Monday, November 07, 2005

Interaction Model 2.0


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 of course, 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 access to 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 that 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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Imbuing 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). Note that the answers that the Doctor provides are immatieral; the very fact that my character performed the interrogation expresses my interests as a player.

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 that we've got all the pieces on the table and what each piece 'does', we can talk about how the whole thing works together. As stated before, the function of roleplaying is to reconcile and develop the three aspects in the players' heads. The model represents a self-reinforcing gestalt which self-corrects, manipulates, and adds to the aspects through interactions performed by the players.

First off, I should point out the limitations of my glorious illustration. While the illustration does make it look like there is one Imagined, one System, and one Goal, in reality there is one of these for each player. If there are five players at the table, there are five private Imagined, five private Systems, and five private Goals at work. They are not identical, and never will be, but the process of reconcile-and-develop works to make them more and more similar. The interactions are the only elements in the model which can be public. Articulation leads the pack -- usually spoken aloud, this interaction is very common to all the players' experience, and can easily be misidentified as 'being' roleplaying all by itself. On the other end, Imbuing is relatively private, and only rarely and barely made public -- and usually by the other players's deduction rather than being explicitly declared.

Now, the public interactions are what align the private aspects. Not only does the GM's Articulation manipulate his own conception of elements in the Imagined, but it also manipulates the other players' Imagined. When the GM describes the smoky bar, the other players add a smoky bar to their private Imagined. I tried to illustrate this; I failed. It would involve the Articulation arrow leaving the GM's System, splitting up into five arrows, and pointing at the GM's Imagined as well as the other four players' Imagined. Multiply this by six interactions, and then by five players. That's a whole lot of arrows, and the illustration quickly turned into spaghetti. With just two players, there are twenty-four arrows; with five players, there are one hundred and fifty. Guess what? Roleplaying is really complex!

When a player performs an interaction, it may be (mostly) public (such as declaring your action in combat -- steering) or (mostly) private (estimating your character's chances at making a good impression with the local potentate -- contextualization). If it's private, it will only update the player's own aspects; if it's public, it will provide some input for the other players' aspects as well. Of course it's not a one-or-the-other public/private distinction, but a spectrum between 'mostly public' through 'a little public, a little private' and down to 'mostly private.'

Interactions may or may not affect the aspects they connect to due to gatekeeper processes. This is especially the case in Steering and Fuel (into System), less a case in Validation and Contextualization (into Goal), and almost never the case in Articulation and Imbuing (into Imagined). System has the strongest gatekeepers because it is the most regimented in terms of access and input; in many games, for instance, only the GM has access to the steering interaction of changing the scene. Other players may want to change the scene to something else, but they are not allowed to and must wait until the GM decides to. Contrariwise, the game may dictate that only the non-GM players are able to stipulate when their character's merits and flaws manifest (Fuel). A player's Goal may have some weaker gatekeepers in terms of disregarding Validation and Contextualization interactions; the player may decide that "that failure didn't mean anything" or "that imagined detail has no relevance to my story." As far as I can tell, the Imagined has no gatekeeper processes -- what is Articulated is true (at least for the moment) and what is Imbued is significant.

In facile terms, once an interaction passes gatekeeper processes, its content is added to the understanding of the aspect -- someone narrates "Ed falls into the water" and everyone's Imagined adds a wet Ed. However, this is only the case when the interaction's content is new information instead of old data. When a player announces that his dagger does +9 damage to ogres, this is not new information added to the others' System; everybody knows that he's got a dagger and everybody knows it's good for attacking ogres with. No one's understanding of the System is changed. However, if the player announces that he will use an Imagined element in a clever way, such as using his dagger to cut a rope that drops a load of lumber on the ogre, this may be something that the other players had not considered before, and that information (daggers can do more than poke ogres) will be added to the other players' Systems. Over time, the addition of new information common to multiple players brings those players' conceptions of the aspects into closer alignment, since they comprise similar data.

