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Author Topic: I Don't Play "Let's Pretend" Any More.  (Read 2575 times)

Warthur

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I Don't Play "Let's Pretend" Any More.
« on: June 25, 2007, 12:58:20 pm »
It's often said that RPGs are like a more nuanced version of "Let's Pretend", only that the participants tend to be older and there's more rules. It's a pretty good analogy.

On the other hand, there's a good reason why I don't go back and play "Let's Pretend" these days, unless I'm babysitting some five-year-olds: it's no longer satisfying to me in the same way it was back when I was tiny. I'm older, my imagination is more nuanced, I want to avoid ridiculous "Bang! You're dead!" "No I'm not!" arguments. Systems provide form and structure to the game, and that's pretty vital.

I was talking with a friend over lunch about the nightmare of the Holocaust thread, and he pointed out that the game proposed there feels a lot like the sort of roleplay exercise that you'd do in class at school... except the exercise in school will be supervised by a teacher, and will be accompanied by a fat dose of facts to put things in context.

We realised, there, that that's one of the problems both he and I have with Forge-inspired games: the "Narrativist" approach to play seems to produce lightly-more-systemised versions of a classroom exercise. Dogs In the Vineyard is a good example of this sort of thing: the system is set up with the idea that it's actually reasonably for a PC to win most conflicts... provided that their player is willing to make the moral statement that "my character is willing to do this in order to get what he wants." My Life With Master is an even better example: as far as I'm aware, it's explicitly set up to be an object lesson about abusive relationships, and what system it has is geared entirely towards that.

A lot of you probably had to do the Balloon Debate at some point in school, and those of you who didn't have probably heard of it. It goes a little something like this: a bunch of people with varying characteristics and professions (an old millionaire philanthropist, a policeman, a pregnant woman and a priest, for example) are on a balloon which is plummeting to destruction, and they'll only survive if one of them lightens the load by jumping out of the balloon to their death. Who should get thrown off?

It was pointed out by my friend that the Balloon Debate is the perfect Narrativist RPG, albeit a systemless one. It's all about exploring a theme which isn't stated explicitly in the situation ("What makes someone worthy of life?"). And we both agreed that we didn't find Balloon Debates especially interesting; they hinge on simplifying and codifying moral decisions which are actually quite complex, and coming up with moral dilemmas which are hopelessly specific, and assume furthermore that the players are going to engage with the questions they pose on their own terms as opposed to saying "Hell with it, I'll just shove the nearest person off the balloon. If we waste our time arguing we'll die for sure."

On one hand, fair enough: you shouldn't play a Narrativist game if you have no interest in exploring the theme at its heart, because it sure as hell won't support you if you ignore the themė. On the other hand, as a player I'd appreciate the right to say to the GM "Look, I'm sorry, but I just don't agree with the premise of the moral dilemma you've posed me and I'd prefer not to have to engage with it," just as my PC might say "Fuck your save-the-kitten-or-save-the-puppy deathtrap, Dr Doom - I'm not going to let you get away just to soothe my conscience." (Also, let's remember that Uncle Ron says that real Narrativism hinges on the theme not being implicit in the situation - which means that the theme being explored isn't necessarily going to be obvious upfront.)

Because the Narrativist approach frequently deals with themes of ethics and morals, it's inherently going to push peoples' buttons more than games which are just meant to be good dice-rollin' fun, and yet no self-proclaimed Narrativist game I've seen has an option for players (or GMs) to say "You know what? Let's not steer the game in this direction, it's not making me happy." Of course, you could always come out and say that, but the beauty of Narrativist systems is supposed to be that sufficient authorial control is shared that you don't have to.

I think this is the essential difference in approach and mindset that differentiates traditional games from the Forge's Narrativist offerings: most-to-all traditional games would devolve to "Let's Pretend" if you stripped away all the system elements, whereas many Narrativist games would devolve to a classroom exercise.

