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

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 the 1st in a series on GNS Theory
2nd one-about the Simulationism essay
3rd one-about the Gamism essay
4th one-about the Narrativism essay


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. Harmful how? 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 making designers' lives worse. 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 also 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.

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 still defend most of the positions taken here. People who don't explicitly believe GNS but enjoy most of the games and practices it was related to echo the sentiments here in various forms. You can straight up read people repeating decade-old GNS rhetoric on twitter any day of the week whose language is directly out of these essays.

I've never asked Ron about a thing here and then had him go "I don't believe that anymore"--though he has revised some of it a bit over time. (Most obviously calling gamism, narrativism and simulationism "creative agendas" rather than "goals" but....that doesn't change the analysis much.)

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 none 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 want to emphasize that having a wrong theory alone doesn't make Ron negligent. Ron as a person is not a subject here, nor are the people who followed and agreed with and echoed him.).

I'm starting with the general GNS essay--the first essay he wrote. I cover the ones specifically about G and then N and then S later, and they don't quite take as long but they each introduce a few new concepts.

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 because they are searching the internet for game ideas.

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 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 it retains this tone of grievance towards designs it deems responsible for a terrible status quo.

Imagine games as like a red velvet cheesecake.

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 (calories, tooth decay) more than the potential upsides (tastiness)--and the enthusiastic fat camp drill sergeant may, as with people whose "favorite drink is water", in fact be the kind of person who is blind to the virtues of cheesecake. Some people need to avoid cheesecake. Many people do not and will live happy lives despite and because of it.

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'd 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 become the stereotypical Story-Gamer: claiming these bad experiences are universal, assuming game stimulus A always brought on consequence B ("Tomb of Horrors destroys lives" etc) and turning 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.

The target audience already had beef.


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 this semester 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 armor 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 but the distinction does pop up again in the next essay with a lil more meat on it.

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 and would not stop talking about how hot the Orcus made her.

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 smart, 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, for example, accurate to divide all desires and decisions into "hungry decisions", "thirsty decisions", "other decisions"--even if not helpful. 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 prioritized.

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?

Ummm...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 prioritizing" 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 "survival 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.

It's also true that games only ever succeed because players want things that are different. You can't play baseball if everyone's the pitcher.

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. And the only evidence in favor of the harshest parental judgment is the fact that they themselves fucked it up when they were young.

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 or checkers, must be seen as usually encompassing an interest in producing--by some means--these stories. Rather than, exclusively, 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 than the one I linked: 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 Clark Ashton Smith 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 know 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 practice for 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 couldn't 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.

And now, a word from our sponsor:

Frostbitten & Mutilated by Zak S, now available in hardcoever & pdf


Pandatheist said...

Fascinating article with a lot to think about. I do want to push back on one particular point.

"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. "

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

I agree that it is a mistake not to ask someone what they like, but there is value in observational data too. There is a fair bit of research into differences between stated vs revealed preferences. The classic example in marketing was: if you asked most American men between 1980 and 2000 how they liked their coffee, they would say strong and black. But upon observation, the majority of men preferred weak coffee with milk and sugar. Stated preferences tend to be aspirational: what they want to like the most, or representative of the person they want to be. Sometimes they match, but its useful for a thorough behavioral analysis to make sure. Looking at things like engagement in addition to a more holistic picture may give more information, or explain certain behaviors that simple questionnaires wouldn't.

Zak Sabbath said...


YEah, I saw that TED Talk too.

But that isn't the case here:

"I agree that it is a mistake not to ask someone what they like" is about half the battle, the other half is


There was no "inference" there.

There is value in collecting multiple POVs in addition ot an interview, there is no value if you're just collecting one person's POV the whole time

Pandatheist said...

I don’t know what TED you’re referencing. Haven’t seen one since I saw TEDx doing a talk on some crystal healing nonsense.

I took his comment to mean you had to observe a person over time actually role playing rather than just ask them what they like to truly be sure about what they’re enjoying in practice. The inference part is concerning, but I just assumed he didn’t have the academic language or practice to follow up. Which is on me. As for data I think thats the point. Gain observational data. The instead of rather than in addition to asking a subject is concerning, but if he comes from an economics or marketing background they tend to prefer revealed preferences.

Zak Sabbath said...


He's talking about "observing" things that are literally impossible to observe (at least not without a lot of subjectivity): motive, what someone thinks is fun, etc

People either buy a given coffee and drink it or not--that's data. They respond in a taste test or don't. etc

Me looking at you deciding why you like the game you're playing--that's not observation--that's observing, then interpreting the observation and then assuming your interpretation is right

Pandatheist said...

You’re right in that, minus verification through questioning, assumptions about motivations are useless(hence my comment about not doing both being problematic). That being said, a few things to consider. Hes not saying to observe to understand why people like a game, but when. “Time and inference”. What patterns show up over extended period. Are they having fun during heavy trap dungeons? Lots of social interaction? There are stand ins that could be considered, such as participation, attention/engagement vs looking at ones phone, side commentary etc which could be taken in tandem with post session interviews to correlate questionnaire data. If every time one player starts describing the way their character looks or talks other players start checking facebook you could make a strong argument they aren’t having fun. Theyre bored. And you could do post session interviews to see what they were thinking and why. Hes also making the prime fallacy of creating a theory before observation, rather than letting robust observation inform theory. But observational data IS data. Its the basis of ethnography and large sections of qualitative analysis. Participant observation through field research is a huge part of modern sociology. You just need a robust methodology, a nonexistence of pre-existing assumptions, and to be careful about what terms youre throwing around(which edwards isn’t) so you don’t taint the whole thing. That being said if you want to get real fancy you could do some sort of content analysis and match linguistic patterns to other situations you know for sure theyre having fun and see if it matches and when.

If you want any links or backup articles on participant observation, ethnographic field studies, or qualitative research methods, tell me. I’m not some rando pop science scrub yelling to the high heavens about this week in scientific american. I just think there is value to seeing how people act at a table versus what they tell you happens at a table.

Zak Sabbath said...

Do NOT treat me or the readers of this blog like children and never ever say basic 101 shit here ever again.

Everyone knows that you can observe phenomena, argue that they represent (say) boredom (or correlate with boredom) and log when they occur and do they math.

Edwards also lays out NONE of that methodology and produces no evidence of havibg done it.n
He didn't "observe" the things he calls "observations"--he observed unknown, unlogged phenomena and then presents his analysis ("these are the motives at work")

Tommi said...

One part of the definition of creative agenda in this article strikes me as strange; maybe it is the article showing its age, or maybe I have formed a different understanding of the theory?

The strange part is that the creative agendae are defined in terms of decisions and preferences of individuals, not in terms of the social recognition the groups members give to each other, though one can see hints of the social definition here and there. This makes the article's take on GNS very close to a slight a variant of the threefold, rather than a completely different theory, and indeed makes the mutual exclusiveness of the agendae quite unlikely.

Also, nowadays instance of play is defined, for example, on the Big model wiki.

Regardless, classifying Robin Laws' player types according to GNS categories is not a very good idea. Like a specialist might also prefer narrativism (and the specialty they prefer happens to be one with strong themes attached; like a paladin or a hired killer etc.), and the butt-kicker might not want any challenge in the butt-kicking (maybe they enjoy Wushu or FATE or modern D&D with balanced encounters etc. and just want a wish fulfillment power fantasy where they can have succeeding). And so on.

Zak Sabbath said...


1. Yes, Edwards has moved on a bit since these, that's going to be part of the later essays

2. Although linking to articles _you haven't even read_ and assuming they're good is a great way to demonstrate the continuing influence of the Forge's toxicity and how it created terrible discussions, never do that. Also with videos you haven't seen

3. You're wrong about Laws for the following reason:

Both Edwards and Laws are discussing goals of players_ --any goal Laws observes _has to be somewhere in GNS in order for GNS as it appears n the article to be accurate_ and any incompatibility Laws notices _has to be exceeded by GNS incompatibility to be true. I say as much in the article more than once. I DO hope you read this before commenting.

If you haven't please do that again, I don't have time to correct "didn't read" mistakes.

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

Are most of the weird indie games out there even any fun?

I found many of the games on the Forge too strange for me to run bu I can't say I wouldn't try them if someone was doing a demo.

I am not against trying something non-traditional.

One of the biggest mysteries to me is why did the Forge close? IT was still for the most part a fully operational community as far as I could tell then SUDDENLY poof it was gone.

On the question of " The Imposbility of the Fastball Special in the Mind of the GNS" is just wrong! It's very possibly in a freeform RPG like Graphic Novel Freeform Supers RPG.

