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Vanilla and Pervy [thread #4 of the Five]

Started by Ron Edwards, November 19, 2002, 02:47:33 PM

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Ron Edwards


This thread re-examines the terms Vanilla and Pervy, which have been kind of loosely used at the Forge so far, much like "Illusionism" until recently. Here's where I'm laying out everything I think about these terms, with the hope that a lot of muck and assumptions can be cleared out, as well as the hope that others' insights can be introduced to modify my own views.

This is the fourth of five threads I'm working up as a series. It's important that each thread get a good working-over in its own, local terms, in order for their combined content to provide the payoff and debate to follow. The threads so far are:
Mainstream: a revision in the Publishing forum, with the spin-off threads The Store, D&D fantasy - what is it?, and The game that would sell to non-roleplayers
Actual play in game stores in the Actual Play forum
Social Context in the RPG Theory forum

This is one of those easy to learn, hard to master sections. I'll start by saying that Vanilla and Pervy are terms which apply to actual play, but that they translate to actual design very quickly and easily, much more so than terms like Illusionism or GNS itself. That's because they are directly related to how much imaginative attention the System itself requires during play, which is itself a key design issue. Therefore a lot of this essay refers mainly to design.

Vanilla = placing low emphasis on Exploration of System.
To understand what I mean, you'll have to hit the GNS essay and understand what Exploration of System is, in the first place. All five of the elements of role-playing are Explored during play, of any kind, by definition. There's no escape from Character, Setting, Situation, System, and Color, or rather, if you do, you aren't role-playing. Most especially and significantly, there is no such thing as System-less play, because System is defined as any means by which imagined events are agreed-upon by the group.

When you utilize System and imagine the event occurring based on that use, you are Exploring System. The point at hand is that this utilization may require a lot of imaginative attention or a little.

When you try to kill a character in RuneQuest, for instance, doing so requires imagining a huge amount of material, each of which is relevant to the act, and this imaginative process proceeds through a fair number of rolls until it culminates in a vambrace coming untied, a whoosh of an axe missing its opponent, a dent or score in the target person's armor, or a crunch of metal into flesh and an arterial spray filling the air. Step by step, you have to imagine X and then deal with system resolution of X, then proceed to Y. But when you try to kill a character in Otherkind, it's strictly a matter of looking at the Effect die and saying, "He dies."

So the degree of Exploration of System is a little bit like the old slightly-bogus dichotomy of heavy vs. lite systems, although those older debates tended to pull in a whole ton of variables and get wrapped up in stuff like "what's realistic anyway" and so forth. Still, it's pretty straightforward: a game like GURPS requires quite a bit of Exploration of System, whereas a game like L5R requires a bit less, and a game like Little Fears requires only a little bit.

But wait! It's not that simple. Before I go on, the funky counter-intuitive thing is that it's not just a matter of charts and tables and ultra-Simulationist rules. Amber also requires fairly heavy Exploration of System; its only difference from GURPS in this regard is that this Exploration relies on overt social negotiation, possibly including bullying, rather that charts or modifiers-lists. And in my RuneQuest/Otherkind example, above, notice that both of these resolutions are Fortune-driven. Therefore it is Very Wrong to associate Vanilla play with heavy reliance on Drama-oriented mechanics. Any of the three sorts of mechanics, Drama, Fortune, or Karma, may be high or low in Exploration-intensity.

A good way to look at it is that a Pervy system may or may not be complex ("heavy"), but if the system is complex, it's probably Pervy.

So what's low Exploration of System, then? A naive view would say, well, it's when "what happens" is easily and quickly handled (i.e. low search and handling time). That might be the case for many Vanilla games, yes, but it's a side-effect, not a defining factor. [After all, once you're a veteran of 80 sessions of Champions in a year's time, you might consider that system to be "quick and easy," and might even fight and spit to defend that outlook.] The defining factor is that the System requires fairly little point-by-point correspondence from System Outcome to imagined event, and the system requires very little reference to secondary (modifying) rules.

Not surprisingly, successful Vanilla play depends heavily on a successful Social Contract and one or more key Explorative "grabs."

In GNS terms of game design, Vanilla design shows some variety.

1. One could have an incoherent Vanilla system, which like any other incoherent game, requires some Drift to play. Think of this as an airplane with small and pitiful wings, or perhaps small and pitiful versions of several different motive systems.

2. One could have a coherent Vanilla system in which the focus and imaginative goals of play are so clear because the other elements of play are rock solid, e.g. Setting and Character and so forth. System would be a very basic and straightforward thing, with little connotation in terms of play goals. Think of this as a well-made solar-power alternative to the System approach of coherent design, which themselves in metaphor terms would be a jet engine and associated features. (However, beware incoherence; remember, system never "goes away.")

3. Or one could have a coherent Vanilla system in which, in addition to a powerful set of Setting and/or Character, one or two mechanics are not very Vanilla, but the majority definitely are. Think of this as a glider with a couple of retro-jets to give direction once in a while, or in some crucial/central way.

