Posts tagged RPG Theory

RPG Theory Concept: Posture


A few weeks ago I was trying to teach my niece and nephew how to play ping pong. For anyone unfamiliar with the game, you use little rubber-covered wooden paddles, a bouncy ball, and a table with a net in the middle, and you get a point if you successfully hit the ball over the net with the appropriate number of bounces (once on each side for the first hit in the round, only one time on your opponent’s side thereafter) and your opponent is unable to do the same back to you. As is natural while learning a new game they were very interested in figuring out how well they were doing, which they attempted to ascertain by asking “did I get a point for that?” a lot. I told them not to worry so much about whether they were getting points, but to just focus on their technique and getting the ball over the net with the appropriate number of bounces. I did this because I couldn’t remember at the time whether there was some interaction between winning points and who served in a round, but more importantly because the “and your opponent can’t return it” part is such a huge factor in whether you score that it takes the focus of what you are doing, which is only realistic to focus on once you have solid enough fundamentals that you have a decent amount of control. If they wanted to be truly competitive they’d eventually need to learn how to take their opponent’s capabilities into account (e.g. I have decent accuracy with my backhand but my forehand is terrible, so trying to get the ball to a place where I have to use my forehand to hit the ball is a good way to get a point against me), but for casual play and practicing basic skills they should focus on what they were doing and how that was interacting with the ball and the table. This casual interaction was enjoyable for all of us, especially since I’m not that great a player myself, but if I was more skilled and was looking at the game very competitively their capabilities would have loomed large: either I’d be getting hollow victories by beating opponents who couldn’t play or I’d be patronizingly letting them win. It occurred to me that how much attention we’re paying to our assessments of other participants has a big impact on the feel of a game, and I think it relates to an important concept for RPG design.


The term I’m picking to talk about this is Posture. Posture is about where and how participants stand with respect to a game (where I’m using “stand” metaphorically). The thing that most strongly controls this posture is what we’re paying attention to or what we care about on a moment-to-moment basis. If I have a competitive posture in ping pong I care about winning and I need to pay attention to the capabilities of my opponent in addition to the bouncy-ball-physics element of the game. RPG mechanics can lead us to focus on things in ways that affect our Posture. For example, both Fate and Mouse Guard have a mechanic where the GM sets a “target number” that players must “roll against” to see if they succeed or fail at a task, but there are big differences between them. In Fate, the GMing instructions tell you to set the target numbers relative to a character’s skill so that you can orchestrate the experience of play: if you want the player to have a chance to “showcase their character’s awesomeness” you give them a low difficulty number, if you think that have “too many” points of a spendable resource you give them a high difficulty number so they’re likely to spend them to succeed. By contrast, in Mouse Guard the GM compares the fictional situation as-described against a series of factors in the rules for each skill: finding water in the wilderness is always the same difficulty, no matter whether the game been tense or leisurely, or whether the player is excited or reluctant. Fate wants the GM to focus on their moment-by-moment assessment of the player: what target number should I give them to provide the psychological jolt I think they need to get the best experience? Mouse Guard wants the GM to focus on filtering the fictional situation through the game procedures, presuming that faithfully engaging the process will produce the desired fun. Since the games put you in different postures for making this superficially-similar decision there is a difference in the subjective experience of play. And, since the people are a vital component of an RPG-in-operation, giving them different subjective experiences also impacts their behavior, which makes the games different in play.


Getting participants into the proper posture can have a big impact on RPG play. The GMing rules in Apocalypse World, for example, are largely about getting the GM into a posture so that they can comfortably make the decisions they need to make in that game. (There’s also a rule about player posture: “play your character like they’re a real person”, but it’s less conspicuous and frequently ignored). A game like Primetime Adventures that’s built around character-conflict tends to need players to lean in aggressively and can flounder if players adopt a more passive don’t-rock-the-boat posture. In a sandbox-y “dynamic world” game the GM might be flummoxed if the players adopt an accommodating “we’ll do what we think you want us to do, because we want to experience the story you planned” posture. Players bringing goals and ideas from other games can often give them an incompatible posture for a game: if a game expects you to be a self-directed goal-seeker but you’re playing with a performative improv-actor “I’m trying to entertain everyone else” posture the game may break down.

While I’m saying that I think Posture is an important concept, I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s simple or one-dimensional. In general, the posture players take has a huge impact on which directions they can experience tension or pressure without suffering excessive strain, which means that properly orienting the players’ posture is an important part of game design. It seems to me that in the RPG design space we’re just beginning to learn how to do this effectively, so I believe it’s a fruitful area for further thought and exploration.

