Why RPG Theory has a Bad Rep

This a a collection of a five part series I published on my blog in early 2009, collected together here in a single location for future reference.


The Threefold

If one visits some of the more common RPG sites online, there's a good chance that sooner or later you're run into what is call GNS, which sadly is the most visible 'RPG Theory' today. While I think it's declining in importance, it has left a long shadow of bad feelings that's cause many to knee-jerk away from anyone speaking theory or design. Passions are heated and the number of flamewars over this is beyond count.

So, why is that? How did GNS trash RPG Theory as a whole to the point where the best nearly any forum with a Game Design subject can do is talk about how to roll dice in a different way?

Like most things, it didn't begin with GNS. It started much earlier, to my knowledge in the Usenet group rec.games.frp.advocacy (r.g.f.a) around the mid 1990s. And it's here that I'd like to start.

Originally r.g.f.a was a typical advocacy group on Usenet where someone could scream that RuneQuest was better than D&D and get immediate foes claiming the reverse. In short, it was a dumping ground for flamewars. This changed however as the group membership abandoned exchanges about which game was better instead talking about characteristics of gaming itself. Rec.games.frp.Advocacy in effect became the first noticeable RPG Theory group online.

Into this enter one David Berkman (one of the authors of Theatrix). Berkman advocated a style of play based around 'what was good for the story', not what the mindless dice or needs of simulation would call for. 'Advocated' as is 'this is the best way, any other way is stupid' type of advocating.

This was unacceptable to other members of the forum, those who based their gaming upon the desire to recreate a internally consistent game world that would allow deep immersion role-play. In such a campaign, even examining the 'plot', let alone altering it in the name of ‘improvement', was an ice cold bath dumped upon their life passion.

Thus the r.g.f.a core divide came into being between Story-Telling vs. Simulation as the two sides were called (later Story-Telling would be replaced by the label Drama).

Under fire, those on the Simulation side of things spent a great deal of time and effort defining what they actually believed. And for good reason, after all it's difficult to defend something unless you can say what it is. Along the way, they also defined what Berkman's ideas of Story-Telling driven gaming meant to them.

Eventally Berkman left the group although his influence remained until its end.

Afterwards the various members decided to build upon the defintions made during the great debate. They saw things as divided between Drama on one hand, and Simulation on the other as a result of the Berkman flamewars.

But the point was raised that people who just gamed for the fun of gaming didn't seem represented. Thus the term Gamist was coined and from there the leap (generally credited to Mary Kuhner) was made to what became the Threefold Model (also called GDS by some).

The important thing to me about the Threefold is that was created under fire, and was create by those who with rare exception called themselves Simulationists. Mary Kuhner's influence both upon the model and the newsgroup as a whole was the most powerful, although John Kim who maintained the group FAQ certainly had an impact as well.

So the end result was what one would expect. A model with a very nice definition of Simulation (I should note here that Warren Dew, perhaps the best example of what the term Simulation was meant to mean didn't like the term that much), but rather half-baked and even somewhat insulting definitions of the other two corners.

I truly feel that was unintended, but still the unavoidable result given that the creators of the Threefold didn't really understand any other style of player besides their own. They could not but describe Game and Drama except as 'other'. Instead their failing if anything was the refusal to take input from those of other styles who over the next few years as the 90s came to an end engaged them in Threefold debate after Threefold debate.

Many tried (including myself from the Game POV), especially various people who would have like to have identified with Drama. Nearly all give up, only to be replaced by new people who arrived and had the same reaction. Finally the supporters (most importantly Kuhner herself who drove much of the threads in the newsgroup) of the Threefold got fed up with all the attacks and left r.g.f.a. The newsgroup died.

Along the way was a fair amount of interesting discussion and good ideas. It’s worth reviewing some of the threads in Google Groups. But the mental image left to those aware of r.g.f.a was endless bickering over word use, all for a model that didn't really define or mean much to most gamers given its Simulationist founding and control.

So the Threefold was born in flames, and died in flames. With a hint of Personality Cult around its creator at that. But far worst was to come in that line with Ron Edwards and GNS...


As the sun set on the Threefold, it rose on GNS.

GNS followed on the heels and built upon the ground of Threefold, however in many ways they were worlds apart. Where the Threefold was only concerned with individual decisions by players and GMs, GNS would seek to define entire game systems. Where the Threefold was interested only in expressing the ideas of individual, GNS would seek to be a movement to change the hobby. Where the Threefold by error uplifted Simulation, the GNS would by intent trumpet Narrativism. Where the Threefold was a reaction to being attacked, GNS would be the attacker.

Ron Edwards took many of the original concepts of the Threefold and turned them on it's head around 1999 with the publication of System Does Matter. Here he replaced the Threefold's Drama with the term Narrativist and redefined the other two terms (Gamist and Simulationist) although he kept the wording.

The goal was completely different from that of r.g.f.a, here the intent was to define game systems (not individual decisions) by the three concepts. And further and more importantly he would claim "a good system is one which knows its outlook and doesn't waste any mechanics on the other two outlooks." This was a radical departure from the Threefold who viewed individuals as commonly using all three elements throughout a game session.

