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What is Step on Up for?

Started by Simon C, March 27, 2010, 04:37:30 AM

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Simon C

I ignored D&D4E when it first came out.  I know from experience that the kind of play it encourages isn't what I want from a roleplaying game.  I didn't need to read the game to know that it wasn't for me. 

But then a friend of mine came over and offered to leave the books for me to read.  I thought "what's the harm?" and I was mildly curious about the game, so I thought I'd give it a look.  So I read the books, and I became obsessed.

This was during the time I lived in Japan, when I had very few opportunities for gaming.  I was also discovering a lot of new games online, and new ways of thinking about games.  The tension between being really excitied about gaming, but having very little opportunity to play resulted in me spending a lot of time reading games, and a lot of time posting on the internet about them.

So I read D&D4 obsessively.  Using images scanned from the books, I made a set of tokens for all the low-level monsters in the monster manual, and for a set of PCs.  I was really excited about building encounters for play.  One of the things I loved about the game was the mathematical precision of play.  I liked working out character builds, prepping encounters, planning adventures.  It was the same thing I liked about 3.5, in fact, the abilitiy to really master a complex set of rules, and to turn that mastery into exciting and fun play.

Finally I got a chance to actually play D&D4.  It was a few people new to gaming, and some others who weren't particularly jazzed about D&D.  We played, and it was reasonably fun.  The combat was, as promised, tactical and challenging and engaging.  A thing I noticed though is that one of the players, who hadn't roleplayed before, would basically shut down during all the sections of play that weren't combat, and then "come alive" for the combat part.  Roleplaying was something he didn't know how to do, but combat made sense to him.  It had concrete rules to follow, a clear objective, and no requirement for reference to a shared imagined space. 

On the other hand, another of the players who liked roleplaying but wasn't so excited about D&D would basically shut down during the combats, doing whatever was appropriate for the turn but not really engaging in the outcome.  But outside of combat, she came alive, talking to the NPCs, engaging with the "plot" of the adventure, and playing her character.

We played a couple of sessions over a long weekend, and there were moments of fun but a lot of disconnect and confusion.  The most fun bit was when me and two of the guys just put the tokens down on a gridmap, and I improvised a dungeon for them using the tokens I had prepared.  No story, no SIS, just tokens on the tabletop, dice, and tactics.  I'd add tactical challenges like bridges over chasms, narrow corridors, traps and so on, and a small amount of colour, but there was essentially no SIS.  Everything that affected anything people cared about was on the table, concrete, mechanical.

I wrote a little about this on my blog, here:

At the time I wrote that, my interest was how D&D4 related to the idea of "fictional causes" that Vincent had been talking about on his blog.  My angle now is a little different. 

D&D4 has no "fictional causes".  Everything that matters to the rules of the game happens in the "real world", rather than in the fiction.  What this does to play, I think is make it so people who care about beating challenges ignore the shared imagined space during combat, and that play outside of combat becomes an inconvenience.  When a shared imagined space happens in 4E, I think it is due to the players caring about things other than beating challenges.

I want to posit that Shared Imagined Space is a pretty fundamental part of roleplaying.  I think that what seperates games like D&D from games like "Descent" or "Warhammer Quest" or whatever is the degree to which play takes place in an imagined "space" - the degree to which we treat the events of the game as meaningful in and of themselves, rather than mattering just as a means to an end.  If you wanted to play a game that was purely about beating challenges, or about competition, you wouldn't play a roleplaying game.  The Shared Imagined Space is useless to you for beating challenges.  What are people playing for then?

I think that people play roleplaying games to explore something meaningful to them, where "explore" means experience and produce fiction, and "meaningful" means references human concerns, addresses a theme, or presents ethical choices.

I want to suggest that "challenge" is a technique, a technique that's enjoyable in of itself, but also one that's useful for developing theme in roleplaying games.  In the "right to dream" thread, I talked about games with phatic theme.  I suggested a few of these: "Can good triumph over evil?" "Can a few heroes, working together, change the world?" "What does it take to defeat evil?"

Notice that in these themes, the question is about the abilitiy of the protagonists to achieve a goal.  Play is not about questioning how the protagonists achieve their goal, or whether their goal is a worthwhile one.  It focuses on the capability of the protagonists in their goal.

