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.


Blogger Nathan P. said...

To further complicate the metaphor...

While I think you're absolutely right about the guy who has a peice that he's unable to fit, I think that it should be recognized that this is a kind of...well...negative bricolage, if there is such a thing. (Apologies to Levi-Strauss, as I haven't read him, and have no idea if this is part of his thought.)

I mean, this process of non-fulfillment is still creating a power association for this guy, right? In every game, he brings this character who keeps in getting non-incorporated (in the way he wants, at least), and so it becomes even more important that it work out the next time. And then it doesn't. And so on. So this is a kind of negative bricolage, giving this particular peice a harmful power.

Which, when it interfaces with "normal" bricoling, can create disruption, right? Think of the guy who keeps on insisting that his character is never surprised, is prepared for anything, always checks for traps, whatever. Behavior thats disruptive, because it doesn't get incorporated into the overall bricole.

I hope that makes sense to everyone else...

Also, I agree that all of roleplaying is bricolage in the way that we've been using it. A question: does Levi-Strauss say that bricolage makes myth, or that myth is (in the sense of "can be") made by bricolage? I've never read him, so I'm kinda apprehensive about claiming his metaphor outside of any bounds he may have set for it.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...

Thanks Ben, in reading this post I finally nailed down why I feel the way I do about the majority of mainstream RPGs.

You see, I'd been thinking about the New World of Darkness books and how flat and lifeless I found them. Sure, they're sharp and slick, all the good of the old WoD with none of the bad, and yet they ring hollow. The old WoD, otoh, was a sprawling mass of stupidity and greatness all spewed forth onto the page without thought or planning. It had spirit, it was written in blood, but it also was a heap.

Coleridge talks about how the imagination works by breaking things down and then rebuilding them (bricolage of ideas, in the workshop of the mind), and it occurred to me that there have been two primary modes of dealing with the construction RPG design: vomiting and designing to goal. The second gives us the New World of Darkness, crafted carefully without any reference to the things that actually gave passion and blood to the games, nothing of the diffused bits that are in the minds of the creators, nothing of the personal or passionate just the popular and universal. The first gives us the personal and passionate, but in such a mire that coherence is nearly impossible and the assurance of two crap ideas for every good one.

Games like Dogs work on a different aesthetic: they take the bits that are actually passionate and interesting, and work them carefully up in a designed method. I think that if we focus more on the methods by which you take the personal and passionate and make them workable and guided there is a lot of room for improvement in RPG design and play.

It ties back with Vincent’s post about making subtle rules with spirit – I think the call of both that post and yours point towards similar conclusions about developing methods to make the personal (the spirit) something directly and clearly expressible, something that you can identify and focus on rather than having to hunt for through a mire.

Which means that if I ever want to design an RPG that doesn’t suck, I have to actually do some work on figuring out what I believe, what’s stuck in my filter, rather than just putting down some rules and cool images from a movie and hoping they work. Which sounds like rather a lot of work….

8:14 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...


I think the guy that you're describing is refusing to get involved in the bricolage. What happens in play is not the creation of any one person, it is the creation of the group as a whole. The bricolage is made from the junk we each have in our attic, and if one guy refuses to let others put their piece in because it will keep the final product being what he wants it to be (which could include being made fully of his stuff) then he isn't doing the community bricolage.

In fact, there are a lot of railroady GMs and turtling players whose problem seems to be that they don’t want to bricolage at all, much less on a community build. They already know exactly what they want, and exactly how they want to get there, they want to build engineer style to the exact design goals doing that and nothing else – which is often very frustrating for other players who came wanting to put in their own two bits.

Honestly, I think there is a degree to which any good RPG story should suck, or seem odd, twisted, or wrong to those who were not there. If its something that any group anywhere could have played, rather than something that came out of the idiosyncrasies of the stuff in the player’s heads, what’s the point?

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff, as usual, Ben.

Looking at all rpg as bricolage is freeing. Take Primetime Adventures for example. The game is built on the very concept of taking other known popular images, symbols & conventions and creating something new, fresh & deeply satisfying to the players. Because they didn't have to take someone else's set of bricoled (hee-hee, that is fun, I can feel people grinding their teeth about that as I type) symbols that are hit or miss for the group's personal interests & issues.

