Ludo, Ergo Sum

Ludo, Ergo Sum
My Eyes Glaze Over

Allen Varney | 14 Mar 2006 11:02
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Many online gamers know about UK professor Richard Bartle's 1990 classification of MUD players as achievers, explorers, socializers or killers. Many analysts have followed Bartle, notably Stanford doctoral student Nicholas Yee and his Daedalus Project. In paper games, the idea of classifying players dates to 1980, when Glenn Blacow suggested four basic motives of RPG players: roleplaying, storytelling, powergaming and wargaming.

As developed in the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.frp.advocacy in the late 1990s, these four approaches shrank to a Threefold Model, which christened them Simulationist, Dramatist and Gamist. Avid roleplayers on The Forge forums revised the model. Game designer Ron Edwards renamed the Dramatist approach "Narrativist," and the theory gained prominence as GNS (Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist). Lately, Edwards and the Forge-ites have been pounding out "the Big Model," a comprehensive GNS replacement.

The Big Model characterizes roleplaying as a social contract among players to explore a shared imagining composed of five elements: Character, Setting, Situation, System (the actual game rules) and Color (atmospheric nuances). The group's "demonstrated goals and desired feedback during play" constitute the all-important Creative Agenda, which encompasses the GNS framework mentioned above. GNS and the Creative Agenda describe the kinds of fun that players want from a particular game.

GNS postulates three basic outlooks that shape any given action in an RPG, and to a lesser extent characterize players' overall styles:

  • Gamist players like to overcome obstacles, gain power or increased options, and "win."
  • Narrativists like to shape their roleplaying sessions to create a good story or examine a dramatic theme.
  • Simulationists want their character's behavior and circumstances to follow a believable, consistent, or "realistic" logic.

All three outlooks are equally valid. Edwards asserts a given set of game rules cannot satisfy all three outlooks at once. The system's Techniques should be "coherent," focused to support a single outlook. "Techniques include IIEE, Drama/Karma/Fortune, search time and handling time, narration apportioning, reward system, points of contact, character components, scene framing, currency among the character components and much more." (GNS glossary.) If the players in the group have incompatible outlooks, or an outlook incompatible with the game's Techniques, the game won't satisfy them.

Players may also clash if they commonly employ Stances that conflict with one another's expectations. "Stance" describes the way you decide what your character does at a given moment:

  • In Actor Stance, you determine your character's decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions the character would have.
  • In Author Stance, you choose what you personally want to happen, then retrofit your character's motivations to explain the choice. (If you don't care about an explanation, this is called "Pawn" stance.)
  • In Director Stance, you determine not only the character's actions but also their context, perhaps including timing or aspects of the environment.

Again, all Stances are valid. Players shift Stances frequently moment by moment, but specific stances are suited to particular games or play styles. For instance, a game that stresses "immersion" (a feeling of being "possessed" by your character) usually calls for Actor Stance. Stances are one tool for achieving GNS goals. If you make decisions in a way contrary to another player's expectations, that could mean trouble for the group.

Stances belong to the Ephemera that support the group's Creative Agenda. Other Ephemera include "in-character vs. out-of-character diction and dialogue, referring to texts, sound effects, taking or referring to notes, kibitzing, laughing, praise or disapproval, showing pictures, and anything similar."

There's quite a lot more, but maybe your Time to Sheesh is dropping rapidly. Still, if you've ever been in a roleplaying game that feels more like a chore than a delight, such analysis can be a lifeline to sanity. The Big Model recognizes and prizes diversity of viewpoints. By understanding and appreciating other players' outlooks, you can more easily adjust your expectations in a game based on those outlooks.

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