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Author Topic: [AP-sorta] Making Narration Rights More Satisfying  (Read 1685 times)
Welkerfan
Member

Posts: 43


« on: April 11, 2009, 07:50:32 PM »

I'll be running the season finale of my first PTA game in about a week.  Overall, I've found the game fun, but frequently very draining and stressful, and, on the whole, somewhat unsatisfying given the high hopes I had for it.

At first, I committed the all-too-common error of thinking that each player framed scenes, not just requested them from the producer.  That was fixed up after the pilot and first episode.

Since then, I've encountered a few new frustrations with the game that I can probably blame on three things:
1) General unfamiliarity with story games.  This is the first game, apart from a few jaunts with Spirit of the Century, that I played anything besides 3rd/4th Edition D&D or its derivatives.

2) Inability of one player to make decisions about stakes/narration or to separate herself from the situation enough to logically decide something either for the character or for the welfare of the show in general (she declared at one point that her protagonist committed suicide--because his world was collapsing around him--even though there was still an episode left in the season).

3) Difficulty working the system into the scenes:

a - I'm having a really hard time figuring out what to declare as a conflict and how to decide stakes.  A scene will be rolling along, it will reach a point where I think I should call for cards, and, then, we can't figure out what the stakes are.  Especially if two players are in the conflict (either opposed or working together), we just can't figure out what to make at stake.  The obvious task at hand is, obviously, not compelling, and trying to tie the stakes to the characters' issues usually seems contrived.  This is probably because we aren't setting up conflicts that really work to put pressure on the Issues.  The conflicts tend to be focused on the episodic plot.  Issues only really seemed to come into play during the spotlight episodes, where I could frame flashbacks or other expository scenes which helped to explain the Issues.

b - Very seldom are Edges or Connections ever used.  The connections have never once been actually used in Conflicts.  The characters have been encountered, but they haven't been pulled in using cards.  The connections just don't fit the show, were inappropriately chosen, or aren't compelling.  The Edges, too, don't seem to apply very often.  Personal Sets, as well, seemed compelling when they were chosen, but, now, they don't work at all.  I've suggested that we change some of the Traits, but the players said that they liked them and wanted to keep them.

c - This is the most frustrating of all.  I just don't get how to make the "High Card Narration" thing work with my group.  One player claims to like it, but, whenever he wins narration (disproportionately often, I might add), he stumbles and is at a loss for how to incorporate the stakes' outcomes into something compelling.  In the end, it becomes a very unsatisfying summary of what the stakes were, without much being added at all and the narrator simply dictating what happens.  There is almost never any dialogue after the cards, and it feels much more like a "Pass the Stick" storytelling exercise than a fun, roleplaying experience.

Similarly, the aforementioned player who gets too personally invested into scenes to properly think about how they should progress tends to create wildly divergent (read:uninteresting, inappropriate) effects of narration or simply skips the narration of the conflict and starts to narrate the next scene.  If we try to let her know that we don't like where she's going or ask here to stick to the present scene with her narration, she gets somewhat offended, as if we were taking away the rights that High Card gave to her.

These two problems here are probably partly the result of bad stakes and a few bad table conventions (a lot of side talk that is distracting and makes the players forget the stakes), but I think it might be more to do with me describing it as "narration rights."  I think that that term makes the players, myself included at times, feel like they should describe what happens in its entirety, instead of everyone contributing and acting out their own characters within constraints set by the narrator.  How can I better describe this role so that it becomes more fun for everyone at the table?

So, anyways, I know that that is a lot of information, but I think it's necessary to fully explain what I think is going on in order to get at the heart of the problems.

In summary, what is the best way to describe narration rights?  How can we make Edges and Connections matter more?  And the ever-present difficulty of gamers new to story-gaming, how can we set more interesting stakes?
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Brenton Wiernik
Noclue
Member

Posts: 304


« Reply #1 on: April 11, 2009, 08:30:24 PM »

I have some thoughts, but can you give any concrete examples from the game you're playing? What stakes have you set in a conflict that did not work? How have issues come up, or not, during play? Have you paid attention to fan mail and made sure its flowing around the table?

