There’s an active community of amateur and independent RPG developers that base their activities at The Forge. While I am wary of the culture fostered there, it’s the birthplace of many great independent games. In addition to games, the site’s constituency analyzes the RPG hobby. GNS Theory is one resulting idea this analysis produced. While I despise the casual appellation of the term “theory” to anything (stemming from the layman’s dismissal that something is “just a theory”)*, I think some of the core tenets are sound. The full body of GNS Theory goes too far into crazy land and has since been abandoned for the less interesting “Big Model.” The Big Model doesn’t say anything of groundbreaking, though.
The GNS in GNS Theory stands for three broad categories of gamer: the Gamist, the Narrativist, and the Simulationist. These categories are broad player archetypes, framed by the question, “Why do you role-play?” As with many anthropological studies, few gamers will be an exact fit for any of these three archetypes; the archetypes provide a lens for understanding goals and style of play. GNS Theory falls down here: it proposes that gamers and systems are only one of these three, which is ridiculous.
The Gamist approaches RPGs as problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and victories to win. Gamists seek to accomplish goals and make progress in measurable, mechanics-oriented ways. A Gamist might answer the “Why do you role-play?” question with, “To win.” Gamists are often attracted to systems that encourage contests and achieving the best stats. Many, including me, cite D&D as a Gamist-oriented system. Most computer RPGs are Gamist by default, since the usual objective of a computer game is to win.
The Narrativist is a storyteller at heart. RPGs are improvised acting sessions, during with the Narrativist seeks to explore themes and characters. The Narrativist’s key question is not “Who has the better stats?” but “What is the most dramatically interesting outcome?” A Narrativist might answer the “Why do you role-play?” question with, “To tell a story.” Narrativists are often attracted to systems that highlight drama over hard numbers. Dogs in the Vineyard is often cited as a Narrativist game.
The Simulationist wants to experience a world. In this case, the world is provided by the RPG’s setting and mechanics. The more detailed the mechanics, the more detailed the world, and the happier the Simulationist. The Simulationist answer to “Why do you role-play?” might be, “To experience another world.” Simulationists prefer systems that are mechanics-rich, such as GURPS.
As one might conclude, I am not a fan of Gamism when it comes to RPGs (computer RPGs get an exception). I enjoy some mix of Narrativism and Simulationism. As a Narrativist, I am not as interested in theme as I am drama. If a character does something bold and dramatic, that ought to pay off rather than be slapped down. By the same token, I also like my games to have a high degree of verisimilitude. Without that internal consistency, a game lacks credibility and that ruins my immersion.
How would you classify yourself?
* For the record, a theory is a framework that offers a consistent, verifiable explanation for observations. A theory is not some idea you cooked up. That’s called a hypothesis. When someone says, “I have a theory about that,” what they mean is that they have a hypothesis. Next time you hear someone say this, correct them. You will be doing the world a favor.