the Fairgame Archive

2006-02-11: Cues
by Emily

Cues. What are they? What's their deal?

Cues are the many things we use and refer to, to help us make things up in role playing.

Descriptive Cues

Many cues consist of writing or words.  These include game text setting materials, descriptive paragraphs about characters, fictive write-ups of backstory, published canon, written description of locations or objects used in game, passed notes, rpg wikipedia, material in lexicon games, and traits.

They may also be visual in nature. These include maps, of course, character illustrations, real world images used to show what in game settings look like, and also diagrams or meaning carrying schematics such as used for relationship maps or to divide narrative responsibilities (such as the diagram on Sorcerer character sheets, the Cosmos in Polaris and the unitary character sheet in Face of Angels).

Quantified Cues

These cues have a number or level component. They often have a descriptive cue that they are paired with, e.g. "Strength 18". Quantified cues may include character stats, difficulty levels, modifiers, scale quantifiers, and movement scores. They also include inter-player narrative resources such as Fan Mail from Primetime Adventures, or Trust from the Mountain Witch, narrative arc structuring devices such as Screen Presence from Primetime Adventures, and weighted thematic markers or Flags such as Spiritual Attributes in Riddle of Steel, Conflicts in Breaking the Ice and Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday.

They may be groupings of objects such as counters or stones. They may be numerical or ordered outcomes of objects or activities such as dice, random number tables, cards, coins, rock-paper-scissors and pogs or marbles.

Quantified cues may be randomized or comparative in nature (fortune vs. karma resolution). They may also have a strict or loose relationship with the elements of the in-game fiction. For example, sunglasses may give add a "+2" to a character's resources for Intimidation, and be lost if the sunglasses are described as being destroyed during play.  Or, a player may have resources allocated to an ability to Intimidate +2 for their character, which may be called upon at one time by description of the character's sunglasses, another time by description of the character backhanding somebody, etc.

Representative Cues

These are cues that are used in real world interactions that stand in for an in-game fictive element.  For example, a boffer sword represents a fictive sword.  An empty bottle represents a bottle of potion in the game world. These are most often used in live-action role playing where, it may be noted, your body becomes a representative cue for any given character that you are playing. Rooms and real world locations represent fictive locations. Crowns, costumes etc, all serve the same function.

Other types of representative cues would be maps or clues doctored up for players to puzzle out, letters or notes passed between characters, blogs used to write in-character fiction that are represented as "magical scrolls" in the game world (this is a case of outward-in representation), blindfolds, manacles, and other things intended to limit player input to what would be experienced by their character, and music if represented as what is being heard in the fiction (e.g. a fanfare of trumpets introducing the king, etc).

Talking about music makes me realize there may be another class: Atmospheric Cues. Mood music and decoration of play setting not representative of the in-game fiction like mood lighting or uncomfortable seating to set the mood for horror or oppression in the game.

So, some things I'm not sure just where they fit. For example, Jenga as used in the LARP Dread. Is it quantified or descriptive? Or pulling a counter of your color out of a bag for Under the Bed. Is that quantified or representative? And what about all the written interactions in online fiction or real-time chat rp? Are those all descriptive cues, or is that somehow the "real" fiction itself? Or is all table top rp just made up of Verbal cues that we use to represent the shared imaginary fiction to one another?

2006-02-11 19:23:19 Metal Fatigue

I'd call Jenga a borderline representative cue, and drawing a colored counter from a bag a borderline quantified cue (it's certainly quantized, if not quantitative).  If we start multiplying categories, where will we stop?

Now that you've established some terminology, let me ask a question that might prompt discussion: When are quantified cues (in the strict sense, i.e., cues what got numbers on 'em) useful, and when not? What do we gain by avoiding them in games like Dread (which I've never played or even read, BTW)? What do we lose?

2006-02-12 06:48:37 Ben Lehman

Hey, Em, tell me if I'm breaking your taxomony here.

I think it might be useful to discuss your breakdown of cues into Descriptive, Quantitative, and Representational in similar terms to how I think about Drama, Fortune, Karma breakdown of resolution.

(I'm using DFK as an analogy, I'm not saying there is a direct connection, because there isn't.)

What I'm thinking of is that maybe Cues are mixed—like, for instance, a Muse in 9 Worlds has both a Quantative element and a Descriptive element.  Likewise, the Cosmos in Polaris is largely Descriptive, but contains some Representational elements.




2006-02-11 23:10:06 Charles S

I'm not sure (I've only browsed Mimesis as Make-Believe), but I think that Walton holds that all fictions are cues to spark particular shared imaginings, so yes, describing what a character does, or even speaking as that character (or acting as that character in a LARP) is a cue (specifically, a descriptive cue). When you speak in character, you are saying (usually implicitly), "Let's imagine that my character says this." All of the cues make up the fiction. There is also the act of imagining that something happens, which is the product of the cues of the fiction, and which in the case of shared play-pretend such as role-playing games.

