Wednesday, March 21, 2018

“The Gamists have a lot to teach the rest of the hobby about self-esteem.“


Ron Edwards said that in the essay we're about to go through--which is the third in his series about GNS Theory: the tabletop RPG theory that's sat in the hollow space where a better one should be for 18 years.

1st one
-about Ron Edwards essay on GNS in general
2nd one-about his simulationism essay
This one about his gamism essay
4th one-about his narrativism essay

This essay is about what GNS--and too many other people--call "gamism".

There's Good News and Bad News

Bad news first:

Edwards' gamism essay is the least interesting for three reasons:

1. His idea of “gamism"-- inherited from somebody else's previous 3fold model--has a definition most similar to a kind of genuine gaming goal/motivation recognized outside GNS in pop and academic usage: Challenge-based play. Calling it “Gamism” muddles this issue (these are all games) but whatever--it might be said that in some way all kinds of game-interactions involve a challenge (can I think up a story in time?) too so whatever. Point is: Edwards isn't trying to describe a thing he helped invent and solidify (narrativism) or trying to describe a thing that isn't really there (simulationism) but rather pointing to a known and familiar concept: People who wanna do good at a contest.

2. Edwards attempts to define some things here that have, as of 2018, been defined way better in pop video game usage and in tabletop RPGs by, mostly, DIY-RPG and OSR people and also by fans of the kinds of challenge emphasized in 4e D&D. So this essay is largely just a checklist of which of those things Edwards and his influences had and had not figured out by 2003.

3. Beyond that, he only introduces one new concept: the social reward.

Now the good news:

That means this one will be short.

Gamism: Step On Up
by Ron Edwards

The intro provides a lot of social context for internet RPG theory circa 2003: acknowledgements include one more known harasser, one known pretty cool guy, and says input came from "
Gaming Outpost,, and the Forge."

Then it gets to:

Gamism was originally identified in the RFGA Threefold Model of role-playing styles, and I think from its first mention, nearly everyone has said, "Oh, yeah, Gamism," with little debate about its qualities...With respect to the members of the RFGA discussion group, I think they categorized Gamist play mainly in order to sweep it out of the realm of further dialogue, in order to concentrate on issues that I would now primarily identify within Simulationist play. I also think that most, although not all, subsequent discussion has been similar. Yet that exceptional bit, here and there over several forums, indicates far less consensus out there than might have been expected or assumed.  

I'm going for a real look at the category for its own sake. In some ways I'm kind of a case study of the problem, but I hope also part of the solution as well; my own views have changed immensely since I referred to Gamist players as "space aliens" years ago on the Gaming Outpost. 
So that's where these guys are coming from. Now repeating a lot of GNS from the first two essays (though now the three modes of play have "creative agendas" instead of premises) and then on to...

Exploration is composed of five elements, no sweat: Character, Setting, Situation, System, and Color ... but it's not a hydra with five equal heads. These things have creative and specific dependencies among one another, and now's the time to reveal a filthy secret about them.  
It's this: Situation is the center. Situation is the imaginative-thing we experience during play. Character and Setting are components that produce it, System is what Situation does, and Color can hardly be done without all this in place to, well, to color. Situation is the 400-lb gorilla of the five elements, or, if you will, the central node. It's central regardless of how much attention it's receiving relative to the other components.  
Gamist play, more than any other mode, demands that Situation be not only central, but also the primary focus of attention. You want to play Gamist? Then don't piss about with Character and/or Setting without Situation happening, or about to. 

This doesn't seem like so much a filthy little secret as a successful rendering of common sense into jargon. Yes: in order to have challenge-play the game must include contests (which are a kind of situation).

Edwards then introduces the idea of social reinforcement as key (emphasis mine):
The definition at last  
A few paragraphs back, I promised a definition for Gamism and here it is. It operates at two levels: the real, social people and the imaginative, in-game situation.  
1. The players, armed with their understanding of the game and their strategic acumen, have to Step On Up. Step On Up requires strategizing, guts, and performance from the real people in the real world. This is the inherent "meaning" or agenda of Gamist play (analogous to the Dream in Simulationist play).  
Gamist play, socially speaking, demands performance with risk, conducted and perceived by the people at the table. What's actually at risk can vary - for this level, though, it must be a social, real-people thing, usually a minor amount of recognition or esteem. The commitment to, or willingness to accept this risk is the key - it's analogous to committing to the sincerity of The Dream for Simulationist play. This is the whole core of the essay, that such a commitment is fun and perfectly viable for role-playing, just as it's viable for nearly any other sphere of human activity. 
Aside from the weirdly Broadway imagery of "step on up" the strangest idea here is that contestant-style play requires a social risk of recognition or esteem. Anyone who has sat home alone playing, well, nearly-any video game will tell you that social reinforcement's not essential to challenge.

