Comments on the GNS Model

April 2006

Currently GNS is by far the most popular and influential Threefold theory existing on the Internet (although in practical terms, that may be damning with faint praise). Originally something of an outgrowth of the r.g.f.a GDS Threefold, it expanded upon those concepts evolving into something quite different and aimed towards a vastly different goal. It is basically the property of one man (Ron Edwards) although it is strongly supported by most of the membership of the Forge.

Where the GDS model only sought to define influences on individual decisions, GNS seeks to define what it calls Creative Agendas. These Agendas define the three possible overarching goals in role-playing games- be it Gamism, Narrativism, or Simulationism. These terms differ greatly from their GDS parentage and in fact have almost nothing in common with them despite the fact that two of the three share the same name.

The actual meanings... well, the actual meanings are subject to some debate. So much so that I won't make the attempt in this article. Instead let's look at some history.

GDS specifically refused to attempt to define games themselves as members of its corners, that is games mechanics are mostly neutral and unconcerned with GDS matters; tools to be applied to any desired end. GDS also was meant to only applied to individual decisions, any specific play example was expected to reveal that its players switch from one corner to another as things became important to them at the moment.

Ron Edwards however took exception to both of these defining assertions in System Does Matter, the work that would become the foundation for a much more extensive (and controversial) body of thought than the GDS. It first written according to the author in 1999.

Upon gaining sole control of what was once a website called Hephaestus' Forge from his partner e p healy sometime in 2001, the site would undergo changes that made it into a platform for further development of the GNS theory. Renamed The Forge, it holds the definitive articles on GNS.

At the end of  2001 or the beginning of 2002, the early concepts of GNS had expanded and were given more defined form in GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory. Latter work would seek to expand (and to some degree answer criticism of) each of the three GNS elements. Simulationism: The Right to Dream was first in early 2003, followed by Gamism: Step On Up in mid-year, and then Narrativism: Story Now as the year closed out. As of this writing, the last official article dealing (at least in part) with GNS is The Provisional Glossary which appear mid-2004 or so.

In December of 2005, Ron Edwards closed the Forge's message board on GNS theory with the following 'Graduation' statement:

"This forum is no longer available for posting. It has served its purpose: to develop a sensible framework for discussing play, and the children of play, design and publishing. That framework is available as the Big Model."

At this point GNS theory is complete and finished, at least according to its creator.

 

GNS Controversy 

GNS is extensively criticized online by a number of people who if anything exceeds the count of supporters. They are however unorganized and overmatched in passion. There are no competing RPG theories of popular note, although the Internet does have the fading footprints of a number of interesting concepts. This results in critical (but in the end approving) articles like the one by Nathan Jennings'.

Some of the criticism mirrors that of the earlier GDS. But if it is a mirror, it is one grown large and ugly indeed. It is almost a given that you can post something on the GNS anywhere online and start a flamewar or at least cause others to hold their breath in fear of one. If goes on for any length of time, Forge site regulars are almost certain to arrive on scene carrying their banner into battle with woeful claims of being misunderstood..

So the natural question is what is the controversy about?

There are four major assertions made by the critics.

  1. The most common thread of GNS criticism states that Ron Edwards/GNS in particular and Forge membership in general are elitist. That they value only certain types of games, i.e. those that match their defined perfection of GNS. Other games are of less worth and thus damaging to the hobby, and even to the mental abilities of the player in their eyes.

  2. The term Cult of Ron is hurled at the Forge. A reference to the fans of Edwards and GNS (there is little noticeable difference) who reside in their ivory tower making fun of the ignorant masses without, but sallying forth to do battle with any who dare speak against the great work or even just for spreading the word of enlightenment.

  3. Many think the pure mass of the theory (many GNS supporters say that the above linked material is not enough, instead you must also sort though the 13837 messages posted in the GNS theory board for additional insights) is a serious problem. They also almost always speak of opaque wording that comes off as an attempt to sound like highbrow scholars. And then there's the use of not just jargon, but jargon that swaps understandable every day terms for abstract new definitions.

  4. Lastly the Forge is often accused of favoring only one of the three GNS concepts- Narrativism. Meanwhile Gamism is a fun but unimportant diversion at best for the GNS theorist, while Simulationism remains both misunderstood and looked down upon.

Four assertions that supporters of Edwards deny as he often does himself.

