RPG Theory Journey – Part III

RPG Theory Journey #3I’m bouncing around with my thoughts rather but my intent with this series of posts is primarily to brainstorm, so I guess that’s OK. I just hope as a result it’s not too disjointed for anyone reading. Please do chip in with any thoughts or questions as I go along.

Anyway continuing on, as shown in the diagram below, it seems fairly intuitive to me to think of the constituent elements of roleplaying as being kind of layered, with I guess complete immersion in the roleplaying experience at the centre and Out-Of-Game chatter on the periphery. Thus the Players and social aspects that surround the game are farthest from the centre, they encase the Game system and processes of play, and the Story itself (the fictitious sequence of events and experiences being created) is in the middle.

The player experience is a combination of interactions with elements on all three levels; other players, the game processes and the story that is being produced collaboratively. Governed by the rules of play (or perhaps ignoring them) the players both contribute to and perceive their own interpretation of the shared story that is being created. Their imagination is stimulated, possibly the game rules (as well as presumably facilitating play) provide an intellectual challenge (e.g. game tactics) and the activity is a social one so they can bond with or compete against other players. All-in-all a fairly wide range of experiential needs are catered for.


10 thoughts on “RPG Theory Journey – Part III

  1. Tommi

    When building a model, you should define the parts. That would let others further develop the model and maybe even criticise or praise it.

    Relevant question include, but are not limited to: How is “game” defined? Does the definition work with freeform, tabletop or larp? If yes, is all story always contained in it? Can there be story outside the players, if, for example, the GM is using a series of modules that are produced parallel to the group’s play, so that no participant knows the full story when playing, but everyone has agreed to play by it regardless?

    Story is a sequence, which implies ordering (otherwise one could call it a set). Is the ordering chronological within the fiction, to the players, or some other ordering, or any ordering at all?

  2. Tumac Post author

    Hi Tommi, wow thanks! Your comments are immensely helpful and have really given me some food for thought.

    To be honest I’m still mostly brainstorming and kind of struggling to arrange things in my head in a way that I feel entirely happy with, but I think you are exactly right, in order to progress I need to put some definitions out there, otherwise I’m not really saying anything that others can respond to.

    Firstly, as you suggested, I should clarify that I’m really only discussing “tabletop roleplaying”. I’m not entirely satisfied with this term as a descriptor (i.e. is it still “tabletop roleplaying” if there’s no table top?) but it will do for the time being. I guess some of what I’m saying will be more broadly applicable (i.e. it will also be true of other forms of roleplay) but “tabletop roleplaying” is my focus as that’s what I have experience of.

    Some definitions then:

    *A Roleplaying Game = a game in which players invent a collaborative fantasy of imagined characters, situations and events

    Constituent components of a roleplaying game:

    *Game = the formal or informal processes that govern how the collaborative fantasy is created

    *Players = the participants inventing the collaborative fantasy

    *Story = the fantasy itself, the imagined characters, situations and events being created in the minds of the participants

    Hmmm… for a start I can see that other things (things that I wouldn’t consider to be roleplaying) could well fit within my definition of a roleplaying game; collaborative story-writing perhaps? Though maybe that’s not a game? What do you think? Do these definitions work?

    You also asked some excellent questions that I’ve had to think very hard about before answering (this is a good thing! :))

    The first was about my use of the term ‘sequence of events’ to describe the Story itself, and I think you are right to pull me up on this because I don’t believe it to be the case. The imagined events can occur in parallel and out of chronological order (e.g. flashbacks) so ‘set’ of events, as you suggested, would indeed be a far more apt description.

    The second question, on whether there can be Story outside the Players (e.g. use of game modules) I found very thought provoking indeed. Given my definition of Story, as being the fantasy within the minds of the participants, the answer would probably be no. However your point illustrates that there are a multitude of external influences that affect the creation of the Story (e.g. genre canon, source material, game modules). Given that the only way for these influences to have an effect is through the thoughts and actions of the players I’d be inclined to argue that the model is still valid, however there is also an argument for treating these as a seperate game element in their own right and expanding the model to include them. I’ll have to think about this some more.

    Once again, I’m very thankful for your input and hope you will continue to drop by and make observations. Your initial remarks have been incredibly helpful to me.

    Many thanks

  3. Tommi

    Glad to help.

    Normative definitions, as a rule, don’t perfectly encapsulate a concept. See, for example, a blog post by Petri Lankoski and my comments there.

    If you want, I can poke holes at the definitions, but you can most certainly do that yourself, too. I am pretty happy with my definition of roleplaying, but it is not a definition of roleplaying games (because to me the game part is optional).

    Is you definition of story particularly about the shared parts of the fiction or is it a bunch of personal stories, or some combination thereof?

    You define game as a set of processes. Though it is true that, given these definitions, players affect the story through the game, this gives a one-sided view of the entire situation. If you want to make an iterative model (and this is a definite “if”), another element would be needed. Something like the basis which inspires and restricts the story-building. This would be the external factors you mentioned and would also include the story created thus far.

