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Author Topic: GNS model as artistic principles  (Read 7451 times)
clehrich
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« on: February 10, 2003, 08:42:59 PM »

In the RPG Theory thread http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=5107&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0" target="blank">Be somebody, greyorm wrote:
Quote
Another example is groups who struggle to gain their Holy Grail of play -- frex, that moment of Narrativism they once stumbled across -- by using mechanics from traditional play and traditional styles are falling into this hole. They're thinking, "This is what role-playing is about, so we do it this way. But that cool moment of play I experienced/want to experience isn't happening (again)! Time to tweak the rules, again."

If I understand him correctly, he's saying that sometimes in a given game, a player or group has something happen which does not normally happen in that game.  They like this thing, and wish that it would happen a lot more.  So they start tweaking the rules to create "that thing," whatever it is.  Unfortunately, it is very often the case that the game system they're using simply does not support "that thing," and tweaking it so grossly that it does will create incoherence, because the vestigial elements will be at odds with the new goal and mechanics.  [greyorm: Have I got this right?]

Assuming I have, I'd like to tinker with a metaphor that came up immediately afterwards, Mike Holmes's comparison to Michelangelo.  I think I know what he meant, but I'm going to bend it a bit.

Where I'm going, and why I'm starting the thread, is that I think perhaps GNS could be seen as a set of artistic rules or principles for analysis and design.  At the same time, the analogy implies that GNS needs to be broken, for creative reasons.

So one of the big things about Renaissance art was that there were all these rules about what could and should be done.  In order to be accepted as an artist, you had to demonstrate mastery of those rules, i.e. that you could follow them scrupulously.  This is part of why there are a lot of paintings and sculptures out there which are called "student pieces."  They are copies of Masterpieces, or are otherwise simply demonstrations of and practice on specific rules problems: how do I represent this given that rule?  And so forth.

Now one of the things that this required, of course, was that you had to be an expert at the accepted rules before you could do new things.  This sounds terribly restrictive these days, but look at Michelangelo: he was a complete master of the rules, could do it all perfectly, but he would break ONE rule at a time, and that grossly.  So for example, there were these rules about the harmony of a body-form to a given frame --- you'd do a flat-backed sculpture which had a long horizontal base, and the human forms had to be in a certain kind of proportion to the size of that base, horizontally, vertically, and in depth.  But Michelangelo would do one of these things and increase certain forms by, say, 10% in all directions, so they'd kind of LEAN out from the frame, and seem massive and somehow awe-inspiring.  It gets called Monumentalism.  The thing is, the whole effect is meaningless and unnoticeable unless you, the viewer, know the rules he's breaking, at least in a general way.

So what does this have to do with RPGs?

Well greyorm's comment got me thinking about rules-tweaking.  From this artistic perspective, it's ass-backward.  You need first to master designing a number of kinds of rules, before you can break them.  So suppose you sat down and said, "OK, I'm going to design a Fantasy Heartbreaker, and a nice fast Narrativist shared-story-fest, and a hardcore gamist wargame-without-the-board."  You do this, and you do it again, and again, until you can pretty much crank out absolutely "straight" material without blinking.

Now you say, "Look, I have this goal in mind.  I've experienced something in certain games, and I like it.  I now know what sorts of games I get this event.  I know what sorts of rules seem to provoke it.  I will now sit down and design a game that will produce this effect."

This would be a design-perspective way of figuring out "Why do we game?"  You've actually worked out a clear understanding of all the rules (in the art sense), and can make them dance for your pleasure.

Of course, the classic shortcut to all this is theory.  I think it's what Ron's trying to do in GNS: he wants to get all these "rules" on the table, fast and clear, so that we don't all have to sit down and do an apprenticeship in game-design.

Now GNS, as Ron has periodically emphasized, is intended as a tool for interpreting and making sense of problems.  In the above-referenced thread, the question was, in essence, "why do some folks have this disparity between why they think they game and why they really game?"  I think the only way to answer this will be through theoretical analysis, use of the rules of the art-form, i.e. through GNS analysis.

But at the same time, as others keep pointing out, there's no reason that GNS cannot be the basis for design.  And this metaphor would support this: if the artwork is "broken," you can explain it in rules terms, but you can also deliberately construct an artwork that is not "broken" by following the rules.  And this is precisely what is implied by the coherence/incoherence dichotomy: one should design one's games to be coherent.

But this interpretation also suggests that the rules ought to be broken as soon as they have been mastered.  The most we can ask of GNS (and its accoutrements, like Stance and Transition and so forth) is that it lay a solid groundwork for analysis and formalist synthesis.  It also esablishes a clear understanding of RPG aesthetics, in a formalist sense.  But in order to move onward, to become artists and not students, we have to break the rules --- but deliberately, carefully, and only a bit at a time.
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Chris Lehrich
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« Reply #1 on: February 10, 2003, 09:04:06 PM »

Hi Chris,

I call your attention to The Pool. Head on down to the Random Order Creations forum to see the game which kicked the Forge in its collective head one day.

Best,
Ron
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greyorm
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« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2003, 07:32:49 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
greyorm: Have I got this right?

Spot on.

Ron, could you explain what you mean?
I've read the Pool, and I'm afraid I don't see how it applies specifically to Chris' question/observation (apparently I was absent on the day everyone had their head kicked).
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John Kim
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« Reply #3 on: February 11, 2003, 09:13:59 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
 ... sometimes in a given game, a player or group has something happen which does not normally happen in that game.  They like this thing, and wish that it would happen a lot more.  So they start tweaking the rules to create "that thing," whatever it is.  Unfortunately, it is very often the case that the game system they're using simply does not support "that thing," and tweaking it so grossly that it does will create incoherence, because the vestigial elements will be at odds with the new goal and mechanics.  


