Examining the Stavro Principle
A bit ago, Daniel Solis posted this image on his blog, about an observation on RPG design from intent to play, which Luke Crane titled the Starvo Principle (after the guy who came up with this, John Stavropoulos):
I’m having a complex reaction to John Stavropoulos’ model, because I agree with the base ideas, but see it differently.
User Interface, not Tools
What John calls tools I see as the user interface, the things that the players directly contact with. But it’s not just character sheets, dice, etc. It’s also the text, post-layout. Not only because pages can be printed out in order to to be ad hoc cheat sheets, but also because layout is the tool by which a book cements certain key ideas into the minds of readers.
Which is to say that if rules are the (or an) implementation of intent, and text is the implementation of rules, then user interface is the implementation of text. Although that’s someone strange, because much of user interface is developed in concert with rules, and text is a product of merging the two.
Intent and Play Culture
Here’s where I have a really weird reaction. Intent is treated as a separate thing, and to me, intent is all over that chart, like jam on toast. What I would put in its place is play culture, or reaction to play culture. And our interface axioms start from there.
I’ve been big about discussing play culture over the years. The indie scene in its early days (and sometimes still today) was pretty bad at creating books that required an understanding of the designer’s play culture in order to successfully execute. Or, as my good friend Paul Tevis said about one indie game back in 2007, “The game isn’t in the book. It’s an oral tradition that happens to also have a book.”
Minimalism makes the assumption that the reader either is in or understands the play culture intended by the designer. That understanding is a context channel. It’s easy to unintentionally be deficient in explaining how your game works beyond it’s mechanics if you’re not used to explaining your play culture.
However, when your game is the result of your reactions to a play culture — usually when there’s something you really don’t like or doesn’t work for you in a certain mode — it becomes prudent to go beyond minimalism and explain said play culture. Which, to go back to John’s model, carry your intent all the way through the rules, text, and tools. I’ve had this experience working on Mythender, because the way the GM is suppose to act is a reaction to what people have called “epic” games in my play experience.
This is why I see intent not as the bottom rung but as a separate input to rules & text. Intent as expressed by mechanics & rules isn’t the same as intent as expressed by advice, which is in the realm of text. Which leads us to…
A Place for Advice
There is no clear place where advice or best practices hooks it. It doesn’t really hook directly into text, because it’s parallel to rules. It’s developed along the same time as rules, even if not yet clearly explained until a first draft is written. Some instances of advice live in the intent/play culture layer, yes, but not all of it. And because of the language used in the chart, rules are prioritized far over the idea of advice & best practices.
Unless you consider advice to be “rules” along with mechanics. Then cool. But many people don’t see that definition of rules. (I do, but I tend to have to explain such things assuming that a good portion of my audience doesn’t, thus this entire section.)
To phrase another way: the when & why of rules is as important to the interface as the how.
John Is In No Way Wrong
It may sound like I’m criticizing John, but that isn’t my intent (hah). John has gotten me to think about my own model, and in blogging about it, made some of those thoughts concrete. I invite you to do the same — I know some folks have around the internet.
John Stavropoulos is one of the sharpest guys I have ever had the pleasure of chatting and dining with. He could write papers on RPG scholarship, GM practices, group dynamics, all sorts of things. he’s achieved something pretty cool here (which Daniel has then turned into something somewhat larger, by applying a visual tool to John’s text).
So, what has it made you think about?
 Remember, I never talk about a product publicly unless I think there’s some merit to it, however flawed.
 Tomorrow’s blog post (which was actually written before this one was).
 Which is a great illustration of the top tiers of John’s model.