S/Z: On the Difficulties of RPG Theory & Criticism

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lowkey13

Guest
Since I have been at enworld, I have seen numerous discussions about TTRPG (hereafter shortened to RPG for brevity) theory. And while I have found most of the conversations to be interesting, and filled with knowledgeable people (for are we all not knowledgable gamers?), I have also found them almost completely unsatisfying. At best, they provide some interesting observations. But at worse (and they always, always end up to the "at worse" state) conversations about RPG theory devolve ... or perhaps ... degenerate (ahem) into attempts to elevate one playing style or variety of RPG over another. So after seeing this happen yet again, I thought I'd create a thread based explaining why this happens, and why RPG Theory and Criticism can be so very hard and contentious.

As these posts that I've written can tend to the long winded, I thought I'd start with a general thesis statement in bold and italics for those who like the upfront summary!

Conversations about RPG theory are difficult because 1) there is no agreed framework or definitions that are widely used; 2) many of the basic definitions used have argumentative connotations and are themselves subject to argument; 3) RPG theory is, for many people, inextricably linked to other battles; and 4) the conflation of descriptive and normative- the confusion of what "is" what "ought" - means that most RPG theory puts the cart before the horse, by arguing for how games should be without understanding why games are the way they are.

Most of these points are interrelated and feed into each other. However, I'll try to break them out as best as I can.

1. "Wittgenstein, Wittgenstien, what is Wittgenstein?" What is the RPG Jump Cut?

So when any media has a well-developed body of work, and of serious study and criticism, certain terms and definitions become codified so that people can more easily discuss them. Many of these are so well known that you don't have to be especially "in the know" to understand them, or have read back issues of Cahiers du Cinéma or dived into S/Z. If I'm talking about a "montage" or a "jump cut" or "diegetic and non-diegetic sound" when I'm discussing film, you know what I'm talking about. You understand the technique, and from that point, you can immediately begin the conversation about whether the technique was accomplished in a manner that effectuates the overall purpose of the author and is intelligible as such to the audience. It's the same with literature; whether it's as simple as a metaphor or an allusion, or more complicated like low and high mimetic, there are general terms that have been agreed upon.

We ... don't have that for RPGs. At all. In fact, I've seen many threads wherein people can't even agree on what constitutes an RPG. As the boundaries between improv, freeform, LARP, DM-less games (like Fiasco), and various types of TTRPG and CRPGs blur, the question of what even constitutes an RPG can matter.

That said, even when looking at just traditional RPGs (TTRPGs, with a "GM" and "Players" and rules and procedural mechanics to resolve issues), there is no universal agreement on what basic definitions mean, so you end up with interminable debates between people and A saying, "Well, by player agency I mean X" and person B saying, "But by player agency, I mean Y."

When the basic terms can't be agreed upon, it's hard to develop theory and do appropriate criticism. It would be like two people discussing a film, and one saying. "I liked that jump cut." And the other person saying, "Well, I hated it, because I hate montages."


2."The best for of government is a benevolent monarchy." Defining terms for profit and victory!

So there is an old debater's trick of defining your terms in order to load the scales and assure victory. The classic example that I remember is that if you're forced with the task of arguing that monarchy/autocracy is the best form of government (hard), you would just ind a way to insert "benevolent" into there- and suddenly the job gets that much easier. Because one of the primary issues with an autocratic government is accountability to ensure that they are, in fact, benevolent- working to ensure maximum weal to the populace. Once you have defined that problem away, your job becomes that much easier.

So we have the same issue when it comes to most RPG theory and criticism. For many reasons, the basic building blocks that people use when discussing RPGs aren't to describe specific issues of play or mechanics, but instead to describe the goals of RPG design, often with language that is borrowed and pejorative. The basic units of conversation in most RPG theory conversations, therefore, are topics like "player agency," and "DM Force," and "illusionism," and "railroading."

Imagine if similar terms were the basic terms used in other criticism and other theory. Instead of examining the differences between, say, Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino on a more granular level, you engaged in endless debated over how they best accomplished "audience fun" and whether or not they were good, or bad, examples of "cinematographer agency."

