Setting aside the explanations

The explanation for this image is wonderfully apparent in the second session.

Tod requested consulting specifically about late-stage design, bordering on presentation and writing, concerning how to GM, which in turn includes how to present and teach the game. As people reading this probably know, this is my cue to do exactly what the client does not want, which is to abandon all talk of writing and product design, and to return to play as the source of effective pedagogy.

The design space that includes his game, CORE (Creative Options Roleplaying Engine), can be difficult for me to haul into that discussion, because when I say, “let’s do it,” the conversation can get bogged down in how customizable it is. It takes us a while, almost the whole first session, but eventually, by letting go of what could be done, we simply did the thing in one of the ways it can be done. I managed to get over the hump by mandating that the second-session discussion could not include any game pitch nor any explanation.

Specifically, Tod riffed off his enjoyment of the film Brazil, and I did the same, to play Sammy Ray. He’s not very much like the film’s protagonist in personality or situation, but he is almost certainly as doomed.

It paid off. We had an excellent time playing this thing, and I suspect the fantasies and travails of Sammy Ray / Superguy will continue, not for consulting as such, but just because we want to. I hope the subsequent dialogue will teach you, viewers, whoever, why one cannot consider writing without being grounded in genuine, non-hand-held, non-remedial play.

The principle is simple: you cannot teach X without yourself being happy to do X with people you know can do it too. Why? Because if you are in a state of trying to convince people, then you are not, yourself, playing. And if you’re not playing, then you can’t observe yourself and others to understand how actually to play.

That’s why it’s good to consider other people to be probably better than you are at this game you’ve designed, given just a wee bit of instruction with no justifying explanations or justifications. For one thing, that’s actually true, as long as you stay far, far away from the self-important promotional publishing project culture. For another, it’s incredibly affirming to discover that you’re playing your own game without having to backstop it and “make sure” that it’s working.

As of this posting (sessions 1 and 2), Tod isn’t visible in the videos, which is probably why we talk over one another more than once. As the consulting continues, he will appear.


21 responses to “Setting aside the explanations”

  1. Harmon Circle and improv theatre questions

    A direct question for Tod: I had never heard of the Harmon Circle and I am curious about how you use it in play. I am currently in a place with GMing where I feel that such a tool would cause more harm than good if I was to start using it. That's just me and where I am at — I am trying to fix some bad habits. However, you say it has been a successful tool for you and that it works well with CORE, so I am interested in hearing more about that.

    Tod also makes an interesting statement near the beginning about how traditional improv tools would destroy a role-playing session. That seems intuitively true to me. Whenever I see improvisation theatre and role-playing games being conflated, I tend to wince. That's even in acknowledgment that there may be some useful overlap or a place for adapting some techniques from improv into play like the "Yes, And" stuff. I can't articulate why I feel that way, so I would be interested in hearing perspectives from other people as it might dislodge my stuck brain. It'd be great if Tod could elaborate more on what he meant by that statement, but I'd love to hear what other people think about it too.

    Lastly, I have a few thoughts about the AI stuff that comes up in the last video, particularly in the context of role-playing games. I'll add a separate comment about that later, but I need to chew on them a little more.

    • My reflections on improv

      My reflections on improv theater and role-playing go back quite a ways and I've investigated different aspects at different times. However, the conclusion is very simple.

      Improv theater is a transitive performance art form with distinct and separate creators and receivers (audience). The creators interact with the audience but they do not include them in the work as fellow creators, not even when they bring someone up on stage. They fully control what is delivered and are very skilled at prompting the audience or reconfiguring whatever is said into their own range of delivery.

      A common method is to "bring it back around" in the sense that something delivered earlier becomes a punchline or payoff later, and again, authoring or generating this effect is very much under the creative team's control. (The Harold is a famous example.) It is otherwise extremely similar to any other form of theater, i.e., performers over here and audience over there. The goal is to surprise and delight the audience – period.

      The fact that a good, i.e., responsive, invested audience helps the art form is also common in live performance, whether theater of any kind, music, dance, et cetera. This fact doesn't change the transitive nature of the form itself.

      This transitive aspect is straightforwardly not compatible with the role-playing medium. I do not consider, for example, Fiasco to be role-playing – it is improv sitting down. Actors like it for a reason.

      All art forms are relevant to one another in many ways, and the one thing I think improv teaches us is that listening to one another is central. However, this isn't particularly profound, as it is also shared with music and any form of theater, and wouldn't seem so important if role-playing (in its industry/hobby construction) had not become so distorted and stunted.