We need to get rid of much of the rules and just have descriptions, some dice, and a decision form a Game Master.

Tommi said...

I have not read Boss' entire article carefully. I have skimmed through it entirely and read carefully the parts that I happened to be interested in when I was reading it (including the part about GNS). Regardless of how well I have read it, it answers a question you asked.

I do believe that I have sufficient grounds on which to link the article, and I do wish you would ask for clarification if you think otherwise. This would be acting in good faith.

2. The videos do have an introductory text. I have read that and listened to the first one. They do cover substantially same ground as earlier theorizing by Edwards. I did not make any claims about what they precisely say, merely linked them as relevant content, which they certainly are. Linking related content is a good practice, because it makes it easier to follow the developments of the ideas, and also makes it easier to find what one is looking for after having found something related.

You also removed my clarification of what is Ron's stance on the old essays.

3. Please note that I am not writing that your argument, there, is bad. I am writing that classifying the Robin's player goals in terms of GNS is a bad idea (because for many goals there is no way to do that with any reasonable accuracy). This is a remark, not a counterargument. Please do not attribute goals to my writing without asking.

Zak Sabbath said...

1. "Sufficient grounds" would only be, at a MINIMUM: you read it.

2. Linking content (especially content that might suck) on grounds of "it's related" is not good. It's bad to link to bad idead without good reason.

3. "classifying the Robin's player goals in terms of GNS is a bad idea"

I need you to expand on this because it doesn't seem to address what I said above:

Laws identifies (correctly) _some goals for gamers

In order for GNS to be true, it must also identify the same goal and account for them.

I don't understand what you're objecting to.

Tommi said...

1 and 2: I'll go with your standards on your blog.

3: As mentioned, I am not objecting to your arguments. (I'll do that at some point, but it takes some time to do it with any care.) Rather, I am remarking that saying, for example, that butt-kickers want to play with a gamist agenda is not a good idea, because it might not be true.

Gamist who wants to kick butt: Likes the tactical challenges of combat and getting recognition of their peers for their performance therein, or the optimization challenge of building a powerful character, the success of which is demonstrated in combat, where their peers will also comment on the efficiency of their build.

Not a gamist who wants to kick butt: They do not particularly enjoy the social recognition of clever tactical choices, but they do enjoy the feeling of power they get when hordes of enemies are defeated by their character, or they enjoy visualizing combat scenes, etc.

This is the extent of my remark: Assigning GNS categories to player types does not work very well. This is not intended as a move in any kind of verbal combat, though of course it might support some argument or another one somewhere.

I do hope remarks of this type are allowed content on your blog; or maybe you only want to get counterarguments or praise?

Zak Sabbath said...


3. I still don't know what the point of the remark _is_


GNS categories are flawed, therefore doing ANYTHING with them is a mistake.

The essay puts them with Laws' categories (maybe flawed, too) simply to demonstrate--at minimum--that the categories don't just _not match_ but that GNS _cannot account_ for even Laws' short list of desires.

Of course it's not true, almost _nothing_ n GNS is true--that's a given.

I am not sure what you think you're clarifying here

FM Geist said...

“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.”

^^^^ this

But also: I think what is interesting is that “theory” (I’m gonna be a pedantic bitch) requires a bunch of things that GNS simply doesn’t do:
• there is no null hypothesis: I can’t dispute a series of observations that seem to have been culled from a non representative group of people that I would rather not play *any* game with.

BUT what seems weirdest to me is the failure to bother to see “hey are there any theories I can hack so that there is a bare minimum definition of words and I don’t have to develop this whole cloth?”

Because: yes import of conceptual frameworks can obviously be stupid (the ludic vs Narrativist distinction in video game discussions except they’re not mutually exclusive concepts) but it seems like the repeatedly noted deficiencies: these players sampled seem awful, this seems to be a series of taxa interpreted without a strong rationale or descriptive account for saying that Runescape and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay represent totally different categories of games.

Could be corrected by accepting a really basic premise of literary theory: the reader (well players & GM in this case) exists and that is actually meaningful?

FM Geist said...

As example: Keep at the Borderlands is a text that contains a bunch of stuff. This space exists and the GM & players at the table radically alter how it goes—because players get weird ideas in their heads and decide to try to build a waterworks to flood the cave(s) or decide to massacre the keep and side with the evil cleric for reasons or decide they want to have Kobolds become the dominant group in the sandbox or just butcher everything non human because all of this is workable with rules as written and is part of the contract of playing an RPG sandbox (I realize that this isn’t exactly a revelation to be clear). This is before* getting into the idea that you could reskin it & alter portions of the map, the monster selection, what the keep is like or anything else because why not?

I mean: players can literally say nope and walk away because their agency is part of the game.

Example of why you let players walk away: the review of Death Frost Doom where the DM railroaded his players after they determined they didn’t want to go up the mountain and listened to Zeke (I will have to go find a link later; also why would anyone NOT wanna go up that mountain? But I digress); the players clearly wanted a story where Hell does not vomit forth its filth and the DM wanted to write a review. Which is why you want to have people who are exciting at your table probably? Because boring people make boring PCs. And boring PCs mean boring GMing means why the fuck bother.

Which is the thing that this whole theory seems to miss on really badly: I can hack any rule that doesn’t suit me so long as my players agree that the change is ok & the rules can probably fit anything we want to do relatively well.

FM Geist said...

Like... the reason Rifts is perplexing (other than Kevin’s thing for ethnically themed robots) is probably that there is a lack of class balance (in addition to power creep over the world books) but technically if I eschew giving a fuck about balance I can:
• run a comedy of manners game with the players as Splurgoth on Atlantis jockeying for social position (this is potentially not something players want to do because of the whole slavery thing)
• have the PCs sell snake oil by using a bunch of the thematic slightly different vagrant classes and owe money to (Vampires? Mexico is where the vampires are right? I cannot remember all the lore to Rifts).
• have players aggressively metagame (for combat) by picking classes that deal a lot of damage & go kill whatever the biggest thing nearby is
• try to reform the (weird human extremist Naziesque government in Chicago) through municipal elections

It seems like GNS is an explicit claim that the 3rd option is the rationale for the game-as-written (which would raise the question of why Siembada cannot help himself and will always lavish stuff all over the goddamn map)* & seems contradicted by the advice in the beginning of the core book that the point to playing Rifts is to tell a good story & strongly backs playing characters with suboptimal stats because they facilitate storytelling (which sounds suspiciously like focusing on story elements...). Like rules may facilitate play but there is nothing in KULT: Beyond the Veil that says I can’t have my character goal to be taking the fashion world by storm rather than dealing with gnostic horror.

* which doesn’t mean everything on the map is good but I can’t say Rifts doesn’t have a lot of ideas; although the ratio of good to bad may be a product of person taste

FM Geist said...

Which finally gets to the problem that GNS is supposed to make it “easier” (or something) to talk about *big issues* because they’re functionally one shots oriented towards talking about a thing OR are functionally a reskinning of competitive or collaborative storytelling stuff just with some prompts. But 1) this seems to imply that the tacit assumption is players are stupid, 2) it basically requires me (to play) to be like “who wants to think about depressing shit” or alt. “Who wants to play a game so rules lite that it makes no difference if we ignore them entirely since the whole purpose to this is to do creative writing without typing”

Which seems to translate into the idea that there is a singular “correct” interpretation of a game or module. Which allows for the sort of hot takes about games that say more about the author than the product.

Anyway: I really enjoyed reading this and then decided to kind of maybe make a point maybe not I don’t even know anymore

Unknown said...

Interesting essay. The point that was most salient to me, was about GNS being useful. It was and is, to me. I enjoy games where there is a shared, Narrativist agenda. That said, there are still pragmatic concerns I have. I think there needs to be at least four agendas for it to work as a diagnostic tool. It’s insistence on separating the ‘why’ of play from the ‘how’ of play is probably it’s worst feature. There are good reasons for doing so that severely reduce it’s functionality, I don’t think it was a good decision.

On the toxicity of GNS. I agree but I think that’s totally down to its epistemic status being rather confused. If we take theory as being used in the same sense as say ‘dramatic theory’, then it’s ludicrous to ask for null hypothesis or testable predictions. On the other hand, GNS does make claims about people being unable to evaluate their own fun. At which point it is making claims it should be able to back up in a more robust way. I think this element is the cause for all the toxicity produced by GNS.

As to new/replacement theories. Well GNS serves the people who want shared agenda play fairly well. Vincent Bakers theory has a lot of applicability to design in general. I don’t think any one theory can serve all groups though. In much the same way that Western Music theory is great for people who want more stuff like Beethoven but not so great for people who only listen to Japanese noise bands.

