chiang 2

The invisible rules of role-playing; character; plot; drama

I don't think I've seen this revision of Markus Montola's article, before: The Invisible Rules of Role-playing".

Looking over it again, this jumped out at me:

It is important to understand that a diegetic identity and a movie character are fundamentally different structures. The movie character is an external entity interpreted by the spectator, and thus it can have properties that the watcher could not have invented herself. A movie character may have quicker wits and broader vocabulary than the spectator has. Role-players need to use rule systems and distanced, descriptive playing styles to portray such characters: instead of telling a good joke, a tabletop role-player might just describe that her character tells a good joke, and perhaps even roll a die to justify the goodness of the joke in the game frame.

Another difference is that while characters of the static media are presented in the context of a story world, role-playing characters are presented in the context of a game world. Goldilocks is defined by her adventure: It is difficult to imagine her in another story. The context of the narrative provides Goldilocks with her Goldilocks-like qualities. For the players of role-playing characters, the world full of opportunities and potentials is the significant context, and much more central than the story.


EW: I find a lot of Hollywood movies [take great characters and put them into situations of conflict], but they fail in ways that I find very similar to the operation of a heavy-handed GM or an excessively "thespy" player endowed with shared narrative authority. Dumb, inexplicable motivations, illogical plot twists, hammered theme.

Clash Bowley: If the characters have dumb, inexplicable motivations, that's not great characters there [...]. Great characters have clear, understandable motivations.

EW: True, it's a tautology. The thing is though that characters can start out great only to be betrayed by the exigencies of plot and stereotyped expectations. Whether that means they were never really great, or that they didn't have any greatness until fully revealed in the course of the story is perhaps a philosophical question when it comes to static fictions that can be revised before release. With RPGs, character has to precede plot IMO.

In short, while the old saying "Character is plot, plot is character" (F. Scott Fitzgerald) is arguably true for static fiction (though perhaps not, when we consider intertextuality and other elements of reader reaction), the identity doesn't hold for RPGs, except possibly if the participants decide to import the concept.
chiang 2

Alexander Macris on Sandbox Play

I just came across a series of posts by Alexander Macris where he lays out his GMing philosophy, and I find that my views are very similar to his. Possibly the best way to locate all his "Check for Traps" posts would be through the section at the bottom of this page.

So far I've found at least one useful nugget. In "It's not your story", Macris begins by talking about the history and problems with the use of "story" in RPGs, then (in the page linked) he goes into sandbox design with an eye to enabling "emergent story". The key insight here is a way around a creativity-blocker that I suffer from--a sort of "blank page syndrome" and perfectionism. When I think about designing a setting, I worry about making it all fit together from the start, so I'm naturally tempted to use a "top-down" method. What Macris suggests instead is, basically: make up a bunch of cool stuff, scatter it around the map, and then let your mind wander in creating however much interlinkage you want between them. Obviously there's room for revision as well.

There's some similarity between this approach and others that I've seen, but this is at least a reminder that creativity is an iterative process. For reference: The Conflict Web, by Chris Chinn (possibly hard to locate these days); Microcosm, by Levi Kornelsen; the Adventure Funnel, by Dr. Rotwang!

Also compare Rob Conley's excellent sandbox construction articles from Bat In the Attic.
chiang 2

Against Drama, Fortune, and Karma

Yeah, yeah, yeah...


It started in a thread about diceless RPGs over at theRPGHaven. Somebody decided to bring up a classification of resolution systems into the tripartite "Drama, Fortune, and Karma" scheme, by which they meant: either someone just says what happens, or you use a randomizer, or you use a deterministic comparison of numbers.

There's nothing conceptually wrong with this breakdown. It's a little simplistic, but the post actually went into describing other approaches. But that brings up the first problem, which is that as an enumeration of possible mechanics, DFK fails. It gives the impression of a "central three" and then "a bunch of other stuff". (Beyond that, one could question when "resolution" is really resolution--that is, how it is that we frame certain things that happen in game as being the product of a "resolution method", and how it is that other things "just happen". But that would be a pretty big digression.)

A more serious problem, though, is the basic impenetrability of the terms chosen. Especially, why does "Drama" mean "someone decides", or even, to use another fraught term in RPG discourse, "Fiat"?

