Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When Divers & Sundrye Elements Converge

I think it safe to say that few are familiar with Evil Hat's book A Penny For My Thoughts. A gamer friend had borrowed it, and was a little confused by the process by which the game runs. It might even be safe to say that it's not quite a game. There are, as usual, gamey elements in it but not necessarily a full game as players taking turns picking elements and constructing a story out of them.

Oh, cripes! Not this "game vs. story" crap again!

'Fraid so, old chap. It's that old chestnut. But I'm coming at it from a slightly different trajectory this time.

First, I'm concentrating on A Penny For My Thoughts, to show what it does. There isn't that much to spoil; though the way each game is played is identical, there's more than enough latitude for change

Then I'm going to branch out and show its relevance to gaming in general.

Just 1¢? Do you want change back?

(No, I'm not actually reviewing A Penny For My Thoughts yet. I'm just describing the process and the inspiration of relevance I saw within it.)

Any sitting of APFMT begins with the same setting: at an institute where memory trauma is dealt with and amnesiacs get in touch with their past selves. The participants know nothing of themselves (or rather, the characters they're portraying), and have to rely on the "treatment" to get back in touch with who "they" once were.

Before the turn sequence begins, someone collected or printed out a set of questions that people would have to answer about "themselves" as part of the treatment. This goes far to determining the genre of the event that ultimately caused everyone to dive headlong into hysterical amnesia. This means the questions could be about any potentially traumatic event, from apartment building fire to act of international terrorism to rise of an unnamed eldritch horror to the crash of an interstellar ship. And some of those are actual examples.

Each person writes out "memory triggers" and everyone puts what they wrote in a common bowl, so the triggers considered at each phase are randomized—nobody can be sure who's going to draw what.

And then play begins. There's a turn sequence of drawing and passing pennies, until someone has enough pennies that they're essentially forced to answer the first of their questions. They draw one of the memory triggers, and explain what memory that triggers. Each other person at the table gets a yes-or-no question about that memory, which must be incorporated into the memory. Then the person whose memory is being built up asks two people at the table to sum up the memory and diverse details and pick the one that he prefers. Then he writes it down and play continues.

Collaboration at Gunpoint

The pennies are justified in the rules as "a part of the treatment." They do little more than provide a turn sequence mechanic and help determine who goes first. To the inattentive and those prejudiced against story games, this will look like the only part of this process that looks even remotely, well, "gamey."

Let's consider the process a little more carefully.

On any turn where someone has to answer one of the questions confronting him, it starts off with a random stimulus (the memory trigger is drawn at random). Each person at the table gets to "color" the memory with addenda, and then the person whose memory this is going to be has to choose two people to provide possible interpretations of the memory. The person who's going to get that memory has a little say in it, but nowhere near total control because other people are bending it.

Got that? There's randomization and quite a bit of interference and interpretation from the other players before you get that shred of memory, which you're all going to use to build your story. This is the second level of game within the story game: just how everyone at the table is going to contribute to your story and/or ravish your muse.

The process of answering the questions also contributes toward a greater understanding of the crisis at the heart of the game: what was so distressing that everyone's memories of the incident simultaneously went bye-bye. So as each person's story is told, the grand story is being told as well.

Each question answered also goes into a little bit more detail about the persons involved in or near the incident, so in essence characters and story are built almost exactly at the same time, character first and implications on the story second.

No, Dramatica Can't Wait After All

I doubt you've ever heard of it, but Dramatica is a story creation system. It's been around for many years, but outside of writing, few people have heard of it. Among its other assumptions, any given story (and not story game, the kind of story you'd read in a book) ideally has four different story threads running through it. It could have more, but there are four that are key to fully expressing what they call "The Grand Argument."

One is the overall situation, as it's happening to everyone in the story simultaneously. One is the viewpoint character's situation, as it's happening to the character whose perspective is closest to the reader. (And yes, the viewpoint character is not necessarily the protagonist.) These two are important to the discussion at large here.

