Gamism and Narrativism: Mutually Exclusive

Started by Ayyavazi, July 01, 2009, 03:35:50 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

Two major points. (Also, my apologies in advance for the terseness. I'm definitely at the end of a toddler-heavy day.)

1. When I say esteem, it's not isolated. It's esteem about strategy and guts. So play which involves strategy and guts as a minor component but doesn't have the esteem about it; that's not Gamist. It might have esteem about something else, maybe. But if you have (i) esteem (ii) about (iii) strategy and guts, as the point-purpose-agenda of play, then you have Gamist play. All three, in that causal relationship.

2. Agenda should not be confused with motive, which I think both of you a're doing. I am not saying motives are uninvolved, but I am saying that consulting them causes problems. There are some pretty agonzing discussions back in the history of the Forge about that. Here, I'll say that in order to discuss Creative Agenda, we need to look at what is done around the table, socially and creatively, which is the clear and completely normal (i.e. not arcane or zen-like) reinforcement of one another's fun. Instead of saying, "H'm, why do I play, gee, I feel this, I feel that," look at what you and others actually did and do during a particular session or sequence of sessions. I think I demonstrated the utility of this approach in the Frostfolk and Rifts threads that I linked to in my earlier post, so those are probably the best references.

We've been through this "challenge" discussion about fifty times at the Forge, and it always goes 'round and 'round until the person understands that we're not talking about motive, and therefore nothing about "but I do it for X!" means anything to the discussion.

Best, Ron

P.S. I realized that I forgot to include the code for the relevant Exalted threads: Bumpy Exalted game, [More Abyssals] CA Clashes and holes in gamist systems.


What an incredibly disapppointing answer. Why would you ask me to post my personal message to you just to give this answer? No, I don't actually need an answer.

Ron Edwards

I'm answering Norm and your support to his post, and I'll get to your specific points when I can. Your previous post is not trivial and this thread is a fine place to work with it.

Please bear in mind that disappointing you or not disappointing you isn't my concern.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

The following should mark a transition in this thread. Norm, we need to start this thing for real. I'll post in a bit to say how.


Here are the issues that go into chance.thirteen's point about strong Gamist design and Narrativist play. To summarize, we're talking about using a rules-set which does X really well but people may play it with priority Y. In fact, Once Upon a Time was an excellent example game, as anyone who's played it knows - you have to decide whether X or Y is really the point of play for a particular group and instance of play.

1. When I say "play agenda," it's not a "style." Style is trivial. It's like hats two different people might wear while doing the same basic thing, even if they can't stand each other's hats. This guy talks in character, that guy never does. This guy uses a gas grill, this guy only uses charcoal. They may claim to be profoundly different from one another but no one observing them could say that. Whether they could ever be compatible in some group activity is not fundamental to what they're doing, but simply individually up to them.

Agenda is seriously different. This guy raises hogs to put bows on them and to keep them as pets, and sell them as pets. This guy grills them and sells books about the recipes. They get together on the basis of being "big hog fans" and there is nothing they can do to reconcile what they want from pigs as a shared activity.*

2. Any rules set can be used for any Creative Agenda. So if you're talking about using, say, Rune as the rules set and you and I and a couple other people play it in some way which is aggressively Narrativist and non-problematic as such among us - yeah. Not only "can happen," but "does happen" all the time, all over the place.

In practice, certain rules in the set tend to get de-emphasized and even ignored, which is Drift. I played Rifts a long time ago, and personally Drifted it basically by ignoring danger to my character and the various point-reward systems. When Andreas (Settembrini) interviewed me about that, because he was surprised I'd played Rifts at all, he reacted essentially that I didn't understand Rifts and played it wrong. Whether that's "wrong," I can't say (and have never said so) - what it was, was Drifted-Risk for purposes of a Creative Agenda that I daresay was not only not well-supported by the textual rules, but possibly as far from the way Andreas plays it as one can get (which is well-supported by the rules).**

For a much more deliberate example, see my series of four threads about playing D&D 3.0/3.5 with a dedicated Narrativist Agenda; they're pretty long and elaborate. A search in Actual Play using my name and the terms "Christopher" and possibly "orc" will do the job. We Drifted the rules significantly and precisely, but I think it's also clear that we did indeed play D&D well within the rules margins that permit that label to say stuck on.

These points combine to say that Agendas are incompatible, and also that no rules-set prevents a given Agenda from being used/done (although many rules sets do not fully survive contact with certain Agendas).

This phrase of yours confuses me though.

QuoteMy ongoing feeling is that many narrativist agendas are not positive or even neutral with regards to other styles of play, especially gamist play. Why do I think that? Because if you want to experience and enjoy the creation of a story, elements like rules, which sim and gamist play rely upon as almost unbendable agreements, can only be in the way.

I hardly know where to start with this, because read in one way, it's predicated on an absurd claim: that anyone who plays Gamist or Simulationist can't be making a story. That's silly; they do it all the time and have been doing so since the beginning of the hobby. Read in another way, it's a very solid statement that "experience and enjoy the creation of a story" as a highly specific priority (so specific that "address Premise" is the only defining feature) is not compatible with other agendas, and I agree with that. But the trouble with that second way is that its supportive clause - that prioritizing story creation of that kind is divorced from "rules." And that's even sillier than the first version of the whole statement. That's like going back to "roll vs. role" which is utter nonsense. No role-playing occurs without rules; free-form, for instance, relies entirely upon rules that pertain to speaking, narrating, and authorities of those things. Precise and powerful rules-sets which promote addressing Premise are thick on the ground at this late date. I can't imagine that anyone familiar with even the most general range of role-playing systems can say that "rules get in the way of making stories" with a straight face.

Chance, your first point about prioritizing one Agenda when using rules that primarily (and well) support another is a fascinating topic, and that's why I wanted you to post it publicly. But this last set of statements is like Martian talk. It can't possibly be correct as a whole, and the part which, when isolated and specified, can be correct is undermined by supportive text which itself can't be correct.

Best, Ron

* A potential problem with reading this analogy: I am not saying preferences in agenda are permanent descriptions of personality. In regarding to role-playing, I get all Gamist with one group and game, and get all Narrativist with another and another, and so on. The pig example leaves that issue out in order to focus on the activity itself.

