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Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Paul Czege on October 14, 2001, 04:35:00 PM
Have you been compulsively checking this forum for some closure on the Theatrix superhero scenario I first wrote about in the "Theatrix in action" thread? Too bad. This is a whole 'nother can of worms.

We did complete the scenario last Thursday. After nine sessions. The heroes were victorious! But this post happens to be about the eighth session...and in particular, about my growing disenchantment with Drama resolution mechanics.

There's a sentence in the Theatrix rulebook about how after a while, you won't need the rules anymore. And if my experience is representative, getting beyond using the flowcharts for Drama resolution happens within four or five sessions. The GM stops using them for guidance, after internalizing the logic of when and how to "give the players false hope" and whatnot. And Drama becomes pure assertion.

That's not where the disenchantment starts for me. I'm totally cool with it. All the charts really do is provide guidance on pacing and use of tension. They're more instructive than mechanical. What I'm not cool with is just how difficult it is for a GM to handle assertion as a conflict resolution mechanic.

Let me give an example:

The complication of the whole scenario, revealed in the first session, was the disappearance of the superhero Ally to the People. In the seventh session, we finally discovered his corpse, tied to a chair, decomposing, in the abandoned building where he'd been beaten to death six months previously by three supervillains who'd flown in from Europe for the job. And we suspected we knew who'd arranged for it to happen, a supposedly dead supervillain named Destiny of Man. We believed there'd been a horrible error ten years previous. After a dramatic telepathic, telekinetic, and pyrokinetic showdown between Destiny of Man and his arch-enemy, Mind over Matter, their bodies were found horribly burned. Destiny of Man was dead, but Mind over Matter was saved through a drastic medical procedure that left him as a brain in a jar, floating in fluid, with a robotic tripod for a body. We believed that it had actually been Destiny of Man who benefited from that procedure, and that for ten years he'd been operating with the superhero group, The First Line, as Mind over Matter.

In the eighth session we were at the funeral for Ally to the People. And the members of The First Line were also in attendance. Destiny of Man spoke to us telepathically, in between segments of the priest's eulogy. And nearly simultaneous with realizing how impossible it would be to beat a villain who had such strong mind control power, we were struck with a plan. We would use the mental illusions power of one of the player characters to bring an illusion of Ally to the People walking out of the rain, to the surprise of the mourners at his own funeral. The illusionary Ally to the People would explain that he'd faked his own demise, he regrets doing it, but that he'd been de-powered by the attempt on his life. And he'd point the finger at the brain in the jar, reveal our theory that it was Destiny of Man in the guise of Mind over Matter, and ask the assembled superheroes to be his own "ally," in return for all the times he'd been there for them, and find out whose brain it really was in that jar.

It was a great plan. I think it was the most dramatic and compelling idea the group came up with in eight sessions of play. All the players clearly thought so. Even the GM thought so. He straight out told us that if it was successful, he thought the scenario should end that evening.

But think about it. What the hell is he supposed to do? One of the features of Theatrix is the individual subplots of the player characters. The rulebook is very expansive about how a GM should expect the subplots of the characters to eclipse the main plotline in narrative significance. But because of the pacing of the subplots, three of the four characters weren't going to resolve theirs until the next session. If the illusion at the funeral worked, those subplots would go unresolved. My character would never meet his love interest. She'd been the girlfriend of his first partner, and had disappeared for years after failing her part of a suicide pact with the partner after he'd already taken his own life. Another character would never discover why his non-super best friend had stolen his spare costume.

Would it be lame and anticlimactic to resolve the subplots in a ninth session, after the main villain was already vanquished? Would it be better to have the illusion at the funeral fail in some way? Then the subplots could be resolved and there could be a different climactic confrontation after that? What do you think he did? What would you do?

Paul


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: jburneko on October 15, 2001, 08:15:00 AM
This is a really intersting post Paul.  I'm not sure if the problem you're describing is inherent to Drama mechanics though.  I think your dillema is an instance of a larger problem that I've been considering and have almost posted here nearly a dozen times.

