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The GNS Theory, as originally developed by Ron Edwards, is a relatively amorphous body of work attempting to create a theory of how role-playing games work. Primarily, GNS Theory holds that participants in role-playing games reinforce each other's behaviour towards ends which can be divided into three categories: Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist.
Strictly, GNS theory is concerned with players' social interactions, but it has been extrapolated to direct game design, both in and outside the world of RPGs. A game can be classified according to how strongly it encourages or facilitates players reinforcing behaviours matching each category. Game designers find it useful because it can be used to explain why players play certain games.
Ron Edwards later discarded GNS Theory in favor of The Big Model, which includes the GNS categories as different kinds of creative agenda.
GNS: Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist
Gamism: Prove Yourself
Gamist refers to decisions based on satisfying clear predefined goal conditions in the face of adversity: in other words, on the desire to win. As Ron Edwards mentions in Gamism, Step on Up:
I might as well get this over with now: the phrase "Role-playing games are not about winning" is the most widespread example of synecdoche in the hobby. Potential Gamist responses, and I think appropriately, include:
(upon winning) "I win",
and "C'mon, let's play without these morons."
These decisions are most common in games which pit characters against successively tougher challenges and opponents, and may not spend much time dwelling on why the characters are facing them in the first place. Gamist RPG design tends to place a strong emphasis on parity in character effectiveness: that is, the idea that all player characters should be (at least when properly built or optimised over time) equally strong and capable of dealing with adversity.
Combat is frequently heavily emphasised, as is a diversity in options for short-term problem solving (i.e., long lists of highly specific spells or combat techniques). Randomisation (i.e., Fortune methods) exist primarily to provide a gamble and allow players to risk more for higher stakes (for instance, attempting a more effective hit in combat requires a penalty on the dice roll), rather than modelling strict probability.
Examples include, Magic: The Gathering, Chess, and most computer games.
Narrativism relies heavily on outlining or developing motives for the characters, putting them into situations where those motives come into mutual conflict, and making their decisions in the face of such stress the main driving force behind events. For example, a Samurai character sworn to honour and obey his lord might have that loyalty tested when directed to fight against his own rebellious son. A compassionate doctor might have his sense of charity tested when an enemy soldier comes under his care. On the lighter end of the spectrum, a student might have to decide whether to help her best friend cheat on an exam.
This has two main effects. Firstly, and in contrast to much Simulationist play, characters usually show considerable change and development over time. Secondly, any attempt at imposing a fixed storyline is either impossible or highly counterproductive. Moments of drama – which is to say, inner conflict on the part of the characters – inherently make player responses difficult to predict, and the consequences of such choices cannot be minimised. More than this, revisiting the characters' motives or underlying emotional themes over time often leads to a process of escalation: asking variations on the same "question", but at higher and higher levels of intensity, as exemplified through the situations and developments of play. The "answers" that the players supply, as exemplified through their characters' responses and their eventual repercussions, can then be taken as a kind of moral commentary on various human qualities or values under the circumstances. In short, it coaxes out an overall point or message, but as an after-effect or byproduct of play, rather than as an accessory to it.
Simulationism refers to a style of play where the main agenda is the recreation of, or inspiration by, the observed characteristics of a particular genre or set of source material. Physical reality might count as source material for these purposes, but so might superhero anthologies, or any other literary, cinematic or historical milieu. Its most frequent concerns are internal consistency, analysis or modeling of cause and effect, and informed speculation or even extrapolation. Often characterised by concern for the minutiae of physical interaction and details of setting, Simulationism shares with Narrativism a concern for character backgrounds, personality traits and motives, in an effort to model cause and effect within the intellectual realm as well as the physical.
Simulation-inclined players are inclined to talk of their characters as if they were independent entities with minds of their own, and model their behavior accordingly. (For example, they may be particularly reluctant to have their character act on the basis of out-of-character information, and indisposed to tolerate such behavior in others.) Basically similar to the distinction between actor and character within a film or play, this stems from the sense of objectivity that a Simulationist strives for. Character generation and the modelling of skill growth and proficiency can be very complex and highly detailed.
Like Narrativists, Simulationists are intolerant of obvious railroading, but for different reasons: because it betrays the implied agreement that "internal cause is king". However, many Simulationist RPGs recommend "Illusionism" to create a story – in essence, the subtle manipulation of in-game probability and environmental data to point PCs toward predefined conclusions. For example, Call of Cthulhu's foremost concern is recreating the mood of brooding horror and cosmic insignificance of the Cthulhu Mythos, and makes heavy use of illusionism to craft grisly fates for the players' characters, thereby maintaining consistency with the source material.
