Ben Lehman's Introduction to Forge Theory

NOTE: The following is an archive of a series blog posts by Ben Lehman done as an introduction to Forge theory in September and October of 2005.

Introduction to Forge Theory #1

Players at a table

When looking at the theory that comes out of the Forge, there is one basic assumption that, while not unspoken, may not really be spoken loudly enough. The only consideration of Forge theory is the real people participating the play of a role-playing game.

Anything else -- character motivation, genre concerns, setting material, rules, game text, whether elfin ears are 2" or 3" long, whether or not they are playing a role-playing game at all -- is considered solely in terms of the effect that it has on these people, their experience of play, and their relationships to each other and their own creative output.

This isn't just the base of the theory. This is the entire theory. We are going to talk about nothing that isn't the players of the game. Keep that in mind as I talk, and feel free to bludgeon me with it later.

That was unexpectedly short. Next chapter may be longer.

(There are rumblings about this social context business, but we can safely leave that aside as a concern for designers, which means it is for later.)

Introduction to Forge Theory #2

Good Rules, Bad Rules; Foreshadowing "A culture of designers"

I assume everyone reading this has played, sometime in the past, a table-top RPG. In fact, my basic assumption is that everyone reading this is, in fact, a table-top RPG hobbyist of some form or another. If you aren't, this is about to seem really strange.

In my lecture tour around Finland, I asked the following questions, and asked for a show of hands in response:

  1. Who here has ever played a table-top role-playing game?
  2. Who here has ever GMed a table-top role-playing game?
  3. Who here has ever, during the course of play, changed a rule, ignored a rule, or added a rule to their game?
  4. Who here has ever attempted to design their own role-playing game, regardless of how far along you got in the process?

I am hands up for all four, but you all already knew that. The shocking thing is that everyone but everyone is hands up for #1 and #3. Everyone. Only exceptions were people who'd never played RPGs before, or people who'd only played one session or so.

Now, this is a pretty limited sample. It is about 100 Finns who chose to came to an RPG Theory lecture. We can imagine that it represents the hard-core of the Finnish hobbyists. But, I imagine a survey of the American hobbyists would result in the same thing, and I imagine that most of you reading this are nodding your heads.

We, as RPG players, ignore our rules.

Guys, this is wierd. Most people, well, play games more or less by the rules. If I'm playing Chess with you, I don't suddenly say "Hey, I think it would be really cool if my pawn moved three spaces this turn, like a knight, but without the jumping. How about it?" If I said something like that, you'd be well within your rights to sock me one, or at least refuse to keep playing the game. It is inappropriate and rude.

Even when we play games that are commonly houseruled, like Monopoly, the rules are traditionally passed down and certainly are not changed during play to make the game "more fun."

But, when we play RPGs, we think nothing of changing or ignoring the rules for no other reason than whim or the opinions of one empowered player.

I have a hunch about this. I have a hunch that the reason why we do this is because, frankly, if we didn't our games wouldn't be very satisfying. I mean, right? We change the rules so that we can get more satisfaction from playing our games. Or, more often, we change the rules so that we can get *any* satisfaction from playing our games.

Most RPG rules are, simply, bad rules.

Now, before you take me to task for just bashing, I have a very specific definition of what I mean when I say "bad rules" and also when I say "good rules." It is thus:

You can see that "good rule" and "bad rule" are quite subjective based on your play group and your own play styles. But, I think it is pretty safe to say that there are rules, in fact there are quite a lot of rules, that are bad rules for pretty much anyone. Further, we can imagine that there are some groups of rules which will "be good" together -- if we want a particular type of satisfaction from our game, a certain set of rules will work better than other rules.

Now, you're a role-playing gamer, and you've grown up as a game designer yourself, modifying the bad rules in your books into good rules for your own play. In fact, if you're anything like me, you've probably become pretty distrustful of rules in general. You're probably going "Ben, come on, good rules? Rules just get in the way of role-playing."

To which I say -- "Do the rules of poker 'just get in the way' of gambling? Do the rules of chess 'just get in the way' of strategy?"

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we talk too much more about good rules and bad rules, we need to talk about what rules are.

And for that, gentle readers, you will have to wait for the next section.

