Thursday, July 19, 2018

PIG-PIP Theory of RPGs

So this the first of maybe several posts attempting to create a new comprehensive theory of tabletop RPGs.

Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Specific Ideas:
Tactical Transparency

It'll need your help.
Here goes:

PIG-PIP Theory

Participants Invent Games-"Participants" Includes Paraphernalia

1. Meta-note on Development:

I'm Zak and I started this theory, but there are several areas here which could use development, and likely technicalities I've missed so: I welcome commentary and contributions based on your own observations and with any luck this gets both expanded and tightened up.

2. Meta-note on Format:

Theory and assertions of fact like this, extra commentary and context like this.

3. Meta-note on Goal:

The purpose of the theory is to help match participants and potential participants in tabletop RPGs with game experiences they enjoy as much as possible.

This should be applicable to recommending games, altering games, designing games, matching players, running games (GMing), etc.

4. Meta-note: Justifications Negative & Positive

Negative: Other extant theories of tabletop RPGs are vaguer than they need to be and/or make inaccurate predictions.

Negative: Bad theories exist now and continue to be used. This has had disastrous effects, leading to genuine real-world abuses. Replacing them might ameliorate that.

Positive: It saves time to have a vocabulary with which to describe games, players, play practices etc.

5. Meta-Note on Jargon:

Under current conditions, the main immediate impact of a theory of tabletop RPGs is likely to be use and re-use of its vocabulary, including by people who haven't read the theory.

On the one hand: in that case, there's little point in even having a theory unless it has words and phrases that are locally defined in a special way that allows them to stand in for common complex concepts. A theory or at least a common language should mean we all have to type less.

For example: People continue to use the word "simulationist" because they need a word to describe games that have rules which extensively distinguish imaginary in-game objects and actions from each other from similar in-game objects and actions (like say, spear vs halberd) despite the fact that word "simulationist" is ill-defined and part of a whole theory they may not believe. But they still want and should be able to talk about the difference between like The Pool and GURPS and it'd be nice to have a way.

On the other hand: under these same conditions, words with misleading connotations or whose meaning is more difficult to intuit than necessary are undesirable. To the degree possible, we'll want to have words that mean, in the context of game design, as much like what it sounds like they mean to the average native english speaker in a native english-speaking country as possible.

PIG-PIP is obviously not a word that explains a lot, so someone encountering it for the first time somewhere else will go "What's PIG-PIP?" and the other person goes "It stands for Participants Invent Games-Participants Includes Paraphernalia". Which should at least get them asking the right questions.

6. Scope: What Is A Role-Playing Game?

This is a descriptive, not a prescriptive definition.

"Role-playing game" is a category used usually informally in discussion and used more formally commercially (like when deciding what to order for a game store, f'rinstance, a pie is not a role-playing game so you don't order a pie and put it on the shelf next to Star Frontiers).

The category basically covers a variety of activities that lie between wargames, therapeutic role-play and improv-theatre exercises. That is: all things currently discussed as role-playing games share characteristics with at least one of those three activities, usually all three, yet have elements none of them have.

Unlike therapeutic and some improv exercises they do not tend to have a specific personal-development goal (ie psychological wellness or improved acting ability). Unlike some improv exercises they aren't primarily meant for entertaining spectators (though actual-play vids are an interesting overlap, especially high-improv versions of RPG play like HarmonQuest), and unlike wargames they do not usually focus on competitive play between players in control of large forces of multiple units (though this kind of play is wholly subsumed within the possibilities of many RPG games).

Note: These are lines drawn that describe different histories and commercial spaces--therapeutic games, wargames and improv games have separate histories, all predating modern RPGs. One could alternately imagine a less historically-based definition where all three of these activities (as well as computer RPGs and the kinds of tabletop games this theory is mostly about) exist within a larger circle called "RPGs" which would simply be defined as "any at-least-partially unscripted activity, with defined rules, where people take on imagined roles". The "with defined rules" is the hair that splits it away from any theatrical performance that is improvised. So in this definition commedia del'arte is an RPG but that line in Star Wars where Leia goes "I love you" and Han Solo goes "I know" isn't.

