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Bangs&Illusionism - in which Ron beats down Confusion

Started by Josh Roby, October 02, 2006, 07:36:42 PM

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Josh Roby

Sure, Ron.  "This thing" is very, very close to Force as far as I can tell, and looks very similar -- functionally, at the table, in terms of what is happening and not the intent behind the actions.  I can accept Force as defined in terms of intent, though.  So what is "this thing" that isn't about making decisions for the players, but is about setting up a situation for the players to address?  And how is the act of setting up a situation not fundamentally constraining, limiting, and preventing the players from making other significant decisions?
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Ron Edwards

Hi Joshua,

It's not a definition from intent. I hate "intent." I dunno man, with every post, I keep getting this content that keeps me from answering you.

Not Force, which is an identifiable thing at the table. Something else, which is itself an identifiable thing at the table. Not "same thing, different intent." Something real. Can you work with me? Please?

I mean, it's right freaking there to talk about. I was ready two days ago. I know the jargon terms. I know the examples. I can use the actual play you talked about.  I'm ready to tell you. But I cannot continue with the statements you're making, like "it's a definition from intent." That can't be let stand.

I need a confirm on that. Please don't re-state the basic question again, which I totally get. Just "Yes, you're saying it's not a definition from intent." You don't have to understand why yet and I accept that you are not conceding this point.

Best, Ron

Josh Roby

Ah, I get you.  Okay, you're not defining based on intent.  Show me how they're different.  Here's me with popcorn.
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Ron Edwards

Hi Joshua,

Now that I've finished the bulk of my contribution to the Rifts and Frostfolk threads, I can get to this one. It's been a lot of Forge for me this week ...

OK! I've got three points to make, all of which are like points on the rim of a wheel. With any luck, you can then state whatever you see at the center of the wheel and we can then apply it to your questions and the actual-play examples. The reason I'm doing it that way is because, as I see it, you do not like being lectured to and told what to believe, or having information presented in a way that can be interpreted as those things. So maybe you'll be OK with me waxing long about these three things which aren't specifically telling you what is "right" or "what to think" about the issues you've raised.


Paul discussed some playtesting a long time ago, and the net conclusion of those threads was "creating your own adversity and its resolution is boring." I'm talking about role-playing, not novel-writing and other art forms, and why it's different from them is neat, but not to the point here - it has to do with who the audience and when they receive the work. Anyway, Paul's point means that if I'm playing a character, and if I have to say "the lizard-aliens attack!" and then, right away, it's up to me to say how my character fights them and what happens (really happens, meaning are they defeated or do they win) ... then I'm going to get tired, and eventually, after several such scenes (and listening to others'), bored.

I agree with Paul about this and dubbed it the Czege Principle half-in-fun. I've watched independent game design grappling with it for years. With respect to Jared, I think that's why octaNe is merely funny and hip, but not sustainably fun. Tony takes it about as far as it can go in a certain direction, with Capes focusing on challenges to scene-outcomes; Meg's done the same with 1001 Nights. The point is that someone else needs to be involved in that process, in some way, and there are many, many ways to do it. Even if it's only to modify things slightly in the middle, or as far as handling both ends with you making the decisions in the middle.

That's why I discourage conch-game design, in which the system mechanics only affect who gets to talk when, there's no constraint on outcomes within a given narration except perhaps an in-the-beginning guide, and a narration typically encloses an entire [scene [conflict]]. I've been calling that "parlor narration" in my Ronnies judging. (Bacchanal is perilously close to being parlor narration and most of its flubs during play arise from not utilizing its non-parlor-narration features.)

Thoughts, questions on the basic idea? Have you played any conch games for any length of time?


Vincent likes to talk about one guy saying to the other, "Here's a can of peaches," referring to their shared fictional imaginings, and the other guy saying "I open it" or anything else to do with the peaches, and the first guy undercutting him with "no you don't." I figure you know about this one already. It's the necessary starting point of role-playing, that we're all allowed to contribute in some way. Fucking with someone's "this is how it is" statement, when it's fairly delivered according to the existing standard, is literally not playing, and making them not play either. Like all social activities, role-playing can be disrupted. Just because football is simulated warfare doesn't mean it's "still playing football" to knife a guy on the other side in order to make a touchdown, or to kill the scorekeeper and change the scores to 1000 to 0, then shout "we won!" Similarly, just because role-playing is organized talking, that doesn't mean it's "still role-playing" to control the can of peaches through social pushing or manipulating, basically denying the other guy the right to participate.