      Arguably, combinations among art forms may reveal wonderful new effects, and should be likely to do so, although I think role-playing is rather separated away from many others, perhaps more so than others. Adding dance to role-playing makes it all about dance, for example, as with Sea Dracula. I've concluded that improv, in this exact way, is very similar.

    • re

      Hi David —

      "YES AND" is a great technique, and many aspects of RP are improvized, but "Improv" is a very specific artform. I've studied improv ( I wanted to be an actor long ago), and while the general open attitude and flexibility are always good, and exercizing that creative muscle is absolutely helpful, the goals of Improv are not at all the same as those of an RPG. Improv values moments and gags over stories and arcs.

      Ron has touched on some issues above, but here are two really big ones for me: (1) When doing Improv you are always looking for "the strange thing" to add in, to make it funny (either weird or haha). This becomes annoying real fast in an RPG. (2) More importantly, an Improv bit doesn't look for (or care about) character development or resolution at all.  "Callbacks" and "payoffs" feel great in the moment, but the approach quickly turns characters two-dimensional, like mere props for a gag. The problem is simiilar to playing direct allegory: the PC becomes merely an object toward a didactic end, rather than a self-directed agent with its own ideas.

      Writers say the same thing, and they're not wrong: If you rely too much on ANY narrative structure – following its beats too strictly or doing it the same way every time – your work will quickly become formulaic and samey. Joseph Campbell's famous "Hero's Journey" has been beaten to DEATH by Hollywood. But with the Story Circle – an abstraction of Campbell's work – Dan Harmon managed to make it SO abstract that it really CAN fit just about any circumstance without calling attention to itself. The logic of YOU NEED GO SEEK FIND TAKE RETURN CHANGE is so basic it might even be considered something like the underlying dynamic of all human travails, from Heroes Journeys to the act of Courtship to a grocery store run. And there's an even more abstract version of it that goes:


      I can talk about this for days. But here's something I wrote about using it for episodic narrative play:

      I did AI design for some CD-ROM adventure games in the 90s. I built one model in which NPC states were represented by three orthogonal sliders (what you might call Stats or Moods), each with 3 landing states, for a total matrix of 27 possible states. Certain actions performed by the Player would alter the individual values of these Stats or Moods, sometimes resulting in a phase-shift inside the model, and when crossing a phase-shift line all the NPC's dialog would "change to another rail" (i.e. becoming more or less helpful, or friendly, or likely to provide a piece of info, etc). I mention this not because it's elegant and practically invisible, but because models like this are 30 YEARS OLD and software developers are moving beyond them today, thanks in part to Machine Learning.

    • I admit I’m a bit confused

      I admit I’m a bit confused about how you use the Harmon circle during play. Like David, I had come to the conclusion that thinking about story structure during play, and especially trying to make the story fit certain beats and flow in a particular way, was undesirable for several reasons. One is that if I’m trying to make events fit into a certain structure, I’m not actually playing the game, I’m organizing things to force them into an external framework; it’s just plain distracting. 

      But let me ask about this in a real nuts-and-bolts kinda way. When we’re talking about creating situation, and the GM’s role in flowing from one scene in a situation to another, or when the situation changes, how does the story circle play a role? In Ron’s post on Situation there’s a file there where I describe in detail how I decided what would happen next in a particular game session; I do the same thing in my latest Finding Haven post and a bit in my latest Pool post. I decided what was going to happen, i.e., what the PCs would encounter next, based on what the NPCs were thinking and doing, and the natural consequences of everyone’s actions – and that’s basically it. Where would the story circle play a role here?

      I used to GM differently, by thinking where we were in terms of story structure, and adding encounters largely based on that, trying to steer the game to a satisfying conclusion. This was exhausting, and though I got some fun living vicariously through the players, I wasn’t really playing much myself; I’ve been much happier simply playing the NPCs instead. 

      But again to get specific: in my last Pool game, there was a point where a demon was chasing a sanitation worker and a teenage kid; she stopped when she saw the rest of the sanitation crew staring at her. Now how to determine what happens? I just put myself in her head: she has the urge to attack and kill all of them, and had a decent chance of doing so; but, one of them might have been able to escape, giving her description to authorities and causing her all kinds of grief. Better to leave and go after easier prey. So that’s what she did. Would a story circle play a role here? If so, would it do anything necessary, or make the game better somehow? 

      Later, one of the PCs was subjected to interrogation by the police. I framed that scene because a dead body was discovered in a park, and the PC was known to be one of the last people to see her alive, so it just made sense that the cops would want to talk to him. I’m again wondering if and how a story circle facilitates or enhances the process of getting to this scene. Actually, I’m wondering how the story circle would have helped at any point during the game. Perhaps you can point out where in that game you’d have used the story circle, and how. 

