Saturday, June 16, 2012

Story Games/War Games

I love Actual Play recordings. Mostly because I despise error.

Anyway Shaun Hayworth provided one after I posted about playing Burning Wheel the other day. Because Shaun is a kind, generous and helpful soul.

So, some notes on this here Burning Wheel actual play.


-It's long so I randomly skipped ahead to around 0:27:00 and started watching.

-It looks like they're having a blast. A thoughtful and deliberatively paced blast but a blast nonetheless. Interesting things happen: the one general tells the other she'll follow him until he touches another drink (a duel-of-wits compromise), a foe is taunted, a bridge gets fried, there are trolls under it, etc.

-The following comments apply to this session as GMed by Shaun for these people and should therefore be taken not as assumptions I make about all of Burning Wheel or all games of its ilk and anybody so busy breathing through their slack drooling fish-textured dork mouth that they believe I am assuming all or even most Burning Wheel play works like this just because I saw a single video should move as quickly as possible to distance themselves from text-based media of all kinds and then be poked with sharp pencils by bad men.

-Shaun the GM basically said most of the following observations seemed legit to him.

So, anyway:

-At first it seemed like the rolling and social mechanics were kinda chopping up the role-playing of the conversation in a way I wouldn't like, but I thought that maybe stopping to roll gave them time to think of what they were gonna say next.

-However: Cole pointed out:
It seems to me that it's less about "giving them time to think" and more like working in the subtexts and the stakes they want the players to get across to the NPCs and vice versa. Which feels choppy to me too - I'm just to just throwing out dialogue off the cuff. But it seems like they're into it and it makes sense to me how. Feels very tactical from what i'm seeing.

"A game of like a sword fight"

-Totally. Cole also said it was much less Drama Club than he was expecting. (P.S. Cole is a completely awesome member of the RPG Drama Club in the best sense of the word.)

-It also seems like the sort of:
"mechanic kibitz"
"actual line of dialogue"
"mechanic kibitz"
"line of dialogue"
"mechanic kibitz"
"line of dialogue"
...functions to keep the tension high but the actual emotional energy low. (Obviously doing it via G+ hangout also contributes to this).

Like players don't just say shit and the conversation doesn't ascend into heights of D&Dish lunacy partially because people have to keep stopping and thinking all the time.

This characteristic may or may not be desirable in all games, but it's definitely there.

-This is in direct contrast to the way almost all games I run go when I GM them with my group. (Typical session. Typical instance of NPC negotiation.) The rules are fast and should be after-the-fact descriptions of what eveyrone knows is going on and players don't necessarily have to know them and the part where I explain them should be fast and end quickly because the whole game runs on the pinballing of energy within the group. The breathless pace of the game cited in yesterday's post seems very familiar to me. Shaun's session here is much more: We are all watching an interesting situation develop and it is ok if I don't have a turn or even talk for 1o minutes. Definitely not for everybody but interesting to see how other people like to play.

-This system is really crunchy and Shaun is obviously a capable GM and still does not and is not expected to be able to handle all the subsystems with immediate facility. However, what Shaun does, and what the players also do, is almost use finding and describing the crunch _as exposition_ "Ok, he has a mail coat, that adds +1, the distance is..." etc. The crunch is narrative detail. Again, not for everyone, but interesting to see.

-Here is what the game pace and the kind of fun on display remind me of most in my own experience: A wargame. Like 40k or something. The stuff on each player's character sheet (skills, beliefs, etc) are the troops and the point is to organize and corral them effectively. Meanwhile you talk about doing it ("I put my") Now there are obviously important differences, but the way the game moves and the relationship of players to the game mechanics feels very similar.

-I've noticed this wargameyness in other StoryGamey/Indie designs and it always seemed odd (and by "odd" I mostly mean "kinda at odds with both impressions you get from the outside and from descriptions of games people inside the community give to each other".) Another example would be Marvel Heroic.

Like: in D&D the way I run it, the crunch is just there to give mechanical force to what you intuitively know your PC can do and the world will do back. I assume it should not take up time at the table (you should, for instance, rarely just notice something on your character sheet "Oh yeah, I have diplomacy", all that stuff should basically fit in your head) unless I am deliberately creating tension. In BW and MSH, I gather, people spend way more time just looking at the numbers. Which is in stark contrast to the usual "pass the stick drum circle taletelling fest" impression the word "storygames" usually summons and the community gives an impression of promoting. Now that element is totally there, but it kinda has this strange economy: marshall your math resources effectively (perhaps even narrating the process of marshalling them while you do it), then use them, and if you win at that part, you get to control the story. It is a very GM-y way to think.

I was talking to someone about Marvel Heroic's math-a-little-then-make-up-stuff-about-Spider-Man's-teen-angst-a-little economy and he was like "Oh I really like it, I can use it to get my wargaming friends to role-play." This feeds into other parallels between D&D's parents and D&D's children that seemed to have skipped a generation, but that's another post.

-Since I am talking about a game other than one I usually do, I, unfortunately have to remind people to not act like gibbering lunatics in the comments: Remember this rule. You are not allowed to be outraged about this post or anything anyone says in the comments without checking with the author to see if your outrage is justified.


Brandon said...

I think I have never meshed well with story/indie games for this reason. They are often sold by their creators or fans/players as being rules-light, or less crunchy or mechanical, but they are actually just as, if not more, mechanical, but the mechanics/crunch are embedded in a very different way, one which I happen not to prefer. I sure think they are interesting ideas, but I've yet to find one that really hits me where it sticks, or sticks me where it hits, or some other inappropriate euphemism that I just made up and doesn't work very well to describe what I mean.