I think that Challenge is a technique that's very useful in addressing these themes.  There is an obstacle to the characters' success, and we see, through play, whether and how they overcome it.  In some games this is an empty question.  We're not really interested in seeing the characters fail, so challenge is weakened, it's only the appearance of challenge.  But in other games, the ability of the protagonists to achieve their goal is a meaningful question.  Indeed, their success only has meaning to us if it's achieve against real opposition.  Challenge then is a technique that helps us achieve theme, rather than a goal in and of itself.

Simon C

You're thinking "what about games where there ARE fictional causes?" Doesn't the SIS become the arena in which players display their mastery?

I think kind of yes, kind of no.

After playing D&D4, I got a hankering for older D&D, the kind where manipulating the shared imagined space is vital to your character's survival.  I played a lot of "Labyrinth Lord" which is a re-tooled Moldvay D&D. 

I think that yes, in these games the shared imagined space is vital to character survival.  But I also think that in these games challenge is less fundamentally the point of play.  Another way of putting this is that I think that people are less accepting of fictional causes as they're more invested in beating challenges.

Callan S.


QuoteD&D4 has no "fictional causes".  Everything that matters to the rules of the game happens in the "real world", rather than in the fiction. What this does to play, I think is make it so people who care about beating challenges ignore the shared imagined space during combat
Well no, what's happened is that you've prerendered the SIS - a bit like 'story before' is pre rendered. You made up a cave - it was an imaginative construct. But then you rendered it to hard details, and played with the hard details. The way you played, all of you, not just them, discarded the fictional element before play began. The model of play you worked from was one that discarded it in advance. Is there no point to step on up, or did you use a poor model?

Imagine this rule - on a square is a fire. How much fire does damage do? Well, the rules say the GM declares it, either D2, D4, D6, 2D6 or 3D6, or even zero!

Now say the players have stepped in fire before and the GM has called it at 2D6 damage.

So, what will happen if they step into the fire square this time?

It's not prerendered. There is no value written down. One can only refer to the previous fictional history. You don't know.

And what if in the fiction you'd just walked through a waterfall? The GM might declare it does zero damage because your drenched. You don't know. You can can imagine how it might turn out. And so imagining is a vital part of your tactical excercise. Mentioning the waterfall/drenching while at the table, ie contributing to the SIS, may very well affect the damage. And the damage, whether you can safely pass through that square or any other with fire in it, might very well mean the difference between winning and losing!

Of course it's not imagining because your just in luvvy wuvvy with imagining and it's just a wunderful mystical experience. Were out to win! (assuming there's a damn win condition)

It's imagining as a means to an end, rather than imagining for it's own sake. Quite the opposite of your idea 'we treat the events of the game as meaningful in and of themselves, rather than mattering just as a means to an end.'

So, here's a hard question, is there no point to step on up, or is it just a matter of what's holy to you (so to speak) is just a doormat to us (to put it bluntly), and you can't swollow that sort of treatment of the holy cow as being possible?

Don't get me wrong though - in having tactically imagined, one can latter treasure what one imagined as a fond and lovely memory. But it's just a nice memory.

Also some people might indulge in luvvy wuvvy imagining for it's own sake, at certain times in play. It's entirely possible to shift gears on that, as a group (entirely possible to fuck up on that too, but nm).
Philosopher Gamer

Simon C


Sorry, but I'm literally unable to discern a point in what you've written.  Can you rephrase?

Jasper Flick

I feel like this thread doesn't have any momentum right now, so I'll just throw in some AP, if you don't mind.

Currently, I'm playing in a weekly D&D4 game, through an online tool. If I'm prompted to describe it, I'd call it a miniature wargame, with some roleplaying elements.

We're playing some official adventure, which the GM customizes a bit. I'm playing for the challenge. I want to see if - and how well - we can beat encounters. I want to test how well the character I created can fulfill its party role. Considering the tactics during encounters, by default all that really matters is what's on the grid. No SIS if you will, just the game state.

The SIS comes into play when decision must be made "off the grid". For example, there's an infinite number of animated skeletons being summoned during an encounter. How do we stop that? Find an altar, pray to the correct god. Use clues to figure out which one. That's based on our understanding of the setting, what's in the books, what our characters know, what happened so far, what's been communicated... all components of Exploration. The SIS is like a distributed database in our heads that keeps expanding and synchronizing, just like our characters keep gaining levels. It's a tool, just like an attack modifier, both equally valid.

