Friday, March 16, 2018

The Impossibility of the Fastball Special In The Mind of GNS


For Any Stranger Linked Here By People Hiding Their Outrage About It As lulzy Contempt:

I haven't put this essay up yet, but long experience has shown me that when I write something like this, people sensationalize and distort what it says then provide a link here not so their audience can read it and decide for themselves, but basically to decorate their creepy strawman with a coat or a hat or a glove that supposedly "proves" I did everything they just said. A terrible stupid conversation then metastasizes.

While I can't predict the creepy strawmen in advance, if someone does this, I'm going to address the strawmen here at the top, by just pointing out the part of the essay that clarifies that they are lying and you should go back to wherever they linked you from and tell them to stop. The point of the essay is to make the conversation better, so heading off making it worse (even at the risk of making it tedious for the people smart enough to ignore bad faith analysis and tone-policing by putting this internet-jaded warning at the top) is a priority. The list is:

If you believe you have a legitimate beef with anything here, quote the part you disagree with, say what's wrong with it and let me know so we can have a conversation. There's comments down at the bottom if you've got one. Any other response (including silence) is just making the world worse.
GNS: This didn't happen.


This is something I’ve avoided doing for 8 years. Literally: there is a 12,000-word first draft of this doc from 2010.

I’m going to go into a long, hopefully-careful textual analysis of the major texts of GNS (Gamism/Narrativism/Simulationism) Theory. With luck and patience I might be able to get to other (better) RPG theory things like Bartle Types, Robin Laws' 7 types of gamers and Jeff Rients’ RSP model later.

Short Background For The Confused

GNS was a theory discussed at an old website called The Forge. Many now-influential RPGs and gamers came out of it, especially ones creating what are called "storygames", "indie games", "narrativist games", "indie-narrativist games" or "hippie games". They also produced critiques of mainstream games and critiques of independently-produced games that weren't in line with GNS theory or the aesthetics that became popular at the Forge.

Very few people claim to still believe the theory (Vincent Baker, author of Apocalypse World, the most popular hippie game--disavowed the theory years ago), but many claim it was useful to them back in the day and, importantly, there are no real competing points of view collected into something you could call a theory.

The main guy who articulated the theory was a game designer named Ron Edwards.

Why Do This?

1. Fact: People still regularly use GNS Theory or parts of it. In addition to constant and casual use of the terms on RPG forums which you can see every week on places like reddit /rpg, I have seen, in private internal documents circulated in actual major mainstream corporate RPG companies, very explicit GNS statements to designers like “Our game used to be (one of the GNS categories) but now let’s make it more (the other two categories)”. 

2. Opinion: Even if GNS was at one point helpful it has been only harmful for approximately the last ten years. Specifically harmful to the stated purpose as written at the top of the old webpage where the GNS essays are still archived: “help you design or publish your indie game, or merely think about role-playing games and how to improve your own experiences”. It’s made things worse. (If you want to disagree with me about this: “Worse for whom?” is a great place to start when you begin that conversation with me.) 

3. Informed Guess:  GNS will probably retain its influence until replaced. The rest of us ignoring it for years hasn't made it go away or stop hurting people. Evidence of that here.

4. Hope: This analysis may be a stepping stone to replacing it with something that has the same genuine virtues that people who still use it see in it while actually furthering the goal of “help you design or publish your indie game, or merely think about role-playing games and how to improve your own experiences”.

Full-Disclosure Personal Notes

1. Fact: Much as I'd like to put a picture of David standing on top of Goliath or Judith holding up the severed head of Holofernes at the top of this essay, the ideal version of this text wouldn't be one that pisses off main GNS theory guy Ron Edwards or people who like GNS. The ideal version would be one that is totally honest but makes them go "Oh, dip, that makes sense" and starts a more productive conversation than the one we have now between theoryphilic indie gamers and the rest of us.

2. Opinion: I've observed and heard a lot of things about Ron Edwards which aren't relevant here, but the most important observation for this here thing I'm writing is that he is really and genuinely motivated to address all the stuff in games he talks about. His theory isn't an excuse to sell stuff or justify his personal taste. Or not just that.

3. Opinion: Edwards observes a lot more than most people who look at games. He is wrong sometimes, but his work deserves attention not just because it's been influential but because a good theory would observe what he observes but give a better explanation than he does that also explains also much of what he doesn't observe or what has been observed since he wrote his essays (for example: since GNS came out, games which appeal so deeply to the GNS crowd they almost stopped theorycrafting altogether have come out, a great many games totally ignoring GNS' priorities have been successful in every sense, and zillions of videos of people actually playing games have become available on YouTube.) So I am not here to just chew bubblegum and rip this thing apart. Or not just that.

EDIT: 4. Ron Edwards has seen video of me running a (typical) game and has declared that we were obviously having fun and our play was "functional"--so when you take a look at his judgments on various games below vs my own judgments, realize I am not, at least as an observer of fun, necessarily making irl judgments about having fun that he would second-guess. This may make more sense once you get into it.

Why These Essays Particularly?

The things we're gonna go through are old. In may cases, fans of GNS will tell you they've been superceded and Ron himself says they're just, like, his opinion man.

However, in my experience, when people ask about GNS they are still directed right here and both Ron and other people who say GNS is a real thing will defend most of the positions taken here. People who don't explicitly believe GNS but like most of the games and practices it was related to echo the sentiments here in various forms.

I've never asked Ron about a thing here and had him go "I don't believe that anymore"--though such things do, I think, exist.

Even if this isn't the state of the appears to be for the purpose of pop public discussion--and the state of the pop public discussion is the problem.

If there's a more cogent intro to what GNS is about that I don't know about, I'll appreciate it if you let me know but I still am not sure any of it has shaped game discussion more than these essays. There may be a more accurate translation, but this is, for better or worse, the King James Version that people have been reading off pulpits for years (though that's not necessarily all Ron's fault).

I'm starting with the general GNS essay. I will cover the ones specifically about G and then N and then S some other time, though hopefully enough will have been said in this essay up front that they won't take as long.

Let's Bite This Bullet...

GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory  
by Ron Edwards2001-10-14  

It starts.

My straightforward observation of the activity of role-playing is that many participants do not enjoy it very much. Most role-players I encounter are tired, bitter, and frustrated. 

These two sentences speak volumes right up front. Ron's observed this and he ascribes it to most role-players he's encountered.

I've never encountered this in real life. Everybody I know who rolls likes it and are more likely to be bitter, tired and frustrated with everything else except gaming. The very rare times they're unhappy about games they play it's because of some personal issue with people around them.

That's fine: me and Ron have had different experiences, which is not remarkable. He's a biologist writing in 2001 completely surrounded by games and game culture, I'm a painter/porn actor writing in 2018 in LA whose main contact with gamers is the ones at my table and people who I meet on the internet.

There's a really important implication though:

All of the solutions GNS will offer come from a place of seeing various strategies of gaming employed by other people and them not working. GNS analysis is an attempt to remedy a problem and this underlies and informs its analysis--even years later when there is a thriving and happy Indie game community full of games designed on GNS lines.

While a description of the properties of cheesecake given to people who are all at fat camp might be as accurate as one given to people baking, that fat camp description may still tend to focus more on the downside of the cheesecake more than the potential upsides--and the enthusiastic fat camp drill sergent may, as with people whose "favorite drink is water", in fact be the kind of person who is blind to the virtues of cheesecake.

My goal in this writing is to provide vocabulary and perspective that enable people to articulate what they want and like out of the activity, and to understand what to look for both in other people and in game design to achieve their goals. The person who is entirely satisfied with his or her role-playing experiences is not my target audience. 

Two important things here:


Historically, the people attracted to GNS and the gaming subculture around it were ones who had had terrible experiences while gaming.

Ron goes into more detail about the kind of failed gamer he's encountered at the end of the essay

The tragedy is how widespread GNS-based degeneration really is. I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced role-players with this profile: a limited repertoire of games behind him and extremely defensive and turtle-like play tactics. Ask for a character background, and he resists, or if he gives you one, he never makes use of it or responds to cues about it. Ask for actions - he hunkers down and does nothing unless there's a totally unambiguous lead to follow or a foe to fight. His universal responses include "My guy doesn't want to," and, "I say nothing."  
I have not, in over twenty years of role-playing, ever seen such a person have a good time role-playing. I have seen a lot of groups founder due to the presence of one such participant. Yet they really want to play. They prepare characters or settings, organize groups, and are bitterly disappointed with each fizzled attempt. They spend a lot of money on RPGs with lots of supplements and full-page ads in gaming magazines. 
These role-players are GNS casualties. They have never perceived the range of role-playing goals and designs, and they frequently commit the fallacies of synecdoche about "correct role-playing." Discussions with them wander the empty byways of realism, genre, completeness, roll-playing vs. role-playing, and balance. They are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough. They thought that "show up with a character" was sufficient prep, or thought that this new game with its new setting was going to solve all their problems forever. They are simultaneously devoted to and miserable in their hobby. 
My goal in developing RPG theory and writing this document is to help people avoid this fate. 

To see many Indie gamers--including some prominent Indie game designers-- discussing This Guy, including claiming to be this guy--before discovering GNS and its associated products and ideas, go here.

Now being this guy doesn't demand that they universalize these bad experiences, assume game stimulus A always brought on consequence B ("Tomb of Horrors destroys lives" etc) and turn that into shitty analysis. But (as in this heartwarmingly nice and self-aware example here:

"I'm really lucky to have a group that I'm happy with now and where we're all 100% on the same page, because if I hadn't ended up with the group I have (and if I hadn't found storygames), I'd have quit the hobby tbh. I was about to before I found my current group (which is just me and my fiancee and our girlfriend), and I was about to again before I found storygames....I know I can come across as harsh a lot of times because of my past experiences with stuff, and because of the fact that in recent years, I've had some pretty awful experiences in this hobby of people being shitty to me over the kind of games I like, so then sometimes when I see the sort of people who remind me of those people (usually through the types of content they enjoy or the games they like instead of through them like actually being a dick or anything) I tend to go on the defensive and get weird." (source))

...the general tendency of the most toxic elements of the scene is to do exactly that.

This was a theory forged in protest. And the protest wasn't so much (as with the DIY scene) that they were being sold stuff worse than what they could do at home but against what was going on at home (or wherever they were gaming--more on that later). 

It explains, demographicaly, the general drift of GNS-y folks toward badwrongfunning. Edwards (and many attracted to GNS) don't start with the default assumption that RPGing is generally fun--the most toxic elements often refuse to believe you had fun when you say you do or they claim you'd be having more fun playing a different game (often one you've already tried and discarded) or they look for a way to claim there is some moral problem with your fun.

Again, that's not Ron's fault, but "The person who is entirely satisfied with his or her role-playing experiences is not my target audience" explains a lot of the online lunacy created by people who have been drawn to GNS since 2010.


It's one thing to claim the target audience for your essay is only some people, it's quite another when that essay is a theory of how all RPGs work. The theory may claim to only be of interest to certain gamers, but it is making claims about the activities of all gamers.

This is a contradiction.

You could make some argument in 2001 that only certain gamers needed to know the truth about how games work and the rest of us could muddle through, but nowadays these assumptions shape discussion, so whether it's actually true and not just (like "admitting to a higher power" in AA) something people pragmatically need to believe if they're in trouble doesn't matter. People are using these ideas to build games they expect happy gamers to play and to critique games outside the sphere of dissatisfied gamers.

A theory of how reality works is a bit like a land mine--its very nature means it will find use beyond its target audience. And at that point whether it is a dud or not becomes extremely relevant to anyone who comes across it.

Everything in this document is nothing more nor less than "What Ron Thinks." It is not an official Dogma for the Forge. It is not a consensus view of members of the Forge, nor is it a committee effort of any kind. It is most especially not an expectation for what you're supposed to think or believe.

As noted above--it's now treated that way. Even if nobody but Ron believed it, people who read this and then gathered around and said "Tell me more!" are now, for example, head of the game department at Kickstarter and, for example, will be invited to USC's tabletop RPG design class right just a few weeks after I am to talk about their game design ideas.

However, it does stand as the single coherent body of theory about role-playing at the Forge, and its lexicon is definitive for purposes of discussion there.

....aaaand all of the most popular Indie-Narrativist games (Fate, Apoc World, Burning Wheel) came from people who hung out a lot at that same site.

Edwards then spends the next few paragraphs doing normal intro stuff like acknowledging other folks who contributed and asking people disagreeing to be civil, etc.

Chapter One: Exploration 

When a person engages in role-playing, or prepares to do so, he or she relies on imagining and utilizing the following: CharacterSystemSettingSituation, and Color
  • Character: a fictional person or entity.
  • System: a means by which in-game events are determined to occur.
  • Setting: where the character is, in the broadest sense (including history as well as location).
  • Situation: a problem or circumstance faced by the character.
  • Color: any details or illustrations or nuances that provide atmosphere.
The only thing I'd note here is that in a DIY RPG-style sandbox or in a lot of trad (ie non-indie/hippie/narrativist/storygame) games with rules that are any fun there is no such thing as "color" as separate from setting and situation. A spell nobody realized a player had might affect everything that's made of wood, for instance, in which case some wooden floor that the GM thought was merely "color" might suddenly be a big part of the Situation and the Setting.

