What GNS theory claims

GNS theory is a part of this model of roleplaying developed by Ron Edwards that we call the Big Model. GNS is perhaps the most famous part of the overall theoretical framework, the most contested and the most used for different purposes. It’s also rarely understood very well, which makes it a worthwhile topic here. A discussion at Story Games convinced me that there is still a need for yet another introductory article – I’ll make a point of writing mine in a very exact and simple manner, perhaps it’ll be useful to somebody.

Sourcing the theory

Ron originally introduced the GNS theory in this short article he first published in 2001, I think. The basics of the theory are there, but I don’t think that it’s very fruitful to use that as a current reference – GNS and other matters of Role-playing theory launched a lot of interest in GNS and rpg theory in general, so the theory has been polished and argued over a lot since then.

The tricky part is that, as is the wont of Internet, all this polished GNS discussion is actually just a bunch of shards of discussions that have gone of for years in a multitude of different channels. The best bet of a newcomer to this discourse really is not to go shift through these archives, but rather to ask somebody familiar with the material to explain it, or to read one of these handy summation articles. Like this one I’m writing here, for instance.

Other people who’ve written about this topic include Vincent Baker, Ben Lehman and M.J. Young, to name the few that pop to mind first. Ideally, assuming that we’re all understanding the theory, our writing basically says the same things in all the important points. We might explain ourselves differently, though, which is the motivation for writing more of this introductory stuff – if you think that you understand one of us, but another one seems to be saying something different, then the chances are that you’re not understanding either explanation of the theory. Or we’re disagreeing on something, that’s a possibility too, I guess.

GNS in the Big Model

As I intimated above, Ron also has this thing called the Big Model, which is a more general rpg theory. GNS is often described as a part of the Big Model or an outdated precedessor, but I don’t think that either of these is very accurate. GNS details a very important part of the larger-scale Big Model in detail and provides some unique claims that are not available in the Big Model, either – one might compare this to the relationship between the general theory of evolution and the more specific theory of sexual selection: Darwin used the latter to explain how the former might instantiate in practice among the prominent sexual life-forms. Similarly GNS theory models how Creative Agenda (more on that later) forms cohesive structures out of the Coherence properties defined by the Big Model.

My particular goal here in writing this GNS introduction is to write it specifically with the help of Big Model terminology. Reading the original GNS essay is so difficult partly because Ron didn’t then have the words for describing what he was trying to say in a very exact manner – he only came up with the necessary terminology a couple of years later, when he formed the Big Model. Thus it’s a pretty good idea to write some texts that take the whole of GNS and explain it again in modern terms.

Creative Agenda

Shared Imagined Space

“Shared Imagined Space” is just theory-speak for the fiction created by playing a roleplaying game. The term captures the internal qualities of genuine roleplaying fiction: it’s “shared” by the players so that everybody gets to influence it (if it weren’t it’d be some sort of representative art), it’s primarily “imagined” instead of represented (if it weren’t, we’d be playing a hardcore larp of some sort) and it’s a “space” in the sense that it allows dynamic movement or change (if it weren’t, we’d be doing a static piece of some sort that were intended to be appreciated as an end-result rather than a process, like roleplaying is).

To explain GNS in a modern manner, I first need to explain Creative Agenda, which is the sort of the object GNS categorizes. The Big Model defines roleplaying as this activity that we engage in that utilizes a Shared Imagined Space – roleplaying is not defined by having a role or having adventures or having a story, but simply by having imaginative content we create through the process of play.

(I should note here that my readership will inevitably include folks who’re not reading so much to learn about GNS but to find out whether they can agree with the Big Model. If you find that you disagree with the above definition of roleplaying, that’s cool; for example, I myself find the Nordic theory definition of “immersing in character” to be logically usable, even if the field of roleplaying it implies is narrow, leaves out much of what I find interesting in roleplaying and takes in many things I wouldn’t recognize as the same. For our purposes we’re going with SIS, above.)

As the definition of roleplaying is so wide, different sorts of roleplaying can emerge to utilize the Shared Imagined Space (SIS from here on; I’m being old school here, most people have adopted Ben Lehman’s suggestion of calling this thing simply “fiction” in everyday discourse). I like to compare this to the sort of holodeck they have in Star Trek: anybody on Enterprise can say that somebody is “on the holodeck”, but that doesn’t tell us why or what they’re doing there – they might be using it as a learning tool, using it to play a game, using it to adventure in a historical milieu… all sorts of possibilities here, and most significantly, all sorts of reasons for the people to do those different things with the holodeck, too.

