It turns out that what I was looking for – a brief introduction to role-playing theory as it’s applied in what James Wallis’ Hogshead used to call “new-style” games – was right under my nose: Ron Edwards’ essay from 2001, “GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory.” It’s clear, readable and beautifully organized. I’d been led astray by the repeated insistences of Ron and others on the Forge forums that this essay had out-of-date bits and/or could not convey a complete understanding of RPG theory without reading a string of subsequent essays in order. But the Forge is a game design forum, so those warnings really only apply to people who want to apply RPG theory to design work. For the rest of us, who just want to understand our gaming better and see if there might be another way to play that makes us happier, the 2001 essay is more than adequate.
I was worried that the presence of the now-controversial “Simulationism,” the S in GNS that’s usually applied to old-style RPGs, would be a liability in this essay, but lo and behold this bit from chapter 2: “Controversy: is that third box really there?” This section jibes well with the Forge’s current position that Simulationism as a design genre is really kind of mythical; I prefer just to call most games previously described as Sim by the descriptor “old-style.” Why ascribe a theory to a game that was designed without one?