Talking Heads

Eric and I played Mars Colony. We hadn’t ever played anything together; we set the game up on the Adept Play discord. I played the Savior Kelly Perkins, and Eric played the Governor role.

I’ve played Mars Colony once before, about a decade ago, at a convention. My memory of that game is dim, but I recall play being more difficult than I expected from reading the text.

That was my experience with this instance of play as well; we had difficulty in making the situations local, physical, and concrete, as opposed to abstract–we often had characters phoning one another, or chatting online, interacting in a virtual space, video calling, etc. Prep, along with figuring out the technical issues inherent in me making a video for the first time (which didn’t work out; I only found out after getting ready to edit the video that I managed to somehow not record Eric’s voice at all, so the video is useless as an example of play), took about an hour, and as the book says, generated quite a bit of inspirational material. I was very interested in not only my own but Eric’s political fears and felt they provided a lot of good grist for exploration.

But we had a hard time incorporating that inspirational material in concrete ways. We used it, for sure, giving characters political parties that affected (somewhat) their relationships and opinions and letting the Fear cards color interactions and description. But when it came time to frame a scene, from my perspective it felt like mostly having to come up with situations ex nihilo. It was a lot of heavy lifting, and we discussed afterward how we felt that the game kind of foists this on the players without much support, telling us, basically, to frame a good scene, which isn’t much help. That heavy lifting wore on me a bit as the game went on, and by the time the game ended, I was pretty ready to be done.

The game starts off with a vignette, narrated by the Savior player (me), about Kelly coming to Mars Colony. Whether because the game starts this way and primes us, or because we were a bit lazy in rigorously following the rules, we found ourselves slipping back into vignette mode often when framing scenes. I noticed this and called out that we should define a place and a time and people in the scene, and we got better about actually framing scenes and not pre-describing conflict. However, it was still difficult to make scenes that felt concretely grounded in a place, and in an ongoing situation.

We did have a few of these, and they always felt like breaths of fresh air — describing the sandstone-ish, reddish concrete made up of reconstituted planet surface (a nice detail that Eric introduced with a question and then politely attributed to me the rest of the game); the walks that Kelly would take on the outskirts of the city, looking out past the dome; the poisonous gas that would fail to be filtered out by shoddy systems, causing the populace to shamble around sleepily. But they were few and far between, and for my part it often felt like the material generated in the beginning of the game, before the play of scenes began, never helped us very much in this regard.

Additionally, since the game is about politics, it was hard to come up with varied scenes; it felt like opposition and progress always had to boil down to Kelly convincing someone in power to do something, or trying to come up with legislation, or doing a backroom deal. Essentially, every scene was two or three talking heads in a boardroom, although the boardroom may have been a cafe or a phone call or a chatroom or a walk around the dome.

Okay, though, so what about play examples? I was hoping the recording could do the heavy lifting for me, but no such luck. Here’s a little bit, and if people have questions, we can get into more examples:

In the second scene of the game, I framed a Progress Scene, trying to get the Earth Coalition and the Mayor’s Office together to help solve Mars Colony’s funding issue. I accumulated 21 points on my first two rolls, making great progress: the Mayor’s Office was going to (if I recall) sell some requisitioned property, and the Earth Coalition could squeeze the World Bank for money. I figured I was rolling; why not keep on? Of course, on my next roll I rolled a 1, and lost everything. This early in the game I chose not to create a Deception, opting for the loss of points and the point of Contempt. Eric turned this into a very cool bit about how Kelly found out the funding from the Earth Coalition was, essentially, drug money, and I had Kelly refuse the funding, worried that if she accepted it, it could cause scandal later (which, mechanically, it very much could).

Kelly had a druggie son who we had some personal scenes with but who didn’t become a large or consequential part of the story — she met him at his drug den; they were both standoffish (she didn’t seem like much of a mother), scene over. He got arrested for public disturbance (found naked in a fountain with a couple of ladies), she tried to keep it off the news and had him stay at her place, scene over.

Speaking of Personal Scenes, but I think also Opposition scenes, we discussed after the game the feeling that we had little support for when to end scenes. Thinking back, I don’t know that this was really an issue — we always came to a clear spot and were able to agree on cutting a scene pretty easily, every time. I think the real issue we may have been misdiagnosing was finding the compelling conflict in a scene.

