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Author Topic: "Thematic Causality": What, why and how?  (Read 18046 times)
John Harper
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« Reply #15 on: April 18, 2005, 11:17:23 AM »

Quote from: Valamir
That's the difference between granting a DM "unlimited narrative power" and granting a player in Capes "unlimited narrative power".


I see no difference whatsoever. We're talking about system here. Every RPG (except Uni, I think) has the same expectations about behavior when it comes to what the "authority figure" may narrate. Sorcerer, Trollbabe, PTA, Dogs in the Vineyard... all of them. I see no reason why it isn't reasonable to distribute that expectation along with the narration authority normally restricted to a single GM.

The difference that I see is that Capes calls attention to the fact that traditional games have no safety net in place for the narration of the authority figure, other than social contract and long-standing habits.

Why is it a non-issue in those games, but a big hurdle for Capes? I don't think it is. The fact that some people find it problematic speaks volumes about play preferences, IMO. Perhaps the illusion of the safey net is just as good as the real thing?
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Valamir
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« Reply #16 on: April 18, 2005, 11:55:44 AM »

Its a BIG difference John.  And not one that's restricted to play preference.  Its such a big difference that its something that designers NEED to acknowledge and account for.  I'm in no way saying that new ground can't or shouldn't be broken...but I am saying that a designer needs to approach that new ground with eyes wide open.  Cavalierly dismissing it as "no different than any other game" and "just personal preference" is not only wrong, its also not very constructive.

How is it different?

Because its NOT simply social contract in D&D...I made that very clear I thought in my last post.  There are RULES that are expected to apply to the GM.  The DM has to roll to-hit same as everyone else.  Monster abilities and toughness and what monsters are suitable to be thrown against what level parties are laid out in some detail.  The DM is expected to abide by them.  Heck in 3e there is even a Challenge Rating formula and players would rightly consider their DM to be playing wrong if he strays too far from that formula without good reason.

The existance of rules establish a normative position against which everything else can be judged.  THIS is how powerful a monster is supposed to be, THIS is how powerful a spell is supposed to be, HERE are the effects of a magic sword, THIS is what things are supposed to cost, THIS this the benefit I get from a feat.  Sure, DM's have a HUGE amount of authority to ALTER those things.  But they aren't altering them in a vacuum.  They aren't inventing on the fly out of whole cloth.  There are pages and pages and pages of standards that players expect the DM to adhere to.  When the DM chooses not to adhere to them it is a notable exception and one that DMs typically must eventually justify to satisfy their players...but nearly all such differences will start from the default and change from there.  Loads of guidelines act to shape and inform all DM decisions in ways that go well beyond social contract and preferences.  There's alot of STUFF to rely on.

Other games work similarly.  Most super hero games provide information on the lifting capacity of a given hero.  That information can then be refered to as a guideline for whether VillainX can lift a train and throw it at the heroes or not.  If the answer is not but the GM chooses to do so anyway, players have definite ammunition in the form of accepted principles to demand the GM come up with an acceptable justification for this otherwise in appropriate action.  Capes offers no such guidelines and therefor no leverage for other players.  There is thus a HUGE difference in the players ability to narrate in Capes vs. a GMs ability to narrate in most games.  

To some extent the Comics Code in Capes might help fulfill some of that role.  But its hard to image a Code that encompasses the volume of stuff contained within the covers of most game books in terms of applying guidelines to what is and isn"t considered appropriate.  


Further, in a traditional GM centric game you have only 1 player who has to be trustworthy.  That player has to shoulder the responsibility of managing the game appropriately and dealing with all manner of issues.  In a GM-less / GM-distributed game you have many players who now have to be ready, willing, and able to shoulder the responsibility of managing the game.  And even if they are all ready, willing, and able to do so, it doesn't make their efforts automatically compatable.

Note:  I'm not saying thats a BAD thing.  After all, I helped design a game that does just that.  But one HAS to recognize that it is an inherently different environment with its own unique set of issues and problems.  And those issues don't go away simply by ignoring them or pretending they don't exist.  


I will note that after extensive discussion here, I now accept that Capes may actually deal with those issues better than I'd initially concluded.  Inspiration and how it works may be the piece that I was missing in my earlier analysis.  I say "may" because its such a radically different approach (for which I award all kinds of bonus points) its beyond my ability to speculate on how well it will actually address these issues in play without substantially more data.

But I did want to note that any claim that there is no difference whatsoever between a DM's narrative power in a traditional game and player narrative power in Capes is really not at all accurate.  The differences are there and need to be accounted for one way or another in the design.
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #17 on: April 18, 2005, 12:03:46 PM »

In D&D, having an 18 Strength says something about your character. Having a 6 Charisma says something about your character. Being a Wizard says something about your character. Being an elf says something about your character. Having your Lawful Good Paladin use his 18 Strength to smack the mayor says something about your character.

