In Plain Words—How I Want to Talk About RPG Theory

In introduction, miscellany, role-playing games on August 3rd, 2006 at 3:22 pm

The theory of role-playing game design is something of a hot button issue on most RPG related forums. The views espoused by Ron Edwards and other proponents of “Forge Theory” are especially combustible for reasons that I don’t want to go into. Levi Kornelsen, who is starting to draw some attention with ideas that he is developing on his LiveJournal, and Mike Mearls, authour of Iron Heroes and recently hired by Wizards of the Coast to do development work for Dungeons and Dragons, are also developing some interesting ideas.

What I intend to do in this post is briefly explain my feelings about RPG theory, and how I will be dealing with it on My Play, with guidelines for commenters.

As of this writing, I do not have an account on The Forge, although I do read threads on it occasionally, especially from its Actual Play forum. I do regularly read several blogs by prominent Forgites, including several listed in the blogroll to the right, and I am also a member of, and occasional poster on, Story Games, another forum heavily populated by Forgites.

The reason that I do not have an account on the Forge has to do with its primary mission statement rather than any hostility to the Forum or the people who post there. It is intended to be a place where would-be self-publishers of role-playing games refine their games and get information on publishing. I am not designing an RPG right now, so I haven’t joined.[1]

Not surprisingly, my feelings about Forge theory are rather similar to my relationship to The Forge itself. I’m interested in it, I’ve learned some interesting things from it, but I don’t feel strongly wedded to it.

I find myself at least as intrigued by the ideas that Levi has been hashing out in public lately. No doubt some of this has to do with Levi’s almost superhuman geniality, but I also think that it is a more approachable—dare I say practical?—attitude to such topics. Mike isn’t really working on a big theory of everything like The Forge or Levi is. His focus is on dealing concretely with individual problems that frequently get in the way of having fun when playing.

One issue that I have with any of the “explain everything” RPG theories, even Levi’s (and I’m far from alone here) is the jargon. The fact that they have a lot of jargon doesn’t bother me so much, but a lot of their jargon involves using very common words (story and setting, among others) in ways that are just different enough from day-to-day usage to be extremely, unnecessarily, confusing for people. There is no intuitive flag to tell readers “specific Theoretical meaning intended here, not everyday usage,” and that can be exceptionally annoying.

This is not unique to technical discussions of role-playing-see, for instance, the definition of Information as it is used in Information Theory. Information Theory is a discipline of science and engineering, though, and requires rigorous precision to be of practical use. Role-playing games are primarily a form of entertainment and a hobby. Even at its most pretentious, it is just a nook in the vast realms of the humanities. It is perfectly possible to have cogent, informed discussions about it without bending, let alone twisting, the language. For those cases where there is genuine confusion, it is better to choose a term that is not used in day-to-day conversation.

This is not a blog about RPG theory, as such. My intention for the RPG-related posts is to share advice that I have come across or figured out for myself on how to have more fun playing role-playing games. Couching them in Forge-like theoretical language, even in cases where the ideas originate with one of the jargon-heavy theories, is unnecessary, and is going to be counterproductive. Any discussion containing jargon has an additional barrier to entry.

Therefore, the official policy of this blog is that it is fine to refer to RPG Theory (of any stripe), but you cannot use jargon-y shorthand. You must explain yourself completely, in such a way that anyone who has not been previously exposed to the body of theory can understand what you are trying to say.

Non-compliant comments will be sent back to their posters by revision.

[1] I realize that it is not a requirement for membership that you be actively working on a design, not least because many small publishers also have their main forums hosted at The Forge. The main point is that I just haven’t felt an urge to post there yet.

  1. Off the top of my head, theories like DNS try to scrunch every gamer and game system into little boxes. Saying that a system like AD&D isn’t geared towards narrativists and that one shouldn’t even try to go N while in AD&D is, frankly, quite stupid.

    Any game can be a mix of styles. Our AD&D games can flow from being intense tactical combat to being pure roleplaying, story-driven dramas. The rules are there to keep you “honest”.

    The narrativist systems cease to be “games” as such and become more of communal storytelling, not unlike what happens when you play Once Upon a Time. The rules make the game. More rules, more game. Less rules, less game. But all of it is roleplaying.

  2. Rick,

    This is going to sound pretty aggressive of me, possibly even offensive, but understand I’m not trying to come across that way…

    Your understanding of GNS/GDS (depending on which theory you are discussing) is flawed at a fundamental level, but understandably so. See, neither theory is really all that concerned with what games support what Creative Agenda. Not really.

    The primary concern of these theories is that there are different Creative Agendas. That is, it is possible, even common, for people to have literally incompatible goals for play.

    Of course, historically, almost all of the big discussions of these theories has been centered around classification of games and/or play sessions as some specific Creative Agenda.

    I recommend checking out this thread (in progress, please don’t post to it yet) on the Forge to see Ron Edwards doing a pretty good job of explaining Creative Agenda. It’s not about putting people in categories, it’s about understanding that there’s a central unifying core to play.


  3. Thomas,

    No worries mate.

    What you said is absolutely right. I don’t have any intimate knowledge of so-called RPG Theory as discussed on The Forge, nor do I desire any. We like our style of roleplaying, we have lots of fun, and that’s all that really matters.

    Besides, doesn’t this already say it all?


  4. Rick,

    First of all, if you and yours are having tons of fun, that is, in fact, all that matters. In fact, I have a forthcoming post on that very topic brewing.

    However, just because you are having a metric ton of fun with the games you are playing now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other types of game that you would enjoy just as much. Just because you think Puerto Rico is the bee knees doesn’t mean that there is no reason to play Torres or Princes of Florence.

    Actually, Chris’s (bankuei’s) Fun Now Manifesto is a nice summation fo the goals of theory, and if your play is already satisfying those goals, you probably don’t need any deep understanding of theory, although there may be tachniques touted by the Forge crowd (and others) that could still make your games better. The issue is how much time it’s worth putting into digging out those nuggets from the other talk.
    Hopefully, this blog will help reduce the necessary time investment as it goes forward 🙂
    Also, I would recommend subscribing to Kevi LiveJournal even if you don’t like theory talk (that’s why I have it on my BlogRoll), although you may want to just skim the comments on most posts. There’s a high concentration of Good Stuff on there. If you need help getting subscribed to LJ feeds, drop me a line.

    [edited to clarify paragraph breaks]

  5. For anyone wondering what all the fuss is about, Chris Chinn just posted a nice collection of links for getting down the basics of Forge theory.

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