On GNS in my OSR? It's more likely than you think.

My own words from 2000, a few short months after the genesis of the threefold model.

From: Courtney Campbell 
Subject: Re: Getting player buy-in to a surprise 
Date: 2000/05/26
It is a 'system' a 'model' for discussion.. .
For someone who claims to know so much about communication, you certainly 'get
off' on going to newsgroups and saying, and I paraphrase; "Your stupid model
is a waste of time. How dare you dumb fuck-wits come up with some common
terminology to discuss something you enjoy. How come you don't just play the
game?"
in answer to your question, We
do just play the game, just not while we
choose to discuss it on a newsgroup.
So, I'm into it, I've always been into it, and I always will be.

Of course, the threefold model is—Well, I mean, Ron Edwards is still active in gaming. It isn't a reflection of him as a human, I certainly don't want to be held accountable for the things I wrote from 1997-2001, so I'm not in any way looking to hold him accountable for what he said. I like Ron as a human, and I'm super glad he's a game designer.  And yet I'm going to speak my mind on this.

The threefold model is terrible, made up of nonsensical self-referential spherical cows. Now with the advent of healthy gaming groups broadcasting thousands of hours on twitch, has firmly ensconced itself in history next to other theories like phrenology, flat-earth, and anti-vaxxers. Yeeet.

GNS stands for "gamist/narrativist/simulationist". Twenty years ago, I thought it was amazing. Finally I knew how to talk about different approaches to gaming. Although it seems exciting at first glance, It led to a dark place.
Next, I encountered GNS. I read some of the essays on TF and realized there were what I perceived as errors in the theory. I and others pointed that out here, and we were always met with a circle-the-wagons mentality. It quickly became apparent to me that GNS was immune to criticism because anyone who criticized it by definition didn't understand the theory. And given the extremity of the jargon, it was always possible to retreat from any conflict into semantic obscurantism. Of course, a theory which can't be questioned or falsified doesn't have a lot of meaning, and anyway there was never a response to the original criticisms. In particular, there was an exchange between Bruce Baugh and Ron Edwards where Bruce pointed out flaws and the most Ron could do was suggest he shouldn't tear down others' (false) theories, instead he should build up his own. —Chiaroscuro, 2006

The Threefold Model


The first red flag is when the definition for a term is an essay. I accept as natural law that if you can't define a term objectively (i.e. in a determinate way) in less than a paragraph, then it is by its nature not useful as a tool.

I've noted this tendency on the parts of a lot of people who arrive at the Forge from a scholarly background - accustomed to reading texts as representatives of identified points of view, they aren't used to dealing with texts as "thickets of debate" in which everyone understands that the point of view is expected to emerge eventually.- Ron Edwards

Very simply, there are essays defining what those terms mean, and they contradict each other. It seems simple! You might tell yourself Gamist is a focus on procedures, narrativist is a focus on narrative and drama, and simulationist is, well, something like gamist, but maybe involving mostly games people didn't like?

The use of the terms matched the way someone might use the word communist in 1960. Unless it was the group you identified with of course. This is what eventually turned into the "Big Model". But the big model is wholly reliant on the "creative agendas" of, you guessed it, gamism, narrativism, and simulation.

In reflection, I believe the threefold model was vague because it was simply a way for people who had difficulty managing group communication challenges to create an in-group-out-group dynamic to shore up their own insecurities. You can read the essays yourself linked above, I've written before about how the theory is internally inconsistent, when I was less circumspect about what I would say on the internet.

Brain Damage


My impression is that people who talk about "System matters", GNS, and such things, have never actually read any of the source material. They have invented some thing inside their head, which makes sense based on their assumptions, but breaks down with any actual contact with what the text says, or interaction with anyone else's assumptions of reality. It isn't helped by the fact that the field is filled with a ton of jargon, having meanings that are very specific and different from their common use.

The fundamental flaw of the Big Model is its core thesis. Ron defines the various material factors of role playing  as character, system, setting, situation, and color, and says that the reaction to these elements is the premise.

"Premise is whatever a participant finds among the elements to sustain a continued interest in what might happen in a role-playing session." — Ron Edwards GNS and other matters of role playing theory
I don't agree in the strongest possible way. The things that sustain my interest is augury of unknown realities, experiencing meaningful choice, sharing a life experience with my friends.