If SIS is the holodeck, then Creative Agenda is the answer to what somebody is doing on the holodeck. What’s more, it’s the specific answer to what they’re doing on holodeck that they need the holodeck for. This latter detail is only important in the larger context of the Big Model, but for now we can assume that our roleplayers are using the holodeck because there is something they want to accomplish that the holodeck specifically allows them to – they’re not messing around with a SIS because they’ve nothing better to do or because they want to impress the girlfriend or any of those other possibilities, but because they genuinely want to do something imaginative and shared with their friends. Then we can say that Creative Agenda is the answer to what they want to do.

So Creative Agenda is a declaration such as “I want to create a great story” that explains why somebody is messing around with a Shared Imagined Space. It doesn’t have to be verbalized, and often isn’t – the notion of “agenda” here is that people can want things they don’t know they do, or that they don’t know how to achieve. I’m sure most people have had this sort of experiences in many different facets of their life, when they realize only afterwards that they wanted something that they didn’t realize was missing. Like all other points here, I can write about volition vs. Creative Agenda in more detail later if necessary, for now let’s accept that a person who wants to roleplay generally speaking has a Creative Agenda to go with this wish, explaining why he wants to roleplay.

(It’s notable that I’m not discussing the general properties of the group of Creative Agendas in much detail here. One might ask whether there is an infinite number of different CAs, for example, and many other similar questions. We can discuss these things in more detail at some other time if you’re interested.)


Now that we know what a Creative Agenda (CA; I’m going to start abbreviating this, too, to make this lighter to read) is, we come to another central Big Model concept also necessary for explaining GNS in a modern manner. Coherence is a quality of the Creative Agenda that pertains to how players interact when playing the game – it’s ultimately a social issue having to do with communication and appreciation of interaction. (Remember that we’re ultimately defining the whole act of roleplaying as manipulation of a Shared Imagined Space: genuine interaction is necessary for this to happen in the first place for a space that is “shared”.)

Defining Coherence comprehensively is a very complex issue, so what we’re going to do here is to give a good faith working definition and work from there. The following might raise some nit-picky questions, but it should be enough to help realize what we’re going for.

Two players have a Coherent relationship of play if and only if their interaction is fulfilling for both of their Creative Agendas – fulfilling meaning that they both are fulfilling the goals their CAs depend on. We call a play relationship that is not working towards this sort of fulfillment for either or both parties incoherent.

So Coherence is basically the same as being able to genuinely work together for the benefit of both players simultaneously. More generally, we say that a whole group of players is playing in a Coherent manner if they manage to work towards the fulfillment of the whole group’s Creative Agendas. Indeed, we even say that two CAs are Coherent towards each other if they effortlessly and naturally fall into this sort of mutually beneficial relationship.

(I should note here that we also call many other things Coherent based on this basic property. For example, a game text might be Coherent if it instructs players to come to the table with Coherent CAs and incoherent when it does not comment on the topic or, worse, displays support for several, mutually incompatible CAs.)

When a whole group is playing Coherently, we call their common appreciation of their mutual goals the Creative Agenda of the whole group. In this manner an individual’s Creative Agenda, when it matches that of other players in the group, transforms into a common agenda for all. For example, if all the players want to create a story about the vampiric struggle with the Beast within, then we, ceteris paribus (and man o man what a reservation this is in this particular example…), say that the group has a Coherent Creative Agenda. All the players are not necessarily wanting to do the same exact thing (like one might prefer being the GM while another wants to play the protagonist), but their exact roles in the game will still support each other, and they appreciate the goals and actions of each other, understanding them.

GNS theory: CA modes

Now that we know what a Creative Agenda is and what it means when Creative Agendas are Coherent, we can finally look into what, specifically, the GNS theory claims. The first of these claims concerns the concept of CA mode. A short definition for that, too:

A Creative Agenda mode is a set of Creative Agendas that are all Coherent with each other and incoherent towards other Creative Agendas.

So that’s very simple – we call a set of CAs a mode if and only if they form a well-defined equivalence class regarding the Coherency relationship; any Creative Agenda is either in the mode or outside it, there are no liminal cases.

