Does freedom ruin fictional positioning?

edited December 2013 in Story Games
Forgive the loaded thread title, but the refined version is less concise:

Does fictional positioning become less relevant when players are operating with fewer constraints?

I haven't fully thought this through, but it seems to me that perhaps adjusting the possibilities in a very limited space is more impactful than adjusting them in a very open space.

Limited:
On my action, I can use my character to open up new possibilities for myself. Currently, my character is at the bottom of the stairs with no weapon in hand. If I use my action to draw my sword and climb the stairs, I can now hope to injure the badguy atop the stairs, whereas before I could not.

Open:
On my action, I can narrate anything fair (i.e. that doesn't undo what the last player said) and non-stupid (i.e. that doesn't violate our genre and aesthetics) to open up new possibilities for myself. Currently, my character is at the bottom of the stairs with no weapon in hand. If I use my action to describe the second floor crumbling and dropping the badguy at my feet in prime kicking position, I can now injure him... just as I could have already by narrating the crumbling differently. The specific color of the possibilities has changed, but that's a smaller difference than in the Limited version above.

I often get this feeling -- that the steps leading up to ultimate resolution aren't consequential -- in games where everyone GMs, or where there's zoomed-out conflict resolution, or where a single roll resolves complex stakes that demand and allow multi-step explanation. Whenever I have the opportunity to just talk from wherever the fiction is at to wherever I want it to be, then the starting point doesn't really impact my options.

Here's some actual play:

In my In A Wicked Age group, when we narrated successful rolls (and Answers to successful rolls), we would establish new truths of magic, or dictate the arrival and disposition of NPCs, or anything else that satisfied our sense of the story's drama and tone. We came up with some cool stuff, and it was great fun! But we didn't get much out of the multi-step conflict system besides a chance to talk more before ultimately resolving.

I was told that the early Answers in a conflict were supposed to introduce risks, which might be threatening enough to make me consider forsaking my objective! "Sounds fun!" I thought. But in practice, not once in 3 sessions did any player experience that. Risks were introduced, to be sure! But given our level of narrative freedom ("The hordes of the dead wither before sunlight!" "The governor arrives and sees you!"), no one risk was ever able to change a player's overall position significantly.

If you used your second narration to have the guards rush in and threaten to imprison me, thus putting that on the table for Round 3, what had really changed? I mean, I dig the foreshadowing, but it's not as if you couldn't have just had guards rush in and imprison me on Round 3 without it.

There are many issues involved here -- brand new facts vs changes to established facts; mechanical weight to facts vs none; zoomed in vs zoomed out; costs (spending an action in the above stairs & sword example); probably more. I just hope the freedom issue is central enough to get some discussion going. What do y'all think?
«1

Comments

  • My answer, at least for now: yes, absolutely!

    I'll be curious to give it more thought and to see what others say, however.

    Great post!
  • A lot of terms here, but to start somewhere: can you describe what fictional positioning is?
  • Yes. "Positioning" in RPGs plays the same role that position plays in all games. If we're playing soccer and I have the ability to alter the terrain or the boundary lines then the importance of your position on the field is extremely attenuated. If I can alter the rules or the composition of the rosters then your position on the team matters less or not at all. In an RPG when you can direct-edit "the fiction" then the fiction can't serve as reliably as the foundation that you play in so the position of the characters within that fiction doesn't matter as much.
  • One thing that occurs to me, thinking on this a little more, though, is that it depends on the nature of what's going on. For instance, two players in competition (like a fight, as you're describing In a Wicked Age...) definitely will relate differently to fictional positioning when it doesn't have "teeth" - in that game, I don't mind if my opponent describes the fountain pouring forth blood or whatever, because I know it's just colour; my chances of winning and getting what I want haven't just changed.

    But, there are still things that happen in the fiction in games that are more on the free-narration side of things which impact play heavily. For instance, if someone's adding juicy details to the developing fiction and *we're all on board with it, and supporting their contribution*, then it can be very meaningful, regardless of how much "freedom" exists in the system.

    As a simple example, we're playing My Life with Master. As a group, we're collectively coming up with horrible, terrible things about the Master, and we've all completely bought into that being significant, that being horrible, that being not very much in our favour. We're all celebrating the material together - look how horrible the Master is! - and, here, I would say that some of the fictional positioning we're coming up with ("the Master has dogs which can unerringly scent any creature at 5 miles distance!") is very significant, even though we're effectively without many constraints in determining it. We all want to see that colour and that positioning in play, we're all supporting it, so even though we have great freedom in creating it, it's certainly impacting play very meaningfully.
  • Paul_T:
    Great example.

    David:
    It sounds like you're describing a situation where the mechanics used are at odds with the intent of the game ( sigh, yes...Agenda...there I said it).

    Your example was one where it seems like in-fiction challenge is important, but your Open example is using mechanics that don't necessarily support the fun of in-fiction challenge.

    IOW, are you really just asking about whether big, open mechanics that let you put all kinds of stuff into the fiction are a bad match for Challenge (in-fiction) based play?
  • Rickard: "fictional positioning" is the rpg equivalent of game state in a board game or other more concrete games. It simply means established facts about the situation we're playing. I think Vincent developed the term originally, and I've myself found it very useful in describing the sort of challengeful adventure D&D I've been playing lately: it's a game that is all about the procedure of establishing where your character is standing, and then relying on this established fact to develop maneuvers.

    Note that fictional positioning includes not only spatial position, but all ephemeral situational facts that we have established, such as hunger, wounds, friendships, shared languages, weaknesses of the monster, whatever. On the other hand, it does not include anything that has not actually been brought into the shared fiction, so the contents of the character sheet, the GM's plans, these things are not fictional positioning. A good heuristic for recognizing it is to ask whether a player will have credibility for referencing back to some fact: if the fact can be used as a basis for further input, then it apparently is some sort of positioning.

