WARNING: This article is still a work in progress. The writing isn't quite as plain-English as I'd prefer, and I think I need some feedback before I can get it there.
If the RPGnet Forums are any represenation of the hobby of roleplaying games, any body of theory that attempts to examine or address the activity of roleplaying is almost always savaged by people who believe that, because they don't understand it, it mustn't be of any utility to anyone with a brain. One of the most oft-attacked targets is a body of theory known as the Big Model, suggested by a gamer named Ron Edwards and hashed out on the RPG forum he manages, The Forge. Now, while I might agree that the model and the way it's presented have their weaknesses, I do believe that a) the model as a whole is sound and b) has helped identify what I want out of the hobby. I chalk the fact that my recent gaming hasn't been consistently successful up to a combination of conflicting schedules and my gaming skills being rusty.
The least understood, and most attacked, part of the model is the part known as "creative agenda", or more commonly, "GNS", the abbreviation of the three creative agendas the model posits - arguments over the utility of GNS have cemented a long-standing animosity between many denizens of RPGnet and The Forge. I read a recent thread over on RPGnet, where a poster attempted to explain her understanding of GNS, and while I had the feeling that she grasped the more readily-evident concepts, there was something fundamental to the three creative agendas that she'd missed - and that the main essays themselves hadn't explained to my satisfaction. That fundamental thing is: What the heck is a creative agenda anyway, and what makes them different to the other agendas or goals others suggest?
Here's my attempt to answer that question. I considered posting it on RPGnet, but thought better of it and put it up here instead. It's probably not complete or as thorough as I'd like, but I believe it's serviceable enough.
What are G, N and S, at least the G, N and S that those people on that forum over there like to discuss? We know, or at least we have a fairly solid idea of, what each of them individually are, but considering people almost always call them “GNS”, there seems little consideration of what they have in common and what makes them unique when compared to all the other possible goals for a game. Now although any post referring to Ron Edwards’ Big Model is tantamount to flamebait on RPGnet, I honestly think that going over that ground might help clear up some confusion over how the hell all this GNS bullshit can apply to actually playing an RPG.
First question, Rob: What do the Three Isms have in common? As defined as part of the Big Model, each of Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism is a Creative Agenda. But what the hell’s a creative agenda? This is the one thing that rather bugged me a bit. At first I just accepted the term, until people started saying, “But why aren’t Immersion or Cheetoism valid agendas?” My hackles went up. “Well, they’re not! Because… you know, they’re just… not.” After my hackles went down again, I accepted that Immersion or Cheetoism are valid agendas that people can pursue in their gaming. I also realised that there was something common to G, N and S that wasn’t common to the various alternatives people suggested. So I thought about what makes the Three Creative Agendas so different to the alternatives.
Okay, now the second question: Without simply pointing at GNS and saying “them”, what is a creative agenda? The answer, to my mind, is simple: A creative agenda is an agenda – a goal and a method – that relates primarily and specifically to the thing that’s created during a roleplaying game. Everyone around the gaming table (or on the LARP floor, whatever) works to create a story in its most basic sense: a series of events. Ideally, everyone around the table has a hand in shaping that series of events, that shared fiction.
The creative agenda relates directly to that. It suggests that that shared act of creation can be given a direction. Following on logically, the group’s chosen direction informs how the members of the group will govern their shared creative act, how they discriminate between ideas that should and should not be included in their fiction. Direction plus method of governance equals agenda. Direction for and governance of a creative act equals creative agenda.
In order to determine which agenda a group will use, its members must ask: "Do we want our play to do something? If so, what?" The answers to those questions are the creative agenda, which shapes how the group plays the game. “The group” is key. Because the fiction is shared, because creating it is a group activity, everyone must agree to a single set of answers to the above questions, one single agenda. If one person has an agenda for his or her creativity that is at odds with the group's, that disagreement will interfere with and eventually halt the group's act of creation if left unchecked. While no group or agenda is perfect, having a clear agenda aids a group in minimising disagreement and solving the few disagreements that do inevitably occur more handily than otherwise.
As I think is clear by now, a creative agenda is a priority of a kind commonly referred to as "metagame"; something that affects the way the group plays the game but has no direct tie to the shared fiction's internal cause-and-effect, whether Laws of Physics or Laws of Genre.
So a creative agenda is a metagame goal, shared by the group, that is applied to the act of play, the group's creation of the shared fiction. How, then, does each of the identified agendas answer those questions? What does each agenda drive a game’s basic story, its series of group-created, fictional events, toward?