The first time I remember this happening was when a Warhammer elf cast a metal-destroying spell on a bunch of Eldar and the "fluff" of whether Eldar weapons and armore were made of iron or wraithbone became pretty fucking relevant to the situation.

This isn't a theoretical problem with much else in GNS so far as I'm aware.

At the most basic level, these are what the role-playing experience is "about," but to be more precise, these are the things which must be imagined by the real people. In this sense, saying "system" means "imagining events to be occurring." 

That's a confusing sentence: "system" isn't the same as "imagining" in any common usage or even in the usage Edwards seems to put it to. It may not be relevant but I am noting them as weird just as a biblical scholar feels obligated to note Exodus 4:24–26 is weird.

Edwards soon goes on to define what "Premise" means and how it works and gives a decent, convincing example that this is a real and useful term:

Person 1: "You play vampires in the modern day, trying to stay secret from the cattle and coping with other vampires." [See atmospheric, grim, punky-goth pictures] 
Person 2: "Ooh! Cool!" 
Person 2 might have liked the grittiness of the art, the romance of the word "vampire," or the idea of being involved in a secret mystical intrigue. Or maybe none of these and an entirely different thing. Or maybe all of them at once. It doesn't matter - whatever it was, that's the initial Premise for this person. 

He then goes on to do something interesting and important, though, which is separate "initial premise" (the hook) from the REAL premise (what the players sit around imagining together)

 At this early point, though, Premise is vague and highly personal, as it is only the embryo of the real Premise. The real Premise exists as a clear, focused question or concern shared among all members of the group. The initial Premise only takes shape and shared-focus when we move to the next chapter. 

He then has an aside to distinguish "premise" from "genre" on basically the nonobjectionable grounds that--at least in terms of what you're going to do when you play--genre describes things a little less than describing the premise: the hook that makes you want to be there. So far so good.

Chapter Two: GNS 
Talk to someone who participates in role-playing, and focus on the precise and actual acts of role-playing themselves. Ask them, "Why do you role-play?" The most common answer is, "To have fun." 
Again, stick to the role-playing itself. (The wholly social issues are real, such as "Wanting to hang out with my friends," but they are not the topic at hand.) 

There's an important lacuna here.

Why are we sticking to the role-playing itself? Especially in a theory dedicated basically to making people happy while role-playing?

Because it's not really well-developed here (or at the end where it's brushed up against again) and I'm not assuming Edwards has no answer I don't want to pound too hard on this proud nail just yet, but keep this in mind as you go through the rest of it: I think a big problem with GNS is it doesn't really talk about that nebulous space between the "game" and the "social situation".

For example: 

WOTC once sent me a "miniature" of Orcus about the size of a grapefruit. I painted it up as a fire demon and plunked it on the table last week. 

As soon as one player--the cleric's player--saw it, she began giggling and caressing its long plastic wings and holding it to her cleavage.

She was not acting--she was genuinely distracted and it was weird and a violation of expectations and it was also fun and things like that happening are one reason we play. We went back to eating cheese and fighting soon but it was a moment in the game.

None of that is the game design (other than: miniatures are allowed), none of that is engagement in the game situation and all of that is the game--in the sense that events like this are part of what we signed up for when we decided to play, would not be happening if we hadn't decided to play, and were more fun inside a context of game play than outside it. Like: if she'd just done that because it was there and we were hanging out, the opportunity for metatextual jokes ("Svarku turns and moves ahead""He turns my head") wouldn't be there. For the rest of that cleric's life her teratophilia will be a running joke and that's part of the reason we will enjoy playing.

A more SFW example:

You play a bog standard railroad dungeon. But all the miniatures are gummy and you get to eat what you kill.

An example without miniatures:

Glen does a really good funny voice. And it's funnier because how quickly he weaves in events at the table in the moment, including die rolls.

In other words--it isn't easy to separate the "merely" social from The Game, just as you can't separate the planning of a party from all the ways that guests arrive and the states they arrive in when you are evaluating how good The Party is and what contributes to The Party. It's not just that everything counts it's that everything interacts

Later, GNS takes into account the "social layer"--but they don't talk much about how GNS-based declarations about what makes a thing "fun" don't take into account how procedures do or don't spark events in the "social layer".

Now ask, "What makes fun?" This may not be a verbal question, and it is best answered mainly through role-playing with people rather than listening to them. Time and inference are usually required. 

This "time and inference are usually required" is the first drip of venom.

In other words: you can't just ask someone who they want to fuck, you have to watch them and second guess what you think they want.


-Is methodologically dubious for a lot of reasons any sociologist can tell you

-Is exactly the method of the creepiest badwrongfunnests on the internet "Oh they think they like Save or Die mechanics but if you watch them you see signs..."

In my experience, the answer turns out to be a version of one of the following terms. These terms, or modes, describe three distinct types of people's decisions and goals during play. 

So, we're at the nut of it: in Edwards observation, these three kinds of things make fun happen for different people. 

Importantly these are descriptions of kinds of decisions that players make and kinds of goals that they have. Though they are kinda used later and elsewhere as categories of player and game (and will eventually be called "Creative Agendas"), they are mostly about being kinds of decisions and goals.

  • Gamism is expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people's actual play strategies. The listed elements provide an arena for the competition.
  • Simulationism is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements in Set 1 above (that is Character, System, Setting, Situation, Color, -Z); in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.
  • Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme. The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors. The listed elements provide the material for narrative conflict (again, in the specialized sense of literary analysis).

Bluntly, the problem with this, as a list of fun-acquisition goals people have during RPGs, is that it's too short.

The first one, Gamism, with probably a few quibbles, can be more or less identified with Challenge-oriented gamers in the sense familiar from (way better developed) video game theory. The fun associated with thinking of ways to win and with winning and with the thrills of risking genuine loss to do so.

The third one, Narrativism, Edwards helped invent and groom into a new genre of game. The fun of collaboratively producing a satisfying story (and one Edwards later qualifies explicitly as making a moral statement--not sure all Narrativist designers would agree) exists. It's certainly a thing and games designed to this desire were made at the Forge.

The middle one is either too vague (considering this theory is supposed to match people with gaming experiences they want) or nonexistent or a dumping ground for all the tendencies Edwards couldn't identify. 

In fact, this theory was based on an even earlier threefold theory by other people which divided Simulationist ("I want the rules to be realistic/genre-imitating!") decisions/goals from Dramatist decisions/goals ("I want to act") and didn't have Narrativism at all. adding Narrativism but keeping three focuses, what happened to that earlier division? We just lost one.

Well Edwards lumped them together--Edwards decides dramatism is just a kind if simulationism. We can see all the problems this creates later on, but let's take a quick detour into Robin Laws' 7 Types of gamers (each of whom have goals as well) and ask where they are.

The Powergamer, who wants an ever-more tricked out PC. (This is plausibly a kind of Gamist goal.)

The Butt-Kicker, who wants to vicariously kill shit. (This is also plausibly a kind of Gamist goal--but their decisions may be totally different than the powergamer's).

The Tactician, who wants to feel smart. (Can't remember if Laws' recognizes the one who actually wants to feel smart from the one who actually is being tested if s/he is, either way, this person is a Gamist, who might want to rationally employ Butt-Kicking and Powergaming but only as a means to an end.)

The Specialist, who wants to feel like a certain kind of character (a ninja, a catgirl, etc). (Simulationist.)

The Method Actor, who wants to have a chance to act. (Totally different Simulationist making different decisions than the Specialist.)

The Storyteller, (Narrativist if the story is emergent and moral, Simulationist maybe otherwise?), and

The Casual Gamer, who just wants to roll with pals, (Ignored in GNS.)

I can think of more gamers/decision-driving goals left out, here's Jeff Rients:

My buddy Pat was running Doc Phostarius, a badass necromancer. Westbrook was playing Phylo Bryta, a.k.a. The World's Tallest Half-Elf. Only the two of them showed up one session so they decided to beef up the party with NPCs. Pat hired a passle of 0-level men-at-arms with spetums or ranseurs, I forget which. Westbrook decides to buy some attack dogs, which he quickly develops strong pet owner type feelings for. Things go sour in an encounter with some goblins and the necromancer starts laying down gods of arcane fire everywhere. Since he couldn't possibly give a shit, I rule the blast gets the dogs, too. When the smoke clears the Half-Elf is standing there, tears streaming down his face, cradling a badly burnt dog corpse. He holds the carcass out to Phostarius, bitter accusations lighting up his eyes. Pat deadpans: "No thanks. I'm not hungry."

This is a great story. A gamer could well be motivated primarily by trying to create a density of incident such that these kinds of stories happen. This person isn't really represented anywhere in GNS as stated so far.

None of this is (yet) totally fatal to GNS as an accurate description of reality.

It is accurate to divide all desires and decisions into "hungry decisions", "thirsty decisions", "other decisions". But, as we'll see later, GNS thinks that explains the important parts of the world more than it does and considers that list less arbitrary than it is and therefore gets in to trouble.


Short digression:

It's also probably good to note here, for people unfamiliar with any of this, that each of these words has a sort of dumbed-down "pop" usage that doesn't necessarily align with GNS usage. You may see these on the internet:

Pop Definition of Gamism: Just trying to kill stuff and not doing anything else. Also sometimes used as a synonym for "Powergamer" above by people who've never taken out Strahd with two nets and a donkey they pumped full of holy water.

Pop Definition of Simulationism: The game has a lot of rules, especially for real specific physics things (like how much damage dynamite does per square inch). "Realism" or attempts thereat. Mainstream games are commonly assumed to be "simulationist"--though if you ask how they simulate more or less than a rules-lite version of the same game, the person talking just cries and mashes the "Report" button.

Pop Definition of Narrativism: A game that has a lot of "story" going on--whatever the person typing that word thinks "story" means.

Like the genuine GNS terms, these pop definitions are bastardized versions of more precise concepts, steamroll a lot of the complexities of what happens at the table, and aren't helpful. 


Edwards uncontroversially clarifies a few things ("GNS is the central concept of my theorizing about role-playing...However, it is not sufficient, and the three modes themselves do not address any and all points about role-playing. ") then moves on to the topic of labels.

Much torment has arisen from people perceiving GNS as a labelling device. Used properly, the terms apply only to decisions, not to whole persons nor to whole games. To be absolutely clear, to say that a person is (for example) Gamist, is only shorthand for saying, "This person tends to make role-playing decisions in line with Gamist goals." Similarly, to say that an RPG is (for example) Gamist, is only shorthand for saying, "This RPG's content facilitates Gamist concerns and decision-making." For better or for worse, both of these forms of shorthand are common. 

While all of this is acceptable and true, it's almost impossible to think of a way these terms could be in any way helpful unless they label games or at least parts of games which Edwards proceeds--when he talks about game history later--to very enthusiastically do.

So...a bit like saying that the only purpose of the land-mine maintenance youtube video is to help you keep your land mine in working order.

And then in the next paragraph it all falls apart.

Here, depending on interpretation, GNS proves to either be totally inaccurate, or so vague as to have no possible real-world use:

For a given instance of play, the three modes are exclusive in application. When someone tells me that their role-playing is "all three," what I see from them is this: features of (say) two of the goals appear in concert with, or in service to, the main one, but two or more fully-prioritized goals are not present at the same time. So in the course of Narrativist or Simulationist play, moments or aspects of competition that contribute to the main goal are not Gamism. In the course of Gamist or Simulationist play, moments of thematic commentary that contribute to the main goal are not Narrativism. In the course of Narrativist or Gamist play, moments of attention to plausibility that contribute to the main goal are not Simulationism. The primary and not to be compromised goal is what it is for a given instance of play. The actual time or activity of an "instance" is necessarily left ambiguous. 

We ask GNS: Why separate things into hungry, thirsty and everything else?

Because, GNS says, like the freelancers triangle fast/cheap/good, you can't have all three of those categories.

Can't have your lifetime?

No, of course not, tastes can change.

In your game ever?

No, of course not, people have "drifted" (big GNS word) D&D into many different kinds of play. 

In a session?


No, in an "instance of play" you can't have them all equally prioritized.

What's an "instance of play"? "The actual time or activity of an "instance" is necessarily left ambiguous. "

Colossus and Wolverine have consistently been talking for the whole game. The Colossus character's decisions and goals have been focused around struggling to act as part of the team when he feels so insecure and useless, the Wolverine character's been focused on beating up bad guys.

And there is Mr Sinister, who has just apparently slain Professor X.

They look at each other................fastball special.

Colossus player rolls (adding all the Karma points he's been getting for playing in-character for hours). Simultaneously: Wolverine player rolls (adding all the Karma points he's been getting for kicking ass and defeating enemies for hours).  (Or one rolls--depends on the system--either way they're both "gaming" at the moment and part of the action.)

The dice are kind. Sinister goes down.

Colossus has achieved a "simulationist" (or is it dramatist?) goal of acting in character plus arguably a narrativist goal of being in a story of overcoming insecurities about his contributions by seeing teamwork as the answer. What a thematically satisfying moment.