To make this more concrete, I would use an example that see repeated over and over again in debates over RPG theory; the issue of so-called player agency. Now, putting aside the obvious irony of what is almost always GMs debating player agency (heh), you get to two very fundamental issues:

a. "Player Agency" is a loaded term. No one would say that they are ... against ... player agency. Sure, they might joke about it, but I don't think most people would say, "You know what I really hate? Players being allowed to make any sort of meaningful choice. Ever. I love me any games that completely remove any and all meaningful agency and/or choice from players." Well- this is the internet. Someone, somewhere, sometime probably has said. But generally a person doesn't say that. So while two people can look at a film and discuss whether a jump cut was good or bad, or listen to music and discuss if they think the use of a minor scale was appropriate as a counterpoint to the upbeat lyrics, the use of this term immediately causes a fight about the term.

b. "Player Agency" means different things to different people. The very things that are important to one player, are not important to another. The choices that are important to one player, are also not important to another. Heck, entire game systems are built around this premise. Think of something so completely as ... inventory. What an alter ego in a RPG is carrying! For some players, the idea of player agency includes a predictable set of rules, weights, and fiddly bits for inventory; for others, the whole idea of containing play by pre-planning inventory is anathema. Which enhances so-called player agency? I don't know, because I am not all players.

Instead of observing individual games and seeing which decisions enhance particular play styles, people end up in interminable debates over the very meaning of terms.


3. The Never-ending battles.

I'm not going to delve too deeply into this issue, other than to say that when I returned to being an active participant in the wider world of RPGs, I found that there had been this whole thing involving, inter alia, arguments over RPG Theory, and a war about the direction of D&D.

Honestly, I don't care about any of this. For what it's worth, however, many people get caught up in one particular battle, and keep replaying it over and over and over. When I did a deep dive into this, I found that the Meilahti approach to RPGs looked promising and was a correct way forward, but far too many people are trapped into old approaches and old battles. Suffice to say that there are numerous approaches to RPG theory out there, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with (rhymes with Borge).



4. Normative (Ought) v. Descriptive (Is).

This is the most important issue, as far as I am concerned. If you're all into grammar and spelling, you probably instinctively know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive. This is a similar distinction; the notion that there is a distinction between theory describing things that "are" as opposed to using theory to bootstrap ideas into things as you want them to be ("ought"). This can be referred to as the distinction between normative (how you want it to be) and descriptive (how things are).

So a quick digression to show how this should work; there is little that can be as off-putting as seeing people use jargon, or theory, to explain to you that you should like something that you don't. In most areas, we can instinctively understand this. For example, if someone tells you, "Opera is the best form of music. Jargon jargon music theory you should be listening to opera, not that stupid hippy hop music you like," you would probably recoil from that. Because that's using theory to bootstrap opinions about preference into prescriptions about how others should appreciate things.

With RPGs, this issue can be more acute due to the lack of a precise vocabulary and the intense knowledge of many fans of RPGs. But ... RPGs are not a monolith. People play for different reasons. Some play for deep immersion. Some for beer & pretzels. Some for intense and short character arcs. Some for long zero-to-hero grinds. Some love comedy sci-fi one-shot systems, others love intense fantasy over years. Some people love genre-bending, others don't want any science fiction in their fantasy, thank you. And, of course, almost everyone likes different things at different times!

Imagine if you took any other area- music, film, literature, and you tried to apply a one-size fits all approach to it. That a director who made a comedy, or a thriller, or an art-house movie, or a big-budget super hero movie, or a documentary, or a short animated feature, all had to be subject to the exact same normative demands!

"Sorry, your film didn't have a compelling character arc. FAIL. RAILROAD."
"Um ... you know it was a documentary, right?"

The approach in it should be to instead view the work on its merits of what it is trying to accomplish, see how it accomplishes it, and determine if it is effective at doing so. IMO.


So is it all useless?

No, of course not! Many newer "art forms," whether its RPGs, or computer games, struggle to find appropriate words and vocabulary to build up concepts for theory and critical analysis. When you have a form, like RPGs, that are both somewhat difficult to define and also can involve numerous disciplines (from writing to acting to genre conventions to public performance to random elements and so many others) it can be even more difficult- but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.

