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Intent in The Pool

The exchange between me and Ron about stakes setting has been on my mind, and perhaps because of that I have been extra attentive to the presence or absence of setting explicit intentions and stakes in my current play. I've been playing a game of the Pool with two players (George, from my Legendary Lives game, and his brother Ted, who has never played an RPG before). The setting is essentially Napoleonic-era military action and intrigue, except with magic, inspired more by quasi-historical sword and sorcery literature than actual history. We wrapped up last night and I noted the following:

At no point did the process of conflict resolution pause for us to explicitly set intentions or to bring up possible stakes of success or failure. Rather, it was obvious to us* both (a) what would trigger a roll of the dice based on the ongoing activity of the characters and (b) what failure or success would look like, again, based on what had just been happening. I wish we had recorded the session because it’s easier to show than explain, but what I mean is that when two characters were having a discussion, it was clear just from what they were saying to each other when we had reached a point where a roll needed to happen, and once the dice were rolled it was clear what a given success or failure could mean. There was no need at any point immediately before, during, or after the die-rolling to clarify specific “stakes” one way or the other. When the traitor sorcerer’s dragon bore down on George's PC and she responded by drawing her sword and charging it, it was clear that the failed roll meant she was dead -- even though the possibility of death hadn’t explicitly been brought up before that. It was a powerful, unwelcome and unwanted (to use Vincent’s terms) moment and it would have been less powerful had we paused to spell out the potential outcomes of success or failure before rolling.

An emergent property, that we quickly came to appreciate, was that if I as the GM got to narrate a success, I would limit it to the barest minimum of what that success would mean without undermining the fact that it was indeed a success. This in turn gave monologues of vistory (MOV) real value and led to lots of tense decisions about whether to choose an MOV or an additional die for the pool. Had we set stakes beforehand, this property of the game would have been short circuited. (I think Burning Wheel actuall short circuits in a similar way: some of the more interesting features of its resolution system fall away if you use the "setting explicit intent and stakes" procedure that was screwed onto it during the series of revisions from Classic to Revised).

Now, there were times when the players would take an action, and we would have to pause to orient things or clarify things. For example, at one point George had his character punch someone, and this action was confusing to me so I did stop to ask what the character's intent was -- “Oh, she's trying to make a distraction”; that clarification allowed the scene to continue, and though eventually we did roll dice, the clarification of intent was not directly related to or triggered by and nor did it trigger the conflict roll.

And Ted (this was his first RPG) would often state his intent for some longer term goal, and we’d have to dial things back and figure out what the first step would look like and start playing that. So, in those cases, we did have to stop and verbalize the idea of the overall intent, but what we were playing was the immediate action the character was taking. These clarifications were necessary so that we had a clear picture of what was going on, and that clear picture was necessary for us to use the conflict resolution system at all. But we were not using the conflict resolution system to pull us out of the murk or to decide between two predetermined paths.

*To expand on this, sometimes what should trigger a roll was obvious just to one of us at first, and they would point it out and the other two of us would say, “oh yeah, of course”.

Actual Play
The Pool


Ron Edwards's picture

I needed to put this here for boring format reasons.

Jesse Burneko's picture

Jon, for me, somewhere a line exists between clarifying a character's intentions and pre-narrated "stakes" setting.  I know that in almost ANY game I run I frequently ask, "What exactly do you want here?" Especially, when it comes to social situations.  Hell, sometimes, that's even done "in character" with an NPC saying, "So, what do you expect me to do?"

For Burning Wheel specifically, my reading of the task/intent rules are very much in this vein.  What exactly are you trying to persuade the NPC to do?  Not how they will go about it specifically.  Or what their reaction to having been put in a position to comply will be. Or anything beyond, okay, they do it or at least agree to do it.

Same for physical altercations that don't break into a full on Fight! or any of the other subsystems.  Are you trying to incapacitate them or escape? And sure, a lot of times, it's rather clear what's going on but a lot of the time it's not.  Simply, clarifying "What are you trying to accomplish here?" I don't think is dysfunctional stakes setting or wrestling over control.

As I stated, this is very common for me in social situations as I've noticed that players sometimes have a tendency to talk around what they actually want. I have to step in and ask, "What exactly do you want the NPC to do?" I can even see them stop for a minute and realize they weren't even being clear to themselves. They have to take a second to think about it and then say, "I want them to..." and then I can proceed with either "Great roll Persuasion" or even just, "Oh yeah, they have no problem with that, they agree."

