All Games Require Agreement, Not Just RPGs
A problem I sometimes see in “RPG Theory” discussions is that it’s easy to go overboard in believing that features that RPGs have are unique to RPGs. I’m going to blog about some “low level” RPG Theory stuff, pointing out a few RPG Theory ideas that are true not because RPGs are unique but because they’re just like other games.
First, all games require group assent to the system of play. There’s a Lumpley Principle of basketball, too. It says “System (including but not limited to ‘the rules’) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to basketball-relevant events during play.” There’s nothing magical about the ball going through the hoop in basketball. The ball going through the hoop only matters because the group agrees that the ball going through the hoop gives a team points. And points only matter because the group agrees that they’ll use the number of points to determine the winner. And winning only matters because the group agrees that it’s important to determine a winner of the game. It’s agreement all the way down, just like RPGs! But, just because basketball requires agreement “all the way down”, that doesn’t mean the game is a constant committee meeting where everyone decides on an event-by-event basis whether or not to consensus-agree to giving it significance. Just like RPGs, people agree to certain principles, rules, etc., which guide play and decision-making going forward. Much of this agreement happens before play begins by using shorthands like “Let’s play basketball”, where the people saying it assume a common understanding of what it means to play basketball which incorporates a bunch of stuff like the ball/hoop/points thing. That doesn’t mean the assumption of mutual understanding is always valid! Maybe not everybody has the exact same understanding of “basketball”, and they’ll only find out during play that they over-assumed, such as when one player claims to get three points for scoring a basket from a particular position on the court and everybody else says that they hadn’t been playing with the three point rule. Different understandings of “the system” among different participants can lead to breakdowns, just like in RPGs. This is a normal human thing that affects not just all games but all human activities!
Believing that the Lumpley Principle is something unique and special about RPGs can easily result in mistaking “no rules except explicit event-by-event group assent/rejection” as a goal or idealized form of play, especially since there’s a tradition in RPG communities of putting “rules-less freeform roleplaying” on a pedestal as some kind of aspirational form. But the Lumpley Principle isn’t about value judgments of what good games look like, it’s just talking about a feature of all functioning games. Saying that basketball requires group assent isn’t an endorsement of rules-less freeform basketball as an idealized form of play, and the Lumpley Principle isn’t endorsing explicit moment-by-moment negotiations as the way well-designed RPGs should function.