Archive for the ‘comments’ Category

antiquated anyway part 1
May 27, 2008

anyway is Vincent Baker’s blog at, and it’s monumental in two ways: First, major ideas in design and theory were worked out there by Vincent and a close community around him.  Second, it’s huge.

I started with Antiquated Anyway, which is conveniently archived here.  Even so, it’s quite dense and I’ve had to break it down into smaller subsections.  Note that in a few places you need to get some definitions or read Forge threads to get the point – I’ve gone through to Cull those as well and link to them where they’re needed or contain something valuable.

Note: I’ve had to do some quoting here because I don’t see a mechanism to link to individual posts without showing the whole thread.

What survived the Cull?

Here’s what I’d keep around to read again:

From Post 137 – 12-21-04 (direct link to post 137)

This section starts with Vincent taking a current Forge snapshot and discusses bridging the gap to those outside the Forge.  As an example he points out Task Resolution vs. Conflict Resolution, which animates most of the ensuing discussion.  Choicy bits:

Emily Care’s point about the need for a guide is very relevant if you’re writing a game:

[…]I have no small amount of impatience for a textbook of all the good, down-to-earth, constructive bits of role playing theory that have come from the Forge [et al] […]

I mean, take for example scene-framing. Standard role-playing games say not word one about where to start or begin a scene, it’s all left up to “gm inspiration”, and it is assumed that everyone who runs a game will know how to introduce tension by beginning a scene in the middle of action. Or be aware of their players preferences for getting a sense of the surroundings, time of day and weather. Or know when to end a scene so it doesn’t ramble on into an eternity of dullness. All these things right now are left up to each gm to learn over time. […] That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see get disseminated. […]

Dan Shiovitz also raises an excellent point for how to communicate theory via examples (you can look up what the Forge term IIEE means here).  This is good advice if you’re writing a game or just plain trying to talk to your fellow players about the game you have:

if I was going to talk about IIEE, I wouldn’t say “ok, there’s this four letter term, and the four letters stand for (and then there’d be a pause as I have to go look it up). This can be classified generally into three subsystems, of which only one is any good. Therefore ..”
because that doesn’t convince anybody.Instead you say “Ok, have you ever had the situation where you say ‘My ninja jumps across the table, does a backflip, and kicks the guy in the head’ and then you roll a 3 on the attack roll? Doesn’t that suck? Here’s a better way to describe your actions so you can avoid that happening. And if you’re a GM, doesn’t it suck when you say ‘ok, when this NPC sees you going for your sword, he goes for his sword too, and the player’s all like ‘well, if I see him going for his sword then I’m not going to draw my sword, I’m just going to shoot him with my pistol’ and you say ‘hey, you already said you’re drawing your sword!’ and everyone gets pissed off? Here’s a better way to do things — here’s what to work out *before* you roll the dice, and then you agree with your player what can get changed before the roll and what can get changed after”

A discussion about Task Resolution’s relationship to GM fiat ensues – Ben Lehman’s post lines up the situation well but I think these comments by Emily Care are short, sweet, and complete:

I just want to follow up Ben’s post with an illustration of why it would be that task resolution ends up equalling GM fiat. I stole it from Vincent, so if you’ve heard it already, bear with me. It actually is a bit different from what you’re describing as GM fiat in task res, Ben, so it may have different ramifications.

So, a player and a gm are discussing events in a game. The player’s character is pursuing a lead on nabbing the villain, and just needs some proof that is said to be locked away in someone’s safe. That’s the situation.

The hero wants to nab the villain. Getting the proof to do so is what’s at stake in the conflict.

The tasks involved may include: breaking in to the office where the safe is, avoiding detection while in there, and getting the safe open.

So this can be handled in a variety of ways. The GM could run the player through task resolution on each step leading up to getting the safe open. Or all the tasks could be lumped together: make one roll and bang–you get in or you don’t. Note that even if the player gets the best possible outcome on all the tasks, the GM still has the power to say whether the needed papers actually are in the safe–this is where the fiat comes in–all that grand effort put into getting in to the safe means diddly since the player had nada to say about achieving their actual goals. Unless you define what’s really at stake, ie what the player and or the character want to achieve, task resolution can be a sop to make players feel like they’ve got input into what’s going on. If they don’t want input, that’s another thing, but if they do, it’s bunk.

After some more discussion Vincent pops up saying (I’m paraphrasing here):

Task Resolution leaves everything in the GM’s hands, and that’s not fair because it leaves the onus on the GM to validate or invalidate what the player characters are doing.

From Post 138 – 12-24-04 (direct link to post 138)

“Rules matter” is a premise I hope you agree with if you’re doing any kind of game design, or even if you’re serious about choosing what ruleset to play by.  Essentially this is Vincent arguing for “Rules Matter” and I think everything he bulleted in the conversation below is crucial and collectively they articulate that thesis very clearly and persuasively.

[G]roups have styles. My group’s style is different from yours, for instance. I also think you’d agree that different groups’ styles lead to and are better suited to different types of play. My group’s style leads to co-GMed play, for instance, while your group’s style wouldn’t be (as) well-suited to it.

1) Would you agree that a group’s style depends on particular techniques, all acting more-or-less together? My group, for instance, uses particular specific techniques to make co-GMed play work?

2) Would you agree that a group could learn new techniques and thereby change its style? My group could, if it wanted, learn some of the techniques your group uses, thus changing our style to better suit your type of play?

3) Would you agree that a group could, with sufficient experience, change its style intentionally to adapt to particular types of play, by choosing which techniques they’ll use? Having learned some of your techniques, my group could choose which set of techniques to use, to get the kind of play we’re currently after?

