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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 61 - most online ever: 565 (October 17, 2020, 02:08:06 PM)
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Author Topic: "Bounded" Roleplaying  (Read 9725 times)
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #15 on: January 27, 2004, 03:36:02 PM »


I'm with Mike.

1. I think the whole idea that "RPG rules exist to resove disagreements which crop up in Cops & Robbers style play" is monstrously stupid and mistaken. I know you weren't proposing that, Jonathan - but it's a necessary point to set up what I mean by my next one.

2. I also think that the concept of "bounds" and "constraints" is fundamental to any creative activity, and so I'm not at all sure how bounded-ness can be discussed as an on-off type of issue. A discussion of degrees, and about what, would make more sense to me.

Daniel Solis

Posts: 411

« Reply #16 on: January 28, 2004, 08:37:52 AM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
It's always been my supposition that the only reason to have mechanics in RPG play is that it improved the narrative in some way.

It has been my unfortunate experience that many systems, even if not meant to be gamist in nature, spend more tame making sure everything is balanced and that player options aren't "over-powered" than making sure the system actually adds something to gameplay.

Meatbot Massacre
Giant robot combat. No carbs.

Posts: 284

« Reply #17 on: January 28, 2004, 10:58:33 AM »

I have to echo Ron's comment.  The question of contraint is not really what's at issue here.  It's the form of that constraint.

[Speaking of foreknowledge, however... warning, this post is long.]

This thread got split off because of thinking about predestination, character knowledge of fate, and player knowledge of events ahead.  Those are very powerful constraints, and might perhaps be strongly separable from one another.

For example, I've both played and GMed some very poweful Participationist games.  [Jargon. Participationist:  Illusionist play with full player buy-in.  AKA Trailblazing, I believe.  Semantic discussions to another thread, please.]  I would hazard - thinking about this topic - that some of the effectiveness of those games stemmed not from our classic view of Participationist style, wherein it's the depth and intricacy of the GM's prepared events and the way in which he has pre-woven the PCs into this structure, but in true Participationism another part of the fun comes from knowing the story to be highly constrained.  You are, as it were, freed from the necessity to drive the story.  

It may provoke reactive play, perhaps... but (as I'm finding in my 7thSea/TROS hybrid) some forms of source literature (swashbuckling in this example) seem to work better with reactive characters than proactive ones, at many junctures.  And certainly "reactive play" may not deserve the stigma we jaded gamers are inclined to give it; it's fun, we do it, it's roleplaying, full stop.

So in that case, I'd say that player knowledge of the constraint is sufficient - even if they do not, unlike in Aquinan Angels, know the actual shape of the constraint.

I'd call that one branch of the tree; players know their story is constrained but are not participants in the constraining.  The next branch over gets us the Aquinan Angels model, where players know their story is constrained and participate in shaping that constraint.  I'd say that this move, with its greater degree of analysis, is likely to please jaded/analytical gamers more and gut/experiential gamers less.  Useful distinction, that; know thy playerbase.

On another limb we have cases of character-knowledge as constraint.  Again I suspect we could do the same existence/form split, that is, in one case the characters themselves are aware of being constrained but not how (I might point to particularly playful games of Clue/Cluedo here, as a thought, and also to well-run conspiracy games where the PCs are aware they're being used but not to what end, like the classic module 'Harlequin' for Shadowrun), while on the other branch the characters are also aware of the details of the constraint to some degree (the Continuum example belongs here).  In the latter they therefore have a stronger direct interaction with that fate, I think, while in the former we get suspicion and frequently some form of paranoia.

As always the question is which technique might best suit a given objective.  From the above list, I'd say that player knowledge that some of the future has been constrained, but not how, produces an attentiveness as they watch for those borders.  This is the Participationist edge.  Player knowledge of the constraints proper moves that awareness to a lower level, and moves the edge of attentiveness to watching for the playing-out of the known elements, and planning around their existence.  Filling in the interstices, if you will.  

Character knowledge of the existence of constraint again focuses character attention on finding out the shape of it, which is good if you want this to be a major character activity in your game, but does promote a feeling of helplessness in the characters unless they're making progress toward this discovery.  Interestingly, I'd note that in the situations where characters are making progress toward discovering their predestined/planned events, sometimes paranoia results, and sometimes the act of discovery and working out of those fates produces more of a feel of wonder (at least in the players).  Character knowledge of some details of the constraint, on the other hand, again results in them fitting their actions within the matrix of the knowns - gives them things to pin decisions to, which is often good if they still have enough flex to act otherwise.  Part of the strength of Continuum's form of predestination is that, freed from linear timekeeping, the characters have great discretion in when they choose to play out a fate; this flexibility is, I suspect, very important.

Long post, sorry, there's a lot of meat on this bone.  I'd like to close out with a description of a relevant mechanic from my own game, if I may, to point to where it fits in this scheme and what it's intended to accomplish.

Fates are cards with matter-of-fact events of the future on them.  The GM prepares these and, upon describing an omen in the narration, passes the card face-down to the intended player, with some number of Purpose dice (a not-otherwise-replenishable Resource).  The more severe the Fate, the more dice he is required to place; the guideline for doing so is one of the three fundamental guidelines in the game.

The omen, or alternately the image on the face-up side of the card in some cases, is the player's only hint.  The player may decline; player control over his character is intended to be absolute, and a strong author stance is encouraged here.  Or the player may accept the Fate, receiving the reward in dice and facing the player-foreknowledge that event X will happen to the character at some point.  If, having read it, he desires to have his character rail against fate and struggle to escape this destiny, he may; the required rolls to fight it will probably expend about as many or slightly more resources than what he received, though of a different form (Will or Conviction dice).

