This is a post prompted by Shimmin, who was asking after a simple introduction to subjects surrounding the Forge. I realised that I couldn’t think of many that weren’t highly biased one way or another; certainly, the Forge itself isn’t much use for this, since a lot of their explanations of their ideas consisted of either a) articles which were working documents for ongoing conversations or b) extensive forum conversations.
So, here’s my attempt to summarise the points Shimmin seemed to want clarifying about the Forge. This isn’t going to be especially neutral, because I have my own well-developed opinions about all this stuff, but I’ll do my best to try and present the points in question with as much context as possible. If you have a different understanding of the Forge’s work or disagree with my conclusions, I’d welcome comments that’d either illuminate points I don’t explain adequately or provide corrections.
What’s a quick explanation of all this?
Once upon a time a now-defunct web community – the Forge – spent a lot of time trying to elevate tabletop RPG criticism and theory to academic levels. They ended up coming up with a bunch of contentious theories that on the plus side led to the development of some interesting games, and on the downside led to some inflammatory statements being made, including some truly abhorrent stuff about brain damage and child abuse.
What RPG theory did the Forge promote?
What the Forge eventually ended up promoting was the Big Model, a clickable diagram of which is found here.
Note the eventually. The Big Model as shown on that website and its associated wiki is essentially a snapshot of where the overall consensus on the Forge had reached by the time the Forge’s RPG theory subfora had been shut down – or to be more accurate, it’s Ron Edwards’ snapshot of Ron Edwards’ interpretation of where the consensus lay at the time the Forge’s RPG theory subfora were shut down at Ron Edwards’ instigation, after he’d declared the Big Model “complete”.
So Ron Edwards was a big deal there, huh?
Without question. It is of course possible to overstate this point; Ron wasn’t some cult leader whose every word and action went unquestioned, and as we’ll get into later some of his more inflammatory statements led to him being called out within the Forge itself by well-established forum members with just as much clout in that community as Ron commanded.
But it is also true that as far as the Forge’s discussion of RPG theory goes, Ron had a privileged voice. By far the majority of the theory essays posted to the articles section on the Forge were penned by Ron – including just about all the essays which generated sustained, ongoing discussion. Ron might not have exercised absolute control over the direction of discussions, but arguably he didn’t need to: he both set the parameters of the discussions and interpreted their outcomes in subsequent essays, and shut the discussion down when he decided it had reached a point he was satisfied with.
In the interests of fairness, it should be stressed that the Forge was about more than RPG theory. A major function of the site was providing practical pointers and help to RPG self-publishers, for instance. But everyone’s self-publishing now – the OSR, in particular, is a frothing hive of DIY activity, and so far as I can make out few folk from that community have relied on the Forge’s advice for producing your own creator-owned RPG materials. Moreover, when people explicitly cite the Forge elsewhere I find it is almost always in the context of discussing the Forge’s take on RPG theory, not their advice on self-publishing, and that was the case even when the place was active.
The fact is, Forge theory was exciting enough to its adherents that you would regularly see people rushing around talking about their particular (often somewhat skewed) understanding of it with the zeal of a convert back in the day, and the Forge was controversial enough that people naturally remember the contentious bits like the RPG theory stuff more than they do the self-publishing advocacy. On the one hand, this is kind of a shame; on the other hand, it strikes me as the inevitable consequence of how loud a voice Ron and the other theory debaters had within the forum.
What does the Big Model actually say?
Mostly, it’s a set of uncontentious-but-obvious truisms. The big diagram you have on the page there shows the different aspects of running an RPG session and the contexts they exist in. The concentric circles are, once you get past the occasionally less-than-intuitive terminology, fairly self-explanatory. You’ve got the social contract on the outside, which makes sense because any gaming session is going to take place between a group of people existing in a particular social context with respect to each other and without a functional social contract with each other (at least to the extent of saying “Let’s play a game”) then nothing fun or productive is going to happen.
Then you have “Exploration”, which is a less-than-usefully-named term that combines what Dungeon World calls “the fiction” – the specific combination of characters, setting, situation and aesthetic flavour that’s under the microscope – plus the specific system chosen to handle adjudicating events within the fiction. Exploration covers the next layer of decision-making in from the the social contract. Choosing which game you are going to play, creating characters, and picking a scenario all comes under the general category of Exploration, unless the decision in question is dictated by the social contract.
The next layer in consists of “Techniques”, which are procedures used to manage the fiction. So the system comes under this heading, as does any particular trick or gambit you cook up to make stuff happen in the game.
The innermost layer is the “ephemera”, the actual moment-to-moment stuff you do and say during a game. The distinction between saying “I stride up to the guy and say ‘Put down your goddamn gun!'” and saying “My guy walks up to the shooter and tries to Intimidate him into putting his gun down” is an example of ephemera in Big Model terms. As the Big Model wiki says, these distinctions can actually make a big difference in practice, so “ephemera” might not actually be the best term due to the inherent implication that this stuff is, well, ephemeral.
