I’m going to start out from first principles here for two reasons. In large part, it’s because I’m vain enough to be thinking about a notional audience for this blog (even if it’s just the 20-30 people who will play this future game) and I don’t 100% know what kind of background that imagined audience has, in either games or story. So I want to make sure this site has enough information on it to be accessible to all. It’s also because I want to restate some of the stuff I’ve known myself for years, to re-fix it in my head at the outset of this project. If a lot of the next few posts is old hat to you, hang on, there’s (probably) more interesting stuff coming up later.
So, there’s a reasonably well known model for talking about tabletop roleplaying games called GNS Theory. It suggests that games can be considered on three axes – Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist.
Gamism prizes the rules-and-numbers side of the hobby – the tactical use of fictional skills and abilities, represented by mechanical traits, to defeat antagonists and solve problems in order to acquire better/more effective mechanical traits, without reference to why those antagonists needed defeating – they needed defeating because the game rules said that was the goal of the game. D&D, in it’s original form was a relatively pure Gamist game – indeed, its creator, Gary Gygax devoted considerable editorial time, in the early days of the hobby to deploring the practice of play-acting that had crept into his skirmish combat simulation game.
Narrativism concerns itself with the idea that the purpose of these games (as distinct from board games or war games) is to collaboratively tell a story – with a coherent beginning, middle, and end, and even perhaps concerns like a theme. White Wolf’s World of Darkness games tend to prize this aspect of hobby.
Simulationism holds that the purposes of these games is to simulate a fictional world and the various elements within it, because that is fun in its own right, without having to produce a coherent story. I’m actually having trouble thinking of game that really skews Simulationist out-of-the-box as it were – leave a comment if you’ve got a good example?
I should say that GNS theory is, in the first place, just a model, and may not work for you, but also that no value judgement is implied by these axes – none is better than the others – and that it’s very rare to find a “pure” game of any of the three varieties. Most games (both in the sense of published material, and the practical implementations of that material as conducted by any given group of gamers) fall somewhere in the middle of all three.
The Threefold Model, or Three Way Model is a particular adaption of these three axes, that is in common use in the Nordic LARP community to describe differing styles of play. It was conceived by John H. Kim and others, and adapted by Petter Bøckman. Mr Kim maintains an archive of material related to the topic, but in brief, for LARP play, the three axes are considered to be Gamism, Dramatism and Immersionism, reflecting the differing play style offered by LARP, and again, one would be unlikely to find a game that was purely one of them, with no element of any of the others present, and most games reside comfortably in a middle territory where they are all three in roughly equal measure.
Gamism differs from it’s tableop counterpart, in that it’s (more or less) a given in LARP that each player will be playing a character – an entity with fictional wants and desires distinct in some measure from that of the player, and that said fictional persona will be unaware of any of the “game rules”, meaning that pure “Gamism” in the GNS sense is next-to-impossible. Under the Three Way Model, Gamism is held to represent a style of play in which the players are concerned with “solving” the game – figuring out puzzles, defeating antagoists, and do on.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this sounds a lot like GNS Theory Gamism, but my hair-splitting conception of the difference between the two is that in tabletop/GNS theory, gamism is closer to purely mechanical – it is, if you like, about using the numbers provided by the game systems to get better numbers, while in the LARP/Three Way it is about achieving in-character goals, without as much reference to the numbers/system level stuff as being a goal in and of itself.
Dramatism in the Three Way Model is largely unchanged from its GNS counterpart, Narrativism – it’s just a different word for being All About The Story.
Immersionism is the idea that the goal of LARP is for players to simply represent their characters within the fictional world of the LARP, playing them true to themselves, to the hilt. It might also be said to raise questions of identity, as the goal of an immersionist player might be said to be to forget their “real lives” within the moment of the game, and to full embody the persona of their character.
Once again, there’s no value judgement made in the model, although individual players often prefer certain styles of play.. Again, most LARPs fall somewhere on all three axes – possibly even shifting position slightly along them at different points in the time frame of the games.
I find it interesting that there’s often a suggestion that Dramatism and Immersionism are in conflict, in a way that Narrativism and Simulationsim aren’t. To explain: in a purely Immersionist game, the phrase “my character would (or wouldn’t) do that” is the sole guiding star. Each player’s duty is to immerse themselves, regardless of consequence (to the point that the game crosses over with reality, at least – causing actual harm to others or self would of course be frowned upon), and the game is crafted from the interactions between these fully actualised fictional entities, without regard to the idea that there is an overall story being told.
In a pure Dramatist game, the notion of character comes in second to the notion of story – so characters might do things that would be considered inappropriate for them at a given point because for them to do so would fit better with the story, or even just the theme as crafted by the group – so Immersion is that much harder, because (in theory) a given player is both playing their character and shaping the story. It would be inappropriate to be full immersed in a Dramatist game, as what a given character would, or would not do is not the primary compass by which the game should be navigated.
So, that’s some of the basics. I’ll probably want to return to the Three Way Model in future posts, as I think it’s a really useful tool for thinking about LARP, and a surprising improvement over GNS theory given that the two aren’t more than a few notes apart.