Author Topic: [Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play  (Read 2261 times)

Ron Edwards

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[Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play
« on: November 20, 2013, 09:58:28 PM »
Charles, can you provide a link to your blog about the game design? I can't find it ...

We met for what people are calling Monday Night Game Lab, with Sarah and Mark and me; Brain wasn't there so our Apocalypse World game is kept shelved for now. So it was an opportunity finally to try Charles' game, which I have mainly in the form of compiled blog notes. I opened with what Charles said in several ways during our phone conversation: "I love me some ensemble casting." I referenced mainly Firefly (the good episodes, I specified) and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic; and after play, Sarah referenced a crucial scene in the movie Training Day as an example of what the mechanics were good at.

Charles is on target with this: the mechanisms of play feature a reasonably well-known cast of characters who can undergo development, either relatively minor and restricted to a certain point per story (episode, arc, whatever you want to call it), or sometimes quite drastic or final or both.

All that said, it's not actually necessarily a TV-emulation game, but that sort of TV is a very good touchpoint, as would be a fair number of the better superhero comics. Which leads me to start comparing it to Primetime Adventures throughout this post, first to say, it's not anywhere near as medium-specific as PTA, but in the content of what Dramatic Lives is built to do, and the content of the kind of TV shows that Matt is basing PTA on, they correspond 1:1.

One of the other similarities is the next step, arriving at a setting concept, called the Pitch in PTA and here specified by time, location, and mode (capturing some combination of story type and tone. In our case, we arrived at far futurity, out in space, and cop drama.

After that it's pretty different, though, because in Dramatic Lives, you don't have a GM so much as various players choosing different roles toward play/characters per story arc. In our case, Mark and I decided to be advocates, meaning we'd basically be playing up-front protagonist characters and their immediate supporting cast. Sarah chose to be an adversarial player and further opted not to name a specific adversary character, so her job is to play any and all other characters, making them adversarial as things seem to develop.

The textual relationship among advocacy (as a player), advocated character, primary character, protagonist, and dedicated character is to say the least, murky. I simply don't know what the text about that is trying to say, so I stuck with the basics that we had two advocate players with protagonist characters, and one adversarial player who chose not to specify a given antagonist/adversary character.

Next, we made our main characters. I do not mind saying that the current rules feature an insane entry curve, especially in constructing abilities. I'm trying to focus on play rather than presentation, but there really is very little to go on.

Mark made up Seven, a bio-morph scheming cowboy cop with all sorts of fluid-filled gadgets in sockets on his body; in play, he turned out to be a genuinely motivated police officer, less of the loose cannon and more of the imaginative, shall we say flexible type in terms of tactics and professionalism.

I made up Coil (backup), an alien cop who's "always been there" at the station to an absurd degree, having literally seen empires rise and fall during his posting. Early in play, I conceived of him as extremely human-looking except for no angular joints, so he moves just like a person but with wrong-looking bend points in all the right places. Also, he's the backup copy of the original Coil; he was intended to be temporary but the real replacement never arrived.

Question for Charles: What does potential actually buy? Just abilities? Do you have to pay potential for Aspects, or for anything else?

Finally, you come up with a MacGuffin, which was interesting in this case because (i) there isn't a designated adversary character, (ii) it has to be important and conflicty-of-interest for named characters, and (iii) we might have slid into comedy, which I feared would devalue play in this case. So I thought of, and referenced, the MLP:FIM episode about the autumn race, in which Rainbow Dash and Applejack forgot they were friends in the heat of competing to win. I suggested the MacGuffin be a promotion that only one of us could have, and that carried with it the coveted privilege of actually taking real time off from the job every so often. My point was not to emulate that exact episode in any way except for the conflict of interest in the absence of outright villainy.

I can't say we did that well with it. We opened with some banter at the squad room and established some fun stuff about our characters, a bit boilerplate but I found a great riff with my character who commented on events with percentages of their long-term outcomes based on his experience, and stuff like that. As play continued, and as Sarah discussed afterward, she ran into serious difficulty as the adversarial player.

