At the Intersection of Skilled Play, System Intricacy, Prep, and Story Now

So I've been chatting with some friends lately about this subject. Some friends I diverge with a little, some I diverge with a lot, some I diverge with not at all. These are all thoughtful people with a lot of consideration on the subject so, that means, there is a lot of stuff that goes into forming an opinion (and then possibly course-correcting).

I think the way I'm going to approach this public conversation is (a) link Ron Edwards' essay on the subject of Story Now (for anyone interested), (b) pull out some parts that I feel are extremely important to this conversation, and then (c) Steelman the position that I (at least presently) disagree with. I'll get to my own opinion later. First I want to cover the ground that I consider most a problem to my position.

Here is the Story Now essay

I invite anyone to read it in its totality, but if you're not interested, the stuff I'm snipping from it below is a good TLDR for this conversation. Further, at its core, much of these concepts aren't complex and don't require a The Forge PHD TM. Anyone interested who feels they have something to say that intersects with the topic under discussion is appreciated.

1) So what is Story Now. Its core elements are here:




Story Now

Story Now requires that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of role-playing. "Address" means:

  • Establishing the issue's Explorative expressions in the game-world, "fixing" them into imaginary place.
  • Developing the issue as a source of continued conflict, perhaps changing any number of things about it, such as which side is being taken by a given character, or providing more depth to why the antagonistic side of the issue exists at all.
  • Resolving the issue through the decisions of the players of the protagonists, as well as various features and constraints of the circumstances.
Can it really be that easy? Yes, Narrativism is that easy. The Now refers to the people, during actual play, focusing their imagination to create those emotional moments of decision-making and action, and paying attention to one another as they do it. To do that, they relate to "the story" very much as authors do for novels, as playwrights do for plays, and screenwriters do for film at the creative moment or moments. Think of the Now as meaning, "in the moment," or "engaged in doing it," in terms of input and emotional feedback among one another. The Now also means "get to it," in which "it" refers to any Explorative element or combination of elements that increases the enjoyment of that issue I'm talking about.

There cannot be any "the story" during Narrativist play, because to have such a thing (fixed plot or pre-agreed theme) is to remove the whole point: the creative moments of addressing the issue(s). Story Now has a great deal in common with Step On Up, particularly in the social expectation to contribute, but in this case the real people's attention is directed toward one another's insights toward the issue, rather than toward strategy and guts.




2) Given the above (and my experience running these games), when it comes to Story Now play in particular (take a look at the final sentence in the Story Now entry above), there are probably three tendencies that will tell you how unmoored the game and table experience is from what Story Now sets out to do. Those things are:

* When the participants orientation to, and experience of, play hews toward "strategy and guts" (which includes not just reward system and IIEE but also the intensity of the simple demands of play) to any degree such that it renders resolving problematic features of human existence and finding out what themes and character emerge from the crucible of this continuous conflict (until its fully resolved) "the bridesmaid and never the bride."

* When play is either effectively a fait accompli because the NOW turns into BEFORE (play is not about the decision of the players of the protagonists during play because important matters have either already been decided or will be decided for them).

* When PC conception (by a player or by the GM) and/or situation/conflict resolution conception is insufficiently volatile and/or not put under the kind of duress required such that any given participant (even or especially the player of a particular PC) will have their orientation to a PC, to setting, to the premise of play evolve appreciably from start to finish. Volatile and duress are essential factors here. They do necessary work. For example, I'm not talking about having such complete control over Player Character (particularly internal wiring) that any changes to your conception of PC are entirely within your purview and subject to your veto. There is going to be say by the other participants and system say that obviates your personal purview and veto. They may not be prolific (that depens on the nuts and bolts of the game), but they will be present and therefore "you will be on the PC conception ride too."


This conversation is going to focus overwhelmingly on the first asterisk above. While I will talk about prep and the nuance of "BEFORE vs NOW", the 2nd asterisk isn't really in play here. So mostly, I'm focusing on the first asterisk.

3) "The panoply of Techniques being employed over time either satisfy or fail to satisfy one or more Creative Agendas. <snip range of potential play methods> I consider the two most important Techniques to be reward system and IIEE."

This is a very important component of Ron Edwards' essays and you can perform a pretty rigorous system diagnostic to see how amenable it is to one form of play or another just by looking at a particular game's reward system and IIEE. You can find these definitions here, but I'll go ahead and put them below for quick reference:

Reward System - (a) The personal and social gratification derived from role-playing, a feature of Creative Agenda. (b) In-game changes, usually to a player-character, a feature of System and Character. (c) As a subset to (b), improvement to one or more of the character's Components. Typically, the term refers to how (a) is facilitated by (b).

IIEE - Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect - how actions and events in the imaginary game-world are resolved in terms of (1) real-world announcement and (2) imaginary order of occurrence. See The four steps of action and What is IIEC? A necessary feature of System during play, usually represented by several Techniques and many Ephemera.