However, caution should always be applied. In the end, theory should always be used to make your own experience better, not to argue that the experience of others is worse.
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
I think we DO have those theories, about craft, about content, about design, etc.

Maybe not “we” the RPG community - but we do have them. Those discussions, that shared language of theory and criticism, is all over videogame design. That we might dismiss videogame design “because it’s not TTRPGs”, is unfortunate.

I couldn’t really tell you why “our” discussions don’t run like “their” discussions - but everything “we” lack is one neighborhood over.

Perhaps, and this is just a guess, our people got sidetracked by these nonsense theories and loaded terms - trying to argue themselves and their practice right - instead of trying learn how to perfect a craft. And we’re left with the realities of those stupid-wars.

Meanwhile, videogame theory, design, criticism has been tested by the fires of capitalism. Where good ideas get bought and bad ones don’t. (Speaking VERY broadly here. I appreciate you granting me some rhetorical leeway or a few grains of salt). They’ve darn near perfected the Shooter as a genre, for example. I don’t care much for shooters but look at the progress from wolfenstein to COD, and on.

Maybe we need to start looking somewhere other than amateur RPG theorists’ pet issues if we want to have the kinds of conversations you’re talking about.

Just as likely, I’m just some dummy on the Internet. And what do I know?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I'm in a similar position to what I think you describe, because I have only intermittently been enough into RPGs to care much about design and/or theory, and while I've played in more games than I can remember, there are some (relative) biggies I missed, because the group/s I was in never played them. I'm in a place now where I care about theory-type stuff, at least so I know what rules I'm breaking, but it can feel as though there are decades' worth of stuff to try to sort through, and there are some people who casually use names and terms and language I haven't seen before in this context. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt (at least at first) that they're not trying to be opaque, but that doesn't mean they aren't opaque.

Then again, I had to figure out some of the things you were talking about in, e.g., cinema by more or less breaking down what the words mean. Fortunately, that's more purely descriptive, and no one is (really seriously) going to argue there's onetrueway there.
 
@lowkey13

Martin Scorcese’s recent comments on the Marvel movies and their cinematic quality come to mind. There is still plenty of debate even when there is accepted terminology in place.

So, what can be done about the four obstacles you cite?

1) Lack of agreed upon framework/terminology
2) Argumentative connotations of terms used
3) RPG Theory being inextricably linked to other battles
4) Conflation of normative (“ought”) and descriptive (“is”)

You say that RPG theory discussion is still worthwhile. Or potentially so, at least. And you provide a general warning that caution is needed in discussion, and I think that’s true. But what more is needed? What can we specifically do to address the specific obstacles you’ve offered?
 
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lowkey13

Guest
@lowkey13

Martin Scorcese’s recent comments on the Marvel movies and their cinematic quality come to mind. There is still plenty of debate even when there is accepted terminology in place.
That's a perfect example of what I'm talking about!

Now, let's say you like art films. Like Scorsese (using the clarified NY Times comments), you prefer ... wait for it ... character-driven cinema. You prefer cinema as "art" as opposed to mere pop "entertainment."

Obviously, one can start with an interesting observation- while Scorsese rightly notes the tension in what he is doing with Hitchcock, I don't know that he fully credits the divide; prior to Cahiers du Cinéma and the French New Wave, Hitchcock wasn't truly embraced as an auteur, but as a mere "genre" director- the equivalent of our ... Marvel movies today.

But the thing is, because there are generally accepted definitions both of criticism and of theory, you can generally understand both his criticism, and where it falls short!

For example, is the issue one of technical artistry? Is there a divide between the technical aspects of the film and what it is trying to accomplish?

Is the film not living up to audience expectations? Is it not fulfilling the vision of the "author" (the creator of the work)?

Are there gradations within the genre that can be discussed? For example, can you compare Green Lantern on various bases with Black Panther? How so?

The fundental divide, here, is that you are using Scorsese's comments as an indication that theory and criticism should provide definitive answers as to quality and what should be done; this is, IMO, completely incorrect. Instead, they provide tools with which you can view things. You can't answer the question of whether "Anchorman," or "The Room (Wiseau)," or "Un Chien Andalou" or "the Vengeance Trilogy (Mr., Oldboy, Lady)" or even "Nanook of the North" are good or great films to each other, so much as view them in terms of how they are accomplishing certain things within a critical frame.


