Friday, December 29, 2006

Yearly Review 2006: Lists - Part One

Five Most Prolific Contributors:

1) Thomas Robertson - Thomas' contributions have included a variety of topics, most notably the structure of RPG mediums.

2) Joshua BishopRoby - Joshua's work tends to focus on stories within RPGs.

3) Moyra Turkington - Moyra has made several specific contributions, including Push and Pull, the sockets perspective of RPGs, and categorizing spectrums of player behavior.

4) Brian Hollenbeck - Brian's main development has been the AGE (Art, Game, Emulation) model of RPGs.

5) John Kim - John has contributed to numerous discussions, with a special focus on inclusiveness in RPGs.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Weekly Review Dec. 17th to Dec. 23rd

This week has seen a few new perspectives on previous developments.


Matt Snyder discusses the importance of hidden information to the functioning of stories. Specifically he describes how, while players may be aware of the full picture, the fitness of a character for a story often depends on what they do not or cannot know. This also suggests that a good situation in game is one where no party has full information.


Carl Cravens discusses the importance of player decisions in the context of RPGs. Specifically, he suggests that decisions can matter too much, as well as mattering too little. In the former, the analysis brought on by fear of failure can grind play to a halt. On the other, the irrelevance of the decisions makes play largely meaningless.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Weekly Review Dec. 10th to Dec. 16th

An odd week in theory discussion, centering more on the forums than blogs.

Who's in Charge Here

Over a series of forum discussions, the topic of authority and responsibility was discussed, focusing especially focusing on the role of the GM. At the Forge there is a discussion about creativity loads and the responsibilities of a GM versus that of players. Part of this also centered on the difficulties that can occur in learning or relearning creativity in play. Over at Story Games is a discussion focusing on people with little experience or desire to take on a GM role. Discourse here covered GMing methods and the advantages of RPGs with more distributed responsibilities. Lastly, at Gamecraft is a discussion about the responsibility versus the authority of a GM, specifically that a GM may lack the authority to truly ensure fun, but that fun remains the accepted responsibility of that position.

Designing the Experience

Over at RPGnet, Jeremiah Henson suggests that he is fed up with his designs clashing with the pre-existing patterns of play in his players. He argues that to effectively design you must take into account and seek to affect those patterns.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Editorial: Feedback 2006

RPG Theory Review has been running for over a year. Soon, we'll be doing a series of posts for our Yearly Review of RPG Theory. In the mean time, I think it is past time to ask readers what they would like to see in the coming year.

What do you like or dislike? Do you want more interaction, lessons, or editorials? Or possibly fewer?

What do you feel would make this a more useful resource to the community of people who want to better understand how we play RPGs, and how to make that play better?

I look forward to ideas, even just confirmations of what we're already doing. After all, this site will only serve you better if you let us know how.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Weekly Review Dec. 3rd to Dec. 9th

This week has seen a handful of largely unrelated theory developments.

Reason to Compete

Guy Shalev discusses the goals behind competition. Specifically, he discounts a pure goal of winning, since many competitive games are still worthwhile without victory. He concludes that the process of competition itself must provide something of value.

Default System

Matt Snyder references the difference between the system existing largely with the people playing or within the game text. The former he describes as more typical with the same social and creative dynamics applying to multiple games. He suggests that the later enables the underlying dynamics of the game to be portable, enabling a more consistent experience.

Examples of Play

Moyra Turkington describes the benefits and problems of examples of play. Specifically she describes how examples of play can impart (intentionally or not) social and cultural elements of the game. In addition, she leaves the caveat that the importance of examples of play depends very much on the individual proclivities of the reader.

RPGs as Media

Over at Gamecraft is a discussion on the RPG as a medium, and its strengths and weaknesses as such. Most of these, good or bad, build on two basic principles: the creative flexibility of structured imagination and the mixing of creator and audience. In addition, some in the thread describe RPGs as much a process or method as a medium.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Monthly Review November 2006

This month has had numerous disparate advances in theory, from describing how we play to how we test theory. The following are a few high points.

System and Culture

At the beginning of the month, Matt Snyder discussed how recent "indie" designs seem to focus on explicit system, going beyond the mechanical to describing things at a social level as well. He contrasts this with more traditional design, which exploits common traditions of social roles and behaviors. A little later, Mike Holmes began a thread at The Forge asking how much system matters. Among the insights from this discussion was that culture has its own influence on play.

Cognition, Passion, and the Other

Moyra Turkington produced a series of essays presenting another way to describe how and why people play, based on two dynamic criteria: cognitive and impassioned and how closely a player relates to the object in the fiction, which may include as disparate elements as character, story, or system.

These are built on several concepts

  • Sockets are the aspects of play on which a player focuses, such as character, story, or social.

  • Payoffs are described as what we want out of the game, varying significantly between players.

  • Goals are described as what you work towards within the game, often but not always aligned with payoffs.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 26th to Dec. 2nd

A generally quiet blogsphere produced several points of interest, including the following:

Dangerous Play

Yudhishthira's Dice presents an analysis of the concept of "dangerous play", with examples of specific cases where players found a game or its implementation to be dangerous. Powerful emotional associations seem to be key.

Setting, Part II

Socratic Design returns to the concept of Setting in part two of an ongoing series. In this segment, Troy Costisick expands his understanding and listing of Setting Aspects, then defines and explains each Aspect.

Gaming the System

In a curious thread on the Gamecraft forum, Kyle Aaron suggests that negative reviews and criticism are more valuable at increasing game sales than positive reviews and praise.

Seductive Theory

On another Gamecraft thread, TonyLB examines the perils of delving too deeply into RPG theory.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 5 - Details

Take a moment and write down a test for when color details are important or not in play. Also, when are they so important that they no longer act as simply details? When would the following be a color detail and not something more prominent, such as setting or situation? When would they be important or not?

The map of the world

The name of the barkeeper

The breed of a horse

The language commonly spoken

The identity of an ex

The laws of the land

A fight

A kiss

A gun on the mantelpiece

Do your written limits work? Or do you need to go back to an intuition for the different contexts? How much of it depends on earlier context and how much on social background? Are color details a fuzzy definition or can they be made definite? How about their importance in play?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 19th to Nov. 25th

Rather than a mass of theory development this week has seen the building of infrastructure, such a new RPG forum, Gamecraft.


Adam Dray proposes a way of exploring theory using design. Specifically designing RPGs as minimal objects meeting the requirements of a given theory, in his case the Big Model.

Support, not Pull

Jonathon Walton comes to a realization about a behavior he refers to as making others awesome, specifically supporting other players and improving their play. He distinguishes this from pull, which while cooperative is distinct from the broad motives of supportive play.

The Matter of System

Over at the Forge, Mike Holmes began a thread examining the "system matters" perspective in terms of both traditional and more expansive definitions of system. Among other suggestions is that player culture can matter as much as system.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Editorial: Actual Play

Hi ho, Matthew George here, talking about the concept of play.

The word 'play' has both an everyday, vernacular meaning, and a technical, specific meaning that has developed within the theory community.

This second usage usually involves implementing a game's mechanics in a social context to produce a complex structure, usually a sequence of events; the word is used in the same way that we say a written piece of orchestral music is 'played'.

The vernacular meaning is much broader. The way that people approach roleplaying games is broader, too. Before we use a system's rules to create events, we inevitably go through a stage where we imagine the world or worlds described by the game's setting. We don't create any specific sequence of events, but instead explore the possibilities for stories and associate between setting elements. It's what we do briefly when trying to create an interesting new character, and it's often what attracts us to an RPG - the sense of rich possibility. It's almost always a very personal process, not involving others, and not subject to explicit instructions or rules.

Some people don't need to go beyond this stage to enjoy RPGs fully, and there may be some who never bother leaving it. Why try the mission stages when you're having fun with sandbox mode?