So, anyone who has engaged with my posts over the last decade might notice that IIEE looks like the GM/system version of the player-side OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). In my opinion, this is a key relationship of a game and a key way that one game might be delineated from another:

What sort of OODA is the IIEE facilitating?

Further, how does the Reward System intersect with those two features of play/conversation? Does (b) facilitate (a) (definition above) and is the IIEE + OODA integration coherent with respect to that?




Alright, with that out of the way...below are a few statements that are each quite defendable in my estimation (though I presently have some disagreement to one degree or another with either (i) the intersection of one of them with another or (ii) the actual tipping point). Before getting into Torchbearer 2 (that is ultimately the system that will be under scrutiny here!), I think having a conversation about the below contention and then qualitatively discussing the margins, edge-cases, and other relevant constituent parts (see above 1-3).

* There is a tipping point whereby the paradigm of Skilled Play within a system is so intensive (any/all of the actual cognitive preoccupation with, overabundance of handling time on a significant cross-section of play, the emotional feedback of play overall being preoccupied with, etc) that it impedes Story Now play.

* There is a tipping point whereby system intricacy is so intensive that it impedes Story Now play.

* There is a type/kind and amount of prep that impedes Story Now play.

* There is a IIEE + OODA relationship that foregrounds and orients content that impedes Story Now play.

* There are Reward Systems that incentivize/perpetuate the exploration of premise/character evolution/volatility that is inherent to Story Now play and Reward Systems that distract from, disincentivize, or impede these things.


So, the below statement (though it requires a certain level of rigor within the scrutiny) may very well be true:

System x is not a Story Now experience because the demands of Skilled Play are far too intensive, the IIEE + OODA relationship foregrounds challenge-based content far too much, and the system is intricate to such a degree that participants invariably are preoccupied by system architecture/mechanical interaction rather than engaging with and addressing premise/thematic conflict duress and the nature of its fallout on PC.
 

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darkbard

Hero
Some immediate thoughts:

* where does Story Now end and Fiction First begin? Much of this debate revolves around the relative complexity of system mechanics and whether they impede/enable the playing of a PC inhabiting the fiction rather than focusing on the mechanics.

*are Skilled Play and System Mastery the same thing? Does one necessitate the other?

*is there a necessary tension between Story Now principles, like "play your PC like driving a stolen car" and Skilled Play, which might seem to seek prioritizing the best move (whatever that means!) in any given situation rather than making moves chosen for excitement, danger, intrigue, risk (even without expectation of concomitant reward)? Or do we need a more expansive definition of Skilled Play? Or perhaps separate definitions, depending on system?

Anyway, you're asking, implicitly or explicitly, some of the same questions above. Gotta run for now. Interested to see where the conversation develops! Great post!
 

kenada

Legend
The issue that was pointed out to me in one of the other TB2 threads is that “skilled play” is definitionally Step On Up. As I understand it, mixing creative agendas is usually not desired.

I find this interesting personally because it has implications for the stakes-based approach I am attempting with my homebrew system. What I have been trying to lay out is a principled approach based on using the campaign to answer a fundamental stakes question, and the GM is truly a referee charged with overseeing the system and setting once set in motion.

The problem is that framing the stakes in this way turns the campaign into a challenge the players are seeing if they can overcome. While the outcome is not prescribed (which would negate* the challenge), the players presumably want to accomplish the goal and will play accordingly.

Coming back to the topic of this thread, I think this has obvious implications for skilled play when it comes to a game like Torchbearer. There’s obviously a skilled play element to it. Regardless of how proficient the players are at it, you want to make sure you are taking the steps needed to ensure your character’s survival. Being an adventurer is dangerous and hard. That’s a major theme in the game, and TB deploys its mechanics in service of that.

However, the point of the game isn’t to engage with the mechanics. There is a challenge, and overcoming the challenge is an important part of play, but I don’t think it’s the point of play. If one strictly takes any challenge-based play as Step On Up, then almost any game could be construed through that lens. This is the question that @darkbard raises with regards to certain Story Now principles.

I think the answer to that question depends on whether skilled play is a means to an end or the end itself. One can see it in certain styles of D&D play where the point is to overcome challenges levied at the PCs. I don’t think TB is one of those games because the purpose of the challenge is thematic reinforcement. Otherwise, I don’t see how you could have game elements at all without risking incoherence or drifting from your creative agenda.

--
* This actually make me wonder if trad and OC/trad are not Step On Up because play is about experiencing the negotiated story beats (or as I noted with regards to combat in another thread: challenge is performative). I would almost call that Right to Dream, but the system is subordinate to the experience (not just set in motion and allowed to operate).
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
@Manbearcat, I take it this is the long form response to @pemerton's statement the Torchbearer 2 isn't Story Now? I see that steelman here. I'm curious to the rebuttal, as that argument seems to hold some not inconsiderable weight. I will hazard that given the citing of Edwards that the counter will be along the lines of play in the moment about weight things still occurs. I think that this can be hard as system complexity can put pressure on this and that that pressure paired with skilled play can push strongly against Story Now.

