What even is a Fiction First

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  • Yeah, that's a good distinction, too. I tend to think in terms of causality there, as opposed to focus.
  • Paul: Yeah. We zoom in and out in the time scale all the time
  • edited May 2018
    About my point: if you have a control over what mechanics you invoke, there's always a risk that you'll tailor your fiction to produce an exact outcome. The fiction can be elaborate and beautiful, but the mechanics still became first, and the fiction is just color. But if players, with their fiction, regularly invoke mechanics they didn't intend to? This is more interesting, and in this case the fiction is really having an effect on the mechanics without being a ritual narration.
  • That's an interesting way to look at it, and I think you're getting at something pretty important there. I agree; from here on, I'm really looking forward to seeing how designers approach this kind of thing, and what new methods we might discover.
  • Well put and elaborated on, Upstart. And I certainly see some risk of the fiction turning out perfunctory rather than elaborate and beautiful.
  • edited May 2018
    @Upstart I'm not sure I follow you.

    I don't think fiction-independent mechanics turn narration into ritual because they're knowable or under-control. I think they do it because they're fiction-independent.

    In contrast, design a mechanic you can invoke on demand, but only to pursue the specifics you've narrated into the fiction, and narration isn't "just color" ritual anymore, right?

    As for unforeseen mechanics invocation: If there's any causal link from fiction to mechanics, players will learn it, and play to invoke mechanics if they want to. I don't think "regularly invoke mechanics they didn't intend to" is really an option in a game with that causal link.

    I haven't thought this through in these terms, but my first reaction is this: You could always play freeform and let the fiction do all the work. If you want a mechanic to do a piece of the work, well, that piece of the fiction which could have done that work is now perfunctory/ritual/just color. Every choice to include a fiction-determining mechanic is a choice to embrace that trade-off.
  • edited May 2018
    I don't think fiction-independent mechanics turn narration into ritual because they're knowable or under-control. I think they do it because they're fiction-independent.
    I agree, at least for the kind of mechanics I'm thinking of. I made a game where the game mechanics adopts to whatever the players do (which I think is the way of to go when designing a game).

    For example, the combat rules said that if you want to attack several people, one rule applied, no matter the narration. So if they shot people several times, threw a grenade or made the roof fall over their heads, the same rule applied.
  • edited May 2018
    Yeah, I definitely agree on that, Rickard.
    Like how in Chuubo's say a Slice-of-Life action maps to a multitude of things because it's just:
    Condition: You’ve just had an emotional reaction—an action or emote—to something in the world. (A tasty cake? A pleasant view? A sorrowful scene?)
    Action:
    - The image/moment sticks with you; or
    - You get lost in that mood.
    and that can be applied to any number of situations with that sort of thing happening. From exultant joy to sorrow and anything and everything in between, depending on what the situation in which you're using it is.
    And like, that's for me some of the ideal kinds of mechanics, where you have this thing that means something but that means something vague, but in the moment it takes on incredible meaning. Like for instance we had a scene in our session earlier tonight where my character took a Slice-of-Life action when she ended up in this confused emotional muddle after an Excrucian made her question her worldview, and she got caught up in that mood and it persisted through the next couple of scenes my character was in.
    And then later in the same session, the other PC took a Slice-of-Life action when she got really excited about a new project she had an idea for and then couldn't get the idea out of her head.
  • edited May 2018
    The question here seems to be the size of the funnel leading to the mechanical part.
    Fiction dependent comes in two sorts : fiction in (usually player input), fiction out (usually, an outcome). What I like is when the mechanics eats words and gives out words, arranged in a slightly different structure by the players. Like with Fishing questions, Goals and Keys. It's close to free from, only redirecting attention for the fiction to bounce on every obstacle, at every turn.

    What I don't like is when it's unsure which mechanics apply. That's rarely an interesting question. Players shouldn't have to judge that. Acting under fire is a GM move to me.
    @EmmatheExcrucian I'd have made the brooding after questionning your worldview an Emptiness action.

