An Editorial: On Identification.

This is an Editorial, this means that I sometimes will get to air game/theory ideas without the need to tie it down to competition. Sadly, this is still my blog, as in all the entries in it are still mine. So I may as well make use of it.
I’ve had some setbacks in that my last two weekends weren’t spent home, so I lost my work-time. But, unlike previous times this is only a setback in the time-tables. Work continues behind the scene. And when I finally shoot, I’ll have multiple bullets in the air.
Over at the Sons of Kryos Episode 32 (MP3, forum discussion) is about Competition Vs. Cooperation, and thus may be of special interests to people who read this blog.

And not to worry, this post will be tied to competition. I can’t undo my mind.

I participated in a discussion on Story-Games that went as follows:

hamsterprophet: im really interested by LARP, but i have interest in actually doing it
which i support makes it difficult to really learn about it
: mmm
i’m not interested with how larp basically forces you into an ‘authority over exactly one character’ role and puts you in the company of immersionists
: i think its really interesting, actually, how the nature of larp makes it pretty much impossible to break out of one person = one character
: mmm
: its almost tautological
: that’s just a kind of play i’m not really interested in at all
(me): Nate>It’s just as false as saying that in real life one person = one mask/personality.
: if i don’t have some broader authority i don’t feel like i’m participating
: In fact, I think this is a very interesting point.
: cuz even if you take on multiple characters, people associate you with the first one they encounter you in. unless you do extreme makeup, i guess

In LARP the boundary between you and your character, and indeed you and others, is much thinner, in fact, it’s only skin deep. In real life there are multiple personalities we adopt when faced with different situations and people, so why is it that in games we tend to adopt one face?
Because a game is not reality, it’s a simplified model of reality, and usually one which we get something out of modeling. Our faces in games are akin to archetypes.

The more meat we meet, the more effort we need to buy into the fiction. Online you are often what you claim to be. In table-top it’s a bit harder. When you’re a little annoying kid, who can’t be patient about anything, maybe you’re better off not playing the mature Paladin. In a LARP, you and your character are often one. If your character is smart, athletic and female, and you are male, dim and 200 pounds overweight, don’t be surprised if people have a problem reacting to your character fully.
And yes, the smart player/character divide is an issue all of its own.

Why are we capable, or at least willing, to let ourselves be a multitude in real life and unwilling to give others the same benefit during games?
The answer is twofold:
1) We let ourselves be a multitude, not others. When others act in a manner different than that in which we expect (allow?) them to behave, we are surprised, and often offended. We are not honest in our assumptions regarding others. Just as we assume we have free-will but expect others to behave in the manner dictated by their previous behavior.
2) We are different people in different situations, one game, one situation, one mask. Perhaps we can even go further. You know how often some people play the same character in all games? One situation: game, one mask.

It is more than that. It is not only that others can identify us, it is how we identify ourselves. There is no mask as constricting as that of the skin. And that is what role-playing is about eventually, breaking out of the mask, or shapeshifting our skin into a new shape, as if we were shamans.

It is often educational to look at edge-cases. Cases where one portrays many a character (such as most games’ GMs) and games where one does not even play one character. One of the comments about my game, Cranium Rats, and rightfully so, is that people have a hard time seeing what to play in it, because not only do they have a hard time identifying with something or someone, that I actually disturb them. What the players portray is utterly inhuman, and they have a hard time identifying with it/them, and the characters don’t belong to them and are out of their control, and so they have a hard time identifying with them either.

I find that interesting, because how often do you not only find yourself identifying with, but actually imagine yourself in the spot of a character from a book or movie, their stories often complete, with no hooks left for you to immerse yourself in the character. Is it possible that when we come to the role-playing activity we already come expecting to be “let in”, to immerse ourselves in other personalities, to tell stories vicariously. And when denied we feel cheated out of what we came to the table to get?

Anyway, let’s look at competitive games and Identification. I think that people require identification, of sorts, in all of their games, and competitive ones are no different.

  • In most sports games, or games where what is at stake is your own skills and is known (chess), we are the players and we are the ones we identify with. Win or loss, it’s ours. The easiest identification there is, with ourselves.
  • Sometimes a game is of ourselves, or abstract, and yet we tend to latch onto identification. Look at Monopoly, supposedly it’s our skills that let us win or lose, but more often than not it is luck, and Monopoly games are quite long as it is, and actually serve the purpose of teaching kids the value of money. And yet, people often make “Vroom vroom” sounds when they play the car, or portray the dog kicking someone away. Identification is that important.
  • In abstract concept but detailed competitive games, such as Settlers of Cattan, it is obvious we are not the settlers, nor are we actually the rulers. The luck of the die rules much and yet it is not as widely accepted as Chess that winning in Settlers proves one’s intellectual might (more likely their social acumen), and yet we yell and shout when we are winning or wish to stop another party from winning. We clearly fell invested, we feel as if it’s us who are at stake.