The first claim of the GNS theory (although one often interpreted as a necessary result of the Big Model in general as well) is that such things as CA modes exist at all. This is not obvious by any means – many critiques of the theory can basically be interpreted as attacking against this often implicit claim. Thus it’s perhaps best if I spend a few paragraphs arguing for why modes can be said to exist.

The first, and most obvious, argument is empirical: we can examine our own roleplaying experiences and accounts of others to form an overall landscape picture of how and why people actually roleplay. Then we can perhaps recognize groups of Creative Agendas that work better or worse together, and ultimately come to find a mode that is reliably Coherent internally, but has some sort of incoherence trouble when interacting with other sorts of CAs. This was pretty much what Ron originally did when forming the GNS theory, he observed play and recognized a number of CA modes.

A second way for establishing that CA modes exist is to define one and demonstrate how it fulfills the requirements above. This is possible if we’re willing to work in concrete sociopsychological terms – we have certain human drives that are fulfilled by certain sorts of roleplaying, and we can determine how these goals interact with other CAs in a social setting. This sort of discussion has been worked out after the empirical stage after Ron first established his model – the CA modes he recognized can be affirmed to exist to some degree by further theoretical models based on widely agreed-upon understanding of how humans work.

A third, more theoretical way for establishing the existence of CA modes is to analyze the Coherence relationship and display that it fulfills the set theory requirements for an equivalency relationship – that is, if one can demonstrate that Coherence is transitive, reflexive and symmetric, then the set of Creative Agendas necessarily forms one or more CA modes. This relates more to examination of CA Coherency than GNS per se, though, so I’ll leave it for another time.

Because this is a basic account and I don’t have all day, we’ll leave in-depth examination of this question for some later date. For now it’s enough to note that although the GNS theory is usually formulated in absolute terms that use the concept of CA mode, most of the later results hold some relevance for weaker formulations as well – we don’t, strictly speaking, need such a clean and simple structure in our human Creative Agenda landscape to make use of the related observations; even a critic who remains unconvinced of the existence of CA modes after reviewing the in-depth arguments would usually agree that the CA modes posited by GNS are, if not pure modes, then at least groups of CAs that display a remarkable amount of practical Coherence towards each other and some serious challenges to such towards other CAs. So even if the claims GNS theory makes prove not to be hard-coded into our human relationships as 100% certain and absolute truths as GNS claims, minor exceptions won’t impact on the overall usability of the theory’s results.

GNS theory: the three modes

The actual meaty, strongly argumentative core of the GNS theory is the claim that there exist three recognizable CA modes, which are also named and defined by the GNS theory. The theory doesn’t claim that these are necessarily the only possible CA modes, only that these three are the ones easily observable in rpg history. The three recognized by GNS are as follows:

  • Gamism: this mode includes all CAs where the players concern themselves with recognizing and resolving challenges, enjoying the excitement of struggle and the social esteem, however playful, that accrues to the victor. The reason for why Gamist agendas tend to be highly Coherent towards each other is tentatively that players interested in this sort of performance-based entertainment are equally interested in their own performance as they are in that of others; the personal achievement is largely established in relation to how the others are doing. This is also why Gamism doesn’t cohere with other sorts of CAs: if the other players do not provide the social esteem you’re looking for in performing well (that is, if they’re not interested in your performance), then it’s all a waste of time. Just like playing Chess against somebody who doesn’t care to try for real.
  • Narrativism: this mode includes all CAs where the players concern themselves with establishing thematic questions within the SIS and then answering them to create story dynamically through player interaction. This mode is difficult to understand for many, and it’s often misinterpreted as being a generic “I like story!” agenda; my personal theory is that this is because we didn’t actually have anything in our culture that consistently provided Narrativist enjoyment before roleplaying, so we’re having to struggle with learning to distinguish a wholly new thing here. Narrativism tends to not play well with other sorts of CAs because the creative structures used in dynamic story creation (as opposed to having the GM prepare a story beforehand, you understand) tend to be impossible to use if the whole group is not on board with the effort – and, of course, if the rest of the group doesn’t play along, then you can’t create story together, but have to do it alone instead.
  • Simulationism: this mode includes all CAs where the players concern themselves with experiencing the SIS matter they introduce as what it is, without bringing in external ambitions apart from directing where the experience is going. Simulationist CAs tend to crash and burn if the other players are not on board because players with other sorts of agendas are usually willing to bend the SIS to serve their own CA in ways that seem shallow and pointless from the Simulationist point of view – there is no such thing as perfect realism of game experience, but the places where a Simulationist decides to save on effort are often quite different from where others might, resulting in others being bored by the content a Simulationist produces and the Simulationist being frustrated by the disinterest.
An illustration of what GNS claims, exactly.
An illustration of what GNS claims, exactly.

