the Fairgame Archive

2006-01-31: Maps, the fighty-ness of them (take 2)
by Meguey

(I had this whole post written, and then through some annoying twist of computer hassle, I deleted it. I'm convinced this version will be lesser, of course. So you've been warned.)

Perhaps the biggest dust-up in the Emily-Meg-Vincent Ars Magica homebrew game was over a few lines on a scrap of paper. We'd played several sessions, in towns, covenants, camps and mountain forts. We'd used good old National Geographic maps to choose the general locale. I had made a map of our play area with local fields, mountains, forests, rivers, towns and roads, including camping spots to approximate distance. At last we came to a little hamlet, last stop before the wild mountains. Someone was describing the scene: "There's another road and some more houses off to the left."

My map brain is wide awake: Ok, we came in from here, so that road is there. Clear direction. Got it. "Where's the church?" I say. Someone answers, and the answer makes my little map-making brain come to a screeching halt. "No, that can't be right. Wouldn't it be here?" I grab a paper and sketch a few lines. Emily totally disagrees. She has a strong vision for this town, she has stuff for this town, why am I messing with this town? Argh. My map-making brain will not let go, and coupled with my lay interest in how towns of this general era (1220s) were laid out, we have major breakdown of shared imagined space. She sees it clearly one way, I cannot let go of my scribbled lines that symbolize "map" - suddenly, instead of playing, we're arguing about how far away the fields would be, where they would be, who's going to care where we camp, and what color the headman's shirt is. Ok, maybe not the shirt, but may as well have been. As I recall, the only way we got through it was by getting rid of the piece of paper with the "map".

So why was this so difficult? I've been wondering that off and on for the year+ since it happened. Things that come to mind:

* Gaming triggers the imagination. This trigger fires differently for everyone, and is also dependent on the level of detail. If I say "road", everyone reading this has a different image and set of associations in their imagination. If I say "a narrow country road in winter", the images begin to get similar. If I say "a narrow country road, unpaved but in good repair, running along the eastern edge of a snow-covered field and underneath graceful overhanging branches glistening with ice", we're getting to where you could draw it, scan it and e-mail it to me, and the various sketches would look reasonably alike. I've been a proponent of detailed description for ages.  Could we have avoided the dust-up if there had been a higher level of detail going in?

* We are a map-making animal. It's vital to our species survival (ok, maybe not anymore, but recent enough so it's still in there) that we know Where Stuff Is. Especially water, shelter, and food, and how to safely get there from here. We also need to know how to find it again if we stumble across it. Hence, map-making is really deeply ingrained. I like making maps - I like knowing Where Stuff Is, even if it's fictional Stuff. Would it have gone easier if we had mapped it all out beforehand? What about if I'd never picked up the pencil and paper? Could I have faked out my mapping brain?

* Ownership of scenes matters in gaming. If my map-making brain hadn't gone off, I could have just stayed out of the way, and let Emily flow with her town stuff. She clearly had ownership of the scene; she'd seen the 'what happens here', and I was messing it up by trying to put my map in her scene. Could she have gone with my idea? Sure, and we've done that sometimes too. What made this different was that she had a clear idea of how it looked in her mind. It's very frustrating when you can see something in your head and it doesn't look the way you want when it gets out - ask any artist. So was I scribbling on her artistic vision? Probably.

So now you know about the fighty-ness of maps, at least from this corner.

2006-01-31 15:40:26 Emily

It's funny that this was one of the worst disagreements we had. It was way in the beginning though, and I think we were still sorting out how to not step on each others' creative toes.  But are visual cues this much of a problem for other folks?

2006-01-31 17:41:26 ffilz

I'm a strongly visual person, so I can envision getting into these sorts of issues with more shared responsibility.

I think it's important that visual cues support the rest of the system. They're great with a detailed combat system. But a detailed map may fall flat if exact positioning and distances are not important (or even counter productive). And as long as the exact positioning is not important, my comfort level shouldn't be compromised.

Am I understanding this situation right though that Emily was giving a purely verbal description (from some imagined vision) and Meguey was trying to convert that verbal description to a visual map? I can see how that in general could lead to some pretty nasty collisions.

I guess another issue is how to negotiate when expectations of the SIS are not in conjunction. If one player is holding dear to one vision based on their external knowledge, and another player is holding dear to a different vision because of cool factor or something, how do you resolve it? How can system better help resolve such situations?

Obviously one possibility is that the players agree that historical accuracy is important, and defer to the knowledgeable player when a dispute arises. Another possibility is that the scene owner's vision is most important, and the knowledgeable player can raise an objection, but should back down if the scene owner insists on their vision. Of course in a game like Universalis, there is explicit mechanics to help this situation.


2006-01-31 21:52:20 Emily

Should we have rolled over it?

