Gamism and Narrativism: Mutually Exclusive

Started by Ayyavazi, July 01, 2009, 08:35:50 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

QuoteThe 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?

You should look at that idea skeptically, because I didn't say that. There are several points in there that need some refining.

First, the whole GNS concept is not a Briggs-Meyer personality test. We're only talking about that play experience and where you and the group were at with it.

Second, one of the most important early dialogues about these ideas back at the Gaming Outpost was between me and Mark J. Young, who was at that time totally committed to the idea of percentages: 20% Gamist, et cetera. The conversation was resolved when I suggested that he consider those moments when push comes to shove, if for instance esteem for strategy and guts were to be set aside in favor of addressing Premise, would that be a joyous moment, or an annoying one? Mark then articulated the key issue: it's not about whether a person "is" Narrativist, it's about that he or she cannot play more than one CA at once.

Now, there are some hassles inherent in that point, specifically that Creative Agenda is not about moments but whole cycles of play, but the point is valid insofar as it talks about priorities.We've actually already seen all the necessary information about this in your thread, especially with the actual play staring us in the face. Keeping in mind that we're not talking about you as a personality but your desires during this particular game, you have already stated that the addressing-Premise content was your hard-line, can't-lose, must-be-there boundary. That's why I'm saying that you have described Narrativism-alone in these posts. I'm not claiming to read your mind; I'm telling you how what you're saying directly translates into jargon terms.

Third, I think you may be missing something I said a few posts back, that Gamist play isn't about esteem for just anything. It's about esteem specifically for strategy and guts. When you say "esteem for coming up with a good story idea," that has nothing, zilch, to do with Gamism anyway. Yes, obviously esteem plays a role in all enjoyment-based socializing.

Great play summary! I'll return to its details in a bit, especially the part about killing things easily and drastically.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

Heh, it reminds me of those comics where the villain threatens two things the hero cares about, and he can only save one. Which one would he save? Here, if gamism and nar (and even perhaps sim) were being threatened by a super villain(lol), which one would you save? "But, like spider man, I'd figure out some way of saving them all!!!1!". And if you couldn't and were going to lose them all? Which one would your group put ahead of the rest and save?

I'm probably not adding anything new, but it's a fun way of thinking about it :)

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

As a minor point, if you were using D&D 3.5, we are definitely not talking about "far in the past" play, from my perspective.

Now for the fun of talking about actual play in Big Model terms. I have to say that you've provided a remarkably easy and fun one for those purposes. So let's start at the biggest and all-encompassing layer or sphere, and work our way inwards.

I might need a little more light shed on the Social Contract, which is to say, my understanding of who was playing and in what circumstances. Was it a college group, or old pals get-together, a one-time-thing, or what? age range? Had the group played together before, and for how long? On a more personal level, who invited whom to play, and who if anyone got shoehorned in? Did any person deal with any serious travel or inconvenience in getting to play? And this is an optional topic, so ignore if you prefer: were there any romantic ties or history among any persons involved?

All right, leaving some of the perspective on Social Contract for later, let's look at Exploration, specifically its five components.

Quote... 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.

Whoa. This is hard core Setting-based Premise. We barely started talking about Setting and already CA is leaping off the page. In addition, I also see a focused punch on a key rules-issue in all play of D&D, alignment - and it's Drifted. Apparent alignment is drastically contrasted with actual alignment. If you think in Model terms, that's an Exploration component (Setting) connected to a System element and Character element (i.e. character alignment), then all three of those (or their point of juncture) being the start of a skewering line deeper into the Model, drilling into specific Techniques.

OK, Setting and Character are present, united through a key System feature, and the combination absolutely screams "Situation" to the extent that prepping powerful, fruitful scenarios will be easy (as demonstrated soon). But we're not really talking about real Situation (and hence the full Exploration) until we get into play.

How about Color, at this prep stage? So far, it's a little light on Color. Perhaps the whole "we're playing D&D!" with its attendant illustrations and subcultural cachet was serving as a kind of substitute for Color; as the very phrases "the elves are the canadians" and similar suggest.

Again, unlike the vast majority of prep for a game, when Dave set up for play, he wasn't talking just about levels of the Model in isolation, but rather about the skewers that unite the Model for a given group in play. This is rare and masterful. One looks at the other well-known aspects of D&D 3.5 and gets a bit worried, and then Dave instantly rides to the rescue:

QuoteHe 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.

Right on cue, here's more Technique Drift, reinforcing the same line and and linking Character (higher level) to the reward mechanics aspect of Technique. OK, maybe that's a little abstract sounding. How "character death" happens in a given game is part and parcel of the reward mechanics. What I'm saying is that in all text-based D&D play, and 3.5 is no exception, character death is a problematic issue especially at low level. Different groups cope with it differently: making death less likely in a variety of ways, making resurrection easily available, having healing spells and potions readily available, starting at higher level in the first place, and who knows what-all.

I'm also looking at a well-known higher-level feature of all historical D&D text-based play: once past a certain point, magic capabilities give players remarkable authority over situational and other elements of Exploration that until then only the DM has enjoyed. Dave basically said, "That's not a feature for us, and even lower-level stuff which hints at it is getting ramped down." The flying aspect is interesting, as it seems like a tactical expression of the same thing, as well as a powerful visual reinforcement of the idea that your characters are not superheroes (and here I speak in terms of genre rather than effectiveness).

