What. Does. It. Look. Like.

A scene from Mutant: Genlab Alpha

Player 1: “We need to talk this dog into giving back your stuff. I guess Dominate is the persuasion skill of this game?”

Me: “Yeah but it’s literally dominating. It’s not uh…a wide open social skill.”

Player 2: “I got this. Hey dog, come on man, just give us our stuff back.

Me: “That doesn’t sound very dominating.”

Player 2: “Yeah. Um uh. Okay dog, give us the stuff and we’ll trade you something good.

Me: “Ehhh. Is a fair trade deal really domination?”

Player 2: “Yeah, yeah, I hear you.”

Player 1: “This is ridiculous.”

Me: “Dunno man. Reasoned arguments aren’t a thing in this game. Dominate means dominate. Body language, threats, bared teeth.”

Player 2: “You’ll give us our shit because you’re weak and we’re strong and we’ll just take it anyway.”

Me: “Yeah! Domination!”


What Does That Look Like?

There’s this GMing thing I do, like, almost all the time. It’s my go-to instinct when I can feel player wheedling for advantage, exploring mechanisms for an edge. I stop them and I ask, “Okay, but how does that look in the fiction?”

Happens all the time in Burning Wheel, for example: the player will start throwing together a die pool out of whatever skills and wises feel right. But if I stop them and say “but how does that look in the fiction?” more often than not they can’t actually rationalize the bonus. Same with Cortex Plus, when we were playing Firefly, and it was one of my beefs with the game: the widgets and handles you can grab for dice are often not written in a way that demand they look like anything at all.

What does that look like in the fiction isn’t just a no-fun GM measure against players abusing bonuses, it is IMO the whole point of sitting at that table.

Fuck Your Fluff

Which brings me to one of my most-hated trad gaming things ever, “crunch versus fluff.” This is up there, maybe even surpasses, ye olde “roleplaying or roll-playing” thing. The fluff is bullshit, the crunch is what “matters.” The fluff is just there to rationalize the crunch.

Man…you want a quick lesson in how misguided this is, play a talky-talky freeform game. It’s all fiction. There is no angling for mechanical advantage because there are no mechanisms.

Sometimes I think about a world in which the assumptions are reversed. As in, the crunch exists to rationalize the fluff. But we wouldn’t call it fluff would we? It’d have deferential, admiring slang. It’d maybe be the meat. (Apologies to the vegans.) And the crunch would need to be slightly sneered at, right? It’d be something dismissable, like the homework.

“The homework does a pretty good job of really supporting the meat of the game” or somesuch. Or “the homework is okay, doesn’t get in the way of the meat.”

But of course this is equally silly, yeah? The one ideally supports and reinforces the other. Virtuous cycle, inextricably linked, procedures and fiction talking to one another. I don’t know about you, but that’s my personal ideal in an RPG (and why I binge on freeforms at cons, to help counterbalance my fiction-loving brain and heart against the inescapable procedural bits of my home games).

But if you don’t stop and ask just how it is a skill or an advantage is actually being deployed in the fiction, there’s no cycle at all. I’m just done with lists of mechanical advantages that look like nothing and mean nothing and require nothing. Math for math’s sake. The mechanics talk to the fiction but the fiction doesn’t get to talk back.

Don’t know that anything in particular triggered this particular rant. Just been thinking about it because it comes up like all the time. The trick is to deploy this technique without necessarily stopping up their excitement, their flow. Rolling dice and winning rolls is fun! And it’s so easy for that excitement to win to outrun the point of the whole exercise.

0 thoughts on “What. Does. It. Look. Like.”

  1. Virtuous cycle, inextricably linked, procedures and fiction talking to one another.

    Yup. “Fluff” and “crunch” is a relic of a time when everyone knew of course the two had nothing to do with each other. Boo.

  2. I swear, I should bring a flyswatter to the table for the players who reach for the dice before they’ve even explained what’s happening inside the game itself.

  3. I gotta say, though, I am guilty of doing it sometimes, myself: I will sometimes try to rationalize the fiction after, rather than describe it first and then rationalize the mechanism.

  4. John Love I think it’s pretty realistic for these games to work both ways, right? Like, players look at their sheets all the time for the best tool they can bring to bear to get what they want. Or they find themselves fictionally positioned so that thus-and-such a roll/procedure is the only reasonable thing to be done at that moment.

    I mean as long as the procedure or bonus or benefit looks like something inside the game I’m okay.

