What the GNS theory says (according to me)

So, this thread turned into the usual sort of debate between GNS supporters and detractors. I myself observed that it is actually pretty difficult to debate effectively over what the GNS theory says, because there necessarily isn't actually any current text that a given GNS supporter would hold authoritative. I know that there isn't one for my own positions, as the more than decade-old articles Ron wrote in the past were written in the midst of discussion and never updated to match the increased understanding.

I got the idea that it might be interesting to read about my own up-to-date understanding of GNS theory. I am not an original participant in the formative dialogues, but I did read them diligently from the start, learned the GNS theory and have been using it and other Forge theory (the "Big Model", as Ron calls his general overview of the concepts) for the last decade in my gaming. I'm adept enough with this stuff to have my own opinions and the ability to bicker about the nuances - not just what some old article says, but what actually is true theoretically speaking.

If others would like to share the points on which their understanding/opinion on the GNS theory agrees or deviates from mine, that might be interesting. You can also take the following as my current actually held position on the theoretical issues involved here, so it should make it easier to debate my position meaningfully, should we come upon some interesting disagreements.

And of course, if you've never bothered to figure this stuff out for yourself, here's a relatively short and clear treatment. Whether you think that GNS is the bee's knees or the dumbest shit on Earth, it does good to a soul to learn what it is exactly that you're agreeing or disagreeing with.


My sources on the GNS theory are the original articles and dialogues (available at the Forge for the most part if you know where to look), upon which I've formed my own opinions long ago - I won't even double-check my writing against some authority here, you'll get my GNS understanding off the top of my head. I do not particularly recommend the original texts for any but the historically curious at this point. I peremptorily agree with anybody who says that it is unfortunate that there aren't any really expansive, firm and authoritative treatments on the topic available at the moment. I imagine that somebody will get around to it at some point, as a historical curiousity if nothing else :D

(If you do want an unvarnished explanation of the theory from as authentic and authoritative source as could be, I guess the thing to do is to go ask Ron about it - he's got a forum where he answers questions, I imagine he'd be willing to discuss GNS as much as anything.)

It should be noted, though, that sourcing of claims is not important to theoretical position pieces, which this is; I am not claiming that the following run-down of the model and its definitions is somehow official or represents the Forgite consensus or what Ron Edwards thinks, or whatever. The most that can be said is that I agree with what I write here, at the time of the writing, and that it is my understanding that my GNS theory is in line with the general Forgite orthodoxy. That last bit means that while I may define some things a little differently than somebody else does, the broad outline of the theory as subscribed by me is pretty much the same as what other Forgite theorists generally understand as the Big Model and GNS theory.

(A funny note: if I were to be wrong on that last point, you could take that as proof positive that I don't actually know what I'm talking about nearly as well as I think I do. Caveat emptor.)


I'll discuss some terms to make sure we really do understand each other when I use them later.

The Big Model - the general model of the structural dynamics of roleplaying developed by Ron Edwards from his dialogues at the Forge. The Big Model is mostly concerned with understanding exactly how the medium of roleplaying is used to satisfy a creative agenda. In practice it's a big bunch of labels for various things in the act of roleplaying - not so much a theory as an abstract model useful for further theoretical work. Of course, the act of modeling implies many assumptions.

Roleplaying game - defined as interactive (occurring between the participants) manipulation of the Shared Imagined Space. The Big Model and GNS theory do not really address types of activity culturally deciphered as "roleplaying" that do not conform to this definition. It's mostly important when you realize that some weird LARP or computer game is sufficiently unlike a tabletop game for the theory to not apply.

Creative Agenda - the creative pay-off you seek by bothering to play a given roleplaying game in the first place. This is the psychological reason for why you are interested in playing the game. It would be fair to say that the Creative Agenda is why you experience the game as "fun", except that people are elusive beings psychologically and fully capable of e.g. having fun despite a game being present. We use the same term "Creative Agenda" or "CA" for an individual player's interests at the table, the group's (cohesive) aggregate agenda and even a hypothetical agenda that a given game text or rules system supports; this makes sense in that in a coherent roleplaying game all three of these Creative Agendas are essentially the same.

CA Coherence - when players of the roleplaying game consistently act upon their own creative priorities in a way that supports those of the other players as well. In other words, play is coherent when the players understand and appreciate what the other players are doing, and why. Note that the performance of the players doesn't need to be good to be Coherent, it just needs to be intelligible and the effort appreciated.

CA Incoherence - when the actions of the players fail to support the Creative Agendas present at the table. This could conceivably be a player failing to entertain themself, but it is more usual for different players to be bringing in Creative Agendas that incohere: actions that are intelligible and worthwhile from the viewpoint of one are not cohesive from the viewpoint of the other.


