At sunset, as you're crossing that ridge you saw in the distance, which turned out to be the skeleton of some giant beast, its ribs filled with crumbling dirt. Treacherous ground.
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It grabs the scout, whose screams of terror are cut short as her body is rapidly drained of life, skin starting to flake away in wisps of ash and dust in the breeze. You can wriggle free, but now there's a murderous ghost on the loose.
There's a point near the top of the hill where the boulders are more closely spaced and the old sentry road weaves right through them. They'll be forced to move single file and you might be able to get the drop on at least one.
Edit: ah, too much in my own head over here. You're offering an example of a different instance of uncertainty related to not knowing when to use the mechanics due to unfamiliarity with the rules, which is different from what I'm talking about. It's also different to what I thought you were responding to, which was the general question of when to reach for mechanics that Vincent was addressing elsewhere. Sorry about that. The tldr is that the uncertainty I'm talking about is not "when do you roll the dice" but "how do you know what to say next?" and "when do you say something about something already in the fiction, and when do you say something new?" We haven't even hit the dice yet! But it implies a way of relating to the dice.
I'm going to leave the rest here because I think it is potentially useful.
* * *
So over on Vincent’s thread he’s talking about how moves as game mechanics partially exist as supports for the conversation when you hit a point of uncertainty.
And I got all excited because I’m like “Yes! Let’s talk about uncertainty and awkwardness and how we can design for that”, because I’ve been spending a bunch of time thinking about why uncertainty and awkwardness exists in RPGs, how that contrasts with my experiences of smooth play, and from that what the conditions are for certainty. Its related, but not quite the same thing.
I’m asserting that the smooth quality of play that is characteristic of profluence is in part derived from the relative degree of certainty that you feel when you are drawing from what has already been established in the conversation. This is for the simple and entirely conversational reason that the subject of what you are talking about in a roleplaying game is “what is happening in the fiction”. In a conversation, it’s always smoother to add organically to what has been said before! But you don’t want to just repeat what other people are saying, so you endeavour to inject some novelty into the conversation. But you also don't want to inject too much novelty, because if it's accepted then you'll introduce a break in the flow, the results of which can range from being awkward and floundering to being straight up selfish and rude. It's generally when sufficient momentum as been built from what has already been said, that you can feel more (but never absolutely!) certain about what degree of novelty you can inject into what you say.
So this post isn’t about “when do you roll the dice”. When I’m talking about profluence I haven’t necessarily even reached the mechanics yet. I’m just talking about raw, moment-to-moment decision making at the table. If it’s about any such question, the question is “when do you say something about something already in the fiction, and when do you say something new?” I think these are meaningfully different, even if in practice they are always mixed. It’s the difference between making a move with a piece that’s already on the board, and putting an entirely new piece on the board.
The group always decides what gets accepted into the fiction. But inside that, there’s a bunch of assumptions and structures about how likely something is to be accepted. That is, what degree of novelty is permissible, and in what circumstances. eg. We may be free to set the board as we like at the beginning of a scene, but within the scene we should only make moves with what's there.
In freeform, these decisions are informed by group norms, principles, and raw negotiation. Rules are tools to help you make those decisions - they provide you with something firm to grab onto and be certain about. That’s why it’s so tempting to make everything into a mechanic with a number!
So the relationship between what I’m talking about and what Vincent is talking about (and what got me so excited) is:
1) I’m saying that uncertainty in RPGs is about not knowing what degree of novelty you feel you can introduce into the game, and Vincent is saying that by situating your rules at anticipated points of uncertainty in the conversation, you can help to keep the conversation flowing smoothly.
2) Vincent is also saying that you don’t just reach for rules when you’re uncertain, but when you want a specific conversational benefit, and I’m saying that you can only know what to reach for and what to say if you feel relatively certain about how your new idea extends naturally and organically from what came before.
Vincent, if I’ve misread you, please let me know!
Also D.W., forgive me if this isn't at all what you were responding to. Perhaps I've selfishly injected too much novelty into this conversation, or misread what has already been established!
I don't typically play OSR games, but I have found nothing more creatively stimulating than listening to the Fear of a Black Dragon podcast and free associating about game design.
What are your favourite OSR modules, and why? What do you look for? How do you run them?
Here's what I mean:
(cw for violence against teenagers)
One time I was playing Apocalypse World with my partner, and this shitty teenager was going to rat my character out to a gang of fascists in the community for raiding the liquor stores at night with a friend. It wasn't a moment of indecision, where we had to reach to the game for support. This was an active decision, where I picked a move of my own volition for some perceived benefit. I threatened the kid with my crossbow to try to get him to back down, but nah, he was a shitty teenager pumped up with his own sense of importance and invulnerability so he wouldn't back down, and because I was going aggro neither could I. I couldn't bear to kill him so I shot him in the leg and bolted.