    As for David's proposition, it makes sense to me. I mean, saying that a game has "freedom" in this sense is the same as saying that it does not care about positioning in a powerful way that influences procedure, right? Usually when we talk about something like this there's always somebody who tells us that of course Dust Devils or Dogs in the Vineyard or whatever cares about fictional positioning, but to me it's pretty obvious that these games specifically only consider the highest-order matters in this regard (whether you're in the scene at all, whether you know what happened in the last scene, and so on) and constructively ignore or rewrite minor maneuvers (how many bullets in your gun, where is your horse hitched). This is caused, of course, by the games not having rigorous procedure for establishing tactical sort of fictional positioning in the first place: if it's always a given that we don't know where your character is standing before it becomes important, and we can rewrite it anyway if we do know, then of there's no reason to worry about the positioning in advance.

    The big advantage of reducing the positioning load is of course that the game is quicker to play without it. It's a game design trade-off, you need to decide what you want to spend your time doing. One extreme is like old school D&D where you spend a lot of time doing completely inconsequential things like marching orders on the pure supposition that it might matter at some point (well, of course we know genre-wise that this sort of positioning will probably matter, it's not like we're spending time micro-managing tea sets most of the time), and the other is like David's IaWA example where narrated events can have their significance pre-empted because players are free to recontextualize the positioning however they want.

    Regarding your specific example, David: one could play IaWA in a less extremely narrative manner, too. Specifically, it sounds to me like you're negotiating and narrating without concern for pre-established positioning, heaving and thrashing without care for what has been said before whenever it comes to your turn in the spotlight. I don't know that there is anything to be done about this if the players prioritize e.g. winning over interesting fiction, but it is good to notice that it's not just the game, but also the players who opt for the level of sensitivity they display. Admittedly IaWA is not too clear on this, and it doesn't actually do anything to ensure that the players find the appropriate level of position-sensitivity. Just like e.g. Dust Devils or Zombie Cinema in this regard, they're all games that just assume that the "narrator" will show constraint and therefore maintain the significance that fictional position has for play. Nothing in the rules per se even attempts to tackle the issue of how to teach player-narrators to discover the golden mean between the dramatically weak and positionally inconsiderate moves. These games just tell you to "narrate a resolution" and leave it up to you to determine whether this means rewriting the entire setting with a few ill-chosen words, or what.
  • edited December 2013
    ...and I've myself found it very useful in describing the sort of challengeful adventure D&D I've been playing lately:
    And I've been using fictional positioning a lot in collaborative storytelling as part of a non-mechanical reward system - I would even say fictional positioning is crucial for that type of play - so when I read David's post, I wondered the same thing as komradebob.
  • Usually when we talk about something like this there's always somebody who tells us that of course Dust Devils or Dogs in the Vineyard or whatever cares about fictional positioning, but to me it's pretty obvious that these games specifically only consider the highest-order matters in this regard (whether you're in the scene at all, whether you know what happened in the last scene, and so on) and constructively ignore or rewrite minor maneuvers (how many bullets in your gun, where is your horse hitched).
    I think you're making a mistake by assuming that because DITV doesn't care about those details it doesn't care about any details. DITV primes the players to care a lot more about the moral landscape than the physical landscape. It's a powerful move in DITV to throw someone's hypocrisy in their face, but that couldn't be true if their character's past actions and statements were floaty abstractions. Different games care about position in different ways.
  • Interesting!

    So, here's my thought: fictional positioning happens because you are positioned relative to something. When there's nothing concrete to position yourself relative to, then fictional positioning is meaningless. Fictional positioning gains meaning when a mechanic lets you position yourself relative to something.

    I agree that "Different games care about position in different ways," as @DanMaruschak put it. Look at the rules of the game, and that's where your fictional positioning will be: relative to what the rules give you.
  • I tried to compose my treatment to accord with the fact that different games care about different types of positioning. Regardless of that, though, I stand by my actual point: games have a variety of processes for establishing and utilizing fictional positioning, and it is entirely natural for games that do not rely on it as much as some others to also be more lax about it. There is an unity of utility and concern here, where games that do not need or want positioning also do not support maintaining it.

    As for DitV specifically, it is mid-realistic ("realistic" as an adjective for "cares about fictional positioning" here) at best, and hardly an example of a game with robust and detailed fictional positioning. Big-issue facts are established and respected, yes, especially when judging the applicability of traits (you can't use a trait without having fictional position where it is vaguely relevant), but minor tactical positioning is only relevant in the way it is relevant for any other low-positioning game. Like in Paul's example about MLwM, nuanced positioning only matters in DiV insofar as the players decide to care about it, and not as a systemic matter. Anybody doubting me may read the DitV paragraphs about trait applicability, which pretty clearly say that it's up to the group to establish their own parameters for how tightly trait applicability is judged. This is practically the definition of a non-positioning game, the only limit to your ability to draw on "I am strong-willed" is consensual sensibility.

    For clarity, we might compare DitV to a game with much less realistic procedures, simply to see how it truly is merely midway between genuinely tight and genuinely loose positioning. Consider My Life with Master: in that game it is not possible for you to miss your challenge or have the procedure of dicing influenced in any way except those clearly enumerated in the rules. It doesn't matter whether your character is "in the scene", it doesn't matter whether you don't want to roll the dice, it doesn't matter that your character has a shotgun. All these major positioning elements matter in DiV, but in MLwM they do not affect the procedural level of the game in any way. That's what a hardcore non-positioning game looks like.

    We could also take a look at a hardcore positioning game, but I think that everybody here knows what old school D&D looks like by now. Much more positioning-dependent than DitV, you can lose your conflict at any moment in any realm imaginable due to the most minuscule fictional detail, and there is no guarantee that you can fix the details by simply boldly asserting some tactical movement that clears it up.

    I emphasize that I do not see this as an issue of social vs. military tactics or anything of the sort, you can design your game to be more or less positioning-dependent in all realms of action. DitV is an example of a mildly formalistic (non-positioning, that is) game because it doesn't have a miniatures combat grid, but simply because it leaves minor positioning open to constant revision and player narration, exactly like In a Wicked Age.
  • DITV caring "a medium amount" seems right to me. That wasn't how I read your original comment, which I thought was implying it barely cared at all.
  • edited December 2013
    If I may, (knowing folks are already discussing things at cross-purposes a bit), I'd like to go back to the first post and this particular clause...

    "If I use my action to describe..."

