roleplaying games

GNS and other nonsense

I’ve been reading a fascinating RPGnet thread about the notion of ‘System Matters’ as coined over at The Forge about 18 years ago. As frequently happens with discussions about The Forge and their approach to RPG mechanics topology, GNS theory came up. Now, I’ve considered turning my reflections on GNS into an article at Cannibal Halfling, but the theory, while useful, is so reductive that posting an article that isn’t an editorial runs the risk of endorsing it, which I don’t want to do.

Still, George Box’s quote comes to mind: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The three poles of GNS, imperfectly aligned as they are, help people consider what they aim to get out of a game and why. The major thing wrong with GNS, as Vincent Baker has identified in post-Forge blog posts, is that the categories are not discrete and neither games nor players fit into these three boxes neatly. While some games that Edwards criticized, like “Vampire: the Masquerade”, clearly had issues, it’s not clear that attempting to cater to multiple playstyles was what caused them.

Before I go too far, let’s set down terms. GNS refers to three notions of play in RPGs: Gamism, or the desire to mechanically succeed or “win” the challenges delivered in the game, Narrativism, or the desire to participate in and create an engaging narrative/story, and Simulationism (likely more accurately called immersionism), the desire to get into the head of a character and experience the world. The primary reasons why GNS has to be approached carefully as a model are that a) there’s overlap between these elements in both players and games and b) there’s no empirical way to determine what attributes make something Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist/Immersionist.

Let’s take a typical “power gamer” as a broad example. This is a person who, when building and advancing his character, will make mathematically optimal choices in order to have the best chance at “winning” encounters. At the same time, combat is a thrill to this player, who relishes in using the abilities their character has, and gets into the events very deeply. At the end of the day, they’re also motivated by understanding why it’s so important for their character to keep on fighting, and part of the set of “winning” as they’ve defined it involves finding a satisfactory conclusion to the narrative their character is part of.

It might be a little contrived, but that example brings G,N, and S under one heading. In terms of players I know who fall under this heading, I’ve seen them enjoy Exalted (heavily Gamist), Apocalypse World (heavily narrativist) and GURPS (heavily immersionist) equally. So what gives?

I can find the most intersectional examples of my players and cherry-pick them, but my groups can lean one way or the other, and they definitely engage different sorts of games differently. I have players who are all about engaging the story, and some who are inveterate optimizers. I also have players who stay with consistent character types and try to build that fictional space around them. If my group has different motivations, then I as a GM should investigate different ways to engage them.

I’ve been using GNS as a rough framework to investigate different systems my group may like to try. Recently that means an immersionist tack, as that’s one element of play that I feel I haven’t done effectively, and that I enjoy. I mean, I’m a GURPS-head, and the way I approach worldbuilding should make it unsurprising that I like the notion of creating a world to be immersed in.

My recent idea has been to look for narrower immersive systems. GURPS is probably the best “universal” system I know, but at the end of the day “universal” is likely not what I need. When it comes to immersive gaming, I’m most interested in fantasy. My modern, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic games run well with story-focused systems, because the characters and interactions are what matters. In fantasy, I feel that the world is also a character, and the only way I’m going to succeed in my goals for the genre is by making the players feel like they’re there.

D&D is not an immersion-driven game, at all. The implied setting isn’t internally consistent, the mechanics are based on gamist “ability buying” rather than any reflection of how experience and improvement work in the real world, and the encounter and campaign design is built off of a treadmill I feel I can’t escape from. Zweihander is a game I’ve kickstarted, and while I’m still anticipating it eagerly, the heavy basis on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has given me more pause since I’ve been playing Dark Heresy. I’ve looked at GURPS again, but I’m just not sure tuning it correctly is going to be worth the effort. There are others out there. I’ve cast an intrigued eye to Mythras (The Game Formerly Known as Runequest 6e), because it seems to be the level of depth I’m looking for and has finally shed much of its baked-in setting. Rolemaster is another one that people have recommended, but I bounced hard off Cyberspace so there’s no way I’m going to be able to put up with the design. And there is Burning Wheel…while heavily narrative it does have lots of chewy details and neat subsystems. Actually running it, though, is likely a pipe dream so long as there aren’t PDFs. Torchbearer is a tantalizing compromise, but is very narrow, even if it’s arguably still immersive.

So yeah. I’m not giving up PbtA or Fate or any of my other story-driven ideas, but I’d like to take a different tack for approaching immersion than just GURPS. Some time in the future I’ll have a chance to read Zweihander. And who knows, maybe I’ll buy Mythras on the same sort of lark that caused me to buy Victoriana.

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