Railroading, once more

7 December, 2014 at 6:12 pm (definition, rpg theory) (, , )

Once upon a time I wrote about railroading: https://thanuir.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/defining-railroading/ and https://thanuir.wordpress.com/2007/12/05/24/ and even https://thanuir.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/to-not-railroad/ . Jonne Arjoranta responded http://users.jyu.fi/~joolarjo/forge/role-playing/theory/by-train-for-a-change/ , but I learned of it only recently. Jonne did not link to any of my posts and so there was no pingback or other notification.

Jonne states the definition of railroading as someone restricting the diegetic (fictional) contributions of others, and concludes that this is too broad, since it is necessary for choices to have consequences, or for any roleplaying to coherence. Jonne would rather use the language of Markus Montola http://ropecon.fi/brap/ch14.pdf (in Beyond role play http://ropecon.fi/brap/practice.html ), involving integrative and dissipative actions in play.

My definition of railroading had three conditions: That someone restricted choices of others, that the others assumed they could make the removed choices, and that the action had no fictional (diegetic) reason. As such, the criticism of Jonne does not apply to the definition I stated, since my definition is much more specific than the one Jonne criticises, and the criticism is based on the large scope of the definition.

I should mention that my definition is meaningful when one consider making decisions and observing the consequences to be the central to play. If one think of something else as central to play – for example, causing a particular experience to the players as in Fastaval games http://alexandria.dk/english I read in Unelma keltaisesta kuninkaasta http://pelilauta.fi/index.php/topic,2184.0.html (forum thread in Finnish), then this definition might not be as meaningful.

This is also the reason why Will Hindmarch’s recent texts have not had much of an effect on me ( https://medium.com/gameplaywright-presents/sword-fighting-on-a-roller-coaster-railroading-for-the-best-in-rpg-play-547333c80359 , https://medium.com/gameplaywright-presents/the-illusionists-lament-dramaturgy-and-illusion-for-the-best-in-rpg-play-97d348bcb16 ). Based on a quick read (please correct me if I have interpreted them inaccurately) Will consider the game master as an artist or entertainer more than the facilitator of play who lets other participants make decisions and enforces their consequences.


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Fantastic: Assumption or exception?

3 July, 2010 at 9:16 pm (definition, game design, roleplaying, rpg theory) (, , , )

In most roleplaying settings there is something I call here fantastic: Something the players are not familiar with.


Lovecraft mythos, sword and sorcery, horror in general, LotFP’s products (this post of mister Raggi inspired my post), stories where characters discover that they (and nearly only they) have some strange powers, Stalker and Praedor.

Most of the setting is normal, non-fantastic, and typically draws heavily from the real world (present state, history, or low-key scifi). There fantastic is something that breaks the normal setting – it works with completely different principles, if any.


Glorantha, Zelazy’s Amber, Nobilis, Carcosa, Tékumel.

These settings are fundamentally different from our reality. They work by different principles, and what is exotic and fantastic to us might be common and usual for residents of these worlds, and vice versa.

Why bother?

A setting where the fantastic is assumed can be explored to find out how it works, and supposing the setting has sufficiently interesting premises, this can be good play. A roleplaying game is a good medium for such an exploration because it allows many people to contribute and further allows several issues to be explored.

Settings with fantastic principles can also make certain dramatic issues very explicit and easy to treat via gaming. Sibling rivalry and broken families are good subjects behind any game set in Zelazny’s Amber where the amberites are played, as almost everything that happens can be traced back to some family member (at least by the first five books). This is also the justification for fantasy and science fiction as vessels of serious literature.

Settings where the fantastic is something exceptional are usually easy to understand (of equal difficulty to relevant setting minus the fantastic, assuming the fantastic is not the player characters, in which case there is more complexity). Unnatural makes sense as a concept. The fantastic creates interesting situations (in both senses mentioned above).

For short I would recommend a setting that is not entirely fantastic, simply to make learning it not a problem. A setting common to everyone would of course work, too.

The third way

There are also so-called fantasy settings where the assumptions are like those of the real world and yet where there is little uncanny even to the residents of the setting. This is the vanilla fantasy setting, which to me has no value – fantasy without the fantastic has no reason, no justification, and provides no interest. I’d love to hear from anyone who disagrees, since I almost certainly am missing something.

