RPGing and imagination: a fundamental point

pemerton

Legend
From time-to-time posters on these boards like to mention Wittgenstein. Given that I know Wittgenstein's work fairly well, I thought I might have a go at this too!

In his later work Wittgenstein advanced an argument called the "private language argument". The interpretation of the argument is contentious, and so is its soundness. What I take away from it - and here I'm also influenced by Otto Neurath's earlier work on "protocol sentences", and Hilary Putnam's later work on reference - is that language is in-principle sharable. There are no purely and essentially private words, or purely and essentially private referential relationships.

The previous sentence is a fairly strong claim, with sometimes counter-intuitive implications for how we think about thoughts and the mind. For instance, it means that - in principle - I can talk about your dreams just as much as you can: that the only obstacle to my doing so is epistemic (ie I don't have immediate cognitive access to them, given that they happen in your head), but not deeper than that: the position I take from Wittgenstein, Neurath and Putnam is that there can't be "images" or "mental events" in your dreams that are in principle not amenable to being talked about by me.

One aphorism Wittgenstein uses to motivate his argument is this: that language is rule-governed, and that a rule can't be established purely privately because that would be like checking if today's newspaper is accurate by comparing it to another copy of the same paper. The point of the aphorism is that there must be some "external" check or constraint in order to establish a rule.

This is one sense, then, in which solo imagination is, in-principle, sharable. But when it comes to RPGing I think there is a more demanding way in which the notion of solo vs shared applies. The problem, in solo play, of being one's own referee is a bit like checking the accuracy of the newspaper against another copy of the same paper: it's not really a limit.

Shared imagination is an important source of constraint in RPGing; and a very important part of RPG design is establishing the various mechanisms whereby the content of the shared fiction is established.
 

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pemerton

Legend
From the very beginning of the hobby what has distinguished tabletop roleplaying games (from board games and video games) is that in order to execute their mechanics the play group (usually primarily the GM) must make judgements about the fictional situation at hand. It is not just an aesthetic veneer, but central to the process of play. This is true of all versions of D&D. It is true of Vampire. It is true of Apocalypse World.
I would add: it's the combination of this heritage from wargaming with (i) the player-character alignment (for the non-referee participants) and (ii) the unfolding situation which is in-principle open-ended, that distinguishes RPGing (even D&D from its outset) from wargaming of the more conventional sort.
 

A lot of games invite players to imagine things while playing them. But not all.

Chess doesn't. Nor does bridge.

The card game Crew, which is a cooperative variant on bridge, has flavour text that bridge lacks. But the invitation to players to imagine things is pretty tenuous: the card play does not particularly invite imagination, and is the overwhelmingly dominant experience of play.

The board game Forbidden Island has flavour text that chess lacks. It invites a bit more imagination than Crew - probably about the same as Monopoly. Characters move around, and suffer tribulations or the occasional triumph. The game, shorn of its flavour, would be less engaging. (This is a difference from Crew.) But the imagination is ancillary to play.

Of course a player of Forbidden Island, or of Monopoly, can build up their imaginings in the course of play, and even invite other players to participate in it: there could even be in-character conversations. But these would be independent of the actual play of the game: the making of moves, the resolution of those moves, the determination of winning or losing.

In a RPG, imagination is not just something you while playing the game. Shared imagining is the core of the play of the game. The other parts of the game - character sheets, stat blocks and maps; making dice rolls and noting their results; mechanics and other rules that explain how to interpret and apply dice rolls, how to make changes to character sheets and maps, and how to change the fiction - are all in service of the shared imagining.

A RPG ruleset which makes imagining purely optional or ancillary, as it is in Monopoly or Forbidden Island - because the procedures of play set out in the ruleset can all be undertaken without needing to imagine anything - is a failed RPG ruleset.
Here's an interesting question though: Is my family game of Monopoly NOT an RPG if we, for example, Roleplay our 'characters' having love affairs, marriages, divorces, embezzling money, etc.? The rules of the game actually state that you can make pretty much any side deals you wish, so using that power we can 'pool our money' (IE have a marriage with a shared bank account) etc. simply by extrapolating on that authority. Now, granted, this is free form and ruleless beyond the basic empowering rules section, but suppose by convention we approach it in a certain way and play consistently and bind ourselves to the fictional positions we invent. I guess at some point those become house rules. I won't claim we are really 'just playing Monopoly', but I think I'm suggesting there's a bit of a blurry line between RPG and not-RPG.