** As a related point, Andreas assumed wrongly that I didn't understand that I was playing "off" Rifts. Of course I understood what I was doing. Playing Rifts in the way best supported by the rules was, in that particular instance of play, the last thing I wanted to do with my time.

Ron Edwards

Whew. OK, with that done.

Norm, it's your thread. I went over your posts and I'm not sure whether you want to pursue it. For the record, I'd like to continue, based on a series of questions we can go through regarding that particular game. It'd be a lot like the Rifts and Frostfolk threads. Are you interested?

Best, Ron


Hey Ron, thanks again for your replies.

I apologize I am not able to post as often as I would like, but my internet access is not regular, to say the least. I'll be on for the next five hours or so, but that may mean nothing.

Ok, so do I want to continue this? Of course. Even your terse post shows me a few things I could afford to examine a little more closely, in order to understand some underlying issues of game design.

Now, about motive. I can understand why motive only has a partial role, but only through a mirror darkly. To me, the majority of frustration comes from having motive x and point-purpose-agenda y. I want to play a game for certain reasons. Others want to play a game for certain reasons. It seems ridiculous to me that a group, united in agenda (motive wise), would play a game and follow a different agenda (whether consciously or sub-consciously).

That would make no logical sense. Therefore, there must be another reason (lets not get into eastern thinking and all the contradiction talk here).

I propose two potential reasons why this disconnect from motive might occur:

1. The group is not united in motive. Whether they think they are or not is irrelevant. If some members want x, but others want y, then the one with the most force behind it (whether from number of supporters, or simple style takeover, as in gamist-simulationist) will win out, and that agenda will be pursued in play. Note that if this is not consciously recognized by the players, it will almost certainly end up causing some form of frustration.

2. The group is united in motive, but the system is so strong that it steers the group away from their motive and into the agenda the system encourages. This will most likely only happen with a group of lazy or weak-willed individuals who for one reason or another refuse to change the rules (drift) in order to suit their original motive.

So, I agree, what is done at the table certainly causes my frustration, but I suspect that it is because I am not achieving my motive when playing. This is not to say I cannot have fun, just that it is frustrated fun, and certainly not the maximum amount of enjoyment I could be getting from the hobby. And my points above seem to support one of the most basic tenets of GNS theory, which is that differing creative agendas cause incompatibility, whether to a minor or major degree.

That said, I am not sure that I have properly divested Motive and Creative Agenda. I know it will be frustrating for you, but do you mind walking me through it? Or do I have most of right?

Now, as for what was done at the table. I am not sure exactly what agenda was being pursued as a group. I know what people said, but what they said by GNS rules is incoherent nonsense. We all said we wanted the following things: Tactical challenge (we certainly rewarded savvy thinking here, along with whoops for every critical hit), a good story (we awarded the GM with congratulations for each element we liked, though some of it was lies, and said things like "Cool!" when a character or player did or proposed cool things in the fiction, and to get "in" character and really try to act and think like our characters, which was hardly ever rewarded, but if we went in the wrong direction (such as acting "out of character" or meta-gaming) there were boos, ridicule, argument, and sometimes GM frustration. Then again, when meta-gaming was almost required by the game (that is, assuming every adventurer is somehow extremely experienced and tactically sound with a group they have only just met), it was glossed over and given flimsy foundation reasons, such as, "Adventurers are head and shoulders above normal people. They are extraordinary." When contemplating how that could be possible with so many prominent NPCs, the profusion of adventurers and magic, the proper response was...blank out.

So, in one way or another, each agenda seems to have been encouraged, but I suspect Gamism was primary because that was the way the GM ran the game primarily (getting extremely angry when we won "too quickly" or "too easily."

Thanks again,



This post is in addition to the one I just wrote.

I just finished the Frostfolk threads (I had read the rifts one some time before but found it cumbersome and confusing, perhaps because I did not read the included play threads and know little to nothing about Rifts).

The Frostfolk thread was great. If that is what this thread can turn into, then I am ll for it. I just wish I had the genuinely great experience these players had as opposed to my fumblings in the dark that resulted in more frustration than fun.

As a side note, the link to The Exchange is broken, or perhaps the creator took it down so that he could publish something and make money. I don't know, but I want this game! Where can I find it? Likewise, the Geek Hierarchy link works, but not the other Geek link (the name alludes me and I must press on).

I think I really have a feeling for Narrativism now, and the concept of Emergent Story that Levi worded so well is definitely one of the things I want to experience in play. Esteem for emergent story would be a great thing for me (perhaps I should just write a good book). I don't really care if there is competition to create the story, with other players trying to make different better stories or not, though placed in such a situation, I would certainly want to win! I care more about the emergent story, which is probably why I was so frustrated by the the DMs style.  The story was his story, therefore, our attempts to change and interact with it (other than just playing our roles) were ultimately futile.

It probably does not help that the D&D 4th system seems to support extremely gamist play (whether the text admits it or not). The system focuses almost no control on story forming in anyone's hands. The fiction becomes a vehicle through which we beat challenges.

This is probably where the heart of my original question came from. In a system that is completely silent on how to craft the fiction, but very loud and explicit on how to manage events within the fiction, any fiction building tips and rules can work. Therefore, the DM could easily spread around story creation and react on the fly, allowing players to create story and focus on issues of character and such like in the Frostfolk thread, or they can craft a rigid fiction in which we all play our parts (minor Sim?) in order to try our hand at the challenges embedded in the fiction (gamist?) I believe Gamism was the agenda because of the excessive esteem placed on success in combat.

Here is why: If our players won a combat or a skill challenge (rarely as they existed) too easily or quickly, the DM would become extremely frustrated. If the DM pressed us until the point where he actually had to fudge rolls in order for us to survive (which he always did, and many times blatantly, almost as if he were gloating), he was very happy. We as players never felt that we had failed in such circumstances however, because many times he won because other than extreme luck, we didn't have a chance in the first place. This is also because excessive preparation in one direction can specialize characters to face certain threats but leave them unable to face others. Even specializing for balance can be exploited by a specialized threat. Therefore, winning some conflicts is the purview of fortune, not skill.

Likewise, we all ran into frustrations because of the incoherence of the system. On one hand, it explains the entire process is cooperative, and the DM has to work to foster good story and play as much as the players. On the other, it encourages players and the DM alike to work as hard as they can to make characters and encounters that are challenging and threatening. But if an encounter actually does threaten a group (at least at low level) there is no recourse for the dead character. Thus, the DM must pull punches, but feel frustrated if he pulled the punch too early (in the encounter design, as opposed to during the encounter). And if he regularly makes encounters that are too hard only to pull punches, a number of bad things happen, including players realizing their characters are in no real danger from the DM threats, and players feeling like they have a bad DM, because he can't get the difficulty right.

