GNS theory is a hobbyist theory of roleplaying (as opposed to academic theory), which claims to classify creative contributions when roleplaying. Big model is a generalization of it.
For an introduction to the theory, see:
Boss, Emily Care. “Key Concepts in Forge Theory.” Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games (2008): 232. Free PDF available by searching for the title on Google scholar.
There are also several documents one should not use as introductions or summaries of the theory. A main figure in developing the theory was Ron Edwards, whose essays can be found on the Forge website: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/. The articles of Edwards are, at the moment, historical documents, and do not explain the most recent thinking about the theory. As such, relying on them is not a good idea. More recent thinking of Edwards on these types of issues can be found on his Adept play website, but for most of the late Big model thoughts there is no good source. Adept play: http://adeptplay.com/seminar-hearts-minds/discuss-phenomenology
A useful critique of GNS is given by Zak Smith, https://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.dk/2018/03/the-impossibility-of-fastball-special.html. Zak reads an old GNS essay and comes to the conclusion that GNS categories, at least as defined there, are useless. On the way he observes that while writing the text, Ron Edwards did not really understand challenge-focused play that uses simulatory or complex rules, and also analyzed games in a very strange manner.
What follows is my taken on the concept of creative agenda and GNS categories; including how they are and are not useful. My definitions of the concepts in question are my own, but as far as I know (and as verified by occasional discussions) they are quite compatible with the definitions used by others who are familiar with the Big model.
- Social interaction with non-awful people is often interesting. A related term in Big model is “social contract”. Its point is that all roleplaying, fundamentally, requires social interaction.
- Roleplaying (with non-awful people) is even more interesting. The process of roleplaying – sharing the fiction, contributing to it, and having your contributions validated from moment to moment – is called “exploration” in Big model. Here, validation simply means that others react to your contributions and build on them, as appropriate.
- Play might have more purpose to it in addition to the baseline of exploration. If the group members socially reward the creative contributions of each other (by verbal and non-verbal means), and do this consistently, then the theory calls the play of the group is “coherent”. A “creative agenda” is the patterns of social recognition and shared understanding of what good play means, for this given group, when they are actually playing.
An example of play with a creative agenda: When I am running or playing OSR games, typically everyone around the table understands that tactical and strategic decisions and creative solutions to problems are interesting, and being good at this is appreciated, while making poor choices is lamented.
Another example: A game with involved and interesting combat rules. Group creates a charged situation with characters capable of violence, and players pick and choose their characters from among these. Play consists of a violent drama between the characters (player and non-player alike), with tactical combats as appropriate. Everyone enjoys the alliances, betrayals and questions of trust and loyalty, as well as the tactics of the characters clashing.
An example without a creative agenda: Players create characters, but the group does not really know how roleplaying works (they just started based on reading some book and hearing rumours), so the GM says that they are walking on a forest road and there is a meat-eating plant blocking it, so some dice are rolled and it is killed, and then they come to a city and meet some slavers, and so on. The group might very well find a creative focus in all of this, but it is also possible they are fumbling around trying to figure out how to find some direction. Many of my first roleplaying sessions as a kid were like this; later, I figured out how to roleplay with purpose. Growing up also helped.
Another example without creative agenda: Group is there mostly just to hang out, tell jokes, eat and drink. The game provides a structure and inspiration for the jokes and the stories, as well as an excuse for meeting once a month. They might also enjoy the process of roleplaying, but it is not the focus of the activity (for more than one of them.)
According to GNS theory and Big model, there are three families of creative agendas (that have been observed thus far).
- Story now (narrativism) is the creative agenda where group appreciates decisions with human interest – questions of loyalty, morality, faith, love, etc. The basic unit of story now play is a character in a situation where they need to select among several values; player has the character make the choice; the group plays to see consequences of the choice. This could be very aggressive and fast, or happen slowly in a more relaxed gameplay.
- Step on up (gamism) is the creative agenda of showing one’s skills and daring. The basic unit of play is making a choice (such choosing to take or not take a risk), and playing out the consequences of that choice: does it take one closer to accomplishing one’s goals (winning), or not?
