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Author Topic: Elastic Premise  (Read 4949 times)
Jack Spencer Jr
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« on: January 21, 2002, 08:15:08 PM »

An odd thought occured to me today.  I've been trucking on coffee and Starburst hard candies all day, so stay with me.

I've been hearing this call for a premise, pretty much since I first noticed ROn over on GO and something about it has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I wasn't sure if it was a flaw in his thinking or just me.

You see, as I understand it, a game (maybe it's just a narrativist game, I don't know anymore) needs a premise to center around.  That moral enigma that the players answer through play.  Something about that has always made me think that by doing such, you're making essentially a one-trick pony.  A game that's excellent for one, or more likely, several closely related styles of play but not very good for any other type of game.

I'm getting this idea of the whole thing because I tend to view games and the making thereof in broad strokes.  A bad habbit, I know.

That is, if I make a sci-fi game, I don't focus it in any way, I try to make THE sci-fi game.  That is, a game that embodies sci-fi in every way, or a specific subset, like space adventure.  At least it tries to.

I can see as being somewhat valid since part of playing an RPG is to indulge your creativity.  Why wouldn't a group prefer to come up with their own premise rather than the one the game designer decided to use.

But you see where I'm coming from, right?  Good.

But then it hit me, it probably depends on how flexible that premise is.  How far it will stretch.  In fact, a well tought-out game may actually have layered premises.

For example, I had the idea for an ER RPG with the premise of How much pain & suffering can you witness before it changes you.  (or something to that effect)  That's a decent premise.  But a group could get ahold of it and work the premise differently.  Suppose you've already hardened yourself to human suffering.  How far gone are you?  Is there any way to regain you soul?

Well, hopefully you see my point.  A good premise is like silly putty.  It stretches, it bounces, you can make little men out of it.  A, let's call it weak, a weak premise is more fixed and tends to force pretty much the same type of game every time.

But that may not be a bad thing, necessarily.  I have a strange idea for a game that would be only single sessions one shots.  It has a fairly fixed premise, I think.  Basically everybody dies in the end.  But this can work for a single session, maybe not so good for a continuing campaign.

I don't know.  Is it the caffine talking?
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Garbanzo
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Posts: 108


« Reply #1 on: January 21, 2002, 09:47:52 PM »

It seems to me that there's a difference in scope between games.
With scope meaning, more or less, "spread of fully allowed and encouraged types of character."  So V:tM using only 1 clanbook has less scope than buying the whole library, which is less scope than using all of WW at once.

Sounds to me like you're concerned that good Premise yeilds small-scope games, which seemed to be true to me, too.

The Premise syllogism seemed to go like this:
1 A good game reflects a specific and unified Premise throughout
2 Mechanics/ setting/ the whole kaboodle express Premise
3 Therefore (modus ponens, right?) a good game has highly specific and unified everything.  (For ample example, see Jared, the Arch-Demon of focused, fun, tight games.)

I was hearing the Premise argument as "shrink down the scope so far that everyone knows exactly what they're in for, improving the odds that people like what they get."  With this interpretation, something like a big wide-open sci-fi game seems out of the question.  
I couldn't argue with the syllogism, but it felt a bit too new-school...  Cue image of self shaking fist at heavens, shouting "Down with Premise!"


Then one day I realized that the mostly-standard (but, of course, highly innovative :) FRP game I was working on has as its Premise an investigation of how foriegn cultures would interact.

Damn, that's a Premise after all.


I've modified my Premise syllogism now.  Or rather, the implications.  I agree that cohesive and unified everything makes for a stronger game, but I now feel that that is not the same as small-scope.

Quote
Something about that has always made me think that by [focusing on a Premise], you're making essentially a one-trick pony. A game that's excellent for one, or more likely, several closely related styles of play but not very good for any other type of game.
...
But then it hit me, it probably depends on how flexible that premise is. How far it will stretch. In fact, a well tought-out game may actually have layered premises.


I'm not sure about flexible Premises.  My understanding is that the Premise is more or less the foundation of the edifice.   (Comments from the heavyweights?)

But I do think a variety of play styles may come from a broad Premise.  One wide in scope.  Instead of "How will individuals react to the descruction of their planet by a moon-sized space station?", something more like "How will individuals behave given incredible technological opportunities?"  


Granted, I've spent the entire post sidestepping the "moral enigma" issue.  Perhaps 'most any Premise could become such, given the inclinations of the gaming group.  My sense is, though, that - ee, thin ice here - only an explicitly narrative game mandates the moral quandry.

-Matt
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A.Neill
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Posts: 62


« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2002, 01:13:46 AM »

Quote from: pblock



Well, hopefully you see my point.  A good premise is like silly putty.  It stretches, it bounces, you can make little men out of it.  A, let's call it weak, a weak premise is more fixed and tends to force pretty much the same type of game every time.




Hmm, I see what you're saying here – there must be some latitude for individuals to explore their own interpretation of the premise. I agree, but I think many games can become dissatisfying because the putty is stretched to breaking point for a variety of reasons – different interpretations of the premise deriving from players orientating toward different styles of play not being the least of them.

I read Ron’s essay as suggesting that there must be a strong degree of saliency between individual interpretations of premise for an “actual play premise” to exist. This can be accomplished through players sharing similar (but not necessarily same) GNS goals.

A difference of emphasis maybe that comes down to the universal conflict (dynamic is probably a better word) between the individual and the group. Hopefully a snyergy can be reached where group and individual premises feed each other. To stay on metaphor – the putty must be malleable but not to the point of breaking.

Or maybe those caffine fumes are affecting me too!

