Conan the Contrarian: Creative Agendas in Conflict

I can’t stand it, I know you planned it
I’m gonna set it straight, this Watergate
I can’t stand rocking when I’m in here
‘Cause your crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear

So while you sit back and wonder why
I got this fucking thorn in my side
Oh my God, it’s a mirage
I’m tellin’ y’all, it’s a sabotage

—Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”

One of the most useful terms to come out of the controversial gaming forum called The Forge is the “creative agenda.” Sheared of excess verbiage, this boils down to what the player wants out of play. One may want to beat the opposition, explore an imaginary landscape, partake in witty in-character banter, or any combination of these and other things.

Conflict between players’ creative agendas can lead to conflict between players. Player A likes combat while Player B prefers diplomacy. They encounter a monster; A wants to fight and B wants to talk. What happens? Maybe there will be an argument at the table, and eventually one side or the other will prevail and play moves forward. More likely, Player A’s character will attack, rendering the point moot.

It is important to note here that conflicts between creative agendas are typically asymmetrical, in that it’s easy to take actions in support of some agendas that will preclude pursuit of the other agendas. Attack overcomes negotiation, while both inhibit stealth. Latching on to the Big Noble Quest thwarts sandbox-style roving exploration. I’m sure the reader can come up with other examples.

DM: You press on into the tree-lined ravine. Cave mouths yawn darkly up and down the slopes of the ravine. These are the Caves of Chaos, and your skin crawls as you consider what horrors may lie within. What are you doing?
Player 1: I follow the route to the wizards’ cave, moving quietly and staying low so as to avoid attention.
Player 2: Me too.
Player 3: Ditto.
Player 4: I climb atop the tallest rock I can find and shout, “Creatures of the Caves of Chaos! I am Dragoon Lancer Captain Era of the Company of the Crossed Swords! Be warned that we are here to destroy you!”

Of particular note is the agenda of interesting failure. This is a common theme in new-school play dealing with stories and thematic issues, and in such games it’s a very useful tool for fun and engaging play! But adversity in such games is generally provided by the player(s), and characters typically act on their own and take their own lumps. In old-school games where adversity is generated by the DM and your fellow players are expected—and expect—to work together, this can be a frustrating agenda to deal with, because not only does it oppose many other agendas, it typically trumps the others in play. If you poke the dragon, insult the king, conceal the villain’s weakness or push the shiny red button labeled “DOOM,” everyone else gets dragged into a disaster of your making.

A similar problem arises when a player seeks out conflict with the other players. Whether their agenda is catharsis or simply being the center of attention, such a player gets off on arguing in-character with the rest of the party. Such a player can easily bog a group down for a large part of a session by taking the opposite side in any debate about the party’s goals, strategies or tactics.

Players with contrarian agendas typically aren’t doing it to mess with everyone else’s fun. They may not recognize that other players have different agendas. More likely, they recognize the differences but fail to grasp the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, thinking that each player can do what’s fun for them and it’ll all even out in the end.

As always, this sort of thing needs to be calmly and frankly discussed by the players and the DM. People who enjoy one another’s company will find a way to compromise! And if compromise fails… well, that’s a subject for another post.

16 Responses to “Conan the Contrarian: Creative Agendas in Conflict”

  1. March 30, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Oh man, I’ve adventured with Dragoon Lancer Captain Era and I was pretty happy when he died!

  2. March 30, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Dragoon Lancer Captain Era perished later that session along with half of the first-level party, after he convinced them that a frontal assault on a bugbear lair was a good idea.

  3. March 30, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    The good news is that the title of Dragoon Lancer Captain is now vacant! I suspect that an emergent behavior arising from having this moniker is challenging cave-fuls of savage humanoids to come out and fight (ideally one another), and dare someone to assume that mantle and verify whether this is so.

  4. March 30, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I beg to differ! Empirical evidence suggests that this is an emergent behavior arising from Tavis participating in old-school role playing games. Nonetheless, I too would encourage someone to take up the mantle as an experiment. Let the scientific method prevail!

  5. March 30, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    A properly designed experiment would also require someone else to be me – ideally several people, some of whom are playing a Dragoon Lancer Captain and some not.

  6. 6 maldoor
    March 30, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Further, none of should be allowed to know which is the real & original Tavis, and which are the simulacra.

  7. March 30, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Certainly. Do we have any volunteers?

  8. March 30, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    But all humor aside, Tavis & Maldoor, I’d love to hear serious feedback on the subject.

  9. March 30, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Hi Eric –

    I’d modify this a bit in two ways:

    (1) In the Big Model, Creative Agenda is a group-level phenomenon. So a group can (a) have a Creative Agenda – in which case everyone there shares an overall goal in terms of their roleplaying – or (b) not have a Creative Agenda (or have an incoherent Creative Agenda) – in which case there isn’t an overall shared goal.

    (2) In the Big Model, the question “what you want out of play” is directed at a larger scale than your first set of examples. For example, let’s say that the group’s Creative Agenda is “We’re playing so that we can use our wits and imaginations to navigate a dangerous fictional world full of challenges, puzzles, and potential enemies”. In that kind of game, both fighting and diplomacy might be valid tactics. Disagreement between players over which tactic to choose in a given instance would not be a sign of a creative agenda clash, but it might be a sign of something else (like, if a player always choose to fight, that might be a sign of sub-optimal play).

