The Forge

RPG Theory - Pattern Recognition, Metaphor, and Continuity

Doctor Xero - Thu Jan 27, 2005 8:16 pm
Post subject:
Now that the unfortunate early miscommunications have been solved, let's try this again.

This theory will help game designers, campaign designers, and scenario designers remember the variety of player interests and desires.


Many researchers argue that myth and folklore help individuals develop a vital, necessary existential ability -- the ability to recognize underlying patterns. This pattern recognition ability is the basis of science, scholarship, and appreciation of the Arts. For example, empirical science is grounded in recognition of patterns of frequency, the scientific method in recognition of patterns of cause-and-effect ; I do not think it is a coincidence that people with little background in myth (of some shade!) often demonstrate a poor grasp of the recognition of underlying causal patterns (although over-awareness is just as bad, wringing superstition from happenstance). The modern scientific equivalents of the mythic Great Story might be Bohm's theory of implicate order and/or the morphogenic field theory.


Marion Woodman once wrote:
We live in an increasingly complex and dangerous world. To survive in it, we need think that somehow, it all means something. Where does that meaning come from? That's the myth.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote:
Legends and myth are largely made of truth, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be perceived in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.

John Clute once wrote:
Stories have a habit of getting tied in knots, and then unfolding. First they entangle their protagonists, whose actions sometimes seem dictated by the needs of the story in which they have become engaged; then the light dawns, and the labyrinth becomes a path. . . . the literatures of the Fantastic positively glory in the fact that they present and embody Story-shaped worlds. . . .
For Aristotle, Recognition marks a fundamental shift in the process of a story from increasing ignorance to knowledge. . . . It is at this moment of Recognition that the inherent Story at the heart of most fully fantasy texts is most visible . . . most revelatory. At this moment in "the structurally complete fantasy tale" (Brian Attebery’s phrase) protagonists begin to understand what has been happening to them (he may have been an Ugly Duckling awaiting the moment he becomes king; she may have been re-enacting a Creation Myth in order that the Land be reborn; they may discover what Archetype serves as an underlier figure and defines their fate; etc.). They understand, in other words, that they are in a Story; that, properly recognized (which is to say properly told), their lives have the coherence and significance of Story ; that, in short, the story has been telling them.

In other words : myth as inflected through literatures of the fantastic.


All of the above depends upon a sense of identification with the protagonist, usually a hero.

In other words, the protagonist becomes a metaphor for the audience, and his or her experiences become metaphors through which the audience can better understand their own experiences.

Use of these recognized metaphors enriches the personal lives of the savvy audience members. This is one of the bases for the popularity in television of Star Trek and Babylon 5, in film of Star Wars, and in literature of The Lord of the Rings
(cf. Henry Jenkins’ seminal work, Textual Poachers for more details).
Henry Jenkins once wrote:
fans cease to be simply an audience for popular texts ; instead they become active participants in the construction and accumulation of textual meanings.

All of the above leads to one conclusion:
one of the (several) primary functions of myth and fantastical literature involves the discovery and then recognition of the primal Story pattern(s) which underlies all of that reality. It is not the manufacture of Story but the recognition of Story and, with that Recognition, the empowerment within a person’s world when Story becomes inflected through a person.


If a game designer or game master wants to provide players with that network of experiences of discovery, recognition, and empowerment, he or she must create a game system in which there is a prior pre-existing pattern to be found. Players can not discover a pattern if that pattern is one which they have just spontaneously cast onto the gaming reality.

If the game designer or game master has no interest in providing players with that specific network of experiences, he or she may not need to take prior pre-existing patterns into consideration when creating his or her game system.

However, remembering this aspect of the possible ingredient of mythic sensibility helps game designers, campaign designers, and scenario designers remember the variety of player interests and desires.


Despite linked lineages, mystery has come to refer not to the mystical experience of the old mystery religions but instead to the logical pleasure of puzzle solving.

Such puzzle solving is a pleasure given expression in reading a detective novel or viewing a detective film or in reading SF novels or viewing certain types of SF films. (Not all detective or SF tales give the necessary clues for solving the puzzle, of course.) In many horror tales, the key to defeating the creature involves puzzling out its weaknesses or modus operandi from the clues in its past behaviors.

