Voros

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I'm starting a new thread from our rather derailed RPG Lexicon thread as a place to post on my occasional readings on role-playing game 'theory.'

I may slowly repost some of the links and readings from that other thread so it is all in one place (hopefully) minus the derailing and bickering. I thought that there was some good ideas and discussion (especially TristramEvans TristramEvans amusing but insightful diagrams of player types and stances) there before things went south. By posting here in Design and Development we may get fewer responses (if any) but perhaps they will be more constructive.

My goal is to look beyond the tired Three-Fold-Model/GNS knife fight and other distractions, so if you want to discuss how much you hate Forgites or how D&D is neo-colonial please take it to another thread.

In pursuit of fresh ideas I've been reading broader game theory, including video game and larp theory. As rpgs are really a strange hybrid form, growing out of wargames and political/psychological role-playing, it only makes sense to approach them from a variety of angles. Larp theories strength to me from my reading is that it seems less prescriptive and taxonomic than what has passed as 'rpg theory' (i.e. it isn't thinly disguised ax grinding about 'inferior' and 'superior' forms of play).

Also it draws on a wide range of other fields that overlap with rpgs in fruitful ways: sociology, psychology, theatre. Larp also naturally focuses on the role-playing aspects of rpgs in a way that is rare because it seems to me that many are still embarrassed discussing that important but actually little discussed aspect of the form.

Speaking of which, the impetus for this thread was this piece on Role-playing, theatre and improvisation by Sara Lynne Bowman. I think she does a good job of summarizing some of the relevant ideas from Johnstone's Impro in relation to rpgs and manages to discuss the much abused term immersion in a productive way.

I read parts of Impro when I was in school but picked it back up as an ebook and plan on a reread sometime soon.

impro_english_F.jpg
 
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Voros

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I hope you'll be covering these timeless classics:
View attachment 7386
"YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT."

I actually have those too and yeah they're terrible. Covering them is a good idea as I rarely see them discussed in detail. I also have early books on rpgs by Ian Livingstone and two teens hired by Penguin that are notably better and worth looking at.
 

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I hope you'll be covering these timeless classics:
View attachment 7386
"YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT."


I had both books at one point. A friend gave me a copy of the Role-Playing Mastery book around 1991 after I discovered tabletop RPGs. He was seven years older than me and had played tabletop RPGs for years, mostly Villains & Vigilantes IIRC. I bought Master of the Game a few years later. They were... interesting. They did have some good insights on how tabletop RPGs are created and their structure, but as for playing and GMing...
 

Arminius

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Thoughts on the Bowman article:

It’s surprisingly sympathetic and accurate in describing “immersion” in the sense that I tend to use it. Bowman also astutely notes the differences between acting for a passive audience and playing an RPG, although she blurs things slightly in considering other players to be part of the “first person audience”. It’s much more complicated and varied than that. Her observation about socially formed identity via the mask or garb a player might wear (usually figuratively in a TTRPG) is also good.

However, I’m not sure I can trust her interpretation of other writers, because she gets the definition of “dramatism” and “narrativism” completely wrong—the same mistake many others make, assuming a meaning, probably from a brief impression, instead of looking at what the people who coined the term actually say about it.
 

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Thoughts on the Bowman article:

It’s surprisingly sympathetic and accurate in describing “immersion” in the sense that I tend to use it. Bowman also astutely notes the differences between acting for a passive audience and playing an RPG, although she blurs things slightly in considering other players to be part of the “first person audience”. It’s much more complicated and varied than that. Her observation about socially formed identity via the mask or garb a player might wear (usually figuratively in a TTRPG) is also good.

However, I’m not sure I can trust her interpretation of other writers, because she gets the definition of “dramatism” and “narrativism” completely wrong—the same mistake many others make, assuming a meaning, probably from a brief impression, instead of looking at what the people who coined the term actually say about it.

Where are you thinking the term 'dramatism' comes from? My understanding is it comes from sociologist Kenneth Burke and was 'popularized' and slightly re-defined by the sociologist Erving Goffman.
 

