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friendlier G/N/S definitions

Started by james_west, May 11, 2001, 01:37:00 AM

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I've been thinking about a less confrontational set of G/N/S definitions:
see what you think. Put this way, I think most people would call themselves
Gamist ... note that by this set of definitions, Feng Shui is primarily gamist.

Everyone in role-playing games is interested in telling stories. The difference in playing styles depends on the kind of stories they're interested in telling.

Gamist GM:
is interested in telling adventure stories, in which the characters must overcome physical obstacles, puzzles, and opponents to accomplish their goals. The story is akin to a summer blockbuster. (In fiction, this is Mac Bolan or Conan)

Narrativist GM:
is interested in telling stories in which the primary conflicts are on an internal or interpersonal level. There may be explicit physical conflict in it, but if so it arises as a result of complex motivations. The story is focused on exploration of character. (In fiction, this is Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner)

Simulationist GM:
is interested in telling stories in which the effects of a particular setting, event, or physical law is played out in as internally consistent a fashion as possible. The story is focused on exploration of a premise. (In fiction, this is most science fiction.)
These look rather different than existing definitions I think, but if you consider them carefully, I think you'll find they do a pretty good job of maintaining the core of the meaning while (a) getting rid of the notion that only narativists are telling proper stories (which I think is what most people find offensive), and (b) clearly avoiding mention of mechanic, stance, etc.

(Note that this contradicts my last post in another thread, in that these explicitly work only for RPGs)

                  - James

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-11 08:41 ]

[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-11 11:22 ]


The question is not whether the definitions are confrontational. The questions are whether the definitions are accurate, whether they serve their purpose, and whether they're expressed in terms that people can understand and apply. Your definitions are not accurate.

The primary purpose for the G/N/S 3-fold with respect to game design is primarily to determine a game's bias or priority in design.

A Gamist game is intended to challenge the players. Its rules are crafted give players assets they can use to overcome the challenges in the game world.

A Simulationist game is intended to simulate the conditions in the game world. Its rules are crafted to support the simulation.

A Narrativist game is intended to facilitate the telling of satisfying stories. Its rules are crafted to help the GM and players tell stories. It's worth noting that in the rgfa debate, there is a distinction between "dramatist" for the telling of intense, dramatic stories derived from character interaction and "storyist" for the telling of stories based on a plot or sequence of events.

The secondary purpose of G/N/S is to determine the players' bias or priority in playing the game. Note: I believe ascribing player motivations should be primarily left to the RGFA model as represented in John Kim's faq and the debates posted at, but I can't deny that people use G/N/S to classify player's preferences for play. I also agree that some players have preferences which make them more likely to prefer certain types of games. Therefore, I proceed at the risk of weakening my arguments in other areas. That said...

A Gamist player is primarily concerned with overcoming challenges, solving puzzles, increasing his character's capabilities, and winning the game.

A Simulationist player plays to experience conditions in the game world and to do things which he can't or wouldn't do in the real world.

A Narrativist player plays primarily to tell the best story he can involving his character.

Storyline or plot is a common thread in roleplaying games. To that end, any game may tell any sort of story, from action/adventure to science fiction to horror and complex tales of internal conflict. The limitations here are produced by the system in use (ergo the designer's intent) and the social contract between the GM and players who use those rules.

Furthermore, specific techniques used in play and specific mechanics individually may be applied to any sort of game. From a design perspective, a game gains its G/N/S bias from the sum of its mechanics. From a play perspective, a game gains its bias from the actions of the GM in applying those mechanics and from the actions of the players during play. The expectations and limitations on GM and player might be explicitly stated in a social contract before play begins, or may develop over time as play continues.

This means a Narrativist game may well have some Gamist and Simulationist mechanics, and these mechanics may be entirely appropriate for the game and function without compromising its design. It also means players may use a variety of play techniques to attain their goals, regardless of their G/N/S preference.

What's interesting is that play techniques have gained a sort of bias based on the debates at GO and discussions here in support of any style of play. For example, to read discussions here, you would think that any use of in-character stance or immersion roleplaying is automatically an example of Simulationist play. That may be true if the player is completely locked into that stance to the exclusion of all else, as exemplified by the Elaytijist credo; but ordinarily this is just one technique in the roleplayer's arsenal. The player's observed bias will be determined as much by what he tries to do and why he tries to do it as what he actually does or how he does it.