>When the game ended in scandal, me having one point of Contempt and Three in Deception, then rolling a (1, 3), causing a Scandal, I immediately gained one point of Contempt, then all my Deception became Contempt, which meant I had five Contempt, triggering Endgame in the middle of the sixth progress scene (out of the max of 9, after which endgame is automatically triggered). In this scene Kelly was trying to do a deal with the Communist powers of earth, going around the Earth Coalition in a backroom deal to get them to support her education initiatives. It, of course, blew up in her face, and she left in disgrace, unsure if she was going to be arrested or brought before Congress when she returned to Earth. We saw a brief flash of her son at the end, as the paparazzi waited at her apartment; he was passed out in her apartment; he had been living with her and his dissolute ways were unchanged.

The Colony itself was failing, with profiteering manufacturers not much interested in using their fat contracts to upkeep the atmosphere systems which were constantly straining, causing the populace to be always breathing thin air, tired, undereducated, with little will to effect change.

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19 responses to “Talking Heads”

  1. Something that occurs to me now

    …is that I played Kelly as if she did not have any direct power to effect change or act — since she is, as the book calls her, the "grand consultant" to the Colony, I played that anything she wanted to get done had to be approved by someone else, or pushed through the legislature, or bargained for. This probably contributed to the "talking head" nature of play, but it was my interpretation of one of the fictional constraints on play.

  2. Storyside

    I'm the Eric from the game. I basically agree with everything Hans has said. However, I feel like it was less frustrating for me because my expectations were more calibrated to that kind of play. From the Mars Colony mechanics, I saw it was a game where there was absolutely zero "game state-story interaction". That is the hard mechanics that determine whether Kelly succeeds at fixing the colony have no concern for how the players narrate challenges, outcomes, etc. Everything in the game is more or less "creative fuel" for narrating some scenes.

    I'd also like to emphasize that all the events did coalesce into a story which is not a given. I'll go over it briefly. Here is the play space we used- I imported stuff from the PDF into Google Drawings. As you can see, we had four parties we chose with the main conflict more or less between the Libertarians and everyone else.

    I interpreted the colony as originally being a "hope project" of world governments like the ISS who sent trillions of dollars into space but the value of which was ultimately captured by a few corporations who used it to bolster their brands and develop new technologies in an unregulated space.

    Hans's vision of the colony was much more self-sustaining than mine and we developed some details in that direction. For instance, oxygen was taken from Mars's polar ice. Kelly arrived as a kind of naive Green Party member who went on nature walks and saw the colony as a stage for growth and life in a barren land. 

    In particular, the Libertarian Colony Council members were themselves CEOs of corporations providing major services to the colony. Councilmembers Stuart and Tanya each asked for special advantages from Kelly in order to improve the services on the colony.

    The particular problems were air quality- declining to the point of virtual somnambulism and youth education which was originally private and filled with egregious ads for Earth corporations. 

    As the game more-or-less mandates, Kelly originally resisted these overtures but eventually came around to giving special favors out. She was able to secure some political allies in Mayor Yang and President Arnold Fletcher. 

    Of course, the gains of her compromises evaporated when she hit a scandal. The secret contracts she made to secure the education system and atmosphere (made with the two councilmembers/CEOs) disappeared, leaving children raging on the streets while the air quality continued to deteriorate. 

    • Thanks for adding the sheets

      Thanks for adding the sheets (and creating them). One note – I didn't feel frustrated at any point during play, particularly, I just increasingly felt creatively drained, or maybe (okay, you're probably right) creatively frustrated: a feeling of "there's something really cool to come up with here, but it's just beyond my reach". 

      I don't want to paint the picture that I didn't enjoy the game, either. It was time well-spent. I just don't really feel like picking up Mars Colony again!

    • Hans: I’m blinking at that

      Hans: I’m blinking at that double-headed final sentence. I think there’s some kind of role-player ritual obligation to say “I enjoyed it,” which I frankly despise, as I’ve seen it so painfully inauthentically delivered so many times after some session of play. It seems to me you even choked on it and couldn’t help but say the truth after all.

      Let’s cut the shit. You’ve described a very boring and tiring experience, even as I acknowledge the flashes of “good touch” or ongoing mutual support between the two of you along the way.

      I’ve got some things to say about why I think that has occurred, which I’ll split into several comments tomorrow.

