One Simple Thing

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What the hey. We've got a Wiki. I'll archive.

These are the records of the One Simple Thing series of posts. In those posts I tried to use simple words and phrases to get across points of theory that are (to me) important and useful. Was it successful? There's evidence before you, go and judge for yourself.

My Guy

Original posts, and 40 pages of discussion, here.

My Guy: In RPGs you can play a guy (or a girl, or a wombat). This guy is not real. He does not have a brain, or a heart, or courage. You pretend he has these things. He can not make you do things, because you are real, and he is not.
You make this guy, in your mind. So it's cool for you to want him to act one way, and not want him to act some other way. After all, you made him. All you need to say is "I want My Guy to be brave," and your friends will say "Cool!"
But if you say "I can't have My Guy run away, that's not who he is ... I have no choice," then you are wrong. You do have a choice. You could choose to have him run away. Now maybe you really don't want him to run and (see above) that's cool. Maybe if he runs away then you can't have fun playing any more. That would stink. But if you mean "I won't" then you should not say "I can't." That is just not true. Your friends know it is not true, because they are not dumb. If you lie to your friends it pisses them off, even more than they were pissed off in the first place because you would not run away from a great big troll and all their guys got killed dead.

People who disagreed with this post did so by contending that the words "real", "can't" and "lie" were used in arguable ways. Notably:

  • Just because something has no physical reality doesn't mean that you can say it's "not real"
  • If having your guy run away would, in that action, mean that you are no longer roleplaying then you "can't" have him run away within the context of roleplaying, because doing so takes you out of that context
  • Lie can connote intentional deceit, as opposed to just untruth. Even after it was made clear that this was not the intent, argument continued around whether the word should have been used, and whether it was an attack to use it.


Original posts, and 9 pages of discussion (does that mean I'm getting better?) here.

Boredom: Some people like one thing, some people like another. When someone gets what they like, it makes them excited. When they get something else it often makes them bored. Even if they get something that someone else would really, really like, it can be boring to them. RPGs are games. We want to avoid the boring bits.
I have heard people say "Well, we have to pay attention to this boring bit in order to get to the fun stuff." They are mistaken. If it's really just boring stuff on the way to your fun then you can skip it, and nobody will mind, because it's boring. Realism, continuity, character integrity, fairness, conflict, challenge and many more things are of this type: they only matter if somebody at the table decides they matter. If they don't matter? Skip them and make more time for exciting stuff.
If your group knows this truth, but still won't skip some part of the game then that tells you something. It tells you that somebody finds it interesting. They may even need that thing in order to get excited. If you find something boring, but somebody else needs it in order to get excited, then at least one of you will be bored most of the time. That is a bad thing. It is also very common when you grab a group of players at random. Maybe it would be better not to grab groups of players at random. If you know what you like, and can say it, then you can find players who like the same thing. Then you can all skip the boring bits together. That is a good thing.

People who disagreed with this post seemed mostly to think that it was too prescriptive (reading "that is a good thing" for "that should be your foremost goal", no matter how much I told them not to). Notably:

  • There are circumstances in which you might choose to be bored because it had other redeeming values, like making your friend feel good. Of course.
  • Some people argued that there are circumstances in which the boring stuff is required in order to have the exciting stuff be exciting, and therefore it is too limiting to recommend skipping the boring stuff. Having talked with them about it in the thread, I still believe this to be unfounded.

For the most part, however, people simply accepted this one as obviously true, and started talking about how to achieve the communication that lets you know what people are excited about and aim for that.

The Story

Original posts, and 10 pages of discussion, here.

The Story: When people play an RPG they tell a story. Everyone who plays adds something to the story. Unless you have a tape recorder running, that story, as it is told right that second, can only ever be heard if you are there right that second.
When a player talks about the game later she is not doing the same thing she did to tell the story the first time. She is retelling the story. The story she tells is a second story inspired by the first. In retelling the story, she will reveal what she thought was important about the first story. If she thinks that the fights were the important thing then she will tell a second story with all the action and none of the in-between. If she thinks that the way the characters related to each other between the fights was the important thing then she will tell a second story with a lot of talking, and very little fighting. Those are both true retellings of the first story, but neither of them is the first story.
When someone, before the session is played, says that he knows what story the group is going to tell, he is not talking about the first story. He is saying that he could already tell you the second story that he will tell after the session. He is saying that he has control over all the things that he will later find important enough to retell. Or, put another way, he is saying that the things he doesn't have control over will not be important enough to make it into a retelling.
This is not the same as knowing that some elements will appear in the first story. Say I prepare a plot with a dark evil that must be destroyed (or the world ends) buried behind seven doors, and each door can only be opened by passing a certain test in a certain way. Do I know, before playing that game, what the story will be? Only if I would choose, in retelling the story, to talk about that evil, those doors and their tests. If I would choose to talk about the things that the other players had their characters do in response to those tests, and how it brought them together (or drove them apart) as a group, then I don't know anything about the story, going in. The only way I can find out what that story will be is for the other players to tell me.

