Addressing the "Addressing the Premise" Premise

edited June 11 in Story Games
I started my work on narrative by trying to make the improvisers conscious of the implications of the scenes they played. I felt that an artist ought to be ‘committed’, and that he should be held responsible for the effects of his work—it seemed only common sense. I got my students to analyse the content of Red Riding Hood and The Sleeping Beauty and Moby Dick and The Birthday Party, but this made them even more inhibited. I didn’t realize that if the people who thought up Red Riding Hood had been aware of the implications, then they might never have written the story. This was at a time when I had no inspiration as a writer at all, but I didn’t twig that the more I tried to understand the ‘real’ meaning, the less I wrote.

Comments

  • It’s like asking the millipede how it walks.
  • There are lots of artists who consider the unconscious, intuitive creation of art to be the highest aspiration of the artist. Others like a more “craftsman”-like approach.

    I think that, in gaming, at least, the “unconscious authoring” which happens when the participants aren’t consciously considering theme and structure can be really exciting and fruitful. That’s one of my favourite things in gaming, in fact!

    This is one reason to design games which have a Narrativist aim but restrict the players to a “character identifying” stance. When people are simply portraying characters and following their instincts, you get that sense of unconscious authoring in play, feral and wild and unpredictable. It’s a very different and a really fun way to create story (compared to treating the story as authors consciously trying to push it in certain directions).

    I think it’s worth thinking about and trying in all kinds of different ways!
  • (Wow, the big model wiki went down! Maybe they got tired of our ceaseless attax :bawling:)

    It was very revelatory to see sorcerer's premise stated a few weeks ago, which I can't find anymore because their wiki went down but something like "What are you willing to do to get what you want" which… uh... applies to all OSR games ever…?

    When I first started my campaign I wrote "Do you go to the dungeon to find out how to make peace with your days in the dungeon?"
    In hindsight, that was… a premise!
  • I think this is a common criticism/confusion of "addressing premise." Taken literally, common role-playing activities like "explore this dungeon", are literally "addressing a premise", namely the premise of "What kinds of risks are you willing to brave in order to achieve fortune and glory?"

    But my understanding of what Ron means is about how to engage with premise as a creative activity. A narrativist game might have the "same premise," but the consequences of misfortune and risk will be developed and explored in their own right. Death doesn't mean rolling up another character; it means one of the other party members has to deliver the news to the character's widow and son.

    I would argue that exploring a dungeon in an OSR game is not really addressing premise in most games as written because the premise of exploring the dungeon just is the premise- it's the assumed activity in the game.
  • Well said, Eric.

    I'll add that, typically, a "premise" in this sense is a moral question, as well.

    What makes Sorcerer's premise work is that the whole game is constructed around challenging the premise in interesting ways - the whole conceit of demonology, nearly unlimited power, corruption, and Humanity, as well as the structure of the Kicker and the GM tools (the Bangs).

    Within a particular game or story, any premise can turn out to be rather banal or it can become quite meaningful, depending on *how* we do it. A tragic story of love and betrayal could pose its characters a question like "who do you trust?", but that doesn't mean that going to the grocery store and picking from two packages of canned beans that both say "the best beans on the market!" (which is technically "the same premise") carries the same weight or should be placed side-by-side by that tragic tale.
  • I am going to make some assertions. Maybe some of them are wrong.

    1. Some (many) roleplayers can appreciate both players making strategic and tactical decisions, and players revealing the values and personality of their character through action, in the same game.

    2. In fact, these two kinds of decisions are often inherently linked - most of the time, when you are facing a decision between two positive or two negative things, the possibility of getting/avoiding both depends on player skill and character ability. Whenever a player makes a choice that their character is doing one and not the other, or maybe desperately aiming for both, the decision has been influenced by both strategic concerns and goals, values, etc. of the character, if they have any.

    3. Even the most dull OSR dungeon crawling game in randomly generated dungeons and with nothing outside them often has a player facing the decision of whether their character tries to save an ally in trouble or runs away. If the players it that way, it is a question of friendship and loyalty. It is likely to be challenged fairly often.

    4. If we take a less stereotypic and extreme game where there is world outside the dungeon and the characters have any kinds of motivations for going down there, then there will be questions about how big risks one is willing to take to reach one's goals.

    5. If there is a wider sandbox going on, there is likely to appear questions of heroism - do you want to help others, and at how big a risk and for how small a reward?

    ...

    I am not going to make a claim about all OSR play being GNS narrativist because there is potential premises around. Instead, I will claim that in typical OSR play, if the group sees any interest in others addressing premise, then they are very likely to observe that happening with some frequency. The set of premises that almost guaranteed to come up is limited, but it is there.

