excitement and surprise from the flow of the action; but if he changes his plans because of what he heard them say, he makes all that decisional process a waste of time. 
How much this can be a problem at different tables is impossible to say; it wasn't much of a problem for us in the beginning, but I often ended up feeling like I had to persuade myself to quickly make a plan and stick to it no matter what (as the GM) because knowing ahead what people wanted to do without being locked into my own declarations was a wrench in my decisional process.

I'll second my thanks for this lab, by the way - it was immensely entertaining and it explored in detail one of the design topics I'm most passionate about.

Yes, many of the elements present in Star Wars Roleplaying were drawn from FFG's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition and revised. 

LorenzoC brings up an interesting point about GM decision-making and the extent to which knowledge and metaknowledge about the situation apply to that role which echoes a point Ron made when discussing Clay that Woke and the conversation that turns into a fight.... or a knife fight.

I find this point interesting because it is very alien to me. This suggestion of changing actions based on what is happening on the player level (action declaration) or what would be more dramatic (he had a knife all along!) is operating on a Story/Entertainment level rather than on the character level of the relevent NPCs and this is something I do not do naturally, and would prefer not to do even if it is suggested by or mandated by the game. It is interesting to me to see it in the wild like this and wonder anew how common it is and what role it has in the various reactions evident in the IIEE videos~

LorenzoC's picture

I think this could lead us in a pretty dangerous digression about best practices and other things that aren't probably relevant to the immediate topic; I mostly wanted to point out that in a system where you have people making their declaration in from slowest to fastest, and then are locked to the action they declared, the fact that those who are faster know what those that are slower want to do is a desired effect. In the WF/SW/Genesys slot system, possibly not so much.

Ron Edwards's picture

Anthony, this speaks to our long-overdue, and rather dreaded discussion of "story"-ness as it relates to play.

Somewhat wearily: the technique as Aleksandra and I are describing it is no different from how it's applied in other role-playing games. Let's say you're playing WEG Star Wars. If you prepped or otherwise via play found your knife-armed NPC in a hostile discussion with a PC, or if the discussion turns hostile, I very much doubt you'd tag the ensuing attack - let's say even a surprise attack - with a knife as anything but simply "playing my NPC." And I bet a thousand bucks you'd say no differently if you happened to decide during those moments of play that he had a knife, or that it was plausible that he'd have a knife, rather than specifying it before play.

There is no need to invoke a special attitude toward the fiction, like "I shall now entertain everyone," or "I shall make the story go this way now." It's the same, not different. Aleksandra and I are discussing it in terms of sequencing, not in terms of creativity or goals of play.

Right, it is all too easy to digress! To clarify, I do not want to get into either best practices or off-topic elements of ordering - I want to specifically look at the nature and role of errors when implementing a practice and explore the different interpretations of common practices among players. Part of knowing what a thing does is recognizing that some hammers are used for nails and others for pianos~

In Genesys we, as you note above, may tend to see a group identity forming. That could lead to a standard practice of an Out of Character (OoC) discussion about who will use each slot and possibly what they will do or why they should take that slot. This might result in play which has decision points and moments of tension occuring in alternating moments of In Character (IC) and OoC discourse, or it might result entirely OoC interactions. It is understandably unlikely to produce interaction  in a mainly IC mode, although it could be handled that way. However, that group identity might not form at all and we could see each character using the slot that was rolled for them without making use of the opportunity to set and reset the order.

In that case, each participant would be locked into an order which is generated in a relatively slow manner and which would not vary (initiative is rolled only once). We could reasonably expect such a group to have some dissatisfaction with how initiative is handled and interpret its influence on scenes quite differently. We might also see more of an IC footing in the play from such a group. 

I have seen both of these behaviors arise in the wild and seen positive and negative reactions to both. In other words, I have seen groups use the rules to their full extent and from there express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with them, and seen groups use the groups in a limited or incorrect fashion and from there express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with them. Discarding the biases (which I prefer to do) leaves examples of groups who use the rules as they believe them to be and get the implementation right per those rules, groups who use the rules as they believe them to be and get the implementation wrong, and groups who intentionally change the rules. 

In terms of ordering actions in a given game, the influence of what the game is expected to be can in a real sense interact with the implementation of the initiative rule(s) through a filter of comprehension of how that mechanism helps produce the expected experience. That puts some importance on player error both in getting ready for play, but also in the speed and ease of play once it begins. 

In terms of design, the effect of something like the group being able to deside which of their characters will act in a given slot, or a 2d20 group deciding to retain iniative for a second PC action or address the possible synergies of character interactions versus the dramatics of the scene has effects on the processing of the turn which affects how it is envisioned which direcly effects how closely the experience hews to the expectations of what play would be like.  Having a set initiative order (SLA Industries), or an order set by scene (Hollow Earth Expedition), or set by Turn (A Time of War), or set by decision (2D20) or some mix of these (Genesys) has effects on play which can be predicted in part and noted in part from observation of play, but due to the text or to a trait of the group (or both) can be misinterpreted or misapplied (or both). So, we end up with looking at what we know the mechanism can do, how we describe it in the rules so that capability is communicated, interacting with how it gets read and interpreted. 