For reference, I believe the GM occupies an interesting middle-ground between designer and player. He is actually some of both, and is affected by issues relating to both. As referee and arbiter of rules, he must understand the game's intent and how to apply its rules. If he doesn't understand, or if he doesn't agree with those rules, he will change them to suit himself. If he has a social contract with his players, that contract may result in further changes or limitations. As Gm and "Keeper of the Campaign", he plays the roles of NPCs and everyone else in the game world. He may also have a bias which affects which games he prefers to run, and what changes he makes to systems he chooses to run for his players. For instance, a Gamist GM may actually compete with his players. It seems silly because he controls most of the environment and he can kill PCs at will, but I have no doubt a certain number of GMs take great pleasure in running a game where they, in all fairness and within the limitations of the rules, outsmart and defeat the players. Similarly, a Narrativist GM running a Simulationist game may well fudge die rolls and manipulate outcomes to produce a more satisfying story.





I haven't much time at the moment, but ...

To start with, let me say that the G/N/S system is interesting, and potentially quite useful. I like it. However, as currently defined, it has three main problems:

(1) It's muddy. Witness all the different threads in this and other fora in which people try to figure out how these categories apply to actual games. This muddiness isn't a sign that the people are perceiving the games differently (in most cases), it's a sign that the definitions aren't very usable in practice. If people can't figure out how to apply definitions, it means the definitions have problems, not the people.

(2) It's divisive. I haven't seen this myself, but apparently other people have. The categories as stated apparently routinely piss people off. This is most probably because everyone perceives themselves to be telling stories. So, in their opinion, where do you get off telling them that they're not ?

(3) The areas have too much overlap with eachother.  To wit, in the current system , how do you tell the difference between a narrativist system that concentrates on overcoming challenges (but doing it
by telling stories) and a gamist sytem in which the primary conflicts are interpersonal ? I think that the answer is, you can't, and I can't even tell whether the things I described are possible under the system you describe.

So, let me reiterate:
(A) I think the G/N/S concept is fundamentally sound.
(B) I think the definitions are clearly not usable in practice as stated, given that even a single person seems to interpret them differently on different days.
(C) I think that the definitions as stated have the effect of pissing people off. If you can avoid this without abandoning the concept, it would be a good thing.

In order to address these issues I proposed a redefinition which attempts to cover the same philosophical ground/allow the same sorts of distinctions to be made (in the language of my previous post, map the same space), but which avoids these issues.

The definitions I propose could clearly use some work. However, I challenge you to take them and try to apply them to games, and see if they aren't easier to use than the definitions you gave.

(Oh - I can see that I caused some confusion by adding the "Mac Bolan/Conan" type references. I wasn't meaning that the game style was genre-specific, I meant it as a comparison to literary style.)

                    - Thanks,


[ This Message was edited by: james_west on 2001-05-11 20:09 ]

Jared A. Sorensen

To paraphrase Francois Truffaut, the best way to critique a RPG is to write another one.

That said, I don't see GNS as being flawed -- I use it all the freakin' time when I design my games.  I don't think it is necessary to be able to categorize games with the threefold model.  If anything, it's main purpose seems to be not to answer questions but to *ask* them.  And in searching for an answer, one grows and learns.

- Jared
jared a. sorensen /

Gordon C. Landis

I'm going to zoom in on just one aspect of this.

Logan wrote:
>A Narrativist player plays primarily to tell
>the best story he can involving his character.

I think the realization I was exploring in my "Story Thoughts" post was that even in a pure board game, I would often be playing primarily to tell the best story I can involving my game pieces - but somehow, it was *important* (in the past, sometimes very important - as I've slowly begun to recognize bad tradeoffs in that model, it's becoming less important) that that story emerge "naturally" from the (NOT story creation-related) rules.

And I'm not sure that G/N/S really covers this, especially  G/N/S with the "you will be primarily only one of these things - or at least only one at any given time" focus.

