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Author Topic: a perspective on roleplaying  (Read 5922 times)
Jack Spencer Jr
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« on: August 07, 2003, 11:44:49 PM »

This was originally going to be a reply to the RPGs and related media thread, but I'm going to talk about all kinds of things that would most likely derail that thread, so I'm starting a new one.

I am dangerously close to attempting to define roleplaying games again. I want to preface all of this with a "this is what Jack thinks and any pretense at it being definitive is purely inside my own little mind." It is my perspective on the matter. If anyone happens to agree then, well, that's just dandy.

The basic principle of roleplaying is the Lumpley Principle. The phrasing I prefer is "The system is the means by which the players reach consensus or agreement as-to what items are present or events occur within the shared imagined space." I simply love this. It touches on so many things in one neat, little package.

I'd like to focus on the shared imagined space. Many other mediums make use of the shared imagined space. Literature first build this space in the author's mind who then commits it to paper. The reader then rebuilds this space in their own mind. Stephin King refered to this to as telepathy. In a way, it is a form of commicating from mind to mind. This is a one way form of communication from mind to mind. Stage also makes use of the imaginative space, but the medium takes pains to physically build the space on the the stage. There's an odd similarity to this and wargaming. There's more in the world than what's on stage, yet there is nothing but what's on stage. Film and television makes a window that we peek into the shared space.

In these three medium, control over what goes into or goes on in the shared imagined space is finite. Only the author says what is in the book. The playwrite and production company decide what goes on stage. The filmakers decide what appears on the screen. However, in roleplaying the players are both author and audience. This is why consensus or agreement is important. If it doesn't happen, then the participants are simply acting separately. If the shared space splinters off into the separate individual imaginations, is this roleplaying? I don't know, but to my way of thinking it isn't. The Lumpley Principle is the foundational principle of roleplaying. Roleplaying uses a shared imagined space, like many other media. Because all of the participants can have an exercise control over this space, consensus and agreement must be developed. Consensus isn't necessary for an individual, therefore it is a social activity. The rest of what is commonly know as RPGs is built upon this. Much like my old building a house analogy.

Now in the other media thread linked at the top of this post, Mike Holmes said something interesting:
Quote from: Mike Holmes
In an RPG, the player can have his controlled elements do "anything" that they might be able to do in terms of what they are, and there are rules to cover that.

And John Kim made an interesting reply
Quote from: John Kim
For example, if the combat rules don't allow throwing dirt in someone's face, well, you can't do that.

I would alter Mike's statement to "In an RPG, the player can have his controlled elements do "anything" that they might be able to do in terms of what they are, and there are rules to cover somethat." Because they aren't always rules to cover every situation. Mike is talking about the logic or common sense that is usually called "realism." It is actually a very important part of the system. I refered to this as the Metaphor and the Contraption once. Mike has described the metaphor. What are generally recognized as rules is the contraption. There is some overlap here, of course. There always is. The use elements in terms of what they are beyond the what is defined in the rules is strictly defined by the Lumpley Principle.

Looking at John's example of throwing dirt in an opponent's face, there are a couple possibilities. 1) The game may have a rule for it, possibly a bonus or a penalty for the appropriate party, possibly being about to gain this advantage is the result of a "critical" and can only be attempted should the dice go your way. 2) Throwing may not be explictly defined, but there is already a precident so that a judgement can be made. 3) There is no rule and no similar rule to make any form of decision at all. In 2 & 3, if the player attempts to throw dirt, the authority (often GM) could decide to allow this move or to deny it. What is important is that the player can try.

In a video game, for example, the player is given controls. Only actions in terms of these controls may be attempted. The computer cannot be appealed to or reasoned with. These an some other media are like the rules structure of an RPG lifted off of the foundation of the Lumpley Principle. Not that I'm saying such games have no foundation, but the foundation is simply not the Lumpley Principle.

I suppose now I'm starting to sound exclusive. Therse are RPGs, these are not. That may be true. Everyone is free to disagree. There is also quite a bit of grey with various ideas, concepts and games. Many games.

