Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Confessions of an Ouija-Board Role-Player

In yesterday's entry Alex J left an interesting comment about Ron Edwards and ouija-board roleplaying (about 2/3 of the way through the essay: I recommend CTRL-Fing "ouija"). As he put it, poking holes in Ron Edwards' arguments, and particularly his writing style, is to engage in "cruel dead horse beating", so I'll skirt over the irritating and non-intuitive jargon, the arrogance, the pretentiousness, the mandarin insistence on using a particular terminology to describe every last piddling thing, the complete inability to communicate anything resembling a coherent argument, and the faux-familiarity. I'm interested in the notion of the Ouija-Board Role Player, because I'm pretty sure, based on Ron Edwards' description, that I am one of those:

How do Ouija boards work? People sit around a board with letters and numbers on it, all touching a legged planchette that can slide around on the board. They pretend that spectral forces are moving the planchette around to spell messages. What's happening is that, at any given moment, someone is guiding the planchette, and the point is to make sure that the planchette always appears to everyone else to be moving under its own power. 
Taking this idea to role-playing, the deluded notion is that Simulationist play will yield Story Now play without any specific attention on anyone's part to do so. The primary issue is to maintain the facade that "No one guides the planchette!" The participants must be devoted to the notion that stories don't need authors; they emerge from some ineffable confluence of Exploration per se. It's kind of a weird Illusionism perpetrated on one another, with everyone putting enormous value on maintaining the Black Curtain between them and everyone else.

That's exactly it, really, and I find that I like the description, as it captures the essence of what happens at the table, as I see it: one the one hand, although nobody says as much, what happens is purposive, and, at any given moment, somebody is controlling what happens and driving the action - sometimes the GM, but more usually a player, or all the players. They're "doing stuff", to put it bluntly. On the other hand, you get a "story" emerging from this process all the same, in a totally unpremeditated fashion, as a biproduct of that purposive behaviour, more or less by accident. And that isn't under the control of any one person at the table. It develops out of the ether of the interactions between all the participants and how they act within the game.

Of course, Ron Edwards is intending all of this as, basically, a description of bad gaming (he actually describes my view as that of "the most deluded role-player in the world"). Chiefly, this criticism seems to revolve around the failure to address "Premise", which is a concept he takes from Lajos Egri and which, even if you accept it as a useful tool in the context of dramatic writing, is not particularly suited to activities outside of that context. He also comes to the conclusion that people who experience ouija-board gaming are, basically, social retards who convince themselves they are enjoying themselves when they actually aren't, which I have to say I do not find incredibly persuasive. Then again, I am the most deluded role player in the world, after all.


  1. Amusingly, maybe fittingly, he misunderstands how a ouija board works. A ouija board is not guided by one participant moving the planchette while pretending to the others that it's moving under its own power, although it's certainly possible to manipulate the board that way. Used properly, a ouija board functions according to the ideometer effect: the participants unconsciously magnify each other's movements and direct the planchette to form intelligible patterns without any conscious intent. That actually sounds even more like roleplaying to me, with everyone finding patterns where there aren't any and adjusting things as they go to make them fit.

    1. Yes, perhaps that makes it even more apposite. One thing you have to say about Ron Edwards is that he was really good at coming up with catchy slogans.

  2. In the Pathfinder Basic conversion of B1: Into the Unknown I've been playing in, we've been using their Harrow deck to do what's basically a Tarot reading before each session. Everyone is like "how amazing it is that it so well predicts the themes of the session," but I think that's like saying "how weird that all of us here at this dance club like to dance!" Jon Peterson classifies RPGs as a pattern-finding activity in _Playing at the World_, and my limited experience of Ouija boards suggests that it takes the same kind of creative interpretation and squinting to make exciting sense out of the results as it does to use a random encounter table.

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  4. Some things I've noticed over the last few years:

    -Getting a person willing to actually talk about Ron theory with someone who doesn't already believe it is hard

    -Once you do talk to them, they give a long, slow back-and forth argument that always ends with them either abandoning the conversation altogether and leaving you hanging in the middle of an important question like : "What makes you think your experience is typical?" or else backing up into the following modest "best defense"....

    -The best defense you hear from the miniscule number of people actually willing to talk about it is:
    1. Ron theory has moved on a bit sense then and is now more vague, so harder to argue with

    2. "Well it helped me and some other people understand what was going on at our table a little better back in the day even if it isn't a very good description of reality".