The fact that it is a group process brings in more quickly & easily that element of "creative surprise" you get at Ben, that arises in in all creative endeavour. Simply because of course others will think of things you hadn't, even and especially about what is most important to you, which since everyone is doing that for everyone else, there is a tremendous amount of energy created towards the goal. It actually makes me think of the Forge & other active communities.

And re: freeform concensus. Yes, the group creative process is all about letting go of your preconceptions, which is not necessarily well supported by no structure. No structure makes you rely on your social contract & social interactions, which is way problematic. Having the ritual phrases, or other avenues for the creative revision of your vision on the fly is what allows that synergy to happen, rather than putting you into a(n energetic) dead end of one person's view.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Nathan --

Well, I can see that, in the head of the individual gamer, if they keep bringing their interesting (to them) character idea time and time again and it keeps getting rejected, there could build up a continuity of rejection, a mythic sense of failure.

But it doesn't matter so much. Because, you see, this character isn't interacting with the game significantly (by definition) and thus (by definition) no one else is harmed. As soon as the character starts interacting with the game, we are reshaping the continuity into something more positive. And, yeah, there might be bumps, but check out how, by the very problems themselves, the core problem is already invalidated.

This is not to say that things can't have "negative continuity" in terms of have power drawn from a continuity of really bad, hurtful things (oh, you don't want Trogdor in your game. He's the character that made 8 GMs cry at the tournament last week.)

But that's just the process of bricolage and continuity at work. We would expect nothing less.

Now I would hope a responsible designer would want to design to establish continuity around good things, and break continuity for bad things, but that's a design concern, not a theory one.

As for Levi-Strauss -- no idea. I inherit the term of bricolage from Chris Lehrich, who I am sure could answer your question, and would willingly, but he's juggling a new baby and two academic books right now, so I wouldn't expect it any time soon. You could try contacting him via PM at the Forge, though.

Here is my impression, based on Chris's Ritual Discourse article:

Levi-Strauss: Myth is a bricolage of ideas.

Lehrich: A bricolage of ideas is myth.


9:33 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Brand --

All I can do is shake my head in slack-jawed amazement. What great posts! You nailed exactly my problematic relationship with The Riddle of Steel. The corebook was this glorious heap (almost as if it were designed that way) and every other thing you looked at was just this absolutely brilliant piece and you could build great stuff with it.

Then the sourcebooks (written by fans, not the original author), were like "look at this thing I made! It r0xx0r!" and I was like "uh, I and the other forum guys make better stuff every time we play."

Honestly, I think there is a degree to which any good RPG story should suck, or seem odd, twisted, or wrong to those who were not there.

This, in particular, is totally right on.


9:44 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Emily --

Good stuff.

The best thing that I can think to say with regard to consensus play is this -- I think that the role that rules can play here is a very simple one: make sure everyone shares the sandbox, and that everyone's bits are brought in, and that everyone does, indeed, do their thing, and consequently that things happen and are established and we don't bounce around the issue forever.

In this view, the conflict resolution system is simply yet critically creating a ritual space in which the dictation of results (via narration, dice, tables, what have you) is sacrosanct.


9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heya Ben,

First thing's first:

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.

I'm pretty sure that this is not correct, but I'm also pretty sure that your later comment:

Here is my impression, based on Chris's Ritual Discourse article:

Levi-Strauss: Myth is a bricolage of ideas.

Lehrich: A bricolage of ideas is myth.

Is actually correct. Levi-Strauss doesn't say that bricolage implies myth as far as I've been able to tell, but hey, that's a minor quibble.

Just real briefly: I have a semi-disagreement with you on the importance of bricolage, which I'll probably flesh out a bit more in my LiveJournal this weekend.

