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Author Topic: Mountain Witch question  (Read 1263 times)
cra2
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Posts: 53


« on: July 14, 2009, 01:59:29 PM »

[sorry if this is the wrong place to post a question.  don't see a right place.]

Just played Mountain Witch. Have a question or two.

Early in the game, I asked (in character) one of the other characters how he'd become Ronin (split from his master).
I knew (strategically) that either he'd have to tell me, or he'd try to lie.
In that case, I knew I could induce a conflict saying, "I'm trying to socialize with him and get him to tell me the truth."
And that his stakes would be to NOT tell me the truth.

So, the GM gave us 1 die each to roll as a conflict.
I got a mixed success - regular success for me and partial for him.

Since a regular success means I got what I wanted, he was now going to have to tell me the truth.
And since I got high die, I got narration rights.
So at this point we realize that I now have carte blanche to make up whatever answer I want for this poor player, and that it IS the truth - thus negating whatever backstory and reasons he had written down on his sheet.

So I decided to sew distrust into the alliance he was starting to form with another player by stating that he'd become masterless when he dishonored the daughter of the other player's clan elder.  The other player's clan wanted war but his master disowned him, settling the situation.

Thus, suddenly the dinner conversation we were having changed quite a bit.
And his former ally was now looking at him helpless, like, "sorry dude,.. guess you boinked my sister and now I hate you.  Perhaps there's more than ONE reason I'm on this mountain now."  lol.

So we thought... what would be a "partial" success for my opponent - the other player in the conflict.
It couldn't be that he does NOT tell me the reason he's a ronin because that would negate my regular success.
Unable to come up with any way of interpreting a partial success based on his stakes - "to not tell the truth" - we decided that his partial gave me a minor (1 roll) wound.  A faux pas was commited on my part, by bringing this personal information to the surface at a quiet dinner at the monastery.  So, now distracted and ashamed, I'd have a -1 on my next roll.

Anyways.. I guess the question is whether or not this seems like a normal and appropriate use of the rules.

Seems kinda wierd, taking control of another PC's past like that.
And seems like you could just begin the damned ascent asking everyone about their Fates or whatever, inducing conflicts, and getting a 50/50 shot at TELLING them what YOU want their fate to now be.

Sorry for rambling.
Does this make sense?

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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #1 on: July 14, 2009, 07:37:16 PM »

Your use of mixed success was appropriate in that taking damage is the default outcome when you can't thing of anything else as the result.

The way you describe the intent of the players and characters in the conflict, the stakes and the handling of the outcome, it could be appropriate or not. What you have there is a basic issue that TMW gets from its forebear Dust Devils - we've been wondering about this same question from 2003 or so. Over time many different opinions and methodical models have been advanced on the matter; it's been a bit difficult to solve the conundrum, as you might see:
  • We know that games with a focus on dramatic choices and intense character vs. character conflict are reliably fun and functional for many groups. This style of play is often called "blood opera" for how it encourages characters to end up killed by each other. It seems to be utterly unproblematic for many, consistently including the designer of a particular game. So we can't say that the game would be unequivocally broken, considering that it performs in certain, not uncommon circumstances.
  • The same complaint has however been leveled against all games that have this mechanical premise where conflict rules have freely adjusted stakes and clear narration rights assigned to the victor, loser or somebody else. Dust Devils, Mountain Witch, Primetime Adventures, sometimes The Shadow of Yesterday, Pool are all games over which I've seen this same discussion, among others. The issue consistently seems to be that players can abuse the conflict system and conflict narration system by overstepping some invisible lines that make the game non-fun to everybody, but nothing in the rules or the procedure of the given game necessarily gets broken. For some groups this is severe enough that it makes the game unplayable for them; often this is analysed as a fundamental social clash between the ethos of the group and the basic level of trust and cooperation required by the game in question. Many other groups basically learn to play these games with time and missteps, having the problem disappear as they figure out instinctively how the game is supposed to run and what leads to unfun situations and what doesn't. I haven't seen that we'd have any straight and clear standard solution for this, despite it being relatively common a complaint about these games.
  • Where this issue actually becomes tricky is that the designer himself is often not much help in figuring out why the game isn't fun. This is because for his own group and culture of play the game most definitely is functioning well, and he's essentially blind to the problem. A typical response to queries like the one you have here is to affirm that yes, the player is indeed supposed to be able to narrate ANYTHING, and it's part of the rules of the game. Rarely are matters of method addressed.

