Murk and the Fundamental Structure of RPGs

Hello, all, ūüôā

A long time ago in a distant land, Joshua “El Fuego” BishopRoby¬†was met with the following apparently unsolvable conundrum:

Does the GM need to apply some measure of Force in order to get to the interesting bits of the bangs?¬† Is there some ‘acceptable level’ of GM Force in the bang-structured game?¬† Is bang-structure advocating short bursts of illusionism to get to the very non-predetermined decisions that the PCs make in the bangs?

The question was asked by him and answered by Ron Edwards, and the answer is a flat and unequivocal No! The GM tools used to lead characters to bangs are, in fact, not Force, but rather Authorities, which I expounded on at length in my previous post.

In truth, this question was actually one of terminology, rather than one of actual form, and so, this thread would have been one among many, and quickly forgotten, were it not for one simple fact:

A long way down the line (in page 3, posts 4 and 5), in the process of constructing an answer, Ron unwittingly (or perhaps very much wittingly) dissects the whole damn structure of a role-playing game.

Like the previous one, this essay is my attempt at explaining these concepts in my own words, as a way of fostering my own understanding, as much as anyone else’s.

Start At The Top –¬†Shared Imagined Space

(This section is old news, but it will serve as a good grounding point for what’s to follow.)¬†

I like to define role-playing as negotiated imagination. As smarter people than me have pointed out, that really doesn’t tell us anything. However, it’s not supposed to, not right off the bat. It’s just a formal definition, and much like the formal definition of a quaternion, it really doesn’t come right out and tell you what you can do with it.

But it does tell you where to start.

How do we imagine?

Most people know how to imagine. In the context of RPGs, though, imagination is shared. But still,¬†a person¬†knows how to say “imagine this”, and then proceed to describe an imaginary scene or event, and¬†another person¬†knows how to listen to that and engage in imagining the described scene or event.

Even if they don’t know it, those two people are half-way down the path to role-playing. Quite likely, whatever it is that the two are imagining will be very different. But the two will have one thing in common, which is that the first person’s description totally applies to the second person’s imaginings.

That is the concept of a Shared Imagined Space: a set of imaginary scenes and events, shared by all the participants at a descriptive level.

How do we negotiate?

At one point in time, the second person might turn to the other and say, “wait,¬†I want¬†this to happen instead”. The first person might, in turn, accept, reject or tweak the second person’s input, and incorporate it into their description, or they might go so far as to say, “fine, you tell it, then”, and thus switch roles altogether.

Regardless of how, these two people are, in a very real sense, negotiating the content of the imagined space they share between them. Which means, yes, these two people are now role-playing.

I haven’t really said anything new so far. All I did was explain the formal definition, and if you go read that wikipedia article (only don’t, you’re in for a headache), you¬†might understand the formal definition of a quaternion,¬†but you will still not know what to do with it!

The Structure Of A Role-Playing Game

So, on to Ron’s posts. In there, he enumerates three basic principles which form the structure of an RPG session, and which I will now restate:

Lumpley Principle

“System is the means through which we agree as to what happens in play.”

This is the one that most tightly relates to that definition above. It basically says, “since we have to negotiate, what are the procedures we can use”.

A system is how the role-players apportion the four Authorities, and how they decide it’s time to exercise their share of those Authorities. It’s how we decide if what the guy that’s sitting next to us just said was a valid contribution to the game or not. At its most basic, system is how we play.

Now, you might be sitting there and thinking, “oh yeah? well, my system has¬†procedures for drowning and falling, but it doesn’t have any of that Authorities crap, so there”. However, it’s important not to confuse “system” with “rules text”. Because, you see, your “system” does have all these things. All systems do, and in a role-playing session, there is always a system in place. Always!

Sorensen “Principle”

This one isn’t so much a Principle as the recognition that System in a role-playing session is really composed of a series of “tasks” or “chores” that must be performed throughout the session.

Many if not most of these tasks have been traditionally centralized onto the figure of a Game Master, and as such, with time, came to be regarded as definitional to the concept of the GM.

