Situation: primary and primal

At the Patreon, I began a deeper discussion of my breakdown of “setting” into three more useful terms: backdrop, situation, and scene(s). I presented it first in Circle of Hands and referenced it a lot since then.

At first glance, these terms appear to be nested, in order from biggest to smallest, so that situation is a subset of backdrop, and scenes are a subset of situation. . They may also look as if causality mainly flows in that sequence as well, from biggest to smallest, with a faint hope or reassurance that events in scenes can travel back outwards, “changing the world” as it were.

That’s the orange part of this discussion: backdrop is the most solid, the most real in fictional terms; situations occur as local, closer-in pieces of it, and scenes are the ephemeral, momentary experiences of situations from characters’ point of view. “Setting” appears to be a unified concept, collective for everything that’s not a character. Fictionally, this is perfectly coherent.

However. We are not orange, we are black. I am now talking abut play itself, happening, as an activity conducted by humans listening to one another. Procedurally, I think that the only solid one of the three is situation.

One of the commenters at the Patreon used the term primal, and I like that.

  • Situations make the backdrop; any description of a piece of backdrop without a representative situation in play is merely a promise or hopeful fib. Backdrop becomes real when we’ve seen it from inside a situation.
  • Situations make scenes; without situational context for objects or characters, they have no properties and are not playable. Scenes are experienced as real insofar as they occur inside a situation.

Therefore, at the times we switch perspective to consider either backdrop or scenes as having changed or as about to become more clear, we have to look at how situations have changed, or at how they are necessarily about to change.

Too abstract? Fine. Get real, then. Right now, Noah is 100% correct to identify my comment as central to several different simultaneous discussions at Adept Play (see his summary here. The concrete question concerns finishing a conflict inside a scene, or finishing a scene, and knowing what happens next

More precisely, for whoever has the job of saying what happens next (meaning “now”), what do they use to formulate what to say? What are their tools and raw materials for doing so? Specifically and most painfully:

  • Without being trapped in the past, i.e., any prepared presumption of what will happen during play
  • Without being trapped in the future, i.e., asking stupid questions like “what will be the most interesting” and developing something to play toward

In practice, you (single or plural, whoever has this job) simply have to say what happens. But without falling into those familiar and oh-so-comfortable traps, how, how, how, how? For any “next now,” at any scale, the situation is the key. One must reference how the situation has or is about to be affected. The answer might be “a lot,” which is great. It might be “not much,” which is still good and useful because your “next now” doesn’t have to be drastic, i.e., it may remain confined to immediate concerns for the characters. 

I ended the Patreon post with a plea for any & all responses, resulting in many strong discussions. Manu gave his permission for me to include our dialogue here, which is attached. I think it is very powerful and very important, and I offer my plea here for you to read it in addition to this post and to provide any & all responses.

Erik, James, Noah, Grégory, Gordon, Lorenzo, and Sean: I’d like to include your points and dialogues as attachments as well. Please send me a direct message via Discord to let me know whether you give permission to do that.

27 responses to “Situation: primary and primal”

  1. Situation – Adventure – Movement/Motion/Momentum

    To add just a small bit to my own thoughts, I have been designing around the idea of situation as Adventure or The Adventure, depending, as something encompasses movement and momentum. Adventure draws in the backdrop/setting and leads eventually to scenes / encounters. For myself, I have been a fixated on the idea that when System interfaces with Situation, these are largely mechanics of motion, momentum, and movement. The characters need to go places, even if that place is from their bedroom to the bathroom. And these can be very formal, roll to see if you step on the cat, or informal, you feel the cat's tail on your foot and it swipes at you, but nothing else happens

    Thus the arrows and diagrams worked well as visuals for me. I even considered emulating a force board, but its been a minute since I did vectors and such and that might be more detail than we need here. But I do feel that it is in Situation where many games stall out, with a loss of momentum due to any number of factors and perhaps confusion over procedures. 

    • I agree with you, and I also

      I agree with you, and I also suggest that the explicit trend in RPG design toward scene structures and procedures is not much of a solution. I say this because (1) all role-playing has scenes, and always has, and always will, so acknowledging it is no bad thing but messing with it as technique doesn't add or solve anything; and (2) forcing poor little scenes to carry the whole weight of changes in situation and even backdrop is a huge burden on the person doing it, hence the frequent paralysis you see in games which mistake "scene-framing" for "what the whole freaking plot does next."

  2. It’s a good diagram!

    I'm struggling to think of anything to add to this. It seems obvious, as any good classification should, and right off the bat, I'm not sure what this way of thinking allows me to do that I couldn't before. But it puts some structure on a way of thinking and playing that I think I was already doing, so in that sense, it's good stuff.

