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Gamism: Step On Up
by Ron Edwards

I owe thanks to Clinton R. Nixon, Rob MacDougall, Gareth Martin, Mike Holmes, Gordon R. Landis, Ralph Mazza, Jonathan Walton, Paul Czege, Jared A. Sorensen, Grant Gigee, Christopher Kubasik, Jake Norwood, and Peter Adkison for their comments on the draft version of the manuscript. All errors, misattributions, inconsistencies, whatever, are mine.

This is the second of three essays on the three modes of role-playing collectively referred to as GNS, as presented in my essay GNS and related matters of role-playing theory. The first of the three "support" essays was Simulationism: the right to dream. These essays' purposes are to clarify many aspects of their parent essay, to present the ideas that have always awaited a more general understanding of my basic points, and also to refine and develop the concepts based on the years of discussion and input from others at the Gaming Outpost,, and the Forge.

This one's about Gamist play.

Gamism was originally identified in the RFGA Threefold Model of role-playing styles, and I think from its first mention, nearly everyone has said, "Oh, yeah, Gamism," with little debate about its qualities. Moving through my own reconstructions of the Threefold into GNS, whether early or late, and through the GENder model proposed by the Scarlet Jester, both Gamist play as an activity and people's instant, easy acceptance of its category have received little attention. Apparently, one just knows it upon sight.

But do we really? References to Gamism tend to be dismissive, superficial, and often backhanded ("except for the Gamists," "my inner Gamist," etc). With respect to the members of the RFGA discussion group, I think they categorized Gamist play mainly in order to sweep it out of the realm of further dialogue, in order to concentrate on issues that I would now primarily identify within Simulationist play. I also think that most, although not all, subsequent discussion has been similar. Yet that exceptional bit, here and there over several forums, indicates far less consensus out there than might have been expected or assumed.

I'm going for a real look at the category for its own sake. In some ways I'm kind of a case study of the problem, but I hope also part of the solution as well; my own views have changed immensely since I referred to Gamist players as "space aliens" years ago on the Gaming Outpost.

Here's what I wrote for my big and admittedly dry essay, "GNS and related matters of role-playing theory":
Gamism is expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people's actual play strategies. The listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color] provide an arena for the competition.
And this needs revising for several reasons. First, "among the participants" is too vague, at least from the standpoint of most readers. I was thinking of anyone involved in the play of the game, permitting just who competes with whom to be customized, but most people seem to think I mean "players" in the widely-used, non-GM sense, and object to that. Second, the term "competition" gets right up people's noses. Lots of terms have cropped up: Struggle, Striving, Challenge, and more. Some of that debate seems to be procedural, some of it ideological, and some of it social. Although I can't hope for unilateral agreement about the fundamentals of Gamist play, I think I've managed to figure out where all of the consternation - and the hot emotions underlying it - comes from. It's not merely semantic. I hope this essay manages to clear up any confusions about my position on the matter and perhaps manages to set a better basis for continued debate.

Some threads to check out include: Gamism and Premise, Gamism is not competition{/url], All out for Gamism, and Getting in touch with our inner Gamist. They include plenty of good points, but, my own posts included, I think they mainly illustrate the problems involved rather than offer anything concrete.

So the first step is to renounce a judgmental and dismissive approach about "those awful Gamists." The second is to renounce the less-judgmental but equally-dismissive "those Gamists" attitude, which might be called the NIMBY view. And then, finally, to renounce the sort of guilty-liberal, halting, apologetic defensive line as well. Just bouncing among these, without ever coming to grips with the actual phenomenon itself, is enough to fill a few dozen thread-pages within days, so it's time to put all that aside and focus.

Every reader of the first draft wanted me to define Gamist play right here, in this spot. I refused, to the wrath of Lit-101 teachers everywhere. You gotta go through the next sections to get there.

Back to Exploration
Just as in the Simulationism essay, I'll start by considering the big picture in which GNS issues are embedded. It might be written out like this in a Venn diagram:

[Social Contract [Exploration [GNS [rules [techniques [Stances]]]]]]

Every inner "box" is an expression or realization of the box(es) it's nested in. For example, Exploration is a kind of Social Contract, and a given GNS mode is a kind (specifically, an application) of Exploration.
  1. Everything occurs embedded in the Social Contract, which includes many things about play and not-play, especially the Balance of Power.

  2. Exploration is the primary act of role-playing, composed of five parts with some causal relationships among them.

  3. The "modes" of play (because they have to be expressed via communication and play itself, not just "felt") are currently best described as Gamist, Simulationist, or Narrativist play. Play (as opposed merely to hanging out with friends) cannot occur without such an agenda. I'm now using the term "creative agenda" to refer to the three modes as a concept, replacing the small-p "premise" term in the older essay.

  4. Techniques of play include many different relationships among rules, people's decisions, announcements, and similar. "System" (or rather textual system) interacts with Techniques all the time, in terms of things like Currency, Resolution (including DFK, IIEE; see Glossary), and Reward systems. Which of these is inner or outer is debatable and probably variable, although I've diagrammed it in keeping with the idea that techniques are applied within a framework of rules. In keeping with the Venn concept, techniques are local expressions of Social Contract, Exploration, and GNS modes, just as rules are.

  5. Actual play shifts quickly among Stances. Stances, unsurprisingly, are very local applications of rules and techniques, all in the service of Exploration and the larger-scale GNS mode in action.

So to talk about any GNS category, the place to start is that box. Exploration is composed of five elements, no sweat: Character, Setting, Situation, System, and Color ... but it's not a hydra with five equal heads. These things have creative and specific dependencies among one another, and now's the time to reveal a filthy secret about them.

It's this: Situation is the center. Situation is the imaginative-thing we experience during play. Character and Setting are components that produce it, System is what Situation does, and Color can hardly be done without all this in place to, well, to color. Situation is the 400-lb gorilla of the five elements, or, if you will, the central node. It's central regardless of how much attention it's receiving relative to the other components.

Gamist play, more than any other mode, demands that Situation be not only central, but also the primary focus of attention. You want to play Gamist? Then don't piss about with Character and/or Setting without Situation happening, or about to.

The definition at last
A few paragraphs back, I promised a definition for Gamism and here it is. It operates at two levels: the real, social people and the imaginative, in-game situation.
  1. The players, armed with their understanding of the game and their strategic acumen, have to Step On Up. Step On Up requires strategizing, guts, and performance from the real people in the real world. This is the inherent "meaning" or agenda of Gamist play (analogous to the Dream in Simulationist play).

    Gamist play, socially speaking, demands performance with risk, conducted and perceived by the people at the table. What's actually at risk can vary - for this level, though, it must be a social, real-people thing, usually a minor amount of recognition or esteem. The commitment to, or willingness to accept this risk is the key - it's analogous to committing to the sincerity of The Dream for Simulationist play. This is the whole core of the essay, that such a commitment is fun and perfectly viable for role-playing, just as it's viable for nearly any other sphere of human activity.

  2. The in-game characters, armed with their skills, priorities, and so on, have to face a Challenge, which is to say, a specific Situation in the imaginary game-world. Challenge is about the strategizing, guts, and performance of the characters in this imaginary game-world.

    For the characters, it's a risky situation in the game-world; in addition to that all-important risk, it can be as fabulous, elaborate, and thematic as any other sort of role-playing. Challenge is merely plain old Situation - it only gets a new name because of the necessary attention it must receive in Gamist play. Strategizing in and among the Challenge is the material, or arena, for whatever brand of Step On Up is operating.

Gamist play and design is very diverse, partly due to the relative emphases of these two layers, as well as how they are best met in that particular game. At the crudest lens-setting, one can contrast those who emphasize Challenge and drop the Step On Up to a faint roar, as opposed to those who diminish the Challenge - it's always there, though - and focus on the Step On Up.

Terms 'til you squeak
The game to the Gamist
What does "game" mean, anyway? Wouldn't that be good to know before talking about Game-ist? As it turns out, not really, no more than "simulation" helps with discussing Simulationist play. The term "game" is good enough for our purposes (as a root for the "ist"), but not especially rigorous or interesting. So many different things get called games that it's hardly worth considering a blanket definition. To call all of role-playing a "game," the term must be so broadly defined that it excludes any agenda beyond socializing.

There's one specific aspect of the term that needs some scrutiny, though - its judgmental content. Phrases like "It's a game," or better, "It's just a game," or, "It's the game" illustrate that the term tells us nothing; the meaning lies in the inflection. The phrase might be saying that "it" is utterly trivial: "it's just a game." Or it might be saying that "it" demands our constant and committed attention: "that's the game."

So, I think more sensibly, it's good to look inside Gamism to see the game there - what is it? It's a recreational, social activity, in which one faces circumstances of risk - but neither life-threatening nor of any other great material consequence. All that's on the line is some esteem, probably fleeting, enough to enjoy risking and no more. Think of a poker game among friends with very minor stakes, or a neighborhood pickup basketball game. Taking away the small change or the score-counting would take away a lot of the fun, because they help to track or prompt the minor esteem ups-and-downs. This is Step On Up. It is "just a game," yes, but "it's the game," too.

With any luck, now that I'm claiming two things are being labeled rather than one, perhaps some of the debate about the label in question can settle down. At the Step On Up level, what's at stake? A bit of esteem, as stated above. But what about? Here's point #1: what's really at stake can be totally overt (the basketball score), or it can nonverbal or otherwise subtle (who sinks the best single hoop, regardless of which team wins). All that matters is that it must exist embedded in the real-life social interaction.

Think of the following:
  • how performance is assessed, including a range of severity for joshing, praise, and criticism
  • the parameters of engagement - rules you do not break, in order to enjoy playing changes in the field of play, whether in space or time, making it impossible to stay with a single approach

The competition boogeyman
Competition is best understood as a productive add-on to Gamist play. Such play is fundamentally cooperative, but may include competition. That's not a contradiction: I'm using exactly the same logic as might be found at the poker and basketball games. You can't compete, socially, without an agreed-upon venue. If the cooperation's details are acceptable to everyone, then the competition within it can be quite fierce.

