How much room is there for personal interpretation within a group?

edited January 2009 in Story Games
In another recent thread, James Nostack wrote about the difficulties he's having with a Firefly-influenced game of Traveller.
Posted By: James_NostackWe actually ran into some trouble with theFireflypoint of reference: it was something the GM had flagged as, "You knowFirefly? That's like the perfectTravellergame." So I'm like, "Whoa, I really digFirefly, this will be great." But the GM really meant to say, "Gang of misfits go on the mission of the week. They talk about their feelings and whatnot in between." Whereas I seeFireflyas, "Adorable character archetypes resolve their personal issues through mission-of-the-week shenanigans." This was a little frustrating to me, as I'd based my character on a mixture of Simon-the-Doctor and Jayne-the-Lout, only to be told this wasn't really appropriate to the game. I think I've managed to resolve that dispute, but I think we were both frustrated with each other.
Now this strikes me as somewhat challenging to a common way of thinking, particularly hereabouts, that a group playing an RPG needs to be on the same page with respect to elements of thematic focus, even to the point of employing mechanics that enforce focus in various ways ̣̣(such as concretizing mechanisms for abstract concepts such as love, friendship, or humanity). Yet here we have a situation where a non-interactive fiction was equally enjoyable to two people who interpreted it rather differently. I think it's reasonable to suggest because they interpreted it rather differently.

On one hand, it's undoubtedly true that in interactive fiction with multiple participants/authors, varying interpretations can feed back into the fiction where they'll conflict.

But the challenging question is: to what extent (and how) can participants leave room for each other's interpretations ("aethetic reception") while sharing construction of the fiction? Is there some reason that the narrative sequence (the events) and treatment (the way the events are related) in Firefly couldn't have been produced as, essentially, a series of RPG sessions?

Personally, I think they could, and that many RPG groups enjoy their games in pretty much this fashion--the events of play, along with the manner they're related, are a sufficient common basis for mutual enjoyment; there isn't much need for shared thematic interpretation--but this doesn't mean the game lacks depth of meaning for the players.

On the other hand, one thing that's missing in the experience of non-interactive fiction is specifically the interaction between participants on a level outside of their relation to the fiction. Put simply, the content & expression of the fiction isn't all that's going on--there's also the matter of how it actually gets created, by whom, etc. I.e., just because, conceivably, James and his GM might each write exactly the same Firefly-inspired story, that doesn't mean they'd be satisfied with each other's approach to the process of creation.

Nevertheless I have a pretty strong preference for the messy approach that largely leaves thematics up to individual interpretation, and I feel this is an approach that's both underappreciated and poorly understood in Story-Games circles.

(I haven't watched the series, personally, outside of one early episode, but I don't think that matters.)

Comments

  • During our recent Bliss Stage campaign, Eben passed me a note saying "Wendy is pregnant?" Then, in the next session, Wendy died, so it never came up in play. But Wendy's pregnancy remained an in-game fact as far as Eben and I were concerned, and it definitely affected our portrayal. Later on, after the game was over, it came up in conversation. I'd actually forgotten that the other players didn't know that Wendy was pregnant when she died.

    I think a much higher difference in player interpretation is possible (and sustainable for a very long time, actually) if players don't really discuss the game very much, focusing on playing it and then doing something completely different when it's over. Play alone is such an imperfect medium for communicating the inward experience that players have, since everyone's focusing on a variety of different things. Unless players have pre- or post-play conversations about what's been happening, I would be willing to bet that their personal interpretations of play continue to be fairly different, to the point that, after a few sessions, these discrepancies emerge during play and have to be resolved ("Wait, but that totally doesn't make sense! I thought...").

    Games that are mechanically diverse (as opposed to more focused games, such as many of the ones that come out of the Forge tradition) would also provide more opportunities, I would think, for people to be effectively playing very different games at the same table. For example, in something like Exalted, there are a number of different ways to 'plug into' the game and still be playing Exalted, supposedly. This was one of the criticisms that GNS had with White Wolf and AD&D stuff, right? That all the players weren't doing the same thing, leading to dysfunction. But it's almost certainly the case that many groups function relatively effectively with people approaching the same game in very different ways. It probably enables certain people to play Exalted together when they would not be able to play Dogs together, for example.

