Monday Lab: How Long …

… Has This Been Goin’ On? Alternative equally music-meming title: My Only Friend, the End. Or, wait, how about, Stop! In the Name of What?

This is about how long we play, in real time. It can refer to the length of a session, how many sessions relative to a given fictional situation, how long

Right now, you may be thinking: but it’s easy. There are one-shot games, short-form campaign games, and long-form/forever campaign games, and a few gradations along that spectrum; also, there are ordinary human considerations like changing life-styles and locations. That’s what we hear all the time. That’s the conventional vocabulary.

This seminar is intended to get past that boilerplate to the point of vaporizing it, by focusing on these effects that arise from play content, i.e., the fiction and how we engage with it.

  • Playing a game with a built-in structural ending point or mandate to stop after a certain time or session, but to keep playing instead. That can mean either spinning that structure to a longer time commitment or modifying the structure.
  • Playing with a pre-agreed limit on time or content, continuing to play well past that, sometimes considerably past it, instead.
  • Playing a game that is described and conceived as “forever” play, but with locally-established limits that make it short-form instead, with properties that are uniquely suited to that form.
  • Playing a game that is described and conceived as “forever” play, but which – upon inspection and experience of play – offers structural features which serve as effective, satisfying endpoints. Those features can be either things, like a status change for characters or locations, or certain features which feeling ending-like; or the absence of things, i.e., to play past this point means effectively authoring a whole game.
  • Playing a game (rather rare) that includes informal ending as part of the procedures.

The list of included game titles is really long, and obviously we could have cited a thousand more, but I’d like to avoid simply adding to it with, e.g., a list of textual one-shot games as if that were an insight. Instead, I’d really like people to comment about play experiences that match the bullet points above or anything similar to them.

Link: to my proto-game Shine a Light, mentioned in the conversation.


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8 responses to “Monday Lab: How Long …”

  1. Remarkably appropriate to this topic

    Our final session of Tales of Entropy, discussed in Consulting, displayed so much dysfunctional stumbling about whether and how to end that it cannot help but serve as a negative-case poster child for the topics we discussed in the seminar. I've pulled out these sections of the session into a collection, Endings, Epilogues, Sticky Tar, to be examined here.

    With apologies to Paul and Petteri, I must highlight the way that each person favored timely endings when talking about play, but kept ruthlessly causing more conflict and introducing more directly antagonistic behavior during play. I even made up a name for it, "Fiasco infection," based on an extensive private conversation between Paul and me.

    • As I undestand it, Paul was

      As I undestand it, Paul was exploring the tragic side of his character. Arcturus surely was such in the beginning. A half-lifetime of him hunting down everything magical and putting them into jail or worse must have had an effect on him. And him falling into the charm of the moon magic so easily and then perhaps feeling a remorse of some kind after everything was done. To me this is viable, and crucial. If Paul felt that his character has enough juice left that the play must still continue enough for us to see where this strain goes. However, if not, then the game should be ended.

      I understand the idea that one could just invoke conflict to continue play even though it would run completely against the grain of his character. I just didn't see it here with Paul's character. I saw a genuine idea of a character development (a tragic one, surely, but nonetheless).

      In addition I do not see where I ruthlessly included more conflict? I didn't really see any other venue for Scthylia to go than where he went: he wanted power and tried to get it until the world was shaped to his image. If it was meta-discussion instead of playing, we all did tons of that. At least I did it way too much. Horrible to watch it afterwards, actually.

      The central issue of Tales of Entropy is conflict between the main characters. When all the major frictions between the characters are handled the proper way is to end the game with epilogues. Of course you could continue scene after scene with some tranquil events and scenery but I feel that it is not really the point of this game. The whole set of characters are put forth as having conflict against at least one of the other characters and the background is set so that it is easy to bring those conflicts in the stage. I feel that Entropy is almost an exact opposite of a normal adventuring rpg: when the characters form a party and co-exist without trouble it is time to wrap things up.

      I have to restate that this is one of the most difficult plays of Entropy I've had, and I have played this game a lot. Two years of playtesting (a dozen scenarios or so with 2-3 sessions in each), three cons full of mini-games demonstrations and random playing here and there. But I went through the difficulties we had on the video already so no need to go over that again.

      I'm really looking forward to our consulting discussion about this experience.

    • Let’s not discuss specific

      Let's not discuss specific player behavior except with the people involved – as I have, with both Paul and Santiago. I have also not addressed player motivations, so whether you wanted Scythlia to be an engine of continuing crisis, or did or didn't see any other way to play him, is not the issue.

