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Player Behaviour Dangers

Started by Ian O'Rourke, May 12, 2001, 08:56:00 AM

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Ian O'Rourke

I tend to agree with Ron (and whoever else), as I think GNS can be used to classify player behaviour, most people fall into one category in the main. I do think using the system to classify player behaviour has a problem: the definitions of GNS are not the same for player classification and game classification?

Can we have one definition, say for simulationism, for classifying player behaviour and game systems?

Ian O'Rourke
The e-zine of SciFi media and Fandom Culture.


In my opinion, the definition for player behavior won't precisely match the definition for game design because the goals are different. This is most obvious with the Simulationist definition. I don't think this is a problem. In fact, if we're really interested in covering the full spectrum of concerns and pointing out the variations, It'd be appropriate to look at adding a layer for evaluating GM outlook, behavior, and goals.



Ron Edwards

Hey there,

I agree with Logan that we're best off remembering, always, that G/N/S applies to systems, and G/N/S applies to role-playing behaviors (and hence to players) ... but not at the same time.

In fact, the art of RPG design is, to my thinking, partly a matter of trying to get some congruence going there, per game. Since the game is a bunch of pages of text, and the people are, well, people, and the role-playing itself is some kind of interaction between these two ... G/N/S thinking HAS to be considering both. But again, they are different tasks, and what "makes" a Gamist game doesn't magically transform the players into Gamists, for instance.


Zak Arntson

I agree that the G/N/S should be thought of at both player and game level.  When a game is designed, there should be GOAL for the result of play.  So the rules should reflect this.  This will have the effect of encouraging that sort of style in the players.

But yeah, just because a game is Gamist, doesn't mean it will be played that way.  D&D is a very Gamist ruleset, but when I played Planescape, I always seemed to lean towards Simulationist (Create a unique character and see how the established PS setting reacts around it) play.

I like the concept of the game being between the paper and the players.  There is this idea that the players read text, interpret it, and somehow play a game based on that text.  As the author, you'll never have full control on how it's played.  But you hope that your text causes your goal (as author) to be carried out without you present.

One way to measure the success of an RPG would be how well it facilitates the GOAL of the author.

Of course, measuring different successes of RPGs (monetary, author's goals, player contention, etc) is a whole other can of worms.


Ummm...I'm probably in over my head here, but...

Discussions of Authorial Intent were always a favorite of mine when dealing with literary criticism, and for that reason I have a particular interest in this discussion.  In dealing with literature, I have always placed a great deal of emphasis on the Author, believing that every Author sets out to illustrate a point or theme, and that as readers, it was our job to "discover" what the author meant.  Not that I would dismiss other interpretations as being irrelevant, just that I considered the Author's "message" to be the most valid and credible interpretation.

Of course, that's a fairly lazy stance to take, but as a would-be Author myself, I always wanted to believe that my Intent would be regarded as Gospel by anyone who happened to read it.

I carried that bias over with me into the roleplaying world.  When playing a game, I would often (and unknowingly) fall prey to this, sometimes telling my players outright that they could not do something because "that's not how the game is meant to be played."  As I've matured, I've started to find myself loosening up on this particular stance, but that's a whole different post.

The point being, in literature, a good many critics believe that it is possible for an author to write a piece of fiction that is either devoid of Authorial Intent, or so clouded in its Intent that readers are forced to make up their own minds about what it means (and, perhaps, learn something about themselves in the process).

If such a thing is possible, which I'm not convinced that it is, then shouldn't it also be possible to design a roleplaying game that is either not slanted at all towards any one page of the three-fold model, or possesses all three in such quantity as to make it impossible to classify?  And if that were the case, then wouldn't it be a great indicator of a player's personal bias as either Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist?

Again, I'm not sure that such a thing would be possible.  You would have to find a way to either eliminate the GM, or keep him from projecting his bias to the other players (unless you were just interested in classifying the GM's behavior).  It's an interesting thought, though.  

Ron Edwards

Hi Scott,

Excellent post. I only hope my response isn't totally scattered, because there's a lot in there.

In many ways, your suggestion results in the E-thing (the subset of Simulationism that I really need to learn how to spell). In other words, I don't think the notion transcends G/N/S so much as places itself solidly in one specific sector of it.