Now, there is an important division within the cues in a role playing game, one which recent theory has tended to elide (to useful purposes, but recognizing the elision is important). Some cues in a role playing game relate to the game of player interactions and control the construction of the fiction at that level (determining things like who gets to speak right now, or who has the authority to speak on a particular subject), and other cues are the sorts of cues that Walton was concerned with, which are the cues to our personal imaginings of the fictional world, and control the construction of the fiction at that level (generally with the aim of maintaining fictional coherency). The game-level cues guide the players in determining who gets to add fictional cues to the game. The fictional cues guide the players in imagining the fictional world.

Many fictional cues are also meta-cues, since if my D&D character is a fighter (a fictional cue) then it is not permissible for me to add the fictional cue of my character casting 'magic missile.' Not all fictional cues are of this sort. If I have the fictional cue that my D&D character loves her mother (written in the character backstory), this does not affect what new fictional cues I can add to the game (except to the extent that there are other game structures which formalize the requirement of world coherency). However, if I have "loves her mother 1d10" as a fictional cue for my DitV character, this does effect what additional fictional cues I am able to add. So, for the D&D character, 'loves her mother' is a fictional cue but not a game cue, while, for the DitV character, 'loves her mother' is both a fictional cue and a game cue.

Does quantifying a fictional cue give it status as a game cue? Usually, but not necessarily. For instance, my own gaming style usually involves creating a character sheet using some traditional system (which usually involves lots of quantitative cues), but does not involve reliably applying formal mechanics to those stats.

In response to MetalFatigue's question, it seems to me that numerical cues work well when we want to abstract something, and the characteristic that we want to abstract is one that we then want to manipulate in a consistent and reliable manner to generate another cue. So if you want to know which character is strongest quickly, or if you want to use some numerical method to determine whether a character can lift a heavy object, having a numerical strength stat is more useful than having either the verbal cues, "Zoe worked as a strong woman in a circus for years," "Yelma is the strongest woman in Estarcion," and "Xander is pretty typical for a superhero," or representative cues (the only representative cues for character strength I can think of that don't seem silly would be the player's actual strength in a LARP (one that didn't have a mechanic for formally representing character strength)).

Which is to say, quantitative cues work best when we want to use those cues at the game level, rather than at the fictional level, and descriptive cues work best when we want to use them primarily at the fictional level (although they can be used to claim level game authority on the basis of coherency, to the extent coherency is recognized as a game-level issue). I think some uses of representational cues operate at the game level (mostly, to the extent that live-action is used in RPing), and that atmospheric cues work almost entirely at the fictional level (they are an aid to imagining, helping the players maintain the proper mood, but they have no direct effect on the play of the game).

2006-02-12 22:15:44 Emily

Replying to the marginalia: Mixed cues, absolutely. Or perhaps compound, and nested.

The Cosmos is a great example: it has descriptors (the themes), quantifiers (they may be exhausted), it places all these cues in relationship with one another making it a descriptive cue altogether, and then it even functions as a map, allowing it to be used as a representative cue if you want. Going on with Polaris, the ritual phrases are game-level cues as well as atmospheric cues.

It seems telling that there are few q-cues that are descriptor free. Screen Presence is one: you assign a bare score with no descriptor. That's because it doesn't need one, the level itself is understandable and useable as is to help you structure your narrative.

Most numbers aren't. Especially alone, but even coupled with a word or phrase. Numbers block many folks' creativity. They become a restraint, instead of a creative constraint.

The game-level cues guide the players in determining who gets to add fictional cues to the game. The fictional cues guide the players in imagining the fictional world.


"GM" is a game-level cue. "Player" is a game level cue.

How distinct are the game-level vs. fictional cue functions? Do they have/need separate taxonomies?

2006-02-13 01:22:02 Metal Fatigue

So..."Strength 18" is a mixed (paired?) cue, but "Screen Presence 3" isn't? What's the difference?

I mean, in FUDGE or HeroQuest or something like that, where you can pick the traits you want to quantify, "Strength" and "18" would each be a cue.  But in D&D, barring really substantial drift, Strength is not elective, just as Screen Presence isn't elective in PTA.  So what distinction are you drawing here?

2006-02-13 02:08:20 Matt Wilson

"Screen Presence" doesn't mean anything in the game fiction. My character doesn't glow more or wear cooler clothing at Screen Presence 3. Whereas "Strength" means something. If I use my guy's big strength, that becomes part of how it happens in the story we create.

