Discuss: Phenomenology

This five-piece video series is my raw material for the ongoing project, to generate a real text for what on earth this role-playing ‘thing’ might actually be. It’s the abstract part, coming at it with both extensive experience but also completely without the familiar in-hobby vocabulary or investments.

It’s really abstract! I know that, it’s supposed to be. The eventual plan includes how to integrate it with examples of real play, or perhaps to have an accompanying or even lab text which is built of examples.

Help me out by causing trouble: say “what about” or “but why” or “no it isn’t,” or any kind of reflection or response. Include the time-stamp for the point in the video you’re talking about.

Addition: April 2021. Here is the Italian translation.

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19 responses to “Discuss: Phenomenology”

    • And on reflection, I realized

      And on reflection, I realized something – that although  I am not quite ready to say, "you couldn't pay me to dive into that cesspool again," I am perfectly happy to say I'll only do it for pay. Here's my plan:

      1. You and I do a dialogue about it, recorded, basically interviewing each other – asking the things interviewers never seem to manage, too, seeking to discover points of disagreement as well as more general clarity.

      2. It'll include a Q&A session as well, perhaps a structured discussion, that others can do. These "others" can be the up-to-six people, so this is a paid Seminar activity. Begins with just you and me, finishes with the group panel/activity.

      We could do the just-us part separately if we want, and post it here as an introductory thing, maybe so as many people see it as possible and gear up as best they can (they'd better).

      Let me know what you think!

  1. Phenomenological Description of Group Creation

    This is a topic of great personal intellectual interest to me. I'd like to try to bring what I've learned about the phenomenology of group creativity to the gaming medium. And work out a good way to describe it.

    I'll make what contributions I can.

    There has been qualitative research into the topic that informs my thinking about the subject and I'd like to see what bearing it has on the gaming experience.

    Jazz improvisers' shared understanding: a case study

    The construction of meaning within free improvising groups: A qualitative psychological investigation.

    Collective intentionality and plural pre-reflective self-awareness.pdf

    Again, I will see what I can to about applying this stuff rather than slinging quotations.

    • I'm looking forward to more application, for sure. At the Patreon, Santiago and I had an extensive conversation about our Cold Soldier game which I haven't brought over here yet. It seems to me to be an excellent fourth on your list. It'll be a Seminar post for sure, maybe even a paid activity for people to join a "let's extend this" discussion.

      One-half of my brain sputters indignantly at putting something else on the scheduled things to post ("Don't you think you should pace it a bit? Like a lot?") and the other is already considering pedagogy for the activity.

    • Just in case this was a dropped post – let me know what text you wanted in there, and I'll paste it in.


    I feel like "change" is one of the themes that really need more elaboration. I like that it is included in the series and explored a bit, but I think there is so much more to say. I'm thinking, specifically, about discussions such as the meaning of games related to the change they convey in the players, dynamics and aesthetics (ie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c06uoVVFZd4) and how to drive that change. It is an important theme also in screenwriting in which the change during a scene is pivotal to the feeling of the whole movie/series. This makes me think that change might be central in every instance in which we deal with fiction. Does someone have any opinion about this or any link/discussion about this theme? Thanks

    • Hi! There’s a lot packed in

      Hi! There's a lot packed in there so I will need to focus a little. I'll stay strictly with role-playing games, which is not to say they have special properties for this issue, but because movies and other mass media tend to dominate discussions and gum up the joint with their idioms.

      The first topic I'd point to is my diagrams discussion. A game's diagram does not present the totality of fictional change during play, of course, but it does show the procedures which interrelate to bring about a lot of that change. Since games' diagrams can be remarkably different, that helps to show what sorts of change are especially boosted or likely during play.

      The second topic is what you asked: what do I mean by change. I mean really, really basic and understandable things, like, if some guy in our fiction is threatened by the CIA, does he or doesn't he get assassinated, or his life ruined, or his goals shattered. Or if my paladin goes into the dungeon, does or doesn't he get hurt, does or doesn't he gain a level, does or doesn't he die, does or doesn't he save someone.

