Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Extension beyond the Gaming Table

In teaching, we like to talk a lot about 'extending learning beyond the classroom' by which we mean... well, homework. Stuff that the students take from the classroom and process on their own, then bring back to the classroom. This can be a worksheet, it can be a research project, it can be getting extra credit for going to the museum. Point being: as long as the classroom delimits the learning experience, the learning experience will be cut off from real life and have little to no real meaning to the student. It will be an exercise instead of an experience.

Today while copyediting Full Light, Full Steam (yes, I am working on it occasionally) it occured to me that roleplaying can do the same thing, and in fact used to do the same thing -- for one player, the Game Master. The 'real' play happened around the table, but the GM put in hours of work/play preparing the adventure and making plans. Most of the time, the GM liked that sort of thing -- but most of the time, the other players might have enjoyed that, too, but were not able to participate in that off-table play.

Sometimes we'd make characters on our own (which leads to problems -- much like making the adventure in a vaccum leads to problems), and I remember spending hours making vehicles we never actually used under the GURPS: Vehicles rules. My own game group has flirted with bluebooking a few times. But that's about the sum total of the non-GM game experience I've done outside of the 'actual game'. But given how much time I spend thinking and writing and obsessing about games all day long, and assuming that I'm not the only one like this, I think there's certainly an opportunity here for a style of play that includes 'off-table' play.

I just don't know how to implement it. Everybody arrives at the game session with an NPC to add to the masquerade ball? You can write out 'interstitals' of what happens between adventures, and get in-game currency for doing so the following session? But who says who writes what? Who says what is acceptable articulation/validation and what is not? I've heard of folks taking turns GMing adventures, which isn't exactly what I'm getting at. I want to distribute the GM-prep task among the players, to the point where it's no longer 'GM-prep' but simply world development. Does any such collaborative development require a group dictator, or can rules be written to make assignments and divvy up credibility in approving and stitching things together?

How can we extend the play experience beyond the table? And for that matter, do we want to? Is that an add-on to existing gaming practice, or would it entail rewriting the game experience from the bottom up, creating, in effect, a new game? Would that game be publishable?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Interaction Model - Version the First

Abstract


Ninety-nine percent of the people who read this will be familiar with the "Bang Bang! You're Dead! No I'm Not!" argument of game design -- that is, that the rules of roleplaying games are necessary to arbitrate differences of opinion on what we imagine in the game. Usually this is used as a sort of apology to gloss over the downer of having to follow rules. I'm going to use it as a starting point, however, to try and explain the entire phenomenon we call roleplaying.

Roleplaying is something that a lot of people do, and even do together, without really being able to explain what it is very well. We say it's grown-up make-believe, it's collaborative storytelling, it's improvizational theater -- but in the end it's not really any of these things. Most of our descriptors are accurate without being precise, broadly correct but clumsy terms that do not effectively communicate what we are doing -- even to each other.

A great deal of work on this very problem has been done at the Forge, and this essay is fundamentally indebted to the good work of people like Ron Edwards, Clinton Nixon, Vincent Baker, Victor Gijsbers, and many others. The bulk of the work at the Forge is based off of the seminal question "Why do we do what we do?" The inquiries and conclusions that arose from that question recognized that the reasons that we play are not always the same, and that the player's goals in playing were instrumental to the ensuing roleplay. This is the important third ingredient to roleplaying -- the goal of the participants.

Third ingredient? What were the first two? Back to "Bang Bang! You're Dead!" -- the rules arbitrate what we imagine -- therefore there are rules, and there is imagined content. Adding player goals, we have the trinity of roleplaying, or what I will be calling the aspects of roleplaying: the System, the Imagined, and the Goal.

None of these aspects have any substantial reality -- that is, they are all mental constructs existing only in the minds of the players. Even the System, which we like to think is pure and objective, written down and published, is really only what the players remember and use from the published material, supplemented by the copious idiosyncratic rituals and habits that are not written down anywhere. Now, the specifics and details of each aspect are not identical in every player's mind. Any five players will experience the game in five inescapably different ways. The pictures we imagine are similar, but not identical; there's always the one guy who memorizes all the rules; and as Ron Edwards pointed out, the players' goals may be vastly divergent. This is a simple fact of how people work -- outside of telepathy, there is no way to make other people think exactly what you're thinking. Yet somehow, when we roleplay, we share an imaginary experience. How does that work?

Back again to our "Bang Bang! You're Dead" kids -- the rules exist to arbitrate differences, which is another way of saying that the rules help reconcile the individual players' imagined content. The rules make my mental pictures look more like your mental pictures, and vice-versa. This applies, however, to all three aspects continually reconciling the others. The Goals inform what choices we make in adding or changing elements of the Imagined; the Imagined gives us meat for our Goals to chew on; the System provides tools to manipulate the Imagined and to develop our Goals. Based on this understanding, the basic function of roleplaying is to create a similar Imagined, System, and Goal in each player's mind and thereafter reconcile inconsistencies as all three aspects develop in complexity. This reconcile-and-develop process is accomplished through interactions between the aspects; together, the three aspects function as a self-correcting gestalt.

That's the abstract. Now for the nitty-gritty.

Aspects

Here's a breakdown of the three Aspects, first with a facile (and incomplete) definition, and then at length.

Imagined - What we imagine.
This is the easiest aspect to understand the basics of and the most difficult to understand in totality. This is the 'stuff' that we imagine as we roleplay -- the characters, the setting, the situation, relative positions of characters, the props and inevitably the weapons in hand, and whether Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light, has grey eyes or blue eyes. History, both in terms of setting and in terms of the characters -- a full transcript of game events (as remembered by the player) -- also resides in the Imagined. Beyond these more concrete elements, however, the Imagined also incorporates genre conventions and the range of options available to characters. The Imagined in a superheroes game is fundamentally different than the Imagined in a gritty historical fantasy game, and not just because one has tights and the other has chainmail. Saving the world by punching one guy in the face is not only feasible, but the preferred method of operation in the superheroes game; a mounted knight in full plate in the gritty historical fantasy game, however, is going to laugh at such tactics, and taking him down isn't going to save the world, anyway. Needless to say, the Imagined is a hugely complex mental construct, and one that requires powerful tools to reconcile with other players' imaginations.

System - The rules of the game.
Actually bearing only passing resemblance to the rules as published in game supplements, the System is inspired by published rules content in exactly the same way as the Imagined is inspired by published setting content. It is composed of what interpretations of the published rules material are given credence by the players, as well as rituals idiosyncratic to the players ("house rules" are explicit rituals; implicit rituals include things like niche protection), and any other procedures (bluebooking) that determine what happens both in the Imagined and in the real world of players, dice, and character sheets. The core of the System is the Lumpley Principle: the means by which the players agree on what happens. It determines who has credibility (who has access to the System's interactions), calculates binary success/fail or "fuzzy" degrees of success/fail, dictates how new content is added, and allows existing content to be manipulated.
It's important to note, too, that the System is just as unshared as the Imagined and the Goal. Not all players are really playing by the same set of rules; hopefully these rules are very similar or perhaps even indistinguishable, but this is only after the operation of the roleplaying process -- it's difficult to imagine a new group of players with a new game immediately 'clicking' without even the mildest speedbumps.

Goal - What's important to the players.
A player's Goal is the reason that player is even roleplaying to begin with. It is the seat of player initiative and personal significance, and as such, is the most ineffable of the three aspects. Functionally, a player's Goal emphasizes some parts of the play experience over others according to standards in the player's head. Goal does not deal directly with content; goal is why some elements of the Imagined content are included when retelling war stories at Con. Goal cannot be reduced to a word or phrase -- 'Story' only begins to scratch the surface; what kind of story is the player after, entailing what specifics? -- and, like Imagined and System, will not only reconcile with the other players' Goals, but will also change and develop over time.
Note Creative Agendas may be seen as handful of broadly-defined and tightly-focused categories of goals, but the terms 'Creative Agenda' and 'Goal' are no more synonymous than 'Mammal' and 'Animal' are.

The relative size and complexity of each aspect, and whether there are other aspects-of-significant-importance within the roleplaying activity, is pretty much an open question at this point. We know about these three. Maybe there are others. I don't know how they interact with these three yet, mostly because I don't know what they are.

