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

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I don't think people here have pretensions to doing science, here. I think we just are hoping we can find a way to talk about RPGs in a way that is generous and helpful and clear.
Yes. So, what do you think the people who built out the modern scientific methods were trying to do?

Before science, medical practitioners were trying to talk about medicine in ways that were helpful and clear - and they developed language around humours, and chi.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
That would vary from person to person.



Certainly, you are aware that people have unconscious biases.

Speaking not to you, personally, but about people in general - most human opinion is not based on facts and analysis. We create opinions that are based on feelings and intuition, and then support that with rationalizations - there are neurological reasons for this I can go into if you wish. But, this is why simply laying out facts on the internet rarely changes anyone's mind - because the mind wasn't made up on the facts in the first place.

This is why modern science has double-blind studies, and peer review - because the action of the mind is insidious, and can lead us astray, even if we intend and claim and vow to the heavens that we have no personal agendas. And, honestly, the more you reject the possibility that you can be biased, the more likely you are to be impacted by your bias - because your confidence in your ideological purity leads you to not worry so much about safeguards against it. I'm afraid that these strong claims of really only wanting to understand put you in a high-bias-risk category.

In this context, you can imagine that any given analyst will have their own preferred playstyle. They can't help it. And, the language they choose is very, very likely to reflect that. And once the language has style embedded in it, the whole framework is biased, and thought and analysis done with that framework will tend to have a similar bias.

This, honestly, is the larger issue with discussion of theory and criticism - we are not using any sort of guards against bias, and we reject the possibility that we are biased.
Nah, thanks, we just did this. I'm not up for round 2 of you telling me what I'm saying, me trying to correct, and you calling me obnoxious.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I do find it ironic that you chastise me for my choice of words seeming to impute things to you, but leave aside that your phrasing does largely the same thing in the reverse.
Yeah. These guys are trying to be generous and clear.
 
Certainly, you are aware that people have unconscious biases.
They can. Strangely the very notion that others can have unconscious biases is more often used as a justification for disregarding what they say than for reevaluating what we believe.

As such it's possible that the whole focus on unconscious bias is actually a large contributor to remaining bias.

Speaking not to you, personally, but about people in general - most human opinion is not based on facts and analysis. We create opinions that are based on feelings and intuition, and then support that with rationalizations - there are neurological reasons for this I can go into if you wish. But, this is why simply laying out facts on the internet rarely changes anyone's mind - because the mind wasn't made up on the facts in the first place.
I think you underestimate the power of internet persuasion. While we rarely see an immediate change in someone - our words can have a profound impact on others beliefs.

This is why modern science has double-blind studies, and peer review - because the action of the mind is insidious, and can lead us astray, even if we intend and claim and vow to the heavens that we have no personal agendas.
I thought double blind was to eliminate 2 different issues. A truly double blind test makes it impossible to cheat and also tests for the placebo effect.

Peer review primarily helps ensure accuracy of the work. A small part of that may be control for bias but that's more a side effect than the purpose.

And, honestly, the more you reject the possibility that you can be biased, the more likely you are to be impacted by your bias - because your confidence in your ideological purity leads you to not worry so much about safeguards against it. I'm afraid that these strong claims of really only wanting to understand put you in a high-bias-risk category.
I think you are being to hard on him.

By the way, is it possible that most of this focus around unconscious bias is itself biased?

In this context, you can imagine that any given analyst will have their own preferred playstyle. They can't help it. And, the language they choose is very, very likely to reflect that. And once the language has style embedded in it, the whole framework is biased, and thought and analysis done with that framework will tend to have a similar bias.
Sure, but the notion of a professional is typically someone that can avoid having their biases impact their decision making process. I think that's possible, but we all must be careful that we are being honest with ourselves as well (what the bias concept used to be called)

This, honestly, is the larger issue with discussion of theory and criticism - we are not using any sort of guards against bias, and we reject the possibility that we are biased.
Yep - and the more personal the topic, the more validating it is to your worldview the easier it is to sucummb to bias.

That said, I think the notion of unconscious bias is being overplayed these days. It's not that it doesn't exist. It's that people are more able to sit it aside than what we are being told IMO.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Yes. So, what do you think the people who built out the modern scientific methods were trying to do?
I think they were trying to define science, and science-adjacent fields and terms.

Before science, medical practitioners were trying to talk about medicine in ways that were helpful and clear - and they developed language around humours, and chi.
And those languages (or theories, I guess) were factually wrong. I'm not sure how the comparison is relevant to something I'm thinking of as more like literary theory, but I'm willing to be enlightened.
 