It's the idea of, "Climaxing Together", so to speak.  The problem you describe seems to be a natural problem where you're combining a global situation with several sub-situations.  At first I thought this would really only be a problem if the group wasn't working togther in the normal 'party' sense.  But here you site an example where it happens even with the 'party' mentality.

In my case I was thinking about Sorcerer.  And I was thinking that if everyone is pursuing their own sub-stories within this larger framework, what happens when only one or two end up in a possition for resolution and one or two other players are still in mid-developement?  What happens then?

So, yeah, this question interests me as well.

Jesse


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Mike Holmes on October 15, 2001, 08:38:00 AM
"Climaxing together". You're a riot Jesse.

To extend the metaphor, IIRC, most sex researchers now claim that simultaneous orgasm is rare and non-essential to a good sex life. And in fact that attempting it can be so stressful as to be counterproductive in certain cases. Extending the same reasoning to games, I'd say that trying to get everything to resolve at the same time is not a good idea, especially if it doesn't seem to be happening naturally.

In the case of the example, I'd have ended the session right there (unless it was really early in which case I would just have done all the following in the eighth session), told the players that I'd think about their idea. Then at the beginning of the ninth session I'd have started in with the final conflict, put in some false stuff to make them think that I had come out against the idea that their idea would work, just to increase tension. Then I'd allow it to succeed. Anyhow, after the climax, I'd go into denoument. This is a natural and effective period of storytelling. In the denoument I'd wrap up all the sub-plots. This often actually enhances the poingnace of the resolution of certain sub-plots, and allows you to use others as springboards for...sequels!

But, let me guess, your GM said that your idea couldn't be used until you had wrapped up your sub-plots. Bad show.

Mike


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Ron Edwards on October 15, 2001, 08:42:00 AM
Hey,

I agree with Mike. Denouement is the key.

The problem here, I think, is that the GM and group were committed to the notion that once the villain is (a) identified and (b) beaten up, that the story is over. However, if the relationships really mattered and the subplots' content were themselves the "meat" of what is happening, then beating up the bad guy in #8 and doing a "personal followup" in #9 as the true climax(es), would be a fine way to go.

I've found this definitely to be functional in my Hero Wars game, in which a big-ass fight scene or HeroQuest needs its "cultural outcome" session afterwards, which in many ways is the real payoff.

Best,
Ron


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Ben Morgan on October 21, 2001, 03:38:00 PM
I'd have to go with Ron and Mike on this one. There are lots of precedents to back this one up. Even Tolkien did it (not once, but twice: The Hobbit and LOTR).


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Paul Czege on October 21, 2001, 07:18:00 PM
Hey everyone,

Let me step back and try this again. The point I was trying to make, and show with my example, was that Drama (assertion) is an incredibly difficult mechanic when applied to conflict resolution. Perhaps that point is exemplified by the responses. Everyone has their own idea about whether the game needs to climax for all characters at the same time, or not, whether that climax should be delayed until the final game session, or not, and whether a denouement session would be anticlimactic, or not. My Theatrix GM apparently thought that the climax should happen in the final session, and that the subplots of the individual characters should reach closure prior to that climax.

But a discussion of the relative merits of those things wasn't conversation I was trying to start. I had noticed that Drama (assertion) works fine, cleanly and easily, as a task resolution mechanic, but becomes a great wooly challenge when used as a conflict resolution mechanic.

My post was intended to suggest that conflict resolution in Theatrix is problematic, because it's both Drama, and entirely adjudicated by the GM. It's the triple threat of Drama + GM ajudication + conflict resolution that's the problem. If one of those three things was not true about the game's resolution mechanics, I'm thinking there wouldn't be a problem.

Whaddya think?

Paul

[ This Message was edited by: Paul Czege on 2001-10-21 23:23 ]


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Mike Holmes on October 22, 2001, 06:40:00 AM
I'm afraid that you'll have to define Assertion here.

The Simulationist (Immersionist to be precise) in me will tell you that any Drama resolution mechanic is garbage. Talk about feeling deprotagonized (disempowered, whatever).  :smile:

Mike


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Ron Edwards on October 22, 2001, 06:52:00 AM
Hi Paul,

Good call. We did get a little off the beam, there (although it was interesting).