So I guess I'm with James on the "muddy" issue - not that that invalidates G/N/S ('cause I find it very useful, in playing, running, and thinking about deisgning [yes, that's VERY distinct from "actually" designing] RPGs), but it does leave me wanting it to be "better".

I'd like G/N/S to be "Understanding RPGs", doing for RPGs what "Understanding Comics" does for comics (about which I know far too little to carry the analogy any further, really.  But . . . 4 color Superheroes=D&D, Sandman=Nobilis is awfully tempting.  Probably means someone else came up with this, and I'm just remembering it).

Gordon C. Landis (under construction)

Zak Arntson

And just as Understanding Comics is a comic book, we should put out an Understanding RPGs book as a series of RPGS contained in one volume ...

Gordon C. Landis

Jared wrote:
>If anything, it's main purpose seems to be not
>to answer questions but to *ask* them.   And in
>searching for an answer, one grows and learns.

Ah, very wise - or should that be wise-a$$? :smile:  In either case, I think that's an excellent point.  My mind has been drifting in this direction: "what *are* the important questions about RPGs?"  It seems like there ought to be dozens, but I can nevercome up with more than a few:

--What is it you enjoy about RPGs?
--How can you optimize a game design to be about that?
--How can the GM/Players influence a game session to most be about that?

Well, I'm wandering off-topic here - suffice it to say, if some one is clear about exactly what questions G/N/S is asking, I'd love to read 'em.  Oh, and answers aren't *always* a bad thing . .  . (under construction)



What I've found on most fora is that people have a very difficult time with the idea of context. G/N/S (or G/S/D, if you prefer the RGFA model) are guidelines. Within the guidelines, there is a great deal of latitude. This is what I've been trying to express with my recent posts.

If you're looking for me to pat you on the head and congratulate you on producing some vastly superior alternatives to the definitions that already exist, try again. It looks to me like you just mashed the same words around and bolted on your own incorrect assumptions. There are players who really are quite satisfied to develop their characters through violence, measuring accomplishment by the monsters they've slain with no real regard for story until after the dust settles.

You drew a nifty little diagram that shows how people's preferences can be charted, so I know you understand what I'm saying. Most people are not "pure" anything. Ron is an exception. He's a pitbull for the narrativist cause. The RGFA crowd would certainly consider him a hardcore Dramatist and I'd bet they'd be be very interested in his relationship mapping technique for setting up conflicts in an adventure. He's an exception.

Most game designs aren't usually all that pure either. Even Extreme Vengeance, a Narrativist poster child, has a rather suspicious-looking experience table for earning perks and advancing levels. Again, the 3-fold must be viewed as a guideline rather than absolute law. Failure to do that feeds the ugly side of the debate.

Most people should be able to understand the 3-fold. Any way you look at it, D&D is primarily a Gamist game, Call of Cthulhu is primarily a Simulationist game, and Theatrix is primarily a Narrativist game. There will always be people who have preferences that make them more likely to prefer one sort of game over another, just as there will always be people who like a variety of different styles.





     I'm not saying G/N/S is completely uninterpretable, and I agree that there exist paradigm games that clearly fit into each of the categories.

    What I'm saying is that the way the system is stated
makes it difficult to discuss and pisses people off. That this is true seems self-evident to me: look at the way most discussions of it go. Whether you think people should be able to understand it or not, it's clear that people don't.

    This does not make it useless; it makes it less useful than it could be if it were stated in a way that
was easily interpretable, rather than like an ink-blot psychology test.

                                            - James


I've seen and cited evidence that people dislike the terminology. The idea of being Gamist is not as warm or fuzzy as being "game-oriented." There are a certain number of people who resent categories and think any 3-fold is a bad 3-fold. They won't be convinced, and that's to be expected. Beyond that, I think the other big problem is the inevitable fact that John Kim and the RGFA contingent got here first with their G/S/D 3-fold. That model's express purpose is to analyze player behavior and preferences.

With that model in place, G/N/S is redundant with respect to player preference. People who are aware of the RGFA model resent that aspect of G/N/S. Of course, there is a whole lot to the Edwards model beyond G/N/S. It would be ideal to somehow reconcile the 2 models, make them parts of a greater whole with just one set of terms. Unfortunately, I doubt that will happen.

