*
*
Home
Help
Login
Register
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
October 01, 2014, 10:26:35 AM

Login with username, password and session length
Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.
Search:     Advanced search
275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4283 Members Latest Member: - otto Most online today: 62 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
Pages: [1] 2
Print
Author Topic: Thematic Play  (Read 3815 times)
Simon C
Member

Posts: 495


« on: April 07, 2010, 06:23:22 PM »

This is a continuation of the other threads I've been writing, expressing dissatisfaction with GNS, because I don't think it usefully describes inherant differences in how people play rpgs, and even if it does, I'm not sure that the distinctions it provides are useful for informing design (except for Story Now, which I think is very useful for informing design).

Those threads have forced me to reconsider a little bit.  The play people are describing in those threads (specifically Roger in this thread: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=29558.0, and contracycle in this thread: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=29520.0) don't appear to be particularly informed by an overarching theme, in the way I was arguning most or all rpg play is.  I still have some quibbles in those threads, but the arguments weren't going very far, and I'm happy to concede that for people playing in the way described in those threads, perhaps theme isn't a useful thing to think about.  BUT! I also think that the play styles described in those threads are kind of on the extremes of play.  I don't have any data to back this up, but my sense from reading about peoples' play online is that for many people, their play doesn't resemble either of the two styles presented in those threads, and nor does it resemble the style of play described as "Story Now".

I want to give an actual play account to describe an example of a type of play that is very different from how Roger plays, is very different from how I now play, and also, from what contracycle says in that other thread, doesn't seem to fit with that style of play either.

We were playing Savage Worlds, in a fantasy setting (we used the setting from the old turn-based strategy game "Warlords".  I hand-drew a map and everything).  The original pitch was "go anywhere, do whatever, but there'll be world-spanning events happening in the background".  What happened very quickly was that the characters got caught up in those world-spanning events, and the game became pretty much a "save the world" scenario, with the characters combatting the various machinations of the evil Lord Bane.  

I think we started with a fairly incoherant mode of play, but developed towards a very strong aesthetic of play.  The players had complete authority over their characters, and the characters were free to take whatever path they wanted.  At the same time, there was a strong sense that the characters should remain invested in being the "good guys" and combating Lord Bane, in various ways.  So what that did was kind of limit the scope of play - the players had complete autonomy in playing a character who wanted to beat Lord Bane.  

From the GM's side, my responsibility was to make sure that whatever path the PCs chose, they'd face interesting and appropriate challenges, with the possibility of successfully combating Lord Bane.  It was ok for things to be very difficult, or only loosely connected to Bane, (like, it was fine to be helping enemies of Bane against a third party).  It was ok to question the morality of the enemies of Bane (like, we had a few sessions where the PCs were involved in supressing a rebellion of Elves in the Selentine empire.  The Elves were presented as having a righteous cause, but violent and unscrupulous means, and their success would have crippled the Selentines against Lord Bane.)  So some moral ambiguity was ok, but it would have been totally wrong to suggest that Lord Bane was actually an ok guy, or that it wasn't worthwhile stopping him.

What resulted was a kind of dialogue between players and GM.  The players would choose a path, I'd present what was possible along that path, and then te players would choose what they were interested in from among those options.  We'd reach a kind of consensus on what was interesting to play.

There were a few moments that kind of tested this setup.  

In the setting, there are 12 or so magic items, which are very powerful, and the only magic objects in the setting.  One of them, the Darksword, was a very powerful sword that also corrupted its weilder.  One of the PCs took control of this item for a while, using it to defeat some powerful foes.  The player did a great job of roleplaying his character slowly falling under the influence of the sword (there were no mechanics to enforce this), becoming more agressive, violent, and unethical.  A crisis point came when they decided to turn the sword over to an order of monastic knights (the Sirians) for storage and safekeeping.  The player of the character with the sword had to choose whether to hand the sword over, or to keep it and turn against the party.  A tense scene was roleplayed out, but I think in reality there was very little tension in the scene.  The player was essentially choosing between keeping his character (and losing the sword), or keeping the sword (and essentially having an unplayable character).  

