Archive for October, 2011

Alright! From the (lengthy!) discussion on the last post comes this question, which I wanted to bring out as a separate post. It’s an inspired-by-a-guest post, which is a bit like a guest post, except I get to abuse the fact that it’s my blog to get my argument in first. Hurrah!

It’s a terminology discussion. If you aren’t interested in terminology, that’s understandable (!), and you should probably look away now. The “official” definitions for the terms come from The Forge Provisional Glossary, and my interpretation of them may be wrong.

The question comes from Rabalias. Our discussion went on for a while, and (I think) clarified what I see as the difference between Gamist play (tactical decisions), Narrativist play (thematic decisions) and Simulationist play (neither, or bits in between those two).

Then Rabalias said:

I think we probably do need another name here. I’m not sure why we’d call the non-narrativist stuff “simulationist” any more. It’s more like the distinction between Battlestar Galactica (constant moral judgements and decisions about what goals one should pursue with limited reources) vs, say, Stargate SG1 (most of the baddies are obviously bad, most of the time the characters seem to have adequate resources for the task at hand and the questions are more tactical in nature). (Try not to get hung up on the choice of shows there, I’m just trying to use them as an example.) Anyway, I’m not sure what the right term is right now, but simulationist just doesn’t seem to cut it for these purposes.

Cool! Here’s my opinion.

Thematic decisions, answering questions like “which is more important, X or Y?” (friendship or family, for a single example) / “how far would you go to get Z?”, that’s Narrativism. BSG, in your TV series example.

Tactical decisions, answering questions like “can you overcome X challenge?” / “does your plan work?”, that’s Gamism. SG1 in your example, I think? If so, there’s slight confusion when compared to the previous sentence; this is non-Narrativist but I wouldn’t call it Simulationist. It’s Gamist :-)

Both require real, meaningful questions to be asked of players/characters. Real= “having more than one valid answer, and not forced in a particular direction by another player, such as the GM”. Meaningful = “having a significant effect on the direction of the game”. What *type* of question it is determines whether it’s Gamism or Narrativism, as above.

So what about play where you have neither?

Well, it depends. What are you doing instead? I’d argue that in most cases you’re exploring the world / story / characters / whatever that the GM has created for you, or that you’ve created yourself. (I’m focussing on traditional GM / player models here.) That exploration, to my mind, is Simulationism.

However, there’s also the term “Illusionism”, which refers to play where a GM gives the illusion of real meaningful choice (tactical or thematic), but in fact the choices are not meaningful – they don’t change the direction of the story, which proceeds according to the GM’s plan. (There’s also “Participationism”, which is the same thing but where the players know that’s going on, and are ok with it.)

To my mind, those are a subset of Simulationism – the players are exploring the GM’s story. But perhaps it’s a separate thing altogether.

So, two-or-sort-of-three questions for you, Rabalias:

  1. Do you agree that play without real meaningful decisions necessarily relies on exploration to provide its primary focus of interest? If so, doesn’t that make it Simulationism?
  2. If it’s not Simulationism, do “Illusionism” and “Participationism” cut it for you? Are they the other term(s) you’re looking for?

Clarification: A game can be broadly Simulationist and still provide real, meaningful choices. It just doesn’t do so very often, because it doesn’t see that as the primary goal of play. I certainly don’t want to imply Simulationism = no choice = bad gaming. Neither of those equalities is true – please ask if you’re not sure why.

Over on the RPG Theory Primer (which I’ll be touting from now till the end of time – fair warning), I mention the idea of “El Dorado”, a term that’s been coined to refer to the ideal some gamers hold where their game is both Simulationist and Narrativist. (Check the primer for links to explain those concepts.)

As I’ve read more about these terms, and been exploring my own games for understanding of the theory, I think I’ve clicked the essential difference between the two – and I’d like to put that up here.

Disclaimer: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve just misunderstood the theory. That’s cool. Whether or not it’s right for Simulationism / Narrativism, I still think the distinction I’m drawing is a useful one as it’s a concrete difference that affects people’s play preferences.

Disclaimer 2: I’m pretty sure I’m late to the party on this. Ah well. Looks like there’s still plenty of cake left.

Ok, so here we go.

The key factor is the point at which the story content is created. Simulationism is about exploration – exploring material that has been created beforehand, often by a GM. A lot of games will encourage players (including the GM) to make up stuff on the fly where suitable, but if that stuff they’re allowed to make up doesn’t include decisions about where the plot is going (for example, because the GM has written the plot before play), then it isn’t Narrativism. Narrativism, by contrast, is about creating the story / plot right there, in-play, through the actions of the characters.

So that’s it. Are you exploring a story that’s already been created? Then it’s Simulationism. Creating a story in play, with no-one forcing it in a pre-prepared direction? Narrativism.

Simple, right? Maybe. A few clarifications, though, as I think it’s quite easy to misunderstand this point.