In RPGs, “the fiction” is a convenient fiction


Let’s imagine a chess game. Two players who both know the rules sit on either side of a board with the appropriate pieces on it. To play, they’ll use their knowledge of how the pieces move, their mutual knowledge of the rules and victory conditions, the current position of each of the pieces on the board, and a mutually remembered bit of information about whose turn it is to make the next move. Obviously there are a few things that could mess this game up. A freak windstorm, for example, could blow all the pieces off the board. Or maybe a loud noise will distract the players for a moment and by the time they’re ready to return to the game their memory of whose turn it is won’t match because one of them (which one!?) got confused during the interruption. Or maybe one of them will do something that uses one of the more exotic rules, like en passant, and they’ll discover that their mutual understanding of the rules of chess isn’t as mutual as they initially thought.

Now let’s imagine that one of these chess players goes on an expedition to Antarctica but still wants to play chess with his cold-averse friend. They still can! What they decide to do is set up two different chess boards, one in Antarctica and one back home, and communicate their moves back and forth through whatever form of long-distance communication they can. When Antarctica-guy physically picks up a pawn on his chessboard and moves it to a different space he just tells his friend which pawn he moved where. The at-home friend picks up the corresponding pawn on his chessboard and moves it to the corresponding place to represent his friend’s move. All the rest of the stuff is the same: the important thing about chess isn’t that there’s a single physical board between the players, it’s that there’s an agreed-upon representation of the current game-state between the players. Having a single physical board certainly makes that easier and more convenient, but the important thing about the game isn’t how it’s physically implemented, it’s how it looks to the players. Each of the players can look at “the” chessboard and make their moves based on the current game-state. It doesn’t matter if “the” chessboard is a convenient fiction for two different physical chessboards that are being kept in synch by an extra process that isn’t normally necessary.

But what if these friends realize that they don’t really like chess that much and want to play something a little more action-oriented? They decide to switch to a first-person-shooter video game played over the net. Conceptually this isn’t too different from the long-distance chess game, but there are a few details that contribute some nuance. One important difference between chess and an FPS is that the turn-based nature of chess provides an easy interface-point for long-latency communications. If it takes much longer for one player’s move to get communicated it just looks to the other player like a really long turn. Since FPSs need to maintain a smooth, continuous-action flow of play they need to have the effect of the moves represented immediately. When the Antarctic player presses his “shoot” button he’d better see his character start shooting right now! The two computers are both running instances of the game, but the other guy’s doesn’t realize the first started shooting until a message dispatched over the network gets to his computer. But maybe at the same time that the Antarctica guy decided to shoot his gun, his target pressed his “run” button and started moving. In Antarctica, the player thinks he’s shooting (right now!) at a stationary target, but at his friend’s house he thinks he’s moving (right now!) and not being shot at. From the Antarctica perspective the shot should hit (assuming the aim is good) and the target should be wounded. From the other perspective he shouldn’t be wounded at all: nobody was shooting, and even if they were his character wasn’t at the place that the bullets would hit! The two simulations aren’t perfectly consistent. But they don’t have to be! As long as they’re close enough, the players won’t notice. As a human player, the warm guy doesn’t know with perfect certainty where the Antarctica shot was aimed, so if the game has an under-the-hood mechanism that gives “hit detection” precedence to the shooter’s POV then the Antarctica computer can tell the other one not only that a shot was fired but that it hit. The at-home computer can play its “gunshot” sound effect, display the “shooting” animation for the other character, reduces the hit points of the target, and most of the time it will seem perfectly normal to the at-home player that the other character shot and hit him at his current location. The important thing to notice is that there doesn’t need to be a single authoritative game-state in a single place in order for both players to feel like they’re playing the same game with the same state. As long as it looks close enough they won’t realize that their two computers are not exactly on the same page at every instant.

As players they maintain the convenient fiction that they are in the same world because the “game” involves making decisions as if you were, just like it makes more sense to interpret what they see on their screens as a window into a 3D world rather than a bunch of pixels on a flat display. Just like it’s not useful when playing long-distance chess for them to dwell on the fact that they don’t have a single physical board between them, it’s not useful for them to dwell on the potential artifacts of network gaming (unless the distortions become so extreme that they overwhelm the suspension of disbelief and they have to give up because there’s “too much lag” over their network). By buying into the illusion of consistency between the somewhat-independent computers they can play this type of game together.