X the Owl said...

No argument, just sharing experience re:the "oddness" of some fancy hippie designs.

I played a lot of D&D and other games where it felt to me as if the process of play was GM sez stick stuff with swords, dice are rolled and stuff happens, followed by a variously long period of bibble-babble and wankery where lots of shit was said but nothing (or very little) actually happens. (I hope it's clear that I'm not saying your or anyone else's play works like this)

So, when I first saw the indie designs it was the fact that the mechanics tended to make stuff happen anytime you talked that was attractive (phrasing, obviously very loosely). If I'd thought that they were just refinements on "pass the talking feather" I would have been out of there like a shot.

Jesse said...

Pretty insightful I think. Yeah, this is Burning Wheel.

Coincidentally, Luke Crane (BW designer) recently DMed the BW core group through In Search of the Unknown, Keep on the Borderlands, and Palace of the Silver Princess using the unmodified Moldvay D&D.

They're hardasses. I really appreciate their ability to mold themselves to a new system - really go all-out and PLAY it. Worth a read.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yes, I've seen it.

It reads reads like it was written by someone with a very deep belief in Focused Design.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, very perceptive. That's my main concern with a lot of indie games. I prefer simulationist games, with a side of drama - storygames are allegedly dramatist but really in practice nowadays are very heavy gamist/dramatist. It's a very different approach from what we originally think of as "storytelling" games like Vampire. It's this focus that hurt D&D 4e for me, and I worry when I hear Next designers still talking about reinforcement and the reward cycle so strongly - as if it needs to be more intricate that "have fun, and level sometimes." In those games the reward cycle has to be tied into every single action, which causes the slowdown you note. Even FATE has started to bug me on this count - it ends up flowing from the Aspects than from the character organically.

Zak Sabbath said...

I don't really know either way. Or how people feel about it. I'd like to hear some fans of these systems' take on the more crunchy wargamey side of things

Von said...

I tend to gravitate to the passing-sticks-around-the-campfire approach when I'm running games, unless it's clear that a given group just isn't going to work like that. I'm assuming that's what we mean by 'story game': a way of playing rather than an inherent quality of any system. I have to assume that because, well, I find Vampire's crunch to be exasperating at times, never mind the sort of line-by-line stuff that Burning Wheel appears (from your description - I've never played it) to tick on.

And I deal with it by ignoring most of it. I've stripped Vampire down to a core mechanic and some resources to manage (I don't care how many bullets your PC has, but I do care about how much Vitae, Willpower and Humanity they have; those are the resources with which the conflicts of vampire vs. world/self/other vampires are fought, and which differentiate your vampire from squashy humans, so that's what I'm interested in).

That huge slab of rules for Disciplines in the middle doesn't have much appeal for me. I always preferred Mage, where you have the broad areas that the powers interact with and the score you have in those powers indicates how good you are at doing stuff within those broad areas, and that's basically it.

That said, first time I ran Mage, the players were saying "what we'd like is some more, well, magic - demonstrations of what we can actually do". They asked for hard and fast "roll this plus that to make this quantified thing happen" stuff, like how Vampire Disciplines work.

And because of that, I'm kind of interested in Burning Wheel (which I'd never heard of before you talked about it a few days ago). I read your description of the game in progress and thought something like "A-ha, rules for conversation as tactical combat, I know THIS person who's really bad at improvising dialogue and is a bit awkward at conversations in general, but wants to play RPGs. She's really competitive, and she likes Eurogames where you're a farmer in Renaissance Germany or some shit like that, and picks up rules really quickly, maybe it would be good for her."

And maybe that's who Burning Wheel and the like are for? People who treat the 'having pretend conversations' part of RPGs the same way that my Mage group treated the 'pretending to cast spells' part of RPGs, needing a defined system of elements to combine and tactics to deploy to show them what they can do?

That's not the way in which I usually run my little story circle, but it seems sort of similar - we have rules for simulating the stuff that the players can't do, for whatever reason, and for supporting the stuff that they can do.

Is this even adding anything intelligent to the conversation? I'm sure I don't know.

Von said...

Sorry, missed out a bit of that; first paragraph should say "when running games, no matter what the system is or what the game is ostensibly About". That seems like the sort of thing that shouldn't be left out.

Unknown said...

"trip trap trip trap,
whose walking on my bridge?"

oh, sorry, I was just rp'ing a troll there for a minute. right before I finally found the gaming group I had been searching for my whole life, the story gamers were nice enough to guest me a few times.

sorry again, but drama club.
a cudgel of drama + 3, in fact.

as to the crunch, who knows, probably serves the same purpose as glossyness did before it.

wrathofzombie said...

It's funny that you are talking about BW and other story games... I've been reading through a couple recently (Jaws of the Six Serpents and Dungeon World, and awhile back I read through Dresden Files- FATE system).

While Jaws and DW both are more rules lite than any other story game I have seen there is still this layer of crunch that is apparent.

Dresden Files is a really crunchy game and there is quite a bit to learn and absorb.

I agree with a previous statement you have made about story games (and this is not knocking it at all, just an observation), there is a high buy in. With a OSR d&d player (new ones in particular), they really don't need to know shit. You're a rogue, you steal shit and attack from behind. Roll the d20 add your +1 beat a 16. Got it? Go. Story games have a lot more to handle..

As has been said above, the big bits of crunch are flags to highlight shit happening. In FATE (I'll use that as an example since I don't now that much of BW beyond reading Mouseguard) there is a mechanic called Aspects, and it is a guide for players personality and traits. They should be double edged swords so the player and the GM can both use them.

