Monday, February 26, 2007

Weekly Review - Feb. 19 to Feb. 25

A quiet week was further complicated by the (hopefully temporary) collapse of the Story-Games forums; as of this column's deadline, it had not yet returned.

Recent independent game design has tended towards greater player autonomy and freedom, which is generally a good and desirable thing, but sometimes it can lead to 'too much' freedom, as the abundance of options becomes overwhelming. CSI Games explores one of the ways designers can help avoid the lack of purpose and structure that freedom can cause: the encouragement of competition between players, a state we sometimes try to avoid.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Editorial: Depict, Describe, Discuss, Apply

RPG theories can be understood in many terms. Some theories find themselves to be depicted, encoded as a picture, diagram, or other graphical form. This approach has become more common as of late, with process diagrams, the Big Model Venn diagrams, and so on. This is good for making relationships clear, but suffers in other ways.

More classically, theories have been described, written as long treatise or simple sayings. The various principles which have grown out of the Forge, as well as earlier mantras all try to put something in verbal terms. These are almost entirely definitional, taking a term or terms and making it the focus of the ideas presented.

Arguably the most basic origin of RPG theory, and the fundamental place it thrives is within discussion, the back and forth between two or more minds communicating about the underlying ideas. This shows itself prominently in debates and examples (such as actual play examples). Indeed examples are where discussion works best, it can help ground ideas into specific cases and instances, making them more understandable, but with a risk in the dilution of the underlying insights of the theory.

On the other end of the spectrum is application. Taking theory and using it in play and design is the only concrete test of its validity. But application is difficult, and you often must rely on an intermediate step to get there. On some level, this way of relating theory is like apprenticeship, a teaching by doing. What is best expressed in this way is the methods, the means by which the theory is used, often glossing over details that are not directly relevant to the situation at hand.

All four of these approaches are vital, but different people will have different strengths and weaknesses with respect to them. Perhaps you are not a visual person, then depicting may be difficult. If you are shy or less assertive, then discussion could often become problematic. Part of the reason we collaborate is to meet these weaknesses with strength, and to enable a better over all understanding of the tools we have to make RPGs better.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Weekly Review - Feb. 11 to Feb. 18

Hi, Matthew George here, filling in for Mendel.

Several bloggers, including John Kim and Matt Wilson, recently discussed an old livejournal post from Dec. 2006 about sexism towards women in traditional gaming and how female characters are treated in various systems.

Rich Warren intends to post about the common desire of DMs to force their players along, a topic recently discussed here, and will hopefully do so shortly, but until then he leaves us with this thought: "If you feel the need to force your players along, then something's wrong with the game." In similar fashion, Mike Mearls suggests that the greater part of RPGs' appeal lies in the incidental social interaction of gaming.

The Flaming Monkey blog discussed a new Relationship Web-generating tool created by Mo at Sin Aesthetics.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lesson: Railroading

Railroading is a term used to describe the imposition of a predefined set of resolutions onto the choices and conflicts that occur in play by a storyteller or game master. Essentially, it's what happens when a person tries to make themselves the sole author of the story.

The metaphor is obvious: just as a train can only operate on a preset rail structure that determines where it can go, and can only deviate from that path at special switching stations, a railroaded game can only function if contingent outcomes resolve in the anticipated way. A train that's forced off its rails crashes, which is essentially what happens to railroaded games forced out of their narrow plot.

Most games have some predefined narrative structure, and there's often an agreement among players that games will contain particular plot types or elements. Railroading only takes place when player actions are prevented from having any effect on the flow of events. It's possible that a game can be railroaded without its participants noticing, but unlikely, due to the fragility of plots and the ease with which they can be derailed. Any choices made by players that aren't compatible with the storyteller's plans either break the game or result in the storyteller crafting events in such a way to force a return to the intended outcome. Therefore, the term is virtually always used pejoratively, and the technique considered to be inherently pathological, as it represents a failure to be properly flexible and adaptive to players' input. Unlike Illusionism, there's really no way Railroading can be used responsibly.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Weekly Review Feb. 4th to Feb. 10th

This week has seen several investigations into structure used in and around play.

Persons of Play

Fang Langford discusses the use of novel writing perspectives on narrative person in RPGs. He relates third, second, and first person narration with GM-based, cooperative inter-player, and self narration, respectively.

Producing Story

Bradley "Brand" Robins discusses different approaches to producing stories. Specifically, the linear approach where things are pre-planned, the gestalt approach where the player decisions as a whole produce the story, and lastly the emergent approach where the story's structure is unpredictable. He suggests these are a continuum, with most story-based play being a mixture of these approaches.


Over at Gamecraft is a discussion on the effect of patterns of feedback. This has included the effects of long chains of positive feedback and their relationship to games which ensure that some positive feedback is provided from character actions. Meanwhile, Bradley "Brand" Robins describes the need to distinguish feedback systems and reward systems. The former includes social and mechanical responses you get as you play, while the later is specifically the system that ensures you get what you want out of play.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Monthly Review January 2007

January has seen a return to one of the popular areas of investigation from 2006, namely mediums and RPGs. However, this has focused much more on a loose, genre-based approach to different media. First was Malcom Shepphard's discussion of the decline of the table-top genre and its need to compete with developing technological genres of roleplaying. Taking a different perspective, John Kim discusses the sub-genre of derivative works, and the different ways in which they can influence RPGs.

Later in the month, these ideas are revisited by Fang Langford looked into loose definition of RPGs, based on a listing of medium and genres related to RPGs and other games. In a more focused, sense, Jonathon Walton contrasted the medium of storytelling from typical behaviors in RPGs.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Weekly Review Jan. 28th to Feb. 3rd

The theory developments this week have focused on the blurring of what have typically been taken as sharp lines, whether for characters or for RPGs as a whole.

A Character's Eyes

Rich Warren describes one of the under-appreciated roles of a GM. Namely acting as the view point of the player's characters. This goes beyond merely reporting senses, to the possibilities of incorporating moods and biases to make the perspective of the player more deeply tied to the character.

RPG Genres

Bradley "Brand" Robins expands on a dialogue from last week, about a genre-based view of the category of RPGs. Expanding on his own earlier ideas, he suggests that this variety of genres has produced different communities of practice. This requires an acceptance of these other genres, before there can be an effective "cross-disciplinary study."

Playing Multitudes

Guy Shalev discusses the personas people take on in various social situations, and contrasts this with the singularity of adopting a character, even in such deeply identified forms of RPGs as larps. Specifically he suggests that there may be more flexibility in how people identify with a character or characters than typically considered.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Editorial: Your Own Theory

Everyone who has ever played a RPG, and most who have even seen one has their own theories of RPGs. This collection of ideas, associations, and contexts for what happens when we play RPGs can be as constraining as it is enabling. Without some context, we couldn't play. But that same context can limit our views, and encourages an intolerance of other contexts and those who hold them.

One of the purposes of more formal discussions of RPG theory is to give people a language to express their own theories. And remember, there is no reason for these theories to be unified or even consistent. What matters is that we, as players, designers, and observers of other people's play and design are aware enough of our point of view of RPGs that we can talk, work, and play with others who do not share all our perspectives.

"Enough" is very important here. We can't expect to have found all our biases and to have fully plumbed the depths of our expectations. But we must never give up trying. As I like to see it, the reason we can't seem to answer "What is a Roleplaying Game?" is that it is the wrong question. A better one is "What can a Roleplaying Game be?