 

What is the truth if any on the matter? What are the causes of these objections?

There's a huge amount of online material to sort though. But let's enter the following few items into evidence:

 

Exhibit #1:  Authorship/tone of  reviews and articles at the Forge.

Let's start at the bringing with a little site called Hephaestus' Forge. At the time this was an experimental step to see if a method existed to further the growing number of Internet produced and published games. Before its conversion,  Hephaestus' Forge stated goal was summed up thusly:

"However, there are literally hundreds of games which cannot be found by entering a gaming shop. These games are produced by independent game designers and generally published on the internet for free or for a nominal price. Hephaestus Forge's mission is to provide support for these 'indie RPGs' - helping gamers find out more about what other alternatives lie beyond the realm of the established game manufacturers."

If the site was successfully in this mission, it was the success of the almost unknown mom and pop store with one or two loyal customers. It was seldom updated and consisted of a few articles, links to various online games and sites, and a handful of reviews. Most of the material came from Ron Edwards, the listed co-owner of the site.

The new Hephaestus' Forge (the name wouldn't switch to The Forge for while yet) would broaden the mission beyond the Internet, changing the implied definition of 'indie RPGs' to anything "creator-owned". This had the effect of back-seating free internet games as they now had to compete with the flasher and much more accepted printed games on store shelves. They were not however pushed totally from sight as a favored design of the sites owners or membership can gather a fair amount of local fame.

The first sign of elitist behavior came immediately with the change over in ownership. All material not written by Ron Edwards himself was dropped from the site without notice*.

Where previously reviews from any source about any Internet based rpg  in any style were accepted, this was narrowed to only the reviews of one author. Who happened to be Ron Edwards himself. Interestingly enough, he loved all the games he reviewed.

From the start of 2001 to end of 2002 (or two years) the only reviews appearing on the Forge were those of Ron Edwards with the *one* exception being written by his site administrator Clinton R. Nixon. It took less than a year before reviews were opened back up to others, but now these reviews were required to meet the acceptance and match the method/style of The Forge and this very likely was a major roadblock for the independently minded reviewers who posted to other sites. Very few independent reviews (if any were truly independent) were posted.

Required standards were and are exceptional compared to other well known sites (such as http://www.rpg.net/reviews/ that has published more in a week than The Forge has in its life) . It is worth noting that some of the published reviews don't meet the posted standards for whatever reasons.

To date there are 31 reviews, of these 27 are by Ron Edwards, 1 by Clinton R. Nixon, and 3 by other authors.

Articles follow a similar path of review and required acceptance. To date there are 19 articles, 11 of them by Ron Edwards, 1 by Clinton R. Nixon. All the key GNS articles, listed as such by Ron, are written by Ron.

None of the reviews or articles are critical of GNS or any Forge based game.

Counter-Point to Exhibit #1:

It's Ron's website. If he wants it to be a mouthpiece for only those things he likes, that is certainly his right.

Rebuttal 

Very true. But we're not speaking of rights. We're speaking to a charge of elitism. The presentation of a single viewpoint on a site claiming support for all 'indie games' supports this charge.

 

Exhibit #2: The text of article System Does Matter.

This pre-Forge article includes this rather straight forward statement:

"Oh, okay," one might then say. "But it's still just a matter of opinion what games are good. No one can say for sure which RPG is better than another, that's just a matter of taste." Again, I flatly, entirely disagree."

Followed later by (referencing GNS priorities)

"I suggest that building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design."

(Bolding is mine) It really doesn't get much more plain than this. Some systems are better than others. How do you tell? By judging them by the purity of their GNS approach.

Counter-Point to Exhibit #2:

Different people have different views of what makes a good game design. You're no different in that respect. There is nothing here worth noting.

Rebuttal 

Very true. But we're speaking of a special class of opinions- those that result in elitism. I assert that Exhibit #2 is part of pattern that will become painfully clear as we go along.

 

Exhibit #3: The text of the 2001 foundation article GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory

There are a number of interesting parts here. And it starts out a very non-elitist statement in the second paragraph:

"It is not an official Dogma for the Forge"

Very good. He said it. The question now becomes, is it a believable statement from him. Not really, because in the very next paragraph:

"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."

