Monday, December 17, 2007

Weekly Review December 9th to December 15th

This week has followed last with an upswing in theory developments.

Classifying Setting

Chris Chinn describes two useful kinds of RPG settings. Canonical settings define the context of the game containing thematic options and ideally giving players a reference frame in which to play. Evocative settings ideally provide little information, and instead provide tools that enable players to construct elements based on what the setting evokes for them.

Process of Roleplay

Nathan Paoletta brushes up against theory while working on his RPG Design Handbook. He describes a conceptual way to understand the process of playing RPGs, "a process of collaborative creation, wherein each person involved is both a participant in and an observer of changes made to the fiction of that particular instance of roleplaying."

Diagrams of Theory

John Kim compiles four graphical models of RPGs: Spheres of Performance, The Big Model, The Process Model, and finally Levi Kornelsen's new Big Muddle. This later diagram is discussed further at I would knife fight a man.

Creative Agenda Re-Examined

Over at I would knife fight a man, Vincent Baker attempts to reconstruct another way to approach creative agendas. This has resulted in an exploration of the distinction between story and game within RPGs.

Weekly Review December 2nd to December 8th

This week has seen a continuation of some of the theory developments last week, especially focusing on discussions at I would knife fight a man.

Adventure Focused

Algi develops an adventure description language for constructing and codifying the situations in play. He suggests that this level has been largely ignored by RPG theory, and has a significant influence on how we play.

Undirected Play

Over at I would knife fight a man is a discussion about the Forge concept of Zilchplay. This is expanded and described as play which lacks direction, whether that direction is consistent or inconsistent.

Big Model Talk

Elsewhere on I would knife fight a man, Ben Lehman and Jessica Hammer have entered into a one-on-one discussion on the Forge theory and culture. This includes such topics as creative agenda, tinkering and house rules, and how the Forge community approaches theory.

Monthly Review November 2007

November has been a slow month, with a few simple trends appearing through out. One is the continuing work of Levi Kornelsen, who at the beginning of the month posted his ideas on goals and stances at GameCraft, focusing specifically on the way that play can satisfy different goals among players. Later on, he develops these same ideas as a counter point to the Big Model at I would knife fight a man.

Another theme of note has been the examination of time as a cost during and before play. Chris Chinn describes this as the main cost of character death in his work on hacking D&D. Likewise, Rich Warren sought a way to minimize these same costs for the construction and playing of story-centered games.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Weekly Review November 25th to December 1st

Different perspectives can often provide useful ways to break from existing patterns of theory. This week has seen several of these.

Larp Resources

Over at RPGnet is a discussion on contested resources and larp dynamics. Some participants suggest that limited resources can be designed to produce good long term conflicts between characters, while others suggest that it produces negative situations during play. Still others suggest that resource struggles will occur naturally over long playing larps, even if it is only emergent status or story control.

Creative Enjoyments

Over at I would knife fight a man, Levi Kornelsen began a thread comparing his recent work with goals with creative agendas in Forge models. The culmination is to disambiguate the player-level, enjoyment-focused theories of Kornelsen and others from the group-level creative aesthetic which makes up a creative agenda. While the two approaches to describing how people play RPGs work on different levels, they may yet influence and further each other.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Weekly Review November 18th to November 24th

This week has seen several developments in the theory of RPGs, their culture, and their development.

Gaming Identity and Feminism

Violet considers the issues of removing sexism from gaming culture. Specifically she questions whether the sexism is an inherent part of the gamer identity. This leads to a discussion of when it is better toout mode and replace cultural identity rather than to slowly combat and reform it.

Preparation of Story

Rich Warren describes how preparation is a major cost in using complex systems for story-based styles of play. He related the advantages of small footprint, flexible preparation for games which have more narrative influence on the part of the players.

Epistemology and Rules

Thanuir suggests ways of applying epistemology, which "talks about the possibility of and criteria for knowledge," to RPGs as a way to understand how consistency and coherence arise within play. Later, Thanuir expands on earlier discussions on rules, focusing on the consistency of these rules with the more subtle dynamics of setting, as well as their use in creating enjoyable mini-games.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Weekly Review November 11th to November 17th

Theory development this week has been quiet. Most notable, perhaps, is a Story Games discussion on what the common RPG term, fiddly, means. It demonstrates the dangers both in the use of specialized terms and in attempting to impose a fixed definition on common-use terms.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weekly Review November 4th to November 10th

This has been another sparse week in RPG theory.

Death and Game Time

Chris Chinn discusses the costs of character death, focusing on combat intensive games such as D&D. He suggests that character death simply means character replacement, which can even offer an opportunity in the game. He argues that the true cost is forcing the player to wait out until a replacement can be brought in, from the process of dying to the creation and introduction of a new character.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Monthly Review October 2007

October has seen a variety of different theory developments. One has been an increased interest in freeform (lacking overt system) and jeepform (story-focused freeform) play. Early in the month, Emily Care Boss contrasts jeepform, which focuses on a communal story, with larp, where events are less unified and no single story emerges. Later on, at GameCraft is a discussion about the ways that freeform can evolve from more structured or overt systems.

Another thread, also occurred on GameCraft, where Levi Kornelsen has been assembling a theory of RPG play, focusing on the dynamic goals and behaviors of players. He starts with a series of stances as ways to interact with play. He then refines these as modes, combining them with goals and some solutions to meeting player goals.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Weekly Review October 28th to November 3rd

This has been a slow week in RPG theory.

Modes, Goals, and Solutions

Over at GameCraft, Levi Kornelsen expands on his ideas about stances as modes of play and combines these with a listing of player goals and ways to meet these goals. Doing so he builds a theory focused on individual goals and group play styles in order to describe two different ways of meeting player goals: top-down which involves focusing at the beginning on specific narrow set of goals and bottom-up which involves compromise and adaptation to a variety of goals, taking more time in the process.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Lesson: Forge Theory - Scope Exercise

In present incarnation of the Forge theory there are four scopes or layers of RPGs. At the top is the Social Contract, narrowing to Exploration, then to Techniques, and finally Ephemera as the smallest scope for looking at RPGs.

Things that happen in RPGs can be seen in one or more of these scopes. If you're not somewhat familiar with these take a look at this lesson. Then try to figure out which scope or scopes the following things can be placed into:

An argument between players.

An argument between characters.

The resolution of a fictional conflict.

A player correcting something he just said.

A player correcting another player about a past event in play.

A shout from an excited player.

The positions of miniatures.

How dice are rolled and read.

Who holds the character sheets between sessions.

Who can look at character sheets during the game.

You might try writing down your answers and then looking over them later. Did you pick some scopes that you don't feel fit anymore? Did you miss some scopes that make more sense the second time around?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Weekly Review October 21st to October 27th

This has been a slower week in RPG theory, but has seen some developments.

Color or Target

Ginger continues her discussion of techniques by talking about the risks of misunderstanding whether a character element is simply a colorful feature or a target for interaction and adversity for other players. She describes how problems can easily arise due to these misunderstandings and the advantages of letting everything about a character be a valid target.

Freeform Evolving from System

Over at GameCraft is a discussion on the evolutionary relationship of overt systems and mechanics with more freeform styles of play. This includes examining how rules get internalized and how the effect of many systems is a form of social training.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Editorial: Challenge - Text Becomes Play

One of the critical theory questions facing designers, players, and theorists alike is how the text of a RPG becomes the game which is played (something I've called induction). The simplest solution has been to ignore this concern and assume the game text is translated faithfully into what happens during play. But realistically, this is only an approximation.

Game texts include fuzzy or interpretative rules which will not be used in the same way by different groups, or even the same group over time. Indeed, the game played will change over time, due to recollection bias, due to social pressures, and even due to interactions with new material. In any case, the principle object of interest for RPG theorists and designers is not a static object, it is ever-changing.

