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Ben Lehman
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Tanith Lee and John Nash.

Jesus.
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Yeah, it is two of my biggest creative influences in two days. :(
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My thought about game design for today is: Universalizing almost never helps.

Game designers really love the idea of flexible mechanics, which can be lots of different things. The thing is, mechanics are almost never good because they're flexible. Flexibility is just another way of saying boring, bland, uninspiring, or generic. Game mechanics are good because they are specifically interesting, inspiring, precise.

I've never once had "I should make a more general system for this" be the right answer to a game design problem. I'm not saying it can't happen. I'm just saying it's never happened to me.
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Ben do you mean Universal as far as systems like gurps where regardless of the narrative genre the same rules are used? or universal like how scenes in fiasco resolve using the same mechanics regardless of the fictional action? 
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Can someone in France (or with easy access to France) do me a favor?

Write to me at taogames@gmail.com
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I managed to find one copy from ludikbazar.com. Ideally I'd like to have two. So if anyone knows of another.
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Just as a PSA, since I've seen this multiple times in the last week: If you are going to post a link to a google docs survey, please explain:

* What the survey is for
* Whether or not it is anonymous
* What you are planning to do with the data (including who has access to it)

It doesn't matter if it's "just for fun" or whatever, if you're gathering sociological data, you should comply with basic ethics, security, and disclosure norms.

I like participating in surveys! But every time, I've not participated, because it lacked the above information.
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More About Aesthetics and RPGs

It's funny, really, this chain of thought started with a post where I excoriated people for comparing role-playing games to theater, and now, in this post, I'm going to compare role-playing games to theater. So, for those sensitive to it, hypocrisy ahead.

One of the most influential books on my designs, and thoughts about aesthetics, is Zeami's On the Art of Noh Drama [1]. I haven't read the book in over a decade, so this post is going to be based on my recollections of the book after ten years of processing it in my head. So, don't take my word on what the text says, just take my word on how I've related to it for over a decade.

Zeami's Noh has a very clear aesthetic goal: to cause the viewer to attain Buddhist enlightenment: a realization that the world and its suffering is illusory and a subsequent detachment from all things. (I say "Zeami's Noh" because modern Noh has its own set of concerns which I can't speak to 100%.) The basic strategy, as I see it, is to tell the story of a character coming to enlightenment with the help of a supernatural (fictional) guide. This sets up a particular experience in the mind of the viewer but, when the story draws to a close, they understand that it is just a story, just an illusion and then, from there, that their own experiences is similarly illusory. Doing this requires a very precise performance. The story, characters, dance moves, music, and so on must be presented just so, otherwise the right mental state won't be evoked.

Obviously this is not something that works 100% of the time. But Zeami takes it very seriously. You will never see him saying that this is just a play, it's no big deal, etc. This is a big deal. Souls are on the line.

One thing which Zeami gets at in his text is his disdain for what he calls "role-playing." What he means by this is when actors try to realistically portray their character, to give the audience the feeling that that character is in the room. This is particularly troublesome for supernatural creatures. When portraying an ogre -- terrifying and violent -- don't be such a realistic ogre that people are genuinely terrified of violence. Someone who is in terror isn't in a state to have the experience of enlightenment, you've just increased their attachment to their physical bodies by creating animal emotions of flight and fear. Rather, you should portray an ogre just so that the watchers intuitively understand "yes, that is an ogre" without inciting the intense emotional experience of terror. Likewise, if you are portraying a fox spirit, as in, being seductive, you should not be seductive enough to cause lust in the audience, rather, you should be illustrate seductiveness so that the audience intuitively understands you are a fox spirit, but doesn't fall into baser emotions.

For me, this was a big deal, particularly in our movie-based culture which values realistic portrayal above all other forms of acting. It was the thing that made me realize, or at least, the thing that became emblematic of the idea that realism isn't an end unto itself. We should ask: what is the art trying to do, to its creator and its audience? And we should use whatever the most elegant tools are to get there. Sometimes that means not being realistic.

I think of this a lot, with respect to role-playing games. In my post yesterday [2], I talked about not being particularly interested in realistic portrayal of character of character emotions, and this ties into that. If a character is in a quandary, I'm not necessarily interested in watching myself or someone else play-act that quandary. Rather, I'm interested in understanding the quandary, understanding the choice the character makes, and attempting to understand why she made it.

Another important thing to me is the range and ambition of Zeami's aesthetic goals. The stakes of his Noh are not "more or less entertaining" but literally the salvation and enlightenment of the audience. It's not that Noh is not entertaining. It's that it's entertaining in service to those goals. That's a pretty ambitious thing for art to achieve but, if we take his word for it, it works at least some of the time. I think that's impressive and I think it sets a much wider range of possible aesthetic goals for our art than we usually let ourselves imagine.