But this is what I think. At this point, at least.
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simon_hibbs
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Posts: 678


« Reply #1 on: August 08, 2003, 06:52:23 AM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
The basic principle of roleplaying is the Lumpley Principle. The phrasing I prefer is "The system is the means by which the players reach consensus or agreement as-to what items are present or events occur within the shared imagined space." I simply love this. It touches on so many things in one neat, little package.


I'd just like to point out that this principle, as stated here, applies to all games. It applies to wargames, board games, card games, everything. I suppose you could argue it doesn't apply to abstract games as they do not have an 'imagined space', but that's debatable.

As a result, I don't think it can realy tel us much about roleplaying games in particular.


Simon Hibbs
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Simon Hibbs
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #2 on: August 08, 2003, 07:41:26 AM »

Quote from: simon_hibbs
As a result, I don't think it can realy tel us much about roleplaying games in particular.

Hence the rest of the great big post.

Water is wet doesn't tell you much about the ocean, either, but is a foundational principle.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #3 on: August 08, 2003, 08:17:56 AM »

The #3 case (no rule) does not exist at all. Or, rather, my point made in context to the Lumpley principle. The rules comprise the system. There is always an authority on what happens. Quite often the rule about what happens in the case of dirt-throwing, or what have you is "the GM decides".

This is not a very "mechanical" rule, but it's the only sort of rule, for instance, that you have in freeform games. Often the rules simply say that someone gets to choose by fiat, and these are part of what I was refering to in my statement.

So to clarify my statement:
In an RPG, the player can have his controlled elements do "anything" that they might be able to do in terms of what they are, and the system delineates the method by which the results of the action are determined.

Is that better?

Mike
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #4 on: August 08, 2003, 09:00:52 AM »

Perhaps, Mike, but I see a line between the system and the rules, or what I refered to as the contraption. "The GM decides" is more a part of system than rules (although there's a wonderful nitpicky arguement about whether defining a GM is part of the rules or system or social contract and whether that makes the entire statement such)

As a comparison, for the Intellivision game Space Hawk, the programmers had a problem with the game triggering the hyperspace. It turned out be a issue which there was not software solution, so they fell back on the axiom: "If you document it, it's not a bug -- it's a feature" and put a short paragraph in the manual to cover the problem. The Atari 2600 version of Berzerk had a similar issue with occasionally you would shoot a robot but it wouldn't die on the first shot, but would on the second. The manual said it was "super robot" that looked like any other robot but it took two shots to die.

"The GM decides" is a similar patch fix, although not exactly the same because "the GM decides" is a part of the system.  System is the foundation and the rules are the structure built on top of it. Writing down the foundation does not suddenly make it part of the structure, any more than writing down "speak in a language the other players can understand" or "use the pointy end of the pencil that makes marks to write on the character sheet" would make that part of the rules.

I think we are probably going to disagree about this, Mike. Especially in freeform, which I say has system yet not real rules beyond what the players may or may not make, and even then, there may not be anything permanent
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #5 on: August 08, 2003, 09:10:34 AM »

Um, my clarification doesn't say anything about rules. Precisely to avoid this part of the conversation that you're trying to have. In terms of the topic you raised, it doesn't matter one whit. What I meant was what you're calling system. So I'm now using your term. So let's move on, shall we?

You're not saying that people don't understand the systems that they're using, are you?

Mike
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #6 on: August 08, 2003, 09:40:55 AM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
You're not saying that people don't understand the systems that they're using, are you?

No I'm just noting that I see a distinction between system and rules. I though you were lumping them together because:
Quote from: Mike Holmes
Quite often the rule about what happens in the case of dirt-throwing, or what have you is "the GM decides".

and then
Quote
...and the system delineates the method by which the results of the action are determined.

I am sorry. I got confused. But then I think the main difference between my perspective and yours is:
Quote
The rules comprise the system

In my mind, the rules are built on top of the system.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #7 on: August 08, 2003, 09:48:26 AM »

Uh, that's great. We disagree about that. Whatever.

Now, for purposes of this discussion, let's say that you're right. Not that it makes any difference, but let's assume that for now. Look at the revised version of the statement with the term system inserted instead of rules. Now, do you agree with the statement, or disagree? Why?

