Friday, July 20, 2018

What's a Game Text Do? Why are we playing? What went wrong? PIG-PIP 2

Part two of a theory of RPGs.

Part one here.
Part three here.

Tactical Transparency

20. What Does A Game Text Do?

A game text is a nonliving and static participant in play.

("Static" barring releases of errata and, like, answers from the author in venues like Dragon mag back in the day or Twitter now. The text has some dynamism, it's still way slower than a player or GM.)

The text consists of a series of suggestions about goals to be pursued and procedures to be followed in the game session, usually along with an argument for pursuing those goals and following those procedures.

For example, if the art in a game shows someone in chainmail cutting up an owlbear that's both a suggestion (try to set up situations like this when you run your game) and an argument (it'll be fun if you set up this situation, following the rules here will help you set up this situation, etc).

21. About Fun

"Fun" is a shorthand expression. Really what we usually mean is "an experience the living participant finds desirable" which covers slightly more territory, including the possibility of cathartic experiences.

For example, everything we're talking about should apply to the person who left this comment on the last entry:

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.

More narrowly, fun is sometimes used casually to refer to light-hearted kinds of desired experiences ("It's just a fun movie" etc) often connoting, in a game context, a relatively permissive game ("It was Pendragon but I broke the rules and played a horse because, hey, fun's fun"). Just noting that here because sometimes discussion gets confused because people are using different definitions.

22. Broad Goal of Play

To distribute the maximum experiences-found-desirable to the living players.

Jargon notes: If you just go "desirable experiences" then you have the silly problem where someone undergoes an experience someone else desires but doesn't like it. Like a vegetarian eating a cheeseburger is having an experience that is "able to be desired", so "desirable" (I like cheeseburgers) but not by them. That's the important part: the person gets a thing they liked.

Also note it's not necessarily desired experience past tense: the person doesn't have to get what they expected to get, only something that, once gotten, was liked.

23. Narrow Goal of Play

While it's all fine and good to say the goal of play is to distribute maximum fun (etc) experiences, practically speaking, planned leisure experiences always involve imagining a specific kind of desired experience ("let's go bowling it will be loud and convivial and there'll be melted cheese" "let's curl up on the couch and watch Antiques Roadshow it'll be cozy and chill")  and then, as it were, carving life down until it is sharp enough to penetrate the force field of boredom or the other foes of leisure from a very specific angle. One does not just throw unrelated fun-suggestions against the wall of Fort Boredom and hope one makes it through.

The game text argues not just for the desirability of experiences but for a specific kind of experience. This is where we can talk about the "desired experience": What you went in expecting and wanting.

For example: Procedures and advice for a horror game and for a comedy game have the same broad goal (22) and very different narrow goals.

24. Observation on Evaluating Game Texts

A lot of digital ink has gotten spilled over whether a game is "well-designed" or "poorly-designed" in arguments between people who are talking past each other because one is describing a failure to hit a purported Narrow Goal of Play (common phrases you'll hear: "but it failed because it was advertised as...", "but it failed because the author's intent was..." etc) and the other is describing a success in hitting the Broad Goal of Play.

A common iteration of this argument is about whether D&D or a version of it succeeds because people like it (often over all other experienced options) or a failure because the illustrations and ads suggest the Narrow Goal of Play is epic fantasy but actual play can be more like serial pulp or picaresque fantasy or just bathetic.

25. Observation on Game Communities

People (the game's living participants) are influenced by-, and in some cases arguably products of-, communities. Communities have norms, ranging from use of language ("dual-wield" is a gamerism, not a military-historical way of referring to two-handed weapon fighting) to procedural assumptions ("GM is always right"). As soon as a game involves more than one person, gaming can never exist outside of some kind of cultural assumptions (even if they are so limited as "What language do we use when we play?").

Cultural assumptions are thus very close to a "participant" (though technically: "a characteristic that participants have in common") and can and should be analyzed with the same scrutiny one analyzes the game text or individual player behavior when asking what went wrong or what went right in a game.

26. Practical Consideration for Game Texts About Community Assumptions


a) There are far fewer game communities than gamers
b) The author of a game text is far more likely to be familiar with the assumptions of game communities than individual gamers,
c) Assumptions in these communities vary widely, and
d) These assumptions can affect how the text's suggestions are interpreted is desirable for a game text to, all other considerations being equal, communicate as much about how the suggestions inside interact with different communal assumptions as possible.

27. Limit on 26

There are few assumptions so bizarre that some gamer community on the internet somewhere does not hold them (including: you don't have to read the text to run the game and then decide it doesn't work), therefore there is a practical limit on the ability of any text to communicate every single aspect of how it interacts with communal assumptions.

A game text that spends time addressing each of the infinite ways communities could misconstrue it will eventually become so difficult to read (ie uncharismatic) that it works against its purpose of effectively providing suggestions for play.

28. Post-Game Analysis

A PIG-PIP analysis of a game session would consist of:

-Listing the participants (including players, texts, and other paraphernalia used)
-Describing specific contributions made by specific participants, with an eye specifically toward contributions that were atypical or different from contributions made in a game session that had a different outcome--like if trying to figure out why a session failed, look at how it was different than a similar one that succeeded and vice versa.
-Looking for "chemistry effects"--that is, interactions between participants whose result was complex or unusual. This is by far the most difficult part.