(end of cw)
I, me personally, regretted the hell out of that decision. After the end of that session we haven't played in that campaign since.
From some distanced narrative perspective that I can acknowledge but not fully inhabit, I know that that was a powerful moment, that it had moved the game forward somewhere new and interesting, that it was a profound statement on the nature of violence and my regret was in that sense justified. I know that I most definitely had not been locked out of play, and none of my powers as a player to act on the conversation had been diminished, but all the same I was no longer willing and eager to roll the dice.
Now, we could totally go back and retcon that event, but for some reason we haven't done that. Some sense of fidelity to the fiction and the rules prevents us.
I'm sharing this story because I want to try and figure out whether there are different kinds of regrets, and whether the kind of regret that Vincent is talking about is the same as this kind of regret. Either way, the implications are really interesting to me!
If it's the same kind of regret, then we have more information about what it means when we say "regret" making a contribution, and what it means we we talk about positively asserting your idea in the conversation. Maybe we can consider more closely how to separate conversational benefit from a player's emotional attachment to fictional outcomes.
If it's a different kind of regret, then we could perhaps consider the possibility that when a player reaches opportunistically for the rules with an idea they want to bring to the conversation that it might be a bad idea, and when the game affirms that idea as a positive and active contribution to the conversation they might come out bruised and unhappy. How the heck do we deal with that?
(A third possibility I see is that you can design rules that are supposed to sting and when they do, that's the point! And yknow, fair.)
This whole post is an attempt at an incremental development on Vincent's series on how RPGs work, which I consider to be foundational. I would encourage you to give the series a read first if you haven't already! This post can wait :)
* * *
Okay, so as I mentioned in a different thread, there’s this moment that I’ve been preoccupied with thinking about for the past month or so. It’s the moment that everyone who plays-to-find-out will recognise, where we move from just kind of nudging here or there, making moves, to like, Woah, now we’re going somewhere! Nobody planned it, but all of a sudden there's a direction to play that wasn't there before.
When this happens, I notice another thing about the character of our social interaction at the table, which is ideas start to flow forth, and we build off of each other’s contributions with greater confidence and ease. Where once we were stumbling, awkwardly feeling our way forward, now we have momentum and we know exactly what to say!
I believe that part of the object of game design is to figure out how to assist players in achieving this state of ease and direction.
There’s this MFA creative writing term that I learned recently that instantly helped to clarify my thinking about this phenomena. It’s called “profluence”. Here’s an excerpt from a blog entry which I'm going to quote at length that does a good job of explaining what it means:
It’s derived from the word profluent, meaning to flow smoothly or abundantly forth. But as a writing term it was coined by John Gardner. In The Art of Fiction he says:
“By definition – and of aesthetic necessity – a story contains profluence, a requirement best satisfied by a sequence of causally related events, a sequence that can end in only one of two ways: in resolution … or in logical exhaustion” (53).
He goes on to say that this is the “root interest of all conventional narrative,” and the reader must be “intellectually and emotionally involved … [and] led by successive seemingly inevitable steps … to its relatively stable outcome” (55).
So what does that mean?
In a way, profluence is about the paradox of time. It addresses the flow of time in the story itself, as well as the outward necessity of time needed for the reader to experience the story. Profluence is the cause-and-effect connective tissue that constructs the flow of time in the story world, as well as the underlying engine that makes the novel coherent to a reader. No wonder it’s such a big MFA buzz word.
“A basic characteristic … [of] narrative, so far as form is concerned, is that it takes time. We cannot read a whole novel in an instant, so to be coherent, to work as a unified experience … narrative must show some profluence of development. What the logical progress of an argument is to non-fiction, event-sequence is to fiction. Page 1, even if it is a page of description, raises questions, suspicions, and expectations; the mind casts forward to later pages, wondering what will come about and how. It is this casting forward that draws us from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter. At least in conventional fiction, the moment we stop caring where the story will go next, the writer has failed, and we stop reading” (55).
In its basic form, profluence is a concept regarding the movement that draws us from “paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter.” Blogger, Michael Hill, refers to profluence as “the sense that we are getting somewhere.” It’s an energy or inertia. It’s the connective tissue that moves you from one page to the next. Profluence is that which moves the story to flow smoothly and abundantly forth.
Here’s the thing: in RPGs, unlike other narrative forms, you’re both wondering what will happen next, and you’re also deciding it. And crucially, in RPGs deciding is a social act, because it’s not true in the fiction until everyone at the table accepts it as true.
Whenever you make a decision now, it is informed by both the full sequence of what has happened before, as well as certain particular moments. This is why it is important for games to assist in ensuring that you don’t skim over the moment-to-moment details of events, because it’s hard to know what to do next unless you know concretely what has happened before.
