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A "theory" thread

Old Fezziwig

a man builds a city with banks and cathedrals
Some immediate thoughts on randomness from reading this thread and via my current Burning Wheel campaign:

1) The players rarely undertake any "big" actions unless/until they can build an overwhelming dice pool and spend enough metacurrency to back it up

2) The Die of Fate (on a 1, whatever random thing we thought could happen, happens) undermines that certainty on an emergent narrative level

and the tension between competent certainty and the world randomly producing random stuff is where the best parts of the game have happened. So i'm starting to lean towards certainty in action resolution, but random instability in the setting. Or something.
How do you handle advancement in this situation? Or are your players looking at their skill lists and saying, "yup, I'm a good enough swordsman"? Every time I introduce a new group to BWHQ games, I find that it's hard to get players comfortable with failure, especially if the previous game is more traditional in its mechanics. I admit that I kind of dragged my MG 1e group kicking and screaming into playing the game by the book through ruthlessly enforcing the rule that you couldn't back down once an Ob was set. (We were good friends and only playing a five-session arc, so it didn't seem like a huge issue to be a jackwagon about it.)
 

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JAMUMU

actually dracula
How do you handle advancement in this situation? Or are your players looking at their skill lists and saying, "yup, I'm a good enough swordsman"? Every time I introduce a new group to BWHQ games, I find that it's hard to get players comfortable with failure, especially if the previous game is more traditional in its mechanics. I admit that I kind of dragged my MG 1e group kicking and screaming into playing the game by the book through ruthlessly enforcing the rule that you couldn't back down once an Ob was set. (We were good friends and only playing a five-session arc, so it didn't seem like a huge issue to be a jackwagon about it.)
Well there was a lot of failure at the start of the campaign, while the players built their "core competencies" and we all learned the game mechanics. Nowadays they don't mind failing when it comes to learning new skills, because they can always fall back on their highly rated skills to expedite a situation. I think aid dice and the advancement it provides for characters helping the player who's rolling help with the overall advancement curve, if the game goes on for long enough.

The players all decided to bed down for a downtime cycle or two and learn the teaching/instruction skill (can't remember the name and the book isn't to hand) and that has certainly helped with advancement.

I also won't let a player back down once terms have been set. It's one of the things I love about the game. And over the year+ it's been running they've learned that okay, impulsive actions are a part of character that maybe aren't explored in other games, and failure can often lead down the game's best and unexpected rabbit-holes.
 

Pedantic

Legend
Now that I think of it, maybe a better way to ask this is, when do you require dice to be rolled at the table? When do you determine that there's not a way for a player to achieve their intent without rolling dice? Does the player get to determine this?
My preferred approach is mediate that entirely mechanically, and to specify the impact of all the actions ahead of time. So a player is rolling dice when they decide they want (or need) to take a risk to achieve something, but the gameplay loop is mostly in exploiting the actions they can take to try and resolve the situation as best as possible, or reactively when they're acted on.

A lot of the juice, for me, is in the planning.
 

As you call out (at the bottom of your OP, but not quoted here) this restates a position VB stated or restated pretty well. In more recent discussion on his blog, he argues that



He then clarifies in comments that



My current feeling on this matter is that fiction is a complex term, or perhaps that is better said as - it's a term that unpacks into some markedly different components. The relationship many folk have historically had with fiction is as a relating or retelling. I read about real or imagined events that have occurred to real or imagined people. Retold fiction has typically been the product of the workings of an author's mind. Today, it can also be a product of the workings of an AI. Something we have discussed in the past and drawn differing conclusions about, is a retelling of game play - a retelling of a chess game, for instance. When I read the "story of a game of chess" and "story by chatgpt", I might call both of those mechanically generated fictions. I could be drawn to say that the chess "fiction" is in truth non-fiction - a series of facts about the play, but then what of chatgpt? Is its fiction anything but a series of facts about (collected from) the play of its mechanisms?

There is a sense, anyway, of fiction as a product of a process. Viewed that way, boardgames and TTRPGs both produce "fiction", and this is not what I think you are talking about. I think you are talking about something closer to VBs "fictional positioning" which is fiction that will be continuously addressed during play. It is the distinctive and compelling purpose of RPG play to address that fiction.

