Techniques, Key phrases, and conversational structure

This is a bit of an abstract post, but I’d like to start a conversation about a chat which happened recently on a Discord server with a contact of mine. He was reading a paper about mathematics education, I think, where dialogues between teachers and students are dissected and analyzed.

The central premise is that they classify dialogues as either “key actions” or “regulating actions”. A key action is a mathematical contribution, reconstruction, showing work, explaining a procedure, and so on, while a regulating action is a form of feedback: it might address the pupil, shut down the contribution, or encourage more contributions.

I wonder if one way to help facilitate the learning of the “RPG conversation” is to lean into particular ways or engaging or relating. It could be key concepts or phrases, both for “key actions”, and, even more so, for “regulating actions”. My friend @DavidBerg once produced some great comics demonstrating how a GM and a player navigate fictional descriptions and reaching agreement. (Dave, if you’re reading this, perhaps you can link to them?)

I think that some use of particular techniques like key phrases might be a good tool. It could help a new player (and especially a new GM) orient themselves to a mode of play, help correct common errors, or help people transition from one playstyle to another.

A popular and famous one is: “What do you do?” As, for example, Apocalypse World instructs you to do after every “move” (although of course this has been classic GM practice forever).

An example we discussed elsewhere recently was:

  • You’re refereeing an old school, challenge-based adventure style of game. An adventurer is doing something risky, and you need to know a particular detail to determine whether they might spring a trap. “So, are you putting your hand under the black stone?” might be too obvious a tell in such an environment, so what other options are there?

  • The key phrase might be: “Ok, describe what you’re doing, so we can all picture it.”

Consistent use of this could help smooth this kind of situation. It’s not perfect, but it’s a helpful phrase for a particular moment of play and getting through it.

Another example that helped me was when I was learning to run Monsterhearts (as I discussed indirectly elsewhere on this forum, via my start-of-play playset):

  • For this game, sometimes, instead of asking “what do you do?”, say “how does that make you feel?”

It’s nice to remind players that the inner psychology of the character matters here, sometimes it can lead to triggering a move (e.g. Turn Someone On or Shut Someone Down or Keep Your Cool), and it gets players to engage in a little inner monologue - sometimes very appropriate for an angsty teenager.

Some other types of conversation: affirmation, questioning, provocative questions, asking for more detail, offering to elide or summarize, calling for a perception check or initiative roll, asking for a character’s internal feelings or thoughts, describing what’s at stake when making a certain type of roll, asking to identify the ability used, asking whether something should be Veiled (not described in detail), avoiding tangents, etc.

I can imagine a small selection of such moments or actions could help someone orient to a new playstyle, in particular. (“In this game, we…”)

Apocalypse World, in many ways, was one of the first game texts to cover the “key actions” aspect of conversation well (although it does also touch on others). It might be interesting to explore some other ways to teach or design or qualify “regulating actions”. (One example of a game that actually does this as part of its design is Archipelago.)

Have you seen any good examples of this in design? Are there any phrases or techniques you love to use that would benefit from being written down and taught? Or examples from a game you played in or ran?


4 Appreciations

Thanks for the tag, Paul! Here are the comics: DELVE Role-Playing Game - scenario building

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Paul, I really love how you have introduced the whole topic. Also, your focus on the fact that what we have at the table is foremost a conversation. In every conversation, there are language-games, implications, and so forth. I appreciate how you have framed the whole issue: certain pieces of language help us marking clear that something is actionable and how is actionable.

It’d be interesting to collect more phrasing examples from concrete play and discuss them. I imagine that my proposal could sound as a pedantic exercise similar to ordinary language philosophy school. But, for instance, your example on the old-school was really useful for me to solve an issue I had: picturing the scenario to adjudicate outcomes without spoiling an asymmetry of information in challenge-based games. I imagine that more esplicative examples can help similar concerns in other games.

2 Appreciations

Thanks, Alessio!

