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Author Topic: Theatrix in action  (Read 14273 times)
Paul Czege
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« on: May 04, 2001, 03:56:00 PM »

This is going to be partly a paste of something I wrote on G.O. about the first session of the awesome superhero game, using Theatrix rules, that one of the players from my recent Everway game is running. I had a realization during that session of something about how the game works that hadn't been apparent to me from reading the rules. I actually thought there'd be some interested replies to my post, but the only direct reply was a hint that I was "advertising" the game.

The GM started the session by describing an OOC sequence as if we, the players were in a comic book store reading the first issue of an eagerly anticipated new book. He described how the first panel of the first page depicted a character with shoulder-length, platinum hair, clenched fists, and an expression of superhuman rage. Then he "turned the page" and framed an entirely different scene by describing a series of panels zooming in closer and closer on a city. It probably took less than two minutes for him to set the scene like this, and then we were in the middle of a street, in a tense stand off situation with a supervillain.

Despite that it was all setup, it felt very different than the traditional reading of the background situation you get with published game modules. Perhaps there's a conversation about framing in there somewhere.

And this first scene is where I started to realize nuances of the rules that I hadn't discerned from reading them. As starting characters, we had no plot points. That meant we had to rely on our skills and powers during the throwdown with that supervillain, because we couldn't activate any of our descriptors or use the game's incredibly powerful Narrativist Statement ability without plot points. You gain plot points from completing subplots, cut scenes, and flashback sequences, and we hadn't done any of that yet. At the end of the fight with the villain, we fanned out. I went toward the entrance of the office building to investigate an ongoing disturbance. Another player approached a bystander who had apparently been injured prior to our arrival, and who had been moaning about his broken legs during the whole fight sequence. We were all surprised when that injured bystander revealed himself as another villain, and erupted in a massive fireball like the Human Torch gone nova. Each of us was engulfed in flames.

And then the GM triggered a flashback scene.

And there was my revelation. See how that works? Now we had the opportunity to gain plot points that we'd be able to use when we flashed forward to the moment that fireball erupts. By the end of the game session we were nested two flashbacks deep. And during those flashbacks we invented things about prior interactions between our characters. Because of the mechanic for how plot points are gained, flashbacks, cut scenes and subplots are the way a player augments his performance in the main plotline. I thought the section in the game rules about flashbacks and subplots was pretty interesting when I read it, but it actually blew me away when I finally realized during the game how the mechanic would naturally drive a Watchmen-esque narrative.

Interestingly, when I first wrote about this on G.O., I was responding to a question with my thoughts about how the right game system could achieve a specific end result; most of the other responses were setting-based. I was surprised to get the "I smell advertising" response. Does someone posting about a system come across more like advertising than someone who posts about a game setting?

Paul Czege

[ This Message was edited by: Paul Czege on 2001-05-04 19:58 ]
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #1 on: May 04, 2001, 04:33:00 PM »

Well, the conventional wisdom is that systems are meaningless ("Just ignore it if it gets in the way, man...that's what we do!" they say) and settings are sexy, sexy (as Mearls said once).

Ever wonder why those "I have a game idea" posts usually consist of timelines and setting material rather than system mechanics?  If it is a system mechanic, it's just one piece of a large (yet unwritten) whole.  Rarest of all are posts concerning engaging premises or styles of play.

Feh.
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jared a. sorensen / www.memento-mori.com
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: May 04, 2001, 06:40:00 PM »

Since I agree with Jared in all particulars regarding the meaningful "core" of a game, I won't add to his comments.

But as for the Theatrix observations ... in all the RPGs I have played and enjoyed these last five years, the best thing is that a mechanics-innovation in one game can be incorporated in "lighter" form in later ones. In Swashbuckler, for instance, there's a "skill" called Impressive Entrance, which basically means the PC can enter a scene even if he or she wasn't specifically established as being anywhere near there at the moment. Well, in lots of games we've played since, my players are now more able to take up Director stance and insert their PCs into scenes in ANY game, without necessarily waiting, like wistful little lambs, for ME to permit them into a scene.

So what I'm getting at is that enjoyable components of play that are overtly permitted and encouraged by the Theatrix system can be retained and utilized in less-formal ways in whatever you play afterwards. It's one of the many benefits of playing four-six session stories and moving on to new system and the next story.

Best,
Ron
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greyorm
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« Reply #3 on: May 12, 2001, 08:31:00 PM »

Quote

Impressive Entrance, which basically means the PC can enter a scene even if he or she wasn't specifically established as being anywhere near there at the moment. Well, in lots of games we've played since, my players are now more able to take up Director stance and insert their PCs into scenes in ANY game, without necessarily waiting, like wistful little lambs, for ME to permit them into a scene.


I think this is where I've been trying to head in my gaming -- keeping the players interacting with the game even if their characters aren't necessarily supposed to be in the area of the action -- though I've usually done this by offering them bit parts of minor characters at the scene.

It hadn't occured to me to allow the players to state "I'm there" and tell me why and how they made it from whatever situation they were in to interact with the current one.
Hrm, seems like a perfect use of flashbacks, though...establish they are there, then establish how they got there afterwards...but what to do with the other characters then...

