There is little, possibly no hope left in me that discussing role-playing as phenomenology has been time well-spent. “Sporadic cynicism” indeed. But every so often something happens to disperse it. In this case, it’s Dustin DePenning, author of Synthicide, whom you may have watched in play with me over in Actual Play.
He contacted me in hopes of talking over his ideas about role-playing at a level which I greatly appreciate – above/including specific techniques and specific games, but rather, what, and regarding what variables, any such thing is doing.
The file is audio only and I think it’s a startlingly good listen, except for that one part where I start goin’ on about one of his concepts and use the wrong term (we fix that a bit later).
Here’s Dustin’s summary of how he went into the conversation and how he came out.
I’m working on a new RPG, and realizing that the forum telephone game of GNS theory wasn’t working for me. I also didn’t feel at home with OSR sensibilities focused so intensely on the concept of player challenge and GM Fiat. I saw games a little differently than the way many people discuss it on forums. So I contacted Ron and shared some rough thoughts I was formulating, and he agreed to talk more deeply about his thoughts directly. Going into the conversation, my rough ideas were as follows:
I see roleplaying games as an experience made of three large concepts:
Depiction, Immersion, Digestion
None of these are specifically about a way to play, or about types of mechanics, or a sense of winning or losing. Those are independent elements people use to focus on or express the larger concepts.
Quick break down of the concepts
Depiction is closely related to a sense of narrative. It’s essentially the story we are choosing to tell. It is made up of a Setting (the space narrative occupies), Characters (the primary details of the story), and a Conflict (the purpose of the story). Not all games interact equally with all elements of depiction, but they always touch on all three.
Immersion is the emotional connection players have with the game. This is primarily experienced through Believability (the game following internal logic that can be learned), Agency (the player’s ability to interact with the depiction elements), and Causality (the idea that when something happens, no matter the source of the event, the game world reacts in a living way).
Digestion is the entertainment experienced when absorbing and learning about the game world. It is influenced by comprehension of the games Scope (what elements are in and out of play, like flavors in a dish), noting the game’s level of Detail (how granular and crunchy the game world feels, or how sharp it tastes), and Discovery (the satisfying sense of surprise a game can have, or the novelty of its experience).
Throughout the conversation with Ron, I realized that my rough understanding was trying to mix large bucket concepts about how players experience games, with small discrete elements like narrative details. Leaving the conversation, I now see things this way:
Roleplaying games are a complex, interconnected experience with many moving parts. However, the way players experience RPGs can be seen through three big ideas:
Observation, Participation, Reflection
Observation is how the player comes to understand the shared game world. This holistically includes all aspects of the game, from mechanics, to game setting, characters, and story elements.
Participation is how the player becomes part of the game. This is driven by how the mechanics (or lack their of) actuate player agency over fictional events.
Reflection is the player’s emotional and mental response to the game. How satisfying was what they observed? How dynamic and stimulating was their participation? Does the player desire to re-engage with the game’s experience?
I think each of these are very useful concepts to measure my game. How well am I facilitating observation so the player can dive deep in the game and start playing immediately? How am I structuring participation so the player feels a sense of agency, but isn’t overwhelmed? What elements of my game really shine after they’re experienced, and will draw the player back in? There’s still much more to catalogue as far as what makes an RPG itself, but at least I have a big picture for what my players will experience.