All right, to summarize, when I think of this just-before-play visually, I see the Big Model like a beach ball with smaller beach balls inside it. The second ball in, well, it's a complicated one; it needs a more elaborate interlinked structure on its own level in order to function. In this case, it's a rather wonderfully interlinked set of parts, almost a skeletal or otherwise-jointed structure rather than a membranous ball. One really "glowy" spot on it, for me, is the System component, which itself sprouts a connecting strut straight down/in to the next beach ball, Techniques. That ball is also quite nuanced and pretty, with arrows or pathways pointing outwards from the point of contact with the strut, and then coming back to it. Although granted, a lot of it is left unconstructed, with signs that say "like D&D 3.5 says" posted on blank spots.

The Exploration ball isn't done yet because we haven't talked about its most powerful property or component, Situation. Also, to talk about the innermost ball, Ephemera, we have to see the rest of the thing in action first.

Now bring more humans to the table in terms of concrete contribution:

QuoteSo, I played a human War-Mage ... et cetera

In your description of the players and characters, I see a lot of Social Contract and CA here, expressed through the Exploration component of Character. You and Jenn were most obviously the Premise-y players in terms of prep. I suggest that your "real" group began as Dave and the two of you, with the others being left more or less as social reinforcement of play itself; stay tuned, though, because that's a crack in the foundation. In terms of the Model, the outermost Social Contract ball looks a little fragmented or flaccid, not as "beautiful" as the inner layers, and I suppose one might imagine this means that the interior structures are going to roam and wobble a bit.

So much for prep; on to the show itself.

Quote... 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.

The first adventure immediately demonstrates that Situation is a local expression of the overall tensions and problems of the Setting. Colonialism, check; property rights, check; exploitation, check. The neatest thing I see about it is that as the scenario resolved, (i) certain mistakes were in fact made and a lot of goblins unfairly died, and (ii) the two most relevant characters (i.e. Premise-rich one) saw the beginnings of a values-based conflict between them. Perfect. This is a reward cycle.

What I mean by that is that the events of play changed the local setting, meaning a different relationship among the various communities, and changed the characters themselves, such that going to a new situation, next time, has more meat to work with. A new conflict in that situation may well be handled very differently by your two characters based strictly on the consequences of the first situation.

I see the whole issue with nerfing your character's damage as another Drift issue. If the adversity were not adverse, then your characters' actions would have reduced consequences for them, and as I see it, the whole vision of play that Dave had offered, and that you and Jenn especially had accepted, relied on consequences. I think it's interesting that at the time, you were only able to process this entirely-understandable Drift in terms of "Dave wants to win more."

And in the second adventure, boy, talk about consequences and having to live with them! The first application is to note exactly the previous-to-this adventure effect I mentioned above regarding yet more tension between the two surviving characters, and the second is the lethality. Despite the mechanical ease of killing low-level D&D characters, it takes a lot of Social Contract guts to follow through with a stated willingness to do so. Two out of four! (Although I do note they were for the non-Premise-y characters.).

If I'm reading right, Gerald now got into the groove after all with his cleric character. It doesn't surprise me that the three characters represented three different ethical takes on the contradiction between perceived Lawful Good and actual Lawful Evil, and what would under some other circumstances be the dreaded "oh no! inter-party conflict!" is here an expression of the most desirable aspect of play (for you in this case). In my weird little imagery, the Social Contract ball just got more pumped up, because now four out of five people are explicitly saying, and expressing through real play, the key phrase "let's play this game this way."

Also, that's a very interesting cleric who won't heal on demand. How did that arise, as a thing suggested in dialogue before it happened in play, or was it a surprise during play, or was it something everyone was comfy with based on previous play history?

QuoteSo much for the teachings of Serin.

Wham. Premise answered. Creative Agenda reward cycle complete. "This is what it's about."

As you recall, did Jenn enjoy the characters' ethical disagreements? When your character's actions led to the death of her character's best friend, did it seem to you to "work" for her?

Plus, all that interesting business about adopting goblins and kobolds. It reminds me of how in many westerns, even as Indians are getting villainized, there're all these sidekick and borderline and halfbreed characters that seem to be central in some way.

Your account of the third adventure is more telling than it might seem. Let's look at Mike's situation.

QuoteMike 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.

OK, people say "Blah blah blah" about how they plan to play, especially any stripe of D&D, and most of the time it's all bullshit and the group plays in the same fashion (whatever it may be) that's familiar to all of them anyway. It would really help to know more about the Social Contract details I asked about above, but even without them, clearly Mike's the odd man out here. He was all set to play D&D his way, no matter what blahdy-blah he had to listen to at first. He made up a character that had no Premise-y meat at all, who got killed in the second adventure. Now he gets to make up a new character, and guess what? He doesn't get to keep the stuff that by right (as he sees it) he gets to have as a player. These aren't Sir Richard's things we're talking about; they're Mike's! He has to "start over," and he "gets screwed." None of this makes sense if he were in tune with the CA and the way that all the aspects of play tied into it ... but since he's not, the only way to interpret this is that you guys are simply being dicks.

Plus then he gets ganged up on, with all three of the other guys (h'm - not the woman? interesting) saying "Yeah, give it up," and he has Hobson's choice: play even though he's getting screwed, or don't play.

Don't mistake me: I'm not adopting or agreeing with my hypothetical version of Mike's point of view. I'm saying what that point of view may well have been, assuming that Dave had not bought into the obvious CA orientation. And I also suggest that it took two strong reward cycles (in terms of situations) and one strong reward cycle (character death, i.e., "Dave means what he said") encompassing those, before he realized that the agenda in question was real and the pack of you would instantly back it up. You were immune to the implicit blackmail: "Oh yeah? Then I won't play."

