Monday, August 28, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 20th to Aug. 26th

Theory developments this week have largely focused on social interactions and contexts, both from the design and play perspectives.

Gender Relations

Meguey Baker discusses long-term experiences of females across different RPG communities. In some, she describes women focusing on the masculinity of their characters and play, contrasting with her own experiences. She also demonstrates the difficulties in broaching these issues among women from different communities and RPG social experiences.

Character Depth

Victor Gijsbers suggests four different ways in which players can find psychological depth in characters: internal tensions caused by difficult character decisions, traumatic or life changing character experiences, moments of character openness and vulnerability, and lengthy observation. He describes each of these as fulfilling a different way of encountering one's character, and how different games can enhance these approaches.

Being Social

At the beginning of the week, Joshua BishopRoby presented the realization that the central role of RPGs is to enable the social interactions between players. In particular he suggests that this interaction should be directly considered during the design process. This idea returns in Thomas Robertson's refocusing of his ideas on social interfaces. Here he extends the idea past RPGs to the general class of multi-player games, noting that more flexible games such as RPGs require explicit goals for their interface purposes, while games focusing on point accumulation, for example, often keep goals implicit. He suggests that the social mediation of goals can be a valuable aspect of any game.

From a similar root, Brian Hollenbeck discusses the utility of less than coherent designs for enabling the kind of flexibility needed for socially mediated goals. Particularly he suggests that highly coherent games can stifle the very negotiation that enables everyone to arrive at mutually desired play. From a broader perspective, Ben Lehman argues that RPG design must account for the social context of the game and its players. In essence this is a sense of socially coherent design, where the game, both as text and design suits the desired perspectives and social groupings.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Editorial: Actual Play

Actual play is perhaps the most pervasive criteria for RPG theory. At its root, it is the requirement that any explanation of theory must go hand in hand with examples of play, and that those examples be real events. This appears to be quite reasonable, using examples is an important method to help ensure the clarity of presentation. It makes things concrete and helps to keep ideas grounded.

But what could be wrong with a criteria that starts with such a simple request? Quite a bit. Because the actual play criteria does not stop there. As rhetorical tool and as a criteria for the quality of theory it steps beyond aiding discussions of theory, warping both the discussion and the theory.

Rhetorically, asking for an example is a request of clarification. But asking for actual play is an attack, an accusation that the play the theory references is non-actual, illusory and unreal, and by extension unlike the speaker's real play. And because of the impossibility in experiencing actual play that is not your own, it is a rhetorical attack that can never be fully met. No one can prove the legitimacy of their own play.

The impossibility of actual play highlights the danger of depending solely on examples. Because no one can relate the full experience of their own play, no amount of examples, no quantity of minute details can be as real as actual play is said to be. The standard is unachievable, creating the unconscious double standard of accepting the actualness of things closer to our own views and comforts much sooner than others. Indeed, the call for more detail is often driven by an opposite goal to understanding, that of finding an excuse to discredit.

Which brings us to the problem with anecdotal examples, they are always data points of one. They can always be ignored as spurious or not indicative of the unseen whole. Reducing a theory to a single point, it can be ignored or vaunted irrespective of its merits. Examples clarify theory and they can motivate it, but they cannot validate it.

So what recourse do we have? If examples are not enough, what can validate RPG theory? The true experiences of play reside in each person, present but inaccessible. To tap into it we need to transmit more than a shadow of our own play, instead teach the method of your theory, the practice of it. That can be taught. The critic must trust the theorist enough to learn that practice, and the theorist must then trust the critic to attempt that practice on her or his play experiences.

Compared to that, actual play examples are just illusions.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 13th to Aug. 19th

This week has seen a variety of topics discussed, some as clarifications of older ideas, others as challenges to design and theory alike.

Social Hacking

Thomas Robertson discusses one of the ramifications of his interface perspective of RPGs. In particular he mentions how games are easily hackable, as forms of social interaction. He suggests this can make them very useful tools especially in how they are adjusted by a particular group.

Playing the GM

Troy Costisick gives his definition of GM. Particularly he describes the different aspects of the GM role across many RPGs. He suggests that GMs are first of all players in the game. Secondly he describes different ways in which the GM acts as the one responsible for many aspects of the game, including devising situations and playing a cast of characters. Lastly, he discusses the pace-setting aspect of the GM role, especially in the context of scene framing.

Channeling Immersion

Brian Hollenbeck, as a continuation of his new definition for immersion, offers some ways to immerse via aligning spaces (such as emulation space, game space, and the internal play space of a given player) during play. In particular he discusses the resource channels that link these spaces and how making a game immersive in this sense means making the channels between two spaces as transparent as possible.

