Boiling down Theory

Most of the roleplaying game theory out on the intertubes that originated on the Forge is part of the Big Model. You won’t have heard me talk about the Big Model before, because frankly I don’t get it — I talk about small parts of the Big Model, because I feel like (a) I get those, or (b) I possibly CAN get those, if I work at it.
Over at Knife Fight, someone posted a friends summary of the Big Model that pretty much boils it all down into a nice simple glaze I can pour over whatever food I happen to be cooking. It’s tasty, it’s basic, and it’s (in my head) straightforward. I have appended that post, with notes, below the cut, because i would always like to be able to find it.

Via Gaerik, on the “Knife Fight” forums:
The best Big Model Breakdown I’ve seen to date. This is me saying that it isn’t mine. It’s Frank Tarcikowski’s.

Role-playing is a social activity.
Any sensible analysis of role-playing must start with the players as real persons and not with the characters, the setting, or other fictional elements. Why? Because the characters, setting, and whatnot don’t actually exist. They’re fictional. The players do exist. It is the social interaction between the actual players that forms the context of role-playing. This context is called the Social Contract. If the Social Contract of a role-playing group is screwed up then the foundation of their play is rotten and they are pretty much doomed in terms of having reliable fun. Having reliable fun is a basic definition of functional role-playing.
Role-playing is creating fiction together.
The participants of an RPG are creating imaginary events through play. The pictures in everyone’s head of what happens need to match. If one player is imagining a gritty modern fantasy while the other players are imagining a My Little Ponies adventure, you’re going to run into problems. These matching pictures is called the Shared Imagined Space (SIS), or sometimes simply “The Fiction”.
The Shared Imagined Space is created through negotiation.
This is key. The SIS isn’t created by some sourcebook or anything else. It is created via negotiation between the players. Now the negotiation may just be the players all agreeing to certain source materials to start but the fact remains that it was a negotiated and agreed upon by all the players.
Interaction between players at the gaming table is directed toward including certain situations or events into the SIS. The back and forth dialogue that develops during play, to include making statements of intent, rolling dice, appealing to the authority of the rules, and all the other game discussion that goes on, is the process of negotiation. Only if all players agree, explictly or implicitly, to a new piece of fictional content can play continue on that basis. This process, when described in this way, is sometimes called the “Lumpley Principle”.
System does matter.
“System” is the rules by which the negotiation process is organized. These rules may be written or not. Some groups play by a set of rules that differ in significant ways from the actual game text. Therefore, if someone tells you that system doesn’t matter, he is referring to the rules in the game text and he is saying so because his group is not playing by those rules anyway. The actual rules they play by are mainly their own, and those rules, the unwritten ones, do matter. Those actual rules influence two important things:
1. The fictional content shaping the Shared Imagined Space.
2. How players act at the table to create that content.
In short, the Lumpley Principle circles around this conversation: “I cast a fireball!” “No you don’t.” “I – what? I do too!” “Nope.” However the players resolve this; however you decide in your game who gets to say what about what, and when, that your game’s “system.” “System” is usually a mix of established rules (like from a rulebook), principled rules (extrapolated from a rulebook), ad-hoc rules, and winging it, in some proportion or other. System always matters, and always has an impact on the resulting Fiction.
There is role-playing, and then there is role-playing.
The process people use to role-play may vary widely from group to group. That’s because different people have differing priorities — things that they “want” — when playing RPGs. A gaming group has the best chance for sustained fun when all the players have the same or similar priorities. The shared group priority is called the group’s Creative Agenda.
“Having fun” is not in itself a priority. How the fun is had is the priority. Simply having fun is always a goal, so it is useless as an analytical tool.
Note: Creative Agenda is the full picture! It is not individual moments in play or individual parts of the System. It is only recognized when watching a group play for a longer period of time, with special attention to moments where specific priorities may conflict with each other. Creative Agenda does NOT say that any action by a player at any time during play needs to fit a scheme or something.
The following three general categories of Creative Agenda have been identified in the The Big Model:
1. Gamism: The players accept the challenges of the Shared Imagined Space, taking risks and showing performance as players and reaching or missing a certain goal. Sometimes all players may work together to a goal. Sometimes they may compete. The social reward for Gamism is gained by the player stepping up and meeting challenges.
Note: Gamism is not the same as Powergaming, which is a sub-species of Gamist play and sometimes dysfunctional.
2. Narrativism: The players engage in the moral and human issues of the Shared Imagined Space, taking a position as players and making a statement about their characters, the game world, and/or themselves. The social reward for Narrativism is gained when the player makes and interesting thematic statement through play. (It is worth noting that, if said statement or recurring theme is predetermined before play begins, it’s not really Narr play, which depends somewhat on it emerging organically in the middle of play.)
Note: This is not what is commonly called Storytelling or Cinematic play. If functional, both are usually in there somewhere.
3. Simulationism: The players experience the Shared Imagined Space as something worthwhile for its own sake. Something which they do not fully control because it follows its own laws. Experiencing the Shared Imagined Space and contributing to it is part of any role-playing, but in this mode, it is the top priority. The social reward for Simulationist play is generally gained through skillful celebration of the subject matter or source material.
Note: Complex “realistic” rules are only one style of Simulationist role-playing. More frequently you’ll find features like style, atmosphere, acting, or dramaturgy to be more important that complex physics mechanics.

