RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 3 (part 1)
Posted by Nathan P. on December 9, 2007
(Previous Posts collected here.)
Chapter 3: Methods and Conceptual Frameworks
Introduction & Part 1: The Process of Roleplay
There are a variety of models, theories and frameworks for understanding and thinking about roleplaying. These are valuable to the designer for a couple of reasons. Not only does an understanding of the underlying processes of the activity you are endeavoring to shape give you the tools with which to work, it also gives you a language with which to express your activity. As design is rooted in play, most (if not all) of the material covered in this chapter grows out of and is aimed at interpreting and understanding play.
So, what is it we do when we’re roleplaying?
Roleplaying is an activity made up of two crucial components: creation and collaboration. When a group of people is roleplaying, they are engaged in a process of collaborative creation. We are all working in unison, guided through the system of the game, to create something together that didn’t exist before. The “something” in question is what I usually call the “fiction” of the game, which is a term that entails both what actually happens in the fictional world of the game (i.e. the “plot”), and all of the other details, constructs and context that the events of your game impact on and change in an indirect manner, but which are important to your group (i.e. the “setting” and how it changes, among other things). This concept is also commonly referred to in some circles as the Shared Imaginary Space, or SIS, but I prefer fiction as a more neutral term.
The other critical concept to consider is the nature of the players. Unlike almost every other social activity, people engaged in a roleplaying game are both participants and observers, with each individual player biased towards one or the other end of that continuum in different proportions at different times. A player of a roleplaying game is both participating in creating the fiction, usually through the medium of their character or their role as the Game Master, and simultaneously observing the contributions of others as they interact with the fiction as well.
To summarize, here’s a definition of the basic process of roleplay:
Roleplaying is a process of collaborative creation, wherein each person involved is both a participant in and an observer of changes made to the fiction of that particular instance of roleplaying.
Or, to say it less formally, when you roleplay, you make stuff up with your friends that you all enjoy.
What does this mean for design?
The direct implication of this understanding of roleplay is that game design is simply deciding on certain ways to shape the interactions of the participant-observers with the fiction, using the levers of collaboration and creation. Roleplaying is, at root, a social interaction. Game design is the art and craft of shaping that social interaction towards a desired goal (remember your design goals?), and here we have a handful of vectors (with non-exhaustive questions to think about) to channel that shaping:
- Collaboration. How do the players of your game get to influence each other contributions to the fiction? How does their interaction influence the fiction, or the tools that they each have to bring to bear? What happens if the players of your game choose not to collaborate? Does competition figure in at all?
- Creation. How do players of your game contribute new material into the fiction? How do they negate material? Do they get to create material for each other? How do oppositional creations work?
- Participation. What tools and support does your game provide for aiding or shaping the participation of the players? How is “spotlight time” apportioned, if at all? What happens during the times that players aren’t fully participating?
- Observation. How does someone who is almost fully observing fit into your game, or do they? Does observation have an effect on what’s being observed? Is there support and tools for constructive, productive “downtime”?
Again, this a set of questions aimed to get you thinking about your specific tools, not proscribe them. Notice how these four approach vectors can be combined with one another to generate more food for thought (what happens along the Observation-Collaboration vector, for example?).
While the rest of this chapter will outline and detail more specific models of roleplaying, this overview of its basic process should be kept in mind for the design process. The basic thing to remember is that you are shaping a particular set of social interactions towards to certain goal.