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.