    So, here's a thing:

    There are two BROAD categories of playing these games, and some games are all about one, and some are about the other, and then some games are in the middle, and some games aren't clear.

    The two BROAD categories (for exaggerate purposes are):

    "I can do what my character can do, and that's it."
    "I'm making up shared narration with my friends and I can *do* far beyond what my character can do."

    The first type of at-one-end-of-the-scale game might be AD&D, Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, Hero Wars, and countless others. What I get to do as an action = what I can describe = what my character can do. And that's it. My description is my character's action. Please note that in David's OP, the player describing the stairs falling down have nothing to do with the character's action. This is the exact opposite this format.

    The type of at the other end of the scale of these two types might be Universalis. Players use their coins to alter the facts of the narrative. The Player's action (not the Character's action -- two different things!) is to describe something about the world independent of the characters actions (though it might involve the actions of the characters.) There are also games that let you spend points (or other kinds of mechanics) to re-design reality to your Character's benefit.

    (There is, of course, the grey area: The perfect example is the Player with a character in a bar saying, "I grab a beer mug off the bar and slam it at the guy." Was the beer mug specifically established beforehand. Perhaps not. But there's a good chance there's a beer mug at hand on the bar. So we go with it as part of the first type. The key is, the description = character's action -- not, description = nothing to do with the Character's action.

    And then there's a lot of games where things can get really convoluted. In a Wicked Age, Primetime Adventures, and others, which are, in my view, designed to the be played the first way but then spin out of crazy control into the second way.

    As Eero points out, In a Wicked Age doesn't draw clear lines on where the line of narrative power gets drawn. However, having read up on the game, I'm pretty sure that we're supposed to play it ONLY about what out character can do as a specific action in a specific action -- and that's it. We're not supposed to be adding in the actions of other than the characters -- no hordes showing up out of the blue simply because we won our victory. No. The victory in IaWA is all about the specific positioning established by the characters, between the characters, and the actions and conflict between them.

    Lots of people expand the possible "action" to mean the "Player's action" (rather than the "Character's action") in terms of what is described. This is a HUGE difference. The Character can only deal with what is at hand with fictional positioning. The Player can -- well, change anything. The exaggeration might make sense with what has come before or break all the logic of what has come before. But the key is this: In one case the Player is describing actions only through the possible actions of the character... and in the other he is making actions through the possible decisions of an omniscient writer.

    So, to answer David's question: "Does the freedom to describe actions outside of the character's actions ruin fictional positioning?" My answer: Absolutely yes.

    But I'm trying to point out that many of the games where this is happening were never designed to work this way. In Primetime Adventures, when there's a conflict, the Player is pushing to get the character to succeed at something, and that's it. The willy-nilly reframing of all reality, or extending the scope of the image beyond the scale of the character's actions, one gets the very description David posted in in his first post, with these key words:

    "I often get this feeling -- that the steps leading up to ultimate resolution aren't consequential -- in games where everyone GMs, or where there's zoomed-out conflict resolution, or where a single roll resolves complex stakes that demand and allow multi-step explanation. Whenever I have the opportunity to just talk from wherever the fiction is at to wherever I want it to be, then the starting point doesn't really impact my options."

    On other RPG boards I used to see all these people writing about how the Players in indie games had all this narrative authority to change reality as they wished outside the actions of their characters, and I'd think, "What they hell games are they talking about? Those games exist. But they are small in number." Over time I realized they weren't talking about the games, but how the games were played. I'd offer that more successful, fulfilling play can be had in these games by pulling back on the narrative stick and keeping it tied to the actions of the character at hand.

    ***

    Story/Writing Note:

    David used these words "the steps leading up to ultimate resolution aren't consequential." I want to address this for a moment.

    In my vocabulary, the issue is CAUSALITY. Causality is why an action sequence in a move works or doesn't work. Causality is fictional positioning. The reason narrative freedom outside of the characters blows up fictional positioning is because such freedom blows past causality -- and thus blows past fictional positioning.

    Spielberg is the master of causality. Take apart the sequences in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC and notice that even when new details are added and the tension ratchets up because of new details, the details and rising tension are there because of only what has come before and what has happened because of the characters. (Why does the engine start up? Because Miriam knocks someone unconscious he falls on the controls. Why does the airplane start spinning around? Because someone in the fight grabbed the blocks from the wheel.)

    When players start adding details to the conflict (the steps leading up to ultimate resolution, as David phrases it), the narrative almost always starts spinning away in dangerous, unclear, and unsatisfying ways. "The Hordes of the Undead with in the sunlight" is an awesome image... but it is not the character who takes an action, desperately tries to survive, makes a choice that fails, finds the solution, whatever. It lacks Causality -- the causality of one action of a character to another action of a character to another action of a character... And once you leave the character, it's all just stuff-happening. Think of adventure/action movies where cool things happen and yet they leave you frustrated and not-pleased. Take them apart. You will see this exact problem.

    There's a lot to be said about this, but I'll recommend (once more) reading FILM CRITIC HULK's SCREENWRITING 101. He uses the word Causality properly and perfectly. And his analysis of how to make effective action sequences have a lot to teach about why we want to limit "narrative freedom" to have more fun.
  • I would say that it is less that the more freeform rules limit the usefulness of fictional positioning and more that freeform rules permit players to discard much of it if they think they don't want it. Problems arise when they actually do want it more than they think they do.

    Imagine a DitV game where one player is an absolute stickler for positioning and demands everyone thoroughly justify every action, and the rest of the table gives no fucks. The system isn't going to give that one player the mechanical tools to force what he wants to happen on the others.
  • edited December 2013
    Overall, I agree with what's been said. One quibble:
    it sounds to me like you're negotiating and narrating without concern for pre-established positioning, heaving and thrashing without care for what has been said before whenever it comes to your turn in the spotlight.
    That's not how I'd describe it. We didn't undo or violate what had been said before -- we simply didn't look to prior speech as a primary source of causality.

    I would say that, with an established truth of "in this world, the secrets of life and death are a mystery", announcing the action "I perform the spell my clan knows to raise the dead" is actually Bad Play. I argue against that stuff when it comes up, and it didn't come up in my IAWA game. I'm quite certain that it's also never necessary. With GM-like powers of narration, respecting what's been said while still inventing developments to save your character is easy.