Your points about Intent bear a lot of considering, especially in light of the recent insights you describe. My take on this matter is as follows.

1) Intent is not the same as text or the text's meaning. When we talk about G/N/S goals of a GAME, we're talking about what mechanically actually exists in its pages, its instructions, and how it plays out in practice. It seems to me that the author's verbalized intent is another variable entirely and not a reliable one at that. (Ron's rule: never accept as definitive an artist's description of his work's meaning, however sincere.)

This is not to say, however, that theme is totally relative and irrelevant - this claim is where Deconstructionism goes straight off the rails. Themes ARE there because authors and audience are human beings, and we care about the same stuff, and stories are communications/exposes of that stuff. I do think they are a product of author/audience interface rather than being "hidden" in the text.

2) More importantly for our purposes, although the game-designer is certainly the author of the text, he or she CANNOT be the author of the role-playing experience. The game-designer made the guitar, but does not play the music. A great deal of the text of Sorcerer is frightening to readers, because I am so up-front about this - "No, I will not provide X Y and Z, because that is playing music, which is what YOU bought this game to do. If you can't or won't play music, why did you buy this guitar?"

3) I think themes in role-playing game design are best considered proto-themes, or Premises - that is, the issues and related passions that WILL, given honest and enthusiastic play, RESULT in theme. However, each group will of course have its own take, as coauthor with the game designer and most especially among its members, on that Premise and thus produce its own theme.

I also think this entire topic lies deeply embedded in Narrativism, as the other goals really don't have to worry about this issue at all (they have other priorities and design considerations entirely). That's why your suggestion about theme/intent, which basically removes it from priority-status, hops the game-design in question into Simulationism. (This is no bad thing, either, if that's what floats one's boat.)


P.S. Just to clarify, I use theme in its technical sense of "actual declarative sentence containing judgment, recommendation, and moral weight," not in its casual sense of motifs and topics, as most RPGs do. In other words, the theme of The Godfather is not "The mafia," or even "family," but "The price of family loyalty is too high."



I really must buy Sorceror.  And Elfs. :smile:

That said, I prefer your definition of theme over the one typically espoused in RPGs (particularly in the WoD books).  For a hobby that claims to be about storytelling, you would think that a fundamental concept like that would be better represented.  Apparently, however, things like moral heft and meaning are foreign concepts to most of the mainstream game publishers.  As if the proof isn't already in the pudding, we can look to the shelves of any Waldenbooks, lined with hundreds of TSR and WW novels, and realize that not a single one of them is worthy of even a shred of basic literary respect.

Some may not agree with my stance that RPGs should be on the same plane as literature.  It's just a game, afterall, right?  It's just for fun, right?  Well yeah, it is for fun, but why not strive for the best?  Afterall, comic books are just comic books, but Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing and his Watchmen series managed to be both fun *and* great.  

The topic of Authorial Intent and GM co-authorship is interesting.  In a way, this is like the ultimate form of interpretive, critical thinking.  With books, the author writes it and the reader reads it, and then meaning is derived.  But the reader's immersion is minimal, totally dependent upon the strength of the writer.  With games, you go deeper than being a mere reader.  You *play* the game, and through *playing* you derive meaning.  That's much cooler than just passively reading something and then commenting on it.

So does that make the GM and players Co-authors? I would say that they are, to a degree, but in the same way that readers are co-authors of a novel when they interpret meaning from a text and then proclaim "this is what I got out of it."  When I design a game I'm not so much designing a game as I am expounding upon an idea that I like, and then providing tools for the players to interpret that idea.  They are my critics.

What's that got to do with G/N/S?  I have no idea.

Ron Edwards


Here's what it has to do with G/N/S. Uniquely among the goals of role-playing, the Narrativist GM and players are TOGETHER considered co-authors with the game designers. The designer may be considered the designer of an instrument, and ALL the play-group may be considered the band.

And no, not all band members do exactly the same thing. I personally think the GM is the bass player.

I'd be very interested if you were to take your self-description (in which you are the band, and the players are mainly audience/critics, who perhaps are permitted to hit the triangle on occasion), and compare it with your comments on playing InSpectres: Nightwatch.

