Comments on the ThreeFold

Perhaps the oldest and most widely debated Threefold model is that of John Kim maintains the FAQ for both the newsgroup and specifically the ThreeFold Model at his web site together with lots of other interesting bits of information.

If I had a dime for every post made on the Threefold…

I consider this to be the best of the various Threefolds, but that may be damning with faint praise. I have number of problems with the presented model, some minor but some (such as its view of Gamists) are anything but.

For this essay, I’ll split each problem out and examine it in turn.


Disagreement between FAQ and Common Use (unavoidable)

Maintaining a FAQ is a rather thankless job,  made worse by its very nature. In general, the FAQ follows up long after something appears in the newsgroup, and then only if a 'general' consensus on the concept has been achieved.

In the case of the ThreeFold, such an consensus was rather thinly reached if at all. And debate has been constant. As a result, the FAQ tends to lag or even completely disconnect from current usage. Given the nature of Usenet, I don't think that any solution to this problem exists. It is just something that has to be lived with unless the subject ceases to be debated. Unlikely in this case given the factors I covered in Should there be a Threefold?

Since it would be all but impossible to detail every variant put forth in the group, I'll direct the comments of this essay towards the written record in the FAQ. 

Unsymmetrical Corners (minor)

One of the first things many critics of the Threefold notice is that two of its corners are defined in terms of goals and desires (Story for Drama, Fair Challenge for Game), but one is primarily defined in terms of rejection (no meta-game motivations under Simulation).

To understand the reason for this, we need to explore a bit of history. The Threefold actually started as an axis between Drama and Simulation or, in better terms, between the acceptance and rejection of meta-game influences on in-game resolutions. This axis was an attempt to deal with a long running and heated debate between various members of r.g.f.a and one David Berkman who was a strong advocate of the ‘RPG is Story’ school.

The basic disagreement between these two camps was unsymmetrical in its presentation and since Drama and Simulation were defined as a result of that disagreement, the unsymmetrical nature was retained.

Later the group realized that there are people who don’t play for story, but who still use meta-game influences in their campaign to achieve various other goals that to most people seem game related; thus the addition of the Gamist corner and the current model.

This lack of symmetry produces increased complexity. Combining both acceptance and rejection in the same model is asking its users to keep two conflicting concepts in mind at the same time. A better path is to define all the concerns in terms of goals, so that someone who is just attempting to understand the concept is allowed to think in one single direction.

A lesser problem is the mental image of defining a corner not in terms of its goals, but in terms of its rejections. The appearance of Drama and Game is that of an attempt to reach a goal, while Simulation looks like cranky jerk that wants to kick things away. The truth is that all the corners are moving towards a specific goal (and thereby distancing themselves from other methods along the way).

Unfortunately defining Simulation in negative terms is the clearest way of getting the point across leaving us in a bit of a catch-22.


Poor Term Choice (minor)

This effects Simulation more than the others, although they also suffer. 

Since Simulation is partly defined in terms of ‘what actually happened, the selection of the word ‘Simulation’ for this corner at first glance seems proper.

However it has consistently tripped people up who wish to use the term in its more common way. After all one can simulate a novel’s story structure, a concept that leads to defining Simulation as nothing more than a subset of Drama. And there is the added baggage from the question “what are you simulating?”.

Moreover, the use of a word for a specific model meaning removes it from common usage in order to avoid confusion. And frankly I’d like to be able to say simulation without reference to the Threefold.

Drama and Game, like simulation but to a lesser extent, also bring pre-conceived notions to the table that may not be accurate.


Undefined Scope (major)

Looking solely at the FAQ, especially its opening “What is the Threefold Model” section, one is lead to believe that the ThreeFold is intended to cover a wide range of topics from mechanics to campaigns to player inter-actions. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Nearly every debate on the subject in the group eventually has a number of the regulars pointing out that the Model is only meant to illustrate the reasons for a decision and not the decision itself. Thus it is a model of Why and not What.

A simplified example will make this key point clear:


The PC rounds the corner and find himself face to face with an enemy Stormtrooper who immediately drops him with a well placed stunner shot.

Was this event Drama, Simulation or Game? From this information alone, we don’t have a clue. To find out we must look beyond the event itself to why the event happened in the way it did. Some possible results and their explanations: 

·        Drama: The GM needs to capture the player so that, in typical James Bond fashion, the villain can explain his plan to the captive. The actual event was decided by GM fiat based upon the need to drive the Story in the desired direction.

·        Simulation: The GM was tracking the location of all the Stormtroopers and the unperceptive character happened to stumble into one. The attack was resolved without concern for any matter other than ‘what would happen’.

