Muse-likes & orthogonal goals

DeReel's picture

In a game like Muse, players determine "crisis questions" and play for the right to narrate the answers to these questions. Some questions (= conflicts) CAN have incompatible answers, either logically ("Will the explorer reach the Pole?" / "Will he die on the way back?") or dramatically ("Will Joe reach the helipad?" / "Will the zombies destroy the helicopter?") . I understand that the game forbids them.
My question in a nutshell is : isn't it too restrictive ? Is the "orthogonality" of conflicts REALLY necessary ? My intuition is that no, it's not necessary. I hope Paul_T, co-designer of Muse, will partake in the discussion.

I foresee various possibilities :
Maybe the answer is one of rules redaction : discussing complex cases in a FAQ VS placing them in the tutorial document.
Or a more general game design concern of balancing the use of law and amicable settlement.
Maybe it's about design philosophy : letting players room to get better at the game or setting a tight frame for their gaming experience.
Maybe it's intended as technical foolproofing against a player strategizing questions and blocking the game. Introducing sortof-competition is probably the crux of collaborative storytelling.

Paul T.'s picture

This is a good question. I think it has a great deal to do with the format of the game and how the players interact with the questions.

For Muse, it’s generally not desirable to have Questions which would invalidate one another - it’s simply not interesting or an efficient use of the mechanic.

However, the examples you used a fairly ambiguous in this case; if the format of the story is such that those things can be true, independent variables, they could work just fine.

I think it would take some experience with the system to learn what works and what doesn’t in this sense, so it’s definitely solid advice to avoid such situations until you’re sure you want or need that kind of thing.

I’ll have to see if the text actually forbids this kind of thing, as you say (it’s been a while since I read it). Your examples are sufficiently ambiguous that I’m not sure. Logically contradictory Questions are almost never a good idea.

Your first pair of Questions, for example, I wouldn’t have any problem with. The second would only work if every player is on board and understands the dramatic contradiction at play and is interested n playing around with that. With a group taking that mindset, I think it could be exciting and dramatic!

I suspect that Jon (the author of the text) and I might have different opinions on this, as well. He’s generally more fond of black and white rules and boundaries than I am, I think, whereas I like to fool around with blurring the lines more.

What benefits do you see from breaking this rule? What would you like to try in play?

Paul T.'s picture

I just checked the rules, and the first example you use is actually a VALID way of using Questions (in fact, it’s a correction of a bad pair of Questions). The second is considered against the rules, and that’s a good thing to avoid. However, a savvy group of players could make it work under limited circumstances, if they clever and careful. I agree with Jon’s choice to guide the reader to avoid such contradiction, though; most of the time, it will not work out well.

This is, in part, dependent on Muse’s design, which expects all Questions to resolve. We could theoretically use a similar mechanic in another game, where some Questions remain unresolved, and that would be a different story.

In my early versions of Muse’s rules, I imagined using a variety of nuanced and overlapping Questions, like:

* Will he reach the South Pole?
* Will he make it back alive?
* Will his ship sink?
* Will his exploits become famous/well known?
* Will the expedition be considered a success?

In theory, this kind of tight clustering of Questions could work to create nuance. In practice, though, it’s not worth the trouble (and takes too long). What happens instead is that the individual narrations cover these smaller concerns as we play (I might narrate Scott dying on his return journey even after that Question is resolved, or you might narrate the ship sinking before the Showdown.)

The game is simply not long enough to benefit from drawing on that many overlapping Questions.

DeReel's picture

Thank you for this detailed answer. A "literal demon" version of the game could be proposed for advanced players, where they try to squeeze through loopholes. I now realize it's a competitive approach and all players should be aware of that. As for being experienced with the system, well you don't have to beat your little cousin 21-0 the first time he plays ping pong with you. Opening these possibilities just by not adding a rule is a major benefit in my eyes. But I note that there should be this piece of advice about system mastery, and playing with like minded players in a game that's set about this. Faustian pacts, contractual transactions (I am thinking Pirates of the Caribbean), or playing mind games against an AI, that sort of mood.
The question of rhythm is key in determining if this is an enjoyable playstyle. I just came up with a way to speed up exchanges and "cover small details" in my game that would allow handling complex question structures. I now realize that my question stems from there, and your answer tells me there's light down this road.
I wondered about logical impossibilities, fascinated by 3 outcomes out of 4. We playtested my game without limiting questions and some outcomes did put a lot of -good- pressure on our brains. The "dead branches" were just left to rot, and the points invested in them were just lost (resolution by decay). It's not totally fair, but not a problem if the points are decoupled from a win condition. Still, given I can't find a way out of some outcomes (the Gloating mechanic in Tony LB's Capes hints at all the goodness of playing with story limits but is unsatisfactory), and as you don't recommend using them, I'll place a "There be chimerae" sign on this path. Definitely a downer. I'll have to provide a quick testing tool so that younger players identify incompatible questions quickly.
This whole area of storytelling RPG is often looked over, probably because of its pitfalls. I believe it's important not to confuse landmarks with limits, and am glad to have found someone with some experience in it.

Demiurge's picture

Hi DeReel,

Thanks for your question! The intention of the rules is for players to be able to have 3 Questions going simultaneously. For this to work, each Question needs to be independent from the others. If you ignore this requirement, then you're likely to run into confusion. After a narration, which Question should you Support? After a Showdown, you may find it difficult to come up with a narration that doesn't screw up one of the other Questions. Then you might need to call a Time Out to change the other dependent Questions to adapt them to the new story.

