Tabletop RPG Theory: Fictional Position
A few years ago I wrote a big post on my now-defunct blog about the Forge Theory terms “Positioning” and “Currency”. There's an #RPGTheoryJuly activity happening on Twitter, and the day 9 topic is “Fictional Positioning”. I thought today would be a good day to resurrect my old blog post (which is below), but also provide a punchier/TLDR version suitable for a twitter thread since the original is pretty wordy, analytical, and spends a lot of time critiquing the terminological choices.
(Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels)
All games care about position. Consider a soccer game: With the team ahead by two points and with 30 seconds left in the game, the goalie stood near the center of the goal. Notice all the references to position there?
The goalie has a position on the team. She is in a physical position on the field. The team has a position on the scoreboard, and time remaining can be a position on a clock.
Now an RPG: 2nd in line for the throne, the princess stood toe-to-toe with an assassin in the crypt beneath the palace. Princess is a position in society. She has a position in the line of succession. She is physically positioned in the crypt, and relative to another character.
"Fictional position" is just position in the fiction, i.e. the imaginary world where RPG takes place. It can be physical position like "behind the ogre" or metaphorical position like "the power behind the throne". Where you are impacts what you can do, and how well you can do it.
Like with the clock and the score in soccer, anything numerical can be a position. Your current Hit Points, your level, whether you have zero or one weapons, etc., are also elements of position. Usually they're not "fictional position" because they're mechanically represented.
The core activity of an RPG is Exploration. In the abstract, what is exploration? Going to a place and seeing what things look like from there. You can be physically exploring a dungeon, or doing an exploration of character in a relationship drama.
Note that this doesn't make RPGs different from other games, it makes them the same. In chess you're going to different positions on the board and seeing what things look like from there (hoping to get a glimpse of a path to checkmate).
In Forge terms, System is what controls or shapes where things go next from whatever current position everything is in. If you're behind the ogre maybe you can use your backstab maneuver, which would probably change his number of HP, and so on.
Sometimes the Forgie term "fictional positioning" kind of bundles together the "fictional position" I've been talking about with the idea of LEVERAGING that position. I think things are easier to absorb if you don't over-bundle ideas and don't overcomplicate the terminology.
Critiquing Forge Theory: Positioning/Currency (originally written 7/19/2015)
In the run-up to the release of Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker and in post-release reaction, “fictional positioning” became a hot topic of discussion in the indie gaming scene. Even though it was a central topic there was much confusion and miscommunication, and for many people it was unclear what “fictional positioning” was. Some of this confusion was likely caused by poor terminology choices in Forge Theory, a lack of conceptual clarity, and the assumption of a need for RPG-specific concepts and jargon which can end up making things seem more complex than necessary since they implicitly bundle in the tricky question of how RPGs differ from other games.
Let’s start by looking at the definition of Positioning from The Big Model wiki, which is the most up-to-date distillation of Forge Theory.
A Character Component. Behavioral, social, and contextual statements about a character. Formerly (and confusingly) called Metagame. See also Currency
Following the instructions, let’s see also the definition of Currency:
The relationships between the things on the character sheet.
A character sheet in a rpg is a list of Resources (things that are used and consumed: hit points, fatigue levels, sanity points, etc.), Effectiveness (skills, characteristics, abilities, advantages, etc.), and Positioning (who or what the character is in the fiction, where he is, in what situation and what does that mean, i.e. “King of Aquilonia”, or “on higher ground than his opponent”)
These things are related and exchanged all the time: being on a higher ground (Positioning) can give you a +1 on the “roll to hit” (Effectiveness) but trying to hit someone can use up your fatigue points (Resources). Or maybe you used up a fatigue point to roll on your “climb” ability (Effectiveness) to get on a higher ground (Positioning)
All [these] relationship and exchanges represent the currency of the game.
