Push vs. Pull
I think it's called Indian Wrestling, at least I'm pretty sure that's what we called it as kids. You face your opponent, right leg forward, left leg back, your inside right foot touching your opponent's inside right foot. You clasp your right hands together like you are about to arm wrestle, and count off. At go, you try your damnedest to throw the other person off balance. The player still standing at the end is the winner.
That game, minus the winning or losing bit, summarizes my internal picture of the process of playing an RPG. Mostly I am referring to the process between the player and the GM. Instead of the winning, the point of the game is to throw or tug each other as off balance as possible without making anybody fall down. The up and down and side-to-side, near fall and save is the story. The harder we both work to drive each other off balance but still keep each other safe and on our feet, the better the story will be. So. That movement, dynamic, fluid, always connected, in endless struggle, rife with moments of certain failure and gasps of almost victory, is how I feel about RPGs when they are at their very best.
Are you with me? Good.
Now, some people are better at the game than others. My cousin who introduced me to the game seemed like the King of Indian Wrestling. He was three years older, a foot taller, and twenty pounds heavier than I was. For two or three consecutive years he whupped my ass at it. Because we lived nowhere near each other but have cottages on the same street, we only ever got to play it in the summer. Every year he was still three years older, a foot taller, and twenty pounds heavier than me. Every game ran through the same process: he gloated his advantage, let me have a full swing at trying to push him off kilter, him neatly resisting my charge, him rubbing it in verbally, and then slowly, exerting his superior strength to force me backwards, out of my field of gravity, and on to the floor.
I was a stubborn and optimistic kid. I never gave up. Eventually I figured out the knack. It's easy to look at that game and think that strength and power is the road to victory, but as I got older and my body coordination and lateral thinking skills improved, I realized that if I couldn't out-force my opponent, I could try and outbalance him. Over the course of the next summer, I probably didn't take his King's crown away from him, but I enjoyed the game hell of a lot more once the playing field evened out. He would wait, I would wait, he would nudge, I would nudge, he would push I would push, he would push, I would drop my centre of gravity and pull, taking him to the floor. It was a lesson years later that I would be re-taught in Judo.
It's a lesson that over the years I applied to a lot of things. Push never has been my thing. When Brand first started "going on" about Narrativism, I was very worried. I had finally managed to import my very own GM from California, and had just gotten him to a place where I could command he do my bidding, when he started talking about something that really didn't sound like fun. The GM's whole job is to push, he said, and players push back, and as a result of all that pushing, conflict, choices and stories come to be! To me, it sounded a whole lot like schoolyard bullies and football field chest thumping - frankly, it sounded stressful. So I went to the Forge, and I read a lot, and could understand why the Narrativism Brand was talking about had grown out of it. Even when just talking about the ideas of Narrativism, people on the Forge love to push each other around.
Now, I'm not saying the Forge is a bad, terrible place that no one should bother with. If you're a pusher, you'll probably find your niche there. I'm not a pusher, I 'm a puller, and that means that the style of discourse on the Forge, and the style of discourse in many Nar games is really not for me. I'm not Forge diaspora adrift in the blogsphere, I'm just a girl that thought she could open the discussion a little wider, and couldn't find her place at the Forge.
So what is pull? It's the act of creating space that something can fall into. It's the act of pulling yourself back to allow another to step in. It's collaborative play rather than competitive play.
Lets take a look at both:
Dust Devils and Nine Worlds (not to pick on Matt Snyder here, it's just that I have been thinking about Nine Worlds since our not-so-successful experiment this past weekend) are very much Push games. A mechanic in them that illustrates this very neatly is that when you win a conflict you win narration rights, which give you the authority to push anything in the game.
GM: You're going to the Saturn Palace to retrieve the Oracle of Poseidon, but you know the chimera is in the area and hunting for you.
Player: I can deal with the chimera, I want a conflict to overcome it.
GM: OK, Let's go.
(Cards are pulled, Player wins the conflict.)
Player: The chimera does spot us, and attacks, but I use the magical words that Hecate taught me to bind the chimera to my will, so that when we get to the palace, it fights with us.
That's a push conflict. The player has taken it from the GM's conceived scene of a Han Solo on the Death Star variety and pushed it by enforcing his will on the game. Lots of people, such as Brand, love push conflicts, which is why so many games have these kind of mechanics. There's nothing wrong with push conflicts… unless you're a puller and not comfortable with them.
In contrast, Breaking the Ice has many pull elements:
In Breaking the Ice, you must please the other player, rather than beat the other character to get bonus dice to make attraction happen. You must be willing and open to step back and let another player please you so you can grant the dice because your granting dice allows the other player to try to and attract you. It's collaborative. An especially good example of a pull is the mechanic for Complication:
Player 1: OK, my dice hate me.
Player 2: I guess I do too.
Player 1: No, lets see here, it's the end of the night, things have been going only fairly and Mark has walked you to your door. He tries to tell you he had a good time, but the words just stammer out. He flushes deeply red in a hot embarrassment and turns to go, but at the last moment, screws his courage to the sticking place and kisses you.
Player 2: That's sweet! You get a re-roll.
Rather by making yourself more aggressive, you make yourself more fallible to win. You don't get to push on the rule. You can't make the other player give you the re-roll, you can only please them enough to make them want to give it to you. Similarly, the other player can tempt you to let them contribute to your story by making suggestions and offering bonus dice, but they can't force it to happen. They have to pull you to pull them to put your ideas in play.
The first is like a boxing match, the second like a ballroom dance.
I think it's important to notice that the first game is created by a male designer and the second by a female designer. I'm not saying that one game is male domain and one is female. That'd be a stupid thing to say. I can't help but think though that this fact has some relevance based on the different ways that boys and girls are socialized. What we are talking about here is the ways in which we are skilled in dealing with conflict resolution. I'm a very strong woman who was raised by a very strong woman who taught me to stand up and represent myself when the situation called for it, and as Brand can attest, when aggression is called for (heh, when push comes to shove), I can call it on in spades. But my preferred method of approaching conflict resolution is by negotiation, approach and collaborative effort. I was taught that, most girls I know were too.
This doesn't mean that there aren't women out there who love to get their push on. Of course there are, and perhaps that too is a reaction against - a pushing past - socialization. Conversely, there are guys out there that would land in the middle of a primary pull game and relax for the first time ever because pushing is not really their thing. Neither is weak or strong, neither is good or bad, neither is only for men or only for women, they are just preferences, or skills, or safe space in playing a game.
Maybe, just maybe (positing not declaring here) push vs. pull is (one of) the answer(s) to the age old question: why don't more girls game? I do think that it is one of the primary reasons most girls don't come to the Forge.
Anyway, enough for tonight.
Next up: Pull in Practical Application.
p.s. Read this to Brand and he reminded me: Please don't mistake Pulling for passive or aimless play. It is a conscious, deliberate act on my part to encourage the story to become more dynamic and create more drama. I'll get into the hows of it later.