[MUD-Dev] GNS and Other Matters of Role-Playing Theory
J C Lawrence
claw at kanga.nu
Fri Jun 21 17:20:01 New Zealand Standard Time 2002
GNS AND OTHER MATTERS OF ROLE-PLAYING THEORY
By Ron Edwards
Copyright Adept Press 2001
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.
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.
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. I am satisfied with it, but I'm not unreasonable
either, so it is not immutable. Please deal with it in one of the
following ways: identify an inconsistency, ask for clarification and
examples, or otherwise address its content critically. I am perfectly
willing to amend any content, if I'm given a substantive reason to do
so, and to give credit for the insight.
I request that all discussion of this material be based on careful
consideration. Snap judgments, unsupported value judgments, neophobia,
taking offense, and other juvenile reactions are not
welcome. Furthermore, I am well aware that my GNS notions vary greatly
from the original Threefold Model (or GDS), and that my categories of
Stance differs from those originally proposed. Identifying these
differences does not constitute a criticism.
I have been extensively influenced by the work of others and have
incorporated it in ways which make sense to me. Concepts that were
originated and developed by others are credited in the acknowledgments
at the end.
4. The Basics of Role-playing Design
5. Role-playing Design and Coherence
6. Actually Playing
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: Character, System,
Setting, Situation, 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
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."
Exploration and its child, Premise
The best term for the imagination in action, or perhaps for the
attention given the imagined elements, is Exploration. Initially, it is
an individual concern, although it will move into the social,
communicative realm, and the commitment to imagine the listed elements
becomes an issue of its own.
When a person perceives the listed elements together and considers
Exploring them, he or she usually has a basic reaction of interest or
disinterest, approval or disapproval, or desire to play or lack of such
a desire. Let's assume a positive reaction; when it occurs, whatever
prompted it is Premise,in its most basic form. To re-state, Premise is
whatever a participant finds among the elements to sustain a continued
interest in what might happen in a role-playing session. Premise, once
established, instils the desire to keep that imaginative commitment
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.
Premise is a metagame concern, wholly different from the listed
elements. They are the imagined (Explored) content of the role-playing
experience, and Premise is the real-person, real-world interest that
instils and maintains a person's desire to have that experience. 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
Why "genre" is not part of the lexicon
I do not recommend using "genre" to identify role-playing content. A
"genre" is some combination of specific setting elements, plot elements,
situation elements, character elements, and sometimes premise elements,
such that by hearing the term, we are informed what to expect, or in
role-playing terms, what to do. On the face of it, the concept would
seem to be useful.
The problem is that genres are continually being deconstructed and
re-formed, with elements of one being re-combined with others. This is
occurring as a non-planned or non-managed historical phenomenon
throughout all media. Therefore "genre" may be a fine descriptive
label for what is or has been done, but it's not much help in terms of
what to do or what can be done.
In many cases, a given genre label will convey to a close group of
people a fairly tight combination of values for these
variables. However, the same genre label loses its power to inform as
you add more people to the mix, especially since most labels have
switched meanings radically more than once. And even more importantly,
new combinations of values for the key variables may be perfectly
functional, even when they do not correspond to any recognized genre
Therefore when someone tells me that a game (or story, or whatever) is
based on a certain genre, I have to ask a few more questions -- and
sooner or later, I get real answers in terms of Character, Setting,
Situation, or Color. Only then can an initial Premise be identified, and
then the next step toward functional, enjoyable role-playing may occur.
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.) 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
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.
-- 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
-- Simulationism is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed
elements in Set 1 above; 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
Collectively, the three modes are called GNS. Stating "GNS," "GNS
perspectives," or anything similar, is to refer to the diversity of
approaches to play. One might refer to "GNS goals," in which case the
meaning is, "whichever one might apply for this act of
GNS is the central concept of my theorizing about role-playing. It is
necessary for understanding how Premise is developed, and it provides
the context for the later points in this essay. However, it is not
sufficient, and the three modes themselves do not address any and all
points about role-playing.
I disavow either GM-centric or player-centric applications of GNS. The
terms apply to real people engaged in the act of role-playing, and the
distinction between GM and player is irrelevant for this
purpose. However, the reverse is meaningful: given a GNS focus of play,
GM and player roles take on specific shapes, or specific ranges of
shapes. (This issue is discussed later.)
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.
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
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.
Developing Premise into practical form
Again, all three modes are social applications of the foundational act
of role-playing, which is Exploration. Taking that into a social,
role-playing circumstance, the people get more concrete about a shared
Premise, and thus their decisions acquire a GNS focus of some kind. To
play successfully, the members of the role-playing group must be, at the
very least, willing to acknowledge and support the focused Premise as
perceived by one another.
The developed or focused Premise is no longer a noun ("vampire") or
image, but has become a question, challenge, or provocative issue.
Gamism and Narrativism each encompass a wide range of variation for
Premise, including variations that differ drastically from one
another. This is why "a Gamist," for instance, does not necessarily
enjoy any and all Gamist play or have the same priorities as any and all
other Gamist-oriented role-players. The same applies for
Narrativism. Simulationism is a bit different in its details, but in its
way also includes a wide range of variation and approaches to play;
therefore the insight that not all Simulationist-oriented play is alike
applies here as well.
Gamist Premisesfocus 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
-- Can I play well enough such that my character survives the
-- Can I score more points than the other players?
-- And much more, depending on the arrangement and organization of the
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"
-- 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?
Narrativist Premisesfocus 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
-- And many, many more -- the full range of literature, myth, and
stories of all sorts.
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
-- 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?
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
-- 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.
Controversy: is that third box really there?
It has rightly been asked whether Simulationism really exists, given
that it consists mainly of Exploration. 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.
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
-- 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).
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.
