The Ball: Again

June 14, 2010

The medium of roleplaying

There’s two aspects of the medium of tabletop roleplaying which shape play, all the time.

First, is that play works through speaking. Like any conversation, we take turns at speaking, we take turns at inputting to the stuff we’re imagining. Even though this is moment-to-moment, back and forth, quickly, almost invisibly, it still means one person at a time is directly inputing into play at any given moment.

Second, all play works on the group expressing buy-in. Lumpley-Care principle means the imaginary stuff only has weight because the group gives it weight. That said, while input is singular in the moment, the larger scale of play is determined by how the group chooses to give weight or ignore aspects. In other words, buy-in produces the direction of play.

The Ball Analogy

At any given moment, a single person in possession of the ability to shape play (has the ball) and is working with a team, the group, to push play in some direction or another. Like any team sport, roleplaying comes down to communication. Which direction to go? When to pass? Who to pass it to? Etc.

Most groups simply rely on learning to read each other’s non-verbal cues, which takes time to learn and a lot of practice to develop. A better culture of communication over the last few years has made strong use of metagame talk during play to coordinate things, though modern game design assists this significantly by adding stuff like Flag mechanics to help communication.

Skillful play is still about Fictional Positioning – knowing what the rest of the group is interested in and pushing play in that direction, gaining support by way of buy-in: again, teamwork.


On the flipside, you can see how a lot of conflicts between players about the direction of play are just like people fighting over a ball. It could easily be argued that a lot of modern rpg design is based around successfully negotiating that issue- providing rules and systems to resolve the direction of play. (For example, Luke Crane has often pointed to that as the source of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits rules).

As game design has moved in to support groups in negotiating/determining simple direction of play – there’s less and less need for stuff like GMing advice on how to “keep play from getting stuck” or to resolve arguments between players.

Also worth reading

My older posts on Creative Vectors and More on Creative Vectors covers what I’m talking about with “Direction of Play”.

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