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Author Topic: Theory Without Jargon - Help for the Desparate - Number 1  (Read 13887 times)
Paganini
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« on: February 07, 2005, 06:13:38 PM »

Theory Without Jargon - Help for the Desperate - Number 1


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http://www.indie-rpgs.com">The Forge is a place where people talk a lot about the theory of role-playing games. The people at the Forge have been doing this for a long time, and have developed their own specialized vocabulary, which can make it hard for new people to get in on the fun. These articles are here to help.

The first thing to understand is that role-playing games are a form of social entertainment. These are not CRPGs like "Neverwinter Nights" or "Baldur's Gate." The type of role-playing game that we talk about at the Forge is played by a bunch of people communicating with each other. How that communication takes place exactly depends on the group. Some people play "FTF" (Face to Face) which means that a bunch of people get together at someone's house, or at a club, or wherever, and play by actually talking to each other and acting things out. Other people play through text-based formats, like eMail, IRC, Wiki, and so on. For now, our working definition of role-playing is: "a social group entertaining itself through collective imagination."

If you've already been playing this type of game for a while, right about now you may be thinking "No Duh! Where's the good stuff?" Stick with me, though. This is more important than you may have realized before.

In role-playing, like fiction-writing, the primary activity is "making stuff up." Since an author works on his own, he's in control of every detail. He invents his original material, changes it, throws some of it out, adds new, revises, revises, revises, until he has what he wants. But unlike fiction-writing, there are a lot of participants involved in a role-playing game. That "collective" from our working definition opens up a whole lot of problems that need to be solved.

First of all, for role-playing to be practical at all, people have to take turns talking. Most published games don't talk about this. Every group has to work this out for itself. This seems like a simple deal, but every group has a different dynamic in terms of who talks when.

Further, when someone says something, everyone else has to agree to imagine what that person said (or that person must retract or ammend his statement) if the game is going to continue. Imagine that Alice, Bob, and Carl are over at Alice's house playing an RPG. If Alice says "there's a bush growing here," then everyone else has to agree to imagine a bush growing at that particular juncture in the game. It's the same if Alice says "there's an Orc hiding behind the bush growing there," and it's the same if Alice says "The Orc that was hiding behind the bush growing there jumps out and surprises Boron and Celia." In order for the game to proceed, everyone has to agree that there's a bush, that there's an Orc, that the Orc was hiding behind the bush, that the Orc has jumped out, and that Boron and Celia are surprised.

This works just fine as long as everyone is always in agreement about what happens. Each player invents a contribution that he thinks would be cool, tells it to the other players, and they imagine it with him. In actual practice, though, it's not usually this simple. If Bob and Carl don't want a bush, then Alice has to convince them, or she has to agree that, no, there isn't a bush there after all. If there's some reason that a bush shouldn't be there - say, Alice is not the group's designated "inventor of bushes" - she probably shouldn't be making that particular contribution in the first place.

A lot of times, a particular player will have something specific in mind that he'd like to imagine that isn't compatible with what another player want's to imagine. (Let's say that Alice wants to imagine that the Orc kills Boron, but Bob would rather that Boron go on to have many more imagined adventures.) In a case like this, there has to be some way to decide what the "official" version of imagined events will be. Until we know for sure that Boron is alive (or dead) we can't continue. There are a lot of ways that this can happen. Some examples: one player can be designated as a de facto authority who decides such cases, some mechanical procedure is followed (dice are rolled, chips are bid, rock/paper/scisors is played), or the players just negotiate, discussing and revising (just like that fiction author) until a compromise is reached.

When a group of players decides to use a particular book of game rules, what they are doing is agreeing to a set of methods for establishing continuity among their imaginations. Most sets of rules have a combination of the methods mentioned above, along with many other possibilities.

A side note: A lot of people like to claim that RPG rules model the physical nature of the locations that the players imagine. This can be true - rules that do this establish continuity among the players by referencing third-party descriptions (lists, ratings, tables, and things like that) of the imagined environment. But don't let anyone fool you into thinking that this physical representation is a requirement for a functional RPG. It's just one of many ways to set things up.

This maintainance of continuity is a really big deal. There are many, many ways for a group to operate. The social interactions can be as simple as plain negotiation (freeform play, for example), but it can also be very structured, with different people having the final word on different things. A shared understanding of how continuity is to be maintained is very important for play to be successful.