    Now I’m learning, too.

  4. Tumac Post author

    Cool : )

    If you see any big holes in my definitions then I would appreciate you pointing them out, it’s always useful to have a different perspective on things, but assuming they hold together reasonably well that’s good enough I think. As you point out, they can’t be perfect.

    And thanks for linking to your definition of roleplaying. It was very interesting to read it. I’ve browsed your blog a few times but hadn’t seen that post before.

    Comparing our independently arrived at definitions, I am intrigued by both the similarities and the differences between them. One thing that stands out to me in particular is the emphasis you place on decisions and players caring about the decisions they make. I like this a lot. Though interestingly, IMHO it makes your definition seem more like a definition of ‘good’ roleplaying. Certainly over the years some of the “roleplaying” I have done would fail to meet your ‘caring about decisions’ criteria and was closer to ‘going along with things hoping that decisions I did care about eventually materialised’. I kind of respect the fact that this sort of play falls outside your definition of roleplaying because you’re right, that’s not what roleplaying is really about.

    As far as my definition of Story is concerned it is intended to include both ‘the shared parts of the fiction’ and the ‘personal stories’. In fact it would seem to me somewhat curious to try and separate the two. Does ‘shared fiction’ even exist other than as commonality between the individual fictions that reside in the minds of the players? If so, where? It does make things a lot neater to imagine that the players are all contributing to some ‘shared fiction’ that sits at the centre of the table but is this really the case? I mean if there are elements that are only common to two of the players imaginings are these part of the ‘shared fiction’ or not? Perhaps I’m missing something?

    As a result of our discussions I find myself considering the model from the perspective of an individual player. I’m thinking it would be something like, in each player’s mind there resides a personal story. To progress this personal story the player takes input from any or all of the following:

    1. the existing personal story (i.e. the Story as perceived by that player)
    2. external influences on self such as game modules and genre canon
    3. internal influences on self such as behaviours and personality traits
    4. the game process
    5. other players? (primarily either through their impact on the story or through game processes – which might include kibutzing)

    From these inputs the player generates new imaginings that propel their personal story forward. A percentage of these new imaginings are communicated to the other players and have an affect on their personal fictions thus changing not only the players’ personal fiction but the collective fiction as a whole.

    It may be stretching things a little but I can see this still kind of fits into the existing model without too much adjustment.

    What do you think?

    Anyway, it’s got pretty late so I’d better go. I’m really enjoying these discussions though my friend. Speak again soon I hope

  5. Tommi

    On my definition of roleplaying: I didn’t specify the sorts of choices one must care about; they can be tactical, even pure mechanical, as long as the affect the fiction (diegesis).
    But, overall, yeah, I think choices and consequences are the fundamental process in roleplaying. At least for me. I don’t find it very fun unless I can make choices whose consequences I can know ahead of time to sufficient degree.

    Your definition does not the term “character” at all, which strikes me as significant. Is it intentional?

    Shared story is a short way of referring to the parts of imaginary fiction that are sufficiently close from every participants’ point of view. An ontological argument can be made to support its existence, or lack thereof. I am pretty confident about my ability to make both arguments. Shared fiction is useful shorthand in a lot of roleplaying theory. Forge theory assumes that roleplaying is the process of negotiating shared fiction (hence the focus on credibility, the definition of system as the means through which people alter the fiction, and the focus on power issues). Some academic Nordic theory also makes such an assumption but takes the results to different places, focusing more on semiotics (communication and meaning).

    Out of curiosity: What is your background as a gamer (Forgeite, rpg.netter, a stealth theorist who actually reads some of the stuff, just a normal gamer who likes to think about roleplaying, someone participating in Knife Fight forum)? Any non-gaming background that is relevant?
    This is not to gain high ground in arguments, but rather

  6. Petri Lankoski

    Stumbled on this interesting discussion by accident and I cannot contain myself from commenting.

    Markus Montola has presented definition on role-playing. Any role-playing according to him contains following rules:
    1) Role-playing is an interactive process of defining and re-defining the state, properties and content of an imaginary game world.
    2) The power to define the game world is allocated to participants of the game. The participants recognize the existence of this power hierarchy.
    3) Player-participants define the game world through personified character constructs, conforming to the state, properties and contents of the game world. (http://www.liveforum.dk/kp07book/lifelike_montola.pdf)

    Somewhat inclusive inclusive definition, but highlights some interesting aspects.

    Story, or personal story, is bit slippery concept, as it it is (at the same time) vague and strictly defined (in multiple different ways).

    That is, most likely, why Gary Alan Fine uses term collective fantasy and discuss the social construction of fantasy. He writes: “Game content is generated by from a series of decision by players about how their characters respond to the fantasy environment.” (Fine, Shared Fantasy, p. 86.). “[T]he referee is continuously involved in shaping the game action” (p. 84).

