Day 7: When did you last spend more time setting up a situation and talking about the situation after than actually playing in that situation?

Indiegame primer for anyone following along who needs it:

Brand Robins brought up a really solid point yesterday about the role of one-shots and convention play in the indie scene. There’s a lot of it going around! And the games are evolving to accommodate that play. Pretty much all the PbtA games, and lots of the other indies I’ve played or read or know about, now have situation-making as part of play.

In a practical sense it’s handy and fun: we’ve got 4 hours, so let’s all settle into a situation we can buy into as hard as possible. I mean, I’ve sat down at trad-game tables with no buy-in and noooo idea what the hell was going on. I wasn’t part of the creative process, I have no buy-in. It doesn’t work for me. But lordy, I’m so okay with collaborating for upwards of an hour with friends, friendly acquaintances and total strangers at an indiegame table with tools built for that purpose. Take a potty break, and now we’re down to 3ish hours of actual play time. Lab-grade, maximum purity, illegal in most states.

Not everyone loves this! I ran a Night Witches game at a convention last year and a couple folks at my table hadn’t really done this sort of thing before. They were ready to rock with their dice and their playbooks, and then I start asking questions. And more questions. And gentle scene-framing questions that they just rejected outright. And pretty soon it’s obvious that they’re in no way buying into the situation we’re allegedly crafting together, nor the process itself.

It’s definitely a play style and cultural thing.

So question #7 never actually happens, not really. It’s kind of a gag. I mean we spent a lot of time in a recent Urban Shadows game setting up an amazeballs situation, a magical-realism take on Cartel set in the border town of Juarez/El Paso. The work we put into setting it up did not in any way get paid off through play, because we only got in two sessions before life interfered. But at the beginning of both sessions I had so many questions! I still love that setting to pieces.

Short day, we’re a week into this thing so pace yourselves — 23 days to go.

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55 thoughts on “Day 7: When did you last spend more time setting up a situation and talking about the situation after than actually playing in that situation?”

  1. What definition of situation are we working with?

    I don’t understand what needs to be discussed with Night Witches, for instance. You are ladies far from home, dealing with poor equipment and sexism in war…what needs to be worked out?

    I’m confused.

  2. There are games that require some hashing out before you can do anything, I think. And then there are games (D&D, say) where the event blurb can literally tell the players everything they need to know to start rolling dice.

  3. There are definitely folks who have less buy-in into situations they’ve been part of crafting because they don’t seem as “real” as situations pre-designed and delivered from the seat of an omnipotent GM, presumably due to having an ingrained sense of how narrative jurisdiction ought to work.

    Those folks are playing wrong and should be ashamed of themselves.

  4. Judd Karlman well…all the interpersonal stuff, all the drama-before-the-drama. Who did you leave behind? Who knows your deepest secret? All the r-map-making questions that you answer in typical PbtA games. Because the point, then, is to start pushing on the weak spots in the relationships you’ve collaborated on (and therefore theoretically have buy-in about because of the collaboration).

    Not just PbtA either! I played at Jason Pitre’s Sig table at Dreamation earlier this year and there’s a whole hour-ish of making the characters, trading connections with one another and so on. And that is the situation: who is connected by family or origin or job, what debts and whatever are in place.

    It’s a pretty common thing.

  5. Judd Karlman I feel like that’s built into a lot of traditional con games in the pitch. I look through a con book and see “D&D Delve into the Ruins of Deathscar Fort: come help you fellow players search for the great Wand of Killmaster the Deathscar” or some other such thing where it presents the situation right up front. It’s easy to look at the thing and say “Killmaster the Deathscar? Really??? Not my bag…” and pass.

    However in games where you need to build the situation with the group, you can’t pass ahead of time because you don’t know the situation. The con teaser says “Come play Dungeon World!” or similar. You have to wait until it starts flowing to realize you made a mistake.