What is needed are theories of induction, theories which combine what we know about game texts, people, and social interactions, and gives us an understanding of how those become the living thing that is a RPG. One important part of this, is understanding how RPGs fail, how unintended effects arise from the rules, advice, and ideas in a game text. Developing methods and solutions for this alone would significantly benefit the play and design of RPGs.

There are many ways to attack induction, whether by experimental design, by observation and analysis of games, or by extending existing theories. I believe it is a challenge that cannot be left to a few thinkers or designers. We must attack it from different directions, and share ourdiscoveries, regardless of success. And so my first challenge to design and theory communities is to meet this problem.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Weekly Review October 14th to October 20th

This week has seen several advances and developments in RPG theory, from revisiting resolution to building a dynamic sense of player stance.

Handling Outcomes

Rich Warren returns to the topic of task and conflict resolution. Specifically, he details his concerns and thoughts about the differences and similarities of resolving a task versus a conflict. He concludes that agraduated approach might work best, with scales of resolution being variable or fractal, while ensuring that the outcomes of resolution remain engaging.

Changing How We Play

Over at GameCraft, Levi Kornelsen describes an alternate look at player stances during play. He details four immediate approaches to play: Exploration, Characterisation, Collaboration, and Adversity. Then he shows how these can combine and interact during play to produce a rich set of play behaviors. He also expands on the benefits of flexible play behaviors with discussion on amalgams, contrasting a strength through diversity approach with a more focused play group.

Competition and Gamism

John Kim extracts some of the complicated history and sociology of competition and status inRPGs and related games. He starts by critiquing some ideas about how status is distributed in skill-based activities. Then he suggests that it is problematic to confound challenging play with competitive play, and specifically cites the Forge idea of gamism as a place where such a confusion occurs. Ultimately, he argues that tactical and strategic challenges are a separate interest from social stakes and competition.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Editorial: A Reflective Revival?

Reflection has often been a technique for psychological and philosophical analysis. It can be used to compare models with ourselves, as a process to explore our own biases, and even as a method of discovery. When merged with a community, reflection as a practice demands a degree of responsibility for all involved. It is a vulnerable process, and one which can be as benefited as injured by the involvement of others.

Much of existing RPG theory has been based on observation, classification, and reflection. However, in the past few years, some events in the broader RPG community have suggested a focus more on observation and classification, and a diminishment of the importance of reflection. The dominance of the Forge theories and the infamous Brain Damage debate are two examples of this general trend.

What makes this intriguing is that more recently there has been a building counter-pressure, you might say a revival of reflection in the exploration and examination of RPGs and their respective theories. Perhaps the most critical turning point has been the construction of I would knife fight a man, by Vincent and Meguey Baker. This forum focuses on self-reflection about many things, including RPG theory. More recently there has been further growth in this area in new RPG theory sites using this reflective approach: Theory Decides and Story 'Prov.

It remains to be seen how this revival will affect the development of RPG theory and RPGs as a whole. In the very least it seems a clear message. Whatever we know about the games we play, there is more to be discovered within ourselves.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Weekly Review October 7th to October 13th

This week has seen further activity in RPG theory, including yet another RPG theory related forum, Story 'Prov.

Jeepform Versus Larp

Emily Care Boss continues her discussions on jeepform, a story centered form of play developed among the Nordic RPG communities. Specifically she contrasts jeepform with larp, another major focus of Nordic RPG theory. She describes how while both are theatrical, larp is a distributed experience and jeepform keeps the players and their story unified.

Hierarchies of Control

John Kim sums up recent discussion about the social context of the GM. He then continues by describing the interaction of hierarchical structures of authority in games and how its presence delineates creative control, and sometimes its absence can lead to other forms of dominance.

Evolving Rulesets

Chris Chinn describes one effect of the RPG supplement process, namely giving RPGs rule which change over time. He suggests that this tends to form distinct sub-communities, as different changes are accepted or rejected by a given social group, unlike similar effects within CCGs and MMORPGs. He also suggests that looking at those other games may provide an insight to better use evolving rules.

Supporting Play

Over at Story Games, Mike Holmes examines the question of how game theory and related approaches can be used to understand the claim that a RPG design supports a specified kind of play. He suggests that to address this question it is first necessary to delve deeper than simply removing what gets in the way, and further to evaluate how much the intentions of the players may matter versus the influence of the system.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Monthly Review September 2007

This month has seen numerous attempts to push the boundaries of RPGs and RPG theory. One notable example is Graham Walmsley's on-going series on improv techniques in RPGs. This month he started with being obvious and moved to guarding yourself, discussing both blocking and accepting. Later on he includes more storytelling methods, including reincorporation, setting up routines and breaking them, as well as making platforms
and tilting them.

Also during September, Emily Care Boss brought up how game design can be a form of communication, between designers and to players. Ginger describes how some of the principles of traditionalRPGs apply to online fanfiction roleplay. Jonathon Walton discusses his view of strategy-free RPGs , as a sub-class that he considers under investigated and designed. Over at Theory Decides, Tommi Brander classifies different ways that play can progress, giving three categories of scripted, sandbox, and character-driven. Lastly, FangLangford describes how complications work with his spotlight formulation of RPGs, showing how success can reduce the spotlight, while complications can are balanced by an increase in spotlight.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Weekly Review September 30th to October 6th

This week has seen some growth in RPG theory, including several calls for papers in RPG related thinking.

Aura of RPGs

Over at Theory Decides, Tommi Brander brings up some relationships between the theory of aesthetics and RPGs. Specifically, he talks about the aura of a piece of art, which sets it apart from everyday experiences and how this aura is diminished by mass production and media. He suggests that the unreproducibility of RPGs may lend games an aura of their own.

Serious RPGs

John Kim discusses the history and ideas behind serious RPGs, whether therapeutic or educational. He describes some recent RPGs which lend their way towards serious application. He also suggests being restrained in serious RPGs, as it is easy to over-attempt the design of such a game.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Weekly Review September 23rd to September 29th

This week has seen new developments, as well as continuing threads from previous weeks.

Complications and Spotlight

Fang Langford discusses the way that resolution can affect spotlight. In particular he suggests that often resolution ends the spotlight regardless of how positive or negative the outcome is. He suggests that complications are a way to keep the spotlight in terms of failure, or pass if off in success.

Improv and Storytelling

Graham Walmsley continues his series on Improv techniques, venturing into the territory of storytelling. First he discusses the reincorporation of previous elements with a particular view to how a story evolves and concludes. Then he brings up two ways to elicit interest at the beginning of a story: setting a routinue in order to break it and constructing a platform (baseline expectation) in order to twist it.

Foreground and Background

Ben Robbins describes ways to break down situation between foreground and background. He suggests that background can give perspective and context for the more direct foreground situation. He also indicates that sometimes background should fade away to support a very character focused situation.

Styles of Play Progression

Over at Theory Decides, Tommi Brander describes a way to look at play progression, how the situation can change during play. He breaks this down as three (non-exhaustive) styles of play: scripted - where sequential events are pre-planned; sandbox - where the environment is fixed and characters play within it; and character-centric - where situations arise specifically to challenge the characters.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Lesson: Forge Theory - Creative Agenda

Last week, I described the four different scopes of the Forge model: Social Contract, Exploration, Techniques, and Ephemera. But these are not the typical introduction to Forge theory, in spite of how fundamental they are to the theory. Instead, the most prominent feature of Forge theory is how it deals with agenda.

Creative agenda are a particular way to describe how people play RPGs, and in this theory they have several unique features. First, a creative agenda is similar to an aesthetic judgement and it can be seen at different scopes at the same time. Thus a creative agenda would affect the social contract of the game, the nature of the exploration, the techniques used, and even the ephemera happening during the game. For this reason they are sometimes visualized as skewers that cross through the different scopes.

