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Re: The Conflict is Yours

Started by hyphz, January 31, 2003, 01:25:11 PM

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Mike Holmes


I have some grave reservations here.

Fang, you seem to be positing your solutions as a cure-all. Now, I agree with you that players can often be cajoled with the right techniques into accepting this sort of play. And where that's true, it's good to do so. And I think that you may feel, and possibly correctly, that the descriptions that have been given to you of intractable players are overstated.

But there is also the possiblity that these players really are looking for something that your methodology won't give them. In a way that's similar to how players can often tell when illusionism is being used, they can also tell when it's not. And some players demand illusionism (or, rarely, even open  GM control). Its the only style of play that they want to see from the GM. As such, trying to force such players to accept this style of play is simply going to backfire.

So, not to be a wet blanket on all this enthusiasm for what I consider to be powerful methodology for play, but I'd just like to state for the record that it's just possible that these methods may not be suitable for the GMs who you are counseling. Also, despite the power of these methods and ease of use, I hope everyone realizes that they are not as foolproof as Fang makes them sound. These techniques will not make your lawn greener, and give you a better sex life.

Now, if you think, Fang, that you've actually found the "One True Way" to play RPGs, that you are our messiah, please come out and say so. Then we can debate it in the open. But until then, let's all remember that these methods are just one very good set of rules to play by, and they may not be applicable to all situations.

Further, Fang, it seems to me that the reason that you've never been able to explain this so well before is that you only seemed to come up with it a couple of months ago. Perhaps you were playing this way for the previous decade, but on those threads that dealt with the whole "universe in flux" idea, at the very least you were discovering the terminology to describe the method of play you describe. So it's no suprise that you needed a little practice before being able to get the idea across effectively. And I agree, the cessation of the use of other languages helps, too.

Hey, Ralph, you know, if Mohammed will not come to the mountain...

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Well I don't know about a cure all, but they are definitely a pretty powerful way of introducing a greater shared gaming experience without scaring the begeezus out of em talking about metagame and director stance.  

I see them as an effective trust builder to gradually break players out of a paradigm that may be inhibiting their ability to enjoy the game.  I say may because there are likely some for whom their current style of play IS the way they enjoy; but I tend to think that for many more it is simply the way they've learned to be.

Le Joueur

Hey Mike,

Thanks a lot for encapsulating the disclaimer; I've been feeling a little leery about the 'love in' quality this has all been taking.  (I'm going to use brief quotes to separate this response into sections; I believe your post stands by itself and responding point-by-point would be, well...pointless.)

Quote from: Mike HolmesFang, you seem to be positing your solutions as a cure-all.
Nope.  Over in About time for another Woe..., I posted a solution (not the solution) to the problem then at hand using Star Wars: A New Hope as the 'common example.'  It really struck a chord so Ron broke out the subthread so I could better explain what this 'shared gaming' was.  (I think it needs a better name because it really doesn't include everything that could be counted on as 'shared gaming.')  If anything, it was Ralph who felt this was the 'end all solution' for the problem presented in that other thread, not me.

Here in this thread, I've been trying to keep up with a fast stream of, 'but how do you do this' requests.  That means I'm strictly dealing with only one style of gamemastering, certainly not all of them, nor a way to cure all situations.  I'm detailing a singular example of how the problem in the other thread could be dealt with.

These "descriptions...of intractable players" were specifically given as examples to be resolved under the singular style offered.  The caveat you've provided is an important one; this will not work for every player.  I'd hope that no one was coming away with the 'end all, be all' idea or that just anyone can be forced to do this.

Quote from: Mike Holmes...What I consider to be powerful methodology for play
I appreciate the compliment.  I hope you can help me clarify (as I had tried earlier) that this is a fairly narrow style that hasn't been detailed well to date.  That is why I suggested that adding in flowcharts didn't fit the narrow style presented.  Not that these other styles were in any way limited, just different.  In order to create a clear understanding of this one, I need to keep the thread's focus narrow; it is likewise as important to note that this is 'just one way.'  Knowing about 'other ways' has potential for individuals to make the best choice of what will work for them, right?

And I'm not 'counseling gamemasters' per se; I've only been answering a stream of 'what if I...' questions.  That's why I'm glad you brought this up.  You've clearly pointed out that this single style isn't everything or for everybody.  I appreciate the grounding as I was failing to make for that point myself.

I hope I haven't give the impression that this style is easy, just that it can be simple.  They certainly don't solve every situation, but I'd hope they provide a powerful, though non-traditional, way that gamemasters may improve their creativity (by 'getting help via sharing').

