I’ve been obsessing over the concept of coercion (1) lately, and how I suspect it underlies nearly all of mainstream, conventional and even indie gaming. I’ve been specifically obsessing over how deeply entrenched the very concept is, to the point that it’s the air we breathe when we play. And I wonder if constantly inhaling and exhaling coercion is the best use of our energies: creative, social, emotional.

For this post’s purposes, I’m talking about coercion in contrast to collaboration. That is, coercion is using force against someone else to get what we want. That might sound so obvious that you’re rolling your eyes hard here. I don’t blame you! But I’m going to share the train of ideas that got me here.

This line of thought started with thinking about social conflict in a game I’m designing. It’s a low fantasy medievalish thing, right? And a big part of the game is supposed to be court intrigue. I’m trying to work out some interesting procedures there to make the court intrigue a little uncertain and dangerous, because unexpected outcomes make for a fun time, yeah? The first place my mind goes is to the notion of “social combat,” which is by far the most obviously on-the-nose coercive model we’ve got. It’s combat, so no matter how you dress it up in the fiction, everything each party is doing involves exerting force to get what they want.

Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits is super-coercive but it’s also cleverly subversive: most outcomes involve reaching a compromise result. Luke or Thor or someone else over there described the point of DOW as “getting the players to talk to each other.” Awesome. I think they saw how corrosive coercion could be, yeah? The rest of BW is a coercion-facilitating engine, by design: you are Fighting For What You Believe, after all.

Look then to Apocalypse World, and it’s coercion as far as the eye can see. Go Aggro? Seduce or Manipulate? Totally coercive, fits the genre, cool. Monsterhearts backs it off a little, but to my eye Shut Them Down is just passive aggressive coercion. Turn Someone On, yikes.

Where I started getting kind of squicked out was when I backed it all the way back to totally conventional games, like D&D’s Charisma stat or King Arthur Pendragon or Mutant Year Zero whatever. There’s a trad gaming trope of the “social combat monster,” right? To my ear, that has become code for “they want to use social interaction as a weapon.”

Then I extended this to the notion of conflict itself. Not in the fiction, per se, but between the players themselves. Tension is interesting, right? And unless you want that tension resolved in some completely arbitrary way (consult a Magic 8-Ball, roll an unmodified die, draw a card), we aim to invest players in that tension. To own it. To want things to go our way. Offloading it to a procedure or personally appealing to another player, we’re still using coercion to get what we want.

What I’m trying to figure out now is, are there games that fall back on facilitating collaboration? By which I mean actual player collaboration, rather than dressing up “social combat” in the clothes of collaboration: I sway them to my way of thinking looks nice in the fiction but that’s not what actually happened, is it? I went to the tools I had available to get what I wanted out of you.

I feel like a very charitable reading of the old conventions of roleplaying, that the absence of social conflict rules meant we had to appeal to the other players, could facilitate cooperative play better than the indie conventions that have evolved the past decade. Just like how we point to pages and chapters full of detailed combat rules that give players permission or affordances to engage in detailed combat, I have to think pages and chapters full of detailed social rules also give players permission or affordances to engage in more coercive play.

I have one particular player in my group I’m thinking about when it comes to coercion. I won’t name names and he’s a super valued player, but I confess I get squicked out at his fondness for coercive play. Charisma is weaponized likeability, Duels of Wits can be optimized for maximum leverage, Hard and Hot are always better than Cool and Sharp. He wants social rules because he wants the game to accurately reflect his character’s social savvy, but the only air he knows to breathe and the only air he’s given to breathe is the air of coercion.

A few counter examples:

At a house con I went to a few months back, I had a chance to play The Deep Forest, a map-making game that’s a direct hack of A Quiet Year. That’s probably as close to non-coercive play as I’ve gotten, personally. It’s fun-ish but there’s not a lot of drama there. But in both games, nobody can really coerce anything out of anyone else.

I’ve been obsessing over Legacy: Life Among the Ruins for a few weeks now, largely because it has moves like Defuse and Find Common Ground. Kind of anti-coercive, right? Although as players we’re still going to moves because we want what we want.

Then again there’s all those moments where social interactions actually are collaborative, and because there’s no drama-juiced uncertainty we don’t bother going to moves or procedures or rules. We just talk it out and those moments fly by. I’m trying to think of any games that have rules that inject themselves at fictional triggers that aren’t potentially dramatic (and therefore inherently coercive).

