More than others, words define us

Over the last two years or probably longer, I have been circling an idea which ironically has not found its way out into the realm of words, spoken or written, on my YouTube Channel or here on Casting Shadows. In some of my clips and posts on genre, campaign structure, and nomenclature I have touched on what I have been thinking, but haven’t really forged ahead and brought these ideas out into the open. I am fairly sure that many of the individual topics within this post have been touched on elsewhere (they usually have been) but I wonder if outside of the video game world (where they take on stronger commercial connotations) they have been discussed that extensively among a large number of roleplayers. Any such posts I find after I put this out in the wild will be added to the links below.

Another YouTube RPG Channel, hosted by Sameoldji, has been circling some of the same topics that I have, and we have discussed them a few times in passing, but have not put our heads together to state anything definitive. This week, that may change (and I will update this post with the link should that occur). In an effort to really clarify and isolate my own thoughts on the effect of semantics and narrative perspective on gaming, I have decided to write this post before our recorded discussion takes place. To do that, I have to take some steps back and gather a few important terms and concepts together.

In this clip, I posed a question inviting viewers to comment on whether the terms we use to define our campaigns have had an effect on the way those campaigns are run. The results showed two things. The first was a preference among respondents for an explicit narrative structure and associated terms imported from script and story writing. The second was a general awareness among the older respondents of a connection between this and the degree of player agency in gaming. I have stated on this blog before that I feel there is a lot of confusion around the idea of agency and when it actually manifests. This idea is perhaps one of the building blocks of this whole post, so I will start there. 


To me, at its root, the idea of agency is the ability to make decisions for one’s character(s) without having them subverted to serve the agenda of the story. These decisions create, through interaction with the other players’ decisions and the decisions made for the NPCs by the GM, the story. Only in hindsight is the story truly visible, although like any story its outlines may be recognized as they come into shape, influenced, and worked toward. Player agency is the means through which an evolving story is able to evolve at all. This is referred to as meaningful choice and lies in counterpoint to illusory choice. The latter item gets colorful terms like Quantum Ogres and Magician’s Force, but these terms in the end just mean tricking the players into thinking that their choices matter. These illusory choices may crop up in any gaming style for a number of reasons – intentionally or unintentionally. Die rolls might be ignored to prevent the death of the entire party. The solution to a riddle might be changed to allow a months long quest to end successfully. Scenes might be totally improvised from behind the GM screen based on what feels right right now. Scenes might be set up in advance to highlight the character, advance the plot, or both. Lots of classic GM decisions affect agency on one level or another.

What is particularly interesting to me about agency is that it divides gamers into two distinct camps of people. One group does not mind the idea of having perceived or illusory choices as needed, while the other group does. The condition that the whole game is based on imagination clouds the social and perhaps logical aspects of this, and makes it challenging to separate what might and might not matter. For some, discovering that their choices were not meaningful to the outcome of the tale can be a disappointment. To others, it can spark appreciation of the GM’s skill in ‘storytelling‘ (emphasis mine). Of course, for still others, it can do both. An other important element of this is that groups may play under the illusion that they have had genuine agency in the game for years. When, rarely if, they learn that one event or other was changed to ensure an outcome, their whole experience is shifted from what it was, to something else. Given human nature, it is perhaps unwise to expect praise in all cases.  Some of the reasons many gamers align with certain points on the spectrum of play styles hinted at by the ‘popular’ Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist concept deal explicitly with the idea of agency, but this is not the sole factor. Our underlying intentions play a huge role as well. I have been categorizing these general intentions in terms of how the play experience is actually structured. By that I mean, the underlying (perhaps unconscious goal of play) and the precepts on which interaction between player and outcomes are built.

Our intentions for play are responsible for the bulk of the actual experience and nature of that play. Choosing how we orient the game, what elements of roleplay will be emphasized, and how our interactions will be conducted is a powerful option perhaps too little explored.

Character-First Intention

A lot of the stir between gamers raised under the paradigms of early games and those who were raised under the paradigms of more recent approaches produces a lot of friction on this point. The evolution of this intention is almost as lengthy as what I have seen of the hobby, but to my eyes it seems to have exploded into the fore of most game design during the hiatus from gaming many of my age found themselves taking as they got involved in careers and family-raising. When they made their way back into the hobby, things had changed a lot. For those of us who stayed active throughout, these shifts were less obvious, or perhaps obscured by other things.