      I love the idea of Harmon’s story circles, and think they’re a good tool for analysis when I write fiction, but I’m not seeing how they help a rpg during play; they seem distracting and at best unnecessary. I’d love to be shown the opposite, though. 

    • Ron: Your explanation makes

      Ron: Your explanation makes perfect sense, but I am little stuck on your use of the term "transitive performance art form". What is the transitive relationship comprised of here? The seperate audience and performers? The thing being delivered and the people delivering it, such as actors saying their lines in a play? Or something else entirely? That's also interesting about Fiasco. I think that a lot of "Actual Plays" on YouTube have the properties of improvised theatre too, often featuring professional actors who are using the game to practice improv techniques, and actual live audiences (in a chat room somewhere). Sea Dracula is such a hilarious and perfect name for the dance RPG.

      Tod: Yeah, the competitive zaniness doesn't fit. I've also had a few of those conversations where the other person concludes that "it's like improv" and then images of Robin Williams or Whose Line Is It Anyway? start playing in their head. Between the answers provided by both you and Ron, I think I will have a better handle on explaining it the next time I am in one of those conversations.

      Manu perfectly captured my comments and questions about the Harmon Circle…

    • David and Manu, all of these

      David and Manu, all of these are excellent topics and I want to see them addressed as well. However, in the context of this consulting process, I ask that you shift focus on the topics you've raised.

      Why? Please see the post title. Explanations are very much the enemy at present. This consult lives or dies depending on whether we can focus on what play is like when instructions are included, but not explanations. So please let's continue with topics like the Harmon Circle precisely as "what to do" as demonstrated in our brief play (with probably more of it coming), and not "why but how what but why please explain."

    • I have an answer for you guys

      I have an answer for you guys and I love discussing this stuff, but I cannot parse the line Ron is drawing above. Since I don't really understand what it could hurt, I am clearly not qualified to just go ahead and make that distinction. I've got Dunning-Kruger. So y'all are gonna have to wait!

    • Well, we can take it out of

      Well, we can take it out of the context of this game entirely; I'm always looking to improve my GMing, so Tod if you wanted to move this topic over to the post of my last Pool game, you can comment there on how you'd have used the story circle to GM it. If you have the time and inclination!

    • Unsure.

      Unsure. It may be that Ron wants to experience my use of the Circle in a way that's "hygienic" (for him). If so, it would be rude to get into it on his site until the game is over.

    • I’m worn out trying to manage

      I'm worn out trying to manage it. Just talk about whatever however you want.

  2. I’ll try to be succinct

    I'll try to be as succinct as possible. We can get into details elsewhere if you want. I could bury you in theory about this and it might just be easier to watch me do it. But basically, and typically, the circle performs 3 functions for me:

    1. clock — Because I usually run in preset podcast timeslots, there's an incentive to reach a satifying conclusion or breakpoint at around the "X hour" mark. X is usually 3, but sometimes 2 or 4. I write times around the circle to keep me aware of remaining time while running. EVEN IF I IGNORE ALL OTHER ASPECTS OF THE CIRCLE (as I occasionally do), this "clock" is invaluable for reasons you can probably surmise.

    2. prompt — The 8 steps of the circle (YOU NEED GO SEEK FIND TAKE CHANGE RETURN) are right there in front of me like little Fruitful Voids, waiting for their one-word descriptors to be matched with something that arises, either from the PlotField or from the PCs. It doesn't need to be literal. And it's never hard to find one. After all, I've got the PCs AND MY NPCs, all of whom have their own wants and needs, and whose effects on each other tend to increase as the story emerges. Sometimes it's one big circle for the whole group (like a "mission"). Sometimes it's a circle for one invested Player and everyone else is kinda "supporting" them in their story. Sometimes different PCs have their own simultaneous circles — this is SUPER HARD TO DO but really feels awesome when it works.

    3. guide — Just as I'm aware of each step in the circle, I'm aware of the arc it implies. I don't need to be precious about the placement of "thresholds" or "midpoints" or "pinches" etc, but I do want to make sure the tension increases at a few points, and doesn't get overly complicated along the way. (I call these points "Crises" and there are 4 types.) So by continually reminding me of that arc – within the constraint of the clock – the 8 steps of the circle act as "governors" or "guides," helping me decide on the fly whether I should speed up, slow down, push something to a crisis or leave it be, add more complexity, or ease up on the throttle.

