Radical Transparency

Today’s thing is “Which game mechanic inspires your game the most?” Weird question once you get out of the trad/conventional play bubble, but it did get me thinking. Mostly I got hung up on “what even is a mechanic?”

My pedantic game-theory brain hates the word right out of the gate; it’s a mechanism not a mechanic. A mechanic is somebody who works on your car. That’s never caught on and it’s not really the hill I wanted to die on, so I’ve always fallen back to “procedure.” That also kind of opens up the topic in my head beyond, you know, death spirals and escalation dice and aspects and flags.

I think the one procedure, which is more like a guiding philosophy, I guess, that is most present in my mind no matter what kind of game I’m running or playing, is the idea of Radical Transparency.

This came to me via several concurrent threads I was chasing down, oh, maybe a decade ago. One thread was wrapping my head around the task/intent split in Burning Wheel, which absolutely requires the player be honest and explicit about what it is they want out of their effort. Another thread was a really great grid I saw someone put together that looked at explicit intent versus transparency, I think. Gosh, I went looking for it online but heck if I can remember how it went.

Anyway, the “procedure” (such as it is) is super straightforward: if you’re a player, let the other players know what you’re going for. If you’re facilitating, keep digging until you’re super clear on what the player is getting at. This sounds pretty fucking obvious but it’s transformational when you’ve been breathing trad air for decades. This means no more gotcha moments from the GM, no more acting pissy because you were trying to psychically project what you were going for but didn’t want to “break immersion” or whatever. My younger readers might be horrified to read that both those things are awfully common out in the big trad ocean.

This one change to how I approach play was probably the single most bad-disruptive event in my ongoing gaming scene. Players suddenly needed to take a lot more responsibility. Everyone suddenly needed to trust each other: nobody can “beat” anyone else at the game when there are no gotchas. And as the GM most of the time, I really needed to take player goals and desires into account rather than performing a (not really) “neutral” refereeing job around the pure physics of the game.

Ironically, some of my favorite current games actually don’t work that well with explicitly transparent intents getting spelled out. Apocalypse World and most of its offspring doesn’t need or care about intent: you just trigger the move, or the move is triggered, and fuck your intentions. And yet our local play habits have so thoroughly absorbed the lessons of radical transparency that we end up talking about intent in sidebar all the time: “Okay so what I’m trying to get Balls to do is just walk away from protecting the hardhold. I so do not want to start shit.” “Okay yeah then you’re really not gonna Go Aggro, right, you’re manipulating.” Whatever. That conversation happens a dozen times every night, no matter what we’re running.

What’s funny about internalizing Radical Transparency is that it’s so very obvious when you’re playing with someone who has not.

I had a gaming buddy, one of my best, playing with his wife and my wife in an Urban Shadows game before they moved to another state. And in that game, he was playing a ghost. Well, so as GM, I’m having to pay attention to a lot of stuff and I haven’t memorized everything about every playbook in the game. So we had this scene where a ghost gang basically cornered his character to beat on him. I know they’re all ghosts and the damage isn’t real or permanent, and I explain (for transparency reasons) that they’re really just showing him that there’s more of them and they’re tough guys. Anyway, when I ask what he does about he just says “nothing,” and sits back with a smug look on his face. I’m not sure what to do about this! So I’m like, “Um…nothing? Just take the beating? I feel like you’re not participating because you got cornered and outnumbered.” He just shrugs. Well, what I had forgotten was that ghosts always return to some anchor point in the world, rather than taking lasting damage. He figured out how to “win” the scene but didn’t want to say it out loud until he could show off that he’d outsmarted me, I guess.

It was a weird moment! Like, it was more important to him to win the scene than it was to just say “oh, I’ll just let myself rematerialize back at the church” or whatever. At least that’s how it felt. And that’s the big split when you’ve got folks who have not bought into the idea that Radical Transparency is how I’m operating. When you’re the transparent one and they’re not, it’s easy to feel taken advantage of.

I’ve had folks act surprised at this approach at conventions, which I’ve come to expect. Especially true from the mostly-Pathfinder folks who want to drop in on some weird indie shit for a session just to see. It doesn’t always work out; sometimes they don’t feel good about the lack of surprise and gotcha, the creative and intellectual combat mode of play between the player and the GM. I still feel like there’s a lot of good creative tension between both roles! But it doesn’t rely on opacity about intent.

I don’t know that this is a “mechanic” (mechanism, procedure) really but it’s what came to mind. Fight me.

(Don’t fight me.)

31 thoughts on “Radical Transparency”

  1. This has been hugely helpful to me too, but I still struggle sometimes to balance this kind of radical transparency with something I find especially engaging about RPGs: the delivery of surprise.

