Process of play

4 June, 2008 at 12:42 pm (rpg theory) ()

What matters

In my opinion (and this is definitely an opinion) what actually makes different gaming styles different is what the participants do. The core activities. This also means that I consider running a game and playing in one to usually be different games entirely; being good at one does not imply competence in the other.

I am specifically discussing about games in play; what the books say may or may not be tightly linked to this, assuming such books even exist. Some books are designed with very specific style of play in mind, while others are designed to be flexible (saying that one of these is inherently better than the other means that one is simplifying the issue).

Process of play

The way I think about this is to think about the play itself as a process. It is useful to also consider some activities that live on the fringe of the play, like campaign preparation, session preparation, character generation and note-taking, especially if the notes are shared.

It is also useful to treat certain subprocesses as distinct processes. This allows arbitrary accuracy by zooming on the interesting subprocesses, such as resolution and character generation and preparation, and ignore whatever is considered boring or obvious.

Example process: persistent fantasy

I’ll embrace the idea of subprocesses here. On the most abstract level that still carries some information, the process is

  1. Design the game
  2. Discover, create and compile a suitable random generator
  3. Blog about steps 1 and 2.
  4. Play a session.
  5. Record the session, the characters, the setting and the list.
  6. Go back to 4.

That is quite high-level. I think the fourth step could use a bit more analysis, so I’ll create another process chart for it.

  1. Get a number of players to actually play the game.
  2. Explain rules to any who are not familiar and want to know them before play.
  3. Invoke the random generator (or reveal whatever has been generated in advance).
  4. Note the characters that enter play because they are on the top of the list.
  5. Generate remaining characters.
  6. Build the starting situation.
  7. Add characters to the situation.
  8. Play.
  9. Update characters that have changed.
  10. Consider any feedback that is offered.

Here it would be possible to elaborate on a number of steps, but 8 probably is most in need of it.

  1. Participants weave their characters and other fictional entities together.
  2. Play produces complications.
  3. Players use the fiction and the rules to mostly advocate the success of their characters.
  4. Play produces complications.
  5. Game master guides play so that the complications are resolved (if they are interesting) or ignored (if they are boring).
  6. Complications are closed or are not immediate enough to demand being adjudicated in actual play.
  7. End play.

The interesting part is that there are several different lenses that all provide different and often useful insight. Here’s another one, again on the subject of play.

  1. Game master describes a scene. (Sometimes player, often everyone throws ideas around and GM integrates them).
  2. The same is done to other characters that are not in any other scene, in arbitrary order.
  3. Game master or player makes some situation dynamic; that is, some entity takes action.
  4. Other participants react if something controlled by them is in the scene.
  5. 3 and 4 continue until the scene ends, the GM takes the spotlight to another scene or there is a suitably strong conflict and dice get involved.
  6. The ending scene happens.
  7. End play.

Elaboration

Actually these processes do not work well in one dimension (line). A flowchart would be sufficient to cover most processes, though great detail might demand using the third dimension (more are never needed).

My gut reaction is that it is impossible to create a unique presentation for a game as a flowchart. The reason is that there are severa, congruent processes that feed on each other; for example, the scene-by-scene consideration and the complication-by-complication approach. Neither can be reduced to the other and even further breaking them down would not lead to same elements; a complication might happen and be resolved inside a scene, or might encompass several. Further, different players have different roles and adding all of these to a single chart could face similar problems. (I am unwilling to even try constructing anything resembling a formal proof, so all this handwaving must suffice. Please do disprove these musings if you can.)

Different ways of slicing play

These are all examples. The probability that I am missing something big and important is very close to 1.

The way fiction is created is one fruitful focus. It is closely tied to observing who adds to the fiction and how, which is where Forge theory is useful. Some generally useful steps include who frames scenes and how much do they define, can players assume details not mentioned by the GM and is character and setting background generated in play or before it (or after it). Other patterns are how detailed information is conveyed; long boxed text-like descriptions, or upon request, or not at all; and are very important elements lavished with detail.

