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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

From a discussion of the Australian systemless role-playing tradition

Wow, that article on systemless gaming is fascinating to me; like stumbling on an artifact from an alternate historical timestream, where the Aztecs colonized Europe or somesuch.

On the one hand, my friends and I would have been SO all over the "Australian style" gaming convention scene. A world in which there are whole conventions full of people dedicated to roleplaying character and mood, and in which they provide whole theater lab rooms with sound equipment and lights??? Good lord!

On the other hand, since we did develop separately and in parallel, much of it is alien. Connotations of some words are flipped topsy-turvy. The author of the article clearly has a negative association -- no, not negative, because he loves him some hack-and-slash adventuring as well, but let's say indulgently nostaligic? -- with "dice".

For him dice clearly go along with experience points, plot above character, and the rugged self-improving adventurer who always wins; where he mentions dice it's like "hell, even be prepared to throw in some DICE for the particularly clueless group!" This puzzles me because dice are just surprise-providers. They just enable stochasticity. There's nothing that says that the surprises have to be plot surprises, never mind I-kill-goblins-for-gold plot surprises. Dice enable the narrative to suddenly move in directions neither the players nor the GM anticipate. It can do that anyway, through the emergent unexpected qualities of the players' decisions, but dice introduce the unexpected decisively. They are a great help to a stuck GM -- they throw a curve ball, chuck you off your safe plan and into the unknown.

On the other hand, he has a positive association with the world module. Clearly understandable, but funny to me. If he associates dice with hack-and-slash adventuring, that's precisely what my gang associated with the word module, which is why it provoked our scorn -- or, perhaps, indulgent and affectionate head-patting amusement. A module was what you needed if you couldn't cut it as a GM -- if you couldn't ride the wave, follow your players where ever they had a mind to go, staying just ahead of them, carving story out of the creative chaos. Sure, you might make some notes, you might even start with a sort-of-a-plan (though good luck with it surviving a half hour of gaming), but the idea that you'd write down a scenario so extensive that people would play it twice? Or that you'd subordinate your creative powers of generativity, as GM, to some module designer who wasn't even present at the game? Heavens forfend!

Given this background, when I initially heard "systemless" I thought "demanding chaos". Because whenever we tried to play systemless, we were playing moduleless systemless -- neither the players nor the GM have any idea what's going to happen next. We did play this way quite a bit, but it's hellishly demanding and there's no guarantee of closure. But that isn't what Mr. Hughes is talking about at all.

It seems to me that there's an axis between game and play, and roleplaying game traditions are at various points along it. As the archetype of "game" think of tag, or chess, or basketball. What will happen in a game is utterly unpredictable, by definition; the resolution is totally emergent. Indeed the content of the game is emergent at every moment; you don't stop to narrate what's happening in tag (beyond "I got you!"). Although the ludic space of tag is fictional -- no one really needs to run away from It, her intentions are not malicious in real life -- it is also totally legible, and it is so because of rules. It's clear to everyone involved what you just did, when you moved the knight or dunked the ball or tagged Larry, because the gameplay is totally generated by, constrained by, and made comprehensible by the rules.

On the other end of the axis is Hamlet. Everyone knows how Hamlet ends. There is no need for "rules" because nothing is generated. Or, rather, what's generated is the emotional how -- the "performance". If tag is a ludic space without communication, Hamlet is a ludic space which is all communication.

Improv, of the sort where the audience shouts out a cue and the players do their scene until a predefined trigger is hit, is often structured as a game. It's often gamelike, even called, sometimes, "theater sports".

So the surprising thing to me about the Australian "systemless" tradition is how much like Hamlet it is: how much the GM is in control. You may not know quite where you'll end up, as per Hamlet, but there's a great deal of attention to guiding the players "through", at least plotwise? Much as in, you know, a module -- like "Keep on the Borderlands". You are even given your characters by the module! Scripted characters is a radical break (though a sensible one) from what I think of as the power-sharing arrangement between players and GMs, and not because I'm of the school that the character is entirely "rolled up" or has so-and-so many XP to lug from game to game; but because I think of who the character is as one of the things the think-on-her-feet GM is spontaneously reacting to.

