Saturday, June 11, 2005

Bricolage and Play

AKA Bricolage Post #2

In the previous bricolage post Nathan Paoletta asked a really good question:

How does the thought of bringing characters from game to game as part of bricolage interface with the claim that playing the same character over and over in play is an indicator of a frustrated or unfulfilled player?

And also a lot of people have asked me a question about Polaris which amounts to:

Why not just cut out all the ritual language BS and settle conflicts by consensus, which seems to be what you're actually doing?

I want to answer both of these questions, and a few others, in this essay. We'll see how I do.

With regard to Epidemonology, but I think referring to all RPGs, Vincent once commented to me that we all (being the players of the game) have these ideas in our heads about how things are going to go, how the story is going to turn out, or just how the scene dressing might look. But, when we play, it turns out that none of those ideas actually happen -- what actually happens is a totally different story, unlike what any of us had originally envisioned.

Now, Epidemonology is pretty much hard-core Narrativist play, so I've framed this in terms of "story" but you can think of it in terms of any aspect of play that turns you on. The point is, part of the joy of role-playing is that you get to create something that isn't at all like what you are holding in your head.

All art has a little bit of this (and, for those who, like Keith, despise using the word "art" to talk about RPG, can you accept that, by "art," I mean "creative endeavor of any sort?"). I can certainly speak to moments in writing fiction where the characters seem to take on a life of their own and surprise you. I am sure that other artforms have similar moments. But these are, if not few and far between, at least not common. RPGs are fascinating because they are an artform nearly entirely composed of such moments.

So, when we are playing an RPG, we are each coming with our own little bits to contribute -- collected from our own lives, novels we've read, stories we've heard, an ad we saw on TV that one time, that one dream we keep having, the girl we should have kissed in 10th grade, and that movie (y'know, the one with the guy?). And all of us, all of the players, are coming together with this stuff, and we've also maybe got some stuff in common which is coming from the game text and character sheets and background write-ups, but maybe not. And what we're going to do in the course of the game is bring it all together, see what parts fit in where, and build something out of it. A lot of us have already fit these pieces together in our heads, and have our own somethings already built but, chances are, in the course of a good game we will be taking apart those machines and building a new thing, together, with the other players.

In case it isn't clear: This is bricolage.

Now, there are a lot of ways that this can be arranged.

Some games might have the GM be all like -- hey, look, I'm taking mostly my parts and building mostly my game, and you guys get to watch me and maybe sometimes say "hey, put that part over there."

Other games might have everyone contributing parts, but the GM taking on the primary role of the bricoleur -- assembling everyone's parts together into a cohesive whole while the players throw new parts at him.

Other games might have everyone kicking in parts, and working at the construction together.

Other games might be a group of people taking parts mostly from one person, and constructing them into a new form that that person might not have thought about. (This is directly referencing the situation in a PTA spotlight episode.)

There are lots of other arrangements, of course, and they don't have to be directly empowered by the textual rules of the game, although they can be to great effect. Ron Edwards is fond of mentioning that casual manipulation of game elements by not-officially-empowered players happens all the time in RPGs -- "Your friend reaches..." "...No! It's my brother!" "your brother reaches..." and we don't even think about it.

In conclusion: All play of role-playing games is bricolage, because the contents (by definition) come from multiple sources. Which means that, by Levi-Strauss, it is all myth.

P.S. So, now, can I answer Nathan's question? I think I can.

The frustrated player who plays the same character over and over again is not the same as the happy player who revisits the same concepts and themes in character after character. The latter is a case of continuity, like I was describing in the previous post. The former case is more complicated.

I think that this is someone who has, to continue our metaphor, this thing that they really like. Their character. They bring it to every game, hoping it will see use, but for various reasons it isn't used, or it isn't used in a way that they find satisfactory. Rather than trying some new item, they keep bring the same piece back to the table, hoping to find a use for it. Since it isn't being used, really, it isn't gaining any continuity, much as the player would like it to. It's just an exercise in frustration.

P.P.S. And why am I opposed to consensus, personally?

Not all consensus has to be like this, btw. This is just talking about the consensus games that I have played in, personally. I would love to hear anecdotes to the contrary, particularly with explanations of the social situation and techniques.

You know how everyone has this image in their head about how the game is going to go? People get really attached to those images. In the absence of systematic elements to tear them away from their initial conception, they will stick to it and fight tooth and nail.

I think that a lot of consensus gaming is devoted to allowing all the players to keep the illusion that they can get their whole story into the game. This can be done as long as nothing is really ever used; nothing happens in the game. Thus, the games tend to be a whole lot of nothing. If someone suggests that something dramatic happen -- something that will redefine and change the game and its direction -- everyone generally clamps down on that person: they are a threat to maintaining your own little story in your head!

The thing is that, universally, everyone is happier when stories have things that happen, and have resolution. The story in your head is not nearly as cool as the story that would come out in play.

This is reflected, deeply and probably unconsciously when I wrote it, in the Polaris design principles. The system is very close to consensus, but it is purposefully very easy to have things happen and very hard to prevent things from happening. Hopefully, this gives the players a push into action and definitive statements -- the conflict system, much like fortune, favors the bold.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Futzing with layout

Apropos of Andy bugging me about it, I have changed my blog's layout, minimizing the right hand column (and adding more links) and widening the text. What do people think of it?