In boardgames and TTRPGs, players continually form intents and - mediated by rules or agreements around the table - say what they are and see them enacted. In play of boardgames, such intents address the physical game state. To say it is physical is to give it independence from its authors. X and Y can play five plies into a chess game, and then hand the board to Q and R, who can perfectly well continue addressing it. (The forming of intents is not interchangeable among players, but the physical game states are.) In TTRPG, the game state is mental as well as physical. Being mental, it is not perfectly known or reified among the players and must be addressed in a sense that VB has described as retroactive. I believe it is this mental component that you are calling "the heart of RPGing".

There is something recognisable as fiction that emerges in both boardgames and TTRPGs. Player intents are common to all games. That those intents should shape the fiction that emerges is in turn common to most or all games. Again, this is not the "fiction" at the heart of RPG that I believe your OP contemplates, but the boundaries are blurred: there is a complex entanglement between emergent fiction and shared imagination. That plays out in - for one example - debates about resolution types.

I find these difficult ideas, so will leave it here not because I feel I've been entirely successful in stating my point, but - as you did - to make space for commentary before attempting to get at something more successful. EDIT, a quote from VB that I want to say should not derail or devalue your OP, but perhaps speaks to some of my feelings of caution...
I'm going to split hairs with you a little bit, and say that IMHO a game like chess does not PRODUCE fiction at all. It may be possible to write some sort of fiction ABOUT the game states, imagining the battle of two kingdoms and assigning character traits, plans, etc. to the various pieces, something like that. You could as well do that long after, so I could take a game of the great 19th Century master, Paul Morphy and write a 'story' of that game just as easily as I could a game I'm playing right now with @pemerton! This is because there are no "leftward arrows" in chess which reach back from the mechanics to fiction. Thus the fiction doesn't really belong to the game, they are entirely disconnected things.

I would argue, and I think this follows with Vincent Baker's statements and others, that WITHOUT such 'arrows' there is no RPG. There may be a game, and there may be role play, but the two are not one activity standing together, and thus do not constitute the activity of playing an RPG. It is in this sense that RPGs are unique amongst games, and to be honest, I don't think the fact that some idle person can write a story about a chess game is even relevant to discussions of RPGs at all. Note that by this definition such things as CRPGs generally don't fall within the definition of RPG. I think its reasonable to consider them to occupy a sort of grey area, in that the fiction has no bearing on the actual play, you need not construct any fiction to play them (though they generally supply some fictional 'gloss' of the activities in the game) HOWEVER it is generally understood that one of the agendas of play may be to take game actions based on fictional motives as opposed to ones which are purely utilitarian in terms of the game mechanics. Your motivations will not however feed back into the game, there are still no leftward arrows.

Another feature of RPGs, which I believe is pretty much ubiquitous and defining is their open-endedness. In all RPGs of which I am aware, and of which I can conceive in fact, the possible situations and applications of game process cannot be enumerated. In fact, I believe that this is inextricably tied to the first part, the interplay between fiction and game state/mechanics (leftward arrows). It is this interplay which CREATES the infinite possibility space, and without that interplay such would not exist. If there is interplay between fiction and game state, process, or rules, then inevitably the game will have to deal with whatever fiction the participants have generated, which is impossible to catalog or enumerate. This is also why games like the 4e-inspired board games that WotC published are still not RPGs, even if you EXPECTED to role play, because effectively you could take a history of any of those games and simply go back and write the fiction after the fact, as it doesn't change what happens next.

Now, how is that different from 'traditional' RPGs, like early editions of D&D? The difference is in terms of open-ended interactions between fiction and rules. At some point, early on, some player picked up a flask of oil and tossed it at a monster, and there was NO RULE for that. The GM (I expect it was Dave Arneson) came up with some sort of game mechanical effect resulting from this fiction, and then that fed back into the next piece of fiction (IE "the orc, now burning like a torch, shrieks and runs off down the corridor before disappearing around a corner about 40' down."). That makes it an RPG, and I would argue the original D&D game is pretty close to the most basic form such a game can take.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I'm going to split hairs with you a little bit, and say that IMHO a game like chess does not PRODUCE fiction at all. It may be possible to write some sort of fiction ABOUT the game states, imagining the battle of two kingdoms and assigning character traits, plans, etc. to the various pieces, something like that. You could as well do that long after, so I could take a game of the great 19th Century master, Paul Morphy and write a 'story' of that game just as easily as I could a game I'm playing right now with @pemerton! This is because there are no "leftward arrows" in chess which reach back from the mechanics to fiction. Thus the fiction doesn't really belong to the game, they are entirely disconnected things.
Can I ask you to reread what I wrote? I am speaking there of a relating or retelling: the game process yielding a linear narrative. I point that out in order to get at the exact "fiction" that the OP is concerned with, which I believe is closer to the "fictional positioning" that VB describes as "a feature that some games have and others don't". It is that latter technical feature - fictional positioning - that I think your discussion of arrows rightly relates to.

