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Rob’s RPG Theory – Theory Kernel

Hey all, so I’ve got a lot of crazy thoughts about RPG theory, and I figured this would be a better place to discuss them than someplace I’d be spamming everyone.  So here we go!

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that RPG theory is a… touchy subject.  And so I do want to say that my goal here isn’t to say that anybody, or any way of playing, or even any game is bad.

And calling this even a theory is a little premature.  It’s like the beginnings of a hypothesis, really.  What I’m hoping is that it’s enough of a beginning to develop towards an actual theory, and preferably one that builds upon some of the interesting work done in the past, while avoiding some of those pitfalls.

So, here goes.  This first post is really about definitions of things, and some basic presumptions I’m making.

1) An RPG is an activity where a number of people take part in a shared ‘game’, and take the role of individual characters.

This is incredibly open.  It includes Fiasco, D&D, and Descent:  Journeys in the Dark.  If you think I should be more exclusionary, then you’re probably not going to like the rest of this.  So, sorry.

2) People play games to meet needs that they have.

And by ‘needs’, I mean that in the ‘hey, this meets my needs’ fashion, not suggesting that RPG players are needy, or have psychological issues.

This is a pretty fundamental thing, by the way.  A lot of what I hope to talk about is differing needs, how they interact, and how they’re met by games.

By the way, when I talk about “needs”, I don’t necessarily mean just things that are satisfied by a particular system, but anything that is satisfied by the time period that people play a game – common “non-game” needs may include Spending Time With My Friends or Proving I’m the Best or Meeting New People.  These aren’t game mechanics, but they are reasons that people play games, and they are things that various mechanics may facilitate or make more difficult.

3) A game system is a codified set of instructions for playing a game.

Hopefully there’s nothing here that’s too crazy sounding.  The only thing that might sound a bit odd is that I differentiate it from…

4) A game is a particular set of activities that occur at a particular time period, generally using one or more game systems.

Okay, now I may have lost you.  But all this means is that a ‘game’ can only be really looked at in the context of a bunch of people playing it.  Two groups of people may play the same game system in totally different ways, whether that’s due to interpretation, emphasis and de-emphasis of various elements, or simple misunderstanding.  But really, it’s very rare that two groups play, for instance “D&D” the same way.  There’s similarities, sure, and a new player may be able to get over those similarities in short order, but it’s very likely that those two groups will differ in serious aspects, be it what is emphasized, what is de-emphasized, house rules, level of challenge presented, etc.  Even a number of social interactions will be different based on the tolerances and personalities involved, and that’s all part of the “game”, as well!

5) Techniques are things that game systems (or even games) use to try to achieve player needs

Okay, so let’s look at an example of this.  A player need may be I want to feel like there is real danger.  Great!  A game may choose to implement this by having High lethality.
Techniques can be viewed in a number of ways – they can help achieve some needs, and they may be opposed to others.  They may commonly be associated with other techniques, as well.

Posted in RPG Theory.


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