And sure, the game does have plenty of "resurrection" rituals to handle character death, but in terms of "in-game" time, they are not feasible for certain story plots that the genre tries to enforce. For example, I once ran a game (3.5, has similar problems with resurrection, was a premade), where the characters were investigating children being kidnapped. I worked hard to evoke a sense of rush and a need to move forward as much as possible since the players knew the children were being sold at a slave market. They rushed headlong into the dungeon, running from threats too dangerous to confront, and working their way as best they could to the conclusion. One character got into a situation where they either had to die, or I had to spare them and ruin the belief that encounters were dangerous. I chose to let the character die, which de-railed the idea that there was a rush, since they now had to either pay for a resurrection (which they couldn't afford and would lose precious time fund-raising), or find a new recruit and get through the tough stuff all over again, which would also take too much time.

Had I been a better DM, I might have removed unnecessary threats altogether, or found a way not to kill the character, or perhaps just changed the outcome a little, forcing an extra couple of encounters into the adventure, where the characters chase the slave drivers and the children into the underdark, frantically trying to catch up. I would have had to create some new material on the fly, but it would have been possible. My frustration comes from the fact that the system is rarely conducive to this free-form thinking process on a regular basis.

I hope that gives us something more to discuss, and doesn't come across as rambling. I'm just trying to home in on the kinds of things I see in my games, and the kinds of things I want to see in my games.

Did we play for esteem as the point of play? I think we must have, but only because it was the only venue through which the strong willed DM would approve. Even when I Dmed for him, he was easily the strongest personality of the players, and drove the story significantly more than the others. Of all my players, he was the only to take me aside outside of games, to lunch or what have you, to discuss what he wanted to see in the story. I almost always did what I could to give him these elements because I loved the collaboration of story telling. I was endlessly frustrated that he did not return the favor. Perhaps it is both our faults. The other players were content to play second fiddle, because no matter how much I tried to eke out a response to, "What do you want to see happen?" They never gave me as much as Gourdo did, and only grudgingly gave me as much as they did. Sometimes they genuinely wanted things from the story, and I accommodated them at those times. Perhaps they were passive players, or perhaps their desire for story was a much further removed motive than for Gourdo and I.

Let me know what you think, and thanks again,


Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

Your slow-ish rate of reply is ideal for me. I find the quick pace of most internet discourse to be exhausting and generally counterproductive. Please don't feel any pressure to speed up.

I'm replying in an essay-type fashion rather than going through your points one by one. I think it's a better way in general, but one thing I don't want to do is accidentally miss any questions or points of yours. If I do, please let me know.

Let's wait until later to address the issues of death, losing, participation, and return of "dead" characters into play. This has been intensively discussed at the Forge, and it could easily take over the thread.

Part one

Here's a concept which comes right out of my 2001 essay, but has often been missed: the platform. I explained it most clearly in the Rifts thread, and will quote it here in order not to bring all the details from that thread into the discussion. I've mildly revised the quote to clarify an ambiguous pronoun.

QuoteImagine a little platform made of green-painted wood, standing a few inches high off the ground on its little legs. That's Exploration, the necessary imaginative communication for role-playing to occur at all. Perhaps it's a very pretty shade of green or particularly well-crafted in terms of pegs and glue. Doesn't matter. It's not the Creative Agenda.

Now imagine a secondary wooden structure built on top of it, reaching a whole foot off the ground at its tip. That's your game in action. Whatever shared goal or priority puts it there, or (in the analogy) whatever shape or material it is, that's your Creative Agenda. It's what you and the group do with the platform.

A Simulationist CA happens to be made of wood and happens to be painted green. That's why people are always mistaking Exploration for Simulationism, when it's not. Simulationist play is still a secondary structure on top of the platform. It also so happens that Gamist and Narrativist CAs are always brutally, recognizably distinct from the platform that supports them - made of plastic or aluminum, and always painted a different color or not painted at all. That's why people are always forgetting that no matter what, those agendas need the platform too.

I want to stress that in many role-playing contexts, "the story" is, and is only a key aspect of the platform.* Much Gamist and much Simulationist play relies on that platform, and when present its "story-ness," to be strong and fascinating - otherwise, how can the secondary structure be any good? (Well, to be clear, plenty of play doesn't need that "story-ness" either, but we aren't talking about those applications here.)

Part two

One thing I'm missing in this discussion is a stronger understanding of the actual play. I'd like to see an account of both (i) in-fiction content, such as who the characters were, what the situations were like, what they did, and what happened, limited to whatever subset of the overall material that you think is best; and (ii) of-system content, such as what the real people did and how using particular rules or practices played a role in generating the fictional events.

I'm not looking for an account of the entire game, but rather whatever subset, combination of sessions, or within-session, that you think will help me understand your points the best.

Part three

From what you've written (and until the part two material gets posted, it's provisional), I see Gamist play. But ...!!

... but with a problematic relationship between the Creative Agenda and the platform. Therefore the Agenda is itself diminished, because it literally lacks foundation. That's probably why the general social reinforcement of the CA sometimes had a forced or insincere quality.

What is the problem with the platform and its relationship to the Agenda? There are actually two: (i) "the story" and (ii) "play right." You and the GM had very different views of both of these things. You, for instance, wanted "the story" to come about at least in part through your character's actual decisions, and he did not. As well, he had a very clear idea of how you as a player were supposed to feel and decide things during play, and you did not share that idea.

Now, all of that combines with further difficulties at the higher, Social Contract level. The most obvious issue is that the GM as you depict him was far less interested in playing a  game with others than in having others play (be in) his game. Another is that you may not have been especially into the Gamist CA itself.

I want to focus on (i), "the story" part. Again, keeping in mind that we are talking about story as part of the platform (i.e. not Narrativist at all), there are two ways to do it.

First, it can simply be imposed. This may sound aggravating, but in a way of playing called "Participationist" here, the players simply enjoy being in the GM's story and don't bother themselves with authorship, even though major character decisions. The problems with this idea include when (a) someone doesn't want to do it, (b) the GM pretends he's not really doing it when he bloody well is, or (c) the GM bullies people into obeying rather than them participating.