    In wrapping up, it's useful to know that a trip around the circle doesn't necessarily mean you defeat The BigBad, or succeed in your long-term goal, or anything like that. It doesn't even mean you'll reach the end of this adventure, necessarily. But you will reach SOME kind of emotionally significant breakpoint. It's just ONE circle (or chapter, or episode, whatever word you want to use) in the ongoing story of your character's life. Circles within circles.

    • Thanks for taking the time to

      Thanks for taking the time to explain how you use the story circle, I appreciate it. 

  3. Ron’s introduction speaks

    Ron's introduction speaks greatly to me as I'm also grappling with how to teach my game. And simply playing my own game? That will be awesome.

    The advice is very relevant to me and a bit of a relief: Explaining all my design decisions in writing would take a lot of work, bury what's cool, and probably achieve very little. Much better to assume the readers/players are eager to play my game.


    I've slowed down / sped up play in the past (as GM or player) due to real life concerns (pizza about to arrive, someone needing to catch the last bus etc.) but it's interesting to see a play-oriented approach.



  4. Session 3: learning and teaching

    Here's the link to some strong discussion of teaching methods which are better thought of as learning processes, and how the known methods may or may not apply to role-playing.

  5. Experientialism & Psychic Content

    I know the Harmon Circle is sexy AF and gets people's attention right away. But the really important stuff isn't about the circle, and CORE doesn't incorporate the circle in any direct way. That's just me.

    The important stuff is all about the pedagogy of teaching a GM how to use an approach I call Experientialism in the generation, collection, and reincorporation of what I call Psychic Content.

    Around the end of session 3, I namedrop Milton Erickson. When I use the word "Experientialism" as jargon, it's partly a reference to a body of hypnosis technique he pioneered.

    Having found no better term (for reasons I hope will be clear in a sec), I use this word to describe my GM stance, which is yes a type of "narrativism" — but focused primarily and technically upon (i.e. uses techniques deliberately designed to facilitate) the practitioner-prompted but other-guided experience and exploration of internal phenomena such as emotional affect and symbolic projection. It is absolutely an "auteur" approach in that it demands that the GM perform at a level which is not only different from the Player's stance (very common in trad games), but substantially more didactic than it appears. It shares some performative traits with "illusionism," but since it's Player-guided and emergent rather than prescriptive, the "illusions" are there to facilitate rather than "protect" a plot or anything. I have nothing to "protect" but your state of immersion and investment in the shared imagined space.

    You are not, however, expected or required to ever worry about mine.

    I am like a "guide" who "knows the territory" (ie has your trust) but we're actually going inside *you* — Harmon Circle or not — and I'm actually doing more following than leading. It just doesn't look that way, because I'm also pacing and prompting.

    Erickson himself was an exemplar of pragmatism, patience and close attention, all evident in his practice of therapy and hypnosis. The key elements of his method (as later codified by the organization that carries on his name) include four main skills: Observation, Validation, Cultivation, and Challenge (all of which I'm sure you can recognize immediately as being directly applicable to GMing), combined with six "core competencies": Tailoring, Utilizing, Strategic Thinking, Competency, Destabilization, Experientiality, and Naturalness. These are a bit more oblique perhaps, but again, I'm sure you can see the applicability to the art of GMing.

    The purpose of all this is to generate Psychic Content, which is basically "bleed encapsulated" — emotional or symbolic components of real (even if inexpressible) significance that can be reincorporated to bind the Player's inner phenomenological experience ever more strongly to the character's, and to the gameworld.

    Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

  6. I appreciated this conversation

    I listened through the consultation session and while I don't have anything substantive to add, I did want to say that I really appreciated the opportunity to listen to this discussion. I think the discussion shows how difficult it can be to talk about many of the fundamental issues of role-playing, but it also validated that having those difficult discussions can be worth it. I especially liked the focus given to the idea that you can only learn the activity by actually doing it: I had never been able to articulate before just what was wrong with so many introductory scenarios, but after listening to this the inherent contradiction in trying to introduce someone to a activity without actually letting them do it became clear to me.

  7. Session 4

    Of all the audio recordings that were ruined in the past two weeks, this one was the real tragedy. I’m presenting an artificially continuous sequence of a lot of things I said during this session, as the rest is unsalvageable. And believe me, I tried – sound engineers, everything.

    What’s missed in it, unfortunately, is the culmination of our developing dialogue throughout the four sessions. This one featured a very enjoyable meeting-of-minds, with each of us receiving exactly what the other provides and developing it into a decision point for design and presentation. However, in the video that I was forced to produce, a lot of things look like I’m delivering a continuous oratory when many of them are responses to or confirmations of what Tod just said. It’s especially bad that his own conclusions about how to say or teach a lot of this material are lost, as that is very much the point of the whole consult.

