Observations on GNS Simulationism

You fall into one of three groups: either

  1. you read that title and know exactly what this article is going to be about, or
  2. you have a vague idea (accompanied by many misconceptions), or
  3. you’re going “huh?” right now because “GNS” means nothing to you.

Let’s deal with that third group of readers first. I’m sorry for bothering you with such an obscure topic, but apparently a plurality of my readers specifically wanted to see this article instead of something practical like, I don’t know, more break-downs of task resolution procedures for C2020. It is indeed a topic important to my own craft, and I may be the right person to talk about it, but I’m not so sure if you need to read about this.

You’re reading a rpg theory article about a rather specialized topic; even if you’ve played roleplaying games for years, it’s possible that the ideas and concerns expressed in this article are things you have never yet considered yourself. “RPG theory” is a form of art theory, an attempt by practitioners of roleplaying to understand, verbalize and model what happens during the activity. Although roleplaying is a pretty young art form, it already has let’s say three or four distinct schools of theory, and a bevy of specialized vocabulary. RPG theory is useful for hardcore hobbyists, but it takes as much study as any other art theory to get any insights, and those insights are generally of a sort only useful for veteran practitioners. Theory is something you move on to when you’ve exhausted the immediate development potential in your everyday play and want to develop your skills and understanding further. If you’re happy with your gaming, I propose that the time for RPG theory is not yet; come back to it when you’ve grown dissatisfied and are seeking solutions.

My specific RPG theory topic here goes back to the early ’00s; I’ll be restating and commenting upon a few parts of an influential rpg theory scheme called the GNS theory. I doubt that this particular article is of much use for a newcomer to the topic; I’m targeting this at intermediate and advanced students. However, if you’d like to get up to speed, no better way than to read the background material I’ll be commenting on here:

System Does Matter by Ron Edwards, 1999
GNS and Other Matters of Roleplaying Theory by Ron Edwards, 2001
Simulationism: The Right to Dream by Ron Edwards, 2003

This Ron Edwards fellow whose work I’ll be commenting on here is Ron Edwards, my rpg guru, a powerful game designer and the single most important theorist in the history of rpgs. You could do much worse than studying his work. Ron currently works out of Adept Play, a sort of combined blog-forum thing. I haven’t followed his work in real-time recently (I am frankly a bit intimidated by Ron, and don’t want to be a pest), but I have no doubt whatsoever that you’re making a grave mistake by reading my stuff instead of his.

If you’re intermediate on the topic, understand what GNS is and haven’t read these actual articles, I suggest doing so. While they represent a snapshot of a developing process of theorycrafting from 20 years ago, they are also less muddled by word-of-mouth “I heard on a forum once” understanding than some other sources might be. Considering this essay on hand here, you might also want to read my own GNS summary from the ’00s; it doesn’t necessarily agree point-for-point with Ron’s earlier essays, but it’s useful for understanding where I’m coming from on this GNS stuff.

What is the question

To put it succinctly, GNS theory claims that the historically observed Creative Agenda (CA, the socially mediated purpose in why we play) in various instances of roleplaying does not form a coherent, unitary purpose; instead, it is possible to observe three separate Creative Agenda Modes, classifications of CA, that all have commonly, spontaneously and authentically risen to dominate actual instances of roleplaying activity over time. It’s not possible to say which one of these is the “real” roleplaying, because they are all demonstrably functional activities that use the substrate, the medium of roleplaying, to achieve their aims. (The modes are named Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism.)

My experience is, by the way, that GNS theory is inherently confusing and misleading to think about until you have actual first-hand experience of the different GNS modes. It’s very common for people to discuss these matters without first-hand experience, which becomes a problem due to misattribution: you assign the label of “Gamism” or whatever to something that is familiar to you, therefore ignoring the phenomenon originally intended by the term. I recommend actually playing and enjoying different games as a starting point to appreciating what the theory is even trying to say.

GNS theory further claims that although the creative agenda expressed in an instance of play is in many ways unique in its particulars, each Creative Agenda can be analyzed as being expressive of one of these CA modes, and that each mode coheres internally and conflicts externally: while two players always enter a game with somewhat differing agendas, those agendas are prone to cohering into functional together-play if they express the same mode, and come into conflict if they don’t. In other words, coherent play requires the group to express only a single GNS mode at a time; implicit disagreements lead to creative conflict.

GNS theory in its base form provides simple external definitions of what the three GNS modes are like. I say “external” because the theory does not provide insight into the creative psychology, or why” or how somebody would pursue play in a given mode. Here are the simple external descriptions:

Gamist play expresses as competition
Narrativist play expresses as story creation
Simulationist play expresses as heightened attention to the fiction

Further detail on the internal nature of the CA modes has certainly been authored (most prominently by Ron in his three mode-specific articles), but the bare GNS theory doesn’t really care about what you’re doing in the specific, or why; it just cares that a Creative Agenda expresses a mode, and that these modes seem to cohere or conflict.