    So yeah, not that much to add, except that I'm nodding in agreement. Scenes are interesting only if they develop the situation, and backdrop is interesting only in how it informs the situation. There are all kinds of caveats and hedges we might want to put in those statements, of course. Obviously we can have scenes that are mainly about establishing something in fiction that was previously only prep, for example. Or scenes that illustrate, rather then develop, the situation. And some backdrop that doesn't inform the situation can still add some atmosphere and color, etc. But in broad strokes, it seems like a good framework. Right now, I don't think this will change the way I play or design, because I think I was already thinking like this, only not explicitly, but if nothing else I can see how it can help explaining a game or play style to others.

  3. My own musings on the matter.

    I've been thinking a lot about this, and I came to a few conclusions about how all of this integrates into how I play.

    Please note that I'm not integrating your statements or claiming that I'm expanding on them; it's just something that struck me about how this works in my mind.

    The backdrop is Where We Are.

    The situation is Why We Are Here.

    The scene is What We Are Doing (right now).

    "Where?" and "What?" are incredibly important questions, but "Why?" is what drives us. 

    I came to this conclusion thinking of a few games that use extremely specific situations to drive play. And I noticed it's always the situation that matters.

    If we take one of the most rigid storygames I played – Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne – then you notice immediately how the backdrop isn't going to matter unless it plays into the situation. And since the situation (there's some people, always the same people, who are carrying a witch to the place where she will be burned) is always the same, and the scenes too (and it's clear that the scenes are structured after the situation itself), then you see that you could move the story to puritan colonies or in the middle of the Mayan empire and it would still work, as far as this game works.

    Thinking of another witch game that is closer to my tastes, The Mountain Witch has an apparently very solid Backdrop, but it's the situation that drives the game. Here that "Why?" is particularly loud and powerful. You have a few ronin with dark secrets who are here, in this situation, for reasons so strong that they will be the living heart of your scenes. And yes you have a clearly defined backdrop in feudal Japan and its folklore, but everything you'll know about it will descend from the situation. Who did this samurai wrong, and when, and how, to become a ronin? Who is this character's lover and why was she lost? 
    We will talk about things that are outside (come before?) the situation because the situation tells us to look into them. 

    This goes also for your bog standard "paladins and princesses" D&D experience. You can play a Forgotten Realms game without ever reading the Forgotten Realms setting. I know I did, several times. I still don't know what it is about exactly. You don't need to know what's there and there until your situation brings those things into play. If this happens as a product of play, the relationship is obvious (some player brought the backdrop in through their actions). If this happens as a part of prep ("On the eve of the 19th day, the Zhentarim will kidnap the blacksmith"), then it was part of the situation all along.

    And if situations drive the game and they are our "Whys", then the next step (finding out how to answer the "What now?" question) becomes more consequential. Whatever comes next needs to be our next "Why are we here?". I find it somewhat liberating. We often have to reverse engineer that Why because it always is a product of play – we can't know it before, until the situation is resolved. Why did Vephselk meet the Spiders who were hunting for her? So that she could take off with one of them, and in turn initiate the journey that would lead to her death. We didn't know what the situation was about until it ended – and that resolution, that answer, is our "What now?".

    • To clarify the above

      To clarify the above statement, the "What now?" question is something that mostly happens between scenes, within the same situation. It's the evolution of the situation itself that dictates how that "Why" informs what we do next.

      So we have one scene (we fight Ethala at the pond) and Sam decides Vephselk wants none of it, bringing the backdrop into play (her tribe) through the situation (why is she here? what happened in her tribe?). As the scene resolves, Sam uses those elements of the situation to decide what will happen next for Vephselk (she's on the run) and I guess Ron does the same to decide the scout is going with her. So now the situation has changed the backdrop (Sisivel will want to find out what happened, unrest among tribes maybe) and we know where our next scene happens.

      If it makes any sense.

    • Hi Lorenzo, I’ll add a little

      Hi Lorenzo, I'll add a little divergence or modification of views, especially to your clarification.

      I submit that quite a lot of role-playing fails to address or apply "What now?" during the scene, regarding thing to thing to thing which may occur inside it, rather than from one scene to the next. I regard this as a serious and pervasive failure in the full sense of the word – play should do it, and it very often does not. Instead, consider these:

      • Old way 1: Characters' actions do very little; although many are announced and much resolution occurs, it's almost all Brownian motion. Play inside any scene has a meandering, blithering quality which often resorts to anecdotes, amusing actions, and wisecracks to qualify for human communication at all. Events of consequence are applied mainly out of the characters' view until some designated time late in a session or sequence of sessions, and they may well not occur for whole sessions.
      • Old way 2: Characters don't do much except go where they are told, see what is placed there for them to see, and fight whoever is obviously necessary to fight. This is more efficient than #1 in terms of enacted plot; it does indeed seem as if the characters do things, and the players' barrage of announcements, their pro forma resolutions, and the usual nothing-results are cut down to minimum or absent. However, the "doing" is all planned and enacted like a play. The characters' group takes on a many-legged single-entity quality, this entity's actions are all really reactions in response to cues, and it is likely that one or more players aren't asked anything and don't speak at all.
      • New way: Scenes' content is workshopped and generally pre-played, and the extent to which any conflict or confrontation is resolved in play, is partly or sometimes wholly redundant. Little or no play of "who is where, what do they say, who does what in response," occurs – sometimes to the extent that the people playing do not state anything that can be visualized by another person, and some confusion – and thus further workshopping – results about what does or does not happen due to the resolution.

