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Author Topic: Silent Railroading and the Intersection of Scenario Prep & Player Authorship  (Read 25283 times)
Paul T
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« on: August 07, 2006, 12:37:05 PM »

Hello!

I've had a bit of realization recently. I've started GMing a game with a mix of experienced roleplayers and newbies. I'm applying some Forge techniques, and generally with great success, so that aspect of play has been really promising. But a few problems cropped up (you can read about the first two sessions here, if anyone is interested). Discussing it with the players has led me to thinking about the following two things:


The First Thing

This is probably old hat for all you regulars. If you feel that way, feel free to skip down to the Second Thing.

Railroading is usually discussed as an issue of forcing others to follow your own agenda, misusing your authority to push the other players into your idea of what they should be doing, and so on. What isn't discussed as much is how it affects the way you play the game even when you aren't actively making efforts to railroad.

My thesis, essentially, is that the desire to see a predetermined outcome in the future makes a player withdraw from making meaningful contributions to the game.

In my "Princes & Prophecies" game, we had two particularly awkward incidents. In one incident, I felt that a player didn't contribute to a particular scene as much as he had the opportunity to do. I gave him free reign to basically jump in whenever he wanted, in whatever way he wanted, and make a cool scene happen. However, when he did jump in, it was to say "I run away into the woods", and I felt like he didn't really engage with the scene at all, leaving the rest of us hanging. I've discussed it with the player since then and discovered that he's really looking forward to a particular climactic scene. I'm thinking that play up until that moment might seem like sitting in a waiting room. (I've since gently pointed out to him that the scene he's hoping for is hardly guaranteed to happen. He saw my point right away, so I think this won't be a problem again.)

In the second incident, the players were investigating an NPC who they thought might have been involved in a conspiracy. I had determined when I wrote up the scenario that this particular NPC wasn't involved in the conspiracy, and was eager to get to the next part--possibly a cool scene I had been hoping would happen since the beginning of the game. It turned into a real power struggle, where one player really wanted the NPC to be involved, and started authoring elements to suggest that he was, and I was resisting. This also ties in to the second Thing (below).

Thinking about this has led me to think that when we look ahead to a cool event or thing we want to see, and expect to see, we disengage from playing in the moment. In the scene with the NPC, I'm sure I wasn't really participating in the sense of pushing the game towards some cool play.

I think that 90% of the problems I've had as a GM in the past are due to this--when I'm looking forward to some scene or some revelation or plot twist, everything becomes boring until we get there, so I am not really interacting with the players--I'm just trying to shut everything down so we can get to the next bit. The players feel lost, everyone gets bored and/or frustrated.

In games where the players have the power to contribute as authors, they can do this as well. Although in games with distributed authority no one can fully railroad the game, anyone can still withdraw from play by hoping to see their vision come out on top of anyone else's.

Does that sound reasonable? Am I missing anything major, or operating under some false assumptions?


The Second Thing

This stems from the first thing, as well as some posts I made in a couple of other threads recently. I expressed myself very poorly there, so I'm going to try again here. Rather than keep trying to derail other people's threads, I'm starting my own.

The Second Thing is a question: How do you adjust your scenario prep for the level of player authorship that is possible in the game?

In an old-school RPG, the GM has total authority. This also means that the GM must prepare everything about the game (or improvise it in play). There is little or no chance of players stepping on back-story, even though they can still totally screw up anything the GM has got planned for the game itself.

However, once you start playing in a system with a level of player authorship, you have to deal with the impact of player authorship on your scenario prep. How do you adjust your preparation to the level of player authorship in your game?

I don't think we need to talk here about player authoring messing up scenes you have planned or "plot" structure. The Forge concensus seems to be that such things are bad, unless expressly agreed upon beforehand. I am also of this opinion (as I said in the First Thing). However, most games with a GM still are based on some kind of back-story or Situation. Ron Edwards, in particular, has often said that games like the Pool are not "off-the-cuff" improvised ventures, but need to be prepped for play. In his words, a "lovingly prepped back-story" is an important, wonderful thing. So, how do you make that work when the players have the power to author material and could potentially conflict with something the GM has determined before play?

Example: In my game, the players are exploring a distant village (kind of like in DitV) and coming across a situation they must decide how to react to or deal with. However, as happened in the scene I mentioned, a player was trying to author content that directly contradicted my back-story (that NPC could not have been involved in the events the player was trying to suggest). This is an example of how these two things intersect in a negative way. I've since worked something out, but I'm worried about more such situations coming up.

Possible solutions include:

* The "No Myth" approach, if I understand it correctly--anything not yet introduced in play is not part of the picture, period. The GM's back-story is merely a collection of material he or she would like to introduce to play. If the players' contributions make that material impossible to include, the preparation is wasted. (An example of this is "Bangs" prepared by a GM before play. Some may be ignored, others may never get "thrown in" at all.)
* Social contract: The players agree not to improvise content in certain areas of play. (This sounds a little problematic to me, being kind of hard to define.)
* All backstory is known before play begins. There are no "GM secrets".

Any others?

---

So, how do you balance back-story prep with player contributions?

Looking forward to your suggestions, or any experiences you've had which relate to these two issues.

Sincerely,


Paul
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TonyLB
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« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2006, 12:50:57 PM »

So, how do you make that work when the players have the power to author material and could potentially conflict with something the GM has determined before play?

Story prep in such a situation is not like laying out choreography for your actors.  That sort of hierarchy of authority just isn't there, as you've rightly discovered.

Instead, it's more like persuading or seducing your fellow players into willingly investing in the directions that you want for the game.

How do you get a group of fully-empowered players to (for instance) have their characters slowly, painstakingly travel to Mount Doom and get rid of the One Ring?  You make it sound really, really cool.  You sell it as a vehicle for the type of game-creation that they want to do.