In that post, Ron gives a non-exhaustive list of these tasks:

  • interpreting and applying the rules
  • managing the in-game-world time
  • changing and framing the scenes
  • providing color
  • managing and¬†ensuring protagonist screen time
  • regulating real-time¬†pacing
  • exercising¬†authority over what information can be acted upon by which characters
  • declaring¬†conflict and managing its resolution
  • exercising¬†authority over details of characters’ positions
  • exercising authority over internal plausibility
  • becoming¬† “where the buck stops” in terms of establishing the Explorative content
  • becoming the social manager of who gets to speak when
  • giving of cues for others to contribute
  • etc, etc…

To this list, I add two fundamental tasks:

  • playing a character, meaning exercising authority over¬†that character’s¬†actions and attitudes, feelings¬†and motivations
  • playing to a character, meaning exercising authority over sources of adversity for that character

The Sorensen Principle, then, becomes the fact that, if¬†all these tasks exist and must be attended to throughout the session, then they must be apportioned to the various players at the table. Centralizing the so-called “GM tasks” into one player and calling him the GM is one way of doing it, but it is certainly not the only way.

Czege Principle

“When the same person is the author of both a character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”

In whatsoever state the game world is in at the beginning of a session, and in whatsoever state it ends up in at the end of the session, there must be something in there resisting the transition from one to the other, and there must be something in there forcing that same transition. Without that force, the transition would not occur, and without that resistance, it would be immediate, inconsequential and pointless.

In other words, characters in a role-playing game, much like characters in any sort of story whatsoever, must have adversity. Otherwise, one could skip to the end of the story in five minutes and be done with it.

As Victor Gijsbers wisely points out, this adversity may come in the form of conflicts between characters in the game world, or it may come in a wide variety of other forms, such as a character’s internal struggles, or difficulties inherent to the realities of the game world. Victor’s more extreme example is¬†The Castle, by¬†Kafka, where adversity is in the very absence of conflict.

Note: I’m gonna go all Big Model GNSy here, so skip down to the following section if you don’t care for that stuff…

It’s important to realize that the concept of Creative Agenda is at the heart of characterizing adversity:

  • In Gamism,¬†players want adversity that can be dealt with by Stepping On Up, whether through strategic or tactical thought, investigative induction or deduction, or even simple gambling;
  • In Narrativism, players want adversity that will enable them to create Theme, where even though there is no right choice, all choices have consequences, and those consequences, bring in even more adversity;
  • In Simulationism, players want adversity that helps them¬†celebrate their character and either show off¬†said character,¬†foster further¬†understanding¬†of the setting, or simply revel in the conventions of a given genre.

Regardless of CA, however, adversity must be there, or the game simply ceases to be a game. It’s interesting to note that, of the three, the Czege principle is the one that seems the least connected to the definition of negotiated imagination, as¬†I laid out above. It’s my opinion, though, that the heart of negotiation is precisely the process of providing the adversity, and then resolving it.

Connecting the Principles

This is where the fun begins: in all role-playing game sessions, these three principles interact within the context of negotiation, in order to fill up the SIS. Here’s how:

  • Czege + Lumpley simply means asking which Authorities are involved in the processes of creating and then resolving adversity, and when can those Authorities be invoked;
  • Czege + Sorensen, by the same token, means asking which tasks are involved in those processes, and which player roles hold each task;
  • Sorensen + Lumpley is a more complex issue; it means asking which Authorities are necessary for each given task, which are helpful for each given task, and which are formally implied by each given task.

Now, then, here’s one of my major points: the fundamental structure of a role-playing game session¬†lies in the answer to¬†those three questions!

Oh, and for completeness, here’s Czege + Lumpley + Sorensen in Joshua’s own words (edited):

Somebody’s got to deliver the bangs so the players can react. It’s boring if players always bang themselves (Czege), so we make one guy in charge of delivering bangs (Sorensen), equip him appropriately (Lumpley), and call him the GM.

Murk And System Design

So far, all I’ve done is restate posts 4 and 5 on page 3 in that thread I linked to above. Interestingly, later in the very same thread (in posts 10 and 11, right near the end), Ron introduces (or rather reminds us of) a new concept: murk.

I’ll go ahead and posit¬†the following concept: if the fundamental structure of an RPG session lies in the interaction between the Lumpley, Czege and Sorensen principles, then the fundamental act of game design ought to be the specification of how those principles apply to playing a particular game.

However, a cursory reading of most if not all game texts published so far shows that the state-of-the-art of role-playing design is¬†not¬†quite there yet. Texts don’t generally mention the Authorities at all. They generally do mention tasks, but way too many of them do so under an assumed GM+players structure, defining the tasks in terms of the roles, instead of the other way around. And they define adversity¬†procedurally, rather than fundamentally.

