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Story-Games & theorizing about Illusionism 
3rd-Oct-2006 12:53 pm
chiang 2
If you're hankering for a return to the Forge Theory forums, have I got a couple of threads for you. (No, I don't mean that in a good way.)

Explain to me how Bangs are not warmed-over Illusionism

What is a "reward mechanism"? And why have it?

The Forge Glossary: if a definition isn't self-contradictory, at least make it elliptical. If not elliptical, at least make it misleading. If not misleading, at least make it vague. If not vague, at least choose the word itself to have distracting connotations.

E.g. the definitions of Illusionism, Force, and Bangs. Turns out they all depend on the concept of Premise. Which in turn means that they're all relative to the subjective perceptions of the player.

Illusionism is hidden Force. Force is only Force if it impedes address of Premise. Bangs are only Bangs if they provide an opportunity for address of Premise. Premise is, well, something that the player really cares about.

So my character's a gangster and he gets an order to blow up a corrupt politician's car. He rigs everything up, only to see that on this day, unexpectedly, the politician is driving his 7-year-old daughter to school. "Bang", right? What if the character doesn't push the button on that occasion, only to see that the politician is now driving the kid to school every day?

What do you mean it's Force? The player's completely free to blow up the car or not. Of course if he doesn't, he's in big trouble with his boss. If he does, he's a child-killer.

The Forge does have a term for this, actually: Typhoid Mary. But there's no way to distinguish the Typhoid Mary from the "functional" Narrativist drive-with-Bangs GM, except by asking the players how they feel about the "bangs" they're being hit with.

The real problem is that the Glossary is filled with terms that only make sense in a "Narrativist" context, and furthermore only in a "high-impact" context of consensually zeroing-in on conflicts. For example, there is no word, in the glossary, for the general class of techniques in which the GM manipulates (the appearance of) cause-and-effect in order to bring about certain events, regardless of prior actions by the PCs. Even the term "Black Curtain" is dependent on "Force", and therefore tied up with "Premise".

John Kim had a hack at categorizing things a bit differently, most recently in his RPG Design Innovations, Part 2. Note that his definition of Illusionism is quite a bit different from the Forge's. However, since it implies GM-controlled pacing in terms of pre-planned encounters, it isn't as general as the concept I'm trying to pin down. The real problem with the latter is that, except for outright cheating when rolling dice, quite a few people are simply unable or unwilling to perceive a difference between "manipulation" and "GMing".

For those who do, it's possible to get closer to a generalized concept. For example, if the GM were to prepare a map before play, showing the locations of various monsters, it would be manipulation if the GM deviated from the map for any reason (typically, to either ramp up tension or maintain balance vis à vis the party). The reason is that deviation from the map negates the significance, in terms of cause-and-effect, of player decisions. The map is no longer an external object, with a reality independent of the PC-observer. Instead it reacts to the observer in an unreal fashion.

However, for any campaign, and even for most scenarios outside the basic "location crawl", it's rarely possible to keep track of all events and NPC's, running them "like clockwork", as it were. (I suppose the closest approach, in John's schema, would be a hybrid of location crawl, relationship mapping, timetabling and/or randomized events.) Some degree of improvisation is generally needed. So how does one distinguish "manipulative" improv? Is there a "non-manipulative" improv?

Well, I think there is, but in so saying I don't want to be misunderstood as implying that the "non-manipulative" is always desirable or even possible. Rather I'm saying that the cognitive distinction between "what should happen" and "what could happen" is a real one, as far as anything qualified by the term "cognitive" can be called "real". That is, the GM who improvises things into existence based on a perception of baseline plausibility is operating in a different mode from the GM who improvises based on various other goals--particularly goals which, as with the "morphing dungeoncrawl" described above, are prioritized over the importance of player-character decisions.

However this doesn't mean "non-manipulative" (or "neutral") GMing will always give the PCs a significant chance to sway events. Rather, it implies that, in response to the PC actions, events will not be revised or influenced in ways that aren't connected to those actions by a plausible chain of causation.

E.g., I am a private citizen, an industrial laborer, in a large nation teetering on the brink of war with a foreign power. Given my circumstances, would it be manipulative GMing to say that I'm going to have virtually no effect on whether war breaks out? No, not without some extraordinary actions on my part, combined with an astronomical degree of luck. On the other hand, if there is a war, and I try to avoid or resist the draft, we're in much trickier territory. By historical standards, avoiding military service is a plausible goal. A GM who precludes this possibility is either:

1. working from a different set of assumptions, or

2. "manipulating" outcomes

The upshot is that, cognitively, "neutral" GMing functions differently from the "manipulative" variety (perhaps "motivated" is better). A neutral GMing decision may entertain arguments about plausibility and the probabilistic modeling of causation. The motivated GMing decision will not concern itself with such issues beyond the baseline question of possibility: if X can conceivably happen, then it is acceptable for it to happen in service of some further GM motivation.