Again, to be clear, I'm not saying that I absolutely or magically know that we're looking at an instance of clashing Creative Agendas, but I am saying that in the presence of such a clash, this is the sort of thing which happens. And if that's the case, then the days of either Mike's presence in the group or the group's survival itself are numbered.

QuoteThis 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.

Oh, Premise is firing very hard already, no question about it. I think you had the most fun because after two or so cycles, you believed that it was really going to happen, that the "reverberations" I talk about in one of the threads referenced below were actually happening, and so could throw yourself right into it. Therefore what you collectively "hit" was the climax of your character's initially-stated tensions in Premise terms - which in Narrativist terms, is the largest and most significant reward cycle.

(more in next post)

Ron Edwards

QuoteIn the next adventure we were exploring a cult. ... 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.

Oh, for this adventure, there is so much to talk about. First, it's a fantastic example of Premise-heavy scenario generation, with the government and the cult and Kra and all the rest of it; Dave gets a high five from me, and you were absolutely right to identify the content as a Bang for your character. Second, the action point things: another example of beautiful, classic Drift. Third, the ultimate consequence: the starting assumptions of your character were invalidated, and that raises the wonderful new question of who will he become?

Question: did Jenn and Gerald really get into this one? It seems that Gerald did. What kind of character interaction among the three of you highlighted - or better, transformed - the tensions going into the scenario? Were the elf and warmage reconciled at all? And correct me if I'm wrong: was Mike pretty peripheral to play during this adventure?

QuoteI 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.

Effectiveness, or the potential for it, is a key part of protagonism. That's what I think you were aiming toward, especially given this part of your post:

QuoteI 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.

Dave apparently had the good sense to damp it down a bit to keep it from becoming "I do anything" (he was hampered a bit by working in the constraints of fighty-damage-death focus of the system) and also to think in terms of consequences just as you describe.

Again, I wasn't there and don't know Mike. It could be that the raw "kill'em" power of his character was the only thing really keeping him engaged. If that's so, then sure, it can work for a while, but enjoyment of a Technique only lasts so long before the CA-frustration overwhelms it.

Thinking more about why you said you enjoyed it so much, I suggest that the phrase "enjoy the most" can be tricky. If what you enjoy most deeply is reliably happening, then the obvious enjoyment may be expressed more about the secondary material, or about something that hadn't worked in the past much (and effectiveness in low-level D&D would be a prime candidate), or about some detail which facilitates the primary enjoyment.

Norm, I see red-meat Narrativism. Honed Exploration. Focused Drift. Social Contract (well, not bad anyway). Reward cycle feeding into the fiction. I couldn't have invented a better example of the Big Model.

I'm interested in your account and reflections upon why the game didn't continue. There are tons of possibilities: the raw work for the DM/GM in this kind of play/Drift is brutal; play had reached a chapter-level ending, itself rare in many groups' experience; one player may not have had any Agenda-based satisfaction, which may have been compounded by the social fallacy that "we all have to stick together;" any number of things which had nothing to do with play like schedules or whatever.

Best, Ron

Here are some crucial references that serve as the foundation for this post:
The Sim Nar Blur (Anna labors under some of the same CA confusion you displayed earlier in this thread)
Narrativist games and "winning" and
Beating a dead horse
(these two threads were parts 1 and 3, with part 2 being a long conversation between Frank and me when we met in Berlin)


Hey Ron,

Thanks for the very in-depth answer. I'll try to clear up your questions about social contract first.

Gerald and Jenn were together in a relationship, (and Gerald's first character, Luthor, had very much the same outlook as Aiden, just less faith, more pragmatism). Gerald and I were 21, Jenn was 26, and mike was 17 or 18. Here's the short and long of how our little group formed.

Gerald comes to me with the Eberron Campaign setting for 3.5 and I read it and love it and buy it. He promises to get a game going. Then a month or so later he purchases the World of Darkness from White Wolf, and wants to play that. We don't get a game started (what would have been our first published game played) until I take the reigns and get Eberron started a year later. The initial group is Gerald, his girlfriend Jenn, Me, BIf (an aging fat-beard, as he calls it), Danielle (a co-worker of mine), and Morgan, my girlfriend. Over time Danielle flakes out and we keep her character around until there is a good dramatic way for me to do away with her. When I introduce Mike to the game (whom Bif did not get along with), Bif refused to play. Initially, I had intended to give mike a trial run (convinced he would hate D&D because of its complexity), and then when he didn't like it, boot him and bring Bif back. Bif refused, and good thing too (he was an asshole, though very respectable for other traits) because Mike loved the game. Dave was a friend of the group, but never dealt very well with Mike's immaturity. He was brought in on the same night Mike was. Morgan and Jenn didn't get along, everyone accused me of favoring her, and eventually she left the group and the game ceased.

From there we had this nucleus of players that enjoyed playing together and knew how the game worked. Dave had this cool idea for a campaign (and I was begging to be able to play, not just DM all the time).

What has to be understood is that at first is that I was very much into all the crunchy bits of D&D. I loved fiddling with modifiers and min-maxing characters so I could cause maximum punishment. As a fledgling DM I had not done much of anything with premise (but my players loved the game, begging me for years now to get it going again and be their DM) at least to my knowledge. Mike loved my games because it offered plenty of combat and chances to show off how cool his character was in battle. He was pretty much silent when it came to non-combat encounters. Getting him to actually "role-play" was about as pleasant as pulling teeth.