    So, like, your ghost example? I have been that player. Not for that specific scene, mind you, but I’ve deliberately not reminded anybody at the table about what’s on my character sheet, or even in the rules, because I’m hoping that after I do the big reveal, everyone laughs or cheers or whatever. It’s not about outsmarting anybody in that case (at least I don’t think), but about subverting expectations in a way that releases tension.

    By the same token, I’ve noticed it just doesn’t necessarily work every time, and the times that it doesn’t work, you leave people scratching their heads at why you didn’t just say what you meant from the start. Or worse, you leave your GM thinking you’re being smug and trying to outsmart them, which feels like an awkward mismatch in goals. I can’t claim to have figured out yet the pattern to differentiate “everybody’s gonna love this” situations from “nobody appreciates your secrecy” situations, and this bothers me.

  2. i wonder if the difference between a “mechanic” and “play culture” is that a mechanic is something that you think is good in some games and not good in others, and something becomes “play culture” if you prefer to use it at all times (i.e., you’ve internalized it).

  3. Jason Tocci yeah I totally understand where you’re coming from. No idea what the difference is, although in the ghost player’s case it was his established mode. I just assumed that’s what he was going for, since he’d been the one holdout during the Great Burning Wheel Purge of 2008.

  4. So, Paul, I’ve been dipping my toe into the “indie” game scene for a few years but I feel I’m still pretty grounded in the “trad” market. I’m assuming that by “trad” you mean those games that rely on a fixed task resolution system and are, as you say, non-transparent in GM/Player interactions.

  5. David Benson oh that’s a bigger discussion for another thread. That’s a pretty conventional design approach for sure, though. Also: GM runs the world, character niches defined by ability or schtick, sometimes an adversarial gm-player relationship is assumed. EDIT but yeah, I feel like players and facilitators are not expected to be transparent about their goals in a trad game. There are almost certainly local exceptions.

    I’m not super in love with “trad” as a useful descriptor but I haven’t gotten any traction on “conventional” either.

  6. Paul Beakley Is there a story behind the Great Burning Wheel Purge? I’d love to hear it. Burning Wheel is the game that broke me from my rigid adherence to trad games.

  7. Graham W’s book Play Unsafe has a section, as I recall, on “open secrets,” which is not the same as your radical transparency, but I think is adjacent. If I’m reading you right, you’re talking about saying aloud “this is the in-fiction result I want from engaging this rules mechanism, and we’ll all have more fun and dial the procedures in tighter if we understand what’s at stake” and open secrets is the roleplaying parallel. “I am acting this specific way because my character is motivated by this big secret, which you don’t know about, but player-as-audience-you will appreciate this more if you know it, even as player-as-character-you does not.”

  8. me·chan·ic, game
    1. A person who fixes broken games.
    2. A person who “fixes” “broken” games.
    this game mechanic just isn’t working; it’s been months and we still don’t have a revised draft

  9. FWIW, I don’t think transparency is at odds with surprise at all. You just get to be surprised by outcomes instead of surprised that you’re playing game B when you thought you were playing game A.

  10. Mark Delsing you know who really impressed me with that? Thor Olavsrud at the last Burningcon. Totally transparent as far as table-level intentions of outcomes, but so good at throwing narrative curve balls. He never relied on the system to keep his secrets, like, knowing edge case rulings in Fight! scripting or hiding the fact that his NPC could one-shot me with a Dismiss. He put everything on the table and could still surprise us.

  11. The first time I trotted out an indie game for the gayboy group, Lady Blackbird, someone handed me a seeeeecret note and I was all, “what the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

  12. Years ago I ran a Sidewinder: Recoiled game at Dragonflight where I took each player into the hallway and detailed their private motivations and conflicts with the other characters. It worked wonderfully…for me. It would have worked better for the players had they been aware of the conflicts and could appreciate the role-playing going on as I could. This was before I was even aware of the concept of transparency. I sure would like to run that scenario again with the players being aware of each other’s personal conflicts and motivations.

  13. Apocalypse World does say to be clear about which moves you’re trying to trigger (with an example of correcting it after a misread by the MC). But as far as goals and outcomes I think you’re right. As a player I say what I want anyway, so everyone can play to that (whether helping or hindering for drama). It’s usually just more fun for the players/audience to know what’s up.

    I do think there’s no problem in the situation when the GM is cagey but the player is transparent. So go forth to convention games and spill your guts. (Just be prepared for nobody to listen.)

  14. One of the biggest procedures/mechanisms that has impacted me (beyond the BW transparency) is “play to see what happens” or “plan the scenario, not its outcome.” Seems rudimentary, but again, in a lot of trad games and groups, the cult of the GM is so strong that things can get screwy if you aren’t resolving situations as the GM planned or wanted. Dogs in the Vineyard was eye-opening to run. That game changed a lot for me.

    Also, your differentiation between mechanic and mechanism is how I feel about comic vs. comedian in that, as far as I’m concerned, you read the former and listen to/watch the latter.

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