Jesse - I agree with all this! And I think we probably agree about the following, but check me if this is not the case:

I would say that “needing to know the intent” is necessary for play to happen at all. I.e., if we just have players announcing actions without any context or understanding of the intent behind them, we will fall into confusion and murk. Given that, though, a separate “clarifying intent step” does not need to be part of the resolution procedure itself (in the Pool at least, as well as some of the other games I was thinking of during my exchange with Ron -- notably Burning Wheel, which did not have this step when I played Classic; whereas having such a step might be perfectly appropriate or even necessary for another game, like Elfs).

However, we may not realize that things are murky (or are drifting that way) until someone starts trying to implement the resolution procedures and all of a sudden we’re confused because we have no clear picture of what any of the characters are actually doing. In these cases reaching for the dice (or the equivalent) acts as a kind of speed bump, prompting us to slow down and ask those clarifying questions. And, as you suggest, clarification might lead us to realize it isn’t an appropriate time to use the resolution procedures. So I think this covers what you are talking about, and I agree that there's nothing necessarily problematic about this.

This next part is tricky and I’m not sure I’ve fully wrapped my head around it yet, and am pretty sure that I haven’t figured out a way to talk about it clearly ---so take this as me struggling through:

The potential problem with explicit stakes setting, then, is that it tricks us into thinking that having that baseline clarity is not necessary to begin with. We're swimming in murk, without a clear idea of what people are doing or why they're doing it, and then we implement the resolution procedures which gives us an island of clarity to stand on for a few minutes before we jump back into the murk. Those few minutes with our feet firmly planted on the island feel good because, hey, now we actually know what’s going on. But we have tricked ourselves into thinking that the only way we can have clarity is if we’re in the process of “resolving conflicts”. Games like this end up being episodes of engagement with the mechanics where the mechanics (massaged or mangled to include “stakes setting”) are the closest we come to knowing what’s actually happening. But in between these episodes, it’s more aimless, confusing play, so there’s no real way the outcome of one episode can lead into the next situation without someone using controlling techniques. (I've been in games of Primetime Adventures that have operated very much like this).

If we’re doing this with a game like the Pool, I’d argue we aren’t really implementing its resolution procedures, because they rely on us having a clear sense of things to begin with, and so what we end up doing is substituting the stakes setting procedure (come up with two outcomes then roll to see which one happens) for the actual resolution procedures (as I outlined above: letting outcome narration arise out of our understanding of what is happening, what triggered the resolution roll, and whether there is a success or failure, with the added twist of a GM success narration being as stingy/limited as you can get away with).

Reading back on this, I am doubly convinced that I am struggling to put it into words, but I hope at least some of this makes sense.

Simon Pettersson's picture

I would say that “needing to know the intent” is necessary for play to happen at all. I.e., if we just have players announcing actions without any context or understanding of the intent behind them, we will fall into confusion and murk.

I'm not Jesse, but this comment sticks out to me. I'm not sure I agree with it, but then I'm not sure I understand it, either. I think there is a lot of great play that can happen when the player and even the character don't know what they're actually after. Heck, sometimes they're not after anything at all. There is this risk, I find, with playing games which have rules for "social conflict" to look at all interactions as a conflict. I want something out of this interaction and I will try to beat you to get my way. Obviously, in real life, that sort of adversarial view of social interactions would be incredibly toxic and probably self-defeating. Real social interactions often don't have an explicit intent, but changes in opinions and viewpoints can happen anyway. And if I do want to convince you of something, the goal isn't really to "win" but rather to make you see that we're on the same side.

Intent may be necessary for stakes-type conflict, but I don't think it's necessary for play. There is a lot of very fruitful play that doesn't consist of people maneuvering (socially or physically) in order to get some clearly imagined goal. I don't think there is a necessity to always have some (player or character) goal in mind when playing, and it seems to me that playing that way would be quite mechanical and stiff.

But again, I'm reading a lot into a small comment. I'll have to stop myself now and see if you can clarify what you meant, instead of me building up some straw man.

