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On a forum elsewhere, I recently started a discussion about how people might categorise popular RPG's according to the GNS theory model. My intention was merely to stimulate discussion.

I was surprised by the extremely negative reaction I got to the question. Several posters seemed to feel I'd lit a dangerous touchpaper. For instance:

  • I think it's a bad idea, but don't want to give GNS the attention by rehashing the debate.

  • [You might as well] tie a logging chain to your ankle and a cement ball, and launch it into a swamp.

  • It's insufficient, and is an artifact of unpleasant history

What is the "unpleasant history" here, and why has it managed to linger since 1997, where the theory has its roots?

(To be clear, I'm not interested in the relative merits of GNS itself, or the validity of any criticism of it: I want to know why it seems to be regarded as exceptionally divisive and controversial.)

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The GNS theory (later recodified as the Big Model) was born at the Forge, a now dead forum mainly managed by the author of the theory, Ron Edwards.

Having been a part not of the Forge but of a somewhat related forum in my own language, I've witnessed part of this story and I've been exposed to the tale of what else happened mainly from the point of view of pro-Forge gamers.

Luckily, a lot of auto-analysis and of responding to the criticisms of users from the opposite culture was going on at the time, which I believe gives me enough insight to detach myself from the Forgite view and provide the most objective panoramic I can.

The GNS theory

The GNS theory at its core identifies three different Creative Agendas, i.e. aesthetic priorities that drive the game as it is played, or in common parlance, whatever drives a player towards playing in a certain way:

  • Gamism
  • Narrativism
  • Simulationism

The theory states that these three priorities are in contrast with each other.

While they can cohexist and alternate inside the same game session or campaign, each drives the game in a different direction.

Example:
Suppose you're playing D&D and you are at 1 hp, hurt and debilitated, but your opponent is nearly so. Gamism might mean evaluating the chance of winning and escaping and trying to test your analytical skills or luck against the scenario, Narrativism might mean doing whatever brings out the most interesting story development, Simulationism might mean following the hero trope and trying to strike anyway because that's what heroes do, or doing nothing but trying to back away with a limp because you're badly hurt and frightened at the idea of death (despite the rules imposing nothing of that, and yes, I've seen this happen in a game I was in.)

Having players push for different agendas makes for an unsatisfactory game where people can even fail to understand what the other players are looking for.

The GNS divide is not meant to categorize players (for one can look for different agendas at different times) or games, but sure a divide is born between more niche rulesets that try to forward a single agenda, thus making sure that every player can choose to participate or not according of how much he likes the agenda, and "you can do anything with this game" rulesets that don't.

Ron Edwards sure saw players who choose this last kind of rulesets as basically shooting themselves in the foot. Such games happen to include the vast majority of the games that existed at that time, from D&D to White Wolf games (that, despite being called "narrative" games, have nothing to do with Narrativism), from Warhammer to basically every big title with a huge fanbase out there.

No wonder games born from the Forge didn't change this. After all games that forward an agenda are necessarily limited in scope (thus more niche) by design.

Games that fail to forward a single agenda are technically called "incoherent games", and this is depicted as a very bad thing because, in the very common event of players without knowledge of this theory trying to play the game differently from the others at their table, it means having fun in turns (ever had the players that get bored during D&D combat and the ones who get bored outside of combat?) and creating a culture of people who learn to accept something avoidable (by playing an "only combat" or an "only diplomacy" game) as a necessary evil.

In a striking fit of <sarcasm>diplomacy</sarcasm>, some forms of incoherent game play were described by Ron Edwards as "'I learn to accept bad practices in order to continue playing to the point of believing it is normal behavior' mental conditioning," which he further clarified was a form of "brain damage."

Forgite game designers also saw Rule 0 as a necessary patch for a certain kind of games whose mechanics tried to model the physics of the gaming world, and tried to demonstrate that it was possible to build a game that just worked, without the need to tweak the rules.


The factions

Followers of the GNS theory saw players who only played incoherent games because they did not recognize what they were doing wrong, trapped in a culture of tribal gaming where the only games they knew were those played by their group of players and even experienced GMs were good at the game only because they managed to endure a long phase of trial and error caused by game designers not being able to tell their GMs what really mattered (manuals tell you how to determine when an enemy dies or what it can do, they do almost nothing to teach you how to frame scenes, create compelling enemies, satisfy the players, ...). In their mind, those players needed help and deserved something better than their old, old-styled games.

To a follower of the Forge (or at least to a large and vocal part of them, since this is what happened and I was among them), those players were fertile soil for evangelization.

It turns out people don't like to be told they've always been wrong and unable to realize.

Other than that, with all their talk of "play a niche game with clearly stated goals, and play it with people who like that game", forgites were menacing an estabilished order made of tightly knit gaming groups.

Non-forgites, in turn, often considered the technical jargon as complex, therefore elitist, and sometimes even offensive (You're calling my favourite game incoherent? You're calling me a Zilchplayer? You're telling me I'm brain damaged?).

Some, who had never encountered the social issues created by the lack of coherence, saw these evangelizers as misguided or worse, trying to fix a problem that never was.


Conclusion

A confusing jargon and an hard to grasp, multifaceted theory (even those who like the theory often fail at grasping some details of it, I'm still there), misrepresentation of games built from the theory1, both communities trying to demonstrate that they were right (and by the extension that the others were wrong) excalated pretty quickly into some sort of religion war.

Religion wars, trust me, are never pleasant.


