We’re all basically familiar with Newton’s laws of motion. They are three:
1. If no force is exerted on an object, it does nothing (or, what it was doing before)
2. Forces exerted on objects cause acceleration (change, basically)
3. For each reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction
Together they form the most basic formulation of a cause-effect chain. In essence they state what the effect of one set of actions is. This is a fundamental property of reality as we experience it. You can try to get to grips with this either through a Cartesian dissection into components, or by an approach to systemic modelling.
What I’ve been noticing over the last while is that this is not a fundamental property of roleplaying games. I have really specifically noticed this in the way I approach writing material for my two recent campaigns.
Acid Nights was sold to the players on the basis of a freedom from meta-plot. What I meant by this was that I did not have any kind of PC-specific global story into which they’d slot. There would, obviously, be world-scale events that would impact on them, but these events would not be targetted per se. This means that by-and-large my prep has been to look at existing NPCs and situations and try to anticipate where they will intersect with PC lives.
This is basically a cause-and-effect universe. If the PCs withdraw, then the world ticks by without them.
Gaslight was just the opposite. I recruited players based on a strong GM-driven meta-plot and controlled timeframe. The idea was that the characters would more-or-less fill forseeable story functions and make decisions that seemed obvious to me. I’ve run quite a few of these short-term highly plotted games, but this time something went horribly wrong. Instead of applying pressure to the characters according to my grand plan, I chucked out large sections of material in order to insert stuff that seemed more interesting for those specific characters.
The laws of cause-and-effect were misapplied to ensure story interest. I freely tinkered with any fact unknown to PCs, changed storylines and generally ran rough-shod over the operation of the universe outside of the PCs to deliver up interesting scenarios.
The whole universe existed, in other words, to create drama for my players.
These concepts work on an abstract level: in reality of course the entirety of both games exist solely for the players’ benefit. What changes is the GM’s approach to plotting and scheming. One, as alluded to above, is grounded in a kind of “real” or “physics-driven” universe, while the other is more melodramatic. I tend to think that a lot of “serious” novels and drama try very hard to build and maintain that feeling of real cause-and-effect, while soap operas and comedies happily warp reality to create desirable situations.
Thinking of the different approaches in this allegorical way brought to mind another similarly binary decision making process: task v. conflict resolution mechanics. In the discussion with milites on this topic, I explained the difference as being the operational level of the game system. Task resolution models the physics of the world, while conflict resolution is explicitly about the story that results. Conflict engines are, in this way, something akin to an integration of a task resolution system. That’s beside the point, but the analogy interests me strangely.
It seems like there should be a natural compatibility between using a conflict-engine and a story-shaped universe. Both are specifically about the story that gets told communally. We might see an inherent opposition between a physics-engine and a story-shaped universe, because the dictates of the story will on numerous occasions over-rule the implicit or explicit outcomes of a physics-engine.
However, there’s something of a catch here, and that’s the centrality of the word “story”. I slipped it in there quite deliberately, because the other binary pair that I have been thinking about and discussing with various wise people is where story and character separate. Let’s spend just a paragraph discussing why I might see these as potentially oppositional, rather than automatically syncronised.
Characters are active participants in stories. The decisions of the character will accrue into a story. However, as I’ve discussed before, and is well known generally, stories tend to have certain typical shapes. As long as you have characters appropriate to the story shape you will have natural congruity. However, sometimes the wrong characters end up in the story. A GM could look at their crime-fighting pulp heroes and find 5 characters more interested in botany or philately than masks and villains. It happens. In those circumstances, the character will try and do things which are anathema to the desired story shape and/or tone of the game.
When a GM is running a story-shaped game with a conflict-engine, they have two very powerful tools for enforcing their conception of what the game should be about. Through ignoring off-screen facts, whether express or implicit (but usually implicit) they can throw exactly the right sequence of bangs and beats at characters to shunt them the right way, and through winning conflicts in the conflict-engine, they can potentially overule player desire entirely when it comes to character behaviour. I’m not saying it inevitably works out this way, but the potential is there.
In comparison, in a story-shaped game with a physics-engine, the player always retains the final authority over what their character actually does. They might fail in their attempts to break the game mold, but the option is always open to them and can’t easily be done away with.
The question also arises as to what the GM’s motivation is for manipulating off-screen factoids. In Gaslight my main motivation was to try and find out what made the characters tick. By offering moral choices (such as power v. innocence) to characters, we got to see just how some characters worked. I had a lot of fun manipulating events to make the main PC hero seem like a villain, for example, to see how the group dynamic changed. Ultimately, I think it was my most successful game.
The danger is that with a conflict-engine, my pure motives might have easily led to framing some of those moral choices as conflicts using the game mechanic. Hence de-protagonizing the PC. This might have led to an even richer and more satisfying story, as PCs were forced down difficult routes in line with my earlier post about engaging with problems rather than solving them.
We might therefore see story-shaped universes and conflict-engines as natural allies, but also, we might see a physics-engine as a partial guarantor of PC protagonism. So the decision about which combination of engine & GM-approach can be made partially in light of whether story or character is more important to you. Having said this, a causality-shaped universe allied with a physics-engine is not necessarily the best arrangement for exploring characters, because as Luke has said in the past, a blank canvas can be the most challenging game environment.
Therefore, I’d suggest that a mix of styles is probably going to yield up the best environment for character. A story-shaped universe using a physics-engine with a “story supercharger” such as Drama points seems like it should work well. Obviously, your mileage may vary.