Now that we have named some CA modes, it should be noted that people will often use expressions such as “my Creative Agenda is Gamist” to mean that their current CA falls into the Gamist mode. This is pretty clear, but people also might say “I am Gamist” to mean the same thing, or perhaps that “most of my roleplaying is done to fulfill a CA that falls within the Gamist mode”. This is all just language use and shortcuts that make sense, but probably quite a bit of the misunderstandings related to GNS are based on misreading these statements. This is especially true when we get “game text X is Gamist”, which means “game text X primarily provides support for and encourages a CA that falls within the Gamist mode” and “our group is Gamist” and all sorts of other transferences of the terminology. These are not at all difficult to understand if you understand what the CA modes actually are, but if you don’t, it’s easy to interpret them as some sort of gamer or game text classification scheme.

In Summation

GNS claims that not only are there Creative Agendas, but also that some of them work better together than others, in a phenomenon called Coherence. Furthermore, CAs form discrete families called CA modes, which allows us to learn about the internal structure of the field of CA. Based on practical observation GNS claims that the field of CA is divided between three major CA modes called Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism.

As can be seen, the GNS theory itself is really simple, at least if you paid attention when I defined Creative Agenda and Coherence, above. What makes this stuff so important is the fascinating proposition of examining roleplaying from the viewpoint of social agenda, and bravely imposing structure upon that chaotic field by determining structural rules of human behavior that manifest as GNS modes. It’s a very ambituous model that has something most other models of roleplaying have lacked, an unified explanation of the phenomena of actual play interaction.

GNS, when properly understood, can be used as an analytical tool for developing game design and personal play practices in different ways. It is also useful as a more generic framework for working with Creative Agendas, even when the work happens on a detailed level within individual GNS modes – the modal theory includes plenty of detail on how and why we humans want to engage in play within one of the modes anyway, so understanding those parts of the theory for your preferred mode is useful for fine-tuned rpg work within that mode. For example, understanding the Egri-derived premise-setting model of Narrativism that Ron developed in his further work on Narrativism is useful for developing Narrativist games and becoming a better player within this mode – and similar specific modeling is available on the other modes as well.


If you know your GNS theory and disagree on some point, feel free to correct me in detail; I reserve the option to fix this article for factual accuracy if that becomes necessary, just because people will be reading this later and referring to this whether it’s accurate or not. If you don’t know this stuff and have questions, feel free to ask them – I might well write more about the Big Model if there’s interest in this stuff out there.

14 thoughts on “What GNS theory claims”

  1. This post is inspiring in that it makes me want to construct a mathematical space and start defining CA and whatnot in there.

    Random questions or nitpicks. Understand as whichever is more convenient.

    More generally, we say that a whole group of players is playing in a Coherent manner if they manage to work towards the fulfillment of the whole group’s Creative Agendas.

    The definition of CA was about a pair of individuals. Does this definition for a group consist of pairwise coherent relations (any two players play in a coherent manner) or something more complex, like the play of all two (non-empty) sets of players supporting each other? I’m assuming the latter. They are equivalent if coherency is an equivalency relation.

    (For something similar, see independence in probability theory; it is possible to construct random variables such that they are pairwise independent, yet still the entire set is not independent.)

    A third, more theoretical way for establishing the existence of CA modes is to analyze the Coherence relationship and display that it fulfills the set theory requirements for an equivalency relationship – that is, if one can demonstrate that Coherence is transitive, reflexive and symmetric, then the set of Creative Agendas necessarily forms one or more CA modes.

    This sounds very interesting. Personally, I am somewhat sceptical about transitivity. (To be meaningful it is also necessary for the set of creative agendas to be non-empty, which can probably be taken for granted.)

  2. Your question about the exact definition of Coherence of group play is interesting in that these details are not nearly cut and dried – Coherence has not been examined in detail in theory discussion, and different writers take different phenomena as their starting points.

