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Theory 101: System and the Shared Imagined Space

By M. Joseph Young

Not very long ago on a list I frequent, someone teased that they were a freeformer and as such did not use any system at all. I rather boldly responded, explaining in some detail what system is and does, and why freeform uses as much system as any other game, whether Theatrix or Fudge or Rolemaster. Someone else posted to the list, saying that my explanation of how role playing games work was rather depressing to him, and took a lot of the fun out of it.

I'd never thought of that. Some people really don't want to know what makes role playing games work; they just want to play and have fun. It's like seeing what happens behind the curtain. Not everyone wants to know how the magician does his tricks.

I can see that, to some degree. Clash of the Titans is a wondrous adventure to someone who has no idea how it was done. Understanding Ray Harryhausen's use of stop-action miniatures may be fascinating for some of us, but it does take something out of the awe of watching the movie to see not the massive Gorgon rising from the deep but a twelve inch model superimposed into the scene. In the same way, some people love looking under the hood, as it were, of the games we play, understanding what they do and how they do it, while others just want to go for a ride. If you wanted to make a movie, you would probably need to understand how such things are made; if you just want to enjoy watching one, it might be more fun to see the finished product without knowing how it was achieved. So too understanding how games work in fundamental ways may interfere with the fun of playing them for some people, but it's absolutely essential to knowing how to design them.

If you don't want to know how role playing games really work, it's time to stop reading. There is absolutely no shame in not wanting to know the theory, of wanting to watch the magician saw the woman in half with no idea how the illusion works. We'll be looking behind the curtain at how these things are done, and why they work the way they do. If that interests you, read on.

At the moment, a great deal of the most valuable role playing game theory is being done through an Internet web site forum called The Forge.Game designers there are building on the work of others, and theorists elsewhere such as northern Europe's Turku school of LARP designers have found their way there to participate in those discussions.The theoretical work is driven by the belief that better understanding of the theory will produce better games.Most of what is going to be presented in this series originated there or was expanded there.

The concept that has emerged as possibly the single unifying and distinguishing feature of role playing games is that of the Shared Imagined Space. In essence, any group of players is making an effort to imagine the same events occurring in the same imagined setting. Of course, there are some discrepancies between individual images of this, but overall the game is able to proceed because there is a common understanding of what is happening, a shared agreement of the events of the game.

Sometimes people challenge whether this shared imagined space actually exists. The easiest way to see that it is so is to consider what it would be like otherwise. Suddenly Bob's character is trying to out-draw Dead-Eye-Dan in the streets of Laredo while Ann is piloting her spaceship through the asteroid field and calling on Bob to target the pursuing enemy, while Jim sees them all attacking a dragon. While that starts to sound a bit like playing Multiverser, the fact is that even in that game there is a shared imagined space, an agreed set of events and setting elements and character actions which interact, although frequently on multiple stages. If we do not have that agreement, then we are not really playing together.

How we come to that agreement is the heart of the concept of system. Vincent Baker, author of such innovative games as Kill Puppies for Satan, Dogs in the Vineyard, Animals at Night, and Matchmaker, is credited with first recognizing and stating what has become known as the Lumpley Principle: System is the means by which any group of players comes to agreement concerning the content of the shared imagined space.

This principle is the reason freeform and Rolemaster ultimately have the same "amount" of system. In play, someone at the table makes a statement, system is then applied by the minds of the participants, and a consensus is reached as to how this has changed the content of what is being imagined. How it does that is different in the details with a mechanically complicated game such as Rolemaster as compared with a completely socially driven freeform game (a different kind of complexity), but in the essentials they are the same.

What system does, fundamentally, is apportion credibility. That is, it provides the participants with the means necessary to gauge who has the right to make what statements about the shared imagined space, and who does not.

