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December 14th, 2007

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08:57 pm - RPG Model Diagrams
Lately, there has been a bunch of GNS / "Big Model" talk on the Knife Fight forum of late. In addition, the_tall_man has posted a series of posts called "The Big Muddle" as a variant of these. The most recent version of the explanation is the RPGnet Revision. (For historical development of this, he first posted a series of LJ posts in five parts (1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , and 5). He then had discussion threads about these on Knife Fight as on Knife Fight (registration required) and on theRPGsite.

I'm drawn to do a compare-and-contrast of some different models of role-playing, particularly in how they create a hierarchical diagram of play. I'll try out several views, ordered chronologically by when they were created. For this, I'm picking out Daniel Mackay, Ron Edwards, Eetu Mäkelä et al, and Levi Kornelsen.

Mackay's Spheres of Performance

In his book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art (2001), Daniel Mackay makes a contrasting model of the hierarchy of role-playing based on the theater studies work of Richard Schechner. He is analyzing role-playing as performance, although a very different one from traditional theater. His hierarchy diagram (from page 60 of the book) is:

This is based on increasing levels of specificity in terms of how it is perceived by the players. The "Drama" frame is the nitty-gritty of how the game went, corresponding to a particular performance. The "Script" frame is the context for this, i.e. how the given session was prepared for, but as we all know a game can go in wildly different ways from how it was prepared. The "Theater" frame is the concept of the shared fiction, which the could be adapted in different ways to the game. The "Performance" frame is the widest frame that includes the wider social context outside of the fiction.

Edward's Big Model

Ron Edward's "Big Model" diagram was from about the last stable revision to his GNS discussion, from late 2003. (His "Glossary" article with the specific diagram below was from early 2004.) His approach was in terms of RPG system design.

In some ways it is quite similar to Mackay, though arrived independently. He too puts the elements of fiction (the "Shared Imagined Space") at the second-to-broadest box, and the narrower boxes are more specifics about how that fiction is implemented by the players ("Techniques" and "Ephemera").

One difference that stands out is the emphasis on mechanics design. For example, Edwards puts "IC/OOC" (In-Character/Out-of-Character) in the narrowest box as "Ephemera", whereas Mackay puts "Performative and Constantive" in the second-to-broadest box. On the other hand, Mackay only mentions the mechanical rules in the narrowest box -- whereas Edwards puts "System" in his second-to-broadest box. Mackay has an avowed focus on performance, whereas Edwards is focused on system design. It seems that elements perceived as more important are put in a broader box.

The Process Model

The Process Model of Role-Playing is a paper by Eetu Mäkelä, Sampo Koistinen, Mikko Siukola and Sanni Turunen written for the Knutepunkt 2005 book, "Dissecting larp". It was clearly influenced by Edwards' Big Model, but it is expressed as a flowchart rather than a hierarchy. The diagram is:

Note that there is a slight hierarchy. The "Shared Imagined Space" (SIS) is inside of the "Shared Space of Imagining" (SSI). It shows that "Circumstances", "Roleplaying Processes", and "Methods" overlap with the SIS, whereas Social Processes and Results are apart from it. However, there is no other overlap.

Compared to Edwards' view where techniques are in small boxes within Exploration (including the SIS), this picture puts more emphasis on processes compared to the SIS. Obviously from the title, this was intentional.

Levi Kornelsen's Big Muddle

The latest is Levi Kornelsen's take on Edwards' "Big Model", that he has posted titled as the "Big Muddle", most recently as an RPGnet thread. There are a series of prior diagrams showing people standing in the outside, creating the "Form of Play" through agreement, then stepping inside the form and creating the Fiction through agreement. The final diagram with labels, though, is:

Though this purports to be a version of Edwards' Big Model, it is quite distinct in many ways from Edwards' diagram. Kornelsen identifies the "Form of Play" as including Authority and Credibility, terms from Edwards' model. However, he puts the Fiction (aka Shared Imagined Space) in the smallest box at the center -- while Edwards puts it on the same level as Authority and Credibility.