However, in comparison with its big pal Perviness, Vanilla play/design really isn't very diverse within GNS goals.

Pervy = upping the Exploration of System
... which in coherent play means reinforcing elements of the Premise at hand, or making such reinforcement possible, through the logistics of play. If this sounds familiar, it should: "System Does Matter" is only stating, "Coherent Pervy design helps focus play into group-understood goals."

This idea isn't appealing to those who idealize a "pure" form of role-playing in which the non-system-supported imagined events are their "own reward." There's not much to say to these folks, as an ideal isn't accessible to debate. For what it's worth, I am not suggesting that Pervy is better than Vanilla, or for that matter, vice versa.

Perviness is astoundingly diverse within each GNS mode. That means that although most Vanilla Gamism might look pretty similar, the range of Pervy Gamism is like a multivariate Googleplex. Basically, every time a System element is added, emphasized, or coordinated with any other System element, in a way that focuses play, a new dimension of Perviness is created.

1. It should be clear from the definition, but I'll say it here: Vanilla and Pervy apply to play of any kind, not just Narrativist play. A lot of bandwidth has been wasted on the misperception that "Vanilla Narrativism" is some special mode of play, whose proposition reflects some broken aspect of the GNS construction. With any luck, that misperception ends here.

2. Vanilla and Pervy as terms do not describe anything and everything about play. Other variables exist within each GNS mode that are entirely independent of Vanilla vs. Pervy, including but not limited to the following.

Within Gamism - the degree of randomness, the timing of that randomness, and who competes with (or is challenged by) whom.

Within Narrativism - Character-based Premise vs. Setting-based Premise.

Within Simulationism - which of the five elements of play are being prioritized.

3. Vanilla status does not indicate any sort of hybrid or border among GNS modes. Hybrids and borders among GNS modes are an entirely different issue concerning Coherence. For the most part, I assume Coherent play and design when using these terms.

Vanilla play does make it harder for an observer to identify which mode or modes are being prioritized, such that an "instance of play" includes a lot more activity than one scene or sentence.

4. On a related note with #3, Vanilla and Abashed aren't the same thing. One might say, "'Abashed" means that the System doesn't necessarily support the primary mode (as expressed by the text or otherwise), and 'Vanilla' means low Exploration of System, so aren't they the same thing?" No. They are not. Abashed refers to minor incoherence, whereas Vanilla refers to a degree of Exploration, and the latter is quite potentially coherent in play.

5. Vanilla status does not indicate a "muted" or "mild" form of the mode of play, in terms of emotional commitment and attention. What's muted and mild is the Exploration of System only.

By now people are (a) probably clamoring for examples, (b) foundering in a sea of abstractions and imagined counter-examples, and (c) certain that I am deranged. Let's see, then.

Gamist play
In Vanilla Gamist play, what to compete about (or to achieve, or to be challenged about, if you prefer these terms) is relatively informal, and not too dependent on specified personal tactics. In other words, you can "lose" without it reflecting much on you as a player. It might often have a high degree of randomness, or have a number of small Colorful variables rather than one crucial live-or-die ones, or be pretty easy and no big deal to keep playing after loss conditions apply.

Such play is usually humorous, which isn't hard to understand - if you're playing in a challenge/competition context and losing/failing isn't a big deal, then it's a low-threat "pickup" kind of experience. Examples of designs that lend themselves to this sort of play include Tunnels & Trolls, Toon, and Paranoia.

Getting Pervy Gamist usually means adding explicit strategic tools and resources, requiring focused personal (player) competence at one or more "points" of play, and having losing conditions constitute a literal setback to the player.

Examples of Pervy Gamist design include D&D3E (in one direction), Rune (even farther in that direction), and Pantheon (in, hard-to-starboard, ensign! another direction entirely).

I need to emphasize that we have never worked out, here at the Forge, what-all can be At Stake in a Gamist context. I've mentioned, but I'm afraid it fell on deaf ears, that this variable is hugely diverse, ranging from the social to the mechanical with many combinations. In terms of the current topic, the more "mechanical" the Stakes are, the more Pervy the play - although this is only one of the possible "directions" of Perviness for this mode of play.

Simulationist play
Vanilla Simulationist play is (from a gamer's perspective) about as fundamental to the hobby as you can get. "We're doing this," make up your character, "Do this," and doing it is procedurally immediately accessible. Since Exploration of System is minimized, Exploration of Something Else is maximized, and since that something is the priority ... why, play is right there, happening already.

Games which facilitate such play Dread, Call of Cthulhu, and Fudge, among many others. One of their features which bears mentioning is that a certain degree of arbitrary, even simplistic "givens" are necessary regarding stuff which isn't being prioritized, which of course includes System but will include other de-emphasized elements of Explorationas well. Given shared priorities among the group, this feature is no big deal, but it's a primary source of contention among Simulationist-tending people who prefer Exploring different things.

