GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory, Chapter 6
by Ron Edwards
Chapter Six: Actually Playing
It all comes back to the social situation, eventually, because role-playing is a human activity and not a set of rules or text. Coherence is expressed as a social outcome; it must apply all the way into and through actual play. I suggest that preparing for and carrying out the role-playing experience in social terms, well above and beyond considerations of system mechanics, is most coherent from a GNS and Premise perspective.
Role-playing is carried out through relying upon the real, interpersonal roles of living humans, yes, even of opponents. If people do not share any degree of either Premise focus (either Gamist or Narravist) or an Exploration focus (Simulationist), then their different assumptions, different expectations, and different goals will come into conflict during play. When that happens, the uber-goal of "Fun" is diminished. Perhaps the people continue to play together solely to interact socially, but the actual role-playing is, effectively, gone.
But it's just a game!
This phrase is an alarm bell. Oh, it looks like an attempt to reconciliate disagreements by calling attention to fun and the shared, social context, but it disguises something far more unpleasant.
The first tip-off is that the phrase is not literally meaningful. What's the "it?" Role-playing, of course, but dismissed, via the singular short pronoun, as simple, straightforward, intuitively grasped, and singly defined. And what's a "game?" Not defined at all. The use of "game" to refer to role-playing is completely historical and carries no informational content beyond its indication of a leisure activity.
The ugly truth is that this phrase is not reconciliatory at all. Rather, it is code for, "Stop bothering me with your interests and accord with my goals, decisions, and priorities of play." I strongly urge that individual role-players not tolerate any implication that their preferred, enjoyed range of role-playing modes is a less worthy form of play.
What's a GM and what's a player?
Like it or not, among any group of people contributing to some constructive activity, there exists a the aforementioned Balance of Power: some hierarchy and way to organize who gets to influence and approve of outcomes. For the activity to succeed, some form of social contract, or reciprocal obligations, must be in place.
In role-playing games, the issue of the social contract becomes quickly confounded with the distribution and difference in the roles of GM and players. Entirely aside from any formal rules-oriented or procedure-oriented authority, what kind of authority or status does a GM have over or with the players anyway? Is he or she the physical host, using physical living or work space for the game? If not, does that change or limit the GM-ness? How about a faculty member running games with students in a campus club? How about romance issues; if single, is he or she automatically the focus of personal attention from other single people in the group?
Most of these issues cannot be addressed from the perspective of game design, but they are real nonetheless. Where the game design and GNS-based approach to play can help is in putting all the issues of the role-playing itself above-board. Given clear roles, purposes, and respective obligations of GM and player - which in most RPG designs are left open or badly mis-stated - the group may avoid getting its role-playing issues mixed up with its social ones.
How might a GNS perspective help keep that GM/player understanding clear? Historically, the terms cover very diffferent ranges within each of the modes.
A final issue about GM and player(s) concerns who is expected to be entertaining whom, in some kind of dichotomous way. Evidently this is a matter of some emotional commitment, prompting the same defensiveness and hurt feelings as the mention of "immersion." Therefore I am personally willing to let it lie.
Organizing a role-playing session
With a few exceptions, most role-playing texts completely ignore the actual human logistics of play, although these are hugely important in application. How can one possibly participate in a social, leisure activity without considering all of the following?
For those forms of role-playing that emphasize "story" in the general sense (see Chapter Two), this approach is completely unsuitable. What is a "story" to be, in terms of individual sessions and all-sessions? In role-playing culture, one is often assumed either to be playing a "campaign," which means it should go on forever, or a "one-shot" session which aside from the connotation of being superficial is simply too short for many sorts of stories. The functional intermediate of playing the number of sessions sufficient for the purpose of resolving a story is nowhere to be found in the texts of role-playing.
On the smaller scale, successfully preparing for individual sessions is especially integrated with GNS and Premise. Consider the historical tendencies among the modes, in terms of how a series of events emerges through the course of play. (These do not represent either a complete or definitional list, but simply historical examples.)
Gamist play was not included above, mainly because it has been so badly marginalized during most of role-playing history. To date, most scenario construction oriented in this direction has fallen back on the late-1970s tournament model or the survivalist model found in many video games. The Hogshead family of Gamist RPGs ('Baron Munchausen, Pantheon) has broken this mold and I have no doubt that much more variety remains to be developed.
Dysfunction: when role-playing doesn't work out
Great Googley-Moogley, let me count the ways.
The clearest case is straightforward. People do exist who will habitually disrupt a role-playing group for whatever reasons of their own, and the only solution for dealing with such people is to exclude them from play.
But let's consider people who do want to role-play together, and have even established an interest in the most basic, embryonic form of an initial Premise. What dysfunctions may arise?
Emotional tensions between people may override the role-playing. It can be romance, or money issues, or who's giving whom a ride home, or any number of similar things. My claim is that a lot of times, people get all upset at one another about game stuff (tactics, rules, etc) when the real problem is this people stuff. Such problems must be dealt with socially and above-board, because no in-game mechanisms can help; in-game issues are symptoms rather than causes.
I think the most common dysfunction, however, is GNS incompatibility. At the highest-order level, if the people simply have entirely different goals, then actual play continually runs into conflicts about priorities and procedures based on those different goals. I think everyone who's familiar with the theory knows that this is a "no fault, no blame" criterion. I like potatos, you like pink lemonade, have a nice game with your own group.
More difficult incompatibilities also exist within each of G, N, or S. People may share the the large-scale GNS goal, but be accustomed to or desire different standards for Balance of Power, preferred stances, notions of character depth, the distinction between player success and character success, and many related things. In this case, dysfunction arises from (a) trying to resolve the differences during play itself, and (b) anyone being unwilling to compromise about the differences.
Drift is the usual method for dealing with this level of discord. It is a fine solution for resolving within-mode differences, if everyone is willing to give a little. However, drift has a dark side, or degeneration, the disruption or subversion of the social contract such that what is happening is not more fun, at least not at the group level. Gamism is often pegged as the culprit when players shift from the stated or agreed-upon mode of play and turn upon one another as opponents, but it's better considered degeneration with Gamism merely being the direction. The usual effect of degeneration (any kind, not just this one little Gamist sort), if people continue to play, is to play without committing to anything at all.
The tragedy is how widespread GNS-based degeneration really is. I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced role-players with this profile: a limited repertoire of games behind him and extremely defensive and turtle-like play tactics. Ask for a character background, and he resists, or if he gives you one, he never makes use of it or responds to cues about it. Ask for actions - he hunkers down and does nothing unless there's a totally unambiguous lead to follow or a foe to fight. His universal responses include "My guy doesn't want to," and, "I say nothing."
I have not, in over twenty years of role-playing, ever seen such a person have a good time role-playing. I have seen a lot of groups founder due to the presence of one such participant. Yet they really want to play. They prepare characters or settings, organize groups, and are bitterly disappointed with each fizzled attempt. They spend a lot of money on RPGs with lots of supplements and full-page ads in gaming magazines.
These role-players are GNS casualties. They have never perceived the range of role-playing goals and designs, and they frequently commit the fallacies of synecdoche about "correct role-playing." Discussions with them wander the empty byways of realism, genre, completeness, roll-playing vs. role-playing, and balance. They are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough. They thought that "show up with a character" was sufficient prep, or thought that this new game with its new setting was going to solve all their problems forever. They are simultaneously devoted to and miserable in their hobby.
My goal in developing RPG theory and writing this document is to help people avoid this fate.