This is a different conception of fiction, I think. It pictures the fiction as more of a product of play, rather than an active part of the play environment. For both Mackay and Edwards, techniques of role-playing are inside the fiction box. For Kornelsen, they are outside. In the build-up, he pictures the participants creating the Form of Play and then stepping inside it. They also create the fiction, but remain outside of it. It is illustrated as a pile of papers, whereas the Form of Play is a green field that participants stand on.

My Analysis

I don't think any of these diagrams are entirely right or wrong. However, they project the things which they want to emphasize as positions in the diagram. All of them have the full social context as the broadest box -- i.e. including any out-of-game material as well as in-game. However, where rules and fiction and techniques fit in the diagram is purely a matter of emphasis.

For example, in Levi's diagram fiction is the smallest box in the center. However, there are cases of multiple ongoing campaigns set in the same fictional game-world -- where the participants regard the whole as one fiction contributed to by different people, with possibly different forms of play. Similarly, a campaign might switch from using one system to another. Conversely, though, a group might have a regular campaign where they switch settings -- like a weekly GURPS game that changes settings.

As far as giving a structure to play, the definiteness of the diagrams is useful. However, as far as describing how play actually happens, any diagram with more than two levels fails to represent the fluidity of play in work. For example, in Levi's diagrams, the participants get together and specify the form of play first, then create the fiction. However, often players will get together and decide on much of the fiction before they have specified crucial parts of the forms of play. i.e.
"Let's play a Star Wars game!"
"Cool. I've always wanted to play a Wookie Jedi."
"What period should it be set in?"
"Maybe just before the original, that is, A New Hope."
"That sounds good. Should we use the West End D6 system, or the Wizards D20 system?"
"What about using Spirit of the Century or Wushu?"
"Well, each of them handles different things better. Let's figure out more before we decide."

The point being, the group can go back and forth between deciding on entries to the rules and entries to the fiction. They can decide some things, and then go back and change some things previously decided in either. Most often, this is handled outside of the game. However, some games include world-building as part of play, such as Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth or Primetime Adventures.

So I would take all of these diagrams as ways of structuring the a game, but not the only way.


(12 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:December 15th, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC)
Very well put post John, really informative.

I think Levi, with his model, tries to address the idea that play changes over time, but it doesn't come across in the diagram. And you are correct, I've yet to see a model that really emphasizes play as a fluid, ongoing process and not showing a snapshot of a singular moment of play.

Perhaps one issue is the trend of lumping "system" together as one distinct entity, which also causes a fuss with the "system (doesn't) matters" debate. One could observe a group playing AD&D and another playing Vampire LARP and assume that they are completely unrelated. Not just in the forms, but also in the tone of play and the nature of the players. So does the system encourage a certain style of play (not just a Big Model CA, but an overall social climate) or do certain types of people gravitate towards games that cater to their playstyle? I'd say it's elements of both.

What I'm saying is, maybe system matters, in that the mechanics and context attached to the system can permeate to every level of the environment, from social space to shared imagine space.
[User Picture]
Date:December 16th, 2007 12:14 am (UTC)
"I've yet to see a model that really emphasizes play as a fluid, ongoing process and not showing a snapshot of a singular moment of play."

I think that's very insightful. In thinking of a game session, I often talk of a seesaw between players and GM, player and character, out-of-game chatter and in-game talk and action, etc - all these must be balanced or the game goes thump like an unbalanced seesaw. And like a seesaw, the point is not to find the single static point of balance and sit there, but to be constantly going up and down, the weight more on this side at one moment, more on the other side at the next. People don't enjoy the seesaw when it's on the ground or even when it's balanced, but when it's going up and down. They don't enjoy perfect balance or things being one-sided, they enjoy the constant back-and-forth, that fluid ongoing process Chris is speaking of.
[User Picture]
Date:December 16th, 2007 07:46 am (UTC)
In my opinion the Process Model of Mäkelä et al. actually addresses this fluidity rather well. Unlike most other models, which tend to use both the real and the proverbial one-direction arrows, it contains recursions and constant interaction between the various rpg playing process elements. And the patterns they describe seem to match many facets of play rather well, if used as a basis of design.