Specifically, she had to disconnect from scene-framing authority (GMing) and, given the "free play" going on, basically from improvising a standard crime-solving scenario. Or rather, she didn't realize she should have disconnected from it until it was too late. We all got distracted by the "investigate a crime" model and we never did anything with the MacGuffin, which itself led to a somewhat bloodless conflict situation, in plot terms.

She specifically raised the issues of how scenes are framed at all, and how you indicate that this moment, right here, is a bona fide conflict, accept no substitutes and no wiggling out of it. And I would add, no God damn debate over it, ever, no way.

So, what happened is that we ran into a couple of street punks and tried out the resolution. It was Seven against Dogsbody the punk, as Coil opted out, citing that people like Dogsbody had a life expectancy of 18.4 years old on the average, so really all we had to do was wait another year or so and not have a problem any more.

Sarah and Mark each rolled percentile dice and calculated their successes given the abilities they'd chosen (you add abilities effectiveness scores to the rolls). Then they compared successes like you do in so many games, taking the difference to get the degree of basic success. Then they arrived at the reversed percentile amounts to generate the reactions to the offensive/active effects, and that determined the impacts upon scores and stuff.

OK, tons to say about this. First, we get it. The logic is sound, especially the distinction between the basic who-wins and the details of the reaction outcomes. The next question is whether it really is elegant or clunky as fuck. I don't think I've played enough to know which. The action-reaction idea is pretty good insofar as you want raw performance feeding into eventual effect, instead of simply finding the effect and retro-narrating from there. Then you add the points from the abilities involved to each/all, and get successes - the difference between the successes goes over to the effect table.

Again, we get it. Every detail does add a feature, in this case, the abilities that have been factored in and which of them is primary, and similar. Also, the dice add a considerable degree of uncertainty about who will ultimately succeed, and the abilities' numerical contribution is very well scaled to the d100 rolls. Right at the moment that Mark and I went through the numbers together, we both said "Oh!" simultaneously and realized that the steps were making sense. The outcome of the conflict was extremely sensible and we also saw how different dice results would have made sense too.

But the question is not merely "does it make sense," but much more importantly, toward what end? The above description is actually for the simplest possible resolution. We also have exchanges, which mean doing it over and over, and adjusting intensity, and possible reversals to mess with one another's attributes. (For an example of what the latter does, see how Pinky Pie totally reverses Gilda's coolness back upon her at the end of Griffon the Brush-0ff. I love this show.)

There's even more than that! I'm not sure I get the further complexity at all. Do Aspects do anything mechanically? What are Drama Points, what can I do with them?

My tentative conclusion: Charles, you want every conflict-outcome to be emergent from the details, such that we look at "what characters can do" and launch into conflicts armed with those things.

Now, this isn't the creative process by which these stories are made, no one stats up Pinky Pie and decides whether her relationship with reality is supernal or not. Her conflict with someone isn't resolved by which abilities the writer chooses to bring to bear. But! That doesn't mean this aesthetic, technical procedure can't work here in the RPG medium.

Historically, it hasn't been successful. A "skills-out" approach to thematic intensity, at the level of rising action and climactic moments, has left many a game floating belly-up in its wake. Burning Wheel was an attempt - and quickly shifted into a deeper focus on Beliefs, Instincts, and Artha instead of picky skills-development mechanics. A lot of other games shifted much farther into work-processes more like those found in fiction creation, instead of the particulate-causal process. Some of them did very well; I typically cite Dust Devils as the nigh sublime expression of this aim. Unfortunately, the very designation "story games" has come to refer to the more common, rather poor versions.

Is the historical pattern of failure (for the particulate-emergent version) conclusive? I maintain not, but finding our way to success with it means some careful GNS thinking. Maybe there is a whole different agenda at work here, very different from being socially engaged with the thematic conundrum and cathartically engaged with its rising action and climaxes, more of a personal "can it work this time" challenge or experiment, every time. I still do not know if this design will ultimately be more fun because it revels in inter-character conflict with ethical conundra at stake, or because it dares grasp at the sun by trying to get the stories we like from their internal causality alone.