Controversy: "But I'm story-oriented"
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. Narrativism is a no-brainer in this
regard, as it is defined by the metagame attention to creating a story
of critical merit (i.e. "good"). But story-creation and its elements
are certainly possible, although not prioritized, in both of the other
modes. Most generally, there are (1) forms of Simulationist play with a
strong Situation focus, which provide a story for the participants to
imagine being in; and (2) forms of Gamist play in which dramatic
outcomes are the stakes of competition, which produces story as a
side-effect of that competition.
More specifically, to observers who are not considering goals and
decisions of play, the following three, very distinct sorts of play are
superficially similar and often confounded.
-- Narrativist play with a Setting-driven Premise.
-- Simulationist play in which Situation is being preferentially
Explored, perhaps with an elaborate published metaplot in the form of
short stories or novels.
-- Gamist play in which Drama mechanics (see the fourth chapter) are
used as a strategy-element, making use of a complex set of
circumstances, Setting and Situation) for material.
Similarly, the same confoundment may occur regarding the following
(which share regions of potential overlap with the three above in terms
of "story," as well):
-- Narrativist play with a Character-driven Premise.
-- Simulationist play in which Character and Situation are being
-- Gamist play in which Character improvement or other development is
at stake, and character behavior or attitudes are limiting factors.
Story-stuff and/or character stuff is so important to all these
approaches that the differences in processes and point of role-playing
are easy to miss, or, disastrously, easy to deny. Three people
attempting to role-play with one another in a vampire-character game,
but each representing one of (say) the first three perspectives, are
going to have a hard time, even if they assured one another that they
were fully committed to "the story." How and why the difficulties
arise are discussed throughout the remainder of the essay.
Misunderstandings of GNS
By far and away, the worst misunderstanding of GNS, with the worst
consequences, arises from synecdoche, confounding the part with the
whole and vice versa. (I'll use Simulationism as my stand-in term, but
any of the modes could be named here.)
-- Mistaking the whole for the part, within a mode: claiming that any
Simulationist-oriented person must enjoy all Simulationist play.
-- Mistaking the part for the whole, within a mode: claiming that a
particular sort of Simulationism is Simulationism (and nothing else
-- Mistaking the whole for the part, for all of role-playing: claiming
that in role-playing at all, one must be engaged in Simulationism
-- Mistaking the part for the whole, for all of role-playing: claiming
that a particular sort of Simulationism is role-playing (and nothing
Synecdoche may be committed by someone who has recently or imperfectly
learned some GNS vocabulary, who in his enthusiasm is disrespectful to
modes of play besides his favorite. However, it is also tremendously
widespread among those role-players who do not know, or even who
disparage, a critical approach to the activity, but commit synecdoche
using terms like "realistic" or "story." In either case, this
fallacy is disastrous. It results in bad feelings, fizzled games, and
rejection of role-playing.
Other common misunderstandings of GNS include:
-- Ascribing any sort of geometric shape or variable-space to these
terms. Such ideas are often interesting but they are not formally
part of the definitions. (For instance, there is no such thing as a
-- Confounding Simulationism with the term "realism." Much of
Simulationist play and game design has indeed focused on generating
realistic outcomes, but this is a historical subset of the mode
rather than part of the mode's definition.
-- Stating "see what happens" as the definition for any of the
modes. All role-playing is about "seeing what happens." This is a
good example of whole-for-the-part synecdoche.
-- Mistaking the shorthand of "He's a Narrativist" (or either of the
others) for a limiting statement that the person is incapable of any
other mode of play.
-- Mistaking any of the listed elements for one of the modes, e.g.,
such that attention to character must be Narrativist, or attention to
setting must be Simulationist, or attention to system must be Gamist.
-- Projecting judgment and value-judgments into the terminology, such
that the speaker or listener perceives one of the goals to be placed
higher or better than the others. Gamist play, for instance, is often
-- Perceiving the terms' purpose as a means to classify game
design. They are used relative to game design, but again as
shorthand: calling an RPG a "Narrativist design," for instance,
really means "This RPG's content facilitates Narrativist play."
-- Failing to understand the terms' actual purpose: to enable people
to enjoy their role-playing more.
Note: "synecdoche" is pronounced "sin-ECK-doe-key." Think Schenectady
and vasectomy. If you can make a good limerick out of these three words,
I'll give you a prize.
CHAPTER THREE: STANCE
Chapter Two was about what a person wants out of role-playing; this
material is about specific acts and moments of role-playing, that is,
what a person does. Stance is defined as how a person arrives at
decisions for an imaginary character's imaginary actions.
-- InActor stance, a person determines a character's decisions and
actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would
-- InAuthor 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.)
-- InDirector 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.
In most of the stance-discussions, we've considered players rather than
GMs because the player:character relationship is usually 1:1 and very
intimate. I think that GMs employ stance too, however, that discussion
Stance and GNS
Stance is very labile during play, with people shifting among the
stances frequently and even without deliberation or reflection.
Stances do not correspond in any 1:1 way to the GNS modes. Stance is
much more ephemeral, for one thing, such that a person enjoying the
Gamist elements and decisions of a role-playing experience might shift
all about the stances during a session of play. He or she might be
Authoring most of the time and Directing occasionally, and then at a key
moment slam into Actor stance for a scene. The goal hasn't changed;
However, I think it's very reasonable to say that specific stances are
more common in some modes/goals of play. Historically, Author stance
seems the most common or at least decidedly present at certain points
for Gamist and Narrativist play, and Director stance seems to be a rarer
add-on in those modes. 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. These relative proportions of Stance positions during play do
apparently correspond well with issues of Premise and GNS. I suggest,
however, that it is a given subset of a mode that Stance is
facilitating, rather than the whole mode itself. Some forms of
Simulationism, for instance, may be best served by Director Stance, as
opposed to other forms which are best served by Actor Stance. Similarly,
some forms of Narrativism rely on Actor Stance at key moments.
