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The Model as seen by Valamir [Long. Very, very long]

Started by Valamir, July 30, 2004, 03:56:32 AM

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A slew of threads in recent months has tackled various aspects of the model and led to some really good discussions that have influenced my perception of how its many components interact.  This essay is an attempt (for my own benefit as much as anyone's) to compile many of the aspects I've found myself agreeing with piecemeal over those threads into a cohesive whole.  The ideas within are not exclusively my own they've been heavily informed (filtered through my own understandings) by the discussions of many fellow participants.  This essay represents my current thinking on how the model functions as completely as possible and organized in the fashion that makes the most sense to me.  It may or may not agree with the model essays, conventional Forge wisdom, or the positions of those whose ideas I drew from.  Nor is this essay revolutionary or shocking.  With few exceptions most of the ideas in this essay have been presented before, often numerous times.  What I have done is gone through those discussion, picking and choosing the ones that resonated most strongly with me and seemed to best hold together in a cohesive whole, and compiled them here to represent what I consider to be the "state of the art"; or the Forge's current "best thoughts".

The Social Contract

I don't have much to say about the Social Contract and include it here primarily for the sake of completeness as it is an important feature of the Big Model.  It also happens to be one of the best understood features on a broadly painted scale, and one of the most impossible to truly understand (save partially in retrospect) on a smaller individual scale.  This is because the Social Contract is nothing less than the sum total of all of the inter-social relationships, issues, life experiences, and personal baggage brought to the table by each of the participants.  These issues then combine and encounter each other during play, in what can be a very volatile mix, in the same manner as they do during any social activity between human beings.  

Because each and every one of us has dealt with social issues for our entire lives we are all intimately familiar with the kinds of things that might adversely effect a social relationship or that might offer wondrous new opportunities for social synergy.  This familiarity is what makes us fairly comfortable with the role of the Social Contract in the model and the idea that it has a profound impact on our role-playing experience.

On the other hand the psychology of social interaction has been a topic of study since people first started grunting at each other and we still have a vastly imperfect understanding of the nature of human relations.  As such there is very little additional I am qualified to add to this aspect of the big model.

Shared Imaginary Space

The Shared Imaginary Space (SiS) is the arena in which role-playing takes place.  It is the equivalent of the game board for play.  The SiS is simply the sum total of all knowledge about the game, game world, in game events, characters, etc that has been introduced, presented to, and agreed upon by all of the players at the table.

Unfortunately, barring mind melding abilities, the SiS can never truly be shared directly among the participants.  Rather, each participant has their own Individual Imaginary Space where the game is taking place for them.  The Shared Imaginary Space can then be seen as the theoretical construct which encompasses all of the elements that each Individual Imaginary Space has in common.  Whatever elements that are the same across individuals is then part of the SiS.

It is of particular importance that knowledge and information about the game world be,  in fact, shared amongst the participants so that each member's own Individual Imaginary Space has compatible views.  For this reason, the most reliable method for introducing knowledge to the SiS is through actual play.  Only through actual play can each element of knowledge and information be individually presented and vetted at the table to provide the best chance for maximum compatibility between each player's personal imagination.  For purposes of this essay, Shared Imaginary Space shall be taken to mean all points of commonality between the Individual Imaginary Spaces of the participants.

Role-playing is not unique in containing a Shared Imaginary Space.  Novels, TV, movies, theater and other forms of entertainment that reach an audience of multiple persons all create an Imaginary Space that to some extent is compatible, and thus shared, among the audience members.  What sets role-playing apart as a truly unique activity in the midst of these other entertainment options is that, unlike audience members, who are merely witnesses to the events of the SiS, players are both witnesses and participants.  Role-playing is an active effort that involves the players in the ongoing iterative process of defining the Shared Imaginary Space.

We call this interactive process, Exploration.


Exploration is an active process.  No explorer can leave the country they explore unchanged from their passing.  If players are role-playing they are exploring the Shared Imaginary Sspace and this process is by nature an active one.

There are five currently accepted aspects of Exploration:  Setting, Character, Situation, Color, and System.  All 5 of these aspects are present at all times during all role-playing.  They can be seen as dials that can be adjusted by preference to give emphasis to a player's particular area of interest, but none of the dials can be set to 0.

Setting: Setting is the social / political/ geographical landscape of the game world.  It includes all of the elements, both tangible and intangible, that define what the world is like.

Character: Characters are individual members of the setting who the participants in the game have agreed are going to be featured in play.  While there may be other personae in the setting who are important to the setting, it is the characters who are the focus of the players' attentions.

Situation: Situations are the relationships that exist between the many elements of Setting and Character.  A Situation can be as simple and mundane a man standing near a wall, or as involved as a complex map of interpersonal connections spanning many families and many generations.

Color:  Color does not exist separately from the above 3 aspects.  It is a meta-aspect that informs the suitability and appropriateness of those elements.  It sets mood, provides flavor, defines the ambiance and genre expectations, and projects an attitude onto the setting, characters, and situations in the game.  Color is what differentiates four color supers, from Hong Kong action, from film noir.  Even if the setting, characters and situations are the same, stories told with these different approaches to color will feel very different.

System:  System is what differentiates role-playing from other forms of imagination based activity.  Setting, Character, Situation, and Color all exist as aspects of the Shared Imaginary Space in any form of entertainment.  System is what twists these elements into an application unique to role-playing.  It is the door through which the social dynamics of the players at the table enter the SiS and interact with it.  Put simply, System is the process by which all elements of Setting, Character, Situation, and Color enter the Shared Imaginary Space.