A lot of the time, discussion of this point goes straight into resolution and reward, or at least it does when I'm involved. This time, though, I want to focus on larger-scale issues, authority and establishing conflict.

I don't know if you saw my little discourse on "Authority" in a thread a couple of months ago. I liked what I came up with there - the distinctions among content, plot, situation, and narrational authority. I also don't know how many people really understood what I was saying about how leaving some of them open is even more important than allocating them. I'm bringing them up here because all of it is a subset of the peaches-point; the authority material lies at the heart of making the peaches even possible.

OK, all of that is really abstract, and so let's get concrete - we're talking about the situations characters are in and what kind of conflicts they face in those situations. This is about scene framing, and within scenes, conflict-framing. Who does it, with authority about what? I mean, conceivably, we could have a big sharing of this stuff, taking turns or spending resources for turns, which is pretty much what Universalis and Capes do. But it's also socially functional, and sometimes a lot less fatiguing for everyone, to allocate it unevenly.

If I do say so myself, I think the breakout game design for this point in action is Trollbabe. The player may suggest scenes (locales, basic placement of characters), but the GM has full authority over beginning and ending scenes. Within a scene, anyone may pose a conflict, and that cannot be denied. Within that conflict, a back-and-forth procedure establishes what resolution mechanics will be applied, and how many times. Narrational authority is allocated in two places: freely without consequences before the resolution occurs, and then in a highly organized way as part of the outcome of those mechanics. It is just as organized as any standard card game for these things; there is literally no free-form in Trollbabe play. Yet neither is it overly organized in a sense of droning out the designated/cued events; it's full of fruitful voids that tie into the reward system of the game.

Thoughts, questions on this part? Out of curiosity, have you played Trollbabe?


I've written about the (badly-named) GM-Tasks that have to go into role-playing, all the time as far as I'm concerned. I try hard to express that each of these is a little and independent thing, maybe even calling them "chores" in the sense of an ongoing routine is better than "tasks." What I'm after is that they can conceivably be done by anyone independently of who's carrying out the one or more of the others.
God, every time I think about it, I find more of them ... here's a list I've given before with still more tacked in there: the rules-applier and interpreter, as in "referee;" the in-game-world time manager, the changer of scenes, the color provider, the ensurer of protagonist screen time, the regulator of pacing (in real time), the authority over what information can be acted upon by which characters, the declarer of conflict, the authority over details of characters' positions, the authority over internal plausibility, "where the buck stops" in terms of establishing the Explorative content, the social manager of who gets to speak when, the giver of cues for others to contribute ...

It even gets crazier when you toss social roles, hosting, and stuff like that in there, which in many groups is all tied up with the above actual-play-in-action things.

I generally give Jared the credit for first really dissecting this down into a game design, for InSpectres and other early games, and choosing which tasks were going to be centralized, meaning not the others. Games like that taught me that there is no "the GM." He doesn't exist and never existed. There are these necessary tasks of play, which make up and contribute to how situations and conflicts are handled, all of which lie within the larger and necessary aspects of the Can of Peaches and the Czege Principle. When at least some of the tasks are distributed in a centralized way, then gaming-culture has a jargon term, "the GM," which is doing multi-duty for diverse jobs, in different games and groups, that are so insanely different from one another that they are not possibly be included by the same term.

This is the content-based core of why so many game texts have tried to assign new names to the way their rules distribute these things, as opposed to the twee or kewl concerns that also lead to more such names. In the better games which do this, their new name for this role is struggling to express that it's not about saying "what does the GM do in this game," but rather, "what combination of which tasks is going to be centralized?"

Thoughts or questions on this one?

(one more post)

Ron Edwards


My hope is to sketch out some of the rim of the wheel now. You'll notice that I didn't mention Bangs once yet. Well, now I'm linking options among the above points in such a way as to produce Bangs, which are only a technique out of many for getting relevant conflicts into play in a fun way. I'm also really focusing strongly on Sorcerer, because so many games have used its particular combination as their jumping-off point.