  • I haven't thought this through in these terms, but my first reaction is this: You could always play freeform and let the fiction do all the work. If you want a mechanic to do a piece of the work, well, that piece of the fiction which could have done that work is now perfunctory/ritual/just color. Every choice to include a fiction-determining mechanic is a choice to embrace that trade-off.
    How could fiction in a roleplaying game ever be perfunctory, though? Just because a fictional circumstance is determined by a mechanic instead of conjured up from someones head, doesn't itself trigger any mechanics or precedes the use of a particular mechanic, doesn't tell me anything about its overall relevance to the conversation let alone to the people having it. That's what I don't get about this whole fiction first craze especially around PbtA games.

    Whether my character tends to someones wounds and that does the work of winning their trust or if I use my "winning their trust"-skill and describe my character tending to someones wounds, the fictional circumstance of my character tending to anothers wounds that I conjured up from my head in both cases, hopefully because I'm excited about it in some way and want my fellow players to be as well, doesn't change its quality in my eyes.




  • How could fiction in a roleplaying game ever be perfunctory, though?
    It's easy for (bits of) fiction in a roleplaying game to become completely isolated from affecting any outcomes or building off any prerequisites. I'd say that's a good case for saying it's perfunctory. You could remove that bit of fiction, and the whole of the rest of the game would play out in the exact same way.

    An obvious example is a description of a basic, standard attack in D&D. Whether you attack carefully, or feint left, or smash recklessly, you're going to roll a d20 and it's going to resolve in the exact same way.
  • Hmmm! I really like the turn this conversation has taken. Lots to ponder here!
  • edited May 2018
    You could remove that bit of fiction, and the whole of the rest of the game would play out in the exact same way.
    Of course. The style of a single attack or the colour of my characters scabbard usually won't have the same impact on the fiction as things that aren't just "bits." But that's always the case, fiction first or not, right? And on another note, I'm nevertheless taking pains to describe them, so maybe they aren't that perfunctory after all?



  • edited May 2018
    So far, I read fiction or rules first as 2 formats for player input. Rules first is the old ways of computer programming. Fiction first is user friendliness ?
    @hyades I describe colour bits in the hope that they will be promoted to things that count. That doesn't cost much.
  • @Upstart I'm not sure I follow you.

    I don't think fiction-independent mechanics turn narration into ritual because they're knowable or under-control. I think they do it because they're fiction-independent.

    In contrast, design a mechanic you can invoke on demand, but only to pursue the specifics you've narrated into the fiction, and narration isn't "just color" ritual anymore, right?

    As for unforeseen mechanics invocation: If there's any causal link from fiction to mechanics, players will learn it, and play to invoke mechanics if they want to. I don't think "regularly invoke mechanics they didn't intend to" is really an option in a game with that causal link.

    I haven't thought this through in these terms, but my first reaction is this: You could always play freeform and let the fiction do all the work. If you want a mechanic to do a piece of the work, well, that piece of the fiction which could have done that work is now perfunctory/ritual/just color. Every choice to include a fiction-determining mechanic is a choice to embrace that trade-off.
    I'm not sure what you mean by fiction-independent. If fiction is required to invoke a mechanic, I wouldn't say it's fiction-independent, even if that fiction may sometimes feel like an afterthought.

    You have a point about the causal link and the role of fiction.
    Well put and elaborated on, Upstart. And I certainly see some risk of the fiction turning out perfunctory rather than elaborate and beautiful.
    That's an interesting way to look at it, and I think you're getting at something pretty important there. I agree; from here on, I'm really looking forward to seeing how designers approach this kind of thing, and what new methods we might discover.
    Thanks!

  • Of course. The style of a single attack or the colour of my characters scabbard usually won't have the same impact on the fiction as things that aren't just "bits." But that's always the case, fiction first or not, right?
    Well, D&D that treated the style of a single attack in a fiction first manner would have something like "if you attack recklessly, you get a +2 bonus to attack and -2 penalty to AC", so it would have impact.

    At least that's my understanding of the term? When the fiction engages the rules and is an input on how the game plays out?
    And on another note, I'm nevertheless taking pains to describe them, so maybe they aren't that perfunctory after all?
    Then they aren't perfunctory for you. But they could be! That's something some people at least perceive as an issue: rather than drawing out and building on these descriptions, the game doesn't care either way.
  • edited May 2018

    Well, D&D that treated the style of a single attack in a fiction first manner would have something like "if you attack recklessly, you get a +2 bonus to attack and -2 penalty to AC", so it would have impact.

