Conversation in RPGs – Thoughts spurred by Vincent Baker at Ropecon 2013

This might be old news to some, self-evident to others. I realised something quite nifty. Maybe it isn’t extraordinary, but it clarified things, and things clicked in my head.

At Ropecon, I listened to Vincent Baker talk about game design. He’s a veteran of the Forge, which to some equals obscurity and “theory jerk” – actually he has referred to himself as such – but to me his theoretical stuff is very lucid and interesting. His thoughts on game theory and especially the terms he uses strike me as relevant. That is, they help me think about roleplaying games, their rules and what’s happening at the gaming table.

One of the things he talked about was the interaction in roleplaying games between 1) people, 2) the physical game components, and 3) the conversation among players. Not “the imaginary space”, mind, but the conversation. What we talk about at the table. In chess, for example, the conversation doesn’t matter. People might talk about the game, but from the standpoint of what chess as a game is about, it doesn’t matter. In roleplaying games, said Baker, the conversation is the thing. And here’s the thing that actually made me think “mind = blown”, and I actually hate that expression, so it’s a big deal to me. I hope I get it even approximately right.

The rules of the roleplaying game are there to modify the conversation we’re having, to ensure that what we’re talking about is relevant to the game.

In Apocalypse World, and other games using the same engine, the rules direct the conversation by asking questions (among other things). For instance, if you try to notice stuff about a charged situation, the roll isn’t a binary situation of pass/fail. Instead, you get to ask stuff: “what’s my best way out of here?”, “what’s my enemy’s true position” and so on. The MC (the fun name for the GM in this game and one that I’m proud to sport) is supposed to invent the answers on the fly – that is, to engage in conversation. (If you fail, the MC brings forth other interesting stuff into the conversation.)

Compare this to the way I’ve run Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies (both of which I love, so please refrain from using your internet equivalents of 88mm’s): if you as a player succeed in your roll, I give you a pre-made answer – if you don’t, I’ll move on. I might be wrong, but in a roll like that you kind of roll whether you get access to the GM’s mind and notes. The GM’s task is to withhold stuff and try to covertly run the game in a direction only he knows – a sort of Grey Eminence. (Now, I always wanted to run Unknown Armies in another way, but I didn’t know how ten years ago. There are a lot of ways to run CoC and UA.)

In Apocalypse World, you roll to see which direction the conversation and the game is going. It’s creating stuff together, getting the conversation flowing.

In some respects, Apocalypse World isn’t very far from structured freeform. Sure, AW has dice to randomize stuff, but the main thing is the conversation you’re having among friends. You bring forth stuff and riff on other people’s ideas.

More on Ropecon later.

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