      [Without previewing the actual comment, I secured Hans’ permission to speak plainly and personally before posting it.]

    • Hi Eric! I’m interested in

      Hi Eric! I'm interested in understanding what you mean when you say there was no "game-story interaction". Does this mean that the fiction created by the players has no influence on the dice (or other mechanics) of the game? Or that the results of the dice rolls do not influence the fiction? Or both?

    • Hi Eric! I’m interested in

      Hi Eric! I'm interested in understanding what you mean when you say there was no "game-story interaction". Does this mean that the fiction created by the players has no influence on the dice (or other mechanics) of the game? Or that the results of the dice rolls do not influence the fiction? Or both?

      To be clear I said there was no "game state-story interaction" which was a jumbled way to say there was no interaction between the "game state" and the "story" or like the fiction as described by the players. That is, all the story-stuff that happens has no bearing on what the game considers important things to record in terms of common knowledge. So, for instance, if the Savior (Kelly's player) comes up with a brilliant scheme to improve the colony, their chance of the scheme working is exactly the same as if they came up with the dumbest most improbable/boring plan. The mechanics don't help to follow the action forward.

      Even in games like Apocalypse World, the fiction as described has some influence on the game state by making it appropriate/inappropriate for the GM to call rolls or in other ways.

      In our game, nothing I did prompted or developed anything like a *challenge* for Hans. It's just after-the-fact filling in the story to accord with Hans's decisions/dice outcomes.

      The dice rolls *do* influence the fiction. The dice caused many of Kelly's plans to fail which prompted me to narrate how/why they failed. The dice also dictated the ultimate fate of Kelly's project which was failure to help any of the systems (Education, Funding, or Air Quality).

    • Well, you’re right.

      There is that feeling of obligation, and I kowtowed to it instead of being forthright (most of all with myself). For me, that feeling comes from not wanting to be rude to my fellow player(s): the assumption that saying I didn't have a good time playing the game is the same as saying I didn't enjoy spending time with them, or that they were the reason the game wasn't good, or whatever. It's easier to say "I had a good time" than to risk sending the wrong message. It's better, though, to be clear: Eric was a great fellow player who was committed to the experience, and I would happily play any other game with him again; it just didn't turn into a great experience this time, with Mars Colony.

      Glad we cut the shit. I look forward to your further comments.

    • Topic 1

      So, we’re role-playing, and there’s an immediate situation, in which characters may act. “Scene” is technically a good word for it if we can get past its compromised meaning derived from stage and script writing. In our medium, without that compromise, the concept called what happens is process, not product. Let’s include the moments of play when several people have spoken, so that characters are not just frozen in an opening tableau but are in motion, doing things.

      Let’s look at constraints, or in concrete terms, what “is and isn’t.” You mentioned one of them: location, time of day, obvious circumstances, conditions, sensations and impressions, presence or significant absence of characters, and other observable or experiential content. But I want to clarify a deeper thing about it: a known degree of shifted information since the end of the last sequence of play. “It’s Wednesday” isn’t enough, as witness the difference between “the following Wednesday” and “Wednesday, exactly four years later.” Some of it must be known by everyone, some of it may be known to just one person, some of it may be distributed more variously among persons … but it cannot be a blur. Even if there is a fictional blur, one or more of the people playing must know it is there.

      Let’s look at uncertainties. This is much better than talking about “conflict” or “compelling conflict,” because those terms are also compromised by historical usage, arguably even worse. Uncertainties include information and danger, but also outcomes of whatever may happen now.

      Putting constraints and uncertainties together, now we’ve got fuel for action – the question “what do you do” may not even have to be asked, because it’s intrinsic. Add to this one more component, which really doesn’t have a good name, but includes the ability (by real persons) to conduct procedure without permission or negotiation, in other words, they include what you can do as a person playing. Now you have play. Everything we usually talk about as system is a subroutine or at least subject to these things, i.e., unusable without them.

      That’s a lot of abstraction or at least generalized at such a high level that it becomes abstract. Drill down into your experience right here in this game – and I see that these things are absent. We can talk about why that happened in another comment. Here, I’m strictly talking about the experience: I think it was over as soon as it began. Of course Kelly didn’t do anything –because it did not seem to you as if anything coming into the scene mattered for what she could do or why she should do it, and therefore that she could do nothing until the dice get rolled. Of course there are no compelling conflicts, because there are no conflicts, because, in turn, you aren’t treating the available information as initial constraints and uncertainties. The only thing you’re treating that way are outcomes … so your play becomes pro forma to get to the point of rolling dice  And then, the horror really strikes: as she could do nothing except endure whatever the dice did to her after you played “hit or stay” with their probabilities, nothing about that matters either.