That having your character turn against the party, or seriously question their cause, would result in the character leaving the game was demonstrated later on, near the end of the campaign.  One of the characters was lured away from the party, just before an ambuh was to occurr.  The woman he met, an ex-servant of Bane, told him that the party would have by now fallen to the ambush, that it was hopeless for him to try to help them, and that he should leave with her, and they could have a life together.  The player chose to have his character leave with the woman, and the character essentially left play.

Now, there was no suggestion that what the player did was out of line.  In fact, we all thought it was awesome.  But the decision also took the character outside the scope of play.  There was no way for that character to continue to contribute to what we were doing in the game.

I should talk a little more about the ambush I mentioned earlier.  This was supposed to be the climax of the campaign.  The characters had chosen not to back down against an overwhelming force, choosing to protect a village (some of whom were family of one character), instead of abandoning or evacuating it.  The players knew that the choices they had made put their characters into an almost impossible position.  As GM, I knew I had the responsibility, the expectation even, to throw something against them that validated their choices.  It was my intention to send them up against a fight that would be impossible to overcome.  I was fully expecting for the characters to go out in a blaze of glory.

What happened instead was that the characters won the fight.  It was a close thing, and one of the characters was mortally wounded (surviving only due to the power of the magical Spear of Ank).  But they won, and were able to go on to defeat the thing threatening the village, and have a happy ending.  Hurrah!

I think it's useful to look at this game as being organised around a theme, a theme that would be something like "Can a small group of heroes overcome evil?" I think that theme informed pretty much every decision made in play.  Notice how that theme is also kind of a situation? We had a small group of heroes, working together, fighting against evil.  I think the first word in the theme is key.  "Can".  So what was key in play was finding that out.  Can they? It was an honest question.  We went in hoping that the answer would be yes, but for play to be meaningful, "no" had to be a possible outcome as well.  That required challenge.  Not the illusion of challenge, but real, honest challenge, where it was likely that the PCs would succeed, but where there was a real chance as well that they would fail.  

We also needed there to be a meaningful distinction between being a hero, and being evil.  That meant that it was ok to explore a little about what it meant to be a hero, what it might cost, and what it took to be a good hero (but that wasn't usually the focus of play), but it wasn't ok to undercut the idea of there being heroes, or of palpable, objective evil existing.  

So that's why I think theme is a useful way to look at play, and why a lot of play that's been called Right to Dream or Step on Up might be more usefully understood as thematic play, but with themes that require certain unquestioned assumptions in play.





Logged
Frank Tarcikowski
Member

Posts: 277

Hamburg, Germany


WWW
« Reply #1 on: April 08, 2010, 04:33:52 AM »

Hi Simon,

I completely agree that this is an interesting and relevant angle to look at a game of role-playing, for scenario prep and possibly even game design. I think we have, or used to have, a lot in common as players (that Warlords game certainly sounds plain awesome to me). For my part, by Big Model terms, I am probably Sim inclined but favor the ends of that Creative Agenda that lean heavily towards Nar or Gam (or both, at times), charging play up with moral questions and Challenge. Therefore, the distinctions made by GNS are not extremely helpful to me either in analyzing my games.

If Theme helps you nail what a game is about, that's great and noteworthy. Personally I thought you had nailed it pretty well even before you started discussing Theme.

- Frank

Logged

If you come across a post by a guest called Frank T, that was me. My former Forge account was destroyed in the Spam Wars. Collateral damage.
Caldis
Member

Posts: 359


« Reply #2 on: April 08, 2010, 12:35:18 PM »


A warning up front that I may come across as a bit of a jerk here and I'm making judgements about an event I didnt take part in.  I admit my characterization of your game may be off and am reading things into it but these are my impressions of what you've described based on my play experience with various groups.

I'm not sold on your use of the word can.  You try and defend it pretty hard but I'm not sure it's valid.  You said the situation was practically impossible and the group was virtually doomed to defeat and the one character who was mortally wounded could only be healed by a magic artifact that just happend to be there.

I'm sorry but I've been around long enough to see that when that many long odds come out in someones favor that there is something at work here beyond just random luck.  I remember a scenario I ran long ago with 1st ed. AD&D with the published Against the Giants module where our group stumbled into a fortress of frost giants and the whole clan reacted to their presence.  By all rights we were in a dire situation and should have tried to run but we had cavaliers in the group and they believed in death before dishonour and never running from a foe so the group attacked and miraculously won.  It really pumped this group up but it wasnt really miraculous.  I felt like I ran the situation straight up but on reflection I was pretty easily swayed by arguements like "only so many giants can get at one individual so much smaller" and didnt have them use any really intelligent tactics that they could have taken advantage of to turn the battle in their favor.