It is interesting to me that this is the opposite phenomena of what Ron finds in the design of the Fantasy Heartbreakers, which seem to resemble the pattern of tweaking described above.  As he says in the second essay: I'm generally impressed by the GNS coherence found in these games. Even when the modes are jumbled a bit, they're almost always well-articulated and the game designs often offer interesting solutions to D&D-style incoherence.

This suggests that the tweaking generally moves the games towards coherence.  That sounds reasonable to me.  Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with almost all of the games on Ron's Fantasy Heartbreakers list, so I can't really offer my own opinion on these.  I'd be interested to talk about coherence of other games, though.  

Quote from: clehrich
 But at the same time, as others keep pointing out, there's no reason that GNS cannot be the basis for design.  And this metaphor would support this: if the artwork is "broken," you can explain it in rules terms, but you can also deliberately construct an artwork that is not "broken" by following the rules.  And this is precisely what is implied by the coherence/incoherence dichotomy: one should design one's games to be coherent.  


I am a little skeptical of this, simply in that there is such a huge variety even within a given GNS style .  Essentially, I think that as an artform RPG design is still in an early stage -- not at all like Renaissance painting which was the result of many many years of careful study and evolution.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2003, 10:00:54 AM »

Hey Chris,

Nice analogy. Great post.

...this interpretation also suggests that the rules ought to be broken as soon as they have been mastered....in order to move onward, to become artists and not students, we have to break the rules --- but deliberately, carefully, and only a bit at a time.

I'd like to declare my personal solidarity with you on this objective. Having written and played my own Pool-inspired game of reapportioned directorial power, http://www.123.net/~czege/WFD.html">The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, I find myself increasingly looking to uncharted territory and throwing down the gauntlet when I espy it. http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=5096">My recent post about Setting-Premise Narrativism is one example. Another is http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=4546">my description of "Type2" Narrativism. There just aren't any games explicitly designed for the kind of play I've described on those threads. There have been no takers, but perhaps I've just been throwing the gauntlet too softly.

I will say, however, that exploring new kinds of gameplay through design isn't the only worthwhile use of GNS. I think incoherence is a huge issue across game designs, and that someone who brings an understanding of GNS to solving problems, and creating a recognition of the value of coherence is doing eminently worthwhile stuff.

Paul

Interestingly, for how loudly Ron ordinarily throws his gauntlet, on issues of potentially productive design territory he throws it even softer than I do. I consider his text within the Sorcerer books about a hypothetical non-chronological gameplay to be an instance of such, though less a gauntlet than a hastily dropped glove.
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« Reply #5 on: February 11, 2003, 10:27:18 AM »

I'm going to agree with the analogy (even if it threatens to obfuscate mine own) in almost all particulars. I'd even go so far as to say that indie design does represent a renaisannce in design (D&D et al would be the Classical era, then, to which we hearken back upon).

But the question I have is, are you saying that GNS is the foundation from which we break other rules, or is GNS the rules that must be broken?

Mike
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clehrich
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« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2003, 09:28:51 PM »

Mike Holmes wrote:
Quote
But the question I have is, are you saying that GNS is the foundation from which we break other rules, or is GNS the rules that must be broken?

Fascinating question.  As John points out, we're not quite there with the RPG as artform, but I still think we can move in a productive direction.

From my perspective, GNS (or rather, what Ron has called the "full model" of which GNS is only a foundational piece, perhaps like formal perspective), would represent a "quick way" to get from creative ideas to "correct form."  Once correct form is something you can do smoothly, by whatever means you learned it, you can then go break the rules.

So it's not exactly that theory ought to lay down the rules.  Rather, theory ought to observe the realities of both the form as currently practiced and the expectations that it creates, and then formalize the best aspects.  It then lays down semi-prescriptive rules, saying in effect, "If you want coherence (accepted standards of excellence), you should obey these rules we have derived from the form."  When you're ready to break that, to say, "We want something more than accepted excellence --- a masterpiece, in a word," you go and break these rules selectively.

A really great example I thought of about Michelangelo, incidentally, may help pinpoint what I'm getting at.  In one of the pieta's [I'm pretty sure this is the right term], i.e. scenes of Christ after he's brought down from the cross, you've got a classic scene: Christ horizontal at the base, Mary kneeling near the shoulders, and Peter (I think) standing in an attitude of woe.  Now this is supposed to be formed into a triangle, supported by the plinth the whole thing rests upon.  But in Michelangelo's version, Peter has one arm just outside the triangle, and Mary is leaning a bit too much towards Christ's head to be in the triangle, and Christ's foot is just over the edge of the plinth at the left side, just as his arm extends forward over the lip of the plinth and into the foreground.

So what's Michelangelo saying?  He's respected every single rule --- in fact, executed every one more perfectly than just about anyone else could pull off --- except that he's just a little bit broken the frame.  Why?  Well, this is a really emotional scene.  And the restriction of the frame feels, well, restrictive.  The idea here is that the emotion in this scene is just too big for the frame.  It leaks out at the edges.  It's too much.  It's too intense.  And the educated viewer will see this, and be overwhelmed.

What I'm getting at here is that Michelangelo isn't breaking the rules for fun: he's doing it in a way that is closely related to his meaning.  In RPGs, we might think about this as a way of exaggerating or bending expectations in some very particular direction.  So we respect every "classical" rule perfectly, except for that one rule that relates most closely to the idea we have in mind.
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Chris Lehrich
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