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 rec.games.frp.advocacy (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. Rec.games.frp.Advocacy 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...