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Author Topic: Theory Without Jargon - Help for the Desparate - Number 2  (Read 6732 times)
Paganini
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« on: February 08, 2005, 10:29:17 AM »

(As you can see, the reason I've been enthusiasticaly participating in some of these recent threads is that they pertain directly to what I've been writing. Let's hear it for milking Forge discussions for essay material. ;)

As of last time, our concept of role-playing looks something like this:

1 - A bunch of people get together
2 - One person imagines something in the privateness of his mind
3 - That person describes what he has imagined to everyone else
4 - Everyone agrees that, yeah, that's cool to imagine, and that person's contribution is accepted as an imagined fact

OR

4 - Not every agrees, and negotiation ensues, until the player's original contribution is indeed accepted as imagined fact, is revised, or is excluded.

This time we're going to take a closer look at the things that the players are imagining. Individual contributions can be identified as creating, or manipulating several things. "Setting" is the environment that the players are imagining. Geography, plants, animals, civilizations, things that generally define the world that the players are imagining. Such elements don't have to be merely physical. They can be the cultural ideals of a society, for example. "Characters" are the imaginary people who live in the setting. A group of fanatical clergy who devote their lives to oppressing and pillaging the unfaithful is a setting element. Golias, the leader of the band, is a character. "Situation" is when characters and setting interact. Some characters are in a place, and there's some stuff going on.

Situation is the big deal during actual play. If you go to watch Alice, Bob, and Carl play their weekly fantasy game, situation will be the focus almost all the time. Say, Boron and Celia are in a dungeon being chased by a large troll. They duck into a room, grab some wire that they brought with them, and rig up a trip trap across the door, hoping to get the drop on the troll. Boron, Celia, and the Troll are characters. The dungeon and it's layout, and the wire are setting elements. Their interactions are the situation.

The thing about playing an RPG is that there are literally endless potential contributions that can be made. Anything that a player can invent on the spot is fair game. Imagine that Alice, Bob, Carl, and you all get together to play a game. All anyone knows is that you're playing an RPG. Alice looks over at you and says "make something up!" That's kind of a tall order - just make something up with no reference point, no context, just grab something out of the blue.

Plus, if you start a game this way, it takes a while before you get to any kind of situation, because you have to come up with a whole bunch of setting stuff and character stuff first. (If you want to see how this kind of game can work in practice, check out Universalis. It's a lot of work, but it's fun too.)

Since situation (usually) is the big deal that everyone wants to get to, most of the time players will take a shortcut. Instead of starting with a blank slate, the social agreement (mentioned last time) will include establishing some basic setting, character, and sometimes even situation material... *before* starting to play. I call this "preloading." One of my friends calls it "frontloading." Either way, what it boils down to is that everyone agrees to treat a batch of material generated by a third party (setting stuff invented by the game's author, for example, or adventure material that the GM wrote during the week before the game) as though it had been contributed during play by a member of the group.

So, a statement like "let's play some D&D" has a lot of implied preloading built in. It lets everyone know what kind of setting material is appropriate for contribution, it lets everyone know what kind of characters will be there, it even indicates the kinds of situations that can be expected.

Because of preloading, we can expand our view of the interactions between the players a little. Now that everyone has a reference point to work from, it's safe to assume that every contribution is accepted - as long as (A), it doesn't directly conflict with previously established contributions (including the preloaded material) or (B), nobody explicitly objects. If Bob wants Boron to go downstairs, he just says "Boron goes downstairs." As long as this is something that is reasonable for Boron to do (i.e., downstairs exists, Boron can walk), no one else will say anything. Bang, everybody imagines Boron lumbering downstairs to the basement. As long as no one speaks up and says "hey, the stairs got blown up in that last fight," everything is cool.