To give an example, in the later parts of the BitD game you ran where we had a phenomenal run into Tier 5 as a crew, the threat board necessary to keep pressure on began to devolve away from being intimate to the PCs and more become existential threats. I think, had we not come to an agreed end point but tried to keep pushing it would have changed in character to a more monster of the week paradigm which does step away from Story Now.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In an effort to be helpful, I would add these thoughts which intersect with your thoughtful post.

Skilled Play (traditional Gygaxian skilled play, as exemplified by so-called "dungeon crawls" of the 70s) is orthogonal to both System Mastery and to conceptions of Story Now, IMO and IME.

The two primary requisites (or prerequisites if you are adopting old school verbiage!) when looking at Skilled Play are (1) Division of Authority and (2) Preparation. Allow me to explain-

I have ran a few FKR/rules lite games recently in different genres, and a few attempts at capturing a 70s-vibe, Skilled Play "feel" using genre-specific norms. Mostly successful, and one unsuccessful. Doing so allowed me to see what, IMO, allowed for a successful Skilled Play game.

Simply put, it required preparation, and for the narrative control of the world to be within the DM's authority. In saying this, I am not saying that either of these are good things or bad things, simply that they appear to be requirements for this style of play. This is most obvious when looking at the "exploration" pillar of traditional Skilled Play (hereafter, "SP" because I'm tired of typing it) as I will detail further below.

In SP, the conception is that the challenge is not to the character, but to the player (it's a measure of player skill). That's why you see references to the DM as a "neutral referee" or a "neutral arbiter" (whether that can be completely true, is just an aspiration, or was just verbiage is an exercise for people to determine for themselves).

The DM, then, cannot ad hoc the area that is being explored, the DM cannot ad lib, and the DM should not be a fan of the players in SP. The DM is, for all practical purposes, the world that the players are interacting with through their characters. For this reason, the game cannot have mechanics for the players to seize narrative control of the world. The world exists independently of the player's conceptions and desires, and they are using their skilled to overcome the obstacles within it.

For that same reason, the DM must commit to preparation. This division of authority requires trust from the players to the DM that the DM is not changing the world or engaging in illusionism to help or hinder the players. If the players send their characters into a dungeon, there is a map of that dungeon already made. Going west or east will be meaningful choices- they both don't lead to the same ogre. For that matter, the chest is either trapped or not before the players decide to approach it; the pit is 10' deep with spikes or 30' deep with green slime- it's not a Heisenberg uncertainty pit, only to be revealed when an unfortunate soul falls into it.

I understand that when I type this, people will necessarily want to argue with some of what I have said- "What about a spell? Doesn't that, in some way, allow the player to take control of the narrative?" Or, "Hey, if the players are in a town, and a player decides to narrate that there is an inn to stop out, does that destroy SP?" And so on. Obviously, things are always on a continuum, and you can't account for every single use-case.

But IME SP absolutely requires the traditional TTRPG loop of-
1. DM Narrates Environment.
2. Player Declares Action.
3. DM Narrates Effect.

Finally, despite Gygax's 1987 Book (Role-Playing Mastery), neither System Mastery nor System Complexity are required for SP. SP is perfectly possible with either a reasonably complex system, or with a "black box" system similar to what Dave Arneson was originally running.

I know that this doesn't fully engage with some of your issues, but I thought it might be helpful. Good luck with the topic!
 

Some immediate thoughts:

* where does Story Now end and Fiction First begin? Much of this debate revolves around the relative complexity of system mechanics and whether they impede/enable the playing of a PC inhabiting the fiction rather than focusing on the mechanics.
Well, what is in Fiction First that is not implicit in Story Now? I mean, games that are Fiction First might NOT be Story Now, but IMHO that isn't because of something in FF that conflicts with SN... Any SN game must start and end with the fiction, mustn't it? I mean, the point is to focus on CHARACTER and its relationship to setting etc. I find it hard to imagine a game where that is the focus where you start from some mechanically described state, as that would seem to be a different focus. I mean, perhaps someone can imagine a game where the mechanics are an encompassing description of character and all the possible dramatic 'events' in the game are reflected in changes to that mechanical state and regulated by it. That seems like a weird game, and I'm not even sure where story comes into it, though it can certainly play a side role of just providing constraints on actions and outcomes (position). So I would call all SN games FF, myself.
*are Skilled Play and System Mastery the same thing? Does one necessitate the other?
I could have complete mastery (I mean I probably do have virtually complete mastery of everything a player can master in AD&D for example) and yet I could still choose not to play in the most 'skilled' way. I'm not sure that qualifies as 'unskilled' though... Frankly I don't think Story Now is really much about skilled play... I don't think it is a style in which you are normally going for 'System Mastery' in the sense of "using the system to maximize the in-game success of your character" either. Though that isn't the only possible definition of System Mastery either.
*is there a necessary tension between Story Now principles, like "play your PC like driving a stolen car" and Skilled Play, which might seem to seek prioritizing the best move (whatever that means!) in any given situation rather than making moves chosen for excitement, danger, intrigue, risk (even without expectation of concomitant reward)? Or do we need a more expansive definition of Skilled Play? Or perhaps separate definitions, depending on system?
I don't think it is absolutely required that Story Now involves a sense of playing the character in a reckless way. It involves engaging the character's personality and other intangible dramatic traits and themes. Maybe the character is reckless, maybe not. I think what Ron might have been trying to evoke is more "don't just play like its a puzzle game and your PC is a vehicle for making the 'right moves', but instead step up and do what is demanded by the situation to engage with its dramatic elements." If that means 'leap off the cliff', then do it! If it means carefully strategize a way to defeat the nemesis with maximum gain for yourself, that's OK too (though experience may prove this sort of scenario and characterization is less likely to prove to be amenable to a reward system design that is tenable, perhaps? I think there's a lot of 'system design talk' that could go on here).
Anyway, you're asking, implicitly or explicitly, some of the same questions above. Gotta run for now. Interested to see where the conversation develops! Great post!
 

