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Events, plot, story, and other conundrums

We met again to keep playing Tales of Entropy, and I think we're getting a good look at how "story" happens, or perhaps, an exercise in whether fictional events are or are not a story. It won't surprise anyone to know my position: that the more we anticipate and compose a story, the less we do create one.

My topic concerns agency. We spent a lot of time, way too much in my estimation both in the moment and on reflection, on negotiating and approving things which were supposed to be handled by one person. I grant that a friendly atmosphere of chat and suggestion is important, and given our collective practice, I was an ardent lobbyist during those moments myself. But that practice isn't an emergent preference among us; it's due to the strong - even intrusive - personalities displayed by me and Paul. We nearly became the de facto bosses, not through fiat and mandate but through ever-so-helpful and what-about and just-suggesting. Too much.

You know what sort of Black Card this group-ish, high-chat, anyone-suggests type of play needs? The one that says everybody shut up, I am thinking and will tell you presently, for the person who is nominally supposed to tell us. "Loser assigns points of Burdens equal to the margin of victory," or "Grain carrier says which Grains apply to each side," any and all rules like that, which in this game are very carefully parsed in distribution and in the order they're applied. I especially think that the Card should be playable by anyone, to disperse the dogpile and end the conferencing. It's way too easy for this kind of play to turn into ongoing, all-equals, consensus blather ... and you can even see that neither Paul nor I wanted this, and struggled against it! But also that we fell into it more than once.

I wondered during play, and was shocked during viewing, to see that Santiago genuinely felt obliged to justify every single input, to entertain others' suggestions, and to have his rulings laid open for discussion. Again and again he treated his chairmanship of the moment as supplication to the group to approve his suggestions. Santiago, given my knowledge of your play history and having played Cold Soldier with you, I suggest you are really still feeling your way into the very concept of "I play my character, he goes where I say, he says what I say, he does what I say," and it's mixed up with anticipating and planning for longer-term story outcomes, or to put it simply, "writing." Playing in the moment is tough for you, doubly so when it comes to defining conflicts and distinguishing that from their open-ended content upon conclusion. You were heroic in managing the end of that second conflict coherently, but the struggle was real - you even exclaimed "this is so hard!" at something which is supposed to be really, really easy and fun. You weren't lying or wrong - there is something awry with how we explain and demonstrate these things.

Petteri, that's your task now. How shall your text and your table-practice teach this ease, such that play itself does not attend to "how the story is going," and instead simply to the maximum engagement in the moment?

There are two points during the session when I shifted into full consult mode, and I hope everyone checks them out. Lots to discuss from there.




Santiago Verón's picture

I'm struggling to bring into play this great idea I had at the end of the first session - that's what my conflict was about, for me. By email, Petteri and Paul have said they didn't quite see what I was trying to do - and I guess you didn't as well. I'm getting dangerously close to playing in my head - fantasizing about this Big Thing I want my character to do that I hope will take down the Dragon, in between sessions. Even ignoring how the dragon is turning out to be a religious, natural force - I'm still half thinking of him as a possible business competitor, as I wrote on my character sheet. But then, I do think the response is appropiate for my character - it develops right from the moment Scthyllia talked to the public and gave away coins, and I hope it positionates my character as its true nemesis. The thing is, yeah, the longer I go without putting my plan into motion, the more I disengage with what's going on with others' scenes, and get frustrated with mine's. You guys wouldn't believe it, but it's SUCH a relief to have gotten that "The Museum of Wonders is coming" grain at the end... Now I was kinda hoping the next session would find me narrating with my character as the Least Played - allowing me to set the scene at the Museum's Grand Opening and challenging the world to get some grains that really undermine Scthyllia's position. It'd be so much easier in a more conventional RPG, just telling the GM I go talk with this merchant and then this politician and then gather the crowd and cut the ribbon... Am I going about this all wrong? Should I just concentrate on playing off one another's contributions, seeing what they put my character in front of?

Ron Edwards's picture

On one hand, I am afraid of compounding your personal debate by paying more attention to the “side” that I think is causing you trouble, along the lines that sometimes, processing something only makes one more obsessive with it as a puzzle, long after it should have been dismissed as a simple irritant.

On the other hand, I know all about posting something that mattered to me and watching it hang there without replies, wondering whether anyone cared. So if for no other reason, since I do care in this case, I’m going with that for my guide. I’ll use a related topic to make my point.

I was pleased to find my first-edition copy of Primetime Adventures yesterday. I’ve been claiming a lot about it vs. the later editions over the years, and was careful in the past to check the text to be sure about it. I did it again just now.

