Category Archives: Speculations

Waltz of Souls

Dark Souls encodes a number of fundamental play dynamics that produce a particular kind of satisfying play. In this post, I am going to discuss a way the game supports and rewards an enterprising but focused player stance toward the unknown.

First, the game penalizes both reckless and overly cautious play. A player of even a relatively high level character can still be messed up substantially by some of the weakest and simplest enemies if the player fails to pay attention and take the threat seriously. In contrast, a player that is too cautious will always be on the back foot, and less able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. In this way, courage in the face of danger and a spirit of enterprise serve the player best for developing their own skill, improving their fictional avatar, and deepening the complexity of the imagined world. In short, the game entices player engagement and rewards persistence in the face of failure (amplified by many other design decision that are beyond the scope of this post), rather than providing participation trophies for just showing up or presenting a passive media entertainment experience. (Post continues after 80 second video fighting an Old Knight in Dark Souls 2.)

Knife fighting with an Old Knight

Second, this reward and penalty structure creates a cybernetic feedback loop. Feedback loops are powerful, but can also topple into degenerate cases. The most engaging forms of feedback loop for gameplay involve adaptation rather than return to static equilibria. The system improves itself. If a feedback loop reaches a static equilibrium, the “game” ends, even if the players continue to engage due to habituation (perhaps analogous to how a thermostat maintains static conditions). If the feedback loop is negative, at some point the game ends because the activity as pattern destroys itself (similar to how a democracy can collapse into tyranny, a market bubble can pop, or a virus can burn itself out by killing all the hosts). In an adaptive feedback loop, each iteration of feedback produces a more complex, satisfying, resilient whole.

The play iterations of a tabletop roleplaying game can manifest similar dynamics. In one example of a degenerate case, players learn to avoid play by creating elaborate scripts to mechanically deploy when presented with any challenge. In OSR/etc. games, this sort of script may manifest as something like: always look at the ceiling, tap the floor with a ten foot pole, listen at the door. Disconnected from any context or cost, such scripts represent rote mechanization rather than adaptive learning. Players indicate by such behavior a way that their own motivational architecture is to some degree incompatible with or in tension with the game mechanisms or the particular campaign instance.

In the adaptation case, players learn how to navigate challenges by developing skills, along with the contextual knowledge of when to use the skills, and in so doing increase competence. This allows a player to face more complex challenges that incorporate, but move beyond, the existing skill. A simple example trajectory of several iterations might be fighting one troll successfully (to learn troll weaknesses), then fighting many trolls, then tricking other opponents without access to troll weaknesses into fighting trolls, and so forth. Ideally, the player would learn such details through play rather than outside of play by memorizing facts from an official rulebook.

Dark Souls, being a computer game, might be a purer example of this dynamic compared to a tabletop roleplaying game, since options are more constrained, but the template applies to some kinds of successful tabletop roleplaying games. The various versions of Dark Souls, and specific challenges within each, embody this ideal design to greater or lesser degrees; sometimes the game misses the mark. Though Dark Souls rewards certain kinds of creativity when approaching challenges, it has a basic combative frame which limits the learning potential. Additionally, sometimes the challenges degenerate into tedium—such as some long approaches from bonfires to bosses which require the player to pay a relatively boring tax to attempt a previously failed challenge again. But the abstraction is still clear enough to be a useful exemplar. (Post ends with 112 second video fighting The Lost Sinner in Dark Souls 2.)

Fighting the Lost Sinner

(Videos are personal play recordings, all Dark Souls 2I apologize for inflicting my poor technique on the viewer.)

Endgame Mirages

Panel from Berserk volume 12

Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D provide rules for advancement up to level 36, with guidelines that adventurers should gain one level every five adventures (Rules Cyclopedia, page 129). I generally take “an adventure” to entail multiple game sessions, but even if you complete one adventure every session, assuming no setbacks such as adventurer death or level drain, and play once per week, a group must play for almost 3.5 years to reach level 361. It seems reasonable to assume that few actual campaigns have followed this procedurally proposed trajectory. This is an extreme, but other TSR rulesets, such as B/X or AD&D, seem to also imply an implausible level of commitment for most people playing most campaigns in most situations. One interpretation of this fact is that the rules are flawed, and it would be better to make endgame rules that people will, in fact, actually play. But what if the main function of late game rules material in TSR D&D, and descendants, is more to entice players into longer games?