      Due to these habits and standards of play, the group forgets or never even knew that you can play the opening of a scene, play through quite a lot of events and interactions which change the immediate situation as they go, recognize a moment of need for procedural resolutions for any number of things (large and small) and apply them, play more events and interactions after any such resolution, do other resolutions at other moments, and at some previously unspecified point, close the scene. 

      The key being that no scene has any intrinsic restriction, organization, expectation, or quantity of these things, at least, not just because it's role-played fiction. And this concept is so often absent, and as far as I can tell, for many groups and as actually instructed by many texts, is never even conceived. Either we blither, or we lockstep, or we negotiate … and at best, someone makes a plot happen by changing to the next scene; more likely, the whole thing is just a fuckin' wash as far as actually playing is concerned.

      This point does not change when a given game system does impose a hard constraint on any of these internal-scene variables. The other variables remain open, and in many such games, much more open than seems to be widely understood.

      I think some of them really fuck this up, that's true. For example, Shock requires one conflict per scene, which is fine, but the text does its own system no favors with its instruction to move to the next Protagonist immediately. I suggest that this is the worst thing you can do in this game, as an automatic requirement. Dialect offers a different and distinctive example, as discussed both in video and text for our recent game.

      However, I strongly advise against going down the rabbit hole of "what about [weird game X]?" over and over. Doing that misses the point that, if people so often fuck up actual-play-of-what-now inside scenes when playing games without any such constraint or structure, then there's every reason to expect crap play of games with this or that constraint too, and so we should not focus on them as if they were the problem.

      I would very much like to discuss your game in development about this issue – specifically, the most recent session played, whatever was in it and whenever that might have been.

    • I’ll start out by saying that

      I'll start out by saying that I'm not terribly fond of the hyper-structured scene framing that seems to be so popular these days. Witch: RtL is an extreme example of a style of game design so adamantly predictive that I'm left wonder where play is supposed to happen.

      Trying to expand on that, lately I'm seeing more and more focus on play as performative action. I'm playing my character in a fairly literal, albeit lateral, meaning. As an actor playing a character on stage. Outcomes don't matter much, agency doesn't matter much (actual agency, not stuff like "only I can decide if my character dies"), what matter is that I play the character: how he feels, what he says, how he reacts. I've seen Old Way 1 and New Way bleed into each other as people dragged each other into staging an "exciting" scene or action piece where the hows outweighted the whats and whys by a long shot. 
      When you play this way, having a very rigid structure that divides play into scenes through predictable and measurable shifts and fade outs makes perfect sense. You're not really carrying over from one action to the next: it's your turn, you pick up the ball (from the ground), do your little trick, and put it back. The way "your turn" becomes valuable changes from game to game: it may be through complicated mechanical interactions between talents and equipment and spells that let you affect the countdown to scene shift really hard, or it may be through thespian performance but it's very much a solitary performance. I notice this because I often find myself suggesting (and there's game text that does too) that people start thinking about their actions before their turn is up… but isn't that a foolish request? Shouldn't every action carry a strong sense of contingency and consequence? Shouldn't I be listening before I talk? The fact that the advice often makes sense is damning. When that happens, then even inside scenes the idea that each and every action could completely change the situation – that it could change the "Why Are We Here?" – is lost.

      I think speaking of "cultural damage" wouldn't be inappropriate here. I've seen experienced players fundamentally caving in and requesting we reverted to Old Way 2 when the flow of action and consequence became too authentic. Because when consequences hit really hard and you have a scene shift that feels inevitable, you often feel like you've lost something. That scene is over, and it wasn't a carefully placed piece of narrative whose predictable consequences led into a story that made sense or was interesting (no need to explain the implications here). If I had to be cynical I would say that it's a form of self-defence: if my actions within a scene don't really matter, then I should be granted that there is some structure between scenes that I can't really mess up and that will lead the story on. I want to know someone is holding the threads because I clearly am not in control. The moment I am actually in control I get scared because nobody is taking charge of making this a good story.

      Getting a bit closer to my game, it's a bit if someone at some point during play seeing exciting drama happening and characters separating from each other to pursue their own interestes stood up and asked "But do I still get to play an epic showdown with the vampire?". It's a tough subject, at least for me. It's very easy to envision a satisfactory stream of rolls, decisions and resolutions leading to an appropriate climax in design, but I've come to the realization that in order to actually have play, you need to implant the potential (or even mandate) to self-sabotage that perfection. To use an allegory, you're not placing dominoes, you're giving players a box full of firecrackers. You need to be afraid of them using it. It needs the potential to fail. That potential to fail to me traces back into that idea of actions having contingency within scenes, at the smallest increment possible.