    At least that's my understanding of the term? When the fiction engages the rules and is an input on how the game plays out?
    But if it was just your aforementioned basic attack described in a colourful way as a reckless attack and that got picked up on later in some way, maybe building towards a certain reputation that character has now, then it would have had impact as well.

    Because of that I don't believe in this idea (put forward in BitD for example) that somehow the sequence of fiction/mechanics objectively marks a fictional circumstance as either impactful or just colourful/secondary/perfunctory. That its quality changes.

    I'm with you on that the game should care, though. For example Sign in Stranger says "give every world element you describe a colour", so that detail will never just fall away. You could write a similar mechanic for D&D by saying "give every basic attack a style." Thats kind of how Swords without Master works with the tone dice, right?




  • But if it was just your aforementioned basic attack described in a colourful way as a reckless attack and that got picked up on later in some way, maybe building towards a certain reputation that character has now, then it would have had impact as well.
    True.
    Because of that I don't believe in this idea (put forward in BitD for example) that somehow the sequence of fiction/mechanics objectively marks a fictional circumstance as either impactful or just colourful/secondary/perfunctory. That its quality changes.
    Oh is that the contention in Blades in the Dark?

    That "I'll take +2 to attack and -2 AC for reckless attack: I swing my blade heedless of my own safety!" is mechanics fist, and "I swing my blade heedless of my own safety! So I suppose I'll take +2 to attack and -2 AC for reckless attack." is fiction first?

    The actual order in which they're said doesn't seem important to me. The above seem interchangeable.

    The order in which they're imagined... well, I do think that's important, and I do think that both the written rules and the gameplay traditions can favour one or the other, but I'm not sure you can enforce it, and I'm not sure you can even order them discretely. When you describe a reckless attack, can you ever do so utterly unmindful of the +2 attack and -2 AC?

    I suppose you could take the +2/-2 utterly unmindful of any sort of description, or even imagining... and that's what structuring the rules and play to encourage a fiction first approach tries to avoid, I think.
    I'm with you on that the game should care, though. For example Sign in Stranger says "give every world element you describe a colour", so that detail will never just fall away. You could write a similar mechanic for D&D by saying "give every basic attack a style." Thats kind of how Swords without Master works with the tone dice, right?
    Hm, Swords Without Master does care about description, but I'd say it's very much mechanics first: you engage the mechanics, pick the type of the scene (I think? my recollection is a bit sketchy), roll the dice, and then describe as the dice dictate.
  • edited May 2018

    Oh is that the contention in Blades in the Dark?

    That "I'll take +2 to attack and -2 AC for reckless attack: I swing my blade heedless of my own safety!" is mechanics fist, and "I swing my blade heedless of my own safety! So I suppose I'll take +2 to attack and -2 AC for reckless attack." is fiction first?

    The actual order in which they're said doesn't seem important to me. The above seem interchangeable.

    The order in which they're imagined... well, I do think that's important, and I do think that both the written rules and the gameplay traditions can favour one or the other, but I'm not sure you can enforce it, and I'm not sure you can even order them discretely. When you describe a reckless attack, can you ever do so utterly unmindful of the +2 attack and -2 AC?
    BitD weirdly talks about board games as "mechanics-first" and then posits
    "In a roleplaying game, it’s different. When it’s your turn, you say what your
    character does within the ongoing fictional narrative. You don’t pick a mechanic
    first, you say something about the fiction first."

    I suppose you could take the +2/-2 utterly unmindful of any sort of description, or even imagining... and that's what structuring the rules and play to encourage a fiction first approach tries to avoid, I think.
    In that case we're not talking about the (same) fiction being or suddenly becoming perfunctory though. There just isn't anything there.

    Hm, Swords Without Master does care about description, but I'd say it's very much mechanics first: you engage the mechanics, pick the type of the scene (I think? my recollection is a bit sketchy), roll the dice, and then describe as the dice dictate.
    But that description (jovial, glum) isn't just colour/perfunctory at all. I'd say it's the whole point of the game.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that mechanics-first in a rpg doesn't mean that the fiction is secondary/perfunctory.