In an effort to be helpful, I would add these thoughts which intersect with your thoughtful post.

Skilled Play (traditional Gygaxian skilled play, as exemplified by so-called "dungeon crawls" of the 70s) is orthogonal to both System Mastery and to conceptions of Story Now, IMO and IME.

The two primary requisites (or prerequisites if you are adopting old school verbiage!) when looking at Skilled Play are (1) Division of Authority and (2) Preparation. Allow me to explain-

I have ran a few FKR/rules lite games recently in different genres, and a few attempts at capturing a 70s-vibe, Skilled Play "feel" using genre-specific norms. Mostly successful, and one unsuccessful. Doing so allowed me to see what, IMO, allowed for a successful Skilled Play game.

Simply put, it required preparation, and for the narrative control of the world to be within the DM's authority. In saying this, I am not saying that either of these are good things or bad things, simply that they appear to be requirements for this style of play. This is most obvious when looking at the "exploration" pillar of traditional Skilled Play (hereafter, "SP" because I'm tired of typing it) as I will detail further below.

In SP, the conception is that the challenge is not to the character, but to the player (it's a measure of player skill). That's why you see references to the DM as a "neutral referee" or a "neutral arbiter" (whether that can be completely true, is just an aspiration, or was just verbiage is an exercise for people to determine for themselves).

The DM, then, cannot ad hoc the area that is being explored, the DM cannot ad lib, and the DM should not be a fan of the players in SP. The DM is, for all practical purposes, the world that the players are interacting with through their characters. For this reason, the game cannot have mechanics for the players to seize narrative control of the world. The world exists independently of the player's conceptions and desires, and they are using their skilled to overcome the obstacles within it.

For that same reason, the DM must commit to preparation. This division of authority requires trust from the players to the DM that the DM is not changing the world or engaging in illusionism to help or hinder the players. If the players send their characters into a dungeon, there is a map of that dungeon already made. Going west or east will be meaningful choices- they both don't lead to the same ogre. For that matter, the chest is either trapped or not before the players decide to approach it; the pit is 10' deep with spikes or 30' deep with green slime- it's not a Heisenberg uncertainty pit, only to be revealed when an unfortunate soul falls into it.

I understand that when I type this, people will necessarily want to argue with some of what I have said- "What about a spell? Doesn't that, in some way, allow the player to take control of the narrative?" Or, "Hey, if the players are in a town, and a player decides to narrate that there is an inn to stop out, does that destroy SP?" And so on. Obviously, things are always on a continuum, and you can't account for every single use-case.

But IME SP absolutely requires the traditional TTRPG loop of-
1. DM Narrates Environment.
2. Player Declares Action.
3. DM Narrates Effect.

Finally, despite Gygax's 1987 Book (Role-Playing Mastery), neither System Mastery nor System Complexity are required for SP. SP is perfectly possible with either a reasonably complex system, or with a "black box" system similar to what Dave Arneson was originally running.

I know that this doesn't fully engage with some of your issues, but I thought it might be helpful. Good luck with the topic!
I wonder if your conception of Skilled Play here is limited to a certain domain, but that there are other domains? It seems to be limited to a sort of 'man against nature' sort of conflict (where nature can take the form of things like monsters and such which may be characterized as more than simply static obstacles, though classic OSR play MOSTLY does focus on static environments IME).

That is, classic D&D's paradigm of play pretty infamously breaks down when you cannot model the situations at hand in a sort of 'dungeon like' way. It doesn't do a very good job of dealing with things like a game of politics and intrigue. The mechanical system issues aside (modern D&Ds have pretty well addressed those anyway) there is no way a GM can really prep all the possibly wildly diverging paths that such a story could potentially take. It quickly becomes a dynamically created story, or else is no more than a thin veneer over 'dungeon'. Yet there are potentially great challenges and skill that could be exercised in these domains, certainly history is rife with evidence that this is the primary venue of competition between humans. So D&D itself, and the approach you outline, doesn't really handle these kinds of stories. I think we've gotten used to simply limiting our imaginations to situations that games of this sort DO handle acceptably, but that was probably the motivation for newer types of RPG!