2006-02-13 03:20:36 Emily

Which totally makes SP a game level cue. (As well as a radical and brilliant one, but let's not go there.) PtA is fairly unique in having so many important cues that are independent from in-fiction elements.

Seth's question is a good one. I was thinking of the fact that SPs 1, 2 and 3 don't have specific descriptors (like, I dunno, "Bit player = 1", "Supporting role = 2", "Main character = 3").  But Strength 18 doesn't need a specific name either since we get what the scale means. Though, some games do give a table that interprets scores into words too.

Other than the outcome of a die roll, or other resolution mechanic, I can't think of any number that doesn't have some word attached. We just don't work that way, really. Even for die rolls: are "failure" and "success" descriptive cues? Yes, big time.

This may mean that q-cues are always going to be the attribute of a descriptive cue. (Duh, what was I thinking. That's so obvious!) Here's something that underlies all this: cues are game and narrative resources. So, the descriptive cue is the specific narrative resource, the quantifier is the relative weight allocated to it.  It specifies how one is going to be able to contribute based on it.

I'd say they are attached to allow for the consistency and reliability of interaction that Charles talked about.  They allow us to have a consistent process to deal with aspects of the game that are contested (task and conflict resolution), need to be apportioned among the players (game tasks with the gm/player divide, spot light time with Screen Presence), or that benefit from having ordinal comparison (trivial resolution: eg "could I lift this rock?" "sure." "how about this piano?" "what's your strength? 18? sure.")

But also, we use numbers to create reward cycles to create sophisticated (or not so very) interpersonal dynamics.

2006-02-13 16:34:03 XP

It seems to me that descriptive elements of cues are also, in traditional games, restricting/directing *when* they can be used. In other words, they not only determine what their usage looks like in the fiction, but they also restrict which fictional elements trigger their use (can't dodge attacks with Charisma 18). Is that a game level element?

2006-02-13 20:35:54 Emily

In so far as it limits what other cues can get used, that would be game level. But unless you neglect to describe anything that happens in-game, it would be functioning on the fiction level as well. Game & fictive levels are intertwined: cues will often do both.

2006-02-13 21:03:06 Gregor Hutton

This fits into the idea that I keep meaning to write down about the different layers of the elements of gaming. Briefly as an anology of a planet...

—Atmosphere: Player interactions, moment to moment decisions, "fiction" stuff. Cloudy things on Vincent diagrams, I think. These affect and are affected by "surface" stuff below.

—Surface: Cues live here (along with players?). These are the things that we are aware of as players—in fact what might appear to be the "game" when read from the book. So attributes on a character sheet, values, equipment lists, rules texts, etc. These link up to the "Atmosphere" and down into the "Earth".

—Earth: Actual procedures, rules. How things on the surface are mechanically related, manipulated, affected, etc. What people call "mechanics", probably. The actual things being manipulated or doing the manipulation don't live here though.

—Core: I'm wondering if there are actually things that are even underneath the earth level. I think so but I'm not completely sure. These underpin the mechanics and rules: like permissions, inherent agendas?

Don't know if that makes sense? Well, I'll post it anyway!

2006-02-14 15:19:39 Metal Fatigue

Proceeding from the marginal discussion on Gregor's comment:

In the Big Model, I think, cues are all ephemera.  Even a specific copy of the published rules is ephemeral.  Strategies for the use of cues, as encoded in System (published or not), are techniques.

Question: Are there any ephemera that are not cues?

2006-02-14 16:02:59 Emily

I think that the use of cues are ephemera, but the physical (or auditory) cues themselves are not. Although that would make the concept of verbal cues very problematic.  In the Big Model thread, Ron refers to texts etc. as what players refer to for exploration et al.

What that would mean is that the big model is placed firmly in the "smiley faces" part of Vincent's diagram.

2006-02-14 17:28:49 Joshua Kronengold

I see a bunch of different types/usages of cues here.

First, there are cues we use to establish the game's reality.  "My character's a guy."  "The town runs on 16th century tech."  "The game takes place on the moon."  "You're at A9 on the map, so you can reach the orc on B8, but not the cleric on Q1."  "I'm a diplomat, so I should talk to people rather than fighting them when I can."

Second are the cues we use to declare what we want to happen or not happen.  "I've got a nasty Enemy I want to show up and make things interesting."  "I've got a high Fighting skill so I want things to fight—and I want to win fights rather than lose them."  "I've got Warrior vs Hermit as my Fate, so I want part of the game to be about whether I become a fighter or retreat into my shell."  "I've got a high swim skill because I don't want to worry about my characters drowning."

2006-02-14 17:46:34 Emily

It's interesting to note that the only difference between the first set and the second are that you give more information in the second.

The first are (mostly) statements in which people establish things about the in-game fiction.