Dunno if any of this will be of much use to anyone but me, but it’s here if you want it.


  1. Doyce Notes:
    Gamist Play: This is how I play games like D20, Battletech RPG, Savage Worlds, and to a lesser extent how I’d play something like TSoY, CoS, Heroquest, or FATE, and I’m sure it creeps into other RPGs as well — one way or another, I get that risk/reward gamist thing in there eventually — if the game totally thwarts that, I eventually find that I don’t enjoy the game anymore. I’ve noticed similar tendencies toward this style of play in Randy, for example, with regards to Amber DRPG and some other games. I mention this only by way of example. This is probably, for me, the ‘easiest’ mode of play.
    Narrativist Play: I think the ‘grown up’ Sorcerer game was strongly Narrativist — we said a lot about those characters in the middle of play that we perhaps didn’t see coming until those things happened. To a lesser extent, it also occured in the Grimm Therapy games, and sometimes occured in the Spring Fountain game and the later stages of the d20 OA game, the d20 Prince of Alderaan game, and maybe the Nobilis game, where it was sometimes jarring. I haven’t run as much of this as might be assumed. Doesn’t keep me from trying. While not the easiest, this is perhaps the most rewarding play for me.
    Some Amber DRPG play I’ve read about could be categorized as Narr. I haven’t run or played in any, however.
    Sim Play: I would categorize a lot of Amber DRPG games as having a Sim goal, in the sense of celebrating the Setting for it’s own sake (and, taken to an extreme, examining and reexamining the Setting from every. single. angle. imaginable).
    Ditto a lot of Star Wars games, Firefly games, et cetera. Margie ran a game a few years back that was, in my mind, quite Sim in it’s goals. I’ve enjoyed such games in the past, but I’ve realized that in most cases they’re unsatisfying for me in the long run because, in the end, exploring the setting is not a primary goal that pushes my personal buttons.
    It’s always a GOAL, but not one of my top two.

  2. I spend about 1-2 hours a week playing games for the sake of playing games; I spend about 20-30 hours a week reading or writing fiction. Guess which aspect makes me happy 🙂

  3. A gaming group has the best chance for sustained fun when all the players have the same or similar priorities.

    There’s probably some element of truth in that — though some variation is probably optimal must to keep people on their toes. And, of course, it tends to run full-tilt into the reality of a non-infinite pool of players from which to cherry-pick the ones who feel the same thing.
    It’s an interesting analysis nonetheless — though I’m still trying to figure out what use it is, or where to go after its statement.

  4. Hi Dave,
    For me, the main use is two-fold: it helped me see preferences in my fellow gamers and at least try to aim game content at the things that I see them enjoying.
    For instance, Randy hates ‘munchkins’ or power-gamers — a dysfunctional kind of Gamist mindset, but at the same time, he’s into the kinds of payoff that a Gamist mindset enjoys — knowing how much he dislikes the dysfunctional types within that preference (nothing so annoying at someone who is close to your point of view, but different), it might be easy to dismiss his preferences as leaning some other way. Anyway.
    The other REALLY REALLY important thing is that the Big Model helps me understand when some bit of theory ISN’T IMPORTANT. Seriously. While this stuff might be interesting to me, and even useful, this little breakdown helps me realize that most people do not have to be shown the theory — it’s just not going to matter to them.
    That helps me back up, take a breath, and just Go Play.
    Sometimes I need that kind of help. 🙂

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