Let's suppose that Alice, Bob, and Carl are using a fairly standard RPG setup where Bob's and Carl's contributions consist of describing what their characters do and feel, while Alice (the GM) is in charge of describing the environment (including animals and other people) that the characters are in. When those spheres of influence interact (say, when the Orc attacks Boron) we need to be sure that we have agreed ahead of time how to handle it.

Unfortunately, a lot of published game texts aren't very clear about this part. Most groups have to decide for themselves what the game's writer realy meant. This can cause a lot of grief when someone who's used to play a game a certain way tries to play with a group that has a different take on things. There've been a lot of internet flame wars about the "right" way to play various published games.

What happens is that some player has made an assumption about the type of contribution that is expected from him. It has to be an assumption, because groups seldomly discuss these things up front, and our game text doesn't offer any help. (I'm not saying that there are *no* games that address this stuff, but a lot of them don't. So, this ends up being a common problem.)

Things get screwed up when some other player has also made an assumption - one that conflicts with the first player's idea. All too often, both assumptions are based on different interpretations of the rules. Each player feels that he knows exactly what the rules say, and the other guy has it wrong, when in fact, the problem is that the game text that the group agreed to abide by was unclear in the first place.

So, the game grinds to a halt while everyone argues about who gets to say what, and which rules support which side, and so on. People can feel pretty strongly about this stuff. Sometimes it's not pretty.


The Bottom Line

At this level of theory, we're dealing with social interactions between people. During play, each player contributes to the contents of every player's imagination. Prior to play, the group establishes an agreement that defines the nature of acceptable contributions from various group members, and procedures to follow when contributions are in conflict. Unfortunately, this agreement is often not verbaly articulated, leaving players to guess and feel their way through play until they get an idea of how things should work.
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clehrich
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« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2005, 08:58:22 PM »

Hey, nice post.  I like this.  I gather you intend to go on from here and explain some of the basics, at least, of the local Forge jargon and theory?

Couple points.

First, I think you should make clear that the Forge is not, as a rule, about LARPs.  I have it on good authority that this ticks off the Nordic crew sometimes, that we tend to talk about "all RPGs" as though it were obvious that LARPs aren't RPGs.  And if you're going to go into Forge theory, I think it's wise to set LARPs outside quite explicitly, for clarity's sake if nothing else.

Second, as you go along here, I recommend coming back to the previous chapters (including this one) and adding in little bracketed things like [See "Lumpley Principle" in chapter 3] and the like.  That way a reader can, at the end, go back and read chapter 1 again with a new understanding.  He or she can go along and say, "Oh, I see.  You're talking about the Lumpley Principle, here it is in action, I get it."  And at the very least, the reader can identify problems in understanding: "This is the Lumpley Principle?  Why?"  Like that.

That's not something you can probably do now, but bear it in mind and come back at the end.

One question for other readers.  It strikes me that some of the rhetoric at the start, e.g. "The people at the Forge have been doing this for a long time," could be taken as a bit triumphant.  And of course, a big part of the point of such a set of articles (or single long one), I presume, is to introduce people to this stuff gently and slowly without being overbearing.  So what do others think?  Too much?  Just right?  How about the porridge?

I'm looking forward to chapter 2!
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Chris Lehrich
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« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2005, 09:36:26 PM »

To answer Chris's question, I do agree that the language at the beginning is offputting.  I say this because I was initially offput, myself.  ;)
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Paganini
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« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2005, 09:40:18 PM »

OK.

First, that intro paragraph has nothing to do with the rest of the thing, and can be deleted without any problem at all.

Second, Chris, I'm gonna try and avoid using any Forge specific jargon at all, at the suggestion of one of my friends. Some of the Forge jargon is like... right on (Setting, Character, Situation) so it's kind of hard to avoid, because that's just what that stuff is CALLED. But I'm leaving out stuff like Lumpley Principle, TITBB, and so on. If people want to know what forge jargon maps to what theory concept, I'm more than happey to cover that in comments and threads.

Chapter two is on the way. I just posted the draft of it to my LJ.
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J. Tuomas Harviainen
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« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2005, 09:41:31 PM »

Very, very nice stuff indeed. With the changes clerich suggested, it'd be an excellent introduction to what happens here. As an alternative to the bracketing, you might consider a footnote system that would link key concepts to corresponding terms and theory. That way the primary text's flow would be preserved as it is now.