I should make pains at this juncture, however, to underscore that interactions which contain old data instead of new information are not without use. These interactions confirm details in the players' aspects. The more times that a player character's kung-fu overcomes incredible odds (validation), the more the other players believe that said player character is capable in combat. They already knew that the charater had impressive combat stats; in fact, they probably already knew that he would win the fight. Nothing new is added, but existing content is strengthened and underscored. Similarily, if multiple scenes take place in the characters' secret hideout and the hideout is described in any detail each time, that hideout will become more and more real and tangible in the players' minds -- their Imagined aspect is heavily reinforced.

Remember the "Bang Bang! You're Dead!" kids way up top? That example only has the Imagined and the System, no Goal. Lots of roleplaying tries to work this way, heavily emphasizing the Fuel and Articulation interactions and giving short shrift to the rest. Player initiative arises from the Goal, however, and so while this aspect cannot be totally removed, its de-emphasis can result in a pretty lifeless game. Recognizing the importance of player Goals and making the interactions that connect to them more prominent and explicit invigorates the whole game, as has been patently demonstrated by the good work at the Forge. The inclusion and 'equal' standing of the Goal ensures that not only are the aspects convergent, but that said aspects and their development are inextricably bound up in what the players care about. In simple terms, not only is everybody thinking similar things, but they are having fun doing it.

Note: My use of the term "functional" is slightly different than the Forge term, but only at first. The Forge term means "creating play that the players enjoy". My use of the term is a little more intricate, but gets to the same destination -- "reconciling and developing the three aspects of roleplaying" which necessarily entails addressing the players' Goals, therefore creating play that the players enjoy.

Incomplete and Self-Contradictory Aspects

It is (relatively) easy to see the model working between players who have a solid understanding of the game's rules and clear goals for their roleplaying. Especially at the start of a new game, however, players are often shaky on the procedures of the System, have incomplete conceptions of the Imagined setting, and have fuzzy or very skeletal Goals. Roleplaying's reconcile-and-develop function will eventually amend this, allowing the players to synthesize their understandings, enriching everyone's aspects. The players will learn the rules and rituals of the game until they are second nature; they will learn and develop the world in which they roleplay; they will even, over time, come to recognize their own goals and their fellow players' goals, working them together into a conception of 'why we play this game' (as opposed to 'why I play this game').

However (and this is a big 'however'), this will only happen if the gestalt gels together and works. Players working under very sketchy aspects, or even with self-contradictory aspects (often the case in Goals), may perform interactions based on those aspects in erratic ways. It's important to note that there are no 'wrong' ways to perform interactions, but some methods will be more effective in some situations than others. Long-winded narration making frequent allusions to snippets of poetry to set the scene is great when playing by candlelight after dinner with friends; it will be completely lost when playing with thirteen year old new gamers. It's not that the teens are bored, it's that they do not understand the information being presented to them. This articulation 'misses the target' and adds nothing, underscores nothing, in their Imagined aspects.

Alternately, if a player believes that she should get a big effectiveness boost (Fuel) against General Nogoodnik if she uses the Sword of Damocles, she may go to great lengths to ensure that her character has the Sword, that it's sharpened, that the General is out in the middle of the battle, and so on. The player will be very disappointed if it turns out that the others' conceptions of the System affords no special bonuses for special weapons. While all the prior narration may have certainly been interesting, to some extent the player is going to feel as if her efforts were wasted and ineffectual. While the player's conception of System will be closer aligned with the others' after the exchange, this is a disappointing and rather brutal way to go about it.

Roleplaying is a self-correcting process, and players can utilize that function to avoid such problems. It is a simple matter to send out 'test' interactions and watch how they are received and used by the other players. After the first blank-eyed stare from the thirteen-year-olds, the belabored poetic narration can be toned down. The Sword of Damocles can be 'tested out' on the General's lieutenants, displaying how everyone around the table believes it should function in terms of Fuel. Simply watching what characters a certain player gets attached to (imbuing) or how a player responds to system failures (validation) can reveal a great deal. Openly and honestly communicating around the table also circumvents issues. Simply sharing enthusiasm by saying, "I need that Sword! That'll give me a big boost against General Nogoodnik!" can open a conversation about what kind of a boost that sword will give.