Of course, knowing this, it seems to support that I'm more of a simulationist in my play, though not in my mechanics; I prefer more abstract mechanics, quick-and-dirty just-tell-me-what-the-result-is sorts.  That is, I don't care if they meet expectations, as long as I can use them as a jump-off point to continue the game from...a simple randomizer.

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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
james_west
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« Reply #4 on: May 17, 2001, 04:25:00 PM »

OK, if that was an advertisement, it was an effective one: I'm sold. I'm off to find theatrix ...

It reminds me, though, of a mechanic I used once to end scenes (in Feng Shui, actually): when I felt that a scene was over, I'd have it freeze and pull back as a scene on a monitor which, for some reason, the characters were watching at a later time.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: May 21, 2001, 08:27:00 AM »

Paul,

You guys are still playing Theatrix, right? How'd the second run go? How sustainable does this kind of game design seem to you, at this point?

Best,
Ron
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #6 on: May 21, 2001, 08:16:00 PM »

 This Message was edited by: Paul Czege on 2001-05-22 00:18 ]
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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
james_west
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« Reply #7 on: May 21, 2001, 09:30:00 PM »

Paul -

I think one of the key problems to address in game design is how to produce a game in which the nifty features are less reliant on the players being willing to use them.

That may make no sense, but the "my players are broken" phenomenon is a really common one (I think that to myself all the time) ... and I think it's probably fundamentally unfair. Although maybe not: I also tend to be excessively
forgiving.

                - James
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: May 22, 2001, 08:03:00 AM »

James,

As usual, you raise important points. From my perspective, the key to the crisis is dealing with blame vs. responsibilities.

Over and over again, I hear GMs lament their incompetent or stupid or just plain sullen players. And when I ask some key questions, I discover that the GMs, actually, are carrying out actions that predictably result in resistant, defensive, cautious, and full-reactive play. In this case, the problem exists at a very fundamental level and it's like alcoholism - the person has to admit that he has a problem, REGARDLESS of others' actions or problems of their own.

This is very different from another phenomenon, when a GM has decided to change the profile of his own activities and goes about it with some vision and enthusiasm. Here, two basic reactions occur.

1. SOME players say "Wow!" and respond positively, basically unleashing behaviors they thought could never be welcome in role-playing (this may happen slowly or quickly).

2. OTHER players respond negatively, and I break them into two sub-groups:
- straightforward: they literally enjoy and want the previous style of play
- dysfunctional: they are comfortable with the dissatisfaction with the previous style of play, and perhaps even revel in certain aspects of it

Whenever I hear people expressing unhappiness about their current group, I do some questioning to figure out where in this breakdown they are. My ideal, of course, is that GMs and players are in accord with one another (and with the system they are using, either by choosing one that fits their goals, writing one that fits their goals, or "drifting" another game into a form that fits their goals).

Of course, this ideal is wholly impossible when anyone involved simply insists that "this sucks" and adopts a resentful or purely-gimme attitude. It's OK not to prefer what someone else prefers; it's silly to insist that everyone has to be like you or do what you want.

Sometimes differences get settled, quickly or slowly - e.g., a player's background may instill habits or fears that make it hard for him to perceive that (say) a Narrativist approach will be more fun, and this only slowly changes. Other times, the differences result in a parting of ways - e.g., a player just isn't going to have fun with that approach at all, and in my case anyway, I'm happy to terminate the role-playing relationship without prejudice.

My overall point is that blame gets in the way of sorting all this out. It creates a situation much like a dysfunctional romantic relationship in which all the couple's time is spent negotiating about whose fault things were or are, or elaborately discussing the meaning of the relationship without actually doing anything romantic or fun.

And finally, the band metaphor enters the picture again, with the notion that a GM should not spring anything of this sort on players during actual play, blind-siding them with unfamiliar expectations or priorities. Out-of=game discussion is absolutely required (hopefully jargon-free).

Best,
Ron
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #9 on: May 22, 2001, 08:25:00 PM »

...one of the key problems to address in game design is...to produce a game in which the nifty features are less reliant on the players being willing to use them.

This is a good point. I think the players' cautious handling of the phone argument and the medieval hallucination is a learned approach. The RPG tradition it comes from is that a player creates a character and a background for that character, and then runs that character through the scenario. The character is essentially a static object. If the game system has an advancement system, the player probably pre-conceptualizes an advancement path for the character; but allowing game events to push a character down an advancement path isn't the same thing as the character being dynamic.

Through drama, both the phone argument and the medieval hallucination could change the whole nature of the character as perceived by the player. The cautious player doesn't want that. He wants to play the character he wrote. The player's fear is that too much drama will change the character from what he created and then he won't like the character anymore.

So I think you're exactly right; a game whose most innovative mechanics are all elective, tacked on to an otherwise unremarkable system, can in practice play out as an unremarkable game.

Paul

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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
GreatWolf
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« Reply #10 on: May 23, 2001, 03:48:00 AM »

Quote

On 2001-05-23 00:25, Paul Czege wrote:
So I think you're exactly right; a game whose most innovative mechanics are all elective, tacked on to an otherwise unremarkable system, can in practice play out as an unremarkable game.


