The procedural vs dramatic balance

I’ve been playing a lot of games recently which are focused on intense, dramatic relationships. The poster child for these is Hillfolk, but there’s a whole bunch of others along similar lines (several in playtesting). What I’ve observed is, there’s a crucial balance to be struck between intense, emotional, conversational scenes, and the procedural scenes which provide the energy for them. Hillfolk, it seems to me, undervalues the latter, with the result that its dramatic scenes[*] gradually wind down and end up meandering rather than roaring along. Other games overdo it in the other direction.

Why is this? Conversations have to be about something. Hillfolk sets up dramatic tension by asking everyone to begin with something they want from each other character, and a reason why they can’t have it. But over time those tense relationships from become flaccid, either because the starting issue is resolved or because it becomes apparent that it isn’t going to be resolved. Sooner or later there’s nothing left to talk about.

To stop this happening you need to provide an external stimulus to tighten up those relationships and reintroduce tension. There are various things that can do this, such as:

– Discovery of information that had previously been secret (or at least, known by a more limited group)

– A decision taken that was previously untaken.

– Somebody does something, i.e. the execution of a decision.

– An external event happens which forces one of the above to happen, or creates pressure for it to happen.

Notice that the first two can naturally happen in the course of a dramatic scene, indeed a dramatic scene can focus on these things. The third could be either; I can take action with the primary aim of getting an emotional reaction from someone, or I can do it to achieve some external goal. The last won’t naturally happen in any dramatic scene, though it might well be part of the setup for one.

Once again, eventually tense, dramatic relationships will wind down as all the secrets come to be revealed, all the important decisions are made and all the resulting actions have been taken. The only way this energy can be restored is if something happens that requires new decisions to be taken, that generates new secrets, that demands new action. Most importantly, something must happen that changes the way people feel about each other, or pushes them in directions which will cause them to feel differently about each other.

These external pressures are vital for keeping the drama going, which is why it’s frustrating that Hillfolk downplays their importance. But at the same time, if there’s too much external pressure then there’s no space for the emotional and social reaction to be played out. Dramatic scenes are a sort of emotional and social processing of what has happened in procedural scenes, but that can only happen if there’s a gap in the action in which that processing can happen.

So all this is a long-winded way of saying, in a game about relationships it’s important to include some sort of external stimulus to keep things from winding down, but equally the action has to be paced to enable those relationships to be explored. You need to strike the right balance between the dramatic and the procedural. Get that balance wrong in either direction and you’ll get less drama.

[*] I’m using Hillfolk’s terminology here. A dramatic scene is one where someone is seeking an emotional response from someone else; a procedural scene is one where someone is trying to achieve something more practical, even if the means to this end is a social interaction.

Trindie, schmindie

I read Smiorgan’s discussion of so-called trindie games (and the “trindie triangle”) on Department V recently. I disagreed with a lot of it – in particular I see the essence of the three gaming spheres, and in particular the indie sphere, very differently from Smiorgan. But I’m not planning to critique his ideas, rather I want to set out some of my own.

Disclaimer: these are my thoughts about what makes a game trad, freeform or (in a much broader, vaguer way) indie, and therefore what could be a trindie game. Obviously, this is to a certain extent semantics – but I think it does identify a space that isn’t fully explored yet, which may therefore be of interest.

A trad game will involve a GM who mostly makes the rules calls and who controls most of the game world and the characters in it; player characters who are the exclusive domain of the other players; mechanical procedures that relate to the actions of characters in the game and aimed at determining success or failure; and game time based on when something interesting is happening to one of the player characters, and skipping over the rest.

A freeform game will be played in real time. It will focus on a defined situation, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for rules calls i.e. characters who aren’t likely to start fighting each other in-session, or using lots of powers, or whatever. It will have a rules system for adjudicating when people do enter conflict, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for a referee, but there will usually be some people who can serve that function if needed. Often times there is a downtime system for managing what people do between sessions, which is much more ref-moderated.

An indie game could look quite similar to either of these (AW is quite like a trad game in many respects; WTDiG is like a freeform game) or be completely unlike either of them (Fiasco, Microscope, forex). So what makes an Indie game (apart from the obvious question of whether it’s independently published)? I think the answer is, no one thing, but there’s a whole set of tools and techniques which you see in indie-style games that you don’t see very often in trad or freeform games.

Diverse options for division of GM duties. Such as:
– Fiasco, has no GM (this seems to be the exemplar indie game by Smiorgan’s metrics, and I suspect the one he was thinking of when he wrote his article). Everyone is responsible for working out how the scene should go. The final outcome of the scene is decided by selection from a limited pool of available positive and negative outcomes.
– Microscope, has no GM. For most of the game creative responsibilities are clearly delineated so that just one person has authority to decide at any given time, so it’s sort of like having a rotating GM. Except! In scenes, the players roleplay in a fairly unstructured way to answer a question posed by the person whose turn it is.
– Apocalypse World, has a GM. But the GM doesn’t have the power to dictate when the game’s mechanics are brought into play. And, the GM is encouraged to ask questions, often quite sweeping questions, about the game world and situation, so that they no longer have full control over those.
– Dream Askew, has Situations which have owners, who effectively take on some aspects of the GM’s role, in particular creating pressure on the player characters. Other aspects are handled through questions asked to others, like in Apocalypse World.
– When the Dark is Gone, hands over creative decision making to the players in its entirety. The GM-role is just a facilitator who asks questions.

Messing with the player character role, so that people may have more than one character. Such as:
– Durance, where everyone has two characters; one from the criminal side and one from the authority side.
Lovecraftesque (and, I understand, Downfall), where everyone takes turns playing the main character.
– Rise and Fall, where you play an archetype, and may play several different exemplars of that archetype, one per scene, maybe coming back and playing the same one(s) more than once or maybe not.