System Expanded

This simple definition of System hides many profound implications.  The essential nature of a Shared Imaginary Space in a role-playing game is that the elements within that space must be shared in order for play to proceed effectively.  Subtle differences in understanding can be smoothed over at a later time, but profound differences can bring the game to a halt.

If one player says "there is a peach on the table", and another player says "I eat the peach" and a third player says "I put the peach in my pocket for later" there is a clear disconnect in the SiS.  Was the peach eaten or is it now in the third player's pocket?

This simple example demonstrates the single most important feature of the SiS.  In order for each player's vision of the Imaginary Space to be compatible, each player must agree to edit that space in a manner consistent with the other players' vision.  In the above example the third player refused to edit their personal Imaginary Space to account for the second player's action.  Thus neither action can be said with certainty to have taken place.  The third player cannot put the peach in their character's pocket unless the second player accepts that their character did not eat it.  The second player's character cannot eat the peach unless the third player accepts that its not in their character's pocket.

From this it can be plainly seen that the reality of the game world can only be defined by what has been universally accepted by all of the participants at the table as being part of the game.  No one player, even the GM, has the power to unilaterally alter the Shared Imaginary Space because of the essential requirement of it being shared.

Boiled down this means that no statement by any player has any effect on the SiS until the other players accept it and edit their Individual Imaginary Space accordingly

System then becomes the process by which these statements get accepted or rejected and through which the conditions in the Shared Imaginary Space get altered.

This can best be seen as an ongoing extended contract negotiation.  In a contract negotiation one party makes an offer and the other party either accepts the offer or makes a counter offer.  The process of role-playing then can best be seen as a series of offers, counter offers, and acceptances.  One player proposes an event or action that will change the SiS.  Then the other players either accept that proposal (and edit their own imaginary space accordingly) or they reject that offer (potentially by making a counter offer in its place) depending on how credible they judge the proposal to be.  If they reject it, play stops until someone proposes an alternative that everyone can accept.

Thus, the many turns of phrase common in play descriptions and even rules texts such as: "The player determines...", "The GM decides...", or "The player has his character...<perform some action>"  must really be understood to be short hand for "proposed and had accepted".

System and Setting:
No element of setting exists in the game world until it has entered the SiS.  For this to happen one player has to propose it and the rest must accept it.

For instance, the GM says "There is a castle on the hill"

This is not a statement of fact.  This is an offer.  The GM is proposing that there be a castle on the hill.  The GM may have just invented this castle on the fly, or he may have invented it during previous game prep, or the castle may be part of the official setting book complete with description and an icon on the world map marking this particular location.  It doesn't matter.  Regardless of the idea's origin the castle does not exist (does not become part of the Shared Imaginary Space) until the other players accept its existence.  The players may judge a castle that was invented as part of GM prep to be more credible than one clearly invented on the fly.  Or the players may judge the castle to be more credible if its part of an official setting book.  But regardless of the source, its not real until the players accept it as real.  The GM prep or setting book does not make the castle real.  They just lend the weight of authority to the GM's proposal, which may make the proposal more credible to the players and thus more likely to be accepted.

It is possible to mass dump setting information into the SiS by simply proposing something like "we'll be playing in Middle Earth".  In one fell swoop all of the knowledge the players have about Middle Earth has been accepted into the SiS without having to be processed individually.  The risk here is that if each player has a very different level of knowledge or perception on the nature of Middle Earth they may wind up with very different Individual Imaginary Spaces.  This can cause a great deal of trouble later when its discovered that the Shared Imaginary Space is incompletely shared.

an aside
Most of the time during play this acceptance is invisible which is why many players don't even realize its occurring.  Rare indeed would be the gaming group who used full parliamentary procedure at the table.  We do not expect to see the GM making a motion to include the castle and then waiting for the motion to be seconded followed by a chorus of "ayes" or "nays"; although this would be a perfect example of system in action.  Instead acceptance at the gaming table is more frequently the result of Negative Confirmation.  Meaning that by not explicitly denying the proposal, the player is presumed to have implicitly accepted it.

For example, if the players greet the GM's statement with silence allowing the GM to proceed to describe other features of the castle and its immediate surroundings, it can be presumed that the players have accepted the castle and incorporated its existence into the SiS.  Likewise if a player stops to ask "How far away is it?" Implicit in that question is the acceptance that the castle is, in fact, there.

However, if a player responds with "A castle?  Here?  We've been through this area lots of times before and there was never any castle.  I bet its an illusion." then the player may not have not fully accepted the castle as stated.  The player is questioning the credibility of the GM's proposal that suddenly there be a castle where there had been none before.  Depending on the social dynamic of the group this statement might be an outright rejection and challenge, or it may be a qualified acceptance with an embedded counter offer.  The player may be signaling to the GM their willingness to accept the castle provided the GM comes up with some good explanation (if not now then in the future) to justify the castle's existence.  The GM's continuing with his description of the castle at this point represents his implicit agreement to the player's added condition.  If play ends without ever resolving the issue of why the castle was there and how they'd missed it all those times before, then the player will rightly be disappointed and critical of the GM's breach of contract.

System and Character
System's connection to Character is exactly the same.  In traditional role-playing it is usually the GM making proposals about Setting and players making proposals about Character.  In fact, it is a traditionally accepted matter that everything the player says about what his character is doing is subject to GM approval.  What is often a surprising revelation is that its also subject to the approval of the other players and that everything the GM says is subject to the players approval as well.  Traditionally the GM's approval or rejection has more often been explicitly vocalized which is why we are more familiar with it, while the player's approval or rejection has more often been implicit and not vocalized which is why we don't often think of it as being there.  This dichotomy has been successfully challenged in many newer game designs.