Rim bit 1

a) Starting with the first, the Czege Principle can be spun such that person A says X relative to person B's character (i.e. person B doesn't typically do it himself), so person B is placed, stuck, pushed, pulled, or whatever, into a "do something" position. It's a specific order of the Czege Principle in action, out of many possible. In this case (the Sorcerer Bang), you start with the person not playing the character. If you don't, well, it's a totally different technique with features of its own.

b) Taking that idea into the second point, Bangs definitely represent a highlighted version of peaches and authority. At the most general level, a Bang is, "here's a can of peaches, and I'm interested in what you do," plus the response, "OK! My go: I do this with the can of peaches." At the more specific level, and talking particularly of Sorcerer, it's a signalled transfer of authority but across the types, not within one of them. The one guy is saying, "Content + Situational authority produces X." The second guy is saying, "Plot authority responds with Y and seeks resolution to create yet more Plot, which will become further Content."

c) Finally, in terms of organizing this among the group, the task of Bang-delivery is assigned to one person relative to other people's protagonist characters. I mean, just as conceivably, it could be a "the guy to the left Bangs my character" rule, but in the case of Sorcerer and many derived-Sorcerer games, it's not, it's centralized instead, and frankly, that's good in this case because the people playing characters are busy enough.

I'm driving at the point that all of these are options, within many possible functional options inherent to all three points. Picking the options in the way I just ran down results in a nicely-functional, fruitful way to play, and hence it gets a name, the Bang. But that doesn't mean that if a relevant conflict is present in play, that a Bang is the only way to get there, or even the right way.

Rim bit 2

Saying "the GM" and positing Bangs as a thing within that uber-role is actually backwards ... better to say, someone's gotta deliver Bangs (otherwise they're boring), so in this game one guy will do it, we'll call him the GM. That whole term is loaded with confusions about which tasks "must" be involved, as I talked about above. If you put it in this order, then you can see that certain elements of authority (especially situation in-play and content) need to go with Bang delivery.

Since GM-Tasking in general is often tacit, I think a lot of people play without thinking much about it. So that means different people may be sitting there with different notions, which leads to different interpretations of specific actions and phrases.

Example 1: in playing Sorcerer, I've found that many people new to it interpret my [Situation + Conflict in it] as a cue to obey what they perceive as my signal of Plot authority, whereas I'm sitting there thinking "oh boy! now they have Plot authority, what will happen?" This is the source of my frustrations with the GenCon 2005 game I talked about earlier, where to my thinking, one character was not even played.

Example 2: Remy, Jason, and Clinton playing Hero's Banner - the first two (who had the player-characters) seized upon Plot authority as a starting point for announcing their actions and tried to utilize the resolution system for hashing out who'd "win" about it, with Situation authority as a sub-set. Clinton was more oriented toward providing the Situation authority, thinking of Plot as an emergent property in a more Sorcerer or Trollbabe way. This led to horrible confusions and losses of temper at the table.

Rim bit 3

A quick look at Sorcerer specifically ... just about everything associated with "GM" in Sorcerer is some aspect of Bang delivery; he doesn't really do anything else (which is not to say Bangs arrive once-a-minute; there are lots of aspects to attend to). So maybe in Sorcerer or similar games, it would be easier to focus on the task he's assigned and call him the Bangmaster. No? Oh well, no one appreciates my taste in jargon, we knew that. And to be complete and clear, it occurs to me to say, Bangs can be delivered ("they arise") from other participants as well; it's just nice to have a guy who really does hold responsibility for them in the absence of anyone else doing it, and he's armed with all the demon-NPCs for just that reason.

Thoughts, questions on any of that? What do you think of the rim?

I'd like to go through any thoughts & questions about these things, and then to ask you about what you see at the wheel's hub. It's likely that you'll say "yeah, I get it, this is all review," but I'd still appreciate you taking the time to check.

Also, I'm making damn sure not to construct a wheel-hub of my own; this isn't about you guessing what I'm thinking. I want to know what you see there.

My hope is that upon doing all this, that the actual play context can be restored and we can talk about all of them without stress or frustration.

Best, Ron

Josh Roby

Lots of stuff to respond to.  In order:

CZEGE PRINCIPLE: creating and running your own opposition isn't fun.

I'm totally on board here.  Basically, it's necessary that somebody else presents you with opposition/bangs/thematic decisions, otherwise you're "just" telling a story and not roleplaying.  Interaction between players is key.  Word up.

VINCENT'S PEACH ETHICS: framing a question and then answering it yourself is bad form.

I've summarized a little harder here, but this is what Vincent's peach thing boils down to me.  Saying "here's the peaches!" and then not letting the other person actually respond but plowing on negates their ability to contribute, participate, and interact.  It's the same as when you're in a discussion about some topic and you start proposing rhetorical questions and answering them.  It ain't cool.

As for your various types of authority, I'm not totally sold on this schema.  You have content, plot, situation, and narrational authorities, and to my mind they are so bound up with each other that they do not divide neatly.  Content I can give a by to; it's the most distinct to me.  I see little to no distinction between plot and situation, though.

