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[Theory] A summary of rgfa theory

In another thread, Nawara asked for an introduction to theory. As you might expect, most of the posters responding are arguing about whether theory is good for anything, rather than explaining any of it. Consequently, a couple of people have suggested that I should unbury the posts in which I summarized the theory that came out of the Usenet group rec.games.frp.advocacy, where I used to post. Rgfa theory antedates the Forge's, and had considerable influence on it, as well as on some other theoretical approaches.

I have described a couple of Forge terms I find useful, but a summary of Forge theory, if such a thing is ever to be had, probably ought to come from someone else. The rest of this stuff either originated in rgfa or was discussed there. You can find the old discussions themselves in Google groups. Aside from that, there is also useful rgfa material on the page of John Kim, who kept the FAQ.

--- Retrieved from the Other Thread --

A lot of people here hate theory. You know why I think that is? Because it's absolutely impossible to follow the newest thread unless you read a lot of the ones before it. The pro-theory folks (which I guess would be most of you, since I put a [Theory] tag on this) have a tendency to take a common-sense concept and give it some crazy name. I'm sure some of the terms are important for conveying a paragraph's worth of information in a word, but some of the terms seem to have been invented for no good reason other than to exclude people who stumble onto Theory threads.

I sure as hell don't understand theory. But I think that there might be something to it, since so many other people like it. I might be wrong (I still don't like FATE or Wushu), but I'm willing to give it a shot.

So I'd really like it if people could explain, for the beginners here, the most important terms and concepts behind theory. From Cheetoism to Kickers and Bangs and all those other terms that leave me totally lost... a "Theory for Dummies", if you will.
OK, first thing: there's more than one body of theory. The Forge's is the one that most people think of at the moment, but there are others.

I used to post on rec.games.frp.advocacy, and was around for the proposal of some of the original theory ideas. I'll explain those. Some comments:

Motive, the exclusionary quality of theory, and ancient history.-- Yes, it's true that in practice people throwing around a body of terminology that newcomers aren't familiar with, and which it's necessary to become familiar with to enter discussion, has an exclusionary effect in practice. It did turn out to have that effect in rgfa, in my estimation, and is very likely one of the causes for the eventual decline of the group, along with a couple of other things. However, to the extent that it's safe to comment on other people's motives as well as my own, I think it's safe to say that that was nobody's intent in the beginning. Rather, the motive was the same thing that underlies the creation of all jargon: to have a short way of referring to things that no existing terminology covers. "Simulationism" was not intended to be cryptic any more than "3d6" was coined to conceal the procedures of RPGs from nongamers.

Rec.games.frp.advocacy was set up to host flamewars, of the "GURPS is better than Hero! Is not! Is too!" variety. In the course of the usual fairly mindless bickering, however, some people started trying to explain precisely why they strongly preferred one system over another, or diced to diceless games. Discussions of the underlying desires that different players found to be aided or thwarted by different techniques became the initial impetus for a deeper analysis: you favor this technique; OK, why do you favor this technque? What's it doing for you that the other technique isn't?

The first major theoretical division of playstyles came up as a result of trying to explain a differing preference to the aggressively evangelical author of the innovative system Theatrix. His position -- at least as perceived by many others -- could be summarized as "But everyone really wants a good story! You'll see that my way is the best if you only try it!" In response, people with another aesthetic preference tried to explain what they actually wanted and why they wanted it, instead. This led to naming the styles in order to discuss them. The distinction between the story-oriented or dramatist style (as typified by Theatrix) and the world-oriented or simulationist style came first; the game-oriented style was added later, when people realized that the dramatist/simulationist continuum wasn't enough.

There simply isn't a good common word that means precisely what 'world-oriented' or 'Threefold simulationist' means, because (to the best of my knowledge) there isn't another field where 'simulationist' is a likely or workable aesthetic style. 'Realistic' is as close as it gets, and 'realistic' isn't very good -- particularly, it's not good when someone is reading with the apparent intent of invalidating a distinction that someone else is trying to make, rather than trying to understand it. It's a very unsuitable word to describe the style in a discussion where one might be forgiven for suspecting some parties of actively uncharitable reading.

This is how we got hideous neologisms like simulationism. The idea was that the word clearly didn't mean anything else, so we could use it to describe the style without much risk of being seriously misunderstood -- people would see that it obviously was jargon and look it up in the FAQ, right? :p ... You can see about how well that worked by seeing what Ron Edwards did to rgfa terminology. He swiped the language of the Threefold and the Narrative Stances and then changed the definitions so that they cannot now be used to clearly refer to anything in the gaming community at large. But that was well in the future when we were inventing horrid words, hoping to have a handy shorthand for the concepts.

