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GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory, Chapter 5
by Ron Edwards

Chapter Five: Role-playing Design and Coherence

This chapter investigates how role-playing design is involved in facilitating or inhibiting coherence. I think that all three modes of play have been present in role-playing since its invention in the 1970s. But design is a different issue. Because most of the history of RPG design proceeds from variation among what already exists, with changes usually appearing in discrete features rather than in foundational principles, the priorities and goals facilitated by the designs show extremely recognizable trends.

It may fairly be asked, how can GNS be applied to design features, when few if any RPG designers know about it, or even care? I use a physics analogy: prior to the insights of Newtonian physics, bridges could be built. Some of them were built rather well. However, in retrospect, we are well aware that in order to build the bridge, the designer must have been at the very least according with Newtonian physics through (1) luck, (2) imitation of something else that worked, (3) use of principles that did not conflict with Newtonian physics in a way that mattered for the job, or (4) a non-articulated understanding of those principles. I consider the analogy to be exact for role-playing games.

Therefore, the theory-principles or stated intent of the designer, if any, are irrelevant to the analysis of the RPG designs. For instance, John Wick had no interest in GNS or any other theory when writing Orkworld. However, he has a keen sense of practical role-playing and a clear vision of the "ways" he envisioned Orkworld play to proceed. In order to produce that game, he utilized and developed principles of Narrativism, metagame mechanics, and focused Premise on Character and Situation, precisely as outlined in the theory. He just did not articulate them overtly.

In terms of design, the issue is incoherence, defined here as failure to permit any Premise (or any element of Exploration) to be consistently enjoyed. I think that any and all RPG designs have some identifiable relationship with the GNS modes, out of the following possibilities.
  • Focused: the design facilitates a specific, identifiable Premise (or area of Exploration).
  • Semi-adaptable: the design is at least compatible with more than one Premise and/or Exploration across GNS goals. (Whether this category even exists, or whether it merely reflects correctable incoherence, is debatable.)
  • General: the design facilitates a specific mode, but permits a range of Premises or Explorations within that mode.
  • Kitchen sink: the design utilizes layers and multiple options such that any specific point of play may be customized to accord with GNS goals. (This design often ends up being a general Simulationist one, however.)
  • Incoherent 1: the design fails to permit one or any mode of play. In its most extreme form, the system may simply be broken - too easily exploited, or internally nonsensical, or lacking meaningful consequence, to pick three respective possibilities for Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism.
  • Incoherent 2: more commonly, the design presents a mixed bag among the modes, such that one part of play is (or is mostly) facilitating one mode and other parts of play facilitate others.
In terms of actual play, yes, one "can" bring "any" GNS focus to "any" RPG - but I argue that in most cases the effort and informal redesign to do so is substantial, and also that the effort to keep focused on the new goals as play progresses is even more substantial. This chapter discusses why that effort needs to be there at all.

Throughout this chapter, cut me some slack on the terminology. Saying "Gamist design" or "Gamist RPG," is a short way of saying, "RPG design whose elements facilitate, to any recognizable degree, Gamist priorities and decision-making."

Design and Premise
Facilitating a metagame concern (a developed Premise) differs greatly from Exploring a listed element as a priority. To address a Premise, the imaginary, internal commitment to the in-game events must be broken at least occasionally during play, to set up and resolve the issues of interest in strictly person-to-person terms. To Explore the topic in the Simulationist sense, breaking the imagined, continuous in-game causality is exactly what to avoid. The at-first attractive idea that a system could easily encompass, say, Character-based Premise and prioritized Character Exploration is actually utterly unworkable.

To illustrate this principle, let's take just one aspect of role-playing design: the terms and qualities used to denote a character. How are these things involved in Premise or focused Exploration?

Facilitating Simulationism is all about Exploring the designated element(s). The most important priority is that the stated features express linear, in-game-world causality. That is why the most prevalent version of Simulationist character design relies on Nature-Nurture distinctions, using layered qualities, for a large number of attributes and abilities. Other sorts of Simulationist design may employ different methods, but the commitment to in-game, linear causality remains the priority.