Simon - the kind of play I am talking about (and observed/achieved during this game of the Pool) is definitely not mechanical, so this might be a difficulty in how I am phrasing things. (I think I am using “intent” more generally and not solely in its more technical sense as used in discussions about resolution mechanics).

Here are two examples from this game of the Pool:

One of the player characters has just arrived, in disguise, in the fortress of the enemy. They start by asking to look around: we start to narrate this process of exploration, and get a sense of who/what is there. At some point, the player decides the character wants to start looking for weaknesses in the fortress, and the play moves from somewhat aimless exploration to more intentional investigation. We considered momentarily whether or not dice should be rolled in this case, but based on what I had prepared of the situation and the character’s background, we decided a roll to see some of the weaknesses wasn’t necessary.

In this case, there is still clarity throughout, even though in the initial part of this sequence, the player didn’t have any more specific intention than “look around and see what’s there”.

The second example is a social situation of the kind you are referring to. The other player character -- a Captain in the army -- was in a conversation with his commanding officer, who had just given the character their orders for the upcoming battle. This scene started with the character and the commander just talking about the orders, getting a better sense of what each thought about the orders, and the conversation naturally led to the player character starting to push the commander to convince him to allow him to take a more active role in the upcoming battle. This shift from “feeling out each other’s thoughts” to “actively trying to convince him” happened naturally, and, in fact, it was the other player (not involved in the scene), who noticed the shift and finally called for the conflict roll (in the Pool anyone can call for a roll when they notice the requirements for a roll are met).

Again, though, I think it was important to know that at the beginning the player was in an exploratory/feeling out mode, and was not actually trying to have the character do something else where the intention was obscure to the other people playing.

There are all sorts of complications and edge cases that can spill out of this, but I hope this at least clarifies my thoughts a little.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Right, those examples seem like perfectly fine, wholesome examples. But then I'm still confused as to how “needing to know the intent” is necessary for play to happen at all. Obviously the part before the intention became clear was also "play", no?

I'm confused by parts of this discussion. It seems to me that intent has to exist in real life before anyone acts and the same in an RPG -- intent has to exist before declaring an action. Why act if you don't intend some outcome? Now I can see that the intent may not be fully defined or articulated or shared with others -- is this what the discussion is about? 

Ron Edwards's picture

I think everyone's being authentic, but I also think the question Simon's asking cannot be addressed in the abstract. I suspect that a real example - not verbalized here, but identified and time-stamped in any Actual Play videos which seems suitable - would be useful for everyone to work from. I don't know who wants to find one but anyone is welcome. It's likely that one person will point to the very same moment and say things like, "That's the intent moment I was talking about," and another will say, "But that's the moment I was talking about when there wasn't any."

Alan's doing us a service by expressing his confusion. Here's my thought: Jesse deserves the chance to say what he thinks, before we squirt more ink into the topic - I say "we" because as you may imagine, I am itching to tippy-tap here myself. I'm not shutting it down or closing the thread or anything like that, but it really should be Jesse who judges or manages where the conversation goes from here. I hope that's OK with everyone.

Jesse Burneko's picture

I think I understand what Jon means about intention needing to be clear for play to happen at all. Perhaps, I can refine that and suggest that at a minimum the range of consequences for action, for better or for worse, must be clear to be able to “play through” the fiction and maybe even maintain trust and communication at the social level.

If I’m charging a dragon with sword and shield then I would expect that I might: drive it off, injure it, or kill it but it would be really odd if I succeeded and the GM said, “The dragon falls in love with you.” I think games with “stakes setting” and “narrative control” wanted to play in that realm by basically mechanising dramatic irony.  “My character is actually trying to kill the dragon, but if I succeed on this roll what actually happens is the dragon is impressed with my ferocity and falls in love with me.” The result of that, however, is to wrest an active toy right out of the player's hands, play with it for a minute, and then hand it back to them expecting them to pick up where you left off.  That isn’t “bounce;” it’s a demand. So, naturally, people start getting either super defensive or super greedy about the toys trying to get as much done as possible while they have a hold of it.

Notice that this is totally different than playing through the sequence of IIEE and then having the GM respond to the outcome. You charge the dragon intending to injure them, you roll and succeed and the dragon is injured. Then, responding to this new normal, the GM might say, “Wow, what a mighty blow! I think the dragon is impressed with you!” The injury becomes “bounce” for the GM to make a new decision about the toy in their hand.