For example the player says "my character is riding up to the castle and demanding entrance."

If the GM responds "You arrive at the gates and the porter escorts you to the king" then the GM has explicitly accepted your proposal and made a new offer, that your character is being taken directly to see the king.  If the player then responds in character to the porter "before seeing the king I would greatly desire the opportunity to make myself presentable" then he is making a counter offer to the GM's new offer.

If on the other hand the GM responds with "Before you make it to the castle you are beset by bandits in the road" then the GM has rejected the player's offer (the Shared Imaginary Space is not edited to include the character at the gates demanding entry) and has made a counter offer.  If the player then responds with "I draw my sword and try to ride through the bandits to the gate" then the player has accepted the GMs counter offer and made a new offer of his own.

System and Game Rules

So what is the role of game rules in all of this?  Well first we must realize that there is no such thing as "system-less" play.  Even the most free form play (which the above examples could well have been) have a system; and that system is, at its core, basic contract negotiation.

Game rules, then, are a means for adding structure to the system by including standards, guidelines, and policies for how the overall process will work.  Just like all of the other aspects of Exploration, game rules are subject to the acceptance of all of the participants at the table.  They are a system for applying system.  What distinguishes them and makes them unique is that they are generally articulated and agreed to in advance of the actual moment when they are used.

Rules for Resolution  
For instance, if the GM says "the bandit drags your character off of your horse" that is a proposal that must be accepted before it becomes part of the SiS.  The players will have to judge how credible this event is before deciding whether to accept it or not.  If the bandits have been described as very tough and the character has been described as a poor horseman, these elements may be sufficient for the players to accept the statement.  But if the bandits have been described as starving and under fed and the character as a mighty knight of renown, the players may well be dubious about how likely this event really is.  In other words, the statement doesn't appear to be very credible to them and thus is less likely to be accepted.

If the statement is not accepted, how does it get resolved?  Simply enough, the players and GM can continue to make offer and counter offer backed by whatever explanations and evidence they can contrive to convince their fellows until such time as a description of the event that everyone can agree to has been arrived at.

This is where rules come in.  The crux of the above example is whether or not the bandits have the strength and prowess to unhorse a mighty knight.  One application for rules is to provide a standardized means of judging just how strong the bandit is and how mighty the knight.  The use of these rules is articulated and accepted by the players separate and apart from the event in question (although on occasion they will be negotiated on the fly as needed).  The rules can then be called upon as a source of authority to increase the credibility of the statement made.

In this case let us assume very simple rules which assign a simple numerical rating by which relative strength or relative horsemanship ability can be compared with each other.  Let us say that the strength of the bandits is rated as a 3 while the horsemanship of the knight is rated as a 5.  Under this comparative standard, the players have good reason to doubt the GM's statement, clearly the knight is mightier than the bandit and is unlikely to be dragged down.  A counter offer of "the bandit tries to drag my character off of my horse, but is so weak and underfed that he is unable to unseat the skillful knight and is dragged along beside me" would seem to have more credibility than the GM's statement.  Even something as simple as a rating with no mechanism for using it other than "higher is better" can be used to add credibility to the proposal.

Let us now assume that the rules provide for an element of chance in that a single six sided die is rolled and added to the rating before the numbers are compared.  Let us assume that the knight rolled a 2 while the bandit rolled a 5.  The bandit's total is an 8 and the knight's is a 7.  The bandit's total is higher.  Now the GM's statement has more credibility.  How did the weak bandit manage to drag the powerful knight out of the saddle?  He got lucky.  Having rolled the dice according the rules, the players will most likely concede that the event did happen as the GM described.

The actual process of what happened during this scene then can be outlined as follows:
1)   GM: "the bandit grabs you and tries to drag you from your horse"  the GM is making an offer.
2)   Player:  "Damn!  Fortunately my guy is a good rider"  Here the player accepts the GMs proposal of the attempt, but includes the implicit counter proposal that the knight will try to resist and that the knight's riding ability be taken into account.
3)   GM:  "Ok, roll your Horsemanship.  I'll roll Strength for the Bandit"  This is not a command.  There is no authoritarian hand compelling the player despite the GM using standard gamer lingo as direction.  What the GM is actually doing here is proposing that the group resolve the situation using the standard mechanic outlined in the previously agreed upon rules set.
4)   Player: "Damn!  I only got a 2"  By picking up the die and rolling it, the player has accepted that this situation is one that is covered in the rules he earlier agreed to abide by.
5)   GM:  "and I rolled a 5, which means I win by 1.  You come tumbling down off of your horse, take 1d6 damage."  Here the GM is proposing that according to his interpretation of the mechanic, since he won the roll he may interpret the event accordingly.  He is also making a second proposal that the knight suffers some injurious result from the fall.
6)   At this point, if the rules allow the GM to allocate damage in this way, the player may simply roll the dice and in so doing agree to abide by the result.  Or, the player may make a counter offer suggesting that he be allowed to make a saving throw of some sort to take less damage.  If the rules allow for this sort of thing, then the player's proposal will have more credibility because the GM has already agreed to abide by them.  If the rule set does not provide any guidance for damage from falling off a horse, then the player may question the GM's credibility at assessing such a penalty.  And on the process goes.  