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She gives her source in footnote 14. If either the Threefold (whose development I personally witnessed) or GNS ever referenced those two, it would be very much news to me.
 

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She gives her source in footnote 14. If either the Threefold (whose development I personally witnessed) or GNS ever referenced those two, it would be very much news to me.

Dramatism in relation to rpgs was discussed by Gary Alan Fine in his classic Shared Worlds: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds in 1983, which was the earliest serious academic study of rpgs. His book was influential in the hobby so I suspect the term, with a different meaning developed for game theory, was borrowed from Fine. Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life was also an unlikely best-seller that was widely read and a campus favourite throughout the 70s.
 
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Arminius

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Nobody talked about them on rec.games.frp.advocacy, at least during development of the Threefold. John Kim can probably speak more definitely since he was a more enthusiastic participant in the discussions, but I’m quite sure your suspicion is off. Edwards explicitly referenced the Threefold, so that is the origin of his terminology (with his explanation why he changed Dramatism to Narrativism when he realized he had something new). In any case, Bowman’s misreporting of her direct source is unfortunate.

(Much of old r.g.f.a is still searchable on groups.google.com even though the current content is all spam. If you’d like to verify your suspicion you could try that.)

ETA: I searched for “dramatism”, “dramativism”, and “narrativism” in Fine on Google books; didn’t get any hits. Maybe you’ll find something with other variations such as the -ist forms. I haven’t looked in Goffman.
 
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Voros

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Nobody talked about them on rec.games.frp.advocacy, at least during development of the Threefold. John Kim can probably speak more definitely since he was a more enthusiastic participant in the discussions, but I’m quite sure your suspicion is off. Edwards explicitly referenced the Threefold, so that is the origin of his terminology (with his explanation why he changed Dramatism to Narrativism when he realized he had something new). In any case, Bowman’s misreporting of her direct source is unfortunate.

(Much of old r.g.f.a is still searchable on groups.google.com even though the current content is all spam. If you’d like to verify your suspicion you could try that.)

ETA: I searched for “dramatism”, “dramativism”, and “narrativism” in Fine on Google books; didn’t get any hits. Maybe you’ll find something with other variations such as the -ist forms. I haven’t looked in Goffman.

That's possible, I read Shared Fantasy a while ago and have a physical copy...Edit: checked the index and it isn't listed.

The term dramatism itself though comes from Kenneth Burke, apparently he drew the concept from Shakespeare, it is actually a much more established technical term in sociology/rhetoric than it is in game design.

I've been intending to track down a copy of Goffman's Frame Analysis to see if his discussion of the Frame (which draws on theatre) sheds on light on rpg play.

Goffman uses the term dramaturgy in place of Burke's dramatism as his concept is different than Burke's although influenced by him. The possible connection I suspected is that Fine extensively uses Goffman's Frame theory to explain how rpgs function. Anyone who had studied theatre is also likely to have run across the term's use long before it became common in game design.

It is certainly possible that the use of dramatism in Threefold Theory is purely a 'borrow word' from the sociology/rhetoric context with no meaningful connection.

BTW my dumbed down summary of Fine's use of Goffman's Frame theory from another thread is:

He identifies three frames RPGs operate in (paraphrasing from memory):

1. The in-world iimaginative Frame 'I draw my sword and charge at the orc with a warcry.'

2. The mechanical Frame: 'I roll a 16, do I hit?'

3. The RL Frame: 'Pass me the chips.'

Fine includes all mechanics in the second Frame, IC or OOC mechanics all take place outside the first Frame.
 
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Arminius

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(EDIT: cross-posted)

I do see "dramatism" as a term invented by Burke, which Goffman acknowledged as an influence on his concept of dramaturgy.

It's late at night, so all I've done is skimmed the Wikipedia articles, but it doesn't sound to me like either Burke or Goffman was talking about anything like the RGFA version of "dramatism". In the absence of other evidence the straightforward explanation is that the word was re-coined out of the blue, and didn't have a conceptual link. Again, this is consistent with what I remember.

