Creative Differences: Why Simulationism is not Narrativism

Posted: October 18, 2011 in System Design
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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?

  1. Rabalias says:

    So, I just don’t think you’re right about simulationism. I’m happy that the distinction you’re making is a helpful one, but simulationism was first defined by Mr Edwards as being about exploration of the world and the characters in it.

    Or, as the provisional glossary would have it:
    “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements.”

    (I can see where one would potentially get confused by the use of the term “pre-established” there, but I believe that is referring to genre. It’s tough for me to prove this because Edwards’s writings are fairly diffuse, but if you go back and read his essay on simulationism I don’t think you’ll find the view of it you’ve propounded in this post holds.

    Now: The more interesting part – what do I think about the distinction you’re making, terminology aside?

    I think “exploring material that has been created beforehand” vs “creating a story in play” is a continuum. At one extreme you have sandbox roleplaying, at the other you have railroading. I’m not sure either extreme is preferable – I like something in between, where the context and challenges have been sketched out in advance, but the players are free to choose the overall direction and make choices in play within the situation that direction has led them to.

    The thing is, simulationism is as compatible with a sandbox as it is with railroading. What defines narrativism is the focus on issues – while there is no guarantee that simulationism will look at issues at all (it could, but it needn’t). And as I’ve discussed with you previously, I think a simulationism that takes an approach more towards the sandbox end of things, with a commitment to exploring issues, can be narrativism at the same time.

    Whatever the terminological niceties I think we can probably agree that railroading is a pretty limited style of play, while totally unstructured sandboxing carries a high risk of being unfocused, meandering and frankly dull. A game which creates a space for drama, for interesting player choice, while also providing the excitement of a world that carries on turning when the players aren’t there and plots to engage them and provide a framework for those choices – that is what I want from roleplaying.

  2. Blackrat says:

    Excellent, ok. Excuse the essay-comment.

    Simulationism: while I’m not terribly interested in the terminological arguments, I think you’re wrong about ““pre-established”… is referring to genre”. He specifically says “pre-established _thematic_ elements” (my emphasis), and elsewhere refers to a definition of _theme_ as the statement made by the story – i.e. the answer to the question asked by the premise. I can find quotes on that from the essays if you like.

    With that in mind, I think it’s talking about a story (and hence its theme) being pre-established, rather than produced through play.

    Also bear in mind that the essays aren’t the whole collection of GNS wisdom – a lot of it is (sadly) buried in the Forge forums and (more often) archives. There are some links to this on the RPG Theory Primer page – I skimmed them for choice quotes but couldn’t immediately find any :-) Sorry. I’ll try to come back to it, maybe.

    But anyway. You may be right about this not being Simulationism. I personally think this is a more useful distinction, inasmuch as it’s clear and concrete and doesn’t require endless arguments about the difference between the two :-)

    > I think “exploring material that has been created beforehand” vs “creating a story in play” is a continuum.

    I hoped that my answer to this was clear from Clarification 2, but possibly not. Yes, it’s certainly a continuum over the course of the whole game, but in any individual story-decision, the outcome has either been decided or it hasn’t. The question, then, is what sort of balance (across all the decisions) do you prefer in your game.

    For what it’s worth, I think the names you’ve given the extremes of your continuum don’t show the whole picture. It’s quite possible to have story (by which I mean all the meaningful plot decisions, not necessarily all the detail) fully created in-play without it being a totally open sandbox game, with all the potential “meh” that sandbox games can entail. Think “story scaffolding”, the great term Kit used in his comment on the previous post.


    “Here’s a world with a bunch of stuff [+ details] in it. What do you do?” – sandbox, player response often “errrrr…”.

    “Here’s a specific situation, requiring you to make a difficult decision right now. What do you do?” – obviously not sandbox, player response usually “I do X”; that act is the creation of story.

    > simulationism is as compatible with a sandbox as it is with railroading

    I agree – another reason why I think your term “sandbox” is mis-applied here. “Sandbox” does not necessarily lead to story-creation – indeed I’ve most often seen it *not* do that, and flounder as a result. I’m not equating “story-creation-in-play” with “sandbox”, and I think to do so is mistaken.

