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Author Topic: So, about that Wraith game....  (Read 14321 times)
GreatWolf
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« on: June 07, 2007, 09:12:01 AM »

In a different thread, Ron said this:

All that said, I am still quite motivated to play a game of Wraith one of these days. That's the only one of that original pack which seems to me to have put its money where its mouth is.

The thread kinda wandered away from this, so it seemed like a good idea to start a new thread.

I'm curious to hear more about this.  Ron, you and I talked about Wraith a bit recently, so you know that I have a soft spot in my heart for that game.  The only White Wolf material that I still own is Wraith-related, and I still have hope of doing something with it.  So, I'm curious, what are you seeing in this game that makes you excited to play it?
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Seth Ben-Ezra
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: June 07, 2007, 10:23:08 AM »

Should be pretty clear, isn't it? Explicit ethical adversity, as generated in system terms. A person is responsible for the ethical decisions of his character, but another person is responsible for posing ethical crises. Neat stuff.

As with all of the original four WW games, my inclination is to constrain character options to only one of the multifarious types (or tribes or factions or whatever they're called are in a given game), and even to remove the other options from the SIS of our game entirely, so as to focus attention away from all the "options" and onto the play-issue of this sort of adversity.

For instance, in reading the original Vampire, my first call would be to throw out anything and everything about the "clans" and only play with (and about) Caitiffs. When I say throw out, I don't mean just saying "you can't play that," I mean removing it entirely from any and every aspect of play and the setting.

Best, Ron
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HighmoonMedia
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« Reply #2 on: June 07, 2007, 03:30:02 PM »

For instance, in reading the original Vampire, my first call would be to throw out anything and everything about the "clans" and only play with (and about) Caitiffs. When I say throw out, I don't mean just saying "you can't play that," I mean removing it entirely from any and every aspect of play and the setting.

I'm down with that. And interestingly enough, it's precisely what I'm doing with my new Vampire game: there are vampires in the world, period; any reference to Brujah this or Ventrue that, if any at all, is to a group using that name, not to anything you may associate with that title from before.
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Clyde L. Rhoer
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« Reply #3 on: June 12, 2007, 05:38:38 AM »

Hi Ron,

I want to make sure I'm understanding. When you talk about stripping out the factions, are you saying that games like White Wolf's... that have inherent conflicting factions in the fiction, that then want the characters to work together are not conducive to a Narritivist game? Or is the difficulty more in the way these factional set ups tend to create the constructive denial of a Simulationist playstyle? Or am I missing the point entirely?
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2007, 06:56:19 AM »

I'm not Ron, but I'll give you my thoughts.  Aren't you happy?

The problem with splats is that they can become lazy shorthand for certain character types.  For example, the Vampire clans are actually different vampire personality stereotypes.  As such, adopting a given clan tends to mean that you are adopting a certain position in the power struggles of the world.  So, Brujah tend to be anarchists, while Ventrue are conservative, and so on.  Of course, you can always choose to play against type, but that means that you're somewhat working upstream against your character choices.  Also, this tends to be a poor design issue.  The players' choices then tend to be limited to play with type or play against type.  Also, this means that characters are narrowly defined by their position in the political power structure.

Caitiffs, though, are outside the clan structure.  As such, a Caitiff could be...anything.  They are not bound to expectations or stereotypes (be they in-game or imposed from outside).  As such, they have the freedom to have a personal moral outlook and make ethical choices, which is necessary for Narrativist play.

Interestingly, in the base game, Wraith doesn't actually have splats.  (The expansions tried to make the Guilds into splats, but without much success, IMHO.)  There are political concerns in the Shadowlands (Stygia, Renegades, and the like), but the individual PC can position himself within that power structure as he desires or ignore it altogether.  Honestly, for a while now, I've thought that the idea of a Circle (i.e. PC group) doesn't really work in Wraith, and that the game would benefit from an application of hippy game techniques, like the break-up of the PC party.  Let each character go his own way; it will actually work better.

Huh.  Now I'm wanting to pull Wraith off the shelf and play it again.....
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Seth Ben-Ezra
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: June 12, 2007, 08:10:22 AM »

Hi Clyde,

That's a complex issue that reaches back farther into role-playing history and only takes on a particular form in the Storyteller games. Your two speculative answers are both correct, to some extent, but we should talk more about the history before getting into how.

In the 1980s, the majority of role-playing publishing and design was based on two models: Champions and AD&D. (I consider GURPS to fall within the Champions model.)

