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Mar. 5th, 2005 @ 09:25 am Hey! It's RPG theory!
I'm going to be talking about RPG theory here. Some of you don't care because, well, it's not your bag. Specifically I'm going to be talking about my problems with GNS theory. If you aren't familiar with it then most of this won't make sense. You're welcome to email me or something, or read up on it over at The Forge if you want. And if you want to you could go through this with no context, I'm not going to try to stop you.

At its most basic level GNS is fine: Any given decision made in an RPG can be said to be primarily made based on a single set of criteria. GNS identifies three criteria (or motivations, if you wish) for making these decisions. Narrativism means that the decision was made to address a theme. Gamism means that the decision was made to "step on up", to compete (it's actually a bit more complex than simple competition, but that's okay). Simulationism is, well, technically it's about fidelity to the source material and plausibility, but it's actually used as a sort of catch-all.

This is all fine and good, and to some degree useful. The next step is fairly logical, let's track trends in play! We'll see which of these three (arbitrary) criteria a player uses most often, and that will help us to understand why he plays!

This can be useful, but there are some significant problems:

1. The categories are arbitrary. Based on observation it was decided that all decisions that occur within roleplaying can be categorized as one of these. Now, it's important to note that GNS theory as it currently existed grew up on The Forge. To be fair they're a good group of guys overall, but they have their priorities. For the most part they were all about addressing Theme, and for whatever reason were secondarily concerned with Competition. The result was that anything that didn't clearly fall within those two categories kind of got shunted into "Simulationism". No big deal really, but I'm not sure if anyone noticed it happening or really picked up on the fact that the result was a terribly snarled beast the category became...

2a. As Vincent Baker notes, despite the efforts of the "old guard" to avoid it people lost sight of the fact that GNS can (at best) only identify the reason for a specific decision and can be used to look at trends in decision making. The result was that most people use them to pigeonhole people and treat the categories as opposing values, neither of which are intended uses of the theory.

2b. And in all honesty, to some degree it's the "old guard's" fault. Don't get me wrong, I think we're much better off with GNS theory and its legacy than we would be without it, but some mistakes were made. The big problem here is this intense focus on mechanical "facilitation" of a given Creative Agenda. There's this pervasive sense (it may even be explicitly stated somewhere, but I don't know) that you can really only facilitate a single Creative Agenda well in any given game. This, I think, was a major contributor to the idea that these are discreet categories of play that don't mix well.

3a. While at its base GNS is very logical, it sort of falls apart in the real world. Yes, it is true that any given decision is made primarily for a specific reason, but it turns out that it's not always (or even often) clear which reason is primary. My current favorite example of this is Capes which focuses on competing to address theme. It's easy to see what Creative Agenda is at work when a situation arises in which all three are opposed, but much (most?) of the time at least two, if not all three, will have the same results. I don't really have a solution to this, but it makes the whole GNS thing a bit artificial feeling.

A lot of this problem arises from the simple difficulty of analyzing these things in yourself and in others. Do I choose to address theme primarily because I think theme is important, because I want to impress others with my insight into that theme, because it "just makes sense" to address theme? And, even worse, this changes all the time. A game that has been about addressing theme for a while often starts to show elements of competing to address theme, and addressing theme because "that's what this game is about."

3b. The fact that a decision can easily fall within all three of the Creative Agendas gives lie to the idea that you can only facilitate one of them well. For example the aforementioned Capes makes it a competition of addressing theme. I could envision a game that makes a competition of maintaining in-game plausibility in a world/genre/whatever that is all about addressing theme...

Let's bring it home...

GNS was great. It really helped get across the idea that people play for different reasons, but more than that it got across that sometimes these reasons are in so much conflict that you can't play. GNS grew into something more complex, people tried to use it for things that it isn't really suited to handle. It was used to artificially separate play (see Vincent's GNS diagram for an example of this, Competition and Theme aren't mutually exclusive as are implied there).

Do I think GNS is useful? Heck yeah! But only if we understand its limitations:
1. It is arbitrary and not rigorous. There are reasons to play other than the three defined.
2. It can not be used to categorize things. We can talk about individual decisions, and (for what little it's worth) trends, as long as we keep number 1 in mind.
3. The things that GNS splits up may be technically mutually exclusive, but you can't always (or even often, I believe) identify which is at work. I'm pretty sure that the result is that "facilitation" of a given GNS Creative Agenda is a "yes and" not an "either or" proposition. You can facilitate Competition, and Theme, and other stuff all at the same time if you want.

So lets stop talking about GNS and start talking about making a game facilitate Competition, or Theme, or Verisimilitude, or Plausibility, or whatever else. And then lets talk about how to make a game facilitate multiple of these.