Those things I listed above are all potential sources of rules-enforced causality, thematic or otherwise. They vary little in this regard from, say, the traits in HeroQuest or components in Universalis.

The use of such elements and their surrounding rules sets guarantee that threads of continuity will be woven through play. If a character's actions are counter to his Alignment, there are potential enforceable consequences. If I want to woo the barmaid with a 6 Charisma I have expectations of likely outcomes to base my decision upon. The basic results of such an attempt is hardwired into the game and will inform further interactions with at least that particular barmaid.

In no way do I think that these elements and rules are enough, on their own, to manufacture this thematic causality I've been talking about. It does require player buy-in. But the rules of these games do help in a great way when it comes to producing the patterns of meaning and expectation that I referred to.

I don't see elements in Capes that assist the players in that regard. Inspiration seems to only serve that purpose if you don't spend it. All the work of creating a chain of thematic causality falls on the players because the system isn't carrying a reasonable share of the weight.

At this point I've pretty much explained myself to the extent that I'm willing to for someone else's benefit. Do you have any other questions about my stance, Tony?

-Chris
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John Harper
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« Reply #18 on: April 18, 2005, 12:33:45 PM »

Values. Values. Values.

That's what I'm seeing. Rolled out again and again and again in these threads. The things so-and-so values, as a gamer, represented as having some intrinsic, even concrete value beyond a given social contract.

These two things are equivalent:

Quote from: Example A
"I seduce the barmaid."
"No, you don't."
"Why not?"
"Because your Charisma value is 6."
"Oh. Okay."


Quote from: Example B
"I seduce the barmaid."
"No, you don't."
"Why not?"
"Because we just had a conflict called 'Seduce the Barmaid' and Jerry won it, not you. He seduced her. You didn't."
"Oh. Okay."


The thing that is different in these examples is what is valued. In one case, it's an ability score. In another, it's the result of a recent system outcome and narration.

In NEITHER case does the system bind anyone to acceptance or rejection of the new SIS.

In BOTH cases, the value may not be accepted. And the matter must go to negotiation. In D&D, I can appeal to a pseudo-system, game text, "logic," bribes of candy, or whatever.

Quote from: Example A, revisited

"But shouldn't I get to roll for it?"
"Sure. Roll at -6 because she doesn't like elves."
"She doesn't? Why not?"
"Because she's from Kargol."
"She is? Where is that?"
"Over the mountains."
and on, and on...


The only way that exchange can even happen is if the player values the same things the GM is placing value in. The player has chosen to value the numbers of the game system (in other words, accepting that a score of 6 is poor) as well as the free narration of the GM about what's what. The fact that the GM can invent the barmaid's origin doesn't seem like an abuse of power because the player is plugged in to the same value system.

The player can choose to rebel against whatever value system his is presented with. "How come you get to say where she's from?" Players always have this option. In any game.

Chris said this:

Quote from: C. Edwards
In D&D, having an 18 Strength says something about your character. Having a 6 Charisma says something about your character. Being a Wizard says something about your character. Being an elf says something about your character. Having your Lawful Good Paladin use his 18 Strength to smack the mayor says something about your character.


Why? Because the players agree that those things have value. If they don't agree, then not only do the traits say nothing, the players are not playing the same game.

In Capes, jumping over a tall building says something about your character. Repelling the alien armada says something about your character. Having the trait "Faster than lightning" says something about your character.

Why? Because the players agree that those things have value. Just like every other RPG.

Narration and consequences of outcomes in Capes are just as binding, just as fluid, just as valued, and just as causal as those of any other game.
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #19 on: April 18, 2005, 01:23:18 PM »

Hey, maybe I'm just missing the point.

I can do all this stuff without buying a game. I just like the ground work and basis for negotiation to be laid out for all the participants to see. I appreciate a system for negotiating credibility to be built into the game that doesn't resemble a bear pit, nor assumed to be pre-existing among the participants. I want the seeds for creating dependable causality to be inherent to the game. I like a framework and rules to help me and my friends experience better play than we might otherwise be able to.

Basically, I buy games so that I don't have to start from scratch every time I feel like roleplaying.

I don't think that I've concealed the fact that all my statements regarding Capes stem from my particular play preferences. Tony has repeatedly asked for my opinion, and that of others, and so I've given it to him.

Values? Hell yeah they're values, and I value games that lend something to the play experience beyond a well stuctured resolution system. Which, besides the extremely cool Click & Lock system, is all the support that Capes lends to play. That's nothing to sneeze at, but I don't think that it's enough either.