Without making an effort to intentionally and consciously utilize the feedback cycle of roleplaying, things can begin to collapse. Other players belabor things that "aren't important," the GM fudges the rolls when he clearly should never do such things, players "descend" into roll-playing instead of the awesome and wondrous glory that is role-playing... and the like.

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 Goals, 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 supposedly absolute access to Steering their characters' actions. 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.

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 effective Steering interactions (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 A 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. Note that a game with a highly complex System can be functional; it is only when that System is incomplete and unshared among the players, leading to chronic book references, that this is (not quite) dysfunctional.

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 procedurally refuses to recognize the players' Goals (ie, what is important to them).

Four (of Many) Ways to Play

MJ Young once proposed four GMing styles, which may be worthwhile looking at briefly through the lens of the Interaction Model. At root, these four distinctions depend on the access privileges of Articulation and Validation interactions, as well as the control of Contextualization. All four of these broad methods are or can be functional.

Illusionism The GM has near-exclusive access to most Articulation and Validation, setting up elements of the Imagined in such a way that they Contextualize the characters and story to delimit viable player options in Steering. The players are unaware that their choices are so limited, and accept the GM's Validation feedback as if it was generated by an objective source. This is enjoyable when the GM is capable of dispensing Validation and Contextualization that addresses the players' Goals, often the case among players who are friends and have some history of gaming together.

Participationism As above,the GM has near-exclusive access to Articulation and Validation interactions, controlling Contextualization to delimit player Steering. However, the players are aware of this dynamic and accept it, understanding that the Validation handed out is necessarily a product created almost exclusively by the GM. As with Illusionism, this can be entertaining if the GM knows his audience, and the "quality" of the game is often assumed to be the product of the GM's skill.

Trailblazing In this situation, the GM does not have exclusive access to Articulation and does not seek to control Contextualization, allowing the players to attempt to Steer the game to produce Articulations and eventually Contextualizations that all the players (including the GM) enjoy. However, the GM still retains exclusive access to a final Validation, and the players may or may not complete the entire Sunwise circle (Steer to Articulate to Contextualize) in the manner expected by the GM. This final Validation -- if they "get it" -- may or may not be important to the players' enjoyment of the game.

Bass Playing Here the GM shares access to Articulation and Validation, expressly making Contextualization interactions open to all players. The GM may continue to utilize the Articulation->Contextualization arc to attempt to challenge the players, but the players are also empowered to do the same -- to each other as well as to the GM.

Beyond the Four While expansive, MJ Young's four styles were never exhaustive, and there are certainly other ways to partition access to different interactions. New GMless and GMful games remove the GM from play entirely, creating styles of play which cannot be described by the GM's control of Articulation and Validation at all.

Emotive Content

Roleplaying can, but doesn't always, engage the players on an emotional level; we care about our characters, we want to see them acheive their goals, we feel their pain, we hate the badguys, we hope for the glorious fall of the Evil Empire. Sometimes we cry; sometimes we get really angry; sometimes we need to cool down. Thing is, that emotion that springs from us players and attaches to 'the game' does so in (at least) three different ways.

As Product, the game creates a story or experience that engages us emotionally. This is nearly identical to the kind of emotional attachment and identification that we experience when reading good books or watching good film. The game here is treated as an artifact (insubstantial, but nonetheless 'real') to which we connect. We engage emotionally with the aspects as we understand them.

As Performance, the game allows the other players to perform for us and dazzle our sensibilities. As participants ourselves, we also demonstrate skills and talents, and can take some satisfaction from that, as well. This is nearly identical to watching ballet, a play, or sports, or participating in the same. The game here is a stage on which we appreciate others' skills as well as our own. We engage emotionally with the interactions as they are performed.

