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.


Blogger Troy_Costisick said...


I'll throw my hat in to try to help explain what Situation is. Situation is Character+Setting in motion. It's What's happening and Why it's happening AND how it potentially affects the Player-characters.

Here's an example: There are two twin brothers who are kings (Character). Their kingdoms border each other (Setting). They're at war and the PCs start off in a village that hasn't chosen sides yet (Situation).

Situation is the most dynamic part of Exploration. Without situation, your game will be kind of blah. :(



10:43 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Troy --

A couple of points of disagreement.

1) I think that situation can be either stable or unstable. I, personally, think that an unstable situation is universally better for games, but a situation need not change. It can stay constant.

In terms of the actual changes in situation, they have to occur via system.

2) I'm leery of talking about games "without" any one of the five elements. All games have all five elements. I can think of a couple of things that you might mean by "without situation" but none of them are actually without situation.


12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Color is the details of the other four. The blood was a detail of the coup, itself a detail of your changing situation. My guy's scar is a detail of him. How guns work - and that there are guns to begin with - is a detail of setting. So is your friend's snow shark. Rolling 5d6 instead of 3d10, or calling a stat "Acuity" instead of "Stat A," is a detail of system.

Here's an old construction of Ron's: roleplaying is Characters Situated in Setting, in action [via System], all Colorfully. "All colorfully" means something like "made concrete in its details."

1:34 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Details is one way of putting it, but I'm worried that people would start to regard, say, Rolemaster as higher color than, say, Dogs, because Rolemaster has a lot of fiddly systematic bits about details.

I worry overmuch about easily confused people, being one myself.

I am very fond of that old construction of Ron's. I even had a bit about it in this essay, that was cut, 'cause I didn't really have anything to add to it. I feel a compulsion to add some explination to these essays -- if all I'm doing is repeating something that you said or Ron said, it tends to get cut.


1:53 AM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

One thing that's stuck with me is the distinction between characters and furniture, as distinct from whether the imaginary unit is actually a sentient person. As in, some imaginary people are furniture (the villagers gawking at the fighters dueling), while some imaginary objects are characters (the swords that are possessing those fighters).

Do you think that's worth putting into your description of Character? Or is that confusing the issue?

2:31 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hi, Nathan!

(Also, hi Vincent, who I forgot to say hi to.)

You can see that the characters vs. furniture distinction is implicit in my paragraph about character. I decided not to make it more explicit than that, because, yeah, talking about swords as characters might wig some people out.

Note that a character doesn't have to have a lot of agency to be a character. An orc in D&D is a character, because it ultimately has agency, which is expressed in D&D terms as the ability to reduce hit points. I think folks might be a little quick with furniture diagnoses, these days.


2:39 AM  
Blogger Marco said...

I like this one! I understand what you are saying about "setting"--but I would shoot for another term entirely. Maybe using the term "immediate setting" to distinguish from "background" would be useful.

Using a simple term ('setting'), even with the disambiguation, can be confusing and offers little real payoff. It also opens the door for questions about what is actually "in" the setting and how verbally or textually explicit one has to be o put it there (are there deadly water snakes in that swamp with the bugs and crocs?).

While there's rarely any need to talk about the super-set of "entire background setting" vs. the sub-set that is the "immediate setting" if the discussion is legitimately *theoritical* I don't see any reason not to try to make it easier to discuss (and while I realize you are not looking to *change* the theory, you are certainly introducing some of your own approach into it with these, I think).

2:40 AM  
Blogger --timfire said...

This is how I explain color:

"Color are those aspects of play that contribute to mood, atmosphere, or theme, but do not directly change any of other elements of exploration."

It's a negative definition, I know, but it helps me in my own thinking. I think its important to point out that color are the "un-substantial" details of play ("they do not directly change the other elements").

So, whether my guy wears a white or red shirt is largely irrelevent, thus its color. Whether its night or day is *probably* just color, unless special night-sight are inacted or if zombies only come out at night, then it becomes part of the situation or system or whatever.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hi Marco--

I'm glad you like it. You're right about terms, but unfortunately changing terminology is outside the scope of this essay. Part of the goal is to teach someone to come to the Forge and actually understand what the hell people are talking about, and as such I need to use the language that people use on the Forge.