I question the worth of roleplaying games as philosophical exercises. As was pointed out in the Holocaust thread, pretending to be a Holocaust victim for a while in no way gives you any insight into the experiences of real life Holocaust victims - at best, you just learn about your own personal preconceptions of what it would be like to be a victim. Such exercises are useful in classrooms precisely because a teacher is present to deliver a fat injection of facts after the exercise is over and put everything in context, and that simply isn't present in an RPG session. There's a reason you don't do quite so many roleplaying exercises like this once you reach higher education: by that point, you're meant to draw your conclusions about a topic through research and argument and reason, rather than sitting around thinking about how it would feel to experience the historical situation under discussion.

I don't see any reason to play a "story game" to explore a theme with my friends when I can just sit down and talk about the subject in question with my friends (and probably draw more reasonable conclusions by doing so.) Conversely, when I want to play pretend with my friends and we're in the mood for swords and sorcery, I can see plenty of reasons to play Dungeons & Dragons or Runequest or Burning Wheel or REIGN rather than reverting to "Let's Pretend".
I am no longer posting here or reading this forum because Pundit has regularly claimed credit for keeping this community active. I am sick of his bullshit for reasons I explain here and I don't want to contribute to anything he considers to be a personal success on his part.

I recommend The RPG Pub as a friendly place where RPGs can be discussed and where the guiding principles of moderation are "be kind to each other" and "no politics". It's pretty chill so far.

TonyLB

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« Reply #1 on: June 25, 2007, 01:11:16 pm »
Y'know, your description of how you believe these games would feel in play doesn't mesh well with my experience of how they actually feel when I play them.  Not to say that they couldn't feel this way for some other people, just that they don't for me and my friends.

Is that even worth talking about, or should I just say "Okay, yeah, if the games turned out the way he's talking about that would suck," and nod in agreement?
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Abyssal Maw

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« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2007, 01:22:11 pm »
This is an issue similar to one I've been kinda focused on as well. Although my shorthand for it is "performing a part" vs "playing a game".

The thing with RPGs is that there have always been some performance-y type elements- you can talk in character, you can act out a scene, kinda.. but it was still playing a game.

What eventually happened was people started to believe that the performance part was the only thing that mattered ("role-playing vs roll-playing"), and pretty soon they were touting theater books and impro and so on.

This is why I see these story-games as an evolutionary dead-end. You might as well just join community theater or become a mime or a busker of some kind. The game elements are mostly gone (or mere vestigial nubs) by the time you are done and you don't need them. They obviously appeal to people who have a need to get attention and do performance stuff (not necessarily talented people, but you know..)

But they aren't games anymore. It seems fairly obvious.
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Settembrini

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« Reply #3 on: June 25, 2007, 01:26:29 pm »
The thing that makes Thematic Games inferiour, is that the thematic decision is always way more artificial and contrived than a thematic decision in an Adventure Game.
That´s the price you pay for frontloading your games to be all about these decisions. They lose gravitas.

There´s a huge difference between being betrayed by the party rogue after two years of gameplay that was regular adventuring and acting out a betrayal situation in any of the Thematic Games.

You can have thematics in your Adventure Game, but you can´t have adventure in your Thematic Game.
If there can't be a TPK against the will of the players it's not an RPG.- Pierce Inverarity

Pierce Inverarity

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« Reply #4 on: June 25, 2007, 01:36:03 pm »
Warthur, ignore Tony, he's on his default water-muddying mission.

I will note here that weeks ago I proposed in jest that DitV be used for the moral suitability test for prospective German army conscripts. Military service is (or was?) compulsory in Germany, unless said test proves you to be a pacifist--then you get to work in hospitals etc. instead.

In my time, they used to have that oft-lampooned question: "You're sitting on a park bench with your g/f at night. It so happens you've brought your submachingegun (rofl). A mugger approaches and threatens you both. What do you do?"

Any answer short of "I deliver my purse and g/f on a silver platter to the despicable criminal" would land you in the army.
Ich habe mir schon sehr lange keine Gedanken mehr über Bleistifte gemacht.--Settembrini

Pierce Inverarity

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« Reply #5 on: June 25, 2007, 01:37:05 pm »
PS: Settembrini, very good point re. thematic frontloading.
Ich habe mir schon sehr lange keine Gedanken mehr über Bleistifte gemacht.--Settembrini

Warthur

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« Reply #6 on: June 25, 2007, 01:40:53 pm »
Quote from: TonyLB
Y'know, your description of how you believe these games would feel in play doesn't mesh well with my experience of how they actually feel when I play them.  Not to say that they couldn't feel this way for some other people, just that they don't for me and my friends.
To be fair, I have had some kick-ass Dogs In the Vineyard sessions in my time, which didn't feel like classroom exercises. But I suspect that that was because I and the group I was playing with were all approaching the game as "Let's Pretend" and letting the "how far will you go to solve the community's problems?" question slide entirely. Guns, bloodshed, torture, we had a whale of a time.