I need to play more (and right) to understand that better. I know already that it's not going to be for people who would otherwise like, for instanc,e The Pool or Primetime Adventures. Despite superficial similarities, this is simply not the same "thing" to enjoy.

The comparison with PTA is a useful touchpoint. Initial similarities = ensemble cast with significant individual arcs, many aesthetic and creative expectations, and a deep focus on conflicts that affect characters' self-image and story role. The difference is what I tried to describe above: Dramatic Lives wants to go inside-out, grassroots emergence rather than simply-mandated top-down outcomes affected by subjective personal enjoyment (which does create problems in PTA via misinterpretation). So ... that means DL is stuffed full of mechanical nuance, linearity of investment, immediate consequence, and uncertainty among many variables.

OK, here are some suggestions, again pending my further experimentation.

1. Come up with some builds for abilities' categories, so people can understand how the structure among the abilities' eligible slots is supposed to work for a given character.

2. Consider ablating the abilities during a conflict, so you're not just hitting each other with the (same) massive gunnery exchange after exchange; abilities therefore become something to bring to bear when you really really care, and their nested qualities become more interesting that way too.

3. Summarize and possibly make more extreme what you can do for or to others' mechanics, because really, that's the payoff for play - especially in the middle of a session, when you wonder whether you'll ever, ever regain so-and-so's love for you, or your central superpower, or whatever, now that it's been badly threatened.

Well, so far so good ... let me know what you think.

Best, Ron

Christoph

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Re: [Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play
« Reply #1 on: November 21, 2013, 10:09:27 AM »
This is more a "remark in the margins" than a fully blown contribution to the thread. My partner Sylvie ran a short session of PTA for total newcomers to RPGs at a convention, based on those fancy police series where the characters each have their quirks, but are pretty good at what they do. I was watching the game, and the most unexpected thing happened: since there was a mysterious crime, everybody wanted to solve it and put aside personal objectives and tensions, but the PTA conflict rules aren't designed to create a crime on the spot (which would be implied by the way narration is handed out). So it was a bit weird after having played straight up PTA, but the kids had fun anyway. Today, I'd be inclined to handle the crime as a McGuffin, like Dramatic Lives would seem to be set out to do. Maybe the rules for pursuing a Goal in S/lay w/me, or heck something like the attraction dice and re-rolls of Breaking the Ice, could provide interesting inspiration to handle that, while using "core" rules for the dramatic interactions between the character. I have alas nothing to contribute to the topic Ron raises concerning these "core" rules.

Charles Perez

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Re: [Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play
« Reply #2 on: November 21, 2013, 11:55:13 PM »
My first full reply will have to wait for tomorrow night or the weekend. I hear the bit about the insane entry curve; this is just the sort of thing that some other player would have had to tell me. Feedback will come tomorrow night or the next day.

Charles

Charles Perez

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Re: [Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play
« Reply #3 on: November 23, 2013, 11:33:50 AM »
The rules blog is charlesperez.wordpress.com. The rules posts are meant to be read in chronological order.

From the playtest account, I glean that there are a fair number of things I do in playing Dramatic lives myself that I don't realize that I'm doing. It will be a job of work to suss out all such things that I do, but the final game text will require my best effort along those lines.

The big problem that jumps out at me from your play account is macguffin failure. As I understand macguffins, the difference between the right macguffin and the almost right macguffin is as the proverbial difference between lightning and the lightning bug. To make this clear, the final game text will need an embedded essay on the art of the macguffin, and the essay won't be specific to the system but will apply to story telling in general.

As one looks at the movie Casablanca, for example, one might be told that the movie's macguffin is the letters of transit signed by De Gaulle. The actual macguffin of that movie was Victor Laszlo's fate; the letters were actually a dramatic contrivance that made the resolution of Laszlo's fate more dramatic. Notice that, in the movie, the letters were important only insofar as they would serve to get Laszlo to Lisbon. In particular, if Rick Blain hadn't wound up with the letters, he wouldn't have given a damn about them. By contrast, he cared about whether Laszlo made it out almost immediately after Laszlo's name came up, first betting that Laszlo would indeed make it out, then resenting the very idea of Laszlo escaping from the Germans' clutches. Also, the crime boss Signor Ferrari may have wanted the letters for himself or at least the monetary gain to be had from them, but he never contended seriously for them. Ferrari was there chiefly as the face of illegal activities in Casablanca, the face that was to declare that, short of the letters, there was no unlawful means of escape for Laszlo. Ferrari even let on to Laszlo that Rick almost surely had the letters, a move that made no sense if the letters were the macguffin but plenty of sense if the real issue was whether Laszlo stayed in Casablanca or whether he escaped.

