Sunday, July 31, 2005

On the Last Supper

I dropped a little blog post in my "non-gaming" main blog, Blog that Goes Ping, about Last Supper, which turned out to be a runner up in the Iron Chef Gaming competition.

I'll copy here. Cut and paste follows...

Ever play Credo, the card game from Chaosium where you play out the Council of Nicea and determine the future path of Christian orthodoxy, assembling a creed in the process?

That's small potatoes compared to The Last Supper, an entry in the Iron Game Chef 2005 competition.

The Last Supper must be played in a single session and incorporates a potluck supper. Each participant should bring one or more dishes, and they are encouraged to coordinate for a satisfying meal. The GM will provide the beverage.

One participant - the GM - takes the role of Christ. The remaining participants - the players - each play one of the twelve Apostles. Of these Apostles, some - the evangelists - will go on to write the Bible. Others - the proselytes - will travel unto the corners of the world and spread Christianity to the masses. And one - the traitor - will betray Christ to the Romans and initiate the crucifixion. Without a traitor, all other efforts will fail.

The story of the “real” Last Supper should be considered simply one example of how the game might turn out, just as our world should be considered an example of how the world might be shaped by Christianity over the millennia which follow this event. There is no guarantee that Judas Iscariot will be the traitor, nor that any other disciple will follow the destiny we see for him in our world. Ultimately, the point of the game is to interpolate the doctrine of the church which will form around Christ, and to simultaneously extrapolate the effects of this doctrine on the world to come.

Credo was really cool. Sounds like this would be too.

("Sputtin," [I'm not sure if the spelling is correct], is an admonitory word older Reformed people of Dutch extraction in West Michigan sometimes use to describe speech that threatens to go over the line, or actually falls over the line, into blasphemy. "Hey, that's sputtin'.")

UPDATE: Hours after I write this I happen to see a post on the author's blog, describing a playtest of the game -- and noting that the final rankings for the game chef contest are out -- and the Last Supper was one of the two runners up! Neat.

There are far more cool ideas and designs on the Iron Game Chef entry list than made it into even the finalists. To enter that contest, and make a serious effort, is in a real sense to win.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Stranger Illustration

In the unlikely event anyone here doesn't also read The Mighty Atom, let me crow about the fact that I'm doing some art for John Harper's new awesome Trollbabe-inspired game Stranger Things.

I gotta make me an illustration web page sometime, like Adam. I got nothin' right now.

BTW, because Harper linked it, I went back and checked out again my art for Mystic Crystal Revelations. I hadn't been doing a lot of art for a long time when I did those. I was really flying by the seat of my pants. When I first did them I was not 100% happy with some of the inconsistency of the art style as I desperately scrambled to put together stuff that worked in my "borrowed" copy of Corel Painter. I did my best but I didn't think my best was all that good. I haven't looked at them for a long time and going back I see some things I really like. It may be a crazy thrown together series but it's got some heart and life and style to it here and there. It ain't so bad. Some bits are awkward, but that happens.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reading Bout Dexcon, Thinking Bout Gencon

OK, I was fairly excited about GenCon already. But I stumbled onto the DexCon after action report thread, and heard about all the sweet games and demos that happened there, and thinking about how all that kinda stuff is gonna be happening at GenCon, all those people, and I'm freaking STOKED.

Anybody who's reading this who is going to be at GenCon and Joe and I should be sure to find and play at least a demo with, gimme a shout out in the comments!

Something About the Nar/Sim Distinction

UPDATE: I'm not sure anymore 'bout anything I said in this post, after reading this thread.

I was just reading Matt Wilson's blog. I don't know how I missed out on it earlier. Good stuff. The article just linked is Matt's quick take on what GNS is all about, "My GNS." I was reading it and something came out and hit me in the teeth...

