GNS [Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist] Theory for LARP – part 1 – Gamist
GNS theory is a pretty good starting point for a lot of RPG discussions. Below are two links that go into it in detail, but largely in the context of table-tops.
The core of this concepts is that you can box a person’s RPG desires into three boxes, either Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist. Most folks don’t fit neatly into a box, but they can often point at one box as their favorite box.
I’m going to address this theory from a LARP Plot/Storyteller aspect. As usual for me, this is for light-combat, large group fantasy LARP.
There is a core philosophy to gamist play. It’s the philosophy that games can be “won” and that “winning” is the goal of the game. There’s a lot of ways to win the game, and that is an internal construct brought by the gamist LARPer. Some might want to establish their LARP-peen, either in fighting ability and/or the power of their character. An other gamist attitude sees the game as a challenge to be overcome, and success is measured in the defeat of the villains, the recovery of the lootz, and the survival of the players.
Gamist play is about decisions
The core pleasure of gamist play is having decisions validated by winning. There’s a lot to talk about here as a designer.
First, you must present valid decisions to the players. Without a decision, the gamist feels no agency (the narrativist will gripe as well). In a combat situation, present opponents that are clearly different in appearance and abilities (i.e. a guy in the back with long-range attacks). The gamist is validated by choosing who to attack, but cannot do this if all the NPCs are clearly the same “thing”. This is stupid easy to do in almost every combat by adding one dangerous spell-caster. In a puzzle challenge, present/allow multiple paths to success instead of just the one you thought of. In a role-playing encounter, make sure there are multiple NPCs to talk to so there’s decision for each person what who to talk to and what to say.
Second, you must give the validation. There is a temptation to kick players in the nuts for a less than perfect decision. There is no upside for anybody in making a player feel defeated. There’s certainly a place for defeat dramatically (see the next post on Narrativist play). However, go out of your way to let players feel like winners against gamist challenges. The emphasis is on “feel”. You might eat up a lot of mana/resources as a result of a challenge, which could be regarded by some as a loss.
An example I can think of was a game I played in where there were archers physically hidden in the brush, and they would pop up and hit us with a single very high damage arrow before we could reach them. It wasn’t fun, because there was nothing we could do to stop the arrow, and after they got the shot off, we mowed the single archer down. We didn’t feel any agency as a result. If we still took that damage, but there was a decision we could make (i.e. interrogating the archers, having some agency in keeping them from shooting us, or keeping them from fleeing) that made us feel like winners, it would have been resolved much better.
Gamist play can be poisonous
Yes, some gamist attitudes are bad. When a gamist seeks to have enjoyment (i.e. winning) at the sake of the somebody else’s enjoyment, that’s a poisonous attitude. However, there is also a very important point to make. A lot of people, as a result of bad experiences with gamists doing this, they label all gamist play as bad. They will use terms like powergamer, min-maxer and munchkin as derogatory. As a storyteller, this is not an attitude you should have. Gamist entertainment sources are very valid, but you should not enable the zero-sum entertainment angle. Don’t make NPCs that can be popped instantly and don’t respawn. Don’t put your NPCs in horrible tactical situations so that they get destroyed instantly.
NPCs need gamist joy as well
How can an NPC have a gamist attitude, when they are supposed to lose, and the deck is stacked against them? Certainly the most poisonous of gamist attitudes is the one by noob NPCs wanting to “kill PCs”. However, you can give NPCs an alternate win condition that doesn’t involve the defeat of the players. This can be as vague as “give the PCs a good fight”, and frankly, that’s often enough for me. I usually try to add “and try to enable a cool event/story as well”. If I feel like I had enough screen time as an NPC, and I put in some good hits, then I feel like I won as an NPC. Communicating this to NPCs is difficult, because it’s a tricky concept.
Educate your Gamists to be Bros
Whenever you see a zero-sum gamist moment, regardless of your role in the game, make sure to point it out afterwards. “Yes, what you did was correct tactically, but it was really unfun for that NPC”. Promote the idea that “hard mode” for a gamist isn’t just winning, but winning in a way that doesn’t sap the fun from others. Challenge their larp-peen as a result, saying “the best players I’ve ever seen managed to pull that off, and I think you can to”.
Design for the Gamist
In LARP, it’s usually fine to present a combat and present no other win condition outside of “kill the NPCs and survive the process”. This is the default wincon and still presents plenty of gamist enjoyment.
Some Socal LARPs have a variant default wincon which is “talk the fight away”. I originally thought it was because the player base was heavy narrativist. However, I found that any encounter that begins with NPCs that talk seems to communicate to the players “you should talk this one out”. I’ve been amazed at how far the NPCs can take it and the players will simply not start hostilities if the NPCs made a minimal effort to start with talking. This is because the decision to talk it out is rewarded often enough, and the win condition of “talk it out” has been presented. They want to “win” the encounter as a result. I was just missing the cue, since my experience was that the cue of “we have foam weapons in our hands” means that it’s a fight.
The key here is communication. As the designer, you must clearly communicate an alternate win condition(s) to your gamists. This is not railroading, or at least it shouldn’t be. Without that communication, your gamists are going to default to what they know.