      It’s inevitable that as soon as that first scene was halfway in, you dismissed her and retreated into disliking her. That sounds like blame but it’s not, in terms of you being unjust or mean. It is stating the fact that you are like anyone else in why and when you would care about any character. Fact: for anyone, when what you do with a character has nothing to go on, no sense of constraint (pressure, opportunity, activity of merit) at the outset of our attention upon them this time, no sense of why we are here-and-now and not at any other here-and-now … it is impossible to care.

      In role-playing as a process, without the constraints and uncertainties, play cannot proceed. Instead, you get a whole zoo of shitty coping mechanisms. I spend a lot of time calling out methods of control which either prevent the necessary things from being productive in the first place or which fill the scary void with demonstrative non-play, but another thing can happen too. It happens when the people are decent and creative, so they don’t fall into these crap methods, or into bickering and tearing each other down, but instead reassure and endure together. The result is sitting there like Vladimir and Estragon. Waiting. First, for “something,” and then, for it simply to be over.

      • So these reflections are

        So these reflections are intertwined with the conversations happening at Relinquishing control of your character, A Terrible Dogs in the Vineyard Session! and Conversation: Hantverks play, but their center is right here:

        Let’s look at constraints, or in concrete terms, what “is and isn’t.”…location, time of day, obvious circumstances, conditions, sensations and impressions, presence or significant absence of characters, and other observable or experiential content…a known degree of shifted information since the end of the last sequence of play. “It’s Wednesday” isn’t enough, as witness the difference between “the following Wednesday” and “Wednesday, exactly four years later.”

        I want to connect two experiences I’ve had this week that have helped me understand the idea of constraints.

        The first one is the session of Burning Wheel that Sam describes here in “Relinquishing control of your character.” I had similar feelings of disappointment and frustration to those he describes when his character Gerard was stabbed in the guts and the game’s procedures kept unspooling new, punishing consequences over the next hour of play.

        Partly those feelings were the result of misaligned expectations. Partly, I think, I was frustrated that the procedures didn’t give much room for meaningful choice. The Wound rules felt extremely confining for everyone at the table, a moment where the instrumentation became something else, not something I was excited to reach for.

        There was a single, obvious ‘strategy’ for dealing with the situation: the stabby swamp-people dragging Gerhard back to their village healer, treating the healer as a one-stat NPC, scrounging for FoRKs she could use to get Gerhard his Ob 5 Health test so their valuable captive didn’t die on them. The only alternative was just letting Gerard expire on the swamp-slab.

        I honestly don’t mind the extreme consequences. On reflection, what turned my initial disappointment/anxiety that I’d ruined Sam’s fun by playing my NPCs into real frustration was that the game got stuck in weird half-scenes. Because the healer’s Apothecary roll required Intent, Task and FoRKs, I had to narrate and do my thing over months of in-game time while Gerhard just lay there. One moment we were playing, the next it felt like our fingers had gotten caught in the gears.

        (Sam noted after that “I think the assumption of party style play is super intense in the rules in this part [Wounds and Recovery]…one person runs off to get a surgeon (difficult Circles roll) etc.”)

        What has stuck with me about the session though is what happened after. I proposed a quick break, sipped some water, tried to pull myself out of the anxiety that I’d just sunk our Burning Wheel game by playing my swamp-guerillas honestly. Maybe I should have made them mooks…. Maybe I should have engineered an opportunity for Gerhard to put on his armor….

        When we reconvened, I asked my brother what his ne’er-do-well pillager PC Lorias was up to. Lorias had just returned from a desert caravan-raid, the proud new owner of a magical sword. He’d sold off his loot to a certain merchant of his acquaintance (a former poisoner with a passion for cooking), and had set off into the desert town to enjoy the festivities of the Mine Husband’s Marriage. 

        The Marriage is an annual festival in which a condemned person is given three days of finest outfits, limitless gold, and orgiastic sex before being symbolically married to the darkness and sent into the mines, deeper than any dare to go, and never to return.