So, can I really not have a game of skill where the situation is fluid, heavily dependent on player inputs, etc.? I think its quite possible myself, but lets just ask the question!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So, can I really not have a game of skill where the situation is fluid, heavily dependent on player inputs, etc.? I think its quite possible myself, but lets just ask the question!

Well, you can fairly easily. That's a standard model that used to be played heavily in the early 70s, and arguably (and IMO) is what gave birth to D&D - both the original Arneson inspiration (the Banana Republic game) and the proto-D&D ran by Arneson. In effect, all you need is the neutral referee who has the prep (which can include a thorough knowledge of the subject matter).

But where the issue changes is how you define "heavily dependent on player inputs, etc." Of course all Skilled Play is heavily ... entirely ... dependent on player inputs. That's the whole point! It's just that the distinction is that the skill is in providing an input, not in describing the output.



ETA- the use of the standard dungeon model was provided because it's something most people can grok fairly easily.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I wonder if your conception of Skilled Play here is limited to a certain domain, but that there are other domains? It seems to be limited to a sort of 'man against nature' sort of conflict (where nature can take the form of things like monsters and such which may be characterized as more than simply static obstacles, though classic OSR play MOSTLY does focus on static environments IME).

That is, classic D&D's paradigm of play pretty infamously breaks down when you cannot model the situations at hand in a sort of 'dungeon like' way. It doesn't do a very good job of dealing with things like a game of politics and intrigue. The mechanical system issues aside (modern D&Ds have pretty well addressed those anyway) there is no way a GM can really prep all the possibly wildly diverging paths that such a story could potentially take. It quickly becomes a dynamically created story, or else is no more than a thin veneer over 'dungeon'. Yet there are potentially great challenges and skill that could be exercised in these domains, certainly history is rife with evidence that this is the primary venue of competition between humans. So D&D itself, and the approach you outline, doesn't really handle these kinds of stories. I think we've gotten used to simply limiting our imaginations to situations that games of this sort DO handle acceptably, but that was probably the motivation for newer types of RPG!

So, can I really not have a game of skill where the situation is fluid, heavily dependent on player inputs, etc.? I think its quite possible myself, but lets just ask the question!
Skilled play is about marshaling the system and PC resources to achieve goals. Goals can be player goals or chatacter goals, depending on the particulars of the game agenda. What skilled play looks like will differ on the game -- AD&D may have a component of playing to the GM as part of skilled play, and otherwise revolves strongly on the equipment management and time management loops. BitD is about pushing character strengths and manipulation of odds through PC resources like stress, assists, and set up moves. Both skilled play, but very system dependent.

For an FKR style game, the only skilled play I see is working the GM. This is because there really is no system to leverage outside the GM, and any resource (like equipment) folds in under that same system.
 

Well, you can fairly easily. That's a standard model that used to be played heavily in the early 70s, and arguably (and IMO) is what gave birth to D&D - both the original Arneson inspiration (the Banana Republic game) and the proto-D&D ran by Arneson. In effect, all you need is the neutral referee who has the prep (which can include a thorough knowledge of the subject matter).

But where the issue changes is how you define "heavily dependent on player inputs, etc." Of course all Skilled Play is heavily ... entirely ... dependent on player inputs. That's the whole point! It's just that the distinction is that the skill is in providing an input, not in describing the output.



ETA- the use of the standard dungeon model was provided because it's something most people can grok fairly easily.
But what I am implying, and my experience is that this is true, is that the whole 'fixed challenge/fixed reward' model you were labeling above as 'Skilled Play' doesn't hold up in situations where the environment (IE the challenges) are not fairly limited and finite in their dimensions and can be handled in a fairly predictable manner. I do not think that the 'braunstein' type of game that was Arneson's impetus for exploring RP in TT wargames, which led to D&D, is a type of Skilled Play game at all! Not in anything close to the sense you outlined above, certainly.

I don't think I'm implying that NO FORM of Skilled Play can happen outside of a highly constrained environment, but more that fixed prepared scenarios might not be as critical as some people have historically maintained. I think that I agree with @Ovinomancer that Skilled Play exists in BitD (though I'm not really much of an expert on that game). I think it also exists in TB2, for example, though that is a game where prep seems to be expected (but I think it is possible to 'wing it' and not have the whole thing break). I think some Skilled Play can also exist in games like Dungeon World, I'm pretty sure @Manbearcat has taken that position in other discussions.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
But what I am implying, and my experience is that this is true, is that the whole 'fixed challenge/fixed reward' model you were labeling above as 'Skilled Play' doesn't hold up in situations where the environment (IE the challenges) are not fairly limited and finite in their dimensions and can be handled in a fairly predictable manner. I do not think that the 'braunstein' type of game that was Arneson's impetus for exploring RP in TT wargames, which led to D&D, is a type of Skilled Play game at all! Not in anything close to the sense you outlined above, certainly.

