The Forge was an online community of role-players and indie Tabletop RPG designers during The 2000s. While never formally incorporated as a single entity, its members have commonly playtested and influenced each other's games (and some continue to do so to this day), as well as developed a common critical language for talking about them (referred to as "The Big Model" and "GNS Theory" in different sources), giving "Forge games" a distinct style and flavor.
The website was originally founded as "Hephaestus's Forge" in 1999 by Ed Healy and Ron Edwards, but retooled in 2001 by Edwards and Clinton R. Nixon to become a discussion forum on the theory and practice of pen-and-paper RPG design. In 2012, Edwards had effectively shut down the website, declaring its original mission fulfilled, and it nowadays serves mainly as a repository for his essays on the Big Model, while the discussion hub has moved to www.story-games.com.
A comprehensive digest of common Forge terms and design principles is available at the Socratic Design blog.
Games created by the Forge community members and associates include:
- Adept Press: Ron Edwards
- Black and Green Games: Emily Care Boss
- Bully Pulpit Games: Jason Morningstar, Steve Segedy
- Burning Wheel: Luke Crane
- CRN Games: Clinton R. Nixon
- Galileo Games: Brennan Taylor
- lumpley games: D. Vincent and Meguey Baker
- Memento-Mori Theatricks: Jared A. Sorensen
- one.seven design: John Harper
- Ramshead Publishing: Ralph Mazza, Mike Holmes
- Dust Devils (2002) by Matt Snyder (Chimera Creative)
- Little Fears (2001, 2009) by Jason L. Blair (Key 20 Publishing)
- The Mountain Witch (2005) by Timothy Kleinert (timfire publishing)
- My Life with Master (2003) by Paul Czege (Half Meme Press)
- Primetime Adventures (2004) by Matt Wilson (Dog Eared Designs)
Tropes found in the Forge's role-playing games and body of criticism:
- Actual Play: Long before the podcasts and video recordings of RP sessions became a thing, The Forge community emphasized the importance of sharing and discussing actual moment-to-moment play experiences to improve the design of individual games. Edwards, Baker, and others also railed on big publishers' practice of putting made-up "examples" of play into their RPG rulebooks, so Forge games instead typically include (edited) transcripts of their actual playtesting sessions.
- Central Theme: By and large, Edwards and his associates pursued a specific kind of story-focused ("narrativist") role-play inspired by Lajos Egri's book The Art of Dramatic Writing, which strives to facilitate character-driven drama by anchoring entire games to a particular central theme for the players and the GM to explore, such as the topic of "scarcity" in Apocalypse World.
- Character Level: The Forge has contributed to the extension of character progression systems from D&D-like longitudinal (where characters grow measurably more powerful over time) to lateral ones (where they instead learn alternative ways of tackling in-game challenges and conflicts) and even questioned their necessity. Many Forge games therefore have an added benefit of averting Empty Levels and Can't Catch Up and making Drop-In-Drop-Out Multiplayer possible, since players can join an ongoing campaign or skip a session without much of a hassle.
- Critical Existence Failure: Forge games have been major contributors to the growing trend in tabletop RPGs of averting this trope. Instead of reducing Hit Points, harm of any kind (not just physical) is typically modeled in-game as a lasting condition with negative effects for the character's actions, affecting gameplay and story flow immediately, rather than only when the HP hits zero.
- Death Is Dramatic: Most Forge games treat Player Characters as protagonists with enough Plot Armor to survive almost any kind of abuse until their character arcs are resolved. If a PC dies in a Forge game, it's never because of a single bad dice roll, but because their player was going out of their way to kill them off, or because their death was the most appropriate story development, e.g. in a Redemption Equals Death situation.
- Driving Question: A lot of Forge games express their Central Theme as a question, such as Sorcerer's "What will you do to get what you want?" or Blades in the Dark's "Can a fledgling crew of scoundrels prosper in the underworld of a haunted city?" Accordingly, one of the main mantras of Forge design is "We play to find out", meaning that the answer to the driving question must arise during play, rather than being preplanned by the GM or the players in advance.
