Interview: Meeting a great community

I’ve been in interview madness for a couple of weeks. The first was with The Thirteenth Floor podcast, which hasn’t been posted yet. Then I was contacted by Pawel from the role-playing play, design, and discourse community in Poland, who have had the dubious luck to dig into my essays at the Forge and have opinions about them. You can see my conversation with him here in Seminar and we’ll probably continue with some more. That led to a series of conversations with Maciej for the YouTube channel Dobre Rzuty. The first is posted (see the embedded link below) and we’ve proceeded with more segments, not yet posted.

So I’ve done similar, almost simultaneous interviews which you are seeing somewhat out of order, and, I fear, with me sometimes getting confused about what I did or did not say already, and to whom.

I usually regard inquiries that use the word “GNS” with some horror. As I mention in this interview, I stand by anything and everything I said as a historical event, with its own meaning and role in the dialogue among us as it stood at that moment. That especially holds for any of the essays, which were living documents embedded in discussions. When someone shows up demanding or inquiring about this-or-that point or phrase, whether “what did you mean” or “what do you think of this now,” it’s usually pointless as their context for what those writings even were is way off.

For this one, Maciej wanted to address the widespread perception of “narrative” games vs. “traditional” games, as well as to get to “what are your thoughts on GNS now,” and given my point stated just above, I was feeling a little combative about it. Both of these are framed so destructively and from such false premises that I wondered whether I should show up on full blowtorch mode, and let the impressions and effects fall out as they might.

As it turned out, fortunately, that wasn’t necessary at all, and we’ve embarked on a long conversation that we knew would have to come in segments. This first part mainly concerned the history and content of role-playing design that would lead to the false model that’s so easily repeated today. I think Maciej’s chosen title is a bit clickbait-y, but it’s his channel. It’s not really wrong either, as I was ready to rip out strong views, so enjoy watching me a little bit off my usual leash this time.


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20 responses to “Interview: Meeting a great community”

  1. Crowd Funding Developments

    Since you mentioned the baleful influence of crowd funding and kickstarter again I thought I would point towards something related that appears to be happening over in the space as a response.

    This appears to be a grassroots use of the storefront to raise funding for ongoing development of TTRPGs. The model seems to be use of sales, or reverse sales, of a work in progress prototype pdf of the game to raise funding for specific goals, like artwork, copy editing and layout, etc. Perhaps with an offer of the cost paid for the prototype being carried forward as a discount aganst a later improved version. This website seems to pull some of these initiatives together – and provide a better explsnation than mine.

    I'm not making any judgements on the quality of the actual games, or of the TTRPG culture over on which I don't really understand, but I thought it was interesting, especially the way it seems to be user driven and taking advantage of some features of the technology but not being mandated by that platform.

    • I am very inclined to like

      I am very inclined to like crowdfunding as a concept, so anything which avoids the specific problems caused by Kickstarter (and they are very specific) would be wonderful to see.

  2. Being your character = Immersion

    From this discussion, I gather that some portion of roleplayers strive toward the objective of experiencing the games fully from within the mental frame of the character they are playing. This is what they label "immersion." 

    This might be possible in a computer generated virtual reality. In fact, I suspect that many players interested in this are drawing from the experience of playing computer games. However, if we are talking about a game played by people without cybernetic assistant, this ideal is impossible to achieve — the amount of detail required to support this experience is far beyond what a handful of humans are capable of generating. 

    I would also argue that elements outside the virtual experience of the character are essential parts of fun and engagement. What about the excitement of the audience experience, witnessing the the actions and development of your and other's characters? And the satisfaction of expressing self through the persona played? Or the satisfaction of learning and applying rules to create the  effects you want? What tension is there without watching dice (or some other random method) decide your fate? To use Ron's music jam analogy, each player has mutliple levels of awareness from blissing out in playing their instrumtent, to enjoying mastery of the tools, to participating in the gestalt of group interaction, to witnessing the emerging product.

    I believe that "immersion" is both an unattainable ideal and a potential denial of a large part of the enjoyment of table top RPGs. I also think it's useage by roleplayers is so fuzzy that it is useless. A better measure of one's experience with a game is the term "engagement" — by this I mean does it produce a mental focus on the activity to the point where anxieties beyond game play are temporarily forgotten — you stop worrying about what's happening at work or how you fit a visit to the grocery store in after the game — you stop noticing the lump in the chair seat or the ache in your leg. This comes with the state Csikszentmihalyi (pronouned approximately "chick sent me high") called "flow." 

