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GNS theory is an informal field of study developed by Ron Edwards which attempts to create a unified theory of how role-playing games work. Focused on player behavior, in GNS theory participants in role-playing games organize their interactions around three categories of engagement: gamism, narrativism and simulationism.
The theory focuses on player interaction rather than statistics, encompassing game design beyond role-playing games. Analysis centers on how player behavior fits the above parameters of engagement and how these preferences shape the content and direction of a game. GNS theory is used by game designers to dissect the elements which attract players to certain types of games.
GNS theory was inspired by the Threefold Model, which was discussed on the rec.games.frp.advocacy USENET group in summer 1997. The Threefold Model defined drama, simulation and game as three paradigms of role-playing. The name "Threefold Model" was coined in a 1997 post by Mary Kuhner outlining the theory. Kuhner posited the theory's central ideas there, and John H. Kim later codified and expanded the discussion.
In his article "System Does Matter", which was originally posted on the Gaming Outpost website in July 1999, Ron Edwards wrote that all RPG players have one of three mutually-exclusive perspectives. According to Edwards, enjoyable RPGs focus on one perspective and a common error in RPG design is to try to include all three types. His article could be seen as a warning against generic role-playing game systems from large developers. Edwards connected GNS theory to game design, popularizing the theory. On December 2, 2005 Edwards closed the forums on the Forge about GNS theory, saying that they had outlived their usefulness.
A gamist makes decisions to satisfy predefined goals in the face of adversity: to win. Edwards wrote,
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 pitting characters against successively-tougher challenges and opponents, and may not consider why the characters are facing them in the first place. Gamist RPG design emphasizes parity; all player characters should be equally strong and capable of dealing with adversity.
Combat and diversified options for short-term problem solving (for example, lists of specific spells or combat techniques) are frequently emphasized. Randomization provides a gamble, allowing players to risk more for higher stakes rather than modelling probability. Examples include Magic: The Gathering, chess and most computer games.
Narrativism relies on outlining (or developing) character motives, placing characters into situations where those motives conflict and making their decisions the driving force. For example, a samurai sworn to honor and obey his lord might be tested when directed to fight his rebellious son. A compassionate doctor might have his charity tested by an enemy soldier under his care, or a student might have to decide whether to help her best friend cheat on an exam.
This has two major effects. Characters usually change and develop over time, and attempts to impose a fixed storyline are impossible or counterproductive. Moments of drama (the characters' inner conflict) make player responses difficult to predict, and the consequences of such choices cannot be minimized. Revisiting character motives or underlying emotional themes often leads to escalation: asking variations of the same "question" at higher intensity levels.
Simulationism is a playing style recreating, or inspired by, a genre or source. Its major concerns are internal consistency, analysis of cause and effect and informed speculation. Characterized by physical interaction and details of setting, simulationism shares with narrativism a concern for character backgrounds, personality traits and motives to model cause and effect in the intellectual and physical realms.
Simulationist players consider their characters independent entities, and behave accordingly; they may be reluctant to have their character act on the basis of out-of-character information. Similar to the distinction between actor and character in a film or play, character generation and the modeling of skill growth and proficiency can be complex and detailed.
Many simulationist RPGs encourage illusionism (manipulation of in-game probability and environmental data to point to predefined conclusions) to create a story. Call of Cthulhu recreates the horror and cosmic insignificance of the Cthulhu Mythos, using illusionism to craft grisly fates for the players' characters and maintain consistency with the source material.
Simulationism maintains a self-contained universe operating independent of player will; events unfold according to internal rules. Combat may be broken down into discrete, semi-randomised steps for modeling attack skill, weapon weight, defense checks, armor, body parts and damage potential. Some simulationist RPGs explore different aspects of their source material, and may have no concern for realism; Toon, for example, emulates cartoon hijinks. Role-playing game systems such as GURPS and Fudge use a somewhat-realistic core system which can be modified with sourcebooks or special rules.
GNS theory incorporates Jonathan Tweet's three forms of task resolution which determine the outcome of an event. According to Edwards, an RPG should use a task-resolution system (or combination of systems) most appropriate for that game's GNS perspective. The task-resolution forms are:
- Drama: Participants decide the results, with plot requirements the determining factor (for example, Houses of the Blooded).
- Fortune: Chance decides the results (for example, dice).
- Karma: A fixed value decides the results (for example, Nobilis ' statistics comparison).
Edwards has said that he changed the name of the Threefold Model's "drama" type to "narrativism" in GNS theory to avoid confusion with the "drama" task-resolution system.
GNS theory identifies five elements of role-playing:
- Character: A fictional person
- Color: Details providing atmosphere
- Setting: Location in space and time
- Situation: The dilemma
- System: Determines how in-game events unfold
It details four stances the player may take in making decisions for their character:
- Actor: Decides based on what their character wants and knows
- Author: Decides based on what they want for their character, retrospectively explaining why their character made a decision
- Director: Makes decisions affecting the environment instead of a character (usually represented by a gamemaster in an RPG)
- Pawn: Decides based on what they want for their character, without explaining why their character made a decision
The most common criticism of GNS theory is that Edwards and the Forge are elitist, valuing only those games which support his theory. The mass of the theory (there are 13,837 messages on the GNS-theory board) is considered problematic.
The Forge has been accused of favoring one of the three GNS concepts: narrativism. Gamism is a diversion for the GNS theorist, and simulationism is misunderstood and disparaged. Lars Konzack has called the GNS theory role-playing apartheid, and has presented an alternative theory: the Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk (Wu-Ge) model.
- Shannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing. p. 404. ISBN 978-1-907702-58-7.
- The Threefold Model
- "System Does Matter" by Ron Edwards
- "Does System Matter?", a reply to System Does Matter
- "Farewell to the forum, but not to theory", The Forge, retrieved November 24, 2015
- "Gamism, Step on Up", The Forge, retrieved November 24, 2015
- Edwards, Ron. "Narrativism: Story Now".
- Comments on the GNS Model
- Lars Konzack. The Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk Model: A Framework for Role-Playing Game Analysis and Design. Lüneburg, Germany. DiGRA 2015 
- "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory" by Ron Edwards
- "A Look at Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory" by Nathan Jennings