RPG Theory post, using Apocalypse World for illustration. Mute me now!

Roleplaying is a conversation.

Like all conversations, it has two components: content and form.

Content's easy. We can all look at a roleplaying game's rules and see how they respond to and contribute to the content of the conversation we're having. I've been talking about content a lot now for a bunch of years.

A roleplaying game's rules also structure the conversation we're having, responding to and contributing to its form.

The quickest example I can think of is reading a situation vs reading a person in Apocalypse World.

The moves are almost identical; there are only two differences between them. In both cases you roll to find out how many questions you get to ask.

The first difference is a difference of content. When you read a situation, you get to ask where your enemy is most vulnerable, what's the biggest threat, what's your best escape route, questions about your immediate surroundings and how things are likely to play out. When you read a person, you get to ask what they're really feeling, what they hope you'll do, how you might be able to get them to go along with your plan, questions about their psychology and intentions. The conversation we have when you read a situation is about different things than the conversation we have when you read a person.

The second difference, though, is a tiny difference of form. When you read a situation, you ask all of your questions right now; you get all of the information in a flash all at once. When you read a person, though, you hold on to your questions and ask them as the scene plays out, responsively. So the conversation is about different things, yes, and it's also structured differently.

This small difference in the order of the conversation we have makes a huge difference in play.

Each move in Apocalypse World does the same. It proposes content for us to talk about, and it proposes an order for our conversation to follow. YOU ask ME about THIS. MY CHARACTER does THAT, how do YOU respond for YOURS? YOU make THIS decision, and once I know what you've chosen, I make THIS OTHER decision.

Without going in and counting, Apocalypse World includes a library of probably 10 or 12 of these tiny little conversational structures. Part of the game design, and part of applying the game in play, is choosing which conversational structure to use for what body of content. This is my point: designing a game means pairing form with content, it means choosing how to have a conversation about what. Ordering the conversation differently to best suit different subject matter is a crucial piece of design.

None of this is new! RPG design has worked this way since the beginning. If anything, it was even more clear back in the days before grand unified mechanics. Go compare and contrast Basic D&D's many different subsystems and you'll see exactly what I mean.
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