Poet Glorious is a 200-word RPG by my semi-regular collaborator Kim Lam, which I think is interesting enough that I petitioned her for the chance to act as publisher on it.
Its mechanics involve writing Haiku (actually Senryu, but whatever), and the prisoner's dilemma.
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Poet Glorious is a 200-word RPG by my semi-regular collaborator Kim Lam, which I think is interesting enough that I petitioned her for the chance to act as publisher on it.
As a fun aside: A version of "Overcoming Evil" where the GM brings out the prep for step 4 and the players flip it or don't change tactics and keep on bulldozing through?
So, like, the plot can work without a full reversal, but that usually means heaping on the pain, and making it obvious.
Darkest Dungeon and Torchbearer know this.
I was waiting for "railroady" to appear. :P
Okay, so, personally:
1. I'm completely happy if a game loads me up with meaningful choices that do not particularly form into any given plot structure. That's a good design, and Blades is good in that field.
2. I'm also happy if a game pulls towards a given structure without forcing it (by enticement and having things like moves that all point that way) - it "pulls" instead of "pushing".
3. And I'm happy if a game demands plot in a way that's deeply, deeply integrated rather than feeling like a tacked-on layer, so that "play the game" is "run the plot", straight up. Fiasco, for example, IS a plot structure in gameable form, as is The Mountain Witch. And for references right at hand, so is Atop A Lonely Tower, up there in the "Play" forum.
4. I'm not as happy when one layer of the game says "You're free to do as you like" and the other (or the GM) says "No you bloody aren't", unless I signed up for that exactly ("Want to play adventure module RB4?").
I'm primarily thinking about emergent plots, elicited by playing the game without the GM or others driving hard towards the structure (other than as dictated by the rules), but the above (as written) is relatively neutral on how you CAUSE the plot to appear.
Let's talk about plots!
1. DEFEATING EVIL
Here's the basic plot of a "defeat evil" story.
1. The hero is called to action against a partly-known enemy.
2. The hero collects their armaments.
3. The hero makes easy progress towards confrontation.
4. The first confrontation fails; the hero learns much more about their adversary, but is now faced with (or trapped in) a harder and more isolated place to go through to the second confrontation. (The adversary is defeated but revealed as not the real threat is also "learns much more").
5. The hard journey occurs; it is a grinding one, damaging the hero.
6. The hero emerges at the heart of or out of the bad place; a last confrontation occurs there.
7. The hero is victorious, and at least a little changed.
Here's my assertion about this plot: When gaming falls into this loose structure, roleplaying games tend to fall pretty flat on 4 without good and flexible prep. Additionally, many games empower but don't really change the heroes at the end; they aren't made different by their struggles, only stronger.
2. RAGS TO RICHES
Rags to riches (Joseph, David Copperfield, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling) goes like this...
1. The protagonist is shown in exposition as miserable, under the thumb of some antagonist (which need not be a person).
2. A great gift of position, status, wealth comes to the protagonist (sometimes explicitly temporarily).
3. Enjoying this gift, the protagonist shows both that they enjoy it and have qualities suited to it (which future allies notice), but also that they are in some way unready to hold it - a lack of maturity or self-assertion, often.
4. The gift expires / a crash occurs and it is lost. The antagonist reclaims the protagonist, who is left to reflect, despair and possibly plot.
5. The protagonist or their future allies take some action that has the potential to reclaim the gift. The protagonist shows new maturity or assertion which seals it.
6. The protagonist returns to a gifted state, often more grown up or now on their terms.
My Assertions: Traditional RPGs aid with very little of this, but good prep can get you a "gift" that trends this way, and an antagonist that's ready to make these moves. Also, it's likely that (4), again, will feel railroaded unless prepped with care, might be taken badly and won't prompt a "personal growth" point, and the action taken/"their terms" will be violence (and the more traditional the system, the more likely it'll be violent). Low points and reversals being growth points is a thing - a mechanism for "the bigger the hit, the bigger the potential growth" seems like a clear thing. Moving into (5) might do well with a "mentor" npc that tries to teach them to do it "properly" early on, but comes around to "I was wrong; let's do it your way" after (4).
3. THE COMEDY
So, this one (Oscar, Midsummer night, etc) is... Different.
1. A series of characters are introduced, many of whom are largely out of alignment with the world. They are with the wrong partners, trying to be something they can't, not in good family setups, and so on. They are dissatisfied.