      The best way to deal with that is an example. I ask you to present, preferably from a real game experience, the before-and-after of whatever documents are used during play. In most role-playing, that's a character, but there are plenty that use group sheets or other similar things. So whatever it is for that game – show me what it looked like at the start and what it looked like after enough play to show it on that document.

  3. Hi Alexander. I’ve prepared a

    Hi Alexander. I've prepared a video response and will post it soon, as soon as it's done exporting and uploading and processing and whatever the hell it is that these buttons I push mean.

    In the meantime, and I ask you to do this before viewing the reply, I would like to know something. Why do you care? Why bother investigating any such question as a purpose of play? Why enter into this discussion with Zak, or with me, or whoever, i.e., with anybody? This is a personal question, not "why does one care," but you. Why?

  4. Thanks! I appreciate all of

    Thanks! I appreciate all of that.

    Well, here's my response, maybe a little pointed, maybe not the way I'd reply on some other day, but today, how it turned out.

  5. Second response, and the

    Second response, and the conclusion of this particular exchange, but not a shutdown, as you'll see.

    Gordon cross-posted with me, so in perhaps severe fashion, please do not reply to him here either.

    I'll direct your attention as well to the Site Etiquette rules, linked at the bottom of the sidebar.

  6. Veteran of the Synechdoce Wars

    Hi Alexander (and Ron, obviously),

    This seems like familiar ground to me – a scary, blasted-wasteland battleground that I can only imagine leaves Ron filled with weariness, and reluctant to visit due to the risk of expanding the devastation. As a veteran of that battlefield, I offer this: your marco and micro are NOT different views on the SAME thing, they are simply views on different things. Purpose of play IS disconnected (definitionally and conceptually, without preventing some non-rigorous association) from anything atomic. It's defined that way for what looked like good reasons at the time – reasons which still look good to me all these years later.

    Which is NOT to say the atomic doesn’t exist, isn’t important, or even that it can’t be useful as we consider the overall purpose (though warning: here there be dragons/deceptions galore) of play. So, to my eye, your concern over that micro/atomic stuff makes sense: yes, they’re there, and yes, they’re important. And they ARE in the GNS/Big Model. They are NOT, however, *in* the Purpose-bucket. Though, like everything else, they *can* (again, non-rigorously) influence and/or be informed by that bucket.

    An RPG player can say “I like xxx to happen with the dice in play”, and it’s a preference about … Techniques? (if I’m remembering my Big Model terminology right) Preferences about Techniques matter, but they’re not about the purpose of play. “Something I like” can be applied to lots of things that happen during/around an RPG session; “why I do this (this time) at all” is defined as something distinct from a sum/evaluation of things-I-like. As such, it's probably gotta be tied to some pretty big-picture human behavior, maybe explaining why we see so few of 'em.

    Hmm… perhaps an example of how I think about it? Let’s look at competing, the human behavior of trying to “win.” This is something humans can pretty much ALWAYS do. If you look at some “micro” thing in RPG-play, maybe you see someone trying to win. Maybe it’s literal, in terms of the games-rules. Or not – human completion takes myriad forms. Managing all those potential micro-competitions can be a big deal, obviously. But at NO point do we cross some line and say “oh, the purpose of play must be competition!” because of all those micro-events (which probably aren't "only" any one thing anyway).

    Determining if competition was the purpose of play – at this point, I’m clueless about the reasons to pick a particular term/description (Gamism, Step On Up) over another, and just have to trust that someone who’s engaging in this conversation can map a term like “competition” onto RPG play – may be partially informed by those micro-things, but it remains a thing of its own. The whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts, and is in fact defined as a thing distinct from any set of parts labeled … well, labeled in any way, but in particular distinct from any set of parts that look like micro-competition or micro-story creation.

    I hope that makes sense – there are pages and pages of discussion at the Forge trying to establish the distinction between any micro(s) and the purpose, usually trying very hard to not diss micros in the process.