However, Dogs, My Life With Master, and most self-declared Narrativist games that actually fit Uncle Ron's definition (as opposed to, say, Riddle of Steel, which is as Simulationist as Simulationist can be but gets to be called Narrativist anyway) aren't designed from a "Let's Pretend" angle, because Let's Pretend doesn't give Ron his "Story Now!". They are designed more like the classroom exercises: the roles you play and the system are geared towards exploring the central theme of the game, rather than towards mucking about with your character. True, you can always ignore that and muck about with your character; some games will support this better than others (My Life With Master doesn't support it at all).

The Narrativist approach to game design, if followed, will tend to produce games which feel (to me) like classroom exercises, or cheap substitutes for a real discussion about the themes evoked.
I am no longer posting here or reading this forum because Pundit has regularly claimed credit for keeping this community active. I am sick of his bullshit for reasons I explain here and I don't want to contribute to anything he considers to be a personal success on his part.

I recommend The RPG Pub as a friendly place where RPGs can be discussed and where the guiding principles of moderation are "be kind to each other" and "no politics". It's pretty chill so far.

PGiverty

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« Reply #7 on: June 25, 2007, 01:44:40 pm »
In the interest of disclosure it would be great for people who are discussing specific games would mention whether they've actually played them or even read them. It helps me weigh the value of any speculation about the nature of those games.
 

Settembrini

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« Reply #8 on: June 25, 2007, 01:46:47 pm »
Basically in my eyes, all the Thematic Games I´ve seen and experienced (Actual Play) were basically meaningless sophomoric wankery.
Because nothing was at stake.

They decide what is at stake, which devalues it for me.

Not so in [just as an example] D&D: The ressources and options and situation  can become so crystal clear for everyone, the characters so beloved and history laden, that very intense moments come to be.
The decisions affect your actual play experience in the future. Whereas fucking up your character is "FUN NOW" for the Thematician, fucking up your character in D&D is a grandiose statement for what you really care for.

Because you, as a player will have less options for fun in the future. You are actually sacrificing something.
In the TRGs I know, all sacrifices are posturing and onanistic ones that only your character makes.
And it´s even called good game design when you as a player are actually given mechanical reward for this.:rolleyes:
If there can't be a TPK against the will of the players it's not an RPG.- Pierce Inverarity

James J Skach

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« Reply #9 on: June 25, 2007, 02:30:44 pm »
By the way, Warthur, the answer is easy. The priest leaps out of the balloon as soon as it's known if one is gone they will survive. He doesn't even think twice and he doesn't wait to see if anyone else will do it first. He. Just. Leaps.

It's an interesting dichotomy - thought I suspect Tony is quite correct when he shows how there are ways to play it that don't feel as you describe.

Which is always my problem when Swinery rears it's ugly head in any form - and why Cheetoism, for all it's swaggering, is dead on in many respects. It all depends on the group and how they use the system.

The defining failure of all Theory, as far as I am concerned, is that it attempts to predict what will happen when the system meets the group - and that's a recipe for failure.  Note I'm not talking about games, but about the universality of any theory that speculates on these matters.

Sure, you can talk about how some rules might lead to a change of feel in a game in a certain way - but it will never be universal.
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CodexArcanum

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« Reply #10 on: June 25, 2007, 05:47:48 pm »
See, I've had a kick ass time with DitV as well, and I (as GM) did go into it thematically.  The players enjoyed it too, before any smartass tries to claim otherwise.

