log in or register to remove this ad

 

RPG Theory- The Limits of My Language are the Limits of My World

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Well, it happened again! Another thread, ostensibly about one thing (discussing the division of narrative authority within 5e) turned into another thing (jargon-filled general discussion about RPG theory). Which is thing. Thread drift happens! But given the recurrent nature of this issue, I thought I'd put forth a general resource and guide for people when it came to TTRPG theory. Sort of a beginner's guide to understanding some of the concepts and idea, with links to allow you to go and do your own research.

And also a big plug for my latest good read- The Elusive Shift: How Role Playing Games Forged their Identity.

A. What is RPG Theory, and Why is it so Contentious?

Well, I think the (slightly jokey) response to that is probably familiar to most people- the debates about TTRPG theory tend to be so bitter and divisive because the stakes are so small! But I think that it goes deeper than that; in effect, RPG "theory" encompasses a great number of different areas. It is about the design of the games, it is about the play of the games, it is about describing what the games are, and it makes normative (that's a jargon term for "value-laden" or "is it good or bad") statements about what games should be. I'm sure that there are a lot of other factors, but that's a good start.

We can see the difficulties in inherent in RPG theory just from the beginning- what is an RPG? Is it just a "standard" TTRPG like D&D? What about TTRPGs that don't have a standard arbiter referee/GM like Fiasco? What about LARP? What about children's games like Cops and Robbers? What about CRPGs? And so on. Defining the subject is incredibly important- and that's just part of it.

More importantly, any person familiar with this board's strong disfavoring of "one-true-way-ism" instinctively understands that when you move from the descriptive (this is how this game functions) to the prescriptive (this is how this game ought to function), you start running into problems- the issue of what games should be. People tend to be very protective of how their own game functions, and what provides them with "fun." Telling someone that they are doing it wrong is rarely met with open arms and acquiescence.

Finally, there is one more additional issue; when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. This is similar to the @Malmuria "basket" analysis- which is to say, if your theory predicts that TTRPGs fall into a finite number of baskets (say, 3 baskets), then you will forever be limited to articulating how something goes into a particular basket, or why it should or shouldn't be in that basket. A long time ago, I took an advanced critical theory course where every week, we had to write a paper analyzing the same text using a different method of critical theory analysis. One week it would me Marxist theory, another week psychoanalytic theory, another week third-work approach (measure it against the standards articulated from another work, like Burke's On the Sublime and Beautiful), another week semiotic and structuralist, another week post-structuralist, another week authorial intent, and so on. The purpose was to show how the same text would produce different meanings depending on the approach used; that instead of focusing on the "correct reading" it was best to think of different theoretical approaches as different tools with which to retrieve meaning. There wasn't a single correct theory- but the theory you used was determinative of the types of meaning you would end up with. A Marxist approach tended to reveal a lot of elements of class struggle and power relations, whereas a psychological analysis is more likely to reveal elements of the characters' conscious and subconscious motivations.

In a similar way, many arguments about RPG theory devolve into arguments about whether the theory even applies (are you using the right tool) or, worse, jargon.


B. We have to backburner your annual until we've leveraged the pivot-to-video into actionable engagement with our disruptive client-centered approach.

A brief aside about jargon. Jargon (or any kind of specialized language) is both helpful and unhelpful. If you think of any specialized field- medicine, law, banking, computer science, and so on, it will have jargon. Jargon can serve a very useful purpose- it can allow people with a shared interest in something technical to describe something quickly without having to use regular language each time and "re-invent" the wheel. It's a linguistic shortcut used by people with a shared interest.

Of course, there are other instances of jargon as well, outside of technical fields. Think about almost any area- when there is a shared group, there is often a shared vocabulary. This gets down to the smallest groups- I am sure that all of us have friend groups, and in those groups we have verbal shortcuts from shared events or people we have known! If everyone remembers that terrible night in Toledo, then it would be normal for someone in the group to say, "We don't want another Toledo" and for everyone to nod in agreement. (I am sure that someone is getting ready to start typing, Shakra, when the walls fell.)

The trouble with jargon, however, is that while it can help in-groups communicate more effectively, it is also incredibly off-putting to other people; in fact, it is can be considered both a feature and a bug. If you've ever spoken to a professional (a doctor, a lawyer, a banker) who can't be bothered to explain things and "dumb it down" for a "mere layman" or dealt with a close group of friends that talks entirely in "in-jokes" and doesn't explain them, you understand what this means. When you have invented terms, people will use them as a weapon to exclude others- "Oh, you don't understand what I mean by XXXXXX? Well, obviously you just don't get it."