I don't think I'm implying that NO FORM of Skilled Play can happen outside of a highly constrained environment, but more that fixed prepared scenarios might not be as critical as some people have historically maintained. I think that I agree with @Ovinomancer that Skilled Play exists in BitD (though I'm not really much of an expert on that game). I think it also exists in TB2, for example, though that is a game where prep seems to be expected (but I think it is possible to 'wing it' and not have the whole thing break). I think some Skilled Play can also exist in games like Dungeon World, I'm pretty sure @Manbearcat has taken that position in other discussions.
It absolutely can and does. You can leverage the system and PC resources in PbtA. The nature of play actually pairs up so that this kind of play is assumed and supported by the system -- it's not a case where skilled play is at odds with the concept and intention of the system. It's not a seperate playstyle like it can be with many D&D editions, where it stands against some other common play agendas.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But what I am implying, and my experience is that this is true, is that the whole 'fixed challenge/fixed reward' model you were labeling above as 'Skilled Play' doesn't hold up in situations where the environment (IE the challenges) are not fairly limited and finite in their dimensions and can be handled in a fairly predictable manner. I do not think that the 'braunstein' type of game that was Arneson's impetus for exploring RP in TT wargames, which led to D&D, is a type of Skilled Play game at all! Not in anything close to the sense you outlined above, certainly.

I would 100% disagree with you on that, and could not disagree more.

The Braunstein revelation (specifically, the Banana Republic) was that Arneson, being a skilled player, went outside the bounds of the character sheet to inhabit the world in order to "win" (under different win conditions).

He played the world, not the rules. Sound familiar?

I don't think I'm implying that NO FORM of Skilled Play can happen outside of a highly constrained environment, but more that fixed prepared scenarios might not be as critical as some people have historically maintained.

To be 100% clear, I think the defining aspect is the division of authority. I don't think you can have an SP game without that.

The "prep" can either be explicit (the DM who laboriously creates maps and wandering monster tables) or implicit (a DM who is considered an expert in a genre, world, or field), but is required for the adjudication of player actions if you're looking for "SP."
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
But what I am implying, and my experience is that this is true, is that the whole 'fixed challenge/fixed reward' model you were labeling above as 'Skilled Play' doesn't hold up in situations where the environment (IE the challenges) are not fairly limited and finite in their dimensions and can be handled in a fairly predictable manner. I do not think that the 'braunstein' type of game that was Arneson's impetus for exploring RP in TT wargames, which led to D&D, is a type of Skilled Play game at all! Not in anything close to the sense you outlined above, certainly.

I don't think I'm implying that NO FORM of Skilled Play can happen outside of a highly constrained environment, but more that fixed prepared scenarios might not be as critical as some people have historically maintained. I think that I agree with @Ovinomancer that Skilled Play exists in BitD (though I'm not really much of an expert on that game). I think it also exists in TB2, for example, though that is a game where prep seems to be expected (but I think it is possible to 'wing it' and not have the whole thing break). I think some Skilled Play can also exist in games like Dungeon World, I'm pretty sure @Manbearcat has taken that position in other discussions.
Whomever you're responding to is either blocked by me or has me blocked, so they haven't seen my posts on the matter.
 

I would 100% disagree with you on that, and could not disagree more.

The Braunstein revelation (specifically, the Banana Republic) was that Arneson, being a skilled player, went outside the bounds of the character sheet to inhabit the world in order to "win" (under different win conditions).

He played the world, not the rules. Sound familiar?
I think we probably will continue to disagree, lol. ;)
To be 100% clear, I think the defining aspect is the division of authority. I don't think you can have an SP game without that.

The "prep" can either be explicit (the DM who laboriously creates maps and wandering monster tables) or implicit (a DM who is considered an expert in a genre, world, or field), but is required for the adjudication of player actions if you're looking for "SP."
Well, I certainly see skill in the play of games where this division doesn't exist. It is simply a matter of what kind of skills you believe are valid candidates to test!

I'd point out that the description I've seen of Arneson's 'win' of the Banana Republic scenario seems as much "hacking the GM" as anything else, and that it is a key question in OSR as to what is being tested, the player's mastery of the GAME or the GAME MASTER.

I think my ultimate point here is that you can't talk about skilled play until you define what you consider valid play.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think we probably will continue to disagree, lol. ;)

Well, I certainly see skill in the play of games where this division doesn't exist. It is simply a matter of what kind of skills you believe are valid candidates to test!

I'd point out that the description I've seen of Arneson's 'win' of the Banana Republic scenario seems as much "hacking the GM" as anything else, and that it is a key question in OSR as to what is being tested, the player's mastery of the GAME or the GAME MASTER.

I think my ultimate point here is that you can't talk about skilled play until you define what you consider valid play.