If you put this preparation into the game and the players just immediately veer away from it ("Hey, or we could journey to the Western Isles and ask the departed elves to use their collective magic to destroy the ring," "But doing that would give Sauron access to the last safe haven!" "It's a risk we have to take."  "Coooool") then your prepared stuff just wasn't engaging enough to draw them in.  No harm, no foul ... they've created something they like better.  If they didn't have something better then they'd be trudging off toward Mount Doom right about now.

Am I making any sense here?  I'm speaking from the perspective of just having finished many hours of prep-work for Capes, so I may be a little far out in left-field, mentally.
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Paul T
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« Reply #2 on: August 07, 2006, 01:32:35 PM »

Tony,

That makes total sense.

But, just to be totally clear:

I'm not at all talking about "where the story will go". I'm talking about what has been determined about the past. For instance, if I, as Tolkien, have decided that the Ring corrupts everyone who uses it, and figured out the history of Middle-Earth based on that, what do I do if one of the players wins some kind of roll and narrates that Gollum was actually a monster who has earned some human qualities by having the Ring? (That sounds kind of cool, actually...)

What if one of the players decides that there are actually five rings made by Sauron? Or that the Ring wasn't made by Sauron at all but by Bilbo...

I'm just talking about the back-story--the events that took place before play even begins.

Best,


Paul
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jburneko
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« Reply #3 on: August 07, 2006, 01:51:46 PM »

Hey Paul,

I think you might be confounding player authorship, with Director Stance (if you're familiar with that).  That's not the case.  In my Dogs in the Vineyard game and in my Sorcerer game, I as the GM have 100% total control what has come before and what NPCs want and are up to.  Nothing my players say or do will change that.  However, my players have co-authorship because I don't have any pre-prep resolution in mind for any pre-play situations or in-play conflicts.  The judgements they make and the actions they take on those judgements are 100% theirs and outcomes of conflicts *within the fiction* (not between players) are ceeded to the dice.

This is in fact my prefered way to play and in fact the way Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard are written.

Now, if you WANT to ceed backstory and NPC behavior control over to the players that's a whole matter entirely.  I'm just saying that you don't have to if you want to bring player authorship issues into play.  So, can you clearify what your preference is?

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: August 07, 2006, 01:55:15 PM »

Gahhhh .... OK, I don't know if I'm going to be helpful to you or not, Paul. Some people have told me I'm a terrible bastard when talking about this stuff.

I'm going to say "you" based on your previous posts and my inferences from them. If "you" doesn't apply actually to you, in one of my sentences, just imagine a guy who's not you, but to whom the sentence does apply, OK?

You can consider the idea that narrational authority works best when its parameters are set in stone. Compare these three narrations (not real games, just made-up mechanics, but the points are extracted from my own play-experiences).

1. GM says, "Roll!" Player says, "I got a 20! Double damage" [rattle rattle, count + multiply] "82 points! I cut his fuckin' head off!" GM says, "Yeah!"

Sounds pretty standard, right? Well, hold on. You'll notice that the GM didn't narrate. The player did. The player totally narrated and the GM totally accepted it. So the first thing I need to get across to you is that this happens often. It's normal; people do it and don't even think about it, or notice that they cede narrational rights to one another all the time without any awful repercussions.

You're about to type, "yeah but." I know. This was the easy example with a minor, simple point. Just hold yer water and keep readin'.

2. GM says, "Roll!" Player says, "I got a 20! I get to narrate!" (launches into long and involved monologue about how this opponent is really his long-lost mother, to the consternation of the GM who'd been playing the NPC all along as someone totally different, say, Barnabas the stablehand) The GM is now forced to junk 80% of his prep and re-write the whole scenario in the next microsecond as the player looks at him expectantly.

That's the fear, right? It's a common one. You should have seen Jesse Burneko, a frequent poster in the Adept Press forum, express this fear in the most dedicated, nightmare-beyond-nightmare terms, a few years ago. (Hah! And Jesse just posted as I was typing! How's that for satisfying? pats own back)

I'm saying, this isn't what most people are talking about, when we talk about non-railroady Narrativist play. This is kind of a consensual-storytelling, make-it-up-as-we-go, round-robin type thing. Frankly, it's pretty boring in most circumstances and tends to create wandering, meaningless pseudo-narratives.

(All right, it can be done with some effort and very strong parameters with designated unknowns. I'm not saying it's impossible to play this way. But it's not what I'm talking about and what you've been expressing interest in, in all those previous threads.)

3. GM says, "Roll!" [rattle rattle] GM says, "I got a 4!" Player says, "I got a 20! I win, and that lets me narrate! Ummm ... OK, he knocks the sword out of my hand, but I get inside and grab him and flip him! His mask comes off!" GM says, "And guess what ... it's Barnabas, the stablekeeper!" Player: "No kidding? Holy shit!"

This one is the one I want you to pay attention to.

a) In this case, the player knows that he has no authority over back-story or prep (i.e. who that is, wearing the mask), but has decided it's time to find out. He could just as well have decided to kill the guy and say he tumbled into the chasm, still wearing his mask, and his PC would thus never find out who it was. But the player also knows he cannot invent who is wearing the mask - his authority extends to finding out the GM's prep, not inventing it retroactively.

b) The GM knows that the player has this limited/circumscribed power, and he also knows that he (the GM) must cede narrational authority for this significant outcome (the guy rolled a 20, after all) without knowing which way that would go. But he also knows that Barnabas is the guy in the mask, and that he will be called upon, as GM, to play accordingly no matter what is narrated. For example, if the player states the guy is dead, then hey - Barnabas is dead, identity known or not.