In another discussion with some folks I suggested that the definition of an RPG is that it is open-ended, situationally, with rules that are built on to support novel situations, and 'first person' in that the players each represent a single character in play (mostly, sometimes there might be a deviation from that).
 

pemerton

Legend
Here's an interesting question though: Is my family game of Monopoly NOT an RPG if we, for example, Roleplay our 'characters' having love affairs, marriages, divorces, embezzling money, etc.? The rules of the game actually state that you can make pretty much any side deals you wish, so using that power we can 'pool our money' (IE have a marriage with a shared bank account) etc. simply by extrapolating on that authority. Now, granted, this is free form and ruleless beyond the basic empowering rules section, but suppose by convention we approach it in a certain way and play consistently and bind ourselves to the fictional positions we invent. I guess at some point those become house rules. I won't claim we are really 'just playing Monopoly', but I think I'm suggesting there's a bit of a blurry line between RPG and not-RPG.
When it comes to the classification of artefacts and social practices (and games are probably one or the other, maybe both), there are probably always blurred lines.

But I think it helps discussion - particularly if we are trying to think about design, and/or improve our technique - to work out from clear cases rather than to begin with blurred lines and borderlines.

So in your Monopoly case, let's stipulate two contrasting games. The first is a game of Monopoly, that involves extensive side deals and the like, and those side deals are embellished with imaginative description, "role play", etc. To me this is a boardgame with epiphenomenal imagination.

The second is an imagination-based and imagination-driven game of love affairs, marriages and divorces, embezzlement, etc, which at certain key points uses the equipment and even the rules of Monopoly to resolve certain questions about financial and real estate matters. To me this is a RPG with a somewhat abstracted resolution engine (a bit like the original D&D hp ablation combat system, but applied to a different domain of human experience).

Now your family's game might start like my first, and end up like my second, and there is surely some point at which it's intermediate and hard to classify. That's fine: I don't think that undermines the utility of the underlying contrast between two sorts of games.

In another discussion with some folks I suggested that the definition of an RPG is that it is open-ended, situationally, with rules that are built on to support novel situations, and 'first person' in that the players each represent a single character in play (mostly, sometimes there might be a deviation from that).
I see this as corresponding, pretty closely if not exactly, to my (i) the fiction matters to adjudication, like some wargames but unlike a boardgame, and (ii) the non-referee participants engage and change the fiction by declaring actions for the particular characters with which they are associated, and (iii) as a result of (i) and (ii) the list of player moves is limited only to what everyone can agree to imagine a character doing in the fictional situation.
 

Original DND is a mini's based wargame. That changed over time as the wargame elements were emphasized less and less in favor of emphasizing playstyle. The Thief was the first instance of the pattern being used and it only exploded from there.

Edit: it actually explicitly calls itself a wargame. The conflation of that wargame with roleplaying (the implicit improv game I was referencing) came later.
Yeah, I got news for you, you're simply wrong. I was there, I played 3LBB Dungeons & Dragons, straight up. It is, and was, an RPG. All the essential features of modern D&D play were there, right from the start (well, I cannot attest personally to what EGG and Co or DA and Co were doing, never crossed paths with them). I agree that there were connections between the C&C Society 'Great Kingdom' minis campaign activity and the Blackmoor/Greyhawk D&D play, of some sort, but the D&D game itself contemplates one basic thing, individual characters in open-ended situations. Combat, which is all that minis games cover, is only ONE of those elements, the rest are basically similar in structure to Dave & Co's Braunstein play, which has none of the character of minis wargames, though it shares the element of having a GM/DM with some earlier KS type games.

I can say this with great assurance because I remember distinctly the moment that I was told about the structure of D&D, before I even saw the game itself, and it was an electrifying moment of total realization that this was a completely new order of thing that had not come before. That it was in essence qualitatively unlike any of the wargames we were already playing. This was no wargame or minis/KS game, this was a new thing!
 

By today's standards? Yeah, it kind of isn't. But that has to be said, thats oDND. Later editions, even those immediately adjacent to it, are a different story. ODND is a premiere example of a game that didn't survive contact with players.

Plus, one can go read oDND. Its pretty short all things considered. You know what struck me as rather fascinating?

Nowhere does it say you can do anything. In fact, Im fairly certain it doesn't even imply you can do anything, anywhere in the text.

Instead its pretty explicit about what you can do and gives you nothing to do anything but those things.

But it makes sense why people dragged it into that direction, resulting in the overall genre we know and love today. When you're in a dungeon slaying monsters and getting loot, eventually someone's going to run up against a wacky encounter, and they're going to be inclined to try something out of the rules.

Thats how the implicit improv game ends up being a part of the game, and its arguably because this was never properly addressed and integrated that we end up with a tradition of DND being hella difficult to get into if you don't basically apprentice to a GM.


First person shooters. A shotgun plays very differently from a sniper rifle, and combining the two makes for a wholly new style distinct from either one alone. I related in the other topic that this is why I think so many FPS games end up becoming rpg-esque sooner or later.

