Tuesday, August 29, 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 the players are loathe to play out. And he has the power to make the players carry them out. In the same way, the Master bullies the minions, and makes them carry out tasks they do not wish to carry out.

3. The GM and the players must play on each other's emotions in order to get bonus dice; the Master and the minions do exactly the same.

4. The players are bound to win, eventually, and become the final authors of the story. In the same way, the minions are bound to defeat the Master and have, if not a happy end, at least a fate of their own. (It is not an accident that the game ends with monologues by the players; as the Master dies, so, metaphorically, does the GM.)

What the game has done, then, is create, right there, in the real world, a less severe but still perceptible form of the social relations it is about. It makes it possible for you to not only tell a story about dysfunctional relationships of need and power, it allows you to actually experience them.

No book or movie could possibly do that. Writing can't do that. Improv theater might; but then, that is a kind of roleplaying.

This, my friends, is where the great power of our art lies.

Monday, August 28, 2006

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.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

[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 about unreliable narrators, because all the memories that the players tell us about could be false as well as true, or partly false, or multiply interpretable. And this unreliability is essential to a game of Shades, for it is only by telling conflicting stories and then partly resolving the differences that the game proceeds.

Now, what about Push and Pull in Shades? At first sight, it appears to be the most Push-like game in the world. Players narrate in turns, and during your turn you have absolute and total authority over the narration. The other player(s) cannot object to what you say; they cannot make you say anything; they cannot interrupt you, or ask for any form of mechanical resolution. You have ultimate authority to assert whatever you wish.

However, at the same time, everything you say is an invitation: "Please, if you think this is interesting, contradict me on this point. During your turn, narrate something that casts doubt upon what I have said." You cannot make someone contradict you, but you can invite her to do so.

So there is a Push-Pull duality to every statement. On the one hand, you have absolute authority to say whatever you like and add it to the narration; on the other, in order to progress, you must constantly strive to make assertions that the other person finds interesting enough to contradict.

Contradicting has the same kind of duality. You are allowed to contradict whatever you wish in any way you like (Push); but this is not enough to have the game progress. For such a contradiction is also an invitation to the other player: "Please, if you think this point of difference is interesting and should be important to the story, give me a Black Token" (Pull). Every Push is a Pull, every Pull a Push.

And of course this is essential to Shades, which is all about learning to trust each other in a situation without safety nets. It gives people the ultimate authority for pushing, and in fact forces them to push constantly; but at the same time it makes their success dependent on being able to turn these pushes into effective pulls.

Friday, August 25, 2006

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 as a starting point for discussion.

A. Choice made difficult by internal tension

The character must make a choice between two or more options all of which she would like to make, but because of different kinds of reason. For instance, a mother who loves both her honour and her children must choose between the two (Medea); a boy must choose between fighting for his country or caring for his old mother (Sartre's famous example). We get to learn the character because we see her in a situation in which she must show which of her important drives is the strongest one. We get to learn the character because we see her in a situation in which she must decide who she really is.

This kind of psychological depth is exactly what the majority of current narrativist designs give us. Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Mountain Witch: all of them are designed to provoke this kind of choice. It is especially suited to shorter games, as the tensions within the character tend to resolve themselves. (But think of The Shadow of Yesterday: its system of buying-off and buying keys is a way of resolving and setting of new tensions.) Play is often dramatic; the characters larger than life, 'literary' characters, bigger and sharper versions of ourselves. We may feel for them, but we could not be them, and we probably do not love them.

B. Changes through external experiences

The character experiences things that cannot possibly leave her unchanged. A child watches her mother die? A curious librarian researching a bizarre cult almost comes face to face with Cthulhu himself and goes half mad. We get to learn the character not because of the choices the character makes, but because of learning of the powerful experiences she has had. We now know the person as 'the girl who watched her mother die', and will understand everything else she does in the light of this knowledge of her psyche. By knowing her history, we understand the current workings of her mind.

This type of psychological depth would be catered to by games involving (1) relatively long campaigns, and (2) a system that somehow encourages players to play their characters with a regard to previous experience. A game like Call of Cthulhu, with its sanity statistic, comes into mind, although it is relatively one-dimensional in this respect. One could use the fallout-techniques of Dogs in the Vineyard to achieve something much like this. Note how this type of psychological depth is not facilitated by The Shadow of Yesterday, where keys vanish without a trace.

C. Moments of openness

The character open her soul to you, as it were, in a moment of friendship, love and therefore vulnerability. It is the RPG equivalent of a late night conversation with a good friend, in which you speak of fears, hopes and desires that remained hidden for years. We get to learn the character because she drops the walls that always guard adult personalities, and allows us a chance to see her as she really is. We get to learn the character at the very moment she makes it possible for us to love her with all her faults and weaknesses (all love implies the possibility of pain).