  • GNS theory precepts

    The GNS theory attempts to explain how, when and why CA Incoherence comes about. To this end, some more definitions to go on top of the above:

    CA Mode - a subset of all possible Creative Agendas that shares the property of being rooted in a single creative drive. By "creative drive" we mean psychological mechanisms that cause cultural desires, particularly desires related to play. The definition is vague to be sure, but we may assume that this relates somehow back to what the psychological discipline knows about human playfulness.

    Gamism - the CA Mode associated with the creative drive to competition. Humans desire playful competition to challenge themselves, to gain esteem in the eyes of their peers and so on. Feelings of simulated triumph and loss are probably somehow relevant to evolution psychology, as we know from other reading.

    Simulationism - the CA Mode associated with the creative drive to idle curiousity. Humans like to daydream, speculate and immerse imaginatively, perhaps to learn and virtually experience subject matters interesting to ourselves. Much childhood play is apparently rooted in the simulationist drive as well, I'd hazard.

    Narrativism - the CA Mode associated with the creative drive to moral meaning. Humans need identities, and apparently develop those by telling stories and casting simplified role-identities over complex reality; whatever the particulars (it is an interesting topic as are the psychological underpinnings of all the CA Modes, but I'm not going to dissect it here), stories are enjoyed for how they express thematic ideas.

    GNS theory claims

    GNS theory claims the following:
    * CA Modes exist, and there are three of them, as defined above.
    * All Creative Agendas originate in a creative drive, and thus each observable individual or group CA may be categorized to belong in one of the CA Modes.
    * CA Modes exhibit an internal cohesive property: cohesive play will generally result when the Creative Agendas of the individuals involved are of a single Mode.
    * CA Modes exhibit an external incohesion: Creative Agendas belonging in different Modes will generally prove inchoate when brought together, and fail to produce a coherent group CA.

    Or, expressed in a more familiar way: if you want coherent play, you have to be playing with either Gamist, Simulationist or Narrativist priorities. Otherwise the play will be incoherent.

    Support for the GNS theory claims

    Historically Forge theorists have applied introspective methods for exploring, affirming and correcting rpg theory: you try to match a hypothesis against your own experiences, and if it "fits" as an explanatory framework, then you may count that as support for the hypothesis, or otherwise you have an opportunity to improve upon your model to make it accord with the experience. More rigorously, you may produce things like actual play reports to fix fluid memories and impressions into stable models of reality, to be tried against your theoretical model. This process obviously has famously Freudian weaknesses, scientifically speaking, but that's life without a research budget :D

    For the GNS theory this means that it is generally only supported by testimony of practiced theorists, same as any pseudo-science. There are falsifiable claims in there, particularly about the cohesion properties claimed for the CA modes, but it would frankly be much too much work for such a minor hobby to conduct rigorous Science on it, so for the most part we're left to make up our own minds as to whether the above sounds credible or not. Some people think it is, some think that we're just affirming our own expectations. Human cognition is wacky enough that error is easy, especially with complex evaluations like these.

    All that being said, were one to attempt to disprove GNS theory, the process would presumably be the reverse of the amassing support that rpg theory uses to achieve confidence. One could e.g. produce play experiences and actual play reports that feature correctly analyzed personal CAs in differing Modes, and describes in detail how they interact in play to achieve cohesion despite the differing creative drives underlying the play of the individual players.

  • Implications of the theory

    The reader familiar with the subject matter will note that I've left out all discussion of "should" here. Traditionally GNS theory is discussed in a practical context in which the incoherence of play is a major, major issue, and therefore the somewhat blase cohesion claims of the theory gain dramatic weight in figuring out how to play roleplaying games. "My play sucks, is the problem caused by a GNS conflict?" is a classic topic of GNS discussion, alongside the sadly somewhat less common "I've figured out how to really make game X sing with CA Mode Y!"

    Assuming one underwrites the general Big Model claim that coherence of play is desirable or even necessary for actual roleplaying (or any interactive group activity, really) to be successful, GNS claims become a key fundament: if your play group does not have a CA Mode conflict, all is well and you may proceed to other more minor troubleshooting issues, but if a CA Mode conflict is present, then that's probably just about the first problem you want to be addressing.

