State of the Big Model?

Aik's picture

Everyone keeps telling me it's dead, that the prophets Ron and Vincent have abandoned it, and that the world has moved on.

Since The Forge closed I haven't really kept up with theory discussions except what was on Story Games, but I haven't seen any viable model proposed to replace it, or thorough explanation as to why people think it's no longer useful. Just that it's 'obsolete'.

So, what's the deal? Is there some new model or sexy theory on how RPGs work? Or some fresh design work that shows how it's all rubbish?

Paul T.'s picture

It's not at all obvious what the state of the Big Model is these days. After all, Ron shut down the Theory forums long ago, and then Vincent started talking about the Big Model being obsolete. However, what these things mean, in practice, is hard to say.

Most of the people who were heavily involved with the theory still use it, especially in private. (And some in public - like our own friend Silmenume, for instance, on this forum.) Ron's latest thinking on RPGs (as can be seen on his website) is certainly Big Model-compatible, even he's using less of the jargon than he used to, and I know that, at least, Story Now and Step On Up are still distinct Creative Agenda modes he recognizes. I see his use of theory as having evolved a tiny bit, but not dramatically so (just as you'd expect of anyone but a total dogmatist a decade later!).

Most people seem to agree that a) there isn't anything better out there, so we might as well reach for handy concepts and terms when we're talking about games and design, but also b) the history of the Model has ruffled a lot of feathers, and therefore avoiding clear reference to it in public might be "good for business". My totally personal (and admittedly rather indefensible!) position is that most people who use the Model in their thinking but avoid obvious terminology in public are doing so for *political* reasons rather than because the theory doesn't serve them. (A more generous interpretation is that these people are trying to make their explanations and discussions more *accessible*, rather than for fear of political backlash, which is also likely.)

I had a long discussion with Vincent about this on the barf forth apocalyptica forums (which are, unfortunately, down, so I can't link to it). My takeaways were that Vincent was very careful to call the Big Model "obsolete" - in his own words (roughly), it hasn't been superceded or shown to be wrong (he made it very clear that GNS still "works", so to speak, and no one's ever shown it to be broken or incorrect), it's just that it's time to look for new ideas and concepts to move ahead to the next step. He explained that over the last number of years he's realized he's using less and less of the Forge terminology and more and more of his own, more recent terminology, so why not own that? As a bonus, it allows him to brand his own way of thinking and theoretical language, separate from its Forge roots and unique to his own approach to gaming and design.

His main gripes with the Model were a) the extensive use of taxonomies (which he feels cloud our understanding, at this point, rather than speaking about the underlying dynamics of that particular issue), and b) the dependence on the concept of assigning authority (he prefers to look at what happens in RPG play as a matter of creative responsibilities rather than authorities).

As an example of this, he stopped talking about Narrativism, Simulationism, and Gamism (a taxonomy) and now prefers to talk about the object of the game - the underlying thing, process, or concept that the original taxonomy was trying to get at. He wants to encourage us all to look at the old Forge taxonomies this way - not just GNS, but also IIEE, narrative authorities, and so forth: all the things that Ron liked to break down into taxonomies. I think it's not coincidental that many of the games he's making these days don't seem to be as clearly classifiable into G, N, or S as Forge-era games were: whether the design is leading the theoretical thinking of the other way around, he seems to be thinking more freely and flexibly about what the object of a game can be.

Vincent and Ron had a lengthy discussion about some of this on Ron's website, and the conclusion (as best as I can tell) was agreement in some areas and disagreement in others.

So, what's the deal? Is there some new model or sexy theory on how RPGs work? Or some fresh design work that shows how it's all rubbish?

Basically: no.

There is no new sexy theory that has displaced the old. There is nothing which has shown that it's all rubbish. People have just evolved to a more open way of talking about games, and more people seem to feel free to mix and match the vocabulary and ideas they're prepared to use, whether that's from the Big Model or from somewhere else.

Personally? That suits me just fine. I was never a Big Model dogmatist to begin with (this new, looser interpretation is more or less how I looked at the whole thing from the start), and I like the freedom and creativity that comes from all of us throwing all our ideas into a pot and drawing on whatever tool happens to seem handy at any particular moment. The people who know the vocabulary and ideas do still use them when talking to each other, in my experience, but they do so less and less in public.

It seems to me that the most important ideas of the Big Model have more or less infiltrated the online game theory group mind (all of us spread across the internet), and are now accepted as "obvious truths" even by people who consider themselves to be opponents of the Big Model.