I'm not saying that your group didnt face the chance of failure but I'm saying that the chance wasnt nearly as large as you make it seem.  The illusion of the chance of failure was more important than the actual chance.  I think the heart of Right to Dream play is the emotional impact you get from being in a situation and it's amplified if the scene does have tension to it.  That tension can come from a sense of threat or challenge but I think there are a lot of "hollywood" style tricks that can get you that feeling without actually facing the danger that actually comes from long odds.   Poorly done these tricks come across as railroading but when they are well done no one realizes or cares for the most part.   




Logged
FredGarber
Member

Posts: 95


« Reply #3 on: April 08, 2010, 01:42:22 PM »

Would you play that game again?
Would you sit down with the same group of players, have them make characters in the same way, and play the same theme ?
Personally, I would take a lot of convincing to play that same "Defeat Lord Bane" game again.  I would feel that I've answered that thematic question.

I think Playing To A Theme is an admirable way to play.  I won't play with groups that are similar to Roger, because I've learned that style of play doesn't reward my time in the way I want to be rewarded.  (That's a GNS conflict, btw, not a Theme-conflict)

I think "The Campaign should have a Theme" is already often baked into game design (IIRC, the WWGS Vampire rules used to put that instruction into the GM section in Bold Type).  I think, however, if you bake a specific Theme into a game design, you run the risk of ruining replayability.  It's only a risk: there are a number of games I can think of (3:16, Mountain Witch, MLWM, Call of Cthulhu) where a Theme is strongly (or overtly) suggested by the ruleset, and players will unambigously decide to sit down and play again and again and again. 

I think Thematic Play is a discussion topic, and helping a group choose a theme that they all can play to will improve a play experience, but I don't think Thematic Play is a GNS killer like you do.  I think GNS-related incoherance is the cause of far more destructive problems in games than Theme incoherance (using incoherance in the normal, non-Glossary sense). 

I apologize for sounding harsh, but I've been waiting for a thread that was specifically about Thematic play.  I think you are minimizing the "unquestioned assumptions" that you have found in your gaming group.  I would counterpropose that you play with a very cohesive group of players, and many of those assumptions in your group (like, "placing yourself in opposition to the the party makes you unplayable" or "The GM can give you a magic item that will make you play your character differently") are NOT hobby-wide assumptions, but your good fortune in finding a group of players that play the way you like. You only had to look to find two counterexamples where Theme had nothing to do in successful Play.

I don't want to kill this thread.  Do you have an example where choosing a Theme made a bad game better?  Or where a player who was not having fun was advised about the Theme, and then they had an enjoyable experience?  I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I haven't seen any evidence in support of your "Thematic Play is a Better Tool than GNS" argument stronger than "my group likes Themes, and we always have fun."  You might also all like Pepsi, but that doesn't mean drinking Pepsi causes you to have good games.

-Fred
Logged
Simon C
Member

Posts: 495


« Reply #4 on: April 08, 2010, 02:39:48 PM »

Frank,

Cool, I'm glad that this is making some sense to you.  I should point out that my current style of play is pretty different from this now, and focuses on what I think are more challenging or provocative themes. 

Caldis,

Actually, you're right on the money.  My first Actual Play thread at the Forge was about this same game, and raised the exact issue you're talking about.  I raised it because actual tension between success and failure was what was desired, but, as you describe, as GM it's very easy to tip the result one way or another, unless you're using a robust conflict resolution system.

So you're dead on, but I think this issue is tangential to this thread, which is about the theme of play.  That theme was served by there being a genuine question of whether the characters would succeed, and even though that question was sometimes weighted more in one direction, it doesn't change the fact that a genuine chance of failure was a desired part of play.

Fred,

I think your conflict with Roger's style of play could be considered a techniques conflict, rather than a theme conflict.  You don't like the heavy use of challenge, to the exclusion of exploration.  That seems like a techniques issue to me.  I don't really see how GNS is useful in understanding that.

Your question about playing the same theme again is interesting.  Actually, I think yes, playing the same theme again is a viable option.  I think a lot of groups play the same or similar themes over and over again, with different colour.

