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The Contract

Equating Real

by J.S. Majer
Dec 16,2002

 

Equating Real

1) Statistical Representation

In(1) role playing games every action or fact can be quantified. The notion that every action, every quality of a person, can be nailed down into a few statistical probabilities is a huge assumption, but the assumption that the concept of role playing games are built around. It is an assumption that I am uncomfortable with as it strikes me as the basis for many a dystopian novel, but on some level it also has to be true. Given enough time and a stick of sufficient size, you can kill me, reduce my hit points to zero. My academic career and physical prowess can be stated as a string of numbers. Any event does have a statistical likelihood and/or representation, or bookies would be out of business.

Life however does not tend to operate under those statistical constraints. To go back to the prior example, you should be hard pressed to exactly state my hit points at any one time, much less account for your chance to hit or how much damage the stick should do. Any good student of counterfactual history knows that it is a thousand odd strikes of causality that have gotten us to our world that we have, and not the constraints of a more congenial probability. Any good student at all knows how questionable the numbers from a standardized test are.

Yet perhaps I make too much of this: after all, odds are odds, implying that things may go either way. Role playing games allow for critical successes and failures. Furthermore, while chaos and whimsy is a powerful factor, it is not the only one, and the act of studying history at all would be a farce if it was only the weird stuff. Hell, life would be intolerable if we could not assess odds and move on them, relatively sure that they would be accurate. Still, role playing games operate mechanically using the assumption that anything can come down to a die roll, or whatever probability mechanic is being used.

"Now clearly," you say, "there must be some things that obviously don't come down to a die roll. We don't have to roll to [insert obvious example here]. No game has a rule for that." Well, that's where it gets interesting, doesn't it? Most games will have a general task resolution system, or a system that can be appropriately bastardized to factor into most situations. Note the qualifiers. A game lacking the necessary mechanical infrastructure to do so is forcing a different type of solution. Yet many of those still have the basic principle of a mechanistic system of event resolution, and no specific prohibitions upon their use.

Role playing games are predicated on a statistical simulation of real life. Not everything may be "statisfied," but that is due to preference rather than necessity. One could play a game where everything deed, word and happenstance was determined by rule and die, and a thoroughly uninvolved game it would be.

2) Equity

In role playing games, rules do not exist for the purpose of "leveling the playing field" in the same way they do in more conventional games. If ball has left the ballpark and not crossed a foul line before doing so it is an incontestable run. It does not matter who, where or when the hitter is, this is the established concept of home run. It is the bar that everyone is expected to meet, par for the course to mix metaphors and cliches. There are rules that are more interpretive, for instance whether a runner was safe or not. Though they are interpretative, the Umpire is expected to try to judge them with accuracy, aiming for the true result of an unclear situation. The Umpire is expected to remain as impartial as possible. In some instances they will not be (for instance, giving an unclear result to one team because the last unclear result went to the other team) but the intent is for a clear statement of the actual rules of the game.

Is this true for role playing games? There is "game balance." Game balance is the art of grafting semi-abstract limitations onto the game world, so as to make the "resource allocation" part of the game, a game. Character creation provides the most ready examples of this sort of thing. Spending points to be strong means you do not have them to spend on being fast, or requires them to be counterbalanced with some other lack, whereas in the real world this is not true, or at least questionably so, but makes perfect sense in making each character of equal value to one another.

There is also transparency. In combat, if character X has such skills and items and character Y has such skills and items, anyone who has read the rules understand the likelihoods involved, i.e. if I roll a ten, I score a hit. People know what is going on. Transparency even works in ruleless or virtually ruleless systems. What is understood is by who or what the probabilities are to be assessed by. In fact, if there were no transparency, there would be no game because no one would know what game they were actually playing.

What is the problem with full transparency in a role playing game? It is impossible.

