Theory, Hardcore

I was going to do two posts this morning; one about this, and one about someone using Spirit of the Century to run a Classic Traveler game, which is cool.
However, this is an important link, and I don’t want to distract from it.
Vincent’s Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore
This single page of posts, written by that Dogs in the Vineyard guy over the course of months, comprises the most lucid, easy to read, approachable discussion of ‘indie’ rpg theory you’ll ever find, period. Everyone who’s ever even kind of sorta looked sideways at all those Forge neologisms or dealt with one of those hippie games I play should read it. Everyone should read it.
More importantly, everyone SHOULD read it. Read, especially, “A Small Thing About Suspense” and “A Small Thing About Death” (I’m looking at you, Tombstone RPG!)
But read it all. It’s all good.


  1. A quote, regarding types of gamers (the GNS theory):

    So you have some people sitting around and talking. Some of the things they say are about fictional characters in a fictional world. During the conversation the characters and their world aren’t static: the people don’t simply describe them in increasing detail, they (also) have them do things and interact. They create situations – dynamic arrangements of characters and setting elements – and resolve them into new situations.
    Why are they doing this? What do they get out of it? For now, let’s limit ourselves to three possibilities:

    • They want to Say Something (in a lit 101 sense),
    • they want to Prove Themselves, or
    • they want to Be There.

    Are there other possibilities? Maybe. Certainly these three cover an enormous variety.
    That’s GNS in a page.

    Brilliant summary.
    People can say that GNS (Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist) predispositions in a play group don’t matter. I disagree. I know what I want out of games I play, and while it isn’t only one of those things, it’s definitely not all three, and of the remaining two, one drive is (usually) much stronger than the other.
    My gaming friends all have preferences and desires that fit in those three areas, even if unconscious.
    The people I have the most trouble creating fun times for in a game are either the people for whom I have not yet identified a preference, or those whose preference falls strongly in the one type of play for which I have little interest (Sim, or “being there”).

  2. If you’re going to call out Tombstone players, I have to draw your attention to this bit in the section on Death:
    First: if what you get out of roleplaying is a) the accomplishment you get from rising to the challenge, not letting yourself or your friends down, learning the rules and just frickin’ owning them, or else b) the satisfaction of peer-appreciated wish-fulfillment, you’re off the hook. None of what I say applies to you, you’re happy.
    We’re happy dying. So there.

  3. I’m not calling out Tombstone players, I’m calling out the RPG itself — specifically, the author’s oft-stated opinion that a story/game is only interesting if death is on the line, every time.
    More on that later.

  4. Okay, I’m back (silly IT and their desire to give me the software I’ve asked for).
    Okay, this is what I’m going to talk about: when to ‘use’ death in game, depending on the goals of the game. I’m going to use really short statements and not get into big long paragraphs of blah blah blah.
    Let’s say there’s three main ‘big’ goals for a game:

    1. you want to get in and own the rules and really rise to the challenges presented by the GM or whoever is throwing stuff in your face
    2. you want to Say Something. I don’t mean “Have something happen that, when retold, is ‘a story’ in the sense that it’s a retelling of events.” I mean “have the result of the game being a statement about some kind of big Theme like “love vs. power” or whatever.
    3. you want to really “be there” in the setting that the game is meant to convey.

    Now, for better or worse, I haven’t seen a lot of games that really support a group doing all three of these things in the same game.
    In more depth:I have seen GROUPS pursue and *achieve* all three goals in the same game, but the SYSTEM did not help them (and probably hindered them) in the pursuit if at least one if not more of those goals.
    To whit:
    The DnD system has nothing baked into it that helps you (a) set up a big theme that’s hardwired into the characters and (b) doesn’t recognize when you’re in a scene that’s really about something Important, story-wise. It does not help you if your goal is “Say Something with the Story.”
    Sorcerer does nothing at all to help you really “Be There” in a cool setting. None of the mechanics are meant to evoke a sense of the setting that anyone chooses to play in. Conversely, Tombstone *does* do that with setting-specific skills and gear and special magic or whatever.
    Umm… more examples?
    Now… okay, maybe Shadow of Yesterday can do all three, but honestly I don’t know yet — I feel as though it gives you that sense of setting with specific skills and setting-evoking Keys and Secrets. I feel like it lets you go over certain kinds of Story Themes and Say Something, and I think there’s some crunchy game-rules tactics stuff that lets you feel like you Proved Your Awesomeness, but my group doesn’t know the rules well enough and can’t seem to schedule sessions enough to learn them.
    Mortal Coil is all about creating/evoking setting, and has those Passions for doing Theme, and maybe the tactics of the system are rocking, except they’re kinda broke, so I don’t know.
    But the thing is this: no game NEEDS to do all three. Not really. If you give me a game of Space Hulk and you tell me that it’s going to really evoke that sense of being a marine in power armor in claustrophobic ship passages, with a kick ass tactical element, but it’s pretty light on thematic Story, I’ll be like “Whatever, give me the fucking dice and tell me where the aliens are!”
    So: Tombstone. From my take on it, based on conversations with Jason and Kate and Rob and Matt and Jay, it’s Five Deadly Venoms of Awesome with regards to:

    • Proving your Awesome (not you’re: your, possessive)
    • Evoking setting and ‘being there’