There are two other story threads, but those are more particular to the traditional story. One is the impact character's situation. The impact character is the one that has the most influence over the viewpoint character as described above, either trying to keep the viewpoint character on his current course or pushing him off of it. The fourth story thread is that impact, the interplay between viewpoint and impact character.

(For those keeping score at home, yes, there's quite a bit that can go on in a story codified through Dramatica, and that's what makes that interesting. Think of Dramatica as a story scaffolding which has exactly 32,768 possible configurations—and yes, that's an exact number. How you skin the scaffold is up to you, but having scaffold in place is supposed to make you think more about all aspects of the story, not just those pretty places where things blow up. I can't help thinking that Dramaticaitself could be used as the foundation for an interesting story game.)

The main takeaway that I wanted you to have is that there are multiple story threads in the story game: the overall situation which is happening to everybody, and the situation of every character participating, because they can be quite different.

That's what's happening above in the APFMT example: there's an overall situation which everyone is building, and everyone is building their own character's story, which may be incidental to or tied deeply into the overall situation.

The Story Game Use Case

From the specific example, let's take another step back and look at the even bigger picture: story games in general. And yes, "in general" may be a bit misleading because there's quite a bit of variation between individual games.

The One Thing We Should All Agree On

They usually start the same, though. A setting and genre selected, either by one person's proposal and others' assent, or through a democratic process where everyone agrees on something livable. That absolutely must come first.

Absolutely? Must? Strong language, I know, but I'm going to use it.

Momentarily I flashed back to a live-action game convention many years ago which shall remain nameless (that's for another blog) where I was helping a bunch of people create a game that weekend. The Build Your Own LARP was a popular feature of that convention, and one year the concept the participants agreed upon was a thing titled "School of Assassins." One of the players dutifully came down dressed in a power suit and dark sunglasses. Difficulty: We were staging it as a medieval game. Oopsie. It was an understandable mistake, and we should have made it a bit more clear. In our defense, we only had a day plus to build the thing.

The setting must be agreed upon and understood by everybody for just that reason. It establishes an expectation and lets everybody know what approximate range of character types, abilities, and flavor elements fit the description, and what kinds of action and activity are de rigeur.

Then, Sequencing Get Muddled.

After that, a situation is created, and characters are created to navigate, stumble, or otherwise progress through that situation, not necessarily in that order.

In A Penny For Your Thoughts, the characters' own stories come first. The shape of the situation is totally unknown at the outset, and only revealed in the subjective contours of the characters' development.

In Dog Eared Designs' Primetime Adventures, the players create the characters' stories, and the Director (GM) creates the overall situation. They are kept more or less separate from each other until they either mesh or collide during play (not that there's a problem with either one).

In Impossible Dream's Dread, there is a GM who creates about 80% of the situation and the sequence of events in play first. He also creates sets of questions for the players to answer about their characters, which defines their role in the situation. In essence, not only is the situation built first, but the characters are built almost completely based upon that.

Control Gets Muddled Too

In any of these games, a key component is a collaborative narrative structure: no one person gets to tell the story, or if they do, it's not necessarily the person who's most affected by it.

In the APFMT example above, one person has to start suggesting a memory based on a random draw from the central pile of inspirations. Everyone else gets a chance to "color" the memory, and then two people are selected who provide a more detailed version of that memory, which the player nominally in control has to choose between. Everyone gets to contribute, or interfere as the case may be.

At any given time during a set of the glyphpress's shock, out of the group of players at the table there is one protagonist. Another player expressly plays his antagonist and provides the conflict for the protagonist's story. (Interestingly, shock comes closest to Dramatica's ideal, supporting both protagonist and antagonist storylines, and highlighting the explicit conflict between them.) Two of the other players handle game concepts, one the mundane social issue and the other the strange science-fiction element that has turned the social issue on its ear. And anyone else at the table can influence the story by suggesting things.

