The internet has a long history of attempting to generate theories that encompass various aspects of role playing games. Since I never engaged in great depth with many, I won’t do them the injustice of a hack job recap. Recently, however, I encountered one that left me interested in engaging with it in the context of my own efforts. I’ll try to summarize, and maybe expand, on it a bit below, and then perform the embarrassing act of public thinking about what I have done, or need to do, to achieve my own aims.

The RPG Theory, So Called

The theory posits four elements that comprise RPGs: script, situation, sentiment, and sandbox. (It originally posits three, but someone adds sentiment toward the end of the thread, and I find it helpful.) Unlike certain famous earlier theories that attempted to categorize systems, or players, or even player preferences into nice, neat, non-overlapping envelopes, this theory claims that the four elements are poles, or if you like math language, four orthogonal bases for a vector, which are used in varying combinations during actual play. Game systems don’t claim membership in a specific House here, but instead provide (or not) widgets that help facilitate the different elements.

Script provides narrative structure and logic. It is typically generated by a strong central authority, whether that’s a player in the “game master” role or some system for splitting that authority across multiple players. In script play, the players play to experience the progress of the story.

Situation provides choices and conflict. It comes about from an initial state wherein some set of things in the game exist in tension, and events are poised to change that situation in some interesting way. In situation play, the players play to engage with the tensions and the conflict that result, and attempt to cause, shape, or just ride out its resolution.

Sentiment provides strong characterization and (potentially?) competing motivations and desires. As a contrast to script play, this is a much more distributed concern – sentiment involves all the players providing a motivating force for the characters. In sentiment play, the players play to pursue the definitions of their characters through to their outcomes.

Sandbox provides a world-space. It requires a design of some kind of space (usually geographic) with elements placed throughout it. In sandbox play, the players play to explore the world-space and discover those secrets hidden within it.

Games as a set of rule-mechanical widgets can purpose those widgets towards each of these elements. Games with a strong central authority will enable script play. Rules that involve setting up narrative conditions that advance along a track (such as in Fate or Dungeon World, where there’s an initial threat and an intended sequence of events coming from it) also assist in script play. Situation play takes rules support in the form of conflict resolution. Combat is the prime example of this, but other systems provide a more all-encompassing mechanism for framing and resolving conflicts in general. Widgets supporting driving characterization, like a character’s aspects in Fate, or nearly everything in Chuubo (quests, emotion XP) support sentiment play. Sandbox play engages with widgets that model concerns around exploration, like travel rules, encumbrance, even random encounters.

Each of these elements doesn’t form the whole game, but are instead components to be brought in to serve the needs of play. Script can provide a narrative arc, strongly or weakly, to an entire game, or just a particular plot line. It can be shaped by strong involvement of motivated characters with sentiment elements. The world can open up and allow players to choose which way to explore via sandbox. Locations within the game can have their own situations for the players to engage with.

(Writing the above put me in mind of Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda.)

Theory and practice

One of the points made in the theory is that a good game is not required to pick one corner and disavow all others, but it does need to be consistent in its stated aims and its mechanical options. Since I’d like to make a good game, I should check both of those against the theory and see where I stand.

I want to make a game that highlights a group of characters going on adventures in interesting and potentially dangerous locales. I want to have the focus of play be the journey as much as the destination. I want a traditional authority structure with one player managing the world and events, and the other players each representing their own character. I am aiming at the “sport” end of the combat spectrum (combat-as-sport versus combat-as-war), with enough nods toward the war faction that the decision to play out a fight should not always be assumed. For non-combat challenges, I prefer that the fiction of the scene be the primary focus, and the mechanics engage only when necessary, and not distractingly. I don’t want the game to demand a particular focus or balance between the elements, but I do want to enable whatever mix suits a particular table.

That seems like enough of a wish list. Let’s check the mechanics against the goals and their elements.

For script play, I’ve got a GM. I could provide GM advice for things like fronts (and why not steal from the best?), but I haven’t gotten to the point where I commit guidance for running the game to text yet. This will ultimately be the point where I either ace or flub balancing the elements.