Is using a game’s rules to get what you want inherently coercive? I guess it comes down to internal motivations. There’s probably some crossover with “gamism” (I know, I know) but even if you’ve got creative agenda moments that have nothing to do with your character’s success, if you’re using rules you’re almost certainly trying to get something out of that moment.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any conclusions with any of this. It’s just been floating around in my head and I thought it’d be interesting to put on paper. All I’m left with is a somewhat disquiet feeling toward players, especially, who understand rules (and specifically social situation rules) only in coercive terms. And I wonder if a game could even be “fun” by some metric if its rules fostered collaboration instead.

(1)I know it’s going to be super tempting to redefine “coercion” to win a rhetorical fight. Please try to read all this charitably and not move my goalposts to score a point, eh? I am totally aware that there is plenty of room for other meanings, much like nailing down exactly what “harm” is. If you’re having a really hard time with this, let’s talk about it in sidebar.

0 thoughts on “Coercion”

  1. DramaSystem pops into my head here. The main way it works is that one character wants something from another, and they roleplay it out. At the end of a scene, you decide if you got what you wanted, and if so, give up a drama point to the one who granted it.

    This doesn’t feel coercive (unless fear of losing a piece of currency can be considered coersion), but there are also mechanics to force them to acquiesce and things like that.

  2. You might find the board game I posted about earlier has some interesting things to say about this. Sidereal Confluence is a pure negotiation game, but unlike most, it isn’t a zero sum coerce your way to the biggest slice of a limited pie game. Ultimately, it’s a find your way to a win-win-win deal where the pie gets bigger for everybody.

  3. So I feel like there’s some things happening at a few levels.

    A lot of the knee-jerk backlash I see around “social conflict” systems seems to be coming from a trad/immersive gaming mindset where “metagaming” is naughty badfun, so winning these sorts of conflicts seems analogous to mind control or something. I think that’s a weird read, but understandable from that point of view.

    When it’s understood that we’re creating drama at the player level about which way the story is going to go, and then we’re dicing off to see which way it goes, I think it’s pretty fun. If the outcome of the dice tells me I’ve become consumed with rage and am now planning to murder my brother, I’ll figure out how to roll with it.

    At worst, failing to build mechanics around social conflict sort of implies that physical conflicts are the only valid conflicts. Which has been how a long of gaming has operated, and I’m increasingly finding to be boring as fuck.

    I don’t feel like there’s anything squicky about this so long as there’s explicit social contract buy-in from all the participants.

    I’ll concede it’s a weird default state for gaming to have. It seems like we should at least be having the conversation at the outset, “Loss of absolute control of the direction your character is going is a convention of the game we’re playing, cool?”

    On the other hand, there’s been a number of conversations I’ve been privy to (mostly in larp circles) about consent-based gaming, and using your game mechanics themselves as a tool for teaching good consent culture, in the broader sense.

    (Tagging Tayler Stokes who has a lot of interesting ideas around this.)

  4. Larry Lade super quick follow-up question: why do you characterize it as “knee jerk backlash?” Is that in reference to this post or in general?

    (I guess I reject the idea that anything I’ve written is either of those things but I’m looking for clarity as to where you’re directing that comment. Trad backlash is A Thing, though, and I’ll grant you that.)

  5. In BW the collaboration can get mechanical teeth with beliefs. I like making beliefs about what I want to learn from another character or teach them or a way I can support them.

  6. What about XP? An incentive seems like another potential mechanical opposite of coercion (as opposed to collaboration).

    Or, from the player’s perspective, exposing NPC motivations so that the player can get what they want by satisfying that signaled motivation rather than forcing the NPC.

  7. Reminds me a lot of Vincent’s discussion sort of on the same thing.

    I think Firebrands is an example of that talk in action. Having played FIrebrands, there is some procedural flirting, which is sort of the opposite of social ‘combat’. I’m not sure the game encourages collaboration from procedure though. In in the player’s interest to bring their A game and try to build a story together. That imperative doesn’t come from the game text as much as self interest.

    For me I like social rules as terms of engagement. I see them more as defensive though. Protecting me from people who shout to get the things they want. Following rules I’m more happy to tap out or give ground. We use these terms so fiction doesn’t get stuck in an argument. But a better way might be to just play with nicer people.

