Fictional positioning, as I understand and use the phrase: establishing a clear, hopefully shared, understanding of the fictional context in which roleplaying happens. Moving the fictional elements in a way that everyone agrees to. Practically speaking, the most important factor in fiction-first play: if your character’s been disarmed, you can’t injure the armored monster until your character’s sword is back in hand. If you’re careening down a mountainside on skis, you can’t be reading your spellbook. To make road war moves, I need to be in a vehicle. And so on.
That may not be book-accurate to whoever cooked the phrase up the first time (probably Vx but I don’t know for sure). But let’s go with that for now.
Today I noodled on what other kinds of “positioning” I see happening in the course of play.
Social positioning: the at-the-table experience between live players while playing. Here I’m thinking about purposeful tension buildup-and-release – say, the one-roll resolution of “I Corner Them and Stab Them In the Face” in Burning Empires or the general structure of abstracted scripted conflicts in Torchbearer. Of course it’s good form to rationalize your decisions (“what does it look like?”) but it’s not being driven by the fiction itself. Nor is it supposed to be. I feel like a lot of the appeal of Burning Wheel for me is that a lot of what it does happens at the social level.
Psychic positioning: the internal experience of the players. The feels evoked in the player’s mind and heart, rather than those the player is projecting or authoring or whatever into their character. I’m not really qualified to make a blanket statement on this but my limited exposure to modern larp is that lots of what I’ve experienced is what I’m calling psychic positioning: the situations exist to push my, Paul’s, buttons. Some of the more purposeful feels-manipulating systems in tabletop games (intimacy moves in Urban Shadows, say) fall inside this for me as well.
Tactical positioning: Mechanical Positioning (see comments for clarification, what follows isn’t really what I was getting at): setting up the game-writ-large to get what you want, whatever that might be. Taking favorable actions that provide advantages down the road. Providing brief-but-meaningless explanations for dice you add to a die pool, or aiming your character toward procedures that’ll produce greater success even though it makes less contextual sense than another, sub-optimal choice. And sure, players regularly rationalize their choices to align tactical and truthful play. I’ve done it! I’m not even slightly suggesting this is categorically bad, either.
On that note, I want to make clear that none of what I’m thinking about is categorically bad or good or anything. Purely descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m just ruminating on the tools at hand. Some of that is a reminder to myself of what’s actually happening at the table, particularly in moments I feel dissatisfied. I think this is a place where, like, I wish Apocalypse World 2E had more ways to psychically position the players’ hearts, and that all the excellent fictional positioning that’s happening (because the rules require it) feels … I don’t know, maybe bereft of greater meaning (to me). Or our recent run through Torchbearer, which produces terrific at-the-table tension because lots of social positioning is happening, but can result in ex post facto fiction to rationalize the cards and dice-grubbing.
I feel like every moment of play, every decision we make, is probably made up of us positioning all these things: fictional elements, each other, our emotions, and our desires. Even the things we either have elected not to position, or we don’t have to because the procedures don’t require us to do so, are still present and factor into how we experience each moment. The rules give us more or less authority, depending on our real-world function in the game, over these positions at different levels.
Sometimes players without the authority will push and pull to position anyway! In a Star Wars Fate game I played at NewMexicon earlier this year, I spent a good amount of time/energy maneuvering my elderly senator into a position where not only he could have a touching pass-the-torch moment with another character at the table, but so I could dig into the feels of the character’s martyrdom. I wanted to feel that! And not just fictionally.
Obviously this is just one metaphor and there are a million other ways to interpret and internalize your experience. I’m just putting thoughts to paper pixels about my experience. Please think long and hard about why your first reaction is nuh-uh! if that’s where you want to go. I’m super not interested in alpha nerd posturing or clever intellectual combat! I’m saying this mostly to the dudes who read me.