Archive for July, 2010
I’ve been throwing around this term lately on Twitter, “emotional resonance.” To start the post off, here’s what I said:
Current hypothesis (and future blog post): pacing mechanics without a place to slot emotional resonance fall apart. Math alone cannot solve.
Emotional resonance = people really (reliably) want to play the “talky” part of an RPG.
As I said yesterday, I needed to talk the idea out in order to figure out what I really meant, and it hooks back into my comments on Adventure Games & Story Games. To do the thing I really hate, I’m going to start my definition with a negative: Emotional Resonance is NOT just emo bullshit.
It’s the part of a game, any game (hell, any media), that make us want to talk about it after we’re done. I want to talk about how amazing Inception is — and it blew me away — because of the emotional resonance I felt for it. But I also love talking about Crank; not because it’s a deep movie with meaning or shit like that, but because the pacing of the movie and the insane action makes me want to geek on it. It’s the same with a game — we need a place to slot in our excitment, interest, nerditry, emo bullshit, whatever it is we’re looking to get out of the game.
I’ve been making games with scene-level pacing mechanics for a few years now, very few of them any good. That’s because I was too focused on modeling an arc or creating cause-effect chains. There was a little bit when Mythender had this, and every time I playtested it I hated the game. I felt nothing.
Know Thyself’s scene setup involved, roughly:
- Play a card from your hand. (And the cards were fucking cool. For the cards, check out this link.)
- Frame a scene for the single PC (was a one-PC/multiple-GM game) using an element of that card. It doesn’t matter what, you’re in a fucking insane psychedelic dream.
- Uh, build to a conflict, please.
- Resolve this conflict by playing high-card.
- Wash, rinse, repeat
- Every three scenes, whichever side won more (PC or GMs) got to define a thing about the PC’s real life.
So, we were kinda interested in the PC’s real life, since the premise of the game was that they were going back in time and self-inducing amnesia in order to change their past. But no one really gave a fuck about the dream scenes, even though winning/losing those are what drove getting to define stuff about the PC. Not giving a fuck = no emotional resonance.
Today, I know I went wrong with the scene setup. The scene setup couldn’t just be random. Nor can it be 100% driven by mechanical choices. Early on in Gun n Fuck, which has a similarly adversarial one-PC/many-GMs setup, the math & random set pieces drove scene choices. As long as the PC had enough of his core stat, Adrenaline, he could keep doing action scenes. When it fell down, he needed to do a scene with his girlfriend. But because there was no reason to deviate from these choices, they didn’t inspire. The game felt bland. Yes, in the heat of the action scenes we were having fun, but I don’t think anyone really cared about the game later. I know I didn’t.
I also know why I went wrong, and that’s probably the most important lesson. See, when you’re playtesting a game with friends, they might cut you some slack on this front accidentally. They’re distracted by analyzing the game, rather than feeling anything about it, so emotional resonance doesn’t happen right away. Thus, their comments are more about structure than about whether it really works. Or, they’ll slot their emotional resonance onto you, as the friend they’re helping out, rather than on the game. So it still doesn’t work, but it looks like it does. That was my problem with Know Thyself, a problem I wasn’t able to recognize in time.
This is also why I think many older games from our tribe don’t work as well unless played via oral tradition. (Learned from the designer or from someone who played with the designer, etc.) They’re tightly-wound and don’t have an obvious place to slot in your excitement or interest that folks are used to.
When I playstormed Gun n Fuck last Tuesday night, I took a step back, explained the procedure, played one of the GMs, and watched the faces of people. We went through twice around the table (for six scenes), and while the scene-choosing mechanic was a little busted, I could tell that there was some excitement sparking when starting a scene off. I saw that being carried into the scene, making the game work.
The key, for this game, was to not base the choice of scene on math, or on whatever bullshit arc I was trying to force. The PC and whichever GM has that turn each made a silent, simultaneous choice:
The PC can: show a red die (this is going to be an action scene), white die (this is going to be a scene about chasing my obsession), or empty hand (this is going to be a moment when I’m going to just re-juice myself because I’m way, way low on adrenaline). And there’s a reason mechanically do to all those things, but…
The GM can: show a red die (this shit’s going to be hostile straight-away) or a white die (this is going to be cagey and defended). (The empty hand isn’t an option.) And the GM’s job is to show a different color die than the PC, or show a red die if they PC’s going to show nothing.
That scene’s framing and advantage go toward the side that won the showdown, though the choices the PC and GM made are still true. The third or fourth round, Justin Smith, playing the PC, showed a red die when I showed white. He swore, and then grinned. Right then, I could tell he cared a tiny but about that moment. Right there, I had figured out an injection point for emotional resonance.
Primetime Adventures does it with the scene framing questions, especially when you frame that scene’s central question or conflict, getting others excited about either outcome. Fiasco does it when you decide whether you’re framing or resolving a scene, involving everyone else to do the other on your behalf. Excitement and interest are key. You cannot make a high-level pacing mechanic too tactical or too prescribed. This is why you need to weakly model narrative arcs in such story games — to give everyone room to express their excitement & interest. When you do that, other people at the table pick up on that and bring their own in.