I think one more sentence (or paragraph) about how the players not only add elements to the game, but how those elements build upon one another, might be useful. It's implicitly there now, but since this looks like it's going to be a set of articles that even non-players will be reading, I think it best to explain the story construction process a bit further.

Quote from: clehrich
One question for other readers.  It strikes me that some of the rhetoric at the start, e.g. "The people at the Forge have been doing this for a long time," could be taken as a bit triumphant.


I thought the opening paragraph was absolutely brilliant. "A place where people /talk a lot about about/ the theory ... for a long time ... which can make it hard for new people...". It's a statement of facts without any overbearance whatsoever. It basically says "lots of things on the subject have been talked about here" without making any claim of immediate authority.
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Paganini
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« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2005, 10:01:00 PM »

Hey J. Tuomas,

Thanks for your kind words. :) In chapter two I talk about setting, character, and situation, and how they interact, and also about how it can be difficult to just come up with something out of nothing, which is why we use setting info (and so on) to help get us started. Do you think that covers the "building on" aspect well enough?
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xenopulse
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« Reply #6 on: February 07, 2005, 10:09:20 PM »

As I mentioned on your LJ, I think this is great, and I am looking forward to the rest of the series.
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J. Tuomas Harviainen
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« Reply #7 on: February 07, 2005, 10:32:57 PM »

Quote from: Paganini
In chapter two I talk about setting, character, and situation, and how they interact, and also about how it can be difficult to just come up with something out of nothing, which is why we use setting info (and so on) to help get us started. Do you think that covers the "building on" aspect well enough?


I read the draft on your LJ, and have to say "no". I think it still needs something more on the subject, such as "after Boron goes downstairs and drinks his ale, the possibility of new story elements appears. It will now be possible, for example, for him to get drunk, poisoned or nauseous. In this way, a game's story elements build upon one another." (But please, write it in a more flowing style than I did.) That way the concepts you and I take for granted will become more clear to those not familiar with rpg structure.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2005, 07:26:33 AM »

Just one question, Paganini. Who is this written for -- someone who's new to the Forge and wants to get involved, or someone who just wants to know what the Forge is about?

I'm assuming it's for someone who's just new to the Forge, yet wants to get involved, in which case I'm all for including Forge-speak throughout. I mean, it's hard to have an introduction to a field of research without hitting on some of the jargon, or at least mentioning major points of it. Leaving out the Forge-speak would seem to me to be valuable only if you were writing this as a general, "what goes on at that crazy Forge place" article.

I didn't find anything insulting about the intro, but then I've been on the Forge for a short while already, I'm not just reading this article as my first contact.
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Paganini
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« Reply #9 on: February 08, 2005, 08:06:15 AM »

Hey Andrew,

I think I'm going to use jargon if it seems natural to do so, but I won't go out of my way to make these articles "how to speak Forgeish." These are about the theory, not about how we describe it. Once someone reds these articles it should (hopefully) be no big deal for them to go to the glossary and say, oh, so *thats* what this is talking about.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #10 on: February 08, 2005, 08:24:50 AM »

Great job! I've been working on an essay about collaborative gaming that is along similar lines with yours, for a while now. The 5 elements are such a natural way to break out the aspects of gaming.

You've got a great relaxed way of describing the issue of contributing that seems like it would be easy to read for newbies.   Jargon just gets in the way. If we want other people to understand, gotta speak some language they can understand.  Best of luck with it.

yrs,
Emily Care
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sophist
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« Reply #11 on: February 08, 2005, 01:21:03 PM »

Well,

I admit I have quite some problems with the assumptions here.

First off, only the DM will must of the time "make up stuff". the players modify that stuff. I assume here that "actions" are not "stuff".

The idea that a DM has to convince B and C of there being a bush is not correct in my opinion. B and C have to accept A's decription of the scene on a principle of charity: that A is not abribtraily making up elements to have fun at Bs and Cs expense.
Thus there is an authority over elements as well as outcomes. the rules you cite for a principle of continuity don't cover this. Negotiation over "stuff" is the exception rather than the rule.

The more I think about it, the problem seems to be a non-distiction between ontology (setup) and ontogeny (moves). a certain move in
a chess game is not in the same way an element of a chess game as a playing piece.

Your texts strikes me as teleological rather than descriptive. You are aiming at narrativism (where the question becomes wether we are still
dealing with a game) and collaborative styles (where the taking of roles becomes blurred). So I think you aiming to high when explaining ROLEplaying GAMES.

