Process vs Product, Rpgs, Their Texts, Customization, And You

edited January 2009 in Story Games
Hey Everyone,

Been mulling this over in my head for a little while now and I thought I would bring it to the greater masses to get their opinions/pithy dialogue.

Do you feel that RPG's , in particular their texts which instruct us how to play them, should be considered more as a process or a product. A process would be the texts containing the steps and phases of the play which then you attempt to impliment to achieve the real product, a game that cannot be shoved in a book, as people in general are adverse to being rendered into neat bookshaped cubes.

A product would be much more along the lines of the literary thought, where the book is artifact itself and play that comes from that seems almost incidental to the book itself.

Also how do you think these two postions link to the idea/problem of customization? The Problem of Customization, where everyone interprets the rules indivudally and as a result have their own special version of the final product, seems really just a passed down version of the interpretation problems that plague some higher artistic forms (older if you perfer). The Alternative version has the great number of tables being seperated, (but not their indivudal rule text readers ) by the fact that the process is sensitive to who is running it, the context they are running it from, etc. This leads to the subjectivity that seems to predominate thought arround these subjects, (screwed one way or the other)

As a side thought, I often see some advice for indie games to learn from video games or board games, or the like, but this really seems to be blown out of the water by the whole process vs product thing. I find videogames really heavily onto the product side, you buy the game, you play the game as is. There is no necessary layer of understanding and implimenting the game for the user (The Computer does that) that seems rather directly opposed to tabletop/parlour play. Rpgs require a human processor and as a result seem to me at least to be laying at the process side of things. Boardgames seem rather firmly in the middle, (It is much easier for someone to say you are running a boardgame wrong, then an rpg, can this be used as a text for process dependance?).

Either way your thoughts,


Ps, Yes I know I'm setting out a dichotmy, and that in all likelyhood its a spectrum or some such, if that ALL you have to say, forget about it, I just said it.
Pss. If all you got for me are formal argument criticism, you can probbaly shelve those two. Trust me I probably do it better than you, and Im interested in the thought, not that I may have stated it too strongly for formal logic.


  • I'll stab at this a little.

    A formal game, such as chess or soccer, has no space for creative input. You can choose among the legal moves and combine them ad-hoc, but you can't improvise new content in any way. (Yeah, this is harder to see for a game like soccer, but stay with me). You play the game that's there in front of you.

    RPGs, in their role as socially mediated fiction-generators, usually don't operate as formal games. In a formal game, there's no route from individual creative input to enter the game except as contained and packeted within rules-constructs. Universalis is a pretty pure example of this sort of formal game with fiction-generating functions, and Capes is somewhere here too.

    What you're doing in these games is not so much using a set of rules to govern the creation of a fiction, as sticking the elements of your fiction inside the game playing pieces and bouncing them off of each other. The thing is: no matter how fictionally incoherent the contents of those packages, the mechanical game still operates. The game does not care whether the fiction it is generating makes any sense at all - or even exists. You could play Capes with all the cards labeled with numbers and letters, and the mechanic would do its thing. What Tony calls the "popcorn rule" (anything that would cause the other players to throw popcorn at you is out of bounds) is the only thing that might interfere with that, and that rule's not even in the text.

    Most RPG play, though, is not that sort of game. It uses rules as translation interfaces, but those rules do not (and probably cannot, in most applications to real play) serve as a complete formal system. They're there to get stuff from the players' heads into the fiction in some sort of organized and standardized way, NOT to interact with each other as a complete system. Rules in RPGs are actually not so much about "rules" in the soccer sense. A large proportion of the rules that map to formal-game rules are social, soft rules, while the actual mechanical rules are more like equipment - cleats, a net, chalk to mark the field out.
  • Could you explain a bit more what are the important differences between a product and a process and what link there could be with customization?

    As I understand things right now, a rpg-book is a product describing a process, a bit like a cookbook.

    As to customization, all games are customizable and most get customized in a way or another: there are countless variants of chess, a good many variations on soccer (to list only the most official ones, and video games get modded. For the first two examples, the existence of an international body charged of maintaining official rules does not prevent customization. For video games, the fact that they are customized despite the technical obstacle is a mark of the appeal of customization. (Note: it is also possible to kind-off-customize a video game simply by not playing it the way it was meant to. Eg: in each level, try to find the quickest way to die [been there, done that]).