    I am going to say that, based on my own experience, some people do see these moments as interesting and valuable parts of play, whereas others do not react to them at all, at least visibly.
  • What the… this got hooked back into the old OSR/blorb debate right away which wasn't really what I was consciously going for but maybe,
    but the point I was tryna make was that most good stories aren't set out to address a particularly specific premise during first draft. You usually revise the text in order to enhance themes during an editing pass.
  • Hence why games like Unknown Armies and Sorcerer make these super broad premises
  • Paul, that thread has an awful signal-to-noise ratio and lots of trolling. If there is a particularly relevant point there that you would like me to notice, please be more precise. The observation that pretty much everything can be seen as an ethical choice does not require reading that.

    (I would like to use much stronger vocabulary to describe that thread, but it is old and people have hopefully matured since then, so I'll just rather not read it further.)
  • Right! I should have been more specific - the idea in the top post is interesting. The rest of the thread is probably best avoided!

    Sorry about that. I thought about including a note but didn’t have time to type that out. It is not pleasant reading!
  • I am going to make some assertions. Maybe some of them are wrong.
    1. Some (many) roleplayers can appreciate both players making strategic and tactical decisions, and players revealing the values and personality of their character through action, in the same game.

    2. In fact, these two kinds of decisions are often inherently linked - most of the time, when you are facing a decision between two positive or two negative things, the possibility of getting/avoiding both depends on player skill and character ability. Whenever a player makes a choice that their character is doing one and not the other, or maybe desperately aiming for both, the decision has been influenced by both strategic concerns and goals, values, etc. of the character, if they have any.
    As I understand it, "revealing the values/personality of character" is perpendicular to addressing premise. For instance, you could engage in Gamist play with this as an explicit goal.
    3. Even the most dull OSR dungeon crawling game in randomly generated dungeons and with nothing outside them often has a player facing the decision of whether their character tries to save an ally in trouble or runs away. If the players it that way, it is a question of friendship and loyalty. It is likely to be challenged fairly often.

    4. If we take a less stereotypic and extreme game where there is world outside the dungeon and the characters have any kinds of motivations for going down there, then there will be questions about how big risks one is willing to take to reach one's goals.

    5. If there is a wider sandbox going on, there is likely to appear questions of heroism - do you want to help others, and at how big a risk and for how small a reward?
    Again, I think this is a common confusion. "Facing decisions" and "considering motivations" are not necessarily addressing premise. The test I use to see if a game is coherently addressing premise is framing and focus.

    In a narrativist game about risking death to achieve riches will contextualize that decision. It might ask players to elaborate on their religious beliefs about death, or consider the social impact their death would have. The activity of framing these conflicts will constitute a form of play in its own right.
  • I could also clarify about "Luke Crane's controversial definition of RPGs":

    I think it illustrates that, as Thanuir has done here, you can make a fairly convincing argument that roleplaying, as an activity, often/always comes down to moments of moral decision making.

    We could argue about the edge cases, but certainly most games feature some of this, to some extent.

    So, I would argue further, "addressing premise" isn't so much a binary switch ("yes or no?"). Rather, it's a question of intensity, focus, and degree. (EricJ covers this quite nicely, above, I think.)

    If we are to take the Big Model, its assertion is that an instance of gameplay can be considered Narrativist when exploring, addressing, and heightening the premise is the group's highest priority in play.

    I don't know if Lajos Egri (the fellow who came up with the whole "premise/theme" idea, as far as I understand) made any similar claims about when something "qualifies" as a moral theme. (Anybody know?)

    There can also be multiple, varying premises at work at once in any given work/game/story.

    The premise/theme does NOT need to be explicit or conscious. (As @2097 says, it's often the case that the best stories come about when it's not explicit or conscious.)
  • Creative agenda is defined as the creative activity that is socially rewarded by the group.

    When running or playing D&D, the following creative activities are often present (in my experience):
    1. Problem solving and clever insights
    2. Strategic, big picture thinking, often more systematic than the previous
    3. Character-defining decisions about how much to risk for one's allies
    4. High quality content; adventures, history, character backstory, etc.
    5. Clever character builds or combinations of abilities

    1. is almost always rewarded socially by pretty much everyone.
    2. Is often appreciated, but maybe not by everyone.
    3. When it does happen, it is rewarded or at least acknowledged by most. Some people do not seem to get it at all, or at least do not acknowledge it at all.
    4. Rarely explicitly acknowledged, but sometimes it happens.
    5. A couple of players are into 5 if the rules set is modern D&D or similar. Rarely acknowledged during play, but it has happened a couple of times.

    By definition, this is the creative agenda of the games I've been running.

    ---

    GNS theory happens to claim that every creative agenda can be assigned into a particular class. If I had to classify the game like that, yeah, sure, step on up would win.