Wolverine has achieved a "gamist" goal of devising a strategy to take down Mr Sinister. Challenge defeated. Plus also maybe a "simulationist" one because that's how Woverine acts: he kicks things asses.

They've also done this in a system (Marvel Superheroes/FASERIP) that Ron Edwards had not only played but recommends in his essays. (And they didn't even have to--they could easily do it in most systems without the Karma points.)

Was a goal prioritized? Well maybe ten minutes before Colossus was so full of self-doubt he wouldn't have thrown Wolverine for fear of hurting him--prioritizing dramatic simulation. But then he shifted focus--was that within the same instance of play or not? If we adjust the time scale so the "instance" where the amount of time Colossus had self-doubt to matches exactly the amount of time he fought Mr Sinister did we just prove the theory wrong?

Is this moment not an "instance" of play? Simultaneous satisfaction?

Or does an "instance" of play have to be longer? In which case is it literally inconceivable to GNS theorists that Wolverine keep kicking ass and Colossus keep talking to him about how useless he feels for another 10, 15, 60, 180 minutes?

I don't know about you but this sounds like a super-normal day of gaming.

Either "instance" covers an amount of time over which Wolverine can have fun doing this while Colossus has fun doing that and they both enjoy the interaction and jokes and contrast of it in which case the theory as written is objectively wrong 


The vagueness of the boundaries of "instance" are just there so that the GNS theorist can always back up the camera to some arbitrary amount of distance to claim play is "mostly" something, so it's not really a theory at all--not falsifiable the way a scientific theory of behavior should be--nothing that could happen could ever disprove it. 

So it's either wrong or not a theory.


In addition to this inaccurate picture of reality, GNS pays no attention to how actual design can work to move players from one goal/decision-making schema to the next:

Contra his earlier statement, Edwards immediately uses it to label people:

Over a greater period of time, across many instances of play, some people tend to cluster their decisions and interests around one of the three goals. Other people vary across the goals, but even they admit that they stay focused, or prioritize, for a given instance. 

Even if a person isn't labelled "hungry" or "thirsty" but, more responsibly, "mostly hungry" GNS is not a theory which models, for example, how satisfying your hunger might then make you thirsty. And it doesn't analyze how games can take advantage of that.


As a theory forged in protest and opposition, GNS theory emphasizes the negative role of mismatch.

To tl;dr, GNS says: Games fail because players want one of three different things.

To make it more accurate but make it sound less impressive one might say: games can fail because players want things that are too different.

The tremendous amount of energy the Indie scene expends on making sure everyone at the table is never surprised by anything they encounter in a game... traceable to this central emotional attitude, which persists whether or not the folks involved explicitly subscribe to GNS.

The emotional message of GNS (theories have emotional messages, sometimes at odds with their content, like how people take "survivial of the fittest" away from Natural Selection) is "Make sure all the people at the table are the same". This is something it has in common with Robin Laws, fwiw.

It is true that games can fail because players want things that are too different.

It's also true that games can succeed because players want things that are different.

The emotional drift of GNS is parental (Don't mix that with that!) and the parent, like the cynic, sees the price of everything and the value of nothing.

To quote Dylan Moran on the concept of mixture: "Then you get these articles about how unhealthy life is in the city. You know; mobile phone tumours - far more likely in the city; Well you know what, so is everything else! Including sex, coffee and conversation."


Edwards then goes on to say all three kinds of play have variety within them in terms of Premise. Ok.

His examples are clear:

Gamist Premises focus on competition about overt metagame goals. They vary regarding who is competing with whom (players vs. one another; players vs. GM; etc), what is at stake, victory and loss conditions, and what particular sort of strategizing is being employed. Gamist play also varies widely in terms of what is and is not predictable (i.e. randomized), both in terms of starting positions and in terms of ongoing events. 
  • Can I play well enough such that my character survives the perils?
  • Can I score more points than the other players?
  • And much more, depending on the arrangement and organization of the participants.
The key to Gamist Premises is that the conflict of interest among real people is an overt source of fun. It is not a matter of upset or abuse, and it is certainly not a "distraction from" or "failure of" role-playing. 
  • A possible Gamist development of the "vampire" initial Premise might be, Can my character gain more status and influence than the other player-characters in the ongoing intrigue among vampires?
  • Another might be, Can our vampire characters survive the efforts of ruthless and determined human vampire hunters?
So far so good. Interesting to note that Edwards gives, right there in the essay, an example of non-combat-focused Challenge/"Gamism" (vampires gaining influence) and so many people who promulgate GNS have totally forgot about that and divide "combat" and "social interaction" into different spheres.


Now let's keep this definition of Gamism in mind while we listen to a conversation I had with one of my players:

"I realize the more I play that you're out to get us."

"What do you mean?"

"Whatever we try to do, you make it complicated."

"Ok, then. You walk into the house, there's the vampire, he's asleep, you stake him, he's dead. Was that fun?"

"Ok, point taken."

I think that the problem with Edward's definition of the gamist is that it fails to account for the fact that while the player may desire to "win", winning itself is less the goal than creating an interesting emergent (that is, semi-accidental) story out of the attempt to win.

In a traditional RPG, while the player may accept the role as the "engine" (s/he wants to advance, and therefore does stuff), and the DM may accept the role as the "steering wheel" (s/he sets up obstacles against that player such that the collision with the players' desire to win will produce unexpected emergent effects--or "story"), both know that they are working together to produce a kind of fun that requires both of them.

(Incidentally, there's no "conflict of interest". Just as there's no conflict of interest between the one who steers a boat and the one who dumps fuel in the engine.)

In most cases, neither would be playing an RPG (instead of a competitive game with non-simulatory rules like checkers) unless these emergent stories interested them.

Now there are people who love nothing more than winning, to be sure, but since all RPGs are simulatory and not all games are, the interest in RPGs instead of--say--pinocle, must be seen as usually encompassing an interest in producing--by some means--these stories. Rather than, say, "answering the question of whether I can score more points than another player" (or defeat vampire-hunters)(or defeat a Type VII demon).

Ok, so the point is Edwards' "Gamist" category doesn't cover the kind of things I suspect most DIY D&Ders value.

Let's look at the other categories...

Narrativist Premises focus on producing Theme via events during play. Theme is defined as a value-judgment or point that may be inferred from the in-game events. My thoughts on Narrativist Premise are derived from the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, specifically his emphasis on the questions that arise from human conundrums and passions of all sorts. 
  • Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?
  • Do love and marriage outweigh one's loyalty to a political cause?
  • And many, many more - the full range of literature, myth, and stories of all sorts.

"Theme" is a big word here, and tangles up many peoples' ability to just go "Ok, Narrativism is about all the players cooperate on a story they like".

It's arguable (by which I mean I don't know) whether everyone who took up the Narrativist banner needs Theme as much as Edwards seems to or whether that kind of fell by the wayside once "Ok, we've found a way to pass the story stick and not make anybody violate genre rules by turning the Bag of Holding into a tactical vacuum nuke" was a goal Indie gamers achieved.

Narrativist Premises vary regarding their origins: character-driven Premise vs. setting-driven Premise, for instance. They also vary a great deal in terms of unpredictable "shifts" of events during play. The key to Narrativist Premises is that they are moral or ethical questions that engage the players' interest. The "answer" to this Premise (Theme) is produced via play and the decisions of the participants, not by pre-planning. 
  • A possible Narrativist development of the "vampire" initial Premise, with a strong character emphasis, might be, Is it right to sustain one's immortality by killing others? When might the justification break down?
  • Another, with a strong setting emphasis, might be, Vampires are divided between ruthlessly exploiting and lovingly nurturing living people, and which side are you on?
This part is a real sticking point: "The key to Narrativist Premises is that they are moral or ethical questions that engage the players' interest."

It raises two things for me:

-This tying of the very definition of narrative (story) to morality (what we, as real humans, want to happen) seems to at the very least rhyme with or be consonant with many Indie gamers' consistent obsession with an unproved belief that fictions in RPGs inevitably influence human behavior. ("THE STORIES WE TELL MATTER!!!!" etc) This is pretty much the opposite of the drift of where fiction and the theory of fiction are in the rest of the academia, which got postmodern at least 60 years ago and emphasizes that consciousness is fragmented and morals aren't absorbed from stories in a 1 to 1 way. More on that later if I ever make it to Edwards' Narrativism essay. Again: not necessarily Edwards' fault--but not a good look.

-So if someone wants to engineer emergent stories but ones that have no moral statement and not do so predictably, that is: engineer stories like this, then does that practice have no place anywhere in Edwards' scheme?

There are a great many great, eminently RPGable stories that are only a step or two more thematically complex: James Bond, Paladin v. Demon, Aeon Flux, Cugel V. that wizard that made Cugel go all around and do stuff, three fighters and a half-orc v. a catoblepas--what is often most interesting is not the differences between the rival parties or their approach to life, but the physical complexities their confrontations involve them in. Like how Perseus had to use the medusa's head to kill the Kraken? We love that shit.

We want the conflict of Party A and Party B to lead to crazy complications. Whether these complications are purely tactical (as in an early Jackie Chan movie) or emotional and tactical (as in a Frank Miller Daredevil comic) or are tactical, thematic and emotional (as in the Godfather) is a separate matter. The point is, the people often referred to as "gamists" are often really just people who think a story that is only tactically or strategically complicated is not just a perfectly acceptable story, it's a perfectly acceptable goal. That is, the rube goldberg/roadrunner and coyote dance of this falling on that and then this resulting from it and then getting zapped by that is a story and it's the point.

In other words, what's important to the story for this narrativist is whether or not a man's killing a goblin. What's important about a story to the DIY D&Der is whether he's killing him with an axe or a barstool.

This is important, because whether you fight a goblin or not is often a GM call, whereas what you hit it with is a player call. So if hitting a goblin with a barstool seems like an important part of the story to you, then you'll see the player as obviously having an important role in "shaping the story". In other words, players control the story's style, and style is, by many lights, the real point of a story.

This is huge, in Edwards' theory. "Theme" + "plot" (in the broad-stroke sense, not the nitty-gritty) is considered to be almost synonymous with "story", and therefore the idea that a GM (or the game designer) has prepackaged the theme and/or broad strokes of a plot means, to Edwards, that players have little important storytelling to do. It's as if the characters, their way of doing things, their micro-decisions, their personalities and the way these interact or fail to interact with the alleged themes of the story and, in short, their style are just window-dressing.

A great many well-respected authors would disagree. Jorge Luis Borges, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.G Ballard, O. Henry and others have all produced interesting works of fiction which satisfy exactly zero of the narrativist theme-based criteria and rely entirely on style and plot-twists to produce a satisfying story. And, of course, the best genre authors, like Jack Vance or Raymond Chandler or H. P. Lovecraft, generally (not always) place the emphasis on telling overtly thematically simple (or at least repetitive) stories with a maximum of style and panache.

So anyway, the point is that people motivated to tell the kind of emergent DIY D&D-style stories I'm talking about aren't covered under Edwards' "narrativist" rubric either. So let's look at the last one:

Simulationist Premises are generally kept to their minimal role of personal aesthetic interest; the effort during play is spent on the Exploration. Therefore the variety of Simulationist play arises from the variety of what's being Explored. 
  • Character: highly-internalized, character-experiential play, for instance the Turku approach. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of Character Exploration might be, What does it feel like to be a vampire?
  • Situation: well-defined character roles and tasks, up to and including metaplot-driven play. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of Situation Exploration might be, What does the vampire lord require me to do?
  • Setting: a strong focus on the details, depth, and breadth of a given set of source material. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of Setting Exploration might be, How has vampire intrigue shaped human history and today's politics?
  • System: a strong focus on the resolution engine and all of its nuances in strictly within-game-world, internally-causal terms. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of System Exploration might be, How do various weapons harm or fail to harm a vampire, in specific causal detail?
  • Any mutually-reinforcing combination of the above elements is of course well-suited to this form of play.
The key to Simulationist play is that imagining the designated features is prioritized over any other aspect of role-playing, most especially over any metagame concerns. The name Simulationism refers to the priority placed on resolving the Explored feature(s) in in-game, internally causal terms. 

Now this is immediately all gibberish.

What does the vampire lord require me to do? That question doesn't sustain even the most Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-obsessed sub goth for more than the first ten minutes of play. You'd be on to how you complete the mission before the first clove burned out.

What even is this?

What Edwards is attempting to describe is the experience of being Ron Edwards at a table watching people play Vampire and not knowing what they're getting out of it and so just assuming what they like "playing Vampire" and then looking at the rules of Vampire trying to figure out what that means to them and coming up with nothing.

The third premise sounds like something that would drive a novelist--or, in game, a group interested in collaborating on a story. I wonder if Indie gamers less focused than Edwards on "moral positions" as an element of meaningful narrative would see this as straightforwardly Narrativist?

The fourth one is Edwards attempting to describe the experience of being Ron Edwards at a table watching people play Champions and not knowing what they're getting out of it and so just assuming what they like "playing Champions" and then looking at the rules of Champions trying to figure out what that means to them and coming up with nothing.

