Friday, March 31, 2006

Editorial: Some Hard Questions

Here are some difficult questions, how does your theorizing answer them?

Why do people play RPGs, rather than more traditional, social games?

Why did RPGs produce such a popular mold for re-use, especially in computer games?

What portions of a game text is translated into play? And how are those portions selected?

Are there any classes of people who would never be able to effectively play RPGs?

How do RPGs affect us after we play them, in the short and the long term?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Weekly Review Mar. 19th to Mar. 25th

This past week has seen an increase in theory developments. In particular, discussions about whether players get what they want from play, and what they put into it.

Getting What We Want

This week several less than conventional suggestions were made about what players get from RPGs, and how to ensure that they get what they want. Vincent Baker discusses the idea of flinching, and described how mechanics can ensure that politeness does not negate the depth of consequences. He describes how one risk of player decided outcomes is that if you want emotional confrontation other players may "flinch" from inflicting it.

Clinton R. Nixon suggests to the contrary, that mechanics can be too well tuned. He argues that a significant segment of players wants to tinker with the structure of a RPG. Indeed, he implies that rule hacking is a major source of enjoyment for many players.

While rule hacking may often happen before a game begins, Moyra Turkington talks about what players need at the end of game, or at least of a character. She talks about the needs of closure and mourning for a character, especially in how characters reflect a part of their player. She reflects that this need also derives from the potential of a character, and that a poor end is equivalent to unresolved potential left in the character.

Putting in What We Need

From the opposite direction of getting things from play, Frank Filz discusses what we put into play. In particular, he classifies different types of play preparation, as an overture to classifying games based on their preparation requirements. He presents four preparation categories: research, creative, mechanical, and organizational, and applies them to several different RPGs.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Lesson: Recording Play

One of the biggest problems in RPG theory is vetting theory with the actual play of various RPGs. This problem is compounded by the variety of different ways in which play events are recorded and made available to theorists. Among all the retellings, transcripts, summaries, and stories, several patterns emerge. One of these is that people are very prone to describing playing a RPG very differently.

Part of this comes from the fact that RPGs are very complex phenomena, and a given player can only be consciously aware of a small piece of what is happening. For example, when a player is deciding to deviate their character's goals slightly to ensure that the characters remain together, a great many things could be passing through the players minds and being found in game. The things a player might take notice include strained character interaction, player comments outside of game, meaningful expressions, previous outcomes of similar situations, and even mechanic or setting based constraints. It is likely that the player in question will use much more of this information unconsciously. And in recollection, even less will be apparent.

Indeed, it seems that the one advantage of a player's transcript of play, is that it can tell you what the player felt was important enough to remember. Getting additional perspectives of play can help, as each player will have a different view of what happened at the game. Further, external observers might be of use, but they might also change the behavior of the players by their presence.

Ultimately, any narrative of a game will consist of only a fraction of what actually occurred during play. This problem can lead to an attempt to break away from narrative transcripts and into more objective or statistical record. This could be recording when and how rolls are made or the topic and members of various conversations. In each case, by extracting the personal details, the intent is to produce a more global perspective of the game.

Ultimately, both approaches give you a record which is detached from what actually occurred in play. This is not unusual, most experiments and observations among the various sciences are equally detached. Does this mean we should approach these observations as experiments? Should we design with such experiments in mind? Should we continue seeking the perfect perspective, or give up and simply use as many imperfect ones as we can? Can we build an understanding of the biases of recording play, or must we always remain cautious when dealing with them?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Weekly Review Mar. 12th to Mar. 18th

This week has been sparse for theory, but productive. As the week of Iron Game Chef, it seems that many theorists have been focused more on design than theory development. And this focus has already provided one insight.

Design Toward or Design Away

Joshua BishopRoby offers a classification of RPGs, based on whether they are designed to push players towards something particular, what he calls design What Matters, or those which manage things which get in the way, but let the players choose the focus, what he calls Design What Doesn't Matter. He offers some classifications, as well as pointing out how the focusing games are able to take players somewhere they would not normally have gone. On the other hand, the managing games enable players to return to the familiar more easily.

The response to this idea has been varied. One of the early criticisms was that of compelling subgames within a larger managing game. Whether this is focusing or just exuberant management remains somewhat unclear. In any case these ideas are now percolating, as evidenced by Jasper McChesney's extension to his ice cream metaphor.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Editorial: High Speed Game Design

In the midst of Iron Game Chef, I am reminded once again why rapid game design and development can be so illuminating. Part of the nature of research is to break your subject into the simplest possible parts, removing everything which is not necessary to produce the effects you are studying. That process of refinement and distillation leads to the insight of what is essential and irreducible.