    • Indeed. I know you share

      Indeed. I know you share memories with me of those ol' days at the Forge, enduring cries of weeping rage that "Ron doesn't believe in immerrrrrsion!!" My take was always that I'd be happy to believe in "it" if the person could tell me what it was without descending into bad haiku.

    • Hello, is my two cents here

      Hello, is my two cents here is what I call immersion. At some moments, not at every game or ever session, I don't have to rationalize what my character do or think about it – and I obviously make him say or do things that I'm surprised with – that, retroactively, I say "I wouldn't have said that myself" – which is not accurate, because obviously I did. But the use of the character as an instrument of play made me say this thing without thinking about it, without me "wanting" conciously to do that.

      In some cases and with one of my group, immersion is another word for bleeding – when it's not clear anymore if the emotions felt are those of the the character or the player. I realized only this year that this could be presented as something to avoid – which is very odd in my social context where the people I know explicitly want it to happen – and use it immersion as a synonym.

      In my own case, and what I learned from Adept Play is the "point of rpg" is less the elusive quest for immersion than the realization than the fact it may be a potential secondary effect of what Alan described as engagement – and that "what roleplay roleplay is" is about all the conditions of this engagement and how we play.

  3. A Defense of PrimeTime Adventures

    I can not hold back any more! Characterizing PTA and "PBTA" games as actively discouraging the experience of imagining oneself inside a character and experience events through the character is just absolutely contrary to my personal experience of these games. When playing these games, I have always found it easy to "stand inside" my character. In any RPG that I have played, I have found myself always of two "minds": one is the perspective of my character, the other of myself as player of a game. These two perspectives give separate assessments of any game situation: one the one hand there's what my character would do, and on the other, there's what I know would be the  best exploitation of the game rules to achieve multiple goals as a player (eg not getting killed, resolving a game situation I'm invested in, etc.).  These sometimes recommend different courses of action. It may even be that the character's preferred choice is unwise from the perspective of the game rules assessment. In those moments, acting on the character's choice gives me the thrill of knowing I'm taking a risk.

    Likewise, in various D&D games, which were given as examples of "roleplaying" games, I have the exact same experience — I engage both as a person at the table and the character. 

    The described criteria for "immersion" just doesn't support a distinction between "storytelling" games and "roleplaying" games.

    • Fortunately Maciej eventually

      Fortunately Maciej eventually said he was representing or channeling criticisms or objections of other people, rather than his own, and I was able to say "let's not talk for or to third parties," and we went on from there.

  4. Little boxes …

    … there's a a pink one and a green one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they all have little label and, frankly, I still have difficulties why everybody loves to put themselves or games in them. But interviews like this are at least helping me to understand a little better what the labels mean for those using them. I do admit, I too have read the essays about GNS (and a couple of others) and they have a place on my webbrowsers “bookshelf”, in my case that is mainly to try and understand “older” (in the sense of: been around at the Forge and here far longer than me) peoples use of certain labels. I've always wondered how thoughts and theories have developed since then for those still around or back and how (and if) I and others who came to the hobby later should relate to them or how we can develop the language to something we can use to describe our experiences. This interview and the “Conversation: Rules, Authorities, and PbtA” as well as the Handverksklubben posts have rekindled these musings. As well as a the question of what defines a “PbtA” game and should I try one (or have I tried one without knowing it) – but that will have to wait until the exploring “D&D” quest I've embarked on is over.
    I hope Maciej and Ron will continue their conversation and look forward to the next part.

    • So picking up just one

      So picking up just one element of this interesting discussion, I can attest to the existence of the smooth blend story game "system" being applied to a range of textually different games in play – It didn't occur all the time, but I definitely saw this at the local indie rpg meetup. I have tended to think of it as the oracle system, where the  method of divination: die rolling, which dice, how many, cards instead, etc., changes based on the game we are theoretically playing, but these are interpreted through a haze of storygamey techniques and assumptions rather as entrails once were, and most other system elements get quietly jettisoned. It particularly pains me to recall a supposed game of In a Wicked Age which turned out like this, ditching the "we owe.." list, and the games specifics around conflicts, as well as doing something weird with dice rolls.