The AD&D version is probably familiar: the group of characters are together because the group of players is effectively a team. Asking "why are the characters together" is a bit like asking "why does the football team all play on the same field." Call of Cthulhu follows this model too. Note that inter-character conflict, within the team, is often built-in and partly expected, with various control or limiting mechanisms of whatever effectiveness. This conflict isn't so much thematic as straightforwardly tactical - pure and simple game theory, really. I can't overstate this: given the team approach, most of the fun of play comes from the direct opposition permitted by the possibility of betrayal.

The Champions version is genre-driven: the group of characters is together because their interactions are part of the topic, indeed, they might even be more important to the participants than the external or goals-based conflict. Superheroes were a natural fit for this approach really to blossom with Champions, because of the highly-charged content of the superteam and the popularity of The X-Men at the time (1979, roughly). You can see it with Star Trek fandom and other buddy-oriented or ensemble-type science fiction and adventure, too; arguably, GURPS is predicated on merely shifting setting-trappings around the same core image/approach to play because it's so common. Here, the talk of disagreement is important, but it only sets up the discord as a straw man, to punch home the core, undisputable value of group identity.

A hell of a lot of the social strife that characterized role-playing until the early 1990s arises fully from the incompatible natures of these two approaches, compounded by the average age of the participants. When people tried to play using the second version, but with the means and assumptions of the first, well, that's why AD&D2 became a misery for nearly anyone who ever tried it. It's also why people who favor the second model developed such a hatred-culture for "dungeon crawling" or "roll-playing," because they often associate it with being backstabbed in substantial ways.

Here's my point: in both of these approaches, the concept of "character niche" is important. In the first, it has everything to do with tactics - we need a cleric, we need a magic-user, we need at least two fighters, and so on. This factors into the group/betrayal dynamic as well because one might like to steal the magic-user's cool item (or kill the magic-user because Bob called you a pussy in the previous session), but one might also need that magic-user around for the next fight, and so on. Rifts probably represents the most hard-core expression of the proliferation of niches based on this approach.

In the second, it has everything to do with genre - we need Wolverine a guy who always balks and frets because that allows Cyclops Picard the other guy to step in and reaffirm the thematic content (which is never really under pressure). And the more characters who can balk and fret in different ways, the better it is when they all team up and fight together against the real evil (whatever it may be). It also has to do with allowing people to engage fully in their separate power-fantasies without facing real turf-conflict among the real people; so that you might be mondo-freakozoid Aggravated Damage man and I might be Sneaky-Tricky Crazy Insightful Man, and we can tease one another's differences without really stepping on one another's toes in terms of in-game effectiveness.

OK so far: character niche is a big deal in role-playing, but for very different reasons in the two most prevalent assumptions or approaches to play. A lot of game design in the late 1980s represented uneasy, unstated, not-very-functional attempts at compromise between the approaches, with a corresponding proliferation of substantive options. Shadowrun, Earthdawn, most GDW games like Dark Conspiracy, later versions of Traveller, many AD&D2 spinoffs like Planescape and Arabian Nights, Space:1889, Cyberpunk, and many others all illustrate this painful and non-functional compromise approach, in most cases defaulting to "well, you just need a good GM" or similarly empty commentary to arrive at real-play solutions. Rifts, mentioned above, represents one of the few relatively coherent results, specifically because it relies solely on version #1 and does not attempt any compromise with version #2.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s and the appearance of Vampire. I suggest that the model for the first four games published by White Wolf was based on neither version #1 nor version #2, but rather on the attempted compromise between them that characterized, for instance, certain approaches to Shadowrun, specifically not the balls-out Gamist play but the story/metaplot play. The result is pure mess, for the same reason that playing this kind of Shadowrun or "story-oriented" AD&D2 was always a mess. No one, not players, not GM, not game authors, not freelancers, have any idea whatsoever of how "the group" of characters pertains to "the group" of players. All you see are individual attempts to hark back to the historical solutions and assumptions, like the Prince of the city assigning you-all a mission, as well as many others.

The improvement-based reward system makes it ten times worse, because if one guy goes all Gamist on everyone else, in terms of boosting effectiveness or influence in the game-world (i.e. D&D-type advancement), then he's fucking up everyone else's cooperation to keep in their niches and stay "even" with one another. But that's another topic for another discussion.

What does any or all of this have to do with Narrativist play, or with Vampire's alleged (by me) failure to facilitate Narrativism? It's a two-step answer.

1. Because neither version works from the start for Narrativist purposes. Regarding the first version, team membership and team betrayal may not be relevant to the current, developing or developed Premise of play at all. And if they are, then working out the results is not about player-advantage in the same way as in old-school fantasy dungeoneering, but rather about thematic outcomes subject both to personal judgment and to the vagaries of that particular system. Regarding the second version, "facing the final eeevil" or figuring out the real villain isn't a given in Narrativist play, it's just more Situation and remains as open to player-judgment as anything else ... in which case, posturing at one another because "we see things differently" (and intended to be just a setup for reconciliation) swiftly becomes content rather than posturing.

