Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A thought on GDS and Big Model

This post is really only for the people who know what I mean when I say "GDS" rather than "GNS." Which is to say, all three of you (Hi, Emily, John, and Elliot!)

I had a thought the other day about GDS -- I don't think that the classifications that it is making correspond to Big Model's Creative Agenda at all. Creative Agenda (GNS) is about goals for play, whereas it seems to me that GDS is more about the contents of play -- pretty much solidly rooted at the Exploration level.

As soon as I thought about that, I realized:

Gamist = Emphasis on System elements.
Dramatist = Emphasis on Situation elements.
Simulationist = Emphasis on Character, Setting, and Color elements.

Does that make sense to anyone else?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Introduction to Forge Theory #5

Introduction to Forge Theory #5

The Big Model (the way I draw it)

This part of the theory is due largely to Ron Edwards, but understand that it is also a summary of, at the time, 3 years of heavy theory work by dozens of committed theorist / designers, and so there are definitely other folks involved.

Around the Forge, this goes by the name "Big Model," partially because Ron does not look kindly on people who call it "Ron's Model." Personally, at this point, I would call it the "Medium Model," because it is far larger in scope than most of the theorizing about role-playing games, but smaller than some things that we've been thinking about recently.

The basic goal of the big model is to look at the core processes of role-playing, rather similarly to how we looked at the process of rules, and from those core processes of role-playing look at what sorts of pre-conditions produce satisfying play and what sort of pre-conditions produce unsatisfying play -- something of pretty obvious practical value as well as theoretical concern.

To do this, we're going to make a structure to describe the process of role-playing. There are two ways that this structure is drawn -- one is the way that I draw it and one is the way that everyone else, including Ron, draws it. Since I understand my own construction better, I'm going to start with that.

(Note that these two constructions are substantially different in terms of content. The difference between them is pretty much just one of presentation. So keep that in mind and don't see this as a big theoretical divide.)

To talk about all play, ever, I'm going to discuss two different axes with three component's each. The first axis looks like this:

  • Agenda: What we want -- our ideal situation.
  • Material: What is actually happening -- whether or not it is fulfilling our agenda.
  • Ephemeral: The individual events in play -- the sum of ephemeral events is the Material level.

The second axis looks like this:

  • Social: This level discusses the interactions and relationships between the players at the table.
  • Creative: This level describes the whole of our play -- what we imagine, but also the system we use, etc. Note that the Creative level is wholly a subset of the Social level -- every creative interaction is necessarily also a social interaction. But not every social interaction is necessarily a creative interaction.
  • Technical: This level describes how we go about playing -- essentially, the techniques that we engage to produce our creative level. Since techniques of our play are necessarily part of the play as a whole, the technical level is completely a subset of the creative level -- every technical interaction is also a creative interaction. Whether there are creative actions that aren't technical is, I think, a matter that is still open, although I welcome a correction from those more knowledgeable than I.

So, what we're really going to talk about, though, is the intersections of these two axes. Let's draw a picture.

AgendaSocial AgendaCreative AgendaTechnical Agenda
MaterialSocial ContractExplorationTechniques
Ephemera * E * P * H * * E * M * E * * R * A *

Now that we've gotten that down in front of us, let's examine each intersection, in turn, and talk about what those mean.

  • Social Agenda is a pretty big deal, but it is also pretty obvious when you think about it. Essentially, social agenda describes what we want to get out of the social interactions and environment around the table. All types of human interaction have some sort of social agenda, and it is usually something pretty simple. The basic, assumed social agenda of a role-playing game is "I want to (have fun / be creatively satisfied) with my friends by playing this game." However, that is far from the only social agenda possible. Consider the following:
    • I want to play a role-playing game, and I don't care whether anyone has satisfaction from it.
    • I want to impress the cute girl who players the elven ranger.
    • I want to maintain the status quo in our social group.
    • I want to spend time with my friends -- I don't care about playing a role-playing game.
    • I want to keep anyone else from having fun.
    • and so on...

    Right now, the theory doesn't have a broad application to those other types of social agenda -- the assumed shared social agenda is "I want to (have fun / be creatively satisfied) with my friends by playing this game." Further investigation into these other social agenda is only just beginning, and it's a pretty exciting prospect.

