Friday, September 29, 2006

Editorial: Playing with Theory

RPGs cover a range of arbitrary extent, and can only be defined in ambiguities. In the midst of this, it should come as no surprise that part of how we play is by constantly learning and refining how to play. And right in the middle of this is theory.

I'm not talking about formal theory, overt models, or technical jargon. I'm talking about theory at its root, the understanding of what it is we do when we play RPGs. Theory is both asking and answering "am I doing this right" or "what do I do next".

Often this basic form of theory is unappreciated. But it is developed and refined just as its more formal brethren. And, it is at the root of more overt theory. Even more important it informs and determined how we play, as it evolves through and around our play.

Theory can be practiced without play, but play cannot be had without practicing theory.

This suggests something else. We create theories simply by playing, seeing play, or even thinking about it. We refine theories in the same way. This is the easy part.

The hard part is to communicate theory, to recognize one's own theories, and to make them static enough to test. The value of formal theory is to be clearer and more definite. But this is important, because only in the form of theory can you relate how you play.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 17th to Sep. 23rd

This week has been sparser than most, though the developments have ventured out of typical topics.

Language of Gestures

Thor Olavsrud describes a the use of gestures as techniques for playing RPGs, specifically in reference to body language. He suggests careful use of posture and movement can help relate characterization and emotion within a RPG as easily as they work in regular human interaction.

Non-Conflict Fun

Adam Dray suggests that fun in RPGs comes in exploring some aspect of play, such as situation, character, or color. One typical way to explore these is through conflicts. However, he suggests that a focus on conflicts, while efficient at affecting situation and character often neglect less direct elements such as color. He calls for an increase in designing fun exploration outside of conflicts rather than always skipping to the next conflict.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 4 - Not Fiction

Take a few minutes and write down a list of specific things you do in play which are not directly related with the fiction or imagined parts of play.

Once you've done this, look over the list.

Did you include things like eating or setting up seating? Did you include things like stretching or laughing? Did you include "Out of Game" or "Out of Character" talking?

If you did, why did they qualify as part of play? If you didn't, did you exclude it because it was too directly related to the fiction?

How much of what you listed could be directly related to the fiction? How much of it could not conceivably directly relate to fiction?

It useful to have ways to communicate that reliably don't affect the fiction. Which of the things you listed could be used to do that?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 10th to Sep. 16th

This week has seen a wealth of theory developments, from color to system, and all sorts of places in between.

Color Words

Thor Olavsrud brings up how color descriptions expand what we can get from play, noting that color is contributed by all players (GM and otherwise) more strongly than most aspects of play. He also discusses a particular type of color, the chronological tag, which puts each scene in relation to the rest.


Joshua BishopRoby introduces the idea that playing RPGs is often seeking one of two experiences. Either a direct experience, where a character's experiences translate to the players, reflected by a parallel chronology. On the other hand, play focusing on redefining experiences and retrospectively changing the meaning of past events, is about implied experience. He suggests that this dichotomy is both important and pervasive, making it at least difficult to encounter both experiences at the same time.

Games and Toys

Brian Hollenbeck discusses the distinction between games and toys, typically that the former has built-in goals, while the later does not. He disputes this distinction, suggesting that toys are better seen as proto-games, which manifest a variety of possible goals, requiring only a context to make them into games. He argues this distinction is very important for RPGs because both the RPG book and the shared imaginings are toys, the game derives from their joining.

Resolution and System

John Kim takes a stab at defining a new terminology for resolution systems, to avoid the baggage and connotations of terms such as task, conflict, and stakes. He suggests distinguishing resolution defining success, from those that flavor the outcome. Also he classifies two properties of resolution systems, first how consequences are determined, and second the levels of abstraction in which the resolution occurs.

Later, Troy Costisick describes another approach to system in general. He breaks down the broad concept of system, "means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play", into two major categories: rules and procedures. The distinction being that rules are derived overtly from a game text, while procedures are not. He suggests that understanding the relationship between these two aspects of system is an important skill in RPG design.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Editorial: Theories Predicts

A few weeks ago I discussed the problems of actual play examples as the validation of RPG theory. While I alluded to some alternatives I didn't go into significant detail. However, it is a subject which deserves more examination.

Theories are ways of organizing our knowledge of the world. They allow us to reduce experience, expectations, and practice into a succinct description. But more importantly theory tells us not only about what we've done, but also about what we might do or experience. In short, theories predict.

The validity of a theory, then is not whether it has been correctly constructed from observations and present knowledge, but whether it accurately predicts future knowledge. This is regardless of whether the knowledge is from experimental observation, from practical application, or from some other form of analysis.