    So, yeah, I don't have any idea what the limit of discrepancy in personal interpretation is. I would be interested in trying out a short-form roleplaying game that specifically explored that question, one that encouraged players to independently interpret a few supposedly 'shared' events and kept allowing things to diverge until they exploded into confusion. It would be excitingly surreal at the end, I would think. (In fact, now that I think about it, I think I wrote one short game, Transantiago, that almost does this. Hmm...)
  • edited January 2009
    Posted By: Jonathan Walton
    So, yeah, I don't have any idea what the limit of discrepancy in personal interpretation is.
    Me either, although it's an interesting discussion.

    These days I've been mentally "smacking on the back of the head" the sentiment of "there's this messy stuff that happens in play that might cause confusion between players; let's create a mechanic to regulate/control it so that it doesn't happen". I don't see it often anymore, but it is kinda painful to watch. Because the best solution is always "the players should simply talk it over with each other. They should discuss their problems and come to a resolution". Empathy and kinship increases, and its far less complicated than creating a mechanic for social situations that buries the problem so it is never encountered (which usually means some other social problem comes into the ring later anyway).

    Rules to constrain fiction in ways to produce certain/narrow kinds of games? Love it. Same logic applied to the social stuff that happens at the table? I don't like it.

    In any case, my solution to the problems of individual interpretation is "discuss that shit before it becomes even more of a problem".

    I like Jonathan's concrete example of how an individual interpretation/fact increased the overall fun/narrative of the game for two players. Thing is, once that info was shared with the rest of the players, that probably became a nifty little talking point. So even though individual interpretations arose and continued onwards through the game, eventually "the curtain came down", info was shared, fun in the form of "oohs" and "aaaahs" was increased. It's basically the story equivalent of getting to the end of a session and revealing that "Hey guys, for those last two encounters? I only had two hitpoints left the entire time!" vs keeping that information to yourself.

    Sharing with the group makes it more fun in the end. I guess it'd be hard to share if you never got the feeling that your interpretation might be different than the others'.

    -Andy
  • I think that one person's 'different take' is another's 'attempt to sabotage the atmosphere'.

    One of the things I learned quite quickly once I started playing regularly is that actually it's quite tiresome to make sure that everyone is on the same page. In the real world if you put a group of people together they'll all bring different things to events and so perceive them differently and as a result it makes sense that there would be in-group conflict as to a) what is going on and b) what should be done about it.

    I have let go of the idea of a consistent theme or flavour to my games. I allow it those things to emerge organically from the group depending upon who is there and who is on form. So, for example, in my current game you have a noble and his hangers on. Two of the people playing hangers on are essentially playing low lives while the guy playing the Baron is interested in gaining prestige, killing his enemies and making money. What I find is that, depending upon who turns up at the table in a given week, the timbre of the game can radically change. For example, in the first session of the current block it was the noble's player and some of the quieter players and as a result, the game was almost purely about courtly intrigue. However, in the second game of the block, the guy playing the noble was not there but one of the scumbag characters' player was and so the game turned into this weirdly picaresque game in which a noble's hangers on tried to further the Baron's ideals without knowing what they were resulting in a child being hanged and all kinds of weird stuff involving voyeurism. Then, in the third block, the noble was back. The players who had been here the previous week continued working together and started setting up a university but then the Baron took an interest and suddenly the university changed from a 'get rich quick' scheme in which people got professorships and bribes and into a more political and strategic matter of training a bourgeois officer class.

    Each week the game is written in a neutral way and the timbre of the game changes based upon which players and which characters are present.

    To my mind, the issue isn't so much one of limits of difference in interpretation (I'm quite happy for the group to fragment as everyone goes off and does their own thing) but the limits of tolerance, at the table, for someone doing something you're not involved in. This varies from player to player. The feedback mechanisms are also different from player to player... some are happy to bulldoze through and drag the game round onto their point while others prefer to email me privately and request more of this.

