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.