RPG Theory Journey – Part V

RPG Theory Journey 5Definition of roleplaying revisited

As a result of the ongoing discussion I’ve been having with Tommi Brander I’ve once again amended my definition of roleplaying. It now reads:

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

For those who haven’t been following the discussion, my reason for replacing ‘coherent fantasy’ with ‘shared fantasy’ is that ‘coherent’ means ‘having no contradictions’ whereas ‘shared’ merely means ‘jointly owned’. This change acknowledges the fact that numerous contradictions exist within the fantasy as a whole (e.g. one player can think that a character’s eyes are brown and another that they are blue)

Arguably, ‘shared’ may not be the best term to use either but, given that the overall fantasy is a composite of similar fictions owned by the individual participants, it seems suitable enough for me.

I also like the fact that this definition remains accessible and doesn’t sacrifice clarity for precision, which was the case with my intermediate attempts. Once again thanks to Tommi for his good advice on this.

Hopefully this will be the final version; though if anyone wants to raise any further issues they are more than welcome to do so.

Where next?

Next I shall be turning the focus of my RPG Theory Journey towards the processes of play, in particular the creation and alignment of the participants’ individual fantasies.

For the time being the analogy I find easiest to consider has the imaginings of individual participants represented as coloured threads and shared facts (statements about the fiction that are either agreed or communicated into the group consensus) as anchor points that draw these threads together.

In the diagram below each of the different coloured threads represents the imaginings of an individual participant and the anchors/’shared facts’ serve to keep these individual imaginings moving together from left-to-right across the page.

Obviously if there were no anchors (shared elements such as scene descriptors, character intentions and action outcomes) the individual participants’ imaginings would be free to go off in all directions. It is only as a result of their unifying influence that the participants are able to interact as though they were experiencing a common fantasy.

Consequently governing how shared facts are established and who has authority over them is a large part of play.

For example, in many roleplaying games a participant has authority over the actions of their own character and can freely introduce character actions to establish intent within the shared fantasy. However the participant may not dictate the outcomes of these actions, which must be established through arbitration e.g. a die roll to determine success or failure.

Anchors – Process or Fantasy?

One thing that Tommi’s questions have led me to consider at some length is, where do these ‘anchors’ fit in my model of roleplay? The fact that they:

1. are typically communicated as part of narration and;
2. form the backbone of the fantasy

points to them being diegetic. However, after much thought, I would assert that they are elements of the process and thus non-diegetic. In fact all game description and narration is process, since fantasy is entirely in the minds of the participants. Description is a means of communicating information from one person’s fantasy to another or for establishing ‘shared facts’ that will enter into all of the participants’ imaginings.

As always, I welcome any thoughts anyone has on this.


6 thoughts on “RPG Theory Journey – Part V

  1. Fang Langford


    Good to see that Shared-Imaginary-Space still holds up as a concept (one of my prouder accomplishments)! If you’re worried about terminology, I’d say you should focus on ‘game’ rather than shared for expected misunderstandings. You go girl!

    I think your diagram of colored threads and shared fact is excellent! I wouldn’t change a thing. If I might suggest a couple possible additions?

    First, I’d say you might want to add a fuzzy channel which the threads rarely exceed. This would be the communal understanding of the expectations of the genre of game the players share. One time I was running an off-the-cuff, funny-anime game; one player took everything to be realistic as in a grenade in a tank kills everyone, while everyone else understood that all crew members escape in time. Talk about genre clash!

    Another thing I might suggest, largely to differentiate between rules-bias versus free-form would be needle-eyes where the game is crystallized for all players; id est when explicit rules are invoked. Adding this is kinda neat because you can see when play enters the clichéd combat sequence, a lot more needle-eyes to go through takes additional time from the effort of bringing everyone onto the ‘same page’.

    I’d have to disagree with you on establishing facts and authority. While you may see a lot written on games which spell this out, I believe you can see that in almost every example, the social make-up of the player group overrides this as though it doesn’t exist. That’s not saying that authority sharing isn’t happening, but that it occurs on a level unrelated to the game itself.

    Finally, I’d have to say that the diegetic make-up of the anchor points (a perfect concept by the way) is more like two side of a single anchor ‘coin’. Working with the anchors is non-diegetic, their effect within the SIS is wholly diegetic. I don’t think these can be usefully disconnected.

    I am following your blog carefully. You are one of the best theorists I’ve seen outside of the ‘community’. Good luck and keep going!