Almost all discussion of Forge theory ignores almost all of the above.
Yes, really. Like I said, the above breakdown is in one sense true, but at the same time it’s also fairly uncontentious, and whilst there’s plenty to discuss within each of the areas identified above, at the same time the actual nesting doesn’t really admit for much in the way of debate or discussion, at least at first glance. Poke at it and some aspects are questionable – for instance, if our gaming group decides to play a very different game from the one we have been playing (changing the entire Exploration sphere), does that necessarily change the Ephemera sphere completely, or will some aspects of Ephemera carry over from game to game? (For instance, if Mark tends to say “My guy does this” rather than speaking IC in every game he plays, that would seem to be an aspect of Ephemera that remains constant.) But for the purpose of talking about a specific gaming group playing a specific game, it’s a reasonable enough model.
At the same time, the ingredients we’ve looked at so far don’t really offer much to say in terms of the analysis of specific questions beyond the obvious. True, we can superficially categorise perennial queries and questions people have about their games based on which circle they fall into. “My players can’t get on with each other” is clearly a social contract thing. “Our gaming group would like a game that does X, Y and Z – any suggestions?” seems to be a matter of Exploration. “How do I encourage the players to treat matters of honour seriously in my Arthurian campaign?” seems to mostly be an issue of Technique. “How do I encourage this player to speak more in-character?” is, on the face of it, a matter of Ephemera.
However, whilst it is useful to realise that a major social contract problem probably isn’t going to be corrected by tweaking the system, this categorisation doesn’t really help us answer those queries by itself. Moreover, the very way the circles are nested within each other suggests a problem with treating these factors as being wholly separate, because sometimes what might look like an issue purely relating to the social contract might be a matter of Exploration, Technique or Ephemera. Sure, maybe Alpha and Beta are at each others’ throats most sessions, but is this just down to outside social reasons, or could it be down to a dispute over Exploration (Alpha really dislikes D&D 3.5E, but Beta wouldn’t agree to play anything else, and Alpha resents Beta for it) or Technique (Alpha deliberately went for a suboptimal character build for roleplaying reasons, Beta regards this as Alpha not pulling their weight), or even Ephemera (Beta always takes ages to work out their dice pools and the results of their rolls, and the way play slows down every time Beta has to make a roll irritates Alpha to the point where they want to swipe the dice out of Beta’s hand and yell “For fuck’s sake, sit down and I’ll do it for you and you can stop wasting all our goddamn time!”).
In short, these nested categories tend to fall apart when you prod at them. The particular nesting used seem to imply that every question in gaming comes down to a matter of the social contract – a statement which, whilst superficially true, is of little real help in illuminating gaming discussions. It also creates this false hierarchy that implies that (for instance) every aspect of ephemera must necessarily have a knock-on impact on techniques and exploration, even if it makes no difference to the fiction, system, or specific techniques being used whether someone says “I do this” or “My character does this”. Perhaps a more accurate picture would be a Venn diagram, with ephemera, techniques and exploration as three overlapping circles all entirely contained within the social contract.
But even so, the Big Model says so little of substance with these nested circles that it doesn’t really inspire much in the way of controversy. Looked at superficially, there doesn’t seem to be much to say about it; looked at more seriously, it doesn’t seem substantial or interesting enough to be worth much in the way of discussion.
No, there’s a reason that part of the diagram there – that otherwise placid, pastel-coloured diagram – is coloured such a vibrant red colour. That arrow to the heart of the Big Model, Creative Agenda, is the subject matter which the Big Model theory inherits from GNS Theory, the previous major model the Forge worked on. It’s the Creative Agendas – Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism – which both dominated RPG theory discussion on the Forge for about as long as RPG theory was a substantial subject of conversation there, and have been the aspect of Forge theory most widely discussed outside the Forge since its earliest days.
Where did the Creative Agendas idea come from?
GNS Theory, as it stood, was an example of a so-called “threefold model”. Such things were not new in RPG theory when Ron Edwards first started writing about this stuff. The earliest I am aware of was cooked up on rec.games.frp.advocacy, and exhaustive FAQs and other sources on it and its immediate descendants can be found on John Kim’s site.
As originally conceived, the rec.games.frp.advocacy threefold was based on the traditional RPG division of responsibilities between players and referees, and was proposed as a means of examining specific decisions on the part of a referee. It recognised three distinct criteria which a referee could use to make a call one way or another: Gamism, whereby the referee makes the call which they consider makes for the best gaming challenge for the players, Dramatism, whereby the referee makes the call which they consider makes for the best dramatic story, and Simulationism, whereby the referee tries to avoid metaplot considerations and come up with the ruling which makes logical sense based on the IC assumptions of the game world.