Quote
I apologize for sounding harsh, but I've been waiting for a thread that was specifically about Thematic play.  I think you are minimizing the "unquestioned assumptions" that you have found in your gaming group.  I would counterpropose that you play with a very cohesive group of players, and many of those assumptions in your group (like, "placing yourself in opposition to the the party makes you unplayable" or "The GM can give you a magic item that will make you play your character differently") are NOT hobby-wide assumptions, but your good fortune in finding a group of players that play the way you like. You only had to look to find two counterexamples where Theme had nothing to do in successful Play.

I don't really understand what you've written here, I'm afraid.  Can you rephrase it or something?

An example of where choosing a theme made a bad game better?  I think pretty much everyone who successfully plays White Wolf games (especially Vampire and Exalted) is choosing a theme and playing to it.  The games are such a mess of different options and possibilities, that they really require you to do a lot of design work before play starts, shaping the theme of the game.  I should point out that the texts of these games gives almost no assistance in this design work.

Logged
contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #5 on: April 09, 2010, 08:10:41 AM »

Umm, well, I don't know about that last.  Of all games, I've played WOD most as a player, and to this day I couldn't tell you what themes were allegedly operating in those games.  I could recount anecdotes that stick in the memory, but I am not aware, and was not aware at the time, that any such issues impinged upon the game at all.  When I GM, they certainly don't; perhaps because my old regular group generally turned their noses up at anything that smacked remotely of good versus evil.  I just don't tend to think in those terms anyway - the idea of structuring play around such issues doesn't really make any intuitive sense to me.  To me, if Vamp can be said to have any theme with which I ever engaged, it is the rather loose idea of a "secret history", an underworld that is a truer version of reality than is commonly percieved.  That is interesting to explore, but I'm not sure it qualifies as a theme in the sense you use it, and I'm pretty confident it doesn't qualify as a theme in drama-speak.

I'm not saying there is no utlity to looking at theme as an aspect of what happens in games, but I have difficulty in seeing as central.  It seems to me that theme, in whatever sense, can be coexistent with a GNS classification of CA.  Appreciating the game you describe in that light may well help you understand it, help you build it, help you play it; but I'm unconvinced that it's all you need to know about it.
Logged

Impeach the bomber boys:
www.impeachblair.org
www.impeachbush.org

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Roger
Member

Posts: 168


WWW
« Reply #6 on: April 09, 2010, 08:30:23 AM »

Okay, so let's talk about Theme within Step On Up play.

I'd suggest that Theme for the Step On Up player comes from a very specific place:  the mechanics and rules-engine of the system.

Assuming that hypothesis is true, these things naturally follow:

1.  Some Themes and families of Themes will be more prevalent than others.  Most common:  Themes like "Even a lowly peasant with a rusty dagger can fell the mightiest of knights with a lucky blow" or "With enough skill, experience, and luck, a hero can survive even a leap from a 200-foot cliff."  Less common:  "Love will overcome fear" or "All good things come to those who wait."

2.  The Themes pre-exist within the rules engine; the function of the players is to discover them through an Exploration process that is essentially scientific and objective.  Theme here is especially not Edwardian Premise.

3.  In the common situation where there is a disagreement in Theme between the rules-engine and the other components, the Step On Up players will always side with the rules-engine.  Non-Step-On-Uppers may very well side with the other components.  Both sides will accuse the other of totally missing the point of the game, which is obvious and self-evident to them.  Examples:  Vampire: the Masquerade, some versions of Call of Cthulhu.

4.  In the less-common, but increasingly-frequent, situation where every part of the game is consistent in Theme, there will be much less conflict between the Step On Up players and everyone else.  Examples:  The Riddle of Steel, very early editions of D&D.

5.  Games in which there is a sparse rules-engine that does not contain much Theme in itself will generally bewilder, irritate, and fail to engage the Step On Up player.  Examples:  PrimeTime Adventures, Once Upon a Time.


