Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Weekly Review May 4th to May 10th

This has been a slow week in RPG theory, but with some continuation from previous developments.

Crunch and Fluff

Willow Palecek expands on the relationship between fiction and rules by looking as specific sub-forms of play which strongly accentuate one over the other.

Weekly Review April 27th to May 3rd

This has been a productive week in RPG theory, with some new work and some re-envisionment of earlier ideas.

Modes of Design

Fang Langford takes a good look at the different approaches that can be taken in the process of design - both in terms of the design products and in the viewpoints used when constructing and testing games. He suggests an incomplete set of these approaches: Disputative (focusing on conflicts and their resolution), Synergistic (focusing on cooperation and its facilitation), Individualistic (focusing on internal goals and contexts), and Collaborative (focusing on social features of play). He argues that most design happens with interplay between these modes.

Fiction in the Rules

Bradley "Brand" Robins discusses the the interplay of fiction and rules, building the idea that the one of the characteristics of RPGs is the presence of fiction within the game rules. He extends this idea to the concept of continuity discussed earlier this year. Elsewhere, Jonathon Walton takes this idea and delves further into RPGs which "lead with the fiction". He suggests this is related to free-form and rules-lite movements, but need not be averse to explicit rules.

Weekly Review April 20th to April 26th

This week has seen several attempts to expand the scope of RPG theory, both from the basics and from the edges.


Elliot Wilen looks at defining RPGs as a series of expected characteristics, rather than requirements. He develops three core criterion: aesthetic or thematic goals, freeform procedures (where the vision of the world can override the rules), and a lack of fixed motivations. He also suggests that a lack of endgame is a related, but largely disproved criteria.

Chaotic Fiction

Over at RPGnet is a discussion on borrowing a concept from Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and applying it to LARPs. Specifically, the concept of chaotic fiction - fiction which sits between the random and the structured. Part of this has been to extend the three axes which control the chaos into the context of LARP: Authorship (architect versus audience), Rules (built in structures), and Coherence (thematic and plot consistency among events).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Weekly Review April 13th to April 19th

This has been a slow week in RPG theory, but not without developments.

Beyond Yes and No

Tommi Brander talks about resolution and blocking, and different variants to these two methods. As he puts it, resolution is essentially affirming a contribution from a player, while blocking simply negates it. The remainder involve contributions in response: switching - negating and changing the situation, opening - negating and offering options, complicating - affirming and changing the situation, and building - affirming and offering options.

Weekly Review April 6th to April 12th

This week has seen some activity in RPG theory, dealing with the general process and products of play.

Rules and Paradigm

Elliot Wilen separates out the means and process of playing RPGs into two categories for design. One is the system or rules of the game. The other is the paradigm of the game, which determines responsibilities and expectations. He suggests that most RPG design mixes these two, but paradigm becomes more prevalent as during play - becoming the foundation of how the game is actually played.

Meanwhile, Vincent Baker talks about where rules can bring something to play beyond what paradigm's understandings and agreements can. Specifically, he suggests that rules produce "the unwelcome and the unwanted", but well designed rules produce them in such as way to be compelling to the players.

Products of Playing

Adam Dray discusses the view of play as the product of the techniques, social agreements, and processes that make up the game. Later on, he expands on this idea pertaining to designer's intent and the products which players will enjoy. The result is a variety of possible outcomes of design, and possible ways to remedy those less desirable.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Weekly Review March 30th to April 5th

This week has seen both theory related podcasts and in-depth examinations of resolution.

Switching Stances

Mel White describes and presents examples of various stances players take during play. Actor stance which uses only what your character would know, author stance that uses other information but remains in character, director stance that extends beyond one character, and audience stance that behaves receptively. He argues that these stances are very dynamic, with moment to moment changes being both common and important for their use in play.


Clyde Rhoer presents a summary of his previous theory podcasts touching upon the major terms and giving a sense for his perspective on how theory affects play.