So, what can be done about the four obstacles you cite?

1) Lack of agreed upon framework/terminology
2) Argumentative connotations of terms used
3) RPG Theory being inextricably linked to other battles
4) Conflation of normative (“ought”) and descriptive (“is”)

You say that RPG theory discussion is still worthwhile. Or potentially so, at least. And you provide a general warning that caution is needed in discussion, and I think that’s true. But what more is needed? What can we specifically do to address the specific obstacles you’ve offered?
Well, a few are simple (IMO).

Concentrate on the small scale play examples, and avoid sweeping theories of generalization.

Examine RPGs individually to see if they are accomplishing the goals that they set out to do.

Attempt to look for small examples in play; if you really want to develop grand theories, specifically denote them as normative. To use an analogy, you can either analyze a movie on its own terms, or you can publish Dogme 95, but don't confuse the two.

Borrow basic critical theory from other disciplines; literature, video games, film, music, and rhetoric generally. Avoid re-inventing the wheel.

But that's me.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Well, a few are simple (IMO).

Concentrate on the small scale play examples, and avoid sweeping theories of generalization.

Examine RPGs individually to see if they are accomplishing the goals that they set out to do.

Attempt to look for small examples in play; if you really want to develop grand theories, specifically denote them as normative. To use an analogy, you can either analyze a movie on its own terms, or you can publish Dogme 95, but don't confuse the two.

Borrow basic critical theory from other disciplines; literature, video games, film, music, and rhetoric generally. Avoid re-inventing the wheel.

But that's me.
I don't disagree with any of these, but I think it's possible, while examining whether an RPG does what it sets out to do, to explore the question of why it does or doesn't. Small (or at least specific) examples seem like the right place to start, here, but it doesn't seem likely that one can answer the "why" question without at least resorting some to theory, which might lead to problems of scale.

Also, while I agree that much of the theory work has been done, in, e.g., film or literature, there are considerations that feel important. First, someone really into RPGs might not know the vocabulary of film theory (to pick an example); if you're using film theory to talk about RPGs, you might want to be prepared to unpack your references. Heck, you might want to be prepared to unpack any and all specialized vocabulary, and not make people feel stupid for needing it (to be honest, I don't get this as an intent here, but it's an easy lapse). Second, RPGs will probably need at least some of their own theory. This doesn't mean there's no point in borrowing from other criticism and theory, but be aware that what you borrow may be an imperfect fit.
 
That's a perfect example of what I'm talking about!
It seemed like it! I found that whole discussion to be pretty interesting, overall.

Now, let's say you like art films. Like Scorsese (using the clarified NY Times comments), you prefer ... wait for it ... character-driven cinema. You prefer cinema as "art" as opposed to mere pop "entertainment."

Obviously, one can start with an interesting observation- while Scorsese rightly notes the tension in what he is doing with Hitchcock, I don't know that he fully credits the divide; prior to Cahiers du Cinéma and the French New Wave, Hitchcock wasn't truly embraced as an auteur, but as a mere "genre" director- the equivalent of our ... Marvel movies today.

But the thing is, because there are generally accepted definitions both of criticism and of theory, you can generally understand both his criticism, and where it falls short!
Absolutely. I don’t think there’s a “right” answer to the discussion. I quite enjoy most of the Marvel movies, and similar films. I wouldn’t say that they aren’t art or aren’t cinema. But I can understand how many would view them as less emotionally resonant than other films.

Doesn’t make it any less or more a film.

The fundental divide, here, is that you are using Scorsese's comments as an indication that theory and criticism should provide definitive answers as to quality and what should be done; this is, IMO, completely incorrect.
That’s odd. I didn’t think that simply mentioning the discussion committed me to one side or the other, or to any specific stance about the matter.

How did you arrive at this conclusion?

Well, a few are simple (IMO).

Concentrate on the small scale play examples, and avoid sweeping theories of generalization.

Examine RPGs individually to see if they are accomplishing the goals that they set out to do.

