Theory: The Big Model

February 3, 2008

Over on knife-fight, Judd asked for folks to break down the Big Model theory of roleplaying as developed at the Forge. Here’s a big picture sort of introduction going over the major features.

What it looks at

The Big Model looks at how we play games.

You look at the big picture- not just how this game went, or the decisions made, or even what rules you’re playing by- you have to look all the way to “Who are the people playing and what are the relationships amongst them?” You don’t need to catalogue each detail- you’re sifting and looking for things that flag you as the most important features in shaping this specific group’s aspects of play.

Sense of Scale

In order to look at all these things, it breaks things down by scale. At the largest scale you’re looking at the Social Contract, at the smallest, Ephemera.

You can think of these scales the same way you might political geography – we have a country, which is made up of states, which is made up of counties, inside that we have cities, inside that, neighborhoods, etc. If something affects the whole country- it by nature, affects the states, counties, cities, etc. within. If something affects one county, it doesn’t necessarily ripple outward on the other hand. Forest for the trees, etc.

As we talk about the different scales, keep that in mind.

Social Contract

Social Contract- it sounds so clean, neat, and concrete, yes? Drop that notion. It’s human interaction, which is messy, ugly, and changing. Friends grow closer or apart, people have romance, people have drama, people have stress and things change. This is big picture here. And, for the most part- it’s unstated.

With all this in mind, the bottom line way of looking at Social Contract is this: Are people treating each other well enough to keep playing? (or, flip side, are people being asses to each other enough to stop playing?) Obviously, on this scale, we’d rather go all the way to “playing nice” rather than ride the edge of jerk-iness for play, but as I said, it’s a messy affair and not ideal.

When a group of folks come together to play a game, they all are operating with all the usual monkey stuff we do as humans. This stuff sometimes helps our games, or hurts our games, but it affects everything about the game happening. If a couple is having a spat and then they come to the game, you’ll see the issues start to spill into play. Social Contract is the “country” of the whole affair- it affects all the smaller parts.

So Social Contract is looking at who is in the group, how they feel about each other, and how they treat each other and how that colors play. For groups trying to improve play, often making certain aspects of Social Contract explicit tends to help create boundaries and improve communication. It could be simple game related stuff like when you meet up and not being late, but it could also be talking out concerns as people so you don’t have drama at the table.

The Big Model recognizes the need for this, but doesn’t go over it in detail, because, well, this is large scale human level skills that go beyond just talking about gaming.


What’s Exploration? Exploration is playing the game. If you are imagining stuff, rolling dice, talking in character, or paying attention to someone else’s scene in the game- you’re playing and you’re Exploring. If you’re busy playing videogames on your DS and not paying attention, if you’re on your cell phone, reading comics, or otherwise in any common sense way not playing the game, you’re not Exploring.

When people think about the cool stuff they’re imagining, they’re usually thinking on the Exploration level. Exploration is made up of a lot of sub parts (Color, System, Setting, Character, Situation) which play a big part in the experience of play.

As players, or a designer, there’s big questions being asked here. What is the setting like? What kinds of stories or play do we want? Who can say what and how does that affect the fiction? How much input does anyone get? etc.

If you’re playing, all of these things are being answered, even if you don’t state them or think about them. Just like Social Contract, it’ll happen whether you think about it or not, which means even freeform play addresses the logistics of system at this level.


This is the usual level people think at when they think of System. What are the numbers being thrown about? How do we resolve conflicts? Where do stats come from? etc.

Techniques are the specific procedures we use to coordinate play and Exploration. This is where you usually see the most design or houserules kick in, because it is the supporting structure that helps provide consistency to play- for better or worse. When the group’s goals for Exploration and the Techniques don’t match up, you find folks ignoring the rules a lot, or drastically overhauling them.


Ephemera are the bits that make up Techniques. So if D&D’s Combat system is a technique, rolling initiative is Ephermera. Though “Ephemera” makes it sound like they don’t matter, the fact is that they are the parts that players are dealing with moment-to-moment in play, and can greatly contribute to how play feels for them.

If you love rolling dice, a dice pool based game might give you some tactile pleasure- toy quality, as Ben Lehman calls it. If you hate doing lots of math, you’ll want to avoid a game that has it, etc.

How it gets used

The Big Model is an observational model- it provides this way of slicing up play along these many scales in order to make observations about how and why play is turning out the way it is.

Maybe you had a great time because the rules work in this certain way that consistently produces this effect, or maybe you had a great time because the rules work in the opposite way and your group ignored the rules every time that happened. Or conversely, if you had a bad time.

Knowing the difference is really useful for having more fun (or generally the same fun) in the future. Obviously, if you’re a designer, knowing the difference is pretty crucial to building your game.

Creative Agenda

When we get together to play a game, very often we come to it with an idea of what kinds of things we enjoy and what we’re looking for out of a game. That’s Creative Agenda.

Creative Agenda is how all of the above works together to get the experience the group wants out of play- if they know how. Or, looking at the Model, what is gumming up the group from getting what they want.

Creative Agenda asks, “What do we think is fun?” (or, perhaps better, “What do we think is the point of playing this game?”) and the Model’s scales provide close up looks at how that fun is had, and what contributes to it, or gets in the way of it.

Also worth seeing:

Ben Lehman’s Introduction to Forge Theory articles he wrote a few years back.
Ron Edward’s post on looking at Actual Play through the Big Model lens,
Emily Care Boss’ interview w/Elizabeth on Forge Theory.

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