Saturday, September 06, 2014

Lesson: Common Ground Revisited - Shared Aesthetic

Years ago I discussed common ground in the context of resolution during play. Common ground gives us a foundation for what it is we come to agree upon during play. In that post I mentioned two kinds of things within common ground: fictional or imagined details and the social agreements we have with each other. I also described the dichotomy between thinking about common ground as idealized and thinking about it as a process culminating in a rarely achieved agreement.

Building on this notion, common ground can apply to other aspects of play as well. In another lesson Creative Agenda about Forge theory, I talk about how creative agenda are a shared judgement among the players about what they aesthetically seek within play. One thing missing from that lesson, and indeed from most discussion of creative agenda is the fact that such a shared aesthetic doesn't arise whole cloth and complete, but instead is something assembled as a kind of common ground.

Common aesthetic ground is often harder to describe because while there is a wealth of techniques for communicating and establishing fictional details and negotiating social norms within a group, aesthetics don't have as many methods available beyond broad categorization and repeated demonstration. But the deficiency of our tools of description does not mean that what we wish to describe is any less real.

The process of forming a shared aesthetic, like other forms of common ground is a conversation of trial and error. Tools like the X-card are useful mechanics because they can communicate a definite judgement in context. With aesthetics, the dearth of simple language for describing our values and perspectives leaves a gap for more mechanical tools to create a language specific to the creative and social aspects of a particular RPG. At present this seems difficult to conceive, but this frontier is where the notion of creative agenda can take us past just learning to enjoy play with each other and to a place where we can start to understand each other better.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Editorial: Why Use Theory?

Theory is often disparaged, placed in opposition to practice or reality, or considered a waste of time. These comments ignore the very real value of theory and cause people to doubt why it is worth using theory at all. But theory used well is the best way to discover new things, apply our knowledge beyond the routine, and better understand practice and reality.

Theory Is Predictive

At its root theories are ways of predicting what will happen, often what will happen in response to what we do. This is the most important purpose of a theory, to take what we know and extend it to things we do not know. In this way theory is a guide to our behavior. If I want to make a game which immerses players into a fantasy world, theory can tell me which decision are likely to help and which will hinder.

Through intuition and habit we can often predict, perhaps even very accurately. The assumptions and pre-judgements underlying those intuitions and habits make up an unconscious theory, something which may be difficult to express. But if we could express this unconscious theory we might identify where it falls short and where our finely honed intuition has discovered something more broadly applicable.

The work of building a good theory is to express and refine the intuition of experience and trial and error. If you want to decide on a course of action or predict the outcome of a situation you will be using a theory, the only question is whether you want to consciously know what that theory is or not. Sometimes intuition is all we have time for, but if we have the time choosing the right theory to use can make all the difference.

Theory Reveals Patterns

Theories take large amounts of information and condense it into something more manageable. In this respect theory shows the patterns in the situations it is used to predict. These patterns might be shown in the form of an explanation. Or perhaps the theory does not claim to answer why things happen, merely indicating what to expect.

In any case, patterns are powerful things. We can recognize patterns and use them to decide when to apply a particular theory. We can see when a pattern breaks and decide that the associated theory is no longer applicable. And we can use the edges of patterns to guess at what might lie outside our experiences.

Good Theory Is Testable

When we try something new, theory predicts what we will encounter. That prediction may or may not be accurate, but if we cannot tell if that prediction holds then we might as well not have bothered. A useful theory describes something more than what we put into it. And sometimes that means we find that the theory has flaws or doesn't apply in this case.

Improving theories comes from recognizing these limitations, revising the theories involved, and better understanding when we should apply which theories. By putting multiple theories into practice at the same time we can compare them and determine which suit the situation better. This lets us assemble those theories into a broader theory of its own that predicts which approach we should take.

Assembling Theory

A theory of theories is one way in which we can build theory, but there are many ways to combine these building blocks. Theory is built from conceptual tools: procedures, analogies, classifications, etc. Some of these tools can be theories of their own, simpler or narrower than the theory you are building towards.

By assembling these pieces you can construct a theory suited to your particular problems. But it is important to keep this theory testable. By testing out your assembled theory you will then find if it works and where its pieces fail. This in turn feeds back into the constant process of refining your theory, a process synonymous with understanding.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

January 2008 - Theory Developments of Note

Comment here with a link and sentence or two description of theory developments you see on blogs or forums. It doesn't have to be pure theory, but these developments ought to deal with how and why we play RPGs in some generality.

I'll be adding comments here too, but without your help, I'm sure I'll miss something.

Editorial: Returning

For a variety of reasons, some more personal than others, I've been unable to continue RPG Theory Review through last year. However, I've decided not to let that be the end of things.

The time off has let me re-examine some of my goals and methods in RPG Theory Review. I realized that the focus had become too much on the weekly blurbs, taking a sizable amount of effort with often very little show for it. They took time from looking at less transient incarnations of theory, and at the same time I never felt they delved deeply enough to do justice the those theory ideas which arose.

In view of that, I'm happy to announce that RPG Theory Review is returning this year, with some important changes. First, I'll be focusing on literature reviews (specific games, books, and the like and their import in RPG theory) and spotlight reviews where I delve more deeply into specific topics of current interest. Fleshing this out will be monthly reviews with reader contributed focus.

In addition, I'll be continuing the tradition of editorials on the practice of RPG theory and expanding into what I'm calling sandbox articles which will talk about some of my explorations in the frontiers of RPG theory.

As always this will be something of an experiment, but I'm hoping RPG Theory Review will continue to be enjoyable and informative. And most of all that I can help improve our understanding of the thought and play of RPGs.

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.