This brings us to the question at hand: among debates and investigations inspired by GNS theory the issue of Simulationism is one of the most prominent. For GNS theorists the bare essentials of the GNS theory aren’t usually that interesting; the much more significant question is understanding the underpinnings of the superficial observation: why does e.g. Simulationism exist at all? Why does it cohere, what does that look like? Why does trying to express a Sim agenda conflict with a Nar agenda? Or Gam?

While Narrativism and Gamism have also caused much discussion about the particular internal nature of their kind of play, Simulationism has been much more controversial over the years. The reasons are many, but the one that seems foremost to me is that the Forge community collectively found Simulationism to be a frustrating and foreign playstyle. Truly “strong” Simulationism, of a kind that actually manages to be evidently meaningful to an outside observer, was not commonly reported in the early years either because the community had biased participation or because the language didn’t exist or because powerful Sim play is difficult and rare. Sim play was also, for historical reasons unrelated to the Forge, undergoing a particularly weak and timid stage of development in the ’00s, which caused it to lack advocates. Whatever the reason, a community lacking in powerful Simmy actual play, and powerful modern game designs in the Sim mode, was inspired to question the mode to the extent of doubting its existing at all.

Thus, the question of Simulationism in its multi-fractured glory:

  • Does the Simulationist mode actually exist, or is the reason for the lack of convincing actual play that Zilchplay (play without Creative Agenda) is being miscategorized into this imaginary mode?
  • Maybe Sim doesn’t exist, but some other modes do? Is Participationism actually a Creative Mode? Emulationism? Immersionism?
  • Maybe Simulationism is just weak Narrativism? All the Simmers seem to sooner or later take up story-related language when talking about their stuff.
  • Is Nordic freeform and larping all Simulationistic? Is none of it? How about trad ’80s physics simulation games?
  • Is Simulationism sane and healthy human behavior? Can you like Sim play without being a cave troll?

And that’s just scratching the surface. If you ask GNS theorists for a definition of Simulationism (aside from “the thing that’s not Nar or Gam”) you tend to get quite a variety of explanations. Even Ron himself, the progenitor of the concept, has at least entertained the idea that the agenda mode of Simulationism is either non-existent or non-important.

So yeah, there’s a long history here. I’ve made something of a pet project about investigating Sim over the last ten or so years, so I might have some idea of what’s going on. Let’s see if I can pull together an intelligible presentation of my experiences.

An internal understanding of Simulationism

Ron published a trio of articles on the internal nature of the GNS agenda modes in 2003-04. His analysis of Narrativism in Narrativism: Story Now is rightly considered a classic treatment on a complex subject matter, drawing on an extended analogue to Lajos Egri’s theory of dramatic theater to provide a set of technical tools for structuring and talking about narrativist play. Gamism: Step on Up is likewise as uncontested as anything, predictive of the OSR movement, and generally demonstrated to hold water by all kinds of actual play investigation over the years.

The earlier Simulationism: Right to Dream is much less obviously satisfactory; don’t take my word for it, but I get the sense that Ron’s detailed exegesis of mechanical rules systems (System Purism vs High Concept, etc.) is not usually considered a satisfactory answer to what Simulationism is, and, what’s worse, what justification it carries as a human endeavour. Sometimes it seems like Ron himself doesn’t really know, either. It’s no wonder that there’s perennial interest for fixing this part of the theoretical corpus.

However, I just read said article anew prior to writing this one, and you know, I think it’s pretty close to spot on in many places. I mean, I’ll be rephrasing a lot in the following, and perhaps saying some things that Ron didn’t quite get to originally, but I have no complaints with the basic premise: Ron characterizes Simulationism as “heightening and focusing Exploration as the priority of play”, which, as you’ll come to see, is basically my conclusion on the matter. Ron also analyzes a wide variety of historical rpgs in the article, sharply observing their function; well worth the read.

In fact, let’s get a definition out of the way right away. I think that I understand what Simulationism is, and have personal experiences that back this model, so I might as well tell you now. I’ll justify and describe my understanding in further detail later.

Simulationist play attempts to experience a subject matter in a way that results in elevated appreciation and understanding. The Shared Imagined Space is utilized for intensely detailed perspectives that sometimes surpass the means of traditional, non-interactive mediums.

Ron famously defined the creative nature of Sim as Right to Dream, with the core conceit that a group engaging in Simulationist play willfully ignores external concerns like social status, time constraints, the ridiculousness of a fat man pretending to be a lithe elf, all for the love of the Dream. The Dream also “doesn’t have an agenda”, meaning that it’s not Gamist, it’s not Narrativist, and it is what it is on its own terms, existing for its own sake. It’s a very escapist way of phrasing things, I think, and doesn’t quite get to the meat of what matters; I don’t think that the “Right” is really under tension, not truly. The true creative question of Sim is whether you can Dream: will this group, here, with these tools, manage an elevated appreciation and understanding? (That’s my replacement motto, if you will: “Elevanted appreciation and understanding”.)