Attempt to look for small examples in play; if you really want to develop grand theories, specifically denote them as normative. To use an analogy, you can either analyze a movie on its own terms, or you can publish Dogme 95, but don't confuse the two.

Borrow basic critical theory from other disciplines; literature, video games, film, music, and rhetoric generally. Avoid re-inventing the wheel.

But that's me.
Those are all pretty reasonable, if a bit general. I definitely don’t disagree.
 

pemerton

Legend
The only well-developed theoretical and critical approach to RPGs I'm familiar with is The Forge. (That's not to say there aren't others; just that I'm not familiar with them.)

The main purpose of The Forge was to understand causes of dissatisfaction with WW/Storyteller-type RPGing, and to establish alternative approaches to design of RPGs. This required some analysis. Some people (eg me) have found the analysis helpful independent of that particular goal (I'm not a RPG designer).

For instance, as someone who played Rolemaster as my primary game for nearly two decades, I think The Forge's account of (what they call) purist-for-system RPGing is far more illuminating than (eg) anything I ever read on the ICE forums. As good analysis should, it gave me insight into what I was doing in my game that I didn't previously have. It also helped me understand how I could move away from some of the assumptions embedded in RM's designs without giving up on some of the fundamentals of RPGing.

One of the observations made on The Forge which was surprising to some of the participants is that early RPGing was (i) an alternative to WW/Storyteller style which (ii) had many things (not everything) in common with the sort of designs being produced at The Forge. This is why there has been a noticeable presence of Forge contributors in OSR context (eg most recently I discovered that Christopher Kubasik, author of The Interactive Toolkit which is practically a proto-manifesto for The Forge, has an ongoing blog in praise of 1977 Classic Traveller).

Obviously most OSR play and design proceeds independently of this convergence. But it's an interesting outcome of Forge theorising.

Here's a passage from The Traveller Book (1982, p 123); it is found in a description of types of adventures, and has no equivalent in the 1977 version of Classic Traveller:

The choreographed novel [my emphasis] involves a setting already thought out by the referee and presented to the players; it may be any of the above settings [ship, location or world], but contains predetermined elements. As such, the referee has already developed characters and setting which bear on the group's activities, and they are guided gently to the proper locations. Properly done, the players never know that the referee has manipulated them to a fore-ordained goal​

For RPGers who want to use the approach describe in this passage, The Forge has nothing to offer and I don't know of any alternative useful body of criticism. Probably the main reason The Forge has nothing to offer is that The Forge places a great premium on transparency of technique and resolution, whereas the approach set out in the passage just quoted emphasises "gentle guidance" and "manipulation" that the players don't know about. (The Forge calls this illusionism.)
 

Tun Kai Poh

Explorer
1) Lack of agreed upon framework/terminology
2) Argumentative connotations of terms used
This is especially true in the "lyric game" circles I hang around, on Twitter and itch.io. Jay Dragon's done a good job of trying to lay out the many clashing definitions of "system" in the "System Matters" vs "System Doesn't Really Matter" debate.


This essay in Ritual Almanac 1 really helps to defuse the problems that rise when people try to talk about "System Matters" - because the truth is that people are usually using very different definitions of "system" as Jay points out. I really like this analysis because it reminds me that my "system" is not necessarily someone else's definition. Sometimes there is a lot of invisible play culture at the table that gets assumed, and if you count that as part of "system" then of course it matters...
 
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lowkey13

Guest
The only well-developed theoretical and critical approach to RPGs I'm familiar with is The Forge. (That's not to say there aren't others; just that I'm not familiar with them.)
I always reference the Meilahti approach; for whatever reason, you have not chosen to ask me about it.

This site has a quick rundown of a few of them:

 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
This is especially true in the "lyric game" circles I hang around, on Twitter and itch.io. Jay Dragon's done a good job of trying to lay out the many clashing definitions of "system" in the "System Matters" vs "System Doesn't Really Matter" debate.


This essay in Ritual Almanac 1 really helps to defuse the problems that rise when people try to talk about "System Matters" - because the truth is that people are usually using very different definitions of "system" as Jay points out. I really like this analysis because it reminds me that my "system" is not necessarily someone else's definition. Sometimes there is a lot of invisible play culture at the table that gets assumed, and if you count that as part of "system" then of course it matters...
Firstly, the article is behind a download 'pay what you want' wall. That's bordering on commercial, since you didn't lay out the core of the argument.

