Interview with Robin D. Laws

An Interview with Robin D. Laws; Writer, Editor and Role Playing Game Designer.

Robin, your work on games and fiction spans decades and genres –Talislanta, Star Trek, Earth Dawn, Warhammer, as well as your own systems Rune, The Dying Earth, Over the Edge, Feng Shui, the Gumshoe System, the DramaSystem and more. Your career with role playing games is among the most distinguished in an industry that has seen many changes. What advice might you have for designers and writers today to find good partner companies, and to become successfully established?

R: There's a paradox inherent in asking people who've been successful for a while about their career paths. In any creative field the trick is to spot a you-sized hole and then fill it before someone else does. That spot isn’t there anymore because the person you want to emulate has already filled it. Also, things have changed enormously since I started in the early 90s.

That said, what I would advise is to get involved in online communities and hopefully finally in face-to-face interaction with the games and companies that excite you. Making sure that you work with good partner companies is a matter of doing a little bit of behind the scenes sleuthing to discover stuff like how far behind a company is in its production schedule, whether they pay freelancers on time, how pleasant they are to work with, and so forth. There's really no substitute for going to Gen Con and leveraging the profile that you built with your online activities to earn face time.  If I already kind of know you from the cool stuff you’ve written about my games, you’re going to make a bigger impression on me than if you’re approaching me cold and I can’t tell how much you know about the lines I work on.

Of course, face to face contact gives the people you’re meeting the opportunity to evaluate you, as well, so you have to make sure that you present yourself as together and personable and fun to be around.

When you do get work, be on time, hit the specs you’re given, and require as little prose editing as possible. Having great ideas is important too but the power of reliably delivering quality work on time can’t be underestimated.

I’ve been enjoying listening to your podcast with the excellent Kenneth Hite: Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff. You often discuss film and fiction as well as games. Your notes from film festivals are particularly fun to listen to! Narrative structure seems central to your approach to game design, as shown by Hamlet’s Hit Points and the DramaSystem. What led to this, and how has it shaped your designs over the years?

R:  I thought of myself as a writer from a very young age, but never considered gaming as an outlet for my work until fairly late, when I kind of fell into it backwards. Originally I thought that I was going to be a playwright. Although I've always been analytical about story my sensibility is as much a literary or art-house perspective as it is rooted in geek culture. When I first started out it seemed liked there was a big unexplored territory in looking at the way narrative is constructed in other forms and applying those techniques to role-playing games. That's why for example Feng Shui is an emulative, not simulative, game. It's more interested in modeling the way action movies present themselves than in caring about the real world effects of things like gun calibers or body armor. In hindsight emulation seems like a pretty obvious approach but at the time it was very much running against the tide of the simulative of wave of games that preceded it. The interest in Hong Kong movies in particular came out of my festival going because the Toronto film festival (then called the Festival of Festivals) was one of the first to highlight those movies for a western audience. So, just ahead of the curve, I got to see something that I knew would become a geek favorite genre before it hit, a result of the cross-pollination of high and pop culture. 

Throughout your career, you’ve also examined how role playing games work. Back in 1994, your essay “The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs,” was a call to arms for players, designers and GMs to look critically at rpgs as a new artform. In the 21 years since then a lot of pixels have been burned talking about rpgs. You've made influential contributions, such as Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering and the insights in Hamlet's Hitpoints. What concepts and ideas of others do you find have contributed to play and design?

R:  Criticism by gamers can fall into the trap of not being descriptive but rather proscriptive. A lot of critiques really operate as disguised manifestos for the writer’s preferred play style or design focus. The things I most value work to find a vocabulary to refine and spread practical play techniques in a way that makes game sessions better. So for example whoever* nailed down the concept of failing forward in its RPG sense deserves a huge amount of gratitude on the part of gamerdom. [NB: Here is a nice summary of Failing Forward.] But I have to admit that I don't spend a ton of time following role-playing criticism. This is a comment not on its importance but on the ever-escalating time demands facing a full-time freelance creator in today’s incessantly connected environment.

*R: The Twitter hivemind can’t quite agree and I am loath to misattribute.