That is a good summary; I think such tools can be helpful, much like people use in other structured conversations - e.g. negotiations, interviews, therapy.

Ultimately you look to absorb the underlying principle and are no longer constrained by the phrases themselves, but in the meantime it’s a good tool to get there quickly.

I thought WarriorMonk’s “list of techniques” thread captured a lot of good key phrases!

The thread can be a bit confusing at first because many posts were edited to include subsequent suggestions, so here’s the final list:

Basics II
GM-only Techniques
Techniques for Narrative Management
Safe in-character interaction techniques
Character creation / setting creation techniques (?)

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I’ve been really enjoying a particular implementation of “what do you do?” in a lot of my recent sessions. For me personally, it’s what Apocalypse World is all about, although I’m sure Vincent Baker has a more nuanced idea of the whole thing. From my experience, the question itself is good, but what takes it to the next level is stuff like:

The question is built upon and also points to fictional content. Not only it’s asked to a specific player character, but that player answers by also directly pointing to the fiction. The traditional filter of the GM standing between players and the fiction has no place here. So, the question is actually very different from asking stuff like “what do you want to do?” or “what do you (all the players as a party) do?”

The question works best when preceded by some provocation presented by the fiction. Here is a clear opportunity, threat, other thing happening to another player character, anything that seems unsettled, what do you do?

The question is weird for some people, you might need to double-down on it before it’s fully understood. People will answer by pointing to something on a character sheet as if it were a button in an MMORPG. Ok, you’d like to bring that ability into play, what do you do?

3 Appreciations

Very true. Apocalypse World did a neat thing by, essentially, suggesting that the GM/MC’s job is to say something provocative and then end with “what do you do?” It’s implied by that formulation that the latter concerns the former.

e.g. “You see the deacon pouring a small vial into the Princess’s drink, at the back of the room. What do you do?”

It’s a good way to drive play forward.

In contrast, you can also slow down or intensify or elide with questions which either drill down in detail or open up an alternate view or topic. This brings out other elements and moves indirectly, developing the fiction and the game in unpredictable, sometimes meandering ways.

e.g. “The server sets down a bowl of rabbit stew in front of you. Hey, when was the last time you ate rabbit? What does it remind you of?”

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I’m not done reading the techniques but I’m finding the explicit list useful.

“Wait! Before that…” is interesting to me as a technique. My prejudice is that if somebody tries to advance the flow of time and another person thinks that advancement is premature, one of the two is in error. In my last session report I talk about this, or something similar anyhow, as if I’ve messed up somehow. I’ll edit this comment for a link and a fuller explanation tonight.

True, in some games players can fast forward, sometimes years in the future, and when that happens, there’s always this moment of “hey, what, I’m being robbed of fictional time”. And in the end it always appears it was a good move.
optional (I believe the emotions in a story are not only about what happens in the fiction, but about how we feel about the choices informing the fiction (what I call “the story of the form” in my private language).)
Of course, it works when it makes sense. I’ve never seen a case where a time ellipsis was proposed and it made no sense, so I don’t see how the error could come from the player proposing an ellipsis. Maybe if there’s some secret backstory petunias the ellipsis threads upon, but that’s a problem that’s always going to come up with secret backstories…
optional (I prefer playing with open secrets (except for secrets contained within a scene). I feel this is going offtrack…)

I’m doing a survey of the things needed to play a rpg, that can be provided by the game or need to be known by the players, or provided by a game aide, like storytelling decks (Warrior Monk made one with the list of techniques). I think this discussion can inform my survey, but not without a transposition. Usually, invoking a technique with a keyphrase supposes you already know when and how to use the technique. I consider a keyphrase as the tip of a storytelling skill or system mastery iceberg. Moreover, the same keyphrase can be a tool for different functions, simultaneously: affecting the fiction, and affecting gameplay. Typically: Is there an X? Both paints a scene and aims at creating resources.