A player with an Aspect "My temper is as quick as my feet" will have something that can be used to create interesting situations. The player can use an aspect to get a +2 bonus on a roll that fits (say running away or maybe initiative) or to reroll a failed check (again, if it applies to the said Aspect).

GM's can also "compel" the aspect.. The GM offers a not so friendly situation and if the player accepts they get a FATE point (to use on their own aspects) or they can say no and pay the GM a FATE point. With the above aspect, the player is arguing with a police inspector about a murder case and the inspector is being an asshole.. The player can say, "I turn and walk away." The GM can then say, "Would you? You're quick to anger.. Don't you think you wouldn't let this go? Don't you think you might accidentally take it too far?" Now the player can make a choice as to whether to accept that compel or pay a FATE point and move on.

In FATE the environments ALSO have Aspects that the GM has labeled before hand. A dank dark alley with a leaky water pipe on the side of a building (in most systems) would be just that.. In FATE (and other story games) the Dark and Waterpipe are now aspects. The player can burn a FATE Point to get a +2 on their stealth check (by tagging the dark) or tag the water pipe to burst it and create a distraction.

All the mechanics (from my limited experience) and crunch seem to have been created to give players a way to create interesting situations and scenarios that (perhaps) the GM hadn't thought of or maybe didn't WANT to happen. The mechanics facilitate a "HEY GM! I WANT TO SHINE AT THIS MOMENT!"

I think "traditional" games is more of a quick banter and exchange of ideas. Using the same example: The player will say, "it's dark, do I get a bonus to my stealth roll." GM decides. The fight is going bad, "I want to hit that pipe and and use the water as a distraction to get the fuck out of dodge." Ok do it.

I understand that the story game mechanics were created to facilitate fairness, equal shots at story telling, and a way for every player to shine, but I prefer the quick banter myself and moving on to more excitement and fun.

X the Owl said...

A quote from the beginning of this long thread (

"Personally, I think my desire for "strategic" mechanics linking here-now to everything-eventually is about wanting the possibility of being hurt: I don't want to have a subjective decision as a circuit-breaker between "I do this thing here and now" and "as a consequence, I lose what I love most in the big picture." It's also about wanting the risk of hurt to be systematized and depersonalized: If the here-now linkage to everything-eventually is subjective (Drama, structured or un-), then the person making that subjective decision -- the GM in a traditional game, the whole group in Prime Time Adventures, my character's "underwriter" in the notional Ars Magica knockoff, whoever -- is really on the spot and likely to flinch away from the "unsafe" outcome, deciding not to hurt me for pure social-decency reasons even if I'd honestly prefer it."

[Out of quote] The possibility that's not often considered in threads like this is that "wargamey" mechanics can bring awesome in ways groups of friends can have problems, specifically when it comes to generating, hard, uncomprmising adversity. This also has a parallel in James Raggi's discussion of why to run published adventures in the LoTFP ref's guide.

Zak Sabbath said...


Zak Sabbath said...

"The possibility that's not often considered in threads like this is that "wargamey" mechanics can bring awesome in ways groups of friends can have problems, specifically when it comes to generating, hard, uncomprmising adversity"

Threads like what? Like this one here?

If the answer is yes then you're really not paying attention. The concept of using rules to generate deadly adversity is by no means alien to D&DwithPornstars. The question is not that, it's why this attraction to generating the adversity via abstract math rather than any number of other means a game could do that.

X the Owl said...

The comment was mostly directed at wrathofzombie's idea that big crunch is just about protecting specialness. It can do that, yeah, but lots of other things, including vigorous creative agreement can too. I know that you care a lot about the issue of generating adversity with rules.

Your question-some answers:

Crunchiness can be good because it is a thing to master. Not only can your character fail, but you can also suck at advocating for your character. That can increase engagement with the game, by getting the human desire to not suck at things on board with the goal of advocacy for what your character is about. It's a turbocharger, if you will. Or, also in light of your post about having the game designer at your table, a judgment by that designer that what you're doing is weaksauce. Somebody has to be able to say that, functionally (ie in a way that doesn't undercut the fun/friendship aspect of play), for just about any play. (Burning Wheel, Dogs, Sorcerer)

Also, big crunchy systems can let you say "this one's important/for all the marbles/whatever" in a way that makes it a that for the table, without any protection from consequences for anyone. (This being the key distinction from mere protection of specialness)

Also, they can be ways of making sure that color is a strong part of the game, by insisting that fictional positioning be a part of engaging the mechanics. (Sorcerer, Dogs)

They also give the game ways to fail that are (hopefully) invitations to reflect on what you're not getting about the point of the game. (My Life With Master, Sorcerer again)

Last, they can be a strong way of saying "put up or shut up" to wanky play (for whatever your value of wanky is-its probably pretty important that that varies strongly group to group. )

The quoted comment also is a thing here-for some values of crunch, the system generates more nuanced adversity.

Those are some things "wargamey" mechanics bring to the table. Look at other big crunch "story-gamey" systems, find plenty more. I find calling them "abstract" odd, given that each of those things only works with the fiction, but okay.

Zak Sabbath said...

This is all getting too vague to have a meaningful conversation about. Re-clarify.

In both this game, and MSH, you have situations where the first thing you think about is maximizing the math to achieve a result. (Rather than the first thing you consider being what fictional position would achieve your result.)

There are, in MSH for example, times when you can choose 2 different die expressions for _exactly the same fictional position_ just one has different math than the other.