As for Aiden, the reluctant Cleric, nobody liked it except Gerald. I still don't know his full reasons for doing what he did, but his rationalization at the time was that using his turn to heal was a waste of a turn, even if it would keep us from falling unconcious. As a player in other games, he had a tendency to de-rail the group, acting against group wishes, both story wise and encounter wise. By splitting away from the group occasionally, we would be forced to follow him, or else risk losing our cleric, which was all that was keeping us barely alive in Dave's gritty world. Mike and I were the most vocal about wanting healing, and Jenn was rarely upset as her paladin was fairly self- sufficient in the first place. Plus, Dave didn't attack her nearly as much as he did Mike's characters. I think.

The only times Aiden healed us when we needed it was when we whined and begged and cursed enough to make him do it, and even then sometimes he would change his mind and do his own things. We very nearly lost several fights because of his way of doing things, and never with anything to show for it other than more healing magic wasted altogether than would have been wasted if he had done it our way.

Why didn't the game continue?. There was growing tension between Dave and I due to his "nerfing" of my character. Were I in the situation now, I would look at it very differently, thanks to you. Anyway, that pissed me off. It also aggravated me that he took the colonial aspect of the setting and started introducing Lovecraftian horror, even though the group had expressed an "it might be interesting, but we like things as they are," attitude. That tension was draining Dave. Secondly, coming up with the creative content was draining him, and he wanted time off to be able to do something else. (we ended up playing a premade string of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventurers, heavily retooled by Dave to fit our characters, and it was another one of the most fun campaigns of my life). After that break, our schedules never synched up again, though Dave was pretty clear that he wanted to find a way to not include Mike in the re-start if it ever happened.

As for color, I don't think I understand what you mean. But if I do, there was plenty of color in Dave's head, just not that we could see immediately. So, we assumed things worked like in standard D&D until he told us differently. If you could give me an example of something you would see colored in the campaign so I could work from there, that would be great.

Jen most certainly enjoyed the dynamic in play between her character and mine. She was so into it, I sometimes thought she was upset with me!

As for Mike getting ganged up on, I think you mis-read what I wrote, or I mis-wrote it. Gerald and I were on Mike's side. We could only see through our previously established D&D rose-colored glasses that Dave was hurting Mike's rights as a player, not that what he was doing was making sense. To be sure, Gerald and I understood it made sense in the story, we would have just preferred Dave find a different way to introduce Sir Richard without taking his stuff. So, we wanted Mike to continue enjoying the game, and so we argued that he should have some of his stuff back. Plus, an unequipped knight does almost nothing for the party in a fight, so we were helping ourselves too.

Thats about everything I saw, though with the exception of the definition of Color, I now have a very good vision of exactly what you mean by System (not rules or mechanics, but those plus the entire social contract rules-set and the application of it all together, much of it that is probably not explained explicitly in the game text), and most importantly, what a reward system looks like in a Narrative game (and in a non-mechanical way!).

Also, I'll ask again, what happened to the Exchange? How do I get a copy. I just can't find it anywhere.

Thanks again,

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,
The social information helps a lot, including the Bif/Mike issue and the Morgan/Jenn issue. The whole thing reminds me very greatly of my college gaming (~1985) and seems to me now to be very fraught. The "group which works" seems to have coalesced around certain specific relationships, including one which might be described as "who the rest of us can all tolerate not enjoying entirely."

At the time, it seems to me as if you equated character effectiveness with competitiveness (or Step On Up more accurately), and perhaps equated "nerfing my character" with "story." That latter may be reaching a little, but even if it is, I can see how this second play account also suits the thread topic nicely.

Correction accepted regarding equipping the knightly character. I misunderstood you.

Color is not all that important to the discussion at the moment, but it is actually quite important - even key - to play. [Sorcerer] Cascadiapunk post-mortem illustrates a pretty good application of my current thinking. For this thread, well, I dunno where you want to go with the Color discussion. As a very basic distinction:

System: using dice to represent (or better as part of representing) a physical attack on another character, rolling a certain value, applying agreed-upon effects of that value to the target character's values, integrating the result with imagined events (i.e. effects).

Color: someone saying, "Your edge cleaves right down to his nose!", you shouting "Gunch!" for a sound effect, someone else saying, "Stopped him in his tracks!" Or any kind of description above and beyond the most literal translation of the System effects alone.

About reward systems, well, they're a lot like Color. They happen at the entirely emotional, social, and imaginative level of human action. Numbers, points, tokens, and specific rules applications are all ways of enjoying them. Such ways are fine things for game design, and woefully under-utilized in historical RPG design, but they are not, themselves, the reward or the Color in action.

Regarding The Exchange, that was Levi's project at the time, and I have no idea whether he pursued it. It's too bad if he didn't; the ideas were quite excellent.

Best, Ron


So, I've read some of the threads you posted (2 of the four I think), and I have some good ideas firing around in my head.

First, as for color and reward, and how it all relates to GNS, I think what I am hearing is that how you play, and what rewards you get, all wrapped in the fiction packaging (which can reinforce/reward play type) determines your GNS. Therefore, even if there are lots of crunchy tactical encounters that are very risky, you can still be playing narrativist because all of your color and rewards are Narrativist based. Likewise, you could play in reverse, just happening to address premise, but actually stepping on up. Perhaps this is why the modes are so easily confused. Essentially, each mode can happen within the other, or so it seems. Because of this appearance of one mode within another, we assume they are both active, when really one is and one isn't.