Basically: all social interaction is bricolage. RPGs don't have some special bricolage property. What it really comes down to is that roleplaying is a social activity, social activities involve a sort of bricolage (to use Levi-Strauss' metaphor), therefore roleplaying involves bricolage. Now, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't be surprised if roleplaying involves some elevated level of bricolage when compared to other social activities (though I'm not sure that it would involve more bricolage either).

I guess what I'm getting at is: why is bricolage a big deal in RPGs? Or perhaps: why is bricolage discussed as this thing that's new and different in RPGs. It's really a sub-set of social contract.

I hope I'm not coming across as putting you down or anything, I definitely find your discussion on bricolage to be solid, but it doesn't seem to be anything but retreading of old ground.

Wow, I sound like a really arrogant ass here. I hope my points are making it through...


10:21 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thomas -- have you read Levi-Strauss, by any chance? I'm curious to get an authoritative voice here.

I think you are missing my point. Does most normal social interaction involve ideas and parts from all participants? I guess you could say that. Is it necessarily creative, by which I mean focused on the act of creation? Hell, no.

My reading of bricolage (which, understand is just from Chris's essay) is that it is by definition discussing creative acts.

Clearly, I can't say whether I disagree with you or not based on your preview of your Livejournal post. But I can say that I don't think that you're getting my point.

As to retreading old ground -- it was my impression that the conclusion of the Forge was (to quote Jay) "Sim is bricolage makes myth." I find this to be disasterously untrue, and directly at odds with what I am saying. If I had been able to keep up with the word-torrent in those threads I might have been able to object then, but waiting until now means I have something to say other than "no that's wrong, it doesn't fit my gut feeling." I confess that I am a bit puzzled by your line, there. My intention is to destroy and rebuild, not to rehash.


10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yeah, I guess I must be missing you somewhere.

Let me try to restate my point. I have read a very, very tiny selection of Levi-Strauss, and so I would definitely not consider myself any sort of authority.

That said, my read of bricolage is obviously a bit different from yours. As I read it, the real key to bricolage is that not only do all these concepts that you bring up (recurring characters and such) have a history, but that you literally can not avoid invoking that entire history when you invoke that concept.

You are working under the assumption that bricolage is a fundamentally creative act. I'm okay with that, really, even if I'm not sure that that was the original intent. But that in turn suggests that roleplaying is a fundamentally creative act in and of itself. I'm not sure that that's the case, so I'd love to hear more on that.

As to retreading old ground, perhaps I spoke foolishly. It's old ground to me, as I spent a good while considering bricolage back when Chris was still talking about it a lot. Looking back I realize that I never really took that discussion online, so I guess it's an "old to me, but no one else has talked about it" kind of thing. That's my fault.

As to bricolage -> sim, you are dead right. It's dangerously misleading. I think the error is easily located though:

Bricolage is most evident in long-term play where in-jokes and recurring situations (as well as little personalized ways of playing the game) have the greatest oppurtunity to accumulate. This is most definitely not to say that this is the only place it happens, as I said it's present in all social interaction. Further, sim play is traditionally the long-term play style of choice. Or it has the reputation for that anyway. Thus there's this conflation.

Is that any clearer, or did I miss the point entirely?


11:32 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thomas --

Did you read my prior post Bricolage and Continuity? I lay out your basic statement about history and invoking history over there.

I believe that bricolage is fundamentally creative because bricolage is described, in the Ritual Discourse essay, as fundamentally creative. You are taking all of these disparate and previously-used elements, mixing them together, and making a new element entirely.

The word "making" there necessarily implies creative. Likewise, I really don't see how an RPG can fail to be creative, because you are clearly getting together and making something.

I think that you are right that bricolage is often evident in long-term play groups, but I think it can be evident in short-term or even one-shot play, as well. (In fact, I think it always is evident in all RPGs.) See the previous post for more on how this can be true.


11:47 AM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

I wouldn't be surprised if our use of bricolage re: RPGs is pretty different from Levi-Strauss's conception, actually. Maybe we can go ahead and consider everything that Chris and Ben have said/are saying as our definition of bricolage for our purposes, in order to sidestep questions about whether it actually means what we think it means?

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is rather interesting for me to read that post. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

Sincerely yours

12:44 AM  

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