Interactions

Roleplaying is the process of reconciling and developing the three aspects in the players' minds. This continual process of development and reconciliation is realized through the interactions of the Imagined, the System, and the Goal. Interactions are the things that players do at the table -- some are external (actions, speaking, rolling dice) and some are internal (consideration, imagining, planning). By doing these things, the players share with each other the characteristics of their mental conceptions of the Imagined, System, and Goal.

Access to some Interactions is frequently privileged, out of reach of most players. Most commonly, this access is invested in the Game Master, but other games may divvy up the Interactions in more complex fashion (See: Polaris). This differentiation of access privileges has profound impact on how a game is run thereafter.

Between the three aspects there are six types of interactions, as displayed on the following chart. A relatively short description of each type of interaction is listed below, along with the access privileges which are usually associated with that interaction and a handful of examples.

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Fuel Interaction - The Imagined Fuels the System. The Imagined provides the System with the elements which the System uses to determine what happens. This "Fuel" can be characters, environmental elements, situations, or any other material that the System uses as input for its deliberations. Fuel includes not only items with game effects (Dagger with +9 against Ogres) but also opens up possibilities based on its presence (stairs allow a character to reach the next level; the presence of a badguy allows the protagonists to duel with her).
Because the Fuel Interaction connects to the System, the System arbitrates what "gets in" -- any player can want something to have game effect; the System decides if it does (through dictate, through privileging some players over others, or even simply by charging game currency to empower an element to be included in a given way).
Example: The character sheet itself is not Fuel; players selecting numbers representative of the Imagined character and feeding these numbers into the System is. The character sheet is just a handy tool, a reminder of what numbers we've assigned to our characters. In the statement, "My guy swings his sword" both the guy and the sword are Fuel.

Articulation Interaction - System Articulates the Imagined. The concrete output of the System -- that is, "what happens" -- articulates the Imagined, providing development, action, and revision. Articulation can both establish elements within the Imagined as well as manipulate them later. This is the corollary to Fuel -- the finished goods from the raw materials.
Because Articulation is derived from the System, the System determines who gets to do the articulation as well as providing some guidelines (dice results, usually). In a given game, not everyone can always perform the Articulation -- it is often limited to just the GM.
Examples: The most facile example of Articulation is interpreting what a die roll means for the elements within the Imagined, but this is not the only example. Activities such as "Creating the Adventure," "Rolling Up Characters," and "Framing the Scene" are also Articulation. Task Resolution is primarily Articulation; Conflict Resolution is patently both Articulation and Validation.

Contextualization Interaction - The Imagined Contextualizes the Goal. Any story needs characters, a setting, and events in order to express itself; so too does any competition, social statement, or other conceivable product of roleplaying. The elements of the Imagined are utilized in Contextualization to put the Goal in a context of supporting, conflicting, and qualifying details, all of which enrich the Goal. This interaction provides the specifics of the Imagined to express generalized Goals -- and it is important to note that the same specific details may be used concurrently in more than one Contextualization interaction to inform more than one Goal.
As an interaction between the Imagined and the Goal, Contextualization is up for grabs, performed by everyone at the table in an unconstrained fashion, based on the material provided by the Imagined (which is not up for grabs in an unconstrained fashion).
Example: Relating the hopes and dreams of one's character with the stated goals of a faction of NPCs is a simple example; a more complex example might relate the raison d'etre of the Knight, the Pacifist, the King, and the Infidel when they all come face-to-face in the middle of a battlefield.

Imbuing Interaction - The Goal Imbues the Imagined. Imbuing makes the elements from the Imagined content mean something. Ten character names and abilities, a map, and a horde of orcs is just a laundry list of information until some items on the list are made heroes, some are made victims, and some are made villains. This is the corollary to Contextualization; whereas Contextualization positions meaning within a collection of elements, Imbuing assigns individual meanings to individual elements.
Like Contextualization, Imbuing is unconstrained, and any player can imbue any element of the Imagined with any meaning they like. Divergent significance attached to elements can often lead to problems in play -- such as when one player casually kills off a character another player was not finished with.
Example: Assigning a thematic meaning to a character, setting, or prop in the Imagined -- "my guy embodies the ethos of nobility" or simply, "my guy is badass."

Side Note: Contextualization and Imbuing can be 'wild card' interactions that seriously diverge the Imagined and Goals of different players. This is why these interactions are expressed by the interactions' complements (see below).

Steering Interaction - The Goal Steers the System. The Goal determines what actions and additions will be proposed, attempted, and/or declared -- this potential material is fed into the System, which will determine what happens. Steering interactions are always created "Out of Character," based on criteria in the minds of the players, not the characters. "In Character" decisions are in fact simulations of decisions that the player believes the character would reasonably make. The four Stances (Pawn, Actor, Author, and Director) are all ways to perform Steering interactions.
Because the Steering Interaction connects to the System, it, like the Fuel Interaction, is subject to the System's gatekeeper processes. Steering interactions can be delimited by the abilities and point of view of the player's character or supercede these limitations; Scene Requests may be privileged to just the GM; new characters may only be created by spending game currency.
Example: Simplistically, the impulse behind "my guy tries to hit that guy"; complexly, "I would like to play a scene in which that guy wants to seduce that guy."

Validation Interaction - The System Validates the Goal. While the concrete output of the System feeds into Articulation, the abstract output of the System feeds into Validation. Whatever "happens" in the Imagined may have thematic implications for the Goal. This may plainly validate the Goal, or it may complicate that validity with qualifications and exceptions. This is the corrolary to Steering; it is the game's response to player propositions.
This is another interaction based from the System, and therefore often privileged. The System often determines who is allowed to interpret the significance of the System's output, and may also provide some guidelines for that interpretation.
Example: Joey fails to win the race. Does this mean he did not try enough? Would he have won if he trained more? Is he now a failure, or will it give him the resolve to try again, thus justifying his self-confidence?

Every single thing that the players do in the game can be understood as one or more interactions. When the roleplaying process is functional -- that is, it reconciles and develops the aspects in the players' heads -- every die roll, every interpretation, every proposed action, contributes to the self-correcting and development process.

Round and Round

As the diagram implies, the interactions feed into each other in self-reinforcing circles. The two obvious circles are the outside, or Widdershins, circle, and the inside, or Sunwise, circle. Note that the processes do not necessarily 'start' at any one aspect as depicted below. I am unfortunately bound by the rules of grammar, which state that sentences must start somewhere.

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Widdershins (Outside) Circle - The players' preferences and interests (Goal) color their understanding (Imbue) of the setting and their own characters (Imagined), which prompts them to use selected elements of that setting and their characters (Fuel) in order to determine what happens (System), the answers to which reinforce or complicate (Validate) the things they cared about in the first place (Goal).
Example: I have an interest in the concepts of honor and duty (Goal), and so I apply (Imbue) the principles of bushido onto my modern-day character (Imagined). This constrains my character's options (Fuel) when taking actions (System), thereby expressing (Validating) the elements that I am interested in (Goal).

Sunwise (Inside) Circle - Based on what is important to the players (Goal), they make decisions (Steering) that are adjudicated by various rules and rituals (System). The results are interpreted (Articulation) into "what happens" (Imagined), which juxtaposes elements of characters and setting (Contextualization) to develop the new meaning (Goal).
Example: Because I want to develop my character's relationship with my father (Goal), I decide to spend game-currency (Steering) to begin a new scene (System). I describe the scene (Articulation) as a family barbeque (Imagined). The characters' conversation further informs (Contextualization) their relationship and the father/daughter dynamic (Goal).

Note that it's also patently possible for 'flow' to go in more complex shapes than these two circles. A sequence of interactions could go, for instance, Imbue -> Contextualize -> Imbue -> Fuel -> Articulate -> Contextualize. The key is that each interaction strengthens the aspects that are involved in the interaction, either by developing it, by reconciling differences between players' conceptions, or both. Functional roleplay is the process by which the aspects are continuously reconciled and developed. As long as the 'flow' routes through the players' Goals in meaningful ways, not only will the aspects be reconciled, but they will be developed in interesting -- ie fun -- ways. This is the point of roleplaying.

Complements

Just as the diagram suggests the circular reinforcement, players can also perform interactions in both directions at the same time. This sort of 'reaching around' to the other side of the diagram exposes combinations of interactions which are complementary to each other.

