Friday, June 20, 2008

On GNS Theory

I used to think that I would simply avoid mentioning GNS theory on this blog. The reason being that I have some strong feelings on the matter, which in turn would lead to my thoughts on the topic manifesting as the sort of opinionated flamebait rant that I feel one should avoid on principle. Especially since that's not the point of this blog.

But since it turns out people are actually interested in my thoughts on game design theory, and I do hope to start a discussion on this topic, it's gonna be healthy to get this out of the way now. GNS theory is one of the premiere works of "roleplaying game theory", and the terminology it popularized still sees common use today because it fills an essential niche: It identifies several ways a game can be fun. But that's about the limits of its practicality.

And when the author goes on to argue that "building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design", that's when I start gnawing on the linoleum.
Maybe an analogy will help. What if I told you that all video games were created in accordance with one of three agendas?

-Presentationist games, which focused on providing the player with high-quality graphics and sound.
-Gameplayist games, which focused on providing a player with challenging play experience.
-Storyist games, which focused on providing a compelling narrative.

"I guess that kind of works," you say. "But don't 99% of video games include all 3 of those things?"

Why, yes, Timmy! Nevertheless, these are three separate outlooks, and people who make video games operate based off only these three agendas at a time.

"My name's Justin."

Or at least, that's what they should do. Unfortunately, many designers fail to recognize the inherently separate nature of these approaches, and attempt to cater to two or even all three of them simultaneously!

". . .That's a bad thing?"

Oh, yes. I'm afraid that the potential for crossover between these outlooks is ultimately too small to be justified by the complications that arise from trying to pursue multiple separate agendas at the same time.

"So if I designed an enemy that was highly lethal, both in order to reinforce the fear the player is supposed to feel as a part of the horror story and to provide an interesting "miniboss" opponent to spice up the challenge the game provides. . ."
". . .or designed the graphics of a game to be both visually pleasing and provide a way for players to easily identify necessary information regarding one another at a distance. . ."

". . .or used graphical staging and gameplay elements to reinforce a key plot point in a story. . ."

". . .I'd be shooting myself in the foot?"

Ultimately, yes- the complications introduced by trying to serve separate agendas simultaneously would lead to you creating a weaker game than you could have.

Does it make a little more sense now why I consider this aspect of GNS theory to be wrong regarding what should be a matter of common sense? Enjoyable gameplay, a believable setting, the tools to tell a compelling story. . .these are all concerns an rpg designer must take into account. It can be difficult to overcome complications that arise when you try to have your cake and eat it too; but it's not impossible, and these different elements have just as mouch potential to support one another as they do to stand in each other's way.

I'll use GNS terminology if it proves a practical way to describe a particular motive behind a particular decision. But so help me, if you try and label anything I do as "belonging" to one of those "categories", I will hunt you down.


Consonant Dude said...

Hey Dagda.

Not a fan of the theory, but a lot of people do overreact when they resent labels. To be clear, most of GNS supporters, including the author of the theory, are not saying a game should be built to exclude goals or that only certain traits (for instance gamist) appear in certain gamers.

The theory states that *individual decisions* are motivated primarily by one of the three agendas (Gamist, narrativist or simulationist).

Here's a quote from the GNS. One of many that underlines this:

"Much torment has arisen from people perceiving GNS as a labelling device. Used properly, the terms apply only to decisions, not to whole persons nor to whole games."

It seems to me that your rant misses this point because what you see as a flaw in GNS isn't really there. This flaw is more a failure to interpret GNS correctly (and I readily admit that this is frequent among fans of the theory).

Having said that, I'm not a big fan of the theory myself as I think it is sufficiently unclear to cause this kind of confusion in gamerdom.

Dagda said...

That bit on labels is just meant as an end note. I've read that section, and in the body of this text am actually responding more to how GNS theory is incorporated into Edward's "big model" in the form of "creative agendas". My argument is that attempting to simultaneously serve multiple creative agendas for a given design decision ultimately produces a stronger product, rather than simply providing obstacles.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me Dagda but there was a document about game design you had linked to previously on /tg/ I was wondering if you could possibly show the link again.

I don't know what other topic I could put this under and I would rather remain anonymous.

Dagda said...

Could you describe this document a little?

Anonymous said...

It was on game design. It went through and weighed pros and cons about how you structure your game. It discussed lots of different aspects and looked at how they were used in systems. Things like the use of classes in games as a niche based structure. I don't know you called it required reading for making your own pen and paper game once I believe.

Dagda said...

Ah, yes! John Kirk's Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games, downloadable at

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dagda this is it.

Dagda said...

No problem, glad to be able to share it.

vazor said...

Heh, agreed. Nice writeup.

Typhon said...


I think part of the problem is that this concept has gone through several iterations and IMO has been successively adulterated in each one.

I first became aware of this concept around 1990-1 as 'adventurer, problem-solver, roleplayer' where it was common knowledge in the pnp community re player preferences while playing rpgs. As far as I know this is the initial reference.

Online, it was first referred to as this, then was gradually changed into 'achiever, explorer, socialiser'.

A few years after that, it had changed into the fuzzy 'GNS', and had become the subject of a perpetual flamewar.

I'm not sure where it came from initially, but IMO it seems to just be an instance of the old saw 'things, numbers, and people'.

Dagda said...

Hmm. Yeah, that sheds a little more light on things- I can follow the thought process from "know what your audience wants" to "don't try to please everyone" to "games should be about one of these three things". Really, the point where things got ugly is when people tried to take this valid insight into the tastes of rpg players (at least for that time period, who knows about today) and use it as a lesson about what rpgs actually were. Even worse, some started using it to define what roleplaying games could be.

That last bit's become a pet peeve of mine. It pains me to see these cases where someone tried an approach to game design, got a couple of bad results, and concluded that the approach in question was inherently a bad design practice (rather than something which had genuine potential while being tricky to implement). Ron Edwards' take on catering to multiple appetites is one example, Badelaire's take on designing games based on fiction ( is a second, and there are several others I could name.