Now, the reason that I favor clarifying intent explicitly is because misunderstandings are pretty devastating when they happen. 

“I charge the dragon!” “You succeed and slay it!” “Wait, what? I was just trying to drive it off. I don’t want to kill it!” 

“I charge the dragon!” “You fail and it burns you to a cinder!” “Wait, what? I didn’t realize I might die. I thought it was just going to burn the village down!”

Now, of course, you can always course correct but at that point you’re making amends for a misunderstanding and a transgression of trust which is way less fun than playing through exciting consequences everyone was on board with. In this regard, (and here’s where I commit heresy), I think clear communication about character intentions behind character actions is a far more effective safety tool than a lot of more formal mechanisms like the x-card and script change.

Those tools, I think, arose out of play cultures where there IS a lot of wrestling toys out of each other's hands and where a lot of stuff gets made up out of thin air. “It’s my turn, so I get to say what’s in the next dungeon room and it’s a pile of dead babies.”  Yeah, man, you’re going to want some way to say, “can we not?” to that. Whereas, staying with the characters and playing through clear actions with clear consequences the need for that goes way down. Like in gambling, no one is betting anything they’re unwilling to lose.

To Ron’s point, however, there’s about a 1000 different ways a group may come to communicate intent without even realizing it. You don’t need to communicate intent action by action in a Sorcerer fight because everyone understands the damage rules, roll over victories, and the abort to defend mechanics. And even there you might want to clarify if he’s trying to break your leg with the crowbar or go for a headshot.

Also like Ron said, I bet we could watch a video and point out little moments where social communication happens, maybe even non-verbally.  “Ah, there’s the moment it’s clear the dragon is coming in for the kill and there’s the moment where George acknowledges what's on the line and charges in anyway!” And maybe all that is just a look in someone’s eye, or a nod of the head, or an emphasis on a couple of key words in speech.

Finally, I want to acknowledge Jon’s point about using intent as islands in the murk. I do think there is a danger of thinking intent is all you need. I’ve seen players go straight to, “I’m going to convince him to call back the army” and start gathering dice. I have to step in and say “Wait, how are you going to do that?” You see a similar problem in PbtA games where people stop talking about what their characters do and start declaring moves. They start using the move sheets like buttons on a video game controller jumping from one to the other.  People forget that moves are triggered by specific fictional actions and circumstances, and you have to play through and up to those moments concretely.

This is also particularly true in games where one scene = one conflict = one roll mechanically. People have a tendency to jump right to whatever they think is the “conflict” of the scene because it’s the only point they’re going to get to establish anything of consequence. The game is going to move on without them otherwise. You basically have to “grab” the conflict and the easiest way to do that is jump directly to a confrontational statement of intent.

I hope all of that is clear.

Simon Pettersson's picture

It's clear and well argued!

And as long as we are talking about games with stake-slike conflict, and we are talking about play where the resulution mechanics are engaged, I think I agree. And that's what this thread is about, so that's all good. I was reacting to an (imagined, probably) idea of play where we need to know our characters' intentions all the time, not just when we are engaging with the conflict mechanics. But as long as we're talking about games with a stakes-like resolution mechanic and about the moments in play that these mechanics are engaged, then yeah, it's good to be clear about your intent and it's also not necessary (but not necessarily bad) to declare them outright. The behavior to avoid is pre-narrating, the whole "If I win this thing happens, in this way".

badspeler's picture

To add on to Jesse's comment- It might be worth thinking about how intentional thinking works on a more basic level and why it's important to the structure of games generally.

In all communication, some notion of "intent" is necessary. When someone says, "I could really use an apple," understanding their intent to communicate something in English is necessary to parse the sentence. It's an ingredient in all forms of intelligibility.

Intent has a special role in games as well since the "meaning" of a move or a decision can only be understood in terms of what their other possible actions could have been.

This is equally true in highly formal games and less formal games. It doesn't matter if the space of their possible actions were, "Which creature did they choose to attack," the space of "things that can be said", or something in between. Intent is a fundamental piece of how we parse meaning.

Sam's picture

This post and some of the comments bring up something for me that has troubled me for a while. This is the idea of an action that does something very clear to everyone (I punch him, and he gets hurt/I beat him to death) that a player desires to do something else in this specific circumstance (I punch him to cause a distraction). I don't think its bad behavior, but I do think it can feel a little weird at times.