At a certain point, I don't think that the discussion of a playing style is very valuable if you ... don't enjoy that playing style. I don't mean that pejoratively, but honestly.

Based on prior conversations my recollection is that you have strong a priori preferences regarding styles of play- which is a good thing! Enjoy that! But I don't think that a conversation that involves a "discussion" (using the term advisedly) in which you are taking the position that Skilled Play is about "hacking the GM," is really going to be valuable to me, or to other people who enjoy playing that style occasionally.

So I will leave my original post for the OP, and hope it provides some insight as to my thoughts. :)
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
In an effort to be helpful, I would add these thoughts which intersect with your thoughtful post.

Skilled Play (traditional Gygaxian skilled play, as exemplified by so-called "dungeon crawls" of the 70s) is orthogonal to both System Mastery and to conceptions of Story Now, IMO and IME.

The two primary requisites (or prerequisites if you are adopting old school verbiage!) when looking at Skilled Play are (1) Division of Authority and (2) Preparation. Allow me to explain-

I have ran a few FKR/rules lite games recently in different genres, and a few attempts at capturing a 70s-vibe, Skilled Play "feel" using genre-specific norms. Mostly successful, and one unsuccessful. Doing so allowed me to see what, IMO, allowed for a successful Skilled Play game.

Simply put, it required preparation, and for the narrative control of the world to be within the DM's authority. In saying this, I am not saying that either of these are good things or bad things, simply that they appear to be requirements for this style of play. This is most obvious when looking at the "exploration" pillar of traditional Skilled Play (hereafter, "SP" because I'm tired of typing it) as I will detail further below.

In SP, the conception is that the challenge is not to the character, but to the player (it's a measure of player skill). That's why you see references to the DM as a "neutral referee" or a "neutral arbiter" (whether that can be completely true, is just an aspiration, or was just verbiage is an exercise for people to determine for themselves).

The DM, then, cannot ad hoc the area that is being explored, the DM cannot ad lib, and the DM should not be a fan of the players in SP. The DM is, for all practical purposes, the world that the players are interacting with through their characters. For this reason, the game cannot have mechanics for the players to seize narrative control of the world. The world exists independently of the player's conceptions and desires, and they are using their skilled to overcome the obstacles within it.

For that same reason, the DM must commit to preparation. This division of authority requires trust from the players to the DM that the DM is not changing the world or engaging in illusionism to help or hinder the players. If the players send their characters into a dungeon, there is a map of that dungeon already made. Going west or east will be meaningful choices- they both don't lead to the same ogre. For that matter, the chest is either trapped or not before the players decide to approach it; the pit is 10' deep with spikes or 30' deep with green slime- it's not a Heisenberg uncertainty pit, only to be revealed when an unfortunate soul falls into it.

I understand that when I type this, people will necessarily want to argue with some of what I have said- "What about a spell? Doesn't that, in some way, allow the player to take control of the narrative?" Or, "Hey, if the players are in a town, and a player decides to narrate that there is an inn to stop out, does that destroy SP?" And so on. Obviously, things are always on a continuum, and you can't account for every single use-case.

But IME SP absolutely requires the traditional TTRPG loop of-
1. DM Narrates Environment.
2. Player Declares Action.
3. DM Narrates Effect.

Finally, despite Gygax's 1987 Book (Role-Playing Mastery), neither System Mastery nor System Complexity are required for SP. SP is perfectly possible with either a reasonably complex system, or with a "black box" system similar to what Dave Arneson was originally running.

I know that this doesn't fully engage with some of your issues, but I thought it might be helpful. Good luck with the topic!
I dunno if this is helpful to the discussion at hand but I have found it very illuminating with respect to communication breakdowns in some other discussions involving similar topics.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think my ultimate point here is that you can't talk about skilled play until you define what you consider valid play.

I tend to agree. In addition, I am not sure the traditional RPG asymmetrical division of authority is actually necessary for skilled play.

I mean, after all, the majority of games in the world do not have a traditional D&D GM/Player division of authority, but certainly you can be skilled at them, yes? There is skilled play in chess, and Monopoly, and poker. Sometimes that skill is in interacting with the rules, sometimes it is in interacting with other players, even if their authority isn't asymmetrical.

We can also look at, say, improvisational theater, in which there's no necessary asymmetry in authority, but you can also be skilled in that - knowing the other players on the stage, and how they tend to operate, and setting each other up for good "Yes, and..." scenarios.

Combine those two, and you could easily wind up with an RPG that is symmetrical, but has skilled play, right?

Admittedly, this may stretch one's preferred vision of Skilled Play beyond where some of us are comfortable, but... then I ask what about it is uncomfortable?
 