Even so, all this debate is really a tempest in a teapot. I mean, what you have are fuzzy theories embraced and debated by relatively few people. If the materials were compiled and distributed, more people might become interested, but it'd still be a very small number of people.

We agree on a lot more points than we disagree. I understand your desire to make the thing more user-friendly, but there is a point of balance. If you change your terms and definitions every week, no one will know what anyone's talking about. Even then, every little change must be debated and debated some more before people will accept it.



Ron Edwards


Thought I'd jump in. I have only a few brief comments.

1) Logan has represented G/N/S thinking as best as I, for one, understand it. I could not possibly improve on his explanation, with the caveat that "tell" a story means, in this instance, "create" rather than "relate what has been previously conceived." I know Logan knows that, but it can get missed sometimes.

You should know that the System essay is rather old - it's a primitive, first attempt at explaining what I thought was an interesting implication of the G/D/S material, its independence from Tweet's D/F/K. I would be perfectly happy if Logan's first post on this thread were to be the skeleton of a new essay, perhaps with a number of examples.

2) James, I do not agree that everyone who role-plays is out to contribute to making a story of good quality. In fact, I think that the converse is true - that such a priority is quite rare among role-playing culture. Plenty of people like to see a GM deliver a story, or to read stories in their rulebooks, or to feel as if they are participating (acting) in a story that they are receiving. I also think everyone who role-plays likes to see some of the COMPONENTS of story - characterization, e.g. - in their activity ("It's not just a rook, it's MY rook, named Bert.").

However, Narrativism is the active commitment to producing story, when "story" is fully defined - protagonists facing conflict under circumstances that carry emotional weight to the audience, with the outcome contributing to that emotional reaction we call "theme."

Please note that when I say "full," I am not suggesting that story-creation is the fullest expression of role-playing. You have, I think, fallen into the trap of seeing judgment in my System essay - yes, I like Narrativist play (or more accurately, am bewildered by the othe priorities, in practice), but it is only ONE thing to do with the basic concept of role-playing.

3) I also think you place too much emphasis on the confusions and misconceptions of others, say, on or GO. Much of this is merely the prancing, pouting verbiage that often passes for discourse on the Internet - based on the sophomoric notions that all opinions are valid, that saying something validates it, and so on. If a person cannot actually read and comprehend the essays/fora on the topic, which is demonstrably the case for many of the G/N/S critics, then I have no obligation to meet their points (or lack thereof).

There are no judgments in my essay. When I say "dungeon crawl," my lip does not curl; when I say "rules-heavy," my nose does not go up in the air. These are descriptive, demonstrably real phenomena. "Seeing" such judgments about them in my writings is a classic case of projection. Reacting to such misperception with insult, resentment, and many adjectives elicits only one possible response from me - the same response given by any adult to adolescent yelping.

There are many who do not fit this mold, of course. I've had some powerful discussions with people who DO read and think well, who have not been satisfied - those discussions continue. (My favorite dance-partners are the Scarlet Jester and M.J. Young, both of whom have enriched my thinking considerably.) I have learned, too, that in many cases, my best bet is to wait ... there are people on this thread, now, who were bitterly opposed to the ideas involved initially.

4) I see no evidence, WHATSOEVER, that this body of developing theory is divisive among role-players. Furthermore, I find the entire notion absurd - how are role-players "unified" at present, anyway? Against whom? (These are rhetorical questions.)

5) I also find your claim that people get different results from applying the theories (in classifying systems, for instance) to be odd. In many cases, people are trying out the ideas, seeing if they are coming up with conclusions that work for others. Discussion, and perhaps debate, then results in a shared conclusion. I think the discussion of Feng Shui is an excellent example - I see, in that thread, a very coherent understanding of Feng Shui as a Simulationist game using a form of narrative (Hong Kong action movies) as a context, but not creating such narrative as a goal. Yes, it's tricky - but no, it's no flaw of G/N/S that it took us some discussion to work it out.

A good example, also, is that no one has disputed the notion that Vampire uses a highly Simulationist system, with echoes of Gamism, and that its design tends to override any Narrativist tendencies of play. A number of people (like me) then say, "Hey! No wonder this game puzzled and frustrated me during play. No wonder it seems that the people who like it so much have little in common with my goals in role-playing. I get it now."