Again, as with the fantastical fiction descended from myth, a major component of puzzle solving and mystery is the recognition of patterns. Along with the recognition is the experience of discovery. Such puzzles can sharpen the individual's mind, which empowers albeit in a different fashion than occurs with mythic storytelling.

I have also encountered a large number of players whose enjoyment of a game hinges upon their believing that both sense and the actuality are one and the same in a particular game. I have known many game masters who have heard intelligent, healthy roleplayers tell them, "I don't want to play in your mystery scenario unless there really is a solution already, unless there really will be clues, and unless there really is a chance that no one will be able to solve the mystery." I have encountered this among both brilliant roleplayers and dysfunctional players, and I have encountered it frequently in conventions across the country, so I do not consider these players to be unusual but rather players whose preferences deserve to be taken into account.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Puzzling out a problem uses different abilities than does creative invention. A player who wants the fun of puzzling something out will be disappointed if he doesn't get that.

In terms of game play, well, it depends upon whether the player wants to tease out or puzzle out the theme or underlying patterns of the campaign because, well, knowledge is power. If I understand how something works, I am empowered by that understanding. If I understand it and another player does not (or his or her character does not), I have a level of empowerment he/she does not, which I might either use to my advantage (a classical gamist response) or might use through my character's mentoring his/her character (more of a simulationist response) or either (narrativist? I'm unsure).


If a game designer wants to provide players with that network of experiences of discovery, recognition, and empowerment found in puzzle solving and mystery, he or she must create a game system in which there can be a prior pre-existing pattern to be found. Players can not discover a pattern if that pattern is one which they have just spontaneously cast onto the gaming reality.

If the game designer has no interest in providing players with that specific network of experiences, he or she may not need to take prior pre-existing patterns into consideration when creating his or her game system. For example, some players are more interested in a sense of discovery than discovery.

Despite the ability of game masters to use illusion and suspension of disbelief to make a sense of discovery seem the same as discovery, not every player or game master wants such illusionism, so it helps to remember the variety of player interests and desires.


The player who likes to build a character that starts out intermeshed with the campaign continuity is the player who wants to operate from a framework of interaction with continuity. He or she wants the game master or the collective group to pre-construct a continuity or framework within which the player might ground his or her character.

These are the players who ask the game master whether there will be elves in the AD-&-D-ish campaign or to specify how the premise specifically should be inflected through their characters or to describe the operating definition of superheroes for the campaign or to give the names of the established clans to which their characters might be allied. These are the players who love the way Legend of the Five Rings sets up a framing continuity which tells them, before the first jot of character creation, what the clans are and how they interrelate and what opportunities each clan provides -- a framing within which they can construct their characters as integral parts of the continuity within which they will be playing.

The player who likes to build a character but who has very little interest in knowing or fitting into campaign continuity is the player who operates from a framework of independence of continuity. He or she doesn't care what sort of world the game master or the collective group pre-construct so long as it doesn't get in the way of playing his or her character. Anything which gets in the way of his or her character gets in the way of his or her fun, so he or she wants the authority to remove it immediately, within reason.

If said player is dysfunctional, he or she will demand this authority regardless of how such changes ruin the game for other players. If said player is a decent enough person, he or she will negotiate with game master and/or other players when changes involve more than him or her -- but this negotiation is done out of courtesy, not out of any interest in fidelity to or interaction with the continuity!

Characters built by players who prefer to frame their characters independently of any continuity can be moved easily from campaign to campaign with little change if any to the character. Since their characters are truly uninvolved in and uninvested in their continuities, they are truly mobile, which gives them character strength but not story strength.
Characters built by players who prefer to frame their characters interactively within a specific continuity can seldom move those characters into any other campaign without radical change, cutting away connections with the original campaign continuity and creating new ones for the next continuity. Since their characters are truly part of their continuities, they have the power to truly be a part of stories which change those worlds, but they work poorly elsewhere ; they have story strength but not character strength.


Whether or not a player is interested in this might be addressed by way of the terminology of frameworks.

