Thursday, 10 November 2011

Logistics versus Story Logic

An aspect of role playing preferences that GNS and other "theories" does not cover is that of logistics versus story logic. (This is not a particularly novel observation.) It was brought home to me recently when thinking about the two games that have been occupying my mind recently - namely Apocalypse World and Cyberpunk 2020 - because they actually quite neatly summarise it.

Apocalypse World is mostly interested in story logic, by which I mean the following: equipment, gear, health, skills, and everything else on the character sheet, only becomes relevant inasmuch as it is interesting for generating a narrative. (Because it is a story-game, this does not mean the GM's narrative, but rather 'the narrative' in the abstract sense - the emergent story.) What is the classic example for how this operates in play? You don't keep track of ammo for guns. Ammo only runs out as a consequence of failing at a roll - i.e. when it would make events in play more interesting, story-wise. In other words, it does not obey real-world logic (e.g. the Glock you are carrying has a magazine capacity of 17 rounds, so you have 17 shots) but story logic (e.g. the Glock you are carrying has infinite ammunition unless it would be interesting if you ran out, in which case you might).

Cyberpunk 2020 is the opposite to an almost obsessive extent: money, ammunition and health is tracked very carefully, and arguably the game loses much of its drama if you don't take care to track these things (at least if, like me, you find the logistics of these sorts of thing fun in their own right). It matters if that bullet hits you in the arm for 7 damage or 8, because if it's the latter you lose the limb and if it's the former you don't. It matters that you put on a kevlar vest that morning but not a helmet, because if you get hit in the head you're dead. These things happen irrespective of whether or not it would be "interesting".

We're capable of holding different preferences, which is why I like both games, but obviously we also tend to lean one way or the other most of the time. What I like about the logistical approach to game structure is that it respects planning. Done properly (i.e. if the GM doesn't fudge dice and everybody buys into the process) it rewards players who like to think carefully and prepare for what they are doing - who approach gaming strategically. Players who plan don't run out of ammo, because they've been clever and careful. Players who do run out of ammo die or fail, because they were stupid. What I dislike about the story logic approach is that it seems, to my mind at least, to lean slightly too closely towards Dodo Bird Verdicts ("Everybody has won, and all must have prizes") - whether you play intelligently or foolishly, you are rewarded by something fun/interesting happening within the story, which is sort of a moral hazard if you think about it a bit too much.


  1. I can see the attraction in story-logic, especially for shorter games, but yes, on the whole I prefer logistics. I like a game to be something I can fail at on my own merits.

  2. I've played some storyish games and enjoyed them at the time. My problem with the story-based approach -and it took me a while to put my finger on this- is that it actually sabotages emergent story. That is, if the GM decides, say, it would make a good story if a rival group steals the PCs' prize from under their noses at the last minute and they have to chase it, then that precludes a whole bunch of things. It precludes the PCs outmaneuvering or straight up beating their rivals, it precludes the PCs catching onto the possibility ahead of time and taking precautions against it, etc. Better just to set up the situation and let it play out, and take whatever that story becomes.

  3. I don't think the idea is to put the matter under DM control. That's not story logic, just DM fiat. It's just that your circumstances are generated by narrative concerns rather than realistic cause and effect.

  4. If I was a story-gamer...

    (and I'm not)

    ...then I'd say:

    In an explicitly story-game setting (as opposed to a trad RPG that's been sort of pushed in that direction by the GM) "playing well" is not defined as "doing things that contribute to your PC living long, prospering, or otherwise meeting in-game goals" but rather "doing things that make the overall story more interesting as a thing".

    So it rewards "playing well" but it defines "playing well" differently than in the games I prefer.

    I think the only real problem occurs when these two ways of paying overlap -and the people at the table are unaware of it- and so don't take steps to keep the reward-system from getting confused.

  5. "...not covered by theories..."

    Looks to me like you described Story Now pretty well, actually.

  6. Makes sense to me!

    Although technically the GM can choose the severity and content of his hard moves on the basis of some sort of judgement of prudence, and as GM you can even set up a subsystem to "defer judgement" or whatever it's called, etc etc, apocolypse world is a flexy game, but your right, that's not mainly what the game is there for.

    In the basic setup, you skip some details, you glide over them. It's a bit like gotchas really:

    Unlike in games where a GM says "ah but you didn't state you were doing x or y, therefore disaster", games with ammo and stuff pre-clue you into the fact that you need to keep track of this stuff.

    But imagine you started putting a check box on the sheet for "have you tied your shoelaces" among many other checkboxes.

    It still means that someone can come out with an "aha!" because technically you were told about it, but it's buried in all this other crap on the sheet that you forgot about it, and it's basically only in there to screw you over anyway.

    The difference is that the stuff like ammo ties back into the setting, makes stuff happen, means you need to do things to react to it going low etc.

    It's not just about prudence, but a domain in which prudence is fun. It's not about a pat on the back for brushing your teeth and filling in your forms correctly! :P

    On emergent effects, the partial successes are supposed to produce some of that, with them throwing off side effects all over the place from their little lists, and like that fleet of checkboxes, you'll likely forget about them till they come up.

    There is still scope for getting a grip on the world, interpersonal stuff, who owes favours to who, leverage, where the main scarcities are etc.

    But more than that, there's that different skill-set like Zak was talking about. Where you use your character's abilties as an instrument and go to it playing something.