It's possible that in the process of refining theoretical terms, the RPG design community has neglected a large part of how people utilize roleplaying games. It's time to take a hard look at how people actually play with our games, even if - especially if - we have to discard accepted theoretical terms to do so.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 12th to Nov. 18th

It has been an active week in RPG theory, combining several new avenues with some old ones.

Cognition, Passion, and the Other

This week, Moyra Turkington began a series of essays presenting another way to describe how and why people play, based on two continuum. The first was between cognitive and impassioned approaches to play and the second was how deeply players related to that player's object in the fiction, as she calls it, the Other. She qualifies these gradients, by suggesting that social and human variations can shift your typical position, because of change your minds or the situation changing.

These concepts are built on several definitions and principles which Moyra described early in the week. Sockets are the primary locus of enjoyment, the aspects of play which a player focuses, such as character, story, or social. Payoffs are described as what we want out of the game, varying significantly between players. Goals are described as what you work towards within the game, often but not always aligned with payoffs.

Genre and Play

Bradley "Brand" Robins describes a view of genres as socially reinforced classification, that act as mental shortcuts. This enables people to rapidly agree on structures and values of a genre and move onto creating within it. He suggests that, in this sense, classifications of RPG play are types of genres. Specifically mentioning Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism (or GNS), he argues that as genres they should become more focused, and eschew with classifying all play. Malcom Sheppard responds by discussing the role of power in setting genre. Specifically determining when the power inherent in a genre is more important than the benefit the genre can provide.

Unclear Intentions

Continuing the earlier discussions of intent and actions, John Kim describes the situation when intent is unclear. He suggests that a significant difficulty stems from the uncertain dialogue between players about their intentions. This is compounded by the fact that by deceiving the source of antagonism, often the GM, it may be possible to make achieving your intentions easier.

Return to Setting

Troy Costisick suggests that setting has the same potential and importance as system. He goes on to classify important aspects of setting, some required and some helpful, but not necessary for functional setting.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Lesson: Rewards

Rewards are generally considered to be what we get out of playing RPGs. At first, it seems surprising that this is a hotly debated topic. But ultimately it hinges on how and why we value RPGs as we play them, another divided topic. As such rewards can be viewed in many different ways, based on how we reduce the broad set of things during play to just the set of rewards.

Some require rewards to be overt, tied to reward mechanics. Often these are resources distributed or created during play as tokens of achievement or as specific instances of authority or importance. Classically this includes any type of points that are awarded, but goes much further.

Another view of rewards is that which reinforces the social contract of play. This aligns with cycles of reward, where the behaviors described under the social contract enacted through a system (in the social sense) provide specific reinforcement of that contract, usually by producing events and behaviors which the players value. What the players value also varies from group to group.

Other views of rewards are possible. It has been suggested, that confining play to a specific pattern of rewards ignores the most basic reward of play, that of play as its own reward. This is very relevant for groups focused on experience heavy play.

In any case, rewards are one of the hard questions in RPG theory. What things in play could not serve as rewards? What things must always serve as rewards, if play is to be rewarding? Are there other ways to describe the rewards of play? What does that form of reward say about the play it describes most naturally?

Related Lessons: Social Contracts, Resolution - System, Resource, Group

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Weekly Review Nov. 5th to Nov. 11th

This is Matthew George, temporarily filling in for Mendel on this week's Weekly Review.

All Quiet on the Theory Front

A general absence of commentary settled over the game-design blogsphere this week, but some activity continued.

More Resolution and Intention

In the same Story-Games thread discussed last week, Mike Holmes points out that the distinction between a 'scene' and a 'task' is often an arbitrary one in many systems. A key issue is that the level of detail desired by players and permitted by mechanics can vary widely. Commenters offered examples of systems that provided different mechanics for the resolution of common problems designed for different kinds of player intention. Consensus on the precise distinctions between different kinds of resolution types proved elusive.

Ideal vs. Actual Play

Malcolm Sheppard posted a follow-up to his earlier statements about immersion in which it is considered that the theoretical emphasis on play may be misplaced. He postulates that some game consumers are far more interested in planning and imagining a campaign than participating in its implementation, which they find to be the least interesting aspect. He suggests that certain traits make some RPGs of particular interest to this group, especially high concept designs and intricately-detailed settings, and that the subset of players for whom playing isn't the focus of RPG enjoyment is significant enough to possibly represent an untapped niche market.

In a related but unconnected post, James McChesney's Primeval Games examines some of the essential features of successful games: specifically, that they induce players to imagine virtual worlds. Good rules actively assist players in constructing these worlds and filling them with both things and events. Few rule systems provide /everything/ needed, necessitating that players fill-in-the-blanks themselves; in the process of doing so, they make certain assumptions about how such worlds should be constructed. Designers can influence the nature of the content that players use to flesh out a world by anticipating common assumptions and adjusting their own design assumptions to either reinforce or counter them. It is interesting to note that none of the essential goals McChesney discusses require that the rulesets be imagined in a social context or that a 'game' ever be played with them, particularly in the light of Sheppard's observations.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Monthly Review October 2006

Two major themes arose this month, in one case continuing strong into November. First, was the rewards of system and play. Second, were the issues of force and fiat.

How System Rewards

This theme began with Vincent Baker describing reward systems as what actually happens in play to reward the players. As something of a response, John Kim describes the range and flexibility of reward systems as mechanics, aligning them to the type of play you want. Later, Malcom Sheppard suggested that sometimes burdensome mechanics can be rewarding, since the dynamics of those mechanics is also part of play.

Force and Fiat

Early in October, a discussion started at Story Games about compelling moments of player decision (Bangs) and GMing using concealed force (Illusionism). This caused, Eliot Wilen to call for refining the terms being used. Then, Thomas Robertson put forward the idea that an often ignored form of authority is the depth of context a player's character or other imagined elements possess. As the month closed, these ideas emerged again in a series of posts at Story Games, linking with last month's theme of conflict and task resolution.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 29th to Nov. 4th

This week has seen several developments. Some are continuations of earlier themes, while others take a different perspective of types of RPGs.

Explicit System

Matt Snyder discusses the changes happening in recent RPG design. If we consider system to be the entire way that fiction is affected, whether mechanical, social, or otherwise, then he suggests that recent design movements have been one of exploring new systems, past the mechanical level. This has required specifying system beyond just the mechanics. At the same time, he argues that more traditional design has used much the same underlying system, passed on as unstated behaviors.

Breaking for Immersion

Malcom Sheppard continues his discussion last week on how the burden of ill-suited rules can be beneficial to play. Specifically he discusses the disjointedness of consciousness, and suggests that the breaks in self-awareness mirror the breaks in immersion found in the mechanical business of play. He argues that this periodic breaking aids immersion.

Resolution and Intent

Continuing the debate around task and conflict resolution over at Story Games is an attempt to understand the relationship between intent and scale within resolution. A consensus of sorts seems to have appeared around Fred Hicks' suggestion that the terms task and conflict confound the two very different dimensions of resolution, that of scope and intent. He argued that there should be categories of task versus scene resolution and of intent-relevant versus intent-irrelevant resolution.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Editorial: Ten Years

Where do you want the state of RPGs to be in ten years? And what are you doing to try to make that happen?

I want to see books getting smaller, as more of the fluff and specifics become things that emerge during play. I want to see RPG design becoming more of a matter of planting seeds, rather than writing treatise.

I want to see people seriously using multiple contradictory theories of RPGs, not because of social pressure, but because that genuinely helps them play and design better.

I want truly distributed RPGs, deeply serious ones, and even ones that don't appear as RPGs at all.

I want RPG theory to develop a solid enough foundation that it is borrowed by theatrical theory, literary theory, and maybe even social sciences to help developments there.

And this site is one way I am trying to get us there.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 22nd to Oct. 28th

This week's theory development focus on a broader picture of how different aspects of RPGs work, whether characters, settings, or rules.