Another feature of creative agendas is that they are properly a description of how a group plays, not the desires of an individual or design goals of a game. In this way, a creative agenda is an aesthetic for judging what happens in play, that comes to be shared during play by all of the players. If everyone is valuing the same things in play, then it is much easier for players to focus on them and make decisions with those values in mind.

As described by the Forge theory, creative agendas are not automatic, they will often not arise in play, something called incoherent play from the idea that multiple possible creative agendas are struggling for dominance in this case. The first major claim of this model is that coherent play is generally more reliable than incoherent play. The second major claim is that creative agendas come in three categories: Step on Up, Story Now, and Right to Dream (more recently called Constructive Denial).

Both of these claims have produced some controversy in RPG discussion circles, for a variety of technical and social reasons. One result of this controversy has been an understanding of the limits of the Forge theory. Specifically, the theory doesn't claim that play without creative agendas is less satisfying, merely that is is less reliable. In practice the Forge theory is used in a therapeutic sense, either to make games that better support certain creative agendas or to help players achieve their preferred creative agenda during play.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Weekly Review September 16th to September 22nd

This week has seen several advances in RPG theory, including the creation of a new exploratory theory focused forum, Theory Decides.


Over at Story Games, Tony Lower-Basch began a discussion on formulaic stories and the use of well known landmarks to communicate and pace the stories as they are played. The discussion continues with analysis of the ways these landmarks can be identified, as well as their relationship with conflicts and decisions.

Constructive Denial and Emulation

Over at I would knife fight a man is an examination of genre emulation and constructive denial (a creative agenda where players conspire to protect core elements of the fiction). This is expanded by an example, designing a game for such a type of play


Jonathon Walton describes an under-investigated type of RPG. Specifically, where quantitative mechanics are minimized or non-existent and strategic thinking is not required for effective play.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lesson: Forge Theory - Scoping of the Model

One of the more prominent theories of RPGs is that developed at The Forge. The present incarnation of this theory is built upon many past developments and ideas in RPG theory. Called variously Forge theory, the Big Model, or GNS, it is often a complex collection of ideas, some current, and some out-moded by later discussions.

At present the Forge theory is based on a way of breaking down play into four scopes, in a nested form. The largest scope is the Social Contract. Somewhat of a misnomer, this level includes all the social elements of play, making it essentially include everything going on during the game. As the name suggests this is the level were social agreements and understandings are built, but it is not limited to them.

The next scope is that of the Exploration. This is where the fiction of play starts to present itself. Exploration is typically broken into several categories: character, situation, system, setting, and color. These interact during the course of the game, but are considered to lie at this scope of the model.

The next scope is called Techniques, which is where practices of play are located. This can be everything from specific ways to resolve combat attacks to unstated rules on the importance of characters.

The lowest scope is Ephemera, where the actual events of play are considered.

These four scopes are a way of zooming in on play to help tease apart theoretical understanding. In a nut shell, they present four ways of looking at what happens during a RPG.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Weekly Review September 9th to September 15th

This week has been an active one for RPG theory and related developments.

Fanfic, Elites, and Story

Ginger discusses fandom inspired online play, including the how goals of players differ between engaging story and simulating fanfiction. Also, she describes the effect of structurelessness on such games, and how they produce elites who covertly enforce their preferred style of play.

Jeepform Introductions

At Story Games, Emily Care Boss and Tobias Wrigstad have begun a conversation on the nature of story focused freeform RPGs, called jeepform. Related to the Nordic larp communities, this form of RPG focuses on strong constraints and responsive, story focused play, while avoiding explicit mechanics.

Guarding Yourself

Graham Walmsley discusses dropping your guard as part of his series on improvisation. As part of this he describes blocking and accepting as ways people raise and lower their guard during play.

Spotlighting the Unknown

Fang Langford returns to his discussion on moving the spotlight within RPGs as an alternate view of how systems work. In this case, he discusses the unknown as one way to draw the spotlight to a specific player, including ways that players introduce unexpected or unforeseen elements during play.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Weekly Review September 2nd to September 8th

This week has several disparate developments in RPG theory and related areas.


J. Tuomas Harviainen offers several articles on historical re-enactment groups, including the SCA. He describes some of the results of that research, especially dealing with persona and the importance of social aspects within these groups.

Being Obvious

Graham Walmsley continues his discussion of improvisation for RPGs, by talking about the importance of not over-thinking one's improvisation. As such, he suggests that the first or most desired idea is often the best.

Design Conversation

Emily Care Boss describes how game design can serve the purposes of communicating specific ideas, and that progressing design can become a conversation in this way. She calls on a variety of examples based on gender roles, both for characters and players within the contexts of playing a RPG.

Specialization and Conflict

Chris Chinn talks about specialization in characters (especially with regards to point-buy systems), and the negative effect this has on conflicts. Typically the specialist will win their type of conflict and fail the rest, making the during play decisions less interesting.

Monthly Review August 2007

This month has seen several theory developments focusing on dissecting or emulating certain kinds of story genres. First, Brad Murray at Story Games described how focused game design can be seen as a dissection of a specific genre of stories. In this way, a RPG can be seen as a distillation of the essentials (or one view of those essentials) of a specific genre of stories.

Later on, Fang Langford discussed looking at RPGs in terms of the movement of the spotlight among the players. Later, Graham Walmsley brought up status changes, both as the foundation to some types of stories and as a method for improvisation within RPGs. Lastly, Rich Warren described how the rules of RPGs act as the physics of its fictional world and genre.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Weekly Review August 26th to September 1st

This week has seen a continuation of some ideas from last week, as well as other revisitations.

Fundamental Acts

Over at I would knife fight a man, there is a reprise in an earlier discussion about the fundamental act of roleplaying. That discussion centered on the relative importance of the social act versus the fictional one. Stemming from there are two other possible fundamental acts: imagination and choice.

Change in Status

Continuing his discussion on improvisation techniques, Graham Walmsley returns to the subject of status changes. In this case he illustrates how many different status situations can be actively enjoyable, including low status and drops in status.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Weekly Review August 19th to August 25th

This week has seen some developments in RPG theory, from looking at older theory concepts to looking at the contractual aspects of game systems.

A Change in Status

Graham Walmsley discusses the utility of status changes in the construction of stories. He specifically offers this as the beginning of a series of articles on improvisation techniques for use in RPGs.

Rules as Contract

Rich Warren describes the difficulties that can arise from modifying system before or during play. Specifically he characterizes the way in which the game mechanics of a RPG can act as a contract among the players and the GM.

Unreconcilable Goals

Over at I would knife fight a man is a thread focusing on various unreconcilable goals that arise in RPGs. It starts with the "Impossible Thing Before Breakfast" (which, curiously enough, is not something you should believe), described as the inability to have the GM author the story and the players control the protagonists. It also discusses the "Method Actor Trap" where a group of method actors all share a goal of a coherent story, but expect it to arise without any constraints on their characters.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Weekly Review August 12th to August 18th

Likely due to GenCon this has been a slow week in RPG theory.


Fang Langford considers a variant on the definition of system, namely how the spotlight is moved among players. This perspective suggests looking at niche protection and turn-taking as well as resolution mechanics to understand how a game works.


Over at Story Games is a discussion about when roleplaying is or is not a game. Like game discussions in the past this has produced a variety of ways to say what is a game, from common use (if you play it with someone, it is a game) to stricter constructive definitions.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Editorial: Words Have Power

In RPG theory, much like RPG design, we should be constantly aware that the words we use to describe and classify have a depth of meaning and a history of use beyond our particular use of them. The choice of what to call a new concept or how to rename an old one has consequences in how we use that concept and what connotations the concept will gain.

This is an important reason to engage with multiple theories and to examine ideas and concepts from multiple perspectives and approaches. It is very easy to become lost in the connotations of names when we should be exploring the meaning that lies beneath them.