If a group has a gamist agenda, it's answered the questions with, "yes, we want our gaming to let us pit our gaming skills against each other." The group will govern the base story such that it will produce opportunities for challenge between the players (players vs. GM, team vs. team, free-for-all, etc.) with an interpersonal reward (bragging rights, group kudos, etc.) for success. When such opportunities aren’t occurring, the group will ideally be establishing facets of the shared fiction that either build toward or give a player an edge in future opportunities.
I’ve seen several people tar any and all gamist play as “munchkinism” (the gaming equivalent of petulant bad sportsmanship), questioning why people who enjoy gamist play aren’t playing Risk or Warhammer 40,000 instead. The simple answer is that, to gamists, interpersonal challenge and creating a shared fiction are two great tastes that go great together. As long as all the participants respect each other and the rules they’ve chosen to play by, gamist-driven play is as co-operatively and safely competitive as any other competitive game.
If a group has a narrativist agenda, it's answered the questions with, "yes, we want our base story to make a Capital-S Story - with meaningful Protagonism and Antagonism - during play." The group is aiming for player reactions to, and judgments over, the choices the main characters make and the actions they take; not just what a character does when under pressure, but how the individual players’ opinions of that character alter as a result of those actions. To draw a comparison to its closest fictional equivalent, serial drama television, the group with a narrativist agenda wants their play to generate "water-cooler moments", the high points that people discuss and hash over: "What did what that guy did say about him - about us?"
The primary method for doing so is twofold:
- The players make characters with problems (which pretty much stem from their moral outlook, as I understand) that interest the players in both their current status and their potential for change. You can like your character or hate it (in that "the guy you love to hate" way), but if you're indifferent about your character, its actions won't make a water-cooler moment no matter what they are.
- The group guides the creation of the base story toward opportunities (moments of personal crisis, usually) for those characters’ problems and moral outlooks to be tested - in other words, the group works to put the screws to its protagonist characters. These situations must carry an element of some risk for the character – no outcome should be entirely safe – and each possible outcome is interesting to the character’s player and the group (as such situations are often suggested by the characters and their issues, this isn’t often a problem).
Finally, and importantly, no single player can be in a position to enforce any personal judgments on the other players' characters within the shared fiction, nor can any single player be in a position to dictate how another player's character's moment of crisis will resolve; these undermine the goal of each player coming to his or her own judgment about his or her own character. As a result, groups that play under a narrativist agenda often distribute control over the shared fiction more broadly than the traditional GM/players setup.
The simulationist agenda has traditionally been difficult to pin down. Based on my reading of discussions on creative agenda and my own gaming experiences, I believe that a group with a simulationist agenda answers the questions with "no, we don't want anything else from our gaming than the creating of shared fiction." The group's main method is consistency; the group works to keep their base story (small s again here) consistent to their taste.
Defining that taste is critical to successful simulationist play. It's typically a combination of a central concept (“we’re an adventuring party in a fantasy land, fighting monsters and seeking treasure”, “we’re all badass special-ops types who hunt down agents of an evil foreign government”, etc.), developed source material (the rulebook, a TV show, real life, a novel or even a blend of such sources) and the chosen rule set; the importance placed on each of these elements (concept, source material, rules) will vary from group to group and game to game.
The sheer variety of fictions that result from these combinations (genre, style, etc.) are the source, I think, of the volume of dispute over what sorts of play demonstrate a simulationist agenda at work; a given player could derive satisfaction from the very act of creating, the wonder of a rich shared fiction (there was once an article on RPGnet called "A Role-Player's Journey, or The Wondrous Player" which I think exemplified this mindset), fulfilment of the promise of the central character concept (“We wanted to play bad-asses and that’s what I just got to do! Rockin’!”), the functioning of the rule set in maintaining the consistency of the fiction (or perhaps the functioning of rule set in and of itself) or even fulfilling a need for escapism.
Nonetheless, I believe that although the variables and sources of personal satisfaction may vary, they all require that the group agrees to the same core agenda – to create and maintain a shared fiction that is:
- consistent with the group’s taste at any given moment (accepting that the shared fiction will change over time), and
- not driven by any overt, group-based metagame goal (i.e. gamism or narrativism) – the shared fiction exists and changes based on its own internal cause-and-effect (established per the group’s taste).
That's right; I think this single agenda can result in many forms of individual satisfaction, but each and every one of those forms requires that the group choose, consciously or otherwise, to not drive the play toward a metagame goal, to play solely for its own sake. RPGs are a fusion of gameplay and story creation, and I believe this fusion makes the motives of playing-to-win and creating driven fiction with a Capital-S Story the ones that people unfamiliar with the hobby most readily understand. This makes setting aside those motives in order to create, because the creation itself is what satisfies, a powerful decision, one that should not be left unstated or unexamined when planning a campaign.