    Of course rpg seem to be the most customized of all. I believe there are many reasons for that, I'll try to list a few of them.
    * Rpg are made of very malleable stuff.
    * All rpg ask us to create (character, setting, plot, ...), it is an invitation to customization.
    * Every rpg that has a supplement or a module is paving the way for customization, as there are already two variants of the game: one without the supplement anbd one with. Same goes for a second edition.
    * Many rpg are toolkits, you have to customize at least by choosing your tool set.
    * The first step of customization and the easiest one to make is accidental: forget a rule or interpret it wrong.
    * Any loophole is call for customization.
    * Any divergence between the game focus and the players focus is calling for drifting, ie customization.

    I don't know if these point to a product or a process orientation. What do you think?
  • edited January 2009
    I divide it into three levels:

    - Vision: aka "design", mainly the game-smith's demesne (but both GM and other players may be active here).
    - Interaction: aka "game-play", the demesne of the player-group (GM included).
    - Fiction: demesne of our individual imagination.

    As a game-smith, GM and ordinary player I am active on all three levels. Most people on this forum are, I believe.

    - All three levels intertwine somehow. They may be regarded as a whole; the role-playing game. I divide them to facilitate systematic thinking.
    - If you write it like this: Vision -> Interaction -> Fiction ... then you get a rough outline of the "process".
    - The final "product" the design and game-play are leading up to is the fiction (or the multiple fictions created in the heads of the players, related, but each their own).
    - A "customization" may be vision or interaction, or both, depending on the game and the circumstances.
    - The "text" I place fair and square in the vision.
  • Filip, I'm aware of your idiosyncratic tastes. You want a formal game. RPGs, despite their name, are not formal games - at best, they're a collection of minigames.

    What you are looking for is a strongly themed formal game. I can't think of a single example of an RPG that functions that way. All RPGs that I know of require - not merely allow - the crafting of a local variant for play, because the function and value of their components *change* depending on what fictional contents are poured into them. Capes & Uni were merely the closest thing to pure formal games I could think of in the field - I agree that they don't actually result in anything fun when played as formal games, but they *can* be played that way, because the contents of the mechanical bits have no effect on the mechanics. The imagined content that is allowable to place into those containers is not rule-defined but negotiated at play-time.

    There is no such thing as the game when imagined content changes the function of mechanical components. As soon as that can happen, you are playing a variant.
  • After a bit more thought:

    RPG texts are products which may directly or not describe the role playing gaming process if it is a "rulebook".

    The noble part of rpg, the actual play, is imho both process (following the rules, creating, acting, strategic thinking, ...) and product as a material (process rules, setting, ...) and as a final product (creations, emotions, sentiments, memories, stories [esp. in story-after], ...). Both get customized.
  • We may be differing in degree. To me, a mechanical structure loose enough to handle a sufficient diversity of input to be interesting is not sufficiently tight to form a closed game space. Chess is computable. In principle, even sports are - although they have referees to handle exceptions.

    I can't think of even one RPG that is computable (well, unless you're a hardcore neuropsych materialist... which I actually am, but can't find it in my heart to call it relevant), and the big reason is because of that performative quality you talk about - too much of the action takes place in socially mediated ways.

    I wonder if it is even possible to create a usefully tight-specification structure that isn't trivial from a fiction standpoint.

    This whole line of argument always calls up the Eurogames/Ameritrash schism in board game design for me. The games on the far end of the Ameritrash spectrum rely on theme-ing to create an implicit social enforcer for interesting play: played as formal games, they are broken and boring. Played with the theme serving as an informal metarule, they can remain interesting.
  • Mark, I've had similar thoughts, and I've flirted with calling any given design a "roleplaying toy" rather than a "roleplaying game". It fits perfectly, right? A toy is opportunity, it's got neat bits, it suggests what you could do with it, it might even have instructions on how to play with it. But in the end, what you do with it isn't bounded by a formal structure. Alas, "roleplaying toy" never looked quite right on a book cover.
  • In all fairness, HG Wells titled his book about essentially freeform worldbuilding/worldplay activities "Floor Games", about a hundred years ago, so it isn't like other people never use "games" to describe activities like we're discussing.
  • I'm good with that. Lots of things are games without being formal games. I really doubt that any RPG could be a closed decision space and still function, but I don't doubt for a moment that most still fall squarely into the category of games. Indeed, the ones way out there in "toy"-land are about as fringe-y as the ones that approach closed decision spaces.
  • Filip:
    Could you expand a bit on what you mean by "performance" in your formulation above?