I think that what Ron has observed from the beginning as functional, powerful Sim play is the thing I’m describing here, but it may be the case that he, thinking on this 20 years ago, didn’t see the potential intellectual ambition that to me, writing about this now, is obvious: for the Ron in that Sim article the Sim play seemed to be relatively aimless, low stakes and short on consequences, engaged in for love rather than desperation. He, then, did not seem to identify that a wargamer passionate about the Napoleonic wars, to pick an obvious example of a Dao, plays a Sim game as he struggles for insight into his material. He may not have quite appreciated that it is possible to study Glorantha, as a scholar, without a Narrativist ambition. It certainly has always seemed to me that Ron isn’t really big on “roleplaying as personality vehicle”, play that finds its reward in personal realization unadorned by true Story in the Narrativist sense.

This was, of course, midway into the Forgite theory development. Ideas would mature. Cornerstone understandings such as the concept of the reward cycle were only barely in existence then. And please remember, I don’t even know what Ron’s current take on this stuff is. This article isn’t about him, it’s about my take on some of his ideas from 20 years ago.

Speaking of the reward cycle, here’s my understanding of how Simulationism functions socially: the creative reward of Simulationism is insight, and the basic reward cycle relates to the way ideas are presented to the table and Explored for the sake of discovery. Ideally your play is efficient in that it enables you to introduce relevant material into play and massage it together with the group, seeking new insights and elevated understanding, such that your curiosity grows over the session of play. At some point you stumble upon worthwhile insight, and that’s your reward. Sometimes it’s a major breakthrough for your own understanding of the “thing”, whatever it is that the Simulationistic game is about; other times it’s slow, minor development, honing and practice. But every time it is about the thing in itself. You are joined together by the curiosity towards the subject matter.

The theoretical implications are, of course, vast: a Simulationistic game necessarily has substance, which implies heft and effort. Historical analysis may have been too easy about calling Zilchplay Sim for superficial reasons, without checking for the presence of actual creative reward cycles, convinced that “they seem to be satisfied” suffices for proof. “Exploration squared” is sort of a legitimate description, although without really grokking the why. Immersion is still a technique, not an agenda mode, albeit one particularly relevant to Simulationism the same way “player makes choices” is a relevant technique for Narrativism.

Some real examples of coherent Sim play

To put the above in more concrete terms, I’ll describe a few of my own experiences of Sim play from the last decade. This will be succinct, and I encourage you to ask for details if you think that some specific would aid understanding. All are examples of games where I personally felt creatively rewarded in a Simulationistic way, as per above.

Auteuristic Horror Gaming

Auteuristic horror games are an old affectation for me; I GMed Call of Cthulhu in the ’90s, in my youth, and while the game often went nowhere, we had I think two sessions in between the stumbling that were creatively successful: chilling, tense experiences full of mood that everybody were excited about.

Skipping forward, in ’07 I got intrigued about again trying my hand on the tiller of a horror story with Dead of Night, a modern classic of indie roleplaying. DoN is basically like if CoC was implemented with a horror movie genre emulation rules system; it’s GM’s story all the way, you’re supposed to write your own horror masterpiece and then really pour that stuff out in a single-session one-shot that outright disregards all the D&D compromise rpg bullshit like parties and leveling and treasure and whatnot. It’s just the GM, the players, a tense rules system, and the GM’s inner demons.

For those familiar with it, DoN has a sort of estranged sibling game out there in the indie land: Dread fulfills the same exact premise, does it with equal flair, but has a completely different rules system with its own brilliant ideas. I genuinely don’t know which is better, and it’s pure luck that the game I ended up going on my journey of Sim discovery with is DoN and not Dread. One of my long-term projects is to take my private library of DoN scenarios and run some of them with Dread; the two games are 100% cross-compatible in terms of material, and I’d love to see how differently the experience gets structured while still being a balls-to-the-wall horror one-shot.

I was fully conversant with Ron’s theory when I first tried out Dead of Night, and I was intentionally attempting to achieve Sim play, which at the time and in the context I construed as a satisfying mastery of the horror story; I would GM, and the players would be entertained by a first-person interactive perspective to a good horror story. The circumstances were far from ideal in that I didn’t even have a story as we sat down to play – a complete actual play report happens to exist for this first part of my Hair franchise of slasher horror episodes (I would run a few “sequels” over the years) – but it was just one of those times when things flow together in a meaningful way.

I would go on to run more Dead of Night, and some Call of Cthulhu, over the years. My concrete realization and understanding about the enjoyment of this kind of horror story gaming is as follows:

The GM brings the story: this is the “it” for the Simulationist play agenda in this type of game. It is not a story in a dramaturgical sense, but rather a visceral emotional notion coupled to concrete horror imagery. In our first DoN scenario, that came so well together despite being improvised on the spot, the visceral emotional notion was a Psycho-like image of a ever-youthful homosexual serial killer; the concrete horror imagery was the idea of the long hair on a man, setting him firmly in the counter-culture setting and beyond the reach of the honorable society.

The players experience the story: whatever the GM has, that’s what you get. Let’s hope it’s going to be interesting. The roleplaying game exists as a first-person interactive story vehicle, it is an opportunity not dissimilar to a VR headset. It’s not there for you to achieve anything per se; your goal in participation is to experience, and to that end you make choices and prompt the GM and other players to show you the “it” at the pace, from the angle, and to the extent that you choose. Sometimes this means leaving things deliciously unsaid as you realize that your first-person perspective requires you to escape the scenario before discovering the truth.