Which may set off alarm bells so let me take a moment to explain: I know the difference between situation -- the set-up juxtaposition of stuff that prompts the big questions -- and plot -- how those questions are answered/addressed/dealt with.  By no means am I equating situation with plot and yadda yadda yadda.  However, my only real distinction between the two is in terms of when it happens in relation to a game.  You prepare a situation, you play a plot.  In structural terms, though, these are two parts of a seamless whole.  Situation is part of plot: the development of a situation is the development of the plot, and the development of the plot is the development of new situations.  It's a feedback cycle.  As such, I don't see any viable division between them outside of the timing of procedures of play.  I highly suspect that this is where our primary difference lies.

Narrational is only semi-distinct but I believe you mean it in terms of how things happen, rather than what happens.  So the plot and/or situation will be determined by other means like stakes or pulling a card or running out of hit points.  Narrational authority is just who gets to describe how that stuff happens.  If that's how you're using the term?

JARED'S GM TASKS: the Game Master is not the Dungeon Master is not the Producer is not the Story Guide.

Different games call for different things done by different people.  Yes, yes, yes, total and enthusiastic agreement here.

The Rim: the Bangmaster

The three rim bits all seem to be saying the same thing to me: somebody's got to deliver the bangs so the players can react (Peaches), it's boring if players always bang themselves (Czege), so we make one guy in charge of delivering bangs (GM Tasks), equip him appropriately (Authorities), and we call him the GM.  This arrangement is how Sorcerer is structured; other games may also be structured like this, but still other games are structured in different means entirely.

I'll let you catch up and comment before I head in on to the hub.
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Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I'm fine with all this, Joshua. You've got the narrational thing just fine - it's a description of whatever.

I don't see much need to split hairs about the situation/plot distinction. If you're interested, my thinking goes that "plot" stuff is very much about revelations, drastic changes in relationships, deaths and maiming, and stuff like that.

My thinking arises from a major constraint in my Sorcerer GMing. As I play it anyway (not that I'm claiming the book's any good at explaining this part), it's not kosher for me, as GM, to have plot, as conceived above, occur except in the context of resolution. So all that stuff can only occur from using those mechanics. I can't "write" as Sorcerer GM, not even a little bit. So I'm gonzo with Situations and Content, even to a degree that can scare players, but no jot nor tittle of Plot shall pass my lips - gotta use the dice for that. I've found the distinction between the two sets to be extraordinarily helpful over the past five or six years of role-playing. And when in other games I do use plot-based authority (for some games it's absolutely required), well, at least I know I'm doing it and can decide what the limits of it will be.

(I have not explained this well on-line in the past, either, regarding Sorcerer. It's almost impossible when someone's still clutching their hair at the concept of a Kicker, or other introductory stuff. I figure it's been better over the years to let groups arrive at whatever sort of authority-parceling they want, at their own speed.)

Again, I'm not posing any of this as meat for debate, not intending to challenge your outlook nor to invite you to try to refute it. This is just about communication, musing, seeing where I'm at if you're interested.

The GM or "GM" thing really seems like the biggest deal to me in this case, 'cause I figure we'll get back to Force eventually. Maybe the plot-authority thing will be relevant there, maybe not. We'll see.

I think you've summarized everything just peachy, so onwards we go. What's the hub, especially in the context of the actual-play situations you described? One or any or all is fine, I guess.

Best, Ron

Josh Roby

Two words, man: Sorcerer Compiled.  Bring them all together and beat them with the edit-stick.  But that's tangential.

The Hub

Seems to me the hub is something like this: the Bangmaster GM is responsible for delivering the bangs.  Some bangs happen on their own, and that's fine, but it's the Bangmaster's job to make sure that bangs happen in general.  In order to make that happen, the Bangmaster is invested with situation authority (and to a lesser extent content authority).  The Bangmaster... hm.  We missed flags.

The Bangmaster constructs/plans/muses about potential bangs based on player flags, whether they be Kickers or things on the backside of the Sorcerer sheet or brought up in conversation or whatever.  To my eye, it's mostly the Bangmaster looking over a long list of buttons to push and thinking, "I wonder what happens when I push this one here; I wonder what happens when I push this one and then this one; I wonder what happens when I push these two at the same time..." and so on.  The Bangmaster is not invested on anything in particular happening ("I hope this button turns on the red light"), but she does want something to happen.

