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A Look at Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory

When you’re tired of talking about roleplaying, you can instead talk about the right and wrong ways of talking about roleplaying!

A wise guy once said that there are two kinds of people involved in roleplaying games: the Computer Science and Engineering students who play them, and the Philosophy and English students who write them. This statement is an oversimplification to be sure, but it makes an interesting point. Most RPG players are not likely to write a roleplaying game of their own – it takes a certain kind of person to devise their own mechanics of play and/or unique RPG setting. I can’t say for certain whether these people are typically Liberal Arts nerds, but I know more than a handful of this type who dabble in RPG design (myself included). The question arises: where is the philosophy of RPG design? There must be one, right? It must have its own nomenclature and theories and categories of design. As it turns out, there are a few different theories floating around, as well as a large opposition that hates the very idea of RPG theory. One theory is the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist (GNS) Theory – it is a great example of the advantages of discussing RPGs in theoretical terms as well as the potentially dangerous pitfalls.

The ideas behind GNS Theory arose largely from discussions of RPG theory on the newsgroup, where a theory known as the Threefold Model was developed. The Threefold Model focused on three approaches to gaming: Gamist, Dramatist, and Simulationist (also known as GDS). In recent years, independent RPG developers have adopted and modified this Model to facilitate discussions of RPG design. Ron Edwards, one of these game designers, decided to codify a modified version of the Model, expanding its scope and incorporating other theories of roleplaying. Edwards, author of the Sorcerer RPG [Adept Press], can be found at The Forge (, a haven for independent RPG designers. Edwards published a definitive declaration on his views on game design, collectively known as GNS Theory, at The Forge, and included materials on the theory in Sorcerer. The theory has been discussed extensively on message boards, newsgroups, and web site forums, gaining supporters and sparking lively debate (largely because of the aforementioned haters of RPG theory generally and this theory specifically).

GNS Approaches
So, what is GNS Theory all about? I must include a caveat at this point; I have read most of the available materials on GNS Theory, but my understanding of it is hardly all encompassing. I’m sure any of the real GNS devotees could easily have a stroke upon reading my inadequate descriptions of the theory. Having said that, let’s dive in. GNS begins with the identification of five elements of roleplaying: Character, System, Setting, Situation, and Color. The Premise, overarching these aspects, is the idea that sustains the participants’ interest in the game. Then the theory identifies three separate approaches to roleplaying:

Gamism: This perspective espouses competition among participants and focuses on conditions for winning and losing based on strategies of play, with the game acting as an arena for competition.

Simulationism: This approach encourages enhancing one or more of the five elements of RPGs (listed above) to heighten "experiential consistency" and maintain logic within the bounds of the game. Exploration of Character is a form of this approach, as is exploration of Setting and Situation.

Narrativism: This perspective focuses on the creation of a story of literary merit (according to the standards of the participants), including player protagonists and a cohesive theme. The Premise of the game should embody an ethical/moral conflict, and the game provides the materials for creating the narrative.

GNS Theory is quick to point out that these approaches to roleplaying are not tools for pigeon-holing or stereotyping. Anyone can use more than one approach, and most games can allow more than one approach. GNS are tendencies, identifying the forms of play that different players prefer and that different games facilitate. A Gamist player is a player who typically prefers to play using the Gamist approach but may play using other approaches as well. A Narrativist game is one that facilitates Narrativist play through its mechanics. It’s easy to look at the three perspectives and point to the one you believe you prefer, but it’s a little more complex than it looks.

Take, for instance, "balanced" character generation, where each player gets an equal number of points to allocate to his/her character to ensure that they all start equally powerful. This is a Gamist approach because only players competing against each other really care if their characters are equally powerful. The Simulationist approach prefers characters of differing power because this is more realistic. The Narrativist approach prefers characters more like the protagonists found in stories of literary merit – groups of characters of equal power are rarely found in non-RPG narrative.

Fudging rolls, on the other hand, is largely a Narrativist phenomenon. Good stories aren’t ruled by the iron fist of a six-sided die – if the roll doesn’t help the story’s progress, disregard it. The Simulationist perspective discourages fudging because it runs counter to the goal of maintaining realism and consistency. The Gamist approach typically doesn’t allow for fudging either; it shows favoritism toward the player whose roll is being fudged, defeating the goal of fair competition.

