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Author Topic: premise  (Read 5038 times)
Jack Spencer Jr
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« on: July 16, 2001, 06:54:00 AM »

The education of Jack continues....

Now I'm trying to get a handle on this thing called a premise and i know it's fairly simple, something like "It's what the game is about from the player's or PC, I'm not sure which) perspective" but for some reason it's eluding me and I think this has to do with my simulationist bend.

It's like when I was writing Starfaring 2nd ed over on GO.  I was making Starfaring Sci-Fi.  That is, the various political bodies and areas would be representative of various types of sci-fi.  But I lacked a premise as-to what did the characters were going to do there.

I'm reminded of something George Lucas said in one of the Star Wars making-of shows.  "They spend so much time working on the environment that they actually spend film time on it"  The workers spent so much time getting the set pieces just so that time allocated to film scenes were spent.  Getting the world right is great, but something has to happen in that world to make it worthwhile.

Another byte:  in a Beatles documentary, the film Magical Mystery Tour was summed up thusly:

"The Beatles with several close friends and circus performer pile into a bus and travel the English countryside and filmed what happened.  Nothing did."

This probably belongs on the GNS forum, but this might be an nice insight into simulationist vs narrativist.  Narrativism requires a "script" (that is the story-enforcing elements) to make sure the story occurs.  Simulationism is like documentary filmmaking, filming with what happens and the story comes out of that.

But this goes on the other forum, I guess.

Back to premise.

My personal problem seems to be that I think in way to broad a strokes about what a game is about.  Starfaing was space adventure sci-fi, what happened was up to the players.

Partially it's probably because I don't wish to make the game too much a closed box.  I used to have the Aliens RPG (a fairly disappointing RPG IMO) which had little else to do except play space marines going out into space and killing aliens.  That's it.  Not much else.

Hopefully I've given a good idea of what my hang-ups are.

So, comments?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: July 16, 2001, 08:04:00 AM »

Jack,

The general meaning of "premise" is very vague, but I use it much more specifically when talking about Narrativist role-playing.

I've gone into this multiple times at GO, but most recently, in Jesse's thread "Going against the party mentality" in Actual Play. It starts with my post of July 2, a few posts down the thread.

The dialogue there should be a good starting point.

Also, I suggest that your use of "script" in regard to Narrativism is very dangerous ... the entire point of this mode of play is NOT to pre-direct what happens when (at least, not in the utterly GM-driven sense), yet still end up with a coherent story.

Best,
Ron
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James Holloway
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« Reply #2 on: July 16, 2001, 08:27:00 AM »

The "premise" is (as I understand it) the issue or idea the game is "about," and is usually stated in general rather than setting-specific terms.

It's sometimes handled at a system level, sometimes at a GM/campaign level.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: July 16, 2001, 08:38:00 AM »

Perhaps I should go ahead (again) ...

And this is for Narrativist play only, OK?

PREMISE = any issue or concern that the actual, human players have an emotional response to.

SITUATION = the precise problem faced by the characters in the game-world

Therefore a situation might be, "Sebastian and Bartholemew are embroiled in a conflict between hobgoblin bandits, a group of villagers, and a local lord."

Whereas the premise is, "A high-status person is willing to sacrifice the well-being of the low-status ones for his own advantage."

The premise takes its identity and strength from the early realization among the PLAYERS that the lord is actually aiding the hobgoblins in order to break the recent economic increase in the villagers' political power.

The premise's "weight" comes from the basic conflict of interest across social classes (very Marxist). Generally, it APPEARS that peasants exist "in order to" support lords, but in rock-bottom terms, lords only exist because peasants do all the work - and one expects the lords to be primarily protective, not exploitative (in a nice world, that is). How true is this expectation? No one can discuss this without getting upset; it's an emotional issue.

Of course, the CHARACTERS are not quite so savvy about such things. The players' job is to author a good story that addresses this issue via the protagonists' actions. What the characters end up recognizing, feeling, and doing about the situation provides an answer to the general question posed by the Premise.

Therefore the philosophical or emotional question posed by the whole situation is the Premise. The answer provided to the question, which ultimately gets expressed as the climax of the scenario and the various fates of the various characters, is the Theme.

The goal of Narrativist play is to put the power to answer the question (and thus to create the Theme) in the hands of the players.

Best,
Ron
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #4 on: July 16, 2001, 09:24:00 AM »

Yeah, I was bothered about using the term "script" since I knew someone, if not everyone would be bother by my usage of it.  Hence why I put it in quotes and added "the story-enforcing mechanics after it."

I used the term after the Magical Mystery Tour tangent.  If the movie had had a solid script, it would have been better (I saw it once.  Woof!) or at least more interesting.  

