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GNS and Practicality

Started by Ayyavazi, March 22, 2009, 12:52:33 PM

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Greetings all,

I am hoping this is the right place to post this, since I think it would normally be reserved for the Theory board.

Basically, after having read all of Ron's articles, the various glossaries and definitions, and just about every other written thing I can find on game design related to the forge, I find myself with a couple of questions.

1. What happened to the guy from Scattershot games? Was he kicked out? Did he leave voluntarily due to his disagreement with Ron about the GNS? Where can I find more about his particular views? (I like to understand all sides of a story) Does he still post here?

2. I understand the value of theory, and in particular the value of the GNS to game-design. The idea of tailoring System to the group of people most able to enjoy its aim is a great strategy, both for design and marketing. But just how many hard-core people are there? What I mean is this: In any given group of people separated into any number of defined groups, there will always be more moderate folks than definitive ones. That is, how many people are actually Full-on Gamist/Simulationist/Narrativist without possessing any of the other two? Maybe more than I know. Personally, I possess a general liking for all three, and play whichever way the game dictates best. Am I the minority?

3. What about tinkering? Personally, I love game design, and that means I like picking apart games to see what makes them tick and then modifying them to make them work better. Would I enjoy a highly specialized game that I didn't need to change to make work? Sure! But I also like systems that can facilitate multiple styles of play with a little tweaking. As such, expecting all games to be specialized removes from the possible design spectrum those games that appeal to people like me, who like to play a single game many different ways depending on my group and my mood. In this sense, the GNS hinders good game design, at least for people like me who want a customizable game.

4. Am I going to be black-listed for these comments?

Thank you for your time.


1. You can find writings by Fang Langford here (livejournal), and here (his new webspace).

[2. and 3., I'll leave to others.]

4. It's extremely unlikely you'll be blacklisted :) You seem to be asking this questions with a genuine spirit of inquiry.

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Eero Tuovinen

My own experience with number 2 is that normal, balanced people are not usually Gamist, Narrativist or other -ist  when it comes to Creative Agenda. People have a great, big need to label themselves and most of the time it's the first thing they do when coming here, but that's really secondary to a healthy hobby environment, I find. It's like deciding you'll never play any sports but tennis - not bad or wrong per se, but perhaps a bit overly specialized for anybody who's not Andre Agassi. It's much more common among the well-adjusted people I've played with that they can take a given game on its own terms as long as those terms are there and explained concisely. Of course some insist on calling themselves "Gamist" because they've only played Gamist games in the past, or because those are what they like best; some are even right about it. But overall the amount of attention people give to labeling persons with the Creative Agenda brush is ridiculous.

The important point there, though, is that the ability of people to enjoy different Creative Agendas does not translate into your premise - the lack of "hard-core" agenda followers does not mean that making focused games is a bad idea, any more than my willingness to play both tennis and football means that we should try to do both at the same time. Specifically, it's important to realize that even if I "possess all three modes" as you put it, that doesn't do anything to the fact that functional play needs focus to achieve anything. During the last year I played simulationistic games (Call of Cthulhu, Dead of Night), gamist games (D&D, T&T), narrativist games (Zombie Cinema, Solar System), incoherent games (Primitive) and all sorts of games in general, but the actual play in each case, moment to moment, happened to fulfill a certain, definite agenda. Just like when we go do some sports it's pretty clear whether we're playing tennis or football.

As for number 3, tinkering: I'm a big fan of personalizing certain sorts of games as well. One of the main themes of my blog is cataloging my D&D journey in this regard. I can't say that tinkering with a game in and itself is such a great turn-on for me, it's more that I want to understand the game I'm using and make sure it works exactly to my specifications. I've certainly seen how much people can appreciate the ability to play the "same game" on all occasions; I know GURPS players, for example, for whom the point of GURPS is that they can "play anything" with it and not need to learn new rules for new games. All par for the course when it comes to different human preferences.