  • Social Contract simply describes the sum of the social relationships and interactions between the players at the table. All the things which I mentioned as "probably not rules" last section:
    • The GM never has to pay for pizza.
    • We alternate nights between Jim's house and Lauren's house.
    • Whoever's house we're at gets final say about which campaign we play.
    • Jim has a loud dog.
    • Betty has the hots for Jim, even though he's married to Christine.

    Could be considered elements of the social contract.

  • Ephemera, which I don't divide into social, creative, and technical types, are the individual instants which, as a bulk, compose our social contract. The sum of ephemra, viewed in terms of their social component, composes the social contract.

  • Creative Agenda has, historically, been a bit of a big deal, and much of the hullabaloo surrounding the Forge theory has been around Creative Agenda and its classification. I, personally, think it's pretty simple: Creative Agenda is what we, as players, want to get out of our game -- not in terms of our imagined content (I want elves to be in the game), or what we want the rules to look like (I want a hero point rules), but rather in terms of what we want to get from the game as a creative exercise -- what sort of satisfaction and fulfilment the game provides us as people. In short -- remember how I said that the assumed social agenda is "I want to (have fun / be creatively satisfied) with my friends by playing this game?" Well, creative agenda is the satisfaction that we're looking for.

    Classification of creative agenda has been a highly contentious issue, so we won't get into that here. For right now, what's important for you to know is that there is more than one possible creative agenda and, if two players at the table are looking for different kinds of satisfaction, it will be harder for them to get it. For example, let's say that my creative agenda is "to have a fulfilling tactical challenge" and your creative agenda is "to produce a moving, tragic story." You can see how we're going to end up butting heads with each other during the game -- I'll be taking actions that are tactically appropriate, but probably aren't very moving nor tragic, and you'll be taking actions to move our play towards this moving tragedy -- which, by definition, includes protagonists making mistakes -- and I'll be all like "that's not tactical! What kind of game are you playing, here?"

    Play of this sort, where different participants have different creative agendas, is called "incoherent." While it is possible to get satisfaction out of incoherent play, it is more difficult than in coherent play, where all participants have pretty much the same creative agenda.

    Anyway, that's the long and the short about creative agenda. Moving right along, we come to

  • Exploration, which is simply a word to describe the whole of our play -- on the whole, what our play looks like. In this model, exploration gets divided into five elements, which are -- system, setting, situation, character and color. We'll talk more about these elements of exploration, and how they inter-related with each other, in a later section.

    Creative Agenda is what we want from our play. Exploration is our play itself. Like social contract, it is composed of

  • Ephemera, those basic moments of play. If we take the sum of our ephemera, and look at "how does this effect our play?" we get our Exploration.

  • Over in the techniques category, we have Technical Agenda, which is, in short, what we want our rules to do. Do we want rules that empower a single player as a GM? Do we want rules which emulate the physics of the world? Do we want rules which empower all players equally? Any of these things could be considered a technical agenda -- and any given system (set of rules) is going to have a number of technical agenda. Generally, speaking, the technical agenda is pretty much the realm of the designer, however, we've already established that all gamers are game designers, and often design on the fly during play, so it certainly concerns us as gamers. Essentially, technical agenda boils down to: What do you want the rules to do?

  • Whereas the rules themselves, recalling the formal definition of rules from part three ( A rule is a method through which we effect our play), are referred to in the Big Model as Techniques, for various historical reasons. Your technical agenda informs whatever techniques you decide to use for the game -- if you want a game with player's having the ability to affect the world, you might say "you can spend a token to start a scene." Techniques can be classified into broad categories, which I'm just going to list here and not go into (for more info, see the forge glossary and the glossary wiki), things like: IIEE, Resolution in the Middle, Stance, Currency, GM task distribution, etc.

  • And, of course, any individual instance of a technique being used is Ephemera.

Okay, now we've laid out all of the elements of the model, how does the whole thing fit together? What does play itself actually look like, in terms of these pieces?

Let me first describe fulfilling, functional play.

We start with the designer, who could very well be the GM. He has a well-chosen set of Technical Agendas, which have been chosen with a particular Creative Agenda in mind. Those Technical Agendas are used to generate a set of Techniques -- the rules for this game. By following the rules, we generate a lot of Ephemera, the sum of which will give us our Exploration, and also (taken together with non-rules based social interactions) our Social Contract. But let's just look at the Exploration right now. Provided we are talking about functional play, our Exploration gives us what we're looking for -- it fulfills our Creative Agenda. And, since our Social Agenda was to be satisfied by our play, and we have totally fulfilled it. Provided that our Social Contract (which is made up of rules-based and non-rules based Ephemera) is also functional and healthy -- we've fulfilled our Social Agenda, which means that we're totally happy with our experience of the game! Yay!