    Some typical forms of GNS problems relatively prevalent in the hobby culture - prevalent enough that many of us recognize having seen these at some point somewhere:
    * A group has learned to play roleplaying games together over a period of time, and have honed a highly coherent paradigm. However, because of this they are unable to switch up their assumptions of play between games, and will basically force all games into their group paradigm. Some games will resist, or some members of the group grow frustrated with the inflexibility of the group's (coherent) agenda, or a new player fails to acclimate because of the group's One True Way.
    * A gaming group muddles along due to social reasons external to the game, such as force of habit or lack of better hobbies (or better friends). The gaming remains unsatisfactory due to entrenched personal creative agenda interests. A typical pattern has a GM desirous of a different CA than the other players (my pet theory is that this pattern comes about due to the asymmetry of the player roles: the players cohere together over time, but the GM fails to, because he sees the game from such a different perspective), and this causes an infinite cycle of aborted campaign play, as nobody, the GM in particular, is quite satisfied enough to stick with it long-term.
    * A GM wants to start a new group, but struggles with establishing a new creative agenda to his satisfaction with players who bring various disparate assumptions and a largely broken hobby language into the discussion. The combination of a mild game system (one that does not force the issue, that is), unclear creative discussion (roleplay vs. roll-play, say, or one of the other common hobby horses) and highly idiosyncratic individual preferences leads to a creative agenda mess where everybody thinks that they were playing the game in the way it is supposed to be played, and the way they agreed to play.

    Furthermore, GNS theory is generally held to imply that gaming groups should talk about creative agenda expectations in advance, that game texts should instruct and support a single Creative Agenda Mode, and that play technique may be improved by a better understanding of the CA Mode and its psychological antecedents. These are big ideas, heavily in conflict with certain traditional notions about roleplaying games. I think it's safe to say that we now know of many ways to achieve GNS coherence, and a "magic game" as advocated by some people during the Forge years (it never was a party line, note) is just one of the possibilities. To illustrate, I've myself played mostly old school D&D during the last few years, achieving a highly coherent CA by strict group discussion and hygienic GM technique rather than by using a magic rules system :D

    All of the above is inference, though, and not an actual part of the GNS theory. One could just as well decide that incoherence is a fact of life, and even if GNS is correct, it's not worth the effort to e.g. break up your gaming group to remake it with people who are willing to play in the same CA Mode with the others. Sometimes this attitude is presented as defiance of the GNS theory, which is fine as far as it goes, but doesn't really do anything to disprove the theory - you can rail against the significance of the theory without attacking its truth value, that is.

    (It might be interesting to know that before the Forge came about I myself was slowly coming to the conclusion that roleplaying is theoretically fun, but in practice it always devolves into an incoherent mess of frustrated artistic ambition. This teenager opinion could be expressed in theory terms as "incoherence is a fact of the form, and roleplaying is therefore inherently flawed - suck it up or get a better hobby". As has been discussed elsewhere, the people most excited about GNS theory tend to be the ones whose gaming history has not featured much cohesive play before they encountered the Forge and learned that particular toolbox of techniques to draw from.)

    Conclusive Notes

    As I said at the beginning, my understanding is that the above is all pretty much "what the Forge teaches", insofar as a now-defunct forum community teaches anything in a single voice. I am aware that I phrase things in a more psychologically oriented way than is traditional (e.g. my understanding of Creative Agenda as a "psychological mechanism"), and I have fully detached the terminology related to "Creative Agenda" and "CA Mode" from each other in a way foreign to early Forgite discussion, but generally agreed by everybody I've talked with. The actual substantial claims of GNS theory stand here as they have for the last decade or so, I think.

    As for my acceptance of the above... let's say that I do not consider myself to be immensely fanatical about GNS, and it is not in fact personally important to me whether GNS theory is correct or not. It has utility for me, but I am fully open to the idea that it might be improved upon or overturned. It hasn't really been challenged seriously so far, mostly I think because it is not easy to even understand what the theory is saying, so the varied detractors over the years have pretty much shadow-boxed against something or other with little relevance to the theory. I would personally welcome any new theory work in the field, either supportive or deconstructive of the GNS edifice.

    I would also like to note that if you find the above offensive in how it "white-washes" an old favourite enemy of yours, then do remember that for some of us 2002 was a long time ago (over a decade, in fact), and it might not be that interesting for others to continue to fight the battle of Gettysburg over and over. I see no reason for myself to attempt to defend the state of the theory at some point in the past when I use it today in the form explained above. If you'd like, feel free to continue thinking that your understanding of an old snapshot of somebody's thinking was really, really stupid, and nothing Eero says today can change that; that's no skin off my back, and my current thinking does not really address the old stuff, except maybe by explaining what it attempted to say a little differently.
  • So that's that. Feel free to ask any clarifying questions if it seems like I left something out, made a mistake, or whatever. This was a quick hack job late in the night, after all, for forum discussion purposes :D
  • 1. Go paste this stuff into the Big Model wiki too
    2. I so often… so very often have the reaction ”Omg that's not what Sim is!" when reading other's GNS posts. That stops feeling like a constructive thought after a while, but the feeling won't go away.
  • It's an interesting attempt to separate the theory from its implications, but if I have a theory that leads me to believe something that's patent nonsense, I try to toss the theory out the window and find another one. In other words, as with most reboots, if you didn't care about the original it's hard to muster the enthusiasm about the latest version.
  • Fair enough. I certainly didn't intend the above to be fresh and interesting - if you already know what the GNS is and says, then there's nothing new there. I was mostly inspired to "set the record straight" because there were some pretty woolly claims in the other thread about what GNS says, and I really, really didn't feel like linking to a decade-old article as some sort of an appeal to outdated authority.