A good analysis might examine things like the interaction between GM and text (how many of the text's suggestions were thrown out or altered, which ones were used) player and text (which of the rules did the players engage especially, including spells, items, feats, etc) player and player (were they interpersonally helpful or disruptive to some players more than others) etc.

One tool would be a Punnet-squarish matrix like this:

Part three is here.

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Anonymous said...

Hey Zak,

I really appreciate what you're doing here, but I have a comment/concern about this PIG-PIP theory/framework that I'm hoping you can address. I know that you are very much against the GNS theory of gaming, and if I understand correctly, you are intending for PIG-PIP to serve a similar role as GNS in terms of being a go-to framework for thinking about tabletop RPGs.

As I'm reading these posts, I think what you're saying makes sense- it's all a good, comprehensive way of thinking about RPGs. However, at least so far I'm not sure it's a great framework. What I mean by that is that a good theory should be a model, and the point of a model is to reduce something to a more basic form that can be easily comprehended and is predictive of real-world cases. For instance, in computational neuroscience, to build a perfect model of a brain would be effectively to build a brain. That certainly has utility, but at the end of the day, the whole point of designing a neural network for research was to create something we could understand more easily than an actual brain.

For as well thought out and comprehensive as this framework is, it's not obvious to me that it actually reduces the complexity of understanding gaming. For as flawed as GNS may be, when somebody says a game is "narrativist" or "gamist", I have a general sense of what they mean. I'm not saying we should just stick with GNS because I think you've made great points about how flawed it is, but I do think for PIG-PIP to really take off, it needs to work as a model. Maybe I'm missing something, or maybe that's not actually what you're trying to do, I just thought I'd express my concern, while also saying that I look forward to seeing how this develops!

Also, would it be too cynical of me to push my shit? I'm going to do it anyway :p. I've been writing a series of tables with ideas from my tabletop RPG campaign setting Phantasmos. The below link is for a Unique Items table, which includes links to all of my other tables, and a link where I post a piece of art I commissioned from Scrap Princess. I'd love to hear what you think, or for that matter anyone reading this!

Zak Sabbath said...

1. You haven't explained what you mean by "work as a model" (or what the difference between that and what I am writing is in your mind) so none of your criticism makes sense to me. I wrote explicit predictions in the text, idk if you saw them.

2. Don't make a habit of posting unrelated ads for your own stuff, but if Scrap's involved you get a pass this time

Anonymous said...

Haha fair enough. Gotta get exposure somehow right? But I don't want to be obnoxious either, so I appreciate you letting me off the hook.

In all seriousness though, and I'm not trying to guilt you or anything- I'm sure you're busy and I know you owe me nothing and I absolutely respect that, but I think you're an amazing creator and it really would mean a lot to me if you could give my ideas a look and tell me what you think.

Back on the main topic though- what I mean by a model, is that it should be reducible. Over the last two articles, your writing is very comprehensive and well thought out, but I don't feel like I have an understanding of what PIG-PIP is, on a fundamental level.

So again, not saying I agree with GNS, I'm just using it for sake of analogy, but if someone describes a game I haven't played as "narrativist", I immediately have at least some idea of what they mean. Likewise, I can read a game, and in theory (pretending GNS is a good framework for the moment) I could identify which of those three I think it best falls under as a way of helping me understand it. Again, I'm not advocating that I agree with GNS, I'm just saying that I think a good theory is one which can help me understand specific cases in this way.

It's entirely possible that I'm not reading your articles carefully enough, or missing something obvious, or it's also possible that this is just not what you're trying to do. I'm just saying that for me personally, at least so far, it's not clear to me what PIG-PIP is, and it would be helpful to me and perhaps others if you could clarify this, assuming that is your goal, or I'm not an edge case who is inexplicably struggling to understand something obvious.

Zak Sabbath said...


Well then stay tuned. Things may come into focus in later entries.

urthshu said...

It's possible you're not reading close enough. PIG-PIP is a grasping-for a theory and a descriptor for a gestalt. We may each come away with different impressions at the end - I'm currently seeing Zak's theory as one involving games as a collaborative work of art to be contrasted, say, with therapeutic role-plays or story-games, for example. A thing gamed versus a psychological doo-dad.

I wouldn't presume Zak to have any of my ideas as anything intended by him and it would be a poorer world if we were all such literal followers, no? The question is only what can be contributed.

Zak Sabbath said...


Story-games exist wholly within the definition I've provided. I forgot therapeutic roleplays but the fact that they're similar to acting exercises and overlap with some traditional commercial role-playing games

Anonymous said...

Ya, hopefully as it develops it'll become more clear to me. I'd love to be able to read a game and have the following thought process:

"From a PIG-PIP perspective, I can think of this game as being or having X. I also like games 1, 2, and 3, because they also are/have X. Going forward, I'm going to be mindful of games that have X, and also why I like X, and in what cases I would not want X. Because of X, Y, and Z from PIG-PIP, I feel like I have a deeper understanding of how to think about gaming and what I want from a game."

-- That more or less, but less stilted and robotic obviously.

Whether it ultimately succeeds in that regard, or is intended to succeed in that regard, or succeeds in that regard for most people but for whatever reason not me, I'm still very much enjoying reading this, keep up the good work!