However, if that is true, then why can't both be active at the same time after all? What if a reward system (both social and mechanical) could be set up in such a way that both Step On Up and Narrativism were rewarded? (Notice I avoid simulationism entirely. I thought I understood it, but I don't). So, in my actual play, there was ample social reward for my character actions. The fiction was reinforced, and the story progressed as our group addressed premise. By social reward I mean the "fun" which is to say all of the smiles, cries of, "That was awesome!" and such. But mechanically, I couldn't say how we were rewarded. We received Experience in big clumps, not immediately after each fight. And there was at least one instance where the GM explained that just because we chose to fight an optional encounter that was hard did not mean we would get experience. We got treasure, but experience was reserved only for fights which moved the story forward. For Mike, this meant that he got experience for fighting the right fights, and letting us do our thing. So he did. There was no bonus EXP to speak of, because all of the mechanical rewards were Narrativist, but Mike probably felt like it was gamist. Fights did produce social reward for stepping on up.

But what if the game had played out differently? Lets say there were mechanical rewards of EXP for every fight. In addition, lets say additional EXP is given for fights that move the story forward and address premise. This would still promote Narrativism, even if Social reward were equal for both, simply because you get more for Narrativist play than you do for gamist play. Is this where the incoherence/dysfuntional play comes in? If Mike wanted more gamism from the game under this model, he would fight everything he could, which would drag us into fights that we didn't care about so he could get his EXP. As is, the treasure awarded regardless of whether we did things that promoted premise was an indiscriminate mechanical award just big enough to get Mike and I to want to kill everything, or eventually, to explore everything and find all the loot we could. Only in later gameplay did I start trusting Dave to make sure we got enough of everything and stop trying to get every piece of loot I could.

So, in a system that attempts to equally reward more than one style of play, it can successfully reward them. But by doing so, groups will be split based on their basic desires of play. Gamists will ruin it for Narrativists and vice-versa. The only way a group could enjoy such a game is if everyone was on the same page, essentially making one whole set of reward-cycles useless and ignored.

So, in a game like mine (the DnD game I mean), players can't pursue both agendas at the same time, because to pursue gamism mars the pursuit of premise driven play, and vice versa. Any game that hybridized the two would need to somehow string its conflicts together so that both styles were rewarded in such a way that they complimented each other, with the Step On Up always reinforcing the Story Now, and the Story Now always providing a means to Step On Up. I dare say such a game has not been designed thus far, and whatever system is developed to do such a thing would be rightly called revolutionary.

But in the end, I think it means that for the moment, until such a game is designed, I understand and agree that the GNS agendas are mutually exclusive.

Thanks for your time Ron. I don't know if this thread needs to go any further or not. It will if I got things wrong, but if I got things right, then I need to start a first thoughts thread on developing a game like what I mentioned above. In the meantime, I want to understand simulationism more, and I want to ask a question about your essays as a whole.

If the ideas you have developed in the course of writing your essays and through threads here at the forge have evolved and matured, why haven't you re-written the essays so as to avoid some (certainly not all) of the confusion. For example, only by your third essay had certain ideas really gelled for you, and as such the previous two can confuse people who aren't fully understanding you on your terms. Its just a thought.

I really appreciate you spending time clearing this stuff up for me. Did I get everything right, or am I still shaky on some things.


P.S. I didn't remember to include what I think color is, but to me it is essentially the fictional wrapping around everything you do that makes the game more than just crunching numbers and rolling dice. Does that sound about right?

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

This reply takes your last post and responds to it as a series of points rather out of order, for purposes of maximum clarity, I hope. Let me know if I failed to answer anything important.

Most general first: I strongly recommend not perceiving my essays as theses or dissertations, and certainly not as textbooks or primary texts for "the Forge." They are signposts in an ongoing debate, and serve only as a snapshot of what I was thinking at that time in the debate. The dialogue at the Forge is the real text. If you want a revised version of the essays, you start a thread exactly like the one you started here, and the thread itself becomes the revised essay. That's how it works. If someone gets confused because they think I'm a guru and have posted some kind of Essays of Trooth for people to absorb and quote, well, I can't help them, until they grab a clue and join the discussion as an equal among equals, like you did.

You describe Color as:

Quote... to me it is essentially the fictional wrapping around everything you do that makes the game more than just crunching numbers and rolling dice. Does that sound about right?

Very technically, it's too general; what you're describing is essentially the SIS. But you're not too far off the mark - if you were to take the number crunching and dice rolling and translate it into the SIS in the most literal and unadorned way, you'd have an SIS with little or no Color, but I have hardly ever observed such a thing to characterize play for long. In practice, Color goes hand in hand with "moving things along" in terms of fictional events and imagery.

QuoteFirst, as for color and reward, and how it all relates to GNS, I think what I am hearing is that how you play, and what rewards you get, all wrapped in the fiction packaging (which can reinforce/reward play type) determines your GNS. Therefore, even if there are lots of crunchy tactical encounters that are very risky, you can still be playing narrativist because all of your color and rewards are Narrativist based. Likewise, you could play in reverse, just happening to address premise, but actually stepping on up. Perhaps this is why the modes are so easily confused. Essentially, each mode can happen within the other, or so it seems. Because of this appearance of one mode within another, we assume they are both active, when really one is and one isn't.

I'll start by rephrasing you a little bit: how you play and what rewards you get, all wrapped up in the fiction, determines what Creative Agenda is present, if any. A person doesn't "have a GNS."