A design trend exists around more focused games, which values explicit and transparent description of both rules and intent. According to this sort of evaluative criteria, the late game TSR D&D rules are ineffective, and perhaps even misleading or disingenuous. They promised me a castle, and all I got was this lousy longsword +2! However, there is no inherent reason that the most effective rule, functionally, must articulate its intent and function, or even that the designer must understand the likely function. Surely there are exceptions, but in general focused games tend toward one-shot, mini-series, or shorter campaigns. It seems possible that the lack of enticing phantasm in such designs may partly explain this difference.

Goals are only motivating prior to being reached. Following goal accomplishment, it is on to the next goal. Perhaps the TSR endgame is a form of ultimate imagined goal that works exactly because it is unlikely to be obtained. Lack of complete consummation does come with some drawbacks, such as the anecdotal observation that campaigns often end, following Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper. As the duration of a campaign increases, an anticlimactic ending becomes more likely, even if players do maintain interest and attention, as changes in life circumstances will implacably conspire against the campaign of unusual ambition’s persistence. Whether a longer, complex campaign, often lacking closure, or a shorter, more contained campaign is better seems like a matter of taste, but either way having rules that players almost never use could still shape gameplay in substantial ways. This is another example showing how taking a text at face value may be a poor, or at least incomplete, guide to game functionality or game meaning.

1. A fighter requires approximately 3.4 million XP to reach level 36. A magic-user requires approximately 4.3 million XP to reach level 36.

Simulation and Exploration

Neither simulation nor exploration! (Source)

People often use different words for the same (or highly similar) concepts, or the same word for radically different concepts. Academia in particular has driven home for me the mismatch of jargon and meaning across silos, but the same thing happens in nontechnical discussions. The confusion around creative agenda modes shows an example within discussion about tabletop RPGs. In general, I suspect actual communication happens far less often than people assume, in any domain. In this post I will highlight a few more terms that scenes seem to use in different ways, specifically simulation and exploration.

Forge-speak simulationism seems close to what OSR/etc gamers (myself included, I suppose) mean when we speak of exploration. When a big model theorist discusses simulationism it has almost nothing to do with whether, for example, sailing rules in a game accurately capture wind dynamics as might be modeled by a physicist. Recall that the subtitle of the original Edwards essay on simulationism is The Right to Dream. And Forge-speak uses exploration to denote a completely different concept, as should be superficially obvious when you look at the diagram/logo for the big model wiki, something more like engaged play. Here is a big model explanation of Exploration:

What’s Exploration? Exploration is playing the game. If you are imagining stuff, rolling dice, talking in character, or paying attention to someone else’s scene in the game- you’re playing and you’re Exploring. If you’re busy playing videogames on your DS and not paying attention, if you’re on your cell phone, reading comics, or otherwise in any common sense way not playing the game, you’re not Exploring.

And here is Ben on OSR/classic exploration:

The lack of knowledge is thus a source of peril and uncertainty. It is both an obstacle to be overcome and a hazard to be dared. There is also a thrill of discovery, of uncovering things that are hidden. If the game is being played well, what is uncovered are not boring things. Every dungeon is initially a mystery, every artifact a hidden wonder, every faction an unknown quantity. To explore a dungeon is to unravel the mystery of the place.

A pair of Dark Souls analogies may help further illustrate this distinction. OSR exploration has to do with the feeling you get when you hear the new area sound, which has been burned into my mind as the sound of a new vista opening up:

This feeling is tied heavily to interaction with the fictional context as a coherent and meaningful place rather than as game mechanisms or story progressions. (Tangentially, I would also add that this is more about imagined possibility than it is about immersion in the method acting or narrative transportation sense.) In contrast, big model exploration would be closer to what is going on when the player learns and exploits the pattern of an enemy’s move set:

This is more like a structural fitting in of the player’s voluntary actions with the mechanisms and interfaces that the game presents. You could get the first kind of exploration without engaging many of the Dark Souls game mechanisms at all. And you could get the second kind of exploration in a wireframe test arena totally disconnected from the stages or levels of the game (which would be the campaign setting or shared imaginary space in tabletop roleplaying).