Outside of encounters, the SIS informs our decisions. Basically, what encounter to do next, and when, as well as a little "story". Personally I care very little about "story" here. It's totally predictable pulp, just window dressing for the encounters. And that's fine. We mostly use it to color what's happening. What our characters say, how they react to NPCs and monsters. It also colors our idle banter and what kind of jokes we make.

Here's a little anecdote.

I'm playing Piet, a dwarf fighter, who I decided is staunch and kills anything that threatens his civilization, period. Someone else plays Nallie, a halfling paladin. We're in the enemy keep, just slaughtered some goblins. We find a goblin stuck in a cell. Apparently, even other goblins didn't like this one. The goblin pleads to let him go, he'll be our slave and whatnot. Piet goes "it's a goblin, kill it". Nallie goes for talking, gets no useful info, then gives her word to protect the goblin and lets him out of the cell. Promptly, Piet kills the goblin, then gets smacked by Nallie. (Using the combat rules and stuff.)

The anecdote ends there, and didn't have any consequences for future events. It might've lead to some interesting theme, but we aren't in it for that theme, neither for intra-party conflict. It was just a little diversion, which was fun, as long as it didn't take too long.
(As an aside, I recognized the prisoner as a cliche comic foil planted in the adventure, and I hate those. Also, I like the GM for his challenges and not for his NPCs. All the more reason to kill it.)

QuoteI think that people play roleplaying games to explore something meaningful to them, where "explore" means experience and produce fiction, and "meaningful" means references human concerns, addresses a theme, or presents ethical choices.

Producing fiction? Don't really care about that.
Human concerns? I guess my personal concern is whether I created a viable character and can play him optimally.
Addressing a theme? Aside from little diversions, perhaps the human concern qualifies as a theme, otherwise none.
Ethical choices? Not the point of play. Once again perhaps as little short-lived diversions, but unwelcome as focus of play.

So, Simon, is what I described playing a roleplaying game, or something else?
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Simon C

Hi Jasper,

I'm not really interested in the question of what is or is not a roleplaying game.  What I'm interested in is the question of what is most useful for explaining what happens in roleplaying games.

I accept completely that for your play, challenge is by far the most important factor in explaining why you play the way you do.  For sure, it's the point of play for you.  What I'd like to suggest, however, is that I think it's very unlikely that it's the sole point of play, or that there are not other concerns that motivate you to be playing this game, this way.

If we assert that challenge is the only thing that matters to your play, we're left with a lot of questions:

What are the characters' personalities for?
What is a "comic foil" for?
What is the game's setting for?
What is the game's colour for? (i.e. why are you playing fantasy warriors, rather than just pieces on a board?)
What is the point of organising challenges into a string of encounters, rather than as isolated events?
What is the SIS for?

I think this last question deserves a little more attention. I briefly addressed it in my second post above, but I wasn't very clear.

You suggest (and I think maybe this was Callan's point as well?) that the Shared Imagined Space is also an arena for challenge - that you use things like knowledge of the setting, mastery of the rules, deductive logic and so on to solve problems in the game, and that this takes place in the shared imagined space. 

Granted.  I've seen this in play, and in fact this was a large factor in my Labyrinth Lord play, as I describe above.  I know what that kind of play looks like.  In his blog Vincent talks about "Unreliable Currency".  Unreliable currency what Vincent calls the kinds of advantage you get from manipulating the shared imagined space - where a judgement of the fiction is required to know if a certain rule applies. 

My experience is that as people get more invested in challenge, their willingness to accept unreliable currency is less.  In a game of chess, no one would accept a rule that you could only capture another piece if your piece was attacking from the higher ground.  It barely even makes sense in the context of chess. 

Things only enter the shared imagined space by the consent of the players in the game.  I'm suggesting that if challenge were the sole focus of the game, that no player would assent to things entering the shared imagined space that disadvantaged their character, unless the rules specifically dictated that thing.


Quote from: Simon C on March 27, 2010, 08:07:54 AMSorry, but I'm literally unable to discern a point in what you've written.  Can you rephrase?

I will second that. I started seeing what I thought would be points, Callan, but then found myself totally unable to parse what you were getting at.

(Also, thinking the use of SIS in this discussion is a boogey-man. Yes, Simon's not quite using it right, but I think we all get what he means in his usage, so a detailed discussion of what SIS "really" is might just drag this thread down into semantics hell.)