That said, the core takeaway of the piece is that when people say 'system' they may mean the game as written (text of the game), the ruleset the game uses (engine), or the entire feel of the game. That's valid, but it just replaces an argument that can be confounded by terminology with an codified argument about how another argument can be confounded by terminology. It does a good job looking at the material, but doesn't offer a way through, just a caution that terminology may be being used vaguely.

And, with that, whenever I've said system matters, I'm talking about the engine used -- how the ruleset works to resolve outcomes (I'm an engineer, so this definition of system is apparent to me). While, as the article notes, I might be able to achieve a similar result using different engines, the way an engine works has impact on how the game feels. To illustrate this, there's a current thread where a poster described the engine of a game they created and how that engine failed in play because the players didn't like how it did things. Not that it failed to process the game, but that the feel of the engine was something the players didn't care for. System matters.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Without getting into the details of the theories (and thanks for that link! I'll jump links to actual contents, not paywalls), I have to say I love the metaphor of a campaign setting as a cabinet of curiosities.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I always reference the Meilahti approach; for whatever reason, you have not chosen to ask me about it.

This site has a quick rundown of a few of them:

Do you need to be asked to expound upon your preferred ludology? Very well, I would appreciate it if you would please give a quick overview of the Meilahti approach to game theory.
 
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lowkey13

Guest
Do you need to be asked to expound upon your preferred ludology? Very well, I would appreciate it if you would please give a quick overview of the Meilahti approach to game theory.
If you had to nutshell it without using fancy jargon, you'd say that it is an approach that concentrates on the social aspects of RPGs, with by examining them in a descriptive way.

If you're curious, you can read it. For purposes of most discussion, although it has been elaborated upon, I think the original pull quote that is helpful in understanding the various roles is this-

"If there is disagreement, on for example what the surroundings are like, or what exactly has happened, it is the gamemaster who negotiates and in the end decides, what is true. The role-playing game can be seen as series of incidents that the participants use as a basis for their individual narrative readings. If and when conflicts in these readings are expressed, the gamemaster defines what is true."
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
If you had to nutshell it without using fancy jargon, you'd say that it is an approach that concentrates on the social aspects of RPGs, with by examining them in a descriptive way.

If you're curious, you can read it. For purposes of most discussion, although it has been elaborated upon, I think the original pull quote that is helpful in understanding the various roles is this-

"If there is disagreement, on for example what the surroundings are like, or what exactly has happened, it is the gamemaster who negotiates and in the end decides, what is true. The role-playing game can be seen as series of incidents that the participants use as a basis for their individual narrative readings. If and when conflicts in these readings are expressed, the gamemaster defines what is true."
Interesting. How does this handle games where this core statement isn't true, though? Take a game of Blades in the Dark -- if there's a disagreement about what the surroundings are like, or what has happened, that's not always a GM call. If it's a matter of scene framing, it is, mostly, the GM's call, so long as is doesn't violate the player decided inputs. If it's about what happened, that's not the GM's call at all -- it's the mechanics. If the mechanics say the player succeeded in what happened, then the GM is constrained to that truth, no matter what they may want or care to make it.

Is there an extension, or different formulation, of the theory that can account for games where the GM may be constrained by the system to NOT have this final authority over the fiction?
 
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lowkey13

Guest
Is there an extension, or different formulation, of the theory that can account for games where the GM may be constrained by the system to NOT have this final authority over the fiction?
That goes to the first part- "If there is disagreement{.}" I think it is helpful to think about the ways in which a game might constrain GM authority, and the ways in which that constraint might be real (or imaginary).

Theoretically, given that the examples (before being elaborated on in later years) came from LARPing, one could state that there would be an (implicit, unacknowledged) switch in roles at that time, as is explicit in other games.

But IMO, the preferred way to look at it is that there is no disagreement. The negotiated roles (both written and social) in any game allow for certain parts of fiction to be authored by the different participants, and the only issue is what happens when there is a disagreement between participants.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
That goes to the first part- "If there is disagreement{.}" I think it is helpful to think about the ways in which a game might constrain GM authority, and the ways in which that constraint might be real (or imaginary).

