Monday, 5 January 2015

Interaction Layers in RPGs

In this post I articulate a simple idea that's been on my mind for a while, using a lot of words (probably too many) and pictures. This is either obvious or controversial, I'm not sure, but here goes:

All in-game interactions in a role-playing game are mediated by real-world interactions.

When we play an RPG, and it's running smoothly, it feels like this:

We have a shared imaginary space in which our characters are interacting (talking, fighting, passing equipment back and forth, etc.). Graun the desert warrior is talking with Sophola the arcane.

But that's just how it feels - what's actually happening, physically, is this:
In reality, Graun never speaks directly to Sophola. Alex and Karen are speaking, pretending to be their characters, and while they do this, each is imagining the interaction. Graun and Sophola get to speak, but only through their players.

The imaginary space isn't really shared, Karen and Alex are imagining quite different things. Only our real-world actions (e.g. talking in character, the GM describing the room) get us on the same page, but when that's working smoothly, the illusion is good enough.

In other words, all in-game interactions are mediated by real-world interactions. This holds true whether we're talking about PCs, NPCs, monsters, the demographics of the market square or the broader setting - if someone at the table is talking or showing something, the interaction isn't occurring.

The power of role-taking is that, when the game is running smoothly, we can forget this completely and immerse in our characters.

What's Real Here?

Things feel real when they're tangible - that is to say, when there's resistance. If Karen (when talking and acting in-character) consistently behaves as if Sophola has her own goals and plans, which Alex needs to consider, Sophola will start feeling like a real person. If Alex does the same, Graun will too, until everyone feels as if they're surrounded by these imaginary characters.

When we meet resistance, it engages our problem-solving, learning grey matter. Like a blindfolded person feeling their way around a room, Alex uses in-game interactions to figure out what he's up against, gradually bringing into focus, and simple explanations are powerful.

When Alex understands and trusts/or his relationship with Karen well enough that he can disregard it as a source of any resistance he feels, the simplest approach is to treat Sophola as a real, independent person (merely given voice by Karen). Sophola starts to feel real:
Man, Sophola is really fucking me over.

When something seems off in the real-world relationship, Alex is less likely to perceive Sophola as real, and instead tries to figure out Karen. When Sophola's behavior is more simply explained by something Alex imagines about Karen (e.g. that she doesn't like him, or thinks his suggestions are stupid, or is more interested in supporting Peter's ideas), Sophola disappears completely:

Why is Karen being a dick?

Messages are simultaneously exchanged at both layers. Every in-game interaction is mediated by a real-world interaction, and both have meaning.

Alex (Player): I grab the shopkeeper's apron. [I interact with that character you created.]
Karen (GM): Hah! You grab a hold of it, and he totters off-balance towards you. [I'm incorporating what you said into the game.]

Alex (Player): I grab the shopkeeper's apron. [I interact with that character you created.]
Karen (GM): He dodges your clumsy swipe and breaks the vase anyways. [I'm ignoring your suggestion.]

Now, the meaning of the real-world interaction is only inferred - Alex has to guess. Perhaps Karen has decided that the shopkeeper is a demon, far more dextrous and quick than Graun. Perhaps Karen is annoyed by Alex's constant attempts to start fights. Alex will come to his own conclusion over a series of interactions.