An important point of the original model is that it assumed that people are not, by and large, consistent on this point; sometimes they’d favour system, sometimes setting, sometimes story. Even if a particular GM has as their main priority the presentation of a consistently simulated campaign world for the PCs to explore, that doesn’t mean every single decision they make will always be identifiably simulationist – sometimes the matter in question may believably shake out in a range of different ways given the premises of the simulation at hand, in which case with all else being equal the referee may resort to whichever result they consider to give the best challenge to the player characters or has the most interesting plot consequences (or just seems amusing at the time). Moreover, it’s legitimate to say that your real goals as a referee are a hybrid affair – few people seek to run a purely simulationist “clockwork universe”, after all, and it’s more common for referees to put their finger on the scales when setting up their simulations to ensure that interesting challenges/and or entertaining events will tend to unfold once player characters are set loose there.
Although I think there’s room to debate the specific breakdown of categories used in rec.games.frp.advocacy’s threefold, I think the approach of using it as a technique of diagnosing individual decisions can be useful – in particular, it can be a useful exercise in looking at the distance between what you personally believe your roleplaying priorities are and what you actually do in games in practice, and likewise can reveal interesting things about your personal priorities if you find that there is an area of the game where you deviate from your usual habits (for instance, if you find that you mostly make calls on a simulation-first basis but fudge combat because you don’t like the idea of killing off PCs in anticlimactic ways).
The idea of a creative agenda, ultimately, comes from taking the categorisation of the rec.games.frp.advocacy threefold, but specifically changing its starting point – rather than using these categories to categorise particular decisions and then perhaps noting particular trends here and there, it assumes from the start that, for a particular instance of play, participants are going to be going into the session with a particular priority in mind. And God help you if you try to mix them.
So Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism is what the Forge called Gamism, Dramatism and Simulationism, right?
For the most part, though Ron would eventually come up with particular terms for them that he felt expressed the underpinning ideas better. “Step On Up” would stand in for Gamism, in keeping with the emphasis on presenting a suitably game-worthy challenge; “The Right to Dream” would likewise rather prettily capture Simulationism’s emphasis on “being there”.
For Narrativism, he would choose the term “Story Now”, which refers to a very particular way of looking at the output of a roleplaying session as a story. “Story Before” entails coming up with the features of a story before play begins – it’s the classic highly-railroady school of adventure design that White Wolf were infamous for, and which to a large extent a lot of Ron Edwards’ work on narrativism is a direct reaction against. “Story After” is an archaeological process, where you look at the events of a game session which didn’t involve a preplanned story and didn’t involve much in the way of narratively-based decision-making on the part of anyone during the session and then coming up with a story which is a narrative of the exciting stuff that happened in the session; war stories hailing from a very old school Dungeons & Dragons campaign qualify as this.
“Story Now” specifically relates to that play where narrative decisions are made in the course of play, rather than being established prior to the game or filled in after the fact. A lot of Forge games experiment with using specific game mechanics to encourage this, but it’s notable that Ron Edwards has maintained that you don’t necessarily have to have specific game mechanics to enable narrativist play, provided that you structure a game session to allow for emergent stories to be constructed in play.
It’s worth noting two things. Firstly, Edwards has a very particular definition of what qualifies as Narrativism. There is a good reason why the Forge is mainly known for the Narrativism-influenced games its contributors produced, rather than any comparable harvest of Gamist and Simulationist ideas: Ron regarded Narrativism as the creative agenda he was primarily interested in cultivating, and as one which so far had been particularly badly served by the RPG market to date. To Edwards, Narrativism inherently involves addressing a premise through play; he defines a story as a series of events involving at least one protagonist and at least one conflict, where the events of the story can be understood as a resolution of the conflict in such a way as to establish or reinforce a theme. (Edwards further defines the theme as the point, message, or emotional conclusion perceived by an audience member about a fictional series of events, without which by Edwards’ lights you don’t so much have a story as a series of things that happen).
One often-contentious point about GNS Theory and the Creative Agendas is that they do not appear to allow for theories about what constitutes a story which disagree with the definition preferred by Ron. Whilst I can concede that addressing theme is often what distinguishes a highbrow story from a lowbrow story – the key ingredient necessary to any storytelling effort which wants to consist of more than a series of flashy crowd-pleasing set pieces – where is the Creative Agenda for participants who want to go into a game with the intention of making a trashy story full of stunts and violence without any elevated moral or theme? Then again, I suppose you could argue that the theme of such stories is the emotional catharsis evoked by the best of ’em, so this probably isn’t as big a flaw in the theory as it first looks.
The second point I want to raise here, which is somewhat related to the first, I believe constitutes a bigger problem with the theory: note that the Creative Agendas offer no safe harbour for Story Before as a priority. You can make an argument that prioritising Story After in practice usually means prioritising Simulationism (or maybe Gamism) – either way, in both those modes you get your story by contextualising and recapping what went on afterwards. But what is the creative agenda of someone who genuinely wants to prioritise Story Before?
As much as players have complained about railroading since the dawn of RPGs, so too have there been those players who have preferred the reassurance of knowing that the game is progressing in a planned direction. There are plenty of referees who see their job as being to tell a pre-planned epic story, and plenty of players who are 100% happy to play through the referee’s planned plot, with the key note of character interaction coming from their character’s emotional responses to events rather from the event-shaping decisions they make. It would be presumptuous to pretend that this isn’t the case – so where does this fit into the Creative Agendas?