Success is about emotional elevation: this is how the horror story gaming is Simulationist, specifically. You have some horror stuff like “this serial killer acts like he’s your lover, and he has really pretty hair, but he also has a knife”, but you could have that in any agenda mode. What makes it Sim is the elevated emotional appreciation when the storyteller-GM’s beats fall in place and the player’s imagination is in line, producing an immersive experience that helps you appreciate the internal nature of the image hiding in those words. As a GM you’re asked to bring a personally meaningful horror story, and you are rewarded by the excitement of the players; as a player you’re asked to pay attention, focus in the story, and you are rewarded with a scary story.

And, to be specific and concrete: by running a horror game like this you the GM also gain elevated appreciation for your own story. When you succeed with it, you really get what makes it work. It’s a very rewarding experience that inspires you to work on your storytelling craft more and more.

High Fantasy Adventure Gaming

This is a much more recent example: we played a 50-session long campaign of 4th edition D&D with the local crew a couple of years ago. I used a bunch of progressive tech in there, and intentionally formulated the game with the ideals of Middle School D&D in mind. It was recognizably 4th edition in mechanical terms, but perhaps not so much in attitudes and emphasis. I did intend to write a pretty exhaustive actual play report on the project at Story Games, but the forums got shut down in the middle, so it was left unfinished. Still, there’s exhaustive technical analysis on what we were doing at SG, available at this writing here and here.

The “it”, the Simulationistic substance, of this campaign originated in my own love for the YA fantasy classic novel series Chronicles of Prydain: the campaign consisted of a painstaking deconstruction and moving-pieces simulation of Prydain and its adventures that I created for the group to run through. I turned all the characters from the books into NPCs, all the events into D&D adventures, and so on, basically just converting pre-existing stuff. The players had a considerable amount of leeway in terms of prioritizing game content, picking what to play through on their way through the Chronicles, but it was ultimately a railroad game (of the hub model, to be specific).

What the players get from the exercise is similar to my horror example in that they get a chance to experience an epic high fantasy story from a first-person perspective, with great leeway for what they want to see and do: the PCs in our game got to meet and interact with cool NPCs, lead armies into battle, save princesses, court princesses, delve into literally incomprehensible magics and much, much more. There were big climaxes along the way and tragic, tearful reversals, all hinging on the dice. (Yeah, I’m tricky enough a GM that I can run a railroad D&D campaign without fudging the dice once.)

However, there was more going on, for unlike the typical horror game, the players here also got to painstakingly develop their own heroic persona for the game, a character with mechanically guaranteed protagonism and plenty of room to grow as a playacting mask and alter ego for the player. The game’s rules focus on character development, and the GM and the campaign structure backed this every step of the way, thrusting the player characters into the spotlight as the actual protagonists of the epic.

And, more still: a complex skirmish combat system that the players could learn to utilize for cool, memorable combat effects. This part admittedly didn’t work for everybody, but that’s more on the 4th edition D&D rules being sort of questionable than on the concept itself. (I know many like them, but the only thing 50 sessions of this thing convinced me of was that I can create a better Sim skirmish combat rules set myself.) We can say that the game certainly offered the chance to “get into” the skirmish combat thing, and some players jumped at the opportunity, while others didn’t so much. It was not as powerful as this form of game could be, but it was powerful enough that we can say that it was present.

For me as the GM the creative payoffs were vivid when I got to share some of my favourite childhood stories with the other players, and when I got to play around with the highly ironic differences that the D&D chassis and the inevitable player choices made to the overall flow of the epic. Getting to develop the setting and campaign material “on the margins” was also great, as I needed to stat up all kinds of Pridonic stuff and expand upon the specific nature of various challenges. Perhaps the highlight of the campaign for me was when a player joining us around session #8 wanted to play an elf, and this led me into a campaign-spanning arc of exploring the precise nature of the fae powers in the Pridonic setting, increasing my intuitive understanding of British fae lore to unprecedented heights. I seriously have a book outline lying around about this stuff, Prydain is a more interesting setting than is superficially obvious when you realize a few key things about it.

The GM’s continuous creative fulfillment is, by the way, key to doing this whole “Lord of the Rings except a roleplaying game” thing: what kills these campaigns so often (I mean, have you gotten this project off your bucket list yet?) is to my understanding specifically that the group fails to achieve a productive Simulationistic reward cycle for the GM. It’s the GM who gives up when they feel that the game’s not living up to expectations. They might think that it’s because the others are playing wrong, but are they really, or are you just failing to construe a system that makes the interactions fruitful?

Purist for System, fun with GURPS

I had never played or even read GURPS before, but a few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy game with some friends in Helsinki. It was interesting and different for many reasons; although the Bextropolis circle has many GMs, I’ve often ended up running games, and often the games played in this circle are D&D of various varieties. Here a player who I hadn’t ever seen GMing took us to the strange world of GURPS. I was probably the least experienced player with GURPS in the group, and while everybody else were working on the routines, I spent a lot of time doing chargen math and simply reading the rulebooks. Seeing the GM in his skilled use of the massive amounts of reference literature was like witnessing a new facet in the life of a friend, one that you didn’t even know existed.