Another divergence is how physical the Australian tradition seems to be -- as if the distinction between tabletop RPGs and LARPs were dissolved, or at least made a matter of degree. "[W]e don’t roleplay with our minds, we roleplay with and through our bodies" -- really?? This is striking to me because even at 13, GMing my friend Ramin's ogre Cagaxia leading his fleet to the Southern Continent in pursuit of his archenemy Arkraven, we were doing half of it over the phone. It was all imagination -- all conjured up in the mind's eye. The idea that our bodies were involved would have been quite counterintuitive.

In any event, I'd really love to have a chance sometime to play one of these Ozzie Tradition games. They sound terrific.

There is also, as I mentioned on the skype-o-matic, a whole Norwegian school of gaming which is a bit like the Australian, but, i think, perhaps more spare and enigmatic and cerebral and open-ended? Like check this out... or this... and this thread... and these folks...

Posted by benrosen at February 6, 2013 03:43 PM | Up to blog

So, having LARPed a great deal with a group whose members run the LARPing gamut from mostly theater folks to mostly gaming folks, I have to say I do enjoy character-driven improv gaming. In that venue, the body is hugely important. My drunken master character's schticks were almost entirely physical comedy, and he wouldn't have been nearly as much fun as a tabletop character. However, I find theatrical LARPing emotionally demanding in a way that a tabletop role-playing game isn't.

If I sit down with two or three friends for a couple hours, I would typically rather have an experience more like Cosmic Encounter or Settlers of Catan than like a Norwegian LARP/ System acting session. I enjoy a diversion now and again, but I can only really handle LARPing about once per year; I need the down time.


Posted by: Matt at February 6, 2013 06:22 PM

Your axis between game and play is difficult for me, if only because I enjoy heavily rulesy games, and enjoy making and tweaking rules for games, and that seems like a very, very different thing than theater.

Hm. As I'm thinking about it—from the performer's perspective, I'm not so sure that the spiel of Hamlet has an ending that is known. Sure, we know that Fortinbras will bid the soldiers shoot, but that's similar to knowing that Clue (or Cluedo, as the English say) will end with the discovery of the murderer. In the show, we don't know who will win, that is, will the performers succeed or fail in putting on a good performance. There are very definite rules—you have to say the lines, for instance—and there are penalties for breaking them. The scoring system is very imprecise, I'll admit that…

I'm also thinking of play on the toy/game scale, wondering where (f'r'ex) building a castle with big colorful blocks lies. I know there must be rules, because my son keeps telling me I'm doing it wrong.


Posted by: Vardibidian at February 6, 2013 09:13 PM

and that seems like a very, very different thing than theater.

I thought that's what I was saying. Or do you mean so different that the two cannot be placed on a single axis?

I think you're talking about a different thing when you talk about the metagame of whether the actors will do well. Sure, that's undecided; it's also undecided whether the players will have a good time on their dungeon crawl, whether the GM will succeed this time in getting them to the boss monster before everyone has to go home, or whatever. That's the metagame, though. Both the players and the actors are also in the business of producing a portrayal of a fictional narrative; in one case this narrative has a fixed end (in terms of what the audience sees), in the other case not. The destinies of the players are distinct from the destinies of the characters.

How the distinction game vs (theatrical) play relates to the distinction game vs toy is another interesting question. Clearly this also has to do with rules; when your son insists you are doing it wrong, he is either making an esthetic or engineering objection to your construction (no rules, not a game, and about the real world) or he is saying you have violated some arbitrary and voluntarily chosen constraints which create a ludic space of what's "allowed" and "not allowed" and thus create the possibility of winning and losing -- or at least, or engaging or failing to engage with the game. If he's saying the latter, he's playing a game, and on some level that implies a fictional narrative. It may be an extremely fictional narrative, but it transports us out of the now. Even the simplest game has a narrative. Checkers has, at the very least, some little guys who want to get somewhere without getting "captured", and Pong has us imagine the thunk of a ball against a paddle, not just lines and a circle on the screen.