Given that there really isn't a standard for academic RPG theory (as discussed below), many disagreements about RPG theory are just arguments over what jargon is being used. "Oh, that's not a railroad. That's player agency!" Or, "That's not skilled play, because other types of play have skill." And so on.


C. All of this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

Finally, the most frustrating thing about many conversations regarding RPG theory is the extent to which they are forced to continually re-occur. RPGs sprung from a loose hobbyist market, and have both attracted a number of very smart people but also usually lacked the type of money or prestige that would generally attract the attention of traditional academia. Which means that the wheel keeps getting re-invented when it comes to RPG theory.

Here is where I'm going to plug an excellent resource- we are all familiar with Playing at the World, and with Game Wizards, but I think that it's a shame that we haven't had time to discuss Peterson's recent book, The Elusive Shift: How Role Playing Games Forged their Identity.

The book is essentially about how the early TTRPG community (the D&D community) grappled with this new thing that they had, and how the early scholars and theorists in the 1970s were already discussing the exact same issues that we keep coming across today. Reading through it was like seeing the same debates I see here, just from more than 40 years ago. Seeing the creator of Chivalry & Sorcery go hardcore into creating a realistic game, and then realizing that the game he made didn't work to create the stories and drama he wanted to the extent that he advised ignoring the rules? Yeah, seems familiar.

This lack of institutional knowledge and a consistent approach is what tends to bind us. We don't remember what others have said and done. We use poorly defined terms or jargon to exclude people from the conversation. We don't bother having a consistent baseline, relying on anecdotes that can't explain the experience of others (for example, while "play experiences" might have limited value, it does little to disentangle the players/referee from the system itself). And there is a frustrating inability to be able to discuss any sort of "best practices," because usually, instead of discussing best practices to run a type of game, you end up with theory about what a game ought to be.


D. So is all RPG Theory useless?

No, of course not! Obviously, it's fun for people to discuss. And helpful for some people to make their own experiences better. But when it comes to systemic looks at real RPG theory, I think that some of the following might be helpful:

1. Role-playing Game Studies. This is an academic work, but is interesting and has the majority of chapters available to the public on-line.
2. The Elusive Shift. Jon Peterson's book. Available at amazon and others.
3. Tabletop RPG Design in Theory and Practice at the Forge, 2001–2012. William J. White. Available at amazon and others (expensive).
4. Designers & Dragons. Shannon Applecline. (I think some of this has been superseded by newer material from Peterson, but sill good). Available with a free TSR section of 100 pages at evilhat.
5. Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Pat Harrigan. Available at amazon and others.
6. Great roundup of web-based resources at Black & Green Games.
7. Playground Worlds. Some ideas, with a strong emphasis from the Nordic community, available on-line.

These are just starting points. Some of the resources are older, some are newer. They treat the subject of RPGs seriously. If this is something interesting to you, and if you enjoy it, I recommend looking into these resources. While many of the debates in RPG theory are just refinements of the ones we have seen since the 70s, an increasing approach to looking at the systems in an academic manner is fascinating.

....or, you can just grab your pizza, your beer, and your d20 and have some fun!
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The purpose was to show how the same text would produce different meanings depending on the approach used; that instead of focusing on the "correct reading" it was best to think of different theoretical approaches as different tools with which to retrieve meaning.

By the Powers That Be, how much better our discussions would be if folks would embrace this point.

It is okay to have a favored framework, but for goodness sake realize that it is only a framework, not TEH TRVTH!
 

MGibster

Legend
A long time ago, I took an advanced critical theory course where every week, we had to write a paper analyzing the same text using a different method of critical theory analysis. One week it would me Marxist theory, another week psychoanalytic theory, another week third-work approach (measure it against the standards articulated from another work, like Burke's On the Sublime and Beautiful), another week semiotic and structuralist, another week post-structuralist, another week authorial intent, and so on.
I took a Gender & Science Fiction course as an undergraduate where I was required to write a critical analysis of several short stories from different theoretical points of view. My final paper was a feminist critique of Tarnsman of Gor.

