[Shades] Social Agenda trumping Creative Agenda

There is some hardcore theory stuff that I'm going to post about, but I'm not going to do it now. This post is about design. (Truly!)

There is this little game that I have been working on, although it is mainly just lying around. It is called Shades, and you can download a version of it here. The system needs some tweaking, though, and I hope to be able to present a better version soon.

But what I want to talk about is that my main design goal with this game. I used to think about design goals mainly in terms of creative agenda:

The aesthetic priorities and any matters of imaginative interest regarding role-playing.
First, you need to find out whether you want to make a Narrativist, a Gamist or a Simulationist game (or some other category like that, I'm not going to talk GNS-theory here); and than the main worry of the game designer is to make sure that all the aspects of his system help him to deliver theme, challenge or the dream.

But I recently realised that it is wrong to think of aesthetic priorities and imaginative interest as the main reasons for playing a roleplaying game, even when you take into account the way that they are connected to the social situation. Of course, this is nothing new: everybody will happily agree that you might roleplay just to hang out with people, or to seduce that cute other player, or whatever. But what I realised is that these kinds of social goals are not merely interesting to the group itself, but also to the game designer: you can actually desing games that are meant to further one of these social goals.

This, too, is probably nothing new, but it bears thinking about. For example, take Paul Czege's Bacchanal. Sure, people are creating a story while playing the game, and they may have aesthetic priorities concerning it. But the most important reason for playing it is to transcend, socially, the comfort zone of the group concerning imaginatively talking about sex and by doing so create a special bond between the players: "we've done that together - and it has made us better friends"!

If I had to classify 'Shades', it would certainly be a narrativist game. But, and this was the important part of my realisation, it is not my main design goal to create a game that delivers the most stunning tragedies with the most powerful adressings of theme. I mean, how could things like not having character and setting creation and disallowing OON-speech ('out of narration') actually further this design goal? No, my main design goal is to create a system that will allow people to develop their sensitivity to the other player's goals and style of storytelling, and to increase their trust in the other. The two (or three) of you have to reach a goal: to tell a certain kind of tale. The system makes this difficult: you cannot discuss the game, you have very little prior understanding to work from, you have to accept everything the other player says as part of the unfolding narrative. In order to succeed, you must be sensitive and trusting. And the system does help you with that: it gives you the tools to carefully adjust the fiction, to give non-verbal cues to the other, to transform player-misunderstanding in productive parts of the narrative. And with these tools, the two of you will become better at telling the kind of tale that has to be told, and in becoming better, you will have learned to be sensitive to and trusting of the other (in his/her capacity as a roleplayer at least, but these things will carry over to the 'real' world).

I don't (necessarily) want the players to say: "This is the best tale we've ever told together, and this system is the best system to produce such tales!"

I want the players to say: "Wow, we've pulled it off - incredible, how quickly we've learned to do this together! I feel I understand your narrative sensibilities much better now, and it's really great relying on you to make my own ideas work!"

So, I think that's a Social Agenda trumping a Creative Agenda, if I'm allowed to use that kind of terminology a bit sloppily.

And now I really have to rewrite those rules and get some more playtesting done.


  1. No, my main design goal is to create a system that will allow people to develop their sensitivity to the other player's goals and style of storytelling, and to increase their trust in the other.


    Brand and I were talking along similar lines a while ago in an ongoing debate about social and (what we've been calling) emotional agendas in RPGs. It's one of the gazillion posts for our blogs we have notes for and just need time (sweet time!) to work on.

    I want the players to say: "Wow, we've pulled it off - incredible, how quickly we've learned to do this together! I feel I understand your narrative sensibilities much better now, and it's really great relying on you to make my own ideas work!"

    Absolutely noble design goal - do you know yet how you're going to accomplish this? One of the 8 goals Brand and I identified for 1000 Stories was that we wanted to design the system with social support mechanisms that encouraged collaboration, created safe space and that encouraged and rewarded players for emotionally supporting each other. Soundslike we're on the same page.