No matter if you are playing “freeform” or without character sheets, you still have a system, you still have characters, they still are positioned in a fiction, they still can do some things and can’t do other things, and the things they can do (Effectiveness) can change their positioning, or the other way around. There is always a Currency.
Here we encounter our first element of terminological confusion. This definition of currency is focused on a process of exchanging between various elements. However, a common usage of the word currency is to refer to a token of exchange, such as a Dollar or a Euro. Since many RPGs employ spendable tokens in their rules (which would be Resources by these definitions) it is confusing to build jargon off of a word that has an alternate domain-relevant definition. “Currency” is therefore a questionable word choice for this concept.
We also encounter another element of terminological confusion. The second paragraph suggests that Resources, Effectiveness, and Positioning are things on “a character sheet”, but the fifth paragraph says these things exist even in games without character sheets. This suggests that the “character sheet” mentioned in the definition is a virtual concept that contains Resources, Effectiveness, and Positioning but doesn’t necessarily correspond to the concrete character sheets that exist in many games. So, for the time being, let’s recall that these three things are bundled together in a conceptual category, and defer the question of whether “character sheet” is the best term to label that container.
By looking at the parenthetical after Positioning we see that it means ‘who or what the character is in the fiction, where he is, in what situation and what does that mean, i.e. “King of Aquilonia”, or “on higher ground than his opponent”’. If we look back to the canonical definition from earlier we can see that it’s using “statements about a character” similar to the way we might refer to “statements” in propositional logic. RPGs are a verbal medium that often involve players making statements as part of play, so this specialized usage of the term “statements” is a potential source of confusion. As the parenthetical makes clear, Positioning doesn’t concern statements about relationships, rather it concerns the relationships themselves. And looking at the kinds of relationships described we can find analogs in other games: In soccer we care about the physical position of a player on the field, as well as their position on the team, e.g. “goalkeeper”. By using the slightly unusual term “positioning” it wouldn’t be surprising if a reader assumed it was RPG-specific jargon that didn’t apply to other games, and the way the word “positioning” is used in marketing and politics might give rise to connotations that it’s about manipulatively gaining advantage (you can easily imagine that “fictional positioning” might refer to wheedling an authority figure for a discretionarily-granted advantage by using the fiction as a pretext). The term “position” doesn’t have those connotations in soccer: the relative positions of players matters in terms of who is advantaged at any given time, but “position” itself is a neutral, descriptive concept. Since harmonizing with sister fields is a conceptual and terminological virtue, let’s tentatively assume that the Big Model’s “positioning” isn’t some RPG-specific jargon but is a reference to “position”.
Now let’s look at Resources:
A Character Component: quantities or terms which are directly used to determine the success or extent of a character’s actions during play
Or, as the Currency section more clearly explains, “things that are used and consumed: hit points, fatigue levels, sanity points, etc.”. These are concrete, measurable, spendable things. But anything that can be represented numerically is, in some sense, at a position on a number line. Resources, therefore, might be better conceptualized as a special case of position — positions that have very concrete representations and a well-defined player interface (e.g. you can spend them).
Similarly, let’s look at Effectiveness:
A Character Component: quantities or terms which are directly used to determine the success or extent of a character’s actions during play.
As the currency section further explains, it’s “skills, characteristics, abilities, advantages, etc.” and ‘being on a higher ground (Positioning) can give you a +1 on the “roll to hit” (Effectiveness)’. The concepts may be somewhat muddled here. If this transient +1 to hit is an element of Effectiveness then it seems counterintuitive to classify it as something that might exist on a virtual character sheet; in most games that actually use character sheets it wouldn’t be represented there but would be a function of the rules interacting with the current game-state. If we separate out the two parts of this concept we can have long-term stable values like skills characteristics, and abilities, which we could call another special case of position. And we also have a concept of Effectiveness which we might describe as the potential to effect change in the game-state. This Effectiveness is normally a function that takes position as an input (including long-term stable positions like skills or abilities, spendable resource positions of things like action points or limited-use special powers, and in-fiction positions like where a character is in the world with respect to other entities — either physically like “standing behind them” or metaphorically like “his estranged son”).
