Friday, May 3, 2013

Am I a GNS Person?

"GNS" is a theory about the priorities for the game experience that are brought to the table by the players and DM.  It stood for gamist, narrativist, and simulationist.  I loosely bucket various campaign ideas (and my approaches to the mechanics) based on what type of play mode I want to emphasize, and I realized the modes track loosely but imperfectly to the old GNS three-fold model.  Old school D&D play is fairly diverse, so I'm wondering how many folks look at things the same way.

Here are the campaign modes:

Game Mode
When I'm focused on the game side of D&D, things like dungeon level = monster level, and XP for Gold, are very important.  The dungeon or hex crawl is somewhat transparent, so players know they deeper they go into the wilderness or dungeon, the more dangerous it will be.  They completely control the level of risk versus reward.  In this mode, the DM gets to focus on challenging the players with puzzles, traps, and resource management conondrums.  Sometimes the participants of the game world are self aware of the underlying mechanics and how it affects the world - there might be things like formal adventuring guilds and magic shops, or frank discussions amongst NPC's about what level of a given dungeon they're willing to tackle, or the difference between a sword + 1 and sword +3.

The fiction side can be challenging because of the artificial distribution of the threats; the DM needs to develop appropriate explanations for why the level 1 monsters live on level 1, the level 2 monsters of level 2, the distribution of treasure, and so forth.  The highest form of this style is the well done megadungeon.

Campaigns like my Black City game emphasize the game elements and give the players a lot of freedom to plan their own delves through exposing the level of risk - the further you go into the ruins, the more dangerous it is, and likewise the deeper you go into the dungeon.

Story Mode
When I'm working horror into the mix, the story bits are more important.  All of the mechanical signposts that are transparent when focusing on challenging the players in game-mode are now hidden; the players don't know what the monsters can do or any of the threat levels.  The emphasis is on atmosphere and a sort of pseudo realistic grim and gritty setting.  Obviously, there are still mechanics under the covers, they're just not prominent at the table, and the characters in the game world aren't as self aware.  LOTFP has moved more towards this style of play, with atmospheric adventures that work for a wide range of character levels; for instance, "Death Frost Doom" is identified as levels 1-7 because the mechanics of the game just aren't that important to resolving the adventure and experiencing the creepy atmosphere.

Simulation Mode
The last mode is focused on explaining how and why the game world works as a fantasy milieu.  Why are rulers all high level characters, why are knights around level 6, and how many wizards live in the capital city?  What is the effect of clerical magic on mortality rates, and how does magic change the fantasy society?  Demographics and economics and a healthy dose of speculative imagination become important considerations for modeling this type of play.  The 1E DMG touches on these subjects, and it's been developed through other product lines like the D&D Gazetteers and Rules Cyclopedia, or the ACKS game.  This style usually supports domain management, army building, and mass combat.

The modes aren't mutually exclusive.  A pedant might argue that horror style D&D is genre emulation, which is also a form of simulation.  I'm not trying to model GNS theory, just point out the competing interests in campaign development.  Most of the time, I'm trying to develop campaigns which work first and foremost as a game (the first mode), while draping enough interesting story over the game bits to keep myself engaged.  I struggle with the story-first approach.


  1. The problem with story first approaches, in my experience, is that not everyone at the table is always willing to do what is "best" for the story. And if some players are trying to make choices or allow downturns because that's what would make the story better, those players will take advantage of that for the benefit of their character (or their own amusement) at the expense of the story.

    That's why I gave up on "narrative" games and just play the game and enjoy the narratives that emerge AFTER play when we've got time to rationalize or justify certain choices or random events into a coherent narrative.

    Of course, what works for me won't work for everyone. A group where everyone's on board with creating a narrative through the rules of a game could be awesome. I've unfortunately never experienced it, though. Just wanted to throw in my 2 cents.

    1. I agree with Lord Gwydion.

      Stories are awesome for movies and books and narrative is great for games - from Dwarf Fortress to D&D - in the form of actual play reports after the game is over.

      I think the struggle you mention comes from the fact that players are interested in playing, not listening to a story.

    2. Burnedfx, I'm a big fan of play reports too, but I think it's worth noting that the ideal story mechanic for an RPG isn't a bunch of people listening to the GM telling a story, it's a group of people coming together to jointly *tell* a story.

      Of course, DnD, old or new, isn't really built for that.

    3. @Jack Rose,

      Right, there are definitely RPGs that focus "the story", Mouse Guard comes to mind. Although, to me, those are a different sort of RPG, which, I believe you agree, D&D doesn't fall into that sort of category.

      If the group really does want to jointly tell a story, it sounds like a game that is not D&D would be better suited for the task.

  2. A lot of people out there are really concerned with narrative and story, though they may not characterize themselves that way. Improving the game by changing the XP system is a common one. XP for gold is phenomenal as a game element. Awarding XP for roleplaying or doing quests is a shift towards that central mode.

  3. I believe there is a misunderstanding concerning the GNS theory*, as people tend to associate whole games and game styles with either the Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist approach, whereas only elements of the system should be labelled with them.

    In this sense, D&D is mostly about Gamism with some Simulationism thrown in there. No sign of Narrativism, really.

    *Obviously one can use these labels that way, too... But then it becomes very subjunctive, depending on everyone's playstyle.

    1. "No sign of Narrativism, really."
      I slighty disagree. Some rules like, for instance, the level limitation for semi-humans might have a gamist justification (you "trade" the limit for racial advantages), but have no simulationist justification whatsoever (tht's the main criticism they receive), and ultimately obey to a narrative convention (Gygax was never shy about his humano-centric vision of fantasy).
      Same goes for the armor limitations: there is a strong "gamist" approach (give the warriors better defense for physical combat), but simulationist justifications always come a little cluncky (it hinders the somatic components, iron interacts with the "flow" of magic, etc.). Ultimately , it enforces a narrative convention of the robed wizard like Merlin or Gandalf.
      Unless , like Beedo said, you view "genre emulation" as some form of simulationism.

    2. Yes, it really depends on how we interpret Simulationism and Narrativism. For instance, it could argued that demi-human level limits help simulating a human-centric world (i.e. the most powerful movers and shakers will be humans).

  4. Interesting that you're doing an GNS article right now, because I am kinda preparing a hexcrawl exploration game right now and I have been thinking a bit about how much that would lean towards Simulationist... but I feel you regarding D&D games and the Story approach! :)

    However, I learned that GNS might be fun to think about but lots of people take the model much too serious. Most of the time you put three gamers in a room and throw GNS into the discussion, feelings will be had, since everyone defines genres a bit different. Also, it doesn't really DO anything in the long run - so you're more Gamist than everything else? Great... and what now?