Some ideas that occur to me at the moment is that PtA is a collaborative experience. The players need to be committed to each other's fun. So, if someone is struggling with narration they should know its okay to ask for suggestions. If stakes seem to fall flat, everyone should have the right (even the duty) to speak up and say "wait...I'm not feeling it yet. How does everyone feel about that?" And high card gets narration rights. They get to narrate how the characters do or do not get their stakes, but they don't get to frame new scenes.

Another thing, it isn't enough that a character has an issue in their past. These aren't people they're television characters. Their issues are only there to drive the show forward through plot and/or character development. A character's issue is what they're all about. An issue that only comes up in the rare flashback moment is back story, its not an issue. So I'd ask the pointed question, "HOW is this an issue for the character?"
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James R.
Welkerfan
Member

Posts: 43


« Reply #2 on: April 11, 2009, 08:55:39 PM »

Trying to remember specific examples is always difficult for me (I know that that doesn't really help).  I'll review the recordings we made and get back to you.

In terms of the Issues thing, let me explain the Issues.  The first character is a grizzled veteran with the Issue of Duty, ala "Does he let his duty and responsibilities get in the way of love and compassion?"  This was explored in the spotlight episode by showing flashbacks of the events leading up to his fiance's death caused by his sense of duty.  Looking back, I realize that I didn't challenge his issue enough in that episode.  We explained why he had that issue, but didn't do anything with it.  I've pulled the issue into several conflicts since then with stakes like, "Do you show compassion to the prisoner?" or "Do you ignore your responsibilities to help him?" but they always seem contrived and forced.  Those stakes--his Issue--just don't seem to be compelling in conflicts.

The second character is a robot with the Issue of Humanity--does he experience human emotions?  His spotlight again had a lot of pseudo-flashbacks, and it really ended up being more about the other characters relating to him than about him dealing with his issue.

The last character is an angsty teenage boy whose Issue is a desire for Love and Belonging.  He wants to be loved by someone.  His spotlight was the previous episode, and this one actually involved him dealing with his Issue.  At the beginning of the episode, he felt betrayed and ignored by his teammates, so he fled to a bar and encountered an infatuation (which seemed contrived, but the player was so into it that we let her ride with it).  The character's anger led him to act in a villainous manner and seek to punish the other characters, and the episode climaxed with the lover being killed when the PC couldn't convince him that the revenge plot was morally acceptable.  The arc was satisfying, if a bit too brief because of real-world time constraints.  The problem was that, with the exception of the initial conflict leading to the feeling of betrayal and the final one leading to the lover's death, none of the arc was decided by conflicts (using cards) at all.
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Brenton Wiernik
Welkerfan
Member

Posts: 43


« Reply #3 on: April 11, 2009, 09:00:38 PM »

Sorry, I hit the post button by accident.

Anyways, a consistent issue I've encountered is that two of the players wait for me to declare the stakes of a conflict.  I'll call for one, and they'll just look at me and ask, "So what is it over?"  They don't want to decide what they are fighting for.  The third player, playing the angsty boy and the with the narration/immersion issues, always tries to declare task-based stakes (I defeat him) or stakes which are wildly inappropriate or irrelevant (I take command of the group of Nazis), which have nothing to do with the character's Issue.

So, I know I haven't really put pressure on the Issues, which I think are overall pretty good, and I think I've let the show go in a direction which does not really support the Issues at all.  I just don't really know how I could have done focusing on the Issues better.
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Brenton Wiernik
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 2591


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« Reply #4 on: April 11, 2009, 09:27:52 PM »

Stakes: the next time you're creating characters, make a point of making their Issues all variations of "how come this guy isn't a perfectly functional machine of accomplishment that never fails and always makes the right decision?" Examples are "alcoholism", "family", "ambition" and "shy". This will help you create stakes: whenever you have a situation in the episodic plot where a character needs to accomplish something, you just need to make sure that the hampering flaw you chose as the Issue is also present. Then the stakes of the conflict can be whether the character can overcome his flaw to triumph regardless of it. Presto, instant theme. Once you get a hang of this, you can experiment with other relationships between the Issue (and the issues of other characters; it doesn't have to be your character whose issue is at stake) and the stakes.