2006-02-01 00:49:26 Meguey

Heck, we were still scoffing at the use of dice then, as I recall.

2006-02-01 00:56:03 anon.

Hmm, you wouldn't really roll to solve this kind of dispute (unless you can cast it as a conflict between the characters), but Universalis also has the challenge mechanic, where you can say "I think it should be this way, and I'm willing to spend 3 coins to make it so." That forces players to evaluate how badly they want their vision to hold.


2006-02-01 12:54:59 Meguey

Yep. If we had been playing Universalis, we would have had framework for things like this.

2006-02-01 14:27:41 Emily

The Challenge mechanic would be along those lines. I made this as an offhand comment, but in games where you are collaborating on the color, it could very well make sense to have mechanics to bridge differences.  Or to meld the two together:

Emily: "So the mages are traveling down a road and they see the first of the staggered homesteads beside the road. This one is at the V between a fork they are arriving at, and you can see a voluminous cloud of smoke rising from a chimney at the side of the home."

Meg: "Wait a minute, what's it doing off on it's own? In this period, houses were clustered together surrounded by fields that were generally harvested communally."

Emily: "I have different plans for this house, and have been imagining the town looking different.  Do we have a conflict here?"

Meg: "Definitely, I just can't see it that way."

Vincent: "Okay, let's throw down, but talk about the larger implications of your descriptions of the town."

We roll dice a la Dogs.

Emily: "It's important to me that this house be separate since the person who lives here is the smith, who is a bit apart due to his profession, and also has some funky magical things going on. I'll put forward a 5 and a 4 for the Smith and his magicky stuff."

Meg: "It matters to me that we use real world norms for the villages, especially since in lots of fantasy rpg the communities make no sense or are are far removed from the practicalities of life then. I'll see your 5 and 4 with a 6 and 3, to say that Josef, the Smith is the only one who lives apart and the rest of the town is clustered together..."

2006-02-01 17:09:18 anon.

Where would the dice come from? Does every player have the same dice? Do they come from a character? If so, why?

Comparing to Universalis, I think this is a challenge, not a conflict. It's the players disagreeing, not the characters. So the players have to ante up coins. If it's something the characters care about, then the conflict resolution system kicks in, and each character gets dice (and other characters may be brought in, or the players may spend coins to add traits to the characters to get more dice).

Dogs doesn't have a mechanic for this, but of course it has a GM who gets to say what the town looks like (but is instructed to say yes or bring an NPC into conflict if a player wants a character to do something - but the layout of the town is up to the GM - though presumably she will listen to the players).

Now in a traditional GMed game, we expect the GM to have final say, and the players recourse if the GM won't budge is to quit the game (or throw a temper tantrum). In a shared GM game (which sounds like what you folks have been playing), a problem arises because the system doesn't say who gets the final word.

But in either kind of play (sole GM or rotating GM), it seems like it would be helpful to have a mechanic to give some power to the players when they don't have a social contract to allocate authority (like I suggested above, one could make a social contract that says Meg has authority on village layout and gets final say even if Emily is currently operating as GM). It could be a simple coin mechanism (perhaps refreshing when you become GM for a session) and use Uni style challenge bidding. Or perhaps the GM just gets to spend a coin to dismiss the challenge.

This would be a cool way to increase player power in a traditional GMed game without going GMless (which may not work for all players).


2006-02-01 17:54:50 Kat Miller

I had the same kinda problem introducing MSM to my fantasy world back when we were dating.  I preferred Freeform to Dnd and used to play dnd to find good freeform partners, so i had introduced my style of Freeform and this particular fantasy world several times before.

So Mike is listening to the description of the country and he stops to tell me that the river can't flow in the direction I just said.

The direction of the rivers flow was just incidental back drop for me but it was very important to him.  He pointed out where i had described the mountains and the sea and the river had to be flowing (south I think) and I was stunned.  Two moons, shapeshifting dragons, time traveling fairies didn't phase him but the river flow was vital.

Since river flow is just back drop I should have just let it go, but I felt suddenly threatened.  It was weird. We argued over imaginary landscaping which made me miserable- 'cause I just wanted to play.

I couldn't understand it because I had had several partners by then, and no one else had reacted that way.

2006-02-01 19:55:48 Emily

Two moons, shapeshifting dragons, time traveling fairies didn't phase him but the river flow was vital.

It's fascinating, isn't it? And your reaction reminds me of how I felt when the thing came up with Meg.  It suddenly moved beyond "oh, what sounds good?" for me, to "hey, what's wrong with my idea?"

2006-02-01 21:05:41 Ninja Monkey J

FSF, there's no difference between players and characters having a conflict in mechanical terms. Characters yell at each other, stick each other with swords, sleep with each others' girlfriends, quote scripture. All the mechanical stuff is player-level. So, in this example, just like in Dogs, so Meg's got dice on "I care about archaeological accuracy," Emily's got "I like outlying weirdos as characters"... and so forth on their player sheets.