And if we check back with the soccer analogy this definition of Effectiveness maps very well: A player’s ability to effect a change in the game-state (for example, scoring a point or triggering a penalty) is a function of their position on the field (things like distance from the goal and the position of intervening defenders clearly affect that), their position on the team (a goalkeeper can use their hands to perform maneuvers not allowed to other players), and other factors in the current game state (the current score and time left of the clock can be a factor in whether or not a player is capable of impacting whether their team wins or loses).
Using “position” as our basic concept also fits neatly with the term “move” which has been popularized by Vincent Baker both as a general game term (e.g. “It’s your move” or “my move is knight to king’s bishop 3” in chess, “the running back pulled off some sweet moves to dodge those tackles” in American Football, or “the alliance made a big move by throwing the challenge so they could vote out a member of their own tribe” on the Reality TV game Survivor) and as a specific game-mechanical term in the game Apocalype World. “Move” already has a semantic relationship to the concept of “changing position” in plain English.
A danger when using a chess move as an example is that the simplicity of the way we represent the change in position relative to the board can hide some of the complexity. Lots of elements can have positional relationships between them. If, instead of using the chessboard coordinates as our reference frame, we chose to represent the state of the game as a set of pairwise relationships between all of the pieces we could see that making a chess move is a more complex transformation than it initially appeared. Indeed, it’s the relationship between the pieces (i.e. which piece can take which) that feeds into evaluating the Effectiveness of a chess player’s position, so this more complex sense of position in chess isn’t merely rhetorical. Another useful analogy for changes in position having complex effects would be to use a metaphor that’s used to help explain the Einsteinian conception of gravity: a rubber sheet with heavy spheres on it. The spheres not only have positions in space, their positions also affect the shape of the space around them.
And this discursion into chess, where pieces have positions but so does the “side” which is constituted by the positions of its pieces, points out that tightly coupling these concepts to “a character” is too limiting. Anything can have a positional relationship with any other thing. For example, a player with multiple characters (such as a GM) might have a single resource that is shared between them (such as a pool of points that can be spent on extra dice or other bonuses).
So now if we begin gluing these concepts back together, we can see that “Currency” is really about understanding how the current game-state (which is made up of all the positional relationships of elements in the game) transforms from one moment to the next, it’s “System in action”. From the section on System:
A good way to look at System is that without it, characters in their settings would merely sit there frozen – once you put System into action, the Shared Imagined Space acquires ”time”, and the fictional situations in play can ”change”.
And this maps nicely to the way other games work. In chess, at any given moment the current positions of all the pieces (and a “whose turn is it?” variable) define the current game-state, the System of chess defines the way that game-state is transformed, and play is a series of transformations of those positions. At any given moment in soccer the current positions of the players, ball, score, and game-clock (and a few game-state variables like whether you’re doing a penalty procedure or the regular game, etc.) determine the game-state, the System of soccer defines the way that game-state is transformed (including the laws of physics which govern things like how a ball moves when it is kicked), and play is a series of transformations of those positions.
Thus, we may not actually need a replacement term for the ambiguity-plagued Currency since the concept it’s describing is the essence of System. Similarly, we can drop “character components” since those concepts aren’t necessarily tightly coupled to characters. We can also set aside the virtual “character sheet” since we no longer need a conceptual container for Positioning, Resources, and Effectiveness because we’ve recast Resources as a special case of Position and Effectiveness as a function that takes Position as its input.
[added 7/24/2015] The Big Model also identifies Exploration as the core activity of roleplaying. “Experiencing a space by moving through a series of positions” is semantically tied to “exploration” in plain English, so that’s another reason to believe the tweaks presented in this blog post result in a more elegant arrangement of concepts.