Charting a spectrum of play

As has been mentioned on this blog in a few places, such as posts and videos on developing a language for describing play, there are times when speaking about the hobby of roleplay with other roleplayers of different experience can end up in an utter failure to communicate. People enjoy the conversation, but can sometimes not even realize that they were misunderstanding each other all along.

Player: What’s the next story going to be about?

GM: I don’t have a story.

Player: We are still playing, right?

GM: Of course…

Player: Oh good!  So, you are just going to wing something, then?

GM: No… I am prepared for the session…

Player: I thought you said you didn’t have a story!

GM: I don’t

Player: Why do I feel like Abbott and Costello are about to yell, “Third Base!”?

In an effort to establish a collection of concepts, terms, and points of view that have been discussed in Hangouts, or in lengthy videos without transcripts, I intend to continue posts in this vein. Hopefully, if nothing else, it will make my own ramblings on these subjects somewhat less opaque to those who take the time to read and watch them. This post is full of links to other articles on this blog, and to videos on my channel. Going through them will be an investment of time should you choose to follow those links. This article does not require you to do so to get its main points, but could perhaps give us more to talk about – more easily –  once you have done so.

What has gone before

In the early stages of this project, I thought a good place to start would be with the different narrative voices which arise in play and produced a few videos on the subject and the one blog post.

The next step was to address the nature of the play environment itself with a look at the concepts of the sandbox and the defined narrative, building on practical tips for sandbox play which had been offered here before in the article, ‘Empty Worlds.’  With these ideas out in the open, and with the added impetus of a video by John Wick on dealing with ‘unfortunate die results’ this project moved into dealing with how the mechanics are invoked by looking at the basics of how to frame dice rolls.


Where that takes us now

That brings us to this article and its piece of the puzzle as I see it – the concept of our shifts along a spectrum of play, and how that relates to the concept of story inside the environment of play we have established.



This project has stalled a bit at this stage because of the increasing difficulty of being able to easily talk about the range of options provided along the Player Agency Spectrum and the Defined Story Spectrum shown above (click to enlarge) without causing greater disconnection. If one item is used as an example than those who hew to different segments of the spectrum you are discussing will understandably tune out. If one shifts back and forth along the range to be inclusive, then the chance of losing the thread of the conversation increases dramatically. When one of the people in the conversation has not yet explored the possibilities of how a story can be generated between the GM and the Players, then the chance of comprehension drops to near zero. It is a challenging area to enter into – at least it has been for me.

Shifting Stances, Static Preferences

In my experience, we like what we like, and given choice, we tend to pick our favorite options over the rest. That said, a gamer with a lot of games going on may be more willing to experiment than one who has to fight just for one. They may be more willing to play outside their comfort zone to see what it is like, or to explore other stances to test their own limits. Some new game may draw us in with its setting, but push us in a new or formerly avoided direction with its mechanics. The more often our stance along the spectrum shifts, the more call we may have for a vocabulary or frame of reference to discuss the differences in play these stances produce.

In the chart above are two bands of specific points along a spectrum of implementation options ranging from ‘none’ to ‘total.’ I believe if you let your eyes roam across these bands, it should be pretty easy to spot roughly where your basic preferences lie. With a little effort, it should also be possible to spot where specific games require you to be to run them as intended. This might be useful in assessing if a game will be suitable for your group, or if an idea you have for a game will flow like you want within its confines, but I feel it has better uses yet. From my  perspective, it might offer a hint as to why a given campaign or group is or isn’t working for you, but will really shine when used to help add a new kind of scene, scenario, or mood to your toolbox of techniques.

Player Agency Spectrum

This band tries to show the range of freedom of choice on the Player side of the screen. On the left, we have none. This might be represented by a tightly-scripted video game; a chapter, scene, or module in a series through which the GM has decided they will pass; or a flashback sequence which must follow a pre-ordained framework. On the right, we have total freedom of choice and this might be represented by a GMless game of some sort where the environment for play is established at the time of play by all the participants, or by a dream sequence in a game more toward the left on the spectrum. I feel that most games lie closer to the center…but lean toward the left. When I describe my own approach to gaming for example, I tend to notice a lack of recognition in a lot of gamers in regard to how the story is emergent rather than written. I would put my own preferences at slot three and four from the left (depending on the game and the group). Most of the people I speak with tend to fall in slot two and three from the left. Interestingly (to me at any rate), most people deride slot one, but few people in my experience run games where it does not at least make an appearance at different stages of a campaign. Also of real interest to me is that a lot of people I have spoken to describe their approach as falling into slot two, but in reality, it is in slot three. What I see in this is that so ingrained into our current language of discussing how we create our sessions is the idea of ‘writing stories’ that we use this term without thinking.

Defined Story Spectrum

This band tries to show the range of pre-determination or planning of a story arc on the GM’s side of the screen. On the left we have a totally defined story. This might be represented by a very detailed and linear quest structure allowing for no branching or diversion; a lightly prepared campaign with a clear goal and no intention to improvise additional material; or an adventure path the group wants to experience all of. This slot represents a total lack of mutability on the part of the story. Players will be using their characters primarily to supply dialogue, and will be rolling dice for results which might be ignored if they do not fit the needs of the story. As we move toward the right, more mutability is allowed over the arc of the tale. When we get to slot three, the tale has a set opening, but a fully open and unplanned conclusion (or no arc to a conclusion at all). On the right we have a game where the group equally shares control over creation of elements in the game world and arbitration over those events. This might be found in a game like Fiasco, or in a Harrowing in Wraith: the Oblivion orchestrated by the players.

What this is not

What this set of bands is not trying to do is produce divisions or barriers between games and gamers. While I suppose there are clear ways to do just that, and I have no doubt written a few things in this article which point in that direction, that is not my intent. Ideally, what this is for is to help increase communication about techniques and requirements for running specific types of scenes, figuring out why Zeke doesn’t like to play Technoir or Sandra hates playing in the Slave Lords series of TSR modules for D&D, or to help clarify your own reactions to a description of play in order to cut through whatever cultural barriers might need to be overcome in terms of differing cultures of play.

4 Responses to “Charting a spectrum of play”
  1. Reblogged this on The Black Campbell and commented:
    Here is an excellent piece on the various styles of play — both for players and gamemasters — ranging from the freeform “sandbox” to the rigid “sit and listen to the GM tell you a story all night” style.

    There will be a follow up post from myself to this presently…

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] I encounter a lot of certainty on the Internet, and no doubt convey no small amount of it myself – especially in posts like these. Hopefully, what registers that I am certain about is that we can rarely be certain of anything. Last week, I shared some ideas on gaming that seemed to register with a wider audience than usual, and motivated not one, but two interesting bloggers to re-blog my posts. Thanks go out to Frank Frey and the inimitable Black Campbell for taking the time to read what I write and share it with others. A deeper thanks is owed to Black Campbell’s blog for also writing a response based on these articles, which firmly moves them from the realm of one person’s ideas, into real discussion. His timely experiment with the two iterations of the Firefly roleplaying game, Serenity for Cortex 1.0 and Firefly for its own spin on Cortex Plus, brought my Spectrum of Play article to life in a way that I was unlikely to ever do. In response, I will follow his example and offer up an example of my own, drawn from a different stance on the spectrum of play. […]

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