Now, as you can see, none of this is really a big deal. In fact, Time Outs are often required to make adjustments, period. I encourage you to play the game in the way that makes the most sense and fun for you.


DeReel's picture

Thank you for the answer and context. With 3 questions, you can't have "dead branches" one. It makes sense to distinguish between them clearly. We could even say they should reach in 3 orthogonal directions to create a "well rounded" story.
I am beginning to see that, with all the promises of overlapping Questions, a rulebook - seen as a tutorial - should be if not "restrictive", at least focused in scope. This way learning players have less parameters to handle at first.
Reading an old post by Rickard Elimaa, I'd now propose this : when writing a storytelling game tutorial, start with a fixed set of setting, characters and questions. Like John Harper does. Then open the field of vision with new possibilities. The game designed is bigger than what's in the tutorial, and most of the real fun in the freedom of telling any story. But players will be happy to learn the setting / character / questions creation process in detail after the game play.
Isn't it a valid limitation for all "generic" games ? I think I am on my way to get this dilemma out of my system !

Demiurge's picture

Hi DeReel,

I'm beginning to see that your line of questions are as much meta-questions on how to write game rules as they are specific questions about Muse.

You wrote:

I am beginning to see that, with all the promises of overlapping Questions, a rulebook - seen as a tutorial - should be if not "restrictive", at least focused in scope. This way learning players have less parameters to handle at first.

Yes, I agree. I believe that it's really important to present a simple, clear set of rules to begin with. Once people make the leap and understand that initial ruleset, then it's ok to start adding additions and options. I think you will notice that this is how most commercially successful games work. E.g. D&D started with very simple rules, then with successive releases over time added more and more rules. If they had started out with all that complexity, probably nobody would have bothered learning D&D in the first place.

Reading an old post by Rickard Elimaa, I'd now propose this : when writing a storytelling game tutorial, start with a fixed set of setting, characters and questions. Like John Harper does. Then open the field of vision with new possibilities.

Yes, this is a good strategy (and it seems to be a popular one at the moment in the story game community). Using D&D as an example again, it started with a simple genre (the dungeon crawl) and over time expanded to allow for other kinds of stories, e.g. taking place in the wilderness, cities, etc. They eventually created a set of generic rules (d20) that could be used for many genres.

There are other valid strategies too. I opted to start with a generic system that is relatively simple and straightforward, and with lots of live examples to explain how it works. I will follow-up with worldbooks that have specific genres. This was the strategy used by GURPS and FUDGE, for example.

I hope you find your way out of your metaphysical dilemma!


DeReel's picture

Thank you for the encouragements. It seems obvious when you say it, but it took me 1 year to get there. Of course there's a part of procrastination in my interrogations (the "metaphysical" part).
So I think that's settled :
- if Folktale is the basic "flavour" for a storytelling game, "complex questions structure" are analogous to "Trickster stories". They are best suited to seasoned storytellers who want to play catch and demonstrates their narrative and logical mastery.
- "don't answer a question before it is solved" evolves naturally into "don't ask a question that would answer another question". A bit complex but nothing unmanageable for a preteen.
Great !

Paul T.'s picture


It's worse than that! In my original idea for the Questions mechanic, I pictured many Questions on the table and flying back and forth over the course of play. In that environment, it's possible to imagine contradictory Questions or overlapping Questions, and Questions getting left behind or ignored.

However, in playtesting I found that a) playing through this takes much more time than I imagined, and b) focusing on a handful of really important Questions really streamlines play. The drama is better, the story is more focused, and there is improved clarity.

So, perhaps your imagined version of Muse is somewhat like it was in my imagination: lots of Questions on the table.

The reality of playing the game is quite different:

Not only is there a *maximum* of three Questions in play at any given time (keep in mind that this means there are sometimes fewer!), but even over the course of an entire game we might only see 3-6 Questions. This means each Question must be important and central to the story (and the mechanics really help us make that happen).

I think that should also help you understand why the last thing we would want is confusing or overlapping Questions!

In theory, though, it could be done as a sort of "advanced technique"... but it would tricky to pull off, and not necessarily add much to the game. Story complications and dead ends come about naturally through the individual narrations that happen, anyway.

Paul T.'s picture

I can't really say! It's worth trying some different approaches, no question.

Generally speaking, games with specific settings/modules/themes seem to me to sell better and attract more attention than generic ones, but I always appreciate the appeal of the genre-independent game, so I'm sure there's room to try different things... or perhaps peoples' tastes will change over time (e.g. games like GURPS, as Demiurge points, have sometimes held major widespread appeal).

If I were writing an RPG today, I would probably started with a focused premise (somewhat as you suggest) and then include the "generic engine" as an Appendix or additional volume, for people interested in branching out.

DeReel's picture

Oh boy oh boy, feedback from your playtest is so valuable.
We use the questions for balance. Rather than defining precisely what can and can't be said or aimed at, I chose to make creating new questions a 0 cost action. Then it's no cost answering the question if there's only one Proposition ; else, there's a bidding war (or a lottery in some cases). This is open, so we don't wait long to reveal the outcome. Few questions (1-2) keep more than 2 scenes up in the air. This way we were able to follow unexpected lodes.

We use another system for focused one shots : we pick antagonistic couples of themes we want touched upon (love hate, tradition progress light darkness etc.) and draw 2 (eg:love vs progress) This is the one Crisis question to solve.
So it appears the number/level of questions is really dependent on the duration of play (vice/versa) and then complexity and shades emerge from number/level of questions.