RPG Theory and Design Notes
Clinton R. Nixon and Ron Edwards created a community website called the Forge to explore and promote the theory and design of independent roleplaying games. Some of the discussions on the Forge rise to the level of Theory (with a capital "T"). I made these notes to better follow the discussion.
Ron Edwards wrote an article titled GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory. Many articles and posts refernce GNS theory.
- Roleplaying experince is about character, system, setting, situation, and color.
- Exploration is the attention given to those elements.
- Premise is whatever a participant finds among the elements to sustain a continued interest in what might happen in a role-playing session.
Premise is a metagame concern, wholly different from the listed elements. They are the imagined (Explored) content of the role-playing experience, and Premise is the real-person, real-world interest that instils and maintains a person's desire to have that experience. At this early point, though, Premise is vague and highly personal, as it is only the embryo of the real Premise. The real Premise exists as a clear, focused question or concern shared among all members of the group.
- Why do people roleplay? The goals people have for roleplaying correspond to one of three modes:
- Gamism values competition among players. Character actions driven by desire to maximize gains for character.
- Simulationism values Exploration (i.e.—attention to character, setting, et cetera). Players concerned primarily with the internal logic and completeness of simulation/Exploration.
- Narrativism values creation of thematically focused story. Players consider themselves co-authors of story.
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.
Concrete examples #1: Simulationism over-riding Gamism
Converse: Gamism over-riding Simulationism
- Any text which states that role-playing is not about winning; correspondingly, chastising a player who advocates a character action perceived as "just trying to win." [This example assumes that the text/game does not state story-creation as an alternative goal.]
- Using probability tables in character creation to determine appearance, profession/class, or race, based on demographics of the community of the character's origin.
Concrete examples #2: Simulationism over-riding Narrativism
- Characters teaming up for a common goal with no disputes or even attention regarding differences in race, religion, ethics, or anything else.
- Improving character traits (e.g. damage that may be taken) based on the amount of treasure amassed.
Converse: Narrativism over-riding Simulationism
- A weapon does precisely the same damage range regardless of the emotional relationship between wielder and target. (True for RuneQuest, not true for Hero Wars)
- A player is chastised for taking the potential intensity of a future confrontation into account when deciding what the character is doing in a current scene, such as revealing an important secret when the PC is unaware of its importance.
- The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain's bomb does blow up the city. (The rules for DC Heroes specifically dictate that this be the appropriate way to GM such a scene).
- Using metagame mechanics to increase the probability of task resolution, with NO corresponding in-game justification. "Apply my bonus die to increase my Charm roll," in which the bonus die is not "will" or "endurance" or anything but an abstract pool unit.
- A player is chastised for claiming a PC motive that "stalls out" story elements (conflict, resolution etc). Example: player A is pissed off at player B, who has announced "I say nothing," in certain interactive scenes, when player A is aware that the PC's knowledge would be pivotal in the scene.
- Using inter-player dialogue and knowledge to determine character action, then retroactively justifying the action in terms of character knowledge and motive. "You hit him high and I'll hit him low," between players whose characters do not have the opportunity to plan the attack. [This example could also apply to Gamism over-riding Simulationism; the two are quite similar.]
Interesting Threads on the Forge
© Paul Gorman