One other thing: theory was born in, and out of, contention. It arose in reaction to One True Wayism, as an attempt to describe and establish the legitimacy of multiple play styles. However, the fact that it came out of discussion that was frequently adversarial had some unfortunate and lasting effects, sometimes on the content of the theory itself. Owing to the contentious history of discussion, it has proven regrettably difficult to get a fair hearing for certain ideas and approaches in certain groups.

Next up: the Threefold.
The Threefold

The Threefold is the first major three-way division of playstyles. As previously mentioned, it arose as an attempt to distinguish between the 'make your campaign feel like an action movie' style that Theatrix' creator was advocating, and the 'make the world feel as real as you can figure out how to make it' style that some other people favor. The 'make your campaign the best game you can' idea came later, when the first division didn't seem to cover all the bases.

The Threefold doesn't classify game systems (although some systems lend themselves more easily to particular styles). It doesn't classify players or GMs (although some people have fairly consistent preferences). It doesn't cover anything that happens before play begins, nor is it concerned with how the GM presents the events in the campaign world. Rather, it classifies the GM's motive for determining what happens in the campaign world during play: what is the aesthetic purpose behind the GM's adjudications?

The three aesthetics are story-oriented (or dramatism), world-oriented (or simulationism), and game-oriented (or gamism). Some said that the Threefold should be the Fourfold: that some decisions are made for purely social reasons, rather than because they improve the story aspects of play, the game aspects, or the realistic-feeling-world-simulation aspects. Others gainsaid this on the grounds that it's impossible to imagine a campaign where all the decisions are made for purely social reasons (except in the sense where that applies to every campaign imaginable): the social considerations exist on a different level. The latter view generally prevailed.

The Threefold is not a statement that there are only three ways to roleplay, not a statement that one plays for story or simulation or game exclusively. Rather, it was thought that most people play for some mixture of the three aesthetics, but that they often have preferences -- that one aspect of play may be more important to them than the others, and that they may favor the most important aspect in situations in which there a given resolution makes for, say, a good story but a bad game. People whose prefences are strongly at odds may not enjoy each other's campaigns.

A triangle was often used as a visual representation for the model, with one aesthetic at each vertex. If a GM weighted simulation and story considerations equally in her resolutions, but paid no attention to whether the result made for a good game, then she might mark her style as falling at the midpoint of the side of the triangle between story-oriented and world-oriented. Someone with mostly gamist preferences and some desire both for natural development of events and good story might mark their preferred mixture inside the triangle, nearer the game vertex. And so on.

Of the Threefold aesthetics, the world-oriented aesthetic, or simulationism, needs some explanation. The term 'simulationism' is an analogy to the concept of running a simulation from initial conditions: you set up a scenario and rules for how the elements in it behave, and then you set it in motion to see what happens. Since the idea behind the simulation is to see what would really happen if the initial conditions actually existed and the behavior of the elements in the simulation really is as described, you don't reach into the simulation to change something because you don't like the way it came out: that would defeat the purpose.

The roleplayer with simulationist preferences wants to feel as if the campaign world is real, and wants to see what would 'really' happen in it. According to this aesthetic in its strongest form, every effect that happens in the campaign world should be the result of an in-world cause. If a PC survives combat, this should be because he really would have survived, given his characteristics and actions, compared to the enemy's characteristics and actions: the GM shouldn't reach into the world and make sure the PC survives for a dramatic reason like "it's a lousy story if the main character dies in chapter 3." If a group of NPCs is weak, the GM shouldn't reach into the world and toughen them up "because it'd be a better game if all the encounters are difficult but winnable challenges." Everything should happen as it would naturally happen.

My preferred style is closer to Threefold-simulationist than to anything else. I used to classify it as about midway between the simulationist and dramatist vertex, but more practical experience with other people's play has given me the impression that more like 75% simulationist 25% dramatist 0% gamist would be less misleading. This distinction has proven useful to me in practice, in that it helped me to identify what was going wrong in two different campaigns; also, it and some related ideas have helped me to set up campaigns that would suit particular players.

I would, these days, prefer to describe my preferences using Levi's differentiations of goals rather than the Threefold, because the Threefold is a bit lumpy and biased in spots, and because Ron Edwards swiped some of the Threefold terms and redefined them to mean something else, meaning they're even more likely to be misunderstood now than they were when rgfa coined them. So I regard this theory as a source of imperfect but valuable insight to me.

