Thursday, November 03, 2011

Is there a Missing Box in the Big Model?


First off, I’m going to qualify this by saying I’m only now just starting to understand the Big Model. So don’t scourge me if I just missed a point made by Ron or Vincent somewhere along the line.

Second, this is not an attempt to overthrow the Big Model, but to understand one small facet of it in a better light. I am a full believer in the Big Model’s accuracy and usefulness. No one should use this thread as a chance to poke holes in it.

Third, I will greatly appreciate input from everyone, but I’m especially interested in replies from Ron, Vincent, Ben, and Ralph. They’ve both helped me understand parts of the Big Model in the past.

So anyway, here we go. The more I work on the designs of my games and the more I look at the crop of designs from this year’s Game Chef, the more I see games incorporating physical objects into their mechanics and into play. At the same time, I’m seeing DnD renew its interest in minis with the release of the Dungeon Tile series books which the website reports as selling quite well for a few years now. So based on my play of these games and reading of the mechanics, I’m wondering if there should be a box between Social Contract and the Exploration/SIS box in the Big Model called the “Shared Playing Environment” or the “Physical Playing Environment.”

For this post, I’m going to be referencing the following games as examples of games using Physical Items:

Polaris (specifically its candle)
DnD (specifically the minis and dungeon tiles)
Glorantha (specifically the map)
1001 Night (the bowl of gem-looking dice)
Hunter Rose- My Old Game Chef Entry- (specifically its rose, thread, and beads)
The Roach and Standoff- (for the cards used during play)
Code of Unaris uses computers and the InternetDeadlands (1st Edition) uses a community deck of cards
A Hypothetical Game using the phases of the Moon
A Hypothetical Game that denotes a rotating GM by using a hat that is traded around
A Hypothetical Game the uses a Podcast to add content to play
Any RPG ever played (specifically the venue for the game) perhaps including LARPs

The Case for the Physical Playing Environment Not Being Currently Well Represented By Social Contract:

I pulled up the diagram of the Big Model, the Provisional Glossary, and the article GNS and Other Matters. I look at the list of things that characterize the Social Contract: Courtesy, Food, Transportation, Communication, Friendship, Hosting, Romance, and more. While “and more” can be infinitely expanded to include just about anything under the sun, things like maps, miniatures, roses, and other play aids are of a totally different breed of things than “Courtesy, Friendship, Transportation, and Romance.”

The definition of the Social Contract from the glossary says, “All interactions and relationships among the role-playing group, including emotional connections, logistic arrangements, and expectations. All role-playing is a subset of the Social Contract.” Everything that has to do with a group roleplaying is part of the Social Contract and is a subset of it. However, it seems like referencing the Social Contract itself and only itself during play is exclusively done when there are “relationships, emotional connections, logistical arrangements, and expectations” are involved. For anything more specific than that, you look at the boxes contained within the Social Contract. For instance, you would not reference the Social Contract if you used the Hacking rule in Code of Unaris (which is an ephemera term) unless the act of Hacking caused a conflict in the relationships, connections, arrangements, or expectations of the group.

Finally, the Social Contract contains everything needed for play. However, the Social Contract does not describe play. That is covered by the boxes contained within it. Since things like miniatures, cards, tokens, and maps can help describe play, they specifically aren’t an aspect of the broader concept of the Social Contract per se, they should instead be contained within some smaller box once play begins. Just like the textual rules of Polaris aren’t what makes up the Social Contract, but instead are part of what is referenced by the System (Exploration/SIS box). The physical objects a group decides to use are unique to that group.

Basically, what I’m saying there is that the Social Contract doesn’t describe play, it only contains it. The physical objects players actually use, however, can help describe the fiction that is taking place. Therefore, I see it as needing to be in a separate box within Social Contract since physical items are so radically different from what is currently described by the Social Contract Box.

The Case for the Physical Playing Environment Not Being Part of the Exploration/SIS Box:

First, the objects I’m talking about (the Candle from Polaris, or the Cards from Roach) are not imaginary, fictitious objects. They are tangible items. They can be as objectively viewed by all participants and non-participants as any object can be when dealing with human beings. Therefore, putting them in the Shared Imagined Space doesn’t make much sense to me.