    I’m not going anywhere with this…. rambling…

  6. Judd Karlman really? Interesting!

    How do you, like, establish things like Hx in AW, for example? I don’t want to get bogged down in NW specifically, which isn’t a great example because its setup questions aren’t as structured as other games; the one-shot handout has a Final Questions round that fleshes things out and can be time-consuming.

    Although “during play/before play” is the thing I’m actually talking about here, the whole “setup is play” phenomenon. When we’re going around the table at Sagas of the Icelanders establishing Bonds, is that “during play” or “before play?”

    What is play?

  7. Player One is Brand, his job is to sip coffee and make oblique and judgmental statements that contain no actual value.

    Players Two to Four are Judd, Adam, and Paul. Their job is to actually have a substantive conversation and work things out. However, they must all stop every time one of them makes a comment and see if Brand wants to make an oblique comment.

    When Brand does so, everyone must spend 5 minutes talking about his comment, or ignoring it but doing so uncomfortably, before going back to the actual conversation.

    Continue until someone punches Brand.

    …. I’m so going to win Golden Cobra.

  8. Yeah, what even is play?

    I saw someone’s answer to this question was “every time I play Microscope,” and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were being funny, because from a certain lens, Microscope is all setup.

  9. Play is an activity with no utilitarian goal which you have been tricked, or tricked yourself, into finding enjoyment and OR meaning in.

    Hans Messersmith nearly throttled me once when I told him I spent half the time in a 2-hour con slot of The Warren to do chargen and setup. Meanwhile he’ll happily play Microscope, which is basically the same thing 100% of the time (because why even play scenes with characters in Microscope, am I right?)

    What I mean by that is, Hans is a hypocrite and I have a problem with letting unresolved arguments go play is what you contextually and culturally expect play to be.

    (X-posted with Adam)

  10. Mikael Andersson I was at a game design jam thing once where the facilitator asked whether games had to be fun, and I think everyone in the room was taken aback when I asserted that no they do not or at least “fun” doesn’t have to mean “positive emotional response”.

    By which I mean I underscore your comment, but suggest that perhaps “enjoyment OR meaning” might be more accurate.

  11. I’m comfortable with calling it play from the minute we sit down. Those are systems we’re interacting with, and increasingly, those systems are designed to be fun activities that you enjoy as a group.

    How’s that not play?

  12. Adam D agreed 100%, and edited.
    On another day I might maybe quibble about whether enjoyment has to entail fun, or if one can find negative but meaningful experiences enjoyable, but – fuck it.

  13. Robert Bohl if the fun part of the game for you is embodying a character, how is all the authorship play?

    I mean the setup stuff is fun for me, but even I don’t really consider all the setup stuff “play.” That’s not my working definition. Not-play doesn’t in my mind = something bad or terrible or whatever. But it’s work. Work can be fun!

    And this is where hashing out definitions gets very quickly not-fun for me so I’d ask that we not go down that rabbit hole please. I guarantee a thread full of arguing about “play” and “game” and “fun” and whatever else will suck.

  14. To be fair, the original question is specific: “playing in that situation“. So, maybe “setting up a situation” is “playing outside the situation”?

  15. Mark Delsing oh thank god.

    This is the point where I get to wash my hands of all this and point out that this is fucking Brand Robins’ delightful contribution to the question list.

    This is all him. Brand, not Paul.

    Take it away, Brand.

  16. I used to start DitV games with chargen but it’d take a half hour and it would end with dice hitting the table for the Initiation.

    Anymore than that and I tend to use pre-gen’s or maybe pre-gen’s with something light that needs to be filled in to make the character their own.

  17. Paul, I don’t see how enjoying embodiment is at odds with seeing setup as play, but I agree that a definitional argument is unlikely to be fun.

  18. I accept that I am a hypocrite Mikael Andersson . Self knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.

    The way I view it is there is an investment cost to any activity that is not me actually playing a character and doing shit, which is the main thing I want to do. That investment cost has a payoff in terms of the length of time I will play that character doing shit. This is because most situation/setting stuff is primarily fun as it is explored, not as it is created. There is little point to creating a bunch of stuff that will never be explored because there is not enough time. (Explored does not mean “actually seen in play”, exactly, more like “had some interesting effect on play”.)