  8. Honestly, I think there are a fair number of indie games, especially the ones that lean toward freeform and slower play, that arose partially as a contrast to more combative styles of social play. If you play Sign in Stranger, 1001 Nights, Bliss Stage, Ribbon Drive, Microscope, Fall of Magic, Companions’ Tale, Silver & White, etc. etc. they all approach social relations fundamentally differently. But it sounds to me like you’re asking about something that has dramatic but less coercive social stuff in a fairly trad-leaning campaign-length GMful game, and that is somewhat less common, for sure, just because of the tendency to unify systems such that everything works kinda like combat. But if you move beyond that approach, a lot of things are theoretically possible. If you want a game that combines intense action with more open-ended social stuff, my go to suggestion is Bliss Stage, which I think continues to be hugely underrated.

  9. Two thoughts on this:

    1) I have been trying on and off for about a year now to make a game that makes strategic and tactical decision-making feel more collaborative and less contentious (but coming at it from totally unrelated motivations – more here, if you are interested After trying out many different approaches, I feel like I haven’t been able to build anything I like better than just already well established incentive systems like “keys” in The Shadow of Yesterday/Lady Blackbird, or the token economy in Dream Askew (especially in the hack Henshin!, which is geared toward teamwork and playing out the tropes of interpersonal conflict more than actually putting players into conflict). Because players have incentives to act certain ways built into their own characters, rather than pressed on them by other characters, it ends up feeling less coercive to my mind.

    2) I only end up thinking coercion is inherent to RPGs if I end up thinking about this tautologically. If we define any attempt to use game mechanics to influence the world so it lines up with the goals of a player or character as “coercion,” then every meaningful action with a game-rule hook is necessarily coercive. My understanding of coercion as a concept, however, is that it necessarily implies imposing upon an unwilling participant (and the first couple dictionaries I checked seem to agree). This means that making deals with willing participants is not at all coercion; bouncing ideas back and forth during the planning phase of a game is not at all coercion. Lots of games can use the same systems either coercively or cooperatively – e.g., consider using the “create an advantage” action in Fate Core to set up your buddies with a bunch of aspects that will benefit them later if allies choose to exploit them, vs. using the same sort of action to bully people into doing what you want. (Carrot vs. stick, I guess, though the “carrot” in the first example is more of a gift folks can choose to take or leave.) I would be interested to learn if there are more games with systems that are inherently collaborative and supportive, though, that can’t be turned toward coercion. (I should probably get around to reading Golden Sky Stories….)

  10. What I’ve noticed through the ‘evolution’ of gaming into the indie systems we know and love is the development of safety tools that explicitly serve to mitigate the fallout from this coercive framework.

    Now this a good thing – identifying that certain narrative elements that may be uncomfortable for some players, so here is an agreed table etiquette to avoid that ‘squicky’ feeling, or downright offense to some players.

    What there seems to be a distinct lack of is the identification of mechanical elements that may cause the same reaction or uncomfortable squirminess. Whether that’s immersive ‘in character’ sub system elements or larger meta game elements that define conflict in broader strokes.

    I guess it comes back to the given acceptance that when we sit down to play – we are going to explore what’s narratively interesting and dramatic to the players at the table. Perhaps the idea of being coercive and seeing it through via the fiction is somehow tempting and attractive?

    I remember being blown away by your Posts Paul Beakley, back on the BW forums about the possibilities of BE for non-physical conflict (tightly constrained within the scene economy), and the ability to explore that sort of drama with an adversarial GM. Likewise, Vx’s commentary as he developed AW was similar in its reflection – how do we mechanitivise advocating for our characters yet still snowballing into untenable situations that engender coercive, squicky drama?

    Maybe its an audience thing? Like watching a movie? The only only issue is that not only have you agreed to watch the game, you’ve tacitly agreed to use the mechanics that explicitly coerce the group to arrive at these dramatic junctures – for the pleasure of watching them play out?

    Interesting discussion!

    My gut says that despite Fiasco narratively being all about coercion, that the scene framing mechanics and voting system on positive / negative outcomes: is collaborative?

  11. As was hinted at above, I think our best collaborative play is usually when we are making things together. New characters. A ship. A city. A religion. A problem. An organization. Etc. We fill in blanks, brainstorm, check in with each other, and do a lot of “yes and”. These moments where the sum is much more interesting and unexpected than any of the parts…that’s my favorite part of gaming.

