Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Flow-er Model: Step 4-7

This is the third part on the Flow-er Model. The first part is here.

Step 4-7 in The Flow-er Model concerns the process of play, it concerns how the players' input to the game are handled.

4. Agency (The will to grow)

The will to grow is what makes a plant out of a seed. Agency, to take action, to make decisions, is what makes play. Without choices, you're not playing a game anymore, or even interacting with the others. No matter if the choices are tactical, in-character or story ones - As long as they feel meaningful to the players, they will involve, activate and energize the players.

If you have a safe and secure environment (2), a clear and inspiring vision (3) and an openness for everyones' input, the players will jump to get involved in your game and start interacting with it! Active players means energy for your game and fun for everyone.

Now, I talk a lot about improv roleplaying, but I actually quite like D&D 4th ed. as well. What?!

Well, that game places player agency in its combat instead. Combat isn't planned, it's just a collection of conditions: These people have these powers, these people have these. They are at this place, and they have opposed interests. Now, let's see what happens! That is a very open setup, one that invites player input with cool powers. Also, between the encounters, our DM let's us mill around and explore his world at our leisure, going with the flow on our ideas and initiatives.

5. Blocking (Obstacles)
When players contribute to your game, they're adding valuable energy to it. Blocking is saying "No" to these contributions and energy. Blocking are big, ugly rocks in the way of your growth.

Instead of saying no, say yes. Say "Yes, and..." or say "Yes, but..." or say "Yes, if..." to other players' ideas. Take their contributions, accept them, and build on them.

That does not mean you shouldn't provide adversity to the players! You can definitly provide adversity by building on other players' contributions:
Don't take away their stuff, but let their stuff put them in trouble instead.
Let them see the impossible to see-high ranking official by their ludicrous plan, but have him angered by their hijinks and demand something from them.
Don't cancel out something that the player's have spent energy to obtain or plan or create, just raise the stakes instead - Add another risk, or raise the cost of failure.
Let the player's decide if it's still worth doing. Let the player's keep their agency and momentum.
Always build on top of what you get. Never take away.

And here is the big problem of pre-planning: When you've planned ahead of play, there is a right and a wrong, independently of what the characters are interested in. You have an investment in your ideas, you've already spent energy on them, and this means that at some point you are going to say "No" when you could have said "Yes", or you're going to let the characters head off in a direction you do not intend to build on yourself. In either case, you lose valuable energy and movement for your game.

When the players' wants to do something, that's a great opportunity for you as a GM. That's where their energy is, right now! That's what their interested in! Go there, meet your players where they are, and you'll have great reserves of player's energy and enthusiasm to scoop from and add to your game.

A big flaw in traditional game design is that skill checks are, essentially, blocking. You want do something - Great, either the game system let's you, or it says "No, you can't". It doesn't say "Yes, if..." or even "No, and...", it just says "no".

Crassly speaking, skill checks could be considered a blocking tool for the GM to keep the player's from straying off the right path of the scenario.

6. Clarity (Water)
Like water, both you and the game needs to be clear and transparent, or you will be blocking each other inadvertantly.

If the game rules are confusing and hard to learn, you will need to stop play and consult them. Only when you've mastered a game will it flow without interruption. So... don't design games that are impossible to master! (Duh.) Complex rules, sure, if you're okay with the player's spending the first sessions learning your game. Confusing, unclear and inconsistent rules, not so okay. Your players will never master those.

Also, the players need to be open and clear on what their intentions and interests are, what their visions are, either through conversation or through the system. Has the player's intentions and interests been clarified in step 3? (Shared vision) If not, the other player's are forced to guess, which makes nurturing difficult and blocking a hazard.

It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is for some practicioners of a hobby about talking with each other to actually talk with each other!

7. Yes, and... (Nurture)
"Yes, and..." is the opposite of blocking, it's taking another player's contribution and adding to it, nurturing contributions to make your game flow.

Mouse Guard is an example of a game that builds on player's contributions. When a player fails a roll, that doesn't mean sie can't do what sie wanted to do: Either trouble shows up, or sie accomplish what sie wanted, but at a cost, maybe getting angry, tired or lost. This adds more fuel to the story!

Is player reward, like XP, fate points, power points et cetera, a form of nurturing? Well, as long as it isn't a way to force the players to play a certain way, but rather something that stimulates the players and brings energy to the table - Sure!

A game can also invite the players to "Yes, and..." by providing inspiring output for the players to interpret. In the game Apocalypse World, when a character uses the move Sieze by force, you pick two or three keywords that define your action, and one them is "You impress, dismay or frighten your enemy". I can say "Yes, I frighten my enemy!" and then add "and I do this by quickly stabbing him, drawing my blade back, licking the blood off it and looking hungrily at him!" See what happened there? The game gave me a contribution that I got to accept and build on, I interpreted it according to the fiction and what it inspired in me. You can read more on this in my post on Designing with "Yes, and..."

A player can be nurturing by being a good listener, meet other players where they are coming from, understanding their contributions and adding to them. A good, nurturing player also feels safe, (Step 2) and doesn't try too hard. Sie doesn't try to be awesome, which makes play feel forced and unnatural, instead sie is obvious. Sie simply keeps an attitude of curiousity, spontanity and interest.

If you wish to learn how to be a nurturing player, that's beyond this model. Go buy Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, which explains it in an extensive and accessible way. Just as The Flow-er Model, it is rooted in improv theatre, but there should be something for everyone in it.

If you wish to learn how to becoma a nurturing game designer, that book hasn't been written yet. I will post analyses of games that inspired flow in me on this blog though, under the label "the flow-er model". Check that out for my thoughts on game design that makes flow happen.

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