It can’t be Gamism because artificial challenges could derail the story – especially if the PCs fail at a challenge the plot demands they succeed at. It can’t be Simulationism because wanting to tell an epic story and wanting to provide a consistent simulation are two different motivations, and Simulationism demands that metagame agendas like telling an epic story are set aside in favour of resolving events as they would given the existing premises of the scenario and the game system. (Note that some Forge theorists have suggested that it’s a type of Simulationism, with the plot points of the story being part of the pre-existing parameters of the simulation, but I think this misrepresents Simulationism – in particular, I think any type of Simulationism demands that events after campaign start are not preplanned or set in stone, but arise as a result of the action of the player characters and other actors. Linear storylines require the players to consent on a metagame level to not stray outside the rails, and the whole point of Simulationism is to allow people to make the decisions from the point of view of their PCs without such metagame constraints.) It can’t be Narrativism because Narrativism is specifically about Story Now. It could conceivably be Dramatism – but GNS specifically doesn’t recognise that as a Creative Agenda. This is a shame, because having Dramatism as a broad-church “Story Above All” Creative Agenda and Narrativism as a narrower Story Now-focused Agenda within Dramatism would acknowledge a space for those who prefer Story Before whilst at the same time illustrating why it isn’t satisfying to those who, like Edwards, are really after Story Now.
The big irony here is that the Big Model does, in fact, recognise a style of play built around a common buy-in to Story Before – it calls it Participationism. But maddeningly, it doesn’t recognise it as a Creative Agenda but as a Technique! To a certain extent, this is an artifact of the conversations in which the term was coined. Specifically, it arose from the Forge’s extensive discussions of Illusionism, which is the set of techniques that a railroading dickhead of a referee uses to con the players into thinking their choices actually matter – so starting from that basis, Participationism was coined to describe a related set of techniques where the referee doesn’t indulge in such chicanery and makes it clear to the players that the game is going to be about playing through the ref’s epic story.
But maddeningly, the participants in those discussions didn’t make the next logical step of pondering whether it’s possible for Participationism to be a Creative Agenda – specifically, the agenda prioritising Story Before. To me, it is self-evident that it can; if everyone’s sat down at the table with the intention of playing through Ted’s big story, then surely that is legitimate a motivation as any of the others identified?
Ah, but there’s the thing with RPG threefold theories in general; once they’re established, people are insistent that there’s no way to cut the cake to admit a fourth slice, even if the multiplicity of different ways in which threefolds cut the cake suggests that this should be possible.
What makes the whole Creative Agenda thing so controversial?
There’s two issues here: the absolutism and the absolutism.
The first type of absolutism involved is the reduction of people’s priorities in games to three broad categories – or, rather, two broad categories and one somewhat narrower category (Narrativism). The very fact that Ron’s focus on and intense interest in Narrativism resulted in it taking on this narrower focus (kicking Story Before out of the Creative Agendas entirely in the process) points to this problem: people’s actual motivations and priorities for play – the actual real-life reasons real-life people give for what they enjoy and look for in an RPG session – tend to be more specific and detailed than the broad definitions the broad categories give. Someone who puts a high priority on “story” might not dig Narrativism if they don’t like Story Now and are super into Story Before, for instance. Similarly, someone’s general priorities might fit into one of the categories like Simulationism, but at the same time that doesn’t mean they’ll like anything which comes under Simulationism.
There’s an analogy about pigs given on the Big Model wiki here which discusses why the Creative Agendas are considered necessary: people can say “I like pigs” but mean it in entirely different ways, each of which is destructive to the others’ enjoyment of pigs. The trick that seems to have been missed here is that you can apply the exact same analogy to each of the Creative Agendas – three different people can claim to like Gamism but actually have very different ideas about what’s a well-calibrated and interesting challenge; three different people can claim to be into Narrativism but have very different storytelling preferences; three different people can claim to be into Simulationism but, because of differences in preferred genres, might not be able to agree on a single Simulation they can all get into.
In short, it’s pigs all the way down. List three creative agendas, and a heap of people will either struggle to recognise their personal priorities in there or be inclined to say “well, I suppose Simulationism fits what my priorities are, but I much prefer X and Y about Simulationism and find Z deeply annoying”. One of the reasons that I personally find the Creative Agendas to not actually be very useful for talking about RPGs in anything but the most abstract and general terms is that they introduce enough specificity to give the superficial appearance of being useful categories, whilst at the same time being vague enough that none of them actually properly express a particular set of preferences – and the more precise you try to make any one of the Agendas, the more perfectly enjoyable varieties of gaming you exclude unless you’re willing to coin more terms to suit, and the Forge were traditionally very resistant to recognising new Creative Agendas.