Now, there are any number of ways that this could go wrong. Let's look at a brief number.

  • Techniques fail to fulfill Technical Agenda -> The rules don't do what they say that they do. I think we've all encountered this. It doesn't necessarily mean that we can't have a fulfilling time with the game, it just means that we have to target what the rules actually do rather than what they say that they do, and shape our expectations of play and our creative agenda around that, rather than the (failed) goals of design.

  • Techniques fail to produce Ephemera -> This is a simple case of not actually playing the game. Players sit around, talk about the game, make characters, talk about what interactions their characters might have, talk about the world, and never actually play a role-playing game. While these activities may be satisfying in their own right, they violate our assumed social agenda, and thus we can describe them as failed play, even if they aren't failures as social activities.

  • Exploration fails to fulfill Creative Agenda -> There are lots of possible causes for this, but the simplest is actually a failure of technical agenda -- if our technical agenda is focused on a different creative agenda than the one we actually have, it will generate techniques which will generate play geared towards some other creative agenda (or none at all) and thus our play doesn't actually fulfill our Creative Agenda, and we're left unsatisfied.

  • Social Contract fails to fulfill Social Agenda -> Dysfunctional play. If our personal relationships are not in order -- we have feuds and dislikes amongst the players at the table, no amount of satisfying play will make us happy, because fundamentally we're having a social interaction with folks that we don't want to have a social interaction with. Note that this isn't entirely disconnected to rules -- rules generate ephemera, and the ephemera that they generate is a part, but not all, of the social contract. Games like Primetime Adventures and Breaking the Ice have rules that actively generate positive social interaction during play. Of course, this is not enough to fix an already broken social contract but they do make friend who play the game together better friends, and that's pretty cool in and of itself.

Next -- either one of the three appendices to this chapter or moving on to a theory wrap-up.

Introduction to Forge Theory #4

Introduction to Forge Theory #4

Rules and what they do

Okay, so. So far we've established a little bit about the goals of the essay, plus a definition of good and bad rules, and also a definition of what rules (and system) are. Now, finally, we're set up to talk about what rules do, by which I mean how we use them to effect our play.

(This whole thing is cribbed, pretty much direct, from Vincent Baker's essay over here. Frankly, you'd probably be better of just reading him. I even stole his little diagram.)

What the rules do, during play, is that the coordinate interaction of three different things: the fiction (also called the shared imagined space or SIS), which is the totality of what we are imagining; the cues, which are all the non-human, non-thinking things in the real world that we use to inform our play -- dice, cards, chips, setting material, character sheets, knowledge of physics, whatever; and (most importantly), the players, which is just us sitting around a table, or on couches, or whatever.

Fiction Us Cues

So let's say that I say "my character walks into the room." What happens is that I, the person, say that, and we all imagine my character walking into the room. There has been a link between us, the players, and the fiction of play. A rule was used to link these two things -- this rule, in particular, is probably something like "Ben gets to say what his character does."

That process looks like this.

Fiction <------> Us Cues

Okay, that was pretty simple. Let's look at another simple rule. Let's say that I roll a die, it shows an unsatisfactory resolut, and then I say "I'm spending a hero point" and I roll again, probably tossing some chip away or writing something down on my character sheet. What has just happened here? Well, there was a connection between me, the player, and the cues (in this case, a die and a hero point.) The rule that coordinated this interaction might look something like this: "You can spend a hero point to reroll a die." Note that, during the entire interaction, we didn't effect the fiction at all -- I didn't even tell you why I was rolling the die!

That rule looks like this

Fiction Us <------> Cues

(Aside: There are lots of totally awesome games -- Chess and Go come to mind -- which consist entirely of this type of rule. Role-playing games, of course, have some sort of fiction by definition, I'd just like to note that not every game does.)

Now, let's look at a different rules interaction. The GM says "The orc hits you! Take 5 damage." I say "Oh no, my character is at 0 hit points, so my character falls over."

The first statement, ruleswise, looks like this

Fiction <-------- Us Cues

In other words, the GM makes a statement about the fiction, the fiction then changes the cues.

And the second statement looks like this.

