14 Oct 2014

The Mutual Exclusivity of Creative Agendas

The controversial part of the Big Model is the part that suggests that Creative Agendas don't mix. I would strongly suggest reading the previous blog post first. It contains all of the non-controversial parts of the Big Model. Cutting to the controversial part of a technical theory is one sure way to misunderstand what is being said.

The problem with controversies, is they are fun. We like to define ourselves by controversial ideas, it helps us find like minded people to agree with, or challenging people to argue with. The problem with the Creative Agenda controversies is they also appear to define us. It is impossible to read about categories of game without placing ones own own gaming experiences into the mix. It is difficult to read about preferences and tendencies in gaming without out reflecting on ones own.

These problems and controversies amount to the vast majority of things that people talk about when they address the Big Model. That contrasts with the fact that the Creative Agenda concept is actually not very controversial or even the main body of the theory. Most of the theory is about how to put together games or analyse gaming behaviours, or how the various parts of gaming fit together and work.

Because the Big Model is based on observation and behaviour then the categorisations of Creative Agenda are are based on looking carefully at each game that is working well and identifying the type of game it is. Any categorisation process is by definition seeking to understand what is categorically different about things and working out which of these different categories something fits into. That is what a category is.

The Big Model theorists have identified three categories of Creative Agenda, this was a long and disputed process, and no one is certain that it is over. One of the biggest problems with the early discussions was working out why the main body of gaming all felt similar but couldn't be as clearly categorised as two more easy to define categories. It didn't feel helpful to define them as being anything that didn't fit the other two. That isn't a category, rather it is a lack of category. It took a long while to work out what exactly constituted that big category and to be sure that it was a single category. The theorists have settled on three categories and so far any witnessed or imagined game that works well (what my previous article described as a Winning Formula) seems to fit into one of those three categories.

Some of the controversy comes from people looking at the categories and thinking that their game doesn't fit into only one. There are three possibilities here, it is either in a new category, one of the three categories or won't fit because it isn't one of the things being categorised.

The categories are successful games that achieve a winning formula, it is possible that a game never actually manages to achieve a winning formula, and as such cannot be categorised. However, that isn't the same as saying a game that doesn't easily fit into one category must not have a winning formula. If you can't work out the category of your successful game that is not the same as it not fitting into a category. Those that understand the categories will classify it as one of the three existing ones, or possibly create a new category for it. Successful games are what the categories sort, so a successful game by definition requires a category. They may need to study it very carefully and identify some unspoken things that everyone that is playing expects from the game before they categorise it.


It shouldn't be controversial that there are unsuccessful games out there. Many of us have played in games where no one seemed to get along or agree. In those games the categories don't apply. We have defined the categories as collections of successful games. Unsuccessful games are useful because they help us work out why certain components work together well and why some pull in different directions.

The real tricky games to categorise are the ones that use lots of components. A large game with lots of techniques being employed, with lots of conflicting ephemeral detail and a complicated social contract that ties all of those disparate parts together. It just so happens that a large number of games do this, which is why it took a long while to settle on the categories.

The clear cut games are easier to categorise, ones that have all their components working in a coherent manner (unified and logical) clearly show us what kind of game they are. The incoherent games are tricky, they take a lot of careful observation to decide where they fit. An incoherent game is not the same as a game without a winning formula, it just takes a lot of effort to maintain the unstable equilibrium. It requires practice or the understanding gained playing it over a long period of time.

Agenda Clash

The other side of this equation is games that don't work. What the theory is good for is looking at all of the game components and helping them pull together in a more coherent manner. Some of those components are at a social level, they are either ephemeral detail or techniques that help the social activity of play, or they are in the Social Contract. Whether or not a game is working for everyone is at the fundamental level of 'why they do it', it properly belongs at the Social Contract level of play.  If everyone agrees on what they want out of the game, and what counts as enjoyment, then you can look at the Exploration involved or the Techniques and Ephemera and get them working together to support that. However if you cannot agree on 'that thing you are doing together' then it is far harder, if not impossible, to make the game coherent.

A lot of focus has been placed on Social Contract for this reason, the Creative Agendas are named after the type of Social Contract a group may have. That is not to say the Creative Agenda is specifically about the Social Contract. Just that it is more noticeably at play at that level. If you define clearly what the group wants in the Social Contract then you have less need to work things out through trial and error in play. A clash of expectations is more easy to identify than a clash in a group that cannot clearly identify those expectations.

The controversy that emerges here is whether individual members can have different expectations of a single game and still make it work. There is a tendency to focus on the expectations part of that sentence, but I propose it is more helpful to focus on the working part. What does it mean if we say a game works? My previous article is all about that, it means that we have reached a winning formula. A winning formula can be reached even if different people want different things. It involves everyone actually having fun doing the same thing on a fundamental level. They must compromise to find the winning formula, but they do so willingly in order to have fun within the group.

