Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why RPG Theory has a Bad Rep- Part I: The Threefold

If one visits some of the more common RPG sites online, there's a good chance that sooner or later you're run into what is call GNS, which sadly is the most visible 'RPG Theory' today. While I think it's declining in importance, it has left a long shadow of bad feelings that's cause many to knee-jerk away from anyone speaking theory or design. Passions are heated and the number of flamewars over this is beyond count.

So, why is that? How did GNS trash RPG Theory as a whole to the point where the best nearly any forum with a Game Design subject can do is talk about how to roll dice in a different way?

Like most things, it didn't begin with GNS. It started much earlier, to my knowledge in the Usenet group (r.g.f.a) around the mid 1990s. And it's here that I'd like to start.

Originally r.g.f.a was a typical advocacy group on Usenet where someone could scream that RuneQuest was better than D&D and get immediate foes claiming the reverse. In short, it was a dumping ground for flamewars. This changed however as the group membership abandoned exchanges about which game was better instead talking about characteristics of gaming itself. in effect became the first noticeable RPG Theory group online.

Into this enter one David Berkman (one of the authors of Theatrix). Berkman advocated a style of play based around 'what was good for the story', not what the mindless dice or needs of simulation would call for. 'Advocated' as is 'this is the best way, any other way is stupid' type of advocating.

This was unacceptable to other members of the forum, those who based their gaming upon the desire to recreate a internally consistent game world that would allow deep immersion role-play. In such a campaign, even examining the 'plot', let alone altering it in the name of ‘improvement', was an ice cold bath dumped upon their life passion.

Thus the r.g.f.a core divide came into being between Story-Telling vs. Simulation as the two sides were called (later Story-Telling would be replaced by the label Drama).

Under fire, those on the Simulation side of things spent a great deal of time and effort defining what they actually believed. And for good reason, after all it's difficult to defend something unless you can say what it is. Along the way, they also defined what Berkman's ideas of Story-Telling driven gaming meant to them.

Eventally Berkman left the group although his influence remained until its end.

Afterwards the various members decided to build upon the defintions made during the great debate. They saw things as divided between Drama on one hand, and Simulation on the other as a result of the Berkman flamewars.

But the point was raised that people who just gamed for the fun of gaming didn't seem represented. Thus the term Gamist was coined and from there the leap (generally credited to Mary Kuhner) was made to what became the Threefold Model (also called GDS by some).

The important thing to me about the Threefold is that was created under fire, and was create by those who with rare exception called themselves Simulationists. Mary Kuhner's influence both upon the model and the newsgroup as a whole was the most powerful, although John Kim who maintained the group FAQ certainly had an impact as well.

So the end result was what one would expect. A model with a very nice definition of Simulation (I should note here that Warren Dew, perhaps the best example of what the term Simulation was meant to mean didn't like the term that much), but rather half-baked and even somewhat insulting definitions of the other two corners.

I truly feel that was unintended, but still the unavoidable result given that the creators of the Threefold didn't really understand any other style of player besides their own. They could not but describe Game and Drama except as 'other'. Instead their failing if anything was the refusal to take input from those of other styles who over the next few years as the 90s came to an end engaged them in Threefold debate after Threefold debate.

Many tried (including myself from the Game POV), especially various people who would have like to have identified with Drama. Nearly all give up, only to be replaced by new people who arrived and had the same reaction. Finally the supporters (most importantly Kuhner herself who drove much of the threads in the newsgroup) of the Threefold got fed up with all the attacks and left r.g.f.a. The newsgroup died.

Along the way was a fair amount of interesting discussion and good ideas. It’s worth reviewing some of the threads in Google Groups. But the mental image left to those aware of r.g.f.a was endless bickering over word use, all for a model that didn't really define or mean much to most gamers given its Simulationist founding and control.

So the Threefold was born in flames, and died in flames. With a hint of Personality Cult around its creator at that. But far worst was to come in that line with Ron Edwards and GNS...

Parts II, III, IV, V


Mad Brew said...