Fiction Us Cues

And, when it comes my turn again, I can't act 'cause my guy's knocked over.

Fiction --------> Us Cues

Now, do you notice that when the fiction affects the cues via a rule, or when the cues affect the fiction via a rule, I draw the arrow so that it runs right by "us?" That isn't an accident. Simply put, the players of the game have to put the rule into effect for it to have any affect at all. For instance, in the prior example, it requires me subtracting the hit points, realizing that I was at zero, and invoking the falling over rule.

So we have these six arrows

Fiction <------> Us <------> Cues

and we're saying that all rules can be classified into a combination of these arrows. Essentially, we can picture the rules as arrows in the diagram, moving information between us, our fiction, and our cues. At least, that's how I like to see it.

And that, in short, is the lumpley principle in its extended form. Congratulations! This is the half-way point of the theory -- there are two major pieces of theory that I'm introducing in this essay and we've completed one of them.

Now is when I ask -- does this make sense to everyone? And, usually, I take some questions in the terms of a lecture. One of the fortunate accidents of blog format is that I can do the same thing here. So -- any questions? Does this make sense?

Stay tuned for the next part, when we're going to delve into the Big Model, a somewhat more complex way of looking at the process of play.

Introduction to Forge Theory #3

Introduction to Forge Theory #3

Rules and what they are

The absolute basis of discussing role-playing game design and role-playing game theory is the rule. And so, to continue our discussion any further, I'm going to have to give you a definition of what a rule is. So, without further ado:

A rule is a method through which we effect our play

Which, if you consider "system" to be the sum of all "rules," you can see is pretty much identical to the more canonical statement:

The system is the means by which the players manipulate the shared imagined space

Which goes by the name "the lumpley Principle" in Forge terminology, 'cause it is due to Vincent Baker who, for odd historical reasons that I am sworn to secrecy about, has the screen name "lumpley."

(This is how we name things at the Forge. All I can say in our defense is that it is just as good as the system which has given modern Chemistry such elements as "Berkelium.")

Except that my definition includes the whole of our play, rather than simply the shared imagined space. We'll get into that more in the next section.

For now, I want to talk about the absolutely large breadth of what I mean by "rule" here. For one, it encompasses all things which you normally think about as game rules, things like:
  • When you attack someone, you roll a die to see whether you hit or not.
  • You can spend a hero point to roll again.
  • Dice higher than 7 are successes, if you get more successes than your opponent, you win.
  • and so on...

But it also includes things like:
  • We determine the events of the game through discussion amongst the players, with the GM facilitating.
  • The GM has the final say over all events.
  • The player of a character has the final say over all actions, emotions, and thoughts of that character, as well as some say over their fate.
  • All typed up backstory is in-game canon, a player writes backstory for his own character.
  • and so on

With this in mind, we can see something very clearly -- in terms of this definition of rules, there is no such thing as "rule-less" play or even, really, "rules-light" play. Any event in the game occurs because of one or more rules. "Systemless" or "freeform" play is simply play in which the rules are less obvious, less mechanical, more social, or something else. With this in mind, we can see that "systemless" is, in fact, a rather broad swath of play with lots of diverse and interesting types of systems (remember: System = sum of all rules). The really cool thing is we can realize that, since these are rules, we can write them down and share them with others.

The common practice is, as designers, to skip writing down most of our processes of play in favor of writing down some task resolution, character creation, and advancement rules that may or may not reflect the actual rules we play with, and certainly not the whole of the rules that we play with.

From a theoretical and design standpoint, this is really exciting. From a play standpoint, it is even moreso. We don't have to rely on people who hold the same sort of unspoken social rules that we do: "good players" and the even rarer "good GM." Rather, we can start to talk openly about what rules we use that result in satisfying play, and even teach them to others.

Anyway, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself again. Let's talk next about what rules do during play.

P.S. Whether or not things like the below count as rules is a matter of some debate:
  • The GM never has to pay for pizza.
  • We alternate nights between Jim's house and Lauren's house.
  • Whoever's house we're at gets final say about which campaign we play.
  • Jim has a loud dog.
  • Betty has the hots for Jim, even though he's married to Christine.

As for myself, here's what I think currently: These are not game rules as such, although some of them may be social rules. The important thing is that, while these things certainly can and will affect play, we can't really use them actively to effect our play in the same way -- they color our interactions, but they don't really produce play on their own.