I honestly don't think anyone disagreed with the spirit of what I was saying here. A whole bunch of people very strongly wanted to talk about what the word "story" meant in this context, and whether I was talking about a literary story, or a journalistic story, or just the sort of story even atoms make when they mate and cling. I didn't want to get into that, said I didn't want to get into that, and then we had a great big furball about whether I was allowed to not want to get into that. Some people argue that the point doesn't hold water apart from the semantics. My position is that it does.

The Rules

Original post and 47 pages of discussion, here.

The Rules: Most people play RPGs in groups of two or more. Any time you get people together, they are going to be thinking and wanting different things. To help them know how what they are thinking fits with what others are thinking, any group, doing anything, anywhere, ever, will have rules. Some of these rules are stated ("Thou shalt not kill") and some of them aren't ("Jerry's rich, so he pays for the pizza"). Get a group together with no rules at all and they will start making some. It is a human instinct.
RPG groups have rules. Some of them come from a rule-book ("The GM has authority to speak for NPCs"). Some of them don't ("We are trying to tell a heroic story about good people"). Some of them are spoken and some of them are not. If you abide by those rules, you will expect other people to abide by them too. After all, they owe you. But here's the thing: the rules that aren't spoken? You don't know whether everyone has agreed to those rules. And those are usually the most important ones.
Let's take a common situation: You think there is a rule ("Don't kill another guy's character") and you abide by that rule faithfully ("Oooh, I could get the Gem of Amotto ... but I'd have to break the rule, so I won't.") It turns out that other people at the table do not know anything about that rule, and would not agree to it if asked. That becomes clear when your friend violates the rule, without even thinking about it. You may feel betrayed and cheated. You may feel that your friend knew full well that you were playing by those rules, took advantage of it when it was to his benefit, then screwed you when he felt like it. You may feel that this person is not a good person, not a good friend.
But, of course, you would be mistaken. Your friend has not betrayed you. They do not owe you anything for having obeyed the rule. They never agreed to the rule. They can not be blamed for not knowing what nobody ever said. Human beings do not come equipped with ESP. We come equipped with vocal cords instead. Talking about these things, early, is more fun than sulking about them later. But nobody wants to spend eight hours talking about all sorts of stuff that they do agree on, just to find the one thing that (surprise!) they don't. That is why it is so essential what the rules in the rule-book are. That's a huge packet of rules that everyone can agree to, all at once. If you count on that, and count on nothing else, you won't think you were betrayed when you were really just confused.

Nobody seemed to disagree with the general advice: Talk to each other. It was the details everyone got stuck up on. Many people fought for their right to be judgmental: to come into a situation with the belief that they were right and the other guy was wrong, and that was important, and all that. Specifically:

  • There was a sizable camp of people who said that competitive, PvP play was wrong, wrong, wrong ... a violation of what they believed to be a moral imperative to play RPGs in a cooperative way, just as it's been since the early days of D&D. Heh.
  • There was a more moderate camp of folks who conceded that competitive play was a legitimate style, but argued that it wasn't as legitimate as cooperative play, because more people play cooperative. So they argued that cooperation was the default, and anyone who wanted to play competitive was obligated to raise the issue, or else play cooperative without being asked.
  • And then there were the folks who felt that almost any combination of things could be perfectly legitimate, but once two people had a problem then somebody obviously had to be wrong so that the other guy could be right. So whenever I said 'breaking an unwritten rule isn't wrong' they heard me as saying 'the guys who relied upon the unwritten rule must be in the wrong.' No matter how often I said 'Nobody is in the wrong in this situation' it didn't seem to stick.

Anyway, fun, fun discussion. For what it's worth, the thing I had most fun contributing to the thread was a fictitious conversation between two people who both had the best of intentions, but who gradually came to assume the worst of each other because they wouldn't grasp the idea that the other guy also had the best of intentions. Ironic, that.

The GM

Original post and a bare two pages of discussion, here.

The GM: When someone pays attention to pacing, and says 'Okay, we're going to skip this boring stuff and do the combat next," that helps everyone in the game. It makes the game more fun. Likewise, when someone interprets the rules, it helps the game. When someone comes to the table with ideas they think will help make a good story that helps the game. When someone plays the bartender you've just met and will never see again, that helps the game.
Many gaming groups get these tasks done by appointing one person to be the Game Master, and having her do them all. She is still playing the game (you can see her, right there at the table, just like everyone else) but she often plays by different rules and sometimes with different goals. Appointing a Game Master is one good way to get the listed tasks done. There are other ways, also good. For instance, in many gaming groups another non-GM-player (or several other players) might stop playing His Guy for a bit and take on the role of the bartender. That is a different way of distributing that task, and it can work. In another gaming group, all the tasks might be distributed equally among all players. That is a different way of distributing the tasks, and it can work.
Each way of distributing those tasks has strengths and weaknesses. Some gaming groups may need a GM in order to fulfill their particular goals. Some gaming groups may need to have those tasks spread into many people's hands in order to fulfill their particular goals. Many gaming groups could get their game done either way, and so choose whatever they feel like.

There was no disagreement to speak of. Go figure. I guess it's well understood territory.


Original post and nine pages of discussion, here.