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Levers and the fruitful void

24 January, 2010 at 3:32 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , )

Theory post. It’s been a while since the previous one.

Fruitful void is a concept for designing and analysing games. Let us take some roleplaying game and assume it has rules. Fruitful void is something the rules do not cover, but point towards.

With D&D 4e rules give you plenty of maneuvres in combat so that significant number of them are interesting, but the rules do not tell which one you should use. There are characters whose powers can work well together, but the rules do not tell how to use the powers so that the synergy benefits manifest. Dogs in the Vineyard is about judging people, about how much violence one is willing to use to do what is right and about faith. There is no faith attribute (that judgment is for the players to make), there is no rule telling that you must use violence and there are no guidelines about what judgments are appropriate. That’s up to the players. Old D&D gives lots of tools for dungeon delving – combat ability, spells, items, henchmen – yet there is no skill for making tactical and strategic decisions. Those are up to the players. Burning Wheel has involved rules for fighting (in melee, with ranged weapons, with words) and lots of other rules that make other parts of gameplay or story move fast. And when fighting the player must script actions – high numbers on character sheet are not sufficient. The tactics and what one fights for are up to the players.

So: Fruitful void is the space a game leaves for players to fill, and towards which the game points players. The concept applies well to focused games and less well to GURPS or (certain) games which get out of the way. The concept applies weakly to games that take a life of their own (which, I reckon, is related to getting out of the way). The comments on Anyway relating to the subject are worth reading.

Lever as a concept was introduced by d7 just a while ago. Lever is some mechanical tool a player can use to affect the fiction. Skills, powers, aspects, so on.

I think these two concepts are related in more than a single way.

D7 uses diplomacy skill in D&D 3rd as an example of a lever ill placed: It negates all negotiation by skipping it with a single skill roll. That is bad if you want to have a game where negotiations are central. Point: Levers can certainly kill a fruitful void by bypassing it entirely. Consider: Play modern D&D, but instead of using the combat rules simply add a fighting skill and resolve all combats by rolling it. Not much point in playing modern D&D that way, is there?

Levers can skip boring parts of gameplay. This is what many skills in BW do. This is one way of seeing diplomacy on D&D 3rd. Of course it is also possible to handwave those bits away, but often the rules are useful.

Using levers can be the fruitful void. This is 4e. There is much GM advice on building interesting combats, which simply means that there is no universal best tactics – add environment factors, terrain, varied enemies with special powers and so on to change which tactics are functional and to what degree.

The decision to pull or not pull a lever can be in the void. Tactical version: You have one sleep spell per day. Use it now or later? Dramatic version: You can summon demons, but they demand a high price. Whichever version: You know magic, but there’s a chance it goes horribly wrong whenever you use it.

I’m sure there’s more. An exercise for readers.

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Ropecon 2009 – lecture notes

4 August, 2009 at 7:17 pm (academic rpg theory, Ropecon) (, , , )

This year’s Ropecon happened over the weekend and thereby is done. In this post I’ll give more or less general impressions on things that were not roleplaying games. Descriptions of gaming shall come later. I hope I have time for them with the Jyväskylä Summer school starting tomorrow.

On the general socialisation and contact-making side I managed to talk with all but one of the people whom I wanted to meet (that one being a childhood friend who had hurt his ankle and was not very active due to that). I acquired new contacts, including James Edward Raggi IV, and was surprised by J. Tuomas Harviainen having heard my name. Evidently I know random people by name and random people know me by name, yet I still manage to avoid all insider groups. Anyway: I was on social overdrive for the entire game, talking to random people I did not know about random subjects. I’m still exhausted by it. Serves me well. Next year I’ll take a day off after Ropecon so as to recuperate a bit.

I listened and took notes of three lectures: Rituals and roleplaying by mister Harviainen, Arabic mythology by someone and Introduction to academic roleplaying theory by Ludosofy. I have the notes and interested locals can take a look, though I may be necessary for interpreting them.