It is important to stress, however, that the dice and the rules did not decide anything.  At some point (typically before play begins) one of the players proposed playing the game using a certain set of rules.  The other players accepted that proposal and agreed to abide by the rules and mechanics laid down by them.  The rules themselves, however. have no power to determine an outcome or enforce any decision.  Only the players' own complicit agreement to follow the rules has any power.  Only the players can determine an outcome by accepting changes to the SiS.  The rules only serve to increase the credibility of proposals which are in line with them, making it more likely for those proposals to be accepted.

Rules for IIEE
IIEE stands for Intent, Initiation,  Execution, and Effect.  These items are an essential part of any functional system and yet too often are left unarticulated and only vaguely understood.  If one understands that system is essentially an exchange of statements (offers, acceptances, counter offers) then IIEE can be seen as a flag attached to those statements that answers "statement of what?", As in: "Statement of Intent", "Statement of Initiation", "Statement of Execution", or "Statement of Effect".

The difference can be seen in the following example.  After our knight has been dragged from his horse, his player announces "I'm going to kill that bandit".  We know that the player has just made an offer that needs to be accepted, but what exactly was the proposal?  If the players aren't in agreement about what kind of statement this is, somebody stands to be very surprised when the offer is accepted and the parties had two very different notions as to what the proposal was.

If the offer was one of Intent, then the player's proposal translates to "It is my intention to attack this bandit and try to kill him, is there any other information I need to be aware of?"  If the offer was one of Initiation, then the player's proposal translates to "I am now beginning my attack to try and kill this bandit".  The difference is a profound one.  Imagine if you will that the player had thought he was only making a statement of intent.  The GM announces that there are 3 more bandits moving to surround him.  The player then thinks better of it and announces that he is going to enter into a defensive stance instead.  Now imagine that the GM thought the player's offer was a statement of initiation.  The GM's response will be "too late, you're already busy attacking the first bandit".  "But wait a minute," the player says "I was only planning to attack, I hadn't actually started yet..."  Who is right?  Without a clearly defined method of determining what is a statement of intent and what is a statement of initiation there will be an ample source of discord in the game.

What if the offer was one of execution.  In this case acceptance means not that the action is about to be attempted (as for Initiation) but that its already done and finished.  Imagine now that when the GM announces the arrival of 3 more bandits that he proposes that they interfere with the knight's attack.  The player will be quite disappointed and reluctant to accept this because in his mind his attack is already over and done and all that remains is to ascertain the details.  In his mind, as soon as he said it, it was finished and the GM's later addition was too late to change that.

And that leaves statement of effect.  In this case, not only is the action presumed to be finished when the offer is accepted, but the effects of that action are presumed to be finished as well.  If the player says "I'm going to kill that bandit" as a statement of effect then if the statement is accepted he expects the bandit to be dead.  This wasn't a statement of intent "I'm thinking about killing the bandit", or of Initiation "I'm now trying to kill the bandit", or of Execution "I've already attacked the bandit", but of Effect "the bandit is now dead."

Clearly if all players are not on the same page when an offer is made, then there will clearly be radically different results expected from acceptance.  Both sides will feel that there has been a breach of contract; that the other side's interpretation was not what was agreed to.  With something as important as this at stake it is quite surprising that games have treated the issue fairly casually in the rules.  Perhaps the single greatest contribution a game designer can bring to their new design is clear, unambiguous, and easily applied rules for IIEE.

Creative Agenda

Exploration is:  The process of using System to edit the Shared Imaginary Space and introduce, manipulate, or alter elements of Setting, Character, and Situation as constrained by Color.

When a player is Exploring, he is role-playing.  Exploration is sufficient in and of itself to be considered role-playing.

There is another level to role-playing, however, and that is the Creative Agenda.  

The Creative Agenda is the player's approach to dealing with in-game conflict as measured over a complete Instance of Play.

Some explanations are in order.  First it should be stressed that it is the player's approach not the character's.  That makes Creative Agenda an inherently meta-level concern.  Second, "approach" can manifest in a variety of ways including how the player has the character act towards the conflict, how the player perceives or frames the conflict and what aspects he finds important, or how the player uses or is unwilling to use character resources to resolve the conflict.  Most importantly it includes the set of circumstances surrounding the resolution of the conflict that the player will consider favorable or successful (again the player, not the character).

Conflict derives from Situation, and situation we have seen is the relationship that elements of Setting and Character bear to each other.  Yet Conflict is greater than mere situation.  Conflict is Situation that is relevant.  A gun leaning against a wall is a situation but it is not yet Conflict in the same manner that a ball sitting on a table has potential energy but not yet kinetic.  It is hard to imagine a Situation that doesn't at least have the potential for Conflict, but only when that potential is realized does Conflict occur.

What does it take to realize the potential Conflict in a situation?

1)   At least one player must be interested in the situation and committed to seeing the situation change.  The engine for that change in most role-playing games is the player's character.

2)   The situation must involve adversity.  The change that the player desires to see occur cannot happen without effort or sacrifice. Typically it is the player's character that experiences the effort or sacrifice.

3)   For a Conflict to be relevant there must be consequences that alter the SiS for both success and failure.  Whatever the outcome, once a Character gets involved, the SiS will be changed.  There must be something at stake.