    I should also add something that should have been in the original post. (Maybe I should go back and edit? Is that cheating?)

    Clarification 3: There are other types of / aspects to Simulationism, too – ones that aren’t so relevant to the story. There are many things you can explore in a game besides story, naturally – setting, system, character, etc. But those other areas are not the ones that get confused with Narrativism, and hence aren’t really what I’m discussing in this post.

    > I think a simulationism that takes an approach more towards the sandbox end of things, with a commitment to exploring issues, can be narrativism at the same time.

    I’m not sure I agree. I think if you’re actually exploring those issues – by which I mean not pre-deciding your position on them, but deciding it through play – then it’s Narrativism. Sure, there might be other times during the same game where you’re doing other stuff, exploring the world maybe, and that’s Simulationism. See above about how they can exist side-by-side in different instances of play. But any time you are exploring (really exploring, through play) issues, that’s Narrativism.

    Perhaps think of Simulationism as a base from which Narrativism (and indeed Gamism) jump out. All RP is done via exploration, but Simulationist play is where that exploration is done for its own sake, because it’s interesting. If that exploration is merely a tool for some other goal – exploring issues (Nar) or meeting challenges (Gam) – then it’s no longer Simulationism. (Obviously the “base” etc. in the first sentence are not intended to imply that it’s any worse – it’s not.)

    But, as I say, I may well be misinterpreting the theory. How about if we stop talking about Sim & Nar, and consider my alternative terms “exploration” and “authorship”? (We also need to be clear that we’re talking about individual plot decisions, not the game as a whole, as per my clarification 2 and some stuff above in this comment.) Is it now clear that the two are, in a given instant, mutually exclusive?

    Your last paragraph I mostly agree with, but I’m not quite sure what you’re saying about the distinction I’m making. I think you’re saying you want *some* player-choice plot and *some* pre-created plot? Well that’s fair enough. (Personally I’m swinging pretty heavily away from pre-created plot, at least at the moment – but that’s just me.) But do you see how neither “balance preference” is incompatible with what I’ve said?

  3. Rabalias says:

    So, I don’t have time for a full response now, but consider this: While addressing issues, one can also be exploring a set of (simulated!) characters. Why I’m not quite ready to let go of simulationism as a concept is that when exploring issues it is often important to me to remain in the mode of “what should [my character] do now?” as opposed to “what should one do in this sort of situation?”. That, to me, is simulationism and narrativism in tandem, or exploration and authorship at the same time if you prefer.

  4. Rabalias says:

    Ok – further brief comment: it feels to me as though “theme”, “story”, “issues” etc are quite subjective ideas. One person’s story may be another person’s exploration-for-its-own-sake. Seen in that context, it is impossible for a GM to set out the story in advance and the players merely explore it – their involvement is part of defining what the story is, as opposed to what is just window dressing.

    I would quite like to know what your personal definition of story is, but I think it’s quite important that different people may have different ideas and it isn’t necessarily possible to pin it down in advance.

  5. Blackrat says:

    > it is often important to me to remain in the mode of “what should [my character] do now?” as opposed to “what should one do in this sort of situation?”

    That’s still Narrativism! Nothing about addressing issues / premise suggests that your character must always do what “one should do”. Not at all! By having your character make a theme-expressing decision, you are playing Narrativist. Sure, it is done through exploration of the character, but that is a vehicle through which to address a premise.

    Clarification 4: Sometimes different agendas recommend the same decision. Sure. That doesn’t make them the same agenda. It’s possible to explore character without having a meaningful effect on story, and it’s possible to have a meaningful effect on story without exploring the character particularly deeply.

    But anyway, I don’t think this is addressing my pre-created-plot / plot-arises-from-play point, is it? And hence I think we’re just repeating ourselves on our own different understandings of the theory terminology, where I’ve already acknowledged that my understanding may be wrong. I think on that one we should agree to disagree, and if we want to extend our understanding of the theory we should ask the people who actually developed it :-)

    > it feels to me as though “theme”, “story”, “issues” etc are quite subjective ideas

    I dunno, I reckon Ron’s explanation of premise and theme in “Narrativism: Story Now” (themselves inspired largely by Lajos Egri’s work, which I haven’t yet read) are pretty clear.