4) Would you agree that it’s possible to communicate in writing about the techniques a group uses? Your group could, for instance, write down how you play well enough that my group could learn techniques from it?

If you’re still on the fence add:

1) What a group actually gets out of play depends on its players’ and GM’s skills and style.

2) What a group wants to get out of play depends on the group’s tastes and needs.

3) If you have a disconnect between what the group wants and what the group’s skills and style give ’em, you have an unhappy group. Most groups’ skills and style give them what they want, most of the time. However, if you want something new from a particular game, the way to get it is to learn new skills and change your style.

4) Most published games’ rules don’t communicate real skills that a group will actually use. That’s because the real skills […] are social, interpersonal, and hard to communicate. […] If a game text isn’t telling you how to play at the social, interpersonal level, how to play it will fall to the group to figure out.


5) It’s possible to write game rules that’ll teach a group new skills all at once, that’ll deliver a play experience that startles the group and changes its style.

This is consistent with actual play reports of a couple of my games in action, and a couple of my friends’ games in action. It’s not a hundred percent, not even close, nor would I expect or want it to be. It happens sometimes, that’s all I’m saying.

and finally

1) In order to play, the group’s players must have a functional answer to two questions: “what should I contribute to the game?” and “how should I treat my fellow players’ contributions?”

2) A game designer can do some of the work of answering those questions. A game designer can do far more of the work of answering them than game designers have typically done.

You can see that this point is extremely important to Vincent, and luckily enough he argues it very well.

From Post 144 – 12-29-04 (direct link to post 144)

Here, we find a Motherlode of actual play compilations.  Vincent points to seven Forge threads covering important moments that came about during a three year period where he, Meguey Baker, and Emily Care played a collaborative game in the Ars Magica setting.  This was done in a way that most would characterize as freeform – it had informal rules and was grounded in their collaboration in a setting based off of Ars Magica, but without a baseline ruleset.  Having read them, I think the stuff that I’m going to point you to below is totally understandable without reading them, but since I’ve already gone through them I’ll include their culling in a separate post.

Vincent brings these up to draw our attention to this question

You’ve been roleplaying without formal rules, relying on open collaboration, for some years. You use dice occasionally, as a collaborative tool, but improvisationally – you don’t even have character sheets with numbers on ’em. It’s been the best roleplaying you’ve ever had.

What does [good] game design have to offer you?

While there’s a discussion about the suitability and flexibility of informal versus formal rules, I find that discussion tends to feel like the two sides are talking past each other (with slightly different ideas of what informal/formal mean).  But things settle down towards the end of the thread, where we find some good answers compiled by Meg Baker:

Emily Care said:
“‘Good boundaries, good neighbors make.’ If you have clear rules everyone can have the same expectations and thus trust.Rules also exist to impart a _sense_ of impartiality to what happens in play, even if when you analyze it, that’s not what’s actually happening.”

Jason said:
“Good design offers ways to challenge calcified assumptions built up during years of collaborative play.”

Chris Chinn clarifies his position to this:

I would say that well designed rules nail that “How we play” and make it exceedingly clear, to minimize the different forms of interpretations and conflicts that might arise at the table.

and Emily Care adds:

I’d say that the fact that well-designed play can offer the _same_ view to more than one group is the biggest advantage. I’d have little clue how to instruct someone who’d never done it to play like we do, or the Ennead does, but if I can hand them a copy of Dogs or MLwM, I know they’ll (probably) be all set.

There continues to be some banter about the formal vs. informal, but the two sides are coming quite close together.  Vincent wraps up the discussion with this:

I see that it’s time to make my claim, though.

My claim is not that the group I describe – mine or yours – should ditch their informal rules and adopt formal ones for their current game.

My claim is: if my group or yours wants to play a new game about, say, religious marshals in a supernatural Old West, or minions of a Frankensteinesque evil genius, or an interesting ensemble cast in charged relationships – formal rules exist which will serve us better than making it all up from scratch.

My group is doing Ars Magica way better than Ars Magica does, for instance. But accomplished at informal rules as we are, we couldn’t do Primetime Adventures better than Primetime Adventures does.

What was cut?

I cut a lot of well-written material here, both on anyway and from the Forge. Frequently these were case studies, arguments, or endeavours that hadn’t reached a conclusion at that point. At the time these would have been crucial discussions but it’s still basically a study group. I cut everything that was explicitly about Vincent’s personal life, and any place where the accounts of actual play really was working to fix an issue very specific to their table and playstyle (rather than presenting something to mine for ideas).  These are neat developments but in the main they are just being put together, rather than having a polished final version, which is what I’m Culling for.

The Survivors

The survivors – all included above, not including the Forge threads that I’ll be getting to shortly – are fundamental points in roleplaying game design.  If you want to know the kind of philosophies that drive indie rpg designers, and want to be informed by those philosophies – or even challenge them at their roots – this is a good place to start.  That said, I don’t think reading the rest of those threads from 1 to 144 will help you ‘delve deeper’ into these issues – you’ll retread a lot of the same ground on the way to the best and clearest arguments.

Edit: Extra Survivor from Post 144

In post 144 Chris Chin wrote:

[W]hen you have problems with informal rules, you have to 1) try to verbalize unspoken issues and behavior patterns, which most of us are not good at, even more so with friends, and 2) correct behavior patterns…(want to try to give up smoking?).

When there’s formal rules, they serve as a useful tool both for putting things on the table, distancing the problem from the people(to a degree), at least in that you can ask to change the rules, thereby asking to change the behavior pattern instead of saying, “Hey Bill! Stop being an ass!”, which usually does wonders for group consensus :P

I think he’s right on.