  2. I'm working down similar lines in FLFS. The group's creative agenda is a secondary concern; the group and giving them tools to collaborate is far more central to the game. I'm hoping that with those tools they can run off in whatever CA direction they like.

    Amusingly, FLFS runs off in the other direction from Shades; in FLFS there is a lot of out-of-character discussion, collaborative setting creation, and formalized feedback. Whereas Shades sounds like an intentional obstacle to challenge the group, FLFS is an intentional opportunity to facilitate the group. Both approaches, I'm sure, have useful features!

    Also, you can turn on word-recognition in the blog's options to prevent those annoying advertisement posters. Looks like you got one that you already nipped in the bud.

  3. I'm pretty sure I came across this link somewhere recently in the diasporasphere (maybe Vincent's blog) but in case you haven't seen it, I think it is somehow relevant (in a broad sense of engineering structures for social goals, not specifically on flaming): Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software

  4. Hi Mo,

    Absolutely noble design goal - do you know yet how you're going to accomplish this?

    Did you take a look at the file I put up? It already contains some discussion on the social part of playing the game. (In fact, it has an entire chapter devoted to the social dynamics of the players - how did we ever do without this kind of thing?) Basically, the idea is that the system makes it necessary to develop trust and sensitivity, and then gives you the tools to do so.

    Example: developing a setting. The game doesn't give you one, and you're not allowed to discuss it beforehand - you simply have to start narrating. So how do you find a setting that both of you like, by just starting to tell the story?

    Well, the game always starts with three 'awakening' scenes. (The characters are 'shades', dead people who have not attained true rest because they have chained themselves and each other to the place they're in by bonds of suffering and hate. When the game starts, they are slowly regaining consciousness, not even knowing who they are at first.) These are to be told as a stream-of-consciousness: words and phrases hinting at things rather than well-formed sentences asserting facts about the world. What this lets you do is specify some colour without determining anything; the other player can then tune in on the things he likes, emphasising them by repeating the images (or like images), while leaving out others. If the first player is paying attention, he'll notice this, and form his second awakening scene accordingly - and so on. (The PDF has more specific examples.) So the very start of the game allows you to tune in on each other in a relatively risk free way - but it only works if you pay close attention to the way the other player is steering!

    Example: as the game progresses, you're bound to have different ideas about where the story is going to go. Trust is all about being willing to accept the input of the other person, even if it doesn't fit into your idea, in the firm belief that it will work out for the best in the end. Sensitivity is all about being able to reconcile your different ideas, in the end, by paying attention to what the other player thinks is important and cool and validating that.

    How does the game facilitate this? One thing that will happen all too easily is that one of the players starts deferring to the other, and these issues will not come up. Another is that people may not want to contradict each other, playing too carefully, so that the issues will not come up. Solution? The players must contradict each other (the current rules don't state it that way, but future ones will, making progress of the game dependent on it) in meaningful ways. The game demands that the things they narrate are contradictory. But it's no problem, because they are recounting the memories of people who have had years and years to reshape their memories to fit their own points of view, so these memories are bound to contradict each other. The game forces you to take the story your own way, but it also ensures that it won't break the game. In fact, the story demands that these tensions exist: it is its meat.

    There will be a (vital) mechanic that allows the player to give the other player a coin that means: "Ok, you have just contradicted what I said, and it's going to be important in the story." That's a pure, material token of trust.

    The next step is to reconcile the characters (though this may, in the end, be unsuccessful) by letting them remember things that are in line with the other character's perceptions of the tragedy they all remember. (This may involve either new memories, or it may involve retelling previous memories in a different way. Yes, you are allowed to contradict yourself. It's almost mandatory.) Here, too, there will be an important coin mechanic where the player gives a coin to the other player that basically means: "You have just validated an important aspect of the way I was telling the story."