So, armed with these bangs, the Bangmaster then uses content and situation authority to set up scenes, conflicts, and unstable relationships.  Once the question has been posed, so to speak, she then steps back to allow the players to address the open question.  They either do this by exercising a little plot authority ("I just walk away, abandoning her to her fate.") or by providing character-intent inputs to the resolution system ("I haul off and deck him.").  So stuff happens, and people are engaged with the progress of stuff happening because it's stuff that they care about that's happening.

Are we copacetic so far?  Not mangling any terminology or anything?

Here's where the hub comes off the axle for me.  "Situation" can mean the initial situation or it can mean the current situation, and past the first hour of any game that's running on all six cylinders, the current situation doesn't resemble the initial situation very much.  The means by which that situation changes is via plot authority, ie, all that stuff happening in the game.  So while I see all of the above working just fine up to the first bang, it's the movement to the second bang that I wonder about.  What the player characters do needs to figure into what happens next, or else, really, why are the players there?  But the players' address of Bang #1 cannot directly set up Bang #2 or else you're trampling the Czege Principle.  So it's up to the GM.  Somehow, she's got to take what the players did and maybe a little of what the players said about what they were hoping to accomplish and then progress events further in order to get to another bang.

In the TSOY example, Judson first puts my Glittering Gold guy in a treasure chamber with another PC and we see if we team up or fight or whatever.  We do all that, and I get coerced into playing nice for the moment.  Then we "find a way out" which turns out to be a tunnel into some NPC's hut.  Said NPC just happens to be hosting the other two PCs in the game, and conveniently has all the leading information that directs us to the crazy tribal emperor guy.  Crazy triabl emperor guy is just happening to hold court that evening, and that leads us right to the next big thematic choice.  Now, the tunnel, the NPC with the information, and the timing of the court, that all sets up situation in order to deliver the next bang.  However, if the first bang had gone differently, with our two PCs having a big fight and heading off in different directions or whatever, Judson would have to be introducing some different set of things in order to get us to the next bang.  The tunnel would be different, say, or there would be a different NPC with the information, or perhaps we'd come up to the surface in the middle of the festival where the crazy tribal emporer was holding court.  Now, it may sound like I'm advocating an All Roads Lead to Rome approach, but I'm not.  Maybe, if the first bang had played out in a different way, we would have proceeded to some other second bang.  But regardless, we'd be heading to some bang, and Judson would be introducing facts and characters and events into the fiction in order to get us there, cause that's the SG's job.  Call it the All Roads Lead to Somewhere Interesting approach.  But whatever happens, Judson is taking in input of what the characters have done and have succeeded in doing, and spitting out output that incorporates those things and delivers the next bang.

That process -- with player-action input and what-happens-next output -- doesn't fit neatly into either situation or plot authority to me.  It's pretty thoroughly both.  Whatever that thing is seems close to, or related to, Force.

Or frame this around the other way: Force is about taking away the significant decisions of a game.  In a nar game, they're thematic decisions; in a gamist game, they're tactical decisions (really reductive, yeah yeah).  So describing how evil infects a player character's soul (a thematic thing) might be total Force in a nar game but perfectly kosher in a gamist game (see: cybernetic implants in Cyberpunk/Shadowrun).  It seems to me that Force is misapplied authority, overstepping the bounds of what a GM/ST/SG/HG is supposed to be doing and trampling on what a player should be doing.  Since it's contextual, we could talk about the same procedure performed at the table and in one case it would be Force and in another it wouldn't be.  The procedure that actually happens, though: that's what I'm getting at.  That's what a GM does, whether or not it's detrimental to the point of play.  It's the thing that is abused when the GM railroads players who don't want to be railroaded, but it's the thing that the GM uses appropriately when she railroads players who just want to get to the next big combat set piece.  And that thing, which Judson used to get us to the crazy tribal emperor guy, doesn't fit into the authority schema you've got so far, to my eye.

So that thing -- would you equate it to one of your authority flavors?  Or would you say it's some other thing?  Is it 'just roleplaying'?
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Josh Roby

Clarification: when I say "I get coerced into playing nice for the moment" I mean the character, not me the player.
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Ron Edwards

Hi Joshua,

I don't think this discussion is really about Bangs or Force at all. I think it's about something much bigger - the actual dialogues and interactions in which all system use is embedded.

