RPG theory

Created at
16 December 2023
Last modified
17 March 2024

Currently a curated list of links for anything relating to how we think about roleplaying games. Maybe if I collect enough of this, it’ll morph into something synthetic.

External links


GNS theory posits that at any point in time, a player engages in the game in one of three ways:

  • Gamism, in which the player makes decisions to satisfy predetermined goals in the face of adversity.
  • Narrativism, in which the player outlines and develops character motivations, puts them into contact with others, and makes decisions around those motivations central to the game.
  • Simulationism, in which the player makes decisions recreating, or inspired by, a genre or source.

GNS has been criticised as championing Narrativism over the other two modes, and definitely emerges from a community (the Indie RPGs forums or “the forge”) which focussed on narrativist games. It also tends to be critical of games which try to provide rules for more than one of the above agendas, calling such games “incoherent”.

GNS theory is actually part of a larger set of roleplaying theory that Ron Edwards, moderator of The Forge, set forth in his own article on that site - he also explicitly puts forward that it’s his view on roleplaying games and shouldn’t be treated as any sort of canon. Worth writing up the larger view this fits into (stance comes in here as well).

Later evolutions of this theory include the big model, which tries to encompass even more of the dynamic around the table, but which doesn’t necessarily try to expand these core agendas for engagement.


How you and your character relate to one another - specifically, how you decide what your character should do in a given situation. In the original text Edwards identifies three stances:

  • Actor stance, in which you decide what to do based on what the character knows.
  • Author stance, in which you decide what to do based on your own priorities and then create the relevant motivation within the character to justify their actions. (If you don’t create the motivation, just having the character act to fulfil your will, it’s pawn stance).
  • Director stance, in which you decide not just the character’s actions but also one or more aspects of the environment.

In practice I’ve mutated these definitions in my head, to better help me explain/visualise player-character relationships:

  • In actor stance, you identify your character as an emotional being, and attempt to inhabit them at least partially in order to generate an authentic reaction to situations and make decisions as the character. You could draw parallels between this and method acting.
  • In pawn stance, you identify your character as an agent of change in the world, but deny (or disregard) their emotional state. Your decisions are, instead, based on the character’s ability to affect the world and fulfil your/their goals. This is basically the stance you’d take for a board game, or for a “bad” one-off game at a convention where you don’t know what your character is like beyond their stats.
  • In director stance, you identify your character as an emotional being but keep some distance between you and them, making decisions to benefit the plot even if they don’t benefit the character. We often see this more in games with a non-traditional GM structure, or where players are at least partially responsible for narrative beyond their character.

Blorb/Blorbo play

Kumada1/Sprinting Owl Game Designs:

in a lot of games, you’re playing to create a blorbo, an OC, just a little guy, and the soul of the gameplay is the story of who your guy is and who your guy becomes.

This is blorbo style play.

See also Blorb Principles. I can’t find any link between these two posts - and they don’t seem to be related. I love that we have multiple styles of play called blorb/blorbo/blorby.

Blorb principles lists the following:

  • Never prep plot. Prep who’s there, but not what happens. Let that emerge during play.
  • No paper after seeing rock. Write down what’s there, don’t cheat on it to make it harder/easier.
  • Three tiers of truth. When you need to answer, (in order, until something tells you the answer): consult the prep; consult existing rules; make something up (which then becomes existing rules).
  • Wallpaper salience. Prep stuff you can’t improvise, don’t bother prepping that which you can improvise in the moment.
  • Salience time zoom. Time passes at the speed necessary for us to answer the questions that arise in play. Fast forward when you need to.
  • Prepping is different from running. When you prep you’re designing your scenario, determining how many things should go where, etc. When you switch to running, you’re no longer designing. You need to stick to the design so that it’s fair to the play.
  • Diegetical mechanics. Have mechanics which link narrative actions with narrative consequences. This is part of making puzzles. “If they pull the left lever, the door opens” - vs “Roll +WIS to work out how to solve the puzzle”.

Levi Kornelson’s explainer about the historical playstyle of D&D

A series of four posts which talk about the rules of D&D, how they actually get used at the table, the rule of a GM’s “three-ring binder” of house rules / rules arrived at during play. See also Blorb Principles’ three tiers of truth about agreed rulings.