As Process, the game is an activity which the players do together, collaboratively creating the story, world, characters, or what-have-you. This engages us as authoring a book, building a sculpture, or choreographing a dance routine. I'll also reference the "jazz band" metaphor which I think is appropriate here, although my nonexistent musical understanding makes it hard for me to judge. Here the game is a creative social milleu in which we participate. We engage emotionally with the activity as a whole, including the content and the participants.

That there are three ways to engage the emotions of the players makes it difficult to get a good handle on how that happens. One player's spectator appreciation may easily be conflated with another player's enjoyment of the creative process. The Interaction Model demonstrates all three ways, and shows the distinctions between them.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe Circle of Doom is back again, just for reference.

As far as Product goes, the Interaction Model shows how the roleplaying experience creates a shared understanding of System, Imagined, and Goal. That 'end product' can be appreciated artistically, and I suspect this is the most common emotional attachment we remember in retrospect. We say "that was a good story" or "remember when you got that critical success at just the right moment?" The ways in which we appreciate and care about external things is very complex and very outside the scope of my article here. Whatever our aesthetics are, the shared imaginings of roleplaying may fulfill them, and if they do, we grow emotionally attached to them.

There is also an element of our emotional attachment that arises from the aspects' shared nature. Truth be told, most stories told by roleplaying games would not make good books or films, but we treasure them nonetheless. Part of this is, I feel, because they are shared with friends. The elements of the Imagined that were provided to me by my friend Brand based on elements that were given to him by my wife Laura forever after have their fingerprints all over them. That makes them a little more precious, just as an otherwise unremarkable item can be cherished because it was a gift from a loved one.

As a Performance, the game is composed of players doing things; these things are represented by the Model's interactions. When one player does a masterful job of describing a scene (Articulation) and we just sit back and revel in the juicy details, we appreciate it as audience. Similarily, we might appreciate the masterful combination of tactics and advantages to win a critical die roll (Fuel). Of course, this can also go the other direction and we get incredibly frustrated when, say, another player invalidates our Goal. This in-the-moment emotional attachment is rarely lasting, but may become embedded in the memory of the whole experience, transforming into that reaction-to-product above. That said, this is where the adrenaline rush and edge-of-your-seat anticipation of gaming reside, when everything hinges on a die roll or the GM describes the unnamable horror gibbering in the closet. I may go so far as to say that this is the emotional 'bang' that most people game for, both in terms of enjoying your friend's skill and in receiving accolades for displaying your own.

I saved the most complicated for last. As a Process, we form emotional connections to roleplaying as something that we do, that we are hip-deep involved in, as an activity where were are needed and need others; where we create stories and characters that we care about and ask questions and forge answers regarding those same things. In lots of ways, this sort of emotional connection is not a part of the Interaction Model simply because a great deal of this has to do with being a human being interacting with other human beings around the table. Roleplaying can, however, heighten that interplay in a variety of ways.

First off, characters may be, either to large or small extent, avatars of the player, able to do or say things which the player is not. Far more than simple wish-fulfillment, roleplaying gives us the opportunity to experience situations -- especially difficult and dangerous situations -- that we would not otherwise be able to experience. The avatar-character may be able to display competence, which may or may not translate to the player's competence at playing the game, but this is, on the whole, tangential to the real meat, which is being in the situation and addressing it as the player likes. Not only does roleplaying allow us to be strong where we are not in real life, roleplaying allows us to be vulnerable in ways which we don't allow ourselves to be away from the table. Roleplaying is a mental space that allows you to find the love of your life many times over; it allows a boy from the suburbs to stand up for duty and honor even if it means self-sacrifice; it lets adolescents explore lots of "grown up" content, like politics, economics, religion, and sexuality.

In addition to the ability to experience things beyond our real-world abilities, roleplaying also affords us a measure of anonymity, even when facing our fellow players across the table. It's not me who is a fanatical follower of Kali, it's just my Euthanatos character. It's not me exploring feminity, it's just my female character. The veneer of disassociation gives us cover for going into territory that we might not be willing to stand up and say we want to experience in detail.