    However, it is unclear to me what I benefit from doing that classification, when compared to actually considering the kinds of creative activities rewarded by the group.

    ---

    I did not quite get the point of the thread; sorry for that, Sandra. But maybe this idea is worth something.
  • That’s a great analysis, Thanuir. (It also sounds familiar: like a lot of D&D play I’ve been involved with.)

    I’d say the usual Forgite perspective on this is that you don’t need to worry about CA too much UNTIL you run into a problem at the table. (For instance, a player comes up with a cool backstory - your (4) - in a way which circumvents a problem solving situation everyone is interested in - conflicting with your (1).)

    However, some people do get good mileage out of attempting a strong focus on a particular CA, like Eero’s “challenge-based adventuring” paradigm.
  • What I was tryna say was the best stories come out of post-hoc finding a premise and then tightening it up in an editing pass to enhance the themes, rather than tryna come up with stuff that match a pre-hoc assigned premise.
  • edited June 15
    I think it's also worth noting that CA (is/could be) important for design. Let's consider the following mechanic: Let me tell you about the time..., a mechanic that allows you to spend XP to acquire useful skills/abilities retroactively by telling a short story of how you acquired the abilities. What are the consequences of this mechanic for gameplay in the context of Thanuir's examples?
    1. Problem solving and clever insights
    This mechanic probably sabotages this priority somewhat because it draws attention away from using fixed resources to solve problems to considering the larger XP economy.
    2. Strategic, big picture thinking, often more systematic than the previous
    Players can engage in strategic thinking, but now it's within the context of the XP economy and the game systems rather than within the SIS/the fiction.
    4. High quality content; adventures, history, character backstory, etc.
    We've given players some more 'author power' to frame their abilities/actions in the game within the context of their history/backstory.
    5. Clever character builds or combinations of abilities
    Again, we've probably worked to the detriment of these things, since it's probably more effective to just hold onto XP and use it to pull abilities out of your ass than to try to guess what would be useful in the future.

    In other words, our mechanic is potentially problematic for some of our creative priorities, with possible upsides for others. Without some broader considerations for what your creative priorities are, it may be difficult to do your design work.

    Since my game is very mechanics/design oriented, I found it helpful to consider the creative priorities in my game within the broader framework of GNS. This ultimately lead to the deaths of several darlings.
  • edited June 15
    It's weird that this thread became about CA/GNS (which, fine, I generally dgaf about thread drift) when what I wanted to talk about was Story specifically.
  • Ah! We didn’t know that. I’m pretty sure “addressing the premise” is Forge vocabulary. At least, I’ve never heard or seen it in any other context.
  • Yes, it's Forge vocabulary specific to Story Now. not the other CAs
  • When I write I have the theme before the first draft, it’s normally the second or third thing I come up with. I often use the Harmon circle as my outline, and you need to know your theme for that outline to work.

    When I roleplay I don’t think about theme but I’ve come to the realization that people need a very similar interpretive lens/style of exegesis/understanding of story structure for the game to work well.

    For example, I suspect I’d find it difficult to play with Robin Laws or Keith Johnstone.

    What I need is a similar understanding of the following three points.

    Character goal: Why this is important and why it’s important right now.

    How failure to achieve the goal leads to ruin, from the characters current perspective.

    What the characters ethos is and why that’s important in relation to the goal.

    If we all have an understanding of why those three things are important, then our focus in game is probably on those things and we can have fun finding out what happens in relation to them.
  • Oh, that is gold♥
    Very applicable
  • Sandra,

    Right!

    AlexanderWhite,

    That’s great! I like how pithy that is. Really top notch.

    Any chance I could talk you into sharing an example of how theme + Harmon circle makes an outline you use to create a story? (Talking about writing here, not roleplaying, unless that’s also something you do for a game.)
  • edited June 15
    Double posted
  • I’ll assume you’re familiar with both Egri and Harmon’s story circle.

    So say you want something like ‘only honesty leads to true love’. Premise in the Egri sense.

    Then your situation is something like, I dunno, becoming a pick up artist.

    STORY CIRCLE QUARTERS

    First quarter is dishonest, normal guy
    second quarter is dishonest, pick up artist
    third quarter is honest, pick up artist
    fourth quarter is honest, normal guy

    So that suggests to me a plot that’s something like.

    1) Normal guy is in a bind, likes this girl but can’t really confess his feelings and whenever he does so he puts on an act.

    2) Pick up artist helps him get all the hot girls by lying, misrepresenting himself.

    Mid point: He’s got four gorgeous models in bed but it’s meaningless. (so we’ve demonstrated what dishonesty gets you)

    3) Learns to use honesty to actually communicate.

    4) Either gets the girl from the start or if you’re trying to be clever, he gets her to go on a date but they realise they have nothing in common, because he’s being honest.