    Regarding Sim, that reaction has a long and glorious history :D I don't quite know what to make of it, except maybe that there's a cultural dislike or mild taboo out there for daydreaming (which would be backwards, it being such a core faculty of cognition), and that motivates people to seek some nobler-sounding words for describing it. It certainly seems like everybody and their cat has their own favoured way of describing and characterizing Sim, in a way that does not seem to occur with the other CA modes.
  • Oh, I'd better clarify:
    I don't disagree with your description of sim above.
    It's more when it comes to specific examples, like I've bashed heads with David Berg about what sim is a couple of times (thanks for the patience Dave!)

    For me, sim is about finding out what would happen in that situation. It's the "Karma" from Everway. It's the OSR style of prepped worlds.
  • Sandra,

    I think that, while that's a very valid version of Sim play (I happen to like it, too), the Big Model's version of Sim ("The Right to Dream") encompasses a lot more playstyles than just that, including some that seem completely incompatible with what you like.


    I am very amused by this post! I'll be back with more thoughts later - time is a little time right now - but, needless to say, I always appreciate you posting this kind of thing.

    So, why am I amused?

    Because of this:

    What GNS Theory Claims
  • Damn you, you could've warned me in advance that I'd already written this piece at some point. I plain forgot about that :D

    So yeah, not like my opinions on this have changed during the last seven years in any significant way, so go on and enjoy the exact same article twice.
  • edited July 2015

    I think that, while that's a very valid version of Sim play (I happen to like it, too), the Big Model's version of Sim ("The Right to Dream") encompasses a lot more playstyles than just that, including some that seem completely incompatible with what you like.
    OK, I could perhaps get behind that, that Big Model sim is a superset of Sandra-approved sim. The bigger issue is that David set my sim up as gam. And I love gam a lot, I do, but it's kind of an orthogonal diagnosis of our group's play choices.

    I.e. if what I call sim can still be called sim, but a lot of other junk is also called sim... that's iffy, but if what I call sim isn't even eligible to be called sim, I'm calling shenanigans!

    It's like going back to the old r.g.f.a. Theatrix debate.
    Threefold Sim was started as a counterpoint to Theatrix that deliberately excluded Theatrix... but under Big Model definitions, Theatrix is Sim! That's a bitter pill for me to swallow.
  • But then, why does the labeling matter so much? To me it's not that significant, the crucial issue is substantial: does this Creative Agenda we're considering in fact stem from the same psycho-social motivations as this other one? Would they be cohesive when brought to the same game table, insofar as that would be possible? Are they incohesive together? Whether one calls it Gam or Sim doesn't seem that important in this context, not unless there's some conflicting agendas involved and we know that those are definitely in one mode or another.

    Of course one could be interested in understanding the creative agenda of their play for reasons other than modal conflict resolution. I myself have developed a habit through the last decade for being very clear, very verbal about the creative agenda of any play I orchestrate; I might not necessarily sermonize the other players about it at length, but I could. Like, we've been playing Paranoia recently as a summer diversion here, and it's been very fun, and I as the GM have been very much on the map and conscious about the creative agenda - Gamist slice of life comedy, in case you're wondering.

    I could see knowing the GNS mode of your agenda to be of significance from that sort of perspective, as an aid towards understanding yourself and developing the game towards sharper focus. It's all well and good to be playing instinctually well, but if you don't know why a game is fun for you, can't even hazard a guess at the psychological mechanism, then surely it is somewhat difficult to make improvements or address minor problems along the way.

    Thinking about it, GNS has probably been more important for me for the insight on how psychological drives transform into creative agenda than for the specific labeling of play into this or that mode.

    Also: yes, "play to find out what happens" is a core Sim technique/approach. I regularly use it to illuminate the differences between Sim and Gam in games that could drift either way easily enough. Many adventure games, for instance, balance precariously between the two, and it's often easiest to see which is really going on if you pay attention to the fidelities of the play practice: are the players faithful to the preservation, elevation and personal resolution of the challenge, or are they faithful to the proper execution of the simulative process and its imaginative application?
  • A 'world'-based game determines success and failure based on what is reasonable in terms of the game world - results depend on skill, tactics, situation, and random chance. The GM sets up a scenario by preparing an initial situation: characters, setting, and so forth. He does not have a specific plot in mind - just a framework around which various plots could run.