I like the Issues you have, though - difficult to say why they aren't working out for you. The Producer can help setting stakes a lot by simply understanding what the characters are about and feeling the scene, putting up the stakes that interest him; so I agree that you definitely should get a hang of the stakes thing yourself so you can produce efficiently. One thing I do myself is to be very front-and-center about the stakes I want to see in conflicts, so much so that if the players do not voice their preferences, they soon find themselves mired in the conflicts I've set up, conflicts that are sometimes quite challenging and even threatening for their character concepts. Sink or swim is my philosophy in this regard - I want participants in my game, but if you can't hack it, then you can at least be a stooge.

Looking at the details, I notice that your stakes for the Duty issue are somewhat peculiar: both of your examples concern what the character feels or decides to do. Doesn't that strike you as something the player should be deciding about? Are all your stakes concerned with the character's inner struggle? I'm asking because usually what we do is, we have the Stakes concern the Issues by making the stakes follow from choices made on the basis of the issues or have the consequences of the conflict (the stakes) impact the character's issues. So instead of having the conflict determine whether the character shows compassion, you'd have the player decide that and then have the character get into trouble because of the compassion (or lack of it) he shows - the conflict stakes would be something like "will you get discharged for your compassion" or "will the woman you took to bed, who is actually the sister of the prisoner you killed, gut you with a fishknife". This way the story circles around the issue of Duty, with the player making choices regarding it and the Producer driving consequences that turn into conflicts.

The word I've used to explain this thing lately is (and Forge regulars can zone out, you've heard this one before) "advocation": you need to make room for the players to advocate for their characters in the game for proper thematic play to emerge. The Issue is what the character is about, the topic of the advocation; the advocation itself is done by a) expressing the character and b) making choices on his behalf; conflicts provide the uncertainty and consequences that result from the choices the player made when advocating for his character. So the important thing for compelling play and interesting conflicts is to give the player room to advocate for his character expressively and powerfully. When the character has room to take a stand on prisoner treatment for instance, then you can drive conflict related to that choice.

Many other things could be said about stakes as well, but it's a pretty complex topic that seems to be usually learned by feel; follow your heart and perhaps watch a good tv drama to spot some conflicts in them - ask yourself what makes those conflicts exciting and relevant, and you'll find that it's usually because they matter to what the characters in it are about.

Edges & Connections: the next time you're creating characters, leave these unspecified and only fill them in during the first episode as needed. This is especially true for Connections, I've experienced the same thing you have; it's very easy to create characters that will not be relevant at all for the game when it actually gets running, making it awkward to try to push the Connection later. This has something to do with having the character pregenerated, that seems to make it much more clumsy to use the character in play. Much better to let the cast develop naturally and choose some of those characters to be recurring early in the show. And if a player never feels the need to fill some of those slots - why should we worry about that, obviously the player didn't need those resources or narrative detail for his character.

High card narration: forget it is my advice. I've never met anybody having trouble with this unless they were trying to make a big deal of it, make it into something amazing and compelling. Stop worrying and it will come naturally. Specifically, lose the notion that the high card is a narrative responsibility for bringing the awesome - it's not! The only thing the high card gives you is final authority on details of the resolution, it does not make you responsible for cool narration. Let the group know that anybody can speak up and suggest narration or just narrate the situation. The only job the high card gives you is to nod along or shake your head on the ideas others throw in, and perhaps put out something yourself as well if you want to. Heck, if the group is very traditionally schooled, it might be that the Producer ends up doing most of the talking, and that is fine as well as long as he's watching the high card guy for acceptance while he narrates. But I think you'll find that when the high card actually matters (and it will once the conflicts get interesting, challenging  and relevant), everybody will be eager to contribute and the high card guy will take the driving stick himself. As the Producer you can encourage this by keeping eye contact with the high card guy as you narrate, and by asking him for permission: "Then character X stumbles, he has a tear in his eye - that OK, high card guy?" This way you keep everybody clear on how, although you're actually narrating, you're not doing it as an authority, but only as a participant who is going by the lead of the high card guy.