    To add some teeth to fictional positioning, we'd need to do a lot more than simply respect prior statements. We'd need to use them as causal agents or something. In IAWA, a good rule might be "regardless of your roll, you can't render a prior statement irrelevant -- any looming threats need to stay looming and then come to pass unless a Compromise or Damage specifically thwarts them".
    I don't know that there is anything to be done about this if the players prioritize e.g. winning over interesting fiction
    Probably not, outside of different rules. However, this is not what happened at my table. It was my group's idea of "interesting fiction" that led us to play in a broad and free narrative manner. We had a lot of GMs at the table, and most of us were better at colorfully narrating Great Happenings than Here's Something Mundane My Guy Does.

    In my experience, it's easy for even an inspired and accomplished narrator to forsake tight-knit causality while still providing great fun in the moment. It's only after a while that the cumulative effect of inconsequential statements begins to sap some vitality from play.

    If I were to tell my group, "We're trying to craft a cool story tonight, and in cool stories things only happen because of what has come before, so let's make sure we do that," I wonder if it'd fly. I 100% agree with Christopher, and I think the Raiders example is excellent, but applying that in the moment of improv is a whole other matter. I suspect that, absent very strong incentives, most folks will take the path of less resistance; so, without mechanical rewards, it'd take a very strong commitment.

    An easier path might be to simply zoom in, or to use a fictional scenario where everything we care about occurs within a known physical area.
  • Imagine a game where you can narrate anything that does not contravene another player's positioning (but you can contravene your own). So, for instance, if Bob narrates, "The sheriff locks you all in the cell," then Bob is the only player who can narrate anything along the lines of an explosion knocking a hole in the wall or even the deputy placing the key to the cell on a nearby shelf.

    So this is an application of Czege's Rule, right? Right.
  • edited December 2013
    fictional positioning happens because you are positioned relative to something.
    Agreed.
    Fictional positioning gains meaning when a mechanic lets you position yourself relative to something.
    That would make this simpler to analyze, but I don't think it's accurate. I mean, fortunately for the entirety of OSR play, I'm pretty sure it's inaccurate. It's not just mechanics, it's also the acknowledgement of the GM and group that your character is, in fact, holding a weapon, which position you to attack with your sword etc. The difference between "have you established that you're holding your sword?" vs "we can just assume you're holding your sword if that's convenient" is largely one of play culture in my experience.
  • are you really just asking about whether big, open mechanics that let you put all kinds of stuff into the fiction are a bad match for Challenge (in-fiction) based play?
    That's certainly the easiest example, but no. There's also the broad desire to have one's narrative contributions matter in a certain way, as performative rather than passive entertainment. Plus, I suspect, many shades in between.

    I can't comment on the MLWM example because I don't know the game. I've certainly played other games where enthusiastically agreed-upon set-up content might or might not see play, so I wouldn't automatically label such stuff as positionally relevant.
  • @David: OK, if I get you right, are you saying that if there are full freedom to narrate anything, there will be no effort for the participants? If so, I agree. I like how Bernard Suits defines a game as “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles” where the last part implies that games should have an inefficiency. If narrating the outcome comes with no hindrance, the experience becomes bland. It's too easy and no effort will take place.

    So this makes me interpret your words as the following: without having constraints (inefficiency), the fictional positioning becomes less relevant (because you can come up with pretty much anything).

    To make a stupid example: what hinders me from saying "I change her mind" or "I teleport away" all the time in a system free from constraints?
  • To make a stupid example: what hinders me from saying "I change her mind" or "I teleport away" all the time in a system free from constraints?
    The specific answer for low-positioning systems tends to be that you can't because we perceive a conflict with stakes in this matter, and thus you need to first succeed in a dice roll to do that. Another (possibly more extreme) answer is that you can indeed narrate that, but such narration can't actually avoid the mechanical consequences of the situation. MLwM is of the latter type: you can narrate whatever (although in good faith you generally attempt to be at least somewhat sensible about it), but that does not remove the mechanically mandated dice roll and mechanical consequences for it.

    Of course there are even more freeform games out there, but this isn't really so much a rules vs. freeform question as a matter of what you can get away with in the local system, even if that system is just "ask the GM what he'll let you do". The truly positioning-agnostic game is not necessarily freeform, but rather something like the most broken implementations of Once Upon a Time, where you're technically just babbling something vaguely fairy-tale related while pushing cards out of your hand.
  • edited December 2013
    To make a stupid example: what hinders me from saying "I change her mind" or "I teleport away" all the time in a system free from constraints?
    MLwM is of the latter type: you can narrate whatever (although in good faith you generally attempt to be at least somewhat sensible about it), but that does not remove the mechanically mandated dice roll and mechanical consequences for it.
    I totally agree with what you write, but my silly example were just there to strengthen my point and not really to be answered. The example said the game were free of constraints, and rules are constraints. (That's why my example is silly, it's not even a game if I want to follow Suits' definition.)
  • edited December 2013
    Rickard, I'd say that a game's obstacles/inefficiencies/constraints can come from various sources, and that "established fiction" is one such source, along with "mechanics", "your group's house rules", etc.

    In this thread, I'm not talking about when the game overall lacks constraint; I'm just talking about when the constraint isn't coming from established fiction. (To clarify, by "established" I mean "established by a participant's action", not "brought in from media" or something else.)

    My concern here is when fictional contributions don't produce consequences, although I agree that "don't require effort" can apply too.
  • edited December 2013
    I like what you write in the first sentence.

    What do you have in mind with "don't produce consequences"? Because I interpret it as "having to take into account later". When I reread your first post the following example ...
    On my action, I can use my character to open up new possibilities for myself. Currently, my character is at the bottom of the stairs with no weapon in hand. If I use my action to draw my sword and climb the stairs, I can now hope to injure the badguy atop the stairs, whereas before I could not.
    ... doesn't show any kind of consequence. You could say that hitting the opposition is a consequence of narrating the sword in the first place, but it strike me as a weird example. The narration of the sword is a prerequisite for an action, and not a consequence. It's a prerequisite made by the same player who narrates the action, and not something that player instead have to take into account. For me, to create fictional positioning is to make others take what I narrate into account. If there are no such constraints for the others (or me for what others narrate), the game usually becomes bland. (This is probably what @Bape_Escape means when he talks about Yes, and/but in improv, where "and" accepts while "but" rejects.) If I ignore what you just said or counter what you said to make it obsolete - "The hordes of the dead wither before sunlight!" - that's not really taking your narration into account. That's rejecting it.