    These coins track the progress of the game, and are used to finally reach a climax. (The first type of coins is needed to get the second type; the second type allows the shade to influence the present, which is the only place where reconciliation between the characters is possible. Note: this is partly different from what the current rules say.) So the social processes of trust and sensitivity actually mechanically fuel the progress of the story.

    Wow, thanks! Writing this up has made my design ideas much clearer to me. :)

    Any links on 1000 stories?

  5. Joshua,

    Cool, I'll be tracking progress of your design. It's actually pretty interesting to look at all the ways you can configure the social space in order to get functional roleplaying. You do it with lots of meta-talk, which is going to force people to think about what they themselves want and make this clear to others; I'm going to do it without meta-talk, which is going to force people to think about what the other player wants and learn to read subtle cues. (I can't resist remarking that this difference in design may be correlated with your T and my F in our MB-analysis! Does that make sense?)

    Polaris (and probably Capes, but I havent actually seen the rules of that one) does takes yet a different way: the players are encouraged to push hard for what they want to achieve, without looking too much at what the other's want, and then the system makes sure that the result is functional play. This too works like a blast.

    There's a lot to discover here. :)

    I'll go turn on the word-recognition, thank you; the deleted post, however, was deleted by the original author and I have no idea what was in it...

  6. Elliot,

    Thanks for the link. I'll go and read it.

  7. Probably your NF and my ST, actually. I stopped short (but just barely) of demanding that everything be written down for later reference. The situation is built up out of concrete bits that the players discuss and declare, and writing them down is a natural but undictated means of facilitating that.

  8. Victor,

    Nope, my bad, I hadn't had a chance to look in at the file.

    Re: Shades' stream of consciousness setting formation: Neato - you folks on the other side of the pond sure do have a penchant for the surreal aethetic. :)

    I could see how the contradict-to-engage model that you're building could have the propensity to negate the clash of conflict in the end, but I'm curious as to how you came to it (I'm not saying you're off base or anything, it's just a radically different path than my brain would have taken).

    I think your double layer coin awards sound nifty. Brand and I had talked about fulfill-to-earn mechanics too. I like your statement too: "pure, material token of trust." Very validating - good sign.

    Wow, thanks! Writing this up has made my design ideas much clearer to me. :)

    Heh. Well, you did the work. ;)

    1000 Stories Is currently in a coil bound notebook that Brand and I bought in transit when we were in Niagara Falls. They're wobbly-written on the train and such... there's not much in digital format at all as of yet.

    We'll get there, one day.

  9. Mo,

    but I'm curious as to how you came to it

    Good question. In playtesting a previous incarnation of these rules, I and my fellow player told a story which quickly turned out to be utterly different than what we were striving for, but was very cool. I have described it here. It featured inconsistent narration extensively.

    That probably was the inspiration for realising that in Shades, it was actually pretty logical that the characters had different memories, and I wanted to capture that.

    But the social interpretation and its importance in that context only dawned on me as I was writing this post in my blog, and the idea of making contradictions mandatory is new.

    So, uh - lot's of stages. No logical deliberation at the beginning at all. :)


  10. Hi Victor,

    I think that in Shades it's crucially important that [both] players contribute equally to the story. (unless you want a "free bonus meta-conflict of the problem of not being listened to") Achieving this by rules only will be pretty hard and I think it's not what you want. But do stress it!

    The main point is not about how many things ("facts", "memories") you reject or accept from the other, but as soon as possible you must get to the same speed of adding things to the story and most importantly: the same speed of heading toward revealing the climax. Only then the tokens might be worth comparable amounts of story elements (or whatever, I don't really know how to put this. It should be about importance or: experienced importance).

  11. Eva: your first point is insightful and important. I think this was made clear by one of our playtests. (I'm specifically thinking about the one with the nuns.) There is, however, no way to 'stress' something without making it part of the system; if it is a part of the game text that influences play, than it certainly is part of the system. I'll address it in the next version.

    As to your second point, I'm not sure I understand it. Maybe it's best if I work otu the new coin mechanics, and you tell me whether your point still stands.


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