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Using the Threefold in Design

Started by greyorm, June 07, 2001, 07:02:00 PM

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Well, the title more or less says it all.

Basically, how do YOU use the Threefold in design?  

How does it help you design your game?  

How do you respond to people who claim it is of little to no use in design because you can't design a mechanic all Narrativists will agree on (or somesuch)?

What are its strong points and weak points in using it to design your game?
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Ron Edwards

I think it's Step Three or so in designing an RPG.

Step One is best described as "the vision." It can be anything - a notion about dice mechanics, a notion about a cool and unusual society, an interest in a given moral issue, a visual image of a neat swordsman with a tattoo ... anything. "Hey, that would be great to role-play."

Step Two is, I think, getting one's head on straight about how many players would be involved, what sort of interactions they might be having, what might be considered "good" among them. And no, I do NOT think these issues should be left utterly up to the role-players ... the designer should at least have a personal vision of the actual people at actual play. Stances might be considered at this point too ('cause "stance" is something a player DOES).

Step Three follows directly from the previous - now it's time to think about WHAT EXACTLY IS FUN about this RPG. Is it the challenge of winning/losing? Is it experiencing the flow and causal chain-of-events? Is it the thematic potential as expressed by narrative structure?

And then we'd move into all the aspects of system: resolution (D/F/K), the Currency of character generation, reward and punishment stuff, and much more.



Alright, time to own up, a big part of the reason I'm asking is because I'm currently being argued with on another list about the usefulness of GNS in designing a game.  Bascially, I'm being told "You can't use the Threefold to design a game."

Something I think everyone here would disagree with.
I'm looking for counters to this, examples of games designed using the Threefold, mechanics that support the Threefold's goals, ways the Threefold was used to design a game, etc.

Here's some of the other statements being made:
"Different motivations do not require different methods.  You're trying to equate general approaches to play with specific decision motivations, and that isn't what the Threefold does."

"Feel free to come up with a description of a narrativist style.  Hell, describe several narrativist styles in detail.  That would be good.  Do the same with simulationist styles and gamist styles.  That would be good.  Those could be used to help design games [but the Threefold by itself is useless in design]."

"What is a dramatic resolution? How do you support it with a mechanic?  What makes that mechanic better-suited to dramatist play than, say, simulationist play?"

"I'll believe I'm wrong when you provide an example of a mechanic that clearly supports one of the threefold styles without benefit to somebody in another one of the styles."

"...have we seen any examples yet of people who have actually used the threefold (instead of something vaguely like it) in the actual implementation of their goals?"

I've written extensive responses to this so far, but I'd like some concrete examples I can quote.
Any help?
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Jared A. Sorensen

I quote my own work here:

eight -- wickedly complex take on stance that even I don't quite understand yet, a game that has a beginning and an ending...I just wish more was online.  Trust me on this one! :smile:  

octaNe v2 -- a response to my own work on Pulp Era, which in hindsight is an uneasy mix of Narrativism and Simulationism.  For example: Attributes and Merits -- why are they in there?  Now I know: because you need them for "completeness."  My current thinking: they're utterly unnecessary for the game I'm trying to make.

Schism -- way Narrativist (well, it's a supplement for Sorcerer, duh)

Platforms -- I wanted to make a Gamist system.  End of experiment.

Lead or Gold -- Another experiment, this time with "values" instead of attributes.  I wanted to kinda do the whole Hero Wars thing where your character is defined by things other than Phys/Mental/Social abilities

Squeam 3 -- #1 was a joke, #2 was a bad joke...I think #3 is a decent game with some fun things in it.

InSpectres -- way experimental for me.  Trying to approach a familiar subject from a new angle and use that angle to generate material -- ie: humor, rather than rely on naturally funny players or "wacky" writing.

There's some other's all pretty much "haute couture" game design (ie: "Who would wear that out in public?").

jared a. sorensen /


Alyria is being designed using Jester's GEN model.  (I know that it's not quite the same, but since Alyria falls into the Narrativist category, there shouldn't be any conflict in this regard.)  The style of play that is evolving is almost a semi-enlightened round robin story/troupe style storytelling experience, with actual rules to formalize and (somewhat) constrain the scope of the narrative.  This is directly a result of our focus on Narrativism as a design goal (specifically, Setting-based Narrativism).

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown


Ok, perhaps a rephrase of where I'm trying to get with this will help.  Ron's thinking is that system matters in design and that the Threefold influences the system.

That is, a system can be a "Narrative" system, or a "Gamist" system or a "Simulationist" system, and a game is better off if it aligns itself with one of these goals mechanically as well as via intent.

So, basically, mechanics support or enforce goal.

(Please feel free to correct me if I'm misrepresenting you in any way, Ron...that's why I'm asking)

However, it has been posited elsewhere that mechanics are neutral, and any mechanic can be used to support any goal (I don't necessarily agree with this) citing that there are no mechanics which purely cater to one axe of the Threefold.

Can someone name a mechanic that supports a particular style?  A Gamist mechanic, for example, or a Narrative mechanic, that cannot be used adequately by the other stances?

Am I wrong in my assumption that the "System Does Matter" essay states that mechanics influence/help/hinder goal and that this means certain mechanics are tied to certain goals?
If I am wrong, where's the catch I'm missing? (understanding that the System document is two years old at this point)

The reason I bring this up is because I'm involved in a debate with someone who insists mechanics are stance neutral, but is willing to have their mind changed with cited evidence of such, however I am failing to provide such.

Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan">
"Homer, your growing insanity is starting to bother me."