2. Their dissatisfaction leads to them calling in or going out to some agent of chaos - or, by distraction and conflict, mistakenly turning something into an agent of chaos (grabbing wrong bags, say).
3. The agent of chaos causes an atmosphere or domino effect of things falling apart, or circulates and disrupts, or multiple such. Things get slightly ridiculous.
4. Things get bad or weird enough that under the pressure, the misaligned setups the characters cling to come apart (sometimes explosively). This is largely portrayed as worse chaos; it tends to the ridiculous or horrible-seeming, or both.
5. In the chaos, one or two things that were out of alignment come into alignment via realizations, amends, and so on. These prompt other wrong things to be set; realignment spreads.
6. The chaos comes to an end, whether by coming to a climax, being overcome by the realigned characters, or otherwise.
Assertions: Putting this into an RPG in mechanical terms as something that will emerge from play would likely require relationship traits that can be overwritten, and some evident "good state" they can be shifted into. I have never yet seen a game suited to generating this; but I believe it'd be possible.. Turning Fiasco inside out might do it; it's the closest I know of.
4: THE TRAGEDY
Always a classic....
1. The protagonist is described as having some strong desire, often related to power or position.
2. To obtain this desire, the protagonist takes some terrible action (which includes striking a nefarious deal).
3. The desire is fulfilled! All seems well.
4. Problems (internal and external) with the desire or resulting from the bad action slowly appear; further bad action is taken to resolve them, but they don't resolve well and/or spin out more problems.
5. The problems resulting from this badness connect - enemies form a side, visions cause public outbursts in front of those already suspicious, and so on.
6. The unified problems come for the protagonist, to defeat said protagonist. The protagonist may escape through suicide, face their fate, or attempt to escape the tragic end (they sometimes do escape, to prove some point about forgiveness or some such; blech).
Assertion: Traditional RPGs have all the tools for this to occur, but it only occasionally does; players flee the possible plot as it emerges and GMs often help with this. But if the group is up to go there, traditional mechanics don't push back on it.
5. THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Something you'd expect RPGs to be great at: The Hobbit, Alice in wonderland.
1. The hero is portrayed at home as vulnerable or incautious. They may be small, naive, curious, etc.
2. By some device, the hero is pulled into a strange new (part of the) world. They must perform some task or seek some exit to return home.
3. For a time, the new world is relatively wondrous, though not without challenges.
4. The wonders of this new world darken and the challenges intensify; a singular dark power takes precedence.
5. The hero is taken (or goes into) the clutches of the dark power, where it becomes plain they cannot defeat that power alone.
6. The hero escapes the dark power in some daring fashion; they bring out with them knowledge or treasure or personal growth (or all).
7. The hero passes on what they have gained or learned to the aid of those opposed to the dark power, or otherwise weakens that power by the escape itself (which folds 7 into 6). Confusion and realignment occur in the new world.
8. The hero returns home, often somewhat changed, grown, and enriched.
Assertion: So, this plot seems like it should be both easy and potentially natural for traditional tabletop play, so long as the players don't carry the assumption that they can fight any enemy presented. It fails as the emergent story for many because it ultimately makes the hero the critical factor but does NOT provide a power fantasy, which players are commonly expecting and seeking (even if they don't mean to), and which systems often aim to provide.
Last assertion: RPGs as traditionally set up are really really good at creating narratives; they're actually pretty bad at generating satisfying plots. They do mechanistically ok on Overcoming Evil, except that they tend to fall flat on the "personal growth and development side", substituting in "MOAR POWER" for that. (Aside: A lot of them also construct their "Evil to be overcome" in colonialist, racist, and otherwise befuckered ways, but that's not so much a plot-generative issue as a "the material that's grabbed first for this plot is often shit".)
Anywaaaaaaaay. Your thoughts?
I agree with the first tilt coming on a little suddenly. However! Rather than adding another step, I've been thinking about rewriting those tilts and the line that brings them in so that they're more clearly "early weirdness" - less major setbacks, more things like "The client wants us to operate under a false flag?" and other stuff that feels like startup difficulties.
Like, on the one hand, this is a solid lens. But on the other hand:
You won't be hacking Kagematsu anytime soon to give you Conan Fantasy Pulp... it's probably not going to be a "smart plan".