(Though notably, some members were inclined to reduce the number of Creative Agendas they’d personally recognise. For instance, there was a wing comprising of Jared Sorenson and others who were convinced that Simulationism didn’t exist – despite the existence of a wide range of gamers who say they prefer games about exploring a consistent secondary creation with minimal metagame decision-making in play, and despite the existence of a wide range of games geared precisely towards this sort of “Playing at the World”, as Jon Peterson puts it. As per the Beeg Horseshoe article on the Big Model wiki, it seems that even Ron found some of these ideas to be tiresome, but it was part of a wider pattern of the Forge generally not being especially keen on – or even understanding of – Simulationism. One reason a lot of Forge-influenced games include lots of metagamey mechanics like Fate points and the like is that, as well as the Creative Agendas those games serve demanding the incorporation of metagame mechanics, the Forgers often didn’t really understand why some people wouldn’t want game mechanics which prompt metagame thinking as opposed to thinking from the point of view of the player characters.)
The first sort of absolutism made using the Creative Agendas as a vehicle to discuss roleplaying tiresome; the second sort of absolutism involved had a direct impact on the design of a whole generation of indie RPGs, sometimes for the better but sometimes for the worse. This was the notion of Incoherence.
What was the deal with Incoherence?
One of the things which the Forge pushed a lot, and which probably saved them from a host of theoretical cul-de-sacs and nonsensical outcomes, was the consideration of actual play experiences and seeing what could conclusions could be drawn about what went right and what went wrong. Over time, they would identify a number of different varieties of “dysfunctional” play – play where the RPG process has ceased to be fun for one or more participants.
Incoherence was not the only cause of dysfunctional play the Forge identified, but you could be forgiven for thinking that, because it was the contributor to dysfunctionality that was talked about by far the most wherever Forge theory was discussed. The basic idea is, as always with Forge theory, very simple: Coherence is when everyone at the gaming table adopts and works to support one particular Creative Agenda, and Incoherence is where incompatible Creative Agendas are at work amongst game participants. (Recall Ron’s parable of the pigs here: to a large extent, “incompatible Creative Agendas” and “multiple Creative Agendas” will tend to mean the same thing to those who buy into the underlying assumption that the Creative Agendas are, at their heart, mutually incompatible.)
In principle, one game participant can be Incoherent by themselves if they are trying to prioritise two Creative Agendas at once; Forge Theory states, in fact, that it is impossible to do so, since at some point you’ll have to choose to prioritise one agenda over another (if only momentarily) or face decision paralysis. (Conversely, it’s entirely possible to play without any Creative Agenda at all, simply by having no real priority in play at all – not only does Ron assume that playing with no clear priority is inherently undesirable on the face of it, but you could probably argue that it would tend to lead to Incoherence simply because, in the absence of any assumed priority on your part, you won’t have a consistent basis on which to make your decisions and as such sooner or later you’ll inevitably trip up someone else’s Agenda simply through this very arbitrariness.)
It is often said in Forge-related discussions that this or that published game is “Coherent” or “Incoherent”. This isn’t entirely correct, but at the same time isn’t entirely incorrect. As would be repeatedly stressed on the Forge, what’s really important is the totality of what happens at a gaming table in a session, rather than what is written down in a particular book. To say that a Dungeons & Dragons session is Incoherent if everyone at the table is working to the same Creative Agenda is absurd – what will happen in practice is that the participants will focus on the parts of D&D that support their mutual Creative Agenda and downplay, ignore, or outright change the parts which don’t fit what they are doing (or if they can’t make D&D work for their Agenda, they’ll abandon it and play a different game).
At the same time, the way a game’s rulebook is written can undeniably raise mixed or even mutually exclusive expectations amongst those who read it. So a game can be Coherent to the extent that its rules and the surrounding text consistently supports a single Creative Agenda. Likewise, a game can be Incoherent to the extent that, if run by the book, it can be expected to result in Incoherent play due to its cultivation of clashing Creative Agendas.
So, what happens when you put this all together?
The sum total of all this leads to a rejection of the idea of compromise, both in terms of RPG design and in the recruitment and management of gaming groups. If you buy into the theory, the logical conclusion is that Incoherent play forces participants to sit through a bunch of stuff they aren’t interested in until the game eventually addresses the stuff they are interested in – the Forge regularly pushed that old idea about traditional RPG play consisting of “twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours” – and to avoid Incoherence, you need to have everyone working to a compatible Creative Agenda. And since there are only three Creative Agendas, each of them having mutually exclusive foci, this basically means that each time your group plays a game they need to be working to the exact same Creative Agenda if you want to improve that fun-to-play-time ratio – if you believe the theory, that is.
Forge theory – and Ron in particular – are emphatic on the point that one game session cannot adequately serve multiple agendas and remain fun. This assumes two things: firstly, that people are only constitutionally able to find one thing fun at a time – so that the parts of a game session that do not directly serve the creative agenda you happen to be giving the highest priority to this evening cannot possibly be enjoyable to you – and secondly, that people can’t derive reciprocal enjoyment from other people’s fun, even if hails from a part of the game which isn’t necessarily to their own tastes. Neither of these assumptions fit my observed experiences of RPGs. It is true that I find that if you go into a game expecting a very specific experience, it can bug you inordinately when that precise experience isn’t delivered – but equally, I find that if I go into a game with an eye to finding my fun where it offers itself I usually end up finding that fun. Similarly, unless you’re playing with people who are actively unfriendly to each other and derive enjoyment from wrecking each other’s fun, usually the more other people around the table are enjoying themselves, the more fun I myself end up having simply because of the good atmosphere that establishes.