Why does he miss this? Two reasons I can see:

Although he uses a basketball analogy below Edwards, like Robin Laws, consistently forgets about leisure's role as exercise. I say "forgets" because he intermittently refers to it, then leaves it out of theoretical frameworks. Just as parts of some peoples' brains are wired to go "You got the ball in the hoop, you are developing survival skills, have some happy" (or whatever) many peoples' brains are wired to see the process of thinking through (hell, not necessarily even winning) a tactical challenge as fun because part of the brain (often correctly) perceives thinking as helping you get better at thinking.

The second reason is that by walling off (rhetorically if not technically deep down in the theory's heart) the person who enjoys challenge from the other things that happen in games that the same contestant-minded player might also enjoy (socializing, dialogue-swapping, relationships, collaboration, "simulational" effects of employing a given tactic that only work in tabletop, teamwork as a tactical complexity, etc) Edwards is left wondering why this person would want to compete in a group instead of alone at home with a video game. So he devises social reinforcement as a patch to explain it.

This is the biggest problem with GNS: even if it technically allows for connections and hybridizations between various goals (creative agendas) its emphasis on designing around one or the other means its practitioners constantly forget that they're designing/critiquing a complete unique playscape for people with complex personalities, moods, and interactions who take in media as a more or less successful juggling of various priorities--not machines obsessed with Mostly Story or Mostly Punching.

Anyway, then Edwards goes on to uncontroversially point out that in addition to Step On Up, the thing he calls gamism also includes the thing the rest of us call challenge:
2. The in-game characters, armed with their skills, priorities, and so on, have to face a Challenge, which is to say, a specific Situation in the imaginary game-world. Challenge is about the strategizing, guts, and performance of the characters in this imaginary game-world.  
For the characters, it's a risky situation in the game-world; in addition to that all-important risk, it can be as fabulous, elaborate, and thematic as any other sort of role-playing. Challenge is merely plain old Situation - it only gets a new name because of the necessary attention it must receive in Gamist play. Strategizing in and among the Challenge is the material, or arena, for whatever brand of Step On Up is operating.
 He hits the "social reinforcement" theme again:

So, I think more sensibly, it's good to look inside Gamism to see the game there - what is it? It's a recreational, social activity, in which one faces circumstances of risk - but neither life-threatening nor of any other great material consequence. All that's on the line is some esteem, probably fleeting, enough to enjoy risking and no more. Think of a poker game among friends with very minor stakes, or a neighborhood pickup basketball game. Taking away the small change or the score-counting would take away a lot of the fun, because they help to track or prompt the minor esteem ups-and-downs. 

I believe how Ron would describe Ron's error here is he's committing synechdoche--confusing the part (the kind of challenge where you trash talk your friends) with the whole (all challenge in groups).

Ironic from the guy who said “The Gamists have a lot to teach the rest of the hobby about self-esteem.“

He then goes into a typology of types of competition, which is noncontroversial and jargony and then some critiques of intro-to-roleplaying texts and how they talk about "winning". These critiques have the same kinds of problems as the ones in the last essay so not much new to report, for example:

The following is from Legendary Lives, second edition (1993, Marquee Press, authors are Joe Williams and Kathleen Williams): 
The players are impromptu actors within the scenes created by the referee ... The fun comes from interacting with the other characters and with the imaginary world created by the referee. For the duration of the game, try to immerse yourself in the role. [Sim so far - RE]  
The first goal of a player is survival. Yes your character can die during an adventure, and a dead character is completely gone. If your character is smart enough, bright enough, or lucky enough, he or she will survive to reap the benefits of becoming older, wiser, and more powerful. 
[Wowsies, eh? Then text follows which backpeddles rapidly and tries to explain why character death isn't losing. -RE]

Wowsies what, Ron? The barbarian wants to survive and the hat-check boy immersed in the role of being a barbarian also wants his barbarian to survive. These rhetorics don't conflict at all.

He talks about the light tone of gamist texts like Tunnels & Trolls and its ilke:

 In these games, the idea is to keep the Challenge whimsical enough that its occasionally-extreme consequences don't reflect proportionally on the player's emotional stakes of the moment. 

That's certainly one way to do it. Though honestly not one that's necessary.