Validation complemented by Articulation and Contextualization - The System's validation or qualification of the Goal is abstract; that Validation is expressed by the System's results Articulating the details of the Imagined in order to re-Contextualize the significance of the Goal.
Example: I have my guy attack the enemy base because I think that's heroic. I get a terrible die roll. That wasn't heroic; that was stupid (Validation). My guy gets shot up and captured (Articulation) putting him at the mercy of the enemy (Contextualization).

Steering complemented by Imbuing and Fuel - The dictates of the Goal not only determine what events I want to happen, but they prioritize elements of the Imagined in order to provide the tools with which to make those events possible.
Example: I'm playing 7th Sea. I want to swash some buckle. So I declare my guy is going to swing from the chandelier, land on some mooks, and cut his initials into the villain's shirt (Steering). That there is a fundamental difference between mooks and villains and that there is a chandelier ripe for swinging on are Imbuing interactions. That I can use that chandelier as a vehicle and the mooks as a landing pad are Fuel interactions.

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Imbue complemented by Steering and Articulation - What is important to me is terribly idiosyncratic but must be communicated to the other players. Imbuing can be ineffible, but I have tools which allow me to Steer the System into Articulating the Imagined in meaningful ways.
Example: I am intrigued by how Doctor Hudson might have been active in my character's amnesiac past (Imbuing). So I have my character interrogate the good Doctor (Steering) in order to make him explain his motivations (Articulation).

Contextualization complemented by Fuel and Validation - The Imagined details which qualify and develop the Goal also provide functional effects which the System can use to validate the Goal.
Example: The last remnants of the Revolution are surrounded by hostile Monarchist forces (Contextualization). Those soldiers and cannons (Fuel) will shoot the hell out of anyone who tries to escape (Validation).

Fuel complemented by Contextualization and Steering - Elements of the Imagined which are processed in the System are also elements of the Imagined which bear on the Goal and delimit or open the possibilities of player action.
Example: My guy's sword gives him a +9 against ogres (Fuel). At the same time, his possession of the sword makes him a fantasy hero (Contextualization) which means he is one to fight ogres (Steering).

Articulation complemented by Validation and Imbuing - The development of what happens in the Imagined is mirrored by the System's qualification and validation of Goal emphases, which in turn give meaning to the events happening in the Imagined.
Example: We have succeeded in destroying the third Death Star (Articulation). This bodes well for the Rebellion (Validation) and hereafter the destruction of the Death Star will be a powerful rallying point (Imbuing).

Dysfunction

Now, all of these are 'perfect world' examples, where the interactions available to the players harmonize well, and both develop and reconcile the Imagined, System, and Goal. We all well know, however, that real gaming often goes awry.

Dysfunction occurs when interactions cease to perform the essential reconcile-and-develop function of roleplaying, and the players' aspects begin to diverge significantly. When the players begin having different Imagined content, different Systems, and different Stories, and do not effectively communicate these to the other players, the result is dysfunctional play. This is a somewhat broader definition of function and dysfunction than the Forge uses. Function is not 'create fun', it is 'create shared imaginings which are fun'. Chez Geek creates fun; that doesn't mean it's a functioning roleplaying game.

Because the three aspects are reconciled through the interactions, when they diverge the interactions must be at fault. I submit that most dysfunctions occur when one of two things happen: (a) interactions are missing, or (b) interactions that should complement each other do not. Here's a few dysfunctions and how they 'map' onto the interaction model.

Railroading A dysfunction in which the System (usually a ritual component, sometimes published rules) gives the GM absolute control over all Validation while the players retain access to Steering. The players make decisions which have no bearing on the reconcile-and-develop process. The lack of feedback creates dysfunction -- the players might be wildly steering left, but the GM keeps heading right, invalidating their interactions.

Prima Donna One player monopolizes Steering interactions and the Steering->Articulation process, in order to insist on their Imbued meaning. Sort of a player-based Railroading.

Illusionism A not-quite dysfunction, as many people enjoy rattling around in a tightly-constrained game, this situation is where the GM has strong control over most Articulation, setting up elements of the Imagined in such a way that they Contextualize the characters and story to delimit viable player options in Steering. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just limited in scope (ice cream shops aren't bad because they only sell ice cream, after all).

Deprotagonizing of Characters A dysfunction where a player's Imbuing interaction is not complemented by available Steering and Articulating interactions. Either he is unable to use appropriate Steering (in a game where the GM frames all scenes, for instance) or the Articulation results are interpreted in protagonism-denying ways (not that you missed, but that you didn't really want to shoot in the first place).

Pervy Another not-quite dysfunction, a "pervy" or High Points of Contact game occurs when Articulation, Fuel, Steering, and Validation interactions (ie, those interactions connected to the System) are not fully provided by the mental construct of System, and must be supplied or refreshed from the published material. This can be frustrating, since the Imbuing and Contextualization interactions, which are independent of the System, are often running full tilt while the rulebook is being consulted, tying up their complements.

Impossible Thing Before Breakfast The proposition that the GM has "control" of the Goal via privileged access to interactions derived from the System (which is tilted towards her) and the Imagined (of which she is the supposed arbiter). The GM's privileged access does not interfere with the players' ability to Imbue the Imagined with their own meaning or to Steer the System to do what they want -- the players' efforts just get battered with brutal Validation interactions and often hackneyed Articulation->Contextualization arches by the GM, who is procedurally refusing to recognize the players' Goal (ie, what is important to them).

Conclusion

The strength of any model is not so much that it accurately describes what it hopes to, but that it can correctly predict operations and effectively correct those operations when they go wrong. If this model is accurate, we should be able to more precisely puzzle out what it is we are doing and to correct our practices when they are not resulting in the all-important reconcile-and-develop function of roleplaying. This model is only worthwhile if it helps us make roleplaying better.

I do believe, however, that this model offers an evocative paradigm from which to talk about roleplaying. The model is not roleplaying -- it's a map depicting roleplaying. Just as there are physical maps, political maps, and demographic maps out there, this is an interaction map: it maps out the interactions between three aspects of roleplaying. It answers -- or at least attempts to answer -- the question of "what do the players do, and how are those actions relevant?" It answers "What is this thing that we do when we say that we're roleplaying?"

We are sharing bits and pieces of our imagination, offering them back and forth, accepting them and challenging them, validating them and qualifying them, trying to create something that is both shared and interesting.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Model Application: Conquer the Horizon

Alright, so somewhat by accident, I wrote up a little mini-RPG called Conquer the Horizon. I say 'somewhat by accident' but the pieces of it were simmering in my brain for weeks, now, along with phrases like "someone should try to design a game that does X to see if Y is true..." It all kind of came together in a critical mass tuesday night -- now, the ensuing explosion may be an explosion of crap, so no guarantees on quality, here. The game is a test dummy.

But now I want to try and hash out how CtH is supposed to work, design-wise, based on the Interaction Model. I'm hoping to play a bit of it tonight, so some thoughts pre-play might be useful to reference later.

In CtE, the players take on roles of explorers from the Old World in the New World; the action of the game is to collaboratively create the New World. This comes from two places: (a) the point of this game is very explicitly to make everyone imagine something very similar, as the Interaction Model suggests is the 'core function' of roleplaying. Also (b) this game is pretty intentionally incoherent in Big Model terms. It's not Narrativist, it's not Gamist. Perhaps it's Simmy -- but the Big Model is having trouble with Simmy at the moment. In any case, this is an attempt to create something that is functional without being coherent/adherent.

So: the Imagined in this game is pretty simply the developing details of the New World. The 'characters' are pretty secondary to the New World, which is in center stage. Players will be imagining this World. The System... check that, the Rules compose a pretty streamlined credibility-dispenser where all players introduce, qualify/complicate, and accept additions to the New World. It's pure Lumpley Principle. It also has some ambiguous edges (what constitutes a 'resource'); how the written rules become the utilized System will be interesting. As for Story, each player has a goal, which may or may not be secondary to the group goal of creating an interesting New World. I'm very interested to see how that hashes out -- I hope it will be something like "let's create a neat New World that I can profitably exploit".

Now the meat of the game: the interactions. Players take turns proposing additions called Discoveries to the game world (steering), which the other players add qualifications to (more steering). Eventually the Discovery wins acceptance (validation) and becomes a part of the New World (articulation), or it fails to win acceptance (validation) and turns out to be a phantasm on the horizon (negative articulation). In addition to some scant details on individual characters, players can also bring in references to prior Discoveries to bolster their chances of making a Discovery or getting their Qualification accepted (fuel).

