2017-06-24 : Roleplaying is a Conversation?

"Roleplaying is a conversation," Apocalypse World says, to its GM. But what I'd say to someone designing a game is different. To them, I'd say that conversation is the medium in which a roleplaying game plays.

Chess isn't a chessboard with its pieces; a chessboard with its pieces is the medium in which Chess plays.

1. On 2017-06-25, Rafu said:

For once, I'm like "That's obvious, duh!"
(Not the original "roleplaying is a conversation" paragraph: that one felt like pointing out the obvious in an enlightening way, like "OF COURSE it is!" and "clic").
So, anything specially made you feel like pointing that out right now? Just curious. :)


2. On 2017-06-25, Ben Lehman said:

Chess is also a conversation, yeah?


3. On 2017-06-25, Paul T. said:


That's a pretty interesting question. On the one hand, a chess game is certainly an interactive activity between two people. On the other hand, it certainly isn't a *literal* conversation (for instance, it's entirely possible to play postal chess, or chess against a computer), and it doesn't meet the criteria for a story game or RPG (there is generally no shared imagined space).

It occurs to me that a roleplaying game which can be played without speaking to each other (or typing, or otherwise communicating verbally) COULD theoretically be possible. Now that would be a truly fascinating design challenge!

I can't think of any existing game which already does that, however.


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This makes...
VB go "There are a number of non-conversational rpgs..."*
PT go "Good point! I've participated in a "silent" LARP before (no speech)."
GcL go "Conversation with the designer"*

*click in for more

4. On 2017-06-25, Ben Lehman said:

By "a conversation" I didn't mean "literally speaking out loud." I meant, in Chess, we are both expressing theories about strategy, tactics, geometry, value of pieces. We're having a conversation.


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This makes...
SD go "War is a conversation by other means. As Clausewitz basically said."

5. On 2017-06-26, Paul T. said:

I understand where you're coming from, Ben.

However, given this particular conversation we're in - one which started from Vincent saying "conversation is the medium in which a roleplaying game plays" - it seems to me that a figurative interpretation of the word "conversation" elides Vincent's point here (much like how taking "chess board" figuratively, to describe, say, getting ahead in life, would be missing the point.

After all, isn't he trying to draw a distinction between the conversation (as the medium of roleplaying) and the board and pieces (as the medium of Chess)?

Anyway, back to the topic at hand...


6. On 2017-06-27, Vincent said:

I had to think my way around to it, but yeah, Chess is a conversation. It's a conversation that plays out in the medium of the board and pieces. Also a game that plays out in that medium.

Indie RPG design is a long, slow conversation between designers that plays out in the medium of published games. Also, conceivably a game.

So, yes!

So when it comes to RPG design, I'm trying to say somehow that its medium, conversation, like the medium of the chessboard and the medium of published games, poses challenges for the designer. There are things that you want to do in your game that its medium makes difficult or impossible, and things you don't want to do in your game that its medium makes too easy.

Those awkward pauses and dead spaces in the game you're playtesting, Vincent, you should remember this, they're awkward pauses and dead spaces in a conversation. The design solution to them is conversational.


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This makes...
VB go "Or rather, not THE solution, but..."*

*click in for more

7. On 2017-06-27, John Mc said:

Ben, is Chess a conversation if I don't mean to express all those ideas I have, but I just want to have fun and win?  I still express the ideas, but it isn't intentional.

Are the clothes I put on this morning part of a conversation about fashion?  Is the code I'll write at work a part of a conversation about software?  Is lunch I'll eat at my desk a part of a conversation on cuisine?

Or is it the explicit back and forth nature of Chess, where both sides are paying attention to each other part of what makes it conversational?

Is conversation a spectrum?  Where RPGs are more conversational than driving to work, but less conversational than chatting over coffee?


8. On 2017-06-27, Vincent said:

I don't know Ben's take but mine is: definitions schmefinitions.

Instead of defining things in and out, we can say: let's consider the clothes you put on to be part of a conversation. So doing, what do we learn about the clothes you put on? What do we learn about fashion? What do we learn about conversations?

We can have conversations in any medium we like, give or take some technical challenges. We can play games in any medium we like too, give or take the same. What are the technical challenges of designing games that play in the medium of conversation? How do you seize the advantages of that medium, and how do you design around its disadvantages?


9. On 2017-06-27, Paul T. said:

Indeed. That is far more interesting.


10. On 2017-06-27, John Mc said:

Sure, and furthermore I agree with everything said so far.  I'll try again in a more positive framing:

Conversation is the medium of roleplay, but as we've established that's a lot broader than someone might assume.

Conversation includes the things we say and our unstated meanings(subtext), but also the things we reveal unintentionally or against our will.

I think that unintentional revelation is a really key part of roleplay.  I think that it's vital within the minute-to-minute experience, and also in the month-to-month experience.  (The opportunity for social bonding in roleplaying is a big deal.)


11. On 2017-06-30, Broggly said:

David Sirlin said competitive games were debates in Play to Win.

"Let us look at what it is like to play competitively. A competitive game, to me, is a debate. You argue your points with your opponent, and he argues his. 'I think this series of moves is optimal,' you say, and he retorts, 'Not when you take this into account.' Debates in real life are highly subjective, but in games we can be absolutely sure who the winner is.

"The conflict is between the players; the game itself is merely the medium - the language - of the debate. The game must be expressive enough to allow the debaters to articulate complex thoughts. A skilled debater knows the nuances of the language and common tricks and traps of language he can use against untested opponents, but the language is only his tool. Once he learns the theory of debate, he can apply it to any language. It is common to focus entirely on learning nuances of a language at the expense of gaining a real understanding of how debate should be conducted."