So "niche" in either version doesn't work for Narrativist play - not at all. Narrativist play relies on meaningful constraints, but those constraints may vary widely from character to character, from game to game, and from group to group.

2. Because the compromise approach between the two versions is inherently flawed, as I tried to describe briefly above. So what happens if you have Narrativist inclinations, is trying to utilize a flawed compromise between two approaches, neither of which make sense for your inclinations in the first place.

Let me put all of this in plain language. What does choosing a clan in first-edition Vampire mean, for a Narrativist-inclined person, or better, group? Answer: nothing, as written. You have to invent an answer.

One possible answer is that clans' internal values are themselves sources of valid conflict - as a Toreador, you will face problematic and transformative conflicts which will throw everything about being a Toreador into question.

Another possible answer is that inter-clan conflicts are themselves sources of conflict, much like the different cults and values that nonetheless co-exist in a Gloranthan-setting game. Here, you will face the fundamental crisis between ideology and judgment, and ultimately will have to arrive at either conformity to your own, conformity to another (hence rejection), or synthesis (functionally rejection of both), or rebellion (explicit rejection of both). Will characters have to do this individually, or as a group (as in HeroQuest)? That becomes a sub-question.

Yet another possible answer is that "clans" are a red herring and their inherent (and locally flawed) niche-based content is a source of confusion rather than focus. I tend toward this answer, because neither of the answers above really address the basic humanist conflicts inherent in being a vampire. In other words, all the clan stuff is just plain distracting - I mean, for Pete's sake, my character drinks people's blood and may well kill them! Why in the world would clique-y based conflicts and who becomes the Prince and yip-yap about identity politics matter, in comparison?

So my suggested solution is composed of several parts.

i) Holding "clan" constant means removing the niche distraction entirely, getting rid of all the complex hassles that I tried to outline in the first part of this post. (Seth's point about chucking-out the whole Circle notion is consistent with this as well.)

ii) Removing the clans entirely from the SIS (back-story, setting, everything) removes the issue of setting-based, allegiance-based, and identity-politics-based conflict entirely. There is nothing wrong with this sort of conflict when it's the central focus (again, HeroQuest), but it does not fit well in a game which also features highly-personalized internal conflict.

iii) Specifying Caitiff is actually only a minor piece of my solution. For instance, specifying "everyone's a Brujah" and also saying "and there are nothing but Brujah" would be functional too, especially if the inherent issues within the ideology were of interest among us, to the real people. In fact, I specify Brujah because they are interesting to me in those terms, whereas Gangrel or Ventrue emphatically bore me. I chose Caitiff at the time because it seemed consistent with the "you wake up! you're a vampire!" starting point that's strongly favored in the original version of the game, and because I really wanted to scrub out setting-based conflict.

Best, Ron
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HighmoonMedia
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« Reply #6 on: June 12, 2007, 10:25:00 AM »

Dude, wow. Thanks a lot for that explanation.
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Moreno R.
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« Reply #7 on: June 12, 2007, 06:45:29 PM »

Hi, Ron!

The WoD Clans (or Tribe, or Circle, etc.) had a direct antecendent in Ars Magica's "Houses". Do you see them sharing the same problems, of the other peculiarities of AM (Covenants, troupe play) change things enogh to render them less (or more) distruptive to narrativist play?

(I am asking because I have requests from one of the players in my gaming group to play Ars Magica.  I already played AM in the past but with a group so dysfunctional that the social issues could have masked any problem of the game system.  I am really not much interested in playing AM now if I can't render it playable in a narrativist way)
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Valamir
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« Reply #8 on: June 12, 2007, 07:42:12 PM »

I used to play a bunch of Ars Magica...the old Lion Rampart edition especially.  In fact, my complete total and utter rejection of Mage and subsequent halt of purchasing White Wolf stemmed from my complete total and utter disappointment that 1st ed Mage The Ascension was NOT Ars Magica in the 20th Century (no one hates as deeply as a disillusioned fan...).

Yes, Ars Magica Houses suffer from the same problems as Ron elucidates above.   They weren't (at least in the editions I played) as totally splatted out as Vampire clans but they were pretty close and clearly the precedent.  We pretty much dumped them without ever knowing why they bugged us.