Facilitating Narrativism relies on bringing specific Premise and the ability to have an impact on it into the foreground, over and above any "descriptive" or "explanatory" elements. Distinctions between attributes and skills, for instance, is irrelevant. A big tough fighter and a small lithe fighter may well be described, in game terms, with a single identical "fight" value, perhaps modified retroactively during play for especially-appropriate situations. A character may have features for completely metagame concerns, such as "plot points" or similar things.

Facilitating Gamism is a matter of knowing what is relevant to the stakes, competition, and conditions of victory or loss. Features of a character are either complicators or focusing points of the character's strategic possibilities. (Side note: Gamist character design may be very complex, in which the complication is itself part of the competitive arena, or it may be very streamlined if the competition concerns other issues.)

Rules regarding both Character and System also facilitate a GNS goal by facilitating (or even demanding) particular Stances. For instance, an explicit metagame mechanic automatically entails using Author or Director stance, whereas a Psychological Limitation of the GURPS/Champions tradition automatically entails using Actor stance to some degree. Secondarily, these Stance-directing mechanics affect GNS focus.

As always, synecdoche confounds the issue. Historically, certain combinations of DFK and Character building, with their attendant impact on Stance and GNS, have become so entrenched that many people actually identify them as "how role-playing is done," without realizing the range of design that they are missing.

RPG design and GNS, historically
Pending a really good history of role-playing games, this brief and GNS-based summary will have to do. Arising as it did from wargaming in the middle 1970s, the earliest RPG design reflected its Gamist + Simulationist roots. However, within a year, design philosophies split very fast across a brief Renaissance of largely-forgotten games that spanned nearly all of the GNS spectrum, and then two trends "settled out" to remain stable until the early 1990s.

The first of these trends was an ongoing series of imitations of post-tourney D&D, with its halting and incoherent mix of Gamism and Simulationism. The second was a development of Simulationist principles in several trajectories, based on different models, including the following.
  • The RuneQuest system from the Chaosium (extremely coherent, emphasizing System and Setting), developing both in the series of games from that company as well as in its imitators.
  • The interesting mutual relationship between four editions of Champions and effectively two of GURPS (moving from incoherent to coherent, emphasizing System), which provides the model for the vast majority of new games.
  • The AD&D 2nd edition (mainly incoherent, emphasizing Setting and Situation), developing in the huge setting-based proliferation of TSR products into the early 1990s, as well as in a host of small-press imitators.
Around 1990, first Narrativist-facilitating methods became widely established, and then full-bodied Narrativist games appeared in 1994. About five years later, simultaneous with the appearance of innovative competitive games (not RPGs, but rather Cheapass Games), overtly Gamist RPGs appeared.

(A fascinating story of economics and industry hassles underlies this history, but I regretfully have to stay on-topic. Another time.)

Or to put it another way, RPG design through most of the hobby's history has been largely devoted to Simulationist priorities. This is not to say that the full range of this mode has been represented or all of its potential developed.

The sub-set of Simulationism most fully developed during the 1980s was "realist" (a form of Situtation) and "genre-faithfulness" (System with strong and various other co-emphases). Some conventions of these approaches include identifying Fortune methods with the imaginary physics of the setting and a commitment to extensive search and handling times. The sub-set developed later used the previous one as a foundation, but lightened the details and concentrated on Character, Setting, and Situation in its most external form of published metaplot, as a determinant of large-scale events during play.