Historically, role-playing is practically defined by a bunch of techniques hidden or at least isolated within a bunch of unconstructed dialogue. When I say "unconstructed," I don't merely mean "not rolling dice," and not even "open dialogue." I mean: primal chaos that cannot itself produce a solution (in the technical sense of that term). No one knows what this interaction is supposed to be like. No one knows how it's supposed to get anywhere or accomplish anything. Gamer culture avoids the question as if it's a deadly disease; "game-mastering advice" in a hundred texts dances around it and focuses instead on mood and superficial style, with few exceptions. Existing solutions are guesses, tacit interjections, tacit impositions, and often desperation measures.

I'll dub that unconstructed weirdness as "murk." Sure, a rules-set may well outline every permissible option during a sequence of fight mechanics. But how does one get to a fight? What's the fight for? How do the mechanically-permissible outcomes of a fight, in this game, lead to whatever it is that happens next? Individualized answers to these things exist, whether described in detail or implied very heavily or simply assumed. But cross-hobby, subculturally speaking, as a general understanding across this bunch of people, I think "murk" is a pretty good word for it. I'm trying to connote that stuff does happen in it, some way or some how.

I also suggest that most of the historical solutions are not really very constructive, either focused on compensating for the murk in some cases or in using it to mask single-person control over what goes on. Culturally, in order to play at all, a group must arrive at something to make their way through the murk, and when it occurs at all, people say "he's a good GM," or, "we're a good group." That's kind of a bad sign: that simple functionality is, in our subculture, taken as evidence of superior practitioning. I think it's fair to say that much of the time, simple functionality is not achieved, and also that many of the solutions to date are not especially socially or creatively satisfying.

Clashes over Creative Agenda are a feature of my second suggestion (the above paragraph). Boy, that's a whole dialogue right there, "why incoherence is perceived as a virtue," but not to the immediate point.

Instead, I want to discuss the murk itself. The immense library of scenarios, modules, and campaign packs of the 1980s are like a library of murk-coping mechanisms which, in the GNS-avoidance context of the time, are completely incomprehensible unless one shares the agenda of the author and recognizes the techniques from one's own games.

The whole diceless and in many cases pseudo-diceless issue that arose around 1990 is probably the first major sign that some people were getting tired of pretending to use dice/task mechanics when everything important was being managed by the unconstructed part. It's also about then that a number of authors just decided to admit that the "story" was being solo-controlled in their games, and to go ahead and foster that control rather than hide it. Both of these are the backbone of the cry that "system doesn't matter."

For the ambitious practitioner, whether for play or for design or for both, I very strongly suggest that the current array of coping-mechanisms, which is to say, "look what people have been doing all these years," is not a good starting point. Again, I think many of them are compensatory at best, often desperate, and even a bit dishonest in the sense of "get my agenda fulfilled at least for myself." I expect that enough subcultural status and enough monetary investment exists to pose some fierce resistance. 

How about the context of games that were written as the Forge was birthed and immediately afterwards, say 2000-2002? Has the Forge dispelled the murk? I think authors like me, Jared, Paul, Ralph, and a few authors certainly were among the first to attack the murk directly. But the overall answer is no. The hobby as a sustainable activity (which requires no-murk) is still in its infancy. I can still see it everywhere - the ongoing failure to understand Giving in Dogs, the confusion about the bonus dice in My Life with Master, the bizarre general failure to grasp the conflict-resolution (and role-playing!) rules in Universalis, the stumbling-blocks about when to expect rewards that arise when playing Perfect or carry or Capes, and more. I hope we got somewhere, such that the answer is "not yet," rather than "bzzzt! try again please," but at this point only time will tell.

There's a positive side to all this. I think that full solutions are out there, waiting to be discovered and to be used. Polaris is a good start. Sorcerer is a good start, although the big problem there is people trying to apply the old mechanisms to it during play, not realizing (how could they?) that compensations or control are not necessary. I suggest that Trollbabe, My Life with Master, and Universalis all offer solutions. It doesn't surprise me that these games in particular, along with Polaris and Primetime Adventures, tend to be dismissed as curiosities by people who are at least comfortable in the murk and with their subcultural status they associate with their partial solutions. I'm not surprised to see claims that removing the murk would, itself, destroy the role-playing experience.

For the ambitious practitioner, there's room for discovery, and also for diversity of possible solutions. I think that the incoherent and murk-favoring practices of our hobby only persisted so long (in the products and in the rhetoric) because actual games were not subjected to true market forces from the early 1980s through about 2000. Now, times are different and solutions can appear, although whether they can be embraced by self-identified gamers is another question (perhaps those of us who are interested ought to turn our publishing attention elsewhere entirely; that's another off-topic issue).

My initial point: murk is still the prevailing context for play among most people involved in the hobby at all.