Consider the previous example of a group who has arrived at the
agreement to role-play a vampire-character game, with three members who
have radically different GNS and Premise approaches but share a
superficial commitment to "story," undefined. What sort of Stances might
be most common during play, from each of them? (In this example, each
person represents one possible approach within each of the modes, and
does not represent the entirety of a mode.)
-- One player is interested in competing, using his or her
real-person influence and strategizing about dramatic outcomes to
"score higher" than the other players, so he or she spends a lot of
time in Author/Pawn Stance.
-- Another is interested in experiencing and Exploring the nuances of
the story as it is presented from an external source (perhaps a
sourcebook and/or a GM), and spends a lot of time in Actor Stance.
-- The third is interested in generating climactic and
conflict-resolving moments derived from his or her character's
decisions, and so those decisions are most likely going to be
determined from Author Stance (but not Pawn).
Conflicts may well arise among these players as their decisions
regarding their characters and expectations of one another disrupt the
various goals. Stances and their impact on both the outcomes and
experiences of play may be understood as part of the mechanisms of
achieving GNS goals.
Let us take pity, though, and suggest that they do happen to share
enough Stance preferences, of some sort. They don't have to be exactly
alike! Getting the most out of a GNS mode of play does not mean cleaving
unswervingly to a Stance, but arranging Stances relative to specific
types of scenes, decisions, and moments of play. Again, speaking
historically rather than by definitions,
-- A Gamist approach to Stances usually involves preserving the
Author-power of Pawn Stance in competitive situations, such that the
player is not hampered in the range of possible options.
-- A Narrativist approach to Stances usually involves keeping Actor
Stance confined to limited instances, such that Author and Director
Stances may generate a lot of metagame impact on the storyline.
-- A Simulationist approach to Stances usually involves designating
when Actor Stance, the default, may be exited.
So our vampire-interested players may take individualized approaches to
Stance within one of these goal-orientations (or some other
GNS-reinforcing conformation). Insofar as those differences facilitate
similar goals, and hence cannot be too different in the crucial
instances of play, all is well.
Misunderstandings and complications
A great deal of attention and rhetoric is devoted to "in-character" (IC)
and "out-of-character" (OOC) role-playing, but I think that this topic
is not related to Stance. IC role-playing, at its most literal, means
that the role-player is using first-person diction to communicate the
character's actions, and OOC role-playing means that he or she using
third-person diction. However, that issue and the decision-making
aspects of the Stance issue do not precisely
correspond. Otherwise-excellent discussions and guidelines can be
derailed or muddied by this problem. In the text of Nobilis, for
instance, IC/OOC terminology is consistently used to indicate, as far as
I can tell, Actor vs. Author Stance.
Another common misunderstanding of Actor Stance is to confound it with
"acting" in the histrionic, communicative sense -- using a
characteristic voice, gestures, and so on. The communicative and
demonstrative aspects of "acting" are not involved in Actor Stance at
all, which only means that the player is utilizing the character's
knowledge and priorities to determine what the character does.
Taking the above two points together, Actor Stance may be seen in the
most technical-realist style play (which may use entirely third-person
diction) as well as in the most channel-the-PC Turku play (which may use
entirely first-person, in-character-voice diction).
Immersion is another difficult issue that often arises in Stance
discussions. Like "realism" and "completeness" and several other terms,
it has many different definitions in role-playing culture. The most
substantive definition that I have seen is that immersion is the sense
of being "possessed" by the character. This phenomenon is not a stance,
but a feeling. What kind of role-playing goes with that feeling? The
feeling is associated with decision-making that is incompatible with
Director or Author stance. Therefore, I suggest that immersion (an
internal sensation) is at least highly associated with Actor
Stance. Whether some people get into Actor stance and then "immerse," or
others "immerse" and thus willy-nilly are in Actor stance, I don't know.
The term Audience Stance has been proposed elsewhere, but at this point
I am not convinced that the phenomenon exists. It remains as a potential
topic for discussion.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE BASICS OF ROLE-PLAYING DESIGN
System, system, system. Or more appropriately, design, design,
design. The listed elements in Chapter One (character, situation, color,
setting, system, initial premise) may be organized to facilitate greater
coherence in Chapters Two (GNS, developed Premise) and Chapter Three
(Stance), and thus to facilitate more enjoyable play. This principle is
often summarized in the catch-phrase, "System does matter."
By "coherence," I mean the degree to which a group of people can hit
upon and sustain a shared Premise (or topic for Exploration, in
Simulationist play) - and by definition, continue to enjoy the social
role-playing activity consistently. The people do not need to agree in
every detail or event of play, and they certainly do not have to conform
to a single, immutable Stance or GNS profile. However, to role-play
together most successfully, their shared agreements do need to go beyond
simply sharing the initial Premise. To whatever extent they do this,
they are cohering.
At the last check-in, our vampire-friends have turned out to be a
coherent bunch. Now their attention turns to the actual, physical item
called the role-playing game. What is in it?
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. I see two
interrelated elements of design: Character and System.
This terminology is intended to dissect out the procedural components of
the imaginary entity called "my character." The idea is to form a basis
for character creation that is integrated with the game's general design
goals, whatever they may be.
As I see it, there are three very large components to a character. I
also think they always apply; in other words, role-playing necessarily
demands all of the three to exist. Design, on the other hand, sometimes
leaves one or more unstated, in which case the missing elements are
overtly or covertly inserted during play.
Effectivenessincludes any numbers which are used to determine success or
extent of an action. In Fortune-based systems, these include the
familiar to-hit, skill success, damage rolls, and anything like
these. In Karma-based systems, it would be the basic values,
e.g. Everway's Element scores or Amber's attribute scores; in
Drama-based systems, Effectiveness is governed by rules of
dialogue. (See below for discussions of Fortune, Karma, and Drama.)