In short, a lot of Forge theory and others arises from the fact that Ron and other theorists found that they had very narrow tastes in gaming – tastes which the market had poorly served – and assumed that everyone else had similarly narrow tastes. Not only would such people find “Big Tent”-type games which try to make room for a wide range of different types of play and fun to be dissatisfying, because of insufficient focus on the very specific types of fun they are after, but they’d also be sceptical of the idea that such “Big Tents” were in fact possible.
This accounts for a lot of the “zeal of the converted” that newly-converted adherents to Forge theory and Narrativist RPGs would exhibit. There is, without doubt, a powerful need for games and ideas about RPGs which can support narrow tastes and very specific creative visions; just because someone is fussy or difficult to cater to doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have fun. And when someone finds that Narrativism or Forge theories finally gives the play experience they never realised they’d been yearning for, it isn’t so surprising if they often assume that everyone else is a closet Narrativist who only needs to give it a try in order to be won over.
The emphasis on Coherence naturally had a knock-on effect on the Forge’s ideas about game design, with most of their designs pushing very specific and narrow game experiences, with rules written to (if the designer got it right) both encourage those experiences and manage participant expectations in order to get everyone on the same page in terms of both general Creative Agenda and specific nuances. The bulk of the Forge’s noteworthy output has been centred on Narrativism, for instance, and the games in question tend not to try to be a “Big Tent” storytelling game that tries to tell a range of different stories (though FATE, whose designers seem to have some sympathy for Narrativist ideas, likes to sell itself as such), but instead each aims to tell a very specific type of story.
Now, on the one hand I actually think this is a good idea for small press indie RPGs, but not for the reasons the Forge promote. The fact is that, by the very nature of Big Tents in the first place, if you try to produce a Big Tent RPG you end up in direct competition with the biggest Big Tents on the marketplace. If you want to make a Big Tent fantasy RPG, you’re competing directly with D&D and Pathfinder, if you want to make a Big Tent generic RPG you’re in competition with FATE and GURPS and so on and so forth. By focusing on providing a specific, narrow experience more reliably and repeatably than a Big Tent RPG (with its necessarily broader, shallower focus) can offer, a small press RPG can provide a unique selling point, and it’s precisely such a unique selling point you need to have on hand when a customer asks “Why should I pay you money for your fantasy game when I already have D&D, Runequest, and a host of other options at my fingertips?”
Equally, however, specificity limits growth. If you’re only a small-press RPG publisher, of course, you probably don’t expect to grow very large in the first place; if you’re sensible and have a day job to pay your bills, there’s a limit to how large your publishing endeavours can even get before you are no longer able to adequately support them. But if you’re Wizards of the Coast or Steve Jackson Games or someone like that, some niches are too narrow to be economically worth your while pursuing.
Moreover, I think it is undeniable that there is such a thing as a Big Tent RPG, for which additional specificity can only do harm. To show that you just have to point to the experience of 4E Dungeons & Dragons. Whilst there was always the chance that putting out a new edition of D&D would fragment the fanbase – particularly considering the way the OGL made 3rd Edition (and, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, previous editions) perpetually available for others to adapt to their own ends – it can hardly be denied that the schism surrounding 4E was especially bad, not least because it spawned a whole other RPG which ended up outpacing 4E in terms of sales (if what limited data available to us on Pathfinder‘s performance is to be believed). It’s also hard to deny that, whilst many rejected 4E, a number of others enjoyed it, and some even found it their favourite edition of the game.
I’m not saying the 4E designers deliberately followed the Forge playbook, but if if they didn’t then it’s surely an instance of parallel evolution, for 4E reads to me like a D&D taken in as purely Gamist a direction as a committee-designed product subject to review and oversight by corporate owners can take, building the game around the combat encounter with an eye to focusing on miniatures-supported play, character powers designed around providing tactical options in minis combat as their primary (and usually exclusive) application, and mechanics which prioritise providing a rigorously balanced game experience to such an extent that support for anything that happens between combat encounters is threadbare (or, in the case of skill challenges, such a low priority as to be broken on shipping) and powers sometimes seem designed to have a game mechanical effect first and an in-world effect second, with the mechanics taking priority even if the in-world effect doesn’t quite make sense within the fiction.
In other words, 4E represented an undeniable narrowing of focus for D&D – and the result was an unprecedented shattering of the game’s fanbase, with 5E picking up the plaudits it’s been receiving at least partly because it seems to represent a return to the Big Tent approach.
What alternatives are there to Forge theory?
