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Author Topic: Setting, Information, and Suspense Don't Matter* [long]  (Read 3003 times)
Le Joueur
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« on: March 10, 2003, 10:04:58 AM »

We had an epiphany last night.

My wife and I were gearing up for yet another one-on-one game and there was some confusion over a discussion of such from the day before.  At that time we were discussing what went into a 'penny dreadful' Genre Expectation; last evening it was about a much more Swashbuckler Approach using the same Background.  (In GNS, that would be "what kind of tension spiral buy-in was necessary for a more-gamemaster-held Narrativist game in 'penny dreadful' Color" versus a Simulationist romp minus both the Edwardian Premise and Color, just to 'Explore' Situation.)

I found my part of the discussion affected by a series of current threads.  Something I hadn't realized while reading them was how intertwined with a game's 'creative agenda' (the 'What are the Personae supposed to do?' 'What makes this game cool?' and 'Why should I play?' of a game) they are.

In "too much information," Jack is talking about when things become 'too much information.'  The funny thing is there can be no established standard; I think that's what he's chafing about.  His perception sounds like he sees a lot of people - absent game designer guidelines - taking a 'completist' standard unconsciously; I feel he's on the verge of pointing out that the 'proper amount' of information depends both on group style (it is important to say this is group, not personal) and game.  In other words, information is "too much" only insofar as it supports (or misaligns with) the 'creative agenda;' what might be enough information to one group might not be for another or enough in one game might not be elsewhere.  (And let's not forget, there's the whole 'how much inconsistency is forgivable issue' that varies greatly between people's tastes.)

With "Does Setting Matter?," it is becoming apparent that "setting" only matters relative to how well it supports a game's 'creative agenda' (or one's tastes within any particular game).  Now that doesn't mean that a game can't be 'setting heavy,' but the implication I've been reading over there is somewhat of a false dichotomy.  Either setting is the most important element of a game or it doesn't matter; I see a lot of dialogue about 'the grey area,' but that seems to be obscuring what I got out of the discussion.  Certainly setting is an incontrovertible 'piece' of a game, but only in some games should it be 'heaviest.'  Even then it becomes a matter of how well it's 'weight' supports the 'creative agenda.'

Also over in "Fortune and narrative suspense," things were really getting to an interesting spot about 'wither go Fortune' when it became derailed by 'fortuneless defense.'  What seemed to cloud the issue, beyond a unclear collective understanding of suspense, was what either Fortune or suspense were for.  I've been pondering a lot of 'why roll dice?' issues (not between different game designs, but within a single one), like 'when is Fortune appropriate?'  What I concluded was that 'to create suspense' is one reason, but for a number of possibilities; to 'not know' the 'how much' or 'how far' of something (I swear, some people use this to 'get creative'), to satisfy the suspense of 'do we go beyond this point,' or to choose 'which way,' until resolved any of these can be suspenseful under the right conditions.  However ultimately, this is an issue of how much it supports the games 'creative agenda.'  (If a game relies upon dice as the 'Hitchcockian bomb,' also using them to determine mundane information 'cuts into' this.  Doing it 'both ways' can defeat the proper atmosphere of the 'bomb' rolls' by making them a 'feature of mundanity.')

In both games we discussed this weekend, there needed to be a fair amount of preparation.  In the 'penny dreadful' (specifically this one, not necessarily all), much of the Background and Relationships necessarily had to wait their preparation until the Persona had been expressed.  The basis was a Circumstance revolving around the Persona and spiraling out from there.  (Like the heiress who discovers she was adopted, the progeny of a madman/serial killer, and loved by her 'step brother.')  In the latter game, the preparation involved little directly flowing from the Persona Development; her Persona had to have a Circumstance of it's own which had a 'big footprint' (meaning many of the more powerful Relationships would be disrupted by it's introduction), but given the Genre Expectations, this would not need to be accounted for (I could expect certain limitations to the Circumstance presented in the Persona because of the Genre Expectations and not have to worry about or moderate that choice on her part).  This goes a bit farther because, with a well-written Genre Expectation, much of the Background and other parts would already be taken care of (much of the preparation was already done).  That's what leads to the epiphany....