    (Btw, I'm prefer doing smaller posts with questions. It keeps, in my experience, the discussion more flowing.)
  • edited December 2013
    Agreed, others must take the narration into account for it to qualify as consequential. My example needs at least one more detail to qualify as consequential, so let's add the simplest one: combat rounds. With combat rounds, "I draw my sword" means that I can stab your guy next round. Previously, I could not. Call the draw a mere prerequisite if you want; it's still consequential, because you're one round closer to getting stabbed than you were before, and you have one fewer action to spend on escaping it or doing other stuff first.

    This is still true without official action/combat rounds as long as the group is precisely accounting for the passage of fictional time.

    Often this takes the form of pre-action prep. The players, knowing that they'll be taking damage while setting traps and loading crossbows once the combat starts, set traps and load crossbows before combat, when fictional time is not the precious resource that it will soon become.
  • edited December 2013
    Agreed, others must take the narration into account for it to qualify as consequential. My example needs at least one more detail to qualify as consequential, so let's add the simplest one: combat rounds. With combat rounds, "I draw my sword" means that I can stab your guy next round. Previously, I could not. Call the draw a mere prerequisite if you want; it's still consequential, because you're one round closer to getting stabbed than you were before, and you have one fewer action to spend on escaping it or doing other stuff first.
    Yes, now it's a consequence because you have to spend an action on it. In your first example, I thought drawing a sword and climbing the stairs to hit the bad guy was one whole action. With rounds, the example makes sense. I kind of realize now that I quoted the wrong example. :) If we look at your example of an open system ...
    If I use my action to describe the second floor crumbling and dropping the badguy at my feet in prime kicking position, I can now injure him... just as I could have already by narrating the crumbling differently. The specific color of the possibilities has changed, but that's a smaller difference than in the Limited version above.
    ... we can see how you make the stairs obsolete by your narration and therefor rejecting it. [edit] Is your problem that the player takes a shortcut by not having to spend an action on drawing the sword, like in the example of the limited system? I would instead see it as a smart move for the player and cheer for it.
  • edited December 2013
    Agreed.
  • Here's a thought: after mentioning time as a factor, it occurs to me that maybe fictional positioning could be chopped into two categories:

    • Impermanent time-sensitive stuff (I'm hidden; my sword is ready)

    • Ongoing or permanent stuff (I know the Hide spell; I own a sword)

    (The latter tends to feel like direct player positioning when these resource/effectiveness conversions/gains/losses have mechanical quantities attached, but then there's also stuff like "I trade the banner that proves my true ancestry for the banner that will let me masquerade as part of the Red Knight's court", which definitely seems like fictional positioning to me.)

    I doubt this is a new idea, but might be convenient for this discussion.
  • edited December 2013
    Christopher Kubasik said:
    "In my vocabulary, the issue is CAUSALITY."
    THIS.

  • Eero points out some interesting interplay between, rules, causality, and our interpretation of fictional positioning.

    Consider this, to look at the issue inside-out for a second:

    We're playing IaWA, and your character and mine get into a conflict.

    We can both narrate very sensible, consequential character actions.

    Or we can both narrate wild, creative stuff without limiting ourselves to what has been established.

    Either way, though, the conflict will go on and eventually resolve. Those two ways of playing will feel different, but they haven't changed the process in a significant way. The fiction may look a bit different; the game made feel concrete, perhaps. But this is just part of the puzzle.

    The design of the game (the system in play, whether it's all rules-in-the-book or established play culture precedents) is still a huge factor in how this comes about.

    Consider:

    We're playing IaWA, and your character and mine get into a conflict.

    We can both narrate very sensible, consequential character actions.

    Or we can both narrate wild, creative stuff without limiting ourselves to what has been established.

    But, either way, I could potentially narrate something on my turn which should simply shut down the conflict. Maybe I push you off the cliff and you fall off the floating island, in the first round of rolling. Or let's say your character is a revenant, magically animated by a gem hanging from a voodoo doll. I can narrate my character grabbing the gem and pulling it off the doll.

    We know the likely outcome: probably, the revenant, no longer magically animated, should just fall to the ground, lifeless.

    So, have I ended the conflict?

    No, the rules mandate that we continue to play out the dice conflict. The IaWA rules do not include a reasonable, principled way for narration to circumvent the rules of conflict. We have to either change the action (e.g. by allowing the other character to interfere with it, before it's completed), or change the effects/consequences (ok, you have the gem, but the revenant is still animated... maybe you have to do something else to break the spell).

    It doesn't matter how much has been established through fictional positioning - even if it seems like your character should be able to spoil the magical animation unopposed, we have to play it out differently somehow.

    No amount of fictional positioning, character action, and respecting causality will allow us to change the outcome of the dice conflict or circumvent the mechanical structure of the game.
  • My take on this thing:

    Using absolute directorial omnipotence to achieve the mere goals and interests of one single character is of course not fun!

    If a game is designed to make you look at things through the lens of one character and strive to achieve goals of that one character and so on… please interpret its rules so that whatever vast freedom you get is still confined to what that character could do. That's a reasonable assumption.
    If David's "Open" example in the OP refers to hypothetical IaWA play, f'rex, it sucks as a IaWA move/I wouldn't even call it legit except under a lot of "if"s.

    OTOH, assuming a well-designed game, if your "moves" as a player include doing things that are wildly out of the confines of any character's persona, that's because your goals as a player and general scale of play have nothing to do with merely whacking somebody on the head in a sword-brawl. See Microscope, The Quiet Year, etc.
  • I think that's a great point, Rafu! However, I think a lot of games take place in a (often unconstructed) middle ground, where the character is a major point of interest, but not the major point of interest. If your player goals are to tell a resonant and engaging tale of sorcery and upheaval, many different fictional scales can suffice, and the group needn't be locked into one scale for the duration.