In looking over a character's Effectiveness material, you get an idea of
their "niche" or sphere of influence, what they're good at and what they
Effectiveness is often "layered." In discussing Effectiveness, one needs
to be careful to distinguish between the actual value and the means by
which it is derived, because often a step of the process is named
instead of the Effective value itself. For instance, the points spent on
basic attribute scores in Champions pass through an exchange rate, such
that three points result in one more unit of Dexterity. Furthermore, the
Dexterity score itself passes through a division by three or five, and
in some cases an addition of 11 as well, in order to arrive at a value
that is actually used in play (an Effective value).
In contrast, a non-layered Effectiveness value is determined, recorded,
and used as such without derivation. The scores for Earth, Air, Fire,
and Water in Everway are divided up from 20 points or less, and they are
used at their respective values during play. The score for Focus is set
from 1 to 10 when making up a character in Zero, and that value is used
as such during play. Three descriptions of a puppet's abilities ("This
puppet can shout really loud") in Puppetland are determined during
character creation and are used without modification during play.
Resourceincludes any available usable pool upon which Effectiveness or
Metagame mechanics may draw, or which are reduced to reflect harm to the
character. The obvious ones are Endurance, Sanity, or Hit Points (or
even "lives" in frequent-resurrection games), but this category also
includes breadth and depth of spell knowledge, for instance, or even the
character's cash resources. Experience points, in some system, act as a
resource for certain mechanics.
In looking over a character's Resource material, you get an idea of how
tough, (un)stoppable, and "fueled" they are.
Metagameincludes all positioning and behavioral statements about the
character, as well as player rights to over-ride the existing
Effectiveness rules. Thus it includes stuff like relationships
("Hunteds" in Champions) and limitations on behavior (Psychological
Disadvantages, alignment), as well as metagame mechanics, like Trouble
or Luck Points or what-have-you, which permit re-rolls or other
overrides of the baseline resolution system. Clearly, material within
metagame may directly affect Effectiveness and Resource, as with Trouble
giving bonus dice in Orkworld, or in other games it does not, as with a
Code Vs. Killing in Champions being taken to limit a character's actions
without a formal effect on any other mechanics of play.
Metagame issues are intimately related to Balance of Power, which is
defined as the relative degrees to which players and GMs are privileged
to have an impact on the events of play. In looking over a character's
metagame material, you get an idea of the behavioral parameters within
which the player is at least nominally committing to stay, and the
rights to over-ride the system via metagame mechanics.
Regarding all three components, named features on character sheets may
find themselves in one or another category from game to game. Money, for
example, is a Resource in a game of GURPS, an Effective value in Call of
Cthulhu, and Metagame in Champions 3rd edition.
Currency among the three character components
Currencyrepresents the relationship among the three components, both
during character creation and during play. Its name comes from the
observations that (1) "amounts" may be shifted and exchanged within and
across the three components during character creation, and (2) that
features or use of one category may have an impact on the use of the
others during play.
These exchange mechanisms among the three categories may or may not be
overt (e.g. a system of points to spend). We can look at two different
RPGs and compare how the three categories are distributed, and under
Character creation varies tremendously across role-playing games. We see
tons of methods, distributed in tons of ways even within single games:
random vs. point-allocation, layered vs. not-layered, explicit
vs. implicit currency, fixed vs. flexible relationship among the three
elements, and more. I do not claim that there is any one best way. I do
think that most character-creation design has been imitative and
tweak-oriented, rather than conceptually integrated with any general
goal of the RPG's design. I also think that certain designs are
fundamentally flawed, at least for specific modes of play; my
attributes/skills argument is an example.
Some games are practically defined by the open spendability of an overt
currency, e.g. GURPS. Others are fixed solid as rocks among and within
the categories, e.g. D&D of whatever vintage. "Class," for instance,
usually refers to a specific way to affix currency among the categories;
having different classes means standardizing different "nodes" of
Looking across RPG designs, I see that many games permit "trading" both
within and between the categories during character creation, often with
a rate of exchange.
-- If you drop your Strength, you can buy up your Dexterity or if you
drop your Strength, you have more points to buy skills. These
examples remain within the general category of Effectiveness.
-- If you drop your Strength, you can buy up your Endurance or Hit
Points or whatever. This would be crossing categories from
Effectiveness to Resource, as would be increasing your Luck Points at
the expense of points for abilities.
I suggest that such trading (with or without an overt, generalized
Currency) is fraught with peril, for two reasons. The first is the
existence of breakpoints of Effectiveness, and the second is that
soybean trading is almost impossible to avoid. Both of these are greatly
heightened when the mathematics of character creation include ratios.
Here's an example of breakpoints: effectiveness in Champions is largely
based on division of scores, like 1/3 of your DEX or 11 + STR/5, or
stuff like that. Therefore breakpoints are crucial -- everyone ends up
with DEX of 20, 23, or 26, for instance; any other score is only
minimally useful and wastes points that could be spent better elsewhere.
Soybean trading occurs most often when "derived attributes" are
involved. The famous Champions trick is certainly familiar to many of
us: buy up your STR (1:1) and END (1:0.5), which automatically raises
your REC 1 point. Now buy down your REC, which gives 2 points back. Net
gain: 0.5 points. Do this 10 times, and your gross is 10 points of STR,
20 points of END, and 5 points of pure profit.
Currency applies during play as well as during character creation. At
the most obvious, the expenditure or loss of Resources may affect
Effectiveness, as when one runs out of spell points or when damage
accumulates such that ability scores are reduced. Metagame may be
similarly affected by Resources, as when one must draw upon a point pool
in order to re-roll dice, and that pool is used up. More subtly,
multiple other relationships occur in multiple RPGs, such as a
Meditation ability that permits recharging a Resource more rapidly.
