Radical Transparency and Noobs

Had a chance to process some more of how our Firefly game went down Saturday night. So here’s an interesting thing, mostly due to debriefing with my wife Karen, my favorite new player.

K: “You know in the game where you told Emily (my 14yo niece) a bunch of secret stuff?”

Me: “Yup.”

K: “And then at the end you said Now, this is all stuff that only your character knows. How much of this do you want to share with the other characters?”

Me: “Yeah. I do that on purpose.”

K: “But why? I think it was confusing to her.”

Me: “You think? It’s important she get the difference between players and characters.”

K: “But I thought the fun part was pretending you’re someone else.”

Then we talked a while about immersion, bleed, and author/actor stance stuff. Which to a noob? Holy shit, really really obscure high-level considerations. 

Once upon a time, I looooved using all the actor-stance immersion tricks. All of them! I’d pull off players to give them secret information, I’d pass notes, I’d encourage players to secretly discuss stuff. Secrets secrets secrets. I’d coordinate with players to give an unreliable account to a player whose character was “insane” or drugged or in VR or whatever. Pull out all the stops. Huge fun. Hugely problematic.

Karen is sad that I don’t do that stuff any more. She thinks it sounds awesome. And here I am, more than 3 decades into this experiment, thinking nooooo…

Right around my time tearing apart Burning Wheel, we flipped the script and went for total, radical transparency. GM shares the “secret” stuff with everyone, treats the players like adults who can separate fantasy from the people at the table, rely heavily on dramatic irony, very firm author-stance play. Hold your terrible flawed character out there at arm’s length and play as true to them as possible. Advocate for truth, not for effectiveness.

Now, talking through this stuff with brand-new players, I wonder if that entire radical-transparency approach only works once you’ve gotten immersive actor-stance play “out of your system” (pejorative I know!), or seen the problems that can come out of it, or whatever. I wonder if the normal default reflex is for total immersion and close character identity, and arms-length authorial play is just mental gymnastics we’ve invented to create a layer of safety (one interpretation) and/or a way to dig more directly into the story-stuff of theme and clear lines of conflict (another interpretation, not necessarily incompatible with the first). 

I just thought it was interesting. Given literally no other instructions, the assumption is that you should “be” your character. And that doing otherwise is less fun.

0 thoughts on “Radical Transparency and Noobs”

  1. While “out of your system” sounds all pejorative, the way to really interpret that is expert versus naive use of a system. Which is really important — the way we interact with games aren’t the same once we’ve internalized the rules and culture of the game.

  2. That’s mostly there to avoid a massive scorched-earth thread. 

    I generally agree but I also think it is 100% legit to seek out that play style on purpose.

  3. Oh sure: similarly, the way we approach board games can very hugely from experience to experience. Whether that’s play to win, play for social interaction, or play to see how the pieces move together …

    Its related. And its when you’ve internalized that you can better make decisions.

  4. I prefer “shook it out”. Like you dance because you need to shook out dance and when you’re done, you stop dancing.

    I have a long while to go before I’m done shaking out secrets. I actually enjoy so much throwing oddballs at my players, and they surprise me so often! It’s exhilarating.

    But if you shook it out, well, no more secrets.

  5. It’s always difficult to be sure about these things, but I’m not convinced that “arms-length authorial play” is necessary for transparent play. If we analogize to a different field, I am able to get just as engaged with a character in A Song of Ice and Fire as I am in a first-person book. I think there’s an expectation that access to outside-the-character info is incompatible with immersing in character, but I’m not sure that expectation is accurate.

  6. Mebbe.

    In a hobby constructed entirely out of mental gymnastics, I’m pretty sure we can convince ourselves of anything about anything if only we dream hard enough.

  7. Who would have guessed that different expectations, priorities, and goals may optimize differently from different inputs and techniques?

    It’s almost as if, wait for it, we spent a lot of time defining right/wrong when we could have been defining cause/effect and trying to figure out which goals and methods worked together.

    … But then I wouldn’t be able to morally judge you as a person for your shallow inability to immerse / childish and undeveloped need for myth play.

  8. Part of me loves the “immersive actor stance” as it’s something I introduced years ago to my group. It’s great to see the emotions come out of players taking part in it.

    But, same coin, different side: the absolute shit that goes down at the table because of it, the time wasted (!) trying to reel it back in…it’s exhausting and doesn’t always lead down the path you’d hoped. Sometimes, It derails the whole evening because players make everything secret and thus foments real, physical dislike between players. Feelings hurt, game ruined, players at odds (even if just for the evening).

    Don’t like that second half at all.

  9. Just as a data point, I went straight for author stance in 1978 and never left. I find the need for “immersion” puzzling verging on disturbing.