    I've seen you use it a couple of times in threads now, and I'm a bit lost as to what you personally mean by it.
  • Hopefully this is not falling into the things we were told not to do in the OP, but I think that both the physical book and the game you play using it are products, and most likely separate products at that.

    For evidence of the separation (and productness of both), I'd offer the following points
    • People talk about customizing games, but they don't usually mean the book itself (though they usually mean the body of rules). Few people actually write in their books, or stick new tables over the old ones, or remove pages. I think this is because regardless of the game played the book is a complete product which is usually altered no more than a novel would be.
    • People buy and read game books without playing, and vice-versa. Sometimes they will play the game without ever having seen the text at all (e.g. they hear something about a game and and attempt to implement what they think that cool thing is within another game). This suggests that the game may be an entirely separate entity from the associated body of rules.
    • A fine game can emerge from a poor text, and a beautiful text can lead to poor play. This is evidence of a transformation process that produces a game from a text, of course, but it also illustrates that there is not a clear equivalence between the two. It's possible to appreciate the quality of the writing / art / whatever of a text that leads to bad gameplay, which again makes me think of them as two complete entities.
    Of course if you accept this then you may have to ask, is there a third product, which is the gameplay plus the associated body of group lore, character sheet illustrations, maps, props, anecdotes, oft-repeated stories, reminiscences and the like. In some cases this is more the game than the play at table is, and again its possible to have a good *game* (in this sense) out of mediocre or poor play at the table.
  • I find this all really interesting, good posts and thank you for respecting my caveats.

    I find it interesting that constrained input games (Chess,Soccer,Etc) and more open input games (What I'm tlaking about in a role playing game or a performance game,etc) is being somewhat aligned with finite vs infinite input. Constrained Input can create infinite content and I think the biggest example of this would probably be language. We can create an infinite number of sentences from what (seem to me at least) to be fairly constrained rules surrounding language (And this is without resorting to slang or improvisation beyond compostion , Althought how a Neuropsyco materialist would take this would be very interesting to me, this is one of the facts that kripke uses against that kind of understanding of the mind as a place to focus this infinite stuff on -this is mostly an aside and im not sure if im understanding the Neuro materalism correctly).

    So in a sense you could have a Complete in the Jedi bunny sense of a game that still produces infinite play, But i'm not sure how that feeds into the idea of infinite play as a distracting big red button. It either means the button is more distracting and prevalent than originally stated or that it was over stated to begin with.

    As for Ajax and Hituro's questions of what exactly i mean by process vs product well its a bit harder to explain, but essentially at the end of the day when i get my widget am i expected to consume or play with my widget. If I order a sandwich, I order it to eat it (consume) rather than play with it, or rearrange the the layers of foodstuff to my liking. Even if I do rearrange the foodstuff to my liking I would consider it a product and not process. Its a bit like the difference of ordering something you have to put together yourself (like a cheap desk or something); do you order because you want the end product or because you wanted to put a desk together? I rather agree that lots and lots and lots of people dont customize their books and I think that is probably a pretty good stage of indication of what we got. (But then again we have toolkit games on the other side , which seems to require that customization right from the get go; Im not convinved by this however, because it seems like a fire and forget kind of thing, We select the toolkits and that's that. Changing toolkits in the middle of a game would seem odd. Then again I'm kind of a believer in the product side of things so take that with a grain of salt.

    I also find interesting tomas Vision -> Interaction -> Fiction, because i find it rather endearing that the creator's wishes are in some sense the begining of the whole thing for most people, when i feel it is not that way really at all. Indie gaming has a big benefit in that sense, is that the games creators are a lot more available to us than other games (who created monopoly again?) . Personally It seems like two seperate cycles for me

    Game Creation
    Game Designer's Vision -> Game Design -> Game

    Followed by

    Game -> Interaction -> Fiction

    but then again im fairly married to the game as product bit. To the people who are like, game manuals are a cook book, I have this to say, How many cook books do you know that only make one kind of food. (and i don't mean in the general sense like asian food cookbooks but rather the definitive pad thai cookbook. ). I was never convinced by that analogy and even the toolkit games at best have a few large variants. I mean if we wrote up a gurps cookbook or a BESM cookbook, I think it would be pathetically small.