And finally, now I can bring this to our discussion and the hub of your wheel, I'm composing it now. I figured I'd post this part first and go do some stuff, then come back in a bit.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Hi there,


I think it's non-controversial to say that role-playing is composed of talking and listening. Sure, everyone's minds and imaginations are active too, and no one can see all the way into everyone else's mind, but all that starts getting into metaphysics and I'll be boring and say, "it's composed of talking and listening." The key is that it's interactive - I can't just talk and listen to myself, and I can't just talk and have all of what I say sink into everyone else without talking being directed back, to modify it. It's shared in a crucial way that's more like playing music and less like writing a play or novel.

Now ... the murk hides all the stuff we do, pretend to do, or fail to do in making any of this happen successfully. And in utilizing anti-murk approaches (exposing our techniques), there's a certain set of fears and halting-steps involved.

For instance, I just betcha that a bunch of people reading this are going to mistakenly think I'm saying that (a) GM-control over specific elements, e.g. NPC behavior, is part of the murk; and (b) non-murk play must mean no hidden prep, what some folks here call "no myth" where everything just gets made up as you go, and full knowledge of every element is disclosed/available at all times. None of that is true.

I'm saying instead that centralized and exclusive ownership of various game elements is a fine thing as a technique, and doesn't have to be hidden by the murk in order to function well ... even if it's not disclosed right away, or even at all. If you make up a character and decide, in your heart of hearts, that he suffered some form of abuse as a kid, and this informs your decisions/play of that character but you don't share it with us ... that's OK. Similarly, if the GM makes up a character and decides in his heart of hearts (i.e. his prep-notebook) something similar, and does exactly the same ... that's OK too.

Lack of disclosure but impact on play, for some imagined element of any game component (say, characters, it's easier in this case), is a technique. In many of the cases that we're talking about in your example, that impact arises in terms of revelation, or at least some dramatic instance of that character's behavior. "The cannibal king muses, 'Boy, I wish I could marry that hot princess from the neighboring island," as the tribe cook eyes you eagerly."

In the murk, this means ... what? A signal for you, saying you, the player, must now offer to act as go-between to the other tribe, or we cannot play further in this scenario? Or does it mean, I sure like playing this ditzy, romantic cannibal chief, and I'd love to see how you guys riff off him, no matter what happens?

The first would be Force, especially among a group in which the players like to reserve all judgmental actions to their own spheres of input (i.e. talking). The second is an opening of some kind, to what, who knows. But in either case, the sentence itself gives no indication.

See what I mean? As long as we continue to play in the murk, no one will know what such input means ... and if someone tries to analyze, there's every reason (historically speaking) to say, it's railroading! He decided for us! It's railroading to say "you see the dungeon entrance!" It's railroading even to say "the pirate guy looks at you" in the bar! All GM input which matters at all is railroading!

I am suggesting that this interpretation is a function of the murk, not of reality, or at least, not definitional reality. At the moment, all we know is that such input is talking, and that such talking represents some kind of centralized authority. And yes, in the murk, we are forced to guess and to infer intent (which is where your comment above came from, I think), and forced to play along in hopes that we are all on the same page about what such input really means. Furthermore, for people who are long-resigned to the fact that in their experience such statements are Force-ful, then they won't believe otherwise unless they get extremely clear, non-murky experience with another way to play over several games and many sessions. Maybe not even then.

Now, I don't know if you find this convincing, but I presented Bangs in Sorcerer as part of removing the murk from playing that game. That means a couple of things.

1. Considering them in isolation from the rest of that system is not enough for that purpose. I'm not convinced we should go down this road in dialogue, as I think you may be pretty committed to writing off Sorcerer as a dated artifact. I disagree with that strongly enough that I don't think we'll get very far. I do think it's a fair general point to say, "Bangs are not a murk-dispelling thing all by themselves."

2. I fully expected many people to prove incapable of playing Sorcerer because they can't emerge from the murk. You can't make people play without the murk and hence continue to apply unnecessary techniques (or utterly to ignore or recoil from the textual ones) during play; I could only provide enough context for some people to say "hey! I hated the murk! and I don't need it here! wow!", if they were so inclined.

The Bang is presented as a form of acknowledged privilege on the GM's part to do specific things during play, up to a highly-specific limit and no farther.