But... here's the key. Like Uncle Ronny says, the theme needn't be obvious.  Players don't give two shits about "what lengths they go" to save the town.  Hell, Bakers says as much in the rules of the game.  The GM isn't there to hold hands, or talk about how everyone feels now that the town crisis is resolved.  The GM doesn't judge.  If the players want to introspect over who they killed along the way, then they can explore that.  If the players want to just get the job done and NOT consider it, then they're free to do that too.

Now, I'm just defending Dogs, because I think it's a great game.  Other thespy, Forgite games, I don't know about.  I've avoided My Life With Master because I have no interest in the way it plays, and it looks like it plays like crap.


Really though, thematics is just a fancy way of saying "what if?"  It's exploration of an idea.  Books do it, movies do it, games do it.  Even D&D has themes, of a sort.  Incidentily, that's what pisses me off about the "betrayal" argument.  Sure, it hits harder if, at the end of a two year campaign, the rogue tricks the party.  That's an object lesson in betrayal right there.  But why?  If the rogue's player is just being a dick, I'm grabbing the pitchforks and torches.   But if there was an in-game reason, then that's satisfying and interesting.  It's a thought you can explore and understand.  "Dude, you've been secretly working for the bad guy for 6 months?!  How did we miss that?"  

That's thematics.  Forgey games just try to create a structure that encourages thematic play, rather than waiting for it to accidently develop.  Sometimes, the frontloading is too much or the execution is flawed though, and you get crap.
 

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« Reply #11 on: June 25, 2007, 06:41:29 pm »
Another thread where some try to draw up unnecessary divisons and push their own jargon  - thematic is inferior, Sett ? So now your made up term for playstyles you don't like is inferior not different as you previously stated but inferior . Damn Swine, they are everywhere - and off course DitV is mentioned.

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Settembrini

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« Reply #12 on: June 25, 2007, 07:07:11 pm »
Quote
Forgey games just try to create a structure that encourages thematic play, rather than waiting for it to accidently develop. Sometimes, the frontloading is too much or the execution is flawed though, and you get crap.

Exactly.
If there can't be a TPK against the will of the players it's not an RPG.- Pierce Inverarity

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« Reply #13 on: June 26, 2007, 06:57:00 am »
Quote from: James J Skach
By the way, Warthur, the answer is easy. The priest leaps out of the balloon as soon as it's known if one is gone they will survive. He doesn't even think twice and he doesn't wait to see if anyone else will do it first. He. Just. Leaps.

It's an interesting dichotomy - thought I suspect Tony is quite correct when he shows how there are ways to play it that don't feel as you describe.

Which is always my problem when Swinery rears it's ugly head in any form - and why Cheetoism, for all it's swaggering, is dead on in many respects. It all depends on the group and how they use the system.

The defining failure of all Theory, as far as I am concerned, is that it attempts to predict what will happen when the system meets the group - and that's a recipe for failure.  Note I'm not talking about games, but about the universality of any theory that speculates on these matters.

Sure, you can talk about how some rules might lead to a change of feel in a game in a certain way - but it will never be universal.


Agreed -- this is a great articulation of why "System Doesn't Matter That Much."

The people sitting around the table will probably figure out how to have a good time, no matter what the game author intended (it works in reverse, too -- they can decide to have a dysfunctional power struggle and I don't think the game rules will make much of a difference in most cases).

A lot of the AP reports from indie games look pretty much like what you'd expect from a traditional system based on the same subject matter.

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-E.
 

Warthur

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« Reply #14 on: June 26, 2007, 10:10:36 am »
Quote from: CodexArcanum
See, I've had a kick ass time with DitV as well, and I (as GM) did go into it thematically.  The players enjoyed it too, before any smartass tries to claim otherwise.

But... here's the key. Like Uncle Ronny says, the theme needn't be obvious.  Players don't give two shits about "what lengths they go" to save the town.  Hell, Bakers says as much in the rules of the game.  The GM isn't there to hold hands, or talk about how everyone feels now that the town crisis is resolved.  The GM doesn't judge.  If the players want to introspect over who they killed along the way, then they can explore that.  If the players want to just get the job done and NOT consider it, then they're free to do that too.

Now, I'm just defending Dogs, because I think it's a great game.  Other thespy, Forgite games, I don't know about.  I've avoided My Life With Master because I have no interest in the way it plays, and it looks like it plays like crap.