To clarify your larger point, you are a bit off. One mode does not happen "within the other." When I choose a particular effectiveness-increasing option in my available rules at the moment, it is not a little atom of Gamism within some larger mode. It is merely strategizing as a Technique. The whole point of the Big Model structure is to get away from this notion you're falling into. The Creative Agenda is not a level (something I didn't work out until finishing the three essays); it is a connecting principle that enables the levels to function together.

When a person understands that, then there is no more confusion about an Agenda within another one, or one Agenda supporting another one.

Regarding the Gamism + Narrativism sittin' in a tree, K.I.S.S.I.N.G., issue, you did a great job of staying with the thread topic, and it seems to me that you ended up answering the question yourself after you posed it:

Quote... why can't both be active at the same time after all? What if a reward system (both social and mechanical) could be set up in such a way that both Step On Up and Narrativism were rewarded?
So, in a system that attempts to equally reward more than one style of play, it can successfully reward them. But by doing so, groups will be split based on their basic desires of play. Gamists will ruin it for Narrativists and vice-versa. The only way a group could enjoy such a game is if everyone was on the same page, essentially making one whole set of reward-cycles useless and ignored.

So, in a game like mine (the DnD game I mean), players can't pursue both agendas at the same time, because to pursue gamism mars the pursuit of premise driven play, and vice versa.

QuoteAny game that hybridized the two would need to somehow string its conflicts together so that both styles were rewarded in such a way that they complimented each other, with the Step On Up always reinforcing the Story Now, and the Story Now always providing a means to Step On Up. I dare say such a game has not been designed thus far, and whatever system is developed to do such a thing would be rightly called revolutionary.

Regarding that last bit, a better way to put it is whether play of this sort is functional or sustainable in the first place, and then the issue of effective game design and presentation that reinforced it could be raised. It probably won't surprise you that we've been here before, at the Forge. GNS and "Congruency" began a whole sub-chapter of theory discussion here.

(I could murdalize Walt for butchering the language with this thread, by the way. There wasn't any reason not to use "congruence" and "coherence." God knows why people tacked "-cy" onto the latter, which probably was his impetus for doing it to the former. The one favorable result of this repulsive neologism, though, is that it makes searches easy. Run a Forge search on "coherency," just with the general search option, and about ten threads will appear. Reading them in chronological order will provide a lot of perspective.)

The topic was quite thoroughly discussed and applied, and I think basically, was resolved in favor of abandoning "congruence" as meaningful. (1) Ultimately, we arrived at the conclusion that Creative Agenda is not atomic; i.e., Gamist play is not constructed of specifically and identifiably Gamist techniques and moment-level decisions. That conclusion is what led me toward investigating reward cycles (as opposed to Stances and resolution rules) and expanding my concept of "instance of play" much farther upward/outward than most people had read my earliest essay to mean. So the whole idea of playing N-N-S-N-N-G-N, so it "adds up" to N overall, is obsolete (and as I see it was a mis-reading in the first place), much for the reasons you just outlined in your own post.

(2) I think we need to distinguish between two sorts of "can happen," both of which are in the hypothetical sense, but are radically different issues. (i) One kind might be thought of as, oh, a carnivoran* mammal with horns. It's never been observed for a living or extinct carnivoran species. "Can" it happen? Developmentally and evolutionarily, on the face of things, nothing jumps up to dictate specifically why not, aside from the common carnivoran ancestor not having any, and nothing having happened to instigate horns' origins in that group. I.e., the phenomenon of no-horns-here may be purely historical. (ii) The other kind might be thought of as, oh, a carnivoran mammal with six locomotory limbs (banths, oh banths!). Here, instead, we're running into what appears to be a radical developmental constraint. Long before the origin of carnivorans or indeed of mammals, a group of animals lost most of the capacity to develop limbs along all of its body segments. Either that capacity was stripped out or suppressed so profoundly that messing with it would bollix up the critters' function beyond, well, functioning. Mammals evolved as a subset within this group, and carnivorans within the mammals. Four limbs, baby, that's what we're working with, and you can lose'em, but you aren't getting those other segments' limb-making capacity back.**

I'm distinguishing between "could if we got around to doing it," vs. "could if particular operative principles of reality-right-now happened to vanish." The question is, when we talk about Congruent play, which "can" or "can't" do we mean? If it's (i), then sure, design the game, or any Congruent game, and off we go now that the instructions are around to help us get it in play. If it's (ii), though, then all I can say is, you're up against the constraint that humans seem to want to play together together, and not in a way in which you, me, or anyone can switch around between eating pigs vs. hugging pet pigs individually when we all got together to "love pigs." I happen to think it's (ii), but I don't claim to be infallible.

And (3), simple observation played its role in the discussion as time passed. Forge discussion participants' strong interest in hybrids was founded in an over-stated concept of Simulationism, and better understanding of that agenda plus a lot of attention to games like The Riddle of Steel led to the conclusion that hybrids were more of an ideal and not particularly functional as such in play. People very strikingly played TROS either radically Narrativist or radically Simulationist, and in each case tending to junk or downplay specific pieces of the written rules in doing so. I think the current Capes discussion suggets that the same thing happens a lot with that game, with S instead of G, although that thread is marred a bit by some emotional content. Basically, whether hybrid (dominant/subordinate CAs) or congruent (both at once), we simply don't see it happening.

Luke and I discussed this recently in regard to Burning Empires, in which he explained to me that the occasional Gamist-like language in the rules (which is indeed occasional and a bit jarring) is not particularly serious, whereas the Narrativist instructions (which are present throughout and very consistent) are straightforwardly the point of play as he sees it. The strategizing and even boardgamey elements of the "larger scope" of play in that game are intended to be pure setup for the real point, occurring at the personal level.