        I asked my brother “Where are you headed” and he replied “I want to meet this year’s Mine Husband.”

        I set the next scene in the upscale tavern where the Mine Husband sat, surrounded by revelers, staring into the dregs of his wine-jar, emptied by despair at the prospect of his “marriage” next morning. 

        I didn’t have an agenda in this scene. I don’t think my brother did either. However, before we knew it, Lorias had made (or believed he had made) a deal to venture into the Mines, slay whatever monster was doubtlessly down there, and in return receive the remainder of the Mine Husband’s fortune. In the next scene, he sought out his sworn enemy and kinda-coworker in pillaging Tiberius, the only person he knew who loved gold enough to take part in a plan so insane. 

        After the extremely rigid half-scenes we’d been playing through with Gerhard, these wide-open scenes felt terrifying to play. All we had to go on was “location, time of day, obvious circumstances, conditions, sensations and impressions, presence or significant absence of characters, and other observable or experiential content.” I only had a small amount of prep to go on. Nonetheless, by taking these basic constraints seriously and playing our characters faithfully, we found ourselves in a fun, complicated and constantly-enriched situation.

        I’d been turning this experience and this Adept Play conversation about Mars Colony over for a couple of days when I saw the movie Nomadland. It hit me like a revelation. Nomadland might not be to everyone’s taste (I personally found it extremely affecting). But what I learned by watching it is how powerful stories can emerge from an absolute minimum of elements.

        Even task-resolution questions like failure or success don’t seem to apply. By my count, only two “events” occur in the film (at one point, the main character’s van breaks down; at another, a character passes away from terminal illness).  Everything else that happens is a function of the questions: Where does the main character go next? Who and what is there? What do they do? For how long? Where do they go next? Answering these questions required, I think, deep care for and creative engagement with the characters from the movie’s creators.

        Watching the movie reminded me of the experience of playing a game without Moves after years of being soaked in PbtA-style GM advice. There are all kinds of system questions I’d be interested in answering before trying to ‘play’ Nomadland (Are there one or two PCs in the movie? Is there some kind of calendar for tracking events, and how closely should time be tracked? Who is responsible for answering questions about the locations the characters go to?) 

        However, the load-bearing procedures would be the constraints Ron outlines above, plus the terrifying, wide-open freedom of deciding what your characters say and do, as the things we say about these characters we care for become, as if by magic, what happens next.

      • For those who are wondering,

        For those who are wondering, this conversation – or rather, the extended one you've summarized via the links – has led to a Patreon discussion directed at the interplay among backdrop, situation, and scenes. Briefly, given either the conclusion of a confrontation of some kind within a scene, or the conclusion of a given scene, we are talking about knowing what comes next.

        It also so happens that's the topic of the first session and a half of my course Design Depth. I've only taught it once which of course means it's imperative to re-evaluate everything, so getting into "what comes next" as a dynamic procedure rather than wide-eyed black-hole is really helping me.


    • Topic 2

      Tim designed Mars Colony and 39 Dark in open defiance of widget-based, wind-up design that he’d identified as an endemic problem at Story Games. He knew that if you didn’t bring passion for content and active characterization (which is not merely depictions and explanations) to play, the game cannot do it for you … and if it purports to do so, then it becomes merely product for you to consume.

      I won’t go so far as to suggest these games are intentional cruel traps for self-identified storygamers, but in a lot of ways, that’s what they do. They absolutely refuse to give you “story,” or to provide any damn thing at all just because you sit in the comfy seat and push buttons to see what happens. Both games include an aspect of “Can you? No? Buh-bye,” which means that you cannot fluff your way through and have a kind-of-good time if you aren’t actually in it all the way – for your Mars, for your immediate situations, and for your Kelly or Lane.

      His comments at this site about this issue are here. One of the links is broken (seriously, Story Games? Not archived anywhere?), but fortunately he provides relevant quotes.

      (Not especially relevant, but as long as we’re here: of the two, I prefer 39 Dark, on ideological grounds. The two games neatly illustrate Tim’s politically-concerned experiences just following each of the two U.S. election results in 2008 and 2012.)

      So what does this have to do with you, Hans and Eric, in this game? Because I don’t think either of you is disengaged from the content in real-life terms, although I could understand if the modern viewpoint toward Kelly Perkins’ mission is significantly less hopeful or sympathetic out of the gate than in its year of publication, 2010.

