GNS and Other Matters of Role-Playing Theory, Chapter 2
by Ron Edwards
Chapter Two: GNS
Talk to someone who participates in role-playing, and focus on the precise and actual acts of role-playing themselves. Ask them, "Why do you role-play?" The most common answer is, "To have fun."
Again, stick to the role-playing itself. (The wholly social issues are real, such as "Wanting to hang out with my friends," but they are not the topic at hand.) Now ask, "What makes fun?" This may not be a verbal question, and it is best answered mainly through role-playing with people rather than listening to them. Time and inference are usually required.
In my experience, the answer turns out to be a version of one of the following terms. These terms, or modes, describe three distinct types of people's decisions and goals during play.
Collectively, the three modes are called GNS. Stating "GNS," "GNS perspectives," or anything similar, is to refer to the diversity of approaches to play. One might refer to "GNS goals," in which case the meaning is, "whichever one might apply for this act of role-playing."
- Gamism is expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people's actual play strategies. The listed elements provide an arena for the competition.
- Simulationism is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements in Set 1 above; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.
- Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme. The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors. The listed elements provide the material for narrative conflict (again, in the specialized sense of literary analysis).
GNS is the central concept of my theorizing about role-playing. It is necessary for understanding how Premise is developed, and it provides the context for the later points in this essay. However, it is not sufficient, and the three modes themselves do not address any and all points about role-playing.
I disavow either GM-centric or player-centric applications of GNS. The terms apply to real people engaged in the act of role-playing, and the distinction between GM and player is irrelevant for this purpose. However, the reverse is meaningful: given a GNS focus of play, GM and player roles take on specific shapes, or specific ranges of shapes. (This issue is discussed later.)
Much torment has arisen from people perceiving GNS as a labelling device. Used properly, the terms apply only to decisions, not to whole persons nor to whole games. To be absolutely clear, to say that a person is (for example) Gamist, is only shorthand for saying, "This person tends to make role-playing decisions in line with Gamist goals." Similarly, to say that an RPG is (for example) Gamist, is only shorthand for saying, "This RPG's content facilitates Gamist concerns and decision-making." For better or for worse, both of these forms of shorthand are common.
For a given instance of play, the three modes are exclusive in application. When someone tells me that their role-playing is "all three," what I see from them is this: features of (say) two of the goals appear in concert with, or in service to, the main one, but two or more fully-prioritized goals are not present at the same time. So in the course of Narrativist or Simulationist play, moments or aspects of competition that contribute to the main goal are not Gamism. In the course of Gamist or Simulationist play, moments of thematic commentary that contribute to the main goal are not Narrativism. In the course of Narrativist or Gamist play, moments of attention to plausibility that contribute to the main goal are not Simulationism. The primary and not to be compromised goal is what it is for a given instance of play. The actual time or activity of an "instance" is necessarily left ambiguous.
Over a greater period of time, across many instances of play, some people tend to cluster their decisions and interests around one of the three goals. Other people vary across the goals, but even they admit that they stay focused, or prioritize, for a given instance.
Developing Premise into practical form
Again, all three modes are social applications of the foundational act of role-playing, which is Exploration. Taking that into a social, role-playing circumstance, the people get more concrete about a shared Premise, and thus their decisions acquire a GNS focus of some kind. To play successfully, the members of the role-playing group must be, at the very least, willing to acknowledge and support the focused Premise as perceived by one another.
The developed or focused Premise is no longer a noun ("vampire") or image, but has become a question, challenge, or provocative issue.
Gamism and Narrativism each encompass a wide range of variation for Premise, including variations that differ drastically from one another. This is why "a Gamist," for instance, does not necessarily enjoy any and all Gamist play or have the same priorities as any and all other Gamist-oriented role-players. The same applies for Narrativism. Simulationism is a bit different in its details, but in its way also includes a wide range of variation and approaches to play; therefore the insight that not all Simulationist-oriented play is alike applies here as well.
Gamist Premises focus on competition about overt metagame goals. They vary regarding who is competing with whom (players vs. one another; players vs. GM; etc), what is at stake, victory and loss conditions, and what particular sort of strategizing is being employed. Gamist play also varies widely in terms of what is and is not predictable (i.e. randomized), both in terms of starting positions and in terms of ongoing events.
The key to Gamist Premises is that the conflict of interest among real people is an overt source of fun. It is not a matter of upset or abuse, and it is certainly not a "distraction from" or "failure of" role-playing.
- Can I play well enough such that my character survives the perils?
- Can I score more points than the other players?
- And much more, depending on the arrangement and organization of the participants.