At this point both the terms Illusionism and Force can be repurposed for general use. "Illusionism" is motivated GMing which is hidden from the players. "Force" is motivated GMing in plain view. I won't kid myself about the likelihood of these redefinitions being accepted in the general theory community, though. Therefore I propose simply saying "motivated GMing" and subclassifying it as either "hidden" or "overt". On the other hand we have "neutral GMing".

How can this be used? Look at "Bangs". They are always "motivated" because they aren't in the least concerned with "what should happen" or "modeling"--rather, they're things that could happen, which are chosen by the GM on the basis of engaging the player's Kicker. So how do "Bangs" differ from "Railroading"? Railroading is also motivated GMing: the difference lies in the interaction between player interest and GM motive. (In Railroading, there is none.) That is, the difference isn't mechanical and has nothing to do with the internal causation of the game-world. It exists on the social level.

In fact, by focusing on the social level, my definition of Railroading is fairly close to the Forge Glossary ("Force" and "Railroading"), although there are still some important differences of detail.
4th-Oct-2006 12:56 am (UTC)
I think you have something here, though I'm not sure that it is distinct enough to start labelling it. On the subject of labels, I'd suggest you merely note Forgespeak in passing, and not try to apply your own definitions to their words... Illusionism and Force are both terms so tainted by snide use on the Forge that they're useless for anything but flame wars.

So, I agree that there's a difference between neutral GMing and motivated GMing. I'm not sure it can apply in-game, however. If the players head off in a random direction, you have to improv, and what you improv arises from some GM motivation.
4th-Oct-2006 01:26 am (UTC)
Actually, "neutral GMing" is basically the same thing as RGFA Simulationism, or at least some versions of it. BTW, for the sake of simplicity and focus, I'm concentrating on the "traditional" model of RPGs, with the GM/Player split and some assumption of GM discretion in terms of generally having the final word on "what happens" outside the PCs' skins. (That is, you might have some sort of social conflict mechanic, or players might have multiple characters, but ultimately the GM is the GM in the usual sense.) So some games, like Polaris or Star Moon Cross, would require treatment as special cases.

I really wish Illusionism hadn't been taken since it's such a great word for "covertly carrying out your motivation". Oh, well.

The issue of improv is a tricky point. I expect to be challenged on it, but I'm basically sticking to how I described "neutral improv" above. That is, it's basically intuitive extrapolation based on general principles. Those principles may be expressed, to some degree, as stochastic models. So: can I buy nice suit? In a big city, sure. In a small suburb, maybe (expressed by flipping a coin). At a truck stop in rural New Mexico? Probably not.

The question is how far you can go with neutral improv. In reality, I doubt you can go very far at all, so the next issue would be knowing when to switch to motivated improv, what motivations to work from, and how to put them into action (such as where to get your cues from). With Bangs in Sorcerer, the motivation and methods are moral and character-centric. In other games, they might be comical and world-centric. I.e., the prepared material only gets you so far, then you can improv a certain bit more. At that point you might ask yourself, "What sort of interesting, odd, and colorful thing could happen now? (Or could be at point X on the map?)"
4th-Oct-2006 01:32 am (UTC)
Oh, I think I need to add: the important thing is to let the neutral improv run its course, especially as long as the players are leading the action. When the GM cuts in with motivated action before the players finish leading, or which blocks the players' lead, that's basically a sign that Railroading is going on.
4th-Oct-2006 02:26 am (UTC)
Hum. I think you need to keep the "without reference to the player's wishes" in the definition of railroading. Sometimes the GM's idea is cooler than the player's idea, and if everyone thinks so, cutting in wouldn't be a railroad.

Also, when the GM is voicing a NPC, the NPC isn't necessarily going to go along with what the PCs want; but that's not always railroad-y. Some players want realistic NPCs who feel like they have a life that goes on even when the PCs aren't looking at them.

Knowing when to cut in and how is one of the big cruxes of GMing, I'd say... If you're playing Feng Shui, and the players are chasing someone you hadn't planned on them pegging as a bad guy, the bad guy could get away in his Ferarri, or the Ferarri could spin out in a stupid fiat, or there could be an overturned flaming tanker truck on the highway where the bad guy would have to stop and fight. Coming up with the cool solution is one of the major skills in GMing.
4th-Oct-2006 07:07 am (UTC)
Okay, I see what you mean. Yes, railroading is a social phenomenon. It's "unwanted motivated GMing".

