Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A GNS Timeline of Gaming

"Oh God, I could go to Hell for this!" - Capt. Lunatic

Bear with me.

For those of you who don't know, The Forge was a locus for high-falutin' gaming theorists to gather and talk about a bunch of academic ideas about the nature of tabletop gaming. The theories generated by Forgites were...polarizing, to the say the least, in the gaming community.

I took a look at The Forge when it was the New Big Thing about 10 years ago, but it didn't do a whole lot for me, as a general rule. But I was grabbed by what is arguably the most memorable theory to emerge out of The Forge: GNS. The acronym stands for Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist. Again, I didn't really care about how Forgians applied GNS. What I liked was the three-part division. I think it does a nice job of summing up the different facets of the gaming experience, and provides a neat framework of analysis when looking at a set of rules. (Observant readers might have spotted my GNS reference when talking about my three current games of choice in my last post.)

For my purposes and the purposes of this post, I define Gamist as being mostly concerned with the experience of playing a game; rules that don't "make sense" are perfectly acceptable as long as they provide a fun game experience. I define Narrativist as being mostly concerned with crafting a story out of the game experience; rules that don't "make sense" are perfectly acceptable as long as they serve to guide the emerging story created by game play. And I define Simulationist as being mostly concerned with creating a "realistic" game experience; rules that don't "make sense" are to be excised and avoided at all costs.

At any rate, I was thinking the other day about the broad trends in game design that often come to characterize an era, particularly how the 1990s, for example, were largely a Narrativist decade. And then I realized one could break down eras into a GNS (as I define it) framework (again, via looking at the dominant game rules or player preferences at the time):
  • The 1970s/"the Golden Age" of RPGs were a Gamist era. Monsters could see without a light source and freely move through doors that PCs would find stuck or locked. The center of the campaign was the "mythic underworld" of the dungeon, where laws of physics were subservient to what was considered "fun" - dungeons were stocked with strange ecologies of monsters living side by side and DMs could throw in funny tricks like "wild bores" or "disco dragons".
  • The 1980s/"the Silver Age" saw a move away from this style of play into a Simulationist context, I think largely as a reaction against the perceived "unrealistic" nature of D&D and its immediate imitators. Articles in Dragon magazine suddenly became obsessed with calculating "realistic" falling damage and other such "fixes" to the D&D system and great premium was placed on more finely-grained and explicated rules systems. GURPS, that great Simulationist rules set, emerged from this time, as did other systems like Rolemaster or Phoenix Command, that promised gruesomely realistic combat results.
  • The 1990s/"the Goth Age" was in turn a reaction against the Simulationist 80s as much as that decade had been a reaction against the gonzo Gamist 70s. Vampire: the Masquerade, of course, is the most famous example of the Narrativist games that came to dominate the decade. Worth noting, too, is the fact that TSR (or should I style that T$R for a proper 90s flashback?) pivoted AD&D away from dungeoneering and into setting-based adventures. It's no coincidence that even the most avowed 2e haters will concede that 90s-era AD&D produced some of the best fantasy campaign settings ever published.
  • The 2000s/"the Decade I'd Rather Forget" brought things full-circle. With WotC's acquisition of the D&D brand, they announced the game was going "back to the dungeon!" and designed the 3e mechanics accordingly, bringing us back to Gamist gaming of the 70s (albeit with much crunchier mechanics). D20 Dark Ages has a great post on how Diablo II (and other late-90s computer RPGs) influenced Third Edition game design. Even though its philosophies are firmly aligned against post-TSR D&D, the OSR, coming along towards the end of the decade, was simply another facet of this return to the gonzo Gamist play of yesteryear.
  • We're three years into a new decade and I'm not sure I could really say what the zeitgeist is these days. If anything, with the failure of D&D 4e, I'd say this may be the first decade in the history of gaming where there really isn't a dominant trend of game play. One thing that seems fairly certain: I don't think we'll see resurgence of 80s-era Simulationist gaming in the way we saw a resurgence of 70s-era Gamist play. Then again, that may just be lack of hindsight talking. Who knows how I'll view the 2010s ten years from now?

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