Resolving Shared Fiction

Over at Gametime, Morgue talks about the imagined space of the GM versus that of the players. He suggests that the GM's space is generally broader than that of a player, and that an important part of play is how GMs impart their imagined space to players, and how player decisions influence that space. Similarly, Adam Dray expands on his Social-Play Model by expanding on the process of resolution. Specifically, he lays out a nine step process by which techniques are used to alter both shared and personal imagined spaces. He then presents some examples for how both synchronizing this process and synchronizing the creative goals behind it have a positive effect on play.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Weekly Review March 23rd to March 29th

This week has seen some new ground explored, both from existing models and from different perspectives.

Common Perspectives

Jeff Tidball relates a classification of comic artists and fans to those who design and run RPGs. He describes four camps or perspectives and suggests they are socially emergent, with many people traveling between them. The four camps are: classicists - who craft RPGs as a perfection of the form, animists - who craft RPGs to be affecting, formalist - who seek new forms and experiment with RPGs, and iconoclasts - who craft RPGs to educate and relate the everyday human condition.

Conservation of Trust

Rich Warren brings up the question of trust within RPGs. He suggests that trust is something which is split among (at least) the game system, the GM, and the players. He then argues that this trust is somewhat conserved, meaning a loss in (for example) trust in the GM must be made up by an increase in system or player trust. He further suggests that this balance of trust is also a matter of individual preferences, based on good and bad experiences, and that when trust need aren't met various problems can arise.

Social-Play Model

Adam Dray presents his model for how players, social contracts, and play interact. Building from the Big Model, he splits the procedures and agreements of play from the common fictional elements in play. Bridging these he uses resolution, specifically the chain of events: Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect that leads to resolution. As the third part of the model, he sets up the feedback loop, with the players as individuals. Thus each player has a perspective of the fiction in play and each player has their own goals from which to forge the social contract and play procedures.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekly Review March 16th to March 22nd

This has been a slow week in RPG theory, but not without developments.

Fruitful Content

Gabor Koszper talks about the content of play and how players generate it. He suggests that there are two basic options: synthetic content produced from other content or random content which is produced solely internally. He argues that one important part of learning to play is to become aware of all of the content available to inspire one's own contributions. Indeed, he considers the interplay of fruitful content to be a fundamental form of communication during play.

Weekly Review March 9th to March 15th

RPG theory developments this week have centered on exploring basic ideas and elements of RPGs.

Exploring the Self

Fang Langford brings up the idea that RPGs allow us to explore ourselves, describing that "the pleasure of gaming is becoming more aware and familiar with yourself." He suggests this perspective may be of use for theory and especially design, based on how play can be treated as a safe zone within which to delve.

Game vs. RPG

Rob Donoghue talks about the relationship between what we do as we play and the underlying mechanics. He argues that in a pure game, the rules define what we can do as players, while in a RPG the rules act as a language which can describe what we wish to do. He further suggests that even if this flexibility isn't always taken it remains an important part of RPGs.

Character Change

Troy Costisick examines the question of character advancement in RPG design and play. He argues that it is reasonable to consider character advancement to be synonymous with any significant character change - rather than limiting it to wholly positive or wholly mechanical changes. From this perspective he suggests character advancement should have a role in any RPG.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Weekly Review March 2nd to March 8th

This week has seen several developments in theory, including some in depth reexaminations.

Role in the System

Over at Story Games, Karl Bergman presents a way to look at how player's interact with the system. Specifically, players can adopt a specific role not as a character, but within the operation of the game itself, something he terms an actor. One example he presents is situational competitiveness: where neither characters nor players compete overall, but at certain times players are encouraged to adopt a competitive role.

Fictional Positioning

Chris Chinn goes into some detail examining the concept of fictional positioning. By this he means the use of fictional logic in influencing what happens during the game. For example, having a weapon before you could attack with it or having a reason to be in a corridor to overhear a critical conversation. He suggests this is one of the pillars upon which RPGs operate, but is often ignored next to mechanics. In particular he argues attention is only drawn to it when either it or the mechanics go wrong.

