Positional Awareness

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.

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38 thoughts on “Positional Awareness”

  1. Psychic positioning is really interesting. What’s funny is how much the body is involved-some kinds of therapy are deliberately LARP-like because the body/positioning is such a good lever for provoking emotion.

  2. I like this!

    My understanding of Fictional Positioning is that it’s another way of saying Shared Imagined Space — so, not just “hopefully shared” but shared by definition, else the table can’t come to an understanding of what’s actually happening.

    So, my question is: are the Social/Psychic/Tactical spaces shared as well?

    They read to me more like Reward — which is the new, shiny term for Agenda — and so are kinda shared but also kind of not, i.e., they are Paul’s Buttons™, but not necessarily Mark’s Buttons™.

    In other words, do these types of Positioning need to happen the way Fictional does, or are they kind of orthogonal? E.g., it doesn’t matter why I make a given choice — it may be sub-optimal or it may be optional in pushing some sort of button — the game proceeds based on my having made the choice regardless.

  3. One thing I thought about is that “position” is both a verb and a noun. That informs a lot of what I’m thinking about.

    I don’t think they’re agendas so much as facts-on-the-ground, if that makes sense. Like, even if I don’t particularly care about tactical advantage, my not engaging in my tactical position still impacts play.

    If you’re viewing what I wrote through a Big Model lens then lots of this falls apart because they start from different premises (it’s allowed!). Hence my first and last paragraphs.

  4. I don’t understand what you mean by social positioning. Is it just the OOC back and forth, perhaps mechanically mediated, to get to the desired fictional position? I’m imagining the players group editing a virtual reality. “Can we have Robin enter into the scene, rather than be there at the beginning, so they can overhear us talking about them?”

  5. Can there be build up and release tension at the table a la social positioning that is not the effect of game mechanics? Or does this type of tension come from everyone’s shared understanding of the rules?

  6. Joe Beason​ maybe like… Psychic position is your internal emotional landscape and social position is the interplayer (rather than inter-character) emotional landscape. If that makes sense. It does to me.

    The interplayer thing was what actually prompted the whole post so I probably should have been clearer on that point.

    I was thinking specifically about, for example, everyone talking through where to go next in The One Ring, how that’s not really (at our table) an in-character thing. How there can be leadership at the table that doesn’t reflect in-game context. Or how the pleasure and excitement people feel playing Torchbearer isn’t at all related to the fictional positioning, really, but to the push-your-luck decisions the players are making and deciding among themselves, or the actions the conflict captain is mandating folks make with the understanding that whatever call the captain makes is retroactively positioned in the fiction.

    So, not just OOC but also taking into account who’s making the calls, how the table feels about that, stuff like whether it’s cool or not to start PvP shit, social contract, etc.

    Aaron Berger​​ yeah I think so! Hopefully this clarifies what I meant.

    I’m the first to admit it’s not a carefully constructed rhetorical edifice. I’m sure I could refine it down to something super specific and battle-hardened but I hope it doesn’t have to come to that.

  7. Further thoughts on the social position(ing) thing.

    At a table somewhere in the seedy underbelly of Albuquerque:

    Paul: Okay, everyone happy with your playbooks? Great. There’s some setup to be done next…

    Joe: reaches into his bag, pulls out a wad of knitting, settles into a scarf or something

    Paul: oh shit what’s this? Is he checking out? Mad about something? Okay, Joe! Your turn! Tell me blah-de-blah about your faction…

    Joe: is totally engaged but destresses by knitting; immediately answers, it’s clever and succinct, and he returns to knitting

    Paul: okay so this is just his jam, cool, don’t need to worry about him.

    Another example! This one’s mechanically mandated.

    At a table at some other con. The GM pulls out his tablet and finds his copy of Dog Eat Dog:

    GM: First question! Who at the table makes the most money?

    Players: various flavors of minor freak-out and muttering; someone eventually comes forward with a number.

    So, yeah. People stuff. People-people, not fiction-personae.

  8. Is tactical position simply the game mechanical status of the gameplay? If so, calling it mechanical position might be a good idea. Otherwise, is it any different from tactical positioning in a fiction-based game of strategy like a significant strand of OSR play?

  9. Assuming I’m reading your questions right, it’s really no different as far as I’m concerned. The map is one place you can gain tactical advantage. Nudging the fiction toward your best moves is another. Describing your actions in tactically favorable terms is another.