    As I’m starting by defining Coherence as a functional playing relationship between two players (rather than something more socially rooted in whole-group dynamics), from this viewpoint the overall Coherence of the group is first and foremost an issue of whether the individual player can engage constructively with the concrete moments of play that spring from what his fellows are doing. Big Model analysis here would say that the key issue is whether Ephemera are received and interpreted in a meaningful and appreciative manner by the individual player.

    On that basis I’d say that the concept of whole-group Coherence is just a short way of saying “the majority of the group had Coherent working relationships with each other, and I was one of them”. A tad cynical, perhaps, but my practical play experience is full of examples of perfectly Coherent play where a minority of the group was, however, marginalized (sometimes viciously) to preserve that very same interaction. From this viewpoint there really isn’t such a thing as whole-group Coherence, there’s just groups with more or less complete working relationships between individual players. Calling a group where everybody is pair-wise supporting everybody else “Coherent” while a group where one player is essentially ousted from the group so that everybody else can have Coherent play would be called something else doesn’t make sense to me – a group is Coherent when there happens Coherent play: the proof is in the pudding.

    Hmm… so apparently I’m a group-Coherence agnostic. Live and learn. This goes pretty deep into analyzing Coherence, though, so perhaps it’s better to make it a new post somewhere. We could go to the Forge, post some actual play accounts of our Coherent play and see if the folks there can tell us whether Coherence really exists as anything else than person-to-person communication relationships.

  3. That opens up the exciting possibility of multiple agendas coexisting in the same game – for example, a Gamist pair contribute to the fiction, and mutually appreciate each other’s ability to Step on Up, while a Narrativist pair use the others’ contribution to the fiction as grist for their thematic mill, so to speak. Is this possible? I feel like maybe this is what we see happening in a lot of groups that are described as “incoherant”, there are in fact different pairs or groups of people withing the game, participating in an agenda, but those groups shift and change. We see frustrated play only when people’s preferred agenda is never addressed, or when one person is playing to their preferred agenda, but no one else is picking up on that. This seems to gel with a lot of what Levi talks about in his stuff – that a lot of what the Big Model would call “incoherance” is actually pretty fun play, just more complex.

    How do you feel about that Eero? Can multiple agendas coexist at the same table? Can they contribute to the same fiction? Or must the whole group be playing the same agenda, all the time? Most excitingly, can we design games that facilitate this?

  4. Yeah, Simon, I think it’s totally possible to be in the same room and the same table, and ostensibly play the same game, yet actually only communicate meaningfully with a subset of your co-players. Although it’s much more common to have the majority communicate coherently while a minority is ousted out of play altogether, I think I’ve seen group dynamics where the situation is pretty much as you describe – my big fantasy campaign around the beginning of the decade was a breeding ground for this sort of thing, due in part to my insistence on making the whole game a big field test of GNS; I embraced all CAs and did my best as GM to facilitate whatever it was the players were interested in. This frequently causes the group to split into cliques that informally vied for GM attention (D&D is not designed for having different agendas in play simultaneously, as there’s an information bottleneck where the GM sits), which meant that little changes in the group composition from session to session would swing the focus between Gamism and Narrativism.

    I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this sort of set-up works, because it’s really a quite low-entertainment situation for everybody – you need to wait a long time for anybody to do anything that would be relevant for your own play interests. Even if we formalized this into game mechanics somehow and ensured that everybody gets their “time in the agenda spotlight”, there’s still the fact that unless you completely separate the different agendas from affecting each other (in which case you’re really playing different games), the differing agendas have the frustrating tendency to trample on each other in practice. For example, the D&D classic is the situation where one player is wrestling with the morality of a situation only to have another player come in and stab whatever was causing grief to death. D&D simply doesn’t account for that sort of thing; not many things do, and the ones that have something for this usually simply limit the player opportunities for interaction by protecting “character integrity” with mechanics that prevent players from influencing each other’s little spaces in the game. That’s a bit like killing the game to save the game, in my opinion.

    Meanwhile, hybrid design is still very much an open question. People claim that games like Capes manage to align the reward cycles of different CA modes in a way that makes it rewarding for the players to support each other’s play regardless of agenda. I’m skeptical, but open to the possibility; I’ve yet to see convincing arguments on this from anybody who actually demonstrated an understanding of how Gam reinforces sociality (that is, how Gam tends to require group participation in the form of social esteem stakes), for example. I’ve played a couple of sessions of Capes, but they’ve all been strictly Coherent Narrativism, so I don’t know off-hand how the game performs with an incoherent group and whether that weakens the reward cycles of the game. I imagine that I’d feel a bit stupid making great stories if my co-players didn’t appreciate them, but who knows.