The intent to play with the Character First is to assume that the PCs are special, different from others of their kind, and not only protagonists but heroes. This is then supported mechanically, for the express reason of ensuring play results in grand feats and successes by these characters. In-game decisions are made to demonstrate and display the character’s nature and abilities. Events occur to advance and highlight the arc the character is intended to take. Related in many ways to the Story First Intention, Character First gaming operates with specific outcomes in mind and controls play both mechanically and narratively in order to ensure these outcomes are achieved. This intention can be present in games to varying degrees ranging from allowing characters a slight mechanical edge to making it nearly impossible for a ‘properly run game’ to result in unsatisfactory results. Unlike early games where PCs were built to the same standard as everyone else and then had the opportunity to raise in experience above those who did not take that opportunity, games began characters with distinct advantages over the common person.

We are now experiencing, in games like Apocalypse World and its off-shoots, an evolution of this design which brings back older concepts, re-branded as new. In games built like this, it is not so much a simple mechanical advantage which is given to characters, but a form of plot immunity as well. This is tied not just to some form of meaningful choice, but to meaningful failure as well.  Making failure interesting was a GM skill of the far-flung past which, listening in to certain conversations about gaming, it becomes easy to believe must have been lost in the mad dash to modernity, only to be invented/rediscovered now in new forms. How interesting failures are handled has certainly changed, and the difference between how this is conducted in a Setting First environment and a Character First environment is significant.

Story-First Intention

Putting the Story First in gaming was a massive, if unspoken, part of the renaissance in gaming so loved by those who came to embrace (pardon the pun) White Wolf’s World of Darkness games. It didn’t start there, of course, but it certainly touched a massive number of games and sometimes gamers through this influential series of games and settings. Here terms like campaign were intentionally redressed in new lingo and basic ideas like when, how, and why to give experience points were connected to the ongoing flow of Story toward resolution. Characters were important, but not so important as the concept of Storytelling – which not surprisingly was the name of the game system. Storyteller set the stage for organizing game play into discrete, book-like units, and cast the GM – the titular Storyteller – in the role of author of a living and breathing story. It backed this conceptual design with mechanics which ensured dramatic turns to the detriment of the character and a predisposition toward things going awry. Regardless of the best laid plans – Story was going to happen around the characters and they would have to focus on freeing themselves from its clutches. It was a world of darkness, after all.

We see this focus on Story in modern games as well. Of course the World of Darkness continues, but the torch of innovation has been passed to games supported by systems like Gumshoe, Cortex Plus, and Fate. When sitting down to run games with systems like these were are going to fare much better if we recognize their strengths in representing a specific type and flow of story, and focus on ensuring we create one together – even if that may end up in extreme cases with players just being along to contribute dialogue, and reactions to the unfolding of the plot. Decisions are made with the view toward telling the best story, and the GM is expected to influence the flow of events to make sure that outcome is attained. Events occur because they improve the drama of the tale and advance the story.

Setting-First Intention

Things ultimately began here. This is not to say that this is the last, best refuge of all gamers everywhere, just to say that when gaming first slogged its way out of the primordial ooze of invention and into the soft light of basements this is how it manifested. Interestingly, that it did so at all was to explore character, but also interestingly, not to explore grandiose characters with little to no likelihood of failure. Placing the Setting First is that form of gaming wherein if no one makes decisions, nothing happens. It is important to distinguish decisions from the limited form of decision (reaction) which can so often be the only thing on offer in those attempting a game based around this intention.

Setting First intends to explore the setting, the character, and whatever else may arise from gaming, such as a story. It does not need, and tends not to be cast in frameworks of other tales, and simply runs when the game is on, and waits when it is not. While we can definitely see the spoor of this approach all over the trail blazed by heavy games like the Morrow Project, Rolemaster, or flavors of Runequest, we can also find it in newer games – albeit frequently with lighter systems. In these games, decisions are made because they are the decisions the characters would make if they were real. Events occur because the outcomes of decisions interact, or their time has come round on the ever-advancing clock of the campaign world.