Rituals and roleplaying was certainly a useful lecture, clarifying the subject a fair deal. All mistakes and misconceptions are naturally mine, as I’m writing from lecture notes and memory; I am at least missing some subtle distinctions. Harviainen started with a primer on ritual theory, explaining four roughly different classes of rituals (religious/magical, interaction such as the way in which you greet someone, animal such as mating rituals and finally compulsions such as washing one’s hands dozens of times consecutively), what humans get out of them (predictability and safety, as well as additional value) and then showing ties to play. Namely, Huizinga and Winnicott (of whom I know nothing about) have equated ritual and play, while lusory attitude is one form of additional value one can get out of rituals. Predictability means easier understanding through shared framework and rules (which also make sanctions possible); one way this relates to rules in roleplaying games is obvious. Harviainen also noted that rituals always have a cost (they restrict what one can do; no guns in a boxing match, to use the standard example) and hence people expect something out of them. Different people may and do expect different things, which may cause problems (compare: creative agendae in Forge theory). Rituals, as mentioned, add value; they do so by increasing rewards, by becoming autotelic activities (which means that they are their own motivation) and by creating shared experiences that can’t really be shared with non-participants (communitas was a related jargon term). There was also the word inter-immersion, which might have had something to do with several activities or people working in concert, but I did not have time to write it down.

Harviainen continued on to the shared features of pretense play and rituals. There is social contract (one is supposed to act in certain way), magic circle by some other name, meaning that group/tribe creates a temporary space separate from normal life, which is evidently also known as liminality, and then there is re-signification which draws from the field of semiotics: Catholics eat the flesh of Jesus, boffers are proper swords, that one guy is an elf. Delimited space, which to my knowledge means magic circle, has an information barrier that intensifies the experience inside; there is a cognitive authority like a priest or game master who has much power within the circle and picks and chooses from different sources on what to take as the right and proper rule (different parts of Bible, different game manuals, say); there also was some playing around with how much people know before the ritual/game itself and how prolonging the phase of uncertainty can create intense experiences, but also how having all the information one might want and need provided within the magic circle can create powerful immersive experiences.

Harviainen had drawn a figure, but managed to make it quite unclear, or maybe I am simply unused to humanists drawing figures and trying to express themselves. It was some sort of feedback loop with one arrow going to both ways and simply saying “feedback loop” as explanation.

There was further material on the cognitive changes one can achieve by rituals or roleplaying. One can teach new skills and perspectives by them, but forcing a new worldview permanently would require continuous enforcement from society, as otherwise the effects are not anchored properly. As a striking example Harviainen used the larp Mellan himmel och hav (Swedish, translates as Between sky and sea) all participants of which became polygamous after playing, but reverted back to their monogamous ways some months (IIRC) after the game. Religions and cults are examples of how strong anchoring can cause persistent changes (also, why cults prohibit non-cult relations, I think). I am not quite sure how very closed groups of peers might interact with the anchoring and society as a whole. North Korea was given as an example of huge interaction larp. A question that dawned on me: Does this not apply to all societies? There was also talk about creating a powerful cult (or cult-like larp).

There were questions, some of which I covered above, and the following were interesting points raised by them: People taking different roles (among family, at work, with friends, …) can be seen as different interaction rituals. Larps and initiation rituals tend to have low frequency but high intesity, while tabletop gaming and going to church once a week have low intensity but high frequency. Is good tabletop game one which has high intesity, too?

The amount of notes I have from the lecture on Arabic and Islamic mythology is twice the previous and I won’t go on detail on it, at least here. Suffice to say that it was interesting material and could easily be used in any game sticking fairly close to or drawing heavily from real world mythology. A similar lecture or blog post on Christian mythology would be very interesting indeed. As it happens, I do know two roleplayers who also are students of theology. Any volunteers?

Third lecture I attended was the introduction to academic rpg theory. Ludosofy started with general study on games and play (all roleplaying is playing games, all gameplay is play), continued on how impossible it is to define roleplaying carefully (of which I could write an essay), but mentioned the concept of family resemblance, and on how definitions are used as a means of power play (the earliest studies on roleplaying are studies on D&D, not roleplaying as a whole); contrast naming something as art.

Ludosofy briefly explained the concept of diegesis, or that which is true within fiction, a term stolen from theory of literature, I think. Markus Montola has further divided the concept into subjective and objective diegesis, the latter of which roughly corresponds with shared imagined space as coined by Fang Langford.