AFTER that mathy phase, you then create a fictional position which conforms to what the math describes . And, in some cases, but not all, modifies it.

(This is a "clouds and boxes" situation, if you know that essay.)

I find the explicit and desired existence of the first phase unexpected and worth discussing.

X the Owl said...

Cool-I don't know MSH beyond a skim, though. I'll try restating the example, so check me where/if I screw up. I'm familiar with the clouds and boxes thing.

I'm not sure I follow your MSH example-can you concertize it since I don't know that system-give an example of when it would be the case? (Assuming it's still relevant).

So, I'm playing BW, and I'm about to try to sneak into a castle. I've got lots of math-y stuff on my sheet, relative to possible ways of doing that. I think you're saying that I could be asking lots of questions about the castle, relative to GM prep, maybe doing some roleplay with servants and whatnot, and then deciding which plan I'll take.

Or, I could look at my sheet, and say, hey, I can't sneak for beans but I've got crazy high circles and a castle servant LP, so I'll just circle up someone I can hustle into giving me the keys. (Possibly without doing much roleplay/question asking whatever)

I think it's the second case you find strange.

Is that what you're getting at?

Zak Sabbath said...

I think you've basically got it. Although not "strange" merely "at odds with the experience as typically understood by me"

In MSH you can use a given trait but you can express that as one large die or two small dice. Each expression has a different mechanical effect on the math for purposes of "did you hit the guy" but what it means in fictional positioning terms (if anything) is left unclear.

It is, therefore, an extreme example of a rule encouraging "math first" thinking.

X the Owl said...

Hey, Zak, can I ask one more question? (I will answer the bigger question, but, y'know, it's a good one, so I'd rather take my time about it, especially since I don't think I've fully formulated an answer that gets past silly internet RPG talk levels for myself yet)

When you think of how BW dice strategizing works, are you seeing more of a boxes to boxes thing or a leftward arrow thing?

Zak Sabbath said...

hard to say.

The following is more specific than arrows to boxes. In order:

The person thinks of a result they want in the fiction.

The person consults the math. This takes a relatively long time.

The person attempts to make the math into fictional positioning. The fictional positioning may or may not require re-consulting the math.

The dice are rolled.

In contrast to:

The person thinks of a result they want in the fiction.

The person announces an in-fiction action.

It is converted into math.

The dice are rolled.

Olav N said...

Playing Mouse Guard, I've had similar experiences.

I believe that the "wargameyness" is, for better or worse, a result of conflict resolution (as opposed to task resolution). This conflict resolution-design makes each roll very important - you can't just throw in a few rolls because you like dice, and you still have to make rolls if you don't like dice since the Conflicts are central to the game.

In my opinion, this can certainly create a bit of start-stop dynamics and/or an unfamiliar pacing as the game pushes you towards rolling the dice rather than you or the GM choosing to do so. At my first encounter with Mouse Guard, it just seemed silly. What do you mean we can only make four dice checks? And what's up with the second phase where we as players drive the game forward? Aren't we always? During the second round it started making sense.

I think that the thing with many new school games is that they tend to have the system do a lot of the stuff you'd otherwise rely on the GM to do (such as setting pace, bridging from system to fiction and back and even creating story arcs over scenes). Sometimes, this can be a really good thing. Sometimes, it can feel like spending the night wrestling the designer.

Zak Sabbath said...

I thought Dread was a refreshing take: Ok, so we aren't putting it all on the GM, but we're not putting it all on the system either. The Players and GM both shape things in a way arbitrated by a simple mechanic.

Cole said...

Yeah, it's cool that they're doing this and (seemingly) having fun but their approach is an intrinsically transformative exercise. All play is, of course. But Moldvay-rulebook-as game is no less bending the game to our predilections than any other experience.

Cole said...

Or, I could look at my sheet, and say, hey, I can't sneak for beans but I've got crazy high circles and a castle servant LP, so I'll just circle up someone I can hustle into giving me the keys. (Possibly without doing much roleplay/question asking whatever)

Although. Several of the veteran Wheel Burners commenting on the first post were pretty strong about "oh, don't look at the math-y stuff first to decide. Just know what you believe and decide based on that."

Zak Sabbath said...

No idea how it usually goes, just talking about how it goes in the video.

Cole said...

Right, not disagreeing, just thinking out loud after X's comment jogged my memory.

James Holloway said...

This distinction, between "Fortune-at-the-End" and "Fortune-in-the-Middle" systems, was something that used to get chatted about a lot at the Forge back in the day.

So, in D&D (and many other games), you have Fortune-at-the-End, ie you decide what you want to do and roll the dice to see whether it worked, whereas in some other games you have Fortune-in-the-Middle, ie you come up with a broad intent, you roll the dice, and then you find out what happened. I think the way that resources are managed ties into this, although I'm not sure I could articulate exactly how.

To me, I guess, it feels like having fortune-in-the-middle gives the player a greater degree of control over how the random result is incorporated into the game? Viewed as a narrative, it feels 'smoother' somehow? And yet I don't know that it feels that way in the experience of play. I have not played BW, although I own it, but I have played other games that use similar positioning of the rules element (HeroQuest 2nd, for instance) and although there is a lot of pausing and pondering about mechanics, I never really found that it bothered us very much, and I think it helped players conceive of things on their sheets as tying into fictional outcomes.

Part of me wonders if this is connected to the difference between the locus of toys being the players and the world again.

Eric Walker said...

