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Seven major misconceptions about GNS

Started by Ron Edwards, March 12, 2002, 03:57:03 PM

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Ron Edwards


Given the most recent mishegoss about the topic on, and putting aside for the moment various personal attacks on me, I thought I'd outline the wide variety of misconceptions that were revealed there. They follow in no particular order; I request that you view them as the rim of a wheel, each with a spoke pointing to the center. Please consider that center before replying.

Vanilla Narrativism is a hybrid of Narrativist and Simulationist play. Secondarily, the terminology illustrates bias because it might as well be called Vanilla Simulationism.

The actual case: Vanilla Narrativism represents an approach to Narrativist play with muted or low-impact demands on the players. It has nothing to do with Simulationist play in any way; the participants are indeed playing Narrativist, but not talking or thinking much about doing so.

[As far as I can tell, a lot of people are playing VN out there but upon reading GNS, think they must be "Simulationist" because they are interested in or committed to aspects of the setting. See #5 below for this one.]

Narrativist play requires, by definition, specific mechanics. [Ditto for Gamism, ditto for Simulationism.] A typical statement reads, "My players and I create stories together, on purpose, but we don't use Narrativist mechanics, so it can't be Narrativist play.

The actual case: GNS is specifically about goals, decisions, habits, and acts of role-playing. Mechanics facilitate these goals et cetera; they do not define them. Nothing stops people from playing Narrativist, for instance, regardless of the mechanics they are using - my only claim is that the mechanics in question may trip them up, necessitating patch rules and similar fixes.

This point is actually a sub-set of a larger point, that nothing in my writings concerns consciousness or deliberateness of the GNS goals. I suggest that these goals constitute the "value system" of one's role-playing, and like all value systems, they are usually invisible to the one holding them, especially during moments of their direct application.

GNS has corrupted and misused the Threefold.

The actual case: GNS is not the Threefold. It shares some vocabulary with it, which is not the same as sharing terminology. I have no obligation to remain consistent with the Threefold's concepts, goals, terms, or framework for discussion.

When I wrote "System Does Matter," I thought that I was using the Threefold without modification except for one tiny change in naming an element (Dramatism to Narrativism). I was mistaken, as pointed out by Hunter Logan and the Scarlet Jester. Since then, and most especially regarding the current essay (which relies on a concept authored by the Jester), I only acknowledge the Threefold as an inspirational source and not, in any way, as an included component that I must remain consistent with.

One can only play Simulationist, Gamist, or Narrativist, period.

The actual case: when talking about the course of a person's role-playing over time, I explicitly disavow this claim; GNS applies to an instance of play. All perceptions that I must be "labeling" people with a little queep-machine are mistaken.

Similarly, regarding these instances of play, one of the most overlooked paragraphs in my essay goes as follows:

<size=-1>For a given instance of play, the three modes are exclusive in application. When someone tells me that their role-playing is "all three," what I see from them is this: features of (say) two of the goals appear in concert with, or in service to, the main one, but two or more fully-prioritized goals are not present at the same time. So in the course of Narrativist or Simulationist play, moments or aspects of competition that contribute to the main goal are not Gamism. In the course of Gamist or Simulationist play, moments of thematic commentary that contribute to the main goal are not Narrativism. In the course of Narrativist or Gamist play, moments of attention to plausibility that contribute to the main goal are not Simulationism. The primary and not to be compromised goal is what it is for a given instance of play. The actual time or activity of an "instance" is necessarily left ambiguous.</size>

This paragraph explodes any and all objections to the "divisiveness" of GNS in terms of actual decisions of play.

Commitment to the integrity or consistency of role-playing's content is Simulationism.

The actual case: that commitment is baseline Exploration, which is a requirement of any and all role-playing. Special attention to that Exploration is one of the mechanisms of enjoying or reinforcing any of the three goals, in the right circumstances for that goal, e.g. Narrativist play in which Premise arises out of setting elements and, say, geographical constraints. Such attention is not Simulationist play unless it specifically takes top, first priority over metagame goals such as competition or story creation.

This misconception is especially insidious because it carries with it the corollary misconception that Narrativist play must be completely unconcerned with the integrity of setting, previous events, or anything similar.

Given a hypothetical situation, a Narrativist player would do X, a Simulationist player would do Y, and a Gamist player would do Z.

The actual case: all such examples and generalizations are false when taken as definitions (i.e. any Gamist, etc). Each of the modes has literally dozens of applications and nuances that will affect the actions taken during play.

For instance, Gamist play varies along an axis of risk (minimal to maximal), as well as along an axis of centralized authority (absent to present to absolute), as well as in terms of what constitutes "succeeding" (wide variety of possibilities, including the difference between "winning for good" and "winning so far"), as well as in terms of who one's opponent(s) is or are, as well as along an axis of the role of Fortune (absent to medium to extreme), and as well as along an axis of when Fortune is applied (early, e.g. PC and scenario creation; to late, e.g. resolution only; or a combination of the two).

Given all this variation, I am to understand that one can point at "Gamist player" and state what he, she, or any Gamist player will do when confronted with a problem or situation of play? Nonsense.

The same variety applies to Narrativism, based on at least as many angles or axes of variation, and most especially to Simulationism.

This misconception has given rise to the notion of Simulationism as a "trash bag" which is entirely unwarranted. Simulationism, as clarified above, is a matter of prioritizing Exploration of any imagined element of play - if something fits that picture, it is Simulationist, regardless of whether something else, different, also fits that picture in its way.

GNS is an uber-model of anything and everything about role-playing.

The actual case: the GNS distinction exists as a layer between (1) the underlying Exploration which is fundamental to all role-playing, and (2) the further application of a given GNS goal (or meaningful combination of them) in a specific, focused fashion. [And all of these layers exist embedded in a social matrix with concerns, details, and conflicts of its own.]