This is both simple and important. If you are developing theory, then you must make predictions. These predictions will allow you to refine, and eventually to validate your theory. Otherwise you are simply summarizing your own experiences.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 3rd to Sep. 9th

This week has seen a lull in theory investigations, as other concerns move to the forefront.

Revising Stakes

John Kim continues last week's discussion of conflict stakes. He suggests that competitive stakes revising is more symptomatic of power relations within the game, and that this might suggest alternative solutions to abandoning the idea of stakes.


Over on Story Games is discussion about how to define situation. James Nostak begins by suggesting that situation is "a status quo, a threat to the status quo, and a reason to care." This idea is then dissected as are alternatives.

Role of the Audience

Victor Gijsbers brings up players as audience to RPG designs. He suggests that this aspect of playing can require skill, especially for games which challenge ideas and habits. He relates this to critical reading is a skill which can be learned and developed for particular types of books.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Monthly Review August 2006

August has been an intensive month. Inspite, or perhaps because, of its convention schedule, there have been many threads of theory development. Two of them have been discussions of RPGs in the social context and investigations into shared aesthetics.

Social Factors

Early in the month, Joshua BishopRoby brings up the topic of gender in RPGs, especially with how this social and cultural concern shapes design and play. Later on, Thomas Robertson puts forward the perspective that games act as customizable social interfaces. Later, he expands on this idea, by discussing social hacking, specifically the modification of social interfaces. Around this time, Joshua BishopRoby reports a realization: that RPGs are, at their core, ways for players to interact. At about the same time, Ben Lehman discusses the importance of designing with social contexts in mind, with an understanding of the perspectives and social groupings of potential players and how the design should influence them.

Shared Aesthetics

Early in the month, Victor Gijsbers presents a justification for telling stories, namely that they enable moral speculation, where we can entertain eventual outcomes of our actions as well as more immediate results. From a different angle, Ron Edwards and Levi Kornelsen delve into the subject of shared aesthetics of play, the creative agenda, at the Forge. From, yet another perspective, Luke Crane at Story Games talks about how system can entrance, enabling, rather than hindering, new ideas and perspectives.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 27th to Sep. 2nd

Over the course of this week, various theory discussions have emerged. From the relationship between stakes and conflicts to the clarity of mechanical intent.

Stakes and Conflicts

Over at Story Games Ron Edwards reprised and expanded on a GenCon discussion about stake setting. In particular he critiques the use of stakes setting that go far beyond intent. He describes this as a natural hazard of setting stakes, where players can competitively build greater and greater consequences as a form of pre-resolution narration.

Isolating Immersion

Brian Hollenbeck discusses a particular form of immersion in contrast to his earlier characterization of immersion as conjoining of aspects of play. What he refers to as isolation takes a single aspect and rather than merging the other aspects with it, isolates those other aspects away. Elsewhere, Jim Henley describes a concern about how immersion is characterized. In particular he indentifies a trend in examples where immersion is evidenced by causing player conflicts. He suggests this is an edge case, not fully descriptive of immersion that is more functional and cooperative.

Mechanical Intent

Thomas Robertson expands on the ideas Chris Chinn mentions about how some play groups pick and choose rules, while others will attempt to play the rules as written. In particular, Thomas suggests that the clarity of a rules intent is much more important for a "pick and choose" adoption, preventing unexplained rules or rules addressing uncomfortable topics from appearing in play. He argues that leaving out the explicit intent of rules allows the introduction of unexpected outcomes and interactions, helping to expand a play group's horizons beyond the comfortable.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Lesson: Resource

Resources are a common element of mechanics, in particular they are icons which can be exchanged or manipulated during play. As icons, resources often have multiple layers of significance. For example, an experience point may be used in several different ways (such as permanent or temporary improvement of a character), and gained in many ways (from goals achieved by a character to player popularity). The processes of gaining and using this resource, is represented by the experience point linking these processes in the exchange.

One way of looking at how mechanics interact with the more general system and resolution occurring in play is to trace these resource links. The gaining and spending of experience provides a structure to the dynamics of play, a structure that is easily seen and easy for players to respond and adapt to. The hazard of this perspective is that not everything that is exchanged or manipulated is iconic.

Often at the same time as resources are exchanged, social elements change without clear outward signs. Emotional responses, respect, interest, and attention are all subtly moving during play. These form the dynamics of play along side and interacting with the mechanical resources of play.

To what extent can mechanics delve into the social realm? To what extent can resources be used outside of system (i.e. not determining the fictional content)? How well can we map out the social dynamics? And how much do the overt dynamics of resources mirror the subtler dynamics of human interaction?