Second, it can be emergent from game events. This may sound a bit like Narrativism, but it's not being addressing Premise isn't the core point. It simply means that the group is willing to let the larger story-circumstances of play (another way to put this is "the wave-front source of further scenarios) be contingent upon whatever happens in play itself. It's basically the GM taking a more flexible and reactive approach to prep, session after session.

If I'm understanding you correctly, then what you're describing seems to be Imposed Story marred by Bullying, which is to say, again, a flawed platform (Exploration), and hence a limping and halting Creative Agenda – which is, nevertheless, managed to be Gamist enough to be kind of fun.

Does any of that sound like a reasonable description?

Part four

For the most part, I think you've described the issues of motive, individually-desired CA, and in-action CA (if there is one) well enough for us to understand one another. You might find Group vs. individual CA interesting.

Best, Ron

* As you might imagine, this is one of the key confusions in encountering the Big Model: people think Narrativism must mean "Above all else, get 'story' into the platform," and in doing so, they are profoundly wrong. Narravist play is only possible when 'story' is not foundational, yet some of the necessary core components of making a story, whatever combination may bring Premise forward, are centrally present. Thus the Premise is addressed via play itself. If you're interested in this topic, then we should discuss it in another thread.


Hey Ron,

Thanks again.

I'll try to go over your points individually.

1. What is Exploration exactly? I understand that story is part of the structure, and thus it can (or cannot, depending on play) emerge from the exploration. Here's what I am thinking. Exploration is the agreed means by which a group plans to interact with the fiction and rules to produce and support a story. This would explain its foundational placement. In effect, the group agrees (whether consciously or not) [and perhaps at a social contract level] what kinds of fiction they are working with, and a whole set of acceptable tactics, such as character choice, what characters do in the fiction. From there, the story itself can grow and be supported. If this part is off, what I say next probably will be garbled and useless.

2. i am not sure that play examples will be necessary at this point, and it is because your third point hit the nail on the head. That sounds almost exactly like what was going on. The frustration on my part at least did not come necessarily from the tactics employed by the GM, but from the fact that there were conflicting expectations, possibly because of the impossible thing before breakfast.

Essentially, I expected that I had freedoms, as you described. The GM encouraged these verbally, but then went ahead and tried to do HIS story. Thus, I ended up frustrated that his actions did not match his words. If it had been made clear at the beginning that he was expecting me to participate in his story passively, I would have not been frustrated (it would not have been ideal for me, and ultimately, freedom makes me happier than not, but at least I wouldn't have been so confused). Ultimately, I think points 2 and 3 are the same in this respect. If things are made clear at the beginning (and then supported by the groups actions) GNS (and all of its smaller implications) can actually be conducive to fun play for no better reason that it makes certain everyone is playing the same way. No expectations are crushed or strained, and thus the group, constrained by their choices and concession, is free to have actual fun.

4. I will check it out, but have limited time at the moment.

Thanks again Ron. As for starting a new topic about Narrativism and its placement as platform or structure, I think that may be warranted, unless I have already gone and messed it up (or understood it) with my above points.

The thing I am worried about is that though I am more aware of what Gamism and Narrativism look like, I am still shaky on the idea that they are mutually exclusive. If the group as a whole were aware of what they were doing (esteem as a point and premise as a point) I think it could co-exist. This could be more because I am passive enough to not let gamism take control of my actions as it does for others (or so it seems).

The play would look different though. Perhaps the game would have to encourage competition to create a story between the players, with rules encouraging the players to simultaneously confront some issue or premise (perhaps this would be gamist play with narrativist support, effectively making the address of premise as a means to win narration rights for the story?)



Hi Norm and Ron,

this thread really calls to me right now. I am uncertain if my contribution really fits the discussion so I will try and present just enough to test if this belongs here.

I have played D&D since its first incarnation, even had Chainmail. Recently I have been trialling 4e by playing in a friends "living" Forgotten Realms campaign. I have some observations about the experience that I think is germane here.

The new D&D has complex, interlocking mechanisms. They are presented in such a way that, in order to play your character at optimal (Gamist style) the GM must provide suitably detailed world data when encountering things. This imposes some burdens that never existed in the earlier games: The GM has to do some mighty prep and is going to be inclined to go for linear plot lines, a string of "encounters" tailored to the detail of the player's characters. The GM may, with some effort, pull together a matrix based scenario giving players varying order of encounter. In those circumstances the GM is going to dislike having any elements of the matrix missed, after all the hard work that went into preparing it.

During the course of play the focus is going to be much on the numbers and exploits and how they hang together. Frankly this all comes off more like a game of Quake on the PC than an "Adventure", its holds back any Creative Agenda.

The "Living" campaign scenarios reinforce this by having the player's characters just teleport from adventure to adventure as if they were puppets on strings. "Hang on, last game we defeated this creature, earnt the support of these guys and found this map. Why are we now in Greyhawk looking for a job?". Even players who like being taken from scenario to scenario find this "move out of context" jarring.

Looking at the rules and my experience of play I know I could work up a more flexible campaign. One that has "actors" within it that react to the changing world situation and give players actions meaning and allowing them to make choices that can alter outcomes. It would be very hard work because of the need of such detail work up of potential encounter situations but there are ways to do it. Once you have that elbow grease in there then you can support any of the Creative Agenda needs of your players and its actually not hard to integrate all the different types. In fact Gamist and Narrativist can support one another, especially if you take the time to learn how much of each agenda each player emphasises.

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone, and Danny, welcome to the Forge. It's nice to see another long-toothed dog.

I request a little bit of time to work up a necessary post. I'm not inclined to shut down all posting except for just me and Norm, as I did with the Frostfolk one, but at the moment, each post is actually adding complexity rather than resolving it. I'm going to have to focus on Norm's needs for a bit, and then collect various other things that have cropped up.

In order for that to work, please let me get my next post up without further posts here. After that, and after Norm's response to it, then we'll open it up again.

Many thanks, Ron

Ron Edwards

I completed this post 12 hours ago. Then we lost the internet. Then I screamed.