Possible Ideals

Adi Shankara argues for purity of practices as roads to moksha (image source: Wikipedia)

Recently I was thinking to myself: people have written some words about tabletop RPG theory (understatement of the decade). This work is often “empirical” in the loose sense that theorists base conclusions on observing their own play experiences and the experiences of others (often second-hand) but it is not empirical in the sense that a social scientist would generally use that term. And so I was thinking, I have some quantitative data about player preferences, would it be possible to see whether this data could substantiate some of these claims using quantitative methods, or perhaps suggest alternatives based on something beyond anecdote? Specifically, I was thinking about that venerable Forge concept “creative agenda” and the various creative agenda modes proposed as incompatible: gamism, narrativism, and simulationism. These four concepts belong to a broader collection of ideas called the big model, though the GNS subcomponent has had the largest impact on general thinking about RPGs, of the big model concepts.

Before exploring creative agendas in data about player preferences, I had to make sure that I understood the concepts, beyond surface associations. This means taking the theorists seriously, and accepting definitions, even (perhaps especially) when the naming seems counterintuitive or disconnected from the lay understanding of terms. It is unproductive to approach the theory of electromagnetism with the stubborn idea that a field is properly only an expanse of ground covered by grass, flowers, and so forth. Ideally, jargon will involve some congruence between intuitive and technical meanings, but that is perhaps unrealistic to expect in all cases. Sometimes it is best to just use the imperfect, established term, and move on with your life.

After several conversations with people who have engaged heavily with these concepts and find parts of the big model personally useful, I have come to believe that I (and probably many people outside of the Forge and story games diasporas) misunderstand both the specific terms and the broader goal of this collection of ideas. Rather than explanation, I think the purpose of big model thinking generally, and the more specific ideas around creative agenda, is to present particular ideals of possible game practice. This is in many ways closer to a therapeutic framework in counseling psychology, such as psychoanalysis, person-centered therapy, CBT, or DBT. Therapeutic frameworks generally involve a greater focus on particular interventions and some alignment with evidence based practice compared to the big model, but once you understand the theory like this, the way people use and discuss it makes a lot more sense, at least to me.

Wilfred Bion, an early pioneer of group dynamics in therapy (image source: Wikipedia)

To be (somewhat) more concrete: the big model theorist looks at a collection of play goals aligned in some way, such as learning and challenge (“gamism”) and wonders whether purifying a play experience around only these play goals might be uniquely satisfying for the collective experience of a group of players. Similarly for other modes. This is what the big model means by coherent play. Whether this matches any particular experience is almost beside the point, much like the way a three-minute sprint mile is an ideal that has never been reached for the sprinter (though obviously the activity of sprinting is far simpler than tabletop roleplaying).

So what about the player preferences data? Based on this understanding, it would be a poor fit for big model concepts, even accepting that measurement at the individual level could approximate a group-level analysis consistent with big model claims. People will have to think a lot harder about ways to measure big model concepts before that will become possible, and from what I can tell there has been little enthusiasm for that kind of work to date. The data I have still has potential to reveal connections between what players enjoy during play and what players find useful in games, which I may explore in a future post.

Some simple takeaways for outsiders when trying to make sense of big model ideas: substitute “play goal” (or perhaps “ultimate play goal”) whenever you see the words creative agenda, and realize that the point of the theory is presenting possible ideals, rather than explanation. You may lose some nuance, particularly involving individual versus collective experience, but that is probably closer to the intended meaning than running with intuitive associations.


Alex’s podcast

On my last grocery run, I listened to the first episode of Alex’s podcast Text to Table, which is a discussion of Troika with David Wilkie (Anxiety Wizard). One detail jumped out at me, which was the dynamic of play that David described in his Troika game. The focus of play seemed to be more interaction between player characters rather than exploration or problem solving.