Remember, we defined Creative Agenda as the mutually exclusive categories of all fun games. You can't escape that definition within this theory. It's a circular argument that different people can have fun regardless of their expectations, as long as they conform to the group's enjoyment and adapt to its expectations. They may not do it consciously but the theory is constructed around that happening. That precise thing has been observed many times when the categories were being formed. Coherence is meaningless outside of the framework of the theory. It doesn't mean anything to look at a successful game and identify multiple Creative Agenda expectations unless you want to use them to help the game to run more smoothly.

13 Oct 2014

The Big Model: From Play to Theory.

When a Roleplaying game is going well everyone knows it. Each player is psyched as game night approaches, when everyone has arrived there is no delaying getting down to things. Drink or snack breaks are filled with chat about what is happening or what might be going on. At the end of the evening everyone wonders where the time went, or wonder how they will get home because they just missed the last bus.

While playing, the group engagement is tangible, it is sometimes elusive but once we experience it we seek it out again. A good GM might reflect on those times it all went well and try and make plans to recreate the experience consistently. A thoughtful player may consciously decide to continue playing the same way, and encourage those around (including the GM) to do the same.

Sometimes the group will start to notice that parts of what they do together work better than other parts, and they will adjust their behaviour to better suit their enjoyment. They will emphasise some parts of the rule book over others, be mindful over exactly when they need to roll the dice or look up charts, recognising that sometimes it works and sometimes it gets in the way.

If they play more than one system they may consciously play them in a similar way, and adjust the rules and procedures of play to suit themselves. They may import the house rules that already work in the other games and just ignore the differences.

If they have different GMs for different games they may play a little differently with each. The difference may be as subtle as knowing when to speak or when to pick up the dice. The play may be as radically different as constantly speaking in character or using figures and a hex map. Some GMs might combine both seamlessly while others keep them separate or exclude one altogether.

A secondary GM might notice differences in behaviour and either consciously push the game towards this new group fun, or might adjust things to better match the other GM’s style.

Very often a group that stays together over a long period of time will stick to a single winning formula or a couple of distinct formulas that work for them. Why wouldn’t they? There is no logical reason to innovate once everyone is having fun. By a process of feedback they have worked out how to play. The group may recognise that this winning formula takes work, but as long as the result is rewarding then the work is worth it.

Roleplaying is a reasonably standardised behaviour, most of the components are recognisable. To a non-gamer all table-top games look pretty much the same. If a single player joins a different game that has also settled into a winning formula, the player will notice some things are different and some are the same. It is self-evident that the easiest way for that player to fit in would be to adapt their behaviour to that of the group. However, human behaviour is fascinating in its diversity, and a group will probably also adapt to accommodate the new player. There is a good possibility that the group will find a way to pull together and reach a new winning formula.

Everyone in the game knows what works and what doesn’t. They know which things to do and when to do them. They know some things that they do work better at specific times. They may even find that some things they would like to do would only work when a particular GM is running the game and reserve that particular behaviour to those times. This situation, where everyone is taking part in a group experience that just works is a coherent game. Coherent as in consistent, orderly and unified. The group is unified by that winning formula which consists of orderly behaviour: when applied consistently these behaviours will succeed.

If we are really lucky this description of roleplaying groups is complete in our experience. We have always been part of groups that get along or eventually found ways to get along, and over time those groups have always hit on a winning formula.


There is a word that is used to apply to a list of ‘things to be done’ in order to achieve a particular aim. It has become a controversial word in roleplaying. The word is Agenda, and it is used by a controversial group of theorists that model game behaviour with reference to a theory called The Big Model.

You might wonder, if you only read everything above neutrally, without prejudice, why this would be controversial. You might think maybe the controversy comes from how the word agenda is used? Language can be twisted or pointed. This accusation could perhaps be made to some of the language in The Big Model. Indeed its name could be taken to task in this manner.

It is called The Big Model because it tries to incorporate everything that happens at the table from the largest most obvious behaviours, to the smallest trivia.  It is not called The Big model because it seeks to encompass all other theory, or be the only theory. A single theory to explain everything is logically impossible, there are always new ways of looking at things. Some theories are large and complex perspectives some are simple but all-encompassing ideas. In the big sweep of theories about gaming The Big Model it is probably not the biggest by any definition. It is called The Big Model because it is trying to gain a perspective of the ‘Big Picture’ from a specific perspective. Indeed from the perspective I have mainly used in this writing: behavioural. I may have talked about feelings and enjoyment, but my main focus was observable behaviour in ourselves and others.