To be fair, My Life With Master is much closer to the "classroom exercises" I've been talking about than Dogs In the Vineyard is. It is, as you point out, entirely possible to play Dogs in a manner which entirely ignores the relevant theme. However:

a) Uncle Ron says that the theme shouldn't be inherent in the situation, not that it needn't be inherent.

b) Uncle Ron defines theme as follows:

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Theme is defined as a value-judgment or point that may be inferred from the in-game events.


What to ye and me is a strength of Dogs - that it can be played perfectly enjoyably while ignoring theme entirely, or making the theme wholly optional - is actually a failing if you look at it from the point of view of a hardcore Narrativist, since Narrativism (as defined by Ron Edwards - and if we take Ron out of the picture, what's left of Narrativism?) is specifically about exploration of theme as a play group. My Life With Master, conversely, is (in theory) the ideal Narrativist game, since you pretty much have to address the central theme.

Hence the fundamental difference in approach between Forge-inspired indie Narrativist games and traditional games. The thing about "Let's Pretend", and the traditional games which provide "Let's Pretend" with structure, is that Let's Pretend, at the end of the day, means jack shit. It's a fun game you play until the bell goes and you have to go back to class, at which point it's shunted to the back of your mind (or you sneakily keep playing in class and get in trouble when the teacher notices).

Conversely, classroom exercises are meant to be meaningful, in the same way that Narrativist games are meant to be meaningful: you're supposed to come away having explored a theme and come to some sort of new understanding about the issue, even if it's just an insight into how you or your friends think about the matter.

Here is where I have a problem with the Forge's approach. I think "Let's Pretend" benefits immensely from having a system - for me, system does matter. Which system is used is really a matter of taste (so the choice of system doesn't matter that much, so long as everyone's cool with the system picked), what does matter is that a system is used in the first place. Systems provide structure, and structure is vitally important if you want to play an actual game as opposed to running around shouting "Bang! You're dead!"

I don't think classroom exercises, or philosophical debates, or discussion of "issues" between friends are helped by attaching game systems to them. Yes, rules of debate or the terms of a classroom exercise can impose a structure on the discussion and make it more likely that useful insights will be reached. But that's not the sort of thing Narrativist games provide - those games concentrate mainly on providing systems where people compete for authorial control (often, but not always, with the GM having authorial control most of the time). In other words, it's like a philosophical debate where you have to make a successful dice roll before you stand up and make your point, and where (in those games where there's a GM) one participant has vastly more power to frame the debate than everyone else.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that a lot of people (including a bunch of folk who are convinced they are playing in the "Narrativist" style but haven't actually read Ron's confusing definition of what that is) take these games and just play them as if they were traditional games, and have a blast. It's like a class where the kids are assigned the balloon debate, and so they decide amongst themselves that they will save the balloon by landing it in a swamp (guaranteeing a soft landing) and then they're exploring a jungle to try and get home and OH NO A TIGER and so on: yes, they're having a blast, but it's not what the teacher (game designer) was hoping they'd do.

EDIT TO ADD: I think that Forge-produced games are less likely to provide satisfying "Let's Pretend" experiences than games where the designers took a "Let's Pretend" approach to things, simply because they often simply don't support that approach to play. Dogs does, but that's almost by accident - it borrows sufficient elements from traditional games that it can be played like them. My Life With Master doesn't.

EDITED ONCE MORE TO ADD: Oh, and that brings me back to the title of the thread. I don't like Narrativist games, because I'm happy to junk the systems they provide entirely and just chat about some idea with my friends. Conversely, I love traditional RPGs, because they allow me to enjoy "Let's Pretend" again; I couldn't go back and just play "Let's Pretend" without any system, because that sort of unstructured play simply isn't satisfying to me any more.
I am no longer posting here or reading this forum because Pundit has regularly claimed credit for keeping this community active. I am sick of his bullshit for reasons I explain here and I don't want to contribute to anything he considers to be a personal success on his part.

I recommend The RPG Pub as a friendly place where RPGs can be discussed and where the guiding principles of moderation are "be kind to each other" and "no politics". It's pretty chill so far.