Alrighty, then. You've clearly mistaken my intent as trying to impute things to you when I'm trying to understand what it is you're trying to say.
I don't think your intent was to impute to me something I didn't say or imply - but I think you were doing that.

The best I can get from the above is that you'd like everyone to share a general concern that definitions might tend toward some conclusion and to be aware of this. That's... super helpful, I guess, in a vaguely cautionary way.
That's all I was saying.

I do find it ironic that you chastise me for my choice of words seeming to impute things to you, but leave aside that your phrasing does largely the same thing in the reverse.
Please be specific about my words and what you see them imputing to you. I gave you that courtesy.
 

Hussar

Legend
Without a field there is no baseball game...
Nor do the rules of a baseball game create that field...
True, but, the rules of a baseball game define the field to be used. They tell you the distance to between the bases, the distance of the pitcher's mound, so on and so forth. So, the rules of baseball very much do define the field.
 

Hussar

Legend
And yet somehow two games of baseball played by the same rules set can look markedly different based on all sorts of things. The rules of baseball do not produce identical games, nor do they produce the entire game as played. The steps outlined in the rules get followed, sure, but that's not by a long way the 'whole' game. Very much in the same way that the same RPG rules set can produce very different games. Moreover, different baseball rule sets still produce something generally identifiable as baseball much in the same way as a variety of RPG rules sets produce something generally identifiable as role playing. In the latter case, the similarities are enough to have fueled serious and informative academic work. YMMV I guess. You can only stretch the baseball metaphor so far.
You're missing the point. Variations of baseball rules are still defined BEFORE play begins. So long as we always use the same variation, our baseball games will be pretty much the same - same field, same number of players, same rules. Two campaigns using the same RPG rules can be so different that, to an outside observer, they aren't even sharing the same rules.

IOW, the rules of games define the start and end points of games. RPG rules barely define the start points and do not define an end point at all.
 

Hussar

Legend
And, no, taking a turn at the bat is not the same as taking a turn in an RPG. Primarily, the rules define EXACTLY what you can do, where you can stand, what kind of bat you can use, etc. when you get up to bat. And, EVERY SINGLE PLAYER will follow the same rules, in every single game (presuming that we are using the same variant rules of baseball). No matter what, if we are playing fastball, for example, I must stand within the batter's box, I must hold my bat a certain way, my bat must be made of wood. I'm not allowed to bring a tennis racket out and start swinging with that can I?

But, in an RPG, I am not only allowed to bring out a tennis racket, I'm actually expected to do so. In D&D, many adventures introduce new monsters that use new mechanics that were not part of the game before. Tomb of Horrors gave us the Demi-lich. A creature that uses completely new mechanics unrelated to anything seen before in the game. In any other game, this would be cheating. It's Calvinball - making up the rules as you go along. In an RPG, it's not only accepted that new rules may be interjected during play, it's applauded.

Virtually nothing that you do in an RPG is actually defined by the rules. Your character wants to go talk to the mayor of the town. Where, in the rules, did that mayor come from? What rules say that this town has a mayor? Heck, what rules govern creating this town and the people in it? Some gaming systems give us random tables as an assistant for creating a town, but, the GM is certainly not beholden to them. In fact, the rules state that the GM should IGNORE the tables from time to time.

What game tells players to ignore rules? What game tells players to make up rules on the spot? Any action that you take in an RPG might have rules attached to it (combat being the obvious one) but, that's because, yes, this is a game. But, you only use those combat rules to adjudicate actions taken by players that are not actually defined by the rules. The rules of an RPG are basically a long list of If/Then statements where If the player does X/ Then use mechanic Y to resolve that action. But, at no point in the game is any player expected to take action X. It might happen or it might not. Depends on the campaign. Certainly doesn't depend on the game.
 
You’re comparing what the characters in the fiction do to the baseball players. The characters are not the participants. The players are.

What do the players do? They don’t have swords or tennis rackets....they have character sheets and dice, a book and some pencils.

I think that your premise is based on this flawed comparison.
 

Hussar

Legend
You’re comparing what the characters in the fiction do to the baseball players. The characters are not the participants. The players are.

What do the players do? They don’t have swords or tennis rackets....they have character sheets and dice, a book and some pencils.

I think that your premise is based on this flawed comparison.
Where on your character sheet does it say, "Talk to the bartender"?

This is, after all, an action that you can certainly take in the game. And it's an action that potentially can have all sorts of impact on subsequent play.