(Again, bolding mine)

So it's not official Dogma, but it is the only "coherent theory" in the entire Forge and it "is definitive". I guess they have some incoherent theories that they would be ignoring. I should note at this point, that there is still not a single article at the Forge which presents any other theory than GNS (the Big Model includes it as a component).

The text goes on to define various terms and their meaning in GNS theory. For example Ron selects the positive sounding term Focused (it would later be changed to Coherent)  to reference a game design built to one of the three Creative Agendas. Meanwhile the negative sounding term Incoherent being used to describe games that didn't attempt to achieve that lofty goal of the GNS. This type of selective word choice is a constant in the GNS body of work.

Counter-Point to Exhibit #3:

I believe the first statement. Ron personally believes that GNS is the only coherent theory ever brought to the Forge. The statement of "definitive" only applies to terms defined as applying to GNS itself.

Rebuttal 

When accused of elitism, the natural reaction to deny the charge and that is all the first quote does, a mere preemptive strike against future accusation.

Behavior is more telling. Is there an example of accepted, equally visible opposing theory at the Forge? How about equally visible Forge support for an Incoherent game? No, you say? I would suggest that behavior suggests the second quote reflects the actual truth. 

"Single Coherent body of theory" implies only one thing- only those who accept his wisdom in GNS will be considered seriously. Thus he has defined the Forge elite.

 

Exhibit #4: Text of Forge message board thread 4-24-2001

All Quotes from Ron Edwards:

"No, we think that Simulationism is a form of retreat, denial, and defense against the responsibilities of either Gamism or Narrativism. These two outlooks acknowledge, even require Author stance, and they acknowledge the potential of personal failure in role-playing. The Gamist can lose. The Narrativist can look on the results and say, "That story stunk, and it was my fault.""

It appears that even within the confines of GNS itself, there is room for deciding that someone playing in a different style to different ends is less than a positive thing.

Later in the thread:

"Somewhere, some place along the way, someone got the idea to defend G/N/S against the trolls by saying, "We don't use it to classify actual gamers."

Bullshit. *I* use it to classify gamers. G/N/S is about role-playing DECISIONS and PRIORITIES, and it is expressed in many ways. One of those ways is game design. Another of those ways is via a person's actual role-playing behavior."

A confirmation that GNS is used to classify players (and games for that matter). And I would assert based upon the use of terms like "denial", "retreat", etc- Judge them.

"Now, we might have sort of a reverse thing happening, with 90s Simulationists balking at the responsibilities of full-Narrativist game design."

This is interesting in that it shows a knee-jerk reaction to favor the Narrativist corner over others. Not only are the Simulationists in denial, they are in denial because they can't handle the glory of Narrativist play.

Counter-Point to Exhibit #4:

Ron was just throwing out a possibility and later in the thread seems to consider the idea that what he was talking about may have been a dysfunctional version of Simulationism. In any event, it did not become part of the final expansion article for Simulationism. Everyone makes a error now and then.

Rebuttal 

He was heavily attacked over the post in question, even by some of his supporters. It would be reasonable to expect such an unpopular statement to be set on backburner as best as possible, after all it is a heavy indicator of elitism ran amok.

Yes, everyone makes an error now and then. One would expect, therefore, not to see the error repeated, and one would also expect a retraction and apology. I know of no case of the later, and as to the former... on to Exhibit #5.

 

Exhibit #5: Ron Edwards on Brain Damage

From the earlier days of Forge discussions in Exhibit #4 to the near present of this article.

All Quotes from Ron Edwards:

1-24-2006 Lumply.com Blog

"More specific to your question, Vincent, I'll say this: that protagonism was so badly injured during the history of role-playing (1970-ish through the present, with the height of the effect being the early 1990s), that participants in that hobby are perhaps the very last people on earth who could be expected to produce *all* the components of a functional story. No, the most functional among them can only be counted on to seize protagonism in their stump-fingered hands and scream protectively. You can tag Sorcerer with this diagnosis, instantly.

[The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say "brain damage," I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*]"

 2-1-2006 Forge Message Boards

"Now for the discussion of brain damage. I'll begin with a closer analogy. Consider that there's a reason I and most other people call an adult having sex with a, say, twelve-year-old, to be abusive. Never mind if it's, technically speaking, consensual. It's still abuse. Why? Because the younger person's mind is currently developing - these experiences are going to be formative in ways that experiences ten years later will not be. I'm not sure if you are familiar with the characteristic behaviors of someone with this history, but I am very familiar with them - and they are not constructive or happiness-oriented behaviors at all. The person's mind has been damaged while it was forming, and it takes a hell of a lot of re-orientation even for functional repairs (which is not the same as undoing the damage)."