Only strict difference is that FPS games are explicitly player skill oriented, whereas RPGs can be either one, but were traditionally character skill oriented.



ODND doesn't call itself that, however, which is a distinction I think matters and one that, if I could speak to the authors, they'd probably agree on. Given how old the game is (and how quickly it stopped being what the vast majority of people refer to as DND), I'm not inclined to read into their commentary all that deeply.

The text isn't an exhaustive study of RPGs specifically, after all, and it'd be beyond the scope of what it sets out to do to go that far on one specific type of game.



Hence my comments that most RPGs are a hybrid of that and an improv game. And id add to that that some games just aren't actually RPGs and its fine to recognize that they should be called something else. A game isn't lesser just because it isn't actually an RPG, nor are they lesser if we recognize that a given game thats called an RPG may actually be 2 or 3 different games in one.
It may not be obvious to you, coming along years later, but the term 'Role-playing Game' DID NOT EXIST in 1974! D&D could not have referred to itself in this fashion, as the term had yet to be coined, and as creative as the folks who created the game were, they didn't invent it. In fact I don't know exactly when and where the term was first coined. I'm going to say that my impression was sometime before 1980, and that many early games DID use that, or similar, terms. Checking early game texts would be a wise investment here, though I have obviously not, yet, done so.
 

I would add: it's the combination of this heritage from wargaming with (i) the player-character alignment (for the non-referee participants) and (ii) the unfolding situation which is in-principle open-ended, that distinguishes RPGing (even D&D from its outset) from wargaming of the more conventional sort.
Exactly. my example of Monopoly played with houserules lacks this one thing, that situations, the fiction, are BINDING parts of the game (I mean you could agree to be bound in my example, that's where things get fuzzy) but without that agreement, its just monopoly story time.
 

pemerton

Legend
It may not be obvious to you, coming along years later, but the term 'Role-playing Game' DID NOT EXIST in 1974! D&D could not have referred to itself in this fashion, as the term had yet to be coined, and as creative as the folks who created the game were, they didn't invent it. In fact I don't know exactly when and where the term was first coined. I'm going to say that my impression was sometime before 1980, and that many early games DID use that, or similar, terms. Checking early game texts would be a wise investment here, though I have obviously not, yet, done so.
I can't see "roleplaying" used in the AD&D MM; but the Foreword to the PHB, in its opening paragraph, describes D&D as "the granddaddy of all role-playing games". So that's 1978.

Classic Traveller (1977) talks about ways of playing Traveller, and describes the role of the "referee" in administering the "campaign". I don't think the term "roleplaying game" is used.
 

The fact that the rules don't spell it out just shows they're not very well written.

Or it shows that the game wasn't designed for that, and Arneson shoehorning in an improv game after the fact doesn't change that. (Especially when the accounts Ive read of Arnesons take on DND all paint his game as basically an enigma of cobbled together house rules)

If you can't spell out where the improv game is in the actual text, it is not a part of the game. And don't mistake this as value judgement; pointing this out isn't intended to be an accusation of badwrongfun, so lets not get too wrapped up in the emotions we associate with these games and get over-defensive. Trying to be accurate isn't about otherizing you.

Keep in mind too that this is a problem that is still plaguing DND where its constantly plugged as a do-anything improv game when it fundamentally can't support do-anything without external intervention that goes beyond just making rulings.

It’s not quite that neat because OD&D marked the start of something new. It took time for people to find the language to describe it.

Which coincided with new versions that incorporated and acknowledged how people were using the game.

That fuzziness is also why it really isn't accurate to assert oDND was an RPG, because what we now recognize as one didn't exist yet. Roleplaying did, and had been for a long time by 1974, but DND didn't become an RPG until it was rewritten as one. Any notion that roleplaying was involved could not be derived from the text itself.

There very well could have been and probably were individual games that were being run in a way that could have been indistinguishable from a more typical, modern RPG, but those aren't the games you got out of the box. Thats the GM integrating a new game into what was in the box.

Unfortunately, that clashes with the dominant play culture. I’ve seen arguments to the effect that what AW does is codify what good GMs should already know. Why is the game telling them how to do their jobs?

Responding out of order, but this is more or less a direct consequence of exactly what Im talking about. The oral tradition of DMing stems from the fact that DMs were teaching each other to learn and integrate an entirely separate game from what was actually in the books, and even today thats still a hugely prominent problem, made all the worse by WOTCs sheer reluctance to ever suggest to anyone how their game should be played.

