One of my favorite concepts in economics is the impossible trinity, a macroeconomic framework that explains why monetary policy can’t do everything it wants to do all at the same time. Monetary policy design is hard, and I love that “the trillema” reminds us that we can’t always get what we want, even if we get to set monetary policy for a whole country.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about an impossible trinity in RPG design, specifically between positions that players occupy relative to the fiction. As I play and design more games, I feel like I’m running up against the same kind of limitations we see in monetary policy, places where it seems like we should be able to have our cake and eat it too… but the structure can’t include everything.
The three most common positions (actor, audience, and author) seem to me to have their own impossible trinity, and I’m going to argue today that the three can’t fully coexist in an RPG together. In other words, I think we have to accept (like monetary policy experts) that we can’t have an RPG do all the things we might like it to do because it’s impossible to force all three stances to coexist. And because it’s impossible, we should stop trying.
A Word of Warning
I encourage you to take all this with a grain of salt. RPG theories are the last refuge of scoundrels and thieves, and you probably shouldn’t try to use them to write or design anything. That way lies madness, games written to adhere to an aesthetic vision that is completely disconnected from, ya know, players and GMs. Oh, and it would probably be boring too.
But as my econometrics teacher used to say (and I might be paraphrasing just a bit)…
“All RPG theories are wrong. Some RPG theories are useful.”
Let’s see if I can be more useful than I am wrong. Let me know in the comments how I did.
The Impossible Trinity
It’s not really important that you understand the actual impossible trinity to follow what I’m about to lay out, but it’s worth taking a moment to understand why economists call it “impossible” instead of “unlikely” or “not very good.”
First, here’s the triangle:
A country might like all three things, but choosing any two of them undermines the third. If you want to be in position C on the triangle, for example, you can set your own monetary policy and establish a fixed exchange rate… but the only way to make both of those things work is to limit capital flows in and out of your country. Same goes for the other two positions: any time you get two out of the three things you want, the third slips through your fingers like you’re a Grand Moff trying to tighten your grip on rebel star systems.
And unlike a lot of economic theory, the impossible trinity holds up pretty well. It’s more descriptive than prescriptive: in other words, it says a lot less about how economists think the world should work (spoiler: we are usually wrong) and a lot more about how the world does work even when we will it to work another way. Womp womp.
An RPG Trinity?
But RPGs don’t have monetary policy, right? So how does this apply to gaming?
Sometimes people talk about economics as the study of money, but it’s really not. It’s the study of systems (usually money systems). In fact, if I had to sum up the whole of economics in a tweet, I’d probably go with something like “System matters. #stillgotallthesecharactersImnotusing #yolo #blamesage” and call it a day. There’s a reason that “game theory” is a subdiscipline of the field.
In this case, I think that the different positions I mentioned above are a lot like the different features we might want in monetary policy: they are all ways of engaging the system that I see novice designers trying to tackle all at once. Here are the positions, as I see them:
Actors: We sometimes want to play our characters as characters in a story that’s ongoing around us. That might mean engaging the mechanics in the pursuit of our character’s goals, but it also includes playing out scenes in-character with other players or the GM. Actor position isn’t strictly about improv acting, but it’s coming from a place that prioritizes our character’s needs and wants.
Authors: We sometimes want to determine the arc of the story our characters are in, collaboratively determining what success and failures the characters meet from a dispassionate distance. Author stance isn’t about telling the story without mechanics, but it does rise above what our characters immediately want to prioritize the story as a whole.
Audience: We sometimes want to experience the game as a system, a mechanical construct that takes us—the audience—to new and interesting places. This isn’t to say that we’re escaping the narrative when we act as an audience; we’re just willing to turn the narrative over to the system to see where it takes us and prioritizing what the system has to offer to the story.
So let’s return to our triangle, and put these three stances in tension with each other and think about where some really successful games might sit:
Apocalypse World: AW puts a lot of emphasis on actors, but it also has a lot of audience position as we play to find out what happens. We’re asked to do two major things: portray our characters and engage the moves that help us engage the fiction. Is there authoring? Sure, but it’s controlled by the GM, i.e. “What makes the hardholder so scary?”
Fiasco: Unlike AW, Fiasco is all about authoring (and a lot of acting). The system—a beautifully, light system that mostly pushes players back to the other positions—isn’t going to carry the game. It’s on the players to author an arc, play their characters, and generate drama. Even the primary system—the Tilt—mostly just creates fodder for more authoring.
Fate Core System: Fate has a wonderful system for authorship (aspects) and a bunch of additional constraints and procedures (fate dice, fate points, stress) that represent the core of the fiction. It’s easy to engage as an author and an audience…but it doesn’t put much emphasis on acting. We can talk as our characters, but we’ve got to navigate the system for our actions to count.
You might take issue with some of my diagnosis above, but think about what the games above would be like if it tried to include the third leg:
- Would Apocalypse World be better if we all sat around before we played and determined which fronts should be brought in during play?
- Would Fiasco be better if it had a more rigorous method of resolving scenes, managing resources instead of deciding on outcomes?
- Would Fate be better if we often walked away from the aspects and fate points to make decisions about scenes?
The Clumsy Middle
The successful games I’ve called out work because they make tough choices about what groups are doing when they sit down to play. (This also helps explain why Fate is a much more subversive game than it seems when compared to traditional RPG actor/audience framing.)
Games that try to do all three things—that ask players to be actors, audience, and authors all at once—tend to struggle. Note the eternal thirst for a game that combines the best parts of Fate and Apocalypse World, a project that may just be impossible because of the way the two games handle player positioning during a session; the game will always slide toward one stable position or the other.
In my next piece, I’ll talk a bit more about why I think these conflicts arise and how to make use of the impossible triangle in GMing and design. For now, I look forward to discussion on the basic principles of the framework!