None of these things "matter."  Every one of them is subordinate to the 'creative agenda' of a game.  To promote them as 'all important' or even as 'the 300 lb. Gorilla' pretty much says 'creative agenda' isn't prime.  We've all seen games where the author fell in love with one part or another and after reading through the whole thing, you get the sense that it is a game only so the author can justify publishing 'that part' to the role-playing game audience (a lot of poor fiction has been cited as such).

'How much information' became an issue in these games because of things like how a 'penny dreadful' Persona's details impose a great deal upon the game.  Even the smallest detail can and should be able to become of highest importance.  (Because one of the tropes of the Genre Expectation is that of 'mistaken identity,' finer details can count a lot.)  Setting became more important in the broad scheme of the second game, because the 'creative agenda' was to explore the Background and Relationships, but is of less concern in the first because the personal Relationships were highlighted.  The 'suspenseful use of Fortune' is obviously of prime importance in the 'penny dreadful' game, but of only marginal interest in the romp.  This seemed to tie all three threads together for me under the umbrella of 'creative agenda;' it also seemed to answer all three questions at once.

By the way, I don't have a problem with focusing on any one of these and examining them one at a time, but when the discussion turns to 'does [blank] matter?' I know that somehow the relationship between [blank] and 'creative agenda' seems to be lost.  I'm not saying that every such thread needs a disclaimer, but that 'what matters' should rarely be in question.  The ultimate question of each thread (like the Age-old Imponderables) is answered by "it depends" or more specifically, "it depends upon the 'creative agenda' of any game they're considered for."

Now my question for the forum (What did you think this was just pontificating?), does anyone have any initial ideas how we could clarify this type of 'design-speak' for the sake of better communication?  What that would mean is, instead of asking 'Does setting matter?' one could talk about what kinds of 'creative agenda' Setting-first design works well for.  (Admittedly this sounds like a GNS issue on the surface, but I believe that Setting-first 'creative agendas' are quite possible outside of Simulationist design.)  In keeping with dice-or-fact games (Donjon being the lead example), quality, level, and presentation of quantities of information should be aligned with differing 'creative agendas.'  (Think of the value of giving more than just a casual glance at what 'information standards' would fit your game's 'creative agenda.')  What kinds of classifications can we conclude for 'use of Fortune mechanics' not just in terms of how they're structured, but the frequency and effect of their use upon a game both positively and negatively for it's 'creative agenda.'  (In a Hitchcock game, would it even be worthwhile to use Fortune in the common 'resolves tasks' style, when employing it for suspense could so much further the 'creative agenda?')  Not to mention how the presentation of the game, beyond just the 'examples of play' sections would align these components (and others) most effectively with a game's 'creative agenda.'

Whew!

Fang Langford

p. s. For a long time I've held this fascinating idea that a really interesting take on the 'Sherlock Holmes Role-Playing Games' would be more like InSpectres - in that the 'solution' is made up during play by the players - and DonJon - in that there is a strong systemic method for players to create 'facts.'  What makes it entirely intriguing to me is that the gamemaster is compellingly challenged to make sure that someone can still be the criminal throughout the game (preferably by spotting an 'out' in the 'elimination sequence' of 'thinking out loud').
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Bankuei
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« Reply #1 on: March 10, 2003, 10:51:42 AM »

Hi Fang,

I think the key point between all of these issues is, "Does the game do what you want it to do?" in the design sense of the word.  The important point that people tend to forget is the creative agenda("What are we trying to do here?") comes first, not last.  That creative agenda is the blueprint and goal, not a result of the various parts.

I think the non-theory way to say it, and it's been said many times,"What are you supposed to do in your game?  Give us an example of what makes it fun...etc."

The problem often isn't that we're not communicating that point well enough, but simply that many people haven't really ever examined "What makes it fun?" for themselves, hence GNS.  If you don't know what you want, you'll have a hard time getting it.  

"I want to have a game where you play heroes who slay dragons and get the magic ruby!" they say, and you say, "Ok, how do you do that?  Is the game about fighting the dragon, sneaking around, working as a team, what kind of stuff makes that happen?"

"Well, you can do whatever you want!"