·        Game: According to the FAQ, it would have been a matter of the GM setting up a fair challenge that, at least by appearances, the PC failed. Those initiative rolls don’t always go your way it seems.

This difference is rather key and its exclusion from the FAQ has been the cause of many heated exchanges as newcomers start by assuming the wider scope.


It is also normally pointed out by r.g.f.a regulars that the Threefold is only intended to deal with reasons behind GM decisions and this small difference is also missing from the FAQ. However in this case, I don’t totally agree. Both GMs and players are driven by their own goals and no matter who holds them I think many of these map quite well onto the Threefold.  However I do agree that it was intended only to model decisions, not events or systems.

Additionally, as an outgrowth of the intent being only to model GM decisions, the Threefold was never meant to define campaigns or people. It has however been used for this purpose by a number of the regulars and to my mind that is a suitable use where one of the three concerns are heavily dominant. However since an extreme is required and many people/campaigns aren’t extreme, the common case is that the terms have to revert back to individual decisions by default.


Awful definition of Gamist (very major)

Up to this point, problems with the threefold have been minor or the result of the exclusion from the FAQ of important details, troublesome but not uncorrectable. On this point however the model not only causes friction, it goes so far as to further negative stereotypes while walling off various styles of play.

The seemly innocent cause of the problem is the Gamist definition using the words: “is the style which values setting up a fair challenge for the *players*”.


Fair Challenge. Seems harmless until one examines the result.

The term (and latter FAQ expansion thereof) implies a GM maintaining a ‘Fair’ environment where any challenge is carefully matched to the players such that victory is always within reach. In addition, judging by the reaction of those who have read the FAQ, it also seems to imply a fair balance of power between players themselves.

Those implications led people to assume that the main concern of the Gamist is winning; after all, a challenge is something to overcome and a 'fair' playing field is at the heart of any competition. Indeed all too often I see the phrase “the Gamist wants to win at all costs” referencing the idea that the desire for victory overrides simulation, story and character concerns. In short, the definition causes people to think munchkin whenever they see the term Gamist.

Now there is little doubt that munchkins do exist. The problem is that so do a lot of other types of players whose style would nicely fit into the Gamist corner if they were but allowed. Not only are these people excluded from the model, the model goes so far as to by default assigning them with a motivation that they would despise.

An additional side effect of the definition is the assumption that the fairer a game is and the more challenging, the more Gamist it is. After all, that’s true of the other corners. I take great exception to this idea as well.

 Let’s break things down by sections.


·        Fair isn’t always a Gamist Concern

Or rather, it is not the obvious type of fairness people assume it is. By just dropping the term ‘fair’ in without explanation, entire methods of Gamist play are hidden.

Let’s tackle this point by way of two real life examples.

    Example 1

I take a strategic approach to campaigns that I play in. By that, I mean that I want be able to make the decisions regarding when and where to engage in any risky action.  For that to have any meaning, the option of engaging in any type of encounter from cake walk to outright ‘players die now’ must be possible.

Also required is the possibility that I fail to detect misdirection or the chance that I simply make a mistake of judgment thereby resulting in me walking into ‘unfair’ encounters or situations.

My concerns above are not driven by Simulation or Drama desires. This is a pure test of my skill against the world, something that should fit well within the Gamist definition but is hidden by its word choice.

However by its nature, my style of play reduces fairness in major sections of the game and it has major impact on the challenge level at various points.. I could walk into anything and die a quick death. Or with skilled play, I could always have an overwhelming advantage.

If I’m playing well, an observer may think the campaign is unchallenging romp where I always have unfair advantage compared to other people. The direct opposite of the current Gamist definition.


    Example 2

In our Star Trek game (using house rules), my wife when given a free choice in selecting ships will choose one that is less powerful than those of other players.

This is inherently unfair (that ship is less powerful than those of other players after all) plus it reduces her chances of victory in numerous potential events.

Once again this is a decision not driven by either Drama or Simulation. Rather it was driven by the desire for a certain style of play that is interesting to my wife. She likes running fast moving, if lightly armed, ships that depend more upon timing and maneuver than power allocation and weapon deployment. The style of how she wishes to apply her gaming skills overrides issues of fairness (and challenge by the way).


Looking back over the above examples, one is tempted to say that the individual decides the ‘fairness’, and so it’s inclusion in the model is justified. And one might be right, except for the simple fact that people don’t react to the word in that fashion. Rather people think of ‘fairness’ as a constant, and we’re left with people saying that a Gamist GM will adjust encounters in order to provide the players with a ‘fair’ chance. A viewpoint that if accepted would wreck the campaign and the desires of the players in the above examples.

Further if ‘fairness’ depends upon the view of the individual, surely it needs to be dropped from a formal definition in order to prevent the reader from attaching his personal biases to the model.