Entranced by the System

Over on Story Games, Luke Crane has started a discussion about the use of game systems to produce a trance like state. This would bypass the usual conscious aversion to ideas and concepts and allow players to encounter them in perhaps a more natural way.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 3 - Scene and Situation

In the context of RPGs, what is a scene? What is a situation? Are they one in the same? Does one include the other? Or are they fully distinct?

If they are distinct, describe when a scene isn't a situation, and/or when a situation isn't a scene. How might that distinction be useful?

Which of these are scenes or situations, both or neither?

- A description of a village from the road leading to it.

- A duel with swords taking minutes.

- A duel with influence taking years.

- A lover's quarrel.

- A love affair.

- A conversation where neither side has any choice of what to say.

- A flashback where all the events are known.

- A flashforward where nothing definite can happen.

Now that you've done this, consider what distinguishes scene and situation from setting and genre. Is this distinction necessary?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 6th to Aug. 12th

Despite the other activities of this week, it has seen the rise of several theory topics, some new, others reprised from earlier discussions.

Creative Agendas

Over at the Forge Levi Kornelsen and Ron Edwards have begun a discussion of creative agenda. Of particular note, the discussion centers on clearly defining the concept of creative agenda, and separating it from frequent assumptions. Ron Edwards describes it as something of a shared aesthetic which emerges from play.

Social Interfaces

Thomas Robertson discusses his perspective on roleplaying. He describes games as social interfaces, with both constraints and flexibilities. The designed structure of these will tend to support some social interactions, while inhibiting others. From this perspective, the fitness of a game is related to how well it can fit into the existing social interfaces of the group that plays it.

Immersive Collapse

Brian Hollenbeck describes a different take on immersion based on his Art, Game, and Emulation (AGE) theory of RPGs. In particular he suggests that immersion is when the spaces of these different aspects begin to collapse together. Hence when the space of game becomes coincident with the space of emulation, there is no movement between the two to cause a break in immersion.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Monthly Review July 2006

A major theme of this month has revolved around the question of what is immersion. The cause of this discussion originates with Thomas Robertson's month of immersion. He presented his own definition of immersion, namely when a player ceases to consciously filter the events in play, here, further refining it here. Over at story games, Fred Wolke describes immersion as the state where you visceral respond to a character's emotions. Elsewhere, Moyra Turkington discusses three literary terms as types of immersion: catharsis - emotional purification through identifying with a tragic character, kairosis - emotional integration with a character undergoing a significant internal change, and kenosis - the losing of self. Finally, a variety of definitions are put forward in response to Thomas Robertson's request here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Weekly Review Jul. 30th to Aug. 5th

This week has seen several RPG theory development, focusing on influences in our games, and how our games might influence us.


Joshua BishopRoby discusses the conscious and unconscious influence of gender on RPG design. He argues that early RPGs were implicitly focused on the gender interests of young males. He then suggests, in a certain maturation, that RPGs can now be brought to other genders, both exploring and supporting them. He explains that approaching RPGs as adults gives far more room to relate to the complex topic of gender.


Thomas Robertson discusses the distribution of control over aspects of play. The simplest structure is where a GM controls everything but the player's character's, and the players control their own character's internal lives. More complex distributions, such as shared world creation and rotating narration, help to make the gaps in this control more noticeable. He suggests that this uncertainty is valuable in play, especially when they remain unfilled, allowing us to retain a private interpretation.

Moral Growth

Victor Gijsbers discusses a moral effect of RPGs and stories in general, namely the ability to see other outcomes or explanations of the world around us. He suggests this enables us to choose a more charitable view of each other than our immediate instincts.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Editorial: Definitions

Communication has been an underlying goal of RPG theory, and at the core of communication are the terms we use to discuss and present theory. These are the first line of communication, the issues that must be resolved before fruitful discussion can occur. The danger of terms is when they acquire a certain fetishism, the fame (or infamy) of the term lends it prestige, and suddenly a discussion about how to communicate becomes a debate over which perspective is more valuable.

To make things worse, this debate occurs before the common ground has been finished, leaving reducing even reasoned debate into a simple argument. No side can give in, because in all likelihood everyone's arguments are equally valid. It simply comes down to authority and ownership.

But to foster discussion, terms must lose their prestige. And properly this is the task of those with the greatest authority for those terms. Both in action and words, keep your terms from becoming fetishes. Otherwise, they will elicit only passionate support and revilement, neither of which aids understanding.

Definitions are the most dangerous weapons of discourse. If you want to welcome others to talk with you, then you should both tell and show them that the definitions you carry are not loaded.