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RPG theory/design/philosophy journal
"irony" or distance 
10th-Mar-2010 04:50 pm
chiang 2
In case you haven't yet stumbled across Zak's Playing D&D With Porn Stars, it's probably the most interesting RPG blog at the moment. Not only the immediate subject, but the writing and the thought that goes into it.

Right now I'd like to focus on one post, Like Playing Monopoly With Squatters, which brought to mind a much earlier thread on RPG.net, [Theory] Show, don't tell. A lot of the people on that thread are talking past each other unfortunately but what connects it to Zak's post is the idea of "irony" or distance that I brought up.

What Zak points to is, in my opinion, something that really doesn't go away, ever, in spite of his suggestion that there are styles of play that try to minimize it. I wonder if this is what Chris Lehrich was referring to when he said he didn't really think that people completely immersed. (Or something like that: I don't want to put words in his mouth. It was something about how he had a theory regarding what "immersive" players were "really doing", but he never elaborated. I can imagine it was related to ritual and the way it deals with ambiguity.)

There are a lot of dimensions to this. Mainly though, Zak's post brings back to me why, in an RPG, I often find it useful to have some distance from my character. For example I think there's fun to be had in a horror game if my character dies in an interesting way. This is entirely different from being a good sport. It's basically enjoying the narrative that arises from play.

But even in acknowledging this sort of enjoyment, I get very little out of controlling the narrative. Similarly I can get a kick out of "portraying" or "expressing" a character, and having the other players at the table react/assist with that activity. I realize it's not a fully "immersive" state. Yet it's still distinct from the highly "out of character" thought processes that seem to be implied by

a) Games that entail player-improvisation in the service of "driving for conflict" (prime example: The Mountain Witch), or
b) Games that entail player manipulation of abstract mechanics in the service of achieving player-character goals (prime example: Dogs in the Vineyard).
c) Games that entail the use of abstract mechanics to "shape" and therefore "direct" subsequent roleplaying (prime example: PTA).
11th-Mar-2010 01:39 am (UTC)
That's great - the D&D w/ Porn Stars blog in general, and that post about irony or distance in particular. That's definitely one of the things I love about RPGs, and it's not captured in much of the discourse about them.

If you've ever done anything like videotaped or recorded a play session and then gone back to listen to it later, it can be astonishing how rapidly people slide in and out of character/focus. I wonder if our drive to turn play into narrative is so strong that a lot of this back-and-forth gets edited out in our minds. Compare a live recording to an actual play report written after the fact and they can almost seem like different activities. Even at The Forge, where people are specifically exhorted to talk about real at the table interactions in their actual play reports, many people simply can't do it, or at least can't do it without writing five screens of in-game narrative first.

Re: your own play preferences, I don't have any desire to proselytize you if you're not interested, but in practice (as opposed to in the game texts and in the culture around them on the internet) my own experience has been that PTA and Dogs in the Vineyard (I had more difficulty with TMW) play fine if the players focus on "in character" thought processes and portrayals, and leave the out of game stuff to the GM.
11th-Mar-2010 11:49 pm (UTC)
Good points. Zak also has a recent post about the discrepancy between the recording of a play session and what you usually read in an "AP" (Actual Play writeup).

I've never played PTA, and I wouldn't mind giving it a try sometime. Still I don't see how I can play "in character" when I'm also trying to narrate the outcome of a scene according to pre-determined strictures imposed by the card play.

As for DitV, here's how I'd put it. Or part of how I'd put it. You can probably get a good game out of it but my experience was one of multiple disjunctures between character-play and mechanics-manipulation. Just a few types I'd point to:

1. The dice outrunning the narration. My character's got something to say (Raise) but the other player/GM doesn't Give. I've still got dice but I can't think of anything else to say. The dice are telling me to tread water until the conflict wears out. So, I repeat myself. Note: repeating yourself in a fight works fine, you just keep swinging/biting/shooting. In a conversation, it's annoying.

2. The dice betraying the narration. I say or do something that ought to carry significant weight, but since the other player/GM has the dice to Block or Take the Blow, they do. Then I go on to lose because I don't have the dice to stay. Possibly I try to emphasize the weight of my statement by using strong dice in my Raise, but if it doesn't carry the day, then I'm even worse off.

3. The GM playing dirty. I notice that I've got some good dice in my firearm so I reckon I can either force an NPC to Give outright, or generate a lot of extra dice for additional conflict, by Raising with some shooting. If the NPC is sane then s/he ought to Give or Block. I can then use my dice advantage to finish the conflict while Just Talking. But no: the GM decides to have the NPC Take the Blow.