A wave of tiredeness just hit me, so maybe I'll try to expand on this tomorrow, but I think its worth me putting this here in case I don't get a chance to post again this week.

Ron Edwards's picture

(Apologies for not getting to this sooner ...)

Sometimes a switch-up in the point or meaning of a given confrontation, in terms of what its resolution procedures actually resolve, isn't a bad thing. I'm saying this now because most of the time it is a terrible thing.

The reason is easy, or at least, I think it is considering I'm the one using my own terms here. Let's see if it's easy to anyone else.

  • If we have moved into expressing outcome authorities, i.e., we use whatever procedures are involved with who-says-what associated with them, then the situation is usually already known to have required doing that.
  • What you're describing is literally a re-write of that same situation, i.e., going back on what we thought we knew and had established.

It's very similar to what I'm always criticizing in misplay of The Pool - you get Narration authority and you suddenly think you've been handed a God Hat and can start talking via Backstory and new-Situation authority. As well as to what I'm also never shutting up about, the misplay of Primetime Adventures, in which limited and multi-person Situation authority, starting a turne/scene, is assumed to extend into the scene yet to be played and to set up the circumstances requiring Outcome authority.

Now for the nuances ...

I'm not saying that every authority always has to be kept separate, either as procedure or among persons. I'm saying they can't be confounded, such that what we knew and thought was said this way is suddenly now being said that way.

It is in fact the case that some games operate via a great deal of retroactive and post-hoc assembly of content, e.g., knowing that X did Y through some resolution, and filling in or providing context for as a feature of play. When this is known and formally played, that's fine.

Furthermore, since those techniques do work, then sometimes in a game without them formally in place can borrow or apply them ... if the particular setup of certainties and uncertainties of the moment fall together in a way so that play becomes richer rather than suddenly swerving.

That's not going to happen when we move into resolution because you say, "I hit the bastard," and then you or some other yahoo blurts, "Hey, this should be about whether I remember my mom, you know, recover a bit from my amnesia," or, worse, "Hey, this should be about whether my mom is really alive or not!" I saw a whole community of young designers go right down this shit-slide when Polaris was published and no one actually read the rules ... they just saw "But Only If" at the tables and collectively blew a fuse, and not in a good way.

Let me know if this makes any sense.

Sam's picture

I've had a few weeks to sit on thoughts about this, and I wish I wrote them earlier. I think you expressed the core of my concern really clearly here by putting it in terms of authorities.

It's something that came to mind because of the way Burning Wheel handles stakes setting. It makes the thing we are talking about (which I am now more comfortable saying is almost always not good, which I wasn't yet comfortable saying when I posted this originally) a part of the rules, because you basically declare what you hope happens because of what you are doing when you set the stakes. It doesn't need to be clear to everyone before the roll happens because you can just say where you want things to go even though what is really at stake is almost always clear to everyone. Like you said, if I'm understanding your comment correctly, you get to go back on what we all understood and built and change it, which is no good.

I have noticed this idea of agency as getting to say what happens next based on what you want a good amount recently. I'm sure its been said a million times here, but its clearly a way to let everyone railroad a bit rather than a single person (in the case of Burning Wheel, the GM can technically state what will happen if you succeed or fail, so this can actually work as a device for GM railroading). 

 I'm having a bit of a hard time expressing my thoughts here clearly, so bare with me if its confusing. I can really never tell if what I'm saying is gibberish. But here I go anyways!

The word success, in this context, seems to literally take on the meaning "You, the player, will have your fun. Right now," rather than meaning certain constraints being introduced instead of others. So the successful player gets to say what happens, they get to have their fun now. There seems to be a strange confounding of dice results with literal player enjoyment, enhanced by the assigning of an incredible amount of saying power to the "winner". If failure means bad feelings and railroading, mitigating failure (Stress, "complications", flashbacks) is the natural answer. I can think of certain games that seem to allocate fun rather than create constraints for players to use. Of course Blades in the Dark comes to mind, but Burning Wheel, played by the rules in the text, is right up there. Been grinding for your Artha? Here's your cool dice. Getting a lot of successful rolls because of your cool dice? Here's a bunch of power to say what happens.

