The Cycle of Theory

Reposted from Gametime

About 3 years ago I got into a rather unfortunate discourse with about GNS. I was for it, he was against it. And really, the divergence was even more fundamental: he was against all theory. That is something of a simplification, but basically correct.

Over the next while, my thinking changed and I realized that in large part his arguments for activities beyond theory were very sound. There is a lot of craft in our hobby; a lot of honing skills, rather than displays of naked virtuosity or finding applications for game abstractions. Many of my posts on his group-blog have been aimed at the skills and craft of the player, rather than the GM. And I like to think that I’ve occasionally made good sense.

I have, however, never lost my deep conviction that there must be some way of tying together all the strands of good practice that I have promulgated. Surely there is an underlying set of rules or principals which will inform good play? The macroscopic theories like SIS and GNS are difficult to apply in the microscopic situations of “what can I do in the next 5 minutes to make the game great” which is where the majority of my energy has been focused. That’s not to say that they can’t; but I have increasingly found it difficult to make the necessary translations and simplifications. It hardly seems worth the effort when I do.

Well, I think I may have found the beginnings of such a theory. A way of looking at the whole enterprise, but only a small bit at a time.

The two chief tools that I have been advocating in some form are:
– Open-ended choices
– Inclusive play

And really, I’m quite satisfied that these are the two simplest expressions of what I like in players; both as a player myself, and when I GM.

Making “open ended choices” means just exactly that. Characters can always do something which resolves a problem, or which ends a threat. But a far more engaging and challenging play style is to see how far the rabbit hole goes, and decide to follow courses to unknown ends. Of course this can’t be the sole mode of play: at some point complexity can fill the available imaginative space in a game, and this is not desirable. But my feeling, my intuition, is that most people will simplify their characters’ lives well before reaching saturation, many times before anything has really happened at all.

Inclusive play has been a much harder thing for me to distill. I have found a lot of very strongly character and action focused players, that I would otherwise approve of, become somewhat introverted. They pursue deeper and deeper connections with their own character, submerging themselves in their own minds. But it must always be remembered that roleplaying is a social activity; not a solo fantasy.

It seems to me that between these two very basic concepts, you generate most of the behaviours that I have venerated over my tenure on this blog. You generate pro-activity, or at the very minimum, an encouragement for the energy being put into the game by the GM. You generate a dynamic game environment. You create more interesting situations and characters. You build not only a world, but a community of imagination without limits.

What do you think? Do these two principals encourage any significant negative behaviours? Are there any desirable behaviours that they discourage? Or don’t encourage?

As I say, this is but the begining of my attempt to collate what I have learned into some kind of unity, and I welcome your input.

Edit to expand on Inclusive Play

Inclusive Play is something I am having difficulty articulating to the full extent that it exists in my mental construction of gaming theory. At the simplest level, I simply mean that where a character has a choice between acting alone and acting in concert with another character, that they should include the other character.

Simplistic examples might be things like taking another PC to meet with your PC’s NPC contact, or inviting the rest of the characters to go exploring the haunted basement rather than simply venturing down solo.

But there is a large scope for a sophisticated approach to intra-party dynamics. There are two strategies that occur to me, there may be others.

The first is to play in an invitational way. Whatever personal and private issues your character has, they can signal these to the group and invite the group to meddle. This can be quite subtle. Let’s assume that your character has a dark secret, which is inappropriate to share. You can still invite the other players into the story through little slips and by posing in-character hypotheticals. More straightforwardly, you might ask other characters for their advice or help.

The second strategy is to play intrusively. By which I mean that you would specifically have your character take an interest in the activities of the other characters. This can be as simple as passing on bits of information; or it could be as dramatic as an intervention to curb their drug habit. The example which springs to my mind is from Dale’s WFRP game. My character’s girlfriend had been kidnapped by Vampires, and subsequently rescued. But too late: she was turned. Johann didn’t realize this, but all the other characters did. They could have pointed it out to me, for some very dramatic roleplaying.

Essentially, “inclusive play” relies on an awareness of who the other characters are, and what they are doing. It requires an adjustment so that the things focused on in the game are relevant to more than one person.

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