Another thing I have consciously done is to use some of the language in a subtly different manner to that of the theory. A Big Model theorist would probably take me to task on how I use the words Coherent and Agenda because they are used in the theory very specifically. However, I am not theorising here, I am just introducing the concepts using my own language.


When people theorise about big and complex things, language can get in the way, someone might use the word Roleplay to refer to the whole process of play, and another might mean identifying with their character and acting consistently with that identification. They could end up arguing about the definition of something else and because they didn’t specify what they meant by Roleplay they might be agreeing or talking about two different things. The best way to avoid this needless argument is to be very specific with the language used. To mutually agree what we mean when we use a particular word, and to introduce a different word when we have two meanings. We might even discard the most common word and instead use two separate specific terms to describe it.

For example we might say the overall roleplaying process is called Exploration, and that consistent behaviour based on identification with character is called Actor Stance. This way we will know when we are referring to one and not the other. If we find ourselves using the word Roleplay to mean something else we can define it as distinct to the other two and add a new term.

The flip side to jargon is the barrier to entry. In order to participate in the discussion you need to know the terms and how to use them. This two pronged outcome of jargon happens in every walk of life where people need to communicate about technical issues. Some consider it unfortunate, but let’s face it, the alternative would be an education system that focused on specific technical definitions of everything. “The domesticated feline individual lowered herself semi-recumbently on the floor surface insulation material of discrete size” instead of “The cat sat on the mat”. We would be a weird species with logical formulaic language and dictionaries that spanned whole libraries.

Applying The Jargon.

Techniques: When we are following our winning formula there are specific things we are doing that are identifiable parts of the game. The things that help us achieve success like playing games with character classes, the type of dice mechanics or the way that scenarios are prepared. These are the identifiable big things we see in games that help us define which game we are playing. The things we most readily think of when someone asks us to describe our game in relation to other roleplaying games.

Ephemera: The smaller components of technique, like whether we speak in character at a particular moment, or who says what happens at any moment in time. Maybe even trivial things like when you check your phone or when to congratulate other players. They are the nuts and bolts of the winning formula, all the moment to moment occurrences.

Social Contract: Part of that winning formula that leads to a consistent experience is the agreement about how we do things and in what way we do them. When we meet, who is the GM, how many players we need, which techniques we will employ and the kinds of ephemera that are acceptable. Rarely is this an actual written or spoken contract, but it is usually a mixture of clear rules of play and subtle allowances or exclusions. Even if a contract is written down somewhere, like a constitution, it won’t cover everything and can’t hope to describe what really happens.

Exploration: This is the main activity of roleplaying, sitting at the table talking about what is going on and what our character is doing. The Social Contract is regulating this activity, and the Techniques are a part of this activity. At a moment to moment level we are engaged in Ephemera.

You will have noticed we haven’t really defined Agenda yet, but that is the part that everyone usually points to first. In many ways that’s because it is less a defined thing. When the Exploration is going well and all the other parts are supporting that Exploration the Creative Agenda is Coherent. We need to put everything together to really understand this.

Putting it all Together

Our Social Contract defines how we get together and what we will be doing, it includes the type of Exploration we want and what the Techniques are. While playing we are engaged in moment to moment Ephemera which is all adding up to meaningful Techniques that support the Exploration in a manner compatible with the Social Contract. We have a coherent Creative Agenda if this all adds up to our winning formula.

Creative Agenda is a kind of unstable equilibrium, which can survive a bit of shaking but not too much. No specific thing will break the Creative Agenda nor does it fully support it. For example, we might agree in our social contract that character alignments like “Lawful Good” help us explore a richly populated world. If sometimes we speak out of character we can probably cope. If sometimes we don’t quite understand our character’s worldview the rest of the Exploration might help inform it.

On the flip side, if we never bother to look at things from our character’s perspective, then even speaking in character won’t amount to a recognisable alignment, and the Exploration of the world will become unpredictable. We won’t achieve the thing we sought in our Social Contract. 

A winning formula does not amount to a Creative Agenda. If it was there would be thousands of Creative Agendas. At least as many as the number of fun games being played. There are numerous winning formulae, and each one is unique, but they can be categorised.

Within each category different combinations of Ephemera and Technique build to allow certain types of compatible Exploration, governed by specific kinds of Social Contract.

To put it another way when we categorise Creative Agendas we can begin to put together the parts of a game in a constructive manner. We can build a winning formula through more than trial and error. Not only that, when a group has found a winning formula we can identify the Creative Agenda they are following.
Indeed within the theory the Creative Agenda is often used in sentences to mean a kind of winning formula, but we must always remember that it is a category.