2008-09-23 : Nonformalism?

Hey everybody, I need a word.

You know how when you're roleplaying and it's a formalistic game, you're like "I spend 4 GM budget points to deal myself 4 cards. You get cards equal to your 'self worth' and your 'I love my mommy.' For each heart in your hand, you get to bring one character into the scene."

What would you call the OTHER way to roleplay? Where you're like "Bob stares you in the face, his hand twitching on the table. 'I can't believe you'd say that,' he says. 'She LOVED you.'"

I want to say "naturalistic," but I'm pretty sure that naturalism is already a thing that means something else. Naturalistic roleplaying would be, like, a question of subject matter and content, opposed to romantic or fantastic roleplaying, not a question of techniques.

Heck I may be misusing "formalistic" too.

Any thoughts? I really just need a word. I ESPECIALLY don't want to debate merits.

1. On 2008-09-23, Vincent said:

Here's a debate I also ESPECIALLY don't want to have. Yes, the limply pimply points out that there is a (sometimes acknowledged, often unspoken) formal structure underlying even informalistic play. I know.

...That might be helpful, actually. "Informalistic" implies too much about the underlying structure, that the luffly puffly-system of play is soft and loose. I'm after a word about the superficialities of play. In some play, the underlying formal structure is given explicit voice; in the kind of play I'm talking about, it may be just as strict, formal, and structural underneath, but that's implicit, not explicit, in the voice of play.

(I kind of feel like I just said "blart! blart!" Somebody help me out.)


2. On 2008-09-23, Daniel Yokomizo said:

I would go for "ad-hoc".


3. On 2008-09-23, Vincent said:

Hm. But Bob's staring and what he says, it might be not ad hoc at all. It might be strongly supported by a strict underlying mechanical structure, and it might have reliable mechanical-structural implications going forward.

Of course, it'd have to be a concrete mechanical structure that doesn't require much or any explicit reference to maintain, but that's just a design problem.


4. On 2008-09-23, Vincent said:

Maybe I should look to art movements for names. "Hudson River School roleplaying." Ha ha.


5. On 2008-09-23, Ben Lehman said:

I think "informal" works fine. I mean, yes, it's defined by a negative, but that style of role-playing is somewhat defined by a negative anyway.

The one downside of "informal" is that it looks at this like it's a dichotomy, which it isn't.


P.S. Oh, hey, in the text of Polaris I called this sort of play "free play." Maybe that helps. "Free play" vs. "Formal play" vs. "Ad-hoc play" etc.


6. On 2008-09-23, Christoph said:

Blart! Blart! ? I'll use that word for myself in conversations, I like the sound of it.

Brute-force, blurt-out, uncensored, unpolished, gutsy, brut (like the champagne), unbleached, rough, raw? In a good sense. I prefer my red meat raw... err rare.

There's a nice french expression that would work quite well in my book: "brut de d??coffrage", which refers to concrete just out of the mould. Raw and pure, massive.

Yeah, I like raw.


7. On 2008-09-23, Jonathan Walton said:

What's wrong with "implicit" vs. "explicit" mechanics?

"Formalism" in visual art was opposed to "impressionism/expressionism", yeah?  You could go there too.


8. On 2008-09-23, Brand Robins said:

Structural vs organic?

Has somethings to recommend it, but there could be a sense in the words that one is more "natural" than the other, which is all sorts of bullshit.

Formalism vs Expressionism

Again, interesting things, but once again the possible connotation that one is about personal expression and the other isn't....

There's also the decision making/cognitive studies approach that could break it down into Combinational vs Positional (—which, once again, carry some baggage.

Logical vs Intuitive?

Formal vs Romantic?

Of course we could always go back to the early days of the hobby and roll with: Law vs Chaos. That one strikes me as very neutral and good.


9. On 2008-09-23, Guy Shalev said:

We call it free-form around here.

Yes, free-form is also what many call the section between 'formalistic play' bits, but when the whole game is like that, it's a free-form game.


10. On 2008-09-24, Claire said:

Skeletal vs muscular?  Yes, I'm being a little silly.