Role-playing texts never get this straight. For them, it's always either competition or cooperation, one-other, push-pull, and often nonsensical. The following is from Fantasy Earth, Basic Rules (1994, Zody Games, author is Michael S. Zody):
... while board games and wargames have winners and losers, role-playing games do not. Rather than being competitive, role-playing games are cooperative. The players all work together and win and lose as a team.
I consider the above text to be inherently contradictory. Versions of it can be found in quite a few role-playing games, especially those with fantasy settings and a fairly high risk of character death.

So what is all this competition business about? It concerns conflict of interest. If person A's performance is only maximized by driving down another's performance, then competition is present. In Gamist play, this is not required - but it is very often part of the picture. Competition gives both Step On Up and Challenge a whole new feel - a bite.

How does conflict of interest relate to Step On Up and to Challenge? The crucial answer is that it may be present twice, independently, within the two-level structure.
  • Competition at the Step On Up level = conflict of interest regarding players' performance and impact on the game-world.
  • Competition at the Challenge level = conflict of interest among characters' priorities (survival, resource accumulation, whatever) in the game-world.
Think of each level having a little red dial, from 1 to 11 - and those dials can be twisted independently. Therefore, four extremes of dial-twisting may be compared.
  1. High competition in Step On Up plus low competition in Challenge = entirely team-based play, party style against a shared Challenge, but with value placed on some other metric of winning among the real people, such as levelling-up faster, having the best stuff, having one's player-characters be killed less often, getting more Victory Points, or some such thing. Most Tunnels & Trolls play is like this.

  2. Low competition in Step On Up plus high competition in Challenge = characters are constantly scheming on one another or perhaps openly trying to kill or outdo another but the players aren't especially competing, because consequences to the player are low per unit win/loss. Kobolds Ate My Baby and the related game, Ninja Burger, play this way.

  3. High competition in both levels = moving toward the Hard Core (see below), including strong rules-manipulation, often observed in variants of Dungeons & Dragons as well in much LARP play. A risky way to play, but plenty of fun if you have a well-designed system like Rune.

  4. Low competition in both levels = strong focus on Step On Up and Challenge but with little need for conflict-of-interest. Quite a bit of D&D based on story-heavy published scenarios plays this way. It shares some features with "characters face problem" Simulationist play, with the addition of a performance metric of some kind. Some T&T play Drifted this way as well, judging by many Sorcerer's Apprentice articles.
Things get more complex than this, because different roles for GM and players lead to combinations of the above categories within a single game. For instance, players can cooperate as a party and compete with the GM, for instance, given a rules-set that limits GM options (a combination of #1 and #2). This shouldn't be confused with cooperating with one another, cooperating with the GM, and competing against the GM's characters (#4).

Reality check
I might as well get this over with now: the phrase "Role-playing games are not about winning" is the most widespread example of synecdoche in the hobby. Potential Gamist responses, and I think appropriately, include:
"Eat me,"
(upon winning) "I win," and
"C'mon, let's play without these morons."

I'm defining "winning" as positive assessment at the Step On Up level. It even applies when little or no competition is going on. It applies even when the win-condition is fleeting. Even if it's unstated. Even if it's no big deal. Without it, and if it's not the priority of play, then no Gamism.

Textually, so many games say "it's not about winning" and then immediately provide extremely clear win/loss parameters for play. Sometimes I think it's because people believe that players are inherently Gamist and have to be appeased in some way. This uneasy waffling or endless qualifying shows up most often in fantasy games whose authors would like play to be about something else, but just can't quite believe that players would agree.

From the introduction to RuneQuest, second edition (The Chaosium, 1978, 1979, 1980; specific author for this text unknown; game authors are Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, and Warren James):
The title of the game, RuneQuest, describes its goal. The player creates one or more characters, known as adventurers, and playes them in various scenarios, designed by a Referee. The Adventurer has the use of combat, magic, and other skills, and treasure. The Referee has the use of assorted monsters, traps, and his own wicked imagination to keep the Adventurer from his goal within the rules of the game. A surviving Adventurer gains experience in fighting, magic, and other skills, as well as money to purchase further training.
Now all that's pretty Gamist stuff of a late 1970s vintage, right? Get this, which follows immediately:
The adventurer progresses in this way until he is so proficient that he comes to the attention of the High Priests, sages, and gods. At this point he has the option to join a Rune Cult. Joining such a cult gives him many advantages, not the least of which is aid from the god of the cult.

Acquiring a Rune by joining such a cult is the goal of the game, for only in gathering a Rune may a character take the next step, up into the ranks of Hero, and perhaps Superhero.
All right, that bit about joining cults still seems kind of Gamist, right? About getting more effective and so on? Great ... except that the GM controls the High Priests and sages. Why would he, whose job was just stated to be to "keep the Adventurer from his goal," have them recognize the Adventurer in the first place? Either they do, and the GM must abandon the stated goal, or they don't, and that whole paragraph becomes gibberish.

Bear in mind as well that "Hero" and "Superhero" are never defined, and indeed never again mentioned anywhere in the rulebook. See what I mean about waffly and uncertain text? Such text is the default explanation for role-playing, with very few exceptions, until the publication of Vampire in 1991. Even since, though, it's still the standard for fantasy games. The following is from Legendary Lives, second edition (1993, Marquee Press, authors are Joe Williams and Kathleen Williams):
The players are impromptu actors within the scenes created by the referee ... The fun comes from interacting with the other characters and with the imaginary world created by the refereee. For the duration of the game, try to immerse yourself in the role. [Sim so far - RE]
The first goal of a player is survival. Yes your character can die during an adventure, and a dead character is completely gone. If your character is smart enough, bright enough, or lucky enough, he or she will survive to reap the benefits of becoming older, wiser, and more powerful.
[Wowsies, eh? Then text follows which backpeddles rapidly and tries to explain why character death isn't losing. -RE]
As a contrast, some texts make no bones about this issue and indeed leap in with both feet, as in Kobolds Ate My Baby! third edition (2001, Ninth Level Games; authors are Christopher O'Neill and Daniel Landis):
How to win!
... unlike your average role-playing game, KOBOLDS ATE MY BABY! Third Edition has winners (and losers). Truth be told, it mainly has losers! Anyway, the winner is the player who, at the end of the game, has the most Victory Points. Most games continue until a certain condition is met, generally when all the babies are gone ...
Yee-ha! But that's a recent example. To get back to the dark and steaming roots of the first wave of role-playing innovation, check this out from The Basic Game chapter in Tunnels & Trolls, 5th edition (1979, Flying Buffalo Inc; author is Ken St. Andre, with possible edits or additions by Liz Danforth):
Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.
From the Adventure Points chapter in the same text:
As long as a character remains alive - regardless of how many adventures he or she participates in - you are "winning." If ill fate befalls the character, or if you overextend yourself in playing your character's capabilities, the character dies and it is your loss. Of course, these games allow you to play any number of characters (sometimes referred to as a "stable of characters") and some will survive and advance, and everyone wins in the end.
This seems a bit softer, until one notices that although winning is qualified by quotes and extra text, loss significantly is not.

Further text in the Adventure Points chapter of the same game repeatedly provides big payoff for rash, risky, but tactically-imaginative action, if the character survives. One small part rewards role-playing, but:
Any points awarded in this category should be given to those players who are doing an exceptionally good job only, thus making the game more of a challenge to all.
In other words, "challenge" is the first priority and immersion (for lack of a better word), cooperation with the GM or his story-plans, or in-character consistent play, are to be conducted and evaluated in that context. They are, as well as anything else like character survival or achievement, to be competed about.

I love the T&T and Kobolds texts. They are refreshing, spunky, and even inspiring: "Step on up, buddy!" Open Gamism is completely accessible, completely functional, and extremely fun. You see, it all goes back to how the Step On Up social stuff is perfectly capable of enjoying the in-game Challenge, Situation stuff, and how they're not the same thing. In these games, the idea is to keep the Challenge whimsical enough that its occasionally-extreme consequences don't reflect proportionally on the player's emotional stakes of the moment.

T&T is not the be-all and end-all of Gamism, although it was probably the first utterly explicit Gamist role-playing text. Not all Gamist play is alike! It ranges across a great deal of structural, social, and imaginative diversity, which is why this essay still has a long way to go.

Structural basics
Grant Gigee provided some comments that I think speak more closely to the issue than anything I could come up with:
Conflict and choice: Clearly, both terms can also be applied to Narrativism, but I think they are very evocative and, combined with challenge, concisely convey the important values of Gamism. Conflict is crucial to narrative, but while one can explore the back-story or the setting, or whatever, and while one can explore the moral ramifications of those choices, folk like myself would rather get right to the high points - the points of greatest tension which lead to the greatest accomplishment. [emphasis mine; that's where the Step On Up lives, right there - RE]
Choice is important because only through choice can there be consequences. The reason most Gamists play wizards over fighters lies not in avoiding conflict but in having choices. The fighter's choices are all front-loaded - which sword (the best one), which armor (the best one), etc - while the wizard's are more immediate: which spell at what time.

Valid Gamist conflict and valid Gamist choice lead directly to strategy and tactics, which I like to think of in two ways. The first way is the interplay of resources, combined arms, either-or decisions, effectiveness, point-husbanding, and similar game-mechanics acumen. Two articles to review regarding these sorts of strategy and tactics in Gamist play are Elements of tactics and Elements of strategy by Brian Gleichman. The second way is all about bending parameters, lateral thinking, and occasional banzai, which is to say, one's ability to shape the actual play, or the importance of its parts, through sheer interaction with it and with other people.