Clearly, challenge can be an effective technique to generate a theme*. Someone wants something, there are obstacles to getting it, they confront those obstacles, they succeed or fail. This, and how this comes about, the choices made, says something about the character and the wanted-something.

(* Theme is never a question, it is a statement, so that may be throwing some folks off. I'm blanking on what the "question theme" is actually called, but I get your meaning, so we can keep using "theme" here until someone recalls the correct terminology.)

However, this brings to mind the question: since pseudo-challenges only pretend to resolve anything, if actual challenge addresses theme by virtue of resolving what is done and why, then is it ever "just" challenge (ie: overcoming something to overcome it)?
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Callan S.

Quote from: Simon C on March 27, 2010, 08:07:54 AM

Sorry, but I'm literally unable to discern a point in what you've written.  Can you rephrase?
I'm describing a playstyle to contrast against what your trying to say. You might not be able to see it.
Philosopher Gamer

Jasper Flick

QuoteMy experience is that as people get more invested in challenge, their willingness to accept unreliable currency is less.

What does "get more invested in challenge" mean? Does it mean prefering a known, finite set of rules that can be objectively applied, without room for interpretation? If so, sure! If I want that, I play chess or a computer game. If I'm playing to win, with concrete real-life stuff on the line - like winning money - I don't want to depend on consensus or arbitrary judgment calls. This is definitely not playing a roleplaying game. In fact, it doesn't have much in common with everyday life experiences either.

For my AP, my level of "investment in challenge" is such that I'm willing to accept arbitrary judgment calls, group consensus, unreliable currency, and what have you. In fact, I even like stepping up to the challenge of succeeding when unfavorable - from my point of view - calls are made. This stuff happens all the time in real life too, I can cope with it, no problem.

So no, challenge is not the sole focus of the game. Never claimed it was. "Playing for the challenge" shows my Step of Up priority, but I already illustrated that I enjoy diversions that do not engage priority #1. It's just like you don't "address premise full frontal" 100% during a Story Now session, there is an ebb and flow going on. Other stuff happens, which might be used for more fuel, or might end up being a little break from the intense action. Such breaks are important, but obviously not the main point of any activity.

(Now if you have a serious CA clash (your main priorities are different) then your break becomes another person's moment of action, and vise versa. If a break takes too long or is unwelcome, people "tune out". If this regularly happens in lockstep then you're basically working different shifts. The GM is now dividing his time between different games played with different people. At least, that's my personal experience.)
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Loking at your last post to Jasper, it looks like it's possible for a game to contain theme, but have things in it that the players find more important then that theme.

Given this, I feel like you're trying really hard to explain the Big Model to us. You've added theme as a way of selecting what's important to the Exploration of a given game.

I think this is cool, and I feel like you're on the verge of giving us some really good insight on how to use theme as a method of selecting what gets into the SIS.



The way I see it in big model terms theme is closely tied to color.  Color as one of the five elements of exploration is huge but it is still only one element and while some styles of play may emphasize it others may prefer system or characters or  some other combination  that makes sense to them.

I'm thinking that what you see with D&D4 (and much of the earlier edition play I was involved in) is emphasis on system at the expense of color.   There's no drop of the SIS they are still resolving the actions of the imaginary characters in situations but the players are engaged in the system that makes that happen rather than the characters or thematic material that is created.  I believe this also applies to the Right to Dream play in something like Gurps but in a slightly different fashion where the meaning of events may be less important than the development of characters over time and it's relationship to system.

Of course my definition of RPG is pretty broad and things like Descent or Warhammer quest are pretty close to being in.  They arent far off of what myself and a lot of people I knew back in the early 80's were doing with AD&D.  We'd make characters and send them off on the dangerous mission of the week.  Little in the way of personality, even less that had any meaningful expression in game, little in the way of motivations for the characters but plenty of imagining a group of characters wandering into a dungeon for an unknown purpose and seeing what happened.  That was our SIS, we were imagining these characters wandering around in a dungeon looking for any signs of monsters deciding when to attack and when to flee and what spell to use to help us defeat them or escape.  There is a very broad view of theme where all these characters have made an ethical choice to go and kill monsters and loot dungeons but I dont see that informing play very much save that you know you need to make dungeons, populate it with monsters and stick some treasure in there. 