So as you can see, I find your question interesting and important, with a history. How to best answer it...

Last year I wrote a new treatise on the rules of The Shadow of Yesterday, called Solar System. I addressed this issue explicitly on the design level of those rules specifically because I'd had run-ins with it earlier. TSoY is not strictly speaking one of the core offenders for this narration issue because its game text has never made a big deal of who narrates and who doesn't, but people do bring their own narration rules into it now and then, and it still has a generic conflict resolution system with free stakes setting, which is part of this problem. The way I handled this in Solar System was basically to make it clear that the players do not actually have any sort of inalienable right to whichever stakes they want in conflict with no censure at all - one of the explicit GM tasks in the game is stakes-setting, which the GM does in the best interests of story integrity; he only allows believable stakes with appropriate scope and tone to the current situation. Players have total freedom to choose the motivations of their own characters, but minimal freedom in how their motivations and goals translate into conflict stakes.

(You can see how "stakes" in that SS explanation are something the GM establishes to determine a conflict's pacing and scope, not something individual players or characters possess. This is vastly more functional in general than viewing stakes as a random lottery of player intent, with players pushing hard for stakes that would be optimal for their own characters to triumph.)

So the simple Solar System solution to this problem is basically to allow the GM to veto whatever inappropriate and non-fun things the players might introduce. The same goes in the narration rules for that game, which state that the players can co-narrate as long as they stay non-partisan about it, but if not, the player who declared the conflict (usually the GM) gets to narrate. This GM-controlled approach works just fine, but it's important to note that it's not the only way to make conflicts, stakes setting and conflict outcome narration work: introducing GM authority is not the actual solution, it's just one (simple) way of ensuring that the solution sticks.

The actual problem, you see, as far as I can perceive, is that a full-blown universal conflict resolution system like TMW has will only work properly if the players making the stakes-setting decisions understand (on a gut level if not otherwise) the dramatic purpose and pacing of the game. The language used by these games is seductive in that they promise player autonomy in setting ANY stakes and narrating outcomes HOWEVER you ever want, but those are, properly speaking, too large promises: they presume that the players actually want and know to want the same things: faithful setting and character depiction, pleasing pacing of the unfolding story, establishment of protagonism and freedom for players to make choices on behalf of their characters. In other words: you can make any choices you want as long as those choices are the right ones; if you're a fifth columnist (as far as the game's purpose is concerned), you have an excellent opportunity for messing the game up without even intending to.

As you can see from the above, the issue with TMW is basically that its rules may certainly be read in the way you do in your session description - it's just that those practices lead to unfun play. When people play TMW functionally, they resort to one of two basic solutions: either they institute a strong GM who (often by using soft power, such as questioning) makes sure that the conflict resolution rules are used to support the aforementioned purpose of the game, or they have a strong, unified understanding of what's awesome and what's not, which they'll then practice in play. You can see how a player with a lot of the latter sort of experience might say that the rules work and absolutely no censure of player input whatsoever is needed; of course it's not needed if the players already have a strong working relationship.

On this basis I can now comment on your TMW experience:
  • Although the rules of the game say that you get to narrate what happens in a conflict, what they actually MEAN is that you get to describe the immediate means and consequences of whatever resolution was just accomplished, not any backstory or setting elements you might desire to invoke. In the case of getting a player character to spill the beans on their past the simple case is that your narrative authority does not extend to the backstory of other characters; the whole point of dark fates is that the player in question gets to decide what the deal with his character is. In this case the appropriate resolution would have been for the other player to tell about the character's past, while you'd have gotten to describe how these facts come to be revealed in the fiction. In general, I tend to play with the assumption that the dark fates override any other narrative authority, and players can interrupt any play the moment it conflicts with their dark fate to reveal the actual truth on the matter.
  • Even more significantly, however, you should review the reasons and motives for your and other players's play: why would you want to force other players to disclose on their characters? When I've played the game, it's been pretty obvious that although I as a player know that the other characters have some interesting backstory that might make them unreliable, my character doesn't have any of that knowledge. He'll only get suspicious when given cause in the story. This works for me because I'm actually cooperating with the other players to create an exciting story, not competing with them for the privilege of being the head honcho of the narrative hill.