  10. Ok. Wow. I feel like you’re manifesting that which is hidden here! I always dig when you examine the play experience like this.

    So, I feel like Montsegur 1244 is very much dominated by Psychic Positioning if I’m on your wavelength. There was a least one player at our game who is almost a stoic who started to choked up towards the end. I can’t help but feel that the game is about opening you/one up to that. I guess there’s a little potential for Tactical Positioning if you want your character to be “the one that got away”… but even getting away doesn’t spare you those intense feels.

  11. So maybe I am misunderstanding something.

    Fictional positioning happens inside the fiction. Maneuvering the fiction into particular state is how you do it.

    Social positioning happens between people.

    Psychic positioning happens in the minds of participants.

    Tactical positioning happens ???
    From your description, the answer is: everywhere, or wherever, or something like that. This is interestingly asymmetrical; tactical positioning is clearly different from the others. Why is this?

  12. Tommi Brander I think I’m thinking about motives and desires as much as anything else. But you’re right, it’s not perfectly aligned.

    I-want-what-I-want is sort of orthogonal to all the rest of it because obvs it happens via the other positions. And “want” is pretty fuzzy of course. I could totally see an argument that strictly truthful, consistent, principled character-driven play that you work hard to maintain is a kind of tactical play.

    So probably what I really mean is I-want-to-WIN. Because if I make the bucket big enough, literally everything everyone does at any time is what they want (leaving aside the notion that our creations feel like they have wills of their own sometimes, or that truth and momentum demands outcomes we don’t want, even when we’ve got broad-ranging authority).

  13. I’m interpreting tactical as the meta things you do to get what you want in the fiction, like deciding your character steps to the left so you have a chance to surprise someone. Whether that’s to get an attack of opportunity or an opportunity to cry, who knows?

  14. Its making sense to me. If I was going to put a priority or mode of operation on my play it would probably look something like this.

    1. Tactical position
    2. Fictional position
    3. Social position
    4. Psychic position

    Which is to say I’m most curious about what kinds of characters and world a systems incentives will produce. Sometimes at the cost of findi g the heart of a character or even reading the mood of a table.

    I’m fairly good at internalizing systems and maneuvering characters through them. I enjoy seeing what kind of characters emerge from adapting to overcome challenges. This is probably why I enjoy the organic growth of BW so much.

    When I ask questions its mostly from a viewpoint of focusing on relationships to factions. When I play BitD I have to be careful not to sspend to long talking about the fiction. I have to remember to zoom in and bring up scenes to ground the game in character motivations.

    I’m also self conscious of the mood at the table and spreading spotlight and supporting other players ideas.

    Its around this time that I sort of run out of bandwidth and the psychic position is neglected. I know understanding character motivations is important but I have a hard time accessing that space. This also extends sometimes to being able to find the voice of a returning npc. Mostly I’ve been seeking out freeform rpgs to try to train up my psychic position. And I also realize when I butt heads with other players sometimes its because they value the psychic position more than me.

  15. Aaron Berger Not that it matters, but I really balk at trying to re-purpose these categories as self-identification (i.e., one’s priorities, e.g., “I’m a Psychic Positionist”).

  16. Mark Delsing I’m not trying to encourage tribalism of any sort but I now realize that’s what my last paragraph does. I was mostly trying to relate each position to my own personal experience. I didn’t bring it up but in my head i was building on the discussion of AW2e yesterday. Where Paul felt there was no feels because he didn’t feel the psychic space had potency. Where as I felt AW had the feels because I was able to engage with player versus player interactions without worrying of the social position because the game took care of it. But that comparison I guess just further encourages a sort of self-identification.

    So maybe I should just say I have very little experience with this Psychic position and hope to find games that help me explore it. I hear Montsegur 1244 and Inheritance might be good places to start. Just have to find a group who would be up for that play.

