Earlier this week, I was having lunch with Marissa Kelly and Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games. Like helplessly addicted roleplaying nerds do, we were talking about games and all the adjunct bullshit. I mentioned in passing the transaction, which is a term of art I toss around without realizing it (it’s even on the revised glossary I’m working on). Mark wanted details, and that inspired me to unpack that idea here.
When I mention transaction or the transaction, I’m talking about the steps players engage in to settle outcomes in the fiction. The transaction, when I say it, is a subset of the much larger conversation in which all the play takes place. It’s also kind of outside “the conversation” since any given transaction invokes internal as well as external stuff. I feel like it’s important to call it out as a specific thing, and it’s become the nugget around I understand the fundamental characteristics of any game I’m playing.
For me, the transaction is the main thing I want to master if I’m looking for mastery in facilitating any kind of make-believe game. There are formal, mechanical transactions in almost all tabletop games I can think of, but there are also predictably functional and productive transactions in all the freeform and larp spaces I’ve been in as well. Discovering or developing a game’s transaction is what makes an experience work for me.
Every game or family of games has a distinct transaction. I strongly believe that attraction to or revulsion by a game’s transaction is at the heart of many “schools” of play and folks’ play preferences in general. But I also believe that a game’s text by itself cannot define the entirety of its transaction. The actual transaction is an alchemy between the rules and the players, and mostly the facilitator since they’re usually the ones tasked with mastering the most common transaction: the ones between a player and the facilitator.
I’m going to describe a few different transactions I’ve developed, to illustrate what I mean when I say they’re distinct rituals.
Scum and Villainy/Forged in the Dark
I’ve played enough of Scum and Blades now to see that their transactions are largely identical. That makes them pretty interchangeable, easy to learn one if you know the other, and so on.
The Scum transaction starts and ends whenever a player needs to resolve an action. So, like, this is not the same as me going to a Fortune Die roll or asking for a resistance test. Those are usually so small and one-sided that I wouldn’t call them transactions.
1. I present the situation, which usually includes either an obstacle to overcome or an immediate threat to deal with. “The Vignerions are on to your bullshit! Their clock filled up. So their supersoldiers lock onto the team. You’re caught inside the auction house warehouse with the security shield up.”
2. I ask the table in general (if it’s a group-wide obstacle/threat) or a specific player how they’re gonna deal with it.
a. I start in the fiction, and return to it as the players offer up actions they might roll.
i. If the action fits and is an obvious choice, I’ll stick to the established Position (controlled, risky or dangerous)
ii. If the action is not what I was expecting, I might consider changing the Position. So there’s some advantage to the players to do this.
b. If the players are stuck, I’ll offer obvious choices but always say “but I can’t tell you what to roll.”
3. The players put the chosen action’s dice out.
4. I state or restate their Position, and check in that everyone’s on the same page.
a. I’ll lightly sell my Position statement as naturally correct, because I’ve got the best perspective on the whole thing.
b. Other players might mention things I’ve forgotten (unpossible!) and I might change my mind. Mostly, though, I ask them to hold those ideas for the Effect bit down below.
5. I ask if they’re pushing for a die or if they want to hear a Devil’s Bargain.
a. If they’re pushing, they mark the stress
b. Mostly they’ll ask for a Devil’s Bargain. I’ll look at my obvious go-to Bargains: heat, use up a resource, start or tick a clock. There will probably be others but those are all easy in the moment.
i. They say yea or nay to the Bargain.
6. I ask if they’re using a Gambit. Table talk usually ensues because it’s a shared resource.
7. I ask if anyone is helping, and/or if anyone has a flashback they want to do to execute a setup.
a. If someone helps, I ask how and push them on the fictional position of that help. Sometimes they’ll withdraw the help if it doesn’t make sense.
b. Occasionally I’ll remind them that they’ve already set up due to a previous roll.
c. I’ll do the Flashback, nesting this entire transaction inside the bigger transaction: build a pool, push or bargain, ask for help, gambit, usually no Effect to speed things up, roll.
8. I state the effect level, which ends the die pool assembly. This is usually Regular, unless we’ve established the whole Job is at a higher Tier. If they’re facing something specific and new of higher Tier, this is where that fact is revealed.
a. I also check in about anyone’s relevant Fine gear in play. Fine gets you an effect level. Some playbook powers also do, but when I ask for gear that gets them looking at the playbook as well.