It doesn’t follow that being old or not reflecting the majority play culture of today means a game is less of an RPG.
That wasn't what I meant. The age of the game obscures what is generally known about it. I'm simply not expecting the book to exhaustively examine a 50 year old game that quickly got supplanted by newer versions that are clearer examples of whats generally known as an RPG.

Their comment on oDND bucking the trend of the vast majority of everything that followed it is still true, and its simply not in the scope of the book to debate if that makes oDND an RPG or not. Its a fun fact about a game thats commonly called one, and nothing more.

Just a hybrid of that or a hybrid of those things and other things? What I’m trying to reconcile is the lumping together of Skyrim with D&D. There is a base “RPG-ness” that some games have, and then other things are added to it (such as playing-style reinforcement, improvised play, etc).

Its pretty easy to see the relationship just from the stated definition of playstyle reinforcement. Skyrim and DND at a fundamental level are based around an experience point economy.

Take this passage:

Screenshot_20231121_013451_Samsung Notes.jpg


While oDND doesn't utilize playstyle reinforcement specifically, it does use this and the book covers that as also being typical of RPGs.

And to preempt the idea that I wasn't considering this, i'll note that playstyle reinforcement as a pattern is typically derived from this sort of economy, as one can see in the machination for it:

Screenshot_20231120_191411_Samsung Notes.jpg


This isn't strictly limited to the rote, rigid Class or Skill system based games. Any game that cares about character progression in some form is riffing on these underlying mechanics.

You do start to leave this space if you start running into stat-less games, and Id argue such games are the ones we can't truly call RPGs. They may still be progression games, but if the progression isn't tied to a specific character's individual capabilities that the player is meant to embody to some degree, you have stepped firmly away from the genre.

Which, doesn't mean roleplaying itself as a form of improv game can't be involved. They often are. But that is, again, a distinct game unto itself thats being hybridized with it.

If tabletop RPGs are typified by improvised play, then the fact that non-tabletop RPGs are not doesn’t seem germane.

What might bake your noodle is that improvisation isn't actually impossible or non-present in cRPGs. It just looks considerably different as a result of the medium, but its there. Thats where we get into things like emergent gameplay that cRPGs are more than capable of providing, even if the possibility space can't approach infinity.

For example, Pokemon has a massive and fairly well documented emergent game that results from the kid friendly and very simplistic JRPG style party combat. The improvisation that results comes from the semi-randomness of match ups and the dwindling party structure as Mons are knocked out.

Skyrim meanwhile, not being a competitive game, has considerably less of this, which makes sense given the character skill emphasis and the soft progression game, but even so it does have a little. Random events and such play into this, as does the basic exploration gameplay that, even with the terrible traversal mechanics, does still invite players to engineer their own ways around the map. (See, mountain scaling horse malarkey)
 

pemerton

Legend
Or it shows that the game wasn't designed for that, and Arneson shoehorning in an improv game after the fact doesn't change that. (Especially when the accounts Ive read of Arnesons take on DND all paint his game as basically an enigma of cobbled together house rules)

If you can't spell out where the improv game is in the actual text, it is not a part of the game. And don't mistake this as value judgement; pointing this out isn't intended to be an accusation of badwrongfun, so lets not get too wrapped up in the emotions we associate with these games and get over-defensive. Trying to be accurate isn't about otherizing you.
You're not being accurate. You're being historically inaccurate. The original D&D books are an attempt to write down the game that Arneson was actually playing. I think it's widely agreed that, as rulebooks, they are incomplete. So are the AD&D rulebooks - Holmes and Moldvay are the first complete versions of D&D rules.

But the incompleteness of the rulebooks doesn't change the nature of what Arneson, Gygax and others were actually doing, of the game they actually invented. It is a game in which the players play characters in imagined situations and the scope of player moves is limited only by what everyone agrees to imagine those players' characters doing in those situations. Which is, as I've said, the core of RPGing, and what distinguishes a RPG from a boardgame.

this is a problem that is still plaguing DND where its constantly plugged as a do-anything improv game when it fundamentally can't support do-anything without external intervention that goes beyond just making rulings.
Gygax and Arneson's game supports only a rather narrow range of imagined situations - a certain sort of "dungeon crawling", and (perhaps) some wilderness exploration. This is quite different from the fact that, within those situations, the only limit on player moves is what everyone agrees to imagine those players' characters doing.

Its pretty easy to see the relationship just from the stated definition of playstyle reinforcement. Skyrim and DND at a fundamental level are based around an experience point economy.
I can't comment on Skyrim's XP economy, but in D&D XP are earned by succeeding at certain declared actions.

It is possible, and indeed quite common, to play D&D without tracking XP. It is not possible to play D&D without player declaring actions for their PCs. When those actions are declared, how are they resolved? Here I think is where we will see that Skyrim and D&D are not all that alike.
 

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