It is possible to have a situation resolve in a manner that changes the SiS but is not a Conflict because there is no adversity.  For instance, take any background event involving solely NPCs run by the GM, or any situation which is proposed and resolved by the same player.  If the same player is representing both the adversity and the force for change then there can be no conflict because both sides are ultimately in agreement (being run by the same person).  There may be the illusion of conflict.  The single player may pretend to be opposed to himself, but ultimately there is no real adversity.  [Note: there is the possibility of solitaire style play where a single player is pitted against a mechanical process.  In such a case it is the will of the designer of the process that the player is struggling against by proxy]

It is possible to have a player interested in a situation that contains adversity that when resolved doesn't change the SiS.  For instance, imagine a player who is interested in having his character obtain some information about the game world but fails to overcome the adversity.  If there are consequences to this failure (a great evil is unleashed perhaps, or an innocent convicted of a crime they didn't commit) then this was a conflict.  However, if the only consequence for failing to uncover the information is that the character still doesn't have the information, then there is no conflict because the SiS didn't change.  The character did not know the information before, and still does not know the information now.  The SiS may have changed due to other actions the character performed, but it didn't change as a consequence of resolving the situation.  There was nothing at stake.

As another example, consider a character traveling across country.  The GM proposes and gets accepted the idea that there are steep difficult hills ahead and beyond them the character can see some smoke.  The player determines that his character is going to climb the hills and see what the smoke is.

You have situation:  there is smoke in the distance and there are hills between the character and the smoke; and you have a player interested in that situation and committed to changing it.

You have adversity:  the hills are steep and difficult to climb and the unspoken proposal is that the previously accepted game rules will be used to resolve the character's effort to cross them.

But do you have consequences?  If the character's ability to overcome the adversity results in the character arriving or not arriving in time to prevent some fell deed (like the murder of the peasants whose homestead is on fire), then you have consequences and hence Conflict.

If the smoke turns out to be pure color, and the GMs description of the source of the fire is unchanged no matter whether the character dealt with the adversity successfully or not, then there are no consequences and this situation was not a Conflict.

If on the other hand, the smoke turns out to be just color, but the player's decision to try and reach it delayed the character on his journey and that delay has consequences then the situation is indeed a conflict.

It can be seen that whether or not a situation is a conflict can often boil down to the perception of the player of its impact.  This is perfectly acceptable.  Since a Creative Agenda is the response of a player to an in game conflict, then the perception of a conflict is enough to trigger that response.

Or put another way, Creative Agenda is the response of a player to a situation that matters.  Conflict is the word given to a situation that matters to distinguish it from situations that don't matter.

It is important that the situation matters because if the player deems the situation to not matter, then he is unlikely to be overly concerned with seeing his particular Creative Agenda pursued.  He may well allow some other player to pursue a different Creative Agenda without concern because he doesn't deem the situation important enough to care about.  The 3 rules above are an attempt to define what it is that makes a situation "matter".

Instance of Play
The Instance of Play is a term that has been used for awhile on the Forge to indicate that period of time of uncertain duration over the course of which a player's Creative Agenda is revealed.  It has been a problematic term throughout its history.  It was invented as a response to the idea that Creative Agenda is revealed at the level of individual decisions in order to correct the notion that one could look at those decisions in isolation.  But it evolved into a mysterious undefined "black box" into which went actual play and out of which came indications of Creative Agenda.  But inside the black box was a great unknown something that boiled down to that famous quote about pornography "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

Instance of Play has long been a weak link in the model and recently some attempt has been made to return to earlier notions of individual decisions to see if there is a better way of defining how Creative Agenda is revealed during play.  These discussions have stressed the notion of the individual decisions being non-independent.

I believe that my definition of Creative Agenda as "the player's approach to in game conflict" actually helps resolve and bring together these two approaches to Instance of Play and makes the term much more easy to understand and identify.  

By this definition an Instance of Play can best be thought of as the cycle of conflict over the course of which a Creative Agenda manifests. That cycle includes:  recognition of the conflict, response to the conflict, and finally resolution of the conflict and all of the series of decisions the player makes related to that cycle.

Since its possible to have conflicts nestled within and overlapping with other conflicts, Instances of Play are not mutually exclusive discrete periods of time.  Rather each instance is like a rather tangled thread which passes through and crosses over and gets tied up with other instances.  This tangled nature is why its been so difficult to discuss them and what led to the gestalt approach which resulted in lumping them all together in a "black box"

But its my contention, that it becomes possible to tease out individual threads and isolate them once one starts from the understanding that each Instance is a cycle of conflict.

This then leads us back to the ability to discuss Creative Agenda at the atomic level, because there are many threads that before were lumped together as a single Instance that can now be broken down and looked at individually.  It also addresses the original issue that decisions cannot be looked at in isolation because each cycle of conflict will have within it many interrelated decisions that must be looked at as a whole.  


So if Creative Agenda is the player's approach to in game conflicts, what are the various possible approaches a player can have?

We know the three broad categories of approaches, the three Creative Agendas, as: Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism.

Each of these approaches starts with a firm foundation of Exploration.  That is to say all of them use System to bring about changes to the Shared Imaginary Space by manipulating Setting, Character, and Situation as constrained by Color.

Exploration by itself is sufficient for role-playing.  However, once conflict enters the SiS there are several different approaches a player can take to deal with it.  The approach the player takes (consciously or not) is the player's Creative Agenda.  The player does not have to be intentionally pursuing (or even aware of) the Creative Agenda.  The player does have to be consciously addressing a conflict.