The thing about imagined setting, character, and situation, is that they tend to be dynamic. Remember when I said that situation is about characters and setting elements interacting? That word "interacting" implies change. Things are *happening.* Since there's so much *stuff* in the game - all the preloaded material, plus whatever we've made up since we started - the social agreement will often include ownership of various imagined elements. Ownership of a particular element means that everyone else has agreed that one person will have the final say over what that element does, and what happens to it. This idea of ownership isn't a requirement. In Universalis, for example, there is no one owner of a given element. Instead, control of various elements bumps around from player to player. If Alice, Bob, and Carl were playing a game without ownership, then Bob might say "Boron goes downstairs," after which Carl might follow up with "Boron goes to the bar and drinks some ale from the keg." But if Bob owns the Boron character, then Carl can't say what Boron does. He can suggest to Bob that it would be cool for Boron to drink some ale. But Bob gets the final say.

It's important to notice that Carl's suggestion to Bob that Boron drink some ale is not a contribution. Carl is simply giving Bob some advice. This kind of chatter is common, and usually regarded as a good thing. It means all the players are into the game, and interested in what the other players are doing. Anyone can suggest anything about any imagined element - but the owner of that element has the final say over what actually happens.

Remember, even in a game where Bob owns Boron, the only thing that keeps Carl from having Boron go over to the bar and grab an ale is that *Carl previously agreed not to do that.* Bob's ownership of Boron is part of the social agreement. By agreeing that Bob is the owner of Boron, Carl has said he won't make any contributions that involve Boron doing things. If Carl goes ahead and says that Boron goes to the bar, then Bob and Alice will rightly be expected to object. The game will stall on the level of interaction between the real people, because Carl has broken his word - just like if he said "I'll bring the soda," and then doesn't after all, so everyone goes thirsty all evening.

Agreeing to specific owners of various elements makes things a lot easier. Each player knows exactly what elements he's supposed to handle, and what sort of material his contributions are supposed to contain. The strictness of ownership rules varies from game to game, and the strictness of their enforcement varies from group to group. If Alice and Bob don't care about Carl moving Boron around, they might let him get away with it. This kind of thing can be pretty vague, sometimes. If Bob particularly likes Carl's idea he might even say "yeah, take him over for a minute," so Carl can do his thing. Notice that Bob gave Carl his permission to mess with the character he owns (Boron), so the social agreement is still intact.

Next is where mechanics come in. Most of the time, players will make contributions that deal with elements they own, and everything will be fine. Sometimes, though, interactions will happen in such a way that elements owned by several players are affected. This is the nature of situation... remember that situation is all about interaction. Imagine that Alice says "The Orc kills Boron," while Bob says "Boron kills the Orc." It's perfectly reasonable for Bob to want Boron to kill that Orc (assuming that Bob owns Boron) and similarly reasonable for Alice to want the Orc to kill Boron (likewise assuming that Alice owns the Orc). Each statement involves two characters... one owned by the player, one owned by another player. Bob would have to own *both* characters in order to assume that everyone will accept "Boron kills the Orc" without question. The same is true of Alice for the Orc to kill Boron. How do we resolve this?

The answer depends on the social agreement that the players make when they decide to play a particular game. Some games specify that the authority of one player trumps the other players (i.e., Alice always wins). Another way is with resolution mechanics (dice rolling, and so on). The idea here is "arbitration." Bob wants an imagined fact that conflicts with the imagined fact that Alice wants. We already know the potential outcomes to this situation (Boron dies, the Orc dies, both die, neither die), but since the parties involved all have equal authority, we turn to a third party - an unbiased selection method - to decide which possible result actually becomes imagined fact.

It's important to note that the parties involved really do have equal authority. If Alice had more authority than Bob, there would be no need for mechanical arbitration. The Orc would kill Boron, and that would be that. If Bob complained and argued, he would be challenging the social agreement that Alice has more authority than he does.

It's also important to note that the mechanics never contribute anything. Since they don't have minds, they can't make stuff up the same way that the players do. Instead, mechanics are used to pick from a list of potential contributions. We've agreed ahead of time that any one of the contributions on the list *might* be accepted as imagined fact. (It's a reasonable imagined fact that Boron will kill the Orc. It's similarly reasonable that the Orc will kill Boron.) Then we use a mechanic to decide which one *actually does* become imagined fact. Most times the number of possible things is pretty small. A regular skill check, where the possibilities are success or failure, or a hit-or-miss combat roll. Sometimes, the selection will be from a whole range of possibilities, like a damage roll, or a wondering monster table (part of the preloaded material) where the possible results go from nothing happening, to an army of 10,000 Orcs showing up. Sometimes we make the list up on the spot. Check out Shadows, where every time a roll is made the player doing the rolling comes up with two possible outcomes - on the fly - and then uses the dice to pick which one actually happens.

