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A "theory" thread

Pedantic

Legend
This might be a factor of the kinds of games I play outside of TTRPGs (which increasingly involve less and less randomness outside of setup), but I think uncertainty is wildly overvalued in general in TTRPG design. You already have staggeringly more inputs/actions available than you do in most games, you have incredibly variable (and often fairly unknown) board states, but we put a lot of weight on rolling dice.

I think there's plenty to be said for exploring a shared fictional space constrained only by action selection, without needing to bring chance into it.
 

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niklinna

satisfied?
This might be a factor of the kinds of games I play outside of TTRPGs (which increasingly involve less and less randomness outside of setup), but I think uncertainty is wildly overvalued in general in TTRPG design. You already have staggeringly more inputs/actions available than you do in most games, you have incredibly variable (and often fairly unknown) board states, but we put a lot of weight on rolling dice.

I think there's plenty to be said for exploring a shared fictional space constrained only by action selection, without needing to bring chance into it.
I mentioned elsewhere an RPG I got to play in where your character was mechanically described by a hand of cards with simple descriptors like "fast", "vicious", "clever", and the like. You could have more than one of each. Action resolution was done free-form, except that if you had a card you could reasonably apply to the situation, you could play it from your hand to get your way. And then you didn't have that card any more, until everybody refreshed their hands. So one time, another player said they were gonna be the next person to do a particular thing, and I played "fast" and scooped them. But then I couldn't do that again for a while.

It was a one-shot, and I don't recall situations arising where a player countered another, but I bet if you wanted to burn up all your cards that way, you'd be more than welcome to do so....

That mechanic could easily be done with a list on a sheet of paper, of course.
 

pemerton

Legend
This might be a factor of the kinds of games I play outside of TTRPGs (which increasingly involve less and less randomness outside of setup), but I think uncertainty is wildly overvalued in general in TTRPG design. You already have staggeringly more inputs/actions available than you do in most games, you have incredibly variable (and often fairly unknown) board states, but we put a lot of weight on rolling dice.
To relate the bolded bit back to the OP: I see this as a feature of situation/context; and there is a lot of variation in this respect across different RPGs.

MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic - just to pick one example - does not have an unknown board state. Whereas the unknown board state is close to the whole of the game for Moldvay Basic.
 

This might be a factor of the kinds of games I play outside of TTRPGs (which increasingly involve less and less randomness outside of setup), but I think uncertainty is wildly overvalued in general in TTRPG design. You already have staggeringly more inputs/actions available than you do in most games, you have incredibly variable (and often fairly unknown) board states, but we put a lot of weight on rolling dice.

I think there's plenty to be said for exploring a shared fictional space constrained only by action selection, without needing to bring chance into it.
Something has to exist which makes it a game. Sure you can say each PC just has specific moves but who decides when they can succeed?

Dice in trad RPGs stand in for 2 things, variability of effort/luck/fortune but also for lack of GM knowledge of the environment. Is a guard going to happen by, who knows, roll to sneak past, oops the guard happened to come round the corner!

Without this you have just 2 people making stuff up! The other option is some form of coupon or resource, but that's really just a measure of intent...
 

Without this you have just 2 people making stuff up! The other option is some form of coupon or resource, but that's really just a measure of intent...
I've seen systems in which you can get in a bidding war with resources until one person backs down. I've also seen one in which if you want to change something in someone else's wheelhouse, they get to say what it will cost you (within the limits of the fiction).

And then there's Amber Diceless, which is "all things being equal, the higher stat wins", and the GM rules when things are unequal enough to matter.
 

This might be a factor of the kinds of games I play outside of TTRPGs (which increasingly involve less and less randomness outside of setup), but I think uncertainty is wildly overvalued in general in TTRPG design. You already have staggeringly more inputs/actions available than you do in most games, you have incredibly variable (and often fairly unknown) board states, but we put a lot of weight on rolling dice.

