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


John Kim said...

Are you including simulation boardgames as role-playing games here? i.e. Star Fleet Battles has an imaginary subject which the players will imagine.

I can see some valid reasons why you should include them. On the other hand, if you want to exclude them you probably need a qualification. Many people qualify that RPGs (1) have no end or victory conditions, and/or (2) allow potentially any imaginary action to be declared which must then be interpreted into game terms.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi John. That's a big and entirely valid question. I'm not certain about the answer.

A qualification may be what's necessary. I think your first example doesn't work because of games like Rune and My Life with Master. These games have definite victory conditions and I don't think they should be excluded.

As for the second, that may be a way of approaching it. Two issues though.

First, I feel like it's covered under my third component (rules through which we assign the power to change, add to, or challenge each other's contributions to the shared imaginary space). So maybe it needs to be a part of that?

Second, does that mean we need a stricter definition of 'action?'

For instance, take a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. When we engage in the mechanics, we have a number of options available: we can See, Raise, Take the Blow, Yield, Escalate, etc. Now we can narrate all sorts of things as part of those options. Are the options the actions? Or the narration?

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