We could go on to list elements RPGs usually have but this isn't necessary--there are always outliers that don't have them (some like Amber don't use dice, some like DCC have players controlling more than one character, some don't have game masters, etc). What we want here is to make true statements about "RPGs" whatever that is, so these statements should apply to the outliers as well. This definition therefore includes not just tabletop games but LARPS etc.)

7. The Basic PIG-PIP Claim: Participants determine the character and quality of a game experience.

In addition to the players and GM, "participants" includes paraphernalia used during the game and preparation for the game--game texts, house rules, miniatures, tables, chairs, the physical or virtual space the game is played in, snacks, etc.

8. Predictions based on The Basic PIG-PIP Claim:

More often than not, replacing a major participant with one all the people playing have previously experienced and would agree to call "substantially worse" while keeping every other variable the same should result in what most of the people involved would agree is a "worse" play experience.

More often than not, replacing a major participant with one all the people playing have previously experienced and would agree is "substantially better" while keeping every other variable the same should result in what most of the people involved would agree is a better play experience.

These are testable predictions. They haven't been rigorously tested.

9. The Chemistry Principle (Possible exceptions to 8):

It's possible that one or more participants of (what everyone experienced involved would agree to call) inferior quality might be more compatible than participants filling similar roles that  (what everyone experienced involved would agree to call) superior quality.

Thus replacing specific high-quality participants with lower-quality but more compatible participants might improve the game for everyone present.

Like: maybe everyone playing likes Rolemaster better than Tunnels and Trolls but they all know the rules to T&T better that day so they actually have more fun that day than they would had they played Rolemaster that day.

10. The Asymmetry Principle: Not all participants' contributions are equal in terms of deciding the quality of the game experience. 

Living participants have a choice about how active or passive to be, (with some--but less--latitude given to the GM, if there is a GM) and about how faithful to be to the suggestions of rules texts and other paraphernalia. Texts and paraphernalia can't make adaptive choices about the living participants or their contributions.

11. Prediction based on The Asymmetry Principle:

More often than not, if a living participant moves from a passive to an active role they will have more influence over the quality of the play experience and vice versa. If a player all living participants judge as "better" is more active in a group of average players then they will judge the play experience as having being better than if that participant was passive, all other variables being equal. Same goes for "worse"--etc.

12. Evaluated vs Unevaluated Challenges:

Nearly any task a live participant might perform during a game could be considered a challenge  ("it was challenging to think up a good name for my PC" etc) but there is a distinction between evaluated and unevaluated challenges. Evaluated challenges are linked to specific mechanically relevant in-game consequences.

Even if making up a name for a PC is a challenge for a given player, there are few games where the attempt to meet that challenge is evaluated--that is, a game procedure changes in a way that could be considered by those engaged as "towards" or "away from" a win condition.

Killing a monster in the game is usually an evaluated challenge. If, under no time pressure. you use only missile weapons at a distance against a very powerful but slow moving foe which itself has no missile weapons you have probably thought up a good strategy and are less likely to die before the monster. That is: it's evaluated.

"Evaluated challenges" are the core of what can, in some contexts. be called competition or competitive games.

Evaluated challenges are linked to in-game consequences though not necessarily in-the-game-world consequences, like successfully completing an evaluated challenge might get you a "hero point" which doesn't represent a specific in-world thing but is useful in the game.

13. Limits of Evaluated and Unevaluated Challenge

Evaluated challenges attempt to mechanically force responses to have more of a quality of "exercise" (doing something hard which theoretically involves learning or improvement. The analogy to physical exercise is literal.)

Unevaluated challenges admit a larger variety of outcomes into the game.

HOWEVER, participants who hold themselves to high standards of creativity--that is, try to think of solutions they normally would not--can experience as much exercise with unevaluated challenges.

14. Challenges and the Definition of RPGs

All RPGs have unevaluated challenges--or at least unevaluated activities. Even in Final Fantasy you can walk in a circle 90 times if you feel like it and it has no effect on the mechanics. Not so in a wargame.

Not all RPGs have evaluated challenges. These tend to be the games people claim "aren't games" or "aren't RPGs".

15. System-Specific Vs System-Agnostic Evaluated Challenges

Some evaluated challenges are tests of a players' mastery of the game system, and some are simply general problem-solving challenges.

