the Fairgame Archive

2008-02-05: Chat interview with Elizabeth: Part 2, Theory
by Emily

This is the second part in an unintentional interview Elizabeth Shoemaker gave me in January.  She asked some questions about Forge Theory and I gave it a go to answer.

Part 2: forge theory



Elizabeth: So this is kind of a big question: you started with theory, and then moved into design, right? So how much of your current design sensibilities are based in Forge-style theory?

Emily: hmmm...They are all deeply informed by them, but I have a lot of other influences my friends' freeform styles, jeep form, structured freeform like Jonathan Walton is doing. But the way I look at games is deeply ingrained in forge style analysis.

Elizabeth: Gotcha.

Emily: I have a lot of friends who aren't in that flow though, which is great. I love hearing about different ways to look at things.

The Question of Theory

Elizabeth: I tend to feel like a design charlatan, because I only understand Forge-ese on a really basic level, and can't speak it. JW and Shreyas keep telling me that trying to understand Big Model is a waste of my time, because what "we" do doesn't fit the Model in the first place.

Emily: ha! The big model is not a big deal, and I'd really disagree with them. But the gns stuff, i'd just not ever worry about. (course Vincent would tell you different)

Elizabeth: But they're both coming from a place where they consumed and digested Forge theory, and then CHOSE to toss it aside, right? And I'm afraid that by missing it, and not really having that choice to make, I'm missing something vital about design in general.

Emily: Playing the games is probably the best way to take in the forge theory stuff. You'll be able to take what you learn from it, rather than having to puzzle through the jargon.

Elizabeth: I mean, It's Complicated is inspired by Twister, and Shreyas and I are writing a game using the I Ching. Eventually I'm going to run out of stuff to steal from and need my own ideas. ;)

Emily:  Ha! No, that's the secret, we're all just stealing from everyone and everything all the time! Would you be interested in me giving you a mini course in forge theory? Really short and simple?

Elizabeth: Yes! That's my new year's resolution. The indie community really seems able to communicate through this basis of shared experience—through playing the same games—OH GOD YES

Emily: yay!

Elizabeth: You don't understand—I tried telling this to Ben—someone would explain something to me, and then I'd repeat it in conversation with a second person, and second person would say "Whoever told you that was an idiot. This is how GNS REALLY works."

Down a chain six or seven people long at LEAST.

Emily: oh gah. It's so true.


Emily: 'k. So much of it is common sense like, role playing is a social activity that is happening between people with all kinds of assumptions, desires and communication issues etc. that they bring to the game. So when we look at how a game works, that is part of it. Not just the rules as published in a game book. Then, all the stuff that we make up in a game what makes that "true" is that we all agree that it is true. It's not "because the gm said so" or "because we rolled a natural 20", all that stuff is just agreements about how we get to the fiction stuff that we make up together. Sound good so far?

Elizabeth: Yes! I'm following.

Emily: awesome. :) So then we get to the rules. People used to say things like "the rules represent the physics of the game world" or "the rules determine what the characters can do". Which may be what people are going for in their rules, but that's not what the rules are really doing. What they are really doing is giving us ways to communicate about what we want to happen in the game. And they establish all kinds of neat dynamics between the players. So if you have people competing for the same resources, then you get a competitive dynamic between the players. And they will do what they need to do in order to win (most likely). (And I am NOT talking about gamism here)

Emily: Or, like in Breaking the Ice, if you reward people for collaborating (like the die you get for taking the Guide's suggestion) then the players will work together that way. And every rule has some kind of effect like that, though they are all different. They motivate us, or the help us keep track of things, or they create creative motifs that we can use over and over again.

Elizabeth: This is so blowing my mind.

Emily: (though that last is part of my way "I look at rpgs as a form of literary fiction", so don't nec think that's forge canon) :)

:) in a good way I hope?

