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Author Topic: Breaking out bass playing, or credibility distribution sub-classified  (Read 4499 times)
ewilen
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« on: September 16, 2005, 05:56:10 PM »

Basically, this is an effort at disambiguation, or classifying different gaming styles so as to note their existence and distinguish them from each other. (It may also be worth emphasizing that this thread does not directly concern Creative Agenda--if it is to be fitted into the Big Model, it would probably go into the Technique layer.)

The motivation comes from a PM exchange with M.J. regarding his post in Control and Restrictions in RPGs. That thread in turn references a recent article he wrote for PTGPTP, about different GMing styles and their relation to credibility distribution.

One of the GMing styles M.J. describes, "bass playing", is a point of confusion for me. He writes,
Quote
In bass playing, plot control cannot at all be with the referee, as his responsibility is to respond to what the players cause to happen. For example, in a bass-playing sort of game, the player could say, "I'm going to search this room for evidence that the villain is tied in with the mayor." He then uses whatever resolution mechanic is required (e.g., rolls dice), and if he is successful, then the villain is tied in with the mayor, whatever the referee thought originally. That's an extreme example, but the point is that if I'm running the game as a bass-player referee, it is up to my players to decide where the story goes, and up to me to support their decisions. That makes it impossible for me to control the plot at all, beyond that I can set it up and handle the pacing.

My comment: what M.J.'s describing as bass-playing in this example is pretty clearly "Intuitive Continuity" as defined in the Glossary. He also listed several other GMing styles, which gives the impression that the list is comprehensive. However, I can think of one or two other styles not explicitly listed; it's not clear if these are to be included under Bass Playing, meaning that whatever one says about credibility distribution under Bass Playing also applies to those styles, or if, for some reason, the existence of those styles is somehow controversial.

What are those styles? First, there's a style where it is taken as a given that there are objective facts in the setting; these facts may be prepared by the GM, or they may be generated (or improvised) in-play. But if they are generated in-play, the procedure isn't influenced by metagame needs (such as what the players would like to have be true). Nevertheless, the players have full control over their characters' intent and initiation, while the execution/effect are handled via objective means in interaction with the game-world "facts". (In other words, players control the characters' actions, while the outcome is resolved "objectively".) In this style, plot control doesn't rest with the GM, but the players' control over plot is still restricted. Possibly, if the players are deely immersionist types, "no one controls the plot" and/or "there is no plot". (This isn't the same thing as "nothing happens". Also, I believe this style of play has been called "pinball Sim", "open play", and "world-based gaming" in the past--but since I can't speak at all authoritatively on any of the terminology except possibly the last, I'm defering to the originators of those terms to determine how they apply.)

Second, there must be a style where plot control resides partially with the referee and partially with the players. This must follow from the fact that in a non-Participationist, non-Illusionist, non-Trailblazing game with multiple players, either one player controls the plot or several players share control. Unless you believe that the former is true, it must be that plot control can be shared among players. And if it can be shared among players, then why not between players and GM?

I suppose I should specify that, as a meaningful label, no GMing style (or credibility-distribution arrangment) has to be in effect for the entire time from when a group of people say "Let's game!" to whenever they stop. Players might have considerable leeway during character generation session to "make up" not only their characters but other portions of the game world (SIS); the GM's reaction to the product of this session, in terms of integrating the player's creations into the setting and initial situation could rightly be termed "Bass Playing", but the game could subsequently be handled "objectively" (or even illusionistically, etc.)*

The need to specify the possible alternation of styles is to avoid a potential misunderstanding. Consider a game where the GM responds to player actions "objectively" for as long as the group maintains interest, but adds an element of interest whenever necessary to spur the player-characters into action. At the instant the GM adds something for the sake of creating an interesting situation, we don't have "objective" play (what I would call "world-based"). This isn't to say that such action by the GM would be wrong or anything--I'm trying to clarify a definition, not pass judgment.

In his reply, M.J. wrote something that I found particularly intriguing, which is relating these credibility-distribution or GMing styles to Stances. It seems to me that the "objective" style could possibly be seen as the restriction of the GM-as-participant to Actor stance or at very most Author stance in terms of his relationship to the portions of the game world which "fall under his purview". However, this is a bit of an analogy that stretches certain concepts--for example, a GM who fills in a blank space in the game world on-the-fly could still do so in an "objective" manner even though that might be seen as a kind of Director stance.

In conclusion, I would like to see if we can come to some sort of understanding on this subdivision of GMing styles outside of Participationism, Trailblazing, and Illusionism. I believe that these distinctions are important both conceptually and for the sake of fostering communication.