...

"All that is the foundation for my point: that the routine human capacity for understanding, enjoying, and creating stories is damaged in this fashion by repeated "storytelling role-playing" as promulgated through many role-playing games of a specific type. This type is only one game in terms of procedures, but it's represented across several dozens of titles and about fifteen to twenty years, peaking about ten years ago. Think of it as a "way" to role-play rather than any single title."

 

This is painfully clear. If you don't play Forge approved Narrativist games instead of 'those other' games, you're going to end up brain damaged. Oh, and he doesn't hold out much hope for your recovery.

The whole thing appears to be a rather classic case of denial. After dealing too many people who don't like the type of games he designs, he decided to explain their failure in terms of what's wrong with *them*. His game designs thus remain perfect.

There is one point however that makes this even more interesting, follow the thread and notice how many people immediately agree with him and continue to agree with him. It is events like this where a major part of the Cult of Ron assertion comes from. For some, he can do no wrong and is immediately approved of. No matter if he's announcing a new game, or comparing the game styles of others to child abuse. Many of these same posters are typically seen at other sites either defending GNS, or otherwise presenting it as a worthy theory.

There were exceptions as some old guard did break, if just for a bit. One example, The Forge site administrator, a long time loyalist expressed this moment of doubt, posted 2-14-2006 at  http://weblog.anvilwerks.com/:

"But this phraseology of "brain damage" - it's unacceptable. It's just plain mean, and that's what's wrong with it. No one will come out of that conversation less damaged, and I'd wager that many will leave less willing to heal.

Man, I made a promise to myself I wouldn't argue it here, but I still see it as a betrayal of the Forge's standards, and so I spilt. Watching another person I truly respect - like, seriously, I think, "I want to be like that guy someday when I'm a dad" all the time - line up behind Ron's been just about as painful."

There are two notes on this one little point. He doubts didn't last long, as he returned quickly to the Forge. Worse, it appears he didn't consider the concept (i.e. playing those other games are bad for you) wrong as much as he considered the "phraseology wrong".

And like Exhibit #4, this whole sad event is another indication of the strong place Narrativism holds in Rod's mind.

 

Counter-Point to Exhibit #5:

Well... your over-reacting. He was just trying to make a point by using a poor example.

Rebuttal 

Even without the example, the concept is what it is. If you don't like Forge style games, there is something wrong with you. That he reached for such an extreme example to do so, all but admits extreme elitism.

 

Controversy Summation

Restrictions of time and space do apply, so I'm going leave things at that list of five items. There are more of course, especially if you wish to broaden the search to include other sites. Add in the actions of GNS supporters instead of just its primary author... you'll be a while.

So, what's the final call? Let's return to the four common assertions I presented above.

  1. Is Ron Edwards and GNS elitist? Frankly I don't see how anyone could possibly disagree given the record. From posts claiming actual brain damage due to playing the wrong games, to material on his site, to material that one would expect to see but is nowhere to be found. If this is not elitism, nothing is.

  2. Is there a Cult of Ron? There is no card carrying membership. Orders may not be passed down. I highly doubt there are real life inductions and the like. But there does seem to be a cult-like mentality here, from spreading the word to rabid defenses of the cause. The reader may easily determine his own view on this point. Examine the thread in Exhibit #5 and select the handles of some the strongest supporters of this controversial post. Search their posting records on www.rpg.net, the Forge itself, Usenet, and other sites.

  3. Is the mass of theory too large to be useful? The wording too dense, the jargon too intense? It's nothing compared to the jargon of lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. But this is theory for role-players, presented to role-players. So I'll provide the links above and leave the determination of this point to the role-players reading this. In my own opinion, the answer is yes.

  4. Is GNS and the Forge only a place for Narrativist thought and design? This is harder to pin down. It is certainly a site where only fitting examples of GNS get significant positive air time. Most of the games produced there are Narrativist. But there are a few Gamist ones as well (if non-traditional ones). There's a complete lack of Simulationists games. We do have the evidence of Exhibits #4. It would seem to point in that direction making this assertion understandable. Whatever the case, we can safely say that is no place for traditional rpg tastes.