This is one of those things that I feel so close to that I can't distinguish whether any of those points need more clarification; they all seem obviously self-evident to me.  So if I've said anything that seems unclear or untrue, please let me know.  Or if I've missed the point of this thread entirely.
Logged
Caldis
Member

Posts: 359


« Reply #7 on: April 09, 2010, 11:59:11 AM »

I think what you quoted from Fred and what I wrote are both speaking to one point from different angles.  There is a huge difference in having a game with theme in it where the theme isnt really questioned and one where it is.  Where I spoke of manipulating events so things that seem like longshots end up happening the theme really isnt in question with regards to the players.  The in game fiction may have a question about whether the group will be able to overcome the opposition but outside the fiction in terms of players interacting the theme isnt in question, they will overcome evil the only question is how.  

In contrast what Fred speaks of, where choices that lead to a character becoming opposition for the party dont end play is questioning the theme.  It transforms the theme from the trials involved in a good group battling evil to the danger in battling evil is becoming that which you fight.  Because your group accepts the theme you've given to the game and dont try to question it they can function with the given theme but if you had a group that didnt take that theme as set in stone they might not work so well together, someone trying to force that questioning would be subverting the groups fun.

So yes theme can be important but having a theme and using it to limit play boundaries is a huge difference from a game where the theme is in question and open to refinement and comment.  I'm all for discussing theme as part of game design but I think there's more to it than just realizing what theme you've chosen for the game, you also have to realize how you will use the theme and that can be problematic when many people historically have believed the theme is in question when in reality it isnt.
Logged
FredGarber
Member

Posts: 95


« Reply #8 on: April 09, 2010, 02:48:25 PM »

Some comments in no particular order, responding to nothing in particular.

1. I think there already exists a nicely definied definition about a theme in question vs. a stated theme.
For example, "The smallest hobbit can make a difference" is defined as a Theme, because it's a statement.
"Can a small Fellowship resist Sauron's evil?" might be defined as a Premise, where Boromir and Frodo answer "No," Aragorn, and Samwise answer "Yes," and the rest of the group count Orc heads and enjoy the adventure.

2. Refinement of my confusing statement earlier: In my experience, I apparently played with a lot of Incoherance.
I had a big rant written, and I deleted it.  Why should you have to read through my litany of bad experiences?  I think I played with a lot of people who wanted different things from the RPG experience.  Now I know what to look for, and I know how to verbalize what I'm looking for in a way that hopefully will help GMs say "nope, this game isn't for you," or "yeah, I think i can work that in." 
"Playing with a Theme" won't help me find gamers who play like I do.  "Playing Story focused / Sandbox games" gets me a lot closer. (**)   Looking at what System is used helps, because System Matters.

-Fred

(**) Although these terms sometimes fail too!
Logged
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 2591


WWW
« Reply #9 on: April 10, 2010, 01:36:32 AM »

Huh, reading this thread is actually starting to make me suspect that I don't understand what Simon means by the term "theme". Looking at that Warlords game (awesome topic, incidentally), the themes I'm seeing there are heroism and villainy, which are then reflected through many lenses as is the wont of the genre. "Can heroes beat the dark lord?" is not any theme that I'd recognize in the literary sense of the word; at most that's plot. Theme-wise it's well established that the genre of chivalrous romance can easily take both victory or defeat as the plot of the piece while still fully advocating the virtues of heroism.

Now, "Can the heroes beat the dark lord" might be a Premise in the narrativistic sense, but only if the issue of victory is actually being used as a crux issue in judging the notions of heroism or whatever it is that the protagonists of the piece embody. Thus, we can ask a simple question: had the heroes lost in their war against Lord Bane, would that have cast the story in a light that would have actually changed its theme? That is, if the story as it exists advocates for heroism as its theme, would a story with a tragic ending have had a different lesson, perhaps one that would have condemned heroism as futile and ultimately disastrous to everybody involved? Is heroism, for this storyteller, only worthwhile insofar as it leads to victory? If that were the case, then we could ask the question about defeating the dark lord and have it actually be thematically important.

When a theme is actually not malleable in the process of play and it is merely being illustrated, the nature of conflicts related to the theme are fundamentally different: a hero fighting against Lord Bane is not resolving for us whether heroism is worthwhile, but rather just depicting for us what heroism is like. He may still win or lose, but this does not cast his actions in new light: we already know that heroism is a virtue, we're just enjoying its depiction in different circumstances. This is a pretty clear example of the difference between simulationism and narrativism, I think.

