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GNS Theory

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Subject: Ron Edwards (game designer), Chronology of tactical role-playing video games, History of role-playing games, Tabletop role-playing game, MUD
Collection: Role-Playing Game Terminology
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GNS Theory

GNS theory is an informal field of study developed by gamist, narrativist and simulationist conceptualizing.

Strictly speaking, GNS theory focuses on social interactions between players as opposed to statistical concerns, though it has been extrapolated to encompass thematic game design beyond the form of strict role-playing games. Much of the analysis centers on how player behavior fits within the above parameters of engagement, and how these preferences shape the content and direction of the game as a whole. GNS theory is frequently adopted by game designers to help dissect the particular elements that draw players to certain styles of games.

Ron Edwards later discarded GNS theory in favor of the "Big Model" style of analysis,[1] which reinterprets the GNS categories within a more fluid breakdown of creative gaming.


  • History 1
  • GNS: Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist 2
    • Gamism: Prove Yourself 2.1
    • Narrativism 2.2
    • Simulationism 2.3
  • Potential frictions between modes 3
    • Gamist-Narrativist friction 3.1
    • Simulationist-Narrativist friction 3.2
    • Gamist-Simulationist friction 3.3
  • Other terms 4
  • Criticism 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


GNS Theory grew out of the Threefold Model, which was widely discussed in the USENET group in the summer of 1997.[2] The Threefold Model defined Drama, Simulation, and Game as three paradigms of role-playing. The name "Threefold Model" was coined in a post made by Mary Kuhner in 1997 which outlined the principles of the theory.[3] Kuhner laid out many of the central ideas there and John H. Kim later codified and expanded the discussion.[2]

In his article "System Does Matter",[4] which was originally posted on the Gaming Outpost website in July 1999,[2] Ron Edwards said that all participants in RPGs hold one of three mutually exclusive perspectives or aims. He wrote that enjoyable RPGs focus on only one of these perspectives and that it is a common mistake in RPG design to try to satisfy all three types. It is for this reason that the article could be seen as a warning against generic role-playing game systems made by larger developers.[5] Edwards was connecting the abstract ideas of GNS to more concrete thoughts about game design, and he was also popularizing GNS Theory.[2]

On December 2, 2005, Edwards closed the forums on The Forge regarding GNS theory, explaining that the forums supporting the GNS theoretical framework had outlived their usefulness.[6]

GNS: Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist

Gamism: Prove Yourself

A Gamist makes decisions based on satisfying clear predefined goal conditions in the face of adversity: in other words, on the desire to win. As Ron Edwards mentions in Gamism, Step on Up:

I might as well get this over with now: the phrase "Role-playing games are not about winning" is the most widespread example of synecdoche in the hobby. Potential Gamist responses, and I think appropriately, include:
"Eat me,"
(upon winning) "I win," and
"C'mon, let's play without these morons."

These decisions are most common in games which pit characters against successively tougher challenges and opponents, and may not spend much time dwelling on why the characters are facing them in the first place. Gamist RPG design tends to place a strong emphasis on parity in character effectiveness: that is, the idea that all player characters should be (at least when properly built or optimised over time) equally strong and capable of dealing with adversity.

Combat is frequently heavily emphasised, as is a diversity in options for short-term problem solving (i.e., long lists of highly specific spells or combat techniques). Randomisation (i.e., Fortune methods) exist primarily to provide a gamble and allow players to risk more for higher stakes (for instance, attempting a more effective hit in combat requires a penalty on the dice roll), rather than modelling strict probability.

Examples include Magic: The Gathering, chess, and most computer games.


Narrativism relies heavily on outlining or developing motives for the characters, putting them into situations where those motives come into mutual conflict, and making their decisions in the face of such stress the main driving force behind events. For example, a Samurai character sworn to honour and obey his lord might have that loyalty tested when directed to fight against his own rebellious son. A compassionate doctor might have his sense of charity tested when an enemy soldier comes under his care. On the lighter end of the spectrum, a student might have to decide whether to help her best friend cheat on an exam.

