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Author Topic: GNS incoherency  (Read 3637 times)

Posts: 5574

« on: March 16, 2002, 07:24:46 AM »

Mike and I spent a good couple hours discussing this last weekend (after his entire gaming group bailed on us....;-)  I thought it would make for an interesting discussion.

We know from GNS theory that decisions are either G, N, or S.  And we know that games can be designed whose mechanics encourage and promote a specific GNS decision.  

We've been calling games whose mechanics encourage 2 or 3 different types of GNS decisions Incoherent.   The converse, I'd imagine, a game that only promoted one of them, would be GNS Focused.  I find nothing inherently negative or biased in the term Incoherent so I will continue to use it as its definition fits pretty well.  After all if you focus light you get a laser.  But the light we use every day is incoherent (i.e. unfocused) and its perfectly useable in that form.

Given the 3 options of GNS you can arrive at 4 types of GNS Incoherence.

Mike and I spent some time trying to think of some games (because Incoherency is an application of GNS at the game level) that fit into each of these categories.

GS Incoherency would seem exemplified by GURPs.  A huge amount of Simulation with items like character building with points being clearly Gamist.  Mike noted that if you throw out the points as he does, GURPs becomes much more focused on S.

GN Incoherency would seem exemplified by Vampire: The M.  A huge amount of Gamist mechanics with what (in ideal circumstances) would be a pretty cool Narrativist Premise.

I can't remember off the top of my head what games we thought were NS or GNS Incoherent.

Now Ron has said (and I'd note that Ron has said this, NOT GNS Theory itself) that he believes Incoherent games tend to lead to various dysfunctions in actual play.

On the surface I agree with him.  We've raked Vampire through the coals often enough here.  I quit playing AD&D when 2nd Edition starting loading up tons of attempted Simulationist stuff (like the entire Combat and Tactics hand book) on top of what was a pretty clean G game (although obviously I didn't have the tools to identify my disatisfaction at the time).

However 2 things occured to me.

1) If you look at the games which are poster children for Incoherency:  Vampire, GURPs, AD&D...you find some of the most successful (in terms of number of copies sold, and amount of $ made, and longevity of publication) of any game line out there.  If Incoherency is inherently a "bad thing" (or at least not as good as Focus) why are Incoherent games so successful.  

One reason I can see, is because the Incoherent game has elements that appeal to a much broader audience, and that players of the games are willing to live with some low level of dysfunction (and simply make house rules as desired) in order to have an easier time finding players to play with.  

What does this say about publishing games from a business perspective?  Are highly Focused Indie games doomed to share the fate of "foriegn films":  critically acclaimed, but box office failures (yes, generalization).  Is the secret to selling thousands of copies of a game to be as Incoherent as possible (but do it well) in order to appeal to the widest range of gamers?

2) Is it a forgone conclusion that Incoherency leads to dysfunction; or is it possible to design a fully functional Incoherent game.  Armed with awareness that Incoherency CAN lead to dysfunction, can a game designer set out to intentionally design an Incoherent game that does NOT.  Can he actually succeed at this?

Based on our discussions last weekend, I came up with a rough hierarchy of Game Mechanics.  I'm defining a mechanic here as any interface between the players and the game that influences or is used when a player makes a decision.  The hierarchy is based on that mechanics influence on a GNS decision.

Requires:  the mechanic requires players to make decisions of a certain GNS position (don't know if this is possible but included for completeness).

Promotes:  The existance of the mechanic actively encourages decisions of a certain GNS position (probably much more possible than Requires).

Supports:  The mechanic is essentially neutral to a GNS position.  It can be used effectively to make a given type of decision, but does not actually promote that type over another.

Opposes:  The mechanic hinders decisions of a certain GNS position.  Decisions of that type are difficult to make using or in the presense of that mechanic (the opposite of Promotes).

Prevents: The mechanic makes decisions of a certain GNS type impossible (opposite of Requires, again not sure if its possible to do this).

It occurs to me that every game mechanic designed could be ranked by one of these categories for each GNS decision (i.e. Promotes G, Opposes N, Supports S).

