But what do the rules have to say about the story?

It might not be clear to some readers of my series on defining story games (in three parts!) just how it is that the rules of a game, of all things, are supposed to interact with an ongoing fiction. I mean, what do you do? Do you just flip a coin and say, “heads, my guy beats your guy, and tails, your guy beats my guy”? And that doesn’t even answer anything, because when do you do that, and under what circumstances? Finally, just: what’s the point of using this rule, on this story, when we could just freely make stuff up instead?

Starting with the first question: every game does it differently, that’s part of the point of having different ones. And while not all games are structured in a way that makes this plain, you could think of a story game’s rules as a set of inputs and outputs – and indeed we already have, in our loop diagrams. In the fat-green-loop variant of the diagram, input comes from the fiction-y bits, into the rules, and the rules put some specific addition or restriction back out into the fiction. (This is leaving aside a certain level of rules, implicit for long-time roleplayers, that govern the way we make stuff up: players say what their characters do, one player per character in most games, et cetera. Those rules and other implicit rules are always on. When I talk about made-up stuff and rules being separate, assume for now that I mean the diegetic content of the game versus explicit, procedural mechanical interactions.)

Helpfully for the purpose of giving you an example, a recent design trend has been back towards rules interactions that are brief, focused, and very specific about when to apply them and what goes back into the story. This trend was crystallized neatly by Apocalypse World, a game by Vincent Baker, which puts the bulk of the rule interactions players make into what it calls Moves. Here’s a sample move, from the Gunlugger character’s playbook:

Fuck this shit: name your escape route and roll+hard. On a 10+, sweet, you’re gone. On a 7–9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you, the MC will tell you what. On a miss, you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out.

Now, if your game’s loop is more black than green, you want rules that let made-up stuff change play-by-the-rules in such a way that your experience of play-by-the-rules is enhanced, not diminished. This opens all sorts of questions of balance and fairness that remain challenging for designers to this day. Our primary interest here, though, in case you haven’t noticed, is fat-green-loop games. In mostly-making-stuff-up games, you (predictably) want rules that let play-by-the-rules change made-up stuff in such a way that your experience of made-up stuff is enhanced, not diminished. That’s what the above is an example of. It triggers when the character is in a specific situation (in this case, wanting out of somewhere dangerous), and it complicates that situation in certain known but flexible ways.

However, in making-stuff-up-oriented games we face the challenge that our own process of collaboration, the just-talking-to-each-other part, is in competition with the rules. More rules-oriented games don’t have this problem; when they get more and more rules-y, they just trend towards not being story games anymore. They remain story games because no matter how small the green loop gets, it’s still there; the things you get from it can’t be gotten any other way. In a fat-green-loop game, you can similarly argue that at least one tacit rule will always remain (the one that says “we’re making up a story”), but every rule that actually makes one designed story game different from another could conceivably fall away. To put it Vincent Baker’s way, if a given rule doesn’t get a given group better results for their story than “vigorous creative agreement” does, then there’s no reason for that group to use that rule. Story games have to keep justifying their existence by bringing players things that they didn’t already know they wanted.

The trick to that – that is, the aesthetic value in a given piece of game design – lies in when you decide to make the input, what the rules put back out, and in how it feels to use the rules to make that transformation. All three of those things should support the goal of play – there’s that weaselly phrase again! – to the satisfaction of the designer and the players.

So can we put this together into a nice, concise package? Here’s Baker again, who along with fellow habitual-RPG-theorist Ben Lehman has lately been doing it like this:

  1. A rule is something, spoken or unspoken, that serves to bring about and structure your play.
  2. Good rules encourage players to make interesting changes to the game’s state.
  3. “Interesting” is locally defined by play groups.

This is a bit of a change to the way RPG theory is heading. Some of you may have heard, or read, about a little thing called “GNS,” and its birthplace, a web forum called The Forge. It’s hard to separate the two, perhaps because GNS stands for three different families of “creative agenda” in RPGs that have been “observed to conflict with one another at the table,” and throughout its recently-concluded life, The Forge tended to cause conflict.

For most of the last decade-and-change, GNS – nevermind what it even stands for – has been the nearest thing story games have had to a theory of aesthetics. As it turns out, though, conflict isn’t a great basis for an aesthetic theory: conflict is complicated, divisive, and utterly subject to accumulated historical accident. When you try to make it a part of your answer to “what should rules have to say to the story?” you end up getting an argument about something else most of the time. On top of that, all this theoretical work was being done on web forums, which are notoriously poor at keeping arguments under control.