    The “interesting failure” example is, I think, a clearer example of an agenda clash. If the group has the agenda I outlined above – “We’re playing so that we can use our wits and imaginations to navigate a dangerous fictional world full of challenges, puzzles, and potential enemies” – and a new player joins and starts making decisions that are meant to create the kind of themes found in lots of popular fiction, then I agree you’ll have the problems you suggested.

    One of the interesting things I noted about about the White Box sessions I played in is that while I think there was definitely a core Creative Agenda, it wasn’t a very brittle one and could accomodate individuals not being completely “on board” with it around the edges.

  10. March 30, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Hi Jon!

    While I am appropriating Forge terminology here, I wish to use it purely in layman’s terms. I don’t want our readers to feel that they’re expected to either know of or agree with the Big Model, nor do I feel that such knowledge is necessary to deal with the issues at hand. Let’s keep the discussion contained to this thread rather than opening up the whole GNS can of worms.

    So, to be clear, I’m not talking about a group’s collective agenda (your Creative Agenda with capital C and A). I’m talking about each player’s individual agenda. More specifically, I’m talking about the friction between conflicting agendas and the impact this has on play.

    One of the interesting things I noted about about the White Box sessions I played in is that while I think there was definitely a core Creative Agenda, it wasn’t a very brittle one and could accomodate individuals not being completely “on board” with it around the edges.

    Actually, I’d say that our White Box game only functions because not everyone is completely “on board” with the communal agenda. That’s because most players’ individual agendas prioritize successful play, which in this context means minimizing risk while maximizing reward. This leads to analysis/paralysis as more players chime in on any given disagreement about what to do next. We typically break out of these analysis/paralysis loops because a player whose agenda does not include minimizing risk gets sufficiently bored to take action.

  11. March 30, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    The label “contrarian” implies that being at odds with other players is the goal. I’m hesitant to make that assumption, or even to state that the person who breaks out of a disagreement loop doesn’t have successful play or risk minimization as an agenda. I feel like:

    – people’s ideas about risk may vary; there was no way for players to know ahead of time whether disturbing the trash on the staircase would be group-endangering and that someone who did so was being anti-social, or if everyone who feared doing so was being overly risk-sensitive and that the person who stepped up to do something was being a good player

    – the desire to have a non-brittle group agenda in which serious descussion is kept to a minimum and individual action doesn’t always have to be pre-approved is not intrinsically contrarian

    To use the example of Era the Elf: the Caverns of Chaos were, I suspected, filled with a organized bands of creatures which grossly outnumbered us. Venturing into their caves gives them the home field advantage; luring them out by a threat lets the party see what they’re dealing with, decide to run before being split up by terrain or traps, and hope to profit from two or more groups both coming out to kill us and fighting one another instead.

    I suspect that the discussion of creative agenda makes more sense in a game where players have dramaturgical powers. I’m not sure it’s a useful tool for old-school D&D.

  12. March 31, 2010 at 1:18 am

    Dude! I support your use of creative agenda, but your portrayal of interesting failure is libelous character assassination. It has nothing to do with a “poke the dragon” goofball hijinks creative agenda. It is, instead, a backlash against “nothing happens,” which is when you roll the dice and then nothing happens.

    People were playing with a goofball hijinks creative agenda long before the interesting failure meme was developed. Either in a Contrarian manner, by playing a Dwarf named Fukkitup in D&D, whose reaction to everything was ATTACK!, or by playing Toon and Paranoia (which then becomes Contrarian when you are not actually playing Toon and Paranoia).

    If this kind of agenda is a reaction against rolling to pick a lock every couple minutes until you succeed or the GM rolls a random monster, I dunno. But interesting failure certainly is. It’s a tool to make sure something always happens when you roll the dice, so that rolling dice always moves the game/plot/story/action forward, instead of presenting road blocks.

  13. March 31, 2010 at 2:11 am

    @Johnstone: I’ve thought that rolling to get through the door would be fun if you made it into a dice contest vs. the DM – each turn everyone throws down their dice, and you see whether you get it open before the DM gets a monster. In practice, though, I’ve tended to forget the OD&D rule that all doors are stuck or locked, and when I tried to re-introduce it in Blackmoor Dungeons none of them stood up to Eric’s character’s powered armor! Eric, how do you decide whether doors are locked/stuck in your campaign?

    “Poke the dragon” is a good example of why I think the creative agenda lens isn’t useful for old-school gaming. If you’re in a game where there’s a lot of agreement on how actions produce reaction, or where players are given control over consequences, you can be sure that the dragon-poker has a troublemaking agenda. In a game where players have limited information and the DM is always trying to outwit them, the dragon-poker might very well be trying to achieve the same get-rich agenda as everyone else but in a different way: “No way is there a real red dragon asleep on this level, it must be a trick; maybe it’s a gem-filled pinata and the DM is laughing behind his screen as we sneak around it, sweating; well, I won’t fall for that!”