Narrativist Premises focus on producing Theme via events during play. Theme is defined as a value-judgment or point that may be inferred from the in-game events. My thoughts on Narrativist Premise are derived from the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, specifically his emphasis on the questions that arise from human conundrums and passions of all sorts.
- A possible Gamist development of the "vampire" initial Premise might be, Can my character gain more status and influence than the other player-characters in the ongoing intrigue among vampires?
- Another might be, Can our vampire characters survive the efforts of ruthless and determined human vampire hunters?
Narrativist Premises vary regarding their origins: character-driven Premise vs. setting-driven Premise, for instance. They also vary a great deal in terms of unpredictable "shifts" of events during play. The key to Narrativist Premises is that they are moral or ethical questions that engage the players' interest. The "answer" to this Premise (Theme) is produced via play and the decisions of the participants, not by pre-planning.
- Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?
- Do love and marriage outweigh one's loyalty to a political cause?
- And many, many more - the full range of literature, myth, and stories of all sorts.
Simulationist Premises are generally kept to their minimal role of personal aesthetic interest; the effort during play is spent on the Exploration. Therefore the variety of Simulationist play arises from the variety of what's being Explored.
- A possible Narrativist development of the "vampire" initial Premise, with a strong character emphasis, might be, Is it right to sustain one's immortality by killing others? When might the justification break down?
- Another, with a strong setting emphasis, might be, Vampires are divided between ruthlessly exploiting and lovingly nurturing living people, and which side are you on?
The key to Simulationist play is that imagining the designated features is prioritized over any other aspect of role-playing, most especially over any metagame concerns. The name Simulationism refers to the priority placed on resolving the Explored feature(s) in in-game, internally causal terms.
- Character: highly-internalized, character-experiential play, for instance the Turku approach. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of Character Exploration might be, What does it feel like to be a vampire?
- Situation: well-defined character roles and tasks, up to and including metaplot-driven play. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of Situation Exploration might be, What does the vampire lord require me to do?
- Setting: a strong focus on the details, depth, and breadth of a given set of source material. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of Setting Exploration might be, How has vampire intrigue shaped human history and today's politics?
- System: a strong focus on the resolution engine and all of its nuances in strictly within-game-world, internally-causal terms. A possible development of the "vampire" premise in terms of System Exploration might be, How do various weapons harm or fail to harm a vampire, in specific causal detail?
- Any mutually-reinforcing combination of the above elements is of course well-suited to this form of play.
Controversy: is that third box really there?
It has rightly been asked whether Simulationism really exists, given that it consists mainly of Exploration. I suggest that Simulationism exists insofar as the effort and attention to Exploration may over-ride either Gamist or Narrativist priorities.
Some of the following examples refer to RPG rules and text; I am referring to people enjoying and preferring such rules and text (i.e. the people, not the game itself).
Concrete examples #1: Simulationism over-riding Gamism
Converse: Gamism over-riding Simulationism
- Any text which states that role-playing is not about winning; correspondingly, chastising a player who advocates a character action perceived as "just trying to win." [This example assumes that the text/game does not state story-creation as an alternative goal.]
- Using probability tables in character creation to determine appearance, profession/class, or race, based on demographics of the community of the character's origin.
Concrete examples #2: Simulationism over-riding Narrativism
- Characters teaming up for a common goal with no disputes or even attention regarding differences in race, religion, ethics, or anything else.
- Improving character traits (e.g. damage that may be taken) based on the amount of treasure amassed.
Converse: Narrativism over-riding Simulationism
- A weapon does precisely the same damage range regardless of the emotional relationship between wielder and target. (True for RuneQuest, not true for Hero Wars)
- A player is chastised for taking the potential intensity of a future confrontation into account when deciding what the character is doing in a current scene, such as revealing an important secret when the PC is unaware of its importance.
- The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain's bomb does blow up the city. (The rules for DC Heroes specifically dictate that this be the appropriate way to GM such a scene).
In conclusion, Simulationism exists as an established, real priority-set of role-playing, with its own distinctive range of decisions and goals.
- Using metagame mechanics to increase the probability of task resolution, with NO corresponding in-game justification. "Apply my bonus die to increase my Charm roll," in which the bonus die is not "will" or "endurance" or anything but an abstract pool unit.
- A player is chastised for claiming a PC motive that "stalls out" story elements (conflict, resolution etc). Example: player A is pissed off at player B, who has announced "I say nothing," in certain interactive scenes, when player A is aware that the PC's knowledge would be pivotal in the scene.
- Using inter-player dialogue and knowledge to determine character action, then retroactively justifying the action in terms of character knowledge and motive. "You hit him high and I'll hit him low," between players whose characters do not have the opportunity to plan the attack. [This example could also apply to Gamism over-riding Simulationism; the two are quite similar.]