Now let’s imagine that the adventurous friend returns from Antarctica and the two of them get together to play another kind of game they enjoy, a tabletop RPG. Here they also need to maintain a sufficiently-synchronized game-state in order to play. To do so, they buy into the convenient illusion that there’s a single “fiction” or “Shared Imagined Space” between them. They probably have some concrete common physical touchstones like dice or character sheets as part of the game, but a big part of play involves their brains independently keeping track of the current game-state of imaginary people doing imaginary things, and they send messages back and forth to keep each other more-or-less in-synch (using high-tech “talking” technology). Since their brains aren’t as simple as chessboards they can’t rely on being perfectly in-synch at all times, so their game needs to be constructed in a way that encourages and eases synchronization on important points. For example, if their game has a mechanic which gives a “high ground” advantage then the players will be primed to pay special attention to character altitudes relative to each other in “the” imaginary world. Maybe their mental picture of the characters won’t agree on points like whether or not they have mustaches, but they are likely to agree on who is higher than who if they both believe that is important to the game.

Being sufficiently synchronized to game is the foundation for a functioning RPG (and the astute reader will notice how weaselly a word “sufficiently” is). Many RPG techniques and design elements serve to maintain that synchronization. For example, the “fictional trigger” in an Apocalypse World move can serve like the snap-to-grid functionality of a computer painting program to snap the “fuzzy” mental images of the different players around easily-communicated concrete templates. If my character seems close to “Going Aggro” on somebody I am pulled toward embodying that in my roleplaying because I know that the other players are watching for whether characters are Going Aggro and will understand what I’m thinking better and be more easily synchronized to what I’m imagining when they can use that concrete and mutually-understood pattern as a touchstone for how the scene should be playing out in their imaginations. Agreeing with the other players that the “Go Aggro” move should be invoked and starting the corresponding mechanical procedure gives us an explicit way to acknowledge synch-points without drawing unpleasant attention to our efforts to keep synchronized.


The idea-space in human brains is gameable


I’m not an expert on Topology, but one of the ways I think about the games I like is that they make use of the idea-space inside the human brain as a gameable space. Now, by that I don’t mean that you can imagine places that aren’t real and think up activities people might engage in in places like that. What I mean is that the way we think actually provides “dimensions” along which you can design meaningful interactions in a game. From my reading of what contemporary psychology and cognitive science tell us, we’re capable of perceiving the appropriateness or congruence of matches between ideas. You know the confident “that feels right!” feeling you get when you figure out what the answer to a riddle must be, or when you come up with the perfectly apt humorous remark? Or the “that’s not right” feeling you get when Hollywood miscasts a part in a movie adaptation of a story you know? That’s what it subjectively feels like to have different levels of connection between ideas, which is apparently how the intuitive side of our cognition works. Even though we don’t have scientific units for it, we can get a feel for how “librarian-y” someone is by intuitively comparing them against the idea of “librarian” we have in our brains. We can even get a feel for how weaselly someone is.

This is the entire basis of the game Apples to Apples. In it, one player puts an “adjective” card on the table (for example, “Hot and Sticky”). Then all the other players consult their hand of “noun” cards and put forward the one they think the initial player will select as the “best match” (for example, “The Equator”, “Cinnamon Buns”, “The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue”). Some people have a hard time grasping that there is no single way that people are required to make that “best match” comparison. It’s not always “the most similar” or “the most opposite”. Sometimes it’s the ill-defined “funniest”, but even inveterate jokesters will sometimes feel compelled to pick a straightforward match if it’s dead-on. The way it works is that the player compares the “adjective” they put forward to the various options and picks the one that feels like the “best match”. We don’t need to put a name to a comparison to feel how strong it is. Strictly speaking Apples to Apples tends to be about emphasizing the minor variations between people rather than the commonality because it asks the player to pick a “best” match on each round (thus the way to win, if you care about that, is to “play the player” and put forward cards with matches that are likely to resonate especially strongly), but it illustrates the point that there are dimensions of play that games can lean beyond simple factors like tallest/short, fast/slow, near/far, big/small, etc. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the gameplay in Apples to Apples (my sense of humor tends to run a little more cerebral and surrealistic than average so my joke answers nearly always lose out to the more obvious jokes) but since it uses this abstraction as the central element of play it’s a useful example.