In this exact and singular text, everyone takes turn requesting a scene, and the GM is a player among the rest for that feature. Anyone doing so specifies three things: whether it will focus on characterization or on plot, what immediate circumstance or possible event implies a conflict, and its location. Then the GM uses these statements to describe the opening of the scene in two or three sentences. (Yes, the GM “talks to him/herself” on his or her go, doesn’t matter, move on.)

First, note the speed and simplicity. The rules do not describe this as a discussion. It’s something you do, on your turn to do so. The player says the three things without explanation or justification, the GM says a couple of sentences, and that is all.

Second, note the contingent features of multiple components. The player may have mentioned who else is there besides his or her character, but might not have, and hasn’t said anything excluding anyone else. The GM is fully able to introduce aspects of that location that the players do not know about, or other characters who might have agendas of some kind. The player has not stated or suggested a conflict or fictional problems. Nothing whatsoever has been said about what will happen.

Similarly, play itself doesn’t have to stay in that location or involve whatever was said, in fact nothing that was said is binding or static in practice. Anyone playing a character can have him or her do anything, say anything, or go anywhere, as this is nothing more nor less than ordinary role-playing. It may have been designated as characterization but a conflict emerges, or vice versa. It can be treated as a literal scene (“set,” “shot,” “continuous moment in one location”) but conceivably does not have to be.

Briefly: this entire step orients and is limited to the GM’s brief opening description, and nothing more.

Regarding what often happens in play, so often as to be identified with the game title and codified in the rules of its imitators, if anything textual is to be blamed, I’d choose that first requirement (characterization/plot) which I regard as nonsensical and an inadvertent invitation to disaster. But whatever the cause, in play, this moment tends to become horrible, a massive committee negotiation about what is about to happen and why.

Just like in your post. Imagine hours of that at the table, dense, interwoven, contingent, negotiated, objected to, explained, justified … as play itself dies horribly and silently.

The Tales of Entropy rules strive to avoid this problem. They are explicit that the current Narrator begins the scene, but does not dictate the upcoming conflict, nor does he or she open with a conflict. You are not the Narrator’s little puppet. If your character’s narrated into the opening of a scene, you play that character as you see fit. No approval or negotiation with the Narrator or with anyone at the table is involved. He or she can get up and go wherever they want. He or she can take action of a particular sort that forces the conflict you want to see, then it simply does.

Santiago Verón's picture

Ooooohhh fuck. You mean I could've just turn my back to the gathering of the merchants, have Lietti tell his guy "Do not wake me from my hangover slumber for something as inane as this ever again", and have him go about his business downtown? I was wondering it, but now this confirms it. (But do confirm it.)

Thanks a lot for not leaving me hanging.

Ron Edwards's picture

Sure. Don't feel headlocked into a conflict due to initial scene narration. Even when I narrate "But they all expect it! They all look at you! They demand it!" That's not the GM speaking in code to the player for what he or she has to do. That's just ordinary play, what's happening, the fiction proceeding. That's the medium. The medium is not the negotiation or discussion about the story.

It is, however, possible, that the GM/Narrator is playing those characters "hard" enough that the fictional circumstances seem to warrant a conflict of its own. Deciding that is part of that player's job. I can't say whether I would have done that or not, although at this moment it seems not.

But either way, that's still not the same as you obediently marching to take your place at some pre-designated "this is the conflict" chalk line on the floor.

Santiago Verón's picture

Thanks! Thanks a lot. I'm so relieved!

I like this discussion between Ron and Santiago, and wanted to make a few comments:

First of all, Ron, I agree with your assessment that we were both "taking up a lot of real estate" with our banter. I enjoy that kind of thing in games - for instance, when it's my "turn", I'm happy to hear other people shout out some suggestions, and often benefit from them. However, the idea of a "Black Card" to tell people to shut up is a good thing. More importantly, I'm entirely on the same page as you when it comes to honouring the distribution of authority the game suggests. 

If I am framing a scene, you can shout out some ideas, but it's my decision whether I listen to them or not; much like how, in D&D, the players might say, "Oh, no! What if there's an ogre behind that door?", but that doesn't in any way force the GM to change their mind about what's actually there. Similarly, if it's your turn and I blurt out some idea excitedly, I completely expect the other players to ignore me most of the time.

Santiago, I think Ron addressed your concerns when it comes to "knowing what you're allowed to do" as a character in a scene. Play your character, simply enough. Sure, this game has a collaborative element, and it's good to keep an eye on what we're excited about and interested in, but ultimately your job is to portray your character's interests and values, and *especially so* when they conflict with what the others are doing or saying. 