"But what are you supposed to do?"

And that's about where things get lost.  As you've said, the issues you've mentioned become less of an issue when put in view of the creative agenda.  But the key point is to have that creative agenda clear within your head.  

I'd say a great deal of Fantasy Heartbreakers never really come up with a clear understanding of what it is they were aiming for.  They have a general idea, and their games push towards that direction, but never exactly on point, because often no one has sat down and really, explicitly thought about their creative agenda.

"What is actual play in your game supposed to be about?"-Creative Agenda
"How do you intend to make that happen?"-GNS
"How do you decide what occurs?"-System Matters
"When a player declares an action, when does it start and finish occuring?" IIEE

As you can see, the basic ideas are there, but they are so vaguely outlined without the exact terminology that it becomes almost impossible to get into real details.  I haven't yet seen anyone else come up with these questions and explore them as deeply without coming up with some form of terminology or theory to dig into it for the purposes of discussion.  I find that these questions are all that I need to use to design for me, but that doesn't mean these questions by themselves can communicate to other people what I'm trying to do.

Chris
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #2 on: March 10, 2003, 10:54:46 AM »

Quote
What that would mean is, instead of asking 'Does setting matter?' one could talk about what kinds of 'creative agenda' Setting-first design works well for.


You're looking for some sort of categorizations of Creative Agendas? I'm afraid that what you're going to get is tautological answers. Games that work well with a setting-first design are those where setting is an important element of the Creative Agenda.

What it seems to me that you're saying is, "Understand your design goals, and design to them."

What am I missing?

Mike
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #3 on: March 10, 2003, 12:21:50 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
What it seems to me that you're saying is, "Understand your design goals, and design to them."

What am I missing?

You're spot on (as always) about the tautological problem; I suppose that's why this hasn't really gone anywhere before.  And yes, I guess that's what I am saying, but there's more.

Let's say you've got this really rocking Setting and you and your buddies have been having a great time with it; now someone has made you a challenge you can't turn down, let's make a game of it.  So you obviously want a Setting-first game; you hunt around and all you find are Simulationist treatments of the Setting-first Approach, but you know (somehow) that that ain't it.  What I've seen happening is people then getting bogged down in the 'Does Setting Matter?' question and not getting any farther.

Perhaps Ron exposed just the nubbin of what you might want to do when he writes that, "When you have Characters in a Setting, Situation arises. Events that proceed from that Situation are established by System. Color gives everything imaginative 'weight' throughout the process."  He also mentioned elsewhere, "Players and GM are mostly heavily invested in Setting, which the GM reinforces through Situation and tweaking Character Hooks; Characters are mainly there to get their arms and legs moved by the players in order to see some part of the Setting," in reference to Simulationist Setting-first design.  There've also been a number of mumblings about Setting-based Edwardian Premise for Narrativist gaming.  All of that just brushes the surface of having a Setting-first 'creative agenda.'

I guess I'm having a real hard time putting my question into words right now, but yeah "Understand your design goals..." is at the top of the list.  I guess I'm rather of the mind that if 'creative agenda' is the most fundamental of "design goals," why have we only scratched the surface of theory and terminology when it comes to that, yet we've got all this body of work about...
Quote from: Bankuei
"How do you intend to make that happen?"-GNS
That always rang 'backwards' to me; all this talk about actualization of 'intensions,' but nothing about actual "design goals" as far as the 'creative agenda.'

Overall, it's pretty central to my work on Scattershot.  I'm struggling to comprehend how to explain packaging a different 'creative agenda' along with the Genre Expectations of each supplement even though it makes use of the same core Mechanix.  I'm always teed off when people say that the modular nature of Setting in Generalist systems necessarily detracts from how well they serve their 'creative agenda' out of hand like some kind of ruthless truism.  I saw some of that going in the background of the 'Does Setting Matter?' thread; some said (and I know it was just opinion) that Generalist games couldn't give as good a treatment of specific Settings because they weren't as 'connected.'  As far as I've groped with Genre Expectations, I can tell that isn't as clearly true all the time as a lot of opinions want it to be.