Then this is just weird:

 The reason most Gamists play wizards over fighters lies not in avoiding conflict but in having choices. The fighter's choices are all front-loaded - which sword (the best one), which armor (the best one), etc - while the wizard's are more immediate: which spell at what time. 
The only other time I've seen an analysis remotely like this is the Something Awful hate-clique saying wizards are always overpowered in D&D because nerds identify with them.

If you're viewing the fighter's choices as all front-loaded, you suck at D&D and are going to die. At least in a genuinely challenge-driven game.

Then, shockingly amidst all this, a real observation:

Valid Gamist conflict and valid Gamist choice lead directly to strategy and tactics, which I like to think of in two ways. The first way is the interplay of resources, combined arms, either-or decisions, effectiveness, point-husbanding, and similar game-mechanics acumen...The second way is all about bending parameters, lateral thinking, and occasional banzai, which is to say, one's ability to shape the actual play, or the importance of its parts, through sheer interaction with it and with other people. 

Here he seems like he's kind of getting at the difference between system-mastery-based player skill (like Magic: the Gathering) and system-agnostic player skill (like in OSR-style challenges as exemplified by Max).

He then, curiously, immediately forgets this distinction:

The Gamble and the Crunch  
Challenge is the Situation faced by the player-characters with a strong implication of risk. It can be further focused into applications, which individually tend toward one of these two things:  
The Gamble occurs when the player's ability to manipulate the odds or clarify unknowns is seriously limited. "Hold your nose and jump!" is its battle-cry. Running a first-level character in all forms of D&D is a Gamble; all of Ninja Burger play is a Gamble. More locally, imagine a crucial charge made by a fighter character toward a dragon - his goal is to distract it from the other character's coordinated attack, and he's the only one whose hit points are sufficient to survive half its flame-blast. Will he make the saving roll? If he doesn't, he dies. Go!  
The Crunch occurs when system-based strategy makes a big difference, either because the Fortune methods involved are predictable (e.g. probabilities on a single-die roll), or because effects are reliably additive or cancelling (e.g. Feats, spells). Gamist-heavy Champions play with powerful characters is very much about the Crunch. The villain's move occurs early in Phase 3; if the speed-guy saves his action from Phase 2 into Phase 3 to pre-empt that action, and if the brick-guy's punch late on Phase 3 can be enhanced first by the psionic-guy's augmenting power if he Pushes the power, then we can double-team the villain before he can kill the hostage. 
So this "gamble" is bravely risking your character and this "crunch" is employing system-specific skill. Where did system-agnostic player skill go?
Oh shit, Perseus, good idea

(Incidentally, Ron does realize system-agnostic player skill exists--we've had that conversation. Ron's problem consistently isn't observing things--it's explaining them.)

He gets into kinds of competition, notably with the GM:

The Challenge adversity sets up all sorts of System demands and risks to the characters, which in turn can provide the motor for the Step On Up adversity to kick into action. That's a powerful phenomenon; arguably, it was the core of D&D play becoming a popular hobby at all in the mid-1970s, based on organized tournaments. 
But all the possible combinations are overwhelming - whose strategizing is opposed to whose? If a GM is the source of adversity, to what extent is he or she a potential competitor as well? What are the differences between GM as referee, as judge, and as player of opponents?

This deserves some attention only because the phrase "adversarial GMing" exists (often identified as a bad thing) and it's confusing to anyone remotely familiar with GMing. If the GM is an adversary, how could they ever lose? Only people who use the phrase "adversarial GMing" can answer that. Here they do in useful detail.

Ron then spends several paragraphs talking about differences between challenge-based systems that exist, then reward systems, then:

In taking this idea to design, my mind kind of balks at the tricky mix of Exploration and Competition, and how to keep them from being at cross-purposes. It is really hard to conceive of Gamist reward mechanisms that are both consistently satisfying across long-term play and meaningful at the Step On Up level. Abstract victory points are arguably quite weak; "you win" means nothing if it, well, doesn't do anything. The more-commonly seen metric of character survival is badly broken, in a variety of applications. If character death is temporary, it's not much of a loss condition, but if it's not, the game is often forced to abandon the loss condition such that people can continue to play. 

Um: you die, you make a new, unleveled PC and lose all that advancement and character development. Back to World 1-1.

Survival means you keep getting to play that PC. Survival with xp eventually results in interesting subgenre drift as PCs level.

Ron then goes into a section called the Joys of Gamism where he declares various things fun.

Paragraph 1 it's character optimization.

Paragraph 2  it's fun "to strategize one or more characters' actions such that their effect and timing delivers a phenomenal wallop, or more generally, has a distinctive and exciting effect on play"

Paragraph 3 it's using system-mastery-based skill.

