Sunday, October 29, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 22nd to Oct. 28th

This week's theory development focus on a broader picture of how different aspects of RPGs work, whether characters, settings, or rules.

Distributed Context

Thomas Robertson continues his discussion on context and authority, where he brings up questions of how the context of characters and other elements can lend them a sense of reality and importance. This week he remarks on how player authority stems from a wide array of low context elements (such as a GM would traditionally have) or a focused single high context element (such as a player's own character), and how these different approaches can provide a shaky balance of power.

Burden of Rules

Malcom Sheppard discusses the uneasy relationship between rules and play. He suggests that the difficulties in dealing with rules can actually drive some of the enjoyment of play. Particularly, just like events and characters, rules are manipulated and transformed during play. This later dynamic comes from the rule placing a burden on the players.

Analyzing Setting

Over at RPGnet, is a discussion on the analysis of setting. Related to themes earlier this year is a call for treatment of setting as a topic of equal importance and capability to system.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lesson: Group

While we often talk of the properties or behaviors of a player, many of those same questions can be extended to that of a group of players. This is not a simple translation. What one person does may not make sense for four or five people.

The actions of the group pass through the same process that creates the social contract among them. Mutual understandings and agreements, overt or unstated, are made to allow the group of players to collaborate. On this foundation, the group can be considered much like a single player, with goals, interests, and ways of doing things.

Sometimes this abstraction can be done multiple times. Especially in distributed play, different groups of players may form larger groups. These meta-groups might even have individuals joining in without an intermediate group. Thus a complex hierarchy forms as players and their groups interact and communicate.

As complex as it is, this hierarchy is not fixed. Even small, simple groups can and do change in response to their players actions. Absence and social contract disputes will often disrupt or otherwise modify the groups in which they occur.

What aspects of theory apply just as well to individual players as to groups? Which cannot apply to groups? How do the dynamics of a group affect what can be said about them?

Related Lessons: Player, Social Contract, Distributed

Monday, October 23, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 15th to Oct. 21st

This week there have been several developments in theory, many of which constitute a different perspective on previous ideas and discussions.

Who is Protagonist?

In response to earlier discussion, Eliot Wilen presents a view of the term, deprotaginization. Specifically, he suggests that you cease playing a protagonist when genre assumptions are not met. In the broad sense, it is discovering that you are playing a different story than you thought.

Unexpected Emphasis

Troy Costisick discusses the importance of emphasis in relating aspects of a game design. Particularly, he distinguishes two aspects of games, the overt parts, and the more hidden surprise parts of the game. The former should be emphasized to build interest, while the later are meant to be fully discovered during play, so can remain largely silent in the text.

Mechanical Rewards

As a response to Vincent Baker's earlier description of reward cycles, John Kim brings up how rewards work in a solidly mechanical sense. He describes how similar reward mechanic can encourage very different forms of behavior. Some of which, such as rewards based on player set goals, encouraging aiming low, require more care than they are typically given.

Creative Agendas

Over at Story Games is a discussion on the idea of creative agenda, a trio of presumably independent goals during play: gamism, simulationism, and narrativism. While it begins with a question as to whether hybrids exist between these, it later on delves into distinguishing between the specific thing a group of players enjoy, as the concept of a generic creative agenda, and the specific categories associated with the term.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Editorial: Invitation

I've been compiling and writing this blog for over 40 weeks. In addition to the reviews, lessons, and editorials, RPG theory review was intended to have guest articles. In that vein, I am openly inviting anyone interested in writing a guest article to contact me at wyrmwood (preposition) sluggy (punctuation) net.

Generally there are two kinds of guest articles: paralleling lessons and editorials. The prior involved writing about a particular RPG theory topic dear to you. It should be written for minimal prior knowledge and should carefully and clearly used terminology. The later are articles about the nature of RPG theory as a discipline. These should be cogent, clearly expressing your perspective.

In either case, I encourage being succinct and focused. I'm hoping for a variety of perspectives and expertise, and I look forward to seeing what you can do.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 8th to Oct. 14th

This week has been fairly sparse but what theory has been developed has been of an unconventional bent.

Authority and Context

Thomas Robertson suggests that an implicit form of character-based authority, is the witnessed context of the character. By lending a sense of meaning to the character's actions, those actions will tend to be more acceptable to other players. I particular this type of authority is not one which can easily be spread evenly, opening up both design and theory questions about how best to manage context.

The Narrative of Toys

Brian Hollenbeck continues a discussion of toys and games. Stemming from the development of baby toys, comes the idea that toys have an implicit narrative. He suggests that this narrative gives rise to a game as it becomes social, requiring further constraints and communication.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Lesson: Distributed

RPGs are built on the foundation of person-to-person interaction. Regardless of how that interaction occurs, whether electronic, face-to-face, or something more exotic, the structure of the interaction strongly constrains how we play. One of the most important distinctions in this sense is how distributed the RPG is.

