Inspired-by-a-guest Post: More Creative Agendas?

Posted: October 20, 2011 in System Design
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

  1. Rabalias says:

    Awesome, I got my own post :)

    So, I hate to go back to GNS, but on this occasion it’s helpful. It says exploration is “The imagination of fictional events, established through communicating among one another. Exploration includes five Components: Character, Setting, Situation, System, and Color.”

    This I am happy to call exploration, and the focus on it I am happy to call simulationism. However, as any fule can tell, this is not synonymous with not-narrativism, or not-gamism. It doesn’t even imply everything is prepared in advance, quite the contrary.

    So to come full circle, I can’t see why the above is incompatible with narrativism (or gamism) *at all*, even though I can see that the traditional mode of play where the GM plans out a set of broadly linear events and leads the players through them with more-or-less use of railroading techniques, could tend to have this property. I further content that through the cunning use of planning one can create an awesome imagined set of fictional events within which players can make thematic (urgh) choices.

    Interestingly though, this has led me to conclude I’m more of a gamist than I thought. The taking of interesting tactical decisions is for me an important part of play. I tend to think that many GMs botch this, creating situations that are *not* interesting tactically but also not interesting from any other perspective, which possibly leads to gamism having a negative cast. But I think that executed well gamism is something I’d really enjoy (in tandem with simulationism and narrativism!).

  2. Blackrat says:

    > However, as any fule can tell, this is not synonymous with not-narrativism, or not-gamism. It doesn’t even imply everything is prepared in advance, quite the contrary.

    Gah! I feel like I’ve already made this clarification (#3 in the comments on the previous post), but I’ll make it again since it evidently wasn’t clear enough.

    There are *other* ways to be Simulationist, too – definitely, yes, absolutely. Simulationism is not *identical to* having everything prepared in advance. What I am saying is that:
    – *if* there are no real meaningful tactical decisions, and no real meaningful thematic decisions
    – (which *might* be because it’s all been prepared in advance)
    – the only thing *I* can see that’s left to actually do is to explore stuff and imagine the fictional events
    – and since the exploring/imagining is then the *primary* focus of play, that’s (a kind of) Simulationism.

    I’m *not* saying “and the reverse is true – if it’s Simulationism, that must mean everything is prepared in advance”.

    It’s not the *only* Simulationism, not by a long shot, and many types of Simulationism do indeed make stuff up in play rather than preparing it all in advance. You are misconstruing my argument “A seems to be an example of B” to mean “and so B is synonymous with A”. That’s *not* what I’m saying.

    > So to come full circle, I can’t see why the above is incompatible with narrativism (or gamism)

    That’s not really the topic of this post. The topic of this post is “if you don’t have real meaningful choices, then the primary focus of play is just imagining the fiction, and hence it’s (a type of) Simulationism”. Would you still not agree with that?

    I’ve answered your point on the incompatibility elsewhere, and I’m inclined not to sidetrack this discussion with that argument. I’ve already given you my thoughts on that one, and nothing I say now will be adding to it – which suggests you and I are not communicating well on that one.

    So if you don’t mind, let’s leave that question for offline, where we can try and communicate more clearly on it, and keep this one on-track.

    > Interestingly though, this has led me to conclude I’m more of a gamist than I thought.

    Based on your actual play example on the previous post, me too! And that’s cool. As you say, well-executed Gamism can be brilliant, if that’s what you want and expect from play. Personally I feel like I’ve done enough of it for now, hence my focus on Narrativism at the moment.

  3. Rabalias says:

    I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong with your statement, and I don’t like the way you’ve presented it (compare “if you don’t have any imaginative exploration of fictional worlds and characters or interesting tactical choices then you’re just debating theme, and hence it’s (a type of) Narrativism), but let’s say I agree for the sake of argument. I think I’d preface “simulationism” with “an extreme type of”, but whatever. So, what if anything does this tell us about roleplaying?

  4. Blackrat says:

    Oo, I think that’s an unfair comparison :-) Ron has explicitly said, “Exploration, to me, seemed to be involved in all of role-playing,” and, “unlike Narrativist and Gamist priorities which are defined by an interpersonal out-of-game agenda, Simulationist play prioritizes the in-game functions and imagined events” (from “Simulationism: The Right To Dream”).

    From that, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that in the absence of Gamism and Narrativism, what’s left will probably be Simulationist, as there’s no other priority to over-ride the “in-game functions and imagined events”. But there’s *no* suggestion that if you took away in-game functions and imagined events, the roleplaying would still be functional (e.g. Narrativism) – indeed, quite the reverse is suggested. “Exploration is central to all role-playing.”

    (I know you disagree that one must be prioritised over another, but that’s a separate debate which we’ve gone through already; let’s not resurrect it – or if we’re going to, let’s do so offline. This thread is about what’s left if you have no thematic or tactical decisions.)

    I *am* prepared to believe that Simulationism requires something on *top* of just exploration. I’m not convinced yet, but I could be. But then my question 2 remains – do “Illusionism” and “Participationism” cover the case when *none* of the three GNS agendas are happening? Do those terms fill the terminology gap you proposed?

    > So, what if anything does this tell us about roleplaying?

    Well, the specific question (is there another term needed) was yours; what were you hoping it might tell us? Has it done so?

    It tells *me* that Simulationism does exist, is viable and can be functional. I’ve *seen* play where the players have had no thematic or tactical decisions, and have nonetheless enjoyed the game greatly – simply because they’re enjoying interacting with the “in-game functions and imagined events” the GM is describing for them. I’ve *been* such a player, though rarely for any length of time (but that’s a personal preference thing, of course).

    But I think you’re already happy that Simulationism exists and can be enjoyable – so what does it tell *you*?

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