RPGing and imagination: a fundamental point

clearstream

(He, Him)
Sure, but I'm not sure I'd attach all that to a 'culture of play'.
So reiterating, it's a design manifesto. It's about what the game designer is doing. The "Six Cultures" blog post speaks to OC as a culture of play. Hence it's reasonable that the author accepted "OC" as a better label for what they were getting at. My starting point is the post linked from "Six Cultures", which is about neo-trad design.

"Neo-Trad" to me signifies a high degree of focus on player-curated character arcs and a focus on enacting player-envisaged plots and action based on that. Certainly a clock/SC could be useful there in terms of structuring how the GM approaches enacting her side of that. However, I think it would potentially be equally useful in trad play as a way of constructing a gamist structure for challenge development. I'm not sure how useful it is in a more Sim sense, but undoubtedly there are situations where it is a useful tool in the box.

So, I see these mechanics as being broadly applicable to a wide variety of types of game, though not every technique will work well in every case (clocks might, for example be pretty awesome in classic Gygaxian gamist play as an alternative to things like wandering monsters, but I think SCs would generally be a bit rigid there).
Absolutely. So on the one hand the design intent is to in fact use them. And on the other hand, as in my post #1,179, I'm arguing that using them goes deeper: it has ramifications. The use and the ramifications together are what I'm characterising as the neo-trad design trend or manifesto... yielding recognisably related game texts.

Well, I interpret SCs and Clocks as being more BINDERS ON THE GM than anything else. The problem I see with 5e (as an example) is that there's really nothing like that in place. Not only does the GM get to present any sort of situation she desires to the players, but she also gets complete arbitrary say over what the win cons are. Its not even a 'game', it is simply "when I feel like I've made you roll however many dice I feel like, then I'll tell you if you won or lost and what the consequences are."

So, 4e SCs in particular, exist to defeat the above. The GM must declare "this is a level 5 complexity 4 challenge" and from that moment onward the win cons and stakes are set (I'd say the players may, informally in 4e, have ways to up the stakes, but the GM is bound). I don't think 'momentum' as such is central to this, though the way you have just described it above may be consonant with what I'm talking about. Still, our evaluation criteria are probably rather different, I'm not sure.
So this is quite right. It's just what I'm getting at. I think "momentum mechanic" is a good label for the class, but in the end the labelling is an unimportant side issue. We both can recognise the class of mechanics and call out design decisions made to serve each game.

I'm not sure why 5e has jumped in here, but you're right. It's lacking a general "momentum mechanic" which means that - outside of Social Interactions and some kinds of Downtime - there are no binders on the GM. A referee can follow good practices, but they're not constrained or compelled by game mechanics. That wouldn't even make sense, because referee is part of lusory-means, not a player. I'd love to see 6e contain a momentum mechanic, although I haven't noticed one in the playtest material. One might conclude that neotrad design trends will have a limited influence on 6e, which - even though I understand the commercially-driven motivations - I find disappointing.
 

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Writing that, I feel like a hallmark of neo-trad design is the reappraisal of GM via principles and/or mechanics. In many cases, GM is plainly called out as a player (ToR and YZE are examples, and Cortex Prime depending how you read it.) In other cases, GM is still cast with traditional powers, and then these are constrained and compelled by the mechanics (L5R is an example.)

I want to focus for a moment on L5R. On first reading, its advice for GMing disappointed me. I felt, and still feel, that it goes against the overall effect of the design. It makes the game text for me one whose neo-trad aspirations are hindered by an - in that light - incorrect design move. Had the designers been able to avail of a "neo-trad design manifesto" would they have made different choices?

What's at stake can be outlined fairly easily

Where GM is not a player, they are part of the lusory-means and do not have goals they play toward. Rules don't bind referees: they uphold them. It is referee who says what the rules mean constrained by standards of conduct and in light of best practices. This offers a general solve for a wide range of problems that arise in play that - per the OP - is about imagining things.​
Where GM is a player, they must adopt some version of a lusory-attitude and have goals, albeit asymmetrical ones. It implicitly makes conflict with adversaries of the player characters a case of PvP. That isn't a bad thing! Rules bind players, including players taking on the role of GM. One consequence for game designers is that the GM's behaviour can be shaped and foreseen.​
Neo-trad game designs are those that shift GM to or toward a role taken on by a player. At the least there are rules that are expected to constrain and compel GM's voice in the ongoing negotiation of play. No doubt the landscape is diverse and there are other hallmarks, too. I suggest that this one is central.
Well, I'm still dubious about the whole taxonomy. I would say that NARRATIVIST oriented designs generally do this, as generally GM ownership of and generation of a plot or story is incompatible with a Narrativist agenda. As Edwards pointed out, this is also true of highly gamist designs, as there must be an objective form of play there.