    -In the end, Ron theory (at least to the degree anyone I know has ever been willing to explain it) seems to be not unlike the pseudoBuddhist self-help mantras people espouse after years of waking up in their own vomit:

    *there is some substance (alcohol or, in this case, Vampire the Masquerade) that many people can handle that they can't.

    *in order to distance themself from the substance and get closer to some therapeutic other activity they _can_ handle (hiking, indie story-games, talking about RPGs on the internet) they have to realize that the original activity is destructive to them and the easiest way to do that is to believe simple universals of humanity that don't, strictly speaking, make sense and that they get frustrated when asked to explain.

    *via this process some of them achieve a decent zen-like isolation from past difficulties and manage to become decent human beings capable of rational thought, while others generalize from their experience to everyone (because they can't bear the idea that they are unusual in their inability to emotionally handle pretending to be an elf) and continue to despise the decadent world of people out there continuing Against All Better Judgment to heedlessly partake of Dangerous Substances that hey know All Too Well can only lead to Ruin.

  5. Oh, also, Egri's definition of "story" as processed by Ron is, explicitly, a conservative one or at very least a kinda narrow one focused on 4-point drama. It doesn't much handle the most common longform serial adventure format: the picaresque, where ideas emerge mostly from style rather than from how the story resolves (the story often doesn't resolve and just gets cancelled). Ron's evidence of Brain Damage includes:

    "The person cannot summarize any story in simple four-point structure (conflict, rising action, climax, conclusion) - they typically hare off into philosophical or technical interpretations, or remain stuck in narrating the first ten minutes of the story in detail"

    And while many of us might agree with the statement he makes:
    " I think most postmodernism is arrant garbage," He basically seems to be using this in the most conservative way possible to mean "I think stories which don't fit classic 3 act plus identifiable theme
    aren't stories"

    Which is why I always kinda think the interpretation of Forgey stuff as avant garde and arty is a little surprising: it's taking the RPG pandora and stuffing back in the old drama box.

    1. Interesting point. I tend towards thinking the whole thing is just a category error. Games are different from stories. You may get a story from a game, but that doesn't mean that you have to design a game to specifically create certain types of stories.

      I like the analogy of a team sport that somebody made in a comment on the last entry. A game of football is primarily a game. But you get a story out of it. It doesn't conform to some kind of 4-point structure, but it's still a story, and it doesn't matter that football was not created with stories in mind.

    2. Oh, absolutely.
      RPGs are like sports (sports are, of course, games). Sports have drama and action and sometimes themes emerge but sometimes they don't.
      A sport is: you put some moving parts in a box, shake them up. and things happen. It may cease to have a "plot" before it "ends" (the Eagles up by 72 for the whole 4th quarter) but this is part of the nature of sports and nobody watching really dislikes that enough to make them not worth it.

    3. There are ties to improv theater as well, as most people experience sports as an audience.

  6. "A bad way to build a table with a group is to just set out to build a table with no plan, no coordination, and no agreement about what's to be built. Some people insist that this is the best way to build a table. I think those people are wrong, and if a table gets built by them, it's because someone took over and covertly directed them in ways they didn't take as direction and/or did the work themselves."

    "I think you are wrong because my group knows how to build tables and takes covert direction well and knows what parts of the work they have to do!"

    Still, don't take my word for it. Ron has a new forum here: You could, y'know, just ask him yourself.

    1. But do you see how that argument has to rest on the assumption that we all accept the premise that playing a game is like building a table?

      I don't accept the premise. The two things aren't alike at all. Or, at least, they don't have to be.

    2. I do get that.

      I don't think that you need to accept the analogy in full, though, as you're happy with something on the order of "Playing an RPG should (or at least can) result in strong, shared, creative satisfaction along some common axis." If you buy any of that, Ron's argument makes sense. If not, assuming you accept that "can" is a possible thing, then Ron's argument still makes sense.

      My point is that I think you've misread him when you leave out that he's specifically referring to people who want to address premise in play.

    3. Oh, and also, that the "bad gaming" thing is also specifically for those who want to address premise in play. The gaming will necessarily be bad if and only if you want to address premise (i.e. play "Story Now".)