Conan, chained, is being taken to the tower of the nightmarish god-king. On this journey, the daughters of the god-king, each wishing for escape from their horrific father and the vile machinations of the others, seek to seduce and turn Conan to their will, so that he will join them in their personal betrayal and murder of the God-King, and their ascent to that inglorious throne.
So, I have a game I'm building on paper and (as of last night), also as a Twitterbot. It's functioning now on Twitter, though it's not great yet, and I'm looking for fun ideas to build into it.
The Project Rundown!
If you want to see it in action, the twitterbot can be found at @RhamnusC - but it's very much "for testing purposes" right now (when it's good enough to be "released", it'll get a mention in the monthly thread).
More to the point of development, I'm building it on Cheap Bots Done Quick, and the bulk of the source code can be found here: https://cheapbotsdonequick.com/source/RhamnusC. You should absolutely feel free to steal any part of that and use bits in your own projects, if any.
The code is in Tracery, which there's a tutorial on over here. Some of it should be pretty readable right out the gate - "origin" is the bit it tweets regularly, and if you see #thing# in a sentence, that means go find the entry for "thing" and put one of the replacement text bits for it in here randomly.
Now, that "bulk of the source code" doesn't include the triggers for replies - If you reply to the bot, it triggers a reply, and that code looks like this right now:
"YEAH; THE CLIENT IS":"#jobquestion#",
"THE JOB IS":"#setupquestion#",
"THE TROUBLE WAS":"#progressquestion#",
"THINGS ARE COMING ALONG":"#bigtiltquestion#",
"THE END IS CLOSE":"#climaxquestion#",
"THE WAY IT ENDED WAS":"#closingline#"
Where It's At In Development:
Abe Mendes gave the bot a full test, and it worked fine, has good point, buuuut went a little long and is a bit clumsy in terms of prompts, so I cut it down from eleven questions to eight so far, and might find a way to bring it down to seven before calling it done; I'm working on those prompts, too. Aaaaalso, Cheap Bots has a deliberate 'failure rate' of 5% on responses, in order to stop bots from infinitely looping back and forth if they tag each other, and that puts an artificial premium on "Keep it short".
The Feedback I Want First:
Primarily, what I'm looking for right now is help expanding the lists.
The lists are these bits:
, "biome": ["taiga","cragland","badlands","savanna","marshland"]
, "settlement": ["up in huge trees","in walled cities","in twisty towers"]
, "authority": ["the justice system","a local theocrat","the ruling tyrant","the commoners"]
, "antagonist": ["a rebellion","a volatile mage","a debt collector","a nomad clan"]
, "issue": ["mining rights","border claims","trade routes","an archaic law"]
, "complication": ["bandits","a dragon","dark cults"]
, "job1": ["smash and grab","sack and burn","seize and hold","recon In force"]
, "job2": ["do a leadership decapitation","hunt bandits","hold a line","garrison some place"]
, "job3": ["bodyguard someone","fight in pitched battles","do covert patrols and ambushes","interdict and blockade some place"]
, "tilt1": ["the locals are fighting with the enemy"]
, "tilt2": ["our side has no real defenses"]
, "tilt3": ["the enemy is hiring extra forces"]
, "tilt4": ["the client died and their heirs are squabbling"]
, "tilt5": ["the client can't pay"]
, "tilt6": ["the enemy offered us more"]
I have a bunch of stuff to add to those, and will likely start adding random expressions to other bits of the dialogue, so as to give different prompts each time, but the lists are the meaty bits that need to be as extensive and as inspiring as possible. So! Ideas! Gimme!
Other feedback I want: Pretty much anything that's actionable. "This prompt is weak" is actionable; I can do a thing there. "This game stinks" is not.
Also fine in this thread: Any discussion towards "Have you tried?" and "I want to do something like this; gimme a hand?"
Makes perfect sense - I just didn't want to go diving in and messing around while you're all still sorting "How we want things to work"; best to get the intent first, and 'set precedents', so to speak, onward from that.
Same thing they do in the video game development forums, and go "Here's my project, here's where it's at, the input I want is thus-and-so, I'll update as it develops".
Basically, public design and development threads. Which...
Like, on the one side, those can get awful market-ing-y, for sure, especially if they keep being updated post-release, which is contrary to keeping marketing in the stickies.
But at the same time, we seem to have a LOT of subforums for design, which suggests the expectation of a lot of threads on design for each subtype, which makes me go "Maybe project development threads up to the point of release are intended to be a thing?"