I have dug around in the Google Group usenet stuff, looking for some "diamonds in the rough" as far as theory was concerned, but I quickly burned out on the flames.

Which is why I like articles like this which boils much of the events down. Speaking of John Kim, I found his site (while full of dead links) to be very informative about some of these early theories.

What is sad is that it appears that most of these early theorists (and many of today's) couldn't seperate themselves from their preferred style of play to bring some objectivity to the table.

All the communities (I use that term loosely) devoted to theory always seem to succumb the flames and die (r.g.f.a., Forge, etc.). I look forward to your entry on GNS.

Chgowiz said...

Ha! Usenet as a whole tended to follow that path as you describe. After the Never-ending September, it tended to collapse under its own weight. There are many gems to be found, but usenet-archaeology is not for the faint-hearted.

I have to admit, I've never heard of GNS or game theories in general. It'll be interesting to read something about them.

Gleichman said...

Mad Brew: The sad thing is that there are some good things in there. But it was all lost in the noise and flamewars making almost impossible to find.

Chgowiz: r.g.f.a wasn't hit by the Never-ending September to that great of a extent. It was always a low volume place (unlike r.g.f.misc). The people involve were often long term gamers, and even included at times rpg authors like Bruce Baugh. In fact, the quality of many the posters is what made it even more sad.

mthomas768 said...

I think the obvious conflicts and hard feelings that have sprouted up around GDS/GNS obscures many people (like me) who watched the flames and picked out the pieces they felt were relevant. Any discussion of strongly held theories carried out over the anonymous medium of electronic communication lends itself to implosion. The trick is (assuming you don't want to get embroiled in the warfare) culling the diamonds from the dirt.

I lived through most of the original r.g.f.a as a lurker and found some of it to be utterly useless, while other bits helped shape my own approach to gaming (for the record color me simulationist/gamist). If nothing else it taught me to turn my eye to my own gaming style and see how it works in conjunction with the people I play with.

jamused said...

I think the Threefold helped me refine my understanding on what I liked and wanted more of in my RPGs. I think it was at its worst when it was used as a taxonomy of stable, even essential, traits of individual gamers. What surprised me about r.g.f.a (perhaps because it was the only non-technical newsgroup I really participated in) was the number of people who would flat out disbelieve you when you told them you enjoyed X in games and found Y boring or annoying.

Gleichman said...

mthomas768- I think you touch upon the best to come out of the r.g.f.a years. One would think the simple concept that people play for different reasons and they may not get along is common sense. But common sense has never been common.

Jamused- Yes, there was a great deal of that in r.g.f.a although it would take Edwards to make it into an art. While I do think some people do lie to themselves about various things, what's fun and what's boring is rarely one of them.

jamused said...

Heh. I almost said that it seemed to me that Edwards took that particular aspect as a foundation of a theory, but then I figured I'd wait to be snarky until you posted about him and the GNS...

marcochacon said...

Yeah--the realization that people want different things out of their gaming is an eye-opener. One-true-wayism isn't at all unique to the gaming hobby scene but it certainly was/is strong there.

One of the problems with RPG theory is that as rpg-play is heavily grounded in identity politics (let someone start telling me how generic systems suck and see if I don't find that person a jerk) you very quickly hit a point where people start taking things personally.

Of course, if we aren't careful, we're also saying things that are meant personally ... and the whole thing goes to flames instantly.


Tony said...

Very nice history lesson. This makes me wonder what camp games like White Wolf's Storyteller come from, because you've got almost equal attention to both.

Zweihander said...

This synopsis shows what bothers me the most about the structures of most RPG theories. They tend to put an inordinate focus on describing concepts in terms of what a person wants out of the game. Trying to catagorize gamers, and RPGs for that matter, by the type of enjoyment they derive or generate from play is too subjective and leads to the kind of value judgements that can only end in flames.

It's what I like about your layers idea. It classifies what's going on at the table without trying to say that one is more important than the other. That's the sort of thing that folks should decide for themselves.

Gleichman said...

