Monday, February 27, 2012

GNS Theory

So, I've mentioned this a few times, but I figured I should explain it a little better.

Ed: before I continue - this is old stuff. Nearly a decade old. A lot has happened in game design since then. Think of it as Newtonian mechanics - still useful for many cases, but it breaks down at relativistic speeds.

Game designers like to categorize their games and the people who will play them, so they know what to focus on to hit the widest possible audience (or in some cases, just to hit a specific audience).

The makers of the Magic card game categorize players into three archetypes: Timmy Johnny, and Spike. Timmy likes the experience of playing the game. Johnny wants to figure out how to use the rules to do interesting things. Spike wants to win.

Computer game designers use card suits to define player archetypes. Diamonds want achievements. Spades want to explore. Hearts want to socialize. Clubs want to kick ass.

In the early 2000s, denizens of The Forge (a community of tabletop RPG designers) came up with the GNS model to similarly characterize tabletop role-playing games (and characterize common player payouts). In this paradigm, Gamist games are about winning, Narrativist games tell compelling stories, and Simulationist games immerse you in a fictional world.

You can read more about each "creative agenda" here - note that these are manifestos, mostly written from the perspective of each archetype, and not necessarily objective analyses:

It becomes pretty obvious that each of these agendas wants something different - and potentially incompatible - in its games. Likewise, each game is going to provide something different. Some games will appeal more to one agenda than another. All three agendas will appeal to some extent to all players, as humans are complex creatures with many interests.

So how do you handle this divide? How do you bring together players who lean towards different creative agendas - or make sure that a bunch of players with the same agenda have fun? The first thing you have to realize is that system matters. Each game is designed to provide a certain aesthetic and experience.1 It should be obvious reading the rules what kind of play a game supports.2 Once you've established that, you can evaluate if it's an experience you want to have. Or you can decide ahead of time what kind of game you want to play and find the game that does that (this used to be very hard; there are so many good independent games now that it's generally quite easy).

I tend to straddle the two approaches. On one hand, if I had to pick, I'd play serious, story-heavy games. On the other hand, still enjoy murdering monsters and getting lost in fictional worlds. There are few games I would not try at least once, and even games I regularly complain about as being poorly designed or unfocused (again, D&D) can be lots of fun with the right group of people.

The key is going into each game understanding what the game itself is going to provide and what the other players are likely to want, and adjusting your expectations accordingly. Being realistic about what you're going to get out of a game is the best way to maximize your enjoyment and minimize your disappointment.

1 "General purpose" systems like GURPS and Rifts are not really general purpose - they're all highly-simulationist affairs. And most players use specific expansions or playsets to add in theme or genre.

2 Just because a game says it's about a particular thing doesn't mean it is. Most editions of White Wolf's Vampire game say they're about personal horror, but there's little to no support for that as a theme in the rules.
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And just because you can role-play story in a game doesn't make it narrativist. A true narrativist game doesn't just have opportunities for drama between the action scenes; it has explicit rules that drive the drama and encourage players to explore their characters' beliefs and/or issues. D&D has no such rules. FATE and Burning Wheel have some. Fiasco is an example of a game with entirely narrativist rules.

Posted by Dave at 12:02 AM | Tags: games, tabletop

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