I'ma use a dungeon as an example.
A dungeon that has a big monster at the end has provided the material for a climax, which is a narrative piece (whether you want to call it a 'beat' or not, dunno; that's not my terminology)
Foreshadowing and building up to that monster by having things like the giant claw marks here, the weird cult of kobolds that pays homage to it in the cave over there, and so on, more firmly establishes it as climactic - it improves its quality as the narrative device (beat?) of "climax".
D&D and many other games have bits pointing this way all over the place; they just aren't typically explicit or direct.
Making them more explicit, in the sense of Do This To Get That, is useful.
Heh. While I suspect that being able to go "Okay, my game supports this", and then spin that into "You should buy my game and thereby get THIS!" would be a strong (and honest) marketing method....
...Uh. I kind of suck at marketing. I think there's almost certainly a method and vocabulary to do it with, but damn if I know them.
I'd put the Rules Cyclopedia and Hackmaster in the OSR category (and the Cyclopedia as core to some gamers there I know). So... I think we'd need to talk specific games and artifacts to reach full agreement on the level of Ludus running around.
While I'm not tempted to lie, I will note that I have no idea how to legitimately state "This is a collective or partnership, but not a registered business", which means I don't know how to honestly host a number of things I've made with others on here.
The WotC FAQ on the OGL (little alphabet soup there), which includes a link to the license itself.
Functionally, two cases:
1. If you directly host open game content (that is, people write whole games on the forum itself, or post big excerpts of mechanics and such), and if that counts as publishing, then the writers of same theoretically need to attach the OGL... Somehow? Nobody does this outside of SRD sites where they host a crapload of it, and nobody apparently cares, though some people do (rarely) link to it.
2. If you host self-contained publications that include open game content (that is, people put OGL systems and stuff up on Itch), then the writers of same need DO need to include the license in the publication. Everybody does this, and indications are that WotC does care, though not to any draconian extent.
Starting with the second:
These categories are not only not exhaustive, they're... Hrm. Not quite illusory, but it's like pointing at clusters on a scatter plot? It's clear there's something going on there, but if a given person goes "Oh, that cluster has a lot of subtypes", they're super-correct. These clusters are made up of subtypes all the way down to the level of the individual experience. If that works for you.
Now, to the first:
This is a messy question! So, for starters, not all games actually imply or support a singular playstyle, or support the one they claim. Ron Edwards of the Forge spilled a stunning amount of digital ink on the fact that original Vampire: The Masquerade promised something collaboratively narrative, but didn't actually support it for shit.
I'm going to set aside the phrase "reward system", because it can also mean really specific devices like Fan Mail and Bennies and Xp, for a second. I'll come back to it after this paragraph...
A game that's working well for sure encourages you to do what it wants by holding out specific kinds of fun, by encouraging you or leading you to visualize a playstyle, to imagine the payoff - solving the tactical puzzle, the beautiful pain in affective play, and so on. Ideally, it highlights this by putting the devices for that playstyle right up in your face, in the form of stats and dice and cards and other stuff to grab and engage. Now, not all players are necessarily receptive to whatever that is (and GMs might not care about that either), plus games aren't generally plain about exactly what they're holding out (having often arrived at it by trial and error or blind inspiration in design), so you get a lot of games being overwritten on this count. Which is mostly fine, if the group finds their fun; it's just crap when the group wants to engage the design and misses because it's unclear.
...So, by that reckoning, most of a game is a big-ass reward system set up to deliver the goods on the intended types of fun that make up the envisioned playstyle, and calling the "last mile" or mechanically visible delivery device the reward system is kind of odd. Especially when those "rewards", being things like Xp, etc, aren't actually the rewards - they're just the shiny bait that draws you in to the machinery. The fun is the reward.
Most of the terms and types are significantly older than my take on theory - a fair number from Man, Play, and Games by Roger Callois in 1961, others from Jane McGonigal, some from Rec.Games.Frp.Advocacy, and of course the Forge.
And yeah. A lot of OSR work is designed to start with what I call (I think accurately) the "Classical" playstyle... and then raising up the Agon, Fiero, Ludus, Venting joys.
Buuuut, there's also simultaneously reaction against 3.5 and 4th, which amped up the same things by binding, mechanistic means rather than loose, body of practice ones. And there's also been, on and off, a strong dose of "No artificially-induced Kairosis!"
