Reference Frames

edited July 2019 in Make Stuff!
This is something I've been toying with for a week or two. It's an expansion of ideas in this thread on common ground introducing the term "game state" and this post on perspectives and this one on who shares the SIS.

Reference Frames

A reference frame is a bunch of statements about the game from some perspective.

That perspective can be a person's, or knowledge that's mutual between several people. It can be knowledge in some written or physical record that maybe someone's looked at, maybe they haven't. It can be the result of applying rules processes that nobody's actually worked through yet. It can be pretty much anything, whatever.

The statements can be about imagined events. They can be about physical objects in the real world. They can be about logical entities that we need to know about in order to follow the game's rules. They can be about the social contract. Maybe these things are categorically different. Maybe it's not, whatever.


As we play our game, we'll often discover that various reference frames are incompatible.

We'll be able to identify one frame of reference with greater authority. We'll update others as best we can to match the more authoritative reference frame.

Privileged Frames of Reference

So how do we identify the privileged reference frame with more authority?

Totally depends on the social contract.

One group might invest greatest authority in the written module.

Another might invest greatest authority in the GM's private desires.

How To Use This In Your Designs

Identify a reference frame that exists in your game, or introduce elements that create a new one.

Write a rule that specifies how much authority we'll invest in that frame of reference.

"Place one gold fish cracker in a bowl per ration available to the refugees. If you butcher a fellow refugee for food, place ten pieces of beef jerky in the bowl. Whenever a character consumes a ration, their player must eat a gold fish cracker or piece of jerky. Whenever a player eats a gold fish cracker or piece of jerky, their character eats a ration or hunk of human flesh. If your character must consume a ration but there is nothing to eat in the bowl, they starve and die." (EDIT: This is from Jason Morningstar's never-published game Open Boat.)


  • edited June 2019
    Possibly useless elaboration. Here are some common reference frames used by rules.

    Shared Between Whom?

    We like to talk about the Shared Imagined Space a lot. It's approximately equivalent to the linguist's idea of common ground, as relates to imagined events.

    We tend to take it for granted that the whole group, everyone at the table, is Sharing in this here Imagined Space.

    That's far from obvious, and rarely true!

    We can, for example, communicate in ways that are only shared between a few people by design. I pass a note to the GM saying, "I dip my dagger in poison." Now, my poisoned dagger is in the common ground for me & the GM. But not for anyone else!

    Or somebody's out of the room when someone says something. I say, "I draw my sword!" and then Greg wanders back in from the restroom and says "So what'd I miss?". My bare sword is in the common ground for everyone but Greg!

    Or, more often, people just forget things. Maybe I said an hour ago that I'm buying 300' of silk rope. We get to a pit. Greg looks up and says, "So, do we have any rope?"

    Private Beliefs

    We all have private beliefs about imagined events.

    I know my guy's short and stocky with tanned skin and high cheekbones and long white hair. If you ask me I'll tell you, but I haven't told you yet.

    I ask the GM what I hear and she says "Footsteps from two pairs of feet, out of sight around the bend." She knows they belong to a pair of kobolds, but nobody else does yet.

    Physical Records

    We all keep physical records of stuff going on in the game, both about fictional events and game rules.

    My character sheet has my character's description and stats written out.

    The damage dice I've just rolled for my Fireball, sitting on the table.

    The miniatures we've placed on our battle map.

    The module text.

    Sometimes these physical records get out of sync with our private or shared beliefs. I wrote on my character sheet when I first created my guy that he's two meters tall, but I've been describing him as short the whole game! Or, the cat walks over the table and knocks around all our minis!

    Sometimes the information in these physical records isn't known to anyone at all. The module we're playing through that has 100 pages that the GM hasn't read, yet. I haven't yet had a chance to look at my Fireball's damage dice and sum them up.

    Procedural Mandates

    We've agreed to use rules. Those rules often mandate stuff.

    Like, "When a Bag of Holding is placed within another extradimensional space, everything within 10' is sucked onto the Astral Plane."

    Or, "A character at 0 HP is incapacitated and unconscious."

    Or, "A Fighter's hit points at 1st level are 10 + Constitution modifier."

    There's usually a bit of lag between us fulfilling the triggering conditions of this kind of mandate, and us working out the implications, and communicating them to everyone else.
  • I like this. It seems pretty clear and like an accurate description. Nice.


    Is the example (from Jason's game) illustrating your final point/paragraph? If so, how? How do you understand what's happening there, from the standpoint of this framework?
  • Yup! It's an example of investing authority into the frame embodied by the physical record.

    Illustrative comparison of the physical record lacking authority: We're using goldfish crackers to represent the positions of our characters on the battlefield. I absentmindedly eat the cracker representing an orc. "Oh, haha." I replace it.
  • Got it! Makes sense.
  • This collision resolution layer is also one of several places where ya can slot in yer safety tools
  • Yeah! For instance, you might at the start of the game say, "I'm totally not cool with violence directed towards kids. This game will have none of that."

    And your group could give that line more authority than the prep, more authority than players' written backstories of their characters, whatever.
  • Right. Lines are an especially good fit because you can use it at the prep layer to weed out most of the stuff and in case anything goes through (for example player-added content, or player character actions in play) you can also apply it at the collision resolution layer.
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