I wouldn't say that GNS theory is a "problem" for this sort of preference, though. The theory does not demand that you create game texts that serve only one agenda. You might as well create a game text that instructs people in choosing their agenda, or you might not create a game text at all. GNS is not an artistic program, despite some people's insistence on reading it like that. Perhaps GNS strongly hints that if you're not going to create a coherent game system, then you'd better give your players a change at establishing one for themselves, but even that is only if you want coherent play to emerge.

One thing to consider here is also whether you really want a game without creative agenda, or whether you just want a game that is highly customizable. These are two different things. I can't know your heart, but I'd be interested to learn: if you'd like to write a bit about your roleplaying experiences and what you find interesting in them, then perhaps we could establish some baseline understanding to discuss GNS in a deeper way. One smart thing Vincent Baker has been saying lately is that GNS might be difficult for people to grasp for the simple reason that most people have only ever played games that fall into one or at most two of the agenda modes. So what I'd be interested in seeing would be some material on the sort of games you've played, so as to find out where your preferences lie.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Hi, I'm Vincent, I'm the technical admin here. Ron Edwards is the content moderator. I can kind of answer your questions.

1. Fang's doing his thing elsewhere, as Hix links. The Forge has users, not members; people post here, or don't, for their own various reasons, as they see fit. Ron doesn't, and I don't, ask or expect them to justify themselves either way. Certainly nobody kicked Fang out.

2. Questions about how a game reaches an appropriate, receptive audience can go in the publishing forum. So can questions about how big a hardcore audience is vs a non-hardcore one. Questions about how to get a group onto the same page with regard to a given game can go in the actual play forum, if you talk a bit about your experiences, or in the first thoughts or playtesting forums if you're designing or playtesting the game in question.

3. Like Eero says, please feel free to open this topic in the actual play forum. Tell about a game you've played different ways for different moods, for instance.

4. Neither Ron nor I ever blacklist anyone, under any circumstances.




Quote from: Ayyavazi on March 22, 2009, 12:52:33 PM1. What happened to the guy from Scattershot games? Was he kicked out? Did he leave voluntarily due to his disagreement with Ron about the GNS? Where can I find more about his particular views? (I like to understand all sides of a story) Does he still post here?

Fang left the Forge of his own accord, claiming he was more interested in comic book publishing than RPGs, then claiming some time later elsewhere it had been due to (IIRC) mental health issues arising, and then something else after that. When I pointed this out and asked him which it was he clammed up and never answered, so who knows what his actual reasons were. From what I recall, and conversations had later--despite their differences of opinion--Ron was very much interested in seeing Scattershot's extensive development finished. Steve has already pointed you to the right places for Fang's continuing work.

Certainly, no one's ever been "kicked out", "blacklisted", "banned" or whatever over an argument with Ron, or for any reason--whatever you might have heard elsewhere (we don't eat babies, either! *gasp!*)--so certainly not on the details or logic of the GNS theory, though those discussions can become heated. Mike Holmes and Ralph Mazza, for example, have vocally and insistently disagreed with Ron numerous times over the years about the theory, and for many years were some of the most active and respected posters.

QuoteAs such, expecting all games to be specialized removes from the possible design spectrum those games that appeal to people like me, who like to play a single game many different ways depending on my group and my mood. In this sense, the GNS hinders good game design, at least for people like me who want a customizable game.

Eero answers much of #2 and #3 above, but I wanted to comment on the "making games that play differently depending on the players' style-mood". There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, either. Where I think it falls apart is that most groups don't consciously recognize that this is happening, and so you get one guy playing one way and another playing another, and they can't figure out what's wrong with the game because they both think they're playing the same game, never realizing they're actually playing different games with different goals and different points of contact with the shared material.