The characters in the party included a lonesome monarch, a zoanthrope, a chaos champion, and maybe some others but those are the ones I recall. In the game the zoanthrope tried to eat the king’s crown, triggering some sort of existential crisis regarding kinghood, and then there was some interaction between the king and the chaos champion, details somewhat unimportant. What I want to highlight here is the interaction of player characters as more autonomous entities as compared to a team working together to accomplish some goal. (Please read this as descriptive rather than judgmental; the game sounded memorable and fun.)

I am always on the lookout for key play aspects that distinguish different modes and cultures of play. (For example, degree of proceduralism.) Whether players form a team working together to confront challenges (or not) seems to be another one of these key aspects of play, more interesting for the fact that it is rarely described explicitly, even in games that try to discuss things like play agendas explicitly. Looking at another game, in many ways Apocalypse World is a highly traditional design (each player controls a single character with stats, there are rules for fighting, characters improve, and so forth), but many or most of the rules (and examples in the text) seem geared toward priming confrontations between characters, resulting in a kind of soap opera dynamic. That is, much of the play seems to involve generating drama between player characters rather than navigating challenges between player characters and the fictional environment. In contrast, in TSR D&D and many OSR games, the (never? rarely?) stated assumption is that player characters form a band of picaros or commandos intent on dungeon heists. There seems to be some highly influential spectrum between autonomous interaction and team-based problem solving.

Discussing this with Eero Tuovinen, he mentioned some terminology around drama versus adventure or PvP versus PvE, which are relevant but don’t seem to quite capture the differences on this spectrum. For example, PvP seems to connote a degree of conflict that may be absent from autonomous character based games (it certainly didn’t seem like the player characters in David’s Troika game were trying to kill each other or competing directly in any way). Further, there was probably some adventure going on, so saying that the Troika game was not (categorically) an “adventure” game seems like a mistake, though maybe prioritizing drama versus prioritizing adventure gets part of the way there. This distinction does seem to underly at a deep level what it is that players are doing when they play however.

Unlike D&D, Troika ties advancement to using skills successfully rather than to a clear gameplay goal such as recovering treasure, defeating monsters, or completing event milestones, so there is some textual support underlying this mode of play, whatever your opinion on causation between text and play experience. Troika differs in many other ways from traditional play assumptions, such as the surrealist setting prompts, so there may be additional dynamics at play here, but encoded incentives seem unambiguously relevant to the question of shared goals at the least. I also think that it would be a mistake to oversimplify this to broader play culture, where “story games” are about drama based on interactions between autonomous characters and “OSR” games are about goal-oriented team play, given that the player base of Troika is probably mostly located in the OSR (or what have you) play culture.

Personally, my default mode of play tends toward team-oriented. The elements of play I enjoy most are exploration and problem solving, both when I run games and when I play games. Some media touchstones of action in these kinds of games (to reference a few TV shows) include seeing how the characters of early-seasons Lost explore the island, or how the characters in The Walking Dead manage to carve out a niche for themselves in the apocalyptic landscape. These are the team-oriented aspects of these stories. I think there are some practical advantages to team-based play in that teams support varying degrees of engagement whereas the mode of more autonomous player characters requires all players to be on point as needed, somewhat like improv, though I imagine perhaps systems could help here (providing tables of voluntary action prompts relevant to character backgrounds, for example).

Varieties of Roleplaying Experience

Reenactment: Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011)

Roleplaying, taken descriptively, is a means, which can be applied to a wide variety of ends. Before proceeding to expand on this claim directly, consider the following analogy with another activity, in the physical domain, that is also a means: running. Apologies in advance for the exceedingly literal discussion that follows, but it will be useful later. First, descriptively: running is locomotion which includes an “aerial” phase during which all feet are above the ground. The activity is recognizable on a treadmill, in a forest or alley fleeing a predator, on an athletic track, in the context of a competition, alone or in a group, on a sidewalk toward a bus leaving soon, in quadrupeds, and so forth. Learning how to run well in one context likely translates to others, though perhaps incompletely. Varieties of running exist, such as sprinting and endurance running, which activate different biological energy recruitment and waste management systems (aerobic and anaerobic respiration, for example). Running well can include both comparative performance, such as speed or duration, but also technique, judged on aesthetic other grounds.

