The Three-fold Theories

Welcome to the larp theory for laypeople series, in which I read game-theory classics so you don’t have to. Up first: A quick ‘n’ dirty (and extremely reductive) rundown of the triple theories, aka some of the most impressive words you can drop in a game-theory conversation.

The Bottom Line:

The Three Way/Three Fold/GNS theories of gaming try to figure out how roleplaying games work by looking at player wants. Each of the models says that players have three chief concerns — the concern of story, the concern of rules/system, and the concern of a consistent game world.


The history of this theory is kinda confusing. As far as I can tell, there are three different three-prong theories of gaming and gamers that use similar terminology, terms that are overlapping but not identical.

  1. The newsgroup came up with the Threefold model in 1997 as a way of talking about tabletop roleplaying games. Eventually, a gamer named John H. Kim wrote it down. They divvied players into “dramatists,” “gamists,” and “simulationists.”
  2. Then a Scandinavian larper named Petter Bøckman modded out the theory to fit Scandinavian larp and renamed it the Three Way Model. He dubbed his categories “dramatists,” “gamists,” and “immersionists.”
  3. A guy named Ron Edwards (of Forge fame) also refined the theory, creating the GNS stance, which looks at “narrativism,” “gamism,” and “simulationism.”

Since I’ve mostly heard people use the GNS words at game cons, that’s what we’re going to look at here.

I’m sure the other terms are special and unique snowflakes with particular definitions, and if you’re interested in game design theory, do look them up to get the full nuance (and boost your indie cred).

The Theory:

GNS  answers the question, “what’s fun about roleplaying?” by breaking down the components of roleplaying games, and it covers a lot of ground, and has a lot more complexity, than merely what’s below. But here’s the kernel of the theory:

Gamism. Gamists like competition against other players, GMs or NPCs. They look at rules and figure out the most favorable skill combinations. They like stuff like puzzles, combat encounters, and PvP duels. Gamism emphasizes clear conditions for success or failure. Combat encounters — where a group of characters either succeeds (kills monsters and survives) or fails (leaves monsters alive and/or dies) are an example of gamist play.

Simulationism. Simulationists like the internal logic of the game world. They want it to feel real and consistent. This can mean accuracy in props and costuming, and it can mean making character decisions based on what a character would really do, without regard to out-of-game knowledge about how skills work. So my 1920s accountant character might wear period-correct underwear and actually spend ten hours in game making spreadsheets, just to really feel what the character’s feeling. Likewise, she wouldn’t pick up skill: cryptography just because her accountancy prowess would give her an added bonus; she’d only do it if it felt appropriate to the character.

Narrativism. Narrativists are in it for the story, and for the emotions that the story evokes. As Edwards put it, “The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors.” They want meaningful story arcs. A poetic end for my tee-totaling burlesque dancer might be to become alcoholic after her alcoholic mother dies, and so I might go for that, regardless of whether the character is headed that way.

Edwards makes a big point of saying that these categories are meant to describe decisions and situations, not people or games — and he’s got some pretty good reasons for that– but in my experience, most people I’ve encountered ignore that element and apply GNS to people and games anyway. If it makes you feel better, consider that calling a game “gamist” is really shorthand for “creates opportunities for gamist play.”

Plus, like an internet “what rainbow color represents you?” quiz, I think the categorizations can be fun as well as informative. Most gamers and games I’ve talked to and tried out represent a mixture of the above tendencies. Sometimes, people talk about the three tendencies as if they are opposed to one another, but it doesn’t have to be that way — two of the premises could be in service to the third in a game, for example. So it’s not that a traditional D&D combat encounter doesn’t have simulationist or narrativist elements — after all, this is an epic narrative of adventure that simulates the medieval ages as they never were — it’s just that in a hack-n-slash game they support the strong gamist focus.

Eventually, GNS theory got subsumed by Edwards’ The Big Model, which includes the terms in the section on “creative agendas.”

As for myself, I think I’m mostly narrativist with a smidge of simulationism thrown in for good measure. Thoughts of gamism cause the squirrel in my skull to revv his power drill.

The Scuttlebutt

I know I’m a bad person for citing Wikipedia here, but it provided a gloss of critiques:

  • The model does not have practical uses and doesn’t produce insight into the nature of gaming. I disagree with this one on a personal level — I found it helpful.
  • GNS is fine, but needs a fourth point, called “socializing,” since lots of people play games to hang out with friends. Edwards responds to this critique by arguing that socializing is a separate topic that doesn’t pertain directly to game design.
  • These categories aren’t the right categories.
  • The theory damages gaming, since it’s reductive and creates false ideas about trade-offs between the different categories.
  • Games aren’t art! Screw you and your fancy-pants aesthetic terms.

Why should I care?

  • Knowing what you like in a game can help you find games you like.
  • Understanding different types of player goals can help organizers create games with broad or specific appeal
  • Thinking critically is good.
  • To me, the theory suggests some interesting design ideas. What would a purely narrativist game look like? What about a simulationist game?
  • Now you can make intelligent cocktail party conversation with the theorists and designers.

What type of play do you prefer, and why?

4 thoughts on “The Three-fold Theories

  1. I love Three-Fold theory!

    I look at them as axes across a spectrum, and, for me, they change per larp. Some larps are heavily gamist, some are not. Some players are heavily simulationist, some are not. Also, they change over time.

    What’s interesting to me, now that I am aware of the theory (for about four years) is to see the extreme versions of it, and how each method can be damaging when taken that far, whether it’s the player or the designer that does it (and realize that both players and designers are somewhere in the GNS spectrum).

    Personally, I usually lean heaviest towards immersion and simulation first, with narrativism second, and gamist a distant third. That’s as a designer. As a player, I usually try for narrativism first, then maybe a tie between gaming and simulation or immersion, depending on the setting of the larp.

    I’d also like to emphasize, as I have when I bring this up in conversation or the role playing workshops I (used to )run: THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWER OR PLACE ON THE SPECTRUM!

    I do my best not to disparage those who disagree with me. The only “wrong” part is when a GM designs a certain type of larp, and gets players of another type who doesn’t know what they are getting into. I think most of the enjoyment or lack thereof in many larps is when there’s a disconnect between the GMs and the players in terms of what they want and what they expect from the other.

  2. I place my self primarly as a narrativist when it comes to larp. But also do medieval reenactment as well as deep down 360 degree larping with loads of props in all kinds of genres.

    For me it depends of the vision of the game, and my vision of the experience I want to get.

    And when It comes to big boffer war larps… sometimes I of course want to win (as well as the epic scenes of losing).

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