In your 1994 essay, you made some predictions that have come true: Jungian game analysis is actually being done by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Whitney Beltrán; the issue of how game mechanics affect the narrative in a game has been a well-traveled path in indie game design; and the ghost of Goethe’s three questions for the art critic (What is the artist trying to do? How well is it done? Was it worth doing?) haunts Jared Sorenson, Luke Crane and John Wick’s Big Three (or four) Questions about game design: (What is your game about? How is your game about that? What behavior does your game encourage or reward? and How do you make this fun?). Are there other elements of “The Hidden Art” that you’d like to see followed up, or new directions you think we could go today?

R:  In the early days of any new form or movement the artists and the critics are often the same people. This is because if you're doing something new the people making the new thing are the only ones qualified to form a vocabulary around it. For example when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their circle were creating bebop they had to come up with a new iteration of jazz talk in order to discuss it with each other. In a mature field you need and want a distance between the practitioner and the critic. We're starting to see that happen with people coming at tabletop from an academic point of view. This is a maturation I’m happy to see, so we’re getting more than people trying to either justify their game designs or to confer legitimacy on their preferred play style. When I wrote that essay that wasn't really happening: its point was to predict and encourage it. Now that it is happening it would be self-contradictory of me as a practitioner to tell the new wave of academics what to look at. Though if someone wants to be the Northrop Frye of interactive narrative I’m down with that.

 What conventions, festivals or online communities do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of games and game design?

R:  I go to Gen Con and Dragonmeet every year. As I don’t need to tell you, being a guest at a mid-scale European con has much to recommend it. I don't spend a lot of time online discussing games and game design. My main outlet for that sort of thing is the podcast discussions I have with Ken every week. 

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

Robin D. Laws designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Robin is the Creative Director of Stone Skin Press and has edited such fiction anthologies as The New Hero, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop's New Fables. You can hear more of Robin's thoughts and game insights at his podcast with Kenneth HiteKen and Robin Talk about Stuff.

Interview with John H. Kim

An interview with John H. Kim, host of the Indie RPG Awards and Role-Playing website

John, you've been involved in role playing games by writing, running and documenting the industry since the early 1990s. Your encyclopedic website is a great resource for people who want to learn about the successive waves of game design, and spotlighted women designers.You've written for the Knudepunkt (the Nordic larp convention) companion books and published other essays on how role playing games really work. And, for many years have been the steward of the Indie RPG Awards site. Thank you for all that work. Can you tell us how you got interested in role playing games? You play both tabletop and larp, did you start with one or the other?

J: I started with tabletop RPGs from an early age.  Back in the 1970s, my best friend in preschool had an older brother who was into Dungeons & Dragons (TM) , which at the time was cool and new, and I have been fascinated with RPGs since then.  I played a number of RPGs through grade school, including D&D as well as the superhero game Champions and the science-fiction game Traveller - which kindled a continuing interest in science for me.

 What games have you played recently, or want to play soon?

J: I have three tabletop campaigns that I'm playing in - a weekly D&D game, a monthly GURPS game, and a bi-weekly Call of Cthulhu campaign. I also go to a weekly group that does a mix of story games - our most recent games were The Quiet Year, Universalis, and The Play's The Thing. I also do a various larps - mostly at the four Bay Area local conventions I go to, as well as AmberCon NorthWest in Portland. I'm currently preparing to run a voodoo and noir themed larp for KublaCon in May.

You've been part of several generations (so to speak) of game discussion and theory. In particular you were instrumental in recording discussion on the UseNet group, which fed into discussion at the Forge forums and in Nordic game communities. What are the greatest changes you've seen take place? Are there conversations going on now that you are engaged by? 

J: I think the biggest shift has been what transformed in the mid-nineties, which is moving away from advocating for a particular style of role-playing, and moving toward accepting that there are differing creative goals. This is still going on, but (for example) I think there are fewer people who tout story as the only legitimate intent of role-playing, and more people who accept that as an alternative to their own style. The boom of online publishing has brought together a lot of previously disparate groups. Also, the cross-polination of larp - and especially Nordic larp - with tabletop design is an intriguing new direction.

