Saturday, October 01, 2005

Public Service announcemnt

In an attempt to dam the comment spam I've been getting, I've turned on word verification. Let me know if this causes anyone undue hardship.

If you say "what comment spam?" rest assured that this is because I have been vigilant in deleting it as soon as it arrives, not because there hasn't been any.

Introduction to Forge Theory #2

Good Rules, Bad Rules; Foreshadowing "A culture of designers"

I assume everyone reading this has played, sometime in the past, a table-top RPG. In fact, my basic assumption is that everyone reading this is, in fact, a table-top RPG hobbyist of some form or another. If you aren't, this is about to seem really strange.

In my lecture tour around Finland, I asked the following questions, and asked for a show of hands in response:

1) Who here has ever played a table-top role-playing game?
2) Who here has ever GMed a table-top role-playing game?
3) Who here has ever, during the course of play, changed a rule, ignored a rule, or added a rule to their game?
4) Who here has ever attempted to design their own role-playing game, regardless of how far along you got in the process?

I am hands up for all four, but you all already knew that. The shocking thing is that everyone but everyone is hands up for #1 and #3. Everyone. Only exceptions were people who'd never played RPGs before, or people who'd only played one session or so.

Now, this is a pretty limited sample. It is about 100 Finns who chose to came to an RPG Theory lecture. We can imagine that it represents the hard-core of the Finnish hobbyists. But, I imagine a survey of the American hobbyists would result in the same thing, and I imagine that most of you reading this are nodding your heads.

We, as RPG players, ignore our rules.

Guys, this is wierd. Most people, well, play games more or less by the rules. If I'm playing Chess with you, I don't suddenly say "Hey, I think it would be really cool if my pawn moved three spaces this turn, like a knight, but without the jumping. How about it?" If I said something like that, you'd be well within your rights to sock me one, or at least refuse to keep playing the game. It is inappropriate and rude.

Even when we play games that are commonly houseruled, like Monopoly, the rules are traditionally passed down and certainly are not changed during play to make the game "more fun."

But, when we play RPGs, we think nothing of changing or ignoring the rules for no other reason than whim or the opinions of one empowered player.

I have a hunch about this. I have a hunch that the reason why we do this is because, frankly, if we didn't our games wouldn't be very satisfying. I mean, right? We change the rules so that we can get more satisfaction from playing our games. Or, more often, we change the rules so that we can get *any* satisfaction from playing our games.

Most RPG rules are, simply, bad rules.

Now, before you take me to task for just bashing, I have a very specific definition of what I mean when I say "bad rules" and also when I say "good rules." It is thus:

  • If a rule makes your play less satisfying with its presence, it is a bad rule.
  • If a rule makes your play more satisfying with its presence, it is a good rule.
  • And, yes, Mr. Anal Retentive, there's another case: If a rule doesn't make your play any more or less satisfying, I would say it is probably a bad rule, simply because it is making things more complicated for no good reason.

You can see that "good rule" and "bad rule" are quite subjective based on your play group and your own play styles. But, I think it is pretty safe to say that there are rules, in fact there are quite a lot of rules, that are bad rules for pretty much anyone. Further, we can imagine that there are some groups of rules which will "be good" together -- if we want a particular type of satisfaction from our game, a certain set of rules will work better than other rules.

Now, you're a role-playing gamer, and you've grown up as a game designer yourself, modifying the bad rules in your books into good rules for your own play. In fact, if you're anything like me, you've probably become pretty distrustful of rules in general. You're probably going "Ben, come on, good rules? Rules just get in the way of role-playing."

To which I say -- "Do the rules of poker 'just get in the way' of gambling? Do the rules of chess 'just get in the way' of strategy?"

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we talk too much more about good rules and bad rules, we need to talk about what rules are.

And for that, gentle readers, you will have to wait for the next section.

Friday, September 30, 2005


I'm thinking of a long-term project, maybe called "An aesthetics of storygames" or "a history of storygames."

Some things to read (again):
On the Art of the Noh Drama
Tale of Genji & Story of the Stone, but just the poems
Lots of Chinese & other Asian poetry
Exquisite Corpse stuff from the early days
Popul Vuh
And plenty of other stuff, I'm sure

I use "storygames" instead of the conventional "role-playing games" for a very specific reason, and that has to do with the first item in the list. Zeami clearly differentiates between role-playing and portrayal, and shuns the first in favor of the second. I think we actually do the same thing with our games.

Introduction to Forge Theory #1

Introduction to Forge Theory #1

Players at a table

When looking at the theory that comes out of the Forge, there is one basic assumption that, while not unspoken, may not really be spoken loudly enough. The only consideration of Forge theory is the real people participating the play of a role-playing game.