When you start to stumble, to be uncertain, to cast about and make decisions awkwardly, it’s likely because you’ve exhausted the significance of past decisions, or they are sufficiently disconnected from one another, and you’re having to make new decisions in relative isolation from an already established chain of causality. This is why we often need a certain amount of prep or scene framing at the start of a game or session in order to make decisions easily. It is necessary to establish a certain amount of your fictional positioning before you can even say anything.
Profluence in RPGs, then, is not just a quality of narrative (the sense of going somewhere), but a quality of play. It starts with a combination of social and creative momentum that allows us to smoothly build off of our collective decisions from one moment to the next.
Then, at some point, the accumulated history of those collective decisions builds into a foundation which suggests a general trajectory, and that's when all of a sudden we are going somewhere! At that point the sum total and certain key decisions strongly suggest that we're going that way, even if we don't know exactly where "that way" will lead. We can't know when exactly that point will be, because its nature is inherently uncertain, but we can feel it as it develops and we sure as heck know it when it arrives.
I propose that as designers we can design for the emergent development of a coherent direction by carefully engineering a game’s sense of creative momentum, thinking not in terms of what players are going to do in the future, but in terms of what they are going to need to refer back to in order to decide what to do next. What kinds of concrete details are your players going to refer back to continuously, both specifically, and in total? What moment to moment details do they need to be generating in order to build a foundation for the kinds of future decisions you want them to make?
You can organise the construction of this foundation along thematic lines, along increasing challenge, along increasing desperation, however you want. This applies equally to games where the decisions are organised around a narrative theme as it does to games where the objective is to honestly portray a living world.
I have some other, possibly contentious, certainly less firm, conclusions to draw about how historically many strategies for play and design have been attempts to achieve profluence, why they failed, and why the OSR and PbtA have succeeded.
But first, what do you think? Make sense so far?
I also want to talk a bit about what it means to regret making a move! Why would you regret your contribution, and under what circumstances?
[edited, because I regretted the word "ever". I have definitely regretted moves I have made, and did not want to imply that isn't a thing I thought was possible]
It's very, very good! Looking forward to future episodes. I very much hope you end up doing a whole tour.
Here's the thing, expressed differently: thinking carefully about aesthetic vocabulary suggests an approach to game design that aims to imbue play with a theatrical quality (or cinematic, or literary, or...) without necessarily attempting to emulate the structure of a different medium in its entirety.
Here's a thing that the folks of the Feelings First podcast did when setting up for their Under Hollow Hills campaign that I absolutely loved: They talked about medium-specific metaphors for structuring gameplay, like how it has become commonplace for groups and games to borrow the vocabulary of film editing as a way to frame their engagement with the game. Because Under Hollow Hills is a deeply theatrical game, they made the deliberate decision to use a theatrical vocabulary to structure and inform their play, instead of a cinematic one. Spotlights, scenery changes, soliloquies, exit stage right (pursued by bear)...
Lots of games have attempted to formally or mechanically emulate the distinctive features another narrative medium. But I was excited by the possibility of instead approaching the way players talk about the game in play with a lighter hand, as a set of principles or vocabulary to lean on in the moment.
The value of this is the same as any shared language or vocabulary - it lets us communicate more effectively to each other what we are trying to do. What vocabulary you give your players is also part of game design!
Thinking about not only the fact that we need a space, but what that space sense was in concrete terms, it strikes me that rich and vibrant online RPG communities like the one that formed on G+ (or historically, places like The Forge) have two qualities:
1. A shared and common space where a diversity of voices can be heard. That is, a shared timeline or a forum for people to speak into, where what you can see and who can see what you say is not silo-ed by who you follow and who or how many follow you.
2. Are driven primarily by conversation between and with designers, focused on facilitating the creative excitement, cross-pollination, and sense of possibility (see point 1) which motivates people in the community to become designers themselves and make new games.
I believe that these two are some of the major contributing factors to creating a rich creative environment for new forms of play to develop, and it is new forms of play which expand and enrich the community.
So I'm really excited about this forum!
For the past couple of months I have been preoccupied with thinking about the smooth flow of play. The moment that everyone who plays-to-find-out experiences, when after a while the game just catches and all of a sudden, Woah! we're going somewhere! We have momentum, and events are flowing from our lips with direction and purpose. I think that what you've outlined here is a crucial element to understanding exactly what's going on when that happens.
You don't get that smooth flow of play and purposeful direction unless the game addresses itself to the smooth and purposeful flow of conversation. But since we're making this up as we go along, and we can guess but never know for certain what the next move could be, there's always going to be gaps and uncertainties in the conversation. And those moves which give you a positive and active role in shaping the conversation can only really come into play if you already feel more or less certain about the conversation and the grounds on which you invoke them.