That is, imagine someone developing an on-line game where it can be a first-person shooter or a mystery-investigation or a flight-simulator or a role-playing game or a real-time strategy game. What happens when people get together to play the game? No one is playing the same game: each of them is probably focused on or interested in a different aspect of the game. Unless everyone at the table sits down knowing the game can express different styles and pick one, a mess can develop (you can see this behind many of the old how-to-play articles in RP magazines or on websites describing how to get players to work together or bring a group of characters together).

You get one guy who plays a super-marine combat machine, and another who plays a saavy CEO who likes ordering people around and getting his hands dirty in big-scale politics, and another who is out searching for lost treasures in a trap-laden necropolis. When the rules allow all of this, all of the players have a different vision of what sorts of situations the game will entail, how it will develop, and what it will let them do.

As an example, I had a player who created a self-righteous paladin who was the member of a royal-related family. He thought the game would be more about the familial relationships and politics, and how his religion played into that. But the character he developed just didn't "work" in the dungeon-crawl environment we ended up playing in. It wasn't a fun character for him, even though all the rules allowed for those sorts of things to happen and it was a perfectly legal and workable some other situation.

What often happens, after everyone flails around a bit trying to figure their game out, is that a group subconsciously tweaks the game towards one style or another, but doesn't recognize that they're playing a game that might be very, very different from the game being played down the street, because they are depreciating or tossing whole different sections of the rules than that other group (Vampire games where combat is chucked and everyone focuses on politicking or D&D games where XP and magical treasure is done away with in service to setting exploration, or vice versa).

In such a case, understanding the Big Model (or just GNS) doesn't hinder design at all because if you know this going in, you can point out the incoherency in your design, making the design stronger (or at rather making play decisions and group communication about play more conscious) even if the game itself doesn't subscribe to one particular style above all others.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Hello again,

Thanks a bunch for all of your responses. It really did help me understand the various ways in which the GNS can be rightfully applied, and misunderstood. And thanks Lumpley for clearing up where different posts should go. I'll keep it all in mind. I don't have the time to start the threads now, but keep an eye out for them if you want, because they'll start eventually.

As for game design that is flexible, I have a bit of a question on that. What I want to design is a game that has plug-and-play rules, where everything is interchangeable and any play style can be focused on merely by choosing to use the right rule-set. I would also hope such a design would ultimately allow hybridized play. However, the GNS seems to be pretty high-minded even if it is intuitive once its understood. How does one explain which rules apply in which way without being overly verbose and losing the audience in boredom from "all that boring theory" Note, I am aware not all people are bored by theory. I am not, and many here aren't either. But I still think we are a subculture of gamers, not THE culture.

Thanks again.

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

Welcome, and I appreciate the various questions. I've had to take a back seat in all of this because of a big time-crunch away from the screen. Thanks to everyone who's responded.

Your final question is a good one, but I think it will be a lot easier to discuss after you take some of the ideas for a test-drive using your actual play experiences in the forum of that name. I've been doing this for a while and seen that work so much better than diving right in with that particular ambition.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

Agreed with Ron about the best course of action. One other direction of investigation you might consider is to read games that have been written by big GNS fans. They have the same problem that you're pondering, after all - how to explain the creative agenda this game strives to support in a manner that is intelligible to people without theoretical background? I think you'll find that different folks have different ideas about how to approach this, some of which have been more successful than others.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Thanks again everyone for your responses.

I am running into  snag on the play experiences front. I've just moved to a new area about two weeks ago, and don't know anyone around. My work schedule is hopelessly erratic, and I am so far unable to put together a gaming group. So, even if I did have rules ready to test, I have no group and no time to do so, at the moment. So, if I can't or don't have any play experiences, how do I discuss these topics?