(People care about the "specific causal detail" of how weapons work because yes, some of them are obsessed with realism or genre-imitating verisimilitude, but there are other reasons: these rules create a complex tactical environment for challenge-based play, make sure intuitive tactics work within a system (haybales are flammable, just like you expect), and ensure the unintended consequences that people who like emergent stories enjoy (if you run out of bullets like a real 6 shooter does, then you get a new story about killing someone with a chair leg. That doesn't happen if you just follow movie logic and you never run out of bullets if the director doesn't think of it.))

This all points to another lacuna major lacuna in both the conception foundational texts of GNS theory and in the social fabric of GNS-influenced circles:

Most theorists invested in GNS haven't slept with a wide enough variety of people, especially other gamers, and even if they have, they haven't talked to them afterward, in bed, about why they like the games they do. 

Also: That kind of emergent-but-not-moral challenge-engined story that Edwards can't find room for? In his later article on Simulationism Edwards sorta approaches this idea:

...people are just going to have to disagree about whether stories can "create themselves."Personally, I don't think they do, and we won't get anywhere by pushing and pulling. In practical terms, lots of hassles and possibilities arise when expecting story to "emerge" from metagame-absent play. Here are the two extremes which arise.
  • The bad one: A frustrated Narrativist-ish player takes over as GM and relies on railroading. He or she insists that everyone care about the story, but also insists upon everything going as he or she desires. I consider this approach to rank among the least functional role-playing in existence.

(Ok, Ron, yeah, fuck that guy. I've never met him, but sure, yeah, fuck that guy.)

  • The good one: Everyone agrees that story is a wonderful and desirable emergent property, but commits to no metagame meddling or prioritizing by anyone. In theory, this is quite functional, but the tricky part is that everyone also has to accept that story might not happen at all, and to be all right with that.

And here we have it. Other than the weird idea that "story might not happen" (any sequence of events played out with RPG rules--simulatory rules--will produce a story) this is pretty much how it goes in every game I've ever seen, with the occasional deviation by the players or GM "because I thought it would be cooler that way". When there isn't a story there's still challenge ("gamism") and sometimes acting and other entertaining things.

The real issue here, I think, is that most RPGs, because of their serial nature, produce picaresques--largely themeless, largely directionless stories of events tied to gether more by the personalities and coping strategies of the characters than by any over-arching plot or moral concerns.

And Edwards consistently doesn't see picaresques as "stories".

As I say in my long essay about RPGs and heroic fiction and picaresques here.

If I assume (for the moment) that me and everybody I've played with or read about playing plays Simulationist, this part of Edwards' essay on sim sticks out at me:

The whole-group problem is that individually-conducted character creation often produces differing conclusions about the point of play from player to player, which is to say, the characters are fully plausible and created by the rules, but are also manifestly incapable of interacting in terms of any one person's desired genre/setting. The classic example in fantasy-adventure play is the party including a paladin and an assassin; the one in superhero play is the super-team that includes both a Spider-Man clone and a Wolverine clone.

The fact the New Avengers (with Leinil Francis Yu on art) feature Wolverine and Spider-Man together risks making my point almost fatuously easy to make: the very tensions between play styles that Edwards' 3-way parsing is meant to explore is often, in itself, the thing that makes the game fun.

The assassin and Wolverine want to kill the guy, Spider-Man and the paladin don't. Bam: that's fun right there. There's a story making itself.


It also gets back to the problem of the three supposedly "mutually-exclusive within an instance of play" categories.

If two goals are incompatible because one is Gamist and one is Sim then why aren't they equally incompatible if one is Sim 2 (I want to know what the Vampire lord wants me to do) and another is Sim 4 (I want the vampire to die consistently with the rules about how stakes work)?

If it's mutual incompatibility that defines the categories (as it does in rock-paper-scissors) then that implies no other describable goals should be as catastrophically incompatible as incompatible GNS goals. 

If it's not, then...why are there only 3 of them? What makes these 3 differences so much more special than every other kind of difference players have?

The real life answer is that every kind of incompatibility can sometimes be too much and sometimes not --but I honestly don't know why Edwards thought these three categories of incompatibility that were so special other than a pleasing symmetry with the earlier (also wrong) Gamism-Dramatism-Simulationism theory and/or a weird belief that he'd seen these kinds more than others and that his experience was somehow a scientific sample.


The key to Simulationist play is that imagining the designated features is prioritized over any other aspect of role-playing, most especially over any metagame concerns. The name Simulationism refers to the priority placed on resolving the Explored feature(s) in in-game, internally causal terms. 

"Metagame" here means desire outside the fiction. So the gamist wants to "win" the narrativist wants to construct a specific kind of story. not wanting to feel like a vampire a "metagame" concern? After all, the vampire character presumably already feels like a vampire, the player wants this to happen to the real self.

This seems pretty weird and even more of a kludge. It's a bit like people who look at Old School games and assume any rule whose game design purpose they don't understand is "because nostalgia".  That's the equivalent of "they have no metagame goal!".

He helps a little with this by providing examples:

I suggest that Simulationism exists insofar as the effort and attention to Exploration may over-ride either Gamist or Narrativist priorities. 
Some of the following examples refer to RPG rules and text; I am referring to people enjoying and preferring such rules and text (i.e. the people, not the game itself). 
Concrete examples #1: Simulationism over-riding Gamism 
  • Any text which states that role-playing is not about winning; correspondingly, chastising a player who advocates a character action perceived as "just trying to win." [This example assumes that the text/game does not state story-creation as an alternative goal.]
  • Using probability tables in character creation to determine appearance, profession/class, or race, based on demographics of the community of the character's origin.
For the first bullet point--although many early game texts suck at articulating it, there are dick moves you can pull even in challenge (gamist)-based play because they don't respect two things. First: the basic tenet of all challenge play that the challenge is to do something within a certain set of rules, Second, which is RPG specific: the rules of early trad RPGs generally try to imitate a consistent version of reality not for its own sake but to accommodate system-agnostic rules-as-physics tactics over tactics that take advantage of system-specific stuff. (ie Gygaxian realism: even the cows have a "number appearing").  The injunctions that might appear "Simulationist" (realism-enforcing) are often actually just challenge-based rules that throw real-world-(or genre)-inspired obstacles in your way and so trying to dodge around them is unsportsmanlike.

It's taking away the challenge by doing something boring if you (for example) invent gunpowder in D&D and then constantly use it. That kid is "just trying to win" while not respecting that the challenge is challenging something other than whether they read a hoary old gamer story about inventing gunpowder in D&D.

It's SUPER telling that Edwards doesn't see the challenge reason for using probability-based character gen. Here it is: If paladins are way more badass than regular fighters but also uncommon (as in AD&D, where it was very hard to get one) then you rarely have a party with lots of paladins, ensuring many challenges that are way easier when a paladin is present (they all have that circle of protection from evil creatures, for instance) don't become null and void. Same thing if a given race is uncommon but powerful. Randomness allows unusually powerful (or weak) characters to appear as an interesting part of the game but without dominating it as the undeniably only chosen option.

It also ensures (narratively) that if someone likes the ideas embedded in the source setting (like: dark elves are outcasts and rarely adventure with others) than that idea (and the Themes that can be explored with it) is carried into the campaign each time a PC dies and a new one is needed. If tables simulate the probability of this happening, the players will be as surprised to have a dark elf adventuring with them as the characters would be. Then themes of xenophobia and overcoming it, etc can be explored a lot more naturally.

Converse: Gamism over-riding Simulationism 
  • Characters teaming up for a common goal with no disputes or even attention regarding differences in race, religion, ethics, or anything else.
  • Improving character traits (e.g. damage that may be taken) based on the amount of treasure amassed.
Concrete examples #2: Simulationism over-riding Narrativism 
  • A weapon does precisely the same damage range regardless of the emotional relationship between wielder and target. (True for RuneQuest, not true for Hero Wars)
  • A player is chastised for taking the potential intensity of a future confrontation into account when deciding what the character is doing in a current scene, such as revealing an important secret when the PC is unaware of its importance.
  • The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain's bomb does blow up the city. (The rules for DC Heroes specifically dictate that this be the appropriate way to GM such a scene).
Likewise, Edwards again fails to see the challenge-oriented or "gamist" point of limited information and weapons/super-running working consistently. Like: if they don't, you can't plan tactically using real-world logic--a basic of old school system-agnostic Challenge-based play (though not of system-mastery-based challenge play, a different thing).  I need to know whether I will get there before the bomb goes off, and if I won't I am challenged to find a more clever solution.

Converse: Narrativism over-riding Simulationism 
  • Using metagame mechanics to increase the probability of task resolution, with NO corresponding in-game justification. "Apply my bonus die to increase my Charm roll," in which the bonus die is not "will" or "endurance" or anything but an abstract pool unit.
  • A player is chastised for claiming a PC motive that "stalls out" story elements (conflict, resolution etc). Example: player A is pissed off at player B, who has announced "I say nothing," in certain interactive scenes, when player A is aware that the PC's knowledge would be pivotal in the scene.
  • Using inter-player dialogue and knowledge to determine character action, then retroactively justifying the action in terms of character knowledge and motive. "You hit him high and I'll hit him low," between players whose characters do not have the opportunity to plan the attack. [This example could also apply to Gamism over-riding Simulationism; the two are quite similar.]
In conclusion, Simulationism exists as an established, real priority-set of role-playing, with its own distinctive range of decisions and goals. 

If it is, none of those examples prove it, since in every case of "simulationism" overriding another concern there are other reasons that might have happened. These reasons require having thought a lot harder how to kill a Tarrasque than Ron ever has ("If one of every 300 Estalians is a Paladin and Estalia has 300,000 inhabitants then if we get 200 paladins to stand around the Tarrasque..." etc).


He then moves on to the rhetoric around the word "story".

A great deal of intellectual suffering has occurred due to the linked claims that role-playing either is or is not "story-oriented," and that one falls on one side or the other of this dichotomy. I consider this terminology and its implication to be wholly false.  

"Story" may simply mean "series of caused events," in which case the issue is trivial. However, most of the time, the term is more specific. More specific meanings of "story" may be involved in role-playing in a variety of ways.

There isn't much to argue with here or note in these paragraphs except to say (thanks in no small part to indie narrativist gamers who found Forge thinking attractive but too intellectually rigorous going on to found a site mostly about indie narrativist games called "") gamers, 17 years later, still set up a bizarre opposition between "story" and "combat" and have a real tough time defining what "story" means--even just to them personally when they use it--and that's not Edwards' fault.

"You haven't defined that word you keep using" is the "turn it off and turn it back on again" of the humanities major.

He then goes on to do a bit on "Misunderstandings of GNS" which basically says a lot of things the theory isn't supposed to be, and are basically nonobjectionable on their own terms and restatements of what he already said.

Chapter Three: Stance 

This chapter bears the mark (I know it well) of trying to put a cap on an old long-flaring argument that was confusing at the time in RPGland but nobody has it much any more.

Edwards (helpfully, intelligently) separates "Stance" from "GNS Goal".

Stances here are basically general ways of playing your PC--

  • In Actor stance, a person determines a character's decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have.
"I open the door because Gygorr has terrible hearing and doesn't realize there's orcs behind it"
  • In Author stance, a person determines a character's decisions and actions based on the real person's priorities, then retroactively "motivates" the character to perform them. (Without that second, retroactive step, this is fairly called Pawn stance.)
Author: "I open the door because I get xp for killing orcs and Gygorr has terrible hearing so doesn't know there's orcs."

Pawn: "I open the door because I get xp for killing orcs."
  • In Director stance, a person determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character's knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore the player has not only determined the character's actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters.
"I open the door, there's orcs, they love me."

Basically the gist of this section is that these are general attitudes toward playing and not necessarily  specific decisions with specific goals in mind so are separate from GNS goals but certain GNS goals do often coincide wth certain stances.

Historically, Author stance seems the most common or at least decidedly present at certain points for Gamist and Narrativist play...Actor stance seems the most common for Simulationist play, although a case could be made for Author and Director stance being present during character creation in this mode.

Outside the context of GNS, there's actually a lot to say about stance and how it relates to narrative control (like, say, one aspect of horror RPGing is to make both player and character scared the character will die to bring actor and author stance closer together and how character gen and leveling up are a little moment of Director stance) but inside GNS its main function is to say "That thing that changes all the time because players are capricious and distractable? That's stance. GNS goals are much more concrete."

Then Edwards does the thing where he points to a lot of internet confusion about what he says and goes "it's not that"--like pointing out "immersion" isn't a great or useful word here, which is true.

Chapter Four: The Basics of Role-Playing Design 

He continues:

This chapter is devoted to a lexicon for discussing the mechanical components of role-playing, in the service of eventually addressing how design affects coherence in the following chapter.

It is that, various things that unequivocally show up in RPGs, like character, randomness and effectiveness are defined in sometimes turgid (weird use of the passive voice on occasion) but not really controversial ways.

It's conscientiously done, but not real relevant here until the terms come up later, in which case we can define them as we go.

This has nothing to do with anything, just trying to break up the
wall of text. Buy Frostbitten & Mutilated already.

Chapter Five: Role-playing Design and Coherence 

This chapter investigates how role-playing design is involved in facilitating or inhibiting coherence. I think that all three modes of play have been present in role-playing since its invention in the 1970s. But design is a different issue. Because most of the history of RPG design proceeds from variation among what already exists, with changes usually appearing in discrete features rather than in foundational principles, the priorities and goals facilitated by the designs show extremely recognizable trends. 