Exposed and layered?  Because, as you say, that formal structure is still there, but sometimes it's got stuff over the top, and I gather that it's the stuff over the top that you want to talk about.


11. On 2008-09-24, alan said:

It seems to me that if the system is just as structured - definite mechanical consequences for actions and all that, then the difference is really in how it is spoken about.

So something along the line of 'Natural Language' roleplaying - the same way people keep trying for natural language programming.

A random scot.


12. On 2008-09-24, Piers said:

How about procedural vs. non-procedural?


13. On 2008-09-24, Georgios said:

I'd go for "open narration" and "structured narration".


14. On 2008-09-24, Dave Cleaver said:

I've been thinking about what (for lack of a better term) I call "immersive" mechanics. Mechanics that don't require you to step out of the fiction to engage them.


15. On 2008-09-24, Vincent said:

Thanks, everyone!

"Natural language roleplaying" is interesting.

So in Chess, let's say. The game is made of our pieces' moves on the board. If I pick up one of my bishops and make a legal move with it - and I'm not trying to teach you how to play - I don't ever have to say out loud "this is a bishop so moving it diagonally is legal, but it can't jump any pieces, so I'm moving it to here." I can make my move without any spoken reference to the game's rules at all, as long as I abide by them.

In roleplaying, the game is made of things we say about our fictional characters and their fictional setting, not pieces' moves on a board (or in addition to pieces' moves on a board; that's fine). Like in chess, in a roleplaying game the players have a variety of legal moves they can make - a variety of things they can legitimately say about the fictional stuff. "Allison goes to find October." "They hold Kal down and break his hands with a hammer." "Foster invites Damson to dinner." Under some circumstances, each of those would be a legal move; under others, illegal.

Let's say that I'm the GM, and one legal move by this particular game's rules, under current circumstances, is "NPCs separate the PCs." If I make this move, it has specific, concrete consequences: "separated characters can't help one another, so their players can't combine dice."

What I say out loud is, "Foster's thugs slam you down, Mary, and twist your arms behind you, and drag you out of the room. Foster watches without much expression, then turns to you, October. 'Eat dinner with me,' she says."

What I don't say out loud (unless I'm teaching you how to play) is, "because of [this] and [this], 'NPCs separate the PCs' is a legal move, so that's what I'm doing."

In Poison'd, when I GM, when I bring a cruel fortune into play, I pretty much always declare it explicitly. "Because your character made a deal with the devil, and he thinks you're trying to weasel out of it, I'm bringing 'abandoned to fate' into play." When Graham GMed Poison'd for us, he didn't. I think that's just fine, and in the case of Poison'd it makes very little stylistic difference.

However, in other games it might make a HUGE stylistic difference. In Chess, what matters is where I put my bishop, not the fact of its diagonal move. In some rpgs, same thing. What matters most about the moves are their details - which of the PCs is still close to Foster? Which is getting kick-stomped by thugs in a locked room? - not the facts of their bare mechanisms.


16. On 2008-09-24, Vincent said:

Reading that over, "under X circumstances, NPCs separate the PCs" isn't a move. It's the same kind of thing as "bishops move diagonally, can capture, can't jump" - a formulation of the legality of a set of moves.


17. On 2008-09-24, Brand Robins said:


So are we talking here about what we say at the table or what we do at the table?

Like, in your initial example would you still be talking about the same thing if the group was using that system and everyone draws cards and then without saying anything about it one guy throws down two hearts and says "Nancy is listening to you and she starts screaming, and Gary is right behind her looking like he'd like to brain you."

I mean, the system didn't get spoken outloud—no one said "I'm using two hearts to introduce to NPCs"—but it was clearly spoken at a structural level—two hearts went down, two NPCs came in.

So is that two different examples in what you're talking about, or two different expressions of the same example?


18. On 2008-09-24, Vincent said:

I'm talking about what we say at the table, yes, exactly. In my initial example, I WOULD still be talking about the same thing.

I'm talking about how Graham GMs Poison'd, just slipping his cards onto the table without comment, vs how I do, crowing about the cards I'm playing. Or like how you could play Dogs in the Vineyard without ever saying the words "I take the blow," by just, when you take the blow, describing it.