Does that help at all? I'm pretty sure you are used to putting narrational authority (how it happens, what happens), plot authority (now is the time for a revelation!), and situational authority (who's there, what's going on) together into one basket. I'm trying to help you tease them apart a little.

Best, Ron
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JMendes
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« Reply #5 on: August 07, 2006, 02:49:48 PM »

Ahey, :)

Paul, you're getting some good answers on your Second Thing, which is way cool, but I wanted to add support for your First Thing.

the desire to see a predetermined outcome in the future makes a player withdraw from making meaningful contributions to the game. [...] when we look ahead to a cool event or thing we want to see, and expect to see, we disengage from playing in the moment.

You ask if you're operating under false assumptions, and I want to tell you right off the bat that you're not. It may not be a universal phenomenon, but what you're talking about is definitely real.

Check out this account of mine of when it happened to me.

Cheers,
J.
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Marco
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« Reply #6 on: August 07, 2006, 03:52:35 PM »

There's some very well made points in this thread.

In anything approximating a traditional game (which is what we are talking about here) there is going to be a certain amount of "vision" provided on the part of the GM--that's still there and it's a huge advantage of having a traditional GM.

As has been stated, I think very clearly, the play (for most even semi-traditional games, which DitV and Sorcerer, I think, fall into) is going to be well informed by that vision.

Here's some stuff I have seen work fruitfully towards "that scene you want."

1. The GM talks meta-game. I was told (by the guy who runs my Sorcerer game) at one point during the adventure that "X was going to happen no matter what." I mean, it was entirely clear that X was going to happen--and I *got* that it was essentially some in-play framing for the set-up of the whole adventure. But having the GM *say it* (and thereby set up the "next scene") would have been pure gold if I'd really disliked having it happen (it was my character being set up and humiliated before the court--and if I wasn't on the same page with my GM, I might've really objected to that).

So talking about what hand you are taking (or at least making it real clear maybe without being explicit) can help.

2. The same group plays with a player who is not always on the same page as the rest of us. She has tended to disengage from plot-hooks in the past (including during a Trollbabe game) and, when I ran a game for her--and she (a) didn't provide me with a requested player-generated plot-hook and then (b) avoided mine, I felt (I think) like you did when the guy ran off into the woods.

In this case, while (again) we were not allowing players to narrate situational-backstory (and really, as with what Ron says, I'm not sure how well that'd work for most of the games I play), I had two learning experiences.

.- Get player buy-in. I'd stated that I wanted something that engaged the PCs. I got it from two of the three and ran the game. If I'd had a talk with her about engaging with *my* plot-hook (sight unseen) since she didn't provide her own, that might've averted my sudden sense of disorientation when my scene with her collapsed.

.- In the *next* game I ran for her, when she avoided a scene, she did something really cool: she proposed *another* scene! We stopped for a minute and she was like "Do I have to do X?" and I said "No. You don't--seriously." And she said "Okay. I don't. But I'll go to a party instead."

It took a bit of fancy footwork to, really fast, come up with a party-themed encounter--but it was actually a very good move. It kept her character consistent, meant I wasn't imposing my scene on her, and wasn't just totally passive on her part.

I think it might be fair to, out of game, have the conversation you had with the guy right there. After all, Players may not have the same level of directoral power of the back-story as a GM in most games--but they're still responsible for their share of pacing and proactive activity. If a Player disengages with the GM, I think it's fair to ask the player to contribute something and try to work with them.

-Marco
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: August 07, 2006, 04:19:02 PM »

Great post, Marco.

Let's see, it brings up something else too, which is a pretty common formalized version of what Marco is describing.

GM: "All right, you guys see the lamps of Apple Town up ahead. You've arrived."

Player: "I spend a Story Token. My uncle lives here! We go to his cottage."

In games with such mechanics (or, in fact, games without such mechanics but in which such suggestions are welcome as suggestions), the GM pretty much has to be ready for some footwork, once in a while. If his prep, for instance, includes the assumption that no one in this town knows any of the PCs, well, he might have to think a bit.

But on the other hand, and presuming that the group is fully aware of these mechanics or these suggestions, it's really not as prep-destroying as you might think. The GM might have been wondering how the hell to get these guys into the conflicts of the town, and the uncle will be a much better entry into an informational scene than the random encounter with a talkative pickpocket the GM had been planning. Or maybe he can make the big villain of the scenario into the uncle! Perfectly fine and more fun to GM, frankly.

So with a little mental preparation and agility, and bearing in mind that, contrary to popular belief, people don't tend to spend such tokens (or whatever) except to make things better, even this level of "interference" doesn't introduce chaos and awfulness into the experience of play.

The only GM who needs fear such things is the one who wants every scene to go as planned, for every PC decision to go as anticipated or as directed at the time, for pre-written lines to be spoken, and for the whole session to turn out just as scripted.

Best, Ron
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Paul T
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« Reply #8 on: August 07, 2006, 11:32:10 PM »

(This is a little sketchy as I'm writing late at night. If it doesn't make sense, please ask me to clarify, and I'll
rewrite it tomorrow when I'm more awake. I've tried to separate responses to various people or topics, as well.)


Jesse,

I think you might be confounding player authorship, with Director Stance (if you're familiar with that).

Yes. I meant director stance. I just wasn't sure if it was quite the right term, so I used "authorship". But "director stance" IS what I'm talking about. Thanks. Player authorship has a different meaning, as you quite succinctly pointed out.

Quote
Now, if you WANT to ceed backstory and NPC behavior control over to the players that's a whole matter entirely.  I'm just saying that you don't have to if you want to bring player authorship issues into play.  So, can you clearify what your preference is?

