Thinking about stuff…

Over here, Vincent and the great and the good are chasing up what makes thematic play, how you author a theme.

And it’s come down to “You want A and B. Choose one and take the consequences.” Bearing in mind that postponing choice is a third choice, and the possibility of getting A and B, but that you can only choose one. The other may be an unplanned consequence.

And I’m trying like frig to come up with a response that incorporates Keith Johnstone’s how to create story.

For those joining us without having done the set reading (shame, shame), Johnstone proposes a model of;

1. Establish routine
2. Break routine
3. Re-incorporate elements

Now, the only way I think I can integrate the two models is to say that the point of breaking a routine is the point at which the characters have to choose A or B. It’s the kicker, or the bang. It’s the point at which you say “Can we carry on like we were? Should we?”

The problem with the A&B model is that it doesn’t tell us how to finish stories, which is what the Johnstone model does (re-incorporated everything and established a stable routine? You’ve finished the story). But perhaps if you’re looking for a non-closed story telling system (like an open-ended RPG campaign or a soap opera), re-incorporation is just another technique to reinforce the exploration.

Or something.


9 thoughts on “Thinking about stuff…

  1. Isn’t the “take the consequences” bit in the A&B model where the story is finished. I think both models are saying pretty much the same thing which is similar to the old-fashioned essay plan of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As far as narrative structures go, I’m still not sure what the fuss is about. Both seem to be a restatement of Todorov’s position which in itself is not much more than a statement of what conflict means. I don’t want to sound too harsh, but much RPG theory has already been covered in some depth in literature studies, in particular the narrative stuff (and not just by bloody Egri!). If roleplaying is going to forge (to coin a word) a new corner of this market then I think it has to move away from looking at the fixed structures you obviously get in literature and bring in more on the dynamics that operate during and around a game. For example, in one of Vincent’s discussions there is something about what happens if the conflict is refused. Instead of chosing A or B, the player either runs away to C or refuses to choose and throws the decision back at the GM. So when chosing between two rivals for his affection, the PC could just let the NPCs sort it out between themselves. Where’s the conflict now? There’s a whole world of interest here to do with the dynamics between the player and the character, about ownership and involvement, about dramatic tension … Arguably the last three are far more important to enjoyment of the game as to whether a conflict is resolved or not. And all three can occur without any explicit involvement of theme. Just think back to the heady days of dungeon bashing when you came up against that big demon and rolled a natural 20 … Bah. Does my frustration show?

    1. The problem with literary studies is that so many of them, paricularly the structuralists, are concerned with the production or study of a static text. Which is quite plainly not what role-players of whatever bent are trying to do. The take the consequences doesn’t necessarily feel like a story; it’s a bit of a story, and I don’t think you can have theme without it. What I’m more interested in is stuff like: if we define theme as the “meaning” of a story, and if we’re playing a game to create a story with a meaning, then we must, must, must not nail down what the meaning is going to be before play. Else what’s the point. And it’s also why my preferred texts for rp theory tend to come from folks like Johnstone or Stephen King or Ursula LeGuin, who aren’t looking for a better way to interpret a text, but a better way to tell a story. So King’s advice that “you don’t know what a story is about until you’ve written the first draft” is solid frigging gold for rp’ers looking to create games with theme. I agree that final resolution of conflict may be relatively uninteresting in play, but without dynamic conflict, I can’t see how we can get dramatic tension, or worked up about ownership and involvement. And Vincent always says that you can get all this without explicit involvement of theme; a lot of his stuff is saying “I’m really interested in thematic role-playing, here’s how to get it with the minimum of worrying about it.” Because a large portion of the owrrying about it is done in the design stage and on the Forge and anyway before actual play starts, leaving players to get to the meat.