I'm working on a mercenary group kind of thing that I'm calling Rhamnus Free Company. Roughly a love letter to an idealized Black Company kind of plot.
It's right up next to playtest-ready, so long as it's me running it. The handful of other people likely to find my current notes comprehensible... Er, have already seen them.
Post numbah 3.
AAAAAAAAND FINALLY: PLAYSTYLES
So, as a quick review of the previous bits:
~ There are loads of kinds of fun.
~ Each has requirements to happen.
~ They often cluster up.
~ They are not all compatible in all forms.
Okay, so, Playstyles! A playstyle is the body of mechanics and techniques a group uses to pursue a particular bundle of good things. Every group playstyle is unique, group playstyles change over time, and a group's playstyle changes to some extent, by definition, when they change games (though they often carry over things they find “core” to their overall meta-style).
A playstyle can be dysfunctional, trying to serve contradictory things - but very few stay that way for long. Either the group falls apart, they drop one of the conflicting pursuits, or they cobble together some solution.
Happily, playstyles also tend to cluster up, forming identifiable types. Some of those clusters have semi-common big heavy names already, like “Narrativism” and “Immersionism” and so on… which I'm going alter slightly before using here, to demarcate them so you can say things like “Your narrative playstyle cluster isn't really Narrativism” if you want to.
Here's a quick list of seven clusters that many individual playstyles fall into one (or more) of. This is not a comprehensive list:
Narrative playstyles focus on providing Kairosis, Expression, and fiction-engaged Kenosis. Sorcerer is an example of a game which drives and supports a group of playstyles in this cluster.
Tactical playstyles focus on the cluster of Ludus, Agon, Fiero, and Venting. D&D 4th edition is a game that drives and supports a group of playstyles in this cluster.
Immersive playstyles focus on character-engaged Kenosis; most immersive playstyles also have features that tie them to some other cluster, but will rarely connect to heavy Ludus or fiction-engaged Kenosis; there's conflict there. Game systems that support this style are ones that the group doesn't need to heavily engage mentally; they are “in the background”.
Improvisational playstyles are high Paida, high Expression, and a grab bag of other things (humour is common but not critical). Baron Munchausen is improvsational-supporting; Theatrix certainly wanted to be.
Classical playstyles (distinct here from traditional, below) have high Alea, Catharsis of the “Wow, we lived” variety, and a toned-down version of the tactical set that's less Ludus-centric. Early D&D dungeon crawls, full of save-or-die and the like, drive classical playstyles.
Traditional playstyles are those that attempt to pile in as many of the good bits as possible, with no absolute focus, and often aim to do so as efficiently as possible. Most traditional games can support styles in this vein.
Affective playstyles aim for, in order, emotional Catharsis, character-engaged Kenosis, and Kairosis. Colloquially, these are supported and driven by indie “feelings and index cards” games.
Post numbah 2. Now, let's talk about supporting those kinds of fun.
Alea, the thrill of gambling, is supported in games by random elements that create and release tension.
Therefore, to support Alea, a game need tense moments, resolved randomly - which is a little more complex than just “has random”.
Critical hits that one-shot an enemy aren't typically sources of Alea unless the combat itself already had tension (but if it did, they're jackpots). Save-or-die is strong Alea, because tension.
Swingy one-die systems support more Alea, but often less Ludus; if the stats matter less, you can't satisfy the desire to work the rules. Dice that give a low-random probability curve go the other way.
Which is not to say a system can't do both. Texas Hold'em is strong both ways; the dice in Dogs in the Vineyard can be, too (though not as heavily).
Heavy Alea goes well with heavy Paida; a lot of old school play is high-random goofing around, with loads of character death on a lost roll. This style leaves little room for Kairosis and Kenosis, however, though it can absolutely do one strain of Catharsis in the form of “Holy crap we survived”.
The rulesy fun of Ludus is often most strongly served by, unsuprisingly, games with big sets of rules and interesting tactical choices. Pathfinder, Exalted, and so on.
Ludus is also often provided in the form of “lonely fun”; building characters and talking optimization has no shortage of it.
However, at the table, high-ludus play can get a bad run in traditional games. If not all players are on board, they can feel dragged in and bored. Worse, if a Ludus-seeking player has significant system mastery and aren't paying attention to other people's fun, they can pull the whole game focus into being on their thing… And because it IS a game, with rules, this seems reasonable.