[Note:  this addition of Conflict to the Creative Agenda nicely allows us to avoid such wishy washy concepts as "role-playing on purpose" or "mindfully"; and the difficult to understand explanation of how a player can be simultaneously "mindful" of the Creative Agenda and yet not need to be "aware" of it.  Instead we have the much simpler situation of the player being able to be completely unaware of any Creative Agenda, but being required to be completely aware of and intentionally responding to Conflict.  It's the player's response to the Conflict over the course of the complete cycle that reveals the Creative Agenda]

Gamists view conflict as an opportunity to test themselves and engage in Step on Up.  Step on Up is the assessment of personal strategy and guts in the face of risk as judged by the participants at the social level (i.e. out of game)
Narrativists view conflict as an opportunity to address Premise and engage in Story Now.  Story Now is the commitment to establish, develop and resolve Premise during play through the decisions of characters who can be seen to be protagonists; where Premise is defined as a problematic human issue or moral or ideological challenge that transforms into a theme (a final judgmental statement about behaviors and belief) based on how those conflicts resolved.
[I[Simulationists[/I] view conflict as an opportunity for Discovery and to answer the question "what if".  Discovery touches on the very nature of simulation, which is at its core a grand experiment.  The experiment is to set a course of events in motion and observe what happens.  This requires strong commitment to the in-game causes and established thematic elements within the SiS because in order to be a valid simulation, each element of Exploration must be true to its nature or else the answer to the "what if" question will be a false one.

Expanding on Simulationism
Simulationism has long been a problematic agenda to understand.  In my effort to more clearly define it I have elected to replace the Right to Dream with Discovery, not as an additional term, but because I think Discovery more accurately relates to what Simulationism is about.  In my opinion, the Right to Dream is what all of role playing is about and is thus more accurately applied to Exploration than to Simulationism.  Dreaming is a rather passive endeavor.  But Discovery requires decisive action and focus and is more appropriately on par with the other two agendas.

I have also tried to return Simulationism to its roots which have been lost in the mists of ancient Forge discussion.  The goal of Simulationism must be, can only be it would seem to me, to simulate something.  Not to explore, not to just "see what's out there".  Those are passive acts of observation.  Simulation is like an experiment which seeks to answer the question "what if".  Before one can observe the results and get that answer, one has to set up the experiment and start it in motion.  That is the active piece of Simulation in my mind.  The conscious commitment to not just observe events but, through ones character, to be the catalyst for those events.

Consistency, verisimilitude, in-game causality, these are all aspects of Exploration that are held in common in all three Agendas.  What constitutes an acceptable level of consistency, verisimilitude, or in-game causality for any given set of Setting, Character, and Situation is determined by Color (as agreed to by System).  These elements are given special emphasis in the course of a Simulationist Agenda only to the extent that they are necessary and for the purpose of providing an accurate context for simulation.  As an experiment designed to answer the question "what if", the parameters of the experiment must be carefully controlled.  In a chemistry experiment these parameters include temperature, pressure, precisely measured quantities of ingredients, etc.  If any of these are off, then the experiment is off and the results are false.  In a role playing simulation these parameters can include tight restrictions on player knowledge (to prevent biasing the experiment), and a rigorous approach to ensuring that each element of Setting, Character, Situation, and Color remains strictly true to its nature.  Unlike Narrativist play where addressing Premise may require the intentional challenging of this nature, such a challenge is inappropriate to Simulationist play unless that is the variable being tested in the "what if" experiment.  If it is not, then those elements must be held as constants for the experiment to be valid.

Technique and Ephemera

A technique is nothing more than a specific isolatable procedure for applying system.  Any method that the players employ to advance through the process of system is a technique.  This starts at the very beginning with techniques for determining what to propose (such as the GM using a wandering monster table to propose an encounter), to techniques for how to make a proposal (such as a player having to wait until their turn in the initiative order before proposing an action), to techniques for how to negotiate the terms of an offer (such as pausing play to locate a applicable rule), to techniques for how offers get accepted (such as glancing around the table to ascertain the other player's degree of approval before continuing), to techniques for how to make a counteroffer (such as asking the GM permission to add a qualifier to a previous statement).

A rulebook then is nothing more then a compilation of specific repeatable techniques.  Since certain combinations of techniques more easily allow a player to pursue a specific Creative Agenda (or put more properly, allow the player to address Conflict in the manner they most enjoy) we can judge rule books by how well their specific combination of technique does or does not support a given agenda.

Ephemera are simply the moment to moment aspects of play.  They may be individual steps of a formal procedure, they may be a glance, a tone of voice, a mannerism that signals pleasure or displeasure, they may be any single action taken at the table that conveys information to other players directly or indirectly.


I wish I had read this on Monday.

Very eloquent and excellent format. Very useful.

Evangelos (Evan) Paliatseas

"Do not meddle in the affairs of Ninjas, for they are subtle and quick to radioactively decapitate."


I think the meshing of conflict to instance-of-play is potentially a very useful way of looking at it.

In messaging systems (and elsewhere) a series of back-and-forth events that have some eventual resolution is called a transaction--with errors and "rollbacks" where there are conflicts (an example is the GM re-conning Sis to introduce a bandit attack).

I'm not sure if that terminology or considering expeanding on that concept would be useful or not.

I especially liked the expansion on Simulationism--I think it's good and well wrought--but it seems to me to leave out GDS Dramatism which, I do not think, would be accurately described as a "what if?" exercise.

I would also think that under "what if" play illusionism would likely be seen as more dysfunctional than it usually is (which I agree with--I don't think too many players would intentionally consent to what is usually described as illusionism at it's core).

If someone is playing to see "what if" and the GM isn't allowing "what if" but replacing it with "X" where "X" is the GM's desired outcome that would seem to be a flat conflict of interest.

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Ron Edwards


Couple things ...