In your games, either make the competition so entranching that the players identify with themselves, make the stake personal so they have no option but to identify with themselves or give them tools to latch onto something, to enable identification. The easiest way is obviously to give them a character that is theirs to create and control, a role-playing option. But if you want an external storytelling vantage point, you should consider how to let your players into a mask.

This is what they come to the play with, this is what they pay you money for. Success and failure often hinge on identification, and its strength.

Competition? What for?

When I asked Ron Edwards to tell me what he thought about Cranium Rats, he had also said the following, reposted from private discussion with his permission: 

“The real question at the abstract, CA level, is what am I demonstrating by winning. It is not interesting to me to “compete in order to tell my story,” and I’m not sure if that’s what you’re working towards, or whether it’s a trap that you’re skirting.”

 And when I replied talking about competition for its own sake, he replied once more.

“I think that competition always has to showcase something – endurance, skill, what I call “strategy and guts” in my essay, in some form. There really is no such thing as a truly random competition – at the very least, you have to show that you’ve got the guts to stick it out until the end.

So I think you’re dodging my question. I’m not questioning the validity of competition or that it’s not fun. I’m asking what do you show by winning, and indeed by playing Cranium Rats. I’m also not saying there’s nothing there. I’m sure there is, and am asking because I’m not taking the time to figure it out.”

And you know what, I honestly do not know how to answer Ron’s competition. I am not sure if I know what the competition is about presenting, and I’m sure that if I do know then I do not know how to put it into words adequately.

Suppose that you’re playing a sports game, it is clear what you are better at by playing. But then again, if people did not enjoy competition for its own sake, why would they play games where they lose? Take Settlers of Cattan, supposing there are four players playing, three will lose. Why do they play? For the chance of winning, and if they keep on losing, why do they keep playing, or will they quit?

I’m going to use Capes as an example, simply because there’s still not much else out there for me to talk about. As far as I can tell, or as I call it, you win in two different ways: The first, you gain control over the narrative in order to tell the story. The second is to gain the type of resources you need and get rid of the ones you don’t, which feeds into gaining your first objective.
What “winning” Capes proves is actually spelled in the text, it’s knowing what makes your other players tick and putting weight on these levers. Finding stories/elements they want to control and bidding them for it.
It’s about proving you know how to manipulate others, though there’s no defined “Winning Condition” so I may be talking in the air.

So, I believe that based on us playing competitive games, the competition in and of itself gives you some fun. But help me figure it out, use your own games, use my game, talk in abstract. What do you prove by the competition in CSI Games, what happens if you don’t have something proven or one can’t tell it (Possibly the game isn’t fun and falls on its face?), how do you tell what the competition is about?

This is our Project Discussion for the next 3 weeks, to end on the 25th of December. Take one of the games on the CSI Game List and try to answer those questions.

Here is another issue, if two people think the competition is over something different, do both win, do both lose, or things fall apart? For example, one that competes for the mechanical win and one that competes for control of Narration in Cranium Rats? By Wednesday I’ll have a post dedicated to the matter linked here, to aid in this discussion.

Edit: There’s a link posted a line or two back, edited in as promised.

On Tunnels; A Repost.

The following post is taken from this post on the Forge, originally titled [Cranium Rats] On Flags Alone?, I refer to this post earlier on the blog, but it’s not really a Blinder, but a Constraint. I also need this post in order for our next Component post, the one regarding “Flags”.

There had been some discussion on the Forge post, you may want to head over there and peruse it. If you have any new comments though, please post them here.

So, I’m going to continue talking about what I call Blinders, and when it is discussed in terms of games or game-play is often called Constraints. This topic is about games in general, but I am posting this as a question regarding and using as an example, my own game, Cranium Rats, like the post about Codification of Session Length.So, let’s talk about Flags. Flags are there to attract attention to what the players want to focus on, what they want their characters to do. Flags are all about jumping up and down and pointing to the interesting bits.
But, no one enforces Flags in most cases, there is nothing that forces you to create a story involving them, especially in games where you have an omnipresent GM. Perhaps this is how people like it, but perhaps it is not.

In The Shadow of Yesterday your characters have Keys, the way to get XP is by following the character’s Goals. You also have Flags in the form of the abilities on your character-sheet. If you list Diplomacy or Spear-Fighting, then obviously you want these abilities to play a part in the game-play. There is no onus on the GM to provide scenes where either your abilities or your Keys come into play.
The issue of Keys is a step-up from previous designs, where you merely had Goals with no mechanical effects though, like the Abilities.

In Nine Worlds your characters have Muses, which double up as both your Goals and which provide a bonus when you perform an act which follows them. You have narration rights as a player, so you can be pretty sure that your Muses will come into play, this is already some refining of the Flags issue, as you can bring your own Muses in.

