Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Editorial: Origins

This post is a little early, because I'm heading to Origins shortly. On that note, this post is a general question. Where do you get your RPG theory ideas?

Do you find yourself basing developments on specific games? On specific people? Perhaps, by applying ideas from other fields? Are you driven to build theory by necessity, elegance, or creativity?

It's good to think about these things every once in a while, because where your theory comes from tells you quite a bit about where it could go.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 18th to Jun. 24th

While not a common question in RPG theory, this week's developments started by expanding on how RPG theory applies to RPG design.

Putting the Pieces Together

Thomas Robertson expands on his reference to RPG theory from last week. Thomas contrasts the state of theory between engineering and RPG design. He suggests that while the potential exists for theory to guide design as much as it could, we have much more to do to bring RPG theory to that level. Later, Adam Dray discusses a similar process on the matter of fantasy heartbreakers. In particular he distinguishes design tinkering which tends to produce a heartbreaker from the broadening of understanding which is part of developed RPG design.


Later in the week, Thomas Robertson discusses the importance of color, the details of the imagined space that isn't setting, system, character, or situation. He suggests a different interpretation of color. He presents it as the building blocks for the shared context that lets us relate to other imagined aspects. While the character may not be color, how we think of him may be largely determined by the ephemeral details of which color consists.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Lesson: Resolution - Mechanics

Resolution mechanics are a fairly simple idea. Resolution is when players resolve differences. Mechanics for resolution, then are just overt procedures or rules for resolving those differences. Mechanics are commonly confounded with system, but at the simplest, mechanics don't need to apply to the imagined part of play. For example, if players vote at the beginning of a session on who gets the comfy chair, then that is a mechanical resolution, but not part of the system.

Resolution mechanics serve an important role in resolution in general, they are approaches to resolution which can be treated as an object of its own. Indeed, between arguments over rules and discussions over ways to collaborate during game, mechanics give us a handle on resolution, and let us resolve differences about how we do resolution.

This makes mechanical resolution extremely powerful, but it also comes with a danger. Mechanics are ultimately things which players resolve to use together, not the things that let them resolve those initial differences. At the most basic level, resolution is non-mechanical, if only to determine which mechanics will be introduced when. Just as system is only a part of resolution, so to are mechanics only a piece of the puzzle which is how we play.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 11th to Jun. 17th

Another sparse week, much of the RPG theory discussion has centered on aspects of designing and testing RPGs.

Playtest Cycles

Chris Chinn brings up the question of playtest cycles. In particular the need to see the ramifications of changes being a central limitation on the process of RPG design. Thomas Robertson extends this discussion, in particular pointing out the alternative to the playtest cycle is to a deeply analyzed RPG, which typically also means a very simple one.

A Sense of Touch

Over on Story Games is a discussion on the use of physical components in RPGs. Of note, is what effect the tactile nature of the game has on the players, in terms of how concrete or abstract the game feels. This levels some very interesting questions on the differences between on-line and face-to-face play.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Editorial: Why RPGs?

Hidden in the major RPG theory question of why we play is the observation that in RPGs we have great flexibility in choosing what we want and receive from playing. This flexibility is the source of some of the hardest problems in RPG theory. But in a very important way, those reasons go far beyond the scope of RPGs.

RPGs are structured interactions which, if all goes well, produce the kind of play which satisfies all of the players. But we are surrounded by structured interaction, the key difference is that our social activities outside of RPGs are driven by overwhelming goals. You strive to keep your job or make a good impression, or just to purchase groceries. These are overt, definite goals, but in each you adopt and play roles. And while the goal is overwhelming, it is not alone, people rarely behave in the most calculated manner, instead the goal pressures the interactions and play towards a definite purpose.

But, at its most basic, RPGs focus on playing roles and interacting with structure, but without driving goals. And, importantly this makes RPGs more complex phenomena, because the goal is not slanting play into simpler structures. And, what's more, if we want to understand what happens beyond simply the overt goal, an understanding of the undirected play and interaction is essential.

RPG theory is essential, not solely to improve RPGs or playing them, but to build an understanding of how people interact and play roles on their own, without such a level of necessity. This understanding in the least applies to social interaction without significant outside pressures. And perhaps it may perform as a foundation for understanding how people interact when they have important goals as well.

