Once the darling of RPG theory, the Threefold is barely tolerated these days. A lot like Ben Elton. Unlike Elton they didn’t sell out, they were just too abstract to begin with — so they ended up needing a lot of additional qualification and just sounded pretentious. The problems with the threefold, and specifically GNS, are/were:
- The tenet that you must play one to the exclusion of the others, or your game is incoherent
- The idea that the output is “story”, which is a loaded term…
- …which then elevates Narrative over the other two styles/modes
- Game, Narrative and Simulation don’t have easy real-world examples of products; instead they’re supposedly behaviours leading to certain outcomes…
- …which supposes that not only is one outcome more favourable than another, there are correct and incorrect behaviours.
Rather than using abstract terms, let’s take genre examples:
- Mystery: a game in which the characters seek clues and are rewarded with an overall truth
- Adventure: a game where the characters overcome obstacles, usually with an element of risk or time pressure, and are rewarded by either gaining power, or succeeding in opposing an enemy
- Drama: a game where the characters interact verbally or physically in a series of conflicts, that progressively define their relationships with one another
Each of the three genres can be classified with four markers:
- Relationships: whether the relationships are dynamically changing or mostly static; whether they are between PCs, or PC-NPC
- Landscape: is the environment a fixed backdrop, or does it change as the game progresses
- Obstacles: why obstacles exist and what we get from overcoming them
- Effort: where the effort is in preparing to play the game
Relationships Static and assumed benign between PCs; unknown and developing over time between the Party and various NPCs/antagonists. This is the “squad fallacy” that assumes the PCs will work together (which becomes part of the unspoken agreement between players).
Landscape Used to frame a source of clues, therefore usually changes progressively following a predictable, ordered path (e.g. from the Mansion to the Well to the Mill to the old Factory) but sometimes retreading previous locations as the relationship with NPCs develops (q.v.)
Obstacles Exist to serve up clues, and balance the gain of clues with a certain risk or cost.
Effort A great deal of effort up-front to construct a mystery. A coherent back-story, with well-paced clues that aren’t impossible but don’t give the game away too early. This is the basis for Cthulhu product lines (CoC, ToC, etc.) where you’re playing for an experience in play (rather than just another splatbook).
Relationships Like the Mystery, the PC-PC relationships are often static and benign, “squad-like”. Unlike the mystery the PC-NPC relationships are often known from the outset, with NPCs as antagonists, allies or neutral service providers.
Landscape Used to frame encounters; investigated as a sandbox, so progressively explored but in a non-predictable manner.
Obstacles Exist to make the act of exploring dangerous (with location encounters) and provide gains in power/wealth and/or neutralising opposition.
Effort Effort to construct a location-by-location sandbox, with encounters and a back-story. No requirement for pacing of plot/clues, but may need to keep track of events or the progress of antagonists (e.g. in Deep Carbon Observatory, if they arrive at certain locations before or after the characters)
Relationships Main focus is PC-PC and will change dynamically; there may be in-game currency (drama tokens, strings) that regulates this. PC-NPC relationships may be secondary.
Landscape Fixed set of locations that are usually directly connected to, and known to the characters (i.e. not much scope for exploration)
Obstacles Obstacles are usually in the form of tensions between two characters that must be resolved; and resolving them (or failing to) creates further drama and fodder for the next scene. Apocalypse World does this really well but in a very specific way with moves, etc.
Effort Effort is in up-front creation of the structures — including tension, wants, etc. — which will then be fodder for scenes. This effort is further delegated to the play group in the first scene, e.g. following the PCs around to see what they do (PbtA) or talking specifically about what they want from each other (Dramasystem). Of the three this is possibly the least effort for individual games.
I have my own reasons for looking at the games in this way but I’d argue that there are two benefits. First, each corner of the threefold relates to an actual genre that players can articulate a preference for and you can pitch in e.g. a convention game.
Second, rather than being exclusive you can mix and match the approaches. In fact I don’t think many games are purely M, A or D. A lot of trad games are Mystery-Adventure with components of both survival/risk and obtaining and following a trail of clues, scene-by-scene exposition with some Drama, etc. And Silent Legions is a really excellent sandbox Mystery game, removing a lot of the effort needed for Chaosium-style modules and replacing with the tag system.