The Threefold was not exclusively the work of people whose preferences were Threefold-simulationist, but they were probably the heaviest contributors to it. Some of the language that isn't really part of the theory itself, but was often associated with it, could easily and probably justifiably be viewed as having an anti-dramatist slant to it, which was a source of contention. In addition, the fact that it classifies the GM's motives for decision-making biases it in the sense that it's not all that handy as a method of describing the preferences of people who don't see the GM's motives as of great importance. Aside from that, it has a bias toward the idea that the GM designs the world before play begins: it doesn't handle improvised creation particularly well. I see it as flawed, therefore.

Nevertheless, it was a serious and to my mind useful attempt to say, "Hey, if you keep clashing with so-and-so over such-and-such, it might not mean that he's intentionally being a jerk. It might be that he's trying to do X instead of Y, and X is a reasonable thing to be trying to do, even if it doesn't always mix that well with Y."

Next: DAS & DIP and assorted other terms
DAS and DIP Character Development

It's probably the case that everyone has some idea of who their character is before they begin play, and that every character develops in play to some extent. However, players differ in the extent to which their characters are defined at the start.

A good many game texts, rules, techniques, and attitudes tend toward the idea that the Design At Start method is the right way to do things. For instance, in many systems it is assumed that a character will be mechanically defined before play begins, that the character sheet will be complete; making changes after play begins may be disallowed altogther, or may be undertaken only with a penalty. (For instance, it costs more to improve an attribute after play begins in GURPS 3rd edition than it does to buy the attribute up beforehand). In addition, there are groups where it is assumed that Real Roleplayers Write at Least Ten Pages of Background Beforehand and If You Don't You Must be a Hack-and-Slasher With No Character Depth.

However, there are players for whom this design-at-start approach is not likely to be successful. They have to know something about the character when play begins to be able to play at all; however, if they attempt to define too much, they may find that their characters either fail to develop successfully, or develop in a fashion that's at odds with the background they're supposed to have. What they consciously chose to write down about the character beforehand may not mesh well with the way they find the character thinking and behaving in play.

In addition, certain techniques or approaches to campaign openings don't work well for some Develop In Play players. Some people need to see their characters reacting to ordinary situations before they get into extraordinary ones, to establish what the charater's baseline attitudes and behavior are like. Techniques in which a campaign opens by throwing the characters into crisis, like Sorcerer's kickers, may not be productive for players like this.

Social Contract
The social contract was 'game contract' in rgfa. The social agreement and assumptions under which play takes place, sometimes explicit, often tacit. 'Contract,' implying that things are spelled out, is a really lousy term for assumptions that are probably mostly tacit, but as no one ever seemed to misunderstand it in rgfa, so what?

What constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a given group? Will you get bounced for showing up late without notice too many times? How, if ever, do you argue with the GM? And so on.

Script Immunity
The practice of avoiding killing, or sometimes disabling or maiming, PCs. Some people who otherwise go in for gritty realism may like script immunity.

PC Glow
Is there a difference between the way players are expected to treat PCs and NPCs? For instance, are they expected to automatically trust other PCs in circumstances where they wouldn't automatically trust NPCs? Then you have some PC glow. Acceptability of this is another style preference.

Niche Protection
Keeping one PC from overshadowing another, by differentiating their roles in some way. It may be mechanical -- they may have different classes. It may be another distinction of roles: perhaps they belong to groups with different social functions.

Schrodinger's NPC
An NPC who has a particular plot function to fulfill, and whose characteristics will be adjusted so that he always fulfills it. For instance, if the PCs leave town by the east gate, they'll meet him there; if they leave by the west gate, they'll meet him there instead. A contrast to a strict proceed-unaltered-from-the-initial-condition world-oriented style in which the NPC is at the east gate, and the PCs will only meet him if that's where they leave from.

1. A preplanned plot. Pretty well incompatible with the world-oriented style.
2. A scenario which has a line of tension or inherent conflict in it, set up in advance, but without predetermined events. Compatible with the world-oriented style.
3. The events of the game: whatever actually happened.

Any discussion of plot turns into a mess unless people distinguish between these senses.

Line & Veils
One of the few Forgey terms I'm going to address.
Lines: what issues will you address in play, and what's over the line? For example, is confronting child abuse acceptable? Torture? Racism?
Veils: what will you depict explicitly, and what will you draw a veil across? For example, would you play an actual sex scene, or would you stop at showing the characters going into a room and closing the door behind them?

Gleichman's Campaign Interaction Model
An attempt to address the some of the same issues as lines and veils, with a lengthy series of descriptions of what sort of action is permitted PC to NPC, NPC to PC, PC to PC, and NPC to NPC. Interesting idea, difficult to use because of its complexity.