However, you're also talking a lot about making plans and strategizing for future developments. It's OK to think ahead a little, but, in my experience, in a game like this, you shouldn't expect anything to come of it. The distributed authority and the conflict mechanics all mean that it's almost *completely impossible* to make any plans for the future and have those plans survive. A single turn, or a single conflict, in this game is enough to transform not only the scenario and the situation, but even your character himself. For instance, maybe Petteri planned to portray his Scthylia as a holy martyr, sacrificing himself to the vicious new world order. If so, his plans were completely crushed by our last scene, though, where our combined choices turned Scthylia into a murdering monster.

You should very much expect the same thing for your character, and any of his (or your plans). They will wriggle out of your hands like a slippery snake in a game like this! You cannot hold them tight. Embrace the chaotic, unpredictable nature of play, and be ready for every subsequent scene to present something entirely unexpected - that's a big part of the fun here, presented by Tales of Entropy.

Paul, I have to say that the ending of your comment encapsulates the exact thing that Entropy is, and tries to be. I couldn't have said it better no matter how hard I tried!

Ron, your insight of a player disregarding narrator's framed scene seems interesting. I have seen this often in traditional roleplaying games, especially if there is no established scene structure (we are just portraying character's lives in a never-ending flow). When playing shared-narration games like Entropy, I have almost never seen that. For me it seems that the scene is somehow failed if player chooses to leave it entirely. If this would happen and I be the narrator, I would probably ask from the character's player what kind of scene would he wish to get instead. Isn't there a risk for this kind of play to become some sort of a Pavlov's test: narrator brings situation A, player refuses and his character leaves, scene continues, narrator brings situation B, player refuses and his character leaves the situation.... Wouldn't it be best to hit him with something that interests him in the first place?

Santiago: I understand your desire to build the museum. But as Paul stated the game is fickle and situations change, it might be that when you finally manage to build it, the city is in flames. Merchants are now seizing power, moon gate is open, house Scurlato has a dragon-boy in control of a mind flayer ... I see flames in the near-future :). This is why in Entropy, if you want something, you better grab it and run with it while you still can.

Santiago Verón's picture

Oh, trust me. I am so doing that next session, after my exchange with Ron. ;)

Ron Edwards's picture

For me it seems that the scene is somehow failed if player chooses to leave it entirely. If this would happen and I be the narrator, I would probably ask from the character's player what kind of scene would he wish to get instead. Isn't there a risk for this kind of play to become some sort of a Pavlov's test: narrator brings situation A, player refuses and his character leaves, scene continues, narrator brings situation B, player refuses and his character leaves the situation.... Wouldn't it be best to hit him with something that interests him in the first place?

You’re describing a power struggle in a situation which is already dysfunctional. I’m not talking about a player removing his or her character from a situation and essentially escaping play – dodging out of the spotlight each time it shines on him or her. That is not a play-problem, that’s a serious issue with who is playing and why, usually involving a deep history of wounded/unhappy play. We can talk about that as a separate thing some time, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m trying to communicate here.

Here, I’m talking about a player who is engaged and interested in his or her character, and in the situations of play. They are narrated appropriately: “you are here, this is what is happening.” I am saying that it is perfectly good play, and should be as welcome to the narrator as to anyone else, for the player to be proactive.

That does not mean he or she has the power to erase what has been narrated already, and simply cancel the narrator’s input in favor of whatever he or she likes instead. The character is located as stated. Other characters and active entities are present as stated, or can be brought in as far as they make sense to the narrator, and all of them are available to act.

Santiago is not talking about ignoring the scene as a player. He is talking about his character’s priorities in the context of what has been narrated, and taking action appropriately for those priorities. This is not lack of engagement, it is genuine engagement and needs to be respected.

[Santiago, this was obviously compounded by your “too much planning,” which is an issue of its own and I am discussing it separately.]

Just as he is free to do that, the narrator is free (if he or she cares to) to instigate a conflict immediately. The other merchants could get angry, and as it seems to me as the narrator of that situation, they probably would: “You can’t just turn your back on this, Llietti! We are talking about big investments here!” Such a conflict might seem unplanned, but that is a good thing in my opinion, and also, any conflict can change the world – if Santiago wants Llietti to keep developing this Museum of Wonders, all he has to do is have Llietti keep talking about it, and then either he or the appropriate player can alter the Grains accordingly when desired, as the dialogue was part of the conflict.