Second, during play I’ve observed slight disconnects between the nature of the physical objects used to support play and the shared fiction of the Exploration. For instance, take a miniature in DnD. A mini might depict a character as carrying a bow. However, the character has never owned a bow nor does he ever use one. Therefore, that aspect of the mini is ignored and never enters the Fiction/Exploration/SIS of the game. Another might be the use of gender specific pronouns on a card from a game like Standoff. A card may say, “On his turn, a character…” The character the card references may well be female. So that part of the card is replaced with something the group agrees enters the fiction of the game. It’s small, but I feel it’s important that such distinctions are made. A physical object depicts one thing, but the group agrees that it doesn’t. As a second example, Vincent said here that the character sheet is not the character. The sheet may reference or allude to the character but is not the character in and of itself. It seems to me that would clearly show the difference between a physical object and an imaginary regarding of what that object represents.

Third, play usually does not explore the physical nature of the objects used to aid play. The color and texture of the cards in Deadlands are totally irrelevant to the Exploration of the game. The online map of Glorantha itself is not what the players explore, but the relevant elements of Setting agreed to in the game’s shared fiction. A hypothetical game that uses the phases of the Moon (in real life) to determine a werewolf’s power does not explore the Moon, only the mechanical affects of the System. The Moon only facilitates the System. It is not itself the point of play.

Fourth, game-related objects that are contained within the physical environment where play is going on may not ever get included in the SIS/Exploration. For instance, unused portions of a dungeon in the Dungeon Tiles set never make it to the SIS. Areas of the Glorantha map where the characters never venture don’t make it into the Exploration of the game. Cards in games like Standoff that never get dealt are there and can help facilitate play, but never enter the fiction of the game. The beads in Hunter Rose are accumulated and tied to the thread, but only reflect play- never influence it. Basically, leftovers.

The Case of Physical Playing Environment Not Being Part of System (also SIS box):

This is all System in the lumpley/Baker-Care Principle sense. Just for quick reference, from the Provisional Glossary it says, "System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."

First, for the way I’m looking at the Physical Play Environment of a game, the physical objects must exist prior to the “group agrees to imagined events during play.” If a group is going to agree to use the scale on the map of Glorantha to chart the distance the PCs traveled, then the scale and the map must already exist before they reference it. If the players are to agree that a card should be drawn in Roach, the cards must already be in the play area for them to do that. Therefore, the objects have an existence separate from the System of the game.

Second, though the System can reference the physical item, it is not a requirement that every aspect of the physical item become part of “how we decide what happens during play.” As mentioned earlier, details on miniatures, the surface of the moon, the gender pronouns on a card, the color of the dice, etc. can all be ignored yet the object can still help determine what happens. Thus, I don’t think that the physical objects are a part of the System but only reflect the System and/or can only be referenced by the System.

Third, like Exploration, System relies on communication. However, not everything communicated is part of the System. The type, scent, and color of the candle in Polaris may enhance the ambiance of the play session, but it plays no part in deciding how things happen- just when we start, and when we stop. Right? The candle may communicate something about the player as a person, but is almost never a part of the SIS. The SIS may reference the candle, but the candle is apart. Since System is only concerned with “the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play,” what aesthetics the candle provides, while part of the environment where play is happening, isn’t part of the System used for play.

The Case for Social Contract Containing the Physical Playing Environment:

First, as stated by the Big Model Diagram and the definition provided by the Provisional Glossary, everything that has to do with roleplaying is contained within the Social Contract. Physical objects manipulated during play in reaction to or in reference of in-game events are part of roleplaying. Therefore, the Social Contract would contain the Physical Playing Environment.

Second, the Physical Play Environment could not be a larger box than the Social Contract since deciding who would bring the maps, cards, minis, roses, dice, and so on would definitely be characterized by the “interactions and relationships among the role-playing group, including emotional connections, logistic arrangements, and expectations.” The physical objects could not be part of play as physical objects unless the conditions for the Social Contract are met first. Referencing physical objects that are not in the Physical Environment would make them imaginary objects, in my opinion.