(I haven't figured out how to change the comments interface, yet, but I hope to get it soon.)

Also, if anyone knows how to expand the number of "previous posts" listed, please let me know.

Edit: I have hyperlinked the titles of the posts. Now, they link to the postpages, where you can view all the comments from within the pretty interface. If only I could figure out how to put a "type your comment" box at the bottom of the postpages, I'd be considerably closer to mimicking some of the stuff I'm fond of at Livejournal.

Edit 2: The links under "fora" disappear on postpages. Anyone have a clue how to stop that?

Bricolage and Continuity

AKA Bricolage Post #1

This is one things that Emily and I talked about this weekend.

In Chris Lehrich's excellent essay Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games (which, as an aside, could be regarded as a design bible for much of Polaris), he identifies the concept of bricolage. Much as I would like to make you go over there and read Chris's essay, which you totally should, I will quote from his definition here:


Lévi-Strauss's idea, in simple terms, is that cultures think like oddly artistic hobbyists. Imagine you have a basement full of stuff from which to build whatever you like. You have bits of old machines, things your neighbors threw out, scraps of wood, and tail-ends of old projects, as well as the taken-apart bits of all your old projects. Now you decide to build something, and you have some ideas -- aesthetic and practical -- about how that should be done; you are very skilled and talented, and can see possibilities in all sorts of things. But you do not have a Home Depot available, or you consider it "cheating" to go buy things. At any rate, you have to build the thing you're going to build from what you already have in your basement.

A nice example is a Rube Goldberg cartoon, though those are deliberately silly. You fly a kite, and the kite string pulls a lever, and this pushes an old boot, and that turns on your iron, and the iron burns some old pants, and smoke goes into a tree, and.... A brilliant example is the recent Honda advertisement called "the cog," which can readily be found on the Internet. The point is that one constructs an elaborate machine out of bits and pieces already owned.

Lévi-Strauss's point is that each object used contains its own history; that is, the iron has already been used for something and the bricoleur then gives it a new use. The iron, to focus on the single example, is a local source of heat; it can burn pants, or make a grilled-cheese sandwich, and of course can press a shirt. But it cannot be a refrigerator. And if, clever person that you are, you pull the heating coil out of the iron for some project that requires a heating coil, your iron now contains the history of its usage: it is now a heating coil and a heavy weight.


I think that this idea is desperately important to role-playing games, to a degree that has hardly been touched on by theorists, and I have been sorely disappointed with the discussions on the Forge about this topic, which have been largely isolated to trying to relate the idea of bricolage, in some arcane manner, to the Simulationist creative agenda.

This is deeply dissatisfying to me, because I believe that bricolage is a key element to all role-playing, because role-playing is pretty much art, and art's interconnection to other art is pretty durned important.

There is no way I will be able to summarize this in a single blog post. Millions of very smart people have devoted their lives to the study of reference in literature and haven't even come close to exhausting it. This is a starting point for discussion, a thing for us to look for, to help us see and understand our own games.

Back in the 1970s in the dawn of modern role-playing games, it was considered par for the course that players would and should move their characters from game to game, playing the same character in different worlds without any sort of excuse or justification. With the publication of serious canonical settings and also with a new wave of role-playing games fundamentally incompatible with each other, this practice has essentially died out, although it continues in an artificial and top-down form in the "Living ____" projects of the RPGA. There was a real feeling of interactivity between games. This was brought to mind recently by the reactions of the participant / observer / non-gamer in Ron's recent Trollbabe actual play. Check out the bit about her reaction to Trollbabes and Ghost Wolves.

Do you see that this is exactly bricolage, and further that it is fulfilling to same role of giving additional meaning to whatever is repeated? A character repeated throughout games gives meaning to the character, and that meaning is given regardless of whether or not the world changes around them. It is the same in ritual and the same in myth -- repetition gives power.

This is continuity in, I think, a truer sense of the word than it is normally used in geek circles (Rich, you can come bite my ass for that). Continuity in modern games is about making sure that everything lines up perfectly with everything else and that nothing is out of place, and that all things implied by previous play are, in fact, carried through. I think that this sort of play misses the point. Role-playing is enormously ill-suited to picky continuity fixation -- novels and TV shows are much better at it. The powerful continuity in role-playing games is that things that are important to us will be repeated, because we remember them, and that things that are not important will be forgotten and lie, easily contradicted, by the wayside.

What do I mean by "strength" or "continuity?" I mean something that you have an intuitive sense of -- you can clearly tell what is the right thing for it or the wrong thing for it without having to think about it at all. Essentially, your knowledge of this imagined thing has left the realm of conscious thought and entered the intuitive and the reactive parts of your brain -- where most real objects are. I think it is something like what Vincent means by "robustness of the game's fiction" in his recent posts about immersion.