For example, in traditional games, those participants we tend to call the players (or the "character players" for the sake of clarity) have the credibility to say what actions their characters are taking and what words they say. The one player responsible for "everything else", whom we will here call the referee but who has many names in many games, has the credibility to determine the success or failure of such actions and the consequences, the actions of antagonists and adversaries, and the general shape and situation in the world. We call this credibility because we all agree to believe statements made by these participants when those statements are within the extent of their credibility. We believe that what a player says about his character is true within the image we share, and that what the referee says about everything else is true. These are thus credible statements. Although there are exceptions even in traditional games, the limits on credibility usually follow these lines rather closely. A player could not say, "Suddenly I see a door to the right I had not previously noticed, and finding it unlocked rush through it to safety." Similarly, a referee could not normally say, "Your character draws his sword and rushes forward to attack the huge ancient red dragon." A player character who announced the presence of a door would in most games be ignored, as he does not have the credibility to insert such doors in the shared imagined world. Sometimes a referee can get away with statements of player character actions, but the players will expect that there is a good reason why under this circumstance the referee is claiming the credibility to make such a statement, and in many groups the statement will be openly challenged for that explanation.

Once this is understood, it becomes possible to change the way credibility is apportioned.For example, Universalis eliminates the referee entirely and instead provides a resource system through which players bid for control of what happens.Numerous other independent games allow players to create problems for themselves and for each other.

As part of this, it has become clear that the referee is one of the players. His role in the game is different from the others, but it is a role that can be defined by the game rules in many different ways. Changing what the referee does, distributing aspects of that credibility in different ways, has led to many challenging ideas in game design. We also see that game play is an essentially social activity, built entirely on defining the relationships between the members of the group such that they know what to believe of what the others say and what they are entitled to say themselves. Thus a role playing game system is a set of specific modifications to the social contract of a group of friends, a sort of ritual in which they engage that has the specific function of creating this object of shared imagination. It is a means of relating to each other toward that end.

In attempting to categorize different ways of distributing credibility, Ron Edwards has put forward the concept of Stance.The author of many games of which Sorcerer, Trollbabe, and Elfs are the best known, Professor Edwards received the Diana Jones Award for his contributions to game design.Stance refers to the relationship between a player, his character, and the rest of the shared imagined space, and provides general categories within which specifics may vary from game to game or group to group.The four major stances are Pawn, Actor, Author, and Director.

Pawn stance is rather simple to understand. The character is a token used by the player to act within the game world. Like a Monopoly or Parchessi piece, no one cares whether the actions of the character make sense. What matters is that the character does what the player wants within the world.

Actor stance approaches the world solely through the character, but also solely through the character's perceived desires and personality. This is the approach to play in which much depends on what the player believes the character would "really" do, if he were a real person in that situation, and is closely associated with the concepts most people call immersion. Actor stance springs from the perceptions and thoughts attributed to the character, and limits the player's credibility to control over that character and the impact that character can realistically have in the world.

Author stance is in some ways a complicated fusion between Actor and Pawn. In this case, the player is still controlling the character only; however, the player is permitted and even expected to use his own knowledge and desires in making character decisions, while at the same time providing justification after the fact for why this is what the character would have done. For example, we have the brash uncouth fighter who is always getting in brawls, but suddenly the player decides that he wants play to move toward an alliance between the fighter and a particular non-player nobleman, so when they meet he chooses not to fight even though everyone expected him to do so. He justifies this by stating that his character was for once impressed by someone of noble bearing, or that the character was suddenly smitten by the Duke's lovely daughter and so out of character at that moment. What matters here is that the player is allowing his own knowledge and desires control the direction the story takes, but is doing so by controlling his character and creating reasons for the character to have done what the player wished. It is thus like Actor stance to the degree that the player controls only his character and does so in a way that preserves character integrity, but like Pawn stance in that the player uses the character to accomplish player goals, not character goals, to the degree that these differ.

Director stance is fairly simple to understand but shocking to accept by most players. It means that the character players have credibility to create bits in the shared imagined space that are outside the control of their characters. In essence, it gives a great deal of credibility traditionally reserved for the referee to the other players. Yet it is something that nearly all role players have used to some degree.

