You are here

Q and A at the Patreon

During December, I asked patrons if they wanted to throw me some questions, especially pretty specific to games that I've published or perhaps know well enough to say anything about. The idea was to collect a few and make a little video response, to be posted and discussed at the Patreon.

A quick point: if I wanted to be more precise, I'd say "response" instead of "answer." I'm not an encyclopedia. It's what I think or a starting point for thinking about it more, and sometimes, it just opens a bigger question or leads to another conversation.

So, the questions came in and I made the video in early January. It includes questions about rules and play-function regarding Sorcerer, Dungeons & Dragons (1977, Holmes), The Pool, and Champions Now.

After that, I mentioned doing it again, and a lot more arrived and set me up for another video just a couple of days ago. At this point, considering that the questions were generally really interesting and my responses were apparently at least tolerable, I thought I'd add another step here at Adept Play. So now you can see the January video for December's questions, including people's comments or follow-up from the Patreon discussion (presented here with permission). A month from now, I'll include the second video here. Presuming I get some February questions for a March video at the Patreon, then you'll see it here in early March.

Please feel free to keep the discussion going in the comments.

Also, I'm still reserving the question-side for patrons, but it's for all tiers. If you want to hop into the Patreon for $1 a month and join in, I certainly won't object.



Ron Edwards's picture

The next batch! As a reminder about the structure for these things, I received these questions during January. I made the response videos and posted them at the Patreon (all patrons tier) in early February. The post accumulated comments there, and now, I've made the videos public and added them the playlist.

Here's the link directly to them, and the dialogue from the Patreon comments is attached here. I would like to see some comments in this post about this content!

One of the questions continued into the discussion and I decided I hadn't answered it well, so I'm including its extension into the March video for the Patreon, which you'll see here a month from now.


Ron Edwards's picture

Following procedure, I recorded these videos a month ago in response to the questions patrons asked during February, and posted them at the Patreon then. Now here they are!

Here's the direct link to the three videos, and here's the file with the discussion that followed at the Patreon.

Jesse Burneko's picture

I've gone back and forth about posting this (first at the patreon, and now here) because I don't want to seem argumentative especially about an analogy. So let me carefully frame this as not a challenge or refutation of what Ron says about "intutive continuity" being "not play" but rather just a thought I had based on the analogy Ron used.

In Ron's analogy we are playing a card game and someone plays a card. And then someone else completely overrides the card and asserts its an entirely different card based on some extra-game standard such as fun or group happiness or whatever. This kind of play cetainly happens but when I think about people who are genuinely having a good time with a game that clearly relies on something like "intuitive continuity" a different analogy fits, I think.

Imagine we have a player whose goal is to make "the best hand" of cards. At the end of the game only their hand matters and we all kind of know this. We each play a card. The leader player picks some up and discards others based on whatever shape of hand they are trying to make. We do it again, and again the leader player picks some cards up and discards others. Eventually the group begins to get a clearer and clearer picture of what kind of hand the leader is trying to make so more gets picked up than discarded.

So, I don't really see that as completely overriding. But it absolutely is an editorial role for what gets amplified and developed and what gets religated to a side vignette. The leader player still has to work with the cards the players have laid down but they do get to decide which cards are "best fit" for incorporating into the hand. I'm not sure I would call this "not play." The degree to which you find it fun probably has a lot to do with whether your cards are chosen or not, although there is sort of an accelerative hive-mind effect where more and more people "get it" and play more and more appropriate cards.

Two games which I think may fall into this category are Ten Candles and Bluebeard's Bride. Two games I have played and enjoyed but that I find somewhat frustrating around exactly this point.  Especially in Ten Candles where scene transitions are mandated on certain conditions meaning that sometimes there are things you wish you could stay with and develop but you can't because the game pushes you along, and so the GM has to pick up something and develop it into the next thing all of which is moving toward an unspecific but definitely climatic and lethal encounter of some kind.