(It should be said, though, that when the seeds of GNS theory were planted, the fight was kinda necessary. It was 1995 or so, and the state of the roleplaying art was a muddle. There was a new 800-pound gorilla on the block, a game called Vampire: The Masquerade, that had a bell-clear stylistic vision and did the rare trick of actually, for-reals having an effect on the larger culture outside of gaming. It produced, and its progeny continue to produce, a ton of fun play. But… its actual rules-bits did little or nothing to reinforce its style and themes, and it came right out and admitted this, pushing and popularizing the notion that satisfying story-play and the use of rules were mutually exclusive things. To get away with this trick, it had to lend weight to some long-standing fallacies like the socially suspect notion of the gamemaster as master-Svengali-storyteller. All of that was theory that needed to be destroyed for the art to move forward, and GNS helped to destroy a lot of it. So, good. GNS served its purpose, and now we have a different job, that needs different tools.)

The new orientation around “interesting” is a much better foundation. In some ways, it’s a cheat – not coincidentally, the same cheat that we made in our definition of story gaming. It allows the same necessary flexibility in terms. In the name of “interesting,” you can bring in anything that shapes human attention – and if you wanted to fully understand roleplaying, you might have to bring in everything.

But as of now, we have a definition and a basic aesthetic theory. Once you have those, what do you do? You might start by making a few more specific aesthetic sub-theories, such as the one I promised you last time. After that, though, there’s also some of the more structural stuff in the Big Model, the GNS-associated theory that we should be careful not to throw out with the bathwater. So we might talk about that next. And of course, you can go play.

Defining roleplaying, part 3: “impactfully” is too a word

To recap:

  • A story game is a game which explicitly allows for players to make things up about fictional characters and events, allows whatever is made up to have a meaningful impact on the point of play, and isn’t generally intended to produce instances of play for an external audience.
  • A roleplaying game is a story game which hews more or less to the traditions that produced Dungeons and Dragons.

That story-game definition is a wordier restatement of where we left off, “a game which sanctions players to make things up, impactfully with respect to the point of play, about fictional characters and events, usually not for theatrical purposes”; despite being longer I think the new one’s clearer. “Not for theatrical purposes” was read by some as meaning “no speaking in character,” which certainly doesn’t define story gaming; the addition “instances of play” means events of a group of people playing one game one time. (We have to distinguish that from game-as-product, as in “a game of Monopoly” versus “Monopoly is a game.” Story games as products are generally intended to be seen by someone other than their creators!)

So yeah. Miss those funny circle diagrams? Me too. Fortunately, they still have a use, not as much for defining role-playing games as for talking some more about the elephant in the room: “the point of play.”

inverted open loop50/50 open loopopen loop

There we have three roleplaying games, let’s say – that is, three different instances of play, at different tables with different groups. In the one on the right, the players spend most of their time engaging with the gamey bits – the rules – and a little bit of time inserting details that the explicit rules might suggest, but don’t codify. (The black parts of the loop represent explicit rules, and the green parts represent fictive stuff.) These diagrams are really just meant to represent that, the time spent – they aren’t meant to say that every rules interaction (every trip around a feedback loop, that is) contains some made-up stuff in it.
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Comments must die

I’ve been blogging more lately, and getting some response – not here on my own domain, but on the various social networks on which I’ve been posting notices. (That’s Twitter and, to my occasional chagrin, Google+.) Now, it’d be awesome if more people owned and relied upon their own web sites to host content, it’s true. And you can only trust the cloud so far, so I’m definitely going to strive to keep and host my own copies of any really awesome things that come out of discussions.

But I am not bothered by not having local comments on Gibberish. I don’t miss them at all.

Having comments on your domain means turning it into a nightclub that takes considerable management. Not helping matters is the inherent disembodiment of an anonymous, textual medium – imagine if the hecklers in your nightclub were ghosts. The natural inhibitors that come with being physically present aren’t there to moderate people, so the moderating tactics we’re left with are more blunt, therefore more damaging to the remaining human conversation. The worst of both worlds, fighting each other. (And again… lessons here for RPGs, where everyone’s acting in an ideaspace as a fictional self that isn’t limited by the things that happen to brains when people are physically present.)