    I find the idea that the two process/product cycles work side by side to be intriguing, if the poster of that wanted to get more into that I would appreciate it. How would that go would it be like

    Game=> Interaction=>

    or would it be really

    Players: Fiction
    Vision=> Interaction=>

    either way thanks for the great responces.

  • Posted By: Mark WA formal game, such as chess or soccer, has no space for creative input. You can choose among the legal moves and combine them ad-hoc, but you can't improvise new content in any way. (Yeah, this is harder to see for a game like soccer, but stay with me). You play the game that's there in front of you.
    I'm not sure I can buy this. Chess has been played for centuries -- but there are still new styles of play, new strategies, new openings being developed... and, since no player already knows every existing strategy and style of play, people are constantly rediscovering things with their own creativity.

    There is such a thing as being creative within a fixed system -- and the more complex the system is, the more room there is for creativity. There's not a lot you can do within, say, tic-tac-toe, simply because the number of possible games that can be played is very small. The number of possible games of chess, however, is huge, so there's a great deal of "room" to work in.
  • By "creative input", I mean input that was not already conceived of by the designer/rules engine.

    You can creatively combine the moves available in a huge number of ways. But you can't decide that this time, your knight can't move past a square containing a rook, because after all, horses can't jump over castle walls.

    The fiction of the game cannot interact with the rules to produce new rules or force reinterpretation of the rules. Thus, formal game.
  • Posted By: Logos7Do you feel that RPGs, in particular their texts which instruct us how to play them, should be considered more as a process or a product?

    A process would be the texts containing the steps and phases of the play which then you attempt to implement to achieve the real product, a game that cannot be shoved in a book...

    A product would be much more along the lines of the literary thought, where the book is artifact itself...
    Logos, should an automobile be considered a process (that gets you places) or a product (that you appreciate on its own merits)? Should a house be a process (that provides shelter) or a product (that is aesthetically pleasing, perhaps)? Should a mobile computing device be a process (that allows you to interact with other mobile devices) or a product (that is slick and has an intuitive interface and cool graphics and stuff)?

    It is more than possible to make something both functional and beautiful. That's the underlying goal of most design.
  • edited January 2009
    Posted By: Logos7Personally It seems like two seperate cycles for me

    Game Creation
    Game Designer's Vision -> Game Design -> Game

    Followed by

    Game -> Interaction -> Fiction
    How the book/game is made is of course a process too, and it is not a process that is made in isolation. The interaction and fiction players are able to create, usually feeds back to the designer in his process. In forumslike these the designer may communicate and clarify his vision too. He may search for his vision, and communicate it, through test-games too, in discourse with players of the game. There is no end to how these parts of the process links up, and create an intricate weave of creative communication. The game-smith is still central in the vision-part, though.

    Fresh example: I led a group in my game Romance! tonight, and had THE most experienced GM in the game as a player (she has played it a lot more than me). I know she don't approve of my latest version of the game, so GM'ing her in it is a bit of a challenge. I sincerely hope she will be a bit more sympathetic to the new version after playing this mini-campaign with me as GM. But what can I do if she insist on her "oldish" ways? Absolutely nothing! She and her friends will continue to play and develope the game in their way ...

    Anyway: I find it simpler to say Vision -> Interaction -> Fiction. When I came up with that simple three-step-model, a lot of things stopped bothering me about how I should or could or would perceive rpg's. It made it a whole lot easier to think and talk rpg's.
  • The Problem of Customisation is not a problem.

    It's an opportunity we have failed to fully seize.
  • I find that really interesting levi who babbles,

    the 'problem' of customization could be called many things, including i think, just the way it is, but I don't see how it is an oppurtunity per say. It seems like it either is this way for everyone (the real problem of customization is subjectivity and solipism) or for no one, (The rest of your are doing it wrong, problem solved). Care to explain a bit more?