    As for IAWA, I've heard so many conflicting takes on the "right" way to play it that I'd rather not even go there.
  • Dave, if you're referring to my comments, I'd say they apply to any formalist game. (For instance, in My Life with Master you can't simply come up with a clever way to off the Master and have it done with in the second scene of the game.) It's nothing specific to IaWA but a design feature shared by many games.

    As another example, you can't "level up" in D&D just by meeting fictional requirements. It's all about the experience points.
  • edited December 2013
    Nah, I wasn't addressing your points, just Rafu's. I agree with your take on mechanics, but my only takeaway from that re: the thread topic is really boring --"mechanics that don't use fictional positioning... don't use fictional positioning".
  • Perhaps we could develop some further results, dust out the good ol' rpg theory gloves? As a starting point, I suggest the aforementioned idea that looking at fictional positioning may not be as useful as looking at the techniques that you position with. The point of this viewpoint is that we can acknowledge it as a given that fictional positioning is always desirable, because viewed abstractly enough, it is simply the Situation (Big Model, you know) as the players actually manage to paint it. Using my favoured holodeck metaphor: it is often desirable for your holodeck to be populated with objects in relation to other objects at some point in your holodeck exercise, so the question is merely when and how you bring these elements in - are they part of the scenario, do you create them yourself, do you position them or randomize the positions, or what. The question is not whether we want a lot of it or a little of positioning, the question is how can we get as much useful positioning as possible, without paying an incommensurate cost in other facets of play. For this purpose we have
    a) techniques that help us position more effectively (e.g. mapping in D&D),
    b) techniques that help us achieve our goals by relying on the positioning (e.g. bonus dice in MLwM), and
    c) techniques that help us ignore useless positioning (e.g. narrator authority in Dust Devils).
    Maybe other sorts as well.

    From this viewpoint the issue that many have with e.g. old school D&D becomes easily understandable: that game pays a price of utility for having such exact positioning. It also uses the positioning for important things, but that doesn't help you at all if those things are not important to you, if you don't believe in the promise of the game. For this reason the bottom falls out of old school D&D the second you start fudging the game: now we are wasting precious minutes of play establishing marching orders, how doors are opened, which corners of the pedestal I grasp when I try to move it - all that is so much bullshit once we've removed the procedure of play that actually looks at this detail and utilizes it for determining who lives and who dies. It is the immense stakes of success and failure that retain our interest in the most minute and outwardly boring fictional positioning.

    Likewise, we can look at and understand the common refrain of the traditional GM: my players don't participate in creating fiction with me, what can I do? His difficulties can be interpreted as a failure of utility for fictional positioning, and a mix-up between positioning and Color: at the truly traditional table nobody can even differentiate between Color and Positioning, because the table is muddled about why we're describing these individualized sword-swings in the first place. The GM wants to narrate a colorful story, while the players think that they're playing position in the old school way. Once the player's understanding grows and he realizes that actually his positioning isn't worth shit, he loses his interest in talking about his bold sword-swings; the GM's failure to offer an alternate motivation for talking about the fictional details then causes the demotivating slump. Further, the tradition answers this slump of motivation with bribes: join me in narrating fiction, and ye shall have bribes in the form of bonuses to your rolls. However, this is no longer genuine positioning, it's merely playing the GM (or the system, as in Wushu and similar) at this point. We can see how positioning "dies" a small death in the history of rpgs at this point. It doesn't disappear entirely, but the hyper-detailed positioning utilized by old school D&D does go away.

    For the modern designer the question remains: how much do you need for the players to establish, how exact do you need to get? We've designed a lot of games that attempt to leave this entirely up to the group playing the game. Zombie Cinema for example, I was fully immersed in the idea of formally defining the external requirements of play while leaving the internals freely negotiable when writing it: the game goes as far as it can towards the ideal that we do not need to require any positioning at all from the players in the design phase, we can leave it entirely up to the genuine creative encounter to discover its own requirements, to discover how a story is best told together. As it happens, this works to a degree: as long as the players acknowledge each other creatively (my greatest regret about the rules text: I should've been more clear about this), you can have wild swings in how much positioning matters and how much is established, all without losing cohesion of the storyline. In ZC and similar games you can run entire scenes without ever saying where your character is, what they are equipped with, or what the relationships between characters are - not all at once, but any single one of those types of positioning can be adopted or discarded on a scene-by-scene basis, all according to a very literary ideal of story-forwarding, where anything goes as long as we can still follow the train of thought. It's a pretty interesting outcome, and opens the door for all sorts of ironic ambiguity and interpretative play.

    However, we have also grown wiser, and today I'd like to think that we realize that the end of the road where you discard all positioning possible is not particularly your goal: your goal is to optimize the efficiency of the positioning you do, and minimize positioning conflicts (important theoretical issue - I think that it is possible to have actively harmful positioning, given the right sort of creative agenda and player chemistry). We want to effectively adopt and discard positioning as desired. I view Fables of Camelot, a game I designed after returning from the formalistic rabbit hole where ZC was born, as a sort of a small exercise in finding the kinds of positioning I wanted to adopt and discard as play went on. It's still to the sparse side of the equation in that the design does not indicate all positioning you need (the rest is provided by the players as they may), but at least it does acknowledge that you can make your game more effective by dealing in positioning as something other than pure in-play creativity.

    Somebody take that further, and maybe get some useful results for David? How can we recognize the types of positioning we want for a given game design case, what are the most efficient techniques we have for adopting positioning, and what are the most efficient techniques for discarding positioning that is unwanted or has served its purpose? These are the theoretical questions as I see them.
  • For me, acknowledging we have our own creative preferences and goals, and that mine is Story Now, character driven thematic play...

