Levels game event report

26 April, 2009 at 8:26 pm (actual play, roleplaying) (, , , )

This Saturday and Sunday there was a small and poorly advertised game event in Jyväskylä; it was called Levels. There was plenty of electronic games, some boardgames and some roleplaying folk. Naturally, I spent almost all of my time with the rpg people.

It is notable that Arkenstone clearly dominated the roleplaying side of the event, mostly because nobody else really demoed or explained games. Arkenstone translates and imports indie roleplaying games (mostly in the sense of being connected to the Forge scene) and sells them onwards. All three Tuovinen brothers were there (Eero has a blog, others do not, to my knowledge), as was Sami Koponen (who has a blog in Finnish). There is, or at least was, this stereotype about obnoxious Forge people relentlessly mocking traditional games and players thereof. I must say that I understand where it comes from, though I can’t be sure how serious the attitude was, as the aforementioned personalities have a tendency towards the theatrical. (Video footage of them would sell, I say.)

This said, most of the event time was spending playing games or talking about them. Namely, I told why one certain to-be-published fantasy project tentatively called Bliaron will be problematic; namely, Northern Realms will be publishing their homebrew fantasy setting and rules set. They have a website mostly in Finnish. I posted some criticism on their forums; the response has thus far been good and remarkably fast. Olorin (whose blog is in English) was also involved in the discussions.

I also roleplayed. First was a playtest of some Finnish rpg that I don’t really remember, while second was Solar system with wuxia themes. The second game was especially entertaining. I’m somewhat poor player, though, for few reasons. The first is that I am fundamentally a very shy creature. The second is that I have lots of experience in running games but fairly little in playing them; when game mastering, what I do is to throw interesting situations at people and see what they do and make sure that they bump into each other or just play a world as I see it, arbitrating the actions of the characters. Neither of these styles really works when playing, so I have to struggle to be properly involved. (It somewhat worked in the second game, but utterly failed in the first one due to one player’s strong personality and optimised character and very aggressive play, further adjusted by my suboptimal character who could not resist that character effectively.)

One remarkable thing about the way Tuovinen brothers and Koponen play in is the cinematic descriptions and concepts they use in play. They actively refer to the audience (“your character doesn’t notice this, but the audience clearly sees that the animal/god/Cernunnos is utterly mad and contradicts itself”), pronounce judgements as audience (“as a member of audience I say that your character is total sociopath”) and refer to angles of filming, lighting and other visual tricks. My background and interest is firmly rooted in books, so it was strange. There was also this style of play where one advocates for one’s character. It does not mean simply what is best for the character’s well-being; I think it is more tied to the character’s protagonism or something. The concept is not clear to me. I’d appreciate if someone explained the concept further or offered links to that effect.

I also bought some fudge dice, so now the Shadow of yesterday/Solar system is an option. It appeals to me for several reasons, including fairly light and customisable rules that are still robust and the way it elegantly handles different cultures and shifting character motivations.


  1. Eero Tuovinen said,

    Ah, advocation! This is my favourite topic in narrativistic gaming ever since last year when I wrote my own thesis on how to make Solar System run well. The model is not mine (rather, it’s 70% Ron Edwards and 30% Mike Holmes or something like that), it’s just that I’ve digested it by osmosis over time. Nowadays I simply have better words for explaining this, so to say.

    So, advocation: when talking of narrativistic Forge games, the majority of them are predicated on the same Egri-influenced theory Ron outlines in his narrativism article: the creative agenda of narrativism is satisfied by allowing the players to create theme by defining a premise (thematic tension not yet resolved) and resolving it. How is this achieved, exactly? The advocacy model answers this question, it’s what nine in ten narrativist games go with.

    In a game that is set up for advocacy the idea is basically that while one player might be the GM, the majority of the players run their own characters, often created by them just like in any old roleplaying game. These players have two jobs in the advocacy model: a) to express an interesting, sympathetic character and b) to utilize the rules mechanics to enforce the character’s will on the setting. To say the same thing slightly differently: the player creates a protagonist (a sympathetic viewpoint character) and makes sure that the character strives in the game for his own benefit. The important bit of the advocacy model is that we find two things: the first is that a properly designed game (for this purpose, understand; there are other things you can do with roleplaying) will not require the players to take on any other responsibilities. The second is that the primary source of enjoyment in an advocacy game actually comes from the very fact that the players have no other responsibilities but to advocate for their characters.

