RPG Theory Primer
This is a collection of links to articles, essays and forum threads about RPG design theory. I’m aiming to collect together a “primer” of the most terminology-defining, explanatory, and generally useful material, aimed at someone new to RPG theory who wants to get up to speed on the main concepts without delving too deep into specific questions.
Of course, I don’t necessarily agree with anything and everything contained within these links – but I recommend them as ways to help develop your own understanding and insight into what makes a roleplaying game tick.
So, the links, yeah?
Links are divided by source – the sources themselves (and other good sources) are linked in more detail under “Further Reading” below. Each set of links is in what I consider to be a sensible reading order, but have put summaries to help people find the right stuff. Note that the summaries are my own – the original writers might not agree with them!
Also the below collection is very much a work in progress – there are several places I intend to go through and pick out some choice pieces to add here. If there’s anything specific you think should be on this list, drop me a line and let me know!
The three most fundamental articles on RPG theory, in my opinion, pulled from the below lists:
- System Does Matter – why theory / design is important.
- Roleplaying’s Fundamental Act (a couple of sections down on that page) – what roleplay is, at its core, and what part systems play in that.
- Authority – breaking down what the “conversation” of a roleplaying game actually consists of.
- System Does Matter – the variety in motivations for roleplaying, and why it’s important to design a system that suits them.
- GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory – a more detailed examination of the ideas raised in “System Does Matter”, showing how to analyse a system to see what sorts of play it will encourage. In particular, formally sets out Ron Edwards’ “GNS” theory and a huge amount of corresponding terminology. Followed by three essays, one on each core “creative agenda”:
- The Provisional Glossary – all of the above boiled down to a glossary. Also contains helpful links to relevant discussions from the forums for each term.
- Applied Theory – an article looking at how to apply all of the above theory in real mechanical terms.
- El Dorado – there’s a lot of confusion (from which I myself have suffered) about the difference between Simulationism and Narrativism, and why they’re not reliably compatible (a state referred to as “El Dorado”). Here are a few good threads to help clarify:
- “Story”, Actor Stance and My Guy-ism
- Simulationism and Narrativism Under the Same Roof
- El Dorado
- Finding El-Dorado in the Zombie Apocalypse – some interesting counter-arguments here. The thread derails a bit after the first page, but up until then it’s useful stuff (and some of the subsequent bits, if you’re good at skimming).
- Authority – who gets to say what sorts of things, when? Here’s a great thread to help clarify the different “sorts of things”, so that your system can answer that question:
A collection of collections – some of these pages are themselves sets of links to anyway posts about a particular topic. In general, the first one will be enough to get the basic concept, but the rest flesh it out.
- Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore – this is the “if I had to pick a single link… this would be it” page. 11 short articles showing different aspects of the “why theory is useful” argument. To my mind, “Roleplaying’s Fundamental Act” is the most useful nugget of RPG theory wisdom there is.
- Resolution Systems – how the game fiction, the people playing, and the mechanical cues interact. With great diagrams!
- Participant Resolution vs. Author Resolution – what conflicts are, in narrative terms, and therefore how to tie up resolution as a mechanical process with resolution as a narrative tool.
- Currency – how the different bits of character mechanics interact with each other.
- The Basics of RPG Design – a (very!) brief outline of Vincent’s views on game design, chock-full of links to more detailed explanations. Not an introductory text – more like reference material. Two of my particular favourites are:
Some Space To Think
SSTT has a bunch of great stuff, but a lot of it’s quite game-specific. One of my favourite generally-applicable articles is:
- Pacing – how to stop your game dragging out or going too fast.
There are a bunch of good RPG blogs in the Blogroll to the right, but the ones I’d particularly recommend following for theory / design stuff are:
- anyway. – website and blog of Vincent Baker, designer of Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, among others.
- Deeper in the Game – blog of Chris Chinn. As well as the theory there’s some great stuff about equality and social justice in gaming.
- The Forge, in particular its Articles section, from which the Forge links above are taken, and its forums.
- Some Space To Think – blog of Rob Donoghue, designer at Evil Hat Productions and also of the Leverage RPG.
- Story Games forums – the clue is in the name.
- Transneptune Games – independent RPG company with a really interesting blog, and they’re friendly too! :-)