If indeed some interpretation of the concepts included in IIEE is 'the heart of roleplay' and design work that recognizes this could be make communication of concepts in a game text clearer, then I think it is worthwhile to have people being willing to step away from what they like and instead look at what a thing does while observing what it is made to do / perceived to do by others. 

For example: the feeling that one is waiting for one's turn, or that initiative is purely arbitrary

How much of that is an effect of the design, and how much of that is the result of how the player plays?

Ron Edwards's picture

These avalanches of words are getting me down.

Anthony, I don’t like and don’t trust the internet tactic that begins with “so you’re saying,” and it’s not what I’m doing. So please tell me if the following is an accurate reading of your position. I am aware that it is not the way you would say it.

Identifying the initially fixed order of action with “fixed and frozen activity” shows that you are playing it wrong, not that anything is wrong with the technique.

[assuming I’m at least partly on track] Perhaps surprisingly, I agree with you. Please see my reply to Zac above.

Also in principle, so our mutual overly-polite bookends can be placed properly, here’s my rebuttal.

Identifying a practical, useful table solution to flatly bad instructions in text does not redeem the bad design and text. It is analogous to saying, “well, that’s what they must have meant,” in terms of scripture or past political writing, to preserve one’s identification with and loyalty to a brand or title. But the solution results from one’s contemporary design-in-use, not to a discovery of the inner or intended meaning of the text.

I think it’s good to have both bookends in place, because I think you and I are going to have to arrive at mutual standards for assessing which is in action, for any particular technique and any particular specific text: whether we are dealing with good design/text and clueless players, or crap design/text and insightful, practical players. Also, maybe, standards for when it doesn’t matter.

I think you are going to get a good laugh out of the video I recorded for you earlier today on a different topic. 

I will just state here that the questions raised here in my posts are not challenges phrased as questions nor are they some other rhetorical device - they are just questions.

Now, to reply directly to your points:


1. Avalanche 

Sorry, I recognize this is a problem - especially when people aren't sure how to read the writer yet. The intention is just to provide context. 

2. Tactics


3. Position on Fixed as Frozen

I think that it can be an error, I don't believe it always is. I noted your opinion that this can be an error in the video.

I think the basic way we view the overall activities of RPGs influences this part of play, (ie: creating fiction as opposed to making decisions). 

I think that the source of an error (the text, the design, reader comprehension, transmitted culture of play, etc) is interesting.

I think it is important to separate mechanisms from our opinions of them, as some beloved ones are problems and some reviled ones are not. I want to look at what they do and how that influences play.

4. Texts

I think part of design is being able to communicate it to others. 

I don't think that a table solution, culture of play, or satisfying though erroneous aporoach redeems text that failed to communicate the original idea.

I think observations of what players actually do is at least as valuable as the text in terms of opening avenues for new design and better texts.

5. Standards

I agree. I am not sure where or how to begin, however.

Sorry for the bullet points, I keep getting interrupted and didn't want to lose my train of thought (or spark another avalanche).

Ron Edwards's picture

(addressing Zac's questions at the end of the main post)

I think the GM/player distinction is irrelevant, because my take is that what we call “GMing,” or a lot of it, is a set of tasks that have to happen no matter what. The terminology of GM-less is therefore meaningless, and although GM-ful is much better, both are mistakenly focused on people rather than on things that get done at the table. All of which is to say that, regarding IIEE, we can talk about whether different people have different tasks, and whether different characters are handled differently, without being distracted by the “GM” term. However that is managed is on its own; I’ll just assume that it is and move forward.

Let’s focus on characters rather than people. Drawing a very rough line, I find at one end we have NPCs and PCs who are “equal before the law,” in all ways – mechanics, sequencing, range of responsivity, range of actions, and so on. At the other we have, for sake of argument, “PC-centric,” in which case NPCs are factored into narration as the

It isn’t too hard to identify those ends with “roll for initiative/order” and “spotlight” ... but although that’s not wrong, it’s not thorough or precise either. Here are a couple of thoughts.

For The Pool, one of the most extreme “PC-centric” games, for which order of action is very fluid and has little or no designated mechanical effect, two nuances mess up the simple pattern.

The GM awards 0-3 Gift Dice to a given roll. If we take the subset of conflicts in which “speed matters,” fictionally, and presume without too much strain that a success will include something significant about doing X faster than the other guy does Y, then the amount of this award is very much like assigning a speed rating to a given NPC. (Because it’s the same of assigning a “whatever it is” rating, depending on whatever about the NPC is relevant to the conflict.) I mention this because in my experience, order of action as narrated later often plays a big role in how the designated speaker describes the outcome. Not always, but often. When that’s the case, it is not out of line to say that the fiction as experienced (not merely retconned) includes the characters’ relative speeds.