Both prior to and after the Forge’s moment in the sun, people have either overtly or implicitly presented different ways of analysing RPGs which lead to different but still useful conclusions.
For instance, Robin Laws put out Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, which amongst other things presented an extensive list of player types based on the activity which they enjoy the most within RPGs – for instance, the Method Actor really enjoys getting inside the head of their characters, whilst the Tactician likes to have lots of tactical options in combat. The big difference in Laws’ approach is that he sees no barrier to having multiple different player types with different priorities in the same gaming group, provided that in session preparation the GM makes sure that there is at least something in the session that corresponds to each players’ priorities.
Of course, that could conceivably lead to the “twenty minutes of fun in four hours” problem. That said, a cleverer and more nuanced iteration of this idea comes up in the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide, which provides an extensive list of activities which players tend to enjoy in RPGs – and crucially, doesn’t assume that each player is only really interested in one of those activities. Robin’s Laws did seem to concede the possibility that some players may be hybrid types, but the 5E DMG seems to take as an assumption that most players will have a range of different activities in the game which they will enjoy, rather than only liking one particular aspect of the game. This means that it’s not only easier to find common ground – if most of your players dig exploration, then adding a healthy exploration component to your game is a no-brainer – but also expands your tools to provide material catering to a player’s specific interests, because rather than limiting yourself to their absolute number one favourite type of thing you can apply yourself to offering up one or more of the activities that they enjoy (and if at least one or two of the other players also enjoy that activity, all to the better).
In short, from Robin Laws to the new DMG we can trace a way of analysing games based on looking at the activities within a session that people enjoy, with said activities conceivably existing peacefully alongside other activities (or even supporting and being reinforced by other activities), rather than trying to summarise people’s motivations for gaming based on broad categories which are assumed to be mutually incompatible.
In addition, I think there is a lot to be said for the OSR’s approach of taking old games and trying to engage with them in good faith, assuming that the designers generally knew what they were doing unless a mechanic demonstrably doesn’t do what the designers declare it is meant to do. Some of the most interesting stuff to come out of the OSR has arisen from people looking at old versions of D&D (including OD&D, popularly assumed to be unplayable as written until this point was debunked by a combination of OSR people examining and discussing it and the materials themselves becoming widely available as official PDFs), and in doing so setting aside received wisdom about how it’s “supposed” to work and actually considering what the implications of the systems presented are if you accept them on their own terms.
In other words, rather than writing off a game as being broken or Incoherent just because it doesn’t conform to one of the three Creative Agendas the Forge recognises, you can instead look at the game and see what sort of Creative Agenda is implied by its design (whether this is one of the Forge-recognised ones or some special brew unique to the game in question), saving cries of “Incoherent!” or “contradictory!” for those cases where rules demonstrably and undeniably sabotage each other or don’t accomplish what they claim they do even on their own terms.
So where does “brain damage” come into all of this?
“Brain damage” is an issue which isn’t integral to Forge theory, but which is difficult to separate from it, not least because it originates with Ron Edwards and Ron himself is so difficult to disentangle from Forge theory. It refers to an incident where Ron, quite simply, went beyond the pale with his rhetoric, to such an extent that he was called out on it not just by the usual suspects who’d lambast everything he said but also a number of people on the Forge itself. Indeed, whether or not someone who was an active Forge member at the time spoke out against Ron or defended him on this point tends to weigh heavily on how much credence I give them. Even giving the man every possible benefit of the doubt, there is no way to put a good spin on what he said without literally ignoring the actual words he uses, and the discussion involved is so offensive that, whilst I could forgive someone for holding their nose and choosing not to partake because of how toxic it was, I find it difficult to be charitable for anyone seeking to defend Ron’s behaviour on this point. It’s the sort of thing where if you try to excuse it you’re pretty much pouring petrol on the fire.
To couch this in as much context as possible: although Ron Edwards’ by far most successful game (in terms of both widespread play and critical acclaim) is Sorcerer – think a World of Darkness knock-off about demon-summoning wizards where the advice on Storytelling isn’t utterly horrible – he’s put out a steady stream of games since then. The fact that few if any of these even made waves within the RPG community would be the basis of many a cheap slam against Ron, but then again those weren’t the criteria of success he was working with. Indeed, for much of the mid-2000s, he was working with the notion of creating, promoting and distributing his games outside of the conventional RPG community entirely, to the point where his Spione is not marketed as an RPG rulebook but a book about “Story Now, a new way to author and enjoy spy fiction”. To a large extent, Ron has done what I’ve occasionally griped that other “story games” designers should do – critically look at each and every one of the conventions of RPG play, such as the inherited assumption that players will identify with a particular individual in the fictional scenario, and only use them if the type of story game they are trying to construct really, truly demands that, rather than trying to retain vestigial RPG DNA that doesn’t seem strictly necessary. (See, for instance, how the best part of Fiasco seems to be the setting/scenario-generating portion – the part which least resembles traditional RPG play.)
