RPG Theory Journey – Part IV

RPG Theory Journey 4Thanks primarily to Tommi Brander‘s insightful observations and advice, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this last week. Consequently my simple model of roleplaying has evolved somewhat (see below).

I’ve changed some of the names, hopefully to improve clarity, and now have working definitions of roleplaying and each of the model components:

Roleplaying: A game in which participants control imaginary characters within a coherent fantasy.

Constituent elements of roleplaying:

Players: the individuals participating in play

Process: the formal or informal rules and processes that constitute game-play, which govern how the fantasy (incl. characters, places, situations and events) is created and how coherence is maintained – non-diegetic elements of play

Fantasy: all imaginary content (characters, places, situations and events), whether part of the group consensus or imagined by individual participants – diegetic elements of play

I’ve also recognised (again thanks to Tommi) that roleplaying doesn’t occur in a vacuum and that there are External Influences such as GM modules, source material and genre canon that, though outside the game, affect the creation of the in-game fantasy.

As always comments on this and where it is going are most welcome, nothing here is sacrosanct.


8 thoughts on “RPG Theory Journey – Part IV

  1. Tommi

    By coherent, do you mean that the fiction has no contradictions?

    Assuming yes, there is a lot to be said about the coherency of roleplaying. Namely: Play can be seen as a process where people align their fictions to resemble each other. Before something is mentioned, one player can think that, say, some character’s eyes are blue and another that they are green, but that doesn’t really matter. Greater differences in understanding of the fiction may cause arguments, break characters (my char would not have done that), or be a reason for retconning.

    So; I think that coherence is a limit; something that people try to move towards, though possibly never reaching it, even though significant idifferences get ironed out.

    I am not sure if processes and fantasy are well-defined. Take, for example, a Burning Wheel character with instinct “Always have a spear at hand.”, which means that unless explicitly otherwise mentioned, the character will have a spear at hand, due to always keeping it close (as opposed to magic or some such being the reason). Is this entirely a process, entirely in fantasy, or somehow broken down and divided between the two?

  2. Tumac Post author

    As always these are excellent questions my friend : )

    Yes exactly! I see coherence as the imaginings of individual participants being sufficiently coherent with one another (also within themselves?) to allow participants to interact as though they were experiencing the same fantasy. ‘Aligning fictions to resemble each other’ as you put it.

    Total coherence/consensus would indeed be a limit at one end of the scale with roleplaying merely maintaining a lesser level of coherence where differences in understanding/perception do not damage/destroy the group fantasy i.e. contradictions are reduced to a level where the shared fantasy can be sustained.

    This may be merely a question of semantics, but do you think for clarity I need to change the definition of roleplaying to reflect this or would you feel that saying something is coherent only implies ‘sufficient coherence’?

    It seems kind of obvious now, but I’d never really considered play from the perspective of a group aligning personal fantasies in order to share imaginary experience before. Out of curiosity, is this something you’ve come across elsewhere in RPG theory?

    As a passing observation, something that occurs to me is tha total consensus isn’t necessarily the ideal state. Minor differences in imaginary content that don’t disrupt the shared fantasy but allow individuals to see things in a way that appeals to them more personally, are probably a good thing. Similar to the phenomenon that in horror films it is usually scarier not to see the monster fully but to fill in details from your own imagination.

    As far as your question about the distinction between processes and fantasy is concerned, I’m still fairly happy with them being separate, but it’s quite possible that I’m either wrong or not explaining myself very well : ) I’ll give it a try and see what you think.

    My thoughts on your example are that a Burning Wheel instinct such as “Always have a spear at hand” represents a close correlation between two things; a process and an element of the fantasy i.e. there exists a non-diegetic game rule that states that the character will “always have a spear at hand” while in parallel that statement also add neatly to the diegesis.

    To my mind (i.e. based on my preferred style of play) this is a very clever mechanic (hats off to Luke Crane) because it serves to minimise the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic elements of play. It’s almost like a trojan-horse, the mechanic is well-concealed behind a statement which appears to be part of the fantasy. Many other game mechanics, though they support the coherence of the fantasy, require the participants to step away from the fantasy in order to ‘process’ them e.g. I roll dice to hit and then make another dice roll to do damage is also tied to a diegetic element (swinging my sword at someone) but it’s clearly non-diegetic.

    What do you think? Does that make sense or am I talking out of my backside? : )

  3. Tommi

    I am pretty literal. For me, coherence means coherence, and sufficiently coherent is far weaker claim. That is probably just me, though. (Personally I would be much more exact with coherency, but it can be explained by it being close to the mathematical concept of limits, which I find interesting.)

    Good catch on some incoherency being potentially useful. That’s a fruitful area for further thought, certainly.

    I have almost certainly read about this perspective before. First instinct is that it was in Beyond Role and Play, the article that discusses semiotics (direct link to PDF). The article starts with general discussion, followed by a section on larps, after which there is one on tabletop play, followed by conclusions.