This is intended to serve several purposes related to the issues of foreknowledge and constraint.  

- First, it's actually the only means by which the GM is permitted to harm or alter the PC, meaning that it flips the state from the player being less-constrained than in most games, to more constrained via this foreknowledge.  
- Discretionary acceptance of this means (hopefully) that player preference gets to control the amount of contraint, in the long run, under which he plays; discretion to "fight fate" also gives the player a choice in one of two ways to tell out the pathway there, with or without struggle against fate.  This isn't as much freedom to "rotate around the pins" as Continuum gives, but giving some freedom on how the predestination plays out is still the same basic technique.  (I'm considering having this process affect when the Fate kicks in, as well, but in a softer rule.)
- Lastly, the Fate structure mixes "knowledge of existence" for the other players with "knowledge of details" for the Fated player, mixing those two types at the table, and giving the other players hints only in the inclusion of the omen or the image (typically that image would be an NPC in the game - antagonist, dependant, etc - or a location).  That's a conscious attempt to hit both types of enjoyment, knowledge-of-existence and knowledge-of-details of the constraint in the same game.

I hadn't done that analysis before, but those are the building blocks I'd pick out... interesting to do the same analysis on something else, like the Aquinan Angels game, and see where the common threads lie.

- Eric

Posts: 126

« Reply #18 on: January 30, 2004, 04:15:06 PM »

There's a lot of good stuff here, but if I tried to react to it all I'd never finish my response. So I'm picking out one or two things and responding to them -- if you feel that I overlooked the important part, please point it out!

Quote from: Harlequin

I'd call that one branch of the tree; players know their story is constrained but are not participants in the constraining.  The next branch over gets us the Aquinan Angels model, where players know their story is constrained and participate in shaping that constraint.  I'd say that this move, with its greater degree of analysis, is likely to please jaded/analytical gamers more and gut/experiential gamers less.  Useful distinction, that; know thy playerbase.

I don't agree with the analytical/experiential split you propose. My disagreement isn't founded so much in an argument as an anecdote: There's this rp thing I did a few times in college, which I call "the good bits" for lack of a better name, but which I've always  found elements of in my most successful gaming. Basically, you have a couple of players, one of whom comes up with a character and then sets up a scene (usually with a strong conflict in it of some kind). Then the other players take on the roles of the supporting cast in the scene and it is played out. It's a pretty intense thing to do -- basically you're taking the raw material of story straight out of your head and pouring directly into play without worrying about any of the requirements of literary quality. It's not always terribly satisfying to the other players, since you sometimes have to do incomprehensible things, but all of which make emotional sense to the player of the central character.

This has a lot of the character of mythic, ritual enactments, now that I think of it. Don't know where to take this thought, though.

One of the best character creation runs I had for a game was when I told the players to create the archetypal heroes they found most personally compelling. Not archetypal in the sense of the hero's journey or the collective unconscious, but archetypal in the sense of "this character contains the tropes that haunt my own psyche." I got some amazing characters out of it, and for literally years afterwards the players would spent time chatting about new character ideas for that game.


As always the question is which technique might best suit a given objective.  From the above list, I'd say that player knowledge that some of the future has been constrained, but not how, produces an attentiveness as they watch for those borders.

I think this is why tactical hex-map combat is fun, actually. You have a repertoire of actions, and you have a state, and together they constrain what is feasible. The attentiveness, the mindfulness, required to play is what makes it compelling. You can get the same effect by using continuity -- if  you play a game set in the past of a campaign, if you know "what really happened", then you have to make sure that the play respects the boundary conditions of the setting, and that requires a lot of the same kind of attention.

Neel Krishnaswami
Doctor Xero

Posts: 433

« Reply #19 on: January 30, 2004, 05:37:46 PM »

Three responses apropos this thread:

1) Isn't a lot of this similar to the old West End Games' *Star Wars RPG*, in which
scenarios would start with the players reading scripts which declared for the players
each PC's motivation and impetus for embarking upon the pre-planned scenario?

I seem to recall a number of players hating this because it took control of the roleplayed
personality out of the hands of the player.

2) This reminds me a bit of the notion of Player Archetypes (or whatever a game system
chose to label them) which included PC motivations.  For example, in White Wolf's *Bastet*,
each tribe includes secrets for which the PC should be searching.

How is what you are discussing different from Pre-constructed Archetypes which include
PC motivation in them?

I recall a fantasy game I ran in which each player chose his/her narrative niche for
the game: Reluctant Hero, Confused Wizard, Lost Immortal, etc.  It worked well for
the game because all the players knew their own niches and the niches of the others,
and it allowed a certain freeform aspect to the game because players were able to
self-constrain their improvisation to fit within their character niches and thereby
within the narrative structure of the campaign.

3) I ~have~ witnessed on numerous occasions players going out of control in freeform
games without rules to constrain them -- and even in games heavy with rules, usually
using protracted and socially violent arguments to sidestep rules they consider "unrealistic"
or inconvenient -- the sort of player known in common gaming parlance as a
"power gamer" or "munchkin" or "twink".  However, players with that particular approach
to gaming usually bore of freeform games very quickly (it's no fun to power game if it's
easy to power game), and game masters interested in running freeform games or games
with a low argument ratio quickly learn better than to bring such people into freeform games.

I've also known game masters who absolutely love such players, because they will test
the limits of any system they play in, and they work well with playing groups that enjoy
rules loopholing and energetic rules arguments.

Doctor Xero

"The human brain is the most public organ on the face of the earth....virtually all the business is the direct result of thinking that has already occurred in other minds.  We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind..." --Lewis Thomas
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