So a term I use repeatedly in my last post  about +Sarah Lynne Bowman
's article  is "aesthetics," which I do pretty much without explaining what the heck I mean. What I mean is, a set of artistic values that tell us what art is beautiful and what art is not beautiful. I think that there are pretty widely varied aesthetics in role-playing games, although for the most part we wouldn't necessarily use the term "beautiful" to describe it, preferring "fun," instead.
This dovetails with some thoughts I've been having about a conversation between +Caitlynn Belle
and +Vincent Baker
 on Vincent's blog a couple of weeks ago, about the narrow range of goals that currently exist in tabletop role-playing.
So, following on that and taking Murderous Ghosts
as our example, there are a lot of different possible aesthetic goals for "explorer gets murdered by ghosts." Including, but not limited.
* Trying to succeed by avoiding ghost murder, at least for as long as possible.
* Telling a story about ghost murder.
* Experiencing ghost murder feelings and sensations and thoughts.
* Experiencing being an explorer in a dangerous, haunted situation.
These are all very different things, and they require very different games.
I don't think any sort of broad aesthetic taxonomy would be profitable (or, for me, possible) but I'd like to talk a little bit about personal history and my development as a designer.
Starting midstream in college, I was pretty heavily invested in the "we're going to tell a story by having a very strongly immersed character experience guided by a GM" school, which was very frustrating, because (particularly in large LARPs where there's less GM oversight) it's very hard to really get a satisfying story out of a bunch of dissociated people bouncing off of each other and, as one can expect, also a lot of interpersonal drama and hurt feelings. I felt like there must be a better way to get at story, but I wasn't sure how to do it. When I played games that let me write my own powers, I specifically gave my characters powers to alter and shape the story, trying to push things towards a more coherent narrative.
I was right in my intuitions: there was a better way. Riddle of Steel
 is, I think, the first game that really did it right, building the story and emotional arc right into the character's stats (and it remains a great game if you can find a copy). Riddle's Spiritual Attributes aren't functions of the character's emotions or personality, they are literally aspects of the character's story arc. The idea that the story arc was something that could have actual mechanical  existence, rather than just a nebulous hand-waving, was a big fucking deal in terms of the aesthetic of story-telling.
But by the time I played Primetime Adventures  for the first time, I realized that this wasn't actually an aesthetic I could design towards. Mostly because PTA did it so extremely well and so extremely precisely, and it was very hard for me to design a "tell a story" game that wasn't just a minor variation on PTA.
There's another aesthetic hidden in that one, though, which was also something that harkened back to when I played D&D as an after-school program. When you draw back from the "immersion is the absolute good" school of aesthetics, choice
becomes an extremely important aspect of play. Tabletop roleplaying games are unique in that the player can make an infinite number of choices, which can have an infinite number of consequences. Rather than trying to constrain this, as a lot of games do, we can instead blow it open, allowing as wide a degree of choice as possible. This massively informs Polaris
 and a huge amount of my subsequent work (pretty much everything I've designed touches on this, but loosely, I'd say Polaris, The Drifter's Escape, Mud Dragon, and Amidst Endless Quiet embody the progression of my thoughts here).
This informs a lot about what I care about in play, which I would both call "immersive" (under some definitions) and as far away from possessive method acting as you can get. I am interested in what decisions the characters make (or, the players make for the characters, depending), and the context in which they make those decisions. I'm not particularly interested in watching someone portray
this in any sort of realistic or realisticish style. I mean, if they choose to do that, that's fine, character-acting is a perfectly reasonable and sometimes very efficient form of communication, but what I really want to see is the choices that they make and try (although not necessarily succeed) to understand why they make them. For these games, for me, that's the thing that matters.
The games themselves vary widely on how the decisions are made, from "totally in-setting" in Amidst Endless Quiet
to "totally based on the player's sense of humor" in Mud Dragon
(Interestingly, I might paraphrase the Jamie Macdonald quote in Bowman's article as "immersive role-playing is beautiful to be
, decisive role-playing is beautiful to do
So, that's an aesthetic of mine. But lately I've been drifting somewhere else. I'm going to poke at it indirectly, but it's still not formed, so don't expect to understand what I'm getting at.
One of the things you notice when you watch a lot of people struggling with fictional decisions is that it matters. Yes, the immediate consequences are fictional, but the act of making a decision changes our identity and our personality, not in a short-term, split way like described in Bowman's article, but in a long-term integrative way. We come out of a game of (say) Thou Art But A Warrior
as subtly different people than we went into it.
(I think this is true of all media and all conversations, and roleplaying games are both. But there is something particularly efficacious about roleplaying.)
This leads me to Beloved
, a game which I wrote to teach myself to get over a break-up. This leads to other games, too. But I think I'm going to leave it there for now.
 A great game if you can find a copy.
 I mean this in the broadest possible sense. Don't interpret this as "rolling dice" or I will scream.
although if you can find the first edition I'd recommend that even more.
edit: physical -> fictional. A funny typo.