Role-playing game theory

A role-playing game theory is an academic or critical study of role-playing games (RPGs) as a social or artistic phenomenon. RPG theories seek to understand what role-playing games are, how they function, and how the process can be refined in order to improve the gaming experience and produce more useful game products.


The first organized critical reflection on role-playing games and academic research on them from their inception in the mid-1970s through the 1980s focused on examining and refuting the early controversies surrounding the hobby at the time. Arguably, the first examination of the field in clinical terms came with the publication of Shared Fantasies: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds[1] by Gary Fine. Gary Gygax, co-originator of the hobby with Dave Arneson, published two books on his philosophy of role-playing, Role Playing Mastery: Tips, Tactics and Strategies in 1989, and Master of the Game in 1990.

In 1994-95 Inter*Active, (later renamed Interactive Fiction) published a magazine devoted to the study of RPGs. In the first issue Robin Laws called for the creation of a critical theory for role-playing games.[2] By the late 90’s discussion on the nature of RPGs on had generated several theories of RPGs which spread to other sites and influenced theorists in France and Scandinavia. The Scandinavian RPG scene saw several opposing ideological camps about the nature and function of RPGs emerge, and began having regular conventions on live action role-playing games where RPG theory was featured prominently, called the Knutepunkt. The first Knutepunkt was held in Oslo in 1997 and the annual convention is still being organized today.

In the 21st century, self-defined “Indie role-playing” communities such as the Forge[3] grew on the internet, studying role-playing and developing the GNS Theory of role-playing games. Knutepunkt has continued to grow and an annual collection of articles on role-playing has been published since 2003. Many games, especially those from Indie writers, are now written with a conscious awareness and incorporation of RPG theory.

Notable examples

Some RPG theories include:

Threefold Model – developed at from 1997 to 1998; proposed by Mary Kuhner, and FAQed by John Kim. It hypothesizes that any GM decision will be made for the purpose of game, or drama, or simulation. Thus, player preferences, GMing styles, and even RPG rulesets can be characterised as Game-oriented, Drama-oriented or Simulation-oriented, or more usually as somewhere between the three extremes. It is sometimes called GDS theory.[4] Strictly, GDS theory is concerned with players’ social interactions, but it has been extrapolated to direct game design, both in and out of the world of RPGs. A game can be classified according to how strongly it encourages or facilitates players reinforcing behaviors matching each category. Game designers find it useful because it can be used to explain why players play certain games.

GEN Theory– developed at Gaming Outpost in 2001 largely by Scarlet Jester. It hypothesizes a top and bottom “tier” of play, with the top tier being dominated by “Intent” which is divided into Gamist, Explorative, and Narrative. It was influenced by threefold and GNS theory.[5]

The Big Model or Forge Theory – developed at The Forge from 1999-2005 largely by Ron Edwards – It hypothesizes that roleplaying games are modeled by “The Big Model” with 4 levels: the social contract, exploration, techniques and ephemera, with creative agendas governing the link from social contract to technique. In this theory there are 3 kinds of creative agenda, Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist agendas. It is detailed in the articles “GNS and Other Matter of Role Play Theory,” “System Does Matter,” “Narrativism: Story Now” “Gamism: Step on Up” and “Simulationism: The Right to Dream” by Ron Edwards, at the Forge’s article page.[6] The Big Model grew out of and has since displaced GNS Theory, a variant of the Threefold Model.

Color Theory by Fabien Ninoles in 2002, was developed on the French createurs-jdr mailing list. It is an inheritor of SCARF theory and SCAR theory, which then interacted with English language theories. In this theory the goals of system design are thought of as the primary colors of TV light – Green for simplicity, Blue for realism, Red for consistency, with notions like adaptability, tenacity, brightness, and visibility being extensions of the metaphor.[7]

Channel Theory by Larry Hols, 2003, hypothesizes that game play is made up of “channels” of various kinds such as “narration,” “moral tone” or “fidelity to setting.” It developed in part as a criticism of the three style theories.[8]

The Turku School developed in Turku, Finland, especially by Mike Pohjola from 1999 to the present. It advocates immersion (“eläytyminen”) as the primary method of role-playing (especially live action role-playing), and artistic exploration as the primary goal. The Immersionist style is thought to be distinct from dramatist, gamist, and simulationist styles, and dramatism and gamism are thought to be clearly inferior styles of role-play, fit only for other mediums besides roleplaying.[9][dead link]

The Meilahti School developed in Helsinki, Finland, by Jaakko Stenros and Henri Hakkarainen from 2002 to the present. It defines role-playing in a way that encompasses many different forms, and shuns normative choices about what the right or best forms are. “A role-playing game is what is created in the interaction between players or between player(s) and gamemaster(s) within a specified diegetic framework.”[10]


  1. Shared Fantasies: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds ISBN 0-226-24943-3 / 0-226-24943-3 ISBN 978-0-226-24943-8 University of Chicago Press 1983
  2. The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards a Critical Framework of RPGs by Robin Laws
  3. The Forge Forums – Index
  4. The Threefold Theory FAQ by John Kim
  5. Everything You Need to Know about GEN Theory by Scarlet Jester
  6. The Forge’s article page, with the key articles to GNS Theory/Forge Theory
  7. Color Theory by Fabien Ninoles
  8. Channel Theory, by Larry Hols
  9. The Turku School
  10. The Meilahti School
Further reading

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