October 19, 2012

Example of GMs and GNS

You should probably familiarize yourself with GNS theory if you want to be a serious GM.  To compliment Ron Edwards' theoretical academic essay for you, my dear reader, I've written a concrete example below that should evoke and illustrate the three creative agendas.

What I feel Ron Edwards' original essay needs is an example for GMs that demonstrates the three "creative agenda" styles of play and designs of systems (or use of systems) that encourage each agenda.

Below is an example of a common fantasy RPG scenario.  Following it are three perspectives -- one from each of Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism (the G, N, and S in Ron Edwards' seminal theory article).  I expect you to look at the original article to gain a deeper understanding than I can give with examples.  But examples often evoke basic concepts better than dry theory ever can.  Without further ado, here is the scenario...

Exploring the kobolds' dungeon, you come to a corridor lit by the glow of torchlight from a room on the West side.  The sound of a group of kobolds talking quietly warns your party to stop and douse your torches.  At the corridor's far end is a door.
Dave, playing Thovar the cleric, has a plan:  "Let's not waste our energy battling these creatures.  I say we sneak past the kobold guards, go through the door, and close it behind us.  Unless we make an unusually loud noise, they won't hear what occurs on the other side, and we can conserve some of our strength."
Jen, playing Trini the rogue, volunteers to go first:  "I'll go first, to look for traps and unlock the door.  The rest of you sneak across one at a time after me."


The relevant facets of this challenge for gamism are all aspects that contribute to the players' perception of risk:  The game elements.  Perception of risk comes from making consequential decisions with incomplete information.  The purpose of system for gamist players is to generate a game of risks and rewards.  Taking a risk means making a consequential decision with incomplete information.

  • The challenge needs to become a GAME where first the rogue must risk missing or setting off traps; then the other party members must risk alerting the kobolds.
  • There may be traps along the corridor or on the door, since kobolds love traps.  The rogue could be killed or injured setting these off, and then the kobolds might be alerted, cut her off, and kill her.
  • If the rogue sneaks down the hall, but the other party members alert the kobolds by making too much noise, there will be a fight and the rogue will be isolated and probably killed.
  • The GM could add another game element:  Risk for reward.  Perhaps after Trini sneaks down the hall, the first party member who sneaks after, since he will not be busy watching for signs of traps, might notice a mithril shield mounted on the wall of the adjacent kobolds' guardroom.
  • The GM could keep adding elements.  Perhaps after the party has split evenly with half at the door and half not, the ones that have not crossed the hallway hear footsteps approaching from behind...

A gamist GM would design this challenge as a series of fairly easy die rolls for the rogue, all of which must be passed; followed by a series of two moderate Stealth/Dex/Move Silently die rolls for each other character as they sneak down the hall, with a 3 strikes rule -- if the party fails 3 times, the kobolds are alerted.  Each time they fail, a kobold says "what was that?" and they grow quiet for a moment.  The third time, they're sure it's not their imagination, and come out to attack.


The relevant aspects of this challenge for narrativism are the parts of the scenario that contribute to tell a story. The purpose of involving the system at all, for a narrativist troupe, is to randomly decide story consequences and empower the players to shift the story, using the system.   

  • It must stand alone as a scene in this chapter of the story.  First we had exposition.  Then the rising action:  The rogue must sneak across the hallway and mark the traps, leading to rising tension.  Then,, while she picks the lock, the stealthiest member of the party crosses.  Then the next.  Then the next, building toward the character most likely to screw up.  
  • It must fit into the larger plot of this chapter and the story to which the chapter belongs.  The dungeon is a discrete chapter of a story, so traps, stealth and monsters is probably a good fit.  But the party cannot be killed here, or it would end prematurely.  So the real tension is whether they get past and "conserve their energy" or have to get tired out by a battle.  
  • It is best if it has ties to the story that it's part of.  The dungeon is full of kobolds.  Perhaps as they sneak past, one of the kobolds reveals some background explaining why they live in this old dungeon, and why they have been raiding local villages.
  • It must connect to or expand the characters' stories.  The GM may wish to have one of the kobolds blaspheme horribly against the cleric's church, tempting that player to make a story decision - ignore the blasphemy and feel ashamed of his cowardice (loyal cowardice) or punish the evil blasphemer and risk Trini's life (prideful righteousness).

The purpose of involving the system at all, for a narrativist troupe, is to randomly decide story consequences and empower the players to shift the story, using the system.  The GM does not have the power (without going beyond the system) to have a kobold blaspheme against a church and get away with it, if the system allows the players' characters to punish that kobold.

For a narrativist player, the game advantage of not expending extra resources fighting kobold guards is minimal compared to the story advantage of, say, the cleric's being forced to decide between loyal cowardice and prideful righteousness.  The cleric's player will not choose based on game strategy (if he is a narrativist player).  He will choose the story outcome he likes best, between the two unpleasant options.  Obviously the game consequence of the rogue being trapped and killed or of the party expending resources in an unnecessary battle have a story consequences, but the tension comes from not knowing how likely they are or how bad they will be.  That tension is a story element, much like the reader of a novel not knowing how the protagonist will suffer for making a prideful mistake.


In addition to S being the last letter in GNS, I saved it for last because the simulation approach is the one most common in RPGs.  The purpose of system for simulationist players is to model outcomes of diagetic-level imagined events in the game world with a high degree of verisimilitude.  The words I used are literary, so I'm going to explain them.  Verisimilitude literally means "seems real," and its literary definition is complicated but basically means things make sense within the fictional world.  "Realistic" is a bad word to use for games with elves and magic; but within the game world, if it would be "realistic" that casting a spell under stress may result in the spell backfiring, then a system should produce a chance of spell backfire when a spell is cast under stress.  Diagetic level means the conceptual level of events that occur within the story.  Extradiagetic means the conceptual level of the people narrating the story.  Applying those ideas to tabletop roleplaying, what happens in the game world is "diagetic" while what happens at the table, among the players, is extradiagetic.

Simulationist GMs would design the challenge far differently than Gamist GMs.

  • Trini's plan makes sense to a simulationist player.  A group sneaking past guards in a cluster is far more likely to be noticed than people sneaking past one at a time.
  • Simulationist GMs would constuct the challenges in this scene to reflect the rules of the game world.  The floor is crumbling stone tiles, the cleric is wearing metal armor that clanks and squeaks.  But the kobolds are not totally alert, and the sound of their quiet conversation may mask the sound of the protagonists' skulking.  Kobolds can see in the dark, but not when torchlight is present.  They are unwise, and thus less likely to understand the significance of what they hear, so their skill at noticing danger may be low.  The door is old, and the lock is probably rusty and hard to open; but likely to be simpler than the contemporary locks Trini is used to.  
  • A simulationist GM would not make a "game" of the situation.  The three strikes rule the gamist GM invented is purely extradiagetic and may annoy simulationist players.  A simulationist GM would decide how the kobolds reacted based on diagetic information alone.  That is, if a character in soft boots failed a Move Silently check, it may make a scuffing sound like a rat; but a character in steel greaves may make a clanking sound that arouses their suspicions far more.
Players of all creative agendas are concerned about rising tension as the story approaches the climax.  For simulationist players, it makes sense that the danger would increase the deeper into the unknown the heroes venture.  And simulationist GMs will reflect this with warrens of catacombs, wandering monsters, monsters hearing the sounds of battle and joining to make the challenge harder, and elite monsters hiding deeper in the dungeon, because that is where the power lies.