Learn The Fascinating Theory Behind Roleplaying Games

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The word theory evokes images of Isaac Newton and Aristotle, and as physics has gravity and playwrights have catharsis, roleplaying has its own intrinsic element: GNS Theory.

According to Brad Davies of  Plot Points, a podcast which looks at RPGs as literature, GNS Theory is a tool for analyzing games. He told Geek & Sundry, “GNS Theory works well to analyze why you like the games you do. Once you understand the why, you can look at how to make games you would like to play.”

GNS What Now?

In 2001, game theorist and designer of such games as Trollbabe, Ron Edwards published his work on GNS Theory online. It was driven by his observation that many RPG gamers didn’t seem to be having much fun. Edwards wrote, “Most role-players I encounter are tired, bitter, and frustrated.”

Why is this? What are gamers doing wrong, and what can they do better?

Watching gamers game, Edwards came to a realization. There are generally three different approaches gamers take to tasks at the table.

For some players, rules-mastery and victory in struggle are everything. Edwards termed this approach gamismand it is the way of the rules lawyer, power gamer, and straight-up munchkin.

Other gamers are very concerned with the fiction of the world, and the place of their characters in it. Edwards dubbed this simulationismGamers who are concerned about the weather of the world, the seasons, the days of the week, and cataloging the contents of every room in every village they encounter are simulationists.

Lastly, there are gamers who want to tell a good story, and create a narrative that makes sense, has a beginning, middle, end, and maybe even a theme. This is narrativism. Gamism, narrativism, and simulationism make up the G, the N, and the S of GNS theory.

Edwards theorized that a lot of the strife and misery he witnessed at gaming tables was a conflict between these three different approaches to play, and in my gaming life, I have found him to be correct. I would describe myself as a narrativist who puts story first in my games. When I have butted heads with other gamers, or had problems running or playing games, it has usually been because those gamers or games were gamist, interested in the rules and using them to win rather than to tell a good story.

Games Categorized by GNS Theory

Okay Mr. Smarty Pants. How would you apply GNS Theory to already existing games? Glad you asked.


Gamism, according to Edwards, is “expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people’s actual play strategies. The listed elements provide an arena for the competition.”

How do gamist games play?

They are fun and fiddly, with lots of little bits to engage players and encourage rule mastery.

Dungeons & Dragons is most definitely a game that puts gamism front and center, but the fantasy game sprouted from D&D that is even more gamist is  13th Age13th Age encourages a number of setting and design decisions that put the game element front and center. For example, the game-master is encouraged to play all monsters face-up, meaning that the players know how many hit points a foe has because there are a number of game effects that only come into play when a foe has half their hit points left. Furthermore, there are high-level areas of the game world, and if low-level character wander into these areas, the game-master is encouraged to simply warn them that they are in a high-level area and to watch out.


Narrativism, according to Edwards, “is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme. The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors.”

How do narrativist games play?

They are fast and cinematic, feeling like movies of the mind. Story comes fast and fun at the table!

The GUMSHOE system created by Robin Laws is explicitly laid out to reflect not any reality as we know it, but rather the structure of a story. Characters never have to roll to find information because failing to find information is never interesting. There are no stories where Sherlock Holmes doesn’t find a clue, because that would be boring, and Laws emulates that in his game system. Players do have to roll in situations where there is a chance of interesting failure, such as piloting a plane through a thunderstorm while chased by giant eagles, and characters have a certain number of points assigned to skills which they can spend on these roles. However, these points do not so much reflect the character’s ability as they do their time “on-screen.” If you spend all your points, you should probably give a different character a chance to solve the problem.


Simulationism, according to Edwards, “heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.”

How do simulationist games play?

Lots of time at the table is spent getting things just right. Fidelity to the world is important.

Legend of the Five Rings is a role-playing game set in Rokugan, which is medieval Japan, Kurosawa movies, and Lord of the Rings put into a blender and poured out at your gaming table. Legend of the Five Rings puts every rule at the service of simulating an Asian fantasy neverwhere. There are rules for how honorable your character is, how glorious they are, and what their status is in Rokugan. Furthermore, each one of these statistics has real effects at the table, both in social interactions and they even have combat effects at times. The entire game system is designed to simulate a world for the players and immerse them in it, even though it is a world that has never existed.

Ultimately, GNS Theory helps designers think about how to approach their games. In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Edwards had this advice for game designers:

“Design toward the fun you have in play, to inspire it. There’s more than one kind of fun, so stay focused, both socially and creatively – don’t get distracted just because some other players want a different kind. Beware of your sacred cows. Unlike other creative work, you don’t have to design an RPG in any established way. Pick and choose the familiar design features you love, without being chained to them or to any parts which you have been led to believe “must” be in there.  Instead, be honest about how you have fun and about how you explain it.”

He also had this to say about the name GNS Theory:

“Over ten years ago, I started calling it the Big Model, with “big” meaning that the social and real-people fun was holding the rest of the ideas, much like talking about success or satisfaction always needs to start with the people we’re concerned with, not as abstractions.”

How do you think GNS Theory applies to your gaming table? Let us know below!

Feature Image Credit: Pelgrane Press
Image Credits: Pelgrane Press, Fantasy Flight Games

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