19. On 2008-09-24, Vincent said:

Oh and, what I'm thinking about, of course, is designing so that you can have the benefits of formal structures, without (just as Dave says) having to step too far out of the fiction to engage with them.

In Dogs, for instance, it would be a fine way to play much of the time, but a significant minority of the time it'd be very confusing.


20. On 2008-09-24, Mike said:

My first thought was the same as Alan's at #11, "natural language", but I'm still slightly fuzzy on what exactly is or isn't happening under the covers in your nonformal example.

One possibly-fruitful parallel that I didn't see mentioned is the sharp distinction drawn between "in-character" and "out-of-character" player speech. (I'm thinking of BB play-by-post type games in particular.) IC in this context isn't about accents/vocabulary/grammar, and usually isn't even first-person; it's about not referring to things or concepts outside of the character's experience. OOC is where you talk explicitly about rules and webservers and the like. Breaking the fourth wall, I suppose.


21. On 2008-09-24, buddha said:

I'm not sure if I'm right or not... but isn't this just the narrative? So you're talking about Narrative play?

I'm probably missing something... I mean, it could be the dialogue of the game, or the script?  It's basically like the script for a play, right? The stuff that gets read out loud and emoted, but not the blocking, which covers the "rules" of theatre (like not upstaging or wandering out of your spot).

Does any of that help or am I completely out of left field here?


22. On 2008-09-24, Brand Robins said:


As a data point, that is how I play Dogs most of the time. You know if the person is taking, reversing, or blocking by watching the dice they move on the table.

Sometimes, in fact, we'll be talking, pushing forward a see, then moving the dice aside and moving forward a raise without stopping the narration to reference what is happening with the dice on the table.

Once in a while we do say "oh, I just took, in case that wasn't obvious"—mostly when you look up and see blank confusion on the faces at the table.

I think there is some degree to which this style of play is one of the (several) reasons why Mo finds Dogs to not break immersion, where you'd think on first blush it might due to its rules-intrusiveness.


23. On 2008-09-24, Dave Y. said:

Late to the conversation, but I was thinking "Natural-Language" roleplaying before I got to it in Alan's comment. I also like Georgios' "Open Narration/Structured Narration" divide. Jonathan's "Implicit/Explicit" is good too. "Stated mechanics/Implied mechanics" might be another, but I still like 'Natural Language Roleplaying' as the best name for the practice.


24. On 2008-09-24, Vincent said:

Buddha: blocking! As in stage directions, not as in negating. What a great word. A useful way to think of game mechanics.

Brand: makes sense to me.


25. On 2008-09-24, Mo said:

That's exactly why I find Dogs non intrusive.

V, I'd have called it "enactment" narration vs. "declarative" or, (as I like Buddha's idea too) "staging" narration.


26. On 2008-09-24, Moreno R. said:

Vincent, I already played a game where you can go an entire session playing like this. You have too. It's Spione.

In Dogs play, I have observed that most people after a while stop saying "I raise with" and the entire subsystem of raises and sees is played like this, talking and moving the dice without referencing them. But when you step out of that subsystem, you have to choose stakes, say the relationship you use, roll fallout, choose fallout, and it become almost impossible. It's the inverse of the paradigm of a lot of old rpgs, where you "simply roleplayed" all the times and stopped during the conflicts. (and it make more sense to me, to stop talking about points and dice and stakes when the camera close to the conflict and the dramatic music step up, not the other way around)


27. On 2008-09-25, Brand Robins said:


That's true about fallout and such. I've taken to always using the "pass over dice to next conflict method of NPC fallout, and cutting scenes between conflicts so that there is almost always a time where the PCs doing fallout are out of scene so that they can take a few minutes "out of mode" and fiddle with their shit while play goes on. However, this clearly doesn't work in a scene where the PCs are all in a conflict and then all in a follow up, or any similar situation.