Mike
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John Kim
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« Reply #8 on: August 08, 2003, 10:30:20 AM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
Looking at John's example of throwing dirt in an opponent's face, there are a couple possibilities. 1) The game may have a rule for it, possibly a bonus or a penalty for the appropriate party, possibly being about to gain this advantage is the result of a "critical" and can only be attempted should the dice go your way. 2) Throwing may not be explictly defined, but there is already a precident so that a judgement can be made. 3) There is no rule and no similar rule to make any form of decision at all. In 2 & 3, if the player attempts to throw dirt, the authority (often GM) could decide to allow this move or to deny it. What is important is that the player can try.

Something that seems to be missing from this discussion was that my original example was from a LARP.  I chose the example to try to illustrate the difference between LARP and tabletop play.  LARP rules are usually structured differently than tabletop RPG rules because they cannot rely on the presence of a GM.  Thus, Mike's suggestion of the "GM decides" is not an option.  

LARP combat (if allowed) tries to be resolvable solely between the combatants -- without having a neutral arbiter.  In general, the two players are not expected to agree on moves outside of the rules.  That is, if my character throws dirt, I presumably think it will help me win -- while the other player might disagree.  A LARP system usually does not say that we must achieve consensus.  Instead they prescribe what happens: i.e. if it's not in the rules, you can't do it.  Note this varies.  Mind's Eye Theater would allow dirt-throwing as part of a player's description, though it would have no effect on the resolution of the combat.  

This would mean that the LARPs in question are not role-playing games by Jack's definition.  This is the same conclusion that Mike Holmes came to in the "RPGs and related media" thread.  I pointed out that the "try anything" requirement also cuts out things like MUDs, Baron Munchausen, and others.  Of course, my definition cuts out some Universalis play.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #9 on: August 08, 2003, 11:02:48 AM »

I'd agree that when there is a rule that says that players have to stick to a narrowly defined set of choices, that it's a wargame. But almost no LARP would fall under this convention. Because, they do have a generalized systematic way (see, I'm avoiding that term rule), in which general actions not covered by the more mechanistic rules are handled. And that is merely the notion that, whatever the player does, the character does. So, for instance, there are no constraints on what a character can say. The system says that if the player said it, the character said it. If the player says that they threw dirt in the other PCs face, well then it might not have another mechanical effect, but it can certainly have social effects. Basically, the player can still have the character do "anything" and there's a method for determining the "in-game" effects.

Take monpoly as the usual counter-example. Nowhere in that system of play is it stated or implied that the guy playing the dog can bite the hat (even if their in the same space!). There is simply no way to adjudicate what would happen. In a Monopoly RPG, even one without specific "rules" per Jack's definition, there Lumpley principle is in effect, and people understand that someone has the authority to decide what the event looks like in-game. In a LARP, it's simply, whatever the player does, physically.

Any clearer? The "GM decides" is only one possible system device for determining what happens in all cases not covered by more specific and mechanicstic rules, and was only meant as an example.

Mike
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John Kim
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« Reply #10 on: August 08, 2003, 02:04:30 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
  Take monpoly as the usual counter-example. Nowhere in that system of play is it stated or implied that the guy playing the dog can bite the hat (even if their in the same space!). There is simply no way to adjudicate what would happen. In a Monopoly RPG, even one without specific "rules" per Jack's definition, there Lumpley principle is in effect, and people understand that someone has the authority to decide what the event looks like in-game. In a LARP, it's simply, whatever the player does, physically.  

The overwhelming fact of Monopoly is that it isn't really representational.  Though it has some references, I would put it closer to abstract games like Chess or Fluxx.  

I think the trickier line is for other representational games, like Advanced Squad Leader or free kriegspiel.  I would say that LARP combat is generally closer to ASL than to free kriegspiel.  It is intended to be objective and restrictive, like chess or ASL.  You have a set of options and you are restricted to those options.  Sure, you can add color -- in the same way that you can describe things about your ASL unit, or talk in-character as your squad leader -- but it has no effect on the game resolution.  Compare the LARP case to an online video game.  By using my controls I can make my avatar physically do what I want.  Add in that in I can say whatever I like by typing in messages.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #11 on: August 09, 2003, 07:42:55 AM »

OK, Mike. You're right. Sorry. I wasn't thinking. Yes I do agree with your clarification. It is actually two statements. You can attempt anything in terms of what things really are. You may wish to work this into another prionciple. The second part is just reconfirming the lumpley principle from yet another angle.