One excellent object lesson in the power of naming in design and theory is the Brain Damage debate started by Ron Edwards in 2006. Specifically he observed specific story difficulties in long time players of Storyteller games, which we called Story Blindness in reporting it. Examining his claim of Brain Damage opens up several interesting places where naming had a surprising amount of influence.

First, is in Storyteller games themselves. Specifically, these games name the common role of GM, the Storyteller in the context of the game producing a story. While we often treat the choice of such words to be incidental, the subtle implication of Storyteller is that the GM role is the giver of story, while the players are thereceivers of it, an audience who, while involved does not participate in the same way. Consider if the GM has been called Narrator how different the implied dynamics would be, with players being the main characters, not the audience.

Thus the Storyteller dynamic sets up the presumption that the story is what the Storyteller gives you, regardless of the quality or pertinence. This is despite the presence of tools that could just as easily foster collaboration (such as explicit theme, mood, and motifs). It is reasonable to see the Storyteller mystique as a major root of the brain damage that Edwards identifies.

This makes it all the more interesting that Edwards' use of the phrase brain damage is such an excellent example of how words can influence our use of them in unintended ways. Few discussions of RPG theory have reached the level of polarization and venom that the brain damage debate entered. At the same time, the term puts a pressure on extracting from the discussion some consensus. How can such a consensus be reached without using our (quite possibly damaged) brains?

Consider, again the difference had the debate started with the term story difficulty or story blindness (as this reviewer used to attempt to express the ideas of both sides in a reasonable manner). Would the debate have focused less on the visceral feelings and more on an examination of the causes of what Edwards observed? Over a year later the debate has polarized itself into stagnation, with only a brave few seeking to explore it, despite how well known it may be.

It is more than reasonable to say that the games and hence the stories from those games will affect our own views of stories. Indeed, the words we use to describe the process we take in building a story can do so. Edwards believed that the Storyteller games do have this effect, but that it could be remedied (in some ways) by games with a different view of stories, those with a Narrativist (also known as Story Now) bent.

One of the critical concepts in Edwards' flagship design, Sorcerer, of this sort is something he calls a Bang. A bang is a moment of decision, a choice for the player characters to make. As a choice of words, bang has very different connotations than, say, choice. Not the least of these is a sense of urgency and violence.

As the term bang has become an important piece of Edwards' theory and its use beyond Sorcerer, it is important to ask does this term present a similar risk as Storyteller does? Do Story Now bangs risk a different kind of damage in understanding stories? These are difficult questions, but ones we must ask when accept that the words we use have power beyond how we intend to use them.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Weekly Review August 5th to August 11th

This week has seen several developments about communication in RPGs.


Fang Langford describes how the different modes of communication work within RPGs, and how the differences between these modes are (often informally) signalled. He also discusses some ways of making the signalling more overt in design and play. Chris Chinn looks at signalling at another level, specifically that of determining the duration of a group game commitment. He suggests the more concretely this is understood the greater willingness players will have to take risks.

Distilling Fiction

Over at Story Games is a discussion on a possible purpose for story-focused game designs of recent years. Specifically, Brad Murray suggests that these designs are a dissection of a specific genre to be reconstructed in varied ways during play. He likens this to an experimental analysis of the genres in question.

Learning the Game

Mike Mearls talks about learning RPGs, relating the difficulty in making a text both a reference and a learning tool. He suggests that RPGs could benefit by playing as you learn approaches, especially those that do not sacrifice fun.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Monthly Review July 2007

This month has seen various discussions on and around the way that players balance their contributions in RPGs, especially when one of those players is the GM. Over at Story Games, Tony Lower-Basch describes how a GM provides the ingredients to the story crafted by the players. A similar idea is further explored by Rich Warren as he discusses the way traditional RPGs treat the control and influencing of characters.

Moving away from the control of specific players, Ashi brings up fanfiction-based roleplaying, and specifically the effect that canon on the authority of the players. Also at Story Games Joshua BishopRoby suggests looking at RPGs as the interplay of situation, character, and adversity. Specifically he traces the change in these areas that arises as a game progresses and the impact of player decisions becomes more pronounced.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Weekly Review July 29th to August 4th

This week has been somewhat slow, but still evidences some contributions to RPG theory.

Community of Discourse

Bradley "Brand" Robins describes his intentions at a series of RPG reviews, specifically to build a discourse on the critical analysis of existing RPGs. Referencing reviews in other areas, as well as inadequacies in present RPG reviewing, he hopes to set a bar for effective and constructive criticism.

Character Death and Worse

Rich Warren describes the importance of character loss to building tension and a sense of risk into a RPG. He contrasts this with the overtly known setting of stakes in conflicts, suggesting that unknown risks provide more tension and energy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Weekly Review July 22nd to July 28th

This week has seen discussion of the relationship of system and setting, as well as investigation of some boundaries of RPGs.

The Solo Fringe

Fang Langford describes some activities bordering on RPGs, but lacking the social component. Starting with social bluffing and other confidence artist type situations, he extends these to more social RPG-like activities, such as alternate reality games. Similarly he considers model building activities, such as model railroad as other ways of generating imagined spaces, shared or otherwise.

System and Setting

Over at RPGnet and Gamecraft are discussions of system and setting (and to a lesser extent, genre). The former surveys designers about how they approach system versus setting design. The later deals with focused design versus more generic views of system, culminating in attempts to describe how well a system fits a setting or genre.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lesson: Story

Story is one of the more contested terms in RPG theory. Much like game, it doesn't seem to have a precise meaning, so much as a general way in which it is used. Whether the events of a game count as a story or not can depend on the perspective of the players and observers. So, story is a term most often used informally, to get an idea across without specifics.

Where things get very messy is when we start talking about the quality of a story. Part of the reason for this is that while we can all have ideas of what stories are, and those ideas overlap fairly well, the same isn't true of the purpose or worth of a story. What instead appears is a large mix of different reasons to value stories, many of which have carved their own niche in RPG theory. Here are some examples:

stories are about fun - At first, this seems a simple perspective. But fun is hard to specify. Sad stories, silly stories, slow stories, and fast stories can all be fun, but often in different ways. This is empirical, people finding a story fun gives it value, but that is something of a popularity contest, and doesn't give much of a deeper understanding of how stories work.

stories are about conflicts - This view tends to build from the idea that stories have a basic formal structure. Thus, tensions rise and build to a climax based on some conflict, as the tension reaches its peak the conflict is resolved, and the story enters an aftermath. This structure can include smaller instances of itself, like a fractal, building small conflicts within bigger ones. This gives a precise road map of stories, but doesn't tell us much about how conflicts can work.

stories are about ideas - Another perspective is that stories are ways to express some idea, often a theme. Thus the quality of a story is two-fold. First, how well the story relates its theme, and the quality of that theme. One variant of this is that stories have a premise, in this case a moral or ethical question which is explored through the decisions of characters. This tells how stories can affect people, but borders on the didactic, downplaying the less purposeful aspects of stories.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Weekly Review July 16th to July 22nd

This week has been comparatively slow in RPG theory developments.


Nathan Paoletta outlines an introduction to roleplaying, including such topics as forming or finding a group, choosing a RPG, and deciding between short or long form play. He specifically focuses on the social element around RPGs, not simply the activity itself.

Situation, Character, and Adversity

Over at Story Games, Joshua BishopRoby describes a novel way to examine the broad structure of play. He suggests three aspects which are introduced by players (including the GM) over the course of a RPG: player resources (character), counter-player resources (adversity), and situations ripe for conflict. He suggests that many games can be examined based on the order in how these elements are introduced. Even more, the changes in the order could also be telling, such as in how the characters are created last at the start of a long-term game, but are retained as new situations and adversities occur.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Editorial: Goals

Like playing and designing RPGs, it helps a great deal to have an idea of what your goals are then theorizing about RPGs. Without knowing your goals, you can't evaluate the directions you are taking, or determine when you have achieved something of worth. Also, like playing anddesigning, theorizing has a variety of possible goals.