I think you're mistaking discussion about the more problematic games (due either to mixture of goals, like Champions, or to an unusual application of one of them, like Feng Shui) for confusion about application in general. I don't see that confusion among us at all.

I suggest a "classification" thread, so that perhaps we can talk about which games have what elements - of course, that would entail clarifying Stance, Currency, D/F/K, and reward-punishment systems in a lot of detail too. I'm all for it. I'd like to cull the thousands of words I and others have contributed on these matters, which are now buried in back-threads on GO, into decent foundation essays.



On 2001-05-11 22:15, james_west wrote:
What I'm saying is that the way the system is stated
makes it difficult to discuss and pisses people off. That this is true seems self-evident to me: look at the way most discussions of it go. Whether you think people should be able to understand it or not, it's clear that people don't.

I don't agree with that...rather, I can't agree with that.
Humans are notorious for getting themselves worked into knots over perceived meanings and statements, twisting things around due to knee-jerk perceptions without real study.  This is even more true of people on-line.

That is, people in general want to hear what they think they hear, and don't take kindly to hearing anything else.

By the logic you used above ("people argue about it, thus it must be poorly phrased"), everything ever said anywhere is poorly phrased, from evolution to religion to quantum physics to who knows what else.

This seems to me like saying that since not everyone understands why the sky is blue, the way physics describes it is "broken" or because certain quacks or misled individuals use quantum theories to support their own notions, those theories are poorly stated.

That's, of course, ridiculous, since the people who actually know those theories have no trouble discussing them or understanding what they mean (and of course there are often disagreements even between professionals).

I'm not saying all this as an attempt to flame you or put you down, just point out the logical error in the statement, so please don't take it as anything except that.

Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


I've only got a moment - but

The way I parse the majority of the replies is,

"People who don't understand the system are stupid and obnoxious anyway, and thus we don't care whether they understand it or not."

(Three different posts above largely condense to this.)

Let me paraphrase your terminology, but talking about a different area, to see if you can see why your definitions might be offensive to even reasonable people.

"There are three types of people: there are Democrats, there are Greens, and then there are honest, god-fearing people who work hard and love their children."

(I'm not trying to start a political argument; this is
an analogy.)

"There are three types of gamers: there are gamists, there are simulationists, and then there are thoughtful people who tell richly themed stories with well-developed characters and meaningful player contributions."

So you see, I'm beginning to think y'all's claims that you don't see why people are offended must be disingenuous.

To use the last poster's analogy: if a majority of physicists can't make a theory work, the theory is substantially modified or abandoned (note cold fusion.) We're not talking about laymen here; we're talking about other gamers.

I'll reply at greater length later (probably tomorrow). Further, note that this is only one of several issues, and probably the least important of them.

                        - James

joshua neff


i think it's a shame that's the message yr getting, because i don't see that as what anyone's trying to say...

everybody here who has discussed the g/n/s model has said over & over again that there's no hierarchy implied--while ron may be a hardcore narrativist (& i think of myself as one), that doesn't mean anyone here thinks narrativist is "better" than gamism or simulationism (except as personal preferences), i'm not sure where yr getting the notion that anyone is saying this...& there's certainly no implied sneering towards gamism or simulationism...

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes



The model explicitly states that
narrativists are telling stories, and
no-one else is.

This offends people, plain and simple.
Everyone thinks of themselves as telling
valid stories.

Saying that you don't mean to be offensive
with this is about like saying, "I'm truly sorry
that you're an idiot."

I understand the model. I even agree with it
for the most part, although I think of it as a jumping
off point rather than a destination. I personally
sometimes run pretty much straight gamist stories,
but with the right set of players and with enough
time will run narrativist stories (more or less, on
both; simulationist elements are certainly included.), and so I see the difference and think they're both good for different things under different circumstances.

HOWEVER, I also can clearly see why people are offended, and I think it's a bad idea to offend people when a few changes in terminology can preserve the core ideas and remove the part that annoys people.

You may want to call a Spade a Spade, but nowadays they prefer to be called African American, and if you want to avoid giving offense, you will too.

                           - James