Spotlight-y The Pool may be, but it’s also possible for more than one player to be rolling at once, and I’ve seen all of them do so sometimes, for four or five people. In that case, although there’s no mandate for which roll’s outcome gets narrated first, the profile of who succeeded and who failed, and at what, often presents a who-went-when framework which all the narrations are constrained to fill in. Again, this effect feels extremely solid in play, rather than a bloodless or intellectual requirement – as if the dice let us know what “must” have happened in terms of relative speed and the landing of actions.

For The Whispering Vault, there is a fixed order based on a Speed value, which all characters have. However, only the players roll. The opponents’ Attack and Defend scores are not dice-relevant to-roll values like the player-characters’ are; they are target values for the players to shoot for when rolling their Defend and Attack, respectively. What I’m pointing out here is that the sequencing is extremely traditional (and does have the “freeze frame” problem), but the mechanics are entirely asymmetrical. So you can’t always point to symmetry/asymmetry as a key variable in IIEE.

Zac's picture

Hey Ron,

I'm familiar with your GM-less/GM-full concerns: Of course those roles all need to be distributed, I was just using the common vernacular. 

That said, while the Whispering Vault is a good example of one kind of asymmetry, I'm still concerned about handling intention (and possibly initiation) when there isn't a traditional GM role: without a traditional GM and everyone also playing their own PCs (for example) you need some way to figure out the intention for enemies without the potentially awkward situation of players stating their enemies' intentions and then their own. "Equal before the law" seems to make this awkward, and that's why I was thinking about asymmetry at that level, and consequently carried over into asymmetry in initiation and execution as well as possible ordering mechanics (a "boss-monster" might follow pre-set attack patterns and players jockey to go before or after in relation to the boss's attacks, e.g.).

Ron Edwards's picture

I think the term "traditional GM" is a red herring in this point. The issue is exactly what you described - that for one person to propose and resolve adversity is boring. We used to call this Czege's Principle at the Forge. It applies to any and all role-playing, no matter how GMing is distributed or whether it's (perceived to be) absent. Some other person and/or some mechanical constraint has to be involved at either end of the conflict.

Speaking for my own designs, I wish I had leaned more often toward asymmetrical resolution, and to specify my thoughts further, less about a GM/player distinction and more about type-of-character/other types. Trollbabe is an extreme example, similar to The Pool, insofar as no one but the player-characters has any independent resolution at all. Elfs uses a profile of NPCs/foes in terms of what you need to succeed at in order to defeat them. But I do reflexively like to put NPCs and PCs on the same footing, and I can see that in some of my games I could have reconsidered that.

In the video, the discussion was about when the knife could be introduced; the timing of introducing an element into the scene. 

It was described, it seemed to me, as an example of how an omission of a relevant rule or procedure in the text can lead to players deciding what to do. There is no rule for our against what they decide to do so there is no error in play, they are ruling over or in the absence of rules (ROAR). 

That point was explored in the context of when it was acceptable to introduce the scene element (knife behind the back) but the specific detail about that was in terms of the scene already being in motion and having a direction at the outset of there being no knife. 

That was followed by a statement of preference for not introducing new scene elements like the knife at that point (just before adding tokens) and a reiteration that either way the game is silent on this point in both rule and procedure. 

The fact that this is a discussion of sequence is clear. Where I keep finding a question raised for me is when the examples used are about making decisions to change scenes in motion. The very point about the scene being in motion in play is a point of sequence: when it can be decided that a fictional character has a knife. When can an existing (secret or not) intention be changed? (This is not a question of IF it is okay to change an Intention to alter the Effect.)

The approach to play influences the answer to that question.

We could see a choice to change a scene in play by adding a knife so as to add skull tokens so as to add dramatic stakes as being on a story level. The choice just described was for reasons of story, for drama.  While this looks like it is drifting into agendas for play, it isn't. 

I don't think making changes midstream in a scene to increase danger and/or drama can be seen as being on a character level of decision-making and that is relevant to sequence.  The choices considered on a character level do not operate on that framework. In other words, the available points for change differ and in this specific case we might expect to see no consideration of suddenly adding a weapon to the scene from a player operating on a character level, or perhaps a rejection of the impulse. The scope and sequence of their right to describe and determine scene elements is different from a player operating on a story level. 

This is entirely about sequence, and raises more interesting questions if there is a mix of conceptions of play in the group, increasing the benefit of being clear about such sequencing in the game's text.


In this comment thread you seem to suggest there is no difference between running a prepared NPC with a weapon in a hostile scene and suddenly deciding to give an improvised NPC a weapon in a scene that suddenly turned hostile. 

A decision in-character to attack, or a decision on a story level to insert a more dangerous element into the scene strike me as being the same in that the player decides to do something with the events as they are being created in play. 

Where I see them differ is that on a story level I am freer to make more changes to more things at more points and for more reasons than on the character level and that suggests that some mention of this might be useful in a text to influence the behavior in whatever way suits the game.




Ron Edwards's picture

Really, we need to save this for conversation. The accumulated mass of side or reactive commentary that you and I are accumulating is already turning pretty bad for me. Let's not add to it before we are able to work it out.

Yes, that is best~

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