    On the other hand, while I remain skeptical of true hybrids, I see no reason why one couldn’t have all sorts of set-ups where the CA shifts controllably in different ways. For example, a game I was working on several years ago had a set-up where players played Nar and Gam episodes in turn, both set in the same campaign fiction. As long as the players know and appreciate what they’re supposed to be doing, the group can be quite agile in choosing a CA; that’s why I find it so entertaining to gather the Finnish Forgistas in one place for a convention – I can just sit down with them and some game that’s hellishly difficult to play coherently, tell them in plain Finnish what the Creative Agenda is supposed to be, and then go play successfully.

  5. Eetu Mäkelä

    My current argument about Capes being a (ever so slightly flawed) hybrid goes as follows:

    From a primarily narrativist perspective:

    In the system of Capes, to be able affect the fiction through the system in a narrativistically interesting way (=to be a viable protagonist) you have to gather resources. This naturally incentivizes a narrativist player to also value their and others skill in manipulating the system.

    In addition, there is no disincentive to engaging in this competition system, as doing so reliably produces play that is satisfying from the narrativistic viewpoint (put another way, on the making game decisions level, the optimal action to take is regularly the same from both a narrativistic utility as well as a gamist utility view)

    From a gamist perspective:

    If there is at least one player with at least some narrativistic interest in play, the optimal decision from a resource-competition viewpoint is to hit their buttons. This naturally incetivizes a pure gamist to also engage the narrativist aspects of the game.

    Now, what this actually means is that I think a purely gamist game of Capes will probably be impossible. As the mechanics of competition have only a tiny connection to the fiction generated in themself, it sort of always needs that one little narrativistic inkling to kick the feedback loops going.

    But, once that engine starts, as I said, there really isn’t any problem both socially valuing gaming prowess as well as engaging the story at the same time, and the game actually incentivizes people from both original agendas to do both.

    Except for one proviso: in the game, achieving is costly. This is also why it is good for a gamist to milk the narrativists: acting in a narrativistically meaningful way sometimes gives lots of resources to your adversaries. For a primarily narrativist player this of course poses no problems, but from a gamist viewpoint the immediate gut feeling is severely negative. While I think in the design of the game this has been meant to be balanced in the long run in the favor of still doing so, at least I’m not convinced (inspirations should be just a little bit more valuable compared to story tokens than they currently seem). Thus, the agendas can never really be equal: the narrativist can normally engage in competition but will always at certain points fold. And the gamist has incentive to only engage in part of the narrativist structure, namely giving meaningful opposition to the protagonists of the narrativist players.

    Now, this shortcoming can be rectified. It only requires for the gamist players to also be interested in how their characters fare and not only the abstract currency, i.e. the competition has to extend also into the SIS. Taking into account the genre of Capes, this doesn’t seem to be too big of a problem. Yet this is something that has to basically just be agreed on by those interested in gamism. And there doesn’t seem to be any ingrained incentive for the primarily narrativists to be interested (so to do this, you’d have to tell them on faith that in order for this whole cool hybrid thing to work better and produce also better narrativist story, they have to buy in here).

  6. I think you pinpoint the structural effects Capes has rather well. The interesting follow-up question, then, is whether these operative cycles in the game retain meaning without social reinforcement. I’m especially interested in why the prospective Gamist player would care about his mechanical conquests in the game if the other players do not engage him in the time-honored, immensely recognizable mock-combat that underlies all games (in the narrow sense of the word). Imagine if your Chess opponent didn’t care about whether he’s winning or losing, but just congratulated you for your clever play whenever you managed to corral him into a trap. Presuming the opponent still put some mediocre effort to playing the game, would it be fun even if your opponent wasn’t willing to give that social esteem to winning?

    I’m also similarly sceptical for the Narrativist side, although it might be more difficult to understand intuitively what the underlying social forces are – Narrativism is about mutual appreciation of creativity, so I’m left to wonder whether players would enjoy creating themeful stories when it was quite clear that the other player is really just interested in maneuvering you so that his character “wins”. Or worse still, he didn’t care a whit how his character fared as long as he had the most resources at the end of the session himself. My limited experience with this sort of thing leads me to say that it’s ultimately unsatisfactory to me when I know that my co-player is basically just simulating mutual storytelling instead of engaging in genuine communication of theme. I’ve had this sort of experiences with some people who are very committed to dramatist (three-fold, you know) techniques of play, but are not really playing to create story together.