    “Story” is harder, sure. My first-stab would be: the sequence of meaningful events (i.e. not every little detail, but the direction-changing stuff). Maybe. So producing story during play = the GM (or whatever) allowing player/character choices to have meaningful effect on the direction of the course of events (and players not pre-deciding their characters’ choices). And also, the player/character choices have to be *real* – i.e. “well yeah I guess I *could* ignore the dragon and just wander off into the woods never to be seen again, but clearly I’m not actually going to do that” is not a real choice.

    Given that definition, I imagine it’s clear that it’s certainly *not* “impossible for a GM to set out the story in advance”. If you’re still not convinced, I can give you examples – I’ve seen it done plenty of times! But I’m sure you have too.

    “Issues” is definitely difficult, which is why I try not to use it. You used it in your comment above, so I’ve used it in my reply – but you’re quite right, I’ve had to guess what you meant by it to some extent :-)

    I feel like we’re (a) wandering way off-topic and (b) repeating ourselves a bit at this point. I suggest we take this to email, or offline?

    And/or perhaps I should write some new posts to cover some of this material in more detail. Thoughts so far:
    – Real and meaningful choices
    – Effect on story vs exploration of character

    • Rabalias says:

      Well, perhaps we are off-topic, I’m not sure. Here’s some thoughts which are related to what you’ve said and hopefully respond to the original post too:

      – There’s definitely a distinction to be made between games where the GM has a clear idea of what is going to happen in advance of the game (what you call simulationism) and games where the GM doesn’t (what you call narrativism).

      – Given that these are on a continuum and in any case are really just styles of play, the question arises: what happens to a “simulationist” GM when a player does something he doesn’t expect, which threatens to move the story in a direction he had not planned for? If the answer is “use tricks of one kind or another to get the story back on track” then we have a valuable distinction. I suspect that you (Blackrat) are very keen not to be “forced” in a particular direction in this way. But on the other hand, I think one could have a GM who plans things out carefully but is ready to allow the direction to change if appropriate (I am one such – my method is plan; predict; plan more; predict more.)

      – So, from the point of view of the distinction you’re making, what do you make of this last type of GM?

      • Blackrat says:

        Cool, yeah, we’re back to my initial distinction now I think.

        Re your first point, I don’t “call” those two things Sim & Nar in the sense of defining those terms by that behaviour – as I said above, there are many other kinds of Simulationism in particular. I think you get that already, but I was made a little nervous by your phrasing so thought I’d clarify.

        As for the GM you describe, yes that certainly exists – you’ll be pleased to hear, since you are one :-) From the point of view of my distinction, what I make of them is: they’re broadly playing Simulationist / Exploration, but are happy for the other players to apply some Authorship if the situation warrants it – which would be Narrativist play by the non-GM players (though they might not notice the difference, if the GM is skilful enough).

        Nothing there contradicts what I’ve said above. Again, I’ll stress that we’re examining individual moments / decisions here, not the whole game – in this case, most decisions are Sim but some are Nar.

        But the two are happening in series, not in parallel. A given decision was either pre-planned, or it was not. It can’t be both.

      • Rabalias says:

        “A given decision was either pre-planned, or it was not. It can’t be both.”

        Why not? Why can’t I plan for the players to make a particular decision? They still took the decision, and presumably could have taken a different one. Is it only narrativism if they take a decision different from the one I planned?

        A (complex) example: In a recent session of my campaign Nuns With Guns (In Space), aka NWG, I told my players I was worried we were getting into semi-railroad territory at times, and asked them what they might like to focus on in the next episode. They replied that they’d like to focus on chasing after a particular villain that was out there in the game world. So I wrote the next session to focus on that. They encountered a difficulty in tracking the villain down (which I planned) and then overcame it (but using a route I hadn’t planned). As the session closed, they had used psychic means to track the location of the villain (something I hadn’t planned) and headed off to chase him down (which I had assumed would happen at some point). There will then be a denoument scene which is in line with what I had planned but somewhat modified by the player’s actions. A whole planned scene involving the villain coming to attack the players was averted by the fact that they tracked him down early.