The main ongoing conversation that I'm engaged by is discussion of educational games. I was fascinated by the glimpses I'd seen of material out of Osterkov Efterskol, the larp-based high school in Denmark. I hear about a number of U.S. based educational larps, and I would like to see more discussion of design principles among these.

What do you think are some of the most important ideas that have come out of rpg theory discussion?

J: I do think that the Threefold Model was an important early step in discussion, and another key development from rgfa was the concept of group contract - which the first step into many analyses of the real-world social structure and interactions of games.

 Among a lot of furor in tabletop RPG theory of the 2000's, two that stick with me are Troy Costisick's "Power 19" design questions and Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void". The "Power 19" questions are a compact version of designing with specific intent, which is a good summary of the trend of narrow/coherent game design where each choice is in service to a chosen creative agenda. However, this can lead to literal, reductionist design - where to make the game about love, you have a "Love" stat, mechanics to resolve love affairs, and characters with lots of loving relationships. Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void" is an expression of the vital counter-trend, that points out how the game's focus isn't always the literal meaning.

 An important recent idea is characters as psychological (especially Jungian) archetypes, as advanced by Sarah Bowman and Whitney Beltrán, among others. This is only starting to touch the surface of psychological process. Previous psychological theory tend to regard story and serious themes as goals unto themselves. The more interesting question is what the game accomplishes. 

What's your favorite social medium to talk about games today? Any of them? Why? 

J: My favorite social medium to talk about games is unquestionably to play games with people in person. There are innumerable subtleties and details of play that just can't be communicated without shared experience. This is particularly true of role-playing, which is an improvisational form whose analytic language is still in its infancy.

What conventions have your favorite gaming? Your favorite talks on games and game design? 

J: My favorite convention for play is AmberCon NorthWest, held outside Portland in early November. It has a strong, close-knit community and lots of innovative concepts for tabletop play. The theme of Amber fiction and diceless play gives a common culture without being limiting.

My favorite for discussion of games and game design is the Knutepunkt conventions held in spring in the Nordic countries. It also has some great example games run in the week prior to it, and during the convention, but mostly it is a whirlwind of impassioned people talking about the games that they are dedicated to. Living Games is a plan for a U.S. larp discussion conference similar to Knutepunkt - it will be starting in Austin in May 2016. [NB: The first Living Games conference was run in New York City, March 2014]

Other excellent conventions include local California conventions - particularly Big Bad Con in Oakland in November for innovative tabletop and larp play; and the larp convention WyrdCon in L.A. in September. The Bay Area also has four (!) other major gaming conventions: DunDraCon in February, KublaCon in may, and PacifiCon and CelestiCon in September.

I understand that the website to the Indie RPG Awards has changed to. The awards have been going on since 2002, and the indie rpg movement is going strong. Have you thought about adding a live action component? Do you have any other new plans for the site?

J: Thanks. I think the new website has actually a better name than the old one of "", but unfortunately the old URL is no longer available to redirect, so there may be some confusion. 

Live action games have always been included in the Indie RPG Awards, but there is not a separate live-action-only award category. Notably, the "Nordic Larp" book was on the slate in 2010, and the "Blood on the Snow" with your own larp rules was in 2013. There still are not that many English-language larp designs published each year, certainly not compared to the many dozens of tabletop designs published. At the current rate of publishing and nomination, I don't think it's ready for its own category. 

I will be on the lookout for how to include more larps among nominations, and larp designers among voters, for them to potentially get their own category in a future year. 

If people are interested in discussion of rpg play or design, what do you recommend they read or listen to?

J: I think it depends a lot on what they're looking for. Some people like fast-moving trends such as Google+, Facebook, or Twitter. I think those can be good for getting alerts from time to time, but for in-depth I prefer books and permanent websites on the topic. For larp, both Knutepunkt and Wyrd Con publish books of articles each year. 

Are you working on any games? Are there any projects you'd like to work on? 