The above is just me wrestling with Simon's conception of theme. Insofar as his conclusions go, I find them worthwhile for exploring how simulationism works: there are certainly existing games that rely on largely unexplained praxis in coordinating the focus of play and its themes. I wouldn't be surprised if thematic coordination became an important piece in the on-going work to understand the theory of simulationism.
Logged

Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.
Simon C
Member

Posts: 495


« Reply #10 on: April 10, 2010, 04:49:51 AM »

Eero,

Hi! This is just brief and I'll try to give a more full response to all the other posters tomorrow.  I think that I've been using the term "theme pretty loosely, cetainly not in the way the Big Model uses it, and probably not in a very consistent fashion.  So you're understandibly confused.

Note though that I formulated the theme as "Can heroes, working together, overcome evil?".  The "evil" in that meaning something more general than just Bane.  I'm not sure if that makes a difference for you, but for me that means that what we were interested in was looking at what problems were surmountable - what difference the heroes could make overall, whether they could make the world a better place, rather than stricly whether they could defeat Lord Bane.

I'd be happy if my exploration of theme became a way of understanding some Right to Dream play.  My suspicion is that examining this leads to finding that there's a continuum between this kind of play and what's been called Story Now (rather than a divide), but I'm open to the possibility that there is a qualitative difference.  I think examining exactly what this difference is would be interesting.

Other people have talked a lot about "questioning" or "challenging" theme, and I'm starting to think that I actually don't know what that means.
Logged
Simon C
Member

Posts: 495


« Reply #11 on: April 10, 2010, 10:39:34 PM »

Ok, more full responses:

Contracyle,

As I said in the first post, I'm prepared to accept that your Vampire play might be different to the play I've experienced, and that theme might not be useful to understanding your play.  That said, I'd be interested to know more about how you play Vampire.  How would you like to start your own Actual Play thread? One of the things that makes me think that most (or all) successful Vampire play focuses on a theme is the way the setting material is selectively edited to create situation.  I've seen very few successful Vampire games that start with the players making whatever character they choose, and then the Storyteller working them into a coherant game.  The successful Vampire play I've seen usually starts with a pitch like "Let's play the clean-up crew of a powerful elder" or "Let's play the four most powerful vampires in the city" and so on.  It's my belief that that kind of focusing usually centers the game around a theme.  Does that match your experience? 

"Good vs. Evil" is by far not the limit of themes that can be explored, and I'd agree with you that Vampire usually isn't good for exploring themes like that (although I think you could do an interesting game about "What is Evil?" with Vampire, maybe.)

More broadly, I'm beginning to think that our central disagreement is about whether RPG play can be useful understood as a text.  I tend to think that a textual analysis of rpg play as it happens (and not just after the fact) is useful, hence my focus on theme.  My sense is that you don't agree.  Is that an accurate characterisation? I think it's an interesting question, and worth exploring. 

Caldis,

I think what you're actually talking about is Situation.  I agree that there's a big difference in play between a game like I described (where seriously questioning the party's goals the structure of the party would remove the character from play)  and a game where questioning the party's goals is an accepted and desired part of play.  I think your characterisation of how that difference changes the theme of play is accurate.

What we're talking about, I think, is creating fit characters.  In my game, a fit character is one who is prepared to try to overcome Evil.  A character that's no longer answering the question of whether good can overcome evil isn't a fit character for the game, and leaves play.  I don't see that there's a qualitative difference between that, and Dogs in the Vinyard.  In Dogs, a fit character is one who's engaged with the question of the use of violence in the pursuit of good.  That's a more nuanced theme, for sure (and I think I'm simplifying it some), but it remains that a character in Dogs who's not engaged by the central theme of play leaves the game.  That happened a couple of times in the recent Dogs game I played.

Now, I think there's a question of how acceptable it is in practice for characters to leave play this way.  I think that's something that varies, but I don't see a pattern in that that maps to particular types of play.

Fred,

I don't really understand the utility of the theme/premise distinction you're making.  My experience is that in play, theme is always a question.  Sometimes there's a heavily expected answer to that question, and play is more about how the question is answered than what the answer is.  But I don't think there's a strict distinction between the two.

Note that neither GNS nor theme are really about player preferences.  You can say "I generally prefer Story Now play" or, as I would put it "I prefer games with challenging and complex themes" (and I think the latter is more useful), but the real use for both of these ways of understanding games is in understanding how to create coherant play - how to make design and play choices that provide more fun.

