Monday, August 29, 2005

Interaction Model - Version the First


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.


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.


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.


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).


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).


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.


At 7:54 AM, Blogger Vincent Baker said...

Hey Joshua.

I've posted a pointer to this, with a very brief commentary, on my blog, here: Joshua BishopRoby on Rules.

At 8:37 AM, Blogger Adam Dray said...

Cool stuff! Keep it going. I've been following your work as it develops. That said:

Where are the players in your model? How can the System interact with the Imagined except via a player?

I think once you add in the players, you add 6 new interactions and end up with a hub model instead of a wheel.

All that aside, I think you really ought to check out ...

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Adam -- None of these elements exist independently of the players. The aspects are in the minds of the players and the interactions are the things that the players do. The players are all over the Interaction Model; they're so all over the place that they can't be put in any one place simply labelled 'players'.

Vincent -- Thanks for the shout-out, and you're right: your commentary is very brief! ;)

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi La Lud,

I'm only half way through, but this seems to be a very accurate representation of play. Very cool.


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


Kick. Ass.

I will ponder, but I like this model a great deal right off the bat.


At 12:15 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Okay, having talked with Mo about some of this, I have a few initial thoughts.

1. There is a degree to which you seem to asume that everyone is clear on the three points in their own head. There is a divide between the people at the table, but inside their own heads they are clear on what they want.

In my experience this is not the case. Many players don't have a clear goal, have a haze to the imagined and system in their own head. In fact, many abused players are so deeply divided about their own goals that things have, in a real way, started going wrong before they even hit the table. If a single persons goal is schitzo, then they will interact in an uneven and posibly divisive manner with the rest of the model.

This could create dysfunction not because there is a disjunction between points of interaction, or even between players, but within one of the points for a single player with themselves.

This, I think, is one of the areas where GNS tries to pick up the slack and make focused goals. However, I don't think it is neccisary to go GNS here, as I think CA is bigger than the GNS model.

So, my question becomes, can this model help a single player to focus and define their own goal -- or will a player with a divided MPD goal end up creating dysfunction because they steer/imbue erratically?

And if it won't help them, how do we get to that point?

(One of the things Mo suggested is that System should not come after goal and imagined have been introduced -- as it does in much traditional RP. Something like Polaris keywords system being used durring character/world/goal generation to allow the whole model to work together from the very start may be a good thing.)

2. Is goal just CA, or are you accounting for Social Agenda as well? What happens when someone's primary goal is to hang out with their friends and talky talk? How does that interact with the model? Or is the model only effective when dealing with a situation where everyone's social goal is to sit down and have a joint fun/intesnse experience of play/storybuilding as a goal of its own?

3. Where does the emotional tone and feedback of a game come from? There is more to the emotions and social feedback of a game than just function/dysfunction, and there needs to be a way to account for where the interactions between players as emotional entities conflict with the other players as emotional entities. Is that part of the model, or is it beyond what you're looking at?

Could a fourth point be something like emotional feedback? Meta-talk? Things that happen between players beyond the context of just the game?

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Chris.

Brand -- three responses:
1) I'll have to fix the language, and probably add a bit about incomplete conceptions of the aspects, because while I did not speak about it directly, that does work under the model. As there's always the guy that memorizes all the rules, there are the players who don't, and have an incomplete System in their heads. We've all had play experiences where one player thinks the badguy's on the other side of the wall and one player thinks the badguy's within reach. And yeah, MPD Goal is really really common. All of this certainly creates dissonance. One thing that I'd like to point out, though, is that as a self-correcting system, these divergent understandings gradually become aligned under functional play. The rules-ignorant start to pick up the rules; you correct the guy who thinks the badguy's out of reach; I'll even go so far as to say that as good players play together, they teach eachother how to create and maintain goals. I've certainly seen this happen -- how else do we induct new gamers into the hobby?

To your more puissant point -- how does this model help -- I'd say that really understanding the dynamics of what's going on at the table -- identifying when validation happens, watching how contextualization works, et cetera -- will help the people who have 'hazy aspects' to clarify things, and it will assist the other players at the table in giving the hazy folks strong guidance towards reconciliation. Hopefully, it will also give us game designers the understanding to create the tools that the players will use to do this, too.

(And I agree with Mo, and one of the things I've already seen in my game design since I started on this model is knitting all three aspects together better, so System, say, isn't just tacked on but is an integral part of the whole).

