Monday, November 27, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 19th to Nov. 25th

Rather than a mass of theory development this week has seen the building of infrastructure, such a new RPG forum, Gamecraft.


Adam Dray proposes a way of exploring theory using design. Specifically designing RPGs as minimal objects meeting the requirements of a given theory, in his case the Big Model.

Support, not Pull

Jonathon Walton comes to a realization about a behavior he refers to as making others awesome, specifically supporting other players and improving their play. He distinguishes this from pull, which while cooperative is distinct from the broad motives of supportive play.

The Matter of System

Over at the Forge, Mike Holmes began a thread examining the "system matters" perspective in terms of both traditional and more expansive definitions of system. Among other suggestions is that player culture can matter as much as system.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Editorial: Actual Play

Hi ho, Matthew George here, talking about the concept of play.

The word 'play' has both an everyday, vernacular meaning, and a technical, specific meaning that has developed within the theory community.

This second usage usually involves implementing a game's mechanics in a social context to produce a complex structure, usually a sequence of events; the word is used in the same way that we say a written piece of orchestral music is 'played'.

The vernacular meaning is much broader. The way that people approach roleplaying games is broader, too. Before we use a system's rules to create events, we inevitably go through a stage where we imagine the world or worlds described by the game's setting. We don't create any specific sequence of events, but instead explore the possibilities for stories and associate between setting elements. It's what we do briefly when trying to create an interesting new character, and it's often what attracts us to an RPG - the sense of rich possibility. It's almost always a very personal process, not involving others, and not subject to explicit instructions or rules.

Some people don't need to go beyond this stage to enjoy RPGs fully, and there may be some who never bother leaving it. Why try the mission stages when you're having fun with sandbox mode?

It's possible that in the process of refining theoretical terms, the RPG design community has neglected a large part of how people utilize roleplaying games. It's time to take a hard look at how people actually play with our games, even if - especially if - we have to discard accepted theoretical terms to do so.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 12th to Nov. 18th

It has been an active week in RPG theory, combining several new avenues with some old ones.

Cognition, Passion, and the Other

This week, Moyra Turkington began a series of essays presenting another way to describe how and why people play, based on two continuum. The first was between cognitive and impassioned approaches to play and the second was how deeply players related to that player's object in the fiction, as she calls it, the Other. She qualifies these gradients, by suggesting that social and human variations can shift your typical position, because of change your minds or the situation changing.

These concepts are built on several definitions and principles which Moyra described early in the week. Sockets are the primary locus of enjoyment, the aspects of play which a player focuses, such as character, story, or social. Payoffs are described as what we want out of the game, varying significantly between players. Goals are described as what you work towards within the game, often but not always aligned with payoffs.

Genre and Play

Bradley "Brand" Robins describes a view of genres as socially reinforced classification, that act as mental shortcuts. This enables people to rapidly agree on structures and values of a genre and move onto creating within it. He suggests that, in this sense, classifications of RPG play are types of genres. Specifically mentioning Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism (or GNS), he argues that as genres they should become more focused, and eschew with classifying all play. Malcom Sheppard responds by discussing the role of power in setting genre. Specifically determining when the power inherent in a genre is more important than the benefit the genre can provide.

Unclear Intentions

Continuing the earlier discussions of intent and actions, John Kim describes the situation when intent is unclear. He suggests that a significant difficulty stems from the uncertain dialogue between players about their intentions. This is compounded by the fact that by deceiving the source of antagonism, often the GM, it may be possible to make achieving your intentions easier.

Return to Setting

Troy Costisick suggests that setting has the same potential and importance as system. He goes on to classify important aspects of setting, some required and some helpful, but not necessary for functional setting.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Lesson: Rewards

Rewards are generally considered to be what we get out of playing RPGs. At first, it seems surprising that this is a hotly debated topic. But ultimately it hinges on how and why we value RPGs as we play them, another divided topic. As such rewards can be viewed in many different ways, based on how we reduce the broad set of things during play to just the set of rewards.

Some require rewards to be overt, tied to reward mechanics. Often these are resources distributed or created during play as tokens of achievement or as specific instances of authority or importance. Classically this includes any type of points that are awarded, but goes much further.

Another view of rewards is that which reinforces the social contract of play. This aligns with cycles of reward, where the behaviors described under the social contract enacted through a system (in the social sense) provide specific reinforcement of that contract, usually by producing events and behaviors which the players value. What the players value also varies from group to group.

Other views of rewards are possible. It has been suggested, that confining play to a specific pattern of rewards ignores the most basic reward of play, that of play as its own reward. This is very relevant for groups focused on experience heavy play.

In any case, rewards are one of the hard questions in RPG theory. What things in play could not serve as rewards? What things must always serve as rewards, if play is to be rewarding? Are there other ways to describe the rewards of play? What does that form of reward say about the play it describes most naturally?

