Gamebook store

Friday, 26 January 2018

Oh no it isn't

"The GM announces that they are making an intrusion and hands the player whose PC is the primary target of that intrusion 2 XP. That player can either spend 1 XP they already have to cancel the intrusion (returning the 2 XP to the GM) or they can accept the intrusion, take 1 XP for themselves, and give 1 XP to another player."
Justin Alexander reviewing Numenera's "GM Intrusion" mechanic there. And although he musters a spirited argument for why the rule is less obtrusive than some dissociated mechanics, something like that would sure snip the strings on my willing suspension of disbelief.

Where this kind of mechanic differs from the kind of negotiation with the referee you get in improv moments of role-playing is in the bartering of XPs. And clearly the main effect of that is to remind you it's a game. Poetic faith withers when you start doing a cost-benefit analysis.

What it reminds me of is boardgames. A lot of RPGs these days try very hard to be boardgames. That's not necessarily a criticism (hey, have fun whatever way you like) but I'm curious as to what's driving the trend against immersion. Is it a stab at Brechtian alienation? Is it because RPGs need to impress as reading material rather than playing material so as to get good reviews (ie most reviewers read them like a book, they don't playtest them)? Is it because new RPGs are catering to the players who are embarrassed about staying in character? Is keeping an authorial distance from their characters something that players have picked up from videogames? Are roleplaying designers coming up with narrative mechanics in a bid for respectability? ("Hey, I'm not just inventing rules, I'm shaping an art form *...")

I'm interested because I'm thinking of putting a (sort of) story-guiding element in my Zenotic Dragon Warriors 2e project, sometimes known as Jewelspider. And most of my thinking has been in the direction of making it work without jerking the players out of character. So if you've played a system like that and found it doesn't spoil your immersion, do tell.

*Re that, listen to this episode of Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice where, from 41m15s onwards, Roger Bell West and Michael Cule discuss the aesthetics of roleplaying, and whether adhering to genre breaks what's good and unique about roleplaying by slaving it to fiction. I note that in real life we don't expect to continually perceive the aesthetics of a story form in what we're doing (though sometimes we experience "atomic narrative" elements that we later weave into a story) but instead react in the moment to the aesthetics of beauty (a sunset) or character (humour) or wonder (a new idea or experience).


  1. Funny thing you write this right now! There's a company over here kickstarting their version of the old horror game Chill. Which is nice and all but as far as I understand their thinking the focus will be on storytelling rather than roleplaying. For example: The characters are not that important. If one gets killed you just add another so the story can continue. I ask myself: Is this really a roleplaying game or did I miss something? Maybe they´re kickstarting a videogame!
    Dave, you write "I'm curious as to what's driving the trend against immersion". So am I. Hopefully someone will be able to answer that question (a bunch of intelligent people hang in this play so I expect a lot of interesting answers showing up pretty soon). You also ask for a system that doesn't spoil my immersion. I know one, which I've just referred (correct term?), Cthulhu Dark. Very light rules with almost endless possibilities for impro! And then one, which I've spoken about before: Parallel Worlds (only in Swedish).

    1. I'm no expert on what's now called narrative roleplaying (a term that Paul Mason and I used back in the day, with a less hardline meaning) but I think in many cases a character could only die if his/her death was in line with the story. That begs the question: what is the story? In many narrative-style games it seems the players are deciding and steering that as they go -- what I would call authoring. What Paul and I meant by narrative games was that the story emerged. If a character died, that could change the whole direction of the "story" as the dead character might have been the main motivation for whatever adventure the others were on. The risks and the surprises are what I play for.

    2. I agree. I've spent the last couple of days downloading and reading Imazine - it contains a bunch of great articles! Sadly not all of them can be found online.

  2. My take is that if you want to play a board game then break out your old Monopoly, Risk or Sorry! set and go for it. For me, though, RPGs, especially live/paper-and-pencil RPGs are about the chance to inhabit and create a different person within a different place, which is an experience you're not going to get outside of taking up community theater or somesuch.