    Which probably brings us to the question of Simulation (here used as a poorly-defined label for “the thing that seems to be a problem”). I’m torn between desiring and dreading an in depth discussion (in no small part because on Simulation, I do NOT know a current, possibly-right answer). For now, let me duck the issue and ask: when you say your game wants to take simulation of the fantasy genre to a new level, what do you mean? How is a new level of simulation something to be desired, as opposed to just being a great game inspired by x, y, z cool fantasy-stuff? I mean, I know this isn’t how you mean to use the term, but … my reaction to “simulate the fantasy genre” is “hell no – I want to CREATE great fantasy, not simulate anything!”

    Or maybe here isn’t a great place to answer those questions, so convert that last paragraph to what I’d like to see answered in the description of an Actual Play post for your game.

    I know that's tl;dr, but I have no summary, so … I'll just stop.

  7. It feels weird to post this so long after the videos came out, but here goes.

    I found the Phenomenology videos thought-provoking and even inspiring in their presentation of tabletop role playing games as a new medium of expression. I appreciated the focus on enjoyment as a reason for studying RPGs conceptually, as well as being an indicator of effective play. I’ve always felt more potential enjoyment in TTRPGs than actual lived enjoyment in play, frankly.

    Missing pieces – not missing so much as just things I’d like to see explored more explicitly.

    “shared imagined space” – was implicit throughout but this is an expression I’ve seen used and feel it deserves special consideration conceptually. In addition to the procedural murk mentioned in the videos, I have found that mismatched shared imagined space is a source of murk that manifests as silence, indecision, confusion, insecurity i.e. lack of enjoyment. How is the shared imagined space shared (exposition, minis and battle maps, shared pop culture references, etc.)? How does the GM know that the players actually know what they need to know, and can retain it? (in this regard I am a strong proponent of over communication even to the point of not much caring about metagaming – I digress).

    “how roleplaying is learned” – was touched on wrt the role of texts as pedagogy vs tools in play. Echoing the above … how is the “shared imagined rule set” created, learned, etc. I see fruitful parallels between RPG rules and natural languages. How do you learn complex procedures incrementally without trying to absorb them all beforehand (not possible as one can only grasp the ‘grammatical’ and idiomatic nuances of procedures in play).

    Not “misses”, just observations:

    “games” – at first I thought the lack of mention of games at all at the start was an obvious miss but I later realized this was intentional i.e. these aren’t games but more like creative social activities to incrementally develop shared fiction using game-like procedures that produce an experience that is vivid, engaging, and fair. An explicit game aspect enters only as potential purpose of play with respect to challenge, awareness of loss conditions etc.

    “transparent authorship” – similarly I thought the idea that role playing required, by definition, transparency in the process of shared authorship contradicted 90% of the history of the hobby. But then I saw this was also intentional, and that the purpose of the videos was to present an ideal – to identify and define this social art form – and to argue (I think) that any activity that subverted player agency to force a pre-determined narrative (whether authored beforehand or during play itself as improvised contrivances) was by definition *not* part of this activity. I may be misstating or exaggerating that point. I do recall thinking that maybe the videos took it too far and that some forms of predetermined narrative could still be enjoyed as role playing. [Cut to outside of the “Adept Play” saloon – Kevin comes flying through the glass and lands in heap on the dusty ground]

    • Hi! I hope you’re pleased to know that I think you’re spot-on.

      At the time I made these videos, your points about “shared imagined space” and “how role-playing is learned” were very much on mind, and in the latter case, very much as questions. I’ve spent the past five years working through them, and I think my course People and Play nails at least what I think is going on with the medium as such, and it’s now better integrated with the range of rules-design than was evident in this presentation. I’ve also developed a new course I haven’t offered yet, called Free Radical, in which pedagogy is addressed for anyone with any familiarity with the activity.

      For your last point – far from it, you’re still right on target. My better-developed-now notions include the concept of explicitly locked-down content, which is to say, what cannot change so that other things changes are highlighted. The question isn’t whether some content may be fixed or what it is or how much, but rather, what isn’t, and how it develops or changes during play.

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