Getting Pervy Simulationist is all about hyping up the in-game Cause of things, big-time. It can go in all sorts of directions. The most common, historically, is in terms of physical simulation via probabilities. An example of getting a little Pervy in this mode, in terms of design, is Unknown Armies. Taking it to "whoa Nelly" status would include Runequest, Pendragon, Jorune, Nephilim, Feng Shui, and many others. When you take this direction all the way to System being the primary issue for Exploration, we're talking about GURPS, JAGS, and others.

But that's only one direction to go with in-game Cause of things as the top priority. When character motivation is prioritized as opposed to physical substances and motion, and when System focuses on experiencing and expressing that motivation, then we're talking about Turku play, which I consider as Pervy as any - because the System (fixed standards for how to move, act, and even to think) is so necessarily relied upon for the desired Effect. [I recognize that proponents of this type of play consider themselves to have abandoned System, but I consider that to be a fiction.]

Here's a neat side issue. Since Vanilla play relies so heavily on the Exploration of something-or-other, the goals of any Vanilla play are very easily Drifted toward Simulationism. That's, I think, the fate of The Window during play - despite very heavily emphasizing a Social Contract aimed at Narrativism, the system itself (particularly the role of the GM in setting IIEE) focuses more highly on Exploration of Situation as the priority. Thus it tends to Drift hard in one direction or the other. Most other "story plus lite-system" games, lacking even The Window's verbal commitment to in-game story-creation (its Three Precepts).

Narrativist play
Vanilla Narrativist play, socially speaking, is extremely accessible to newcomers to role-playing, although it's a bit harder for people who have been "trained" via long exposure to the hobby and its most common practices. Basically: engage in the Narrativist Premise, and get to town on it - go. In design terms, the important point is to keep Exploration from becoming an end in itself ("Simulationist defense," if you will) by having at least a couple of features of the system operating toward the Premise - the glider + retrojets model is ideal for this kind of play.

Good examples include Sorcerer, Orkworld, Swashbuckler, kill puppies for satan (given Vincent's recent statement about its Premise), and possibly Castle Falkenstein. In all of these, the Premise is very accessible, and the system quickly adds events to the imagined situation; all of these follow the "glider with retro-rockets" model.

Getting Pervy Narrativist, as with the other modes, can mean all sorts of different things. The most common, historically, include formalizing Stance transitions, introducing metagame mechanics that greatly affect in-game events, and enlisting personal agendas into the construction of Premise itself. Prince Valiant is a tad Pervy, as are Dust Devils and Zero, whereas Hero Wars is raving Pervy whacko, as are Scattershot (as currently described, with a strong Narrativist bias), and The Pool (which ain't nothin' but Exploration of System with a Narrativist "slippery slope").

A couple of games are a bit tricky to think about in these terms ... Universalis, unsurprisingly, is helluv-Pervy in many ways but very Vanilla in others, and I anticipate some discussion about it. Otherkind is, in my view, in the mainly-Vanilla with a Pervy tweak (much like Trollbabe), but I think opinions might differ about that.

A note about Narrativism: this sort of play tends to do well with either (1) deep/developed characters beginning play plus a sketchy setting which develops during play, or (2) vice versa - but not with both. To focus on Setting per se for a minute, its "intensity" is independent of the Vanilla/Pervy distinction. Thus we have Hero Wars, with one of the most developed settings in all of role-playing, and The Pool, with no specified setting at all, as different sorts of Narrativist Perviness.

What about the hybrids?
In my view, successful GNS-hybrid play and design are pretty rare beasts. For instance, I do not include the "let's get along even though we disagree" group to be a hybrid group; I consider it GNS-incoherent with an overriding Social Contract. By hybrid, I mean that priorities of one GNS mode are actually reinforcing the priorities of another, during play. I've stated previously, and so far I've seen nothing to refute it, that successful hybrids set one of the modes in a "subordinate" role toward the other. My classic case study is The Riddle of Steel, which I consider to be a primarily Narrativist game with a strong Simulationist "support" mechanism.

OK, so what does this have to do with Pervy and Vanilla? Only that I'm currently thinking that hybrid play is probably going to have to be Pervy to some degree. However, any thoughts about this are welcome; that's just a preliminary notion.

Here's the big issue. Considering Vanilla and Pervy carefully yields a surprising conclusion: a lot of what you and I might think of as the "basic" or most familiar modes of play are not necessarily Vanilla. I'll use a specific aspect of game design for this purpose: who gets to say "what happens" during the course of Exploring System.

I suggest that Who Narrates isn't that big a deal, during play, and that the default mode of play (i.e., Vanilla, a.k.a. accessible) is that this aspect of play is totally unconstructed. Now! Breaking from "GM says" has been a big Oh-My-God for most of us here, as people already embedded in the role-playing hobby, but I maintain that this reflects our damaged condition rather than more general standards of what is and isn't easily-grasped during play.