Even after the dice are rolled, some player still has to contribute the result by describing it to the rest of the group. This is one of those instances where the contribution is pre-approved. Everyone agreed to use the dice to pick a result, so the player narrating assumes that his contribution is accepted by everyone. If the player narrates something other than what the dice selected, it's the same as when Carl broke the social contract earlier.


The Bottom Line

So, now we have players pre-agreeing to include some third party material as imaginary facts before playing, to aid and contextualize their own contributions. Each player assumes that his contribution will be accepted as imaginary fact by everyone else as long as (A) his contribution is in keeping with the social agreement and (B) no one explicitly objects. Each player usually (but not always) has ownership of certain specific imaginary elements. A player can't do anything with an element owned by another player, unless the owner of that element gives him permission to do so. Mechanics are used to select from possible outcomes that the group has previously agreed could be imagined.
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J. Tuomas Harviainen
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Posts: 127


« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2005, 10:59:54 AM »

Looking very good this far. The text stays on a rather basic level, though, but I think that's only proper (I especially like the Winnicott-Rizzuto theory paraphrase recap in the beginning). You're explaining the basics of theory, and (I hope) then moving on towards more and more advanced concepts. That way readers can eventually skim along the material until they reach the level of what they're no longer familiar with. As long as the keywords are introduced in some way (brackets, notes, etc.), and the points mentioned about pt. 1 dealt with, the structure seems very solid.

I'd watch out for overdoing the character-example angle, though. It may indeed (as the LJ comments others made suggested) cause some readers to skip the examples.

-Jiituomas
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Doctor Xero
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« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2005, 12:06:14 PM »

Good so far -- give more!

I think you're on to something in terms of clarification in a field of study which has become jargon-heavy.

Doctor Xero
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"The human brain is the most public organ on the face of the earth....virtually all the business is the direct result of thinking that has already occurred in other minds.  We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind..." --Lewis Thomas
clehrich
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« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2005, 05:58:59 PM »

Loving this!  Panting for more...

One note in passing, for potential discussion in another thread:
Quote
It's also important to note that the mechanics never contribute anything.
I think it's perfectly clear what you mean, of course.  But mechanics carry baggage: they have particular places in complex systems which we have (as you put it) preloaded into the game, and furhermore they have strong ascribed values and meanings from the broader hobby of gaming.  So I think it is not technically correct to say that mechanics never contribute anything.  The insertion of a mechanic also brings in whatever is attached to it, kind of the rest of the iceberg below the water, as it were.

Anyway, a thought for another thread.
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Chris Lehrich
Paganini
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« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2005, 06:52:57 PM »

Chris, post that thread. I'm interested.

As far as I'm concerned, mechanics don't contribute, period. A contribution is something that is made up by a player and articulated to the other players.

Mechanics don't "make stuff up." They are associated with stuff that has either already been made up by us (the game group) during play, or they are associated with stuff that was made up by some third party that was preloaded into our game.

(Edited for clarity)
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CPXB
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« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2005, 07:07:42 PM »

I think this is great stuff, too.  I think that what might be real helpful is links talking about the jargon.  If, y'know, that's possible.
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-- Chris!
Paganini
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« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2005, 08:09:34 PM »

I think I'd prefer to handle that jargon stuff in conversations. For one thing, it's a Big Deal (TM) to search the Forge database and come up with discussions that adequately cover this stuff. All this jargon was hashed out over long periods of time by lots of people. It's kinda hard to reconstruct that stuff. So, I'd suggest that if you're interested in interfacing the jargon to my articles, you should post questions about them. Also, you can start checking the glossary and seeing what definitions there match up with what stuff I'm saying here.
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clehrich
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« Reply #7 on: February 08, 2005, 08:29:41 PM »

Paganini,

I don't think you quite get why we're suggesting footnotes or whatever to link to the jargon.