 

What harm does it do? 

Overlooking the entire RPG hobby, GNS is invisible. The greater forest is still standing, games are still designed and published, players are still enjoying themselves- all without being impacted by GNS in any way. Few know anything about the model, most haven't so much as noticed the name. Even online, most game specific websites (these make up most of the rpg Internet population) have barely heard of it, and would be hard pressed to care less. It is and will likely remain insignificant.

 

Moving from the forest down to a small section, the rot becomes more visible. Small evils indeed, but still evils to those affected.

Like GDS before it. GNS has been responsible for a number of formally known and respected people leaving the Internet or at least the Internet circles of rpg theory and discussion. The path is littered with broken friendships and other relationships defined only by where the people stand on this one narrow concept. Many just got tired of trying to defend themselves from charges of producing or liking games of less value. Others got fed up with the theory, the people, and the site who insist on such attacks.

Currently GNS holds complete sway at the Forge making the development of new ideas there all but impossible. The concept of indie-games has been perverted into the concept of Forge Games, leaving many styles of design on their own. Given the relative success of games like JAGS, the bright side is that good design and hard work can rise above this minor roadblock.

GNS has had a chilling effect on all theory discussion in areas where it has become prevalent. After the posting of the items listed in Exhibit #5, a massive outcry resulted. On RPGnet, this resulted in the issue of a moderation ruling that banned posts on Edwards and Exhibit 5 specifically and threaten heavy oversight of any theory threads in general. In this way GNS is protected and given validation no matter its merits or failures. Moderation has always been GNS' best friend.

Meanwhile the flamewars, the elitism, the poor theory itself- these things give rpg theory discussion of any sort a bad name. Currently the shadow cast by GNS is too long, and too widely abhorred for any other theorists to make a foothold in the greater online mindset.

 

The future of GNS (and The Forge as long as it remains defined by that model) is both certain and uncertain. 

Certain in that it will never make a significant lasting impact in the larger hobby. There is room for passing and minor odd ball game, but it will never reach the success level of traditional design unless it morphs into something accepting traditional design. Its most likely chance at success is dependent upon the near death of the hobby as a whole, for only in a greatly reduced total can it have significance.

Uncertain due to its oblivious failings and tendency to produce firestorms. The Forge and RPGnet may have by pure power of moderation closed down discussion on the extremes of the theory, but the impact of blogs and other individual sites are now being felt on the Internet. Where moderation could stonewall critics before, the world is just too open now. And anyone can find articles speaking to the issue.

The most likely short-term outcome is GNS continues as it is, a small force in a larger hobby dominating theory discussion in unimportant online forums. They make clear their desire to mold newcomers into their image. However the lack of significant additions to the rank's of strong supporters since the early days of 2001 does not speak well of their chances. The most likely final outcome is that the movement will die when its handful of key supports no longer work to keep it alive.

 

What sec, is GNS a good model?

Remove the flowery words, strip away the pretension. Bypass the Controversy. Get down to the core. GNS is just another Threefold like the previous GDS. And it suffers from the exact same problems and more besides.

It was developed by a strong proponent of Narrativist thought, and as expected the other corners are seen thru the Narrativist's eyes. The core conceit that games are better if designed GNS pure, is after five years a pipe dream. Some of these games are of interest to a small minority of players. But the movers and shakers of the gaming world are traditional designers, many of them the same people Ron's accuses of causing mental damage to their customers.

Like the GDS, it is of use to those people who see a use in it. No matter how limited a model is, how wrong it may be, it can still be useful to those few who agree with it either in whole or in part. For those interested in speaking to those at the Forge, some knowledge of the model is all but required. These uses may be insignificant in the greater hobby, but they exist for those who want them.

There are parts of some worth. Almost always these have been borrowed from the thoughts of others (like Jonathan Tweet's description of resolution mechanics). The later articles about a specific corner are useful for illustrating a way of thinking about a agenda of gaming, even if they fail at the greater goal of describing all of gaming or even all of that agenda.

Lastly it does have one major function for everyone- its shows how badly people can go astray from what was at one time the rather nice goal of improving rpgs and supporting independent designers.

 

 

 

 

*Point of disclosure, material removed included a number of generally well received reviews by myself published in Usenet. There were solicited and reprinted by e p healy on Hephaestus' Forge with my permission.

 

Threefold Debates