Monday, February 27, 2006

Weekly Review Feb. 19th to Feb. 25th

This week's theory developments are intriguing, though somewhat sparse.

What Your Game Is About?

Most people seem comfortable describing the purpose of a given RPG. But often theorists will call into doubt whether the obvious purpose is the true one. Thomas Robertson offers a heuristic, derived from part of Wittgenstein's philosophical discussion of games. Namely, a game can only be about that which the rules refer. On the other hand, Eliot Wilen argues that this approach ignores the context of the game, which is exactly what doesn't get stated in the rules.

RPGs for Young Children

Richard Campbell introduced a thread at the Forge on how young children, ages six and younger, approach RPG-like games. He suggests the importance of simple, overt rules for focus and memory, especially in transforming typical explorative play into story creation.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Editorial: Writing a Review

I've been asked to write a little about how I go about putting together the weekly reviews.

The lion's share of the work for a given review is the research. I have a list of over fifty blogs and forums, and I review each of these over the weekend. What I look for is specifically something that approaches general theory. This may be in the context of game design or a play example, but unless a point is made generally I cannot include it in the review. I also look for novel developments, posts which push the state of the current discussion, or at least describe those ideas more clearly than usual.

That produces a list of basic topics, with some url references. For heavily discussed topics I try to find a spread of references, which show the different sides of the debate. I avoid "me too" posts, and focus on summaries or descriptions of a particular position on the matter. Some topics aren't discussed broadly, but I include them in the review if the meet the novelty and generality tests.

Then I summarize the major stories, into short blurbs. I keep away from judgmental language, as best I can, and instead work on finding the most succinct way to accurately describe the ideas presented by the references. Often this is easy, but sometimes it can be difficult.

Then I do a final proof checking pass, and post the review. The entire process usually takes between two to five hours, depending on how much theory discussion occurred in the week. Most of that time is spent reading blogs and forums and taking notes.

I'm always looking for more blogs and forums to add to my list. At the moment, it usually expands by references from blogs currently in my sources list. However, I welcome suggestions for additional sources.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Weekly Review Feb. 12th to Feb. 18th

Much of this week's theory discussion was a continuation of last week. However, some new developments did appear, though perhaps overshadowed by the pervasive debate centering on story.

The Story Blindness Debate: In the Aftermath

Last week, Ron Edwards put forward in no uncertain terms his theory of story blindness. While the immediate reponses varied, it is clear that Edwards has raised many questions of responsibility. Keith Senkowski decries the anger found in the debate as meaningless, and calls for people to calm down, on both sides, himself stepping aside. Clinton R Nixon discusses responsibility to the community, mourning Edwards' division of the community due to his choice of words. Lastly, John Kim suggests that the debate should focus more on solutions, and offers a few of his own.

Color and System

On Story Games, Joshua Bishop Roy expands his ideas on how color and system are distinguished. Color are the details that are essential, characterizing distinctly. System on the other hand are the substantial details, the material which is used to build what color distinguishes.

Art, Game, and Emulation

Also this month, Brian Hollenbeck put forward a draft of his theory of RPG, called the AGE Theory. The crux of this theory is to describe RPG-like activities in terms of a three axes: Art, Game, and Emulation. Each of these axes is interpreted as a specific space of play, in addition to a fourth space, where social interaction occurs. The interaction between these spaces makes up the actual play, as game actions translate to and from emulation events, possibly via artistic or social interpretations and decisions.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Lesson: Creative

Unlike many traditional games, RPGs actively involve player creativity. Players often make novel, unprepared contributions to the game. It may be a player stating some action or dialogue for a character, or describing a location or event which has just become relevant. In any case, these creative contributions may or may not be accepted. Indeed it is the job of system to determine what is accepted.

The creative aspect is very important here. While RPG theory shares many connections to traditional and especially more social versions of game theory, such theories cannot generally handle the unbounded options of a player's creativity. This is also the manner in which artistic and aesthetic theories can be applied to RPGs, since playing an RPG can be considered a creative process. But this application is limited, because RPGs do not solely consist of creation.

In RPG theory we distinguish between creative contributions and the general contributions a player makes to the game. This segregation labels the creative side of play, sometimes called imagined, leaving the remainder as social, mechanical, or simply unlabeled. The distinction between creative and everything else is also present during the game. And players seem to be very capable at making this distinction for themselves.

Which suggests several questions about the creative part of the game. How do players recognize a creative contribution? Why is the distinction of creative so prevalent among players? What happens when players apply this category differently or change how the distinction is made (for example, deciding after dice were rolled, that they were rolled by a character, rather than the player)?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Weekly Review Feb. 5th to Feb. 11th

This week in theory has been a slow one, with a dash of controversy towards the end.