As for contextualization and imbuing, those go one of two ways (or both) depending on the Story involved. We have Discoveries piling up in the Imagined, creating a world which can either (a) be judged as interesting or not or (b) inform the player's progress towards their win-goal -- that's contextualization. Some of those Discoveries will be particularly appreciated simply as 'neat', while others can provide opportunities to pursue the win-goal -- that's imbuing. Again, if all goes well, players will be trying to contextualize the cool bits of the New World as opportunities to exploit them in interesting ways, and setting their targets on their favorite bits as special because they are both interesting and useful.

Miscellaneous fiddly-bits include a dwindling pool of 'Supplies' which can be used to increase chances of having your input accepted (pure fuel) and which, once exhausted, end the game (fuel again). When the game ends, players tally points based on their characters' goals (validation) and the winner names the New World after their character (the final act of articulation).

Function -- the game should work to reconcile a developing New World that is both interesting and exploitable, a set of permissions and procedures for adding to that New World, and a sense that the game is played to create an interesting, exploitable world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ambiguity and Reinforcement

So I'm catching up on past discussions.

All the players can control the unknown-but-past, like in Univeralis, or just a few or one can, like in Dogs - it depends on what you want out of this game. But only the group's informed agreement can possibly control the unknown-but-future. -- Vincent Baker, on Established and Unknown posted in anyway a long time ago

This is usually true. Well, no, this is partially true. Or rather, it's not true at all. Only the group's informed agreement can control the future course of events -- yes. True. Spot-on. Here's the thing, though: that applies to the past, too. Only the group's informed agreement can control the past, too. As Vincent says earlier in the article, the GM doesn't have secrets about what has 'really' happened -- the GM has plans for what 'really' happened, and those plans can be overturned by the group consensus quite easily.

For instance, in a game of Tribe 8, one of the players in our group decided to create a heretical metaphysical understanding of the world. She kept insisting on it until eventually, it 'came true' and our Tribe 8 game spawned a new Fatima (Goddess). As far as I know, the GM did not set out from the start to 'prove' that PC's beliefs as true -- it developed in play. And the development of that in play had all sorts of repercussions for the setting, and what had happened in the setting beforehand.

This brings me to the Forge discussion on Gijsbers Space in April, where Victor points out that the game does not actually have any direct access to the Shared Imagined Space, and he posits a Shared Text, which someone later dubs the Gijsbers Space, in which the players compile 'statements' that sort of accrue and from which individual players generate their Individual Imagined Space. His conception of three big chunks of mental constructs all interacting looks familiar, doesn't it? He talks about the ambiguity issues involved in one player's Individual Imagined Space not matching another player's Individual Imagined Space, and how there is therefore no Shared Imagined Space.

But here's the thing: just because the input is not coherent does not mean that the content does not construct something. It's just not a exhaustively coherent something. Just like Through the Looking Glass, where they serve the cake and then cut it, just like Slaughterhouse Five where Billy is unstuck in time and/or he's insane, there is a fictional, imagined world. We just don't know with certainty a few of the details within it. This applies to roleplaying quite easily by referencing any game where the specifics of the setting are left as ambiguous, open questions. Look at Tribe 8 again -- was our heretical player character right or wrong when she first started spouting off her strange ideas? Were the Fatimas here to rule or to reincarnate? It's not that the answer is one or the other; it's that the question is irrelevant.

Here I reference my model of two posts ago. There is no Shared Imagined Space. It doesn't exist except as a sort of union or synthesis of what the individual players imagine. What does exist independantly is the individual players' Imagined content, and the product of a functional roleplaying game is to both reconcile and develop those individual Imagined understandings. That means that on the one hand, the 'point' is to make sure everyone is Imagining the same thing, or very close, but on the other hand, the 'point' is to continually change what they are Imagining. The goal is not a solid state agreement between all parties; the goal is a dynamic product that continually intrigues and delights the players, and that can only be accomplished if what they thought was true keeps changing.

The 'Shared Text' that Victor talks about is, in the Interaction Model, composed of all the interactions that connect the three primary aspects. These things do not pile up in a sort of transcript; the function of these interactions is to continually self-correct and move forward the important parts of the experience -- the Imagined, the System, and the Story. This is a process, not a big long list. These are actions, not merely statements.

But now I have to go to lunch.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Concrete Example!

A GM uses a strong Validation Interaction, derived from a realistic emphasis on the Fuel interaction. Haw!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Towards an Interactive Model

Okay, so first off? This got long. It has a diagram in it that's repeated a few times because it's easier to understand if you can refer to it, and you can only refer to it while it's still on the page. Really, it's not because I'm so proud of my meager Illustrator skills.

In any case, this is my first attempt to start building a paradigm that actually describes the operation of a roleplaying game, not the social structure of the people playing that roleplaying game. I've pulled from a lot of sources, including Ron, Vincent, Chris, and Nathan, and I'm sure their fingerprints will all be quite visible.

Goal: Outline a functioning paradigm describing the operation of roleplaying games.
Assumed Givens: Three important aspects of RPGs are the Imagined, the System, and the Story (definitions to follow). These three aspects were originally identified by Ron Edwards, and the preferences for each aspect underpin his GNS schema and Big Model.
Terminology: Some elements of the Forge lexicon will be used, either illustratively or fundamentally. I have tried to avoid reusing or repurposing terminology to minimize confusion; if there are divergences, I will note them when first using the term.

We begin with the postulate that RPGs consist of at least three aspects of significant importance. These will be called the Imagined, the System, and the Story. None of these aspects have any substantial reality -- that is, they are all mental (and potentially, hopefully, social) constructs existing only in the minds of the players. The specifics and details of each aspect may not (and probably will not) be identical in every player's mind; the basic function of roleplaying is to create a similar Imagined, System, and Story in each player's mind and thereafter reconcile inconsistencies as all three aspects develop in complexity. This reconcile-and-develop goal is accomplished through the interactions between the aspects.

Aspects

Here's a breakdown of the three Aspects, first with a facile (and incomplete) definition, and then at length.

Imagined - "What we imagine." Incorporating the Shared Imagined Space of Characters, Setting, and Situation, the Imagined also includes an ephemeral body of genre conventions, internal character emotions and motivations, and events. It is important to note that while the Imagined is easiest to consider in one specific moment, this distorts the full significance of this aspect. The Imagined is first of all dynamic, in motion, and includes not only shared imagined elements but also their shared imagined interactions. Secondly, the Imagined includes not only the present state of the Shared Imagined Space, but also a complete transcript of everything that has happened before, both in and out of actual play. Prior roleplaying sessions as well as setting history are as much a part of the Imagined as what a given character is doing right now.

System - "The rules of the game." Actually bearing only passing resemblance to the rules as published in game supplements, the System is inspired by published rules content in exactly the same way as the Imagined is inspired by published setting content. It is composed of what interpretations of the published rules material are given credence by the players, as well as rituals idiosyncratic to the players ("house rules" are explicit rituals; implicit rituals include things like niche protection), and any other procedures (bluebooking) that determine what happens both in the Imagined and in the real world of players, dice, and character sheets. The System is concerned with the Lumpley Principle (who has credibility / who has access to the System's interactions), with binary success/fail or "fuzzy" degrees of success/fail, with the addition of new content and the manipulation of existing content.

Story - "What's important to the players." While Story is most commonly framed as a narrative, this may not be necessarily the case. Story determines what elements in the Imagined have significance worth paying attention to, and makes such decisions based on the standards of the players in the real world (not the characters in the Imagined -- important!). Story categorically involves a theme, although the theme need not be bombastic -- "a day in the life" is a perfectly functional theme, and the basis of what is often identified as "Simulationist" or "Storyless" roleplay.
Note: Story is not a subset of Transcript as in the Provisional Glossary. Transcript -- a running account of all events in the Imagined -- is the recursive function of the Imagined. Story is why some elements of the transcript will be more important than others when retelling war stories at Con.

