Ludo, Ergo Sum

Ludo, Ergo Sum
My Eyes Glaze Over

Allen Varney | 14 Mar 2006 07:02
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Are you a Gamist, a Narrativist or a Simulationist? Do you generally favor Actor, Author or Director stance? Do your chosen reward system, your IIEE (Intent, Initiation, Execution and Effect) and other Techniques support your Creative Agenda?

These are terms used by paper-and-dice roleplaying theorists. When you say, "I swing my sword at the biggest orc," these people analyze, with Jesuit rigor, what you really mean and why.

Tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) are currently enjoying a Golden Age of design and theory, prompted by the stagnation of commercial RPG publishing. Over the last decade, hundreds of retail game stores have shut down; the surviving stores are rebounding, but they're carrying fewer RPGs, and, in fact, they could make more money selling knitting needles. Print runs for new RPG books are low, if no longer declining. Attendance at the leading convention is flat. A deceptively upbeat Sacramento Bee article estimates the market in 2004 at $36 million, down perhaps $100 million from the mid-1980s. Tabletop RPGs aren't dying, but they're hardly thriving.

Except online, where dozens of passionate designers are revolutionizing the field. These low-profile independents create small, brilliantly original little games, nurture them like hothouse orchids, and post them free or sell them cheap in PDF format. And in online forums as highflown as a philosophe's salon, they're collectively refining a critical apparatus, a theoretical framework to classify game systems and diagnose "dysfunctional roleplaying."

Understand: These indie theorists and their games reach a bare fraction of the roleplaying audience. They're the nichiest of niche players. Gamers sharply distinguish indie games from so-called mainstream RPGs, where "mainstream" connotes an audience of a few thousand instead of a few hundred. If mainstream designers live a threadbare existence, indies are positively monastic. A few earn hobby-level incomes - about what you might earn, say, selling collectibles on eBay part-time. The rest are devoted hobbyists, "amateurs" in the best sense.

But they're doing work that may turn out to be quite valuable, both for paper and online games. In the same way RPGs use rules to forestall childish cowboy-and-Indian arguments - "I hit you!" "Nuh-uh!" - theorists develop terminology to describe whether a given game helps players achieve their goals. This discourages vacuous Usenet-style arguments - "Your game sucks!" "My game rules!" - or at least replaces those arguments with "Your game is Gamist!" "My game is Narrativist!" The theorists' overall goals are to enhance communication between gamers, inspire new designs and relate RPGs to other media. Obviously, their findings could help a thoughtful MMOG designer.

Still, though the theory is useful, reading it can be a slog. For sheer cussed opacity, the articles don't rank with Derrida or Baudrillard, but.... Try this: Start a stopwatch, then browse a theory article - for example, "GNS and Other Matters of Roleplaying Theory" by Ron Edwards. Count the seconds until you mutter, "Sheesh, get a job." If you never say that - if you enjoy ideas like this -

In many cases, a given genre label will convey to a close group of people a fairly tight combination of values for these variables [of setting, plot, situation and character]. However, the same genre label loses its power to inform as you add more people to the mix, especially since most labels have switched meanings radically more than once. And even more importantly, new combinations of values for the key variables may be perfectly functional, even when they do not correspond to any recognized genre label.

- you'll enjoy your new friends in the salon. For the rest of us, here is a brief, relatively painless overview, although if your Time to Sheesh was less than 20 seconds, skip it.

Threefold Model, GNS, The Big Model
Roleplaying theory springs from the commonsense observation that gamers roleplay for different reasons.

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