Matt writes:

Now it's been said that N play has to allow for a certain amount of player input, but I think there's a bare minimum:
the conflict at hand has to matter to the player. If my guy is all about escaping his dark past, and you as GM set up conflicts about true love, we're missing each other.
in any situation where the choice comes up, the GM can't hold any authority over which choice is the better choice.
That second one is often the deal breaker. I think in most groups getting the meat of the conflicts is no problem, but GMs will sometimes abuse their typically godlike powers in setting up conflicts where the right choice is too obvious. Who can blame 'em? Grab a random RPG book off your shelf and flip to the part where the GM is supposed to plan out the story.

Simulationism is another crap name, and it also seems to end up being a dumping ground for anything that doesn't seem to fit in either N or G play. I think of it as N play where the human choices are generally assumed up front. That means that the human choices aren't the real driver for the game. I mean, they're cool, but you know when we're playing Star Quest that my guy never surrenders, because Star Quest officers never surrender.

The trouble with S and N is that there's kind of a gray area regarding how much of the character traits are assumed up front. You could play Buffy as S, basing the characters' decisions on everything we know about them, or you could play Buffy as N, with the belief that the characters are dynamic, and there may well be a time when Buffy would choose to kill a human being, for example, even though she never does otherwise (I think. If I'm wrong, replace this with a different example).

Something hit me about this, the fact that in an important sense the distinction between Narrativism and Simulationism is whether the story is open or closed at a thematic level, dynamic or static. I know this has been said before, but it never quite hit me that this distinction was absolutely parallel to a distinction that I had been making in other parts of my life, between open and closed situations, between following a map and exploring the territory yourself, between following a recipe and making up a new recipe, between the formulaic and spontaneous, the rehearsed and improvisational. The static and dynamic.

When I formulate it in these terms, I hate to say it, but I cannot be dispassionate about the two. If this is really the distinction between the two, and I think it is at least an important aspect of it, then Narrativism crushes Simulationism like a ripe grape. (As far as I'm concerned, anyway.)

A big thing in my life lately has been abandoning a view of life where one learns the rules, and then follows them, and realizing that all the joy and fun of life is in a view of life where one explores and discovers and creates, making up one's own rules as one goes along and changing them when one feels like it. Ellen Langer calls these "mindless" and "mindful" modes of operation.

I've realized that a lot of my classic understandings of roleplaying games played into my earlier, predominantly mindless, worldview. The assumption that one can isolate the relevant rules and formularize them and follow them and generate something really cool by following the proper procedure, where the procedure is external to oneself and objective. Pre-established.

One of the big components of the mindful path is that it all comes out of the moment. You can't know before it happens how it is going to go. It is improvisational. Even playing a particular, well rehearsed piece of music is only mindful if you are there doing it, not operating on automatic, but involved in the choice of each note as if you were composing the piece at that moment.

So I was wondering if this distinction that I was seeing in Matt's description of GNS -- the dynamic versus the static, the open versus the closed, the improvisational versus the scripted, the in the moment vs the pre-established -- was there back in Ron's essays... and here ya go, in Ron's essay on Story Now --

The Now refers to the people, during actual play, focusing their imagination to create those emotional moments of decision-making and action, and paying attention to one another as they do it. To do that, they relate to "the story" very much as authors do for novels, as playwrights do for plays, and screenwriters do for film at the creative moment or moments. Think of the Now as meaning, "in the moment," or "engaged in doing it," in terms of input and emotional feedback among one another. The Now also means "get to it," in which "it" refers to any Explorative element or combination of elements that increases the enjoyment of that issue I'm talking about.

There cannot be any "the story" during Narrativist play, because to have such a thing (fixed plot or pre-agreed theme) is to remove the whole point: the creative moments of addressing the issue(s). Story Now has a great deal in common with Step On Up, particularly in the social expectation to contribute, but in this case the real people's attention is directed toward one another's insights toward the issue, rather than toward strategy and guts.
Oh dude! That's totally it! Leaving things open enough that you can make decisions in the moment rather than follow pre-established procedures!

I know people have been saying this all along but I hadn't made the connection to the other mindful/mindless concerns in my life, maybe because a lot of them have been individual rather than social.