Which brings me around to the toxicity point again. GNS claims to be more universal than it actually is. So instead of GNS advocates just saying ‘you do you’, they tend to pathologize other play styles. I think that’s kind of fucked up and toxic.

Zak Sabbath said...

@alex white

" If we take theory as being used in the same sense as say ‘dramatic theory’, then it’s ludicrous to ask for null hypothesis or testable predictions. "

Of course it isn't.

People can test theories abotu art.

"GNS serves the people who want shared agenda play fairly well. "

Yes and Zyklon B served the Nazis fairly well: THEY were happy wth it. The problem was its weaponization against other people.

This is built into a basic part of the theory: It's clam to _actually describe games_ other than NArrativist ones.

" In much the same way that Western Music theory is great for people who want more stuff like Beethoven but not so great for people who only listen to Japanese noise bands."

No. Any intelligent academic musician will tell you that a good contemporary theory must encompass both AND
the minute a musical Ralph Mazza shows up telling you that Merzbow sucks because western classical theory the theory has failed and is toxic.

Unknown said...

‘No. Any intelligent academic musician will tell you that a good contemporary theory must encompass both AND the minute a musical Ralph Mazza shows up telling you that Merzbow sucks because western classical theory the theory has failed and is toxic.’

If I’m interested in making music like Beethoven then western musical theory serves me well in a pragmatic sense. I assume you agree, correct me if I’m wrong.

If I’m interested in making music like Merzbow, then not so much. I assume you agree, correct me if I’m wrong.

If I’m interested in a theory about the value of music in general, then any theory that denigrates one at the expense of the other can fuck itself. We both agree on this.

GNS is like western musical theory in a pragmatic sense. It serves people who have certain creative agendas. In that respect it’s fairly good but not without flaws.

GNS is like a universal theory of the value of art that does denigrate some arts at the expense of some others. In that regard it can go fuck itself.

Yet, a theory like Western musical theory, (or GNS) must make value claims. It sounds better to follow this chord with this chord. It plays better if we have a shared agenda. The problem, to me, is claiming that these values are universal. Which, as I already stated, GNS does to its detriment.

So that’s me restating and clarifying my position. It’s pertinent because:

‘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”. ‘

I don’t think that’s possible in the same sense I don’t think a theory that unifies Beethoven and Merzbow (in the pragmatic sense) is possible. Even if it could be done, which I doubt, if you like Beethoven you’re still probably just going to use classical musical theory because it more directly addresses your needs.

‘Yes and Zyklon B served the Nazis fairly well: THEY were happy wth it. The problem was its weaponization against other people.’

I previously wrote:

‘GNS claims to be more universal than it actually is. So instead of GNS advocates just saying ‘you do you’, they tend to pathologize other play styles. I think that’s kind of fucked up and toxic.’

We aren’t disagreeing. I think you’ve suffered a lot of stupid morally bankrupt behaviour from people associated with GNS.

My response when it comes up, is like the one I gave above. I think GNS is useful. I don’t think it’s universally valid. Ron Edwards often makes claims that it’s universally valid. He’s wrong.

Zak Sabbath said...

" It sounds better to follow this chord with this chord"

No, this is not how theory has to work in art.

You don't go "this sounds better" you:

- point to an audience

- poll that audience or otherwise measure their response with a tool you can argue reflects their contented response

-do the math

-claim that work is good for that audience if the test backs it up

..."art" is not an excuse for vague claims or universal claims.

Nothing that GNS did to get to "here's how you make a narrativist game" had to be done that way to be effective.

FM Geist said...

Viz my claim with a null hypothesis:
Actually I can do one of two things at a table: I can assume a problem is with a game because it doesn’t work the way I or my players want it to, or assume the problem is with the players and/or the GM.

& we can test this: OD&D and variant rules seem to cover a lot of possibilities and the tastes of a lot of players (unless you want to claim that Carcosa is the same as Yoon Suin is the same as Perdition; which I think is demonstrably false).

So: why a theory that tasks the system with the faults with the players and/or the DM?
• no one wants to admit the questions are rarely about system but about the people playing the game

There is nothing in the rules to D&D that says it can’t be a game of social intrigue, wilderness exploration, or courtly romance. People *tend* to use it a particular way (and WotC likes walking in a straight line with scaling combat difficulty). But: that isn’t really about the rules it’s about how people play the game?

Like an iPhone is mostly to facilitate calling people & running a bunch of apps; it also was used to film Tangerine and is equally usable to take terrible photographs the question is about the user.

So: problems with the user are not problems with the product (bludgeoning someone with a cellphone is probably stupid but you can do it and it isn’t the ostensible design goal).

Which begs the question: why claim the problem is in the rules rather than with people? Because I bet we could do some psych tests and find some statistically significant differences in how people approach problems or interact socially and the sort of game design they are drawn to.

Also like most of the stuff allegedly fixed by Narrativist games can be fixed by the advice in the first LotFP book for DMs in the grindhouse box: have a functioning set of social skills, maybe have some food or booze on hand, don’t antagonize people and read a fucking room viz comfort with content.

Which doesn’t require making a bunch of microapplocation games that are ostensibly just a creative writing prompt and talking. Which are equally player dependent to be any fucking fun?

So this doesn’t seem to solve the initial problem it misdiagnosed?

Unknown said...

Art theories don’t have to work like that but they tend to. Hollywood has no good scientifically backed theories on why movies work. It’s really fucking hard to operationalize any given element and the operationalization itself requires at least a working theory. Even then you have all the confounding variables and so on. If your claim is that RPG theory should be evidence based in such a way, when a multibillion dollar industry isn’t. Then good luck, I admire your commitment.

FM Geist said...

The movie industry 1) relentlessly focus tests (hence Director/studio conflicts), 2) differentiates between “movies made to make money” and “movies made for ostensible artistic purpose (or enough verisimilitude to be ‘oscar bait’), 3) outside of very experimental film (like Debord’s “Howls for De Sade”) most films have several identifiable elements (hence why film studies exists) and there is a fairy rich lexicon for describing films from a technical, artistic & commercial standpoint.

So: yes, when a movie bombs there generally is a strong consensus it will (and studios can be wrong; cf. Annihilation doing surprisingly well on a short run despite it being ratfucked by its own studio). Some films exceed expectations because Hollywood hasn’t served a demographic (Black Panther making the GDP aid a small county on the strength of black audiences along with a mass appeal). Some films are simply not understood in their time and some are surprising at capturing the zeitgeist (ex Get Out or The Blair Witch Project). So yeah there is not a perfect science (but there is a framework for addressing a balance of goals) which are also more static in film than RPGs (I don’t get to rewrite the end of The Seventh Seal by rolling a successful save vs death; for a simplification).

Architecture maybe has a more applicable language to some sorts of RPGs (since there is the obsession with how people interact with buildings which is a personal obsession of mine).

BUT: yes a billion dollar industry spends a lot of money on figuring out what’s good, testing directors by giving them lower budgets for films that aren’t a big risk. And more than anything: trying to guess what an “average” person would think of their product.

Unknown said...

FM geist wrote 'Which begs the question: why claim the problem is in the rules rather than with people?'

GNS does state the issue is with people. The main dysfunction in GNS theory is incompatible agendas. It’s often stated in GNS that you can’t fix a group by fixing the rules. You can of course, in GNS, design games that facilitate certain agendas. You can also have a mismatch between the shared group agenda and the rules.

The whole thing about ‘if you want to play courtly intrigue then play a micro-game that does that’, doesn’t actually have much relevance to GNS. Except in so much that a lot of GNS advocates spew such nonsense.

FM Geist said...

Also we can operationalize what you mean by a good movie: do you mean adherence to a set of design goals (say something like Dogme 99), from the standpoint of technical mastery or what is actually shot or mass appeal (Saló is good from a few standpoints but it certainly lacks mass appeal; The Passion of the Christ was shot well but is morally odious garbage, a lot of people like movies critics hate partially because critics often are trained to look for an artistic merit that audiences may not want: I can appreciate the complexity of Rashomon but I may have more fun watching Face/Off as much as it is an aggressively stupid film). Because balancing these things is something a variety of people are literally employed to do?

FM Geist said...

Ok but a simpler solution is: don’t play games with people who are fucking unbearable? Like... that seems to solve the problem allegedly addressed by this theory? And if the solution is proposing a new design theory to fix how people play games together the implicit claim is there is a fault with the rules?

§ perhaps the reason some people are awful to play games with is they are awful people and no design solution will fix them which is the actual problem?

Unknown said...

