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Role-playing game theory (wikipedia.org)
97 points by BerislavLopac on July 25, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 38 comments

If you're interested in a more detailed survey of rpg theory I highly recommend the recently published "Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach" and specifically the chapter "RPG Theorizing by Designers and Players". For a much broader historical work there's also Playing at the World by Jon Peterson. For something more bite sized (and free) check out http://analoggamestudies.org/

Ladan's raiding research blog, about World of Warcraft raiding phenomenon [1]

[1] http://www.raidingresearch.co.uk/

The "threefold model" just begs an RPG about DMing a tabletop game, where DMs fall into a class system between Game, Drama or Simulation (replacing Warrior, Rogue, and Wizard).

... which begs a trading card game on how to crowdfund a tabletop game about DMing, right?

I place my Kickstarter Bonus card into defense to add a new reward tier to roll d20 to ask my Mom to order pizza for the party, and end my turn.

Somewhat related: Millenium Blades, a board game that simulates the game and metagame of trading card games, had a Kickstarter.

I see all those hypotheses but are those verifiable? Did they result in some solid explanations that allowed useful predictions to be made? Or do they play "my idea is better" game?

(edit: yeah, silently downvote people asking questions... people shouldn't ask things. Or is it some sore I stepped on unknowingly?)

This is a great question!

So Ron Edwards, who came up with the GNS system, realized that the there were lots of games about winning, and lots of games about simulations, but very few games about drama/stories. He published his ideas wide and far on the internet, made some games, and ran a very influential forum, "the forge". Along with a later spin off forum, story-games.com, a new breed of game designers showed up that focused much more on narratives and the dramatic moment.

Some examples of these cult story games are The Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard, FIASCO, Apocalypse World, Mouse Guard, and Dungeon World. These started out fairly hardcore, with but had narrative elements built into the mechanics the game instead of an afterthought. As time went on, and with lots of experimentation, people found out just how the light you could go on the rules and keep the focus on the mechanics that drive the story.

The much praised D&D 5th edition, that renewed the hobby and got kids back into it, brings in many of the elements honed out in the cult fringe of story games.

So yeah, I think at least the GNS theory has had a major effect on the RPG gaming world.


If you want to get a taste of these games, take a look at the Apocalypse World.

Here's an example of a "move", that a player can do to bring the dice into a story:

"DO SOMETHING UNDER FIRE When you do something under fire, or dig in to endure fire, roll+cool. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7–9, you finch, hesitate, or stall: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice. On a miss, be prepared for the worst."

Essentially the rules prioritize putting interesting people in bad situations and seeing them make hard choices. It's the distilled essence of drama.

The player rule book is here: http://apocalypse-world.com/ApocalypseWorldBasicRefbook2ndEd.... I'd recommend going about halfway in first and read the "basic moves", then scroll up to 1/3 of the way in, and read a character's sheet.

Also, incidentally, there's a small group of mainstream RPG fans who get absolutely furious about anything resembling GNS or story games, for no reason I've ever been able to determine.

(But then Ron Edwards infamously said that traditional/D&D-style RPGs literally cause brain damage, so I suppose there's a lot of defensiveness to go around...)

These systems are a bit alien sometimes and really easy to abuse. So if you have munchkin players around the table who like min/maxing, they are to be avoided (or avoid the min/maxing player).

In Burning Wheel for exemple, there is no game balance. The knight will absolutely destroy the village-grown militia man, even if they have the same amount of "xp". Also, the complete swordplay game system takes hours to learn just to emulate a few seconds of fencing. They chose realism over smooth gameplay.

Yeah, Burning Wheel is crazy. Later games dropped that over the top simulation side and went all out for story.

I don't know what their reasons are, but I do have a certain aversion to games that try to force social play in a certain way. E.g. when a board game forces you to be the traitor. I can totally see why people might want the rules of the game be limited to enabling and balancing the players' interactions with the world and letting player improv the actual narrative.

And his disciples going around yakking about throwing away crutches by playing their oh so fancy narrativist games.

More like throwing the baby, the role, out with the bathwater.

All because Ron got pissed because the marketing blurb on the back of a White Wolf game didn't quite deliver what he expected.

> (edit: yeah, silently downvote people asking questions...

Would you please not break the site guidelines like this? Unfair downvotes suck, but for a comment like this it's almost always the case that users will give corrective upvotes, which leaves the complaint not only against the rules but factually wrong.


> I see all those hypotheses but are those verifiable?

They are not scientific theories. They are akin to the schools of thought in literary theory, and film theory.



Think of them more as a variation of literary criticism.

I can't prove with p<.05 that my review of _Schoolhouse Rock_ is 'correct', either.

But can't you verify a good theory of RPG by creating a novel game that will be much appreciated or fixing some existing games making them more interesting? Like how music theory improved musicians' work and resulted in a better music, musician communication and even got used for creative AIs while music is very subjective too?

"Literary theory," as it is called, is actually not theory. It's the production of commentaries that are designed to make you say, "ah, yes." In other words it's a derivative art form like collage or remixing. You can tell the difference because there is no way to tell if a paper is right or not other than by deciding if it sounds right to you, which is no less subjective than anything else in art. In contrast, music theory is put to the test every day when musicians become successful with its help, and scientific theories are, well, you already know.

> You can tell the difference because there is no way to tell if a paper is right or not other than by deciding if it sounds right to you, which is no less subjective than anything else in art.

It's true that there is no way to logically prove the value of a work of art (and who says art has or needs "value"?), but lack of proof doesn't mean something doesn't exit; it means it's harder to think about. There is no proof what will happen tomorrow, but we make judgments without it, as we do about most things: Should I take this job? Should I marry this person? Do they love me? Do I love them? Should I ask out the new neighbor? Ubuntu or Fedora?