In the second, they do that as well as saying why they want something to be the case, or not.  These kinds of statements are all about justifying your contribution to the shared fiction, to other people.

They are also darned useful. Flags are a great example of this. They may be fiction level cues that give people info on the game level that helps everyone better get on the same page about adding to the fiction.

2006-02-14 22:16:11 Vincent

Josh, I don't think you've listed any cues at all.

"My character's a guy" goes in the smily faces, the interacting humans, of my diagram. "My character's a guy; see, I drew a Mars symbol on my character sheet!" The Mars symbol itself is the cue, pointing it out or saying so is interaction.

2006-02-15 00:19:44 Emily

I wrote:

Are those all descriptive cues, or is that somehow the "real" fiction itself? Or is all table top rp just made up of Verbal cues that we use to represent the shared imaginary fiction to one another?

The concept of verbal cues is confusing the issue here. If everything is a cue, then what is the shared imaginary fiction?

I think this discussion is answering my question. The use of the word is lost if we stretch it too far. The point of the concept of cues is that they are what we refer to, but they have no agency on their own.

2006-02-15 00:22:29 Charles S

However, if we restrict the use of cues in that way, then we entirely disconnect the term from its use in Mimesis as Make-Believe.

The shared imagined fiction is the overlap between what takes place in our heads. The player who thought she was playing a chicken was playing a chicken in her imagined fiction. She just wasn't effectively conveying that fiction to the other players through the use of cues, so it never became shared.

I can certainly see a point in distinguishing between the things that get written down, and the things that are transitory interactions, but I don't think that only the written ones should be called cues.

Also, if Joshua's list of statements were written on a character sheet, or in a backstory, or on a dry-erase board, would they suddenly become cues? Writing them down doesn't seem to me to so fundamentally change their function that they should get that different of a term. If I say, "My character has a strength of 15," that isn't a cue, but if I hand you my character sheet, and you look at it and see that my character has a strength of 15, then it is a cue? That doesn't seem like a difference of terminology that advances the discussion. It also doesn't seem to match at all with previous discussions of the nature of character sheets.

What is the intended effect of emphasizing the distinction between written and spoken?

2006-02-15 01:36:43 Vincent

Well, first of all, I happen to know (the blog equivalent of insider trading) that Emily's about to reply, and I should wait, but I'm a jerk like that.

Second of all, I don't have any investment in the word "cues," except habit. If it's better used to include what people say, so be it.

But, and it's a big but, the distinction between people's interactions and the real-world stuff that they refer to in their interactions is super important, if you want to understand how RPG rules work. We absolutely need language that distinguishes between what people do - like say "my character has a strength of 15" - and what people point at to support what they do - like the "STR: 15" written on a character sheet, or the 15 showing on a d20.

From positions other than "I want to understand how RPG rules work," drawing that distinction may be less crucial.

2006-02-15 02:23:56 Emily

What is the intended effect of emphasizing the distinction between written and spoken?

The intended effect is to make clear that it is through the words and actions of the players that inanimate object/writing etc. become part of the shared imaginings.

Let's look more specifically at Walton's terms and ideas. I believe they are compatible.

from a blog entry discussing Mimesis as Make-believe:

Waltons central notion is that of representation but he uses the term almost interchangeably with fiction. His thesis is that works are fictions if and only if their function is to serve as 'props in games of make-believe'. Something is a prop in a game of make-believe if and only if its function is to 'prescribe imaginings'. More precision and elucidation needed not to mention defense - but we readily intuit more or less where Walton is coming from.

It's funny, we are coming at it from the opposite angle: rpg is make-believe that we are coming to see as a fictive form.

I do not have the text, so it seems from my searches online that "prop" is the term Walton uses.  According to this, he uses it to refer to and define works of fiction. They function as props that help people engage in make-believe by prescribing imaginings.

So if I am understanding it correctly, that means that everything we do and say and refer to in role playing is acting as a Prop in Walton's terms, to spark the make-believe: what we commonly call the shared imaginings or shared imaginary space/stuff etc. Vincent's diagram breaks down the Props into two things: the human actions and interactions and the inanimate objects etc that we call upon to help us formulate our imaginings, the cues.

"Prescribing imaginings" sounds like it maps very closely to having something act as a creative constraint, which is what I've been thinking of as the function of cues.  They give us boundaries and tools to work with, making it easier to come up with imaginings.  Our words and shared experience of the game world do this as well.

So, it seems to me that the human interactions + cues used = the props of rpg.

Does that make sense?

2006-02-15 02:33:05 Charles S

That does make sense.

ANd on the terminology level, it is clear I was misremebering his terminology. I was remebering cues instead of props. No excuse, as I have a copy of the book.