"People've played games all kinds of ways since day 1, but they haven't designed the published toward all these ways of playing since day 1".

It may fairly be asked, how can GNS be applied to design features, when few if any RPG designers know about it, or even care? I use a physics analogy: prior to the insights of Newtonian physics, bridges could be built. Some of them were built rather well. However, in retrospect, we are well aware that in order to build the bridge, the designer must have been at the very least according with Newtonian physics through (1) luck, (2) imitation of something else that worked, (3) use of principles that did not conflict with Newtonian physics in a way that mattered for the job, or (4) a non-articulated understanding of those principles. I consider the analogy to be exact for role-playing games. 
Therefore, the theory-principles or stated intent of the designer, if any, are irrelevant to the analysis of the RPG designs. For instance, John Wick had no interest in GNS or any other theory when writing Orkworld. However, he has a keen sense of practical role-playing and a clear vision of the "ways" he envisioned Orkworld play to proceed. In order to produce that game, he utilized and developed principles of Narrativism, metagame mechanics, and focused Premise on Character and Situation, precisely as outlined in the theory. He just did not articulate them overtly. 

That all makes sense. Then we get to the dodgy part:

In terms of design, the issue is incoherence, defined here as failure to permit any Premise (or any element of Exploration) to be consistently enjoyed.

This word "incoherence" is defined differently in different RPG contexts.

First: the definition here, which, as far as I know, applies to no RPG or RPG session I've ever played. Like: there's no game I ever tried that doesn't permit some premise (hook, idea, thing we're all imagining) to be enjoyed. When coherence of this sort breaks down, it's because everyone's drunk. Otherwise: games are coherent.

Some GNS people (don't know about Edwards) would say that this definition of incoherent play is null and void as soon as you hack the rules--so when I was playing RIFTS with hacked rules to avoid all the stupid parts of the system, I wasn't "playing RIFTS" and that the fact I hacked it proved it wasn't coherent. But then : all games are better if you customize the rules and worse if you don't and allow you to explore the premise either way--at least all published ones I've ever seen. So the very existence of me as a person enjoying games is denied by the concept.

I've also seen another less judgmental definition (including by Edwards himself) : incoherence is simply an adjective for games that aren't focused toward specific GNS goals. That is: most games, especially mainstream ones. This definition doesn't claim that's automatically bad's only used by people who kinda sorta think that they're bad.

I've also seen it used to mean "doesn't have a unified mechanic"--like D&D has d20 to hit and other dice for damage.

I've also seen people use it just as a synonym for "irrational".

So calling play "incoherent" is kind of like calling a person "an illegal"--it may have at least one nonjudgmental, purely technical meaning, but everyone who uses it is being an asshole.

 I think that any and all RPG designs have some identifiable relationship with the GNS modes, out of the following possibilities. 
  • Focused: the design facilitates a specific, identifiable Premise (or area of Exploration).
  • Semi-adaptable: the design is at least compatible with more than one Premise and/or Exploration across GNS goals. (Whether this category even exists, or whether it merely reflects correctable incoherence, is debatable.)
Two things here.

First: Edwards is here explicitly saying a game that, even intentionally, facilitates more than one of his categories is probably "incoherent". And incoherent--at least as locally defined--is bad.

Second: Edwards is undeniably calling a design incoherent. So some games--whole games--are coherent or incoherent according to GNS. That's an important thing to remember just because G and N and S themselves are not supposed to apply, really, directly, to games.

They kinda go back and forth on whether a game can be incoherent though.
  • General: the design facilitates a specific mode, but permits a range of Premises or Explorations within that mode.
  • Kitchen sink: the design utilizes layers and multiple options such that any specific point of play may be customized to accord with GNS goals. (This design often ends up being a general Simulationist one, however.)
Again: skepticism about multi-agenda designs. Dumping it all into Sim seems to be just an extension of simulationism-as-junkyard-of-play-and-rules-Edwards-doesn't-get.
  • Incoherent 1: the design fails to permit one or any mode of play. In its most extreme form, the system may simply be broken - too easily exploited, or internally nonsensical, or lacking meaningful consequence, to pick three respective possibilities for Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism.
This definition of "incoherent" basically matches two traditional definitions of "bad" : it doesn't meet the designers' goals and doesn't make the players happy--this definition has nothing to do with GNS.
  • Incoherent 2: more commonly, the design presents a mixed bag among the modes, such that one part of play is (or is mostly) facilitating one mode and other parts of play facilitate others.

This is the explicit bad-because-multi-agenda one, as opposed to the above implicit bad-because-multi-agenda ones. 

In terms of actual play, yes, one "can" bring "any" GNS focus to "any" RPG - but I argue that in most cases the effort and informal redesign to do so is substantial, and also that the effort to keep focused on the new goals as play progresses is even more substantial. 

This is also a point of vagueness/contention. Three things:

"Effort and informal redesign" is hacking and adventure building--i.e. customization. And in my experience they are always part of any good game, even ones praised by GNS people as being gorgeously "coherent". I mean: Dungeon World, as-written, forces you to pick from "Helmet, Styled Hair, or Bald" if you want to be a paladin, from one of 4 turgid latinate names if you're a female paladin and choose "Kind Eyes, Fiery Eyes, or Glowing Eyes" and under no circumstances can you have two paladins in the party. Who wouldn't "informally redesign" that?

The question then becomes what amount of hacking counts as "substantial"--which unfortunately Edwards does not define.

This chapter discusses why that effort needs to be there at all. 

Well: because it's fun and ease of customization is one of the major and radiant virtues of RPGs?

I don't know if Edwards would agree but I know this is another temperamental difference between GNS-lovers and everyone else I know.

GNS folks see you customizing the game as evidence the game is broken, everyone else sees you customizing the game as evidence the game is wildly successful.

Also: the idea that customization is a kludge to fix a problem and not an immediate and assumed job of the GM is difficult for a lot of GNS folk to get in line with.

You don't put candyflake paint on a car you don't love.

This schism (simple limited packaged user-friendly games vs rich complex effort-requiring rabbit-hole game) predates RPGs back to the wargame era, btw--from Jon Peterson's Playing At The World:

The difference can be attributed to the opposing philosophies of board wargames and miniature wargames. Miniature wargaming was more artisanal, less prefabricated; more demanding, less commercially viable. To the avid miniature wargamer, board gaming must have appeared crude, aesthetically dull and confining in the rigidity of its rules; to the unrepentant board wargamer, miniature gaming looked expensive, labor-intensive and contentious in its latitude toward system. Not all players want to have to design a game in order to play it, but for creative gamers, miniature wargames inspired new heights of craftsmanship and sophistication. 

Neither is wrong. At least until one side starts saying the other "fails to permit any Premise (or any element of Exploration) to be consistently enjoyed."

Now Edwards has his funniest line yet:

Throughout this chapter, cut me some slack on the terminology. Saying "Gamist design" or "Gamist RPG," is a short way of saying, "RPG design whose elements facilitate, to any recognizable degree, Gamist priorities and decision-making." 

Ok, Ron, we'll cut you some slack.

Just remember all that slack you should be cutting people when they say GNS "Categorizes games" and don't let anybody come back Forgesplaining with "Many people make the mistake of thinking GNS is a way to categorize games. I recommend you take a look at the essays here by Ron Edwards you may find them helpful."

Now a plunge into wild jargon:

Facilitating a metagame concern (a developed Premise) differs greatly from Exploring a listed element as a priority. To address a Premise, the imaginary, internal commitment to the in-game events must be broken at least occasionally during play, to set up and resolve the issues of interest in strictly person-to-person terms. To Explore the topic in the Simulationist sense, breaking the imagined, continuous in-game causality is exactly what to avoid. The at-first attractive idea that a system could easily encompass, say, Character-based Premise and prioritized Character Exploration is actually utterly unworkable. 

This is why some people are terrified of theory. The read passages like this and think they've gotten stupider--and don't realize they're just very very poorly written.

What Edwards is trying to say is that facilitating the "I wanna certain story" of Narrativism and the "I wanna win" of Gamism (bc Sim doesn't, according to Ron, have metagame concerns) is different than just cruising through a gameworld ("exploring") that has certain characteristics ("listed elements"). In order to get a story or resolve fighty conflict you gotta stop and consult some rules, roll some dice, talk to the other people at the table about resolution--in order to explore in Simulationism you wanna avoid doing any of that.

That last sentence is basically Edwards saying that vampire kids hanging out exploring their characters by being them is incompatible with a really good (collaborative) story about the vampires-- which seems to me kinda pessimistic, especially if you break the game into stages with the exploration first and then a conflict engine or limited resource they fight over introduced in the second act, though it's possible Edwards would loophole out by saying the introduced conflict generator would then begin a new "instance" of play. Which means, like, about a jillion things that could change a game (sudden introduction of an earthquake, etc) make the "instancemeter" reset and therefore, again, GNS is kinda useless and vague for its stated purpose because you can rejigger "instance" to crop out anything that looks like 2-3 goals being "simultaneously" served.

Despite this, the following examples do clarify what Edwards at least thinks he's saying...

To illustrate this principle, let's take just one aspect of role-playing design: the terms and qualities used to denote a character. How are these things involved in Premise or focused Exploration? 
Facilitating Simulationism is all about Exploring the designated element(s). The most important priority is that the stated features express linear, in-game-world causality. That is why the most prevalent version of Simulationist character design relies on Nature-Nurture distinctions, using layered qualities, for a large number of attributes and abilities. Other sorts of Simulationist design may employ different methods, but the commitment to in-game, linear causality remains the priority. 

None of this doesn't also apply to the "complex" gamist designs below btw--"in which the complication is itself part of the competitive arena".

Facilitating Narrativism relies on bringing specific Premise and the ability to have an impact on it into the foreground, over and above any "descriptive" or "explanatory" elements. Distinctions between attributes and skills, for instance, is irrelevant. A big tough fighter and a small lithe fighter may well be described, in game terms, with a single identical "fight" value, perhaps modified retroactively during play for especially-appropriate situations. A character may have features for completely metagame concerns, such as "plot points" or similar things.  

Facilitating Gamism is a matter of knowing what is relevant to the stakes, competition, and conditions of victory or loss. Features of a character are either complicators or focusing points of the character's strategic possibilities. (Side note: Gamist character design may be very complex, in which the complication is itself part of the competitive arena, or it may be very streamlined if the competition concerns other issues.)  

Rules regarding both Character and System also facilitate a GNS goal by facilitating (or even demanding) particular Stances. For instance, an explicit metagame mechanic automatically entails using Author or Director stance, "I use a Preparedness Point to say my uncle already gave me a boat" would be using a metagame resource in Author or Director stance.

Now he gives us some history:

Pending a really good history of role-playing games [This exists now, btw: Jon Peterson's Playing At The World -z], this brief and GNS-based summary will have to do. Arising as it did from wargaming in the middle 1970s, the earliest RPG design reflected its Gamist + Simulationist roots.

This is wrong from the start.

The simulation goal vs challenge goal split in wargames took mainly one form:

Challenge: "We play Gettysburg and see who wins"
Simulation: "We play Gettysbrg and the North has to win because that's what happened, it's a re-creation"

The first one was way more popular and was the only one to substantially influence D&D and, via D&D, the rest of the hobby.

What about all those simulating rules, like in that one game where Italian troops carried more water because they needed to boil it for pasta?

Well: like nearly every single other rule that separates wargames from their predecessor (chess) these were invented to make the challenge more complex and lifelike. Variants on these games were literally used to game out real wars: the "realistic" rules weren't there to make the generals feel like generals, they were there so that if the general thought up a real-world strategy or tactic they could test it for real. This is challenge-play. Straight up.

If it ever came down to a choice between "I will make this decision because it is what Matthew Ridgway would do" and "I will make this decisions because I'll win" wargame culture overwhelmingly plumped for the latter.

There is a subtlety to all wargames and RPGs that follow them: the designers, in effect, makes a series of simulating decisions for the player before play starts (Matthew Ridgway's leadership is 5, Italians will carry more water, hobbits are short) and then the player takes on purely challenge-oriented decisions with that simulated army to see if they can "beat" that scenario.

The rules of all RPGs are simulatory (I'm pretty sure RE would agree with this). That is, they simulate something outside the game.

Consider a piece in checkers. It doesn't simulate anything. It's a game piece you use in a game. Its behavior in the game of checkers is based on the abstract rules of the abstract game of checkers.

Consider a chess knight. It is starting to simulate something--one might say that the way a knight moves (by skipping squares) in chess is inspired by the way mounted cavalry can move past terrain in a way infantry can't. Maybe. At any rate, while the shape of the piece simulates a horse, the rules by which you manipulate the chess knight are not--in any particularly obvious way--supposed to simulate the way actual historical knights actually did things.

Consider a knight in a fantasy tabletop wargame. Now we are definitely simulating. There are rigid rules for what the knight can do, but most of these rigid rules are meant to simulate the capabilities of what a knight could or couldn't do (tactically anyway) on either a genuine battle or in fictional stories the players are presumably familiar with knights.

