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Workshop: The Plot Thickens

Here’s one of the two workshops I presented at Lucca. It was prompted by two short videos I posted here in the past few months: The role of the roll and Emergent plot techniques, which have led me to a generally larger argument.

The main point is that, there are two primary ways to play so that plots emerge via the events of the session, which also happen to be incompatible: intuitive continuity vs. Bangs.

  • The former minimizes or abandons preparation but maintains plot control
  • The latter abandons plot control but relies on a form of preparation best termed readiness

The supporting point is that much of the explicit range of play techniques is independent of this distinction. I break the audience into five groups to examine five topics, each with its own range of techniques, to convey this via active learning.

The final point is that the current subcultural divisions of the hobby obscure this point, as many designated “story games” and “old school” games alike veer strongly toward intuitive continuity. Furthermore, these terms and related groups of terms are a mass of unspeakable lying bullshit.

The ensuing discussion included a description of the Drunkard’s Walk, which is relevant in that intuitive continuity prevents it, buffering a preferred plot outcome from being “ruined,” whereas Bang-driven play encourages it, obviating the entire concept of a preferred plot outcome.

The most important point in the ensuing discussion concerns as well that intuitive continuity fits well with genre play, in which plot outcomes are narrowly constrained and generally expected to conform, whereas Bang-driven play fits well with idiom play, in which plot outcomes vary greatly (historically, before the genre is constructed by fans and critics).

I’ve attached the PowerPoint that I used during the presentation, as well as transcriptions of the cards I passed out to the groups.


Hey Ron,

I totally get your point in the workshop and presentation. Without good preparation or awareness, even a GM that's invested into emergent Story (in the sense, addressing Premise) risks falling into the "intuitive continuity" trap. And your point about the roleplaying subcommunities meaning nothing is really striking and true.

But on the other hand I think Bangs are an intuitive concept as well. If I am understanding the issues that the other players are bringing forward with their protagonists, I think Bangs can be meaningfully improvised.

There are also other components to a Story that are not Premise. Maybe the Hero is expected to succeed -- or the Master to die, to take an example from My Life with Master. These could be improvised as well, and in this case that does not rob the Premise of its being addressed, simply the fact that it does not apply to these elements of the story.

Let's assume default GM/player split. (And let's assume GM is meant to play the "bassist" role you so often describe in your books and posts).

If a GM improvises challenges that question the Premises brought into play by player characters, and is open to any answer to these questions, and does this intuitively with little preparation, is he/she really deprotagonizing the players? Maybe he/she will drive the story towards an intensity climax, a big showdown or something else, but the players will still have agency in defining how their characters evolve and react to the challenges posed, and it's more than just Color if this ends up informing what the next steps are.

I can think of many past sessions where this approach worked and we got the "Story fun" out of it; and many others as well where this approach failed -- so I totally get your point: readiness is important.

But my own addition would be: the point is not whether you're making things up on the spot, but more of the awareness of what the role is as a GM. Good structure and preparation help, but it's not the point: the point is to de-responsabilize yourself from answering the questions that the players are meant to answer through play.

English is a second language for me; I hope I managed to express myself clearly; please feel free to ask for clarification if I didn't.

Ron Edwards's picture

With respect, I’ve been through quite a lot of conversations about this in the past two years, and I have realized that one crucial concept needs to be included as part of the presentation: that this really has nothing to do with improvisation as an isolated concept. If I don’t make that clear, the listener immediately fastens onto that issue and begins an anxious spiral, trapped between competing mandates.

You have reached this (correct) conclusion on your own, which is great. Your phrasing here is perfect and matches the things I’ve been addressing throughout several discussions at this site:

But my own addition would be: the point is not whether you're making things up on the spot, but more of the awareness of what the role is as a GM. Good structure and preparation help, but it's not the point: the point is to de-responsabilize yourself from answering the questions that the players are meant to answer through play.

So, we are agreeing, and that’s fine. However, phrases like "improvising Bangs" miss some critical connections or cause problems. I will provide a couple of points to help articulate this thing we’re agreeing about and to get our vocabulary into the same place.

  1. The word “intuitive” should not be taken at face value. The originator of the term intuitive continuity is using it in a specific way, perhaps better stated as “leading.” Since it is a word with its own (real) meaning and also a very positive connotation, make sure not to identify it with his term. So if something else seems intuitive to you, as a process of play, that does not mean it has anything to do with this term.
  2. The concept of improvisation bears far too much weight in role-playing, much like “immersion” or “story.” There are dozens of specific processes and effects that get labeled with this term and I think it is too overloaded. For example, you are including emergent Bangs and consequential outcomes as “improvisation,” simply because they happen in play due to role-playing and due to using the system, and were not planned. This risks becoming trapped in the old view that one is stuck with either whole-scale improvisation or utterly prepped and planned.

These two points remind me of our old discussions about the term “immersion.” I found that when I asked people what isn’t immersion, they could not answer except with things that are flatly not role-playing at all. It’s the same thing here; if a person identifies any and all emergent events or outcomes during play as improvisation, then they also must be saying that anything except utter and completely pre-programmed play and known options with known outcomes is improvisation, which is to say, they’re only identifying improvisation as play itself.

Hey Ron, I think we are pretty much 100% in agreement, which is great, because I have a better base for future discussion. You're right to correct me on my imprecise vocabulary. Both "intuitive" and "improvisation" are very loaded terms with multiple meanings.

I just want to clarify that my use of "improvisation" in the above text was meant to be more similar to how you use the term "spitballing"; that is, simply making up stuff that you haven't prepared beforehand. My usage of "intuitive" wasn't meant to reference intuitive continuity, but just the general common-language sense of "intuitive", which would be something like "something understood without conscious logical reasoning".

Again, imprecisions. It was absolutely right for you to correct them, also for possible readers. These terms should be used with care because of the various possible implied meanings.

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