Actually, I think the main aspect of what I've said that I'd like to back track on is my claim that all descriptive interactions function as cues. I agree that we should distinguish between the statements which purely describe the fictional world such as 'my character says "Stop"' and the game-level cues such as 'my character is really strong.' I'd agree that the statements which purely describe things happening in the fiction are of a different kind from statements which describe either what we'd like to add to the fiction (but are not directly and immediately adding to the fiction), or that describe our authority to add to the fiction.

However, I don't see that much of a distinction between 'I think Monkey culture is like this, and I wrote it up on the web site two weeks ago,' and 'I think monkey culture is like this, and I talked about it with Matt two weeks ago.' Nor do I see much distinction between either of those and, 'Hey, I just thought of a neat idea for what Monkey culture is like.' Nor much distinction between any of those and 'here's my write-up of what Monkey culture is like.' Certainly, there are differences, and certainly those differences need to be parsed out, but it seems to me that all of those fall together on one side of a very bright line, with 'my Monkey character says this,' on the other side.

However, I can also accept a division into three parts: cues in Vincent's sense (being physical tokens of authority), verbal claims about control over authoring the fiction which may reference the cues, directly or indirectly, and statements of events within the fiction.

'Strength 18' on a character sheet, or 'What Monkey Culture is like' written on a web site would then be a cue, while statements like 'My character has an 18 strength,' or 'I think Monkey culture is like this,' are verbal claims (which may or may not reference a cue), and statements like 'my character lifts the bus,' or 'my character remains loyal to the secret Monkey King, and refuses to answer the question,'  are statements of events within the fiction.

So, if cues are the physical tokens of Authorial power, I guess the important point to me is to break the human interactions into two parts, those which reference the game of authoring, and those which directly add to the fiction (recognizing that some portion of statements do both).

All three groups, physical cues, game-level statements, and fiction-level statements, function to prescribe imaginings.

Do all cues function primarily at the level of the game of authorialpower? It seems to me that many written props serve as aids to memory concerning the fiction itself. Certainly, those aids to memory can function as sources of authorial authority ('no, it happened like this ', references session write-up, 'so now this happens'), but that doesn't seem like their sole form of power. They also function purely to remind the individual player of what they have decided on. If I have a written list of my characters goals, which I consult to remind me what my character is trying to do, is that the same as having a character sheet on which my character's goals are written, which anyone can reference?

So are there 2 categories of physical cues, to match the 2 categories of personal interactions?

2006-02-15 04:25:39 Emily

I'd say so. You gave the example of Fan Mail earlier—first it gives players feed back about their contributions, then it is used to allocate narrative power to determine outcomes.  Then, having the highest card pulled in the conflict allows someone to narrate.  Fan mail is all about the game level, with indirect effects and relationship to the fiction. The highest card pulled, on the other hand, gives you direct input into the fiction. Records of past events (eg the blog entry about the monkey priest entering Sonata's dream) are cues that record and reinforce what has been established as happening in the fiction. Etc.  This seems like the distinction Joshua K. was making too.

Many cues will be used to bridge between the fiction and the game level, so will have aspects of both. The high card pull does this: it says who gets to add to the fiction and they do so.

Hit points, or damage that is not reflected narratively, strikes me as a funny example of pure game level, as opposed   to damage with a hit location that might be more likely to get that info incorporated into the fiction. (eg 'I lost three hit points, but I've got 3 more!' vs 'I shot my foot, so now I'm limping').

So now I have one more murky point. It seems to me that the concepts of rules are used as cues.  Saying "you are the GM", has many implications.  Saying it, per se, is the human interactive bit. But by doing so you may be calling on a commonly held understanding of what GMing entails, rather than any specific written text. So the concept alone is being used as a creative constraint, or set of game level directions.

This might be why things once written, or memories of past events fall into cue-dom. They, like rules, require someone to call upon them to have power. Unless recalled or called upon, they need not determine anything about the shared fiction.  Roughshodist games take advantage of this.  Continuity based games work hard against it.

So, then the real sticking point with respect to cues would be that they are what are used by people to support or springboard or facilitate their creation of a fiction.

It also strikes me, the reason why words in the present are indicative of human actions, is because this is the actual medium by which we are using to make the fiction. At least in table-top. This also explains why the Known world blog, and other written examples of rp fiction seem to stand out from other cues. They are artifacts of the game, imbued with authority. Or—even more so—they are records of agreements about what happened in the fiction.

2006-02-15 17:00:21 Joshua Kronengold


The distinction between cue and play isn't the medium (the placement of a miniature or writing on blackboard can be just as ephemeral as statements made in play, whereas a character sheet that's entirely negotiated verbally and never written down is just as much of a collection of cues as one on paper or negotiated in email), but the use.