In this way, a group playing under a simulationist agenda is probably indulging in the purest form of the hobby.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people try to conflate the three creative agendas with individual moments within a given game session. The danger in that is that the agenda behind a game’s story can’t be judged in one single instance of gaming – whether a single roll or a combat – in the same way that the creative success of any other fictional endeavour – movie, TV show, novel – cannot effectively be judged on the merit of a single line of dialogue or scene. You have to take the individual moments in the context of the whole – a session’s worth of play at least, possibly even the entire campaign or a significant segment of it – in order to determine whether, regardless of what the participants decided before play began or between play, which specific agenda was actually given priority.
As an example, a single round of RPG combat where two players are suddenly matching their skill with the given rule set against each other with some light-hearted interpersonal joshing at stake in a session that’s otherwise focused on building and executing water-cooler moments (or even multiple instances of competition across the group’s campaign) doesn’t mean that the group’s whole narrativist agenda is teh borkened. If, overall, such instances happen more often than the character drama, then you can say with some assurance that the group needs to re-assess their goal in the light of what’s actually satisfying them during play.
Note that I’m not saying that discussion of agenda before play is pointless. Getting everyone on the same page about the kind of story that the group will aim for and how to go about it is, I believe, a good way of ensuring that the group’s play will be satisfactory to everyone, or at least as much of the group as possible. Nonetheless, it’s always worth going back over it after a few sessions just to make sure that what you want is what’s happening in play – or even if what you’re enjoying in play is really what you thought you wanted in the first place.
So to sum up, a creative agenda is a metagame goal, shared by the group, that is applied to the act of play, the group's creation of the shared fiction. Even an agreement to not apply any metagame goal to play is an agenda, a proscriptive one rather than prescriptive. An agenda can be agreed upon before play proper begins, but a meaningful measure of the agenda's success can only be made after at least a session of play; individual moments that run counter to the agenda do not necessarily indicate failure of that agenda unless they consitute the majority of overall play.
Right then, Rob. Third and final question: In the midst of all of that, where do the two objectives that you’ve most often seen posited as additions or alternates to the three creative agendas, Cheetoism and Immersion, fit in?
My take is that while Cheetoism and Immersion can be agendas, one is not a group agenda and the other doesn't directly address the creative act that sets RPGs apart from other social activities.
Cheetoism is a group agenda, yes, but it isn’t unique to roleplaying games. I think Cheetoism, to drag another laden term into this article, is a social contract agenda, not a creative one; broadly put, it states, “let’s all just relax and have a good time”. It sits a level above the narrower “let’s all play an RPG”; substitute it with almost any group activity, like “let’s shoot the bull” “let’s play Trivial Pursuit” “let’s hook our Xboxes up for some Halo” or even something that involves little to no creative activity like “let’s watch the Big Game” and you’ve still recognisably got Cheetoism.
The person who coined Cheetoism intended it as a humorous retort against what he saw as theorising that served only to inflate the ego of the self-styled theorist. As such, it doesn’t really say anything meaningful about the creativity or craft of gaming, examination of which can aid consistently good sessions. On the other hand, Cheetoism is reminder to those who practise gaming theory not to get so lost in theorising that their gaming fun, and the fun of everyone else at their table, suffers as a result.
Although it’s more closely related to creating than Cheetoism, Immersion’s only requirement is that there be a shared fiction to immerse in; thus, it can’t really say anything meaningful about how the fiction is created. It’s also an insular goal: While it requires a group to create and maintain the fiction, there’s little regard to the overall success of the group’s creativity; a person who craves Immersion will be satisfied if his or her personal sense of immersion is interrupted as little as feasible during play, regardless of what everyone else is doing. Let me put that another way: an individual Immersionist can successfully pursue an agenda of Immersion without requiring the rest of the group group to agree to that agenda.
To my mind, a person whose primary goal is Immersion is like a drummer who doesn’t care whether it’s jazz, rock or swing as long as he has opportunity to make his kit hum. It says something meaningful about personal state-of-mind, but nothing about the group’s creative preference and how it goes about achieving it. As long as the overall flow of the game doesn’t interfere too much with his personal sense of Being Someone Else Somewhere Else, the Immersionist will be happy.
So, in summary, a creative agenda is a metagame goal, established by the group, that is applied to the shared act of playing the game, creating the fiction, whereas Cheetoism is a metagame, interpersonal goal that can apply to more than just gaming, and Immersion is a goal that can successfully be pursued by a single player and doesn't directly apply to the the shared act of playing the game.