Objects and Their Functions

Gabor Koszper returns to his work on functions, expanding on how different objects in play can produce different function in how they affect the people playing the game. He suggests that a functional break-down of fictional and mechanical elements can be very useful, especially because it leads naturally to examining both the intentions and effects of how we influence each other during play.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Weekly Review February 24th to March 1st

This week has seen some interesting activity around the concept of system, and how it interacts with the fiction created during play.

Questions on System

Elliot Wilen talks about various questions he wishes to return to on the subject of system. He considers the distinction of systems that are fun to use, systems that produce outcomes that are fun to interact with, and systems which arbitrate between players. He also considers quantifying how much system affects play and how avowed design differs from house-ruling (in the sense that engineering differs from bricolage).

Elsewhere, Vincent Baker talks about the importance of the flow of fiction and how it can sometimes be essential to play. He discusses how the precise sense of continuity can be as important to the system as the mechanics, but in ways which are often difficult to grasp from game texts.

Revealing Setting

Jonathon Walton as an introduction to a concept he calls style sheets talks about different ways that game texts can provide settings. In some cases, it is implicit or something that arises as part of play. But other times that play requires a jump start: such as a handful of imaginative phrases or an inspirational reference sheet.

Story and Tactics

Rich Warren talks about differing flavors of tactical play. He describes how some tactical play is tactical about story of the game, while other flavors are tactical in spite of it. He argues that this causes problems, since tactical interest of some sort is part of engaging with play.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Weekly Review February 17th to February 23rd

This week has seen several developments about arriving at play, whether individual games or generally.

Expectations and Permissions

Vincent Baker discusses how a game does more than impart system and mechanics by shaping expectations and giving permissions to the players. Thus an important part of design is to not only make some behaviors in play possible, but to encourage and discourage them according to the design goals of the game. Emily Care Boss expands on this idea, and describes how games can give players permission to act evilly in character, especially to other player characters, even when the underlying game is cooperative.

Personal Rules

Chris Chinn describes the fluidity of rules and system in most RPGs as people play them. He suggests that a common problem with reliable play is that each player is pushing the rules of the game to contain their own personal preferences, leading to the GM seeking to forge a compromise. He argues that this fluidity can be avoided by treating RPGs like other games, accepting the rules rather than bringing personal ones.

Describing Characters

Gordon Olmstead-Dean talks about the theory behind character, specifically Forge Theory, applied to larp. Of note, he discusses the difficulties in large scale coherence of creative agenda, as well as, the difficulties that can arise in an larp context with mechanically defining a character. He stresses, in particular, that a character should have some existence beyond the mechanics of resources and effectiveness, being described by these, rather than defined.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Weekly Review February 10th to February 16th

This week has seen some less traditional developments in RPG theory, applying new ideas and approaches.

In Situ Character Creation

Jeff Tidball relates the design strategy of creating characters as part of play with the way fiction tends to introduce and reveal characters over time. In particular he suggests this design strategy is underused and could provide more effective entry into the game. Among his points he argues that stories place characters higher than plot, so separating the discovery of each during the game impoverishes the plot.

Unsurprising Play

Over at I would knife fight a man is a discussion on "phatic" play, play or parts of play that serve a comforting or social purpose without presenting surprises. Over the course of the discussion there have been a variety of angles and views present, from relating unsurprising play and the creative agenda to questions of how to design and play specifically "phatically".

Authoring and Teaching

Paul Czege at the Forge describes a way to look at creative agenda in terms of learning and teaching. He describes gamism as learning from competitively successful teachers. He describes simulationism as learning from knowledgeable or experienced teachers. And narrativism as learning from each other by authoring together. He suggests problems can arise when teaching and authoring become conflated by some players.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Weekly Review February 3rd to February 9th

This week has seen several re-examinations in RPG theory.