I certainly don't want anyone to think that this is "The One True Way" to game.  What I was looking for when I found it was the most fundamental ways of gaming.  To be honest, I believe when I finally do reduce all gaming to it's 'most fundamental form,' what will be left in common won't be functional.  I think there are some critical fundamental differences in how each of us plays.  However, this version of 'shared gaming' is farther down this road than I've seen before.  (In other words, I see a lot of other, more recognized, styles 'built on top of it.')

Once I reach some perspective on what 'the most fundamental form' is, I hope to see perhaps a cluster of closely related 'fundamental forms' and see how they essentially differ.  After that, I think I can identify some of the things people add to get the styles of gaming they use.  That'll go miles towards my goal of making Scattershot the very first Transitional game.  I'm pretty sure however, from what I've been able to gather so far, that a truly fully-Transitional game is actually impossible, I just haven't been able to prove it.  This is because of those 'fundamental differences' I was talking about.  And I'm hoping that the 'Approach Method' is the best way I can find that out (because the GNS doesn't seem to be working for me there).

Quote from: Mike Holmes...On those threads that dealt with the whole "universe in flux" were discovering the terminology to describe [this] method of play...
Bingo.  I knew somebody would have the answer.  That was exactly the sort of thing I needed to hear; I wasn't seeing the 'path' I took well enough.  (Now, I just need to go back and see what I learned there.)  Thanks Mike!

Fang Langford

p. s. I expected to hear from you sooner Mike; is everything okay over there?
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Walt Freitag

Perhaps this will contribute to this discussion.

Ten Ways to Ask a Player Where The Story Should Go Without Asking the Player Where The Story Should Go


GM: It's a small public shrine of [player's god here]. Modest, but tastefully appointed.
PLAYER: I perform the devotions and offer a sacrifice of [whatever].
GM: Fine. What do you pray for?


PLAYER: I hack my way into (some computer system somewhere).
GM: Make your roll (etc.)... You've gained access to the main database. There are millions of files here.
PLAYER: Like what?
GM: You don't know. It would take you years just to read the file names, and they're not very informative.
PLAYER: I look at a file at random.
GM: It's a video message from Centurion Cenarius from the Epithet Front in 7G223, reporting a shortage of jute in the Armitage Back Worlds.
(Continue in this vein until...)
PLAYER: Can I just do a search?
GM: Of course. What keywords do you search for?


GM: The sorting hat says, "Hmmm, an extremely unusual case. A restless inquisitive nature, the capacity for true friendship, a streak of heroism, and a dash of ruthlessness. You have qualities of all the four Houses. What house do YOU think you belong in?"


GM: It's a [something] with the power to cast a Fateful Wish spell.
PLAYER: Did you say a Wish spell?
GM: It's no mere Wish spell. Its a more subtle and ancient magic, and in a way much more powerful. The effect is to make your wish come true over the course of [choose: hours, days, weeks, months, years] by manipulating the workings of fate itself.
PLAYER: And I can wish for anything at all?
GM: Yes, but the strands of fate can only be rewoven so far and so quickly. If your wish is too ambitious to happen in [time period] it might not come true. So, what do you wish for?


GM: The medium gazes into her crystal ball with intense concentration, and says, "I'm seeing something, it's very vague, but it's looming there in your future. There are strong feelings there, a strong desire, do you sense it?... an R... perhaps an R... Ri or maybe Re..."
PLAYER: Revenge?
GM: "Yes, that's it, I see something with blood, a lot of pain, makes it hard to see clearly. There's a beautiful woman... beautiful, but older... was beautiful when she was young... no, wait, now there's a man with her, a man with shaded eyes..."
PLAYER: The man who killed my father?
GM: "Yes! And he's waiting, where is that place... he's near water, in place with many tall... figures, shapes of some kind..."
PLAYER: Like a city?
GM: "A city, is that what it is? Yes, it's clearing now... a city, a place you've never been to. It has many bridges, and secrets, and walls of stone."
PLAYER: Venice?
GM: "That's it, I see it. The man who killed your father will be in Venice, and Revenge will be in the air."


GM: You decipher the ancient prophecy. It reads:

Seek the secret section.
Seek the certain friend.
Seek the dark connection.
Seek the bitter end.

Follow the roiling waters.
Follow the sacred runes.
Follow the mountain's daughters.
Follow the waning moons.

