The Threefold Model, also known as GNS Theory, describes some of the core elements which motivate people to play RPGs. The theory says that there are three basic components of an RPG: Game, Narrative, and Simulation. People play RPGs for different reasons – some people like the thrill of problem solving, some begin a part of an ongoing story, others like experiencing the game world from their character’s point of view. A good game includes something for all three camps and is therefore enjoyable no matter what your creative agenda might be. In reality, nobody belongs to one specific camp, everybody probably likes a mix of all three elements.
(or “challenge”) – Gamist RPG design emphasizes the “gamey” parts of the RPG experience. Gamists like the sensation of winning, or being effective. They like risks, rewards, and overcoming challenges. Many gamists thrive on teamwork, cooperation, and competition.
American RPGs put a large emphasis on gamism. Good gamist design emphasizes things like strategy and tactics and rewards players for planning in advance. Combat is the most obvious way to scratch the gamist itch, but gamists tend to like any situation which they can “win”. A popular bromide suggests that RPGs are “not about winning or losing,” but for many people this is simply untrue – victory is one of the most tangible ways to reward participation.
(or “story”) – Narrativist RPG design is all about the story. You can think of story in two ways: it’s the game’s “plot”, and it’s also the player’s experience of their character’s personal narrative. If you want to look at the game from a narrativist point of view, take a look at the characters in the story in terms of their motivations. Drama takes place when their motivations come into mutual conflict. Character change and develop over time based on how they address these tests of their motivation. A good narrative plotline tests the character’s motivation at increasing levels of intensity over time.
Narrativists often describe their games in terms of the underlying emotional themes. If you can understand why the characters in your game do what they do, you can plug them into just about anything.
One tip for writing a narratively strong game is to make sure each “scene” has a role in the greater story. People want to feel like they’re participating in something like a living novel. For this to take place, both the characters and setting must develop over time. One mistake that many plot writers make is focusing the plot on returning things to the status quo. ie – the kingdom is peaceful, then monsters show up. The adventurers slay the monsters and things return to to normal. This isn’t a good story because nothing in it has changed. Slaying the monsters should change the heroes and/or the kingdom they’re saving.
(or “immersion”) – Simulationist RPG design focuses on the player’s internal experience of the game world. In an immersive game, you can get lost in your character’s head space; the world you’re in feels real. There are two components of this: things should work like they do in the real world, and the game environment should look real.
It’s important that the RPG world functions like the real world. Sure, our games feature fantastic elements like magic and monsters, but the people in the story are still people. When somebody dies, others will mourn. When the kingdom is at war, the NPCs will reference it in their dialogue and behavior. Actions have consequences, and the villains are real people with real motivations, not nefarious caricatures designed to “do evil”.
The simulationist attitude is extremely important for larpwrights. Your players should be able to look around and see the game world with as few distractions as possible. NPCs should be in proper costume and makeup. Things which are clearly from the “real world”, such as computers or soda machines, should be removed from sight. RPGs require imagination, but we should strive to make them require as little imagination as possible.
Three of the primary offenders to an immersive game are people who are out-of-game, holds and other breaches in the game’s atmosphere, and narration. The players have been instructed to ignore people who are out-of-game, such as game marshals. But they do still see the guy, and this reminds them that they’re in a game. Like stage hands, marshals and observers should remain out of sight and out of mind. Like holds, they momentarily interrupt the player’s experience of the world. Marshals should avoid narrating what’s happening, instead they should strive to create that experience.
Laprwrights should also be careful to focus on experiences they can actually create. All your NPCs are humans, and this suggests that their roles should be more or less humanoid. Merely narrating “You see a giant snake” does not create the experience of fighting a giant snake. If you want to give the players the experience of fighting a giant, put your NPCs on stilts. Effects like flying, burrowing, and invisibility should be avoided because these are experiences we cannot actually create, they require too much suspension of disbelief. They draw your player’s attention towards an imaginary image of the world which contrasts with the experience they’re really having.
The RPG experience isn’t just about the game. I argue that there is a fourth component, Social reasons for playing. LARP groups are a form of community which has its own pull and reward mechanisms. Essentially, a lot of people go to LARPs to meet new people and hang out with their friends. As a director, you can encourage this by creating opportunities for your players to hang out between games (ie, fighter practices, workshops, parties, monthly movie nights, etc), and by fighting the community’s cliquey or exclusive tendencies. The directors should be warm and welcoming, always working to keep people included and plugged in.
Putting It All Together
Each part of the threefold model is a lens through which you can view your game. To create a game with broad appeal, examine each scene and plotline though all three lenses.
For example, a combat encounter should have three components:
- Tactics and Strategy. The players should have an edge if they are organized, or think about how to approach it. It should be challenging, but fair.
- Role in the story. When somebody asks the characters “What did you do last night?” they should be able to say something more than “we killed some orcs”. The encounter should be part of a narrative, like, “The lich king sent orcs into our village and we stopped them from poisoning the well.”
- Atmosphere. The NPCs should look and act like monsters. It’s not enough to put a guy in black makeup and have him say “You see a spider” to people that encounter him — he should really look like a spider. The NPCs should be act appropriately, chanting or threatening or running away as somebody in the game universe would really act.