Distributed Context

Thomas Robertson continues his discussion on context and authority, where he brings up questions of how the context of characters and other elements can lend them a sense of reality and importance. This week he remarks on how player authority stems from a wide array of low context elements (such as a GM would traditionally have) or a focused single high context element (such as a player's own character), and how these different approaches can provide a shaky balance of power.

Burden of Rules

Malcom Sheppard discusses the uneasy relationship between rules and play. He suggests that the difficulties in dealing with rules can actually drive some of the enjoyment of play. Particularly, just like events and characters, rules are manipulated and transformed during play. This later dynamic comes from the rule placing a burden on the players.

Analyzing Setting

Over at RPGnet, is a discussion on the analysis of setting. Related to themes earlier this year is a call for treatment of setting as a topic of equal importance and capability to system.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lesson: Group

While we often talk of the properties or behaviors of a player, many of those same questions can be extended to that of a group of players. This is not a simple translation. What one person does may not make sense for four or five people.

The actions of the group pass through the same process that creates the social contract among them. Mutual understandings and agreements, overt or unstated, are made to allow the group of players to collaborate. On this foundation, the group can be considered much like a single player, with goals, interests, and ways of doing things.

Sometimes this abstraction can be done multiple times. Especially in distributed play, different groups of players may form larger groups. These meta-groups might even have individuals joining in without an intermediate group. Thus a complex hierarchy forms as players and their groups interact and communicate.

As complex as it is, this hierarchy is not fixed. Even small, simple groups can and do change in response to their players actions. Absence and social contract disputes will often disrupt or otherwise modify the groups in which they occur.

What aspects of theory apply just as well to individual players as to groups? Which cannot apply to groups? How do the dynamics of a group affect what can be said about them?

Related Lessons: Player, Social Contract, Distributed

Monday, October 23, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 15th to Oct. 21st

This week there have been several developments in theory, many of which constitute a different perspective on previous ideas and discussions.

Who is Protagonist?

In response to earlier discussion, Eliot Wilen presents a view of the term, deprotaginization. Specifically, he suggests that you cease playing a protagonist when genre assumptions are not met. In the broad sense, it is discovering that you are playing a different story than you thought.

Unexpected Emphasis

Troy Costisick discusses the importance of emphasis in relating aspects of a game design. Particularly, he distinguishes two aspects of games, the overt parts, and the more hidden surprise parts of the game. The former should be emphasized to build interest, while the later are meant to be fully discovered during play, so can remain largely silent in the text.

Mechanical Rewards

As a response to Vincent Baker's earlier description of reward cycles, John Kim brings up how rewards work in a solidly mechanical sense. He describes how similar reward mechanic can encourage very different forms of behavior. Some of which, such as rewards based on player set goals, encouraging aiming low, require more care than they are typically given.

Creative Agendas

Over at Story Games is a discussion on the idea of creative agenda, a trio of presumably independent goals during play: gamism, simulationism, and narrativism. While it begins with a question as to whether hybrids exist between these, it later on delves into distinguishing between the specific thing a group of players enjoy, as the concept of a generic creative agenda, and the specific categories associated with the term.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Editorial: Invitation

I've been compiling and writing this blog for over 40 weeks. In addition to the reviews, lessons, and editorials, RPG theory review was intended to have guest articles. In that vein, I am openly inviting anyone interested in writing a guest article to contact me at wyrmwood (preposition) sluggy (punctuation) net.

Generally there are two kinds of guest articles: paralleling lessons and editorials. The prior involved writing about a particular RPG theory topic dear to you. It should be written for minimal prior knowledge and should carefully and clearly used terminology. The later are articles about the nature of RPG theory as a discipline. These should be cogent, clearly expressing your perspective.

In either case, I encourage being succinct and focused. I'm hoping for a variety of perspectives and expertise, and I look forward to seeing what you can do.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 8th to Oct. 14th

This week has been fairly sparse but what theory has been developed has been of an unconventional bent.

Authority and Context

Thomas Robertson suggests that an implicit form of character-based authority, is the witnessed context of the character. By lending a sense of meaning to the character's actions, those actions will tend to be more acceptable to other players. I particular this type of authority is not one which can easily be spread evenly, opening up both design and theory questions about how best to manage context.

The Narrative of Toys

Brian Hollenbeck continues a discussion of toys and games. Stemming from the development of baby toys, comes the idea that toys have an implicit narrative. He suggests that this narrative gives rise to a game as it becomes social, requiring further constraints and communication.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Lesson: Distributed

RPGs are built on the foundation of person-to-person interaction. Regardless of how that interaction occurs, whether electronic, face-to-face, or something more exotic, the structure of the interaction strongly constrains how we play. One of the most important distinctions in this sense is how distributed the RPG is.

On one extreme, a deeply involving and focused face-to-face RPG can result in a fully connected network of interactions, where each player is actively aware of each other player. At the other extreme, each player could only be aware of a small number of other players, with information and context passing from slowly to those removed from this nexus. In between is a vast variety of ways in which play can be distributed among players.

In the midst of these general concerns about how play is structured, there is also the fact that all but the simplest structures are dynamic. Perhaps, someone leaves on an errand when a scene occurs without them, or groups shuffle as some people move between them. In each of these cases, as well as numerous others, the network of interactions is changed, adjusting to the different configurations.

One advantage of this is that play can be resilient, some people may not be present or simply inattentive, and the distribution can adjust. Also, this mobility allows larger groups to be accommodated. But those dynamics are also structured, by constraints of physical, social, and imagined origin. So in a sense when we ask about how play is distributed we are equally concerned with how that distribution can change.

How should we classify the distribution of play? What are the limits of the connections of a single player? What is made easier by players only seeing a portion of play? What is made more difficult?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Weekly Review Oct. 1st to Oct. 7th

This week has seen a variety of theory developments, some stemming from continuing threads, others from outside.

A Question of Force

Over on Story Games, Joshua BishopRoby began a discussion about the relationship between compelling moments of player decision (Bangs) and GMing using concealed force (Illusionism). He asks how prepared bangs can be introduced without some measure of concealed force. The result is a debate over what sorts of GM influence constitute force. Eliot Wilen sums up this debate with a call to refine the terms being used, so that they are more generally useful.

Applied Theory

Likewise at Story Games, Christian Griffen began a discussion on the application of theory. Specifically he suggests that theory is in important part of playing and designing RPGs, namely it allows us to do either of these purposefully, with a deeper understanding of decisions and their consequences.

Passions of Design

Brian Hollenbeck relates different styles of graphic novel design with RPG design. Particularly he suggests some designers are classicist focusing on the great game, some animists focusing on the story potential, and others formalists designing to understand what is possible. He leaves whether there are designers who are truly iconclasts as an open question.

Reward System

Vincent Baker attempts to bridge ongoing discussion of reward systems. Particularly he motivates that reward systems are inherent in RPGs, namely that they are not a system that can be rewarding in play, but the system that is how the RPG does reward play. As he puts it, "If play is rewarding, there's a reward system, just EXACTLY like how if play happens, there's a system in action."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Monthly Review September 2006

One of the major themes of this month has been the discussion of resolution, systems, and conflict resolution in particular. Much of this appears to stem from Ron Edwards' synopsis of a GenCon discussion about competitive setting of stakes within conflicts, over on Story Games.

Following, in a manner of response, John Kim suggests that the behaviors Edwards describes are not innate to setting stakes, but instead represent a social pathology. John Kim continues later with a general classification of resolution systems, he classifies two properties of resolution systems, first how consequences are determined, and second the levels of abstraction in which the resolution occurs. A similar theme recurs with Troy Costisick's discussion of system, where he breaks system as the "means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play", into two major categories: rules (overt and known) and procedures (socially decided).

