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.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Monthly Review February 2007

This month has seen numerous investigations of different tools and approaches to play. Early on, Bradley "Brand" Robins described three approaches to making a story: Linear, Gestalt, and Emergent. Around the same time, Fang Langford discussed narrative persons as a means to understand the ways we can interact with the imagined parts of play. Later on, Rich Warren offers some tricks to avoiding GM frustration with lack of control over the game.

This flowed into a discussion of two recurring elements of RPGs, and their use in understanding and to a limited extend designing and playing RPG. First, Guy Shalev discusses the use of competition as a means to entice GM-like behaviors from players. Later, Fang Langford returns to his concept of Shared Imagined Space, to describe how players come to a common understanding about the fictional elements at the table.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Weekly Review Feb. 25th to Mar. 3rd

This week has seen several investigations on what people get into as they play, from shared imagined spaces to intimacy.

Shared Imagined Space

Fang Langford describes how we produce mental spaces, from day-to-day activity to dreams, and relates these to his idea of shared imagined space. Specifically he points out that these belong to the different players, constantly evolving based on their interactions.


Moyra Turkington continues her discussion on the impassioned other's approach to play, by describing different means to produce emotional intimacy in RPGs and related activities. She brings up artistic aspirations, BDSM-related social tropes, and virtual play spaces, as all being ways to produce intimacy - usually by signalling to all the players that they should examine what is going on more deeply, and take the interaction in the
game more seriously.

Rules, Imagination, and the Individual

Over at Story Games Gabor Koszper put together a perspective on RPG play based on three parts of the dynamics of play. The decision making, the regulatory rules, and the imagined content. He suggests that players can be classified by the tightness of the links between two of these elements. For example, a tight link between imagined content and regulatory rules indicates that the rules affect what is imagined and vice-verse, more so than player decisions, meaning a sense of setting coherence is preeminent.

Gabor argues that this classification is related to the GNS classification. A strong link between individuals decisions and regulatory rules would give the structured challenge of gamism. One between individuals decisions and the imagined content would lean towards narrativism's sense of fictionally meaningful decisions. Lastly, the link between imagined content and regulatory rules gives rise to the coherence valued in simulationism.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Lesson: Typhoid Mary

'Typhoid Mary' is a term used to describe a particularly infamous disease vector, anyone who spreads a disease or contamination by failing to take appropriate precautions, and a specific kind of GMing failure.

In RPG theory, a Typhoid Mary is a GM who, in a Narrativist game, uses his position as GM to constrain the players' actions and outcomes so that his personal perspective of the Premise dominates. In a game centered around the question of whether means can justify ends, a GM who arranges circumstances so that ethically questionable means always corrupt the results they're used to achieve is acting as a Typhoid Mary.

The term can also be used as a descriptor for specific examples of behavior that, if consistently demonstrated, would lead to a person's being categorized as a Typhoid Mary.