On topic, then, I think what we see is a Balance of Power issue in the classic Logan sense. Based on your and other reports of its play, it seems to me that the game does not share Authorial power across players and GM when it comes to FINAL OUTCOMES of conflicts. Is that correct? (I want to be sure, because, discussions of Theatrix tend to raise howls of anger from its fans when they perceive it to be criticized ...)

If that's case, then the game is actually more Illusionist than its claims to "story-generating" would indicate. If the GM's aesthetic sense is the ultimate authority, and if there are no mechanisms for player-generated Drama to influence "how it all turns out," then the player-generated events, story points and all, are still just Task resolution and Color.

I may be over-stating the situation for Theatrix, but I know I am NOT over-stating it for The Window, which I think suffers very badly from this problem. In general, it strikes me that Drama mechanics for players and GM alike benefit from both Resource mechanics and specific statement-practices. Puppetland is the best example I can think of, with its strict rules for exactly how actions are articulated. Pantheon, which I think has very different goals/priorities from Puppetland, also organizes its Drama mechanics using beads and turn-priorities.

Best,
Ron


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Paul Czege on October 22, 2001, 08:14:00 AM
it seems to me that the game does not share Authorial power across players and GM when it comes to FINAL OUTCOMES of conflicts. Is that correct?

Yes, for all intents and purposes. Players do have the resource of Plot points that they can spend to make their statements true, but in my reading of the rules there's no discussion or example of the Statement power determining the outcomes of conflicts. You can interpret and create causal relationships between things, and invent and control NPC's, but there are no examples of Statements like, "And when he finally catches up to me and pulls the trigger, he discovers that his gun is jammed."

Paul


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Ron Edwards on October 22, 2001, 08:53:00 AM
Hi Paul,

Even the gun-jamming sounds like a task-issue to me ... how about in terms of how a larger-scale or "real" conflict works out? Does Sebastian get the girl? Does Bartholemew get acknowledged as the heir? Are these things determined by anything in Theatrix except (1) as the linearly-constructed result of tasks, or (2) GM fiat?

Best,
Ron


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Paul Czege on October 22, 2001, 09:03:00 AM
In a word, no.

Paul


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Ron Edwards on October 23, 2001, 02:03:00 PM
Wow.

Based on Paul's account, I believe the "abashedly Narrativist" label might well apply.

(By the way, I know that I'm being a little too enthusiastic about applying this label; it's a kid-with-new-toy kind of thing. That's why I asked Paul so carefully about this stuff, because I know that Theatrix is very explicit about its "story-producing" focus.)

Overall, I am inclined to avoid Drama as a unconstructed game mechanic, especially at the conflict or "general outcome" level.

Best,
Ron


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Laurel on October 24, 2001, 12:26:00 PM
Ron-

Quote

Overall, I am inclined to avoid Drama as a unconstructed game mechanic, especially at the conflict or "general outcome" level.


Would you be willing to start a new thread for lil uninitiated me, and explain why in greater detail when you have time?  For that matter, would you be willing to go into the differences between and advantages of constructed and unconstructed game mechanics?  I want to make sure I'm on the same page as the old-timers with these two topics.


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Clay on October 26, 2001, 08:23:00 PM
Paul and Ron,

I'm not entirely sure that it's a rules problem that we're dealing with here.  This seems fundamentally more of a story-telling problem, and I don't know that a rules mechanic will deal with it.

The real conflict seems to be "What's more important: getting the bad guy or resolving your personal story?"  If the players had been more focused on their personal stories, another session after flattening the bad guy would have been desirable to them and wouldn't have made for a boring session.  To refer back to the Tolkien example, it's the last chapter, when the hobbits return to the Shire, that really gives the rest of the opus any meaning.

Both the players and the GM have a responsibility for generating this focus.  The players have to be involved enough with these personal issues to make playing them out interesting.  The GM needs to be aware of this involvement and direct the story appropriately.  In nine sessions there should have been plenty of indirect clues as to which way to take things.

This said, I'm not sure that reading the players is something most people can do.  I like to fool myself into believing that I can, but I've run my fair share of unsatisfactory game sessions because they didn't follow the interest of the players.