Reward/Agenda: Rewards and Agenda may seem like two different things, but in fact they are just the two sides of one coin. Agenda is what a player wants to do: not merely the goal of having fun, or telling a good story, but specifically what she finds fun, and what elements she thinks make a good story. Rewards are what other people at the table will give a player for doing something: they combine a judgment on what the player did ("That deserves extra XPs!") and a judgment on what is important enough to be a reward ("XPs are what you want, right?")
If a player is rewarded for following her agenda then she will feel recognized and supported. The group agrees with her about what is cool: she can see that she is playing the game the right way for this group. If she isn't rewarded then she may well not feel that.
If you reward someone with money, or praise, or candy then they will value the reward for its intinsic value. If you reward someone with something that helps them follow their agenda then they will value the reward for what they can do with it, and they will try to be rewarded again in future. If you reward them with something that can only help them follow some other agenda then it is of no value to them. They won't feel rewarded, and they won't try to gain that reward again in future.
The most successful rewards are given to a player for following their agenda, and provide them with resources to follow that agenda in future. The most successful agenda is one that other players recognize and reward in action, and one that the player will always be getting new resources to pursue. Agenda and Reward: Two sides of the same coin.

There was no disagreement to speak of. To my pleased astonishment people actually said "Cool, I agree. Now let's look at the implications," and we did.


Original post and barely three pages of discussion, here.

Cause and Effect: In the real world, cause must precede effect. A warrior swings a sword, and his aim is true. Because his aim is true, the blow lands. Because the blow lands, his enemy is wounded. Because the enemy is wounded he surrenders. In reality there is no other way that chain of events can be arranged. Only the earlier things can cause the later ones.
But fiction is not the real world. In making fiction you can decide, first, that the enemy will surrender. You explain that by saying that he is wounded. Because of that, the blow must land. Because of that, the warriors aim is true. The surrender (Cause) precedes the warrior's true aim (Effect) in the order in which you write the story, but not in the order in which your audience will read it ... so from the reader's point of view, your process plays havoc with cause and effect.
Playing an RPG you are writing the story, not reading it. What's more, you are writing a story together with a group. Most RPGs have mechanics to help you combine all of your thoughts and desires into one shared decision. These mechanics very often put a lot of effort into deciding one thing about the story (a cause), then work quickly from there to decide what else happens (the effects).
For instance, in Task Resolution systems the mechanics decide what happened first, in the order the story will be told. They decide, for instance, that the warriors aim is true, then work from there. Contrariwise, in Conflict Resolution systems, the mechanics decide whatever is most important to the players first, no matter where it arrives in the order of the story. They decide, for instance, that the enemy will surrender, then work from there.
Both of these ways of telling a story together work just fine. What's more, these are only the two best-explored schemes. You can create these pieces of story in any order that makes a story that people can read. There are (quite likely) many schemes for doing this that we haven't yet explored, which will have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Again, no disagreement to speak of. Am I getting soft and uncontroversial? We chatted a bit about some different ways to arrange resolution though, and that was fun.


Original post and six pages of discussion, here.

Solitaire/Riffing: Things that happen in a game can be divided (roughly) into two categories: stuff I make important to my story, and other stuff. At least skim some of that link please, I'm building off the ideas there. The important take-away item from there (for here) is that there is no way for anyone else to make something important to my story. No matter how earth-shaking an event might be in the fiction, I always have the ultimate veto power of just not giving a damn.
Things that happen in a game can also be divided (again, roughly) into two other categories: stuff that happens like I expected it would and places where people surprise me. Here I don't have a veto: I can't always get what I want (whether it's the expected or the surprising), but the way we play the game will let me try, in many ways.
But, because of the ultimate veto power, I can control how much of the stuff that I consider important happens the way I expect, and how much surprises me. I can choose not to give a damn about anything that surprises me. I can choose not to give a damn about things that go as I expected them to.
So in any give game session (and any given moment) I will balance somewhere between two extremes. In Solitaire, I assure (whether by fighting for my ideas or by ultimate veto power) that nothing important happens, except the way I intend or expect it to happen. Other players can tell their own stories (which I won't care about) or can fill roles in mine, but they cannot surprise me within the realm of my own story. In Riffing, I assure (agan, by fighting or by ultimate veto power) that nothing important happens, except things that surprise me contributed by the other players. I can contribute things I expected and intended, but I won't care about those things.
Very few people, of course, play entirely in one mode or another. It's a "more or less" thing, not an "either or" thing, and it's influenced by how you feel at the table. Solitaire-heavy play provides good results when your ideas are the best ideas for what you want to do ... when you do not trust your co-players to do the right thing, and you are right to so mistrust. It makes sure that you get the best result. Riffing-heavy play provides good results when other peoples ideas are better for what you want to do than your ideas ... when you do not trust yourself to do the right thing, and you are right to so mistrust.

Most of the discussion was in the line of asking for clarifications (really politely, too!) It was fun. I wish I knew a simpler way to put this into words. Part of the complexity is that OST#3 is tricky to understand, and this one builds decidedly upon OST#3, so I was really explaining both #3 and #8 at the same time. Oy. Probably a bit too ambitious for this format.