My Eyes Glaze Over

Are you a Gamist, a Narrativist or a Simulationist? Do you generally favor Actor, Author or Director stance? Do your chosen reward system, your IIEE (Intent, Initiation, Execution and Effect) and other Techniques support your Creative Agenda?

These are terms used by paper-and-dice roleplaying theorists. When you say, “I swing my sword at the biggest orc,” these people analyze, with Jesuit rigor, what you really mean and why.

Tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) are currently enjoying a Golden Age of design and theory, prompted by the stagnation of commercial RPG publishing. Over the last decade, hundreds of retail game stores have shut down; the surviving stores are rebounding, but they’re carrying fewer RPGs, and, in fact, they could make more money selling knitting needles. Print runs for new RPG books are low, if no longer declining. Attendance at the leading convention is flat. A deceptively upbeat Sacramento Bee article estimates the market in 2004 at $36 million, down perhaps $100 million from the mid-1980s. Tabletop RPGs aren’t dying, but they’re hardly thriving.

Except online, where dozens of passionate designers are revolutionizing the field. These low-profile independents create small, brilliantly original little games, nurture them like hothouse orchids, and post them free or sell them cheap in PDF format. And in online forums as highflown as a philosophe’s salon, they’re collectively refining a critical apparatus, a theoretical framework to classify game systems and diagnose “dysfunctional roleplaying.”

Understand: These indie theorists and their games reach a bare fraction of the roleplaying audience. They’re the nichiest of niche players. Gamers sharply distinguish indie games from so-called mainstream RPGs, where “mainstream” connotes an audience of a few thousand instead of a few hundred. If mainstream designers live a threadbare existence, indies are positively monastic. A few earn hobby-level incomes – about what you might earn, say, selling collectibles on eBay part-time. The rest are devoted hobbyists, “amateurs” in the best sense.

But they’re doing work that may turn out to be quite valuable, both for paper and online games. In the same way RPGs use rules to forestall childish cowboy-and-Indian arguments – “I hit you!” “Nuh-uh!” – theorists develop terminology to describe whether a given game helps players achieve their goals. This discourages vacuous Usenet-style arguments – “Your game sucks!” “My game rules!” – or at least replaces those arguments with “Your game is Gamist!” “My game is Narrativist!” The theorists’ overall goals are to enhance communication between gamers, inspire new designs and relate RPGs to other media. Obviously, their findings could help a thoughtful MMOG designer.

Still, though the theory is useful, reading it can be a slog. For sheer cussed opacity, the articles don’t rank with Derrida or Baudrillard, but…. Try this: Start a stopwatch, then browse a theory article – for example, “GNS and Other Matters of Roleplaying Theory” by Ron Edwards. Count the seconds until you mutter, “Sheesh, get a job.” If you never say that – if you enjoy ideas like this –

In many cases, a given genre label will convey to a close group of people a fairly tight combination of values for these variables [of setting, plot, situation and character]. 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 label.

– you’ll enjoy your new friends in the salon. For the rest of us, here is a brief, relatively painless overview, although if your Time to Sheesh was less than 20 seconds, skip it.

Threefold Model, GNS, The Big Model
Roleplaying theory springs from the commonsense observation that gamers roleplay for different reasons.

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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 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.

Edwards concludes his seminal essay “GNS and Other Matters of Roleplaying Theory” with a heartfelt discussion of “dysfunctional roleplaying“; his words will resonate with many, many gamers:

I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced roleplayers with this profile: a limited repertoire of games behind him and extremely defensive and turtle-like play tactics. […H]e 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 say nothing.”

I have not, in over 20 years of roleplaying, ever seen such a person have a good time roleplaying. I have seen a lot of groups founder due to the presence of one such participant. Yet they really want to play…

These roleplayers are GNS casualties. […]They are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough. […]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.

The Fruits of Their Effort
Though I’m a professional game designer, GNS theory hasn’t directly helped me improve my craft. Partly, this is because for two years I’ve been concerned exclusively with a new edition of the classic RPG PARANOIA, an offbeat game that fits awkwardly in the GNS framework. (Forge articles seldom mention PARANOIA.)

But many other designers have somehow soldiered on without me. Some, taking strongly to GNS and the Big Model, have produced amazing work, and I’ve gleefully stolen many ideas. Don’t look for their games in your local store; they’re almost all small press, print-on-demand or PDF-only, sold exclusively through e-tailers like Indie Press Revolution, RPGMall and e23. A few highlights from this teeming field:

  • Sorcerer (Ron Edwards, Adept Press): You have no magic yourself, but you can bind demons to your bidding. How far are you willing to go?
  • Dogs in the Vineyard (Vincent Baker, Lumpley Games): Mormon(ish) missionaries, “God’s Watchdogs,” on the 19th-Century frontier, cleansing possessed townsfolk. (Review by Frank Sronce.)
  • My Life With Master (Paul Czege, Half Meme Press): Stupendously atmospheric and intensely innovative, MLWM casts you as Igor, in service to a harsh nonplayer Master; your characteristics are Weariness, Self-Loathing and Unrequited Love. (Review by Steve Darlington.)
  • Primetime Adventures (Matt Wilson, Dog-eared Designs): Create your own episodic TV melodrama. (Review by Aaron Stone.)
  • The Shadow of Yesterday (Clinton Nixon, Anvilwerks): Post-apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery fantasy meets Wuthering Heights in this highly original “open source” paper RPG released under a Creative Commons license. (Review by Jeremy Reaban.)

Find more good indie RPGs, with links, on the Wiki.

For major fun, check the contest entries by stunt-flying indie designers who create entire RPGs in one day or one week, or based on two out of four random words suggested by Ron Edwards. All these entries are hosted on 1000 Monkeys 1000 Typewriters.

Want to learn more? Hit The Forge forums. Also check out the Roleplaying Open forum and blogs such as The 20′ By 20′ Room, Attacks of Opportunity, and RPG Theory Review.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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