The Big Model

Emily: The big model is just a diagram of certain layers of how this happens:

Elizabeth: Yeah! It reminds me of playing a piano, actually. You hit certain keys, and hammers hit certain strings, and then you get this chord of interaction, which is complex and can be harmonious or dissonent.

Emily: exactly! Great analogy.

Elizabeth: And sets an overall tone of.. whatever. This is really exciting.

Emily: nod


Emily: ha! Yes!

Elizabeth: That might be the most exciting thing of all. Anyway, continue! :D

Emily: cool, the big model. So the part up there about games being social activities is the first part of the model. Here let me draw it:

[Social[Exploration[Creative Agenda=>[Techiques[Ephemera]]]]]

Emily: That's kind of cramped! It's like a venn diagram with circles in side circles.

Elizabeth: Right.

Social Level

[Social[Exploration[Creative Agenda=>[Techiques[Ephemera]]]]]

Emily: Social is the biggest circle, everything else is inside it, which just means that everything we do when we are playing is something that the people do through social means. Next is Exploration, that's the stuff we make up together. People call that the Shared Imagined Space sometimes. sis


[Social[Exploration[Creative Agenda=>[Techiques[Ephemera]]]]]

Elizabeth: Right! I've heard of that.

Emily: SIS is the stuff we make up, the stuff that we imagine happening. Exploration is also all the stuff we do to get there. Talking, rolling dice, write stuff down, etc.

But it all has to do with the game. Anything that is sort of extraneous goes up higher, outside of the Exploration circle, things like that would be, whose house do we play at? What do we eat? Is talking about other stuff at the table ok? All that stuff, plus what we do in the game is also called the Social Contract or contract of play.

Elizabeth: Oh! Okay. I didn't realize the extraneous stuff was also social contract. Neat!

Emily: nod. Let's see, let me know confuse it: the extraneous stuff that is about the game but not nec the imagination stuff is social contract but then theres all the rest of the social stuff (who likes who, who got fired etc) that's outside of social contract. whew!

Elizabeth: Gotcha.

Emily: Am I making sense?

Elizabeth: :)Yes!

Emily: cool. Okay, so back to Exploration It's the stuff we imagine, and also how we do it. And how we feel about it. Ron suggested that Exploration falls into 5 parts: Character, Setting, Situation, System and Color. More common sense stuff there. They overlap, but are pretty much just what you'd think they are.

Character and Setting—who does stuff in the world and where they are.

Situation—the events that happen, how characters interact with eachother, the troubles they face.

System—rules, but also all that social stuff too: not just who is the gm or what to write down, but also maybe who gets listened to the most or who knows the rules best. That's the lumpley or baker/care principle thingee. The system or full set of rules are everything that people do to come to the shared imagined fiction. Again, not just the rules written down. Some of those written down rules never get used! And the procedures and agreements folks have may be completely different. Let's see—what's next?

Color—is in all the other things the descriptive or specific elements of it Color is often thought of as the least important part, but in fact, it may be the most imporanat.—important. :)

Elizabeth: :)

Emily: Without color, our characters would be faceless nobodies lumping around. (though some folks want that for their game, not problem there, it can be a statement)or the world, empty and nebulous and mechanics, without any flair or connection. Take stats for example. Stat numbers almost always have a descriptive word or scale associated with them.

Dex 12 means something (or would if we play D&D!)

Elizabeth: hahaha

Emily: plain 12, means what? And you can throw out numbers, obviously and do fine.

I did in BtI, leaving numbers only in certain places: how many attraction or compatibility you have. okay, the next level in the model

Creative Agenda

[Social[Exploration[Creative Agenda=>[Techiques[Ephemera]]]]]

Emily:Creative agenda, that's what people go all red in the face about. GNS

Elizabeth: ha

Emily: gamism, narrativism and simulationism. A creative agenda is kind of what it sounds like it's what a person who is playing is really jazzed about creatively in the game.

Gamism is liking challenge, either facing your character, or facing you the player with respect to overcoming others or the system. Like doing puzzles, or overcoming obstacles for the sake of defeating them.