Eero Tuovinen

Draw on your history of play. It's really not that difficult, even generalities go a long way. Looking at your concerns, you probably should especially write about how you've applied rules in the past games you've played, how those rules have been negotiated and interpreted and so on. Also, your own reactions - what were some particularly memorable and successful or failing experiences in using rules to drive play? I imagine we won't make much headway into your idea of plug-and-play rules before we chart what you understand by "rules" and how you're used to applying them in play. So whatever it is that you've played in the past, that's what I'd like to hear about.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

Perhaps it isn't clear what we're saying with "actual play." It's not about your game in design or a vision for such a game. It's about anything you've ever played, or rather, any role-playing experience at all. Ever in your life. Any game system you actually played. Hop onto the Actual Play forum and write about it a little. Say what you think worked or didn't work, and why. Pick any one or two terms from the essays here and see whether you think they apply, or write about how you think they don't.

To repeat: any role-playing experience. Ever. As long as it really happened.

Best, Ron


Thanks Eero and Ron,

I can certainly post my play experience. It hasn't been with many systems (something I'm not very happy about) and my successful forays into rules-modification were cut short due to my move. I'll go ahead and try to think up some things to put there. What I need to know is, should I just post my game experience and reaction to it, at which point we can start getting into the nuts and bolts, or should I post a particular play experience and what I liked or disliked? Maybe both. Whats the best way to start?

Thanks again,

Eero Tuovinen

I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, there are many ways of starting a discussion in Actual Play. Just write what comes naturally and let the discussion open up from there. I've read some very interesting threads where people have discussed their lives as gamers from a total viewpoint; the majority of threads, however, focus on some definite game session or campaign. If you have some theoretical point you want to focus on, then perhaps choose several relevant moments that overlap on this one matter.

Read the forums a bit and get a sense for what others have tried. Some things work while others do so less well.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

M. J. Young

I'm coming in a bit late to this, but I wanted to make a couple points I thought would clarify.  Some of this is stated better in Theory 101:  Creative Agenda, at Places to Go, People to Be, which I think might help.

The sort version, in my understanding, is that a creative agendum is what makes something fun for you, and what you have to do to get that kind of fun.

My game is Multiverser, and I've observed over the years that because the game separates players from each other it allows a creative agendum to develop individually for each of them.  I've had players caught up in religious revivals, or building up powerful characters, or engaging in battles, or pulling strings behind the scenes, or exploring fantastic realms--and the creative agendum of the game shifts according to their interests.  But it is a feature of Multiverser that the players are independent of each other:  they do not have to agree concerning what the "group" is going to do, so the individual play of each is molded by his own interests.

As someone here has mentioned, that's the problem with incoherent games:  since they do not define the path to "fun" the players will attempt to define it themselves.  If the players are all in agreement concerning what makes a game "fun", then the incoherent rules do not pose much of a problem, because they can all use those rules toward the same objective.  If the players have different ideas about what would be fun to do in this game, they will start playing tug-of-war to get there.

I ran an OAD&D game decades ago in which roughly twenty players had just finished a major dungeon crawl and their characters were kicking back and relaxing in borrowed quarters at a local fort.  One of them decided it would be fun to play a stupid practical joke on another, and before the session was over about half of the players had their characters involved in this practical joke war--and the other half were getting impatient and annoyed, partly they thought that these were antics in which their characters would not be involved (and so they were excluded from play), but because the did not think this was at all fun.  It led to a huge in-character fight that very nearly split the party, and that on the eve of an unanticipated assault on the fort by monsters.  On one level, that worked, because it created a very interesting story; on another level, I almost lost some players because this question of "what would be fun" was a point of disagreement between them, and they were fighting for control of that.

That's the problem with creative agenda discord:  the players are struggling to control the game, so they can do what they think is fun.  The referee might in this case be one of the competing players, trying to guide the game into what he thinks will make for a fun experience, and they are pressing against the goads.

So if you're going to design a game that has that kind of flexibility to it, it is less about plug-in rules and much more about how to manage the social interactions of the player group to get everyone on the same page.  Maybe you can do that with the right plug-in rules (Hackmaster does a marvelous job of making all of its participants play like stereotypical old-school gamers), but probably it's more about perceiving and understanding what hooks players into one kind of fun or another.

I hope this helps.

--M. J. Young