Posts Tagged ‘realism’

In my last post, I discussed the idea that in most roleplaying games, players’ time is split. Some of it is spent performing as a character, acting exactly as that character would in the fictional world, but some of it is spent on other activities. Exactly what those are depends on the game, of course, but it might be: straightforward narration of material that can’t be directly performed; engaging with some real-world mechanical tool like dice or character sheets; metatechniques like delivering an internal monologue for the benefit of the other players (while their characters remain unaware).

Despite the prevalence of these other activities, many games (and many players) do strive to be in-character and acting “realistically” (i.e. not monologuing or using other dramatic character-breaking tools) as much of the time as possible. This isn’t necessary for a good game, of course – Microscope is a great example of a powerful story-telling game which doesn’t necessarily require any in-character performance at all – but where you do want to encourage the players to stay in character, you can run into difficulties, as there are some actions necessary in the fiction that simply can’t be reproduced in the real-world performance. (The three example techniques above present some ways to get around that.) As mentioned in the last post, there are games like When the Dark is Gone that manage to stay in-character 100% of the time (at least after the setup phase), but the situations you can portray in such a game are heavily restricted.

An alternative approach is to set up your game so that the time spent out of character feels like time spent in character. Use the mechanics, rules, or game setup to foster in the players the mindset that you want your characters to have. There are plenty of great examples of this, such as:

  • Murderous Ghosts, Doomed Pilgrim, and many other games that explicitly have an adversarial relationship between one group of players playing “the world” and another playing the protagonist(s). This sets a tone where the world is not a fair place and in fact is actively working against the protagonist(s) – heightening the tension and the fear factor for their player(s).
  • The Jenga tower in Dread. A very visible and tangible indicator that everything could at any moment come crashing down on top of your character – again, pushing the tension higher and higher until it finally collapses (creating a very real sense of relief for the players not affected by the downfall!)
  • In Remodel, the various manipulations of the house (represented by a real physical set) reflect and enhance the emotional journeys the characters are taking. Physically ripping up tape to “demolish” parts of the house, for example, provides a powerful cathartic experience and prepares the player for their character’s new beginning.
  • In The Secret Lives of Serial Killers, key information is hidden from one player in order to give them a very real sense of horror and betrayal when it finally comes out.

Perhaps nothing can be more realistic than acting something out in full, but that’s a luxury we don’t often have. By choosing techniques carefully, you can “shortcut” some of the acting process and elicit feelings in your players that match those in the characters without needing a full in-character portrayal. If you know others I’ve missed (and there’ll be plenty), let me know in the comments – I’m keen to try them out!

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…