There's no algorithm to understanding art; there are tools, but there is no certainty. Without a logic map, it can be very challenging - in the best way, IMHO, because it brings forth and develops my deepest thinking and compels me to challenge myself and my perspective. I can't prove a Miro is better than your neighbor's kid's drawing ... and I guess I don't really care to; I'm going to study the Miro.

The closest thing I got to "make useful predictions" by using rpg theories is to maximize enjoyment of the game by different types of player.

By reading the definition of theory, this is a slightly inappropriate use as the goal is not so much to explain why people are having a blast as to make them having a blast.

Maybe we start speaking about game engineering instead?

This made me wonder: what parts of our pop culture will be studied as rigorously as historical literature? Where will RPGs and video games fit in? Will some odd history professor in 2100 awkwardly DM a game for bored future college student equivalents?

I love the idea of RPGs and have wondered about them as art. Thinking about your comment:

One challenge of RPGs producing 'high' art, similar to literature, is that you need a talented, skilled artist. The art of literature can be reproduced and consumed on a large scale: James Joyce writes a book and everyone reads it. Most art that we experience is produced by people with 1-in-10,000 ability (as a guess; that would be 32,000 Americans) that have honed their ability throughout their lives.

In RPGs, the artists are some people you know who play occasionally. They aren't 1-in-10,000 (unless you are very lucky, and then the rest of the group is not), and they don't hone their skills as if it is a profession.

Perhaps RPGs are more like folk art, which is not an insult; folk art produces some wonderful works.

It's hard to imagine RPGs rising higher: Given the structure of them - they require personal interaction and there's way to provide no mass reproduction and consumption of the great artists - it would be hard to make a living doing them or to have your work seen, which means nobody will spend their lives honing the skills (and you need not just one person, but a group of DMs and players to create the art). People work all their lives to be great painters, great guitar players, etc.; will anyone work that hard to be a DM? Will they meet a group of similarly committed players and form a 'band'? Who will pay them? Who will ever see them? Perhaps people will watch a highly skilled group play, but for the viewers that's passive consumption - the opposite of what makes RPGs creative and artistic.

OTOH, I'd certainly pay to play with a a brilliant artist (who can master DM'ing). What an experience!

What you’re talking about is already happening with podcasts. A group of players get together, record their session, and publish. The bills are paid via advertising, donations, and sponsorships.

The two most promenant ones I’m aware of are The Adventure Zone and Critical Role. The first leans heavily on family, personality, and humor; the second leans heavily on structure, characterization, and voice acting (all the players are pro voice actors).

It definitely is a nascent art form, and the first 5-10 episodes of both are somewhat rough, but recent episodes have gotten quite professional.

Personally, my favorite is The Adventure Zone. The first arc, “Here There Be Gerblins,” is clearly pretty raw, but the series gets so much better by the end.

Related: https://www.polygon.com/2018/7/9/17549808/actual-play-critic...

Thank you! That is very helpful.

I'm under the belief that the original Star Wars will be studied alongside epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. It was hugely impactful when released, reinterpreted the hero's journey for the 20th century, and even has its own holiday.

I strongly beg to disagree. It is massively popular, sure. In the end, however, it's just a mediocre story full of holes and inconsistencies, among shoddy worldbuilding. Cannot be put on the same level as a classical epic.

> full of holes and inconsistencies, among shoddy worldbuilding

I'm not sure that is the reason for the difference. The Odyssey has plenty of gaping holes and shoddy worldbuilding, plus some inconsistencies. For example, the plot of the very end flops IMHO (and less humbly opinionated people agree); you have to strain to give it much credit.

What I think separates it from Star Wars and most other stories ever created is its reflection of humanity. The characters and social interactions are so true and so rich - not at the superficial layer, where there are gods and magic, but at the core of anger, pride, love, compromise, fear, uncertainty, joy, power, etc. - you can look at it and deep into it forever and will never run dry.

If I can run on a bit, Dante wrote, nature takes her course from the divine mind and its art ... your art, as far as it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so that your art is to God, as it were, a grandchild.[0] The Odyssey fulfills that, IMHO; a wonder of mortal creation.

Tangentially, Odysseus is one of the most unpleasant characters in all of literature, in deed and personality. Even on Game of Thrones he would be at the bottom of the barrel.

[0] About himself! It's in Inferno; Dante conveniently put those lines in the mouth of another character speaking to the author.

EDIT: Major edits

It also has the benefit of being one of only a few epics that survived from that time.

The Iliad and The Odyssey are historically accurate, it is actual history. Heinrich Schliemann proved this with his archaeological excavations.

Star Wars is just a kids story, you really cannot compare the two.

I can't imagine what you mean by historically accurate with regards to tales of near-immortals, gods, monsters, etc. How could archeology show the story of one man's voyage to be accurate, let alone the sirens and cyclops that he sees on the way?

No, but board games will be.

RPG's are escapism, while real art is hard work. (Fun, but still hard work.)

There is art involved in making and playing RPG's, but the end result is not artistic.

The original Threefold Model/GDS theory FAQ is engagingly written, very persuasive and well worth anyone's time http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/threefold/ . I feel you start to hit diminishing returns after that.

Not one single mention of Dungeons & Dragons? Yet Magic and World of Warcraft? Really. Hm.

Gygax and Arneson are quite like synonyms for D&D.

I've always felt that analysis of art is the surest way to kill it. Obviously, other people differ in this regard.

I've always loved analyzing art. Something about art tugs at the heartstrings. The search on what exactly tugs the heartstrings often teaches me a lot about myself.

oh, dear. Not this tar pit...

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