12 May, 2010

Vector Theory #20: Metagame Layers

I'm paraphrasing a bit here, but the Big Model states...

Let's deconstruct this a bit, by starting at the centre.
Ephemera consist of talking, rolling the dice, the reaction of players to one another's actions, and the "meat" of a roleplaying session. The Ephemera are typically considered to be "what happens at the table".

Techniques are the way play is engaged. These provide meaning to an event within the ephemera. Examples include the methods of generating a character or event within the ephemera, ways to determine the outcome of events. The Techniques are typically considered to be "what's written in the rulebook".

Exploration is the shared imagination of the roleplaying experience. This is the part that everyone's singular imagination taps into; and where the singular imaginations overlap, you get a shared imagination space. Exploration is divided into five areas:
  • Character, a fictional person
  • Color, details that provide atmosphere
  • Setting, location (in space and time)
  • Situation, the dilemma
  • System, determines how in-game events unfold
Encompassing them all is Social Contract. While typically unwritten, this determines the interactions between players in a game...purely outside the setting of the story/game. Some groups like White Wolf's Camarilla have elaborate handbooks stretching to 100 pages or more purely for the purposes of defining a social contract in which play can occur.

Creative Agenda permeates all of these layers and works as a driving force to attain a certain style of play. This is defined by the GNS theory.
  • Simulationism - The Right to Dream focuses on the elements of exploration as things unto themselves. This creative agenda emphasizes appreciation for nuanced development of character, setting, and color to no other end than creating a holistically consistent experience. While one simulationist creative agenda may emphasize realism, another may attempt to emulate "four-color" superhero action. Whatever the target, the goal is to create an experience that neatly fits its parameters.

  • Gamism - By contrast, Step on Up considers the elements of exploration as an arena for proving the abilities of the players. This creative agenda emphasizes clever use of tactics, resource management, and character victory.

  • Narrativism - Lastly, Story Now attempts to use the elements of exploration to create an engaging story that addresses a "premise" to produce theme. Premise here is defined in accordance with Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing and is usually framed as a statement (Friends are worth dying for) or a question (Are friends worth dying for?). In narrativist play, most or all of the decisions made by the players will reflect on the premise, proposing answers to the question.

A lot of criticism has been directed at the Big Model, and far more has been directed at the GNS Theory. One of the core reasons for developing Vector theory was to sidestep a lot of the controversial issues in GNS (including the reported tendency for the theory to dismiss a lot of the work done in the gaming world since its development, and the issues with semantics and ill-defined terms that cause arguments on a regular basis across the roleplaying forums of the internet).

Personally, I think there is some awkward overlap between areas of the Big Model and the layers encompassing one another aren't as cut and dried as it would imply. Social contract deals with the real world issues of players interacting with each other, Exploration deals with the interface between the real world and the fiction, Technique deals with the interface between the game system and the fiction, Ephemera deals with the interface between players and the system. Creative Agenda has links to many things, but adherents to the Big Model have a nasty tendency to claim it is the be all and end all of roleplaying. I know I thought this initially until I started opening my perceptions to the critiques of the theory (informed or otherwise).

Don't get me wrong, the GNS Theory and the Big Model can teach us about roleplaying; but like any theory, you need to understand where it's coming from and you need to weigh it in comparison with the other theories and the practices of the real world.

Another theory about roleplaying was developed by Vincent Baker 5 years ago (at the time of writing this blog entry). This is probably more of a precursor to Vector Theory because it divides the forces in a game into three groups...the players, the system mechanisms and the ongoing narrative.

Vincent divides the three groups into a line...


...then he draws arrows between them to explain how certain things occur within the game.

When do the players take control? At this moment, do they take control of the narrative or the mechanisms?

When do the mechanisms take control? Do these mechanisms have an impact on the narrative? Do they impact the way players make decisions in the session?

When does the narrative take control? Does the narrative make an impact on the players (emotionally or intellectually)? Or does it make an impact on the way the mechanisms work in this part of the session?

Each of these questions is really important. And for that reason I'd actually change Vincent's diagram from a line to a triangle, with each of the ideograms on a single corner.

But how does this apply to Vector Theory?

At it's simplest level, I realised that Vector Theory creates a series of tools to analyse how a roleplaying session plays out...the choices that have been made, the choices that might yet come, and the way those choices are made at the moment of decision. This can be applied to the creation of scenarios by examining the choices provided by the GM. It can be applied to the development of a roleplaying game by examining the choices provided by the system. It can be applied to the way the story impacts the narrative and vice versa.

What it doesn't handle very well is the psychological ramifications of play (Even though it makes sense in the story, and everyone else wants me to do it...If I kill Fiona's character, she probably won't talk to me for a week). This is a function of social contract, something that exists around the outer shell of the Big Model, and something that I might need to consider for Vector Theory.

We know that many systems allow a player to place a mirror, filter or other component in a Narraton's path, by why do they do it?

The best I can offer at this stage is to look at why a designer might have added this option for the player. That's where the metagame layer the Vector Theory will function; On observance of the options for how and why components might be placed in the way of a Narraton.

Still needs a lot of thought...
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