This is by no means a new idea, and the fellow credited with the creation of the GNS theory has since moved on to a different model called “The Big Model.” That being said, I find that the interplay of the three elements do a lot more to describe my role playing experiences and the rules that I’ve encountered than any other theory. So, how about we take a minute and talk about this theory.
My personal experiences with the GNS theory grow out of my experiences running role playing games more so than designing or analyzing them. As a storyteller (I played a lot of World of Darkness games, not so much the D20), I had to create an interesting story for everyone to work their characters through. I honestly did this in a layered manner, starting with one of the categories and building on the others.
I came to role playing from video games, and so had a very gamist approach. I wanted to build clear scenarios, with well defined enemies and objectives (usually defeating things/people). It was simple, and it was easy to build, if a bit boring from a drama perspective. For my players, this was just fine – we were all young, and winning was exciting.
As I ran more games, I became interested in properly expressing the setting (simulationist play). I mixed in moods and themes from things I was reading (especially Lovecraft), and used the source setting as well (usually Vampire, when I was at this stage). Depending on what I was trying to do at the time, I found myself designing things and making tweaks as I ran it in order to best capture the mood that I was interested in at the time. This left my players in an odd position: victory or defeat was at the hands of what was appropriate for the mode.
Finally, I incorporated the third pillar: narrativism. Regardless of the system, regardless of the setting, I started to pick and choose which rules to use and an what time in order to craft a story. I stopped looking at the game in the sense of enemies to be defeated, or a world to live in, but instead a story to be told by all of us as a group.
In the end, the lesson I learned was that none of these three options are the only correct one. Some games certainly lend themselves more to one style than the other, and some are blank slates that you can bend to your preference. While running a year and a half game of Exalted, the lesson that became clear very quickly was that it’s not about the game at all: it’s about the players.
Exalted has the advantage of having strong elements of all three pillars. The rules are clear and extensive, which is always attractive to the gamist players. The setting is detailed and well documented, and informs the rules in multiple ways, a must for simulationists. Multiple aspects of the setting were carefully crafted to keep intriguing drama in mind (lots of opposing/conflicting factions, strong prejudice in most areas against the Solars, and so much more), the essential element needed for narrativism.
Those different elements attracted different levels of interest from each of the players in the game. One wanted a very gamist experience: challenges to overcome, enemies to defeat, potential allies to convert. Another wanted to experience high adventure in a world of Exalts, feeling the full impact of Solar stigma and drive to fulfill their motivation. A couple more just wanted to construct an interesting story with their characters involved. As it turned out, the trick wasn’t to focus on a particular pillar and try to get everyone to rally around it. It was all about including facets of every pillar in every event, and engineer different parts of each event to apply differently to the different players.
I won’t lie, when I started writing this, I wasn’t sure just why I was sitting down and typing all this out. Now, I think I’ve finally come to the point that I didn’t know I was trying to make: when it comes to role playing games, the ultimate determination of the experience is the group, not the game. Players that are willing to accept the differing goals of other players, and allow them their time in the spotlight are a key to a good gaming group. Of course, a set of rules and a setting that lends itself to giving various people their time in the spotlight helps a lot. This ties in to the economy of cool that I recently heard explained by Jason Andrews: every player should have a chance to feel cool. It’s the job of the storyteller, the game rules, and the players to help the economy of cool function. A game where the storyteller is railroading misses out on the economy of cool: the players are serving the storyteller’s agenda, and not likely to get to feel cool. A game where most of the players are gamist, and the storyteller doesn’t work to accommodate everyone (just the majority) will leave non-gamists out of the economy of cool. And most important of all (from a game design perspective, at least), a poorly designed game will make it difficult for anyone to do anything, let alone feel cool.
You might get the impression from this that I’m advocating an extremely open form of design – making sure that there’s something for everyone in every game, and that’s just not true. Anyone that looks at Another Hero will see that it’s nearly exclusively tailored to a narrativist experience – the very rules are designed to encourage development of a story; victory or adherence to a setting are unintended if present at all. I think it would be possible for a good group to satisfy the interests of any of the three categories, but honestly, that’s not the objective – it’s a game designed for a fun narrativist experience. Sometimes, you want to play a game that’s made to encourage a certain style of play, and that’s okay too. There should be games that are tailored to specific experiences. Having such incredibly varied options out there is one of the joys of being a gamer, so embrace the diversity.
At the end of the day, if you’re looking to play a game or make a game, don’t forget that you can always try something different. Maybe it won’t be your cup of tea, but if it’s well designed it’s going to be fun for someone (well, seeing as my definition of a well designed game is that people can have fun playing it, that’s kind of a must, but you get the picture).