On one hand, a practical direction of theory focuses on your needs of play or design. Whether you theorize for the purposes of making your own play more enjoyable, helping others enhance their play, or to better design new RPGs, the ultimate measure is your success. Just like any strategy, you must be weigh the costs and benefits of your theory.

Alternatively you may have a goal of curiosity and understanding. If so you'd have a compulsion to learn and delve into the unknown around a subject you already have interests within, namely RPGs . Thus the quality of your work is based on how it reveals and clarifies the subject, rather than some more specific applications.

Sometimes the goals come from other places, an interest motivated by other fields. If you want to understand small group interactions, RPGs are one rich area to tap. Likewise, if you study games as a broad category, RPGs likewise present a valuable resource.

The more honest you are about your goals, the more clearly you can evaluate your work, and how useful the work of others is in aiding you. One of the risks of theorizing is that our purposes drift, causing us to lose sight of why we are trying to understand RPGs. When this happens we find ourselves lost in a forest of ideas, only with care can we find again a path we wish to follow.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Weekly Review July 8th to July 15th

A variety of theory developments were made this week, from examining fanfiction to a further attempts to extract the uniqueness of RPGs.

Perceiving Story

Guy Shalev discusses the relationship between stories and games. He argues that stories are after-the-fact perceptions of the events and fictions of play. He describes play as a scaffolding which can be perceived as a story in different ways.

Extracting from the Boundary

Fang Langford returns to his earlier exploration of the periphery of RPGs. Listing out the many games and activities he and others put together he suggests some regularities: "live (even asynchronous) participation of more than one individual", "at least some fictional content that can be affected", and "explicit or implicit rituals that guide or limit". Expanding from these he proposes some ways of looking at the necessary dynamics of the broad class of things in and about RPGs.


Ashi discusses fanfiction, specifically interactive fan roleplaying using internet lists and blogging software. She describes how the software structure provides elements of system which in face-to-face play requires conscious management. Beyond this, she describes how the rules of the fiction (related to writing exercises and the like) as well as the importance of keeping to canon influence the authority of the contributors as they play.

Character, Control and Change

Rich Warren discusses how traditional games treat the control and influencing of characters. He describes the balance between affecting a character by threats and opportunities, and wholesale control such as fictional mind-control. He examines these from two directions, the immediate control of the character, and the longer term changes in the character.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Weekly Review July 1st to July 7th

Several discussions of theoretical import for RPGs occurred this week.

Ingredients and the GM

Over at Story Games, Tony Lower-Basch began a thread on the GM influence of RPG stories. Specifically he offered the idea of the GM as provider of ingredients for the players to use to build the story. While this constrains them, it doesn't proscribe the players from making important creative decisions.

Culture and Endangerment

Jonathon Walton relates a discussion about cultures as depicted by outsiders versus insiders, specifically relating to the portrayal of cultures within RPGs. He follows this by quoting Shreyas Sampat who describes how the portrayal of a culture represents a potential danger to people in that culture, and so an outsider must prove their intentions, as they are not at risk.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Monthly Review June 2007

This June has seen a variety of theory developments focusing on the creation of stories. Early on, John Kim discussed the ideas of additive and negational modes of play, and how those link with different approaches to mechanics. Likewise, Rich Warren opens a discussion about the management of conflict within stories and how this fits into the classic GM role. Later on, he discusses the importance of meaningful decisions, specifically as the means by which a player contributes to the story.

Mirroring this investigation, Gábor Koszper began a series of examinations of RPGs as flows of structured information. This resulted in a categorization of conflicts and decisions. At the same time, Ashi discussed the relationship of story, rules and play. Later on she revisits story, suggesting that the player to player setting of stakes for conflicts makes explicit the subtext of the story, which has benefits for a nonpermanent and, hence, less contemplatable medium.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Weekly Review June 24th to June 30th

The theme of this week appears to be re-envisioning RPGs and their theories.

On Conflicts and Their Resolution

Ashi brings up conflict resolution in its guise as a persistent element of any game, especially RPGs. She then contrasts this with conflict resolution mechanics where the resolution is made overt and explicit.

As an adjunct to this idea, she mentions how the common idea of stakes within a conflict resolution mechanics serves the purposes of the subtext of events, allowing players to realize the significance of events without the need for protracted reflection.

How and Why

Fang Langford contrasts two RPG theories, the Forgian Big Model and Social Gaming. He concludes that the former theory is descriptive of how people play in RPGs, while being silent on the subject of motivations. Likewise, social gaming, he suggests, attempts to answer the why's more so than the how's.

Weekly Review June 17th to June 23rd

This week has seem some new growth in RPG theory from outside the more typical places.

Stories and Play

Ashi introduces her blog with a discussion of the relationship between stories and play. Specifically, she identifies the laying of constraints as what allows the creation of stories as game play. This both limits what stories can be created, and encourages the crafting of stories outside of what might be attempted with complete freedom.

Flow of Information

Based on unreported developments last week, Gábor Koszper describes a perspective of traditional RPGs based on structured information, nominally flowing between the GM and the players. He expands this idea by categorizing information conflicts, describing different ways information can come into conflict from the same or different sources. Expanding on that theme, this week he discusses decisions as the primary mode of player providing information back to the traditional GM. As part of this he characterizes the unintended decisions as well as those which the player has actively made.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Weekly Review, June 11th to June 17th

Adam Dray presents an interesting examination of his thought processes as he designs his Towerlands project. The resulting post is an excellent example of applied theory, and is worth checking out both for the ideas it contains and what it reveals about how people try to accomplish design goals in game development.

Overstuffed Dicebag continued the essays on game design by discussing just what "decisions that matters" actually means, at least on a personal level.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Weekly Review June 4th to June 10th

The continued absence of several primary-focus theory blogs put a damper on new developments during this period.

Rich Warren explained why he thinks GMs have a vital role in Another Piece of the GM Puzzle. He noted that most narrative games attempt to discard the position of GM, and spoke about the functions that Storytellers/Game Masters have in modulating, directing, and introducing conflict.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Monthly Review May 2007

May produced several items of interest.

At I would knife fight a man, a group of theorists explored the central premise of the 'Big Model': that the sole determinant of game reality is what all of the players reach a consensus on. If the Big Model is a tower, this concept is its foundation. A further discussion of what distinguishes roleplaying from other forms of collaborative creative endeavor ensues.

Elliot Wilen examined the ever-increasing use of jargon and field-specific technical terminology in RPG theory, and pointed out that one of the purposes of jargon is to disguise a lack of actual content. Does the theory community need a lexicon of neologisms and redefined words to describe concepts? To what extent is our use of language an attempt to limit discussion to an insular group, excluding outside input?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Weekly Review May 28th to June 3rd

In a period when many blogs were offline, work on theory carried on nevertheless.

John Kim discussed a number of theory concepts, including Additive and Negotational Play, the relationship of tabletop resolution systems to these ideas, and strategies for making these techniques balance player input.

Troy Costisick's Socratic Design went on hiatus, but not before a new anthology of theory articles went online, covering a slew of concepts and Costisick's approach to them.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Lesson: Powergaming

The Forge's glossary defines powergaming as "A potentially dysfunctional technique of Hard Core Gamist play, characterized by maximizing character impact on the game-world or player impact on the dialogue of play by whatever means available", but this definition is far more specific and limited than that used by many gamers.