What *I* see there, anyway, is that you suddenly found that with a certain instrument, you found yourself jamming with fully-competent, fellow band members. Wow! It's a come-down for a GM who has enjoyed his dominant role, but in my experience, that role is eventually wearing and aggravating - and this new role, that of bass player, is invigorating and lends itself to creating our own music. THAT is Narrativism.


P.S. And, as usual, I specifically disavow any interpretation of my point to be dissing Gamism and Simulationism. They work too, and they work for their own goals, and via their own instruments - but CREATING story is not the issue for them.


(Hopefully whatever thoughts I have on this subject will be somewhat interesting to others, as I don't want this to become a discussion between just Ron and I...)


As a Johnny-Come-Lately to your three-fold model discussion, I'm just now starting to grasp its intricacies.  I've always considered myself a Narrativist - I was describing myself that way long before I even had an e-mail address.  The story was always paramount to me.  The problem was that it was not important to my players.  I felt like I was alone trying to accomplish the noble and lofty goal of achieving literary greatness with roleplaying, and no else cared.  To that end I always cast myself as the GM, and did my best to introduce my players to new games and new ideas.  I tried not to railroad them, but I didn't trust them to come up with plot elements (outside of their characters) on their own.  So obviously I wasn't so much Narrativist as...Gamist I guess.

What I'm realizing now is that I just didn't have the tools.  It wasn't the players, it was the games and the game master (me).  Maybe I should have trusted them more.  Take, for instance, InSpectres.  Same players...entirely different experience.

(although to be fair to myself, none of those guys would have looked twice at that game if I hadn't designed it, and if Jared hadn't lent it an air of "authenticity" by publishing it on his website).

I can say with some certainty that my willingness to hand over the reigns is due in part to the fact that I am actively designing games now.  I've thrown together three in the past month (two of which, should be noted, are not games unto themselves, but InSpectres variants).  The inner author in me is satisfied, and I no longer need to exert that level of control over my players.  Maybe that's the ultimate benefit of making a game...not that I actually designed anything, but in so doing I've brought myself to a place where my weekly game sessions can be better.

I'll be interested in seeing what you guys have to say about ward 13 (the new InSpectres variant, which should be available any day now).  It's more Narrativist than anything else I've virtually requires that every player take a turn as GM, at least for a little while.  

Hopefully this bit of rambling helped to illuminate the strange relationship between Author-GM-Players.  It helped me to write about it. :smile:

joshua neff


i can totally sympathize...i have always thought of myself as story-oriented when it comes to rpgs, but for a long long time, i thought that meant "i come up w/ a story & everybody runs thru it"...i railroaded horribly (& i'm not, by nature, a linear thinker, so my railroaded plots had huge leaps of logic that few players would make, making it even more frustrating for everyone involved)...

part of this i blame on youth & part of this i blame the fact that i wasn't seeing any rpgs that had narrativist mechanics...the idea of a game that facilitated active story-creation never even occured to me...

"ars magica" & "vampire" were the first games to clue me in that you could make yr games "narratives"--but the mechanics still weren't there...then came "over the edge", which turned me on to minimalism in rules, but there still wasn't a lot of "hardcore narrativism" (the gestalt combat, i guess, but that's about it)...

& then w/in the past few years i discovered gaming outpost, "sorcerer", "story engine", "theatrix", "prince valiant", christopher kubasik's "interactive toolbox" essays, & jared's stuff...

& now i think much more about how the mechanics of a game facilitate what i want to do...& how, as a gm, i can make the game as entertaining & engaging for everyone onvolved...i'm still learning, still improving, still making mistakes, but i'm getting better...

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

Ron Edwards

Rhetoric and authoritative prose-styles aside, we are ALL just babes in the woods when it comes to active Narrativist role-playing and design. I think that's why people see G/N/S discussions as being primarily Narrativist-biased - the people who have found the model most useful are those who have, at present, the most to gain from its insights, in terms of quality play and design.

Scott & Josh, I'm with you - RIGHT with you, not ahead of you, not more advanced at all. We are all still learning. I hope that indie/experimental game design can make some huge strides for Narrativist play over the next year ... we've already seen some great stuff come out commercially (Hero Wars, Zero, The Dying Earth, Story Engine), but it's time for a real creative ferment.



I've had another mild realization recently:

I agree that most players are simulationist in outlook, in that they tend to think that anything outside of traditional cause-effect ruled by dice throws and a strong set of rules is kind of cheating.