You also made me realize that we often take a rather slack approach to stakes setting in Dogs. Like, its pretty rare to take more than a simple statement about it ("his faithfulness is on the line") and I think that we don't always do that faithfully. Often when we start rolling dice its because this thing that someone was just trying to do is clearly what is at stake.

However, I don't think I'd do the same thing when playing Dogs with a new group or at a con. There we'd be lacking the social understanding of what stakes are and what the limits are.

So, long story short, I think some level of social front loading helps with enactment mechanics. When you all know where you are before you get there, it means you need less focus on the negotiation in the moment.


28. On 2008-09-25, Moreno R. said:

Hi Brand! The last few comments got me thinking more about something... one very frequent comment I hear from people who don't like conflict resolution rules (or what they have seen used as C.R. rules) is "well... apart DitV".  Even when my group (well-used to Conflict Resolution) played Dirty Secrets last month we all liked the game, apart from the conflict resolution subsystem, that "distract too much from the fiction".

And it seems that when people talk about the way DitV doesn't mess with their immersion, they are talking about this: playing the dice with your fingers without giving them any time in your dialog. And not so much about the "narrate every raise and see" feature that is instead the part more ported to other games (Dirty Secrets, One can have Her, just to make a couple of examples)

We need more finger-only mechanics in games...  ;-)


29. On 2008-09-25, Brand Robins said:


Interestingly, once upon a time Mo and I were working on a game called Beautiful Losers for the same group we play Dogs with. One of Mo's big ideas for the game, based partly on Crime and Punishment and partly on Polaris, was to have these big character sheets that sit on the middle of the table with all sorts of sliding scales on them that are marked with buttons or coins or something. A big part of the resolution of the game was tracked by moving those buttons around the scales to show what was going on, so that everyone could see the character's internal state sitting there on the table, and so that you could engage with mechanics without ever breaking flow.

We never got around to full playtest with the game, due to various things, but I just remembered that I was always kinda if-so-maybe on the whole thing but that Mo and the other two immersive type players in the group were ALL ABOUT IT. Like, as soon as we'd tell them about the idea or show them the sheet they'd get all crazy happy about it.

So yea, I guess more finger games really is a thing to look into.


30. On 2008-09-25, Mo said:

Hell yes. Loves me some kinesthetic mechanics.


31. On 2008-09-25, Tim Ralphs said:

I have a bet with myself that this entire thread is secretly about how awesome the Storming the Wizard's Tower social conflict mechanics are.


32. On 2008-09-25, Tim Ralphs said:

I have a bet with myself that this entire thread is secretly about how awesome the Storming the Wizard's Tower social conflict mechanics are.


33. On 2008-09-25, bignose said:

The first example has people talking about mechanics and procedure. They're "gaming".

The second has people talking about what happens in the fiction. They're "narrating".

Was there another distinction you wanted to make?


34. On 2008-09-25, Dave Cleaver said:

Maybe invoking mechanics and evoking mechanics?

In your examples, it seems to be all about whether or not the player feels the need to cite the mechanics for justification.


35. On 2008-09-25, Vincent said:

Invoking mechanics vs evoking mechanics! That's pretty good.

Tim: Thanks for reminding me. Those don't have to be secret anymore, maybe I'll post about them.

They are pretty awesome.


36. On 2008-09-25, Jonathan Walton said:

Brand, Mo: The non-verbal tracking of states is what Mridangam and Mist-Robed Gate are about, yeah?  But those are taken at the player level (player's intent) and not the character level because Shreyas hates immersion.


37. On 2008-09-25, Brand Robins said:


Mo and I briefly tried using the Mridangam mudras in other gaming, but found them too involved.

However, a simplified mudra system does intrigue me. And I am working on a game that has something to do with India, so....


38. On 2008-09-25, Mo said:

J - same idea, different applications. Beautiful Losers (a.k.a. 1000 Nights) is supposed to use kinesthetic mechanics to work toggles and slides for a modular system. Parts of the game could be turned on or off, backed off or turned up by player without ever having to break the stride of enacting play. Also, some of the mechanics were there to demonstrate audience approval/appreciation and to illustrate an important interior mental state of the character which might otherwise be difficult to articulate or determine in the midst of enactment.