Imagine for a moment that a player character has just entered a room. The referee states that it looks like a woman's bedroom. The player then says that his character will move to the dresser and examine the knick-knacks on it. Note that the referee never stated there was a dresser, or that there was anything on it; the player made the assumption that a woman's bedroom would have a dresser, and that a woman's dresser would have something sitting atop it that was decorative. He then made the assertion incidentally that such things existed, and requested more information about them. That is a very limited example of director stance. The majority of games would extend sufficient credibility to the player to make such statements. If the player did not have that much credibility, he would have to ask whether there was a dresser, whether there was anything on the dresser, and possibly whether there was anything preventing him from moving to the dresser to get a better look, in each case awaiting confirmation by the referee, who is the only person with the credibility to place such objects in the shared imagined space. Going the other direction, a player with more credibility might state that he was opening the top drawer, rifling through the lady's undergarments, and finding a wrapped packet of correspondence that looked like it might be love letters, which he pockets for future examination. Again, none of that is in the referee's statement of the contents of the room, but a player might have sufficient credibility to create those elements, as they are consistent with what is given.

Given sufficient credibility, a player could create the side door through which he escapes. That is the concept of director stance. Referees do it all the time, but there is no inherent reason why players could not do it.

It should be said that there is no right or wrong stance, no better or worse way to play. There are only individual preferences of how to do things and practical considerations in how to make any particular game work. All of these stances are the right choice for some type of role playing game. It might or might not be a type you would enjoy, but people do enjoy playing in games that do these various things.

Of course, if system is all about apportioning credibility, what then are rules? Are the baker's dozen books of Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons completely meaningless? Is there no difference at all between Aftermath and Amber Diceless? Are those who work to create new games wasting their efforts in view of the fact that the rules in the book are not the system?

The relationship between rules and system took some time to develop, and is difficult to understand. Rules have authority, or perhaps more precisely are authorities. They are authorities in the same sense that case law is an authority for courts, or that scriptures are authorities for religions: the people involved refer to these and invoke them in support of their statements, and so increase the credibility of those statements.

Thus for example a player running a ranger in Dungeons & Dragons might say that his character was going to use his tracking ability to identify which way the opponent went. Probably this would be accepted as within the credibility of the player. However, if the referee were unaware that the ranger had tracking skill, the player could point to the section of the rules in which tracking skill is identified and explained and so give credibility to his stated action.

Note that rules do not have credibility. They cannot make statements of themselves, but must be cited by a person with credibility. Further, the authority of the rules is subject to the credibility of persons involved in the game. Can the ranger track an opponent across the ocean floor? Someone has the credibility to decide whether the rules apply, and how they are to be understood. There may be a rule somewhere in the books that covers this situation, but if no one uses it, it is not part of the system, as it does not influence what is mutually imagined.

Once we recognize that rules are authorities used to support the credibility of statements made by people, it is a short step to realize that everything else outside the minds and statements of the people is at best another authority. The dice are not part of the system, but rather an authority to which someone appeals in determining an outcome. Whether the referee can ignore the dice or not is part of the system; whether the players can force him to follow the dice is part of the system; but in using the dice, we are appealing to the authority of the dice. This applies also to charts and tables, character papers, world descriptions, modules and supplements, and the wealth of other informational supports we use in play. We are using the real system of the game whenever we decide what happens in our imagined reality; if we use dice, or charts, or ability scores, or skill ratings, we are appealing to authority to support those decisions, but it is still always we the players who decide.

In the end, a role playing game is a conversation between a group of people in which they describe to each other certain imagined events that they create as they describe them. Everything else that we see as part of the game exists to support that activity, and to determine whose statements about what happens will be accepted by everyone.

If your reaction to that is, Is that all there is? you have my condolences. In a sense, yes, that is all there is. However, that is the most powerful secret of game design that has yet been uncovered, and to the degree that you can understand, support, and exploit this central concept, you can design or play a great game.

M. Joseph Young is author game books and novels for Multiverser: The Game, and a prolific contributor to role playing game literature. Among his online work is his long-running Game Ideas Unlimited series at Gaming Outpost, Faith and Gaming series in the Chaplain's corner of The Christian Gamers Guild, and the three-part Law and Enforcement in Imaginary Realms in this e-zine, beginning with The Source of Law in issue nine.

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