@ Fm Geist

Yeah but focus testing and so on doesn’t give us a how. None of the theory is scientifically tested. No one can say for sure what an act break is or if it’s useful. How a character arc should develop or resolve. It’s all taste and pragmatic theory, none of which is undisputed if you’re actually making a film. If I want to write a script, there is no evidence based research on whether to use Harmon style story circles or McKee style oscillating plots. If I want to write a script then I have to pick the theory most useful/pragmatic to me.

Unknown said...

@ Fm Geist

Ok but a simpler solution is: don’t play games with people who are fucking unbearable? Like... that seems to solve the problem allegedly addressed by this theory?

That is part of the theory. In its current form the theory says you need to have basic social cohesion to get any type of fun. The rest of it is built on maximizing that fun. That said, the theory does state that unfocussed design can be an issue. Like your friend Max might just be an asshole in which case you shouldn’t play with him. If, on the other hand, Max and you tend to clash about what happens in game, then the theory can diagnose (some of) that. Some of it can’t. Like you clash over something morally objectionable in game, GNS doesn’t have a lot to say.

FM Geist said...

Yes but here is what those have in common:
• they are descriptively valid (they describe and actually existing thing & the taxonomy holds up to scrutiny)
• they work: plots they do not work are abandoned as are styles and conventions. Watch the French Connection and realize “wow when this film came out overt racial profiling and brutality were considered (gritty) heroic traits” cause that got abandoned when it didn’t work because audiences recoiled (hence focus testing even if people as a whole are slow to develop any sense of decency)
• tropes exist because they *work*, so do arcs & plots and methods of illustrating character development (something that exists because they stick with people). Things evolve but there are structures you can track over time.

GNS: seems to artificially label distinctions that do not hold up to scrutiny (something that say genre does), and hasn’t illustrated utility (the game design solutions it proposed doesn’t seem to *actually make better games*)

FM Geist said...

@ Alex

Why would I have a friend I find intolerable?
How do (ostensible) adults not know how to compromise?
Are GNS theorists intentionally seeking out people who have no social skills nor interest in accommodating others to make vast generalizations about games?

Because ultimately: I feel like I can sit at a table with most people and play a retroclone. I may think some people are stupid (and they may die a lot and learn how to “git gud” via dying), or find someone vaguely irritating because I’m a neurotic. Those are things where you pitch in and try to keep someone alive or have a word over a cigarette or do basic things most human beings can manage by the time they are in middle school? Unless another player is basically a mouthbreathing cretin who would rather be playing FATAL it isn’t hard to manage basic social convention? Which includes compromising “exactly how I want to approach this” with “how the consensus at the table leans” (I may want to solve something with social manipulation but the party chooses brute force, as a person at the table I do my best to make that plan work. Rather than backstab another PC or otherwise sabotage them?).

If a DM is terrible (wants to read pages of prose at me, inflicts quantum ogres endlessly, has Gary/Mary Sue NPCs that I hate and cannot murder as a feedback system to say “knock this shit off” or has songs and wants to go all Tom Bombadil): I have made a horrible mistake and will find an excuse to leave? Such as “oh hey I have to go grab a cigarette, nah keep playing this is great, I’ll be right back”.

Most people learn from being in a social context and this theory seems to eschew that for dicey claims?

Unknown said...

@ Fm Geist

GNS: seems to artificially label distinctions that do not hold up to scrutiny (something that say genre does), and hasn’t illustrated utility (the game design solutions it proposed doesn’t seem to *actually make better games*)

I mean for who? I find the games made with GNS are better, well some of them. I prefer playing with people who have a Narrativist agenda. It’s functional enough for me.

I also write scripts. My flat mate hates them. We joke about it. I tend to use a mix of Egri and John Yorke for the theory. The stuff Egri and Yorke propose just doesn’t produce universally loved stories. Nothing does. People are too different.

Now Egri, Yorke and Ron Edwards all claim they have a universal answer. They’re all wrong.

I also disagree that there is any agreement about something like genre. There are loads of different taxonomies, situated within different theories, about what constitutes a genre, how many there are and so on.

Unknown said...

@ Fm Geist

‘How do (ostensible) adults not know how to compromise? ‘

Fuck I just wrote a post that addressed this and then lost it. Ok a flaw in the theory, a rather major one, is that it tends to assume that people with conflicting agendas will act like passive-aggressive ass holes or just get bored and look at their phone. It’s wrong. You can have functional agenderless play. In fact I often do it, and it happens all over all, the time, it’s common.

What the theory is actually interested in though, is shared agenda play, which it states is universally better. I disagree with the universal bit.

Also you can have functional play, where you’re not passive-aggressive, looking at your phone or whatever. Yet still be unsatisfied, you want something more. I found GNS very good at answering what that ‘something more’ was. I don’t think it’s answer is universal despite its claims.

FM Geist said...

1) microgenre vs macrogenre is a distinction (ex. Extreme Horror, Folk Horror, Splatterpunk v Horror as generic) but there are some agreed upon bare minimums (horror provokes horror or it fails and why it fails is either the fear isn’t communicated or yr numbed to the thing that is supposed to horrify or there is a problem in execution) but there is an agreed upon set of conventions.
1.1) alternately, yes I lived with someone into electronic music; there are thousands of subdivisions and tons of arguments and it all sounds like I should be rolling face; she didn’t understand the difference between grindcore and ambient black metal. Neither of us were familiar with the genre enough to have taste viz it.
1.3) there is a false concept that player goals and rules are at odds unless: the players are stupid or the rules are bad. I am more or less familiar or comfortable with rules: I use (hacked) LotFP rules rather than Labyrinth Lord rules because they work for me and can be learned quickly: you thrive or die; and thus learn to separate good ideas from bad. Nothing about Grease indicates it should be the spell I’ve killed then most things with: but hey that’s creative application?
1.4) some rules are more efficient for different sorts of games and simpler rules are easier to pick up and the back end of RPGs is basically a question or math and statistical probability. That is worked into skilled play and making good decisions & that is a narrative.

2) let’s say I’m playing Frostbitten & Mutilated with a friend. (I guess the book itself is DMing for simplicity’s sake and does a good enough job running it). If my friend and I have the same goals the issue is skill to accomplish our goal (kill the Necrobutcher because that gives us access to snakes which means knowledge which means power of sorts). How we attempt to do that (direct combat, creative application of objects, arson, inventing a claymore mine) is skill dependent for success with some things hinging on getting rolls in our favor. If my friends goal is to start an ecofeminist barbarian commune and mine is to destroy the concept of literacy: let’s get some owls and start talking a LOT about industry and literary concepts: this is a question of working two plans together and skill. If I want to go hunt owls to extinction and my friend doesn’t we have to figure things out like people and assuming we are friends and playing the game right: we have some bare minimum (in character) motivations and out of character capacity to negotiate. None of this seems like a problem for the game? If we replace my friend with Vox Day & he wants to do Vox Day shit the answer has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with me punching him in his stupid face and no system will fix that?

3) I don’t know what a Narrativist agenda is? Everything is a story? I decide to invent gunpowder? Cool time to get a sulphur mine going, find a reliable source of nitrogen (where are bats) and go deforest somewhere to make a fuckton or charcoal so this works: that is a story? If I want to process my feelings about being trans: 1) I would rather see my therapist about that 2) if it isn’t organic to play it’s just weird sermonizing of some sort for ostensibly progressive purpose 3) I don’t know if that’s a Narrativist goal anyway?
3.1) I roll 3d6x6 and generate stats: I now have some facts about myself; I don’t die immediately my character probably develops some sort of personality based on the fact that I have one & there is a setting I’m coming into contact with & I develop goals from there which seems more organic than collaborative storytelling but that’s me?

FM Geist said...

Q: what is agenderless play?
Q: I simply don’t see the distinctions proposed as meaningful? I mostly want to play because I want to have fun which involves: a degree of agency in the game, a setting that doesn’t make me hate the GM (it doesn’t have to be great, as long as it isn’t twee and doesn’t involve singing), with perceivable consequences to my actions (so I can make informed decisions although I can also be misinformed: if gold rather than cold iron hurts Fae: cool you tricked me and now I’m adapting to the situation assuming I’m not a corpse), and challenge (if I cannot die, every enemy is easily overcome & no puzzle takes time to solve I am not thinking and am bored): which are elements of stories last I checked?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Alex White

“Art theories don’t have to work like that but they tend to. Hollywood has no good scientifically backed theories on why movies work.”

To the degree that's true THATS WHY THEy DON'T SAY THEY HAVE A THEORY .

and if some random producer showed me a theory and it wasn't accurate I'd _also_ tell them they were wrong

"“. If your claim is that RPG theory should be evidence based in such a way, when a multibillion dollar industry isn’t. “"

No, my claim is:

A THING CALLED A THEORY should be evidence-based especially if it gets used for many years.