Narrativism is being interested in dealing with pressing moral issues in the game. And by that I don't mean politics or high questions like should abortions be legal,but just the kinds of things that protagonists deal with in books. Frex, can I live my life as I want but fufill my obligations to others? Will hate overpower innocence? And in order to be able to really grapple with these issues, a couple things need to happen in the game: the game needs something like that to come up and the individual players need to have choice about addressing it.

Emily:This is in contrast to campaigns where a gm has an idea about something like that that they want the characters to be played in, but the players don't have any real choices about it. They just get to move from scene to scene and react to what is offered, and not nec. explore it as they'd like, or have their characters do more than play out what the gm imagined was important about the question. How does that sound? The whole "pressing moral issue" thing is hard to describe.

Elizabeth: Yes, I think I've got it. Narrative is literary, as you said, but authorship isn't limited to the GM (if there is one)?

Emily: yes, exactly!!!

Elizabeth: :D

Emily: It's what's really exciting about rpg in my book.

Elizabeth: Yes, I think narrative play is a lot of where it's at. :D

Emily: Simulationism is really tricky. The way Ron put it is that sim is play that really gets into one of the components of Exploration (char, setting, situation, system, color)But that doesn't have an emphasis on challenge or premise addressing. So, games that focus on modeling real world physics and such would be likely to support setting sim play. Or deeply immersive play that denies all meta knowledge might be sim char.

Emily:And also, to clarify, a game can't "be sim" or whatever. The CAs are player preferences, and get expressed through play, not the rule sets. But a game might make it easier or harder for someone to get what they want out of play. And if people want really different things, and the rules don't hel p them communicate about how to do it together, then they may be screwed.

Elizabeth: Right. Actually, I have a question about CA.. I posted it on Knife Fight a while ago, but no one really addressed it.

Emily: People talk about Incoherence in games... go for it (incoherent games are said to encourage that kind of miscommunication)

Elizabeth: Okay. I was thinking about what I TRULY enjoy in a good RPG, and after all the standard answers, the main thing I love about RPGs is that I get to see how the brains of the people around me work. Like, in real life, a situation might never arise where I find out if Jonathan can come up with a feasible jailbreak plan on a moment's notice; but when the situation comes up in play, I learn something about his mind I didn't know before. Is that purely a.. social agenda? Or is that a type of sim, because it's about simulating certain problems and seeing how people respond? It's essentially the same thing I love about games like Truth or Dare, and Loaded Questions.

Emily: cool! That sounds like a social agenda to me.

Elizabeth: So social agenda are actually a kind of.. thing?

Emily: yes, actually.

Elizabeth: neat!

Emily: social agendas may include getting someone into bed. A very popular one, I might add. ;)

Elizabeth: ha!

Emily: (esp with BtI)

Elizabeth: hahahahahaha

Emily: it is a dangerous game :)okay, we're down to the two last level s of the model

Elizabeth: okay!

Techniques and Structures

[Social[Exploration[Creative Agenda=>[Techiques[Ephemera]]]]]

Emily:Techniques and Ephemera. Techniques are just what we've been talking about already. There are the rules and the unconscious procedures we use when we play. Well, I guess when people talk about techniques, they mean one's we're conscious of. Oh! Okay, here's something I like to talk about that applies. There are mechanics and then there are guide lines and structures. Mechanics are the crunchy bits of a game. Well, they may not always be so crunchy. Lots of dice rollling and consulting charts is what I'd call crunchy.

Emily: Sometimes people talk about Points of Contact—if there are lots of steps involved, that's a lot of points of contact and each step can distract some people from being able to do the stuff we're here to do imagine. If they use dice or other randomizers, people call them Fortune mechanics (you may heard this already) If they use just stats that get compared they call them Drama (Amber uses this) no no! sorry! Karma is the comparing stats thing. Drama is just negotiated freeform. You make it the fuck up. It happens as you say while you play. Those three were used in Everway, and folks have ported them out into other conversations.