    1. Not for nothing is this hobby sometimes called improvised radio theatre with (or sometimes without) dice.

  3. I love Numenera, not just the setting, but the system as a whole, and I've never found the GM intrusions immersion breaking. At least, no more so than being asked to roll a d20 against a target number. There again, I never do a cost-benefit analysis on the decision any more than I do one when I'm deciding how much Might to allocate a task. For me the equation goes: how badly do I *not* want this to happen? How willing is my character to go the extra mile to make sure it doesn't?

    In Numenera, though, XP are just another pool that you burn through to gain short term advantage: just as you effectively injure yourself to get a better chance of succeeding at a task, and argue for which of your assets are relevant, so you spend XP to get a short term rather than just to level up (you *can* buy "long term benefits", but this is given much less emphasis than in, say, D&D). In that sense, they're mechanically consistent.

    There again, I guess it will depend upon the GM as well, of course. Our intrusions tend to be something dramatic happening - the cliff you're climbing down begins to crumble! And they are accepted or declined in narrative terms. You don't pay 1XP to stop the cliff crumbling, you pay 1XP to get an adrenaline surge, or stay focused enough to keep from falling. I'd feel less happy if it was presented as "The cliff crumbles... this is a GM intrusion. You can take 2XP and roll Speed to regain your grip, or you can spend 1XP and decline the intrusion." "I'll decline." "OK. The cliff doesn't crumble. On you go." It's the difference between rewriting the world ("Suddenly, your arch enemy appears!" "No, I'll just pay the 1XP and decline." "OK. He doesn't appear").

    Is there a trend away from immersion, though? I hadn't really noticed - though to be honest, other than Numenera, I basically play Dragon Warriors and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st Edition, still!). So I'm probably well out of the loop!

    I favour character interaction over dungeon crawls, though. For my money, videogames and boardgames do the latter much better. And the former much worse.

    Torment: Tides of Numenera is an interesting example. I love it (plot-wise, it surpassed Planescape: Torment in some ways), it does a good job of conveying the insane setting of Numenera, and it does a pretty good job of having choice and consequence, but the Numenera mechanics just don't translate to a computer game. They made Edge and resting massively overpowered, which didn't help. But XP are just for advancement, and tabletop Numenera, I find actions revolve a lot around *how* you execute them to make the most of your assets. None of that made it into the game (if it even could - I've no idea how you'd manage that).

    1. A diegetic use of XP like you describe could almost convince me, Raymond. As you say, at least that's modifying what the player can do rather than rewriting the world around him/her. But I'd still be asking how come that burst of effort to haul myself up meant I didn't get to level up in some other skill later. The way I'd prefer to run it would be something like GURPS's Extra Effort rules, which cost fatigue and can lead to a temporary sprained back, etc. And even then you might fail. Sometimes it's more interesting when a character falls, even to their death.

      I'm even more out of the loop than you, seeing as I haven't played Numenera. (I even had to google Torment: Tides of Numenera!) My godson described it to me but I figure I already have Tekumel for my science fantasy gaming needs. I think I'd be continually challenging that "billion years from now" claim, too. If mankind has a million-year future I'd count it as a good innings :-)

      Roger Bell West raised an interesting point in another IRTWD podcast when he talked about feeling cheated by having a risk his character knowingly took get resolved by "narrative" rather than by dice rolling. I've seen players go into a situation knowing the odds are stacked against them, and if they succeed that's a rush well earned -- and if they fail, well, it's how things turned out. A noble sacrifice, even if it fails, can make a great story, which is something that the Roger Rabbit approach to GMing tends to lose. But I don't think either of us is arguing for that anyway.

  4. Can open; worms everywhere…

    Mechanics of a game system always tend to intrude on the narrative of a role-playing game - for me, the amount by which they intrude depends on how much meta-gaming the player needs to do to achieve either their character’s or the story’s objective(s). Combat in most RPGs tends towards high levels of meta-gameyness - so many dice, so little narrative - and social exchanges go to the other extreme, more often depending on the player’s wits and social skills than their character’s.