Looking at the above, you were clearly in the wrong, but you were that in two ways, neither of which is actually established very well in the game text: you might consider this as the fault of the TMW text,which is starting to show its age a bit - it is perfectly serviceable with the right background understanding, but the sort of misunderstanding you have here is quite easy as well, and avoidable if the text were to be written in a more clear manner. For instance, the TMW text doesn't actually explain anything about backstory authority vs. resolution authority, it just gives examples of what it means when you get to "narrate the outcome of conflict resolution". It's pretty clear what it means if you've played similar games before and talked about them, but coming to it blind, it's easy to interpret it the way you did, by assuming that the players have an absolute power to establish whatever they want with no regard for anything else in the game.

The more serious shortcoming in your actual play snippet, however, is the attitude you seem to be bringing to the game. Now, this might be totally baseless and you're actually doing well with the game, but the way you phrase it, I get an impression that you're fighting the other players for dominance of the story here. TMW doesn't support that, it presumes that while the player characters are passionate about their values and potentially willing to kill and die for them, the players themselves are actually cooperating with each other. Your use of a conflict to establish another character's backstory for him is against the rules (or rather, against the way I make sense of the rules) in the above sense of overstepping narrative authority, but it's also against the spirit of the rules if I understand you correctly and you just forced the other character to disclose for strategic advantage of some sort.

So, the answer in a nutshell: you used damage correctly, but you overstepped the bounds of conflict narration rights. Additionally, you might have been acting with impure motivations (in the context of what this particular game is trying to do, understand; nothing impure about them in general), but I'm not certain, because I was not there - your heart might well have been in the right place and you're just wondering about the general implications of your accidental discovery of a soft spot in the rules paradigm.
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cra2
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« Reply #2 on: July 14, 2009, 07:54:59 PM »

"Although the rules of the game say that you get to narrate what happens in a conflict, what they actually MEAN is that you get to describe the immediate means and consequences of whatever resolution was just accomplished, not any backstory or setting elements you might desire to invoke."

But you do just that (describe backstory) if you play the Revenge fate card, right?
You're free to suddenly narrate how the target of your anger used to kill babies or whatever and that's why you're after him.
No?
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #3 on: July 14, 2009, 08:47:23 PM »

That's the dilemma, yes. I've had people swear up and down to me that that's how it's supposed to work, but I can't make this set of games work that way - either the players are responsible enough to not undermine the other character's nature, or somebody oversees and vetoes their play.

The way I handle Revenge (and all fates, really) is to have the players do a certain amount of soft negotiation, pushing and pulling for a compromise between their character visions. You can see this in the game text as well, in the bit where Timothy writes about romance - he says something about how you can certainly assign your character to be desperately in love with another player's character, but that it's a good idea to ask that player about it to make sure they're OK with it. Considering that having my character be in love with yours is quite a bit less deprotagonizing than revealing that your character eats babies, it's a good bet that this is how Timothy himself plays; players do not impinge on each other's character concepts without permission.

What this is ultimately about is character integrity; quite surprising turns may be revealed when and if groundwork is in place, while just throwing some sudden reveals out without a warning will easily fall flat; when you suddenly reveal that a character was porking another's sister or whatnot, players may run with it or refute it if they just can't wrap their heads around it. The GM in this sort of game is usually very prepared to run with almost anything, as his characters are not actually protagonists; they're just masks that are set up to facilitate expression of the actual protagonists. Player characters, on the other hand, have integrity, so it's a much more serious matter when you impinge on them.

As for actual practice, I've played quite a bit of TMW (it's one of my favourite games of all time), and the way I view maneuvering dark fates is that it's essentially a fruitful tension for the players to resolve: each player has absolute rights over their character backstory, the GM has setting backstory, everybody can actively impose their own backstory on the proceedings by drawing on the dark fate, nobody knows what plans others have... it's a heady, volatile landscape, and the players have to tread carefully to avoid stepping on each other's toes. It is not uncommon for the negotiations to end up with compromise solutions, such as establishing for now that this character is a baby-eating monster, only to later reveal that he's actually not. Some doubt and flex in the story, using unreliable narrators and whatnot, can go a long way in this regard.

Another important principle is to be flexible; character backstory in TMW is not about fixed stories, but about plans for introducing content. As long as something has not been revealed in play, it can still be changed. For this reason the proactive player tends to have certain primacy when we play - if a player is using his fate narration and saying that another character killed his character's mother, pretty much the only valid way for the other player to complain is to use his own fate narration and reveal how it actually went down.