    Now as I said, this does not mean that you abandon having drama in your games - but rather, you arrive at it more indirectly - for example, by controlling pacing and making inherent conflicts to the situation.

    Theatrix, as a 'drama'-based game, determines success mainly by plot requirements and player description. The GM judges the player's description of the action he is attempting, based on creativity, humor, appropriateness to the genre, and how well it enhances the plot. The GM sets up a scenario by planning a story - developing how the characters will get from the start to the expected conclusion.
    "World-based" later became "sim" while "drama" kept its name (in the GDS threefold).

    Now, the Big Model and it's GNS does this weird thing.
    It excludes gaming based around a pre-determined plot (such as Skulls & Shackles or Theatrix). I.e. drama-based games (Skulls & Shackles and the other Paths are arguably often ran with a big focus on the gamist elements).
    That sort of gaming, which is SUPER common in the world, just doesn't exist among the CAs.
    I haven't tried a lot of that type of gaming in my life and it doesn't appeal to me. So for all I care, I'd be happy it's excluded.

    But what happened then? That sort of gaming got crammed into sim, using arguments as "they are SIMulating a story! they are SIMulating a movie!". Dramatism got jammed in with its original life long enemy!

    I'm gonna say that there is a square instead of a triangle! The GDNS square! You heard it here first folks!

    • Gam / Step on Up (example: Pathfinder, D&D 4e, Torchbearer)
    • Dramatism / Story-telling (example: The Window, Adventure Paths, traditional railroading, Robin's Laws)
    • Narrativism / Story-creating (example: Fiasco, Burning Wheel, DramaSystem, Apocalypse World)
    • Sim / Sandbox / OSR (example: Caverns of Thracia, An Echo Resounding, Stars Without Number)

    This categorization is an ex cathedra Sandra statement! I'm gonna nail it to the door.

    I'm also gonna say that Gam is orthogonal to the others -- the three others are about how the game is structured, Gam is about whether or not there is a challenge element. So things can be Gam + Dram, Gam + Sim, Gam + Narr etc.
  • Well, not really the first time we hear that, but I appreciate the sentiment :D

    The reason for why GNS "jams them together" when it comes to setting-focused and plot-focused games is in the underlying structure: it's not about the labels, it's about how we understand the underlying creative drives on the one hand, and about actual Creative Agenda conflict on the other hand. Ron didn't jam them together because he hates Sim or something like that, but rather because he could not visualize/verbalize any meaningful distinction between the respective creative goals. This might as well be because of his limited background in that kind of gaming, or because there is no distinction to be made.

    (I want to emphasize that there really is no dogmatic doctrine on these matters as far as I'm concerned; if the GNS model has remained relatively stable for over a decade, it may very well be because of the lack of intellectual rigour and ampleness of laziness on the part of the people who actually care about the matter; maybe it's just been "good enough" for us, and that's why it's stultified, rather than because it's already so perfect.)

    I'd be cool with "Dramatism" as a CA mode myself if it actually has the properties we expect a CA mode to have. Understanding and differentiating the creative drive underlying it is not a big priority in this regard, as I'm convinced that it exists in some form (I'm fond of certain Sim games focused on setting, and some others that focus on plot, so I am certainly convinced and understand on some level that there is some drive to both kinds of game); the bigger question is whether Dramatist and Simulationist agendas like this would really be incohesive towards each other. If they truly are incompatible in this sense, then there clearly is an agenda mode conflict of some sort in it.

    I've got Ars Magica in my brain this summer, so let's consider that. The question becomes: given that Ars is about Simulationism, the experience of playing dollhouse with medieval wizards delving into medieval history and folklore and fantasy, with highly story-based system approach, is conflict between Dramatism and Simulationism a real and prevalent source of incohesion in playing the game? I think Ars Magica makes for a good case for consideration in this regard because it would pretty clearly be a game that straddles the Sim/Dram divide in a horrible fashion if the divide is real. (And yes, I know that Ars may be played as a Narrativist game; I've chosen to interpret it as a Sim game myself, though, for my own purposes, and I think that this is the more natural and compelling way to use the game.)

    I've played unfortunately little of Ars Magica myself, but my general impression is that the most prevalent agenda issues with active players are about Sim/Gam distinctions, where players refuse to play along with the medieval style and character assumptions in favour of treating the game world as a challenge to be conquered by judicious application of min-maxing. (Basically, the ordinary case of "D&D disease".) On the other hand, if there was Sim/Dram incoherence in the game, I would expect it to seem like something where some players are unsatisfied with the artificial fiat the game uses to introduce adventure hooks and pre-negotiate drastic turns in the campaign. (For those unaware, AM strongly recommends that the GM pre-negotiate any turns of events that affect an individual player's character, not unlike a forum roleplaying game. So you'd ask the player in advance about whether they want their character to be tempted to sin by devils, for example.)

