Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leaving the Big Model and GNS

Recently I've become rather disenchanted with Ron Edwards' Big Model. Specifically, I started getting annoyed at the fetishization that the Big Model seems to inspire at the Forge -- all roleplaying games must explicitly and profoundly support one of the approved (or, excuse me, recognized) Creative Agendas or else it's broken! This led me to start delving into the specifics of the Big Model, at which point I discovered that it only purports to describe "Coherent Roleplay," defined as roleplay that fulfills a Creative Agenda.

Creative Agendas, in turn, are something of a sociological snapshot, three different ways that roleplayers have been observed to consistently enjoy themselves. Not exactly the most solid foundation to base value judgments on -- "Coherent" roleplay includes only roleplay that fulfills one of three desires that have previously been observed. Whether or not there are any other gamer-desires that exist out in the world, or even other gamer-desires that could be fulfilled through roleplaying, is patently overlooked. There is only three "coherent" ways to play, and if you're not coherent, what the hell is wrong with you?

Now, I should take a moment to step back and make clear that I'm reacting to what I've seen in general in most of the posts on the Forge. Ron himself has always been very careful to hold open the possibility of other Creative Agendas and to state that inCoherent roleplay is not necessarily dysfunctional (ie bad) roleplay. So he's by no means claiming that if you don't follow his model you're wrong -- it's just the default assumption of a lot of posters at the Forge. Ironically, they've shifted the meaning of Coherence to fit something more like Adherence; the original term meant "make sure you produce what you want to produce" but now it means -- functionally -- "make sure you produce one of the three approved flavors."

In any case, my story goes further and the current state of the Forge is only tangentially related. It's still, for reference, a great place full of good people and a whole ton of resources. I'll still be reading and posting -- I'll just be reading and posting with a thick dogma filter on.

So it turns out the Big Model is definitionally constrained to only deal with a certain segment of the vast sea of roleplaying. I reflected how much I preferred the old-school GNS Model, with the GNS triangle that attempted to describe all roleplay everywhere on the basis of to what extent the players were interested in Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist modes. Back then, you could play more than one mode at a time. The intent of the GNS essay and subsequent discussions were also broader and more ambitious -- the goal was to start talking about roleplaying in precise terms, to explore how it really worked, and to develop better games based on that understanding. The subsequent lexicon that was developed did a great deal for roleplaying game design, and is still kicking out great innovations.

But here's the thing: ye olde GNS Model is based on the same foundation that the Big Model is. Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism are all observed tropes of behavior and stated desires. The entire model that is supposed to describe roleplaying games is based on the finite results of a survey of the people who play them. After a lot of thrashing it out in my head, I have to conclude that neither model is about roleplaying games at all -- they're about the people who play them. While gaming is a social activity and therefore the players are an important piece, they are not the entire thing. It's the difference between Siskel & Ebert, who talked about the movies they reviewed, and Entertainment Tonight, which talks about the actors and actresses and their celebrity lives. Siskel & Ebert was about movies -- Entertainment Tonight is not.

I don't want to abandon everything, though -- there have demonstrably been insights and improvements, and we have seen great developments. I just think we're working on a ladder that's missing a number of rungs and won't get us to the top floor. Presently I'm working under the theory that Ron did observe something worthwhile in his GNS distinction, but misidentified it, or made too simple of an identification. That some people are interested in Story, some in the Game, and some in the Simulation, might signify that the Story, the Game, and the Simulation are three large aspects of the thing known as roleplaying. Just as everybody has their favorite Spice Girl, most gamers have their favorite aspect of roleplaying. But we can use that picking of favorites as a signpost that those 'aspects' exist. The next step, I figure, is to consider these three aspects, how they relate to eachother, and whether there are any other pieces that go into it. Then I'll try and identify such aspects in as many different kinds of roleplay as I can. Or, you know, I'll lose interest in it tomorrow.

Such is life.


At 9:06 AM, Blogger Nathan P. said...

Joshua (I finally know your name! mwaha! I think!)

I think being skeptical of the Big Model is pretty healthy, and the Dogma filter is a good attitude to have.

However, I think that the basic point is pretty sound - roleplaying is foundationally a social activity, and a lot of problems come from the ignorance or lack of recognition of this. On one hand, this leads to "with a crappy social situation, you're going to have a bad game no matter how good the design" and "with a good social situation, you're going to have a good time no matter how bad the design". But on the other hand, it's definitely a huge freakin factor in how the entire subculture of roleplaying works.

Also, I'm not going to lie, it's been pretty difficult to try to identify CA's (or goals for play, or whatever) that don't really fall under G, N or S. Zilchplay is kinda one, and there's been multiple cases made for a "humor" CA, but other than that - well, I've tried, but I haven't come up with anything.

That said, I totally support a focus on techniques and actual, y'know, stuff that you do when you roleplay.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Oh, I really couldn't agree more, nathan. A focus on the social medium of the game is certainly important, and has yielded a ton of very valuable insights. It's just that it's offered insights about the social medium of the game, and not the game itself. It's like the current state of US 'politics' (you in America? I think so), which is very focused on the "Culture War" and almost completely oblivious to the nuts-and-bolts of actual political processes.

Also, looking back at the original GNS essay, it never purported to be a model of all roleplay -- it was an attempt to help create the kinds of roleplay that people actually wanted. Thus, it served its purpose admirably. I think the Big Model shifted purpose to an descriptive model without examining its foundations.

I'm also thinking that that disconnect is why the Big Model has such trouble reaching down into the technique level -- because it's not about the games that include the techniques, it's about the people that use the techniques, and that's a very different focus.

I think one of the reasons why nobody has been able to find a CA that's not one of the three is that the definition of CA was written after the first three were identified, and therefore the definition was shaped by the existing three. The fourth (and fifth and sixth) don't fit into the CA definition because the CA definitions wasn't written to describe them. It's close to tautology.

...and I updated my profile. I thought all that information was already there!


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