The sign of RPG theory reaching a basic maturity will be when we stop simply borrowing from other theories, and start making something which can be borrowed in turn. Only then will RPG theory become part of a dialogue of theory and practice, and I for one, believe that RPG theory has a great deal to offer.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 4th to Jun. 10th

Though fairly sparse, this week has continued the theme of examining the subtler frontiers of RPG theory.

Books and Games

Joshua BishopRoby broaches the question of RPG design versus RPG writing. In particular he discusses how RPG books are essentially products, while RPG games are processes, influenced, but not written by the designer.

Not Yet Shared

Thomas Robertson discusses parts of play that don't quite make it into the commonly accepted Shared Imagined Space. In particular he described how different recollections and different emphasis can cause players to hold dramatically different views of otherwise shared aspects of play. He points to this as being a positive process, if only because when these different perspectives are shared the ground work has already been done for a deeper, multi-layered perspective.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Monthly Review May 2006

May has seen significant developments in RPG theory. Many of these developments occurred in refinements to push and pull, while others focused on better understanding the basics of how people learn and play RPGs.

Push and Pull Redux

The revival of push and pull discussion this month was marked by a conversation between Chris Chinn and Moyra Turkington, culminating in her codified definitions of push and pull. This cause various reactions, including Jonathon Walton's call to avoid the terms becoming simple jargon. As a means of clarification, Bradley "Brand" Robins describes moments of crisis, where something important is decided, as being an important distinction between push and pull. This helped produce a new discussion, including both Vincent Baker and Bradley "Brand" Robins on the relationship between the resolution of drama mechanics and push and pull.

How Do People Play?

The question of how a game book or a basic RPG idea becomes RPG play is a complex one, and it is a process which several people have confronted this month. Early in May, Jonathon Walton discussed applying the concept of communities of practice to RPGs, especially in understanding how players come to agreements on how to act during the game. Joshua BishopRoby presented a list of player skills used when playing RPGs. Later on, Jessica Hammer started a discussion on teaching and playing RPGs in a classroom setting. Lastly, Thomas Robertson discussed the differences between rules and guidelines and their affect on how people play the game.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Weekly Review May 28st to Jun. 3rd

This week has been fairly sparse in RPG theory developments, in definite contrast with last weeks sudden influx.

RPG Goals

Thor Olavsrud re-examines the relationship between goals and RPGs. In particular he applies some classifications in computer games to RPG structure, suggesting that the delineation between game and simulation may be a relevant one for RPG theory as well, focusing on the presence of win conditions for the former, but not the later.

Playing without the Rules

Thomas Robertson argues that non-freeform games operate by players granting a portion of the group authority to the rules themselves. He compares this to the rules becoming virtually an additional player, and a stabilizing influence on the game. Without this influence, more dynamic allocations of authority are possible, and he suggests that this makes freeform play both difficult and worthwhile.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Lesson: Resolution - System

System is perhaps one of the most influential terms in RPG Theory. Indeed, one of the most wide reaching insights into system is the Lumpley Principle, which defines system as however the imagined things in play are decided. In this sense, system is any sort of resolution of the fiction (the imagined part of play).

On one hand this definition seems fairly simple. If it determines what happens in the fictional part of the game, then it is system. More conventional definitions of system are grounded in the idea of mechanics (something I'll discuss in the next lesson). But mechanical methods of determining fiction, are still methods, so the theory definition of system is an extension, allowing theorists to talk about a much broader phenomena than just mechanics.

Certainly rolling dice to determine which outcome occurs in fiction is system. But so are many non-mechanical aspects. Consider the following:

  • Ignoring a reference to a character performing magic, because it contradicts the setting.

  • An unstated rule that players always determine their characters inner motives.

  • Describing a fade to black, or using euphemisms to avoid touchy subjects.

  • Letting someone have the outcome they want because he or she had a bad day.

All of these are system, because they help resolve the fiction during the game. On the other hand, system does not include resolution beyond the imagined. System, as defined by the Lumpley Principle does not include favorite chairs, agreements about what game to play, or even the conduct of discussions about the fiction in the game. Unless it affects that fiction it remains a different phenomena, a more general type of resolution.

There are some gray areas, however. How much influence is enough to constitute the classification of system? If a social decision affects the fiction indirectly is it system? Is it useful to distinguish between solely fictional resolution and hybrid resolution, where both fiction and real relationships are in flux? Would it useful to refer to the general class of non-system resolution in a similar manner?