In trying to back up a little and look at things more generally than individual moments of successful tactics, I came up with two new terms. I'm not sure whether they're profound or just obvious, so consider'em informal at this point.

The Gamble and the Crunch
Challenge is the Situation faced by the player-characters with a strong implication of risk. It can be further focused into applications, which individually tend toward one of these two things:

The Gamble occurs when the player's ability to manipulate the odds or clarify unknowns is seriously limited. "Hold your nose and jump!" is its battle-cry. Running a first-level character in all forms of D&D is a Gamble; all of Ninja Burger play is a Gamble. More locally, imagine a crucial charge made by a fighter character toward a dragon - his goal is to distract it from the other character's coordinated attack, and he's the only one whose hit points are sufficient to survive half its flame-blast. Will he make the saving roll? If he doesn't, he dies. Go!

The Crunch occurs when system-based strategy makes a big difference, either because the Fortune methods involved are predictable (e.g. probabilities on a single-die roll), or because effects are reliably additive or cancelling (e.g. Feats, spells). Gamist-heavy Champions play with powerful characters is very much about the Crunch. The villain's move occurs early in Phase 3; if the speed-guy saves his action from Phase 2 into Phase 3 to pre-empt that action, and if the brick-guy's punch late on Phase 3 can be enhanced first by the psionic-guy's augmenting power if he Pushes the power, then we can double-team the villain before he can kill the hostage.

The distinction between Gamble and Crunch isn't quite the same as "randomness;" it has more to do with options and consequences. Fortune can be involved in both of them, and it doesn't have to be involved in either (see Diplomacy for a non-RPG example). Also, look out for jargon: "Crunchy" is a gamer term for detailed and layered rules; "crunching" is a long-standing term for maximizing Effectiveness by manipulating a system's Currency. Neither of these are Crunch as I'm defining here.

Who vs. whom: the source of adversity
Adversity is necessary to role-playing; without it, nothing happens. The term requires two analyses.
  1. Who's the source of adversity in Gamist play? This is a layered question based on the Step On Up and Challenge levels. Step On Up adversity simply means demanding high attention to System operation and the responding emotional "on-button" from the person. It's the "social heat," if you will, as well as whatever cognitive demands are imposed by the System. Optionally, as described above, person-on-person conflict of interest might be involved as well, bringing in competition at this level. Without the competition, the adversity needs to come from some extra-player source, whether a GM or a publication or some confluence of both. With it, of course, the source of adversity arises among the players; this is usually an add-on to the GM/publication adversity rather than a substitute.

  2. What are its imposed dangers? This seems more straightforward at first, as Challenge adversity means risk to the characters in some way. But about what? Options range from character survival to abstract Victory Points, with a huge range of possibilities in between. Also, optionally, character-on-character conflict of interest may be involved as well, again setting up the possible inclusion of competition as a "heater-up" for adversity.
Clearly, these are not really independent! The Challenge adversity sets up all sorts of System demands and risks to the characters, which in turn can provide the motor for the Step On Up adversity to kick into action. That's a powerful phenomenon; arguably, it was the core of D&D play becoming a popular hobby at all in the mid-1970s, based on organized tournaments.

But all the possible combinations are overwhelming - whose strategizing is opposed to whose? If a GM is the source of adversity, to what extent is he or she a potential competitor as well? What are the differences between GM as referee, as judge, and as player of opponents? Is player-effort a team thing or an "every man my enemy" thing? The general answer to these and similar questions can only be "Yes," then parsed very specifically both by game design and by group preferences. Social Contract issues such as whether maps, notes, and dice-rolls are hidden or open all rely on the answers. But those are only some of the possible questions. Here are others.
  1. How long is a "go"? Which is to say, what are the units of reward and loss, and how are they distributed through the time of play? Compare losing a round in a video game with loss in a football game, and consider whether a fight scene in a role-playing session is a piece of a very long conflict called a Delve, or whether it's the moment of truth, right there. Is player-character death, for example, like losing the ball for a first down for the other side, or missing a touchdown, or losing the whole game?

  2. How is Fortune involved, and when? Oh, there are so many ways: player-character creation, the typical resolution mechanics, any sudden-death resolution mechanics, reduction of abilities or resources, preparation for a crisis, the crisis itself ... To flip to the other side, what's the role, if any, of allocation-strategizing points or resources?

  3. Neither of the above can be considered without thinking about the relative importance of Effectiveness and Resource, and how they relate to one another, or, on a more imaginative/scenario level, the relative distribution and positioning of the Gamble and the Crunch.

  4. To what degree is conflict-of-interest involved, for both the Step On Up and Challenge levels? Similarly, and this of course is mainly a social question, what degree of ruthlessness is involved?

  5. What is the Challenge about? Further, how imaginatively committed to it, moment by moment, are people expected to be? I suggest with great fervor that combat is only one form of conflict, and character survival is only one in-game metric for success.
A look at reward systems
I generally refer to Stakes in Gamist play to discuss what's at risk and what stands to be gained at both the Step On Up and Challenge level. I think successful Gamist play needs to include both the loss and gain conditions for the Stakes, not just gain. This gets really tricky, because the "metric" of what's being assessed at the Step On Up level is only sometimes overt. Add to that the concept of Stakes relative to the competition within each level, if present, and things suddenly get complicated.

So what constitutes "success" at the Step On Up and/or Challenge level during play? Is it the right to keep playing? Improving one's character's effectiveness, begging the question of what for? Getting some kind of "victory points"? The metagame/game relationship between these is phenomenally important. I think that, in Gamist play, the metagame-part is the key one - a completely informal Social Reward (e.g., "Killed more goblins than you!", even in a game-system which confers no consequence for doing so) can easily outweigh an in-game one.

In taking this idea to design, my mind kind of balks at the tricky mix of Exploration and Competition, and how to keep them from being at cross-purposes. It is really hard to conceive of Gamist reward mechanisms that are both consistently satisfying across long-term play and meaningful at the Step On Up level. Abstract victory points are arguably quite weak; "you win" means nothing if it, well, doesn't do anything. The more-commonly seen metric of character survival is badly broken, in a variety of applications. If character death is temporary, it's not much of a loss condition, but if it's not, the game is often forced to abandon the loss condition such that people can continue to play.

Character improvement ("advancement") is even more problematic. The basic issues it raises are:
  • How tough and effective should a starting character be? If it's too high, then there's no reason to improve; if it's too low, the early stages of play depend far too much on GM mercy.
  • What kind of rate is involved, relative to the challenges as time goes by? The effectiveness-increase can form an exponential interaction with the character's ability to increase further, which in most cases breaks the game or reduces all confrontations to statistical grinds rather than Step On Up crises.
Reward systems remain the current most challenging sector of game design, for many reasons, not the least of which is no clear idea of for how long or at what scale "successful play" should be rated. I look forward to experimentation and debate that can help resolve some of the issues for Gamist play.

The joys of Gamism
It is way cool, in a game which utilizes point-construction of characters, to allocate them such that the character "hums" - that is, he (or she or it, henceforth "he") can do what you'd like him to do without running out of energy too fast, can go where he needs to go, and take a hit without crumpling - or, in games which are less about moving places and hitting one another, the character can actually get X done in a way which makes anyone else say, "Whoa, good one!" Nocturne, my Champions super-hero, steps through the wall and freezes the villain The Crippler in his tracks with a burning blue look. He glides straight to the uber-villain, the Blood Queen, where she stands before the technological cross (on whom is crucified Nocturne's buddy, Warp), ignoring the zots and shots of the henchmen, and says, in deadly tones, "Where ... is ... our ... son?" Presence attack roll!

It is totally cool, in a game with a well-constructed IIEE component, to strategize one or more characters' actions such that their effect and timing delivers a phenomenal wallop, or more generally, has a distinctive and exciting effect on play. Demon-boy's acrobatic attack provides the diversion, as Hurricane-girl's wind-storm scatters the henchmen, opening up a channel for Metal-guy to hurl Claw-man straight into the Menace. As expected, Claw-man takes it on the chin, but that removes the Menace's saved action (which we all knew he had; he had that smirk), and that's when Eyebeam-man's blast hits, shattering the tank behind the Menace to release the wave of radioactive fluid and to wake the sleeping alien within ...

The very meaning of cool beans is to husband resources intelligently, such that when you really need that Endurance, or the story points, or those hit points, or that final charge in the magic staff, they're there. Yzorn, the young mage, dodges once, twice, and again, eluding the jaws of the summoned wolf, costing Engarad more and more energy until the animal fades into smoke. Then, "Catch this!" he cries, at last loosing the lightning bolt and crisping his foe into an ashy column, which slowly fragments under its own weight.

Nothing is more cool than putting the character or whatever at risk, whether in Gamble or Crunch circumstances, and seeing the system deliver its punch relative to your tactics. Roichi, my Blue Islands ninja, reaches into the folds of his black gi to produce, rattle-rattle the dice, a packet of Hot Sauce! Shimatta!

It is the essence of coolness to see the legitimately avoidable twist be avoided, or fail to be avoided. "Boy, that troll was a lot easier to kill than I expected," says the player. I, the GM, smirk. "You're growing ... turning hairy ... your armor and clothing crack and stretch off of your body ... horns sprout on your -" "Hey! I'm turning into a troll, aren't I?" "Yup ... cursed to clean up the first level, just like your predecessor, who's turning into a dead human, by the way." "Shit! That makes sense! We should have figured that out!" Heh, heh, heh ...

All of the above are fun during any role-playing, but from a Gamist perspective, the point is for one's acumen to be acknowledged - it's a matter of pure pride. You grokked the system just right for that particular situation; you took into account all the possible variables of the moment. If such a perspective, and all these events, are combined together and experienced as part and parcel of the Exploration - which is to say, the social, imaginative "scene" - then Gamist play is under way. I maintain this experience cannot be achieved through any physical sport, through any virtual interface, or through any medium whatever aside from table-top role-playing. The rush is, I think, unique to the medium.

