Friday, October 14, 2005

Musings on the Role of Social Contract on Play Decisions

ScottM made an interesting response to Jere's post Musings on Social Contract in The 20' By 20' Room last week.

He wrote:
Your werewolf story reminds me of a similar situation I ran into not long ago. I was playing a character in a Buffy game who was an albino (I know, I know). What was in my mind when I chose that admittedly bizarre characteristic was a desire to explore -- in that foregrounded, metaphor-made-literal Buffy kind of way -- the issue of being physically marked as different, the issue of feeling like you were born an outsider, like you weren't given a choice about your nature, etc. (Said character was also, of course, a Slayer). I ended up pulling out of the game in part because I realized that what I wanted to explore with the character, and how I wanted to explore it, really wasn't fitting in with the rest of the game. Her outsider-ness was being constructed more as a psychological roadblock in her own mind than something which was externally true.

The last two sentences really struck me. This is a perfect example of how Social Contract, in the absence of textual rules concerning the issue, need to feed back into actual play to prevent dysfunction.

Scott had a very specific aim with this character: he wanted to explore character and the issue of being an outsider that has been marked as such by circumstances outside her control. Great! It's an interesting concept, and he's chosen to externalize this largely internal conflict (hoo is this the subject for another post) with a cue that can be used by everyone else at the table to bring the issue into the foreground.

But it fails. Why? As he puts it, "Her outsider-ness was being constructed more as a psychological roadblock in her own mind than something which was externally true."

How could Scott have gotten what he wanted out of this character? It seems to me that the missing component is an understanding by all the other players at the table as to what Scott wanted out of the character, and a commitment to helping Scott explore that in play?

In English: The other players (including the GM), needed to make Scott, as his character, feel like an outsider with their role-play. More than that, they needed to make him, in his character persona, feel like an outsider because she was marked!

Since that didn't happen (and to be fair, I'm only guessing here based on Scott's post) the only way for Scott to fullfill that aim in any way was to imagine it as "a psychological roadblock in her own mind."

This sort of thing cannot be done on one's own, regardless of one's "role-playing ability." It requires the group to come together in support.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Toward a Definition of Role-Playing Games

On the nerd boards lately, there's been quite a bit of wrangling over just what a role-playing game is. I believe that what we do as role-playing gamers is inherently different from what improvisational actors do. I believe a role-playing game is more than simply playing (or being) a role. It is, for instance, quite different than role-playing in its original (and continuing) incarnation as a tool for clinical therapy.

We should start with a definition. Here's the one that I propose:

A role-playing game is a game in which a group of players create a shared imagined space (SIS) and commit to exploring that SIS with purpose: addressing premise; establishing tactical supremacy; or focused exploration of character, setting, situation, system or color. The latter is often coupled with a concern for the internal logic and experiential consistency of that exploration (realism, etc.).

The core of that definition is that players of RPGs come together to create the SIS playing field for more than just amorphous fun. Each comes to the table with a purpose for that game. That purpose is the means by which a player aims to have fun. For that SIS to truly exist and be shared in the sense that we all have equal ownership of it, our purposes would ideally be the same, or at least compatible, so that they work with and support each other.

For instance, I can come to the table commited to exploring the premise, "Is vengeance an acceptable alternative to justice?" And my friend might come to the table committed to exploring what it's like to be a vigilante crimefighter. So long as we both have interest in supporting each others' purposes, we can probably generate some very satisfying play, although we may run into some friction here and there. I submit that we'll have the best experience if we are both committed to one or the other.

Establishing 'purpose' is part of what I consider to be the Social Contract, the rules (often unspoken) that govern the social interactions between the group. At the top level of the social contract is stuff like, "We don't talk about Mike and Jane's relationship troubles." "Colin is responsible for bringing the chips." "We wash any dishes that we use." But as we get closer to the level that contains "playing the game," it also includes stuff like "we're here to play this game because...[purpose]."

The actual mechanical rules of the game bridge the space between social contract and play. Rules are a fundamental part of the game aspect of role-playing games. If we accept that a role-playing game is a game in which a group of players create a shared imagined space (SIS) and commit to exploring that SIS with purpose, then it follows that the rules are the conditions (agreed upon as part of the social contract) by which players may change, add to, or challenge the content of that shared imagined space.

Here's a visual representation (by Ron Edwards at The Forge).

To make an analogy with a board game: The shared imagined space is the playing board, created by the group collectively. The rules of the game are the ways in which we have given each other the power to change, add to, or challenge each others' contributions to the playing board. The purpose is the method by which we hope to entertain ourselves and each other through this activity.

To reiterate, the core components of a role-playing game:
1. A shared imagined space
2. A commitment to exploring that shared imagined space with purpose
3. Rules through which we assign each other the power to change, add to, or challenge each other's contributions to the shared imagined space