What I'm really saying is that in the absence of murk, the members of the role-playing group do not have to guess about whether statements like "you fall into the hole!" are railroading. They know, because whatever such statements mean in terms of specific communicative techniques, here for this game, here for this group, that's what they came here to do. (1) Discover and enjoy the neat story the GM has in mind, in which maybe they get to respond once in a while; or (2) grab onto opportunities like falling into a hole and make them squeal like a pig relative to the characters' responses, such that pound for pound, they end up providing more context for GM/NPC actions than he is providing for player/PC actions.

In the context of the latter "squeal like a pig!" option, GM input like "and then the monster rears up from her chest cavity, and calls you 'father,'" is a Bang. It is only recognizable and usable[]/i as a Bang in the absence of any murk about that role. It could, in some other game, not be a Bang at all but rather a wonderful cue for "now you get to use that power I want you to use," or something similarly directed. (In the absence of murk or deliberate deception, this would be Participationist play).

But let's say it's as I describe, a Bang in terms of the GM's understanding. If there's murk, a player may get mad about his character sheet never saying anything about "parent to a demon" and feel violated. If there's murk, a player may struggle to guess what he or she is now supposed to do in response. If there's murk, a player may mistakenly (in this game) think that he or she has just as much authority over the back-story as the GM, and say, "I roll to establish that it's lying" or something like that.

But in Sorcerer, anyway, these three things shouldn't be a problem - (a) all characters may have more back-story particularly in terms of NPC relationships and actions, (b) there is no "supposed to do," ever, and (c) back-story (content authority) is not the province of the player. All that should be entirely murk-free. In which case, the event as narrated by the GM in the context of his actual job (reason to be there), is now fully a Bang. Yes, the GM provided incontrovertible input. No, it was not railroading or Force or anything like that. We knew he was supposed to do that and even looked forward to it ... in the context of knowing that any response on the character's part is wholly up to the player, there is no "hop into this box" implied.

How is this going? Sense, lack of sense, anything?

Best, Ron

Josh Roby

Seriously, I think we've come around to agreeing on all the fundamental points, Ron.  The GM providing incontrovertible input in order to deliver the bangs, and that input being a necessary feature of the game's operation, is what I'm getting at.  Perhaps the closest question in the OP was "Is there some 'acceptable level' of GM Force in the bang-structured game?"  So it's not Force by your definition, it's authority, and it's acceptable because it's embedded in the game.  That sounds about right.  Your authority, whatever its flavor and whoever it is assigned to, is that thing that I was talking about.

I don't think the extent of GM authority needs to be explicit (murkless) for this to work.  I'm with you in that I think it's preferable, but I don't think it's fundamentally nonfunctional if it's not.  However, the game becomes something of a crap shoot (or rather, even more of a crap shoot) when these questions are left unanswered.  Making them explicit seems to make the game more reliable while removing the mystique around it.  Some folks value the mystique more than the reliable social interactions -- folks with more time than I do, or folks whose friendships with their fellow players are more durable or less valuable than mine.  But that's a whole different topic entirely, I think.

Thanks for the chat, Ron.  It's helped in more ways than you probably know.

-- Josh
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog

Ron Edwards


Thanks Joshua. I would have liked tying the latest points to the actual play examples, but I suppose that can be left to a reader's exercise.

Considering the length of the thread, I figure it's best to close it here and request daughter threads if anyone wants to continue discussing this-or-that bit.

Best, Ron

Josh Roby

Oh, lovely.  Then I go home and get to doing the final proofread of FLFS and I find the entire conversation paraphrased in something I wrote a year ago.  Hooray for irony. =P

Quote from: Chapter 6: Roleplay
All the players at the table will contribute to the developing story.  The Game Master is primarily responsible for presenting the story's situation and portraying the individual characters and events in such a way that the other players cannot just sit idly by.  The other players, in turn, are primarily responsible for describing what their characters do in the developing situation.  Sometimes these responsibilities overlap — the GM may suggest a plausible course of action for the player characters, or the players might elaborate on an element of the situation.  The GM may even ask a player to portray one of the situation's characters.  All of this comprises roleplay.
In broad terms, roleplay consists of two activities: narration and direction.  Other things do affect play — imagining your character's thought processes, planning out future actions, explaining your character's motivation to other players, and the like — but once everyone is sitting around the table ready to play, most of the interaction boils down to these two things.
Narration is the act of describing to the other players what is happening in the story.  Direction is the process of deciding who does the narration.  Ideally, all the players in the group share narration more or less equally, ensuring that everyone is involved.  While the GM tends to direct more often than the other players, she doesn't do it all.  The other players can try to take direction with interjections or interruptions or hand direction off to another player.  This is accomplished according to some simple rules...
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog