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The Threefold Model of role-playing games is an attempt to distinguish three different goals in roleplaying. In its original formation, these are: Drama, Simulation, and Game. Subsequent theories, such as the GNS Theory and The Big Model, have retained the 3-way division, but altered other aspects of the model.
In its most formal sense, the threefold model claims that any single GM decision (about the resolution of in-game events) can be made in order to further the goals of Drama, or Simulation, or Game. By extension, a series of decisions may be described as tending towards one or two of the three goals, to a greater or lesser extent. This can be visualised as an equilateral triangle, with a goal at each vertex, and the points between them representing different weightings of the different goals. As a consequence, a player or GM can characterise their preferred gaming style as a point on this triangle, or (since no real precision is implied) in words such as 'mostly gamist' or 'dramatist with a bit of simuationist' or 'right in the middle'.
Another consequence of the model is the claim that by advancing towards one of the goals, one is moving away from the other two. Thus a game that is highly dramatic will be neither a good simulation nor a challenging game, and so on. This assertion has been widely challenged, and led to criticism of the model.
In the terminology of the threefold, the goals of drama, simulation and game have specific meanings.
- Drama is concerned with the artistic qualities of the game, such as story, nuances of meaning, exploration of themes, etc. It does not imply following a set story, but an eagerness to find stories and meaning in the unfolding events.
- Game is concerned with the amount and kind of challenge that the players face in the course of the game. Ideas such as 'balance' and 'fairness' and 'victory' belong here.
- Simulation is concerned solely with the events that unfold in the gameworld, and ensuring that they are only caused by in-game factors - that is, reducing metagame concerns (such as drama and game). It should be noted that simulation isn't necessarily concerned with simulating reality; it could be a simulation of any fictional world, cosmology or scenario, according to its own rules.
History of the threefold model
The threefold arose in discussion on the forum rec.games.frp.advocacy, following long arguments and flame-wars about whether one style of roleplaying was 'better' than another style. The name was coined by Mary Kuhner, in a July 1997 post which outlined the principles. In October 1998, a "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) document was written about it. It has since then been circulated in a variety of places. It was also the inspiration for a related model known as "GNS Theory", which has been articulated by Ron Edwards on the roleplaying discussion site The Forge.
The threefold model is sometimes credited as having quelled the debate about 'which roleplaying style is best' by pointing out that different people want different things out of games, and that some styles are better suited to certain goals.
The terms 'gamist', 'dramatist' and 'simulationist' have gained some usage outside of threefold discussions.
However, it has come under a great deal of criticism. Some criticise it simply for trying to establish some theoretical thought about roleplaying, and some misunderstand it as trying to categorise players.
Others deny the claim that one must 'trade off' one goal against another, and claim that a skilled GM can fulfill all three goals without compromising.
Some dispute the appropriateness or meaning of the goals of simulation, drama and game; in particular simulationists are seen as having defined the model to their own tastes, leaving the drama and game goals poorly-defined.
Some believe that the threefold should be extended to a fourth goal/vertex, usually Socialising. (That is, the fun of playing a game with your friends, making sure everyone is happy.) This would allow preferences to be plotted on a tetrahedron rather than a triangle. However, there has been little consensus on this issue.
Some criticise the model for having no utility. It makes no useful predictions, and offers little insight into how to improve one's game. Many feel that the effort spent arguing the merits of the Threefold Model could be better spent discussing more productive aspects of roleplaying.