Friday, December 30, 2005

Introduction to Forge Theory #6 -- Elements of Exploration

Introduction to Forge Theory #6

Elements of Exploration

Exploration, in the Big Model, is a pretty big box -- it contains all of our play and all of our methods of play. That's the whole role-playing game process, right there in one little word. Because it's so big, it's often useful for theoretical purposes to subdivide Exploration into a lot of different parts, so that we can consider each one individually, and how they relate to each other internally. In Forge parlance, we split Exploration into five parts, usually called the elements of exploration. Each one of these things is a thing which is explored / developed in the context of play.

An important aside: We're only talking about people around a table, playing a game. We're explicitly not talking about game texts, here: although the people sitting around the table playing the game may refer to game texts in order to provide them with inspiration with regard to their play, the elements are only the contents of the game that they are playing, and not whatever's written in the texts.

Sometimes, on the Forge, we get clueless or sloppy, and refer to, say, "the Color of Dogs in Vineyard." What we should say is "the Color inspiration provided by the text of Dogs in the Vineyard, that may or may not be used in play." That's a bit of a keyboardful, though, so you can see why we get sloppy. As much as I can speak on behalf of the whole board, we beg your forgiveness for the confusion this causes.

The elements are:

  • Character is basically any character in the game. I have a feeling that you know what this is, but just to be clear: I'm talking not necessarily about player characters exclusively, but I'm also not talking about any "sentient being" that we're imagining in the game. Characters are those fictional beings which are given agency in some form -- it's through characters that we're going to make meaningful decisions in the game (where our local Creative Agenda is going to tell us what "meaningful" is.) If a person in the setting doesn't really make any meaningful decisions, I would call that a character in the sense we're talking about here. They are most likely simply a part of color and maybe setting.

    • As an aside: Ever played a game where you were never allowed to make meaningful decisions, and the GM was the one controlling everything, with you just contributing insignificant details? The GM was denying you control of any characters. All you had input for was color. I'll leave judgment of the quality of that particular play experience to the individual.

  • Setting is the backdrop on which our play takes place. It can be a little tricky talking about setting with people who are experienced gamers but not hip to Forge jargon, because they are slightly different things. In terms of the elements of exploration, we're talking about the immediate setting that the game is taking place in. "It's a big wet swamp full of crocs and bugs" is a perfectly legitimate setting. So is a map of a town where the game takes place. If you've had experience with writing groups, it's "setting" in the sense that fiction writers use the term.

    • As an aside: What setting isn't is big, thick tomes full of enormous detail about an entire world, like we gamers talk about when we say "the Star Trek setting" or "the World of Darkness Setting." Additionally, it isn't what we say when we talk about "setting versus system" which is simply the us separating the mechanical and metagame parts of a text from the fictional elements.

      Now, parts of said texts might be used as setting during play, but the whole thing isn't setting. In terms of elements of exploration, such text offers a solid mix of setting (in the form of location descriptions), color, character (in the form of plot NPCs), situation (in the form of "plot hooks") and maybe even system (if we refer to the text as an ultimate authority on the fiction.) In other words, it can contain all elements of exploration, but mostly color, and isn't specifically what we're talking about here.

      (If folks have trouble understanding this last two paragraphs, please let me know. I'm trying to think of a better way to say it. Thanks.)

  • With just characters, we have these characters floating in space. We can insert them into a setting, but before anything happens, we need to understand how the characters relate to each other and the various parts of the setting. The sum of these relationships, which can be stable, dynamic, or even non-existent, for the Situation. The situation is just the bulk of "what's going on right now."

    As an aside: Do you need more information about what situation is? I can't think of anything decent to say about it.

  • System, which is the sum of the rules, describes the procedures by which we play, which includes any means of generating or altering the characters, setting, situation, or color. I've covered this in rather exhaustive detail earlier in the essay, so I'm not going to recapitulate those bits here.

    Here's something important: System is not only the only means by which setting, character, situation or color come into play, it is also the only means by which they change. In practice, the second aspect is much more important than the first, as most RPGs focus on dynamic situations (like, say, a dungeon crawl, which changes dramatically over the course of play) rather than adding in new characters to a static situation.

  • Color is all things which are not character, setting, situation or system. In other words, color is all parts of our play which are not really central, but nonetheless of some interest. Probably the best way to discuss color is via examples:

    In a game of Polaris I played a while ago, I described how the Senate floor ran knee-deep in blood (both blue and red) after a violent coup, counter-coup, and general demonic strife. This statement had no real affect on any future play, but it served to strike a specific tone and give sense of violence and massacre.

    A friend of mine who runs a very successful D&D campaign recently told me that he uses no monsters outside of the original Monster Manual. However, in order to give the appropriate "feel" for any given environment, he changes the appearance and habitat of the listed monsters while using the same systematic components. For instance, for a recent encounter with a strange creature that swam through snow, he used the shark as a mechanical template. The only system change was that the medium it swam through was snow, not water, but the change in color was enormous, and it really worked to terrify his players.

    Both of these are examples of serious color without any major affect on any other elements.

That just about wraps up what I want to say about the elements of exploration. I had a little text about their interaction that got cut: Would people like me to expand on that? As usual, I welcome all questions or comments.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

[On the Ecology and Behavior of the Mud Dragon] Play

So I played the game last night with some buddies. It was okay, but it didn't crackle.

Lesson: In a game with a GM, the GM needs power to threaten the players. All the setting and NPC authority in the world does not replace the ability to threaten players.

Monday, December 26, 2005

[Drifter's Escape] Soundtrack

Courtesy my brother, for Christmas. Thought I'd share.

Ramblin' Man (Hank Williams)
Trouble Everywhere I Go (Fred McDowell)
Lonesome Fugitive (Merle Haggard)
One More Dollar (Gillian Welch)
Better Know What You're Runnin From (Gillian Welch)
Almost Cut My Hair (Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
The Littlest Birds (Be Good Tanyas)
Say No To The Devil (Gary Davis)
Mama Tried (Merle Haggard)
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Johnny Cash)
The New Timer (Bruce Springsteen)
Lost Highway (Hank Williams)
Hell Hound (Robert Johnson)
Ain't Got No Home (Shiftless Rounders)
The Drifter's Escape (Bob Dylan)

He also included two discs of "Outtakes" that I won't bother to list, but have some great stuff. With a few possible edits and additions, I will be able to present the definitive game soundtrack.

Before the game is finished.

Yeah, yeah...