However, I've also noticed that they tend to be profoundly disatisfied with the OUTCOME of games run this way.

I've found in practice that a reasonable solution to this is to claim that you're running a strictly simulationist game, and then ignore the rules without the players finding out about it so you can GM as narrativist, taking into account what you can glean of the players' interests to make sure that things turn into a satisfying story.

This simultaneously takes care of the players' preference for a 'fair' outcome, and their desire that the outcome be inherently interesting, and emotionally and thematically satisfying.

                        - James

Ron Edwards

Hi James,

You have stated a point of view that was extremely well articulated in late January at GO, semi-facetiously called "illusionism." I think the thread was called, "I'm a 13th-level illusionist!"

A lot of dialogue ensued that I think was pretty high-grade and would be interesting to you. Here are excerpts from two of my posts (and I am using only my own simply out of respect for others' property, not because I thought I was the King Dude for making the points).

Hope you like it.


I was a great illusionist too, once upon a time. I could slip those wiley players a pre-planned plot so smoothly they never felt it. Or if they did, they liked it and went along because they accepted that plot was "mine" whereas tactics and details were "theirs."

Then something snapped. It happened during one of my playtesting runs of Sorcerer back in 1996 (detailed in the forum, actually). I had set up so much Neat Stuff in the situation that I suddenly decided that I didn't care WHERE the story went - that the players, via their characters, were so committed and interested that their decisions were going to be cooler than mine, and more relevant to the immediate needs/roles of the characters as protagonists. Let me clarify: I did care that the story outcome be good, but given the system, the characters, the web of relationships in the situation - I realized that it was GOING to be good, ESPECIALLY if I simply let the players drive.

It is very hard to let go of the mastery of illusionism - a lot of my role-playing personality/identity/GM-ness was built on that skill. I still contribute a lot during play as a GM and in fact tend toward "nudging" perhaps more than I should. But formally and informally, and especially with systems that permit the players frighteningly high levels of Authorial and Directorial power, I'm getting better at it.

******** here's some more, God I'm verbose

I have decided to break down some very different concepts into a list, so we can talk carefully about this.

- classic scenario/plot: the GM proposes X, the players must participate in X, Y events occur during play, and Z emerges as a result of their actions. In many cases, Z is pretty much known ("our heroes will, after much travail, fight Zebulon and stop his plot") to the GM beforehand. When I did this, I tended not to admit it to myself.

- classic winging it: the GM is tired of setting up all the details of Y, so just presents X (pre-set), makes up the details of Y or perhaps Y1 or Y2 as they go, and during play the GM decides what Z is after all and eventually puts it into play. Note that the GM is sole arbiter of X and Z, still.

- the "Tree" thing: aware that they are being (basically) miniatures, the players put up a fuss, and the GM rather laboriously prepares Y1, Y2, Y3, etc, in a flow chart of what they might do. In many cases, when I did this, they all led to Z anyway (e.g. the secret warehouse with the villain in it). Or perhaps a couple of Z's were involved. My emphasis here is that PLOT is still relatively fixed, there are just several possible ones being proposed.

- the Relationship Map (this is mine): the GM sets up a set of relationships among various NPCs, possibly PCs too, as well as a back-story for the proposed run - this is X, what the GM proposes. What's interesting is that the players may have any impact on any portion of the map - the GM has anticipated VERY little of this in terms of outcome, there is no, "if they talk to Martin, he'll pick a fight." But after or during each run, ripples & reverberations have travelled along all the relationships. Some NPCs might be moved to change their ways, whether to embrace a PC as a cherished ally or lover, or to plot and carry out a murder. In a few runs, passions and alliances and hassles are spilling out all over the place, and again, they are initiated by PC activity and NOT pre-determined by the GM in their result.

I've discussed Relationship Maps in the Sorcerer forum - they are NOT the same as those organization or clan-relationship matrices in Over the Edge or Vampire.

(I'm not even going to go into the Moving Clue issue, which also plays a role, or the Shaker-Upper Event. More Edwards et al. jargon.)

