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GNS summation: please to shred

Started by DP, September 20, 2004, 04:16:29 PM

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Hey all,

I regularly contribute to a play-by-mail gaming magazine, and wanted to bring the basic ideas of GNS/The Big Picture to the players and designers who read it.

I wrote the following, and would like some feedback as to whether I've a) made any gross misrepresentations or b) have failed to say enough about a particular concept.


American professor Ron Edwards, an RPG player, made the startling observation that while most people claim to play RPGs "for fun," they don't seem to be having terribly much of it. He took it on himself to find out why.

The result was a theory called GNS, for Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism. Each is a different approach to gaming, what Edwards calls the creative agenda each person pursues (usually unconsciously), through the Exploration of a game's Color, System, Situation, Character, and Setting.

Now even my head is spinning from that profusion of terms, so we'll just define the G,N, and S of the theory. The entire theory is hard to summarize--one could write an article of this length explaining why it can't be summarized in an article of this length--but here goes.

Gamists want to "win," or at least have the most stuff or the "best" character (usually measured in some objective way).

Simulationists want to be immersed in a realistic alternate world. It doesn't matter if it's the Old West or the moons of Mars: the game must reflect what it would really be like to be there. Role-playing for the Simulationist is strict: the greatest sin is to use out-of-game knowledge to inform one's character's actions.

Narrativists want story, and to be intimately engaged in that story. The events must be dramatic and emotional, at that, not just "And when I took the gem from the sarcophagus, the lid broke open and a mummy rose out of it."

Let's take take the example of my favorite character archetype, the martial arts monk. Each type of player would consider their monk "better" than the others: the Gamist by having greater combat effectiveness than other characters; the Simulationist by having a character with a cohesive, "realistic" set of martial arts techniques; and the Narrativist by integrating into the character's personality and background a number of conflicts that create dramatic potential during play.

Focussing as much on player groups as on the games they play, GNS identifies and gives names to the sources of friction that take away from players' fun. People may not be on the same page as far as what the game is "about," and so might come into the game with conflicting expectations. It helps clarify one's language when overcoming differences. What does it mean, for instance, when we say someone prefers "hack and slash?" Is this a Gamist style of competing directly against the GM (through the monsters) in a race to amass more power and wealth than the other players? Well, likely; that's usually what it means, though this could also be some Simulationists' approach to settings in which danger is a constant and death comes swiftly. A "hack and slash" setting can even support Narrativist creative agendas: The Riddle of Steel is an excellent example of this. Regardless of which approach it indicates, we have terms to give us a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

Our ability to gain a better understanding of other players can prevent an unhappy game experience before it begins. If a player says she doesn't like hack and slash, one can start asking more focussed questions that get closer to the heart of the matter: is it competition she doesn't like, or do combat-heavy settings leave her cold? Perhaps she'd be open to an exploration of how a life of violence creates a vicious cycle that can thwart a person's desire to break it? Clarity about everyone's desires and creative agendas helps better set expectations. It also allows for fine-tuning of proposed games so that differing play styles can be better accommodated--if the different players' agendas can work together at all.

Such analysis isn't an attempt to pigeonhole players so much as it is a way of identifying their likes and dislikes when deciding whether to run--or play in--a given game. No creative agenda is better than the others; it's a matter of personal preference.

The theory's usefulness to game designers is expressed in one of Ron Edwards' maxims: System Does Matter. He points out that everything codified in a rules system, from conflict resolution to how characters are rewarded, encourages one of the GNS play modes more than the other two.

PBM has a further design factor that pencil-and-paper games don't: the ability to hide elements of the system from the players. Less gets hidden in most wargames--which are already Gamist by nature--than in a game like Einstein's Lot, which uses hand moderation to craft Narrativist event-series of personal horror. Designing toward the type of player one wants to encourage allows for greater precision when targeting a PBM game to potential customers.