Thus it is my position that the term ‘fairness’ must be removed in order to open the model to a proper representation of different Gamist styles. Otherwise the reader is prejudiced into a limit line of thought and the model fails to serve its purpose


·        Challenge isn’t always a Gamist Concern

Without the word fair before it, challenge loses many of its problems.

The one that remains is that of perception. If the Game Corner values challenge, then surely the more the better. Thus one would expect campaigns ran under a heavy Game focus to be difficult in the extreme. 

Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. 

Is a Monty Haul style D&D game challenging? Not by common perception, they are instead cake walks. In the two examples above that were counters to the use of the term 'fair', the first reduced challenge at any point of conflict (assuming the player was successful) while the second increased it.

The problem arises because in each case, the challenge was moved to unexpected areas.  In a Monty Haul game the challenge is who's best at getting the best/most stuff, the strategic gamer is attempting to win before engaging in battle, the starship' player is determining if her skill at  maneuver will overcome her lack of firepower.

The challenge is different for each; determined by the individual. However the simple use of the word 'challenge' indicates a simple non-individual approach. And all too often, it suggests only combat.

For that reason, the use of the term challenge by itself is unsuitable. 


·        Winning isn't always a Gamist concern

Although not directly a part of the FAQ, the current definition seems to lead people to conclude that winning is everything to the Gamist. Likely this is due to the very title given this corner, after all it's assumed that games must have winners.

An examination of wargaming, the direct ancestor of today's rpgs, will show that winning is in the eye of the beholder. Many of those games could not be 'won' in the tradition sense, rather a victory was determined by meeting a certain level of performance. For example: will the defenders of the Alamo hold out longer then 13 days? Yes- Victory, No- Lost, but they're dead either way.

Like the concepts of 'fair' and 'challenge', the actual meaning of winning is determined by the player. Is it enough that he goes down fighting, or must he win? Does victory in battle count, or is gaining the princess' hand the only thing that matters? For some, victory is actually seeking defeat under the right conditions.

Thus saying that Gamist want to win, is to reduce them to cookie cutter motivations that may be far removed from their actual goals.


·        What the Gamism definition should be

So 'fair challenge' doesn't suit and winning as it's commonly thought of doesn't apply. What does?

In each of the above cases, the one common issue was the application of player skill. The when, where and how were different; the conditions of victory changed. But in each case the players were interested in applying their skill in such ways that outcomes were changed while playing against a completely objective set of conditions. Thus a correct definition of Gamist would have to focus on that factor.

Form this line of thought,  follows: 

…values the application of objective player skill in order to resolve situations defined as important to the group. These situations may be based upon combat, mysteries, puzzles or anything else where skilled play may make a difference in outcome although that difference doesn't always need to be as simple as obvious victory/defeat.


The missing Corner?

The Threefold as presented in the FAQ doesn't  claim to represent all  influences on a campaign. One additional source of possible influence that often comes up is  that of Social Influences. For example, the GM decides not to kill a player's character because they've had a difficult month in real life, or the classic case of the GM changing his rulings to benefit the girlfriend.

Basically these types of decisions are made to influence or maintain the social interactions of the players rather than to support drama, simulation or game. Simply put, the decision is more concerned with the desires of the players than anything else.

Most people can readily see this this is a type of decision making unrelated to the current Threefold that nonetheless has significant impact on the course of a campaign. And a significant number of people think that it should be added making the Threefold into a Fourfold.

There are however a few notable problems encountered along the way.

First there is the issue that two of the current corners already contain the idea of considering the desires of the players. 

It is a long tradition in oral storytelling to target your tale to the audience. Indeed, the concept of  a 'good story' in some (but not all) groups means exactly that as whither or not  the players liked the result is key to deciding if the Story was a good one. This type of Dramatist would likely see the decision not to kill a character as Story based since his player would disapprove of the other outcome given their mindset at the time.

Also many (but again, not all) Gamists do attempt to match the difficulty and events of the game to the expectations of their players. So under this viewpoint, lowering the difficulty because a player has had a hard month might be seen as readjusting the game to meet expectations.

To avoid those problems we could redefine Drama and Game to reflect only the desires of the GM ( is the story better from his POV?, if not it must have been a Social concern). Thus anything that reflects player desires must fall in the new Social Influences corner. The problem one now encounters is that we've lumped the Dramatists and Gamists in the above examples into the same corner, but they've made their decisions on based upon two very different reasons. Thus rather than making things more clear by adding to the model, we've covered up what were previously very obvious motivations.

