[DISCLAIMER: A previous version of this post mistakenly misrepresented GNS theory as revolving around instances of play in the form of decisions points. Instead, Ron Edwards’ theory looks at different modes of play/Creative Agendas over longer periods of time – one session or more. See the comment section for details.]
In a recent blog entry, game designer Zak Smith aka Zak Sabbath made a fairly exhaustive attempt at rebuking GNS theory. This post is a response to one of his central contentions. There is a companion blogpost that takes a further look at GNS theory and tries to boil its central components down so that they are easily understandable for everyone.
Arguably, the core of Smith’s elaborate rebuttal revolves around a hypothetical scenario of Marvel’s Colossus and Wolverine fighting Mr Sinister, using the famed Fastball Special. This sample scenario is meant, according to Smith, to demonstrate that there are time and again situations in role-playing in which none of the 3 modes of GNS theory (Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism) get prioritized over one another. A moment of complete blending of the three. Smith writes:
The dice are kind. Sinister goes down. Colossus has achieved a “simulationist” (or is it dramatist?) goal of acting in character plus arguably a narrativist goal of being in a story of overcoming insecurities about his contributions by seeing teamwork as the answer. What a thematically satisfying moment. Wolverine has achieved a “gamist” goal of devising a strategy to take down Mr Sinister. Challenge defeated. Plus also maybe a “simulationist” one because that’s how Woverine acts: he kicks things asses. […] Was a goal prioritized? […] Is this moment not an “instance” of play? Simultaneous satisfaction?
Smith implicates that the above example goes then counter to GNS theory, which claims:
For a given instance of play, the three modes are exclusive in application. […] So in the course of Narrativist or Simulationist play, moments or aspects of competition that contribute to the main goal are not Gamism. In the course of Gamist or Simulationist play, moments of thematic commentary that contribute to the main goal are not Narrativism. In the course of Narrativist or Gamist play, moments of attention to plausibility that contribute to the main goal are not Simulationism. The primary and not to be compromised goal is what it is for a given instance of play. The actual time or activity of an “instance” is necessarily left ambiguous.
But does it?
Zak Smith’s scenario is chosen specifically so that no priority for the players of the Wolverine and the Colossus characters are apparent. In his line of reasoning, Smith mistakes the absence of detectable priorities with the actual absence of priorities (aka player preferences). It is a scenario in which the players do not have to choose between priorities because they happen to coincide. The existence of player preferences would have been made apparent if the players of Wolverine and Colossus had more options available to them, revealing their priorities in gameplay:
- What if Colossus and Wolvie had the option to blow up Mr Sinister at the price of killing innocent bystanders? This would be arguably out of character for either of them, therefore go against Simulationism, but it would mean certain victory thus might appeal more to players with a Gamist bent – who care about winning the most after all.
- What if the two superheroes had the option to talk to Sinister, find out more about his background and motives, perhaps thrusting the story into a new direction? This might appeal to narrativist players, even if it might be out of character again or if meant fewer rewards for not outright defeating their enemy.
The existence of the three types of preferences can also be easily spotted in the funny and notorious 2002 spoof movie The Gamers by Dead Gentlemen Productions:
The obvious existence of such alternatives would have made player priorities in that moment apparent. Each player would have been forced to choose for themselves, according to their own preferences, or, ideally, negotiate with the other to reach a compromise course of action in case of conflicting priorities. The above quote about GNS theory, in fact, expresses that at times a course of action may satisfy more than one mode. However: Gamism means that in cases where a players has to choose, he’ll choose the Gamist path most of the time, whereas a Simulationist will most frequently choose the Simulationist path and so on.
GNS theory therefore claims that such priorities always exist for each “instance of play” (each player has one overarching priority for a session or campaign) – even if not always made explicit by the situation at hand. And that each player in each instance of play has one and only one priority, if hard-pressed. Now, these may vary in time but observation holds that players tend to gravitate more often to one mode than the other two, thus leading to classification of role-players as Gamists, Simulationists or Narrativists – and by extension to the classification of game mechanics and whole RPGs that specifically cater to such player preferences by design.
GNS has many problems but this isn’t one of them. The three modes of play/Creative Agendas are a valid observation. More about that in this blogpost over here.