    If anything is going to engage the conflict mechanics of the RPG, it is because the Players are having their characters do something (fictional positioning) and then the Players pick up the dice to see if it happens. Apocalypse World does this of course. But it how I started GMing Sorcerer a few years ago. I stopped picking up the dice first for rolls for the NPCs. I never initiated the conflict system myself. In other words, I would press and press and press the PCs -- in one way or another, soft or hard -- and everyone once in a while a Player would say, "Well, fuck no, I'm going through that door he's blocking" and pick up dice to enforce that view. And then I knew we were in a conflict. Then I would pick up dice saying what the NPC was doing -- entering Sorcerer's "free and clear" stage as anyone sorted out whether new details of fictional positioning prompted anyone to make adjustments for what his or her character was doing.

    It's not the same system at all. But this focus on the fictional positioning limited through the PC's action alone to determine when conflict is starting and what it is about sure keeps things focused down.

    I would say Sorcerer is the tighter of the two, by the way. There is no need to negotiate or image the result of the fiction outside of the specific and direction actions of the characters. (This is where In a Wicked Age gets slippery, in my view. Once we begin Negotiating, who is "negotiating"? The Players? The Characters? We've suddenly cut the cord for the fictional positioning balloon and it's floating away. It's easy to have it slip away from the characters imaginatively -- and suddenly we're describing zombie hordes killed by the sunrise or making statements about the true lineage of each other's mothers that suddenly makes us brother and sister out of the blue or whatnot.)

    In Sorcerer what my character does affects your character directly and mechanically and fictionally, and visa versa -- and that's it.. All of this this is one of the things I love most about the game, I've come to realize. Between the technique described in the first half of this post and that results discussed now, the lens is focused tightly on and within the emotional and physical application of the character between and against other characters. It's limited focus on both counts is it's absolute strength. Anything that smacks of abstractions between fictional positioning for input or output begins to make me less interested, if not fidgety and bored.

    As I said above, by the way, In a Wicked Age can be played this way... but one has to keep hold of that string with the fictional positioning floating above held tight. I've been re-reading Tanith Lee's Night's Master, which is a reference point for the game and I think essential reading for "getting" the game. And it's all right there in the prose how I think the system should work in the conflicts between characters. But I think there are traps in the system and it requires discipline and work in how one is thinking fictionally, a certain kind of thinking, to keep the game in line.

    But yeah, all that stuff I just wrote about Sorcerer, that's why I still love the game the most.
  • edited December 2013
    (This is where In a Wicked Age gets slippery, in my view. Once we begin Negotiating, who is "negotiating"? The Players? The Characters? We've suddenly cut the cord for the fictional positioning balloon and it's floating away. It's easy to have it slip away from the characters imaginatively -- and suddenly we're describing zombie hordes killed by the sunrise or making statements about the true lineage of each other's mothers that suddenly makes us brother and sister out of the blue or whatnot.)
    It's the player, because the fallback for a failed negotiation is exhaustion or injury. Specifically, it's the winning player who wants something other than exhaustion or injury to be inflicted, or the losing player who wants something other than exhaustion or injury to be received. The failure point you're worried about is a little earlier, when a player decides they may not want their character to pursue or achieve their Best Interest. In 90% of IAWA games I've played this is not an actual failure point because people engage with that mechanic by pursuing the Best Interest. In the remaining 10%, it only works if you've determined what sorts of thing will happen if the Best Interest isn't pursued (so the other player can figure out how they feel about exhaustion/injury in comparison to it).

    Once someone is pursuing their Best Interest (or has stated, generally, the consequences of failing to do so), the other player(s) know how to situate their negotiation requests.

  • I'm not saying it can't be done. I'm only saying that negotiate between Players means floating above the immediate fictional positioning of the PCs... and that floating above tempts people to head into non-PC-driven fictional results. As I've state twice in this thread now, there's no need to do this. I'm only pointing at where the coupling gets weeks in fictional positioning causality and saying, "Watch out for this."

    One of my favorite RPG sessions ever was with IaWA. But the GM (Vasco Brown) held us to our Best Interests and the narrow lens of our Character POV's for what actions resulted in conflicts.
  • edited December 2013
    the question is how can we get as much useful positioning as possible, without paying an incommensurate cost in other facets of play. For this purpose we have
    a) techniques that help us position more effectively (e.g. mapping in D&D),
    b) techniques that help us achieve our goals by relying on the positioning (e.g. bonus dice in MLwM), and
    c) techniques that help us ignore useless positioning (e.g. narrator authority in Dust Devils).
    d) techniques that help us accept and build on other's contributions. (Implied in most roleplaying games but never addressed.)
    e) techniques that helps us build a positive group relation. (No roleplaying game does this.)
    f) techniques that helps us offer contribution, like mantras that build thought patterns or feeds creativity. ("In space, things are bigger" from Star Wars d6 and principles in AW.)
    g) structures that helps us form a coherent story. (scenario structures, like in Feng Shui or Trail of Cthulhu)
    h) intrinsic rewards from having other people build on your ideas. (Instead of bribes [extrinsic rewards] like bonus dice.)
  • Rickard, are your d-h related to fictional positioning, or broader design goals? I ask because if the former I'm extra interested in how e) fits into this. (it's an interesting topic anyway, but one I never thought had a connection to this.)
  • edited December 2013
    They touches fictional positioning. A positive group relation means that you don't reject other people's ideas, for example, or by accepting their contribution making other people feel useful (h). It can also mean being aware of other people and what they like and whatnot. To take care that you don't force your own ideas upon someone. These kind of things.
  • I was writing a long post analyzing how Dreamwake adressed the various aspects of positioning mentioned by Eero and Rickard ... but the internet ate it ç_ç

    My point in short was that NO, freedom doesn't necessarily ruin positioning IF the game offers the right structure tu support it.
    Dreamwake is GM-Less and Co-Operative, yet challenge oriented (in a PvE sort of way) ... and positioning is VERY important.

    I'll maybe try to re-formulate the full post in the next few days.
    Meanwhile, Rickard we discussed the game... what do you think? Is it worth mentioning?

  • I feel like if we restrict "Fictional Positioning" to mean that the characters actions produce bonuses and penalties to the existing mechanics, then that excludes a lot of games that rely on leverage, propriety and scope.
    But, if we allow for Fictional Positioning to account for matters of leverage, propriety and scope, then that basically includes every game that is not dysfunctional.
    Maybe Fictional Positioning is an Actual Play term and not a Design/System term?