2006-02-01 21:00:10 Meguey

Emily: Yeah, that might have worked, if Dogs had been

written yet. *grin* Totally worth keeping that in mind for the future.

Frank: I can see using Universalis as a jumping-off point for future design, but it doesn't map well (no pun intended) for our game. To answer your direct questions:

"Where would the dice come from? Does every player have the same dice? Do they come from a character? If so, why?"

In our game, we grabbed dice when we needed 'em, applied them as needed, and ignored them the rest of the time. No character ever had dice writen down. When we used dice, we figured out on the fly what size would best fit the characters involved. We developed some really cool stuff, and used Dogs dice mechanics, Otherkind dice mechanics, or Dragon dice, Horserace dice, or Smiley dice as we wanted (mechanics which we should post or something).

Obviously, the questions you asked are part of the design question. Every game will solve them differently.

Kat: I totally get you, *and* the ability to accept "[t]wo moons, shapeshifting dragons, time traveling fairies", for me, can be easy since I've never seen them IRL. However, rivers I have seen, and in order to accept a non-standard law of physics I have to make a much bigger suspension-of-disbelief leap.

2006-02-02 00:26:25 Charles

For world building, consensus based systems seem better to me than conflict based systems. While almost all gaming effort goes into formalizing conflict based systems, consensus based systems can also be formalized. This situation sounds much more like a break down of informal consensus techniques, where a formal consensus technique would have been useful, than it does like a situation well resolved by conflict. What if you used Dogs conflict rules, and Meg rolled exceptionally low? Does that mean she simply has to accept that the town makes no sense to her? Conflict mechanics should only be used when neither outcome is a deal breaker for the players. No one's sense of meaning for the game should hinge on a die roll.

While all mechanically adjudicated conflicts are player-player conflicts, there is a big difference between this sort of conflict, in which two players are in disagreement over what is acceptible in the SIS, and the more typical disagreement over what they would like to see happen in the SIS. Properly, players should be willing to give fully over what they would like to see happen, and to accept an alternative. When it comes to things that they will not accept entering the SIS, then the situation is very different, and different methods are required. This is the difference between:

"My character tries to kill your character."

"My character tries to stop your character."

"Okay, if I roll above a 5, your character dies!"

"I hope you roll low!"


"My character tries to kill your character."

"My character isn't dying in this scene, so I guess your character fails."

"Okay, if I roll above a 5, your character dies!"

"No, my character isn't dying in this scene."

The same mechanics will not work for both.

2006-02-02 14:13:48 Troy_Costisick


* We are a map-making animal. It's vital to our species survival (ok, maybe not anymore, but recent enough so it's still in there) that we know Where Stuff Is. Especially water, shelter, and food, and how to safely get there from here. We also need to know how to find it again if we stumble across it. Hence, map-making is really deeply ingrained. I like making maps ??? I like knowing Where Stuff Is, even if it's fictional Stuff. Would it have gone easier if we had mapped it all out beforehand? What about if I'd never picked up the pencil and paper? Could I have faked out my mapping brain?

-What would have happened, instead, if the game gave you the mechanics to build the map?  What if all the players had currency to spend to add the elements they wanted and rules on who can add and when?  This would totally show who had ownership of a particular geographical area/scene.



2006-02-02 14:51:43 Emily

What would have happened, instead, if the game gave you the mechanics to build the map?

'xactly.  If the structure of the game involved putting the world together that way, we'd have established ways to work together, represented graphically to help us keep it straight.  Unversalis does this with words as cues. Vincent has an awesome and simple map mechanic in The Dragon King that all can contribute to.  In a game where more in depth, long term world creation was being done by all the players, it would make great sense to have formal guidelines.

Now, Charles' comment is very important:

Conflict mechanics should only be used when neither outcome is a deal breaker for the players. No one's sense of meaning for the game should hinge on a die roll.

I think there is something underlying the approach one takes that puts us in a position of either or.

Take Polaris. It uses conflict resolution to establish everything about the world. It's "roughshodist" (curse you V. for your wicked silly terminology! : ) with respect to continuity & things established. In it everything can change at a moment's notice.  You don't get to appeal to continuity to make things so, or not so. You use the mechanical process to negotiate with the other players.

This means that what they want to happen or not is very much on the table. It can come down to a die roll. And it does work.  However, issues like the one in your example: "My character is not dying in this scene", character script immunity is handles within the system. You can't die in Polaris except under certain circumstances (what is it, if you're at a certain level of an attribute? If you call for it? I can't remember).

Formal procedures allow expectations to match so that the roll does not pit my ideas against your sense of meaning. That's exactly what we were missing when Meg & I played. We had to rely on our relationship skills to sort it out, and (likely because it was late at night), we failed that roll, so to speak.