39. On 2008-09-26, John Adams said:

Like Mo's post above, when you try to talk about how specific games handle this it necessarily forces you to choose a word to describe what Vincent's talking about. Mo settled on "enactment."

My gut reaction was IC/OOC. My group would probably say "playing a game" vs. "role-playing." To us, the second example really is the entirety of what role-playing means.

Big Model-wise, aren't we talking about Exploring System vs. Exploring Situation?


40. On 2008-09-26, Vincent said:

That's what we're talking about, yeah, but not JUST it, and not really "vs." In Dogs, for instance, when you push that die forward with your raise, it's exploration of system whether you say it out loud or not.

So this is about exploration of system, absolutely. But it's about the specific qualities, the tenor, of a game's points of contact with system, not about how many.

I, um, I can't believe that I didn't think of IC/OOC. "In-character GMing" has a ring to it, yeah.


41. On 2008-09-26, Ben Lehman said:

So, Vincent, to be clear, are we talking only about system mentioned in spoken language? All other forms of language (body language, written language, the language of game pieces) are different?

What you're looking for is "oral system" vs. "silent system."

If you include written language, it's "verbal system" vs. "non-verbal system."



42. On 2008-09-26, Brand Robins said:


I've been thinking along those lines (as it was my initial confusion in this thread), and about the stuff I said about Dogs.

This reminded me of something—my group is very verbal and description based, but we don't do a huge amount of acting out. That is, we don't have anyone who regularly gets up from the table and does what his character is doing.

I have, however, played with a lot of folks like that. And one of them really didn't like Dogs because the whole "push the dice at the table" method of expressing system kept him clued to the table and his hands on dice. It disrupted his flow of expression.

So I think the thing is looking for a mode of expression of system that doesn't disrupt whatever the flow of the target group is. (And I don't think there is one way that will work for all groups.)

I also really like Dave's invoking vs. evoking as it gets at another thing—the one I'd thought this thread was about initially. Its possible to bring up mechanics as something that lingers and sustains, but is never foregrounded or made the point. It is also possible to bring up mechanics as something you use at a moment, and in that moment it is the point.

A lot of folks would look at the second and say "that game is rules heavy" because it feels like it is—when the rules come out they take center stage and are the point for that moment. A lot of folks look at the first and say "that game is more freeformy" because the mechanics are never brought on stage with the spotlight on them.

However, in the first case it is very possible that the rules are being used more, informing the game more, and shaping the game more over time than in the second case. I've seen a lot of games played in which the people at the table were all about system matters and all about playing the rules of the game, but who when you watched their play the rules' ability to provoke was limited to moments of conflict, because that was the only time when they were used.

This leads to a game that either requires a different lumpley system, or a game that focuses heavily and repeatedly on conflicts. Where as rules that are always there (evoked for the whole game rather than invoked in moments) may well support a more consistent and broad-based type of game.


43. On 2008-09-27, Callan said:



44. On 2008-09-27, Mo said:

Huh. That's nifty, Brand, cool observation.


45. On 2008-09-29, Mo said:

Hey V!

It turns out that there's already a term for it... not just as it applies to drama (which I should have remembered, doh!) but even in RPG terms:

From Wikipedia: Diagetic vs. non-diagetic

"In role-playing games diegesis includes all the "in-game" parts of the story, both those that are and aren't actually played out. However, rules or system elements that are used to resolve what does and doesn't happen in the imagined situation are typically "non-diegetic." For example, the number of hit points that a character has may determine whether or not a character dies in a fight, but are not themselves part of the narrative situation."


46. On 2008-09-29, Dave Y. said:

Mo's big brain wins again!


47. On 2008-10-07, Carrie said:

If you want to avoid dichotomy, how about "flowing"? If narrative and story weren't both already taken in the jargon, those'd be good instead...



48. On 2008-10-07, Vincent said:

"Flow" is good.

"Story" at its most casual, yes.

Thanks, everybody! In the piece of text I'm writing, I think I'm going to use "in-character GMing." It's ... politically ... suited to the thing I'm working on.


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