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Author Topic: Defining roleplaying; an alternative approach  (Read 19365 times)
Le Joueur

Posts: 1367

« Reply #60 on: October 21, 2002, 08:44:49 AM »

Hi Mike,

Welcome to the Forge!  Since most of your attributions are aimed at me, I'll try and give a proper response.  First of all, however, I'd like to start by suggesting that both of our perceptions of role-playing games are equally valid.  Because of "the chicken and the egg" (As in, "Which came first the chicken or the egg?") relationship between them, I doubt that either can be 'proven' over the other.

The one singular reason I posted on Jaakko's thread, and the only problem I have with it, is that the Meilahti School paper distinguishes itself as being an attempt at a descriptive and not normative definition¹.  It clearly states, "We see gamemasters as a necessity."  As I have demonstrated time and again, this is not universally the case.  As their position is not universal, their definition cannot be descriptive, but must be thought of as normative.

The principal "chicken and egg" discussion that has gotten going here is whether the players, as a whole, cede power to a central figure, the gamemaster, or if the gamemaster grants temporary power to the players.  Before we get any farther into my point, it must be made clear that neither makes any difference.  Whomever the power comes from, simply saying that a gamemaster is necessary is normative and not descriptive.

Quote from: Revontuli
One very important difference of opinion seems to be whether the players grant power to the GM, or the GM to the players. In Finland it’s understood that a game is the GM’s work, responsibility and divine right. You write the game, you organize the game, [and] you have the power. The game is not there for the entertainment of the players; the players are there to give their very best in playing the character so as to realize the GM’s vision. (Ideally the vision doesn’t dictate the actions of the PCs.)

Again, this really has no bearing until we deal with the 'is there a gamemaster' question.  If games exist where there is none (and I maintain that I have one example), then 'who has the power' between players and gamemaster is moot.  Arguing over whether one party grants power to the other makes no case that either party is "a necessity."  It simply ignores that question.

Quote from: Revontuli
Quote from: Le Joueur
If a group of players who come to a club decide to play a LARP and they only have one, the 'gatekeeper function' is too dispersed to say that it exists.

This is a good example of that difference. In Finland you wouldn’t idly go through your bookshelf and see which LARP you’d like to play today. A GM would spend months writing it, and then graciously inviting a special handful of players to participate.

Thank you for acknowledging additional points of view.  That's actually half of the point I am trying to make here.

Quote from: Revontuli
Quote from: Le Joueur
1) if any role-playing game exists where the gamemaster is never called upon to intervene it proves 2) that gamemasters cannot be a requirement of a "descriptive definition.

In most of our LARPs the GM would never be called upon to intervene. However, she always could if she’d want to. Incidentally, I would also consider a player using diegetic power over another player ("My character levitates two feet in the air.") using the GM power. This could happen even if the game doesn’t include supernatural elements. Since in every LARP there is the possibility that a PC would do something the player is for some reason not willing to do (kill himself, kill someone else, have sex with someone, drink someone’s pee…) they must reserve the chance to use GM power.

Now here we come to the other complex of the "chicken and egg" problem.  Let's tease out a few complications from your examples.  First of all, "My character levitates..." is not one player using power over another; much like saying "My character pulls out a gun and puts several bullets into the ceiling," there is no power being exercised on others, not any more than simple conversation, "My character says hello."  (Now if it was, "Your character levitates..." that would be different.)  This is exercise of power over one's own character.

I understand you want to say that is gamemaster power, but the same could be drawn from a static system.  And that does go all the way up to "supernatural elements."  And did in the example I was a part of.  Giving this the name "gamemaster power" is simply ignoring the commentary I am making.  This could just as easily be called 'player power' because it does not include anything other than your own character.

Saying that "in every LARP there is the possibility that a PC would do something the player is for some reason not willing to do," is simply bad design.  I disagree with the inherent implication of this statement.  It carries the implication that players do not (occasionally) do what they do not want to; this is not true.  If the rules say that a character will go berserk under certain conditions and the player gets their character into those conditions, they will do what they don't want to or be playing incorrectly.

Again, I must point out that a descriptive definition of role-playing games does not need to exclude dysfunctional play.  If you're playing a friendly game of cards is a referee needed?  The possibility of cheating or dysfunctional play is just as available; why no referee?  Because if you cheat you aren't playing the game.  I do not agree that a gamemaster is required simply because of the potential of cheating, not by definition.  This is inherent in the idea of good gamesmanship.  (Besides, granted clear public rules and simple refereeing, having someone 'in control of the diegetic frame' is not needed even in the cheating example.)

Likewise, if you reserve all these expressions of power to the gamemaster, they you have effectively put all the powers of the gamemaster into hands of the players.  Once you do that and create some kind of system that denotes how this overlaps from player to player, you have effectively destroyed any meaning behind the words 'gamemaster power.'  What has, in fact, been done is a major alteration of player power.  Distributing 100% of gamemaster function eliminates the need for a term like 'gamemaster' in such a system.  In other words, if everyone shares in doing it, calling it 'gamemaster power' is a useless (and I argue confusing) legacy from traditional role-playing games.