Magic circle was explained and the issue of pervasive games was awaken, but not dealt with; pervasive games are ones in which the in-game and out-of-game have blurred, if any, limits. Several ways of looking at immersion Ludosofy also named and some of them received further attention; namely, Mike Pohjola‘s definition of roleplaying as immersion to outside consciousness, Fine’s egrossment, Gadamer’s Spiel, Callois’ mimicry, though also ilinx of which I should write something someday. Harviainen makes the following divisions: perikhoresis, separated identity, narrative identity (unrelated to GNS, for the record) and mixed identity. I might be able to write a bit more about them if someone asks, though I’d have to consult Ludosofy before so doing.

Ludosofy mentioned semiotics but did not really go into that much detail on them (I started my theory hobby on semiotics, so they are a familiar concept and I was not listening that carefully) and also mentioned the conflict between narratology and ludology, as roleplaying games can be analysed as story-making or as a game (which creepily mirrors some of the most harmful divisions in hobbyist rpg theory, such as roll/roleplay); there are also other approaches, such as looking at them as rituals.

As a nice end to the presentation there was a minor flame war and some interesting questions. “Eikös tämä ole aika nollatutkimusta?”, which does not translate properly, was heard. Yeah, if you are looking for concrete advise on improving your game, then academic rpg theory might not be the right place to start at.

BTW, Ludosofy, the primary difference between the new and old edition of Universalis is presentation. There might have been some rules tweaks, also.

I have some plans for the next con. I might run three games, one four-hour one and two three-hour games. On the other hand, I might hold a lecture on applied rpg theory, lest someone think it is only for high-brow academics, and only run two games of some length. The lecture option sounds more promising right now and would, I feel, be more useful for me in the long run. I can already run games well enough.

Other con experiences (and some related ones):

In Finnish:

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Edition and playstyle wars

6 June, 2009 at 11:24 am (linkedin, rpg theory) ()

Mostly inspired by Donny the DM’s posts, namely this and this, the first of which was shared by Jonathan Jacobs of forthcoming Nevermet press on Google Reader.

Donny somewhat mischaracerises the extremes of sandbox play, also misuses GNS and makes a number of assumptions, but I thought it would be nice to engage his actual point, too.

I hope I am not misrepresenting Donny too severely. By my understanding Donny’s point is, to steal a term from another field, ecumenical. Donny wants to say that old school and 4e play are not that different after all. Donny’s argument is that since ridiculously extreme sandbox play and ridiculously extreme railroading don’t really work, everyone must actually play in the middle ground and hence in pretty similar way.

There is a number of weaknesses on the argument in addition to misrepresenting railroading. Donny is pretty focused on D&D and it shows. D&D assumes lots of combat. Donny’s argument also assumes lots of combat. Further, not all ways of playing map meaningfully to the railroading-sandbox axis. My normal style of game mastering is story-focused but I don’t plan ahead and hence can’t railroad; there is no point in mapping this to the railroad-sandbox axis. This is not a big problem as one can fabricate a ridiculously extreme version of my style, too, and use argument similar to what Donny used. I will assume that this applies to all possible ways of playing.

The key claim remains: Since all extremes are implausible, all styles of play must be pretty close to each other and fundamentally similar. My perspective is that the claim is too ecumenical, but still has a kernel of truth hidden in it.

First the true part: Certainly, all of roleplaying shares many similarities. Certainly different play traditions have much to learn from each other. I mix and match techniques from old school play and indie games. Philippe, a 4e afficiando if there ever was one, experiments with random encounters. 4e with the focus on encounters has something to teach if one is willing to look carefully, but they really ought to read and play some indie games so as to get a handle of skill challenges, which are a pretty blunt instrument. More importantly: It is possible to enjoy playing in styles that are not one’s favourite, as long as one is willing to approach them with open mind. (Also, having less edition wars would be nice.)

Nevertheless, people play in different ways. I hear some even like railroading and pre-plotted adventures! Hard to accept, but true. The differences are real. Some styles of play demand very much a different perspective for them to be enjoyed. Donny himself illustrates this by the following comments:

As to gathering information. <snip> You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to – stomping off blindly indeed :)

No, you do neither of those. You give them the information that they could gather, maybe influenced by dice rolls. Maybe it guides to some interesting adventurous location that you have designed and placed somewhere, but not because you want the player characters to go there, but because you want to present going there as an option. When designing the sandbox, you place a bunch of interesting locations there and create a bunch of interesting random encounters, because you want to know what the players will do to them. In play you don’t guide them around; their characters are an adventurous bunch or so involved in the situation that they will certainly undertake some interesting project or stumble upon something interesting.