    4. Fair enough, but I'd question that the kind of group he describes in that section are "wanting to address Premise" and their games are only bad because the play style doesn't fit their desire for Story Now. That doesn't sound like the point he is making there.

    5. This is the classic "ok, let's make these claims more modest" route, you see it a lot.
      It basically results in Ron's claims being walked back until the person's basically saying they amount to "different people need different things in games"--which is an unarguable position that existed long before Ron did.

      If I want a game with space ship combat rules, I will be frustrated by a game that implies but does not have them (Star Frontiers).

      If I want a game which does some weird thing uniquely implied to me by the words "Storyteller system" and it doesn't have that, I will be frustrated by that.

      If there is a stronger claim being made than that in Ron Theory I have yet to see it clearly defended or addressed.

    6. The only thing I can, both in reply to the "is he talking about all groups or just some" claim as well as the "rolling back" claim is that the quoted section is from a subsection of a section entitled "Dysfunctional Narrativist Play." He explicitly says that it's a reply to a "flawed Simulationism-makes-Narrativism" approach. And, addressing premise as the point (creative satisfaction, fun thing about this game) of play is all "narrativism/Story Now" means. All of this seems to me evidence that, yeah, he is specifically talking about groups that desire to address premise. So, make of it what you will.

      @ noisms: That said, it could very well be that "ouija-board" stuff can suck in ither contexts.I think your post actually supports the point that Ouija board doesn't work-there's no notion that input directed towards a desired outcome is necessarily powergaming or otherwise undesirable in your account of yourself as "the deluded roleplayer," frex. You certainly don't seem to think that good games will just happen somehow as a general rule with the right GM or players or if we al just want it & never try to get there.

      I think the issue you're having with whether or not it's a different kind of generalization comes out of the essay's background-there was a big silly war going on at the time it was written in which the issue of whether or not one can "just play" and consistently address premise was a big deal. This claim was plenty controversial in that context.

      @ Zak-plenty of radical notions. Here's a recent doozy if you'd like to take issue with something: "The distinction between {in-character, suspension of disbelief, immersion} and {metagame, out-of-game talk, out-of-character} is bullshit. It's one of the worst and most obfuscating myths of gamer culture" That's RE from here:

    7. @x the owl
      I don't see your point

    8. @ Zak: two points
      1)Whatever other people have done w/r/t "walking back" claims, I'm trying to provide evidence that this here is simple misreading (First para).

      2)the idea that "defenders of Ron theory" always come down to restating the theory so its basically restatements of stuff people already think, I think is incorrect. There is radical stuff there, and I offered an example. The issue is that often, people get het up about what they think he must have meant and out of context quotes.

      So I offered a statement that is, AFAIK, an accurate quote of a recently taken position that I think you strongly disagree with should you desire to take issue with him on something. He means that, is willing to defend it at length, and it's quoted accurately from context (to the best of my ability to do so). Just saying-hit a man for what he's done. (last para)

    9. Desperately tried to find something I could understand in that. Didn't. And I've read Gravity's Rainbow 3 times

      If you want to talk about this you'll have to translate.

    10. You certainly don't seem to think that good games will just happen somehow as a general rule with the right GM or players or if we al just want it & never try to get there.

      Actually, that is what I do think. Although it all depends on what "trying to get there" means.

    11. I can certainly say everyone I've ever gamed with has found themselves enjoying _parts_ of games they never thought they were into without really trying. People suddenly realizing they like funny voices or characterization or tactics who never would've called that the reason they bought in and wtih nobody (and certainly no system) pushing that on them.

      It's just chemistry.

  7. Add on-the url I was posting didn't make it through. It is:

    It may be down for sometime today and tomorrow, as it is being migrated to new servers.

  8. I like Ron's work and Sorcerer is a masterpiece of RPG's, approachable and understandable with rather good mechanics and just enough support.I also like Trollbabe and many of the Forge games inspired by his writing (Paladin and I think the awesome but unplayable Nicotine Girls)

    That being said, most of the theory is BS. Any time you and your group are having fun you are doing it right. The goal is fun, nothing more nothing less.

    1. I'd like to give Sorcerer a go some day.

      I've also heard an interview with him once and was very impressed. He has a real "can do" attitude and that clearly rubbed off on a lot of people at the Forge. Thanks to that, a lot of great games got produced - so he gets qualified thumbs up from me, in general.