Hi Norm,

Looking over your posts, I am unsure "when" you are standing in regard to the ideas discussed here. Have you read The Provisional Forge Glossary, specifically the first two pages with a diagram - i.e., my presentation of what I call The Big Model? Because if you're working with what people called "GNS" before that article was written (2004), then you're kind of in a swamp of past debate. It may even be that you haven't read Gamism: Step On Up, given some of what you've written here. Let me know.

You wrote,

Quote1. What is Exploration exactly? I understand that story is part of the structure, and thus it can (or cannot, depending on play) emerge from the exploration. Here's what I am thinking. Exploration is the agreed means by which a group plans to interact with the fiction and rules to produce and support a story. This would explain its foundational placement. In effect, the group agrees (whether consciously or not) [and perhaps at a social contract level] what kinds of fiction they are working with, and a whole set of acceptable tactics, such as character choice, what characters do in the fiction. From there, the story itself can grow and be supported. If this part is off, what I say next probably will be garbled and useless.

You are very close and perhaps dead on, but since we are dealing with a text medium here on this forum, I have to do some tuning. Your phrase "the agreed means by which a group plans to interact with the fiction and rules to produce and support a story" is definitely related to the term Exploration in the Big Model. However, I think it's only part of it. Up to the word "rules," what you're saying is picture-perfect exactly what I mean by the term "System." Second, "to produce and support a story" will work only insofar as "story" means its most absolutely broadest definition, which is to say, a series of fictional events. I call tell you, with battle-scars to illustrate each point, that using the word "story" to mean that will generate astonishing amounts of confusion and pain.

All right, that said, let's move on to what exactly Exploration is. It is literally a description of what imagined components are going into play. There are characters in (or "plus") a setting, which given a little focus on them and the immediation location, gives us Situation. Let's start there. No characters are moving or talking. Nothing is happening. We have sheets, notes, prep, some pre-play discussion, and stuff like that, but at this second, characters are in the setting with enough immediate context for anyone to say, "Oh! So then ..."

As soon as that concept is introduced, then we're hitting the whole thing with System. Exactly what you said: whatever is said and done at the table which makes the imagined situation actually change and transform into fictional events. "Rules," whether stated or textual, are only Techniques within System. Exploration includes System, meaning that instead of staying with the snapshot, we're talking about a dynamic and quite likely cyclical process of everyone contributing, responding, deciding, and imagining.

I want to emphasize that the concept of Color acts as a multiplier upon this entire framework; the whole thing is Colored at any and maybe all points. Also, despite the order in which I'm presenting the components here, Color is not an afterthought and may well be the primary experiential component.

That's Exploration: Color all this - System hitting Situation - with Situation being composed of Characters in a Setting. If the group of people can get through this without degenerating into confusion ("murk"), wrangling over details to serve personal beefs (Social Contract breakdown), or wrangling or being stifled over the aesthetic purpose at hand (Creative Agenda clash, or incoherence), then the Exploration stays "up" and play continues through many events.

Does that help? You will notice that I did not use the word "story" in any part of this. You can substitute it for anything in there (or all of it) if  you like. I also want to stress that I'm not talking about the fictional product at all. This is a pure process model. Creative Agenda is best understood as a shared aesthetic preference for doing the Exploration together, and continuing to do it together, just as I explained to Levi in the Frostfolk thread.

This is actually why I will continue to insist on that play example! I want to understand fully what characters in your game were, where they were, what they did, how you guys made them do it, and how things moved along. I also want to know a bit more about the social and creative circumstances in which it all occurred. With that information, I can very clearly point out to you: "This was the Exploration."


I am pretty convinced at this point that not only was there no imaginable shred of Narrativist priorities in the game you're describing, there isn't any in what you're talking about, either. You keep saying "the story." I would like to add to my request for actual play accounts: what is the single best and most enjoyable example of "the story" in role-playing you've experienced? Who was playing, what system was being used, who were the characters, what did they do, and how did all of you make that happen?

I need this to understand what in the world you mean by this term. Abstract descriptions will simply not help me understand.


(also applies to Danny's post, although it's not a full answer)

QuoteThe thing I am worried about is that though I am more aware of what Gamism and Narrativism look like, I am still shaky on the idea that they are mutually exclusive. If the group as a whole were aware of what they were doing (esteem as a point and premise as a point) I think it could co-exist. This could be more because I am passive enough to not let gamism take control of my actions as it does for others (or so it seems).

Whoa - if I don't "let gamism take control of my actions," then I'm not playing Gamist. Gamist play is in fact letting the Gamist "point of play" be why I play and therefore it's the enthusiastic linchpin for what I do. That doesn't necessarily mean jumping wholly into what I call The Hard Core. It does mean that Exploration is being conducted for the point of playing Gamist.

That said, then I think what you've written provides its own refutation of your desired or at least proposed goal. You've literally written that you want "story" to happen, with anything that might become Gamist being kept on a short leash so that it isn't the point of play. If I take "story" at its broadest definition, a series of fictional events, then what you've written is actually a powerful "anything but Gamist" proposal.

Please note that I said "what you've written." It, or how I'm reading it, may not be what you are saying, so if it seems to you that I've caricatured and ripped the spine out of what you are saying, try a re-phrase and see if I get it this time.

For instance, you might be saying the opposite: that you want the Gamism in there no matter what, but not in a way which "ruins things" for you, which you haven't specified. If so, there are two relevant sections in Gamism: Step On Up. One part talks about what Gamist play is like without the escalation I call The Hard Core. A lot of people confuse that subset with Gamism itself. Another part is called "The bitterest gamer in the world." It describes people who do want to play Gamist but want its manifestation to be very, very muted and never openly acknowledged, letting the vast majority of attention in play to be involved in the details of the Exploration, and why I think they often have a terrible time getting this sort of play into actual experience.

Quote... Perhaps the game would have to encourage competition to create a story between the players, with rules encouraging the players to simultaneously confront some issue or premise (perhaps this would be gamist play with narrativist support, effectively making the address of premise as a means to win narration rights for the story?)

All I can say here is, design as you see fit toward this goal, and enjoy ... but you might examine some tries from the past. I do not mean commercial failure, but the observed and easily-understood failure to see the ideal occur. One good example is the card game Once Upon a Time, which is wonderful in many ways, but in practice must become either "about winning" or "about a Premise-addressing conclusion," among everyone, or the final phase of play is a rather bumbling and anti-climactic experience. What I'm saying is that you might be describing a cruel trap for people who do want Narrativist play, when they discover that they can get a little tease about what they want to be the real point of play, and then end up having to fight about (or over) it instead.