In the broadest sense, powergaming is approaching a system of roleplaying mechanics not as an attempt to provide structure storytelling or social interaction, but as an end in itself, and acting to maximize one's influence over the outcome of mechanical conflicts. There are many games in which certain choices and strategies are more mechanically effective, but only when players disregard other considerations in order to increase their mechanical effectiveness do we say they powergame. Merely seeking and exercising mechanical power isn't enough - the pursuit of power has to be made at the expense of story, characterization, drama, versimilitude, or similar factor.

Interestingly, players will sometimes deliberately limit the effectiveness of their mechanical design or strategy in order to create a more "interesting" character.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Weekly Review May 20th to May 27th

Overstuffed Dicebag presents an interesting analysis of a semi-obscure game and discovers that mechanics can be deceiving. What characteristics distinguish Ethos from White Wolf's archetypes? It takes a careful reading to notice...

Joshua BishopRoby examines ways to cope with multiple character directions in Full Light, Full Steam, and briefly discusses theatric traditions of unity in the process.

One of the attacks of opportunity writers posts a link to an unusual type of roleplaying game, and says it's the most amazing example of Story he's ever witnessed. What relationship does this game have to the common RPG-theory use of the term 'Story'? At least one commentor denies that the game meets the requirements of 'Story Now' - is this a problem? Is the game properly excluded from the category, or does this mean the category is too narrow?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Editorial: Most Theoryful Game Chef RPG of 2007

We are proud to announce that the most theoryful winner for Game Chef 2007 has been selected.

Most Theoryful RPG of Game Chef 2007:

Schizonauts by Fred Hicks

Runners-up: (in no particular order)

The Book of Threads by Jeff R.

Department Nine by Nick Wedig

ACTS by Nick Grant

A Penny For My Thoughts by Paul Tevis

This was a difficult decision for us, as there were a variety of RPGs contributed that showed depth of thought about role-playing itself and tried to reflect that depth in their designs.

We will post a full literature review on the winner's game, and the winner receives a playtest of a game of his choice. The runners-up will receive shorter literature reviews of their games as well. Literature reviews will showcase the RPG theory elements of the games.

We at RPG Theory Review thank all participants, both of this competition, and of Game Chef in general.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Weekly Review May 13th to May 19th

This week has seen several careful examinations of RPG theory and how it may be applied elsewhere.

Center of Play

Over at I would knife fight a man, Vincent Baker started a thread on the center of the Big Model theory of RPGs. Specifically, he describes the core of roleplaying as the shared consensus of the players of what happens in the game. Also at I would knife fight a man, Ben Lehman started a counter-point thread, focusing more on the social aspects of RPGs as central, and moving away from the specific Big Model perspective.

State of Design

Jonathon Walton discusses what it means for design to be on the "bleeding edge". He suggests that the state of design could be improved by an archiving of new developments and ideas. Relating such a project to this site, he argues that the practice of RPG design should be treated more seriously.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lesson: Social Context

In the Forge-ite lexicon, 'social context' is how roleplaying as an activity relates to one's social life in general.

In common usage, the term is quite a bit broader than this. The social context of an action or activity is how it relates to and is perceived by a society, culture, or social group. It follows that the social context of roleplaying depends partly on which cultural perspective you adopt. Both the wider society in which you live and the group of people with which you're gaming at any one moment have their own social contexts.

In the everyday experience of play, the social context of one's fellow players is usually the most significant and meaningful. In a wider context, roleplaying is sufficiently obscure that the action has few implications beyond marking the participants as belonging to a subculture.

Attempts to bring roleplaying into the mainstream awareness and creating a deeper general context have constituted much of the independent game design 'scene'.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Weekly Review May 6th to May 12th

This week has seen several theory developments, both in specific aspects of RPGs and in the use of language to discuss them.

Director Immersion

John Kim lists various developments on immersion in RPGs. He goes on to discuss a relationship between stance and immersion. Specifically, he argues that as an immersing player only having authority over your character (actor stance) can break immersion more than having some authority over the things around your character (director stance), as the later can avoid as much meta-game negotiation.

Critical Language

Elliot Wilen brings up a discussion on Story Games about the use of technical language and jargon, especially pertaining RPG theory. He suggests that jargon gets can and has been used as a way to obscure problems or disagreements in theory. He also argues that any valid technical language is also available for critical use, to evaluate and analyze RPGs, not merely design them.

Authority Models

Over at Story Games, John Laviolette has worked out a list of ways in which GM-like authority is distributed among players. He includes negotiation-based and areas of authority, as well as less common variants such as those based on time or table position.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Monthly Review April 2007

This month has generated quite a bit of interesting developments in theory. Fang Langford constrasted the concepts of Shared Imaginary Space and the Big Model, two of the most popular theory models, and suggests that they are in fact fundamentally incompatible. What does it mean for the larger goal of developing theory if the most widely-utilized models exclude each other?

Elliot Wilen questioned the importance of system to the success of RPGs, a 180-degree reversal from the most common game design perspectives. Generally, we attempt to construct mechanical systems to encourage the types of responses that we think are most important to play, based on whatever design theories we're sympathetic to. But what if we've gotten it wrong? Wilen raises excellent questions for which we really need to generate answers.

Lastly, Joshua BishopRoby explored the intriguing concept of a baseline RPG, asking just what the minimum necessary structure to run a game actually is. What's the fundamental template of game design, upon which we add elaborations? Understanding the most basic elements of roleplaying would seem to be helpful in our attempts to comprehend the topic as a whole.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Weekly Review Apr. 29th to May. 5th

This week has been a productive week in terms of theory developments, including even some work on the purposes of RPG theory in general.

Design and Theory

Chris Lehrich put forward an essay on the present state of RPG theory and design, including ideas for better ways for theory to be supported by design, and in so doing drive innovative and explorative design. After introductory comments about the social situations around the Forge, he describes how theory is used in design. Commonly, theory is used to analyze existing games and as an implementation aid. He also describes how design can be used to test theory. He suggests that this is underutilized, and combined with neutral analysis of game texts and play, could be of immense help to RPG theory.

Teaching Mechanics

Troy Costisick discusses different ways in which examples can be used to help teach mechanics. In doing so he presents three classes of example text. Generic examples are just instances of a mechanic or situation, apart from any larger context. Faux-play examples show the flow of the mechanics, but don't impart social or creative structures of play. Actual play examples provide an authentic model of play, from the social to the mechanical.

Experimental Control

Joshua BishopRoby started a discussion over at Story Games about experimental controls for game testing. Specifically he suggests the use of free form, play, with only social constraints, as a possible baseline. Others point out the fluidity of any from of RPGs that could be considered a baseline - due to their minimal or non-existent rules. Which leaves the question of a baseline RPG open.

Drama, Game, and NPCs

Algi has recently translated into English several essays on RPG theory. Included have been a discussion of the dramatic game versus the parlour game in RPGs and a look at classic RPG adventures from the view of folk talk analysis. Between these is the thread of examining the purpose of Non-Player Characters (NPCs), and how they often take on vital dramatic roles more important than their mechanical presence.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Editorial: Exploring and Building

In improving theory there are two important roles we can adopt. On one hand, we can explore new territory. This at least means, expanding the scope of existing theories, if not discovering new theories which apply in those areas. To truly explore requires equal amounts care and skepticism, after all, many frontiers are not beyond the boundaries of what exists, but found beneath what we thought we understood.

But discovering theory isn't enough. In its raw form, theory is difficult to understand and largely useless. It is equally important to build the existing theory and refine it, to make the ideas accessible and to ensure they can be and are used. Building is equally difficult to do well, involving patience, understanding, and dedication.

These two paths work best side by side, building what has been discovered, and exploring based on the inconsistencies revealed by trying to relate those discoveries. It is easy to separate them, but we must resist the urge. If you ignore building, then theory becomes incomprehensible. And if you ignore exploration, theory becomes stagnant, slavishly believed regardless of contradicting evidence.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Weekly Review April 22nd to April 29th

Who's the Protoganist?