Primetime Adventures and shock both have rules stating that goals in a conflict scene may never go at directly cross purposes (if player A is playing for goal 1, player B cannot play for "not goal 1"). Once it's decided who has succeeded at their goals, one player in particular gets to turn that into a coherent narrative. Primetime Adventures has the additional rule that anyone who had some sort of stake in the scene is entered for a chance to win the narrative. There's a 50-50 chance that the narration will be crafted by someone who lost the challenge.

Ramshead Publishing's Universalis uses an actual economy to determine who has how much control over the narrative: people get an allowance of tokens at regular intervals during the playing process with which to propose (and bid on) changes, establish new facts, and so on. Players also employ dice in that game, which mean that some changes will coalesce or come undone faster than others.

The story, the story-game, and the games within the story

Generally, if there's a layer of "gameyness" beyond deciding who gets/is forced to "tell story" first, it's in deciding who decides the major facts in the scene. It may mean one player gets all the narration, or several people may get to kick in small changes and tweaks to the scene.

Looking at those mechanical parts of the story game system as the "game," however, is missing the point: in most "story games," the biggest game of all, the reason for playing any of those games in particular, is to tell some sort of story.

The Widening Gyre

So that there is an attempt at encompassing the entire story game universe. I hesitate to call it "succinct" given that 1) I'm trying to encompass something fairly large here and 2) frankly, I like sloshing my words around, but it provides some coverage at least.

But it's about to get even less succinct. I'm about to expand it to look more at roleplaying games in general, and even a glimpse or two beyond. Fortunately it won't have to stretch very far because most "conventional" RPGs have a simpler use pattern to them.

The One Thing We Should Still All Agree On

The first considerations, again, are setting and genre, for much the same reasons the story games do: it establishes how characters should be built and for what kind of action.

After that characters are generated. At the same time, the GM may have some rather specific ideas of what kind of adventure those characters are going to charge or stumble into. He may change them to better fit the characters, or he may not. And once that's all done, the game can begin.

Sequencing Is Still Muddled. (Except When It's Stringently Clear)

Once play begins, and every player is controlling a character, who declares what is a bit lackadaisical. If what's going on isn't terribly important, then it doesn't really matter who goes first, does it?

Once conflict begins, though, the system tends to nail down turn order with an iron fist gripping a titanium hammer. Characters tend to have stats dedicated to turn sequencing, and the turn will proceed in! That! Order!

Control is Usually Damnably Precise

And when a character's turn rolls around, it's time to take action. Any action declared in combat is an attempt to reach some goal, take down an opponent, or accomplish some task. Put another way, a turn is an opportunity for each character to influence or turn events—to change the story.

That's right: It's the same thing, but with much finer resolution. Where in the story game a character could eliminate a dozen opponents if it's decided he has the ability, the conventional RPG character has to prove himself every time, usually determining first whether he hit or missed, and then determining how hard.

And Story is Present, But...

The GM always handles the overall situation. The players have control over whatever the GM lets them have, which could be nothing. There's nothing that says he GM has to give the player characters any control over their environment, or even to treat them as more than bugs to be squashed.

It's the GM's story to tell, and the system is used to make it either easier or harder for the players to influence it.

An Aphorism, Turned Inside-Out and Worn Like a Hat

It's often said that "story games" are dumbed down "real RPGs."

What I've just attempted to do here, through the analysis of one game and an expanding scope of examples from various systems, is explain "real RPGs" in terms of story games: statistically nigglingly precise, potentially one-sided, and having only a very few ways to play.

The story game: More evolved? I could argue against that, but I also see its merits. But better? That depends on the wants of the participants.

The point of the very first RPGs was not necessarily the storytelling but the tactical analysis, pitting characters' codified abilities against a slate of dangerous situations and seeing how well they make out. The various examples in the story game category have thrown out the tactical analysis completely and gone with "what sounds cool." The focus between them is so different that direct comparison is nigh unto pointless.

Each could stand to learn something from the other. And perhaps there's a "sweet spot" between the two which could provide some very interesting gaming.

(Memo to self: Dust off the "Roleplaying Theory Roundup" article that's been sitting in draft since forever and give it some lovin'. That one needs to come out and play.)

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