While they don’t always foreground it the way Apples to Apples does, Roleplaying games make heavy use of this concept to inform and constrain play. The old-school “puzzle solving realism” style of play, for example, leans heavily on the ability of humans to mutually imagine “that’s what would happen!” to explore the consequences of poking things with ten-foot poles or pouring acid on them. The Burning Wheel family of games orients players to judge characters by looking through the lens of written character Beliefs, rewarding players for acting along (or dramatically against) the line of those Beliefs. Games with oracle mechanics like Ganakagok use abstract concepts to guide play (“figure out the most ‘Woman of Storms’ way to conclude this scene”). Even something as fuzzy as “what’s the most dramatically appropriate (or dramatically ironic) thing?” or the dreaded “what’s best for The Story?” can be used in a game context. Stories and storytelling have a huge role in human culture and the way that human minds work, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we have a lot of intuitions related to stories and imagination. These intuitions can be built into the “space” of play in these games in the same way that features of human locomotion are as important dimension of play in sports as ball-physics and field geometry.


Interpretation and rules interact in many games, not just RPGs


When analyzing systems that operate on information it’s often valuable to consider how that information matters to the control flow of the system, and games definitely fall into this category of system. One big distinction between types of information is discrete vs. continuous, or digital vs. analog. A continuous “variable” can be any value within a range: think of something like temperature, distance, or time. A discrete variable can only be in one of several mutually exclusive states: on/off, in-bounds/out-of-bounds, too-big/too-small/just-right, etc. Continuous variables are really useful because that’s how almost everything in the actual world we live in works. Discrete variables are really useful because it’s possible to build simple procedures around them: if A do X, but if B do Y.

As a simple but nontrivial example think of a thermostat. It has three continuous inputs: the current temperature, the low set-point and the high set-point. The thermostat is in charge of the heater and knows and controls whether it’s currently on or off. Internally it doesn’t really do anything with the temperature directly, it uses a comparison to create a discrete variable from two of it’s continuous ones: “is it currently hotter than the high set-point?” and “is it currently colder than the low set-point?”. Operating on these discrete concepts lets it make a decision that’s simple enough for it to apply to the binary world of “should the heater be burning right now?”: if it’s hotter than the high set-point and the heater is on, turn it off, but if it’s colder than the low set-point and the heater is off, turn it on.

Lots of games have things like this, too. In soccer, the ball is somewhere in the three-dimensional space where the game is being played, and this feeds into discrete categorical concepts like “is the ball currently in-bounds?” that are used by the game procedures to control the flow of play. In baseball, whether a pitch counts as a “ball” or “strike” corresponds to where it travels through the strike-zone of the batter. In the UFC mixed-martial-arts organization some moves are legal and others, such as punches to the back of the opponent’s head, are illegal. When you look at these distinctions from the digital side of the analog/digital divide there are obvious and categorical differences between them: the difference between an in-bounds ball and an out-of-bounds ball are night and day! From the analog side it can be fuzzier: what if the ball is right on the edge of the line? What about a pitch that’s just grazing the edge of the strike-zone? Heads are kind of round, so the distinction between side and back is not always obvious, right?

In games, translating from the continuous/analog domain to the discrete/digital domain of the rules and procedures of the game usually involves human interpretation or judgment. Oftentimes games will give one participant, such as a referee, a special privilege of having authoritative judgments or interpretations, but even in games like that all of the participants need to understand how those interpretations and judgments will be made and make their own. Soccer players don’t want to play on a field where the lines are invisible to everybody but the refs, they need to be able to predict the rules-consequences of their interactions with the ball in order to play. They may not be able to exactly predict how the ref will make the call in edge-cases, but they can reasonably expect that their own interpretation will be similar to the “official” interpretation, so they can use their own interpretation as a good proxy for evaluating what kind of move they want to make in the game. (And plenty of casual sports are played without an officially designated ref, the players just use some other process, sometimes ad hoc, to resolve edge-cases if there’s no widespread consensus interpretation). Similarly, the intention of the “no strikes to the back of the head” rule in the UFC isn’t to give penalty points to inaccurate punchers but to discourage fighters from engaging in behavior that the UFC has decided is too dangerous: the ref makes the authoritative call in the octagon, but the most important impact of the rule is on the fighter when he decides whether or not to throw a punch based on where he thinks his opponent’s head will be when the punch lands.

Many RPG rules operate on things happening in the analog world of “the fiction” so they have lots of these interpretation elements cooked into them, so looking at the nuances of these interpretative processes is obviously very important in RPG Theory. But we shouldn’t mistake the importance of this concept to RPGs for the idea that interpreting or translating from continuous to discrete concepts is something unique to RPGs. The interplay between the interpretations and judgments of different participants in an RPG is an interesting and important topic if you’re trying to understand RPGs. The interplay between the interpretations and judgments of different participants in a pitcher/batter interaction is an interesting and important topic if you’re trying to understand that part of a baseball game.

