The Core Mechanic
Representing a fictional reality
Most roleplaying games tend to lean on our pre-existing knowledge for a lot of things, such as what a castle looks like or what it’s like to walk in a forest. When we play, someone typically presents a situation to start out in. The Lost Mine of Phandelver starts the players out with the following boxed text:
“You’ve been on the Triboar Trail for about half a day. As you come around a bend, you spot two dead horses sprawled about fifty feet ahead of you, blocking the path. Each has several black-feathered arrows sticking out of it. The woods press close to the trail here, with a steep embankment and dense thickets on either side.”
This is essentially where it starts. The GM has presented a model to the players - a set of “facts” that relate to each other. They’re in the woods, they’ve come around a bend and there are dead horses. Dense thickets on either side. I bet even as you read this, you’re probably visualizing it in your mind. This is what players can react to, ask questions and declare some things they want to do. At the table, this is now their “world” so to speak. The model is what they deal with.
Models can be conceived in several ways depending on the game in question. Most traditional RPGs often prescribe a model, which a GM adapts and represents to the players. Other games can be more flexible in this regard. For example Blades in the Dark has features that let players change the model beyond the scope of their character. On the extreme end, games like Microscope feature all the players making massive changes to the model. This topic is worth its own blogpost, so look forward to that.
Expanding the model
This is also where I call back to Engle’s verbal analysis, because the following interactions will typically happen. A player might ask “Do I see anything else?”, or “Can I tell how long the horses have been dead?”. These types of questions expand the model by looking closer at parts of it. If the GM responds with “You think the horses have been dead for a day at least” or “You see an empty saddlebag near one of the bushes”, the model expands.
This process builds towards what is typically called a shared understanding. While every player might have varying ideas of what the model looks like, there are discrete things everyone can latch on to and potentially interact with. Shared understanding is something that must be consciously maintained - as players might forget things between sessions. On a broader level, shared understanding is also something commonly used in rules-lite play.
We can also apply it to concepts such as a goblin and compare it to a dragonborn paladin. It could be the expectation for the players that a goblin is weaker than a dragonborn, especially one trained as a paladin. In this process, we apply verbal analysis to compare the goblin with the dragonborn paladin. We could ask “Is the goblin strong?” and the GM might say something like “No, compared to human-sized creatures, the goblin is weak.” or reply to the dragonborn paladin that “You are definitely stronger than the goblin.” These are now facts in the model that are hopefully obvious to everyone at the table.
In my games, I would perhaps let this information apply if the paladin attacked, basically saying something like “you slay the goblin brutally with your warhammer”, but it would also be natural to play like a combat encounter. It depends on what you find interesting.
In this post, I discussed the following things:
Model - A set of information pieces that describe the game or fiction’s world.
Verbal Analysis - The process of asking questions and answering them which builds an understanding of the model. Can involve establishing new facts, such as making comparisons between creatures or adding new details to the model.
Shared Understanding - The notion that everyone at the table shares an understanding of the model, by at least having points in the model they can interact with. Shared understanding must be actively maintained - players and referees can forget or interpret things differently over time.
If you found this engaging and want to discuss the topic, feel free to hop on to the Revenant's Quill Community Discord. I unfortunately had to disable comments because of spam bots.
Chris Engle - Verbal analysis wargaming