I could just barely see the possibility, though, that Bowman's misinterpretation of RGFA "dramatism" comes from having Burke/Goffman on her mind. But basically she's talking about "hamming it up" in the service of making a character & situation more vivid.

Incidentally, I think someone in the earlier thread said that John Kim's site was down, but that's not quite right. The main page doesn't link to anything, but you can still find things if you know what you're looking for. Here's a page of links to RGFA articles from Google Groups that provides signposts to the development of the theory.

I don't really mean to divert this thread into taxonomic models of RPGing or their history (at least not now--I may have a word or two to say about shunning taxonomies), but that one sentence in Bowman's article jumped out at me.
 

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For general game design theory (that covers RPGs among others) Costikyan's I Have No Words & I Must Design is pretty much mandatory reading -
www.costik.com/nowords2002.pdf

It is great and was originally published in Interactive Fantasy #2, all of the issues which are now on Drivethru for PWYW.

Costikyan also wrote a short book for MIT Press that expand on some of the ideas in that essay. It is also a worthwhile read although only partially references rpgs.

_collid=books_covers_0&isbn=9780262527538&type=.jpg
 
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Voros

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(EDIT: cross-posted)

I do see "dramatism" as a term invented by Burke, which Goffman acknowledged as an influence on his concept of dramaturgy.

It's late at night, so all I've done is skimmed the Wikipedia articles, but it doesn't sound to me like either Burke or Goffman was talking about anything like the RGFA version of "dramatism". In the absence of other evidence the straightforward explanation is that the word was re-coined out of the blue, and didn't have a conceptual link. Again, this is consistent with what I remember.

I could just barely see the possibility, though, that Bowman's misinterpretation of RGFA "dramatism" comes from having Burke/Goffman on her mind. But basically she's talking about "hamming it up" in the service of making a character & situation more vivid.

Incidentally, I think someone in the earlier thread said that John Kim's site was down, but that's not quite right. The main page doesn't link to anything, but you can still find things if you know what you're looking for. Here's a page of links to RGFA articles from Google Groups that provides signposts to the development of the theory.

I don't really mean to divert this thread into taxonomic models of RPGing or their history (at least not now--I may have a word or two to say about shunning taxonomies), but that one sentence in Bowman's article jumped out at me.

No problem, looking closer at that sentence I think you're right that she isn't using the terms correctly there.

Although I do think those most commonly interested in dramatist play are probably more likely to be comfortable with more overtly dramatic play at the table there's nothing in either theory that addresses that per se.
 

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On Threefold, there seems to have been a primitive version circulating round LARP circles previous to the 1997 r.g.f.a discussions

Nexus (from Chaosium) refers to the three types of players as "gamers, actors and roleplayers" and that's from 1994. The way the book presents it suggests these terms were already being applied rather than being something new to the book. The authors (Freitag and Dutton) are two of the three founders of the Society for Interactive literature and were involved in running what was probably the first theatre style LARP back in 1983. So if they were using the model it suggests it was very much in common usage in those circles.
 

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The Nexus article may have been influenced by an article by Glenn Blacow that appeared in Different Worlds in 1980. Or possibly not. One point I want to make about the taxonomic approaches is they seem to keep being reinvented independently, which suggests to me that there are real issues they address even though not everyone perceives the distinctions.

(Edited for clarity.)
 
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Black Leaf

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The Nexus article may have been influenced by an article by Glenn Blacow article that appeared in Different Worlds in 1980. Or possibly not. One point I want to make about the taxonomic approaches is they seem to keep being reinvented independently, which suggests to me that there are real issues they address even though not everyone perceives the distinctions.
To clarify, Nexus is a covention LARP scenario.

I'd agree though. If you use the descriptions as hard categories I think you run into issues. But if you use them as loose guidelines they generally boil down to "understand your individual players and their motivations and cater your game to that accordingly".