Everything he lists that appeals to people who play role-playing games is superficial and irrelevant. I will play any game with any Dungeon Master. Character, system, setting, situation and color are almost completely irrelevant.

Now, sure I have preferences, but the whole artifice of the situation is that gaming groups break up because the participants are brain-damaged by the fact that the game is incoherently made up of multiple modes, instead of focused on a single one, G, N, or S.

I'm not kidding.
More specific to your question, Vincent, I'll say this: that protagonism was so badly injured during the history of role-playing (1970-ish through the present, with the height of the effect being the early 1990s), that participants in that hobby are perhaps the very last people on earth who could be expected to produce *all* the components of a functional story. No, the most functional among them can only be counted on to seize protagonism in their stump-fingered hands and scream protectively.. .
[The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say "brain damage," I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*]
Later
All that is the foundation for my point: that the routine human capacity for understanding, enjoying, and creating stories is damaged in this fashion by repeated "storytelling role-playing" as promulgated through many role-playing games of a specific type. This type is only one game in terms of procedures, but it's represented across several dozens of titles and about fifteen to twenty years, peaking about ten years ago. Think of it as a "way" to role-play rather than any single title. - R. Edwards, Forge
He's talking about D&D.

"It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts,” said the Han to the Uighur. It is a man, justifying an animals actions as not those of a living thinking creature for his own edification. That is not hyperbole, it is the core of tyranny, when your opponents preferences are evidence of some sort of mental illness. Do not claim to advance your ends that I am comparing what Ron said to genocide; this isn't about Ron at all. I am saying many men in their hearts dream themselves your master. Call it gate-keeping, or manipulation, or whatever you want. Redressing in-group/out-group power dynamics as scientific fact is happening all the time.

Ron Edwards (and super-friends like Luke Crane) had dysfunctional gaming experiences growing up. I did not. It's clear today that functional gaming experiences are the norm because we have video of thousands of hours of people playing with all different kinds of focuses and different games, and the only problems that exist are social problems. And that's knowledge that's propagated. In the 80's and 90's, games were blamed for problem behaviors—when really the source of the problem was mental illness, social maladaptation, and all too frequently exploitative abusers, the "missing stairs".

Now, I can read internet forums today without going blind in my right eye from anger, because when someone starts talking about a problem game, there is a resounding cry of "Talk to your players". Engage in communication instead of trying to engage in a war of manipulation within the context of an activity.

There is a lot of thought and a lot of work and literally hundreds of thousands of words written about game theory on the forge and by various proponents. You can read it. It may be my 20 years in the mental health field that makes it look like people processing trauma in the open (and re-inflicting it on others) but you can read it yourself and make up your own mind. I'm not the first person to come to a similar conclusion.

The Past and Future

I don't agree. The RPGA promotes itself as taking care of role- players' interests. As long as this is the case, they should not put restrictions on material which is highly relevant to quite a few gamers; this is neglecting gamers' interests. The only reasons I can think of for banning homosexual issues are marketing reasons. Holter, Matthijs, 1993

I was 16 when that was written. It's important that we remember the past so that we don't repeat it. I've seen people in the last month mention both System Matters and GNS (and thankfully, saw people make the same points I made above). And you thought ten year old tweets were bad. 

Role-playing theory is a subset of communication's group facilitation theory, with a sprinkling of theological communication theory. (We see the main role of the facilitator in such a group as contributing to process and structure, not content. Sound familiar? Ever heard that old saw about the Dungeon Master being an impartial adjudicator?) It's a shared human experience and it has concrete techniques that can be taught. You don't need special training—everyone facilitates groups and communication.
Examples of concrete techniques:  encouraging exploration: Establishing the focus of the session. Setting up the question or issue that we are going to explore. Encouraging trust. Acting so that people are disposed to work together with the facilitator to create an environment in which all can participate. Helping people to engage with the subject and each other. Pose some initial questions or open up conversation. Don't undermine player action to force an outcome. Communicate so that everyone understands the situation in the same way.  Include verticality in design, Address and avoid power struggles in the clinical sense. Make sure choices in games are interesting, significant enough to notice and have meaningful consequences. Participants should be able to define their own objectives and methods for achieving them; choices should not be coerced or manipulated; and choices should be based on valid information. Et al.
The core of all this started, when Mary on rec.games.frp.advocacy started talking about what factors influenced what a game master decides. Is this a reasonable thing for the non-player character to do? Does this also produce an interesting experience for the player? Working out the answers to these with the group is the way.