Meanwhile, the most common, main takeaway from the old Forge heads seems to be something like this:

"Ok, enough talking about the theory. We've laid the groundwork and the ideas are all out there now. Stop talking and starting making and playing new games! The next horizon will be broken by design and praxis, not idle chatter."

I can get down with that.

Silmenume's picture


The great strength and great weakness of the Big Model was that it as Taxonomic in formulation. If I recall the Big Model was formulated in response to the problem of people playing dysfunctional games and not understanding why. The strength of the Big Model is that it focused on observed behavior of the players. This shift away from focusing on game mechanics to that of the Creative Agenda of the players was a huge leap forward in the understanding of role-playing. By understanding what CA the game designer is shooting for then games could be much more effectively designed to help facilitate the expression of said CA. Many good concepts came out the Big Model like the idea of spreading DM duties around a table, etc.

Also by trying to make the discussion of role-play rigorous, which eventually entailed the creation of specialized vocabulary, people could discuss difficult or arcane ideas because they all had the same idea framework (model and vocabulary) from which to start from. This greatly facilitated discussions when posters could understand what each other were trying to say.

The failings of the Big Model were two fold. The first was that it never successfully defined the taxonomic category of Simulationism. Once Ron figured about his baby, Narrativism, the theory boards were shut down not long after.

The second failing of the Big Model was that it was Taxonomic in nature. There was nothing inherently wrong with that formulation as it was very fruitful but it did utterly miss the fine workings of what was going on at a table among the players. IOW while it categorized play it offered no framework for theory of play. That is Vincent's "the underlying dynamics". Chris Lehrich wrote several articles on this very topic on the Forge and sprinkled it through his general postings. While the Big Model was Taxonomic it most certainly was not analytical. The Big Model never delved into the nitty gritty of what is "really" happening between the players in play as well as an understanding of just what exactly role-play is.

While I don't have the tool set for the later it is just this matter that I've had to dig into to describe mythic-bricolage/Sim. Again, Chris has been extraordinarily helpful in aiding me in my purposes. But I think that having a framework that many can use to discuss role-play is a tremendous positive. And, as has already been mentioned, we shouldn't limit out thinking to just the Big Model. I feel that leaving the Big Model behind without another framework in place would be akin to the Tower of Babel disaster. Everyone would be talking right past each other spending the bulk of their time just trying to set the framework of the conversation.

To call for the end of all discussion about role-play on a theoretical level is tremendously short sighted. As a human activity it has never been rigorously studied allowing for those amazing insights that come from such activities. Inventing in the dark, to me, is like sailing without a compass even if you don't know your destination. Knowing how you got somewhere new is important if you wish to explain it to someone else. By all means lets not ossify our thinking but on the same hand let us not be so foolish as to think we know all we need to know. That way lies hubris and folly.



Paul T.'s picture

I have definitely seen the “Tower of Babel” in effect, more often than not. But I think that’s actually WHY some people have moved away from using Big Model jargon: because it was hard to explain when people already had strange ideas of what those terms might mean. It was often easier just to start from scratch.

On the other hand, the Big Model-literate posters are such a minority in the larger internet world of gamers that maybe worrying about a Tower of Babel scenario isn’t really on point...

Hard to say.

Silmenume's picture

Hey Paul,

One. I am seriously amazed that you proposing to stifle innovation through conversation and the general muzzling of conversation in particular. I KNOW that you did not use those exact words but that is the theme of your post and I just don't understand it. If you don't want to be a part of a conversation then don't waste your time reading the posts. No one is forcing you to read them. They're very existence does not take away for the activities from other posts. Posting on bulletin boards is not a zero sum exercise. As an academic you should be for the free discussion of ideas on general principles. I am absolutely floored. Rather than just avoiding a theory thread you're what you're suggesting is that nobody else should engage in theory because you feel it is valueless. Seriously?


Ok, enough talking about the theory. We've laid the groundwork and the ideas are all out there now. Stop talking and starting making and playing new games! The next horizon will be broken by design and praxis, not idle chatter.

ALL? All ideas? You really believe that? Apparently Vincent, an accomplished game designer, has spent a long time idly "chatting" on his website about "theory" and using his mysteriously gained insights to further his game design. What have I been posting about for the last 16 years? Simulationism was never defined and I've been working on it (on and off) for 16 years. Apparently common English is not sufficient to effectively describe the CA I've been teasing apart. How can anyone design a game that facilitates a CA that is not well understood? Especially when it appears that its very functioning denies the use of deterministic mechanics? How does that CA even work? It does. I have 25 years of data. Do I know how it works? A little bit. Has it been so thoroughly idled over in endless hours of pointless chatter that anyone now understands it well enough that any can run the CA?