Given that there really isn't a standard for academic RPG theory (as discussed below), many disagreements about RPG theory are just arguments over what jargon is being used. "Oh, that's not a railroad. That's player agency!" Or, "That's not skilled play, because other types of play have skill." And so on.
I especially find it different when those who are exposed to academic jargon then apply it outside of that context and expect everyone else to follow suit and understand. It's hard to engage in meaningful communication when we can't all agree on what a simple word means.

....or, you can just grab your pizza, your beer, and your d20 and have some fun!
I mean, we can do both, right?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Given that there really isn't a standard for academic RPG theory (as discussed below), many disagreements about RPG theory are just arguments over what jargon is being used. "Oh, that's not a railroad. That's player agency!" Or, "That's not skilled play, because other types of play have skill." And so on.

As you point out, there's no one standard academic theory for literary discussion either. The problem is less that there isn't one, and more that they generally aren't formalized, or even have accepted names - when you refer to Marxist theory, or psychoanalytic theory that, when mentioned, give folks at least a general idea of the theme of discussion.

And, maybe we don't need them. But, lacking them, what we really do need is to recognize that we have different goals of play - we are seeking different broad experiences, and in general our framework for considering a game or a practice really ought to be one that is geared toward that desired experience.

And, we should then realize that if we heavily favor one experience, that's our preference, and there's nothing bloody wrong with folks wanting something else, and stop arguing as if we were Protectors of the Soul of RPGs.
 
Last edited:


payn

Legend
I find much of the jargon used, unfortunately, starts as derogatory ways to put down things folks dont like. Instead of finding a respectful way to describe something they dont prefer. Fortunately, folks tend to reinvent the term in a more respectful way on their own during these discussions and arguments. For example, railroading vs. linear campaign design. One term inherently bad, the other neutral to positive and better used for general discussion.

Many RPG theory discussions and arguments can become incendiary. The E. War back in 2008 was particularly volatile as the imagined stakes for the future of RPG design seemed to hang in the balance. Moderation was necessary and required constantly as folks were awful to one another. Though, eventually it became necessary to find more diplomatic ways to engage on ideas and concepts. The ultimate goal of understanding always wins out in the end. While the process may be very unpleasant, I think its worth engaging for the benefits of mutual understanding and self growth. The 2008 E. War might have been a bad period, but I learned more about my preferences and understanding of RPG design in those few years then all the years prior combined. Ultimately, RPG theory is worth it.

My number one rule when engaging theory discussions is to listen to Rufus the 13th Apostle, "I think it's better to have ideas (than beliefs). You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier..."
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
My final paper was a feminist critique of Tarnsman of Gor.

Was it a very short paper? Three words?

No. Just ... no.

(I once knew of a person that did a feminist critique of Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back. Had to present it to the class. He started by saying that he chose it because he thought it would be enlightening, would actually show that it was a feminist approach to the objectification of women and racial standards, and so on. But then he paused, and said, "But after all of that, I realized that it wasn't hiding anything. The song was just written by a guy just really really likes butts."

There's a fine line between clever and stupid.)
 

MGibster

Legend
Was it a very short paper? Three words?
The first Gor book was just your standard sword and planet adolescent power fantasy. It wasn't until later in the series that sex or philosophy, for lack of a better word, starting getting more attention in the books. I'm not going to say Tarnsman of Gor is a good book, but you probably won't feel the need to take a shower after reading it. It's been so long since I read and wrote that paper that I don't remember a lot about it, I do specifically remember there was a need for men to physically compete with one another to establish who would be the dominate.

(I once knew of a person that did a feminist critique of Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back. Had to present it to the class. He started by saying that he chose it because he thought it would be enlightening, would actually show that it was a feminist approach to the objectification of women and racial standards, and so on. But then he paused, and said, "But after all of that, I realized that it wasn't hiding anything. The song was just written by a guy just really really likes butts."
The very first paper I wrote requiring me to actually interpret the past came in my Women in World History course. I took the lives of three or four women who attained fame for their behavior at sea, sailor being a traditionally masculine, and how they each presented themselves in a manner more acceptable with what expected of feminine behavior when it suited them. For example, at her trail Mary Read made sure to let the court know that she was married, as befitting a proper woman, and in the ultimate act of femininity "pleaded her belly" (told the court she was pregnant) to receive some of that sweet, sweet clemency. Another was a 19th century American woman accompanying her husband on the merchant ship he captained. He showed her how to navigate, and after he fell ill, being the only person on the ship who could navigate, she took over as captain, thwarted a mutiny, and made it to port through treacherous waters. When reporters spoke to her she played up her role of wife.