You want to know what's fair? You have specific assumptions, a culture, and relationships with your friends. When you are in a group, the group shares preferences within the scope of social norms while respecting individuals. You can call this a social contract, but it wouldn't be worth the paper it's not written on. It is, as a social tribal animal, what occurs in every grouping. You discuss and negotiate expectations, verbally, non-verbally, or if handicapped, using an aid. You develop a ritual and a culture as a group.

Everything else, eventually, comes down to preference. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to insinuate you within a system of control. Stay free.

Happy American Thanksgiving. This is normally where I pitch my Patreon, but a friend of mine, Amanda, is struggling this season. It is within our power, in our comfortable, cozy, holiday, warmth, to help another wonderful human suffer less. I urge you to do so. I am so grateful that I am finally in a place where I can give to others. Gofundme for Amanda.


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8 comments:

  1. It's interesting how all this stuff rose in a tidal wave, seemingly cropped up more or less everywhere RPGs were discussed and had a moment in the sun influencing game design, and then seems to have receded away when people realised that they didn't need to buy into Ron's theory to publish a successful indie release.

    I attempted my own summary of GNS theory and the issues around it a while back. I think both you and I come from the same position that Forge rhetoric was very much a "speak for yourself, buddy" sort of thing, where the core people assumed that everyone else was having the same problems with gaming that they themselves struggled with.

    I'm entirely willing to believe that Ron Edwards doesn't have fun in a game if it ends up serving multiple creative agendas at once, but I think it's unwise to assume that everyone else is similarly unable to appreciate a range of different flavours at the feast.

    As far as Ron living down the "brain damage" stuff goes, I think the issue is that he doubled down so hard at the time - going out of his way to angrily assert that no, he wasn't speaking metaphorically, as a biology professor he meant literal brain damage comparable to the sort of traumatic issues suffered by the victims of child abuse. Then he went comparatively quiet after he declared that RPG Theory Is Finished and closed the relevant section of the Forge. The upshot of this is that for a good many people the brain damage thing is the last time he pinged their radar, so whenever he shows up again they go "Aren't you the brain damage guy?" and the whole thing gets dredged up.

    If he'd definitively disown his old words it'd be much easier to not hold them against him. As it is, he was pretty much saying that running a tabletop RPG session for younger members of your family is causing them damage comparable to molesting them. Generally, when you compare a significant cross-section of a community to child molesters, you stop being welcome in that community.

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    1. Hey, I got into RPGs fairly recently (a decade ago) and really appreciated your summary of this weird Big Theory GNS drama.

      I think the most striking thing to me is that the oldest version of just... "As you're DMing, think about the flavors you're blending between gameplay and realism and stuff, you know?" is really a genuinely useful thought device, and I assumed that was the extent of GNS. I can't believe it spawned a million words of arcane tribal debate across decades and became a monsterous theory that demands summary posts.

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  2. A lot of heavy stuff to chew on.

    Have a safe weekend! See you Tuesday, where we just do our thing :)

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  3. Thanks - that was an informative read. Fortunately I paid little attention to the Forge as the rhetoric struck me bitd as an exercise in labeling theory and the worst aspects of structuralism, lacking in any applicability at the table.

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  4. i found it to be psuedo intellectual talk to make selves clever and not useful and mostly used to punch down on other people games. ive had ppl abuse me with language of forge. making diagnosis with no medical basis is disgusting.

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  5. I had no idea things got so dramatic in the realm of RPG philosophy. Wow.

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  6. Huh. I think I sort of have absorbed the GNS concepts by osmosis without ever hearing that acronym. I didn't know it had a well defined emergence, or that there was so much social drama surrounding it, at the time. I've definitely seen discussions and arguments which could be framed as a GNS kind of debate. I guess that's part of it's appeal. Well, that was an interesting read, and I suppose also slightly sad.

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