Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Answer to the Edition Wars: The Big Model

Some time ago Ron Edwards came up with GNS theory to describe different focuses in game design and play. I've mentioned this before, but never has this game theory received a post all of its own. GNS theory is based on breaking game play, and design to some extent, into three camps. Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist. Gamist gamers and designers focus on the mechanics of play, the rules and the fact that the reason for playing is to in fact play a game. Narrativists on the other hand see the storyline of the game as most important. Narrative is more important than mechanics, and indeed mechanics should support the telling of the desired type and kind of story. Simulationists on the third hand (snicker) are concerned about staying true and faithful to a particular genre. The genre can be a historical period or a novel (or series of novels like The Lord of The Rings), or a subtype of genre like say dark fantasy or supernatural horror, or the DC Superhero Universe.

It was fairly soon after the GNS model came out that quite a bit of furor over this simple categorization erupted. The model was seen as too limiting, too general, too specific, and on and on. Thus it was that Ron Edwards went back to the theoretical drawing board and came up with what he called The Big Model. It is to this last model that I wish to speak now. For in the inevitable edition wars that rage about gaming ad aeternam we seldom actually talk about what it is we are doing when we game. What are the elements of an RPG and how do they dynamically work together. I personally think The Big Model helpful in this regard (and still consider GNS theory to have its place). Helpful in that it aides us to see just what it is perhaps we are arguing about. And either to come to more useful conclusions or to realize our points of difference are really quite personal and perhaps not so far apart as we might think.

The Big Model is slightly more complex than GNS theory, so bear with me as I try and make it as accessible as possible. This is what the bog model proposes:

Gamers want to game with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose is actually encompassed in the GNS model. Gamers game for one of three purposes in varying degrees:
  • They want to dream up a certain type of world and participate within it
  • They want to play a game that challenges them, usually with elements of risk and danger
  • They want to take part in a well told adventure story
Gamers that have various agendas come together under a Social Contract. This Social Contract is often more implied that delineated, but at its most basic level it is an implied understanding that we are people coming together to play a game. It can go deeper than that on many levels, but the depth of extension of the Social Contract is founded this basic premise.

Within the Social Contract we agree that we are going to roleplay or Explore a setting with characters, involving colorful description, situations all within a given system. The Exploration factor of a game is really what defines the game. If someone were to ask you what a game is "like" you would likely describe the Exploration aspect of the game. Such description of a game serves several purposes. Not the least of which is that there are several issues here that need to be agreed upon for everyone's agendas to be met.

Next we have the Techniques used in the game to achieve our ends. This more than anything is related to game mechanics. For instance rolling a d20 and making its roll the basis for most action in the game is a technique of the d20 system. As are point buy and die roll systems used to create characters.

And then we can at last game; which gaming creates what Edwards calls Ephemera or player actions within the game. This includes most of what players do during the game in order to play the game. While such Ephemera constitute much of the game and really are at it's heart, they are incidental to all that comes before. This is what it looks like to play a game.

And if you aren't by now utterly confused Edwards fortunately created a diagram to show how these elements work together in an RPG.

 In this model you can see how the various elements interact and subordinate to each other. And how the Creative Agenda well described by GNS theory cuts across all levels of play. Now, there is no easy hierarchy of importance within such a model, all the elements are important and interdependent. But there is a hierarchy of occurrence. As with all systems based models The Big Model is dynamic and changeable. Truly no one element can be entirely removed from its dependence on the other factors within the system. But it's specificity is such that we can now begin to analyze edition, style and version debates from a more universal standpoint.

If such a system helps us understand these game we play better; and can reduce some of the emotional friction between players of different systems we will have been well served.

For instance 4e heavily slants game play to Gamist motives thus focusing the game's Creative Agenda on one aspect. Thus I feel 4e has broken the Social Contract under which I enter the game. It has also changed the Exploratory elements of the game by changing the default setting, making the color more video game like and cinematic. Situations are often engineered with tactical combat in mind which affects Techniques in that battle mats and minis are a required part of the game, leading to the Ephemera of the game or what it feels like to play 4e as more of a board based strategy game with players moving figures on maps, making the descriptive elements of the Ephemera much less pronounced.

Every aspect of the game has changed. Regardless of the fact that some might claim this is still the same game it most certainly is not. And in fact has narrowed it's focus so tightly as to appeal to the least number of gamers possible.

You can't argue with this logic as it abides within its own system. You can of course choose to take issue with Ron Edwards system as a whole. But there is a lot more work involved in dismantling a well worked up system than in dismantling the subjects it chooses to analyze. Such systems of systems analysis requires an alternate, better system under which to analyze the subjects in question.

Now, on the other hand take several old school systems that appear somewhat dissimilar. 0e, 1e, and B/X. You could just as easily take S&W, LL, and OSRIC. 0e and B/X games allow for narrativist and simulationist Creative Agendas but don't rule out gamist agendas completely. 1e/OSRIC increases all these possibilities, most significantly increasing the possibility of gamist play. Thus the Social Contract supports all sorts of gamers coming together. Exploration is most radically altered with the system of 1e/OSRIC. There are more delineated options within the game as well as restrictions. There are character variations as well, but color and setting are very similar. Now this does not mean 0e is less of a game for the system within 0e implies a focus on make it up as you go sort of play that makes for a different Exploratory feel from 1e. Techniques are very much focused on occasional die rolls which leads to Ephemera interspersed with lots of dialogue, roleplay and working out of game situations.

You see how these games have remained very consistent over time. And the same can be said for 2e, and many of the retro clones that are experiencing success today. The deviation appears with 3e and its 3.5 reboot. There has been much said about how 3.5 was a natural extension of 2e, but this does not hold under a Big Model analysis.

Now, this is not intended to bash these games or to say that they are bad games. But rather to explain and analyze how and perhaps why they are different from one another. In our desire to dissect the innards of various game systems we are often left with rather nebulous and personal opinions of why we don't "like" a game. We often question we are somehow behind the times or not up to par with the rest of the gaming world. Such value judgments don't get us far. Instead I would appeal to gamers at large to analyze and review games in terms of the Big Model. Thus a universal approach to understanding the games we play might help us in determining which games we like to play and why. It may also help us rise above the fray of blog debates where nitpicking arses like myself prattle on endlessly with little else to back us up but our own hot air.

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