The reason these terms have become somewhat embedded is due to history. The Law of Karma, The Law of Drama, and the Law of Fortune were originally three concepts used in Jonathan Tweet's Everway. But there they had rather different meanings. All three Laws were really principles used to inform and inspire GM decisions. Ultimate application of one "Law" or another, or choice of which one(s) to use, resided in the GM. Although application of Karma included comparing two scores, many of the examples from the books simply involve interpreting the significance of a given score in combination with the overall circumstances. Other examples don't involve scores at all--they simply refer to extrapolating a given situation, or even applying a cosmic sense of justice. (If the PCs do mean or evil things, the Law of Karma can be invoked as payback.)

The Law of Drama, while involving GM decision, applied to a specific kind of decision: the choice to do something for the sake of a better story. If a GM decided that something should happen because it was the logical consequence of something else, that was Karma, not Drama. The Law of Fortune would be applied whenever the GM wasn't sure what should happen--a card would be drawn from a special deck and then interpreted by the GM somewhat impressionistically, like an oracle.

The transformation of these terms into contemporary (if still specialized) usage seems to be traceable to The Forge. The Forge glossary is a record of how words are used over there, based mainly on the writings of Ron Edwards. It contains:

Resolving imaginary events based on stated outcomes without reference to numerical values or (in some cases) statements that have been previously established (e.g. written on a character sheet).

A method of resolution employing unpredictable non-behavioral elements, usually based on physical objects such as dice, cards, or similar.

Resolution based on comparison of Effectiveness values alone.

However, the Glossary also states:

Short for Drama, Fortune, and Karma, referring to the Resolution mechanics of a given System, which may include any combination or blending of the three. Terms originally presented in the game Everway; altered in current usage.

[Emphasis mine.]

One of the seminal instances of the usage is Chapter 4 of "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory". The acknowledgments contain, "My re-statement of the definition of Drama has been approved by [Jonathan Tweet]."

We can take the claim of "approval" at face value; my main point here is that the creators of Forge theory themselves acknowledge that their DFK is different from what's found in Everway.

So again, what's the argument in favor of using these terms outside of the Forge? Whatever it is, needs to overcome the mangling of English, the jargonized walling-off of discourse, represented by the use of the term "Drama".

The only thing that's left, if it counts for anything, is to trace the meaning directly back to Everway. That's not really any better of an argument. But I'm wondering if it really has any legitimacy at all. The person who made the post over at theRPGHaven says he's a big fan of Everway and that this breakdown is what he always took away from the game. I've looked at the text and I just don't see it. I was basically out of gaming for the decade following Everway's release, so I'm wondering if anyone has any recollection of this breakdown gaining currency among Everway fandom.

One possibility, which might explain how multiple people could come to this same interpretation of the Everway text, is a story-based bias. I've talked about this before, how at some point (but not originally), some people began conceiving of roleplaying as an exercise in literal storytelling. Under this paradigm, the GM is the storyteller, and all narration is automatically informed by dramatic necessity. From that perspective, there's no concept of reality or of modeling a pretend world. Therefore the idea of "Karma" shrinks to the rump concept of "using numbers and rigid mechanics", while "Drama" is what always happens when "someone decides".
chiang 2

Types of adventure design

For a long while I've been wanting to write up a model of adventure & setting design for some types of campaign that I want to run. I was influenced by John Kim's list of adventure models; this thread from theRPGsite is also worth a look.

Basically I think the most interesting is the "hybrid" approach, that uses several identifiable tactics and mixes them together. For example, you design a classic location-crawl, but you also have a timeline of things that are going to happen unless the PCs do something, plus you have random encounters (which could also be, more abstractly, random events), etc.

One term I'd come up with was the "man in motion"--the idea that in a setting (as opposed to a small location or adventure) you would include an entry in a random encounter table which, instead of pointing to a generic encounter ("2d6 gnolls"), would point to a subtable that includes a number of the named NPCs. So, while travelling on the road from Chartres to Bourges, you could run into Queen Catherine and her retinue (or whatever).