As a side note, it is not a problem of being unclear in the rules that leads to different interpretations of the rules. It is strictly impossible to design a system that can handle everything from falling in love to star system generation and does not need interpretation. Making a system is in itself an interpretative endeavour.
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LordSmerf
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« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2005, 02:17:02 PM »

Sophist,

Welcome to the Forge.  My name is Thomas.  I have a question for you.

Quote from: sophist
The idea that a DM has to convince B and C of there being a bush is not correct in my opinion. B and C have to accept A's decription of the scene on a principle of charity: that A is not abribtraily making up elements to have fun at Bs and Cs expense.


Would B and C have to convince A that there was a bush?  If one of them said, "I dive behind the bush for cover," would that be taken at face value necessarily?

It sounds as if you are discussing a very specific subset of role playing and then saying that all role playing is like this.  That seems somewhat narrow.

Quote
As a side note, it is not a problem of being unclear in the rules that leads to different interpretations of the rules. It is strictly impossible to design a system that can handle everything from falling in love to star system generation and does not need interpretation. Making a system is in itself an interpretative endeavour.


I'm not sure what you're saying here... Are you saying that no set of rules can make everyone happy?  Sure, but that's true of everything.  No cooking recipe will make everyone happy, no job will make everyone happy, etc.  However, a set of RPG rules can make a specific audience happy, and it can do so without modification or interpretation.

Thomas
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2005, 04:08:08 PM »

Hey Sophist,

Quote
First off, only the DM will must of the time "make up stuff". the players modify that stuff. I assume here that "actions" are not "stuff".


This is the first place where your assumptions differ from, say, mine. "Stuff" does include actions. The word "stuff" does sort of imply persons, places or things, so that's why it's not the best word. That's why "contribution" is a better word, as it has room for both "stuff" and actions. As such, all players, including the GM, will be making up contributions, both in the form of objects, persons and places, and the form of actions, descriptions and other less physical aspects of the game.

Quote
The idea that a DM has to convince B and C of there being a bush is not correct in my opinion. B and C have to accept A's decription of the scene on a principle of charity: that A is not abribtraily making up elements to have fun at Bs and Cs expense.
Thus there is an authority over elements as well as outcomes. the rules you cite for a principle of continuity don't cover this. Negotiation over "stuff" is the exception rather than the rule.


The GM does indeed have to convince the players of the validity of what he says. Convincing does not always mean discussion, though. You are correct in assuming that most games do explicitly or implicitly give validity to whatever the GM says, making it the rule rather than the exception that his contributions are accepted by the rest of the play group. But to claim that the players have no choice but to accept whatever the GM states as fact, especially without making exceptions, is quite wrong. Even in D&D there isn't such a blatant power imbalance between players and DM, unless it's an exceptional case like a Con tournament. Assuming the more usual case of a group of friends playing, the DM will listen to the input of his players, even about his own contributions, or he will quickly find himself without a group.

You are also incorrect in stating that this essay is aimed only at Narrativist play. Everything here applies to all modes of play. I would even hazard to say that the details of this first essay, at least, apply even to LARP play, which is considered somewhat of an odd-duck, in that it doesn't follow many of the standard rules of RPGs. I will say with utter certainty that it applies to purely-sim Free-form Roleplaying.

The whole point of the essay is to make it clear that roleplaying is, first and foremost, a social activity. The rules of the game are a group of guidelines agreed upon by the players, to include the guidelines which say who has the right to contribute how much, and how easily those contributions should be accepted by the play group.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2005, 04:33:20 PM »

Interestingly, it's Sophist himself who's doing a teleological (prescriptive) argument, it seems to me. He's effectively decided that roleplaying games are games with roles, which for him apparently means players in actor stance all the time.

The argument that narrativism is not gaming and no-GM play is not taking a role is very familiar to me from Finnish discussions. Especially the requirement of there being an exclusive role is common hereabouts. The GM is of course given a special place, because he's ideally the only player who doesn't have a role. Or he has the role of "the rest of the world".

My answer is usually to note that there is no point to the discussion unless one side agrees to limit himself to the other's assumptions. Like in this case: any arguments based on a different definition of roleplaying are logically flawed in the context of the article. It's like I were writing about vegetables, and somebody tried to suggest all kinds of carrot-specific points into my article. If I took him up the article wouldn't be about vegetables anymore, it'd be about carrots only.

So my suggestion is that Sophist should just bear it. Write another article about the theory of GM-focused games, how about?
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