- Intuitive Continuity (from UnderWorld, although there are many other examples): the GM throws a whole ton of little X's at the players, WITHOUT deciding how those are related to the bigger issues at hand (the sketchy Z, in the GM's mind). Depending on whom the players are interested in, whom they tell what, and what they do, the GM now beefs up those elements into conflicts and hassles ("Situation") - perhaps even changing his Big X into something else, or modifying it greatly. Essentially, the players have almost wholly defined X, definitely defined Y, and probably refined Z immensely, strictly through their own actions and responses to the bucket of raw material presented by the GM.

I see the traditional mode and the Tree as basically the same things, and my GMing history has led me to be tired of it - I want players to take Authorial roles at the very least and have no patience with the "baby bird" method of player-character management. The Relationship Map is my favored method, and I've seen some great stuff emerge from Intuitive Continuity (although it tends to lend itself to well-known, well-repeated Premises).

A crucial issue in all of this is mechanics - when a player has an authorial/metagame mechanic to use, more than just spending a point to get a bonus or re-roll, he or she often stares at it in surprise. "I get to define that NPC as my uncle? Or as whatever I want? Any time I want, with any NPC?" Or, "I get to decide when I enter this scene - no waiting for the GM to tell me when I get there?" There's some re-training involved sometimes.

When I'm using these Narrativist GMing methods, and the players are taking some Authorial responsibility, stories emerge. It's not the same as improvisation, which tends to be riffs piled on riffs. It's certainly not the same as the multiply-branching tree. And I have a new role - not merely sit-back-and-watch, and not den-daddy-manage - but rather FACILITATOR and KEEPER O'THE PREMISE. I get to contribute too, you see, and in a different way from a player, but it's still a contribution rather than a top-down management. (I can put in fixed events, but so can they!)

One last thing: players who aren't used to this stuff universally react as follows. The run goes really well and a fun story has emerged, and they say: "Damn, that was a GREAT job of railroading." I say, "I had no idea what would happen," and they don't believe me. They are so used to the three first methods I described, and so accustomed to the GM having firm control of (at least) X and Z, that they cannot fathom that they had actually done a great deal of the directing and writing as well as acting.

No "illusion of free will." No railroading of any kind. They really do a lot of decision-making along with me, and the story is ABOUT SOMETHING that THEIR characters have done and catalyzed.

Gordon C. Landis

On 2001-05-17 00:44, james_west wrote:
I agree that most players are simulationist in outlook, in that they tend to think that anything outside of traditional cause-effect ruled by dice throws and a strong set of rules is kind of cheating.

However, I've also noticed that they tend to be profoundly disatisfied with the OUTCOME of games run this way.

Yes, yes, and yes.  This is exactly my experience.  Occassionally, the "outcome" (probably need to define just what that means, but I'm pretty sure I know what you mean) will be satisfying - heck, occassionally it'll be a downright awe-inspiring emotional BANG!

But far more often . . . "disatisfied" is the perfect word.  Your solution (later refered to as "illusionism" by Ron - I remember reading that thread on GO with great interest) is OK, in the hands of a "good" GM, but still not particullarly reliable - especially since players WILL catch on (I say this having been on both sides of the GM's screen when it happened), and then you're back to feeling "cheated".

Other options?  "Going Narrativist" ain't such a bad thing, is it :wink:  Or maybe a better Simulationist game design/game play principles can handle the issue.  Or if you ease up on the Simulationist desires and say "it's just a game"  . . .

But I guess that's the real question - WHY is the outcome disatisfying?  Because the indirectly-created simulationist story isn't "good" enough?  Because no matter how skilled the "illusionist", there's always this nagging feeling that the sim was rigged/manipulated?  Because it just wasn't enough fun to play?  Because it seemed too challenging?  Not challenging enough?

I suspect the answer(s) to WHY are needed to pick a good solution - and that many of those answers are about G/N/S preferences and suitabilty.

Which (to get back on the thread topic) maybe is why even though there are dangers in "labeling" people's preferences within G/N/S, it's still an important/useful task.  In another post, I stumbled across the idea that G/N/S labels "decisions" - perhaps that would be less offensive to folks.  "I'm deciding to run this narrativist-focused.  Why don't you all decide to be narrativists for this game."

Of course, unless it's a well-informed decision, people may still be surprised or uncomfortable with the result.

Gordon C. Landis (under construction)



I guess what I was referring to was not so much subtly guiding the players to follow your plot as subtly
altering the results so it turns out the way the players
are interested, which is similar but not identical.

                      - James