Vincent opens that blog post with

There are, I think, two twin ideas that underpin a lot of rpg theory, to its detriment. Let’s call them rpg essentialism and rpg exceptionalism.

RPG essentialism is the idea that deep down, all rpgs are the same game. Like, “in all rpgs…,” “rpgs are designd for…,” or “in ttrpgs…” without any further qualifying.

It’s the idea that different rpgs aren’t different games, they’re different approaches or tools you can use to play what is essentially the same game.

RPG exceptionalism is the idea that deep down, rpgs are fundamentally unlike all other games, or aren’t games at all. That roleplaying is an activity separate from playing other games. As in, “unlike other games, rpgs…” or even “the g in rpg is a misnomer,” I’ve seen once in a while.

He goes on to point out that many features that might be thought to be unique to roleplaying (making them putatively exceptional) are found in other games. However, he is comfortable saying that fictional positioning is a distinct technical feature of RPG. I'm saying that "fiction" in the common sense of a linear narrative yielded by some process, is not unique (among games) to RPG. But only as I say, to better get at the OP's theory.

EDIT And note here some consequences of Vincent's opening sentences. RPGs are fundamentally games. Different RPGs are different games.
 
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This is very influential on my thinking, though that particular genre divide (usually rendered "euro" often with a weight indicator attached and "ameritrash" generally without malice as time went on) is less and less relevant to modern board game design/criticism. I've got 15 years of hobby boardgaming to draw on, and lately my tastes skew increasingly more toward games without random elements or very controlled randomness. I'm paying a lot of Splotters and even the dreaded 18xx games, though with a dash of lighter, less economic euros tossed in.

That creates weird incentives, depending where you create a given roll. It's for exactly this reason I prefer games that completely divide action and intent. Honestly, I struggle with non-TTRPG negotiation games particularly once they start asking me you to resolve trading beyond the scope of a single exchange.
Well, as a former pretty successful Diplomacy player... Totally non-random games can be pretty awesome. Diplomacy is one of the very most fiercely competitive and merciless games there is. You better have both a chess master-like grasp of board position and all the possibilities inherent in any given one, AND an ability to negotiate WELL (into which I will include dissembling, backstabbing, outright deceit, and a completely Realpolitik-like orientation towards doing whatever is required to win). This is another of those games where 'role play' can have a material effect on the outcome, although it isn't a formal part of the game.
 


Now that I think of it, maybe a better way to ask this is, when do you require dice to be rolled at the table? When do you determine that there's not a way for a player to achieve their intent without rolling dice? Does the player get to determine this?
In my own game design there's actually a 'mode of play' for this. You are either engaged in a challenge, in which case something is at stake and dice come into play, OR you are in an 'interlude' in which nothing is at stake and no dice are ever rolled. Interludes are often setups, lead ins, and such. PCs could simply be doing some ordinary living life, or developing contacts, doing very general research, etc. As soon as whatever it is that is happening becomes directly meaningful to a character they now have something riding on it, and dice will come out (and a challenge, like a 4e SC, will start). This doesn't avoid the asking of the question of when to start rolling, but it does make it a very explicit thing.
 

niklinna

satisfied?
How do you handle advancement in this situation? Or are your players looking at their skill lists and saying, "yup, I'm a good enough swordsman"? Every time I introduce a new group to BWHQ games, I find that it's hard to get players comfortable with failure, especially if the previous game is more traditional in its mechanics. I admit that I kind of dragged my MG 1e group kicking and screaming into playing the game by the book through ruthlessly enforcing the rule that you couldn't back down once an Ob was set. (We were good friends and only playing a five-session arc, so it didn't seem like a huge issue to be a jackwagon about it.)
In my brief series playing Torchbearer 2, I loved loved loved the advancement system where you had to both "pass" and "fail" on a number of tests to increase your skills. Also had to "fail" to get checks just to be able to rest. So many interlocking parts that drove compelling play and story.

(I put scare quotes around those words because although they are the terms that the book itself uses the system is not task-based. But also the English language does really have single-word terms for "you get what you want", "you get something more/other than what you wanted".)
 


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