The point is, suppose somebody reads the whole thing and thinks, "Wow!  I get it!  This rocks!  I want to be in on the Forge thing too, because this is the best thing that ever happened to me."  Then he or she comes over here and goes, "Eh?  What's all this weird jargon?  This isn't what Paganini was talking about.  Is it?"

So the idea is that as you go along, you have these passing notes --- footnotes, whatever --- that say, "Incidentally, the Forge crew call this X."  And then the person comes over here and goes, "Oh, that's right, I remember what X is --- it's that thing Paganini talked about in article 3 over here, gotcha."  And then joins in happily.

Do you see?

You don't have to give references.  Totally irrelevant.  Just make your amazingly clear exposition mention, in passing, the peculiar Forge terms that currently cover what you're talking about.  Then get on with your own exposition; don't use the jargon throughout, just in passing.  That way it serves as an introduction not only to gaming theory but also to the Forge, which is something people have been begging for, for quite a while now.

Does that help?
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Chris Lehrich
greedo1379
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« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2005, 09:16:09 PM »

I just posted the suggestion of footnotes on episode 1 of these articles.  For exactly the reasons you guys describe.
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Paganini
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« Reply #9 on: February 08, 2005, 09:32:20 PM »

I will think about it some more. But, for a countering perspective, imagine that you're a noob, and you're reading my "amazingly clear article," and all of a sudden you hit a footnote that says "at the Forge we call this The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast."

Now, further imagine the incredible amount of inbred terminology that it is necessary to grasp before even tackling something like Points of Contact. I just don't want to mess with it.
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clehrich
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« Reply #10 on: February 09, 2005, 10:40:12 AM »

Quote from: Paganini
I will think about it some more. But, for a countering perspective, imagine that you're a noob, and you're reading my "amazingly clear article," and all of a sudden you hit a footnote that says "at the Forge we call this The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast."
I don't understand what the problem is.  You sort of go, "Oh, how odd.  Anyway...."
Quote
Now, further imagine the incredible amount of inbred terminology that it is necessary to grasp before even tackling something like Points of Contact. I just don't want to mess with it.
No, I'm not saying you need to cover all the jargon.  Don't.  That's absolutely not what's going to make these articles work; what makes them work is what you're already doing.  What I'm saying is that if and when particular discussions happen to match established jargon terms, a passing footnote will make future reading of the Forge more comprehensible.  Do not structure the articles to "cover" Forge jargon.

As an example, I think it's entirely possible that TITBB will never come up.  That's mostly about how certain gaming texts are written, not about how they're played.  And you're focusing on play, so chances are this issue will never arise.  So... don't mention it.  But, conversely, it seems to me very probable that you will end up explaining the Lumpley Principle; in fact, you've already started to do just that.  So drop a footnote: "Incidentally, at the Forge this gets called the Lumple Principle, named after a prominent poster who's also the author of some great games."  That's it.  No problem.

Anyway, I'll shut up now.  Just wanted to make clear that I'm not in any way suggesting that you should alter what you intend to write.  In fact, I suspect that anyone here who knows the jargon intimately could just go through your articles and add the footnotes, and have the same effect.  I just think this will be smoother if you do it, and after all, you know the jargon as well as anybody.

P.S. As to the thread on mechanics, I need time to think that through.  But expect to see it soon....
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Chris Lehrich
kenjib
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« Reply #11 on: February 09, 2005, 12:00:24 PM »

I think there might be need to tease a little bit more out of your definitions of character and setting and your statement that "'Situation' is when characters and setting interact."  There is a substantial grey area between what is a character and what is not according to your terms (in which you have included plants and animals as setting).  For example:

A physical embodiment of a metaphysical concept, such as evil having a tangible presence and perhaps even a voice.
A machine or robot with a small number of functions
A hive mind made from a colony of creatures
A sidekick/minion who is in practice, rules-wise, primarily an extension of another character's abilities
A location imbued with an animist spirit
An animal
etc.

Each of these types of setting elements suggest a continuum between character at one end and setting at the other.  My question here is what theoretical framework does this distinction serve to further within the context of this essay?  In addition, if we establish characters as distinct from other setting elements, why do other elements that you describe as setting, such as organizational structures or places, not deserve a similarly distinct taxonomical status?  What is the criteria for this decision?