Eero,

Like I said, I think you're using a more rigorous and probably more correct definition of theme and premise than I am.  Here's what I'm trying to say:

The question "Can heroes, working together, overcome evil" was a unifying and organising principle throughout play.  That question informed choices throughout play, from colour (clean, happy, virtuous "good" folk, and dirty, unhappy, cruel "evil" folk) to techniques (use of challenge to focus on the "Can" in the question) to character (people with the will and means to enact change in the world) and situation (an evil power spreading through the world). 

Does that make it clearer for you?
Logged
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 2591


WWW
« Reply #12 on: April 10, 2010, 11:26:43 PM »

The question "Can heroes, working together, overcome evil" was a unifying and organising principle throughout play.  That question informed choices throughout play, from colour (clean, happy, virtuous "good" folk, and dirty, unhappy, cruel "evil" folk) to techniques (use of challenge to focus on the "Can" in the question) to character (people with the will and means to enact change in the world) and situation (an evil power spreading through the world). 

That seems very sensible to me as a technique. I'm starting to think that the long GNS-gazetteer that initiated this discussion has led to a lot of wrangling over secondary issues when the basic realization is very simple and useful.

Are you familiar with how TSoY is utilized as a campaign setting for actual play? The original game text wasn't too clear on this point, but since then several people have written on the topic, including Ron and myself: a wide and rambling setting narrative like that included in TSoY is not functional in play for the game depicted by the rules unless a conscious effort is made to frame and define the focus of play by picking a geographical location (due to the nature of the setting geography is drama) and perhaps a viewpoint around which the players create their characters. To me this seems like exactly the technique you advocate here.

Because you've been contrasting this concept of theme as the focus of play with GNS, I'd like to say a few words about that without trying to undermine your substantial point itself: to me it seems that what you're describing is clearly functional, a technique of play, and not at all a matter that challenges or circumscribes Creative Agenda. The fact that using theme as a focusing, informing framework of play seems to bridge the Sim/Nar divide is simply because it is a technique that can be useful within both agenda modes. Likewise, it's not wonder that some games and play experiences among both agendas don't seem to cohere around a theme in this sense: when other technical priorities are involved, thematic coherence of the sort you posit might well be incompatible with the other techniques present. For example, if absolute player autonomy in character concept (a common technique through the '90s) is on the table, then a focusing thematic framework won't be that useful as a secondary technique simply because the autonomic character vision might break the framework.

Assuming I'm not misunderstanding anything, the next useful step might be to use the technique of thematic focus in game design, whatever the Creative Agenda serviced. We've done a bit of that with TSoY - for example, the World of Near explicitly requires the play group to choose a focal framework from within the setting material before characters and created so as to ensure that all player characters are pertinent. I'm sure that much more can be done in this regard as well, especially for dramatic simulationistic play that by nature requires more thematic coordination than many types of narrativism.
Logged

Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.
contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #13 on: April 10, 2010, 11:50:21 PM »

As I said in the first post, I'm prepared to accept that your Vampire play might be different to the play I've experienced, and that theme might not be useful to understanding your play.  That said, I'd be interested to know more about how you play Vampire.  How would you like to start your own Actual Play thread? One of the things that makes me think that most (or all) successful Vampire play focuses on a theme is the way the setting material is selectively edited to create situation.  I've seen very few successful Vampire games that start with the players making whatever character they choose, and then the Storyteller working them into a coherant game.  The successful Vampire play I've seen usually starts with a pitch like "Let's play the clean-up crew of a powerful elder" or "Let's play the four most powerful vampires in the city" and so on.  It's my belief that that kind of focusing usually centers the game around a theme.  Does that match your experience?

I'll do an AP if you want, but it is not clear to me what you would to know, and therefore, what I should say.  You suggest my style is odd, and maybe it is, but then again I've been able to join groups with whom I've never played before and fit in perfectly well both as GM and player, so it can't be that odd.

Thing is though, when you talk about editing the material to create situation, thats something I find much easier to digest.  I certainly approve of doing this sort thing, but I'm not sure that situation can be translated to theme in a way the term is used in its literary context.  However, most of my play has not used even this; it's usually been old fashioned characters-designed-in-isolation, bring 'em all to the table, GM finds a means to integrate them.  I can't speak to "how many" games work like this succesfully, not least because ours is not a hobby that lends itself to data collection and any guessing as to the frequency or otherwise of particular techniques can be little more, I think, than projection.  Even trying to define what succesful play is is fraught with difficulty.