Olav is right. BW dice rolls are all extremely important. Perhaps people have it in reverse. The dice are rolled when the game stops. It always surprises me when people do actual play and the fight mechanics or the Duel of wits is dragged out. I'm like "Really, Is every game like this except mine?" I usually just do whatever I want until the player invokes the bigger systems. Sometimes I might suggest them if I read the need in them, but most of the time I treat them as mini-games that as a GM are not my concern.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yeah, i remember about the "fortune at the (beginning/middle/end)" thing. This seems to me less about the timing of the fortune and more about the timing of thinking about fictional positioning vs the timing of thinking about the math on the character sheet.

Zak Sabbath said...

interesting--i'd like to hear what other BW people have to say on this.

Rafu said...

As a point of data, for what it's worth…
I tended to play, for example, D&D like that (and I was a self-taught kid D&D player/DM). Most people I met and played with did not like to play like that, nor they did like me to play like that. I myself got tired of how hard D&D (or similar games, in quite a broad sense) made it on me to play my way.
I suspect many in or around The Forge were like me, in that… They pined for a style of play which was not very well supported, thus they made their own rules - from the ground up.
(Also as a point of data: I was never into wargames much.)

Zak Sabbath said...

I can see that. How did you describe your unhappiness to them ("this game is too ___") how did they describe their unhappiness with you ("you play too ____")

X the Owl said...

Hey, Zak-sorry about the delay, and hoping you're still interested. Some thoughts, which I think overlap with soem of your observations. Also, please add "in my experience/opinion" as appropriate:

1) System mastery is fun

2)Best prefaced by saying that BW works best when you're buying what it's selling, both in terms of we want a game full of gripping character drama and these rules will help us do it. It has to be for everybody in this group.

Learning the system, if the group buys the premise, is buy-in to the whole game. Which, y'know, not a bad thing.

But more, the crunch gives everybody a specific job, and supports them in doing that job. The players are there to, first and foremost, be passionate advocates for their character. The crunch and subsystems always give them lots of options as to how to do that. There's a really strong virtuous cycle between beliefs, tests, advancement, and artha that becomes more apparent the longer the system is worked at. It gives you full authority over your character concept with no guarantees that that particular guy can actually do as he intends.

W/r/t fictional positioning, the intent of the rules is that, you consult the fiction, look to your resources, and decide how to address it, in a way that will enrich the fiction by you stating and giving real details about what you're doing. (I also have seen this part break down a bit in practice-the GM should be soliciting lots of relevant detail from the player about the proposed course of action so as to set a good ob and good counterstakes, but that seems to me a matter of group commitment to that over and above the group working with the rules. It's easy to not do this and end up playing in soup. "I sneak in!" "OK, ob 4, but if you blow it, the guard dogs will catch you!' "Uh, okay?" in a situation where nobody had really been thinking about what the thing being snuck into looks like or where the dogs are or whatever.)

I think this last bit is a contrast, but not as big as you're seeing, perhaps-Lots of resources on character sheet vs lots of resources in the head doesn't feel (and I think that's the right word) like a huge difference as long as all that input is relevant and validated.

I also might suggest that this kind of thing can happen in lots of games, with for instance, long equipment lists on sheets. Tracking encumbrance is one thing, but how often is the 10' pole and halberd strapped to my character's back in the fiction until I need them? I mean, it's not in my interest as a player to be keeping them in mind when my character is, say, walking through a door or crawling in a tunnel, and the DM has a lot of stuff to keep track of. Long spell lists have sometimes worked the same way, as I've seen it.

3) The game does a good job of harnessing competitive instincts in the service of pushing belief-driven drama. The easiest way is by making sure that your character will get torn to shreds if you're not getting artha, so you have to learn strategy and the system to make sure the virtuous cycle engages. There are more, but this is already long and I wanted to say three more things.

X the Owl said...

4)BW's point buy character creation carries great heaping chunks of fictional positioning with it, in terms of both hooking in to the situation at hand in lots of neat ways (It's very cool that party play is absolutely not a requirement of BW), and in terms of creating a guy who it's easy to get committed to as a potential protagonist, that must be revealed in play. You get to choose how you might be special, and the game will not let you have it.

5)The mechanics support GM prep I find pretty easy, intuitive, and fun. To run a BW session, I need fully burned NPCs for any major antagonists, with their own BITs and artha, but I'm gonna get to play these guys as mean and smrt as I want, so it's fun. Beyond that, all I really need is some notes on the color of the setting, notes from previous sessions, and some bangs (possible things that could happen to challenge PC beliefs.) I'm gonna use virtually all of it, except the bangs.

6)My least favorite kind of play is in-character arguments that everybody knows will settle or change nothing (I saw this characterized somewhere as "Wolverine, sheathe your claws!"). BW's crunch lets everybody say, in a good and functional way, that it's put up or shut up on this stuff.

The point is generalizable too-the crunch enables communication in the moment. If I set Ob5 (a pretty big deal on the BW difficulty scale) and the player just says, OK, my skill is 4, I fail, it's a pretty strong indication that I set bad counterstakes and need to step up my game.

@ James-It's an interesting suggestion re:FiTM and FiTE, but I don't know what I think on it, other than to pretty much agree with Zak. I don't want to impinge on Zak's hospitality, though.

Zak Sabbath said...

I don't know what most of that is supposed to be responding to or why you're bringing it up but:

"I also might suggest that this kind of thing can happen in lots of games, with for instance, long equipment lists on sheets. "



"1) System mastery is fun"

I'm sure it's fun for someone or you wouldn't have said it but it isn't for me (maybe it was when I was 10) and I don't in real life know anyone who thinks it is and I'm not sure I'd want to play a game where that was a requirement.

Though it obviously isn't a requirement in the case of BW since I played without having it and had fun.