Each aspect is necessary for ensuring the consistency of the other two, and each aspect is dependant on the other two for its continuing, coherent existence as a shared construct. In other words, the Story and System require the Imagined to provide a baseline imaginary "reality" from which to base decisions; the Imagined and System require the Story to give them consistent direction and emphasis; the Imagined and the Story require the System to neutrally arbitrate change and development. I'm skeptical whether any one or two of these could exist as a shared mental construct without the other parts -- I think they're a gestalt.

Interactions

This continual process of development and reconciliation is realized through the interactions of the Imagined, the System, and the Story. Interactions are tasks performed by the players. Some Interactions are commonly privileged and only performed by the Game Master, who for the purposes of this model is a player with additional interactions available to her. Nevertheless, interactions are the things that players do at the table -- some are external (actions, speaking, rolling dice) and some are internal (consideration, imagining, planning). By doing these things, the players share with eachother the characteristics of their mental conceptions of the Imagined, Story, and System.

Between the three aspects there are six types of interactions, as displayed on the following chart. A relatively short description of each type of interaction is listed below, with good examples where possible and with poor examples where my brain fails me.

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Fuel Interaction - The Imagined Fuels the System. The Imagined provides the System with the elements which the System uses to determine what happens. This "fuel" can be characters, environmental elements, situations, or any other material that the System uses as input for its deliberations. I may rename this to "Feeding" Interaction -- depending on whether a mechanistic or organic metaphor is most apt. Jury still out.
Because the Fuel Interaction connects to the System, the System arbitrates what "gets in" -- any player can want something to have game effect; the System decides if it does (through dictate, through privileging some players over others, or even simply by charging game currency to empower an element with game effect).
Example: The character sheet itself is not a Fuel Interaction; players selecting numbers representative of the Imagined character and feeding these numbers into the System is. The character sheet is just a handy tool, a reminder of what numbers we've assigned to our characters. In the statement, "My guy swings his sword" both the guy and the sword are Fuel Interactions.

Articulation Interaction - System Articulates the Imagined. The concrete output of the System -- that is, "what happens" -- articulates the Imagined, providing development, action, and revision. Articulation interactions can both establish elements within the Imagined as well as manipulate them later. This is the corrolary to fuel interactions -- the finished goods from the raw materials.
Because the Articulation Interaction is derived from the System, the System determines who gets to do the articulation as well as providing some guidelines (dice results, usually). In a given game, not everyone can always do the articulation -- it is often limited to just the GM.
Examples: The most facile example of an Articulation Interaction is interpreting what a die roll means for the elements within the Imagined, but this is not the only example. Activities such as "Creating the Adventure," "Rolling Up Characters," and "Framing the Scene" are also Articulation Interactions. Both Task Resolution is an Articulation Interactions; Conflict Resolution is both an Articulation and a Validation Interaction.

Contextualization Interaction - The Imagined Contextualizes the Story. Any story needs characters, a setting, and events in order to express itself; the elements of the Imagined are utilized to put the Story in a context of supporting, conflicting, and qualifying details, all of which enrich the Story.
As an interaction between the Imagined and the Story, the Contextualization Interaction is up for grabs, performed by everyone at the table in an unconstrained fashion, based on the material provided by the Imagined (which is not up for grabs in an unconstrained fashion).
Example: Relating one's character's hopes and dreams with the stated goals of a faction of NPCs is a simple example; a more complex example might relate the raison d'etre of the Knight, the Pacifist, the King, and the Infidel when they all come face-to-face in the middle of a battlefield.

Imbuing Interaction - The Story Imbues the Imagined. Imbuing makes the elements of the story mean something. Ten character names and abilities, a map, and a horde of orcs is just a laundry list of information until some items on the list are made heroes, some are made victims, and some are made villains. This is the corrolary to contextualization; whereas contextualization positions meaning within a collection of elements, imbuing assigns individual meanings to individual elements.
Like contextualization, the Imbuing Interaction is unconstrained, and any player can imbue any element of the Imagined with any meaning they like -- based on, of course, what is included in the constrained Imagined and the constrained Story.
Example: Assigning a thematic meaning to a character, setting, or prop in the Imagined -- "my guy embodies the ethos of nobility" or simply, "my guy is badass."

Side Note: Contextualization and Imbuing can be 'wild card' interactions that seriously diverge the Imagined and Story of different players. This is why these interactions are expressed by the interactions' complements (see below).

Steering Interaction - The Story Steers the System. The Story determines what actions will be proposed, attempted, and/or declared (given the specifics of the System) -- these potential actions are fed into the System, which will determine what happens. Steering interactions can be delimited by the abilities and point of view of the player's character or supercede these limitations. Steering interactions are always created "Out of Character," based on criteria in the minds of the players, not the characters. "In Character" decisions are in fact simulations of decisions that the player believes the character would reasonably make. The four Stances (Pawn, Actor, Author, and Director) are all Steering Interactions.
Because the Steering Interaction connects to the System, it, like the Fuel Interaction, is subject to the System's gatekeeper processes -- some Stances may be verboten under a given System, for instance, or Scene Requests may be privileged to just the GM.
Example: Simplistically, the impulse behind "my guy tries to hit that guy"; complexly, "I would like to play a scene in which that guy wants to seduce that guy."

Validation Interaction - The System Validates the Story. While the concrete output of the System feeds into the articulation interaction, the abstract output of the System feeds into the validation interaction. Whatever "happens" in the Imagined may have thematic implications for the Story. This may plainly validate the Story, or it may complicate that validity with qualifications and exceptions. This is the corrolary to Steering; it is the game's response to player propositions.
Another interaction based from the System, and therefore often privileged -- the Lumpley Principle applies here as it does for the articulation interaction. The System will determine who is allowed to interpret the significance of the System's output, and may also provide some guidelines for that interpretation.
Example: Joey fails to win the race. Does this mean he did not try enough? Would he have won if he trained more? Is he now a failure, or will it give him the resolve to try again, thus justifying his self-confidence?

I am going to suggest that every single thing that the players do around the table is one or more interactions. Obviously, that sort of blanket statement requires some extensive thought and testing, but at the moment, I'm pretty sure: this is what players do. When things are going good, the things the players do reinforce all three aspects.

Round and Round

As the diagram implies, the interactions feed into eachother into self-reinforcing circles. The two obvious circles are the outside, or Widdershins, circle, and the inside, or Sunwise, circle. Note that the processes do not necessarily 'start' at any one aspect as depicted below. I am unfortunately bound by the rules of grammar, which state that sentences must start somewhere.

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Widdershins (Outside) Circle - The players' preferences and interests (Story) color their understanding (Imbue) of the setting and their own characters (Imagined), which prompts them to use selected elements of that setting and their characters (Fuel) in order to determine what happens (System), the answers to which reinforce or complicate (Validate) the things they cared about in the first place (Story).
Example: I have an interest in the concepts of honor and duty (Story), and so I apply (Imbue) the principles of bushido onto my modern-day character (Imagined). This constrains my character's options (Fuel) when taking actions (System), thereby expressing (Validating) the elements that I am interested in (Story).

Sunwise (Inside) Circle - Based on what is important to the players (Story), they make decisions (Steering) that are adjudicated by various rules and rituals (System). The results are interpreted (Articulation) into "what happens" (Imagined), which juxtaposes elements of characters and setting (Contextualization) to develop the new meaning (Story).
Example: Because I want to develop my character's relationship with my father (Story), I decide to spend game-currency (Steering) to begin a new scene (System). I describe the scene (Articulation) as a family barbeque (Imagined). The characters' conversation further informs (Contextualization) their relationship and the father/daughter dynamic (Story).

Note that it's also patently possible for 'flow' to go in more complex shapes than these two circles. A sequence of interactions could go, for instance, Imbue -> Contextualize -> Imbue -> Fuel -> Articulate -> Contextualize. The key is that each interaction strengthens the aspects that are involved in the interaction, either by developing it, by reconciling differences between players' conceptions, or both.

Complements

Just as the diagram suggests the circular reinforcement, players can also perform interactions in both directions at the same time. This sort of 'reaching around' to the other side of the diagram exposes combinations of interactions which are complementary to eachother.

Validation Interaction complemented by Articulation and Contextualization Interactions - The System's validation or qualification of the Story is abstract; that validation is expressed by the System's results articulating the details of the Imagined in order to recontextualize the significance of the Story.
Example: I have my guy attack the enemy base because I think that's heroic. I get a terrible die roll. That wasn't heroic; that was stupid (Validation Interaction). My guy gets shot up and captured (Articulation) putting him at the mercy of the enemy (Contextualization).

