Monday, February 27, 2006

I got your threefold model right here, buddy!

RPG theory time, kiddies! Ron Edwards closed the GNS worship section of the Forge, so someone has to pick up the slack. As we all know, every good RPG theory has to divide all games into several vague categories. My categories are Retro, Stupid, and Pretentious. Any RPG worth playing will fall into one or more of these categories. Here's a handy chart:

(UPDATED 1/29/07 to feature a less asstastic pic.)

Retro games make use of settings, mechanics, or assumptions that are now considered outdated by the rpg mainstream, but these same assumptions once defined that mainstream. Does a game have classes and/or levels for no damn reason? That's a retro design element. Do you have a group of PCs going on ill-defined adventures with little or no motivation? That's another hallmark of retro design. These games may be old, or intentionally designed with an old school vibe.

Stupid games do not take themselves seriously. PCs can die horrible deaths and other grim stuff, but that horrible death might involve being eaten by a horde of zombie chickens. Big dice charts, such as wandering monsters or random mutations, are often associated with this style of game. Most comedy games fall into this category, as do all the good versions of Gamma World. The new editions of Paranoia and WFRP look pretty Stupid to me as well.

Pretentious games know that they are better than Retro or Stupid games. They're not just games, they're cutting edge explorations of blah, blah, blah. I'm sure you can all list an armload of Pretentious games: Vampire, most of the rest of the World of Darkness, Nobilis, various Forge-inspired designs. I'd also put HERO and GURPS into this category as examples of mechanically Pretentious games. You can have setting-based Pretension as well: Blue [Rose, Planet], Tekumel, Harn, etc.

In addition to more a more useful categorization schema, my theory has another leg up on Edwards's: incoherent play is better. You don't need laser-like focus on Stupidity, Pretention, or Retro-osity. Retro play is fun. Stupid play is fun. But Retro Stupid play is totally awesome. Case in point: Encounter Critical. Similarly, Vampire is plain ol' Pretentious, but add some Stupid to the mix and you've got Exalted or Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game. And how about Retro Pretension? I've got 2 words for you: Classic Traveller.

The big hole in my theory is that black area in the chart where Retro Stupid Pretention is found. That ought to be the most totally rad place in the universe, but right at this moment the only game I can think of that definitely goes there is World of Synnibarr. But that game is at its best when drifted to Retro Stupid play. Which is really easy to do. The trick is to not be Raven c.s. McCracken. I suppose one could argue that Dungeons & Dragons fits the requirements to be Retro Stupidly Pretentious. But every RPG theory fails the moment D&D is taken into consideration, so I probably ought to quit while I'm ahead.


  1. Anonymous9:45 AM

    That's pretty awesome.

    Do you think there's any point in differentiating between Retro games that are intentionally so, and ones that are just so old that they've become Retro?

  2. In actually play I don't see much practical difference between old games and faux old games.

  3. It there a point in time at which GURPS and/or HERO will become Retro?

    Personally, I conceive of them as such rather than as Pretentious.

  4. I can see the argument for assigning those two games Retro status, perhaps not now but in the future. But I'm not prepared to quibble on which game should go where in my system. The Gamma Worlds I mentioned as Stupid are probably Retro Stupid nowadays.

    But I did want to get on the table that I consider both designs (GURPS, HERO) as mechanically Pretentious in much the same way that Vampire is pretentious about storytelling. Both games take tweaking the charsheet to absurdly atomic levels of simulation and then claim some sort of superiority by it. And HERO's much vaunted combat system is pretty much Star Fleet Battles in superhero drag.

    But I hope that I came through loud and clear in that I am in no way passing judgement on Pretentiousness in games. Clearly plenty of people dig that. Heck, I went through a gung-ho five years of hardcore HERO geekery myself.

  5. So what about, say, GURPS: Autoduel? Would that fall in the center?

  6. Quite possibly. I'm not familiar enough with the line to be able to make a valid judgement. IIRC, S. John Ross has affection for some books in the GURPS:Autoduel line. Given Ross's position in my mind as the current king of Stupid games, that establishes the Stupid credentials for it at least tentatively. The earlier Autoduel Champions also probably scores the trifecta.

  7. Hello there. Just thought I'd come along and try to make a worthwhile joke on your blog. Or maybe not.

    And dang, but I wanted to give you some wiseass jive about labelling HERO 'pretentious' and WFRP 'stupid'. Then I see that you've obviously defined and named your RSP categories just so's you can put 2 of my favourite games under the most insulting tags.

    Hmm. Maybe it's time for another spell under the accumulator...

  8. Hmmm, maybe I should rename Retro as Obsolete or Decrepit or something like that. That way all 3 labels are insulting.

  9. If it's UPERO you're after (the Ultimate Piss Every RPG'er Off threefold model), then decrepit is the way to go.

    Right, time to go off and get a life... ;)

  10. Anonymous5:01 PM

    How about ARIA for pretentious? Now that was a game I wanted to love -- only had the second book, not the player book, but if it was written the same way, which I assume it was, it would have been impossible to play.

    But SO cool, creating a world by consensus.

  11. Oh, man. How could I forget about Aria!? That came out the year I went to GenCon and I bought it there, IIRC. I really, really wanted to like that game, but in many parts I couldn't figure out what the hell the author was getting on about.

  12. Anonymous7:37 PM

    What if there was a way to revise/ update the rules system and setting in Encounter Critical to make it Pretentious? I honestly believe that game has the potential of the 'Black Hole' that is Retro Stupid Pretentious.