I'm getting the idea that my careful re-statement of this term in the Glossary has gone completely unnoticed:

QuoteSufficient time spent on role-playing necessary to identify all features of System in operation. According to the Big Model, once these features are identified and evaluated in terms of a given group's Social Contract, then Creative Agenda (or its absence) may also be identified. In practice, an Instance of play is rarely shorter than a full session, and may be much longer.

I hope people see that the definition (first sentence) is no longer circular, as it doesn't include any Creative Agenda. I think it is also now fully compatible with your write-up, Ralph, or perhaps better to say, your new write-up is fully compatible with it.

I now realize why you've never liked my discussion of System as SIS-time. One of my unspoken assumptions in explaining any aspect of Exploration was to stay "within" the SIS when doing so. In other words, a character is a character if he, she, or it is perceived as such within the SIS, by other characters.

So System, in action, would play a role within the SIS as a time. In other words, when we the real people perform System, the characters in the SIS "fictionally experience" time and events.

When we move out into the real world, then yes, System-as-time makes no sense. But what we're doing in the real world establishes fictional time in the SIS. (And yes, saying "Time passes" between scenes is indeed System; it's a bit of Drama resolution.)

To me, that seems compatible with your write-up at least in the major points. What do you think?



Quote from: Ron EdwardsI'm getting the idea that my careful re-statement of this term in the Glossary has gone completely unnoticed:

Actually I referred with some frequency to the glossary and was quite pleased to notice that (and actually internalize the significance of it).  I think they are quite compatable.  Since my angle on CA is the player's response to Conflict, and that response will take the form of using System, identifying the features of system the player is using should lead to the same place.

QuoteBut what we're doing in the real world establishes fictional time in the SIS.

I can see that.  I think actually I'd say it in reverse.

Rather than "system as time" I think I'd phrase it "without system, there is no time".  Without the application of system, nothing can change in the SiS, everything is static and frozen.

Ron Edwards

Hooray! Compatible.

I guess I don't see the distinction between the two ways to say it in your last paragraph, but I'm willing to accept that your way to say it is better.



Can I ask you both (Ron and Ralph) a question that I hope doesn't detract or is off topic.  Others chime in as well.

Given all of the above, do you think that the reason some/many people have a hard time following G/N/S or at least finding agreement with it, is that much of what happens in Play, from start to finish is invisible, unconscious, assumptive, or unseen? Players do not realise that there are valid choices and decisions going on unconsciously during Play and thus have a hard time understanding the GNS interpretation of Play?

Much in the same way we become defensive when told that we are performing an offensive act unconsciously, we might become defensive when the Invisible Hands of Play are pointed out.

Again just a thought, I personally found the post very informative and illuminating.



"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker


Great essay, helped me understand a lot (sometimes it's best to see the same thing presented several different ways...).

But I have one issue, not with your article, but with the theory.  It's the components of Exploration.  So please indulge me as I play around with the Great Idea (and feel free to shoot back).

I would suggest that of the five aspects of Exploration, only three of them are really "equal" -- Setting, Character, and Situation -- and that these are attributes of the Shared Imaginary Space, not Exploration.

The SiS is the "model" of events, if you will -- containing everything in this idea shared between players.  Exploration is only the means by which the players define that space -- no more.

A large part of Exploration is actually done before the game itself begins.  In character creation, players agree on the natures and capabilities of their roles: Character.  They decide upon a particular Setting, and usually give one of their number greater credibility in its definition -- the gamemaster, who also outlines Situation (which, admittedly, is variable in play).  Exploration is, then, essentially a video camera which can also be used to alter the SiS.  But it cannot take upon itself the three attributes of the Space.

So where does this leave System and Color?  They aren't equal to the other three; even in your article, you present Color as a "meta-aspect" and System as a sort of meta-meta-aspect, above Color.  I agree with this -- but question the wisdom of putting these two elements in the same category as the lesser attributes.

Color, under the current definition, doesn't really have a place it can comfortably fit.  It ties directly into the three aspects of SiS, but is not itself one of them; it's defined by the Social Contract directly.  A player suggests a Bogart-inspired film noir game, for example, and if the others agree, that's what they play.  So it might be best to call Color the means by which the Social Contract influences the SiS.

System, as you give it in your description of System-as-Exploratory-component, is "the process by which all elements of Setting, Character, Situation, and Color enter the Shared Imaginary Space."  Again, I question whether System makes sense as a component of Exploration, especially given that it's usually agreed upon in the Social Contract (deciding on a particular ruleset, house rules, distribution of credibility, and so on).  Might it be better defined as a limit to the players' ability to define?  Instead of a component, it becomes a container for the idea of Exploration.

Which leaves the activity of Exploration pretty much by itself -- though really, I don't see a need for the act of definition to have many attributes.  It simply takes the aspects of other things and offers explanations and reasons.  And that's all it should do.

Okay, I'm done, start tearing holes in it.

Gordon Fay

Tim C Koppang

I haven't entirely convinced myself that you need conflict to have a Creative Agenda.  I want to say that the concept is sound, but I have to think on it a bit more.  For instance, do you really need conflict to create and address Premise?  I'm almost sure you do, but what about extreme examples where the utter lack of action is itself the engine to create and address Premise (has anyone read Waiting for Godot)?  Perhaps that's a false analogy.