But then, being scripted is a common misconception of narrativism so, well, there it is.

Back to Premise. After looking over the prescribed thread, it seems a little deeper than I had actually preceived.

I had thought that the premise of an ER RPG would be "all the characters work in an emergency room in a hospitol" but this is the Situation.

PRemise is an underlying subtext, for lack of a better term, perhaps due to lack of better understanding, that hooks the players into it.  The philisophical, ethical problem at hand.

Let me try again with ER RPG.  Underlying philosophies would probably helping people vs. being in it only for the money.  Perhaps even stronger is how much pain and death can you see every day before it completely changes you?  How many people do you have to save to forgive yourself for the one person you just couldn't?

Perhaps there's even more to it than that for ER, but this is what I've come with at this time.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: July 16, 2001, 10:30:00 AM »

Hi Jack,

My assessment of ER or any of the popular hospital shows (wasn't the first one Ben Casey, back before most of us were born?) would be similar. I think you've got the right idea, exactly.

The tricky thing is this: I think that people are hard-wired to recognize and get emotionally involved in specific issues. And I also think that there really aren't that many such issues, perhaps no more than ten. When a situation taps into or evokes such an issue, people get interested.

And in a Narrativist context, by definition, these "hooked" players are now going to come up with reasons, without thinking about it, to get their characters committed to resolving the situation.

In other words, I think successful Narrativist play does NOT rely on the players having a theoretical grasp of the Premise. I think it relies on there BEING a Premise, and for the players to feel empowered to act upon it, but not on any egghead or abstract-level understanding.

Best,
Ron
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Blake Hutchins
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« Reply #6 on: July 16, 2001, 10:35:00 AM »

What Ron said here about the emotional response element in a premise possibly leading to creation of a theme by the players really resonated with me.

I'm currently running a Mage game heavily laden with Arthurian imagery and symbols, but in a modern setting (enchanted pool is a billiards table located in a sleazy bar, for example). I started with the general premise, "Certain kinds of injuries cannot be healed without great sacrifice or terrible suffering." Next, I asked the players to include a "wound" in their characters' backstories. The wound could be spiritual, psychological, or physical, but it had to be something lasting and central to the character. I did not tell them what the premise was, but I set up the kickers with it in mind. Beyond the Arthurian themes, I didn't know exactly where the premise would go.

Interestingly, all but one of the characters chose wounds derived from child abuse. As we've gone forward with the game a central theme of "Tainted Innocence" has emerged. It's powerful and resonates very well with the premise, the characters' backstories, and the players themselves. I'm considering whether to incorporate it directly into the premise. The emotional charge has colored the entire game.

Here's what makes this comment relevant here: I don't think we'd have hit this theme so neatly had I not consciously started with that central premise. The premise provides non-situational architecture for story construction and focuses plotting and relationship mapping in a way that really helps unify how the story and setting elements fall together.

Best,

Blake
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jburneko
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« Reply #7 on: July 16, 2001, 12:30:00 PM »

Hmmmm... I hope I'm not hijacking this thread.  I simply thought I'd focus it on the next level since I think Ron did cover what Premise IS in the Going Against The Party Mentality thread.  So I'd like to explore for a minute how Premise is USED in an RPG.

Okay, so Ron and I have been comunicating over my first real experiment in Narrativistic Style.  The experiment was successful in that everyone had a good time and my understanding of the potential power of the style has grown but I still have MILES to go in learning how to wield it properly.

I used Ron's technique from Sorcerer Soul of ripping the relationship map and backstory from a midcentury american detective novel and then translating it through, time, space and genre to fit my own version of the backstory.  The novel I used was The Chill by Ross MacDonald, a very good read if anyone is interested.  The Premise I gathered from that book was Bad Blood Between Parent And Child.

I had, in fact, promised my players a Steampunk Spy Thriller.  It was no small feat to map my vision of a global information driven spy thriller onto a local emotion driven humanity tale but I did it and it worked out well.  Anyway, the main Premise *I* was interested in exploring was Man's Relation To His Machines.

So in order to achieve this blending of Premises I chose to portray machines AS children of mankind.  So the result was a Premise of Bad Blood Between Man and his Machines as Metaphore For Bad Blood Between Parent and Child.  Or something like that.

Most of this is largely irrelivant to what I actually want to ask but it will give you a perspective on where I'm coming from.  I had given my players pregenerated characters for this particular scenario but I still wanted to let them know the Premise up front.  I told them basically what I just told you.

What I got was looks of non-comprehension.  There was a definite, 'and this is important to us as players how?' feeling in the room.  I tried to explain WHY knowing the Premise upfront and focusing on it was important from a player perspective but I had trouble articulating it which probably means I'm still very fuzzy on it myself.  So, if anyone would like to shed some light on how Premise is a PLAYER tool, that would be greatly appreciated.