We totally played with Ars Magica Covenants, however, and the Covenants source book I think is essential (at least for the sort of AM play I really enjoy) but we limited the houses to nothing more meaningful than rough lineages of knowledge...the way in martial arts a masters might pass down certain knowledge or philosophies to their students, who pass it down to their students, etc. so they were useful for color, but that was all.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #9 on: June 12, 2007, 08:38:38 PM »

Quote
In other words, all the clan stuff is just plain distracting - I mean, for Pete's sake, my character drinks people's blood and may well kill them! Why in the world would clique-y based conflicts and who becomes the Prince and yip-yap about identity politics matter, in comparison?

This is why I always scratched my head about Vampire when friends played it. I kept thinking "Who gives a fuck!?!"

And, basically, the same problem for Werewolf (far more popular among my friends back in the day) was even worse. "Eco-warrior?!? Fuck THAT. I freaking go apeshit and turn into a beast all the time. Who CARES about the planet? I'm a fucking animal, and I eat people! Go save the planet your damn self. Wyrm Schmyrm."

Werewolf bores me so badly I can't even bare to look at the book. And, that's even when I KNOW that the reason they play is to do the Marvel Superheroes Team With Fur Patrol. And, that's even more boring to me somehow.
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Matt Snyder
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: June 13, 2007, 10:22:35 AM »

Geez, guys, tell us how you really feel.

Hey Clyde - how's this stuff working for you? Making sense, causing confusion, or?

Best, Ron
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Clyde L. Rhoer
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« Reply #11 on: June 13, 2007, 11:30:44 AM »

Hi Ron,

I've reviewed it several times, and there's lot's of good stuff in there, but I'm not sure I've quite got the whole picture. This and Mike's thread on Bangs on storygames is causing some subtle paradigm shifting for me this week. I think what I may have been considering Narritivism may actually be Character exploration, as my understanding of bangs previously is what Mike is calling a dilemma bang. Let me try parroting back somewhat what you and Seth are saying, and see if I'm getting it.

White Wolf's factions don't help Narritivist play because they don't allow addressing moral and personal dilemma's because they are fixed into place and the games mechanics don't actually do anything with them to cause you to have to address any issues based on factions. To further compound they distract from addressing the main issues the game claims to be about which is an examination of man becoming  a predatory, cannibalistic, monster in order to survive, and what it means to be human. Compound interest is collected if you actually try to address that premise because the game basically punishes a Narritivist player by restricting their choices via it's humanity rules, restricting the players ability to respond meaningfully.

So it's not that having factions gets in the way of Narritivist play, when the game makes you address those factions and what they mean. In other words it makes being part of a faction an important choice that is going to cause you to examine the moral and social aspects of those factions.

I think this was what I found it confusing as it seemed to me the factions could be rife with issues, and I was thinking games that examine issues equals Narritivism. When it seems it's actually a little more subtle than that. I think this last bit is why I haven't responded as I'm still trying to figure this part out.
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Clyde L. Rhoer
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« Reply #12 on: June 13, 2007, 01:59:09 PM »

I'm thinking I may understand better now, the division is based on decisions isn't it? A Narritivist game is setting up a game where I will be able to address moral and social dilemmas, and the decisions will be based around what I want. In a Simulationist game the decisions are based on the established fiction, there can be dilemmas here, but I'm going to make decisions from the point of view of the fiction. So the factions might help set up dilemmas that could be interesting from a Sim focus, but they aren't interesting from a Nar focus because the perspective is created from the fiction not the player. Am I getting closer, or is my mind leading me astray?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: June 13, 2007, 05:47:55 PM »

Hi Clyde,

I'd like to emphasize that you can only turn this stuff over in your head so much, without direct experience. Right now, you're in the same zone that Jesse Burneko suffered in for a long time, when he'd try to articulate the issue, then second-guess himself, and no matter what he asked or what was said, he'd just keep doing that over and over. But then he started putting little pieces of what he was getting (parts that made sense to him) into practice, and then, over time, wham, it made sense and then other things that he couldn't process before had an experiential context.

I think you may be returning to the dilemma of what's in the fiction as opposed to what we, the people, are doing as we create the fiction. Sure, if the fictional stuff itself doesn't have any kind of issue in it (big dragon! fighty-fight!) then it's not Narrativist, no problem. But if the fictional stuff does have some kind of ethical or problematic issue in it ... but we as people only see it, or at most, only celebrate it, then the issue is not being addressed. It's just "there," usually in developed form, or there to be made in an agreed-upon form. That's not Narrativist either.

Quote
White Wolf's factions don't help Narritivist play because they don't allow addressing moral and personal dilemma's because they are fixed into place and the games mechanics don't actually do anything with them to cause you to have to address any issues based on factions. To further compound they distract from addressing the main issues the game claims to be about which is an examination of man becoming  a predatory, cannibalistic, monster in order to survive, and what it means to be human. Compound interest is collected if you actually try to address that premise because the game basically punishes a Narritivist player by restricting their choices via it's humanity rules, restricting the players ability to respond meaningfully.

