On the Tacit Acceptance of Play

Human interaction sure isn't straightforward, objective, or clear, even though a lot of advice on this blog is.

So where do I get off?

Why have I spent so long talking about objective things if the games themselves aren't objective?

This is the root of endless navel-gazing that has resulted from the discussion of the topic. What if the Dungeon Master creates a wandering monster table with one monster? What if the players don't do any legwork before they make a decision? What if the encounter is rolled randomly, and it secretly is the one the Dungeon Master wants to happen? What if. . .

Here are the facts:

  • I run games for 4-16 hours ever week. Errry week son.
  • Dungeon Mastering is hard.
This drives the old school renaissance blogosphere. And is the primary source of confusion for people who 'don't get it'. 

The next time you see a post or thread going "Why are their so many retro-clones? Why do so many people pay for this adventure or this book of lists?" Ask them how many hours they run games per week.

So, if you're actually running games for 400-600 hours every year, you have certain concrete, objective, and physical concerns. To put that in perspective, if you have a full time, 40-hour a week job, you put in about 2000 hours a year, assuming you take a vacation. Let's not even talk about the time the Dungeon Master spends in preparation for their game.

When people take time out of their busy lives, they have certain desires and needs that they want to meet. One of those is that they are going to have some player agency -- it is the reason to pick tabletop gaming over video games or watching movies.  This is a generalization; because generally, this is a factor.

So that's the tacit assumption, right? We're going to explore the Keep on the Borderlands already limits play in a way we've agreed, but within that realm we have certain expectations (freedom to explore outside of the caves, freedom to choose which cave to invade, etc.). I've talked about how actively removing this expected agency is the definition of railroading. 

So what does this mean?

First, I am interested in things that are immediately useful. I'm not interested in what your favorite system is, how you feel about monsters, or your last sessions play reports. I'm interested in things I can use, tonight, in a game. As a player, I'm interested in topics that inform me how the game is going to be played. Is this a Dungeon Master who believes in cheating by changing dice rolls? Is this a Dungeon Master I can trust to allow me to outsmart his precious encounter?

Second, I'm not interested in vague hypotheticals because I have to prepare for two games this week thank you. The thought experiment is a waste of time because what I need to know is "How can I insure that my players get what they are looking for?" That means concrete advice about agency.

So why am I talking about this?

Because it very clearly and effectively illustrates the uselessness of the GNS division when compared to the usefulness of the Timmy, Spike, and Johnny design principles.

Assume for a minute that we aren't going by the circular and useless definitions of Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism. Let's assume instead, that we are using the colloquial definitions of those terms. Gamism is about game rules and interesting mechanical choices, Simulationism is about logical internal consistency and consequences, and Narrativism is about an interest in character, theme, and story arcs.

The definitions, even in their new form, are useless. They describe whole games and provide little concrete information that helps me address preparing for any game this week. 

Now how are TSJ design principles useful? 

Well, if I'm going to prepare for a magic game, I have to build a deck. Their design principles concretely help me build a deck. If I'm playing casually with kids, well, I can build a deck around faeries, or zombies, or some sort of thematic element. If I'm playing casually with my friends or perhaps EDH, I can play big, expensive and flashy cards. If I'm playing in a tournament, I'm only interested in winning, and can play effective low-cost, high power cards. 

Design towards each of these principles allows me to identify which I want to use, ensures that a variety of these tools are available, and that I can discuss each card within the context of its purpose in design. 

Both systems cover play-styles. One is helpful. One is not.

This does not have to be the case. The reasons Timmy, Spike, and Johnny are useful, is because they have concrete functional definitions and implementations. Nothing prevents Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism from having the same - they just don't.

To determine the truth of this, what is an objective measure of an encounter to determine if it is Simulationist or has Simulationist elements? What is an objective measure of a magic card has elements that appeal to a Timmy? 

Obviously, there is some level of subjectivity involved in both these discussions. But using our existing definitions, saying an encounter has logical consequences or is internally consistent applies to every encounter in the game. Saying a magic card has a casting cost of higher than 5 and an effect that is global or affects more than one player does not apply to every card in the game.

Clearly when designing a game for the week, I create different situations. I try to make each of those situations filled with opportunities to fill various player needs. But when I'm role-playing I don't have the tools to objectively talk about or discuss how to meet those needs. 

I think that sucks.

This article is part of a series on adventure design, defining theory to be useful, and speaks towards the motivation and use of such. Follow the blog, sign up for the newsletter for sales and advanced information about forthcoming products, and write into (campbell at oook dot cz) if you have questions you'd like to see answered on reader mail.

The original series on Player Agency "The Quantum Ogre" is there.
You're reading part one of the series looking at illusionism.
Part 2 of looking at Illusionism, "On is Ed Greenwood the Devil" is there.
Part 3 of looking at Illusionism, "On Theory Defined: Illusionism" is there.
and Part 4 of Looking at Illusionism "On Interjecting Illusionism Ingeniously" is there.


  1. Good post. I agree that defining a vocabulary for framing games conceptually on an immediate and granular level, in conjunction with awareness of our groups' inclinations and expectations, is something that groups should consider.

    I tend to think of things not so much in terms of applying a foundation concept like GNS to session preparation, but rather in terms of which element(s) of the game the group is attracted to most strongly. Are they there to focus on their characters, the story, or the setting? Do they prefer to run their characters immersively, as avatars, or somewhere in between? Are they willing to operate within a defined genre, or do they just want to go where tonight's mood takes them?

    With these boundaries in mind, I find I can focus whatever preparation I might need to make to target the group I have. It is not as precise as TJS, perhaps, but it is a clear framework that applies as much on the large scale of GNS as it does on the scene level. While it doesn't equate to "This is a potent card with a low activation cost so Spike will love it." It does allow for balancing scenes to match the players in a more concrete and relatable way than just going by feel.

    1. A well-defined vocabulary is indeed in great need, although I think in bigger units than groups: we need a generally accepted and applicable terminology across *all* (or nearly all) rpg designers.

      As for the second part, GNS was not really about "foundation concept" or "large scale"; quite the contrary: "These terms, or modes, describe three distinct types of people's decisions and goals during play." (from http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/3/)


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