This totally messes up any attempt to think strategically. I don't dare do anything that could be manipulated into an outcome I don't want, because it turns out the NPCs aren't being played like people, they're being played as dramatic tools. (See also, for a player playing dirty: this. )

4. The GM playing dirty, part II.In Dogs, there's a strategic trick where you look for a Raise that'll force the other player to Take the Blow in order to stay in even though your aggregate dice aren't as good. Illustrated by comment #49 here. But the GM can do this with impunity. The players, partly because of (3), can't really threaten anything--the GM is happy to let NPCs Take the Blow because it leads to more dramatic consequences for the PCs' actions. And if the NPCs aren't completely beaten down, then Taking the Blow only makes them stronger for the next fight as they get some "good" Fallout to modify their traits.

Aside from all that, there are other strategic considerations that the mechanics "tell you" that you ought to try to take advantage of...but actually trying to use the mechanics takes you into a mind-space that's entirely unrelated to your character.

Oy, I didn't mean for this to turn into a debate on Dogs. If you'd like to rebut any of these points, though, please go ahead.
12th-Mar-2010 01:07 am (UTC)
I've never played PTA, and I wouldn't mind giving it a try sometime. Still I don't see how I can play "in character" when I'm also trying to narrate the outcome of a scene according to pre-determined strictures imposed by the card play.

There's a bit of that, so if you know going in that will ruin your enjoyment, probably it's not for you. But the way I try to run PTA (I'm running a new series now) is that the player says what they're trying to do in very simple terms - "I knock him out" "I get him to talk" - the NPC says "oh no you don't", and we immediately draw the cards. Then the drawing of cards determines that one fact. That's all. No long narration before the cards are shown. That's key, because otherwise you get into the very lame situation of describing something in detail and then it doesn't happen because the cards go the other way, or worse, having to play out something that's already been described in detail. And no crazy long monologues after the cards either. Just short, discrete events.

As for Dogs, no, no need for us to debate. Obviously your opinion is well-informed. Figuring out how to accommodate both the dice and the fiction is usually fun for me. I can totally understand and accept that it's not fun for others.
11th-Mar-2010 02:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the tip: I'll check it out.

There is some complex psychological stuff around the relationship to narrative and control--as well as emotional distance from the character and so on. I think that we don't have good words for these things which makes the discussion difficult and I like your listed breakdown.

I agree that I can "enjoy" some turns of the narrative that go against my character (death is an interesting one since it is usually and 'end-state' which means if my character is early to die in a one-night one-shot I might find the kill interesting or cool but I'm still balancing that against sitting out for several more hours). However, yes--these are all real things.

The last time I was deeply immersed was playing a Skype game face to face (the GM was in town and we all met at my house to play). I was laid up in bed with a hurt knee (had surgery) so we played in a bed-room with everyone sitting around the bed while my leg was in a constant-motion-machine.

The enclosed venue, I would say, added in some strange way to the intensity of the experience. The physical presence also added to the immediacy. The lack of distraction: we had several hours of uninterrupted play led me to more deeply "associate" with the imaginary world.

The play was marked by a lot of game-design decisions about combat from vehicles and some number crunching (we were testing a firing-from-vehicle battle system) so it wasn't what I'd normally describe as "rules-get-out-of-the-way and we-feel-our-characters" however there was a sense of being "removed from the room." My image of the imaginary experience was very vivid.

This, I believe, was also helped by the GM facilitation: I think that making decisions about the /narrative/ would've been quite different than making decisions about the rules--even though they are deeply intertwined.

Again, it's a fuzzy thing: it's hard to articulate.

12th-Mar-2010 12:03 am (UTC)
Yes, it is. See my next post.

About enjoying narrative that goes against your character: absolutely, if death is what we're talking about, then there are problems. Not insurmountable but very different in kind from almost any other negative effect, because a dead character takes a player out of the game, while an insane, crippled, impoverished, or recently-fallen-into-pig-manure character is an opportunity for even more roleplaying.

Some games/scenarios solve this by letting players of dead characters continue to affect the game by becoming ghosts or memories. This is how TMW does it, I believe...one of the things I like about that game. In a Call of Cthulhu one-shot, dead characters were supposed to try to "haunt" the living characters...unfortunately not quite as effective since they were given entirely new goals that frankly weren't very interesting.

But anyway--I feel that deep immersion is hard to reconcile with irony, but perhaps the best bet is to, basically, give complete freedom to characterization without ever letting anyone impose an outcome on a PC. Basically "I shoot you!" is okay as long as the player gets to decide if they want to respond "Zing, your bullet ricochets off the wall" or "Agh, you got me!" Then you just add a rule: "Don't be boring" and go from there. I'm thinking there'd still be a place for mechanics, though exactly what that would be...I'm not sure.
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