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Soapbox: About the Industry

Beyond Role and Pla(t)y(pus)

by Sandy Antunes
Apr 08,2004


Beyond Role and Pla(t)y(pus)

by Sandy Antunes

Here's a quick quiz, with far too many choices! This month's column's title reflects:

  1. the column's current theme
  2. my fascination with live action gaming
  3. the title of a Finnish book on RPGing
  4. a way to steal attention from Mike Pohola and Juhana Petersson
  5. all the above
  6. a platypus?

Yes, the answer is a platypus. See, a platypus is a mammal that lays eggs and has poisonous spurs. It's also nearly cold-blooded.

"Beyond Role and Play", in contrast, is a book from the Finnish role-playing convention, 'Solmukohta', 2004 (edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros). We get an unusual beast indeed-- a take on roleplaying by people who are interested in using role-playing as a mechanism to change society, who are free of US-centric liability laws, and who hold conventions just to _talk_ about games, beyond simply playing them.

It's quite a trip. It's also a fascinating read and I'll be reviewing it in the Reviews section shortly. Mind you, it'd hard to get-- I hope the editors either a) encourage the authors to republish their essays in other, more widely-available forums or as PDFs, or b) release the book to the book trade. But here, we need to go into why it's a platypus, why it's good, and why all good game design is like a platypus.

First, note it's a conference proceedings, not a 'book'. This means the poor editor collected the works by the people at the conference and vetted them, as opposed to forcing authors to write on a specific topic. So the book is all across the board, kind of like how an egg-laying mammal that is nearly cold-blooded is a bit of a species mix.

Sure, it starts off innocently enough, Paul Mason with "A Survey of the First 25 Years of Anglo-American Role-Playing Game Theory", the usual 'history of RPGs' bit most theory books require.

Except, his is great! Instead of being a boring history lecture of who and what and where, he describes what concepts and games of impact appeared, and how they lead to, well, "fun". It's 13 pages and some US publisher should immediately contact him and get reprint rights. More people should read it. It really traces the evolutionary tree of the GM, moreso than being a dry game history. It rocks.

So already the focus of this RPG book is on people. Not 'famous people', like a magazine. Not 'games' or 'setting'. People, players, gamers, how and why and whatfor.

Now, as a conference proceeding, several of the articles are hit or miss. Not since "Interactive Fantasy"* has there been this level of intellectual self-indulgence alternating with absolute brilliance. The book is in sections: Theory, Practice, Games, and Openings.

Previously in this column we discussed the Kilgallon Paradox, what is an RPG, etc. This book solves it all. 1) It's a game. 2) People play for different reasons. 3) Not everyone will be happy. 4) Losing can be winning.

After today, I'm done my theory column series for the year.

Okay, early roleplaying writing fell into 3 types: Expansions (new rules, monsters, items, classes, etc), Expression (scenarios), and Interpretation (rules discussion) [Mason]. The concept of "Storytelling" came into vogue, and in general 'experimental' concepts from years earlier hit the marketplace. The 'Threefold Way' of Kuhner, Bockman and Kim set up the idea that people play for 'game', 'simulation', or 'drama'.

But you can also look at whether people game for "immersion" (things like simulation, realism, really 'being' the character) or "dramatism" (looking at the story and performance, 'playing' the character). What Sergio earlier called 'character playing' versus 'roleplaying' fits in here too.

Ack, too much 'theory' and 'words in quotes'. I like Kim's bit that role-playing is like a live puppet show. We're all just puppets! Soylent Green is people!

*ahem* Now, Helio defines several ways of defining a 'game' versus just telling stories, the impact of which is we have to remember there's a tremendous variety out there. (There, how's that for 'theory lite'?) So from this, there's really only one question that ultimately matters.

Can a publisher use theory to figure out what will sell?

The first answer is, gosh yes. I mean, it's not like Reiner Knizia or Tom Jolly or Richard Garfield design card or board games thinking "it's just like X, only with Y". They have a good grasp of game design, things like balance and strategy and numbers and information theory. Knizia has a PhD in Math. Jolly has an MS in Astronautical Engineering. Garfield, PhD in Math. (Sense a pattern?

But as noted by Knizia, game design is not just analytical work, "Fun is nothing you can prove or calculate. Fun is something you have to experience."

In short, good designers understand and can articulate the underlying design principles, without remaining bound by them. They also need a sense of fun.

At the risk of offending start-ups, most publishers start a lot like computer game modders. They have a great idea for 'like X, but with Y'. This is an inexact creation process. It's derivative, rather than creating something new from scratch. Somehow, a good design has to merge a bunch of contrasts:

strong analytical underpinings with fun!
great idea with great execution
novel concept with familiar play
fast play with complex behavior
simple rules with rich possibilities
oh, and low cost with high production values

The conference proceedings "Beyond Role and Play" (of which I've only noted less than half here!) is an essential 'theory toolkit' that any game designer needs. We need to understand and consider the underlying issues of role-playing design in order to make fun and more saleable games, just as whiz card game designers need to know the underlying math and game theory while designing fun and saleable games.

Know the rules then choose which ones to break. The best games have something old, something new, something borrowed, and something fun. It's not an art, it's not a science, it's both. The best game is just like a platypus. It may seem a mismatch, but it's highly evolutionary successful.

This author has, of course, been published in IF, otherwise, he'd never criticize it. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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