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[Sudden Light] Basic Improv. Vocabulary

Started by Paul S, June 17, 2006, 03:11:45 PM

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Paul S

Given that my RPG in progress has changed names and that I'm now following Forge tradition to split topics into separate threads, I'm reproducing some initial reflections below (my last repetition, I promise!).  As explained before, this RPG is the attempt to blend techniques gained in the class "Improvisation and Creative Writing" with narrative RPG theory and produce a game from the dialogue.

Here are some foundational improvisational terms introduced by the professor to help frame ideas of improvisation:

Offer = Anything an actor does or says.  For RPG's, any statement, ranging from the social contract, interpretations of shared texts (game books), descriptions of character actions or dialogue, etc.  Indeed, I would find it difficult to exclude anything from the gaming activity from the category of "offer," unless it is a block or acceptance.
Block = To reject an offer.  In effect, this is a veto of a previous actor's contribution to the shared imaginary/creative space with no contributive effect beyond simple negation.   For the improvisational practice, this has no place and must be fiercely avoided.  As many are aware, blocking offers have a long and sad history RPG development and practice, as the traditional GM has been given absolute power to block any player offers based on the whims of his or her "vision" for the imaginary space.  Blocking should be avoided, or at the very least, tightly constrained.
Accept = To take the offer.  The offer is welcomed into the shared imaginative space as a condition for the possibility of further imaginative development and is taken as "fact" for the purposes of the collaborative space.  This is the baseline of improvisational practice.  From an RPG perspective, this would mean that dialogue, description, color, etc., is accepted by fellow players/collaborators into the shared imaginary space as acceptable and is accepted as "fact" of the constituted world/story.  A player stating that his dwarf character has gray eyes and that his or her declaration met with no argument from other players regarding that introduced fact would be a simple and common type of acceptance in RPG's.  Accepting offers would have to be the baseline practice for a non-dysfunctional collaborative game space based on improvisational practice/theory.
Building on the Offer = To accept the Offer and to extend it further from its originally established boundaries.  In terms of improvisational practice, this is the most desirable level, as every actor involved confirms previously stated Offers and collaboratively pushes their momentum forward through additional, confirming offers.  Much like the "story now" ideological framework that characterizes much of contemporary narrative game design, improvisational practice is looking for, from every actor, a "yes, and...."  I would also think that a "yes, but..." or roll the dice could be situated in relation to narrative RPG practice and is encouraged by many contemporary "indie" style RPG's, most notably, Polaris.

From this list, a RPG shaped by improvisational sensibilities would explicitly structure its design towards the fullest possible encouragement of building on offers.  Accepting offers is taken as the baseline for functional play, while collaborative offering should be encouraged through explicit egalitarian game design (alternating proposing stakes, framing scenes, narrating resolutions, etc.).  Conversely, game design informed by improvisational practice would attempt to minimize blocking of offers to the highest possible degree.

As mentioned above, I would like Sudden Light to rely as little on dice as possible and work on a token economy.  Incorporating above improv sensibilities could place ranging values on corresponding behaviors.  For instance, building on offers could gain a player two tokens, offering an element could gain one token, simply accepting would gain zero tokens, while attempting to block an offer could cost several tokens.  This would encourage continual building on offers, confirming previous player contributions while pushing and expanding the shared narrative space.

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Questions for Consideration:  As described in the Power 19, I've initially described Sudden Light as a game with two players locked in competition, as sort of devil on one shoulder and angel on the other shoulder in the attempt to win over protagonist.  Is competition necessarily antithetical to improvisational practice and RPG's structured around improvisational perspectives?  How might, through game mechanics, I discourage blocking offers and encourage building on offers while also promoting creative competition?  Or, is it possible that certain forms of blocking should not be excluded from a collaborative RPG form?


Jeremy L.

Hi Zach,

The first thing that comes to mind is something like this. If it's based on a token economy, make players pay if they want to block. If one player proposes some challenge to the protagonist (ie., an opportunity to reach higher, or a temptation to sink lower), the other player may either accept it and try to revise the new narrative in favor of his goals, or else may try to block it. He must bid one of his tokens to do so; the first player must then either see and raise (or, maybe just see, with ties going to the player who proposed the challenge), or else let the block go through.

To add some narrative balance, you might say that the loser gets whatever tokens the winner bid; so if one player got blocked earlier in the game, he has more leverage to come back with a vengeance later.

--Jeremy

Paul S

Yes, your suggestions might be the way to go.  I'm struggling here, on the one hand with my improv. class that is saying "blocking is always bad at all times," and my knowledge of RPG design that says "well, not always."  For instance, I'm aware that Polaris has an explict blocking mechanic of "it shall not be," meant to allow other players to veto a particular narrative trajectory.

I'm still debating as to whether I should go the "no blocking ever" or the "blocking, but it's really gonna cost you" route.  My improv class makes me lean towards the former, but the competitive aspect of my design makes me want to include wiggle room for the latter.

My question: can I have a competitive storytelling game without blocking mechanics of some sort?

Graham W

Hi Zach,

I think you can, if you want to.