X the Owl said...

The whole post is my effort at a kind of big picture take on what makes Burning Wheel's crunchiness fun.

The point about spell lists and equipment lists was an attempt as a response to your take that it's somehow odd to be looking to the character sheet rather than the fiction as a way to address stuff in play- I was trying to suggest that there are times and places in lots of games where it's pretty non-problematic.

And, system mastery fun? I did start the post with "add in my experience/opinion as necessary." I think the whole buy-in to the game/system was a big deal when it worked well for two groups over time, and a big reason it failed when it didn't. YMMV and all that.

Told you it was a hard question for me.

Zak Sabbath said...

You have made a
when you said "The point about spell lists and equipment lists was an attempt as a response to your take that it's somehow odd to be looking to the character sheet rather than the fiction as a way to address stuff in play- I was trying to suggest that there are times and places in lots of games where it's pretty non-problematic."

Then you are
assuming I said this was "problematic". I did not. Not at all, not in any way. Not ever. Not for a second. Not in your wildest dreams or craziest nightmares.

If you are going to interpolate stuff into my posts that is not in the text please please
please pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease pleaseplease please
stop reading them.

X the Owl said...

Look, I translated "the math" into "boxes." I translated "at odds with the experience as typically observed by me" into "problematic" without intending that as saying you had judged anybody's play. The language was sloppy, and I'll happily withdraw the word. I do in fact get that you are not judging anyone's play.

Zak Sabbath said...

it's not problematic. it's just interesting. in the not-loaded not-smug-insinution sense of the word

X the Owl said...

Pretty much the only arena in which I use "problematic" in real life tends to use it to mean "presenting a feature worthy of discussion." Hence my use, which I grant is not ordinary.

At the same time, I think my long rhapsody about BW missed some of your actual concerns about the unusual "feeling" the system offers (for yet another loose paraphrase). If there's something else worth taking a shot at, I'm game.

Also, you seem to have a strong handle on generating good, tough adversity through a system that at least some others have found full of social pitfalls and kinda tough(I know you're not unique, but I'm talking to you, so...). I think you;re mostly good with that, but also willing to try new things and seek out new stuff. So, given that, do you find stuff worth stealing in the way some of the more crunchy games do it?

Zak Sabbath said...

still collating

Gregor Vuga said...

Another great post, very cool observations.

And because it seems I must always be the awful guy who breaks out the terminology issues. The name "story games" was intended to cover all games that have "story" as their medium or semi-intentional byproduct, from D&D to BW to Fiasco to whatever. An all encompassing term, larger than just "roleplaying game".

What happened instead, probably mostly because of the specific population of the Story Games forums is that this term began to apply almost exclusively to a certain subset of indie games from the forge/post-forge crowd, beyond which they don't actually have a lot in common.

So yeah, the connection to "Storytelling" games of the Vampire-type is a red herring. If anything a shitton of Forge games were created as a reaction to White Wolf games and rebellion against the experiences the authors had had with them (which doesn't necessarily say anything about either group of games, but it was certainly a conscious design impetus).

Zak Sabbath said...


The word "storygames" is a word we use to indiscate "a certain subset of indie games from the forge/post-forge crowd, "
and it's really fucking useful because they all actually have a lot in common.

While no-one here or that I've EVER seen or heard confuses this with Vampire-style "storyteling" games (and I'm not sure why you;d bother to bring that up), the connection IS meaningful because in addition to many of the storygame (Focused Design) crowd very much largely sharing a set of ideas you could reasonably describe as "hippie" or "academic hippie", they also largely all are "the kind of people who actually were or wanted to be really into Vampire" which is a helpful signpost.

This thing is true: while neither "Narrativism""Indie""PostForge""Hippie""StoryGame" or "focused design" is a precisely 100% descriptive term for what goes on in what we call StoryGames , the fact is the game designers there have (rather remarkably consistent) shared cultural and value assumptions about what's fun and about how to talk about it. These assumptions are real and seem all the more real when you are outside of them and try to engage them about their games and find out how remarkably consistent they are.

Pretending "storygames" have nothing in common is like pretending OSR games do not have a lot in common.

Gregor Vuga said...

"(and I'm not sure why you;d bother to bring that up"
Because I have seen and interacted with people who confuse the two over and over. It's a kneejerk reaction and I apologize.

I wouldn't want to imply there's no similarities whatsoever, but there are some pretty huge differences between say Fiasco and Burning Wheel or Spione and Agon.

Otherwise I agree.

Rafu said...

Alas, we didn't have words to communicate those concepts, back in the days! It was all just vague uneasiness and forfeit games.
Only in the Forge era I finally had a vocabulary of a sort to use, like: "I'd rather play Dogs in the Vineyard", or "I'd prefer if we played this more like PTA".

Anonymous said...

I've had them sold to me not as rules light but as "kill dice-fudging dead".

In other words, you play totally by the rules, and the rules should flow with play rather than getting in the way.

If you want the game to run a different way, change the rules.

If that sounds weirdly strict, it's almost, but not totally, the same as:

"All GM decisions should be princibled and reasonably consistent, and we can talk about those principles without ruining the magic".

With that in place, there's a pretty big continuum, with burning wheel as (one of?) the most crunchy.

Another, and probably better way to put it is "at last, the rules are not in the way! (of doing x)" which sometimes means rules light, and sometimes really doesn't.

Zak Sabbath said...

That is exactly how all good games work, though, so I think saying that (if indeed it was ever said) is kinda disingenuously saying "Well the difference is that our game is good"

Zak Sabbath said...