    Thinking about it, I can certainly recognize the Sim/Dram divide in my own reaction to Ars Magica: I am much more interested in the simulative aspects of the game, and find the dramatism to be largely misplaced and unnecessary. I'm no expert on Ars, though, so I wouldn't be surprised if somebody with serious experience could chime in about how the game actually achieves a perfect melding of the two perspectives, and requires both to achieve its creative aims. Barring such input, though, I'd take this particular thought-experiment as weak support for the proposition of a Dramatist CA mode :D

    Either way one goes on the issue of splitting Sim, though, I want to emphasize that the important part is being able to engage theoretical thought constructively. Dogmatic agreement isn't nearly as useful for personal growth and development of understanding.
  • Also, I think I should present the counter-argument here: the traditional Forgite orthodoxy on "dramatism" is that it is a technical approach to facilitating either Narrativist or Simulationist creative goals. In this regard it is on the same level as e.g. miniature skirmish battles or larping: a wide-reaching technical paradigm (occasionally called "technical agenda" in theory discussion) that informs much about the way you go about doing things, and may limit the payoffs possible for the game, but is not itself a creative agenda.

    If this characterization is correct, then we may say that "dramatism" is simply the approach of creating a powerful rpg experience with a carefully pre-planned story. Dread would in this view be a dramatist-Simulationist game, for example, that achieves its creative goal of an immersive horror experience with careful pre-drafting of a scary story.

    The orthodox view has some pretty good support going for it, I think. For example, there are games that are simultaneously very clearly Gamist, but also dramatist in the tools they use and their application - Rune and Pantheon come to mind, for example. If the mere use of dramatist tools indicated a specific kind of creative agenda, one would expect less of an overlap between dramatism and clearly analyzed creative agenda instances.

    Interesting either way one goes about it, as I said earlier.


    I guess I should say something about Gamism and old school D&D as well, because surely Paul will if I don't: Sandra's opinion that sandbox games are mainly simulationistic in agenda is heterodox, and the more usual perspective is that old school D&D, particularly of the kind OSR promulgates, is predominantly Gamist. I'll satisfy myself by saying that insofar as I know Gamism, my own old school D&D play over the last few years has been it, and very strongly too. Much, much stronger than new school D&D (Pathfinder, etc.), to be sure, which often has incohesive simulationistic ambitions inherited from AD&D 2nd edition and such sources.

    Not that categorizing game texts is that important, except insofar as it may indicate disagreements about the underlying psychological drives. It is certainly an interesting observation for me if somebody is playing an old school sandbox campaign with a Simulationist agenda - nothing impossible about that, it's just an interesting occurrence and contrast to why I use that same toolbox myself.
  • Sandra's opinion that sandbox games are mainly simulationistic in agenda is heterodox
    It's in line with the r.f.g.a. classic posts though, where the sim games had sandboxy qualities.
    They separated out gam from sim after a while, because they considered D&D to be exceptionally gam compared to their sim sandboxes.

  • If this characterization is correct, then we may say that "dramatism" is simply the approach of creating a powerful rpg experience with a carefully pre-planned story. Dread would in this view be a dramatist-Simulationist game, for example, that achieves its creative goal of an immersive horror experience with careful pre-drafting of a scary story.
    Whereas in the Official GDNS Theory, Dread is considered enemy of Sim due to the lessened degree of "play to find out".

  • Yes, this has been touched on a great deal already:

    Threefold Sim is a very specific thing.

    GNS/Big Model Sim (more formally known as Right to Dream - and the name change occurred precisely for this reason, to distinguish the difference in meaning) is a larger bracket, as Eero describes it (based on a unified psychological drive).

    Threefold Sim describes some types of Right to Dream play, but lots of Right to Dream play does not belong to Threefold Sim.

    I personally liked the formulation where Right to Dream is about enjoying exploring a particular aspect of the shared imaginary space together. That could be Character, or plot developments, or changes in the Setting (arguably something like Sim City is a Right to Dream game, since it has no real challenging elements and no moral dilemmas to deal with). That seems relatively clear, and applicable to different styles of gaming.

    Exploring Character might be a goal of immersionist play. ("How does it feel to be a foster child who loses her parents?")

    Exploring Situation/plot might be a game like the Spirit of the Century.

    And so on...
  • edited July 2015
    OK, I could perhaps get behind that, that Big Model sim is a superset of Sandra-approved sim. The bigger issue is that David set my sim up as gam. And I love gam a lot, I do, but it's kind of an orthogonal diagnosis of our group's play choices.

    I.e. if what I call sim can still be called sim, but a lot of other junk is also called sim... that's iffy, but if what I call sim isn't even eligible to be called sim, I'm calling shenanigans!
    Curious about two things here:

    1) If you get your group's play choices and think my "that sounds like they're attempting Gamism" analyses don't actually apply, then cool! I hope the process of getting there was enlightening. I'd be curious to hear what helped you cement that assessment.

