Game Mastery

GNS Theory

by on Dec.04, 2008, under game theory

So I’ve been putting some thought towards GNS Theory lately. As usual, it was instigated by a forum post, which got a little heated and so I post here.

I want to like GNS theory, I really do.  But I can’t.

GNS breaks roleplaying down into three types:

Gamist – For people who focus on mechanics
Narrativist – for focus on the story
and Simulationist – for focus on the world model

This isn’t so different from the priorities I recognize in my games:

Plot – What happens in game
Roleplay – Not to be confused with plot, this is people interacting
Combat – Monster stabbing
and Mechanics – How the system works

Initially I figure plot and roleplay could be smooshed into narrativist and combat/mechanics could be gamist.  I hadn’t accounted for simulationist because it hasn’t been a variable in my games.  I’d rather engage the players in a story than let them play somewhere realistic.

I’d also like to point out that my priorities are meant as a way to classifiy the game a GM offers (as well as to indicate that player enjoyment comes before all 4 of the others).  My games are largely in the order I posted.  Your average D&D game would be more like Combat, mechanics, plot, roleplay.  GNS doesn’t make the distinction between GM and player – it applies to the whole game.

Where GNS jumps the shark (or nukes the fridge, for those of you who made the mistake of seeing the new Indiana Jones) is its insistence that you have to pick one type and that’s what your game is, period, end of discussion.  If you try really hard you can take on a secondary aspect, but it is always inferior to the primary one.  And don’t even think about arranging G, N, or S into a triangle, so you can place yourself between the three of them.

GNS also makes some bold assertions about game types.  DnD 3rd ed sucked because it didn’t pigeon hole itself into any one category well enough.  It was supposed to be purely gamism, sometimes with a side of narrativism or simulationism. But have character alignments let the characters feud like real people.  PC arguments are bad for gamism, so 3rd ed failed there.  4th ed fixed it perfectly by keeping the focus on alignment, but eliminating all evil options.  We all know that every lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good, neutral, and chaotic neutral person gets along and would never have party infighting, so 4th ed does a better job of achieving gamism.

This just strikes me as utterly ridiculous.

It also strikes me as useless.  What’s the point of classifying games, if 99% of all tabletop games come up as gamist?  It’s like going into a record store and seeing all the aisles marked “pop/rock” and one lone shelf marked “classical” or “world.”  It doesn’t help a player or GM accomplish anything if they know that their game and every other game they played in is labeled gamist.

I’m going to cut off early because I can hear my blood pressure rising.  I’m sure I could have made a more cogent argument but I’ve wasted enough brain cycles on GNS already.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Nat Budin

    Your summary of GNS theory doesn’t really jibe with how I’ve seen it used in the theatre-style LARP community. (It could well be that tabletop roleplayers have a different understanding of it, though.)

    Intercon LARPers tend to view gamism, narrativism, and simulationism as distinct, independent agendas, which are not mutually exclusive. You can be a strong narrativist and a strong simulationist, for example, or (like me) a strong narrativist with some gamism thrown in.

    The other thing you say above that doesn’t match my understanding of GNS is your definition of simulationism. As generally used in TS LARP around here, simulationism isn’t about the world model so much as it’s about the characters. What’s being realistically simulated, in other words, is the emotions, feelings, thoughts, and actions of the character you’re playing. Another way to think about that distinction is that narrativists tend to focus on the PvE aspect of the LARP, and simulationists tend to focus on the PvP aspect, particularly where PvP is about clashes of personalities as opposed to, say, trading widgets.

  2. sagotsky

    Could be I just had a bad explanation of it. I only read the original explanation after having it summarized by a table top player who may or may not have protrayed it accurately.

    The one thing they were adamant about though was the mutual exclusivity of each type. If that part gets thrown out I like the whole thing a lot better.

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