That’s emotional resonance. It’ll vary from person to person, which is why not every story gamer like every story game. But it’s utterly crucial, and at this point I’m pretty sure it has to exist at the point of scene-framing in such games.
 A rare few of you have Know Thyself, my ashcan from 2007, which is a shitty game. Three years later, I have a great understanding as to why it doesn’t work and how to make it. And maybe I will.
 blah blah blah target audience blah blah blah
There’s something I tell people often when they start to get tripped up in a thought — be it playing a game, or trying to articulate a design, whatever:
Say it badly now. Then we’ll work on saying it well.
This comes from my own experiences where trying to state an idea well right away caused me to hesitate, which made me feel like I was a fucking idiot, which in turn killed my confidence in myself and my ideas. I like to tell people that I could have been the person I am today years fucking earlier if I had learned that one lesson sooner.
(Of course, it took those years to learn the lesson concretely/emotionally/to-heart/however you like saying that, rather than just intellectually. So, even that’s bullshit.)
Then I started using this technique a lot as a GM to get players stumbling over an idea to slow down and feel comfortable about saying anything. Works fucking wonders. Only later did I realize the uses outside of the gaming table, and about using it for myself.
We all fear looking like an idiot, especially on the Internet with cockbites around every corner waiting to tear you down, or we’re looking to gain the respect of people we respect, stuff like that. I totally understand the impulse to craft a message well before saying it. Hell, it’s not like I don’t still try myself — we all do. We all should when we can. This rule applies to when we find we can’t.
As social creatures, we are brilliant when we’re feeding off of each other — many minds are better than one and all that jazz. If you have an idea you’re having trouble articulating or making work, get outside of your head. By saying whatever you can to someone else, they can to help you better figure it out. Last night, I was working on trying to explain what I mean by “emotional resonance” to one of my good friends, Justin Smith, and I started with “so, I’m going to talk some dumb shit here, bear with me.” He helped me understand what I was actually talking about, and now I get the concept itself better than I did by thinking about it silently.
Look at my last blog post, Reward Mechanics & Paying Attention. I poorly articulated some shit there that it took others to help me better understand. If I was afraid of looking like a moron on the Internet, I wouldn’t have posted that. I knew I was off on something, but couldn’t entirely figure out what. Now I know (or, at least know better than before).
So if you’re flustered or confused or just can’t quite articulate this thing in your head, stop trying to do it well. Do it poorly. (If you need a safety net, do it poorly with friends, and state up-front that you’re going to do so. Also, if people give you shit for it, I recommend the retort “Fuck off, cockbite.” They’re being the asshole, not you.)
Related: Be unafraid of being wrong, and of admitting that you’re wrong. I have formed and furthered relationships with people that have started by me being wrong in a conversation (not intentionally, of course). No one needs to be right all the damned time. Which is convenient, since no one is.
Last week, I was having a Twitter conversation with the bane of my existence Clyde Rhoer, sparked by this comment:
I suggested that this was not particularly possible, and he asked me to unpack why. Now, I haven’t played in many American LARPs, but I have done enough to feel like I have a sense of those social dynamics. And something like Primetime Adventure’s Fan Mail system wouldn’t carry over.
See, in LARPs, you’re talking about 30 people, give or take, doing a lot of small-group interactions. Rarely (and it happens, but rarely) is the entire room paying attention to the same thing. So, any positive reinforcement mechanism will have to complete with the medium, rather than cooperate as it does with tabletop.
The point of positive reinforcement is two-fold:
- Reward the person for good behavior (whatever that is)
- Demonstrate to others the benefits of said behavior
In a LARP, the first can happen provided those with the ability to grant rewards are paying attention to you. Good luck with that. But the second? Hell no. There’s too much going on. Five people can sit around a game and throw Fan Mail around when people are being, well, whatever we want to reward. (Eric Boyd got Fan Mail for being particularly evil in several scenes of my first attempt at Blockbuster Adventures, the PTA-for-movies hack. Which made me realize the power of Fan Mail to be use in more specific ways to different characters/players rather than general.) But 30 people have 10 different constantly-splitting-off conversations cannot do so with the same effectiveness.
“But Ryan, we could tell everyone why X Dude is totally awesome and deserves this bennie!”
Yes, yes you could. But that’s way, way diminished in value. There’s being demonstrated behavior and its reward in person, and there’s hearing about it. When you hear about it, some of the emotional resonance of that moment are lost. You’re retelling a story whose context was moment-dependent, and while people can intellectually understand why a X Dude got his bennie, there’s much less of a lesson to connect to, if at all.
Furthermore, we can also intellectually re-equate hearing someone else’s tale with something we did. If I hear “X Dude got the Good Roleplaying Award for being true to his character even when his secret of being a necromancer was out and he was beheaded” or whatever, rather than actually see the quality of that moment and the emotional resonance around it, I can re-equate it with “Fuck, man, I did that last week and I didn’t get shit for it.”
(Why, yes, I have worked in a large institution that has given out little certificates of achievement for years and seen how they depress morale in staff that gets little attention. How can you tell?)
