Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

The Axioms of RPG Design (or, blasting away at the argument)

Started by Clinton R. Nixon, March 27, 2002, 07:11:51 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Clinton R. Nixon

I find it bizarre, and somewhat ludicrous, that "GNS Model Discussion" is the second-most busy forum at the Forge. We've argued this thing to death, and I think it's high time some distilling happened.

From all the argument, what I've seen people get most upset about is a categorization of player motivations (the Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist part). Even if you disagree with the three motivations, there's valuable stuff to be found in the model, which I've tried to distill out into four axioms here that can be used for any model construction in the future. Like most axioms, these will seem simple and self-evident:

The Axioms of RPG Design
1. In role-playing, decisions must be made about in-game actions. These decisions are explicitly based on player motivations.
2. A role-playing game system can support or conflict with player motivations.
3. A role-playing game supports what it rewards.
4. Given a role-playing game, a player will enjoy it more if it supports his motivations.

I expect number 3 to be the most argued-with and also the most important. I think this is the crux of the entire GNS model: in order for a game system to actually support a type of play, it must reward that type of play.

This can be extended into an important corollary: no matter what a game system claims to support, it actually supports exactly what it rewards. This is why Feng Shui is not about high-flying action (it penalizes stunts), Vampire is not about making a story (it rewards combat-heavy characters, and provides no concrete reward for increasing story), and Hackmaster is not about humor (it rewards only comprehensive knowledge of the rules, not comedy.)
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games



I think you've hit the nail on the head.  I use a similar breakdown to argue GNS with people when I know that GNS itself will push too many emotional buttons.  However, I'm not so sure that number three is the problem people have but rather number two or pehaps a blury combination of two and three.

You see, I find that a lot of people who are anti-GNS consider number two to be the direct responsibility of the GM, not the system.  They see the system as 100% optional and it's up to the GM to pick and choose the elements of the system and when to apply them in order to best provide number two at any given moment.  I of course, disagree but then that is why we have debate.


Clinton R. Nixon


I think you've hit the nail on the head in return. The argument is really split between two camps: the "system matters" camp, and the "system doesn't matter" camp (which I can't see as anything but bizarre, but - hey, that's why I'm vehemently all about system.)

Once you realize system matters, the rest of the argument gets pedantic, and usually turns into some kid screaming "Don't box me in!" instead of actually thinking.

I propose, though, that argument and offense will be lessened in the future by making as a first argument that system matters. More people will be agreeable to this statement than three broad categories.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


Actually, Clinton, I think point #2 is not even necessary. What it says is already covered by taking points #3 and #4 together. To paraphrase:

[*]A system supports what it rewards,
[*]and players have more fun when what the system supports falls in line with what they want out of the game (motivation).

These two points encourage analyzing what a system supports without getting into the rhetoric of "conflicting goals." I think the idea that a system can actively work against you bothers people, or strikes them as silly. A set of rules is a static thing. It doesn't reach up and knock the dice out of your hand. It may obstruct or inconvenience you, like a large rock lying in your path. Some people stop and think about how to get that rock out of their way. Some people walk around it. It's a bit more trouble, but they don't mind. They've been walking around it for years, so much that there's now a path there as smooth and well-worn as the original, and to say that the rock is "in conflict" with them will just get you a lot of incredulous looks.
Michael Gentry

Mike Holmes

Excellent point, Mike. Ron refers to it as "Swimming up stream". This analogy may seem too harsh to some, and to light for others. It should suffice to say that some systems make play more difficult to some degree for some types of players. Interestingly, this may help to understand Seckler. It may just be another challenge to covercome for him to play D&D in a Narrativist style. Yes it's more difficult to some extent than using a Narrativist system (he admits that), but perhaps he looks forward to (or he at least doesn't mind) overcoming those particular difficulties.

Member of Indie Netgaming
-Get your indie game fix online.

Tim C Koppang

Quote from: Clinton R NixonI think you've hit the nail on the head in return. The argument is really split between two camps: the "system matters" camp, and the "system doesn't matter" camp (which I can't see as anything but bizarre, but - hey, that's why I'm vehemently all about system.)
This may be a bit off topic but...

I find it interesting that Ron dismisses his original article, "System Does Matter" (SDM) as little more than historical.  I understand that the GNS ideas in the article are outdated and even misleading in places.  I understand that if a person only wants to understand GNS he should skip SDM and go right to the big boy theory article.  However, what SDM establishes quite cleary is exactly what its title claims.  That's where the value of the article lies: without any extensive theory to get in the way, it comes right out at tells you that a system can get in the way or encourage a particular style of role-playing.

I know somewhere there's a thread where Ron writes about what articles should be included as a sort of core basis for GNS and maybe the Forge in general.  If you ask me, someone needs to write up something that does what SDM accomplishes, but minus the concrete theory.