In terms of what is described as 'neo-trad', sure, the idea is the enjoyment of a player-designated character story arc or at least overall 'character identity' which is not subject to being defined by the GM. However, there's not an inherent Narrativist agenda here, necessarily, and it could be that its entirely OK for the GM to map out the entire plot and story arcs, as long as it conforms with the player's conceptions as well. I'd say that in this regard a communications mechanism for signalling this stuff is the important requirement, whereas in Narrative play it has to be free of any preconception (at least to the point of contact with the specific game's premise).

Again, not saying there isn't potentially overlap in what people want, but I would classify most neo-trad as some type of 'S-type' play in GNS terms. It isn't about the story, it is about the form of the game in some fashion.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
...generally GM ownership of and generation of a plot or story is incompatible with a Narrativist agenda. As Edwards pointed out, this is also true of highly gamist designs, as there must be an objective form of play there.
(Emphasis mine.) True, and per my arguments (in #1,179) GM as means of resolution (lusory-means) doesn't impinge on player as author/audience. It's GM as author that impinges on it. The only reason GM as means of resolution comes into it is that traditionally that's what's given force to whatever authorship they do. A common way of negotiating with that force is via strong bubbles of authorship around character, which I think is a hallmark of compromises in neo-trad designs.

A concrete motive for displacing or subjecting to a constitution GM as means of resolution is to play the game by known rules; and that applies across the board. It certainly applies to S as much as GN. Achieving elevated appreciation can benefit from an objective form of play, particularly where the game designer has special knowledge and intent. Some groups may benefit from their GM holding special knowledge and intent, and I don't think neo-trad design has much to say about that. Neotrad design moves work more on player side than GM side (hence the misleading conflation with OC.)

Neo-trad is also concerned with game goals. Goals that amount to - "what shall we imagine?" - are different from traditional game goals. What's addressed is the imagination of the players so the goals need to be embedded in that. Again, this need have nothing to do with GM, and strictly speaking GM as referee shouldn't set goals. Something sandbox GMs had already grasped. Neo-trad game designs include goals that will make the experience distinct - "you can imagine anything, but for the next couple of hours imagine something like this" And ideally provide means for players to set goals in light of the game's conceits, to connect their individual imaginings with the shared project in a more satisfying way. There's also finesse available around connecting goals with reward structures (most often, progression.)

In terms of what is described as 'neo-trad', sure, the idea is the enjoyment of a player-designated character story arc or at least overall 'character identity' which is not subject to being defined by the GM. However, there's not an inherent Narrativist agenda here, necessarily, and it could be that its entirely OK for the GM to map out the entire plot and story arcs, as long as it conforms with the player's conceptions as well. I'd say that in this regard a communications mechanism for signalling this stuff is the important requirement, whereas in Narrative play it has to be free of any preconception (at least to the point of contact with the specific game's premise).
What you're describing here is OC and not neo-trad. The etymology of neo-trad attaches to design. That "Six Cultures" article mixed them up, confessed they got it wrong, and reverted to "OC" for what they were describing!

It isn't about the story, it is about the form of the game in some fashion.
100% agree with your last sentence here. Neo-trad is about the form of the game.
 
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pemerton

Legend
GM as means of resolution (lusory-means) doesn't impinge on player as author/audience.
I assume that by doesn't you mean needn't in every case. Clearly there are some cases in which the GM as a means of resolution does impinge on players as author/audience. The DL modules, or the later module Dead Gods, would be examples. So would many standard approaches to CoC. And in a different way so is GUMSHOE.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I assume that by doesn't you mean needn't in every case. Clearly there are some cases in which the GM as a means of resolution does impinge on players as author/audience. The DL modules, or the later module Dead Gods, would be examples. So would many standard approaches to CoC. And in a different way so is GUMSHOE.
Are the DL and CoC cases you are thinking of ones where it is GM as author or storyteller that impinges? Perhaps in the form of decisions favouring their story?
 

pemerton

Legend
@clearstream

I understand that you are treating this blog as a useful guide to neo-trad as an approach to design.

