GNS Theory

 Posted by at 17:13  No Responses »
May 012008

There’s an active community of amateur and independent RPG developers that base their activities at The Forge. While I am wary of the culture fostered there, it’s the birthplace of many great independent games. In addition to games, the site’s constituency analyzes the RPG hobby. GNS Theory is one resulting idea this analysis produced. While I despise the casual appellation of the term “theory” to anything (stemming from the layman’s dismissal that something is “just a theory”)*, I think some of the core tenets are sound. The full body of GNS Theory goes too far into crazy land and has since been abandoned for the less interesting “Big Model.” The Big Model doesn’t say anything of groundbreaking, though.

The GNS in GNS Theory stands for three broad categories of gamer: the Gamist, the Narrativist, and the Simulationist. These categories are broad player archetypes, framed by the question, “Why do you role-play?” As with many anthropological studies, few gamers will be an exact fit for any of these three archetypes; the archetypes provide a lens for understanding goals and style of play. GNS Theory falls down here: it proposes that gamers and systems are only one of these three, which is ridiculous.

The Gamist approaches RPGs as problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and victories to win. Gamists seek to accomplish goals and make progress in measurable, mechanics-oriented ways. A Gamist might answer the “Why do you role-play?” question with, “To win.” Gamists are often attracted to systems that encourage contests and achieving the best stats. Many, including me, cite D&D as a Gamist-oriented system. Most computer RPGs are Gamist by default, since the usual objective of a computer game is to win.

The Narrativist is a storyteller at heart. RPGs are improvised acting sessions, during with the Narrativist seeks to explore themes and characters. The Narrativist’s key question is not “Who has the better stats?” but “What is the most dramatically interesting outcome?” A Narrativist might answer the “Why do you role-play?” question with, “To tell a story.” Narrativists are often attracted to systems that highlight drama over hard numbers. Dogs in the Vineyard is often cited as a Narrativist game.

The Simulationist wants to experience a world. In this case, the world is provided by the RPG’s setting and mechanics. The more detailed the mechanics, the more detailed the world, and the happier the Simulationist. The Simulationist answer to “Why do you role-play?” might be, “To experience another world.” Simulationists prefer systems that are mechanics-rich, such as GURPS.

As one might conclude, I am not a fan of Gamism when it comes to RPGs (computer RPGs get an exception). I enjoy some mix of Narrativism and Simulationism. As a Narrativist, I am not as interested in theme as I am drama. If a character does something bold and dramatic, that ought to pay off rather than be slapped down. By the same token, I also like my games to have a high degree of verisimilitude. Without that internal consistency, a game lacks credibility and that ruins my immersion.

How would you classify yourself?

* For the record, a theory is a framework that offers a consistent, verifiable explanation for observations. A theory is not some idea you cooked up. That’s called a hypothesis. When someone says, “I have a theory about that,” what they mean is that they have a hypothesis. Next time you hear someone say this, correct them. You will be doing the world a favor.

A Flawed Origin

 Posted by at 11:08  6 Responses »
Apr 252008

Let’s kick things off with a bang and dive right into the flawed origin of RPGs. The inspiration for this piece comes from Mu’s Unbelievably Long and Disjointed Ramblings About RPG Design and the concept he calls “The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity.”

One of the flaws underpinning many RPG systems is the underlying assumptions that motivate them. To be precise, RPGs as we know them today came from the original Dungeons & Dragons, which itself came from Chainmail. Chainmail was not an RPG; it was a miniatures wargame. As such, many of the operative underpinnings that form the basis for D&D, which in turn formed the body of expectations for its offspring, come not from an ideal solution for role-playing, but for war-gaming.

The quickest way to demonstrate this is to open the index of the D&D Player’s Handbook. Do you see an entire chapter devoted to combat? I do. By making combat the focus of an RPG system, the designers of D&D — and this applies to any edition — have put forward a system the intent of which is to place a fantasy world dressing around a miniatures combat game. If that’s the goal, that’s great. However, if we step back and look at the broad genre that is role-playing games, we see a great deal of dressed-up, miniatures combat games.

I’m not knocking miniatures combat games, nor am I knocking the idea of combat in an RPG. I get into a good combat encounter as much as the next person. I think it’s worth raising the awareness of this “genetic trait” of RPGs, though. A quote I’ve seen attributed to John Wick (7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings, Orkworld) says, “All RPGs have a grand total of two mechanics: swinging a sword and picking a lock.” While I doubt the veracity of this attribution (since I’ve seen it in only one location), I think it’s a succinct way of encapsulating the flawed box in which RPG design thinking often takes place.

I define RPGs by a break-down of terms: a game in which one role-plays. One can read many possible interpretations into that. For my money, it’s a game in which the participants derive enjoyment from the portrayal of a role — a character. Absent from that definition is any mention of rolling dice, swinging swords, killing monsters, and many of the other conventions that are common in RPGs. I’m not suggesting that I don’t enjoy such things, but they are not what the reason for which I’ve come to your table.

So far, the only system I’ve encountered played that gets away from the idea of RPG-as-wargame is White Wolf’s Storytelling system. While it does have mechanics for handling combat — for which I do think RPG systems need to account in some fashion — there’s little room to argue where the focus lies: story, mood, and character. Storytelling is by no means a flawless system. An unprepared GM could find himself dealing with a party of munchkin characters if he’s not careful. Such characters, though, defeat the purpose of Storytelling and so one might wonder if such a group would be better off playing D&D.

EDIT: While I never stated it in the above, one of the unspoken assumptions in the preceding paragraph is that the core World of Darkness book did not have its own combat chapter. Imagine my chagrin when I realized it did, in fact, have one. Plain-as-day. So, I apologize for any presumption that I may have appeared to make in that regard. (Yes, I can be wrong. When I am, I will admit as much. This minor revelation does not alter in any significant way the above post, though.)