It was of course still D&D in the wide sense of the term; these are guys who really love their D&D. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is sort of a GURPS sourcebook for playing D&D, it’s all about “simulating D&D” in the GURPS rules.

What I discovered at the time was that despite my initially decidedly ironic approach to the game, I quickly came to enjoy the sheer systemic drive that GURPS presents. Regular readers know that I have my, ahem, doubts about point-buy games, but certain minute details in the GURPS rules are really provocative and exciting if you’re at all math-inclined. If you’re into solving the questions of how rpg systems might model various fictional realities in elegant, powerful ways, then GURPS is well worth consideration. And I don’t mean just reading it, as reading a highly technical game text like this is largely wasted effort until the rubber hits the road and you’re doing something with the rules. Create some characters, take some stances on the fiction.

For the next half a dozen sessions or so I had an inordinate amount of fun doing insane-sounding things such as the following:

  • Having my Monk hide and sit in in a tree while a combat encounter ticks away in one second rounds, waiting for my chance to strike. “Nah, I think I’ll continue sitting here, they seem to be doing fine.” The ridiculous amount of action economy you lose in GURPS by playing realistically (having your character hesitate, do anything except “I hit”, maneuver, wait for your chance, whatever) has yet to cease to amuse me, particularly as the rules really play up the whiff factor (and, consequently, the effectiveness multiplier for actually effective actions) in a bold way that you could never imagine in a D&D based rules set.
  • Calculating carrying capacities, lifting strengths, climbing speeds, jumping distances, and then using these real measure capabilities in every possible situation, thus showcasing my character’s superior physical capabilities. Yes GM, I always need to know how high the roof is; how else do I know if I can jump up and cling to a roof beam in one fluid move from a jumping start?
  • Poring over the skill lists, throwing character points in ones and twos on all kinds of possible Monk skills, making full use of my high Dexterity stat and making my character feel very varied and powerful for all the weird skills he had.
  • Sitting in a tree waiting for my opportunity to strike, except this time with weird cross-applications of exotic skills. By inducing a self-hypnotic state in himself, the monk could gain a +4 or something ridiculous like that to their first strike in combat.
  • Deciding that my character’s long-term ambition would be to alpha strike a dragon, bare-handed, by specifically punching through its skull. (The party was on a dragon-slaying quest of sorts at the time.) This would, after all, make the best use of the game’s hit location, damage reduction and other rules, plus it would be metal as heck. Deciding that the appropriate way to train for this would be by buying and killing oxen with my bare hands, developing my combat maneuver “Dragon killing strike” with more reasonable prey.

It’s all such a wondrous whirligig of a mechanical carousel. The “it” in GURPS is no doubt the system itself, and the creative point of the game is applying that system to various fictional ideas. I’ve yet to implement this, but I would completely seriously enjoy trying out something like a Lord of the Rings themed game with GURPS: there would be lots of building things involved as the players would figure out how a Dunadan differs from a baseline mortal and so on. I think that a successful game of GURPS needs to embrace the system in all of its quirky insanity, because that’s where the show is.

Genre emulation vs world simulation vs character immersion

I’d like to shed some light on an old and popular confusion regarding Simulationism. Namely, people find it very useful to be reductionist about the nature of the Simulationist creative process, which leads to ideas such as these:

  • Simulationism is about genre emulation, like Call of Cthulhu or Star Trek or MERP or the superhero game of your choice: the Simmiest game is the one where the rules emulate a genre faithfully.
  • Simulationism is about world simulation, like Runequest or MERP or GURPS: the Simmiest game is the one where the rules are consistent and comprehensive about simulating how the world “really” works.
  • Simulationism is about character immersion, like a Nordic larp or a Whitewolf game: the Simmiest game is the one where the rules don’t get in the way of experiencing your character.

Keeping my understanding of the nature of Simulationist creativity in mind, this becomes a simple thing: all of the above can be Simulationism if the game is about it, but none of them describe the full scope of Simulationism particularly well, as they’re all descriptions not of the core activity, but rather of important content processing techniques that are unique to roleplaying, and characteristic of Simulationist play in particular.

Genre emulation is useful for Simulationist purposes because an analytical system describing the laws of story, or the laws of a story universe, is just the thing for learning about and refining understanding of a given cultural phenomenon. For example, the insanity rules of Call of Cthulhu are emulative of the melodramatic psychological ideas involved in old pulp horror short stories; players using these rules have an opportunity to see how the pulp protagonist descents into madness slowly or quickly, as the dice dictate. It is an elevated first-person perspective on the idea. It works for simulationism because we are curious to learn about story worlds and the simplified reality they represent.