If it's ignored, it's not a cue (or at least, not an effective one).  If it has its effect and is then forgotten, it's arguably a different category ("I rolled a 19" "Ok, you get to the top of the cliff without incident.")

But effective cues serve, I think, in one or more of my two categories (or are they four categories?  Is there any point in distinguishing negative cues from positive ones?)

I'm not sure how game-level cues interact with this—I think they may still act as either hard (x is) or soft (x should be) cues, but their relationship is much more to the players rather than the fictiction—influencing what we do.  This definately influences our play.  It -may- influence the fiction, or it may operate purely on the social or play level.

2006-02-15 20:47:43 Charles S

Responding to marginalia in which Vincent objects to the term shared imagined fiction, arguing for communicated imagined fiction (this may all be a digression from the question of cues, but I think it is relevant):

I see two fictions (and maybe calling both of them fictions is a false parallelism, but calling one of them 'space' seems highly dubious as well, a better term for what is imagined I would happily accept), the communicated fiction, and the imagined fiction. The communicated fiction is all of the props that we communicate back and forth about the things we are each individually imaginging, and make up the entire surface level of the game. The imagined fiction is the things that we each individually imagine in response to those things (and that an audience member would imagine in response to the props). The shared imagined fiction is the passive overlap between the things we each individually imagine.

The effectiveness of our efforts at communicating the imagined fiction (or of communicating what we intend to imagine, sometimes the imagining precedes the communication, sometimes the communication precedes the imagining, and often (for dialogue, for instance) they coincide) determines the degree to which the imagined fictions coincide. If we are not communicating the fiction very well, then it is possible that I imagine that I am playing a chicken, when no one else does.

Less extreme but more common, I think players who wanted something other than dungeon crawls often imagined their characters in dungeon crawls as having much more personality and backstory than was necessary or normal for dungeon crawlers. While that personality and backstory might occasionally rear its head in game (and therefore enter the communicated fiction), most of it took place in isolation within the players own imagination. That imagined fiction did not enter either the communicated fiction or the shared portion of the imagined fiction.

However, it is also possible for players to develop parallel imaginings from the same core of communicated fiction. These parallel imaginings are shared imaginings, even though they are not communicated fiction. However, the shared imaginings in this sense are much less important than either the individually imagined fiction, or the communicated fiction, since they either need to be communicated, or they are likely to fairly quickly diverge. Also, their sharedness is only known when they are communicated.

A major goal of the communication of the fiction is to ensure that the individual imagined fictions match up, so that everyone's contributions to the communicated fiction continue to match up. Being conscious that what I am individually imagining as being a reflection of the communicated fiction, and therefore presumably a fiction that is shared between each of our imaginings, is important both to ensure that what I add to the fiction meshes with what we are all imagining and also because it underpins the communal feeling of the game, but the idea of the SIS is certainly a problematic expression of this.

2006-02-15 21:39:30 Vincent

Charles, what I'd say is that our individual understandings of what's happening in the game's fiction have to be compatible (not identical or shared, just compatible).

Is that the same as "the individual imagined fictions match up"? I think it is, but maybe you see a difference I don't?

2006-02-15 21:23:46 Charles S

Returning to the cue side of things:

Just to clarify the question on which Vincent entered this discussion.

Are cues purely the physical mnemonics of the game, or are the mental/oral equivalents also cues? Is it simply that the reference to the cue in play is not itself the cue? So saying 'my character has an 18 strength' is never a cue when used in play, but the 18 strength is a cue, either if it was written down on a sheet, or simply agreed upon orally last week (or 2 minutes ago)?


On the fan mail versus highest card pulled distinction, is the fiction level component of the highest card pulled that the two players who may end up narrating are already explicitly tied to what they will narrate if they win (I'm forgetting the PTA rules)? If so, I can see how the card outcome does act directly at the fictional level. Still, the card outcome seems to be primarily acting at the level of the game. Pretty much all of the PTA mechanics seem to operate at the game level when compared with a game like AD&D or DitV (where the cue of several dice pushed forward is tied to a specific fictional occurance happening).

The hit points question is an interesting one. Does an injury in AD&D, where hit points are subtracted from a character sheet, affect the fictional reality, or only alter the cues? I suppose it depends on the game. If the players imagine that my character is injured when I deduct hit points, and talk about my character as recovering for weeks in bed at the Inn after the game, or talk about my character limping over to the Cleric to be healed, then clearly it has entered the fiction. In fact, the only way it can be seen not to enter the fiction is largely to the extent that there isn't a fiction. That it has no mechanical effect on the game (other than marking off how close it is to having the mechanical effect of making me dead or unconscious) is relevant to what effect it has in the fiction, but doesn't mean it hasn't entered the fiction. That is, it won't force me to add my character limping to the fiction, particularly not when it matters, but it is likely to enter some aspect of my description (the communicated fiction), and is likely, even independent of that and depending only on the die roll, to be added to our individual imaginings.