(Also, I’ve tried to use simple examples in this blog post in order to write with clarity, not to deny the existence of subtlety. My claim here is that both “is that really Go Aggro?” and “is the ball really in-bounds?” are both examples of interpretation that feed into rules. It can be easy to get distracted by the simple one-dimensionality of the in-bounds/out-of-bounds thing because we can easily imagine constructing a simple mechanical or electronic device that we could rely on for official in-bounds/out-of-bounds rulings while the only thing currently known that can do the Go Aggro thing is a human brain. That’s an important difference worth thinking and talking about! But it’s also worth realizing that “how hard would it be to build a robot referee?” is a different question from “how are the players interacting with this game?”.)


RPG Theory: Is Real vs. Fictional the most important distinction?


This will probably seem silly, but let’s compare two hypothetical games, game R and game F:

Game R is a guessing game where one player picks a real thing they can see and another player asks a series of up to twenty yes-or-no questions in an effort to guess what thing the first player picked. In game R, when the guesser asks a question the answerer uses their senses on the physical thing they picked, processes that information via the mental act of interpretation and judgment to evaluate what the answer is, and then says that answer.

Game F is a guessing game where one player imagines a kind of thing that exists in the world and another player asks a series of up to twenty yes-or-no questions in an effort to guess what thing the first player imagined. In game F, when the guesser asks a question the answerer takes the information stored in their imagination, processes that information via the mental act of interpretation and judgment to evaluate what the answer is, and then says that answer.

In both games, it’s possible to give bad answers if the answerer is bad at mentally comparing things. If they have an unrealistic estimate of the size of breadboxes, maybe they’ll give an answer to the question “is it bigger than a breadbox?” that unintentionally misleads the guesser.

In game F, it’s possible to cheat! Maybe the answerer will claim to imagine an object but then answer the guesser’s questions arbitrarily and then imagine their thing to retroactively conform to their answers. Maybe they’ll even imagine something and then change the thing they’re imagining to conform with the answer they want to give rather than answer the question based on the thing they’ve been consistently imagining.

In game R, it’s also possible to cheat! Maybe the answerer will claim to pick a real object but then answer the guesser’s questions arbitrarily and then pick their real thing to retroactively conform to their answers. Maybe they’ll even pick something and then change the thing they’ve picked to conform with the answer they want to give rather than answer the question based on the thing they’ve consistently been using as a basis.

Both games expect that the answering player will use a reliable, consistent, predictable, understandable process when evaluating the answers to the questions. If the answering player cheats and uses a different method to answer the questions then the game doesn’t work. Since the choice of possible target objects in game R is limited to things that the answerer can see, their ability to cheat in this way is more tightly constrained than the answerer in game F. Solving a highly constrained problem frequently takes more effort than solving a loosely constrained problem, so we can assume that it generally takes more effort to cheat in game R than in game F. There is natural variation among humans, and some may perform a cost/benefit analysis and be more likely to cheat in low-effort-cheating situations. In game R it is extremely unlikely for the real object to spontaneously transform itself mid-game into a different real object. In game F, the likelihood of the imagined object transforming into a different imagined object is based on the likelihood that the answerer will cheat.

In game F, it’s possible for the answerer to give bad answers because they’re bad at imagining things. Maybe they think elephants are smaller than they really are, so they end up giving answers that are accurate with respect to their small imagined elephant but are inaccurate with respect to real elephants, which would unintentionally mislead the guesser. In game R, it’s possible for the answerer to give bad answers because they’re bad at perceiving things. Maybe they misjudge the distance to the object and believe that the object is smaller than it really is due to the size-distorting effects of perspective. It’s probably reasonable to guess that “bad imagination” problems are more likely among humans than “bad perception” problems.

Is it valuable to say that game R and game F are categorically different games, where game F is a game with fiction and game R is a game with real stuff? For example, the increased likelihood of cheating in game F and the higher odds of incorrect imagination may mean there are important “reliability” differences between the games. Or are game R and game F largely similar, and the real-vs-fictional divide between them is a nuance rather than a meaningful distinction? When discussing games, sometimes that real-vs-fictional distinction can be central and important, and sometimes it’s a useful proxy for discussing consequences of the distinction, but it can also be an obscuring distraction in some contexts (e.g. the most interesting distinctions between RPGs and chess is not always that chess uses real-world playing pieces).

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.


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