2012-04-30 : Updates!

For those of you who've been following along and keeping score:

1. Trauma Games presents: The Dragon (aka Llama Flames 2) didn't playtest the way I hoped. It's on the back burner. It's probably lost its place as the second Trauma Game. Trauma Games presents: Can You Save Your Boyfriend From the Cannibals? is looking more likely to me this afternoon.

2. Mobile Frame Zero kickstarted like crazy, and its pre-release community is going strong. If you haven't, come check out the Mobile Frame Hangar. I've been previewing the rules there, J's been previewing the setting background, and there are pictures of approximately one million cool and inspiring Lego mechs, including Soren's.

3. PAX East was good. I made shortsighted business decisions and ran out of supply before I ran out of demand. Meg made better business decisions and matched Psi*Run's supply to demand to within 3 copies, I believe. It was the booth's top seller.

Our panels were a whole lot of fun. Ben's and my rpg theory panel was especially satisfying for me. We managed to cut through a whole lot of crap, I think, both conventional rpg wisdom crap and big model entrenchment crap too.

4. May is the last month of the Forge! June 1st, Ron and I are going to close it up. Emily's already started a good publishers' retrospective thread, State of the indie publisher. Ron's planning some sort of blowout for the last week of May, I don't know precisely what, but meanwhile, if there's anything you want to discuss at the Forge, now's your last chance.

5. Putting out a call: my uncle Benjamin is looking for illustrators for T-shirt logos for a project he's working on. If you're an illustrator looking for that kind of gig, drop me a line and I'll put you in touch.

Anything else?

1. On 2012-05-01, Bret said:

Carly is way into cannibals lately so I think I can sell her on it.

I am still sad about the Forge going away.


2. On 2012-05-01, PeterBB said:

How do you do your internal playtests?  At what point in the design process do you start them, and what role do they serve for you?

(I ask because I'm trying to continue working on my Game Chef game, and I haven't the slightest idea what I'm doing!)


3. On 2012-05-01, Troy_Costisick said:

Any recordings of those pannels uploaded to the Internet yet?


4. On 2012-05-01, Vincent said:

Peter, good question.

At this stage of development, an internal playtest just means grabbing a couple of friends for half an hour and trying a thing out. I "go to playtesting" when I need confirmation that what I'm designing will, in fact, work, before I move on to creating dependent systems.

It starts very small, just testing tiny system interactions: "hey Meg, pretend you're trying to push me off a wall. Roll these dice. Say I dunno, something about pushing me off the wall, okay? ... Huh. Okay, thanks!"

Or "hey Meg, you're creating a character, a dragon slayer. I'm going to ask you a couple of questions, choose the answers from these lists here, okay? ... Huh. Okay, thanks!"

When I have a complete subsystem I need to test, that's when I ask friends to sit down with me for half an hour and give it a try. This was the case with The Dragon - I needed to test character creation, to (a) make sure that it made interesting characters, (b) see whether it gave me everything I needed as GM to launch into play, and (c) if not (which I expected), clarify what it was missing, so I could go about creating it with some experience to build on.

Eventually there's no way to see what works and what doesn't without just sitting down to play the game, so that's what you do.

It's crucial when you run an internal playtest that you have a crystal-clear (if not necessarily articulate) idea of what play should ultimately be like. If you feel a sinking, grasping feeling, like something's not quite going right, you're allowed to press on anyway for a strict maximum of 5 minutes more. That feeling is correct! That feeling is always correct.

Also, you can ask your playtesters questions if you want to, but their opinions about how it went and whether it worked and was fun don't count. That feeling is ALWAYS correct.

I'm happy to answer more questions about it, or if you want to say more about what you're trying to figure out, please do.

Troy, not that I know of. I don't have recordings myself, so I don't know when or whether any will be available.


5. On 2012-05-01, Evan said:

I'm not sad the Forge is going away. I count myself proudly as part of the Forge diaspora.

But I want to hear more about the panel that cut through the crap...


6. On 2012-05-01, Ben Lehman said:

That feeling? Always correct.

Man, I hate that feeling.


7. On 2012-05-01, Vincent said:

Evan: Oh sure.

We started with "the purpose of a roleplaying game's rules is to get you and your friends to say interesting things," and built from there.

We talked about how some rules get you to say interesting things, and how some block you from saying interesting things. We talked about different kinds of rules, including GMs and randomization and PC death and stuff, and how to judge whether they work or don't work (do they get you and your friends to say interesting things?). We talked about what counts as an interesting thing, when, and to whom. We talked about my idea of three timeframes and my idea of three insights, but only to serve looking at what's interesting and who's saying it.

We brought a big stack of people's games with us, and held them up as examples of different cases.

