Fun with the Lumpley Principle

Every now and then, the Lumpley Principle comes up in a discussion - and in general, quite magical powers are attributed to it. Also, these powers change from one speaker to the next. I give you, after some Googling, several intriguing claims made about the Lumpley Principle - dozens more are awaiting the treasure seeker.

  • ...the ability to resort to human discretion when the book fails (i.e. the application of the Lumpley Principle when necessary).
  • The Lumpley Principle was presented precisely as a response to the sort of thinking you are attempting to support in your rant, because it is a widespread misconception that mechanics need to model physics, or the physics of the world (and their exceptions), that such is their purpose. They do not, unless that is their purpose -- unless the purpose of the game is Simulationist "what would really happen if." It is not necessary for the mechanics to model physics or reality, as long as they support the goals and ideas of the game.
  • ... is meta-gaming, and while this is something for the GM to do, if the PCs are doing it you've lost the suspension of disbelief (which is what *role playing* is about). In fact, if the players are having to think about this significant, it violates the vaunted Lumpley principle, because you no longer have a shared illusion.
  • I would say, rather, that the Lumpley principle is merely a summation of the concept "once you have what you want, stop trying".
  • This principle is the reason freeform and Rolemaster ultimately have the same "amount" of system.
  • [The Lumpley Principle is a] concise, effective way... of summing up... Vincent’s view... on gaming.
  • [Y]our character only ever exists in your head and the heads of your fellow players - in what your group says and does and thinks and feels. The stuff on your "character" sheet isn't about your character at all - it's stuff that you, the real live player, have at your disposal when it comes time to decide how the game's going to go. [...] This, by the way, is a simple restatement of the so-called Lumpley Principle.
  • [T]he most powerful insight to arise from the Forge is, IMHO, Vincent Baker's "Lumpley Principle".
The uninitiated may wonder, at this point, what the Lumpley Principle actually is! It is both the reason that all games have the same amount of system, and a summary of Vincent's view on gaming; it is equivalent to an ontology of characters and also means "once you have what you want, stop trying"; it proves that systems need not model realistic physics, and applying it is the act of disregarding the rule books in favour of human judgement, and it is violated when the players think meta-game thoughts. Small wonder, then, that it is the most powerful insight to arise from the Forge!

The actual definition of the principle in the Provisional Glossary is bound to be a bit of a disappointment, after that. It merely states:

System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.
Take a good look at it and see it what it really is, and what it not only is but also explicitly proclaims to be: a definition of the term 'system'! That is all. Nothing more, nada. It merely says: "this is what we mean when we use the term 'system'"; it doesn't say anything at all about any of the things mentioned above. You can believe it is a useful definition or believe that it obscures more than it enlightens, but you simply cannot agree or disagree with the Lumpley Principle because it is nothing but a defintion of a single term.

Of course, I will not deny that choosing this definition of 'system' has a certain ideological background - when it was proposed, it was probably a powerful rhetorical weapon against people who thought that the social level of roleplaying was not the concern of game designers. But that ideology is not part of the analytic content of the principle. As behooves a definition, the analytic content of the principle is zero.

So, please, let us stop making such a fuss about it. Everybody makes a different fuss, and none of it is going to further our understanding of roleplaying games. If you want to refer to the insight that the social level of roleplaying is important, just say "the social level of roleplaying is important". The same holds for all the other uses the LP is put to - when you need a hammer, don't call it a screwdriver.

Of course, Vincent has been downplaying the importance of the LP for ages now, but I hope my examples have made clear the confusion generated by its widespread use. Let's use it as stated, and for nothing else.


  1. Yeah, it's not that big of an idea- except many people have put on blinders that "what happens at the table creates what happens in our imagination", which is the reason LP keeps getting called up... again, and again and again...

    Though, I'd love the day when random people goes, "Yeah, so what? Let's talk about how to work what happens at the table..."

  2. Good post! A lot of the dialog I've seen recently comes from making a fairly basic assertion followed by several (assumed) conclusions and then arguing that anyone who disagrees with the conclusions disagrees with the basic assumption. This write-up is a good rejoiner to that, IMO.

  3. Great post, Victor. It's just common sense when you get down to it.

    The principle per se, though leaves out my favorite part of the concept, the part that I've always seens as what was being overlooked in the way people approach games. This was that everything that happens in a game is based on concensus between the real human players involved, whether that consensus is helped to come into being by a die roll, charts & tables, folks talking or one person laying down the law. From this comes the tenet: what happens in play is the true "system".

    It alls devolves to the people there agreeing that it happened. Simple, simple. But different from the standard view.

  4. I'm going to be a a bit of a suck-up here, and say that you should at least have a pointer to your own thread: Shared Imagined Space, Shared Text.

    But more on topic, I think one problem is that people misinterpret "This is what the term 'System' means" based on unstated assumptions about the significance of that term. For example, some people take this to be prescriptive of how to write RPGs: that the written rules should completely define System, and less formal gaming is thus wrong. Some people take 'System' as an indicator of importance -- i.e. anything which isn't System is less important than System. And so forth. But, as you say, that's not a part of the principle as defined.

    I think the key to moving on is dragging out and discussing those assumptions.

  5. John, if you want to I'm willing to defend the use of the Lumpley Principle in that post of mine - but I guess it's not so important. :)

    Your point is very true. The reason that people often DO disagree about definitions is simply that words already come with some implicit meaning - the term to be defined is not a neutral set of letters. In the case of 'system', many people associate it with 'what is written in the rulebook', some with 'what is important during roleplaying', some as 'everything that has to do with dice and numbers', some as 'the ideal way of creating agreement, as laid out in the rulebook' - and I'm sure there are other shades of meaning.

    People who used to think about system in these terms then attribute a meaning to the Lumpley Principle that is not really contained in it.

    From 'what is written in the rulebook' comes 'the LP tells us that the social layer is the one that really matters'. Also, 'the LP tells us that all games have the same amount of system', though that really is a case of sloppy thinking. From 'what is important during roleplaying' comes 'the LP tells us that reaching agreement about imagined events is what is important during roleplaying'. From 'everything that has to do with dice and numbers' comes 'the LP tells us that social interactions, setting information and all other non-formal aspects of roleplaying are as important as dice and numbers'. From 'the ideal way of creating agreement, as laid out in the rulebook' comes 'the LP tells us that system is not an ideal entity, but only exists in real, concrete situations of roleplaying'. And so forth.

  6. One weeny point. Recently I identified the way that people often get thrown into a tizzy when talking about this issue.

    I'll end with a point about the Lumpley Principle which I think is getting missed by many, many people who quote it. They read it as saying, "System is the means by which people agree about what happens in play." The emphasis on "agree" makes them reverse the Principle to say, "Therefore, as long as we agree, then no other System is necessary."

    That is a very mistaken reading and revision. It is flatly wrong, a recipe for disaster.

    Here's how to read the Lumpley Principle correctly: "System is the means by which people agree about what happens in play." Here, the agreement is not taken as an easy given. The point is that such agreement is not automatic; in order to get it, we have to have means which are fun, self-reinforcing, sensible, and clear. In other words, System Does Matter. And it cannot be "just agreement." There must be routines, procedures, rituals, whatever you wanna call them, and they have to make sense and be fun.

    Quoted from my text in


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