Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Wheel, the Web, and the Net

DexCon follow-up #1

We're looking, as we often are at the start of an RPG theory article, at a group of people playing a role-playing game. Who says what when? Who reacts to whose actions? Whose reactions serve as confirmation of whose actions?

If Alice's actions are confirmed and reacted to by Bob, and Bob's actions are confirmed and reacted to by Carol, but Carol's actions aren't confirmed and reacted to by Alice, we have a structure that looks like this.

Alice ----- Bob ----- Carol

Let's say that Bob is a gamemaster. Bob's main role in play is to react to and confirm the contributions of the other players. The other players' main role is to react to and confirm Bob's contributions. Our structure of reaction / confirmation looks like this.

Alice -- Bob -- Carol

Of course there is minor interactions between the players, but the primary react/confirm relationship is with the GM. For example, if I say, "I throw a fireball," the person I am looking to to confirm that action is the GM, not so much the other players, although they provide lots of other useful social functions. The responsibility structure looks like the spokes of a wheel, with the GM at the center and the players on the rim.

Okay, now let's look at some totally pervy GMless game, where there is no GMing structure whatsoever and all players say and react whenever. I can't draw a nifty picture of this, because I lack the graphical capability, but each player is connected to each other player, with no exceptions. It is the responsibility of every player to react to and confirm each other player's input. We can image this sort of complicated interconnection as a net.

Now let's imagine a game where, say, each player GMs for the player on their left, in terms of the responsibilities that we're talking about, which is to say reacting to and confirming a player's input. We have a structure that looks like this:

Alice -> Bob
^ |
| v
Carol <- Dan

Where the arrow represents "is responsible for reacting to and confirming contributions to the game." Although the last version didn't much look like one, I call this structure "the web" in my head because, like the net, it is decentralized, but it isn't totally unstructured.

As far as I'm concerned, those are the three primary types of structures of responsibility in terms of input in the game. If others have other structures to propose, that'd be awesome.

Now, I'm not particularly going to say that one of these structures is the best, or that one of them is the best for a particular creative agenda, or anything else silly and provocative like that. It is patently obvious that they are good for different things. The primary difference between them, at first glance, is where the social pressure is applied. They all suck in different ways: The wheel can be enormous and frustrating pressure on the GM, the net can be annoyingly slow to respond and quash originality, and the web can result in highly disjointed content. I'm sure that, if we try hard, we can come up with other ways that they suck.

But here's the really cool bit. It's about Capes and With Great Power...

Both Capes and With Great Power... are superhero games, and they are both straight-up Narrativist superhero games, but they are very different. Fundamentally, the premise of Capes is about the relationship of the superhero and his powers to society as a whole (are you worthy of your power, in terms of your role in the world), and With Great Power... is about the relationship of the superhero to her own powers and inhumanness. Tony (the author of Capes) would call these the DC story and the Marvel Story, respectively, and I think he's pretty much right about that. Compare Superman, which is all about his role in society and as an ideal, to the X-Men, who don't crime fight or do civic good at all, and whose struggles are mostly with accepting themselves and finding a social group that will accept them.

Here's the kicker -- With Great Power... which is devoted to the internal world of the hero, is solidly a Wheel sort of game. Capes, which is devoted to the hero in the world, is a Net sort of game.

Chew on that.

No, I'm not sure what it means yet. But these three structures are of much deeper importance than just distributing the tasks of GMing. Different task structures result, somehow, in solidly different Premises, SIS contents, Challenges, etc.


Blogger Martin Ralya said...

This is an excellent breakdown of these three models, Ben -- thanks! I may wind up writing a post about it over on Treasure Tables.

Out of curiosity: what if you're already playing a Wheel game (say, D&D), but want to introduce elements that bring more player input into GM decision making?

12:36 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

I think you're on to something. Here's one more element that can be consciously bent and tweaked to serve the goals of the game. I would be much more interested in this sort of intentional design rather than the typical 'hey look, we can game without the old GM structure -- let's change things up for the hell of it!'

1:05 AM  
Blogger jhkim said...

You can form structures within a GMless game. A cool visualization of this was in a mini-LARP I played at Knutepunkt, Club Felis. The characters were divided along several lines, the primary of which was the division between house cats and alley cats. As an exercise at the start, the organizers had everyone stand in the room. Then they would ask questions rated on a range between "agree" and "disagree" -- and the players would move to stand between two corners of the room which represented their answer. This let you visually see structures within the group.