As Neven Mrgan writes in the afore-linked, some of us just want to write. Others of us just want to pretend we live in a world without comments, and have access to the tools to make that possible by hiding them all. But is that enough? We can buy ourselves distance from each other with technical capital, just like how people with monetary capital can buy houses on far-off estates; but where’s our responsibility to each other in that picture?

Brian Eno said a while back that “a more connected world is a more vulnerable world,” and he predicted that soon our societies would start to shy away from the trend of more and more connection. I think we’re at a moment where we can and must choose – voluntarily, for a goddamn change – to pull back from a social extreme and therefore stay accessible to people who aren’t a certain flavor of social extremist (see also: grognard capture).

As web analyst Paul Ford writes, the central question of the web has become “Why wasn’t I consulted?” And sometimes that’s great. But I have come to believe that other times, this harms the larger culture. I’d like to see an online world that has a wider range of answers to that central question – not just always “oh, my bad, here’s your comments thread.” Would that online world have more elitism in it? Yes, it would. It would have more of all the things that are in the real social world. But it would also remain the online world: it would connect people who otherwise aren’t connected, and thus would retain more anti-elitism than the real world. Not every point on the web needs to be a customer-service desk for that to be true. Every domain should have a customer-service desk, probably, but not everything should be one.

For example, the web page for a New York Times article should not be conferring any kind of status on the comment of just anybody who wanders by. Whatever you think of the NYT’s ideas about its own status, it does need to have those ideas, and use them. That’s what being the Times is. Lots of newspapers, and other publishers per Ford’s piece, feel a bit put upon by web culture because they’ve reified comments rather than seeing them as an instrument that has a necessary but specific use. Someone convinced them it’s not a web site unless a thread of comments is trailing off everything, like drool; they need to snap out of the trance.

Another example is feminist and anti-racist blogs, where a measure of what might look like elitism – shutting out a voice that’s popular – would help protect voices that don’t have power in the world. (That said, I can understand someone whose blog gets them regular death threats via email wanting to provide comments as a kind of pressure valve for the hate.)

Must comments die everywhere? No – I was just trolling you (another often-harmful social fact of the world, just like elitism, that must be managed for the greater good, not abolished). But no matter where or how you put things on the web, I urge you to change your comment policy this year. You don’t have to block all comments (if your blog-host-or-whatever leaves you that as the only option, I encourage you to change hosts), nor even make your policy more restrictive – just try a new form.

Reconsidering the open loop: more on defining role-playing games

I want to expand the definition of “story game” I settled on in our last episode. (For those just joining us, my definition of “story game” underpins a definition of “role-playing game,” one of which has been missing for 35 years and would be culturally advantageo– oh, just go read the post.) I’m rather pleased with the new one; it’s weaselly in all the right ways. Here goes:

  • A story game is a game which sanctions players to make things up, impactfully with respect to the point of play, about fictional characters and events, usually not for theatrical purposes.

Why the change? Well: when Scott McCloud put forth his definition of the medium of comics in Understanding Comics, he went to considerable trouble to, as he put it, “not be so broad as to include anything which is clearly not comics.” It may be that we’re always going to have a lot of trouble doing this with story games, because they’re simply a lot more complex than comics are. In a medium made as much (or more) out of people’s minds and interpretations than out of the artifact that’s been put down on paper, maybe there’s no such thing as “clearly” or “clearly not.” On top of that, the various ways that RPG culture has built fractiousness right in from the beginning have made it even harder to choose where to draw the line. Everyone goes with their own gut, based on their own gaming experience, when choosing what needs to be included in the definition; gamer guts tend to diverge (write your own medieval-combat joke); and taking the sum of people’s guts is as unproductive as it is unfeasible.

That said, my own gut is giving me some trouble with so-called “parlor narration games.” I’ve never been happy with the term (is there any usage left of the word “parlor” that isn’t pejorative?), but it refers to games wherein rules can insert things into made-up stuff, but not so much the other way around. The common belief amongst role-playing theorists is that a game with too many parlor-narration mechanics is not a role-playing game (or a story game, by my definitions). I find myself wondering whether this distinction is productive. It feels a bit like including a piece of historical accident into what’s supposed to be a picture of the essence; like it’s a failure to fully separate form from content.
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