The Hard Core
So far I haven't mentioned any negative connotations to Gamist play, despite my hints in the beginning of the essay. The time has come to explain why many people hate and fear any sign of Step On Up, let alone competition, in and among the adversity-situations of their role-playing. It's due to a possible application of Gamist principles to their "perviest" extreme, which is to say, the highest degree of person-to-System contact during play. When you sacrifice Exploration to get to this degree of contact in Gamist play, you have entered the Hard Core.

The Hard Core occurs when Gamist play transmogrifies into pure metagame: Exploration becomes minimal or absent, such that System and Social Contract contact one another directly, and, essentially, all the mechanics become metagame mechanics. It's usually, although not always, the result of high competitive actions at the Step On Up level, which then "eats" the Challenge level such that it is literally and nakedly an extension of Step On Up and nothing else. Role-playing in the Hard Core is very much like playing competitive video games or, for that matter, like playing that old junior high school favorite, Smear the Queer, with egos rather than bones and blood on the line.

I perceive four distinct Hard Core applications. They all very easily become dysfunctional, but, contrary to popular belief, quite a bit of Hard Core play may be functional if the Social Contract is being reinforced rather than broken. None of them combine well with secondary Simulationist or Narrativist priorities, which is one reason that people often confound the Hard Core with playing Gamist at all. That's an error, though, because the Hard Core is just as incompatible with high-Exploration Gamist priorities as well.

It's time to introduce the "M" word too. The term "munchkin" gets thrown around a lot in reference to Gamist play, and one of the big points of this essay is to show that it applies to too many different things to be useful. I'll discuss this further in the Troubles with Gamism section below, but for now, just bear in mind that Hard Core role-players are often called munchkins by others, including non-Hard Core Gamists.

Turnin' on each other
Gamist play already presupposes some pressure among members of the group. Now add to that not only conflict-of-interest at the Challenge level, but open acknowledgment of one another's player-characters as the only engaging source of Challenge - and given the absence of Exploration, directly applying to a Step On Up struggle for dominance. So now you have both little red dials up to 11, and the arena of resolution is simply whose characters survive mutual attacks.

Turnin' often arises from when the "official" Challenge parameters are shown to be uninteresting for one reason or another, such as when losing one's character to GM-run foes turns out not to mean much in Step On Up terms - i.e., when the GM kills characters at whim. It's typically dysfunctional when it arises from this or similar sources.

However, I also think Turnin' is the least threatening Hard Core application, because when it's integrated into other enjoyable aspects of a system, it can actually be a wonderful addition to play, as illustrated by the wizard-economy of spells for rogues in T&T or the magic items rules in Elfs. After all, character conflict-of-interest is not necessarily Hard Core, nor is it even necessarily a Gamist issue at all. However, given that its extreme form is dysfunctional, many game texts have mistakenly urged various ways never ever ever to permit inter-character conflict of interest, in order to stave it off.

This technique is all about ramping a system's Currency, Effectiveness, and reward system into an exponential spiral. As a behavior, it can be applied to any system, but most forms of D&D offer an excellent inroad for it: after a certain number of levels achieved, the ability to deliver damage and remain invulnerable itself provides ever-increasing ability to achieve yet higher degrees of damage-delivery and hit-point resources.

Like Turnin', Powergaming doesn't necessarily destroy the enjoyment of play, and unlike Turnin', it may even remain functional in full-blown Hard Core form. Some Exploration may well be maintained, at least minimally, and the effectiveness-spiral might play a strategic role rather than to dominate fellow players. However, it's fair to say that Powergaming is only functional if everyone is committed to it, and it carries dangers of leading to Breaking (see below).

To prevent Powergaming, many game designers identify the GM as the ultimate and final rules-interpreter. It's no solution at all, though: (1) there's no way to enforce the enforcement, and (2), even if the group does buy into the "GM is always right" decree, the GM is now empowered to Powergame over everyone else.

This is the famous "rules-lawyering" approach, which is misnamed because it claims textual support when in reality it simply invents it. Calvinball is a better term: making up the rules as you go along, usually in terms of on-the-spot interpretations disguised as "obvious" well-established interpretations. It basically combines glibness and bullying to achieve moment-to-moment advantages for one's character. A Calvinballer may also be adept at bugging the GM about some rules-detail often enough that a goodly percentage of the time yields a reward for it, but not often enough to tip everyone else off to what's going on.

The big trick of Calvinball is pretending to be still committed to the Exploration. That makes it especially well-suited to disrupting Simulationist play from the older traditions, because the other players' commitment to the integrity of the Dream can be co-opted into one's Calvinball strategy, exploiting the others' willingness to enter into the rules-debate in hopes of a compromise, which of course is not forthcoming. Calvinball then quickly transforms into a struggle for control over what is and is not happening in the imaginative situation.

One mistaken solution to this tactic is to hide the rules from the players in some kind of laughably-secure "GM book" or "GM section," as well as to enforce the ideal of Transparency. The other, more common solution is simply to continue adding rules forever and ever, amen, in order to account unambiguously for any and all imaginable events during play.

Breaking the game
Here's the most extreme form of the Hard Core; it's the only one that I can't imagine is functional in any circumstances. Breaking the game is defined as rendering others' ability to play ineffective in terms of any metric that happens to be important in that group. Theoretically, any and all games are breakable: one can always sweep the pieces off the board. But I'm talking about doing so in the context of identifying internal inconsistencies or vulnerable points in the design, breaking the game by playing it and rendering the Exploration nonsensical.

Here's the key giveaway in terms of system design: it is Broken (i.e. Breaking consistently works) if repetitive, unchanging behavior garners benefit. The player hits no self-correcting parameters and is never forced to readjust his or her strategy. The principle can be applied in multiple ways, both two common ones include:
  • Exploiting point-based games which rely on layered Currency, such that points may be spent cheaply for disproportionately high gain, often in a self-sustaining fashion. The classic example is the Recovery attribute in Champions, which was increased by spending points on Constitution and Strength, but could be bought down, and the points thus gained could be pumped back into Strength, thus raising REC to levels beyond the original value. Champions also featured a means of decreasing powers' cost by increasing a divisor value, and strategizing the relationship to this divisor with other means of point-reduction became an art form in many groups.
  • Exploiting announcement/order-of-action systems to acquire perfect can't-hit-me-I-hit-you combinations, multiple-action combinations, and similar. Most games which feature powers or advantages that the order of action are vulnerable to unforeseen stacking with these effects.

Breaking the Game isn't quite the same thing as Powergaming, because once a game is Broken, the group rarely continues to play. However, the latter often leads to the former, because Powergaming reveals vulnerable points in game design that are then Broken. Trying to prevent this one-two combination of behavior has led many game designers mistakenly to provide endless patch rules, full of exceptions to cover the exceptions, none of which accomplishes anything except to open up even more points of vulnerability.

Diversity of Gamist design
Considering all these different concerns, perhaps finally the variety of Gamist role-playing design can get its long-awaited, long-denied day in the sun. I've taken a few variables from the Structural Basics section, mainly the ones that can be ascribed to specific game texts rather than the less-tangible, more locally-defined ones.
  • The degree of Exploration relative to Step On Up
  • The role of Fortune in resolving Stakes-relevant conflict in the game
  • How much Gamble vs. how much Crunch
  • The length of a "go," or unit of play necessary to see how well someone does
  • The local units of local loss - how you can tell when someone doesn't do well
  • The degree of metagame mechanics available

Mano a mano
These are duelling games. They're generally written as self-governing, which is to say, no GM necessary, although sometimes a gentleman's agreement about some things is necessary. For instance, in Wizard duels, a player is expected to be truthful when his character's illusion spell is disbelieved. Also, sometimes a Referee or "monster player" is recommended if people want to play in teams rather than against one another.

Melee/Wizard - Exploration is low, role of Fortune medium, Gamble even with Crunch, "go" length = one fight, units of local loss = PC death, degree of metagame is nil

Lost Worlds - Exploration is low to medium, role of Fortune medium, Crunch slightly higher than Gamble, "go" length = one fight, units of local loss = PC death, degree of metagame is nil (or high if choosing the character in the first place is considered)

Dungeon crawl
The classic Exploration paradigm, and arguably the progenitor of the multi-bezillion dollar computer-game industry. The characters must traverse and navigate a dangerous environment and reap the rewards of their discoveries and combat acumen relative to the spiralling risk.

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition - Exploration is medium, role of Fortune is high until after 10th level, fair Gamble and later mainly Crunch, "go" length = a delve, units of local loss = death, degree of metagame = nil

Deathstalkers (System & Setting) - Exploration medium-to-high, Fortune high at low levels especially, Gamble at lower levels with more Crunch at higher ones, "go" length unknown, units of local loss = character death, degree of metagame is nil

Forge: Out of Chaos (Character & System), - Exploration is a solid medium, role of Fortune is medium, Gamble mixed evenly with Crunch, "go" length = expedition, units of local loss = PC death or lack of levelling, degree of metagame is nil

Rune - Exploration is low, role of Fortune is medium to high, Gamble mixed evenly with Crunch, "go" length = expedition, units of local loss vary across several variables, degree of metagame is nil (or high if the GM-round-robin is considered)

Donjon - Exploration high, role of Fortune is high, high Gamble vs. low Crunch (almost all Abilities are really the same thing - a mechanical way to win), "go" length is a delve, and individual "Donjon Levels", units of local loss = destruction of equipment and character inconvenience (death is extremely rare), degree of metagame = quite high

Elaborate setting
This brand of Gamist play evolved almost instantly, beginning with maps and supplements like the World of Greyhawk. It offers a few special problems, the main one being an ongoing Simulationist "creep" in the evolving texts, edition by edition, which can trip up the Gamist priorities of special interest ... in other words, GNS-based Incoherence. One reader even proposed the term "Power Simulationism" for such games, and stated, "These games are the least rewarding to me because they feel like kicking a man when he is down."

