A New Philosophy on My Goals for Roleplaying

September 29, 2007

How often do people say things like this?

“Roleplaying should be fun.”
“Remember that the point is to have fun.”
“If it’s not fun, don’t play.”
“We’re all here to have fun.”
“Can we stop analyzing everything, and just have fun?”

Quite a bit, in my experience. I always bought it without questioning. Shame on me, I should know better than that by now…

In a forum thread about the question of valuing game experiences that aren’t fun, I finally realized that the question originated in the opposition between “fun” and “painful.” As long as fun is my goal, I can’t find value in games that are painful, because these things are opposites. Fun is not pain, and vice versa. But I found myself conflicted, because I think there is value in those sorts of experiences. There is simply no other way to explore that ground without screwing up my real life badly. So…fun can’t be where the value comes from. And if that’s the case, then fun isn’t really my goal, despite what others may tell me. So what is it, at the deepest level, that unites experiences with personal, subjective value?

Answering that question led directly to my new philosophy of roleplaying:

“Roleplaying should be fulfilling.”

Technology for Making Awesome

September 26, 2007

Rob Donoghue’s posts (part 1, part 2) on making awesome are insightful yet highly practical.  On the whole, very generically applicable technology for creating fun stories.

A new place for thought in theory ;)

September 25, 2007

After some discussion over on KF about whether it was an appropriate place for discussing theory, I’ve set up a new forum for talking about theory.  I suspect a decent portion of my thought will germinate over there before finding it’s way here.


September 17, 2007

I haven’t been able to drum up a concrete definition of flags, but the gist is that flags tell you what a player is interested in encountering during a game.  They are often (always?) tied to characters.

In this thread over on SG, a number of types of flags are suggested.  I liked these three.

  • Fixed: This aspect of the character is not intended to change.  The player isn’t interested in a conflict about this character aspect.
  • Gradual: This aspect can change, but is not intended to change right away.  It can be introduced, but the player prefers that it is not forced.
  • Sudden: This aspect can change, and is intended to be a focus for conflict at some point.  The player doesn’t mind if this is brought into the story rapidly.

I’d suggest a fourth.

  • Urgent: This aspect is a flashpoint for change, and is intended to be an immediate focus for conflict.  The player wants this brought into the story immediately or as soon as possible.

This bleeds over into the realm of technology when I suggest that a method of character creation that encouraged players to categorize their background information into these bins would be very informative for a GM, and hopefully help them introduce the kinds of conflicts that the players are looking for.

Another Kind of Reward Mismatch

September 14, 2007

In some systems, the characters are rewarded for things the players do.  Take Exalted, for example.  At the end of each session, the GM is instructed to award around 4 XP to everyone.  This encourages attendance, but has nothing to do with character actions.  Stunts in Exalted are another pretty good example.  Bonus dice are awarded for flashy descriptions of combat actions.  The player did the describing, the character gets the reward.

My conjecture comes in two parts.  First, character advancement should be a reward for actions taken by the characters. Second, Players can be rewarded with metagame currencies, such as scene framing powers and narrational authority.  So, character actions like accomplishing character goals or reaching the end of a scenario or situation, as well as taking action to improve one’s skills, should be rewarded with the currency of character advancement or another in-game reward.  Desirable player actions, such as attending sessions, initiating roleplays, and so on, should be rewarded with a currency that allows them to take further player actions to improve the game.

As somewhat of an example, let me throw one bit of technology out there, based on a situation I’ve seen.  In one game I played, being involved in roleplaying scenes was rewarded with experience.  A reasonable question to ask is “Is this the behavior we want to reward?”  I would have to say no, since players may be passively involved in roleplays with the group or NPCs without adding much to the game.  To put a finer point on it, the behavior I think is more appropriate to reward here is “initiating roleplaying scenes,” because doing so promotes involvement in the game and pushes the story forward.

One method for doing that would be to award Narration Points.  An NP allows the player to specify some background action that’s going on in the vicinity of the characters.  If they’re in a city, they might decide that a festival is going on.  If the campaign focuses on an ongoing war between two nations, they might decide that an important battle has been won or lost.  These sorts of background events aren’t intended to have an immediate impact on the story, but they certainly could, since they provide more details to work with.

This is only one possible reward, and there may be more appropriate rewards for this sort of action.  This was the first that came to mind for me.

Making Choice Theory Mesh With Views/Controls/Constraints

September 14, 2007

So I’ve talking to Mendel Schmiedekamp about whether or not and how notions of choice and action can augment or benefit from his concepts of views, controls, and constraints (more info, [1], [2].)  I’m at the point now where I feel like I have reasonable notion of how such a theoretical framework might be constructed, but I’m not sure the two of us are quite on the same page.  I’m going to record how I’m thinking about it now here, and leave it subject to change later if something new pops up.  Nonetheless, I hope this explanation of my thinking will be useful as it stands.

Briefly, content is the actual occurrences of play.  Player A says X, Player B rolls some dice, the GM scratches his nose.  A view is a description of what content a player is paying attention to.  Controls are the internal forces that lead a player to take particular actions, such as change views, or contribute to the content in certain ways.  So, content is external to the player, and consists of observable phenomena.  Views and controls are internal to the player (which makes them partially observable, insofar as they are self-reportable.)

In a discussion of what the Fundamental Act of roleplaying is, I suggested “choice.”  (This is in contrast to two other options: “the process by which we agree on what happens in the fiction” and “socializing.”  It’s not really crucial to the subsequent theory whether or not choice is the most fundamental.)  Thinking down the choice path lead to these two definitions:

 Choice – The result of the individual, internal process of reducing a potentially infinite field of possibilities to a single possibility
Action – Making a chosen possibility into an actuality

So, can we use these ideas together to describe the process by which players contribute to a game?  I think we can.  Let’s start with content.  A player perceives content through their view, which reduces the sum total of contributions to the game down to those that a player is paying attention to.  This perceived information activates controls, which serve to eliminate possible actions based on a player’s goals for the situation.  Once the player settles on one possibility, they take action, contributing back to the content of the game.  Patterns will arise in the content, which Mendel calls constraints.  (It’s important to note that you can’t really talk about constraints in general, it’s necessary to discuss an actual instance of play.)

 So, what does all this let us do?

  • Talk about play on the level of a single player.
  • Talk about what kinds of information will be satisfying to perceive through a view (Mendel’s theory is information of intermediate complexity, which seems intuitively reasonable.)
  • Talk about what sorts of choices are available to a player.
  • Talk about what sorts of choices are satisfying to a player.
  • Talk about factors involved in individual decision making (i.e. controls.)

I think there’s more territory than that to explore, if, for example, we can connect this to goals, sockets, and payoffs.  It seems plausible that such a connection can be made, and I’m toying around with it a bit.

Building a Party That Works

September 14, 2007

It’s so refreshing to find out that other people have already done all the work I thought I might need to do to build a process for avoiding the common pitfalls of character creation.