Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Framing and Reframing

So far, my analysis of role playing games has focused on the game master’s stewardship of the campaign’s state by filtering all rule applications, player actions, and setting details through his rulings. This is a good model of what goes on during the bulk of a game session, however it omits the most significant tool in the game master’s arsenal: his ability to set up the initial situation and then… during the course of the game to reframe the situation as needed.

The first time I consciously did this was when Earlburt was running through the classic Convoy adventure. He left a mechanic with a van behind to salvage a laser from a kill. This just didn’t seem to be something you should be able to do without any consequences, so during the next game session I ruled that a pack of cyclists caught wind of this and swooped in after him to try to take it from him. I’d taken the existing developments of an adventure, fast-forwarded to a new scene, and began refereeing a new scenario that built on the previous situation. That’s how reframing works.

I would go so far as to say that the game master’s ability to reframe the game is the essential difference between tabletop role playing games and their computerized counterparts. Early text adventures such as those by Scott Adams and the interactive fiction by Infocom all have a single story frame that you resolve in sort of a Rubik’s cube fashion. You gradually manipulate the game state until the puzzle is solved. There may be multiple paths to victory, but there is still basically one premise and one correct end game– and your score is a measure of what proportion of the puzzle you have correctly solved. Computerized role playing games such as Ultima III allow you to move through towns, wilderness, and dungeons which each have their own style of implementation, but the freedom you have in exploration, character development, and monster whumping still leads either to death or else a successful encounter with the big bad guy at the end.

In contrast, reframing allows the game master to gradually transition the very premise of the campaign. This is illustrated by the steadily expanding scope of the old Basic D&D progression: players start as insignificant adventurers hacking and slashing dungeons under the Basic Set, once they toughen up and gain some assets they explore the wider world with the wilderness rules of the Expert set, once they achieve greater renown they can establish strongholds of their own under the Companion rules, and from there they can transition into epic play with the Master and Immortal rules. Original D&D was designed to allow players to mold the campaign map itself through the course of playing out their kingdom’s development and the large scale military battles that developed from the campaign.

Early Traveller players were afforded even greater flexibility in the kinds of campaigns that they could transition to. They might begin as scruffy ex-military types that engaged in various lawbreaking activities, that then save the universe with bizarre alien artifacts, but later start their own merchant lines, get tapped to use their ships for the Imperium during an epic war, become nobles with vast fifes to manage, or even defend their worlds by playing out battles with miniatures rules. Traveller was an interlocking set of war games and role playing rules subsystems that game masters would cherry pick as needed in order to adapt to the evolving demands of their campaign.

The necessity of reframing emerges naturally in almost any long running campaign. For instance, GURPS adventures from the late eighties and early nineties are generally going to be a loose series of scenes, each allowing for degrees of success and multiple outcomes. These are usually robust enough to allow for a variety of approaches, styles, and skill levels… and sticking to the implied plot isn’t terribly difficult. But what happens when the players resolve the situation? What happens next? Novice Game Masters could arbitrarily move the players from one frame to the next by setting them down into one adventure or module after another. Many campaigns have been run that way. The more challenging thing would be to reframe into a scenario that develops and ties together various characters and events that emerge during play. That sort of scenario is of course impossible to anticipate fully in advance, and while rules and guidelines can be created for that purpose, it is still ultimately a pure judgement call whenever the “referee determines the course of subsequent events.”

In order to further nail down these concepts, I have worked up this glossary:

Frame: A distinct role playing scenario, usually in the form of a module or adventure outline.

Reframing: The process by which a game master continues a campaign upon concluding a particular adventure, module, or story arc.

“Fifth Frontier War can be used to indicate the greater conditions that are happening in the Spinward Marches, often just beyond the knowledge of Traveller adventurers.”

Subframe: A specific subsystem of a role playing game, usually with its own distinctive mechanics. Examples include wilderness movement, dungeons, tactical melee combat, mass combat, and space combat. Resolving an adventure typically requires the players to shift between these various levels of resolution as they explore, fight, and solve problems. It’s also possible, however, to resolve adventures in a purely abstract manner, remaining entirely within a single narrativistic subframe.

Game masters generally have far more guidance from the rules for how and when they move from one subframe to another. In contrast, reframing a series of scenarios requires a far greater amount of creativity, judgement, and the ability to synthesize all of the gaming books and the developments that emerge in game sessions. While a game master may strive to be a neutral referee during the resolution of individual scenes, the skills he needs to successfully reframe are closer to those of a novelist or comic book plotter.


5 responses to “Framing and Reframing

  1. RogerBW October 23, 2012 at 10:17 am

    The computer game’s answer to reframing is “game over, you’ve won – go and buy a new one”. But also, of course, the computer game can’t allow any action that the designer hasn’t thought of* – on a small scale, if there’s no flanking mechanic, you can’t flank the foe, and on a large scale, you can’t found a kingdom.

    * though a sufficiently complex game can conceal exploits – like rocket-jumping in Quake, which wasn’t something the authors intended to work.

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