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  • Writer's pictureEdward Schmalz

What Sort of Roleplayer are you?

The fire flickers in the hearth, as five of of my friends glare across the table at me. One of them scribbles notes frantically into a book, while another growls out threats to me in a Russian accent, the other three talk to one another, plotting their next move, hoping to best the Vampire. There is not a smile on any of their faces - and they are having an incredible time.

What makes Roleplaying fun? What compels humans to want to sit around a table, throw dice and pretend to be someone or something they are not?

In this series, we shall be taking a look at why we love to throw dice and fight dragons by looking at a few of the different academic theories on why we play. The first of these theories which we will take a closer look at is Game Designer, Ron Edwards, "GNS Theory".

According to GNS Theory, the fundamental goal of the roleplayer is to explore the world - and in doing that they are, in varying degrees, looking to::

  • Beat the Game (Gamism)

  • Enact the Narrative (Narativism)

  • Simulate the World (Simulationism)

Remember - most gamers are motivated by all three of these things - in varying degrees.


Some may argue that exploration is a goal in and of itself, but Howard argues that exploration is part of the fundamental experience of a roleplaying game - a goal customized by a players personal motivations.

The exploration component of a roleplaying game includes discovering and imagining the following:

Character: A fictional person. Exploring what your fictional character is like and how they will respond to things. Example: Scutz the Gnome is a kleptomaniac who steals at every oppurtunity.
Color: Details providing atmosphere. Example: The dripping water in the dungeon smells of rot and decay.
Setting: Location in space and time. Example: The game is set in Barovia, a doomed plane in the fantasy dimension of Ravenloft, 100 years after the Vampire Strahd rose to power.
Situation: The dilemma. This is the thing which places the character into a space where they have to respond and develop. Example: The vampire Strahd invites the party to 'dinner' at his castle. Little do they know - they are the dinner!
System: Determines how in-game events unfold. Example: Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

More information on the Exploration Part of Roleplaying, Available in Edwards Explanation of his GNS Theory.


Not technically part of exploration - Premise is the advertisement for the experience. It may appeal to any of the three gaming inclinations or all of them and in it's essence is the primary EXPECTATION for the gaming experience. The premise may have to deal with the system as a whole or a campaign, which will be styled in such a manner as to appeal to the different motivations. It is crucial to understand, in order to better understand the threefold motivations of roleplaying.

The majority of RPG systems present premises which appeal to all three of these motivations, as evidenced here:

Dungeons And Dragons 5th Edition: " The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more. You can also explore the world of Dungeons & Dragons through any of the novels written by its fantasy authors, as well as engaging board games and immersive video games. All of these stories are part of D&D. " (Wizards of the Coast Website)

Pathfinder: " The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game puts you in the role of a brave adventurer fighting to survive in a world beset by magic and evil! " (Pazio Website)

Vampire the Masquarade: "Vampire: The Masquerade is the original and ultimate roleplaying game of personal and political horror. You are a vampire, struggling for survival, supremacy, and your own fading humanity—afraid of what you are capable of, and fearful of the inhuman conspiracies that surround you. "(White Wolf Website)

Each promise an explorative experience that will both be challenging(Gamism), intriguing(Narrativism) and consistent(Simulationism).

More specific premises, which have a deeper connection to appealing to the three goals can be seen in how hardcover RPG adventures, systems and campaigns describe themselves:

Curse of Strahd: " Unravel the mysteries of Ravenloft in this dread adventure for the world’s greatest roleplaying game " (Narrativism)

Tomb of Horrors: "Can you survive the Tomb of Horrors?" (Gamism)

Sword Coasts Adventurer's Guide: " While the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is a valuable resource for Dungeon Masters, it was crafted with players and their characters foremost in mind. There is a plethora of new character options to intrigue and inspire every member of the adventuring party. " (Simulationism)

As the roleplayer goes on to explore - they do so seeking to fulfill the goals of Gamism, Narraivism and Simulatonism, to varying degrees.


I'm here to slay Persians and chew bubblegum. And I'm all out of bubblegum.

At it's full incarnation, those who pursue Gamism are disparaged as power gamers. There goal is to win the game - in whatever incarnation it takes.

Edward's describes the motivations of Gamism as:

Gamism is expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people's actual play strategies. The listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color] provide an arena for the competition. (GNS and Other Matters of RolePlaying Theory)

However, in his more recent article, Gamism: Step On Up, Edward's elaborates that the goal of the gamist is essentially - to best a challenge and achieve.

What does the gamist want?

The following are examples of parts of what motivates a gamist, or the gamist part of any roleplayer:

  • Supremacy between Other Players in Some Field

  • Accomplishing a Genuinely Challenging Task

Think of most of the MMOs that exist. These are designed heavily for the Gamist. Take World of Warcraft for example - there are essentially two modes of end game play - Player vs Players Battles and Raids against Exceedingly Difficult Monsters.

Supremacy between Other Players in Some Field:

At it's worst, this can look like a party turning on itself, drawing swords at the turn of a hat and attempting to defeat one another in some sort of combat. At it's best, it can be an ideological dispute between players that motivates both of them to work independently/cooperatively toward a goal.