  • I suppose you could take the +2/-2 utterly unmindful of any sort of description, or even imagining... and that's what structuring the rules and play to encourage a fiction first approach tries to avoid, I think.
    In that case we're not talking about the (same) fiction being or suddenly becoming perfunctory though. There just isn't anything there.
    Well, yes, if it's the same it's the same. But it can just not be there. In a (succesfully structured) fiction first game, it can't just not be there, because the game requires it as input. Or that's how I understand.
    But that description (jovial, glum) isn't just colour/perfunctory at all. I'd say it's the whole point of the game.
    Oh, certainly.
    I guess what I'm trying to say is that mechanics-first in a rpg doesn't mean that the fiction is secondary/perfunctory.
    Especially with Swords Without Master as an example, I agree. I think a fiction first approach tries to ensure that that fiction is important, but that doesn't mean that with mechanics first approach it necessarily isn't.
  • edited May 2018
    @hyades I narrate a ton of stuff that doesn't matter to the rules of the RPGs I play. Often that's my favorite stuff! Often enough, my group can see what I'm excited about, and roll with that.

    Not always, though.

    Sometimes, the other players at the table don't notice, or they don't get why I'm excited, for various reasons. At that point, it's on me to get them to care.

    Sometimes it's nice when the game design does that job, showing everyone why they should care. Rules which connect a certain chunk of narrated fiction to certain relevant fictional developments are quite helpful in this regard.

    I guess "others don't care" isn't literally perfunctory, but, y'know, the narrated fiction doesn't wind up mattering the way the player wishes it did. Same idea, IMO.

    Beyond that, I do think it's underwhelming when the narrated fiction seems that it ought to influence relevant fictional developments, and then the rules say that it doesn't. "Rules which adjust the fiction without first reading the fiction at a certain level of detail" -- that's a nice example of a potential downside of "rules first" play IMO.

    @Upstart by "fiction-independent", I meant rules that don't factor in whatever fictional thing it is that we wish mattered. So it's relative to taste. I think the argument still applies, though, whether your taste and mine are close together or far apart. Assume I'm talking about whatever you wish were more than "just color". :)
  • edited May 2018
    The comments here from @lumpley and @David_Berg are really helpful for me. My group and I have been playing mostly PbtAs and FitD games and we've gotten used to the easy exchange between players leading with fiction and leading with a mechanic. "I'm gonna deep brain scan him" and "I put the violation glove on his forward and try to look inside his head" have both felt like fair player leads. In a lot of these cases, they are holding the dice and double-checking their 'Weird'.

    However, we have been playing Torchbearer and 'fiction first' play on the player's side is hard-coded into the rules. In Torchbearer (Unlike AW) the GM exclusively determines when the fiction triggers a mechanic. Also, the player-generated fictional positioning has a huge impact on mechanics. If players describe a way around a challenge, then they don't roll to overcome it. (Like the neat diplomacy with bribes and connections examples above).

    This has caused a couple problems, however. A few times, players have said "I sneak past him" then picked up the dice and double-checked their scout, ready to roll. I kind of hate to say 'no, don't do that', but I also don't want them to bury themselves under failed rolls when there are other solutions at hand. In these cases it feels like fictional positioning is an important tool they aren't using.

    The other time mechanics-first play has collided with fiction-first system is when players say something like "I look for medical supplies to treat X's exhaustion. Scavenger roll, right?" I say "Uh, yeah, it would be." So they roll and succeed. I say: "Cool, you have one inventory of medicinal herbs from the yard." And they say, "Oh, I thought I was looking around inside for blankets and stuff." In this instance, I can reiterate that players tell me what they are doing and I call for a roll (or not, there are weeds in the yard and blankets on the floor, it seems likely not to be a test at all). But after the fact it can feel like policing other people's playstyle.