- Follow the Leader: "Fantasy Heartbreaker" was the Forge's term for any attempt to design a (subjectively) better version of a traditional RPG, usually D&D, without first critically examining and rewiring its core premises to create a truly new and unique role-playing experience.
- Game Master: Downplayed. Most Forge games specifically downplay or outright dismiss the traditional Author hat of the GM. They often forbid GMs to "plan out the campaign" and direct them instead to focus on their Director and Referee hats and to let the other players drive the plot forward, merely reacting to their actions (one term for this GMing style is "bass playing"). Some games, like Fiasco and Breaking the Ice, even eliminate the GM role outright.
- Gameplay Randomization: The Forge theories refer to rolling dice to determine how a character's action goes as "Fortune resolution" (as opposed to Dramanote and Karmanote resolutions — all terms introduced by Jonathan Tweet in his 1995 Everway) and use the addenda "at the Beginning", "in the Middle", and "at the End" to classify different implementations. Most Forge games use Fortune in the Middle (with Teeth) resolution, but some have experimented with Fortune at the Beginning, as well (traditional RPGs mostly use Fortune at the End resolution mechanics).
- The GM Is a Cheating Bastard: Most Forge games go an extra mile to eliminate both the reasons and the means for a GM to cheat other players. First, the GM is discouraged from having a fixed story in their head and dragging the players along with it. Secondly, the so-called "narration rights" (i.e. who is allowed to narrate what in which situations) are usually very clearly defined, so "the GM is always right" becomes "the GM has the final say in these questions, while the player has the final say in those". Thirdly, a lot of Forge designs free the GM from having to roll dice and explicitly let them make judgment calls from the get-go (within their narration rights).
- In and Out of Character: The Forge theories make a point of distinguishing between IC and OOC narration (which is basically the difference between saying "I strike the goblin" and "my fighter strikes the goblin" in-play) and the Stance, which is about how the player relates to their character when making the decisions for them (Actor, Author, Pawn, or Director). The Stance theory wasn't a Forge invention, originating at the rec.games.frp.advocacy board, but was incorporated into the Big Model.
- Indie Game: The Forge's original purpose was to showcase new indie RPGs (hence its domain name) — i.e. any that weren't distributed by big publishers of the time, like Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf. After Edwards took over, the site was turned into a discussion hub that developed a set of tools for aspiring RPG designers, such as the Power 19 — a list of guiding questions to flesh out the core design of a game. The community later also helped indie designers to self-publish their games (including on the internet) and to promote their games at conventions.
- In Medias Res: A lot of Forge games start out with the protagonists already having met each other and having preexisting relationships, which are negotiated by their respective players at character creation. Some, like Lady Blackbird, even come with a specific tense situation the PCs are thrust into right from the outset, to get them into the main plot faster.
- Killer Game-Master: Zig-Zagged. Most Forge games instruct the GM to be a fan of the players and their characters, but also to hold on lightly to both PCs and NPCs and to not pull any punches when they are called for.
- The Law of Conservation of Detail: Narrativist RPG design encourages fast scene transitions straight to the dramatic character moments — a principle Edwards dubbed "Get to the bangs!" in Sorcerer ("bangs" was his term for said dramatic moments). The imperative to skip narratively inconsequential details is expressed in everything from My Life with Master (where it's called "aggressive scene framing") to Blades in the Dark (and its various cut-to-the-action techniques).
- Loads and Loads of Rules: Inverted in most Forge games, as they are designed to minimize the "search and handling time" — i.e. the time it takes to look up all the rules relevant to the current situation ("search") and to compute all of their effects on its outcome ("handling"), — given how narrativist players would take smooth narrative flow over in-depth game world simulation every time.
- Min-Maxing: Edwards and Co. saw this form of power-gaming as having a high potential for dysfunctional play, therefore character creation in narrativist games rarely if ever has enough numeric complexity to min-max it. One way they achieve that is by introducing an explicit "currency", which is any out-of-fiction resource (such as Experience or Tech Points) that players can spend on in-fiction effects (e.g. improving their character). Being mindful of a game's currencies (or better yet, a singular currency) allows the designer to shift the players' attention from maximizing their benefits to using them to improve the narrative.