It all comes back to the fact that Ron finds traditional RPGs don’t really deliver the goods for him, and his ongoing thoughts on game design found that RPGs in general weren’t actually the best vehicle for what he was after in the first place. Games like Dogs In the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, and other Narrativist storygames with extensive RPG DNA might be a good way to deliver that X-factor for people who had previously been steeped in the assumptions of traditional, pre-Forge RPGs, but they weren’t the best or most direct route to the treasure if you abandoned the preconceptions and lessons RPGs had ingrained in you and started out with a clean slate and a free hand.
Shit kicked off when, in a discussion on Vincent Baker’s blog, Ron chose to express the above sentiments in the following fashion:
More specific to your question, Vincent, I’ll say this: that protagonism was so badly injured during the history of role-playing (1970-ish through the present, with the height of the effect being the early 1990s), that participants in that hobby are perhaps the very last people on earth who could be expected to produce *all* the components of a functional story. No, the most functional among them can only be counted on to seize protagonism in their stump-fingered hands and scream protectively. You can tag Sorcerer with this diagnosis, instantly.
[The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say “brain damage,” I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*]
Perhaps Primetime Adventures, My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, etc etc, are really the best available prosthetics possible, permitting the damaged populace to do X? If so, what will people with limbs prefer to use, to do X?
Ron would repeatedly use the “brain damage” term in other venues in comparable contexts.
Now, if he’d stopped at the first paragraph you could write this off as a hyperbolic way of saying that the habits and practices that became commonplace in the RPG hobby ended up being obstacles to producing functional stories (by Ron’s standards – remember, Ron has a very specific definition of “story”) rather than tools. That’s some smack talk right there, but nothing too outrageous. If he’d issued forth the first and third paragraphs, at most you could accuse him of using a tastelessly ableist metaphor to get across the point but, again, the point being made is a legitimate one.
It’s that second paragraph that stuck in many people’s craws, and justifiably so – not least because of the whole When I say “brain damage,” I mean it literally thing. As you might expect, it generated controversy, to an extent that Ron had to post to the Forge to address it. The resulting thread witnesses him:
- Doubling down on the “no, I really mean brain damage” thing. Several participants in the thread get side-tracked into talking about a “brain damage metaphor”, but it is quite evident from Ron’s own words that he doesn’t mean it as a metaphor.
- Demonstrating a decidedly idiosyncratic idea of what “brain damage” is – defining it to include not just physical damage, but any maladaptive, unhealthy, or otherwise unhelpful thought pattern or recurring mental state that can be induced in someone by a traumatic or otherwise undesirable event.
- Later in the thread, Ron would argue that he didn’t mean irreparable, irreversible brain damage, but this doesn’t really wash when you set it next to his original comments – the term “prosthetic” implies a replacement for a body part which ain’t going to heal up and come back, after all.
- Specifically citing White Wolf as being the main culprits in causing brain damage to gamers who look to their games for story-focused experiences,
- Pouring oil on the fire by bringing in the analogy of child abuse, in doing so a) directly suggesting that child abuse victims are brain damaged and b) directly suggesting that writing Storytelling advice for White Wolf is the same breed of animal as raping a child.
Incidentally, that thread was way worse than I remember it – an awful lot of the posters on it seem to be terminally muddled about what has actually been said, there’s way more Ron-defending than I remember, and it’s about 8 pages before anyone (Legend of the Five Rings designer John Wick) really takes Ron to task about that utterly abhorrent child abuse bit.
As Clinton R. Nixon (The Shadow of Yesterday) points out elsewhere in the thread, Ron isn’t really the sort of person where arguing with him helps very much. Despite the controversy that was caused, Ron would expound on the brain damage point both in that thread and in other venues; notably in this thread – ostensibly written in defence of Ron’s comments – there’s a handy transcript of an interview Ron did with an RPG theory podcast surrounding the subject, where he drops this very important point (which isn’t really teased out in most of his other defences of his position):
Let me make it a little clearer. I wouldn’t call it “damage” if we was talking about people who were experiencing all these phenomena I’m talking about at 25. Because that’s when, I mean there are other things going on for the person but, on the average, people at the ages I’m talking about are putting together the kind of adults they’re going to be.
So, on the one hand we have Ron’s reassurance that if a fully grown consenting adult plays Vampire: the Masquerade, they probably aren’t going to suffer brain damage. At the same time, we see here that Ron’s child abuse analogy wasn’t merely a poorly-chosen analogy: Ron believes that White Wolf’s Storytelling advice is directly toxic to young, developing minds, and can warp them in just the same way as any unsavoury influence can.
Ron would eventually shut down discussion of the point on the Forge with this classic work of Internet rhetoric, with all the time-honoured utter misrepresentation and misunderstanding of other people’s points that such postings have exhibited since the dawn of time. In retrospect, the whole incident makes me glad that Ron’s tastes in gaming seem too narrow to enjoy any game I’d be participating in, and have taken him further and further away from the mainstream RPG hobby over time. The more distance exists between Ron and the rest of the gaming community, the happier everyone’s going to be.