Quite a lot more has occurred in Simulationist design, of course. Not surprisingly, the variety among coherent Simulationist design is extensive, indeed, vast, because the key to design is which elements are being Explored.
  • Character: Unknown Armies
  • Setting: RuneQuest, Pendragon, Usagi Yojimbo, Jorune
  • Situation: Call of Cthulhu
  • System: GURPS, Champions 4th edition (or rather, the Hero System), Fudge, Multiverser
  • Situation and Setting: Feng Shui, Cyberpunk 2020
  • Character and Setting: Legend of the Five Rings, Nephilim, Albedo, Ars Magica, Nobilis
This is not to say that any RPG will illustrate one of the above categories so clearly; the listed titles are among the shining lights of coherent Simulationist design. Most RPGs are cobbled-together pieces of these and other games, generating a vague and internally-incoherent Simulationism with, at best, isolated design features or Color that are interesting. The topic of incoherence is developed more fully below, but for now, consider Kult - how can archetypal (fixed) character design be compatible with Character Exploration? The answer is that it can't, and that nearly all of the character development material in the basic rules is scrapped in application, which turns into pure Setting Exploration instead.

Much Narrativist and Gamist play during the 1980s occurred as "rebellious" play in groups using primarily Simulationist systems. This is probably why elements of Narrativist and Gamist play are often perceived as cheating by those who are strongly committed to the Simulationist designs of that period, or mistakenly identified with "ignoring the rules."

Overt Gamist RPG design is very rare. I think it takes a central role only in D&D well before it acquired its "A," in Tunnels & Trolls also in the late 1970s, and, less coherently, in Shadowrun and Rifts. Arguably, quite a lot of live-action role-playing of Vampire, Amber, and other games has drifted into Gamism in application, but not in the texts. Only very recently has overt, even enthusiastic Gamist design been resurrected, in D&D3E, Rune, Pantheon, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Ninja Burger.

Gamism clearly includes a wide range of the role of Fortune, such that some games have a high random element and in others it is very low or absent. Also, the GM's role varies widely, up to and including being completely absent. I look forward to the continued appearance and widely-ranging development of Gamist RPGs as well as to informed discussion of the principles that are involved in playing them.

Overt Narrativist RPG design is a latecomer, with the exception of the few glimmers appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of which Marvel Super Heroes is the sole survivor. The first thoroughgoing Narrativist game since then was Prince Valiant, in 1989. Although both games were based on source texts, their designs did not recommend Exploring the canonical settings so much as using the texts' authors' philosophy of story creation as a model for creating new stories entirely.

A veritable Renaissance of Narrativist design occurred in 1993-1994 and continues to this day. Its published pioneers include Over the Edge and Everway; then Theatrix, Zero, Castle Falkenstein, Extreme Vengeance, and The Whispering Vault, as the next wave; and then Maelstrom/Story Engine, followed by Hero Wars, as games which provided utterly novel approaches at the metagame level. But the published games are only one side of the story, given the proliferation of Narrativist development in the underground, beginning with The Window and Wuthering Heights and setting the stage for the publications of games like Sorcerer, Orkworld, and Little Fears.

In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following models.
  • A pre-play developed setting, in which case the characters develop into protagonists in the setting's conflicts over time. Examples include Castle Falkenstein and Hero Wars.
  • Pre-play developed characters (protagonists), in which case the setting develops into a suitable framework for them over time. Examples include Sorcerer, Everway, Zero (in an interesting way), Cyberpunk 1st edition, Orkworld, and The Whispering Vault.
I have observed that when people bring a Narrativist approach to Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings, or other game systems which include both detailed pre-play character creation and a detailed, conflict-rich settting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably.

Given the widespread use of Author and Director stance in Narrativist role-playing, the functional result is to spread tasks and creative roles left for the GM in most other play among all participants. These systems may accurately be considered GM-full, rather than GM-less.

Finally, several of the games mentioned above as well as others are probably best considered "abashedly Narrativist" rather than thoroughly focused on this mode, insofar as the overt philosophy of play in the texts is about creating stories, even about the players having co-author status, but various elements of design stop short of the goal. The aforementioned Marvel Super Heroes, Cyberpunk 1st edition, The Window, Everway, Obsidian, UnderWorld, and Little Fears are good examples.

The new revolution
Recent directions in RPG design are breaking new ground across GNS, especially in terms of how Stance relates to the modes. Only now are we seeing such things as mechanics-driven Director Stance in Simulationism and in Gamism. It's also nice to see Narrativist design following up on the precedent set by Prince Valiant, with Premise based on Situation (The Dying Earth).