Also, note that impinging on another character's backstory is only an issue if your own backstory dictates such; in your actual play snippet you're using conflict narration, which is a different beast. I don't allow conflict narration to override backstory authority of any sort; you can win conflicts all day long, but they only ever allow you to narrate what happens, not what O-Yanma's haircolor is.
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cra2
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« Reply #4 on: July 14, 2009, 09:06:37 PM »

Quote
Also, note that impinging on another character's backstory is only an issue if your own backstory dictates such; in your actual play snippet you're using conflict narration, which is a different beast.

Correct, but I was pointing out where some confusion over the interpretation of the rules may have bled in.

 - In one section (fate), the rules pretty much explicitly give you control to say what the other players' PC has done in the past.  (and rarely are you going to say you're seeking revenge on him because he feeds puppies and takes care of the elderly, so it's implied that you're going to narrate how he has a dark <evil> past).

- But you're saying that, in the other section (conflicts), it should be understood that there's a barrier and you don't mess with the other players' past.  Or anything else for that matter that doesn't have to do with simply DESCRIBING <coloring> the way the facts are revealed.

Caused us some confusion.
But I wasn't the GM and didn't do more than skim the rules so I may have picked up on that distinction if I had looked more closely.  Hence my reason for asking advice here.

And your advice has been awesome.  I appreciate the time you've taken.

And yes, my intentions were not malicious when I noticed this "loophole" in the rules.  But I didn't realize how strategic I'd been in using it til after it was over and I thought, "this can't be right.  The rules must have some boundaries on this somewhere."

Either way, we made our own rulings at the table and then went on with the gameplay.
Everyone had fun and is enjoying the game.
We're playing again in 2 weeks.

I'll have to bring up the part about not over-writing history (except for the Fate cards).
I think it's easiest to just explain that winning narration just means you get to DESCRIBE what happened in the conflict, not RE-WRITE the past.

But that leaves me wondering what to do with narration rights sometimes then.
If my stakes are to get information.
And their stakes are to withhold info.
And I win narration - they basically have to narrate (since I - the player - don't KNOW the information).
Thus in some circumstances, there's no real point in having narration I s'pose.


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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #5 on: July 14, 2009, 09:44:45 PM »

Ah, I'm very happy to hear that the game's working for you - sounds like you're just having trouble with the invisible lines and where they are, not with the actual intent of the game. That's no big deal once you figure out what works and what doesn't for your group, and you'll only get better if you play with many different people and learn to adapt to local style.

You're absolutely right that the narration rights are not a big deal. Historically we've taken years to figure out what their importance is, and quite many people have had to realize in practice that it's not a right that is the big deal, it's the procedure. My game Zombie Cinema is a direct descentant of this Dust Devils -> TMW tradition, and I write this up pretty unambiguously in there: the narration right's purpose is to make it unambiguous as a point of procedure who acts as the approval authority for narration, not to be the sole source of dramatically disruptive turns of events. The narrator works best if he doesn't try to be shocking or inventive or original, but simply acts as the clearinghouse for suggestions and detail everybody at the table contributes. Picking a player to be the main narrator helps us avoid consensus, the big enemy of excitement; without a single authority all contributions would have to be moderated and accepted by everybody, which would tend towards a much more mediocre, conservative narration environment. It's procedure, not strategy, that is the reason behind narrative authority.

It would not be far off to say that the reason for making narration authority a big deal in the first place is that it's an antidote against bad play practice (bad from the viewpoint of these games, note) established in other games. The way I see it, narration rights in Forge-influenced games ultimately originate with (Pool and) Sorcerer & Sword, which has a very clear discussion of character failure vs. character competence; one original point of giving the narration rights to individual players has probably been to safeguard against others narrating your character into a buffoon. By distributing the authority you pretty much force a group to learn to play together or combust; it's a do or die solution.

I'm not saying that the narration authority can't be exciting, though. There is a certain sweet spot in stretching the authority with surprising outcomes and details that drastically affect the consequences of events. For example, when you're interrogating another character about his past: the point of narration rights is not that you get to dictate the past, but that you get to establish what your interaction with the other character looks like: do you break his will, or do you seduce him? Do you mislead him, allow him to believe incorrect things? Do you shame him in front of his people? That sort of thing can get quite volatile, and it's all possible with the resolution narration rights. The idea is not to intentionally seek to shock and challenge, but when inspiration comes along, the authority is there to be used.
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cra2
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« Reply #6 on: July 24, 2009, 12:11:52 PM »

Speaking of narration -

1)  Can you "Buy narration rights" even if your PC is not in the scene?