This has two main effects. Firstly, and in contrast to much Simulationist play, characters usually show considerable change and development over time. Secondly, any attempt at imposing a fixed storyline is either impossible or highly counterproductive. Moments of drama – which is to say, inner conflict on the part of the characters – inherently make player responses difficult to predict, and the consequences of such choices cannot be minimised. More than this, revisiting the characters' motives or underlying emotional themes over time often leads to a process of escalation: asking variations on the same "question", but at higher and higher levels of intensity, as exemplified through the situations and developments of play. The "answers" that the players supply, as exemplified through their characters' responses and their eventual repercussions, can then be taken as a kind of moral commentary on various human qualities or values under the circumstances. In short, it coaxes out an overall point or message, but as an after-effect or byproduct of play, rather than as an accessory to it.


Simulationism refers to a style of play where the main agenda is the recreation of, or inspiration by, the observed characteristics of a particular genre or set of source material. Physical reality might count as source material for these purposes, but so might superhero anthologies, or any other literary, cinematic or historical milieu. Its most frequent concerns are internal consistency, analysis or modeling of cause and effect, and informed speculation or even extrapolation. Often characterised by concern for the minutiae of physical interaction and details of setting, Simulationism shares with Narrativism a concern for character backgrounds, personality traits and motives, in an effort to model cause and effect within the intellectual realm as well as the physical.

Simulation-inclined players are inclined to talk of their characters as if they were independent entities with minds of their own, and model their behavior accordingly. (For example, they may be particularly reluctant to have their character act on the basis of out-of-character information, and indisposed to tolerate such behavior in others.) Basically similar to the distinction between actor and character within a film or play, this stems from the sense of objectivity that a Simulationist strives for. Character generation and the modelling of skill growth and proficiency can be very complex and highly detailed.

Like Narrativists, Simulationists are intolerant of obvious railroading, but for different reasons: because it betrays the implied agreement that "internal cause is king". However, many Simulationist RPGs recommend "Illusionism" to create a story – in essence, the subtle manipulation of in-game probability and environmental data to point PCs toward predefined conclusions. For example, Call of Cthulhu's foremost concern is recreating the mood of brooding horror and cosmic insignificance of the Cthulhu Mythos, and makes heavy use of illusionism to craft grisly fates for the players' characters, thereby maintaining consistency with the source material.

Much of the Simulationist aesthetic revolves around maintaining a self-contained bubble universe that operates independently of player volition, with the result that many Simulationist techniques are both deterministic and relatively hands-off: events unfold on the basis of internal rules. Combat might be broken down into discrete, semi-randomised steps for modeling the input of attack skill, weapon weight, defence checks, armour, body parts and potential for critical damage, separately. However, some Simulationist RPGs focus on the exploration of entirely different aspects of their source material, and may have no concern for realism at all. Toon, for example, is solely concerned with emulating cartoon hijinks. Others, such as GURPS and FUDGE, take a moderately realistic core system as their baseline, which can be extended or modified by optional sourcebooks or special rules.

Potential frictions between modes

Many common role-playing techniques can enhance the enjoyment of a particular GNS mode at the expense of others, but the fundamental incompatibilities between each are actually very high-level.

Gamist-Narrativist friction

  • Moments of drama (in the emotional sense) make clear goal conditions (i.e. a well-defined challenge in the Gamist sense) impossible. The Narrativist's very purpose is to focus on a conflict between two or more of a given character's values. 'Winning' is impossible under such circumstances, because there is no clear goal. Conversely, if a character is presented only with well-defined goal conditions during the entire 'story', this implies a lack of emotional ambivalence during decision-making which denies the possibility of input to theme.

Simulationist-Narrativist friction

  • Theme, by its nature, is a series of aesthetically pleasing but statistically unlikely coincidences. In order to reliably revisit the same emotional topic or human questions, in-world probability must be frequently distorted to present conflicts that visit those topics or questions.
  • Moments of drama (in the emotional sense) cannot, in the strictest sense, be consistently role-played. Their very purpose is to focus on a conflict between two or more of a given character's values, in which they are obliged to choose one over the other. In other words, to focus on a point where the character's internal consistency breaks down.