Idle chatter? Has everything about music been learned? Or better said is there nothing left to be learned or discussed about music, Paul? Would discussing music on a theoretical level somehow inhibit or prevent musicians from creating music? I've never understood these kinds of posts. If the conversation isn't of interest then just leave, don't tear it down. Good grief! Ron was happy because he finally got to where he wanted to be with Narrativism and no interest in Sim and lesser interest in Gamism. For him the conversation he was seeking to have was complete.

Good grief...



DeReel's picture

I disagree with your harsh interpretation of Paul_T's words enough to write a post on a forum about it.
First, I am confident we agree that lowering noise ratio can also be good for research in certain circumstances. I mean : forums, the internet.
Second, people make mistakes when they are overconfident about their preparation. The Forge lexicon has evolved differently in various communities. I use them to get a general idea, but relying on them for precision at first sight is an error. If I am going to define something, I'd rather make my own definition : that will save time for everyone.

Alexander White's picture

The latest iterations of the Big model as text are the EdwardsPorcudialogue (used to be available as a pdf from Edwards patron) and the Phenomenology series of videos on Edwards youtube channel.

The Porcu dialogue is a primer on the big model done as, well a dialogue. For my money it’s the best explained version of the Big Model and it also explains why Sim was dropped as a creative agenda. There were plans to make it widely available but nothing seems to have come of them.

Vincent’s model, at the moment, consists of a series of posts on the website. I think there are substantial differences between the two models. Whether you think Vincent’s model supersedes Ron’s is going to be a matter of opinion.

I agree with Paul that a lot of theory is now expressed in game design or something like Vincent’s:

Personally I think the focus on design is horrible and the fact the two best theorists in the hobby are design heads, is unfortunate.

Paul T.'s picture

Thank you for your support, DeReel and Alexander White. You understood where I was coming from (and I’m actually working my way through the Porcu Dialogues these days!).


You’ve misread me quite dramatically here. The reason the paragraph you’re referring to has quotation marks around is because (as Alexander White laments) that is what I hear coming from (many/most) old Forgite thinkers. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just *describing* the attitude I mostly see on the internet.

As I wrote, I can respect that perspective. However, it should be obvious from our interactions that I have no issues with discussing theory, and I support attempts to learn more with everything I’ve got. I don’t think it’s the only way, in other words.

Silmenume's picture

Hi Dereel,

I apologize that I did not present my position more cleanly. While I think that the Big Model is/was useful and that it still serves "a" function my big explosion was rooted in the following assertions -

  1. Everything that needs to be known about role-play is known thus there is nothing left to learn.
  2. Following #1, since everything is already known about role-play no one should discuss role-play on a level beyond praxis.

That is what get me really steamed. Especially since in light of the difficulty people are having (and rightly so) understanding the functional definition of Sim play that I've been posting on starting 16 years ago. This one fact alone says that the theoretical understanding of role-play is not complete. But then to say that I find theory pointless so you shouldn't talk about it is deeply frustrating. If a person isn't interested in a topic then they shouldn't involve themself in that topic, don't try and shut down other people from discussing that topic. There is too much of that in popular culture right now and I will not let myself be bullied into silence however gently that proposition is made (especially given how anodyne role-play theory is).

The Forge lexicon has evolved differently in various communities. I use them to get a general idea, but relying on them for precision at first sight is an error.

I was with you all the way until the bolded. You are making an argument of a priori. That is an argument of synecdoche.. We can never know beforehand if relying on specialized vocabulary will or will not result in error. We can only determine if error has entered the thesis because of specialized vocabulary after the fact. Your assertion can only hold as an assertion of fact. Fact as in using scientific model to demonstrate whether your thesis holds or not. To make blanket assertions like that without argumentation and proof is mere opinion. Has specialized vocabulary hindered or created confusion in the past certainly. Does that mean all fields of study are so riddled with error as to be non-functional because of specialized vocabulary? Absolutely not. Look at any field of study and you will find specialized vocabulary because the general vocabulary is not sufficient to convey the complex or unusual ideas efficiently or precisely. If we a talking to the general public then I am fully behind you that defining your terms everytime is crucial. To do so when speaking among one's peers is to slow and bog the conversation down. Actually that you have to take the time, energy and space to define your terms everytime you write a paper meant for your peers proves the necessity of having a functioning specialized vocabulary as you are creating said vocabulary in every paper/post you write. If every physicist had to define the Newton in every paper they wrote then errors can be introduced with every definitional form and instead of moving to greater order of understanding you get an increase in entropy.

