This is an updated, 2017 version of an older article, with much better terminology.
…in which Magician talks of himself in third person and reinvents GNS. Well, not quite. GNS (at least as far as I understand it) concerns itself with the desired experience, the agenda of a game: to win, to tell a story, to be true to something. What I want to discuss are different approaches to play itself. The process, not the end result. The paradigms of play. Note, that unlike GNS which suggests a game shouldn’t try to fulfill more than one of its letters, these paradigms are often changed during play, typically in different kinds of scenes. Here, then, are the paradigms of play I’ve identified: Ingenuity, Mastery, and Creativity.
In this paradigm, players come up with ingenious solutions to problems they face, with (typically) GM acting as the final arbiter as to whether these ideas work out. Rules may be used to resolve individual steps but rarely if ever apply to the entire solution. Social interaction is often handled this way: PCs discuss issues at hand, making a check every now and then if prompted; GM determines how convincing their arguments were, and what NPCs decide to do in the end. Looking for something is another example, and one that is frequently discussed in this context along with the next paradigm. Players declare where and how they look. If they didn’t think to look under the bed, they fail to find the monster hiding there.
Players use Ingenuity to overcome challenges.
In this paradigm, player characters overcome challenges by demonstrating their mastery of the interface of abstract game mechanics. It doesn’t really matter what they do, as long as there is a line on a character sheet or in a rulebook that lets them do it. Combat, typically the most rules-heavy part of a game, tends to work this way. This is also what skill checks were made for: in D&D 3e we don’t really know what a rogue does when they search for and disable traps. Rogue-ish things. The GM’s influence is much more limited here, they get to set the difficulty of a task and sometimes to judge the applicability of a rule in question.
Players’ Mastery of rules enables player characters to overcome challenges.
This paradigm lies somewhere between the other two, yet is distinctly different. Game mechanics are still king, but a creative justification of their use is not only required, but is typically the purpose of any given interaction. A primitive example of this approach can be found in skill challenges of D&D 4e, where players may have to look for an explanation as to how they use their best skills to overcome a seemingly unrelated task. A more refined version exists in Fate Core, where any invocation or creation of an aspect falls under this category.
Players use Creativity to describe how their characters overcome challenges.
A question of playstyle
Naturally, these paradigms of play are not absolute, and any given situation in a game is going to exist somewhere in between. There are no firm boundaries between them, and each group has to find their own playstyle, their own approach. My own D&D 4e game handled combat as a straightforward Mastery affair, mostly used pure roleplaying (read: Ingenuity) for social interactions and tried to use the Creativity approach to non-combat challenges.
A large part of this is what tools a system provides in support of these paradigms. Though even if a system doesn’t support a paradigm, this can be overcome to some extent with houserules or playstyle. For instance, a common houserule of giving a bonus to a well-described action, to some extent formalized in D&D 5e as Advantage on a roll, gives some mechanical weight to player creativity, thus moving a very Mastery-centric system towards Creativity.
Of particular interest here is AD&D and its predecessors, however you count them. Although it lacks rules for exploration, there arose a culture of Ingenuity that was almost universal, transmitted not through the rules text but through published adventures, Dragon articles and, crucially, word-of-mouth. This leads to a curious situation where a modern gamer giving AD&D a shot is likely to have an entirely different experience from the one they would have had back in the day, despite using the same rules. Rules of AD&D do not transmit its culture, and a different playstyle is likely to arise from their literal reading. Old School Renaissance is an attempt to revive and further develop this culture.
Clash of paradigms
A system may have tools, but it is up to the group to use them, one way or another. Just because there is Advantage in 5e doesn’t mean everyone will play it in a Creativity manner. If anything, it is the worst of both worlds: it does little for those seeking an Ingenuity experience (it’s not about getting a bonus to the roll, it’s about not making the roll in the first place), while leaving Advantage purely beholden to the GM – a significant drawback for the Creativity paradigm. Which is not to say Advantage is a bad rule, far from it. But it really needs players and GM to be playing within the same paradigm, and 5e doesn’t do much to enforce that. While Fate’s fate points superficially share the same fiat issues, they are the foundation of the system, interacting with it on multiple levels. Fate points tie into aspects, which are not only often created by the players but explicitly moderated by the group as well. Fate strongly encourages the Creativity paradigm and requires group consensus to run at all, making it much less of an issue.