Clarification 1: Just because a game pays attention to “a good story” doesn’t make it Narrativism. A GM can write a good story up-front and then let the players run through it – that’s not creating the story in-play, and hence not Narrativism. Similarly, games that pay attention to believable in-game causality are not necessarily Simulationist. Most games do this to an extent, to keep the players’ suspension of disbelief active. A Simulationist game is one in which the primary goal of play is to explore simulated material that has been created beforehand.

(Yeah, I think the names are slightly misleading. “Simulationism” to me implies accurate simulation is the focus – but most games need that to an extent. “Narrativism” implies strong narrative – and again, a lot of games want that. Ron Edwards, the developer of much of this theory, realised this and renamed them to phrase-based descriptions, “The Right to Dream” and “Story Now” respectively. Personally I’d refer to them as Exploration and Authorship.)

Clarification 2: Naturally, a game will almost always have a mixture of the two in its flow. Even the most hardcore story-prepared GM will normally allow a bit of leeway in how that story is approached. Even a strongly written-through-play game will usually have bits of content prepared by the GM. However, for the key story-defining plot decisions, it’s rare (in my experience) to see a game pick and choose between the two. Either the GM (or, sometimes, other players) have pre-decided where it’s going, or the group finds out only through playing the game. For any specific decision, the two are mutually exclusive, and how much time you spend on each is a matter of preference.

Does that all make sense? Does it ring true? Anyone think this is accurate, but nothing to do with Narrativism / Simulationism?

A lot of roleplayers believe that game mechanics are evil things, to be minimised if not completely rejected. A common complaint is that they get in the way of “the story” – which, to story-lovers like myself, is most definitely a Bad Thing.

But is this really justified? Certainly in many games (especially traditional ones), the mechanics are convoluted and difficult to remember, and this can definitely lead to them claiming the focus of the group’s attention, at the cost of the fictional aspects. But is this an unavoidable consequence of mechanics?

I suggest not – and in fact I think mechanics can help the story-focussed group avoid other things that might distract from the story. Here are three examples.

Removing GM responsibility

A roleplaying game is essentially a series of statements made by the various players about things that happen in the fiction. In a “traditional” GM / player model, many of these statements are made by the GM, who, without mechanics, has to decide “what happens” using only their own intution. Sure, they might use some guiding principles (e.g. drama, fairness, plausibility, “cool”, etc.), but fundamentally it’s their call.

Not only is this potentially disempowering for the other players, but it’s also quite risky socially – it’s very easy for GMs to upset or frustrate players by making a call the players don’t like (too harsh, not harsh enough, and so forth). Even with an extremely close understanding between the GM and the players, no GM is flawless – and besides, such understandings are rare treasures indeed. For a new GM, a new player, a new game, a new group, the potential for misjudgement is huge.

A mechanical framework distances the GM from these decisions. If the dice (or whatever) come down against you, then Bad Things Happen, and you’ve accepted the risk by agreeing to play within this particular framework. No hard feelings toward the GM. As Apocalypse World shows extremely clearly, this doesn’t remove the GM’s creative input – there are plenty of different ways Bad Things can Happen – but it can provide a bare-bones structure for the GM to enhance and flesh out in play.

Managing Pacing

In games which focus on “story”, pacing is paramount – but tough to get right. Whoever’s responsible for managing pacing, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside in favour of the other jobs that player’s juggling, leading to play that gets bogged down in mediocre scenes rather than staying focussed on the action.

Using mechanics to handle pacing allows it to be more strictly guided and emerge naturally through play. Sorcerer’s advice: “Get to the Bangs!” is exactly this sort of thing in action.

Clarifying Authority

Any system, no matter how freeform / mechanical, defines who can say what, when, about the game’s fiction. The more freeform (or less strict, or less clear) a system gets, the easier it is for clashes to occur between two (or more!) players whose statements conflict – “hey, GM, you can’t put that into my character’s backstory”.

Having a clear mechanic for who is allowed to say what sorts of things can help avoid such conflicts, and keep the game running smoothly. (Indeed, I think even most “mechanics-light” systems tend to have this dictated somewhere, though not always clearly.)

What I’m Not Saying

Important note: I’m not saying a good GM / group can’t do the above things themselves, without the help of mechanics. They can, of course! But when they don’t, the results can be just as detrimental to the story as the most convoluted mechanical systems out there.

So no, mechanics aren’t the only way to get these things done, but they are another way, and one that might leave the GM / group free to spend effort on other things, e.g. contributing cool stuff to the game, playing more games, or even (shock, horror) their lives outside of roleplaying. (I believe such things exist.)

But wait, there’s more…

But those are just my three things, right? What else can a system do for story-focussed groups, that I haven’t considered?

Wow! Thanks to the newsletter from DriveThruRPG, I just came across Radio Rivendell – an internet radio station playing fantasy music 24/7. Great for fantasy roleplaying sessions, especially as it has links to buy music and to a whole bunch of freely-downloadable stuff!