World simulation is likewise useful, and in reality the very same thing as “genre emulation”; it’s just that some gaming systems posit to concern themselves with the real world, or how things “really work”, or how a fictional situation would work if it was real, etc. It’s a slightly different way of organizing your material, and studying it, because you’re not replicating a pre-existing canon for study so much as you’re observing an ostensibly even-handed model, trying to come to understand how things work. For example, the different critical hit tables for crushing vs. blade weapons in MERP should achieve a heightened appreciation for the physiological causes of injury in medieval melee combat. It’s not genre emulation, that is true, but it’s still Sim.

Finally, character immersion, and immersive experiencing of game content in general, is also an useful and commonly used Simulationist technique. I’ll define the nature of immersion here quickly to make my point: “immersion” is a subjective, focused information-processing technique where your imagination fills in the gaps and help you produce a personal illusion of experiencing something or other. It is, again, a technique that attempts to produce an elevated understanding of its subject matter, which often is the personal experience of an imaginary person, but can be e.g. an experience of a place or an activity as well. Although immersion is necessarily an integral process of understanding, the opposite of analytical processes, and therefore its results are often not easily dressed up words… it can still lead to insight, and therefore be useful for Simulationism.

The fact that there is a variety of creative goals that are rooted in the Simulationistic concern, that express the Simulationistic mode, should not be a surprise. The fact that different creative goals are approached with different tools shouldn’t be a surprise, either. Probably the reason for gamers liking to reduce Simulationism, and identify it with a particular powerful technique, is that an individual generally only has a strong grounding in one part of the rpg scene, and you talk of what you know. However, saying that Sim is emulation or that Sim is immersion is like saying that Narrativism is about premise; it’s confusing a prominent technical strategy for the underlying creative agenda.

Is Simulationism a GNS mode?

Moving on, let’s grant for now that I’m correct about the underlying human motivations and Simulationist play is indeed engaged in for the purpose of, well, study: a Simulationist creative agenda is one that seeks inspiration and understanding in the process of Exploration.

Given this premise, is Simulationism a GNS mode? The question may seem tautological from an internal perspective where we define and understand a mode in terms of the human psychology, the human reasons for engaging in it; if there is an unified reason underlying the classification, then surely it’s a mode. Narrativism is a mode because it all comes down to thematically meaningful story creation as a human need, and Simulationism is a mode because it comes down to personal understanding and curiousity.

However, GNS theory specifically has these pretty zany claims that it makes about Creative Agenda Modes: a mode is not just any grouping of CAs, even one defined by a seemingly unitary psychological need or practical activity; GNS modes are also claimed to be internally coherent and externally conflicting. Let’s take a quick look at whether we have any reason to believe that Sim as per this understanding is a Mode in this technical sense.

First, cohesion: given a variety of creative goals and ambitions and needs, the undergrowth of human psychology, unique agendas that each participant brings to the game table. Assuming that they are all Simulationistic in character, do they really cohere – play well together – or are we actually just as likely to get along as we would with any mixture of agendas, even Nar or Gam ones?

In my experience the individual Simulationistic inclinations of the players tend to cohere well when the game succeeds in producing “units of interest” that combine the particular interests of the players into unified, integral systems where these particular interests for all practical purposes become one and the same. For example, the Simulationistic interest of modeling things in the GURPS rules does (I assume; armchair analysis indicates buy) cohere with the Simulationistic interest of analyzing and understanding the Middle-Earth Legendarium in the practical activity of playing a GURPS Middle-Earth campaign. Similarly, the Sim interest of roleplaying a 1920s period character melds seamlessly with the Sim interest of telling a horror story in Call of Cthulhu.

I believe that you can usually cross and meld and combine Simulationistic interests in this way in a relatively free way due to the nature of the underlying creative motivation itself; it’s not that you are automatically interested in everything Sim if you are interested in something Sim, but rather that your interest can often be combined with other interests, and the fact that you are curious (a defining intellectual attitude for Sim, I think, just like ambition defines Gamist psychology and conscience defines Narrativist psychology) makes it more likely that the resulting concrete activity has easy hooks for you to get into it and buy into the process.

The greatest opportunity for the flexible “melding” of interests into functional units of interest occurs between perpendicular Elements of Exploration, of course: if I’m interested in role-playing He-Man and you’re interested in telling a fantasy story, it’s a match made in heaven despite the fact that you’re not initially into He-Man the character and I’m not into your story. The perpendicular nature of the interests means that it’s actually easy to fit them both into the same activity, both making up necessary parts of the whole. I don’t think that it’s an accident that the most popular and powerful Simulationistic games tend to combine some powerful baked-in substance propositions while leaving other parts explicitly for the players to customize; this improves your chances of discovering the integral, cohesive topic that excites and entertains everybody, as the players are given something that’s actually a pretty functional proposition: “we have this mildly interesting thing, but please, add your own particular quirk to it.” The game may, for instance, give you a fantasy world, but leave it up to you to decide to bring your daddy issues into that world.