Another concept was the "extended encounter" as a substitute for normal random encounter tables. The "extended encounter" lies somewhere in between the random encounter out of the blue, and the static location-based encounter. The basic idea is that the GM defines a location, which can be as small or as large as you like, where the encounter will occur. However, instead of beginning with the parties rather close to each other, the encounter begins with a "detection phase", and is played out from there. For example if you enter a bear's hunting ground, you will "encounter" the bear in the sense of having to determine, based on your travel mode (cautious or hasty?), expertise (city slicker or woodsman?), etc., whether you simply run right into the bear, or if the bear catches wind of you (and reacts accordingly), or if you see signs of the bear (prints, droppings, animal carcasses, markings on trees) that let you take action, and so forth. In essence the process of "encountering" becomes (always) an extended contest that may or may not lead to a real confrontation followed by diplomacy, combat, flight, etc. (This idea is partly inspired by Magic Realm, the boardgame, and partly by an idea from old thread at theRPGsite that never reached fruition due to some Internet looniness.

However, I find that Zak Smith has already put together a long list of adventure design techniques that I've only just begun to digest, it is.
chiang 2

free mapping programs

While reading a bit about Hexographer, I stumbled upon a review with pretty strong negative points about the program. Now, it turns out that Hexographer's programmer, Joe, has since addressed some of those issues. See the first comment here for Joe's response to the criticisms.

But the blog entry lists a number of interesting alternatives. So I still thought I'd share the link:
chiang 2

(no subject)

Concerning my previous post, "irony" or distance, where I referenced something that Chris Lehrich said, I found the exact passage here:
The point is that I do not think immersion (or whatever term you like) is what it claims to be, or what people claim of it. Here I'm with Fang: I don't think people immerse in quite the way they imagine themselves to do, at least not generally. The interesting thing is precisely the disjuncture between that they say and what they do.

In other words, if "being" the character in whatever sense is valuable or interesting, it is so precisely because one is not the character. It is the fact that immersion does not occur radically that generates power and tension. And this is quite normal: it's how quite a lot of ritual behaviors work. There is a kind of meditation on the difference between what is idealized as "supposed to happen" and what has in fact actually happened that helps prop up the ideals themselves. That's simplistic, but accurate enough in its way. (There are of course ritual processes that are utterly immersive in a strong sense, but many of these use physiological techniques to assist: sleep deprivation, drugs, physical punishment, etc.) So I do think that something nebulously like "immersion" is embedded in the ideology of the SIS.

Actually a great deal of Chris's writings circa 2005, when he was engaged in criticizing RPG theory via anthropological concepts of ritual and "bricolage" is worth revisting from time to time. (Note that until mid-December 2005, he was posting his RPG musings in his personal blog--here's a useful link.)

What I'd suggest is new, reading Chris and Zak together, is that unlike our rational attempts to hierarchically circumscribe fiction as a bubble, membranously separated from reality (cf. Tolkien's "Sub-Creation"), the process of bricolage is "flat" and continuous. Zak illustrates that the membrane is semi-permeable, and really, that's a positive feature.

Although I hasten to add that theories of gaming which then try to fixate or reify the social processes of gaming, in the name of transparency or empowerment, have their own problems. Why? First, because they frankly throw the baby out with the bathwater--if they succeed, then the actual social process is stunted. But in fact, they can't succeed, because the social element is always there. You either have a functioning social dynamic, or if you've got a group that's prone to power struggle, then the mechanics themselves just become a tool for crypto-struggles, starting with fighting over what game to play in the first place.

* * *

Another quote by Chris, that buttresses what I'm talking about (which in turn is largely an interpretation of other things he's written):

RPGs are interesting (but hardly unique) in part because the players so often do insist (and experience as true) that larger social structures of their society do not enter gaming, when in fact this is quite obviously not the case from an exterior perspective. This process of claiming an absolute barrier in this way is a part of what Cathy Bell means by "ritualization," except that I think most traditional religious cultures (please let that horrible phrase stand; you know what I mean, I suspect) do not go so far as to say that there is no connection between ritual space/time and other spaces and times. That I find unusual (but not quite unique), and it is in any event a very strong ideological claim.
chiang 2

"irony" or distance

In case you haven't yet stumbled across Zak's Playing D&D With Porn Stars, it's probably the most interesting RPG blog at the moment. Not only the immediate subject, but the writing and the thought that goes into it.

Right now I'd like to focus on one post, Like Playing Monopoly With Squatters, which brought to mind a much earlier thread on, [Theory] Show, don't tell. A lot of the people on that thread are talking past each other unfortunately but what connects it to Zak's post is the idea of "irony" or distance that I brought up.

