Me and the Big Model: Subjective Truth, Ideology, Literary Movement

2007 Dec 6

A bunch of folks on Knife Fight found this interesting / helpful, so I’m reposting it here:


In the Jess & Ben Talk About The Forge thread and in a few other places, Jess seems to be expressing distaste for the idea that the Big Model or GNS reflects objective reality or “The Truth.” From my perspective (and I could be totally wrong), it seems like she views the belief that the Big Model is “The Truth” as opposed to “a truth” or “one view of the truth” or “something that might be true” as an ideological jump, not one that’s based on carefully examining the actual evidence.

Me, I don’t think I’ve ever had THAT particular problem with the Big Model or GNS. Yes, they are clearly part of a general “worldview of roleplaying,” but that does not make them inaccurate. I view the Big Model very much like I view a religion or another ideology (such as a given theory of art). If you look at the world through that perspective, everything makes a certain kind of sense. Instead of random happenings, you see intentionality and careful design, you see patterns instead of chaos.

Additionally, I have no problem simultaneously believing multiple incompatible ideologies. Like how the Pope says religion is not incompatible with evolution. Like that. If people say, “God created the world,” I can nod and say, “Yes, that’s true.” If people say, “The earth was created by such and such scientific processes,” I can nod and say, “Yes, that’s true.” If people say, “Art is a creative work that has the ability to elicit certain emotional responses,” I can nod and say, “Yes, that’s true.” If people say, “Art is a status assigned by a community of people with authority in matters of art,” I can nod and say, “Yes, that’s true.”

Likewise, if people say, “The Big Model explains roleplaying,” I can say, “Yes, it does.” That does not mean that I can’t simultaneously believe in other models that explain roleplaying in ways that seem incompatible with the Big Model. I am vast; I contain multitudes.

Because of this, I don’t think I really have much criticism of the Big Model as a model (at least not anymore). It is what it is. Is it accurate? Enough for its purposes, but maybe not for other purposes. If I want a model that fulfills purpose Y, and that isn’t one of the purposes of the Big Model, I don’t say, “Oh, the Big Model is flawed or wrong”; I say, “Oh, well, we’ll need a different model for purpose Y.”

This, I suspect, is part of the reason people claim that the Big Model is “The Cult of Ron” or an ideology rather than a theory: it pretty much is an ideology or maybe a literary movement (like first wave feminism or Marxism or post-colonialism). Most people I know who have spent time explaining the Big Model (and trying not to get dragged into defending it), like Ben and Vincent, don’t throw serious criticism at the model, not because it is the perfect tool for every situation, but because there’s no point, really. It’s a really good tool for the purposes it tries to achieve, and Ron is not likely to change the model drastically due to criticism, though he will explain his reasoning and purposes for creating it (and it has evolved slightly and been fleshed out with other people’s help).

Marxism is what it is. It is a perspective on things that is really helpful at understanding certain issues. But I would not use Marxism to, say, explain the rise of Chinese religion after 1980 (though, believe me, many people have tried). It’s just not the best tool for that. Similarly, the Big Model. To use another example I coined recently, it’s like playing Dogs in the Vineyard and going Back East to New York City to check on one of the Dogs’ cousins. You could do it, sure, but that’s not what the game is for and your results are not necessarily going to be as good as they would be if you were doing what the game is supposed to do. If you try to make th Big Model do things that aren’t part of its mission, there are liable to be similar problems.

It may be that some people are just flat-out uninterested in the kinds of things the Big Model is interested in. That’s cool. I think the people who tell you that the Big Model is inherently applicable to any situation you want to discuss are wrong, and I think Ron would tell you the same thing. It is not all things to all people. It is, in my mind, inherently interesting, but that’s because I’m interested in roleplaying and the things that people believe about roleplaying. Am I interested in discovering the objective truth about roleplaying? Not really. I’m not sure that I really believe in objective truth. But subjective truth, man that’s interesting.

6 Responses to “Me and the Big Model: Subjective Truth, Ideology, Literary Movement”

  1. Jonathan,

    There’s times I just roll my eyes at what you write and move on. I don’t always agree with you. But this, this is something great. Every discussion about RPG theory should be prefaced with this post right here. Before anyone discusses anything theoretical about RPGs, they should have to agree to buy into the ethos you describe here. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing it.



  2. Rob MacD Says:

    Yeah, not to minimize the value of what you’ve written, because it’s great, but everything you just said: it’s pretty much the textbook definition of what academics mean by “a model” – its meanings, its utility, its limitations. I don’t know why this causes so much problem for people.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    You’ve summed up pretty accurately why I jumped out of humanities and lodged myself in science, despite the indications of test scores and the encouragement of teachers: subjective truth gives me the willies.


  4. Troy: Thanks. That means a lot.

    Rob: Yeah, I’m not sure. This is how I approach everything really.

    Anon: Is that you, Eric? :)

  5. Zac in VA Says:

    I have yet to meet anybody who’s not a Forge forum poster who is particularly interested in this kind of stuff.

    This: “It may be that some people are just flat-out uninterested” is basically the problem I had with ever trying to use GNS stuff in my games. When somebody was actually curious about “RPG theory”, he or she would reject the model presented as bizarre and arbitrary. People who are actually curious about it, however, are in the tiny minority of people I’ve RP’ed with.

    I will grant that the Forge community did give me one good thing: it gave me the notion to use film and literary narrative devices in my games. So there’s that.

  6. Tommi Says:

    Zac: There are people searching for rpg theory stuff. They will, if given the chance, latch on pretty much any part of it they encounter. I know; I was one and have helped a few on

    (There’s also the Nordic scene with tons of rpg theory entirely unrelated to the Forge. It happens on semi-academic to academic level, mostly. There probably are other similar bodies of theory hiding elsewhere.)

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