Posts Tagged ‘Creative Agenda’

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?

Insert whiny excuse about life getting in the way of blogging here. Now let’s move on.

After much searching, I have found myself. Too pretentious? Yeah, I know. But in fact it’s actually been quite a relief. Hang on a second, I should probably give you some context…

I’ve been reading a load of articles about RPG design (see the last post for a selection), and one of the key concepts I’ve found useful was Ron Edwards’ three suggested Creative Agendas. (Agendae? I’m pretty sure Agenda is plural already, actually. Aaanyway.) The three agendas are the three (he suspects the only three) core reasons why people play a roleplaying game. They are as follows:

  • Gamism – “Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk”;
  • Narrativism – “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”;
  • Simulationism – “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements”.

The definitions – from the Forge Provisional Glossary – are by necessity quite broad; I’d strongly suggest reading the articles to get a better idea of what they mean. I had to read and re-read before I got it –

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. What I want most from roleplaying games is:

  • a realistic experience of being a person in a different world or situation to my own
  • provided that situation is interesting and/or exciting.

This confused me, because of the following sections from the Forge articles. Firstly, this about Narrativism:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme.

… and this about Simulationism:

The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.

What I read there was Simulationism is about presenting a realistic world (which fits perfectly with my first bullet), and that Narrativism is about producing a story. While a story should be interesting and/or exciting, and hence is related to my second bullet, to me it sounds like more than that – it sounds like a laborious and precise construction with three acts (maybe) and a conclusion and all that jazz. I’m not fussed about that – I just want my experience to be interesting.

Therefore I thought of myself as a Simulationist but a Simulationist who wants to simulate a world where the laws of drama apply, in order to keep things interesting. I was thrilled; I thought I’d discovered a new branch of Simulationism and was about to revolutionise RPG design. Unfortunately not. Something didn’t quite sit right with me – such as this example of “Simulationism overriding Narrativism”:

The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain’s bomb does blow up the city.

That seems totally wrong to me. So perhaps I wasn’t a Simulationist after all? I certainly think too much focus on realism can detract from the excitement. What to do?

Well, I read and I read and I read. I read about “El Dorado”, a term used to describe a game that (reliably) realistically simulates a situation but still produces a good story. And then I read this:

I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such “Vanilla Narrativism” is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as “Simulationist-by-habit,” exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.

That’s me. Right there. Hi, I’m Blackrat, and I’m a Narrativist.

I hadn’t understood that “story” in the context of these articles was a much broader concept than I’d picked up initially. I’d guess that’s why Ron Edwards changed the definition to the one at the top of this post, about addressing premise (rather than story). “Addressing Premise” is equivalent to my “making things interesting / exciting”, but much better defined – my version is meaningless and given meaning only by the reader’s personal taste :-)

A long way round to a simple conclusion. One thing I realised along the way, though, is that I want my Narrativism to be focussed on consistent in-character experience and reactions, not on creating the story out-of-character and then justifying it in-character. And that’s useful.

The next thing to do is to work out how to apply these aims to the system I’m (slowly) designing. So, next time, ACTUAL GAME DESIGN at last :-) I hope your patience hasn’t worn out yet…