Point is: I see dice-fudging as pointless to begin with in a game, the thing you quote seems to be suggesting it is an ignoble means to a noble end.

Anonymous said...

Zach, you said something interesting above:

Result wanted.

Check the maths.

Turn the maths into positioning.

Check it works.

Roll dice.


Result wanted.

Say what you do.

Turn it into maths.

Roll dice.

Looking at those two, couldn't both of those be players in your game? Like you said before that people can ask the mechanics of the thing they do before they do it.

The second player is just trying stuff, the first player is analysing his situation to get the best result.

Isn't making sure you have full knowledge of the likelihood of your actions sort of diegetic? It's just that the former player is more conscientious, and so by projection is playing a more conscientious character.

Zak Sabbath said...

No, the second person is by no means simply

"analysing his situation to get the best result"

The second is "analysing only one part of the situation, the one represented by the numbers on the character sheet, to get an outcome (by no means the best one, since it might be shortchanging elements of the situation not represented on the character sheet) , then, afterwards, assigning a narrative description to that combination of described abilities".

they are similar but related and can occur in the same game, but they are very different

It is not the action itself so much as What The Person Spends Most of His or Her Time Thinking About--diegetic situation or mathematical description of a part of that diegetic situation.

Cam Banks, author of Marvel Heroic, pretty much concurs with my analysis if you check the interview I did with him yesterday on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Marvel heroic can be whatever Cam and the other writers want it to be.

I'll have to tread carefully here, because I don't know burning wheel that well, but here's my impression:

Burning wheel is character focused, and applies factors in the world via applicable skills and obstacles.

If you look at that duel of wits, there's a bit where the player with the war sorceress goes "I'm trying to fit in soldiering and etiquette here." and then decides that doesn't work, because she is trying to insult and dismiss the other guy.

So your toolbox is mainly on your character sheet, and so character quirks have the biggest effect on shaping your choices.

I've no doubt they get the bulk of the maths on purpose, because, like I say, it's a character focused game.

I don't know that you actually have that much maths in your game, but the equivalent might be:

"ask what the numbers are in the Zach's notes/the main factors influencing success chances in this area, decide what your doing to maximise the effect of those"

"rummage through your character sheet for weird magic items that might apply, clarify the mechanics of how they work with the GM, then make up a way to fit them into your action for maximum advantage."

In each case you're not analysing the whole situation, (from the colour of doornobs to ...) but what matters to your ability to succeed, and that is obviously stuff that will actually change the roll you make, or whether you can roll at all.

If you have a strong dislike of thinking in numbers, then although some guy in fullplate armour technically has AC 20, you won't want to think in those terms, you'll check what his AC actually is at the last minute.

Or you might skip to the last minute and have no stats at all, just going, "does that sound likely/unlikely", and say what people need to roll above.

If you like numbers, then they can hover around near every object; this guy is an experienced craftsmen (skill level 10) this door is made of overlapping budlike leaves of an unknown metal with a blue-grey colour(DR 25 1hp) etc.

Either way, you're still trying to judge the important factors.

Zak Sabbath said...

Your comment is a mixture of things everyone already knows (first 9 paragraphs.) and missing the point. (last 8 paragraphs)

The point is:
A. does the player in the game usually find themselves thinking about a clear set (that is: clearly defined in advance) of numbers (the numbers on the sheet) and then building their tactics from that clear set
B. does the player find themself usually imagining the situation (that is: spending mental energy actually mentally visualizing what is happening to the PC as in a film) , then imagining the (possibly infinite and not clearly defined, as the number of objects or effective activities in any real space can often not be "clearly defined") affordances specific to that situation, and then determining action based on that.

In the game I watched on the video, (A) occurred very often. In other games, (B) occurs more often.

They are two different activities.

Me going "I will use my diplomacy and etiquette here"
me going "What color are her eyes?"
"I will compare the green of her eyes to rich deep color at the center of an emerald"

Are two different (but, as any idiot knows, related and often overlapping) activities.

The question is: which one happens more often.

Anonymous said...

Cmon now! I'm stating the obvious till you disagree, then I'm saying stuff so off point you won't respond?

I appreciate you clarifying your point, but why not, I am pointing out something else:

Can players check the odds in your games before they act?

If they can and don't, then they're intentionally not dealing with the maths.

They aren't doing that thing that a lot of experienced gamers do; pre-running the resolution mechanics in their head, pre-second-guessing the gm to try to find the optimum choice.

Yes, think up options. Things that might work. Then think about their probability of success. Try and work out how good a plan your plan is given what you know.

I mean it might be in your game that there isn't really any difference; think of something that might work, try it, there's no advantage to nitpicking for a more well rounded option.

That meditative pace isn't something powered by the fact that the characters have skills written down, it's powered by the fact that players have notes about the varying effectiveness of different tactics.

Or to put it another way, the players deeply know the rules of the situations they are in, and play to that knowledge.

Now that is a wargame attitude, it's an engineering attitude, it's a high stakes "I want this thing to properly work" attitude. It's not very swashbuckling, but it is pretty fun.

It's also pretty digetic, assuming the mechanics are associated. It may not be thinking in pictures, but it's still imagining the character's world.

Just like you might know what trees you can climb and gaps you can jump, and have a good idea of which of your friends you can bluff in poker, it's reasonable for player characters in familiar circumstances to have an intuitive understanding of their ability to do whatever. Then they look around for opportunities that match their strengths.

Yeah it includes maths, but so what, the maths represent the difference between what you're good at and what your character is good at, and so by considering it, your in a way getting more in character, assuming that the mechanics hold up to that.