In looking back, I find an even more problematic issue. I think that based on that situation I opted out of taking stronger stances on in game setting material in general—both because my imagination is less focused on those elements than Meg & Vincent's, but also because I remembered the conflict & tailored my social responses to fit. What that amounts to is that I undertook a dysfunctional social coping response in order to make up for a lack in our explicit process.

2006-02-02 18:36:20 Sydney Freedberg

Meguey: Having asked the "why fight so hard about maps?" question in marginalia earlier, I want to thank you for a great, thoughtful answer.

And I could go on and on about why it's easier for a certain mindset (e.g. mine) to accept fairies than water running uphill, but y'know what? Big red herring.

Likewise: "characters disagreeing" vs. "players disagreeing"? Big fat red herring thrashing upstream to certain death.

Because the water running up or downhill, the characters disagreeing or agreeing, they're all stuff we made up, and they do what we tell them—if "we" can figure out a way to agree, either by building consensus on the specific issue or by having built consensus to abide by a conflict-resolution system we can refer to.

If our characters disagree because I say "hey, it'd be cool if our guys disagreed over X!" and you say "cool! sure!"—there is no disagreement.

If our characters disagree because I say, "hey, my guy is going to do X," and you say, "no, I don't like that"—there is a disagreement, in exactly the same way as if I said "hey, the river runs north to south!" or "the moon is made of green cheese!" or "my name is Rupert!" and you said, "no, Sydney, not true."

(This is all The Gospel According to Vincent, and in places a close paraphrase of "anyway" posts, of course)

2006-02-02 18:49:50 Sydney Freedberg

P.S. Note that if you and I, the real people playing, disagree, that doesn't necessarily mean there's any disagreement or conflict within the imagined world of the game—especially games like Polaris that explicitly allow me to take back my statement so that it never happened. Conversely, huge, violent contentions in the fiction may derive from perfect consensus among the players.


An apparently tiny issue in the fiction may cause a huge contention among the players: There's no saying "objectively, this should be so" or "objectively, my thing is more important than your thing" (see this Forge thread: because objective reality is not in the building. In fact, it's hard to call something "a tiny issue" because, hey, if the players think it's important whether the bad guys are using Soviet-style 5.56 mm ammunition or NATO-style 5.56 mm, or whether houses in the village are clustered or dispersed, then it's important.

The player-level is what matters.

2006-02-02 20:17:25 Meguey

"An apparently tiny issue in the fiction may cause a huge contention among the players...The player-level is what matters"

Yep. This is the reason it matters in movies, plays, books, and rpgs. All the set dressing, scenery and wardrobe have to make a working background for the drama. If we're going along happily in our US War for Independence drama, and suddenly a 1960's tank rolls on set, it yanks us right out of the flow. Example: my friend Bruce is an electrician. He saw Capote, and said a phone that figures prominently has a wire jack, which is utterly impossible for the era. I'm sure we all have examples of this from film, where the set-dresser or whoever just didn't know as much about X as we do.

In fantasy, it's when things are too familiar that it gets jarring (like the water thing above). The one time I got yanked in the LotR series was when I saw a set of buttons I happen to own on a hobbit's vest. And Vincent tells a story about watching Dr. Who as a kid and recognizing the family glue-gun being used as a space ray-gun.

2006-02-02 20:57:53 Brand_Robins

Reading Charles, Joshua, and Emily on this post made me realize something.

A large number of the issues we are starting to confront in the field of game-theory have nothing to do with game. They have to do with who we are and how we chose to live and interact with the world, as applied to the narrow context of gaming.

Do we live naked, exposed to the force of our friends without a net? Do we build shells and allow others to see behind them only when we want them to? Do we compete? Do we cooperate?

This isn't game theory, it is life theory that we're applying to game.

So as we go farther with this it is inevitable that we will come to cross purposes. Where we will build fully-functional,  solidly designed, socially negotiated systems that do exactly what they want to do in exactly the way we want them to do it that will at the same time be absolutely unacceptable and unplayable to a vast number of people.

And I don't mean "unplayable because they won't give it a chance." And I don't mean "unplayable because it goes against what they think about game." And I don't mean "unplayable because of what their past games have made them."

I mean "unplayable because of who life has made them." And I mean "unplayable because it goes against what they think about life." And I mean "unplayable because when they give it a chance it causes them active revulsion."

When? Not now. Not long.

P.S. This is a good thing. Hearing about your game should suck.

2006-02-03 21:11:21 Metal Fatigue

I have a question for you, Brand: What do you think that fragmentation bodes for the business of game design?

2006-02-03 21:15:09 Emily

Brand has posted much of this at his own blog, so the place you may want to address this point is:

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