About this Entry
Date:March 5th, 2005 06:19 pm (UTC)
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Hi, how much of the difficulty in analysis do you think is attributable to GNS specifically compared to the general inability of folks to analyze what goes on in terms of social interactions, motivations? Consider how many folks are unable to recognize when they're in an abusive or manipulative relationship, even when it's clear to everyone else, -or-, more importantly, when it's not clear to anyone else?

Also, consider that thinking about interactions at the table for many is considered metagame and therefore "bad"? Do you think that also might play a role in gamers' general inability to grasp what's going on analytically?
Date:March 5th, 2005 06:30 pm (UTC)
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Oh, definitely. Everything you said. It's hard to analyze yourself and others in a social context, and most people probably don't know why they make most of their decisions.

It gets even harder when a decision corresponds with multiple CAs. It could have been Narrativism, it could have been Gamism. It turns out that it doesn't really matter. If you make a decision for reason X, and it's cool and in tune with everyone else's understanding of the way play is going, then you have functional play.

Interestingly, the more I think about it, the more I think everything is about Constraint... But I'm probably biased on that one...

Date:March 6th, 2005 06:01 am (UTC)
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I think a year or so back, it might have been Clinton or someone, had put forth the idea that one of the biggest telltale signs of CA at work was what people -won't- allow at the table, what they constrain or block from happening in play. I think its a true statement.
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Date:March 5th, 2005 06:53 pm (UTC)
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You write:

"GNS can (at best) only identify the reason for a specific decision"

Vincent wrote in response to me on his blog:

"that sort of decision-by-decision take on GNS is common, but incorrect."

No wonder people are confused and frustrated. I tihnk we need to strongly support efforts like Nate's to write articles that clearly lay this shit out, because people--even those in the know--contradict one another left and right.
Date:March 5th, 2005 07:09 pm (UTC)
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Heh... I could well be wrong... but this is from GNS and Other Matters of Role Playing Theory (Chapter 2) Ron says:

"Much torment has arisen from people perceiving GNS as a labelling device. Used properly, the terms apply only to decisions, not to whole persons nor to whole games. To be absolutely clear, to say that a person is (for example) Gamist, is only shorthand for saying, "This person tends to make role-playing decisions in line with Gamist goals." Similarly, to say that an RPG is (for example) Gamist, is only shorthand for saying, "This RPG's content facilitates Gamist concerns and decision-making." For better or for worse, both of these forms of shorthand are common."

So, I guess I always thought that meant GNS was about single-decisions... It is possible to read this as something else though, I guess.

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Date:March 5th, 2005 07:12 pm (UTC)
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Well, so did I, until yesterday. Somehow Vincent seems to think that Narrativism cannot be present in one decision, but only formed over time by consistently addressing premise, because you can't address it on a short-term basis. Or some such thing. I don't know anymore. I'm sure you read through that explosive thread on his blog as well.
Date:March 5th, 2005 07:15 pm (UTC)
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Cofession time: It was too much for me... I dropped out halfway through (around reply 45 or so). Vincent says a lot of things that don't jive with my understanding of GNS... I wonder if he just has some other theory or something...

Which would be great because, dang, I have the above stated problems with GNS and consider it to be not that useful...

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Date:March 5th, 2005 07:19 pm (UTC)
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It's possible. He did state today that he just wants to focus on collaborative thematic play, so he's using a new set of vocabulary right there.

Either way, I mean, I'm not considering many of the details to be too useful, either. Especially since they're always contended by people. I know now that I make different sorts of decisions based on game and group, and I am getting a handle on how to improve the coherence of the group and/or game. That's good enough for me.

Btw, I am in agreement on your thoughts on the importance of Constraint--mainly coming from a freeform POV these days.
Date:March 6th, 2005 06:05 am (UTC)
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Well, the best analogy I give to folks is to compare a label like, say, "That's a smart person." Does one action tell you if they're smart or not? Usually people have to do a LOT of actions over a period of time for you to label them smart. Sometimes one really big action is sufficient, but most of the time you have to observe for a while to make sure it's not just a fluke or accident of circumstance.

Likewise, being able to say the word "tends" out of Ron's quote there, means you have to watch for a while to pull tendencies. That's why a single decision is usually too short to really use as a means of determining what's going on GNS-wise.
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Date:March 5th, 2005 07:53 pm (UTC)
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The problem with GNS is its lack of predictive and explanatory adequacy.
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Date:March 6th, 2005 04:48 am (UTC)
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Hey Thomas,

Let me see if I can shed some light here.

A Creative Agenda (G, N, or S) is not a reason. People don't play *because* of G, N, or S. A Creative Agenda is a *mode of play.* It's a "what I'm doing" kind of thing, not a "why I do it." Creative Agenda really is "what I want to imagine, right now."