Hollywood also doesn't have a magic unicorn that cures cancer--but it _doesn't claim to_ .

Spreading misinformation is evil.

Unknown said...

@ Zac
I think we our ontological commitments/beliefs are too different to have a productive conversation. (at least in the form of comments in a blog). So I’ll bow out now.

Zak Sabbath said...

@alex White

ONLY people with different beliefs can have a productive conversation.

You've just demonstrated exactly the problem with postForge culture: as soon as you're getting close to identifying the assumptions (one wrong, one right or both wrong) that underlie a belief system you bow out.

So nobody learns anything.

This _always_ happens with Forgies: as soon as disagreement they can't counter appears, they flee.

And rather than going "Oh, I must be wrong because I can't even _articulate_ why I believed that untrue thing" they just keep thinking the wrong thing.

This isn't the Forge. We _don't do_ half-conversations here, Alex.

If you're asked a question (or I am) it needs to be answered. If an issue is raised, it needs to be discussed until one or the other or both parties are proven wrong or it's literally undeterminable.


You need to address the problem you introduced: you claimed that Hollywood not having an accurate theory was relevant, I explained why it was not (unlike GNS, it didn't make that claim) .

You need to either argue for your pov or concede.

Otherwise you're breaking the rules and banned.

Unknown said...


Right but at this point we're literally going to have to start from basic axioms and work our way up. I'm not doing that in blog posts. If we ever get the chance to talk, you can ask me and I’m sure it will lead to a several hour long conversation where we both feel like we’re banging our heads against the wall.

In some ways it’s a chickenshit answer but to continue in text would require me writing thousands of words. I’m just not doing it. I’ll take the ban.

Zak Sabbath said...

@alex white

"Right but at this point we're literally going to have to start from basic axioms and work our way up. I"


And that is how you have a conversation about a thing.

It's insane that you thought there was any other way to do it or started a conversation not willing to do that.

Honestly, though this pattern has repeated SO many times with EVERY person who wants to defend GNS since 2009 that it's not unreasonable to conclude that either:

_There literally is no justification for any of their beliefs and they are just having (the same) hard time realizing it, OR

_GNS simply appeals to hippies who are so conflict-averse the promise that differences and problems can be addressed by some magical system without actually having a conversation with other humans where they say words that makes sense to the other person overwhelms all rational thought

If you can't defend your ideas then _stop saying them in public on the internet and making everyone who reads them's life worse_

Unknown said...


No you're wrong. Most conversations don't drill down to the axiomatic level. That's a blatant falsehood. When they do, you tend to have to either have the discussions face to face (or at least over skype or on the phone or something). Or alternately write long academic treatises.

You said the use of the word theory was wrong. Like words do actually have a singular thing they refer to and aren't context dependent. In addition to this, by what fucking scientific ontology? In philosophy of science there are different views on what the exact ontological status of a theory is.

There's so much presumption in what you state that we'd have to begin with basic epistemology, see where we agree, and work up from there. And you want me to do that exchanging messages on a blog?

Zak Sabbath said...

@alex white

You misinterpreted me, I was not claiming most conversations " drill down to the axiomatic level"

I said, in response to this:

""Right but at this point we're literally going to have to start from basic axioms and work our way up. I"


And that is how you have a conversation about a thing.

That is:

You do whatever thing (situationally) is required by "have to"

(Assuming "have to" is accurate).

If you have to state axioms, you state axioms.

If you have to catch a fish to defend the value of your statement you catch a fish

If you have to poll 30 people, you poll them

Thats how you have a real conversation:

Defend your assertion or concede.

Luckily you only have to defend a simple assertion

"The fact that "Hollywood" doesn't have a formal theory of movies working and doesn't claim to somehow makes it ok for GNS fans to claim to have a formal theory and it's ok that it isn't accurate"

So you must concede or defend it or you wasted everyone's tme coming here and once again provided an example of a GNS person who cannot defend their ideas.

Zak Sabbath said...

And yes, you must

Otherwise why ever talk here?

Unknown said...

Ok fine. I’m starting though.

Do you think words can only refer to one thing?
If you do, then when in a dictionary, words have multiple meanings, what do you make of that?
Is the dictionary wrong?
Do you think the word theory only has one meaning?
Do you think the meaning has changed or stayed stable overtime.
If you think the word theory references a specific set of scientific practices, what practices does it reference?
Do you think all scientists agree on the validity of these set of practices?
If they don’t all agree, then who decides what the ‘correct’ set is.
Do you think all scientists agree on the ontological status of a theory?
If you do, how do you explain ontological disagreements between scientists?
Do you think the sentence “Everything in this document is nothing more nor less than "What Ron Thinks." In the essay, on GNS and matters of roleplaying theory is a contradiction, given that a theory must refer to a very specific set of scientific practise?
Do you think Ron thinks it’s a contradiction?
Given that Ron worked as a scientist do you think he holds the view that all uses of the word theory refer to only a specific scientific practice?
Have you asked Ron?
Given music theory isn’t grounded in scientific practice, do you think people are using the word theory wrong?
If they use the word theory wrong do you think they’re spreading deliberate falsehoods?
In film they use ‘auteur theory’ to refer to an aesthetic theory. Are these people wrong for misusing the word theory?
Given people do misuse the word theory, according to you, by what criteria do you judge the actual meaning? How do you know you’re right?

Zak Sabbath said...

0. Most of this isn't relevant bc your assertion is

"“. If your claim is that RPG theory should be evidence based in such a way, when a multibillion dollar industry isn’t. “"

I didn't say GNS isn't a theory. I said it's _inaccuracy is important and bad because it calls itself a theory_ That is: it doesn't call itself a "lie" or a "fiction" but nonfiction.

Theories are (among other things) statements about how the world works.

In your next comment you must address this.

1-Do you think words can only refer to one thing?
No but I do think when a person states a fact in public they have the idealized-newspaper-journalism level responsibility to make sure it's accurate. Including x leads to Y.

"Theory" here in GNS means AT MINIMUM: a statement about cause and effect in the real world.

2-If you do, then when in a dictionary, words have multiple meanings, what do you make of that?
3-Is the dictionary wrong?

4-Do you think the word theory only has one meaning?
No, but see 1 above.

Both Ron and Hollywood have a responsibility to be accurate in public statements presented as nonfiction

5-Do you think the meaning has changed or stayed stable overtime.

6-If you think the word theory references a specific set of scientific practices, what practices does it reference?
Theory basically means educated guess.
We're not arguing if it's a theory we're arguing if it's _accurate_ .

7-Do you think all scientists agree on the validity of these set of practices?

8-If they don’t all agree, then who decides what the ‘correct’ set is.
For the purposes of this discussion we both say what we think is appropriate until we can agree or find a dissimilar underlying assumption. We don't need and can't get universal agreement but we can try to get to the 2 parties agreeing on a standard.

9-Do you think all scientists agree on the ontological status of a theory?
I don't understand the question. Do you mean whether it exists or is true? Exists: depends on the theory. True: depends on the theory

Zak Sabbath said...

10- If you do, how do you explain ontological disagreements between scientists?
One or both are wrong.

11-Do you think the sentence “Everything in this document is nothing more nor less than "What Ron Thinks." In the essay, on GNS and matters of roleplaying theory is a contradiction, given that a theory must refer to a very specific set of scientific practise?

I think it's too vague to even call it a contradiction. He states certain things are facts. Causal. A leads to b. C is impossible, etc. He is wrong.

12- Do you think Ron thinks it’s a contradiction?
Again: too vague to say.

13. Given that Ron worked as a scientist do you think he holds the view that all uses of the word theory refer to only a specific scientific practice?
14.Have you asked Ron?

These both can be answered at once: I pointed out the vagueness of the theory and its unfalsfiability and he said well "you got me there" and kinda chuckled and agreed it wasn't really a scientific theory (dunno if he has multiple definitions). I dunno about the word theory but I do know that in going from the formal language of science to the sphere of game design it appears Ron wrongly assumed he was going to encounter lower standards of proof. Many critics think this (see: videogames cause violence, etc). Few good artists do.

15. Given music theory isn’t grounded in scientific practice, do you think people are using the word theory wrong?
Much is grounded in scientific practice. If you are specifically talking about classical western music theory then _every time it makes a statement about the real world that isn't accurate_ it's wrong and bad

16. If they use the word theory wrong do you think they’re spreading deliberate falsehoods?
Too vague to tell.

17. In film they use ‘auteur theory’ to refer to an aesthetic theory. Are these people wrong for misusing the word theory?
No, it's a theory. It can be a theory and untested. It's bad if it's untested and they state it (as ROn and GNS people do) as if it were fact.

