Friday, April 28, 2006

Lesson: Resolution - Common Ground

One of the most important aspects of resolution is the creation of common ground which is achieved when players come together to play. Included here are agreed rules of social and game behavior, namely the social contract. Also, part of this common ground is the shared parts of the imagined elements of play.

Resolution is the means by which players take their own perspectives and ideas, and bring them to this common ground. But in a sense, common ground is not something which is achieved, as much as it is something which is always under construction. Mechanics have an especially interesting relationship with common ground. On one hand, they act as means of resolution, but on the other they are themselves common ground, as a means to perform resolution.

Much like social contracts, the way a theory approaches common ground is often very important to determine what sorts of play that theory is well suited, and which present it difficulty. Some theories take the idea of common material as an idealization, and treat it as a place where play happens. Other theories treat these places as processes, a procedure of coming to agreement, of which the actually moment of agreement is merely a flash in the pan.

Often a type of play accents one part of the resolution / common ground relationship. For example, highly mechanical play is often seen in the midst of resolution, with the common ground being merely an after thought. Likewise, free form play is filled with subtle and diffuse resolution, while the common ground is deeply accented.

What types of common ground are created by what types of resolution? Mechanics suggest that resolution can be used recursively, building on itself, where does that recursion end? Can there be resolution without common ground? Can there be common ground without resolution? Can you play an RPG without both?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Weekly Review Apr. 16th to Apr. 22nd

This week seen some intriguing contributions to RPG theory. While some focus on the mechanical, others are built on questions of gender and inclusion in RPGs, both for theory and in general.

Process of Mechanics

In an attempt to distinguish system and mechanics, Jere Genest presents a process view of mechanics. His flow indicates mechanics as the culmination of an objective, either finding an existing mechanic, or designing a new one for addition. In particular he suggests that design during play is viable, and can follow a precise flow, from objective, to individual components which can be combined to produce a new mechanic for that objective.

Plot Twists

Thomas Robertson introduces a feasibility question for the design and play of plot twists. In particular he asks if it is possible in an RPG context to produce a consistent campaign of misdirection to permit a reveal, not unlike at the end of a mystery. He suggests that planning out the misdirection is next to impossible given the volatile nature of RPG play.


A major theme over the past few weeks around RPG theory has been the subject of the RPG communities' interaction with women. This has drifted from advice to discussion, and even debate. Recently several topics have been broached which suggest ramifications in the realm of theory. John Kim discusses the inclusion of women across different subgroups of RPGs, and also points to the distinction of including women better, versus an actually feminist approach to RPGs, which "would encourage non-normative statements about gender and gender roles." Meanwhile, Jonathon Walton shows just how difficult inclusive communities can be. Indeed, while a potentially global community is likely more difficult to build, those same problems reflect those of forming the smallest RPG communities, groups of players.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Editorial: Neutral Ground

Of late, I've been pleased to see more comments on this blog. At the same time, I am reminded that I haven't made clear any policy concerning comments and debate on this site. What policy I have been following has been based on my statement of purpose. Namely, this blog is intended as a neutral report of RPG theory, not to take one stance or theory as preferred.

This is not something that can be done easily, it is a constant effort. And part of comments is to keep me honest in my reviews, lessons, and editorials. If you feel I ignored or downplayed something important, by all means post about it. I would ask that comments be kept to RPG theory and related topics. And I intend to use my ability to remove comments on ones which are entirely inappropriate, such as spam adverts and the like. But if it pertains to RPG theory, and you think that it would help better represent the field, then I welcome your comment.

I also welcome debate on this blog. But, I will not participate in any myself. I will answer questions as a neutral party, but I feel it is inappropriate for me to take sides in a debate. I view comments as being letters to the editor, an opportunity to expand, discuss, and even debate ideas of RPG theory. But as the editor it is my responsibility to moderate, not join in. And if you have a particular perspective you would like to have aired, I am always looking for guest articles.

There are many places to argue and debate, but RPG Theory Review is a neutral ground. It is a place were we can all look at the developments of RPG theory, as they are happening and as they have happened. And I want everyone to be able to enjoy it as such.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Weekly Review Apr. 9th to Apr. 15th

This week discussion has leaned towards delving into expanding the context of RPGs and their design.

RPGs to Learn From

During a discussion on metaphor in RPGs, Paul Czege elucidates his view of learning and RPGs. He suggests that RPGs are predominantly tools for players to learn skills or just about themselves. He suggests that the core question of design is what and how a game teaches.