      Going by your request, I don't think my latest playtest session would be useful here, as it was hyper focused on mechanical aspects that may be interesting to explore in other threads (timing and contincency, specifically). It was the very specific "here is a map, you're these guys, this is happening, action" type of test – frustrating experience for the players, probably.
      The most meaningful playtest event in this regard would be over a year old. I cheated a bit in preparation, as the situation was fairly static – a church overrun with ghouls, the old priest killed and the younger vicar going crazy and seeing this as a manifestation of the will of the local saint. The nearby town was full of interesting NPCs with their own agendas and dramas, and there was no countdown clock to any climatic event. If the players wanted a showdown, it was there waiting, but the town drama (centered on faith and its social and political ramifications) kept us occupied for most of the 3 sessions. I was very satisfied with a lot of things – we were playing CoH for the first time at the same time so I borrowed techniques liberally and they worked well in terms of letting me play the NPC instead of using them – and specifically how elements of the characters' backgrounds (expecially the randomized ones) gave them reasons to get involved. One player rolled a Witch Hunter (think rogue with some religious magic) with an Imperial heritage and the War Veteran background. A very stereotypical character (the kind of guy who uses tatto'ed religious texts as magical focuses) but his Weakness was Empathy and his Demon was Sex (think of these as randomized "perks" or flaws). As play started he was laser focused on finding out what happened with the town's faith and restoring respect for the Gospels of the Saints. By the end he was entangled with a rich young widow with a problem with alcohol and the band of highwaymen who targeted her. 
      Another player was playing a Kushite elementalist – rational, scientific minded, with an almost too convenient combo of Rage and Self-Righteousness. When the group left town, part of it burned.

      (Incidentally, despite working well here, I've changed the Weakness/Demon design because it was ultimately disfunctional).

      But while the personal elements worked, with all the nudging and on-the-fly fixing that the text still requires (the characters felt playable to people, luckily), there were several fail-states. The situation itself wasn't terribly compelling and by the third sessions we fundamentally forced some action scenes to actually see those rules at work, but it wasn't particularly natural (aside from the Witch Hunter beating up a bunch of trespassers). Many perplexities were left about the shift to a new situation. I think going over everything would be out of place here, and I'm also thinking it may be time to schedule another consulting process in the near future, if you have the time.

      Going back to the core issues, I think in the last year I have envisioned with more precision what I want play to be like, and also what the theme of the game actually is. The challenge is taking a very thight monster-based situation with extreme potential for character drama (I really like the question you asked in another thread, ie "Given power, what would you do?") and see if you can make it episodic in a way that allow for constraints and consequences to flow from situation to situation. The most obvious inspiration in term of situation being The Mountain Witch – with the challenge of making it work for long play, with a less elegant setup and the burden of a far wider range of inspirations and character options. But again I don't think it's the focus here. I hope my ranting about my personal struggle may be of use to the discussion.

    • Turning your attention if at

      Turning your attention if at all possible toward the positive situation, in which people are talking and listening, the characters walk and talk, the scene continues with consequences to its contents and potential overall outcome, you know, play is happening …

      Given that, now it's time to go look at Monday Lab: Nutz R Us, Monday Lab: Whoops (in which your comment also invokes the more recent Timing, movement, and maps), and Relinquishing control of your character, regarding what happens during such play.

      Do you see that the worst possible rules for characters' activity are "whatever you want," or always provide full player choice of whatever might happen, or always include an optimized option?

    • I think I understand. It’s

      I think I understand. It's probably inconsequential, but that's why the Weaknesses and Demons died – I was getting the feeling the people were creating well rounded and interesting characters that ended up having many things to worry about that have nothing to do with the situation itself. "Here is a guy, play your guy doing whatever" sounds good, but feels like a trap for this game. What I have people do now is… well a bit different and probably not the topic right now, but I feel it's better.

      I went back to those topics you linked and while I feel there's no way to "conclude" this discussion for me, as it's kind of THE big topic of the last few months, I have a few reflections:


      • concerning optimized options, I think we agree perfectly. I'll elaborate a little. I think having options that are contextually better (ie this move is better than this move) is not only interesting but inevitable. Sticking to games that provide options to players in combat, I feel D&D4E for the most part gets this by offering you a range of different abilities that you can use whenever or rather freely (outside of the paradigm of resource management that is "Lighting Bolt is always the best option, but I only get to use it X times"). I think At-Will abilities tend to be the most exciting in this regard – the only thing that determines what to use right now is the context. If you end up using always the same one, the game has failed somehow.
        The mirror of this is 3E/5E design, where you generally don't have "moves" or "powers" but you set up things on your character sheet before play. So you're really good at using those spiked chains, and you spent resources into getting that super efficient bonus when you trip people, so play for you is Trip, Trip, Trip, Trip. This is horrifying and undesireable.
        At the same time, while I do enjoy the "option select" gameplay that 4E offers, I've long been persuaded that if I want to play that, I can play 4E. I think it does the thing in a very satisfactory way and while it may not be perfect, it's perfectly fine (which is how I feel about a large majority of games, oddly enough).  