Big Model Tours

The Big Model, developed at the Forge, has been explained and reinterpreted by quite a few people. This week, two more summaries have emerged. First, Emily Care Boss presents a transcript of a conversation where she explains the concepts of the Big Model to Elizabeth. Second, Chris Chinn gives his own try in explaining the scales and features of the Big Model.


Moyra Turkington discusses the clash she feels between many RPGs that have purely mechanical disposal of characters and the impassioned attachment she feels towards her character. She describes how apparently random character loss can frustrate the need for closure in the process of playing and immersing in a character. She suggests, however, that from a story focused perspective this sort of disposability can be a powerful tool.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Weekly Review January 27th to February 2nd

A more active week, this week sees more discussion of ritual, drama, and systems.

Ritual and System

Fang Langford describes the relationship between the game system used to play RPGs, and the rituals of play a group of players assemble as they learn to play together. He suggests that there is an important distinction, which is washed away by describing all of these as just system.

Drama and Webs

Will Hindmarch constructs a method of breaking down distributed stories like those in RPG planning and computer games. He takes the idea of a story web and merges it with a graph of rising and falling drama. The resulting three-dimensional structure, or pyramid as he calls it, may be used to manage pre-plotting to ensure that regardless of the choices made, a strong story structure will remain evident.


Chris Chinn talks about resources as an important component of many RPGs. He breaks down different properties of a resource: expendability, global limits, and dynamics. He then discusses how resources can work together in the economy of a game. He uses the example of 1001 Nights to show how resources can subtly drive play.

Weekly Review January 20th to January 26th

This week has been a slow one for RPG theory. Of note, Mel White, on his podcast Virtual Play presents an anthology of the first thing said to start playing various RPGs. He suggests that short and energetic introductions may work best and that it is possible to compare them with the beginnings of rituals in general.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Weekly Review January 13th to January 19th

This week has seen several developments in RPG theory.

Integral Model

Over at I would knife fight a man, Karl Maxwell Higly has begun to talk about an alternate model for RPG theory. Attempting to combine insights from motivation-based theory and the Big Model, his Integral Model combines the two axes of internal/external and individual/collective with a hierarchy inspired by the scopes of the Big Model. He describes cyclic dynamics passing through each dimension of this model, forming patterns which lead to higher level layers and subsequently more patterns.

In the Support of Story

Rich Warren describes a way to look at tactical play and consistent fiction as part of the production of stories in RPGs. He argues that both of these behaviors can actively aid the process of making a story, provided they do not become overwhelming.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Editorial: Why Theorize?

I work on RPG theories because I play RPGs. In order to do so, one must devise an understanding of what playing a RPG consists of. And personally I'm uncomfortable sitting on my first attempt and assuming I'm right. So I constantly revise and reexamine how and why I play. That is the basis of theory. Lot's of people say theory must be based on a foundation of play. This is inaccurate. You can theorize without play, but you can't play without crafting theory.

But that doesn't explain why I theorize about other people's play... That's because I'm very interested in design. I want to communicate ideas and methods. I want to produce dynamics in games which will surprise, amuse, and enrich the players. To do that I must understand how RPGs work - both the practice and the potential of them.

But that doesn't explain why I discuss theory and involve myself in communal developments, or why I spend so much time helping other people develop and communicate their theories... That's because I'm convinced that actually understanding RPGs is difficult. It's easy to make a bunch of assumptions and discover a few surprising things, but it's harder to examine those assumptions and face the real possibility that some or even all of them are blocking you from a better understanding.

But that doesn't explain why I feel RPG theory is worth doing even when it is very difficult... That's because I'm convinced that RPGs provide a deep glimpse of social constructed phenomena. Any good, solid theory of RPGs must extend beyond it's borders, and RPGs sit very close to activities that are much more critical to our world. Working on those directly is hazardous because their very importance lends them biases and restrictions. Thus RPG theory presents a real opportunity to effect change. But that takes time, not the months of design, or the years of publication, but on the scale of decades. Personally I think its worth it.

