The Character Arc advancement system, one of the more notably post-trad mechanisms of this Invisible Sun game I’m running at home, has me thinking about flags. That is, the stuff the players share with the table explicitly as “yes, this, I want more of this thing.” It’s a fundamentally authorial tool. Anyway, our current game’s got me thinking there’s something fundamentally difficult for some players when it comes to staking out their own flags. And maybe something about modern storygame design that’s let the players off the hook.
Quick History Lesson
Many years ago, Forge-era blogger Chris Chinn identified a thing he called a Flag. The original definition was an “explicit tool to help the group communicate what they want the conflicts/actions/fictional events to focus around.” Great! More explicit communication is almost always a good thing at the table, yeah? Some great tech, like Beliefs in Burning Wheel, are Flags. I’d say Beliefs continue to be the best-in-class when it comes to capital-f Flags. They’re also notoriously difficult to nail down, particularly for players who are new to the game.
Why is this? Why should freely expressing what you want the game to be about be so hard?
Other games swing at Flags. Those PbtA-style games where setting creation is the bulk of your first session? Those choices are, or can be, Flags. Sometimes we don’t think much about them that way, maybe a choice just tickles us, but it’s still usually an assertive expression of interest.
Choosing your flavor of gang or crew in Blades in the Dark or Scum and Villainy, another kind of Flag. Kind of a vague one, though, since it’s just kind of a gentle nudge toward thieving or kidnapping or smuggling, whatever. The GM in those games still has a ton of authority to deliver specific job types but the expectation is that they’ll respect those choices.
Playbook and class choice is probably the earliest Flag tech, and it’s still pretty good – but only if the player treats it as such, and not as a tactical decision. I think there’s too much room to misinterpret a player’s intent based only on divining why a particular playbook was picked. Are you playing a Gunlugger because you want fast and furious combat action? Or because you don’t want to be fucked with? Different games mandate more or less specificity here.
This last example gets at the flip side to Flags, quickly and easily identified way-back-when: Sometimes players would pick a Flag for the purpose of directing the fiction away from something. Some kinds of Flag techniques don’t allow this: Beliefs are positive assertions about your play plans. Those are hard to neg. But others certainly do allow it, and the facilitator is stuck reading tea leaves.
But why wouldn’t a player just say what they want? Great question.
Flags are Hard
Swinging back to this Invisible Sun game, the players are tasked with designing their own advancement system. Players choose Character Arcs for their characters, and those can be either prescriptive or descriptive. If the player says “ooh, Revenge sounds great, let’s contrive a reason for my character to seek revenge!” that’s the prescriptive take. But if events evolve organically such that they’re naturally getting closer to an NPC, they might decide the character is on the Form a Bond arc. The economies are identical – you have to invest Acumen (one of the two kinds of XP) to buy into the Arc, and then as you progress through the Arc you get back that Acumen and more. But they come from different places.
I’m a big fan of this system. I think it’s formally clever and provokes interesting conversations around play goals. It’s not original to Invisible Sun as far as I can tell, though: both 7th Sea and Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine have similar ideas.
My players, though! Getting them to proactively, prescriptively stake out an Arc reminds me so much of the teeth-pulling, fraught workshopping of Beliefs in Burning Wheel games. I keep hoping someone will take the reins and aim their character toward something exciting. I keep reassuring and begging and pleading that, yes, you say it and I’ll do it. Invisible Sun is very much a player-driven experience, with the GM there to facilitate and support more than setting out exciting hooks baited with delicious chum.
(Side thought: are hooks the flip side of flags? Are they the GM’s flags?)
Flags as they were intended – explicit tools to help the group communicate what they want the conflicts/actions/fictional events to focus around – are hard. Why? Why the heck is it so hard for players to be authorial?
Scurrilous Speculation Incoming!
I keep orbiting around a few things that might be behind the difficulty players have with Flags:
Authority and Responsibility: There are so many cultural assumptions about who’s supposed to be responsible for various elements of play. The old “players run their characters and the GM runs the world” is tragically, systemically inadequate once you’ve played D&D, like, once. I assume many players have a real discomfort “stepping on the GM’s toes” if they’re from that play culture. Not only am I (only) responsible for running my character, I cannot be responsible for anything else. I don’t do authorship, full stop.
Credibility: Lots of layers here. The GM has credibility with the players, and each player has credibility with both the other players and the GM. Does the GM rely on you to do the thing you say you’re going to do? Will you do it in good faith? Do you fear your good faith efforts will be met with a failure to engage? Oh god, do you fear a bad-faith response? When it comes to setting flags, the GM has to trust that the player will actually engage with the thing they said they’d be doing. I think there’s also some synergy among the other players, too, when they trust each other to engage with their Flags.