In Cranium Rats, I took this a couple steps forward, and probably a couple of steps backwards as well. I have taken the Flags and more or less turned them into “Tunnels”, where you can only narrate new Scenes relating to your Goals. Your character sheet is also quite empty compared to most games, and thus the Goals act as the only Flags.

Now, the question is, how do you feel about this? Do you think you should have Flags and also non-Flags story(taking into consideration Flags may or may not get addressed at all, depending on game and GM fiat), or do you want a game where Flags happen, but not only do they happen, they’re the only thing story is going to address/spring from?

Specific Blinders; Constraints; Isn’t it Getting Dark in Here?

So, here we are, still with the issue of blinders. Blinders are practical things, they help shape your design and play, and as such we give them still more space.

When you use Blinders in specific games they tend to call them “Constraints”, pointing out what you can do and what you cannot, the limits of the game. People pointed out games like Polaris or even Dogs in the Vineyard are akin to Board-Games compared to other RPGs. In other games you can play any sort of thing, or nearly, whereas in these games session length may be dictated, as well as what you play and how you play. It’s often questioned if they are RPGs at all.

Someone else mentioned the difference between Video and Board games and RPGs(much like Thomas Robertson does here, but it was earlier during the week, but specifically mentioned competitive games). In Video games anything you can do is wired into the game, if it’s not wired(coded) in, then you can’t do it. Board games where strategies that weren’t accounted for exist are considered ‘broken’ or require errata(can someone help me find said post?). RPGs that want to foster such a feel need to have every possibility accounted for or they’ll fail.

And this folks is why CSI Games have such a strong inclination to include Blinders/Constraints; the more options available to the players, and this being hybrid-RPG means the options are numerous, the less you can prepare for all of them, which in turn can lead to the system falling apart and people abusing it. The more Constraints you add the less situations you’ll have to deal with and the better you’ll be able to plan for what you are to deal with.

Over on The Forge I created two specific Blinders posts, using Cranium Rats as an example. Though they may have seemed like they were about CR, they weren’t, that was merely the example and the specific design question that related to them.

In the first post, “Codification of Session Length?”, I talk about the prospect of tying session length down mechanically, much like in Board Games with plays. When a certain parameter is met the game session ends and unless it is met the game continues on. RPGs and their kin fill a certain niche in the social zone, so it may not work just yet.

In the second post, “On Flags Alone?”, I coin the term “Tunnels” as opposed to “Flags”. Flags exist to attract attention to things the players want to cover, but in most games, nothing forces the players to focus on the Flags. So why are they there? I thought “System Matters”. The concept of “Tunnels” says that nothing but the Flags are addressed. As for “Emergant stories”, that can be solved by putting in a way to create new Tunnels during the gameplay.

Last, I’ll raise a new idea here, for you loyal readers, a third Constraint. The issue of “GM or Not?”. It seems that CSI Games are much like Board games in this regard, and that there is either no GM(Gnostigmata, Capes) or the “GM” isn’t really one and he’s a player with different capabilities and responsebilities(Threads and Cranium Rats).

This is an antithesis to some of the games who had Party Vs. GM, they weren’t CSI Games as you didn’t have an option of allying, you were given that you were cooperative within the party, very much a proto-CSI Games issue. In a CSI Game you need the competition to be nigh all-encompassing, and there isn’t room for “We” as much as “He and I, for now”. And so the issue of “GM or Not” takes rise, and the answer for most CSI Games will be “Not”, because if he’s there, he’s a Conflict stiffling and out-of entity.

Cranium Rats – Meta-Chanics.

This is a post which is not re-posted from my LiveJournal, hard as that may be to imagine.

I did not post this on my game, the Meta-Chanics section because I believe in a "Double-Blinders" test of the system, but fuck it, we could have that later. I'll explain this concept later in two posts or so, expect it by the end of the week.

The following is more or less the way Mechanics work in Cranium Rats. Since this blog is about Competitive Games, specifically CSI Games, and Cranium Rats is one such game(and because it's mine the one who will show quite prominently as an example) I thought I'd show it.
Let me note that much could be considered as "Added weight", unlike Capes which to me feels like The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings – Constructed. The world/game was constructed in advance, and then things were added to it. I go the other way, where you create the world as characters experience it, so much was created by "urge" and "instinct".

Here goes:
First, why this is NOT in the playtest file:
I want to see if the mechanics actually work as intended, IE, whether the meta-chanic goals are reached. If I tell people why things operate as they do and what they should operate as it’d become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which I’m very much against. I even think each game needs playtesting of its mechanics alone – where the playtesters get no background bits at all but just have the system and we see what they reach.