    2) If, on the other hand, my guesses were correct and y'all were playing some high-exploration form of Gamism, why call shenanigans? Does it matter whether you get to claim the Sim label for anything you like or do? I remember getting very attached to the word at some point because it was strongly associated with a lot of my favorite stuff in gaming, but now I'm more of the opinion that "my favorite stuff" and "which GNS category we fall into" really don't need to have anything at all to do with each other. If the Big Model wants to claim that a lot of the stuff that brings me personally to the gaming table is G/N/S agnostic, that's fine, and I don't have to care unless I want to.

    Just as an illustration:

    - Some of my favorite RPG experiences have been Narrativist, but the best ones have all been sessions with high degrees of immersion, realism, and exploration.

    - I love highly immersive Gamism much less for how it differs from S or N, and much more for how it differs from distant, meta, OOC Gamism.

    At some point I was in the habit of thinking (1) "CA is really important, and so the stuff that's really important to me must be CA-constitutive" and (2) "it's really important whether a CA is G or N or S," which combined in my mind (as in many others) into (3) "the stuff that's important to me must constitute G vs N vs S." I still slip into this habit at times. But I think it's a bad habit. It leaves out the possibility that G vs N vs S is determined by something other than our own personal areas of attention; in reality, though, I think that's often the case.
  • Great post, Dave! +100!
  • Hmm, here's a thought. I think that, natively, RAW, 5E maybe supports Gamist play at levels 1-2 or 3 and Sim play thereafter? Which, given that it's Sandra's game of choice (and lately mine as well), may be the source of some of the confusion on this issue?

    At low levels, you're quite vulnerable, even as a member of a tough class. A few lucky rolls on the part of the GM, and you're toast, or possibly the entire party is toast. You're encouraged—indirectly, by the design of the game, not directly by the text or anything—to play cautiously and use ambush tactics whenever possible. There's an enormous amount of tension to every roll (IME).

    Whereas, once you're past that, 5E very much supports "fantasy play pretend." You can explore the world, or recreate novelistic fantasy fiction, or whatever. Without careful encounter balancing on the part of the GM*, the characters' survival is rarely in question.

    Hence the common practice of starting play at 3rd level: a natural adaptation to avoid incoherence—if I'm right.


    *Or, of course, if the GM simply throws insanely high-level monsters at you all day long.
  • I like Matt's description of how modern D&D works to support various agendas at various levels. That largely agrees with my own view on the thing - it is much easier to find that gamist groove in 3rd or 5th edition D&D at low levels than high, being as how quickly relative power ramps up and challenges rely more and more on setpiece encounters (a technique naturally turned to Sim purposes). I don't know that it does a particularly good job of Sim, but in practice a sort of story-oriented "I wanna play Lord of the Rings and here's my plot" Sim seems to be what has emerged when D&D has turned that way ever since the '80s.

    And yes, starting play at 3rd level is definitely a Sim/Nar thing in D&D. Or, to say it less aggressively: I have no clue what that's supposed to accomplish in Gamist terms :D
  • Heh. If I'd already played 5E at level 3+, I suspect I might want to play again, in exactly the same style, from level 1, so that the tough times the character's been through at lv 1-2 color the overall arc. Fear of death needn't always induce a tactical focus. (Though if tactics are the only way to avoid some nuisance like constantly making new level 1 characters, then never mind.)
  • edited July 2015
    I don't particularly want to derail the interesting conversation, but I consistently see people trying to understand or critique the Creative Agenda aspect of the Big Model misunderstanding the three "currently recognized" (as Ron puts it) CA modes.

    I'm not necessarily laying blame at their feet: clearly, if so many people get it wrong, there must be something wrong with the way the theory is explained, and the nomenclature of G, N, and S overlapping with a similar-but-different Threefold definition of the terms doesn't help.

    That said, a lot of people (including several of you/us/people in this thread) are operating from a very different understanding of G/N/S than the more "modern" Big Model suggests.

    On the internet and in casual discussions with gamers, I usually see this kind of understanding emerge (and then that model is criticized, even though this isn't how the Big Model defines the CA modes at all):

    G stands for Gamism.

    Gamism means competing with your other fellow players by trying to take advantage of the system of the game: making the most powerful character builds, picking the best powers, and doing everything you can to win encounters and level up as fast as possible.

    N stands for Narrativism.

    Narrativism is all about stepping away from the mechanical aspect of the game (which the Gamist loves) and making play all about telling stories. We ignore the rules when they get in the way of story, and all we want to do is focus on the fictional events. Not rolling the dice too often is part of this, as are rules which allow players to narrate anything they like during the game: we want to be free to tell exactly the story we want! (Or to tell exactly the story that the GM wants, in some cases, like a pre-scripted adventure.)