2) Goal is not CA. Goal can be 'hang out with friends'. Goal can be 'impress Molly cause she's cute'. Goal can also be 'impress Molly with this awesome story about unrequited love'. While I don't have much use for the CAs these days, you could say they're broad categories of some types of Goals. Goals are much more specific and much broader than the Three.

In any case, if your goal is 'hang out and talk' then your imbuing and especially steering will seek out ways to faciliate lots of in-character chatting and ways to extend the experience indefinately (sound like a social MUSHer's priorities much? ;).

3) I'm not entirely certain what you mean by your third question. I suspect most of that has to do with Imbuing and Validation, and secondarily with Steering and Contextualization -- in other words, it's Goal material. Can you give me a specific example of what you're talking about and we can try to map it?

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Okay, for the third aspect: When we would play Tribe 8, there would be times when I would stop the game to talk to players who were having problems not with the system or the imagined events, or possibly with their goal, but with their reactions to the game.

When someone in the game would get crying and be afraid they were making a fool of themselves, or would freak out because the thing they wanted to do might not be supported by the game, or when I was gettind depressed and having a hard time playing, we would always make and take time to support each other as emotional people having emotional reactions.

I suppose it could happen someplace between goals and system -- as part of our system could be to emotionally validate each other on an ad-hoc basis, but it doesn't seem to fit fully under the current model. It was something, I suppose, that could have been my goal as well -- but if so then goal is becoming a very cluttered area.

(Or any current model, many of which spend a lot of time dealing with CA and the rational theory of how game works without looking at the Social Context of playing with Geeks and all their Geek falicies and how the inability to express emotional needs towards game stunts and channels energy.)

As to the model being self-correcting, I think it has the potential to be, but I do not see that it inherently is. It could just as easily lead to increasing dysfunction as once the model goes off track it becomes increasingly likely to stay off track. And while you now have a way to map functional play vs dysfunctional play (well, you don't quite -- but you're getting there fast), I'd like to see some work done about how you actually use the knowledge the model gives you to fix the situations when they go wrong. Having the knowledge of the theory of how something should work and the technical skill to fix it when it really doesn't work are not, after all, the same thing.

Anyway, I hope you see what I'm getting at. Eventually, as you distill things, I think you'll need to take a closer look at exactly what goes into the three areas -- especially goals -- but the start is certainly the most promising I've seen in a long time.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger John Kim said...

I have some issues with your definition of dysfunction. You define dysfunction as differences between player experience -- i.e. of imagined content, system, or stories. A question: do you have much experience with larping? I say that because I find that larpers tend to quickly accept that everyone's experience of a game may be different, and often embrace that as a potentially positive trait.

A great example of clashing imagining is Matt Turnbull's scenario Singular Space (in his column Fill in the Gap). (Warning: the link has spoilers for a cool scenario.) There even in a simultaneous tabletop game you have different players imagining different things based on the same player statements.

Also, I am concerned that you put Illusionism and Perviness under "Dysfunction" even though you say they are not. Yes, they are limited in scope, but all play is limited in scope in one way or another.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


Wouldn't it only be dysfunction if the difference between players understanding of aspects is such that it causes them to lose fun or constantly miscommunicate in play?

I mean the theory states that people will never have the exact same experience, so it stands to reason that not having the same experience alone cannot be dysfunction. It's only a problem when the degree of seperation is such that the feedback cycle is stopped.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Brand --

As for dealing emotionally with the game, strictly speaking, I don't think that's part of the game any more than your emotional reaction to a play or to a sport is part of the play or the sport. I mean, it's great that players have an emotional connection to the game -- that doesn't make the emotional connection a part of the game.

Ideally, we want to create experiences that engage us emotionally, but I don't think that those emotions are part of the thing we're trying to create. They are inspired by the experience we create. That the players are people and need to take some time out, or like to talk about things, or whatever, is the same as theater-goers talking about the play during the intermission. Their conversations are not part of the play, strictly speaking.

That is, at least, my response at first blush. We'll see how it develops.

Now both Brand and John, on self-correction and dysfunction --

Yes, Brand, the system described by the model can go awry, in fact can do so rather easily. In some ways, I think that's a testament to the power of the elements that roleplaying works with.

And John, when I say the function of roleplaying is to reconcile the players' conceptions of the three aspects, I don't mean that it's an end-run with the result of everyone thinking exactly the same thing. Cause that? That's scary-land group-think. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that roleplaying is the process of reconciling and developing the players' conceptions of the aspects. It's never done, and there is always bits that are different among players. When it works, however, there is enough that is the same or similar that the players can reasonably say that they shared something common to all their experiences.