[1] The version I read was Rimer's translation http://www.amazon.com/Art-Drama-Treatises-Princeton-Translations/dp/069110154X
[2] https://plus.google.com/u/0/117301572585814320386/posts/doUwuLu8S85
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Maybe when I understand it better. I'm taking another course with the same prof this fall, called "Cultures of Care."
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So, +Sarah Lynne Bowman wrote this article [1], and posted in a comment on my post [2] about comparing tabletop role-playing and improv, namely that they are not the same thing, and thus borrowing improv theory to describe role-playing is an intellectual dead-end.

It's worth reading +Tim Koppang's comment as well [3].

I think this is a very good article. I enjoyed reading it a great deal, and I think that there's some good insight there. That said, I'm going to start out by talking about some of my frustrations with the article.

My first frustration, which I gotta imagine is shared by the author and also basically everyone involved in studying role-playing, is the incredibly narrow range of literature on the topic, which results in a pretty myopic view of role-playing. Props for including more than just the standard set of Nordic LARP books, but, really, there's very little coherent theory work done outside of Nordic and Nordesque LARP circles. (The Forge [4], while it produced a lot of good theory about tabletop RPG, is neither coherent nor navigable.) This is frustrating to me simply because the article ends up discussing only one aesthetic of roleplaying games -- maximal immersion -- but, honestly, what other literature is there? Nonetheless, I think that this is the aesthetic of role-playing which overlaps the most with Johnstone's aesthetic of theater, and that creates an illusion of more overlap between the fields (role-playing games, acting) than actually exists.

I am also skeptical of the claim that LARPers are reporting their experience without being familiar with acting theory, particularly Johnstone. Johnstone has a ton of currency in LARP circles, and his ideology has already shaped a lot of the immersive ideals of LARP play. Even if a particular player hasn't read Impro, it seems very likely that someone in the non-Vampire, non-NERO based LARP community will be familiar with the ideals of his work, if by another name. Ultimately, the comparison is still pretty interesting, I'm just not sure if they can be claimed to be separate origins of the same thing.

I think the best insight of the article, at least to me, comes right at the end, from the discussion of dissociation and immersion. I think this is very insightful, and it strongly agrees with my personal experiences of both medicalized, psychologically disabled dissociation and also recreational, characterized, ludic dissociation. But I wonder if the category might be applied more broadly? It seems to me like all creative activity is dissociative, by which I mean, represents a cognitive break from reality. The exact nature of the break, and its purpose, and its relationship to the audience, are where the forms begin to differ.

Also, reading this made me very conscious of the aesthetic departures that most but not all tabletop roleplaying games have from the total immersion aesthetics of much LARP. I think the article does a very good job of drawing this distinction, even if, for whatever reasons, it really only investigates the total immersion aesthetic. It's sent me off on my own flight of fancy about aesthetics and games, which really belongs in another post.

Anyway, it's an extremely thought-provoking article and you all should read it and then write your own responses.

[1] http://analoggamestudies.org/2015/05/connecting-role-playing-stage-acting-and-improvisation/
[2] https://plus.google.com/u/0/117301572585814320386/posts/HSd2oWa6gNv
[3] https://plus.google.com/u/0/113060679603173178673/posts/gvGKZwMHLYw
[4] http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php
One of the most common questions that people ask with regard to the role-playing phenomenon is “How is role-playing like theatre acting?” Indeed, many role-players use the corollary of improvisatio...
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I look forward to that post, +Ben Lehman! I'm fine with taking a break from the conversation or starting new topics elsewhere, although I don't mind debating either. I appreciate the you engaging with my work.
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Played +Gray Pawn's Mystwood with +Robin Scott today. Still a great game. Got my first Darkhollows (2!) which were fantastic (the burnt village and the firey hunt).
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Awesome! - Christoph B.  - how much would you be able to pay for a playtest deck?  I can't garauntee it would deduct from the final product.  I can, of course, just send you PDFs and you can cut out the cards on your own, too, if that's how you'd prefer to go.

Right now the cost to just print a single deck is $24, and that's me having to take a night off work to do all the cutting, corner rounding, and folding up the box, etc.  But i think the final product will cost just ~$20 i think.
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My housemate and talented cartoonist +Barry Deutsch has a patreon to support his political cartoons. He makes awesome, evergreen cartoons that are genuinely hilarious even if they're making fun of you. Worth supporting.

https://www.patreon.com/barry
Patreon is empowering a new generation of creators. Support and engage with artists and creators as they live out their passions!
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So if you're a cartoonist in or near Portland, this is pretty cool: http://www.artistalleyfest.com/
An creator-focused, independent comics festival in Portland, Oregon. Join us on August 2nd, 2015 to meet the artists and discover new works by independent creators.
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So a term I use repeatedly in my last post [1] about +Sarah Lynne Bowman's article [2] is "aesthetics," which I do pretty much without explaining what the heck I mean. What I mean is, a set of artistic values that tell us what art is beautiful and what art is not beautiful. I think that there are pretty widely varied aesthetics in role-playing games, although for the most part we wouldn't necessarily use the term "beautiful" to describe it, preferring "fun," instead.

This dovetails with some thoughts I've been having about a conversation between +Caitlynn Belle and +Vincent Baker [3] on Vincent's blog a couple of weeks ago, about the narrow range of goals that currently exist in tabletop role-playing.

