The Big Model is a body of role-playing game theory developed primarily by Ron Edwards. It was developed to formalise and organise the body of work called GNS theory to, again, create a unified theory of how role-playing games work.
The Big Model attempts to contextualize the many different aspects of the role-playing game hobby in a set of meaningful, hierarchical relationships by organising these phenomena into four nested 'boxes':
- Ephemera, the actual events and statements made at the table, are instances of
- Techniques, which are governing practices of behavior, and methods for performing
- Exploration, the basic act of play, which is expression of
- the Social Contract between real people at the table.
Or to put it another way: a group of friends gets together (Social Contract) and decides to play a roleplaying game about superheroes in love (Exploration). They use a set of tools (Techniques) to do things in the game (Ephemera). The decisions that they make in terms of what things to explore and how to explore them are driven by their Creative Agenda.
- Main article: Social contract
The social contract is the context within which all of roleplaying occurs. It is an acknowledgement that everything that happens at the table is social activity (except in solo games), and represents part of how the players at the table relate to each other as real people. The relationships between the people around the table affect everything else that occurs.
Exploration is the imagining of fictitious events, places, and people in the game world. Exploring fictional content is the basis and fundamental definition of all roleplay.
There are five "elements" of exploration, or five things that players will explore. All five are always present, although different games will emphasize and prioritize some over others. The five elements of exploration are character, setting, color, situation, and system.
Characters are the people in the fiction of the roleplaying game. Often each player has one player character over which they have special authority and responsibilities; other characters in the fiction are called non-player characters. Players may enjoy exploring character by discovering what characters do when confronted with difficult situations, why they do the things they do, or how they do them.
The setting is the imaginary place and time in which the game is set. The setting may be "real" in the sense that it is based on a historical period or the modern day. Players explore the setting not only by asking and answering "what's over that hill?" but also by developing the relationships of setting elements like government, economics, interpersonal relationships, and the like.
Color comprises all the details which give the game a certain flavor but do not affect the development of a situation; color might be rocketships and aliens, rapiers and musketeers, or the grit and grime of the streets of New York. Players explore color by invoking all five senses (the air is crisp, the room is painted in dark colors) as well as establishing and reinforcing relationships (a knight's blazon is displayed all over his castle).
With only characters, setting, and color, players will have a set piece which could do something interesting but has no reason to. The game's situation is an unstable juxtaposition of the other elements which sets the fictional events in motion. The situation of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is "two noble households, both alike in dignity" and "two star-cross'd lovers." It's the stuff that is happening in the game. Players explore situation by discovering and developing relationships between characters, setting elements, and events, and by taking action to affect those relationships for good or ill.
Situation is the juxtaposition of elements in motion; system is the procedures by which those elements change and develop. System is described by the Lumpley Principle, which states that "system is the means by which the players at the table decide what happens in the fiction." Players can explore the system by working out the range of possibilities that are available to them.
Techniques are what the players do at the table, including but not limited to the written rules of a game. Techniques include how players create the characters they portray in the game, how players roll dice to resolve the outcome of events, or how the situation develops as the game progresses. Techniques often differ greatly from one published game to the next; at its simplest, one may call for rolling dice while another calls for drawing cards. Each set of techniques directs the ephemera of the game and directly impacts the elements of exploration.
Whereas techniques describe the procedures of play, ephemera are the actual events at the table. Ephemera includes what the players say, what dice they roll, what the dice results are, how they react to each other's contributions, etc.
- Main article: Creative agenda
A creative agenda is the reason that a group wants to play an RPG. The group's creative agenda influences their choices at each stage, influencing in turn the social contract, their exploration, the techniques they choose to use (and how), and the ephemera (what they actually say and do at the table). As such, it can be pictured as a skewer through the four boxes of the Big Model, connecting selected options in each level and fixing them in place.
Different creative agendas mean that different games can be played about the same subject matter. For example, a player in a game about the knights of the Round Table might want to become the most renowned knight of the realm, or they might want to tell an engaging story about what it means to be a knight, or they might want to experience what it would be like to be a knight, each representing a different creative agenda.
Simulationism, also known in the Big Model as "The Right to Dream", focuses on the elements of exploration as things unto themselves. This creative agenda emphasizes appreciation for nuanced development of character, setting, and color to no other end than creating a holistically consistent experience. While one simulationist creative agenda may emphasize realism, another may attempt to emulate "four-color" superhero action. Whatever the target, the goal is to create an experience that neatly fits its parameters.