Thus, according to Edwards a game was to be judged as to how well it allows you to play in one of the three modes, which by nature means that it could not let you play in any of the other two. Games that did this would later be labeled coherent, those that failed this test would be labeled incoherent.

Armed with this new vision, Edwards set out upon a crusade to remake the hobby replacing such inferior (to his mind) work as the incoherent World of Darkness games (which according to him preached Narrativist play while only offering Gamist mechanics).

Towards this end, he took 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 where once before it supported any and all free rpgs offered oline. Renamed The Forge, it holds the definitive articles on GNS.

Message forums were added to the site, and this by nature attracted a number of people previously involved in the Threefold or other theory debates including myself by invitation.

It soon became clear however that this wasn't r.g.f.a, for this place was even less accepting of disagreement and more than willing to enforce it by moderation. I broke all contact early on when the site admins edited a posters comments that reflected poorly upon the supporters of the new model (without informing the poster or making a notation of the action). The effect was to make my own reply to the now edited article appear far over the top. Any and all posts by me and links to my works at the site were pulled by the Admins at my request after a short firestorm.

In short order, entire threads would be managed and locked when they in Edward's view diverged from the core (now GNS) intent of the site. The original offer to build new theory and rpgs was found to have a serious limit- only as long as they met Edward's approval.

For the next few years the site's forums saw limited and focused debate effectively limited to believers as Edwards sought to refine his model. During this time his distain for corners except Narrativist would become clear as this quote on Simulationism shows

"Paul and I are now thinking that Simulationism is NOT an actual outlook or goal, unlike Narrativism or Gamism. Nor is it a "design dial," as many have suggested.

No, we think that Simulationism is a form of retreat, denial, and defense against the responsibilities of either Gamism or Narrativism."

Gamism would fair somewhat better than Simulationism, but would still be characterized as being more akin to board games rather than rpgs, and in terms unfamilar and unacceptable to the typical role-player. From 1999 on Edwards would author additional articles on his model expanding on his concepts of how rpgs should be designed. These are jargon filled almost beyond belief. Those interested can review them themselves here.

What is striking about these events is both what it has in common with the original Threefold and where it differs. Both were models developed by someone who heavily favored one of the corners, and both refused outside suggestions for change or improvement. Edwards however took GNS places where the Threefold never stepped- outright dismissal of one of its corners, intense criticism of various RPGs and gaming styles, and to a mission that would make new rpgs that were in all ways better than any that came before.

The Threefold was a human failure due to lack of prespective. GNS was from the start an ego driven obesssion.

Finally 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."

Any future exchanges on GNS (or the Big Model that evolved from it) at the Forge were now shut down. The model was perfect, the stage set. It was time to go forth and multiply.


The Swine Wars

One of the other differences GNS had with the preceding Threefold was the desire to spread the word and to influence the hobby as a whole. To this end, believers at the Forge would spread to other message boards both to wax poetically upon the benefits of GNS and most importantly to combat any who attempted to point out problems with the theory.

I say most importantly because the Internet thrives on flamewars and conflicts. Reasoned exchanges soon drop out of sight online and are remember by few. And dropping out of sight was the last thing the GNS movement wanted. To this end they would engage anyone gainsaying their viewpoint anywhere. And if there wasn’t anyone to engage, they would make certain that GNS related topics remained in public view through consistent posting.

To this end they had a number of powerful advantages besides the fanatical core believers.

The first was the sheer mass and jargon of the GNS body of Theory, and its open and implied insults against other game styles. The latter was certain to draw fire while the former allowed a wide range of response and if nothing else, allowed the faithful or unaware to debate the meaning of the model between themselves. Both factors kept GNS in the public eye for years.

The second advantage they enjoyed was the arrival of the Print on Demand era. It was now possible for nearly anyone to publish a RPG for almost nothing up front. The GNS movement took immediate advantage of this by publishing theory focused games using their new ‘author’ status to gain ‘gamer cred’ as someone of some importance. Further these games were new fuel for keeping GNS visible online as each release would renew the debate over the theory and what it was now producing.

Their third advantage was the reaction of some on the net. Perhaps the most noticeable case is found in RPGpundit and his message board. This self declared guardian ‘of the frontier against the swine’ labeled GNS believers ‘Swine’ and used his blog and forum to launch weak diatribes laced with petty profanity against them at every turn. This of course played directly into the hands of the GNS crowd by keeping them front and center. And linked anyone else opposing them with the image of irrationality RPGpundit brought to the debate.

The Swine Wars (to use RPGPundit’s term) was off and running. Ron Edwards and GNS would enjoy all the limited fame the Internet could bring to an extent never seen before in RPG Theory. Their sun had risen high indeed, and their day was bright.

But they were about to be undone by three important factors: the arrival of one of the few serious studies of gaming styles, the highly limited appeal of their games, and their need for public attention and desire to push the edge.