    S stands for Simulationism.

    Simulationism is all about modeling a fictional universe as accurately as possible, and playing to "find out" what would happen in certain hypothetical situations. We play to explore possible situations and then use a set of rules as the "physics of the gameworld" to determine what would happen next. We ignore the rules when they present "unrealistic" outcomes, or things that don't fit what we're trying to imagine.
    While there's a bit of overlap, these definitions are very definitely NOT what the Big Model says (for which Eero's primer, recently posted, is much better).

    Arguably they're clearer than the Big Model (which is harder to grasp, being more abstract), but they are NOT what the Big Model says. If you think they are, you should be aware of that before you get into a Big Model/GNS debate, because otherwise there will be major miscommunications or misunderstandings.

    EDIT: I think I accidentally posted in the wrong thread. I'll copy this to the other one, but I'll leave this here as well. Sorry!
  • Here's another (brief and relatively simple) take on GNS, from Chris Chinn:

    Creative Agendas
  • And a short version from Ben Lehman:
    Part of this model, and its oldest part, is the GNS model, which classifies the play of role-playing games into three types: Gamist, which focuses play on challenge, strategy, and tactics; Narrativist, which focuses play on dramatic human issues and hard choices; and Simulationist, which focuses play on the act of creation itself.
  • David, I'm grateful for our discussion earlier, it helped me come to clarity with what I really felt. You were patient. Thank you so much for helping me diagnose our group's woes.
    If you get your group's play choices and think my "that sounds like they're attempting Gamism" analyses don't actually apply, then cool!
    It does apply but I attemped Sim.

    So my group was a classic case of CA clash between Gam and Sim. As the GDNS Official, Canonical Theory shows through the official diagram of the official GDNS Hatred Parade of Enmity, we clashed over classic issues such as balance, unfair encounters, and whether the challenges should be on the macro ("here is a dangerous world, survive it") or the local ("here is a balanced fight, defeat it")level.
    At some point I was in the habit of thinking (1) "CA is really important, and so the stuff that's really important to me must be CA-constitutive" and (2) "it's really important whether a CA is G or N or S," which combined in my mind (as in many others) into (3) "the stuff that's important to me must constitute G vs N vs S." I still slip into this habit at times. But I think it's a bad habit. It leaves out the possibility that G vs N vs S is determined by something other than our own personal areas of attention; in reality, though, I think that's often the case.
    I'm the same way. That's why GDNS Official, Canonical switches focus from creative agenda to procedures and behavior.
  • Nice. I love what you're doing here with GDNS Official, Canonical! Sounds like a good call on the Hatred Parade of Enmity stuff.
  • As a moderator I want to ask people participating in this and other highly technical threads to please re-read this post:


    and either follow its advice (make your conversations welcoming and accessible) or take it elsewhere.

  • edited July 2015
    Thank you Jason. And I was certainly guilty of reveling in jargon.
    I'll try to rephrase my post.

    "David, I'm grateful for our discussion earlier" this refers to a discussion I had with David months and months ago.

    "So my group was a classic case of CA clash between Gam and Sim".
    In my play group, we were running B4 The Lost City. An RPG book from the eighties about a pyramid wherein lives four cults.
    My ideal for this group was to see this pyramid come to life and to see how the monsters lived in it and to see the players explore it.

    The players expressed interested in many different ideals over the course of the campaign. Some of those ideals clashed with my desire to day dream about The Lost City. Those ideals include the desire for "fair" or "balanced" fighting with the various bees, ghosts, stirges and baboons that populated the place. They were angry that the stirges killed them. They were angry when they could kill the baboons too easily.

    Are you with me so far my dear hypothetical reader?

    Now what is CA clash? "Creative agenda clash", wanting different things out of the game. Such as me and those players -- sometimes. But sometimes we were happy.
    What is Gam and Sim? They are things that have been defined differently over the years. I just used them in the sense of "Gam" wanting to fight baboons and stirges equally easy, "Sim" wanting to see the interesting life of the four cults and how the players interact with them.
    What is the GDNS Official, Canonical Theory? It was an attempt of once and for all defining a couple of terms but it perhaps failed in accessibility or welcomingness. Since it was an attempt at dialectics (dialectic means that you mash together two incompatible things into a synthesis, or a "mish-mash") it relied on knowledge of the two previous theories in the field. That was my mistake number 2. Even attempting any type of semantics was my mistake number 1!!! If you start defining you better start running!
  • I still think The Creative Agenda Clash has to be formed as a rock band sometime. Who's in it with me?
  • "And then it was time for Toronto to drown in the sweet sorrow of The Creative Agenda Clash!"
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