Social Contract: Conversations with Corvus Elrod, part 2

[I highly recommend that you go read Part 1 before you read this.]

Before I provide the next part of the conversation, I want to present some links to the items I mention and Corvus talks about.

Note: Unlike Part 1, I left in nearly all of my comments as they originally appeared. This mean, of course, that I seem to dominate the conversation. That was not my intention! As the bloggers I talk with and people who have e-mailed me in the past know, I can’t seem to even say “Hello” without writing a novella. It wasn’t until I had to edit this conversation that I noticed my voraciousness need to explain myself every time I was about to ask a question. I apologize for that.

Me: Is that random factor necessary to the experience (i.e. is the possibility of ‘failure’, no matter what you may call it, necessary to increase the tension between what is intended and what actually might happen right before the dice settle)?

Corvus: No, It’s not necessary. In fact, Bhaloidam has a mechanism by which you can guarantee every action. But it is a great tool for putting agents in positions they might not set up for themselves. It’s like training them to be better storytellers by putting them in tight spots.

Me: In reading over the textual representations of the sessions of using the Bhaloidam platform, I noticed that they do not always include the meta-gaming aspects to the session. That is, the inter-player communication that is not strictly “in character”, as it were. Yet, I imagine, from my limited experiences with tabletop systems (i.e. zero playing but have watched several sessions), that such information exchanges is where the actual “experience” is. The narrative from the session is not just what happened in the game, but the actual people, their reactions and the random factor (i.e. the dice).

Corvus: It’s funny–when most people want to hear samples of gameplay, they don’t think about how important that meta-layer is to the experience. They just want the “meat” not the bones.

Me: This meta-layer is what interests me the most. If the reader (agent) is the most important, then even the rules in session or systems used are not always critical to the narrative of the event. If what the the players bring with them and the information they act upon during the session are the most important, then, like you mentioned before with your experience with Arkham Horror and “the people I was playing with didn’t like how impossible it was to win”, it is they, the players, who determine if a “game” was played and if it was “fun” or not.

To loop back to the Social Contact conversation for a moment, that is why I am highly interested in that construction process. I’m increasingly seeing it as fundamental to the process of play. Information sharing — and what might be in the way (noise?) — has to be included in whatever framework covers such a construction. The Social Contract, implicit or not, is what makes up the channel through which the reader (agent) and text (director) communicate. I consider it vital to any experience. But I am quite confused about how to articulate its characteristics other than what I just said about it.

I asked about the dice for that very response: “it is a great tool for putting agents in positions they might not set up for themselves. It’s like training them to be better storytellers by putting them in tight spots.” I’d read as much from one of your earlier posts. However, I also asked about it because I was looking at trying to implement a system without a random element.

I thought it was quite possible at first. Now… I am not sure. On the advice of someone else, I was looking at the Amber Diceless Roleplaying System. It uses the comparisons of statistics for the success of failure of any actions… unless the GM says otherwise. I have never actually played with the system, but it seemed interesting at first glance. Trying to implement it in software has been… interesting.

Corvus: I don’t remember much about the Amber diceless system except that I didn’t care for it. The importance of randomness can be offset by limited resources for narrative. For example–in Bhaloidam you could set it up so that you only regained Will by performing undesirable outcomes. Treat every performance as guaranteed and you’ve got an ebb and flow structure for ensuring Spinners find their own rhythms and engage fully with the narrative.

Me: How important is The Turn (i.e. what are your opinions on the use of real-time, reactionary, approaches to engaging players within a system: does it create an inequality of play between participates)?

Corvus: Hm. I’m not quite sure how to answer this one. Can you expand upon the question?

Me: Sure. I was asking about how important giving each person a turn really is. It might seem odd to ask, but it occurred to me that such behavior maintains some level of equality among the players in any game. If nothing else, they always have this possession — ability, one might say — to influence the path of the emerging narrative. It’s a high degree of democracy in action.

Given that, I found it fascinating that “taking turns” was so mutable in the Bhaloidam sessions I was reading over. By spending tokens, other players could promote or penalize other player’s opportunities to influence the story. I was imagining some sort of emulation of a parliamentary governing system where coalitions were competing to control the ability to steer the story — as if it was, in this meta-fiction manner, some sort of ship — in the way they wanted.

Between the already existing meta-layer to the people ‘playing’, this imagined session was building an additional meta-fiction layer bridged both the game and the people playing it — coalitions could be between in-game characters. Of course, it might have all been some sort of a post-modern torus too.

Corvus: Ah, I see. Yes, ensuring that one person can’t fully dominate the play experience and providing support to the more timid spinner is important. On all sorts of levels. Since Spinners are usually cooperating against the plot, it’s usually not in their best interest to dramatically effect each other’s opportunity pawns. But then, that’ll also depend on the story being told and the social contract of the Skein. Additionally, if someone is being a jerk and picking on another spinner, Bhaloidam doesn’t let them hide behind the excuse, “Nothing I can do about it, it’s the rules.”