The way spotlight moves around presents another interesting object. Who gets to actively play, how are different players handled, how does seating and such affect it all, and so forth.

I am most interested in the way the story is formed. Namely, what I called complications, but what could also be called story (or plot) threads or elements or seeds. For example, when a villain escapes, a new story thread is opened, as it is assumed that the villain does not simply disappear. The way these story threads are generated, intertwined and resolved is of great interest to me.

The way mechanical resources move around in play is worth some attention. Some games have very formalised ways of moving resources around, others far less so. On the formal side there are such games as Rune, D&D 3rd (and 4th even more so), Capes and Universalis. They benefit most from analysis on the resource level. Work on this subject has already been done by John Kirk in Design patterns of successful rpgs.

Formalisation?

All flowcharts can be analysed as graphs. Petri nets seem particularly interesting, but I’d have to read a lot more on those.

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4 Comments

  1. Fang said,

    Wow! This is a great article. You’ve really nailed the most common way to approach play for role-playing game design in a way that opens it up to formal analysis. This has been so long in coming. I’m not one who understands Graph Theory or Petri Nets, so I leave that to better heads.

    There are a couple of things I can comment on, not to disprove anything, so much as suggesting alternative approaches.

    I’m glad that you began your article explicitly stating that you perspective is based on a study of “what the participants do.” So often this concept is taken for granted. (Although I worry you undermine your own points by saying that you’ll “ignore whatever is considered boring or obvious.” That means your planning on a biased vision, but I don’t think you mean that.)

    I very much agree that it is universal that gamemastering and ‘playering’ are two distinct skill sets. (Although that might count as “boring or obvious,” I don’t know.)

    Now, for ‘different perspectives’, when I look at play I focus on how the players and gamemaster interact with the play itself. Not a better way, just different. (I just can’t get my mind around the idea that play is ‘what’ the participants do, rather what they do ‘it’ to. I’m not that bright.)

    I think the simplest way to turn this into a process (and stealing a concept from computer programming language design) looking at it as various forms of context revisioning. (That way I can also accord the Chris Lehrich’s concept of bricolage.)

    I’m a little mystified by the “Design the game” to “Blog about steps 1 and 2″ part of your idea. It’s original to include the role-playing game design process in the formal analysis of play; I will have to give it a lot of thought. But the blogging part? That’s a joke, right?

    You can also see the differentness of the perspectives in that you focus on how players “weave…fictional entities together” and I point to the process as revisioning context. It’s as simple as object-oriented versus process oriented. Both have strengths and weakness, but no practice can encompass everything.

    I like how you bring to the front the interrelation of complications and scenes. I approach that idea in my article on pacing. I keep them on separate tracks because I don’t see them interfering.

    Of course it is one of my personal pet peeves that you offer that “Players use the fiction and the rules to mostly advocate the success of their characters.” I have problems with the overall assumption that all play and therefore design is a disputative process. I can see why you bring up Forge theory as an appeal to authority, but my familiarity suggests it doesn’t actually relate to what you are discussing. In fact, if I may be so bold, may I suggest that your own ideas stand much better separate from Forge theory? The two are terribly related, after all.

    If you’re interested in how to form story during role-playing gaming, I’d suggest looking up the post script to my recent article. But otherwise, this is a fantastic article!

    Fang Langford

  2. Tommi said,

    Hello Fang.

    (Although I worry you undermine your own points by saying that you’ll “ignore whatever is considered boring or obvious.” That means your planning on a biased vision, but I don’t think you mean that.)

    Given that the process approach allows an arbitrary level of accuracy, something must be ignored to use it*. So, maybe I want to analyse the pacing of some game I played in. I am not interested in, say, which player adds which parts to the fiction (assuming no player is significantly faster or slower than any other, which, granted, is a big assumption), so I can ignore it as uninteresting.