Fortune methods may clearly be employed extensively in the service of metagame goals. I specifically disavow the popular notion that these methods serve only for in-setting probabilistic modeling, and the associated notion that they have little place in Narrativism or Gamism. I would very much like to participate in a discussion of Fortune systems acting as a "springboard" for metagame priorities in Narrativist play, as suggested by the designs of InSpectres, The Pool, The Framework, Munchkins, and others.

Another new development is an explicit opening statement about the social context of play, often with a fairly strong GNS focus. I think this is an astoundingly important element of game design and presentation, and it's interesting to review older games to see how they did or didn't manage to communicate it. The typical trends among them are the following.
  • The purpose and perspective of the game is scattered across several places, rarely at the beginning, and is often referred to rather than addressed directly.
  • The purpose and perspective of the game is justified because it corresponds to what, according to the authors, role-playing obviously is (i.e., the synecdoche fallacy).
  • The purpose and perspective of the game claims to satisfy anyone, in blatant contradiction to the game's content and design.
One of the benefits of the GNS perspective is the willingness to accept that other outlooks or priorities exist besides one's own. Therefore, in many of the new games, the social contract is both more explicit and less dismissive, which I think is functional, honest, and fair.

Dozens of topics remain, many of which have been researched by me but have not been broached in public.
  • DFK combinations across RPG design history, in both basic resolution and metagame mechanics.
  • The history and development across RPGs of trading within components of Currency or across them.
  • Random vs. nonrandom elements of character creation contrasted with those of event resolution.
  • Distinctions between successful actions and significant consequences.
  • Personality mechanics, divided into two main schools derived from, respectively, Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Fundamental aspects of character-player relationship based on levels of remove.
  • The consequence of character death or incapacity on the player's participation in the game.
I would very much like to host a sort of "Discuss this game" exercise at the Forge regarding given RPGs, not to label them "G, N, or S" in a superficial way but rather to dissect their function in the full knowledge of the listed elements, Stance-facilitating features, all aspects of design including the issues listed above, comparisons with ancestral, contemporary, and derivative games, and much more.

Metagame considered further
Metagame mechanics appeared mainly as Narrativist "coping mechanisms" when playing games that were largely 80s-Simulationist designs (which does not mean these games were "bad" or represented the whole of Simulationist potential). An extreme, early example would be TORG's character-card privileges; a more typical example would be Over the Edge's bonus dice.

In later RPGs with overtly Narrativist resolution systems, metagame mechanics have again become rare. For instance, in Hero Wars, neither bumping success levels nor bidding Action Points are metagame mechanics, but simply the basic resolution system. They most resemble metagame mechanics from earlier games, but now, in an overtly Narrativist design, they are front-and-center rather than secondary overrides.

Balance, so-called
"Balance" may rank as the most problematic term in all of role-playing. What in the world does it mean? Equality of some kind? Fairness of some kind? Whenever the term is brought up, the discussion cannot proceed without specifying further regarding the following issues.
  • Balance of what? Components of the characters? Specific sets of components?
  • Or perhaps it's balance of actions, in which case, is it of opportunity, or of consequence?
  • Balance among whom? Players or characters? Both in some way?
  • To what end? (Citing "fairness" is tautological.)
  • Shifting the issue, perhaps it's a matter of balance within a character, rather than among characters.
  • And extending the issue, should balance be concerned with initial starting points of characters or with the processes of change for the characters, or both?
Currently little insight arises from discussions of balance, as it inevitably wanders about these issues without focusing. The issues themselves, on the other hand, are very interesting. Therefore the term is much like "genre," in that discussion might as well focus on the real issues in the first place and never use the term at all.

Finally, a common misconception is to identify any concern with equality or "even-ness" among characters with (a) balance per se and (b) Gamism. I disavow any suggestion that Gamism as a whole is necessarily concerned with balance, or that concerns with balance (of some kind) necessarily indicate a Gamist approach. For instance, the parity of starting point totals across a group of GURPS characters most likely indicates a commitment to the consistency of the Explored Characters with their Situation and Setting, rather than to any concern with "fairness" or "leveling the playing field."