John Kim has posted a short essay containing his thoughts on Story Control. If the main characters are supposed to determine the shape of stories, why are GMs the author of game sessions?

Mind and Body

Carl Craven discusses why he doesn't like letting social mechanics control his NPC's actions, and ponders whether there's a fundamental difference between mechanics that represent the physical and mental worlds.

Mainstream and Fringe

Fang Langford's earlier post on bringing RPGs to the First World yielded a bevy of responses; he reflects upon some of them in his latest post. Is trying to bring roleplaying to the mainstream a good idea? If so, what social trends can be used to accomplish this?

What Else Besides Dice?

Socratic Design has a brief review of non-polyhedral resolution mechanics.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Lesson: Agendas

Agendas are a recurring theme among RPG theories. Succinctly they are how and why players make decisions. But in different places agendas can mean different things.

Some uses of agenda delve into the motives of the player or players making the decisions. These are often based on identifying what a particular player or group wants from play, and then extrapolating that to their decisions during play. So, if someone wants to identify with their character, they will tend to choose to act out that character or place that character in situations where that player can learn or invent more about who the character is.

Other uses of agenda focus more on the method of play. In this case, the agenda doesn't represent the motives of the players, even shared ones. Instead it is the observed regularity of the actions of the group. These agendas often speak in the language of reinforcement, where certain decisions reinforce those same decisions due to the system. A good example of this sort of agenda are the creative agendas in the Big Model.

While agendas can discuss many different things. Some agendas focus very narrowly (delving into your character's family or getting the most points), and some are much broader (impressing others or constructing a story). Distinguishing different agendas can be very useful. But as a tool ofRPG theory, it is especially important to distinguish when an agenda is why someone makes decisions versus when it is how someone makes decisions.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Weekly Review Apr. 15th to Apr. 21st

This week has seen several theory developments, often building off of existing more accepted ideas.

GNS for Timmy, Johnny, and Spike

Jono summarizes his view of the Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism (GNS) theory. Covering what it means for play, games, and players to interact with these three approaches to RPGs. In addition he mentions a connection between these three categories and the break down of Magic: the Gathering (the collectable card game) players used by its designers. Timmy seeks flash and fun. Johnny seeks a chance to show creativity. And Spike seeks to win the competition which is each game. Jono suggests that these are related to Simulationism, Narrativism, and Gamism respectively.

Story Leverage

Emily Care discusses a common problem for her and others, the difficulty in locating story leverage within a given situation. This is further expanded at I would knife fight a man, including suggesting that (to extend the metaphor) that the leverage remains, but the problem is a lack of fulcrum to move the story where the player wants or expects it to go.

Translating Theories

Also at I would knife fight a man, Ben Lehman relates two different theories of RPGs: Moyra Turkington's theory of sockets, goals, and payoffs and the Big Model. Much of this involves describing how the social and personal elements translate between the two theories.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Editorial: Design Goals

Game design is an entire field, with many different approaches and techniques. But one of the most basic is the design goal. When you go ahead and try to craft a game, you on some level will have a goal in mind. It may be, "I want to make a version of 1st edition AD&D that works" or it could be, "I wonder if players can handle playing in four different realities at once?", or even, "I want to design a game to impress so and so." But on some level you have a direction where you want your design to go.

Many of those design goals aren't just about the game as written, they are about how the game is played. And when it comes time to make design decisions based on those goals, you run into a potential problem. How do you relate the goal with that decision, when the goal is about what happens in play?

The answer to that question is RPG theory, although often informally or even unconsciously. But the fact remains that the only way to predict what will happen from the design decision is a theory of how the game will influence play.

Nearly all that theory is just quietly built from experience of different games, unconsciously formed ideas and opinions, and the occasional piece of advice. But at its heart is theory, and every game designed to produce some kind of play has a theory inside it (sometimes more than one).

One purpose of overtly developing RPG theory is to allow communication of those ideas more clearly, to improve the quality of RPG design over all. For example, if you have a design goal of making your game easy to learn, and so you have the theory "simple mechanics are easy to learn." But communicating what you mean by "simple" isn't as easy as it first appears. RPG theory helps to build languages to communicate your inner theory more accurately.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Weekly Review: April 8 to April 14


John Kim muses upon the utility of incorporating real-life personality traits, interpersonal conflicts, and communications into the experience of gameplay. What should the function of roleplaying to these social issues be, and is it wise to combine reality and fantasy in that manner? Kim also links to several other discussions of interest.

Shared Imagined Space vs. Edwards' Big Model

Fang Landford explains why SIS is incompatible with EBM, a point he believes many have missed. Are object- and player-centered theories of gaming truly distinct? How do both models deal with player immersion? Is his reasoning correct; if so, why hasn't this point been noted before?

Right Kind of People

Elliot Wilen talks about the problems with establishing effective mechanical bases for roleplaying games, and suggests that RPGs function not because of the strength of their systems, but symbolically and socially. By attracting the "right kind of people", who think about and approach the game in similar ways, RPGs may transcend the limitations of mechanics and rules. Do the most effective roleplaying games function because they establish a shared identity among players?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lesson: Color

The term 'color' is used to refer to any described or imagined details of the game world that don't directly affect action or the outcome of resolution methods. A closely-related term is 'flavor', which refers to evocative description that has no mechanical effect.

'Color' probably originates from the real-life term 'local color', which is the name given to the cultural features of a locale that give it its unique identity and "atmosphere" beyond its utilitarian functions.

Although 'colorful' features by definition do not have mechanical consequences, their influence on mood can have a powerful effect on roleplaying choices, and they are often the most important parts of game settings.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Weekly Review Apr. 1st to Apr. 7th

This week has seen several theory developments, continuing threads of culture and gaming.

Race in RPGs

John Kim describes various aspects of RPGs and their relationship with race. From his own experiences to the ways race is handled in RPGs and their settings, he delineates a series of concerns and problems, acting as a short overview of this complicated subject.


Ed Heil discusses the relationship between institutional moral judgements and that of individuals. He suggests, by examination of some historical examples, that the mostinstitutional, and hence impersonal, of judgements ultimately comes down to people choosing to cast some things out. This reflects back in RPGs to the moral decisions of characters, built from both fictional authorities and the structure of the game itself, but ultimately being an individual judgement.


Thor Olavsrud describes the technique of teamwork, discussing how players can work together (including the GM) to enhance play. He uses a sport's team metaphor, relating roleplaying teamwork to giving others on your team to succeed, and thus performing better than you could alone. In this vein, he advises making an effort to facilitate the desires of other players, so that the game is more enjoyable for all.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Monthly Review March 2007

This month has seen several developments in theory, many of which stem from attempts to understand various perspectives, whether of terms, social structures, or even stories. Early on, Fang Langford discussed the use of terms in RPG theory, suggesting that terms could best be understood in the context of comparison of beliefs, especially when the terms are used be people with different perspectives on the topic at hand. Around the same time, J. Thomas Harvianinen talked about the tendency to factionalize the discussion of theory, by only a tendency to reference only other developments of which the writer agrees or at least understands well. He encourages a broader view, suggesting that the rhetorical tools of "according to ..." give more than enough flexibility to present these different perspectives.

Later, Bradley "Brand" Robins examines how the way we view RPGs is heavily influenced by assumption we develop from the types of play we have encountered and have enjoyed. This can be a barrier to understanding play that is unfamiliar or for which we have a negative connotation. Towards the end of the month, Chris Lehrich presented his take on the question of whether RPGs can cause people to develop incorrect understandings of story. He suggests that story is a loose concept, and has a significant variability between cultures and times, implying that RPGs can only train falsely for a specific interpretation of what stories are.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Weekly Review - Mar. 25 to Apr. 1

Brain Damage

Chris Lehrich posts a provocative analysis of a Forge thread discussing Ron Edward's Brain Damage hypothesis. Does Edwards really reject postmodernism? Are his critiques of story really incompatible with that style of literary analysis? Lehrich and commentators examine these and other questions.