I certainly agree that good vs. evil type stuff is not the only theme at all, but my point was that my regular group actively avoided this sort of moral questioning.  But I still have difficulty with your proposition because it seems so broad, ranging from any control of situation at all to a sort of premise-lite.  Theme as such doesn't seem to be very well defined in drama jargon either, so while your use might be relevant to some uses I still find it difficult to understand what it is that you mean by the term exactly.  Similarly, I don't really know what mean by "understanding RPG as a text".  A text like a novel is usually the creation of one person, and it may well be that you can extract from this certain recurrent patterns of thought that can be construed as theme.  Does the same hold when there is not one authorial voice but many, when there is no single mind creating the content under the influence, even subconsciously, of a coherent idea?

As you may know, I make a point of disavowing "story".  Not only do I find the term also too broad to be useful, but it doesn't capture what I feel is going on.  What I do is "adventures", not stories.  Slightly outsize characters in slightly outsize situations: bright colours, explosions, fancy toys, etc.  Excitement, danger.  At the more serious end, exploration of stuff like different social structures, how life would be in microgravity, and so on.   Not moral issues as such.  Sometimes, things that might be construed as moral if you were that way inclined; it could be said that my cyberpunk play contained an exploration of the Thatcherite dictum that "there is no such thing as society", and you could, if you insisted, take a moral stand, as it were, for or against that statement.  But I don't think you'd have to, and I don't think you (I) would necessarily be aware of it while doing it.

As I have previously opined, I think there is a big difference between theme as some element of human concern, and simply the sculpting of situation and the use of an organising principle to frame play.  That latter I can use, and relate to; the former I can't.  I definitely don't see a continuum between these that makes them a single thing unviversal to all games.
Logged

Impeach the bomber boys:
www.impeachblair.org
www.impeachbush.org

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Simon C
Member

Posts: 495


« Reply #14 on: April 11, 2010, 04:10:44 PM »

Eero,

I'm totally getting what you're saying bout TSoY.  The game itself doesn't have a strongly hard-coded theme, but rather it's just rich in potential for theme - lots of meaty stuff to hook into, plus system that's going to constantly center play on character-focused themes.  So I think my "can heroes overcome Evil" theme wouldn't work well with TSoY, because "Evil" and "Heroes" are going to be constantly undercut by the setting and system of the game.  I think the closest you could get with TSoY would be something like "Can you make a positive change in the world?" and you'd play Maldorian revolutionaries or something.

I can understand what you're saying about describing theme as a technique.  I'm not sure I agree though.  If it is a technique it's a technique of design much more than of play (in the broad sense of design as choosing system, setting, situation, characters and so on).  I think during play, theme is a property of the game as a text - something that can be more or less present, can be engaging or phatic, can be strong or weak.  I think that differences in attitude to theme can explain incoherant play better and more constructively than GNS incoherance can.

Assuming the existance of Story Now play as a thing distinct from Right to Dream play, what are the distinguishing features when it comes to theme? Can you show that these are qualitative differences rather than quantitative?

Contracycle,

Here's what I would want to know about your play:

How do you choose what system to play? How do you choose what situation to put the characters into once you've chosen system? How do you choose what characters to play?

I suspect your answer will be something like "We do whatever seems interesting".  I hope it is, because "Interesting" is exactly what I'm talking about. What makes it interesting? The fact of it being interesting to a human being says to me that it speaks to issues of being a human.  Now, it may not be very deep issues, and it doesn't have to be very deeply examined, but I think that a theme is there.  Interest is not sustained on lightsabers alone.

Roger,

I just realised I forgot you before.  I'm afraid I don't really follow you.  I don't know what a "Step on Up" player is, since the GNS agendas describe play, not players.  I'm also not sure that systems have theme.  Rather I'd say that systems encourage theme (or don't).
Logged
Pages: [1] 2
Print
Jump to:  

Powered by MySQL Powered by PHP Powered by SMF 1.1.11 | SMF © 2006-2009, Simple Machines LLC
Oxygen design by Bloc
Valid XHTML 1.0! Valid CSS!