I am still interested in someone posting about Capes in these terms, because as far as I can tell, Capes does not promote Narrativist play at all regardless of a certain amount of promotional rhetoric suggesting it does. It is simply and flatly competing for story control, which seems a little bit like what you are talking about here. "Story control" is actually the last imaginable, and quite likely the most disruptive technique possible for Narrativist goals; it's basically railroading, and a game which competes for railroading privileges is just as un-designed for Narrativist goals as a game which grants them to one person throughout play.

Best, Ron
edited to fix paragraph spacing - RE


Hi Ron,

I have read all of your essays. I think I have read all of the essays posted on this site. The thing is, your essays run around 20+ pages each. Though I certainly read them carefully (and in the case of narrativism and gamism, twice) keeping all of the information in my head and understanding it is proving challenging, especially since many of the terms are charged with meaning for me that is apparently not the same meaning they have in the essay. Short of investing several consecutive hours pulling apart the glossary and individual articles, and making sure everything matches up with everything in a coherent way, I fear I may be unable to grasp the full thrust of everything you have written for quite some time, and only then with several discussions, of which this one is surely a big part.

That said, I did mean a series of fictional events when I used the word story initially, when discussing exploration. And your description of exploration really cleared up a good deal of confusion for me. Namely, the confusion of system and techniques. If rules are a technique, but the actual taking of action by player and character (whether interacting with mechanical rules or not) is considered system as well as the mechanics, then I understand fully why you say "System matters" Ultimately, I was equating system with mechanics, and to me, almost any mechanics I have encountered can be fit into any of the creative agendas (though admittedly, certain ones fit certain agendas better than others).

As for narrativist priorities being present or not, I can understand why you would say there was no shred of it. What I mean by story in this context is probably better described as premise.  Each of us wanted a different level of importance for premise. (I am using premise here as sort of a confrontation with moral quandary, like in dust devil's can a cowboy give up the gun, kind of way. I don't really know how to put it into words, which is frustrating for all involved, but if you get what I mean, then I won't have to articulate as much. If not, I'll try harder at a future time).

I, for one, wanted a healthy level of premise. I wanted to explore more than just the fiction (encompassing all the lovely bits of color and such) and I wanted more than just social esteem (though I certainly wanted to get those pats on the back for all of my contributions, whether it was winning a fight, contributing something cool to the series of fictional events, or what have you), I wanted to ask hard questions of the characters and ultimately the players. The thing was, in play, these hard questions could never come up, because they simply weren't present in the story the GM had designed. If we tried to interject them, it would inevitably run the plot off the rails, which would infuriate the gm, stress him out (and thus everyone at the table) and potentially end in a group time-out (which has happened several times). So, instead of addressing the hard questions, we would give up, little by little, not even noticing we were, until we were playing in an obviously gamist fashion and not understanding fully just why we were so frustrated with how things were going.

I don't have time for a play example right now (I know its pissing you off, but I promise I'll provide one soon), but I will get one up as soon as I have time to write it. I want to make sure I pick a good couple of sessions to demonstrate what I believe I am saying and also to answer your question about my most enjoyable game.

As for narrativism and Gamism co-existing, I think that what you described is spot-on. I don't want esteem to be the only point of play. I want esteem to be an important factor, in addition to the addressing of what I call the hard questions, and what I suspect is premise. When I have time, I will re-read the glossary, looking for all links to premise.

For now, it seems I want Narrativist play with subservient Gamism and a dash of Simulationism (Which I probably have as much understanding of as I do of rocket science, which is to say, Rockets go up, most of the time, and there's this fuel propulsion thing going on).

Also, I fear I may be on of the bitterest gamers in the world, since that sounds like a great way to play to me, as long as the hard questions are present.

Thanks again, and I will work on an actual play example post-haste,


P.S. I am deeply sorry you had to go through the classic re-typing due to internet loss event. I hate those. Thanks for sticking with it.

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

I hope to make a series of points in the form of editing some of your phrases in significant ways. With any luck this can serve to tune your understanding, but I am not entirely sure it works, so let me know what you think.

1. I want to distinguish between the desire for a given Creative Agenda vs. its expression and realization in play itself. A given desire, such as you describe, is perfectly capable of being present and unrealized, which is to say, it cannot be said to be "your CA." It's not a Creative Agenda unless it actually happens; what you're describing is a frustrated desire.

QuoteAs for narrativist priorities being present or not, I can understand why you would say there was no shred of it. What I mean by story in this context is probably better described as premise. Each of us wanted a different level of importance for premise. (I am using premise here as sort of a confrontation with moral quandary, like in dust devil's can a cowboy give up the gun, kind of way. I don't really know how to put it into words, which is frustrating for all involved, but if you get what I mean, then I won't have to articulate as much. If not, I'll try harder at a future time).

I do get what you mean; you are talking about your desire for Narrativist play, for which your phrases "healthy level of premise" defined as "sort of confrontation with moral quandary, like in dust devil's can a cowboy give up the gun kind of way" are an absolute synonym - even a definition. (Note: I had not worked through this point very well in my "GNS and other matters" essay; it didn't get rigorously articulated until "Story Now.")

2. Techniques and Creative Agenda. Here, what you're saying is a central feature of the Big Model.

Quote... to me, almost any mechanics I have encountered can be fit into any of the creative agendas (though admittedly, certain ones fit certain agendas better than others).

A better way to put it, though, is that no single mechanic (technique) can be equated with a CA. However, a set of techniques in combination may well facilitate a given CA. Sometimes this effect is so unequivocal that it's easy to forget that no single one of them is "doing it," especially since one of those techniques is often extremely obvious and experientially powerful.

This concept raises a couple of nuances.

i) Such phenomena lead to the common short-hand in my writings of identifying a given game (rules-set, text-set) with a CA. This isn't really identifying the game as such in a definitional sense, nor saying that anyone/everyone who's played it did so with a given CA, nor in any way is it talking about the motivations of the author. It is, however, a defensible position about what the mechanics of the game can be "led toward" by people inclined toward a particular CA, and more importantly, how difficult it might be to play other CAs using that rules/text set without modification.

ii) When thinking in these terms, I recommend considering mechanics which change characters to be central. This includes damage, death, so-called "advancement," social positions, behavioral rules, and others.

