Cycles of Progression in Roleplaying Games
Watching Dungeon Musings run his Band of Blades gameover the weekend set my mind to thinking about the “cycles” that we see in RPGs. This is just some random, possibly poorly formed thoughts on my part, and if you want to listen to way better discussion of similar topics, go check out Misdirected Mark when they discuss the Core Loop in RPGs. I’ll wait.
Okay, now that you’ve heard much better RPG discussion, let’s get back to my half-assed thoughts.
Before I dive into the cycles that I’ve seen in RPGs, I want to define the terms I’m going to use for these cycle discussions.
Frame–explaining what the scene looks like, what a character is doing, in other words, the fictional description either from the moderator’s or player’s point of view.
Define–explaining what game rules will govern a situation once the world and the characters in the world have framed their position in the fiction.
Resolve–Engaging the game mechanic to determine how the game develops, including spending points, rolling dice, drawing or playing cards, etc.
Negotiate–A portion of the game where characters do not commit to a course of action, but players and moderators formally ask how different actions might affect how engagement with the rules.
Using these terms, a more traditional game, like Dungeons and Dragons, might have the following cycle:
Frame, Define, Resolve
While there may be some negotiation in the form the of the moderator of the game answering questions, it isn’t explicitly defined as part of the cycle of the game, and it definitely isn’t something assumed to be part of the formal cycle.
Fate, despite having more narrative rules, has a similar cycle to a traditional game, but there are formal rules for negotiation when it comes to things like compelling aspects or conceding in a contest. While there are formal rules for this, it isn’t coded into on specific part of the cycle. So that might look like this:
[(Frame, Define, Resolve)Negotiation]
In other words, negotiation can be applied across the entire spectrum of the cycle, but exists outside of the cycle.
Bear with me, because this one might look a little stranger. Something like Powered by the Apocalypse might look a little more crazy, because it is actually still using the same building blocks, but the cycle is less of a circle and more of a rotary that goes around in circles, but can offramp into different areas.
(Frame[(Frame, Define, Resolve)Negotiate])
The reason the cycle looks like this is that while the standard “frame, define, resolve” cycle exists in the game, but at each stage, more than other games, the cycles widens back out to the larger frame cycle. You frame, define, and resolve–sometimes the move calls for a kind of negotiation, but then when the negotiation is chosen, it also feeds back out to the “outer” frame cycle to make sure the fiction is still true to itself.
Now, you can kick back to a “meta” frame in more traditional games, but it’s not a part of the assumed game cycle. For example, if a character hits a character attacks someone with a longsword, the longsword is both frame (it is a thing in the world) and definition (the sword has specific stats in the game). By traditional cycle, hitting someone with the longsword and rolling damage satisfies the implicit loop, but you can, optionally, move back to a wider frame to explain what it looks like to use that sword to do some kind of injury to an opponent.
The reason I started thinking about all of these frames is that I can’t think of another game that has “negotiate” as part of the “tight” cycle of game progression. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other games that do–I’ve got a limited perspective, and I’d love to hear about other games where this is true, or even to have other cycles in games I do know that I haven’t managed to see pointed out to me. That said, the cycle implicit in a Forged in the Dark game is more like the following:
Frame, Define, Negotiate, Resolve
It is actually a simpler cycle than a Powered by the Apocalypse game, but it is almost deceptively simple. Negotiate is part of almost any standard action, because once the situation is presented, the player can decide on almost any skill, but if they decide on a specific skill, it may be really effective, or not particularly effective–however, no matter how it is framed, you will almost never see a situation that is “this will always be a controlled situation that only one skill applies in, and it will always have standard effect,” because the “negotiation” of “how effective will this thing be” is built into almost any resolution.
I’m not sure what the point of me identifying all of this is. Humans look for patterns. This is one of the patterns in my head. Maybe I’m way off base, and I’m missing steps to these cycles. Maybe I’m trying to make my equivalent of bodily humors sound like biochemistry. Either way, I had a few thoughts on this I wanted to get written out, so I could at least map those thoughts bouncing around in my head.
If you have any thoughts on this, even if you are going to point out that I’m so off base on everything, I’d love to hear it. Maybe seeing someone else pull this part might help me see if this has any particular value to me going forward.