Okay, so first off? This got long. It has a diagram in it that's repeated a few times because it's easier to understand if you can refer to it, and you can only refer to it while it's still on the page. Really, it's not because I'm so proud of my meager Illustrator skills.
In any case, this is my first attempt to start building a paradigm that actually describes the operation of a roleplaying game, not the social structure of the people playing that roleplaying game. I've pulled from a lot of sources, including Ron, Vincent, Chris, and Nathan, and I'm sure their fingerprints will all be quite visible.
Goal: Outline a functioning paradigm describing the operation of roleplaying games.
Assumed Givens: Three important aspects of RPGs are the Imagined, the System, and the Story (definitions to follow). These three aspects were originally identified by Ron Edwards, and the preferences for each aspect underpin his GNS schema and Big Model.
Terminology: Some elements of the Forge lexicon will be used, either illustratively or fundamentally. I have tried to avoid reusing or repurposing terminology to minimize confusion; if there are divergences, I will note them when first using the term.
We begin with the postulate that RPGs consist of at least three aspects of significant importance. These will be called the Imagined, the System, and the Story. None of these aspects have any substantial reality -- that is, they are all mental (and potentially, hopefully, social) constructs existing only in the minds of the players. The specifics and details of each aspect may not (and probably will not) be identical in every player's mind; the basic function of roleplaying is to create a similar Imagined, System, and Story in each player's mind and thereafter reconcile inconsistencies as all three aspects develop in complexity. This reconcile-and-develop goal is accomplished through the interactions between the aspects.
Here's a breakdown of the three Aspects, first with a facile (and incomplete) definition, and then at length.
Imagined - "What we imagine." Incorporating the Shared Imagined Space of Characters, Setting, and Situation, the Imagined also includes an ephemeral body of genre conventions, internal character emotions and motivations, and events. It is important to note that while the Imagined is easiest to consider in one specific moment, this distorts the full significance of this aspect. The Imagined is first of all dynamic, in motion, and includes not only shared imagined elements but also their shared imagined interactions. Secondly, the Imagined includes not only the present state of the Shared Imagined Space, but also a complete transcript of everything that has happened before, both in and out of actual play. Prior roleplaying sessions as well as setting history are as much a part of the Imagined as what a given character is doing right now.
System - "The rules of the game." Actually bearing only passing resemblance to the rules as published in game supplements, the System is inspired by published rules content in exactly the same way as the Imagined is inspired by published setting content. It is composed of what interpretations of the published rules material are given credence by the players, as well as rituals idiosyncratic to the players ("house rules" are explicit rituals; implicit rituals include things like niche protection), and any other procedures (bluebooking) that determine what happens both in the Imagined and in the real world of players, dice, and character sheets. The System is concerned with the Lumpley Principle (who has credibility / who has access to the System's interactions), with binary success/fail or "fuzzy" degrees of success/fail, with the addition of new content and the manipulation of existing content.
Story - "What's important to the players." While Story is most commonly framed as a narrative, this may not be necessarily the case. Story determines what elements in the Imagined have significance worth paying attention to, and makes such decisions based on the standards of the players in the real world (not the characters in the Imagined -- important!). Story categorically involves a theme, although the theme need not be bombastic -- "a day in the life" is a perfectly functional theme, and the basis of what is often identified as "Simulationist" or "Storyless" roleplay.
Note: Story is not a subset of Transcript as in the Provisional Glossary. Transcript -- a running account of all events in the Imagined -- is the recursive function of the Imagined. Story is why some elements of the transcript will be more important than others when retelling war stories at Con.
Each aspect is necessary for ensuring the consistency of the other two, and each aspect is dependant on the other two for its continuing, coherent existence as a shared construct. In other words, the Story and System require the Imagined to provide a baseline imaginary "reality" from which to base decisions; the Imagined and System require the Story to give them consistent direction and emphasis; the Imagined and the Story require the System to neutrally arbitrate change and development. I'm skeptical whether any one or two of these could exist as a shared mental construct without the other parts -- I think they're a gestalt.
This continual process of development and reconciliation is realized through the interactions of the Imagined, the System, and the Story. Interactions are tasks performed by the players. Some Interactions are commonly privileged and only performed by the Game Master, who for the purposes of this model is a player with additional interactions available to her. Nevertheless, interactions are the things that players do at the table -- some are external (actions, speaking, rolling dice) and some are internal (consideration, imagining, planning). By doing these things, the players share with eachother the characteristics of their mental conceptions of the Imagined, Story, and System.
Between the three aspects there are six types of interactions, as displayed on the following chart. A relatively short description of each type of interaction is listed below, with good examples where possible and with poor examples where my brain fails me.