3. I suggest giving up all talk about combined Creative Agendas and one being subservient to another. I worked hard in my essays to accomodate such possibilities, but the years of discussion and debate, plus the remarkable clarification of Simulationism as a CA, have shown me that CA is a "one or none" proposition. Either the group has a single CA in action (rocket-firing, haltingly, or anywhere in between), or it jumbles about with clashing desires regarding CA, or it can't even get the basic Exploration or SIS together in the first place in order to sustain a CA anyway.

QuoteFor now, it seems I want Narrativist play with subservient Gamism and a dash of Simulationism
I don't think you do. I think you want Narrativist play with strong tactical considerations in the nitty-gritty moments of play, including real consequences, and that you don't want the Explorative chassis/platform to be stupid. You don't have to wrack your brain and try to fit multiple CAs together in order to talk about what you want. You say those hard questions are most important to you. OK - at this point, your desire is Narrativist, and you're done!

That also leads me toward specific rules and texts as discussed in #1, about twenty games which could serve those purposes right off the top of my head, including a slightly-Drifted form of The Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Whispering Vault, and many more. But probably not The Pool, Primetime Adventures, Universalis, Polaris, or a bunch of others often (wrongly) tagged as the uber-ultimate Narrativist games.

4. Bitterest - not.

QuoteAlso, I fear I may be on of the bitterest gamers in the world, since that sounds like a great way to play to me, as long as the hard questions are present.

Boy, do you twist and turn on the impaling spike of desiring tactics with consequences. Again: enjoying and desiring those techniques is not a Creative Agenda issue. Your qualifier, "as long as the hard questions [as specified by you, kind-of moral quandaries] are present," instantly removes any possibility of being one of those bitterest guys I described. For them, by definition and without fail, the qualifier would be, "... as long as the hard decisions of play require genuine competence at the tactics and strategy, genuinely tested in the eyes of everyone present." That's not what you qualified. You're not in that zone. I think the only reason you found my description attractive is that you are so hungry for a decent Explorative/SIS platform of some kind.

Frustration at the Creative Agenda level is a blinding thing. It makes a person seize at any aspect of functional play, at all levels (Social Contract, solid and compelling Exploration components, specific resolution methods), and mistake those aspects for the Creative Agenda itself, perhaps based on associations from past history. That is, I think, at the core of every semi-desperate cry for combined Creative Agendas that I've seen since I first posted System Does Matter in early 1999.

Best, Ron


Hey Ron,

Thanks for your replies. I appreciate that you recognize what's going on in my head, even if I can't.

The only thing I look at skeptically (this is an understatement. I am an eternal skeptic sometimes), is the idea that I'm narrativist and done. What about wanting esteem for success in conflict or for coming up with good story ideas? I definitely want that too, just not as much as I want those hard questions. Simulationism only ever appeals to me when I am playing within a constrained setting in which I have no control, such as many published adventures for DnD or the campaign settings they publish. I like them well enough, but I like them more as sping-boards for my own imagination than as creative constraints.

So if I seek this esteem, is that a shred of gamism creeping into my narrativist desires, or is it just the general human need for appreciation and recognition?

Also, I don't believe you told me where I can get a copy of the Exchange. It seems like an interesting system, and I would love to have a look at it and maybe play a few sessions, once I get a group together.

And now, my actual play example. I decided to give you this because you asked a very good question that has been congealing within me for a short time now. I wanted to evaluate my most fun play experience. The problem is that since all of my DnD play experiences are firmly rooted in the past (at least four months ago, many of them years), I fear I may have retroactively changed the memory to accord with my new views, even though they may not have been before. Either way, I find that out of all the DMs I have had, none have satisfied me as much as I would have liked, but one did so better than the others. Oddly, I had more fun in his game than I did running my own, though I blame the players (and my bad DMing) for that.

So, the system is D&D 3.5. The DM is named Dave. He has his own world-setting he has created loosely, but encouraged us to make things up to help flesh it out. To sum up, its the colonial expansion, DnD style. The Orcs (and goblins and kobolds) are the native americans, the elves are the canadians, dwarves are mexicans (rumored to exist, but nobody knows for sure) and Humans are the colonists from a far off land. The humans follow a national deity (Serin) who mandates Divine Expansion, telling humans it is their duty to rule this new land for the betterment of all races. The deity is Lawful Evil, but everyone believes he is Lawful Good.

He wanted a low-magic setting (in the sense that he wanted to control certain aspects of the campaign), so he flat out denied flight magic of any sort, along with resurrection magic. People could theoretically still be ressurrected, but it was extremely tough, and definitely high level stuff. Since we all started at level 1 (and never got higher than 5 or 6) we knew that if we died, it was time to introduce a new character. Also, any magic item technically belonged to the human government (as far as they were concerned), but they only pursued things with a bonus of +3 or higher.

So, I played a human War-Mage (an arcane character based around extremely damaging spells in combat, but almost no subtlety. this helped him since it removed the chance that I would do all those annoying wizard things like scrying and such) His name was Ptolemy, and other than being min-maxed for damage, he was a racist. He was a devout follower of Serin (in his lawful good side, heavy emphasis on the Lawful) and believed Humans deserved to rule over all of the races. His family was killed by a plague, and their (large) life savings were used to buy him a comfortable life at the war-mage academy. He was out adventuring as a way to gain recognition and recruit people for the war-mage academy.

Gerald played Luthor, a human ranger with a dog for a pet (and future animal companion). He was impulsive, and paid lip-service to Serin and the government, but mostly just went his own way. I don't remember much about his family or life before adventuring.

Jenn played Valenathia, an Elven Paladin of Law. She was very stern and disdained the human ways, but it was her duty to inspect and ascertain our threat to the elven nation, and determine whether we humans were good or bad on the whole.

Mike played Thamior, a Human Druid. Mike didn't care much for the fictional elements of D&D, and only played a druid because we all bugged him not to play an elven ranger like he always did, min-maxed for damage. (in retrospect, I think we should have embraced his love of the class, and encouraged him to play whatever he liked so long as it enhanced everyone's enjoyment of the game. But, we were too selfish).