      I don’t have an answer for you as the question is definitely personal-reflection only. My only suggestion concerns how fictional situation is created to matter in the first place, a major topic in my Design Depth course and most recently considered in the comments at James’ post about his Marvel Super Heroes game, A remedy for oppression: This was America.

      For my part, when I played 39 Dark with Moreno (Treason for a reason, A new Mars, born in struggle), it marked the real inflection point of the falling-away between us over the past few years. There’s a larger issue there about enjoying play as such, ever, but in this case, it was his statement afterwards that he’d intentionally avoided including the activist groups that mattered to him, thus separating himself away from the content the game needed to have. He’d played it as pushing buttons, as a puzzle to beat or solve, regarding any relationship as an expendable resource. You can see it in our videos – I bought into Lane Novak as very much like Citron in “Flame & Citron” (Danish film, 2008); he couldn’t have cared less. When I realized I had spent all these hours effectively talking to myself, I was pretty pissed off.

    • Response to Topic 2 and a little to Topic 1

      I am still chewing on the post about constraints & uncertainties. I've read it probably five times and will read it some more. I will say that this rings true (well, all of it rings true, but I recognize this strongly):

      it did not seem to you as if anything coming into the scene mattered for what she could do or why she should do it

      Regarding the second topic, about bringing passion and active characterization to the game, I can clearly see that it was my real issue. I wanted to play Mars Colony not primarily because I was excited about its fictional content–though I wasn't bored by it or indifferent, it merely "seemed fun"–it was more that the game fit in the time slot I wanted to play in, it was two-player (meaning that it would be easier to schedule a game), I had recently read it, and I had had an unfulfilling session of it some years ago, and so wanted to try again. Exploring the difficulties of and compromises inherent in leadership and political action wasn't particularly juicing me (first red flag), as I re-read the book again to get ready for the game, but I figured we could generate an interesting situation and come up with something fun.

      It wasn't, as you said Ron, that I was disengaged from the content in real-life terms, but, as I've said, it wasn't particularly grabbing me as something I was excited to do, now. It's less that I was looking for the game to provide me a pre-packaged story than that I was looking for it to provide me that spark of excitement (I wasn't articulating it this clearly to myself, of course). "Let's turn this thing on and see if it runs" vs. "Let's get in the car and go–there's a series of switchbacks I've been wanting to take it down."

      I think this is getting at a distinction between game-as-tool vs. game-as-experience (when looked at from the perspective of preparation to play). Did I pick this particular game to play because there is something I want to do with it, not in the sense of pre-defined outcomes, but rather in the sense of seeing that it accords with my excitement and purpose for this particular instance of folk-fiction? Or did I pick it because I think it has some experience to offer me that I'm interested in? I.e., I would have been happy to sit down that afternoon and watch a political SF movie, and I hoped perhaps that Mars Colony would give me that experience, or that that mood was enough. But as you said –

      "…you cannot fluff your way through and have a kind-of-good time if you aren’t actually in it all the way – for your Mars, for your immediate situations, and for your Kelly or Lane."

      It's not in the business of providing me with an experience, and I know from experience that that's not what I want from roleplaying, anyway. I'm familiar with the discussion on widget-based design (I remember talking with you about it, in regard to my game on the Adept Press forum or whatever the post-Forge forum was called.) I want to be creatively challenged and engaged and excited at the table (I mean, duh). It is beginning to be clear to me how crucial that initial excitement for the fictional particulars of the game we are playing is.

      And with some amount of relief I recognize that I can bring that to a game. I'm currently preparing to run Worlds Without Number and I have all sorts of locations and situations and people (and maps, even!) prepped, that I am excited about revealing in play and seeing where we take it. It may sound silly to say that it relieves me to realize that I can bring this kind of initial excitement to a game, but it's true, because I think I started putting the cart before the horse somewhere along the way in my play career.

      When I first started roleplaying circa 2008, I was bowled over at the vast universe of games and the unbridled creativity of the independent design-and-publishing scene; I wanted to try everything. And I wanted to be "in" the scene, and designing was the clear way to be cool in this subculture, and so I wanted to play everything because I knew I needed to learn stuff about roleplaying game design, so playing something just to see what it was like became an end in itself; playing something just to have another little scrawl on my imaginary CV became an end in itself. I think in some ways I became more interested in parsing out design quirks than in the thing that's supposed to get us to the table in the first place (social approval is a helluva drug).