I understand there is a great deal of Forge history behind the words "setting" and "character," but if these articles are really meant to be "theory without jargon" then the usage here appears quite problematic to me, because in the context of someone not familiar with this history I do not think that you have adequately defined them.

What seems to me really to be the important distinction is the ability of players (I use this term inclusive of the GM) to make decisions via the in-game agent (I think "agent" is a much better word that the overly-restrictive "character", but that's probably another topic for another day...).  That is the critical factor that makes your "setting" into your "character".  Without the ability to make decisions, there is no situation.  The system can support those decisions through any combination of simulationist, narrative, or gamist mechanics.

However, once we take the simulationist tack as an example, we can see that a landslide interacting with a cave entrance can be a situation if there are game mechanics specifying that the landslide may or may not cover the entrance.  This might, mechanically, be just as valid a source of outcome arbitration as a duel of oratory between two members of the Council of Elders.  It might even be mechanically identical.  This applies to the other gaming styles too.  At the metagame level, an interaction between inanimate objects can also be a narrative or gamist decision in how it opens up or closes possibilities for the SIS (the GM wanting to have a landslide cover the cave entrance to change the playfield, for example).

So, carrying this thought to it's full length brings me to the final conclusion that situation is created not by setting interacting with character as you have defined them.  Rather, situation is created by the introduction into the imaginary world of multiple possible outcomes that must be arbitrated by the system.  Conveniently, this is what the rest of your essay is about too.
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Kenji
kenjib
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« Reply #12 on: February 09, 2005, 12:05:24 PM »

To clarify - My post is from the perspective of someone who knows just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be productive.  ;)  I think that perhaps an illustration of my confusion that arises from the essay might point toward things that someone who lives and breathes forge-speak might not notice because he takes certain semiotics for granted.  From an semi-outsider's perspective, your introduction of "character" versus "setting" brings me much more confusion than clarity and furthermore it does not seem to be all too relevant to the main thrust of the essay.
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Kenji
Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #13 on: February 09, 2005, 01:16:53 PM »

As I see it, "character" and "setting" are both subsets of "contribution" as defined in the essay. The difference is entirely idealogical.. Character refers to people owned by either the players or the GM (for ease, I prefer to differentiate as well) and setting refers to pretty much everything else. Frequently, minor "characters" are considered part of setting, such as shopkeepers, etc. which aren't given any or much definition.

For the purpose of this essay though, it's not really necessary to define the types of contributions, as this essay deals almost entirely with ownership of contributions, rather than types. The only concern with types has to do with "default" understanding of who owns what.

Typical setups usually mean that the players own their characters entirely, and the GM cannot do anything to them without express permission or mechanical support. The setting is somewhat shared, with the GM having ultimate ownership, which means that the GM must consent, even if only by silence, to any player manipulation of setting, or the player must have mechanical support. NPCs, which could also be called GM Characters, are exactly like PCs, except that ownership rests in the hands of the GM, rather than individual players.

Your examples are more tenuous than the sub-concepts of character and setting, falling within the continuum between them, as you said. For the purposes of this essay though, they can all be lumped into the greater category of "contributions", at which point you just make a case-by-case assignment of ownership. Often a particular game will have it's own guidelines to cover these types of contributions, which makes the process simpler.
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~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls
Paganini
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« Reply #14 on: February 09, 2005, 08:12:31 PM »

Kenjib,

I don't want to get quite that metaphysical. As defined in my articles, a character is a person who exists in the place that the players are imagining. It might be kind of hard to *define* the word person, but I don't think I need to. Everyone knows what a person is. Setting is the rest of the stuff that the players imagine. All the stuff that aren't people. (Note that "people" does not in any way imply "human." Anyone who is familiar with fantasy and sci-fi will have no problem with this, and I hinted at it in the essay for those who aren't, by identifying the troll as a character.)

As far as the interractions go, you're correct. Situation is the interactions between character elements and setting elements. That certainly includes character + character, character + setting, and setting + setting.

I only gave one example, character + setting. Maybe I should have been more clear.
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