From "The Hidden Art: Slouching Toward a Critical Framework for RPGs", by Robin D. Laws, in Interactive Fantasy #1 (Inter*Action).
Role-playing games have existed for many years as an art form without a body of criticism. Reviews of RPGs have been common for nearly as long as the games themselves. Criticism, however, remains an unploughed field.
RPG Theory has moved forward on many fronts since 1995, when Robin Laws put forward this call. But where, and by whom? And most importantly, how can we find archives, glossaries and records of past work? I offer this summary of some theory discussions and communities*, as a point of reference for research and discussion. And links to timelines or overviews, such as Brian Gleichman's "Timeline of RPG Theory" or Lowell Francis’ Age of Ravens rpg history lists. At a later date, I'll do a separate post, with a reading list of notable books and key articles on contemporary game analysis. And links to others' recommended reading lists. No one view can see it all.
Early Days of Paper and Page
Back in the dark ages, the conversations began in print. RPG magazines provided new game from materials, hacks and tips on running and playing the games. Letters pages and columns formed opinion and hosted raging controversies. Paul Mason, in "In Search of the Self: A Survey of the First 25 Years of Anglo-American Role-Playing Game Theory" (in Beyond Role and Play), charts the progression of ideas regarding rpgs developing at this time.
Four long-running magazines of note are Lee Gold's Alarums & Excursions, TSR's Dragon magazine, Games Workshop's White Dwarf, Steve Jackson Games' Pyramid magazine. The first three began between 1975 and 1977, at the very inception of the hobby as we know it. DragonDex, an online searchable archive provides listings of Dragon issues. White Dwarf was switched to a weekly digital format in 2014, with the monthly slot being taken by Warhammer Visions. RPG.Net hosts a searchable online index of White Dwarf and Dragon, as well as Dragon's sister magazine Dungeon. Alarums and Excursions deserves special note as an amateur press association (or compilation fanzine), rather than a game company publication, as well as for embracing the idea of rpgs as art. Lee Gold talks about the publishing the magazine in this Grognardia interview with her from 2009.
Pyramid began in 1993, during a later wave, and continues on today. Pyramid back issues are available (Tables of Contents listed online and sortable by theme). Many shorter-lived but influential magazines made their mark, such as James Wallis and Andrew Rilstone's Inter*Action: The Journal of Role Playing and Storytelling Systems (later changed to Interactive Fantasy recently made available by James Wallis again Issues one, two, three and four) hosted such articles as Robin Laws' "The Hidden Art" and Phil Masters' "On the Vocabulary of Role Playing: Notes Towards Critical Consistency?"; and Aslan, a publication by Rilstone in the 1980s. Aslan emphasized theory and is said to have helped popularize UK Freeform rpgs, spearheaded by Rilstone.
Invaluable histories of the early (and contemporary) decades of rpg play and discussion are Jon Peterson's Playing at the World and Shannon Appelcline's series of volumes Designers & Dragons, soon to be re-printed by Evil Hat Productions. The Old School Renaissance design movement (exemplified by the 2010 Dragons at Dawn re-creation of rules used by Dave Arneson that preceded the original Dungeons & Dragons and by OSRIC™ a 2011 system used to create contemporary game materials compatible with Advanced D&D™, and broadly documented at the RPG.Net OSR wiki and Rob Conley's Bat in the Attic's list of OSR Sites) recalls the aesthetics of the earliest days of gaming. Recent magazines presenting new games and taking up the mantle are The Escapist (online magazine covering video games, technology and fandom as well) and Gygax magazine, brought to us by sons of Gary Gygax who continue on the legacy of this founder of the hobby.
The Information Quiet Country Road
In 1992, the Usenet group rec.games.frp.advocacy (accessed at the time with glacial alacrity by dial-up modems) started as a space to advocate for games people loved, but developed into a conversation about how games worked. Participants by far and large wrote from the perspective of running and playing games, with some designers participating. Notable theory concepts and shared understandings about terminology that came from this include the concept of the Group Contract (spoken or unspoken agreements that players and the GM operate under while playing an rpg), Metagame (dealing with player, rather than character, concerns) and I'm not sure if they coined the term, but they had early discussions of Immersion (defined there as cutting out all metagame information possible during play and "immersing" in the character).
From the Rec.games.frp.advocacy FAQ:
"GROUP CONTRACT": The set of conventions the players and GM agree on:including rule system, but also issues like "The GM will fudge things so PCs won't die pointless deaths", or "Pulp genre conventions take precedence over common sense", or even "Don't let the cat in while we play: she bites legs."