Alan.
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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2002, 02:28:23 AM »

I experience a great deal of confusion in this regard - does premise apply to GAMES at all?  As a component of story, yes I can get premise.  As a component of a game?  I'm not convinced a game has a premise - it may have some implied premises, but the actual premise delat with in play, in peoples minds, will surely be that of the current story.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: January 22, 2002, 06:51:53 AM »

Gentlemen,

Perhaps a recap is necessary. Three things seem to be at issue. (1) "Premise" is used at different levels, (2) a certain queasiness seems to be in evidence about "constraining" play in some way, and furthermore, (3) there seems to be some confusion about the premise of a written/boxed/physical RPG product, as opposed to the one that exists only in the context of actual play.

THE LEVEL ISSUE
The most general meaning of Premise in my taxonomy is "thing which interests you." Totally non-profound.

The next, somewhat more focused meaning is "thing which interests the group, as they play." That's the GNS stuff.

Then we can drop down into Narrativism alone (abandoning equally fruitful avenues in the other modes, so don't think I'm being "all special" about Narrativism), and look - when you check out "thing which interests the group, as they play in a Narrativist fashion," it always includes an element of moral quandary.

Clarification: instead of "moral," which is vague and fluffy and to some ears preachy, how about "behavioral?" Just as good. How about, "Disconcerting, problematic, without an easy answer?" Just as good. How about "human passions in conflict?" Just as good. I really don't distinguish among all of these readings, for purposes of this forum.

I keep hearing people say, "But does Premise have a moral (etc) quality if you're not playing Narrativist?" This keeps puzzling me. Look at what I've outlined above, and you'll see that the answer is No. It has to be No.

THE CONSTRAINT ISSUE
OK, so we have a group, they're being all Narrativist and so on, and they have a Premise. Are they locked-in? Has their creativity been shackled? Is the freedom of role-playing gone?

First of all, a Premise is a general question - it's not, "Shall I, Baronet von Salm, help the countryside to revolt vs. Lord Huey?" but rather, "What are the responsibilities of a designated noble [power-holder] toward the people in his demesne? Are they valid at all?" You are pulling in the passions of pride, of tradition, of family, and of reaction to oppression. Strong stuff. Lord Huey and the setting and situation are expressions of the Premise in terms that we find engaging.

So the first insight is that a given Premise can be addressed by all kinds of different situations, settings, people, and qualifiers. "Is family loyalty a guiding virtue?" Come up with ten different Situations/Settings to address that, across a wide range of possible valid answers. It's actually very easy.

Second, even given a specific and focused Premise in terms of a specific setting and situation, we still haven't played yet. In Narrativist play, the essence of the act is to permit an answer to the question (a Theme) to emerge through the decisions of the players. The actual answer(s), from the very git-go of play, is highly individualized to those players in that group.

THE GAME/GAME ISSUE
In using the word "game," everyone must be careful to distinguish between the book/box/object, and the instances and acts of play itself. We call them the same word, but they cannot be the same thing.

GNS and related stuff is all about people actually role-playing. Any material about design or rules is about affecting that primary thing.

My first thought about that is that, when we say something like "The Premise of Hero Wars is XYZ," it is just like the usual short-hand, and it means, "The design of Hero Wars facilitates addressing the Premise of XYZ in actual play."

My second thought - and this is the crucial one - is that a published game which includes anything like a Narrativist Premise will do well to permit many expressions of the Premise (either via character creation or via setting richness), and also provide quite a bit of freedom in terms of characters making decisions about them. (So poof - the constraint issue vanishes, except insofar as a story-to-be-made has to be about something.)

My third thought - and this is the controversial one - is that game publishers and customers have a bit of a fetish about universal applicability that creates needless problems. I, for example, think that "science fiction" is neither defined nor meaningful in terms of designing a role-playing game. It's like "genre" - one must specify further or fail to communicate. Premise, at the more general level that applies to any role-playing, is just like that.

Best,
Ron
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2002, 09:00:47 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

So the first insight is that a given Premise can be addressed by all kinds of different situations, settings, people, and qualifiers. "Is family loyalty a guiding virtue?" Come up with ten different Situations/Settings to address that, across a wide range of possible valid answers. It's actually very easy.


Perhaps, but suppose you wish to play a game that does not involve family loyalty at all, but this hypothetical game is completely geared toward that premise?

The obvious answer is to not buy that game or to not play that game, anyway.  But then, in the world of playing = buying, having a game so keenly focused can potentially hurt sales.

On reflection, I suppose nearly every game has got some form of elasticy, even the family one.

I suppose this only matters if your concern is sales, even if sales means people playing the game if the game is available for free.

This kind of goes along with the How-to-ity thread.  Maybe a RPG should be more like a cookbook?  Several recipes and you can select the one you want for dinner.

Is a cookbook better if it focuses on a particular dish or style of cooking?

Should this whole comment go to that other thread?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: January 22, 2002, 09:12:10 AM »

Jack,

The trouble with the "sales" objection is that it cuts both ways. A game about "everything and anything" has no immediate interest - that's why generalist games like GURPS publish setting/sourcebooks immediately, and even provide some pointers or examples for settings in the main books.

"Narrowing" is a necessity. If you don't do it with your main book (say it's all system, which from my perspective is still a narrowing of focus), then you're doing it with your sourcebooks. Ron's call: all RPGs are niche-RPGs.

Now, how much narrowing becomes problematic is a good question.

However, before addressing it, an even more trenchant question is whether any identifiable feature of a game's imaginative content (as opposed to physical design or subcultural identification) has had much to do with its sales success in the first place. I think any discussion of sales as an issue has to take things into account about that which have not been well discussed to date.

Best,
Ron
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