Descriptively, roleplaying is taking on the role of a fictional character, either through direct narrative acting—speaking “as if” the player was the character or pantomiming, perhaps incompletely, physical actions that a character performs. Or, with reduced immersion, through explanatory puppeteering—my character opens the door, my character reacts with surprise. The activity can be recognizable in a military war game exercise, a mock trial, the behavior of a digital game avatar, acting in a play, as an exploratory or practice exercise during a therapy session, and, of course, playing a tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D. Similarly to running, roleplaying well can include both performance, such as inflicting damage, recovering treasure, or solving puzzles, but also technique, judged on aesthetic grounds—coolness, sincere and expressive performance—or in the quality of tales recounted after the game between human players.

Reenactment: Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

I suspect this is so far noncontroversial, but consider the different kinds of satisfaction that people can experience by means of the same activity applied to different ends. For example, compare a 20 minute sprint that raises the heart rate to a specific point and proceeds at a given pace, in one case pulled by a bus schedule and in another case pushed by a pursuing mugger. The physical description of the activity in terms of vital readouts, shorn of context, might be identical. The difference, then, comes from, at least: contextual constraints, situational expectation, and personal goals. Another: running across a room to meet a loved one returning from a long trip compared to running across a room to catch a teetering vase.

Now consider a roleplaying example where the agreed end would be to play through the events of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps with minor variations, but hitting all the major movements of the story. Especially within the OSR (or what have you) tradition, this may seem unsatisfying, perhaps barely even roleplaying, due to the highly constrained, almost entirely predetermined, set of narrative outcomes. Yet, the activity is still descriptively roleplaying, obviously so, despite the lack of playing to find out what happens. Considering the prospect of playing such a game incites little enthusiasm from me, but if I take a step back I can see how someone might experience satisfaction through reenacting The Lord of the Rings by means of a tabletop roleplaying game framework.

Reenactment: Kurosawa’s MacbethThrone of Blood (1957)

The term “reenacting” is perhaps a clue; why might someone take pleasure in putting on a production of Hamlet? Wages are one reason, but other motivations also likely exist. One might object that reenacting The Lord of the Rings might be roleplaying but that doing so lacks some sense of game since failing is by hypothesis difficult or impossible. It is easy to modify the case to handle this objection by, perhaps, awarding points for remembering textual details, persistence attainments for reaching milestones, creative reinterpretations, or clarity of self-expression through the constrained vehicle of Tolkien’s plot (notably distinct from Tolkien’s literary accomplishment). Is Super Mario Brothers any less of a game because all players must proceed through the stages following broadly the same sequence?

Could reenacting Rise of the Runelords, or Gygax’s G-D-Q modules, provide a similar form of satisfaction? Would introducing the possibility of character death and replacement substantially vary the experience, or would it remain reenactment even if particular details of how the players proceed from episode to episode varied? I pose these questions less to express my personal interest in playing or running such a game and more as a thought experiment to understand unknown pleasures. Many players seem self-evidently to enjoy compartmentalizing the game elements of roleplaying games in different parts of the activity, whether in the deck-building subgame of character build optimization, the tactical chess of 4E grid combat, the accumulation of loot, the collection of relationships with non-player characters, the exploration of bonds with other player characters, the uncovering of campaign secrets, the skillful, entertaining performance of character acting, or another accomplishment of your own devising.

Answering and Asking

Cavegirl posted about the function of dice resolution and stats in a certain kind of tabletop roleplaying game. In her words: we use dice rolls and game mechanics to make a decision on the GM’s behalf when the outcome is otherwise in doubt and hard to adjudicate. I agree with the value of all the functions she lays out for using dice. However, there is another substantial use for dice in this kind of game. As resolution systems, dice provide answers, but they can also provide questions.

The principle that dice come out only or primarily when the referee is at a loss or resolution is difficult excludes or deemphasizes pursuit of oracles, when the referee or players consult dice for inspiration or to expand the set of possibilities. The invocation of fairness suggests that dice exist for determinations that might otherwise seem impartial or unfair.

Framing the process as adjudication imposes or implies a set of juridical assumptions. Jurisprudence relies heavily on the idea of precedent and extrapolating future outcomes from past examples. In the context of roleplaying games, the precedent or fact of the matter is the campaign setting, the scenario, the dungeon map, relationship matrices, the personality of non-player characters, and so forth. Following the above principle, the dice come out in the moment of play when the interaction of those elements with player characters is unclear or fraught with potentially deleterious consequences.