        The next paragraph is in italic because it pertains some rantings and play moments about my game and so if someone is not interested they can skip it. I'm not posting about this for self-promotion but because it feels like what I've been working on is extremely relevant to timing, acting and movement (expecially their relationship); and specifically because it's not a groundbreaking revelation or some incredibly brilliant idea, but probably the simpliest way to represent that relationship, I'm interested in exploring why almost nobody is trying something like this, even if of course the list of games that tackle timing, movement and the type/effect of actions affecting ordering in a similar way isn't short at all – Riddle of Steel, Circle of Hands, Hackmaster, SW and many more – thinking laterally, the boardgame Gloomhaven does very interesting things with this.
        So the question is if my methodology is too complicated or clunky at the table, if it has some intrisinc limitations or if simply isn't worth it. Which leads to a conclusion (not in italic) that may be pertinent to the general subject of how we do these things in games.
        In my game I think this isn't showing up as a problem. Ordering is extremely chaotic and fluid, and people constantly need to look at what is happening; rolls can mess it up too. I'd like to play it sometimes, rather than talking about it. It's not my place to say it's successfull design, but it definitely does things pertaining these topics. 
        I have a small anedocte pertaining to this. It's one of those moments where design happens in play, it was the very early stages and I was testing out the entire idea about ordering that had emerged from talking about the last playtest session. I had traditional turns back then, using a sistem of cards for initiative inspired by Savage Worlds (ordering is the best element of that game, for me, and probably the only thing I really like – but I guess I should credit 1996 Deadlands for that). Anyways, I discuss with my players and from the idea of one of them I develop this new way of tracking actions and ordering, and we test it next. The situation was ridicolously simple, we have a big acid spitting dragon in a room with a few columns, fight. Of course as a first test it's terribly cluncky but things seem to work – simple actions and faster weapons let you act again sooner, slower ones take more time to "recharge". It's really predictable stuff (not that what's coming isn't, but it was a watershed moment still). So at some point I know the dragon is going to breathe acid on them, and the recharge is going to be very long, and I see the rogue guy sticking close to the columns trying to predict when that will happen. The 2 players exchange a comment on it, and in my head something clicks. So instead of saying "dragon breathes, recharge 7", I say "you see the dragon lean back, belly on the floor. Its guzzard starts to glow green and an horrible gurgling sound fills the room" and I move the dragon up 7 spots in the initiative track. I mentally multiply the dragon's breath damage by an order on magnitude, and I watch what the players do. And I see them react – which in turn led to some very satisfying "ah ah, rules click!" moment with the warrior just managing to get on the side of the beast, forcing it to pick a target, and something less exciting (the rogue diving for cover behind a column led to him having to wait for things happening which was a bit deflating). It was a moment that made me realize that I wanted this – I wanted the Is of the IIEE process to be something the entire table had to acknowledge and could react to before the Es went in place. Of course turning the idea into something playable is a lot more complicated, but the main takeaway is the non-rigid ordering and the capability to react to things seem to put up a good fight against the "snapshot" syndrome.

        As a conclusion, what has emerged so far from playtesting is that having such a strong need for context in order to make decisions or even understand where you are in the ordering and where you'll land leads to a lot of describing and discussing. It needs to run fast (the time unit is very small, and so there shouldn't be a lot of pre planning or decision making) and even more importantly, the type of incremental progress you see in typical, hit-point based games becomes impossible to integrate – and I wanted it. But if play becomes "do this thing N times till you win", then the rest of the process loses meaning, like you were pulling in two different directions. Timing in play and pacing at the table and success/failure develop a strong relationship, to the point that saying "you failed by this much, so you will do the thing but it will take N ticks more on the clock" becomes more interesting, because you're not skipping a turn and trying again, you're taking a decision now and depending on what others did or will do, it could lead to new scenarios. If you have this on top of several iterations of the same turns over and over, it becomes unplayable. So actions need to be extremely impactful and consequential. I feel like the more attention you give to timing and ordering (and the related decisionmaking), the more this needs to be true.


      • As for the general, meatier point of "whatever you want" being a death trap, I think there's a long tradition of games (as games being played, not just written) that defiantly tried to pretend this isn't true or even desireable. The most evident being "Yes, 233 pages out of 303 in this book may be about killing monsters inside dark caves, but what it is really about is roleplaying my character" but I've had instances of people trying to play an hard boiled detective falling in love in CoC or setting up a farm in Deadlands. In design terms, I think the glossy, sugar coated entrance of the trap is starting to design such things as "skill lists" or in general terms "activities". 
        It's an odd case where a more generic list or the absence of it may lead to more focused play than 33 pages of "you can do anything" (looking at you, GURPS and offsprings). Because once you put in both Programming and Computer Use, or you have Train Animal and Ride, then you must have EVERYTHING. Sewing and Knitting for sure. 
        Thinking: "I need a button in case a player says they want to do this" leads to giant lists of potential activities that potentially have no foundation in play. Classic example: Riding in D&D3 being an unusable skill. You don't bring horses in dungeons,  the rules for using mounts in combat are incredibly clunky, even for overland travels either everyone have the skill or it's useless. Yet it's there because someone may "want to do it" and then we need to know who's good at it.
        Thinking: "in case this situation arises, I need this button" may be better. The situation creates the activites and not vice versa. As I write it, a part of my brain goes "No! Bad! Freedom! Creativity! Emergent!" but I try to fight that back because I know all that noise is made by headless chickens running around screaming "Now what?".