Currency is also related very intimately to Reward System and (for lack
of a better term) Punishment System, because these feed back into the
elements of Currency at every moment during play. Improvement processes
are a common sort of Reward System, but not the only kind; damage and
death for the character are a common sort of Punishment System, but not
the only kind.
Reward systems have been very deeply researched by me, but they await a
rigorous discussion, as the baseline concepts of GNS, Stance, and the
components of Currency must all be integrated. Some of the issues
-- What is being rewarded? Attendance? Role-playing per se? Player
actions? Outcomes of conflicts? In-game moments?
-- Who is being rewarded, the player or the character?
-- Are reward systems necessary? At what scopes or time-frames of
play are they more or less important?
-- If we are talking about character improvement, how does it
proceed? Linearly or exponentially? If exponentially, is the exponent
positive or negative?
-- Do changes in the values and aspects of the character affect the
exchange rate of Currency itself?
Given the astounding importance of Currency among the various components
of Character, designers of role-playing games would do well to consider
all of the following.
-- What the three categories are.
-- All of them do exist in the act of "playing" a character.
-- How, when, or if exchange is involved among the categories, which
is to say, not just among the "named items" on the sheet.
-- Subdivisions, nuances, and layering within each one.
Unfortunately, I think that many RPG designers were and are flying
entirely by the seat of their pants. Their attention was on in-game
named elements like "strength" and "percent to hit" rather than
Effectiveness. Such an approach to character design allows latitude for
all sorts of emergent properties, such as the point-mongering in
Champions or the mini-maxing in most late 80s games, or any number of
other "take-over" elements of play that subvert the stated goals of the
I think that a more fundamentals-based approach to the design process
would yield less problems of this kind. Without a vocabulary of the
fundamentals, we'll end up with endless permutations of the same
currency-mismatches and confusions with nearly every "new" game. In
fact, that's exactly what we do have.
RPG resolution systems are a daunting topic, and the following is
limited only to the broadest issue, Event Resolution.
For Event Resolution, the relevant terms are Drama, Fortune, and Karma
(often called DFK). These terms describe the mechanical and social
means, among the real people, by which an imaginary action or event is
determined to occur.
-- Drama resolution relies on asserted statements without reference
to listed attributes or quantitative elements.
-- Karma resolution relies on referring to listed attributes or
quantitative elements without a random element.
-- Fortune resolution relies on utilizing a random device of some
kind, usually delimited by quantitative scores of some kind.
Each one of Drama, Karma, and Fortune deserves massive dissection. My
on-line discussion of Fortune-in-the-Middle as a facilitator of
Narrativist play is a good example; so is my comparison of flat/linear
curves with separate/incorporate effects.
These three types of resolution may be combined in a near-infinite
variety across the various elements of RPG design; few or no RPGs fail
to make use of at least two of them. I also claim that they may be
combined in near-infinite variety across the various GNS goals. No
particular one of them corresponds to any (entire) one of the GNS
goals. Most importantly, I do not think that Drama methods necessarily
facilitate Narrativist play. However, I do suggest that a game system
may be organized such that a GNS subset and developed Premise are more
understandable; this topic is developed further in the next chapter.
Resolution systems often include metagame mechanics, as mentioned above,
which permit a player to over-ride the "usual" resolution system of the
game. These are found in a wide variety of combinations in functional
terms as well as DFK terms.
-- The over-ride may occur before, after, or in place of the regular
-- The over-ride may or may not rely on resources of some kind.
-- The over-ride's version of DFK may mirror the usual system's
version of DFK, or it may differ dramatically.
Example #1: a certificate in Prince Valiant may be redeemed (lost) for a
player to state that the character instantly subdues an opponent. The
mechanic replaces the usual resolution system (comparing tossed coins),
which is simply ignored. This illustrates a Drama metagame mechanic
replacing a Fortune baseline mechanic and relying on an irreplaceable
Example #2: a bonus die in Over the Edge may be added to a player's
roll, increasing the chance of success. The die is not permanently lost,
but may not be used again during the same session. This illustrates a
Fortune metagame mechanic added into a Fortune baseline mechanic,
relying on a replaceable Resource.
By definition, the character's role in the "decision" side of the
over-ride is retroactive, and therefore the very existence of metagame
mechanics is linked to Author or Director stance.
Switches and dials
The organization of the components of resolution, considering both
Character and System together, may be thought of as switches and
dials. Switches are discrete elements (values or terms) of the character
that are set in place; they may have different settings but once set
they are fixed. Dials are continuous elements (values) that may vary
from high to low along a range. Switches and dials may be completely
separate, or they may contain one another as well.
Most character creation methods that include classes or clans, or that
involve picking one item each from two lists, are utilizing large-scale
switches, in which smaller dials are embedded. By contrast, most
character creation systems that include a pool of points which may be
freely distributed about options are utilizing a large-scale dial, in
which smaller switches (e.g. behavioral limitations) are
embedded. Plenty of other possibilities, as well as overlaps between
these two, are in evidence as well. I am happy to provide examples as
part of an ongoing discussion.
(In either case, the method of "setting" may be either through personal
choice or through randomized methods; for purposes of the current
discussion, it doesn't matter which.)
In looking at the diversity across RPGs, one may contrast what's held
constant and what's permitted to vary, during character creation. What
elements affect one another during play? What pieces may trade among one
another during character creation? Even more fun is the hidden stuff,
such as how Drama methods ("saved actions") are employed to change the
order of action in the middle of combat resolution in an otherwise
highly Fortune-driven system, or when Metagame (calling attention to
another player's character's "alignment") is used to limit a
I think that we are nowhere near arriving at a meaningful taxonomy for
understanding how these combinations are organized across existing and
potential RPGs, and furthermore that the discussion is long overdue. The
following chapter begins a discussion of how the combinations relate to
Premise and GNS.