    As to Dave's original example, I can't think of a system that allows bypassing large swaths of the established scene, short of a freeform system. Even in Wushu where you have the Principal of Narrative Truth, the players can Veto if they feel like a player is sidestepping the challenge and not playing the game fairly.

    Sure, there are games that don't apply bonuses or penalties for clever narration, but most do require that narration maintains continuity with previously established facts (aka Fictional Positioning) and remains true to genre, power level, etc.

    In the end the question is "Does Narrative Freedom Ruin Fictional Positioning?" I would say no. A bad group can ruin fictional positioning. A group that are not telling the same story can ruin fictional positioning. Disruptive players can ruin Fictional Positioning.
    But, the ability for a player to Narrate "anything" does not constitute a threat to fictional positioning.
    Does that make sense?
    Dave M

  • Nah, I wasn't addressing your points, just Rafu's. I agree with your take on mechanics, but my only takeaway from that re: the thread topic is really boring --"mechanics that don't use fictional positioning... don't use fictional positioning".
    Dave, I guess what I was getting at is that there are also nuances in play that are orthogonal/separate from the issue of narration limits. For example, remember our discussion about Dungeon World a while back?

    A move like, "when you have leverage over a GM character and you use it to manipulate them" assumes a certain baseline positioning. And the leverage you have will affect the promise the GM character expects from you, so it's important, too.

    A move like, "when you're on watch and something approaches the camp" does not require any more fictional positioning than is already described in the wording of the move itself, and adding any further positioning makes no difference.

    The narrative authority available to the player hasn't changed at all, but the options for fictional positioning available have changed dramatically.

    This is related to Rickard's points about techniques and play procedures which encourage players to engage with each other's contributions vs. procedures which do not.

    In something like Delve, the players have no recourse but to engage with the GM's fictional contributions. There's literally nothing else to do - it's the only lever available to pull. And if the other players are making contributions which are helpful to your goal, you want to engage with them, too: "Hey, remember how Julia said she dropped the rock at the bottom of the walkway? I jump down onto it, and..."

    We could also imagine meta-versions of this dynamic at play: "If you can remember a fictional detail narrated earlier which would help your action succeed, take +1 for each player who narrated something relevant to your success. If you can remember a fictional detail which would hamper your success, add one Experience Point to your end-of-scene payout."

    I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this, but I don't think "how much authority you have to narrate" is the only variable at play here. I like where Eero and Rickard are taking this, too.
  • Meanwhile, Rickard we discussed the game... what do you think? Is it worth mentioning?
    I think you have some unique experience around this based on your style of play.
  • edited December 2013
    A bad group can ruin fictional positioning. A group that are not telling the same story can ruin fictional positioning. Disruptive players can ruin Fictional Positioning.
    Please see the second line of the opening post. "Ruin" was lazy shorthand in the title. Sorry about that.

    In my experience, good, unified, non-disruptive players often do lose track of fictional positioning when it's not part of a coherent feedback system. Tracking fictional positioning can take effort. Some groups are happy to spend that effort elsewhere! Other groups are happy to avoid the effort in the short term, but can wind up with mysteriously unsatisfying play in the longer term.
    I don't think "how much authority you have to narrate" is the only variable at play here.
    Agreed! Definitely! I'm sure there's much to be said about this. I'm happy with any sort of continuation of the discussion here, but brand new related topics might fit better as new threads.

    One further note on freedom and causality (inspired by your fiction-triggers-mechanics examples): Ret-conned fictional positioning (often to satisfy a mechanical requirement) doesn't feel "causal" to me. It's in-fiction causal, but not at-the-table causal. So freedoms and constraints concerning how we establish fictional positioning are relevant to this discussion too.
  • edited December 2013
    In my experience, good, unified, non-disruptive players often do lose track of fictional positioning when it's not part of a coherent feedback system. Tracking fictional positioning can take effort. Some groups are happy to spend that effort elsewhere!Other groups are happy to avoid the effort in the short term, but can wind up with mysteriously unsatisfying play in the longer term.
    Can you develop what you mean with a coherent feedback system, and what kind of effort it takes to track fictional positioning?
  • edited December 2013
    Effort: you know, remembering to establish fictional details, even when you might be eager to move on and see what happens next. Or when you don't think of everything right away, and have to mull the situation for a minute. "I open the door" vs "I stand to the side of the door opposite the hinge, my sword cocked back in my left hand, and give the door a quick nudge with my right." It's more thought and words expended.

    Feedback: after the above, from the GM: "the room is full of orcs, who attack" vs "the room is full of orcs, who pull the door open so they can see who's there (because you only nudged it), giving you a free shot at the first guy". These different patterns of action-and-feedback might result from different mechanics-triggers, different rules governing the conversation, different table cultures, etc.
  • Question: @David_Berg, is it merely coincidental that all your made-up examples so far are about sword-fights? Might be that the issue is weightier in "dungeon fantasy" and other sub-genres of role-playing in the traditional "violent adventures" style?
  • edited December 2013
    Yeah, all the most extreme examples I've seen come from violent adventures. Nothing makes you care about the details of full vs partial cover quite like poison arrows, lightning bolts or plasma rifles! Second to physical danger, I'd guess, would be physical problem-solving, like using a pulley to get your precious cargo up a cliff or some such. Often the need for such detail amounts to a type of player cleverness challenge, but there are plenty of situations where I like it simply for verisimilitude. In-between examples would be less obvious and require more explanation, so I've stuck with swords.
  • David,
    You are right, I was just trying to contrast with my point to help clarify it.

    Fictional positioning can be difficult. Some rules can help. But other rules do not impact this. For instance, how many times have you forgotten to apply a bonus/penalty for high ground or some other established fact? I feel like some games focus mechanics around fictional positioning create a larger amount of details to track. And that that level of tracking is not possible for all but the most anal retentive gamers. But sometimes details slip my mind, so maybe that idea is colored by my own perspective?

    Does fictional positioning become less relevant when players are operating with fewer constraints?
    No, in fact, when I play Wushu, I am more aware of fictional positioning as it is more critical to play (since we don't ever roll to see what I just said is true or not).

    But that is just my 2 cents.
    Dave M
Sign In or Register to comment.