Elizabeth: So Complicated is all drama, because whoever owns a scene essentially gets conflict decided in their favor?

Emily: Hmmm... Let me take a look...

Elizabeth: Like, for example, if you're doing a pulpy action game, and you cut someone's break line, and they careen off a cliff and the car explodes in midair and then crashes into the ocean, that is totally fine. But when it is that person's scene, expect them to show up with one elegant gash above an eyebrow, otherwise unscathed

Emily: nod. That is so cool. :)

Elizabeth: It's like a telanovela! :D

Emily: Let's see, I think I'd call it something else. And I"m not sure where it fits.

Three isn't complete—there are others out there. The "the person who controls the scene says what happens" is what I'd call a Guideline. My definition of a "mechanic" is the reproducible procedures that you apply the same way everytime.

Elizabeth: ahhh.

Emily: So by def. there aren't really drama mechanics—They might be guidelines, that are a principle to apply or a rule of thumb,which your is, so that makes it drama!

cool! I think that makes sense. :)You were totally right.

Elizabeth: Yes! Me too. :)

Emily: And structures, as I think of them, are agreements about what will happen that are set from the get go. Like the 3 dates in BtI. Or in scenario play like they do in the nordic countries they often have a storyline all set up that you willl play out. You know what each scene will be about ahead of time and then you act it out.Though how tight this is varies wildly—it could mean that you know ahead of time what all the events will be, or it could be that you know who will be in a certain location, so you get to fill in all the details.

Emily: That's the structure in "structured freeform" too. Like your game board—you have mechanics that act as a structure. The characters will form relationships based on the lines drawn. What happens in the scenes is informed by the narrative cues you wrote about them: the oddities and dysfunctions. Cues are just the stuff we use to help us communicate about what we want to happen in the SIS. Dice, character sheets, setting materials, costumes etc.

Emily: So, back to techniques as a concept, Forge style theory spent most of its times nailing down various techniques. Here's where the jargon comes in a lot:

Fortune in the middle, iiee (initiation intent execution effect), reward cycles, bangs, currency. These are mostly to do with mechanics rather than guidelines or structures. And that is where I might agree with Shreyas and JW. The games y'all are writing don't have the kind of mechanical structure that a lot of forge games do, and that the theory centered on. But the central thesis that games are about shared imagining that people get to through various means of communiation, is useful no matter what games you are designing. Whew!

Emily: Still with me?

Elizabeth: Yeah!

Emily: yay! Okay, the last thing is Ephemera


[Social[Exploration[Creative Agenda=>[Techiques[Ephemera]]]]]

Emily:This is just all that stuff we've been talking about *in motion*, in play. So a technique might be "players have sole control over what their character does" the ephemera of that would you you making the character kiss mine. :)

Elizabeth: Ah! Cool. :)

Emily: If you've heard about stances, these apply at the Ephemera level. Actor stance is acting from your character's point of view. "Pawn stance" is making a character do stuff, but not worrying about the character's motivation for doing things. Author stance is having a character do stuff and doing it with an eye to making a good story come out of it. And Director stance is making stuff in the world happen or appear—that's a gmly way to be. That's stuff that came out of RGFA

Elizabeth: I'd never heard about stances, but wow, that makes so much sense

Emily: And I think that's it.

Elizabeth: It's crazy to see these things and immediately think of examples from play, and think "Ohhh, THAT's what I was doing!"

Emily: :) cool!

Elizabeth: Wow, Emily. I totally owe you.. something. :D I can't tell you how much this has done for me.

Emily: No problem! That was fun, I"m glad it made sense. I'm working on an essay on forge theory right now, but maybe I should just throw it out and use this log instead! I think it would be more fun. :)

Elizabeth: We were talking in IRC about how the way people approach design says a lot about their personality—Ben sees design as a sociological experiment, and Jess sees it as passive-agressive architecture, and Shreyas sees it as art to hang on a wall..