3) Limitless Limitation

Two characters are fighting. What if both are on a stairway and one has an arm tied behind his back? The sorts of things that can modify a contest are virtually limitless. Assessing the degree of affect is equally difficult. For instance, we can say that having an arm tied up will limit someone's combat skills, but by how much? Clearly we still manage to play games, and Referee's assess difficulties and degrees of success or failure constantly, but there is much that falls outside the bounds of the rules even when being determined by them.

Of course, in this matter the fact that assessing every task as a proablistic statement is so abstract is an advantage. After all, if it is an abstraction, another rough abstraction is palatable While we could not actually assess what a real soldier's combat skill rank was, a real soldier does not need to deal with such numeric matters. For him, it is only the infinite number of facts, which an infinite number of concerns alter. It is not unreasonable to say that picking a lock in the dark adds five to its difficulty number, because there is that abstract sense underlying everything - the abstractness of the difficulty number, modifier and roll itself. Yet these facts are always up for debate, a debate that lodges into the runtime activity of the Referee.

While a sports Referee is only looking at the actions and judging them, a role playing game Referee is constantly assessing the actions in her mind, considering their viabilities and passing judgment over the physical representations of those immaterial actions, the die rolls that make up the action of the game. In a game of baseball, everyone - every thing even - knows the material action that constitutes a run, and can generally say when those physical events have transpired. The physical action, rounding the bases, translates into an accepted convention, a run. In a role playing game a physical action, a die roll, translates first into an accepted convention, as that roll meets with the rule concepts, and then back into a simulation of reality, a door being bust open ("a simulation of genre" would be more accurate but I've already covered that).

4) (Truth+Rule)/Construct = Y

What does it mean? A role playing game is an exercise in recreating reality. It does this by rules. Anything can be put into game terms or become codified as a rule, yet not everything is. This is radically unlike the use of rules in other sorts of games, where they are only used as measuring sticks.

It is by means of the rules that the world is created. So consider a role playing game a reflexive art with rules as its medium. Reflexive, because the audience are the participants, the ones the game is designed for and interpreted by are the players and Referee. The rules (brace yourself, plucky) are the vector of mimesis, the means by which some reality is modeled. The rules take a concept and give it wings to be interpreted, as the rules produce the limitation of action. But what of the actions of a role playing game outside of the rules, the talking that really produces the game? They are like the conventions of art, because it is through the rules and their implementation is it defined what sort of things can be decided so.

But at this point there's nothing new. Any game could be seen as an art with rules as its medium. After all, there is a reality being created in any game, a reality distinctly separate from ours. There is a reality to any sports match, a game-space created wherein the concepts make sense from only a game perspective. Hell, we were here last month, but we weren't calling it art. So the kicker has to be something else, or else not at all.

But then there's that interpretation. A concept like interpretation is far more well-suited to the field of art. After all, one of art's main tenets is interpretation. A statue or a painting is not only a representation of whatever thing they purport to show, an athlete for instance, but an understanding of that thing, a particular look at that thing that only this piece of art can show. The charioteer at Delphi does show us what a charioteer looks like, but also shows the artist's understanding and interpretation of that charioteer, because the artist made any number of choices to represent that charioteer in that way.

A normal game is anti-interpretation. Rules are designed to be as clear as possible, and arguments show failures of the game. A role playing game needs interpretation to function, and by this is always presenting a take on it, a take most clearly represented by what the Referee is doing. The Referee has the lion's share of the interpretation duties, because the Referee must read the I Ching of the dice/rules to come up with the words on what is going on, plus engage the players in the genre-appropriate approach to the rule interpretation. There is little else to call that interpretation but art.

Do not presume that the players are shirked in this interpretation. After all, they too face their numerical understandings and must make good on them. They too have to turn rules into a functional reality. But their interpretation tends towards actual acting, so the interpretation and understanding is more obvious.


1 - Okay, wanted to start off with a footnote for the sheer gratuity. This column is a partial addition to the previous one, specifically out there to clear up one issue that I cut from the final draft, got called on by someone, reworked, and discovered basic concept was wrong, but that notion could be expanded into something that could almost stand alone.

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