  5. This is why I prefer systems with unified mechanics, a broad sense of creative agency and a fairly detailed character sheet: it allows the player to start from the fiction, and whenever something is said that seems to require mechanical adjudication, the GM can easily find something on the sheet to handle the roll.  One reason why Iron Crown systems were favorites of mine back in days of yore (today my systems accomplish the same thing with much less math).

    That said, however, there are several reasons why the situation you describe can arise.  Sure sometimes it’s just jerky players who want to dominate the game, but it might also mean they’re feeling railroaded or ignored, or perhaps the narration has bored them, and they’re just champing at the bit for some way to influence things rather than being influenced by them.

  6. This. So much this.

    When I have a player who starts to pick up the dice early and roll before justifying them, I don’t even count it. “You’re just playing with dice. Let me know when you’re ready to talk about your skill check.”

    Doing this with FreeMarket is the craziest fun. Getting into the minutiae of body language or growing something in a challenge is where that game shines.

  7. A related conversation from The Sprawl, in which a player really really wants to earn a couple [intel] points.

    Him: “I want [intel] points.”

    Me: “Sure, that’s gonna be Research. How are you doing that.”

    Him: “Uhh…that’s a Mind thing, I’m terrible at that.”

    Me: “So roll anyway. Maybe I’ll make a move, whatever.”

    Him: “But I want that [intel.]”

    Me: “Maybe you’re not the guy for the job?”

    Etc etc for literally 15 minutes, some variation on “I want an alternative to earning X that I can actually accomplish.”‘

    Which you’d think was no different than a Thief who can’t swing a broadsword but hey, a Thief can totes pick up a broadsword, it’s just fluff that they use daggers and shit.

  8. I have the same problem. I have lost a lot of my patience for games with craptons of feats and stuff. That said, I sometimes have a real taste for the “crunch”. Ideally, engagement with the mechanics should force good fiction. It’s not a very common occurrence.

  9. Absolutely. This is becoming top of my annoyance list. For me a some of the time it’s not a problem, at other times it’s an annoyance that I choke back and move on. But there are those times where the game halts because mechanics and fiction don’t line up and trying to get them to usually ends up with a player feeling screwed or me dropping it to keep things going.

    I think if there’s any one sticking point that runs me the most raw is movement in combat. Like you are moving from A – B but that’s what you are doing over the course of a round. Your movement isn’t happening in isolation of everyone else. This is one of things I lump. But we’ve had some great discussions where the fiction can’t line up with the mechanics and sides aren’t willing to budge.

  10. This reminds me vaguely of a time when we were playing Apocalypse World and one of the players picks up the dice, rolls, and says “crap I missed,” and I was like wait WTF were you even rolling for?

  11. I’m sympathetic to people who are just like, “Diplomacy! I Diplomacy the guy” especially when they are stuck and trying to get the game moving in some way. I’m less sympathetic to people who don’t learn what the actual mechanic is (like, Diplomacy in D&D is not a “persuade people you are right” skill) that they’re grasping for. Sometimes through nobody’s fault the game kind of grinds down a bit and you need a bit of a jump start to get it going, and for a player, that means they reach for a mechanic.

  12. Jason Corley oh yeah, that definitely happens. I think if the GM is badly tone-deaf to the table’s vibe, if they’re just sitting there waiting for the players to make a mechanically appropropriate decision, that’s a whole ‘nother problem.

    I ran into that at my Timewatch table at Rincon last month. I stared and stared at my character sheet hoping it would reveal some path forward, because the fiction was so poorly set up that there were no obvious handles to grab. That’s totally a pacing/GMing thing, can’t really blame the system (although it’s tempting, because Gumshoe 😛 ).

  13. I think you found my next script tattoo! What does it look like? in Wizard Voice letters around the wheel.

    I have a whole parallel rant queued up about PbtA games, and Moves, and (i’m-a say it) lazy play that I will maybe barf forth sometime.

  14. I think my group had serious issues with this when I was running Burning Wheel for them. They were entrenched in the ‘Well, I have this skill, I roll it’ manner of play. When it came time in BW to state your intent…they had problems. It’s not necessarily a piece that snaps into the whole puzzle in a single, non-negotiable way.

    Whenever I stopped them and asked, “But how?” play would occasionally end in a standstill. FoRKs especially caused problems for some. “How does that FoRK work?” “It just does, doesn’t it?” And I wasn’t always asking because RULES ARE RULES, but sometimes I wanted them to come up with something clever or how that particular skill/FoRK actually worked in that situation in the fiction, opposed to it just does.