Even more stuff to discuss later
The following topics have all been researched by me across the vast
majority of role-playing game designs since the invention of the
hobby. Some of them have been broached in public forums, and others have
not. I have avoided discussing them to any depth, given the general lack
of understanding of the foundational principles of this essay, but I
would very much like to develop them in the future.
-- The relationship among announcing an intended action, initiating
but not completing an action, determining the completion of the
action, and determining the effects of an action.
-- The order in which the above events are conducted by the real
people, rather than by the in-game causality. This general principle
is illustrated in a local way by the Fortune-in-the-middle concept.
-- Search time and handling time, as defined in my essay "System Does
-- Probabilities in general, including issues of flat vs. linear
curves, separate vs. incorporated effects, replacement
vs. non-replacement results, and more. This discussion would include
the interesting sub-topic of the critical and fumble concepts.
-- Target number methods in contrast to opposed-resolution methods.
-- Task vs. conflict resolution; i.e, what precisely is being
determined by a unit of effort (system) by the participants. This
issue is central to the design of many Narrativist-facilitating
games, but could well be developed, in distinct ways, across all
-- Scene resolution vs. action resolution, which is not the same as
task vs. conflict resolution. Scene resolution first appeared as a
Gamist device in Tunnels & Trolls, disappeared from design philosophy
for over a decade, then was resurrected as a Narrativist device in
-- Distinctions among systems for symbolically-significant actions
(e.g. magic), as well as between them and systems for mundane
A popular misunderstanding
The term "diceless" entered the role-playing lexicon with the appearance
of the revolutionary RPG Amber, but it almost instantly acquired nuances
of meaning far beyond its literal content. Dicelessness has been
associated with story-orientation (so-called), with creativity, with
"mature" abnegation of "power-gaming," and generally with anything that
the user of the term happens to like and in which dice are not
involved. This use of the term is nothing more nor less than a value
judgment and is properly ignored.
Even more confusingly, the term seems to be applied across extremely
different things in the text of role-playing games. To call Amber or
Puppetland diceless is literally correct, and it happens to correspond
with their reliance on Karma and Drama methods; however, to call Castle
Falkenstein diceless is literally correct but functionally meaningless,
as its system is wholly Fortune-based. The text in the game undergoes
many gyrations to extoll the nuances that cards bring to role-playing,
but the fact remains that its card system is a Fortune system. The text
of Everway, on the other hand, openly acknowledges that its optional
card use is also the game's Fortune component.
And most importantly, I see no particular reason to associate
"dicelessness" or even the lack of any Fortune methods with
Narrativism. Again, and as discussed in more detail in the following
chapter, the range of DFK variants and combinations within each of
Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism is very broad. The otherwise
excellent game Theatrix mistakenly identifies the lack of dice with a
heightened focus on story creation, and this patently absurd
identification spread rapidly through role-playing culture in the early
Where's our vampires?
The example used so far has taken a brief rest for this chapter, because
the players are making the horrendous mistake of buying, without
consideration of any technical issues presented so far, the most widely
advertised, best-illustrated RPG available -- that is, strictly on the
basis of Color. Their fate will be presented in the next chapter.
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.
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.
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. 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.)
-- 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,
-- 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.
-- 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.
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 chapter
discusses why that effort needs to be there at all.
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
Design and Premise
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.
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
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
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, whereas a Psychological Limitation of the
GURPS/Champions tradition automatically entails using Actor stance to
some degree. Secondarily, these Stance-directing mechanics affect GNS
As always, synecdoche confounds the issue. Historically, certain
combinations of DFK and Character building, with their attendant impact
on Stance and GNS, have become so entrenched that many people actually
identify them as "how role-playing is done," without realizing the range
of design that they are missing.
RPG design and GNS, historically
Pending a really good history of role-playing games, 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. 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. The second was a development of Simulationist principles
in several trajectories, based on different models, including the
-- 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.
-- 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.
-- 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
Around 1990, first Narrativist-facilitating methods became widely
established, and then full-bodied Narrativist games appeared in
1994. About five years later, simultaneous with the appearance of
innovative competitive games (not RPGs, but rather Cheapass Games),
overtly Gamist RPGs appeared.
(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. This is not to say
that the full range of this mode has been represented or all of its
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 and a commitment to extensive search and handling
times. 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.
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
-- Character: Unknown Armies
-- Setting: RuneQuest, Pendragon, Usagi Yojimbo, Jorune
-- Situation: Call of Cthulhu
-- System: GURPS, Champions 4th edition (or rather, the Hero System),
-- 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. Most RPGs are cobbled-together pieces of
these and other games, generating a vague and internally-incoherent
Simulationism with, at best, isolated design features or Color that are
interesting. The topic of incoherence is developed more fully below, but
for now, consider Kult -- how can archetypal (fixed) character design be
compatible with Character Exploration? The answer is that it can't, and
that nearly all of the character development material in the basic rules
is scrapped in application, which turns into pure Setting Exploration
Much Narrativist and Gamist play during the 1980s occurred as
"rebellious" play in groups using primarily Simulationist systems. This
is probably why elements of Narrativist and Gamist play are often
perceived as cheating by those who are strongly committed to the
Simulationist designs of that period, or mistakenly identified with
"ignoring the rules."
Overt Gamist RPG design is very rare. I think it takes a central role
only in D&D well before it acquired its "A," in Tunnels & Trolls also in
the late 1970s, and, less coherently, in Shadowrun and Rifts. Arguably,
quite a lot of live-action role-playing of Vampire, Amber, and other
games has drifted into Gamism in application, but not in the texts. Only
very recently has overt, even enthusiastic Gamist design been
resurrected, in D&D3E, Rune, Pantheon, The Adventures of Baron
Munchausen, and Ninja Burger.