Stormbringer 1st edition - Exploration is high, role of Fortune is extreme, both Gamble and Crunch at different instances of play, "go" length = adventure scenario, units of local loss = death, degree of metagame = nil (perhaps a bit in demon creation)

Rifts (with some Simulationist design as hybrid support) - Exploration is medium-low, role of Fortune high at low levels, low at higher levels, mixed Gamble and Crunch, "go" length = firefight, units of local loss = death (or perhaps loot), degree of metagame = nil

Shadowrun (also a Simulationist hybrid) - Exploration is high, medium to high Fortune, mixed Gamble and Crunch (higher Crunch in longer-term games), "go" length = a black-ops mission (a "shadowrun"), units of local loss = character death, loss of profit, degree of metagame varies by edition

Age of Heroes - Exploration is high, role of Fortune is strong but easily assessed, mainly Crunch, "go length = set pieces, loss = characters' agenda per set piece, degree of metagame = nil [note: This game is not based on a canonical setting, but rather on procedures and rules-categories corresponding to a setting type, relating to "adventure fantasy" much as early Champions relates to comics; as such, it is probably the single representative in the category without Coherence problems]

Deadlands - Exploration is high, Situation, role of Fortune is medium, mainly Crunch, "go" length = adventure scenario, units of local loss aren't well defined, degree of metagame is minor but consistently present

Whimsical whackiness
These are usually humorous spinoffs of dungeon crawls.

Tunnels & Trolls - Exploration medium, role of Fortune high, emphasis on Gamble, "go" length = level, units of local loss = PC death or diminishment of abilities, degree of metagame is low except for some whimsy

Kobolds Ate My Baby / Ninja Burger (Situation & System) - Exploration low-to-medium, role of Fortune is extreme, extreme emphasis on Gamble, "go" length = one dinner/mission, units of local loss = victory points (less so, PC death), degree of metagame is medium (often obstructive to others)

Elfs - Exploration is medium, role of Fortune is high, mixed Gamble and Crunch, "go" length = adventure scenario, units of local loss = immediate advantage, degree of metagame = medium.

Gimme some story
These games shift the venue of Step On Up from in-game character action resolution to metagame narration rights, which may or may not entail greater character effectiveness.

The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen - Exploration = medium, role of Fortune is nil, mainly Crunch, "go" length = one tale, units of local loss = control of the narrative, degree of metagame is total. Arguably, this game is more appropriately placed in the "almost role-playing game" category along with Bedlam, De Profundis, and Once Upon a Time.

Pantheon - Exploration = high, role of Fortune is minor, mainly Crunch, "go" length = one story, units of local loss = points, degree of metagame fairly high

Is d20 Gamist?
D&D3E is certainly strongly oriented toward Gamist play, but as for d20, what is it, structurally?
  • levels to describe character attack-options and hit points - but not necessarily levelling-up as a major feature of play
  • classes and possibly races, but these are meaningless on reflection - a game can have one or twenty classes; they are strictly a method for establishing resource categories
  • Six attributes - but with any relationship to effectiveness that you want; one can even tack on another system for primary Effectiveness variables, as in D&D3E

All one really has is a flat-curve resolution method in 5% increments against target numbers, with (a) possible re-rolls (which is what "extra attacks" are), (b) a resource mechanic relative to character survival, and (c) lists of powers. I've concluded that d20 takes on a game-identity to the extent that a designer customizes Resolution, Currency, and Reward into a particular shape. Therefore to "use d20" means one of the following:
  • to imitate or augment an existing form (supplemental material for D&D3E)
  • fundamentally to write your own game (Mutants & Masterminds)
  • and I should mention some attempts at the latter which look more like the former (Star Wars d20, Spycraft)

No wonder it's impossible to discuss d20 sensibly! There's no game there, not even a System. Therefore it passes out of the range of topics for this essay; d20 presents a fascinating economics and marketing phenomenon, but I think it's only meaningful in those terms.

Historical perspective
How is Gamist design distributed across games throughout the hobby's history? I'm now talking about explicit design features and facilitative text in game-books, not play itself. My essay A hard look at Dungeons & Dragons addresses some of the factors that underlie this section.

The most striking feature across role-playing history is the astonishing shift in the late 1980s from assuming that Gamist play was the default to practically nothing - limited mainly to "old AD&D," various D&D imitators, Shadowrun, or Rifts.

I think this rarity is mainly a matter of rejection by texts that facilitated other preferred modes of play. I specifically include AD&D2 to be included in this shift, as I consider it to be mainly incoherent with various and sometimes-contradictory doses of Simulationist design scattered throughout, going all the way back to the Wilderness Survival Guide and the Dragonlance modules. I also think that the various setting-derivative AD&D2 boxed sets of the early 1990s (Al-Qadim, Dark Sun, Planescape, et al.) explicitly facilitate Illusionist Simulationist play.

A similar textual rejection can be found in the publications of Lion Rampant and later (same company) White Wolf, many of which explicitly condemned Gamist play in subcultural terms. In many ways, this can be seen as a reclamation of "hip" for role-playing, or at least for a given company's role-playing products.

In spite of all the textual rejection, I also think that the dearth of texts reveals nothing about the commonality of Gamist play - I suspect that Drift has kept Gamist play alive and quite active, even in the absence of coherent games to use it for, especially for AD&D2, Champions, Amber, and Vampire (see the GNS section below). Discussing why such an overt, accessible, and functional brand of play did not act as a solid demand on the marketplace of game design must await more discussion of game-industry economics.

Then again, perhaps my surprise is a matter of my own subcultural limitations, if related hobbies are considered. Gamism remained alive and well among computer games like Rogue, Nethack, Ultima library (later to become Ultima Online), Zork, Advent(ure), MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs, Everquest, Amethyst, and many more. Unfortunately, I'm an ignoramus about this entire hobby, and any insights into its history, play preferences, economics, and what-all would be very welcome at the Forge.

Oh, and let's not forget that card game that showed up at the game store counters a decade ago. I think that Magic: the Gathering is best described as a portable, customizable wargame - and that part of its popularity may be ascribed to the fact that the customers of the day had never seen a wargame before. Unsurprisingly, a whole sector of people who were involved in role-playing suddenly discovered the hobby they'd been looking for.

From a role-playing design perspective, Magic and many other customizable card games reminded people of a principle that had been abandoned for almost a decade: (1) that competitive Step On Up is actually fun, rather than automatically Broken; (2) that elegant and highly-prioritized game design permits easier entry and more satisfaction in play; and (3) that Exploration may be customized to taste, rather than considered an all-or-nothing variable.

Finally, Gamist play has also cropped up across many products which are sometimes called role-playing games, but are just a little off my personal undefined cognitive space for that label, mainly due to the role of "character" and certain aspects of how resolution is addressed. All of them utilize control over narration as one of the variables of play, thus shifting around the privileges of a traditional GM role, and all of them are explicitly about winning the game much as one wins a traditional card game. They include Once Upon a Time, The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, and Bedlam, and many others seem to be on the way as well. As with the customizable Magic-type games, already they've prompted many changes in role-playing, most notably in terms of formalizing and permitting shifts among who gets to narrate the outcomes of a given resolution mechanic.

GNS issues
Memetic power
Nothing beats Gamism - once you have Step On Up in action, it takes over. The main reason is simple: Step On Up is a recognizable, common, coherent, and rewarding aspect of human behavior, which is why we see it all 'round the place. Role-playing is just another venue. So, basically, everyone gets it, and once present, Situation becomes Challenge, and the cognitive fascination with esteem relative to performance becomes the order of the day. It doesn't rely on any particular game mechanic to be present - consider that any metric for social esteem is a candidate for Step On Up, and that any element of in-game content is a candidate for Challenge. You're bound to find someone's own personal profile for these in the game-content somewhere!

It also takes over easily mechanically in many instances of game design, especially in Simulationist-facilitating games, in two ways. The first way is to perceive system-based opportunities for advantage: breakpoints in point-allocation design, stacking of options into unique effects, and similar. Such things are often offered as neat add-ons in otherwise-Simulationist designs, but they take over fast when character niche-protection switches into literal character-defense. The second way, unsurprisingly, is through reward systems: a traditional character-improvement system can switch to a fully-social Step On Up reward system any time anyone wants, especially since it's self-perpetuating.

Clinton provided this example:
... find a copy of Player's Option: Skills and Powers for AD&D2. It took the broken Simulationism of that game and added a huge layer of Gamism to the construction of characters. I remember making up some serious monstrosities with this book.
The most common Gamist-Drift events in my experience are found in the following games:
  • Gamist-Drifted Champions falls into two types: point-strategizing or movement/action-strategizing. The reward metric is plain old success in in-game conflicts, or demonstrated "superior knowledge" of the game's mathiness.
  • Gamist-Drifted Amber is characterized by Drama-bullying toward Situation-control, essentially an unstructured version of Pantheon. It can also include point-mongering depending on certain rules-interpretation. The reward metric may be in-game social advancement (e.g. Throne War) or simply moment-to-moment struggles over who's in charge of the narration.
  • Gamist-Drifted Vampire consists of extensive breakpoint exploitation. The metric is Champions-like character effectiveness, specifically who can ignore as well as deliver the most damage. More subtly, it's also coolness, whoever gets to be perceived as the most real-Goth of the bunch. Many Vampire LARPs tend in this direction as well, with the added benefits of singles-bar interactions.
All of the above tend toward Powergaming as well, with attendant shifts to the other branches of the Hard Core over time.