Here is the core of it:

In 2015, Tomas Härenstam speaking about his Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying game, defined it “neotrad” game for the first time. “it’s got the production values, ease of use and plentiful campaign material of a traditional RPG, combined with the kind of clever and thematic rules design usually found in the indie games”, he said. . . .

what it takes to be a “neotrad” role-playing game? I tried to summarize some of the recognizable elements that can help to define an RPG as neotrad:

*Asymmetric gameplay. The game master doesn’t roll dices for png actions (she can still roll for random effects) so she can focus on managing the scene rather on calculations. The players roll dices to react to png actions (such as attacks) so the playing characters and their players are kept in the spotlight all over the session.

*Clear agency for PCs. Players Characters are created with a specific mission or assignment, or other meaningful tasks to fulfill in the game. They are not simply created as part of the fictional world, they have a close link with the game itself.

*Shared party creation. The gaming party is not created on players’ initiative only, there are specific rules to create bonds, connections and strong motivations that held the people together. In this way contrasts and arguments between PCs are limited by a common destiny.

*Chekhov’s gun. “If you have a pistol, then it should be fired” it means that mechanics should not appear just to give unlikely options or false promises. Once a rule has been designed, there should be a fair probability that it comes into play in every session. In this way, players can be sure that everything they learned is useful and the GM has not to memorize useless rules. This is also true for the character sheet, it should report only skills or traits that are effectively used by players.

*Bounded bookkeeping. Limited use of tables (from critics to equipment), long lists or other means that require browsing the handbook too often. This saves time and keeps the players’ attention alive.

*Wide GM Support. Like Modern RPGs, neotrad don’t underestimate the GM job and give her all the means to manage the rules (with a fair number of samples) as well as the players at the table. Also, rarely a neotrad game uses the battle grid, relying more on abstract “zones” and other means to manage the fictional positioning.

*No rule zero, or golden rule. Self-explanatory.​

There are other interesting elements to consider like a playable setting (it’s not as pleonastic as it seems), the inclusion of techniques like the failing forward and a fiction first approach, but these elements are not so relevant from a neotrad perspective.​

What I see here is, basically, the prising apart of the "Hickman revolution" as an approach to RPGing from the wargaming rules that Hickman was using, and that have tended to dominate mainstream RPG design since.

We can see this if we look at the dot points:

*Asymmetric game play makes perfect sense in Dragonlance, or even Ravenloft (if we focus on the thematic aspect rather than the wargame-y can we beat a Vampire in his castle? aspect). The GM is not playing a side; the GM's role is framing scenes and presenting the story.

*PC agency and shared PC creation: the party in DL is, obviously, not a random assemblage. They are related as brothers, friends, mentors, etc (and Tanis is also related to a key villain). And they have not just a place in the fiction, but a position in relation to the play of the game (ie saving the world from the dragon armies).

*Chekov's gun, bounded bookkeeping and GM support: DL doesn't need rules for the difference between a halberd and a glaive-guisarme (in one of the original books the author uses "hauberk" when they mean "halberd"; mediaeval weaponry is not a thing this story cares about); it doesn't need generic random encounter rules, given that the whole point is for the GM to move the PCs through the plotted encounters; etc, etc, etc.

*Once the players and GM are provided with proper rules as per my previous dot point, "rule zero"/"the golden rule" obviously is unnecessary.​

In GNS-ish terms, this design is adopting techniques superior to those that Hickman had available to him, in order to support high concept sim play. Some of those techniques seem to come from, or at least show some similarity to, PbtA (asymmetry; the approach to PC agency and creation; much of the approach to rules), but the GMing principles, and the role of prep, seem to be quite different and have much more in common with trad play. That is, it's sim, not narrativism.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
@clearstream

I understand that you are treating this blog as a useful guide to neo-trad as an approach to design.