Zak Sabbath said...

important difference:

choosing odds from a finite set of known choices vs choosing odds from a possibly infinite set of unknown choices.

Anonymous said...

Hey man, just checking because this is the internet and it's your blog, if you don't want to talk about the distinction between numbers and digetics, and are only doing it as a curtesy to me because I keep replying (you know how that kind of thing can go). I'll let it go.

It's just a bit of a bait and switch to be told "I'd like to hear your opinions on wargamy play" "Your opinions are obvious or irrelevent".

If you want to hear some more of the things I have to say about it, finite vs infinite choices etc, let me know.

Zak Sabbath said...

We are discussing facts, not opinions.
I want to hear your view such that:
I may understand where you have misunderstood what I wrote and explain where you are wrong
you convince me I am wrong.

There is not now nor ever a bait and switch.

Countercheck said...

[quote]They are two different activities.

Me going "I will use my diplomacy and etiquette here"
me going "What color are her eyes?"
"I will compare the green of her eyes to rich deep color at the center of an emerald"

Are two different (but, as any idiot knows, related and often overlapping) activities.

The question is: which one happens more often.[/quote]

I don't really know which happens more often. In the games I play, I'd say probably the former happens more often, but not quite like that. It's more along the lines of:

Dialogue Dialogue Dialogue Flattery Green eyes Emerald...

GM: I think you want to do something specific here.

Player: Yes, I want to convince her to give me a loan.

GM: Do you have any kind of leverage, or anything she might want?

Player: Ah...

GM: I'll take that as a no. So you're rolling Persuasion against her Will of 5. If you fail, she'll spread gossip about how broke you are.

Player: Ok, well, I'm using persuasion, and I'm being very polite, flattering her about her eyes and such, so I'll fork in Etiquette, and Soothing platitudes, and maybe Noble-wise?

GM: Sounds good.

An example that actually came up in play last Friday - we've captured this orc sorcerer, and she's tied up, and I'm interrogating her. The GM has her lead me in circles, so I draw my sword, put it against her throat, and demand she gives me a straight answer. We switch from IC roleplaying to OOC mechanical discussion. We discuss for a while whether Torture or Interrogation is the more appropriate skill (I don't have either), and decide that Interrogation fits. I roll Beginner's Luck Interrogation and she rolls Poisonous Platitudes (her intent being to freak me out). I lose, and (back to IC) am so frightened that I immediately kill her, meaning we lose a valuable source of intelligence.

The less structured play continues until the players try for an intent where failure is interesting. That's when we turn to the maths. Depending on what's going on, we might have large periods of time where the dice mechanics aren't referenced at all and we just use our beliefs to guide us. But if the beliefs are well written and the GM is on the ball, the beliefs will inevitably result in a conflict situation, when time slows down, and we consult our skills.

I hope that was helpful? If not, how can I clarify?

Zak Sabbath said...

You seem to think we are having a conversation about how you play your game. We are not.

We are having a conversation about this statement Ventilstunde made, which, in context, is an incorrect statement:

"Isn't making sure you have full knowledge of the likelihood of your actions sort of diegetic? It's just that the former player is more conscientious, and so by projection is playing a more conscientious character."

My response to this incorrect statement is:

No, there are different kinds of activities in games.

Both are acceptable and can be fun.

They can overlap but do not have to.

The game in the session that I watched featured player primarily and usually engaging in one kind of activity.

The game I usually play features players primarily and usually engaging in a different kind of activity.

They are distinguishable by characteristics, enumerated above.

Countercheck said...

I guess I was replying more to Eric Walker's June 18th post about the dice coming out when the game comes to a halt, which you asked other BW players to comment on. I thought your distinction between the two different kinds of play you outlined above in this thread, where narrative comes first and then you roll dice to determine the outcome, or you choose dice and build the narrative based on the mechanical decision, was connected.

Anonymous said...

That helps a lot actually!

So you don't want people to say other things that are true that your idea reminds them of, or give "on the other hand" style complementary points?

Zak Sabbath said...

As in any analytical enterprise, you must defend the truth value of any statement you make that is at odds with those made by another. The information provided during this process spreads knowledge in general and decreases ignorance.

Mistaking the steps necessary to perform this process for a desire to not have you make true statements is grotesquely ignorant. Just because I want you to make sure what you're saying is true does not mean I do not want you to say things.

If you need further clarification, read this:

Anonymous said...

Here's how your approach in this thread differs from the link you posted.

You asked me no questions.

You repeated your own ideas to me, and said that mine were beside the point.

Your thesis of why I am wrong?

"there are different kinds of activities in games.

Both are acceptable and can be fun.

They can overlap but do not have to."

I am in awe of your rational analysis of the differences in our positions. What in that isn't a restatement of your earlier post is a restatement of mine!

When someone else starts building on what I've said, with examples, you go back to the old "missing the point" standby.

This is not a strategy for developing insightful discussions, this is a strategy for shutting them down, and to try and claim the opposite is laughable.

I'm sure you do want to investigate this stuff, and I think you are actually on to something with a few adjustments, but I don't want to continue to discuss it with you in this context.

Zak Sabbath said...

You typed these words:

The second player is just trying stuff, the first player is analysing his situation to get the best result.

Isn't making sure you have full knowledge of the likelihood of your actions sort of diegetic? It's just that the former player is more conscientious, and so by projection is playing a more conscientious character."

Defend them. Don't make a meta-argument about your argument. Just defend the words you yourself typed.

Either you are right or you are wrong. Nothing else matters or comes into it.