It's been a while since I've played either game but the next time I do, I'll post a more concrete game specific post with an eye toward this issue.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Jesse, I think we need to get clear on what we all mean by "play"; I'm not confident you, Ron, and I would say the same thing. For me, "play" in the context of an rpg means role-playing: I have (or interact with) at least one character that I care about (specifically what happens to them and their goals), I play them and see what happens, and I don't know in advance what the results will be. This for me defines play, for both players and GM. Now there are always other things that people do that aren't play but are necessary tasks: players may take notes, keep track of resources, etc. and the GM checks in what's happening in the world and how their NPCs are affected, and so on. 

So when I think about the games where I've fallen into IC, I was very rarely playing in this sense - I would think, "ok, in order to have a satisfying climax, I need to get the PCs to location X, so to do that I'm going to have this NPC show up and say such-and-such; also, I'll have some baddies attack, because it looks like they're getting stuck and I want to move things along, since there's only an hour left to the session." For me that's not play, it's trying to manage things. 

How do you define "play" in your thinking?

noah's picture

Jesse, I also went back and forth on posting this reply. Frankly, I’m terrified that I’m going to put an immense amount of thought and effort into communicating and, through no ill will on my part or yours, it’s not going to make sense or it’s going to get lost. I’m not a theorist of roleplaying. I just want to do it, the Sysiphean (shit) Sisyphean task of engaging with external opinions and discourse be damned. But damn, the answer to this “conundrum” seems so obvious to me, and I know that you’re (and Manu - hi Manu!) a fellow player too, and that if we sat down at a table we’d make some awesome fiction together. So here goes.

I submit that we don’t need to go beating the bushes for the perfect definition of play. Play isn’t something we need to define to do it, any more than we need to define breathing to throw a baseball. Play is something we do, nonproblematically and obviously.

The value of the card game analogy is this: it lets us escape from a context where the phenomenon of “play” has become hopelessly muddled by fandom and self-delusion, not to mention intentionally obfuscated by profiteering shysters and hype-mongers (the roleplaying hobby). It lets us move to a context where the phenomenon of play is nonproblematic and obvious, precisely because it’s free of those external factors (sitting around a table to play a card game -- be it Cribbage with Grandma or Commander with your friends).

When you invent a hypothetical activity involving cards that describes a hypothetical activity that superficially resembles roleplaying, you remove the value of the card game analogy and force us back into the smoke and smog that it temporarily let us escape from. 

Imagine we have a player whose goal is to make "the best hand" of cards. At the end of the game only their hand matters and we all kind of know this. We each play a card. The leader player picks some up and discards others based on whatever shape of hand they are trying to make. We do it again, and again the leader player picks some cards up and discards others. Eventually the group begins to get a clearer and clearer picture of what kind of hand the leader is trying to make so more gets picked up than discarded.

Again, I think we can look at play as an observable phenomenon that we experience regularly in a totally non-problematic way. In that context, it is easy to see what functional play looks like. Just like it’s easy to observe yourself breathing when the air isn’t full of smog and cigarette smoke. 

There are observable and discussable reasons, having to do with constraints, why the activity involving cards that you describe above is not, as written, a game people could or (I submit) would play. A behavioral algorithm? Sure. A team-building exercise? Maybe. But a game? No.

After five minutes or five hours of this activity the participants are going to wander away with puzzled expressions on their faces, unless some external factor keeps them engaged (like, say, the cards having images from their favorite TV series on them or a Twitter hype person constantly assuring them “This is the most fun you can have with a deck of cards”).

To get us out of the smog, I think we have to look at an actual, observable, discussable game that in some respects resembles the hypothetical activity you describe: 

In the board game Mysterium, one or more Psychic players is trying to guess a specific combination of illustrated Person, Object and Location cards out of a larger set of such cards (with three players, for example, there are 6 Person cards, 6 Object cards, and 6 Location cards face up on the table in front of them). Each player’s combination of Person, Object and Location cards is determined through a randomized procedure and known only to a single person at the table: the Ghost player.

The Ghost player is trying to guide each Psychic player toward the correct guess. To do so, they have a hand of 7 illustrated Vision cards, drawn from a deck. At the beginning of each turn, they place one such card in front of each player, selecting a Vision card with an illustration that they hope will suggest the illustration on the Person, Object or Location card they’re currently trying to guess. 

Once all the players have received a card from the Ghost, they have a limited amount of time (determined by a sand timer) to confer with each other and then try to guess their card. At the end of the round, the Ghost player indicates to each Psychic player whether they have guessed correctly. Play proceeds to the next round.