That is; instead of director who has a story to tell or encounters to guide the players through, the GM thinks of himself (or herself) as an arbitrator who can’t wait to see what the players do with his sandbox. A different frame of mind. Certainly one can mix and match, for example by creating a sandbox with very strong theme or by creating an adventure with many genuine choices that take it to different directions. Regardless, the extreme but playable cases are pretty far from each other.

As a conclusion I say that those weirdos over there do play in genuinely different way, but once you accept that the difference exists, you just might be able to enjoy their activity, too. Or maybe not. But at the very least you would be likely to learn a bit and get a new experience. Celebrate the difference.

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Roleplaying in society

11 May, 2009 at 7:13 am (rpg theory)

In this post I’ll argue for three ways in which roleplaying can change society or elements of it. I don’t include crazy fundamentalist Christians or other similar attacks as one of these forces.

To start I need to define roleplaying in the context of this post. Actually, I won’t be doing that; rather, I’m going to say what qualities I require an activity or hobby to have so thay my argument works. Roleplaying fills these criteria, as do other activities. (This is the axiomatic approach used in modern mathematics: Take some phenomenon, gather relevant bits of it as axioms and work with the axioms, hence creating results that are more broadly applicable and often easier to work with.)

So, with that in mind, I say that the essential qualities of roleplaying are

  1. That it is social; there are at least two people involved.
  2. That it is creative (or artistic, to be more political); roleplaying involves creating and interpreting fictional content.
  3. That it is ephemeral; roleplaying happens in the moment and recording and retellings are insufficient at communicating that moment.
  4. That it is motivated by the activity itself; it is not presented to an audience distinct from the players; even if audience exists, the purpose of the play is not to entertain them, but rather to play and have good time doing it.

This is not a value statement: I am not trying to say that other things are not really roleplaying. Rather, I am saying that for the purpose of this post those other things are not interesting.

In the book Rules of play Salen and Zimmerman explain how games can be viewed from three different perspectives: As formal systems, as systems of interaction between players or as cultural systems. I am taking the third perspective, here.

On personal level

Society is composed of people. Roleplaying affects people. Personally, roleplaying has motivated me to research various subjects on some level and had other positive effects that are harder to quantify. I’ve also read stories of people focusing on roleplaying and ignoring their school-going. The lesson to learn is that roleplaying as a hobby can have a profound effect on people. I’m inclined to think the effect is mostly positive, but that there is an effect is hard to disagree with.

(Claims that roleplayers are particularly intelligent or creative or whatever I am deeply suspicious towards.)

Small groups

For some roleplaying is a family activity. I recall some old school blogger describing the game he (I think a he.) is running for his family. There are plenty of others playing with their kids. In this way roleplaying is as good an activity as any, I think.

Roleplaying games are typically played with friends, in a fairly constant group over long periods of time. If we accept the characterisation of roleplaying as an activity that creates memories of experiences we have not actually had, then by condition 1. (social) in the definition roleplaying creates shared fake experiences. Shared experiences are a significant factor in forming and strengthening friendships. Further, by condition 2. (creative) people express themselves when roleplaying. Hence, fellow players learn something of each other when playing.

It can be seen that roleplaying shares at least two qualities with friendship. A pertinent question is: Are these qualities equivalent to friendship, do they arise from friendship or does friendship arise from them? There are other possible models, like both friendship and these qualities being a consequence of something else, but let us not go there. (I feel this is a distinctly philosophical question. Maybe I’m finally learning how to think like a philosopher; to find questions without trivial answers.) The question regarding the nature of friendship is interesting, but a bit too much for this blog post. Also, I have no answer, expect to say that equivalence is not the case, if only because liking the other person is another quality of friendship and I don’t think shared experiences and knowing the other person necessarily imply liking the other person. So, roleplaying. I’d argue that roleplaying creates reciprocal knowledge about the participants (as opposed to, say, stalking or merely reading someone’s blog) and, well, shared experiences, fake or not, are reciprocal by definition. Reciprocality makes, I think, roleplaying a good supporting activity for friendship. This powerful context can also be misused.