    This could be a British thing (though I have experienced it on the continent too) but my group never discusses face to face its in game problems because people realise that in game problems are also problems between people and "I think we should have more roleplaying" is frequently just a passive-aggressive way of saying "Brian's being a dick and hogging the limelight". So our problems tend to get sorted out indirectly either because the GM adresses the issue by giving some people more screen time or, occasionally, through back-channel diplomacy in which people sound each other out about what happened in the previous session, effectively seeking allies through which they might be emboldened to try and assert their desires on the game.
  • edited January 2009
    Andy, I'm not necessarily convinced that having everything open on the table can necessarily be turned into a universal maxim. For example, talking with Brand and Mo about the way they play (as well as reading about Nordic play styles) has illuminated, for me, the importance of "inner play" in many folks play experiences. Whether you call it "immersion" or what have you, there's definitely a number of play styles that involve reveling in or wrestling with ideas and emotions that may not ever be clearly expressed to the other players, at least not for a long period of time. Indeed, part of the fun in these games is the players not really being 100% sure what's happening with a character and gradually figuring it out, not through conversations with the player responsible for the character, but through play. For example, in the case I mentioned above, both Eben and I planned for Wendy's pregnancy to eventually come to light, but the fact that we knew Wendy was pregnant and the other players didn't know actually helped us approach play in a more satisfying fashion. If it had been public knowledge from the beginning, I think it would have made the experience a bit more heavy handed and less subtle. We would have framed situations in which Wendy's pregnancy would have definitely been hinted at or become known, instead of simply letting the situation develop. While, in some play styles, it's recommended to hammer on issues, that's not always the best way to create the right tone, even if it does create high drama.

    Jonathan seems to be more focused on real dysfunction, though. I definitely think the Forge tradition of theory has historically overstated the importance of having everyone on the same page, all the time. Indeed, a lot of the power of ritual, as it manifests in roleplaying, is in creating the illusion of shared imaginary space (or whatever you want to call it) when, in fact, very little may actually be shared, as different players make their own interpretation of in-game events or experience play differently. I would actually point to the continued focus on resolution and mechanics that distribute narrative authority as an indicator that groups constantly need to realign their divergent understandings to make them more similar. Resolution does not always simply manage a conflict in the narrative. It often resolves a conflict between players over which direction the narrative should head in, which points to players being on somewhat different pages. Assigning narrative authority, likewise, allows one player's vision to override the others, forcing a consensus. Do freeform styles that move away from resolution and mechanically distributed narrative authority indicate something different is happening? I'm not sure, honestly. In many cases... maybe not?
  • If you don't want there to be a more-or-less-coherent fiction, then it doesn't matter. If you do, then sooner or later somebody's idea of what's going on here will be shown to be "wrong" and hit the cutting room floor.

    I have seen groups that seem to operate relatively effectively doing what I think of as "parallel play." Individuals or subgroups within the game are effectively playing sub-games, and part of the skill in playing those games (usually loaded fairly heavily on GM force, but not always) is to keep these parallel subgames from destructively interacting. It's not what I want out of play, and it strikes me as an enormous amount of work for little reward, but others clearly prefer it to more collaborative and centralized fiction. Heck, I think this may be one of the only ways to reliably get enjoyable high-immersion play without a massive amount of out-of-band coordination or a really mature long-term group creative consensus. The GM provides a "clutch" function so that my fiction never intersects with yours destructively.

    On the other hand, if you do value a (asymptotically coherent) single fiction, there has to be some means of resolving the inevitable discrepancies in individual perception when they come into conflict. This can be darn near anything, but it will be there, and it will matter, in games where the goal is a coherent fiction.
  • Posted By: Mark WIf you don't want there to be a more-or-less-coherent fiction, then it doesn't matter. If you do, then sooner or later somebody's idea of what's going on here will be shown to be "wrong" and hit the cutting room floor.
    This is pretty much it, and I just want to add two things:

    1 - which way you want to go is a matter of taste.
    2 - having been the "you are wrong about what is happening in this game" guy about a million times, I am done with it.