    On instincts and such: I think (that is, am provoked into thinking by the discussion) that there is a spectrum between rules that are parallel to the fiction and those that are entirely separate, even formal. I also think that this is subtly different from the issue of rules being or not being the physics (and so forth) of the fictional world.

  4. Tumac Post author

    Literal is good. I’m very happy to strive for as much clarity as can be achieved given the nuances of the English language. Considering that you and I are having this discussion, if what I mean by the definitions isn’t clear to you then they’re probably not doing their job, I would think.

    How about “Roleplaying: A game in which participants control imaginary characters in imaginary situations and, through the processes of play, align their individual fantasies so that they are sufficiently coherent for the participants to interact as though they were experiencing a shared fantasy” as another attempt at the definition?

    Wow! Fascinating article by Mika Loponen and Markus Montola. Thanks for the link. As you say there is a significant overlap with what we’ve been discussing here. I note in particular that Markus Montola states ‘role-playing consists of the interaction of several diegeses instead of only one, subjective diegesis’ which is something I’ve certainly been very conscious of in my own thinking. I hadn’t really come across anything that specifically said that before.

    Yes, I agree entirely that the question of whether game rules are closely aligned to the diegesis or completely separate mechanics that govern some other aspect of play is quite distinct from whether the rules represent the physics of the fictional world or not.

    Purely brainstorming but I’ve started to ponder the fact that any statement made and accepted during the game can be viewed as being similar to your Burning Wheel example i.e. once stated and accepted it could be considered that a diegetic element has a non-diegetic “this is now an established fact” rule associated with it.

    Actually, it is only diegetic elements that exist purely in the individual fantasies of the participants that don’t have some non-diegetic weight or impact.

    Any thoughts?

  5. Tommi

    Elaborate definitions do have the problem that they are not easy to comprehend if one comes to them without the formative discussions as a basis. Go for whatever balance of accessibility and precision you wish. Think about your target audience, if any.

    My gut reaction is that a fact established about the fiction and actually written down is more powerful (especially when it interacts with the rest of the system).

    Are you familiar with the concept of bricolage? I think it is relevant.

  6. Tumac Post author

    I hear you my friend. As usual you are right. I want this definition to be useful and so it should be accessible. I’ll have to mull it over some more. Until I find a version that I’m happy with it’s going to bug me : )

    No I haven’t come across ‘bricolage’ before and I have to confess, even having read Ben Lehman’s post and the comments, I’m not entirely sure I ‘get it’. Perhaps you can help me understand, or at least elaborate on your thinking regarding our current discussion.

    For my part I understand it means ‘making something from materials at hand’, and I can see that there are various ways it might be applied to roleplaying but I’m not sure which of these, if any, Ben is getting at.

    My immediate thoughts are:

    1. Couldn’t all roleplaying (or perhaps even imagination in general) be considered bricolage? I go into my head which is full of memories from books, tv shows, films, past experiences, I rummage around a bit and pick out a couple of these memories that I combine in a new way and get something different. Hey presto I’m imagining something new from something old!

    2. Is bricolage part of what we were calling ‘External Influences’?

    3. If bricolage means taking things that are already established elsewhere (e.g in our culture) then it’s kind of a shortcut to fictions that resemble one another. If I say ‘a party of grunks is approaching’, you have no idea what I’m talking about and at least initially our fictions are liable to differ considerably. It will take quite a lot of effort to bring the two fictions into alignment. However if I were to say ‘a party of orcs is approaching’ we’re probably already thinking along similar lines, at least sufficient that you would perhaps consider them a threat and behave accordingly.

    I feel like I’m missing the main point though.

    I also found the following statement rather intriguing “The powerful continuity in role-playing games is that things that are important to us will be repeated, because we remember them, and that things that are not important will be forgotten and lie, easily contradicted, by the wayside” I feel that this is true and I’m not sure I have anything to add to it at present, but just wanted to observe that it’s an interesting point.

  7. Tommi

    The way I intended to apply bricolage as a concept: Once something has been established as part of the diegesis, it can be referred back to. This is certainly a process and was quite central to my style of play pre Burning Wheel. This is also a way that some habits of characters might become essentially inexplicit instincts.

    There are numerous other ways to apply the concept. It is quite central to culture in general, I feel.

  8. Tumac Post author

    OK I get that (I think). Roleplaying is individuals adding to the diegesis. Once something has been stated it has a certain weight (perhaps only light initiallly) and the more the group refers back to that thing the more power/weight it gains (i.e. it becomes a notable element of the diegesis). At some point in the process the statement has sufficient weight of experience behind it to essentially equate to an inexplicit instinct.

    However I’m intrigued by your statement that this process ‘was quite central to my style of play pre Burning Wheel’, since I would have thought it was central to all roleplaying. So I am interested in how Burning Wheel has changed that? Do you just mean that the process remains central but is now supported by the written rules? Does Burning Wheel have other mechanics that support this?


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