Elaborating on this further, there are two classes of potential issues here. First, the system may not handle the chosen paradigm well. Once again, I turn to D&D, my muse, my curse. Despite, or probably because of, the fact that it doesn’t exist, it attempts to sit on all three paradigms. It can’t afford to pick any one paradigm for anything as there are those who have always played it the other way. The exception, as usual, is 4e, which was quite honest about its methods and functionality, and people still attempted to play it differently. 4e tried to stick to Mastery in combat and largely ignored everything else, and the backlash was immense.
A system can’t support all three paradigms for all possible contexts equally well, that much is obvious. It could try, with lots of self-reflection and explicitly optional rules, but that’s not something D&D does. And the more a system relies on one paradigm in a context, the harder it is to utilize a different one within that context. 4e is so reliant on Mastery of combat rules that willfully breaking them Ingenuity-style basically guts the entire system. A large part of this blog has been devoted in the past to introducing Creativity elements to 4e combat, enabling and rewarding player creativity while not invalidating the core game mechanics. A lesson learned as a result of all those efforts is that it’s frequently more efficient to emulate Creativity by presenting non-standard mechanistic options to players, rather than trying to embrace the truly original solutions they may come up with. The rules framework of 4e simply doesn’t leave much space for off-the-cuff innovation within it, page 42 notwithstanding.
Inventing dynamite or a boom-stick falls squarely into this category. In this particular case, a player utilized the existing rules for alchemist fire but bundled many such items together, trivially overcoming challenges by the sheer destructive force of their creation. The game can’t handle the ten-fold increase in damage output as PCs are not “meant” to do that: Ingenuity breaks its mechanics, invalidates their Mastery.
It doesn’t exactly help that one of the paradigms, Ingenuity, considers rules to be secondary to the fiat judgement. It is this approach that results in the so-called Oberoni fallacy, where any problems rules may have are considered to be immaterial because rules are already trumped by the GM. Seen through this lens, one of the main criteria for good rules is how easy it is to ignore them. This is in stark contrast to the desire for clear unambiguous rules which enable the Mastery playstyle, which in turn is different from the desire for rules flexibility that would let player Creativity integrate into the game. None of these criteria are necessarily exclusive, but any given system ends up either emphasizing one over another, or being an unfocused mess. Yes, I’m once again talking about D&D, how perceptive of you to notice.
The other class of issues is due to a clash of paradigms within a group, be it between fellow players or a GM and a player. As an extreme example, imagine a GM presenting a puzzle to players, only to have them declare they roll Intelligence to solve it (GM expects Ingenuity, players go with Mastery). Alternatively, imagine players flooding a dungeon full of interesting fights with a decanter of endless water – an Ingenious solution to a Mastery problem. And it’s not just the players who can be the cause of a clash: the infamous tucker’s kobolds can be seen as Ingenuity used by GM (with themselves being the final arbiter of its applicability, never a good sign) against characters who are not on the same playing field, trying and failing to respond to Ingenuity with Mastery of game mechanics.
The hobby even has many derogatory terms for those playing against the expectations of the group: rules lawyers, munchkins, rollplayers. Curiously, all these refer to players who prefer mechanics more than you do. For the other end of the spectrum the best I could find was “magic tea party”, though it’s not quite the same.
A new perspective
That’s what I hope this post will give you. Since I’ve started writing it, I kept seeing examples of paradigm mismatches, some of which I’ve provided above. Armed with this new terminology, perhaps we’ll be better suited to tackle them. And of course, the definitions are not set in stone, feel free to challenge them.