Immersive Characterization (1st Person)

This stance in the game has been discussed a lot on this blog and elsewhere. As the subtitle connecting ‘immersion’ to gaming in the 1st person should make evident this is the decision to represent the character using the personal pronoun and bridging the distance between the player and the character in description and dialogue. There are two main routes to doing this, however, with very different outcomes. One, the original I suspect, is to cast one’s own personality into the avatar of the character and use “I” as a natural extension of that decision. The statistics become a vehicle to transport the player’s thoughts and decisions into the game world. Thoughts and motives may be externalized to show the player’s logic chain or investment in the scene. The other is to engage in the simulation of a character and intentionally explore it from the inside by entering the door of “I.” Thoughts and motives are explored internally, but not as often stated unless invited to share. The tendency is to describe just what the character does and says, keeping ones thoughts about what one’s characters thoughts might be to oneself.

Exploration of character can of course be done in other modes, but then the character is described as ‘he,’ or ‘she’ and this use of language separates player and character. The decision to play as “I” as I might have been had I been this character, is the conscious choice to immerse in the game world as a denizen of that world.

Of these two aspects of 1st person gaming, I have my doubts that one goes deeper into an immersive position than the other, but your mileage may vary. One, however, is immersed in the unfolding events of the game world, while the other is immersed in the character experiencing those events.

“I don’t think Merlin has any reason to lie at this point. I grip the sword tightly and pull. Does it come out of the stone?” George asks intently, leaning forward in his chair, dice gripped tightly.


“I circle the stone once…then again…before looking at Merlin one more time. Nodding once, I slowly take the sword in hand, brace my foot, and pull.”  Paul, playing Arthur, says slowly, imagining the scene.

Narrative Gaming (2nd Person… yes, 2nd)

Gaming in this stance, has been difficult for me to name. I intentionally think of it as gaming in the 2nd person because the player alternates between first and third person but the GM generally refers to the character as “you” in description.  The focus of the game is less on the exploration of the character’s experience and more on the overall story.  The ‘you’ in the interaction between GM and player exists vaguely between ‘you the player’ and ‘you the character.’ Variation in terms of reference are a hallmark of this stance, and even when 1st person references manifest the intention is not to immerse, but to better shape the tale. The group has gathered together to enjoy the story. The GM is calling for “you” to act, and the player – separate from the character but still connected by a more personal and communicative strand than a directed and authorial one responds from a position of varying proximity to the heart of the character. In a sense, the player is often thinking of the character as “you.”

It strikes me that this is the most common stance gamers take, and it is mostly by a lack of conscious choice of how to play.

GM: So… what do you do?

Pete: I’m not sure, but Merlin’s been good to Arthur so far… I go for it. I walk up and pull the sword from the stone.

GM: You feel the sword quiver as though alive the moment Arthur’s fingers curl around it. With a simple pull, you have it in your hand. You have pulled the sword from the stone!

Cooperative Narration (3rd Person)

This approach to inhabiting the story is to take the role of the character but to completely externalize it. Players reference their own characters by name or by gender pronouns and reveal internal information about their thoughts and emotions along with descriptions of actions and reactions. Likewise, the GM refers to the characters by name and engages players in discussions of motives and beliefs as often as pure choices of action.

This approach can create very stylistic and satisfying stories with a great deal of depth and art. The distance from immersion in the character is as great as it can get, but the immersion in the story is heightened significantly. In this approach, the GM and player can openly collaborate on what will occur and how so that the expected outcomes can develop.

“Arthur looks at Merlin, perhaps a little nervously for a moment, his hand involuntarily moving toward the sword once or twice, before nodding – as much to himself as to Merlin – and steps up to the stone. He looks down at the stone intently, revealing for an instant some of the courage and resolve that his mentor Merlin sees, before planting his foot securely and gripping the sword tightly. He pulls, relaxing as does so because he can tell the sword wants to go with him.” Roger looks around the room as he finishes his description and sees the smiles on the faces of the GM and his fellow players as they appreciated the scene he has painted.