12. On 2017-07-04, Paganini said:

Wittgenstein was the best RPG designer.


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This makes...
EM go "our boy Wittgenstein knew what was up"*

*click in for more

13. On 2017-07-05, DWeird said:

So does this make the primary experience of conversation - people just talking - more central to designing games, or less?

Once we know that chess doesn't really need the pieces be wood and the board be marble, we can forget about the actual things we usually call a chessboard and play out games, I don't know, purely in bits of Morse code.

What's the takeaway from this?


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This makes...
Pag go "Sure we can! "*

*click in for more

14. On 2017-07-06, Vincent said:

The Unanswerable Question Because It's Too General
You can play games in any medium you want, acknowledging the technical features and challenges of the medium you've chosen.

What do we learn from this about games and media?

The Unanswerable Question Because It Depends On Too Many Specifics
Many roleplaying games are designed to play out in the medium of conversation.

Having chosen this medium, what are the technical features and challenges we have to acknowledge? How do we approach them? How do we build upon the features and how do we solve or design around the challenges?

My Takeaway
From above:

Those awkward pauses and dead spaces in the game you're playtesting, Vincent, you should remember this, they're awkward pauses and dead spaces in a conversation.

When you've designed a game and it's not flowing, it's because you've bobbled the conversation. You haven't put the right words in the right person's ear, yet.

Oh and I agree with John Mc that unstated communication is a big deal in rpg design. Hard to talk about, though!


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This makes...
JMc go "=)"

15. On 2017-07-09, Josh W said:

Long time no posts!

Awesome, lets get into this.

I think when we say that chess is a conversation, we are using a synecdoche (Ron used that word ages ago to mean a cargo-cult or fetishistic conflation of a specific thing with a general rule, but I'm using it backwards, as a thing that totally is both a class and a prototype of that class.):

RPGs are D&D, interactive communication is conversation. But sometimes what was the beginning of a field is not actually representative over time, as things diverge and find a new centre of gravity, not in terms of prevalence, but in terms of the connections between explored possibilities. It becomes possible to say that new things are uniquely "rpgs" more so than D&D is.

Or in the case of conversation, you have Derrida's criticism of emphasising speech, and referring to other kinds of acts as derivative of it. He emphasises the idea of the text, which is so prone to misunderstandings that to twist it away from the author is to express it's primary nature. Lots of media theory came to rely on precisely this, shifting communication from using face to face conversation as it's model to using the mercurial text, with it's allusions and linkages and conflicting definitions.

What this looses is interactivity, and now we get the conversations online, that combine both of these, the author is still present, but the text speaks for itself too, as people take things out of context, interpret things in terms of other events that have no relation to the authors intent.

A rambling twitter feud or chaotic forum thread synthesises the ideas of the "conversation" as interpersonal interplay, and "text" as tangled reference machine, and creates a new synecdoche; conversation is about the conditional complicated chemical reactions of meaning.

What becomes an edge case in that class is the old "logos", of an idea clearly stated, of a rhetorical argument pulled through to completion based on your capacity to react to your audience's reception of your ideas. Wrestling control of meaning by using the interactions at your disposal is totally alien to this model, it seems far too demanding. Despite being core to another definition of what it means to have communicated something.

To put that more simply, in the self-challenging world of the internet, a "lecture" in the sense of pushing a specific argument, is sort of the opposite of a conversation, or at least an edge case.

You can sort of think about RPGs in that way too; they get momentum from being a conversation in the rambling internet sense; the tension you were talking about ages ago can come from people not quite being able to head where they were originally going, because the game keeps tagging parts of what they said with extra connotations they weren't necessarily expecting:

Moves trigger, moves snowball. /That might not be so easy, draw a card.

The capacity to interrupt and insert new assumptions that weren't meant to be "active" in what someone was going for tied to the means they were using as if they had a life of their own (you want to say something, but you have to use words, you want to get your opponent's king, but you have to get the pieces over to him) can transform the nature of the original task.

Talking about something with someone can be more valuable if they misunderstand you than if they just agree, because you have to revisit the topic in greater detail, investigate it's mechanics.

But an RPG that just resolved into semantics, contradicting dice rolls and complication, would be like a chess game that no-one ever won. You need a bit of that logos thing going on too, so that people can express an idea and know that they have expressed it. Get the feedback coming back that their thing has landed.

In that other model of rpgs as conversation, an rpg is about facilitating mutual understanding of creative ideas, clearing out the confusions of a few people talking about something imaginary, and helping them to know they understand each other.

There's also a strand of rpgs as short term aural history too, which probably relates to this idea of being "heard" and being able to get a reflection of your own ideas back at you, in the sense that aural history requires you to be able to bounce an idea back and forth between people without it changing much, so that it can actually be stored independent of a single persons memory.


16. On 2017-07-15, Vincent said:

Sure! With you so far.


17. On 2017-07-21, Roger said:

This makes me think some things.

1.  A conversation between whom?  The obvious answer is the players, but I feel like that might not be the whole story.  I could be wrong though.

2.  There's an old joke in computer programming:  "You can write BASIC in any language."  The parallel here—"You can play D&D in any game."  Some conversations are more or less easier to conduct, but they all CAN happen.  I think.

3.  Asymmetrical conversations happen all the time.  I think it might be the more common mode, now that I give it some thought.

4.  Hey, remember our old pal Egri?  This marries into Premise really seamlessly.


18. On 2017-07-23, David Berg said:

"Try to put the right words in the player's ear" sounds like a constructive way to think about it!  Nice.


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