Most gaming theory is bollocks. Esoteric, mutually contradictory nonsense, often misapplied from other disciplines. Most of that theory is also applied to computer games, while role-playing games are very much their own creature.
What little game theory has come out of gaming itself isn’t that much better. Mostly attempts to categorise and define the different mechanics, modes of play and their overall feel.
Perhaps the most well-known of these, though it has since been dropped, is ‘GNS’ theory. That games are a mixture of Game, Narrative and Simulation – to which I would add ‘toy’.
A low Game system might be something like Amber Diceless Roleplaying. A high Game system might be something like Iron Kingdoms or Cadwallon.
A low Narrative system might be something like an OSR game, where the dice lead the action and story emerges from action. A high Narrative system might be something like Apocalypse World, where there are constant modifications of narrative and the narrative leads very much over any other aspect, moreso even than FATE.
A low Simulation system is something that is not trying to represent reality, or even genre emulation. Again, Apocalypse World would meet that definition. A high Simulation system goes to a great deal of effort to replicate reality – or a fictional hyperreality. Millenium’s End or BRP might be more in this camp.
To that I would add ‘Toy’, which defines how directed or directionless a game might be. A high Toy rating is someting like playing with lego, or a plot-free sandbox world. A low Toy rating is something much more directed. How much a Toy a game is might well depend more on the GM and players than the game’s default setting.
This might have fallen out of favour, but as a design framework it is still quite useful.
How important do I want to make the mechanics? How deeply can you customise and dick around with the system?
How important is the story? Do I want to include player overrides, remove some GM power, allow get out of jail free cards? Do I want the story to be more in the hands of the GM, or to emerge from play?
Is this more of a sandbox toy, with pieces that come together and fall apart, or is it something much more directed and pointed? Railroaded even?
My game Actual Fucking Monsters, for example, might rate (out of 10):
- Game: 4/10
- Narrative: 6/10
- Simulation: 4/10
- Toy: 8/10
It’s not mechanically complex or deep, it is a story-led game, but without much story led mechanics. It is more genre emulation than simulation, but it is trying to simulate types of horror tale (Near Dark, Nightbreed), and it is largely open-ended. It can run itself without the GM needing to do much of anything.
Theory is interesting, but I don’t know that there’s anything valid here yet. Studies, for example, show that representation matters in passive media, but not so much in active, interactive media like computer games. That would suggest that TTRPG representation is not as important as people are making it out to be – probably because you’ve always been able to make up your own characters.
TTRPGs are just too niche to attract decent scholarship, thhough there are notable exceptions. As we saw back in the DiGRA days, being a niche just makes you a target for ideological, rather than science-led scholarship.
More’s the pity.