Controversy: "But I'm story-oriented"
A great deal of intellectual suffering has occurred due to the linked claims that role-playing either is or is not "story-oriented," and that one falls on one side or the other of this dichotomy. I consider this terminology and its implication to be wholly false.
"Story" may simply mean "series of caused events," in which case the issue is trivial. However, most of the time, the term is more specific. More specific meanings of "story" may be involved in role-playing in a variety of ways. Narrativism is a no-brainer in this regard, as it is defined by the metagame attention to creating a story of critical merit (i.e. "good"). But story-creation and its elements are certainly possible, although not prioritized, in both of the other modes. Most generally, there are (1) forms of Simulationist play with a strong Situation focus, which provide a story for the participants to imagine being in; and (2) forms of Gamist play in which dramatic outcomes are the stakes of competition, which produces story as a side-effect of that competition.
More specifically, to observers who are not considering goals and decisions of play, the following three, very distinct sorts of play are superficially similar and often confounded.
Similarly, the same confoundment may occur regarding the following (which share regions of potential overlap with the three above in terms of "story," as well):
- Narrativist play with a Setting-driven Premise.
- Simulationist play in which Situation is being preferentially Explored, perhaps with an elaborate published metaplot in the form of short stories or novels.
- Gamist play in which Drama mechanics (see the fourth chapter) are used as a strategy-element, making use of a complex set of circumstances, Setting and Situation) for material.
Story-stuff and/or character stuff is so important to all these approaches that the differences in processes and point of role-playing are easy to miss, or, disastrously, easy to deny. Three people attempting to role-play with one another in a vampire-character game, but each representing one of (say) the first three perspectives, are going to have a hard time, even if they assured one another that they were fully committed to "the story." How and why the difficulties arise are discussed throughout the remainder of the essay.
- Narrativist play with a Character-driven Premise.
- Simulationist play in which Character and Situation are being Explored.
- Gamist play in which Character improvement or other development is at stake, and character behavior or attitudes are limiting factors.
Misunderstandings of GNS
By far and away, the worst misunderstanding of GNS, with the worst consequences, arises from synecdoche, confounding the part with the whole and vice versa. (I'll use Simulationism as my stand-in term, but any of the modes could be named here.)
Synecdoche may be committed by someone who has recently or imperfectly learned some GNS vocabulary, who in his enthusiasm is disrespectful to modes of play besides his favorite. However, it is also tremendously widespread among those role-players who do not know, or even who disparage, a critical approach to the activity, but commit synecdoche using terms like "realistic" or "story." In either case, this fallacy is disastrous. It results in bad feelings, fizzled games, and rejection of role-playing.
- Mistaking the whole for the part, within a mode: claiming that any Simulationist-oriented person must enjoy all Simulationist play.
- Mistaking the part for the whole, within a mode: claiming that a particular sort of Simulationism is Simulationism (and nothing else is).
- Mistaking the whole for the part, for all of role-playing: claiming that in role-playing at all, one must be engaged in Simulationism somehow.
- Mistaking the part for the whole, for all of role-playing: claiming that a particular sort of Simulationism is role-playing (and nothing else is).
Other common misunderstandings of GNS include:
Note: "synecdoche" is pronounced "sin-ECK-doe-key." Think Schenectady and vasectomy. If you can make a good limerick out of these three words, I'll give you a prize.
- Ascribing any sort of geometric shape or variable-space to these terms. Such ideas are often interesting but they are not formally part of the definitions. (For instance, there is no such thing as a "GNS Triangle.")
- Confounding Simulationism with the term "realism." Much of Simulationist play and game design has indeed focused on generating realistic outcomes, but this is a historical subset of the mode rather than part of the mode's definition.
- Stating "see what happens" as the definition for any of the modes. All role-playing is about "seeing what happens." This is a good example of whole-for-the-part synecdoche.
- Mistaking the shorthand of "He's a Narrativist" (or either of the others) for a limiting statement that the person is incapable of any other mode of play.
- Mistaking any of the listed elements for one of the modes, e.g., such that attention to character must be Narrativist, or attention to setting must be Simulationist, or attention to system must be Gamist.
- Projecting judgment and value-judgments into the terminology, such that the speaker or listener perceives one of the goals to be placed higher or better than the others. Gamist play, for instance, is often unfairly marginalized.
- Perceiving the terms' purpose as a means to classify game design. They are used relative to game design, but again as shorthand: calling an RPG a "Narrativist design," for instance, really means "This RPG's content facilitates Narrativist play."
- Failing to understand the terms' actual purpose: to enable people to enjoy their role-playing more.
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