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Author Topic: SIS Control, take 2: Aha, I get it now  (Read 4836 times)
James_Nostack
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Posts: 642


« on: April 02, 2008, 07:34:44 AM »

In SIS Control Problem: A Concrete Example, way back in 2005 Jesse, Tony, and Ralph were arguing at length about who gets to control the imaginary fiction in Capes.  From a traditional gaming standpoint, it looks like a huge problem, and Tony was trying to explain why it only looks that way. 

For people who haven't played Capes, Capes has sort of a weird design.  If you really, really, really want something--enough that it is worth getting into a conflict over, in traditional RPG terms--then you declare you've got a conflict.  You fiddle around with index cards, poker chips, and dice; it's very competitive; you usually end up burning some resources to win the conflict and accomplish your goal.

The "trouble" is that Capes also allows completely unfettered incidental narration.  It's free, you can say and do anything you want to do, and it happens.

So (to take the example from the other thread), you might have the Evil Doctor who fights this huge conflict to put his magic Ray Gun deep in his fortress, and the Zippy Hero, five minutes later, just says through free narration "My guy busts into the headquarters, steals the Ray Gun, and kicks the Evil Doctor in the butt" in order to win his conflict of impressing the Space Girl.

And the traditional gaming mindset is saying, "Whoa!  As the Evil Doctor's player, I just blew a ton of resources to protect that Ray Gun.  And this bozo just showed up and completely ruined everything I'd built up, pretty much on a whim.  That would completely suck!  What a bad design!"

This was almost exactly my reaction to playing Capes the first time (which I think was around the time of the older thread).  I really wanted to beat the supervillain, but Fred kept on un-doing my goals in free narration . . . so I finally had my character turn out to be a giant nuclear bomb in the shape of a person, and blew up the world (or something).  I'm getting the details wrong, but the point is, I was super frustrated when it turned out everything I did could be undone with trivial effort - and meanwhile, everything the other players did was equally ephemeral.

Now: having played the game a grand total of 3 times, I completely see what Tony was trying to say in the older thread, although I don't think he said it very well.

When you first play Capes, there's going to be this phase where everyone figures out that free narration is an opportunity for (a) complete silliness, and (b) totally screwing up the other characters (who can just as easily undo what you just said), so the world becomes like silly putty or something: malleable, goofy and pointless.

But!  That's really bad Capes play.  Yes, the design supports it, but D&D supports having the Thief steal money from the other PC's too.  Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Because notice what's happening: when Evil Doctor hides his Ray Gun and invests all those resources into protecting it, he's sending a signal: "This is hugely important to me.  I'm willing to fight really hard to keep it (and under the rules of Capes, that means if you officially challenge me you're likely to reap a lot of resources from me)."

In other words, if you immediately undo Evil Doctor's efforts through free narration (a) you now know you're being a dick, and (b) you also know you're forfeiting all those juicy resources.  It's a bad move both socially and in terms of the fiction.

It's true that Capes is vulnerable to players being schmucks, but that's probably true for all RPG's.  The trick with Capes's design is that being a dick isn't directly forbidden; instead, it's simply discouraged through the reward system.  If you behave like a jackass, people won't give you the resources you need to defend the goals that are really important to you.

The thing about Capes is that you can't immediately achieve your big player-level goals.  You're not going to have the story tokens necessary to completely crush your opposition until you've been playing a long time.  But once that happens, if anyone tries to attack your huge goal, you can trot out half a dozen helper-characters or half a dozen "blackmail" conflicts attacking the other players' cherished events: and if you have a huge lead in story tokens, the things that are important to you will be pretty much set in stone (and you're probably near the end of that story).  Yes, maybe someone could undo it in free narration afterward right before the game ends - but that's like knocking over the chess board rather than admitting checkmate. 

Capes is a really competitive game, and like all competitive games, you've gotta play hard to win, but be a good sport about losing.
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jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« Reply #1 on: April 02, 2008, 10:28:42 AM »

James,

I agree fully.  I think this dies in with the Sorcerer & Narration stuff I was talking about over on Story Games and here in the Adept Press Forum.  I think it also ties into Vincent's "respecting the fiction" post over on his blog.  Capes, Sorcerer, Trollbabe, Spione, Dogs in the Vineyard, and a few other games have procedures that generate LOTS and LOTS of situational details during the resolution process.  This makes them hard to discuss in the abstract because we can usually only talk about the starting points and end points in the hypothetical because the middle parts are so specific to an actual instance of play.

Dr. Evil does not merely put the ray gun in his dungeon.  In the process of doing so, someone got shot, walls got built, someone else was insulted and so on.  To by pass ALL of those details is to literally spit on ALL of those contributions which are likely to have come from more than just Dr. Evil's player.

Jesse
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Keiko
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Posts: 30


« Reply #2 on: April 04, 2008, 03:27:10 AM »

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James_Nostack
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Posts: 642


« Reply #3 on: April 04, 2008, 02:43:22 PM »

Keiko, that's exactly right, and it's what really annoyed me the first time I played Capes: I narrated something awesome in free narration, and the other player undid my awesome thing, and then I did it right back anyway.  I doubt my experience is unique, and (arguably) it's a design flaw in the game.  I suspect,
though, that after a little bit of screwing around this way, most groups would grow out of it.

It's true that a player who does this sort of thing might not really mind that someone else can undo his efforts so long as he can re-assert his version of reality--but its' a very weak power to have, since nothing's stable until you fight like hell for it.  So this kind of player might have a small source of enjoyment, knowing he can always say, "While nobody's watching, I take over the Universe and all my enemies die from sexually transmitted pig-diseases," but it has no lasting effect on the game.  In practice, I'd guess the only effect that this player can have is to irritate the other players, to a greater or lesser extent... which means it's not likely he'll be back for a second session.  This sort of player can ruin a lot of games--by making ridiculous comments, suggesting off-topic things, etc.  Capes is a little unusual in that this guy gets a potentially unlimited power over the setting, but ultimately it's the same type of problem.

What's interesting is that if you have a situation like this -- where something keeps bouncing back and forth through free narration -- that's probably a signal that it ought to be a serious conflict.  This ends up stabilizing the situation until the event gets resolved.  (But doesn't help with the crazy back-and-forth until that point.)

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TonyLB
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« Reply #4 on: April 05, 2008, 04:04:53 AM »

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Keiko
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Posts: 30


« Reply #5 on: April 05, 2008, 06:58:13 AM »

Hm I definitely see your point there. It might be a different issue for my group since we're using the game online. Rattling on is easier in text, unfortunately.

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TonyLB
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« Reply #6 on: April 05, 2008, 09:28:47 AM »

Very true ... it's both easier to do and harder to perceive that you're doing it.
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