Another option is define the Social Influences in terms of "when not related to Drama, Story or Simulation concerns". This is functional, however it comes at the cost of a negative definition much like the current one for Simulation although a beneficial outcome of this method is the addition of symmetry to the current Threefold model since we would now have two positive  and two negative definitions.

The final issue, and the most telling one from my perspective, is that it is the Social Influences in the first place that define when and how the other Threefold concerns are used. Given this fact, it seems rather obvious that one doesn't define controlling influences at the same level you define their results. It would be like defining a "Street Intersection Model" Fourfold of turn right, turn left, go straight, and the guy who actually is driving. From this perspective, the best way to view Social Influences is that they exist above and beyond the Threefold, determining its current usage or not for whatever reason judged reasonable at the time. 

So while I think the idea of a Social Influences corner is attractive in many ways, I'd have to say that it is a subject best left on its own and unconnected to the Threefold.


An Improved ThreeFold

Based upon the above points, what would be better defined terms for the Threefold? I'd suggest  something based upon John Kim's work, but slightly changed as follows: 

Story: values how well the game creates a satisfying storyline. Different kinds of stories may be viewed as satisfying, depending on individual tastes, varying from fanciful pulp action to believable character drama. 

Skill: values the application of objective player skill in order to resolve situations important to the group. These situations may be based upon combat, mysteries, puzzles or anything else where skilled play may make a difference in outcome although that difference doesn't always need to be as simple as obvious victory/defeat.

World: values the concept of game world events resolving as they would if the world had an independent and actual existence completely separate from that of the GM or players. 

Players and/or campaigns may be defined in terms of Story-Oriented, Skill-Oriented or World-Orient if most decisions consider a single concern primary.

Much of the rest of the FAQ can remain intact, although a better statement of scope (as noted above) is required.


Lack of Practical Application

Even with this improved definition, the Threefold still has a major remaining problem. There just is not much practical application.

Knowing that I'm primarily a Skill-Oriented player doesn't really say that much about me. It means that I think the result of player skill (or the lack thereof)  should be the most important concern in the course of the game. But in what way, where and how? Do I like intense closely match combats? Or is it the challenge of solving a mystery by use of logic alone that thrills me? Do I like GURPS or D&D? What about Rune? Should combats be decided by who manages their resources best, or by who maneuvers their forces better? Do players work together or is every man for himself? All unknown.

Indeed, it is highly likely for different Skill-Oriented people  to completely disagree as to what should be in an actual campaign. One wanting to solve mysteries with logic might well have no desire to use ever use combat rules which may be the primary interest for a dungeon crawler.

The only practical application for the Threefold is stating it as a reason when communicating another point. Saying I'm Skill-Oriented means little, saying that I use System X because it supports my Skill-Oriented desires in character design on the other hand does mean something very different that saying I use System X because it supports my Word-Oriented desires in character design.

No matter the definitions, this limit of the Threefold must be kept in mind in order to avoid needless misrepresentation.


2006 Update:

Much has changed since I first wrote this article, has been been effectively dead for a number of years and in practical terms the Threefold (called GDS after it's primary corners by people referencing it today) died with it.

Part of the collapse of the group is explainable by the normal Internet patterns such as movement to web based discussion and the natural coming and going of people online. Part of it however was in my judgment due to the GDS Threefold itself.

Within r.g.f.a the debates and flamewars continued over the meanings and perceived elitism of the model. While there were many members who claimed association with the Sim corner, there never appears any significant presence of those willing to take up the defined positions of the others although some would identify with them in passing.

The strong proponents of drama based gaming were the first to leave expressing disenchantment with the model itself and the group in general. The dominance of model in the group left them feeling excluded as conversation was directed either towards only debating that model, or a distorted view of their gaming forced by the model as supporters consistently used it to frame anything said on the subject.

This was followed by the exiting of Gamist proponents for much the same reasons, differing only in that the conflicts was over the Gamist corner of the model.

Things carried on for a while pass this, however few of the new people coming to the group supported the model. Lost of many of the original theorists in r.f.g.a combined with the normal pressures of the Internet already noted dropped the group below a needed critical mass. The result is its current 'death state' where months may pass before a topical post is seen.

In the end the Threefold was a model made by self-defined simulationists to explain key elements of the role-playing scene to themselves, and it was unable to grow beyond this beginning. Originally intended to defused disagreements by explaining gaming differences in a way that implied equality, it produced division, broke online relationships, and shattered the first significant home of RPG theory on the Internet. 

The entire (rather sad story) can be view in nearly its entirety for the dedicated researcher by means of and it's archives of from 1997 to end of 2003.

This however did not mark the end of the Threefold concepts, nor the troubles thereof. Rather a new model would not only take it's place- it would expanded far beyond it, Ron Edwards' GNS Model.


Threefold Debates