I guess I've got some incoherence going on in my own head. I took an old scenario I'd written up long ago (basically just back-story and Situation with no provisions for what the characters will do in reaction to it) and am now trying to run it in an "experimental" mode. So far, "experimental" has meant that I'm pretty much going with anything the players throw in. This is the first time that I've bumped up against a problem because of that. (This is pretty informal, system-wise; I just listen to what the players are saying and nudge them to frame their own scenes. But mechanics-wise, I also have the "spend a Story Token" thing that Ron mentions.)

99% of the player contributions have been great, so I'm totally on board with the idea that they're not something to be afraid of. Particulary, spending a limited resource to add to the game means that it isn't going to be done frivolously, so generally speaking only cool stuff will be added this way.

So, I guess I just need to decide where to draw the line. I can't have both director stance stuff going on AND expect keep my back-story intact.

Or am I missing something?

---

Ron and Marco,

Your comments make a lot of sense, and I'm going to digest them a little more before I respond in more depth and miss some vital part of what you said.

However, I have a very simple question for Ron:

When you play the Pool (I'm thinking particularly of your "Jasmine and the Pool" game) with a solid back-story in mind, how do you (or how would you) react to some unexpected narration that clashes with your back-story? Your account makes it sound like there was no incongruity between playing the Pool and using a predetermined back-story.

(I'm also thinking of games that allow players to state goals, or set the stakes of their actions. For example, in an interrogation scene, a player might be able to say, "I want to roll to find out what his connection to the mafia is," and if he is successful, then the victim of the interrogation is involved in the mafia, period. Those two examples are really the same thing in slightly different packaging, as far as I'm concerned.)

This is more or less what I'm trying to get at with this discussion.

---

Secondly (for Ron again), your 3.a) is my "solution" number two (overt agreement before the game), correct?

Your 3.b) is the sort of play I'm looking for. If your 3.a) is my "solution" number two, is that what you're suggesting should be used here?

2. GM says, "Roll!" Player says, "I got a 20! I get to narrate!" (launches into long and involved monologue about how this opponent is really his long-lost mother, to the consternation of the GM who'd been playing the NPC all along as someone totally different, say, Barnabas the stablehand) The GM is now forced to junk 80% of his prep and re-write the whole scenario in the next microsecond as the player looks at him expectantly.

That's the fear, right? It's a common one.

I actually went into the game having gotten over my fear of this happening. When it actually caused the problem you mention here in the second session, I was kind of caught off-guard, having heard a whole lot of "don't worry, it works out really well" talk here on the Forge. (Of course, it has worked really well most of the time, at least so far.)

So now I'm thinking that it (players introducing material) is not a bad thing--but I can't see how it can coexist with a prepared back-story.

---

On to the theory:

Does that help at all? I'm pretty sure you are used to putting narrational authority (how it happens, what happens), plot authority (now is the time for a revelation!), and situational authority (who's there, what's going on) together into one basket. I'm trying to help you tease them apart a little.

I can see this, altough it's a little hazy. Two questions:

1. Is it even possible to separate them in any meaningful way in play? Isn't there tons of overlap between those three types of authority?

2. Although I see what you're saying (given my reservations in the previous sentence), I'm not sure what you're getting at by getting me to look at it. If there's more coming, great, I follow you, let's carry on. If not, I'm not sure why you're trying to get me to understand those distinctions or how it deals with my question.

---

Joao,

Thanks for the heads up! Your account was also interesting for me to read.

---

A great big thanks to everyone. The wheels in my head are a-turnin'.

Sincerely,


Paul
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Paul T
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« Reply #9 on: August 07, 2006, 11:42:38 PM »

Marco,

I'm not sure I quite follow you here:

.- Get player buy-in. I'd stated that I wanted something that engaged the PCs. I got it from two of the three and ran the game. If I'd had a talk with her about engaging with *my* plot-hook (sight unseen) since she didn't provide her own, that might've averted my sudden sense of disorientation when my scene with her collapsed.

First of all, "I'd stated that I wanted something that engaged the PCs": you mean you said this to the players at the beginning of the game... right? I'm not entirely sure if that's what you mean. (And, if so, by "get player buy-in" you're talking about getting the players to introduce or select some element that engages them, correct?)

Also, what kind of "talk" about "engaging with *my* plot-hook (sight unseen)" do you wish you had had?

I'm just having some trouble understanding that paragraph, but it seems to me that it's an important one. :)

Quote
I think it might be fair to, out of game, have the conversation you had with the guy right there. After all, Players may not have the same level of directoral power of the back-story as a GM in most games--but they're still responsible for their share of pacing and proactive activity. If a Player disengages with the GM, I think it's fair to ask the player to contribute something and try to work with them.

Yeah! I've been planning to do things this way from now on (and I will when we meet again). The point about having the conversation right then and there is taken.

Thanks,


Paul
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: August 08, 2006, 03:25:11 AM »

Hi Paul,

Again, I'm phrasing this post harshly due to my own personality flaws. I am aware that in some cases, you've provided examples which show you don't always accord with my "you" as utilized below. When "you" doesn't apply, please apply it to some guy who is not you. I know I said this before, but it really matters in this post.

PART ONE: FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPT

As it turns out, it's easiest to respond by taking your last point first. I'll expand those authorities I talked about into a list, with a key addition and with the order changed for greater clarity:

Content authority - over what we're calling back-story, e.g. whether Sam is a KGB mole, or which NPC is boinking whom

Plot authority - over crux-points in the knowledge base at the table - now is the time for a revelation! - typically, revealing content, although notice it can apply to player-characters' material as well as GM material - and look out, because within this authority lies the remarkable pitfall of wanting (for instances) revelations and reactions to apply precisely to players as they do to characters

Situational authority - over who's there, what's going on - scene framing would be the most relevant and obvious technique-example, or phrases like "That's when I show up!" from a player

Narrational authority - how it happens, what happens - I'm suggesting here that this is best understood as a feature of resolution (including the entirety of IIEE), and not to mistake it for describing what the castle looks like, for instance; I also suggest it's far more shared in application than most role-players realize

You wrote,

Quote
1. Is it even possible to separate them in any meaningful way in play? Isn't there tons of overlap between those three types of authority?