Traditional games are chronically bad at handling these issues, but some solutions exist. Paranoia demands that you never show any knowledge of the rules, you traitor. Old School play often quashes the time it can occupy by emphasizing rulings as needed. Many games have aimed to give Ludic (and Agonic) play a specific domain in combat, sometimes to an extent that alienates some (D&D 4th comes to mind). And, of course, some games just don't support Ludus much at all, having lighter or non-tactical rules.
Less traditional games, aiming to align the rules with the focus of play, go all over the place in terms of Ludus. Some deliver, some don't, some are resistant to “Ludus seeker can screw it up”, while others are even more vulnerable to it (and more insufferable when it happens).
Kairosis is the satisfaction of ‘literary fulfillment’, of a narrative arc working out nicely around a character or group of characters, often including characters changing and growing (in sympathetic, often emotive ways, more than in level-up ways). There are a number of ways RPGs can serve up Kairosis, which include:
Traditional gaming often has GMs built a loose campaign structure, often centered on a major villain or threat, thereby creating a plot ahead of time. There are reams of critical talk surrounding how much structure is too much, in terms of “railroading” and the like, and how much pre-planning is just good situation building. Some Kairosis-seekers find their fun spoiled by knowing the story is largely prewritten; others don’t.
Traditional gaming also often assumes the GM will use their authority to bend things towards satisfying conclusions in one way or another (White Wolf especially did this). Again, this approach has significant critical talk about whether the GM should cheat, about making player choices illusions in the service of sneakily pacing the story, and so on. And again, some Kairosis-seekers find that this spoils their fun, while others don’t.
Less traditional games often aim to build naturally-occurring emergent narrative into the game, cutting down pre-planning and GM-driven story-making. These are replaced by mechanics that drive character arcs, or attempts to load up situations with things to resolve that will theoretically create story arcs however the players choose to go. Kickers in Sorcerer are a naked example of the first; town creation in Dogs in the Vineyard and clear example of the second. Countdown clocks in Apocalypse world are a weaker, more sandboxy version of the second, as well (and the exhortation to “play to find out” is a hard shove away from pre-plotting).
Kairosis is also linked to some experiences of ‘immersive’ play, where the player wants to vicariously experience meaningful moments of development for/as their character. When this is the case, any meta-mechanics that aren’t linked directly to the fiction (countdown clocks that measure something other than actual in-fiction time, for example) can break the vicarious experience and thus ruin the Kairosis.
SUPPORTING: AGON AND FIERO
Fiero is the feeling of triumph, of overcoming adversity, requires a sense of opposition. If there's no opposition and no risk of loss, there's no Fiero.
Agon, meanwhile, is the competitive thrill of one-upping another player. If there's no competition (and opposition counts), then there's no Agon.
Obviously, these two kinds of fun overlap in many games, but just to keep them sorted: Gimli and Legolas have Agonic fun with each other while killing Orcs while getting Fiero from the Orcs. To a player in a battle royale, on the other hand, Agon is build-up, and Fiero is payoff.
Relatively few tabletop RPGs pit players with equal resources against each other in serious Agon (though there are a handful). Most instead look to the GM (a quite unequal player) to set up challenging scenarios, and take on a semi-Agonic role temporarily during their execution (which is typically combat). While this damps down the Agon, many traditional games also bring in plenty of interesting rules tied to it, allowing a good bit of Ludic fun in with the weaker Agon. Additionally, many games paint combat adversaries as irredeemably awful, which gives the delivered Fiero a nice touch of Schadenfreude to go along with it.
The traditional complex of good stuff served up can also pitch a long grind of semi-Agonic material (often in the form of a dungeon). This can deliver Catharsis (as in, whew, that was a hell of a thing).
SUPPORTING: HUMOUR AND PAIDIA
Humour and Paidia are another linked set, just as Agon and Fiero.
An improv group that's working off each other is pursuing (and achieving) Paidia - and is fairly likely being humorous as well. A jazz group that's jamming is getting Paidia, but not Humour. A comedian doing a well-rehearsed set is dishing out Humour but not engaging in Paidia at all.
Rigid, comprehensive rules and strong Paidia-seeking don't generally mingle well; if you can't improvise with the rules, you can't chase Paidia in them… Which means Paida-seeking players can feel let down when mechanics are engaged.
Humour can be split up a lot of ways; some is in-character, some in-fiction in other ways, and some just social at the table. That said, the division I’ve found most useful is to split in-fiction Humour between what emerges naturally from Paidia in play, and deliberate jokes.
