Friday, May 3, 2013

Am I a GNS Person?

"GNS" is a theory about the priorities for the game experience that are brought to the table by the players and DM.  It stood for gamist, narrativist, and simulationist.  I loosely bucket various campaign ideas (and my approaches to the mechanics) based on what type of play mode I want to emphasize, and I realized the modes track loosely but imperfectly to the old GNS three-fold model.  Old school D&D play is fairly diverse, so I'm wondering how many folks look at things the same way.

Here are the campaign modes:

Game Mode
When I'm focused on the game side of D&D, things like dungeon level = monster level, and XP for Gold, are very important.  The dungeon or hex crawl is somewhat transparent, so players know they deeper they go into the wilderness or dungeon, the more dangerous it will be.  They completely control the level of risk versus reward.  In this mode, the DM gets to focus on challenging the players with puzzles, traps, and resource management conondrums.  Sometimes the participants of the game world are self aware of the underlying mechanics and how it affects the world - there might be things like formal adventuring guilds and magic shops, or frank discussions amongst NPC's about what level of a given dungeon they're willing to tackle, or the difference between a sword + 1 and sword +3.

The fiction side can be challenging because of the artificial distribution of the threats; the DM needs to develop appropriate explanations for why the level 1 monsters live on level 1, the level 2 monsters of level 2, the distribution of treasure, and so forth.  The highest form of this style is the well done megadungeon.

Campaigns like my Black City game emphasize the game elements and give the players a lot of freedom to plan their own delves through exposing the level of risk - the further you go into the ruins, the more dangerous it is, and likewise the deeper you go into the dungeon.

Story Mode
When I'm working horror into the mix, the story bits are more important.  All of the mechanical signposts that are transparent when focusing on challenging the players in game-mode are now hidden; the players don't know what the monsters can do or any of the threat levels.  The emphasis is on atmosphere and a sort of pseudo realistic grim and gritty setting.  Obviously, there are still mechanics under the covers, they're just not prominent at the table, and the characters in the game world aren't as self aware.  LOTFP has moved more towards this style of play, with atmospheric adventures that work for a wide range of character levels; for instance, "Death Frost Doom" is identified as levels 1-7 because the mechanics of the game just aren't that important to resolving the adventure and experiencing the creepy atmosphere.

Simulation Mode
The last mode is focused on explaining how and why the game world works as a fantasy milieu.  Why are rulers all high level characters, why are knights around level 6, and how many wizards live in the capital city?  What is the effect of clerical magic on mortality rates, and how does magic change the fantasy society?  Demographics and economics and a healthy dose of speculative imagination become important considerations for modeling this type of play.  The 1E DMG touches on these subjects, and it's been developed through other product lines like the D&D Gazetteers and Rules Cyclopedia, or the ACKS game.  This style usually supports domain management, army building, and mass combat.

The modes aren't mutually exclusive.  A pedant might argue that horror style D&D is genre emulation, which is also a form of simulation.  I'm not trying to model GNS theory, just point out the competing interests in campaign development.  Most of the time, I'm trying to develop campaigns which work first and foremost as a game (the first mode), while draping enough interesting story over the game bits to keep myself engaged.  I struggle with the story-first approach.