  5. On “Full Immersion”

    When Maciej mentioned something about how 100% immersion would be problematic, and Ron responded by calling it schizophrenia, what occurred to me is that, at the exact (theoretical) moment that 99.9% immersion becomes 100% immersion, that's not only schizophrenia but, perhaps more important to this whole roleplaying endeavor, the fiction ceases to exist. There's no game or fiction if you somehow have come to believe in it from the inside. If 100% immersion were the goal, it would seem then that the goal of play would be to use the game as some sort of ritual to transport yourself to another (mental) dimension.

    In that case, for those gamers, Patricia Pulling was right!

    Little joke aside, I hope my point stands and is clear: this allows us to see from a design and play perspective why the goal of 100% immersion is problematic.

    It calls to mind the conversation Ron and Vincent had about Right to Dream play and its dubious existence. If part of what is essential to RtD play is playing a character how they "really would" act in this situation, given these circumstances and those parameters particular to the character — then the aim of RtD play is the same impossibility as above, just framed differently here: if I finally reach 100% of "how they really would", then I am no longer playing the character, i.e, one of us ceases to exist, and then I'm no longer playing a roleplaying game, I'm doing something else entirely.

    • I stress again, as I did in

      I stress again, as I did in the comments for that post, that not one person has ever showed me their absolute-immersed notions in terms of actually role-playing. First, their examples are always fleeting moments when people are enjoying the fictional circumstances and speak in intuitive and unrehearsed ways. Then, when I say, "that happens all the time, for anyone, for any purpose of play," they always divert over to what they presume LARPers or re-enactors or idealized children to be doing, and say, "but we could be doing that, that's what I want." You can see it right there in the comments, which is about when I started saying can we all just cut the shit now and talk about real play?

    • Yep, with you on all fronts.

      Yep, with you on all fronts. It has certainly been refreshing to realize that the "immersionist" dream isn't real and could never be real. I was always curious about RtD play, as it seemed like something I wanted, if I could only figure out what it was. Which, of course, yes: the version of it that is real is something I want, and we all want, and that is a perfectly natural part of play, all the time.

  6. Story Game = GMless play — WTF?

    In 2009, I created a meetup group here in Seattle titled “Story Games Seattle.” I had been following The Forge from about 2002 and was excited about what I then called “narrativist play” and “gamist play.” I think at core, I just wanted to celebrate “play on purpose.” I wanted a group that shared that interest, so I made one. Over the two years, we had a growing membership and played lots of different games, many of the owned-by-creator variety that had been inspired by the Forge.

    At the end of 2010, I started grad school and shortly after that realized I had to give up some responsibilities, so I passed the administration of the group on to a couple of enthusiastic members.

    Perhaps some time 2011, I found time to attend one of the meetups. I came, hoping to offer to GM a game I enjoyed but hadn't had much chance to play. When I attended, I was told that “We only play GMless games. It's important to teach people player-empowerment.”

    Attendees all chose to play games other than the one I was offering.

    I left early, pissed off. I felt rejected and had an inkling that there was something wrong with their choice of “teaching player-empowerment.”

    After many years, I've realized two things:

    First, I had never seen player-disempowerment as a major issue, so I felt it was unwarranted. Perhaps I lived in a bubble, but I had never run games where I felt the GM's job was to provide story and keep the players inside their adventure ride car.

    Second, this new purpose was a perversion of what had excited me about the games. I had latched onto “Story Games” as just a way to be different, with no specific definition. That I did not provide a definition or vision for the group allowed someone else to grab it and twist it to something I had not intended.

    Note for the future: when you're leading something, be clear about your vision. Don't let people project onto it.

    (Still feel betrayed though!)

    • I’m just remembering that the

      I'm just remembering that the group started much earlier, but it didn't get onto until 2009. I recall playtesting Matt Wilson's PrimeTime Adventures, so it must have been 2003. Yikes! So I was a strong part of making the group happen from 2003 to 2011 — 8 years, then had it perverted. Grump. Grump.