*Excerpt from a post of mine from I would knife fight a man.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Weekly Review January 6th to January 12th

This week has seen several developments in RPG theory, questioning and restating existing ideas.

Big Model Holarchy

Over at I would knife fight a man, Max has started a thread about a conceptual restucturing of the Big Model's scopes. He presents this as a holarchy, a hierarchy where higher levels are composed of lower ones. In this vein he sets the layers, from lowest to highest as social contract (fundamental), ephemera, techniques (evolution), exploration, and creative agenda (aesthetics).

Insignificance and Story

Jonathon Walton talks about the origin of the novel, and how the novel distinguishes itself from the epic and tragic literature preceding it. He suggests that novels deal with people more directly by referencing the insignificant, and that RPGs, especially immersion, may benefit from considering the importance of insignificance over the event to event importance of a story.

System and Rules

As part of his on-going design manual, Nathan Paoletta discusses system and rules as theory terms and as means to aid in design. He particularly stresses the importance of system for the designer, namely System Matters, and the considerable difference between rules and system.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Weekly Review December 30th to January 5th

This week's theory developments have focused on social investment.

Buying In

Chris Chinn talks about player buy in, the moment to moment activity where players support one player's contribution to the game. He suggests that with the exception of GMs giving bonuses this sort of buy in is not mechanically supported in most RPGs. He describes how some new games use player driven rewards as a means to give everyone a way to support each other's ideas.

Social Mandate

Over at the Forge is a discussion about the minimal social assumptions needed for a particular RPG to function, sometimes called the social mandate. One item debated in that thread is whether the social mandate is a set of assumptions missing from the game text or whether it is a requisite for all RPGs.

Role of Creative Agenda

Also over at the Forge, Ron Edwards wrote a post describing the role of creative agenda in play. Particularly he describes how creative agenda acts as a "reverberation" which flows down from social concerns into the moments of play and back up to social recognition of the fun. He suggests that one error in looking at play comes from our tendency to only notice the return path as we play, the results rather than the whole process leading to them.

Weekly Review December 23rd to December 29th

Character death, player expectations and using theory all feature in this weeks theory developments.

Theory in Use

Rich Warren discusses the various uses of the word theory and how RPG theory is treated. He suggests that RPG theories tend to be more speculative than factual, and argues that this is because they rarely produce testable hypotheses. He indicates that the main use of theory at present is as a language for talking about games.

Decisions and Death

Chris Chinn continues his investigation of character death in RPGs by examining the decisions leading up to the events in game. He suggests that the treatment and player behavior around character death derives from the decisions the player can make about the events leading to it. In particular, instant lethality makes it difficult to make meaningful decisions about character survival.

Differing Expectations

Mel White discusses problematic play in his podcast, presenting a few examples of play where differing player expectations lead to rough spots during play. He presents this in the context of the Big Model creative agendas and the clash that occurs when players have different ones.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Weekly Review December 16th to December 22nd

This week has seen several GM related theory developments.

Dice and Planning

Graham Walmsley describes one utility of dice and other randomizers in playing RPGs, that they limit the scope which can be planned by those involved. This helps to encourage a more responsive, adaptive attitude which works better for improvisational play.

GM as Game Designer

Will Hindmarch describes how non-computer RPGs provide a special opportunity for the GM in particular, namely the role of extrapolation of the system itself. Thus the GM can behave as a game designer in addition to more common referee tasks. He then discusses how some designs can aid this opportunity.

Yin and Yang of the GM

Ben Robins suggests that GMing tends towards two extremes. On one hand, the GM is proactive, directing events and moving the players and their characters. On the other the GM is reactive moving the world and events in response to the players' decisions. He stresses the importance of balancing these two roles in the practice of being a GM.