A Theory on RPG Theory

October 18, 2009

One group of people want to understand how roleplaying works. They read a lot of different theories and play a lot of different games.

Another group likes to use theory to take sides- to convince others to join their side or demand others convince them to take a particular side or another.

Though the words sound similar, these groups are doing mutually exclusive activities.

The first group just needs the information and can decide for themselves what and how theory is useful or not for them. The second group requires that any topic be constantly spoken about in order for it to hold water- if no one is talking about it then it’s not important.


  1. I discovered recently that a dude from the early Forge/GO days is still blogging about what he thinks is wrong about GNS.

    • Big Model says two things which are deeply challenging for some people to consider:
      1) “Roleplaying” is an umbrella term for many different styles and activities, not a singular activity (as much as “Sports” is)
      2) Those varied activities are all valid, if not all mutually compatible.

      It’s complete 180 from most of the history of rpgs, where everyone has to desperately fight to promote their One True Way of Roleplaying, because there can only be one. This also means that there is no magical advice that will get you to harmonize a group that, at the bottom line, really wants different things.

      In the minds of some- a classification system without a magical happy play together formula must mean it’s designed to promote ONE WAY OF ROLEPLAYING and therefore is a death panel socialist threat.

      Especially for groups who have been looking for that solution for some time, they are the most resistant to seeing that they can’t all have different types of fun at the same time doing the same thing. For them, the threat is that the theory appears to be a direct attack on their friendship. (“There can only be one type of roleplaying” + “My roleplaying is REAL roleplaying” + “My self esteem exists on how GOOD of a roleplayer I am” = “Us roleplaying together is a sign of our friendship and worth as gamers/people”)

      And that’s how you get ridiculous shit like, “GNS says I should throw away all my friends!”, etc.

      ETA: Which is to say, yeah, that’s why we’ve got folks fixated on the “threat” of GNS, years later.

      • “2) Those varied activities are all valid, if not all mutually compatible.”

        This is true.

        Not *all* of them are mutually compatible. But the list of compatibilities is much longer that it first appears, and dismissing it with no investigation is… what usually happens.

        That strikes me as really damned odd, and I don’t understand why it’s the case.

        (And, hell, I’ve been both of the people Judd describes, at varying points)

        • Hi Levi,

          But the list of compatibilities is much longer that it first appears, and dismissing it with no investigation is… what usually happens.

          I’d suggest reading: core theory, social contract, Technical Agenda, Ben’s Toy Quality, Mo’s Socket Theory.

          The baseline assumption has always been there’s giant swaths of compatible options and people have moved on towards investigating either a) where are more fine/detailed borders between play preferences or b) what social/psychological things keep gamers ignoring the space of the compatible and regularly bumping up into the incompatible.

          There’s over 5 years of investigation and writing on that subject, well worth reading.

          • I’ve think I’ve read all of those except for “toy quality”, although I’m unsure what you’re calling ‘core’.

            And yes, that’s where the good stuff is – the dismissal I’m pointing at is in the same context as the original post Judd made; the grouchy people looking for “a better theory” almost always go for another gross simplification.

            Apologies if that wasn’t intuitive; looking back, it looks like I’m making a much broader argument.

        • I would say compatibility is heavily investigated.

          Almost all investigation of compatibility (sockets, your stuff) is focused on the technical agenda level with a bit on the areas of exploration side.

          Which is fine.

          Because that’s where playstyle compatibility lives.

          Investigating it on the creative agenda level is, I think, fruitless, which is why you don’t see much (outside of some early esoteric Forge theory and Capes.) It’s not that its an unexplored area. It’s just that there’s not a lot of there there.

          It’s like, to use Chris’s frequent example, you have some players showing up to play Hockey, and some showing up to play Baseball. You could, if you want, explore compatibility between the two games. But in terms of general theory of sports, there’s not a lot of fruitful exploration space there.


          • I think we just crossposted; please note that I’m talking about the same arguments Judd was. Again, apologies for not being clear.

          • Hi Ben, Levi,

            I really, really, really don’t want this post to turn into a discussion -about- theory, itself.


          • Agh. Chris, not Judd. Got here via google reader; Judd’s feed.

            With that, I shut up now.

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