Like if I go "Godard is most responsible for Godard movies being movies I like" and don't say "but that's just a guess" then I am bad.

18. Given people do misuse the word theory, according to you, by what criteria do you judge the actual meaning? How do you know you’re right?
Again: my only concern is the minimum statement--a theory is a nonfiction assertion about the world.


19. Do you understand 'theory' means, at minimum, at least a nonfiction assertion about the how world works? If not, what's it mean?

20. Do you believe GNS makes only true statements?

21. Do you believe Ron et al could've helped narrative-oriented folk find their games but, in so doing, relegated itself to only true statements?

Unknown said...

So your argument is that GNS is particularly bad because it claims to be a theory and a theory should have certain properties? I disagree with you.

Do you understand 'theory' means, at minimum, at least a nonfiction assertion about the how world works? No. If by how the world works you mean casual relationships.

If not, what's it mean?

There are lots of definitions. It’s a really fuzzy word and the particular meaning has to talked about and placed in context.

My go to definition would be something like. An explanation about reality that has pragmatic use. I don’t think explanations about reality and reality can ever map one to one. Which is why I tend to take a pragmatic stance.

Do you believe GNS makes only true statements?

Given I tend to hold a pragmatic theory of truth, I can’t directly answer the above because the word true can be fuzzy. I’m not trying to be obtuse though so bear with me.

I think proof is ultimately the individuals prerogative. I think Ron saw things (empirical level), inferred things based on what he saw, created a model to explain them.

Is my interpretation of similar events (I don’t have access to the events Ron saw) the same as Ron’s. No, I think even with the Big Model framework we probably have different views on agenderless play.
To the degree that the Big Model does posit certain hypothesis, do I think it’s true? I find it unlikely. The hypothesis we’d be testing would be that coherent group agenda produced more fun. I think even if we could test that, and it would need to be operationalized first, it would turn out to be false for some people. Possibly even most people.

I’m also willing to concede that a scientific theory would need stricter proofs. Peer review and double bind testing of experiments. Given that it doesn’t claim to be a scientific theory. It need only be true enough to be functional.

Do you believe Ron et al could've helped narrative-oriented folk find their games but, in so doing, relegated itself to only true statements?
No because ‘true’ statements have varying levels of proof attached. When talking in a colloquial sense it’s enough for things to be good enough. In a Scientific or legal sense (such as video games cause crime), then I think you need higher attendant levels of proof.

Unknown said...

To give an actual example.

In GNS and other matters of role-play theory Ron begins by stating. “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. 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.”

To me this reads that this isn’t meant to be a scientific theory but a pragmatic one. It starts contentious ‘many participants do not enjoy it very much.’ I think one response at this point is just to say that the theory doesn’t conform to what I’ve observed. So fuck this theory. If your response is, well how does he know they’re not enjoying themselves? then you’re demanding higher standards of proof than the theory is giving. To state that all theories must give such proof, is alien to me.

What’s more. Depending on the psychological model of humans you use and your definition of enjoy. He could be correct. No one knows. You’d have to actually run the experiments. Given that he leaves the definitions themselves fuzzy, that’s impossible to do. The text itself just isn’t written concisely enough to even attempt such things.

So does that makes sense? Where we seem to be at the moment, is that you seem to want a concise text that allows for predictable theories, or at least grounds it claims with specific empirical evidence. You consider it’s failure to do so morally objectionable.

My response is that I don’t even think a theory ‘should’ do that, even if it were generally desirable. The claims GNS makes, in an empirical sense, are neither true nor untrue. At most you can call them untestable, tautologically true, or so fuzzy as to be meaningless. Given that I don’t think these things matter, for a colloquial theory, I don’t think GNS failing to live up to them is a bad thing.

If you have any more questions or criticisms, be aware that I probably can’t reply for another 30 or so hours.

Zak Sabbath said...

@alex white

1. If your theory of truth and responsibility to truth is pragmatic then can an assertion be judged as good or bad based on its effects?

Because the effects of GNS have been unequivocally overall bad and evil, even if they helped some people find a hobby.

2. Why does the assertion "video games cause crime" need a higher standard of proof than "x set of game parctices cause people to not be happy"? (Ron goes so far as to say "Vampire causes brain damage"). In either case: you're asserting harm.

Unknown said...


1) Yeah broadly speaking if something gives bad effects, doesn’t work, isn’t functional for your purposes then it’s probably failed pragmatically.

I don’t really care about the hobby as whole. I primarily care about me. If the effects of GNS have been bad overall, then that’s due to other reasons inherent in the thought structures of people. I think Communism has bad effects overall. I don’t ascribe that entirely to communism though. Peoples epistemology must be bad before it can have damaging effects. At which point, if it’s not one thing it’s another.

Note also, I ‘primarily’ care about me, not ‘only care about me’. I conceded in my initial posts that GNS is the justification behind some toxic shit. I don’t think it’s the primary driver behind the more toxic elements of the hobby though. For instance, I like FATE but I can’t in good conscience purchase products from Evil Hat, or suggest people purchase them. On the other hand I’d have no qualms about telling people to read GNS theory. Although I might add some precautions.

2) I mean this really comes down to opinion. The government has legislative power and so I want higher proof from the government. If GNS was government mandated, then I’d absolutely be against it.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Alex White

Here's your original statement;

" If we take theory as being used in the same sense as say ‘dramatic theory’, then it’s ludicrous to ask for null hypothesis or testable predictions. "

It seems like you're conceding "It's ludicrous....unless you care sufficiently about large groups of people who aren't Alex White".

It seems like rather than categorical right and wrong and categorical "people you care about" and "people you don;t" you have a vague intuitive sense of:

-Vaguely how much harm is done

-Vaguely how much you care about the victims

-Vaguely how much the inaccuracy of the theory is at fault for this harm


And since you claim to have benefitted from this theory (as you might benefit from various theories that you, being Alex White, deserve wealth and privilege) I cannot say that this downside of harm for others arrives packaged with no upside from your POV.

Thank you for clarifying your position and I'm glad to see that someone associated with GNS managed to actually answer some questions.

If you can spare a thought for the rest of us, it would benefit us greatly (though probably in no way help you) to try to spread your newfound knowledge of how to have a discussion on the internet to other GNS fans.


FM Geist said...


If there are two theories competing about the validity of a statement, how do we choose?

I mean the people that do science and technology studies would say that a theory only works insofar as there is a receptive public and scientific community AND the theory shows greater strength than competing theories.

For example: you can read the “Pasteurization of France” & the gloss point is: there was no individual genius, Pasteur rebranded folk knowledge (that worked, it was demonstrable) in an era where public hygiene was at a premium (the French state wanted its citizens to be less riddled with disease, spreading infections and most importantly to be productive).

Viz RPGs: the GNS fandom *as I understand it through reading and interaction* has several assertions that seem false:
• people have an agenda in playing (which doesn’t account for the fact that the biggest drawing game is still D&D and D&D is functionally a tool kit than a set of step by step directions—and a big draw to it is a podcast where 3 comedians and their dad play D&D for the first time and it becomes a picaresque because they find rails boring and ask questions.
Further: Hey I can demonstrate proof: I admin a group because I was the most experienced person in RPGs that my friend knew; the group is almost entirely first time players, they want to play D&D, they were drawn mostly by Adventure Zone, there has been nothing resembling the conflicts Ron describes in over a year with 100 people many of whom are strangers. I’m not saying this is perfectly representative I’m just saying there is a non 0 probability that GNS theory is bullshit and a 100% chance it has never described my experiences? The things I hate the most are Narrativist DM decisions that feel like I’m a forced extra in fan fiction. This is why people instinctively murder named NPCs when frustrated).

• that there are exclusive and divergent goals (again, I don’t see the difference between mastering the rules, critical thinking and achieving goals) it seems like the purpose of this theory is to make a distinction that seems mostly unhelpful and poorly differentiates people WHILE creating an antagonistic understanding of how games work?

• it proposes design solutions that do not accomplish their ostensible purpose? Viz film: innovation happens but it is usually built on a recognizable framework while most of the Narrativist games I’ve encountered eschew everything familiar to me and then codify social interaction (I have not played a wide variety of these games: I could be wrong). But to use an example: why would I play fiasco when all it does is endlessly produce *a nearly standard experience* when I can get a quasi standardized experience through other media?

(Sorry to Zak if I’m throwing a bunch of irrelevant lines of questioning in, Sorry to Alex if this feels hostile or like dogpilint because I am legitimately curious?)

FM Geist said...