Many of the ways in which I find that dice contribute most to the richness of play fit uncomfortably within the adjudication frame. For example, the random encounter check seems more about varying the pattern of experience than about resolving any particularly difficult determination, even though it does represent an immediate moment in the game world. Similarly, stocking the dungeon functions to help a referee create unstable equilibria rather than resolving an outcome. Other examples include many multi-table generators, in the mode of Appendix D: Random Generation of Creatures from the Lower Planes from the original Dungeon Masters Guide, or the procedures in Gardens of Ynn (automated version), or my apocalypse generator. Telecanter’s “Generating” blog tag provides many more examples.

Randomness in the generation of player characters can also be about providing inspiration. There may be an aspect of impartiality to rolling for, say, ability scores, where there is at least a superficial sense that players may want one outcome more than another (though to be honest, having good or bad ability scores makes little difference in the kind of games I like to run). However, determining other parts of characters randomly—such as class or appearance—is less understandable as maintaining a fair playing field and seems more about facilitating creativity by expanding potentiality that might remain otherwise unexplored by players. While less common, I have also observed non-referee players turning to the dice as oracles occasionally at the moment of decision during play, such as rolling to determine a character’s motivation rather than deciding based on character personality as established or situational imperatives.

In terms of dramatic structure, dice can contribute to exposition and rising action, as well as falling action and denouement.

In terms of complexity, dice can expand the set of possible situations as well as contracting a set of possible outcomes into a consensually established single fictional outcome.

Breathing in, breathing out.

Adventurers are the Measure

φησὶ γάρ που ‘πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ ἄνθρωπον εἶναι, ‘τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστι, τῶν δὲ μὴ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.’ —Plato, Theaetetus

When designing a scenario or adventure, writers and referees often create allies and antagonists, by which I mean entities that the designer intends to have some degree of predetermined disposition toward player characters.

When I created my initial materials for Vaults of Pahvelorn, I explicitly attempted to avoid this tendency. I tried to create factions, monsters, and personages with particular motivations, rather than antagonists, and let players decide which would became enemies during play.

This was a game of D&D, so I was expecting adventurers to engage in conflict with at least some of these imagined creatures, but I wanted to avoid predetermining sympathies. Superficially, this may seem like some form of moral relativism. However, I also tried to retain my judgment of particular motivations. Some groups of non-player characters were wicked, or greedy, or ruthless, or principled.

I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?

I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.

This approach led to, from my perspective, particularly engaging play outcomes. Due to a potential flood of undead released from the module Deathfrost Doom, one of several modules I inserted into Pahvelorn’s wilderness, a tyrannical, inscrutable necromancer king became a particularly valuable ally, and also key for the strategy players chose to thwart an invasion of borg-like demons. Earlier in the campaign, players ended up taking the side of a resurgent snake cult operating clandestinely beneath the scenes of the starting town against a number of hermit magicians engaged in variously curious and unwholesome activities.

In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.

Σωκράτης: οὐκοῦν οὕτω πως λέγει, ὡς οἷα μὲν ἕκαστα ἐμοὶ φαίνεται τοιαῦτα μὲν ἔστιν ἐμοί, οἷα δὲ σοί, τοιαῦτα δὲ αὖ σοί: ἄνθρωπος δὲ σύ τε κἀγώ

More generally, I think this stance toward refereeing exposes a general affordance of roleplaying games which can be easy to overlook: Any potent inimical force can become a tool. It is this realization which makes balancing scenario threats limiting; balancing threats deprives players of potentially the most potent implements. Adventurers can lure enemies into a devious trap as well as falling into the trap themselves.

Theater of Shared Working Memory

Figure from Baars & Franklin (2003): How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends in Cognitive Science.