Anyway, I was really proud of that paper but before I turned it in I had a moment of panic. Did I believe any of this? Is this all naughty word? I sometimes ask this question of myself and this applies to game theory as well. I don't mean to imply that theory isn't worth the effort. But I still sometimes wonder whether or not it's a big pile of horse hockey.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I think it's fair to say that our thinking is heavily influenced by the analytical frameworks we are most familiar with. What I think is not fair to say is the idea that the mainstream culture of play is not also deeply influenced by a very particular analytical framework when it comes to discussion of roleplaying games and game design. Language like The Story™, the Group™, power gamer, rules lawyer, plot hook, adventure, Game Master, lead storyteller, et al is not value neutral in orientation. Nor should it be really. Having a methodology, firm expectations, and strong play loops are critical to creating a game worth playing.

I think we should all be mindful of our own cultural context. Where cultural differences rear their ugly head having an awareness of where people are coming from can be important, but expecting them to completely abandon their frame of reference in order to have a discussion with you is somewhat fraught in my opinion. I never expect anyone to adopt the same analytical frame as me. I just try to use the language that most precisely gets my point across. I expect other people to do the same.

I think such cultural clashes are good for discussion actually. We should all have our frame and assumptions challenged from time to time. Discussions where we all agree with one another are seldom interesting or useful.
 

Aldarc

Legend
@Snarf Zagyg, IMHO, the more interesting contrast in terms of theory is not necesarily between TTRPGs and literary theory, but, rather, between tabletop roleplay gaming and other forms of gaming, namely board games or video/computer gaming. The latter of which has developed far more articulate theoretical frameworks, terminology/jargon, and the like from both scholars, game designers, and gamers.
 

aco175

Legend
So, in a nutshell... House rules are the root of the problem. I change things to what I think ought to be and your ought to be are now at odds and we end up saying bad things on how each of us play the game. I guess the same thing is for optional rules like flanking, and new rules/options like the orc/drow threads of last year that still continue.

There is also the text and people reading it differently, the RAW/RAI problem. Half of this site is about problems with something that some of us say, "no, of course not. That is just silly.", and the other half are on the opposing point. That is likely part of the reason many of us look at the site.

Who is right, not sure. It would be easy to be quippy and just say if everyone agreed with me, things would be great.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
To me, the use of RPG theory jargon isn't all that problematic--if someone is joining a discussion about RPG theory, they should be able to handle either asking for looking up the definitions and context of a handful of terms. If not, there will always be tons of other threads to jump into that aren't about RPG theory.

The pattern that I keep seeing, that I think can be unhelpful, is people essentially showing up to shut down theory-related discussion in the context of "Well in my game we do it this way and that's always worked for us so why are we talking about any other approach or system or concept?" The battle lines in those cases seem to be drawn over the notion of even talking about theory, as though by even trying to define different elements and styles of play, and maybe figure out ways to improve as players and GMs or bring in more types of gamers, we risk ruining the effortless chemistry of the campaign someone's been running for the past 20 years.

If people don't want to discuss this stuff in detail, at the level of theory...they just shouldn't. No one's forcing any of us to post.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If people don't want to discuss this stuff in detail, at the level of theory...they just shouldn't. No one's forcing any of us to post.

If someone comes in as you noted, my observation isn't that they "don't want to discuss it". It is that they have seen those discussions before, and those discussions, to them, seem to discredit, dismiss, or exclude their personal playstyle - they are engaging in that way because what they see seems to put their own play into the "Out Group".

Then, on the other side, those who have steeped themselves in theory have a tendency of facing such folks with a wall of academic discussion.

And in the end, nobody bridges the gap. This is connected to how people often listen/read to be able to respond, rather than to learn and understand. There's a difference, and they lead to different kinds of discussion.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
If someone comes in as you noted, my observation isn't that they "don't want to discuss it". It is that they have seen those discussions before, and those discussions, to them, seem to discredit, dismiss, or exclude their personal playstyle - they are engaging in that way because what they see seems to put their own play into the "Out Group".

Then, on the other side, those who have steeped themselves in theory have a tendency of facing such folks with a wall of academic discussion.