About voicing recalcitrant NPCs, I agree that it isn't necessarily railroad-y. Not at all: it can be purely neutral, reactive GMing. However it becomes motivated (and possibly a railroad) when the GM voices the NPC with an eye toward an external goal. (E.g., denying the PCs access to resources that would allow them to overwhelm the scenario.) In practice I think that social mechanics (reaction rolls or whatever) are a good way to reign in a tendency to use control of NPC psychology to channel play along a preset path.

In the Feng Shui example neutrality is almost impossible to maintain. But there's probably nothing wrong with that given the nature of the game. Simply put, in Feng Shui it's the GM's job to make decisions which are motivated by the desire to get the PCs into cool fight scenes.
4th-Oct-2006 02:34 am (UTC)
Re: Traditional GM definition, cool. The word GM pretty much carries with it the assumption of more control of what happens.

I think we're better off without the term "Illusionism" because it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. It focuses on the GM deceiving the players, offering them illusory things, which doesn't sound good to most people. But if the group has decided to play a crazy colorful action flick kind of game, they will be happy that cars blow up when shot even if the cars have more hit points than that or physics don't work that way or whatever. The whole basis of RPGing is illusion, so pointing it out in only one instance is tendentious.
5th-Oct-2006 01:33 am (UTC)
I think this is maybe important stuff: the Forge dialog has had *all kinds* of problems that can be solved by steping away from the Narrativist context. Of course doing that invalidates lots of Forge assumptions (such as the one that much play is dysfunctional) and makes the conversation contentious (we can see that in the recent Force discussions).

So repurposing the terms as you do here is excellent.

And it's not, um, surprising that the three-fold model winds up being a decent roadmap to this model.

6th-Oct-2006 12:57 am (UTC)
Every time I see the topic of net rpg discourse come up I immediately think of the infamous "RPG Culture Wars" thread over on John's journal. I thought it was really damn ironic that I said that the Forgies had 2 conflicting goals (1) to have an inclusive discussion, and (2) to explain to the rest of the world how certain play styles were inferior to theirs. Then Christian immediately proceeds to...explain how the Forge is an inclusive place...and explain how the immersive play style is based on self-delusion.

Now, to his credit, in the end Christian's desire for an open discussion won out. If only that happened with more of the Forgies.

Reading those threads you linked to reminded me of that.
6th-Oct-2006 01:06 pm (UTC)
Christian is a cool guy and I hope I'm not just saying that because we were able to convince him to see things a little our way. That is, I'd hope I could see things a little his way, too.

Basically it boils down to: I don't have time for "theory" used as a way to reinterpret what other people say and tell them that "what you really mean is...".
6th-Oct-2006 02:13 pm (UTC)
I totally agree about Christian. He was the last guy I expected that kind of thing from, and I'm glad that he didn't stick with it to the end. When I told him I thought he was well-meaning, I wasn't just making nice. You'll note there's a large number of other Forge denizens I haven't said that to (and won't).

For most of them, I think their palpable desire to see themselves as fair to other viewpoints is because that is a real goal of theirs, and because they want to convince themselves that they are being fair. For Ron especially, the repeated vehement statements that "I've done more than anyone else to foster respectful discussion" really smacks of trying to convince himself that this is the case. In fact, I think that many of the younger disciples talk the way they do simply because that's the way they've been trained to talk...though it's clear that at least some of them also harbor ill will towards other gaming styles. So, of course, I would counter Ron's statement by saying that no one has done more than Ron to foster faux-respectful conversation on the web, and thereby permanently fracture the RPG theory community and drive off many who would otherwise participate in it.

All this happens just when I was picking up interest in SMC again and thinking of checking out Story Games and see if it was a mini-Forge, or if it was more open to other viewpoints than that...it looks like it is more open to other viewpoints, but Forge theory still dominates the discussion in a way that will make the place useless and frustrating for me (witness these 2 threads and the earlier immersion threads). Andy seems to be doing a fabulous job as moderator, though, from what I've seen.

Maybe I'll try therpgsite as an alternative, though it too has its disadvantages.
6th-Oct-2006 07:25 pm (UTC)
theRPGsite is growing but I'm not sure it's big enough yet to give you the feedback you need.

Personally, although those two threads were a big turn-off, I think Story-Games could be the place for you. Maybe you could just introduce your goals for the game, politely deflect efforts to categorize them in terms of GNS, and carry on from there. Just as, when GNS or other Forge vocab turns into a clusterf***, there's a refrain to visit Actual Play (which forces the jargon into useful, concrete expression), you might get something out of discussion over there if you ignore the jargon and just look at the concrete feedback.

E.g., "Your game is borderline Incoherent because of a conflict between Narrativist and Simulationist priorities," is crap if the person making the comment can't point to specific mechanics and explain how they conflict. At that point you can take the advice or explain how the game is supposed to work, and so forth.

