Subtitled, Scope, Setting, Situation, Scene: Some S-Terms for Imagined Elements
Okay, so the following is a close look at a piece of the much larger Interaction Model. If you haven't seen the Interaction Model, you'll want to follow the link of the same name on the navigation bar to the right before delving into this.
The Imagined is one of the three aspects of roleplaying, itself composed of many different elements, most of them imagined content. The Imagined was first conceived as having the weakest gatekeepers of any of the three aspects, if it had any at all. I think I've found one. One of those gatekeepers, controlling the input of articulation and imbuing interactions, is scope.
Scope is not, strictly speaking, composed of imagined content, but of rules regarding that content. Alternately, scope can be viewed as imaginary facts about the setting and genre of the game. Functionally, scope is a set of rules that determine what things can be added to the Imagined. Some of the rules that may be included are things like "Vampires are real!" or "You can only acheive warp speed if you have a dilithium crystal." As such, any articulation affecting the Imagined must pass the scope's "consistency check" before it can be ratified and accepted. Talking about vampires requires the "Vampires are real!" rule in order to work. Traying to make your dilithium-less shuttlepod jump to warp speed will fail if the dilithium crystal rule is in place.
Scope applies to interactions that target at least three levels of the Imagined: the overall setting, thematic situations, and individual scenes. Scope's affect on setting and scenes are the easiest to see, as they apply to the very public articulation interactions. Scope is relatively weak in regards to imbuing interactions that change the composition of the situation, and is harder to observe.
(Side Note: it may be worthwhile to split the "three scopes" into three separate but related terms. Something like scope for setting, frame for scenes, and ... something else for situation.)
Applied to setting, scope determines what is possible. It is the set-of-all-potential. When an articulation attempts to add information to the setting in general, either background details or foundational elements that support details immediate to the characters in the moment, it is checked against the scope. The vampire example above can govern the scope of Setting. If I wanted to explain that my character's parents were killed by vampires, that would pass the "Vampires are real!" rule, but would not pass a "No supernatural" rule of another game.
However, when scope affects the game's situation, it is playing gatekeeper to imbuing interactions inbound from player Goals. Here, scope determines what is signficant, and is the set-of-all-signficance. Scope is a very weak gatekeeper on this side of the Imagined, and in fact functions more like a receptionist rather than a customs officer -- taking notes rather than stopping movement. If I grow attached to a given character, imbuing them with significance, the scope usually expands itself to accomodate. It is only in massive breaches, such as falling in love with my hated arch-nemesis or attaching significance to content that does not exist (ie, stuff not included in the Imagined), that the scope prevents the interaction from occuring.
Applied to scenes, scope determines what is immediate. It is the set-of-all-immediate. When an articulation attempts to add information to the immediate scene of what is happening in the moment, it is checked against the scope. The dilithium example can govern the scope of a scene. If the badguys are flying away by going to warp speed but they've stolen all my dilithium, I can't narrate that we jump to warp speed to pursue them. Such an articulation would fail to pass that check.
I can, however, attempt a different articulation interaction to change the scope and thereby allow my character to pursue at warp speed -- heck, it's Star Trek, right? Insert technobabble justification here! Scope is not something that is set before play begins and never changes afterwards. Certainly a game needs some scope to begin with, but once play begins, this scope can change. I'm going to label the process of changing the scope as focus.
Focus is itself an articulation interaction, sponsored by the System and affecting the Imagined. As a System-sponsored interaction, access to focus is often subject to some heavy restrictions. Indeed, in most games only the GM has any access to focus -- only the GM determines what exists in the world, only the GM decides what is important enough to get screen time, and only the GM decides what turns up and what happens in any given scene. Newer games have liberated the focus interaction and allowed players some access to it. Universalis, for instance, has some powerful focus interaction mechanics, allowing all players to spend currency not only to introduce new material to the Imagined but also to reinforce its significance to the game as a whole.
Focus is one of the first interactions to be performed in any game. This is the initial interaction that begins to build the world of the game -- not only does it introduce the base material of continents, kingdoms, and (inevitably) weapons, but it also establishes genre conventions and may even begin to shape up potential situations of consequence. Focus can introduce material directly from player input (such as in a game of PTA or Universalis) or it can take material inspired by published works (such as in a game of Changeling or Forgotten Realms). Either way, it is the players which decide which materials get "in" and which materials are left out. Players gaming "by the book" may adopt a wide focus and ratify everything in the book into their game; other players may eschew elements of the book that they dislike. In this way, the players construct the scope of the game, creating the rules that form the shape of the arena that they will game in (that was a long-winded way to get here, wasn't it?).
Now, knowing that the Imagined, as an aspect, is not identically shared among all players, the scope is also not identically shared among all players, either. No doubt most players have experienced this -- where one player thinks rayguns fit right into the setting while another player thinks the first player has been smoking something. When such a situation occurs, one of two things happen. In traditional games, the GM is the one introducing the new element and the GM has sole authority over the focus interaction -- the players smile and take it (or mount a quiet defense through informal cajoling or criticism). In games where the GM is not the sole arbiter of focus or when a non-GM player attempts to introduce an element that conflicts with another player's scope, play pauses for a moment, the players discuss the validity of the addition, thereby focusing the scope, and then proceed either with or without the contested element. Whether the GM dictates or the play group discusses, the public focusing interaction functions to bring the players' private scopes into closer alignment.
I'd like to see more explicit procedures for focus. As the foundation for a great deal of our shared imaginings, this process bears further investigation and experimentation, and may yield some provocative game designs. We've already seen the first steps in this direction with Dogs' out-of-character negotiation, PTA's "pitch meeting", and especially in Universalis' currency mechanics. Where do we go from here? Handing to the players the keys to the kingdom -- and the instructions on how to pop open the locks.