During play, decision points continually arise, because you must continually decide "what do I want to imagine right now?" Given a single decision point, and the choice that the player made, it is almost always impossible to identify a Creative Agenda. We are outside observers. We can't tell what Creative Agenda the decision supports, because we don't know what the player who made the decision is trying to accomplish.

There are two additions to this idea: First, we can know what mode of play the player is in *if he tells us.* Second, players are often not consciously aware themselves what CA they have at any given moment - so verbal articulations by a player are suspect.

As an observer, what you do is look at *what the player is enjoying.* The thing that is important to the player is the thing that he will stress over time, during play. This is why inter-player communication is a big deal as a means of identifying CA. "What are the players grooving on?" is a super important question. "I did that because I want a narrativist game" is suspect communication. In contrast, something like - "Dude, it was so cool when you *finally* had that bad man in your power, but then you just dropped your sword and walked away. Awesome!" - is much more telling.

To repeat:

Given a single decision point, and the choice that the player made, it is almost always impossible to identify a Creative Agenda. We are outside observers. We can't tell what Creative Agenda the decision supports, because we don't know what the player who made the decision is trying to accomplish.

Assuming we don't have access to the kind of data I specified above (i.e., what kind of material the player is grooving on) the only way we can identify CA in action is if something about the *decision itself* clues us in. This does not happen all the time. This only happens when the decision excludes other CAs. That is, say, you can eleminate Gamism as a candidate if the result of the decision obviously puts the player in a less advantageous position.

Often, out of the "telling" decision points, you still can't indentify a single CA at work... you can only eleminate one possibility. There are usually a very few decision points that will eleminate *two* CAs as candidates and leave just one choice.

This is why an instance of play is undefined. How long will it take for enough of these decision points to arise to see what modes the player is prefering?

Now, my example statement above (about dropping the sword) does not neccessarily indentify Narrativism at work, either. We have to know the social contract context to be able to interpret player grooving. Walking away could have been a superb tactical move, faithfullness to genre, or a thematic statement.

This is why system can facilitate a particular CA. *Was* dropping the sword and walking away a superb tactical move? Was it a nod to causality? Was it a thematic statement? We can tell by looking at the system.

This has been part of the theory since day one. (Or, at least, since before I started reading the Forge.) But, I don't believe it has been particularly well articulated. :) I used to hang out on the RPG-Create yahoogroup all the time, and most of the dislike for GNS comes from people misunderstanding this part of the theory. Not every decision point is identifiable as G, N, or S. Not by us as observers, not neccesarily even by the player making the decision.
Date:March 6th, 2005 07:30 pm (UTC)
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If I'm reading you right, then most of this is exactly what I was saying... Except for the "what?" vs. "why?" thing, but we've talked about that one before.

Anyway, yes! Here's how this works. As I see it GNS theorizes that every single decisions is made from the stance of a single CA. Without fail, one of them is dominant. The problem is that we don't really have any sort of reliable way to identify which one is at work. In some games (those focused on facilitating a single CA) we are able to observe over time trends, but some of the newer stuff this just isn't true.

Examples: Primetime Adventures is all about imitating telvision melodrama. It turns out that all good television melodrama is also about addressing theme. So, are you addressing theme in PTA play primarily because you want to address theme, or because you are staying true to the source material? There's no way for an observer to really know that, and as you said people's personal judgement is suspect.

Capes, as I said, is a brilliant game that makes addressing theme a competition. Are you addressing theme primarily to address theme, or are you addressing theme because that's the way to "score more points" as it were? Same as the above. Further, most super-hero comic books also address theme. It's something of a genre convention. So now you have all three CAs supporting the same outcome.

The thing is, GNS is somewhat useful since it can explain why people don't play well together, but it creates these artificial and unnecessary distinctions in the long run. Your statement "This is why system can facilitate a particular CA. *Was* dropping the sword and walking away a superb tactical move? Was it a nod to causality? Was it a thematic statement? We can tell by looking at the system." is not necessarily true, many times you can't actually tell by looking at the system.

I'll catch you on IRC sometime so I can present why I think GNS is really about "why" and not "what", hopefully in a well-considered manner. You can set me right then :)

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Date:March 7th, 2005 12:27 am (UTC)
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Apparently the definition/understanding of GNS has undergone at least one big change in the history of the Forge -- and the essays concerning the old definition are still up, with no note that they have been superseded. Cause that's the Ron way.

cf. Emily Care's post on in Vincent's blog:

"Yeah, if only we had stuck with the good old, process oriented def. of sim, rather trying to stick it into the CA biz. It suffered a sea change that made it much less useful (to me at least) as a concept."

I'm not up on all of this, but I'm up on it enough to have noticed that you have to be hip to that kind of thing to understand it, and that's a reason I'm not motivated to be up on all of it. :)