      I became interested in rpg design for its own sake, not merely separated from but in more strong terms divorced from fictional content. I assure you, I now see how perverse this is, and am happy to say that I am no longer interested in designing games; I just want to play, and play well, but I think I still have some exorcism of that orientation toward play to do.

      • These are powerful

        These are powerful reflections and I very greatly appreciate you sharing them here.

    • To Noah

      Thanks for your thoughts – I haven't been able to get through the whole "relinquishing control" thread, but I read Sam's post and keenly followed along; it was very informative to see both sides of that altercation and aftermath. 

      Your point about taking constraints seriously (and playing the characters faithfully, of course) strongly resonates with me. I never want to be at 10,000 feet during play, storyboarding or narrating; I want to be down in the mire with mud between the character's toes (and is it gritty or soft? Are there things wriggling in it?). But when I can't do that for whatever reason–or maybe the only reason is, like in our Mars Colony game, not being properly oriented toward play, not having that spark to do this thing–then I find myself falling back into abstractions, because I can't seem to get the details to matter, because I haven't been prepared to take the constraints seriously.

      I've read the patreon post, Ron, but none of the replies. Getting to that is next on my list!

      • (not Noah, but …)

        (not Noah, but …)

        Hans, am I understanding you correctly that when you say "1,000 feet," it's a metaphor for the sense of disconnection? Meaning, when one is acting free of constraints, especially procedures with parameters, including Authorities to honor among other things – so play turns into storyboarding and conferencing, either internally in one head or across several.

        I'm asking because "not playing my character" and such details as "player knowledge can't deviate from character knowlege" are common identifying phrases to vilify any knowledge, awareness, mindfulness, whatever you want to call it about the purposes and procedures of play. Another one you didn't mention but which fits in this position too is considering the numerical aspects of the procedures too openly (one is supposed to keep them safely buttoned up).

        Therefore I'm staving off certain implications and habits of play-culture which tag the wrong variables for the effects you're talking about, and which I'm pretty sure but not entirely that you're not intending to invoke.

        I agree with you that it is a terrible state of mind. One cognitively hunts about for later effects toward which play must be directed, for entertainment value to keep everyone happy, for advantage in the knowledge that one is un-playing and has the opportunity for leverage, and for justifications in anticipation of challenge, which is the result of a bad conscience in the first place. The result invariably turns into posturing, manipulations, and power-struggles.

      • You understand me correctly.

        You understand me correctly. I'm not talking about wanting to solely inhabit the character's head, or whatever, but just about wanting to be grounded in the here-and-now of actual constraints.

        "Cognitively hunting about" is an image that makes me shudder with familiarity.

      • Hans, I love that notion of

        Hans, I love that notion of wanting "to be down in the mire with mud between the character's toes (and is it gritty or soft? Are there things wriggling in it?)." I think it all stems from those foundational constraints of Where, When, Who, and Why? But those constraints are so easy to lose hold of. 

        Mars Colony feels especially challenging in this regard because when the dice come out they apparently enforce a zoomed-out view of Kelly's projects. We get the problem, the attempted solution, and (mostly) the solution's failure. The change in the characters, the passion brought to them, and how those changes impact the situation (outside of the Health Markers) all have to come from the foundational constraints. The game distributes authorities clearly, so players can do this (the Savior controls Kelly, the Governor controls everyone else, both can invoke the environment, technology and workings of the Colony). But it also puts a huge amount of trust in the players to exercise those authorities consistently and to their fullest extent.

        I feel like 'basic' scene-framing should be practiced and drilled in roleplaying – no matter what, no matter how little anyone is inspired by those constraints at any particular moment, you need to establish them for the rest of play to function. 

      • Re: Basic Scene Framing

        Yes! In the play culture I was heavily involved in from around 2010 to 2013, scene framing was recognized as a skill that one could get good at, but just establishing constraints wasn't quite enough to be considered "good" — it was about establishing pregnant, interesting conflict. Which isn't a bad thing, but I have certainly experienced "cognitively hunting about" for outcomes and the like when trying to frame a "good" scene in this mode. 

        Getting back to these basics about what a scene even is and why we frame it — to establish basic constraints — is fruitful, no matter whether we have set up juicy conflict at the outset.

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