Thursday, April 28, 2016


Having gone over the concept of MICE earlier in the Blog of Doom, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the role of MICE in RPGs. 

On one hand, this is not what I meant. On the other hand, this is COMPLETELY AWESOME.

Someday I will run out of mouse jokes. Today is not that day.

With apologies to the superlatively excellent Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game - which seriously, it's lovely, go play that - I want to dig a bit deeper into the relationship between Milieu, Idea, Character and Event in the context of RPGs.

To wit, much like Ron Edward's GNS theory, it's worth remembering that this model is still a model. Even empirically verified, methodologically robust communication models have plenty of caveats attached, and this one is basically "some stuff that Orson Scott Card thought was relevant." Any model has its own set of limitations. To wit:
  • Models provide a specific lens. If I'm looking at communication through the EPPM 1 - a fear appeal model - then I'm going to think in terms of scaring the poop out of people.
  • That model also obviates other viewpoints - if I'm using the EPPM, I'm going to be less likely to consider answers that don't involve scaring the poop out of people.
  • This can set up a false dichotomy, where it seems like factors are in conflict, even though they're really not. Someone may be persuaded by a rational argument, regardless of whether or not the poop has been scared out of them.
So yeah, it's worth keeping in mind that these concepts have some overlap, that stories probably have a combination of the factors, and the model posits priority, not exclusivity - that is to say, that a given paradigm is likely to - and should be - dominant, even in the presence of others.

Cool? Cool.

Let's refresh our memory because i like to use bullet points

So to recap, the MICE quotient refers to elements of a story. Specifically,
  • Milieu, where the story is about the world, the setting, and exploration thereof
  • Idea, where the story is about something that happens - like a murder mystery - and the resolution thereof
  • Character, where the story is about a character's dissatisfaction with their role, and how that resolves
  • Event, where the story is about some "sickness" in the world - evil overlords, space meteors, what have you - and the application of the "remedy" - or perhaps the crushing failure thereof
From this point on, I'll refer to these as approaches for simplicity's sake.On the surface, applying these to RPGs is pretty simple - players, and the GM, have different things they'll be pursuing as their primary means of interaction, their dominant focus

Maybe Hideo is super into exploring the setting, and he wants to find out all the cool little details, like how the Tree Elves perform wedding ceremonies, and will happily detour from other concerns to explore this stuff.

Maybe Alex is here for the investigation; sie wants to know whodunnit, and will pursue answers over and above everything else.

Maybe Paulina is really here to explore her character, and is far more interested in their evolution as a person, and exploring that headspace, than most of what's going on around her.

Maybe Jo is Super Concerned about the Dark Lord of Ultimate Evil, and, thinks that, y'know, maybe it's best if they focus on averting the end of all life in the known universe. 

These ideas can express themselves in RPGs as well as other mediums, and since the audience and the actor are intertwined, this leads to some really great stuff. Also, problems.

RPGs can be more than one thing at a time, and often are

I know it's sort of implicitly stated above, but let's spell it out here: people can, and often will, be prioritizing different approaches at the same time, and sometimes that leads to conflict. And not the fun, necessary, Stories Are About Conflict sort, but the Hurt Feelings, Misunderstanding and Drama kind.

Also known as the crappy kind. We're gonna try to avoid that.

Pretty sound advice. 'Dat hair though!
In any RPG, you're going to run into different play styles, different approaches, different preferences in general. It's why we talk about things like MICE approaches, and GNS theory, and Robin Laws' player types. Because unlike film, the stage or the page (or monitor, I guess? E-reader screen?), RPGs are a collaborative storytelling medium by nature. Getting one person's cohesive vision through an RPG is really difficult, and frankly, undesirable. RPGs are special in large part because they're collaborative; it's that quality that leads to such investment from the creator/audience, and makes them so damn memorable and engaging.


Ask anyone who's been in a band how easy it is to get creative types on the same page. For that matter, anyone who's ever tried to get human beings to agree on where to go for lunch. Coordinating different agendas is tricky, and takes buy-in from everyone to make work; it's not just the GM's responsibility.

Once more, with feeling:

It's not just the GM's responsibility

The GM has the most capability to make this work, it's true. By setting scenes, moving the spotlight around, and keeping everybody's approaches in mind, they have the best seat to make this work. But without buy-in, active cooperation, and a heavy dose of mindfulness from the players, there's only so much to be done. Yes, the GM can - and should! - note their players' preferences, and keep moving things around so that everybody gets their particular itches scratched.

So with our example group above; if we've spent an hour of game time exploring Alien Tea Ceremonies (Hideo's thrilled), and we even managed to provide a moment of character reflection for Paulina, it's probably a good time to shift focus on to investigating the ambassador's murder, letting Alex sink hir teeth into the mystery, and giving Jo the satisfaction that no, nobody's forgotten about the impending end of the world.

And if the players are cognizant of this, then not only are they more patient when the focus isn't on their approach, there's more permission for everybody to engage with whatever's going on, because they know that they won't be forgotten about.

That takes mindfulness, and trust. But if you can get everyone on the same page, a game starts to really sing in ways it otherwise can't. If keeping these concepts in mind helps out with that, then this column has done its job.

If not, well, llamas and mice. Still pretty good times!


1 - Why yes, I did link the Wikipedia article. It's succinct. I had originally linked Witte's original EPPM paper, simply for the joy of doing so in an RPG blog. (Which, consequently, I have now done anyway), but I'd rather people get a quick, clean idea of what I mean. I love communication models, and given the chance, will gab about them incessantly.

2 - Pretty sure my old thesis committee doesn't read this blog. That's probably for the best ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

3 - Also for the sake of sparing y'all more Mouse Jokes. You're quite welcome.