Some examples of Positive Opportunities for 'Supremacy Between Players' arrise with:

  • In Game Games such as card games and drinking games (This is the entire premise of the game Red Dragon Inn)

  • Counting Kills of ferocious foes (Think Gimli and Legolas Orc killing Contest)

  • In Game Political Manuevering (A common practice in LARPs)

Accomplishing a Genuinely Challenging Task

The other primary way in which Gamist minded players gain satisfaction in RolePlaying games is by attempting something which is genuinely challenging. This is the part where game design is perhaps at it's most enriching - where the world builder has to prepare a challenge which they think that the player could complete - BUT - they may very well may not.

In order to truly be perceived as a challenging task, their must be (or at least seem to be) a genuine chance of failure. In essence - there must be a gamble.

Here are some examples of genuinely challenging tasks to motivate a Gamist:

" The banner of the Orc army rests squarely in the middle of the fort - if it is brought down, all of your party will be given 100 gold pieces - but - the one who actually pulls it down - that person will have songs sung about her for generations. "

" Strahd is, by all accounts - much, much, more powerful than you - the players - he will haunt you and torment you - and at some point, once you have gathered the resources you think you need - you will challenge him. Even with all these resources - it will be an uphill battle and ALL OF YOU MAY VERY WELL DIE. Good luck."

To recap - a large part of the enjoyment for the gamist comes from the following statement:

"I want to be challenged by aspects of the game and best it via utilizing my (the players) mental capacity"

If there is no risk, than the Gamist may seek satisfaction in other aspects of the game, but will likely become dissatisfied with the experience.

Some examples of premises which appeal to the gamists include:

  • Can I play well enough such that my character survives the perils?

  • Can I score more points than the other players?

How is the fun of the gamist ruined?

If there is no risk - the gamist doesn't care. It's not typically whether or not they are rolling dice - it's simply the perception of whether or not the challenge has any real danger to it, or oppurtunity to best it. One of the biggest ways to take the sails out of a gamists experience is to have an NPC save them or a party member at the last moment after a bad decision or a bad roll.


Society for Creative Anarchism - Mostly a Simulationist + Gamist Activity, participants create personas and wage medieval battles.

All of Roleplaying takes place in what is frequently referred to as 'shared imagined space'. The driving force for participating in this shared imagined space, rather than simply playing an abstract game, for many is to immerse themselves in that imaginary world and participate in it.

To a certain extent - anyone who enjoys RolePlaying games enjoys a bit of simulationsim - but - for our purpose here we will explore the overall simulationism motivation and how it manifest's itself the most in game play styles.

Edwards describes the Simulationist as:

"Simulationism is expressed by enhancing the listed elements[Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration."(GNS and Other Matters of RolePlaying Theory)

What does the simulationist want?

Fundamentally, the simulationist seeks to exist in the world as accurately as possible. They wish to enhance the elements of the world and explore these components of the world deeper. It is most important to the simulationist that the world makes sense and that the rules of it are such that it remains consistent. If the rules of the world frequently change, the simulationist may find this bothersome and irritating - for examples, if Orcs in this world are green because they drank fel magic and suddenly with no explanation, they appear purple, the simulationist would be frustrated.

In many ways, these are the players who care the most about plot holes and consistency, as well as authenticity of the experience. If they are playing a historical game, they don't want to see random allusions to modern technology, as it damages the believability of the fantasy.

Furthermore, the simulationist enjoys the illusion that the world exists - independent of the DM. The sentence "Well, maybe the DM will just 'blue bolt you' is an anathema to the simulationist desire to perceive the world as a whole, connected entity that exists on the basis of it's own rules.

The following actions include aspects which appeal to the simulationism desires in roleplaying:

  • Maintaining Strict Records of In Game Resources

  • Understanding Intimately the Spatial Awareness of Events and Battles, including Timelines of Ingame Events

  • Playing Their Character as Realistically as Possible to it's motivations

Fundamentally - the experience for the simulationist can be boiled down to the following statement:

"I want the world and actions of the world (imagined space) to be as authentic and continuous as possible, so that I can immerse myself into this. "

Edward's describes the Simulationist as the 'Dreamer', as simulation is the part of the experience which compels us to imagine that the paper in front of us represents an epic hero going on an epic journey.

The following premises are specifically appealing to the Simulationist:

Character: highly-internalized, character-experiential play(Example: the person centered Turku approach.)

Situation: well-defined character roles and tasks, up to and including metaplot-driven play. (Example in a medieval setting: What does my liege lord require me to do?)

Setting: a strong focus on the details, depth, and breadth of a given set of source material. (Example: How long does it actually take for a blacksmith to smelt the iron to make the sword. How much does it weight? Does it tire my character out to move it? )

System: a strong focus on the resolution engine and all of its nuances in strictly within-game-world, internally-causal terms. (Example: How do the mechanics for fighting with a shield best match my vision of how my barbarian fights?)

How is the fun of the simulationist ruined?

"Don't break my immersion man!" When the game handwaves things or consistency errors pop up, it detracts from the simulationist experience. Furthermore, when game rules are violated by the GM or the world acts in a way that doesn't make sense, it can reduce the feeling of consistency greatly and take away from the simulationist experience.