- Non-Combat EXP: Forge games with progression systems based on Experience Points typically do not hand them out for how many people or monsters you've killed, but for memorable role-playing moments that moved the story along. The amount of XP you get per session is also often capped as a common Anti-Grinding measure.
- Off the Rails: This is the core of the "play to find out" premise. Essentially, most Forge games encourage not so much derailing the plot, as not laying down any tracks in the first place.
- Player Archetypes: The Big Model incorporated the earlier Threefold Model of role-player goals (Drama, Game, and Simulation), albeit with significant changes. Specifically, instead of goals/motivations, the Big Model posited "creative agendas" — kinds of fun that role-playes seek from their hobby. The model recognized three creative agendas: Gamistnote , Narrativistnote , and Simulationistnote (which is why it is often referred as the "GNS Theory", even though GNS is just one part of it). Overall, the Forge community was mostly interested in designing games that support the Narrativist agenda, although new Gamist and Simulationist games have been occasionally proposed and discussed (e.g. John Harper's early Gamist design of Agon).
- Procedural Generation: In lieu of traditional Sourcebooks detailing every aspect of the setting, Forge games typically come with tools for the GM to create their own setting, or at least, to zoom in on and/or to expand the default settings that they ship with. One of the best early examples is Dogs in the Vineyard, which includes procedures for creating entire towns out of a single idea for an Inciting Incident.
- PVP Balanced: A lot of Forge games account for the possibility of player-vs-player conflict by treating them the same way as PvE challenges. For example, in both Sorcerer and The Mountain Witch, all dice rolls are opposed, and the only difference is who rolls against you, the GM or a fellow player.
- Railroading: A lot of the Forge's discourse centered on this trope, so they had a bunch of terms for it, including "de-protagonizing"note , "illusionism", and "The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast" or TITB4B, commonly expressed as "The GM writes the story and the players decide what the characters do". Forge members believed that this expression is inherently self-contradictory and leads to dysfunctional play, tracing its origins to the early '90s White Wolf productions like Vampire: The Masquerade, whose early rules explicitly advised the GMs to obfuscate and to cheat so the players don't stray from pre-written plot and whose Metaplot — a form of publisher-mandated railroading — was ramping up for its Grand Finale at the time of the Forge's founding.
- Relationship Values: While the Forge probably didn't pioneer the concept in tabletop RPGs, formalizing player characters' relationships among themselves and with NPCs is a staple in their games. This formalization can be qualitative (friend, rival, lover, etc.), quantitative (i.e. represented by a number), or both, often with mechanical effects attached to them. More politically-oriented games may also feature an Alliance Meter to track relations between entire factions.
- Role-Playing Endgame: Many narrativist games from the Forge come with explicit rules for wrapping up individual character and entire campaign story arcs. The most famous example is probably My Life with Master, which always ends with one of the player characters successfully defying and subsequently killing the Master, followed by an epilogue.
- RPGs Equal Combat: The Forge community viewed a strong focus on combat mechanics as a holdover from the traditional RPGs like D&D and a staple of "fantasy heartbreakers", so their games rarely feature dedicated sub-systems for fighting, focusing instead on other aspects of the narrative.
- Sliding Scale of Gameplay and Story Integration: The need for integrating gameplay and story was the core message of Edwards' "System Does Matter" manifesto that guided The Forge's design over the years. While tabletop RPGs are generally better at it than Video Games, Edwards suggested starting with a Central Theme and designing game systems from scratch to specifically generate stories that explore them. Later on, this principle was reformulated as the "fiction-first" maxim: in a narrativist game, events within the fiction should determine which Game Mechanics are invoked, instead of mechanics dominating the fiction.
- Universal System: One of the corollaries of the "System Does Matter" manifesto was that no role-playing game system can be truly universal, since the choice of what activities to stat out to what degree inherently encourages certain kinds of stories and experiences, while making others more difficult to run without extensive House Rules. Ironically, the Forge's legacy now includes quasi-univesal DIY design frameworks, such as Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark, — game systems that are so open to modification, they have been rewritten by other authors for entirely different genres and settings without changing their core mechanics.