[ This Message was edited by: greyorm on 2001-06-12 01:34 ]
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Any sort of plot point system which allows the players to add new story elements based on what's "dramatically appropriate" could be considered fairly strongly narrativist. I normally point at octaNe when discussing this sort of stuff, 'cos it's (a) fairly well developed
(b) clearly written and (c) fun.

Ron Edwards


I'd expand Gareth's point outward a little, such that a system that permits players to "interfere" using Director stance and so on ANY TIME THEY WANT, is probably facilitating Narrativism. I suggest that Coincidence in Extreme Vengeance is probably the most developed version of this idea.

The mechanic that your interlocutor should consider is Fortune-in-the-middle. Take a look at Extended Contests in Hero Wars, Group Scene Resolution in Story Engine, and the mechanic for establishing the order of actions in combat in Zero.

The difference between one of these and the traditional establish order, then work out each action one-by-one, is so huge that it's like entering another dimension. You might want to emphasize that none of these (except maybe SE) is "system-light," and certainly none of them is a Drama system (which many see as "no system at all," which although untrue makes it hard to discuss with them).


Mike Holmes

On 2001-06-12 01:11, greyorm wrote:

Can someone name a mechanic that supports a particular style?  A Gamist mechanic, for example, or a Narrative mechanic, that cannot be used adequately by the other stances?

Gamist mechanics are often fairly obvious. Experience points gained for obtaining gold is a classic one that I quote from early D&D. Levels and especially classes tend to be gamist. Classes promote gamism by limiting what a character can do in an attempt to balance the game in terms of character power. This balance suggests competition between the GM and even the players. Rune is overtly Gamist, having rules for accumulating victory points and winning. What could be more gamist than that?

As far as Simulationist, rules that seek to do justice to verisimilitude and genre. In the first case you have rules like armor penetration and systems based on physics models for determining damage from falls. These are intended to make the world more believable mechanically. In the second case, you have rules like Feng Shui's wilder is better rule, where players are punished if they don't come up with an action movie style description of what their character is doing in combat. This is meant to enforce the feel of the genre.

Narrativist rules Ron has pretty much covered.

Remember that System Does Matter says that any system (and presumably, therefore, mechanic) can be used to run a game that you intend to use any style. But the system may not support that style well, so why fight the system when there are others that are better for that style.

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

Zak Arntson

I use the G/N/S at each stage of my game design.  My design tends to follow a Simple Premise -> Setting/Body -> Mechanics.

So ... three of my own games:


Courts & Corsets, I am thinking social, rules-light, group storytelling, Narrativist.  Premise: "A Costume Drama with its high drama, intense tragedies, and great triumphs."

Null Compliant, experiencing a robot (in the clunkier sense, no streamlined androids) coping with its loss of purpose and its steadily declining functionality, but reveling in its newfound independence.  I am thinking Simulationist, to keep me focused on the player experiencing being the machine.  Premise: "Machines coping with their loss of function while experiencing self-awareness."

Chthonian, the purpose of this game is to create a Lovecraftian Narrativist game.  Premise: "Lovecraftian themes played with a heavy emphasis on Story and all players creating that Story."


Courts & Corsets, I've already got a clear idea for the setting.  Influenced by movies like Amadeus and Dangerous Liasons, I want to recreate the costume dramas and all the pleasantries and backstabbing therein.  It occured to me that in these films, most characters are at odds with each other, so I consider adding a sense of slightly competitive Gamism.

Null Compliant, to support the theme, my initial setting will be a blasted landscape where machines fight peoples' wars long after the people are gone.  Factories churn out machines to collect material, fight battles, and expand their territory.  The players will be playing Null Compliant machines, malfunctioning robots which place self-preservation over the needs of the Factory.

Chthonian, the first treatment gets three different settings, Pulp Adventure (inspired by Indiana Jones, Lovecraft's Houdini story, and others), Weird Tale (the longer weird fiction stories, more typical of Call of Cthulhu adventures), and Shocking Discovery (the short stories with the shocking revelation at the end that leaves characters mad or dead).


Courts & Corsets, being a social "beer & pretzels" game should have very little in the way of rules.  So I created a simple bidding system with a finite resource, which easily implements the competitive element.

Null Compliant, the dice mechanics with binary thought in mind.  So, in many cases the Mainframe (GM) can just call out the difficulty (00 through 11) and the Machine can either do the task or not.  Simple and binary.  For trickier things, I use d8's, where 1 2 4 or 8 is a success.  (it would be just as easy to flip a coin, but powers of 2 are for atmosphere).

   Also, to promote the idea of a machine struggling between functionality and independence, there is the concept of Compliance.  The more Compliant a machine is, the better it functions but the danger of losing self-awareness increases.  The less Compliant, the more independent but malfunctional.

Chthonian, first off, I want ONE die mechanic.  And I want to use the weirdest die, the d12.  The mechanic should either be a single roll + modifiers > difficulty, or between two factors: roll + modifiers > roll + modifiers.  A simple subtraction provides the EXTENT of the roll, which can be used for narrative or roll-play purposes.

   Important to Chthonian is to promote a Narrativist style with the players helping out.  So there is a system of Points which affect the character in-game (as a loss of sanity/respectability at the cost of true understanding) and can be spent by the _Player_ to allow Author-stance: Automatic success at rolls, introducing a character/event/item into the story, flipping the focus of the scene (thanks to Paul Czege for that one), & hampering another character (NPC or otherwise).

So there you go.  Hopefully it wasn't so long as to bore everyone.  I couldn't provide a good Gamist example, since I'm still hammering out my Dungeon Crawl game.

Zak">">Harlekin Maus Games

[ This Message was edited by: Zak Arntson on 2001-06-12 14:09 ]