Here is the core of it:

In 2015, Tomas Härenstam speaking about his Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying game, defined it “neotrad” game for the first time. “it’s got the production values, ease of use and plentiful campaign material of a traditional RPG, combined with the kind of clever and thematic rules design usually found in the indie games”, he said. . . .​
what it takes to be a “neotrad” role-playing game? I tried to summarize some of the recognizable elements that can help to define an RPG as neotrad:​
*Asymmetric gameplay. The game master doesn’t roll dices for png actions (she can still roll for random effects) so she can focus on managing the scene rather on calculations. The players roll dices to react to png actions (such as attacks) so the playing characters and their players are kept in the spotlight all over the session.​
*Clear agency for PCs. Players Characters are created with a specific mission or assignment, or other meaningful tasks to fulfill in the game. They are not simply created as part of the fictional world, they have a close link with the game itself.​
*Shared party creation. The gaming party is not created on players’ initiative only, there are specific rules to create bonds, connections and strong motivations that held the people together. In this way contrasts and arguments between PCs are limited by a common destiny.​
*Chekhov’s gun. “If you have a pistol, then it should be fired” it means that mechanics should not appear just to give unlikely options or false promises. Once a rule has been designed, there should be a fair probability that it comes into play in every session. In this way, players can be sure that everything they learned is useful and the GM has not to memorize useless rules. This is also true for the character sheet, it should report only skills or traits that are effectively used by players.​
*Bounded bookkeeping. Limited use of tables (from critics to equipment), long lists or other means that require browsing the handbook too often. This saves time and keeps the players’ attention alive.​
*Wide GM Support. Like Modern RPGs, neotrad don’t underestimate the GM job and give her all the means to manage the rules (with a fair number of samples) as well as the players at the table. Also, rarely a neotrad game uses the battle grid, relying more on abstract “zones” and other means to manage the fictional positioning.​
*No rule zero, or golden rule. Self-explanatory.​

There are other interesting elements to consider like a playable setting (it’s not as pleonastic as it seems), the inclusion of techniques like the failing forward and a fiction first approach, but these elements are not so relevant from a neotrad perspective.​

What I see here is, basically, the prising apart of the "Hickman revolution" as an approach to RPGing from the wargaming rules that Hickman was using, and that have tended to dominate mainstream RPG design since.

We can see this if we look at the dot points:

Asymmetric game play makes perfect sense in Dragonlance, or even Ravenloft (if we focus on the thematic aspect rather than the wargame-y *can we beat a Vampire in his castle? aspect). The GM is not playing a side; the GM's role is framing scenes and presenting the story.​
*PC agency and shared PC creation: the party in DL is, obviously, not a random assemblage. They are related as brothers, friends, mentors, etc (and Tanis is also related to a key villain). And they have not just a place in the fiction, but a position in relation to the play of the game (ie saving the world from the dragon armies).​
*Chekov's gun, bounded bookkeeping and GM support: DL doesn't need rules for the difference between a halberd and a glaive-guisarme (in one of the original books the author uses "hauberk" when they mean "halberd"; mediaeval weaponry is not a thing this story cares about); it doesn't need generic random encounter rules, given that the whole point is for the GM to move the PCs through the plotted encounters; etc, etc, etc.​
*Once the players and GM are provided with proper rules as per my previous dot point, "rule zero"/"the golden rule" obviously is unnecessary.​

In GNS-ish terms, this design is adopting techniques superior to those that Hickman had available to him, in order to support high concept sim play. Some of those techniques seem to come from, or at least show some similarity to, PbtA (asymmetry; the approach to PC agency and creation; much of the approach to rules), but the GMing principles, and the role of prep, seem to be quite different and have much more in common with trad play. That is, it's sim, not narrativism.
One question has been - is neotrad a synonym of OC or is it as I perceive an approach to design? The above supports the latter albeit one may always be simply making the concessions needed for the sake of argument. What are your feelings on that?

I agree with much of your post, but not the conclusion that it lands at sim. It's worth saying at this point that I take both that blog post and the game texts themselves as my point of departure. For example, the YZE game Forbidden Lands plays as an OSR-ish sandbox. When it comes to sim, as you know I think in terms of what I've labelled "neosim" which could possibly fall within the envelope of neotrad, but cannot constitute the whole of it.