It gets sticky with rules, though, because rules don't always work in terms of what things are, and can disallow prefectly reasonable actions, such as the old D&D magic-users cannot use swords. Hence why I perfer to draw a distinction between rules and system, but I do admit that this line can be blurred.
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #12 on: August 09, 2003, 08:49:18 AM »

Um, if you guys replace "system" and/or "rules" in your previous discussion with the much broader term "social contract," it might fix a few of your problems/disagreements.  Or are we to take "system" to just mean "social contract" here, including all the stated and unstated rules that make up player interactions?  Personally, I think if you modify Jack's version of the Lumpley Principal to talk about the social contract, it becomes more helpful as an arrow towards the definition of roleplaying.

An aside, has anyone every considered how "Who's Line is it Anyway?" is a roleplaying game (according to just about any definition)?  Everyone, from Clive/Drew to the improvisors themselves to the people in the audience making suggestions... they're all involved in the social contract of a LARP, with the Moderator holding many of the responsibilities that a GM would.  Even the kind of competative-but-the-points-don't-matter philosophy is roleplaying all over (xf. Gamism essay).  They compete in a way that's cooperative but still try to show each other up.  I think any definition of roleplaying has to include something like "Who's Line."  But that may be a thought for another thread...
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #13 on: August 09, 2003, 09:41:52 AM »

Quote from: Jonathan Walton
Um, if you guys replace "system" and/or "rules" in your previous discussion with the much broader term "social contract," it might fix a few of your problems/disagreements.  Or are we to take "system" to just mean "social contract" here, including all the stated and unstated rules that make up player interactions?  Personally, I think if you modify Jack's version of the Lumpley Principal to talk about the social contract, it becomes more helpful as an arrow towards the definition of roleplaying.

Ah, this is one of those wonderful posts that make me rethink my position.

How about this, then. There's the social contract. There's the rules System = social contract + rules.

EDIT: Actually, upon though how about system = where the social contract & rules meet?

What do you think?
Quote
An aside, has anyone every considered how "Who's Line is it Anyway?" is a roleplaying game (according to just about any definition)?

Well, yeah, but categorization is a human invention. Things just are. They aren't necessarily are in a particular category. So they are roleplaying, and they are also are considered as different activity.
Quote
But that may be a thought for another thread...

Agreed.
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #14 on: August 09, 2003, 10:57:06 AM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
How about this, then. There's the social contract. There's the rules System = social contract + rules.

EDIT: Actually, upon though how about system = where the social contract & rules meet?

What do you think?


I've never really found it very helpful to differentiate between rules and social contract.  Actually, I've found it wonderfully helpful to ditch the idea of "rules" entirely and replace it with "social contract" in my thinking.  Honestly, are there rules that aren't just part of the social contract?  It seems to me that rules are, more often than not, interpreted very differently in every group.  It's the social contract that ultimately decides which rules to follow and how to interpret them.  And if you define "system" as "the rules that get approved by the social contract, plus the other rules the social contract brings with it," then you're basically just talking about the social contract itself, and dividing it into "rules" and "not rules" seems pretty arbitrary.

Actually, I think the Lumpley Principle reads pretty well as a definition of the social contract: "The social contract is the means by which the players reach consensus or agreement as-to what items are present or events occur within the shared imagined space."  If you try to make it define something like "system," it would seem to ignore all the other subtleties of the social contract that influence play.  By this POV, what we're doing when we design games (including mechanics, setting, and everything else) is writing out a suggested social contract that will be modified by whoever's going to use it.  In that sense, nobody plays a roleplaying game "straight-up."  Everyone modifies it to work it into the social contract of their player group.\

But I'm babbling.  Hope that makes my concerns clear.
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