9. I describe what they get as Regular, then Lesser, then Greater effect levels. I’ll do this no matter what level they’ve started at, but if it’s not Regular I’ll reiterate along the lines of “so if you roll right now, it’s risky position with the lesser effect” or whatever.
10. I ask if they’re pushing for Effect. They mark stress as necessary.
11. I ask if they’re shifting position for Effect.
a. I mention again what position they ended at after step 6.
b. They decide in either direction. Usually there’s a little table talk.
12. I restate the final position and effect and ask for the roll. Super important step to solidify everyone’s buy-in.
13. If they rolled under 6, I look at the position’s table for the outcome. 6 and crits are easy.
a. If it’s higher than a 3, the very first thing I’ll say is “yup, that happened.” This is mostly for me so I don’t step on their success if there are also consequences.
b. If it’s a 4-5, I’ll read the consequence line verbatim. “Desperate says severe harm and or serious complication …hmm.” This is mostly theatrics because it puts them in a good head to resist a little later.
14. If it was risky I’ll mention earning a gambit. If it was desperate I’ll mention the XP. So important for door-prize reasons.
15. If they didn’t roll a 6, I’ll immediately ask if they want to resist.
a. I do this every time because I want the players running their stress clocks all the time.
b. Unless it’s a Controlled roll, in which case I’ve decided any resistance resists the whole consequence, I’ll also state what they’re left with even after a resistance roll. We’re running a “gritty” game and resistances almost never get you away clean.
c. Each consequence gets its own resistance opportunity.
16. If they roll to resist, I’ll immediately restate what they’re left with, and then restate their success per step 13. If they critted they reduce stress by 1. More huzzah! This is the step at which I get to really play up their badassery. This and a well-executed flashback.
17. If they trauma out, we talk about how they’re taken out of the scene.
18. I’ll check back in to make sure everyone got their gambit or XP.
Spelling it all out in excruciating detail like that sounds awful, amirite? And that’s why this is the thing I aim to master when I’m developing system mastery, so this transaction happens fast, nobody stalls out at any step of it, and there’s minimal weaseling around any given step. If stalling out does happen, that usually means the players have also mastered the transaction such that they’ve got a firmer grasp of the negotiable steps – position, effect, or resistance outcomes in this case – and that means I’ll need to evolve the transaction a bit to accommodate. That happened in our last game of Scum and so I’m thinking about what I might change going forward. Possibly nothing! But I’m thinking about it.
One thing I really want to call out is that there are little stagecraft flourishes that I’ve developed that are most certainly part of the transaction. Like I’ll underplay the Devil’s Bargain because I want to entice them into taking the die. I’ll overplay their stress track while they’re grubbing for dice and then underplay their stress track when they’re resisting. I’ll enthusiastically describe the Greater outcome level when asking if they want to push or shift for effect.
I’ve played tons and tons of Burning Wheel but it’s also been a few years. But it’s got a really specific transaction that’s worth talking about:
1. If it sounds like the player is formulating a plan, I’ll ask them for their intent. “Okay at the player level, what is it you’re trying to achieve?” Experienced players will usually state this before I have to ask. I might just Say Yes at this point and move on, transaction over.
2. Then I’ll ask them how they’re going about it. That sets the skill being used.
a. If the skill is a stretch, I need them to sell me on it.
3. I’ll ask if this touches a Belief or Instinct. This usually means I move to one of the scripted minigames (Fight!, Duel of Wits, or Range and Cover), which is a whole different transaction.
4. If it seems super easy or boring, I’ll just Say Yes at this point and we move on. This is not great play because BW’s advancement system frequently requires boring-but-easy rolls. I’ve developed this habit mostly from convention play.
5. If I’ve got an inkling of a failure consequence in mind, I’ll have them continue. If not, I’ll revisit 4.
6. I’ll think about the target number, but usually not too hard. I’m lazy so mostly I’ll just say “okay, you’re looking for 3 successes.” If they’ve chosen a skill with an established target number system (it’s a BW Gold thing) we use that. Sometimes I’ll throw in some “yikes” to make them feel better if it ends up really high.