Much of the Simulationist aesthetic revolves around maintaining a self-contained bubble universe that operates independently of player volition, with the result that many Simulationist techniques are both deterministic and relatively hands-off: events unfold on the basis of internal rules. Combat might be broken down into discrete, semi-randomised steps for modeling the input of attack skill, weapon weight, defence checks, armour, body parts and potential for critical damage, separately. However, some Simulationist RPGs focus on the exploration of entirely different aspects of their source material, and may have no concern for realism at all. Toon, for example, is solely concerned with emulating cartoon hijinks. Others, such as GURPS and FUDGE, take a moderately realistic core system as their baseline, which can be extended or modified by optional sourcebooks or special rules.
Potential frictions between modes
Many common role-playing techniques can enhance the enjoyment of a particular GNS mode at the expense of others, but the fundamental incompatibilities between each are actually very high-level.
- Moments of drama (in the emotional sense) make clear goal conditions (i.e. a well-defined challenge in the Gamist sense) impossible. The Narrativist's very purpose is to focus on a conflict between two or more of a given character's values. 'Winning' is impossible under such circumstances, because there is no clear goal. Conversely, if a character is presented only with well-defined goal conditions during the entire 'story', this implies a lack of emotional ambivalence during decision-making which denies the possibility of input to theme.
- Theme, by its nature, is a series of aesthetically pleasing but statistically unlikely coincidences. In order to reliably revisit the same emotional topic or human questions, in-world probability must be frequently distorted to present conflicts that visit those topics or questions.
- Moments of drama (in the emotional sense) cannot, in the strictest sense, be consistently role-played. Their very purpose is to focus on a conflict between two or more of a given character's values, in which they are obliged to choose one over the other. In other words, to focus on a point where the character's internal consistency breaks down.
- Perfect 'Balance' (in the sense of parity in character effectiveness, or a level playing field) is rarely compatible with the full complexities of a self-consistent imagined world. That is, Life is Unfair. For example, realistic swordfighting leads to a high-rate of wound-related mortality, while an unbiased presentation of Tolkien's Middle-Earth would make elves far more powerful than orcs or halflings. Resolving such imbalances requires either a manifestly artificial 'world', or metagame constructs such as hit points, level adjustments, etc. that distort a Simulationist aesthetic.
The GNS theory incorporates Jonathan Tweet's three forms of task resolution that determine the outcome of an event. Edwards said that an RPG should use a task resolution system or combination of systems that is most appropriate for that game's GNS perspective. The three task resolution forms are:
- Drama, the participants decide the results, the requirements of the plot being the determining factor (e.g., Houses of the Blooded )
- Fortune, chance decides the results (e.g., by using dice)
- Karma, a fixed value decides the results (e.g., by comparing stats - e.g. Nobilis )
The GNS Theory identifies five elements of role-playing that all players recognize:
- Character, a fictional person
- Color, details that provide atmosphere
- Setting, location (in space and time)
- Situation, the dilemma
- System, determines how in-game events unfold
It also explains four Stances the player can have in making decisions for their character:
- Actor, decides based on what their character would want and know
- Author, decides based on what they as a player want for their character and then retroactively explains why their character made that decision
- Director, makes decisions that affect the environment rather than a character (usually represented by a game master in an RPG)
- Pawn, decides based on what they as a player want for their character without bothering to explain why their character would make that decision
The theory developed out of the Threefold Model that defined Drama, Simulation, and Game as three paradigms of role-playing. The concept first appeared in the rec.games.frp.advocacy newsgroup, and the name "Threefold Model" was coined in a post made by Mary Kuhner in 1997 which outlined the principles of the theory.
In his article "System Does Matter", Edwards said that all participants in RPGs hold one of three mutually exclusive perspectives or aims. He wrote that enjoyable RPGs focus on only one of these perspectives and that it is a common mistake in RPG design to try to satisfy all three types. It is for this reason that the article could be seen as a warning against generic role-playing game systems made by larger developers.
Ron Edwards has since further refined his understanding of RPGs, discarding GNS Theory in favor of The Big Model, which redefines and recontextualizes problematic aspects of GNS.
On December 2, 2005, Edwards closed the forums on The Forge regarding GNS theory, explaining that the forums supporting the GNS theoretical framework had outlived their usefulness.
- "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory" by Ron Edwards
- "A Look at Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory" by Nathan Jennings