Yet, nothing on your character sheet allows you to take that action.

OTOH, every single action that a player in baseball can take is prescribed by the rules. In actual fact, taking any action that affects the game that is outside of the rules is considered cheating, or, at the very least, poor sportsmanship.

Ok, let me put it another way. I am currently running an adventure in Greyhawk where the party is following a treasure map to a temple of Baphomet. Show me where in the rules that I can find any of those actions. What rules allowed the generation of a treasure map? What rules created the intricate, minotaur filled maze that the adventure will eventually take place in? What rules created the fact that dinosaur scat can be used as a replacement for dinosaur guano in the manufacture of smoke powder?

What rules govern the reaction of the various factions surrounding the island with the newly discovered dinosaurs likely going to war over the island and it's resources?

Pretty much everything that is happening in my campaign has nothing to do with the rules of D&D. Certainly the most important points anyway.

In any other game, the addition of all these elements would be cheating. In an RPG, it's what we're supposed to do.
 

Hussar

Legend
I think where we are diverging @hawkeyefan is that I see the campaign, what the players and the DM actually play at the table, as the game. The RPG rules are there to facilitate and guide that game, but, they aren't actually what's being played. We play a campaign. We don't play the DMG or the Greyhawk boxed set. Those are just there to help us create our campaigns, which is what we actually play.

Now, in more indie style RPG's, sure, the creation of the campaign often gets spread around the table a bit more, and choices from the players might drive things a bit more than they might in more traditional games, but, the basic framework still exists. You don't play Dread - you play a game that is created using the Dread rules. You don't play Blades in the Dark, you play in a campaign that is created using the clocks of BitD. So on and so forth.

You can't sit down, open up the RPG's rules and just play. It doesn't work.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm not sure how you meant it @pemerton , but I would suggest that the stripping away of the comfortable and comforting can be a very good thing, at least when those comforting and comfortable things are barriers to mutual understanding and dialogue.
I teach a theoretical sociology course with a fair bit of Marx and Weber in it - I'm all over stripping away the comfortable and comforting understandings of things. That said, it can be fairly brutal or at least demanding when one turns the blowtorch directly on oneself!

Whether that sort of thing can help mutual understanding and dialogue is a further question. Maybe sometimes. My view is not in all cases. I pick this up again below.

a shared vocabulary can make it easier for people who disagree to disagree in a meaningful way without dancing around issues of terminology. If we can agree first about what is at stake, we can more profitably disagree in way that makes sense to both sides.
A lot of vocabulary used by criticism builds in premises which are up for grabs in the critical endeavour. For instance, Durkheim's notion of social facts is, in my view, a relatively useful tool, but it's not a neutral vocabulary across all forms of social analysis. For instance, I don't think that social choice-type analyses really have any room for it.

I hope that it's obvious that more pointed examples could be given (while sticking with well-known classical social theorists), but I don't want to sail to close to the wind of board rules.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
I think "no commonalities" might be somewhat strong. Obviously a game of Blades in the Dark is very different from a game of AD&D 1E, but they're a lot more similar to each other then they are to a group game of Smash Brothers, and all of those are more similar than having people over to do a barn-raising.

I would say they're certainly related enough that we can discuss concepts like categories and procedures. If they were entirely disparate, I think it would be obvious to everyone that we shouldn't even bother to try, and that doesn't seem to be the case.
To some, no amount of similarity trumps their perceived differences. Sometimes even delusional perceptions of difference.

There are no step by step guides for RPG's. The rules of the RPG allow you to play the game that you and your table create, but, without that creation - the campaign as it's usually called - there is no game. And the rules of an RPG do not create that campaign.
I'll point you to D&D for Dummies, Moldvay's D&D Basic, Mentzer's D&D Basic, and Denning's D&D Basic set (the big black box. And to all three editions of WEG Star Wars. And to the Beginner boxes for L5R5 and Star Wars by FFG. All of which carefully lay out the mode of play. The D&D sets by example text. The GM and player folios for the FFG Star Wars Beginner Boxes, which literally walk a total novice through pretty clearly.

When I bat, I swing at the ball.

When I take my turn in a RPG, I declare what my character is doing.

There are indeed common actions taken by the participants. The fiction I declare may be different from the fiction you declare...but is that more different than a batter hitting a single up the middle compared to popping up to the catcher?

I feel like you’re comparing the fiction of the RPG....which is different for sure...to the procedure of baseball. But really, comparing procedure to procedure makes more sense.