Hybrids and drift
Can multiple GNS goals be satisfied by a single game design? It may be possible, but it is not easy. As mentioned before, merely aligning topics of Exploration with those of Premise is probably not effective. I conceive of two types of hybrid: (1) two modes are simultaneously satisfied in the same player at the same time, of which I am highly skeptical; and (2) two modes can exist side by side in the design, such that differently-oriented players may play together, which might be possible. Some possible candidates for the latter include these.
  • G + S: Rifts.
  • N + G: Champions 1st-3rd editions; I'm interested as well in seeing the upcoming Elfworld and a proposed game from Hogshead Publishing regarding fantasy weaponry.
  • N + S: Little Fears and UnderWorld (these games' degree of "abashedness" exists squarely on the border of the two modes).
Drift is a related issue: the movement from one GNS focus to another during the course of play. I do not think that "drift" reflects hybridized design (in which both modes are indeed present), but rather correctable incoherence (moving toward coherence in one mode). Historically, drifting toward Gamism is very common; it isn't hard to understand that a frustrating and incoherent context can be turned into an arena for competition. Internet play has illustrated some distinctive drifting: Amber moves from abashed Narrativism either to Simulation with Exploration of Character or to Gamism with the emphasis on interpersonal control; Everway moves from abashed Narrativism to Simulationism with the emphasis on Exploration of Situation.
The 1990s transitional game offers a good example of driftable design: Simulationist resolution with strong metagame mechanics, highly customizable character, setting, and situation, with or without exhortations to "story." Fudge and The Window are perfect examples, on either side of Simulationism or Narrativism, respectively, as the stated emphasis.

Incoherent design
Unfortunately, functional or nearly-functional hybrids are far less common than simply incoherent RPG designs.

The "lesser," although still common, dysfunctional trend is found among the imitators of the late-1970s release of AD&D, composed of vague and scattered Simulationism mixed with vague and scattered Gamism. Warhammer is the most successful of these. Small-press publishers pump out these games constantly, offering little new besides ever-more baroque mechanics and a highly-customized Setting (Hahlmabrea, Pelicar, Legendary Lives, Of Gods and Men, Fifth Cycle, Darkurthe: Legends, and more). Another, similar trend is the never-ending stream of GURPS imitators.

The "dominant" dysfunctional system is immediately recognizable, to the extent of being considered by many to be what role-playing is: a vaguely Gamist combat and reward system, Simulationist resolution in general (usually derived from GURPS, Cyberpunk, or Champions 4th edition), a Simulationist context for play (Situation in the form of published metaplot), deceptive Narrativist Color, and incoherent Simulationist/Narrativist Character creation rules. This combination has been represented by some of the major players in role-playing marketing, and has its representative for every period of role-playing since the early 1980s.
  • AD&D2 pioneered the approach in the middle 1980s, particularly the addition of metaplot with the Dragonlance series.
  • Champions, through its 3rd edition, exemplified a mix of Gamist and Narrativist "driftable" design, but with its 4th edition in the very late 1980s, the system lost all Metagame content and became the indigestible mix outlined above.
  • Vampire, in the early 1990s, offered a mix of Simulationism and Gamism in combat resolution, but a mix of Narrativism and Simulationism out of combat, as well as bringing in Character Exploration.
The design is hugely imitated, ranging from Earthdawn, Kult, and In Nomine, to the mid-1990s "shotgun attack" of Deadlands, Legend of the Five Rings, and Seventh Sea.

All of these games are based on The Great Impossible Thing to Believe Before Breakfast: that the GM may be defined as the author of the ongoing story, and, simultaneously, the players may determine the actions of the characters as the story's protagonists. This is impossible. It's even absurd. However, game after game, introduction after introduction, and discussion after discussion, it is repeated.