Viz the first bullet point:
I realize Ron claims that therefore GNS theory can’t diagnose a goddamn thing for me but the fact it is taken as law for “how games should be made” seems spurious: it’s a theory of game development for people with little to no social skills?

Viz a lot of hostility over games: it also is claiming a certain class of gamers are “doing it wrong” and there is an optimum solution? Which I see the point of this entire article is articulating why that is harmful and a bad assumption (my takeaway which meshes with my experience).

FM Geist said...

Viz the STS example: there were a subset of people who wanted a particular thing and now (wrongly) claim everyone wants that thing and it is the progressive viewpoint. But the view cannot seem to change the field SO it doesn’t seem like it has become dogma despite subtly altering some very meta stuff at drawing boards?

And the results don’t compete well it seems like?

shanepatrickward said...

This really needs to be on "blogs on tape"

anarchist said...

There's a fairly large body of academic writing on game design (generally intended to be relevant to board, computer and role-playing games). (This blog is an example of a college course).

I've read a fair bit of what Ron Edwards wrote, and have never found any references to this body of work.

This made me feel like his academic tone was adopted to appear to have a rigorous theory, not a result of genuinely trying to develop such a theory.

Zak Sabbath said...


I know--I reference Bartle Types way up at the top and I've lectured at USC on tabletop game design more than once.

Jojiro said...

I've got some clarification and then just some idle curiosities too. They emerged, popcorn-style, as I read this.

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".

I'm unsure what this is referring to. Didn't experience this myself. What do you mean by this? Do people look at OD&D and say "They only have so few classes because it's old" or something?

"immersion" isn't a great or useful word here, which is true

Is immersion a concept with problems? I'm missing some context, so I could be misinterpreting.

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.

Is this a true thing at your table? I have never really seen players react to random table probabilities through in-world surprise/xenophobia. Even when the table is player-facing, if something has a 1% chance of happening and something else has a 33% chance (which is as wide a variation as I've done in home games) I haven't seen folks react to the 1% in a way that mirrors what memes say xenophobia should look like.

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.

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

Maybe it's weird for me to be curious about this, but like, I'm often curious about the way you use judgmental words. To me those two instances of you referring to some sort of play being [negative adjective] are close enough that I'd react to them the same way (which is fine, diff ppl, but it does pique my interest). In the first case, you say that everyone who uses it is an asshole. In the second case, you say that it seems pessimistic. Was that just a difference between tone in two casual references, or is there something meaningful encapsulated in that difference? In other words, is it more acceptable (less assholish) for me to say "your exploration of characters is incompatible with a really good story" than it is to say "your play style is incoherent under this gaming philosophy"?

Potatoes has an e.

Was this in your original essay from 8 years ago? Asking for a friend. :P

Zak Sabbath said...

Do people look at OD&D and say "They only have so few classes because it's old" or something?

Is immersion a concept with problems? I'm missing some context, so I could be misinterpreting.
In RPGs people complain about various mechanics “breaking their immersion”, see The Plottist In Westworld essay for more details

Is this a true thing at your table?

“judgmental words. “
judging people for doing something value-neutral because you inaccurately judge their motives as not matching their actions is bad and being an asshole

judging people for doing a bad thing is good

weapons are fine: pointing them at the wrong person is bad

Was this in your original essay from 8 years ago? 

Jojiro said...

Okay. Everything you just posted makes sense.

But I'm still unclear about:

"is it more acceptable (less assholish) for me to say "your exploration of characters is incompatible with a really good story" than it is to say "your play style is incoherent under this gaming philosophy"?"

Because those still seem the same to me (asshole). Not sure if the distinction you made as pessimistic vs. asshole was significant. If significant, not sure how.


Do you have insights on the "getting folks to react to rare table entries as if it is also really rare in the world" thing? Or does it just happen at your tables so you don't know why it doesn't happen elsewhere?

Thanks for writing the OP, by the way. It's crystallized a lot of my own thoughts about why storygamers have so much distrust and discomfort of OSR games, and it also clarifies a lot of viewpoints I heard but found weird and difficult to follow within the /r/rpg crowd. The follow-up post even more so.

Em from Yuggoth said...

I'm way into storygames, and I'll be the first to say, Edwards is a bit of an idiot with his head up his ass. A lot of his content on the Forge was an utter mess that then was expanded on and fixed by better designers and theorists (for instance, Vincent Baker, Jason Morningstar, John Harper, etc.).

There's a level though where I find some concepts from it useful, but that's a super super niche thing, and even then it's superflawed. I find it somewhat useful as someone who's only interested in one of the three categories, and who only really wants to play games that do exactly what I want from them - nothing more, nothing less. Which is very much different from what Edwards is talking about. And I also hugely disagree with Forge theory on the best way to accomplish some of what I want.

I'm what I guess could be called a narrativist. I'm only interested in narrative mechanics, mechanics that incentivize storytelling. But I don't at all like the way Edwards goes about it, because I'm personally not at all a fan of emergent storytelling, because for me, the thing that Edwards says about how he believes that "simulationist" games run the risk of the story not being good is applicable to all games that focus on emergent narrative the way that Forge stuff does. Basically, I don't feel like a lot of Forge-type games fix the problem at all, because I feel like the only way to truly make sure that a good narrative is going to happen is through structuring and pre-planning the story beforehand, working with mechanics that don't run any risk of getting in the way of that, and then playing through the story with mechanics that incentivize you playing to that story outline. I'm talking like, planned narrative beats, planned scenes, etc, the core moments being planned, and then play being centered on examining the details, the emotional states, the minutiae.
(The only game I've found that truly satisfies me in that way Jenna Moran's Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine .)
And all of that is hugely at odds with the type of design that many of the Forge people do, because they're all about emergent storytelling.

And I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, so I'm just going to stop here, I think, because I ended up being a bit circular.
Basically I just feel like there's a place for games that only cater to a very specific subset of concerns, and it's something that I wish more games did (and for the record, I don't feel like most Forge games succeed at catering to a specific subset of concerns, despite the fact that a lot of the Forge designers will claim that's what they were going for.)

Zak Sabbath said...

@Emma Renault

That all seems Emma-nently reasonable

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

Mine English sucks at basic levels, where Edwards wrote "They spend a lot of money on RPGs with lots of supplements and full-page ads in gaming magazines.", I first read "They spend a lot of money on full-page ads in gaming magazines." I can't tell if Mr. Edwards is writing nonsense or it's me misunderstanding his words.

· Informed Guess: people I know is not interested in this hobby.

· Fact: I've exclusively played one-shots in conventions.

· Fact: I've seldom enjoyed them. [Guess: Seldom = maybe 3 sessions out of twenty-someting.]

· Fact: I gave up playing like twenty years ago. [Opinion: Because "tired, bitter, and frustrated" about gaming.]

· Fact: I'm still obsessed with the game, though.

Question: Do I qualify as "this guy"? Or am I missing some requisite?

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"The person who is entirely satisfied with his or her role-playing experiences is not my target audience." I guess that this makes me a member of GNS target audience. And I'm glad that Mr. Edwards cared about my personal troubles, thank you very much. But does GNS help me, actually?

I don't think so.

As far as I am involved, game systems -coherent or otherwise- are largely irrelevant, and so are fellow gamers. The actual problem is: back in my days, I was totally into cheesy prewritten BRANCHING plots.

· Informed Guess: everybody else and their mom was into cheesy prewritten LINEAR plots. [With a few honorable exceptions. Like 3 out of twenty-something?]

Since GNS barely cares about adventure design, it's not helping me.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"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."

You are putting the cart before the horse here. GNS is a byproduct of people on the internet articulating what they like, not the other way. [OTOH, the only pieces of RPG theory I was able to gather pre-GNS came from either (a) Gygax Magazine "in D&D everybody wins" (b) Pat Pulling "spellcasting works in real live". So maybe GNS deserves some credit, after all.]


· Fact: I've been diagnosed an PDD-NOS.
· Informed Guess: I have Asperger's Syndrome instead.
· Opinion: This is still not relevant.

Zak Sabbath said...


I've talked about the relationship between storygamer language and autism before and seen people volunteer to say "Yeah i like the clear language of these games and the social procedures bc of my autism"

You first comment here sounds like a product of some kind of social...thing. Derived from what I don't know.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

[I'm so-so-so sorry for posting three replies in a row. This is embarassing... I wish I had noticed Blogger is not supporting nested comments since last December. Curse you, Blogger.]

Zak, thank you for your reply.

(1) "seen people volunteer to say Yeah i like the clear language of these games and the social procedures bc of my autism"

Yeah it totally used to be my pet theory... last year. Since then, I've switched gears from "autism explains all" to "autism is largely irrelevant", and from "games could use a system for resolving social conflicts" to "all mechanical systems of resolution are the plague".