On one extreme, a deeply involving and focused face-to-face RPG can result in a fully connected network of interactions, where each player is actively aware of each other player. At the other extreme, each player could only be aware of a small number of other players, with information and context passing from slowly to those removed from this nexus. In between is a vast variety of ways in which play can be distributed among players.

In the midst of these general concerns about how play is structured, there is also the fact that all but the simplest structures are dynamic. Perhaps, someone leaves on an errand when a scene occurs without them, or groups shuffle as some people move between them. In each of these cases, as well as numerous others, the network of interactions is changed, adjusting to the different configurations.

One advantage of this is that play can be resilient, some people may not be present or simply inattentive, and the distribution can adjust. Also, this mobility allows larger groups to be accommodated. But those dynamics are also structured, by constraints of physical, social, and imagined origin. So in a sense when we ask about how play is distributed we are equally concerned with how that distribution can change.

How should we classify the distribution of play? What are the limits of the connections of a single player? What is made easier by players only seeing a portion of play? What is made more difficult?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 1st to Oct. 7th

This week has seen a variety of theory developments, some stemming from continuing threads, others from outside.

A Question of Force

Over on Story Games, Joshua BishopRoby began a discussion about the relationship between compelling moments of player decision (Bangs) and GMing using concealed force (Illusionism). He asks how prepared bangs can be introduced without some measure of concealed force. The result is a debate over what sorts of GM influence constitute force. Eliot Wilen sums up this debate with a call to refine the terms being used, so that they are more generally useful.

Applied Theory

Likewise at Story Games, Christian Griffen began a discussion on the application of theory. Specifically he suggests that theory is in important part of playing and designing RPGs, namely it allows us to do either of these purposefully, with a deeper understanding of decisions and their consequences.

Passions of Design

Brian Hollenbeck relates different styles of graphic novel design with RPG design. Particularly he suggests some designers are classicist focusing on the great game, some animists focusing on the story potential, and others formalists designing to understand what is possible. He leaves whether there are designers who are truly iconclasts as an open question.

Reward System

Vincent Baker attempts to bridge ongoing discussion of reward systems. Particularly he motivates that reward systems are inherent in RPGs, namely that they are not a system that can be rewarding in play, but the system that is how the RPG does reward play. As he puts it, "If play is rewarding, there's a reward system, just EXACTLY like how if play happens, there's a system in action."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Monthly Review September 2006

One of the major themes of this month has been the discussion of resolution, systems, and conflict resolution in particular. Much of this appears to stem from Ron Edwards' synopsis of a GenCon discussion about competitive setting of stakes within conflicts, over on Story Games.

Following, in a manner of response, John Kim suggests that the behaviors Edwards describes are not innate to setting stakes, but instead represent a social pathology. John Kim continues later with a general classification of resolution systems, he classifies two properties of resolution systems, first how consequences are determined, and second the levels of abstraction in which the resolution occurs. A similar theme recurs with Troy Costisick's discussion of system, where he breaks system as the "means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play", into two major categories: rules (overt and known) and procedures (socially decided).

Later, Adam Dray brings up conflicts from another direction, suggesting that conflicts only support a portion of exploration, and that those unsupported arenas of exploration can provide equal enjoyment of play. He challenges designers to look beyond conflicts for exactly this reason. Going even further, Victor Gijsbers examines the prevalence of conflicts in RPGs, suggesting that this bias implicitly limits what the stories and ideas which can be expressed in RPGs, likewise challenging to move beyond them.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 24th to Sep. 30th

This week has seen several developments of RPG theory, all in different ways looking at how we perceive play.


Victor Gijsbers discusses the influence of conflicts and their resolution on RPGs. He suggests that a conflict-centric view has developed, focusing on encountering and then resolving sequences of conflicts. He argues that this distracts from forms of play which where resistance is encountered without any conflict of wills, a form which implies different values and perspectives than a focus on direct conflicts.


Troy Costisick brings up the value and dangers of min-maxing as a strategy. Particularly, he suggests that min-maxing is a strategy, and so not wholly good or bad. Instead the context determines when it is appropriate. If min-maxing is opposed to the social contract of the group it is made negative by that contract. Likewise, he argues that a RPG which for which min-maxing is the only viable strategy is poorly designed.

Mental Models

Brian Hollenbeck mentions a players metagamespace, where a player's view of the RPGs is formed and shaped by their own play and their observations of others. He argues that RPG theory grows from this space, and by consciously extending our perspectives we can open up new vistas of RPG play. He suggests that this process must be ongoing, pointing to the mutual incomprehension of different theories as hiding from each other the potential for new opportunities.

Disclosure: Brian Hollenbeck's post refers to the editorial posted here this past week. It is my policy with this site to avoid referencing my own theory work. However, I believe that Brian's post goes far enough beyond what I presented to merit reporting.