2. Although I see what you're saying (given my reservations in the previous sentence), I'm not sure what you're getting at by getting me to look at it. If there's more coming, great, I follow you, let's carry on. If not, I'm not sure why you're trying to get me to understand those distinctions or how it deals with my question.

Well, there you go. This is the crux of your entire presence at the Forge, the origin of every question you've asked so far, and why you've gravitated toward particular threads or points of mine over the last few weeks. I'm getting you to look at this because it's the knot in your mind, and despite my general suspicion toward psychology as a discipline, they get one thing dead-on right - no one sees his or her own tangled-up knots.

To answer your #1: It's not a question of whether separating them in a meaningful way is possible. You have it totally reversed, like someone who thinks water flows downhill so that all water can eventually mix in the ocean. I'm suggesting that you look at it from the total opposite viewpoint - that these four things are separate, they will always be separate, and just because you always put them in the same fruit bowl (and say "There is one fruit!" and also, "I am Fruit Guy in play!!") doesn't blend them as units.

As bluntly as possible: no. There is no overlap between those four types of authority. They are four distinct phenomena.

Do they have causal relationships among one another? Of course. The easiest version is top-down reductionist: because content is consulted, a plot authority decision is made, and then a situational authority decision/presentation must be made, and finally narrational authority must be exercised. I assume that for you, this is the most easy and familiar construction, and you're used to conducting them (or at least constructing them, idealistically speaking) as a single causal sequence in this order, with one person in charge - it's a "thing," perhaps the thing you call GMing.

As a side note, other causal relationships exist, putting the authorities into a different order (to preserve the top-to-bottom causation, for clarity). For example, you can reverse them entirely, and remarkably it is very easy, although it's harder to catch oneself doing it because memory typically rewrites the act into the more familiar sequence I described above. We'll have to work on this idea later, because, for instance, Kickers and Bangs in Sorcerer rearrange the sequence far more drastically, putting situational authority at the top/starting position. Please don't get distracted by this paragraph. It's intended to be a distant signpost to future discussion.

The real point, not the side-point, is that any one of these authorities can be shared across the individuals playing without violating the other authorities.

You're stuck on that. You're used to the idea that GM = Fruit Guy for the One Fruit, and it seems to you as if handing out the single fruit around the table will result in a monkey-mess of nasty thrown fruit pieces. All of the other questions you asked are simply manifestations of this basic mental knot. I think the Jasmine game is a good example to have brought up, because it shows how that doesn't have to happen ... and no, it's not merely because everyone "played nice" and "wasn't a dick." It's about rules.

PART TWO: MY POOL GAME, AND HOW WE ORGANIZED THE FRUITS

Quote
When you play the Pool (I'm thinking particularly of your "Jasmine and the Pool" game) with a solid back-story in mind, how do you (or how would you) react to some unexpected narration that clashes with your back-story? Your account makes it sound like there was no incongruity between playing the Pool and using a predetermined back-story.

I think you get this paragraph already, so consider it setup for the next one. There weren't any such moments in the Jasmine game, partly because I was working with a relationship map, not with a plot in mind. I had a bunch of NPCs. Whatever happened, I'd play them, which is to say, I'd decide what they did and said. You should see that I simply gave up the reins of "how the story will go" (plot authority) entirely. I'm pretty sure that you're reluctant to give up those reins despite experience, in your play-history, that lets you know that they don't work very well.

OK, that was the easy paragraph, and I know it didn't answer your question. Here's the basis for my answer: I'm also pretty sure that you think that giving up those reins also means giving up situational authority and content authority, and that's what I want to concentrate on now.

For instance, in the Jasmine game, I scene-framed like a mother-fucker. That's the middle level: situational authority. That's my job as GM in playing The Pool. By the rules, players can narrate outcomes to conflict rolls, but they can't start new scenes. But I totally gave up authority over the "top" level, plot authority. I let that become an emergent property of the other two levels: again, me with full authority over situation (scene framing), and the players and I sharing authority over narrational authority, which provided me with cues, in the sense of no-nonsense instructions, regarding later scene framing.

And similarly, like situational authority, content authority was left entirely to my seat at the table. There was no way for a player's narration to clash with the back-story. All of the player narrations concerned plot authority, like the guy's mask coming off in my hypothetical example above, or in the case of the Jasmine game, the one suitor becoming a popular rather than sinister guy through his actions.

This is key. Functional role-playing requires that everyone knows who has what authority in all four kinds, and whether it switches around from person to person for any one (or more) of the kinds, and if it does, when and how. But if someone thinks narrational authority is the same as (for instance) content authority, and someone else thinks content authority is concentrated in one person's hands, well, you're in for some serious techniques-clash disagreements.

Right now, RPG design is undergoing teething pains in terms of how to teach and apply these ideas. We are seeing, practically with every new game if you focus on the Forge and Forge-ish scene, "design battles" between the older assumptions (including functional ones) and the new ideas, but also between the potential difficulties inherent in the new ideas, regarding these four types of authority in particular.

PART THREE: YOU CAN KEEP THE CONTENT AUTHORITY IF YOU WANT

Quote
(I'm also thinking of games that allow players to state goals, or set the stakes of their actions. For example, in an interrogation scene, a player might be able to say, "I want to roll to find out what his connection to the mafia is," and if he is successful, then the victim of the interrogation is involved in the mafia, period. Those two examples are really the same thing in slightly different packaging, as far as I'm concerned.)