  10. My players like mysteries. They feel clever when they get clues, they love that sense of heady excitement when they start to figure out what is behind the problem, and they prefer to genuinely earn the victory from solving the crime or mystery.

    I suppose I could start that off by telling them who the bad guys are, what the bad guys have done, what the bad guys are going to do, and then let them operate in that environment. But to suggest they are immature for wanting to use their characters to solve mysteries seems to really miss the point of why some people enjoy the hobby.

    There is pleasure in figuring things out.

  11. Yeah, I agree with Brand. Immersion is totally a viable mode of play (or, really, a bunch of viable semi-related modes of play) that, for a number of reasons, didn’t necessarily get a ton of traction in the indie games scene and still doesn’t, really. Probably a bit more in the Nordic-influenced larp branch, but we’re still very into author-stance transparency these days on the tabletop side and actually design a lot of mechanics which build on or require that stance, making immersion less likely.

    For me personally, I prefer immersion and the intimacies that it provides to be an emergent property of play rather than something we intentionally drive towards: if it happens, it’s because the players really resonate with each other and what we’re doing, but my design and play methods assume that we have to make do without it, partially because they’re made for playing with random strangers or other people you may not want to be intimately immersed with. I feel like that’s about the traditions of practice that I come from and the contexts in which I normally play games, where I’m not typically prepared to support folks who want a more immersive or emotional experience.

    That said, simple info-distribution stuff doesn’t have to be a gateway towards full immersion or anything (whatever people take that to mean). It can just be another technique in your bag of tricks that is sometimes fun to use, whereas other things might be more transparent and author-stance-y.

  12. J. Walton so what do you think of my speculation, I guess, in the OP that immersive play is a default mode of roleplay? Like, without anyone with more experience bringing their experience/fears/whatevers to the table, when you’re told “you play your character and the GM handles the rest,” actor stance is what happens?

    I found it extra-interesting in the case of K’s play because we actually talk about this stuff. Probably most of it made little sense without some playing experience.

    I’m less surprised by this being an assumption of my 14yo niece. I’m also deliberately doing some bleed-y things with her (having an older boyfriend-type NPC who might not be good for her, leveraging the father-figure role her dad’s character has on the ship). It’s wigging her out because it’s all much more intense than pushing cubes around a game board.

  13. I’m not sure about that. In theatre circles, there’s both “method acting” and other more controlled or affected styles, right? But that’s also something were people get a lot of training and practice. But even in children’s make believe, there’s a lot of author-stance decision-making, right? (Scene-framing, OOC discussions, resolving consequences of actions, etc.). I agree that the idea of actor stance as being somehow more natural is appealing, but I’m skeptical that’s actually true in practice. I think that many folks might initially assume that depicting a character is largely about immersion, but that the actual practice of doing so can be a lot more complex.

  14. Might just be in her case.

    I have to agree with her that it’s kind of thrilling to really feeeeel the feels when it works. But you know what? She had that experience playing Sagas of the Icelanders, which I think one could argue doesn’t really facilitate you-are-your-character immediacy. I mean jeez, you spend an hour deciding who loves/hates whom before you even play.

    Dunno. There’s a lot of magical stuff that happens in a good PbtA game. I may be discounting the effectiveness of the tools. Maybe do-it-and-you-do-it is a good tool for immediacy.

    It’s certainly a lower OOC load than fucking Firefly and the 18 little dice decisions you have to make every time you roll.

  15. Well, this is the third time today I’ve felt compelled to blame/slag Firefly. Poor workman and his tools and all that, but it might just be that it’s a bad fit and I’m having to do a lot of procedural heavy lifting to get what I want out of it — lifting I don’t even realize I’m doing.

  16. “out of your system”, yeah. I think there is much truth to that. However, I wonder if play with full transparency shouldn’t be used for something else, and that you stumbled upon this trouble because you try to play roleplaying games in the form that you always have, like having a game master, having characters, focusing on secrets, conflicts, et c.

    I guess full transparency play is really truthful to itself when it goes beyond that. To use an analogy, it’s like playing hockey but still use skates and puck even after you turned the game into managing a team.

  17. I’m having some trouble following the thread here, Rickard Elimää. I’m running this game (Firefly) exactly the opposite of that — no secrets, open transparency. I mean there’s still a GM.

  18. I”m trying to remember back to my first time playing RPGs. I guess it started with creating my badass Elf for D&D 2nd. I don’t think I could ever immerse or feel inside that character’s head. Or even any since. I’ve always been more interested in the game mechanics and the social group around it more. As a player, I think I’m starting to lean towards larps more for that immersion that I hear about, but can’t really EVER relate to. I hope this isn’t out of context, but your post has made me think of my own play history from a different angle.