This is why I responded to Clyde at the time with the following:
There’s something I tell software people that I feel applies here: be wary of using technology to solve social problems.
Not “don’t” but “be wary of”
And I’m wondering if it’ll end up backfiring due to social dynamics.
Something that works well for five players constantly communicating might not for 30 split up.
Positive reinforcement is a different beast when everyone is able to pay attention to both the act and the reward.
I naysay not to discourage but to make sure you’re armed properly for the attempt I’d like to see. :)
We’re talking about a social issue that the innovation proposed might be ill-suited for. Granted, I’m all for someone trying. I hope someone proves me the fuck wrong.
 For the love of fuck, Internet, it’s a joke. I know, I have to say that upfront. Y’all are a touchy bunch.
 I was pretty mouthy that moment on Twitter. Clearly I was bored.
(Normally, I only allow myself one blog post per day at max. But seeing as the last one was just an announcement, I can bend the rules today.)
As a story game designer, I often wonder what the difference is for me between story games and adventure games. Oddly, the difference hit me while watching Crank 2: High Voltage last year. In short:
- Adventure Games test competence
- Story Games manage page
See, here’s the thing. Crank and Crank 2 are classes in action beats. There’s little more to the film than that, by design, so you get an eye-full over and over again of what makes an action scene work. It’s all about beats — action, reaction, follow-up. And what we do with adventure games models only a piece of that, the initiative system and flow of turn order. But by testing competence and allowing for the sort of failure that blocks or fucks with the flow of the beat, we make games that look less like action movies and look more like, well, like a fight in real life.
Which brings me to another difference:
- Adventure Games model a fair, consensual reality (and often strongly)
- Story Games model a desire for an arc (and often weakly)
Not that I want to get into GNS theory here. Fuck no. (GNS is about play dynamics, I’m talking about design modeling.) But it’s the qualifiers that I want to get into. Adventure Games have a strong modeling, intentionally. Fairness, and thus the feeling of success or safety net against abuse, requires a strong modeling. Sometimes that modeling is rules-heavy, and in other cases rules-light, and they often fall back onto an arbiter of sorts (the GM), to manage the modeling, fairness, and people. But because of this focus, creating tools for an arc are a secondary thought, if that.
(Often, the tools are in the form of GM advice, which is a fine, fine tool for such a job. And I think we Story Gamers forget this from time to time.)
Now, Story Games often model weakly, also by design. Yes, we have games that have strict sense of timing, with our love of pacing mechanics, but they don’t strongly model arcs the way that adventure game strongly model fairness. Again, by design. These games are tapping into the shared sense of media, of story, as a way to fill in gaps and allow us flexibility in how we interpret that pacing.
If you look at a lot of freshmen indie games, they try to too strongly model an arc. The very complaint you get in a lot of poorly-designed adventure games — of rule loopholes and soft points and weakness — are what you need in order to make a story game work. Make a story game too tight, and you risk making a game that’s about parlor narration, one that you feel you’re along the ride for rather than an architect of.
Which brings me to…
- In an Adventure Game, strongly-modeled rulesets allow for the players to contact the world
- In a Story Game, strongly-modeled rulesets disengage players from the world
So, when we’re testing for competence, we need strongly-modeled tools. Otherwise, we’re not really being competent if we’re not in the face of fairness. (Even dramatic fairness, like using a Hero Point to reroll or the like. There is room for some movie logic here, just not overly.)
But when we’re modeling for narrative arcs, we need weakly-modeled tools. We need to be able to project our own ideas in the game. That’s how we come into contact with a story game, not by attempting to do something by by attempting to express something.
And that’s why, as I’m writing up a bit on a little game I’m tinkering with, Gun ‘n Fuck, I find I’m making a story game about action beats and not an adventure game about a dude on a rampage. I don’t want to challenge the main character’s competence constantly. For this specific purpose, that would be boring as fuck. (As one playtest proved.) That means I have to figure out what I am doing, and that’s where pacing and timing are the key.
Nothing more for now, just a few thoughts on keyboard. Oh, I should leave with this:
- At no point am I saying this is what makes an Adventure or Story Game good or bad. Just observing games I’ve played over the past few years.
 I do not condone the use of “traditional” or “trad” to describe these games. That’s a useless term, sometimes used derogatorily, and makes use folks in the story game scene look like pretentious hipster fucks. Just sayin’.
 Why, yes, this post was partly inspired by Inception.
Hey! So, yeah, I took my sweet time here with my ICONS contest from late May. (I’ve had a bit of an insane few weeks, with moving, conventions,job changes and all that — apologies to those waiting for this!)
Per my rules, I had two entrants: Josh Rensch & Chris Czerniak. (I did discount Steve & Eddy, because of their ties to ICONS. No offence guys; I wanted some fans to win this one.)
So, Josh & Chris, here’s the deal:
You both win.
I haven’t had a chance to play ICONS yet, but I still think the character creation ideas will provide for a lot of fun just on their own. (I was hoping to get some time to play it in the last couple months, but it isn’t meant to be at the moment.)
I’ll be contacting you individually about your prize. Thanks for playing!