The “integral unit of interest” is a real and relevant requirement, because it’s not the case that you can just add and add stuff into a roleplaying game so you can have “something for everybody”. If I want to do a really hard scifi game that gets into the nitty-gritty of space colonization sociology and economy (AD2300, maybe), and you want to play Exalted, I fail to see how I would construe the basic activity of a campaign such that we would both get what we want. Sim doesn’t cohere in this sense, but I don’t think that any CA mode does; Ron’s theory never meant that you could do anything at all and have it somehow magically be meaningful for the whole table. You’re still going to have to pick a topic, probably by starting with something vague (like “let’s pay GURPS!”, with nothing but a rules system) and then building towards focus.

Anyway, that’s my take on why Sim naturally coheres towards something that we can all appreciate. How about CA conflict, why is that more likely to occur with non-Sim agendas than with Sim ones?

The primary issue in how Zilch (lack of Creative Agenda) interacts with Simmy play priorities is, as with the other agenda modes, that you might not enjoy talking to yourself, which is basically what you’re doing when you play with a Zilch-dominant player. This isn’t often as much of an issue as a full-strength creative conflict with another player who actually cares about what goes on in the game, but it’s not ideal either. I don’t think that Sim really accomodates Zilch more than Gam or Nar, either; it is much, much more meaningful if the Sim play process includes other invested players who actually care about the subject matter and help you massage it by asking questions, making suggestions, interpreting and claiming things.

Gamist agendas tend to conflict with Sim creatively because the Simulationist doesn’t give face; they’re here to learn and see, not to participate in a showdown. (This has to do with Gam creative theory, I won’t go into depth here.) This leaves any Gamist priorities utterly frustrated. Meanwhile, Gam decision-making is prone to conflict with Sim priorities because the choices that cause victory are not usually, inherently the same choices that achieve maximal understanding of the underlying material of play; it’s not that Gamist gameplay doesn’t utilize the material of play, but it is always a directional utilization that leaves little room for appreciating the material for its own sake. In practice the common Sim/Gam creative conflict is that the Gamist asshole kills off everybody in the opposing team, obviating any opportunity for the Simmy players to do their genre stuff or whatever it was they were trying to do. The Gamist doesn’t get that we’re doing theater, not sports.

Narrativist agendas mainly conflict with Sim because Nar is inherently about you, while Sim is inherently about it. I’d like to say that this is often a less emotionally charged conflict than others, but the truth of the matter is that some Simmy games are just more easily drifted towards Narrativism, while others are easier for Gamism. Sure, Fate can do Narrativism, but if you think that proves that Sim and Nar are similar, you should try playing Battletech and see how Narrativist you’ll feel yourself. The fundamental issue is that a true Sim play will never, ever care about you the person, and your self-expression; they don’t want your self-expression, they want your subjugation to this material. And contrariwise: the Narrativist game will only ever tell you the scholastic, artistic, personal truths about the subject matter accidentally, while on the way towards self-realization.

I’ll also say a few words about hybridization, the theoretical notion of achieving multiple CA modes at once: historically Forge theory has entertained the idea, and particularly Sim-hybrids have seemed like credible propositions, possibly because Sim has often been viewed as a weak and pliant creative agenda that is easy to satisfy “on the side”. The development of the theoretical concept of “reward cycle” largely laid these concerns to rest by describing how coherent hybrid modes work: the hybrid game is actually, in structural terms, running multiple concurrent creative processes that are largely creatively independent of each other. Hybrids are theoretically possible but rare in practice due to how much easier it is for the humans playing the game to maintain a singular focus. This goes as much for Sim hybrids as anything else, and if doing a Sim hybrid seems more feasible, it’s because you’re thinking of a Simmy agenda that is relatively weak and yelding to begin with, and therefore easily satisfied.

How to achieve Sim play?

This is going even deeper into Forgite rpg theory, the boring kind that doesn’t make the rounds outside the theory forums. I recommend figuring out what “Exploration” and “Shared Imagined Space” mean to make sense of what I’m saying here.

The fundamental mechanical reason for why Simulationism works as an activity is that Exploration, the core activity of roleplaying game play, proffers an unique artistic perspective that is lacking from all the traditional artistic mediums. The Exploration process has some technical commonalities with e.g. oral storytelling, but the dense interactivity and the utilization of the Shared Imagined Space make for an ultimately superficial relationship; you can do powerful roleplaying with weak storytelling assets, even though it’s true that storytelling skills are involved in the process.

The closest that a traditional art form comes to Exploration is in Socratic dialogue – not the written format, but an actual unrehearsed real-time dialogue between people. In the Socratic dialogue, like in roleplaying, the participants perform an interactive observation of a topic, correcting each other’s thinking and inserting ideas into the discussion. It is entirely conceivable that a Shared Imagined Space exists, in which case the Socratic dialogue actually is a roleplaying game in the technical sense proposed by the Big Model.