That rant however, was not the reason I got upset. Again what I got upset with is that someone who is not interested in what I'm posting about (or finds a lack of utility) telling me to shut up (however gently and circumspectly) rather than turning their attention elsewhere. No one is forcing anyone to read theory. I'm just shocked that anyone in academia is opposed to the idea of conversing about ideas a paradigm which threads back some 2500 or so years and is foundational to Western thinking and science. (Alas, I cannot comment on Eastern based thinking because I am far too ignorant about the topic to say anything about that would not be in gross error.)

I am with Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

This too I find to be true and inspirational, "He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast." - Leonardo da Vinci

Hi Alexander,

Just to be clear I most certainly am not saying that the Big Model is the end all of theory. I think it has its uses and it did much to promote the idea that role-play is an understandable process and can be discussed in a way that leads to understand and fruitful design/play. I also think it is seriously flawed. Not in what it is saying but in its lack of scope. Yay that much of the model is finding its way into praxis via game design and game play. I also strongly agree with you that it is a shame that the model only deals with design and was put together by designers. As a theory it provides no tools at all for analyzing play as human activity and why role-play works the way it does. I believe that something that aids in game design is worthy, but any claims beyond game design are frivolous. I know that Chris Lehrich posted an essay entitled "Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games" attempting to frame a discussion of role-play in the wider context of human interaction and behavior. I don't if this is the type of theory that you are interested in or not but it is an example of another way to look at role-play and it does provide some tools for analysis.

Going back to that posters are saying that Ron doesn't even believe that Sim even exist demonstrates the shortcomings of the Big Model. This is why my trying to explain my game has been met with so much misunderstanding. The Big Model as designed cannot account for this mode of play. I've had to open up an employ the model of myth from Cultural Anthropologists. Ron had absolutely no interest in this area of conversation and killed the theory boards even though there was no Simulationism definition that fit the Big Model.

Just out of curiosity where would you like to see discussion focusing on with regards to role-play? I'm very curious to find out.

Hi Paul,

You argument that the quote you provided as the thinking of others in the field and you are baffled by my response because it was "them that said it and not you" doesn't hold when at the end of your post you straightforwardly align yourself with the quote.

""Ok, enough talking about the theory. We've laid the groundwork and the ideas are all out there now. Stop talking and starting making and playing new games! The next horizon will be broken by design and praxis, not idle chatter."

I can get down with that."

Your defense doesn't hold. How else can someone interpret your actions. The first quote says there is no more point in theory because all is known and then immediately afterward you say you agree with that. So please, point out in you post when exactly you were just pointing to something and had no particular position on it as you are now claiming. You've been following my descriptions of my game for a long time now. Tell me how the mode I'm playing is well described by the Big Model. It isn't. That is why Ron, rather than trying to understanding Sim play wither denies its existence altogether or describes it as dysfunctional. We know this isn't true as I've described many times that when played in an open area we always attract non-players who stick around for long periods of time watching the game. I've never seen that happen at any other TTRPG. This doesn't mean it doesn't happen but if it does its very rare. For us it's fairly common. In the end this all this means is that the current structure of the model is incomplete and more work need to be done to understand all of roleplay. That is my both my thesis and my opinion and I'm not afraid to say so.

As I wrote, I can respect that perspective.

I'm not sure how one can hold two diametrically opposed perspectives as valid and useful, but if you can more power to you. As you posted, that means on some level you agree that everything that can be known about role-play is known and that any further energy spent trying to understand it better, despite the evidence you have at your fingertips that that statement is patently shown to be false, is not only a waste of time but you don't want anyone else to spend time on thinking on role-play on any level other than design. What parts of that perspective to you agree with? All of it? Some of it? A piece of it? I'm totally down with people designing games. It is my grand and glorious hope that the CA I play, Simulationism/Mythic-Bricolage, can in time be understood and lead to actual game design. Because from where I'm sitting I'm uncertain that one can design mechanics that facilitate Sim/MB can be written. I am intrigued by Archipelago but if you really look at how Archipelago is designed it cannot be be described in term of the Big Model at all. How can one design a game is one does not understand the CA they are looking to promote?

While my response may seem overblown in your direction its the idea you presented and supported that disgusts me so. However you want to word it, as posted you did support the shutting down of any discussion about role-play or if not that then you agree that such discussions are absolutely valueless. While that may not be what you had intended that is all that is available to us readers. For me such pernicious and poisonous ideas as posted need to be addressed head on and with everything I've got by posting. By engaging in dialogue as opposed to espousing the idea that shutting down dialogue for everyone as valid.

