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Speculative Physics

Constrained by One Another

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Apr 22,2005

 

Constrained by One Another

Over the past two months, I have been presenting a new theory for why people roleplay and how roleplaying games meet these reasons. The gist of the theory is that players roleplay primarily to learn, whether this is the conventional learning of acquiring new information and skills, or the more unusual reinforcement of social relationships and contexts. In any case, the content is what provides or fails to provide this learning. Each player has a view of the shared content of play, and will be able to learn best when the content from that perspective is neither static nor random. The intermediate complexity enables learning for the player, and leads to their enjoyment of play.

One advantage of this theory is that it presents roleplaying in an observable sense. Rather than focusing on classes of intent or private decisions, the public content of play can be directly considered. The effect of this content on the players can then be tested with recall and retention tests. In this way, this content-based theory is a framework for experimental testing. It acts as a scientific theory, as its hypothesis can be subsequently tested.

When roleplaying occurs in a group context the views of each player will likely not match up. Instead the players add and remove content. The dynamics of this process are the underlying rules of the roleplaying game, the constraints under which play occurs.

Building Constraints

Constraints are a form of censorship. We observe constraints in play by seeing what is not permitted, what is removed from content rapidly, and what is never even offered for entry. Much like play and learning in roleplaying, constraints are observed from the outside. They retain a freedom from intent and the internal disposition of the players.

One frequent theoretical definition for system is called the Lumpley Principle, which loosely states that system is how authority is partitioned by the players. Constraints do not presume this level of intent. They are not a method, rather constraints are an effect. Constraints describe the limitations placed on content, not how those limitations are placed, for that we must take a look at how player control play.

Bringing In Controls

Just as constraints and content lie outside any one player and remain observable pieces of the theory, views are private and can only be suspected. The view of content for a particular player is something which acts as a hypothesis, and the observation of content and learning is the manner in which that hypothesis can be tested.

Constraints, as an experimental observation, also have a set of hypotheses to test. These are the controls that a player uses to effect change over the content. Developing controls for a player is analogous to suggesting an algorithm for decision making. The controls are a function, taking the content observed through a player's view, and producing a decision for what content to add. The underlying goal of a control is to produce the intermediate complexity within the player's view.

The interaction of the different controls and views of the players creates the rich dynamics of play. Ultimately constraints arise as regularities in those dynamics. With controls, the content-based theory provides a therapeutic result, as well as a scientific structure. By helping players understand how controls interact, players can learn to create the constraints they desire, and eventually enjoy play more.

Like content patterns, controls also live under several driving pressures. On one hand they must be complex enough to manage the task of making play enjoyable. On the other, they must be as simple and robust as possible, since they are being implemented by people in the process of learning. One of the tricks that our minds uses to keep controls simpler is to refer to available content. While this include the current content of play, it also includes the peripheral content which lies around play.

Looking Outside

One form of peripheral content is the history of play. By looking back at previous content, and the constraints under which they occurred, a player can intuit responses to current situations. For example, if a previous conflict of whether a door is present is decided by fiat of the GM, then that may be referenced the next time a dispute of this sort arises. On the other hand, controls can use the historical content by avoidance or affinity. In this case the player could avoid mentioning things in a room until the GM does, to avoid a conflict like that which occurred. Alternatively, the player could take that incident as a reinforcement of directly asking questions of that sort, rather than assuming answers until corrected.

In practice the historical content is the most used peripheral content. This is for one very simple reason. Any piece of peripheral content which is used joins the historical content. This describes the process where players drift from using a gaming text, to simply using their recollections of how that text was used in earlier play.

The remainder of peripheral content is arrayed around the content of play by layers of associations. At the furthest levels are minor associations with the current play content, common knowledge which is referenced by the content already encountered. Closer in the associations become stronger. It is also here that the use of references and the actual game text can be found.

Until we investigate the peripheral content, the gaming text does not influence play. Instead the text is a resource, which can greatly aid in the development and simplicity of controls. Or it can be a hindrance to forming controls. The important point is that nearly everything which occurs in play is detached from the text. Only by influencing the controls that the players use can a game designer truly affect play. This is the greatest challenge facing a game designer.

With the basics of the content-based theory of roleplaying spanning these three articles, I will be returning to more terrestrial grounds. Since beginning this column, I have designed over a dozen RPGs. For the next few articles I will plow into the nitty gritty of designing games. For the first of these I am bringing up classic soft sci-fi.

Next Month: Technobabble

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