    The method all analysis (of sufficiently complex entities) uses is to disregard some information as inconsequental or irrelevant. Sociological or psychological study of team sports might look at how goals (or such) affect further play, but would likely not be interested in the precise techical details of how they were achieved.

    In summary: Ignore whatever is not relevant to emphasise what is.

    *) (Well, okay, technically, if time or change of overall entropy or whatever measure of change is used is discrete and has only a finite points on a bounded interval, then it might be possible to make a comprehensive model from a certain perspective, but even then other perspectives would need to be ignored and the process would be too long to actually write anywhere.)

    I’d be interested in hearing more about considering play itself as an entity that is manipulated. I can consider the setting, the rules, or the social relationships as separate entities and combine them, but play as a holistic entity is more difficult. Want to help me out?

    I’d like to note that the example I use is specifically of one, single game-thingy. It is not generic. It is not supposed to be. Blogging was an important part of the process to me, hence I included it in the flowchart. Similarly, for me, creating the game certainly informed play.

    Of course it is one of my personal pet peeves that you offer that “Players use the fiction and the rules to mostly advocate the success of their characters.” I have problems with the overall assumption that all play and therefore design is a disputative process.

    Specific documentation of the playstyle, not generic guideline. It is the way people play around here. Personally, I frequently shift between advocating my character, advocating some other character (who may or may not be opposing my character), considering the overall form of the game and just generally throwing out ideas with no specific agenda. When playing, I have noted that to advocate my character is the mode I find myself most often engaging in. Other people I play with do even more of it.

    I am not quite certain why this should make the design disputative. (Play I can see, assuming GM is considered a player.)

    I am not, I think, appealing to Forge theory as an authority. The point was that the distribution of authority is the area where Forge theory is most useful and people interested in distribution of authority should take a look there. I think providing such pointers is useful.

    I believe that integrating theories together is a good thing. Further, I think that any given theory is unable to cover everything and knowing which theories are useful for which purposes is exceedingly helpful. I try, when possible, to further both of these goals. This includes mentioning Forge theory when relevant.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Fang said,

    Heady stuff, Tommi!

    I’d be interested in hearing more about considering play itself as an entity that is manipulated. I can consider the setting, the rules, or the social relationships as separate entities and combine them, but play as a holistic entity is more difficult. Want to help me out?

    Glad to. After discussing this with you in gChat, I realize what I’m really talking about is the Shared Imaginary Space theory I originally created. Many people have a very hard time understanding it. To put it simply, it’s this thing that exists as an aggregate of what has been explicitly shared in play. What makes this hard to understand is that players, books, and everything else is outside the SIS. SIS starts out empty; only participant input fills it. No amount of things implied or unsaid affect the SIS, they affect the players. The SIS is not a universal entity; each participant uses it to create ‘internal’ fiction for themselves. Each person uses a completely independent context for understanding the SIS. This is why there is no dispute over authority in the SIS; the dispute would be in how each participants allow others to affect their context, not the SIS.

    It is the way people play around here.

    It is also the way almost everyone plays. What I’m doing is reverse-engineering, if you will. I understand how everyone plays Pac Man, but that doesn’t help me understand the programming of the ‘ghosts’. I’m looking for underlying processes that appear mixed in with traditional play and also things like LARPG, CRPGs and Civil War Reenactments.

    I am not quite certain why this should make the design disputative.

    Actually anything extending from the Lumpley Principle, would be disputative (not argumentative). This is because it focuses on the practice of solving the dispute over who gets say in a game situation.

    And sorry about the Forge comment, I had a catastrophic falling out with them. (As an aside, the Lumpley Principle is not a part of Ron Edwards’ Big Model which is generally understood to be ‘Forge theory’. Apportioning authority would be ‘Anyway theory’ in that case.)

    Fang

  4. Tommi said,

    Hello Fang.

    I’ll write a post about SIS and fiction and so forth when the inspiration strikes and I have time to do such.

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