Paragraph 4 it's the above-mentioned gamble and crunch.

Paragraph 5 it's " see the legitimately avoidable twist be avoided, or fail to be avoided."


He then gets into The Hard Core--which is when the challenge-obsessed player is a jerk in various ways to other people in the game. Basically it's just a list of "don't"s but, again, there are weird hiccups of attention:

To prevent Powergaming, many game designers identify the GM as the ultimate and final rules-interpreter. It's no solution at all, though: (1) there's no way to enforce the enforcement, and (2), even if the group does buy into the "GM is always right" decree, the GM is now empowered to Powergame over everyone else. 

Again: how can the GM "powergame"? What does that even mean, Ron? GMs don't have stats, Ron? I mean they do in Marvel Heroic, Ron? But that game came after this essay, Ron? And it's mostly GNS' fault that game exists, Ron?

He eventually moves on to Breaking The Game, which he defines well:

Theoretically, any and all games are breakable: one can always sweep the pieces off the board. But I'm talking about doing so in the context of identifying internal inconsistencies or vulnerable points in the design, breaking the game by playing it and rendering the Exploration nonsensical. Here's the key giveaway in terms of system design: it is Broken (i.e. Breaking consistently works) if repetitive, unchanging behavior garners benefit.

Though it needs a few caveats: it would have to be repetitive unchanging play of the kind the people attracted to that game would actually engage in. Like I don't think this legitimately means AW is broken, just not a good game for fans of system-mastery-based player-skill solutions.

(Incidentally: I notice that a lot of forum-trash declarations that games are "broken" only make sense with extremely dull challenge-parameter assumptions. Like we're supposed to care about the lives of people who actually use owlbears.)

Ron then lists a lot of games and analyzes them in some way that might be helpful if you were really drunk at a party and needed to sound smart to storygamers "Tunnels & Trolls - Exploration medium, role of Fortune high, emphasis on Gamble, "go" length = level, units of local loss = PC death or diminishment of abilities, degree of metagame is low except for some whimsy " then addresses the super boring question of whether D20 is gamist then moves on to:

How is Gamist design distributed across games throughout the hobby's history?

This section is damaged by Edwards mistaking rules supporting complex multivector challenge, maintenance simulation, and emergent anecdote for “Simulationism” and is just basically more of him inexplicably categorizing games because of it.
Oh right, they have legs so that makes sense

He moves on to point out how once gamism gets into a game with another focus it tends to take over and gives some examples of other kinds of game drifted toward gamism:

Gamist-Drifted Vampire consists of extensive breakpoint exploitation. The metric is Champions-like character effectiveness, specifically who can ignore as well as deliver the most damage. More subtly, it's also coolness, whoever gets to be perceived as the most real-Goth of the bunch. Many Vampire LARPs tend in this direction as well, with the added benefits of singles-bar interactions.

This introduces an idea that potentially annihilate GNS all on its own, though from a different direction than we've been tackling it: if whoever is the coolest can be considered a gamey challenge then why not...whoever makes up the most compelling story? Whoever addresses Theme hard enough?

The point: Straight challenge (Gamist) play in RPGs definitely fits the normal definition of "game" (basketball, chess, Halo, etc).  The gamelike qualities of improvised conversation (Sim) and collaborative storytelling (Narrativism) are a little further from what people usually think of as a "game" the reason people create stories in this format rather than alone on a Mac because part of the appeal is some kind of competitiveness? Or, at least, the idea that you all, together, are collaborating to cleverly improvise plot twists and so defeat (in a short amount of time) plotlessness, meaninglessness, bored staring? That is: is it done in this format because it's basically just a different kind of challenge? Is challenge, after all, actually essential to anything called an RPG? Probably not. But with many Narrative designs the fact that making this creativity a game essentially means making it social and giving it time constraints so an element of implied contest--at least as much as the Vampire players' imagined "cool contest".

Edwards  describes a lot of problems he's seen which I have't which I'm sure exist somewhere, then moves on to possible hybrids, then addresses game balance:

The assumption that Gamist play is uniquely or definitively concerned with "balance" is very, very mistaken. 


  1. Compare "balance" with the notion of parity, or equality of performance or resources. If a game includes enforced parity, is it is balanced? Is it that simple? And if not, then what?
  1. Bear in mind that Fairness and Parity are not synonymous. One or the other might be the real priority regardless of which word is being used. Also, "Fair" generally means, "What I want."
  1. Are we discussing the totality of a character (Effectiveness, Resource, Metagame), or are we discussing Effectiveness only, or Effectiveness + Resource only?
  1. Are we discussing "screen time" for characters at all, which has nothing to do with their abilities/oomph?
  1. Are we discussing anything to do at all with players, or rather, with the people at the table? Can we talk about balance in regard to attention, respect, and input among them? Does it have anything to do with Balance of Power, referring to how "the buck" (where it stops) is distributed among the members of the group?
They can't all be balance at once. 