Fuel Interaction - The Imagined Fuels the System. The Imagined provides the System with the elements which the System uses to determine what happens. This "fuel" can be characters, environmental elements, situations, or any other material that the System uses as input for its deliberations. I may rename this to "Feeding" Interaction -- depending on whether a mechanistic or organic metaphor is most apt. Jury still out.
Because the Fuel Interaction connects to the System, the System arbitrates what "gets in" -- any player can want something to have game effect; the System decides if it does (through dictate, through privileging some players over others, or even simply by charging game currency to empower an element with game effect).
Example: The character sheet itself is not a Fuel Interaction; players selecting numbers representative of the Imagined character and feeding these numbers into the System is. The character sheet is just a handy tool, a reminder of what numbers we've assigned to our characters. In the statement, "My guy swings his sword" both the guy and the sword are Fuel Interactions.
Articulation Interaction - System Articulates the Imagined. The concrete output of the System -- that is, "what happens" -- articulates the Imagined, providing development, action, and revision. Articulation interactions can both establish elements within the Imagined as well as manipulate them later. This is the corrolary to fuel interactions -- the finished goods from the raw materials.
Because the Articulation Interaction is derived from the System, the System determines who gets to do the articulation as well as providing some guidelines (dice results, usually). In a given game, not everyone can always do the articulation -- it is often limited to just the GM.
Examples: The most facile example of an Articulation Interaction is interpreting what a die roll means for the elements within the Imagined, but this is not the only example. Activities such as "Creating the Adventure," "Rolling Up Characters," and "Framing the Scene" are also Articulation Interactions. Both Task Resolution is an Articulation Interactions; Conflict Resolution is both an Articulation and a Validation Interaction.
Contextualization Interaction - The Imagined Contextualizes the Story. Any story needs characters, a setting, and events in order to express itself; the elements of the Imagined are utilized to put the Story in a context of supporting, conflicting, and qualifying details, all of which enrich the Story.
As an interaction between the Imagined and the Story, the Contextualization Interaction is up for grabs, performed by everyone at the table in an unconstrained fashion, based on the material provided by the Imagined (which is not up for grabs in an unconstrained fashion).
Example: Relating one's character's hopes and dreams with the stated goals of a faction of NPCs is a simple example; a more complex example might relate the raison d'etre of the Knight, the Pacifist, the King, and the Infidel when they all come face-to-face in the middle of a battlefield.
Imbuing Interaction - The Story Imbues the Imagined. Imbuing makes the elements of the story mean something. Ten character names and abilities, a map, and a horde of orcs is just a laundry list of information until some items on the list are made heroes, some are made victims, and some are made villains. This is the corrolary to contextualization; whereas contextualization positions meaning within a collection of elements, imbuing assigns individual meanings to individual elements.
Like contextualization, the Imbuing Interaction is unconstrained, and any player can imbue any element of the Imagined with any meaning they like -- based on, of course, what is included in the constrained Imagined and the constrained Story.
Example: Assigning a thematic meaning to a character, setting, or prop in the Imagined -- "my guy embodies the ethos of nobility" or simply, "my guy is badass."
Side Note: Contextualization and Imbuing can be 'wild card' interactions that seriously diverge the Imagined and Story of different players. This is why these interactions are expressed by the interactions' complements (see below).
Steering Interaction - The Story Steers the System. The Story determines what actions will be proposed, attempted, and/or declared (given the specifics of the System) -- these potential actions are fed into the System, which will determine what happens. Steering interactions can be delimited by the abilities and point of view of the player's character or supercede these limitations. Steering interactions are always created "Out of Character," based on criteria in the minds of the players, not the characters. "In Character" decisions are in fact simulations of decisions that the player believes the character would reasonably make. The four Stances (Pawn, Actor, Author, and Director) are all Steering Interactions.
Because the Steering Interaction connects to the System, it, like the Fuel Interaction, is subject to the System's gatekeeper processes -- some Stances may be verboten under a given System, for instance, or Scene Requests may be privileged to just the GM.
Example: Simplistically, the impulse behind "my guy tries to hit that guy"; complexly, "I would like to play a scene in which that guy wants to seduce that guy."
Validation Interaction - The System Validates the Story. While the concrete output of the System feeds into the articulation interaction, the abstract output of the System feeds into the validation interaction. Whatever "happens" in the Imagined may have thematic implications for the Story. This may plainly validate the Story, or it may complicate that validity with qualifications and exceptions. This is the corrolary to Steering; it is the game's response to player propositions.
Another interaction based from the System, and therefore often privileged -- the Lumpley Principle applies here as it does for the articulation interaction. The System will determine who is allowed to interpret the significance of the System's output, and may also provide some guidelines for that interpretation.