  17. Aaron Berger Absolutely not trying to accuse you of anything. I’m sorry if it came off that way. Just trying to head off any tribalism at the pass. 😇

  18. I think your way of using the terms makes sense to me (except maybe “tactical”). I wrote a big blog post a while back where I suggested that by initially fixing on the term “positioning” rather than “position” the jargon invited a tendency to over-interpret or overcomplicate what positioning was about. But it’s really just about what position things have relative to other things. “Fictional positioning” is just about where things are in the fiction, both straightforward stuff like “I am behind the ogre” or “I am on top of the table” as well as slightly more metaphorical stuff like “I am the power behind the throne” and “My position at court is secure”. In an RPG you’ve got all sorts of positioning potentially going on, e.g. position on various scales of credibility about certain topics (“Steve the Civil War buff knows a lot about 19th century warfare, let’s defer to him on how this battle would realistically play out”) or position in the social situation of the group (“Ray is going to be grumpy all night if the NPCs don’t think his grimdark superhero is as cool as he does, and none of us want to deal with that”), and so on. The way that various elements of position translate into “what happens next” is pretty much equivalent to what Forge Theory called System.

  19. Re tribalism: gosh but it’s such a powerful thing, isn’t it? Declare labels and then declare allegiances? I kind of hoped to do something more in line with, say, breaking down food components. But then there are probably self proclaimed proteinists committed to eternal war with the carbists.

  20. Dan Maruschak Man, I was totally gonna mention that this sounded like Forge “System” but did not want to alway be Big Model Guy. Thanks for taking the bullet for me!

  21. Sure, yeah, if you guys find it useful/necessary to refactor everything into TBM-talk go crazy. So long as you don’t then come back with “and here’s why you’re wrong because in TBM…”

  22. I have a hard time speaking about it using your terms (not that I disapprove of them, just that I’m still getting my head around them) — but I will say this, which I think is relevant:

    One of the reasons I’m often good in freeform RPGs is that I put a lot of thought and effort into aligning/setting up my desired outcomes of the game — in terms of my emotions, desired outcomes, and cool moments along the way — with what I can read/understand of the same for other players.

    This may be aligned to go along with, aligned to oppose, etc., in many different ways, and possible very differently between different players. (For example, if we’re playing a bronze age warriors game, I’m going to spend a lot of time setting myself up to be brutally murdered by Ralph Mazza’s character. If we’re playing a Victorian Romance Emma game, I’m going to spend a lot of time trying to set my character up so that she is trying to get Adam D’s character to fall in love with her, while OOC making sure that never happens, so that Ralph Mazza get jealous, etc.)

    Doing this does require a bit of thinking in different terms about internal vs. external goals, implicit vs. explicit structure, and a lot of different positions and ongoing re-positioning between players, fiction, outcome, and effect.

    … which may just be a long way of saying, “Yes. I think so?”

  23. Brand Robins yup, yeah, I follow all that.

    I may need to reconsider posting anything where I mention anything that looks like it might be terminology or theory. I’m so not gonna talk theory. I’m just talking direct observation and my own experiences! So anyone else who wants to do that is super-welcome to do so.

  24. Oh, speaking of old theory that we’re not going to do, I also feel like there’s maybe some overlap between this and Mo’s work on sockets back in the way back.

    Like, sockets were things you wanted out of game, so using the right positions and having games that support that kind of positioning is more likely to get you the payoff you are looking for.

  25. If I have it right, psychic positioning came up twice (that I noticed) while at BigBadCon:

    First was at a playtest of my game. There’s a part of a game where everyone roleplays in character at the table, their characters sharing a table at a tavern. The only game mechanic is that if you feel like your character has revealed something about themselves EVEN IF UNNOTICED by anyone else, you hand a die over to the main character.

    The other was when playtesting Banana Chan’s Attention Passengers. We were all passengers on a subway. I had two cards, one with the location I was coming from, and the other was where I was going. There are many quiet moments where I was not only creating the story of where my character was, but also what I/my character should be feeling and also trying to feel that. None of this I shared (aside from how I acted or tried to). It was interesting because at times I had to weigh this versus my social positioning (making the game interesting for others/myself, checking in to make others are ok, etc).

    I sometimes balk at trying to categorize things, but I think this helps to clarify a designer or player’s goals.

  26. Jesse Coombs Thanks for playing and for the feedback (and for the tag – this kind of categorizing definitely helps)! Totally into psychic positioning.

  27. Tommi Brander you know, I’ve been chewing on this all weekend and I think you’re right: mechanical positioning does capture what I’m thinking about better than “tactical”. Tactical is too freighted with what-I-want and I think that’s what makes it confusing. But mechanical is kind of perfect, yeah: the procedural game-state at any given moment. The stuff everyone is agreeing to defer to, in another way I suppose, kind of like fictional positioning including all the problems with that.

    So thanks for that!

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