What I'd like to see is something like, when someone says that GURPS can't handle a specific nifty Setting, someone could come in and say that GURPS isn't a Setting-first Generalist system or that it appears to be a System-first Generalist system.  Ron seems to be 'reaching up' to that level of critical theory when he discusses 'high concept' Simulationism, but I think it gets lost because he's only talking about Simulationism which does not correlate to 'creative agenda' categories in a one-to-one fashion.

I dunno, maybe [blank]-first might be the earliest of form terminology that isn't tautological when regarding 'creative agenda.'  It's possible that this has been hidden in the whole 'genre issue' all along and I'm only becoming sensitive to it trying to structure Genre Expectations without using 'leading' terminology.  (I tripped right over common 'high literature' expectations when I thought I could use 'metaphor' in the more broad meaning; people thought I was only talking about thematic metaphors and symbolism.)

So I'm at a loss.  What is my question?  I know it has something to do with analyzing game designs from a structural standpoint independent of their 'genres,' but very often people bring a lot of 'traditional gaming' baggage in, relative to what I want to talk about because they associate different 'creative agendas' with specific genres.

Does any of this help?

Fang Langford
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Bankuei
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« Reply #4 on: March 10, 2003, 01:31:31 PM »

Quote
I guess I'm rather of the mind that if 'creative agenda' is the most fundamental of "design goals," why have we only scratched the surface of theory and terminology when it comes to that, yet we've got all this body of work about...


Hmm, I've always seen it as not much more to say than, "What is it supposed to do?"  It has been brought up in System Matters and in GNS(as general premise).    I picked up on it right away, the only reason I don't see it only recently becoming an issue is because people are forgetting it while playing with all the other theory stuff.

The creative agenda is the basic idea of "what is this game supposed to do?"   If I want to play Vampire using GURPS, the question comes in, how well does GURPS provide that "Vampire feel" in terms of what the designers intended it to be, and what I(as a random player) think that should be.  Obviously what the designers intend, what I want, and what I get from a game could all be different things.  

What is interesting to note, is that we're mostly talking about designers who are making games they want to play, therefore, what the experience they're designing to portray, the experience they expect, and the actual play (hopefully) line up as the same thing.

The key issue as far as folks dealing with universal type systems vs. setting specific systems, has to do with how well the system "pushes" the creative agenda of the game.  Generic systems don't restrict you, but rarely do they assist in "pushing" the agenda.  There's a strong difference between allowing and encouraging.  

In your case Fang, I see Genre Expectations as being the dial that sets "What is the agenda for this game?" on many levels, and your Experience dice mechanic as the "push" to make it happen.  The problem lies in giving folks enough guidance to establish their own agenda.  

The Questing Beast does this with its Accords, Universalis by simply encouraging conflict, but leaving the details of the conflict up to the players.  Sorcerer pushes a very specific agenda, but leaves a lot of the details open to the group on customizing it to their needs.

So what's the big picture and how this relates to the Agenda?  All the boxes that Ron speaks of, from the biggest to the smallest, either encourage, allow, or hinder whatever that agenda is.  Part of it on the design point is effectively communicating the agenda to the players, which, either by choice or miscommunication, results in drift when the group's expectations of the agenda is hindered by what the game actually does "push".

Quote
It's possible that this has been hidden in the whole 'genre issue' all along and I'm only becoming sensitive to it trying to structure Genre Expectations without using 'leading' terminology.


I think the problem between trying to relate genre to creative agenda is that genre means a lot of things to a lot of people.  Consider when folks say, "anime", it could mean dark, light, humorous, action packed, unrealistic, pornographic, anything really...It doesn't hold a lot of common facts.  

What creative agenda is about is nailing down what is meant exactly.  When you say anime, what kind do you mean?  What kind of things are supposed to happen in play?  What kinds of things are the players supposed to be doing?  

When you come to stuff like GNS/etc, its basically saying, "Does this support(push) your agenda or not?"

So some of the other issues that are going about, such as the various Imponderable Questions, Too Much Info, etc, are all relative to that basic question.  Reward systems push, Modifiers/Difficulty levels push, color, setting, in game info about "what the game is about" all of these things push something.  The real point of incoherence is when you have stuff pushing in directions that cannot both be accomodated at the same time.