2)  If you buy narration rights, WHEN do you have to do it?
In other words, can I watch the conflict dice roll, see who is awarded narration, listen to the narrator depict the outcome and THEN jump in and purchase the rights - allowing me to ignore or re-write what the narrator depicted?
(ew... hope not)
Or do I have to decide whether or not to buy-in before the die are rolled?

Thanks
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2009, 01:05:19 PM »

As I remember it, you can buy narration whenever it suits you. No need to be in the scene, and you can choose the moment before or after the roll, or even in the middle of the narration. So you can wait to do it until you know that you need to, one might say.
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timfire
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« Reply #8 on: August 31, 2009, 10:57:38 AM »

Hiya, I'm a little late to the party, but hopefully I can still help clarify things.

Quote from: cra2
I knew I could induce a conflict saying, "I'm trying to socialize with him and get him to tell me the truth."...

Since a regular success means I got what I wanted, he was now going to have to tell me the truth.
And since I got high die, I got narration rights.
So at this point we realize that I now have carte blanche to make up whatever answer I want for this poor player, and that it IS the truth - thus negating whatever backstory and reasons he had written down on his sheet...

Seems kinda wierd, taking control of another PC's past like that.
And seems like you could just begin the damned ascent asking everyone about their Fates or whatever, inducing conflicts, and getting a 50/50 shot at TELLING them what YOU want their fate to now be.

There are a number of issues in your example. I agree that tMW's text is showing its age, but on this particular issue, I don't think it's *as bad* as it's being made out to be. I think the intent is clear if you read the book, though admittedly you have to stop and focus on individual paragraphs and sentences.

Quote from: 'Narrating Success', page 34, tMW
Quote from: 'Success: The Currency of Narration', pg 30, tMW
Quote from: 'Extra Success: The Power of a Critical or Double Success', pg 30, tMW
Quote from: cra2
But you do just that (describe backstory) if you play the Revenge fate card, right?
You're free to suddenly narrate how the target of your anger used to kill babies or whatever and that's why you're after him.
No?

Yes, that's right, and technically you can do that with any of the Fates, Revenge is just the most obvious. By the book, a player can use their Fate to declare any (appropriately Fate-related) fact about another PC, and the owner of that character just has to take it, period. Eating babies included.

My desire wasn't to disallow players from describing other PCs' backstory, it was to control the context in which it was done. I didn't want to give players carte blanche freedom, I only wanted to give them freedom to create facts related to their Fate.

Now, in practice, I do like Eero suggested, and encourage soft negotiation between players. But that's just general play advice, not an official rule. Does imposing facts on other players make the game unfun? Maybe, maybe not. It's an individual group thing. You have to know what your group likes and doesn't like. I more or less say as much at the very beginning of the book:

Quote from: 'A Reasonable Standard', page IV, tMW
Quote from: cra2
But that leaves me wondering what to do with narration rights sometimes then.

Eero is awesome, but I have to disagree with him on the importance of narration. Narration in tMW (and other games) is certainly a subtle aspect of play, but I think it's actually much more important and powerful than most people give it credit for.

The issue is that people always want to use narration to directly affect the narrative, which it can't do (though admittedly, I sorta imply that it can in the text). Where narration shines is in coloring or otherwise shaping the feel of the narrative.

For example, suppose you have a ronin who's struggling with self doubt because he failed to protect his lord from some assailant. Then, at some point when he's working with another PC, they lose a roll---but did they lose the Conflict because their opponent was too strong, or because the doubting ronin fumbled a tactical manuever? That sort of thing can be a *big* deal if the dramatic timing is right. And beyond that, little touches here and there add up, and can have a profound effect on the overall game.

Quote from: cra2
If you buy narration rights, WHEN do you have to do it?
In other words, can I watch the conflict dice roll, see who is awarded narration, listen to the narrator depict the outcome and THEN jump in and purchase the rights - allowing me to ignore or re-write what the narrator depicted?

 - When buying narration, your character doesn't have to be present, but you do have to spend Trust given to you by one of the characters in the Conflict.
 - Regarding when, as it says in the book (pg 60), "Buying narration is declared after the physical die roll, but before the official narration is begun." Once someone begins narrating, that's it, you can't go back.
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