My major system supporting situation play is combat. I tend towards the later D&D idea of having a combat system that expects you to engage with it, and I try to make it a strategically engaging game. The journey rules produce a series of encounters as one of their outputs, which allows for the introduction of new situations (but does not mandate it – these encounters could also be things like the road being washed out, or seeing a dangerous monster from a distance).

Sentiment play has fewer and perhaps more subtle hooks. The first part of character creation is to identify a rough history and motivation for the character – this makes them available to support sentiment play, but it doesn’t require it if that’s not the table’s goal. A quest’s boon condition (once per session, when you…) can be used to drive characterization, but again does not have to be turned to that purpose. There is an unfinished idea of a “project” as a player-initiated way to accomplish a large and long-term goal, but it hasn’t really hit play yet, so I’m not sure I have something that works for it.

Sandbox play is the purpose of the journey rules, which I see serving double duty as a system for having interesting point to point linear travel, and open-ended exploration (at the zoomed out level, wilderness hex crawls, and zoomed in, dungeon-scale exploration). I’m pondering the form of an optional widget for encumbrance that would affect some of the decision making during his as well.

It is my hope that this is enough to form a coherent game that strongly supports sandbox and a kind of situation play, and enables script and sentiment to be mixed in.

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3 thoughts on “The actual play’s the thing…

  1. An interesting thought exercise. A lot of the little digs you get in (e.g. “a good game is not required to pick one corner and disavow all others”) sound like popular mischaracterizations of the RPG theories of old, but given your attempt not to name and shame specific frameworks, it’s hard to tell.

    I feel like this framework, at least as described here (I try not to touch rpg.net if I can avoid it, so I didn’t follow the link), has a bit of shoehorning trouble. “These are the four things!” “Neat! Where does combat fit?” “Uh… I guess it’s Situation.” … though RPG combat doesn’t feel in any way like what’s described in the Situation concept.

    If it helps you hammer out something valuable for your design, though, it’s worth the time spent thinking on it!

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    1. My exposure to the “Big Theory” of note has been internet message board arguments (where it was applied, or misapplied, to those ends), and Dogs in the Vineyard, which I like, which was either written for, or lauded as (not entirely sure of my history here) highlighting the Narrative corner. Hence I think it only fair that I not sully the names of actual theories with my ignorance.

      I think combat fits the situation aspect well enough – it has multiple forces in opposition, and is played through to the conclusion of that conflict. I see a pretty strong relationship between D&D combat, and, say, Fate conflicts and Fate contests and even DitV’s general conflict resolution mechanism, which does escalate all the way up to combat. I’m curious where you see the mismatch – if it’s something I didn’t convey well, or something I missed thinking about.

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      1. When I read your description of Situation, I thought of situation-based scenario building. You have different characters or factions seeking incompatible goals, and player action destabilizes that setup in an unpredictable, “play to find out what happens” way. Think Fiasco, or DitV’s towns, or Legends of the Wulin relationship maps, or adventure hook sidebars in well-written setting supplements… I love that stuff!

        Going from that to “yeah, like combat!” deflates my excitement. “Two groups want to kill each other. They fight! Which one wins?” is not a particularly interesting situation, and its outcomes are unpredictable/open-ended only if you squint really hard. (Especially given how often “the player side loses” is a broken game state, in RPGs.) Physical violence might well fit the flow of a situation-based game, as a tool one faction or another uses to try to get its way, but as an example of what situation play *is*, it falls flat. So when you say you’re going to scratch the Situation itch with a combat system, I’m disappointed.

        Part of it is also that combat has a tendency to be a “minigame” where you step out of roleplaying mode and into boardgame mode. You get into a different head space, where characterization, motivations, mannerisms, etc. take a back seat to mechanical and tactical considerations. I feel like that mode of play doesn’t match any of the four S’es here, thus my reaction that dumping it into Situation feels like a shoehorn.

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