Ok, but assuming that I'm talking out of my ass above, assuming that conflict gives rise to CA, then would it be possible to create "charged" conflicts?  In other words, just as certain rule sets encourage one CA over the others, can the GM create certain types of conflicts that encourage one CA over the others?  Or, is CA defined only by player reaction to generally neutral conflicts?  I mean I don't think it's way out in left field to say that, as a GM, I frame scenes differently for a game like D&D vs. a game like Paladin.  I don't think that the conflict defines the CA, but wouldn't my framing techniques, or even the conflict itself, encourage the players to make choices of a different sort?


Hey Gordon, great question.  In finally coming up with a way of succinctly defining the roles of the 5 elements I definitely noticed that "2 of these things are not like the others".  I briefly flirted with the idea of seperateing Setting and Character and hooking them to the SiS, but ultimately I wanted the essay to only include things that I had given some serious thought to and be more of a personal foundational document so I left them be.

But upon reflection...a car has tires, seats, and an engine which are all very different things which serve different purposes.  Yet when you lump them all together you get a car.  So I don't know that just because these elements aren't the same, I don't know that they don't all fit comfortably under Exploration.  They do ultimately tie up into a neat bundle together.

Tim, I'd say that's a certainty.  After all what are Kickers and Bangs other than a way to narrativistly charge Conflicts?  What is a numbered dungeon room mapped out on grid paper with icons for traps and furniture than a Conflict loaded for combat emphasizing tactical competency (well suited for Gamist behavior)?

Ron Edwards


Sean, I'm with Ralph in agreeing with you. In a word, "Yes." This approach has been fundamental to my essays from the beginning.

Gordon, if you check out the diagram that goes with the Glossary, you'll see that I've tried to write out the five components in a kind of "equation" that expresses your point exactly. They are definitely not five equals; they exist in a specific relationship to one another.

System "multiplies" the basic three, which is to say, imparts imaginary time, motion, and events; Color "multiplies" all the possible presences and interactions of the other four.

Tim, that's right - that's why I call Situation the 800-pound gorilla of Exploration.



Ralph, Ron, thanks for explaining that bit (I still question whether Ralph's "neat bundle" is better off labeled Exploration or Shared Imagined Space).  Still, I'd like to see your opinions on the other part of my post: that Exploration is subservient to the SiS, not the other way around.  Parts of the imagined space are created, but not used -- if the gamemaster makes up a sideplot that is never tracked down, or a player writes up material for his character that's never brought to light -- these imply that the space is bigger than the Explorative ability.  I'd say that this is especially true in competitive games like Paranoia, which dissuade players from revealing too much of the imagined space.


Tim C Koppang


Even if the GM makes up a hidden sideplot, or if a player creates an enitre backlog of history for his character, those items only exist, if anywhere, in an individual imaginary space.  They only enter the SIS when they are shared with everyone at the table.  And the method by which the secret elements are shared is exploration.


Ralph, got a few nitpicks, but mostly I'm all "YES! SO... MUCH... SENSE!"

With respect to rules and system in action, I suggest that a lot of times what you're calling "proposal and implicit acceptance" is in fact, assumption of acceptance.

Quote from: Ralph
5) GM: "and I rolled a 5, which means I win by 1. You come tumbling down off of your horse, take 1d6 damage." Here the GM is proposing that according to his interpretation of the mechanic, since he won the roll he may interpret the event accordingly. He is also making a second proposal that the knight suffers some injurious result from the fall.

I would phrase this differently. I would say that the GM is assuming that the player will abide by the social contract (i.e., the player will accept the authority of the pre-agreed to rules) and goes on to interperet the result of the roll and narrate the scene as fact.

This isn't functionally different from what you're describing, but I think it more acurately reflects the thought process that goes on in actual play.

You say that statements made are propositions that are often implicitly agreed to. I'd add that the person making a statement usually assumes correctly that his statement is accepted. In other words, I'd say in the example above that the other players have already accepted the GM's statement - *before he makes it* - because they agreed to follow the rules, in this specific instance, to use the dice mechanics to determine the outcome.

A lot of times I see people get hung up on the distinction between system and rules because the rules are used even when there's no outright conflict between individual imagination spaces. It's sort of like preventive medicine. I see lots of rules as being writen specifically to smoothly handle situations where conflicts of individual imagination space *might* happen, before they actually *do* happen.

Probably the best way to restate this is, a lot of times, rules are used to pre-determine what everyone will agree to imagine, without waiting for a conflict between what two (or more) players already *have* imagined separately.


About conflict, you're a little unclear / imprecise. I'm not sure if you're saying that the *player* must sacrifice something (i.e., effectiveness) or if the *character* must sacrifice something. Similarly, I'm not sure if you're saying that the *player* must be opposed, or if the *character* must be opposed. It seems like you go back and forth on it.

The reason this is important is that, in some of the pervy nar games I play, there will be times when a player sets up (what I view as) conflict, in, say a mini-scene. The player's character faces adversity, there are consequences for resolving conflict regardless of success or failure, but there are no other players involved. The one player both sets up the conflict and resolves it.

This kind of thing happens a lot in TQB, where a player can call for an Idea roll to basically get the scene he wants, then immediately afterwards call for another roll to resolve it. Nine times out of ten (or something like that ;) the player will do *all* the narrating in this situation, but he might use the mini-scene to addres Premise for his character, even. So, I don't believe that conflict in the SiS should necessarily require conflict among the real people.

Also take Trollbabe, where a lot of times the player and the GM are both rooting for the same outcome. Only one die roll (or series of die rolls) is made by the player to determine the outcome of the conflict. The GM takes no active part in opposition. The only thing the GM does is narrate if the player wins the roll. It's hard to find *any* meta-opposition in a Trollbabe conflict, a lot of times.