They're especially useful with one shot LARPs (and probably one shot tabletop games as well) because there's normally a casting process there as opposed to people creating their own characters.
 

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I’d go farther: I think the hard categories tend to be recapitulated nearly every time someone reinvents the wheel. Not perfectly, and even within a given taxonomy the definitions are often unclear, but I think that divisions among players, games, and styles of play are as real and generalizable as “Ameritrash” vs “Euro” in boardgaming.

The reason this is important is if you’re doing an analysis of RPGing in general, you must either address the variety of styles that are grouped under the activity (even though there are commonalities to be sure), or state from the outset that you’ll only focus on a subset, or risk marginalizing/erasing certain styles, even certain communities.
 

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.... identifies three frames RPGs operate in (paraphrasing from memory):

1. The in-world iimaginative Frame 'I draw my sword and charge at the orc with a warcry.'

2. The mechanical Frame: 'I roll a 16, do I hit?'

3. The RL Frame: 'Pass me the chips.'

Fine includes all mechanics in the second Frame, IC or OOC mechanics all take place outside the first Frame.

In my experience, our games, all three of those frames happen often in that order one after the other. The third may involve a joke about that war cry.
 

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This is a great conversation. RPG studies--to the extent that it exists--still relies pretty heavily on Goffmanian frame analysis, though I am also of the opinion that RGFA Dramatism and Forge Narrativism have practically nothing to do with Burke or Goffman. But it's worth taking a look at Daniel MacKay's (2001) _Fantasy Roleplaying: A New Performing Art_, which uses performance theory to generate five frames of language use in RPGs, including a "constative" frame of second-person address, which strikes me as cool, since it highlights the "what do you do?" aspect of RPGs. Jennifer Grouling Cover's 2010 book on narrative in RPGs does something similar.There are also shorter scholarly articles and book chapters here and there. In any event, I think it's neat to focus on the details of how RPGs work via talk, and that may be a place where online "expert player" discussions and academic RPG studies have something to say to each other.
 

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This is a great conversation. RPG studies--to the extent that it exists--still relies pretty heavily on Goffmanian frame analysis, though I am also of the opinion that RGFA Dramatism and Forge Narrativism have practically nothing to do with Burke or Goffman. But it's worth taking a look at Daniel MacKay's (2001) _Fantasy Roleplaying: A New Performing Art_, which uses performance theory to generate five frames of language use in RPGs, including a "constative" frame of second-person address, which strikes me as cool, since it highlights the "what do you do?" aspect of RPGs. Jennifer Grouling Cover's 2010 book on narrative in RPGs does something similar.There are also shorter scholarly articles and book chapters here and there. In any event, I think it's neat to focus on the details of how RPGs work via talk, and that may be a place where online "expert player" discussions and academic RPG studies have something to say to each other.

I've been intending to read Mackay's book. Will move it up in my to-read list.
 

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Going to necro this thread with links to some of the great material available online, including the free LARP/rpg game design books that come out of the Knutepunkt conferences which have some very insightful essays in them over the years.

Paul Mason in his essay "In Search of the Self: A Survey of the First 25 Years of Anglo-American Role-Playing Games" (2004). Beyond Role and Play, pg 1-14 notes a consistent problem in RPG community/fan game theory:

"Much of this debate, like others before and since, was primarily political arguments seeking to establish the superiority of one form or approach over another."

That sums up one of the main reasons that RPG game theory has so often been seen as running in place for decades. Because of it we don't see much advance beyond the same tired debates that Mason identified in the zines and APAs of the 70s and 80s.
 

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This essay by Evan Torner moves past the tired online debates about 'story' in rpgs to ask how narrative (loosely defined) emerges from play.

I think many of his ideas here about emergence, iteration and reincorpration could apply to ttrpgs as well and help explain how GMs and players shape play.

Particularly useful is how he distinguishes between different kinds of emergence in play:

"Cultivated emergence is emergent play delivering what is promised and expected within the game’s design...