Fair enough then he gets on to Pitfalls of Gamist design. These are predictably a mix of nuts-and-bolts and myopic:

Defend against Breaking through elegance, not through patch rules. Eliminate, from the ground up, all recursiveness, nonfunctional layers, and mathematical ratios. 
Fortune should be present for a Gamist reason, for instance, to introduce uncertainty at specific points, for specific impacts on the goals of play. It can be very rare to absent, or wildly and constantly present, but whatever it is, it needs to "spike" the play-experience rather than dilute it. Using Fortune to model the statistical vagaries of in-game physical effects should be a secondary concern, if present at all. 

He doesn't get that the more fortune (dice-rolling) models the statistical vagaries of in-game effects (for whatever subgenre the players expect), the easier it is to have non-system-mastery-based challenges. If chickens are about as flammable as you think they are, your tactical estimations will be meaningfully related to outcomes when you devise a burning-chicken-based plan.

Then some more problems Ron's seen or expects will confront the gamist designer and Ron finishes with...

The Hard Question  
Each of these three essays concludes with a challenge to the role-player who prefers the mode under discussion. For the Gamist, the question is, why is role-playing your chosen venue as a social hobby? There are lots and lots of them that unequivocally fit Step On Up with far less potential for encountering conflicting priorities: volleyball, chess, or pool, if you like the Crunch; horse races or Las Vegas if you like the Gamble; hell, even organized amateur sports like competitive martial arts or sport fishing 
Do you play Gamist in role-playing because it doesn't hurt your ego as much as other venues might? Is role-playing safer in some way, in terms of the loss factor of Step On Up? Even more severely, are you sticking to role-playing because many fellow players subscribe to the "no one wins in role-playing" idea? Do you lurk like Grendel among a group of tolerant, perhaps discomfited Simulationists, secure that they are disinclined to Step On Up toward you? In which case, you can win against them or the game all the time, but they will never win against you?  
I accuse no one of affirmative answers to these questions; that's the reader's business. But I do think answering them should be a high priority

Because we never run into "conflicting priorities" and trying to win makes stories Ron.

Or, rather, anecdotes. I wouldn't want to step on your toes.

Next and last: the Narrativism essay: "Story Now".

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Unknown said...

Thanks for writing these. I knew there was some controversy around GNS, mostly assumed it was typical internet nit-picking of the pop definitions, and had no idea the rabbit hole went so deep.

The Sim essay seemed inaccurate but not particularly grating - I've never known anyone to play a tabletop rpg just to "poke the scenery" - a MMO, certainly, but I really don't even know how that would work in a tabletop game.

But this one really grated on me, as someone who greatly enjoys the traditional RPG challenges - puzzles, traps, combat, etc. It seems like he starts from the premise of those things, and then draws every possibly wrong conclusion and assumption he can about games and the motivations of players, to the point that I feel the scales tipping from his being simply wrong to disingenuous.

Your points all rang true here, so I don't have much to add, other than that:

This quote should be on a fucking plaque: "many peoples' brains are wired to see the process of thinking through (hell, not necessarily even winning) a tactical challenge as fun because part of the brain (often correctly) perceives thinking as helping you get better at thinking"

How could he not realize that? I can't see how "challenges are their own fun, not the rush of winning or losing" can possibly escape anyone analyzing the challenge aspect of RPGs.

I don't have a middle finger big enough to answer his "Hard Question" as emphatically as it deserves.

Worlds of WillyDJ said...

"More subtly, it's also coolness, whoever gets to be perceived as the most real-Goth of the bunch. Many Vampire LARPs tend in this direction as well, with the added benefits of singles-bar interactions."

Someone got out-competed by the dude with a Macedon army and the Weapon vs AC table memorised?

Cavegirl said...

One thing I found very odd when I read these essays back in the day is the way it ties social capital to success in game.
Like, you can want to meet a challenge in the game and succeed at it, without wanting to look better than everybody else or put your self esteem at risk. Plenty of people I know like the sense of accomplishment that comes from being skilled, without getting all competitive about it.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Emmy Allen
Yeah, as I said " Anyone who has sat home alone playing, well, nearly-any video game will tell you that social reinforcement's not essential to challenge."

But then, here we are teaching Edwards about self-esteem again.