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Taking the Reins

The title of this post comes from something John said, I think during discussion of a Stranger Things playtest.

A while back, while playtesting Magicians of England, I had a strange experience. I got so tied up in the goals and desires of my character, that I forgot I was playing a game.

At the time I chided myself for getting to caught up in the playtest, but now I'm starting to think that I was supposed to feel that energy.

That's not a feeling that I've encountered many times in my role-playing experience. The closest that I commonly get is probably when I'm GM-ing a well set scene that is rolling powerfully towards its finale (my players can probably tell when this happens because I usually stand up and start waving my hands around in the air).

It's been a long, long time since this happened while playing a game however, and the feeling is much stronger. As GM, I have to maintain a certain distance from the fiction. I have many factors to balance, and I can't become attached to one character. When you're a player, however, you don't have these commitments between you and the game.

When I was in the moment, the game mechanics disappeared. They were still there, but I wasn't thinking about them. I was working through them intuitively. I took the reins.

That's what I want from my game: a thoroughbred machine that can take me where I want to go.

That didn't happen for me during the ST playtest (though I had a blast), but I can see that the potential is there. I just need to become more comfortable with the process that ST uses to generate its results. That's probably why I keep mumbling about finding ST "challenging", without being able to say much more. It was challenging because there was something to achieve and some effort required to achieve it.

Playing ST was the polar opposite of most of my "traditional" gaming experiences. They've been an experience of looking longingly over my character sheet fully aware that I've got a chest chock full of tools, none of which will help me get what I want out of the game.

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"Flow."

I've had it a few times when I've GM'd, but I have to admit that most of it was when I was playing as well. Usually, I'd agree, its when the gamish aspects of the game fade into the background.

But yeah - a 'thoroughbred machine' that gets you into the flow faster and keeps you there.

Just so.

Cool post. I know what you are talking about too Tony. sometimes for me it is in the planning process of the game as well. I get that feeling when I am GMing and the game goes a different direction than I thought and it all just flows out naturally. Sometimes it just all fits together. I too am hoping that ST will help us achieve this...

I think this can happen best when the procedures of game play are second nature. You don't think about them anymore, even though you follow them exactly. Your mind enters that perfect state that you get when you throw someone just right in aikido or you beat a defender in soccer. You just do it, without effort.

I think it's possible to design a game to help players get into this state. I don't know if ST is that game. Since it takes practice to get into the state, regardless of system, only more time will tell.

I'm really starting to wonder how Dogs in the Vineyard would play for player and GM. The procedures are so clearly laid out (even the pre-game GM preparation procedures) that it really appeals to me.

You know, the more I think about what Tony says in this post, the more I think ST is definitely NOT the game for it. ST thrives when players are not "immersed" in their characters. Player engagement is the key thing, yes. But "playing my guy" is really not the right place to be for this game.

I'm not sure I agree with you. I think that ST is definitely robust enough to let people get wrapped up in their character's story. After all, isn't that what being engaged narratively is all about?

I think that taking the reins can mean a lot of different things in different games. In D&D it might mean pitting your character against a powerful monster controlled by the GM. But for me, that doens't do it. In fact, it's rather ho-hum. What DOES do it is pitting my character against a dramatic setup like...

facing down the rune tree. For me it's all about getting my character wrapped up in a sufficiently interesting dramatic situation. I don't see that sort of immersion being problematic for ST. In fact, the game seems designed to help me get that situation.

And it's not about whether I get what I want from the tree, it's about being sufficiently interested for it to be fun for me.

Hmmm. Yeah, I see what you mean. I guess what I'm saying is, "what Tony's guy does next" is not as interesting (to me) as "what Tony says about this situation, using his character." The second thing is what I want ST to support.

"What would my guy do next?" is really a non-issue for ST play. The issue is, how will Tony judge this problematic situation next, using his character? If it helps you to be inside your character's head when you make those choices, well... more power to you. But the game isn't about what the character feels and believes. It's about what you feel and believe, expressed through the character (either for, or against).

This is a general response to what is being said. As I played my last D&D several D&D campaigns I have quickly realized that the new rules are actually detracting from the experience. There is always some instance when we have to look up something (disarming rules, range of some weird spell, etc ...). This, bundled with the fact that I have already "proven" that I am "better" at playing D&D than my fellows (ask me and I will explain) has left me ... wanting.

I want the epic campaign, but the more video games I play, the more I realize that what we (I) are getting wrapped up in is the acquisition of stuff to fight "more powerful" things, when really you are always just fighting the same thing again and again.

So to get back to the point of the original post, losing yourself in the moment can only happen when everything else dissapears. But, for me, a purely narrative system doesn't do it either. Narrating failure just isn't as interesting as having to deal with failure when it all of a sudden happens.

Can a balance be struck between the rules set and the desire to get absorbed by the scene?

Even though you may be quite right, I have to point out that narrative play isn't just about narration. Strategy and tactics are still very much to the point.

What's important is how you frame the scene, what's at stake, what relationships you have, what re-rolls are availble, as well as what relationships you pick up as a result of the scene.

Oddly enough, in ST, dealing with what 'all of a sudden happens' might be more the case with success (which the GM narrates) than failure, or might come up when the GM sets a scene.

EXAMPLE (apologies to John if my example is off base): You're trying to sneak into the Theives Guild. What's at stake is you do or do not get detected. You roll a dice in the series (best 3 out of 5). You fail. You narrate how you are harmed by failing. Maybe someone glimpsed you, raising the alertness of the guards. You roll again and fail again. Now you need a re-roll. Will you roll on a relationship and risk getting your budy in the guild killed if you fail? Will you use that item or spell you cleverly prepared in an earler setup scene? OK, finally you succeeed. The GM narrates your success. Ooops; you got into the guild but it turns out that the guild master you want to assassinate is your budy Lionel the Fence!

Oddly enough, deling with the "all of the sudden" could be more of a factor in success than failure in ST.

Brandon, I so totally have your dream game in my posession. It's called The Burning Wheel (revised). Oh man. You are gonna be in heaven.

Next time I see you, I will let you borrow it. And when you want to run it (an hour after you crack it open) I promise to play. Or, I will run it if you want to play.

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