Example: Joey fails to win the race. Does this mean he did not try enough? Would he have won if he trained more? Is he now a failure, or will it give him the resolve to try again, thus justifying his self-confidence?
I am going to suggest that every single thing that the players do around the table is one or more interactions. Obviously, that sort of blanket statement requires some extensive thought and testing, but at the moment, I'm pretty sure: this is what players do. When things are going good, the things the players do reinforce all three aspects.
Round and Round
As the diagram implies, the interactions feed into eachother into self-reinforcing circles. The two obvious circles are the outside, or Widdershins, circle, and the inside, or Sunwise, circle. Note that the processes do not necessarily 'start' at any one aspect as depicted below. I am unfortunately bound by the rules of grammar, which state that sentences must start somewhere.
Widdershins (Outside) Circle - The players' preferences and interests (Story) color their understanding (Imbue) of the setting and their own characters (Imagined), which prompts them to use selected elements of that setting and their characters (Fuel) in order to determine what happens (System), the answers to which reinforce or complicate (Validate) the things they cared about in the first place (Story).
Example: I have an interest in the concepts of honor and duty (Story), and so I apply (Imbue) the principles of bushido onto my modern-day character (Imagined). This constrains my character's options (Fuel) when taking actions (System), thereby expressing (Validating) the elements that I am interested in (Story).
Sunwise (Inside) Circle - Based on what is important to the players (Story), they make decisions (Steering) that are adjudicated by various rules and rituals (System). The results are interpreted (Articulation) into "what happens" (Imagined), which juxtaposes elements of characters and setting (Contextualization) to develop the new meaning (Story).
Example: Because I want to develop my character's relationship with my father (Story), I decide to spend game-currency (Steering) to begin a new scene (System). I describe the scene (Articulation) as a family barbeque (Imagined). The characters' conversation further informs (Contextualization) their relationship and the father/daughter dynamic (Story).
Note that it's also patently possible for 'flow' to go in more complex shapes than these two circles. A sequence of interactions could go, for instance, Imbue -> Contextualize -> Imbue -> Fuel -> Articulate -> Contextualize. The key is that each interaction strengthens the aspects that are involved in the interaction, either by developing it, by reconciling differences between players' conceptions, or both.
Just as the diagram suggests the circular reinforcement, players can also perform interactions in both directions at the same time. This sort of 'reaching around' to the other side of the diagram exposes combinations of interactions which are complementary to eachother.
Validation Interaction complemented by Articulation and Contextualization Interactions - The System's validation or qualification of the Story is abstract; that validation is expressed by the System's results articulating the details of the Imagined in order to recontextualize the significance of the Story.
Example: I have my guy attack the enemy base because I think that's heroic. I get a terrible die roll. That wasn't heroic; that was stupid (Validation Interaction). My guy gets shot up and captured (Articulation) putting him at the mercy of the enemy (Contextualization).
Steering Interaction complemented by Imbuing and Fuel Interactions - The dictates of the Story not only determine what events I want to happen, but they prioritize elements of the Imagined in order to provide the tools with which to make those events possible.
Example: I'm playing 7th Sea. I want to swash some buckle. So I declare my guy is going to swing from the chandelier, land on some mooks, and cut his initials into the villain's shirt (Steering). That there is a fundamental difference between mooks and villains and that there is a chandelier ripe for swinging on are Imbuing Interactions. That I can use that chandelier as a vehicle and the mooks as a landing pad are Fuel Interactions.
Imbue Interaction complemented by Steering and Articulation Interactions - What is important to me is terribly idiosyncratic, and must be communicated to the other players. Imbuing can be ineffible, but I have tools which allow me to steer the System into articulating the Imagined in meaningful ways.
Example: I am intrigued by how Doctor Hudson might have been active in my character's amnesiac past (Imbuing). So I have my character interrogate the good Doctor (Steering) in order to make him explain his motivations (Articulation).
Contextualization Interaction complemented by Fuel and Validation Interactions - The Imagined details which qualify and develop the Story also provide functional effects which the System can use to validate the Story.
Example: The last remnants of the Revolution are surrounded by hostile Monarchist forces (Contextualization). Those soldiers and cannons (Fuel) will shoot the hell out of anyone who tries to escape (Validation).
Fuel Interaction complemented by Contextualization and Steering Interactions - Elements of the Imagined which have a "game effect" in the System are also elements of the Imagined which bear on the Story and delimit or open the possibilities of player action.
Example: My guy's sword gives him a +9 against ogres (Fuel). At the same time, his possession of the sword makes him a fantasy hero (Contextualization) which means he is one to fight ogres (Steering).