These were not the only conversations going on about gaming at the time. For example, a systemless design movement emerged in Australia and New Zealand, some of which focused on atmospheric play and looking at the player emotional response to play as an important part of design. In the late 90s/early aughts I became aware of this movement as the former "New Wave", possibly with parallels being drawn to the larger Australian New Wave movement in film and art (which brought us The Road Warrior et al.), but I can find no references to it in those terms today. "New Directions in Australian Role Playing" by John Hughes, from 1991, preserves the history of this movement and provides an overview of techniques and approaches used, in "Systemless Game Design: Design and Presentation" by Hughes. These techniques pre-figure later developments in freeform and rules-lite design in Sweden, Denmark the US, Canada and elsewhere.
Online Sources: Late 90s, early Aughts
The legacy of rpg periodicals continued online in the late 90s. Places to Go, People to Be, published online from 1998 through 2008 hosted discussions of theory, play and an extended History of Roleplaying in 10 parts. The full decade of PtG,PtB is available online indexed by issue and thematically. Online venues such as Ogre Cave and Treasure Tables hosted news, reviews and interviews and the applied science of GMing well. A searchable archive of Treasure Tables at Gnome Stew provide access to this accumulated wisdom, and many more blogs offer insights into technique for running a good game. While forums and resource aggregators such as ENworld and RPGGeek provide information on games, discussion and breaking news. RPGGeek includes extensive indexes of rpg related periodicals, drilling down to issues (with table of contents listed) and by individual article. Over 77,000 articles have been listed this way, through the efforts of RPGGeek board users.
John Kim's RPG Theory site is a perennial reference point: along with his documentation of the Advocacy discussions, during the 2000s he compiled a list of role playing games, sorted by year and company. Also, free rpgs, many of which links are history, sadly--though that reinforces the importance of this list to record that they ever existed. Kim amassed a list of Notable Women RPG Authors and curates collections of reviews, convention reports and copyright information on his site. Of particular note is the RPG Theory page with a tremendous number of links to articles and discussion of games and how they work, as well as Kim's own overview: "What is an RPG?", which lists other such pages, like Emily Short's overview of Interactive Fiction, and Epidiah Ravachol's game called "What is a Role Playing Game?"
Kim summarized an influential part of Advocacy rpg theory called the Threefold Model (a viewpoint that there are three main rpg play styles--Gamism, Dramatism and Simulationism--formulated by Mary Kuhner) and published it in another bastion of rpg theory: the Knutepunkt (translated as "meeting point" or "nodal point") Conference books.
Knutepunkt, begun in 1997 in Oslo, Norway, and since held annualy, rotates among four Nordic European countries: Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway--this conference began with a focus on Nordic Larp, particularly experimental or "art larp" forms, but has broadened to include discussion of and participants from other larp, tabletop and freeform traditions from the Nordic countries, elsewhere in Europe and world-wide. Essential readings are collected in the recent Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, reproducing key works identified by Eleanor Saitta at the Nordic Larp Discourse site (which also includes related video presentations). The Nordic Larp book published in 2011 provides descriptions, essays and photo-documentation for 30 representative games. Theoretical terms coming from these intertwined traditions include Transparency (having all in-game and system information available to all participants), 360º Illusion (fully realized props, costumes and settings for live play, simulating as close to possible the in-game world for the players) and Bleed (players experiencing emotions based on their experiences in-character, or informing character play based on player mental state).
From the Nordic Larp Wiki:
The 360º illusion is a design ideal where the aim is to make the physical immersive experience as complete as possible, i.e. 360 degrees around you. In its most basic form this means that everything you can see is ingame, but can reach much farther than that; also meaning that every interaction must be as real as possible and that anything that can be made to function for real should be done, instead of using symbolics.
Other collections of games and discussion from the Nordic Larp, as well as the Nordic Freeform (a related, but differentiated form of mostly-live rpg play) offshoot are Norwegian Style, Vi åker jeep, the Larpwriter summer school with its Mixing Desk of Larp, and the Nordic Larp Wiki. Techniques used in Jeepform play are listed in the Jeepform Dictionary and Play with Intent includes techniques inspired by Jeepform as well as larp, tabletop, drama therapy and improv theatre. The history of the Danish scenario tradition is recorded in "The best one-shots in the world" by Kristoffer Apollo, and their role playing boarding school is called Østerkov Efterskole, located in Hobro, Denmark. And influences of Nordic Freeform on some North American designers are discussed in Lizzie Stark's "Introducing American Freeform" article which is part of a larger US, Canadian and beyond Structured Freeform movement.
For some firey reading and a snapshot of early controversies and issues in Nordic rpg theory, look at the various manifestos from the turn of the 20th century: The Manifesto of the Turku School, Dogma 99, and the Meihlahti School. Also the non-manifesto, Jeep Truths, from 2005. But don't stop there, a lot of ground has been covered since.