What Zak points to is, in my opinion, something that really doesn't go away, ever, in spite of his suggestion that there are styles of play that try to minimize it. I wonder if this is what Chris Lehrich was referring to when he said he didn't really think that people completely immersed. (Or something like that: I don't want to put words in his mouth. It was something about how he had a theory regarding what "immersive" players were "really doing", but he never elaborated. I can imagine it was related to ritual and the way it deals with ambiguity.)

There are a lot of dimensions to this. Mainly though, Zak's post brings back to me why, in an RPG, I often find it useful to have some distance from my character. For example I think there's fun to be had in a horror game if my character dies in an interesting way. This is entirely different from being a good sport. It's basically enjoying the narrative that arises from play.

But even in acknowledging this sort of enjoyment, I get very little out of controlling the narrative. Similarly I can get a kick out of "portraying" or "expressing" a character, and having the other players at the table react/assist with that activity. I realize it's not a fully "immersive" state. Yet it's still distinct from the highly "out of character" thought processes that seem to be implied by

a) Games that entail player-improvisation in the service of "driving for conflict" (prime example: The Mountain Witch), or
b) Games that entail player manipulation of abstract mechanics in the service of achieving player-character goals (prime example: Dogs in the Vineyard).
c) Games that entail the use of abstract mechanics to "shape" and therefore "direct" subsequent roleplaying (prime example: PTA).
chiang 2

Immersion--how did we get here?

I've been working up a discussion of several current threads on "immersion" but I have a thought I want to share immediately, partly in hopes that someone else might be able to give pointers for some research.

If you'd like some more background it might help to link to a couple PDF articles:

Immersion, Flow And The Experiences Of Game Players (241k)
stop saying "immersion"! (184k)

Both articles discuss the difficulties of the term "immersion" due to different meanings ascribed to it. I agree with the general thrust of the articles even though I wouldn't necessarily say that either one presents an exhaustive list of observed usages and meanings. What is interesting, though, is that one article concerns video games, while the other concerns RPGs (presumably both LARP and tabletop). I had expected that, due to more attention and peer review in academia, video game articles would actually have a fairly well-established definition of "immersion" even if it didn't correspond well with ideas found in RPG discussion.

From the RPG side, I believe I have a fairly good picture of the sequence of events--although I'd be interested in evidence contrary to my account. Essentially, "immersion" was a well-established and fairly stable term in discussion on in the 1990's, as summarized by John H. Kim here. In fact due to the history of rgfa discourse, as a reaction to the aggressive advocacy of Theatrix by one of the participants, "immersion" was almost certainly conceived, in part, to explain some people's sense that minimizing both "drama-based GMing" and the use of "metagame" knowledge/resources tended to produce a certain experience that was distinct from playing a game that did have those characteristics.

Unfortunately I don't have much first-hand knowledge of roleplaying theory discussion after the mid-90's, especially outside of Usenet. But I believe that what happened was that the term was imported into an entirely new context in and other places, but without the rather strong policing from which it had earlier benefitted. (There were both social and technological factors at play, notably the difficulty of participating in Usenet compared to web forums. Also simply the relative age and institutional memories of the two media.) As a result, I speculate that a lot of people heard others talking about "immersion" and without access to the history of the term, they cast about for meanings. From this came multiple hypotheses about what immersion "is", instead of "what are those people talking about?" It's likely that some people picked up the term and made it their own, further confusing things, as even nominal "immersionists" couldn't agree with each other.

But where did the new meanings come from? My thought was that they came from video game theory, and indeed I'll bet that "Flow" first made its appearance there and was then picked up by tabletop theorists rather than being directly imported from the original source (that is, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

However, based on the article by Steven Pace that I linked above, it's clear that the video game field itself suffers from lack of clarity over the meaning of "immersion". This raises several questions:

1. How sure can I be that video game theory is the vector through which "Flow" passed into rpg theory?
2. How many other notions of "immersion" traveled the same route?
3. How did video game theory reach its muddle over "immersion"? I suspect it was a similar process. It's even possible that the rgfa definition filtered into video games. In any case it would be illuminating to trace the agglomeration of meanings over time.

Ultimately what I hope to demonstrate is that none of the meanings of "immersion" is especially difficult or mysterious--they've just been confounded with each other. And second, I suspect that a number of the meanings are actually stabs in the dark by people for whom "immersion" wasn't really a concern.