And in the end, nobody bridges the gap. This is connected to how people often listen/read to be able to respond, rather than to learn and understand. There's a difference, and they lead to different kinds of discussion.
It's further complicated by the fact that we can't even seem to define what all this even is (RPGs) without someone feeling excluded and/or attacked. There's no workable definition that won't exclude some people, games, and playstyles and any definition broad enough to intentionally include everyone, every game, and every playstyle will by necessity be too broad to be useful or meaningful.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
If someone comes in as you noted, my observation isn't that they "don't want to discuss it". It is that they have seen those discussions before, and those discussions, to them, seem to discredit, dismiss, or exclude their personal playstyle - they are engaging in that way because what they see seems to put their own play into the "Out Group".

Then, on the other side, those who have steeped themselves in theory have a tendency of facing such folks with a wall of academic discussion.

And in the end, nobody bridges the gap. This is connected to how people often listen/read to be able to respond, rather than to learn and understand. There's a difference, and they lead to different kinds of discussion.
I mostly agree with this, except that when people join a discussion already feeling defensive and cornered, it just never really works out well--and that's really on them for making it personal. To me that's the equivalent of barging into an academic discussion to proclaim that you didn't need fancy schooling to tell you about X, and turning what might have been a productive back-and-forth into a bitter and probably pointless slugfest.

In other words, if the only reason someone is dropping into a thread is to secure validation for their playstyle, that's just asking for trouble, and also a bit depressing.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
RPG theory is interesting to read on a blog or in a book. I stopped discussing rpg theory on forums because it is very time consuming and talking past each other is often the end result.

I prefer using my time to work on my campaigns.
 

MGibster

Legend
RPG theory is interesting to read on a blog or in a book. I stopped discussing rpg theory on forums because it is very time consuming and talking past each other is often the end result.
I went to graduate school and took courses that covered and made extensive use of various theories. I have to admit that sometimes when I read an RPG theory thread my eyes glaze over and I have no idea what the hell is being talked about. I get lost.
 

Aldarc

Legend
It's further complicated by the fact that we can't even seem to define what all this even is (RPGs) without someone feeling excluded and/or attacked. There's no workable definition that won't exclude some people, games, and playstyles and any definition broad enough to intentionally include everyone, every game, and every playstyle will by necessity be too broad to be useful or meaningful.
The issue, IMHO, is when people try to pass off their prescriptive understandings of TTRPGs as descriptive.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
@Snarf Zagyg, IMHO, the more interesting contrast in terms of theory is not necesarily between TTRPGs and literary theory, but, rather, between tabletop roleplay gaming and other forms of gaming, namely board games or video/computer gaming. The latter of which has developed far more articulate theoretical frameworks, terminology/jargon, and the like from both scholars, game designers, and gamers.

I briefly touched upon that (or, at a minimum, was thinking about that) when I wrote the following:
Finally, the most frustrating thing about many conversations regarding RPG theory is the extent to which they are forced to continually re-occur. RPGs sprung from a loose hobbyist market, and have both attracted a number of very smart people but also usually lacked the type of money or prestige that would generally attract the attention of traditional academia. Which means that the wheel keeps getting re-invented when it comes to RPG theory.

Vides games in general are similar to movies, in that sense. You have an entertainment that is originally viewed as unserious. Quickly, the sheer amount of money requires that companies (and the people that work for those companies) begin to approach the field in a more systemic manner; what works, what doesn't work. You need standardized language to approach certain problems and to communicate the needs and solutions to other professionals in the field.

The money also means that you have subsidiary and collateral sources spring up- independent (and professional, and money-making) third parties begin reviewing and critiquing video games- and they will use a shared language as well. You have agreed-upon divisions of the market into different segments with different goals, and standards, and comparators, and language for reviewing. And you have academic study which can deepen (embiggen?) the level of analysis.

This is largely lacking in the TTRPG sphere. IMO.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Yeah, I've done a ton of theory as well, and it just doesn't seem to come off the same way in conversation about RPGs as it does in a Lit Grad lecture. Well, except about Derrida, but that's Derrida for you. I think I'd agree that a limiting factor is probably that the base theory sets are not as well constructed/appreciated/deployed/insert theory word here as is the case with Lit theory (or whatever theory). Not that people don't argue about Lit, obviously they do, but the nature of the arguments seem a little different to me. Tough to really put my finger on the exact differences though. Something to think about.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top