    Here's the video, covering these topics in a logical sequence:

    • Further discussion of the learning scenario, with Tod’s term psychic content as the primary purpose
    • Experience points in relation to such character features as wealth, status, and fame, especially in the context of a system used in customized, invented settings
    • Experience points in relation to what happened in play, especially when they affect character positioning through variables just discussed
    • Character death as a toggle and the possible interaction with experience points gained with a new character

    I’ll go practice some self-care now.

  8. sad but thankful

    NGL, I've been going through a real bad stretch lately (writing this on all I have left: a cobbled-together frankenstein machine with a hard disk warning popping up every 15 minutes) – so the loss of audio on this session just hit me with a sense of fatalistic sardonicism.


    Still, there is great value in what remains. I don't know how useful it will be to other people, but for me this was The Best Session. I don't think the consult was what either of us expected, and it took a while to find commonality at the right altitude. Together we climbed a conceptual mountain we were building as we went – forming it out of pieces of our own mountains back home, by probing each other's models and discovering how they fit together.

    Throughout sessions 1 through 3 this process went on, as we learned to trust each other's models and speak each other's languages. But in Session 4 we reached the summit, and the view from that point validated everything we'd gone through to get there.

    Huge Thanks to Ron for his big weird brain.

  9. Explanations and instructions

    I'm not reacting to this post, but this conversation clicked new things for me and I wanted to aknowledge it.


    Why? Please see the post title. Explanations are very much the enemy at present. This consult lives or dies depending on whether we can focus on what play is like when instructions are included, but not explanations. So please let's continue with topics like the Harmon Circle precisely as "what to do" as demonstrated in our brief play (with probably more of it coming), and not "why but how what but why please explain."


    This distinction between "instructions" and "explanations"' is highly relevent for me. I used to produce and give a lot of material to the players before a game. 6 pages doc files, with pictures, with texts trying to explain what the rules where, what I was trying to bring, what the backdrop looks like, or what the aesthetics looked like. I realize now that I mixed instructions with explanations and that explanations were getting on the way of instructions.

    I was then subjectected to the same type of excited GM producing a lot of material and explanations before or between sessions, and realize that it was overwhelming and not necessary. Reflecting on that, I think that the source was the impression that the GM needs to know more and better than the other players, which pushed me into an "explanation" mode (with examples, corrections, etc.) This is not needed if I simply accept that I will learn by doing, like everyone else. It's not necessary to explain things that need to be played to really exist.

    A simple and short file of instruction that says "those are the things you need so we can play" is far better than walls of text and examples that try to make everyone understand something before play happens. Explanations may come after, but not in a vacuum.

    • I have always enjoyed

      I have always enjoyed preparing play materials, for the start of a game and during its sequence. As the discussion has proceeded here at Adept Play, through many posts and more recently in the coursework, I've examined what I've been doing. There are a lot of different acts involved.

      • Prompts, in my case usually pictures, intended not to represent something precisely but for anyone's imagination to make use of
      • Maps and similar things which vary a lot in terms of representation ("this is the map" vs. "kind of like this") but are intended for specific utility
      • Procedure summaries foreither character creation or resolution of some sort or both, often because the book we're using is afflicted with many features that make it hard to use or understand; sometimes these are quite faithful to the text and other times they vary across the range of informal table-focused game design
      • Informational summaries, either my focused rewrite of what I want to do from the material in the book (which is often sprawling and stuffed with things I don't want to do) or an artsy-fartsy collage of prose and pictures
      • Props, very much as in a play [this is the one I almost never do, and I only say "almost" because I might be forgetting some time when I did – I can't remember any]

      I've included mountains of these things in my posts and comments here at Adept Play, so you can check out examples across dozens of games and groups right out of play. Please imagine these habits going quite far back to about forty years ago.

      The question that a person needs to ask themself is, how is something like the Barbaric Psychedelic handout (for preparation) or the Spelens Hus RuneQuest cult handouts (original setting content) not the same "explanation" which I am criticizing here and elsewhere?

      Again, this is a self-question and I don't need anyone else's answer – I see the difference and in fact I've developed it through the decades, game by game, group by group. In stages, I learned to stop explaining and to focus instead on inspiration and utility.

      As you rightly say, it includes relinquishing control and "boss"-ness over upcoming play. I also phrase it as sharing what I'm committed to in terms of content and procedure. Therefore, as instruction, it's definitely for group-learning among all of us, lab-style.

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