Whenever crap crept in, we could just return to our core premise and examine the crap in its light. The crap didn't really stand a chance.

What would you say about it, Ben?

Rob, are you around? Anybody else who happened to be there?


8. On 2012-05-01, Ben Lehman said:

That's a fair summary.

"Good rules provoke you and your friends into making interesting statements" was pretty much our core idea. Everything else can be built out of that. I don't think we talked about much that hasn't already been talked about before, but the whole conversation felt much more unified.

This is kinda grandiose, but it felt like talking physics with conservation of momentum rather than talking physics without a core principle: you can get to the same results, but one way it makes it clear that there's a central idea here, not just a bunch of scattered stuff.



9. On 2012-05-01, Simon C said:

Sometimes the rules put you in a position where you've got to make a hard choice with not enough information, and sure, when you make that choice usually you say something pretty interesting, but it seems like that's missing the point that the feeling before you make the choice, when you're trying to decide, is pretty fun too.


10. On 2012-05-01, Ben Lehman said:

I bet the thing that put you into that interesting situation was a statement made by another player.

Where we're going to take a broad view of the meaning of "statement:" including things like "I cast magic missile" or whatever.



11. On 2012-05-01, Simon C said:

Oh sure yeah.

It's more about the definition of "interesting", I think, where a lot of the time what makes the statement interesting isn't anything inherant to what the person said, but rather how the rules make you react to what they said.

So maybe it's like "Make people's statements interesting" as much as it's "Make people make interesting statements"?


12. On 2012-05-02, Evan said:

Thanks, Vincent and Ben!

FWIW, I'm trying to adapt a version of your theory to our academic study of tabletop RPGs.

While I was in Finland, I gradually came to the conclusion that it's kind of silly that we still analyze TRPGs either as some kind of weird "alternate identity / persona" exploration vehicles or as that thing that 10 of my friends played, whom I then interviewed for my research and make subsequent SWEEPING generalizations about the medium and humanity on the basis of those interviews.

I wants a middle-level theory, which allows me to say: "Character sheets of this kind tend to have THIS effect, combat systems frame space and time in THIS way, and advancement systems promote THIS kind of behavior. THESE systems promote interesting things said, whereas THESE systems kinda waste your time." I want researchers to bring stopwatches to game sessions and figure out how long everything takes, and what impact that has on the fiction.

We know game designers have been dealing with these questions since awhile.

Why can't we academics do medium-based research pointed in the same direction?!?

*jumps off soapbox*


13. On 2012-05-02, PeterBB said:

Thanks, Vincent! That's super helpful, and answers my question. :)


14. On 2012-05-02, Rafu said:


are you sure that's academically interesting? At first sight, your "middle theory" looks 100% like game design work to me—- which I love, but I guess it would only be interesting to academia if academia was interested in game design (i.e. somebody was studying History of Game Design or the like). What am I overlooking here?


15. On 2012-05-02, Evan said:

That's just it, Ben: academia has learned too little from game designers.

What has happened thus far in RPG studies looks like this:

* Gary Alan Fine did a full sociological study of gaming groups and came up with some great findings ... for 1983.

* For about the next decades, academics studying RPGs pretty much apes what Fine did, only in either a hobbyist or a snooty fashion, neither of which came close to looking at TRPGs as a medium just like TV or the backs of cereal boxes.

* Daniel Mackay attempts a TRPGs as "art" argument in 2001, but then gets mired (IMHO) in a classic cultural studies paradigm filled with Foucault, Butler and all the theory showing how TRPGs are hegemonic, etc.

* The Gaming as Culture book (2004) begins to examine the material underpinnings of the RPG industry, but by that point the Forgites and John H. Kim already had a better handle on the thing than those scholars.

* Post-2006, game studies is a palpable, exponentially multiplying field, the Nordic folks' research on RPGs as a medium takes off and several American scholars (Sarah Bowman, Jennifer Cover, Michelle Nephew) publish work that explains how TRPGs work to a lay audience.

* 2012: We begin to look at scholarship and realize all at once we've been spending so much attention to the identity, performance, culture and purely semantic debates about TRPGs that we neglected the Big Picture the designers have been talking about for over a decade: how do TRPG systems and sub-systems actually work to produce affect and narrative, i.e. How they function as a medium, frame our attention and focus us on a certain form of subjectivity.

Mid-level theory from film studies is the school of David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson. They argued for a film aesthetics that begins with the film itself rather than the theoretical arguments we want the film to answer or the discourse surrounding the film. But since game rules are a huge factor in structuring actual play, study of game design strategies themselves is pivotal in uncovering hidden and not-so-hidden logics of the TRPG as medium.