  15. I think the root of this are 3 things:

    1. Failures are not fun or interesting, of which they should be. Which leads to…

    2. Everyone (including the GM) is trying to avoid the failures by piling on bonuses, re-rolls, bennies, and whatever. There’s no motivation to justify the bonuses because no one at the table wants a failure, which leads to…

    3. Why even make it a roll? Just Gumshoe it and give it to them or just tell them to enjoy the ride on the railroad.

  16. I had a fun experience with the crunch vs fluff thing the first time I took two trad players through a real Microscope scene. We had all played Microscope in the past, just with dictated scenes. And it was certainly cool. But I challenged them to roleplay a scene.

    We had a world of artists beset by demons, and it was art and beauty that was able to hold the fiends at bay. The guy playing the big named hero of the period pied-pipered some demons into a volcano, but had to dive in himself or else they wouldn’t follow. The guy gave a speech to his unnamed squire and everything, dove to his doom, and they were both happy as shit that they just killed the traditional fantasy hero type they had both created.

    But on the flip side, I’ve also had a guy in DW tell me that “bards suck because they can’t deal damage”. Feckin’ people…

  17. Gary Montgomery I’m pretty sure I know how it goes! I have a player (same player, it turns out, who thinks a skill called Dominate is a catch-all talky skill and argued with me about The Sprawl) who is pretty forthright about not “getting” Moves. Definitely parallel problems.

  18. Adam Day, if you think that’s hard, try to enforce the Mouse Guard rule of “if you come up with the plan, you roll the dice”!

    That and the Player/GM turn rule kind of go in the face of “what does it look like”, which I think makes some shy away from MG.

  19. I have mixed feelings about this. I dislike FoRK-wheedling, too. Way back, someone suggested a format of you say what you do, then only after do you decide if FoRKs/Helping dice apply, but I find that hard to stick to.

    On the other hand, in a large game with many children players, helping by rolling the dice seems to be fun for them, and spotlight grabs tend to be aggressive. So when someone finally has a chance to do something uninterrupted, it’s quite functional in a fun/minute sense for other players to just shout, “I wanna help!” and they can roll.

    There’s something about the moment when player one rolls that’s a kind of cut off – we’re about to move to consequences, so if you’re not rolling dice now, you’re not involved.

  20. Paul Beakley Timewatch is actually one of the more robust means of non disruptively doing this because in that game introducing a continuity error is literally a mechanic.

  21. Jesse Coombs Ahh, my two least favorite things about MG in one post 😉

    Paul Beakley I’ve had to be pretty stern in the past about “what does that look like?” and its sibling “does that really help?” in Fate of all systems. I’ve found Fate has a bullshit threshold that needs to be tip-toed around. It comes up when, like FoRKing, players start trying to make anything into an Advantage. And, like, I’m not here to say No You Can’t Have Any Advantages… But at some point I have to be like “no, sorry guys, this is getting silly”

  22. You remember The Clay That Woke doesn’t work like this? The fiction determines if you use the resolution mechanics. Then players strategize their resource contribution based on the outcome they want, without having to rationalize it. And then the generated outcome is interpreted by roleplaying.

  23. Paul Czege I do, and I recognize that #notallrpgs work exactly the same way, but I’d put Clay pretty close to the freeform line because of the way the krater draw works. Which is useful only for internal categorizing, and maybe turning some tools off and other tools on.

  24. I’ve played RPGs with actors. That stuff turns into “My Dining Room: The LARP” with people jumping on tables and chairs and doing stage combat… so there’s probably a happy medium to between the wheedler and the table-jumper.

  25. Yeah, I mention it just as an example of other functional dynamics. I’m with you on the substance of your rant for all the games that work as you describe.

  26. Paul Czege also: I’m totally looking forward to that moment the first time I run Clay where someone starts grabbing for their tokens to toss into the bowl (because they want something) and I have to hold up my hand and say “wait.” Because they haven’t triggered the very specific moments that require a draw, which I thought about after I posted my comment. Having not actually run it yet, I’m just speculating.

  27. I have found a good way to remove the habit of forming moves based solely on the strengths in a character sheet is to remove it from their hands. I don’t do it forever, but after a few sessions the “how do I build the biggest die pool?” dies down. They tell us what they want it to look like and and we roll. Maybe it is five dice maybe it is ten, maybe more. They learn that it doesn’t need to be a hundred dice to get the job done and it reinforces the need for a stronger story over some idea of winning..