Later, Adam Dray brings up conflicts from another direction, suggesting that conflicts only support a portion of exploration, and that those unsupported arenas of exploration can provide equal enjoyment of play. He challenges designers to look beyond conflicts for exactly this reason. Going even further, Victor Gijsbers examines the prevalence of conflicts in RPGs, suggesting that this bias implicitly limits what the stories and ideas which can be expressed in RPGs, likewise challenging to move beyond them.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 24th to Sep. 30th

This week has seen several developments of RPG theory, all in different ways looking at how we perceive play.


Victor Gijsbers discusses the influence of conflicts and their resolution on RPGs. He suggests that a conflict-centric view has developed, focusing on encountering and then resolving sequences of conflicts. He argues that this distracts from forms of play which where resistance is encountered without any conflict of wills, a form which implies different values and perspectives than a focus on direct conflicts.


Troy Costisick brings up the value and dangers of min-maxing as a strategy. Particularly, he suggests that min-maxing is a strategy, and so not wholly good or bad. Instead the context determines when it is appropriate. If min-maxing is opposed to the social contract of the group it is made negative by that contract. Likewise, he argues that a RPG which for which min-maxing is the only viable strategy is poorly designed.

Mental Models

Brian Hollenbeck mentions a players metagamespace, where a player's view of the RPGs is formed and shaped by their own play and their observations of others. He argues that RPG theory grows from this space, and by consciously extending our perspectives we can open up new vistas of RPG play. He suggests that this process must be ongoing, pointing to the mutual incomprehension of different theories as hiding from each other the potential for new opportunities.

Disclosure: Brian Hollenbeck's post refers to the editorial posted here this past week. It is my policy with this site to avoid referencing my own theory work. However, I believe that Brian's post goes far enough beyond what I presented to merit reporting.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Editorial: Playing with Theory

RPGs cover a range of arbitrary extent, and can only be defined in ambiguities. In the midst of this, it should come as no surprise that part of how we play is by constantly learning and refining how to play. And right in the middle of this is theory.

I'm not talking about formal theory, overt models, or technical jargon. I'm talking about theory at its root, the understanding of what it is we do when we play RPGs. Theory is both asking and answering "am I doing this right" or "what do I do next".

Often this basic form of theory is unappreciated. But it is developed and refined just as its more formal brethren. And, it is at the root of more overt theory. Even more important it informs and determined how we play, as it evolves through and around our play.

Theory can be practiced without play, but play cannot be had without practicing theory.

This suggests something else. We create theories simply by playing, seeing play, or even thinking about it. We refine theories in the same way. This is the easy part.

The hard part is to communicate theory, to recognize one's own theories, and to make them static enough to test. The value of formal theory is to be clearer and more definite. But this is important, because only in the form of theory can you relate how you play.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 17th to Sep. 23rd

This week has been sparser than most, though the developments have ventured out of typical topics.

Language of Gestures

Thor Olavsrud describes a the use of gestures as techniques for playing RPGs, specifically in reference to body language. He suggests careful use of posture and movement can help relate characterization and emotion within a RPG as easily as they work in regular human interaction.

Non-Conflict Fun

Adam Dray suggests that fun in RPGs comes in exploring some aspect of play, such as situation, character, or color. One typical way to explore these is through conflicts. However, he suggests that a focus on conflicts, while efficient at affecting situation and character often neglect less direct elements such as color. He calls for an increase in designing fun exploration outside of conflicts rather than always skipping to the next conflict.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 4 - Not Fiction

Take a few minutes and write down a list of specific things you do in play which are not directly related with the fiction or imagined parts of play.

Once you've done this, look over the list.

Did you include things like eating or setting up seating? Did you include things like stretching or laughing? Did you include "Out of Game" or "Out of Character" talking?

If you did, why did they qualify as part of play? If you didn't, did you exclude it because it was too directly related to the fiction?

How much of what you listed could be directly related to the fiction? How much of it could not conceivably directly relate to fiction?

It useful to have ways to communicate that reliably don't affect the fiction. Which of the things you listed could be used to do that?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 10th to Sep. 16th

This week has seen a wealth of theory developments, from color to system, and all sorts of places in between.

Color Words

Thor Olavsrud brings up how color descriptions expand what we can get from play, noting that color is contributed by all players (GM and otherwise) more strongly than most aspects of play. He also discusses a particular type of color, the chronological tag, which puts each scene in relation to the rest.


Joshua BishopRoby introduces the idea that playing RPGs is often seeking one of two experiences. Either a direct experience, where a character's experiences translate to the players, reflected by a parallel chronology. On the other hand, play focusing on redefining experiences and retrospectively changing the meaning of past events, is about implied experience. He suggests that this dichotomy is both important and pervasive, making it at least difficult to encounter both experiences at the same time.

Games and Toys

Brian Hollenbeck discusses the distinction between games and toys, typically that the former has built-in goals, while the later does not. He disputes this distinction, suggesting that toys are better seen as proto-games, which manifest a variety of possible goals, requiring only a context to make them into games. He argues this distinction is very important for RPGs because both the RPG book and the shared imaginings are toys, the game derives from their joining.

Resolution and System

John Kim takes a stab at defining a new terminology for resolution systems, to avoid the baggage and connotations of terms such as task, conflict, and stakes. He suggests distinguishing resolution defining success, from those that flavor the outcome. Also he classifies two properties of resolution systems, first how consequences are determined, and second the levels of abstraction in which the resolution occurs.

Later, Troy Costisick describes another approach to system in general. He breaks down the broad concept of system, "means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play", into two major categories: rules and procedures. The distinction being that rules are derived overtly from a game text, while procedures are not. He suggests that understanding the relationship between these two aspects of system is an important skill in RPG design.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Editorial: Theories Predicts

A few weeks ago I discussed the problems of actual play examples as the validation of RPG theory. While I alluded to some alternatives I didn't go into significant detail. However, it is a subject which deserves more examination.

Theories are ways of organizing our knowledge of the world. They allow us to reduce experience, expectations, and practice into a succinct description. But more importantly theory tells us not only about what we've done, but also about what we might do or experience. In short, theories predict.

The validity of a theory, then is not whether it has been correctly constructed from observations and present knowledge, but whether it accurately predicts future knowledge. This is regardless of whether the knowledge is from experimental observation, from practical application, or from some other form of analysis.

This is both simple and important. If you are developing theory, then you must make predictions. These predictions will allow you to refine, and eventually to validate your theory. Otherwise you are simply summarizing your own experiences.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Weekly Review Sep. 3rd to Sep. 9th

This week has seen a lull in theory investigations, as other concerns move to the forefront.

Revising Stakes

John Kim continues last week's discussion of conflict stakes. He suggests that competitive stakes revising is more symptomatic of power relations within the game, and that this might suggest alternative solutions to abandoning the idea of stakes.


Over on Story Games is discussion about how to define situation. James Nostak begins by suggesting that situation is "a status quo, a threat to the status quo, and a reason to care." This idea is then dissected as are alternatives.

Role of the Audience

Victor Gijsbers brings up players as audience to RPG designs. He suggests that this aspect of playing can require skill, especially for games which challenge ideas and habits. He relates this to critical reading is a skill which can be learned and developed for particular types of books.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Monthly Review August 2006

August has been an intensive month. Inspite, or perhaps because, of its convention schedule, there have been many threads of theory development. Two of them have been discussions of RPGs in the social context and investigations into shared aesthetics.

Social Factors

Early in the month, Joshua BishopRoby brings up the topic of gender in RPGs, especially with how this social and cultural concern shapes design and play. Later on, Thomas Robertson puts forward the perspective that games act as customizable social interfaces. Later, he expands on this idea, by discussing social hacking, specifically the modification of social interfaces. Around this time, Joshua BishopRoby reports a realization: that RPGs are, at their core, ways for players to interact. At about the same time, Ben Lehman discusses the importance of designing with social contexts in mind, with an understanding of the perspectives and social groupings of potential players and how the design should influence them.