Some of these terms originated somewhere other than rgfa, and are commonly understood; they're included because we discussed them. It's been a long time and I may well have forgotten a few.

By the way, you will notice, in the postings of people apparently only or primarily familiar with the Forge, the idea that the principle or only use of theory is in game design. That idea wasn't at all current in rgfa. The point of theory was to describe preferences, observations, practices, and so on that people had actually encountered in play, but which they didn't have any existing terms for. We started calling it 'theory' not because we started off with the idea that it should have no practical use or that it should exist for its own sake, but because the analytical or somewhat academic style of discussion seemed to call for the label. In the rgfa archives at Google groups there are many discussions of these concepts and the ones to follow in actual play; if this is of any interest, Sarah Kahn and Mary Kuhner were particularly good at giving examples and explanations.

The practice of having characters act only on what they should know, based on their experiences and background, rather than acting on what the player knows: the separation of IC knowledge from OOC knowledge. This is essential to some styles, although there are others where it may be disregarded.

Players differ in how easily they can firewall, so in styles of play where it's important to keep IC and OOC knowledge separate, there are also differing preferences as to whether players should be told anything their characters don't know. People who can firewall easily may prefer to hear everything so they can enjoy it from an out-of-character perspective; people who firewall with difficulty may prefer not to hear anything their character wouldn't know, to avoid distraction or mistakes.

Next: Narrative Stances, Immersion, and Channelling
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Narrative Stances

The narrative stances were, as originally proposed, a list of four approaches that people could take to a narrative. Ron Edwards appropriated the names of some stances, changing the definitions and obscuring some of the distinctions in the original list, thus introducing unclarity into all attempts to use them in company not composed exclusively of Forgites, for no reason that I can see. The original narrative stance group was, IIRC, described by Sarah Kahn and Kevin Hardwick.

A note: 'IC' is not here used as a synonym for 'first person' and 'OOC' is not here a synonym for 'third person'. A player can be thinking in character and describing their character's behavior using the third person, or thinking out of character and describing their character's behavior in the first person.

Character stance is thinking about play from the standpoint of the character: it's the in-character viewpoint (and the stance that includes the method-acting approach, generally speaking.) ("Damn it! Either Taril is a raving incompetent, or he's setting me up to take a fall.") Immersion -- which we also used to call Deep IC -- was, in rgfa terms, not something vague and ill-defined: it's just a variation of character stance, and it implies both thinking as the character from an intellectual perspective, and to some extent feeling as the character feels.

Actor stance is thinking about play from the standpoint of an actor intent on portraying the character: it's an out-of-character viewpoint. ("I need to make clear that this character is angry and not admitting it. Maybe conciliatory words in a stiff tone ... ")

Author stance is thinking about play from the position of the author. ("It'd really be neat if we met the villain without realizing who he is at first, so I'll have my character go to the symposium.")

Audience stance is fairly obvious. It's appreciating play from the same position as someone reading a book or watching a movie.

These were the original stances. In addition, two others were proposed and sometimes used:

Gameplayer's stance is also obvious. It's thinking about play from the standpoint of the player of a game.

Director's stance is closely related to author stance, but it refers to someone managing play from a perspective including broader authorial powers than players have in most traditional games: someone making up parts of the setting, plotting, etc. -- stuff often reserved for the GM.

Immersion, Channelling, and the World-Oriented 'Delusion'
Immersion, as previously noted, was not, in rgfa usage, simply being absorbed in the game, going with the flow, or whatever. Specifically, it was playing from a deep in-character stance -- deep enough so that the character model is subconscious and internalized. The immersed player doesn't consciously need to think about the character's responses: these are subconsciously developed, so that one feels as if one simply perceives the character reacting in a certain way, rather than consciously deciding how the character reacts. For some people (including me) this immersion or deep IC is the point and sine qua non of roleplaying. Different people find that different techniques assist in attaining immersion, or hinder it; but it is fairly common for immersive players to find having to spend much time thinking out-of-character to be distracting.

Immersion specifically referred to this style of 'channelling' a character, but one could also 'channel' a world, a setting -- one can, that is, subconsciously model other things besides characters, and find oneself seeming to perceive their states, rather than consciously deciding them. This leads to a habit of treating the campaign world and the things in it as if they were real independent entities, as if one is discovering them, rather than making them up. No one I can remember in rgfa ever actually asserted the independent metaphysical reality of a campaign world, which is why 'delusion' used in this context is in scare quotes -- this language, this construction, is a metaphor, working on the same level as an author who says "I couldn't get the characters to follow the plot." People who refused to understand anything metaphorically, or to read for context, had a tiresome habit of ranting about immersion and channelling as if they were mental illnesses and psychological aberrations rather than ways of describing subconscious creative processes. These people tended to end up in my killfile, as I found this approach not worth my time to address.