Theoretically, given that the examples (before being elaborated on in later years) came from LARPing, one could state that there would be an (implicit, unacknowledged) switch in roles at that time, as is explicit in other games.

But IMO, the preferred way to look at it is that there is no disagreement. The negotiated roles (both written and social) in any game allow for certain parts of fiction to be authored by the different participants, and the only issue is what happens when there is a disagreement between participants.
I think an example is in order. Let's take a moment from a Blades game.

The Cutter is facing off against two thugs. The GM has set the scene as a dark alley on the side of the manor where the crew is doing a score. The player had indicated that their character was watching the egress route to make sure that the crew has a clear line of retreat if the score goes badly. The GM, in his scene setting, thinks it would be cool to have the alley be a dead end alley to up the tension in the scene. The player objects, because he established the egress route as a canal, so any alley must abut a canal and can't be a dead end. This is a disagreement, but the GM loses -- the player has the right to establish this fact and hold it to be true.

After acknowledging the change in scene, the GM continues by describing the thugs as approaching, clearly holding clubs against their legs, and saying that this is their alley and the Cutter's has to pay for being there uninvited -- the implication that the payment is a robbery and a beating. The Cutter's player announces that the Cutter leaps into the assault! He's not going to take this kind of intimidation! The GM sets the position of the action (the risk) as desperate with normal effect as the Cutter is skilled with his knives and these aren't hardened fighters, but crossing the distance to the thugs and getting in the blows without a lot of risk isn't going to happen. The player disagrees, and thinks that his Cutter is just that awesome! The GM wins, here, because the GM has the authority to set position and effect for a given action. The player has to accept it, or withdraw their action declaration.

The Cutter goes through with it, and rolls. A 5, partial success! This means the character will advance towards their goal (shut these arrogant thugs up, permanently), but suffers a cost or setback. The GM announces that the Cutter tries to stab a thug, but the thug's friend hits him with his club and breaks the Cutter's hand, sending the knife flying before the Cutter's blow lands! The Cutter's player objects, he's owed a success, and it has to be towards his goal of killing or incapacitating the thugs. The GM must change, here, because the system dictates that his authority to establish outcomes is constrained -- he does not have Rule Zero authority to change things, or be the final arbiter here. He must alter the outcomes. He can have the Cutter's hand broken by thug 2, but thug 1 must be out of the fight due to the Cutter's actions. He accepts this, and says that the Cutter's hand is, indeed, broken by the club of Thug 2, but it was the hand not holding the knife, which is now buried in Thug 1's heart. Play will continue, most likely with the player burning stress to mitigate the broken hand and force a different, lesser cost, which the GM will have to accept because that's the player's authority to force such changes, provided he can pay for it.

So, in this example, we had three disagreements in outcomes between GM and player. The player was able to dictate the outcome of the first disagreement because the player had the authority to do so. The GM won the second because he did have the authority there. The player AND the GM both had to accept the outcomes in the last because the system assigned different authorities and constraints on both.
 

Hussar

Legend
Part of the issue when we want to get into the critical examination of RPG's is simply size.

We have a shared language to discuss movies (for example) because the discussion of movies has been ongoing for over a century among millions of people. It's easier to reach a consensus meaning for various techniques when you have such a large audience because the edges tend to get blurred off a lot more easily simply by the fact that you have so many people talking about it over such a long period of time.

Realistically, the critical examination of role playing games is only a couple of decades old and has hardly managed to hit such a large audience to reach any sort of consensus meaning.

Even in the example of cut scene or montage, it is possible to quibble (is this a cut scene or a montage - how many cuts does it take to make a montage?) but, realistically, that sort of pedantic garbage doesn't go anywhere as it gets drowned out by the much larger audience discussion.

The problem we have now is that there are so few voices and no agreement on terms. That takes time and repetition.

/edit to add

BTW, @lowkey13, totally thanks for that link. That's some interesting reading. My first foray through a Google search turned up an essay that was a bit... dense for my old brain to wrap around.
 

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