Shared Aesthetics

Early in the month, Victor Gijsbers presents a justification for telling stories, namely that they enable moral speculation, where we can entertain eventual outcomes of our actions as well as more immediate results. From a different angle, Ron Edwards and Levi Kornelsen delve into the subject of shared aesthetics of play, the creative agenda, at the Forge. From, yet another perspective, Luke Crane at Story Games talks about how system can entrance, enabling, rather than hindering, new ideas and perspectives.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 27th to Sep. 2nd

Over the course of this week, various theory discussions have emerged. From the relationship between stakes and conflicts to the clarity of mechanical intent.

Stakes and Conflicts

Over at Story Games Ron Edwards reprised and expanded on a GenCon discussion about stake setting. In particular he critiques the use of stakes setting that go far beyond intent. He describes this as a natural hazard of setting stakes, where players can competitively build greater and greater consequences as a form of pre-resolution narration.

Isolating Immersion

Brian Hollenbeck discusses a particular form of immersion in contrast to his earlier characterization of immersion as conjoining of aspects of play. What he refers to as isolation takes a single aspect and rather than merging the other aspects with it, isolates those other aspects away. Elsewhere, Jim Henley describes a concern about how immersion is characterized. In particular he indentifies a trend in examples where immersion is evidenced by causing player conflicts. He suggests this is an edge case, not fully descriptive of immersion that is more functional and cooperative.

Mechanical Intent

Thomas Robertson expands on the ideas Chris Chinn mentions about how some play groups pick and choose rules, while others will attempt to play the rules as written. In particular, Thomas suggests that the clarity of a rules intent is much more important for a "pick and choose" adoption, preventing unexplained rules or rules addressing uncomfortable topics from appearing in play. He argues that leaving out the explicit intent of rules allows the introduction of unexpected outcomes and interactions, helping to expand a play group's horizons beyond the comfortable.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Lesson: Resource

Resources are a common element of mechanics, in particular they are icons which can be exchanged or manipulated during play. As icons, resources often have multiple layers of significance. For example, an experience point may be used in several different ways (such as permanent or temporary improvement of a character), and gained in many ways (from goals achieved by a character to player popularity). The processes of gaining and using this resource, is represented by the experience point linking these processes in the exchange.

One way of looking at how mechanics interact with the more general system and resolution occurring in play is to trace these resource links. The gaining and spending of experience provides a structure to the dynamics of play, a structure that is easily seen and easy for players to respond and adapt to. The hazard of this perspective is that not everything that is exchanged or manipulated is iconic.

Often at the same time as resources are exchanged, social elements change without clear outward signs. Emotional responses, respect, interest, and attention are all subtly moving during play. These form the dynamics of play along side and interacting with the mechanical resources of play.

To what extent can mechanics delve into the social realm? To what extent can resources be used outside of system (i.e. not determining the fictional content)? How well can we map out the social dynamics? And how much do the overt dynamics of resources mirror the subtler dynamics of human interaction?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 20th to Aug. 26th

Theory developments this week have largely focused on social interactions and contexts, both from the design and play perspectives.

Gender Relations

Meguey Baker discusses long-term experiences of females across different RPG communities. In some, she describes women focusing on the masculinity of their characters and play, contrasting with her own experiences. She also demonstrates the difficulties in broaching these issues among women from different communities and RPG social experiences.

Character Depth

Victor Gijsbers suggests four different ways in which players can find psychological depth in characters: internal tensions caused by difficult character decisions, traumatic or life changing character experiences, moments of character openness and vulnerability, and lengthy observation. He describes each of these as fulfilling a different way of encountering one's character, and how different games can enhance these approaches.

Being Social

At the beginning of the week, Joshua BishopRoby presented the realization that the central role of RPGs is to enable the social interactions between players. In particular he suggests that this interaction should be directly considered during the design process. This idea returns in Thomas Robertson's refocusing of his ideas on social interfaces. Here he extends the idea past RPGs to the general class of multi-player games, noting that more flexible games such as RPGs require explicit goals for their interface purposes, while games focusing on point accumulation, for example, often keep goals implicit. He suggests that the social mediation of goals can be a valuable aspect of any game.

From a similar root, Brian Hollenbeck discusses the utility of less than coherent designs for enabling the kind of flexibility needed for socially mediated goals. Particularly he suggests that highly coherent games can stifle the very negotiation that enables everyone to arrive at mutually desired play. From a broader perspective, Ben Lehman argues that RPG design must account for the social context of the game and its players. In essence this is a sense of socially coherent design, where the game, both as text and design suits the desired perspectives and social groupings.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Editorial: Actual Play

Actual play is perhaps the most pervasive criteria for RPG theory. At its root, it is the requirement that any explanation of theory must go hand in hand with examples of play, and that those examples be real events. This appears to be quite reasonable, using examples is an important method to help ensure the clarity of presentation. It makes things concrete and helps to keep ideas grounded.

But what could be wrong with a criteria that starts with such a simple request? Quite a bit. Because the actual play criteria does not stop there. As rhetorical tool and as a criteria for the quality of theory it steps beyond aiding discussions of theory, warping both the discussion and the theory.

Rhetorically, asking for an example is a request of clarification. But asking for actual play is an attack, an accusation that the play the theory references is non-actual, illusory and unreal, and by extension unlike the speaker's real play. And because of the impossibility in experiencing actual play that is not your own, it is a rhetorical attack that can never be fully met. No one can prove the legitimacy of their own play.

The impossibility of actual play highlights the danger of depending solely on examples. Because no one can relate the full experience of their own play, no amount of examples, no quantity of minute details can be as real as actual play is said to be. The standard is unachievable, creating the unconscious double standard of accepting the actualness of things closer to our own views and comforts much sooner than others. Indeed, the call for more detail is often driven by an opposite goal to understanding, that of finding an excuse to discredit.

Which brings us to the problem with anecdotal examples, they are always data points of one. They can always be ignored as spurious or not indicative of the unseen whole. Reducing a theory to a single point, it can be ignored or vaunted irrespective of its merits. Examples clarify theory and they can motivate it, but they cannot validate it.

So what recourse do we have? If examples are not enough, what can validate RPG theory? The true experiences of play reside in each person, present but inaccessible. To tap into it we need to transmit more than a shadow of our own play, instead teach the method of your theory, the practice of it. That can be taught. The critic must trust the theorist enough to learn that practice, and the theorist must then trust the critic to attempt that practice on her or his play experiences.

Compared to that, actual play examples are just illusions.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 13th to Aug. 19th

This week has seen a variety of topics discussed, some as clarifications of older ideas, others as challenges to design and theory alike.

Social Hacking

Thomas Robertson discusses one of the ramifications of his interface perspective of RPGs. In particular he mentions how games are easily hackable, as forms of social interaction. He suggests this can make them very useful tools especially in how they are adjusted by a particular group.

Playing the GM

Troy Costisick gives his definition of GM. Particularly he describes the different aspects of the GM role across many RPGs. He suggests that GMs are first of all players in the game. Secondly he describes different ways in which the GM acts as the one responsible for many aspects of the game, including devising situations and playing a cast of characters. Lastly, he discusses the pace-setting aspect of the GM role, especially in the context of scene framing.

Channeling Immersion

Brian Hollenbeck, as a continuation of his new definition for immersion, offers some ways to immerse via aligning spaces (such as emulation space, game space, and the internal play space of a given player) during play. In particular he discusses the resource channels that link these spaces and how making a game immersive in this sense means making the channels between two spaces as transparent as possible.

Entranced by the System

Over on Story Games, Luke Crane has started a discussion about the use of game systems to produce a trance like state. This would bypass the usual conscious aversion to ideas and concepts and allow players to encounter them in perhaps a more natural way.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 3 - Scene and Situation

In the context of RPGs, what is a scene? What is a situation? Are they one in the same? Does one include the other? Or are they fully distinct?