Which brings me back to the point I have been trying to make.  If you eliminate dysfunctional play and there is a notable possibility that some role-playing games can be played completely in the absence of a gamemaster and examples of such can be produced (and have), then the inescapable conclusion is that saying 'gamemasters are a necessity' is a quality of a normative, not a descriptive, definition of role-playing games.

Quote from: Revontuli
Quote from: Jaakko
No matter where we are, there are always roles and rule systems present. Always. So those things cannot be used as the separating factor when defining role-playing games.
Quote from: Le Joueur
Sure they can; in fact, I'd go so far as to say these make a better descriptive definition than just saying 'the gamemaster is "the defining thing about role-playing games."' If you have something with a gamemaster but no roles, is it a role-playing game?

What I believe Jaakko is saying is that roles exist in all social situations, just as systems do. Thus they don’t make a role-playing game special -- according to their postmodernist definitions.

That might be true except he is quoted saying "roles and rules systems."  Descriptive definition relies upon a collection of criteria that must all be present for the definition to be true.  Here he is saying that these do not make adequate criteria.  I argue the contrary; roles and rules systems are cardinal among the requirements to be a role-playing game.  I make the "rules system" requirement a bit more sophisticated in that in many cases it is an explicit rules system in play, but in the remaining cases there is the expectation of a systemic approach to situations that are mitigated by explicit rules systems in parallel circumstances.

Furthermore, I also include interaction between people as another criteria.  The most important (and least spoken of) criteria I give for role-playing games is that a participant must have available, at will, the opportunity to 'think within the context of the game' from a first person perspective.  This is normally associated with 'playing a character' but is much more sophisticated then that.

Ultimately, that creates a list of criteria as follows:[list=1][*]'Systemic Approach'[*]Personal Interaction[*]Opportunity to Play a 'Role'[/list:o]Don't get me wrong, I think a gamemaster is an excellent way to give 'Systemic Approach,' but I highly doubt it's the only one.  'Systemic Approach' is probably the hardest one to explain because things like plays and conversations follow systems; the problem is that in a role-playing game this expectation becomes manifest in the ideal of an explicit system.  Even role-playing games that don't have such written down function under the expectation that participant conflicts will be handled by some explicit compromise in keeping with the expectation of 'role-playing game' play (I tend to think of this as a 'phantom system;' everybody acts like it's there, but when you look you see nothing.)

You'll notice nowhere is a gamemaster required (not even a 'phantom gamemaster').  The very act of player ceding power to a gamemaster or gamemasters ceding power to players is systemic in it's application.  Both are representations of 'System Approach' in action.  (Where does this power come from?  From the interest in partaking of a game, of course.  If you're not interested, on one has any power over you; I think this is beginning to 'infect' the discussion and should probably be avoided.  Choosing to 'not play' is not role-playing gaming, therefore needs not be covered in a descriptive definition.)

Quote from: Revontuli
Quote from: Le Joueur
We created the Agitator, because one thing we observed in LARPs is when play slows to a stop because no one has any initiative they wish to pursue; the Agitator is there to prevent that.

Do you consider the action to be the most important part of a LARP? Because I (as the main Turku guy) consider it to be just the topping -- the really interesting things happen beneath the surface. Experiencing through your character the act of watching the clouds, relaxing before the big fight or trying to win your depression can be just as interesting as searching for the hidden treasure or fighting a nasty orc.

On the contrary, because I believe that dysfunctional play is not role-playing gaming, a failure of the interest on the parts of the participants is not something that is required to be taken into account.  However, all practical matters need coverage so the Agitator exists to shore up interest in the game.  In our example, the role went unused.  I consider it an addendum, much like Customer Service; it needed to be listed because of the scale of the subject we were working towards.  The Agitator is not there to force complications upon those playing, but to offer 'something to do' to those who are losing their 'experience through the character' connection to the game.  (In other words, to keep the bored busy.)

Quote from: Revontuli
Quote from: Le Joueur
I still have to question whether or not the diegetic frame needs to be controlled by an individual.

Aren’t they saying just the opposite? That the diegetic frame is controlled by anyone with the GM power? And that it’s possible to have games where lots of different people may adopt this power, even at the same time.

That may be what has been said lately, but the paper and its authors have maintained from the beginning that for it to be role-playing gaming, there must be a gamemaster² of some kind.  An attempt has been made to suggest that a game where all participants equally make use of 'gamemaster power' without a single authority; to me that defeats the purpose of using the term 'gamemaster,' in those situations it's more a modification of 'player power.'  (id est, if everyone does it, then no one does it.)