The rules also might be serving other masters--some of the rules (say, a limit on the number of knights that can ride together) might be there to make sure the knights aren't way more powerful than other troops (a kind of game balance) or just to keep things interesting or running smoothly (like a rule saying combats involving knights versus other mounted knights are resolved after all other combat because they're more complicated) (perhaps Edwards would call this a "gamist" rule--I'm not sure), but one of the distinguishing features of a wargame is that it has simulatory rules. They mimic some other situation. If it didn't, it wouldn't be a wargame. It'd be go or checkers or othello or backgammon.

Some games have simulatory rules, some games have abstract rules. Many have both. Battleship, for instance, has both. Some of the rules are there to simulate shooting missiles at a ship, some are just there because that's how the game works. Tetris has no simulatory rules.
Minesweeper kind of does.

It's notable that, even though Minesweeper and Battleship simulate different situations, the rules are almost the same--which means that you could write a battleship-shooting game with the mechanics of Minesweeper or vice-versa and still call the rules somewhat simulatory. You could also take the same mechanics, call it "OCD Cubicle Fun Time" and have the same rules and then it wouldn't be simulating anything--kind of like how you can make a perfect sphere and call it an abstract sculpture or paint it yellow and call it a sculpture of the sun or paint it black and call it a sculpture of a bowling ball. The important point for gaming purposes is communicating what the game's supposed to be simulating.


Now consider a knight in an RPG. The rules governing this knight are simulatory, no doubt, just like in the wargame. The biggest innovation in D&D is that the creators of that game discovered that you could write a game that not only simulated some aspect of reality, but write a game that--at least potentially--could simulate all aspects of reality. The wargame knight probably couldn't get a stomach ache or write a letter to his mom and have that produce any effect on the rest of the game--the RPG knight could, and it might. While a wargame might have special rules covering given situations, the RPG said, in effect: the player can create any situation they'd be able to create if they were actually doing the thing the game simulates, and these rules (and the DM) will have to stretch to cover them.

Whether D&D actually ran all the way through the door that it kicked open is not the point, the point is, once the creators realized that you could make a game that was as open in terms of what could matter as a novel or a movie--and that that would still be fun--then everyone else did.

At each stage, the rules simulate more and more things, and while you could say the game itself as a whole therefore took on more aspects of simulation, at no point do we (in GNS terms) need to have--or indeed have--a mass of players making decisions based on a desire primarily to simulate or that prioritizes simulating over winning. In terms of decisions, you could play chess, then a wargame, then run through Ghost Tower of Inverness and the only thing you'd be changing is how complex the landscape of threat and weapons to survive it are and how much they look like the ones in the real-world or imaginative fiction.

So in terms of Edwards own concern--the players' goals and decisions--there's little prioritizing Simulationism here--though (as in all RPGs) a lot of simulation.

(Sideline: In a way, Narrativist design is a throwback down this simulatory scale back to chess and its hierarchies of dramatic importance. The Queen can move a lot because she is a big deal, the Pawn can't because she's not. Any other wargame or RPG would tell you they usually both move roughly the same speed.)

However, within a year, design philosophies split very fast across a brief Renaissance of largely-forgotten games that spanned nearly all of the GNS spectrum, and then two trends "settled out" to remain stable until the early 1990s. 
The first of these trends was an ongoing series of imitations of post-tourney D&D, with its halting and incoherent mix of Gamism and Simulationism.

Incoherent, remember, means you can't consistently use it to address any premise. So: what were these thousands of gamers doing and why did they like it so much? And, for that matter, what am I doing when I head out to Nightwick Abbey playing an OD&D variant with Evan Elkins?

(I suspect part of the issue here is OD&D from literally page one assumes way more customization-culture in effect than Edwards.)

 The second was a development of Simulationist principles in several trajectories, based on different models, including the following. 
  • The RuneQuest system from the Chaosium (extremely coherent, emphasizing System and Setting), developing both in the series of games from that company as well as in its imitators.
This is Edwards, again, mistaking the complexities of simulatory-rules-facilitating-complex-challenge for simulation-as-goal again. 

The "series of games from that company" includes Call of Cthulhu which shouldn't work at all by GNS principles, as it is Runequest, (which is D&D + % skills)+ insanity rules + suddenly the goal isn't to "win" anymore but to maybe win and maybe simulate going insane or dying. Aaaand which has changed very little since it was invented and which continues to baffle GNS theorists to this day who don't get how one guy can want to solve the mystery and another can want to go nuts and they can change their mind in the middle and the rules work well for both of them and they don't get why you don't just play Cthulhu Dark--where you make your character really fast and don't get attached, or Trail of Cthulhu--where you don't have those tests of player skill (ie challenge/gamism) or Dread--where the player skill is pulling Jenga blocks and you know in advance you'll all die and there's none of this terrible GNS uncertainty.

The series also includes Pendragon which is Runequest (D&D + % skills) + personality mechanics and forced plot development which, again, should not work. It also is pretty much the only game everyone from the most die-hard Forgie to the grumpiest old schooler at least respects. 
  • The interesting mutual relationship between four editions of Champions and effectively two of GURPS (moving from incoherent to coherent, emphasizing System), which provides the model for the vast majority of new games.
That is: Champions and GURPS had a lot of rules, and lots of customization, and Edwards still doesn't get how those things facilitate Challenge. "moving from incoherent to coherent" just means in this case: the math loopholes got closed.
  • The AD&D 2nd edition (mainly incoherent, emphasizing Setting and Situation), developing in the huge setting-based proliferation of TSR products into the early 1990s, as well as in a host of small-press imitators.
Hear that? If you were one of the thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who played and enjoyed D&D 2e even though it "failed to permit any Premise (or any element of Exploration) to be consistently enjoyed." How did you do that? You are mutants defying all demiurges and propriety.

Another temperamental difference: mainstream fans, starting in the 80s started to see rules as gifts--you were now allowed to play a Thri Kreen, officially, here's how. More rules were more options and options were good. Monte Cook told me at one point 2nd edition AD&D had like 3 (or was it 5?) different rules for catapults. And that was ok with him: you might want different rules for different kinds of games. After 2000, people started to see rules as impediments. Rules-lite is good. Simplicity and accessibility are good.

In essence, both 80s D&D and GNS want you to have options about how you roll: it's just GNS wants to lay them out clearly in a multiple choice palette of different TV dinners (this is the low-carb high-fructose one, this is the gluten-free one...) while TSR just gave you the keys to the farm and figured you'd decide how to pick an apple or butcher a hog yourself.

The first is clearer, but more limiting, the second offers less guidance, but many more options.

(The culture of DIY RPGs generally--a rules-light or most-rules-ignored system plus endless homemade content grabbed from the internet is functionally a crowdsourced version of AD&D 2e's approach to letting 1000 catapults bloom.)

Around 1990, first Narrativist-facilitating methods became widely established, and then full-bodied Narrativist games appeared in 1994.

Ok bro.

About five years later, simultaneous with the appearance of innovative competitive games (not RPGs, but rather Cheapass Games), overtly Gamist RPGs appeared.

No, these were just the first ones ones so simple that your non-Tarrasque-killing ass recognized them as facilitating gamist/challenge play.
(A fascinating story of economics and industry hassles underlies this history, but I regretfully have to stay on-topic. Another time.) 
Or to put it another way, RPG design through most of the hobby's history has been largely devoted to Simulationist priorities.

Btw I once asked Edwards point blank about this confusion of complex-gamism vs Sim and he was like "Huh--maybe".

 This is not to say that the full range of this mode has been represented or all of its potential developed. 
The sub-set of Simulationism most fully developed during the 1980s was "realist" (a form of Situtation) and "genre-faithfulness" (System with strong and various other co-emphases). Some conventions of these approaches include identifying Fortune methods with the imaginary physics of the setting 

....which.....wait for it.......facilitates complex challenge. If fire works like fire actually works then...hey using fire gets a lot more interesting than "I light my arrow on fire" every single round because why wouldn't you it does extra damage?

...and a commitment to extensive search and handling times.

(GNS term for looking stuff up in the book.)

The sub-set developed later used the previous one as a foundation, but lightened the details and concentrated on Character, Setting, and Situation in its most external form of published metaplot, as a determinant of large-scale events during play. 

That is: they were publishing novels about the setting.

Quite a lot more has occurred in Simulationist design, of course. Not surprisingly, the variety among coherent Simulationist design is extensive, indeed, vast, because the key to design is which elements are being Explored. 
  • Character: Unknown Armies
  • Setting: RuneQuest, Pendragon, Usagi Yojimbo, Jorune
  • Situation: Call of Cthulhu
  • System: GURPS, Champions 4th edition (or rather, the Hero System), Fudge, Multiverser
  • Situation and Setting: Feng Shui, Cyberpunk 2020
  • Character and Setting: Legend of the Five Rings, Nephilim, Albedo, Ars Magica, Nobilis
This is not to say that any RPG will illustrate one of the above categories so clearly; the listed titles are among the shining lights of coherent Simulationist design. 

The inability to recognize Call of Cthulhu as the ultimate simultaneous improv (simulationist) plus challenge design (solving mysteries by literally finding clues in a literal picture in the module, f'rinstance) is a pretty good example of that Sherlock Holmes thing about how you wanna have facts before theories because otherwise you shape facts to match theories not the other way around.

Anyway, this is getting repetitive: Edwards doesn't get complex challenge or rules designed to handle it and his history lesson illustrates mostly that.

His take on Narrativism is, of course, more informed, interesting:

Overt Narrativist RPG design is a latecomer, with the exception of the few glimmers appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of which Marvel Super Heroes is the sole survivor. The first thoroughgoing Narrativist game since then was Prince Valiant, in 1989. Although both games were based on source texts, their designs did not recommend Exploring the canonical settings so much as using the texts' authors' philosophy of story creation as a model for creating new stories entirely.

Again: just as Edwards doesn't recognize that Call of Cthulhu is drama AND/OR challenge, he doesn't get that and he doesn't get that it's pretty easy for drama-kid Colossus and challenge-monster Wolverine to play together in Marvel Super Heroes. 

In fact, without Karma (the spendable experience points which many players forget to use or save for boss fights) it's pretty hard to see anything particularly Narrativist about Marvel Super Heroes. It's a 100% functional hybrid and I've literally had Monsterhearts-playing crunchphobic angstgamers next to Let's Waste Zeus Next hardcore old schoolers happily bouncing off each other in that game.

And the fact all it takes to facilitate that is one new mechanic--spendable xp that can be awarded for doing superheroey stuff--kinda asks some major questions of GNS. 

Look ma, subplots.

In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following models. 
  • A pre-play developed setting, in which case the characters develop into protagonists in the setting's conflicts over time. Examples include Castle Falkenstein and Hero Wars.
  • Pre-play developed characters (protagonists), in which case the setting develops into a suitable framework for them over time. Examples include Sorcerer, Everway, Zero (in an interesting way), Cyberpunk 1st edition, Orkworld, and The Whispering Vault.
I have observed that when people bring a Narrativist approach to Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings, or other game systems which include both detailed pre-play character creation and a detailed, conflict-rich setting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably. 

This is interesting: what he's saying is if you want to play Narrativist games you need some room for players to invent a conflict: either the characters need to be formed during play or the setting does.

However, he couches this not as an absolute axiom but an observation of how thing usually go.

My guess is some spunky Indie kid will challenge that if they haven't already, but it speaks to how tied to what the setting is or who the character is conflict (or "Premise") is. But that might just be a typical trapping of genre fiction: the werewolf doesn't have to be The Chosen werewolf, but it sure helps get a Theme across if they are.

Given the widespread use of Author and Director stance in Narrativist role-playing, the functional result is to spread tasks and creative roles left for the GM in most other play among all participants.

I think everybody gets that by this point. Even in Marvel when you as a player invent power stunts for 100 karma you are kinda being the GM a little bit.

The next few paragraphs go into more technical develoments Edwards is observing emerging and topics he'd like to see explored ("Random vs. nonrandom elements of character creation contrasted with those of event resolution"). Not real immediately relevant.

He does then tries to address "balance" in a clear, helpful way...

"Balance" may rank as the most problematic term in all of role-playing. What in the world does it mean? Equality of some kind? Fairness of some kind? Whenever the term is brought up, the discussion cannot proceed without specifying further regarding the following issues. 
  • Balance of what? Components of the characters? Specific sets of components?
  • Or perhaps it's balance of actions, in which case, is it of opportunity, or of consequence?
  • Balance among whom? Players or characters? Both in some way?
  • To what end? (Citing "fairness" is tautological.)
  • Shifting the issue, perhaps it's a matter of balance within a character, rather than among characters.
  • And extending the issue, should balance be concerned with initial starting points of characters or with the processes of change for the characters, or both?
Currently little insight arises from discussions of balance, as it inevitably wanders about these issues without focusing. The issues themselves, on the other hand, are very interesting. Therefore the term is much like "genre," in that discussion might as well focus on the real issues in the first place and never use the term at all. 

...but  kinda can't manage to use simple phrases like "effectiveness" or "spotlight time" so it's not great.

I would suggest that the DIY D&D scene has done a lot to clarify what "balance" is and is not good for since this essay was written.