If they are distinct, describe when a scene isn't a situation, and/or when a situation isn't a scene. How might that distinction be useful?

Which of these are scenes or situations, both or neither?

- A description of a village from the road leading to it.

- A duel with swords taking minutes.

- A duel with influence taking years.

- A lover's quarrel.

- A love affair.

- A conversation where neither side has any choice of what to say.

- A flashback where all the events are known.

- A flashforward where nothing definite can happen.

Now that you've done this, consider what distinguishes scene and situation from setting and genre. Is this distinction necessary?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Weekly Review Aug. 6th to Aug. 12th

Despite the other activities of this week, it has seen the rise of several theory topics, some new, others reprised from earlier discussions.

Creative Agendas

Over at the Forge Levi Kornelsen and Ron Edwards have begun a discussion of creative agenda. Of particular note, the discussion centers on clearly defining the concept of creative agenda, and separating it from frequent assumptions. Ron Edwards describes it as something of a shared aesthetic which emerges from play.

Social Interfaces

Thomas Robertson discusses his perspective on roleplaying. He describes games as social interfaces, with both constraints and flexibilities. The designed structure of these will tend to support some social interactions, while inhibiting others. From this perspective, the fitness of a game is related to how well it can fit into the existing social interfaces of the group that plays it.

Immersive Collapse

Brian Hollenbeck describes a different take on immersion based on his Art, Game, and Emulation (AGE) theory of RPGs. In particular he suggests that immersion is when the spaces of these different aspects begin to collapse together. Hence when the space of game becomes coincident with the space of emulation, there is no movement between the two to cause a break in immersion.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Monthly Review July 2006

A major theme of this month has revolved around the question of what is immersion. The cause of this discussion originates with Thomas Robertson's month of immersion. He presented his own definition of immersion, namely when a player ceases to consciously filter the events in play, here, further refining it here. Over at story games, Fred Wolke describes immersion as the state where you visceral respond to a character's emotions. Elsewhere, Moyra Turkington discusses three literary terms as types of immersion: catharsis - emotional purification through identifying with a tragic character, kairosis - emotional integration with a character undergoing a significant internal change, and kenosis - the losing of self. Finally, a variety of definitions are put forward in response to Thomas Robertson's request here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Weekly Review Jul. 30th to Aug. 5th

This week has seen several RPG theory development, focusing on influences in our games, and how our games might influence us.


Joshua BishopRoby discusses the conscious and unconscious influence of gender on RPG design. He argues that early RPGs were implicitly focused on the gender interests of young males. He then suggests, in a certain maturation, that RPGs can now be brought to other genders, both exploring and supporting them. He explains that approaching RPGs as adults gives far more room to relate to the complex topic of gender.


Thomas Robertson discusses the distribution of control over aspects of play. The simplest structure is where a GM controls everything but the player's character's, and the players control their own character's internal lives. More complex distributions, such as shared world creation and rotating narration, help to make the gaps in this control more noticeable. He suggests that this uncertainty is valuable in play, especially when they remain unfilled, allowing us to retain a private interpretation.

Moral Growth

Victor Gijsbers discusses a moral effect of RPGs and stories in general, namely the ability to see other outcomes or explanations of the world around us. He suggests this enables us to choose a more charitable view of each other than our immediate instincts.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Editorial: Definitions

Communication has been an underlying goal of RPG theory, and at the core of communication are the terms we use to discuss and present theory. These are the first line of communication, the issues that must be resolved before fruitful discussion can occur. The danger of terms is when they acquire a certain fetishism, the fame (or infamy) of the term lends it prestige, and suddenly a discussion about how to communicate becomes a debate over which perspective is more valuable.

To make things worse, this debate occurs before the common ground has been finished, leaving reducing even reasoned debate into a simple argument. No side can give in, because in all likelihood everyone's arguments are equally valid. It simply comes down to authority and ownership.

But to foster discussion, terms must lose their prestige. And properly this is the task of those with the greatest authority for those terms. Both in action and words, keep your terms from becoming fetishes. Otherwise, they will elicit only passionate support and revilement, neither of which aids understanding.

Definitions are the most dangerous weapons of discourse. If you want to welcome others to talk with you, then you should both tell and show them that the definitions you carry are not loaded.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Weekly Review Jul. 23rd to Jul. 29th

This week has continued several investigations into what are RPGs and how we learn to play them.

Acquiring Immersion

Thomas Robertson brings up one of the goals of his month long focus on immersion, namely asking whether or not immersion can be learned. He suggests that the barrier to immersion is based on comfort with the non-immersive parts of the game, especially mechanics. Perhaps, by learning and making these easier to learn, more and more of the game becomes unconscious, opening the way to immersion. However, the question remains whether unconscious actions can break immersion.

Competition and Roles

Guy Shalev presents an altogether different perspective on roles, immersion, and defining RPGs. In particular he suggests a focus on even minimal immersion limits the idea of role-playing, otherwise there would be no distinction between game roles and "played" roles. Because of the importance of roles, even in the competitive story games he champions, he argues that the concept of RPGs should be extended beyond this limitation.

John Kim offers a different take on this issue. In particular, he suggests that the opposition to competition is not immersive, but based on subjective evaluation, a difficulty which competition cannot ultimately defeat. He continues, by suggesting that competitive games are often designed to train, and that the subjectiveness of imaginative works prevents the objective measures needed to evaluate one's own skills.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 2 - Genre and Setting

Do you consider genre and setting to be distinct?

If so, what is the difference between them?

If not, what might make something more comfortably described as genre or as setting?

In either case which is more like setting or more like genre, or is it distinct from both?

- All characters speak in poetry

- In any combat, someone must die

- A world where all love is unrequited

- A world in perpetual daylight

- A world in perpetual storm

- During a great war between two nations

- In a warzone

Now that you've thought about genre and setting, think about whether either or both are included under system? Why or why not?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Weekly Review Jul. 16th to Jul. 22nd

This week has seen several theory developments all based on what we put in and what we get out of playing RPGs.

Its Own Reward

Thomas Robertson suggests a reason why immersion is a topic of such contention among some standard theories. He argues that the concept of the reward cycle is at the root of the problem. In particular the idea that play is intended to achieve periodic goals, of one form or another, gets in the way of understanding play which is its own reward, such as immersion.

Belief in RPGs

Mark Woodhouse describes his approach to RPG theory, namely related to the sociology of religion. He relates the social and psychological forces of religion to those in RPGs, posing questions on the learning, beliefs, and ethics of RPG behavior.

In Context

Over at 20' by 20' room is a discussion about what context is made during play, and which is made prior to play. The discussion centers on how making context can provide or reduce enjoyment in play.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Editorial: Knowing the Limits

With something as complex as RPGs every theory will have its limits, places where the theory breaks down, or simply doesn't cope as well as a theory intended specifically for that topic. Accepting the limits of any one theory is extremely important, because to be fully effective in understanding and designing RPGs we must exploit multiple distinct theories, even if they contradict each other. To make this viable we must understand the limits of each of those theories.

This is a dual burden. On one hand, those of us who wish to craft new theories and codify different approaches to understanding RPGs must be careful to explain the field of application. This is much like a warranty. Ron Edward's Big Model is only vetted for the three basic creative agendas he presented. Beyond this, the theory may apply or it may be invalid. Thus we must make it clear where the boundaries of our theories lie, even as we attempt to extend them.

On the other hand, as we investigate and use theories we must always be wary of the boundaries and limits. Demanding a theory to apply beyond its regime is a dangerous path, and one where we must be responsible for the correctness of our discoveries. As we apply theory we must always search for the most applicable option available. While a pet theory is almost unavoidable, the more we are biased towards one perspective, the less we can see clearly. When you encounter a discrepancy always be willing to use another theory to resolve it. When we stop using theories as tools, they become ideologies, which leads to even more problems.