This isn't just about character. It can apply to any content of the role-playing game. My Chorus setting has been used, in various forms, since I was 12. That's well over a decade of games. Only two characters in that time have managed to gain real weight and importance, and a third may be sneaking up on me, but the setting has grown and changed and shifted and been effected by all that play. Now it is living and strong -- I know all about the history 1000 years ago not because I wrote it down in a notebook once but because I have actually played it. And it shows.

So we have this idea -- if you keep doing something, if you keep reiterating it from week to week and session to session and game to game -- it gains power. But, speaking for myself here, I'm a lazy bastard. That sounds like a lot of work just to have powerful play. Surely, there must to some other route to this sort, which involves less effort on my part.

Oh, yeah. And its a biggie. We can steal.

To draw back to Chorus for a second, when I bring in a new element from some other art -- say, the Jabberwocky or Vecna or Inanna -- I am bringing all the the strength and continuity of that object with it into the setting. It makes it more real, more intuitive. We can draw on what we have read before, but also on what other people have made before us, and push it, sculpt it, make it our own and gain our own intuitions about it.

A lot of good games do this and encourage this. It is the primary draw of Rifts -- you can bring anything in. (Of course, you can do this in any game, but Rifts gives you permission to do so.) Sorcerer encourages you to draw on fiction for not only genre elements and color trappings, but also for situation and plot structures via the relationship map technique. PTA does some encouragement to steal from other shows, and more generally to adopt and take the language of television.

I want to see more games where you can do things like this -- move characters around, pull things in from literature, and make it all mass together into a bricolage.

Do you? Why or why not? How can we encourage this?

P.S. To those who are interested in the Big Model, I think that this is about a very interesting part of the Exploration level. Thoughts?

(stealth edit: AKA)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Web Log Ettiquette

Hello everyone.

So, this blog doesn't really have its own rules yet. So far, the only one that has stuck is "no impersonating other people." That's cool with me. We will figure out the rules of the thing as we go along, and I can afford to do that, because I can essentially afford to be an autocratic tyrant about the place.

But I do link, to other blogs and to the Forge and maybe even other messageboards (like RPGnet.) And, when you do follow the links, like I hope you do, you have to understand it is a little like you are going to another country. You have to follow the rules of the place that you are going.

The Forge, in particular, is known for having a lot of rules, which is one of the reasons that I love it and it is such a good place to have discussions. If you're going to post there, you need to know the rules.

Here is the Forge ettiquette policy. It isn't long. Please read it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Making Good

Making Good

aka Social Context post #1

Before you read this, you should read the post at the Forge titled Fiduciary responsibility?. This is where I am coming from when I write this post, the place which James West is talking about.

Playing games effects our lives. Some people come out of it with positive effect. Others come out of it with negative effect.

We, as designers, need to think about what effect our games have on the people that play them, not just in the short term, with respect to their enjoyment and the social contract between the players, but in the long term, about the skills and habits that they pick up and how that makes them interact with society.

It is possible to design a toxic game -- one which is fun and happy making but causes its players to withdraw from society, to reject productive lifestyles, and to shy from normal social interaction. Frankly, I think such games already exist, although you might be surprised about my opinions on what is what, there.

It is also possible to design a healing or helping game -- one which is fun and happy making and also causes its players to relate to themselves better, to relate to the rest of the world better, to want to do good things in society and participate in a positive way. This is a tall order, but it is what we should be shooting for.

This is not simply a good game as a game. All that is required for that is that the game be fun to play. This is a game which improves the lives of those that play it. A Good game, with the capital letter, if you will.

I'm not convinced that this has anything to do with stance, as James West frames it. Nor am I entirely convinced that it is about Creative Agenda. But I am convinced that it matters.

Socially Good game design. It is another thing to consider when we design.

Big Model +

This is what Vincent and I talked about this weekend, how the concepts of Social and Technical Agenda fit into the structure of Ron's Big Model. This is mostly for people who are into that sort of thing already -- it isn't intended as an explication or an introduction.

Just so we are all on the same page:

1) This is not an prescription, it is a description. We aren't saying "good play looks like this" but "all play looks like this.

2) This is a new structure, based on previous theory, and it might be wrong. We haven't discussed it or thought about it or anything.

3) This is strictly about tabletop games. LARP, as I discussed previously, is a separate but related concern.

Here's the structure.

Social Agenda | Creative Agenda | Technical Agenda
---------------------------------------------------
Social Contract| Exploration | Techniques
---------------------------------------------------
* E * P * H * E * M * E * R * A *

Things on the top row, we could call "agenda" or "goals." Things on the middle row we could call "system" or "rules." The last row is Ephemera, or the row of actual events in the course of actual play. I could have divided it up into the social, creative, and technical columns, but I really think each instance of play actually involves all three of these categories.

Now, check this out: Your social agenda is fulfilled (or not) by your social contract. Your creative agenda is fulfilled (or not) by your exploration. Your technical agenda is fulfilled (or not) by your techniques. So arrows of support go up, right?

Now, also, your social contract is fulfilled (or not) by your creative agenda. Your creative agenda is supported (or not) by both exploration and technical agenda. Your exploration is supported (or not) by your technical agenda. Everything in the model is supported, or not, by the events of play (Ephemera level.) So arrows of support also go diagonal down-left and, in one case, over.

Does that make sense to people?