In these tombs you shall find the great stories of how Kevin the Cavalier rolled a natural 1 and burned down the house.

The defeated orc looks up to you - it's eyes repentant, it's body bloodied, just clinging to life - it asks "Spare me...." Do you spare the creature, taking it into your retinue? Or do you end it's existence, making sure your nearby colony of settlers is safe? Or do you come up with an idea somewhere in between? These action of making these choices and the ensuing ramifications of these decisions is what appeals to the narrativist motivation.

Edward's defines the motivation of the Narrativist as:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme. The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors. The listed elements provide the material for narrative conflict (again, in the specialized sense of literary analysis). (GNS and Other Matters of RolePlaying Theory)

What does the Narrativist Want?

A narrativist, at their core, want to experience and participate in a grand narrative. They are the ones who want to ask and discover answers to the great literature questions of life by through experiential storytelling. In the eyes of the narrativist, in their purest form, they are writing a collaborative fiction with the other players by playing the game together.

They do not want to WITNESS the story - but rather be an active part of it's creation.

It is whole possible for a dungeon master to draw up what they believe to be a rich story and actively involve the players in it, but give them little choice - and the narrativist, who professes to love story above all else, may find this game boring.

What the narrativist (and in some way all three play styles need) is meaningful conflict and choice. And - creating this scenario is not exceptionally complex - but is often overlooked. In order to create a satisfying situation for the narrativist motivation, the following formula can and should be utilized:

  • Present a Dilemma

  • Explore All Sides of the Dilemma, including that which might disagree with the players motivation

  • Resolve the Dilemma via Player Choices and Problem Solving

  • Have the Player Choice Have Consequences Down the Line (Good, Bad or Neutral)

The following premises largely appeal to narrativist:

  • Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?

  • Do love and marriage outweigh one's loyalty to a political cause?

And many, many more - the full range of literature, myth, and stories of all sorts. The trick is to not make these decisions black and white! The more grey exploration of the human condition a roleplayer can do, the more fulfilling they will find the hobby!

How if the fun of the narrativist ruined?

Railroading. If the plot will advance from point a - to point b, no matter what happens, the narrativist does not care. If there choices do not matter, they will quickly lose complete interest in the game.

How to Use This Knowledge in Your RolePlaying and Gaming Experience

Alternatively - just RP with Joe Mangiello in his D&D basement.

So, now that we know some of the key aspects of what makes us want to play roleplaying games - and what we want out of it - how do we use this knowledge to enhance our roleplaying experience?

As a Player

When we are player - it is helpful to understand our preferences as a gamers so we can communicate this to our dungeon master and other players. If we have a clear idea of what we want out of the game, we can set expectations better at the beginning of the game , which will allow the dungeon master and the other players to make the game as fun as possible for us and the other players(Believe it or not, most dungeon masters want you to have fun!)

Here are a few helpful ways to elaborate proactively articulate our desires above the table before the game:

  • I'm looking to be challenged mentally by the game (Gamist, Cooperative)

  • I'm looking to compete in some matter with other players for objectives (Gamist, Competitive)

  • I want to really immerse myself in the world (Simulation, World Based)

  • I want to really develop my character (Simulation, Character based)

  • I like to know that the rules are constant for the world so that I have a clear understanding of what's possible (Simulation, System based)

  • I want to make meaningful choices and be part of the story (Narrativist)

  • I want the story to have a clear theme, reenforced by both our actions and the actions of the world (Narrativist)

As a DM

As a DM, you can ask your players a variety of questions to better understand their motivations for playing roleplaying games and than work to fulfill these expectations as best as possible.

Here are a few basic guiding principles for satisfying the desires associated with each of these different facets of roleplaying.

Gamist - Make it dangerous. Make the events genuinely challenging and give the player oppurtunities to figure out challenging puzzles and let them fail.

Simulationist - Give them details and invite them to describe and keep track of elements of the worlds.

Narrativist - Get to the Bangs! Focus on bringing the plot closer to the next conflict, climax, scene change, and character development at a reasonable pacing.


There has been some talk that GNS style of roleplaying understanding is outdated and it has been replaced on the website the Forge with what is called "The Big Model". In a future article, we will discuss this model, however the concept of these different motivations of reasons for playing roleplaying games is still very poignant - and - I believe that they are generally three major components which explain a fair amount of the motivation of players.

Bear in mind that, very rarely does it occur that a person identifies with just one of these. In fact, there is definitely an argument to be made that if someone just like one, that they truly would not enjoy roleplaying, all that much. For example, if they simply like Narrativism and Simulationism, they might find collaborative fan fiction more enjoyable. Or, if they were purely interested in Simulationism and Gamism, they may prefer to play a medieval combat sport, like Dagorhir.

Tell us what you think in the comments - on a scale of a 1-10 for each - how chiefly do these motivations factor into your enjoyment of RPGs?

Also, don't forget to like us on facebook, twitter and instagram! And follow our podcast, Board at Work and YouTube channel, where we discuss more issues in gaming!

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