In short, you are well served by knowing both the limits and potentials of your theories, whether you developed them or not.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Weekly Review Jul. 9th to Jul. 15th

This week has seem some continuations of themes from the past, some more directly than others.

Electronic Media

Tony Dowler discusses designing narrative games for electronic media. In particular he discusses some of the unique capabilities of electronic games, such as collaborative ratings, and how those might produce the social elements needed to create a narrative.

More Immersion

In response to some of last week's discussion Moyra Turkington presents three literary ideas as they apply to immersion. Catharsis being a sense of purification from identifying with a tragic figure. Kairosis being a sense of integration with a character's moment of transition. Kenosis being an abandonment of ego in literature, especially poetic. She suggests that these describe three key types of immersion. Elsewhere, Thomas Robertson asks his readers what immersion means to them.


Brian Hollenbeck presents his revised AGE (Art, Game, Emulation) theory of RPGs. Of note, he has refined emulation as it pertains to his theory, as well as adding six forces which push play along the triangle of art - game - emulation.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lesson: Exercise 1 - Character

Define character in your own terms.

Go ahead, write that down.

Now consider which of the following you would consider to be characters, and which you wouldn't. How well does your definition fit what you wanted?

- Your self.

- The other players.

- A person who never actually appears in the events of play.

- A storm described as having a personality.

- A person who turns out to be a fiction in play, even after appearing.

- The social role you adopt when you are around the people you play with.

Now think of one of the border cases, something that is only barely a character, or only barely not a character. Now write down a second definition of character, for which the border case behaves differently, try to make it a good one as well.

Now which one do you think is better? Why?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Weekly Review Jul. 2nd to Jul. 8th

This week has seen several discussions on RPG theory, from broaching immersion to the meaning and practice of plot.


As part of his month on Immersion, Thomas Robertson puts forward a definition for immersion in RPGs. He suggest that immersion is when you stop paying attention to how you play, and simply play. Meanwhile, over at Story Games Fred Wolke describes his own immersion as a visceral response to character emotions.

Knowing What Will Happen

Eliot Wilen asks who controls the plot in typical RPGs. He points out that this depends on whether you consider plot to be sequence of events or a situation to be resolved. This idea folds neatly into a discussion on Story Games where games with fixed outcomes and story structure are considered. In these cases, it seems the means and meaning by which the fixed plot is enacted provides the enjoyment of play.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Monthly Review June 2006

One of the major themes of RPG theory this month has been the context within which we play RPGs, and how this context affects play. Early on, Thomas Robertson suggested that one of the limitations of play is fact that not everything can be shared and remembered. This requires constant effort to realign the understanding of different players. From another direction, Joshua BishopRoby remarks on how players use game texts, whether as products of writing that influence a game or processes designed for playing the game. A third context is discussed on Story Games, namely the tactile nature of a RPG imparting concreteness or abstraction.

This topic continues over the month. Thomas Robertson expands on his earlier ideas with four properties of different media in RPGs: permanency, synchronicity, delineation, and richness. He suggests that each of these puts distinctive pressures on how RPG play is conducted. Lastly, Carl Cravens suggests that RPGs are distinct from other theatrical activities because they lack a way to practice before play.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 25th to Jul. 1st

This week has been an influx of disparate ideas of RPG theory.

Practicing Play

Carl Cravens suggests that RPGs are somewhat unique in that they are a performance form where you only practice during the performance. He remarks that some players may benefit from the availability of practice workshops for building their play skills.

Resolving Situations

Emily Care Boss reflects on dynamic and static situations. The former are unstable and often resolve into stable, static ones. She suggests that it may be worthwhile to focus resolution away from stabilizing and more to changing between one dynamic situation to another.

RPG Media

Thomas Robertson discusses the different media of RPG play. In particular he identifies four qualities which trade-off between different media.

Permanency is the capability of the medium to be recorded and accessed later. Synchronicity is the delay between player inputs. Delineation indicates how separable the modes of communication can be. Lastly, richness indicates how much and how quickly information can be communicated in that media.

Together these characterize different forms of media. For example, face-to-face presents an impermanent, synchronous, non-delineated, but very rich RPG media, while play-by-email presents a very permanent, very asynchronous, highly delineated, but not very rich RPG media.

Agreeing on Emulation

Brian Hollenbeck discusses the subject of emulation, under the structure of his AGE (Art Game Emulation) theory. In particular he notes that emulation is very much a social aspect of play, because it is ultimately based on a group judgment of what fits and what does not.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Editorial: Origins

This post is a little early, because I'm heading to Origins shortly. On that note, this post is a general question. Where do you get your RPG theory ideas?

Do you find yourself basing developments on specific games? On specific people? Perhaps, by applying ideas from other fields? Are you driven to build theory by necessity, elegance, or creativity?

It's good to think about these things every once in a while, because where your theory comes from tells you quite a bit about where it could go.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 18th to Jun. 24th

While not a common question in RPG theory, this week's developments started by expanding on how RPG theory applies to RPG design.

Putting the Pieces Together

Thomas Robertson expands on his reference to RPG theory from last week. Thomas contrasts the state of theory between engineering and RPG design. He suggests that while the potential exists for theory to guide design as much as it could, we have much more to do to bring RPG theory to that level. Later, Adam Dray discusses a similar process on the matter of fantasy heartbreakers. In particular he distinguishes design tinkering which tends to produce a heartbreaker from the broadening of understanding which is part of developed RPG design.


Later in the week, Thomas Robertson discusses the importance of color, the details of the imagined space that isn't setting, system, character, or situation. He suggests a different interpretation of color. He presents it as the building blocks for the shared context that lets us relate to other imagined aspects. While the character may not be color, how we think of him may be largely determined by the ephemeral details of which color consists.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Lesson: Resolution - Mechanics

Resolution mechanics are a fairly simple idea. Resolution is when players resolve differences. Mechanics for resolution, then are just overt procedures or rules for resolving those differences. Mechanics are commonly confounded with system, but at the simplest, mechanics don't need to apply to the imagined part of play. For example, if players vote at the beginning of a session on who gets the comfy chair, then that is a mechanical resolution, but not part of the system.

Resolution mechanics serve an important role in resolution in general, they are approaches to resolution which can be treated as an object of its own. Indeed, between arguments over rules and discussions over ways to collaborate during game, mechanics give us a handle on resolution, and let us resolve differences about how we do resolution.

This makes mechanical resolution extremely powerful, but it also comes with a danger. Mechanics are ultimately things which players resolve to use together, not the things that let them resolve those initial differences. At the most basic level, resolution is non-mechanical, if only to determine which mechanics will be introduced when. Just as system is only a part of resolution, so to are mechanics only a piece of the puzzle which is how we play.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 11th to Jun. 17th

Another sparse week, much of the RPG theory discussion has centered on aspects of designing and testing RPGs.

Playtest Cycles

Chris Chinn brings up the question of playtest cycles. In particular the need to see the ramifications of changes being a central limitation on the process of RPG design. Thomas Robertson extends this discussion, in particular pointing out the alternative to the playtest cycle is to a deeply analyzed RPG, which typically also means a very simple one.

A Sense of Touch

Over on Story Games is a discussion on the use of physical components in RPGs. Of note, is what effect the tactile nature of the game has on the players, in terms of how concrete or abstract the game feels. This levels some very interesting questions on the differences between on-line and face-to-face play.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Editorial: Why RPGs?

Hidden in the major RPG theory question of why we play is the observation that in RPGs we have great flexibility in choosing what we want and receive from playing. This flexibility is the source of some of the hardest problems in RPG theory. But in a very important way, those reasons go far beyond the scope of RPGs.

RPGs are structured interactions which, if all goes well, produce the kind of play which satisfies all of the players. But we are surrounded by structured interaction, the key difference is that our social activities outside of RPGs are driven by overwhelming goals. You strive to keep your job or make a good impression, or just to purchase groceries. These are overt, definite goals, but in each you adopt and play roles. And while the goal is overwhelming, it is not alone, people rarely behave in the most calculated manner, instead the goal pressures the interactions and play towards a definite purpose.