Taking this a step further, one could almost use clarifying terms to communicate the nature of play in one's game: Competitive? Simulation above all? Focus on story? Imagine a little graphical system like the complexity/duration symbols that used to appear on the spines of Avalon-Hill wargames. That's a bit far-fetched, but the more clearly we communicate the creative agenda promoted by a game, the easier it is for players to find a game that suits them, and avoiding one that might result in a negative experience.

If you're a player, the perspective GNS offers can help you find a game that suits you--in some cases, it will shed light on different PBM games. And any designer--of PBMs, board games, card games, and of course RPGs--can benefit from the complicated, dazzling, but enlightening spectrum thrown off by this prism.
Dave Panchyk
Mandrake Games


I thought Gamism was about meeting challenges and gaining social esteem rather than out-and-out "winning."  Of course, you could meet and beat challanges and win, thus gaining esteem...Maybe an extra sentence or two to flesh out the Gamism brief to stave off the "Oh, munchkinism, skip it" impression.
For the love of all that is good, play the game straight at least once before you start screwing with it.



Ron Edwards


Jaik, Gamism is about winning. It's just that winning means a lot of different things, just as it does in non-RPG activities.

I think people's preferred emphasis on saying "meeting Challenges" is a security-blanket phrasing that keeps them from the hard edge of the fact that real esteem is on the line in Gamist play, even if it's in small and friendly amounts. Challenge is a trivial term - it only means Situation in the context of Gamist play.

More generally - Dave, I really think that you ought to use a Big Model approach. "A theory called GNS" is not only obsolete, it opens up all sorts of horrific and defensive mis-readings. But I'm not just talking about terms, I'm talking about how Social Contract is really what's happening, and all the other terms are honing the stuff within it.

Exploration provides the medium (communicative imagination); Creative Agenda provides the artistic (more accurately aesthetic) drive; Techniques provide (or express) the procedures; Ephemera is what we do moment to moment. Exploration contains Techniques, Techniques contain Ephemera. Creative Agenda is like a nail that holds it all together.

That goes a really long way to get to the whole point of what I've been communicating about for eight years. It really, really doesn't matter if the person learning about this understands Gamism vs. Simulationism vs. Narrativism at the outset. All he or she has to know is that there are probably incompatible Creative Agendas out there.

Boy I'd like to see this approach become more widely utilized.



Hey Dave.

If it were me, I'd write about Gamist play, Simulationist play and Narrativist play, not Gamists, Simulationists and Narrativists at all. A sentence like "Gamist play is play in which the players strive to prove themselves to their peers" is truer to the theory than the corresponding "Gamists want to prove themselves to their peers."

Thus, something more like "prepping for Gamist play, you'd make your warrior monk character with an eye toward showcasing your mastery of the rules and your ability to step up to whatever challenges come. Prepping for Simulationist play, you'd make your warrior monk character as a celebration of the tone and consistency of the Wuxia madness you've chosen to play. Prepping for Narrativist play, you'd make your warrior monk character with an eye to emotionally-charged human conflict and drama."

Then the play-group's conflicts can be between people who aren't communicating effectively about what kind of play they're after, not between (effectively irreconcilable) Gamists, Simulationists and Narrativists.


edit: crossposted.


I'll also add a small note.

Quote from: Dave PanchykSystem Does Matter. He points out that everything codified in a rules system, from conflict resolution to how characters are rewarded, encourages one of the GNS play modes more than the other two.
Actually, the idea is that system influences actual play. In other words, it influences how people act. That may or may not correspond to a given CA. For example, a system could reward cinematic narration. That has nothing to do with CA, but it would influence player behavior.

The idea that a system should be designed to support a given CA is a natural implication of the idea, but it's a seperate (though related) thing.
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Ron Edwards

Gahhhhhh! Tim, where were you in 1999, when I needed someone to say that?


Eric J.

Maybe you could get Clinton to *bleep* out all uses of Gamist, Simulationist, and Narrativist in the context of a person forever.

May the wind be always at your back,


Thanks very much, everyone, for your input! Hopefully I'm beginning to get the Big Picture.
Dave Panchyk
Mandrake Games