    Fang Langford

  2. Tumac Post author

    Hi Fang

    Both your words of encouragement and your input are much appreciated (and from he who coined the phrase ‘Shared-Imaginary-Space’ no less!). I’ll try to address your points as best I can.

    First, I’m kind of puzzled as to why ‘game’ is contentious? Tommi alluded to something similar in our earlier discussions. And yet the definitions of ‘game’ I’ve come across (Roger Caillois’s for example) seem to fit pretty well. Care to elaborate?

    I think the term ‘shared’ concerns me more because it seems to me to be right there at the heart of roleplay. Despite using the term ‘shared fantasy’ in my own definition I am acutely conscious that the fantasy in the minds of the participants only appears to be shared. There is an IMHO key distinction between ‘individual imaginings that are similar enough to appear shared’ (which roleplaying is) and ‘imaginings that actually are shared’ (which roleplaying isn’t). This is central to a lot of my current theorizing.

    Your thoughts on a fuzzy channel to represent the communal understanding of the genre and needle-eye anchors to show points that crystallize the game for all players are indeed spot-on.

    There are definitely external influences (cultural, genre specific, source modules, bricolage etc) that influence play and the fiction produced by the players. Though these might also be viewed as some kind of anchor I’m not sure that they fit particularly well into that category, so introducing a channel seems a good way to go.

    In my earlier diagram I had these external influences sitting somewhere outside the game entirely. I may wish to revisit this at some point.

    The point about needle-eye anchors is also quite significant I think. Anchors definitely have differing levels of influence on play, some are more specific and leave less scope for interpretation, others are more general and less restrictive i.e. have shorter or longer tethers. I should incorporate this into a revised diagram. Many thanks.

    I have to say I’m surprised at your standpoint on establishing facts and authority. Perhaps either I wasn’t clear in explaining what I meant or I’m misunderstanding you… or both : ) I can see that social dynamics do have a large part to play but in my experience this rarely overrides game role authority e.g. the game will break down if one of the players starts saying I’m just going to kill the dragon now, I’m not going to bother with a roll. So the game rules govern who has this authority don’t they? Am I missing something?

    I’m also not sure I agree with you on the non-diegetic/diegetic make-up of the anchor points (though what we’re saying isn’t all that different and my thinking may be flawed). I’m planning on elaborting on this aspect in particular in my next post, as this seems to be an interesting area of discussion. So I would be very grateful if you would critique my thought processes on this once I’ve had another crack at explaining it.

    Once again many thanks for your input. Look forward to hearing from you again

  3. Tommi

    I just don’t care about the game part; roleplay works well without the game and works well with it.

    The above assumes a definition of game that does not encompass for example freeform forum roleplay or children playing house or similar fairly open-ended activities without much structure.

    Defining game is, at least in academic circles, far from a simple or resolved matter. So is defining play, or defining almost anything, for that matter. A huge deal of it is that people want a definition that works in all contexts, as opposed to within a specific study or paper or book.

    Anyway. How does Caillois define game?

  4. Tumac Post author

    Hi Tommi

    A quick reply.

    To be honest I’m not sure I see the word ‘game’ in itself as being prescriptive of structured play. To my mind ‘game’ doesn’t exclude either ‘freeform forum roleplay’ or ‘children playing house’.

    Perhaps my definition of roleplay is flawed then in that it doesn’t make clear that I’m not really talking about these activities here. As you are rightly reminding me I think, it’s ‘a’ definition, not ‘the’ definition. Its purpose is to make my meaning clear within the context of these discussions. So does it achieve that? Maybe not.

    Caillois definition of ‘game’ is something like an activity that is: Free (participation is voluntary), Separate (in time and space from ordinary life), Uncertain (the outcome isn’t pre-determined), Unproductive (no goods or wealth are produced through game play, though money may change hands between the participants), Governed by rules (has its own set of rules different from ordinary life) and Make-believe (involves awareness of a separate reality).

  5. Free RPG

    It is important to remember tho that different players play for different reasons, while some are into discovery others want medals, and some even still just want the opportunity to kill other players. I think this game discussion is a great place to determine the type of game and what helps to construct it. Great work so far!!

  6. Tumac Post author

    Yes indeed. I’m very conscious of the fact that different players play for different reasons. In fact my interest in RPG theory started when I realised this was the case and began wondering how it all works.


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