I posted this over on Grumblingdwarf, and it seemed like a useful thing to keep around. So here it is.
According to the Big Model of RPG Theory, there are three Creative Agendas of play- Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism, often abbreviated as GNS.
These three agendas describe what play is about. Gamist play focuses on challenging the players and competition. Narrativist play focuses on creating a compelling or dramatic story, often exploring issues. An important part of Narrativist play is that no one participant can forsee the outcome or path of the story in advance. Simulationist play focuses on exploration for it’s own sake.
What is exploration? Exploration is basically imagining a thing, giving it ‘screen time,’ and having the same shared imagined experience amongst multiple people. Different games, different sessions, and different people will focus the Exploration on different things.
There are five areas of exploration. These things are present in any roleplaying game, no matter what the creative agenda is. These things can be dialed up, making them the focus of play, or dialed down, making them less important, but still present.
Character is the first area of exploration. Exploration of character can involve character motivations, personalities, quirks, etc. When exploration of character is dialed up, character motivations and playing one’s character is a major focus of play. When it is dialed down, the character is still present, but characters are likely to be static, or perhaps a stand-in for the player.
Setting is the second area of exploration. Exploration of setting involves examining the world the play takes place in, whether it’s a published game setting, one created by the gamemaster, or one collaboratively created by all the players at the table. Setting-focused play often treats the setting itself as a ‘character,’ or the premise of play itself may be based on a fact of the setting, or play may involve travelling through the setting to see and experience different aspects of it. When setting is dialed down, it is still present, but play is more focused on specific elements that aren’t really tied to a specific place- the story could be set in Chicago, or Prague, or on the Moon, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Situation is the third area of exploration. Situation is what’s going on, often a situation that threatens or challenges the characters in someway. Situation is an event that requires a response. Situation is particularly paramount for Gamist and Narrativist play, though for different reasons. Play with heavy emphasis on situation involves lots of flashpoint scenes, events that are in flux, and action. Low emphasis on situation will often have a slower pace, and perhaps more focus on interaction rather than action.
System is an interesting area of exploration. Anytime a player interacts with the game system, they are exploring it. Some game systems encourage, or practically demand greater exploration of system, others encourage rules-light approaches. At the high-end, interacting with the system is the whole point of play- perhaps from a gamist approach to use mastery of the rules as an avenue for competition, such as optimizing characters in D&D or HERO, or interacting with the system might be the reason for play for simulationist ends- perhaps you and your friends have written the ultimate system for modeling ballistics, so you have a game with lots of gunfights, but the point of that is to play with your really cool ballistics model. At less high levels, but still with a focus on system, the system plays an important part in the game- perhaps aspects of the system direct the path of the story, and as players you want to be aware of that, or the players find tinkering with the system and making characters enjoyable in and of itself. (Perhaps to make an ‘optimum’ character, or to use a wide open system like HERO and see what kind of strange characters the system can model.) At the low end of exploring system, not using the system is a play priority, and hand-waving results and/or GM-fiat are common.
Color is the last area of exploration, and the one I find the hardest to explain. Color is basically all the little details. Suppose you’re playing in a Battlestar Gallactica Game. If exploration of color is dialed all the way up, you might often call attention to phones with cords, non-networked computers, and eight-sided pieces of paper. If it’s dialed all the way down, you probably don’t think of those things quite as much.