(This is the thirty-third installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
Last week I talked about how some players put a fairly heavy emphasis on the G of RPG, the ways in which this activity is a kind of game. Which means this is a good time to talk about GNS.
Those letters stand for Gamism-Narrativism-Simulationism, which together form the core of a whole framework of RPG philosophy developed by the game designer Ron Edwards on a website called The Forge. I’m not going to get into the weeds of his framework, all the elaborations and add-ons that accreted over the years; as you can probably tell from my phrasing there, I found many of them less than useful. But when I was studying RPGs in graduate school, GNS was helpful for elucidating some aspects of this field, ranging from game design to the disputes that arise between players.
The premise of GNS is that people play games for different reasons, and games can be designed to better facilitate one (or maybe more) of those reasons. In Edwards’ terminology, each of those three items is an Agenda. The Gamist Agenda prioritizes the game aspect of RPGs: the desire for challenge, the necessity of legal fairness, the acquisition of mastery over the rules and exploitation of that mastery to achieve your desired ends. The phenomenon of the rules lawyer — the player who knows the system inside and out, and will die upon the hill of the legality or illegality of a particular action — has its roots in the Gamist impulse. If his PC dies because the GM used the “wrong” interpretation of the rules or introduced a power that isn’t in the books, the Gamist player is likely to feel utterly cheated. But if his PC dies because the player didn’t follow a good combat strategy or the dice just weren’t on that night, well, it happens.
Edwards defined the Narrativist Agenda as being the exploration of theme, which I think is too narrow; to me, it’s the mindset that approaches an RPG first and foremost as a story, with all the things that implies. A Narrativist player is interested in not just theme but character development, suspense, exciting plot twists, and everything else that makes up a good story; you could say they prioritize emotional fairness over the rules. To contrast with the Gamist example above, a Narrativist player will probably feel dissatisfied in the extreme if their PC dies just because the stupid dice rolled badly, because the story ends without any closure. But they will cheerfully volunteer for fictional suicide if it makes a good story, even if the death isn’t mechanically necessary.
Simulationism is the hardest to define as an Agenda, and if memory serves, Edwards said that in its “pure” form it was the least common. It’s a focus on realism, in a sense — not “realism” in the mimetic sense, but rather the logical working-out of how things function, given the starting premise (which might include magic). If you’ve ever discussed a game system with somebody who starts complaining about the combat rules and how they don’t accurately model real-world battles, you’re talking to somebody with Simulationist tendency. A Gamist player cares less about accurate modeling of reality and more about whether the rules cohere in a way that allows for mastery and fair challenge; a Narrativist cares more about whether the fight will be exciting to play through. The Simulationist impulse is the one that wants wound penalties and hit locations and continuous burning damage after someone gets struck with a fire-based spell, because that’s how things would logically work.
What makes RPGs interesting to me is that they all, to a greater or lesser extent, hybridize all three of these mentalities. RPGs are not just a mode of storytelling, nor are they just a game. They’re both. And they’re both filtered through a system that attempts to be logical and coherent; fire spells burn, they don’t freeze people.
Like many typologies, GNS is the most useful when you leave it floating above the stuff you’re talking about, letting it shine some light on what’s below, but not attempting to nail it down. It’s true that a game system can be designed in ways that facilitate one type of play more than another (e.g. hit locations make for more Simulationist combat, while Drama Points allow for Narrativist-style player control of the story), but Forge users got into many useless arguments about whether a given system was “really” Gamist or Simulationist or whatever. It’s about as pointless as the arguments over whether Star Wars is “really” science fiction or fantasy: in the end it’s got elements of both, and what label you stick on it doesn’t make the other elements go away.
But thinking about this aspect can guide game design, as you ask yourself what type of experience you want this game to produce, and whether a given rule adds to or detracts from that experience. Super-detailed combat rules are great for the Gamist or Simulationist angles, but often deadly to the Narrativist, because of how they slow down the scene; a mechanic that allows players to override other rules for the sake of a good story is the reverse. The Forge produced many interesting attempts to consciously design games more tailored to one Agenda or another — I say “interesting” because a lot of them didn’t work for me at all. (To pick one specific example: as someone with clear Narrativist leanings, I do not want a stat on my sheet that represents my PC’s boyfriend, which I roll when I want my PC to skive off from practice and go hang out with said boyfriend. That is the exact opposite of facilitating my desired style of play.) But above all, I find this useful in for understanding how gamers behave.
Because think about it: the goal of a game is (at least in theory) to make sure that everybody has fun. How can you do that unless you know what constitutes “fun” for your players? As with systems, Forge users were prone to trying to stick people in boxes, saying that a given person was only Gamist or whatever; they often lost sight of a point Edwards himself made at the start, which is that not only do we exhibit all three of those impulses, what we want can shift based on context. Give me a good ol’ D&D-style dungeon crawl, and I’ll do my Gamist best to build my character for maximum utility in exploring and fighting. But I lean heavily towards Narrativism, and I’ll be pissed if the GM promises character drama and then only delivers hack ‘n slash. The most important thing is to make sure that expectations match up with the actual game.
And when players get into arguments about things — which oh, do we ever — it’s often possible to see how the disagreement breaks down along these three lines. You can’t necessarily get people to agree; in the end, the player who says “you shouldn’t get to ignore the dice just because you don’t want your PC to die” and the player who says “if I have to start over with a new character, then I don’t want to play anymore” are never going to see eye-to-eye. But highlighting the different mentalities can at least help people identify which languages they’re speaking at each other, which cuts down on the feeling that the other person Just Doesn’t Get It. There’s room for everybody in the hobby; they don’t all have to want or do the exact same things.