GNS and Other Matters of Roleplaying Theory, Chapter 1
by Ron Edwards
Chapter One: Exploration
When a person engages in role-playing, or prepares to do so, he or she relies on imagining and utilizing the following: Character, System, Setting, Situation, and Color.
Exploration and its child, Premise
The best term for the imagination in action, or perhaps for the attention given the imagined elements, is Exploration. Initially, it is an individual concern, although it will move into the social, communicative realm, and the commitment to imagine the listed elements becomes an issue of its own.
When a person perceives the listed elements together and considers Exploring them, he or she usually has a basic reaction of interest or disinterest, approval or disapproval, or desire to play or lack of such a desire. Let's assume a positive reaction; when it occurs, whatever prompted it is Premise, in its most basic form. To re-state, Premise is whatever a participant finds among the elements to sustain a continued interest in what might happen in a role-playing session. Premise, once established, instils the desire to keep that imaginative commitment going.
Person 1: "You play vampires in the modern day, trying to stay secret from the cattle and coping with other vampires." [See atmospheric, grim, punky-goth pictures]
Person 2: "Ooh! Cool!"
Person 2 might have liked the grittiness of the art, the romance of the word "vampire," or the idea of being involved in a secret mystical intrigue. Or maybe none of these and an entirely different thing. Or maybe all of them at once. It doesn't matter - whatever it was, that's the initial Premise for this person.
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. The initial Premise only takes shape and shared-focus when we move to the next chapter.
Why "genre" is not part of the lexicon
I do not recommend using "genre" to identify role-playing content. A "genre" is some combination of specific setting elements, plot elements, situation elements, character elements, and sometimes premise elements, such that by hearing the term, we are informed what to expect, or in role-playing terms, what to do. On the face of it, the concept would seem to be useful.
The problem is that genres are continually being deconstructed and re-formed, with elements of one being re-combined with others. This is occurring as a non-planned or non-managed historical phenomenon throughout all media. Therefore "genre" may be a fine descriptive label for what is or has been done, but it's not much help in terms of what to do or what can be done.
In many cases, a given genre label will convey to a close group of people a fairly tight combination of values for these variables. However, the same genre label loses its power to inform as you add more people to the mix, especially since most labels have switched meanings radically more than once. And even more importantly, new combinations of values for the key variables may be perfectly functional, even when they do not correspond to any recognized genre label.
Therefore when someone tells me that a game (or story, or whatever) is based on a certain genre, I have to ask a few more questions - and sooner or later, I get real answers in terms of Character, Setting, Situation, or Color. Only then can an initial Premise be identified, and then the next step toward functional, enjoyable role-playing may occur.