The common reaction to this easy transition, for non-Gamist-inclined players, is pure terror - it's the Monsters from the Id! In-group conflicts over the issue have been repeated from group to group, game to game, throughout the entire history of the hobby.

One such thing is a tug-of-war regarding following rules vs. not-following rules. What the rules actually say becomes yet another variable even as people argue about whether they should be followed, and when both of these issues are firing at once, nothing can possibly be resolved. The result is always to consider either following or ignoring rules to be "right" when it goes your way.

Another tack is for some groups and game designers to treat Gamism's easy "in" as a necessary evil and to take an appeasement approach. The "Id" can be controlled, they say, as long as the Superego (the GM) stays firmly in charge and gives it occasional fights and a reward system based on improving effectiveness. This approach may rank among the most-commonly attempted yet least-successful tactic in all of game design. It will never actually work: the Lumpley Principle correctly places the rules and procedures of play at the mercy of the Social Contract, not the other way around. Therefore, even if such a game continues, it has this limping-along, gotta-put-up-with-Bob feel to it.

Simulationist play is an excellent "subordinate" mode for Gamist play. A game designed toward this sort of play is also open to functional Drift toward Sim-only as people toss out that "weird stuff" or that "powergamer" stuff. See Rifts, Shadowrun, and Age of Heroes.

However, Gamist play is a terrible "subordinate" mode for Simulationist play, because it takes over in a heartbeat, for all the reasons listed above. I should clarify, however, that I'm talking strictly about play itself, not texts. Looking at texts through several editions, the overwhelming tendency is to Drift toward Simulationism. I think this phenomenon has several causes, including pseudo-solutions for trying to prevent Gamist play, specifically the Hard Core.

Gamist and Narrativist play have an interesting relationship, but it's hard to see or understand unless you have experience with solid non-Simulationist game play, which very few role-players have. Nearly all of us have dealt mainly with Sim-design and Sim-assumptions, with both Gamism and Narrativism as semi-dysfunctional interfering priorities, and resulting in a lot of compromises rather than solutions. We know that when Simulationist play is involved and either or both Gamist and Narrativist play crops up, then a terrible struggle emerges among the modes. The entire White Wolf line of games represents a fascinating case study of the phenomenon, starting with Vampire and, in my view, culminating with a Narrativist direction with Adventure!. Another case study is the history of the Hero System, which by fourth-edition Champions was resolved in favor of Simulationist design.

But if Simulationist-facilitating design is not involved, then the whole picture changes. Step On Up is actually quite similar, in social and interactive terms, to Story Now. Gamist and Narrativist play often share the following things:
  • Common use of player Author Stance (Pawn or non-Pawn) to set up the arena for conflict. This isn't an issue of whether Author (or any) Stance is employed at all, but rather when and for what.
  • Fortune-in-the-middle during resolution, to whatever degree - the point is that Exploration as such can be deferred, rather than established at every point during play in a linear fashion.
  • More generally, Exploration overall is negotiated in a casual fashion through ongoing dialogue, using system for input (which may be constraining), rather than explicitly delivered by system per se.
  • Reward systems that reflect player choices (strategy, aesthetics, whatever) rather than on in-game character logic or on conformity to a pre-stated plan of play.
Which is a really long-winded way of saying that one or the other of the two modes has to be "the point," and they don't share well - but unlike either's relationship with Simulationist play (i.e., a potentially hostile one), Gamist and Narrativist play don't tug-of-war over "doing it right" - they simply avoid one another, like the same-end poles of two magnets. Note, I'm saying play, not players. The activity of play doesn't hybridize well between Gamism and Narrativism, but it does shift, sometimes quite easily.

Obviously, if the group is disinclined to do this, it can't happen. So in Gamist vs. Narrativist play, absent Simulationism, it may be a matter of "what we wanna do," and a very easy adjustment to system to reflect that in many cases, because how we "do" things is very similar already.

The key to the shift seems to be the reward system, not resolution - not about "how we decide what happens" so much as "how we decide that we're having fun." How a group plays Toon, for instance, depends wholly on whether Plot Points are used for scoring or whether they're employed as a multiple-author cartoon-story creation device. Similarly, the weak endgame of Once Upon a Time is resolved locally per group based on whether the group acceptance of the Ending card or the emptying of one's hand is the metric for ending the game.

If the reward system is less abstract and embedded deeply into the rest of the game, as with Sorcerer and Rune, shifting priorities becomes less easy. The Dying Earth provides a phenomenal example of Narrativist play using previously-Gamist methods, minimizing Drift with three things: non-spiraling game interactions (rock-paper-scissors), limiting returns (e.g. negative exponential improvement), and overwhelming rewards that promote an alternative metagame priority better suited to Narrativism.

The history of Tunnels & Trolls offers, I think, one of the most powerful examples of the phenomenon in the theory of game design ever, back around 1980. I cannot recommend reading and playing T&T highly enough to the student of Gamist and Narrativist play. I also recommend reading all of their solo adventure scenarios, with special reference to date and author, and also as many copies of the magazine Sorcerer's Apprentice as possible. Here's a conceptual hint: the T&T reward system doesn't award experience points for finding or spending money, but that design feature has nothing to do with "realism" at all. It's set up to prevent double-dipping, which is to say, gaining both attribute improvement and better weapons, armor, and spells through one metric. Thus "money" in this game is really a parallel Adventure-Point system for improving character features that are not attributes.

Balance: the sort-of issue
"Balance" is one of those words which is applied to a wide variety of activities or practices that may be independent or even contradictory. (See the linked threads in the Glossary.) The word is thrown about like a shuttlecock with little reference to any definition at all. That's the current state of the art. So I'm taking time-out on the Gamism-only discussion to go on a full GNS balance rant, because the assumption that Gamist play is uniquely or definitively concerned with "balance" is very, very mistaken.

  1. Compare "balance" with the notion of parity, or equality of performance or resources. If a game includes enforced parity, is it is balanced? Is it that simple? And if not, then what?
  2. Bear in mind that Fairness and Parity are not synonymous. One or the other might be the real priority regardless of which word is being used. Also, "Fair" generally means, "What I want."
  3. Are we discussing the totality of a character (Effectiveness, Resource, Metagame), or are we discussing Effectiveness only, or Effectiveness + Resource only?
  4. Are we discussing "screen time" for characters at all, which has nothing to do with their abilities/oomph?
  5. Are we discussing anything to do at all with players, or rather, with the people at the table? Can we talk about balance in regard to attention, respect, and input among them? Does it have anything to do with Balance of Power, referring to how "the buck" (where it stops) is distributed among the members of the group?
They can't all be balance at once.

Within Gamist play
  1. Parity of starting point, with free rein given to differing degrees of improvement after that. Basically, this means that "we all start equal" but after that, anything goes, and if A gets better than B, then that's fine.
  2. The relative Effectiveness of different categories of strategy: magic vs. physical combat, for instance, or pumping more investment into quickness rather than endurance. In this sense, "balance" means that any strategy is at least potentially effective, and "unbalanced" means numerically broken.
  3. Related to #2, a team that is not equipped for the expected range of potential dangers is sometimes called unbalanced.
  4. In direct contrast to #1, "balance" can also mean that everyone is subject to the same vagaries of fate (Fortune). That is, play is "balanced" if everyone has a chance to save against the Killer Death Trap. Or it's balanced because we all rolled 3d6 for Strength, regardless of what everyone individually ended up with. (Tunnels & Trolls is all about this kind of play.)
  5. The resistance of a game to deliberate Breaking.

Within Simulationist play
I am forced to speak historically here, in reference to existing and widespread Simulationist approaches, not to any potential or theoretical ones. So think of Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, and Rolemaster as you read the next part.
  1. One fascinating way that the term is applied is to the Currency-based relationship among the components of a character: Effectiveness, Resource, Metagame. That's right - we're not talking about balance among characters at all, but rather balance within the interacting components of a single character. I realize that this sounds weird. Check back in the Sim essay to see how important these within-character interactions can be in this mode of play.
  2. And, completely differently, "balance" is often invoked as an anti-Gamist play defense, specifically in terms of not permitting characters to change very much relative to one another, as all of them improve. This is, I think, the origin of "everyone gets a couple EPs at the end of each session" approach, as opposed to "everyone gets different EPs on the basis of individual performance."
  3. Rules-enforcement in terms of Effectiveness, which is why GURPS has point-total limits per setting. Note that heavy layering renders this very vulnerable to Gamist Drift.

Within Narrativist play
This gets a little tricky because I can't think of a single coherent Narrativist game text in which balance as a term is invoked as a design or play feature, nor any particular instance of play I've been involved in which brought the issue up. But I'm pretty sure that it's a protagonism issue.

  1. "Balance" might be relevant as a measure of character screen time, or perhaps weight of screen time rather than absolute length. This is not solely the effectiveness-issue which confuses everyone. Comics fans will recognize that Hawkeye is just as significant as Thor, as a member of the Avengers, or even more so. In game terms, this is a Character Components issue: Hawkeye would have a high Metagame component whereas Thor would have a higher Effectiveness component.
  2. Balance of Power is relevant to all forms of play, but it strikes me as especially testy in this mode.

That's the end of my balance rant, but I beg and plead of anyone who reads this essay: I would very much like never to hear again that (1) Gamist play must be uniquely obsessed with balance, or (2) if play is concerned with any form of balance, it must be Gamist. These are unsupportable habits of thought that pervade our hobby and represent very poor understanding of the issues involved.

Pitfalls for Gamist design
Elegance is the key - which is to say, each piece of the system does what it does, has the implications that it has, and doesn't create wonky spirals or novel relationships that devalue the Step On Up or Challenge parameters. Easy to say, eh? Well, it's damned hard to do, as many an inventor of a new board game or new card game can attest.

Defend against Breaking through elegance, not through patch rules. Eliminate, from the ground up, all recursiveness, nonfunctional layers, and mathematical ratios.