This division is because when there's a problem with humour (other than the group just going off track socially), it's often because deliberate jokes in the fiction are risky. Such deliberate jokes can easily push play towards silliness - and specifically, silliness that nobody will further engage, and which requires added suspension of disbelief and the like to deal with. Really silly character names, for example. Such jokes are a drag on the group; one or two laughs, and then carry that thing around as dead weight anytime it comes up. That's fine for cartoon-level comedy, where you can always flog it some more, but it’s much less so for many other games, interfering with seeking other kinds of good stuff.
SUPPORTING: SOCIAL FLOW
Socializing and some degree of creative Expression are going to happen in and around an RPG by default. Beyond the obvious need to have a group that can function socially, the heaviest concern with these things is what form of Kenosis they support (if any). This is also a concern in term of Ludus and other bits, but it's especially easy to describe here.
Kenosis, as a flow state, comes in two main flavours - deep engagement with fiction, and deep engagement with character. Other possible flow states exist (from Paida, Ludus, and mixes of other things) as well, but pay off other ways.
Deep engagement with either fiction or character require that one can maintain that engagement. That is, if the play pushes regularly for full mental engagement with something else, it'll break… and if the creative expression and socializing at the table don't match it, it'll break.
Which leads back to this: During play, are players primarily expressing themselves and socializing around the game, through the procedures of the game, or as their characters? Do the rules pull them to a specific “voice” that they then hang around in?
Closure, Catharsis, and Schadenfreude are notable in that they all usually depend on some form of ending - and most of the ways that Venting is offered up employ them as well.
The traditional structure incorporating all of these is the campaign villain and their disposable henchthings, with rising action - however, this is common to the extent that laziness in presentation and tropes can make the whole thing feel “stock”, cheapening the whole bundle.
Notable on the front of bad tropes - “The villain escapes again” can act as a cheat on the bundle just as easily, offering up this stuff and then snatching it away. Escapes when the players aren't actually invested in that villain are fine, but once they're out for blood…
Outside the bundled complex, even harder Catharsis is often hit through intensity of emotive play. Bluebeard's Bride is a Catharsis engine, among other things.
You want theory? I gots theory. Three posts.
Let's start with a glossary of “Kinds of fun”. It's not complete by any stretch, but here we go:
AGON is the thrill of winning against another person at the table. This is not quite the same as beating a challenge, or about winning against difficult odds; it’s about beating the other people at the table. It’s not the most common joy of RPGs - in fact, a lot of gamers want to avoid it, since problem agon is really, really bad stuff. But it does sneak in. When the GM takes on the role of adversary, playing not just to embody the challenge fairly, but in an attempt to whup the players, that’s agon. When a couple of players engage in creative one-upmanship, trying to spout the coolest thing (in theatre terms, trying to upstage each other rather than collaborate), that’s agon again. Agon can be good, but only if it’s acknowledged and used, rather than festering quietly.
ALEA is the gambler’s thrill - the fun of taking a big risk, the tension that comes with it, win or lose. Games with dice rolls, and especially ones where big stakes are riding on that one throw of the dice, are good at giving alea.
CATHARSIS is a feeling of release that follows an intense or overwhelming experience. Not necessarily a tragic or traumatic experience, but usually an emotional one. Catharsis is served best by very particular kinds of phrasing in play - notably, talking in the first person regarding your character is often deeply helpful.
CLOSURE is the feeling that there is nothing more that need be done, and that the thing is finished. Closure requires resolution to whatever the matter at hand may be. This goal isn’t especially tied to any of the modes, but does require that either the GM make the in-character goals and end points clear, or that they actively listen to the players (in a way that often has some features like slow-moving collaboration).
EXPRESSION is the simple desire to be creative at the table; expressive players often spend plenty of time on description, might draw the characters, might write seriousbackgrounds (though big backgrounds also mark Kenosis and Kairosis)
FIERO is the feeling of TRIUMPH, of winning, of defeating a challenge, or overcoming adversity. People looking for that feeling are on the lookout for adversity – and they tend to want adversity where they can be partisan for their characters and the GM is actually playing against them a bit. If it’s not a real challenge, with real dangers, then there’s no payoff for a fiero-chaser. If you’ve ever died again, and again, in a computer game, and then finally manage to succeed, and felt a rush where you could stand on your chair and scream? That’s fiero.