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Mike Holmes on October 28, 2001, 08:24:00 AM
Clay,

Either you or I am confused as to what the problem is. If I read you correctly you seem to think that there was a denoument session that the players were bored with. I was under the impression that the problem was that the players wanted a denoument session (or more specifically wanted the main plot to end in the eigth installment which wuld have left the ninth as a denoument session) and did not get one. They were very into their characters' personal plots, and the GM was aware of this. THe GM however felt that it was important to have the primary plot end in the last session, so he stopped what would have been an excellent solution to the plot in the Eighth session and forced the resolution to occcur in the ninth. And, I'm guessng forced the resolutions to the players sub-plots prior to that point.

Paul, is that acccurate, or am I confused?

In any case, as Paul has pointed out, he feels that the problem is in allowing massive GM power in conflict resolution via Drama mechanics, which allows the GM to drive the story arbitrarily, and which subsequently sometimes leads to bad plot. Or, in other words, if the players had more power through "modern" fortune Narrativist mechanics things might have gone better.

Mike


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Clay on October 29, 2001, 07:31:00 PM
I don't think we're at odds on our understanding Mike.  I think that maybe I didn't make myself clear enough.  Probably comes from working three jobs plus making a feeble effort at running my own business.

I fully recognize that the players wanted the denoument session.  I think that the GM missed this clue, or didn't necessarily find the side stories compelling enough to follow up on.

I could spend many words speculating as to why this opportunity was missed, but I won't.  I wasn't there for the game sessions, so any such speculation would be fruitless.


Title: Drama like your cold feet under my covers
Post by: Paul Czege on October 30, 2001, 11:20:00 PM
Hey Mike, Clay,

the GM to drive the story arbitrarily...which...sometimes leads to bad plot

I've been trying to decide whether to let this thread drop, after it roamed thickly back into a discussion of the relative merits of whether the game should have gone for another session or not. A discussion of the specifics of what would have been the "best" resolution is irrelevant and even obfuscatory to an awareness of what I think is the problem. It implies that the GM's use of the mechanic was the problem, not the mechanic itself. But with some hesitation, I'll try again.

In the eight session of the scenario, the players came up with a plan to have an illusion of the murdered superhero appear at his own funeral and point a finger of suspicion and accusation at the NPC they had come to believe was the ultimate villain of the scenario. The whole host of superheroic NPC's in attendance would be forced to respond, immediately, circumventing the villain's threat to use his mind control powers and turn the PC's on each other. And the players were very enthusiastic about the plan. It felt dramatic. It had been developed as a group. And its implementation would be shared, in that I would roleplay the illusionary hero for the player whose character had the illusion power.

What actually happened was, using the game's Drama resolution mechanics, the GM narrated the failure of the illusion. And the game went on to complete itself in a ninth session that featured dramatic closure for the subplots of the four PC's and a climactic showdown with the villain. And I personally couldn't possibly be more pleased with the ninth session, moreso in retrospect than I would have been with the success of the illusion at the funeral. My character confronted the woman from his past, at my gadget warehouse in Texas. And I responded to the GM's instruction to "be in New York for the climax" by improvising a spacewarping Cadillac El Dorado convertible into existence in the warehouse with my gadget power. My character was killed in the psychic blast that came from the death of the main villain. I got to narrate my own final sequence, and described the woman from my past carrying my body from the spacewarping Cadillac, up a flight of steps to the base of a mysterious Cuban supercomputer from the future that had gone dormant with the recent death of its megalomaniacal owner, and activating it. It was an awesome session for me...with the kind of vague outcome that's really satisfying to me for some reason.

My questions at the end of the post that incepted this thread were my effort to show how problematic Drama conflict resolution mechanics are for a GM when they aren't shared in some formal way with the players. How much should you weigh player enthusiasm for a specific outcome into its success or failure? Ron's use of the phrase "abashed narrativism" is entirely appropriate to Theatrix, I think. The game doesn't share power over outcomes with the players. My ability narration of the final sequence for my character that was so satisfying to me isn't part of Theatrix out of the box. It was a sharing of Drama power the GM made part of the game, an instinctive compensating for the perceived lack of shared power over conflict outcomes.

Paul