Tell me how can you possibly agree with the blanket assertion that dialogue should be stifled. That's all I want to know. You say that in private you're open to theory but you just posted on the boards the very opposite. I'm lost.



Alexander White's picture

The type of stuff Chris does is more social or critical theory. There’s a fair bit of that stuff out there, just most of it isn’t connected to the Forge diaspora. Forge theory is more structural, which I enjoy, I just have a few issues.

My play preference is for universal systems that are some what modular. One way I’ve seen it expressed is ‘system as game’ vs ‘system as instrument.’ I’m in the latter camp but Narrativist culture is in the former. In a lot of ways I’d be better off if I liked the OSR.

Theory in this sense is just looking at game specific advice and pondering system specific aesthetics. I think there’s a huge gap between ‘how to play’ and ‘how to play well’ that doesn’t get explored when everyone is switching systems or relying on the system to provide an experience rather than on a players skill.

I disagree with you Silm about the big model not being able to account for a mode of play. The problem with the Big Model is that you have two big buckets what? If two types of Narrativist play can be so different to each other that they’re barely recognisable, then are the categories actually that much help? In a broad sense it accounts for all modes but in the specific sense that you mean it, the big model doesn’t account for ‘any’ mode of play. (I think all the ‘other’ stuff the big model does is awesome though).

I think the answer is just describing a mode of play without reference to aesthetic theory (and I’m with Paul here). When ever I’ve seen a mode get described that attempts to use GNS or some other taxonomy, it occludes more than it reveals. (Which is all I think Paul was saying, but I don’t want to speak for him).

DeReel's picture

@Silmemune : I am 100% with you on your principles on research and free speech. And I think you could depolarize your interpretation of Paul_T's 'second degree quote' with what he writes before : "the most important ideas of the Big Model have more or less infiltrated the online game theory".
As for me it's true I am biased against using old specialized vocabulary on the internet but it's for reasons I presented : lexical drift, error ratio, barrier for entry. I have no database on the error ratio, but I am 80% confident it's around 98%. Compared to a simple policy of "define your jargon" that costs 3-4 posts to defuse misunderstanding, I don't see a reason to doubt using such a doctrine. Pragmatically thinking.
If all discussions took place in a sanctuarised space, the cons would be lower. I am confident Fictioneers on the Theory forum will grow a lexicon over time.

Paul T.'s picture

“I can get down with that” is such an ambiguous phrase, isn’t it?

What I mean is I respect these theorists’ choice to focus on play and design. I can see how they got there, too. (And note that focusing on play and design doesn’t mean we stop developing theory... in fact, I think the theoretical discussions you are involved in are mainly fruitful *because* they are based on an actual instance of play.)

I respect someone’s right to say, “I’ve said what I have to say, and now it’s time to get to work.”

It’s not the only thing to do... but it’s a good option.

Thanuir's picture

1. There are several different ways to play and motivations for playing.

This is fairly accepted in online dialogue at the moment, from what I have seen. Sometimes powergamers/character optimizers are disparaged, sometimes D&D of whichever flavour, sometimes story games (I guess, but not where I read), but in general, most people do seem to accept that it is fine if others play with different goals in play.

2. Different games are suitable for different ways of playing

This is also reasonably accepted, with the heretical from Forge POV (but true) disclaimer that most traditional games can be used in a very wide spectrum of styles. But there are still conflicts around this in both ways - someone thinks that any game locks in a style of play, while others do not recognize certain games force a style of play quite strongly.

3. Character advocacy gaming

It seems to be quite accepted, even if often played with fairly traditional games, or maybe Fate and Powered by apocalypse.

4. Shared narrative responsibility and metacurrenciens like fate points

These seem to not surprise gamers and do not seem to be controversial.


I think, in terms of Forge theory, the big unadopted thing is: Given a game that is not utterly focused, what kind of choices have to be made with respect to style of play and how should those be done to create specific effects. The case of character advocacy and narrative drama games was widely discussed at the Forge. OSR have talked a lot about problem solving play, especially when it comes to exploration and McGyvering.

But what about all the other practices of play? What if we want to start a game with casual play and dungeoneering and evolve it into character drama, or the other way around? Besides OSR style, what other ways of playing Call of Cthulhu exist and how they are best done properly?

Another aspect is that the need for the game group, or at least the game master, to make decisions about style of play has not been widely accepted or adopted. There is bit of the surface level, like when is character death acceptable and how to deal with player boundaries (via X-cards and such, for example). But very little on choosing and implementing a specific style of play, or creative agenda if one wills.