HUMOUR… Games can be played for laughs, and often are. A player that really pushes for humour will often end up pushing for collaboration, even to the point of attempting to dictate the actions of other player characters, because some of the humor that comes to mind most easily can step outside the specific ideas of “who is in charge of what" often setups lay down.
KAIROSIS is the feeling that of fulfillment that comes when an arc of fictional development completes – a character is tested and changes, a situation grows more complex, and is then resolved, and so on. Actively seeking kairosis often means authoring, though it may only be authoring certain details relevant to you (revealing yourself from stunt-level disguise in Spirit Of The Century, picking out character developments from Fallout in Dogs in the Vineyard). If you find yourself saying "that was a good ending to that bit", you're probably experiencing Kairosis.
KENOSIS is the feeling of being deeply engaged in their character or in the fiction as a whole; it’s one version of “immersion”. Players looking for this (especially really serious kinds) often aim for a lot of characterisation. They also often (but not always) want to avoid types of collaboration that will pull them “out of the groove”. Serious kenosis is one of many “flow states” that goes on in tabletop gaming.
KINESIS is tactile fun. Miniatures, maps, game book illustration, tokens, and dice are all visual and tactile things that are enjoyable about RPGs. I haven’t yet met anyone that considers these things their number one priority, but it ranks in the top five things for quite a few.
LUDUS is for people who take their rules seriously. The tinkerers and the optimal builders are chasing this kind of fun. To someone looking for ludus fun, the rules are the game, a toy that the group is here to play with. Wherever the mechanics of the game are, whatever modes they attach to, that’s where ludus-seekers go. In order to support ludus, there needs to be enough complexity in the rules to allow someone to actually spend time exploring and playing with them as something interesting in their own right. D&D and Exalted both tend to satisfy ludus-oriented players.
NACHES is the enjoyment of seeing someone that you have taught, or are responsible for, go on to do well with that knowledge. If there’s a player at your table who is always happy to teach the others about how things work, chances are they like their naches. Many GMs, unsurprisingly, get a lot of good naches and enjoy it. Some players can get this same kind of enjoyment from seeing a student or smaller ally of their character do well.
PAIDIA fun is free-wheeling player fun, where rules are a convenience. Players looking to get some Paidial fun would prefer winging the rules-calls, going for whatever feels right at the moment. If there are involved adversity-resolving rules, Paidial players avoid adversity. Novelty and wonder are often, but not always, associated with this goal. Goofy characters are sometimes signals that someone wants this kind of fun.
SCHADENFREUDE is delight in the suffering of another - the thrill of seeing the villain get what they deserve is a pretty common expression. A game session can only provide this really well if it has characters that players “love to hate” and whom they inflict real damage (not necessarily physical) on without serious guilt.
SOCIABILITY is pretty central. For most gamers, the game and the acts that make up “playing the game” are a way of being social (for others, the event is also – or only – an excuse for being social outside of play). People looking to get especially significant gameplay-as-socialisation often try to match their other goals with the rest of the group, but do want to chat in general –if they aren’t engaging in characterisation, they will often enjoy general table talk.
VENTING is, simply, the desire to work out player frustrations or other emotions, using the game as a means. After a rough day working, smacking the hell out of some monsters can be pretty enjoyable.
Like it says on the tin; I'm Levi (he/him).
Playing for... 30-odd years. Been hacking what I run the whole time; the point at which that became what any given person would call design is, uh. Fuzzy.
Have been publishing on DTRPG for a good long while, mostly small, free, or PWYW; a number of sources told me "You should look at Itch". So I'm... Looking at Itch.
Splitting subforums by specific game/type rather than activities like actual play, design, etc, can starve discussion (if everyone goes to general and there's not quite enough traffic), or pour them in concrete as the "identity" of What We Play Around Here (if there is enough).
If "Keep the playing field fairly level to let new creators rise" is a desired value, which seems pretty, y'know, in keeping with the site... It might be best to split solely by activity at first, and only by game as/when needed because one is or feels like it's dominating the general conversation.
Maaaaaaybe? My experience (primarily as an on-and-off RPGnet mod) is that:
1. Any kind of locking it away (sticky or subforum) leads to creators hunting for good (or, well, sometimes less good) opportunities to name-drop it into conversations.
2. Letting it roam free in a general discussion area means that it will clutter that area.
Neither of which is optimal.