Getting Into the Character

Adam Dray presented his theory of immersion. He describes immersion as "a ritual form of gaming that helps players switch to their character's personality and presents no obstacles to staying in that mode." He continues to clarify that this is a true personality change, so much as entering a state where perception and retention of events is subtly different.


Ron Edwards has put forward the claim that players of the RPG wave of the 80's and 90's frequently suffer from a pathology which renders them unable to perceive the underlying elements of stories. This pathology is then responsible for a wide array of negative behavior on the part of these groups, from immature social interactions during play to an increasing bitterness disguised as story focus. He claims this derives from the bait-and-switch aspect of many games in that era, causing players to associate story with the actual play of such games.

The community seems divided on this matter. Some, such as Ed Weil, see a significant amount of truth in Edwards' claims. Others, such as Rob Maudib see Edwards as focusing his vitriol at people who simply don't share his play style. While other, such as Michael find his presentation to overshadow is intellectual merit.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Monthly Review January 2006

As the start of the new year, January was begun with a challenge. On Attacks of Opportunity a question was put forth. " What's Your Most Dangerous Gaming Idea?" Several of the answers shocked the RPG theory community.

Paul Czege put forward the idea that RPGs can incorporate memes and behavior changes. And that careful design of RPGs can bend this effect to the designer's goals. Mentioning his own RPG My Life with Master as a rough example, he suggests that much more is possible, and that we should be careful with how we do it.

Vincent Baker also made quite an impact with his dangerous idea, although it was longer in developing. Baker suggested that people could design RPGs without players, essentially removing the Player - Character relationship at the center of nearly all RPGs. This appeared in a variety of forms over January, including "meaningless" character death and distributed co-ownership of all characters.

While, perhaps, not a dangerous idea, Mo and Brand Robins developed a novel perspective on how players contribute to each other. Namely some play is Push, where a player directs some sort of contribution, and either forces acceptance or opposition. Other play is Pull, where a player entices interest, either engaging the other players, or simply letting the contribution fade from lack of interest. Both of these approaches seem to be present, but the varying quantities of each may be one step to improving play.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Weekly Review Jan. 29th to Feb. 4th

Communication is a central aspect of any RPG, and this week that theme has come to the forefront. Dangerous ideas continue to percolate, giving rise to a discussion of encountering the very people we play with. In a related vein, ways of communicating player desires are developed.

Playing with People

With characters playing such a vital role in RPGs it is easy to forget the people involved, both the designers who craft the games and the other players. But like most social activities RPGs can offer a glimpse into views and emotions of others. Brand Robins suggests that a designers personal influence may become transparent enough to make or break a game for a particular person, simply due to differences in values between a player and the game designer.

From the other direction, Emily Care Boss talks about the types of play that expose players to each other. In particular she suggests that when we confront issue of a moral or emotional bent we find ourselves far more likely to see the person behind the character, and to seen in that same way. It is up to the players themselves to accept these glimpses, or to look away.

Signaling What You Want

While exposing deeper philosophical or emotional aspects is a part of RPGs, often communication happens in more practical manners as well. Matt Snyder talks about the cadence of play, how players try to work out together how much and when they should contribute. He suggests that cadence should be more overt, and not left to inter-player subtlety. Chris Chinn presents a system for flag framing. This tool gives GMs a way to solicit interest from players, and in so doing produce improvisation, much like a conventional player does with a character sheet.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Lesson: Social Contracts

Social contracts are a fairly complicated idea, which has since been transplanted into the domain of RPG theory. Some theories, such as the Big Model, consider the social contract to be everything that occurs at the gaming table. However in more traditional use, social contracts are the underlying rules of behavior that govern a society. In a gaming group these rules describe how the players expect to treat each other, and be treated in turn.

For example, an unspoken agreement that characters will not attack each other can often be found in many groups. This understanding is part of their social contract. A new player may violate this without realizing that a line has been crossed, because that part of the social contract was left unsaid. Some parts of the social contract are more spoken, such as scheduling and attendance.

Violating a social contract does not necessarily destroy the group the contract formed within. Indeed many violations occur because individual players have a differing idea of what the group's social contract is. Often there is a subtle negotiation going on to influence the agreements of the group, bringing the contract into alignment with one's views. In a violent break of the contract, this negotiation must occur more overtly, and adjust the contract to accommodate, even by simply making the broken tenet spoken.

While making the social contract more accessible is generally helpful, the contract itself is forever being refined and changed, and often the most important pieces are those which remain unsaid.