If all the players correctly guess all three of their cards within 7 such rounds, then the game enters a final phase. If not, the game ends in a loss for all.

In Mysterium, the Ghost player superficially resembles the “best hand” player in your hypothetical example. Their decisions of which cards to place in front of which Psychic players do exert an “amplifying” or “religating” effect on which Person, Object and Location cards get chosen. But they are also made in the context of constraints (what the "right combination" of cards for each Psychic is, the Vision cards available in their hand, the guessed Person, Object and Location cards vs the unguessed cards remaining, how many turns are left in the first phase of the game) that make those decisions meaningful and give rise to the space of play. 

In fact, those constraints make the decision of every participant meaningful in the shared space of play. The decisions a particular Psychic player makes in the first round are entirely different, part of an entirely different context, when made in the fifth round. They have a new meaning, precisely because of how the constraints of play have changed. 

This is the most important part: It is also these constraints that mean the participant in the Ghost role is a fellow player with the Psychic players, not their manager, their controller, their chauffeur, their censor, their puppeteer, their personal chef, or their studio exec.

I don’t describe Mysterium’s procedures at such length to be tiresome (though I probably am being that), but to provide meaningful contrast with your hypothetical example. 

There are obvious, observable reasons why I can teach my mom to play Mysterium, as Ghost or as Psychic, and then actually play it alongside her as a fellow participant. There are equally obvious, observable reasons why I can’t do that with your example as written. There is too much missing from this imaginary game. What type of cards are we using? How many cards are available to each player to choose their card from? How is the “best hand of cards” determined? How many rounds do we play? When are the different operations conducted and by whom? Does one player have the role of “competing” with any of the others?

I propose that if we answer these questions about your hypothetical game we will also begin to create constraints and have designed a playable game (yay us!). Whether it’s fun or not, or could be more fun with certain features altered, is beside the point, for this example. The question is, quite simply, whether or not it functions.

On the other hand, try fucking around with the truly functional constraints of Mysterium in the middle of actual play. “No,” the Ghost player says, after a Psychic player has made their guess, “surely you meant this card.” Or a Psychic player goes back through the Ghost player’s materials and discovers that they’ve been altering the combination of Persons, Objects and Locations after each turn to ensure the Psychics only makes the correct guess in the 7th round, ensuring a “tense! fun! game!” Even my mom, who’s never (to my knowledge) read a word about game design in her life, would encounter no difficulty in saying, “Wait a minute, that can’t be right. I thought we were playing this game together.”

To return to the murk, people who think the Ghost player in Mysterium should be their manager, their controller, their chauffeur, their censor, their puppeteer, their personal chef, or their studio exec don’t want to play a game. They don’t want to be anybody’s fellow players. And they sure as hell don't want the Ghost player be an actual, coequal participant. They think smoke and smog are for breathing because they’ve forgotten clear air.

I’m perfectly willing to examine and analyze what they’re doing on its own terms. In fact, I may even be a little envious (some nights, I’d love to have my own personal chef). But I’m under no obligation to agree that what they’re doing is playing Mysterium.

Jesse Burneko's picture

Oh, this is precisely the dangerous place about analogies I was kind of worried about. Basically an image popped in my head that's been haunting me ever since I watched the video, and finally decided to share it. It's imperfect and it's merely an attempt to illustrate that I think there's a line somewhere between the power to override enitrely and the power to select from a given set. But maybe they both get shunted into techniques of control.  I don't know.

Either way, I really don't want to chase this any further.  At least not here.  So I'll just say that I have read what you both wrote and will probably re-read it a few times, so I can process it a bit more.  And if I find an opportunity to revisit this in the more concrete context of play I will.

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Noah! Always a pleasure to hear from you. I get what you're saying, but IMHO what play is could use at least some discussion, mostly because if you look at a lot of - maybe most of? - the GMing advice out there, it doesn't look like play at all to me. In fact, when I've followed it (basically, IC or illusionist railroading) in the past it led to frustration and GM burnout more often than not. If we can help other people not have that experience, I think we'll have done a public service :-)

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm teaching a class about this and all related points right now, and as of its first meeting last Monday, seeing/doing it in action rather than as a design on paper, I'm a little frightened at how strong its content is.