Tokens exist to support the Narrative. In a way they are also a tool for you to “Mark” other players as Tony explains in Capes. What people spend their Tokens on is what they care about, which gives you more information regarding them.
Note that at the first session the Enlightened begins with 8 Tokens, 5 for session and 3 for the three initial Flood Scenes that culminate character generation; this is so he could set the general background and feel of the game during the first round or two, by narrating both the scenes up to conflicts and their results, or by giving people Goals.
Tokens belong to the players, and since each player plays across three characters he needs to choose where to spend his effort, given that those who spread themselves are less likely to win in any location. Players will likely concentrate on their Rat and Dirt since they exert more direct influence there, and will use Tokens for Water as intended, when they want to advance that character’s story, which they are already pretty much in control of.
Tokens are finite, generation of Tokens is not that easy, at least not for players. When players spend Tokens they usually go to the Enlightened, and when he spends them they usually disappear. Using Tokens to exert mechanical influence “Removes” Tokens, using them to exert story influence gives them to someone else, who may end up using them against you. This would make players hoard their tokens, thus the “Use them or lose them” bit, which stops them from sitting on their asses passively, which leads us to our next point:
Game Length is helped along by Tokens and thus fulfills the movie/TV episode feel I want the game play to have! If you have a Medium session it’ll be followed by another Medium one, where people have Tokens, use them, resolve Goals, use Tokens. When you have a Short session it should be followed by a Long session and then another Short session; At the end of a short session players are left with unused Tokens so they will scramble to set them up in the only way they can “keep” them: they will set up new Goals for themselves. The next session should be long, so that players would use up all of their given Tokens, would have to resolve their Goals for more Tokens and then use them as well. The next session should be short as well to let players set new Goals.
The Enlightened “opposes” the Aspects’ selfishness, thus the conditions when he gains new Tokens.

Die Reservoir is there to let the players exert direct control over things. The reason the Die Reservoir limit and where it starts when you go up/down is set is to combat Death Spirals. If the higher you go the less likely you are to be able to exert influence, and that’s crap, I don’t want that.
I used “Sweet in the middle” in order to get people to haul ass and do things. You want to control the character in a scene (You do, you can’t gain Marks, go up and eventually win otherwise), then you need to use dice in Biddings. But in order to gain Dice anew you must participate in Conflicts, and win them.
The “Sweet in the middle” makes you want to use your Dice, because otherwise when you win you give the other players Tokens, which you’d really rather not. If you use them and lose, you are in risk of going down since you lose a die when you lose a Conflict.
Those who participate can use dice from Die Reservoir in conflicts on a 1-for-1 basis, those outside it need to pay 2-for-1, giving more importance to Tokens and showing that if you’re not on it, then you have a harder time exerting influence, propelling you to be “on it”.

On Player interaction:
The Marks work in a “One step forward, two steps back” kind of way. You need to win conflicts to go up, but if you lose, you lose them all. There is no benefit to having Marks less than your Ratio, so on you go, hoping your fellow players won’t screw you.
As shown in the Actual Play example, you can “Force” others to help you, because when a Trait goes to 0 it is the Highest Aspect that goes down, so he has vested interest in helping you not lose.
Aspect Ratios exist to make players form “alliances” or have vested interest. So you’re Rat, you may want Dirt or Water to be higher, depending on your preferred play-style.
There’s a double-helix tension going on here: Someone is getting too high, so the rest of you gang up on him to get him down. You get him down, but now he remembers you screwed him so he’s more like to be combative against you, across all characters.

On Currency flow:
Too many Dice results in others getting Tokens.
Too little Dice means a Flood Scene is going to occur, where the usage of resources is fast and furious, and The Enlightened gets a Token.
The higher you go, the more likely you’ll go over the Die Reservoir Limit, giving others more resources to stop you the higher you go. You may even be tempted to pour Tokens/Dice onto others to gain Tokens back.
The Free Dice in Flood Scenes means it’s most likely someone will have vested interest, seeing how he already has 50% of getting/retaining the dot if no one else bids. Note how when an Aspect Drops you first gain your full Die Reservoir, so you can bid the whole 6 dice; if you win it’s all good, you get your Dot back plus 6 dice. If you lose however, you lost a die and are very close to losing another!
Tokens result in Dice. Dice result in Tokens.
Dice can be used to gain control over story, instead of them being used to gain control over mechanics.
Tokens can be used to exert control over story, giving others the same right or letting them gain control over mechanics.

Advantages exist to help people be more invested.
Water narrates makes the Water player active, even though he plays a more passive role when it comes to the Aspects themselves.
Character win over Aspects is very rare, usually occurs in spite of what the players do, not because of, because it’s at the mercy of dice.

To recap, the mechanics are there to promote conflict, pacts and betrayals. They are there to encourage competition. Don't forget, the mechanics impose a "Win" condition, and once you have that, players will strive towards it.