        But I guess it's hard. I feel like I'm going through the hops of "I'm going to make you not want to ask "can I do this?" instead of saying "you can't do this". And I feel this is an aspect where authors need to respect the idea that players can take responsability and play on purpose. I think it's a large part of how we make heartbreakers work (ie players understanding what the game is about and playing it for what it is) and that a lot of modern game writing tries to make so damn sure that nobody will even try to do something that isn't pertinent to the story being told that the story is already told.


  4. I’d Love Some Details

    So my personal hope – you might even call it a plea – is that people will be willing to provide a concrete example of a Situation and how exactly they came up with "what happens next", from their own gaming experience. You don't have to go into as much detail as I did, just as much as you feel comfortable or have time for.

    I honestly have no idea how most people figure out what happens next, in terms of what the next scene should be, and I'm really curious about it. Almost no game tells you how to do this, and I think we can learn a lot from each other here, both for concrete play and design purposes. 

    So please share! I'll be really grateful. 

    • Two examples come to mind.

      Two examples come to mind. Both relied on prep.

      Dungeon – The other day when running D&D3.5 for Tommi and Helma, they went down into some sewers beneath a city. I had prepared several encounters all depending on the direction the players chose. So I do not move the dungeon around like a puzzle to give them encouters; it all depends on the direction the players choose. I try to build in points of interest and points of plot among the various encounters, but they might walk right on past them and never engage and that is okay. But as mentioned in other places, dungeons offer the kind of constraint that prep rewards rather easily. As long as you describe what they encounter with authenticity, their choices will be informed and consequential.

      An Apartment in San Francisco – When I was running the Saturday night crew through Carbon2185, I had to look at prep differently. Characters they met had to have their motivations and survival instincts turned up a bit. And I wanted to be flexible in terms of how NPCs might react to them. In this case they snuck into an apartment and began snooping around while an enemy hit person was in the back bedroom running her op. A series of good stealth rolls and bad perception rolls determined that the players got the jump on the situation. The NPC was in the shower and only heard them after they had gotten into some data on a laptop. Now I had in my notes that the assassin would play dumb to buy time, but the gig was up and so she started shooting. I decided her actions based on:

      • Character's asuccessful plan and execution there of
      • Her own training and contingencies. 
      • The ongoing volatile situation: after all the two characters were on her list to eliminate already. 
      • Plus the general cyberpunk aesthetic. If a situation can slide towards ultraviolence, then individual scenes should also follow that violent pattern. In this case they were hip deep in kill or be killed territory. I would consider this a hard constraint in cyberpunk. 

      As I work on Romance of the Dragon-Lotus and a few other things, situation and prep (and pedagogy) are on my mind quite a bit. So I enjoy these discussions.

    • I tend to have vague

      I tend to have vague recollections of the individual scenes and actions in my games, but since we have logs for the Hantverksgruppen games, I can use that to refresh my memory. It may also be an interesting example because we're running without prep and without fixed characters, so situation is really the only thing that can inform the setting of the next scene, or "what happens next" in a more general sense. So here's an example from our fifth session, with the theme "horror".

      The situation was a classic horror movie setup: Six young adults have rented a "conference and activity center" in the Swedish outback to celebrate Midsummer. We've established some background, how the seventh member of the group, Lisa, has killed herself in the past year, and how Anna and Anton have recently broken up, putting more strain on the situation. Then Benny is found floating in the lake, dead. People panic and of course they want to call the police, but Kalle admits he has a warrant for an arrest for economic crimes, and Pedro says he's got a stash of drugs in the car. Kalle walks out angry when they decide to call the police anyway, and Pedro goes out to his car to get rid of the drugs. Some other stuff happens, but anyway, Pedro is gone too long, and when they go to look for him, the car door is open, but Pedro is nowhere to be found.

      This is where it's my turn to set a scene. I've got some things to play with. The obvious suspicion here is that Kalle has killed Pedro. There's also the fact that they are going to call the police (once Pedro has gotten rid of his drugs), which is of course a bit of a bummer in a slasher story. So I decide we need to get rid of the phones, and I want to address the Kalle situation. We have established that Frida was sleeping on the sofa in the main hall. I'm not sure if we had established that all the phones had been put aside, or if I invented it there and then (a bit less elegant, but quite plausible, as it's a thing to put away your phones at an event and "whoever picks up their phone first loses"), but I start by saying how they get back to the house, where Frida has been sleeping on the couch next to the bowl with the phones, and all the phones are gone. I then take on the role of Kalle, bursting in with a wild look on his face saying that Pedro went crazy and tried to kill him.