- Right to dream (simulationism, constructive denial) is the creative agenda of investigating and experiencing some part of the gameplay – setting, character, rules system, or even situation. The basic unit of play is playing through something new, thus learning something about the focus.
USe of GNS
The GNS categories, and especially examples within each that can be found, for example, at the Forge articles named according to them, show the diversity of roleplaying. They also provide a rough vocabulary and framework for understanding the creative impulses in roleplaying.
That is, I do not see plenty of value in the GNS categories themselves, once one has figured out that roleplaying games can be creative in different ways, and gotten exposed to a representative sample (by experience or theoretical reading, or combination thereof).
Problems with GNS
In addition to providing a language and a conceptual framework, GNS theory also makes some claims. These are mostly of academic nature, in the sense that they are natural questions to ask (once provided with some kind of classification), but also in the negative sense that their applicability to issues of analysis and design of games is far from obvious.
Exclusiveness of GNS categories, or incoherence between categories
GNS theory claims that the three categories mentioned above are mutually exclusive, in the sense that the creative agenda of a coherent game can only fit one of the classes, and in particular should not change from one class to another, except maybe very slowly over time in a long campaign.
The justification of this is: Observations of Ron Edwards and some other theorists.
In particular, in my example that is a combination of character drama and mechanical fight scenes, one or the other should be in subservient role – either the blood opera acts merely as a justification for the fight scenes, or the tactics in the fight scenes are a mere means of resolution or expressing the characters’ inner natures.
Even supposing this is true, it is not particularly enlightening – how does one benefit from knowing that one of the activities is in some sense subservient to the other?
The Categories cover all of coherent roleplaying
Another claim of the theory is that there are no other creative agendae besides those covered by the three categories. Justification: Others have not been detected (by the people who have worked on the theory).
Coherence within every category
The theory claims that all priorities within a category are mutually compatible, or can be easily made so.
For example, some people in gamist play might enjoy strategy and negotiation and solving problems by creativity and strange use of spells. Others might enjoy character optimization and skirmish combat. While these goals might be compatible, it is also easy to imagine play where they are not. If game master prefers one and everyone else the other, than a conflict of some kind is very easy to imagine.
Similarly, right to dream is supposed to include both genre emulation (possibly via railroading) and heavy immersion in character. But railroading is often obvious, especially in the long run, and can thus destroy immersion when things get too contrived to be plausible. Coming up with other such examples is not difficult.
Non-emptiness of the agendae; or Simulationism
Right to dream has traditionally been poorly defined, and its existence as a creative agenda questioned, and thus uncertain. I admit to not knowing the state of the art here; my definition, above, is my own, and is probably flawed in one way or another.
More abstractly, this is a question of whether all the categories are non-empty.
GNS, in total
The problems of GNS come from claiming that it partititions the set of creative agendae neatly into three equivalence classes. Though this would be elegant, it is almost certainly wrong and in many ways. It also would not create significant, if any, practical value. If something is both useless and wrong, it should certainly be discarded.
The concept of creative agenda, and the role of GNS categories as families of examples, are still useful.
Classifying people and games
Creative agenda is a pattern of behaviour among people playing a game. Individual people might have preferences regarding the types of creativity they enjoy. Some people are more flexible about this, some less. It is practically always more useful to describe the specific creative agendae someone prefers, enjoys, can play with, or hates, rather than saying someone is a “gamist” or whatever.
Some games (as in published texts or products) are agnostic about purposes of play. This includes most traditional roleplaying games – they can be played with a large spectrum of different creative priorities. Some games are actively hostile towards some creative priorities, via a variety of means. (You can’t optimize a character without sufficiently complex character creation with several choices.) Some games make some patterns of creativity very easy to engage in. Some games have instructions for using them according to particular agenda; this might or might not be related to what the game is any good at. In short, it is quite useless to say that a given game is gamist. It is much better to say what specific thing it is good at, or makes difficult, or what it suggests in the text.