[DISCLAIMER: A previous version of this post mistakenly misrepresented GNS theory as embracing short-term examinations of modes of play and weighing them in a triangle. Instead, Ron Edwards’ theory looks at different modes of play/Creative Agendas over longer periods of time (one session or more) and sees them as exclusive in any given moment in time. See below for details.]
Towards a better understanding
Part of the confusion regarding GNS theory comes from its abstract (if not occasionally weird) terminology and unclear definitions. In the following, we will try to substitute the terms Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism with the more readily understood player priorities Success, Immersion and Creativity (note that there has been a change in order to make for a better acronym).
Let’s have a look at them in greater detail:
- Success (Gamism): The GNS creator, Ron Edwards, defines Gamism in terms of challenge – both to the players as well as their characters. While the Knights of the Black Lily RPG addresses this through its revolutionary concept of challenge-driven design, we contend that players not only want to be challenged and see their characters being challenged; they want to be challenged and prevail. We conclude therefore that some players care about winning (whatever that may mean in a given context) more than they care about realism or genre faithfulness or exciting emergent story-telling. They want to beat that master villain or they want to build the strongest PC or they want to face difficult situations and master them with the right decisions or whatever else may drive them. It’s about victory in some form for them, ultimately.
- Immersion (Simulationism): Conversely, what GNS refers to as Simulationism does not concern itself with real world aspects. It’s all about getting lost in the role, in the other world. It’s about getting lost in that other. Various aspects like the setting or personalities can take the spotlight, depending on each game, but whatever the case, it’s all about diving into the fiction. From a game design standpoint, it’s all about avoiding immersion-breaking mechanics and capturing the spirit of thing you’re trying to recreate. Plausibility and realism are often key.
- Creativity (Narrativism): Finally, narrativism. What do systems touted as story-driven such as The Pool, Powered by the Apocalypse or FATE have in common with a mechanic like Fantasy Flight Games’ Narrative Dice? They enable spontaneous creativity at the game table. Most commonly, narrativist give players limited agency over the game world beyond making decisions on behalf of their characters. The appeal of what GNS calls narrativism, namely emergent story-telling, is just that: creativity. It’s no coincidence that the role of the GM is more frequently redefined here than in other modes: when things are more about collaborative creativity, a single person of central authority is not necessarily needed.
To be crystal-clear: probably any role-player out there likes all of those aspects of role-playing. However, to this humble author the above modes of play (also called the 3 Creative Agendas) describe priorities and can be used to determine where player preference on average lies. [Mind you: this is in opposition to Ron Edwards who thinks of these 3 Creative Agendas on a longer-term scale and in conjunction with social group dynamics. To Edwards, a Creative Agenda is like an overarching goal that you bring with you to the gaming table each session. It can change over time but while it lasts, it is exclusive.]
And, in turn, it can be used to classify a given game mechanic as catering to that particular preference or not. In fact, whole game systems can be classified based on how much they cater to players with a given preference or don’t. This is especially the case in observing which choices game designers make in the case of conflicting goals: does their game try to model wound and damage as accurately as possible? How many concessions to do they make to gamists for the sake of ease and fun play? (Gamists don’t need the burdens of complexity to experience success after all – it is an unnecessary workload to them.)
For the sake of greater clarity, the following image illustrates the above points, both concerning the play side (“Phenomenology“) as well as the design side:
So, in essence, SIC theory is merely a renaming and reframing (short term instead of overarching goals) of the modes of play/Creative Agendas postulated by GNS theory before. Enjoy!