      What I'm talking about is protagonism, in two applications.

      1. That unless we're dealing with protagonists, using the word very broadly, then there is no conflict, merely juxtaposed confrontational events.
      2. That unless protagonism is offered and mutually used ("played," "responded to," "acknowledged," there is no good word), it doesn't exist. As with so much in role-playing, we discuss internal experience too much and transitive usage too little.

      In literary terms, it's up to the viewer to decide whether any of our characters qualified as protagonists, individually (and no further). I'm not very interested in that. I'm speaking as a participant in saying that it was very difficult to "accept" (again, no good word, "feel?") the other player-characters as such, and even when I tried hard to do so, e.g. as narrator, that the transitive and mutual process (when it's "accepted" back) never got off the ground.

      We can privately address whether that is a game feature or a group feature, and I look forward to it too.

    • I’m not sure if this is the

      I'm not sure if this is the right venue to discuss this, but let me just chime in to say that I agree with what Petteri is saying here. The ending of our game, while it had some very positive aspects, caught me off guard and felt rather forced.

      Ron: I agree that we experienced a failure to respond to each other's characters as recognized protagonists. The feeling you're describing rings true to me; I never really "understood" Zocchi as a protagonist, for instance. (It's easier to accept with Scthylia, since he was such an ineffable entity to begin with.)

      It was a very interesting and thought-provoking experience, though, in any case. I'm really glad we got to play this game! I'm going to look for an opportunity to play it again in the near future, if I can manage it.

    • Paul – that comment is a

      Paul – that comment is a little confusing as it's phrased (perhaps) as supporting Petteri's position against mine, but I did not disagree with Petteri about the ending. I do welcome focusing on the ending as a process of play, because that's what I made this clip-out video for. Please help me stay focused on that.

      In a word, yes, our ending was forced. You can see it right there in the video. My perception, claim, whatever you want to call it, is that no alternative was possible. Since we didn't have protagonists, there could be no rising action, or better, for this game, a drain to circle around. Despite all the activity of the characters, nothing was happening – in game terms, the Grains kept shooting off in different ways (or weirdly, were interpreted as doing so even when they didn't), and the Burdens consistently delegitimized each character's personality and priorities.

      Therefore there could be no ending, as there was nothing happening to end. Petteri provided some very good summaries of when/how stories could end in play, but it doesn't surprise me that I interpreted them, at the time, as a call for us to end it, whereas apparently he was advocating for the opposite, that more conflict/strife must be needed first. The existing material offered nothing to finish, and after that much effort and play, that should tell us something.

      In the seminar, we talked about play which was intended to be short-form, but continues through mutual investment and acclaim, usually to a better/strong ending in the fullness of time; and also about play which was intended to be (or purported to be) long-form, but shortly reaches a powerful ending which amply justifies both having played and stopping at that point. Our game displays the fully observable counter-example, when neither is possible, nor is the originally-conceived short-form/strong-ending mode occurring successfully either.

      We need to face up to this. There are several really neat things to talk about in both the system and in our fiction, but it wasn't successful play. It wasn't even blood opera. Petteri and I will be discussing this today.

      Oh – above, I said "no alternative was possible," but there was one: simply ceasing to play by failing to reconvene. In a game without voluntary ending/epilogue procedures, that would have been the only recourse. In this one, which has those, going to them, however arbitrarily, was perhaps aggressive (me saying "we must end," forcing it) but I prefer that over the failing-to-reconvene version, which is passive-aggressive.


  2. I have been running pulp adventures in Burning wheel, which supposes long-term play.

    Each adventure should be about three sessions – a situation with sorcery or monsters and an opportunity to get rich, characters in there, play to see how they end up. A semi-formal downtime via lifestyle maintenance (and training), and hopefully an anthology approach where we get to see different combinations of characters, some recurring. On a bad lifestyle maintenance your character is suffering, starting the next adventure they participate in as a slave or in some other fun situation. On a good roll you should be able to make maneuvers, like choose the next adventure, do crafting, get affiliations, etc., but this is thus far speculative.

    I have run some three or four of these now and one is ongoing. Player base has not stabilized yet, so as is it is unclear whether the anthology approach starts actually happening and how the longer character arcs turn out, if they do.

    • Do you mean you’ve played three or four episodes with lifestyle maintenance punctuating them? If so, that seems like a lot of opportunity to see the developments occur and be applied to the next episodes. Or does “these” refer to something else? Help me understand a bit better.

    • Yeah, three or four episodes, but the player base has been shifting around so that we have only had few recurring characters.

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