Steering Interaction complemented by Imbuing and Fuel Interactions - The dictates of the Story not only determine what events I want to happen, but they prioritize elements of the Imagined in order to provide the tools with which to make those events possible.
Example: I'm playing 7th Sea. I want to swash some buckle. So I declare my guy is going to swing from the chandelier, land on some mooks, and cut his initials into the villain's shirt (Steering). That there is a fundamental difference between mooks and villains and that there is a chandelier ripe for swinging on are Imbuing Interactions. That I can use that chandelier as a vehicle and the mooks as a landing pad are Fuel Interactions.

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Imbue Interaction complemented by Steering and Articulation Interactions - What is important to me is terribly idiosyncratic, and must be communicated to the other players. Imbuing can be ineffible, but I have tools which allow me to steer the System into articulating the Imagined in meaningful ways.
Example: I am intrigued by how Doctor Hudson might have been active in my character's amnesiac past (Imbuing). So I have my character interrogate the good Doctor (Steering) in order to make him explain his motivations (Articulation).

Contextualization Interaction complemented by Fuel and Validation Interactions - The Imagined details which qualify and develop the Story also provide functional effects which the System can use to validate the Story.
Example: The last remnants of the Revolution are surrounded by hostile Monarchist forces (Contextualization). Those soldiers and cannons (Fuel) will shoot the hell out of anyone who tries to escape (Validation).

Fuel Interaction complemented by Contextualization and Steering Interactions - Elements of the Imagined which have a "game effect" in the System are also elements of the Imagined which bear on the Story and delimit or open the possibilities of player action.
Example: My guy's sword gives him a +9 against ogres (Fuel). At the same time, his possession of the sword makes him a fantasy hero (Contextualization) which means he is one to fight ogres (Steering).

Articulation Interaction complemented by Validation and Imbuing Interactions - The development of what happens in the Imagined is mirrored by the System's validation of Story emphases, which in turn imbue the events happening in the Imagined.
Example: We have suceeded in destroying the third Death Star (Articulation). This bodes well for the Rebellion (Validation) and hereafter the destruction of the Death Star will be a powerful rallying point (Imbuing).

Dysfunction

Now, all of these are 'perfect world' examples, where the interactions available to the players harmonize well, and both develop and reconcile the Imagined, System, and Story. We all well know, however, that real gaming often goes awry.

Dysfunction occurs when one or more of the three aspects go 'out of alignment' between players. When the players begin having different Imagined content, different Systems, and different Stories, and do not effectively communicate these to the other players, the result is dysfunctional play. This is a somewhat broader definition of function and dysfunction than the Forge uses. Function is not 'create fun', it is 'create shared imaginings which are fun'. Munchkin creates fun; that doesn't mean it's a functioning roleplaying game.

Because the three aspects are reconciled through the interactions, when they diverge the interactions must be at fault. I submit that (most?) dysfunctions occur when one of two things happen: (a) interactions are missing, or (b) interactions that should complement eachother do not. Here's a few dysfunctions and how they 'map' onto aspects and interactions.

Railroading A dysfunction in which the System (usually a ritual component, sometimes published rules) gives the GM absolute control over all Validation interactions while the Story still allows all players access to Steering. The players make decisions which have no bearing on the reconcile-and-develop process. The lack of feedback creates dysfunction -- the players might be wildly steering left, but the GM keeps heading right, invalidating their interactions.

Prima Donna One player monopolizes Steering interactions and the Steering->Articulation process, in order to insist on their Imbued meaning. Sort of a player-based Railroading.

Illusionism A not-quite dysfunction, as many people enjoy rattling around in a tightly-constrained game, this situation is where the GM has strong control over most articulation interactions, setting up elements of the Imagined in such a way that they contextualize the characters and story to delimit viable player options in steering interactions. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just limited in scope (ice cream shops aren't bad because they only sell ice cream, after all).

Deprotagonizing of Characters A dysfunction where a player's Imbuing interaction is not complemented by available Steering and Articulating interactions. Either he is prevented from using appropriate Steering interactions (in a game where the GM frames all scenes, for instance) or the articulation System results are interpreted in protagonism-denying ways (not that you missed, but that you didn't really want to shoot in the first place).

Pervy Another not-quite dysfunction, a "pervy" or High Points of Contact game occurs when Articulation and Validation interactions (ie, those interactions derived from the System) are not fully provided by the mental construct of System, and must be supplied or refreshed from the published material. This can be frustrating, since the Imbuing and Contextualization interactions, which are independent of the System, are often running full tilt while the rulebook is being consulted, tying up their complements.

Impossible Thing Before Breakfast The proposition that the GM has "control" of the Story via privileged access to interactions derived from the System (which is tilted towards her) and the Imagined (of which she is the supposed arbiter). The GM's privileged access does not interfere with the players' ability to Imbue the Imagined with their own meaning or to Steer the System to do what they want -- the players' efforts just get battered with brutal Validation interactions and often hackneyed Articulation->Contextualization arches by the GM, who is procedurally refusing to recognize the players' Story (ie, what is important to them).

Parenthetical Open Questions

The relative size and complexity of each aspect, and whether there are other aspects-of-significant-importance within the roleplaying activity, is pretty much an open question at this point. We know about these three. Maybe there are others. I don't know how they interact with these three yet, mostly because I don't know what they are.

Conclusions?

Needless to say, this is a work in progress. Right now I'd like to keep it here on my blog, so while I appreciate comments and feedback, please don't quote it elsewhere while it's still in its infant stages. Content is continually changing.

The strength of any model is not so much that it accurately describes what it hopes to, but that it can correctly predict operations and effectively correct those operations when they go wrong. Assuming that this model is accurate, we should be able to more precisely puzzle out what it is we are doing and to correct our practices when they are not resulting in the all-important reconcile-and-develop function of roleplaying. This model is only worthwhile if it helps us make roleplaying better.

I do believe, however, that this model offers an evocative paradigm from which to talk about roleplaying. The model is not roleplaying -- it's a map depicting roleplaying. Just as there are physical, political, and demographic maps out there, this is an interactive map: it maps out the interactions between three aspects of roleplaying. It answers -- or at least attempts to answer -- the question of "what do the players do, and how are those actions relevant?" It answers "What is this thing that we do when we say that we're roleplaying?"

We are sharing bits and pieces of our imagination, offering them back and forth, accepting them and challenging them, validating them and qualifying them, trying to create something that is both shared and interesting.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leaving the Big Model and GNS

Recently I've become rather disenchanted with Ron Edwards' Big Model. Specifically, I started getting annoyed at the fetishization that the Big Model seems to inspire at the Forge -- all roleplaying games must explicitly and profoundly support one of the approved (or, excuse me, recognized) Creative Agendas or else it's broken! This led me to start delving into the specifics of the Big Model, at which point I discovered that it only purports to describe "Coherent Roleplay," defined as roleplay that fulfills a Creative Agenda.

Creative Agendas, in turn, are something of a sociological snapshot, three different ways that roleplayers have been observed to consistently enjoy themselves. Not exactly the most solid foundation to base value judgments on -- "Coherent" roleplay includes only roleplay that fulfills one of three desires that have previously been observed. Whether or not there are any other gamer-desires that exist out in the world, or even other gamer-desires that could be fulfilled through roleplaying, is patently overlooked. There is only three "coherent" ways to play, and if you're not coherent, what the hell is wrong with you?

Now, I should take a moment to step back and make clear that I'm reacting to what I've seen in general in most of the posts on the Forge. Ron himself has always been very careful to hold open the possibility of other Creative Agendas and to state that inCoherent roleplay is not necessarily dysfunctional (ie bad) roleplay. So he's by no means claiming that if you don't follow his model you're wrong -- it's just the default assumption of a lot of posters at the Forge. Ironically, they've shifted the meaning of Coherence to fit something more like Adherence; the original term meant "make sure you produce what you want to produce" but now it means -- functionally -- "make sure you produce one of the three approved flavors."

In any case, my story goes further and the current state of the Forge is only tangentially related. It's still, for reference, a great place full of good people and a whole ton of resources. I'll still be reading and posting -- I'll just be reading and posting with a thick dogma filter on.