1- the most blatant example is a rule in Dogs in the Vineyard called "say yes or roll" which tells the GM to have the characters succeed unless there's some active opposition, which very often gets understood as "if nobody's trying to stop me, I can jump to the moon and the rules say you have to let me". This stems from not knowing other rules of the game (e.g. raising an eyebrow to veto some action, a thing every player can do if they think something shouldn't happen in the story) and possibly from trying to ridicule the general "This game works without Rule 0" claim of the Forge people.

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GNS Flame War

I wasn't around for this flame war, but like you I heard about it recently and was curious. Brian Gleichman has a good summary here: Whitehall Paraindustries/Comments on the GNS Model.

The Forge

It seems an online community based on a site called Hephaestus' Forge was fractured after a change in ownership / moderation. New management (Ron Edwards) had some pretty specific ideas about game theory, that became codified in GNS. The new culture at the Forge was seen as elitist by some, since they dismissed some games as "literal brain damage" that had previously been accepted by the community. And so this started the flame war. The war was mainly carried out on the forge forums, and spilled over to other related forums.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Link to the brain damage threads would improve the answer immensely. \$\endgroup\$ – Thanuir Jun 1 '17 at 23:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Thanuir There are many, since Ron isn't/wasn't shy to repeat it as a term of art. I can't find the very original, but this is representative, as is this and this (all from 2006). As I recall the “brain damage” was specifically Ron's term though, so this answer might be improved by assigning the responsibility/blame directly to him rather than the whole Forge (though, I haven't read through those fully). \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 1 '17 at 23:26
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I was around for that but I didn't participate.

It was another example of: The less important something is, the more viciously people fight over it. Take a look at arguments in academia for more examples.

There is nothing really wrong about the theory (except that it is too limited). The trouble was that the theory was taken WAY too seriously by some people who used it to puff up their own self worth. This was then opposed by people with different views that they took way too seriously.

I went to gaming cons (OrcCon, for one) where small groups of people were preaching, with a religious zeal, the "you're doing it all wrong" to everyone else and that following the proper forms was the purpose of gaming. They were generally invited to make their noise elsewhere because there were people gathered with the purpose of having fun. We may have been a bit rude.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The less important something is, the more viciously people fight over it." — Also known as "Parkinson's law of triviality" or "bikeshedding." \$\endgroup\$ – jwodder Jun 2 '17 at 1:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jwodder, yeah, thank you for the reference. I knew it was a thing but since this is the RPG group, I figured that I could get away with not looking that one up. :-) The term bikeshedding is new to me. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Jun 2 '17 at 17:21
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Having been involved at the time and looking back, I can now say that the core problem with GNS is that the categories are almost impossible to sensibly separate in practice, and lead to a lot of confusion and circular argument.

This is especially the case given that GNS is supposed to categorize player's creative agendas, not game systems. But these inevitably leak into each other because of Gamism as one of the three agendas. One common issue is that many GNS supporters were trying to create game systems which facilitated Narrativist play, but this ran into the argument that doing so is actually just trying to redirect Gamism into Narrativism (which was often seen as an underlying agenda of the whole Forge community). If a game gives you XP for telling a good story, is trying to tell a good story now Gamism, or Narrativism, or both?

Simulationism became a complete mess as a result of being torn between two definitions:

  • Acting "as your character would". In other words, your regular town cop would not be expected to rush into an armed robbery without backup just because that gets him more XP (Gamist) or because it creates a heroic moment (Narrativism). The problem is that this requires some underlying model for "how your character would act" and this is often not available, especially in more fantastic settings. How would Spider-Man, or Aragorn, or Luke Skywalker, act if they were not part of a story? There's no way to know, because they always are, and in several cases even their existence doesn't make sense outside of narrative.

  • Modelling a coherent imaginary world with fixed laws that the players can consistently interact with. This is usually used as a criticism of two things: "GM fiat" driven decisions, and single-purpose mechanics defined out of character. The latter was a particular favorite of those who disliked D&D 4th edition: "Why can my character use Unbalancing Parry to move a 10 foot tall immobilised stone golem behind him in combat, but not just to move a boulder out of the way of a door?" The real problem with this one is that it's a movable feast for every player, and can't really be lumped into a single category nor set as an agenda on its own. 5th Edition is praised for having improved this, yet if a 5th Ed fighter peeks into a room's 5ft door then all 20 goblins in that room can conga line past them, each stabbing them as they go, in 6 seconds.

Narrativism also got significantly confused, as many people believed it represented railroading - that "the story" was predefined and players were expected to identify and follow along with it. Edwards was always clear that it didn't mean that, but that belief lead to the "fourth" GNS member, Illusionism popping up. Illusionism is supposed to be the agenda of being consensually railroaded - where the players' creative agenda is to fill in details of how their characters ended up doing what they were always going to do anyway. Yet it became massively confused and misused; just the other day I heard "Illusionism" used to refer to "Romeroading"1 by the GM, a totally different practice.

And finally, the whole thing became unnecessary anyway. Story driven games like Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts are totally forward about asking the player to take actions which are undesirable for the character and disadvantaged in the system, but which forward a particular story. As usual in a social hobby, the answer turned out to be not to establish some grand theory, but just to find Your People.


  1. Romeroading. Choose any road; but all roads lead to Rome.

    "You come to a fork. Do you go left or right?" [GM has the passage lead to the same room either way]

    Where the PCs have choices but those choices are immaterial to what actually happens (unlike railroading where the PCs are expected not to have choices).

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a solid comment about design styles and definition issues, but I'm not sure it fully addresses the big question of, like, "why was there a lot of acrimony along playstyle and in-group/out-group lines?" imo \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Feb 1 at 23:17

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