I'd compare it to arguing over whether Sorcerer encourages Illusionism or not. In terms of the Forge glossary, it doesn't. That conversation is bound to be unproductive. But does Sorcerer encourage the GM to improvise in terms of coming up with material that specifically hits on the character's issues, as opposed to thinking in terms in-game causation, indifferent to "issues"? Of course. If my last sentence can't be parsed by the other person, then either their brain is wired so differently as to make communication impossible, or they're being perverse.
7th-Oct-2006 06:25 am (UTC)
Maybe I'll give Story Games a try.

Just to be clear, though, I wasn't primarily looking for feedback on SMC -- just that working on the game again gives me more desire to talk about RPG things in general.

7th-Oct-2006 03:02 pm (UTC)
In that case I think theRPGsite is fun if you don't mind the frat-like atmosphere. I personally stopped participating at Story Games for some reason, maybe after a vacation-imposed hiatus, and now I don't particularly enjoy the atmosphere. RPG.net is also good but the concentration of interesting threads is somewhat less, and the modding is occasionally heavy-handed. Over at theRPGsite, I find I have a different attitude to posting--essentially, if someone's being a jerk, and I continue to engage them, then it's my fault. A complement to that attitude is that I don't need to waste time constructing airtight definitions and engaging in logical gymnastics, just to get my point across to someone who's being deliberately obtuse.

Reminds me of how I eventually treated Usenet. Not sure if it will scale as the site grows, but we'll see.
7th-Oct-2006 01:12 am (UTC)
Oh, and for those who actually want more of that Story-Games thread, here's the Forge parallel thread:

Bangs&Illusionism - in which Ron beats down Confusion

Which interestingly enough at this point is exactly where I am in the last paragraphs of my entry, above. Josh, if you're reading this: yes, the Forge doesn't have a word for the continuity-manipulation that's (often) required to introduce, frame, and justify the next Bang.

Also, love the buttton metaphor.

Finally, Ron's first post is an example of the hardcore Narrativist bias at the core of Forge ideology. "'I play my character / you play the world' is a false construct." Well, no. It's often the key to understanding hardcore Nar design, but it's fairly off the mark outside of that context.
10th-Oct-2006 08:01 am (UTC)
"Rather I'm saying that the cognitive distinction between "what should happen" and "what could happen" is a real one, as far as anything qualified by the term "cognitive" can be called "real"."

Yes. Further, "what should happen" can be narrowed down by using the rules (I think this is their traditional purpose, at least in GDS sim.) and previous relevant decisions (so, if the police has previously been helpful, it should be helpful now, unless something has happened to specifically change that).


I think that in long games the importance of history usually becomes greater than that of rules. Hence, "great roleplay, we didn't roll dice at all". It means that the resolution mechanic, as an aid, is no longer needed.

This is probably related to bricolage.

And I associate this with Bayesian statistics, for some reason.

10th-Oct-2006 08:01 am (UTC)
That was me.

-Tommi Brander
10th-Oct-2006 04:52 pm (UTC)
Yes, at least that's how I viewed "the rules", as I came from a wargame tradition which views the job of the GM ("referee") during play as that of a neutral presenter of the game world to the players, using the rules as guidelines to maintain consistency and causal linkage. In this paradigm, where the rules leave off, the GM is supposed to extrapolate from them in that same spirit. Thus, for example, a tendency to cook up new mechanical systems (or borrow them from other games, including wargames), and to maintain, in effect, databases of information about what's going on "behind the scenes and over the horizon".

However as you imply, once the logic of the world is internalized, formal rules are likely to be seen as less necessary. Beyond that, one could absorb the philosophy of "neutral GMing" while operating from an external standard. E.g., in Frei Kriegspiel, veteran officers acting as referees would rule on outcomes based on their own battlefield experience.

RPGs tend to cover a lot more ground than wargames, areas where evaluations are strongly colored by our viewpoint on life, and where the "source material" if any is fragmentary. Furthermore where the "source material" is narrative representation instead of simulation or actual experience, it's all the more difficult to develop dynamic models of causation. Therefore the move to RPG brings about an iterative refinement of the dynamic model, provided that "neutral GMing" is what the group wants to pursue. I think you're right to connect this to bricolage.

I also sympathize with the Bayesian association but I don't know enough about Bayesian statistics to go beyond an intuition in that direction.
19th-Oct-2006 10:11 am (UTC)
Yes, that sounds right.

Tony LB has a recent thread at RPG.net about some rules helping players or GM with stuff they may not be good at (e.g. D&D 3 in creating suitable challenges). This may related.

-Tommi Brander
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