Look at a game session in which who gets to narrate outcomes is not specified at all, in the rules. How does it go? Who says? In my experience, the answer is, "Anyone." One person (e.g. "GM") might state what the dice say, for instance, but the person who describes what happens in imaginative/fictional terms might be the character's player. Or it might be the GM. Or it might be another player, who happens to be particularly into the situation at hand. Or most likely, it's some combination, and the combination changes from event-resolution to event-resolution even in the same session. Usually, the buck stops somewhere, but even that can vary.

So a game that leaves this feature wide open, like Sorcerer, is Vanilla in this regard. (flip pages! flip-flip! That's right, the text of Sorcerer never assigns Who Narrates to any specific person during play.)

And, a Narrativist game which formalizes these transitions a bit (Dust Devils, Otherkind, Trollbabe, InSpectres) is getting a bit Pervy, but not as much as we, gamers, might think. It's when the rules lock down hard that Person X narrates it all, always, that this feature of the System gets Pervy. Reflect, and wait for it ... that means, yes, that what you and I think of as default - the GM with bottom-line, permanent rights to narration - is Pervy, not Vanilla. Such game-play actually requires more attention to System ("Oh wait, he gets to say what happens") than less.

In other words, "innovative" role-playing design is not necessarily Pervy.

Why is this mind-blowing? Because the default role-playing games of our time, D&D (in one form or another) and Vampire, both assign Narrator status to the GM exclusively. "The player proposes, the GM disposes." Which is Pervy. Which is totally backwards, i.e., the default/intro games being Pervy. Which renders role-playing socially less accessible to newcomers.

Which leads me to the next section.

What does all this have to do with the mainstream/alternative issue? Vanilla play and design is more accessible to the non-role-player than Pervy play and design. The central issue of role-playing is the group agreement and enjoyment of the Premise at hand - Perviness reinforces this very well, but if someone doesn't know what for and doesn't enter into the basic Exploration-to-Premise process, then Perviness becomes Arcana, and exclusive Arcana at that.

What does it have to do with the actual play in stores issue? Because, since Perviness is "normal" within the gaming hobby, "normal" play requires such a developed pre-existing commitment to the hobby, that casual, fun, and easily-accessible play is right off the radar for the hobby culture - and therefore its venue is, in most cases, actually set up to disallow that kind of play.

What does it have to do with the Social Context issue? Because historically, introducing a person to role-playing has been defined as building up a tolerance in them, over time, to Perviness.

But maybe it's a good idea to get all theoretical here, in this thread, for a while, before drawing these connections together yet. I'd like to shake out the Pervy/Vanilla issue among all of us, maybe refining or altering it if the dialogue suggests that, and only then start putting that big picture together.



Ron, excellent.

I think there's a second part to "pervy," though, as a word, as we've used it here.  Certainly as I've used it here.  Which is, no game with stats like: Social, Mental, Physical and a system like: roll d% under stat+skill deserves to be called pervy, even if it's got fully "upped" exploration of system.  Pervy opposes conventional as well as vanilla, in other words.

But I'm willing to compromise to: "Pervy" = upping the Exploration of System and "Truly Pervy" = upping the Exploration of System + freaky system.



Interesting article.  I wondered how this tied into the others until the last couple of paragraphs.  An interesting insight.

I found the first part to be a quite a bit of thrashing around.  Was there a greater than normal (for you) degree of thinking out loud in the beginning or was I just struggling more to keep up.

I've always thought of Pervy vs Vanilla in terms of Overt / Covert or Agressive / Passive mechanics in terms of the "system does matter" context.

If you have a gamist game are the mechanics particularly designed to aggressively support gamist goals?  That's Pervy.  If the mechanics primary purpose is to get out of the way and not interfer with the gamist goals, thats vanilla.

Vanilla has mostly been used to refer to Vanilla Narrativism in which you have a game with often very simmy mechanics but the clear prioritization of NarPremise.  The mechanics don't so much drive unrelentingly towards that Premise as they just keep a low profile while players "premise" for themselves.

In this respect I have trouble seeing a game like Otherkind as being Vanilla.  It seems to me like Otherkind's mechanics serve 1 purpose and 1 purpose only, and that's to drive unrelentingly towards the premise of the game...which seems very pervy to me.

Matt Snyder

Wow, if this is Four of Five, I'm gonna need an airbag for Five of Five.

I'll address the points raised in the Conclusion, Ron, but I think this post is excellent overall, especially because it helped me gel some issues and terms for my sieve-like theory brain.

This isn't a refutation of Ron's point, so much as an observation that folks will tend to play "follow the leader" in an hierarchical way. So, yeah, it's probably part "default" structure based on D&D and Vampire, et al. But it might also be part of a person's willingness to let someone else lead, rather than "narrate" themselves.