2006-02-16 00:43:30 Emily

I think we may be splitting some hairs.  After I wrote out my PtA mechanic examples, I was thinking "damn, Fan Mail does work on the fictive level since it determine which outcome takes place." So both that & the high card pull act on the game & fiction level as well.  It might be better to look at how any particular cue does each function rather than trying to classify them as one or the other.

Does an injury in AD&D, where hit points are subtracted from a character sheet, affect the fictional reality, or only alter the cues?

It will likely depend on how the players interpret it. I can well imagine making up some type of injury if I was playing this hypothetical game, because it would be more fun to do so, or make sense to me etc.

Here's my recap:

Cues are things people use to help them make things up in role play. They require human action to have effect. We're calling the human actions "interactions".

They come in lots of shapes and sizes: what's listed above, plus concepts, past shared imagings, and underlying assumptions made by the players (eg gravity works on planets etc). Perhaps more.

They are used to inform and structure role play either by being used as direction for input into the shared fiction (fiction level), or to direct the how the human interactions work (game level).

The shared fiction is complex & many layered. Kendall Walton posits that all fiction is a 'prop' that evokes human make-believe. In rpg the sum of the human interactions & some cues constitute the props (I'd call it text personally, but who gives).

The players each have an experience of the shared fiction.  Part of that is what they communicate (or are able to communicate) to one another, another part is what they experience in their heads.

The way they help people make stuff up is by acting as creative constraints.

2006-02-16 02:27:43 Charles S

That sounds pretty much right on target.

Total agreement that it is far more useful to look at how a particular cue functions than it is to try to categorize them. The abstract categories ('functions at the game level', 'functions at the fictional level') are useful guide posts for thinking about how a particular cue functions, but cues can't be usefully divided out into two categories, or even into a spectrum along that axis.

The only question I have with that is what is meant by functioning as creative constraints, and how does that relate to Joshua's concept of positive and negative cues (or, maybe more accurately, uses of cues)? Certainly, anything which guides or supports the fiction moving in a particular direction constrains the fiction from moving in other directions, so the cues do function as creative constraints, but is there an effect on the theory from conceiving of them as constraints rather than as supports or guides? If there isn't, then obviously the name of the term doesn't matter, but if it does, what effect does it have, and what would be the effect of using guides or supports instead?

2006-02-17 03:30:48 Metal Fatigue

Regarding the Shared Communicated Imaginary Fictional Invention (SCIFI): Is there a meaningful difference between "communicated fiction" and "transcript" (in the jargon sense, meaning "description of sequence of imagined events without regard to rules")?

2006-02-17 20:58:00 Charles S

Actually, the problem I have with 'transcript' is that it doesn't distinguish very clearly between the communicated fiction and the imagined fiction. Because of its relatioship to SIS, it would seem to related to the communicated fiction, since the shared of SIS officially means 'communicated', not 'congruent', but the specific definition is, as you say, the account of the imaginary events...

Oh, wait, I see, the imaginary events, not the imagined events.

Yeah, the transcript is the communicated fiction. I have no problem with switching over to the standard jargon (although I think 'communicated fiction' is a clearer term, and helps with the parallelism with imagined fiction, older terms are better).

If the imagined fiction exists anywhere in the theory, someone please point me to it.

2006-02-17 22:35:19 Charles S

Other problem I have with 'transcript' as a term: jargon shouldn't mask normal language used in the same discussion unless it is really important that it do so. The jargon transcript (the communicated fiction) is very different from the non-jargon transcript (the record of interactions in the game session), but both are relevant. I think the fact that it is terminology that doesn't get used much may be related to this meaning conflict.

2006-02-18 09:38:55 Ben Lehman

I think "the fiction" works just fine.  Fiction that's non-communicated is... well, really outside of the realm we're discussing.  Not art.



2006-02-18 11:49:57 Charles S

In art in which the creators are also the audience, failing to discuss experiencing the art, and how that relates to creating the art, just seems bizarre. There is a huge emphasis on authoring, but a severe neglect of the subjects of reading and imagining. Likewise, ignoring the experiential, imaginative acts makes it very difficult (for example) to talk about why having a primary character is interesting. Having a primary character certainly doesn't make the authored fiction better, does it? And yet it is the form of role-playing most people prefer, even role-players (like Vincent) who are extremely experienced with a wide range of play styles.


2006-02-18 12:16:37 Ben Lehman

This is kinda a tangent from the main point, isn't it?