But, at its most basic, RPGs focus on playing roles and interacting with structure, but without driving goals. And, importantly this makes RPGs more complex phenomena, because the goal is not slanting play into simpler structures. And, what's more, if we want to understand what happens beyond simply the overt goal, an understanding of the undirected play and interaction is essential.

RPG theory is essential, not solely to improve RPGs or playing them, but to build an understanding of how people interact and play roles on their own, without such a level of necessity. This understanding in the least applies to social interaction without significant outside pressures. And perhaps it may perform as a foundation for understanding how people interact when they have important goals as well.

The sign of RPG theory reaching a basic maturity will be when we stop simply borrowing from other theories, and start making something which can be borrowed in turn. Only then will RPG theory become part of a dialogue of theory and practice, and I for one, believe that RPG theory has a great deal to offer.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Weekly Review Jun. 4th to Jun. 10th

Though fairly sparse, this week has continued the theme of examining the subtler frontiers of RPG theory.

Books and Games

Joshua BishopRoby broaches the question of RPG design versus RPG writing. In particular he discusses how RPG books are essentially products, while RPG games are processes, influenced, but not written by the designer.

Not Yet Shared

Thomas Robertson discusses parts of play that don't quite make it into the commonly accepted Shared Imagined Space. In particular he described how different recollections and different emphasis can cause players to hold dramatically different views of otherwise shared aspects of play. He points to this as being a positive process, if only because when these different perspectives are shared the ground work has already been done for a deeper, multi-layered perspective.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Monthly Review May 2006

May has seen significant developments in RPG theory. Many of these developments occurred in refinements to push and pull, while others focused on better understanding the basics of how people learn and play RPGs.

Push and Pull Redux

The revival of push and pull discussion this month was marked by a conversation between Chris Chinn and Moyra Turkington, culminating in her codified definitions of push and pull. This cause various reactions, including Jonathon Walton's call to avoid the terms becoming simple jargon. As a means of clarification, Bradley "Brand" Robins describes moments of crisis, where something important is decided, as being an important distinction between push and pull. This helped produce a new discussion, including both Vincent Baker and Bradley "Brand" Robins on the relationship between the resolution of drama mechanics and push and pull.

How Do People Play?

The question of how a game book or a basic RPG idea becomes RPG play is a complex one, and it is a process which several people have confronted this month. Early in May, Jonathon Walton discussed applying the concept of communities of practice to RPGs, especially in understanding how players come to agreements on how to act during the game. Joshua BishopRoby presented a list of player skills used when playing RPGs. Later on, Jessica Hammer started a discussion on teaching and playing RPGs in a classroom setting. Lastly, Thomas Robertson discussed the differences between rules and guidelines and their affect on how people play the game.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Weekly Review May 28st to Jun. 3rd

This week has been fairly sparse in RPG theory developments, in definite contrast with last weeks sudden influx.

RPG Goals

Thor Olavsrud re-examines the relationship between goals and RPGs. In particular he applies some classifications in computer games to RPG structure, suggesting that the delineation between game and simulation may be a relevant one for RPG theory as well, focusing on the presence of win conditions for the former, but not the later.

Playing without the Rules

Thomas Robertson argues that non-freeform games operate by players granting a portion of the group authority to the rules themselves. He compares this to the rules becoming virtually an additional player, and a stabilizing influence on the game. Without this influence, more dynamic allocations of authority are possible, and he suggests that this makes freeform play both difficult and worthwhile.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Lesson: Resolution - System

System is perhaps one of the most influential terms in RPG Theory. Indeed, one of the most wide reaching insights into system is the Lumpley Principle, which defines system as however the imagined things in play are decided. In this sense, system is any sort of resolution of the fiction (the imagined part of play).

On one hand this definition seems fairly simple. If it determines what happens in the fictional part of the game, then it is system. More conventional definitions of system are grounded in the idea of mechanics (something I'll discuss in the next lesson). But mechanical methods of determining fiction, are still methods, so the theory definition of system is an extension, allowing theorists to talk about a much broader phenomena than just mechanics.

Certainly rolling dice to determine which outcome occurs in fiction is system. But so are many non-mechanical aspects. Consider the following:

  • Ignoring a reference to a character performing magic, because it contradicts the setting.

  • An unstated rule that players always determine their characters inner motives.

  • Describing a fade to black, or using euphemisms to avoid touchy subjects.

  • Letting someone have the outcome they want because he or she had a bad day.

All of these are system, because they help resolve the fiction during the game. On the other hand, system does not include resolution beyond the imagined. System, as defined by the Lumpley Principle does not include favorite chairs, agreements about what game to play, or even the conduct of discussions about the fiction in the game. Unless it affects that fiction it remains a different phenomena, a more general type of resolution.

There are some gray areas, however. How much influence is enough to constitute the classification of system? If a social decision affects the fiction indirectly is it system? Is it useful to distinguish between solely fictional resolution and hybrid resolution, where both fiction and real relationships are in flux? Would it useful to refer to the general class of non-system resolution in a similar manner?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Weekly Review May 21st to May 27th

This week has seen a rise in RPG theory discussion and related topics.

A Little More Push and Pull

In response to Vincent Baker's discussion about the relationship between push and pull and where resolution happens, Bradley "Brand" Robins puts down his thoughts on how push and pull work with resolution. Among other things, he talks about how resolution can happen at various different stages where we may not normally associate it. In the chain of Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect, he suggests that resolution can happen not only at any step, but at all the steps in the same game. And at each juncture there may be room for push and pull to work, based on the present social situation.

From another direction, Nathan Paoletta relates push and pull with the audience / participant dichotomy. He suggests that the involvement stemming from push and pull may include a change between participant and audience within the game.

Play What You Own?

Vincent Baker, presents a long awaited discussion of character ownership. He states that from the level of system, looking over RPGs as a whole, character ownership is an illusion. Even though it may be a design goal or an intrinsic part of a specific game, it is simply not necessary for a game to be a RPG.

Influencing Play

Thomas Robertson discusses the differences between designing with rules versus guidelines. Rules, he suggests, cause specific behaviors to emerge during play. Guidelines on the other hand help mold the behaviors that do arise into the desired look and feel of play.

Teaching RPGs

Jessica Hammer describes her experiences teaching RPGs in a high school classroom setting. She notes the successes and difficulties. She also asks how games can be designed to make them more accessible and more easily learned in this situation.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Editorial: Say Again

Theory is one of those areas where the most interesting things seem to be the most novel. We set out to take a place that hasn't been explored, at least to our satisfaction and grab a hold of it and refine a theory from our observations. If we don't like a theory, we try to build a new one, or extend the old theory to territory where we feel more comfortable.

In all of this we miss one of the crucial tasks of theory, reformulation. This is, in essence saying in new terms or distinct ideas the same thing as the theory said before. Only with this new formulation the theory has become more open to use and understanding. Indeed, the form in which a theory is discovered is often a poor form for communication and use. This also means that the originator is a poor person to do this. A fresh perspective is helpful, if not necessary to reformulate and trim down the theory.

The task is not a simple one. In many ways it is much easier to form a new theory than it is to take an existing one and re-envision it. The need to stay true to the theory's foundations while moving away from them can make reformulation a daunting task. The rewards of success may also seem inferior, because the result is not wholely your own. However, even the attempt is a rewarding process, and something that can lead to a much deeper understanding of the process of theory.

Consider this an informal challenge to anyone who considers themselves a serious RPG theorist. Find a theory and try to reformulate it in some fundamentally different way. Do your best to keep to the results and interpretations that the theory's author did, but place them in the new context. And if you want a place to post them, I'm always looking for guest articles. And if I get a reasonable amount of interest, I may turn this into a more formal challenge.