Think of it this way -- there's often one person who volunteers (or gets nominated) for, say, being the banker in Monopoly. This isn't exactly hierarchical, but being the banker IS something different from just playing. Everyone else sets back and lets the person who's "good with math" (or whatever) count the cash.

Having a banker is NOT necessary for Monopoly, and yet it's one of the social structures I've experienced all my life with that game. It might be analagous to the person who keeps score on paper while playing cards, or the person who deals when playing poker. They're placed in a different, often supervisory role. This may be "pervy" (for those games) but does not seem to be, in my experience, a stumbling block to playing that game. That is, if my analogy works, the default position SHOULD be that everyone counts the money (taking turns, etc.) or keeps score or deals the cards. And yet there are individuals taking charge of those duties, and people don't seem to be declining to partake in this leisure activities.

In other words, I'm taking another stab (playing Devil's Advocte) at WHETHER our default assumptions really do prevent "normal" folks from partaking in our hobby.

I absolutely agree that our hobby's default assumptions about verbal narrator are 1) pervy and 2) silly default assumptions that need to be challenged, namely by spreading the duty of narration around. This is something I've clearly been an advocate of with my alledgedly pervy Dust Devils mechanics. However, that is quite separate from saying I'm convinced that these default issues are really keeping people away.

GMing is a lot more complicated than being the banker in Monopoly. Ron may be right that newbies need to be innoculated to the pervy social structure (is that terminology right?) as they learn the game. That is, they need simply to get used to the fact that GM Jones is in charge. And player Bob, Fred, and Jane only seed his narration of events with their choices / "declared actions."

I'm guess I'm just being "optimistic" in that I don't think this pervy structure is a deal-breaker. That is, I think there has to be a base interest in the first place, some spark of interest for a person to even approach "the table" (perhaps with social hand-holding). Once that spark is ignited, I'm just not certain the pervy stucture will douse the interest. If a person is turned away from the game at that (even early) point, would they really have proceded anyway?

And I'm still speaking here about "non-gamers" -- about "mainstream" people, whatever that means (people with mainstream interests?). If the "Friends RPG" says the "Director" narrates how Chandler makes a clever quip, not the Chandler player, will that prevent someone from playing the game? I'm not sure.

What I'm getting at in one respect is that gaming is a social environment, and like all social environments, people will take varying levels of responsibility. That they don't equally share responsibility doesn't prevent each member from participating. It may cause tension, and there may be efforts to "correct" the responsibilities, but in total, folks are going to do what they're comfortable with, and even "ignore" some issues they're uncomfortable with before they actually break away.

I think one of Ron's uber-points with his Increasingly Infamous Five (and god knows I'm always wrong when I do this) is that System Does Matter . . . but not just for "gaming" and GNS reasons. He's addressing the larger, more significant (and often more subtle) topic that System Does Matter for SOCIAL reasons, and therefore it's an Extremely Big Deal because gaming is fundamentally a social thing. The GNS essay sort of "ignores" social reasons beyond saying they're larger than the topic of the essay, and there must be a solid social contract for it to work.

I suspect Ron's working toward, among many other things, helping everyone improve game designs so they are FAR more functional in terms of broadening the participation of games (i.e., reaching the mainstream). This is anything but a startling revelation on my part -- no doubt, as usual, I'm just catching up.

But, I think .. . hell, I don't know what I think about that. I can't disagree with it! I'm just not sure what it means practically speaking. I'm still trying to muddle through it all, and as usual I should just be patient. So I'll shut up. Finally.
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra


Hi Ron,

Great ideas and exploration!

I wonder if the words "transparent" and "opaque" might serve for vanilla and pervy.  A transparent system doesn't initerpose itself between player and goals of play, while a partly opaque system would require that the player take the system into account when pursuing his goals.

I suppose transparent might be mistaken for low search and handling time, which isn't what I meant.  

Another analogy: GUI vs. Command Line
- Alan

A Writer's Blog:

Ron Edwards


Vincent, I think one of my points is to abandon the idea that Pervy = innovative. I actually have never said that; it was read into the term by others and I've decided it needs flushing outta there. Innovative vs. non-innovative is one variable; pervy vs. vanilla is another.

In fact, a great deal of my overall point is based on the idea that for this poor, warped, confused hobby of ours, Vanilla is actually an innovation of its own.

At the Forge, then, the innovative games that have appeared are either Pervy Coherent or Vanilla Coherent, both of which appear "weird" to the widely-accepted standards of the hobby, which are Pervy Incoherent.

Ralph, you can probably see where I'm going with my response to you already, based on the preceding. Basically, I'm also separating Pervy vs. Vanilla from Coherent vs. Incoherent, as independent variables.

Matt, in terms of Who Narrates What, I think that play "settles" on a buck-stopping person a lot of the time, as a predictable and often desirable social outcome. What's Pervy is the idea that input regarding What Happens is prohibited, and that the decisions about that are the sole responsibility and domain of one person throughout the course of play.