    Specifically: the game is a tactical extravaganza, and it really evokes a “Real World” sense that guns are f’ing dangerous as hell, and getting shot will kill people. A lot. And that the West was a brutal deadly place… especially when you add zombies.
    Those two things are why people love Tombstone and come back for game after game after game, despite dying all the time. I *know* the game is awesome, even without having played it, simply because PEOPLE COME BACK FOR MORE after repeatedly getting their newest characters stabbed to death in the face.
    I have no problem with that. I look FORWARD to playing that game, because I am going to go in expecting that: a tactical challenge and a system that really evokes the setting.
    So why would I call it out for not ‘doing’ story? Isn’t it totally OKAY that it doesn’t do that? YES! So why point a finger at it?
    Because the author of the game says that the goal is to create excitement, suspense, and a Story.
    I could quote Jay here, but I’m not going to, because it was in emails to me, not public, so whatever; people know he’s said as much: having death on the line makes and interesting and tense story. Is really the only interesting story.
    Go back and look at Vincent’s thing “A little thing about Suspense” and the other one about Death. I don’t want to reiterate them verbatim here, and that’s all that I’d do.
    My point is this: I agree with Vincent that in a “Story” (not a “story”), the PROTAGONISTS only get killed when they put their lives on the line.
    Intentionally put their lives on the line.
    Simply “showing up for the game” should not count as “putting your life on the line” in a game that wants to give you a big-S “Story.” đŸ™‚
    Can a big-s Story happen in Tombstone, the RPG? Yes. But only by accident or by player/gm collusion; the system is not helping.
    Silverado is a Story. It has a Theme. Some kind of thing that it’s wants to Say.
    I submit that you couldn’t play Silverado in Tombstone.
    Now someone who has played Tombstone will stare at that line with their mouth hanging open, because I’ve heard from several people how every archetype IN Silverado can be EASILY created in Tombstone.
    Totally true. Absolutely.
    But you can’t play a story like the one in the movie. Not without a dozen or two-dozen tries, becuase YOUR HEROES WOULD KEEP DYING — sometimes (or maybe often) in that first gunfight.
    When do the heroes (well, the four main protagonists — heroes might be a bit generous of a label) in Silverado die? (assuming they DO die)
    When they look a situation, firm up their jaw, and make that decision that “This is worth dying for.”
    Is it realistic? Hell. No. I wish it were: I wish I could remain untouched by death until something happens in my life that I decide is worth risking my life on, and that people never died randomly or in a way that’s not thematically important, but real life doesn’t work that way: real life is brutal and dangerous.
    STORIES work that way, though. The kind of stories they make movies and books and tell tales about. If you have a game that’s designed to “do” those kinds of stories, I think it’s a good idea to give everyone involved a way to flip a switch and say “okay, I’m all-in on this thing, it’s do or die now.” And flip it OFF when that’s not true.
    Do I want ALL games to work that way? Hellllll no.
    Do I want Tombstone to work that way? Probably not.
    UNLESS, I’m supposed to come out of the game with Story that means something, thematically.
    As long as I’m not supposed to worry about that, and focus on the color, the setting, the zombies, and the gunfights… I’m happy as a pig in slop.
    I would have no quibble with Tombstone (and would have made the joke in the first place) if I didn’t have the author telling me that the reason for the way the game works is to create an exciting story.
    I disagree. I simply do.
    It can create EXCITEMENT, yes: in the way that playing a video game that makes you shout “no no no no NO! YES!!!” at the screen is exciting.
    But not in the way that a good book makes me do the same thing.

  5. Just a few points:
    One: in case Kate doesn’t post again, I don’t want anyone think that I smothered Kate with my long post and she just gave up. She said I made a good point, and that I should point it out to Jay (author of Tombstone).
    Two: I’m absolutely sure that I’ll love Tombstone. I think it’s going to be a different kind of thing than the way I love, say, Primetime Adventures — the joy in Tombstone is in seeing the western trappings and in seeing how long I can keep my character alive and kick ass đŸ™‚
    Three: I’m not playing system-favorites. I’m not saying any particular game is my preferred system! Seriously!
    Sometimes, I want to say “okay, I move six feet and drop behind that water trough for +3 for Cover.” And if I’m in the mood for that kind of thing, playing Primetime Adventures is the wrong fucking game to play. Wrong wrong.
    Like… the author would look at me and say “Why the hell are you playing PTA if you wanted that?”
    Conversely, if I want a game where you can say “Okay… this right here? This fight is not worth dying or killing over.” you know that, if it’s not worth it, then won’t happen… because it’s not what the story’s about…. then using Tombstone isn’t the right system for that. đŸ™‚
    That’s it. That’s all I’m saying.
    I love everybody. I love all games.
    Except maybe Capes. And ADRPG. đŸ™‚

  6. Okay, now you got *me* wanting to take Tombstone for a spin.
    A thought on ADRPG. It had the potential to succeed because, unlike all the other crunchy systems of the era, it tried to be minimalist, getting out of the way of storytelling but conveying enough mechanics to do that automated consensus that Vincent was talking about.
    It was a success because it was tied to a hugely imaginative endless world that didn’t need much of a system to support it. To the point that it’s one of the best settings to run a PBEM in b ecause, once you have the premises of the world figured out, it’s diceless *and you don’t need the mechanics any more.* People can make up the story, the GM can adjudicate in a fashion that nobody gets up in arms about, and all’s right with the world.

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