A Deeper Look at Storytelling

Jonathan Walton presents a look at more common forms of storytelling as a way to gain some perspective on RPGs. In particular he suggests that understanding day to day storytelling will enable a more "low-impact" approach to RPGs.

Fictional Origins

Over at Story Games was a discussion about fictional origins for RPGs. Many of these suggest not only a direction for design, but also how these disparate sources interface with RPGs. Of particular note are board games and the Oulipo movement.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Lesson: Resolution - Basics

One way of looking at RPGs focuses on how players work together to produce play. In particular they focus on the way that uncertainties, disagreements, and discontinuities are all resolved into apparently accepted results. Nearly every RPG theory has their own way of classifying or describing this resolution, but ultimately it is a vital part of play.

For example, the much vaulted Lumpley Principle simply defines system as anything used to resolve the imagined parts of the game. This is often contrasted with the mechanical focus, which only considers the more quantized forms of resolution, such as dice rolling and numerical comparison. But in practice resolution of different types and scales occur beyond mechanics or system.

At its base, resolution is the communication and agreement of a specific outcome, imagined or not, among the group of players. This may be done very quickly using mechanics, or may be focused on the imagined parts of play, as with system. Or, for example, how two players work out which of their dice they will share and which they will not. Such a resolution is neither system or mechanic, but affects playing the RPG just as much.

How else can resolution be divided or categorized? What during play would not be part of some resolution or other? Is there any form of resolution which cannot be mechanical? When should resolution be mechanical? How much does system resolution rely on non-system resolution?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Weekly Review Apr. 2nd to Apr. 8th

This week in theory has continued the search for different ways to understand RPGs.

Seeking Other Ways

Thomas Robertson suggests that if playing RPGs is like writing, then the process of designing RPGs is analogous to editing. Of course the counter-intuitive part of this is that the editing occurs before the writing ever happens. From a different perspective, Fang Langford suggests a view of RPGs divorced from the narrative, namely that players seek to explore hypothetical possibilities. It may be a matter of tactical potential, or exploring the possibilities of a particular strain of fiction or situation, but in each case he reasons the hypothetical quality is sought.

Push and Pull in Theory

Back in January of this year, Push and Pull were introduced as a way discuss modes of social influence. Now in light of forum discussions on gender and RPGs, Moyra Turkington, who originally coined the terms, has further clarified their meaning. But now, push and pull are presented as a way to understand one of the most common methods for RPG theory discussion, the forum debate. She relates that even when a thread is initiated in a pull manner (eliciting comments and ideas) it rapidly moves to a push dynamic (presenting and defending your own ideas). She suggests that this bait and switch is what prevents people who are more comfortable with pull than push to avoid forums.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Monthly Review March 2006

The strongest underlying theme in theory this past month was describing and charting the barrier between RPGs that challenge, and RPGs that facilitate. This distinction was given a new perspective early on by Joshua BishopRoby when he presented "Design What Matters" and "Design What Doesn't Matter" RPGs. In particular he points out that "design What Matters" games are not safe, as they can push you to types of play you would not otherwise have attempted.

A little while later, discussions of control developed on this very same divide. On one hand, Vincent Baker asks the question of how to ensure that risk is not contingent on other players, who might flinch at the responsibility of inflicting emotional or social harm. On the other hand, in the context of character death and closure, Moyra Turkington talks about how people can respond to risk, and the importance of people getting what they need.

At the tale end of the month, Ben Lehman suggests another way of looking at "unsafe" games. He suggests that we should instead focus on being safe in the context of dangerous games, rather than simply seeking as much emotional or social risk as possible. Time will tell where this debate goes, but it is certain that "unsafe" RPGs will continue to be an interesting topic for theory and design.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Weekly Review Mar. 26th to Apr. 1st

This week has seen a series of simple additions and clarifications, rather than whole-cloth developments.

Adding Some Structure

Chris Chinn offers a more visual structure to relate to modern theory. Putting together his ideas as well as others, he presents a pyramid structure, approaching the nebulous idea of what really matters. From an entirely different side, Emily Care Boss describes how different forms of literature, from the short story to the novel series, are reflected in the design and play of RPGs.

Taking Some Precautions

Rising from the discussion of unsafe RPGs, Ben Lehman argues that the correct interpretation ought to be that RPGs which risk players emotional and social state, should have an idea of safety. This, he suggests, requires that such play be described as dangerous, rather than unsafe, allowing for the discussion of safety within the danger, rather than confounding safe practice with the decision to simply not play. A little later, Ron Edwards put out a call for Drills, simple fragments of RPGs which can be used to practice or warm-up for actual play.