If I'm not mistaken, this thread has reached an endpoint for your topic, but I don't want to close it because others may well chime in. So, anyone, please feel free.

Norm, I suggest addressing any questions you have about Simulationist play later in a new thread. Plus, make sure to read Simulationism aside, ignoring the subjective, and Constructive denial? in order. As far as I'm concerned, these threads settled the "what is Sim" hassle entirely and without pain.

Best, Ron
* I'm using "carnivoran" in the taxonomic sense, rather than "carnivorous" in the behavioral and ecological sense. In other words, the Order of mammals which includes doggies, kitties, sealies, mongoosies, hyena-ies, bearsies, weaselies, and a number of others, without reference to what they do or do not eat.
** Geeking out: this is called Dollo's Principle and is a topic of some weight and debate in the field. I promise to shut up now.


Hey Ron,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. This is the first instance of internet access I have had in awhile. That said, I have not and will not have time to read the threads you recommended (which is quite a bunch)  for quite some time.

Now, I am not much of a person to abandon logic and say, "I feel," but here I just feel like something is missing. I like to think it is my subconscious putting pieces together but only showing me the result of its findings, not the work that got it there. It is entirely possible that those threads will clear it up for me and solve the issue, which I think is this: I don't agree that creative agenda is separated from the techniques that seem to go into it. I understand that some techniques are used more often in certain agendas than others, but are use-able in all agendas. I also understand that play doesn't "add up" to one agenda or another. But perhaps in making agenda such an all-encompassing standby the forge (I would say we, but I don't feel right taking any real credit for all the theory discussion that has gone on before) has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

What about moment-to-moment play? For example, lets go back to my play examples, which were broad-stroked a bit too much for you to see ( I think) the following: All of the surroundings were Narrativist play. Granted. Every battle was gamist. Was it setup for the narrative agenda? Sure. But each battle was hard enough that we had to decide what to do with it, whether to Step On Up (and no, I don't think I'm overusing that phrase-as-simplification) or not. And for each battle, the fun came not from premise, which normally fired only on small levels throughout some (not all) of the battles, but primarily from the thrill of winning and losing the combat, both of which happened occasionally. The fun in-the-moment came from that aspect AND the small-fire premise of some decisions.

Now, I get that overall, we were playing Narrativist. I know that it isn't because it added up that way, but because all of the play and the fun (much of which was only ascertained in the moments at which we realized premise had been addressed at all, which in some cases was weeks after the event) pointed to narrativist. What this means to me is that if you want to figure out creative agenda (as the hydra it seems to be to me), you have to look at the fun, but not just at any one level, and especially not at the overall level alone.

Essentially, look at the source of the fun at each point in play. This would mean moment-moment play (where the immediate fun might come from gamist goals, as it did in my example) and session-by-session play (where the fun was not even at the end of the session, but in the remembering of the session, and thus the recognition of all the premise that was addressed), and then in the overall entire-game sense (which again happens after the fact).

Looking at agenda this way paints a different picture, at least as I see it. Looked at this way, agenda fires on multiple moments and at individual points as well as on the after-the-fact remembering, which for me is often more fun than the actual game was itself. Is this an anomaly in me, or perhaps does it mean I should be doing something that can generate such memories without the game (such as simply day-dreaming)? I don't think so. My friends feel similarly from what I have observed. They always seem to have more fun after the fact than in the actual throes of the game. Maybe that means we are changing our memories, trying to justify an un-fun activity. But even accounting for that, it doesn't change the real enjoyment of the memory itself, which in such an overall-view as the GNS seems to require, seems to fit in perfectly. Essentially, if it is ok to look at the play experience as a whole in order to determine the GNS, why cannot we define the play experience as the before-during-after of the game in question?

Seen this way, I believe that not only is hybridized play possible, it is present in most games already. In these games the overall goal (if there even is one for a given group, and for many there isn't, at least not explicitly expressed and understood) might be narrativst, and the active agenda overall might be narrativist, but in the moment to moment, it is part Narrativist (the small-firing Nar moments), part Gamist (The Step-On-Up of accepting a battle or not, and applying risky tactics), and part Simulationist (from the actual imagining of play as these individuals in these situations, and the attempt to "get in-character").

So, did that make any sense?

Thanks again Ron. I don't think this thread is exhausted yet. It may just be my stubbornness, or just a general inability to accept things. It might even be lack of information on my part. But something in what I have written rings true. It wraps up everything very elegantly, at least for me. It makes everything make sense without further discussion. I also sense that what I have written may be counter intuitive to how you view the whole matter. That being said, I would love to see you pick apart what I have just suggested, and then give me a play example broken down at all of the levels to show me where I am wrong, or misunderstanding things. Maybe it would even be helpful for me to craft a play example (since I don't have one that I think fits) in order to demonstrate what I am saying. Maybe in that you would be able to help me understand where my assumptions are incorrect and thus leading me to incorrect conclusions.

Thanks again,




I think looking at those moment to moment things is a fascinating topic.  It is however a different topic than Creative Agenda.  I know some of Ron's earliest writings on GNS talked about what is the most fun for your group and that can often be a good tool to help determine GNS but I think often it can muddy the waters when certain instants are remembered and the fun of being in the moment and is recalled but how you got there and what made it important is forgotten. 