Related Lessons: Social Contracts, Resolution - System, Resource, Group

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 5th to Nov. 11th

This is Matthew George, temporarily filling in for Mendel on this week's Weekly Review.

All Quiet on the Theory Front

A general absence of commentary settled over the game-design blogsphere this week, but some activity continued.

More Resolution and Intention

In the same Story-Games thread discussed last week, Mike Holmes points out that the distinction between a 'scene' and a 'task' is often an arbitrary one in many systems. A key issue is that the level of detail desired by players and permitted by mechanics can vary widely. Commenters offered examples of systems that provided different mechanics for the resolution of common problems designed for different kinds of player intention. Consensus on the precise distinctions between different kinds of resolution types proved elusive.

Ideal vs. Actual Play

Malcolm Sheppard posted a follow-up to his earlier statements about immersion in which it is considered that the theoretical emphasis on play may be misplaced. He postulates that some game consumers are far more interested in planning and imagining a campaign than participating in its implementation, which they find to be the least interesting aspect. He suggests that certain traits make some RPGs of particular interest to this group, especially high concept designs and intricately-detailed settings, and that the subset of players for whom playing isn't the focus of RPG enjoyment is significant enough to possibly represent an untapped niche market.

In a related but unconnected post, James McChesney's Primeval Games examines some of the essential features of successful games: specifically, that they induce players to imagine virtual worlds. Good rules actively assist players in constructing these worlds and filling them with both things and events. Few rule systems provide /everything/ needed, necessitating that players fill-in-the-blanks themselves; in the process of doing so, they make certain assumptions about how such worlds should be constructed. Designers can influence the nature of the content that players use to flesh out a world by anticipating common assumptions and adjusting their own design assumptions to either reinforce or counter them. It is interesting to note that none of the essential goals McChesney discusses require that the rulesets be imagined in a social context or that a 'game' ever be played with them, particularly in the light of Sheppard's observations.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Monthly Review October 2006

Two major themes arose this month, in one case continuing strong into November. First, was the rewards of system and play. Second, were the issues of force and fiat.

How System Rewards

This theme began with Vincent Baker describing reward systems as what actually happens in play to reward the players. As something of a response, John Kim describes the range and flexibility of reward systems as mechanics, aligning them to the type of play you want. Later, Malcom Sheppard suggested that sometimes burdensome mechanics can be rewarding, since the dynamics of those mechanics is also part of play.

Force and Fiat

Early in October, a discussion started at Story Games about compelling moments of player decision (Bangs) and GMing using concealed force (Illusionism). This caused, Eliot Wilen to call for refining the terms being used. Then, Thomas Robertson put forward the idea that an often ignored form of authority is the depth of context a player's character or other imagined elements possess. As the month closed, these ideas emerged again in a series of posts at Story Games, linking with last month's theme of conflict and task resolution.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 29th to Nov. 4th

This week has seen several developments. Some are continuations of earlier themes, while others take a different perspective of types of RPGs.

Explicit System

Matt Snyder discusses the changes happening in recent RPG design. If we consider system to be the entire way that fiction is affected, whether mechanical, social, or otherwise, then he suggests that recent design movements have been one of exploring new systems, past the mechanical level. This has required specifying system beyond just the mechanics. At the same time, he argues that more traditional design has used much the same underlying system, passed on as unstated behaviors.

Breaking for Immersion

Malcom Sheppard continues his discussion last week on how the burden of ill-suited rules can be beneficial to play. Specifically he discusses the disjointedness of consciousness, and suggests that the breaks in self-awareness mirror the breaks in immersion found in the mechanical business of play. He argues that this periodic breaking aids immersion.

Resolution and Intent

Continuing the debate around task and conflict resolution over at Story Games is an attempt to understand the relationship between intent and scale within resolution. A consensus of sorts seems to have appeared around Fred Hicks' suggestion that the terms task and conflict confound the two very different dimensions of resolution, that of scope and intent. He argued that there should be categories of task versus scene resolution and of intent-relevant versus intent-irrelevant resolution.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Editorial: Ten Years

Where do you want the state of RPGs to be in ten years? And what are you doing to try to make that happen?

I want to see books getting smaller, as more of the fluff and specifics become things that emerge during play. I want to see RPG design becoming more of a matter of planting seeds, rather than writing treatise.

I want to see people seriously using multiple contradictory theories of RPGs, not because of social pressure, but because that genuinely helps them play and design better.

I want truly distributed RPGs, deeply serious ones, and even ones that don't appear as RPGs at all.

I want RPG theory to develop a solid enough foundation that it is borrowed by theatrical theory, literary theory, and maybe even social sciences to help developments there.

And this site is one way I am trying to get us there.