In summary: Roleplaying fairly frequently brings together a group of people and gives them shared experiences, in-jokes (which may or may not involve grand pianos or squirrels) and generally ties them together. Strong small groups are, I think, relevant to the welfare of society as a whole.

Potential for large-scale change

This is the political part of this post. I have an ideology, though I haven’t found a name for it yet. Hence, take everything I say with a, say, spoonful of salt. That should be enough.

I am talking about roleplaying games as a way of creating and experiencing entertainment, maybe even art, on a group’s own terms. This is distinctly separate from merely consuming what someone else has produced, which characterises such forms of culture and art as movies and music, even books. Particularly, one can’t buy the roleplaying experience, only play and create it oneself.

Of course, much of rpg culture is focused around playing a particular game and buying everything that comes out for that game. Collecting, one might call it. Further, there is the drooling over fancy toys like miniatures, character generation software, 3-d maps constructed from whatever. PDFs with embedded flash videos. (For perspective on these, Michael Brewer’s post is a good one.) To take even more radical stance, even character sheets are unnecessary for roleplaying. Dice, too, as much as it hurts to say so. My point is not that all of these extra toys are somehow bad or evil; they are not and I enjoy rolling dice as much as the next roleplayer. What they do is to hide the fundamentally creative and self-sufficient nature of roleplaying.

Another way in which roleplaying games are potentially powerful is that they give permission to play. In modern world the sheer joy of playing is restricted and seen as childish. Being drunk seems to be the necessary condition for having the permission to play. I am talking about playing with or near other people, here. Computer games are another subject entirely; there you are in a way always isolated from other people, even if playing multiplayer games. Sports is serious business, though spectators can play a bit. Roleplaying games create a fairly secure environment (a group of friends, say) where one can and is expected to play. Larping even more so. Pervasive games are strange, as they typically involve playing in the open but hiding it.

I’m not saying that there will be a roleplaying revolution after which everyone plays these games and sun shines and all is well. Rather, roleplaying might be one element of a more fundamental change. Whatever changes, barring an apocalypse of some sort, internet will play a so much larger role that comparing the two is not even relevant.

As a final word and something of a conclusion, I don’t know where this line of thinking will lead to, but it feels important. Following it seems important.

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Links: story hour and theory

24 April, 2009 at 7:22 pm (game design, rpg theory) ()

Usually I have little patience for what I call “D&D fiction”, unless I am involved in creating it when playing. There’s an exception, which is a story hour on Enworld. The relevant threads are indexed and PDFified at League of imaginary heroes. They are actually well-written to the point of being engaging. There’s the occasional bit of 3rd edition D&D spell name cascade, since high level D&D includes mages with plenty of spells. Bruce recommended the story hour as a contrasting opinion on my piece regarding war being boring to roleplay through. About that: Most of the story focuses on characters that are, in some way, above war; the fights are nasty, brutish and short (to the extent that is possible with modern D&D), at least from descriptions.

Vincent Baker has been writing about rpg theory; what I get out of it is a new perspective on fiction affecting play. A perspective from the Forge theory point of view, to be more precise. Threads, in order: Fistfight, 3 resolution systems, scale, depth, clouds dice, cloud-to-cloud, moment of judgement, dice and cloud and finally GM fiat. Callan also posted something related. The conversation may continue there or elsewhere; it is supposedly related to old school gaming in some way. The latest linked Baker’s post shows some of that. Almost. Edit: Another post by Vincent and Callan, both of them highly recommended. Second edit: A podcast and a post at Deeper in the Game.

Kalle Bergman has also been writing on rpg theory (series is titled Towards a new paradigm for rpg design), but in Swedish, which is somewhat inconvenient (I can read and write a bit of Swedish, but Kalle does not use elementary vocabulary). The Google translations to English are not completely abysmal, although it understands leken (play, definitive form) as deck and makes the text awkward to read, as naive translations always do. By “not completely abysmal” I mean that even the English text is sort of readable most of the time.  The first post references Huizinga’s Homo ludens and reminds me of something I’ve written before. Links: Första (and English translation for convenience), andra, tredje post. I might comment on them later, should I manage to understand all of them. (The first one I’ve read, and it certainly is interesting).