For example, in drawing, I've been spending a lot less time doing pencil sketchy preliminary work and a lot more time going straight to ink (or paint), on the grounds that creation in the moment, without formulas, pre-planning, or scaffolding, is where all the joy and power is.

That's the same difference that exists between creation on the thematic level in Sim and in Nar.

And of course people don't think they'll like it. People think they want predictability, formula, how-to, rules, experts setting things up for them so they can paint by numbers, "For Dummies" books. People don't trust themselves to create out of themselves, out of the moment. But everyone has that power.

I don't think that this distinction sums up the whole meaning of Narrativism and Simulationism. There are a lot of other aspects of the distinction and the model, and different levels on which things take place. But this is clearly part of it, and an important part. Narrativism is improvisational on a thematic level, and Simulationism is scripted on a thematic level (the improvisation in Sim, where it happens, takes place on other levels).

I'm still not sure how exactly I regard all the Egri-derived details of how the story becomes a "polemic" for one particular answer to a deep human question. But the "open theme" vs "closed theme" thing, that I get.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Moment of Dogs With August, Jude, and Ruth

UPDATE: see also Jim's account of this game here.

Dogs game last night. Third game in the series. My character, Brother Jude, is a pretty messed up kid, now a dog. Despite having Problems With Authority. Last game he managed to avoid being possessed by a demon, and possibly going on a killing spree (he's a crack shot), by coming to an understanding with that demon. He now has a relationship with that demon. So he's a sorcerer, or a potential sorcerer, because that was the only way he could avoid shooting and killing all his friends. Last couple games he's come into some ugly conflict with members of his family, barely restrained from shooting his brother -- now a Steward -- down in the street.

Jude has issues.

Anyway, he's with Sister Ruth, who's grim but pious, and a great ceremonialist and healer, waiting for Brother August Chang to return home. Without getting into the whole story, August is a young man, about the Dogs' age, who, we've just discovered, is involved in apostasy. His family are Chinese converts to the faith, and for various damn good reasons he has despaired of anything fixing the (racist) injustice against his family that the community is engaged in. So he and his Mountain Person friend Red Cloud have turned to ancestor worship -- secret rituals in caves, which to us in the Faith must be demonic.

Now August comes home and Sister Ruth and Brother Jude confront him. It's a two-on-one conflict. He opened with a litany of injustices his family had suffered at the hands of the Faithful of which they were supposedly part. Sister Ruth saw, with a defense of the faith, and Brother Jude Took the Blow, and his heart burned because no words of defense would come to him -- Dog that he was, he could not compare August's outright apostasy with the hypocritical injustice of the Faithful. Jude hates hypocrisy. He hates hypocrisy much more than he hates apostasy. And for him to come out against August here, when August was himself confronting hypocrisy (though by blasphemous and foolhardy means), when Jude himself had, unbeknownst to his companions, engaged in blasphemous contact with a demon in the last episode....

That would itself be hypocrisy.

Jude's Taking the Blow consisted of his grunting in rage and ripping a branch off a nearby tree (taking skin off his hands in the process)... (No, this wasn't escalation, it's just what I imagined happening.)

It was time to Raise. Sister Ruth raised with a completely rational and compassionate appeal to August to let the Faith take care of its own, to let the Dogs take care of the injustice.

Jude had a big pile of dice left. He even had a few extra dice in there because he had brought his Relationship with the demon into play. Between him and Ruth, they could easily wear down August, according to the rules...

But Jude gave. "You walk the path you must, we will walk the path we must," he said, and stalked off into the night, his eyes burning with fire.

As it happened, Ruth was able, with difficulty, to bring him back into the fold. To bring him back from blasphemous demon worship. She never even revealed what he had done to anyone but the Dogs, and she chose not to judge or punish him for this. (She's grim, but she's a healer through and through.)

Ruth's player, Dave, couldn't believe I gave with all those dice on the table. Why the hell?

It's partly all the things above in Jude's character. I couldn't imagine him continuing this conversation. He didn't have it in him at this point in time. He's too full of conflict himself over his role in matters of authority, justice, hypocrisy, and injustice. It was too much for him.