    Book keeping can be fun, but sometimes it's good to take it off the table so you focus more on what you actually do with those resources.

  7. While I do think Edwards' GNS stuff is bullshit that misplaces the object being discussed, I have to ask: how is this not addressed by the G in GNS?

  8. And anyway, why is it every time I post here lately I end up expounding on apocalypse world? Familiarity breeds contentiousness obviously. :) If there is stuff that cyberpunk does better, awesome! We can find out what it is and use that difference to piggyback past cyberpunk to an even better game!

    For a start, you talk about adding teeth to the "planning ahead" element, the longer view part of the game. How does cyberpunk do this?

    Is it that it's harder/more expensive to get stuff sooner, like in shadowrun? I take it this isn't a game where people go to a vending machine halfway through a firefight and pick out cyberarms and bullets!

    Is it about getting your supply line sorted, insuring that you can trust people not to withold stuff at random moments?

    Just random guesses, never played the game.

  9. Johnstone: I have no idea what 'Story Now' is. What is it?

    Huth: Because you can argue that both of these approaches are "gamist", or neither, depending on how you define your terms - which is why GNS is basically worthless in most respects.

    Josh W: I think Cyberpunk 2020 adds teeth to the planning ahead element in 2 ways, neither of which is specifically designed but just arises out of the way the game works:

    1) Combat is really deadly. If you don't prepare properly you'll probably die very quickly.

    2) The assumption is that there are genre/setting-based consequences to failure to plan properly - this is cyberpunk, so corporations and the State are near-omniscient and omnipotent; if you're going to be an "adventurer" in this setting it's going to mean risking being squashed like a flea at any moment. I think one of the core principles of any cyberpunk game (actually irrespective of system) is that if the players do things that would make big sinister megacorporations know about them, the effects would be almost entirely negative. So any GM worth his salt who is running a cyberpunk game will punish the players for failing to be sufficiently cloak-and-dagger; if they act stupid, they'll attract unwanted attention.

  10. That makes sense, my own cyberpunk game is stalled until I can find a really good way to do avoiding traces/hopping borders etc, and systems for keeping track of how obvious people are being.

    Well that and a good way to make corporate floorplans!

    No specific mechanics is a shame though.

    How would you compare random tables to the categories you've suggested?
    They are often clearly chosen on the basis of interestingness, and like failing a roll in apocalypse world, you know that something bad will happen, but not what. You also can't predict them beforehand, or know exactly when they'll turn up..

    My take on it is that all mechanics can be in some sense story logic, in that in actual running games we cut the things that matter down to things we find interesting. You probably don't give a random chance of gaining pneumonia when out in the rain or anything, only when it becomes signficant. I think it's a virtue a game can have, sort of the opposite of "Don't waste my time rules, I don't care about my character's diet diversity!"

    Now having said that, there is a place for a sort of "rebel nail" game, where the environment is hillariously out to get you, and a rusty nail on a door can kill you from blood poisoning because you put your hand on the door while entering the pub. But even that is usually framed in some kind of "critical fail" system..

    But avoiding that, I think that you can probably also define the logistic element of games positively and independently. I don't fully get what you're going for, but is it something like this?:

    Even if the games don't put explicit mechanics on where you can buy stuff, the fact that you track things gives the players and GM stuff to play with.

    It's like an extra dimension to the map; "ok we can go here, or we can go there and be poor because we spent our money on travel, what's it like to be poor here?"

    It's a stage for stories, and for the GM to set up consequences like:
    "you'll have to make sure you have at least d10x100 nuyen on you to pay random bribes to the local rentacops, or they might arrest you for lack of ID. But if you start flashing more than 2000 nuyen around then people will try to mug you", and then reveal this to them somehow if they go looking for info/roll good streetwise, however it works in the game.

    If you don't track money, the GM has to do that ad hoc, like this apocolypse world version:
    "the gang might expect some tribute on your way through their territory, you bringing anything for barter?" and then if they bring loads "some of the younger gang members are eyeing your stash greedily and muttering to each other, what do you do?"

    So instead of more specifically prewarning consequences, or using it as a negative consequence for a bad roll supported by the situation, you let players get to know how you deal with that kind of resource, and build your own standards for how it should be managed which are applied continuously throught the game, adding an extra dimension.

    (Yeah bad example because apoc world does actually track barter, best I could think of!)

  11. Story Now is more-or-less a newer version of the N in GNS. Tenets include: no prep and basically what you call story logic.

    Apocalypse World is Vincent Baker's example of a Story Now game, and Spione is Ron Edward's example of a Story Now game. Even though they are totally different.

  12. I don't know what is wrong with Logistics. Peasants cant afford a magic cooking pot lite the aristocracy. They have to go out every year and chop down 2.5 acres of light forest for fire wood for every family.

    Even if the Aristocracy constituted 20% of a community with a thousand population that is 800 people who need firewood for cooking. That's 4 wagon loads per person per year (that's 3200 wagon loads or 9 wagons per day every day of the year for our peasants or 400 acres per year).

    That means the PCS will likely pass a group of 9 wagons laden with wood for firewood headed into town on any given day. This doesn't include the endless tide of wagons carrying in farm produce or minerals from mines or wood for the smelters - its just the firewood for the peasants so they can cook dinner.