    • Alan,


      I co-created and helped run a similar meetup in the Portland, OR area from circa 2012-2014, so not that long (Although I was part of local public play before that; there was an extant group that sort of died on the vine that my friend at the time and I sort of took over and changed). We were very much aware of S-G Seattle (I was about to type in this parenthetical, "I mean, I know the creator", but of course I didn't until now–I thought the creator had been that guy who makes those GMless games I helped playtest and who ran the thing for a long time until he closed it a couple years ago), but we didn't follow the mold of "No GMed" games, and I recall thinking that was weird when I first heard about it.

      Among our group, though, there was very much a strong contingent that viewed all things new and fresh and experimental as undoubtedly better than "old" and "surpassed" design ideas like having a GM. When Ron talks about people making games that reliably created a story to the detriment of player empowerment and, y'know, play, I very much recognize that, in others and myself; I designed and self-published a game around this time and I was pretty aware of not wanting to pre-program the story even though the game itself was focused (I'm not sure how successful I was). 

      I have another comment, a response to the second video, that touches on this desire for control that I saw in my own play, but that's still brewing.

  7. 2nd Interview Thoughts

    Around 30 minutes in, Ron is talking about people who keep trying to make roleplaying work when it hasn't worked for them, and eventually in order to get it to work for them, they resort to using mechanisms of social control or pressure to ensure everyone else at the table behaves or acts or plays in the right way. He mentions that one symptom of this is someone who steps in to be the GM and and buys all the books and does a bunch of prep and has expectations not only for how people should act but how they should like this activity we're doing at the table.

    I recognize myself in this, and in some ways I feel like I am still trying to shake the vestiges of this behavior/orientation toward play. One of my earliest roleplaying experiences was with Dogs in the Vineyard, and the first session was so good that I left with my head on fire*: I knew roleplaying could be like this! We were really jamming, and I could feel the consequences of my contributions, how they affected the fiction and looped back around to affecting my character sheet. Just great stuff.

    And then we played a second session and it became clear that the game was about trying to figure out the GM's mystery. I literally stopped play and pointed to the section in the book where it says that the GM is supposed to reveal the town in play, and that the game is about the characters making decisions, not trying to pixel-bitch around until they figure out what's going on. The GM said, "Oh. I'm an experienced GM so I just skip the sections of games that tell you how to GM. If the game is supposed to be run that way, then I can't do it."

    And the game ended there, for that day and forever. I was so disappointed. The GM then wanted to run GURPS, and I was new and fresh-faced and wanted to try everything, so I said sure, I'll play. It quickly became clear, again, that this was all about following the GM's story. So I bailed on that group, and immediately found a meetup where they played one-shots and the like, and immediately began prepping a Mouse Guard one-shot.

    When I was talking with some of the people prior to the game, I recall specifically using the word "control" to describe my desire for wanting to run Mouse Guard. I described my recent lackluster play experiences and said something like, "I just want to be able to control the type of experience that I want to have." Now, I didn't mean that I wanted to control the outcome, and I think in some ways I was trying to say "I want to play on purpose, for THIS purpose," but there certainly was a thread of "If the game parameters aren't set exactly to my specifications, then I'll have a bad time, and I'm not willing to have a bad time at a roleplaying table any more."

    And ever since, I've always leaned toward being the GM/facilitator so that I can be sure to set the tone and get everyone on the same page. The Mouse Guard game was good. It was fine. It was merely fine and not good because I was stressed about making sure everyone had fun: since I had set the parameters of the experience, it was up to me, right? I knew it wasn't, and I still know it's not. But when I organize a game or GM a game, I still can't help but feel these twin anxieties around control and responsibility.

    We're veering away from actual play, here, so I think this comment is winding down, but I want to reiterate that I do think there is some element of playing on purpose here, wanting to make sure that we're all here to do THIS thing together. But is there a blurred line between us all together, playing on purpose for the same purpose, and me wanting to impose how other people should like this activity? I'm not sure. I will be paying attention to it as I play.

    • I think you and Sean are on

      I think you and Sean are on similar journeys regarding this issue. I also think that's why both of you are turning to this-or-that title of D&D, even as you reflect on why a game by that title (there are many) might hold that status for you.

  8. *

    There's a livejournal or blogger post out there, somewhere, that I wrote immediately after playing in this session, detailing my experiences and feelings about it. I wish I could find it!

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