The Fading of GNS

While GNS gained early success and spread at least a limited version of its concepts far and wide, in the end this was to be about as important as the latest Britney Spears hair cut. Sure it made the news. But to continue without becoming a joke it would need to produce something of worth to the common gamer.

This was the movement’s first failure. While a number of highly focused GNS style small press games were published, none reached any serious level of success. Most in GNS terms actually failed to support Narrativism as a whole, instead focusing on a single Narrativist theme. They were from the ground up designed to do one thing and only one thing. Examples include Life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyards

Predictably the result of turning away from the wide open range of traditional RPG design was a narrowing of the game’s long term usefulness. Such work resembled more a ‘party game’, something to be played once or twice and then forgotten. And indeed, it was not uncommon to see the Forge crowd move from game to game the way one moves from one Hollywood release to the next.

To compensate for these one-trick-ponies, the Forge crowd attempted to hitch themselves to more traditional designs (Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel) with a mechanic or two that supported at least in part some goal of Narrativism, but these was a thin and unconvincing dodge at best.

Perhaps the most serious blow would come from WotC, the makers of D&D. They commissioned a study of role-players that covered some of the same ground as GNS, specifically why people play and towards what goals. The results were from a GNS viewpoint back breaking. It seems that as far as goals and styles were concerned, System Didn’t Matter. Be it D&D, VtM or anything else, each game had roughly identical numbers of any specific style.

Thus the core concept behind GNS ‘that the best games would focus on one goal and reject others’ was proven false. Players didn’t care if the mechanics supported their goals. Rather it seems that they’d find them on their own (as Layers of Design would indicate- what isn't found in the Game Layer mechanics can often be found in the meta-game layers).

Faced with such a damning rejection of the core ideas of GNS, as well as not finding their new GNS based games making significant inroads in the market, Ron Edwards would take likely the worse possible response. He’d declare that RPG gamers who displayed such undesired tendencies to find Story anywhere other than GNS style games were in fact suffering Brain Damage.

"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.*]" Ron Edwards, 1-24-2006 Lumply.com Blog

Edwards would expand upon these thoughts, and find agreement echoed by much of the Forge membership.

The Internet firestorm was immediate and immense, and even caused former believers to condemn such statements. GNS had turned the corner from oddball theory to a nutcase spewing bile at those who saw the world differently. All that was left was a few more nails in the coffin.

Following on the heels of the Brain Damage claims was a turn by key members of the movement towards games intended to push the edge of acceptable game design- not in mechanics as such, but in what those mechanics were intended to inspire. The best example of this was Vincent Baker’s game Poison’d, which made a splash with an actual play report on rpg.net in 2007(http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=350453, starts at post 11).

By itself, that would have only indicated a rather sick group of players. Except of course GNS is all about the design influencing the players. Something Baker himself would agree with in the same thread. Other threads on other sites (including those by the author) would reinforce this image. Soon many were linking GNS with perverse gaming as well as ineffective theory.

In combination, these factors would doom GNS to the dust bin of the Internet. Now more a joke than a movement, little more remains than a handful of people claiming some worth in some part of the whole. The Forge still exists, and will likely continue to do so for a while yet. But the sun has set on GNS, leaving a long shadow over RPG Theory.



And so we’ve reached the end of our five part history lesson.

We’re currently as of this writing (Feb 2nd 2009) in the shadow years of GNS. No other set of theories have appeared with any noticeable following leaving the online world with fragments of GNS and little else. Most speaking of it today do so with little real knowledge of the theory. Of course that was always the case given its jargon and inconsistencies, but now more so than ever. A very common mistake I see is replacing its concepts with those of the older and (although flawed) much clearer Threefold.

In its wake, anyone discussing theory will hit a major barrier as the reaction by readers is near immediate dismissal. After all, the previous ‘theorists’ failed to produce anything understandable or useful. And they managed to insult nearly the entire hobby along the way. Nor does it help that others coming afterwards tend to build upon GNS or pick something far too similar.

The one bright point is that GNS now has few defenders, and while some do speak up for small parts of the theory- almost no one defends it in its entirety or its creator.

I wanted a example and so I went looking at RPGnet and grabbed the first related thread written today I came across. It shows all the traits mentioned above, but has little else of interest (I haven’t read past page 6, but these things seldom improve as they go).

Thus any new body of theory would have to overcome the resistance created by its predecessors. To manage such a task would require it to be clear and concise, and lacking the biased nature of GNS or the Threefold.

Even if such a reasonable and useful thing could be achieved, the nature of the Internet is such that it will likely be praised- and then forgotten. The simple truth is that most people don’t need RPG Theory anymore than the typical reader of the Time Best Sellers List needs an understanding of the formal schools of literature. Not everyone of course is a typical reader, so it’s not completely a lost cause. But I don’t foresee any successful Theory becoming an internet buzz word.

The prime example of this is found in the WotC's study that undermined the core of GNS. It's just not talked about anymore, although its findings were quite interesting.

Sadly there's always room online for more flamewars. Ron Edwards' one lasting achievement was a blueprint for taking over Theory discussions online. I for one, hope that the next in his footsteps will be a while in coming.