Using mechanics to structure the story and drive its overall shape. Such as:
– Fiasco sets hard limits on the number of scenes and on how many of them can have a positive or negative outcome. After half the scenes are used up, there’s a tilt; once they’re all used up, there’s an aftermath.
– Dog Eat Dog gives out tokens, and at the end of each scene the characters make judgements about the scene, which trigger a token exchange. The token exchanges drive the events of the game and ultimately determine when it ends and with what final outcome.
– My Life With Master is another game with a mechanical trigger for the endgame, based on the accumulation of points resulting from the outcomes of individual scenes.
– Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne frames the whole game around a journey, and has a required number of scenes and a theme at each location, with a fixed ending.

Now, I’d like to touch on the so-called “trindie” games such as Fate and Cortex Plus. What these particular games seem to do that is considered by some to be indie-ish is to allow players to create stuff outside their character – scene aspects in Fate, and mechanically similar assets in Cortex Plus. In effect, the player narrates a little chunk of what would, in a purely trad game, be narrated by the GM. But this is very limited! Players can only do this within fairly narrow limits, and the primary effect of doing so (and I suspect in many cases the primary motive for doing so) is to attain a temporary mechanical advantage in a conflict. In other words, aspects and their ilk are like temporary traits that a character can use, that just happen to sometimes concern a bit of the world outside their character. They’re not so much about creative control as broadening the range of ways your character can be awesome. That doesn’t seem particularly “trindie” to me – it seems like a trad game with a tiny bit of narrative control grafted on.

So what would a truly trindie game look like? Well, I don’t see how you could keep the tr in trindie without keeping a pretty unified GM role and players who each play one character (maybe two). But there is a game which keeps all of that, while altering the trad formula in a number of ways: Apocalypse World. AW gives you background and plot that is mostly generated by the players through question-answering (but driven forward by the GM); mechanics that are triggered by fixed circumstances and with relatively fixed outcome options, reducing the role of GM judgement and constraining GM fiat; it encourages the GM to put things beyond their direct control using tools like countdown clocks. It even lets you play more than one player character, while remaining essentially a player rather than a GM.

I don’t think AW has driven as far into this space as you can possibly go. But it suggests some thoughts about what aspects of a trad game you could retain while introducing elements of indie play. I would suggest the core of a trad game is a GM whose role is to represent adversity and drive forward external threats; and players whose roles are to fully inhabit the roles of a much smaller cast of characters.  Within that model, you can divvy up a lot of creative power, you can introduce mechanics which put the structure of the story at least somewhat beyond GM control, and you can give the players something other than just a single unchanging character to play. I can’t think of another game that has done this to the extent that AW has, but I’ll be very happy to hear of one. Suggestions?

Lovecraftesque update

For those who have been following this project, we’ve just been through another round of playtesting (some internal, some external) using updated rules.

This was a bit of an odd playtest in a way. The rules updates we had made had their intended effect, the game seemed much improved, and overall we seem pretty much bang on in terms of realising our design goals while keeping the game fun to play. But we had two pieces of fairly broad-brush negative feedback which shook our faith a little and made us re-evaluate where we were. The bottom line is that after some soul-searching we concluded that we should not panic over two bits of feedback, when most of our feedback is so positive – but this feedback nevertheless led us to make some further changes.

The big one was that the game was too complex. Of course, as an indie/story game-style game, it is a *lot* less complex than your average traditional RPG. At the same time, it is probably significantly above average complexity compared to its peers. More importantly, after reviewing the game we concluded that there were elements of complexity that could be removed quite easily, without changing the play experience. A no brainer, really.

This has led to a number of changes:

  • Progress through the parts of the game is now driven by scenes played rather than clues revealed, which seems simpler and more intuitive.
  • We’ve ditched the idea of separate reprisals scenes (and the reprisals track), and merged reprisals into our card system.
  • We’ve ditched the decreasing narrative distance rules and, again, merged them into the card system. By default you can only introduce rationally explicable clues throughout the game.
  • The revamped cards allow you to introduce a thematic element (e.g. a cult) and enable thematically appropriate rationality-breaking clues or reprisals (e.g. the cult threaten or attack you).
  • We’ve simplified the journey into darkness so you can pretty much choose whatever role you like on each step rather than having to switch back and forth between roles.

The gameplay is more-or-less unchanged, but the burden of explaining the rules has been significantly reduced. The cost is that the cards are much more important – we need to playtest that before we’re sure if they work the way we want them to.

The other issue we picked up was around tone. The default tone of the game is very much slow-building, brooding horror, with a protagonist who is at the mercy of events and probably doomed to meet an unpleasant end. But there’s nothing to stop the game from being a bit more heroic in feel. You could even run it for laughs, deliberately parodying the style. We’ve introduced a stage where this choice is explicitly discussed. This is less because we think these other options will be chosen, and more to make sure that whatever choice is made, everyone has explicitly agreed to it. We think this will reduce the risk of divergence of styles causing grief in play.

We’ve also hit the start button on a couple of art pieces (we’ll only commission the rest if/when the kickstarter is successful) and some sample layout options (again, we’ll pay for the book to be laid out if we get the funds). Discussing ideas with our artist and layer-outerer (?) has really got us excited, and we saw some early sketches this weekend which look really awesome. We’re beginning to talk to printers and flesh out our ideas for kickstarter reward levels and stretch goals for the kickstarter. We’re still a little ways off launching the campaign, but it’s beginning to come together.

Watch this space.