I would appreciate replies. Let me know if I should clarify anything I said (as usual I'm posting at 1 AM). 

Ron Edwards's picture

I don’t think it’s gibberish at all. My single word-choice quibble concerns the loaded word “fun,” in that I do not see fun at all when I’m at the table and this sort of blithering begins. It’s entrained or defensive reactivity – safe-zone, at best; agency as a misnomer for freedom, freedom as a misnomer for anti-abuse shield. In other words, it only makes sense in the context of prior or perhaps even inevitable abuse.

I think that’s consistent with your point here:

There seems to be a strange confounding of dice results with literal player enjoyment, enhanced by the assigning of an incredible amount of saying power to the "winner". If failure means bad feelings and railroading, mitigating failure (Stress, "complications", flashbacks) is the natural answer.

As long as possible gibberish is on the table, we could get into some psych-speculative territory: to suggest that this represents transforming the initial trauma (failure = bad feelings and railroading) into a “known environment,” an inescapable truth, so the only perceived options are to avoid, elide, or redistribute it. These acts would be perceived as alternatives to the only previously-perceived option which is compliance, so they feel alternative or indie. To play in any organized way with any rules that does not contain the inescapable truth in the first place, is flatly out of the perceived range of the activity.

Sam's picture

I completely agree with your point about "fun". 

The thing that is disturbing to me is the brazen use of this cycle of abuse and desperate grasping for shields against that abuse as marketing for games that purport to offer players agency and autonomy, when all they really do is distribute the railroading to everyone or make everything everyone says mean nothing (those two things might actually be the same exact thing).

The idea that the text of a given game will save you from bullying/abuse at the table seems to be an extremely common marketing point nowadays. The idea that a game can reach out its hands into the world and change it, that a bully can be silenced by the words on the page, is seemingly a cornerstone of "good/indie design". Am I supposed to breathe a sigh of relief when someone says to me: "it's GM-less!"? In fact, game texts cannot do anything. If someone wants to be a bully, they'll find a way, and this always includes diminishing and expanding certain rules from the text that help them bully, and introducing new rules. If a bully is at your table, and you allow them to stay there, they will redesign every game you play for their purposes. 

The idea that a game including safety tools in it will fix our abusive play group seems to be in there right next to this other weird marketing technique. I'm really sick of hipness/queerness/radicalism/"diversity"/safety/power being sold as widgets. 

LorenzoC's picture

Sam, I think your comment strongly highlights what for me is a defining feature of this phenomenon.

When you say this:

The word success, in this context, seems to literally take on the meaning "You, the player, will have your fun. Right now," rather than meaning certain constraints being introduced instead of others. So the successful player gets to say what happens, they get to have their fun now. There seems to be a strange confounding of dice results with literal player enjoyment, enhanced by the assigning of an incredible amount of saying power to the "winner". If failure means bad feelings and railroading, mitigating failure (Stress, "complications", flashbacks) is the natural answer. I can think of certain games that seem to allocate fun rather than create constraints for players to use. Of course Blades in the Dark comes to mind, but Burning Wheel, played by the rules in the text, is right up there. Been grinding for your Artha? Here's your cool dice. Getting a lot of successful rolls because of your cool dice? Here's a bunch of power to say what happens.


I think what I see here is a stark separation between the process of rolling dice and obtaining information and stimuli from them, and another process which is, to put it bluntly, take the word and "have your 5 minutes of fun". My experiences with Burning Wheel were strongly dominated by other aspects, in terms of frustration, but I've always perceived a very stark cut between everything that leads to rolling dice and seeing if you got to be the one who "wins" and thus talks, and what happened after. Another game where this is extremely evident for me is F.A.T.E.
F.A.T.E. was the first game where I saw this in effect - people mustering all the aspects, advantage dice and whatever, pre-negotiating outcomes and workshopping before the roll to obtain all they could in order to "win" the roll and get to take control of the table for a while. 

There is a very evident trend in my pre-2000s play experience (and including post 2000s games that do nothing to steer from that type of structure, like Pathfinder) where rolling dice inevitably becomes an unwelcome event because everything that can come out of it is just bad news: play is exausted before the roll (as you pre-describe whatever you desire will happen in full detail and the roll will not give you any sort of information on how to handle the result) and if you succeed, you have already played; if you fail, the DM is the person who will play (making sense of failure, "massaging" it for you and so on).