*I suppose I could get really technical and examine arbitrary intervals of game play; if a given interval contains any instance of Illusionism, then the interval is Illusionistic, even if a sub-interval is free of Illusionism and therefore could be "objective" as long as it isn't "bass playing". And so forth.
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Elliot Wilen, Berkeley, CA
Marco
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« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2005, 06:49:27 PM »

I think this is a great post. There's a lot about the 4-styles discussions that doesn't ring true to me and this hits on some of them.

1. I don't think that in a traditional game, absent a hella-lot of railroading, *anyone* "controls" the story. I don't even think "one person is in control of the story (or plot) at a given time" or with a given decision. I think that's some fairly black-and-white thinking that has led to a lot of poor conclusions.

I think that "story" or "plot" in a great many traditional games could be described as a form of vector addition with varying players giving varying amounts of input (multiple vectors) and the plot being a summation of all of them. The GM's input may be larger (longer) by some measures but it still isn't necessiarily proper to say that in that event the GM or a player, even if they are making some major decision in the game "has control."

2. You hit on an inconsistency in that the solutions (illusionism, participationism, even, maybe, trailblazing) are either absolute or some form of playing bass or you (as you say) reduce them to various "instances of play" wherein you try to divine what the GM and Players were doing and whether or not it had any effect on "the story" over some other interval of play (since the effects of player actions might not be immediately apparent).

If the GM is nullifying some player input but not all of it I don't think any of these modes really apply: of course they are observational so you can still look at the game and make a decision about what the mode of play was but there's a lot more to consider beyond how much player input the GM negated.

3. What's left to consider, of course, is how and why the GM negated or otherwise interperted player input. As in your example, when the GM or Player(s) decides to treat certain imaginary elements as objective and holds that as a higher standard than continuing functional play, this presents a very, very different dynamic than if the GM holds another top priority (say "everyone having fun" or "the story being good" or "the game being fair, etc.).

When discussions here point out/protest that "characters aren't real" or "the game world isn't real" this, to me, seems to be missing the powerful and important subtleties of this dynamic--a dynamic that many people rightly find very appealing.

I think that in order to analyze the Player-GM dynamic of play you have to look at:

1. How input from each party was integrated into the game's narrative.
2. What the context of the game was before and after the input with regards to how each effected person assessed it (i.e what was done vs. what it meant to each seperate person)
3. If input was negated you need to look at:
(a) How it was negated (by simple fiat, mechanically, appeal to the nature of the game world, etc.)
(b) Why each individual thinks it was negated (i.e. the GM negated input from the mechanics to preserve a character's life but appeals to hidden information no one at the table really believed existed)
(c) How (a) and (b) sit in accordance with each individual's expectation of play.

I think a technique taxonomy like this would be very useful for looking at function vs. dysfunction in traditonal RPG play (in fact, it was something I was working on a essay on after a discussion with Raven).

-Marco
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2005, 11:38:24 AM »

I don't recall whether the original essay calls these three "GMing styles" or not, and my google-fu is failing me.

Not to speak for MJYoung, but I think you're looking at the four styles from the wrong angle.  These styles are not about control, they are about the social contract regarding the creation of "plot".  They are all predicated on the assumption that someone is in control of what the plot "should be" and what the plot ends up being.  Participationism says the GM controls plot and the players play along; Illusionism says the GM controls plot and the players don't know; Trailblazing says the GM controls what the plot should be and the players try to find it; Bass Playing says the players control plot and the GM just kind of keep things coherent.  The technique level doesn't really come into it -- it's still an Illusionist game if the GM never has to employ Force to maintain the plot he created and the players think they're creating.

You are correct that there is no provision for a social contract where plot is treated as a wholly emergent property, however.  This arises, I think, from the four styles being the results of observation -- there will always be other unobserved ways to play out there.
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Marco
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« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2005, 01:09:04 PM »

I don't recall whether the original essay calls these three "GMing styles" or not, and my google-fu is failing me.
He calls them play styles (Specifically refereeing styles):
"These are expressed as play styles, specifically as referee styles, the way referees run their games and players respond within them."


Quote
The technique level doesn't really come into it -- it's still an Illusionist game if the GM never has to employ Force to maintain the plot he created and the players think they're creating.
There's some value in declaring it Illusionist, certainly (since if the players every play with that GM again, they'll know what to expect) --but (and we had this conversation before, kinda), I think the need to have a clear classification is not to your benefit here. It might simply have been a collapsed game if the GM had employed Force (i.e. the players might have seen through the illusion and bailed).