7. The player puts together a die pool.
a. They start with the skill they’re rolling.
b. They justify each field of related knowledge (FoRK) die. I ask “and what does that look like?” each time, which usually culls big reaches. If they’re eager for a reachy die, I’ll make a note to include that in the consequence step.
c. I’ll ask if anyone’s helping.
d. I’ll swing back and ask about linked tests and situational advantages.
e. I’ll do my level best to give them a die at my own discretion, and repeat that they can both lobby for a die and I can give them a die. This is theatrical. It’s a reassurance that I’m on their side.
8. I’ll restate their intent
9. I’ll state the consequence of failure and listen for pushback. Some experienced players, and certain kinds of “I’d rather talk the GM into what I want” players will push back.
a. I’ll weigh the pushback for validity. If it feels weaselly, I’ll ask for a different skill so we can discuss different consequences.
10. I ask for artha being spent. I use tokens to track all this in BW, again for theatrical reasons. If it’s a versus test with an NPC in play, I’ll make a big show of pushing NPC artha tokens into the middle of the table first.
11. They roll and look for successes.
a. If they succeed, huzzah, I usually congratulate them.
b. If they fail, I restate the consequence and make it so.
12. I’ll mention marking their skill for stat for advancement and help them figure out what level of test it was after the fact. The chart’s in my head.
See, Burning Wheel’s transaction is quite a bit shorter than Blades/Scum. But this is just the Versus test. Versus tests are just easier than any given Scum roll, but it also requires less conversation from both the player and GM. That’s a big part, for me, of deciding if I “like” a game: does its transaction prompt good conversation?
Not all PbtA games have the same transaction but a lot of them are frequently similar.
1. We start looking at moves for one of two reasons: something they’ve done in the fiction triggers one, or the player wants to make a move and needs to shape the fiction into a trigger. This means I’m kind of acting out a perpetual validation gate, which means knowing the common moves at the very least. If there’s a move on a playbook that might get triggered inadvertently, I’ve made a note of that somewhere.
a. If they’ve stumbled into a move, I check in to make sure they’re okay making that move. Sometimes they retcon the fiction to back out of that.
b. If they’re pushing the fiction toward the trigger, I’ll make sure what they’re doing actually fits the trigger.
2. They grab a pair of dice and one of us will state what stat is getting added.
3. I’ll ask the table if anyone’s helping, usually with a reminder that they may share the consequences.
4. They roll and read the move’s rules for the result.
5. If I’m called on to cook up a 7-9 (ie Act Under Fire), I’ll look at the situation and why it’s unstable. Usually the 7-9s are self evident. Sometimes I’ll take this opportunity to recontextualize the situation, to put the players off-balance. Chaos and instability are a huge part of the AW aesthetic and this is the perfect prompt to invoke that aesthetic into the conversation.
6. If it was a 6-, I state “Okay you missed and I make a move.” I say it this way as a reminder to myself that they didn’t fail, because I fuck that up pretty easily. This is my reminder to think about it in terms of me making A Move, not necessarily A Move That Will Punish Them For Touching The Dice.
7. I’ll usually ask about highlighted stats and whether they’ve earned an XP. My players mostly forget to do this.
AW’s transaction looks like the shortest one here! But that step 1 bit is a channel I leave constantly open. That’s where the cognitive load of the game is for me, so thankfully the transaction is pretty snappy in most cases.
I feel like I’ve mastered any given game’s transaction when the mechanical steps feel fast and natural to the point that I can introduce some stagecraft to the whole process. If I’m just grunting out “roll for initiative, who hits first?” over and over, either the game’s offering a boring transaction (i.e. it asks too little of the conversation) or I haven’t actually mastered it yet.
In other news: all this talk about how I work out a game’s transaction has me thinking more about that thing for which we do not yet have a word: Playing an RPG by the rules because we earnestly feel the rules produce the best experience for us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this one ever since it came up here a few weeks ago. Most of my ideas are unwieldy, or pejorative toward other modes of play, or I’ve formulated it as an –ism which is a notoriously quick way to start a vast flame war. Gamers!
My current best idea is rawplaying. Derived from RAW, or “rules as written.” Very common term of art describing, sometimes pejoratively, what play looks like when you follow the rules as written. I felt like the bad times RAW gets spooled out are pretty easy to spot early, as they frequently come attached to “roleplaying not rollplaying” and “we never even touched the dice!”
So. Rawplaying. Try it on for size. It’s not my final answer but it’s my best idea so far.