November 19th, 2010

chiang 2

Malcolm Sheppard's "Toy Dogma", "immersion", and multi-levelled engagement

Malcolm's series of posts on his "Toy Dogma" approach to RPGs are good stuff, although one might wonder how much effort needs to be put into clearing out the underbrush before building up his own ideas. I suppose part of the point is, as he says, to send a message, and by taking on Forge theory head-on, he's ensuring that the message gets sent to the right people.

Actually, I'm more interested in the parts that challenge an ideology that's much closer to my heart: the idea of immersion. In the history of RPG theory, immersion was fairly closely tied to "Simulationism" (especially on See for example Threefold Simulationism Explained. Even more important though was the concept of "stances", which I think was originally developed to provide a clearer account of the moment-to-moment experience of a player in a game.

While I don't think I was ever entirely happy with any of the categorizations of "stance" that were proposed in RGFA or later, I've still generally worked from the similar idea of "perspective" in connection with "immersion", as a fundamental element of RPGs at their inception, and actually something that was largely inherited from wargames. You could even say that RPGs were an attempt to refine and elevate the sense of "in-character perspective", which wargames had developed by introducing methods of simulating a situation and putting the player into the shoes of an identifiable actor within the situation. (For example, some wargames attempt to use hidden movement or umpires to present players with actual "limited intelligence" as commanders would have. They may also constrain player control over units, effectively "situating the player" in headquarters, with unreliable communications channels.) Braunstein was a direct outgrowth.

However, lately I've had to admit that "In-character POV (IC POV)" isn't precisely or entirely what goes on when I play an RPG (or a wargame). That is, as much as I enjoy the fantasy of "being" an adventurer or a general, my enjoyment is coming from a very different perspective than the characters themselves. (Playing Stalingrad is fun. I don't think the soldiers or even the generals in Stalingrad enjoyed it quite so much.) So I was interested in the discussion that sprung up in the wake of Malcolm's critique of "stance". (I think he also had some choice words for people who "just want to play my character", but I can't find the link at the moment.) I had a few comments there, which you can read if you like--mainly I refer back to posts I've made here, in which I talked about Chris Lehrich's ideas of RPGs as a form of ritual discourse.

But here, all I want to do is link a couple of other essays which I seem to recall touching on multileveled appreciation of RPGs: Brian Gleichman's Elements of Design, and a schema laid out on the Forge (originally ENWorld) by "fusangite" (Stuart Parker, if I'm not mistaken).

Of the two, Gleichman's approach is probably more up my alley at the moment. Either way, I think there are ways to reconcile "immersion" or IC POV with the more nuanced multilayered approaches--generally, by acknowledging that there are plenty of out-of-character interactions and decisions in games, but noting that many of them are fundamentally social. Therefore, it's natural to handle them via ordinary social means, while using mechanics for them is not only intrusive/unnatural, but misleading. What I mean is that when you claim to have rules governing interpersonal interactions (such as "distribution of authority", explicit "narration trading", abstracted "conflict resolution" and negotiated "stakes"), you create an expectation that the social element can somehow be circumscribed. The result is to put rules and social interactions into conflict with one another: if one wins, the other loses. As I note here and here (regarding formalization and fixation of social processes).