I don't think you can actually call it an Illusionist game if the GM, by his own admission, says he didn't force anything. I think the most you can accurately say is that the GM was ready to use Force but the Player's input and the GM's input was perfectly in tune so it never happened.

-Marco
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timfire
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« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2005, 01:34:01 PM »

Second, there must be a style where plot control resides partially with the referee and partially with the players. This must follow from the fact that in a non-Participationist, non-Illusionist, non-Trailblazing game with multiple players, either one player controls the plot or several players share control. Unless you believe that the former is true, it must be that plot control can be shared among players. And if it can be shared among players, then why not between players and GM?

In my experience with bass-playing, this is very often the case. IME, it's not that the GM has NO power, it's that the GM lets the players decide what's important, and then creates events that highlight the priorities of the players.

Following me? So I'm playing a hard-boiled cop. A real straight-edge "I'll turn in an old lady for jay-walking." Then, through whatever means the systems allows, I tell the GM I have a son I adore more than anything, but the son is getting into drugs and sex and violence. Then, the GM declares that one day while the cop is at the station, his son is brought in for the murder of a neighborhood gang banger...

See what just happened? The GM made up that incident with the son, based off of what the player gave. He's following the player's lead. That's my experience of bass-playing. The GM has a ton of influence over "the plot." He just lets the players tell him what direction they want him to go in. Note that the player in this example provides the starting point (the son) as well as the boundaries for play (hardboiled cop who has to choose between job and family). Following me?

I imagine that unless the players have an EXTREME amount of directrial power, it would be near impossible for the GM to have NO influence over "the plot."
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John Kim
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« Reply #5 on: September 19, 2005, 02:45:02 PM »


In my experience with bass-playing, this is very often the case. IME, it's not that the GM has NO power, it's that the GM lets the players decide what's important, and then creates events that highlight the priorities of the players.

Following me?
I suspect this is just shifting over the issue over to priorities (i.e. "what's important").  What you're saying is that in bass-playing, the GM has no input over what's important -- while in all other styles the players have no input over what's important.  What Elliot is suggesting is that presumably there should be a defined category where the GM has some say over what's important without it being totally dominant.  The problem there is that it


To Elliot:   As an alternative to Illusionism/Trailblazing/Bass-Playing, I might suggest my idea of "adventure models", which I discussed in a blog post on RPG Design Innovations, Part 2.  There I divide things up rather more finely into categories of "Location Crawl", "Battlegrounding", "Timetabling", "Trailblazing", "Illusionism", "Branching", and "Relationship Maps" along with some others.  It's more finely detailed than the approach you describe, but I think it also exposes more of how the models actually work. 

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timfire
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« Reply #6 on: September 19, 2005, 03:05:12 PM »

I suspect this is just shifting over the issue over to priorities (i.e. "what's important"). 

Well... I believe controlling "the plot" and "what's important" is two different things. So we should clarify what we're talking about.

But I don't believe ewilen and I are talking about the same thing. This is the scenerio he quotes in his original post:

Quote
For example, in a bass-playing sort of game, the player could say, "I'm going to search this room for evidence that the villain is tied in with the mayor." He then uses whatever resolution mechanic is required (e.g., rolls dice), and if he is successful, then the villain is tied in with the mayor, whatever the referee thought originally.

In this example, the player created the link between the mayor and the villian. The GM uses a bit of illusionism to make the player think he didn't, but really, he did. I think ewilen's right that this is a good example of "Intuitive Continuity".

In my example, the GM created the arrest of the son. It "came out of nowhere" as far as the players are concerned. And in my type of bass playing, the GM would continue to create scenes based solely on his judgment, all to test the character. Do you notice the subtly? I don't think I'm explaining it very well.
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ewilen
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« Reply #7 on: September 19, 2005, 06:39:45 PM »

Hi, John--I think part of your post got truncated...you wrote "The problem there is that it" (and then the paragraph stops).

Tim, I'm seeing the subtlety pretty clearly, and that's really my point--I feel that Bass Playing is too big if it includes both those play styles. We agree that the style where the GM ties the villain to the mayor purely in reaction to player interest and/or dice rolls is "Intuitive Continuity"; the style where the GM develops new situations to challenge the characters is a form of "driving with Bangs". Neither of these is what I would call "objective" or "world-based". (I tended to identify with the latter term back on rec.games.frp.advocacy, but I think "objective" might be better; I'd call it "Objectivism" if it weren't for a political philosophy by that name. The "clockwork campaign" is another term that I think has been used in the past.)