Contemplating the evolution of and ramifications of the design moves touched on in the blog post and evidenced in game texts, I'm advocating a neotrad manifesto that represents not what any one game (or any one blogger) necessarily says today, but the design direction. A direction of movement in the field. So for instance the ramifications of defining GM as a player. The ramifications of committing to flags and systematically-closed-situations. It's not the job of a manifesto to say only how things are, but how they must be! I think I've laid that out well enough in various posts. At this point it looks worth launching a separate thread.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
What I see here is, basically, the prising apart of the "Hickman revolution" as an approach to RPGing from the wargaming rules that Hickman was using, and that have tended to dominate mainstream RPG design since.
One thing I can say decisively is that the Hickman revolution is tangential to game texts characterised as neotrad. If anything, neotrad undoes the consequences of the "revolution".

They do often contain extensive setting and even metaplot, but the play centers on player goals and authorship. The rest is there to inform and enhance that. IIRC advice to loremaster in ToR is a good reference point for this. (How to play to find out given the weight of the well-known stories of Middle-Earth?)
 
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Well, I interpret SCs and Clocks as being more BINDERS ON THE GM than anything else. The problem I see with 5e (as an example) is that there's really nothing like that in place. Not only does the GM get to present any sort of situation she desires to the players, but she also gets complete arbitrary say over what the win cons are. Its not even a 'game', it is simply "when I feel like I've made you roll however many dice I feel like, then I'll tell you if you won or lost and what the consequences are."

So, 4e SCs in particular, exist to defeat the above. The GM must declare "this is a level 5 complexity 4 challenge" and from that moment onward the win cons and stakes are set (I'd say the players may, informally in 4e, have ways to up the stakes, but the GM is bound). I don't think 'momentum' as such is central to this, though the way you have just described it above may be consonant with what I'm talking about. Still, our evaluation criteria are probably rather different, I'm not sure.

I think the description of 5e gameplay is incomplete to the point of being massively misleading. Granted, 5e does bad job of instructing the GM to how to do things, but still. The gameplay is about manipulating the fictional positioning of predetermined fictional elements in order to to put them in configuration that logically results success. Skill rolls are mainly used if the ability to manipulate a fictional element is uncertain. So it is not the GM arbitrarily deciding how many rolls are needed and when the situation is resolved; all this is informed by the fiction.

Skill challenges provide a fixed structure, which in certain sense is far more arbitrary. It just is certain complexity, and we need that certain number of successes. Whilst one of course should consider the fictional positioning under such structure as well, importance of it becomes weaker. The number of successes is fixed, and does not depend on how the situation evolves. You cannot solve the situation with one cleverly aimed roll or utterly botch it with a carelessly aimed one, regardless of whether that fictionally would make most sense. Or if you do, then you're abandoning the skill challenge structure, and are in the exact same situation than without it: the GM decides based on the fictional position that this was enough for total success/failure.
 

I think the description of 5e gameplay is incomplete to the point of being massively misleading. Granted, 5e does bad job of instructing the GM to how to do things, but still. The gameplay is about manipulating the fictional positioning of predetermined fictional elements in order to to put them in configuration that logically results success. Skill rolls are mainly used if the ability to manipulate a fictional element is uncertain. So it is not the GM arbitrarily deciding how many rolls are needed and when the situation is resolved; all this is informed by the fiction.

Skill challenges provide a fixed structure, which in certain sense is far more arbitrary. It just is certain complexity, and we need that certain number of successes. Whilst one of course should consider the fictional positioning under such structure as well, importance of it becomes weaker. The number of successes is fixed, and does not depend on how the situation evolves. You cannot solve the situation with one cleverly aimed roll or utterly botch it with a carelessly aimed one, regardless of whether that fictionally would make most sense. Or if you do, then you're abandoning the skill challenge structure, and are in the exact same situation than without it: the GM decides based on the fictional position that this was enough for total success/failure.
I guess we will not agree, but that's OK. What I see is that 5e fundamentally assumes a GM authored and guided adventure model. Skill checks and such can act as gates, or subplot selectors, etc. but 5e says nothing about sandbox play, nor has any provisions for anything like neo-trad style play as @pemerton has diagnosed above. Unstructured and mechanically hollew checks actually serve well here! Groups can dial in the amount of player authority and mechanical weight they wish IF they know how.

I'm not concerned with your criticism of SC as a framework in my play as it's low myth and low prep play. Yes the possibility exists that the premise on which an SC is predicated might crumble in play but that's not a common problem in practice. Experience also generally helps. I know how to frame them pretty well.
 

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