Also, you're spot on regarding the relationship of play goals, design, commerce, and socializing, but I think where you're wary and suspicious concerns my eventual recommendations. I'll reassure you: none of this is going to culminate in any kind of mandate from me regarding What People Should Do.

I'm trying to lay out the necessary variables that permit an individual to choose What to Do in a way that (a) suits him or her and (b) increases Happiness/Fun. When you say, "I'm not sure what it means practically speaking," you've actually reached the point that I want people to reach with this series of threads. The point was to realize that "it" is there.

Alan, we had a really valuable Transparency discussion in the Transparency again thread a while ago, which might interest you. For present purposes, I think it's a pretty loaded term.



Ron, cool, and I'm not arguing with the idea, just about the word.  I like pervy to mean freaky (not innovative, there are lots of nonfreaky innovations and lots of non-innovative freaks), when it comes to game mechanics.  So, um.  I'll keep reading and come back when I have something substantive to say.  But if in the future I say that the World, the Flesh, and the Devil (eg) is "truly pervy," don't be surprised.


Matt Snyder

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I'll reassure you: none of this is going to culminate in any kind of mandate from me regarding What People Should Do.

That's perfectly fine, Ron. Upon re-reading this and some other points, I see that I'm coming off way too concerned. That's not what I'm getting at. It's simply that I can't yet guess what the results of these discussions will be. And I want to.

So, to reassure you in kind: When all's said and done, I don't plan on ambushing and saying "Whoa, Nelly! We can't do that!" I simply mean to say I'm interested to see what's up, without judgment. I think my posts thus far have implied judgment on my part ... of the negative variety. And I know full well that even if you DID imply "This is what you should do, folks," that you'd present it and let people act or not.

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I'm trying to lay out the necessary variables that permit an individual to choose What to Do in a way that (a) suits him or her and (b) increases Happiness/Fun. When you say, "I'm not sure what it means practically speaking," you've actually reached the point that I want people to reach with this series of threads. The point was to realize that "it" is there.

Anyway, yeah, I think I've realized that the issues we're discussing -- the sometimes dizzying array of variables likely will culminate in something. Likely some new model and/or language we might build to communicate and evaluate game design in addition to the GNS model. It doesn't seem to be an add on to GNS so much as another tier of discussion. In fact, a broader tier, if I'm reading it right thus far.
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra

Ron Edwards

Hi Matt,

Broader indeed. Let's take Dust Devils, shall we?

1) Mainstream content vs. alternative content. You remember, of course, the instant reaction this game received from (name-drop alert) Ken Hite and Jonathan Tweet: "A western ... without zombies?? Cool!" Cue massive raving interest.

2) Coherence. Dust Devils is a straightforward Narrativist-facilitating role-playing game. Drifting would require substantial revision of the written rules during play.

3) Vanilla (shared narration) with a minor twist of Perviness (formalizing that narration, Poker) - and I claim that the Perviness is rendered more accessible via Color (Poker is western). Also, it might be worth considering whether hands of cards are less Pervy than dice.

And finally, to get perhaps a little close to the last planned thread of the Now-Infamous Five,

4) Self-published, and in this case, self-distributed.

The Vanilla/Pervy issue is central, I hope, as people reflect upon their own values across these five threads. What we see as innovative or startling (Dust Devils resolution mechanics and unrelenting coherence) is, in my view, perceived as gratefully, reassuringly normal by non-role-players who might be interested in the hobby, as well as attracting the interest (for the same reasons) of role-players who are at least a little unhappy with the current mix of imitation and incoherence of most of the hobby's instruments.



Ron and I were chatting about this last night.

2 characteristics that are ubiquitous in traditional RPGs are virtually absent in most games that "other people" play.

1) The idea of a designated player with special powers.  This is such an ingrained belief in the RPG hobby that "GM-less" is considered unusual and even scary.  Look at games like Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, etc.  All players start of on exactly equal (or at least balanced) positions.  You'd be hard put to find a game on the shelf of Toys R Us that gave a specific player special authority over the game.  At most you'll find an "MC" position in games that have a gameshow format, but even there they encourage rotating that position so everyone gets to play.

2) In most RPGs not only is there the GM with special powers but he's expected to just rule from on high as desired, ignoring or enforcing or inventing rules as he sees fit.  Try THAT at the national Monopoly tournament. By contrast "normal games" have rules that are brief and specific and go to great lengths to minimize "open to interpretration" type clauses.  

Games like Dust Devils take a great step away from these RPG issues and towards normal game issues.

The dealer in Dust Devils doesn't really have any special authority.  He deals the cards and takes on the role of the characters not being played by other players.  The biggest distinction is that all other players control just 1 character each and the Dealer controls everyone else.  This is a far cry from a full fledged GM.  Its also a distinction that most people can easily see in a story based game...the seperation of the main characters and major supporting roles, from the lesser supporting roles and extras.  Unlike a traditional RPG where the player has to shut-up while the GM explains what happens, in DD every player gets a shot to say what happens.