J: As I mentioned earlier, I am working on a voodoo and noir themed larp, called "Dark Ridings", where the characters are all practitioners on a fictional Carribean island come to a summit meeting. In terms of game design, I am explicitly experimenting with archetypes and possession - where each character has the option to at some point be ridden by a loa. It's written for a convention audience, which makes it touchy - since I have to simplify and work with American's view of the real-world religious beliefs of Haiti and elsewhere. However, I don't want to stick to only Western culture just because I can't portray other cultures to an equal standard. At least with voodoo, it's easy to do better than the horribly negative pop culture depictions. 

On the longer term, I have been considering a major update to my venerable website, which started way back in 1994. I have been learning a lot more about modern website design in the past year, and I am considering an overhaul that would majorly improve the functionality, making information easily at people's fingertips. 

Spione and the Power of Tabletop Freeform Design

This Spring I helped curate and participated in a charity Bundle of Holding called the Indie Spring Festival. Spione is one of the earliest written of the games in the bundle and in many ways was a precursor of the others and the movement in game design they represent. This game is a capstone to the collection and embodies recurring themes seen in the whole group. All together, these games exemplify the structures that can make tabletop freeform a powerful and elegant form of design. 

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Theory Roundup

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 Dragonas 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 (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 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."

The early discussions of Rgfa.Advocacy were collated in a FAQ mainted by John H. Kim. His archive " info" provides an overall record.

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.  

Nordic Conversations

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 Larpreproducing 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. 

Forging On

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 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 WorldsDoyce 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 GamesPeach Pants Press, Willow Palecek, Cream Alien Games, Black & Green GamesAdept Press, CRN GamesIncarnadine PressBurning Wheel, Memento Mori, Contested Ground StudiosOne Seven Design Studio, Arkenstone PressBox Ninja, Half Meme Press, the glyphpressEvil Hat ProductionsNDP Design, Muse of Fire GamesRobert BohlKevin Allen Jr.Lumpley GamesDog-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 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 I look forward to expanding these references over time.


[last substantively edited 14 October 2014, link added 7 December 2018]

Sunday Sleuths

Everybody has got a favorite sleuth. Benedict Cumberbatch, I am sure, has brought over a whole nother generation to loving the insightful and misanthropic Sherlock Holmes. Jessica Fletcher would likely give Miss Jane Marple a run for her money if it came to a contest of popularity. I feel sure, somehow, that Nancy Drew would beat the Hardy Boys, cold. But that may be due to a gender bias on my part. I'm not sure how many people know Goldy Jackson, from A Rage in Harlem, but after reading Chester Himes' novel, he is now very high on my list. And the fearless Miss Phryne Fisher is a heroine that none should miss. 

So, what makes them tick? What gives them that je ne sais quoi? How can we say what makes them just exactly who they are? Each of them, of the best, has a personality that makes us love (or possibly hate) them.  It at least makes us feel passionately about them: John Luther's rage, Jane Tennison's dispassion, "Dangerous" Davies' discomfiture, Frank Pempleton's philosophy, Jim Rockford's suaveness, Columbo's absentmindedeness and Christopher Foyle's laser-sharp brevity. Marlowe's humor and Sam Spade's turn-on-a-dime callousness.  Fish's grumpiness. 

Games can tell us. A character sheet is a personality profile. Potentially, a lens through which we view the inner workings of these characters, and the shape and structure of their investigation which make up the texture of the mysteries. The things that keep us coming back for more. 

So, I offer you the Joesky Coin* of the Last Chance Noir blog. Every couple of weeks, I'll write up a detective in game terms. Translated into the paradigm of the Last Chance Noir game and one other role playing game (or board game, on occasion).

The opportunity here is three-fold:

  • We get to do a bit of psychological forensics on these iconic characters
  • We see how different games carry and represent the same kinds of information, and what they create by way of tools and pointers for the players to craft a story with
  • And we see how players and designers of role playing games engage in narrative analysis as a matter of course, and what the implications of that may be

But mostly, it's because it will be fun. 

These are for review and research purposes, under fair use. No characters so mocked up will be sold. Licensed characters in current RPG use will not be adapted except with permssion of the copyright or license holders as appropriate. 


*Paying the Joesky Tax in coin is a tradition I learned of via The Mule Abides. Seems like a good one.