Despite the advantages of anonymity, roleplaying is still a collaborative endeavor, and one in which the players (ideally) feel needed. The furor that arises over niche protection underscores how strongly players want to protect that sense of being valued by others, but it is also expressed in other ways, as well. The vibe that takes over a table when everyone is on the same page and riffing off of eachother, for instance, is when the players' aspects are harmonized close enough that all interactions are consistently on target. Having your contributions to the game turned around and fed back to you does many things at once: you feel like your input is valued, you feel like you are contributing to something greater than just you, and you feel like your fellow players are providing for you by feeding you good material.

Perhaps most powerful is when it becomes clear that another player or players 'get' what you've been going after with your participation in the game. This can be seen when somebody recognizes and incorporates part of your Goal into theirs, and begins Steering in ways complementary to your desires. This is similar to the shared aspect of the Product brand of appreciation, but a little deeper; the sense that you and the other player are thinking the same thing, and that you are thinking the same thing because you performed those interactions just right, gives you a sense of community and commonality, of being unified with someone else if only for one brief moment. Compare it with the simple joy of communicating with someone else in a foreign language for the first time, or successfully transmitting a message through secret code.

All the above is certainly incomplete, and I've overlook vast swaths of the gaming experience. This is what I've got so far, and I'd love to hear any feedback I can get. This is an important part of roleplaying, certainly; this is why we play in the first place.


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 11:58 PM, Blogger IceCreamEmperor said...

I don't know if it's rewriting or just my being more awake, but this version seemed a lot more coherent than the last one. I was doing a lot more nodding and 'hrmmm' a lot less 'meh, another theory'.

I do think 'Validation' is the wrong word, though, or maybe I'm just missing the connotations you're aiming for. I feel like another term would do a much better job of matching the interaction you're trying to describe.


Mostly, I'd love to see this model applied directly to some actual play -- or actual game designs. A breakdown of how various games (or one particular game) deal with the Interactions would probably go a long way to making this seem less like a theoretical exercise and more like a practically useful tool for understanding RPGs.

I suppose that was the crux of my reaction to the first one, lessened considerably now that I've come to appreciate the model a bit more: what does this model do? What kind of analysis is it good at? What insights might it provide? One thing that makes a lot of the initial Forge stuff exciting to me is that I immediately see how and where it applies -- and more importantly, how it explains certain problems and issues that come up a lot.

It may be that I don't get this reaction from this model simply because the Forge stuff got there first, but I'm still interested in hearing what particular insights/points of analysis prompted you to come up with this model. What does it help explain for you?

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Thanks, ICE. I think the addition of the Function segment really clarifies things. When writing, I tend to run right up to my subject and stop an inch away from it, assuming that I have implied everything about the actual subject in the run-up to it. So in Version the First I laid out the diagram and the parts and pieces, but didn't talk about how I see them working.

Validation may be a poor choice -- perhaps Complicate or Qualify, instead. But then I'd need to redo that diagram, and Illustrator makes my poor little laptop chug.

I will be trying to get an Actual Play analysis done using Interaction Model terms. (It would have to be AP and not a design, since this models play, not designs, which is a pretty important distinction.) Because this is so freaking micro-detail, though, I fear that five minutes of play would take up ten pages worth of words. Which is not to say that I won't do it. I just miss lj-cut here in Bloggerland.

As for what I get out of it, I'll admit, this is almost purely a design tool, trying to atomize what we do at the table to better design rules to govern, guide, and inspire that process. The recognition that Articulation and Validation are separate but often parallel processes, for instance, suggests to me lots of potential -- character failures that are player successes, player successes unassociated with character tasks or conflicts, or on the other hand, binding the two together explicitly. While GNS and its derivations were explicitly created in order to help you make your home game experience better, the Interaction Model is to help designers get a good look at what is happening procedurally. Players not interested in design may get some mileage out of it -- in fact I'm pretty sure they will, if only in terms of a new perspective -- but my intent is on this side of the game book, as it were.

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