But it was partly me. I had only just then realized that what August was engaged in was not, in his own mind, congress with demons. It was traditional Chinese ancestor worship, as best he remembered it from his youth before his father's conversion, combined with Mountain People ancestor worship.

And I just couldn't, as a player, summon the contempt and fear for that, that a member of the Faith might be expected to feel. I didn't want, as a player, to see August take heat for this. At least not the heat of an angry Jude.

It did make sense in context. Jude's reasons for Giving were there. Hell, last game he had chosen to align himself with (possibly hypocritical) Authority over his better judgment and lived to regret the consequences. It made sense.

But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't me too, not willing to set Jude against the poor guy's return to his family's traditional religion over the Faith.

I have no particular point in all this, I just found that complex confluxion (yeah, I just made that word up) of overdetermined motivation fascinating on further reflection, and I wanted to post about it.

Oh, I also got to shoot the hell out of a couple bad guys in this game, which I hadn't gotten to do in the previous two games (Brother Josiah had kept me from shooting my brother dead in the street, the first game). That hella rocked.

What a fun game.

The Kubasik Maneuver

I just realized I thought I'd added the Mighty Atom to my blog reader and I hadn't. Catching up now. Just read "The Right Tool For The Job." In it Harper complains about people who resent indie RPGs because they like traditional RPGs just fine thank you very much.

Chris Kubasik, in a set of essays which were really influential to me when I read them back in, what, '99? 2000? took this tack towards the problem:

Last issue, I rummaged through the rules of roleplaying games and picked out the rules and ideas that I thought got in the way of broadening the scope of roleplaying stories. Now I'm going to gut some of the assumptions of the stories we usually tell. Let me state again that what I'm discussing is not better than roleplaying, nor an evolutionary advancement. It's just different.

I won't call my subject a roleplaying game. That sidesteps the issue of which company is doing roleplaying games "right" - if anyone is. We'll take a cue from Mike Pondsmith's clever Castle Falkenstein term "Adventure Entertainments" and dub this new social activity "Story Entertainments." The evening's gathering is now focused on story, rather than on the partaking of roles. However, people are still playing characters. Moreover, by removing the term "game" and replacing it with entertainment," we remove concerns about winning - whether as a group or an individual player. The goal is to improvise an entertaining story; to get together and have a good time or, if a powerful sentiment is carefully introduced, be moved. What we don't want to do is sit around a table staring grimly down at character sheets.
You know, that would work. Abandoning the term "roleplaying game" and picking something else, whether or not it is "Story Entertainment," and disavowing all claims to be better than traditional RPGs, or an "evolutionary advancement."

I don't think it's a suggestion that will get much traction, though. For all Harper's protest, most people involved in indie RPGs do in fact think of them as better than traditional RPGs, or at least as better than them at doing some things that traditional RPGs have traditionally claimed to do! Like create good stories. And people do in fact tend to talk in terms of evolutionary advancement.

And of course you'd have to agree on what the new term was, which would never happen, unless maybe it were introduced by fiat by Ron, and I don't think he's doing much fiating these days.

So I guess we're probably going to be fighting about what a "roleplaying game" can and can't be for some time. The Kubasik Maneuver is not a real option.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Creating and Re-Creating

Ginger Stampley's post here directed me to Lumpley on setting and source material, which somehow I'd glossed over when it was first written. I read it and my head started buzzing, and I hadn't even read the comments yet.

It's basically about trusting, enjoying, and exploring one's own power to create vs. subordinating that to the process of recreating another person's creation.

I think it's very healthy for everyone to recognize their own power to create, and to enjoy it, instead of leaving it to the "talented" people or the "experts." I think that the difference between creating "good" art and creating "bad" art is trivial compared to the difference between creating "bad" art and not creating, and therefore if something artistic is worth doing, it's worth doing "badly." (If I didn't believe that I wouldn't be playing the ukulele...)

