the Fairgame Archive

2009-09-09: Interaction games and structured freeform
by Emily

Christian Griffen talked about interaction and resolution games over on his blog. In interaction games, the focus is on the, well, the interactions between the characters and don't have mechanics per se that resolve conflicts that arise. Christian really put his finger on some stuff that relates to the discussion of structured freeform that has been going on. This pattern of gaming occurs in other places too.

There is a huge world of online rp, that most of us have little contact with that uses Interactive systems. A major rule being, you can narrate what you will, but your right to say what happens stops at the edges of my character—so if I get injured, it's because I narrated that I got injured.

Christian's discussion also reminds me of Ars Magica freeform table top games I was in. These were long, rambling games where people played (sometimes) dozens of characters. Usuallly the plot arose organically from what the players brought in playing out moment to moment interactions between the characters. Conflicts might be resolved by a die roll now and then, but they were infrequent. Oh, his post makes me so nostaligic!

He points out that the reason this works is that the players are on the same page: either through long practice of working together, or through the elements of the game allowing you to agree. The structured part of the freeform are what I see as making this kind of play functional. Without the agreement, it can devolve into the "I hit you" "no you didn't" cops and robbers dilemma, or play with very little direction or energy that eventually fades away.

Going back to Resolution Games, these are games where you have mechanics to resolve the conflicts that happen during play. These games (read most published games) focus the action on those very conflicts and differences. We rub our hands together and pick up the dice, excited and ready to go. The dice, and other tools, help us determine what will happen next and gives us suspense. Their use punctuates play.

Something the resolution focuses us on, is the idea of winning and losing. Eppy pointed this out to me recently, inspired by games we are working on that have dice change the tone of scenes rather than telling you if you succeed in actions. Classically, when dice were mostly used just for combat, the question was: Do I succeed in my attack/defense? Does my enemy? Today we often roll for other things: will I open the can of peaches? Is the deed in the safe? But we've still carried over the pass/fail opposition into all these other situations. Do I succeed in seducing them? Do I fail in my attempt to bluff? Do you succeed in stealing a kiss with my girl, while I try to pick someone else's pocket? As I see it, the pass/fail becomes not just about my character's actions, but the question becomes will I succeed in getting my ideas integrated into the story. We are rolling, most often against someone else, to see whose idea will gain ground and become the truth in the fiction.

So when we have pass/fail mechanics as you do in resolution games, when a conflict arises it makes a junction point in the fiction. Then we use some mechanic—be it dice or whatever—to tell us what happens next based on choosing someone's idea over somone else's. But in interaction games, when you play it out you are adding on to what everyone else creates. There is not a choice that is made between alternatives, instead you are building up one answer together.

This is one of the hallmarks of structured freeform. The structures are there to help us understand what kind of story we are telling together (fate play), to communicate about what we want to bring in (telegraphing, props), and ways to heighten tension (bird in ear, swarm of players), and maybe sometimes we do use a randomizer to decide when something happens like the bottle in Drunk, or what tone it takes, like the dice in MonkeyDome. But over and over, what we are really getting at is adding to what the others have done. Perhaps by re-conceptualizing or recontextualizing it like the flashbacks do in The Upgrade. This creates a very different dynamic of play than in resolution based games.

2009-09-10 07:37:01 Jarvis

Your post actually reminds me a lot of my decision to not allow 'failure' in the game I just entered for Game Chef.

I cover it in the first section of this post here, if you're interested:

2009-09-10 08:18:53 TomasHVM

Very interesting, Emily. It makes the term "structured freeform" a lot more tangible, and useful.

2009-09-10 18:00:14 Emily

Glad this is useful! Christian really put some things into words very clearly.

Congrats on finishing Dead Running, Jarvis! Lots of neat things in there. Using mind reading to get internal thoughts of characters, the suspicion points, and having pass/pass or pass/alternative be the model for your resistance rolls. Good stuff!

Psi Run has a similar flavor to your game, and they also used mechanics that don't let there be an absence of interest to the outcomes. They adapted the Otherkind dice, so that you are always choosing among various good and bad outcomes in various categories, giving you a broader spectrum of overall outcomes and less likelihood of a bland one.

In these games, you have an either/or of a different sort. Making a maze of interesting alternatives.

2009-09-12 14:15:07 Christian Griffen

Something the resolution focuses us on, is the idea of winning and losing.

I hadn't thought of it that way, but that's so absolutely true. This totally crystallizes something I've tried to put my finger on with my recent gaming group experiences.  We've played Sorcerer, In A Wicked Age, and Primetime Adventures (two series), and there was a distinct difference between PTA and the other two.

Even though our PTA game is set up to revolve around the interaction between family members, there's no resolution for their conflicts in the system.  You can't draw cards against each other, only against the Producer.

On the contrary, when playing IAWA, we had a lot of PC-against-PC conflicts, and it really felt like we (or at least I) were trying to "win" on behalf of our character.  Maybe that's the character advocacy thing that Jesse Burneko keeps talking about.

But yeah—there was a big difference in our overall approach to how we play our characters. IAWA basically set us on a versus path, not because it's necessary (there were plenty of NPCs to unite against), but in large parts because it was possible.  PTA lets us play out our characters and their interactions in a different mode.

And the Sorcerer game just turned to "fight the bad guys" mode. I think, if the core mechanic in Sorcerer wasn't a conflict resolution mechanic, we might have focused more on the characters in different ways.

Thanks Emily (and Eppy)! This just pushed my understanding another step forward :)

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