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Showing posts from August, 2006

The social structure of My Life with Master

In order to make it clearer what I was getting at with my previous post, I'll here repeat part of what I said in its comments. The question is: what can roleplaying games do that other forms of art cannot? The answer is: create or change a social relation mediated by images. The example is My Life with Master.


What seems to me unique in roleplaying games, is that they can create a real and new social situation, right there, between you and your fellow players; and they allow you to experiment with this situation. What is so cunning about My Life with Master is that the social relations it creates in the gaming group are an exact mirror of the fictional relations. Observe:

1. The GM needs the players, for without them there is no game and he has no power. The Master needs his minions, for without them he has no power.
2. The GM must bully the players - emotionally and, in fact, almost physically (see the Manifesto on Mastery). He, the actual person, must think up fictional tasks that …

Innovative, radical art

A roleplaying game is not a collection of images; it is a social relation mediated by a collection of images. As a radical form of art, roleplaying games cannot differentiate themselves from more mature forms of art like film and literature by making possible new kinds of images or new ways of collecting them; as a radical form of art, roleplaying games must seek their innovative potential in the social relations they create or change.

Polaris and Breaking the Ice well deserved their top places as Most Innovative Game in this year's indie game awards. But if there had been an award for Most Innovative Art, it should have gone to Bacchanal. That game is all about creating a social situation you simply don't get with any other RPG - or any book or movie, for that matter.

[Shades] Where Push is Pull

I was just rereading Shades (playtest rules) - which I hope to finish at least in rough form by the end of the year - and realised that at its core lies an interesting twist on Push and Pull mechanics. For the sake of clarity, I will link to Mo Turkington's final post on Push/Pull and repeat her definitions here:

Push is an assertion of individual authority.

Pull is a directed solicitation for collaborative buy-in and input.

Shades aims for a kind of narrative that we all know from our actual experience: two or more people were involved in a situation that turned ugly, but all of them remember it differently and - surprise, surprise - in such a way that they are mostly blameless. However, as they rethink what happened, they come around to see the other's points of view, realise the falsity of some of their own recollections, and perhaps may reconcile themselves.

Now that sounds less scary and art-pour-l'art-like than talk about unreliable narrators, doesn't it? But it is a…

Four types of psychological depth

With regard to the kind of indie RPG that is unsuited to long 'campaigns' - think of My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch or Polaris - I have often heard people say that this does not appeal to them, because they need several sessions in order to 'get into' their character, and thus long campaigns to fully enjoy roleplaying him or her. Every time I heard this, I thought of the cardboard characters I had played in my longest games and the powerful, deep characters I had played in short, narrativist indie games, and I dismissed these complaints. This was foolish. Instead, I should have wondered whether there are not different types of characterisation, different ways to give a character what I might call 'psychological depth'; and different playing styles and games that allow us to create this kind of depth.

I will now present four types of psychological depth. This typology is probably not perfect; it is almost certainly not complete. But perhaps it can serve …

The moral import of story-telling

The ability to tell stories is morally important; as far as roleplaying games train us in telling stories, they morally improve us. (This may not the only way they do so.)

An example: I just took the train from Leiden to Utrecht. At some point, an untidy looking guy comes into the part where I was sitting and starts rummaging through the litter bins in order to find some food. A little while later he starts asking me for food (which I did not have); eyed my bag hungrily, as if he were about to try and steal it; then suddenly vommited (or noisily spat, I didn't try to find out) on the floor and departed. The prominent thought in my mind was: "Get lost, junk."

However, I then realised that the scene I had just witnessed could be part of many a touching tale, the protagonist of which would be thoroughly human and sympathetic. A million things that I can emphasise with and understand could bring a man to this behaviour. By narrative imagination, I can construct the sketches of…

Inside your antagonist

I am playing a two-player game of The Shadow of Yesterday; just me and Japser Polane (whom you may have met hanging out on The Forge). We both have a character and GM each other's scenes, which works absolutely fine. (And even today, when our characters were in the same scene for the first time, it posed no problems. I'll say something about that in another post.)

Now one of the problems I perceived is that although my character (a Zaru rebel dedicated to the pacifistic way of Zu) had a clear, cool and interesting antagonist, Jasper's character (an Amenni girl, 17 years old, daughter of one of the Amenni overlords in Zaru), although she was caught up in webs of intrigue and enmity, had no identifiable antagonist. What was I to do? None of the characters in her story seemed to be promising candidates for someone you could both loathe and respect.

While we were playing today, I hit upon an elegant solution. His character met my character's antagonist - and wham, one scene …

Blogs, communities, attention

Three months absence that cannot be explained away by me having been very busy working on roleplaying games: the conclusion that a blog is not the medium best suited for me can no longer be avoided. My attention - and that includes my creative attention - is too much a shifting thing: although it is generally quite focused, it never stays very long on the same spot. It always returns; make no mistake. But it can be away from any one field of interest for months before doing so (in the meantime hopefully having been enriched by its straying in other fields).

Blogs, on the other hand, demand constant attention. O, you can go away for two weeks, no problem; but go away for two months, and who will still be visiting you? Nobody. I'll have to think of some other way to reach out to those who share the same interests, because I really doubt this blog will prove to be very effective.

I have been much involved, during the past months, with philosophy and fiction. If anyone would like to hea…