Once the preceding considerations are met and the game is running, the sum of all the working parts or the outcomes of play is genre. Those outcomes, and the story they tell are given shape by our choices and the ways and whys of how we make them. This is genre. Regardless of the genre listed on the cover of the game, the way we actually play the thing dictates ultimately what genre it really is. Are your political thrillers in Vampire played out by visits to the Succubus Club to collect rumors, get charged with missions as payment for the information, and then exploration of a set location with violent encounters? If so, your group has invented Vampire: The Dungeon Crawl. Genre is as genre does, in a manner of speaking.

The influence of intention (let’s play a space opera) can easily be overwhelmed by force of habit (kill ’em all and let the GM sort ’em out) making it hard to move beyond the confines of the genre developed in the first game the group got comfortable playing. Actively choosing to embrace genre as a rule limiting actions and intentions may be one of those choices which lead to many other aspects of gaming being examined. If this step is not taken, it is possible that the game play, while becoming technically more proficient, never really evolves.

On choices and being able to express them

I think most people learn to play in relative isolation. The group you start with and learn with defines and gives shape to what roleplaying is to you. With the spread of cons, the rise of actual play and RPG articles on the internet the foundations of that first group can be much broader, but then again, can be painfully limited in scope to just a single game, played a certain way. Not everyone keeps playing after that first group is forced apart by circumstance and time. Not everyone is in the hobby to get better at it and to expand options of play. Many do it just for the simple fun of it. For lack of awareness that games can be played from different stances, with different intentions, and different approaches, dialogue about how the group plays and why it does what it does may never occur. This essentially precludes much chance of the group ever having the opportunity to thrill to intentionally shaping their experience for maximum effect. That is not to say that playing for the simple fun of it is wrong – it is still fun after all. That said, if it were easy to talk about how to have more fun, albeit less simple, would many groups choose not to? While groups do evolve and learn by trial and error, can and should that be all there is to it?

What say you?

2 Responses to “More than others, words define us”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    Great blog. This meta analysis of gaming is still somewhat new to me, but I’m enjoying the process of hashing out what I enjoy about gaming through the lenses you propose. I think I will have to revisit a lot of old enjoyable games I have been in before I can weigh in on your stances. On first blush though, I think I have enjoyed a number of them. I can say for certainty that I enjoy a high level of agency in games, but the stance has more often been a reflection of game master choices.
    A couple of thoughts to throw out there on agency. I think that perceived agency might be even more important than actual character agency, and we often forget often these two are disjoint. Maybe even a step further (and a nod to your previous blogs) the best games are the ones where expectations of agency, actual agency and perceived agency are closely aligned.
    And what are the costs of agency in a game? you mentioned narrative as a possible trade off. And choice of stance as a modifier on agency, or a flavour of agency if I interpreted correctly. Are there others? Complexity perhaps?

    • Runeslinger says:

      I would say it is very likely that you have experienced a lot of this stuff over the years. Way back in the Werewolf Chronicle (The Lie in Belief) I was trying to facilitate 1st person gaming, as was Tom in the Templars campaign. We didn’t get all the way there in either group as a group, but some players really did. In the Vampire Chronicle set in Vancouver which followed I tried to facilitate 3rd person gaming and that was quite successful. It is very easy to slide back from either to the “2nd” person, however. It is a bit of a doppelganger – blending through the perspectives like a contextual chameleon.

      Perceived agency, for all intents and purposes IS agency – until it isn’t. The knowledge of the player that what gets called ‘palette shifting’ has been done is necessary before they can even weigh in on their opinions of its contribution to or detraction from a particular game. I agree that the best games are the ones where you have actively decided to ensure all the players are aligned with the varied intentions at work in that particular campaign.

      Complexity, as we saw in our Mechwarrior Campaign (Hair of the Dog) is definitely limited by a lot of things, including agency, and a limiter on it as well. With extensive preparation time and personal knowledge, plus the time to transmit that information, a great deal of agency can be empowered. Each rung down the ladder limits choices that can be fleshed out to the group’s maximum appreciation. The GM then has to decide to limit or weight the perceived value of choices, slow the pace of the game to allow for ongoing preparation (my choice in HotD), or just wing everything.

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