The Origin of the Threefold Model

by John H. Kim

August 1, 2003

         The "Threefold Model" is a concept which arose in discussion on the forum (aka RGFA) around May to August of 1997. The term was coined by Mary Kuhner in her July 1997 post. However, more people have become familiar with it through a "Frequently Asked Questions" document on the subject, written by myself in October 1998.

Dice vs Diceless

         RGFA was originally created in May 1992 to be an outlet for heated arguments over what was the best system or style of role-playing. [1] It was intended to be a place where troublesome participants could vent their love of one system and hatred of others -- such as arguing whether GURPS or the Hero System is better. However, over the course of a few years a critical culture emerged, where RGFA participants collectively demanded reasoned arguments for advocating a system or style.

         In May 1994, David Berkman joined the group, championing the Theatrix RPG which he co-authored, as well as diceless role-playing in general.[2] This widened the scope of the debate considerably. Theatrix was a controversial system, with a blatantly cinematic approach and diceless mechanics where players spend plot points. Moreover, David Berkman was a controversial poster who openly advocated his style of play as being superior to all others. Soon after reading it, I described Theatrix as being a "drama-based" game, as opposed to more traditional "world-based" games such as GURPS.[3] As I initially defined the terms, world-based games resolve actions on the basis of in-game reality. Drama-based games resolve actions mainly on plot requirements and player description.

         Within a few months, there soon sparked off a year-long thread on "Dice vs Diceless", where many posters argued for and against Theatrix's cinematic diceless approach. Variations of the split I had proposed were used at numerous times. The world-based side was often associated with dice use, rules, and realism. The drama-based side was often associated with diceless play, pre-prepared plots, and stylized or cinematic genres.

Early Models

         Over the rest of 1994 and into the following year, discussion of the styles of various participants progressed. The issue of diceless play was still controversial during this period. Much of the initial debate focused on whether or not to use dice in resolving events, but eventually this was felt to be a small part of a larger issue. There were vital disagreements over how to develop the events of games, and how to resolve actions.

         Over the course of 1995, participants began to agree to form a typology of games which described the differences expressed. That is, we wanted to define a set of terms (or types) for different styles of game design and game-play. The idea was that rather arguing over what was the best approach, we would first establish the type of game, and then discuss what was best for that type. While my original contrast was over the nature of the published rules, the problematic differences were over how campaigns were run.

         In February 1995, the terms "simulation" and "simulationism" came into use to express roughly what I initially characterized in my world-based category. However, there was also growing recognition (by myself and others) that the dichotomy I initially expressed was inadequate to represent the diversity of gaming styles represented. In May, Mark Wallace made another attempt to characterize the split between what he called world-based games (WBG) and plot-based games (PBG).[4] However, at this time the proposal was met by general consensus that the split was inadequate.

         Still, there was no consensus on a replacement. A variety of models and terminology were put forward during this time. The idea of multiple axes arose through many participants, suggesting modeling the variety of games as a multi-dimensional space. In July, Mark Wallace suggested a trialectic division of world-based, plot-based, and theme-based -- with definitions based on comments by John Novak and myself.[5] This met with some agreement but was not widely supported. Rodney Payne proposed a multi-axis approach to describing campaigns, where a campaign would be rated numerically on issues like realism, directedness, and so forth. [6] This was later extended by Leon von Stauber: who came up with three categories -- Preparation, Diagesis, and Metagame -- each with three indices, for a total of nine axes. [7] Leon's formalization was widely recognized at the time, although it dropped out of use in later years.

         Also during this period, Kevin Hardwick proposed his "Narrative Stance" model which defines four stances which a player alternates between during play: in-character, audience, actor, and director. [8] This was immediately taken up and agreed upon as a useful tool in understanding play, and remains in wide usage. Alain Lapalme made the first effort at a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file in August, which was primarily a glossary of terms which included Kevin's stance definitions.[9]

Defining Simulationism

         However, there remained vital disagreements over what was now being described as a split between simulation and drama. Those who identified more with simulation included Mary Kuhner, Warren Dew, Irina Rempt, Sarah Kahn, and myself. Those who identified with drama included David Berkman, as well as Kevin Hardwick, Bruce Baugh, and Robert Barrett. Debate continued to focus on three axes in Leon's campaign axes model -- namely plot, world, and drama. At the time, all of these were defined in terms of how the GM prepared for the game. There was not yet defined difference in how the game is run.

         At this point, I felt that the existing theoretical structures were tending to cast everything in terms of narrative or drama. We had Kevin's narrative stances, and ongoing discussion on the role of plotting. The terminology of plot, actor, author, and audience were all useful for discussion. However, I felt that something was left out. In March 1996, I proposed an alternate model for understanding play, which divided players into goals related to simulation: in-character, scholar, tourist, engineer, and problem-solver. [10] This model did not come into much use. However, it did highlight the differences which were seen between the two groups. At this point, Mary Kuhner and myself both felt an effort to try to explain and validate our concept of simulation as a goal of play. As she explained it, her high points of play are dramatic moments -- but their power comes from knowing that they are natural rather than contrived.[11] In a revised version of Alain Lapalme's FAQ, Neelakantan Krishnaswami defined a simulationist game as aiming for accuracy of simulation -- characterized as events arising "naturally" from the situation.[12]

         Some key developments came during a long dialog on the topic of "plot questions" in July. This was initially an effort to distinguish between drama and simulation based on what preparations the GM did -- in particular whether he prepared an expected plot prior to the game. However, we agreed that while some dramatic GMs did this, it was not necessary for a dramatic approach. Instead, I proposed an alternate definition of simulation, which was the exclusion of meta-game causes from in-game effects.[13] That is, a purely simulationist GM would make in-game decisions regardless of whether a character is a PC or NPC, or any other meta-game qualities.