Gamist-Simulationist friction

  • Perfect 'Balance' (in the sense of parity in character effectiveness, or a level playing field) is rarely compatible with the full complexities of a self-consistent imagined world. That is, Life is Unfair. For example, realistic sword fighting leads to a high rate of wound-related mortality, while an unbiased presentation of Tolkien's Middle-Earth would make elves far more powerful than orcs or halflings. Resolving such imbalances requires either a manifestly artificial 'world', or metagame constructs such as hit points, level adjustments, etc. that distort a Simulationist aesthetic.

Other terms

The GNS theory incorporates Jonathan Tweet's three forms of task resolution that determine the outcome of an event. Edwards said that an RPG should use a task resolution system or combination of systems that is most appropriate for that game's GNS perspective. The three task resolution forms are:

  • Drama, the participants decide the results, the requirements of the plot being the determining factor (e.g., Houses of the Blooded )
  • Fortune, chance decides the results (e.g., by using dice)
  • Karma, a fixed value decides the results (e.g., by comparing stats - e.g. Nobilis )

Edwards has said that the main reason he changed the name of the Threefold Model's "Drama" type to "Narrativism" for GNS was to avoid confusion with Drama as a task resolution system.[7]

The GNS Theory identifies five elements of role-playing that all players recognize:

  • Character, a fictional person
  • Color, details that provide atmosphere
  • Setting, location (in space and time)
  • Situation, the dilemma
  • System, determines how in-game events unfold

It also explains four Stances the player can have in making decisions for their character:

  • Actor, decides based on what their character would want and know
  • Author, decides based on what they as a player want for their character and then retroactively explains why their character made that decision
  • Director, makes decisions that affect the environment rather than a character (usually represented by a game master in an RPG)
  • Pawn, decides based on what they as a player want for their character without bothering to explain why their character would make that decision


1. The most common thread of GNS criticism states that Ron Edwards/GNS in particular and Forge membership in general are elitist. That they value only certain types of games, i.e. those that match their defined perfection of GNS. Other games are of less worth and thus damaging to the hobby, and even to the mental abilities of the player in their eyes.

2. The term ivory tower making fun of the ignorant masses without, but sallying forth to do battle with any who dare speak against the great work or even just for spreading the word of enlightenment.

3. Many think the pure mass of the theory (many GNS supporters say that the above linked material is not enough, instead you must also sort though the 13837 messages posted in the GNS theory board for additional insights) is a serious problem. They also almost always speak of opaque wording that comes off as an attempt to sound like highbrow scholars. And then there's the use of not just jargon, but jargon that swaps understandable every day terms for abstract new definitions.

4. Lastly the Forge is often accused of favoring only one of the three GNS concepts - Narrativism. Meanwhile, Gamism is a fun but unimportant diversion at best for the GNS theorist, while Simulationism remains both misunderstood and looked down upon.[8]

Dr. Lars Konzack has called the GNS theory a role-player apartheid and presents an alternative integrated theory termed the Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk (Wu-Ge) Model.[9]

See also


  1. ^ The Big Model
  2. ^ a b c d Shannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing. p. 404.  
  3. ^ The Threefold Model
  4. ^ "System Does Matter" by Ron Edwards
  5. ^ "Does System Matter?", a reply to System Does Matter
  6. ^ Farewell to the forum, but not to theory
  7. ^ Edwards, Ron. "Narrativism: Story Now". 
  8. ^ Comments on the GNS Model
  9. ^ Lars Konzack. The Wunderkammer-Gesamtkunstwerk Model: A Framework for Role-Playing Game Analysis and Design. Lüneburg, Germany. DiGRA 2015 [2]

External links

  • "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory" by Ron Edwards
  • "A Look at Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory" by Nathan Jennings
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