    The option for me, as a player, to shape the events that happen to my character (or to shape the options available to my character to respond to that challenge) through some means other than the intrinsic abilities of my character wouldn’t sit well with me - I’d constantly be context switching between playing as the player and playing as the character. To a lesser degree, it’s the same as Fate Points in WFRP (and even Luck in Fighting Fantasy) - and if the GM knows the player has an escape clause, that could encourage the GM to be more whimsical or the players to be less cautious.

    As with anything, it’s a continuum, with some groups favouring more fast-paced cinematic campaigns and others preferring slow burners mantled in visceral realism. No prizes for guessing at which end of the continuum I sit :).

    Of course, what really piqued my interest about this post were your musings about what should be included in Dragon Warriors 2e - more about which I’d be very interested to hear.

    1. I did listen to a session of a Powered By The Apocalypse game and for me all the discussion of how emotional modifiers were being applied sounded as enthralling as a PowerPoint presentation of the quarterly sales figures. And not even one of those snazzy PPs with cool graphics either. But I realize that's just one group's style of play, and if players prefer to sit around talking about their characters like they're working in a writers' room then - well, I happen to think they're missing the USP of roleplaying, but I'm not going to dictate how anybody should make thir own fun. It just worries me that a lot of people are never getting the chance to find out how immersive a seat-of-the-pants game with real character identification can be.

      Some of our GURPS campaigns have included an informal rule for using character points as Fate Points. I won't do it myself. The messiness and unpredictability of an unauthored game is what I like best.

  5. I've run Numenera several times. It's a fun system, created by an excellent team.

    That said, the XP and DM Intrusion rules never worked for me or my group. XP is something they want to use to "level up" (it works differently in Numenera, but the core concept is similar). You want neat new tricks, and spending XP on rerolls and the like just didn't work for my players. Getting XP for intrusions, sure. But...

    DM Intrusions didn't really work for us. I have the narrative trust of the players. If a scene needs something, they are fine with my adding it of changing something to be more fun. They don't need XP for that. Tons of Numenera is player-driven (the DM doesn't make any rolls), and having to ask whether I could complicate a scene didn't work for the players. I've purchased a supplement meant to strengthen the rules, listened to podcasts, but in the end we just didn't use DM intrusions.

    I think some mechanics to foster narrative play can work. Gumshoe does a good job with its Refresh rules tied to skills. You sort of spend skills to succeed, but refresh the pool by describing a cool thing you do. In a game that should play like a movie, it works well and is super elegant and player-driven.

    Apocalypse games work well too, in general, with Moves you can choose based on the situation.

    In many ways, Numenera's Intrusion mechanic may trace itself to Fate's Aspects and Invokes. I think that's an excellent system to study for ideas, because it is handled well and can be not just characters but the whole campaign. A character can have an aspect that gets them into trouble (the player decides the character has Irresistible Curiosity), and the campaign might have an aspect that can trigger certain things (Labor is Hairy... all the dockworkers are werewolves). When the PC is doing a stakeout of a warehouse and some crates are dropped off, the DM can invoke that curiosity aspect, or have those dockworkers show up and reveal their true forms. It has Fate point system that rewards the invoking. That's a good system to analyze, but especially by watching players that know the system well as they play. Easier to do these days with so many actual play recordings being shared.

    1. I don't go for those explicit character traits myself. If a player character is curious, fine, but turning it into a game attribute is about as immersive as having a movie character's behaviour traits flash up as text at the bottom of the screen -- or so I find, anyway. "Just try acting," as Laurence Olivier put it.

      I recognize what games like Gumshoe are trying to do with talent pools, ie that each character gets a moment like they would in a movie or TV show. If I want that I'll watch a movie or TV show, but it's not something I look for in roleplaying games.