I don't have a ton of time to deep dive into anything here, but I want to just say two things about the conversation that @Snarf Zagyg and @AbdulAlhazred and @Ovinomancer are having and how it relates to what will later be (after we get the meat of/parameters of the discussion sorted through) under scrutiny (is Torchbearer 2 a capable Story Now vessel or even at all?):

Torchbearer 2 absolutely has elements of "Pictionary Play" in it ("playing the GM" parlance):

1) In Conflicts the GM is (a) "equipping a weapon" (although this won't be a weapon if its a wilderness expedition conflict or a social conflict etc) and (b) providing fiction for you as players to evaluate your move-space (and all the resources you can martial that integrate with that) + your present Disposition/Condition situation + the Attack/Defend/Feint/Maneuver matrix. This aspect of play has both a Pictionary element and a Rock/Paper/Scissors element to it. Therefore, there is absolutely a "playing the GM" component to it.

2) You can defeat obstacles in TB2 without engaging the mechanics. Hell, sometimes you have to. But the TB reality is, if you are coming up with a sufficiently capable move that doesn't result in a Test, you're still (a) ticking the Grind forward and (b) you're working against your own Advancement interests for your PC (you don't Test, you don't get an Advancement Tick). So there is all 3 of an attrition inevitability, a requirement of ingenuity, and an advancement tension. Because of all of these 3 things, overwhelmingly, TB2 sees obstacles being addressed by players considering the present state of the PCs, their Goals/Beliefs/Instincts et al (and later Creed), the present gamestate (which includes a host of parameters), and end up skillfulling marshalling resources and making Tests. However, I've run heaps of TB1 Adventures (and 6 x TB2 Adventures including the one this present ENWorld group is in the thrall of) and there are enough cases where you don't go to the dice for obstacle resolution that they have to be an input into the conversation.


Finally, and unrelated to the above, @AbdulAlhazred is correct. You can (and I do regularly) procedurally generate the obstacle array (and their connections and integration to the theme of the Adventures and the Goals the PCs have set out) of Short and Medium Adventures in TB in-situ. Its particularly "easy" for Adventures that predominately or wholly take place in the wilderness. The GMing skill is in (a) creating coherent, stimulating, consequential choice within move-space, (b) integrating each instance of this (so the whole Adventure features coherence, stimulation, and consequence), (c) knowing where/what when it comes to potential Camp sites, and (d) faithfully staying within/hewing to the parameters of Adventure design (including Loot and threats > expectant # of Obs, value of Obs, Might, etc).
 

I tend to agree. In addition, I am not sure the traditional RPG asymmetrical division of authority is actually necessary for skilled play.

I mean, after all, the majority of games in the world do not have a traditional D&D GM/Player division of authority, but certainly you can be skilled at them, yes? There is skilled play in chess, and Monopoly, and poker. Sometimes that skill is in interacting with the rules, sometimes it is in interacting with other players, even if their authority isn't asymmetrical.

We can also look at, say, improvisational theater, in which there's no necessary asymmetry in authority, but you can also be skilled in that - knowing the other players on the stage, and how they tend to operate, and setting each other up for good "Yes, and..." scenarios.

Combine those two, and you could easily wind up with an RPG that is symmetrical, but has skilled play, right?

Admittedly, this may stretch one's preferred vision of Skilled Play beyond where some of us are comfortable, but... then I ask what about it is uncomfortable?

This touches upon why I think the nomenclature is helpfully divided up into the specific Gygaxian Skilled Play (but not GSP because that is the 170 GOAT of MMA!) and the more generic Skilled Play (which is contingent upon the game being played).

The etymological roots of the term "Skilled Play" certainly appear to stem from proto-D&D and post-genesis D&D. Fair enough. But having Skilled Play forever taken from our lexicon because Gygaxian Skilled Play doesn't seem particularly helpful to advancing our interests of having (and sustaining) functional conversations!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I tend to agree. In addition, I am not sure the traditional RPG asymmetrical division of authority is actually necessary for skilled play.

I mean, after all, the majority of games in the world do not have a traditional D&D GM/Player division of authority, but certainly you can be skilled at them, yes? There is skilled play in chess, and Monopoly, and poker. Sometimes that skill is in interacting with the rules, sometimes it is in interacting with other players, even if their authority isn't asymmetrical.

We can also look at, say, improvisational theater, in which there's no necessary asymmetry in authority, but you can also be skilled in that - knowing the other players on the stage, and how they tend to operate, and setting each other up for good "Yes, and..." scenarios.

Combine those two, and you could easily wind up with an RPG that is symmetrical, but has skilled play, right?

Admittedly, this may stretch one's preferred vision of Skilled Play beyond where some of us are comfortable, but... then I ask what about it is uncomfortable?

Before bowing out.

I use "Skilled Play" as a term of art. As "jargon."


Skilled Play (especially where, as here, the terms are capitalized, and/or the conversation is about a game that explicitly "calls back" to aspects of early TTRPGs) refers to a specific modality of play.

Not people playing games skillfully. Okay ... that's about it. To the extent you're talking about people playing games skillfully, I have nothing to add. To the extent you're talking about ... Skilled Play, I've got my original post and you can look at the other thread.
 

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