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Writings > Dragavan's Den (closed) > 5: GSN Theory Thoughts
5: GSN Theory Thoughts
Published by Dragavan on 2007/8/13 (6594 reads)
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GNS Theory Thoughts

Can Gamers Really Be Grouped into Threes?

A lot of discussion has been done among gamers (mostly in the online communities, starting in the fringes) in recent years about this GSN theory, and I have mostly stayed out of it because I don't frequent most of those communities (which is a rant for another time). It was just brought up and mentioned in something I was listening to, so all the thoughts of it came back to the front of my mind and I though it would make a good topic for this.


The first thing I should cover is a little bit about what the GNS Theory is, especially for those who are not familiar with it. GSN stands for "Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist" and the theory basically is that all games and gamers tend to fall into these three categories (usually some kind of mix between them). The theory was compiled and first set out there (based on other theories and ideas that came before it in the old gaming news groups) by Ron Edwards, but discussions on it have added to and grown the theory over time.

The main thing it stands on the shoulders of is Jonathan Tweet's idea about the three forms of Task Resolution. He stated that (mostly) all games fall into one of these three style for task resolution: Drama (as in the group decides what happens based on story), Fortune (as in random chance decides the outcome), and Karma (some kind of fixed value decides the result). Most games tend to fit within the Fortune category, but there are many lesser known games that use the others. These heavily influences the creation of the GSN Theory.

Before I get into the three parts of the theory I also want to mention that the whole theory also gets deep into how the three styles influence what he calls the Five Elements of Role-Playing. These are what he says are the central things that all RPGs have to have a part of to exist, which I can understand. They are Character (as in the fictional people you play), Color (as in the details of the world and events), Setting (the actual location/world the game takes place in), Situation (the dilemma or problem that drives the action), and System (the backbone that determines how events work).

There is also discussion of the four "stances" players have when making decisions. These are the ways in which they run their characters. They are the Actor (keeping everything true to what the character knows and would do), the Author (doing what they player wants for their character and making story choices to back up the decision), the Director (decisions based on the needs of the immediate setting or world, the usual GM standpoint), and the Pawn (completely based on player wants without any story reasons to explain why).

Finally let me get into what the actual three parts of the GNS Theory are. As an overview they are a breakdown of the three types of gaming (both playing and design) that he says everything fits into. Most of the time every person and game will have some level each of them involved, but the theory says that one almost always dominates over them.

Gamist: This is were solving the "problem" in the most effective and efficient way possible is most important. It's all about finding and using the best (and often most powerful) say of handing things. Story and plot can fall by the wayside a bit as focus on the rules and numbers takes a more central role. On the extreme this is the rules lawyer or min-maxer who uses every possible rule and advantage they can to get the absolute best possible results. Competition and winning are key.

Narrativist: This is where the story is the central focus and all decisions are made to better create and tell the story. Who wins a conflict doesn't matter as much as the story that comes out of it. The more fluid style of play may lead to inconsistencies, but as long as they keep the story interesting and moving they don't matter. This style often leads to games where very little (if any) randomness is involved in the resolution of conflicts. Story and drama are key.

Simulationist: This is where having everything being as believable, consistent, and "realistic" as possible are the most important parts of the game. This realism doesn't have to be our world real, but it has to fit and make perfect logical sense to the world created for the game. Consistency between events have to kept and always work the same way. This style seems to have grown out of the miniature war game world more than anything else. Realism and consistency are key.


One thing I have noticed with a lot of the discussions about this theory is that people get very defensive and quick to bash the theory as they say they don't fit into these "restrictive" categories. What they seem to forget is that this is not an either or scale of one through to the other. This is not like the Good/Evil or Law/Chaos scales used by D&Ds alignment system. These are three separate scales that any game or player can have different levels of each.

Sure, it would be hard to have a full 100% in both Gamist and Narrativist, but you could easily have high levels in both. Usually one will slightly dominate over the others, but that doesn't diminish the existence of them. I know I when I run am highest in the Narrativist style, but I also know that when I design I have a rather hefty level of Gamist and only slightly less Simulationist. They are all important to me, but I do know which dominates and when.

None of the three categories are negative, as they all have good reasons to exist and some people find each of the styles fun (even multiple of them at different times). At the same time, all three of them can be negative when they become way overblown and too dominant over the others, as extremes of anything can become real problematic. A balance between them, even if one dominates, is the best solution for this.

Personally I think you can't remove any of these parts completely without ruining a game. They all have to exist to some level or you will lose the whole concept of what is an RPG. This is something I see being pushed (sometimes way too far) in the "story gaming" movement as of late. They are pushing the Narrativist style and sometimes completely removing the Gamist style from the games and you end up with something I would no longer call an RPG. The G in that does stand for Game after all.

I have also seen some games (mostly in the past) that kept moving more and more back into the world of miniature war game world, slowly removing the Narrativist style from the games. They mostly become nothing but games of number and rolls, where the actual characters and even story no longer actually matter. Again this becomes something that is not an RPG, as the R stands for Role.

As you can see, when you push to far on one and remove the others the actual format of the RPG begins to disappear. I don't go in for the diceless, or purely stat based with no randomness, type RPGs as they tend to keep removing more of the game from it. I also don't like the overly stat heavy games as they tend to remove more of the role-play from it. There really needs to be a balance of some kind between the styles.


Much like the Worker Caste of the Mimbari in Babylon 5, the Simulationist method seems to be the much overlooked part of the theory. Most people focus on Gamist versus Narrativist, as if they are opposites, but ignore the fact that Simulationist actually adds a lot to the way a game feels and works. Without some of that the game can feel disjointed and uneven, because the simulationist adds the setting and system consistency to the game. This is just further proof that this is not an either/or situation, but a working balance of three separate scales.

I think the best way to list them would be to give them each a level of importance to you as a player or as a game designer. Rate each one on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being completely unimportant and 10 being absolutely necessary all of the time. I can't imagine a time when any RPG player or game should ever have a 1 in any of them, but I can see 10's happening.

I would put my play style (mostly as a GM) at a level of G:6 N:8 S:5
My design style for Land of Karn has been mostly about G:8 N:5 S:7

I find it odd that I play differently than I design, even though what I play is the games I make. I just tend to put more story forward while I am playing than I put into the focus of the mechanics and system. I think this grows out of years of playing systems that were very Gamist and/or Simulationist heavy and always having to create the strong story myself. It's natural to me so I don't feel I have to create "rules" for story.

I am not sure I completely agree with the model, but for the most part I think the GNS Theory makes a lot of sense when treated as three side-by-side scales and not some either/or variable. I do think some of the deeper parts of the theory start to fall apart, but the basics of it are very solid in my eyes. I do not see it every breaking gamers and games into three types, but it works well inform people of where the direction of your style or your game so they aren't surprised.

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