Gamism, also known in the Big Model as "Step on Up", considers the elements of exploration as an arena for proving the abilities of the players. This creative agenda emphasizes clever use of tactics, resource management, and character victory.
Narrativism, also known in the Big Model as "Story Now", attempts to use the elements of exploration to create an engaging story that addresses a "premise" to produce theme. Premise here is defined in accordance with Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing and is usually framed as a statement (Friends are worth dying for) or a question (Are friends worth dying for?). In narrativist play, most or all of the decisions made by the players will reflect on the premise, proposing answers to the question.
Utility of the Big Model
The Big Model is primarily concerned with categorizing the elements of the roleplaying experience into a hierarchy, the better to understand the dependencies of those elements.
The main benefit of creative agenda is that it focuses play along unified lines. Players who attempt to play the same game with differing creative agenda run a very high risk of ruining each other's entertainment. The player attempting to Step on Up will overwhelm another player's narrativist decisions with misplaced competition; the player following Story Now will consistently take actions which are not optimal strategies, spoiling the other player's gamist decisions.
Criticism of the Big Model
The Big Model has been significantly criticised and is no longer widely used, even by many of the people who liked it when it was new and current. For example, Vincent Baker has said that, while it was a useful tool to diversify thought around what role-playing games could be (i.e. that there was more than a single type of RPG that could be played), the attempt to categorise all RPGs and all players (e.g. using the GNS creative agendas) do not hold up, and furthermore RPG design has moved on and left the Big Model behind.
Other criticisms of the Big Model take several forms, including:
- Some critiques accuse the Big Model of being an apparatus that devalues "everyday" roleplaying. Some maintain that several very successful role-playing game designs which predate its formulation, such as Dungeons & Dragons and the various World of Darkness games, were created adequately without its influence, and that many designers continue to do so today. In this context, the Big Model is accused of leading to designs that do not address the interests of most roleplaying game hobbyists, and is therefore invalid on practical grounds.
- The Big Model is a totalist theory — that is, it attempts to encompass the entire corpus of roleplaying into itself. Critics note that in the arts, theoretical models possess subjective aesthetic and political biases. By attempting to encompass everything that comes up in a roleplaying game, the model allegedly ignores, trivializes and suppresses issues that it cannot explain or provide practical tools to affect. For example, the problem of racism at the gaming table is often subsumed into the Social Contract, even though its social impact transcends gameplay and it possesses a social dynamic notably different from agreeing to play elves in an RPG. Within a purely roleplaying context, the Big Model is accused of failing to address Immersionist play because it supposedly does not obey the model's conceptual categories. Connected with the problem of totalism is the accusation that the Big Model is overly vague and its terms are so broad as to be effectively meaningless. Finally, totalism leads to the Big Model being treated like an assumed, objective fact, when it is subjective and non-falsifiable.
- A related criticism is that, because the model is based on behavioral models, it works well for talking about the activity in a game, but works poorly for talking about issues like the emotional subjective states around a game. Because of this issue, the Big Model may have trouble dealing with play issues such as Immersionist play, where feeling a certain way — subjective and not behavioral — is the point.
- The Big Model is culturally and practically disconnected from the broad study of the arts, making it irrelevant except as an intellectual exercise by adherents. Critics note that The Big Model does not appear to address the academic, political and aesthetic concerns common to literature and theatre, despite the fact that outside of roleplaying, members of other arts communities can and do share ideas.
- The Big Model is accused of promulgating opinions about roleplaying which do not represent the experiences of all or even most roleplayers. Critics report instances of groups pursuing multiple creative agendas without onerous results. Immersionist roleplayers also report using an agenda and playstyle markedly different from those effectively supported by the Big Model.
- Ben Lehman. "Introduction to Forge Theory 5.1 - Drawing the Big Model".
- Ben Lehman. "Introduction to Forge Theory #1".
- Ben Lehman. "Introduction to Forge Theory #6 - Elements of Exploration".
- Ben Lehman. "Introduction to Forge Theory #7 - GNS".
- Ron Edwards. "Simulationism: The Right to Dream".
- Ron Edwards. "Gamism: Step on Up".
- Ron Edwards. "Narrativism: Story Now".
- Vincent Baker (lumpley) (2015-07-17). "The Big Model, RIP". Story Games. Retrieved 2020-07-20.