Rapid design forces a narrowing of attention, it almost assures that something will be forgotten that we might otherwise include given more time and awareness. In an accidental way we perform experiments that would never occur otherwise. And the results can be as surprising when the work as when they don't. In either case we have built a deeper glimpse of what might really be happening when we play.

While feelings vary about the relationship between theory and game design, I feel that a theorist is only doing their work a disservice by not attempting some form of rapid game design, such as Iron Game Chef or 24 Hour RPG. Indeed, because of how these competitions can provide fruitful discoveries I feel that it is more important for serious RPG theorists to attempt them, rather than focusing on more long term design goals such as publication. In the very least when you finish a high speed design you can set it aside, and then focus on your theory development.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Weekly Review Mar. 5th to Mar. 11th

This week has seen a small collection of developments, carefully probing the outskirts of RPGs as we know them. First, Vincent Baker opens a discussion on what between session activity fits in the common definitions of play. At the same time, Jonathon Walton expands on the idea of structured freeform as a frontier of RPGs, especially one which deserves exploration. Lastly, Mat Snyder claims that game design as a process is a group activity, holding a deeper connection with RPG play than first apparent.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Monthly Review February 2006

The major thread of RPG theory developments through February, began with Brand Robbins putting forward the thesis that new developments in design may actively change the way we tell stories. And these changes might mean that games begin to differ on what sorts of values and world views they present. He culminates with the suggestion that some games may be unplayable by some people, because they present things in a way that those people cannot accept.

A short while later, Emily Care brought up playing with people, and how some games might provide a glimpse into the emotions and views of each other. She discusses the difficulties with removing "blinders" and seeing the truth underneath, especially in the context of traditional play.

In the midst of these ideas came a dramatic claim. Ron Edwards argued that players of the RPG wave of the 80's and 90's frequently suffer from a pathology which renders them unable to perceive the underlying elements of stories. He suggested that this derives from the bait-and-switch aspect of many games in that era, causing players to associate story with the actual play of such games. Some people responded positively while others found Edward's mourned his choice of terms, including Clinton R Nixon In the aftermath of this debate, many people appeared soured on RPG Theory, such as Keith Senkowski, and it remains to be seen what the long term effects might be.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Weekly Review Feb. 26th to Mar. 4th

This week RPG theory continues quietly, receiving an infusion of ideas from some related disciplines.

Decisions and consequences

Joshua Bishop Roy offers an insight about decisions which matter. Decisions need consequences, and he suggests the best way to ensure actual consequences is for them to be present in a tangible way. This constrasts with his mention of play which focuses on purely fictional consequences, as well as play which seems to downplay the decisions entirely.

Articles Just Outside

Several articles and offerings have appeared among RPG theorists, from such various sources as computer game design, cultural studies, and music theory. John Kim points to two such collections, one the Skotos Archive, and the other a collection of articles discussing contemporary culture and games, Reconstruction 6.1. On the other hand, Adam Dray directs us to an article that gives some very new ideas about rewards and their cycles, based on computer games and music down at Lost Garden.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lesson: Decisions

When discussing the activity of one or more players during a RPG, it is useful to break things down into decisions. Decisions tell a theorist how a player has chosen between different options, and what that choice may mean in the larger context of the game. Decisions are key to identifying what matters to a player, but they are only part of the puzzle.

Not every thought which passes through a player's head is a decisions. For a player to make a decision they must take some overt action, whether speaking, picking up dice, or shaking her head. Likewise, not every overt action the player takes must be a decision. What makes a decision distinctive is that from multiple options, one is chosen. This choice strikes a definite preference for the choice taken, versus those declined.

In this sense, players decide each time they choose a character action, make a statement approving or disapproving another player's action, or offer a suggestion or description to the rest of the players. But a decision is most useful by what is left unclear. A decision doesn't tell the theorist what options were ignored, nor what thoughts occurred both before and after the decision. With the exception of very significant decisions, most players will not recall all of those details either. Without this context, a single decision is rarely of much use.

But a pattern of decisions means patterns in the thoughts and options behind those decisions, and that can be invaluable to the RPG theorist. Unfortunately even these patterns leave questions which must be answered. How many decisions are needed to conclude that a pattern is present? How much do these patterns tell us about the players and the game? And what else might we be missing by focusing on decisions?