        Now, everything I planned in that session was responding to player demand, some of it was GM-driven, some of the events “would have happened anyway” (except as the averted scene demonstrated, they might not have), some of them happened because the players made decisions in play and some of it happened as planned but with variations because of decisions. The overall direction was pretty much as planned, but it needn’t have been.

        I guess the point I’m making is, the binary planned/made in play decision thing doesn’t work for me. Going through the above description makes me wonder, do you actually mean forced versus free decision? After all, the fact something was planned is unimportant to the players unless it was also forced.

      • Blackrat says:

        Excellent example, thanks. I think that will help me clarify. I have a whole bunch of things to say about it, and they’re all interconnected, so please read them all carefully before reacting to one of them.

        I’m going to run through what’s happening in your example, from the point of view of what I see as its theoretical implications.

        I don’t myself know why the guy was a villain; I’m assuming he either did some bad stuff or was planning to do some bad stuff, or both. You’ll have to excuse the necessary ambiguity in the below, therefore.

        Here’s what happened.

        1. Somewhere before your example starts, the players/characters decided that this guy was a villain. This judgement (decision) is definitely *meaningful*, because it’s going to affect the course of play.
        a) If this judgement was also *real*, i.e. it wasn’t just obvious but could be argued either way, then this decision is Narrativist. By pronouncing judgement, they make the thematic statement “behaviour X is unacceptable, and must be prevented / avenged”.
        b) However, if it was obvious he was a villain, then this isn’t Narrativist. It’s maybe Simulationist (“explore how you’d react to behaviour X”), I don’t know.
        c) I guess you could argue that if it’s obvious he’s a villain, you can still get a “real” (and thus Narrativist) decision along the lines of “yes, but he’s *more* of a villain than Lord Darkenator, and we decide that he’s our priority target”. Anyway, hopefully you see what I mean by a “real” decision? Shout if not, it’s crucial.

        2. In the pre-session discussion, the players/characters decided to chase the villain down.
        a) If this incurred a significant cost to them, either directly or through lost opportunities to do other stuff, this is Narrativist – thematic statement continues from above “… and preventing / avenging it is worth Y cost”.
        b) Again, if there wasn’t much else to do or it hardly cost them anything, then this isn’t a real choice and hence isn’t Narrativist.

        3. In-session, the characters chase the villain but encounter difficulties when doing so.
        a) If “do they succeed?” is a real question which could go either way, then this is Gamist play. There are no thematic decisions being made here (so not Narrativist), it’s just a question of whether they can summon the skill / tactics / cunning / whatever to carry out their judgement.
        b) If you’re going to fudge it so they succeed anyway, then it’s not Gamist. It’s maybe Simulationist, kind of – but simulating the story (“hooray, they won! because that’s how good stories work”) over simulating causality as modelled by the system. Not sure about this though.
        c) In order for it to be Narrativist, the difficulties would have to be ones which require further judgement – either “but now the cost is Y+more – still worth it?” (challenging 2a) or “but it turns out <something> – still think he’s a villain?” (challenging 1a). I get the impression this isn’t what happened, but that might be my prejudice.

        … and anywhere you see “Narrativist” in the above, you can replace with “Authorship” from my distinction in the original post. Which is why I think they’re aligned.

        Does this make sense? Do you see how, in-session, no real thematic decisions (unless I’m wrong in 3c, which I might be) were made by the players/characters? They had been made before the session started – if they were indeed real; I don’t know either way. So yes, the players had input, but in tactical / Gamist terms, not thematic / Narrativist ones.

        To respond to “The overall direction was pretty much as planned…” – I agree. In particular the thematic direction had been decided, and didn’t change (as far as I can tell). And “… but it needn’t have been” – no indeed. The players/characters might have made a string of thematic judgements in-session (Narrativist), or they might have made a different one pre-session and played through the consequences in the same non-Narrativist way. But having that option doesn’t change the fact that in *this* session, the play was not (unless I’ve misread it) Narrativist.