So it turns out the Big Model is definitionally constrained to only deal with a certain segment of the vast sea of roleplaying. I reflected how much I preferred the old-school GNS Model, with the GNS triangle that attempted to describe all roleplay everywhere on the basis of to what extent the players were interested in Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist modes. Back then, you could play more than one mode at a time. The intent of the GNS essay and subsequent discussions were also broader and more ambitious -- the goal was to start talking about roleplaying in precise terms, to explore how it really worked, and to develop better games based on that understanding. The subsequent lexicon that was developed did a great deal for roleplaying game design, and is still kicking out great innovations.

But here's the thing: ye olde GNS Model is based on the same foundation that the Big Model is. Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism are all observed tropes of behavior and stated desires. The entire model that is supposed to describe roleplaying games is based on the finite results of a survey of the people who play them. After a lot of thrashing it out in my head, I have to conclude that neither model is about roleplaying games at all -- they're about the people who play them. While gaming is a social activity and therefore the players are an important piece, they are not the entire thing. It's the difference between Siskel & Ebert, who talked about the movies they reviewed, and Entertainment Tonight, which talks about the actors and actresses and their celebrity lives. Siskel & Ebert was about movies -- Entertainment Tonight is not.

I don't want to abandon everything, though -- there have demonstrably been insights and improvements, and we have seen great developments. I just think we're working on a ladder that's missing a number of rungs and won't get us to the top floor. Presently I'm working under the theory that Ron did observe something worthwhile in his GNS distinction, but misidentified it, or made too simple of an identification. That some people are interested in Story, some in the Game, and some in the Simulation, might signify that the Story, the Game, and the Simulation are three large aspects of the thing known as roleplaying. Just as everybody has their favorite Spice Girl, most gamers have their favorite aspect of roleplaying. But we can use that picking of favorites as a signpost that those 'aspects' exist. The next step, I figure, is to consider these three aspects, how they relate to eachother, and whether there are any other pieces that go into it. Then I'll try and identify such aspects in as many different kinds of roleplay as I can. Or, you know, I'll lose interest in it tomorrow.

Such is life.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Art

Someone somewhere in the game-design-o-sphere said that they got the most impetus to finish their book by buying art; once real money was involved, they wanted to get the book printed so that money didn't 'go to waste'. I put together an Art Guidelines package and sent it off to a couple artists, one of whom is in turn sending it off to others he knows.

Package contains:
- Art Specs (what I want, what I don't want, parameters of content)
- Reference Photos of period naval uniforms
- Sample text (a flavor piece destined for the Introduction)
- A short movie of a rough 3-D rendering of a Solar Steamer

We'll see. (Eager!)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

FLFS Part 3: Playing the Game

As Chris has put out his ideal outline for Making Round Wheels, I thought I'd post the outline of Full Light, Full Steam's Part 3: Playing the Game.

(Parts 1 and 2 comprise the first five chapters of the book, so this outline starts at Chapter 6.)

  1. The First Session
    1. Social Contract (Discussion)
      1. Roles Around the Table
      2. Power Around the Table
      3. Comfort Zones
      4. Expectations (Goals and Input)

    2. Game Structure (Discussion)
      1. Troupe Play
      2. Solo Play
      3. Multiple GMs
      4. Online Play
      5. One-Shots

    3. Character Creation (done concurrently)
      1. Power Level (Allocating Currency)
      2. Concept & Niche
      3. Thematic Batteries (Ammo Selection)
      4. Attributes and Skills (Spending Currency)

    4. Setting Creation (done collaboratively)
      1. Ship or Port Creation
      2. Superior Officer Creation


  2. Storymapping
    1. Conflict (Ammo Inclusion)
      1. ...from Player Expectations
      2. ...from Thematic Batteries
      3. ...from Character Histories
      4. ...from Setting

    2. Story Elements
      1. NPCs
      2. Challenges
      3. Obstacles
      4. Sets
      5. Props

    3. Developing the Storymap
    4. Resolution


  3. Roleplay (Procedures for Actual Play)
    1. Narration (Talking at the Table)

    2. Direction (Shifting credibility around the Table)
      1. General Rules
      2. Interruption (Shifting via Dice)
      3. Delegation (GM disbursing GM tasks)

    3. Checks
      1. Static Checks
      2. Dynamic Checks
      3. Cooperative Checks
      4. Using Thematic Batteries (Ammo Being Used)
      5. Condition Batteries (Health, Grace, &Will)


  4. Between Sessions
    1. Feedback
    2. Character Development (XP)
    3. Bluebooking


There are lots of similarities -- we've been thinking along parallel lines -- and some departures.

While it may appear that what Chris calls "Ammo" is not given much emphasis, this is more-or-less embedded in the game mechanics as Thematic Batteries. Much like stunting in Exalted, they have relatively little real estate on the page, but (should) become the focus once they start working in Actual Play. I wish the most important things took up more pages than the less important things, but this simply isn't the case -- thirty Skill descriptions will be longer than any (functional) description of how to shift credibility around the table.

Also, Chapter 9: Between Sessions provides what I think is a pretty essential piece that Chris missed: Feedback and Reinforcement. Any good system, whether it's a machine, an organism, or a social structure, needs to constantly evaluate its performance, keep doing what's going right and stop doing what's going wrong. Explicitly setting aside time at the end of each session for the players to discuss what they liked and what they didn't like should do this. I have players reinforcing behavior they liked by giving eachother XP, and identifying problems with "Feedback" discussions. This also allows for some scene-request goodness and helping to shape the future direction of the ongoing game.

Discovery, Suspense, and Illusionism

When I play World of Warcraft, my favorite aspect is the continual discovery of new content -- I love exploring new areas and delving into new quests and dungeons and instances. Now, because of the way that WoW is structured with an Alliance and a Horde game running side-by-side, my favorite characters are the two 'in the lead' on both sides: my highest-level Horde character and my highest-level Alliance character. My other characters in the game, which are following after the 'leaders,' are better constructed, with intentional design goals in mind, get more focused RP, are members of guilds, and so forth. In almost every metric, they are 'better' characters. But my original guys, the ones who will discover something new and interesting over the next hill, are the ones that still appeal to me the most.

It occured to me today as I was reading some hate-thread about Illusionism that that sense of discovery that I like so much in WoW is perhaps the thing that so many gamers are constantly trying to replicate. They remember those heady first days of gaming where they didn't know the system back and forth, didn't know how many hit points that dragon had, but they ran in and fought the dragon without knowing what was going to happen and hey, they slew the dragon and took all his gold! They were scared and excited and curious and vindicated. That sort of play experience is difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to acheive again once you understand the inner workings of the system and setting. You can't have that measure of suspense and uncertainty when the game you are playing is a universe of certainties.

I am beginning to think that Illusionism is the best bet (or at least the most common attempt) to recapture that heady heart-in-throat sensation. Part of suspense is not being in control, and a large part of Illusionism is giving up control to the GM. Take a look at WoW, which provides that sense of suspense and discovery using Illusionist techniques. While your hero can ostensibly "go wherever you like", there are two pretty strong forces that prevent you from running willy-nilly across the landscape: the first are mountains that you can't climb over, and the second are large and deadly monsters that will kill you if you venture in "too high" of an area at too low of a level. The game controls discovery (which is accomplished by moving around) by limiting movement, but it does so in Illusionist ways -- the mountains and the monsters are both plausible in-setting elements that nonetheless are there to control player initiative.

Most of the arguments that rail against Illusionism decry the lack of player power, the fact that you are "trapped" in the GM's story, that players do not create, only respond. While all of those are exactly spot-on, those are not necessarily bad things. There are -- as has been proven by many sales and the continuation of the hobby -- a whole hell of a lot of people who really like that kind of play. Not everybody wants to be in charge, or be partly in charge, or be responsible for creating things. It's terribly unamerican to say, but some people (most people) really want someone else to be in charge and want to be given tight guidelines of what they can do. Some people want to experience a story that somebody else is writing. And that is a perfectly acceptable desire. It's not wrong for people to want that -- it's just problematic when that is forced on people that don't want it. And hence the hate that Illusionism seems to attract.