Or perhaps it would be more appropriate as a given narrator sees it, to let him turn his back and go elsewhere without an immediate conflict, to see what new conflict emerges. Remember, the game is perfectly capable of handling separate conflicts simultaneously, so it doesn’t matter that the other two characters remain. Whatever happens to Llietti will happen, based on what he does. Crucially, the Grains and Burdens resulting from this new conflict can easily reflect all the circumstances of how he got into it, including the negative consequences of the merchants’ views and actions after he left them behind. Therefore no, he is not “escaping” the initial situation – he is choosing to accept the possible consequences of leaving it.

The game is far more robust than a robotic sequence of each narrator picking a situation with a pre-planned conflict, then the characters obediently lining up to participate as planned. Falling into this habit is a consequence of too much demonstration play and too much emphasis on performance to “make a story” in an over-determined rather than emergent fashion.

None of this is the unconstructed, anything-anywhere, whatever, kind of play you were talking about. That is all too often a venue for the power-struggles, and it is also all too often “twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours.” Since I regard that kind of play to be a severe problem, and an indicator of many separate existing problems, I’m not addressing that here.

I’m addressing the far more relevant problem – observed, right here in our game – that a new player will very quickly perceive the game as over-determined by each narrator, specifically the upcoming conflict, and shift into “too obedient” mode and therefore into a number of passive-aggressive or frustrated behaviors. That’s what Santiago was doing, even if he didn’t know it, especially during the dialogue among the three characters. That’s what we had facilitated (in the bad way, more like ennabling) without realizing it. There wasn’t a power-imbalance, but he perceived that there was, that it must exist. We are guilty not of commission, but of the failure to orient properly through stated options and of the failure to keep silent so he knew he could say things freely.

[Santiago, I want to repeat the point I made in brackets above, right here, this time in boldface.]

Petteri, I’m stressing this now as a consultant. At the start of any scene, both a good narrator and a good player will have provisional plans and inspirations. They have to. But each must know that they are truly provisional, and frankly, you may be falling into just a little bit of stubbornness about your side of that picture, during play. You can say the rules don’t over-determine conflicts (and as a related point, stakes) – I agree, they do not. The question is whether you are playing fully in that spirit, and even if you are doing so internally, whether you are demonstrating and teaching that point when you play.

Here’s what happened in our scene, that you narrated for my character. At the opening of the scene, I had some provisional plans. Zocchi was angry at being humiliated by a merchant, and frustrated with the patriarch’s passivity. I wanted him to murder the patriarch and to take the eldritch powers into himself. During our initial interaction between Zocchi and Luca, I had little intention of doing whatever these people wanted – let the boy die, even finish his death myself, who cares, and they can get off the estate – or to avoid a conflict, simply give them a little help and remember the favor they owe me. Then get to my important business.

But this doesn’t mean I was trying to escape you as a narrator. It was provisional. When you revealed the boy was of draconic heritage, that changed everything. New plan! – completely through the lens of playing-as-Zocchi – because this was a real opportunity for him. And I enjoyed playing him being so respectful to the patriarch despite being 100% committed to murdering him just moments before. You didn’t railroad or force me into your planned conflict, and I didn’t grieve and moan over my “lost” plan. We both played in the moment, each moment.

I suspect that without our shared understanding of the provisional nature of what you had in mind, and what I had in mind, and without our mutual, entirely functional ability to play in the moment rather than to stick with any prior intentions, the scene in the courtyard could easily have become a toxic, passive, power-struggle over “what my guy would do.”

Cultivating that shared understanding at the table is the game’s big need. I stress again, the rules as written are very good for it. The question is whether we are, and how we may learn.

Yeah, it may be that we are talking past each other somehow here. I haven't seen the problem of narrator-driven, pre-forced conflict in our game yet.

My first scene was sort of this way, although I didn't force anyone participating in it. If Arcturus hadn't intervened, then I would simply had a conflict against the world of what I was after. It was built around my own character anyway so I think this was justified.

During the following three scenes (Llietti vs Zocchi staring contest, meeting of the Patriarch or mayhem at the repository) I didn't see those conflicts coming beforehand. Did you anticipate them when you narrated these scenes? I had an idea, during the last scene, to open the moon gate, but nothing more specific until you guys gave me a situation where Scthylia was alone with Arcturus. I can't really see a pre-determined storyline emerging in our game, except perhaps for some hints of the future encoded to the changed grains.

Ron Edwards's picture

In case it hasn't been clear, I'm not saying anyone began a scene as Narrator with an overly pre-planned conflict in mind. I'm talking about a player's predilection to behave as if one existed.

The more I review old threads about PTA and re-examine those rules, the more I understand how powerful that predilection is.

