Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Teaching Situation

So, without a game from last night to write about, I’ll take the opportunity to take some other thoughts that have been brewing and talk about what I see as the intrinsic elements of a story game, and how to communicate them.

To start with, there are four major elements to a story-game, as I see it, three of which are story, one of which is game:

  1. Setting
  2. Situation
  3. Motivation
  4. Mechanics

The first and fourth are very familiar and pretty much always explicitly discussed in any RPG text. The third became explicit some time ago.1 And the second? Lately, it’s been getting a lot more attention. I think, traditionally, it has been the bulk of what people think of as the art of good GMing, but games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Fiasco and Apocalypse World have paid some pretty explicit attention to Situation.

Of course, all four of these are heavily, heavily interrelated. Setting provides context and hooks for Situation and Motivation, Mechanics (ideally) provide a system for reminding you of Situation and Motivation, Situation leads to Motivation and Motivation enacted changes Situation. Sure. I’m going to try to set aside the issues of interaction for now, and talk rather about how to communicate these things.

Situation, you say?

My good friend Alex P. (who I can blame for first introducing me to Forge-style RPGs) recently said something brilliant:

Basically I think one of your challenges as a story game writer is to get me from “I like this genre” to “I can create cool situation for this genre”. … You can force me to be literate and go immerse myself in the source material first, but you’ve still got to tutor me a bit about structure.

He’s very right. We were talking about Lacuna, which I’ve never read, and he said that I should read it, and then tell him how to play it. Not what dice to roll when, but how to go through a session and have story happen. That, right there, is the necessary task of any story-game.

It can be accomplished through many means. Dogs in the Vineyard gives you a loose system for making a starting situation, and then mechanics that help push that situation forward into more and more tense situations. Primetime Adventures gives you some solid advice in the book, but relies as much as anything on familiarity with the TV Tropes wiki.2 Apocalypse World gives you a set of nicely-thought-out GM moves that help push buttons, and a set of options in character creation that hint at an unstable starting situation. The Shab-al-Hiri Roach asks you to hate one of the characters and love another, and then lets the rest play out.

That last example and a half are particularly interesting to me. They point out how, in traditional terms, motivation is the purview of the players and Situation is the purview of the GM. But this can be broken down. In The Roach, there is, of course, no GM, so the GMly bundle of authorities are spread among the players and the cards.  But in Apocalypse World, the initial situation is the players’ responsibility, and pushing that situation and escalating it is the GM‘s.

So what’s this have to do with teaching it?

Well, obviously, the first task is to determine who needs to do what with the situation, though it’s probably always helpful to have everyone at the table share some knowledge of what the situation should be shaped like, for buy-in, group participation, and other goodies.

But once you’ve completed that task, you need to figure out what makes your stories tick, and how to best communicate that. Explicit instruction works OK, but tying it into the mechanics is extra-nice. If people are reminded of situation every time they make reference to mechanics, that will help keep it in everyone’s head. This really helps with the important question that a participant in a game should always be able to answer: “what do I do now?”

I wish I could say more on this. But I think that if I could provide a complete, real, answer to this, I’d be set. One of the many magics of game design is in this, making people know how to make compelling situations.

A parting thought

Of course, situation and its development is half this part of the story. You need situations and developments that are satisfying to play, repeatedly in the ideal case. And this means that you need situations with variation and with features that make them as exciting to author as to experience. I heartily commend the Margaret Weis Productions team for Leverage, which made both heist-cons and flashbacks work in this medium, and Graham Walmsley for A Taste for Murder, which looks like it’ll make murder mysteries work. Both of these push the boundaries of RPGs very well.

Right now, I’m working on Et in Arcadia Ego, which is fighting in my head between Byron and Austen. The former can clearly work in RPG terms, but to make a Jane Austen novel work as an RPG is presenting interesting challenges. Alex’s comment has helped clarify for me what the problem with Austen’s works in an RPG context is.

  1. When John finishes his grand Timeline of RPG Ideas, I’ll have a date that I can actually back up. []
  2. I refuse to link to them. If I do, I’ll never finish this post. []

One response to “Teaching Situation”

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