I don't honestly remember how we met. I know Luthor and I were traveling together already, and Thamior and Valenathia were traveling together. Our first adventure was a cattle theft. We investigated and found out a corrupt sheriff had killed the old sheriff and "sold" the land to a bunch of goblins nearby. They were just taking what was rightfully theirs. After raiding the goblin lair only to discover this fact (we left them with no warriors), we went in search of said corrupt sheriff. We ran the bastard out of town, and made a deal between the goblins and ranchers so that they could share resources and work to each other's benefit. I took one of the goblins (Kra) under my wing. Maybe I was trying to make up for what I had done to his tribe, maybe I just wanted to prove Serin could impact the other races. At the time, I had no idea, I just thought it would be cool to teach a goblin all about the human way of life. A growing dislike began between Ptolemy and Valenathia. The two world-views were just too different.

As for what was going on at the table, there was plenty. My war-mage was being nerfed so that I didn't do too much damage, and thus kill Dave's monsters too quickly. Everyone in the party loved my character's damage output and ability to control situations (especially since Luthor and Thamior weren't big damage dealers, and Jenn had horrible luck with her dice). He kept on saying it was going to make the other players feel inadequate and ruin their fun, but it was obvious that it really ruined the challenge from his point of view. He wasn't trying to win (though at the time I thought he was) he was just trying to make sure things were difficult for us. This was becoming frustrated because I was making mince-meat of most of his encounters.

The next adventure saw us investigating a plague in a nearby town at the behest of the local government. This was a fairly charged adventure,emotionally speaking, for my character, and I played it that way. Consequently, the other characters did not much like my constant reports to the government about our doings. Either way, we took the job and investigated. Through stupidity, I got Luthor killed. He and I got trapped on the side of a pit trap (he had jumped over to save me) and we got ambushed by some kobolds. Valenathia and Thamior weren't able to get to us very quickly, but they ran the kobolds off and retrieved our unconscious bodies. By the time we got back to town, Luthor was too plague-ridden to survive, and died. At this point Gerald introduced Aiden, a Cleric of Serin (very mild-mannered, focusing much more on the good than the lawful), but just as impulsive as Luthor. As a result, throughout the campaign, this character would run off alone to investigate things. It got us into a fair amount of trouble. He also had a bad philosophy on healing, only using it once we fell unconscious, which would inevitably make it easier for us to fall unconscious again due to the attacks of opportunity involved with standing up. We always had to brow-beat him into healing us before that point.

Either way, we found out the plague was caused by an orc trying to bring vengeance on us because humans ran his tribe out. We killed him and stopped the plague. During this whole little adventure Thamior also died. He and I decided we wanted to investigate a crypt in the dungeon, across another spiked pit. Aiden and Valenathia wanted nothing to do with it, so they stayed on the other side. Well, there was an undead monstrosity in the crypt. Aiden and Valenathia provided archery support (yeah, clerics and paladins do great with archery), and Thamior got knocked out. This beast was fairly evil, so instead of coming after me, it just ripped him in half. This caused Valenathia to blame me for two deaths, her best friend Thamior, and her friend Luthor (because she was befriending him). Things never really got better between the two. So, Mike started making a new character, Sir Richard of the order of the Rose, a Knight. He didn't finish making the character until our next adventure. By the time we saw daylight again, Kra had run away, and I thought I had lost him for good. So much for the teachings of Serin. All around it wasn't a total loss though, because the kobolds that killed Luthor had died, except for a pair of very young ones (due to plague, not us). Aiden adopted these as his sons, and they were a source of endless entertainment for the group, with Aiden trying to shield them from my harsh teachings and my military training, and me always trying to rip the soft velvety illusion Aiden spun about the world and Serin.

I don't remember much to do with the next adventure, but it involved rival kobold tribes and a kobold I now know to be very popular in D&D called Meepo, and a very young white dragon. We got the dragon back to its rightful owners, and discovered Sir Richard. We freed him by agreeing to solve their problem, and so we did. Mike didn't like it too much when Dave told him to erase all of his possessions when we found him. Dave thought this rather funny, but Dave and Mike never really got along, so it only made things worse between them. After some whining on Mike's part, (and some support from Gerald and I) Dave agreed to return some of the possessions when we found them in the dungeon. This amounted to a sword and shield, but hey, I guess you can't have it all.

This all leads up to the next adventure, which is the one I had the most fun with, and where I suspect we hit the premise, at least for my character.

In the next adventure we were exploring a cult. (Dave had been gradually ramping up the otherworldy horror in the world, so things were becoming more desperate from a charactr standpoint. Also, the government seemed to have mixed feelings about our little group). That, and a Goblin threat had been investigated by the government, and they were going to move to wipe it out. As it turns out, Kra had gathered up his old tribe and taught them everything I taught him, which turned out to be a very peaceful message that caused the community to prosper together. The government saw it as a threat, so my character lied to the government to protect his friend, even if his friend wasn't firing on all cylinders about Serin. In the process of eliminating the cult, I had the chance to use a couple of action points (Dave gave us some as the campaign got harder, and they could be used to "cool story things we normally couldn't" in addition to the standard 1d6 added to a d20 roll. I brought down the mine by turning my fists to stone with one of my spells (normally you can only turn one fist) and knocking out support structures as we ran from a blob monster that we could not kill. This trapped it beneath the city, but made the government declare us fugitives, even though they knew we had eradicated a cult. Turns out some agents of the government were in cults too! My character had to run from the government, and come to grips with the fact that everything he thought was stable was not, including the divine rule of his god. This is where we took a break from the campaign, but it sadly never restarted.

What did people enjoy the most? I know Mike and I enjoyed killing things left and right. We loved giving each other high fives for the critical hits and marveling at the sheer destruction we could wreak. Jenn, myself and Gerald loved the depth of the fiction and the world Dave had created, and I think (key word) that Everyone enjoyed watching me grapple with personal loyalty and my loyalty to the state. The damage-dealing is fun I can have in any campaign. What made this one stick in my mind is that it was so customized to the characters that I actually felt like my decisions had more consequences than just success or failure. Killing something wasn't always a path to victory, and it always complicated things. And between the plague-ridden town, accidentally getting Luthor killed, and maybe even Thamior, not to mention the big BANG at the end of being forced to choose between myself and the government, made this stick in my mind as the most fun I had ever had in D&D.

So, what do you think?

P.S. for those who care, we ended the campaign around level 5 after maybe 6 months of playing. Only mike really cared that it was so slow, and it just made me anticipate the levels more, waiting on the edge of my seat for the chance to get new ways to kill things and make things ever more complicated.