Game-Chef Over

The Game-Chef competition officially ended at midnight, Monday morning. See this thread to get a look at some of the entries.

Narrativism Limitations

Carl Cravens at The Raven's Mutterings examines why he dislikes independent Narrative games. Do such games have a tendency to produce binary outcomes? Is not being able to alter outcomes through character interaction with the game a strength or a weakness?


Monkey Do, Monkey See discusses the effect personal historical knowledge has on enjoyment of the HBO series "Deadwood". This anecdotal evidence may be useful in understanding how fictional narrative games are appreciated. Story-oriented games often require that players know the stakes involved, the ultimate outcome of conflicts, and the fate of characters long before the characters themselves know these things. How does this affect the appreciation of the story being created?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Editorial: Types of Types

Part of what makes the fields of theory as complex as they are is the difficulty in categorizing theories. Even if you have a complete set of categories, its nearly impossible to argue why that set is better than another. So instead of typing out a specific way to organize RPG theory, I figure its better to look a few different ways of doing so.


You can classify theories based on the subject. Some theories are very narrow, theories of conflict or setting. Others take a broader stance, describing the coarse structure of play, or small scale details. It can help to classify a theory this way, since it describes the limits of the theory in question. By knowing where it applies and where it does not, you can better understand the context behind its assumptions and seek ways of using the theory in your own play.


You can classify theories based on how they work. Some theories are taxonomies, classification schemes that delineate between different types or situations. Others are active models ofroleplaying , allowing you to (even as a thought experiment) simulate the play using the model. Other theories are bodies of practice, focused on achieving some specific goal, design theories specifically fall under this category. Beyond the correct use of the theory, by knowing how a theory operates, you can learn what the theory means more clearly - avoiding the common pitfall of assuming a theory makes broader judgements about play than it actually does.


Another way to classify theories is their accessibility. This comes in different flavors from personal theories of RPGs, not even entirely apparent to ourselves to simple well-known assumptions that are often a stumbling block for people new to RPG communities. In the midst are formal theories, communal theories, and even implicit theories, the later arising from games or methods of play that suggest a different way of looking at RPGs. Being aware of how accessible a theory is can guide communication and can help avoid jumping to conclusions about the less accessible theories.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Weekly Review Mar. 18th to Mar. 24th

This week has seen further growth of discussion forums, including the Iris Network, a site for feminist-oriented gamers.

Hypnotic Immersion

Over on I Would Knife Fight a Man are two discussions about the relationship between hypnotic techniques and the process of immersion. Multiple perspectives as to the ease and safety ofhypnosis in RPGs are presented, related to the social structures and comfort levels among the group.

Power and Social Contract

Based on an essay by Gary Johnson about social contracts in RPGs and how they serve as the basis for the RPG as a shared enterprise, Elliot Wilen discusses how power structures and communication are developed within a gaming group. He also mentions the difference between power and authority in the context of RPGs , including the subordination (pretend or otherwise) to power structures - using character immersion as an example. From a different perspective, Fang Langford "disproves" the gamemaster, by showing that the power distribution of creativity in RPGs isn't generally authoritarian.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Lesson: Whiff Factor

The term 'Whiff Factor' refers to a higher-than-desired rate of failure in a mechanic used for conflict resolution, particularly physical combat.

It is likely that the phrase originated as sports culture jargon; for example, 'whiff' in baseball refers to a missed swing. Entry into RPG culture probably occurred in the game Dungeons and Dragons, due to the nature of its combat system in which every attack has a random 5% chance of failure. This can result in characters with extraordinary combat prowess failing to connect an attack against even the weakest enemy.
When the whiff factor produces incompatibilities with the perceived or expected competence of a character, it is considered to be a form of deprotagonization and disruptive to immersion, thus its general recognition as a design flaw.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Weekly Review Mar. 11th to Mar. 17th

Practical considerations are an signifcant aspect of this week's theory developments.

Comforting Constraints

Posters at Story Games ponder the importance of constraints to the creative process - not just to roleplaying, but to the construction of games and game systems. Absolute freedom is the death of improvisation, and improvisation is the key to bricolage. Is there a reason so many independent RPGs have such a narrow focus?

Story, Game, Roleplay: Not Always the Same

Yudhishthira's Dice examines the different stances that we can take towards the fundamental aspects of roleplaying. People who have previously approached RPGs from a particular perspective can harbor unexamined assumptions that make it harder to look at the games from another angle. RPGs that have distinct characters controlled by separate individuals and no mechanical emphasis on story progression can produce very different conceptions of 'play' than RPGs oriented around story development and that have no characters at all. The implications of these realities for game design, and a deficiency in existing RPG theory, are examined at length.

Creating Better Characters

Knowing how to constructing effective character personas is important not just for players, but for designers as well, particularly in games where goals and desires are explicit mechanics. attacks of opportunity appropriates tips originally intended to help fiction authors create strong personas and applies them to playing RPGs - tips that designers might want to pass on to the readers of their games.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Editorial: Game Chef Announcement

Once more it is time for the annual Game Chef competition. The terms will be released shortly, which will begin a two week design period. In addition, there will be some theme ingredient released at the same time. Last year it was time limits for sessions. The year before was specific mechanical requirements. We'll have to wait a little longer before we find out what they are this year. This competition is an excellent opportunity to flex your game design muscles and to actually get a game finished.

But this year, we at RPG Theory Review have decided to do something a little more. We will be running a special prize for Game Chef 2007: Most Theoryful RPG. To be eligible you must participate in Game Chef, submitting a draft of your game to that contest. In addition, you must include a design notes section with or as an appendix to your game. Here you should explicitly state how you used RPG theory in your design.

We'll be looking for solid, innovative uses of theory in your design. However, we are not particular about what theory you used. Instead we want to see how seriously thinking about how people play RPGs improved your design.

After a judging period, we will select five Most Theoryful RPGs from the contest. The four runner-ups will recieve a short description and announcement, as a literature review. The winner will then have an in depth review as a follow-up literature review. The winner will alsoreceive a playtest to be conducted in the Summer, of their game chef entry or other RPG as requested. This will be a third party, in-depth playtest with a view to vetting the game for publication.

Thank you, and good luck to all the participants.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Weekly Review Mar. 4th to Mar. 10th

This week has seen several developments in theory, including Vincent Baker building a forum site to discuss culture (including sex, race, gender, and religion) in and about the context of RPGs, I Would Knife Fight a Man.

Moving Past Terms

Fang Langford talks about terminology and how to avoid some of the problems that arise in the building and use of jargon. Specifically, he suggests terms being applied as a context to understand what lies beneath them. As he puts it, "So rather than asking, 'What is role-playing gaming?' I should ask, 'What is EXAMPLE if you approach it like it was a role-playing game?' This turns an argument over the exact sense of terminology into a framework for comparison of beliefs."

J. Tuomas Harvianinen puts out a caution on the tendency of people in RPG theory to only cite what they fully understand. He argues this leads to a fragmentation of theory. Instead, he suggests that qualfying a citation or a reference is better than excluding it because you disagree with it.

Weakness of Story

Malcom Sheppard discusses the imbalance between the growth of story versus the growth of rule sets. He suggests that as play continues the former is difficult to improve, in contrast to the increased skill applied to a RPG's rule set, and those improvements that do develop in crafting story will often be consumed by the growth of the group specialized rule set.

Learning Something

Over a GameCraft, here and here are two threads dealing with learning as a benefit, or even goal for RPG play. The discussions include learning with and without another player behaving as an educator and the advantage of learning from the social structures that arise during play.