David Berg


Re: your 6 questions to Jasper:

I've often found myself asking those to some friends who roleplay much as Caldis describes (lotsa system-contact, little color).  "Why aren't you guys just playing a boardgame?"  (Which they often did!)  The answer, as best I can recall from observing:

You know how when you almost lose a boardgame, but stay in, there's a moment of "Yeah!  Thank God!  Whew!"?  And you know how when you win a teamwork boardgame, you all high-five each other?  Acting those moments out in-character with Dying as the "near-loss" and Cool New Toys as "winning" is fun.  Your imagination lends a sense of epic-ness to the experience that moving pieces around a board usually doesn't.

As far as I can tell, the kind of challenge that lends vitality to conflict in support of theme can exist in all sorts of play.  But the big "C" Challenge of true Gamist play means you can play with as much theme as a boardgame.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Perhaps I am just being obtuse, but allow me to rephrase my question.  The title of this essay, as well as the one before (What is Right to Dream for) seem to suggest a reinterpretation of these two creative agendas.  Your point seems to be "While in the GNS model Step on Up is treated as a qualitatively different method of play than Story Now, play that would be classified as Step on Up is fundamentally about theme and premise."  I interpret this as a narrowed argument of a larger point, "For a game to be roleplaying, it must contain theme or premise."  Simon, is that at least close to what you are saying?
My real name is Timo.


I'll share a bit of D&D 4E actual play that I enjoyed just last weekend:

The characters had infiltrated an enemy fortress by means of an old sewer pipe, and had found themselves in a little area enclosed by boxes and crates.  Someone rolled a decent Perception check and goblins could be heard nearby.

I noticed my character could speak Goblin, so I had him grunt "Hey, get over here" from behind the boxes.  So a few goblins wandered over and the battle was joined.

It's the sort of thing I see all the time in Step On Up play -- this use of player knowledge ("goblins are fairly dumb and also cowardly") to gain a tactical advantage to be exploited.  There might be a roll -- see if you can Bluff these guys into falling for that, or something -- or there might not, but it's all pretty ad hoc, consensus-based, let's Step Right On Up play.  Of course goblins are dumb and cowardly.  No one needs to look into the rulebooks to check that out.

So we're fighting away in there and a swarm of centipedes amorphously swarms through the boxes and crates and starts laying waste to the party from behind.  I doubt there was anything explicitly written down in the encounter about whether they could do that, but there was no need -- of course they could do that.  Everyone's in consensus about that sort of thing.  And if there is a player in that sort of situation who does complain about it, that guy is likely to get the most grief and social-contract-enforcement from the most serious Step On Up players.

A bit later on my guy climbed up on some boxes and performed a diving Death From Above charge on a goblin.  Nothing explicitly covered by the rules.  But everyone thought it was great, and great within that Step On Up agenda.  To be clear about this -- they thought the attempt was great.  The actual result has very little bearing on the appreciation of it -- indeed, it seems half the time spectacular failure is even more cherished.  He happened to do some damage to the goblin, and to himself, and that was also great, but that wasn't the most important part of it.

How do other players know I'm the hardcore Step On Up guy at the table?  Because I also typically self-appoint into a co-DM role.  Pretty much every encounter, I'll remind the DM, hey, that monster over there didn't attack anyone, or hey wait, I forgot to take that ongoing damage, didn't I, and that sort of thing.  And that sometimes confuses some of the other players a bit, and mildly chagrins a few more, but that confusion isn't among the other Step On Up players.  They know sometimes to need to call your own fouls.

As has been pointed out, it's about challenge.  Challenge and honor.  There's no honor in succeeding in a battle because the DM forgot to use Reach 2 half the time.  Intentionally neglecting ("forgetting") to take ongoing damage isn't even conceivable.  Of course Step On Up players are going to metagame against their own characters.  It's one of the easiest ways to spot them. 

I know I risk being horribly misquoted and misunderstood here, but I'll tell you exactly what comes to mind:  "Let me win, but if I can not win, let me be brave in the attempt."  That covers just about everything I've felt and seen in the best of Step On Up play.



Sorry to double-post, but I just remembered another event that seems relevant to this line of inquiry.

We were getting near the end of the adventure, so we'd been playing for about three hours solid, and the DM set up the last battlemat and described the scene.  He was using generic monster counters, numbered, instead of miniatures.

After three rounds of combat, I finally noticed -- hey, you never told us what we're actually fighting!  Laughter and chagrin all around.  Oh, it's goblins, like we were fighting before.  Okay.