  28. Paul Beakley that “wait” moment does happen. You don’t just hit the mechanics when you first recognize one of the specific situations. You need to roleplay into situations a bit, to the point where it feels like you absolutely can’t move forward without consulting the mechanics.

  29. To get very specific about Genlab Alpha, one thing I’m still fuzzy about is the way rank is measured and reflected in the fiction. I think that’s something I want to explore a bit more at the table, since the things that determine rank in the sheet should be visible in the fiction when you set up the move

  30. Paul Beakley well I’m not so sure. The mechanical inputs to my rank are
    1. I’m old as heck
    2. I’m a healer
    I think both of those should be pretty obvious to some random animal, but the how that changes their reaction I’m less clear on.

  31. Jonathan Perrine Yeah. But will every character that’s old as heck be a higher rank? Will every healer be a higher rank?

    A battle-scarred character is probably going to be experienced at fighting. There might be unusual reasons why you “misread” that clue.

    A healer with the right gear is probably going to be experienced at healing. A non-healer might not be able to recognise if they have “the right gear” or just “healing stuff”, or a thief who stole from a good healer might have that gear and you “misread” the clue, etc.

    But I think systems where an attribute may apply to the mechanics, or might not, gets confusing. Are those battle scars indicative of a high rank, or just indicative of someone being fictionally descriptive? In this game, do the two go together or not?

  32. This is probably less of an issue for the circles I’ve been running in because the touchstones these circles have include the GM asking “But what does that look like?” thanks to actual play videos.

  33. Super interesting discussion here!

    I want to add my two cents talking about two games that are very dear to me:

    At the moment I’m playing Dogs in the Vineyard with my group. In DitV when you put forward your two dice for the raise, you need to describe what you are doing, because otherwise the other players don’t know how they can see it. I often ask “ok, but what are you doing exactly? What do I have to do if I take the blow?
    It’s a bit different than with traits (which are what we are mainly talking about here), but it’s an important interaction between “crunch” and “fluff”

    The other game that does something similar is Kagematsu: first, you just can’t roll dice, you need to reach a point where the player of Kagematsu feels you could earn that display of affection you are going for. Then, it’s the dice that tell you if you get or don’t get that display of affection, but how you do it is important, not only for your own satisfaction (is it a forced kiss? is it passionate? is it cold and stiff? is it tender and lovely? fierce? angry?), but also because that determines if you get Love or Pity from Kagematsu.
    And another mechanic I find brilliant are the acts of desperation: mechanically, you can just grab dice and roll. But the cost you pay is 100% “fluff”, but boy, does it hurt! Are you willing to threaten Kagematsu for that kiss? Are you insulting him to get a gift?
    I think Kagematsu is one of the games that best shows how important “fluff” can be 😀

    Talking about the main topic again, I’m a player who tries to visualize what is happening, and I often ask “ok, but how does it look like?”, even when I’m not the GM. I like to ask that not only because sometimes it’s not clear, but also because often it makes people really think about their character: maybe the characters do something the players didn’t expect them to do, or maybe the players realize they actually don’t want the character to do it.

    This also makes me think of Apocalypse World’s “to do it, do it”: you can’t just roll the dice, you need to say what your character does to activate a move. (also, if you do it, do it, you can’t say you do something that activates a move without then actually rolling the dice, take responsibility of your actions! :D)

    I also want to reply to Micah Shaeffer about taking away the character sheets: while I can understand the benefits, I would find it difficult and less satisfying to play without all the traits of my character at hand. If you just asked me to tell you how my character does something, without the sheet at hand, I’d prbably pull off a dull description. I love the mechanic of traits*, because they are a great help to go from an idea of a character to implementation: I can imagine my character being big and strong, but if it never shows in fiction, it’s a quirk my character has only in my head, it has no meaning. If I have the trait “big and strong”, then I’m encouraged to include it in the fiction, to describe how being big and strong helps my character do things, or how it goes into his way.

    * as in DitV or Primetime Adventures, i.e. a descriptive bit about your character that you can include into the fiction to have mechanical bonuses

  34. In a Pathfinder campaign, we have a Paladin with maxed out Diplomacy who tends to end his reasonable proposals with: “…or else!”. The GM makes him roll Intimidate every time.

    Also, I struggle with Pathfinder abilities that don’t look like anything in the game.

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