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: July 16, 2001, 01:14:00 PM »

Hi Jesse,

I think most of what I have to say about Premise as a player issue is found:

1) above, where I say that stating it outright may not be necessary

2) in the Getting Away from the Party Mentality thread, when I talk about "pumping up the Premise"

and 3) in the Hooking the Players thread, which I think meshes nicely with the other two.

Sorry to answer with a "go here, read this" type of reply. My general conclusion at the moment is that some players will like an up-front, more abstract discussion of Premise and others won't, but ALL of them need to see the elements of the Premise in action within the first session or two of play.

I'm also interested in other people's takes on the issue.

Best,
Ron

P.S. (the edit) By "all players" above, I am still staying within the Narrativist issue. Therefore I mean "all players in the context of Narrativist goals."

[ This Message was edited by: Ron Edwards on 2001-07-18 15:10 ]
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jburneko
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« Reply #9 on: July 18, 2001, 12:44:00 PM »

Alright, let's take this in the other direction.  I've seen it stated many times by Ron and other that the Premise is a question that is explored in the story.  The answer to that question, arrived at through the resolution of players actions and reactions, is the Theme.  Okay, I think I get this.

I'm not used to thinking in terms of Premise, AT ALL.  I'm used to thinking in terms of Situation, Action and Consequence.  So, what I'm asking is how do you design a scenario around a question?  

Generally my ideas for scenarios start with a question but I don't plan any details of the scenario until I've already formulated my own answer.  The idea being that I design the NPCs, their goals and actions around illustrating the answer I've arrived at.

Take for example the Premise, "How much benefit is required to outweigh the unknown consequences of action?"  My, personal, answer is: Benefits almost never outweigh the risks of unknown consequences.  So, I've designed a scenario to illustrate this to the players.  I have an NPC design a device that on the surface appears to provide a HUGE tremendous earth-shattering benefit to mankind with no forseable side effects.  In actuallity the device will destroy the universe if it is turned on.  To put doubt in the player's minds there are NPCs who have 'wild speculative theories' but absolutely no proof.  So the players are forced to decide: do we allow the device to be used or not?  Are the KNOWN benefits worth the risks of UNKNOWN consequences?  And there's no way for the player's to determine 'the truth'.  If they decide, no, they have to live with the doubt.  If they decide, yes, the universe is destroyed.  In either case my point is illustrated.

In other words, I've turned the premise into a trick question.  I've already decided on MY answer and whatever answer the player's come to it will simply demonstrate the validity of MY answer.

But here's the problem, I don't know how to get away from this.  I don't know how to build an NPC without passing judgement on that NPC and wanting to show that judgement to the players.  I don't know how to construct a backstory that doesn't reflect my bias on the premise.

How do you start with a Lovecraftian premise like: "Is there a formula for madness?" and leave it at that in terms of your design and allow the players to come to their own conclusions?

Jesse
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joshua neff
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« Reply #10 on: July 18, 2001, 01:57:00 PM »

Jesse--

I'm still trying to get a handle on premise, too (which is sort of embarrassing--I was an English major, dammit! but this stuff has never been talked about in RPGs before).

One thing I would ask is: do you have it all figured out? Life, I mean. I sure don't, & I don't know anyone else who does, either. A lot of people act like they do, & like to think they do, but they don't. So, why don't we have it all figured out? What questions keep us awake at night?

For example: LOVE. Love is one of the biggest damn bugbears in my life. How do you know when your in love with someone & this person is THE ONE? I've been in love plenty of times, & I've often thought "Yep, this is it, I've found the one", only to have the relationship crumble for one reason or another.

So, start with that. Base a narrative around love. What are we willing to do for love? What does love cost us? How do we know when we're really in love? What's the difference between love & obsession? Is the only difference between friend & lover sex?

How about violence? I think of myself as a pacifist. I abhor violence. I despise war. & you know what I would've done if I'd been serving age during WWII? I would've enlisted. Before the US joined in, I would've run off to Europe to join the French Resistance. Put me in a room with a child abuser or rapist & see how long I remain a pacifist.

The premise is that question that everytime you think you have the answer, you realize (as my Shakespeare professor would say, everytime our class gave a solid answer to one of the questions surrounding a play) the answer's problematic. Lots of questions, few answers.
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--josh

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #11 on: July 18, 2001, 09:07:00 PM »

Quote

On 2001-07-18 16:44, jburneko wrote:
Alright, let's take this in the other direction.  I've seen it stated many times by Ron and other that the Premise is a question that is explored in the story.  The answer to that question, arrived at through the resolution of players actions and reactions, is the Theme.  Okay, I think I get this.