    Most likely playing a lot of Capes will answer this question pretty well, especially if you get somebody who recognizes CAs in play to experiment with it. Might be interesting, although it’s a bit difficult to get a genuinely CA-split group to play Capes together… I wonder if we could simulate this at Maracon by just assigning players with CAs they should orient to. Difficult if you’re not very familiar with both CAs, but I think I could pull it off myself (at least assuming that Capes genuinely serves my Gamist interests; I’m a bit sceptical, as I don’t really see the reward others seem to be seeing in gaining a lot of resources).

    That reminds me, I need to blog a little bit about Maracon, I have a funny joke about it…

  7. Eetu Mäkelä

    To me that sounds like about the same (valid) critique you aimed at my earlier reasoning. That’s why now I focused on the incentives and disincentives. The reasoning here being that even if you begin only masquerading the other CA for gain in your primary CA, in time, you’ll also genuinely buy into the other CA as you realize that you can sort of “get more for free”, as doing so doesn’t (significantly) cause any incoherence for example in decision-making. This unearths another pattern: play will probably be more fruitful the more players are interested in both agendas.

    Now, if one wants to stick to one agenda per player, then the dynamics do change. I’d propose that as a narrativist I myself would be happy just being the lone one (hey, I’m getting free catering from the other players;), but as a gamist I’d need at least one other gamist to play against and at least one narrativist to act as the major uncertainty component whose manipulation efficacy is the thing were competing about (because as you say, the system in itself doesn’t offer an interesting enough playing field in which to judge ability by).

    This actually nicely segues to results we got while testing the process model in a larp (where we did dictate the agendas the players were meant to seek). One of the surprising results we got at the time from question forms was that the players playing immersionist agendas indicated that they got a lot of support for their play from the people playing competitive agendas. We later analyzed this to be because the competition was about social votes and the competitive players thus went out of their way to accommodate the immersionists (i.e. listened to their angst and agonizing;).

    Another related observation here is that we posited that multi-agenda play in larps is easier because the SIS and process of play is fragmented – you don’t have downtime while other agendas are being addressed, the system is often minimal and in general there is such a multiplicity of sensoral inputs that you can just incorporate of that the bits that support your agenda’s viewpoint of the game state. In table-top games normally this isn’t the case, but as I tried to argue for Capes, all the fictional content and interactions should be game for both agendas, thus attaining the same prequisites for multi-agenda play.

  8. Eero,

    I am not very good at writing an AP report to target a specific point, so what you would get is essentially a random AP post. I’ll do that if I get sufficient amounts of extra time and energy, though other means of discourse would be more to my liking.

  9. Ari-Pekka Lappi

    Eero might be right in that that GNS, as a model, doesn’t allow CA-hybrids. If this is true, it is definitely evidence against GNS-model, since there seems to be gamism-like and narratism-like facets in Capes, and these facets can be played simultaneously. I use terms gamism-like and narratism-like, because I don’t want to argue for GNS-hybrids. Rather, my point is that we shouldn’t delimit our playing only because a useful and inspiring theoretical model happens argue that certain kind of creative combinations are dysfunctional.

    In my opinion, playing Capes is most enjoyable if you play it simultaneously as a gamistic-like and a narrativistic-like game. Capes offers both gamism-fun in the form of challenging resource optimizations and narratism-fun in the form of deep themes and dramatic dilemmas you can easily embed into your game if you just want to.

    With no doubt, gamistism-like and narrativism-like facets of the game collide every now and then. I.e. the player has to make trade-offs between drama and resource rewards etc. However for me, at least, most of these trade-offs have been part of the fun rather than dysfunction defects. I won’t deny, that the two-fold nature of Capes may reveal as a dysfunctional. I’m only saying that it is possible to perceive it as an intriguing opportunity. For me it was (and is) definitely an opportunity, and seemingly I’m not the only one.