Hi Tim--

I'm skeptical about describing color as irrelevant, partially because I think color is *very* relevant to play (see Polaris.) :-( I'm just being the sort of person who doesn't take suggestions about this.

I think that section will get a big rewrite in the revision.


7:59 AM  
Blogger Victor Gijsbers said...

Hi Ben,

Assuming that you want to put these blog-posts together to create a consice introduction for Forge-theory, I'll offer four comments about the text itself. :)

1. Where you say "I would call that a character" you mean "I wouldn't call that a character".

2. The 'aside' in Situation should be indented.

3. I suppose that where you write "which is simply the us separating the mechanical and metagame parts of a text from the fictional elements", you'll want to drop the "the" before "us".

4. "or even non-existent, for the Situation"; "for" -> "form".

Good, clear essay, Ben.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Hi, Ben.

I think you're giving Situation short shrift. In my mind, Situation is the most important of the five, because Situation is the stuff that we play about. Whereas characters, setting, and system are player-credibility tools, situation is the thing that the tools are used to manipulate. At least, that's the view from my angle.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Victor Gijsbers said...


I am reminded of the words of Henry James: "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

What makes us care about the situation we are faced with? The characters that are cuaght up in it. What makes us care about the characters we play with? The situations they are cuaght up in. I think there is a very small circle here, and that it would not do to take out one of the elements and proclaim it to be merely a tool for the other.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Character is basically any character in the game.

I guess, but then you could say "Colour is basically any colour in the game." Maybe you could skip right to your definition:

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 wouldn't call that a character in the sense we're talking about here.

I have a character when:
a) I have a fictional being make decisions that are meaningful to me?
b) I have a fictional being and I make meaningful decisions about them?
c) I have a person in the setting that makes meaningful decisions with regard to the setting?

From your text I can't figure out which one/combination you're going for.

Tony Irwin

3:42 AM  
Blogger Troy_Costisick said...


"What makes us care about the situation we are faced with? The characters that are cuaght up in it. What makes us care about the characters we play with?"

I do have to go along with Josh on this one. No one can argue that characters aren't important to the game, but without a gripping Situation, they're boring.

It's the situation that makes the game go. Otherwise you're just tossing the players into a Setting and saying, "Ok, you've got your character, now figure it out."



4:29 AM  
Blogger Victor Gijsbers said...


Characters without situation are boring, but so is situation without characters.

"A small village is about to be destroyed by a horde of undead monsters!"

We cannot care about this situation if we do not learn about some characters present in the village.

"Your wife and her newborn child are hudling in the corner by the fire, while you, gripping an old stool, stand next to the door listening to the sound of bony hands trying to smahs it open - the shrieks of your fellow villagers now and then pierce the dark silence of the night."

That's something we can care about. Because it has characters, as well as situation.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Or, Victor, Finally the time is ripe to destroy the last living remnants of the Athori clan, the ones whose souls must be sacrificed to end your eternal torment as one of the living dead. You and your undead compatriots descend on the village to amend the wrongs visited upon you and the natural order of the world.

Characters need situations and situations need characters, yes, hands down, and the quality of both is dependent on how tightly they are bound together.

However -- there is a difference. A character is a story element, relatively discrete, which can be said to exist, albeit fictionally, on its own. A situation, however, is a set of story elements arranged in relationships to each other. You cannot have a situation without characters (your example is a situation without player characters); however, you can have characters without a situation.

In actual play, the goal is usually to change or at least comment on the situation, while individual elements of the situation, such as characters, can remain unchanged and even unconsidered (how much thought do you spare for the mook guard?). That's the primary reason why I find situation to be 'more important' than characters, only because the situation is the focus of play, whereas characters are the means by which that focus and play is achieved.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hey, guys --

Can you see that my definition of Situation in the above post agrees with both of you. A Situation is nothing more than the relationships between bits of setting and discrete characters. It's the context they interact in.