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Rules analysis

16 November, 2008 at 5:23 pm (rpg theory)

Significant amount of roleplaying uses rules, by which I mean mechanics in the context of this post. Specifically mechanics made explicit by a book or note paper or oral agreements. In this post I will attempt to outline the scope of analysis that only considers the mechanics.

I will not analytically define mechanics here. (Reason: I don’t have a good necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a mechanic.) Let it suffice to say that anything manipulating numbers or ritual phrases or dots is a mechanic. The description of a trait or feat is a mechanic. Terms like scene or encounter may or may not be mechanics, depending on their level of codification.

Formal games

A definition: A game is formal iff it has mechanics and if any event happening on the level of rules can be explained entirely by the rules.

The first condition is so that freeform, defined as being ruleless, does not count as formal.

The second condition means that if an observer can only see the rules-level exchange, that follower completely knows what is going on. Or: There is nothing outside the rules that can determine what will happen within the rules space.

I’ll call a game highly formal if it uses freeform or incompletely defined traits (e.g. my character is strong and so gets +3 to all rolls related to breaking things by brute force) and is otherwise formal. A game with such traits is not highly formal because the meaning of words in natural language is seldom exact and explicitly communicated.

Formal games exist: Chess. Highly formal games that are not formal exist: Universalis. Games that are neither formal nor highly formal exist: Freeform (and in the non-trivial case, say, Runequest). Hence, the definitions are meaningful.

The formality of roleplaying games

My claim is that there are very few games that are formal and roleplaying games. Highly formal roleplaying games are plentiful, though, and can be analysed in very similar way.

Almost all roleplaying games have a set of traits, player-defined or not, that have meaning according to the meaning of the relevant word in natural language. One possible exception I can name is called Rune. It is notable in that there is a strict by-the-point procedure for game master to use in constructing what amounts to dungeons; every trap, monster, and way out must be compensated for. It is precisely due to this extensive preparation that the game might succeed at being completely formal. All the qualifiers because it has been a while and I don’t remember if the game is actually completely formal.

My second claim was that highly formal games can be treated as formal without making significant errors. This is true because the ambiguity of highly formal games comes from the ambiguity of natural language. People who have played together for long, know each other, or are committed to certain source for their fiction (“this is a Star Wars game”) are likely to interpret the traits in similar way, or at least know the way in which the other players are likely to interpret the traits. Hence, the more the aforementioned factors are true, the close to formal the game is for that particular group. Treating a highly formal game as formal means simply going to the limit; it carries the assumption that the aforementioned conditions are sufficiently met.


Consider the set of rules of a particular game. Take a subset of this. The game this subset defines I hereby define a subsystem. (For more exact definition, consider that the structure of the rules-set or infastructure that supports it is not removed, only the rules directly defining player actions or consequences thereof are.)

Subsystems can be formal in much the same way as games can. For example, the character generation of several games is formal or highly formal. Combat systems may or may not be.


Any tool used for analysing formal games can be easily extended to the realm of (highly) formal roleplaying games, as well as select parts of other roleplaying games.

As an example let us consider game theory. For highly defined games one can simply assign utility to relevant mechanical outcomes and then consider the game as a standard one.

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Strategic rules

27 October, 2008 at 7:07 am (rpg theory) ()

I’ve been reading a collection of philosophical essays, titled “Tieto, totuus ja todellisuus”, for some months now (slowly but with certainty. A particular article by Jaakko Hintikka contained a bit of terminology I found useful. It is related to games.

Defining rules

In game theory, rules are what define a game. They tell what one can do within the bounds of the game.

For example, in chess: Turns, moving different pieces, winning, stalemate.

Strategic rules

The interesting part was strategic rules, which essentially tell what moves one should make in order to win (winning, in game theory, means maximising utility, and utility functions are something beyond the scope of rules; see, for example, playing against/with young kids, where you are likely to have different goals than you have in normal play). E.g. in chess, you generally don’t want your queen to be eaten.