Uncultivated emergence is unexpected by all parties involved, frequently including the players themselves. It prioritizes the impact of free play over the design itself, while still holding to the agreed-upon themes of the game...

Divergent emergence divorces itself from much of the intended content of the larp, often as the result of overt player action...

Unleashed emergence is the classic depiction of play getting “out of hand,” from the Hollywood-spun delusions of Mazes and Monsters (1982) to the in-game bullying that escalates to actual bullying."

Thinking of these terms with ttrpg examples instead of his larp examples of Killer, Vampire, etc.

Cultivated emergence: investigators going insane or dying horribly near the end of a session in CoC, a dungeoncrawl in early D&D, a political game of Amber. The rules and expectations of the game shape and drive the play.

Uncultivated emergence: playing a character driven politics game in early D&D. Certainly do-able and nothing in the rules prevent it but nothing in the rules or expectations of the game support it. Those unexpected character moments, outbursts of black humour or disaster in play, improvisation of all kinds.

Divergent emergence: perhaps fangs and katanas in VtM (or perhaps not as the rules could be considered to support this playstyle moreso than the fighting of the Beast or politics?); player misbehaviour in-game, usually a refusal to work with other PCs 'because it is what my character would do.' The kind of play parodied in the Community episodes 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' and 'Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.'

Unleashed emergence: perhaps a much greater danger in larp than ttrpgs although the cases of players who act out fantasies of torture and rape at the table, shouting matches and fisticuffs probably qualify.
 

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In the same book as the Mason essay is this excellent essay by Montola.

Montola, Markus (2004). “Chaotic Role-Playing. Applying the Chaos Model of Organisations for Role-Playing.” Beyond Role and Play, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros. Helsinki: Solmukohta: 157-173.

I'll excerpt some of it here for ease of reference.

"One of the common pitfalls of game mastering is the assumption that games could or should be controlled. Writing stories is a tempting but usually unsuccessful way of creating games. One key to successful game mastering is understanding the chaotic nature of role-playing and understanding how a game can be guided despite its chaotic nature..."

CHAOS: THE BASICS

"A chaotic system is an unpredictable but non-random system. The unpredictability is based on three properties, which are used to define the chaotic systems. These are nonlinearity, recursivity and dynamism (Aula 1996, 197, also Aula 1999)...

Nonlinearity means that the changes in the beginning are not linearly transferred to the end result...In the context of tabletop role-playing, the dice (for an example) are used to generate feeling of randomness by nondiegetic nonlinearity; As the way the dice are thrown has no predictable effect on the end result, the dice are used to bring more chaos to the game...

Recursivity means that the end result of the first situation is used as the beginning of the next one...In the context of roleplaying, it means that the diegeses constructed by role-playing are used as the basis for further role-playing (see Montola 2003)...

Dynamism means that the way the system changes is subject to change as the system changes. In role-playing, the way the characters act changes when the characters change themselves...

The result of nonlinearity, recursivity and dynamism is that over time the system becomes increasingly difficult to predict as the (non-random) changes accumulate..."

ATTRACTORS

"Even though they are unpredictable, the chaotic systems tend to follow attractors. Attractor is a dynamic pattern of behaviour the chaotic system tries to follow. If the state of the system changes too far from the attractor, the system acquires a new attractor...

In role-playing context, the idea of an attractor is very important. Instead of writing stories or scripts, the game masters have to understand that they can write attractors at best.

When a mysterious wizard gives the character a mission, an attractor is created leading to the dragon’s cave and back again... As the game progresses, players themselves decide whether to follow their attractors or pick new ones as they go...

The mathematicians call the important crossroads of attractors bifurcation points. They are the critical points where the system decides whether to follow one attractor or another. The character might decline the mysterious stranger’s offer, or the dice might make the character unable to sneak into the dragon’s cave..."

INTEGRATIVE AND DISSIPATIVE

"Easier than controlling how a role-play proceeds is controlling how strong the attractors are – controlling how chaotic or orderly the game will be.