Connections and Corrections
Tracing back the history of these theory communities, it's easier to see how interconnected and co-influential each is on the others. Rgfa.Advocacy writers contributed to the Knutpunkt books. The larp theory of the Nordic countries influenced thinkers who came from Advocacy. And another large part of the conversation spun off from Advocacy, and later became a central arena for discussion about tabletop game design and independent publishing: the Forge forums. In his "Evolution of the Threefold Model", and more recently in "Revisiting the Threefold Model" (in Wyrdcon Companion 2012), Kim documents the path of this discussion.
From "The Evolution of the Threefold Model" by John H. Kim
Ron Edwards and Ed Healy created the original site for "Hephaestus' Forge" in 1999 as a site devoted to independent role-playing publishing. However, Gaming Outpost and the Sorcerer mailing list remained the forums for discussion. In early 2001, Clinton R. Nixon and Ron redesigned the site as "The Forge", including a set of web-based discussion boards.
In "Key Concepts of Forge Theory" published in Playground Worlds, please note that I mis-attribute the founding of these two forms of the Forge: Ron Edwards worked with Ed Healy to create Haephestus' Forge in 1999, and then with Clinton R. Nixon to make the Forge into the form it continued on in through 2012. This information is included in a footnote on page 1, but the first paragraph of the article is misleading.
RPG theory found a home at the Forge. Conversation here focused on analysis of tabletop rpgs, aimed at supporting their independent publication by designers. In 1998, Ron Edwards wrote the essay "The Nuked Apple Cart" which critiqued past models of rpg publishing and called for designers to go independent. At this time, print on demand and websites made it possible for designers to market their games directly with low overhead and reduced risks. Technological innovations such as hand-held touch screen devices, and market tools such as Paypal, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Square, Google+ and various social media make this more approachable as time goes on.
Another essay by Edwards, "System Does Matter", was fundamental to design and game analysis discussion at the Forge.
From "System Does Matter" by Ron Edwards, 1999.
"Oh, okay," one might then say. "But it's still just a matter of opinion what games are good. No one can say for sure which RPG is better than another, that's just a matter of taste." Again, I flatly, entirely disagree.
Some definitions would be good. First, I'm talking about traditional roleplaying games, in which the GM is a human, and the players are physically present with one another during play. Second, by "system" I mean a method to resolve what happens during play. It has to "work" in two ways: in terms of real people playing the game and of the characters experiencing fictional events.
In this essay, Edwards spells out what would be come to be known as three different Creative Agendas for play, which he elaborated on later in "GNS and Other Matters of Role Playing Theory". GNS (Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism), are distinct concepts from the Gamism, Dramatism and Simulationism of Advocacy's Threefold Way, despite two of the names remaining the same. GNS itself changed over time (as documented by Kim's "Evolution" article, and came to be replaced by the Big Model. A market segmentation study commissioned in 1999 by Wizards of the Coast (publisher of Dungeons & Dragons at that time), is cited to refute the ideas of both GDS and GNS. Despite similarity, GDS is reported to have developed unrelated to Glenn Bacow's 1980 article "Aspects of Adventure Gaming" on four elements of play he saw in adventure games of that day: "Roleplaying", "Storytelling", "Powergaming", and "Wargaming". Other typologies include the Rec.games.frp.advocacy Threefold Model and Bartle's Taxonomy of Player Type ("Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs," 1996). Bacow's article was a source for Robin Laws' Player Types. GNS was discussed on the Forge in parallel with the publication of Robin Laws' in Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering published by Steve Jackson Games in 2001, where Laws outlines the types.
The central tenet of Edward's essay that "system matters" spurred on discussion at the Forge about how rules and mechanics of rpgs guide the interactions of players, and generate a shared fictional set of events. Some concepts worked out here include Scene Framing (formally beginning and ending an interval of play, determining cast present, location, inciting events, etc.) Task Resolution vs Conflict Resolution systems (mechanics that focus on determining success or failure at a given action vs. resolution systems that elicit varying potential fictional outcomes on a larger scale and adjudicate which one is agreed to happen), Stakes (first thought of in terms of winning the game, later refers to vying over fictional outcomes), Currency (quantified interactions between various mechanics), and IIEE (Intent-Initiation-Execution-Effect: stages of the process of resolving contested fictional events into the flow of the story; player stating and clarifying intent for character actions, decision is made about action and mechanics or procedure of resultion come into play, the resolution process occurs and the actions are said to take effect, the consequences of the fictional actions are determined either through discussion, narration or further mechanics). Essays by Edwards are hosted at the Forge Articles page, as well as pieces by Emily Dresner-Thornber, M.J. Young and the late, lamented Erick Wujcik.