I call that a big "yes." But the next bit, I'm gonna nitpick. This is a rare case when I do answer part-by-part, because I think I really want to winnow through what you're saying to identify what's hitting on all cylinders. (to mix a metaphor)

Quote
So it's not that having factions gets in the way of Narritivist play, when the game makes you address those factions and what they mean. In other words it makes being part of a faction an important choice that is going to cause you to examine the moral and social aspects of those factions.

Here's where you go a little off the rails - because a game can't make anyone do anything. We aren't talking about games and mechanics making people accord with one or another Creative Agenda. We're talking about people who want to play Narrativist, and the factions (in this case) being designed for the niche-purposes I discuss above, both in presentation and by the habits of everyone at the table. So the rules regarding the factions don't offer any meat.

Example? I see no rules in Vampire, first edition, for a Ventrue deciding to become a Brujah. Not only do I see no rules in point-by-point step-by-step terms, I see no way even to turn it into any kind of reasonable systemic action or process, given the existing rules.

Why not? Because such an act is anathema to the niche-based logic (either kind, especially the second) which permeates the design of the game. All the original four Storyteller games, especially the first two, and also the more recent Exalted, are built in such a way as to revel in identity politics and transitory, subadult-stage status games, with all the bitchery, intimidation, alliances, and cliquey-ness one can imagine. It's also counter to the whole notion of "shadow wars in the night," especially if player-characters are primarily intended as vehicles for witnessing a powerful central person's story rather than "ruin" it.

Quote
I think this was what I found it confusing as it seemed to me the factions could be rife with issues, and I was thinking games that examine issues equals Narritivism. When it seems it's actually a little more subtle than that. I think this last bit is why I haven't responded as I'm still trying to figure this part out.

The factions are indeed, or could be, rife with issues. But that is fictional content, not participatory power to address those issues.

I warn against getting a little lost here ... when I say address, I'm talking about what people actually want to be doing with their characters, and in what ways the adversity of play arises from actual play, and how the feedback among us becomes more and more pressing regarding that adversity. When I talk like this, I realize it's abstract if you haven't actually experienced it. Once you have, then every word I am writing here becomes concrete and real, not abstract at all.

All that is to say, too, that when I say "power to address," I refer to mechanics only as a means. It's not just mechanics, it's context, presentation, character creation options, and anything to do with "what happens" and "how we make things happen." I have read that first-edition Vampire rulebook many, many times, seeking through every page for anything that could even partway favor or support the idea that I, the person, and we, the people at the table, can pass judgment upon the factions through the actions of our characters. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Sabbat, but upon review, that just becomes another faction in the end.

Quote
I'm thinking I may understand better now, the division is based on decisions isn't it? A Narritivist game is setting up a game where I will be able to address moral and social dilemmas, and the decisions will be based around what I want. In a Simulationist game the decisions are based on the established fiction, there can be dilemmas here, but I'm going to make decisions from the point of view of the fiction. So the factions might help set up dilemmas that could be interesting from a Sim focus, but they aren't interesting from a Nar focus because the perspective is created from the fiction not the player. Am I getting closer, or is my mind leading me astray?

I think you got a little off-track with this part. Not much, but a little. What you say about "decisions," yeah, that's right. That was a big deal back in 2000 or so, when Peter Seckler said "Hey, GNS isn't about people or games, it's about decisions!" But I want to specify that the scale of assessing those decisions is pretty big - definitely not at the short-term level of single actions or single scenes, and in many cases, not even single sessions.

The part that seems off-track to me, though, is the bit about "point of view of the fiction," or "from the fiction not the player." That's not quite right. Everything in role-playing is from the player, or rather, from the real person, as expressed in the communication among persons. Nothing comes from the fiction, although we can perceive it and act upon it so fast and naturally that we often forget that it only feels like it comes from there. I think you should remember that Sim play is "from the player" just like Narrativist or Gamist play is, no matter how much constructive denial we engage in. The distinction lies in what the player, or rather the person or group of persons, actually does with that engagement. Is it about addressing Premise or not? That's the key.

Best, Ron
« Last Edit: June 14, 2007, 04:49:59 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Clyde L. Rhoer
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« Reply #14 on: June 14, 2007, 05:12:55 AM »

Hi Ron,

This I think was very helpful. I'll return to parroting tomorrow when I've had better sleep and some soak time.
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Theory from the Closet , A Netcast/Podcast about RPG theory and design.
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