Each of the classes I've designed, and especially "People and Play" and "Phenomena," is aimed at a topic which I think has failed to arrive at a constructive or sensible construct in the 50-year course of the activity's existence. Internet discourse hasn't managed it even at its best. That's why I've chosen to use laboratory teaching techniques and a lower-case "a" academy environment for them.

When I say, "Guys, I can't say anything here, it's in the class," it's not because there's a nugget of a secret I'm demanding payment for, nor because the class will indoctrinate you into thinking right, but because only those formal techniques are at all capable of getting anywhere. Furthermore, "anywhere" isn't some epiphany during class itself as in a movie, but at some unknown point at some later time, personally phrased or known in a specific way, per person.

Given this discussion, and a few others going on at the moment, I've decided that "People and Play" is going to be available during all terms.

Gordon C's picture

Jesse - What the heck, I'll take a stab at something here. I think the changing rules card analogy is 1) quite interesting, for reasons I'll try and express in the next paragraphs, and 2) NOT the heart of the point I hear Ron making of late. I think the heart of the point is the CONTROL, which can be done via changing the rule or lots of other ways. Reliably identifying/avoiding that undesireable "control" (vs. desireable exercise of authorities?) remains a bit slippery for me, but that angle feels like less of a hopeless pit of unending discussion.

But back to card game rules for a bit. I think the card game Mao has been discussed in connection with RPGs at some point, but I failed to find anything searching in the likely places. Mao doesn't tell you the rules, you're supposed to figure them out while playing. Some versions have rules made up each game - not refuting earlier rules, but effectively changing them significantly. I played just a bit with a couple different groups in college(s), and I *hate* the game - it seems like the kind of puzzle-solving that should appeal to me, but in practice it was ridicule-the-new-players, ha-ha you-haven't-figured-it-out bullying.

But remembering that RPG rules are always "what we do", not "what the text says" (even if we're striving real hard to match those up) ... it's always (sigh) kind of like Mao, usually also with some kind of "rule about altering rules" element (and the common admired/despised Rule 0 is NOT a generically good one) . Additionally (and I'm not sure where this bit sits in Ron's current structure/classes), I think RPG rules can also easily (desireably? not so sure) be elusive, so that shifts can sometimes, unsurprisingly, happen with no "control" or other ill-intent.

All that said, in your example card game I think the "is it play (for everyone)?" question gets answered in context and/or control issues. Interesting to note that it supports a pretty pure "intuitive continuity" structure without the refute/override-a-card analogy - I'd be fine with saying it's a better structure/analogy for potentially enjoyable play. But "is it actually enjoyable, and actually play?" remains an open question.

noah's picture

Wanted to split this out of the main stream so as not to distract from Gordon's reply.

Jesse, first off, thanks for reading the post -- if you ever want to discuss this further with a Friendly Random Internet Guy, just let me know, but I totally agree that discussing these topics (with the added layer of various analogies) is really hard in this medium.

Hi Noah! Always a pleasure to hear from you. I get what you're saying, but IMHO what play is could use at least some discussion, mostly because if you look at a lot of - maybe most of? - the GMing advice out there, it doesn't look like play at all to me.

Hello! Yes, I may have put this point too strongly. I think the way my thought is developing is that it's difficult, for me, to discuss play in the abstract. 

If a hypothetical and terribly misguided person asked ME for advice about play, I would ideally want to invite them to play a game with me; I'd tell them that actually doing this together with other people is the only way I broke through the cloud of bad advice and started improving.

That's terribly idealistic...I might also direct them to the recordings of me playing 4e, because they provide a lot of data and actually show people playing. At any rate, I think the best antidote for all the bad advice out there is to actually play with people.

Ron Edwards's picture

A lot of these concerned my own games, with some very experienced inquiries about Sorcerer & Sword, Circle of Hands, and Champions Now, as well what is evidently an ongoing series regarding the multi-decade BRP/RuneQuest "school" of design.

Here's the direct link to Part 1 in the playlist, which continues to parts 2 and 3, and the summary of comments from the Patreon post.

Add new comment