On Hybrids I dont think they are possible, but when I say that I'm talking about in a full CA sense where it's the big driving force for your game.  It's impossible to serve two masters.  So what you are describing when you talk of moment to moment gamism is what Ron calls tatical play in support of narrativism.  It may just seem a matter of different way of saying the same thing but I think that it's valid.  It's often hard to pick out any CA at a moment to moment level, it's often just exploration, Simulationism to me doesnt really make sense as a moment to moment thing because then it is just exploration.


Thanks for responding Caldis.

I understand that as GNS is defined, the moment-to-moment play does not count as GNS. What I am talking about is re-defining it. I think that the idea of Creative Agenda (maybe I have loaded those words too much for myself) can and should be applied at all levels. Essentially, think of the big model. The CA is the arrow, right? It encompasses everything and passes through everything. Essentially it is the forest, with each layer being a tree. I am saying the the fun of a given game is much the same, it is a complicated forest, and should be examined as such. Instead of saying that point of play is applicable only at the forest level, I say it should be applied at the tree-by-tree level.

Also, it is essential for me to understand what the nature of roles is here in this discussion. Is this a meeting of equals, with Ron being first among equals? Or is this more of a lecture or dissertation on GNS. If it is the former, then the consideration that terms as they are defined may be incorrect or lacking in scope (yes, I realize this is an extremely arrogant assumption on my part, that I could actually come here with only months of understanding what Ron has worked on for years, and expect to be able to shed light and change such sacred cows. I am arrogant, or at least confident). If it is the latter, then I can understand why the constant form of these threads is more to to teach and less to change. However, it seems that Ron alludes to these individual threads as the ongoing discussion, in which he refines and updates his views on GNS. If that is the case, then even as pupil, I may have something to add. However, I can see that it might be a huge pill to swallow, since to me my outlook seems like a completely different way of looking at things. To me, it feels like I have been led out of Plato's cave and now see the light, but my companions cal me crazy and point to definitions of the "dark" as examples of why light cannot exist.

Like I said, I know it sounds arrogant. I hope it doesn't put anyone off and cause them to ignore me. And I hope I'm right, because if I am wrong, I am about to be humbled in a very serious way. Then again, I just may be ill-informed. Once I read the threads Ron recommended, I may find that everything Ron was saying makes sense, and my earlier thoughts were just so much delirium.



Hi Norm,

Like you said CA encompasses moment to moment play. What you're missing is that the parts cannot be examples of the whole. Imagine learning that someone kicked a ball and then concluding the game must be soccer. There's lots of other games that involve kicking balls. (Let's ignore for now the fact that the kind of ball will identify most games.) We might think of CA as the goal of the play-experience generated by the accumulation of rules, boundaries, content, and specific actions of play. You only get a whole when the parts synergize, becoming more than their sum.

The CA arrow is the selection of rules, boundaries, content, and specific actions that create the experience.

At the player level, I think you can say that players make moment-to-moment conceptualizations and decisions about how to use the rules to further what they see as the CA of the game. Players may have a bias towards aiming at a particular CA for reasons of past personal experience and preference. Good game design includes clear definition of the intended CA of the game and perhaps disabusing expectations you can anticipate.
- Alan

A Writer's Blog:


For your question about the forums check out the site discussion section of the forums, funny since now that I look at it that's where you started out this thread.  Specifically this thread deals with the general rules of the forums.   That thread is fairly old and things have evolved somewhat in the meantime.  The way I'd put it is that discussion is open as long as we respect one another and also respect that you may not change someone elses mind.  At some point we may just have to agree to disagree and let it slide.  If your willing to discuss your ideas and try and show what you mean through actual play discussions then we may be able to get somewhere.

On to the meat of the discussion.  I have to confess I have (or at least had) some sympathy for considering GNS even in the moment to moment sense of play (for awhile there was some talk with the term atomic GNS bandied about).  Here's the problem I see with redefining CA in such a fashion.   In your play experience you showed that big picture your CA was Narrativist but there were moments where tactical combat was very important even if they werent driving what the game was about.   The problem I see is that if you discuss those individual moments as if they were a creative agenda how can you use the same term to discuss the bigger scale without causing confusion?   Another problem is that the definitions of CA are working on the larger scale and may not apply exactly on a smaller scale.  Strong tactical play can be just that and not meet the requirements of step on up.  


Historically, the attempt to define forms of play arose from the fact that when the internet brought groups of players together, it became reapidly clear that many of them viewed RP in radically different lights to each other, with a lot of back and forth about who is or is not "doing it right".  If it were easy or normal to hybridise a game such that it featured all of the identified components, that sort of dispute should not have arisen.  Further, claiming to play in a way that does can be just another form of claiming to be uniquely right, and refusing to see that your game is actually an identifiable type.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


If Creative Agenda is defined as being met only if everyone is trying to achieve it, and only it, that's fine. It is easy to say "No, you cannot design a game to meet more than one CA simultaneously, because that is by definition impossible."

That's said, using Rons term "style" may yield something applicable. Personally, the vocabulary is limiting, it doesn't describe something I wish to achieve, and it can't describe the elements I do want to achieve in a distinctive fashion. It mainly gets in the way because I can't use terms like Narrative(-ist/-ism) or Game(-ist/-ism)without the baggage.

I need a term for a game aiming to have enjoyable fiddly bits, rules that themselves are fun to use, be it a guessing mechanic, evocative maneuvers for social and physical conflict and action, resource management or whatever. It can probably find something in common with the goal of having many weapons with "accurate" details described or even encoded in game mechanics. I have friends that enjoy this a great deal, and I do as well, however non of us are motivated by praise or the desire to "win". 

Maybe mechanicist is the term I'll have to use.