Tables for determining gender, race, height, weight, etc. randomly by roll of the dice are a product of the Simulationist perspective. Characters should be an accurate representation of the society they live in, right? If the characters represent a real cross-section of people, this helps the players immerse themselves in the roleplaying experience. The Narrativist approach discourages allowing randomized tables to shape the story; players should describe their characters in whatever terms allow them to best explore the Premise of the game. The Gamist perspective couldn’t care less about tables like these because they have nothing to do with the competition of the game.

GNS Theory also includes an analysis of Stance, defined as the processes players use to determine their characters’ actions in the game. Four Stances are presented:

Actor Stance: The player uses only the character’s knowledge, perceptions, and personality as factors in determining the character’s actions.

Author Stance: The player makes decisions based on his/her own understanding and priorities and then retroactively determines the character’s motivation for making these decisions.

Pawn Stance: The player makes decisions based on his/her understanding and priorities but doesn’t bother to make excuses about why the character would do the same thing.

Director Stance: The player makes decisions regarding the game beyond the character’s knowledge or abilities. These decisions can affect the context of the character’s actions or features of the game world separate from the characters.

GNS Theory doesn’t draw a line between the gamemaster and the other players; in most games, the Director Stance is reserved for the gamemaster, but one of the advantages of GNS Theory is that it presents the possibility of designs where this is not the case. These stances are not aligned with specific approaches (e.g. players using the Gamist approach don’t necessarily use the Pawn Stance exclusively.) Rather, the Stances are viewed as fluid, with players often shifting stance from action to action.

Task Resolution
GNS Theory also addresses the task resolution systems used by RPGs, speaking of them in general terms. The Theory identifies three forms of task resolution systems:

Drama Resolution: This form determines the result of the action based on the descriptions of the action and the assertions made by the player without reference to any quantitative element.

Karma Resolution: This form determines an action’s consequence by referring to listed attributes (or another quantitative element) without introducing a random device.

Fortune Resolution: The form relies on a value provided by a random device, usually in relation to a quantitative element, to determine a result.

Most RPG players are used to using the last of the three systems predominantly, but the majority of RPG systems allow for at least one other of the forms at some point during play. Again, GNS Theory focuses on the importance of players broadening their horizons, exploring a greater variety of game designs and recognizing more forms as valid roleplaying.

So what’s the point? I have regurgitated, in abbreviated form, a theory that can be found in a more complete and "accurate" form in Ron Edwards’ treatise on the subject at The Forge ( I could have just pointed you in that direction and let you all read the whole thing for yourselves, but I couldn’t wholeheartedly do that. Reason number one: Edwards’ writing style is often difficult to swallow, full of condescension and prescriptivism that would drive many away and leave others with a bad taste in their mouths that has nothing to do with the subject matter. Reason number two: Edwards’ article, "GNS and Other Matters of RP Theory," is simply quite long and probably more on the subject than the casual reader/gamer needs in order to gain the benefits of acquaintance with GNS Theory. Reason number three: Edwards’ prejudice against certain games shows through in his positive references to relatively unknown independent games and derogatory mentions of mainstream games, to the point that his article seems more propagandist than educational.

Edwards’ personal crusade appears to be directed against the standard mainstream game system, which he describes as a Gamist reward system, a Simulationist task resolution, Simulationist/Narrativist character creation, and Narrativist Color material. These "incoherent" game designs do not have a good chance of creating enjoyable play, according to Edwards. He also proposes the existence of GNS Casualties, RPG fans who are wholly dissatisfied with roleplaying as they’ve experienced it because of misunderstanding RPG goals and design. These casualties continue to play RPGs, but they are cynical and unwilling to invest themselves emotionally because of their confusion about why roleplaying isn’t fun for them. I question the existence of such people – it sounds like a generic misdiagnosis for many discrete RPG-related maladies, and I question GNS Theory as a cure-all solution to the problem. Nevertheless, you’ve got to admire Edwards’ ability to believe that he can solve the world’s problems by cramming his personal theories down our collective throats.

In spite of the negative baggage that accompanies it, a more-than-cursory study of the GNS Theory is worthwhile. The structure of the theory allows for more orderly thinking regarding game design, and the vocabulary provides shorthand descriptions for aspects of game design that were heretofore difficult to pin down. Best of all, the theory reveals the breadth of possibility available in game design. In these times, dominated by the "take-a-game-and-resculpt-it-to-fit-the-d20-system" theory of RPG design, these new horizons can be a real breath of fresh air.

Nathan Jennings

Looking for more info? Go here:
GNS and Other Matters of RP Theory, by Ron Edwards

Written by Nathan Jennings on September 10th, 2002


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