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.

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