I think there's plenty to be said for exploring a shared fictional space constrained only by action selection, without needing to bring chance into it.
So-called "diceless RPGs" are a thing - but a small thing and for good reason. Some randomness acts as a lubricant so you can blame the dice rather than each other. And some's there to inspire the DM. That said in D&D other than for damage only the d20 matters, and all it ever does is produce a pass/fail result with fairly serious volatility. It really is overkill for what it does.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Next, the key proposition: at the heart of RPGing is shared imagination. Imaginary people do imagined things in imagined places.

Some boardgames also involve imagined things. But in a boardgame the imagination is optional and epiphenomenal. When I play Mystic Wood, for instance, and my knight fights the troll, I can imagine a fight going on. But all that matters to game play is the numbers on the playing pieces, and the numbers on the rolled dice. The flavour text makes the game more fun, but doesn't actually affect the game play. In a RPG, this is not the case. The fiction matters.
As you call out (at the bottom of your OP, but not quoted here) this restates a position VB stated or restated pretty well. In more recent discussion on his blog, he argues that

TTRPGs are no more fundamentally alike than video games, sports, or any other arbitrary game category. Take three ttrpgs and in principle they might be as different from one another as triathlon is from baseball is from hacky sack. Or as different from one another as Mario Kart is from The Wolf Among Us is from Minesweeper.

The act of roleplaying — like, pretending to be someone — is widespread in games, not special to ttrpgs. It’s a technique that games can include, each game for its own purposes, just the same as it might include skill, endurance, memory, pattern recognition, storytelling, randomization, sorting, patience, or anything else.

Roleplaying games are interesting and surprising games in a lot of ways, but they aren’t all fundamentally like each other or fundamentally unlike other games. They’re just, yknow, some games, with all the same kinds of fads, schools of thought, cross-influences, innovations, compromises, and iterations that other games have.

(Emphasis mine.) Vincent then clarifies in comments that

Fictional positioning is a technical feature that some games have and other games don’t, just like shuffling and dealing cards, moving pieces on a board, or using a screen and a controller.

I’m perfectly comfy with the idea that rpgs are games that include fictional positioning, sure. Some games do, some games don’t, and there’s no problem giving the ones that do, a name. RPGs, card games, video games, playground games, party games, social deduction games — no problem.

So take games that include shuffling and dealing cards and games that use a screen and controller. You’d never say that they were fundamentally unlike each other, categorically different activities, just because of this technical difference. Same thing with fictional positioning.

Fictional positioning doesn’t alienate rpgs from other games. It’s just a fun, cool, interesting, unique, challenging feature they have.

My current feeling on this matter is that fiction is a complex term, or perhaps that is better said as - it's a term that unpacks into some markedly different components. The relationship many folk have historically had with fiction is as a relating or retelling. I read about real or imagined events that have occurred to real or imagined people. Retold fiction has typically been the product of the workings of an author's mind. Today, it can also be a product of the workings of an AI. Something we have discussed in the past and drawn differing conclusions about, is a retelling of game play - a retelling of a chess game, for instance. When I read the "story of a game of chess" and "story by chatgpt", I might call both of those mechanically generated fictions. I could be drawn to say that the chess "fiction" is in truth non-fiction - a series of facts about the play, but then what of chatgpt? Is its fiction anything but a series of facts about (collected from) the play of its mechanisms?

There is a sense, anyway, of fiction as a product of a process. Viewed that way, boardgames and TTRPGs both produce "fiction", and this is not what I think you are talking about. I think you are talking about something closer to VBs "fictional positioning" which is fiction that will be continuously addressed during play. It is the distinctive and compelling purpose of RPG play to address that fiction.