That's a Trollbabe technique that is specifically permitted by the rules, which is to say, the GM is bound by the rules of the game to add elements into the back-story, continually, based on the conflicts that the players bring into it. If the players don't want to do any such thing, they frame no such conflicts in this manner, and if they do, well, the GM's job is to cope. Trollbabe scenarios are very simple in prep because they are built to balloon in complexity during play itself, if desired.

But note - that is a technique of a specific game, and not even a required one within it. It does not exist in The Pool's rules, and in fact, is defined out of them given the rules that are there. (Many people think The Pool is some kind of free-form, make-it-up, la-la kind of fairy role-playing. It's totally not. I claim it's as rules-heavy as Phoenix Command.)

So, as it's a technique, you can say, "That's not a technique for me. I want that solid back-story which I can play from, without worrying that Sam suddenly becomes a KGB mole at the drop of a die." And I really want to emphasize that. You can say that, and you can pick, and even design games that preserve that point. No one will call you a bad role-player or sneer "traditional" at you ... or if they do, here at the Forge, tattle on them to me, and I'll kick their asses. A lot of people get jazzed by the possibilities of Trollbabe-like conflict-framing, and in their enthusiasm, they get snotty toward techniques-combinations that don't allow it.

I'd also like to address your dialogue with Jesse, as part of this section. Bluntly, you are beautifully demonstrating the "there is only one fruit" fallacy. "If I let them contribute, they'll change my back-story!!" And I'm saying, no, the only way that other people at the table can change your back-story is if the System you-all employ at the table says they can do so. Is, or is not, content authority to be shared at this table, in this game, and according to these particular rules for organizing the sharing? It either can be or it can't be. If it can't, then your back-story is safe, even if the System you-all employ shares (for instance) narrational or even situational authority.

Also, I suggest avoiding bringing Stance into the discussion any further. I realize why Jesse did so, but you are so knotted up about the core issue that you're seeing Director Stance as being "the GM" in your one-fruit construction, and that leads you to wild imaginings of what could or would happen at the table if you were to share the one-fruit "thing" freely around it. And that's not necessary, given my current point. I urge you to read the paragraph just above this one over and over and over.

PART FOUR: YOUR PRINCES & PROPHECIES

Quote
In one incident, I felt that a player didn't contribute to a particular scene as much as he had the opportunity to do. I gave him free reign to basically jump in whenever he wanted, in whatever way he wanted, and make a cool scene happen. However, when he did jump in, it was to say "I run away into the woods", and I felt like he didn't really engage with the scene at all, leaving the rest of us hanging. I've discussed it with the player since then and discovered that he's really looking forward to a particular climactic scene. I'm thinking that play up until that moment might seem like sitting in a waiting room. (I've since gently pointed out to him that the scene he's hoping for is hardly guaranteed to happen. He saw my point right away, so I think this won't be a problem again.)

You gave him narrational authority ("describe how you're involved") and he took situational authority ("am I or am I not involved"). That's all there is to that story, right there.

Quote
In the second incident, the players were investigating an NPC who they thought might have been involved in a conspiracy. I had determined when I wrote up the scenario that this particular NPC wasn't involved in the conspiracy, and was eager to get to the next part--possibly a cool scene I had been hoping would happen since the beginning of the game. It turned into a real power struggle, where one player really wanted the NPC to be involved, and started authoring elements to suggest that he was, and I was resisting.

And again, you gave them narrational authority, if I'm reading you correctly, and they took content authority. Your desired play included you keeping content authority, which is a perfectly reasonable and functional expectation ... but if they didn't share that expectation or understanding, then you're fucked and will have No Fun (tm).

Quote
Thinking about this has led me to think that when we look ahead to a cool event or thing we want to see, and expect to see, we disengage from playing in the moment. In the scene with the NPC, I'm sure I wasn't really participating in the sense of pushing the game towards some cool play.

I think that 90% of the problems I've had as a GM in the past are due to this--when I'm looking forward to some scene or some revelation or plot twist, everything becomes boring until we get there, so I am not really interacting with the players--I'm just trying to shut everything down so we can get to the next bit. The players feel lost, everyone gets bored and/or frustrated.

In games where the players have the power to contribute as authors, they can do this as well. Although in games with distributed authority no one can fully railroad the game, anyone can still withdraw from play by hoping to see their vision come out on top of anyone else's.

Well, let's look at this again. Actually, I think it has nothing at all to do with distributed authority, but rather with the group members' shared trust that situational authority is going to get exerted for maximal enjoyment among everyone. If, for example, we are playing a game in which I, alone, have full situational authority, and if everyone is confident that I will use that authority to get to stuff they want (for example, taking suggestions), then all is well. Or if we are playing a game in which we do "next person to the left frames each scene," and if that confidence is just as shared, around the table, that each of us will get to the stuff that others want (again, suggestions are accepted), then all is well.

It's not the distributed or not-distributed aspect of situational authority you're concerned with, it's your trust at the table, as a group, that your situations in the SIS are worth anyone's time. Bluntly, you guys ought to work on that.

Which is, by the way, the only thing in this discussion that concerns Creative Agenda. When the CA is shared and powerfully-held by the group, it forms the foundation for the trust I'm talking about. Picture the Big Model. Now link Social Contract directly to Situation with a skewer, and then punch "deeper" down into Techniques for handling Situation (i.e. distributed or not distributed). Does that skewer exist? If so, its standards (what is or is not good, for us, here and now) are the CA. This is another advanced discussion, and we should save it for later. But it's key.

Whew! This post took fucking hours to write, hours which I don't really have to spare. I'm leaving for GenCon tomorrow and must spend today preparing, so be aware that I won't be able to follow up on this thread with as much energy for at least a week.