Consider the players who were excited about the vampire concept for role-playing. What happens when they try to play Vampire: the Masquerade? Well, they try to Believe the Impossible Thing, and in application, the results are inevitable.
  • The play drifts toward some application of Narrativism, which requires substantial effort and agreement among all the people involved, as well as editing out substantial portions of the game's texts and system.
  • The play drifts toward an application of Simulationism in which the GM dominates the characters' significant actions, and the players contribute only to characterization. This is called illusionism, in which the players are unaware of or complicit with the extent to which they are manipulated.
    • Illusionism is not necessarily dysfunctional, and if Character or Situation Exploration is the priority, then it can be a lot of fun. Unknown Armies, Feng Shui, and Call of Cthulhu all facilitate extremely functional illusionism. However, it is not and can never be "story creation" on the part of all participants, and if the game is incoherent, illusionism requires considerable effort to edit the system and texts into shape.
  • Most likely, however, the players and GM carry out an ongoing power-struggle over the actions of the characters, with the integrity of "my guy" held as a club on the behalf of the former and the integrity of "the story" held as a club on behalf of the latter.
The players of the vampire example are especially screwed if they have Narrativist leanings and try to use Vampire: the Masquerade. The so-called "Storyteller" design in White Wolf games is emphatically not Narrativist, but it is billed as such, up to and including encouraging subcultural snobbery against other Simulationist play without being much removed from it. The often-repeated distinction between "roll-playing" and "role-playing" is nothing more nor less than Exploration of System and Exploration of Character - either of which, when prioritized, is Simulationism. Thus our players, instead of taking the "drift" option (which would work), may well apply themselves more and more diligently to the metaplot and other non-Narrativist elements in the mistaken belief that they are emphasizing "story." The prognosis for the enjoyment of such play is not favorable.

One may ask, if this design is so horribly dysfunctional, why is it so popular? The answer requires an economic perspective on RPGs, in addition to the conceptual and functional one outlined in this essay, and is best left for discussion.

The one true game
What a wonderful ideal: an RPG design that satisfies any participant, with no stress, no adjustment of any part, no potential for interpersonal disagreement, and no unnecessary preparation. The "universal game."

Bluntly, it's a moronic concept, existing only to whet frustrated consumers' appetites for an upcoming product. GNS goals differ among people, preferred variants of each GNS mode differ among people, and system mechanics necessarily facilitate a limited range of these preferences, or facilitate nothing at all. All of us would do well to look in the mirror every morning and state, "There is no universal role-playing game."

However, the term "universal" is also used for a rather sensible and functional RPG design option, which is much better described by the term general. A general game design holds constant one or two of the listed elements of role-playing (Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color) and provides guidelines for customizing the other elements. GURPS and Fudge are perfect examples, as are the plethora of their imitators: System is held constant and made very clear; Setting and Color are specified prior to play by the GM and similarly made clear and specific; and then Character and Situation are customized.

A general game design is really no more than extending the original notion from AD&D of System, Setting, Situation, and Color being highly fixed, with Character being the main thing to customize. Other combinations are possible, as in Sorcerer and Orkworld, in which System is highly fixed, then Character and Situation are customized, and finally Setting are customized (Color's place differs between these two games).

In other words, the so-called "universal" model for RPG design is really a general design, and a coherent general game sits as firmly in its GNS orientation as any other. The key issue is to avoid confounding it with "universal" in the sense of "satisfies any and every possible role-playing participant."

A number of code-phrases to describe RPG system and goals have arisen as role-players struggled to match their interests with the spectrum of available games, but most of them lack substance.
  • Rules-heavy vs. Rules-light: this dichotomy is vaguely oriented toward high vs. low search and handling time, but it is confounded a great deal with so-called realism and so-called story. (This confusion is a product of the transition design period of 1990-1991, exemplified by Fudge and The Window.) The concept of rules-focus, in terms of goals and modes, has not entered the popular understanding of the hobby.
  • Completeness: as far as I can tell, this term relies on as thorough a presentation as possible of all the listed elements, apparently such that Simulationist play of any emphasis can pick and choose which aspects to emphasize, by elimination rather than by creation.

Chapter 4: The Basics of Role-playing Design Chapter 6: Actually Playing

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