If, under no time pressure, you use only missile weapons at a distance against a very powerful but slow moving foe which itself has no missile weapons you have probably thought up a good strategy and are less likely to die before the monster--that's a system-agnostic choice, because it would still be a good idea if the situation we're really happening.

If you use a Wand of Fireballs instead of a Rod of Fireballs because in that system the Wand is mechanically superior (does more damage, etc), that's a system-specific challenge.  Or, rather it's meeting a challenge in a system-specific way.

System-mastery is the quality of being good at system-specific challenges. System-specific challenges reward participants who've read the books carefully.

16. Simulation and System-Agnostic Evaluated Challenges

In order for system-agnostic evaluated challenges to occur in a game, the game must mechanically describe the relevant in-game objects to such a degree (and with such a fidelity to if-it-were-real) that the factors that make the tactic a good idea in real life are also factors which matter in the game.

For example, if combat is only resolved by comparing Fight scores of two opponents and then adding a d6 roll to each, the challenge of  knowing, under no time pressure, to use only missile weapons at a distance against a very powerful but slow moving foe which itself has no missile weapons, is negated, as none of the factors that make that a good tactical choice are in the game.

17. Note On Participant Preference and Options

Since many activities which include only unevaluated challenges or only evaluated challenges exist, most people who choose to play RPGs like both unevaluated and evaluated challenges.

Not all though, individual RPGs have enough distinctive characteristics and a distinctive enough audience that a person might like only one of those kinds of challenges but put up with the occasional call to engage the other in order to experience the other benefits.

18. Tom Sawyer Principle

Living participants' interests aren't static. Even players deeply-invested in one aspect of play might become interested in another if other participants make it look fun.

19. Participant Butterfly Effect

Many role-playing games allow for a wide variety of scenarios that are not only non-overlapping in terms of content but also in terms of the mechanics engaged. As participants invent games over and over, the character of two game sessions derived from the same text (ie "two groups playing the same game")  can be completely different even if the participants are the same. This is merely because of choices they make.

For example: if an Apocalypse World player decides to deal with a siege against their hardhold like this, the entire session might very well be both in terms of mechanics and fictional content basically non-overlapping with another session of Apocalypse World. The two groups have played a pair of "games" so different as to be as-different as if they had used different game texts (ie two games of Apocalypse World as different from each other as they would be from a game of Mutant Future).

more tomorrow...
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Canyon said...

I think you'll need to say a lot about what you mean by fun. Depending on what you figure out you might need to justify it as the focus of your investigation. Because you need to accommodate some really diverse roleplaying experiences that we should deem successful, but don't seem to involve fun as we normally think about it.

For example: I normally play pretty standard dnd, but my favorite rpg experience was in a really constrained story game (A Walk in Winter Wood) and it was genuinely terrifying. There was no part of it that was pleasant---no jokes, moments of low tension, nothing. Just stress. I was terribly uncomfortable (but of course I was at least comfortable with the level of discomfort I was in. Or I was willing to undergo that much discomfort for the experience. Dunno how to phrase it.).

Anyway that experience was great because it touched on true horror and evoked real feeling. I don't know where fun enters in this analysis.

Canyon said...

Sorry, not fun, "being enjoyable".

LanceToth said...

Here's my meager contribution : we should call this Participant-theory instead of PIGPIP

Jared D said...

I don't know whether Zak would agree, but my working definition of "fun" or "enjoyable" in this kind of RPG discussion is "whatever feeling the participants chose this game and group with the goal of experiencing." Thinking about this and typing it out makes me realize that I probably should call that "satisfaction" instead.

Zak Sabbath said...


"A desired experience."

Zak Sabbath said...


Why? PIGPIP is so much

Canyon said...

@Zak, Jalor: That works for me. I'd imagine anything substantive you say will be heavily dependent on which experiences people find desirable. But you can cross that bridge when you get there.

Also maybe PIG&PIP? Or PIGnPIP? "Participants Invent Games, and Participants Includes Paraphernalia" to my ear sounds better.

Anonymous said...

This is not relevant to the PIGPIP discussion:

I like the old Motive design more. :(

Zak Sabbath said...

Why would anyone leave that comment anonymously?

Zak Sabbath said...


Your ear is not mine