    I would have called our playstyle 'fiction first' before, but I think we're all trying to change mindsets to a system where the mechanics present you with interesting problems but the fiction is a key tool to solve them.
  • edited May 2018
    @moconnor I think saying "I roll Scout" and "I roll Scavenger" are extremely natural behaviors when those options exist. I think the only way to significantly reduce that behavior in your Torchbearer game is to ruthlessly outlaw it. And I think ruthlessly outlawing it will only work socially if y'all agree on a reason for it.

    Sounds to me like that's probably unnecessary. A few minor glitches over how someone was scavenging etc. doesn't sound like a big deal.

    If you did want to try it, though, I'd do two things:

    1) Promise them really earnestly that you're not going to deny them useful rolls. They may succeed without rolling, but they're not going to fail without getting a chance to roll. You'll also call for rolls reasonably quickly -- they won't have to spin their wheels because you want them to "earn" a roll with more/better roleplay/narration. And then, once you've told them all that, adhere to it. (If they do something that'd clearly fail, just tell them, "I can't think of what you'd roll here," so they know you're still trying to give them rolls whenever possible.)

    2) Pitch whatever excites you about "only the GM names and calls for rolls". Maybe it's a type of problem-solving, maybe it's the style of narration and conversation, maybe it's immersion... whatever you see as the appeal. (Example: For me, I feel like the fiction becomes more vivid, tangible, and meaningful, when everyone must always interact with it directly. If you can't refer to a mechanic, and must always say what you do, I find that fosters a heightened sense of engagement with and attention to the imagined environment.)
  • edited May 2018
    Huh. Interesting points about Torchbearer. I've always felt that a lot of the system (especially Conflicts) are mechanics-first, and that players die hard and shockingly fast if they make decisions primarily based on the fiction (I.e without a strong idea mechanically of what they need to do to survive). But the "succeed without a roll" rule for fictional positioning is definitely a fiction-first enabling rule.

    For me, a strength of Torchbearer is exactly that its mechanics demand to be engaged first, but that they then create strong emergent theme.
  • 1) Promise them really earnestly that you're not going to deny them useful rolls. They may succeed without rolling, but they're not going to fail without getting a chance to roll. You'll also call for rolls reasonably quickly -- they won't have to spin their wheels because you want them to "earn" a roll with more/better roleplay/narration. And then, once you've told them all that, adhere to it. (If they do something that'd clearly fail, just tell them, "I can't think of what you'd roll here," so they know you're still trying to give them rolls whenever possible.)
    This sounds like good advice. I like it.
  • @David_Berg Thanks for the perspective! Next session I'll propose ruthlessly outlawing player-initiated rolls in the adventure phase, for the reasons of immersion in the fiction (and maybe the additional reason that fictional positioning is the first tool in the player arsenal for problem solving). If we agree it's worth the increase in the word "no", then we'll go for it.
    They may succeed without rolling, but they're not going to fail without getting a chance to roll. You'll also call for rolls reasonably quickly -- they won't have to spin their wheels because you want them to "earn" a roll with more/better roleplay/narration.
    I think this tip will help a lot.

    @Stephen P I play conflicts as mechanics-first and the rest of the game as fiction-first. I agree that the mechanics demand to be engaged, but I think that they demand to be cleverly engaged. The "good idea" rule (succeed without a roll) is one example but I think twists and conditions are another. If a player is sneaking past an orc, they roll scout and the orc rolls nature. Say the player fails, now the orc has them cornered and they have to fight or flee. On the other hand, say a player describes the halfling sneaking along a raised platform the GM had mentioned. They still roll scout vs. nature, but when they fail, the twist might be very different. Instead of cornered by the orc, the orc is clambering up the cave wall after them. Both are twists, as they present new obstacles for the player (cornered by orc/fleeing from orc,) but the latter gives them a lot more flexibility in the actions they describe next.

    Additionally, skilled players will know that a scout test is coming when they describe sneaking around something, but they may also describe smart approaches that would count as "supplies" for the test. Do they rub guano on their cloak before sneaking through a nest of giant bats? Do they criss-cross a stream when fleeing bandits? These things should grant them an extra die for "supplies/ right tools" at the very least. You can do this with conflicts, too. Building a barricade before the enemy is upon you might get you +1 success on each defend action once the conflict starts.