I want to be able to analyze a TRPG, let alone AP thereof, like I would a film.


16. On 2012-05-02, Vincent said:

I'm curious too. Studying tabletop rpgs academically wasn't a thing when I was in school.

Do I want to get in on it somehow?

What does a potentially-sound academic theory of rpgs look like? How compatible can or must it be with a potentially-sound design theory? Is this QUESTION even sound?


17. On 2012-05-02, Ben Lehman said:

Evan: Note that that's Rafu you're addressing, not me.

As far as I can tell, structurally-oriented media studies have a place in academia. But I've never been a lit or media specialist, so I don't feel qualified to comment from an academic perspective.



18. On 2012-05-02, Evan said:

It wasn't a thing while I was in school either; we had an "RPG Theory" study group in college, which meant there were 4 of us who sat around and read Greg Costikyan, Jonathan Tweet and Ron Edwards and carried out the forum debates face-to-face.

But now game studies exists, and there are people publishing authoritative works like this:

I'm reading things and seeing where they're totally right and where they're totally not.

So to answer "Does Vincent want to get in on it somehow?": I'm not sure! Emily's article in Playground Worlds on basic Forge theory is bar none THE most cited article from the recent Knutepunkt books, so I think there's an appetite for it in the field. But you've got your own way of explaining things to a wide audience that's NOT academia, which is probably better in the long run. All that made clear, I am still totally citing you in my upcoming article on RPG combat, so watch out! ;-)

A potentially-sound academic theory of RPGs is, like, more or less what Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros and J. Tuomas Harviainen are all about. So I'd read their work, and then introduce the following caveats:

1. Given that TRPGs are a game and an artform, we should analyze them as such.

2. This means they emerge from specific social and historical contexts, embody certain aesthetics, and offer certain opportunities for affective and narrative engagement to an audience.

3. Patterns and discontinuities in both game design and gameplay both prove critical in identifying the salient points of engagement between game and player. Social and textual framing strategies guide players toward certain types of play, while the players then acquiesce to, resist, gainfully misunderstand and/or alter the system to suit their situation.

4. Such research is important given the time, money and labor investment of a significant, international body of well-educated creative workers, who then often apply understandings learned in TRPGs and larps to other contexts (teaching, collaborative work, military operations, etc.)

NB: My RPG combat project, for example, looks at the combat sub-systems of about 30 different RPGs and comes to the conclusion that they have mostly similar underlying presumptions about time, probability and the body. I examine the text of the TRPG, but I also treat myself as a highly subjective player of these systems, and argue from a position of experience as well.


19. On 2012-05-02, Evan said:

Whoops - you're right, Ben. Apologies to you and to Rafu, whom I was actually addressing.

Academia isn't really interested in these questions because there isn't any money in it (as we all know).

But that doesn't make the questions any less interesting.


20. On 2012-05-03, Josh W said:

I'd still love someone to put up a recording of that panel online, uploading it to youtube for example?


21. On 2012-05-04, Keith said:

The Forge has some vital rules explanations for some of your games - any chance of getting those collected, or will we need to do that ourselves?


22. On 2012-05-05, Moreno said:

I will try to post a collection of useful threads for "Dogs in the Vineyard" in the "guide to the archives" section before the closing of the forge, if other people could do the same for KpfS, Poison'd, IaWA and AW, I think it could be really useful.


23. On 2012-05-05, Ben Lehman said:


You know, I think I see what your getting at. One of the ways that the rules can provoke you to make interesting statements is by giving interesting context to your statements. Statements about violence in Riddle of Steel, for instance, are different than statements about violence in AD&D.


24. On 2012-05-07, Simon C said:


Exactly! Dogs is another example, where "I draw my gun" has all kinds of implications based on how the rules handle that.

So yup. I'm on board with the "interesting statements" thing (I'll alert media and issue a press release).


25. On 2012-05-07, Vincent said:

Keith: The Forge is going to continue to be available as a public archive, so those threads won't disappear.

Moreno's been compiling summaries of threads down in the Guide to the Archives forum, and I'd encourage you to do the same if you'd like.

In fact, back in the early days of my blog, I used to summarize the Forge threads I found interesting here for my non-Forge friends. I'd be more than willing to bring something like that feature back. Moreno, if you'd like to make guest posts here to continue your heroic labors after the Forge is closed, I'd be thrilled to have them.


26. On 2012-05-08, Moreno said:

Thanks for the offer, Vincent!  I will be happy to continue writing my "guides" even after the closing of the Forge.

About the last one, the one about Primetime Adventures, do you you think you can find the Moose "note"
that was linked here...
.."Moose in he City" is not complete without it!


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