    The "Wendy is pregnant" story is brilliant, but really is it any different than the "my character has a secret that only I and the GM know about, haha!" stories we've heard for years?
  • Posted By: JDCorley
    1 - which way you want to go is a matter of taste
    Agreed, with the caveats that:

    A. There's generally a good deal of (often overlooked) overhead, either in GM resources, out-of-band "reality maintenance", and/or preexisting creative consensus, in achieving the non-coherent model
    B. In practice, there's a lot of unexamined tacit expectation of "naturally occurring" coherence in fiction out there - people want coherence, but they don't want to work for it.

    The healthy, sensible response to B is to either compromise on some method of managing the coherence-maintenance or give up the expectation. Many groups will refuse to do either one for a long, long time.

    The nigh-inevitable result of A is the rise of the "GM as auteur"/"GM as Magical Dancing Monkey" dichotomy, a lot of "System Doesn't Matter"/"My GM Herbie..." talk, and a lot of really frustrating gaming experiences.
  • edited January 2009
    Posted By: Jonathan WaltonFor example, in the case I mentioned above, both Eben and I planned for Wendy's pregnancy to eventually come to light, but the fact that we knew Wendy was pregnant and the other players didn't know actually helped us approach play in a more satisfying fashion
    My contention was that you need to discuss it with the other players... but not necessarily right away. Same for the Wendy's Pregnancy example as the Inner Play example: Keeping secrets or internal ideas about the game without sharing is totally cool. It may result in you shifting out of phase with the mindset of the other members of the group, but that's still ok. Sometime later is totally normal - Either when you hit an iron-wall incommensurable situation, or simply when the session or campaign is over and you're talking about what happened over beers.

    In the Wendy case, it sounds like that's what happened: You and the other guy told the others about what you had in mind for Wendy when the campaign was over, right? And I'm assuming that Brand and Mo, when the campaign wrapped up, talked about their characters and how they grew over the campaign.

    Keeping that stuff bottled up is fine without sharing with the group ever (unless you hit one of those incommensurable situations like Elliot referred to in the first post)... but it results in that kind of thing happening where it's like you have a secret that only you know. Or writing a letter then tearing it up. Or painting a painting then not showing it to anyone.

    -Andy
  • Posted By: JDCorley
    2 - having been the "you are wrong about what is happening in this game" guy about a million times, I am done with it.
    Ah, but is it necessary, for you to be right, that every else has to agree with you (or be wrong)?

    That's sort of the thing I'm seeing in Jonathan M's post. (BTW, sounds like something I'd enjoy, not surprisingly.) The game shifts depending on the participants, but it sounds like nobody gets bent out of shape because their agenda isn't allowed to dominate. Instead, within reason, potentially clashing contributions are treated as fictional "pushes" or challenges on which one can build.
  • Posted By: Elliot WilenAh, but is it necessary, for you to be right, that every else has to agree with you (or be wrong)?
    Uh...so what you are asking is, "Assuming there is a single right answer, does everyone have to have the right answer to be right?" The answer is yes.
  • It's one thing to have a discrepancy in more contestable things (like meaning, mood, the internal states of characters) and another to have a discrepancy about matters of fictional fact. The first is an inevitable consequence of play and probably largely unresolvable in many cases (the "Dead Pregnant Wendy" case), while the latter must at some point be decided one way or the other, thus potentially retconning vast swathes of decision-making right out of sense-making (the "Live Pregnant Wendy" case, where at some point Wendy must be revealed as either pregnant or not pregnant).

    What Jonathan's describing sounds to me like the sort of internal discrepancy in the fiction that's rather easily rationalized - sort of like the case where multiple writers on a single TV show have different signature tone, character bits, and voice. Your more obsessive fans may notice and complain, but the average viewer just walls it off - each episode more or less stands on its own. It's an example of my Case A solution - the GM is acting as switchboard operator to "wall off" variations in tone, style, etc into separate "chunks of play."