Players in a tabletop roleplaying game themselves constitute some of the hardware that makes up the game. This is a substantial part of what distinguishes tabletop roleplaying from other mediums and activities. It seems to me that designers and players too rarely consider directly the constraints or affordances of these human details, despite the centrality of human capabilities to the activity. Consider theater of the mind, where players collectively maintain the details of an immediate fictional situation through conversation. Collectively maintaining a dynamic situation is complex. People have limited thinking powers, so theater of the mind constrains the complexity of potential fictional situations. In terms of benefits, conversationally maintaining a collectively shared fictional reality allows imaginative flexibility, compared to more concrete tactical representations, so theater of the mind affords continuous creative reinterpretation.

The entire theater of the mind needs to fit in the working memories of current players. This is a small workspace. Experimentally, just rehearsing a phone number can effectively induce cognitive load. Even assuming some division of labor between players, such as player one tracking lava locations and player two tracking the anger expressed by goblins, the amount of information available is highly constrained. Further, in practice, such division of labor is mostly impractical, due to the nature of the task, which is to collectively keep as much detail alive continually for as many players as possible. This task is orders of magnitude more complex than, say, watching a Peter Jackson action scene—and there is a lot of chaos in a Peter Jackson action scene.

Unlike competitive games that involve shared imagination, such as chess, the success of the endeavor is collective. One player, or a subset of players, can take on more responsibility for coordinating communication and resolving ambiguity. Traditionally, this will be the referee/dungeon master. However, the activity itself, the actual unfolding of play, lives or dies only as it persists richly in the experience of all participating players. In this respect, roleplaying ability involves facilitating collective shared experience—this goes for players just as much as referees—rather than procedural knowledge extracted from rulebooks. Success remains collective at the level of maintaining shared fictional understanding even if the game has competitive elements, such as constructing the most effective character build or keeping your character alive the longest. Unlike games of physical sport that similarly rely on shared abilities to successfully realize the performed activity, most roleplaying game designers and players seem unaware of how their own abilities and limitations shape and constrain the experienced game.

Due to these constraints and affordances, hybrid practices partway between the extremes of purely conversational theater of the mind and highly structured battle grid seem to offer the greatest potential. Building too much structure out explicitly risks constraining imagination. However, expecting everyone to be able to track everything in their head is unrealistic, and is probably part of the reason why play sometimes devolves into sequences of rule following activity with low player involvement and minimal imaginative texture. Anyone with a modicum of roleplaying experience can probably recall examples of play degrading in this way. Rather than thinking about rules and techniques as methods to attain a desired distribution of outcomes—for example, the dungeon turn in B/X D&D or the 2d6 +stat roll in Apocalypse engine games—or ways to ensure particular kinds of mechanical progressions—such as XP incentive systems in D&D of any edition or baking genre into procedures for narrative games—perhaps it is worth thinking about the purpose of systems or techniques as keeping the game alive in the minds of players, where it actually exists.

This post has been brought to you by pages 10 and 11 of Silent Titans—which has useful thoughts about evoking memorable environments and situations from the perspective of the referee—and Scrap’s post about moving beyond fictional positioning as an abstract ideal.

Signposts and x-cards

Signpost: “Prepare To Die” (source)

People have developed a lot of systems to manage conflict, such as laws and courts. It is good that people can appeal to courts and other bureaucracies. Society would probably work poorly without that backstop. Explicit conflict management systems have some rather large downsides, however. “I am so happy this is going to court!”—said pretty much nobody ever.

The x-card is like a (mini) bureaucracy, designed to handle conflict that may be invisible initially to some participants. The x-card functions reasonably well as a tool (and works best if everyone is on board), but can suffocate play if allowed to metastasize. It is unsurprising to me that interaction with a club bureaucracy prompted this post by Emmy.

Most interaction between people occurs based on norms, including conflict management. The naive approach to managing conflict using norms in tabletop roleplaying games is the almost content-free “don’t be a dick” (almost content-free because it defers the work of creating shared understanding). For managing conflict between players, my opinion is that techniques such as writing play agendas and setting content expectations have greater promise and fewer of the downsides inherent in less-flexible procedural approaches (such as the x-card).

It might be useful to people that care about such things to come up with a catalog of approaches to managing conflict in games between players using norms. What techniques exist beyond written play agendas and signposting potential content?

(The proximate cause of this post was Scrap’s discussion here, soon to be lost.)