To take it a step further, divergences between the players' aspects fulfill the second half of the reconcile-and-develop equation. To mangle McLuhan, information is data that is unexpected. We can't add anything to our understandings of the three aspects unless it's something that we did not already have in there. That 'new stuff' is provided by the other players (and sometimes the ruleset), and incorporating their content with yours develops your conception of each aspect. In this way, the differences between the players is as important as the similiarities between them -- the addition of difference creates meaning while the foundation of similarities makes the experience sharable.

And in the end, it's a balancing act -- how much new and different stuff, how much difference between the players, can the system handle? It needs some in order to stay interesting, but if it has too much, it blows apart into meaninglessness. Most of the interactions I mapped out are attempts to channel that energy of differences into the reconcile-and-develop loop.

I think I answered both Brand and John there, but I may be talking only to myself.

Illusionism and Pervy-ness under Dysfunction was probably a mistake, I agree. That latter section I'm still unhappy with, and I envision heavy editing in its future.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

La Lud,

You got my other points pretty well, but I cannot agree that the emotional connection is not part of the game. In fact, I must argue that it is the core and heart of the game. If not for emotional reaction, for some kind of need towards and from game, we would not be playing. People do not parcipate in activities that do not emotionally fulfill them, and emotionality is very much a part of sport. (Think both of all the 'you must have heart' and 'you must love the game' along with movies like 'Friday Night Lights' which show how much a part of the American heart and pysche sports are.) They aren't a part dealt with in the rules of the game, for sure, but they are a part of what makes the sports something that becomes a cultural obessesion.

Plus, sports and chess are like RPGs in some ways, and very much unlike them in others. The emotions of the other players in an RPG are much more a part of the experience than those of athletes or chess masters because, in RPGs one of the things many (the majority of players in my experience) are going for is an emotional reaction based upon the joint experience.

If we discount emotion as part of the model, I do not believe that we will find a path to functional or satisfying play. Be it part of goal or system, or something simply on another level of the game's structure, the emotional connections/interactions of the players are a core element of what makes RPGs work and not work.

I will think more on this, and post on Yud's dice when I have more to say.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

P.S. For an example of emotions influencing play see my tale of RPing with my wife and mother in law. Do you think that minus the mother/daughter function/dysfunction the game would have come out the same?

Or, consider what the Tribe 8 games would have been like had the players not been openly supported when they had emotional reactions. Do you think that, minus that support the whole cycle would have continued the same way?

At 7:30 PM, Blogger xenopulse said...

Hi Joshua,

Quick question: Where do reward cycles fit into this?

- Christian

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Hey, xenopulse.

Most reward systems use a lot of validation interactions, whether it's something 'tangible' like XP (spending XP is steering, however), showing how clever and effective you are, or simply the satisfaction of seeing the story go your way.

However -- there are other methods. Access to Validation's complement, Articulation->Contextualization, can also serve as a reward. Lots of games give narration rights as a reward, for instance. Capes rewards players with additional characters, which is pure Articulation (the addition of new elements).

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Brand, I mistook what you referred to as 'emotion' for 'emotional response to a product' like a reader reading a book. This was bad of me. I compared it to spectator sports, which generates an emotional response to a performance. This was morally reprehensible, and truly, I am less of a human being. (This is sarcasm, folks; I hate missing obvious things.)

Roleplaying does not primarily produce a product, nor is it primarily a performance. Roleplaying is a process, and emotional responses to it will be framed in terms of the emotional response of a participant involved in the process -- we are not the readers and spectators, we are the authors and athletes.

Now I have to think about what that means.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger John Kim said...

Joshua BishopRoby wrote: And in the end, it's a balancing act -- how much new and different stuff, how much difference between the players, can the system handle? It needs some in order to stay interesting, but if it has too much, it blows apart into meaninglessness.

That makes sense to me, but I don't think it's expressed as well in the original essay. There, it says that dysfunction occurs whenever aspects are out of alignment or equivalently that uncommunicated elements are different. Maybe it's obvious to you that some level of difference is healthy, but it's not yet explicit in the text.

The interesting thing for me is how the system can work as an engine for personal rather than group meaning -- i.e. encouraging differences rather than removing them. I cited "Singular Space" as an example of a game which does so.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

You're absolutely right, John. This is going on my list of 'things to give more emphasis to in the next version'.

Work in progress, mind our dust.


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