Saturday, March 24, 2018

Want a Theory of RPGs? Start with theories of games.

The other day I read Zak's (long, be warned) first installment of his break-down of Ron Edwards's GNS Theory. It's pretty good. I've been saying some of the same things myself, but Zak manages to articulate some things that have also bothered me about GNS but I never could quite suss out exactly what they were. I haven't had time to read his second and third posts yet, but I'm looking forward more of this.

Now, independently, more than a month or so ago (well before I broke my arm, so maybe 2 months ago) I had read this academic article trying to define just what exactly a game is by Danish ludologist Jesper Juul called The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness (2003)*. Juul, building on previous theories of games - traditional games, folk games, board games, computer games - to come up with a comprehensive list of elements that can be used to test whether or not something is or is not a game.

Now, I'm not sure if Zak's intention is to build up a workable theoretical model of RPGs to replace GNS, or if he's merely trying to put the final nail in the coffin (good luck to that, GNS is probably here to stay, although it may not be as influential as it once was). But I think looking at Juul's work may be a good place to start if one did wish to create a workable, testable theory of RPGs.

Juul first analyzes key elements of game definitions from seven influential sources, groups together similar elements, and then arranges them into four categories: games as formal systems, relation between the player and the game, relation between the player and the world, and "other" for anything that doesn't fit into those three groups. He then synthesizes the elements into six core features that he feels are necessary and sufficient to label something as a "game" and explains them in detail. These elements are:

1. Fixed Rules [players don't need to debate rules during play]
2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes [there are specific goals or end points, and they are not the same in all instances of the game]
3. Valorization of the Outcome [some outcomes are better than others]
4. Player Effort [the player must act to overcome the challenge, not just rely wholly on random chance]
5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome [players are invested in achieving certain outcomes or avoiding certain other outcomes]
6. Negotiable Consequences [while most games can be and are played with no real world consequences, it's possible to bet on, play professionally, or in some other way attach real-world stakes to instances of play]

Juul then analyzes numerous activities, placing them on a scale of games (have all six elements of his definition), borderline cases of game-like activities (lack one or two elements, but are still heavily game-like), and non-games (may be forms of play, but lack two or more crucial elements of his definition).

He puts table-top RPGs firmly in the borderline cases, because they violate element 1 of the definition. The rules are not fixed as long as a referee/dungeon master is there to adjudicate, make rulings, and interpret the rules and the actions within each instance of play. In all other ways, table top RPGs conform to the definition. Computer RPGs, because they are executed by an impartial computer, are definitely games by Juul's definition.

Interestingly, it's exactly the fact that table top RPGs have fixed rules but they are open to DM adjudication, modification, and selective implementation that gives RPGs their strength as a medium of entertainment. And unlike interactive fiction (which lack variable/quantifiable outcomes and player attachment to outcomes) or freeform play (which lacks fixed rules of any sort), Juul still considers TTRPGs to be 'borderline.'

I'll try to get back to this line of thought soon.For now, though, I'm off to bed.

*Jesper Juul: "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness". In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45.
Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003.


  1. Huh. I don't usually read that guy's blog, but I might take a look at this post. I've had Edwards on my mind a lot since I became aware of his most recent efforts (which I haven't yet had a chance to write about).

    On a different note, just got my print copy of Chanbara in the mail and stayed up way too late flipping through it last night. Good work! My first impressions are: A) perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as Flying Swordsmen, B) absolutely chock FULL of stuff game, perhaps more so than FS (I'll have to go do a comparison review), and C) perhaps the best treatment of fantasy feudal Japan I've ever seen.

    Right now I have a lot on my plate, but I'll try to get a review up on Ye Old Blog before I wing off to Mexico next week. Congrats on getting it out!

    1. Hmm. Having now read his (first) essay, I think he missed the point in more than a few places.

      'Course, I'm not sure the reason for the fuss in the first place. Because folks feel bad when their game of choice is called "incoherent" by someone armed with an old theory? Gosh, if you're a gamer (or game designer) you're going to have to put up with worse barbs than that!

      Such fragile egos we have...

    2. I didn't say anything about feelings, JB, I said the term "incoherent" was inconsistently defined but never used in a positive context.

      And, JB, next time you have a criticism, the productive path is to confront the person who you would like to criticize.

      Then you could actually, like, if I missed the point tell me where

      As for Dennis' OP:

      Thanks! that was helpful

    3. @ Zak:

      My response wasn't meant for you, else I would have commented on your blog. I have no criticism to post, certainly nothing I want to enumerate at this time. I stated an opinion ("I think..."). My question ("...because folks feel bad...?") is an actual wondering aloud, because it was unclear to me from your post. Regardless, it wasn't something I felt necessary in pursuing, else I would have put the question to you...again, on your blog.

      @ Dennis: sorry for hijacking your blog thread.

    4. @JB

      There's no point in "wondering aloud" about a question you could just ask me.

      I am literally the only person who could answer your question.

      So whether or not you were _attempting to address me_ you were presenting a problem only I can solve: your misunderstanding of my post.

      So I have corrected that misunderstanding out of sheer generosity, as when someone, unbidden, picks up the keys you dropped and hands them to you.

      In the futures: next time you are "wondering" about a question only one person can answer: ask that person. There is nothing to be afraid of, and your curiosity will likely be assuaged immediately.

  2. Games with referees or judges aren’t games? That’s a strange claim to make.

    1. I don't think the paper claims that. You could replace a football referee with a software that makes the calls because the rules are very rigorous - it wouldn't essentially make a difference.

      If you swapped the GM with an algorithm, though, you'd make it a different thing.

    2. I'll touch on that in a future post, but as Ynas says, it's not the presence of a referee, it's the ability of the ref to change the rules, sometimes on the spot, that put TTRPGS on the border according to Juul.

      You don't need to accept his definition if you don't find it adequate, Scott.

    3. I think it’s a good, but incomplete definition. I’m not sure there is a complete definition.

    4. The ref in a basketball game is the ultimate authority on a few points such as charging. The existence of a ref does not keep a game from being a game.

    5. Yes, the basketball ref gets to decide if the rule was broken or not. But he doesn't get to change the rule on the spot. The ref can't suddenly call a player for charging and decide to arbitrarily award 10 points to the other team. The rules are fixed in basketball. In table top RPGs, less so. That's what Juul is saying. I did provide the link to the article so you can see what he said (he only mentions TTRPGs briefly actually, but read his section describing fixed rules).

  3. I agree with Juul. Are RPGs games? Definitely kinda sorta! Are they stories? Again, sort of. Are they theater? Well they might share some elements sometimes but not really, not usually. RPGs are great because they dip their freaky little toes in all these different waters without making a big splash in anyone. Usually that is.