  19. Notably, the wargame origins of RPGs were not immersive at all, though the fantasy fiction stuff arguably was. So it’s probably been a central tension for a looooong time.

  20. You know that meme that goes “this is what X thinks I do, what Y thinks I do, what I think I do, what I actually do”. I think this is alot like that. Whatever you think roleplaying is like before you actually do it, probably determines your approach to immersion when you get the chance to do it.

    IME the default stance of new role players has been what the Forge would call Pawn Stance. That’s because its mostly CRPG players and boardgames who I’ve introduced to table top. When you’re used to manipulating meeples, or talking to that guy because he has an exclamation point above his head, you start from a pretty meta level way of approaching games.

  21. How many RPGs get introduced with a “so if you lived in this world / were this character in a book, what would you do” language? Or with a “your job is to play and portray this character” stance that gives you a tool that has a pretty obvious set of applications? 

    That language can, and often does, suggest a “see the world through the eyes of the character” stance, which leads to a certain natural set of assumptions about immersion. 

    When you introduce newbs specifically to “tell a story, using this character as a focus” you get a different set of default responses. Or where you’re like “hey you can play this character or that one, or none at all and GM this session” gives yet another. 

    All in my experience, right? Anecdotes and all that. Hundreds of anecdotes.

  22. Oh, also, to go way back up — Dan Maruschak my experience is the things are not exclusive to each other. Several of my longest term group members are self-defined immersives who go for deep, close to the bone bleed play and such. All of them, these days at least, use a lot of meta-communication and out of character knowledge in various ways to further their own play and that of others. 

    So I’d say that no, the two things are not exclusive. It’s really all about what you do and how, and how much support the different input sets give you. 

    …er… wait, gotta get judgemental, this is a Beakley thread. I mean to say “only morons think there is a hard line between immersive play and out of character knowledge.”

  23. No, they’re actually very even tempered and kinda sweet. They just get a bad rap because they were born on the wrong side of the tracks and the Man just won’t leave them alone. 

    But someday Beakley threads are gonna get out of this town, they’re gonna make it big, you’ll see!

  24. Seriously, if anyone feels like they need to go to the mat about how total strangers play make believe, might be time to reevaluate their life choices.

  25. I think you’re onto something fundamental, that experienced wonks often forget.  Like how “storygames” generally tend to “work” best when everyone at the table has been a GM at some point in their life.

  26. Paul Beakley Take a look at Imagine. It’s four pages long and focusing on being immersive in fiction, instead of immersive in character.


    It uses no dice (or other kinds of random elements), no personal characters, no conflict, no prep, no game master, no mechanical progression. So what’s left?

    That’s what I mean with having characters – it will make the people involved, wanting bleed. I read a thread where the designer had a design goal that sade “roleplay, not roll play.” and then he wanted dice. If you don’t want roll play, then don’t have dice. Having dice just invites that kind of behavior, just like having characters invites bleed.

    We assume that characters is a must, and we develop a new way of playing, but without questioning what we’re using to play. In this case, the characters, or at least one designated character per player.

    If you throw someone a stick and a puck, and say “Lets play team management”, that will bring confusion, right? The same goes with your problem.

  27. >> If you don’t want roll play, then don’t have dice.
    You made me spit out my coffee, Rickard.  Laughed right out loud!

  28. Rickard Elimää​

    I want to follow what you’re saying so bad and I just can’t. I’m really sorry. I feel like you’re not starting by engaging with anything I’ve actually said in my original post, or comments thereafter.

    Maybe we can back up a step. What are you reading as my “problem,” exactly? I ask because at no point in this thread have I presented anything as a problem. I’m just making observations and comments, here.

  29. Paul Beakley You want transparency in gaming, and one player might think that’s confusing because of the separation that takes between the player and the character. Limit the designated role of playing a character, and you wont have that problem.

  30. Paul Beakley The “issue” were transparency, right? How it crashed together with the immersive response in actor stance. But how it’s important if you want to play in an author stance?

    And I totally agree. If you want to do a sort of collaborative storytelling, you should have perfect information (for various reasons). And I agree with roleplaying gamers who enjoy this have probably gotten actor stance out of their system. And also that all participants should have been game masters.

    But then I started to think, took a step back, and asked myself in the first post I made: how would a game look like that instantly created author stance? I don’t think there has to be a learning curve for it. That beginners can sit at a table and just create a story together.

    I think, like you indirectly said, that having a designated character for each player creates an unnecessary learning curve; if you really want to play a game with purely author stance.

    I believe that we’re too stuck in how roleplaying games ought to be that we try to play with sticks when we should use tools for team management. At least when it comes to this.

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