The Forge RPG Theory and GNS Model Discussions forums were closed in December 2005. Older discussion was moved to the Forge Forums Archive in 2010 and forums were shut down in 2012. During it's run, there was substantial backlash to and critique of Forge theory, summarized by Brian Gleichman in his "Why RPG Theory has a Bad Rap" five part series. Jargon and elitist feel of the conversation caused many potential readers to move on, as discussed in this UK Roleplayers' forum "Where were you during the Forge?" However, discussion and elaboration by participants and other engage parties continued on sites such as Vincent Baker's anyway. and Moyra Turkington's Sin Aesthetics. Brian Hollenback published "The AGE (Art, Game, Emulation) Model of Game Play and Design". Mendel Schmiedekamp published weekly and annual abstracts of rpg theory discussion at RPG Theory Review. Essays were published by Jonathan Walton in Push: Bleeding Play. Overviews of the Forge body of theory were collated by Chris Chinn ("Theory: The Big Model") Ben Lehman (Ben Lehman's "Introduction to Forge Theory"), M.J. Young at Places to Go, People to Be (Theory 101-Part 1: System and Shared Imagined Space, Part 2: The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast and Part 3: Creative Agenda), and my article "Key Concepts in Forge Theory" which is available in the Solmukohta book Playground Worlds. Doyce Testerman's RandomWiki RPG Theory Glossary (with many entries provided by John H. Kim) and the Forge Provisional Glossary.
Some game companies whose designers participated in the Forge forums or booth at GenCon include: Night Sky Games, Stone Baby Games, Peach Pants Press, Willow Palecek, Cream Alien Games, Black & Green Games, Adept Press, CRN Games, Incarnadine Press, Burning Wheel, Memento Mori, Contested Ground Studios, One Seven Design Studio, Arkenstone Press, Box Ninja, Half Meme Press, the glyphpress, Evil Hat Productions, NDP Design, Muse of Fire Games, Robert Bohl, Kevin Allen Jr., Lumpley Games, Dog-Eared Designs, Bully Pulpit Games and many others. I was a participant on the Forge beginning in 2001.
Over the years, there was overlap of discussion and participants with the ongoing forum, RPG.Net, a discussion site with game reviews and columns. And many people who took part in the Forge joined the Story Games forum, founded by Andy Kitkowski. Story Games was in part inspired by the annual Forge Birthday Party forum, which was oriented toward fun and unstructured general discussion. Differentiation is still needed even years later, as reflected by threads like "Story Games has never been, is not currently, and will never be The Forge". Discussion of enjoyment of rpgs continues to go beyond any 3 or four pursuits, as exemplified by Levi Kornelsen's Manyfold Glossary.
Academic Pursuit of the Hidden Art
Since 1995, rpg theory has graduated from non-existence to being varied and sundry. With the rise of seeing games as tools for change, as in Jane McGonigal's work, to viewing them as powerful psychological mechanisms ripe for corporate and institutional application (i.e. Gamification) and funding for craft and analysis of that billion dollar industry offshoot of rpgs: the video game. In addition, RPG Theory has been forwarded by the general study of games as in Zimmerman and Salen's Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals or Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin's Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, and academic cross-disciplinary studies, such as Gary Alan Fines' 1983 ethnography, Shared Fantasy. A longer reading list will be the topic of a future post here. Events such as Maelstrom and AlterConf are created to shift social imbalances in the field. And forums such as GameDev.net bring together practitioners and players of tabletop board and role play games, live action role playing games, alternate reality, augmented reality and transmedia.
However, venues that focus primarily on analog rpgs in the minority. But it has found a home in certain journals and proceedings papers. The International Journal of Role Playing Games was founded in 2008 and offers rigorously peer-reviewed articles. And the recently formed Analog Game Studies aims at promoting academic and popular study of games. Two role playing game conventions publish proceedings annually: the Knutpunkt books which were already mentioned, as well as the WyrdCon Companion Books. These provide discussion of play and design as well as providing a record of game communities, such as "Over Time: Intercon and the evolution of theatre-style larp in the Northeast" by Nat Budin, in the 2012 WyrdCon companion book. Also, don't miss Nat Budin's description of Alleged Entertainment's "Styles of larp".
A multitude of blogs and feeds now host these conversations, as shown by the list on the site RPG Blogroll. A proliferation of discussion on podcasts have arisen, many listed at RPG Podcasts. Some forums still prosper, such as RPG.Net, Story Games, ENworld and others. Individual blogs such are too numerous and ephemeral to list here. Twitter, Google+ and Facebook connect and create communities, as did Livejournal before, and many social media to come. The field of theory continues to be ploughed, and we'll see what new crops the season brings.
*Please contact me with corrections or additional sources for information about these and other concurrent discussions of rpg theory at email@example.com. I look forward to expanding these references over time.
[last substantively edited 14 October 2014, link added 7 December 2018]