Interesting that you should say this.  From my readthrough of the Theatrix rules, it felt that, with the exception of the Plot points, it was more of a primer on a state of mind, rather than a strict system.  "Here's how to think as a Director."

Is this a fair assessment, in your experience?

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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Paul Czege
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« Reply #11 on: May 23, 2001, 09:49:00 AM »

Hey Seth,

...it felt that, with the exception of the Plot points, it was more of a primer on a state of mind, rather than a strict system. "Here's how to think as a Director."

Is this a fair assessment, in your experience?


I got the same impression from reading it, but I'm less sure it's true after playing the game. It's a diceless system, and the main resolution mechanic is not plot points, but the flowcharts. The plot points are metagame. The rulebook, particularly the "Improvisation" chapter, very carefully establishes that a player can make a flashback or subplot happen whenever he wants to, and since players gain plot points from completing subplots, cut scenes, and flashback sequences, they're the way the player augments his performance. I think under all the tutorial stuff is a dramatically Narrativist system, although admittedly, it's very lean and much smothered in topping and hard to detect.

But this brings up an interesting issue: the difference between system and method. The Ron Edwards relationship map method is detailed in the Soul supplement to Sorcerer, but in order for it to work, the characters must be hooked into the map. And that kind of feels like system to me. Perhaps the difference is that Sorcerer will function as a Narrativist game without the relationship map method, and Theatrix without plot points and subplots as detailed in the rulebook is an otherwise rather unremarkable rules system with a drama resolution mechanic that probably wouldn't play out very Narrativist at all.

Paul

[ This Message was edited by: Paul Czege on 2001-05-23 23:17 ]
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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
Clay
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« Reply #12 on: May 24, 2001, 08:36:00 AM »

Paul,

How could that session have been saved?  From what you described of the second session, there was some really powerful material there that could have been used to make a mind-blowing session.

Clay
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Clay Dowling
RPG-Campaign.com - Online Campaign Planning and Management
Paul Czege
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« Reply #13 on: May 24, 2001, 12:40:00 PM »

Hey Clay,

Since Ron hasn't chimed in with an explanation of his solution to the fairly boring streetwise sequence, I'll bang that out. I described it to the GM, and he said, "It's so damn easy in retrospect!"

Actual game events featured the streetwise character talking to a bartender at one point, and to a prostitute, but getting no information from either of them. A homeless drunk mentioned someone named "Danny," and that sparked a search for him. After a couple of tedious conversations with homeless winos, the desired information was obtained. It was remarkably un-dramatic.

As the GM of a relationship map scenario, always remember that a scene in your game must either convey information, which includes changing the way the player and possibly the character perceives the relationship map, or it must change the nature of the character and/or his relationship to the map.

So the solution is to frame the scene for the drama. Frame directly to the streetwise character sitting with some seedy, heretofore unknown NPC in a smoky hashish house, talking to some drug dealer's henchie. The henchie can say something like, "Leon, why did you bring this fool here...how many times do I have to tell you not to bring people who aren't our friends around. Take him and go. Mr. Samson won't talk to him." And then play from there. Use the game's resolution mechanic to see if the character is successful at streetwise. If so, he has a conversation with Samson and gets what he's after. If not, he fights the goons.

You could just as easily frame a scene where the character is tied to a chair with blood running down his face. The key is advancing the story, not having a tedious investigative sequence. Frame right to the drama.

The solution to the first two scenes, the phone argument and the medieval hallucination, is substantially more complex. I think it's hinted at in the purpose that underlies both the "All-out dissection" and "GM Bias" threads: effective group management through understanding of player psychology. The reality of a game group is that players won't have a perfect uniformity of bias; a GM needs an understanding of player psychology so he can anticipate how that psychology will interact with his expectations and his event management, and how it will manifest in player use of the nuances of the game system. In this case, the GM failed to anticipate that the two players would retreat from drama and play cautious in those scenes. I don't think he'll be burned by that again.

Paul
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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
Clay
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« Reply #14 on: May 29, 2001, 09:24:00 AM »

Paul,

I loved the handling of the streetwise scene that you proposed, and I really hadn't even considered that scene.  Next time I get the opportunity, I'm going to use a trick like that.

I had some thoughts on the hallucination scene, because I ran something like this last fall as a halloween special.  I didn't indicate in any way that it was a hallucination.  Hallucination was reality (as any good hallcination should be).  

My hapless hero, a dedicated gamist who fell for narrativism in a big way, was exploring the basement of an empty southern mansion. Upon touching a heavy iron door that he'd just seen a rather inexplicable young child dash through, he found himself in a very different place.  He was chained in a hot, steamy room.  He couldn't see much further than the ends of his arms.  What he could hear was a whip and screaming.

He figured a good way out of the trap (step backwards, ignoring the fact that he was fettered), but that hallucination was reality for him during the rest of the game.  He promptly set about tracking down one of the heirs to the estate to extract some history, refused to sleep anywhere near the property at night, and in general wigged out.

Clay
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Clay Dowling
RPG-Campaign.com - Online Campaign Planning and Management
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