Gamism clearly includes a wide range of the role of Fortune, such that
some games have a high random element and in others it is very low or
absent. Also, the GM's role varies widely, up to and including being
completely absent. I look forward to the continued appearance and
widely-ranging development of Gamist RPGs as well as to informed
discussion of the principles that are involved in playing them.
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
A veritable Renaissance of Narrativist design occurred in 1993-1994 and
continues to this day. Its published pioneers include Over the Edge and
Everway; then Theatrix, Zero, Castle Falkenstein, Extreme Vengeance, and
The Whispering Vault, as the next wave; and then Maelstrom/Story Engine,
followed by Hero Wars, as games which provided utterly novel approaches
at the metagame level. But the published games are only one side of the
story, given the proliferation of Narrativist development in the
underground, beginning with The Window and Wuthering Heights and setting
the stage for the publications of games like Sorcerer, Orkworld, and
In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following
-- 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
settting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably.
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. These
systems may accurately be considered GM-full, rather than GM-less.
Finally, several of the games mentioned above as well as others are
probably best considered "abashedly Narrativist" rather than thoroughly
focused on this mode, insofar as the overt philosophy of play in the
texts is about creating stories, even about the players having co-author
status, but various elements of design stop short of the goal. The
aforementioned Marvel Super Heroes, Cyberpunk 1st edition, The Window,
Everway, Obsidian, UnderWorld, and Little Fears are good examples.
The new revolution
Recent directions in RPG design are breaking new ground across GNS,
especially in terms of how Stance relates to the modes. Only now are we
seeing such things as mechanics-driven Director Stance in Simulationism
and in Gamism. It's also nice to see Narrativist design following up on
the precedent set by Prince Valiant, with Premise based on Situation
(The Dying Earth).
Fortune methods may clearly be employed extensively in the service of
metagame goals. I specifically disavow the popular notion that these
methods serve only for in-setting probabilistic modeling, and the
associated notion that they have little place in Narrativism or
Gamism. I would very much like to participate in a discussion of Fortune
systems acting as a "springboard" for metagame priorities in Narrativist
play, as suggested by the designs of InSpectres, The Pool, The
Framework, Munchkins, and others.
Another new development is an explicit opening statement about the
social context of play, often with a fairly strong GNS focus. I think
this is an astoundingly important element of game design and
presentation, and it's interesting to review older games to see how they
did or didn't manage to communicate it. The typical trends among them
are the following.
-- The purpose and perspective of the game is scattered across
several places, rarely at the beginning, and is often referred to
rather than addressed directly.
-- The purpose and perspective of the game is justified because it
corresponds to what, according to the authors, role-playing obviously
is (i.e., the synecdoche fallacy).
-- The purpose and perspective of the game claims to satisfy anyone,
in blatant contradiction to the game's content and design.
One of the benefits of the GNS perspective is the willingness to accept
that other outlooks or priorities exist besides one's own. Therefore, in
many of the new games, the social contract is both more explicit and
less dismissive, which I think is functional, honest, and fair.
Dozens of topics remain, many of which have been researched by me but
have not been broached in public.
-- DFK combinations across RPG design history, in both basic
resolution and metagame mechanics.
-- The history and development across RPGs of trading within
components of Currency or across them.
-- Random vs. nonrandom elements of character creation contrasted
with those of event resolution.
-- Distinctions between successful actions and significant
-- Personality mechanics, divided into two main schools derived from,
respectively, Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons & Dragons.
-- Fundamental aspects of character-player relationship based on
levels of remove.
-- The consequence of character death or incapacity on the player's
participation in the game.
I would very much like to host a sort of "Discuss this game" exercise at
the Forge regarding given RPGs, not to label them "G, N, or S" in a
superficial way but rather to dissect their function in the full
knowledge of the listed elements, Stance-facilitating features, all
aspects of design including the issues listed above, comparisons with
ancestral, contemporary, and derivative games, and much more.
Metagame considered further
Metagame mechanics appeared mainly as Narrativist "coping mechanisms"
when playing games that were largely 80s-Simulationist designs (which
does not mean these games were "bad" or represented the whole of
Simulationist potential). An extreme, early example would be TORG's
character-card privileges; a more typical example would be Over the
Edge's bonus dice.
In later RPGs with overtly Narrativist resolution systems, metagame
mechanics have again become rare. For instance, in Hero Wars, neither
bumping success levels nor bidding Action Points are metagame mechanics,
but simply the basic resolution system. They most resemble metagame
mechanics from earlier games, but now, in an overtly Narrativist design,
they are front-and-center rather than secondary overrides.
"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
-- Balance of what? Components of the characters? Specific sets of
-- 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.
Finally, a common misconception is to identify any concern with equality
or "even-ness" among characters with (a) balance per se and (b)
Gamism. I disavow any suggestion that Gamism as a whole is necessarily
concerned with balance, or that concerns with balance (of some kind)
necessarily indicate a Gamist approach. For instance, the parity of
starting point totals across a group of GURPS characters most likely
indicates a commitment to the consistency of the Explored Characters
with their Situation and Setting, rather than to any concern with
"fairness" or "leveling the playing field."
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; 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).
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). 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
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. Small-press publishers pump out these
games constantly, offering little new besides ever-more baroque
mechanics and a highly-customized Setting (Hahlmabrea, Pelicar,
Legendary Lives, Of Gods and Men, Fifth Cycle, Darkurthe: Legends, and
more). Another, similar trend is the never-ending stream of GURPS
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. 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
-- 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
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.
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.
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.
-- 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. o
-- 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
-- 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.
The players of the vampire example are especially screwed if they have
Narrativist leanings and try to use Vampire: the Masquerade. 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. 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.
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.
