What is. . . 'The Alchemy of Role-Playing'?


Kester Pelagius:
This post is revisiting an old article posted here a while back.  As always I look forward to reading your remarks and special insights.

The Alchemy of Role-Playing

Copyright © 2002, 2003 by C. Demetrius Morgan

Part 1 of 3

I am going to let everyone in on a secret, the reason this article exists is because, over the past four or five decades, the games we play have evolved.  They have taken on greater and greater degrees of complexity.  Witness The Forge and the topics discussed here.

Ah, Evolved.  A loaded word, yet in role-playing the games we play are the games we create.  The players are directly responsible for the worlds in which we play to a very large extent.  With this increase in the complexity of the rules of play come a certain degree of abstraction, witness the theories discussed above.   Is your game more G, N, or S?  Maybe it’s all three, or none at all.  One thing is certain our games have developed to the point where they can become enjoyed in actual play or through intellectual discourse of their workings.  Some certainly challenge our intellects with innovative dicing conventions,  intricate cosmologies, and theories about the nature of reality that would probably pose a challenge to many philosophy majors!

Still there is one question that too often goes unasked. . .

To Play or Not to Play?

There are games we play then there is Game Theory.  One is obviously those amusements with which we entertain ourselves, pastimes and hobbies.  Such are games.  We all know what a games is, how a game is supposed to work, by virtue of having played some manner of game from earliest childhood, especially in kindergarten.  Game Theory can seem disingenuous at times because so few of us realize that it exists.  Yet Game Theory is a very real field of study.  But what is it?

Look the term up in the average dictionary and, if we are lucky, what might be found is: "Theory of Games".  Doesn't say much till cross referenced, where we find Theory of Games given a definition of: "a method of applying mathematical logic to determine which of several available strategies is likely to maximize one's gain or.." whoa, let's stop right here a minute.  Very dry reading.  Great for Webster's Unabridged, but already it doesn't sound like it has anything to do with the titular GNS Theory of which this article is about.  Does it?

Actually it does.  Game Theory is a attempt to analyze decision making in conflict situations using statistical analysis, or more simply put it attempts to measure who is most likely to do what, when, and under what given circumstances.  Thus it has both a sociological and economic aspect.  It can thus be said to be a theory about the dynamic interactions of the decision making process, as relates to game models.

Which is precisely what the GNS Theory is, only as applied specifically to role-playing games.  Or is it?

Often the question is asked, “Is (insert name of game here) more Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist?”

To which readers may think a degree of oxymoronism has crept into the discussion since, by definition, a role-playing game already is a gamist simulation expressed in narrative; right?

Not entirely, but only because not every game that has worn the label of RPG is quite the same.  True, beneath the hood, in the basic essential of game mechanics and rules of play, all RPGs are mostly identical beasts.  But even a cheetah has different DNA from a cougar, and none of us would think that a house cat is a predator, though it is nonetheless a predatory feline than is a lynx.

We know what we think we know and accept the rest on belief, beliefs rooted in what we assume to be true.  Alas not all truth is factual.  Yet facts can not be proven until they are tested, of course they can be tested until someone postulates they exist in the first place; that is the conundrum of theorems.  They could exist, yet don’t exist until someone postulates that they might.

So what good is theory?

Once More Unto the Breach!

In order to understand the relationship between practical role-playing and the relationship that hypothesis such as the “Threefold Model” or “GNS Theory” have in relation to games, it becomes necessary to understand role-playing games; their origins, the context in which they are played, and the group dynamic involved amongst the players.  More than that one has to realize that such theories, as a whole, draw upon a rich and detailed background of extant terminology which is very specific to  role-playing games.  Terminology which is not always applied in familiar ways and with includes many a neologism.  (Fancy word meaning: coined terms.)

But before we delve into those new terms consider what sort of game a RPG is.  Thinking about it?  Can you nail down any single definition, really?

Wouldn’t it be erroneous to classify any FRP game as a "single game" since most rulebooks present the opportunity for variegated styles of play?  True, the games can be lumped together by group classification, just as monopoly is a game of a type.  Yet we can analyze the modes of play which certain games are designed for.  This process is perhaps best summed up as follows:  "Whenever you play any kind of game, there is a type of role assumption involved."(4)  This is certainly true of games involving strategy like Chess, Life, Snakes & Ladders, Clue, Ludo, Monopoly, and even Checkers.  But this statement becomes profound when applied to any sort of true simulation game, be it a historical war game or fantasy role-playing game.

But aren't all games merely simulations of an abstract environment?


However in the final analysis a game is what the players make of it.  This is especially true with role-playing games since they allow the players to create heroes who can develop unique personalities on par with the characters in a novel.  Most games allow the player to merely express themselves in camaraderie with our friends or acquaintances, but role-playing games allow the player to pretend in a world of make belief.  An experience that some may say no theory can properly codify so why try, then again from a social and game development context it is worthy of exploration.

So what are you waiting for, go explore!  Oh, no, wait, there is still more to this article.  Though, as you read, I want you to think about your most recent gaming session.  If it’s been a while then think about your favorite game.  What made it memorable for you?  What sort of game was it?  That sort of thing.  Now a philosophical question. . .

Next Installment ->  Where Did it All Begin?


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