You'll find your heart's desire.
You'll find the world in pain.
You'll find the secret fire.
You'll find those who remain.


GM: You make a final perimeter check and then hit the sack.
PLAYER: Does anything happen before morning?
GM: For some reason you have a restless night. You finally drop off about 2AM, and you have intense dreams. But the only one you remember is the last one before you wake up.
PLAYER: Which is...?
GM: You tell me. What dream did your character have?


GM: You may ask the ORACLE up to ten questions. Answers must be yes or no. Past, present, or future: the ORACLE is never wrong.
PLAYER: Will you answer 'no' to this question?
GM: The ORACLE says, "Very funny. You have nine questions left."
[For all answerable questions whose answer is not already known to the players, the GM chooses the answer at random. Not merely at whim; an actual randomizing device should be used.]


PLAYER: I look in the mirror.
GM: As soon as your gaze meets your reflections, you realize that this mirror was crafted to reflect the gazer's greatest fear. What do you see?


All right, I have to include one old-school tried-and-true stand-by.

GM (points to map of world, partly filled in, partly blank): Where do you go next?

Some Comments and Warnings

Number 3 is more or less equivalent to the choice of a clan or an alignment during char gen. But this way you can do it in play instead. It should be easy to modify appropriately for whatever set of personality-groups your game system or world contains.

Number 5 is getting right at the heart of the matter; in a way, all the other examples here are easier (but less powerful) variations of this one. Note that the GM is saying nothing of substance; all the meaningful information is coming from the player (though the player might think it all came from the GM and might even, ironically, think he's being railroaded into going to Venice to avenge his father). It's called cold reading. It takes some practice and won't work if e.g. the player just sits there and says nothing. (It's more likely to work with the whole group present, but some individual members might end up not having any input.)

Number 6 is the basic all-purpose Rorschach Prophecy, suitable for any epic quest fantasy and guaranteed non-railroady. Of course, it has to be clear that it applies specifically to the player-characters (perhaps the tablet it's written on also has a likeness of them). It takes about five minutes tops to write one of these. But the application can be a bit tricky; you're depending on the players speculating about what it could mean, either in or out of character. Also, I wouldn't recommend using it more than once for a game group.

Number 7 is probably too challenging for many players without some advance preparation. But advance warning and preparation are OK. Players might wonder why you're asking, but their characters' dreams isn't something most would normally expect the GM to tell them. So it's not at all like asking them where they want the story to go. Except it is.

Number 8 works the best early in a plot arc where there's a lot still unknown and it can help establish a general direction. Used later, players will tend to use it to try to solve problems or mysteries already in play. However, this is a good self-test for a GM: if your situation can't stand ten random yes-know answers thrown into it, then you're over-planning. (You can always decide an answer non-randomly if you absolutely must.)

Also, it might appear in number 8 that the direction is being decided by the randomizer rather than the players. But that's not really the case. The players are choosing the questions, which have orders of magnitude more information in them than the yes-no answers. For instance, characters who have been searching over many adventures for the all-important Tchsk'll'ra might ask, "Will we ever find the Tchsk'll'ra?" If the answer is yes, that just confirms what players probably already expect. But oh my god, what if the answer is No? Does the whole story arc come crashing down in flames? Well, think about it. Why did the player ask the question? Could it be that the search for the Tchsk'll'ra has gone on long enough and they're ready for the story to take some new direction?

Number 9 focuses on the issue of adverse developments. One drawback to some of these examples is that players might concentrate on their positive goals and might not bring up setbacks that they would actually want (or at least expect) to encounter. By eliciting fears (or doubts, regrets, or sorrows) you gain information about that side of it. Examples 5, 6, 7, and 8 all allow for this as well to some extent, but largely leave it up to the player. Example 7 can be focused on the negative and made nearly equivalent to 9 by changing the description from "dream" to "nightmare."

Remember, the main purpose of this is to get you, the GM, some useful information. Use it wisely. If the "greatest fear" the player describes immediately jumps out of the mirror and attacks them, they'll never be honest with you again.

Number 10 can be as powerful as the other nine, if it's set up right. Places on the map have to already be associated with not only different plot options but different types of plot options. The world can't be too detailed and it can't be too big. You need one intrigue-riddled trading city, not twelve of them. One frontier, one wartime capital, one haunted ruin, one mad powerful dude's stronghold. Think closer to Never-Never Land than to Middle Earth or Garweeze Wurld.