    Fine’s and Montola’s treatments demonstrate nicely that you do not actually need the concept of story in a breakdown of the role-playing.

  7. Tumac Post author

    Petri, welcome to the discussion. Your input is much appreciated here. Different perspectives and ideas are most welcome.

    I agree with you entirely that the traditional concept of ‘story’ (i.e. a plot or a narrative) isn’t required to define roleplaying. In this respect I think I have named my ‘constituent element’ poorly. Actually my definition of Story “the fantasy itself, the imagined characters, situations and events being created in the minds of the participants” is I think very much the same as the changing (through definition and re-definition) “imaginary game world” and “character constructs” that Markus Montola speaks of in his definition.

    Thank you very much for the link to that by the way. Montola’s paper was a very interesting read.

    Of particular interest to me is the fact that the elements implied by his three rules do fit fairly well with the simple model that Tommi and I were discussing. From Montola’s rules (with my poorly named elements of roleplaying in brackets):
    *There is an imaginary game world which has a state, properties and content (Story)
    *There is an interactive process for defining and re-defining the state, properties and content of that imaginary game world (Game)
    *There is a hierarchy that allocates power to define the game world to participants (Game)
    *There are participants (Players)
    *There are personified character constructs, which conform to the state, properties and contents of the game world (Story)

    This suggests to me that among other things ‘Game’, which I’ve defined as “the formal or informal processes that govern how the collaborative fantasy is created” should include:
    *a process for defining and re-defining the imaginary world and its contents
    *means for allocating authority for defining and re-defining the imaginary world and its contents.

    … which does seem logical.

    I’ve heard of Gary Alan Fine but haven’t read any of his work. Interestingly your quote “Game content is generated by from a series of decision by players about how their characters respond to the fantasy environment”, like Tommi’s definition, suggests player decisions are an important factor.

  8. Tumac Post author

    Hi Tommi, I think you may already have the advantage in any arguments (surely you mean debates! : )) since you seem to understand this stuff far better than I do : )

    As far as my background is concerned I guess I’m somewhere between “a normal gamer who likes to think about roleplaying” and “a stealth theorist who actually reads some of the stuff”. A couple of years ago, after years of roleplaying, I realised that I and other members of the gaming group I was in at the time were roleplaying for quite different reasons. I’d never really considered this before and it explained certain deficiencies I felt regarding the group’s play. In trying to understand this better I got interested in RPG theory. Since then I’ve been mostly lurking around on the Internet picking up bits and pieces of what’s going on. I’d say quite a lot of what I’ve read is Forge theory but I wouldn’t consider myself a Forgeite. Certainly some of what I’ve read there makes a lot of sense but, When it comes down to it, I like to think things through for myself.

    I don’t think I have any relevant non-gaming background.

    If you want to know more, let me know and I’ll drop you an email or something.

    How about you? What is your background?

    The fact that my definition doesn’t refer to “characters” specifically probably isn’t all that significant. Though once again, when I start thinking about it in order to answer your question, I wonder if maybe it is… Hmmm : ) My definition of ‘Story’ includes reference to the characters since my thinking was that they are imaginary and thus merely another part of the imaginary world. Granted a fairly important part. On the one hand it could be argued that a character is the same as any other aspect of the imaginary world other than the strength of authority that a player has over it, on the other the character could be viewed as the instrument with which a player interacts with the imaginary world. I think, after considertaion, maybe I’d still go with the former, though Markus Montola’s 3rd rule (as quoted by Petri) would tend towards the latter.

    As always any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated my friend.

    As far as ‘shared fiction’ is concerned I think we are agreeing. I’m happy that it exists (i.e. that there is a degree of accord between the participants’ perception that it is useful to describe as ‘shared fiction’) but it isn’t a useful exercise to try and separate (i.e. determine what is and what isn’t) personal fiction and shared fiction, as there is no clear boundary between the two. Would you agree with this?

    Phew! I feel there is so much good stuff coming out of this discussion it is difficult to know what to focus on. Though you are helping a lot with that my friend, as your questions are very incisive and always highlight interesting points. I should probably split some parts of the discussion out as topics for different posts but I’m enjoying our exchange so much I don’t really want to break the flow : )

  9. Tumac Post author

    Tommi, I’ve revised some of my thinking in line with our discussions and have posted an updated version of the model which incorporates various changes.

    Most significantly, after much thought, I’ve amended my definition of roleplaying, which now refers to ‘control of imaginary characters’. This is indicative I think of a growing feeling I have that ‘characters’ are indeed a fundamental aspect of roleplaying. It is ‘role’ playing after all.

    Once again thanks for the insight and look forward to continuing our exchange. Have a good weekend mate.

  10. Tommi

    Debate, argument, whatever. Discussion.

    My background: I have consumed almost all rpg theory I have encountered, including some academic material and significant amounts of hobby theories (like the big model).

    I have a year and half of math studies and half a year of philosophy to back me up.

    We agree on shared fiction.

    Do enjoy your weekend, too.


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