Articulation Interaction complemented by Validation and Imbuing Interactions - The development of what happens in the Imagined is mirrored by the System's validation of Story emphases, which in turn imbue the events happening in the Imagined.
Example: We have suceeded in destroying the third Death Star (Articulation). This bodes well for the Rebellion (Validation) and hereafter the destruction of the Death Star will be a powerful rallying point (Imbuing).
Now, all of these are 'perfect world' examples, where the interactions available to the players harmonize well, and both develop and reconcile the Imagined, System, and Story. We all well know, however, that real gaming often goes awry.
Dysfunction occurs when one or more of the three aspects go 'out of alignment' between players. When the players begin having different Imagined content, different Systems, and different Stories, and do not effectively communicate these to the other players, the result is dysfunctional play. This is a somewhat broader definition of function and dysfunction than the Forge uses. Function is not 'create fun', it is 'create shared imaginings which are fun'. Munchkin creates fun; that doesn't mean it's a functioning roleplaying game.
Because the three aspects are reconciled through the interactions, when they diverge the interactions must be at fault. I submit that (most?) dysfunctions occur when one of two things happen: (a) interactions are missing, or (b) interactions that should complement eachother do not. Here's a few dysfunctions and how they 'map' onto aspects and interactions.
Railroading A dysfunction in which the System (usually a ritual component, sometimes published rules) gives the GM absolute control over all Validation interactions while the Story still allows all players access to Steering. The players make decisions which have no bearing on the reconcile-and-develop process. The lack of feedback creates dysfunction -- the players might be wildly steering left, but the GM keeps heading right, invalidating their interactions.
Prima Donna One player monopolizes Steering interactions and the Steering->Articulation process, in order to insist on their Imbued meaning. Sort of a player-based Railroading.
Illusionism A not-quite dysfunction, as many people enjoy rattling around in a tightly-constrained game, this situation is where the GM has strong control over most articulation interactions, setting up elements of the Imagined in such a way that they contextualize the characters and story to delimit viable player options in steering interactions. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just limited in scope (ice cream shops aren't bad because they only sell ice cream, after all).
Deprotagonizing of Characters A dysfunction where a player's Imbuing interaction is not complemented by available Steering and Articulating interactions. Either he is prevented from using appropriate Steering interactions (in a game where the GM frames all scenes, for instance) or the articulation System results are interpreted in protagonism-denying ways (not that you missed, but that you didn't really want to shoot in the first place).
Pervy Another not-quite dysfunction, a "pervy" or High Points of Contact game occurs when Articulation and Validation interactions (ie, those interactions derived from the System) are not fully provided by the mental construct of System, and must be supplied or refreshed from the published material. This can be frustrating, since the Imbuing and Contextualization interactions, which are independent of the System, are often running full tilt while the rulebook is being consulted, tying up their complements.
Impossible Thing Before Breakfast The proposition that the GM has "control" of the Story via privileged access to interactions derived from the System (which is tilted towards her) and the Imagined (of which she is the supposed arbiter). The GM's privileged access does not interfere with the players' ability to Imbue the Imagined with their own meaning or to Steer the System to do what they want -- the players' efforts just get battered with brutal Validation interactions and often hackneyed Articulation->Contextualization arches by the GM, who is procedurally refusing to recognize the players' Story (ie, what is important to them).
Parenthetical Open Questions
The relative size and complexity of each aspect, and whether there are other aspects-of-significant-importance within the roleplaying activity, is pretty much an open question at this point. We know about these three. Maybe there are others. I don't know how they interact with these three yet, mostly because I don't know what they are.
Needless to say, this is a work in progress. Right now I'd like to keep it here on my blog, so while I appreciate comments and feedback, please don't quote it elsewhere while it's still in its infant stages. Content is continually changing.
The strength of any model is not so much that it accurately describes what it hopes to, but that it can correctly predict operations and effectively correct those operations when they go wrong. Assuming that this model is accurate, we should be able to more precisely puzzle out what it is we are doing and to correct our practices when they are not resulting in the all-important reconcile-and-develop function of roleplaying. This model is only worthwhile if it helps us make roleplaying better.
I do believe, however, that this model offers an evocative paradigm from which to talk about roleplaying. The model is not roleplaying -- it's a map depicting roleplaying. Just as there are physical, political, and demographic maps out there, this is an interactive map: it maps out the interactions between three aspects of roleplaying. It answers -- or at least attempts to answer -- the question of "what do the players do, and how are those actions relevant?" It answers "What is this thing that we do when we say that we're roleplaying?"
We are sharing bits and pieces of our imagination, offering them back and forth, accepting them and challenging them, validating them and qualifying them, trying to create something that is both shared and interesting.