Marco and Zweihander- yes, identity politics all the way. It's rather depressing that all the theory I'm going to cover over the next few articles are based in that.

Tony- We'll get to White Wolf in the next article. The Threefold didn't put games in camps, it considered them... games. The Threefold was attempting to explain what drove *player* decisions, and individual ones at that.

Zachary The First said...

Good stuff. This is a series I've been looking forward to.

Noumenon said...

Look, if this post is going to be getting new readers by being nominated for Open Game Table, can you edit it to explain what the hell "GNS" stands for?

Gleichman said...


1. I didn't nominate it, so the 'goal' wasn't to get new readers. It was to talk to people about something they've already encountered.

2. If you don't know what GNS is, you could google it, or read ahead in the series (I think it's the series that was nominated, not just the first post but I could be wrong), it's covered there.

3. Just for you, I've added a hyperlink to the wkki entry on it. Knock youself out.

4. Drive-by rudeness ill becomes you.

Noumenon said...

You're right about the rudeness -- I could've just asked you to do a favor to new readers who weren't in tune with your blog, or argued about the advisability of acronyms in general. Sorry.

I would have googled the phrase "GNS theory" but "GNS" is standing alone here so I was thinking Google would return a bunch of other unhelpful acronyms first, which is true.

Warren Dew said...

I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that we simulationists defined the story orientation as what it meant to us. In particular, after reading a lot of Berkman's posts, I was able to convince Berkman, not just myself, that I understood what it meant to him. It was shortly after I then said that it still wasn't the one true way to me that he stopped posting much in the group. I think most of the dramatists who objected to the threefold - there were a few who did not - primarily objected to the implication that there was no one true way, and by implication, that their way was not the one true way.

I agree that the model seemed to be most useful to simulationists. I suspect that's only because the simulationists were rarer in the hobby as a whole - albeit not in r.g.f.a - and thus felt a greater need to defend themselves against people who did think their own way, which wasn't simulation, was the one true way.

Your contributions helped me a lot in terms of understanding what I consider the gamist mindset. This understanding was of substantial practical use to my gamesmastering.

I won't pretend that my understanding ever made it into Kim's FAQ or into any summary of the threefold, though. I always thought the FAQ definitions were pretty simplistic, for simulation as well as for the nonsimulation corners.

Gleichman said...

Warren Dew said...I won't pretend that my understanding ever made it into Kim's FAQ or into any summary of the threefold

This last is why my article reads as it does. A individual member or even a a handful of members don't matter when the group as a whole ignored them 95% of the time.

If it had been you in charge of the FAQ, or if you werewere the primary influence behind r.g.f.a ( instead of Mary )I think things would have been much better.

Elliot Wilen said...

Coming to this long after the original post, but I wonder if Warren or anyone can point to that final exchange where he was able to convince Berkman that he, Warren, understood Dramatism and still didn't consider it the one way.

One thing I've wondered about those discussions over the years is indeed how Dramatism really works. Berkman's descriptions seemed impossible, which he would deny through some sleight of hand, but when I eventually got a copy of Threatrix, I found it was exactly what everyone accused it of being...a set of techniques for railroading PCs through a three-act story. Still, I've seen some Theatrix players and interpreters of GDS-Dramatism describe it in terms almost like Sorcerer fans--i.e., not a simulation perhaps, but an interactive story created by the GM repeatedly challenging and testing elements of character.

psychohist said...

I would note that Berkman's preferred style of play was a very particular form of story oriented play. There are a lot of different kinds of dramatic games, and he was focused particularly on the diceless mechanics free type.

I believe the relevant exchange was around December 1996. I've emailed with a link to what may be the relevant thread.

Elliot Wilen said...

Thanks. I couldn't find it in the thread you sent, but that might be a limitation of Google Groups, which has gotten worse over the years. (Still, what I did read was interesting.)

You're right, though, that David's advocacy can be unpacked into (at least) (1) diceless and (2) story-oriented. You could add in (3) traditional drama-structure, as very specific form of story-orientation, within RPGs.