Learning games

As a contrast to (most) roleplaying games, take a competitive game that has a winner. Assuming it is a good game, players will be making (strategic) choices, which will to some extent determine who wins the game. In my experience, it usually takes a bit of play to really understand these games, which is the same thing as learning some strategic rules. Simply playing the game may be sufficient, but maybe being taught by someone or reading books is more convenient or efficient. Be that as it may, once certain level of competency is achieved, then the intricate and interesting parts of the gameplay open.

Sometimes the learning process outlined above is interesting in and of itself, someties a nuisance. Personally, I only find gameplay meaningful after understanding what the game is about, in a sense.

This is far less true of roleplaying games (again in my experience); most of them are fundamentally the same game with different defined rules. There are two major exceptions: Intricate subsystems (combat and character creation are the most common) and the more divergent Forgey games.

The lesson here is that mechanical rules, in and of themselves, do not matter a whole lot. Maybe I roll 2d6 and add skill, or maybe I compare an attribute to value indicated by a table. The difference is minor, unless the way the game is played changes significantly. For example: If the way to solve problems is to have a character with suitable skill or spell, then the art of character building is important, but if the way the player approaches the problem is what determines the success of a given action, then wits and reading the GM’s/game desiger’s mind are more important, and the actual character played matters less.

In conclusion

Forge wisdom sayeth: System matters. The best way to investigate this claim is to play different systems and see if there is a difference. Here’s my refinement of the phrase above:

Take two games. Between these two, system matters to the extent that a different set of strategic rules is necessary for enjoying the different games.


The above has little to do with system as defined in Forge glossary (as it encompasses defining and strategic rules actually used in play) and even less to do with the content of the system does matter essay, which is focused on GNS and so on.

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Classifying good rules

16 October, 2008 at 4:30 pm (game design, rpg theory) ()

In this post I will outline three (or two) different ways in which rules can be good. For the purpose of this post, let rules be good if and only if they produce good play, and let good play be defined by the people playing.

I am also assuming that freeform play, defined as play in which resolution is handled by social negotiation or fiat and where there are few explicit rules, is not utterly broken and can actually work.

Fading to the background

As was assumed above, freeform can be good play. Rules that fade to the background make freeform easier and channel it to specific fictional style. Take, for example, a game that has attributes (strength, speed, …). Creating characters gives players a sense of how capable their characters are when compared to each other, and also possibly to the rest of the world. Note that this also happens to other numbers that represent the character.

It has been my experience that given a set of rules that tend to fade, the resolution system is first used frequenly to resolve anything and everything, but it is used less and less as the game proceeds, because people already know what is going to happen. Your character has three times bashed a door down and charged in, so we already know your character is capable of bashing doors down, and there’s no need to roll anymore (assuming a door that is not stronger than those bashed before).

Rules, even though they fade to the background, also shape the fictional world. Take a random fantasy rpg and add magic rules stolen from D&D or Ars Magica, and you will have vastly different sorts of mages in the setting.

I have heard that BRP (basic roleplay, used in Runequest, Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu) and Unisystem are this kind of games.

Creating fun play

Some rules have fairly discrete mini-games. The traditional example is combat in modern D&D (3rd and 4th editions). It is clear that such mini-games don’t fade into background; rather, they are entertaining in and of themselves (given players who like such mini-games, of course). Another feature of them is that there is no need to ever use them; you can play D&D 3rd and never touch the combat rules. It would be something of a waste in that most of the game would be unused, but that doesn’t really matter, as long as the play is good.

In summary: Good rules can create new kinds of good play, or make an existing activity interesting in a new way.

Extreme case

An extreme case of the above is rules that don’t work properly unless they are embraced. Almost all board games are in this category. Burning Wheel is close, because the character development and artha mechanics require actively using and remembering the rules.

I’d be as bold as to say that many games influenced by rpg theory from the Forge are close to this extreme case. It might even be possibly to characterise them by this classification scheme, though there is bound to be loose ends.

Design implications

From design perspective it is useful to have a baseline; what am I improving? (My default baseline is freeform play.) Minigames and games that simply don’t work unless used properly may benefit from another point of comparison, or may be considered without much context, which is not advisable to any game that relies heavily on people already knowing a particular activity or mode of play.

Continuum, not absolutes

As is generally true, this classification creates a continuum, not two (or three) pair-wise distinct sets.

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