Best, Ron
edited to fix quote format
« Last Edit: August 08, 2006, 04:57:03 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Marco
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Posts: 1741


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« Reply #11 on: August 08, 2006, 03:42:41 AM »

Hi Paul,

The characters were members of a secret organization that defends western civilization from a shadowy "enemy." They had been trained since they were very young (their Social Security Numbers being a numerological code that let the agency find recruits from birth) and their memories were *mostly* wiped. They were absolute bad-ass assassins--but there was a lot about the structure of the covert war they were in that they didn't know.

They also led crushingly mundane lives most of the time.

I instructed them to come to the table with an on-going problem that was coming up for them in their normal lives. It should be something they as Players found "engaging" (interesting? fun? etc.).

1. One player made a suburban house-wife (with a license to kill and a speciality with escrima knives). The local high school was cancelling her daughter's soccer team and reducing her son's science-team in order to promote its football team. Her husband, being an alumnus, greatly supported this move ... but she was furious.

This was the kind of problem you could not solve with combat skills.

2. One player made a school teacher from "across the tracks" who tended to protect his students from gang violence. This was the kind of problem you could solve by being a bullet-dodging combat machine. He didn't have a *specific* problem--but it wasn't hard to come up with one (a student came to him for help).

3. The player in question made an interesting character who was an unscrouplous realestate salesman who would sell houses to people beyond their means and then sell them again and again when the family was forclosed on.

But there was no conflict. The character was plenty okay with doing this. It was unethical but not illegal. It wasn't especially interesting to me to have some wronged family be upset about this.

But I had some ideas: I opened the scene with a family (family man, young daughter, concerned wife) looking at the house. Would she torpedo this (sympatheic) family? Yep. No conflicts there.

But there was another guy looking at the house as well--one who could see right through the character. He approached the character after and explained that he was a con artist who had a mark ... and the con needed a real estate guy--without morals.

And the player was like "no way"--and walked out on him.

Which left me without much to do with the player except run a very brief scene where the character read about the death of the con artist and learned that other stuff going on in the game had connected to that plot-thread (but there was no real RP'ing action).

What I'd Like To Have Said
"We got scenes commin' up that are  not related to your sleeper-cell kill-team stuff, you gotta either rationalize engaging with what *I* come up with, come up with something else good *yourself*, or be okay with really short scenes ... and really short scenes aren't so good for me--I consider that a failure of the game, pretty much (if not a catastrophic one)."

Alternatively (but not as good)
"We can't start this session until everyone has a conflict. So we may not be gaming this week."

Or Even
"Since you didn't give me a conflict, here's what'll happen: this guy will make you an offer to do something shady dealing with real estate--and you'll take it. How's that? Even if it seems like a bad idea in some dimensions or you don't trust the dude? Because you are greedy!"

Note
I will note that in the second game I'm running for the group, the characters all had something go catastrophically wrong in their lives and I told them, in the pre-game write-up that they would be offered a solution ... and they would take it. I didn't say what it would be (it was an offer to come to a self-help seminar--which used dangerous techniques grounded in a hidden alternate reality ... ) and I pointed out that skeptical characters would rightly see this as unlikely to work. It was okay to be cynical--but they had to take the offer.

We had some difficulty nailing down "what went wrong" (a character's first draft had them on the run from mobsters--something that wouldn't work real well given the much slower starting pace of the game)--but I *did* get buy-in and there was zero concern on my part that when I made the offer it'd be accepted (even the the characters were less than enthasiastic about it).

Izzat clearer?

-Marco
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Demiurge
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« Reply #12 on: August 08, 2006, 06:26:46 AM »

Hi everyone,

In case anyone is wondering, I know Paul and am the "disenchanted gamer" in the Prince & Prophecies game (and the player of Loryn, the bastard that ran off into the woods). :)

This is my first post on this message board. Thanks for setting it up, there's some really neat discussion going on here. Mind you, I can't follow a lot of it because I lack the knowledge of the jargon. For instance, what an "SIS" is. It would help if, like in academic papers, you always spell out the acronym or abbreviation the first time it's used.

First: thanks Ron for the excellent and well-thought-out post. I think you've really pegged the nail on the head here, and what's more in a way that neither Paul nor I even considered.


Content authority - over what we're calling back-story, e.g. whether Sam is a KGB mole, or which NPC is boinking whom

Plot authority - over crux-points in the knowledge base at the table - now is the time for a revelation! - typically, revealing content, although notice it can apply to player-characters' material as well as GM material - and look out, because within this authority lies the remarkable pitfall of wanting (for instances) revelations and reactions to apply precisely to players as they do to characters

Situational authority - over who's there, what's going on - scene framing would be the most relevant and obvious technique-example, or phrases like "That's when I show up!" from a player

Narrational authority - how it happens, what happens - I'm suggesting here that this is best understood as a feature of resolution (including the entirety of IIEE), and not to mistake it for describing what the castle looks like, for instance; I also suggest it's far more shared in application than most role-players realize

I was first introduced to the idea that the players could be involved in developing the story by a little game called Theatrix. In this game, they have two mechanics for allowing players to author their own material:

  • Prop Improvisation: players can improvise any item or aspect of the scenery, so long as it doesn't contradict previously known facts, and doesn't affect a Dramatic Element (as defined by Game Master (GM)).
  • Statements: by spending a Plot Point, allow the players to make a statement of fact about the world, back story, etc.

I fell in love with Prop Improv. (I'm marrying it on Tuesday--don't tell my fiance) and now include it in all of my games. It gives Content authority to the players, but in a way that's very easy to understand and apply. The Prop Improv. can't contradict anything the GM has planned, period. But if it's something he didn't think of, then it lets players be clever and have more fun.

