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D&D General RPG Theory and D&D...and that WotC Survey


In light of the...somewhat heated discussion about whether D&D is gamist and if so how, I've been digging a little into the history of RPG theory leading to the rise & fall of the GNS (Gamism/Narrativism/Simulationism) model, since I missed out on that drama when it happened. My exposure to GNS theory had been limited to Edwards's original articles on the topic, which I didn't find that problematic taken on their own (although they were very compact and assumed some experience with particular games). However, reading about the context of the theory's creation, and more importantly, how it was promulgated and "elaborated", gave me much insight into its reputations and the different ways different people react to it today.

And yet people continue to use the three principal terms of GNS theory, tacitly accepting the premise of a three-way split, but often without having read those original articles, or with different definitions and applications, in spite of the precedent Edwards established—or perhaps "appropriated" would be a better term, since he himself took the earlier Threefold Model's terms and redefined them (and redefined them further as his stance became more and more contentious). GNS may have died, according to some, but its embalmed corpse lingers on the Web and its ghost in the minds of those who've read about it. All that's to say that basic GNS terminology is now very loaded, and use of those terms more likely than not results in Huge Misunderstandings and arguments, largely split between those who are not versed in GNS theory and those who are (to whatever degree). For better or worse, undead though it be, GNS theory is basically what we have to work with.

Or is it? That history I linked above made reference to a survey WotC themselves did about types of gaming. It took some further digging to find a working (archive!) link, and it seems that survey has very nearly vanished from gamer memory. But it was a thing, and I have to wonder what influence those survey results had on the development of D&D and possibly the industry at large. Did WotC also forget about it? Did they actually use it for particular editions of D&D? Or did they just put this together and then bin it all? More relevant to those discussing theory, does it give you any new insights into designing, running, or playing D&D, or any other RPG, today? What do you think of it? (I have a few thoughts already but will save them for later, it's really late.)

There are other models/theories out there, of course, and feel free to discuss them here too if you like. But I'm mildly fascinated at this near-lost bit of RPG history.

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The ´know your players´ section in the DMG cover the Wotc survey.
I consider that Wotc aim the middle of the pie, making some place for all type of players preference they identify: acting, exploring, instigating, fighting, optimizing, problem solving, storytelling.


No flips for you!
I find it rather ridiculous the claim from the end of the article that bias has been removed. The questions entirely focused on game structures that are like D&D, with some pretty hefty assumptions built in. I don't even see where in their model someone that enjoys/ prefers PbtA games would fit -- there's no category that fits at all. So, yeah, some fairly heavy assumption bias there. Not to mention participation bias. Claims like that make it hard to accept the other claims because they betray an unwarranted confidence.

Honestly, I don't see how this helps game design very much. The takeaway seems to be to throw the kitchen sink in because they say there are these clusters with very defined wants, but then immediately water that down by saying that a given cluster also still wants other clusters' play a well and will be unhappy if this weren't present. This staking a clear position but then immediately being away from it strike me as much less than useful. It's almost like they wanted to have results but that the data is so messy they felt they needed to hedge so that the results weren't actually used and then blamed.


No flips for you!
For more on early theories about how to classify and categories role-playing games and various interactions with them, I'd recommend reading Jon Peterson's The Elusive Shift.
Interestingly, the discussion here mirrors the categories set up with GNS, with the tension between gamism and simulationism, especially when to acknowledge the internal simukationism split between process-sim and high-concept sim.


The only ones I find useful are for understanding your players. I don't really buy into these unified theories of game design for a variety of reasons. Game rules just gives me a platform to play a game, the rules for D&D for the most part are secondary. I care more about the general feel of the game and constraints it puts on what we want to do as a group. Mouseguard was fun for a couple of games, but ultimately you're just playing mice.

On the other hand, as a DM (and player) it helps to understand what motivates the players at the table and how to try to balance my DMing to try to continue to pull them in and keep them excited. What you do with the game matters more than intellectual exercises trying to identify and categorize it for me.


The EN World kitten
Interestingly, the discussion here mirrors the categories set up with GNS, with the tension between gamism and simulationism, especially when to acknowledge the internal simukationism split between process-sim and high-concept sim.
I don't think that's a coincidence. While I doubt Peterson intended for it to be that way, I came away from The Elusive Shift feeling rather depressed, since what I took from the book was that the RPG community has not only been struggling to define the various permutations of our hobby, but has largely failed at promulgating what ground has been broken, leading to the same contentious back-and-forths to be repeated across decades as we all flail about for terms and definitions for things we can intuit and perceive but only barely articulate.


There are other models/theories out there, of course, and feel free to discuss them here too if you like. But I'm mildly fascinated at this near-lost bit of RPG history.
Problem is that it is non-intuitive, esp if one is ESL, so you really have to read the theory posts to understand them.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Interesting post, niklinna. I hope it leads to a positive and fruitful conversation!

I've covered a few of these topics in the past, so I'm going to add my thoughts and then let the conversation continue.

1. Regarding the survey, it's mentioned somewhat regularly here. When WoTC was looking to purchase to TSR and release a new D&D, one thing they couldn't believe is just how little TSR knew about its customer base! Seriously- TSR just kept pumping out product but never really tried to understand who was interested in buying it. Which is something they tried to rectify. I think there are links to Ryan Dancey discussing this. Anyway, this was one of the more famous surveys, in that at that time, a lot of people were wondering about the direction of D&D- what kind of game should it be? And the answer? Well, contrary to what some people want, or what others believe, a lot of people play D&D not to satisfy a single desire, but because they like to do a little of everything.

2. Regarding GNS, I'm going to say this- first, I will also recommend The Elusive Shift ... I wrote a series of posts about it. I find it remarkable that so many don't bother at least trying to understand some of the history of RPG theory prior to discussing it so much. History just keeps repeating. I discuss this in this post.

GNS is just another (and dated) example of Evan Torner's excellent deconstruction of what happens in the hobbyist community when it comes to "RPG theorizing."
A. A new theory pops out that doesn't recognize the long history of the debate, instead only "responding" to what directly came before it.
B. The new theory claims to end the fruitless debate by providing some "big tent," but, in fact, continues the debate.
C. The new theory, while claiming to be neutral by analyzing typologies of players or systems, will, in fact, privilege a particular position that just happens to coincide with the position of the author.
D. The debate continues as people reject the new theory.

It's nothing special. The only reason it continues is, IMO, because the use of certain terms as jargon that happen to be the exact terms that people also use naturally leads to additional debate. But I wouldn't confuse internet debate with ... well, use of "GNS" as an academic theory.

Of course, if it works for you as a toolset to make your game better, that's great!

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