If discovery and suspense are what many gamers are after, and Illusionism is one of the best ways to provide that, then why do we hate Illusionism so? Can't we recognize that there is a very big difference between "creating a world collaboratively so that we can experience it" and "experiencing a world of the GM's creation"? It's almost as wide a gulf as exists between the three recognized Creative Agendas. It's not that Illusionism is "broken" or "square-wheeled" -- it's that it's attempting to provide a different experience than games that encourage more creative participation -- because not everybody wants the onus of that creative participation, even if most us game designers do.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A Short Note on Iterative Rolls and Probabilities

When a game's combat system calls for a lot of rolls to resolve one combat (which in Forgish is called Task Resolution), this reinforces the probability curve of success and failure. On one roll there's always the chance of something going terribly wrong or incredibly right (critical failures and critical successes in many games). If the one roll stands in for the entirety of the attempt, then the entirery of the attempt is assumed to be a critical result. In a series of those same rolls, the chances that one critical will happen are increased while the chances that every single roll will be a critical are drastically decreased. In short, the multiple-roll combat is (a) more predictable but (b) more likely to include critical results. It also helps to reduce character death, since game mechanic probabilities are usually very slightly skewed towards the PCs or at least the defender.

Full Light, Full Steam uses one-roll combat (and all other conflict resolution), but the "dangers" of unpredictably deadly results are mitigated by a couple factors. First off, the die mechanic is very predictable itself, with your typical results varying only one or two points along a ten point scale. There are few surprises (until you add in Thematic Batteries, which are totally under player control anyway, so there's variance, it's just player-controlled rather than dice-fiat). Secondly, and I think rather importantly, while the one-roll combat will tell you if you won or lost the fight, it rather explicitly does not kill the loser. I could rant at length on the topic of disengaging 'loss' with 'death' but I won't here. The point of the matter is, the dangers of one-roll conflict resolution are, in this example, mitigated, and the process (hopefully) will provide quick resolution while still allowing the players the chance to elaborate and experience all the turnabouts that they are used to enjoying.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Games, Instructions, and the Lack Thereof (Constructive)

So after going on at the mouth about the subject, and flying off into the heady heights of abstraction, I thought I might come back down to the ground with some concrete examples. My current project, Full Light, Full Steam, offers some rules for the disposition of power around the table, and gives direction (Lumpley calls it credibility) to different players through its game mechanics. It says that players are responsible for their characters, and the Game Master is responsible for everything else -- responsible, but able to delegate tasks to other players. It does not have rules on who says what, it does not have rules on who is in charge, it does not have rules on how a specific instance of play works. It's up to the players* around the table to decide that, and the power to make those decisions is explicitly put in the players' hands.

While FLFS does not offer rules, it does direct the players to sit down and discuss what they want out of the game before anybody makes characters and before the GM prepares the adventure. It offers some talking points about what people expect from the game; it does advise talking about comfort zones. It outlines a few variants of play including troupe play, multiple GMs, solo play, online play, bluebooking, and the like. There are no rules about how this discussion happens -- players don't take turns adding one statement to the list of game expectations or suchlike -- cause call me idealistic, but I assume my players are able to hold a civil conversation with each other. I also assume that players can and will enjoy the "First Session" as the chapter is called. I believe that the First Session, even if no player ever acts in character, is still part of the roleplaying experience -- just as the pitch, script-writing, and casting call are as much parts of the moviemaking experience as the filming and acting.

What I've got isn't the same old traditional set-up, but it's not revolutionary, either. Take another look at your GURPS book sometime and you'll notice sections on the Antagonist, who is sort of a GM-player hybrid that runs the opposition for the players. You'll find suggestions for troupe play, and for sharing GM tasks. The primary difference between that game and mine is that GURPS is not explicit (as of 3rd Edition) whereas FLFS will be. Otherwise, the design aesthetic is the same: "Hello! Thanks for buying this book and giving my game a try. You can play it however you like; here are some pieces and tools that you can use to build whatever you can imagine. Have fun!"

* By "players" I mean everyone around the table, including the Game Master.

Games, Instructions, and the Lack Thereof (Rant)

There is much talk elsewhere about roleplaying games, the instructions for them, and what it means when the instructions do not lay out in excruciating detail every facet of play you will ever experience in playing the game. While I agree with the basic idea -- that a game's rules should support the kind of play the game is supposed to deliver -- I find the current argument to be straying into hyperbole.

I played with Legos as a kid. A whole lot. And then when I started gaming, I latched onto GURPS very quickly. The parallels are easy to see -- here are the pieces and the tools, go do what you want with them. The point of playing Legos was not what you did with the airplane that you built; the point of playing Legos was building the airplane and then flying it around. That was fun. So too was it fun to design an airplane with GURPS Vehicles and then "fly it around" in a campaign. Much like Legos, you didn't even really need to fly the airplane around in order to enjoy the experience of building it. That was still fun.

Legos come with instructions. I threw them out. Very occasionally I'd make whatever the instructions laid out, but almost immediately thereafter I would see a "better" way of doing it and rearrange the pieces to my liking. I'd add pieces from other sets; I'd remove pieces that I didn't like. That was fun. When we played GURPS, we very rarely used their published settings. We still bought those books, but we mostly bought them to break them apart and play with the pieces. So while we played in "Tredroy" it looked a whole lot like Cyberpunk. That was fun -- and I don't mean just the Actual Play of knocking about manapunk Tredroy. Making the alternate setting was fun. Sometimes more fun than the Actual Play. And it really didn't matter. It was still fun.

Presently there is a lot of focus on Actual Play, and this is a good thing, because it's been mostly ignored historically, at least in terms of published materials. The rules that govern Actual Play have been a mish-mosh of traditions, habits, and techniques passed from GM to GM to Player to GM through word of mouth. These rules have been idiosyncratic to specific playgroups, and half of the reason why Game A and Game B felt almost identical when played with the same group. The rules of Actual Play never changed even if the setting and game mechanics did. So it's nice that we're looking at Actual Play, now, because it loosens some of that up and allows us to do other things with our roleplaying. But here's the thing:

Actual Play is not Roleplaying.

Actual Play is a part of the entire roleplaying experience. It could even be argued that it usually accounts for the majority of that experience -- but it's not the whole experience. Off the top of my head, here are a few other elements: character generation, campaign set-up, bluebooking, spending XP, fantasizing about your characters while at work, and so on. These are not Actual Play, and yet they are still part of roleplaying. I have a friend who can't really be "in character" until he draws a satisfactory picture of his character. To him, that's part of roleplaying, too. And here's the important part -- those parts are fun.

And then there's folks like me -- and there's a lot of us -- who also enjoy making up and optimizing the rules. We like to experiment with alternative ways to set up power relationships between players around the table. We like to see what happens when we hand off GMing duties back and forth. If you are reading this blog, there's a good chance that you're one of us, because one of the things we like to do is design games. And that, to a rather large extent, is part of roleplaying, too. And that is fun, too.

Now, there certainly are some games -- even a lot of games -- that do not include rules and guidelines for parts of the game that they really should have included. Gee, oversights in publishing in the roleplaying "industry"? Who would have thought? But that lack is not always unintentional, and that lack is not always a flaw. There are some games -- games such as GURPS, Risus, and HeroQuest -- that don't lay out the whole shebang and tell you how to do everything. In such games, figuring things out and making up rules and procedures are part -- even a large part -- of the fun of roleplaying. In Forge-speak, this may fall under "Exploration of System" -- the social structure of rules and procedures that govern the roleplay can be just as complex, fascinating, and labile as the game mechanics. You can play with them, and you can have fun doing so.

A roleplaying game does not need to be some sort of dictator that lays down rules and regulations for everything. All a published product needs to do is offer a playgroup some material to work with. Maybe the material comes with instructions that can be used to make a specific roleplaying experience. That's great. But the lack of those instructions does not make the product "broken", does not mean it's no longer a roleplaying game, does not categorically invalidate the roleplaying game's design goals. There is a very big difference between offering rules that don't create the desired game experience and not offering rules that create the desired game experience. Let me say that again, set off so it's front and center:

There is a very big difference between offering rules that don't create the desired game experience and not offering rules that create the desired game experience.

A game is broken if the rules that it provides are detrimental to the game experience they are supposed to provide; a game is not necessarily broken if it does not offer rules to create the game experience you want to achieve. Roleplaying has always been a DiY hobby -- the fun is your responsibility to create. Sometimes that fun comes from the setup as much as the "Actual Play".