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Showing posts from September, 2006

The Ideology of Conflict

[This post is very long, but I consider it one of the most important ones I made in this blog. Perhaps the most important one.]


Introduction: The ubiquity of conflict

It is by now standard for a game in the tradition of the Forge to be about conflicts and their resolutions. Whether you play Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master or The Shadow of Yesterday, the idea is that the GM and the player take opposite sides of a fictional conflict, then resolve it. In Polaris, the structure is no different: the Heart and the Mistaken have free play until they wish different things to happen, at which point challenge, conflict and resolution occur. Universalis is driven by the conflicting wishes of the players; 1001 Nights is about the players trying to be the one who realises his Ambition/Freedom first, in a setting where jealousy only exacerbates this conflict of interest; in Shooting the Moon the two Suitors are trying to get the prize and stop the other from getting it.

But really…

Conflict and Task Resolution

I am going to write a post called The Ideology of Conflict, and planned this discussion of conflict resolution and task resolution as an aside in it. But I believe its length warrants making a special post out of it, so here you are. The thesis I will defend is this: Conflict Resolution and Task Resolution are useless as analytic terms.

I suggest you take a few minutes to reread Vincent Baker's old post on these two types of resolution. A small quote:
Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.
The distinction between CR and TR has been important, historically, because it made people rethink the way roleplaying games worked. But we are now in a position to see clearly that CR and TR are, in fact, identical. There is no difference between the two. As analytic …

Shock:, gender, and "What was sie thinking?"

I am currently reading Shock: social science fiction, by Joshua Newman. I quote the book:

Shock: uses genderless personal pronouns when the gender of a person - a character or a player - is unknown or irrelevant. In these cases, Shock: doesn't use "he", "his", "him", "himself", "she", "her", "herself" or "hers", using the pronouns favored by many contemporary gender theorists: "sie" "hir" "hirself", and "hirs". If this makes you uncomfortable, that's what a Shock is. If they don't, you'll feel right at home playing.It doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it does make for uncomfortable reading. Let's leave aside the question whether these gender neutral pronouns serve any worthy puprose, either in this game text or in general. What I want to say is something concerning this contemporary gender theorist: What on earth was sie thinking when sie deci…

Yes... but does this Gamist clockwork tick?

I do not know whether I read this somewhere or thought it up myself, but I consider The Shadow of Yesterday to be a Narrativist game containing a Gamist clockwork that makes it run. Consider: you have all these cool skills and secrets, and you want to get more and better ones. The way to do this is to get XP. The way to get XP is to hit and resolve your Keys. Hitting and resolving your Keys is almost guaranteed to generate a good thematic story. See? Never mind my liberal use of the GNS terms here.

Last week, I finished a satisfying game of The Shadow of Yesterday with Jasper Polane. During the six or so sessions of this game, I noticed the following phenomenon: in the first sessions I really wanted to increase my skills, and actively worked towards my Keys for that reason; but as the game progressed, my interest in getting Advances dwindled, and in the end I was only hitting the keys because that fitted into my story.

Although this doesn't really hurt the game, it nevertheless cann…

Full disclosure in RPGs and IF

In indie-RPGs, there has been a trend towards what I will call full disclosure. In traditional games, there is a knowledge asymmetry about the fictional world in that the GameMaster knows a lot more of what is going on and what is going to happen than the players do. In many recent games, the GM can be more open, or even completely open, about her knowledge; or her lack of knowledge. In InSpectres, for instance, I am always very sure to show my players how I roll an assignment on the assignment chart: this drives it home to them that I have nothing up my sleeve, and the the story is theirs as much as mine to tell. In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM's first task is to make sure that the players get to know all of what's going on in the town: she first discloses everything, and then the fireworks start going off.

This mode of play has advantages as well as disadvantages, but it is surely advantageous as far as we are trying to make the players real co-authors of the story. It is obv…

[Shades] Lay-out

I was planning to give Shades a minimalist lay-out: perhaps just a picture on the front cover, and maybe only plain LaTeX-generated text on the inside. No bells, no whistles, just the content in an easily accessible form.

And then Jasper Polane has to screw it all up by telling me that I should lay-out the thing as a Victorian family album, where the actual play examples are yellowed photographs and handwritten memoirs. And he is so right. Alas, all the work this will mean...

[Stalin's Story] Rethinking the basics

Stalin's Story is a game I wrote for the Ronnies a while back, using the words "dragon" and "Soviet". Basically, it has two components: one component is an intricate, card-based storytelling game using Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian fairy tales; the other is a social component allowing the players to explore the power relations of totalitarianism.

The result of grouping these two components together is something that is too complex. From now on, Stalin's Story will refer to the second, social component, without the intricate Proppian mechanics. How should this leaner Stalin's Story work?

First, it is of the essence that Stalin is chosen by chance, not by consent. When you start playing, everyone has the hope to be Stalin, but only one will be him. (Yes, this may remind the political philosophers among us of Rawls' Veil of Ignorance.) The person who is appointed Stalin, by dice or cards, should be obeyed by everyone; this text should definit…

[Shades] Surprise

Shades is a game for two or three players. I mean, it says so in the rules. And that is why I dimissed it as an option when Remko, Annette and Eva came over to my place last week.

Until I realised that those rules has been written by me, and that I had never tested the game with more than two players. So I thought "it's worth a try", and we played it with four. Now, the four of us are friends, in some cases very close friends; we played together many times before; and to a large extent we are on the same page when it comes to roleplaying. The circumstances, then, were optimal for a game of Shades - and lo and behold, to my surprise it went very well indeed.

(The tale turned out to be about a noble/rich family consisting of an elder, somewhat tyrannical brother; a younger, slightly mad brother; their sister, aged in between, vicious but insecure; and the sister's maid, who was also the lover of both brothers. Their struggles for power and love led them to cruelty, and f…

Improving us, the audience

In Musings and Mental Meanderings Thomas Robertson reminds us that games aren't the only texts that can impact play. We could also write texts about improving your gaming techniques, or write toolboxes that allow people to more or less put together their own game, and so forth. Some such books do exist; I believe you can buy books that tell you how to make a maximally effective fighter/wizard/whatever in D&D3E.

I can see the same happening in the indie scene: How to GM Dogs in the Vineyard, or Fear and Loathing: getting the most out of My Life with Master, or Twelve ways to structure Polaris. These books need not be tied to one single game, of course. Improve your description techniques, or or Ten simple games to build trustorthe best-selling Relationship Maps that Kick Ass all seem definite possibilities.


We will return, in a roundabout way, to the theme of roleplaying as a form of art.


We take a detour over Ron Edward's band-metaphor of roleplaying. Roleplaying, he wrote, …

A culture of criticism, part I

If we want roleplaying to become an important form of art, we must have Great Games. Therefore, we must build up a community that allows designers to shape themselves into Great Artists. One necessary element of such a community is a culture of criticism.

'Criticism', here, should be understood in both its popular senses. We need, firstly, a culture in which people honestly appraise the qualities of the games that are created, and honestly and realisticly judge the merits and demerits of these games. Right now, we do not have such a culture, as I will argue below.

We need, secondly, a culture in which there are RPG critics - in the sense that there are literary critics: people who can understand games and write thoughtful reviews about them. Not reviews of the kind that are published on RPGnet, with their simplistic point-based ratings; but the kind of reviews that assume you have already read and played the game, and now wish to understand it better. Reviews of this kind are wr…