There was a tendency for some preferences to cluster. It was fairly common, for instance, to find people who favored a world-oriented Threefold style, the immersive character stance, certain sorts of somewhat 'realistic' settings, and a distaste for certain mechanics that involve a lot of out-of-character thinking. However, there were also people found their best immersive play in story-oriented games, could switch between IC and OOC stances more easily than others could, or otherwise broke up common patterns. There never was, consequently, anything considered a Big Rgfa Model: all the models were limited in scope, only intended to address certain things.

That's a summary of the theory that came out of rgfa. Downstream, it's been altered in various ways by various groups; to the extent that I'm acquainted with them, some of the alterations impress me as useful, and some as counterproductive.

-- And that's the whole thing.


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Your summary is very, very good.

I'd also like to point to John Kim's site, where he's got bits of the original material stored.


Silvered Glass said:
There simply isn't a good common word that means precisely what 'world-oriented' or 'Threefold simulationist' means,
Urgh... must. resist. argument.

If, at any point, you're in the mood for a semantic argument on this point, drop me a line.
Levi Kornelsen said:
Me said:
There simply isn't a good common word that means precisely what 'world-oriented' or 'Threefold simulationist' means,
Urgh... must. resist. argument.

If, at any point, you're in the mood for a semantic argument on this point, drop me a line..
If you think there's a better way to get at the relevant distinction, go for it. Not to get into the whole history of my Threefold criticism, but after I started writing again I came to view the Threefold as a fisheye lens that caught some aspects of my own style fairly well and distorted other parts fairly badly. It became a help in some ways and a hindrance in others. I'm after the simplest, clearest way to get the point across, and I'm not convinced that I really know how to do that yet.


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These posts bring back memories from when I was first online and discovered USENET and rgfa.

Ah, sweet nostalgia.


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Rupert said:
These posts bring back memories from when I was first online and discovered USENET and rgfa.

Ah, sweet nostalgia.
No kidding. It's also wonderful to again read a set of RPG theories that were not both as limiting and as overtly hostile/dismissive of my preferred play styles as the one most in vogue now. Rgfa was a joy, intelligent theory and a significant minority of people whose role-playing style was very similar to my own.


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Silvered Glass said:
Consequently, a couple of people have suggested that I should unbury the posts in which I summarized the theory that came out of the Usenet group rec.games.frp.advocacy, where I used to post. Rgfa theory antedates the Forge's, and had considerable influence on it, as well as on some other theoretical approaches.
I forgot to mention before, but thanks for these posts - I've saved them for future use, as they are (IMO) a very useful summary of the rgfa models. They are sufficently short and clear that I can use them to explain the theories to people such as some of my players without losing them.
jsnead said:
No kidding. It's also wonderful to again read a set of RPG theories that were not both as limiting and as overtly hostile/dismissive of my preferred play styles as the one most in vogue now.
'Swhy I never bothered to hang out at the Forge. Prizes like the All-out dissection (LONG AND BRUTAL) thread, along with a few other aspects of discussion, didn't give me the impression that it would be a particularly productive use of my time to seek for deep insights into my own preferred style there. And I was very far from convinced that we had everything right in rgfa, but some of the changes Edwards made to rgfa terminology impressed me as retrograde motion.

"While you were gone, these spaces filled with darkness ....
The obvious was hidden ... "

Then, the introductory path to Forge theory was "Read this badly written essay here, and this one, and also this essay that doesn't happen to have been written yet. Then, you need to read this 20-page argument to understand these terms. Oh, following the 20-page argument demands that you first understand a bunch of terms and assumptions that are in this 40-page argument over here. And the 40-page argument depends on the 35-page argument back here, which ... Done with that? Good, but you'll still be wrong about everything, because this is what these terms meant 2-4 years ago. The theory has developed since then."

To which my bemused response was: "I'll stop in occasionally to see if you've decided to make a stab at this whole newfangled 'communication' thing some people have come up with."

OK. So, that's a bit of an exaggeration, in the sense that I read some of the material over there, and have found some of the ideas of use -- I'll happily swipe techniques from anybody, and some of those for setting up conflicts before play begins are useful to me, e.g. There are some other techniques that don't do anything for me, but which I can see would work very well for other styles. There are some games that are terrific at doing things I'm not interested in, but which I can understand someone else wanting to do. And so on. But overall I didn't see a likely payback for taking up Forge theory commensurate with the effort it would take.
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