Third, the Physical Objects used during play are one among many things that are part of the interactions of the roleplaying group (like the fiction, techniques, and ephemera of the game). Thus, I believe the Physical Playing Environment is a recognizable and discrete component of play.

The Case of SIS/Exploration Being Contained within the Physical Playing Environment:

First, just as the SIS/Exploration of a game can only reference or rely on the Social Contract, the SIS/Exploration can only reference or rely on the Physical Objects present that the group agreed to bring as aids to facilitate play as well as the people who are actually there participating. Since the Physical Playing Environment is like the Social Contract in this way, it seems to me at least, that it too would be a box that encases the SIS/Exploration box.

Second, since the Physical Playing Environment contains things that were agreed to be brought to the game by the Social Contract but might not be incorporated into the Exploration of the game, then the SIS/Exploration of a game would be a subset of everything in the Physical Playing Environment. For instance, not all the minis brought to the game might be used that night. However, they are still game-related and a part of the Social Contract.

The Case for Making the Physical Playing Environment a Distinct Box within Social Contract:

As an area of design and play, the Physical Playing Environment holds great potential for roleplaying games. Relegating the Physical Playing Environment to the “and more” part of the Social Contract downplays its importance, almost making it non-existent as part of the theory. The Big Model is useful for both examining play and designing games. It should help facilitate understanding and innovation in both areas. By not expressing the Physical Playing Environment more clearly, I believe it leaves a gap its communication to a reader- especially for newcomers to Forge theory. To me, that is a problem.

By highlighting the importance of the Physical Playing Environment, it brings another layer of understanding to the Big Model without adding a layer of complexity. The Physical Playing Environment, including the unconventional environments like the Internet or empty field used for LARPing, is an easily grasped concept. It adds a level of detail that makes the Big Model more concrete.

When it comes to examining the Big Model, we are mainly looking at human interaction. However, there is more to roleplaying than just humans interacting with humans. While we roleplay, we are also interacting with non-human objects. Dice, cards, books, pictures, miniatures, foam swords, and other props are part of the ritual. Yet, those things are not found listed on the Big Model as it currently stands. Many newcomers look at the Big Model and go, “So where does the Player’s Guide fit in? I see where it says, ‘reference to the rules’ but I don’t see the rules themselves.” I regard this as a small oversight in the current Big Model. Not a critical or fatal oversight, but I believe it is an oversight.

Finally, I can’t see that anything is lost by adding this new box to the Big Model. The concept of a Physical Playing Environment does not shortchange the concept of the Social Contract nor the Shared Imagined Space. It does not dilute the definitions or relevance of the other boxes; therefore, adding it should not cause any major upheaval in the theory. It does alter it some (anything new should) but not in a cataclysmic way. Hence, I think the model would be improved by adding the Physical Playing Environment to it.

Closing Remarks

Since it seems to me that the SIS/Exploration box includes reference/reliance on some things that are in the Physical Playing Environment but also can exclude things included in the subsets of the “interactions and relationships among the role-playing group,” the Physical Playing Environment is a discrete facet of the Big Model. Keeping all that I said above in mind, I would tentatively put forth that the Shared Playing Environment is “Anything physical that assists and/or participates in play including but not limited to manipulatives (minis, cards, tokens), venues (a dorm room, Skype, chat rooms), and visual aids (maps, character sheets, character sketches) and people (players, GMs, observers). I don’t know if the Big Model was meant to include LARP play, but if it were, I would think that the Physical Playing Environment would be a vital, obvious, and important aspect of play, and thus the model too.

I may be totally off here, so I am willing to get GNS copped on this by the big-wigs. But I’ve always wondered where things like maps, character sheets, minis, and models (and LARP props if they count) fit in when it comes to play and the Big Model. I’m hoping that this blog entry is the starting point for some good discussion on the topic.