4:56 PM  
Blogger Victor Gijsbers said...

Ben - certainly, neither of us is disagreeing with you. We're discussing Joshua's claim that situation is more important than characters. (If you think that's out of place here, tell us to shut up. :) )

Joshua, sure you can have situation without characters. Take any situation from the first several billion years of our universe's history, for instance.

I'll try this formulation: in order to be interesting, a tale needs actors. Actors are characters in a situation. If you have a situation without characters, that is uninteresting to play out - there are no actors. Characters without situation are just as boring; and since there is nothing for them to act upon, they aren't actors.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hrm... I don't think that an argument over "which element is more important" is necessarily out of place here, although I consider it firmly in the realm of personal opinion (for my money: Character + Color).

I think that the technique that both of you are employing to argue is monumentally wrong-headed. All five elements exist in any play at all of a game, so to argue about play "without" one of the five elements is simply absurd. It's like arguing about words without letters. It is a road to confusion and distortion, rather than any sort of real conclusions.

Situation is exactly the relationship between all characters (all elements with agency) and all setting elements (all elements without agency that are nonetheless of import). To talk about characters without a relationships, or relationships without characters, is ridiculous.


8:25 AM  
Blogger Troy_Costisick said...


All five elements exist in any play at all of a game, so to argue about play "without" one of the five elements is simply absurd.

This might be where we're miscomunicating. I think Josh and I are talking about Design. If you and Victor are talking about Play, then I am in total agreement with you guys. In play, all five are present and pretty much equal to each other.

Victor, I agree with you then. If characters we care about aren't involved in a certain situation IN PLAY, then we won't care about that situation.

Maybe that will clear things up some.



6:59 PM  
Blogger Victor Gijsbers said...

Yes, I was talking about play actually. Goes to show how easily we get confused, then. :)

I am not totally sure I agree with your position as pertaining design, but it sure makes a lot more sense there.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Josh and Troy --

Okay. Do you see that, formally, the elements of exploration are purely created in play? That the game designer contributes exactly none of the elements, and simply contributes a text that inspires the elements? Thus, a conversation about what element is most important in terms of game design should be focused on "what elements can we trust players to create whole-cloth, what elements should we give them some incomplete inspiration for, and what elements should be absolutely locked down tight?"

Talking about "not having" an element is very confusing in this context, because you're not addressing what's actually going on.


5:39 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

And, further, that which element is most important in terms of game text entirely depends on your game's intended audience, and your intended effects on your game's intended audience.


5:41 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

For reference, I'm not talking about removing any of the elements of exploration. My original claim is that the five elements are in fact of two different classes -- there are "authority tools" which let the players make statements that are weighted with authority, and there is the situation, which is a set of discrete elements that the authority tools operate on.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Matt Wilson said...

Hey Ben. Good stuff. I like V's thing on color=details, but you could also think about color in the literal sense. It's kind of the paint of the game. Is Polaris earth tones or pastel?

Okay, maybe that's kind of lame.

4:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A thought on Color as opposed to Setting or Character (click my name above for link to the original Forge thread):

You can define Setting, and Character, in terms of "high concepts" or broad, abstract principles that can then suggest, in any given instance of Actual Play, how that setting element should manifest or how that character should act: "the Evil Empire rules by brute force, atrocity, and deceit," "Sir John is honorable, weary of war, and deeply sentimental about beautiful women of noble birth." They're general, abstract statements that generate specific, concrete details.

Color is the opposite: Color is all about specific, concrete details, from which you implicitly derive general rules about the setting you can then use to generate new details when you come across something that's not already Colored in (which will be almost everything, even if you have a 500-page setting book). A bit of Color like "an ancient, ruined statue of a sombre king" suggests very different things about the whole Setting than does "a sleek spaceship." A bit of Color like "enraptured, he does not see its claws" suggests very different things about any appropriate Character than "his mighty thews gleamed with sweat and the blood of the slaughtered pig-men."

5:53 AM  

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