Then...oh shit?

Hybrids and drift Can multiple GNS goals be satisfied by a single game design? It may be possible, but it is not easy. As mentioned before, merely aligning topics of Exploration with those of Premise is probably not effective. I conceive of two types of hybrid: (1) two modes are simultaneously satisfied in the same player at the same time, of which I am highly skeptical;

I mean Colossus above? But this introduces some philosophical issues like if you're eating a grape while getting a blowjob are you experiencing them both "simulataneously" or alternating? Idk

 and (2) two modes can exist side by side in the design, such that differently-oriented players may play together, which might be possible. Some possible candidates for the latter include these. 
  • G + S: Rifts.
  • N + G: Champions 1st-3rd editions; I'm interested as well in seeing the upcoming Elfworld and a proposed game from Hogshead Publishing regarding fantasy weaponry.
  • N + S: Little Fears and UnderWorld (these games' degree of "abashedness" exists squarely on the border of the two modes).

He seems to completely miss the examples I noticed. Again: Idk.

It's hard to imagine any trad game that could have at least one player Simming while another Gamed.

Drift is a related issue: the movement from one GNS focus to another during the course of play. I do not think that "drift" reflects hybridized design (in which both modes are indeed present), but rather correctable incoherence (moving toward coherence in one mode)

I can't imagine why. Like if you spend one session trying to kill the bishop and the next talking to the Queen about soup because you like the funny voice you just did it.

I mean: is Red & Pleasant Land cutting some kind of Gordian Knot just because it has puzzles and weird NPCs that are fun to talk to?

And, 100% seriously: everyone is a dramatist when the NPC is hot and the player is drunk. So all you have to do to "drift" from Gamism to that form of Sim is bring some Bulleit rye. And further, there's no reason that can't actually be written into a ruleset.

 Historically, drifting toward Gamism is very common; it isn't hard to understand that a frustrating and incoherent context can be turned into an arena for competition. Internet play has illustrated some distinctive drifting: Amber moves from abashed Narrativism either to Simulation with Exploration of Character or to Gamism with the emphasis on interpersonal control; Everway moves from abashed Narrativism to Simulationism with the emphasis on Exploration of Situation.  
The 1990s transitional game offers a good example of driftable design: Simulationist resolution with strong metagame mechanics, highly customizable character, setting, and situation, with or without exhortations to "story." Fudge and The Window are perfect examples, on either side of Simulationism or Narrativism, respectively, as the stated emphasis. 

I find this whole section obscurely baffling--Edwards takes designs which have tons in common: Runequest, Rifts, Shadowrun, Marvel FASERIP, D&D, AD&D--and declares them fit for specific kinds of play more than others with little rhyme or reason other than some of them summon for him the dread crunching chaos of Simulationism. Which is barely a thing.

Like some tiny group of people like to track resources for fun but none of the game design trends needed that focus to make sense.

Incoherent design 
Unfortunately, functional or nearly-functional hybrids are far less common than simply incoherent RPG designs.  
The "lesser," although still common, dysfunctional trend is found among the imitators of the late-1970s release of AD&D, composed of vague and scattered Simulationism mixed with vague and scattered Gamism. Warhammer is the most successful of these.

See? Runequest is apparently superfunctional but Warhammer is incoherent? Like what? These games have so much in common.  This sounds like someone who has literally never played them.

He's a little more clear here:

The "dominant" dysfunctional system is immediately recognizable, to the extent of being considered by many to be what role-playing is: a vaguely Gamist combat and reward system, Simulationist resolution in general (usually derived from GURPS, Cyberpunk, or Champions 4th edition), a Simulationist context for play (Situation in the form of published metaplot), deceptive Narrativist Color, and incoherent Simulationist/Narrativist Character creation rules. 

Oh, right, so this is just Edwards' blindness to Complex Challenge again. The "deceptive Narrativist color" is presumably game advice saying you write your own story and "incoherent Simulationist/Narrativist Character creation rules" is just: there's probabilities but you get to pick some stuff outside your PC.

This combination has been represented by some of the major players in role-playing marketing, and has its representative for every period of role-playing since the early 1980s. 
  • AD&D2 pioneered the approach in the middle 1980s, particularly the addition of metaplot with the Dragonlance series.
  • Champions, through its 3rd edition, exemplified a mix of Gamist and Narrativist "driftable" design, but with its 4th edition in the very late 1980s, the system lost all Metagame content and became the indigestible mix outlined above.
  • Vampire, in the early 1990s, offered a mix of Simulationism and Gamism in combat resolution, but a mix of Narrativism and Simulationism out of combat, as well as bringing in Character Exploration.
The design is hugely imitated, ranging from Earthdawn, Kult, and In Nomine, to the mid-1990s "shotgun attack" of Deadlands, Legend of the Five Rings, and Seventh Sea. 

The idea that the metaplot of the Dragonlance series of novels and modules suddenly forced incoherence on functional gaming really says a lot about how fragile GNS thinks player groups are.

Metaplot means, at worst, your PC can't change the metaplot.

First: That isn't a huge restriction considering how many stories are set in real life during, say, the Carter administration without anyone killing the president or ending the Cold War early (real life's "metaplot").

Second: It's pretty easy for adults to recognize that sometimes they don't want to play a module where they can't kill the president. Did you really need a special theory just to say that? Seems like a regular taste problem.

All of these games are based on The Great Impossible Thing to Believe Before Breakfast: that the GM may be defined as the author of the ongoing story, and, simultaneously, the players may determine the actions of the characters as the story's protagonists. This is impossible. It's even absurd. However, game after game, introduction after introduction, and discussion after discussion, it is repeated. 

This seems like a consequence of three things:

.80s-90s game authors not being real precise (because they didn't have the internet screaming at them that they needed to be precise) about how they wrote the part of the game text about "you are now allowed to tell stories" that nobody read.

.Confusion between the words "plot outline" and "story" by these authors, Edwards, or both. Anyone with even a vague idea of what the word "improv" means knows there are ways one person can say "End the scene with John taking a bath" and still have 5 other people make up a lot of details that make the story meaningful or interesting or fun or funny before that happens.

.GNS people taking the GM advice and intros too seriously in an attempt to diagnose real problems at their game tables. Half the time a GM of one game learned from the GM advice of another--or just by watching someone else. You can only blame so much on GM advice.

Now Edwards talks about Vampire--which is the game that ruled the roost in RPG land when this essay was written.

It is impossible to read GNS people complaining about Vampire (as it is impossible to read 4venger trolls complaining about any edition of D&D except "theirs") without sensing some deep personal trauma they don't want to talk about roiling beneath the surface. Like maybe a Ventrue killed their dad. And then they went to Mark Rein-Hagen to ask it why that happened. And, god dammit, he couldn't tell them. And then the trauma was finally exorcized when Monsterhearts let them play a sexy goth soap opera and Apoc World let them play with a katana. And there were mechanics for sex. Finally.

Check it:

Consider the players who were excited about the vampire concept for role-playing. What happens when they try to play Vampire: the Masquerade? Well, they try to Believe the Impossible Thing, and in application, the results are inevitable. 
  • The play drifts toward some application of Narrativism, which requires substantial effort and agreement among all the people involved, as well as editing out substantial portions of the game's texts and system.
To be fair, the game explicitly says only use the rules when you want. Which is clunky but not dishonest.
  • The play drifts toward an application of Simulationism in which the GM dominates the characters' significant actions, and the players contribute only to characterization. This is called illusionism, in which the players are unaware of or complicit with the extent to which they are manipulated.
So many problems with this

First: There's nothing in the rules demanding that. I know: I had to read them for work.

Second: There's absolutely no school of writing or drama which claims characterization isn't a massive playing field for creativity. Or that it is necessarily walled-off from taking "Significant" actions.

Third: "Significant actions" aren't defined. Are we talking symbolically? Plotwise? Metaplotwise? Morally?

Fourth: It's only illusionism if the players don't know which actions have been denied them or which choices have been nullified secretly. This may be happening (and sucks) but neither the text nor the description you give demands that.
  • Illusionism is not necessarily dysfunctional, and if Character or Situation Exploration is the priority, then it can be a lot of fun. Unknown Armies, Feng Shui, and Call of Cthulhu all facilitate extremely functional illusionism. However, it is not and can never be "story creation" on the part of all participants, and if the game is incoherent, illusionism requires considerable effort to edit the system and texts into shape.
Again, confusing "story" with "plot outline". Possibly influenced by Egri's rhetoric about what a "story" is but without defining story.

Also: "considerable effort" isn't defined enough for us to see why it's a bad thing. See "substantial effort and redesign" above.
  • Most likely, however, the players and GM carry out an ongoing power-struggle over the actions of the characters, with the integrity of "my guy" held as a club on the behalf of the former and the integrity of "the story" held as a club on behalf of the latter.

That sounds annoying, but like if they're under 16 this is just life for kids doing anything (including playing totally "functional" boardgames) and if they're over 16 then I am skeptical this is a problem of game design rather than a problem of having an adult conversation about how much control the players want to have. It is a real problem, but not one I'd lay primarily at the feet of game design.

The players of the vampire example are especially screwed if they have Narrativist leanings and try to use Vampire: the Masquerade. 

Thus the 20 years of trauma they have transferred to all of us.

The so-called "Storyteller" design in White Wolf games is emphatically not Narrativist, but it is billed as such, up to and including encouraging subcultural snobbery against other Simulationist play without being much removed from it. The often-repeated distinction between "roll-playing" and "role-playing" is nothing more nor less than Exploration of System and Exploration of Character - either of which, when prioritized, is Simulationism.

No. "Roll-playing" is a derogatory term for rolling dice in any context but not giving your PC a personality which can mean anything from challenge to just being along for the ride and "role-playing" in this context means acting. That you lumped them together doesn't mean anyone else has to or, more importantly, that the jerk 15-year olds who enthusiastically embraced this pun-based snobbery weren't just as incompatible with their victims as anyone in the G or the N or the S is with their other letters.

Like why is it so hard to have Jimmy Gamist and Sara Sim happy at the same table that there needs to be a whole theory about it but apparently Davey Drama and Donna Dice have merely superficial differences?

This is just replacing the snobbery that irritates you with a snobbery that irritates the next generation of designers.

Thus our players, instead of taking the "drift" option (which would work), may well apply themselves more and more diligently to the metaplot and other non-Narrativist elements in the mistaken belief that they are emphasizing "story." The prognosis for the enjoyment of such play is not favorable. 

I don't know what any of this is based on. Observation? A guess? What Ron did?

Also: the metaplot is a (terrible) story. They may or may not like it. Reactions of narrativists to Vampire vary wildly.

One may ask, if this design is so horribly dysfunctional, why is it so popular? The answer requires an economic perspective on RPGs, in addition to the conceptual and functional one outlined in this essay, and is best left for discussion.

No it requires looking at Tim Bradstreet drawings and all the goth girls looking at Tim Bradstreet drawings. But then, for some reason nobody has successfully explained, the entire GNS subculture seems to be basically blind to the meaning and communicative power and role of visual culture strongly communicating Premise.

Like streamers these days, and like Tom Sawyer painting that fence, illustrators go "Look: this will be fun. Put in the substantial effort to get here." Which, for many people, works quite well. Vampire and D&D did both actually spawn legions of LARPers who don't use the rules at all--or tabletop gamers who happily wrote their own. They needed to be pointed at the premise, then given some booster rockets, then: they're free. Many of them run the world now.

Edwards then excoriates the idea of a game that serves all GNS preferences for a few paragraphs, separates that from GURPS-style universality, then moves on to:

A number of code-phrases to describe RPG system and goals have arisen as role-players struggled to match their interests with the spectrum of available games, but most of them lack substance. 
  • Rules-heavy vs. Rules-light: this dichotomy is vaguely oriented toward high vs. low search and handling time, but it is confounded a great deal with so-called realism and so-called story. (This confusion is a product of the transition design period of 1990-1991, exemplified by Fudge and The Window.) The concept of rules-focus, in terms of goals and modes, has not entered the popular understanding of the hobby.
Edwards himself is totally vulnerable to this in his continued confusion of rules-heavy for "simulationist". He also doesn't sort out a complex or crunchy game from a Fat Game leaving me to do that, but hey, nobody said gameblogging was easy.
  • Completeness: as far as I can tell, this term relies on as thorough a presentation as possible of all the listed elements, apparently such that Simulationist play of any emphasis can pick and choose which aspects to emphasize, by elimination rather than by creation.
How anyone could be remotely aware of Challenge as a goal and not see why you might want a boatload of new spells all the time is beyond me. Magic: The Gathering had been out for years by then.

Anyway the way he describes completeness, that's kind of close to a "fat game"--which is actually a useful concept.

I wouldn't say a skinny game is less complete than a fat game. Though it depends on the game: I'd say a complex-challenge James Bond game with boat stats is undeniably more complete than an identical one with only car stats and so would every sane human being on the planet. The only possible confusion Edwards could have about what this means is how to change this very down-to-earth complaint into GNS terms which seems like putting the theory cart before they helping-people-solve-their-real-game-problems horse.