Have you seen Capes? That's a storytelling game with a lot of competitiveness in it. But the competiveness doesn't involve blocking, in the sense that one player says "I want to X to happen" and the next player says "Well, I don't want that to happen, I want Y to happen". It's all about establishing goals and fighting for control over those goals. It's very effective.

You might also look at Falling Leaves, especially the Seven Breaths. I can imagine the GMs in your game behaving like that: one says "I want X to happen" and the other GM says "Well, OK, but only if Y happens too".

Graham

Jason Morningstar

I should point out in a tiny voice that blocking, per se, isn't always a bad move in improv.  Just a dangerous one.  To see two players who really know and trust each other use it skillfully is a thing of beauty.  Can you tell I just read Mick Napier's book?

Paul S

Quote from: Graham Walmsley on June 20, 2006, 02:45:47 PM
Have you seen Capes? That's a storytelling game with a lot of competitiveness in it. But the competiveness doesn't involve blocking, in the sense that one player says "I want to X to happen" and the next player says "Well, I don't want that to happen, I want Y to happen". It's all about establishing goals and fighting for control over those goals. It's very effective.

You might also look at Falling Leaves, especially the Seven Breaths. I can imagine the GMs in your game behaving like that: one says "I want X to happen" and the other GM says "Well, OK, but only if Y happens too".

Graham

Thanks for the reference.  Capes is sitting on my self, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.  I believe that competitive game play and improv. theory are compatible and I'm just trying to find the mechanic and theoretical basis for these links.  I'm sure once I have a more refined vocabulary for improvisation, things will become a bit more clear.

Your example from Falling Leaves is exactly the type of play I want to promote; competitive building-on-the-offer narrative structure.  Right now I'm working on the assumption of a token influence economy.  I'll post my basic mechanics within tomorrow and ask for further direction.  Thanks for your help.

Paul S

Quote from: Jason Morningstar on June 20, 2006, 03:13:57 PM
I should point out in a tiny voice that blocking, per se, isn't always a bad move in improv.  Just a dangerous one.  To see two players who really know and trust each other use it skillfully is a thing of beauty.  Can you tell I just read Mick Napier's book?

I will certainly check this book out.  Right now I'm just working from quick class notes and have a stack of research to dig into.  I'd like to post a thread on advanced improv. vocabulary shortly. Quickly glancing ahead, I see some authors make use of "bending," which, at first glance, seems to be a more controlled way of managing blatant and destructive blocking.  Perhaps that might be a route to explore...

Without having read the book to know the specific examples, I'm intrigued by your comment about blocking working between actors who know and trust one another.  I could imagine skilled improv. actors using blocking effectively, but I'm making a difficult transition to move that towards the game table in a mechanical sense because it seems the trust issues involved would hinge primarily on factors (time working together, commonly held experiences, compatible personalities, etc.) somewhat outside—or, at least at the periphery of—system.  How could I enable the type of positive blocking you allude to amongst players who have not built up pre-existing relationships of trust?  More practically stated, how could I mechanically enable positive blocking when this game would be played at a convention amongst complete strangers?

Also: The Shab-al-Hiri Roach =  hella game.

Jason Morningstar

Quote from: Zach Walton on June 21, 2006, 01:02:41 AM
how could I mechanically enable positive blocking when this game would be played at a convention amongst complete strangers?

I don't think you can, honestly.  You can mechanically reinforce denial - give one player the power to disregard or re-write another players input - but that's different.  Here's a scene where a denial would be cool:

A:  I just talked to your sister.
B:  No you didn't.
A:  She still speaks to me, you know. 
B:  In your dreams.
A:  Exactly!

B had to trust that A would roll with it and lead into a cool scene.  A had to trust that B knew what she was doing.  I could do this with the guys I game with every week, but strangers?  In improv terms it is a "group mind" thing, which you can't achieve with random convention guy.  It's hard enough to achieve with scene partners you work with all the time. 

Paul S

Quote from: Jason Morningstar on June 21, 2006, 01:19:49 PM
B had to trust that A would roll with it and lead into a cool scene.  A had to trust that B knew what she was doing.  I could do this with the guys I game with every week, but strangers?  In improv terms it is a "group mind" thing, which you can't achieve with random convention guy.  It's hard enough to achieve with scene partners you work with all the time. 

Very good point.  I've had this same feeling of trust with other GM's and players through my many years gaming, but all of it was built through long sessions together with strong friendships to back it up.  However, I'm still inspired by the move of Universalis, which included mechanics for establishing the social/behavioral contract of play (don't want any Monty Python jokes at the table?  Pay a token and it's established as a rule.  I find this extremely cool).

I guess, from a more theoretical point of view, I'm curious as to where you see the line between RPG and improv. theater games?  While designing game mechanics drawn from improv. theory, where does system stop being useful and become a hindrance?  And, most intriguing, is there any way that system might help to build up trust among players over time?

Jason Morningstar

Most/all RPGs move toward conflict and improv usually moves toward agreement.  This is a major point of departure.  I honestly think RPGs have more to learn from improvisation than vice-versa, and agreement-based mechanics seem like a fruitful area of inquiry to me.  On the social contract level, the idea of bearing some serious responsibility for the success (on every level) of your fellow players is something I'm going to write into every game I make now.

Repetition and positive reinforcement can lead to trust, right?  The variable there is time.