  12. You can play Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine in a pastoral mode and have game mechanical support for sharing a feeling or a sharing a moment looking at something beautiful.

    Of course, unless I am misreading you, you view anyone using rules with intention as acting coercively. Undoubtedly many players of Chubo are viciously and “coercively” admiring scenery with the aim of influencing other players to do so.

  13. Mark Sabalauskas Chuubo’s is a good one to bring up! I think she’s built a thing where you don’t need to use the force of the rules to get what you want from another player. Maybe the GM though.

  14. This appears to be zeitgeist ideas – I recently listen to a podcast who complained most games used a flight or fight response to post situation, and no tend or befriend responses.
    I am thinking your coercion versus collaboration is another instance of the same idea, sort of.

  15. I think DoW might be closer to what you want than you think (appart from being nondramatic) for two reasons: it requires consent and provides remedy when things go badly.

    If you dont like the stakes on the table, the character is mechanically empowered to walk away. There is no reason ever to put up stakes you-the-player are not willing to lose, which makes it far more of a negotiation than dictation of terms. This also strictly limits the power of social combat monsters, since they must offer something of great value in order for anyone to engage with them in that arena.

    Secondly, if you find you have been snookered, you can always find remidy by invoking Resort to Violence and carving off the G4 persuasion git’s face. There is real skin in the game, and winning too well can be dangerous.

    Manipulate, in many *world games is a bit similar, since you often need to offer something of value, but lets you negotiate in bad faith, unless you get a 7-9 and need to make concrete assurances.

  16. There is also a neat boardgame called Fog of Love, where you play through a series of interactions in a relationship. You are basically iteratively playing the prisoners dilemma, but the payoff matrices are asymetrical, and so to have a successful relationship, you need to become adept at reading the wants and desires of the other person and modifying your behavior accordingly (or not). If you are packing to go to a wedding, do you pack early, last minute, or just buy stuff once you get there? If your partner is a rich slacker thief and you are a hyper organized security guard (real situation from game), do you compromise, or have a fight?

  17. Michael Atlin one thing I wanted to clarify, that I might not have in the OP, is that I’m largely thinking about the real people, not the fictional situation.

  18. Ah! My apologies. You were clear; I think I missed a paragraph in the OP.

    I think part of it comes down to intent. `Play to find out what happens` needn’t just be a GM principle. My perspective on DoW may be different than others because I try to approach it without a preferred outcome. It’s a tool we have agreed to use to come to consensus about what new direction the play will go in, rather than a bludgeon to enforce my desired fictional outcome (and I know this may not be a typical use of DoW).

    Interestingly, I’ve felt more coerced in lighter, more free, and less random systems. In Firebrands, either party can end a duel at any time, but choosing to end the duel is a unilateral decision, and win or lose, it can feel like privileging my agency as a player over the others. I’m no longer playing to find out what happens, I’m choosing for the play to end. Thus, I feel, if not coerced, then at least constrained to be a good sport and continue the interaction beyond when I would have terminated it.

    Non-intrusive mechanics that quietly reward certain kinds of play, but don’t explicitly punish other kinds of play are a rich space. Chuubo’s is a good thought. The awarding of XP can be pretty seamless, so long as everyone remembers to do it, and it’s a kind of opt-in reward system like Artha or self-compells in Fate. Also similar to *world principles. The mechanics work as an unobtrusive guide to the fiction rather than action resolution.

  19. Today I’ve shifting to thinking about how informed our consent really is when we play a game that had coercive elements. I’m thinking not very but I’m still chewing on how informed we really need to be.

    Dunno, lots of stuff swirling in my head and it’s not especially well formed yet.

  20. A friend of mine (ab)uses the word “bullying” for very similar things. In his lingo, bullying, in a game, is any social pressures that make you do a thing you weren’t gonna do. This includes broad things like playing the game at all when it’s not a topic you’re super into. But it also includes when people are expecting you to act in a certain way because they are audience members.

    I think you and him may align in these views

  21. Just want to thank you for pointing at this. I want to read the OP and comments more closely.

    In a related note, a few years ago I got interested in looking at how many games had an empathy stat. From my brief survey, I got a sense that it was very much a minority of games.

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