DD also has very specific rules.  High Card narrates...that's a specific rule.  Contrast that to most RPGs where the issue is rarely even mentioned because the assumed default is the GM narrates.  For players new to gaming "who says what and when" is a crucial issue that few traditional RPGs even address much of the "rules" of roleplaying is just assumed.

DD also uses some very abstract rules.  Abstract rules are very "mainstream / vanilla" if you will.  Its really only in the very pervy world of RPGs that Simulationist mumbo jumbo is even a consideration.

Everyone knows Monopoly doesn't accurately reflect the real estate market, or chess the medieval battlefield.  In the PB game Survive little whale pieces destroy boats and little shark pieces eat swimmers.  No one cares that whales don't make a habit of smashing boats, or that a shark may just sit in one place forever until a die roll allows it to move.  Its all about rules that work well to make a great gaming experience (something german boardgame designers know well).  Worrying about the stopping power of a Smith and Wesson Schefield vs the Colt Navy is something that no normal person gives a whit about.

In DD there is no thought given to whether the "damage" system producing realistic injuries.  Heck what "damage" represents isn't even specified but left up to players who care to fill in the details...just like you're never told in Monopoly exactly what the charges are when you "go to jail" there's no trial, and what the heck does rolling doubles to get out represent.  No one works...just play.

Those are the attitudes of the normal gamer.  That's why, I think Ron sees Dust Devils and the like as being far more appealing to a mainstream audience than traditional RPGs.

Walt Freitag

Hi Ron,

Very interesting article. The broadened application of vanilla-ness and perviness as concepts should be very useful. And your identification of the pervy nature of conventional(1) rpg play is right on the mark.

But the key final point, that Vanilla play and design is more accessible to non role-players than Pervy play and design, I see as questionable. Accessibility is far more complex. In my experience, both extremes of the Vanilla-Pervy scale have accessibility problems, for entirely different reasons. Pervy has the Arcana problem you describe. Vanilla has the problem of being, for many audiences, too creatively demanding.

Arcana -- that is to say, perviness -- aids in creative imagination. Well-designed perviness does this by constraining the scope of the individual imaginative acts or decisions required, and by providing a framework for assembling the individually limited imaginative acts into a whole.

The interaction of arcana and imagination can be a wondrous and delightful experience. An excellent example is Tarot card reading. The meanings encoded in cards and layout positions are specific enough to provoke ideas, and varied and flexible enough to allow the reader to fit those ideas to conform to the reader's intuitive perception of the person being read. This results in a reading that accurately addresses the concerns of the subject, which the reader picks up from subtle cues. This works so well that most psychologist believe that many, perhaps most, Tarot readers really do believe that the insight in the outcome is coming from the cards alone.

Doing the same thing without the cards is called cold reading. It's less popular because it's less accessible in certain subtle ways. Some who are good at reading Tarot cannot cold read because they need the "noise" of the cards to stimulate ideas. Others could cold read if they tried, but don't believe they have the ability to learn to do it or don't have enough confidence to perform it for an audience. Both cases have their analogues for Vanilla role playing, I believe.

I can tabulate several different methods of this particular type of interactive storytelling as follows:

Technique      Arcana      Accessibility


TAROT          HIGH        MODERATE


*Full casting of individual horoscopes based on exact birth date and planetary positions; this is far more arcane than daily newspaper "horoscopes" based on sun signs alone.

The accessibility of Tarot is moderate because the arcana of the cards must be learned, and because the basic talent or skill, the real-time perception of subtle clues to what the subject wants to hear, must be there. In fact, it's important to note that in all three cases, successful results are entirely dependent on the exercise of that "core ability." Horoscopes are less accessible for two reasons: the arcana is more difficult, and the arcana involves so much focused attention that the opportunity to read (perceive) the subject is curtailed.

The arcana of the Tarot and astrology have one other advantage: they provide a path for a reader to develop or discover the "core ability," by starting out focused on the arcana alone. Both methods produce superficially impressive results from the purely mechanical manipulation of the arcana alone. Astrology more so than Tarot, which is why most astrologers believe astrology can be effective without the subject present and without knowing the subject. Those results encourage the practitioner to practice. And only those that practice will have an opportunity to notice improvements in the results when and if the core ability emerges.

Now, consider a technique between cold reading and Tarot on the diagram, with a low-to-medium level of arcana. Such as, a simplified Tarot with, say, twenty cards each with a very specific meaning. Or palm reading, for which the basic lines and their meanings can be summed up on a wall poster. Shouldn't those be more accessible by virtue of their lower arcana investment?

