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.


Jiituomas said...

"Taking theory and using it in play and design is the only concrete test of its validity."

I disagree with this. That's just one half of the equation. The other half is collecting data from the field, and seeing if the theories match the reality of play (or, at least, players' perceptions of it).

Troy_Costisick said...


I'd like to post this linke here:

It's by Chris Lerich. It's probably the best article on different kinds of theory and how that relates to RPGs ever written. It needs to be preserved.



Guy said...

Jituomas above posted on his LJ a link to Lifelike, a book about LARP just released, in whole.

Seeing as one of the new year's resolutions was to discuss Ludology, I thought I'd air this.

Mendel Schmiedekamp said...


Oddly enough I agree that collecting data and using that to test theory is also a concrete test of validity. I cannot entirely vouch for my state of mine when I wrote that paragraph, but here's what I think happened.

The natural verb of theory is to predict. Theories are information that let us reduce the complexities of the world into some structure, method, or practice. They do this by holding more than they appear, so they predict more than they recieve from the theorizer. In that broadest sense, testing a theory hypothesis and applying theory to a specific decision are both using the predictions of theory, and thus the method of the theory.

And I utterly failed to get that idea across in the editorial. So I confouned the two more than I ought in my mind, and left a far more limited impression than I wanted. In either case, though the process of testing is one of the best ways to learn the method of a theory.


Of note, this specifically cuts across the different senses of theory, since all theories predict. With RPG theory the mix it is, I try my best to keep to that as a basis.


I'm seriously tempted to make Lifelike the first literature review here. I suspect that depends on whether I can do that justice before the end of March.