Fortune should be present for a Gamist reason, for instance, to introduce uncertainty at specific points, for specific impacts on the goals of play. It can be very rare to absent, or wildly and constantly present, but whatever it is, it needs to "spike" the play-experience rather than dilute it. Using Fortune to model the statistical vagaries of in-game physical effects should be a secondary concern, if present at all.

A Double-Hose occurs when features of a character are forced downward by a low score in some other feature, and when both features are important. In Tunnels & Trolls, for instance, a low Strength and Dexterity limit one's choice of weapons to lower-damage items, as well as lower the "adds" (bonuses) for attacks. If you must have a Double-hose, make it easy to replace or recoup "losses," and also make it easy to escape the Hose soon through character improvement.

Beware of end-runs which permit a Challenge to be solved without the requisite Step On Up ability or competence. Playtest the game multiple times with people who are determined to beat it.

Do not confuse character improvement for "winning," especially if the process is slow and painful. On a related point, do not set the venue and length of a "go," which is to say a unit of success or failure at the Step On Up level, equivalent to the entirety of a long-term, no-set-end, many-session game.

Don't be a weenie - include loss conditions that can be recognized and that do not undercut play. Decide whether such a loss ends the game as a whole or permits it to continue, but do not commit the common mistake of "loss means sit out" - this is not viable for roleplaying. As soon as you have to let people win so that they'll keep playing, the relationship of Step On Up to Challenge dies nastily, leaving no alternative but to reinvent the game in Hard Core form.

Beware of Heartbreaker design, particularly the Fantasy ones. Such games are wonderful to write and often very enjoyable among one's group, but ultimately of little interest to anyone else. More subtly, don't fall into the trap of providing Gamist design-features as an appeasement strategy - do it or don't.

Here's my current shot at a little Gamist design: Black Fire. It's even more alpha-alpha than Mongrel was, for the Simulationism essay, so let's see what happens.

Troubles for the Gamist
GNS incompatibility
The basic hassle arises due to Gamism's "easy in" during play. If one or two people get the bug, so to speak, and no one else does, then GNS incompatibility disrupts play. This specific problem - the Drifted-to-Gamist ensconced in an otherwise-oriented group - is so common among Simulationist play especially that it, like the Hard Core, gets labeled with munchkinism. It's usually seen in texts from bitter non-Gamists and their "grow up from munchkinism" rants.

The following is from the GM section of Arrowflight (2002, Deep 7, author is Todd Downing):
Dealing with Munchkins The other side to the "cheating" coin is the competitive gamer, a breed also known as "Munchkin." Munchkins are players who dilute the experience through a combination of rules-mongering and overt cheating.

[alarming rant snipped; includes examples of lying about dice rolls - RE]
The best games are those where everyone is playing a role, striving for a goal and working as a unit (that doesn't mean that every character must like every other character, but player must at least properly play the role they've chosen). If you find a Munchkin in your midst, there are numerous ways to deal with him, depending on the offense:

[methods follow, all relying on the GM having final say in any aspect of the game - RE]
... most players are at least conscientious and intelligent enough not to harm their own playing experience as well as that of the other players, but the exceptions are out there. As they say, "there's one in every group." You don't have to tolerate them in yours.
Downing's prose is clearly angry. To him, any degree of striving for advantage among players, for anything, constitutes breaking the Social Contract, to the same degree as lying about dice outcomes. Let's break that down, though. He doesn't mind striving for a goal, as long as it's an in-character, in-game goal, and much Gamist play can be consistent with that. And much Gamist play also prioritizes working as a unit with other players. All that's left is the "playing a role" distinction, and Downing's real beef seems to be that "playing a role" is not these players' first priority, i.e., they are not Simulationists in the mode that is reinforced throughout the text of Arrowflight.

Although I understand where he and many other authors are coming from, which is GNS-synecdoche pure and simple, this and similar anti-Gamist texts go too far - Step On Up play, even with a dose of competition, does not deserve being labeled unconscientious and unintelligent. Basically, the authors confound two things.
  • The player who turns any instance of play into social power-tripping, rivalry, rancor, and disruption. I shall call this person "the Prick." The important thing to realize is that this person is not a Gamist at all, and that Pricks disrupt any form of play; a Simulationist-Gamist mismatch is one thing, but stubborn disruption is another. The fault lies at the Social Contract level, not at the GNS level.
  • The person who really wants to play Gamist but is in the wrong group, giving rise to secondary dysfunctions of various sorts. This person is usually derided as "the powergamer" or "the munchkin" by the others, but I hasten to add that the fault lies with the GNS mismatch, not with the person as a social human, and that his or her mode of Gamist play may not even include the Hard Core.

This section is perhaps harsh on the Simulationist approach and assumptions. I also need to acknowledge that a bored Gamist-inclined player, seeing no engaging Challenge, has been known, on occasion, to turn his attention toward the Hard Core, specifically Turnin' and Breaking the game. If it's clear that the other individuals don't appreciate this, and if he or she continues, then what's happened is the Birth of a Prick that some better understanding of contrasting GNS goals might have prevented. I used to see this all the time in Champions groups, and it's horrible. I can at least sympathize with where Downing's coming from.

Troubles within Gamism
Now I'm talking about troubles within Gamism rather than with it. All three modes boast an array of specific dysfunctions, and here are the sorts that Gamists encounter among their own. (Side point: Simulationist dysfunctions include The Impossible Thing, Transparency, and placing "realism" as the core value; Narrativist dysfunctions include railroading, sizzle over steak, and interfering through deprotagonism.)

The core problem in Gamist dysfunction is not knowing what the Step On Up is actually about. It results in all kinds of things, most usually ramping-up the competitive levels and shifting to the Hard Core, usually in the form of Turnin' and Calvinball beyond what other members of the group want to do. A related problem concerns Author vs. Pawn Stance, which is to say, differing standards for moment-to-moment Exploration of Character. When I see a player completely abandon all Stances but Pawn through several scenes of play, it's like the sinister drumming emanating from the leafy jungle the night before the massacre. Many a GM in a Gamist-oriented group strictly enforces justifications of characters' behavior in an attempt to stave off the problem, although frankly, if he has to resort to decrees, threats, and pleas, it's probably already too late.

These "core" issues should look similar to the GNS-mismatch issue described above, because it's the Birth of a Prick all over again, only within the Gamist mode.

The other, more extreme dysfunction arises from the player who is basically a poor sport, or, "the Wimp," which is unfortunately the most common dysfunctional Gamism. It has its parallels in other Step On Up, non-role-playing activities; people are sure to recognize them from their hobbies.
  • Critical commentary that goes beyond simple joshing or observation into abuse: "You suck," delivered to someone who happened to roll a 1 rather than a 20; this is often combined with an inability to tolerate joshing oneself. (What degree of verbiage counts as abuse varies from group to group.)
  • Manipulating the others' parameters for how-to-play, e.g., tattling to the GM that so-and-so is violating his or her character's alignment.
  • Stating what another player "should have done" as a form of constant criticism. This is a bigger deal than it looks, as in Gamist play, it's all right not to make the best choice all the time, but personal choice in the Crunch or Gamble is sacrosanct. Essentially, it constitutes protagonism in Gamist play. The Wimp de-protagonizes other players' characters all the time by de-valuing the players' decisions from his armchair. Breaking the Contract: if I can't win, I'll take my football and go straight home; or lashing out at allies as if they were foes; or being socially obnoxious until granted an advantage or perceived entitlement.

  • Plain wussy-cheating: stating it was "in" when it was "out," and similar, and pouting when the tactic doesn't work, usually escalates to breaking the baseline cooperative Social Contract that underlies the Step On Up in question.
Bluntly, in any context besides role-playing, this kind of behavior will get your ass kicked for you, or at the very least, instantly excluded from the activity. It's simply not socially tolerable. The real question is why it's widely observed in the role-playing hobby, for which I can see two reasons.
  1. Wimpiness is often observed among young people as they work out the "rules of life" through all sorts of play-activity, among other unpleasant behaviors such as bullying. This is why adults usually don't play with kids unless they can enforce certain social standards, i.e., act as social mentors in addition to playing the game.
  2. I think that the Social Context of role-playing is currently in disarray. It's out of the scope of this essay to go into the issue in detail, but see the Social Context discussion on the Forge for some notions. The short version is that friendships cannot be placed at stake based on in-play events - if they are, then Step On Up places way too much pressure on the agreement to play together at all.
Confusingly, many Gamist-oriented players call Wimpiness "munchkinism," making three distinct uses for the term so far.

The bitterest role-player in the world
Meet the low-Step On Up, high-Challenge Gamist, with both "little red competition" dials spun down to their lowest settings.

This person prefers a role-playing game that combines Gamist potential with Simulationist hybrid support, such that a highly Explorative Situation can evolve, in-game and without effort, into a Challenge Situation. In other words, the social-level Step On Up "emerges" from the events in-play. This view, and its problematic qualities, are extremely similar to that of the person who wants to see full-blown Narrativist values "just appear" from a Simulationist-play foundation. It's possible, but not as easy and intuitive as it would seem.

His preferred venue for the Gamist moments of play is a small-scale scene or crisis embedded in a larger-scale Exploration that focuses on Setting and Character. In these scenes, he's all about the Crunch: Fortune systems should be easy to estimate, such that each instance of its use may be chosen and embedded in a matrix of strategizing. Point-character construction and menus of independent feats or powers built to resist Powergaming are ideal.

As for playing the character, it's Author Stance all the way. He likes to imagine what "his guy" thinks, but to direct "his guy" actions from a cool and clear Step On Up perspective. The degree of Author Stance is confined to in-game imaginative events alone and doesn't bleed over into Balance of Power issues regarding resolution at all.