Emily: ha!

Elizabeth: Someone asked me how I approach design, and I had no idea. The best I could come up with was "as a present"—I'd just think about the one person I was designing the game for, what they like, and design accordingly. Everything was just intuition, flying blind.

Emily: that's cool!Thinking about someone's desires and styles as a springboard

Elizabeth: Now I kind of feel like someone turned on the light in my workshop, and now I can see what tools I was using. :D

Emily: yay!!!!!!! Awesome. There is a lot more stuff there too, maybe having an in to the fundamentals will make that stuff have more meaning. All the analysis of how mechanics and techniques work is just golden in my book.

Elizabeth: Yes! I think it will, this conversation has taken a lot of the intimidation factor away for me.

Emily: very cool. It's a lot to assimilate from a lot of different sources.

Elizabeth: Right! And people would tell me to learn from the AP forum, or from essays—and the AP threads always STARTED with jargon, and the essays all read like debates with invisible partners, and it just seemed more confusing to me. Like all of the information out there is all about what these terms DON'T mean.

Emily: ha! That is so true! People arguing about what it means doesn't really tell you.

Elizabeth: Right!

Elizabeth: Have a great night! Thank you sooo much.

Emily: no problem, you're welcome!!!! Thank you for asking such great questions!

2008-02-05 06:14:40 shreyas

JW and Shreyas keep telling me that trying to understand Big Model is a waste of my time, because what "we" do doesn't fit the Model in the first place.

I think this is a mischaracterisation of my position! (I dunno about the other boy.) Rather my position is, "The Big Model is a big waste of your time because everything interesting that you can learn from it, you can learn without having to learn to speak nerd-Swahili, simply by learning simple things about how humans interact, which you know a lot about already. Meanwhile it fails to cover a lot of important topics that I think need to be covered if you need to figure out how to make an idea-for-a-game into a work that is appreciable by your target audience. It fails both the tests of parsimony and sufficiency, if you evaluate it as I do as a manifesto of things to think about when you set out to make a game product."

2008-02-05 15:39:14 Emily

Ha! Thanks for the clarification, Shreyas. What are some of the important topics that need to be covered?

2008-02-05 17:03:46 Lukas

Thanks for sharing this, Emily.  It totally rocks.

2008-02-05 16:22:00 shreyas

Okay, so, as a designer I don't just need to know what happens when games are played. "What happens when a game is played" is what that thing gives us (let me reiterate here my distaste for the term "big model"). That is enough information for me to draw conclusions from play, but with only that knowledge, I'd be like a bridge builder who can tell you what went wrong when the bridge collapsed, but doesn't know what to do to prevent that; I only have enough skill to be stuck in an indefinite loop of trial-and-error.

The thing I need to get out of that loop is predictive knowledge about, like, what materials and structures make a bridge that can hold a particular weight over a particular distance, or in the case of games, what techniques and tools I can use to evoke a certain kind of play experience. To be a good game maker I need to have this engineering knowledge.

It also doesn't say anything about the aesthetic process of making a game, which is fine because I think that is something you have to approach yourself, or the communicative process, which isn't fine, because there are a lot of things about communicating to strangers through instructions that we don't know, or are kind of bad at, and communicating badly is a huge problem in game making today. There is no excuse for the community to have failed to discuss this topic and educate each other about it.

2008-02-05 19:09:22 Jonathan Walton

Yeah, I think I clarified my position on the Big Model to Elizabeth in a conversation right after you two discussed this.  I'm sorry if I gave her the impression that it was useless or somehow inapplicable to "our style of play / design."  That sounds like elitist posturing, which I hope isn't how I come across (at least, not anymore).

Like Shreyas, I feel like the Big Model doesn't directly address the issues that I find most interesting in design and play, but that's not surprising, since Ron articulated the model because he was interested in other concerns.  That doesn't mean that the Big Model couldn't be applied to the things I'm really interested in.  It just might not be the best tool for the job.