I think a game setup where (irregardless of how your prescriptive your pre-roll statements are) everything the dice does is telling you if you can take the word or not isn't significantly different, when experienced. There is still a fundamental fear of dice because the only information that is going to come out of them is who get to talk. And if who gets to talk gets to talk with as little limitations or boundaries or even just contingency as possible, then you open the door for the same "I'm going to fix this game with my vision" abuse that the stereotypical viking GM would impose. The idea that the GM is just another player goes both ways - there is no inherent quality or "safety" in just letting one player make up stuff at the table or decide outcomes, just because it's not called "GM".

I think this "fear of dice" has a few very evident sympthoms, a significant one being the idea that the "competent person" does not need to roll dice. I'm not referring to the idea of not rolling when the action is significantly below your competence (which I'm fine with) but to the idea that if something complex comes up, everyone rolls and the competent guy doesn't. To me it's often evidence that the dice rolling process has some disfunctional "do I get to be awesome?" quality in itself. I'm not interested in that, I think rolling dice should be interesting expecially to those who created their characters to actually partecipate in that type of action.

I have developed a preference for systems that use dice as a form of contingency and as a vehicle for information - in this light, even Savage Worlds is better than F.A.T.E., for me, because you get very palpable boundaries in describing what a roll actually meant. And there's many games where while there's no mechanical limitation in what you can say once you can talk, the process getting there gives you clear boundaries for what you can do and why you need to do something. Trollbabe series work very well for me as an example - there's very clear rules for who says what, what they can say, depending on what, all despite having an incredibly simple dice resolution system. In fact I'd say the level of complexity or nature of the instrumentation can be any, if the process (the IIEE process, I guess) has this type of consistency and progressiveness in itself, when there's no clear cut "ok, stop the game, it's time to talk" step, where the latter doesn't really need to depend on the former.
Another game that really hinges on having people narrate (and determine) outcomes that I often think of is The Mountain Witch. What's really different between Burning Wheel and TMW? You roll some d6s, one guy gets to "win" and talk - for everybody, even! - and make all the decisions, no?
To me the stark difference is what happens before and during the dice roll - the way the "stakes" are created, who is where, who is helping who, who is investing what... all this creates a momentum that isn't set up as "I want this to happen" before the roll, that isn't controlled or channelled by one person, and that cannot be ignored by anyone who gets to narrate because they need to use all that to resolve the action. I have no direct experience with it (as I consider the few games I partecipated in during cons as being something else entirely), but watching people play Primetime Adventures conveys a similar vibe, where getting to speak doesn't simply mean getting to boss others around for a while because you won a roll but having the responsability and pleasure to play with what everyone set up so far, and what the dice told you.

So in a way I think I could sum up how I feel about these issues these days in these terms: I'm becoming very weary of games where the dice/resolution system is a necessity for something that I want to say to be true, and liking more and more the idea that I roll dice because I don't know what to say next - not because I lack motivation or clarity, but because there's enough conflicting forces that require further, external information to resolve.

noah's picture

The idea that a game including safety tools in it will fix our abusive play group seems to be in there right next to this other weird marketing technique. I'm really sick of hipness/queerness/radicalism/"diversity"/safety/power being sold as widgets.

I recently read an actual play report by a self-identified “indie” gamer. It actually turned out to be very applicable to the dialogue here.

They were playing Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Long story short, the player characters have gotten the jump on a band of foes. A crossing of the magic & Passions systems leads to a really cool, surprising outcome.

A character’s Passion roll while under the effects of a spell means they won’t join the melee because their enemies are surprised and unarmed. Because of the spell, they can’t take additional action. Instead, they stand there looking fearsome, and their spirit calls out to armed foes in their stead, challenging them to honorable combat. A bandit takes up the offer, and a Fumble roll in the exchange means the player character is incapacitated.

What I find so interesting about this report is that you can see the group actually playing the game in spite of themselves, and they (or at least the GM) try very hard to not play. There are multiple moments where the GM offers to “let” the player ignore the results of Passion rolls.

To my mind the insistence on letting players ignore rolls seems to be, “We are all free, not just me, the GM...See? You too can ignore the constraints to ensure the outcomes you want!” 