Related to the Stance issue, he is vehemently opposed to the Hard Core, even to any hints of it or any exploitable concepts that it seizes upon most easily. For instance, reward system that functions at the metagame level is anathema: not only should solid aesthetics should be primary, but he is rightly leery of the Hard Core eye for such reward systems. "Balance" for him consists of the purity of the Resource system and unbroken Currency. It's consistent with the Simulationist Purist for System values and represents further defenses against the Hard Core.

He probably developed his role-playing preferences in highly-Drifted AD&D2 or in an easily-Drifted version of early Champions, both of which he probably describes as playing "correctly" relative to other groups committed to these games.

This man (I've met no women who fit this description) is cursed. He's cursed because the only people who can enjoy playing with him, and vice versa, are those who share precisely his goals, and these goals are very easily upset by just about any others.
  • His heavy Sim focus keeps away the "lite" Gamists who like Exploration but not Simulationism.
  • The lack of metagame reward system keeps away most Gamists in general.
  • Hard Core Gamists will kick him in the nuts every time, just as they do to Simulationist play.
  • Most Simulationist-oriented players won't Step Up - they get no gleam in their eye when the Challenge hits, and some are even happy just to piddle about and "be."
  • Just about anyone who's not Gamist-inclined lumps him with "those Gamists" and writes him off.
I've known several of these guys. They are bitter, I say. Imagine years of just knowing that your "perfect game" is possible, seeing it in your mind, knowing that if only a few other people could just play their characters exactly according to the values that you yourself would play, that your GM-preparation would pay off beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Now imagine years of encountering all the bulleted points above, over and over.

At present, I have no suggestions to help them, just as I cannot help those who expect to see "story" consistently emerge from play that does not prioritize it. I hope some dialogue at the Forge might come up with some solutions.

What I like about Gamism
Gamist-inclined players tend to be unashamed regarding their preferences. Their role-playing is easily understood, diverse in application, unpretentious, and often perfectly happy with its role relative to the person's social life at large. The Gamists have a lot to teach the rest of the hobby about self-esteem.

Some folks seem to think that Gamist play lacks variety, to which I say, "nonsense." Scrabble is "always the same," and it's fun as hell; simple games do not mean simplistic, shallow, or easy. What matters is whether the strategy of the moment is fun. Well-designed, multiple-edged Step On Up activities with fully-developed competition are endlessly diverting and provide an excellent basis for friendship. Anyone who thinks that such things in role-playing necessarily cannot be fun and will necessarily destroy social interactions is badly mistaken - what's needed is better, more diverting, and more multiply-angled design. D&D3E and Rune are just the start, and their overt roots in 1970s-style dungeon crawls indicate, I think, that the hobby's efforts in Gamist design are so far limited to getting its first steps re-created properly.

What I'm calling for is a better appreciation for functional Gamist role-playing, overtly and even joyfully stated in the games' design and texts. Given the introduction of D&D3E, I think this long-unmet need is being satisfied without my help, but I also think that lots of people might enjoy Gamist play that's not D&D style fantasy. Why not whole new venues, such as romance, or sports!

Good new designs remind largely unexplored. Where are the sensible reward systems that integrate Challenge and Step On Up in some way, and are not wholly defined by increasing Effectiveness values or promoting tug-of-war over narration? Where are the loss conditions that are not recursive regarding continued play?

The Hard Question
Each of these three essays concludes with a challenge to the role-player who prefers the mode under discussion. For the Gamist, the question is, why is role-playing your chosen venue as a social hobby? There are lots and lots of them that unequivocally fit Step On Up with far less potential for encountering conflicting priorities: volleyball, chess, or pool, if you like the Crunch; horse races or Las Vegas if you like the Gamble; hell, even organized amateur sports like competitive martial arts or sport fishing.

Do you play Gamist in role-playing because it doesn't hurt your ego as much as other venues might? Is role-playing safer in some way, in terms of the loss factor of Step On Up? Even more severely, are you sticking to role-playing because many fellow players subscribe to the "no one wins in role-playing" idea? Do you lurk like Grendel among a group of tolerant, perhaps discomfited Simulationists, secure that they are disinclined to Step On Up toward you? In which case, you can win against them or the game all the time, but they will never win against you?

I accuse no one of affirmative answers to these questions; that's the reader's business. But I do think answering them should be a high priority.

See the Glossary in the other essays as well as definitions and explanations in the "GNS and related matters" essay.
Actor Stance
the real person determines the character's decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have.
Author Stance
the real person determines the character's decisions and actions based on the real person's priorities, Author Stance includes two sub-categories
in "Author" Author Stance, the person then retroactively "motivates" the character to perform the acts in question; in "Pawn" Author Stance, he or she does not. Pawn Stance is often identified with Gamist play, but this identification is false for either Stance or Mode.
this term is undefined. See the discussion in this text.
Balance of Power
how the "buck stops here" authority regarding resolution in play is distributed among members of a role-playing group. This term was first applied to role-playing interactions by Hunter Logan.
Breaking the game
a dysfunctional technique of Hard Core Gamist play, characterized by rendering other participants' efforts ineffective without recourse.
a potentially-dysfunctional technique of Hard Core Gamist play, characterized by making up the rules of a game as it is played, especially in the immediate context of advantaging oneself and disadvantaging one's opponents. "Tagged you! Tags mean you're out!" "It's Tuesday! Tagging doesn't work on Tuesdays!" This term, obviously, is pulled from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes.
the Situation of play in the Gamist context, specifically, adversity or imposed risk to player-characters of any kind. It's the imaginative arena for the more general Social Contract of Gamist play, called Step On Up.
Character Components
the features of a role-playing character. All are present for all characters, even if one or more is not explicitly part of the textual rules. See Effectiveness, Metagame, and Resource; also see Currency.
any functional combination, including singletons, of GNS priorities. Please note that "coherency" is not a word.
refers to play in which two or more different GNS modes may be expressed in such a way that they neither interfere with one another nor are easily distinguished through observation; the term was coined by Walt Freitag in GNS and "Congruency". I am revising the term to "congruence" in the interest of grammar.
Creative agenda
the aesthetic priorities and any matters of imaginative interest regarding role-playing; replaces all uses of "premise" in the original essay aside from the specific creative agenda of Narrativist play (for which the term "Premise" is retained); Step On Up, The Right to Dream, and Story Now represent the creative agendas, respectively, of Gamist, Simulationist, and Narrativist play.
The Crunch
an application or type of Challenge, based on high predictability relative to risk.
the rate-of-exchange relationship within and among Character Components.
specific resolution mechanics; see Drama, Fortune, and Karma
Director Stance
the real person determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character's knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore the player has not only determined the character's actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters. Director Stance is often confused with narration of an in-game event, but the two concepts are not necessarily related.
The Dream
commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically in-game cause and pre-established thematic elements. As a top priority for role-playing, the defining feature of Simulationist play. See my essay Simulationism
the right to dream.
simply, role-playing which is not fun. Most Forge discussions presume that un-fun role-playing is worse than no role-playing.
Effectiveness (a Character Component)
any quantities used to determine success or extent of an action.
social and personal imagination, creation of fictional events through communicating among one another.
The Gamble
an application or type of Challenge, based on high risk relative to predictability.
The Hard Core
Gamist play with minimal or even absent Exploration; see Breaking the game, Calvinball, Powergaming, and Turnin'.
role-playing with two identifiable GNS priorities in action; empirically, one is apparently always subordinate to the other, and a threesie game is as yet unknown.
Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect - how actions and events in the imaginary game-world are resolved in terms of real-world announcement and imaginary order of occurrence.
incompatible combination of GNS priorities, applies by definition to play, but often applied secondarily to game design. Abashedness represents a minor, correctable form of Incoherence.
The Lumpley Principle
"System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play." The author of the principle is Vincent Baker, see Vincent's standard rant
power, credibility, and assent and Player power abuse.
Metagame (general) - all aspects of play that concern non-Explorative matters or priorities; in terms of my layered model, Social Contract and GNS (creative agenda).
Metagame (a Character Component)
all positioning and behavioral statements about the character, as well as player rights to over-ride the existing Effectiveness rules.
Metagame mechanics
where System and Social Contract meet, without Exploration as the medium.
a derogatory term used in several different ways, including by non-Gamists vs. Gamists in general, by Hard Core or heavy-Step Gamists vs. Wimps, and by high-Exploration Gamists vs. Hard Core play.
a potentially dysfunctional technique of Hard Core Gamist play, characterized by maximizing character impact on the game-world or player impact on the dialogue of play by whatever means available.
Resource (a Character Component)
any available usable pool upon which Effectiveness or Metagame mechanics may draw, or which are reduced to reflect harm to the character.
Reward System
enjoyability payoff that prompts further play, usually expressed in Explorative terms but not restricted to Exploration.
Screen Time
the extent of attention afforded to a given player's Explorative contributions from the other participants.
Social Context
positioning of one's role-playing hobby relative to other humans outside one's gaming group, whether they are role-players or not. See Social context.
Social Contract
all interactions and relationships among the role-playing group. All role-playing is a subset of the Social Contract.
what stands to be lost and/or gained during Gamist play; the term may be applied at either or both Step on Up or Challenge levels of play.
cognitive position of real person to fictional character (see Author, Actor, and Director Stance definitions). Coined by the RFGA on-line discussions.
Step On Up
social assessment in the face of risk. As a top priority of role-playing, the defining feature of Gamist play.
Story Now
producing, heightening, and resolving a Premise. As a top priority of role-playing, the defining feature of Narrativist play.
System (character creation, resolution including IIEE, reward system, metagame mechanics)
the means by which imaginary events are established during play (see the Lumpley Principle).
a potentially dysfunctional technique of Hard Core Gamist play, characterized by treating one another's characters as the primary source of Challenge.
a dysfunctional form of Gamism characterized by poor sportsmanship, i.e., the unwillingness to accept a loss.

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