Now I'll readily admit that consistently objective play may be a practical impossibility over the course of most campaigns. At very least, there will likely be times when someone has to make a Directorial insertion into the SIS, at a point that matters deeply to the players. But to my mind, this doesn't negate the real difference between an objective style of play and other styles. (Whether one finds the objective style appealing or not is also beside the point.)

Joshua, I think I see what you're saying here:
Quote
These styles are not about control, they are about the social contract regarding the creation of "plot".  They are all predicated on the assumption that someone is in control of what the plot "should be" and what the plot ends up being.
I.e., in the "big tent" of Bass Playing, the GM expressly leaves it up to the players to decide on the focus of play, regardless of whether this is actually accomplished using Intuitive Continuity, Bangs, or objective play.
Quote
You are correct that there is no provision for a social contract where plot is treated as a wholly emergent property, however.  This arises, I think, from the four styles being the results of observation -- there will always be other unobserved ways to play out there.
But here I have to protest that plotless or "emergent plot" games have been amply observed.

Finally, about the "what's important" vs. "plot" issue--that's quite tricky. Control can be distributed in any number of ways throughout the process of campaign/scenario creation and execution. Suppose the players agree to play in a scenario whose theme is devised by the GM ("you're Men in Black whose job  entails simultaneously investigating and covering up paranormal phenomena"). Where does it start/stop being Participationism: when the players understand whether they'll be able to secretly work against their Agency, or when they know that their choices will meaningfully affect whether they succeed in their missions?
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Elliot Wilen, Berkeley, CA
ewilen
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« Reply #8 on: September 19, 2005, 06:57:29 PM »

Hey, John. I forgot to mention that I appreciate the classification of scenario designs, but the problem here is to reconcile your categories and the four-styles scheme. The extreme case I used in another thread was where the identity of an NPC could vary depending completely on how the PC's react to him. In your classification, this would be Illusionism; based on MJ's example, I think it would be bass-playing.

So either the four styles are happening on a completely different level, or there's some other categorical axis. And I suppose that my main goal here is to draw out that axis as one which concerns objectivity as distinct from control.
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Elliot Wilen, Berkeley, CA
Josh Roby
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« Reply #9 on: September 19, 2005, 08:32:51 PM »

I have to protest that plotless or "emergent plot" games have been amply observed.

We're in violent agreement, here.  'Plotless' play does not fit under any of the four styles, in my mind, because the four styles begin with the assumption that plot must be an intentional creation.  The definitions are based around "Who controls the plot" and the options did not include "nobody".  Therefore plotless play is not adequately accounted for in the four styles.
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timfire
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« Reply #10 on: September 20, 2005, 12:45:56 AM »

Hey, John. I forgot to mention that I appreciate the classification of scenario designs, but the problem here is to reconcile your categories and the four-styles scheme...

So either the four styles are happening on a completely different level, or there's some other categorical axis. And I suppose that my main goal here is to draw out that axis as one which concerns objectivity as distinct from control.

Well, as much as we all appreciate MJ's efforts, I don't believe the "four styles" he presents is universally accepted as exhaustive. You remember this thread, don't you? [Theory 101: The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast posted] A number of people commented on this issue.
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ewilen
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« Reply #11 on: September 20, 2005, 02:05:41 PM »

Yes, I do remember that thread--in fact I raised similar concerns over there. This here thread comes out of PMing with MJ and him encouraging me to seek clarification on the point of terminology. At the same time, I'm wondering whether there's really some kind of conceptual controversy or breakdown. Here (or in that other thread) we have distinctions between the "the plot" and "the action", or between "the plot" and "what's important". There seems to be room for a good deal of variation depending on personal perception and context--what might in some situations be Intuitive Continuity in the service of maintaining focus on what you consider important, might in others be considered Illusionism (e.g., where "what's important" is, "Can I beat the challenge all by myself?")
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Elliot Wilen, Berkeley, CA
Josh Roby
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« Reply #12 on: September 20, 2005, 02:30:22 PM »

That sounds like two "levels", Eliot -- technique (Force, Intuitive Continuity) serving agendas (focus on what's important, dictating what is important).
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ewilen
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« Reply #13 on: September 22, 2005, 12:07:10 AM »

Joshua,

I agree--there are at least two levels, and to my mind they're also tied in with stances, as MJ suggested via PM. Marco's comments on "negating" (or "blocking") are also helpful. I just want to acknowledge that. I've been thinking about how to generalize regarding these issues for the last 24 hours but I'm not really satisfied with what I have.
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Elliot Wilen, Berkeley, CA
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