Game theory

The 20′ By 20′ Room: Definitive Narrativism links to essays on the Forge (a rpg forum I won’t bother to link to because you either already know what/where it is or, like me, don’t find forums that useful) that define the current chic among RPG gaming theory — the GNS model, in which gaming styles are broken down into Gamist, Simulationist, or Narrativist styles.
In short, the essays are fucking long. Here’s the short version, because I am in no way recommending reading the bloody things unless you’ve got some time to kill:

  • Simulationist = the character “fits” – its setting, capabilities, outcomes, behavior patterns, and so on, all reinforce the setting for everyone.
  • Gamist = the character is a direct opportunity for player-strategy. Its construction doesn’t hamstring the player (except with agreed-upon handicaps) and permits him or her to “Step On Up” (WeTF that means).
  • Narrativist = the character’s predicament is how the Premise is seen/felt, and what he does, and what happens is how a theme is realized.

Which, excuse me, is largely useless as a definition of category. I’ve yet to be in any group that doesn’t shift wildly from one of these ‘styles’ to another from session to session or moment to moment. This leads me to believe they aren’t that useful as a definition of play, player, or game styles.
Let me be clearer: if you make up a category, and nothing entirely falls within said category, it’s a shite category. (Take My Life with Master for a quick example: It’s Simulationist, because the character ‘fits’ and demonstrates the feel of the setting, it’s Gamist, because the game itself is eventually going to come down to the resolution you’re aiming at for your character, and your actions will be somewhat determined by the goal you have in mind… some folks start off from the beginning working toward a goal, some folks only get an idea of what they want near the end, but most anyone will eventually work towards getting their Attributes in line with a goal. Finally, it’s Narrativist, since each character’s predicaments explore the theme of that particular game (particularly true of MLwM).
Of more use are the concept of Bangs:

Bangs are those moments when the characters realize they have a problem right now and have to get moving to deal with it. It can be as simple as a hellacious demon crashing through the skylight and attacking the characters or as subtle as the voice of the long-dead murder victim answering when they call the number they found in the new murder victim’s pockets.
Bangs are always about player-character responses. This is why Bangs are not represented by many of the fight scenes or clues in traditional role-playing. Throwing mad hyenas at the player-characters is not a Bang if the only result of the fight is to wander into the next room. Nor is a clue a Bang if all it does is show where the next clue may be found. A real Bang gives the player options and requires his or her decision about how to handle it.

I would submit that a ‘clue’ that gives out enough detail to provide the character with several options about how to deal with what’s going on isn’t a clue but a revelation… but that’s a nit. Anyway.
It also defines a couple common terms seen on the Forge: Fortune-at-the-End and Fortune-in-the-Middle.

Fortune-at-the-End: all variables, descriptions, and in-game actions are known, accounted for, and fixed before the Fortune system is brought into action. It acts as a “closer” of whatever deal was struck that called for resolution. A “miss” in such a system indicates, literally, a miss. The announced blow was attempted, which is to say, it was also perceived to have had a chance to hit by the character, was aimed, and was put into motion. It just didn’t connect at the last micro-second.
Fortune-in-the-Middle: the Fortune system is brought in partway through figuring out “what happens,” to the extent that specific actions may be left completely unknown until after we see how they worked out.

Now, unlike the GNS thing, I can see this in any number of games, and generally a game is either of one type or the other… therefore, it’s more useful as a categorization, simply because most games fit in one or the other of these two boxes.
One bit I found amusing in the Narrativist essay was a bit of discussion on groups who think they’re sharing a game of cooperative story-telling when what’s really going on is a sort of group self-delusion that the story simply … “arrives” as a result of playing… that no one’s really moving it — like that pointer on the Ouija board.

What I see from such groups is the following:

  • They use a highly customized house-version of a given rules-set, usually AD&D, BRP, or an early edition of Champions; many of the customized details are unrecorded.
  • They employ a personalized set of subtle cues and expectations that arise out of their long-term friendships and habits of play.
  • The satisfaction-moments are rare to the extent of being perhaps a yearly event. “Nothing happened tonight” is typical, but the group believes that you don’t legitimately get the cherished moments any other way. Such moments are treasured and carefully repeated among them.
  • Rarely, another person participates and (horrors!) actually overtly moves the story around, or discusses how it’s being moved by everyone else, who are trying to pretend that story ‘just happens’. That person is instantly ejected, with cries of “powergamer!” and “pushy bastard!”
  • They’re socially isolated from other role-players, as their play is so arcane and impenetrable that no one else can easily participate. If they go to cons, they go together, stay together, and leave together. One of them buys a new game that “looks good,” and they rarely if ever try it, always rejecting it when they do.
  • They’re socially isolated not only from gamers, but from everyone, insofar as their hobby is concerned. Forget social context; it’s just these guys, aging, playing their tweaked versions of the game, reminiscing about that one awesome time when character X did that awesome thing.

Not to be unkind, but that’s about 90% of the Amber games I know of, counting my own.