-Chris
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TonyLB
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« Reply #20 on: April 18, 2005, 01:41:48 PM »

Quote from: C. Edwards
At this point I've pretty much explained myself to the extent that I'm willing to for someone else's benefit. Do you have any other questions about my stance, Tony?

I'm pretty sure I've got it... sure enough to start talking about how my stance differs, without even summarizing it back at you.  So... y'know... if I've got it terribly wrong then I apologize, but it's a legitimate misunderstanding.  What I understand you saying is very reasonable.

But I really do think that my earlier question about whether you need restrictions is still valid.  Restrictions and fruitful constraints do a good job of patterning behavior, but they are only one of several tools to do that.  Capes patterns player behavior through reward mechanisms much more than it does through restrictions.  That's just as powerful a tool, if a more subtle one.

Suppose, for instance, you want a game where elves have a certain martial style:  they like bows and long-swords.  There are two ways to do it:  First, you can say "If you play an Elf you must spend your first two weapons proficiencies on longsword and bow."  Or you can say "Elves get +1 to hit with longsword or bow."  

In my experience either rule results in low-level elves having identical weapons-sets.  Of course, if the idea of an elf with an axe is an absolute affront to your aesthetics then that second rule isn't strong enough:  "An Elf could take any weapon... even a war maul!"  But if an exception is excusable then the reward-based pattern is plenty strong.

Does that make sense in this context?  If so then I can talk about how you can apply it to thematic causality.
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Valamir
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« Reply #21 on: April 18, 2005, 01:50:02 PM »

Quote
The thing that is different in these examples is what is valued. In one case, it's an ability score. In another, it's the result of a recent system outcome and narration.

In NEITHER case does the system bind anyone to acceptance or rejection of the new SIS.

In BOTH cases, the value may not be accepted. And the matter must go to negotiation. In D&D, I can appeal to a pseudo-system, game text, "logic," bribes of candy, or whatever.


John, in your quest to prove that there is no difference you keep missing the elephant in the middle of the living room.

There is a HUGE difference between Example A and Example B and its NOT one that can be summarily dismissed as being merely different values.

In Example A Charisma of 6 is a fact that exists in the game.  Its existed since the character was created.  Every player in the game knows exactly what Charisma of 6 means both in terms of direct game mechanic effect and relative comparison.  There are rules in the book to illustrate how to interpret Charisma 6.  There are Dragon magazine articles on how to interpret Charisma 6.  There is a history of how this particular play group interprets Charisma 6.  The player knows in advance what having a Charisma of 6 means to his chance to seduce the barmaid and this factor applies each and every time he chooses to do so.  There may well be some interpretation to be made...perhaps this barmaid has a thing for low Charisma guys, but the existance of a) a stat called Charisma that governs these things, and b) a specific score for this specific character in that specific stat will inform all of these situations.

In Example B "Jerry won the competition" is a fact that just occured moments ago.  It doesn't have any history.  It doesn't have any guidelines.  It doesn't have any illustrated game effects.  Most differently of all it doesn't apply to every single attempt by that character to seduce barmaids...just this particular one for however long players remember there was a competition about it.


What is the key difference?

Example A relies on statements that have already been established as fact, already accepted by the players, and already incorporated into the SIS.  The character has had a Charisma of 6 since he was 1st level and everyone knows what that means.

Example B relies on statements that has not been established as fact and which are being presented for the first time to be accepted on the fly at that time.  Players have had no time ascertain their appropriateness or judge what sort of effect it should have and no procedures for adjucating it if they disagree.  

The newly established fact is not that Jerry had seduced the barmaid, but that his seduction would have an impact on the other character's ability to seduce the barmaid.  This is different because in example A, all players are already primed to accept that having a low charisma would affect the situation.  


Again I'm not saying that one way is better or worse or right or wrong.

I AM saying they are different and that designers need to be aware of and account for that difference.

I don't think there is any way to dispute that.  They ARE fundamentally different.  They are created in different ways, they are presented in play in different ways, they are intepreted in different ways, and they are applied in different ways.  The fact that you can write them up in parallel formatting doesn't change that.  You claim the two are equivalent.  I say flat out, you are wrong.  And the issue is not one of values...the issue is one of process.  They may both be narrative statements made by a person with authority, but the process behind HOW they are made is completely different...in dramatic ways.