Quote
I know it has something to do with analyzing game designs from a structural standpoint independent of their 'genres,' but very often people bring a lot of 'traditional gaming' baggage in, relative to what I want to talk about because they associate different 'creative agendas' with specific genres.


Which is why Genre isn't at the top of the list.  Each person is carrying their own ideas of what makes "sci-fi", "fantasy", "mystery".  Nailing down what aspects you want to explore in play and what kind of experience is supposed to come of that is more concrete.  Consider the difference between D&D fantasy, GURPS fantasy, TROS, and Sorcerer and the Sword.  Each cover "fantasy" but each also pushes different things and creates a different sort of play experience.

So coming back to the title of your thread: "Setting, Information, and Suspense Don't Matter" just add, "...by themselves.  They only matter as much as they push the creative agenda."  Again, Everything Matters, Everything pushes, allows, or hinders the agenda.  

Chris
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Sylus Thane
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« Reply #5 on: March 10, 2003, 01:36:49 PM »

Hi Fang,
I think I know what you mean but I don't know if I could put it into a solid question either. I think what you are saying, when you say creative agenda, are what are your goals as a designer and did you meet them. Not whether your game is narrativist or gamist or simulationist. Nor whether it's about setting or what have you. I think I said it in a previous thread that it's game that matters, all the parts as whole are what's important not are the seperate pieces more important. So I guess are you trying say as a designer "what are your design goals and did you meet them and are you happy with the results?' Is this what your trying to say Fang? And how can we help put more overall importance on the design process and helping people meet their goals?

Lemme know if I'm hot or cold or just plain tired.

Sylus
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ThreeGee
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« Reply #6 on: March 10, 2003, 01:44:44 PM »

Hey Fang,

You are, of course, correct in putting Creative Agenda first. However, it is worth pointing out that the premise or theme is not the end-all and be-all. It is simply a part of the whole--the part that holds it all together.

Please allow me a moment to explain something that is obvious to me, but does not seem at all obvious to many theory-heads. The process of creation is iterative in the same manner as the scientific method and many other processes. It does not matter where you start. If something about the setting makes you go "Ooh!" then start there. Even something as vague as diceless mechanics can be the start. You go from there, as needed. Certain earlier steps will demand certain later steps. A design based around insane characters demands a reason for their insanity, etc. Step by step, you go through every part. Some people would say that the premise holds everything true and that when you get to the last piece, you are done.

I cannot disagree more.

When you get to the last piece, you go back until you reach the beginning once more. That is one cycle. After one cycle, you have something that hangs together through your premise and could conceivably used as a finished product. However, it is better to go through the whole thing again, polishing each element further. The more times you do this, the tighter everything becomes and the prettier your jewel shines.

If you can imagine a five-element process, it would go something like this. Step one/initial ooh element, step two builds off of step one, ..., step five builds off of step four. Examine everything and decide on the premise, or check that you still want to pursue the chosen premise. Redo step four, based on step five and the premise, ..., redo step one, based on step two and the premise. Repeat the cycle until every element fits perfectly with every other element and the premise.

Many writers go through one entire draft before actually starting the real thing. The first book is thrown away. It was written solely for the purpose of allowing the author to get all of the major elements in mind. The second copy places them into a proper combination so that they fit together and fit the premise. And so on.

Anyone who has ever watched a progressive image rendered on-screen has seen the process. First, there are just blobs of color. Then, they form smaller blocks that roughly shape out the image. Those blocks are broken again, forming a clearer image. And so on.

I am more than willing to provide concrete examples, but in another thread. I am taking enough of Fang's space, as it is.

My point is that the premise is important, but it is only the glue that holds the other elements together. A weak setting might not contradict the premise, but it certainly will not support an entertaining game. The same goes for system, etc.

A fancy word that I rarely see around here is Gestalt, which is the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of all the parts, and that the final product is ultimately unpredictable, the individual parts having been examined.

So, rather than disagree with Fang, I support the idea that the creative agenda is the single most important element. I only wish to illustrate the idea that we cannot just stop there. The premise begs questions which must be answered before we have an actual, whole product.

Later,
Grant
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