Zak Arntson

Clinton, you're awesome. As it turns out, I've got a half-finished "Zak's how to design RPGs" document on my machine. It talks a lot about GNS, but also stresses tying System into your design doals. I think System and Premise should be initimately tied. In fact, I use one rule: Elements support Premise, especially System (which looks an awful lot like your Axiom 3).

I would also say that Axiom 3 is the most important thing in Design. You're spot on about Systems supporting only what they Reward. Sour experiences have been had with Rifts (System allows wimpy PC creation, while Premise revolves around being the bad-assest) and Vampire (System rewards ass-kicking, Premise is all about the torment and anguish of gothic punk self-loathing). I attribute both to System/Premise conflict.

Julian Kelsey

I propose a new game: Axioms and Aphorisms.

Getting away from precisely what axioms are worth finishing up with, and on to the high value of good summaries.

Distillations of debates and discussions from all parts of The Forge would be exceedingly valuable, very heady brews indeed. But who gets to say what should be promoted to some special place above regular posts? And who has the skill, or time, or breadth of new ideas to write a peer for the big essay?

The Forge is a  rare web sites, loaded with valuable user contributed content. Many new posters join in saying, "I read the big GNS essay, and some of the recent posts, sorry if I'm revisiting old issues..." Pretty much everyone suspects there's good stuff in here that they've missed.

I suggest a quotes index system.

I recognise that this might be a significant effort for the programmers behind The Forge, and also that further discussion might belong in the Site Discussions forum but anyway here goes.

Automated parts of such a system might be a voting system, a check on each post that lets readers vote, was this a good post?  (One vote, per registered user, per post) At the end of each week, or after a certain mass of votes are gathered, the 10 most voted for items are added to a page for that period.

Manual parts of such a system might include someone (the author of the post, the initiator of the thread, the forum moderator, or an administrator) associating a summary line or highlight paragraph with each selected post. So each indexed item would have something like: A link to the post, the thread title, and a summary or feature paragraph.

Why a summary or quote? Because it makes the index a valuable read in itself, and the quote may be all that really stands above the regular quality of posts.

An additional possibility would be to catagorise items, designated administrators might manage lists like: The 10 Best Summaries of Stances; The best of poster X; The best of each forum; You Heard It Hear First, (Blood Good Ideas); or Favourite posts selected by X.

Why bother? It lets us keep posts like the one that started this thread in high profile (I thought it was good). It might encourage an even higher quality of discussion. Some people are authors, others librarians, it may give some people other ways of adding value to the forum.

I guess further discussion on this should go to the Site Discussion Forum.

Julian Kelsey.


This is why Feng Shui is not about high-flying action (it penalizes stunts)

I realise that this is a tangent to your main point, but that's technically incorrect. Feng Shui does penalise "stunts" in the sense of attempting something mechanically better than normal, but explicitly gives bonuses for interestingly-described stunts.  It's not really a good example.

Clinton R. Nixon


I'm going to look at my Feng Shui book when I get home. The following is only my recollection:

- If I want to perform more than one thing at a time, or do a stunt that lets me perform better than normal (shoot two mooks with my dual pistols, one in front of me and one behind; or swing off a pipe, crashing backwards through a window while unloading my Uzis across a room), I am explicitly penalized.

- If I want to describe my action in a stunt-filled, cool way that provides me no extra competence (instead of "I kick him" I say "I leap up the wall, coming down with a vicious axe kick to his shoulder") I get absolutely no penalty or bonus. (This is where I'm concerned I may be wrong. Anyone with the book handy may confirm or deny this.)

If I am right, then Feng Shui is really no better for cinematic action than, say, d20, BESM, Providence, or many other games that claim to be about cinematic action, but are not.

(On a side note, I understand you haven't posted here much, so I have no problem with your style. For the future, though, in any civilized discussion forum, oral or written, it is considered bad form to bring up an eight-day-dead discussion to quibble over a detail.)
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


Clinton, I think you've summed up my basic design theory in a more formal and clear manner than I have ever done.  I usually broke it down to: Does the game do what you intended to, and how does it facilitate(reward) it?



Looking at it myself, I see the only actual bonuses for description are in relation to the magic system. However, it seems to me that stunts in the sense of tactical manuvering are penalised, stunts in the sense of cinematic action are not.  Using Feng Shui as an example of a game which assigns penalties to actions which it is supposedly encourages is thus perhaps a little misleading.

Regarding ettiquette, I've never, ever encountered a message board where threads that were still on the "first page" weren't regarded as being open for comment. I hadn't seen anything that would indicate that the Forge was any different. I'll bear your point in mind, seeing as you run the place*, but there's no need to be patronising about it.

*[Edit: I don't mean that in a "if you didn't have the power to ban me I'd tell you to go and fuck yourself" way, I mean it in a "I recognise that it's up to you to define the rules as anything you want" way.]