Introduction to Forge Theory #3

Rules and what they are

The absolute basis of discussing role-playing game design and role-playing game theory is the rule. And so, to continue our discussion any further, I'm going to have to give you a definition of what a rule is. So, without further ado:

A rule is a method through which we effect our play

Which, if you consider "system" to be the sum of all "rules," you can see is pretty much identical to the more canonical statement:

The system is the means by which the players manipulate the shared imagined space

Which goes by the name "the lumpley Principle" in Forge terminology, 'cause it is due to Vincent Baker who, for odd historical reasons that I am sworn to secrecy about, has the screen name "lumpley."

(This is how we name things at the Forge. All I can say in our defense is that it is just as good as the system which has given modern Chemistry such elements as "Berkelium.")

Except that my definition includes the whole of our play, rather than simply the shared imagined space. We'll get into that more in the next section.

For now, I want to talk about the absolutely large breadth of what I mean by "rule" here. For one, it encompasses all things which you normally think about as game rules, things like:

But it also includes things like:

With this in mind, we can see something very clearly -- in terms of this definition of rules, there is no such thing as "rule-less" play or even, really, "rules-light" play. Any event in the game occurs because of one or more rules. "Systemless" or "freeform" play is simply play in which the rules are less obvious, less mechanical, more social, or something else. With this in mind, we can see that "systemless" is, in fact, a rather broad swath of play with lots of diverse and interesting types of systems (remember: System = sum of all rules). The really cool thing is we can realize that, since these are rules, we can write them down and share them with others.

The common practice is, as designers, to skip writing down most of our processes of play in favor of writing down some task resolution, character creation, and advancement rules that may or may not reflect the actual rules we play with, and certainly not the whole of the rules that we play with.

From a theoretical and design standpoint, this is really exciting. From a play standpoint, it is even moreso. We don't have to rely on people who hold the same sort of unspoken social rules that we do: "good players" and the even rarer "good GM." Rather, we can start to talk openly about what rules we use that result in satisfying play, and even teach them to others.

Anyway, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself again. Let's talk next about what rules do during play.

P.S. Whether or not things like the below count as rules is a matter of some debate:

As for myself, here's what I think currently: These are not game rules as such, although some of them may be social rules. The important thing is that, while these things certainly can and will affect play, we can't really use them actively to effect our play in the same way -- they color our interactions, but they don't really produce play on their own.

Introduction to Forge Theory #4

Rules and what they do

Okay, so. So far we've established a little bit about the goals of the essay, plus a definition of good and bad rules, and also a definition of what rules (and system) are. Now, finally, we're set up to talk about what rules do, by which I mean how we use them to effect our play.

(This whole thing is cribbed, pretty much direct, from Vincent Baker's essay over here. Frankly, you'd probably be better of just reading him. I even stole his little diagram.)

What the rules do, during play, is that the coordinate interaction of three different things: the fiction (also called the shared imagined space or SIS), which is the totality of what we are imagining; the cues, which are all the non-human, non-thinking things in the real world that we use to inform our play -- dice, cards, chips, setting material, character sheets, knowledge of physics, whatever; and (most importantly), the players, which is just us sitting around a table, or on couches, or whatever.

Fiction Us Cues

So let's say that I say "my character walks into the room." What happens is that I, the person, say that, and we all imagine my character walking into the room. There has been a link between us, the players, and the fiction of play. A rule was used to link these two things -- this rule, in particular, is probably something like "Ben gets to say what his character does."

That process looks like this.

Fiction <------> Us Cues

Okay, that was pretty simple. Let's look at another simple rule. Let's say that I roll a die, it shows an unsatisfactory resolut, and then I say "I'm spending a hero point" and I roll again, probably tossing some chip away or writing something down on my character sheet. What has just happened here? Well, there was a connection between me, the player, and the cues (in this case, a die and a hero point.) The rule that coordinated this interaction might look something like this: "You can spend a hero point to reroll a die." Note that, during the entire interaction, we didn't effect the fiction at all -- I didn't even tell you why I was rolling the die!

That rule looks like this

Fiction Us <------> Cues

(Aside: There are lots of totally awesome games -- Chess and Go come to mind -- which consist entirely of this type of rule. Role-playing games, of course, have some sort of fiction by definition, I'd just like to note that not every game does.)