        To draw it back to the pre-decided / decided-in-play distinction, a decision can be pre-decided by:
        – making it obvious in-character: “he’s slaughtered thousands of innocents; obviously he’s a villain”;
        – making it obvious out-of-character: “well the game’s clearly *about* bringing him to justice, so to decide against that would be game-breaking”;
        – or both, of course!

        To address the averted scene, because that’s interesting, see how it only affects the carrying-out of the challenge? It’s there in order to make the challenge achievable – “they don’t know where he is, so I’ll have him attack them”. As it happens, they circumvented the need for it. That’s not a thematic decision.

        To address “do you actually mean forced versus free decision?” – no, not exactly. Free decision might be tactical (Gamist) or thematic (Narrativist). In the distinction at the top, I’m purely talking thematic – because I think that’s what tends to get confused in the Sim/Nar distinction. But yes, if your decisions are forced (and note the IC and OOC ways of doing that, from a few paras. up), then it’s not Narrativist (or Gamist).

        Admittedly, I should have been clear that I’m talking about *thematic* decisions right from the start. In all honesty though, I’m not sure it would have been clear what I meant anyway, without this example. So thanks!

        Wow, actual play examples are so much more helpful. I should be more proactive in giving my own – although it’s hard to know what example of mine will clarify the objection that someone else might have.

  6. Rabalias says:

    So, I think we’re getting somewhere here.

    What I think you mean by an instance of narrativist play: the act of making a value-judgement. Right?

    So a tactical decision about how to achieve goal X isn’t a narrativist decision, but a decision to prioritise goal X over goal Y is. (I think this gets a bit murky if you’re addressing an already decided goal e.g. we should take down the Axis of Evil, and then deciding whether to take down Lord Darkenator first or, instead, Lady Vexatious, seems like a tactical decision. But I guess you’ll say that if it has a value-judgement element then it’s narrativist?

    Similarly, the decision that Lord Darkenator is on the hit list is a value judgement so narrativist, unless he is so obviously evil that it isn’t really a decision.

    I think this may mean that these narrativist decision points are fairly rare. Suppose for the moment that Lord Darkenator isn’t, despite his name obviously evil, but actually just mildly disreputable, then the question “how do we treat Lord Darkenator” is a narrativist decision. The action that then follows, taking him out (or whatever) is not narrativist, right? So unless I as GM have Lord Darkenator do something which could somehow compromise the original judgement (you can take him down but innocents will be hurt in the doing, it turns out he runs an orphanage in his spare time, etc) then the majority of play is going to be non-narrativist in nature. Right?

    Anyway, just to allay any curiosity you might or might not be experiencing, in my example above the villain was obviously a villain (he doesn’t have a pointy hat, but he does have the in-game equivalent), but there were other options that could have been prioritised, the cost of prioritising him over other stuff wasn’t obvious to the players, but the more time they devote to pursuing a given baddie, the more I’ll have their plans advance in a fairly nebulous way. There’s no explicit “here is the cost of doing this” so I’m not sure if this counts as narrativist in your philosophy.

    Just to go back to terminology for a moment, 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.

    • Blackrat says:

      > So, I think we’re getting somewhere here.

      Yes, I think we might be :-)

      > What I think you mean by an instance of narrativist play: the act of making a value-judgement. Right?

      Mmmmaybe. I mean, as per the GNS essays, a thematic statement. If you want to call that a “value” judgement, then ok, but I think it’s a bit woolly. After all, different choices can have different *tactical* value – that doesn’t make them thematic. The way you’ve used it is probably consistent with thematic, so it’s probably ok. But why can’t we just use “thematic”? :-)

      > So a tactical decision about how to achieve goal X isn’t a narrativist decision, but a decision to prioritise goal X over goal Y is.

      Probably. I agree it can get murky.

      > But I guess you’ll say that if it has a value-judgement element then it’s narrativist?

