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?