Looking at the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode about the autumn race, one could be excused for thinking of first prize in that race as the macguffin. The race was only really important for the second part of the episode, and didn't provide any story direction for the first part of it. The real macguffin of the episode, what was really up for grabs all through it, was athletes' bragging rights in Ponyville. In this respect, Rainbow Dash was the undisputed queen of the ring, so to speak, at episode's start. Things got interesting when Applejack, a pony of no small physical prowess herself, threw her hat into that ring, setting up the athetic competition between the two that defined the first part of the episode. Things went wrong when Applejack finessed the result of the final long jump with her wings yet was not immediately fouled out. This created a pall over the first contest's outcome that led to dueling shenanigans between the two during the Autumn race. Notice that, in any one area such as Ponyville, there is only so much of bragging rights over one's athletic prowess to go around, hence competition in athletic events. Even Twilight Sparkle wanted some of that, not necessarily coveting first prize in the Autumn race but wanting to make a good showing nonetheless, and furthermore doing something her bookish self seldom did. Even spectators would  have an interest in all of this, wanting clean competitions and therefore being at odds with anyone running shenanigans.

In your own game's case, the mistake was to declare the macguffin to be the promotion that only one cop could get, instead of declaring it to be free time for cops. If the macguffin is free time, everyone cares about it. Every  cop not truly married to the job wants more time off than he is getting. The cops' bosses want less free time for cops; they need police on the streets, not on vacation. Others in the cops' lives also care about how much free time the cops get and what they do with it. The prospective promotion makes a dandy dramatic contrivance, giving your two advocated characters an easy way to contend for more time off. There may be more ways to get that time, though, and having the proper macguffin should get those ways properly explored.

Apart from picking the right macguffin and then setting up one or more dramatic contrivances to enable it, there is also the matter of characters and characterization. Were the two cops rivals from the get go? If not, why would any competition between them be interesting? If the prize is more free time, why does each cop need more free time? Are there other cops also needing this time, and if so, why didn't their names come up in the account of play? What about your cops' supervisor? The supervisor might not want any cops promoted out from under him. Also, a cop may do such a good job that his superiors want that cop on the job and not on vacation at all. Once the right macguffin is in place, the possibilities may well spring up like weeds.

More to come regarding deficiencies in the rules and in the text to come later.

Charles

Ron Edwards

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Re: [Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play
« Reply #4 on: November 23, 2013, 12:45:54 PM »
Hi Charles,

We understood the MacGuffin fine, that it was the free time that mattered. The problem is that we didn't do it, and one reason is that we didn't grasp when and how any kind of scene-making or conflict-construction would occur. Sarah found herself assuming the role of the person who had to do that, simply because she wasn't playing an advocated character, but she was the one who was least oriented toward the protagonists and also perhaps accustomed to basic cyberpunk tropes of "punk defies cop character."

This is not a problem with concept, but with procedure. An essay like you're describing wouldn't have helped us at all. Think in terms of people actually talking, not in terms of what they do or don't know. What do they do which makes conflicts about the MacGuffin appear? Don't explain it, but rather instruct, because I ask not out of bafflement for a game I might write, but out of complete ignorance of what you see or want for this game.

Best, Ron

Charles Perez

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Re: [Dramatic Lives] Brief but thought-provoking play
« Reply #5 on: November 24, 2013, 09:06:47 PM »
With macguffin failure eliminated as a cause for stalling out, I am left with sussing out the things I do in free play that I don't realize I'm doing. Once I have done more contemplation about that, I'll post proposed instructions for free play.

Charles