I'm not used to thinking in terms of Premise, AT ALL...


I know what you mean, (although this quote is taken ever so slightly out of context)  I think it's because RPGs, unlike other media like TV shows, film and literature Theme and Premise are separate.  In such works, the outcome is pre-determined at least once it's presented to the audience because it's a finished work.  In this way, when people discuss the theme of a piece, they tend to lump the premise and the theme together because as far as those works are concerned they are inseperable.

RPGs, being made on the spot, allows a premise to presented but the theme hasn't happened yet.  Unique to the medium.
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jburneko
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« Reply #12 on: July 19, 2001, 08:27:00 AM »

Quote

On 2001-07-19 01:07, pblock wrote:
I know what you mean, (although this quote is taken ever so slightly out of context)  I think it's because RPGs, unlike other media like TV shows, film and literature Theme and Premise are separate.  In such works, the outcome is pre-determined at least once it's presented to the audience because it's a finished work.  In this way, when people discuss the theme of a piece, they tend to lump the premise and the theme together because as far as those works are concerned they are inseperable.

RPGs, being made on the spot, allows a premise to presented but the theme hasn't happened yet.  Unique to the medium.


Ah, yes, and you've hit upon the core root of my problem.  I read a novel say, Jude The Obscure.  I come to the end I see that the "message" of the book is: Marriage (Premise) is an artificial destructive construct of an outdated society (Theme).

And I go, oh cool concept I think I'll write and RPG scenario that illustrates that same thing.  And I keep wanting to design my scenarios the way an author writes a book.  It's hard for me to design a scenario that just revolves around a Premise since usually I have some kind of opinion about that Premise and I want the scenario to illustrate that opinion.

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: July 19, 2001, 08:57:00 AM »

We are dealing - ta da! - with the concept of player-characters as protagonists in the story.

Many role-playing games present the following two concepts:
1) The GM is the story-teller, or the narrator, or the creator of the story, or the author of the adventure (or any other similar thing)
2) The players determine the actions of the protagonists.

Can anyone else see that these two things are utterly contradictory? They cannot both be true, not now, not in the future, never before, and not ever.

If the player-characters are protagonists, then their actions CREATE the story in its final form (i.e., resolved, thematic).

If the GM is the story-creator (or channel for the story-creator, as with metaplots), then the player-characters, by definition, CANNOT be the protagonists.

Several further points, in terms of this type of play.
1) The GM and players must share the ultimate goal ("good story"). Of course, they may certainly operate in competitive or conflicting ways regarding the details (e.g. bidding points for task-resolution, or conflicts of interest among characters).

2) The GM's role is based much more on PRESENTATION of story elements and parameters, rather than dictation/control over outcomes. In fact, much of what in traditional role-playing is utterly under the GM's thumb is now in the hands of the players, so the GM must prepare very differently - and be ready to administer solid, highly-reactive, often-unplanned consequences.

The GM still has an enormous amount of power - but again, it's presentation and framing power, not so much resolving power. (And don't forget that consequence stuff; that's what keeps multiple authorship from becoming cacophony.)

3) Player-character protagonism does NOT rely on player-to-character identification. It relies on OTHER-player-to-character identification. In other words, if I identify with my Obsidian PC, Ysidra Xo, big fucking deal. But if Elizabeth and Mario, my fellow players, identify with her as played by me, THEN we have the identification that is the minimal requirement for her to be a protagonist.

And if I am doing the same with Elizabeth's and Mario's characters, then we are fulfilling the minimal requirement as a group.

4) But #3 is about MINIMAL requirements. Also, PC-PC relationships and NPC-PC relationships are key. They are the medium for every player decision, and those decisions define the story in its completed form. So we also need player-to-NPC identification, which is the topic of another thread at the moment.

Best,
Ron
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contracycle
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« Reply #14 on: July 19, 2001, 11:34:00 AM »

Woah, people, this thread just blew me away.  One might say the premise of the thread pretty much described my own sorrows :smile:  And incidentally, I also feel that it is due to my simulationist bent.

Firstly, I wonder if anyone could point me to any web-based discussions on premise as employed in established media such as TV and stage, if anyone has any.  And I can see I'm going to need to read other forums here extensively.

Anyway, as I said I totally recognise the issue being discussed here, asnd would like to ask people when they feel they would address the premise in a design process.  Would you think about the premise before the development of NPC's and locations, for example, and if so how would you address generating a new story with a new premise in an existing context?  Furthermore, does anyone fell that in character design, players are introducing premises to the story (indeed, introducing a whole story I have occasionally thought) and how one mediates that relationship between their story and yours?  Some of this, from implications in comments above, may be addressed in other threads, so I shall away....

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