In a completely orderly game, the attractors would be solid and unchangeable; There wouldn’t be uncertainty, collaboration or interaction – the players couldn’t affect the plots constructed by the game master at all.

In an absolutely chaotic game, there wouldn’t be anything tying the game together; There wouldn’t be characters nor any kinds of attractors. Hence, all the role-plays must be somewhere between the two extremes...

Integrative role-playing takes the game towards order. In integrative playing the players try to go along the attractors, making good stories and allowing themselves to be guided by the game master or the larpwrights.

An integratively playing GM or larpwright seeks to provide the players with attractors and story seeds and ensuring that by following them, the players get to have a good game.

Dissipative role-playing takes the game towards chaos. Dissipatively playing players try to forge their fortunes themselves, creating their own attractors and enjoying their freedom within the world of the game.

A dissipative GM or larpwright facilitates this progress by providing the players and characters with interesting options and ensuring that there’s a meaningful play whatever the players choose to do...

When both the game master and the players play integratively, the game becomes very orderly – the players try to keep on the trails the game master pushes them to.

As a consequence, the dramatic story progresses fairly quickly. The result may be what the Threefold Model calls ‘dramatist’ playing: a game focusing on story instead of immersion, simulation or winning.

If both the game master and the players play dissipatively, the result is a chaotic game focusing on the characters’ relationships and personalities instead of plots. The simulationist playing of the Threefold Model can usually be seen as rather chaotic...

In addition to these basic cases, there are two special cases (usually found only in tabletop) worth some extra attention; a direction-seeking game and a rebelling game...

A direction-seeking game emerges when players play integratively and game master plays dissipatively. The GM provides no direction to players, who would play a well-prepared story instead of everyday life in a chaotic world...

A rebelling game is the opposite of the direction-seeking game. In a rebelling game, the players refuse to play the readymade plots of the GM, dissipating the play instead.

Usually both direction-seeking and rebelling can be considered as problems caused by participants’ different expectations on the game...

On the scale from dissipative to integrative, taboo breaking techniques (overruling player actions, fate-play, rewriting diegetic history) can be considered over-integrative. They integrate the game, but as they remove interaction, dynamism or recursivity, they also change the core of role-playing essentially."

I've added some italics and line breaks for online readability.
 

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John Kim, familiar to many as a regular at the RPGSite, has a number of his own essays (including an influencial one on the history of the original Threefold Model) and links to other designer's essays on his site although it has been a long while (2012) since he upated it.
 

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I just want to say, I'm very interested and been reading the links, but I dont feel like I have much to say on the matter at the moment
 

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My academic book about the Forge, Tabletop RPG Design in Theory and Practice at the Forge, 2001-2012: Designs and Discussions is available from Palgrave Macmillan. It combines a historical account of the forums with a recapitulation of the “Big Model” and some examination of the communication dynamics in the threads. It’s written to be accessible to a non-scholarly (read: gamer) audience, and the concluding chapter is presented as an RPG about being a participant in the “indie scene” of the 00s. I am looking forward to having people read it and tell me what they think.

Cover.PNG
 

Voros

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My academic book about the Forge, Tabletop RPG Design in Theory and Practice at the Forge, 2001-2012: Designs and Discussions is available from Palgrave Macmillan. It combines a historical account of the forums with a recapitulation of the “Big Model” and some examination of the communication dynamics in the threads. It’s written to be accessible to a non-scholarly (read: gamer) audience, and the concluding chapter is presented as an RPG about being a participant in the “indie scene” of the 00s. I am looking forward to having people read it and tell me what they think.

View attachment 22253

Looking forward to it Bill, I see it is priced as an academic book so I'll have to try and get it via an interlibrary loan.
 

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I just wonder whether you got the POV from people who were skeptical of the direction that The Forge took. I was active for a little while and my experience mirrored that of more prominent dissenters. (By whom I don't mean trolls or crazies, but people like Balbinus and Marco Chacon.)
 
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