      I’ll say that if it makes a thematic statement then it’s narrativist. That statement might be “X is not as great a crime as Y”, or “A is not as bad a consequence as B”. I’d want to know what the consequences (or at least the risks) were of dealing with each villain (or, more likely, of postponing dealing with each villain). Then I can make a thematic statement about what’s important to my character as a human, representing the human condition. (NB this use of “human” has nothing to do with “as opposed to elf” or similar, obviously.)

      > I think this may mean that these narrativist decision points are fairly rare.

      In some games (including, from your description, your game), that’s certainly true. I don’t think it’s true as a necessary feature of roleplay – far from it.

      > The action that then follows [the judgement], taking him out (or whatever) is not narrativist, right?

      Quite possibly, yes – as I described earlier with reference to your example. If you spend a large amount of play time doing that action-that-follows, then a large amount of your play is not Narrativist. Games that are aiming to be Narrativist don’t spend that much time on the “doing”, they spend their time examining the consequences and questioning the statement that was originally made. So for example, slightly contrived, it might go “cool, you defeat Lord Darkenator, you’re easily capable of that; now, what about Lady Vexacious, who’s doing something similar but for *these* reasons – is that still villainy?”

      > So unless I as GM have Lord Darkenator do something which could somehow compromise the original judgement … then the majority of play is going to be non-narrativist in nature. Right?

      Right, absolutely! If you’re proposing to spend a lot of time on the “do you manage to take him out” question, which it sounds like you are.

      > There’s no explicit “here is the cost of doing this” so I’m not sure if this counts as narrativist in your philosophy.

      I would probably say that if the players don’t know the possible consequences of what they’re doing – even if that’s just “risk of …” rather than the thing itself as a certainty – then their judgement doesn’t really *mean* the same thing as it would if they were in full possession of the facts. It’s not a thematic statement in the same way. Although I guess if you do a reveal and then see whether they try to rectify their mistake, that could be an interesting thematic decision.

      > I think we probably do need another name here. I’m not sure why we’d call the non-narrativist stuff “simulationist” any more.

      Maybe? I’m not convinced, but I’m happy to listen. That’s *definitely* another post, though :-) This discussion has clarified what I meant in the opening post, I think, so let’s open a new discussion. Coming up…

  7. Rabalias says:

    Just one comment on this before I move locust-like to your next thread. Thematic is a phrase that I find very unhelpful. I just don’t know what it means. It seems to me too wide a term to be useful, except perhaps as defined in Egri’s works, which neither of us has read (and which Edwards didn’t take the time to fully explain, at least not to my satisfaction, in his essays).

    I’m not wedded to a specific terminology here, and provided I can get to the bottom of “thematic” I’d grudgingly use it, I just don’t think I get it right now (and I think it’s unhelpful to outsiders given the jargonish nature of it). “Value judgement” works for me simply because, to me, it means in everyday parlance “judgement about what is important in a given context”, which I think is what you mean by thematic. Is it? :S

  8. Blackrat says:

    Huh. Well, that’s going to be difficult. I’m perfectly happy with the term as defined in the Forge glossary, and described in more detail by Ron Edwards in his Narrativism essay.

    Incidentally, he’s adapted the term from Egri’s work anyway. He uses “theme” the way Egri uses “premise”. Edwards’ version works fine for me in a roleplaying context.

    You can read the first chapter of Egri’s “Art of Dramatic Writing”, where he talks about premise (which, as I say, is equivalent to Ron Edwards’ “theme”), here: If you’re looking for a tight few-word definition, it may not help you, but it’s interesting. Also, obviously bear in mind that he’s writing about playwriting, not about roleplay – not everything he says about premise is applicable in the same way.

    (NB If we’re going to discuss the content of either Ron Edwards’ or Egri’s definitions / work, let’s do so offline rather than here. I’m hardly in a position to speak for either of them :-) )

    Whereas “value judgement” is far too broad for me. You can value something, and judge it important in a given context, for many reasons – including tactical, which would be Gamist, and aesthetic, which might well be Simulationist / Exploration. So no, it’s most certainly *not* what I mean by “thematic”.