Role-playing is essentially a form of conversation (in the linguistic sense.)  Now, internal stuff is important to a conversation—if I'm angry with you I'm going to have a different sort of conversation than if I wasn't—but I wouldn't really consider that internal stuff a part of the conversation unless it is voiced and discussed in the conversation itself.  Basically, whether or not some aspect of it is communicated.

The imaginary stuff that doesn't enter the fiction?  Yeah, it can still be important.  But it isn't the fiction, because it isn't communicated.



2006-02-18 23:15:16 Charles S

All of this seems like it is totally tangent from the main point (it really has very little to do with cues). When I was misreading cues as props, it made sense, but once that was clarified, it became clear that the effect of the cues on imagining is not a major part of the purpose of cues. Cues are totally about having fetish objects for authorial power.

But they aren't. That isn't the only thing cues do, because the authorial game is not the only game at the table.

Why are you invested in the important imaginary stuff not being called part of the fiction? To me, it is perfectly well described as the perceived, imagined or experienced fiction. Talking about it as such does no violence to the term fiction as I understand it, and allows the relationship between the communicated fiction and the perceived fiction to be made explicit. It seems to me that you agree that that stuff is important, but you that you are saying that it shouldn't be talked about, because it isn't part of the communication.


I assume that you've read John Kim's essay on narrative paradigms. It seems to me that you are camping out firmly on the side of the collaborative storytelling interpretation, just as many people camp out firmly on the virtual reality side. To my mind, camping out on either side may be useful for a while, but the larger theory needs to incorporate both aspects of the experience, and needs to be able to talk about the flow between the two aspects, and about the interpenetration of the two aspects.

Which brings us back to the question of what cues are, and why this isn't completely tangential. Some cues are fetish objects for authorial power, they say simply "You may add what you want to add to the fiction now." Other cues are still tokens of authorial power, but they derive their power from validating the imagining that spawns the authorial act.  For a player to declare that her character lifts the car, she first imagines her character lifting the car, and she is validated in imagining that because she has cues that say that her character is very strong. Even if her cues have no formal mechanical support, they provide her an assurance that what she imagines is in line with the fiction, and that anyone else who is aware of the same cues for imagining will not balk at her imagining.

That is why it matters. Some cues are cues that you have authorial power. Some cues are cues that you have imaginative validation. Most cues are both. If you bring in a trait in a DitV conflict, you are both validated in imagining your character relying on that aspect of themselves and validated in authoring your character attempting to rely on it.

Call the imagining part of the process whatever you want (hell, call it the imagining, even if that does sound awfully 'White Wolf'-y, "Perceived Fiction: The Imagining"), but don't simply say it doesn't deserve a term, and therefore can't be meaningfully talked about.

And, note that the act of imagining that leads into the authorial act is the same act of imagining that came out of an authorial act by another player. Does all of the imaginitive act always get rolled back into a new authorial act? Does that part that doesn't get so rolled in simply not matter? If it gets rolled in half an hour later, or next session, or in a post game discussion, does it only matter then? If the imaginitive act, unexpressed, delights the player or makes the player miserable, does it matter then? If it matters, isn't it a part of the game worth talking about, even if it doesn't enter the fiction?

2006-02-19 00:32:26 Ben Lehman

I essentially fail to understand the distinction you're making between "imaginative" and "authorial."  I was making a distinction between "things which directly effect the shared fiction," "things which indirectly effect the shared fiction," and "things which effect the shared fiction not at all."

Some of your examples seem to be discussing other categories altogether.  That's cool—it's just clear that, while we're both speaking English, we're not actually speaking the same language.

Let me try to lay out what I'm saying here.  Cues come into it so it must be on topic :-)

"What we're all imagining" is called, generally, "the fiction" or "the shared fiction," both terms laid out by Vincent over on that other blog with marginalia.

You want to also talk about "things I am imagining, but you're not."  Such things fall into two categories (for my purposes).

They can be used, by you, as a cue towards the fiction.

They can not be used as a cue towards the fiction.

The first I put into the realm, to take an analogy from art again, of the painter's model.  Knowing things about the painter's model may be very useful to our understand of the picture, but the model isn't the picture itself.

The second I put into the realm of your personal emotional reaction to painting X.  It might be important to you—it might be very important to you—but it is fundamentally not very important to anyone else studying the art.



2006-02-19 04:31:11 Charles S

Yeah, we're talking past each other. I'm going to stop and see if I can think of a better way of talking about this to you folks, 'cause I don't think I'm getting anywhere with it at the moment.

2006-02-19 15:25:44 Emily

Yes, good ground has been covered, but it's a bit churned up at the moment. Let's let this rest and come back to parts of this discussion later.

Thanks all.

Back to ToC