    This can go over into the un-fun place in a couple ways - either matters of consequential fact vary, with decision-making consequences: "but my whole plan relies on the transporter working the same way it did in Episode 14!!!!"; or there is friction over the facts WITHIN a given "episode" of play: this is often the subject of "but that's what my character would do" blowups.
  • The initial supposition is flawed. The two people werent gettting along when they were playing on different pages. James expresses frustration because he wasnt able to explore the thematic choices of his character because the gm was interested in running mission of the week. Resolving that difference is the type of focus that is talked about here and makes a ton of sense.

    People knowing secret little side things, having their own take on the thematic elements at play those are all side things. Play drifting to different topics of interest based on who is at the table, that all makes sense. But the players and gm have to be all on the same page that this is what they are doing or you get what happened in James' play.

    Once you have that much decided you can then work on how open the theme is to interpretation. Notice the gm in James example wasnt open to dealing with theme which doesnt allow for a lot of playroom for someone interested in it.
  • Ah, there was a misunderstanding between Jason and me, which we've cleared up in whisper. I missed the point of his #1 ("which way you want to go is a matter of taste") which does allow for the possibility there may not be a single right answer. And indeed, as he says, if there is a single right answer, it sucks to be wrong about it.

    I suppose a straightforward example of this is when the players think the game's heroic and light and wind up being "punished" by the GM who expects them to plan carefully. "Punished" is in quotes because it can really depend entirely on each party's interpretation. E.g., the player who, in a horror game, splits his character off from the party. Now, we all know this is a trope of a certain kind of horror, so maybe the player's saying "yes, please kill me, it'll be awesome", but meanwhile the GM's thinking, "what a dumbass, I guess I'll have to kill him". Or vice versa, the player isn't on board with horror tropes while the GM is. The result's the same (dead character) but now the player is out of sorts.

    Now in Dead of Night there's an explicit award for recapitulating certain tropes and I think it would be perverse to read it as anything other than an attempt to ensure that everyone is on the same interpretive page. But I think there is room for a broader approach where play won't break down even where interpretations diverge.
  • On further thought, I can remember plenty of times when I actually got a sort of gleeful, nasty pleasure of being wrong about what the game was about and forcing everyone to cope with my wrong ideas for a while. It may be this that motivates the griefer, as well. "Super HEROES? Did you see how much property damage you just caused?!"
  • edited January 2009
    Posted By: Jonathan WaltonAndy, I'm not necessarily convinced that having everything open on the table can necessarily be turned into a universal maxim. For example, talking with Brand and Mo about the way they play (as well as reading about Nordic play styles) has illuminated, for me, the importance of "inner play" in many folks play experiences. Whether you call it "immersion" or what have you, there's definitely a number of play styles that involve reveling in or wrestling with ideas and emotions that may not ever be clearly expressed to the other players, at least not for a long period of time.
    I believe that this 'inner play', 'immersion', 'verisimilitude', or whatever you wish to call it, is the most important element an RPG can provide, but it's notoriously difficult to address effectively. What I'm trying to figure out now is how I can make this variance in personal (mis)interpretation part of play in a way that doesn't violate a player's sense of immersion.
  • I would say that almost every experience I had with a "bad gaming experience" save just a few were of this stripe. I wanted to see one thing in my play and others in the group wanted a different essential mix of the same elements. None of us wanted to ruin anyone else's focus or fun, but we started an unacknowledged conflict under the table of trying and make our preferred mode the default one. That lead to a bad game.

    Nowadays, I try and avoid this by discussing what I am aiming for ahead of time, but some guys in my old group (I am between groups at present, due to a group diaspora) would just listen to what I was aiming for as GM and my requests for input and refinement and just nod along (you nod to the GM, right) and then play at the tone they expect that every game was played at. Frustrating to be sure, but part of gaming is sometimes acclimatizing oneself to what is being played and how it is being played (as long as you can still have fun).
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