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The GNS Theory, as originally developed by Ron Edwards, is a relatively amorphous body of work attempting to create a theory of how role-playing games work. Primarily, GNS Theory holds that participants in role-playing games reinforce each other's behaviour towards ends which can be divided into three categories: Template:TOCright

  • Gamist behaviours reinforce competition and challenge
  • Narrativist behaviours reinforce story and theme
  • Simulationist behaviours reinforce experience and celebration of source material

Strictly, GNS theory is concerned with players' social interactions, but it has been extrapolated to direct game design, both in and out of the world of RPGs. A game can be classified according to how strongly it encourages or facilitates players reinforcing behaviours matching each category. Game designers find it useful because it can be used to explain why players play certain games.

Ron Edwards later discarded GNS Theory in favor of The Big Model, which includes the GNS categories as different kinds of creative agenda.

GNS: Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist


Gamist refers to decisions based on what will most effectively solve the problem posed. These decisions are most common in games which pit characters against successively tougher challenges and opponents, and may not spend much time explaining why the characters are facing them.

For example, to resolve combat (a common event in many role-playing games), a gamist approach might be to compare a variety of scores that each involved character has, including character strength (and other attributes), skill, luck, weapon damage, armor durability, and the like. These scores are often translated into dice 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).

Dungeons & Dragons is often considered a Gamist role-playing game, as are computer RPGs. Detractors of gamist play often accuse players of trying to "win" a game whose purpose is to be enjoyed.[1] (See Rules lawyer.)


Narrativist refers to decisions based on what would best further a dramatic story or address a central theme. This terminology often confuses those who have not read the articles on which the model is based, and thus assume that any game in which mechanics act directly on story is narrativist. Some critics suggest that the term "themist" might be more descriptive, given that addressing a thematic issue is a necessary condition for labeling a creative agenda as "narrativist"; however, this then leads to the question of how to categorize games in which mechanics act directly on story and story constitutes the main priority of the creative agenda that do not prioritize theme.

To resolve combat, a narrativist approach might be to consider the thematic implications of the fight, why the fight is important to the characters involved in it (beyond the obvious risk of harm), and what the story would look like if one side or the other won out. All of these considerations may be done aloud, mediated by dice, or simply resolved by GM discretion.

As of 2006, many indie role-playing games are designed as Narrativist games, such as Dogs in the Vineyard or Sorcerer.


Simulationist refers to decisions based on what would be most realistic or plausible within the game's setting, or to a game where the rules try to simulate the way that things work in that world, or at least the way that they could be thought of working.

To resolve combat, a simulationist approach might be to see if the character hits, then if the victim can parry, then how much 'damage' the weapon does, then determine what part of the victim is hit, then how much damage the armour in that location stops, then see how much harm the remaining damage does. The benefit of this method is that it is simple for the players to interpret the results and understand what must have happened. The drawback is that the process of obtaining the results can take a long time to perform, and may still not produce plausible results if it is inaccurate and/or incomplete. Often, simulationist games have numerous additional layers, often optional, that can be used to further increase the complexity of combat or other activities. These optional layers can include things like targeted attacks or the use of special techniques like martial arts, whose complexities can even require an entire optional sourcebook, as in the case of GURPS.

However, the agenda is not necessarily bound to complex game mechanics. GURPS, which is very complex thanks to its many optional rules, is classified by Ron Edwards as a simulationist role-playing system[2], but Call of Cthulhu, which is lighter, can also be considered a Simulationist game with a strong focus on Narration.Template:Fact

Furthermore, an effect-based or statistical view can produce a Simulationist game that is more realistic, faster, and easier to run.Template:Fact

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 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
  • 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 Threefold Model's Drama type to Narrativism for GNS was to avoid confusion with Drama as a task resolution system.[3]

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 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 the 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


The theory developed out of the Threefold Model that defined Drama, Simulation, and Game as three paradigms of role-playing. The concept first appeared in the newsgroup, and the name "Threefold Model" was coined in a post made by Mary Kuhner in 1997 which outlined the principles of the theory. [4]

In his article "System Does Matter"[5], 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[6].

Ron Edwards has since further refined his understanding of RPGs, discarding GNS Theory in favor of The Big Model, which redefines and recontextualizes problematic aspects of GNS.

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.[7].


Introduction of GNS has met with marked opposition from elements of the gaming community. Some feel that RPG's are inherently frivolous and reject out of hand that they can be subjected to artistic criticism at all, and disparage any attempt to do so as pseudo-intellectualism. Direct critics of the theory have argued that it doesn't really explain anything regarding player behavior and only serves to shoehorn game design down limited paths. Many casual players react negatively to the idea, complaining that it forces them into false dilemmas and draws artificial, wordy distinctions between elements that can, in practice, combine well with one another and mutually reinforce.

See also: The Big Model


External links

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