Long story made short, my neurones are engaged into an endless civil war.

(2) I don't care about story games or about game stories. When I quit playing -can't remember the year, but AD&D 2nd. edition was still for sale- storygames were not a thing. What brought me back was Philotomy, Malinewsky and retrostuff. In a world without the later, I wouldn't be posting here.

Bring me less stories and more graph paper.

(3) Social interaction at informal level is driven by unspoken rules.

(4) D&D on the other hand is a mixed bag. Outside of combat and spellcasting the game relies on a truckload of unspoken rules.

(5) Both 3) and 4) are weird and scary because I'm unable to fill in the blanks and connect the dots on my own. Can't make sense of them. Not that this stops myself from trying.

(6) Anyway, can somebody please tell me if I fit into the "this guy" stereotype? (yes/not) It's not a rethorical question, I actually want to know.

(7) Games in a convention are a gamble, like slot machines in a casino. My first game was pretty successful, the second one was a dud. But I already was hooked. I kept trying again and again in the hope of hitting a Jackpot.

(8) One of the very rare times I've been happy about the game I was playing (JACKPOT!) was *because* of a personal issue. A fellow player was behaving like a full time jerk both in and out of character. Long story made short, the climax of the adventure was a showdown between his PC and mine. My thief ambushed and backstabbed his kung-fu master. Bill survived my alfa strike and beat me to a pulp.

That game was great because provided an even field for us players to set-up our differences in a civil way (i.e. rolling dice to death).

Zak Sabbath said...


I don't know about That Guy I've never seen That Guy, if you want to know about That Guy it's probably best to ask StoryGamers.

I _do_ know that you #5 sounds like autism and it literally sounds like nothing else I've ever heard of. But I'm not a psychiatrist.

Alex K said...

Dear Zak Smith,

I have posted a rebuttal of your core argument regarding GNS and the Fastball Special on my blog over here:

I would like to kindly ask for your response, preferably on my blog to help jumpstart it, seeing that yours is going pretty well.

The long and short of the counter-argument is that GNS does not reveal itself in moments where different modes of play are aligned. GNS is about player preferences (or design choices) that reveal themselves at DECISION POINTS (aka moments of play) where there are conflicting goals: do I kill everyone around me to get to the magic sword or do I try to stay in character? You even quote Ron Edwards stating that goals can be in alignment "...contribute to the main goal..."!

But what matters instead is when a player or game designer has to make a choice. That's where GNS comes in.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Alex K

I will, of course, engage. I'll post over there, but for the benefit of people here, lets' summarize:

. True or not that is NOT how Edwards defines it. So his theory is flawed.

. Players aren't consistent in their choices and this depends on a lotta things GNS ignores.

. Even if GNS preferences "reveal themselves" in these moments, all they reveal is a momentary caprice, not some long-term dedication to a mode of play.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

(9) "if you want to know about That Guy it's probably best to ask StoryGamers"

This is a solid advice! [OTOH I'm extremely prejudiced against StoryGames (see also #2), so I'd rather not post in SG forums, thanks.]

(10) The problem about anonimous is that he constructed a version of D&D that the games do not match, and spend the rest of his lifetime complaining about how the games fail to match up to his idealized fantasy. [As an aside, talking about oneself in third persond sounds really stupid, doesn't it?]

And (11) my problem with Mr. Edwards' article is that at the end of the day, he blames dysfunctional games to either [a] social issues [b] so-called GNS-incompatibility. But there are more things in sky and earth that in Edwards' philosophy.

The main dysfunctions I've stumbled upon can't be chalked to neither (a) nor (b). Instead, [c] published adventures were focused into delivering prewritten linear plots and [d] rules handbooks failed to render the game system in a comprensible, usable way. While subsystems (combat, char generation, etc.) are coherent when individually taken, they just don’t seem to add up to anything like a game.

If GNS is intended to be a tool for fixing broken games, then it's not the tool that I need.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

(12) It could be argued "anonimous is not This Guy, but That Guy", or "Guy Next Door", or "Some Other Dude". Which would render point #11 moot: "Since GNS was aimed to fix the specific troubles of These Guys, and not random troubles from Some Other Dude, anonimous is wasting his time." Of course. Sigh.

Alex K said...

I have done some more research in the Forge archives and I have to state for the benefit of both you and your readers here that Edwards explicitly rejects "microeconomical" play-by-play analysis, as we both have done. His take on Creative Agenda is instead more "macroeconomical". I'll post some citations with links here, hope it'll prompt you to respond on my blog - I'd like to hear your thoughts. [WRT my own thoughts, spoilers: So far I have found no acceptable justification of Edwards for why such a maco perspective on player priorities should be chosen.]

'Although "instance" was not defined when I wrote that, I've defined it since: at least one full reward cycle of play, which for most games is at least a single session and often more, and for some games, considerably more.
So Frank, your five-minute comparison is valid but not at all relevant for talk about Creative Agenda.'

'You are exhibiting the classic bafflement of what might be called the "atomic fallacy" of talking about Creative Agenda.
That's the notion that Gamist play (for example) can be divined or identified regarding one guy, at one time, for ten seconds, getting juiced because he picked the right maneuver and rolled the right number and really clocked the bad guy at the right time. And it's wrong as wrong can be. The problem is one of scale.
This is too atomic in a number of ways:

- Time: it's too short.
- Fictional events: you've described actions and short-term outcomes, not scenes and events.
- People: you've broken the group into islands interacting with the GM, but not their interactions with one another as a dynamic, ongoing phenomenon.
- Data: you've talked about what individuals were feeling, not what they were doing in a social, creative sense.

To talk about that one guy (in your case, John strategizing his way toward a crucial cool-ass bad-ass combat move) at this level as "Gamist" is like calling a particular set of muscle tissue with its characteristic cell types a "dog." Sure, that set of muscle may be in a dog. But it just as well may be in a moose, a shark, or a starfish. Muscle tissue has properties and a vast importance, yes ... but, in and of itself, it is not a dog - nor does its existence serve as evidence that it's in a dog.
So the real task at hand, for this discussion, is to realize that we are talking about a scale of analysis, and events-during-play, that are not at the same scale as anything you've been describing. You've talked about the room the animal is in (social contract), and the muscle tissue (the techniques, like the strategizing or the in-character speaking or whatever). I'm trying to get you to step back and look at the animal, which is as yet unidentified, with the questions in this post.
Once we're there, then we'll have to talk about reward systems and cycles in order finally to talk about CA (what the animal is doing).'

Right now, I am considering emailing Edwards, I got a number of unanswered questions. I would even dare to say: I am highly skeptical of Edwards' macro choice and I think it lies at the heart of why he does not recognize Simulationism as a separate agenda these days.


Zak Sabbath said...

@Alex K

It's vague bullshit:

Edwards takes an undefined term "Instance of play" and then defines it....using a new and AGAIN undefined term: "One full reward cycle".

Ask him to his face how to find out which way people are playing and how to know when you have enough info to judge and he says "Well I'd have to watch it myself"

He literally has no definition. His definition is "I knows it when I sees it".

Which makes his claims about what can "never" or "must always" happen in these situations impossible to discuss.

Alex K said...

To be fair, I can't formally define Funk music either but I usually recognize it when I hear it.
Currently, I think GNS' fatal flaw lies in that macro perspective on Creative Agendas. I'll be preparing another blogpost on it but I hesitate to do it before ensuring I get Edwards right.So I'll be registering over at and see if I can get some answers. If you're interested, I'll keep you posted.

Zak Sabbath said...

@alex k
thats a bad analogy because you aren’t making cause-and-effect predictions about human behavior based around a definition of funk music.

edwards makes predictions: they are wrong or too vague to test

unless you see the problem there nothing you can say will help anyone

Alex K said...

Any descriptive theory is predictive by nature (insofar as it describes an on-going phenomenon), Zak. Including a hypothetical formal definition of Funk.

In any case, I made an inquiry about Ron Edwards choice of scale, you can find it here:

Zak Sabbath said...

@Alex K

You're not making sense--you didn't give a "descriptive theory".

Not having a definition of "funk" is a problem when you do.

So: make a prediction in your next comment about funk and I will demonstrate that it is useless if you can't define it. (Or simply concede)

Zak Sabbath said...

@Alex K

You also should not lie on forums about me ( "n a recent exchange with Zak Smith on his DnD with Pornstars blog (which spilled over into my own) both me and him made the mistake to assume..."), Alex and you won't be allowed to comment here until you fix that.

I didn't make a mistake.

Lying is not allowed, and factual mistakes need to be fixed.