So, following on that and taking Murderous Ghosts as our example, there are a lot of different possible aesthetic goals for "explorer gets murdered by ghosts." Including, but not limited.
* Trying to succeed by avoiding ghost murder, at least for as long as possible.
* Telling a story about ghost murder.
* Experiencing ghost murder feelings and sensations and thoughts.
* Experiencing being an explorer in a dangerous, haunted situation.

These are all very different things, and they require very different games.

--

I don't think any sort of broad aesthetic taxonomy would be profitable (or, for me, possible) but I'd like to talk a little bit about personal history and my development as a designer.

Starting midstream in college, I was pretty heavily invested in the "we're going to tell a story by having a very strongly immersed character experience guided by a GM" school, which was very frustrating, because (particularly in large LARPs where there's less GM oversight) it's very hard to really get a satisfying story out of a bunch of dissociated people bouncing off of each other and, as one can expect, also a lot of interpersonal drama and hurt feelings. I felt like there must be a better way to get at story, but I wasn't sure how to do it. When I played games that let me write my own powers, I specifically gave my characters powers to alter and shape the story, trying to push things towards a more coherent narrative.

I was right in my intuitions: there was a better way. Riddle of Steel [4] is, I think, the first game that really did it right, building the story and emotional arc right into the character's stats (and it remains a great game if you can find a copy). Riddle's Spiritual Attributes aren't functions of the character's emotions or personality, they are literally aspects of the character's story arc. The idea that the story arc was something that could have actual mechanical [5] existence, rather than just a nebulous hand-waving, was a big fucking deal in terms of the aesthetic of story-telling.

But by the time I played Primetime Adventures [6] for the first time, I realized that this wasn't actually an aesthetic I could design towards. Mostly because PTA did it so extremely well and so extremely precisely, and it was very hard for me to design a "tell a story" game that wasn't just a minor variation on PTA.

There's another aesthetic hidden in that one, though, which was also something that harkened back to when I played D&D as an after-school program. When you draw back from the "immersion is the absolute good" school of aesthetics, choice becomes an extremely important aspect of play. Tabletop roleplaying games are unique in that the player can make an infinite number of choices, which can have an infinite number of consequences. Rather than trying to constrain this, as a lot of games do, we can instead blow it open, allowing as wide a degree of choice as possible. This massively informs Polaris [7] and a huge amount of my subsequent work (pretty much everything I've designed touches on this, but loosely, I'd say Polaris, The Drifter's Escape, Mud Dragon, and Amidst Endless Quiet embody the progression of my thoughts here).

This informs a lot about what I care about in play, which I would both call "immersive" (under some definitions) and as far away from possessive method acting as you can get. I am interested in what decisions the characters make (or, the players make for the characters, depending), and the context in which they make those decisions. I'm not particularly interested in watching someone portray this in any sort of realistic or realisticish style. I mean, if they choose to do that, that's fine, character-acting is a perfectly reasonable and sometimes very efficient form of communication, but what I really want to see is the choices that they make and try (although not necessarily succeed) to understand why they make them. For these games, for me, that's the thing that matters.

The games themselves vary widely on how the decisions are made, from "totally in-setting" in Amidst Endless Quiet to "totally based on the player's sense of humor" in Mud Dragon.

(Interestingly, I might paraphrase the Jamie Macdonald quote in Bowman's article as "immersive role-playing is beautiful to be, decisive role-playing is beautiful to do."

So, that's an aesthetic of mine. But lately I've been drifting somewhere else. I'm going to poke at it indirectly, but it's still not formed, so don't expect to understand what I'm getting at.

One of the things you notice when you watch a lot of people struggling with fictional decisions is that it matters. Yes, the immediate consequences are fictional, but the act of making a decision changes our identity and our personality, not in a short-term, split way like described in Bowman's article, but in a long-term integrative way. We come out of a game of (say) Thou Art But A Warrior as subtly different people than we went into it.

(I think this is true of all media and all conversations, and roleplaying games are both. But there is something particularly efficacious about roleplaying.)

This leads me to Beloved, a game which I wrote to teach myself to get over a break-up. This leads to other games, too. But I think I'm going to leave it there for now.

[1] https://plus.google.com/u/0/117301572585814320386/posts/Ry3YkZDoZcr
[2] http://analoggamestudies.org/2015/05/connecting-role-playing-stage-acting-and-improvisation/
[3] http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/834#19800
[4] A great game if you can find a copy.
[5] I mean this in the broadest possible sense. Don't interpret this as "rolling dice" or I will scream.
[6] http://www.dog-eared-designs.com/pta.html although if you can find the first edition I'd recommend that even more.
[7] http://tao-games.com/polaris

edit: physical -> fictional. A funny typo.
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+Ben Lehman -- Yes, I remember our discussions from a while back on this. I think a critical RPG aesthetics is something we'd all like to see in the world, but the mental and social gymnastics are genuinely hard.
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Can someone explain me how categories?
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+Gray Pawn Chances are low.
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