Back to Star Wars

These examples are best for wide-open situations when deciding where the story should go next on a larger scale. For more constrained situations on a generally smaller scale, it's sufficient to make sure there's an opportunity to pursue any of a wide but finite set of goals – a multiple-choice version of Fang's bait concept. For example, the protagonists' approach to just about any hostile Star Wars encounter is one of four options: fight, sneak, bluff, or run. If you're prepared to continue the story in an interesting direction whichever approach is chosen, and whether it succeeds or fails, then you don't need to railroad. Unexpected actions like hacking enemy ships can be allowed to result in successful fight, bluff, sneak, or run actions by themselves, or they can be resolved so as to lead back to (all of, not just one of) the options.

For instance, the hacker might discover maintenance logs indicating certain weapon systems are down for repair (making fighting a more attractive option), and recent receipt of orders to be prepared for surprise inspections (offering a possible avenue of bluff), and navigation charts showing a nearby dark-matter swarm (a place to run and try to lose pursuit), and the presence of top secret data of highest priority in the system that can only be accessed from a terminal aboard one of the ships (making trying to sneak aboard or allowing themselves to be captured more attractive options).

Of course, if players come up with these options in some other way, thinking on their own to impersonate an Imperial surprise-inspection team or scanning for nearby astronomical anomalies that might aid an escape, that should work just as well. But if they aren't coming up with such ideas on their own, a skill like hacking is perfect for helping them out. As long as it's giving them a wide range of ideas to choose from and work out how to put into effect, rather than just one take-it-or-leave-it viable option.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere

Mike Holmes

Wow, Walt, once again you come through big. That's cool stuff. I think you just added one more element to Fang's list of things that are prepared for this stye of play, the Hidden Question. Alternate with macguffins, and play should write itself.

Call this sort of questioning the John Edwards approach. See the South Park episode about it?

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I'm less optimistic; a number of these constitute RPG cliche, to an extent, just like the potential SO slated to die at the end of the episode in TV series.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"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

Mike Holmes

I'm a true believer in the cliche. Often it serves one well in that in a medium where one can easily get lost without referents, cliches serve to ground play.

Further they are only examples of a technique that have been presented deviod of context. Of course before using these, one should tailor them to the game, and make them more original if they like.

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Walt Freitag

Um, yeah. I fabricated the situations to show the questions being used in easy-to-understand familiar contexts. The questions themselves (and more important, the general technique underlying the questions) -- the text in italics, in those examples that have it -- are more generally applicable.

I've also described them in their baldest form, for GMs who (as per the topic of the thread) might not be familiar with the general idea of creating continuity contingent on what the players want to happen, part of which is finding out what the players want to happen without engaging in overtly metagame conversation about it (which, as several posts have mentioned, can frighten or confuse players not expecting it by prior social contract). With a bit more experience and the right mix of players, everything a player says can give clues about where the player wants the story to go next, and such explicit questioning is not needed. But these examples should work even in less fortunate circumstances.

Yes, Mike, I did see the South Park episode. :-)

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere


I'd just like to support the idea of "cold reading" here.  Admittedly, I like to run occult games, where it's directly relevant, but the practice of cold reading is something I keep thinking I ought to study up and work on.  For those of you who don't know, cold reading doesn't just apply to divination (card-reading, crystal balls, etc.), but to "mentalist" magic in general.  

I saw this guy on TV once, being interviewed and demonstrating his stuff, who was really quite terrifying.  [He had a widow's peak and cultivated a vaguely Satanic air, worked small crowds --- anyone know who I mean?] He was explaining the way the system worked, just totally openly --- not claiming "I have mental powers."  And he would read the show's host.  The thing is, he was watching everything --- every move, every flick of the eyes, and also listening to everything the person said.  And as a result, he could more or less "read" the person cold.  By the end of the interview, he was rambling on about what the guy had for breakfast yesterday and his relationships with his mother.

Not that I think we all need to try to do this, to this degree, but suppose you were OK at it, as a GM.  The players don't really know what they want --- but they do, deep down.  The social contract prevents them, they think, from expressing what they want.  So you read it off them --- words, moves, actions, everything --- and you give them what they want.  If you were very, very good at it, you'd get a rep for always having the best games ever, because the players wouldn't have to tell you what they want: even as their expectations shifted, you'd know what they really wanted.  Most importantly, you'd always know when to give them the "bait" they've been chasing, because you'd always know when they were willing to chase more or were just about to get bored with it.

Just a rant, really, but an idea for "giving them what they want" derived from Walt's wonderful post.  Dag!
Chris Lehrich