Nonetheless, the player honors the roll. Good on them, and of course they do...the bounce introduced by Passions in RQG is really scary and fun. The group arrives at a brutal, surprising outcome that is the product of their decisions but beyond their control.

And to be fair, the Passion rules in RQG are a mess. The GM did not try to ignore outcomes for the much clearer procedures for combat. I think what we see in the actual play is a space of murk opened by unclear rules, and the GM's habits of control and the players' (GM included) desire for actual outcomes sputteringly attempting to fill the void.

In the debrief (we are back to thinking about the actual play), there is this absolutely fascinating sentence: “The particular outcome vs Axe Trance was pure gold. If it were a storygame with storygame-y indie type sensibilities and everyone's ready to fail horribly, I think it'd have been a story for the ages. But this isn't that.” 

I can’t stop thinking about it. This feels like the inverse of people playing a terrible, murky, uninspiring session but still insisting “It was fun! It really was!” 

These players used a system that, self-evidently, involves the possibility of horrible failure, that produces (their words) “awesome” fiction, but it’s not the right kind of system, so it goes from being “a story for the ages” to ‘a weird blip where this wrong game did something right.’ I’d also draw attention to the way the AP writer attributes “sensibilities” to the game, rather than to the living participants, as if the RQG core book could reach out into the world and ensure everyone is on the same page.

I would bet their confusion at encountering a good story in a "trad" game comes down to tribal identity (“this isn’t that”), as well as misunderstandings of agency. The thinking seems to go that, if an outcome is put there by GM or GM-ful fiat, or by a widget-like procedure, it is a “free” choice. If it emerges from our creative participation but without anyone’s explicit or subliminal control, it’s a weird aberration -- a random output to be briefly enjoyed like a funny Google Translate error, but not something that could happen frequently and meaningfully, and certainly not the reason we play in the first place.

Sam, this connects to your concerns about safety at many points. I’ve been thinking about how safety in games requires:
(1) A knowledge of what potentially harmful content is likely to occur in a given system. If you’re going to play Burning Wheel, everyone had better know the possible outcomes of a Fight! 

(2) The ability to process potentially harmful content in a healthy, caring way as it emerges from the fiction without a person or highly engineered procedure placing it there. Processing this type of difficult content is a dynamic, contextual, difficult, and deeply worthy endeavor. Relying on widgets like the X-Card (which itself looks a lot like GM-ful fiat to me) to deal with this type of content is like trying to use a semi truck to crush a spider.

As long as we (mis)understand agency to mean carte blanche in placing elements, unconstrained, into the fiction, we are woefully underequipped to process the second type of potentially harmful content, and we leave an important element of safe, caring play unaddressed.

Sean_RDP's picture

Such good thoughts. I enjoyed reading this thread and have a couple thoughts of my own.

Fun - I do think that most of the time when people say "I had fun" they mean "My social time was well spent" and that might either suggest play is only social time for them OR regardless of the game, the social time was not considered wasted. It does suggest either a lack of critical thinking about the game at hand or a level of play that is surface deep, rote, or not play at all. I have been trying to examine my own use (and misuse) of the term over the past few months and am trying to separate my opinion of the social time versus critique of play. I do think it is possible to enjoy a game that has many challenges, as long as we remain intellectually honest about the situation.

Deflecting Negative Consequences - I think there is a significant portion of people who play or show interest in rpgs who think that a GM in anything like a traditional role, is the enemy. I also think that there is a (still) significant portion of people who run games who think the GM should be the enemy. That players need to earn their stripes through arbitrary decision making. This is intuitive continuity in its most sadistic form. Players and characters cannot succeed without insurmountable odds, otherwise drama does not exist. And if the dice don't do it, by God I will! 

So it does not surprise me that a level of play developed where the system stacked the deck in favor of the protagonists in a very TV series kind of way. Murder She Wrote or Midsommer Murders are my go-to cozy mystery examples. Cozy rpg play is a thing that happens; I think FATE is a great example of it. Drama comes from personal theater, instead of relying on the whims of fortune and the boundaries of constraint. However, I think it is fair to point out (and several of you did, in one way or another), that whether it is the GM who is altering the paradigm or one of the player-protags, it is still an arbitrary action that waffles on or ignores constraint completely. In other words, I think a style of play developed in reaction to bad play, that is not a salve for bad play, it just shifts the power around. 

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