Exploration of Player

2009 Feb 3

So I threw some Forgespeak at John Harper and he threw some back at me, which is only fair I guess. John said that while IWNAY Gamist play may be part of Eric’s preferred play style, that he suspects that a significant part of it is not “exploration” (there’s the Forgespeak) at all. I’m gonna delve into some more Forgespeak to respond, but I think this is an important point in general.

First, Ron’s definition of exploration is — according to the Forge glossary — “the imagination of fictional events, established through communicating among one another. Exploration includes five components: character, setting, situation, system, and color. See also Shared Imagined Space (a near or total synonym).” Basically, Ron’s exploration is near-synonymous with the act of roleplaying, since it exists directly below the level of the social contract. If John’s right that a significant portion of Eric’s play preferences aren’t exploration-based, then I guess they could involve something like a competitive social priority to prove he’s better. But I feel like that’s naturally part of a lot of Gamist play (as well as, like, a lot of life) and not too surprising. It’s true that Eric has clashed with other folks with strong personalities — like Ben and Jared — but that’s not that unusual in indie circles or in life. Strong personalities tend to clash.

Second, Emily and Vincent complicated Ron’s model of exploration when they redefined system (one of the five components of exploration) as “the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” But while the Lumpley Principle is generally only considered to apply to system, its insight is — I would argue — generally applicable to the other four components of exploration as well: character, setting, situation, and color. Exploration in general, the imaginary content of roleplaying, only exists as 1) the individual experiences of the players involved and 2) the interactions between them. Ultimately, then, what’s being “explored” in roleplaying (in the actual meaning of the word, not Ron’s specialized definition) are the other players across the table from you as well as yourself. That’s why its so powerful.

Third, a number of different games and play styles are specifically interested in jumping right into exploration of others and self without having that be mediated by Ron’s five elements of exploration. Or at least, the mediation is significantly lighter than it is in most cases. Jeepform and its new American derivatives — A Flower for Mara, Under My Skin, etc. — are obvious examples, but some play focused on immersion may also drift in this direction, focusing on how a self experiences being a character, for instance, rather than simply exploring character. Ben’s recent tendency to design games that draw on the actual experiences of the players at the table — Bliss Stage, Land of 1000 Kings — is also related, I think.

Finally, to bring this back to Eric, a key component of Eric’s play, I suspect, is exploration of self and others in a Gamist fashion. That is, he plays to test his own mettle against that of others and, ideally, learn something new that makes him smarter or more effective than he was before. In the process of this, he also learns a lot about other people and shares a lot about himself. It’s like that bullshit Seraph says in the Matrix Reloaded about not really knowing somebody until you fight them. There’s also a tough-love teaching aspect involved, which I think may be overlooked by many of his potential opponents, in that he’s giving others the opportunity to improve themselves by competing with him. I saw some of that twinkle, I think, when I saw him give this short presentation about different modeling schemes. Since that impulse is grounded in the foundation that dwells underneath Ron’s types of exploration — i.e. exploration of players (including oneself) — I personally don’t doubt that it’s roleplaying, but that may be a subjective conclusion.

3 Responses to “Exploration of Player”

  1. John Harper Says:

    I see this player behavior as putting the cart before the horse.

    (Just to be clear, we’re saying “Eric” here, but I’m not really talking about the real guy, just my impressions of a player type. Anyway.)


    If we look at roleplaying as the series of nested boxes that Ron sometimes uses as an analogy (one I happen to like), then Exploration is the outermost box. It’s the activity in its broadest sense, and also what you might see first if you watched it from the outside. “Hey, these people are exploring an imaginary thing together.”

    Inside that biggest box is all the bits that theory types like to talk about, including Creative Agenda.


    I think the “Eric” type of player may be putting the CA first, as the main thing they’re after at the table. “Getting their fix,” so to speak. I’ve seen this happen with all three CAs. It’s that thing that happens in a Nar game when everyone just bypasses the roleplaying game part of play and starts smashing each other’s issues with a hammer (PTA sometimes goes wrong in this way). Play can feel flat or unsatisfying.

    When viewed from the outside, you see the CA box first. “Hey, those people are being dominated by Eric’s competitive drive over there… in whatever it is they’re doing.”

    In other words, the player is showing up to the table primarily for the purpose of crushing competitors, or emo-porn issue-stomping, or geek-obsessive simulation. Putting that goal ahead of all others, including the fundamental act of roleplaying. Getting the fix is what matters most, and the RPG is just a convenient vehicle. This player type would be just as happy getting the fix some other way — and is often MUCH happier when they drop the pretense that roleplaying matters and just cut straight to a different activity which more directly satisfies the need.

    In my experience, I see these players as continually frustrated. They need the fix, and the game group can sometimes give it to them, but the stupid “roleplaying game” keeps butting in and makes things difficult.

  2. John Harper Says:

    Nitpick: I said Exploration is the outermost box, but Jonathan is right when he says it’s “just below social contract.” Since everything humans do is inside the social contract box, I usually leave that layer out when I imagine the nested boxes. My bad.

  3. John Harper Says:

    Nitpick #2: I also said that CA was a box nested inside Exploration, which is kind of weird way to describe it. I’ve always liked Ron’s drawing of CA as a “toothpick” sticking through all the boxes, from Social Contract on down — that more closely matches my own mental picture. I think my post still makes sense in context, but CA as a nested box is not right.

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