Chapter Six: Actually Playing 

It all comes back to the social situation, eventually, because role-playing is a human activity and not a set of rules or text. Coherence is expressed as a social outcome; it must apply all the way into and through actual play. I suggest that preparing for and carrying out the role-playing experience in social terms, well above and beyond considerations of system mechanics, is most coherent from a GNS and Premise perspective. 

I'm really not sure what this does and doesn't mean to Ron. Especially in light of how thoroughly his analysis til now has emphasized not social stuff but text.

I'm not sure I agree or disagree with it but he switched topics pretty fast to a pet peeve...

But it's just a game! This phrase is an alarm bell...The ugly truth is that this phrase is not reconciliatory at all. Rather, it is code for, "Stop bothering me with your interests and accord with my goals, decisions, and priorities of play." I strongly urge that individual role-players not tolerate any implication that their preferred, enjoyed range of role-playing modes is a less worthy form of play. 

If GNS had any virtue it's that at least it did get people on the internet articulating in real detail what they did and didn't like. Though that happened around 2000 in every field from YA fiction to fetish porn without anybody needing a rickety theory to justify it so...yeah.

Then to GMs--a few questions but no assertions about possible social dynamics ("what kind of authority or status does a GM have over or with the players anyway? Is he or she the physical host, using physical living or work space for the game?") and then:
How might a GNS perspective help keep that GM/player understanding clear? Historically, the terms cover very different ranges within each of the modes. 
  • The range in Gamism: GM as referee over players who compete with one another, GM as referee over the players competing with a scenario, GM as opponent of the players as a unified group, or even no GM at all among a group of competing players.
  • The range in Simulationism: GM as channeler of external source material, GM as the fellow Actor responsible for the landscape and NPCs, GM as referee of the physics and internal consistency of the imaginary universe, GM as covert author.
  • The range in Narrativism: depending on the degree of coauthorship of the players, the traditional tasks of the GM may vary all the way from one centralized GM to a situation in which all the players are mini-GMs. Interestingly, this is the one mode in which, throughout its range, no role for an "impartial referee" GM is possible.
Note again that none of the GM roles (except "covert author") ascribed to Sim are incompatible with Gamism, and the first two Sim GM roles are perfectly compatible with Narrativism (the GM can channel external source material into a Narrativist game that the players then fuck with as in Marvel Super Heroes).

One last note about Gamism: the shift from tourney play, in which many groups of players competed for time and kill-count as they were "run through" identical adventures, to single-group play led to many design holdovers that often lead to frustrating experiences. 

I mean: if you're chickenshit? 

These are almost all based on the shift from the GM as referee, with the opponents being other groups, to the GM as opponent - and the players, rather sensibly, turning from competing with an invincible opponent (the holdover from the referee status) to competing with one another. 

When is the GM ever an "invincible opponent"?

More on that here.

A final issue about GM and player(s) concerns who is expected to be entertaining whom, in some kind of dichotomous way. Evidently this is a matter of some emotional commitment, prompting the same defensiveness and hurt feelings as the mention of "immersion." Therefore I am personally willing to let it lie. 


With a few exceptions, most role-playing texts completely ignore the actual human logistics of play, although these are hugely important in application. How can one possibly participate in a social, leisure activity without considering all of the following? 
  • The number of participants and the extant relationships among them.
  • The time to be spent playing, in terms of hours per session and the number of sessions per unit of real time (week or month, e.g.), the anticipated number of sessions, and so on.
  • The event-scope of play; that is, when and how often units of satisfaction for the participants occcur (here the GNS perspective is tremendously useful, because it identifies the instances of satisfaction).
Uh...except you never identify what counts as an "instance of play" so we have no idea how to measure this or talk about it in GNS terms and you go out of your way to leave it undefined.
  • The necessary time and effort to be spent in preparation, and by whom.
When AD&D was released in its late 1970s form, its content encouraged a "more is better" approach. The more players, the better. The more time spent, the better. The longer the sessions, the better. The longer the sessions continued, the better. 

This is pretty much still how we roll and prefer to, tbh.

Nearly all role-playing games used AD&D as the starting point for presentation purposes, even those with vastly different systems and philosophies of play, and so this dysfunctional approach remains with us to this day. The term "campaign" is especially misleading, as in wargaming it denotes a specific set of events from point A in time to point B in time, whereas in role-playing it denotes playing indefinitely. 

Philosophical question: indie narrativist games are generally considered less-popular for long term play.

Is this because:

-Being sure you're gonna address a heavy Premise requires certain assurances of reasonably quick resolution?

-The games are embedded in a culture of Indie Game Design where trying and sharing and talking about and making a variety of new games a lot is encouraged so games have high turnover?

-The creators are obsessed with film and its attendant structures rather than books?

-The narrative control generally granted means players get what they are conscious of wanting relatively quickly and burn out most questions on the table?

-They don't do Fat Game-style library content and so there's not all this promise of "all the parts of the game we haven't tried yet" locked inside?

-They're consciously or subconsciously adapted to the "minimum social footprint" model which assumes adults are busy and don't have time to game?

-The games kinda suck even for many of their own fans and don't repay sustained examination? (Hey, the option has to be on the table, even if your answer is "no")

-Some mixture?

 The term "campaign" is especially misleading, as in wargaming it denotes a specific set of events from point A in time to point B in time, whereas in role-playing it denotes playing indefinitely. 
For those forms of role-playing that emphasize "story" in the general sense (see Chapter Two), this approach is completely unsuitable. 

Depends on the story.

What is a "story" to be, in terms of individual sessions and all-sessions? In role-playing culture, one is often assumed either to be playing a "campaign," which means it should go on forever, or a "one-shot" session which aside from the connotation of being superficial is simply too short for many sorts of stories. The functional intermediate of playing the number of sessions sufficient for the purpose of resolving a story is nowhere to be found in the texts of role-playing. 

I just ran an Ngram and the phrase "minicampaign" spikes in 1987 right at the height of the 80s RPG boom and then again when Edwards is writing so fwiw. Anyway: now Indie gamers have minicampaigns. 

This next bit is interesting:

On the smaller scale, successfully preparing for individual sessions is especially integrated with GNS and Premise. Consider the historical tendencies among the modes, in terms of how a series of events emerges through the course of play. (These do not represent either a complete or definitional list, but simply historical examples.) 
  • Linear adventures, in which the GM has provided a series of prepared, in-order encounters.
  • Linear, branched adventures, in which the GM has done the same as above but provides for the players proceeding in more than one direction or sequence.
  • Roads to Rome, in which the GM has prepared a climactic scene and maneuvers or otherwise determines that character activity leads to this scene. (In practice, "winging it" usually becomes this method.)
  • Bang-driven, in which the GM has prepared a series of instigating events but has not anticipated a specific outcome or confrontation. (This is precisely the opposite of Roads to Rome.)
  • Relationship map, in which the GM has prepared a complex back-story whose members, when encountered by the characters, respond according to the characters' actions, but no sequence or outcomes of these encounters have been pre-determined.
  • Intuitive continuity, in which the GM uses the players' interests and actions during initial play to construct the crises and actual content of later play. (This is a form of "winging it" that may or may not become Roads to Rome.)
It's weird Edwards doesn't quite explicitly mention the most common units of DIY RPG play: the standard dungeon or the sandbox. They're kinda like the second one but they are in no way "linear" as the order of encounters chosen affects the whole and there's no guarantee of hitting all the encounters and they're kinda more like a Relationship Map than anything else listed.

It took people like James Mal at Grognardia to make these part of everyday online RPG talk.

Roads to Rome and Linear/Branched play are extremely common in published scenarios with a strong Simulationist approach. Linear play relies on extreme commitment to the Situation, and thus works best for Situation-intensive Simulationist play, as in many Call of Cthulhu scenarios.

It's super weird that people associate horror-investigation with railroads but a motif here is Edwards taking what comes out of the corporate nipple (modules: ie, things where railroads are way easier to write and which are sold to the GMs who don't want to think up their own stuff) way more seriously as design than what groups manage to produce at home.

Someone should fix that.

Demon City: Support violating GNS in every way

AGAIN, Edwards seems blind to the challenge/gamist-possibilities of exploration-oriented adventure structure:

Bang-driven (formalized in Sorcerer and Sword) and Relationship map (formalized in The Sorcerer's Soul) are best suited to Narrativist play. Intuitive Continuity may do well for a variety of modes that emphasize either Character actions being pivotal (Narrativism) or Character Exploration (Simulationism). Again, all of this is speaking historically and not at all in terms of potential. 
Gamist play was not included above, mainly because it has been so badly marginalized during most of role-playing history. To date, most scenario construction oriented in this direction has fallen back on the late-1970s tournament model or the survivalist model found in many video games. The Hogshead family of Gamist RPGs ('Baron Munchausen, Pantheon) has broken this mold and I have no doubt that much more variety remains to be developed. 

Like somehow the idea that trying to find a dragon somewhere in a dungeon and killing it is a challenge has escaped Edwards. Can you tell I'm getting impatient? It's 7 am. Sorry?

Dysfunction: When Role-Playing Doesn't Work Out 
Great Googley-Moogley, let me count the ways. 
The clearest case is straightforward. People do exist who will habitually disrupt a role-playing group for whatever reasons of their own, and the only solution for dealing with such people is to exclude them from play. 
But let's consider people who do want to role-play together, and have even established an interest in the most basic, embryonic form of an initial Premise. What dysfunctions may arise? 
Emotional tensions between people may override the role-playing. It can be romance, or money issues, or who's giving whom a ride home, or any number of similar things. My claim is that a lot of times, people get all upset at one another about game stuff (tactics, rules, etc) when the real problem is this people stuff. Such problems must be dealt with socially and above-board, because no in-game mechanisms can help; in-game issues are symptoms rather than causes. 
I think the most common dysfunction, however, is GNS incompatibility. 

This is one of the first broad, theoretically-testable assertions in a while. And bold: GNS incompatibility kills play more often than social stuff?

At least he has the decency to frame it as "I think".

At the highest-order level, if the people simply have entirely different goals, then actual play continually runs into conflicts about priorities and procedures based on those different goals. I think everyone who's familiar with the theory knows that this is a "no fault, no blame" criterion. I like potatos, you like pink lemonade, have a nice game with your own group. 

I have never had people I get along with socially who like games that I couldn't roll with, but ok.

I think a lot of GNS people do conventions instead of roll with friends: that might be a lot of this. This might have a lot more to do with the limitedness and weirdness of cons.

I don't know, I haven't done a survey. And, unlike GNS, I'm not going to act like I have.


Potatoes has an e.

More difficult incompatibilities also exist within each of G, N, or S. People may share the the large-scale GNS goal, but be accustomed to or desire different standards for Balance of Power, preferred stances, notions of character depth, the distinction between player success and character success, and many related things. In this case, dysfunction arises from (a) trying to resolve the differences during play itself, and (b) anyone being unwilling to compromise about the differences.

Uh--then why are the differences between G and N and S more important than the thousand of other kinds of differences?  Oh wait, there's kind of an answer...

Drift is the usual method for dealing with this level of discord. It is a fine solution for resolving within-mode differences (emphasis mine -z), if everyone is willing to give a little. However, drift has a dark side, or degeneration, the disruption or subversion of the social contract such that what is happening is not more fun, at least not at the group level. Gamism is often pegged as the culprit when players shift from the stated or agreed-upon mode of play and turn upon one another as opponents, but it's better considered degeneration with Gamism merely being the direction. The usual effect of degeneration (any kind, not just this one little Gamist sort), if people continue to play, is to play without committing to anything at all. 

God, what kind of blasted Ligottian hatescape do you come from, dude? Do they have oxygen? Is Immortan Joe there figuring out the Anti-Life Equation? What even? 

The tragedy is how widespread GNS-based degeneration really is. I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced role-players with this profile...

We then close with an evocation of the GNS casualty guy I quoted up at the beginning of all this--with his turtle tactics and collection of glossy supplements.

I think that the most important phrase is "perhaps over a hundred". I haven't met perhaps over a hundred of anything. Stop going to cons, Ron. Stop running games of exploration of deep personal story-horror with whoever shows up to do that with total strangers and putting the spotlight on them to tell you all about their character and maybe you'll meet a few less "GNS" casualties.

It is a thing where so many of the most toxic people in the Indie scene rarely roll except at cons or online. 

2001 may also be a key number here: this is a year where isolated people who didn't hardly roll with friends hadn't yet gone from only being able to get a game at cons or at a game store to only being able to get a game online. So many of these things sound like communication issues--and so many of them seem alien to the context of just friends who all like the same game hanging out.

But I digress into the extra-textual. I have no hard evidence for these guesses.

The main thing is:

GNS assigns disproportionate levels of importance to certain kinds of differences for no particular reason,  paints those differences as objectively more insurmountable than they are (see Fastball Special), fails to recognize complex challenge/gamism, invents a sloppy category called Simulationism into which it shoves disparate games, and, perhaps worst of all, doesn't do anything to model how players can be helped or moved by game design and game performance from one goal to another as functional parts of an enjoyable game. And made people believe all that. 

Anyway, that's the foundational text of the most toxic document in the history of role-playing. Next up: Simulationism: The Right to Dream from 2 years later.

Pray for me.

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