For example, a more formal rule would be "housecats cannot talk to alleycats". Then you would have two nets which are almost entirely separate -- maybe with a single designated character as the interrupter. I think clans similarly form structure within a Vampire LARPs.

Another example of structured relations would be the shadows in Wraith: The Oblivion. This is a mix of your wheel and web. i.e. Each player is connected to one other player, but they all also are connected to the GM.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

The wonderful (and declining) world of MUSHdom (online text-based roleplaying environment) gave rise to increasingly complex structures of power, with different ranks of authority (God, Wizard, Royal, Admin), different 'spheres' of responsibility (on a WoD game, Vampire, Mage, Changeling, Crime, etc; also Building, Code, Relations, and the like). So you'd have a Vampire Wizard who was in charge of all the Vampire staff, some of whom might have done character applications, others ran plots, others processed XP spend paperwork, la la la de da. Sometimes the power struggles between staffers were more complex and entertaining than the IC politics. Obviously this rather requires a much larger playerbase than a typical tabletop game, but it is another structure to reference.

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the reason I love web games is that they don't -stay- purely undifferentiated connection between all players. People use them as social tools, and create their own little circles of association and context. They don't, generally, shut down any channels of communication, but they do layer extra meaning on some of the existing ones.

Which is why LARPs (which will always have to deal with the web-model, so long as they plan on putting a bunch of people in a room and having them all "mingle") are so prone to unnecessary power-mongering, clique-forming and back-stabbing. In the very best of ways, of course! People are using the extra social options available in the Lumpley-System to their fullest.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...

La ludisto, I haven't ever seen a game that changes up the GM - other Protagonist Player relationship "just for the hell of it."

There's every reason to change the traditional structure. It is broken. Antisocial. Detrimental to good story creation. Easily abused, with encouragement for abuse. Every attempt I've seen at doing something else has been at least a little bit better.

What games are you talking about?

11:31 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Everyone -- I am specifically talking here about the responsibility to react to and confirm content. Not anything else like buck-stopping, conflict providing, pizza-buying, or anything else a GM does. This is specifically because in many games with a centralized GM, react/confirm is, in fact, decentralized, and I didn't want to get distracted from my point.

For instance, in an Amber Throne War, it is the other players that react to your actions, not the GM so much. It is a Web game (your rivals and allies must react, everyone else can ignore you) with a very strong GM.

Martin -- I would suggest changing your system so that the responsibilities regarding confirmation and reaction to content are different. This may be more of a social change than a mechanical one.

Ludisto -- I have never known a game to change up this particular aspect of GMing structure just for the hell of it. See above. Also see my "why each form sucks." If you think that the enormous and nearly unbearable social pressure on the GM (I must react to everyone solely, everyone else reacts to me) is unacceptable, then you will change up this structure.

John -- I do not understand what you are trying to say, or how it relates to my point at all. Are we clear on the bit addressed to "everyone" above?

11:07 PM  
Blogger Martin Ralya said...

Martin -- I would suggest changing your system so that the responsibilities regarding confirmation and reaction to content are different. This may be more of a social change than a mechanical one.

This sounds a lot like John's suggestion in his first comment on this post over at TT. He recommends giving the IIEE system from TSoY a try, as it should be easy to graft on to an existing game like D&D.

Are you talking about the same sort of thing?

2:17 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Martin --

I'd like to give you some advice on your attempt to drift D&D, but this really isn't the place for it. Is there some better forum?


7:41 AM  
Blogger Martin Ralya said...

(Ben) I'd like to give you some advice on your attempt to drift D&D, but this really isn't the place for it. Is there some better forum?

I've touched on it a couple of times on my blog, Treasure Tables. Probably the most applicable post to move discussion to would be this one: "Rules for Exerting Player Control?" Sorry to take things off topic, that wasn't really my intent.

(P.S., I dropped you a line in your "Mapping the Blogspace" post. :)

1:37 PM  
Blogger Vincent Baker said...

> Chew on that.


4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you already call the first model linear? An example of a game that uses it is "telephone".

I've always thought of the second one as the gm being a hub--all the lines of the social network running to a central node. Social network theory is kind of interesting wrt rpg. You can look at the gm's pals who get lots of plot thrown at them in larps as cliques, and the gm as the social center, as you talked about elsewise.

9:42 AM  

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