So yeah, don't call it "narration rights", that implies a resource the player should be expending to maneuver his character. Call it "directing the scene" or something like that, instead. Fall back on the television metaphor if you think that helps: I usually get even a contrarian group into the spirit of things by throwing up pure fluff narration about the production set and the people running to and fro to make the story happen. My producer "meta-character" is usually a fat idiot with a cigar and a very dim understanding of what the show is even about. "Hey director, do it again - I didn't get it." he'd say in a funny quacking voice whenever I think that the narration of  conflict could be improved.
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Welkerfan
Member

Posts: 43


« Reply #5 on: April 12, 2009, 07:53:01 AM »

Stakes/Issues
Your advice on the Issues/Stakes is really helpful.  Looking back, I notice that most of the really bad conflicts (most of them, in general) were ones that were about internal struggle and what the character does.  I haven't done much of the "advocation" model at all.  Very seldom have the conflicts been about consequences at all.  I wish I'd realized that before now.

Some of the conflicts that were more satisfying that I can recall were things like:  "Does she know that I really do love her?" for the veteran's Duty issue and "Do I convince him that my cause is just?" for the angsty boy's Love issue.

I can't really think of a conflict that wasn't internal for the robot.  All of the stakes that I can think of without going back through the recordings were essentially, "Do I act like a human?" or "Do I express human emotion?" or "Do I understand the other person's humanity?"  I still can't quite figure out on to create stakes for this issue that aren't an internal struggle.

Traits
That is a really good idea that I think will help the next time.

Narration
Calling it "director" sounds like it would work better.  That should solve some of the problems with not wanting to establish new information and with them completely taking over a scene to the exclusion of the other players.
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Brenton Wiernik
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 2591


WWW
« Reply #6 on: April 12, 2009, 09:37:23 PM »

The robot humanity issue seems like something that's been done in drama quite a bit over the years - so steal from others. For instance... requiring the robot to choose between what's human and what's right is quite good when the player gets to make the choice, after which you can then throw out a conflict that essentially determines whether the character's choice was the right one: "having established that you decided to reveal your love to her, will she now call for maintenance to have you scrapped?" Or: "now that you decided to scorn her love, will the other robots accept you?"

In other words, don't let yourself get stuck in the issue! The issue is not substance, it's just a topic. A season of PTA is not a tepid pool of wallowing in one thing for seven sessions, you should have things happening and different situations in the game. The situation is formed of how the PC connects to the events, Issue and all. The Issue itself is not something you put in the stakes of a conflict; rather, the stakes are generated by the Issue as it's handled in the game. So when your character's issue is alcoholism, you don't have a conflict about whether he can resist drinking - you have a conflict about whether he can keep his family together despite his problem. In the spotlight episode the Producer provides conditions for the character to face his Issue directly, but for most of the time it's not the Issue that's at stake, it's the consequences and conditions of it.

Internal conflicts have another problem,  and that's the advocation issue I mentioned - having excessive internal conflicts hampers the player's ability to paint an engaging, logical character portrait for the group to enjoy. If all important choices the character makes are decided by the luck of the draw, there is no foundation of principle or passion to the character, just random urges. This is why internal conflicts are important to save for only when foundations have been clearly laid: it's the player himself who has to establish that the character is drawn two different ways, and there need to be external forces trying to influence him to either direction. Then the conflict becomes not "what do I do" (the player should decide what the character would like to do) but "having established that I love her, will she convince me to do this despite my misgivings".
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Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.
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