    To Tomas,

    It seems that your 'fresh example' is exactly why i seperated the two process/product lines. Like you said you can't do diggity to your friend if she keeps running it the old way. Your vision seems to be cut out of the picture. And it is really great that we do have this feedback, and people have playtesters and all that, but for the players most players will never see that work except in some sense of efficiency or goal getting in the final design. It seems really odd to say that the vision of the designer is having an impact on me when im playing the game wrong. (This may just be a difference of opinion things, but if you want to synthesis by all means )

    Josh Roby;

    An Automobile is a product, driving somewhere is a process A house is a product, a home is a process, a mobile computing device is a product, the things i do with it are probably processes. Generally a product would seem to be something essentially itself, wheras a process necessitates something else. A process is something done whereas a product just is. Roleplay would be the process to RPG TEXT. An Rpg Text Can't Roleplay, its a text. I hope that makes my vision of the two clearer.

    Also in general i find the chess as finite vs infinite thing really interesting because its a pretty good example of a completely codified thing that still has large numbers of variances. Moreso our understanding of what is good and right and wrong and bad in chess changes. Something is viable if it is shown viable, and while a machine can definitely win matches against grandmaster's im not sure it can understand or acurately measure tempo in a chess match (probably an aside issue ).
  • Posted By: Logos7I find that really interesting levi who babbles,

    the 'problem' of customization could be called many things, including i think, just the way it is, but I don't see how it is an oppurtunity per say. It seems like it either is this way for everyone (the real problem of customization is subjectivity and solipism) or for no one, (The rest of your are doing it wrong, problem solved). Care to explain a bit more?
    Subjectivity, with open and positive feedback, is a boon. It means that the range of what a given group of people are capable of saying is larger.

    On the small scale, this leads to play. Not some special new kind of play, just the regular good stuff - people riffing off ideas and spinning out actions and bits. Good play requires multiple subjective viewpoints, or it fails.

    On the large scale, it leads to things like the OGL "cloud" of selectable material.

    And look again - I never said "the rest of you". I said "we". The constant drive is to build structures one plays within. I think that's the mistake.
  • Posted By: Logos7Your vision seems to be cut out of the picture.
    Not really. My vision is still a part of her customization (she is not only keeping to an old version, but developing it too), but not my full vision. She is doing design-things to my work, making it more of her own than an ordinary GM would do.

    Happens all the time, of course. It is very interesting to observe this from the designer's point of view.
  • edited January 2009
    Posted By: Logos7Generally a product would seem to be something essentially itself
    I know we weren't supposed to go into rational argument but hey you started it. Can you name a product that is an end in itself, and is not there for the purpose of a process? I suggest that if you try to do this you will end up with a product called 'Happiness' or 'Beauty' or 'Truth', much like everyone else who has tried to follow that particular path of analysis. (This is not meant to dismiss this line of analysis, only point out the parallel to existing systems.)

    Which is to say, I'm with Josh on this one -- it's not that it's a spectrum, as you suggested in the OP, it's that it's two complementary things, both of which have their own non-exclusive measures of success. One or another aspects can be considered more 'important', however, so the value judgment we make about Product and Process (aka. 'ends' and 'means', unless I am misunderstanding) might be conceived as a spectrum. For example almost nobody would suggest that a knife should be valued primarily as itself, because of some perfect knife-ness; a knife is valued because it cuts things, we evaluate it primarily based on its ability to help us do something else. Whereas on the other hand 'intelligence' or 'logical thought' seems to have some value in of itself -- but it is also useful because it helps us do other things. The value judgment is mutually exclusive but it is not necessarily the case that making something a better product makes it a worse process, etc.


    Now that's all basically unrelated to what I understood from the OP, so abandoning the teleology and doubling back to that: I think the focus should be on the game as a process. I think the value of a game book is that it introduces/guides a process. I think moreover that this 'process' is a good-in-itself, and should also be considered of greater importance than the product that it produces (the game fiction.) But obviously they are all interrelated, and saying that you focus on the process does not make the related product(s) less important, it just clarifies how we should go about measuring the success of those products. If I say 'the point of roleplaying is to produce quality fiction' that suggests a different way of measuring the success of a game book than if I say 'the point of roleplaying is to facilitate a quality process that incorporates fiction.'

    As to the 'Problem of Customization' -- I don't see a problem. I see the fundamental state of all human interaction. I could complain about it but it's kind of like saying 'the Problem of Gravity'. We can accept the presence of gravity and make sure we take it into account when trying to do things, or we can ignore gravity and hope everything works out anyways.
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