However, I could never fit in Statements to my games, and I think it's in large part because of this set of 4 distinctions Ron has mentioned, and which I never considered as four separate priviliges. I would give all 4 to my players when they made their Statements, and they would proceed to Fuck Everything Up. Now that I understand this 4 privilege issue, I think I could now allow players a lot more authoring capability in my games by giving them only certain privileges. Plus, there's also the critical issue of setting the Conflict vs. setting the Task which I now understand much better, and which is superb for cutting out hours of frustration and wasted time.

Back to the issue at hand with Paul and the game we're playing:

Paul, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that what you want from this game is to give the players only Narrational Authority. i.e. to decide what happens and how. In other words, you want an open-ended story without a pre-defined ending. That's great! That's certainly what I want.

However, I think you want to keep the Content Authority for those aspects that you've already decided. I'd suggest allowing the players to make up stuff you hadn't considered (e.g. Prop Improv), but not let them mess up your story. Hence, in light of this new revelation from Ron, I'd change my stance on the Blacksmith Incident and say that you should have just said something like: "Roll the dice, if you succeed you find out how the blacksmith is involved, if you fail then you insult him." On a successful roll, you say "The blacksmith is not involved, now how do you learn that the blacksmith is not involved?"  You see the difference? It's genius!!!  The spy's player now gets to narrate to her heart's content without fucking up your back story!! Plus, she's setting the Conflict by saying she wants to discover the Blacksmith's secret.

My understanding is that you don't want us to have Situational Authority. This is fine. As GM I rarely give players this right myself (although I never really thought about it this way). I like throwing the Player Characters (PCs) to the wolves and watching how they get out of it. Hence, in future if you tell me to narrate the scene and I say "Loryn runs away into the woods" you say, "No! He's involved in the scene. How's he involved? What does he do?" That'll force my hand! I freely admit that I was "thinking of a future scene" (The First Thing, in your list of difficulties in your first post) when I had Loryn run away, which was my mistake. However, if I were to make this mistake again in the future, you could force me back to the here and now in this way. :)


One last question for the Forge at large:  can someone give an example of Plot Authority? For instance, of a case where the GM asks the player to provide Plot authoring, vs. the GM doing this himself?


Thanks!!!! Great discussion!  This is honestly the most excited I've been about roleplaying for several years. I can finally see the tools I need to make the games I play fun.

--Jonathan
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Frank T
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« Reply #13 on: August 08, 2006, 07:08:44 AM »

Great thread!

I can think up examples of all kinds of different splits of authority, except for one player having narrative authority and another player having plot authority in the same scene. Ron, could you give an example of a scene with that kind of split, please?

- Frank
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Dav
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Posts: 432


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« Reply #14 on: August 08, 2006, 07:15:22 AM »

Quote
In my "Princes & Prophecies" game, we had two particularly awkward incidents. In one incident, I felt that a player didn't contribute to a particular scene as much as he had the opportunity to do. I gave him free reign to basically jump in whenever he wanted, in whatever way he wanted, and make a cool scene happen. However, when he did jump in, it was to say "I run away into the woods", and I felt like he didn't really engage with the scene at all, leaving the rest of us hanging. I've discussed it with the player since then and discovered that he's really looking forward to a particular climactic scene. I'm thinking that play up until that moment might seem like sitting in a waiting room. (I've since gently pointed out to him that the scene he's hoping for is hardly guaranteed to happen. He saw my point right away, so I think this won't be a problem again.)

This paragraph is really where I stopped reading your post for minor interest and diversion and starting reading it for a purpose.  

Quote
I've since gently pointed out to him that the scene he's hoping for is hardly guaranteed to happen.

This is where my brain skipped a beat.

All right, here is the Thing... you, kind sir, are the GM for this lil troupe.  Being a GM comes with certain responsibilities: making certain the other players have fun, facilitating their expectations of plot flow, effing with their chi when they get with the hubris, basically, your job is to become the embodiment and distributor of poetic justice and retribution.  Now, I know a lot of people prep their games and map things out, but I always feel that robs the game of the point.  I mean, if, as GM, you want to run your characters through some rat maze of your own design, that's just peachy keen and all... I guess.  Actually, you know what, let me take that back, it is, in fact, not all right, and not okay... I'm going to go ahead and say that it is absolutely damaging to the overall creative agenda pursued by an interesting roleplaying game.

That said, and yes, I realize that there is this floating discussion of Bigness and such rollicking about this thread, but, to me, this is eminently more important than the rest of it... where was I?  Oh yes, that said, your player specifically said that he and his character wanted to participate and even possibly direct Scene X!  Your Job, as GM, is to make that happen.  Bring that about.  This is your kit and what you do, this is the shite you signed-on for.  By your player's interest, and expressed, verbal desire, oh you'd better shit-hell easy bet that, barring nuclear holocaust, complete extinction of whatever the hell game you guys are playing, that scene should become not only a nigh-on garaunteed bit of your game, but it should now be a Fulcrum of your game.  Sure, make the player or character work to bring the Scene X about, make his ability to sculpt the scene dependent on his perfomance through the rest of the game ("kudos, you'll be able to pull NPC 1, 2, and 3 into the scene due to your building contacts, roleplaying, and plot-driving"), but let me assure you, your Job as a GM is to now preserve and protect the happenings of that Scene X as surely as the player.

You two should be conspiring to work at this, not mentioning it and separating.  To be honest, his lack of colorful descriptions and narration is MUCH less important than this.  Perhaps, and this isn't a dig at you, but perhaps the player has not felt enough draw toward the story or particular scenes to get jazzed-up about (yeah, I know John is on the boards here, too, so you two can work that out on your own time and such).  

I realize I have a whole mess and passels of general ideas on how to run and create a game for your players and their characters, but, in my defense, I run the best damn games you ever did see (often due to players that "get it", but also because, well, I know how to hook 'em, and I know how to get my players to conspire WITH me, rather than AGAINST me, tres` important).

Anyway, just some thoughts.

Dav  
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