    So I think you're always engaging with the mechanics, but limiting yourself to the stuff on your sheet might cause you to miss the advantages you can gain in-fiction.
  • edited May 2018
    Additionally, skilled players will know that a scout test is coming when they describe sneaking around something, but they may also describe smart approaches that would count as "supplies" for the test. Do they rub guano on their cloak before sneaking through a nest of giant bats? Do they criss-cross a stream when fleeing bandits? These things should grant them an extra die for "supplies/ right tools" at the very least. You can do this with conflicts, too. Building a barricade before the enemy is upon you might get you +1 success on each defend action once the conflict starts.

    So I think you're always engaging with the mechanics, but limiting yourself to the stuff on your sheet might cause you to miss the advantages you can gain in-fiction.
    I think we probably more or less agree on the actual "facts of play," so to speak. But I'd be inclined to describe exactly that dynamic as mechanics-first thinking: "I really need to pass this Scout test, so I need some advantage dice. Where can I get them? Maybe some bat guano?" Literally, mechanical rules push the players into the fiction.

    Compare that with an imagined fictional reason. Like, "We heard that the Duke collects exotic animals, so before we approach him, let's bring him one of those telepathic parrots we captured. It'll be a great way to establish goodwill."

    Strictly speaking, the first example begins with extra-diagetic reasoning (which I call "mechanics first thinking"), while the second starts with diagetic reasoning (I.e. immersive reasoning, or "fiction-first thinking").

    Personally, I think either method is totally, completely, categorically great, as long as the mechanics and fiction are mutually entailed. As long as one passes smoothly and rapidly into the other, my personal preferences are met. (This is one reason that Torchbearer conflicts are, for me, the least attractive part of the system, because they stay too much at the mechanics level without entailing the fiction as strongly as I would prefer.)

    Honestly, a lot of distinctions between the two are needlessly debated. Like, I don't really care about what happens in a player's mental black box--as long as the result is the two (fiction and mechanics) going together, I'm happy. Some folks prefer to think first about the mechanics, and to get to the fiction that way, while others prefer the opposite. Games that support both are flexible winners, in my book.
  • @Stephen P I agree that the player's internal thought process isn't the important thing here. I think a Torchbearer player could describe a smart tactic or clever use of resource regardless of whether they have a specific mechanic in mind. (Maybe they are gunning for an extra die, maybe they are just trusting that there will be some benefit without thinking about what it is). I would still call either of the examples you provided fiction-first play (if not fiction-first thinking) because they are establishing fiction that will change the direction of the game in some way.

    The opposite is invoking a mechanic explicitly and seeing where that takes the fiction. It would be weird to do this in the adventure phase, since the GM would be presenting the challenge and the solution.

    Player: "I am going to roll scout but I want an extra die for supplies."
    GM: "You can use the bat guano on the floor. Add one to your roll and describe how it gives you an advantage."

    That said, I think we're agreed that conflicts require this mechanics-first play (and thus mechanics-first thinking). All the scripting, dice, and fate/persona are working toward resolving mechanics (and winning) and fiction comes after. I'm fine with this, because I think the conflicts are fun and the consequences (mechanical and fictional) are typically dramatic.
  • I think there is an undercurrent here, which is that "fiction first" is always the better way to play and design.

    I understand (and empathize) with that desire: surely the best, ultimate roleplaying would be entirely fiction-first? It sounds like a Platonic ideal, in a sense.

    However, the more I learn about this hobby, the more I realize that it's not that simple. I've played (and designed) many wonderful, fantastic entirely rules-first games, and some games handle switching back and forth in a really great way, which is also a boon. Some amount of "rules-first" procedural thinking can really improve the play experience and lead to better gaming, even if, on paper, it doesn't sound "as cool" or as appealing.

    As another example, Vincent Baker (it seems to me) designed Apocalypse World intentionally as a game with bits and pieces you can engage from either direction, and I think that plays a big role in the game's success. The game is more robust when, at any given moment, we have some freedom to attack a problem from either direction.
  • @moconnor I think saying "I roll Scout" and "I roll Scavenger" are extremely natural behaviors when those options exist. I think the only way to significantly reduce that behavior in your Torchbearer game is to ruthlessly outlaw it.
    I can dig that.
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