When Ron Edwards visited me in Hamburg two weeks ago, we were talking about my old games of Star Wars d6 and Ron asked me to post about something I mentioned. What I said was (paraphrasing): "What the players do, in this mode of play, is holding up a mirror. Through playing their characters, they reflect and validate what is happening in the SIS."
What do I mean by this? The way we played Star Wars d6, I prepared a plot and then ran it. The PCs' role in the plot was more or less pre-determined and I used a bunch of Illusionist techniques to get them there. And if I did not get them there the way I had planned, I used a bunch of other techniques to get them there eventually. What I never bought into, however, was the idea of "they must not know". I would say things like: "Don't strain yourselves too much, they're gonna capture you eventually no matter what you do." Or: "And of course, in the last possible instance..." Or: "And by sheer coincidence, at that very moment, guess who comes in..."
The players knew that everything that happened did happen because I had planned it to happen. Yet they had a lot of fun, so much fun, actually, that now as I try to run player-driven scenarios for them, they have repeatedly asked why I can't just "run games like I used to".
Where did their enjoyment of the game come from? Well, I can pull off a good show. I can give good descriptions and portrayals and make up nifty plots. I love Star Wars and that shows. Also, I like to think of Participationist play a bit like of the performance of a stage magician: Sure you know it's not real magic. But you're still not sure how he did it, and that's cool.
But no one comes to the gaming table just for the show. It's not that good. It's still about participating. And participating means more than just guessing what the GM wants you to do and then do that. Sure, it's part of your job as a player. You play along. But you also give feedback, through the medium of your character. The events of play, as crafted by the GM, leave an impression on your character, and you decide what it is. Ever seen a bunch of players take joy in the excessive sharing of war stories, in character? "Remember when we were almost caught by Darth Vader on the half-finished first Death Star? Man, that was close." That's what I'm talking about.
So this is what I mean by "holding up a mirror". What happens is reflected and colored by the PCs, as played by their players. And the same way, the PCs serve as a mirror to the source material. We all loved Star Wars, and the PCs all were very Star Wars. But they were each player's Star Wars. Each of the players took something he or she cared about and "translated" it into Star Wars. Not to have it challenged, as it would have been in Narrativist play. But just to have it be there and be appreciated by the rest of us.
Any thoughts, questions, additions?
I've encountered this style of game play a lot and the one thing I've noticed is this is highly dependant on the skill of the gm. You've got to be comfortable telling the whole story and manipulating players input. I think you say as much when you talked about putting on a good show.
The part where you talk about telling the players to relax they are going to get captured also strikes a nerve with me. I can remember a gurps campaign where I felt some tension with the gm over my player being captured. He couldnt come out and falt out say that "relax" bit and for my part I ignored his hints that getting captured wouldnt be that bad. I felt some hostility on the gm's part but I kept coming up with smart ways to escape and eventually he gave up and let me get away. It seemed to me like he felt it was a waste of time, I should have just given up and we could have moved on but to me not getting caught was important.
A final thought, your last paragraph talks about what the players are getting from this form of play and for me this matches almost entirely with Simulationism. The loving the source material, the reflecting it in play and definitely the not challenging it. I guess my question is (and it's not just to Frank) are the two synonymous? Is their really anything to Sim beyond participationism?
Hey Caldis, to my understanding, Participationism is a Technique that exclusively supports the Simulationist Creative Agenda. It is one of a whole bunch of Simulationist styles of play.
It's funny you mention a mirror. You know that description Ron sometimes gives of exploration being like a little wooden platform? And nar or gamism is like something on top, some really different material to wood, like aluminium or plastic. But sim is supposed to be more wood on top?
Well I think perhaps a material just as alien to wood might suit the anlogy better, for sim. And that alien material would be glass and silver, as in a mirror - a mirror facing directly at the wooden base, in order to reflect it. A mirror is very representative of denial. It denies its own existance, trying to instead show whats in front of it. Aimed at the wooden base, it will deny it's there and just reflect the base.