In boardgames and TTRPGs, players continually form intents and - mediated by rules or agreements around the table - say what they are and see them enacted. In play of boardgames, such intents address the physical game state. To say it is physical is to give it independence from its authors. X and Y can play five plies into a chess game, and then hand the board to Q and R, who can perfectly well continue addressing it. (The forming of intents is not interchangeable among players, but the physical game states are.) In TTRPG, the game state is mental as well as physical. Being mental, it is not perfectly known or reified among the players and must be addressed in a sense that VB has described as retroactive. I believe it is this mental component that you are calling "the heart of RPGing".

There is something recognisable as fiction that emerges in both boardgames and TTRPGs. Player intents are common to all games. That those intents should shape the fiction that emerges is in turn common to most or all games. Again, this is not the "fiction" at the heart of RPG that I believe your OP contemplates, but the boundaries are blurred: there is a complex entanglement between emergent fiction and shared imagination. That plays out in - for one example - debates about resolution types.

I find these difficult ideas, so will leave it here not because I feel I've been entirely successful in stating my point, but - as you did - to make space for commentary before attempting to get at something more successful. EDIT, a quote from VB that I want to say should not derail or devalue your OP, but perhaps speaks to some of my feelings of caution...

Either way, I return to the ideas of rpg essentialism and rpg exceptionalism in my thinking a lot. They’re signposts for me: danger bridge out ahead. I want to lay them out here because, knowing this, when you encounter some of my other rpg ideas, you might see better where I’m coming from.
 
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Pedantic

Legend
Something has to exist which makes it a game. Sure you can say each PC just has specific moves but who decides when they can succeed?

Dice in trad RPGs stand in for 2 things, variability of effort/luck/fortune but also for lack of GM knowledge of the environment. Is a guard going to happen by, who knows, roll to sneak past, oops the guard happened to come round the corner!

Without this you have just 2 people making stuff up! The other option is some form of coupon or resource, but that's really just a measure of intent...

I mean, that's all we've ever had; of course these games are just two people making things up, and all we're arguing about is what set of mechanically mediated restrictions have an impact on what's made up. I'm just saying that restrictions on what actions can be declared are probably as or more impactful than using dice rolls to determine their impact.

"Successful" and "unsuccessful" are already subjective categories; at what point do you stop measuring a given actor's intent? Sure, I want to climb that wall, but really I want to get into the building, and really, really, I want get into the building and get out safely with the magic lamp. The real restriction was the specified scope of my choice of action to begin with.

I can absolutely imagine a process of play that doesn't involve randomness in resolution, only generation.
 


niklinna

satisfied?
I mean, that's all we've ever had; of course these games are just two people making things up, and all we're arguing about is what set of mechanically mediated restrictions have an impact on what's made up. I'm just saying that restrictions on what actions can be declared are probably as or more impactful than using dice rolls to determine their impact.
Dice rolls are for people who, on whatever level and to whatever degree and in whatever context, like the excitement of uncertainty and chance. It's a form of gambling. Some systems are very swingy and chaotic. Others give you resources to manage your risk, up to and including making an uncertain thing certain (or making a certain thing uncertain, if you like!). Still others—admittedly rare—involve no chance other than in your decision to use resources that you might need later.

Reminds me of the posited contrast between "American" and "Euro" board games, although even the latter often involve chance in random draws of pieces and cards.

"Successful" and "unsuccessful" are already subjective categories; at what point do you stop measuring a given actor's intent? Sure, I want to climb that wall, but really I want to get into the building, and really, really, I want get into the building and get out safely with the magic lamp. The real restriction was the specified scope of my choice of action to begin with.
They aren't subjective if everybody involved agrees to what they mean. As for measuring a given actor's intent, games like Over the Edge and Blades in the Dark pretty easily accommodate such shifts in scale on the fly. In each, you can resolve combat round by round, or with a single dice roll. You can also decide to resolve the wall climbing, getting into the building, or getting the magic lamp, base on what is relevant to the story.

I can absolutely imagine a process of play that doesn't involve randomness in resolution, only generation.
I can absolutely imagine a process of play that doesn't involve randomness at all—apart from the crazy ideas the participants come up with, which can be pretty random! :LOL:
 

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