Both #1 and #2, especially #2, provide much of the detail and content of role-playing as an act. The three Stances as well as my various points about Currency, Resolution, and (to be added later) Scene Management, exist as independent issues within #2.

For instance, I have lost count of the times I have said, as a clarifier, that Stance may vary freely within the context of role-playing in one single mode. Someone out there is convinced that I have identified Actor Stance with Simulationism, for instance, whereas I have only said that historically, the one seems to be highly correlated. Historically does not mean "always." Correlated does not mean "causal" or "definitional."

None of these layers, obviously, can be ignored when role-playing. My claim is that the GNS layer is typically the one to get ignored, and that many people have done well to give it some attention both in terms of play and design.

Comments are welcome.


Jack Spencer Jr

Well, Ron, as someone who may have said some things about you on RPGnet that may have hurt your feelings I appologize for that.  My intention was not to attack you personally but rather how the tone you sometimes take tends to make me feel.  But don't worry about that, I take all kinds of tones that piss people off.

What has resolved me to the whole GNS thing is the realization that it is not the only way nor the "Truth" behind RPGs. Like science, religion, Eastern philosophy (or western philosophy for that matter) GNS search for the underlying structure. The reason why I don't quite get it is not because I'm too much of an idiot to get it but because I have a ever so slightly different perspective on the subject.  GNS is not the structure behind RPGs anymore than physics is the underlying structure behind what we call reality.  It is a model of that structure, or what structure you perceive. It does not reproduce reality, but it does create a version of the reality to facilitate the understanding of that reality.

Once I got this, and I got this recently, most of my complaints faded away.  I don't have to try to get you to change GNS to fit my perception.  If my perception is so different, maybe I should develop my own model. (ha!)  

I do stand by my statement that your own Narrativism bias has made your essay Narrativist biased.  Many examples for other theories, like Stance and such, tend to use a Narrativist example more often than not.  I don't know, maybe your essay would've been better served as simply an essay on Narrativism since it's what you do, understand, and enjoy or maybe it wouldn't.  Don't mind me.

joshua neff

Well said, Ron. I myself would add an eighth one:

Citing a point Ron made by starting a sentence with "Ron said..." is not slavish & cultish devotion, but merely citation. Also, agreeing with something someone (for example, Ron) has said is not cultish devotion but merely agreement.

I'm sick of the "Cult of Ron" crap. It would almost be insulting if it weren't so infantile.

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes

Christopher Kubasik

That said, Josh, if I remember correctly, no one in the last marathon -- still going strong with 187 posts and 3500+ views -- said anything along these lines this time around --(of, if they did, backed down when called on it).


PS Ron.  Thanks for the post.  I'm still chewing on Number Four and will return if I need clarification.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Jack, the way I've come to think about it is like this:

Certain people, like me, like Ron, independently came to the conclusion we wanted games to run more like dramatic narrative.  We though certain rules were getting in the way, certain assumptions of play were getting in the way, certain unspoken and cross-purposed ambitions were getting in the way.

(Ron, being Ron, did the hard work.  I came along and said, "Yes!")

So, it's like this metaphor, (which, as we all know, illustrates something by comparision without actually being the thing): There's Euclidian geometry.  And it works just fine.  But I want something the measures things over here, that can't be measured with Euclidian geometry.  What I need is an awful lot *like* Euclidian geometry, but Euclidian geomtry doesn't handle what I need, so I'll have to come up with something new, a model that *includes* Euclidian geometry, but expands the tools of what I want to measure so I can do this new work.

So I get non-Euclidian geometry.  

Now: Euclidian geometry still works.  In fact, it works for 99% of daily life.  (Which is why the "GNS Simulationism node describes 90% percent of the games out there so it's not valid" arguement falls apart for me.)

So, in a way you're right.  Ron's concern, I think (mine at least) was expanding the model of game design enough to allow the inclusion of a kind of gaming that was sort of suggested, but never explicitely developed.  

But it's not Narrativistic centric -- or whatever perjoritive one wants to grab for.  But it gather up a lot of Simulationsist games and puts them in one big group because on the scale (model) that includes Narrativist ambition, the differences of those games aren't that great.

This doesn't invalidate them (or Euclidian geometry).  It just means they're more alike than not alike when set against Narrativist goals -- just as a square and triangle suddenly become more more alike once you introduce a sphere.

But agian, no one says you shouldn't be using a T square when building a table.  Tables are good.  Flying to Mars is good.  They're each best served by different approaches, and, when put side by side, their differences come out in stark relief.

Just a thought.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards

Hi folks,

Jack, nothing has hurt my feelings. No apology necessary. When I said to "put aside" the issue of attacks/comments about me, I meant it - put it aside, as in drop it as an issue. That was not a veiled plea for apologies.

Everyone, please consider my points in the first post on this thread and offer comments about them, not side issues.


Thor Olavsrud


It seems that at least half of the misconceptions you cite are vocabulary-based.

I think one of the reasons misconceptions creep in -- and one of the reasons that newbies sometimes find the Forge daunting -- is the lack of an easily accessible glossary of terms.

Definitions of narrativism, gamism, simultationism and stance I can find in the GNS essay. But what about terms like Vanilla Narrativism, Drift, Framing, or other terms that are thrown around here? It's possible to search through the archives to find some of these things, or try to cobble together a definition for yourself based on the context in which you see the terms used, but these are imperfect alternatives at best.

A glossary of some sort would be really helpful, both in giving newbies a toehold on the discussions here and to prevent the definition of terms from drifting over time.

Afterall, IMHO the importance of GNS and other models is that they give us a common vocabulary with which to talk about our hobby. Many of you have been here for a long time and have internalized that vocabulary. The rest of us have to catch as catch can.