    My rough rule of thumb is 1/8. I can enjoy one part setup to 7 parts playing my character doing stuff. Going to play at least 8 sessions? 1 whole session is awesome. Going to play a four hour con game or one shot…maybe no more than 30 minutes of coming up with stuff? In that case I really would rather the GM shows up with more pre-gen, or do most of it on the fly.

    If the set-up activities are piles of fun for me on their own (re: that cool soviet robot micro-game where you draw the map and the robots whose name escapes me), then my rule of thumb doesn’t apply as strictly. If I am approaching the game as a demo, where I am trying to get a taste of all its systems, then my rule of thumb might not apply at all.

    Microscope, as Paul Beakley says, breaks the question.

  19. So, Judd Karlman how long would you spend making pre-gens?

    Because that can, depending again on how you cut it, count as “setting up outside of play.”

    In fact, if you put lonely fun — and not just at the table situation creation — into the mix, how does that change it for everyone?

    And whose time in setup are we talking about? Just the group at the table? The GM before and after? The scenario writer, when using pre-builts? The designer?

    Like, most Danish Freeform Scenarios have fairly light setup. And most of that is more like warmups and workshops to get into character than it is anything about actually setting up a situation. So you’ll usually spend like 30 minutes warming up, then several solid hours in character.

    But most of those scenarios took tens to hundreds of hours to write. So there’s still a question there of time into vs time out of.

    Or at Krista-Cons, how many hours to the organizers spend making characters, countdown clocks, checking for interactions and crossovers between them, etc? (Or just stealing them out of the Marvel book and calling it a day…)

    … though I suppose in that kind of situation the time in is “designer time” which most people won’t count. I shudder to think how many hours Jason murdered doing Night Witches, or Luke on Burning Wheel.

  20. Also interesting to consider how much informal time gets invested in ongoing local games in talking about the game outside the game.

    Seriously, I think folks often overlook the vital social roll that “chatting about our game outside our game” fills in making games work and building long term investment in, and nuance around, situation/setting.

  21. Re: Paul Beakley/Robert Bohl – In Fate Core (aka Paul’s Favorite Game), part of the setup is the “Phase Trio” where you recount one of your previous adventures and other players hop in to say how they took part in order to establish relationships. It’s more like an interactive Hx-as-play thing that seems to blur the line we’re discussing here.

  22. Brand Robins you didn’t ask me, but I’ll answer anyway, ’cause who can stop me?

    I will spend hours and hours making pre-gens and stuff for a con-game. I put that work in as GM because I crave the praise of the players. I want them to walk away from the game saying “that Hans, I don’t care what people say about him, he had his shit together, he had it NAILED”. I feel a strong responsibility for the entertainment of those 3 to 6 people for the ~3.5 hours I will be playing with them, they have paid actual money to spend time with me. I owe them to do my best.

    I do not consider that activity play, I consider it work. As Paul said, work can (should?) be fun and rewarding. I enjoy that work tremendously.

    EDIT: strangely, I feel less this urge to “get it right” with my own friends in my own games, probably because they routinely cut me slack and will hopefully still love me afterwards.

  23. Mikael Andersson it doesn’t show.

    By which I mean that the one time I played a convention game with you, it was incredibly good, and didn’t feel “over prepped” the way a lot of games will when you over prep them. It felt very natural and improvisational.

  24. I think it’s super interesting re the need to nail down exactly where the bright line between work (fun or not) and play (fun or not) lies. Like, why is that even important?

    I’ve put fun work into not-fun play: Rogue Trader, baby!

    I’ve put not-fun work into fun play: Belief workshopping before every Burning Wheel game.

    …where “fun” definitely means “entertaining” (to me) and might also include “rewarding” but not necessarily so.

    I think my sweet spot is rewarding work resulting in entertaining play. But boy oh boy folks seem to get offended at using the word “work.”