Frameworks refer to a player's desired degree of interaction with and independence from a given campaign's or game's initial continuity.

Apropos this matter, a player's interests for a specific game can be pinpointed on a gamut running from extreme interaction with the continuity to extreme indpendence from it.

In the matter of mythic sensibility as defined in section I, the interests run the gamut from a high level of interaction with the continuity, so that there is a mystical reality there all along to be discovered, to a high level of independence from the continuity, in which there is no grand underlying pattern to find, no fantastical equivalent to Bohm's theory of implicate order. Admittedly, with a high level of independence, the particular discovery of mythic Story becomes impossible, but not everyone is interested in that.

In the matter of the mystery genre, the interests run the gamut from a high level of interaction with the continuity, so that there is a pre-existing puzzle against which players through their characters can test themselves nad solve or fail to solve, to a high level of independence from the continuity, in which there is no puzzle for the players to uncover although players may well enjoy other aspects of the mystery genre or even enjoy creating their own solutions impromptu as the game progresses.

In the matter of characters, the interests run the gamut from a high level of interaction, in which the character is so embedded within the game setting or so inflects the game's premise that the character is useless in any other game but that one, to a high level of independence from the continuity, in which the character can be constructed in almost complete ignorance of the game's setting or premise.

The recognition of Frameworks of Interaction with continuity and Frameworks of Independence from continuity can help us design our games with a greater sense of the variety of player interests and desires.


I will provide you two gaming examples. I recall being in a game in which the players were vampire hunters interested in spell-casting (not a World of Darkness campaign, so there were no libraries of gaming books and supplements for us). One of the players played an atheist who considered vampirism a physical condition ; one played a nontheist metaphysicist who saw vampirism as magical not spiritual ; one played a religious Christian who saw vampirism as a spiritual blight ; another played a religious Christian who saw vampirism as demonic possession of a corpse ; etc. Our characters were reluctantly cooperating, not a team, so there was an element of competitive discovery among characters despite player cooperation. In this game, the key to empowerment over the vampires was the discovery of the metaphysics under which they functioned -- in doing so, recognizing the mythic or metaphysic pattern of the game world. After all, if your character has proof positive that the vampire has met Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ has power specifically as the Messiah etc., you through your character have recognized that this campaign operates under a Christian metaphysics, which will empower your character in a way denied to characters who try to utilize Babylonian metaphysics in this Christian campaign setting.

Later on, we played under a different game master. She loved the basic motif of vampires, but she really had no investment one way or the other in the metaphysics underlying them. If we had decided simply to kill off the vampires with fire and stakes, it wouldn't have mattered. However, after playing under the first game master, we were primed to look for an underlying metaphysical pattern to empower us against those vampires (and in all subsequent magic-working in this campaign). So she admitted to us that she had no idea what the metaphysics was, and whatever metaphysics we could convince her (or the group), that would turn out to be the correct one. Now we went from puzzler mindset to persuader mindset! It was great fun, but it was still a quite different experience from the earlier vampire game, and while the first had rewarded players who were skilled with investigation and logic games, this second one rewarded players who were skilled with argument and persuasion.

I label these differences as frameworks primarily because it seemed the least loaded term I could find (so many good terms already have specific meanings on The Forge!).

The other difference comes from my experiences, and the experiences related to me by others, of character creation.

Sometimes game masters will ask each player to build a character which fits in particularly well with the theme being explored (narrativist) or the setting (simulationist). They want players to make sure their characters are constructed to interact with or inflect those premises or settings.

Sometimes game masters will ask each player to build a character which is not dependent upon any particular setting (this often means we will be playing duck-out-of-water or strangers-in-a-strange-land campaigns) and/or which is not dependent upon any particular theme.

If I want to build a character which fits in particularly well with the theme or setting, I need that theme or setting to already be there. And, like many of Allston's gamer types, I often enjoy building characters who fit in well. I've met many others who feel the same.

If I want to build a character who fits in anywhere, I don't need to know the theme nor setting. This can also be fun, although for me it's not as much fun. In such cases, once the campaign is being played out, I will go out of my way to create relationships between my character and other PCs and NPCs so that I still feel as though my character is connected into this campaign.