Yes and no, depending on what results you're looking for. Yes, it's more accessible to perform the arcana. No, it's not more accessible to do so in a way that engages the core ability to create results comparable to the other three. Many schoolchildren "learn" to palm-read at some time or another. Most impress their friends for about a day, after which their friends and eventually themselves lose interest in the "predictions" they're making, which are either dry and meaningless or arbitrary. The core ability that would make it interesting, the actual reading of the person, is never engaged. Unless one of three things happens: the reader has such a natural intuitive reading ability that it comes into play anyway; the reader's interest is deep enough to delve into additional arcana beyond the basic wall poster, which recreates the same case as Tarot; or the reader explicitly learns or has learned to apply cold reading techniques as a separate matter beyond the palmistry.

I submit that this is closely analogous to role playing games and accessibility. Just to lay it out:

- The "core activity" in role playing is different from the "core ability" in fortune-telling. Instead of perception of subtle cues, it's imaginative exploration of setting, character, situation, and color.

- Up to a certain point, the ability to perform the core activity is assisted by arcana (system perviness or, if you will, all the stuff you do in a game other than imagine character, setting, situation, and color), making it more accessible.

- There are some for whom the ability to perform the core activity, and the joy of doing so, is intuitively obvious and/or already known. (Probably a higher percentage than for cold reading ability.) Others, though, must learn/discover this by practicing it. Up to a point, more arcana promotes this leap by rewarding players with superficially interesting results even before the core activity is engaged.

- At the same time, the arcana itself makes the whole activity less accessible.

- When there's too much arcana, it may crowd out the core activity, and certainly will decrease accessibility. (However, for some, manipulation of the arcana can become sufficient end in itself, even if the core activity is marginalized or omitted completely.)

- This suggests that maximum accessibility will be found at an intermediate position on the V-P scale. Perhaps slightly more to the Vanilla side of Sorcerer.

Well, what was supposed to be the first of a series of examples of the beneficial and often-joyful synergy of arcana and imagination (along with Dramatica theory, faddish business management tools, law, theology, programming, gardening, and the Scientific Method) has bloated into a tome in itself. I'll leave it here.

- Walt

(1) I find the terms "conventional" and "unconventional" more useful than "mainstream" and "non-mainstream" when categorizing RPGs. As you pointed out, the mainstream-ness axis is easy to misinterpret completely in reverse. There's no such confusion about "conventional;" it means both "most commonplace" and "performed according to established conventions," both of which apply to e.g. pervy D20 and Storyteller play.
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Ron Edwards

Hi Walt,

H'm, I agree with your points, but not necessarily with their relationship to the terminology. I don't see Vanilla as "lite" or highly weighted toward the unstructured side. Sorcerer, Call of Cthulhu, and Tunnels & Trolls, for instance, are actually based on rather strict rules regarding event resolution. They just don't have a lot of point-by-point procedural-to-imaginative steps involved.

I also think that most people who are encountering role-playing for the first time don't have too much trouble with something like ... "I rolled a ten. That's over five. So I kill him? OK. Ummm, OK, I guess I cut off his head." Being allowed a little What Happens control, based on Fortune resolution, is not the same thing as Drama Resolution. I agree with some others who've posted so far who've said that very open, "say what you do, and say what happens" Drama-type systems are Pervy.

So Vanilla play, to me, would be characterized/facilitated by resolution-design that is very clear and perhaps even strict, but handles most issues at a fairly general level, with few steps.


Mike Holmes

Quote from: Ron EdwardsSorcerer, Call of Cthulhu, and Tunnels & Trolls, for instance, are actually based on rather strict rules regarding event resolution. They just don't have a lot of point-by-point procedural-to-imaginative steps involved.

I think you need to expand on that last phrase. What is Vamilla about Call of Cthulhu that's dissimilar from the way Dust Devils handles the same thing? Pervy is soley the extent to which the text indicates who says what? I must be missing the point. I think what Walt's saying, and I would agree, is that a little leading in this direction is more accessible than failing to mention who says what at all.

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Ron Edwards

Hi Mike,

I agree with your point in full. Or to put it more clearly, Trollbabe's rules are more accessibly Vanilla than Sorcerer's. Sorcerer, somewhere in its text, should say, "Anyone can narrate the outcome of a dice-resolved mechanic as the group dynamic sees fit at the moment. Different groups are free to come up with their own standards for where the buck stops."

Or something like that. If that were in there (which it's not), then I'd call Sorcerer the more Vanilla of the two, whereas now it only gets there via kind of a bogus default. I wasn't real good at articulating this meta-speak at the time; I got better at it in the supplements.

Trollbabe is mechanically a touch more Pervy, in that the rules do organize who-says-what rather sternly, but the clarity of those rules beats the default-version of Sorcerer. This is one instance in which my "figure out for yourself, game-hopper" writing mode in that game was not pre-planned and I would be happy to have done it differently.


Mike Holmes

Well you agreed with my example ( I think). But I guess that doesn't leave me feeling any more enlightened. I wanted you to disagree, and explain why. Now I'm more confused than ever about what you're saying.

So it's not that narration is indicated, but the number of steps that one has to take to get to that determination? Or am I missing it altogether?

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