      1. I know the roleplayers are interested in dynamic resolution but most of the theory comes from drama and literature. That’s what I’m saying needs to change, and what I don’t see much of. I don’t think theme is the meaning, theme is the question that arises, either explicitly up front, as in Sorcerer, or through play or even implictly, such as the ever present “what are you prepared to give so that the other side won’t triumph”, and meaning is the answer provided in play. You can get dramatic tension from task resolution systems (particularly dice based) because you can never tell up front which task is going to resolve the conflict. So when you attack the Balrog, you can’t tell how many rounds the fight will last, whether you one of you will fumble or critical, even if you know that he’s AC-10 and +6 to hit, there’s still a chance of winning. This is pure dramatic tension without only a small hint of implicit theme. On the other hand you can make the theme explicit, roll for narrative control, get the player to describe the action, and most likely suck all the life out of the encounter. That’s because the implicit survival theme is not something that you can easily address directly through conflict resolution. Both short answers, survival and death, are dull. The interest for the narrative roleplayer is in providing an answer that generates a new conflict that keeps the interest going. One of the ways is the well known “Yes, but” from improv (see here for Robin Laws’ article or here for mine). So whilst you somehow despatch the Balrog, it also pulls your best mate into the pit. What do you do now? What is stronger, love or duty. 2 minutes later you all set off for elf country as duty triumphs over love (although I suspect that being scared of the Balrog might have something to do with it). If you’re going to have thematic roleplaying, you always need to have at least one unresolved theme in play. Otherwise you just wander around in search of a plot. This is the octaNe problem, which goes away if all parties make a commitment to keeping the ball in the air. Not only do you need an open theme, but I suspect that you might need to have a GM who keeps bringing it to the forefront with aggressive scene framing. So whilst Vincent is saying A+B+C, he’s not really talking about the in-game dynamics of the thing, about how you need many themes, about what to do if the bugger is resolved. Sorcerer does some of this with kickers but doesn’t ever say it plainly enough.

      2. I look at it as finding a focus- and theme pops up around whatever the focus is. For example, in Dogs, the focus is always trying to save the town from itself. The particular issues within each town differ, as does the possible solutions- and from that, emerges theme. If we have lying, stealing, and adultery, odds are that the theme will pop up somewhere around that, though sometimes surprises happen- it is really no different than a courtroom drama or ER in terms of thematics- what is justice, what is helping someone? So the key is having a solid focus that guarantees hitting human issues, and theme will pop up from that. Final resolution happens when someone either alters the situation to the point that it can’t be addressed anymore(“Well, he’s dead now. There’s nothing more we can do.”) or else someone drops such a “hit” on it, that everyone at the table just can’t follow up. I think having a “time limit” is also a valuable tool for play, that’s why stuff like MLWM’s endgame mechanics, or Dust Devils or Sorcerer work well because when you see that you’re going to hit 0 or endgame, everyone understands that its their last chance to address theme, and they try to give their best.

      3. Yeah, last chance to make it mean something That’s why nar focussed games (and, like pretty much everyone else, I hate, hate, hate using narrativism to describe it. It’s like defining ginger as a dessert because you can find it in chocolates) as so much about designing it to be wind up and go: you’d have to drift pretty far to get Dogs, or PtA, or Sorceror where you don’t get thematic play, with the theme authored in play. It’s also why you can get thematic play from pretty much any system, if the problems in play get emotionally, ethically or intelectually “grabby” for the players: but if you want thematic play and you don’t have systemic support to charge it up for you, it can be hard work to get problems into play: you can bleed the energy out of play through the effort to lay enough pipe to get to the thematic meat.

  2. Well, I’ll see your articles and raise you: The problem with task resolution systems is that, quite literally, they don’t address conflict resolution. They don’t establish stakes, they don’t establish aims, just actions, with succeed / don’t. Yes, this is exactly the same accusation you level at conflict resolution, because you’re treating it like task resolution on a big scale; win/ lose. Ironically, no “yes, but…” involved, whereas conflict resolution based on a system which takes “yes, but…” as a watchword rocks on toast (Dogs in the Vineyard, for example). And what about constraints on narrated resolution? Most conflict resolution systems say “Narrate the resolution of the conflict, ensuring that the results dictated by dice / cards / whatever happen”. Where they don’t (The Window, frex), you get munchkin play. Narration of results pretty much always gets constrained: and anyway, in functional play, where impro guidelines are either mechnaically enforced or agreed by players, there is constant tension, since the aim of the player (to get a dramatic series of events) can be entirely at odds with the aims of the character (who, if sensible, usually wants a very dull life).

  3. Well, you are the real actor amongst us, so I guess you win. Even if my article is 3 years older ;-). Although task resolution doesn’t directly address explicit conflict, I’m arguing that it does address implicit conflict in an exciting way (that’s why people still use it). I almost tempted to think that if there isn’t some kind of theme for your character then it’s not a roleplaying game. Hmm, I’ve played the Window and it was far from munchkinny although I can see the danger in that (and, as I keep on banging on about it, similarly with octaNe). I’ve tried to understand Capes for which the game only exists through constant conflicts arising and being resolved but it’s too complicated. It seems more like a boardgame than an RPG to me, perhaps because the mechanics seem to overwhelm the game leaving little room for the narration that links and surrounds the conflicts. It seems that we’re probably in broad agreement about a number of things but arguing slightly at cross purposes. I suppose this is not helped that one of my main thrust is a feeling of unease at the apparent simplicity of Vincent’s article that seems to cover up a host of real “in play” issues rather than being able to put my finger on any one thing. So, to sum up glibly, yes! but …

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