The game that immediately comes to mind is Breaking the Ice, with its brilliant mechanics that force the characters into revealing their vulnerability, thus becoming more like us than any epic character could ever be. It is also the kind of psychological depth that my playtests make me believe Shades can offer its players. My Life with Master is an interesting case: it has strong elements of A and C and combines them by making the conflicting forces in the minion's psyche all types of vulnerability (Weariness, Self-Loathing, Love).

D. Lengthy observation

The character slowly reveals herself to us because we observe her for a long time. She makes no particularly revealing choices; she has no harrowing experiences that scar her forever after; and she does not open herself to us in a moment of love and vulnerability. Instead, we just get to know her by seeing how she reacts in many different situations; and although we may feel that we do not really know her inner thoughts and counsels, there is nevertheless an important sense in which we know her well. Make no mistake: this is the way we know most people in real life.

Interestingly, designing for this kind of psychological depth involves the following two things: (1) the system should facilitate long games, (2) the system should not facilitate A, B or C too much. Why not? Well - A, B and C will tend to interfere with D, by tempting us to interpret the characters actions in the light of the insights they have given us. That doesn't mean that D can't be combined with A, B or C, but the others need to be restrained in order to let this one flourish.

This kind of psychological depth, then, might be most easily achievable by games such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, World of Darkness, and Das Schwarze Auge, all of which offer long games without too much focus on existential choices, life-changing experiences or moments of openness. I find this counterintuitive, but pleasing.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

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 some on the fly. And so the prominent thought in my mind became: "What sad circumstances have reduced him to this? Will he ever get out?"

To see the other as an individual human, not a prototype; to think of what you observe of him as a moment in a long temporal chain instead of thinking of it as the essence of his being: that is part of what morality is. And you need narrative imagination for it; the ability to tell stories. Especially, the ability to tell stories about real human beings with their weak and pathetic moments. The best of our roleplaying games allow us to train this ability.

(Paul Czege once told me that one the things he wants with Acts of Evil is stimulate people to think of other humans as, well, good and noble human beings. He gave the example of a fat man ordering an extra large meal in a fast food bar. You could think: "Hey fatto, you'd better take a small meal or burst." Or you could think: "Well, maybe the guy has been working in his poor old mother's garden all day and is simply starved." The second needs a sharper and quicker imagination, but it surely is to be preferred.)

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 later, it was clear to us (the players) that he would be her antagonist too. To do this, however, I had to play the role of this guy, an evil elf.

This may not seem like a big deal, but think of it this way: I suddenly played the character who had been my personal antagonist for three or four sessions, and who will be my antagonist for many sessions to come. My antagonist, yes, because I identify to a large extent with my player character. I crept into the skin of my own enemy; I made decisions about his plans and powers; I gave a face to the thing I loathe most in the game world, to the person who may well kill me in the end. And all of this completely functional: no breaking of the Czege principle was involved.

My Life with Master has this great Master Creation phase, which ensures that the Master is something that all the players can feel strongly about. Now, what about My Life with Master with a rotating GM? Where you can actually play out the creature that you fear and loathe and hate whenever you step into your own character's skin? Would the game fail, or would it be even more powerful and cathartic?

Friday, August 04, 2006

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 hear why the realism/anti-realism debate in contemporary philosophy is a curious relic from the time when we still believe that a correpsondence theory of truth had some intersting content, just tell me. ;) Or we could talk about Derrida's critique of Searle's critique of Derrida's critique of Austin. Very interesting stuff. Alternatively, I might tell you that my faith in the possibility of good fantastic fiction has been restored by my discovery of Jonathan Carroll and M. John Harrison; or that I have started to exercise my storywriting muscles, and have written - as an exercise - a short SF piece, some writing exercises and the beginning of a metaphysical-symbolic tale about a man who undertakes a journey to the middle of the ocean in which God drowned. (But these tales are in Dutch.)

There is some roleplaying stuff I can tell you, though. I did some minor work on the first issue of Push, writing guest commentary; and I developed a small classification of kinds of psychological depth in roleplaying, which has allowed me to see that there is truth in the claim by old-school players that a character in a long, traditional campaign takes on a kind of depth you'll not find in the fast and furious indies. I'll come back to that some day.

I find it hard to keep in touch with the indie RPG community. I'm trying to catch up with the blogs right now; but where does one turn to simply ask, "Hey, what happened during the past few months? I've been away for a while."? Now I find discussions everywhere that seem alien and meant for an in-crowd I do not belong to. I know this isn't the case, but the structure of a blog-based community that is in rapid development makes it hard to penetrate and feel involved - for me at least. And that's a pity, because there probably won't be anything else.

The good news, though, is that when I come back from my holidays at the end of August, I'm going to by a whole set of new indie games. Shab-al-Hiri Roach, It was a Mutual Decision, 1001 nights, and others - I am dying to try you out!