But this is getting pretty tangental since we're not really even about Capes any more.
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Larry L.
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« Reply #22 on: April 18, 2005, 01:52:35 PM »

Quote from: Valamir
Other games work similarly. Most super hero games provide information on the lifting capacity of a given hero. That information can then be refered to as a guideline for whether VillainX can lift a train and throw it at the heroes or not. If the answer is not but the GM chooses to do so anyway, players have definite ammunition in the form of accepted principles to demand the GM come up with an acceptable justification for this otherwise in appropriate action. Capes offers no such guidelines and therefor no leverage for other players. There is thus a HUGE difference in the players ability to narrate in Capes vs. a GMs ability to narrate in most games.


Does this explain why all the other super hero games that I've played are utterly unsatisfying -- because they are essentially D&D in spandex?

If so, I am glad that someone has finally gotten rid of those "guidelines." At least in the superhero genre, Capes works amazingly well.
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #23 on: April 18, 2005, 01:58:47 PM »

Tony,

Of course it makes sense. My concern is that the rewards seem transient, that they don't lend themselves to having effects lasting enough to promote thematic causality.

I'm also concerned about the behavior required to gain a reward. Some of it seems contrary to the play experience you want to promote.

Really though, at this stage, I need to play Capes some more. With all the discussion I've got a much better grasp of the issues I want to watch for during play.

-Chris
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Valamir
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« Reply #24 on: April 18, 2005, 02:02:30 PM »

Could well be Larry, I couldn't say without knowing what you found unsatisfying.  But again the point of my last few points is only to illustrate that the process on how players arrive at deciding what happens is quite different between the two.  Not to say that the "other way" is better (or worse).  

Think about the statement "and then VillainX picks up the locomotive and hurls it at the heroes."  Now consider the process those games used to arrive at that final statement vs. the process Capes would use.  I don't mean the specifics of what dice were rolled, but the mental activity that went into the decision.  Can we agree that they were very very different in their approach to determining what was and wasn't acceptable to say and how that was decided?

The key take away here is for designers to recognize that difference, decide how they want it to impact the play experience, and write rules to accomplish that taking into account those differences.
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TonyLB
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« Reply #25 on: April 18, 2005, 02:08:01 PM »

Chris:  Which rewards are you looking at?  There are a lot of layers of interlocking reward systems in Capes.  I don't know quite how to respond to your concerns that the "rewards" are transient and reward the wrong behavior until I know which things you're referring to.

Ralph:  I'm trying to grok your long, many-exampled post.  It sounds (to me) like you're saying that one approach encourages players to appeal to precedent (Dragon magazine articles, past decisions of the same sort, etc.) and the other approach... uh... encourages players to appeal to the game-mechanic for authority, maybe?  You sort of talked a lot more about the first approach than the second.  Am I close to understanding what you're saying?
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #26 on: April 18, 2005, 02:16:04 PM »

Quote from: TonyLB
Chris: Which rewards are you looking at? There are a lot of layers of interlocking reward systems in Capes. I don't know quite how to respond to your concerns that the "rewards" are transient and reward the wrong behavior until I know which things you're referring to.


Fred mentioned a couple examples in the various threads. That's one reason why I need to play more. I need to explore those interlocking rewards systems and the behaviors they promote. I've got to say though, the little play I've done, and some of the reports of others, doesn't leave me especially hopeful. I'd be ecstatic discover that my arguments were completely unfounded. I'm addicted to clicky locky thingies.

-Chris
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John Harper
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« Reply #27 on: April 18, 2005, 03:19:42 PM »

Hmmm. Wow. This is a tricky one to untangle, ain't it?

I pretty much disagree with your entire post in response to mine, Ralph. The whole friggin' thing. I mean, I won't even stipulate this much:
Quote from: Valamir
Charisma of 6 is a fact that exists in the game.


Nope. No it isn't. I disagree 100%. The fact that you see the two examples as totally different processes makes me realize that we are not in the same room with regards to the underlying theory here.

We've hit a big brick wall. I'm gonna let Tony run with it and see if he can make some headway.
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Larry L.
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« Reply #28 on: April 18, 2005, 03:24:49 PM »

Quote from: Valamir
Again I'm not saying that one way is better or worse or right or wrong.

I AM saying they are different and that designers need to be aware of and account for that difference.

...

But this is getting pretty tangental since we're not really even about Capes any more.


Well, can we safely say there seem to be two schools of thought on the matter?

This is really interesting; I don't know that this issue is covered by the Big Model or any of that stuff. Maybe all y'all game designer types wanna explore this in the general in the theory forum.

Are we in terra incognita here in terms of Theory and terminology?

Was "thematic causality" coined for sake of this discussion, Chris? It seems like a good enough working term.
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #29 on: April 18, 2005, 03:37:16 PM »

Quote from: Miskatonic
Was "thematic causality" coined for sake of this discussion, Chris? It seems like a good enough working term.


Yes, I made it up in response to a query from Tony. It was an attempt to label the process I was describing.

-Chris
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