Systems with explicit flags almost always attach an incentive scheme to them – chasing and achieving your Beliefs earns you Artha, proceeding through a Character Arc gets you Acumen, and so on – but if you’re not incentivized by advancement, those carrots are meaningless.
Interpersonal Styles: this one I see a lot. The player pushes the hardest and speaks the loudest usually gets what they want. If you’re workshopping Flags at the table, everyone needs to be mindful of this but it’s also, tragically, totally human. Some of us are more assertive or, less pleasant, aggressive than others. And our tolerances for those behaviors are all over the place. I mean, I’ll take an assertive player over a passive player over an aggressive player every time. My unicorn players are the ones who are assertive and also know how to step out of the spotlight.
I’ve set up games via email just to get past all the nonverbal cues. Shy or passive or just polite players can easily get stomped into silence in person. Then they’re not really putting out good Flag ideas, or ideas they’re comfortable engaging with because they went along with everyone else.
Failure to Invest: since Flags get set only in context with what the game’s ostensibly about – setting assumptions, system-incentivized behaviors, explicit and implicit themes – if the player hasn’t bought into those things, it can be hard to invest themselves in a Flag. Designing a Flag, submitting it for discussion, and committing to playing it, is a substantial personal investment. Hard to make the effort if you just don’t care that much.
I think quite a few players don’t want to have to care that much, either: if they can show up, flip their brains over to game-mode for a couple-three hours, leave and unflip their brains, that might be enough escapism. Tell me what to do and what to roll.
Airtight Holding Environments
Game design’s evolution toward ever-tighter, ever-more-specific holding environments take the pressure off Flags, I think. I’d go so far as to say that tight, specific holding environment games are a separate branch from Flag-setting games.
The last really specific game I ran was Band of Blades. Can’t get much more specific than that, yeah? The players belong to a fantasy legion of soldiers in a fallback action from an implacable horde of zombies commanded by an overboss and his minibosses. It is so specific, that there’s hardly any room for players to set Flags. You choose a playbook but then the missions you choose mandate which playbooks will attend. If you’re not playing your preferred playbook, you either create a new rookie (not many choices!) or pick up a rookie or soldier that was previously played. Everything is super interoperable, there are precious few Flag opportunities, mechanical choices are largely made in service to succeeding at missions rather than making an aesthetic or ethical statement. It’s probably one reason why the game was both very easy for us to play for a dozen sessions, and fairly unrewarding in terms of meaningful roleplay. Stretching out the sessions to allow more time between mission play might have given the players more chances to explore their personalities, but they’d still have not had Flags.
A game like Apocalypse World kind of tricks the players, I think, into thinking they’re stating Flags via their playbook choices and, possibly, hidden in some of the setup questions you have to answer. Lots of PbtAs have “what does your character care about” type questions but they’re notoriously easy to ignore once the action starts. The moves snowball, events spiral out of control, and pretty soon nobody is really thinking much about those early proto-Flags. They’re not necessary when most play is reactive.
Which brings me back to Character Arcs in Invisible Sun. The game has nearly no holding environmental at all: you’re all super-magicians recently arrived in a weird magical world that is recovering from a mysterious War that nobody will talk about. Now, go live your life.
That should provide lots of room to stake out your Flags, right? Arcs offer incentives to engage with them. But it’s so wide open that the players have nothing to grab onto. The players have to trust the GM to engage with their Arcs, but the GM also has to trust the players to engage with their own Arcs. The authority of the players to buy into an Arc is explicit, that’s good. But the game is so purposefully difficult to connect with that picking an Arc feels like shooting in the dark. Just pick, don’t worry about getting it right, don’t fuss over canon, jump out of that airplane!
It took us three sessions for folks to have at least a couple Arcs. I’ve started the actual GM-facing prep work of threading those Arcs together, which in turn strongly implies a bunch of setting material that’s necessary to provide the players with challenges. Because without any challenge, we could just narrate our way through these Arcs and spend all night shopping for new spells and powers.
I’m not sure any formal Flag procedures out there actually address any of this, other than the ones with incentive schemes. And as I mentioned above, those only work for the players who are actually incentivized by those schemes.
Honestly, I don’t have many answers here. Authority, responsibility, credibility, interpersonal style and investment are all core to the rest of gaming, so it’s no surprise that collisions or malfunctions at any level causes problems. I guess my advice (to myself, mostly) is to look closely at all those things whenever anything weird happens at the table, but specifically when I’m soliciting solid, actionable creativity. Flags, in particular, I think shine the brightest light on players who might prefer less light. Less commitment. A gentler grasp on their own reins. It’s a matter of taste, in the end, and not all players might like it.