In that sense, a RPG is people sitting at a table taking turns declaring actions. Compared to batters taking turns swinging at a ball.
That also describes a number of board games (EG: Flash Point Fire Rescue, AH's Gunslinger, and Warhammer 40K)

The fiction affecting the mechanics rather than simply being a product of them is, for me, the quintessential difference of TTRPG's and Storygames... but not all Storygames include role assumption - EG: Once Upon A TIme.

I don't think there's much difference in the overall content. Perhaps there's a difference in presentation.

But, if we accept this position... then almost nobody ever gets to give critique. Unless you are in contact with the authors or makers of a work, you aren't giving critique.
Alpha and Beta tests are usually (except for Black Industries) critique to devs.

Review also to me implies less rigor in evaluation that critique, and critique implies explaining why the problems are problems.
 

pemerton

Legend
These kinds of discussions have greatly improved my game, not because someone else won an argument and convinced me of something, but because I became more aware of how I play games and what other methods exist. This let me tailor my play to better achieve the goals I always wanted, but didn't fully understand because I lacked the means (or motivation) to examine them.
This is very similar, I think, to my description upthread of my response to The Forge. Reading stuff there helped me better grasp what I was doing, and to learn new techniques to do it better. The fact that - I think, judging from what they write - people like Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker would probably find my games rather shallow, even juvenile, isn't a problem. I'm not asking them over for a session (as cool as that might be!). I'm learning from what they have to offer as a result of their thinking about RPG play and design, which clearly is quite a lot.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip

I'll point you to D&D for Dummies, Moldvay's D&D Basic, Mentzer's D&D Basic, and Denning's D&D Basic set (the big black box. And to all three editions of WEG Star Wars. And to the Beginner boxes for L5R5 and Star Wars by FFG. All of which carefully lay out the mode of play. The D&D sets by example text. The GM and player folios for the FFG Star Wars Beginner Boxes, which literally walk a total novice through pretty clearly.

/snip
I'll use Moldvay Basic because that's what I'm most familiar with (and I happen to have it sitting right on the shelf next to me). In Moldvay Basic, you are told to have a town and a dungeon. The players go from the town to the dungeon, do their thing in the dungeon, and then go home. The town is simply where they PC's rest and recover, before heading back into the dungeon.

Does that sound like a campaign to you? It certainly doesn't to me. Or, at best, it's an example of one campaign, but, certainly not any more than that. So, if you follow those steps, you will create a single campaign. Sure. Ok. Now, what happens the next time? Do you repeat those same steps? Are your campaigns nothing but a town and a dungeon?

No, of course not.

I've yet to see a single RPG which would allow me to open the game, read the rules step by step and begin play in the way you could any other game. EVERY RPG requires you to create material that is not governed by the rules of the RPG.
 

pemerton

Legend
There are no steps inherent in most RPG's. When you play an RPG, for example, what's the first step? Character creation? Campaign creation? Something else? Note, those can both be true - some games start with chargen and then proceed, others start with campaign creation and then proceed. Neither is more correct than the other.

And that's just the starting point of an RPG. No two tables start the exact same way. There are always considerable differences between one table and the next. And these aren't cosmetic differences. These are differences that will completely alter how the game plays.
I tend to agree with @Fenris-77's response.

Also, some of what you say is true only because RPGs have, traditionally, had incomplete rule books, in the sense that they don't actually tell you everything you need to know to play the game. Just as the rules of baseball might take for granted that we know what a throw is, or what it is to run, so RPG rulebooks often take for granted that we know what it means to say what our PCs do, or for the GM to say what happens next. More recent games tend to have more complete accounts of the relevant procedures (eg look at a Vincent Baker game like In a Wicked Age - it even tells you when it's time to pour the wine for the table!).

That's not to say that some games might not be able to be approached with different sequences. But then the rulebook, if it was complete, could explain that and spell out some of the differences in play that might result from those different sequences.
 

pemerton

Legend
Yes. So, what do you think the people who built out the modern scientific methods were trying to do?

Before science, medical practitioners were trying to talk about medicine in ways that were helpful and clear - and they developed language around humours, and chi.
Philosophy of science has only pretty modest application to the study or practice of criticism.

I'm prepared to allow that criticism can produce knowledge, although that is contentious - for example, in discussions I've had around academic freedom that emphasise the importance of the academy as a source of expert knowledge, I've worried that colleagues in English/Literature departments won't be covered by this shield.

But the way it produces knowledge, if it does, isn't anything like the way that science produces knowledge. I'm not persuaded, for instance, that non-collusive convergence is very relevant in the field of criticism.
 

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