I have tried to integrate some of the insights given to me by the discussion in this thread. I hope this is now all clearer!
Doctor Xero - Tue Feb 15, 2005 3:32 pm
Post subject:
clehrich wrote:
The question that arises here is this: if Sim wants the Dream, and wants it intact and complete and lovely, then why are Sim players willing apparently to break from the Dream in order to emphasize seemingly trivial details about the Dream? Practically speaking, wouldn't it be preferable to gloss over the difficulty in order to stick to the Dream, which presumably is what is really wanted anyway?

This entails, assuming we're agreed here that such Sim players are not totally incoherent and insane, that such details cannot be glossed over. There is a quality to them which actively damages the Dream. Therefore if they are allowed to stand, as for example if the GM says, "Yeah, doesn't matter, anyway he blows a hole in the wall, what are you doing?" and the group doesn't agree that this detail doesn't matter, you have damage to the Dream that such players find unacceptable.
If the Dream were seamless, there would never be any need to break from Situation-Focused play, because the answer to every potential question of fact, however picayune, would already be known to all the players as it is in fact known to the characters. In such an extreme ideal, there would also be a near-total adequation of player to character, which would probably manifest as extreme Turku-style immersion.

The trick is, such perfection (which is unrealizable) has a number of different factors. Any game group must decide, usually largely unconsciously, which factors to prioritize. Some groups prioritize immersion, and gloss over slippage elsewhere in order to maintain this. A group like that Ron describes does not do this; they prioritize the depth and facticity of the Dream. Thus when a slippage occurs in facticity, it requires external handling. Similarly, an immersion-oriented group would presumably consider techniques to assist immersion when it fails, such as enforcing a rule that players must speak in-character and so on.
I'm pretty sure that this is part of what Dr. Xero describes in his games: the aesthetic of the game is that the players do not construct the Dream, but discover a story or pattern or whatever within it, already present and waiting for them.

Now because we have accepted this in advance (which you notice is not typical of Nar or Gam aesthetics), any construction is undesirable. When we do what appears by other criteria to be construction, we read it differently: we read it as discovering what was already true. For example, we the players may not know whether phazer-fire induces current sufficient to wipe a memory disk, but the world already does know this. It's built-in, a fact of nature. When we debate the point, we're not inventing something new but figuring out how it always already worked. The players did not know the answer, but it was already determined.
Provided, then, that your dominant aesthetic agenda is to reinforce the Dream, which more properly would be to bolster the claim that the Dream was and is and always will be seamless and complete, the handling of fine detail not only isn't CA-irrelevant but is in fact powerfully constitutive of CA.
All of which also goes some way toward explaining why Sim often seems incoherent and weird to non-Sim-committed players. It seems as though Sim players keep stepping outside of exactly what they think they want, i.e. the Dream, in order to focus on detail that really doesn't matter very much. Furthermore, they keep doing this even when there does not seem to be a very strong reason to do so, i.e. when the details seem trivial. My proposal here implies that such players may be doing this because they want CA-meaningful activity, which is difficult to effect without an apparent break from the Dream. From their point of view, such activity is not a break from the Dream, only a break from the ideal perfection of interaction with the Dream, which isn't the same thing. By reinforcing the Dream by these means, they help constitute for themselves the certainty and perfection of that Dream.

This is one of the most accurate descriptions of Sim play I have have encountered anywhere!

There is only one thing you miss:
simulationism includes the possibility of construction within it.
However, the tools, resources, and raw materials must all be found within the Dream. In other words, simulationist creation is like formal haiku -- the formal haiku pattern pre-exists the poet, but the poem he or she creates is still original even though it utilizes a pre-existing pattern.

A haiku poet can not write within the haiku tradition if there is no haiku tradition which pre-dates him or her, and a simulationist player can not construct within the simulation if there is no Dream which "pre-dates" him or her.

So simulationist construction and creation takes place with a greater consciousness of being within rather than outside the Dream or shared simulationist imaginary space.

And yes, you understand the point I have been trying to make with my terms Framework of Interaction and Frameworks of Independence -- and its relevance to understanding simulationism. Thank you for wording it so well!

Doctor Xero
(cross-posted with
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