Right now, I'm most interested in (in no particular order):

—non-narrative game experiences

—structured freeform

—using maps, boards, and other tools that can be physically manipulated during play

—games without character sheets or statistically quantified character traits

—games where there are different player roles / abilities, where different players affect the narrative in different ways

Basically, I'm interested in the way in which specific techniques and tools (or the lack thereof) radically change the structure of the play experience.  Most post-Forge games are content to have their core rules basically do the same thing and use the same tools, leading to play experiences that are relatively similar in structure despite using different rulesets.  I'm more interested in building custom toolboxes for different games, such that individual play experiences really do vary significantly, in style and form as well as in content, between games.

2008-02-05 19:14:45 Emily

...about the aesthetic process of making a game, which is fine because I think that is something you have to approach yourself, or the communicative process..

Agreed. Starting with what gets communicated by game structures and getting that sense of which to use for what that you're talking about Shreyas seem like great next steps. Which Jonathan puts so nicely:

Basically, I'm interested in the way in which specific techniques and tools (or the lack thereof) radically change the structure of the play experience.

Tool boxess as in modular games?

2008-02-05 19:25:14 shreyas

Hm. I'm about to put words in Jon's mouth! J, stop me if this is terrible:

"Toolbox" can mean modular game, but it doesn't have to. I'm viewing 'tool' as 'a thing you do in play.' Looking at the less peripheral indiegames, I think you can see a common set of tools (are these techniques if we're speaking in arcana?) that's recombined to make games that, while distinct, have a really obvious structural affiliation. Some of those things are:

- intense characters

- engineering problematic situations

- the rhythm of 'playing toward an untenable point and consulting the system to see how it falls out'

- using explicit procedure to derive highly specific story forms

- etc.

If you're pulling out different tools, then you get different stuff, but you're still basically woodworking.

But suppose that you want to do metalwork or weaving instead, then your toolbox might look like:

- abstract/implicit characterisation

- detailed positional knowledge of characters (rather than detailed internal knowledge)

- a rhythm of 'adjust characters to perturb equilibrium, play until you return to an equilibrium point'

- etc.

So, like, that's also a family of games right there, and the play experience is going to be way different. If you explicitly make new tools for every game, then that'll make them that much more distinct.

2008-02-06 01:18:44 Jonathan Walton

Elizabeth has more what I mean, but it's still a bit abstract.

Say I have this toolbox:

- players demonstrate character actions by moving tokens around on a game board, instead of describing them verbally

- all spoken words are words characters say

- there is no resolution of disputes, actually there are no disputes, there are simply legal and illegal moves on the board, as in Chess

- the food served during the game has symbolic meaning crucial to the play experience

This is going to yield a very different type of play experience than the one delivered by most roleplaying games.  This is just a different set of tools than the ones most game use.  Is it modular?  Um, not really (though you could steal some of these tools to use in other games).  But the toolset is tailored for a very specific idea of how play is conducted.  It does not use the same tools to tell a slightly different kind of story by emphasizing some tools over others.  These are explicitly _different_ tools.

2008-02-11 21:23:26 Adam Dray

For me, Forge jargon and the Big Model and so on are, in order of increasing strength, structure for designing games, tools for analyzing play, and a shared vocabulary for discussing game design.

I might use the Big Model to do structural analysis of my game in progress, maybe to see what I have forgotten. I tend to design more by instinct though.

Then I playtest. When something breaks or works really well, I want to understand why. Sometimes the Big Model gives me important insights into why.

More often, I want to discuss how my game works with other designers. One way is to talk about a playtest and what happened, and that's cool, but it takes a long time and you sorta had to be there to really understand it. But I can pretty succinctly sum up how I think something is working using Forge jargon, if the other person speaks it, too.

As long as two people mean roughly the same thing when they use a term, it makes discussing complicated game design problems a lot easier. It doesn't matter if the Big Model is accurate or not.

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