But it wont just reflect, because the mirror is...flawed? Is that a good word? Wonderfully flawed might be a way to describe it - or just using the established term "constructive denial (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=17334.msg188019#msg188019)" is probably better. Little imperfections in the reflection make little changes in the reflection. But the funky thing is, this makes changes in the wooden base (my analogy falters here - how a mirror changes wood by reflecting it doesn't fit well). Those changes in the wooden base are reflected. But there are small imperfections in the reflection, which change the base...and so in, in a feedback loop that is itself the act of play.
Anyway, its fun to think of sim being just as different to exploration as nar or gamism is! Hehe!
Frank, maybe I'm stretching participationism beyond it's intended usage but the source material or the basis for "constructive denial" seems to be exerting force on the players to restrict their thematic choices. It's not necessarily force by the GM but it is force from outside the player.
I guess the only thing I'm not entirely sure on is purist for system style play, where there may be thematic choices but they just arent important. This may just be a hole in my experience but I'm not sure how much such play exists.
Hi Callan, I guess Ron will explain himself once he gets around to it. But for a start, I think the reason Ron chose wood (green wood, as it were) for both the platform and the thing on it was to illustrate a source of confusion. Many people have confused "Simulationism by Habit" or dysfunctional play were there is just a lot of attention to Exploration (because the players don't know what else to do) with "real" Sim. Because it's made of the same material. But it's not the same thing.
Hi Caldis, in our game, there was no need for force to keep thematic choices out. In all modes of Sim, including but not limited to Purist for System, single moments of thematic choice may be present and may contribute, even significantly, to the group's enjoyment of play, as long as they do not conflict with the main goal (i.e. the Sim CA). But I guess you'll rarely find them in Participationism.
Let me give an example. One of the PCs in our game was Vic, played by Mirja. Mirja was one of those girls who used to play soccer with the boys and then grew up to become a breathtakingly beautiful young woman without realizing it. And Vic was a little like that, too. She was a smuggler, and Mirja really emphasized the "I'm only in for the money" part. Mirja adored Han Solo, but she always thought that he didn't fit with Leia. You see? Her Star Wars.
My understanding of Mirja's character was that she would eventually turn out to believe in the good cause and all that. So, after we all had played for quite some time, I set it all up for the big decisive moment. The Empire had discovered some ancient defence system on a distant planet, home of some long gone species, which was about as dangerous as the Death Star, and they were studying it to use what they learned in building the Death Star. Then the crime ring Vic owed money to showed up once again. They offered Vic a deal: Get us a copy of the construction plans and our debt will be settled.
And then Vic gave them the plans.
I was totally surprised by this. And it's a very good example of how looking at a single instant instead of an instance of play is no good for identifying CA. Because if you did, you'd say that this "thematic choice" was a Nar telltale, wouldn't you? But it totally was not. I just had misjudged Mirja's idea of how her character worked. I thought (and still think) that it was kinda breaking a genre convention, but I would never have told her what to do. That was her character, her choice. And breaking genre conventions can be part of the fun in Sim play in that you explore the boundaries of your "package" and see how it still remains intact.
The other PCs found out and the relationship with Vic (not with Mirja, mind you) cooled down a lot, but for their personal friendship that had been established over many sessions, they didn't tell the Alliance. However, the young senator (a PC) who had been Vic's lover broke up with her. That would be another thematic choice, by the player of the young senator, and it was cool and fun and it did not conflict at all with our Sim CA. See?
When the PCs were finally retired, it was clear that Vic would not stick around to become an honorable naval officer in the New Republic. She would take the money and leave. Because that was just what that character was like.
Happy new year to all of you! (No, I'm not writing posts like this after getting home from the party, I'm in Europe, s'all.)
I liked your example and it's giving me mixed thoughts Frank so understand I'm still trying to puzzle this out for myself.
I've seen a few of these wrong thematic choices in Sim games and often they cause big problems. I notice you felt that the choice was breaking genre convention but I wonder about the other players. When I've seen situations like this a game will usually either explode or else people will ignore the choice and compromise. I wonder if that's what was going on here. It might not equate to full on Participationism but the power to react as they would have the characters actually react may have been compromised by the need to compromise and fit this back into the game structure, i.e we're a group of players we stick together even if what she did was wrong so we let it slip and ignore the action as much as possible.