That last one bears explaining. Take D&D, for instance. Combat is the main format for adversity in that game (although not the only one, yes, I know), and the procedures for it are all well detailed. By the same token, the GM is told how to construct a good combat. However:

  • nothing in the book explains how one gets to a fight,¬†what it’s for, or how does¬†the outcome lead to what happens next; instead, it’s assumed that answering these questions is “the GM’s role”, but he isn’t told how to answer them;
  • nothing in the book explains whether PvP combat is a good or bad thing, how one gets to it, how one avoids it, and what happens after it; instead, PvP combat usually pops up out of nowhere, and it can be a highlight of the session, but it can also break up whole groups.

Despite all of this, role-playing sessions do exist, role-playing does occur, and if those principles have any truth to them whatsoever (and I believe that they do), then they must be in place, operating somewhere beneath the surface of the game text and the stated rules of the game.

Quite simply, they operate in the murk:

Role-playing is practically defined by a bunch of techniques hidden or at least isolated within a bunch of unconstructed dialogue. When I say “unconstructed,” I don’t merely mean “not rolling dice,” and not even “open dialogue.” I mean: primal chaos that cannot itself produce a solution (in the technical sense of that term). No one knows what this interaction is supposed to be like. No one knows how it’s supposed to get anywhere or accomplish anything. Gamer culture avoids the question as if it’s a deadly disease; “game-mastering advice” in a hundred texts dances around it and focuses instead on mood and superficial style, with few exceptions. Existing solutions are guesses, tacit interjections, tacit impositions, and often desperation measures. I’ll dub that unconstructed weirdness as “murk.”

This may be a bit of a strong sentence, but way earlier in the thread (page 1, post 3, and yes, it’s a very rich and very important thread), Judson Lester advances the following example:

GM: So, do you follow her into the bar?
Player: Sure…

Ron then (in post 5, go read it now) proceeds to exemplify murk by detailing four different explanations as to what happened at the table, depending on whether the GM is really asking or really intends for a “yes” answer, and on whether the player correctly guesses the GM’s true intentions.

The murk is the primary reason why no one really knows. It’s not written in the game text. It’s not talked about at the table. It’s not explicit in any form whatsoever. It is hidden under the assumptions, habits¬†and comfort zones of the people at the table.

(Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that this is also essentially why¬†Actual Play posts that contain nothing but in-game-world events are of absolutely no interest to me…)

Now, personally, I don’t know what all this means regarding good game design. I’m a student and a dabbler in theory, but I¬†certainly don’t consider myself a ground-breaking innovator in the field. Mostly, even if I were to write the great RPG of the 21st century, I have a feeling that¬†many people¬†would read it in the light of their own habits and assumptions, and either dismiss it¬†outright or simply play it¬†wrong. Such is my opinion of the pervasiveness and strength of the murk.

But hey, just because murk is the current state-of-the-art in the whole of the RPG industry, that¬†doesn’t¬†mean each¬†of us,¬†as individuals, have to stay there! ūüôā

I’m reminded of Vincent “Lumpley” Baker’s excellent game, Dogs in the Vineyeard:

  • Reveal the town in play;
  • Don’t be afraid to give players information their characters couldn’t possibly have.

In closing, you can be sure that all this stuff was an eye opener for me. I’ll be thinking about this pretty much all the time, from now on, whenever I do RPG design work, and even when I’m at the table. Even Power Plays is likely to suffer substantive transformations because of this, for instance.

Well, I’ve written enough. It’s time to stop what I’m doing and Go Play! ūüôā


One Response to “Murk and the Fundamental Structure of RPGs”

  1. jrmariano says:

    Yes, the murkiness, I finally recognize it! ūüôā

    Great catch, Jo√£o!

    The full extent of what happens on the negotiated imaginations is the stuff of true Psychologigcal or Sociological studies but that doesn’t mean that we designers shouldn’t lay some the rules of interaction (meaning “negotiation”) between players in a given game.

    I always missed that kind of clear speaking on any given game text but it always felt like something unconscious. Now that it has been brought to the forefront I hope the next wave of games consider it and start being built with those in mind.

    And also, thank you, I like theory as any other eager to learn gamer but you really make easy for me to read about the real juicy stuff on the web. ūüėČ