Its concievable that the right mechanics in the right combination could result in an incoherent game that didn't tend towards dysfunction.

Obviously the game could not use Prevents or Opposes mechanics relative to one of the positions it was trying to use.  Would a Promotes mechanic be useable?  Not sure.  In a GS Incoherent game if a certain mechanic promoted G at certain times would that automatically lead to conflict with S.  Anecdotal examples would seem to suggest this is the case, but could that simply be that that combination of mechanics was coincidental?  Could they be better mapped out so as not to conflit?

Support mechanics would be the obvious choice.  I think in some ways this is the intended mission of a great many of "generic" systems to use mechanics that can be used for any purpose without conflict.  So far I think designers of generic systems have been defining "any purpose" as "any setting or genre".  For our use, we are talking about "any GNS decision".  Can a mechanic be truely G or N or S neutral such that it doesn't interfer with players trying to make a decision of that type, but also doesn't encourage it?  Not sure.

Anyway.  This discussion occupied several hours of Mike and my time, so I figured it would probably be a good topic for the Forge to have at.

Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 16490

« Reply #1 on: March 16, 2002, 09:28:47 AM »


Two points, and I apologize for not giving them the time they deserve. Please consider the following to be the bottom line of my further discussions to explain them better, if necessary.

1) Because a game is not strongly focused toward G, N, or S, does not automatically make it incoherent. Please read the incoherence section as well as the design section again - you will find a definite distinction between functional hybrids and incoherence. You will also find a direct statement by me that functional hybrids are possible, but not common.

GURPS is not an incoherent game. I identify it as an extremely coherent Simulationist game. I also suggest that its "supplements" are not, in fact, supplements at all, but a series of encyclopedias marketed to all role-players, successfully. In other words, they do not provide game material, they provide historical and genre (sensu lato) material.

2) I strongly urge everyone to put aside all popular notions of which games are "successful" and which are not. You are not seeing a true market in action, and such a market has not existed in the game industry in any way that is recognized by members of that industry.

Let's take Vampire and the other classic Storyteller games. Did you know that White Wolf nearly went bankrupt, not too long ago? No, shock! They did. Their continued presence is due to good management, the startup of new lines, and a brave and bland face to the industry ("What? Who, us? No, everything's fine, why?"). The supplement-heavy marketing tactic is a disaster. It has been a disaster for every company who's tried it.

Chaosium and Call of Cthulhu? Fell apart, blew apart, The Chaosium as you knew it is dead and gone.

AEG? Look right. Look left. What L5R? What 7th Sea? All those supplements on the shelves are so much waste paper; these guys are laughing all the way to the bank as they pop out new D20 stuff and wait for the same customers to buy the same material. (John Zinsser is a master of the "scorched earth" policy of marketing and sales, the only way that the supplement model works.)

Pinnacle and Deadlands, the poster child for the Brave New Game of the late 90s? Ker-pchew! All gone, money all lost, back in business only due to courage and new investments.

Oh, but TSR? D&D is the most successful RPG ever, right? Good God, that game's ownership has changed hands more often than a parrot shits, right after the previous owner has turned out his pockets and grinned sheepishly.

[If anyone thinks this is just me ranting, go ahead - email Ryan Dancey. He'll tell you the same thing; he calls it the "treadmill."]

Do not mistake the presence of games on the shelves for evidence that people have bought those games previously, thus providing funds for further publishing. That is the Numero Uno assumption that all RPG marketing relies on.

This point is one of the primary concerns of my essay-in-progress about the role-playing industry and publishing, and if you think the GNS etc stuff is thought-provoking, well, hold on to your seats.

To repeat: a great deal of RPG publishing relies on promoting the illusion that the company is publishing supplements based on a wave of profit from the game and from previous supplements. They don't have to work at that illusion; it is largely self-generated in the customer base. I suggest freeing yourself from it as soon as possible.

Finally, Ralph, I like your breakdown of the different degrees and types of ways that GNS and overall game design are related.

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