A toy can be very complex. A pure simulation engine, like Sim City or Second Life, is in a sense really a toy, even though there are games you can play with that toy.

A basketball is a toy. If we just bounce and toss a basketball idly, we are playing with a toy. The minute we create a goal for ourselves -- even as simple a goal as to alternate catching, to make a basket, to see if we can get the basketball stuck in the heating vent, etc. -- we have created the constrained ludic space of a game.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 6, 2013 09:26 PM

I guess it's a little odd, on reflection, to say that a game like basketball -- not basketball on a screen, but IRL -- creates a fictional narrative. Perhaps it's useful to distinguish between games which are narrative, fiction-generating, and games which are not. But even the games which don't create fictional narratives are still in the business of creating narratives. Sports narratives are gripping -- we want to know who won, and how. If the basketball players were just fooling around, lobbing the ball back and forth, inventing every moment something new to do with it, with no constraints or set goals, I don't think we would turn in as eagerly for the play-by-play. Can you imagine a play-by-play of the Harlem Globetrotter's visually artistic basketball performance? ("Now, Steve, he's rolling it behind his shoulders... and down his arm!") In order to make play narratable, it needs the structure of a game. At the Olympics, what the sportscasters say about ice skating or gymnastics is all about fitting it into the structure of a game -- she's trying this move, she did it well or poorly, the judges have given her a 5; if you wanted to narrate ballet in the same way, you'd have to do the same thing to it.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 6, 2013 09:32 PM

and that seems like a very, very different thing than theater

Well, and what I meant was that if I were to map my fave rave game/play activities on that line with, say, chess at +1 and Hamlet at -1, I think I would wind up clustering between 0.5 and 1--and then having that big red dot on the -1. Which usually means that the model is wrong for my perception of the world.

On the other side of the topic, I think that for the audience/fans, a basketball game very much creates a fictional narrative (if you believe, as I do, that momentum is essentially fictional). I don't know how much that is true for the players; probably quite a bit. But the players are only incidentally creating that narrative; their goal is not to amuse the fans but to win. The owner's goal is fan-amusement, that's the reason they are there, but they are, we hope and believe, ignoring that goal and concentrating on the goal of winning. This is very different, as you say, from the actors in Hamlet, who are supposed to be focused on fan-amusement (for varying values of amusement); the actor playing Claudius is not trying to win the narrative. So, sure, I see that as an axis. But that's in an audience-focused frame, not a player-focused frame. And in a taxonomy of play, I would use a player-focused frame.

And then the blocks…I suspect that my son makes games of his blocks, rather than toys. I vastly prefer games to toys, myself—if I am building with colorful blocks I will consciously impose rules on myself (make the tallest possible building from a given set, or don't allow two blocks of the same color to touch, or make the ricketiest possible structure, or don't allow setting aside of blocks for later, uswusf) which may not be obvious to anyone watching, but which I could fully articulate if anyone were willing to listen. I suspect that M. could not fully articulate his rules of the moment—he is building this way and not that way. But yes, game rather than toy, as he's using it. I think.

Taking this back somewhat to LARPing, wondering how this toy/game/play idea works out. Take a ren faire: there are people who are performing as (employed) actors in plays with a fixed narrative; people who are playing fixed characters without fixed narratives (perhaps demonstrators, vendors or regular visitors), people who are playing with the idea of renaissance-y characters without any fixed purpose much like your putative basketball-toy-er, people who aren't participating at all… do you feel that your axis helps to model that universe?


Posted by: Vardibidian at February 6, 2013 11:27 PM
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