         There were two notable challenges to this. David Berkman argued that simulation should include simulation of genre as well as simulation of reality. Kevin Hardwick argued that simulation should include the simulation of subjective experience of the character, not just the objective events which occur. Despite these unresolved objections, though, this definition was fairly widely accepted as the understanding of simulationism.

         In August 1996, I wrote the first version of my FAQ, which included the term simulationist -- defined as "A game in which effort is made to not let meta-game concerns during play affect in-game resolution". [14] It was accepted to some degree, but there were still regular disagreements with its definitions.

Defining Gamism

         In the spring of 1997, there was a new slant to discussion. During discussion the term simulationist, Jim Henley proposed "gamist" as a style of play -- which he characterized negatively as "a focus on the self-contained nature of the rules system".[15] Other posters took the concept to be broader than that, however. In particular, Mary Kuhner attempted to demonstrate the distinction of game priorities as distinct from simulation.[16]

         The definition was never clearly outlined, in part because the advocates were less represented in conversation. Scott Ruggels and Erol K. Bayburt had styles of play which seemed to feature this as a priority, but neither were very involved in terminology discussions. In discussion with Rick Cordes, the principle of a game as emphasizing player choice was brought up. This was strongly influenced by Greg Costikyan's article "I Have No Words & I Must Design" from Interactive Fantasy #2, which attempted to define "game" as a term.[17] Discussion of gamism focused on the concepts of fair play, resource management, and challenge to the player.

         Unlike simulationism, gamism did not have a vocal block of participants who advocated it as a stand-alone style. Many accepted the validity of it in theory, but few described it as a concept that they preferred. Brian Gleichman, who joined the forum two months later, would come to vocally defend gamism as a valid style. However, he was not active in the original formulation.

The Threefold Model

         In an article entitled "Threefold model" in July 1997, Mary Kuhner attempted to clarify her ideas about the three-way split of gamist, simulationist, and dramatist values .[18] This attempted to define a set of three situations which would distinguish the three styles as potentially pulling in different directions. In response, Irina Rempt illustrated this as a triangle with "World", "Story", and "Challenge" as its vertices, placing a person's usual gaming style as a dot on that triangle. [19]

         This concept was agreed as useful by nearly all of the participants, but there was still disagreement over the definitions. Kevin Hardwick pointed out that the triangle illustration of the style implies a trade-off, and specifically a trade-off of World and Story which he did not experience. There was also discussion that the Game/Challenge corner of the triangle was ill-defined.

         It is worth noting that about a month later, from August 14-17 1997, around a dozen of the posters came together for the "RGFA Gathering" in Alberta, Canada. It was hosted by Levi Kornelson, and attendees included myself, Alain Lapalme, Mary Kuhner, Irina Rempt. This gave posters a chance to observe each others' styles in person. Certainly games from this gathering were used in examples for the following year, though only a minority attended.

Later Developments

         The extended debates over the Threefold model are beyond what I can reasonably hope to cover here. Suffice to say that there were many disagreements over the nature of the model. There was considerable debate over the scope of the model (i.e. what parts of play did it cover), the definition of gamism, and the universality of the trade-offs it implied.

         Approximately one year later (October 1998), I attempted to describe the current state of understanding the Threefold Model in a separate FAQ section devoted purely to that.[20] It went through a few revisions based on feedback, which then became a part of regular automated postings (thanks to Magnus Lie Hetland).

         The concepts originally developed here were later discussed on the Gaming Outpost website. According to M.J. Young, two related theories appeared there: the GNS theory by Ron Edwards, and the GENder theory by Scarlet Jester.[21] The GNS theory, which replaces the idea of Dramatism with "Narrativism", was further developed by Ron Edwards and others, as attested to in the currently active web site, The Forge.[22]


  1. Peter da Silva, "Welcome to" (May 27, 1992)
  2. David Berkman, "New Diceless Roleplaying Game" (May 3, 1994)
  3. John Kim, "Drama-based vs. World-based Resolution" (June 3, 1994)
  4. Mark Wallace, "Suspension of Disbelief" (May 21, 1995)
  5. Mark Wallace, "Theme based games" (July 7, 1995)
  6. Rodney Payne, "Re: World vs. Plot, Incident vs. Event" (Aug 7, 1995)
  7. Leon von Stauber, "Axes II: A Proposal for Campaign/GMing Classification" (Aug 24, 1995)
  8. Kevin Hardwick, "Narrative and Style" (July 11, 1995)
  9. Alain Lapalme, "FAQ - August 26" (Aug 26, 1995)
  10. John H Kim, "Simulationist Theory" (March 19, 1996)
  11. Mary Kuhner, "Re: Simulationist Theory" (March 19, 1996)
  12. Neelakantan Krishnaswami, "FAQ" (May 6, 1996)
  13. John H Kim, "Re: plot questions" (July 17, 1996)
  14. John H Kim, "Attempts at a FAQ" (July 31, 1996)
  15. Jim Henley, "Re: Definition of Simulation" (May 1, 1997)
  16. Mary Kuhner, "gamist/simulationist: a practical example" (May 8, 1997)
  17. Greg Costikyan, I Have No Words & I Must Design (Interactive Fantasy #2, 1994)
  18. Mary Kuhner, "Threefold model" (July 1, 1997)
  19. Irina Rempt, "Re: Threefold model" (July 3, 1997)
  20. John H Kim, "More General Threefold FAQ" (October 18, 1997)
  21. M.J. Young, Re: Looking for GENder theory (November 8, 2002)
  22. Ron Edwards, "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory" (2001)

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Aug 1 14:14:04 2003