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
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.Sources
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
(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.)Definitions
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.