  14. March 31, 2010 at 3:34 am

    Well, one thing to remember is that the interesting failure idea mostly applies to conflict resolution. A lot of dungeon crawling uses dice rolls as part of the exploration, and just porting the dice conventions of good conflict resolution over to the process of exploration is going to cause problems. But if you set up the conflict to be about how much space the party can explore before a monster shows up, then you’re getting somewhere. Also, it seems like the line between dice-as-oracle and dice-as-arbiter isn’t super clear cut in old D&D (Rob Donaghue has a good article on oracle/arbiter dice: http://rdonoghue.blogspot.com/2010/03/arbiters-and-oracles.html).

    I disagree on the poke the dragon point, though. I think creative agenda is just as relevant to old-school as it is to any other game, rpg, ccg, or board game. If a group is playing in proper old-school dungeoncrawling fashion (working as a group, using their wits to outsmart the GM’s traps and tricks, and managing the resources provided by the rulebooks), then poking the dragon to see if it’s an illusion is in keeping with that agenda. The other characters will probably try to hedge their bets and get under cover.

    But if the player is poking the dragon because they are bored and want something (anything) to happen, or they just want to be silly, or they think they’re playing a game where you poke dragons and then talk to them and stuff, and not the merciless meatgrinder that is OD&D, that is a clear case of having a different agenda. We can call it creative agenda or play agenda, but whatever name we give it, that agenda is clearly contrary to the agenda of the other players if they are playing the old-school dungeoncrawl.

    Don’t look at the actual in-game character behaviour to determine the player’s agenda. Look at their motivations for their contributions to the game, and what they think will result. That’s where the agenda shows.

  15. 15 James
    March 31, 2010 at 3:59 am

    I agree with Jon that the use of “Creative Agenda” here is probably a red herring, but I think I know what you’re talking about anyway.

    For what it’s worth, I think the White Sandbox game has an extremely strong Creative Agenda match, which prioritizes the “Step On Up!” mode of play. Every one at that table is gunning, I mean GUNNING, to kick the dungeon’s ass. But also – to compete in a friendly way with the other players. (So far I simply am not as good a Magic-User as Jon was, but one of these days I’m going to trounce him.)

    I’m not sure anyone cares about the world outside the dungeon, except to the extent this world helps us kick the dungeon’s ass. I’m also not sure people are interested in exploring hard-hitting thematic questions about religious faith, genocide, and the lust for power. If we’re anything beyond a group of folks having fun, we’re pretty solidly Gamist.

    Still, I’ll agree that some players are more hardcore than others, or at least have a different tolerance for risk.

    This is probably a blog post in itself.

  16. March 31, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Hi Eric –

    Regardless of what terms we’re using, I think it’s useful to make a distinction between the higher level of agreement that the Big Model uses Creative Agenda to describe and agreement (or lack thereof) on a smaller scale. In some groups, it might very well be that a higher level clash – where part of the group views the fiction as an arena for challenges to wits and imagination and another part of the group views the fiction as material for making thematic statements – would manifest as the “cautious/boring play” vs. “heroic/reckless play” conflict. In a case like that, there would really be nothing that could be done to resolve the conflict, as people want something very different out of the game. (That’s not to say the game would implode or anything, but depending on the dominant agenda, certain players might continually find the play less than satisfying.)

    However, I agree with James: I think there is a strong, challenge-based agenda in the group and I believe the “cautious vs. reckless” conflict is happening at a lower level that has something to do with a difference in playstyles (maybe hardcore vs. less hardcore?). The good thing about this, though, is that because there is a higher level agreement (“Step on Up!”), it is possible to resolve the “cautious vs. reckless” conflict, through various formal or informal means. There are probably even more elegant ways to do all of these things,this, but these are just off the top of my head:

    (a) Disincentivizing long stretches of planning: Lots of ways to do this. Rolling for a random monster for every 5 minutes of planning is one way. Having the DM pay special attention to what “planning” means in the fiction might be another (i.e., if the players are planning, it means the characters are planning, which means they’re making noise, etc., etc.).

    (b) Incentivizing “heroic” action: Give some kind of “shock troop” bonus for bold, decisive actions. Implement a variation of the Tunnel & Trolls saving throw rules for swashbuckling style action.

    (c) Streamline the threat investigation process: Create a “Dungeoneering” check where, during a given delve, a player can make a number of rolls equal to his PC’s level on a Dungeoneering Chart that offers true information about perceived threats. I.e., when encountering the trash heap, a player could make a dungeoneering roll and depending on the level of success, would earn access to some kind of information regarding its actual threat level.

    Personally, I like cautious play with lots of planning, but this seems to be an issue that keeps coming up so this kind of brainstorming might be helpful.

    I also agree with Johnstone’s overall point, although, again, I’d phrase it a little differently: interesting failure (or failure that leads to complications without blocking play) is a technique that can work across a number of creative agendas, including “Step On Up”. (In fact, the first time I used the Carousing table in Tavis’ game it was a case of “interesting failure”, so this is a technique that’s already being used.)

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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