    So you’re basically dramatizing the value you want in the negative in the first half, then the positive in the second half.

    I wrote all this and then remembered that Dan Harmon actually gives a demonstration.

    Search, The Writers' Room – Dan Harmon, Josh Thomas.. on you tube. The demonstration begins at about 1 hour 8 minutes in.

    Also I often use a slightly modified version of the circle that is based on John Yorke’s work. He’s got a book called ‘Into the woods’ that I think is really great.
  • edited June 15
    I knocked out a very brief outline, actually filling in the points. I’ve used a modified Harmon circle found below.


    Situation
    inciting incident
    road of trials
    mid point
    journey back
    guardian at the gate
    final test
    new situation


    Situation: Guy is in love with girl but can’t be himself, doesn’t get girl,

    Inciting incident: sees ad for pick up artist seminar (it’s not dishonesty that’s the problem, it’s that he’s not good at being dishonest)

    Road of trials: learns to be a pick up artist. He sucks at first, it’s very funny, but then eventually he gets good. (dishonesty is getting him what he thinks he wants)

    Mid point: bed full of models, he tries to have a conversation but they it’s awkward. He can’t talk about ‘real’ things. (dishonesty is failing him, the first glimmers that being honest might actually be a better tactic in getting what he wants)

    Journey back: starts seeing the bad side of pua life. Attempts to be honest but it’s not working out well. (like a mirror of the road of trials, he's having to learnt to be honest)

    Guardian at the gate: confronts his pua mentor. His mentor says that honesty is basically bullshit. They disagree. Protagonist goes to his old love and is honest. They go on a date and have nothing in common. (oh no honesty is bullshit). But they talk more and protagonist realizes that actually it's a good thing. Why be with someone if you can't be yourself?

    Final test:But now the protagonist is alone again. is this what honesty has brought him? protagonist gets talking to a new girl. Is honest, they get on.

    New situation: protagonist is in relationship with new girl.


    I’d then probably write another outline, but this time about four pages long. Then I’d outline again, adding in all the conflicts, character goals, obstacles, the actual drama. Then I’d write it.

    edit: if I was seriously writing something it would hopefully be better than the above. Unfortunately I can't post any of my actual outlines because they'd read like total gibberish to any one but me.
  • @AlexanderWhite, I love the clarity and fluency you clearly have with this tool: you've done this before!

    Are your actual outlines gibberish because they're in shorthand or some such?
  • Because I’ve internalized the structure, I normally wouldn’t write an outline exactly like the one above. I’d have already thought of potential scenes and I’d probably be referring to them in the first outline. So a lot of what I write down at this stage is just an aide to memory. It might look something like...


    SITUATION

    Sam talks with Billy

    Bad liar scene

    INCITE

    Ad in paper (or video ad? Or net?)

    This person looks like a clown

    A clown with hot girls



    and so on.
  • edited June 16
    The specifics of the circles we're familiar with from other threads, and here is another.

    So I do concede that you're right that it's possible to write getting a particular premise touched upon in the first draft. Thank you, Alexander.

    I'm gonna try to incorporate some of the stuff you sent me about characters that want to, or have to, change.

    We workshopped setting up relationships yesterday for our D&D game and we hashed out some great ones. But we had an initial hump, peeps were kicking & screaming, because they had already created these immutable character ideas and "this relationship doesn't make sense with my character"← quotes not to imply that the proposed relationships did make sense, and in the end we instead found different relationships that did, but, that's why in Fiasco you make the relationships before you make the characters. But in D&D people are like "oh, I've been having this idea for a few weeks", and it's more often a particular background/backstory than a particular build.
  • Coming to the table with inflexible ideas is a dangerous thing. “Play before play”, some people call that.

    I find the idea of using explicit story structure like this in gaming very interesting, but it’s rarely done well. Perhaps it’s a bit of a dead end, or perhaps it’s just not something we’ve fully figured out yet. (Aside from people who pre-write their plots and games, of course, like Emma and her crew - they’ve got that stuff figured out!)
  • Paul, he was talking about when he was writing fiction
  • Oh, I know! You brought up your D&D game in response, so that’s where the roleplaying came back into the conversation. :) I was responding to you with that comment, in other words.
  • Yes, I def not looking to incorporate harmon circle stuff. Think more akin to the Keys in TSoY except for a relationship
  • Paul and Eric,

    I'll drop the tangent here by writing what I believe: Creative agenda is a useful concept, but it is almost always more useful to consider a particular and specific creative agenda, rather than the incredibly wide categories of G, N and S. Those are useful only to get an impression of how varied the creative agenda can be, and possibly as a starting point for a more specific discussion.

    I am open to further discussion if this is controversial, but please start another thread or ask me to do that, as Sandra is aiming for other stuff in this thread.
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