  13. Dude, this is 50 pounds of awesome. This is honestly the first "diagram" I've seen in a while that I can get behind. Personally, I'm totally in the Stupid category, or Stupid + Pretentious (depending on the game).


  14. Anonymous6:03 AM

    My opinion is that the gap in your model (the R/S/P equality point) could be filled by Spirit of the Century. Check it out:

    Retro - based on 1920's pulp
    Stupid - the front cover art features a gorilla flying a biplane away from a burning zepplin while being attacked by the heroes, who include a guy with a jetpack and a clone of the Phantom.
    Pretentious - the game is an indie design that has been described by it's author as "the perfect gateway to story games"

    Yeah, it's perfect.

    - astute1

  15. pure genius

    retro+stupid forever :)

  16. I get you, and I concur.

  17. Anonymous10:54 AM

    If you added "Educated" to the chart you could file games under "Educated Stupid."

  18. I'm totally amazed that there's somebody who's played World of Synnibarr.

  19. Anonymous4:33 AM

    While I agree that GURPS falls squarely in the Pretentious camp, I must say that it is also inherently Stupid. Cover art depicts scenes such as Wizards flying on Mechano-Dragons, and Stone men punching Robots. Having played GURPS I can tell you that I've never had a game that wasn't, on several levels, quite Stupid.

    In response to the GURPS becoming Retro comment, I don't see it. It's recently released its own 4e which includes no classes or any other inherent quality of Retro.

    In summation, GURPS = Pretentious AND Stupid.

  20. I love this. I hated that ridiculously overblown "threefold model" so *very* much.

    "And HERO's much vaunted combat system is pretty much Star Fleet Battles in superhero drag."

    I have been saying this for years. :)

  21. Anonymous2:21 PM

    I humbly submit my contender for the ultimate retro-stupid-pretentious RPG: the Morrow Project. A game which felt retro the day it came out, woke the players up in a post-apocalyptic USA filled with mutants and giant radioactive bugs, and had not only hit location charts, but tables to calculate what happened if a bullet struck any given body part (i.e. did it ricochet off a femur, knick an artery, etc.)- loads of retro-pretentious-stupid fun!

  22. In a similar vein to the morrow project I nominate "Fringeworthy". Definitely Stupid/Pretentious

  23. Bifrost, published in '77 so, retro. Vol 1 was called 'Faerie' that's pretty pretentious and twenty different attributes which has to be stupid. It also took foury ears to publish all four voulmes of rules needed to actually play the game. Which I think is very Retro-pretentious-stupid.

  24. Anonymous1:59 PM

    "right at this moment the only game I can think of that definitely goes there is World of Synnibarr. But that game is at its best when drifted to Retro Stupid play. Which is really easy to do. The trick is to not be Raven c.s. McCracken."I played Synnibarr in Raven’s group in Seattle in 1992 & 1993. It was indeed the center of this threefold model. Synnibarr is in some ways an awesome demonstration of what you can get if you take the basic D&D form, and let an idiosyncratic adventurer of a DM just homebrew and build on top of it for YEARS, adding in new rules for all the stuff and every genre he wants to play with, under the occasional influence of illicit substances. It is to some extent the idea behind Blackmoor (fantasy + superscience) and Judges Guild (no limits on your imagination) taken to the extreme, with superhero stuff added in. Rave's pretension was in many ways a natural extension of EGG's comments about AD&D in the books and in Dragon.

    Raven’s game was awesome fun to play in, BTW. The game system is a mess, and he embarrassed himself online trying to defend it, but he was a very talented and charismatic GM. One of the most fun I’ve ever played with.

  25. Anonymous8:52 AM

    I think Rêve de Dragon (Rêve: the Dream Ouroboros in English) hits the sweet spot pretty hard. Denis Gerfaud's prose is so poetic that it has to count for Pretentious, while some of his puns, adventure hooks and creatures, and Rolland Barthelemy's whimsical illustrations, only add to the Stupid. And what could be more Retro than an updated 80's era game that pits 16 characteristics against a hundred-odd skills and a point-based CharGen that puts Champions and GURPS to shame?

  26. Blue [Rose, Planet]


  27. Anonymous9:41 AM

    In my Sixfold Model we refer to this as the 'Cuntish Hemisphere' of gaming.

  28. To keep with the naming scheme (stupid, pretentious), I'd suggest changing retro to retarded. As this is academic theory, we can use the word dirrefently from it's modern day usage. Ie. "the game mechahics are retarted". (merrian webster: slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress -> in this case we can probably agree that the game developement has been... limited)

  29. Into the center of this model, I would like to propose BTRC's 'Time Lords'. The game where you make yourself as a character using 3d6 stat mechanics (Retro, Pretentious AND Stupid right there) so that you are your friends can probability travel thanks to a magic d20 (now that's just stupid)with excessively high levels of physics accuracy (one of the sourcebooks [3G3] had the equation for turning any projectile into a game-rules weapon) for extra pretension and for extra large levels of retro-stupid you could send your players into WarpWorld, where the level of magic is inversely proportional to the highest functioning techlevel. Yes, the blackpowder in your revolver will stop being volatile if there is a powerful enough mage.
    For extra retro-stupid, a simplified version of these rules was used in developing the Macho Women With Guns series.

    But personally, I think AutoDuel should fit best in the middle.