So whereas in a game like Dogs this conflict between the characters can become a full blown conflict and go wherever the players end up taking it, in a Sim game the constraints of the game force the players to avoid turning it into a full conflict instead doing their best to accept it and deal with it.
Caldis, I need to clarify something about my example: None of us (as players) was uneasy with Mirja's choice to give the construction plans to the crime ring. It was unexpected and it provided for an unexpected plot twist, but we did not feel it was "wrong". Sure, it went beyond classic genre expectations. So did other things we did. So did some of my pre-designed plots. We played this game for several years, and once a week for quite a while, sessions lasting between 4 and 8 hours. We would have become bored long before if we had never ventured beyond stereotypical George Lucas plots. So, to pick up Ron's phrasing in the post linked above, these things were additions to the package, not violations of it.
My point is: It was a thematic choice, and it was part of a Sim game. It was fun, it was alright, it was just not the point of play. No big deal.
This might be a little beyond the keen of this thread... but where I fall apart on this whole Narrativist/Simulationist thing is that a more Narrativist approach to the "that smuggler just sold out the Alliance" would be appropriate if what the players were simulating wasn't Star Wars. In the movies, the characters move on rather quickly from major disasters and emotional distress. The reason it was better, from a "simulating Star Wars" POV to ignore the out of genre bump, is that by having the characters pay more attention to it breaks from the source material. Now, say the same thing happened in a game that was trying to simulate the feel of Firefly/Serenity, or Dune, wouldn't the outcome be a lot closer to what is typically thought of as Narrativist play? So, in effect, isn't Narrativism simulating a type of literature/storytelling. I think I see how this breaks from the traditional big model constructs here, and I think I understand the big model, but...
I'm right with you Frank and totally realize your group was ok with Mirja'a action. I was going to continue with this but anything I could contribute was stated much better by Ron over in the thread on Werewolf Simulationism.
I was simply postulating that when the other players in your game accepted what Mirja had done and didnt take any actions against her character they may have been taking part in constructive denial. This may or may not have been the case, it may be more my read of the situation based on my past experiences.
It's a bit like having a 'License to kill', James Bond style. When you don't kill, sure the outcome is like you didn't have a license at all. It's just like living normally without such a power. So sure if you do the sell out in a dune game, it doesn't seem to break the genre. Even seems to support the imagined space. But you still have a license to...make the choices your character would make, regardless of how much that kills genre. At any point during that dune game, BAM! Genre is lying dead in cold blood at the feet of your PC, gun still smoking in his hands! And it's licensed.
As far as Sim goes, it's a question of what your "package" is. In our case, it was "the Star Wars universe as per the three original movies, with loads of made-up planets, species and technology of our (my) own, and certain general genre expectations." However, breaking the cliché sometimes was part of the fun. The genre expectations were secondary, they colored our picture of "the universe", but the main idea was "these guys in this universe", and not "this kind of space opera story". Other groups may have a very different package.
What you say about Firefly vs. Star Wars is kinda thin ice when it comes to Big Model terminology, but I see what you mean. Firefly is much more ambiguous and the conflicts and personal relationships are more complex than in Star Wars. Choices are more of a statement. So yes, Firefly works very well in a Nar context and Star Wars works very well in a Sim context.
Oh hey, and I forgot to mention (do I even need to mention?): Of course, the dramatic climax of the session was blowing up an entire squadron of Imperial class star destroyers using said defence system. (Alien technician: "No, don't do that, the chance of causing a chain reaction that will destroy the whole planet are..."--PC (waves hand): "We have no choice!") Now that's Star Wars, big time.
Gail Simone (the comic book writer) talks on her blog about dealing with super heroes that everyone knows. What she has to say is that each time she starts on a new project, everyone yells foul when she takes the character from their established base. Its only then that Simone can then reestablish the character, by confirming the most persistent ideas behind the character in the face of the new situation. All of this seems remarkably like what people are talking about with bending and breaking genre conventions... both here and on some other threads. That what people want is to see the genre bent, but not broken, because by being bent its tempered, with the genre being more firmly reaffirmmed in people's minds.
Oh, I guess it should read "accepted basis for shared SIS" wherever I put genre...
Right on, Nolan! Plus, it's not only reaffirmed, it's also made more complex and interesting, at least to my taste.