This is all a new discovery for me, btw. Historically I have tended to shy away from doing anything unless I convinced myself I had attained some kind of competence in it.

This is, of course, paralyzing.

It led me to seek out arenas where there were no standards of competence to enjoy myself creatively. Roleplaying games are one of those areas. Language creation is another, though I killed that for myself by inventing standards of competence for it (involving knowing tons about linguistics) and obsessively trying to achieve them.

I think one reason many people react badly to things like the Forge is that they threaten to eliminate the sanctuary of roleplaying as a place where there are no standards of competence. In a culture unhealthily obsessed with expertise, which segregates people by their skills and denies creative pursuits to people without "talent," relegating them to appreciating creation and not participating in it, zones where those rules do not apply, where people just have fun and don't worry about their skill, are rare and valuable. People see RPG theory as threatening that sanctuary status.

One way we can shield ourselves from the culture's prohibition on original creation by people not designated as "talented" or "experts" is by, well, fanfic. By recreating things which have been produced by the designated experts, and creating variations on them.

I would not go so far as Vincent and say:

Here's me: fanfic is, across the board, inferior to original fiction. Our fetishization of source material is creatively unhealthy.
But I would say that the impulse to turn to fanfic rather than original fiction can be motivated by an unhealthy internalization of the cultural lie that creation is best left to experts. Maybe that's the same thing as "fetishization of source material," maybe not.

The basic idea of building on what has gone before, though, there's nothing creatively unhealthy in that, and it's been going on forever. Ben Lehman talks about it using the term "bricolage."

Vincent quoted Ron in this forge post where he revealed what he learned from Jonathan Tweet about the development of Over The Edge -- that the OTE rulebook as we know it is the results of the original playtesting, which took place in a much looser and less defined world, and created the Al Amarja we know now.

Ron and Vincent are understandably interested in creating games which can give you the kind of experience the original OTE playtesters had, rather than the kind of experience people who buy OTE had.

This reminded me of my one public effort at RPG design, Odyssey (In Terras Incognitas) and its origins. I originally wanted to try to produce a narrativist engine for Talislanta, but when I thought about what was the core story of Talislanta, I decided it was the original adventures of the wizard Tamerlin, discovering the world. That ended up diverting me into trying to create a game about discovering an alien world (whose theme was the degree to which the protagonists allow themselves to become part of the world, or retain their outsider identity). In the process the specifics of Tal got lost, but if I ever finish the game it will be a game about exploring worlds the players and GM co-create.

Talislanta:Odyssey :: Published OTE : playtesting OTE :: Firefly RPG : Prime Time Adventures in a vaguely Fireflyish style

One further thing popped into my mind...

Let's sum up first.

We've got several phenomena:

* Original Creation
* Fetishistic Re-Creation which denies the power of the re-creator do do anything original, and attempts to simulate/elaborate on the original but does not challenge or change it
* Creative Reinvention which takes something old and reinterprets it in terms of the new creator's choice, possibly challenging or changing it

I think the line between the second and the third is blurry. I'm not sure that the second ever *really* happens. I think people can't help creatively reinventing things, making them their own -- but they squelch themselves by not daring to embrace the fact that that is what they are doing, and so you get something like the second that is inevitably the third but is ashamed of it and minimizes itself.

Perhaps the line between the first and the third is blurry too, since what in the world is wholly "original"?

Perhaps creative reinvention is all that really happens; in some instances the reinvention is so great it approaches original creation, and in some cases it is so minimal that it approaches fetishistic re-creation.

Anyway, here's what I'm wondering...

What if theory is itself creative?

What if the "old school" forge posters and game designers were in the position of the original OTE playtest group, creating as they go along, and establishing a lot of "canon" as they did so?

What if Forge theory as it exists now is the equivalent of the OTE rulebook as it was published? The fascinating results of somebody else's creation, presented for people to accept, use, and elaborate on.... fetishistically?

Eh, probably not a perfect analogy.

Now I can finally go back and read Ginger's post. I had to get all that out of my head first.

Friday, July 01, 2005