Yes, that is a totally different thing indeed. I think I get it better now.

Speaking of "slow play" that we had, I think that one spot where we have been thinking and angling with different approaches are the beginnings of scenes. It is also possible for the narrator just to start and do his thing. I bet part of this at least is due to the learning experience of the game.

Santiago Verón's picture

How is this an issue, in my case? I feel that I wouldn't have been planning if I could just be doing. The trajectory as I perceive it has been thus:

* I get an awesome idea at the end of game 1, which at this point is only related to pissing Zocchi off. Ron tells me to shelve it, and use it on the next session, with what I perceive as his authority as Narrator and roleplayer.

(Man, this is so fucked up. In a fascinating way. It is only now that I type it up that I realize that, wait, I was the Narrator, not Ron. Hey, at least I'm in good company - did you guys realize that Ron and Petteri are taking about the Patriarch scene as if Petteri had been narrating it, but actually Paul was?)

* Between sessions, my idea grows, and I realize that little thing that would piss Zocchi off could actually be the first step towards a Museum that undermines Scthillya as well.

* The next session, I don't get to put my idea to fruition, only a little bit of it.

* Afterwards, I get into a long rules chat with Petteri, until I feel I understand the system enough to bring into the game what I want on the next session. My idea is also growing another bit - the problem I see is, I'm still reacting to a bar fight with Zocchi (and in a minor way to Scthillya's preaching) two sessions ago, feeling like every later development (the dragon boy, the moon gate) is something I'll have to defend against, something unwelcome.

So, Ron, do you think I should do something different next session besides simply playing Llietti more proactively? Now that I've written this, I see how the planning thing might have grown into a separate issue, despite the common origin; I'm not sure how to deal with it.

Ron Edwards's picture

I've delayed replying because I can't imagine doing so without adding more difficulty. You know my general preference for "silence" during learning, rather than constant processing and comparing and vocalizing ... I see all of that as over-obsessing and distraction. In a lot of ways, I think raising the issue is more important than arriving at a committee/group discussion-based solution.

... but you did ask, so I'll say, "play proactively" (my position) and "ride with what's just happened, change and all" (Petteri's position) are both useful. How they work for you and in what form, I'd rather see as something you work out rather than anything I prescribe.

I hope that helps rather than sounds cagey. It's not meant to be a riddle, merely the truism that over-instruction isn't good learning practice.

Santiago Verón's picture

Nah, it's okay. I just wanted to cover my bases in case there was something important not to gloss over. You did repeat your point twice and in bold, after all ;)

I'm perfectly content with leaving it at my latest realization, the "could've walked away for the merchants" one. It IS enough to chew on, for a while.

Santiago, you are correct, it was Paul's scene, not mine. Nonetheless as a supporting player (one without a character in the scene, until Paul assigned the Patriarch to me) I couldn't see a pre-determined conflict.

Santiago, regarding to your last post one question comes to my mind: does it feel uncomfortable for you as a player when your character is dragged sideways into things you can't control and your character is even being altered without your will? To me, this is quite a crucial question when playing Entropy as it will happen to every character in pretty much every game. Sometimes the changes are more suble and obvious, sometimes ground-breaking and devastating. For me, both advocating your character and enjoying him being crushed and altered at the same time are at the heart of this game.

As Paul stated above, I could have thought out Scthylia as a martyrish hero who tries to clean the town from all evil and bring the good old times. I had this vibe after the first session, when Scthylia was taken into custody, but Paul completely destroyed this future, at least for now, during the last conflict that brought my character out as a monster and earned him two shadow points. But instead of being uncomfortable or trying to clutch with the image I had of the character, I try to embrace what he is now and try to grab what it is that he could try to accomplish next. This is not a question of experience or skill, but simply preference. I like this sort of games, but I know many people who would be absolutely horrified to first create a character and then see him butchered and altered slowly by my fellow players. I think it is not wrong to do so, different people like different games.

Santiago Verón's picture

Oh, it's a totally different thing. I think Ron gets it; I don't mean to disrespect or anything, but that is why I carefully addressed him, specifically, with my last comment.

I don't think I have enough play experience to have feelings/preconceptions as you describe. You can read my posts on this site to know where I'm coming from; they cover my entire history in just five posts, that's how little I've played. Just so you get an idea, this session was the first time in my life I've continued a game over more than one session.

(Or perhaps it's possible that I'm "that kind of guy", but it's too early in my history for me to know.)

I understand. You are correct that it is perhaps too early for you to know what kinds of games you really like, until you try out different ones. Food for thought in any case :)

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