The one true game
What a wonderful ideal: an RPG design that satisfies any participant,
with no stress, no adjustment of any part, no potential for
interpersonal disagreement, and no unnecessary preparation.The
Bluntly, it's a moronic concept, existing only to whet frustrated
consumers' appetites for an upcoming product. GNS goals differ among
people, preferred variants of each GNS mode differ among people, and
system mechanics necessarily facilitate a limited range of these
preferences, or facilitate nothing at all. All of us would do well to
look in the mirror every morning and state, "There is no universal
However, the term "universal" is also used for a rather sensible and
functional RPG design option, which is much better described by the term
general. A general game design holds constant one or two of the listed
elements of role-playing (Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color)
and provides guidelines for customizing the other elements. GURPS and
Fudge are perfect examples, as are the plethora of their imitators:
System is held constant and made very clear; Setting and Color are
specified prior to play by the GM and similarly made clear and specific;
and then Character and Situation are customized.
A general game design is really no more than extending the original
notion from AD&D of System, Setting, Situation, and Color being highly
fixed, with Character being the main thing to customize. Other
combinations are possible, as in Sorcerer and Orkworld, in which System
is highly fixed, then Character and Situation are customized, and
finally Setting are customized (Color's place differs between these two
In other words, the so-called "universal" model for RPG design is really
a general design, and a coherent general game sits as firmly in its GNS
orientation as any other. The key issue is to avoid confounding it with
"universal" in the sense of "satisfies any and every possible
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.
-- 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
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.
Role-playing is carried out through relying upon the real, interpersonal
roles of living humans, yes, even of opponents. If people do not share
any degree of either Premise focus (either Gamist or Narravist) or an
Exploration focus (Simulationist), then their different assumptions,
different expectations, and different goals will come into conflict
during play. When that happens, the uber-goal of "Fun" is
diminished. Perhaps the people continue to play together solely to
interact socially, but the actual role-playing is, effectively, gone.
But it's just a game!
This phrase is an alarm bell. Oh, it looks like an attempt to
reconciliate disagreements by calling attention to fun and the shared,
social context, but it disguises something far more unpleasant.
The first tip-off is that the phrase is not literally meaningful. What's
the "it?" Role-playing, of course, but dismissed, via the singular short
pronoun, as simple, straightforward, intuitively grasped, and singly
defined. And what's a "game?" Not defined at all. The use of "game" to
refer to role-playing is completely historical and carries no
informational content beyond its indication of a leisure activity.
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
mygoals, 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
What's a GM and what's a player?
Like it or not, among any group of people contributing to some
constructive activity, there exists a the aforementioned Balance of
Power: some hierarchy and way to organize who gets to influence and
approve of outcomes. For the activity to succeed, some form of social
contract, or reciprocal obligations, must be in place.
In role-playing games, the issue of the social contract becomes quickly
confounded with the distribution and difference in the roles of GM and
players. Entirely aside from any formal rules-oriented or
procedure-oriented authority, 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? If not, does that
change or limit the GM-ness? How about a faculty member running games
with students in a campus club? How about romance issues; if single, is
he or she automatically the focus of personal attention from other
single people in the group?
Most of these issues cannot be addressed from the perspective of game
design, but they are real nonetheless. Where the game design and
GNS-based approach to play can help is in putting all the issues of the
role-playing itself above-board. Given clear roles, purposes, and
respective obligations of GM and player -- which in most RPG designs are
left open or badly mis-stated -- the group may avoid getting its
role-playing issues mixed up with its social ones.
How might a GNS perspective help keep that GM/player understanding
clear? Historically, the terms cover very diffferent 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.
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. 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.
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.
Organizing a role-playing session
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
-- 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
-- The necessary time and effort to be spent in preparation, and by
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. 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
For those forms of role-playing that emphasize "story" in the general
sense (see Chapter Two), this approach is completely unsuitable. 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.
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.)
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Drift is the usual method for dealing with this level of discord. It is
a fine solution for resolving within-mode differences, 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.
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
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
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.
Thanks are due to everyone who has taken the time to discuss the issues
with me over the years. Specific intellectual debts are owed to the
following people. In no particular order ...
The members of the rec.gaming.faq.advocacy discussion group, most
especially John Kim, for the Threefold Model and Stance. I owe an
immense debt to all members of these discussions for raising all the
right issues. However, I have altered just about everything very
drastically, and "Director stance" is my contribution.
Robin Laws for his essay regarding Art vs. Game in the text of Over the
Edge, as well as for nearly single-handedly revolutionizing RPG design
throughout the 1990s. (And he's still going, too; it's really
The Scarlet Jester (real name withheld) for the concept of
Exploration. However, I acknowledge that he does not approve of the
definition and use I've made of it, and any problems or inconsistencies
with the listed definition and use are solely my responsibility.
Jonathan Tweet for DFK, from his text in the game Everway, as well as
for many other things. My re-statement of the definition of Drama has
been approved by him.
Christopher Kubasik for his "Interactive Toolkit" series of essays.
Lajos Egri for his 1946 book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, for the
foundation of my thoughts on Narrativist Premise.
Logan Hunter for his original compilation of the theories from a variety
of discussions and for his construction of Balance of Power.
Jim Henley for his term "abashedly Narrativist" regarding Everway, which
admirably describes a whole family of RPG designs.
Gordon Landis for his input regarding Drift.
The FUZION Lab Group for their presentation of switches and dials in the
text of Champions New Millenium. I have expanded their
Simulationist/general material into a much broader scheme regarding all
of DFK diversity.
Jesse Burneko for his input regarding illusionism.
Gareth-Michael Skarka for his description of Intuitive Continuity in the
text of UnderWorld.
If I have overlooked anyone's input, please remind me and I'll include
you in the acknowledgments.
J C Lawrence
---------(*) Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.
claw at kanga.nu He lived as a devil, eh?
http://www.kanga.nu/~claw/ Evil is a name of a foeman, as I live.
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