      So my decision on how to frame the scene here was based on the situation (Pedro was missing, Kalle had left) and the tropes/dramaturgy of the genre (they can't call the police and have them solve everything). I also wanted to introduce a little bit of doubt as to if Kalle really was the killer (turned out that yup, he totally was).

    • @Manu: I plan to present the

      @Manu: I plan to present the current "Whimsical Ways" game as a clear example: changes in events within a scene, changes from scene to scene, changes in situation due to events in a scene (or anything really), and changes from situation to situation.

      However, it's necessarily going to be after the fact. Earlier this year I learned that over-processing prep and after-thoughts, session by session, especially for purposes of presenting to an audience, turns toxic very quickly. It's a little frustrating because I definitely know what I want to say, especially in immediate response to the questions you're asking, but I also know we need to keep play "for itself" while it's happening.

      In the meantime, can I ask you to re-read Trollbabe? I know you like it a lot, which is great, but I really want you to consider its explicit rules regarding the list of things in my first paragraph above.


    • Hi Sean! If I hear you right,

      Hi Sean! If I hear you right, you prepped your dungeon like a flowchart: if players chose direction X, there’s encounter 1, if they choose Y, there’s encounter 2, kind of like an old-school module from back in the day. Is that right? If so, how well did it work for you? Did you prep this way because not was the most fun way to do it for you, or some other reason? While you were playing, when you were deciding what happened next, was that all determined by the player’s choice of direction and your prep, or did you find yourself doing something else as well?

    • Hi Ron, I totally get that

      Hi Ron, I totally get that analyzing play in public while it’s still going on is very problematic, so while I look forward to your examples from WW I have no problem with waiting patiently for them.

      Would you like to share an example from a past Sorcerer game? Or if you already have, I’d love a link.

      I was thinking of re-reading Trollbabe anyway, so sure I’ll read it closely for the rules you mentioned.

      Did you want to close this particular thread, or is it ok to keep sharing examples?

    • Now that you mention it, I

      Now that you mention it, I recommend repeating the questions for Sean in your latest comment in a new comment at his current post about that game, as it's here and available (Shadows, good bards, and a lot of rules). Since questions about this topic necessarily drive straight into actual play discussion, I suppose new posts are a good idea if and when comments in this thread blossom into a specific interaction.

      Regarding my examples, maybe I'm not the right person to ask. I feel like gesturing both feebly and frantically at everything I've posted here at this site, if not at anything I've posted and written for 25 years. I don't mean that as a reproof, but with just Sorcerer as mentioned, the presentations of "Sorcerer Musik" and the game set in Marseille are practically nothing but explicitly about preparation. Greg's and John's accounts of playing the game illustrate personal journeys of arriving at how to prepare for and play it, both including moments of "this is impossible" ending in "wait, I'm doing it!" so maybe they are better to examine than my versions.

  5. I could tell this was a meaty

    I could tell this was a meaty (nourishing? fruitful?) topic, and I sometimes find it hard to deeply concentrate on a screen, so I printed out this whole thread as well as all of the PDFs attached in the post and sat down with a pen to mark it up.

    Mostly I underlined, and threw arrows all over the place to ensure I was following and connecting thoughts correctly. All I can say is that this topic feels extremely important to the practicalities of play at the table, and certainly cuts to the heart of stuff I've been fumbling with across several posts and comments lately. Everyone's discussion has been very helpful to my understanding.

    • Maybe not too long from now,

      Maybe not too long from now, especially as several current discussions here hit their inflection points for you, you'd consider designing a presentation about your conclusions, summary, or perhaps testimony regarding the topics.

    • That’s slightly intimidating

      That's slightly intimidating to contemplate, but I think it's a good idea and something to push myself a little on.

  6. You should definitely read at

    You should definitely read at least the discussion between Manu and Ron; you are repeating some of that, but in different words (which isn't bad). It may broaden or deepen your understanding.

    You do bring up something new when talking about reacting to prep as if it has already been made real by establishing it in play vs. effecting that establishment. That is an interesting topic. I find often it is as easy as stating what the situation at hand is, naked, but of course there are games that need something different: the ones you mention seem to take for granted some sort of axis of character change upon which play hinges, so that it's not enough to say "these guys are all heroes" at the outset of play. We have to see them being heroic in a scene for the change we know is coming to have impact. That all seems a little but like shaping early play in a perfunctory manner to fit the structure of the outcome, but then I guess some games just do that (Fiasco, for sure).

    Apropos of nothing, I laughed at "There's this guy, his name is Frank and he's a traitor!" It sounds like the title of a Dada game.

  7. I agree, one has to establish

    I agree, one has to establish the situation through play. And I do not think it comes close to Quantum Ogre territory (I just read the definition; I had not heard or seen it before you shared). Using a scene to establish the tone or the current state of affairs among characters is not the same thing as shifting an encouter in front of the group because you want them to encounter an ogre. In fact, if the GM wanted the ogre encounter they should just have that at the beginning before any decisions about where to go are made. 