Now, let's look at a different rules interaction. The GM says "The orc hits you! Take 5 damage." I say "Oh no, my character is at 0 hit points, so my character falls over."

The first statement, ruleswise, looks like this

Fiction <--------> Us Cues

In other words, the GM makes a statement about the fiction, the fiction then changes the cues.

And the second statement looks like this.

Fiction Us Cues

And, when it comes my turn again, I can't act 'cause my guy's knocked over.

Fiction --------> Us Cues

Now, do you notice that when the fiction affects the cues via a rule, or when the cues affect the fiction via a rule, I draw the arrow so that it runs right by "us?" That isn't an accident. Simply put, the players of the game have to put the rule into effect for it to have any affect at all. For instance, in the prior example, it requires me subtracting the hit points, realizing that I was at zero, and invoking the falling over rule.

So we have these six arrows

Fiction <------> Us <------> Cues

and we're saying that all rules can be classified into a combination of these arrows. Essentially, we can picture the rules as arrows in the diagram, moving information between us, our fiction, and our cues. At least, that's how I like to see it.

And that, in short, is the lumpley principle in its extended form. Congratulations! This is the half-way point of the theory -- there are two major pieces of theory that I'm introducing in this essay and we've completed one of them.

Now is when I ask -- does this make sense to everyone? And, usually, I take some questions in the terms of a lecture. One of the fortunate accidents of blog format is that I can do the same thing here. So -- any questions? Does this make sense?

Stay tuned for the next part, when we're going to delve into the Big Model, a somewhat more complex way of looking at the process of play.

Introduction to Forge Theory #5

The Big Model (the way I draw it)

This part of the theory is due largely to Ron Edwards, but understand that it is also a summary of, at the time, 3 years of heavy theory work by dozens of committed theorist / designers, and so there are definitely other folks involved.

Around the Forge, this goes by the name "Big Model," partially because Ron does not look kindly on people who call it "Ron's Model." Personally, at this point, I would call it the "Medium Model," because it is far larger in scope than most of the theorizing about role-playing games, but smaller than some things that we've been thinking about recently.

The basic goal of the big model is to look at the core processes of role-playing, rather similarly to how we looked at the process of rules, and from those core processes of role-playing look at what sorts of pre-conditions produce satisfying play and what sort of pre-conditions produce unsatisfying play -- something of pretty obvious practical value as well as theoretical concern.

To do this, we're going to make a structure to describe the process of role-playing. There are two ways that this structure is drawn -- one is the way that I draw it and one is the way that everyone else, including Ron, draws it. Since I understand my own construction better, I'm going to start with that.

(Note that these two constructions are not substantially different in terms of content. The difference between them is pretty much just one of presentation. So keep that in mind and don't see this as a big theoretical divide.)

To talk about all play, ever, I'm going to discuss two different axes with three component's each. The first axis looks like this:

The second axis looks like this:

So, what we're really going to talk about, though, is the intersections of these two axes. Let's draw a picture.

Now that we've gotten that down in front of us, let's examine each intersection, in turn, and talk about what those mean.

Okay, now we've laid out all of the elements of the model, how does the whole thing fit together? What does play itself actually look like, in terms of these pieces?

Let me first describe fulfilling, functional play.

We start with the designer, who could very well be the GM. He has a well-chosen set of Technical Agendas, which have been chosen with a particular Creative Agenda in mind. Those Technical Agendas are used to generate a set of Techniques -- the rules for this game. By following the rules, we generate a lot of Ephemera, the sum of which will give us our Exploration, and also (taken together with non-rules based social interactions) our Social Contract. But let's just look at the Exploration right now. Provided we are talking about functional play, our Exploration gives us what we're looking for -- it fulfills our Creative Agenda. And, since our Social Agenda was to be satisfied by our play, and we have totally fulfilled it. Provided that our Social Contract (which is made up of rules-based and non-rules based Ephemera) is also functional and healthy -- we've fulfilled our Social Agenda, which means that we're totally happy with our experience of the game! Yay!

Now, there are any number of ways that this could go wrong. Let's look at a brief number.

Next -- either one of the three appendices to this chapter or moving on to a theory wrap-up.