    After all, the biggest gamism-like challenge in Capes is to control others’ expectations. That brings the optimal gamism-like approach close to other players’ narrativism-like desires. For instance, when you think of drama and themes you want to bring into the game, you should ponder the best strategy to acquire them (within the terms of game mechanic). I mean, that a player can achieve her thematic desires and still make good “profit” in story tokens and inspirations. In the matter of fact, if co-players are aligned to narrativism, you need to have interesting thematic (and dramatic) hooks to make really good profit. On the other hand, you have good chance to make really good profit if you keep bringing fascinating choices into the game.

    Yes, there are various non-optimal but still pretty good gamism-like approaches that will tear apart other players’ thematic ideas and vice verse. Still, “possibility of dysfunctional play” is not an evidence for “necessity of dysfunctional play”.

  10. Coherence could perhaps be defined as feedback; the creation of content (ephemera?) in such a way as to encourage and inspire another player to provide content that does the same for you. Encouraging and inspiring would be two different things, the first being about energy levels and enthusiasm, the second being proto-content. You know, some kind of raw material for creative work.

    The principle is one of positive feedback though, fighting against the natural conservation law style negative feedback. I.E. the longer you do stuff, the harder it gets. Not always true, as some people can keep themselves going for ages, but in general principle people doing stuff by themselves will run down. In contrast people in a group can keep each other going until physical exhaustion sets in! So coherence would be the capacity to generate this kind of momentum, either by attempting the same thing (sort of like network effects) or potentially via differing but compatible actions.

    To keep this consistent with the logical meaning of coherence, absence of contradiction, you could specify for each form of action those conditions that it requires to be stable. In other words you could define it’s appropriate audience. So knowing what each player needs from the other players, you could see if those map onto each other. In the simplest version, you could create forms that map onto each other, but it seems better not to assume only the current formulation, so you’d need to work out what each player wants from the others, and then generalise it.

    If you know how to do homomorphic mappings of feedback structures, your hopefully onto a winner, but even then we’d need to re-form the existing stuff in those terms.

    A final idea, what if in your D&D game you were providing the “appropriate other” individually for all the players, like a sort of star network? And so the problem was all the differing roles you were simultaneously required to produce? I know that feeling!

  11. Something like that could work fine, Josh. Coherence has not been written about a lot, perhaps because it’s somewhat defined by its necessary qualities in the Big Model, rather than observing it directly – we’re seeing the Coherence in action by observing how Creative Agendas interact, and most of theory so far has not focused on the quality of Coherence itself and how it, exactly, works as a psychological and social “thing”.

    Your basic notion that Coherence empowers play is certainly valid, as Coherence is pretty much the same thing as having functional reward cycles in your play. As the Big Model defines roleplaying essentially as interaction (a HUGE difference from some other theoretical frameworks), “having a functional reward cycle” is the same thing as “engaging in meaningful interaction”. I’m not so sure if I’d characterize this relationship as simply being one where you provide meaningful content, though, as it seems to me that the functional reward cycle requires a longer term interaction – both appropriate content and appropriate responses to it.

    This is actually the same issue I had with Eetu’s take, above – I’m not so sure if one could map the needs and capabilities of the players in the way you suggest, simply because the social part of the interactive rewards that form the core of roleplaying sort of require human intention and human communication. It’s simply not enough to make people provide the right feedback, you also need to have faith in there being genuine communication happening as well. One might imagine a roleplaying engine, for instance, that played D&D like a human. Would you find it meaningful to GM a game for a group of such machines, if they provided you with the same feedback other real players would? The Big Model pretty much presumes a negative answer with the way it defines roleplaying. I know people who’d claim that the human part is not necessary and that they do, in fact, roleplay in some CRPGs and such, but they’re just defining “roleplaying” differently. Many hobbyists use the word to mean character immersion, while equally many use it to mean adventure with developing characters. Both of those can be achieved without other people, but we might say that the Big Model, and thus the property of Coherence, do not concern those sorts of play.

    As for my old D&D campaign, it was definitely a star network situation. I’m intimately familiar with this set-up as the basis for facilitative roleplaying, in part simply because it was the presumed style in the local culture through the ’90s. In practice this didn’t facilitate real multi-modal play simply because the star network itself is a misleading ideal for roleplaying: you can’t meaningfully play with several other people at the same time and communicate with them separately. Either you play only with one at a time, or you have to communicate with them all. Having a major part of this communication be disinteresting or actively disrupting is likely not an ideal position for a given group of gamers.

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