Posts Tagged ‘RPG theory’

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?

I’m totally going to come back to that Drama Points thing sometime. But I have a lot of other things to say, so I think I’m going to drop it for a while and get back to it later.

The first thing: I’ve finally got round to editing my “here’s some RPG theory links” post into a proper reference page (with more links!), which can be found at:

The RPG Theory Primer

Take a look! There’s an awful lot of material there (and plenty more on the same sites) so book a week or two off work or something. There’ll be loads of stuff I missed – let me know if you have any recommendations!

Gah! Alright, it’s been ages since I posted – I’m sorry. The problem is, in the last post I suggested that the next post would examine my goals for the system in RPG theory terms – and I still haven’t been able to fully work out how it fits.

In particular, I thought I had it mostly figured out, and then I read another article that turned my previous perspective on its head. Since then I’ve been trying to mostly-figure-it-out all over again.

Sadly I haven’t got enough material nor enough time to write a full post on it just yet – but perhaps I can at least recommend the articles I’ve been reading.

They’ve mostly come from The Forge – which won’t surprise anyone who’s been looking into RPG theory already, but may be new to people who haven’t. I strongly believe that good systems (RP and any other kind) only come about as the result of good design, which itself follows on from good theory – and that seems to be one of the central goals of The Forge community.

So here are the articles that really got me thinking about RPG theory and how to apply it to my own game design – in what I consider to be a sensible reading order. Perhaps it’d be useful for me to put these on their own page, but for now this post will do :-) Note that the summaries are my own – the original writers might not agree with them!

  • System Does Matter – an explanation of why it’s important to design your system to suit the play style you want.
  • GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory – a more detailed examination of the ideas raised in “System Does Matter”, showing how to analyse a system to see what sorts of play it will encourage. In particular, formally sets out Ron Edwards’ GNS theory.
  • Simulationism: The Right to Dream – the first of three articles each examining one of GNS theory’s “core” play styles. This time, Simulationism – the desire to explore a shared fiction purely for the sake of exploration.
  • Gamism: Step On Up – the second such article. This one covers Gamism – the desire to play a roleplaying game in order to use the mechanics to overcome a challenge.
  • Narrativism: Story Now – the third such article. This time it covers Narrativism – the desire to address a premise through play, in order to produce a story as the primary goal of play.
  • Applied Theory – an article looking at how to apply all of the above theory in real mechanical terms.
  • 3 Resolution Systems – introduces some interesting points about the relationship between the game fiction and the game mechanics. With diagrams!

Alright, so they’re almost all from the Forge in fact. It’s not that I necessarily agree with everything in those articles – but I do think they’re an excellent way to prompt your own thoughts about RPG design & theory. Other non-Forge things can be found in the links in the sidebar – in particular for RPG design stuff I’d recommend anyway., Deeper in the Game, Some Space To Think and Transneptune Games‘ blog.

So with that, I’ll lazily sign off – and come back next time with something a bit more concrete.