    For the facilitator in particular, setting up at the table most definitely falls in the “emotional labor” category, and saying otherwise devalues that service when it’s done well.

  25. That’s because it was a game where the GM’s job is being a manipulative, controlling, abusive asshole setting PCs against each other by lying, Adam D. That stuff I can slip into at the drop of a hat.

  26. I wouldn’t call at-home-alone time play. When I think of setup as play, I’m thinking of things that take the group and systematically evoke their creativity to create a world.

    (We seem to still be talking about what is and isn’t play, though.)

  27. Anyway, because Paul did throw it back on me and because everyone online seems to be twisting their underwear over this, the way I think about this in my head is something like:

    In most games there is something that is the primary activity that you are there for. It doesn’t mean secondary, tertiary, etc., activities aren’t also really good. It just means they aren’t the prime one.

    We tend to, because of the informality of casual language, call that primary thing (and maybe some of the secondary things) “play.”*

    In some games, like Microscope, the “play” part is also the setting up and laying out of a fictional world. Because in Microscope that activity is the primary activity that most folks who are participating in the game are there to do.**

    In many Indie Table-Top with Dice and You Make Your Own Characters and All that Shit kinda games, the “play” part for most players*** is making actions/decisions/talking as their character. In other games (King Wen’s Tower springs to mind) it might be the same, but where their character isn’t a person, but is a faction/nation/whatever.

    Thus, the question is really about “when setting up a situation is not the primary point of a game, how many times have you ended up spending more time on the things that were not the primary point than the things that were supposedly the primary point?”

    The “and why do you think that happened” was implicit, I guess. Like, was it because you lost timing? Because you actually were enjoying the secondary activity more than you suspected you would have the primary activity? Because you didn’t feel like you yet had enough material/support/safety to move to the other activity? Because the game was broken and its designer a failed human being?

    So, yea, something like that.

    But hey, if you need me to tell you what “play” is and is not in an absolute sense so that you can count seconds on your spreadsheet… well, shit. I’m not going to do that. Define it as you will, and if you can’t, move on.

    I also find it funny that I’ve seen multiple answers (not in this thread, specifically) in which people are like “this has never happened to me” and I’m like “haha, I played with you at X con and this EXACT THING HAPPENED” or “I remember reading your post about how you spent 6 hours prepping a game, a whole session doing character gen, and then never played again, so….” So, there’s also that.

    I wonder if we’d made it so it sounded like doing this was a positive and desirable thing, rather than a slightly mocking one, if that would have skewed questions a different way.

    * For a longer discussion of this, see the entire history of western philosophy and stop bothering me.

    **Unless of course they didn’t know what the game as about. In which case it may become the thing they’re there to do, as they adjust expectation to reality. Or they may be unhappy about it as it never spends enough time doing the thing they want to do.

    * Most, because there’s always going to be THAT GUY. Chances are good if you’re reading this far into the footnotes you are THAT GUY sometimes. And, sure, the fact that I wrote this many footnotes does in fact mean that I am THAT GUY all the time.

  28. It probably will surprise nobody that it’s been a verrrrry fine balancing act throughout the hashtag so far to maintain the mocking-but-also-serious balance, and at every step of the way someone has gotten offended or upset or whatever.

    Since this is my baby, let me just say unequivocally that I love you all, gaming is awesome, and laughing at ourselves is healthy.

  29. I took the question to be about the “pre-play” infection that certain games of Primetime Adventures displayed, where you end up talking about the thing you’re about to play until it’s too boring/convoluted to actually play.

  30. Jason Corley oh gosh I’ve had that happen in other games, too. I’ll end up with a table of folks who don’t actually want to “play to find out.” Probably some ego/safety/emotional investment stuff at play there. Like, if we don’t actually play the game we don’t have to find out my idea was terrible.

    Or they don’t want their ideas twisted or lost because of procedural uncertainty and/or other players’ input.

  31. Well, there’s performance anxiety too. If you overinvest in a setup, your play will never pay all that back. This is why, although many games are getting very good at setup, I think we reach a point of diminishing returns.

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