    Fun Fact: When I read the term I immediately thought of the Ogre Twins from Earthdawn

  8. @Hans


    I find often it is as easy as stating what the situation at hand is, naked, but of course there are games that need something different: the ones you mention seem to take for granted some sort of axis of character change upon which play hinges, so that it's not enough to say "these guys are all heroes" at the outset of play.

    For me, just stating it rarely does it. It's like the scrolling text in the beginning of Star Wars. Ok, there's an evil Empire. Then we see them boarding this ship and they're shooting and strangling people and we go "ok, yup, those are the bad guys". Seeing the rebels planning to overthrow the evil Empire without having seen the Empire actually be evil would not be as effective.

    Or, look at any murder mystery or cop show. We need to see the killer in the first half of the show, even if it's just as a person in the background. If the detective arrests a person we haven't met at all, it would suck. If we had been told of that person in a Star Wars text scroll, we'd still feel cheated.

    Note that we don't always have to actually see the person. It could be enough that we see someone talking about the big boss with terror in their voice for it to be established that yup, that's a frightening bad guy.

    We have to see them being heroic in a scene for the change we know is coming to have impact. That all seems a little but like shaping early play in a perfunctory manner to fit the structure of the outcome, but then I guess some games just do that (Fiasco, for sure).

    The Svart av kval example is not based on a character change that we know is going to happen. We have no idea what the story is going to look like going forward. It's just that for anything to develop from the initial conditions, we need to establish the initial conditions. For me, it's not enough to just state that the two vampire clans are at war. I need to see it in action, be talked aout, be mentioned in play. Only then can I start actually doing anything with this war. But I could be convinced this is a personal preference and not an objective aesthetic principle.

    • I think maybe we’re talking

      I think maybe we're talking about different things, as opposed to disagreeing about the topic at hand, and the diagram up top helps with this:

      You're talking about play within a scene establishing and changing the situation, and I'm talking about the situation as it feeds into and creates just the very basics of what we need to start a scene.

      I think that's where we're at.

  9. Backdrop

    I'd like to pull this term into its own comment stream for review, because I've seen some misuses and misunderstandings so far.

    Backdrop isn't "where you are," it is where you are not. The location of the actually-played content is part of Situation; whereas Backdrop is anywhere, anyone, anything, any-what, and any-when that is not immediately here … or is too big and in practice abstract to interact with as such, even when your Situation is supposed to be sitting in it. Apple Lane is Situation, Dragon Pass is Backdrop.

    As a specific and perhaps useful example, consider your character sheet in, say, Vampire: the Masquerade, first edition. There is a name on it and probably some sense of personal past, e.g., I was Ahmed, I was a teenage prostitute in Morocco during the 1950s, I was bitten by the vampire William S. Burroughs, and now I'm a Malkavian. (yes, I'm good at this; blows on fingertips, buffs nails on shirt)

    Well, is this content situation or backdrop? My character is part of Situation, that's easy, but how does this sort of personal information relate to played content? It depends.

    In some games, it's at most part of the opening color of presenting your character, then left behind forever as "our team of vampires" does things concerned with "vampire stuff" probably involving the Camarilla and whatnot. In that case, it was painted on the backdrop and stays there – I never use it, you never refer to it, it doesn't come into play.

    In others, it's seized upon as raw meat by the player, the GM, and the other players, turning out to be relevant to a bunch of NPC activity and circumstances, and used as context for many things your character might know or not know, or (by you) as known context for things the character does or doesn't do. Maybe not every moment of play, maybe not every prep for every situation, but it's a dependable feature of play – and the same "my sheet is situational" concept goes for the other characters too.


    • As the person who used the

      As the person who used the expression "Where we are", I understand the criticism and realise that the question is probably too broad; I interpret that "where we are" as "everything we know about the world the characters live in but hasn't come into play yet".

      I guess my mental scheme is that the backdrop is the silent world of play. Whenever we reach for something and bring it into play, it becomes part of the situation.

      I've been thinking a lot about the Alien franchise lately, and I think this may be a good example of something similar happening. What do we know about the "backdrop" there? Everything and nothing. It's our world, in a fairly close future, so we can assume everything is what we know until it comes into the scene. It's at that point that we start asking how phones work and what they look like, or what having a job working at the docks entail. Until we see Ripley use an exoskeleton to load the ship, we could simply mentally default to forklift and cranes.

      I feel like to me the process is very similar in roleplaying. I can imagine William S. Burroughs, but the moment I need to know what he looks like or his agenda or his current whereabouts, he's become part of the situation. I pull him in and transform him and then he goes back to the backdrop (maybe).

      So maybe we aren't in disagreement, but I feel yours is a useful clarification because it made me realise my formulation can be extremely confusing.

    • I agree! Your understanding

      I agree! Your understanding is correct, but describing it as "where we are" will only trigger the misunderstandings inherent in the usual character vs. setting formulation.

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