    The thematic statement made by your actual play example seems to be something like “villainy leads to its own downfall” or similar – it could be more specific if I had more details. But that statement is made by the characters long before the session you describe, and that’s why I claim that (on what you’ve said) there isn’t any thematic play in that session.

  9. Jay says:

    Hi Nick, this is Jay (Silmenume from The Forge).

    Ok – I’m several YEARS late to this particular discussion, but I hope it is brought to your attention. I was looking for an email address so I could contact you directly but was unable to find. My apologies. I will make an effort to keep my post short and sweet (by my infamous lengthy standards) by stating that I believe that Sim can be best thought of as “Semiotic Jazz.”

    I am no expert at describing what semiotics means in a full sense so please feel free to research the term but I am using it as the study of signs, symbols and meanings as used by us hairless apes! The definition I am drawing from is from Wikipedia – “the study of signs and SIGN PROCESSES (semiosis), INDICATION, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, SYMBOLISM, SIGNIFICATION, and COMMUNICATION.” The most relevant topics are in full caps.

    Now combine this with the idea of jazz – at least as how it is thought as in the milieu of music. Taking a piece of existing music and working/modifying it for what amounts to be aesthetically pleasing reasons. The playing of piece of music as it was originally recorded is no more a valid form of jazz as would be playing a completely different piece and saying it was related to the original. Nor is it just the making of random noises on the instrument – IOW its mindful, to use an old phrase from the Forge. To play jazz effectively/proficiently requires three separate knowledges/skills.

    1. You have to know the original work being riffed on extremely well. You need to understand what it is that makes that piece of music THAT piece of music and not something else and what it is that you like about it.

    2. You have to have a thorough grounding in music theory in order to successfully parse the music and then make your own intelligent additions/alterations to it.

    3. You need to be skilled in whatever instrument you are playing – IOW you need to have the ability to project your ideas effectively through the instrument.

    So in jazz as in Sim roleplay you do have “rules” but they are largely or ought to be largely implicit and not explicit. The “rules” are derived from the source material in both cases and then there needs to be a strong understanding of the “art” for lack of a better term. In jazz that would be music theory. In Sim I would argue that a solid familiarity in “dramatics/literature/semiotics” would be the equivalent to music theory in my jazz analogy. The “rules” (and they are most definitely “rules”) are organic to play, implicit, and can and should evolve through play itself. A large set of printed rules militates itself against such a mindset by the very nature of being on paper and in many cases numerous.

    Considering the above you can see that Sim != Exploration. Using the jazz example Exploration is a group of people sitting around with instruments making noises with them. CA is how

    Like jazz Sim is the most “intense” when there are no breaks in the music/playing to discuss a rule etc. It would the equivalent to stopping the jazz jam session to ask the other players a question and breaking the mood, the music as it were, instead of demonstrating the skills to figure it out on the fly. It is, in a way, a type of high wire performance. The fewer the protections (OOC rules/story direction discussions) the more intense the act becomes. Like the high wire act or the jazz ensemble this can be talking about before the game or sorted out after the game, but during the game itself – during Sim CA directed Exploration – these meta questions ought to be left out of play itself as much as can be arranged. Yes sometimes you fall, but that makes it all the more thrilling when you can do it successfully. Note however this does require a fair level of skill in all the players to be enjoyable – which is one of the reasons I believe so many Sim games are grindingly dull.

    My 2 cents.

    • Blackrat says:

      Awesome! Thanks Jay.

      Although I’m not sure I fully understand the analogy you’re drawing, I do agree that Simulationism is about more than *just* exploration. (Whether I thought differently at the time I wrote this post, I don’t recall.)

      In terms of this post, my understanding of (and approach to) GNS theory has evolved since I wrote it. Right now I don’t honestly think that the El Dorado debate, and therefore the distinction I drew, is all that useful. I think it focusses too hard on the philosophical details of the terminology, and not hard enough on the actual play experience – which is a much clearer basis for any design discussions along these lines. I do think there is a distinction between Sim and Nar, but it’s much deeper than the one I describe above – and also much harder to describe verbally.

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