Anything else -- character motivation, genre concerns, setting material, rules, game text, whether elfin ears are 2" or 3" long, whether or not they are playing a role-playing game at all -- is considered solely in terms of the effect that it has on these people, their experience of play, and their relationships to each other and their own creative output.

This isn't just the base of the theory. This is the entire theory. We are going to talk about nothing that isn't the players of the game. Keep that in mind as I talk, and feel free to bludgeon me with it later.

That was unexpectedly short. Next chapter may be longer.

(There are rumblings about this social context business, but we can safely leave that aside as a concern for designers, which means it is for later.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

[Bliss Stage] Playtest Call

We interrupt the ongoing essay.

I'm looking for playtesters for one of my games-in-development. The game is called Bliss Stage: Robot Combat in the Dreams of Tomorrow.

It is a reasonably dark game, focusing on issues of sex, love, betrayal and death amongst teenage robot pilots. It is heavily inspired by Evangelion and other anime. The mechanics are a relationship focused derivative of Vincent's Otherkind. There is a GM.

This sample text gives a pretty good idea of the tone.

If you are intersted in playtesting the game, contact me. I don't need readers or editors right now, nor do I need a long campaign. I need people to sit down for a few hours and give the rules a spin, and sadly I'm not in a position to do it myself.

E-mail me at if you're interested. You can also respond to this post, if you feel like being an exhibitionist about it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Introduction to an Introduction

Introduction -- What the theory is, what the theory is not

I've been having some trouble writing the first section of this essay, I think because I feel that while I have introduced the essay in the last post, I haven't really introduced the theory, and most people seem to have their own sometimes inaccurate ideas about what Forge theory is intended to do, and what the contents of it are saying. So here's a brief overview.

0) This is a condensation and explanation of the work of a lot of people over a long period of time

I'm going to try to give credit where it is due, but it is almost certain that I'll miss some folks. This is where you come in.
If someone is the author of a particular concept, and happens to be reading, and I don't mention that you contributed to it, please tell me in the comments! Likewise, other folks should let me know and give reference threads if they feel like it. This is a rough draft and we are all writing it together.
Two names which will get mentioned, but should be spoken right off the bat, are Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker. The two major ideas in these essays are due to them, and a lot of the rest of it besides.

1) The theory that I am describing in this essay is description, not prescription.

Or, simply, it is talking about the structures and nature of every single table top role-playing game ever played. Not simply games played with "indie systems." Not simply games that we consider artistically valid. Not any subset of games. All games played, ever, contain the structures that I am talking about in most of this essay.
In general, I am not interesting in telling you how to play your game (at least, in terms of this essay.) I am interested in telling you what is going on in your game.

There is a point, later in the essay, where I consciously switch from description into prescription -- I start giving advice on what to do as a player and as a designer. This shift will be clearly marked.

2) The theory that I am describing is a work in progress.

I am not saying that this is the climax stage of the Big Model, or even that it is any sort of finishing point. I am writing up an explanation of what I see as the main theories from the Forge culture as I understand them right now. I don't expect that this document will remain up-to-date for any length of time, probably because the critical feedback from readers will result in revisions and re-examinations of the theory.

Likewise, it is quite possible that you can go back in the Forge archives and find people saying things that contradict what I'm presenting here. It is quite possible that you will find me saying things that contradict what I'm presenting here. If you are the sort of person who finds this sort of contradiction immoral or upsetting, this essay is not for you.

Lastly, it is quite possible that there are other useful models of role-playing, and that the Big Model is merely one, and that it may be completely or partially replaced in the years to come.

3) The theory that I am describing is restricted to table-top role-playing games

No bets on using it to analyze LARPs, MMORPGs, board games, card games, novels, plays, sculpture, ballet, or any other artform.

4) This essay is intended for people who have played table-top role-playing games

This is a critical and analytical theory. I do not think it is useful or fruitful for people who have not experienced the sort of art I'm talking about to learn how to critique it. It would be rather like trying to explain film theory to someone who has not watched a movie -- possible, perhaps, but it would be simpler for them to just go watch some movies and then come back and learn it.
If you are someone who has not played table-top RPGs, but wants to follow the essay, let me know and I'll recommend some games to play.

5) This essay is explanatory, not evangelical

I do not care whether or not you believe Forge theory. In addition, whether or not you believe it effects its validity not at all. The point of this essay is to explain what Forge theory is, and how it applies to play. It is not to convince you of its truth.

In specific: If you disagree with Forge theory before reading this, it will likely not convince you otherwise. It will, however, allow you to argue from a position of knowledge, rather than a position of ignorance.