Where it fails, however, is that it does not take into account that the Results also feed back material to the earlier processes (this became very obvious when I tested the model in practice, as I write in Lifelike), something which many of the other models, and several other researchers, do note.
Date:December 15th, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC)
"For example, in Levi's diagrams, the participants get together and specify the form of play first, then create the fiction."

Hrm. In the RPGnet thread, first post, I mention that there's no necessity for things to happen in the order shown - that the sorting is for convenience.

That doesn't come through the pictures, though.

Your other critiques, though? Totally the case - I've got not hemming or hawing to defend them. The muddle doesn't do everything; it's just one perspective.
[User Picture]
Date:December 16th, 2007 04:46 pm (UTC)
Fair enough. I think a key on that part is the fiction difference discussed below in response to urbeatle.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2007 06:55 pm (UTC)
Maybe we should distinguish between Fiction1, the pre-existing fictional context that influences the players' decisions, and Fiction2, the product of play. Or, what people informally call "the source material" and "the story". Fiction2, after being created, becomes a part of Fiction1, so in a sense, it's all "the Fiction". But clearly, the Fiction that exists already as we sit down at the table is a higher context that our play exists within, while the Fiction that we create through play is a lower context (before it is recursively added to the higher-context Fiction.)
Date:December 16th, 2007 02:27 am (UTC)
In my own head, Fiction (1), as you describe it?

That's "references". It may be fiction, but it's not "the fiction of the game".

This may be a result of my own biases speaking.
[User Picture]
Date:December 16th, 2007 04:38 pm (UTC)
The problem to me is that these Fiction1 and Fiction2 aren't distinguished within the minds of the participants. The most common example is that the players typically don't know whether a GM response is based on pre-conceived notes, or made up on the spot. (i.e. Say the GM says the tavern owner's name is Goras - is that from notes or made up in-session?)

As another example, if my group gets together for a character creation session, are the character sheets then part of Fiction2? But what if a player can't make it, and instead makes up a character on her own after we email her the other PC info. Is her character sheet then only part of "References" while our character sheets are "Fiction"?

So I think you're drawing a dividing line that most people don't actually distinguish in practice.
Date:December 16th, 2007 06:57 pm (UTC)
"The problem to me is that these Fiction1 and Fiction2 aren't distinguished within the minds of the participants."

Ur... Right, exactly. In the model, it becomes part of the fiction (2) as soon as you say it in play. If it exists before that, it's a reference.

Which may be the distinction I should make. "Fiction in play" and "Fiction being referenced"
[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
I think that any serious effort to diagram these ideas would benefit greatly from Phillipe Kruchten's essay on the 4+1 model of systems documentation. The core observation of this essay is that there are too many interesting parameters in any system for one view to accomodate and that consequently several slices through the problem space are required. He recommends:

- Logical: the core functions and relationships between them.
- Process: performance and communication behaviour between processes (atoms which do not need to communicate internally).
- Developmental: a representaion of how the system will be constructed -- layer diagrams, ownership, etc.
- Physical: what actual things are installed and how do they communicate.
- Scenarios: examples of sequences of system operation, showing the core functions in successful and unsuccessful operation.

How this can be mapped on to RPG theory is left as an exercise to the reader but the central idea I think is sound: no one diagram can suffice and the multiple diagrams that will suffice must be designed togethernas a coherent whole. The model itself is the sum of these views.
Date:December 17th, 2007 07:41 pm (UTC)
May I repost this with a linkback to the original article on the RolePlayGateway forums?
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Date:December 18th, 2007 01:16 am (UTC)

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