    The reason for why I’m constantly dragging advocacy up as a concept nowadays is that I’ve been encountering a lot of storytelling games that I haven’t been entirely happy with for the very reasons identified by the advocacy model. An alternative method for creating a highly dramatic game, you see, is to expect the players to take a high degree of responsibility for the dramatic outcomes of the game; this is typical of games that include verbiage about how the players should feel responsible for the fun of the game and thus regulate their characters to not make difficult choices that “ruin” the story. The point of the advocacy model is that we don’t need to make this sacrifice if we want story: it’s possible to both get an exciting story and advocate for your character fully. When we played Noitahovi at Levels, I seem to remember that I promised the players once or twice that they could trust that the framework is robust enough to support whatever their characters wanted to do; that was me referencing this very issue, I wanted to make sure that the players would feel free to advocate for their characters fully, not being worried of whether they’d ruin the game by having their character act wrong. I can’t place who it was that I said this to… ah, I think it was Sami, when his character was being offered the crown of the North: this being such a fantasy convention, I half-expected him to bow under just because the expected thing would be to accept.

    Alongside Solar System (which I wrote with the advocacy model in mind) Zombie Cinema is a simple and clear example of how an advocacy-model game works: the game practically has nothing else in it than some procedures for creating interesting characters and then running them honestly and expressing strongly what the character desires. Story in this context comes about because stories are just protagonists struggling and suffering the consequences of their actions; it does not require oversight.

  2. Tommi said,

    Hi Eero, thanks for the response.

    Based on that, I’d say that character generation is, at least for me, the greatest challenge. If I make a random character, then the way of advocating that character’s well-being and goals is to quickly get away from anything dangerous. That doesn’t create good play.

    I unfortunately don’t have instinctive grasp of what an interesting character looks like. Usually, when I think a little at character generation, I try to make characters with very powerful ideological drives, insane characters, or just very impulsive ones. They tend to get in trouble, hence creating a brand of interesting play. This usually works fairly well, especially for one-shots.

    I’m thinking that there is a better way of creating characters that have high chance of being interesting in play, but I have trouble grasping that way quite yet.

    Once character generation is done, advocating one’s character is simply what I consider normal play, so no problems there, I think, though I do prefer sticking mostly with my character’s point of view when doing the advocating.

  3. Eero Tuovinen said,

    Yeah, advocation is not strange at all. It’s just necessary verbiage in contrast to other theories of dramatic play. It’s pretty common for people to think that drama is achieved by suborning character integrity as a person to the needs of the story, when that just leads to shallow and uninteresting characters.

    What you mention about creating interesting characters is a real challenge. We can see different games handling the issue in different ways; Solar System, for example, has the player create a couple of clear flags about the character’s values, after which it’s up to the GM to throw situations the character would consider relevant to himself. Other games go about this in different ways: in something like My Life with Master the characters are essentially captive audience: the players are mandated to create them with a social dependency towards the Master figure, which means that there is no option for just walking away; the character has to deal with the situation in some manner.

    That MLwM example is perhaps pretty good one in that it illustrates how characters really have to be forced to deal with painful things, otherwise they just walk away. This doesn’t have to be done by the GM in an adversial relationship to the player, though; the player himself can put his character into difficult situations – his job is to advocate for the character’s interests, not to play deep immersion and try to save his character from all evil things. The important point is that “advocation” is not the same as “defending” – the advocate shows to the other players what the character wants, but may also participate in putting the character into difficult positions to enable his advocation.

    Zombie Cinema is pretty illustrative in this regard, actually: the game doesn’t prevent a player from having his character just avoid, avoid, avoid everything – it in fact empowers this. However, there is no reward to always avoiding, which will presumably teach the player to find the right balance for advocation in time: he will learn that he-the-player will have to put his character into difficult and interesting situations so that the character’s nature can get a chance to shine, but he will also have to make it clear what his character wants, and use the mechanical tools to help his character in trying to get those wants. Otherwise the character will just get eaten by the zombies just the same as every other nameless extra.

  4. Tommi said,

    This doesn’t have to be done by the GM in an adversial relationship to the player, though; the player himself can put his character into difficult situations – his job is to advocate for the character’s interests, not to play deep immersion and try to save his character from all evil things. The important point is that “advocation” is not the same as “defending” – the advocate shows to the other players what the character wants, but may also participate in putting the character into difficult positions to enable his advocation.

    This, I think, is the key.

    As a GM, I find it very draining to drag characters into situations that they don’t naturally engage with; hence, I don’t do it (starting in media res or describing what sorts of characters work are both good options, as is trusting players to make suitable characters). As a player I have a few tricks for making characters who are likely to be interesting no matter the situations by creating their own problems, though I don’t always remember to use these tricks, which is unfortunate.

  5. The Advocacy Model « League of Imaginary Heroes said,

    […] a really interesting conversation between Tommi and Eero Tuovinen in the comments to this post. It’s about the advocacy model, which  Eero explains as follows: In a game that is set up […]

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