I freely admit that there are games where the gamemaster has total power, ceding a necessary amount to the players, but when no such authority exists to cede this power (all are continuously thus empowered), then no gamemaster exists.  In response to that, thus far, I have only received examples of dysfunctional play.

I say my point stands.  Most games have gamemasters, this is traditional, some do not.  Granted that, any definition of role-playing games that is meant to be descriptive, must include those that do not have gamemasters.  Ergo either the Meilahti School position must either acknowledge games without gamemasters or it must recognize that it is not descriptive, but in fact normative to tradition.  Any other option is intellectually dishonest³.

Quote from: Revontuli
However, I think calling them gamemasters is a bit misleading, since a GM indicates a single person. Perhaps it would be more productive to simply talk about the power to control the diegesis, which is typically used by the GM?

I wholehearted agree.

Fang Langford

¹ From the Meilahti School paper, Thoughts on Role-Playing:
    "The purpose of this paper is to help define a theoretical framework for discussing role-playing and role-playing games."

    "We have attempted to define role-playing in a way that encompasses the different forms of playing...and shun normative choices...."

    "...to create a descriptive model that covers and uncovers all those games that we intuitively call role-playing games."

[Referring to Turku, Iirislahti, and Roihuvuori 'schools of thought:'] "These definitions have been largely normative, not descriptive, and they have usually concentrated on either traditional role-playing or live-action role-playing."[/list:u]² Also from the Meilahti School paper:
    "The gamemaster has total control over the situation created..."

    "The gamemaster is the highest authority in the game."

[About what the players may define:] "...only to the extent condoned by the gamemaster."

"The gamemaster has the power to override anything and everything..."

"The gamemaster is the gatekeeper of diegesis."

"The gamemaster has final say on what characters are possible..."

"We see the gamemaster as a necessity."[/list:u]³ I recognize the possibility of redefining gamemastering as wielding power over the diegetic frame would technically invalidate my point.  However, that destroys the recognizable and intuitive definition of the gamemaster, hence it would be easier to simply define it with some other term.  For example, you could call it diegetic power and state that most games invest ultimate diegetic power in one authority, the gamemaster, but some leave it in the hands of the players or in the understanding of good gamesmanship, leaving it to following the system ratified by the group.

Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Posts: 2233

My name is Raven.

« Reply #61 on: October 21, 2002, 10:23:38 AM »

However, I think the game master does have the power to dictate PC actions without immediate explanation.

You might be surprised to find I agree: I've never felt restraint from declaring a PC reacts or thinks in a manner befitting the situation -- as in real life, where we are rarely in full control of our emotional reactions and stray thoughts. I stop there, however, past that point I feel I would be breaking unwritten rules with the players of "property" and "control" and causing hard feelings, given the general social contract of an RPG.


Depending on where you draw the line, there is a lot to be said about the different conclusions that can be reached, and why those conclusions were reached. This, I think, is where the differences in style are most apparent.

For example, if the GM interjects to fill in information and cultural quirks for players -- and thus dictates their behavior through such, even on occasion -- a different style begins to develop, one where the GM's setting is sacrosanct and not open to player interpretation or development.

Such a style is incompatible with certain other equally valid styles of gaming.  My point, to drift back on topic now, is that this is the main difficulty I have with the Meilahti paper: it presumes to define RPGs with criteria that are not applicable to styles of gaming which do not fit the style and social contract described by you above as normal in Finnish RPing.

Much is going on in the world the PCs aren't aware of, after all. (But in an ideal situation this wouldn't be over-used, and PC actions would have consequences.)

This is what we call Setting or Situation Exploration...the players are for the most part observers in such a setting. They can and do affect events and the gameworld as a whole through their actions, but those actions rarely have context outside of the GM's vision.

That is, most players develop characters with ideas in mind for that character specifically -- ie: a reason they feel compelled to play that character -- these ideas are personalities, relationships, desires and goals and so forth, which nearly always lack cohesion with the GM's vision (since the character is the player's "vision"). When a GM does incorporate such ideas, they are often sidelines to the main game, they are not THE game.

That is Traditional "I developed this story/adventure/campaign/setting/whatever...now you play in it" sorts of games have a GM carefully "revealing" his creation, hoping to elicit "oohs" and "ahhs" from the players, who are considered the GMs audience as well as actors in the artform -- but not co-writers or co-scripters.

I'm simply advocating strict adherence to the diegesis. Put simply, players shouldn't have their characters do something they wouldn't do just because...

I think this is a seperate issue: one of maintenance of the social contract of the group in play -- or simply, good manners at an RPG session, good gamesmanship.

But note that in those cases you are the auteur, the creator. And when your work is finished the audience will get to see it. RPGs don’t work that way.

Exactly. So why the focus on GM as author, as creator?
(With players as a participatory-audience?)

I ask this because your statements clearly indicate that the GM is considered the artist of the work, the developer and creator slaving away for weeks at a project -- and that is the support for why he has the ultimate authority and power in the game, and why the players must remain true to his vision.

Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
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