Regarding a Simulationist creative agenda, what Exploration particularly gives you is a set of tools reminiscent of the fictional idea of the holo deck: by the aid of imagination and interactive feedback, the player has the opportunity to consider the substantial material under play from a first-person interactive perspective. The players of a roleplaying game concentrate carefully, fill descriptive holes proactively with imagination, and achieve a detailed understanding of the subject matter. For some kinds of material this understanding is not much different from carefully reading a book, e.g. linear verbal learning. For other kinds of material the method has potential to be superior. For instance:

  • Understanding the internal subjective perspective of a human being
  • Understanding complex dynamic systems from various close perspectives
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of complex events

Where Exploration is incapable of achieving elevated understanding, Sim cannot exist either; there is no point, from a Simulationistic perspective, if you can actually get a better handle on the material by e.g. studying a book than setting up an Exploration event (a roleplaying session). From a Sim perspective the reason for playing e.g. Runequest is that you want to discuss the Orlanthi kingship rites in some real detail with others, figure out how this stuff’s got to work, and work out a detailed understanding by committee. If you were satisfied with what the book has, if it in all ways satisfied your curiousity, you wouldn’t find re-enacting the material in play to be a meaningful creative act.

In practical history of the roleplaying art we do, however, witness many clear examples of successful Simulationistic Exploration taking place. There are subject matters that suit being Explored, and there are established ways of doing so. I like to name these particular simulationistic technique clusters in distinct ways; much of art theory is, after all, about giving names to things. When you name a technical cluster, you can talk about how to best implement it on real play.

The following are some of the most important practical Simulationistic rpg theory elements; they’ve been very useful for me, as much as rpg theory concept work can be. If you’ve been reading Story Games over the last decade, you might have seen me (and others) write about some of these in more depth and detail. Many are ever-green topics of rpg theory starting in the ’80s or even older than that. While getting your rpg theory kicks from my bunch of nicely tagged boxes, please do remember that the following are prominent structural strategies useful for Sim play; an actual game typically combines two or three of them concurrently to provide a functional and hopefully powerful opportunity for exploring the subject matter.

(The Forgite theorist may notice that these technical content strategies sort of match Elements of Exploration. Probably not a coincidence, but I’ve derived these from observing what actual Sim games do rather than the other way around, so I won’t be speculating about that aspect here.)

GM Story Hour

Or, “railroading” as it’s more commonly called – I prefer to use a different term to reduce preconceptions and draw attention to what’s pertinent for our purposes. (“Railroading” was conceived as a deconstructive critique of this practice; it’s the name an enemy grants to the phenomenon.)

“GM story hour” is a roleplaying game activity where one of the players – the titular GM – prepares a structured agenda platter for the session of play, and the play activity itself then concerns processing through this pre-prepared content. The content is usually structured analogously to a linear narrative, so there’s “scene 1”, “scene 2”, etc. that are processed through play in the order pre-determined by the GM. The story hour is defined by the content authority of prepared material, delivered in fixed order.

I’ve developed some modest story hour theory myself; to put it briefly, I believe that railroading play, despite how common it is, is generally misunderstood to concern itself mostly with the causal “A leads to B” path procession through the GM’s prepared material. This type of railroading theory leads to complex conceptualizations like hub models (alternate roads you allow the players to pick from) and magician’s choice (the players think they’re choosing, but really they’re not) and generally focusing your creative energies towards the dysfunction of trying to manage a GM story hour where the GM can’t tell the other players that it’s a story hour, and everybody else is trying their damnedest to jump the tracks. This kind of railroading theory is worthless because its central ambition is to make railroading do something it is not suited to – a pretense of the tracks not existing when they really, genuinely, practically do.

What I would like to offer as a modest alternative to old-fashioned railroading theory is that the purpose of the GM story hour is not to cheat and create an illusion of freedom; it is to exquisitely prepare nuanced literary material for intimate consideration. The strength of the railroading game structure is not in hiding the tracks, but rather in ensuring that those tracks travel through scenes worthy of spending some time in. You’re literally only bothering with the railroad tracks because you don’t want to waste time preparing complex content and then just have the other players skip it; it’s much better to take the track as a given and focus on how to make your content worth the trip.

I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but the key consideration is treating your game prep the same way an adventure video game does: your core strength is being able to prepare carefully, and the freedoms you give to the player are carefully constrained to ensure that you actually get to show off your stuff. It is still interactive, as the player has the primary control over the pace (how quickly you go over your material) and focus (what parts of your material are particularly observed) of play, even as the GM by definition holds primary content authority. The GM decides what play will be about, but the other players decide how they investigate that aboutness.

The GM story hour is an appropriate game structure for games where a single player introduces specific subject matter to the other players. It is extremely important that the introduced matter is good stuff, creatively relevant to the participants. Tracy Hickman understood this in his magnum opus Dragonlance, pushing the AD&D content delivery chassis to its extreme ends and beyond in an effort to deliver a true high fantasy epic via a game structurally very poorly suited for the purpose; Hickman understood that if there was to be a measure of grace to the project, it would be in the fact that the GM would in his interminable story hour be delivering actually legit fantasy literature. (Not discussing the Dragonlance novels here, note, but the adventure modules.)

You never, ever want to be in a position to deliver a story hour with shitty, trivial material. Respect yourself, respect your friends, and if you choose to play a game structured for the story hour, bring something you actually want to tell the other players about. Something that you can describe to them, and then let them ask questions, and then answer those questions gladly, confident that you’re engaging in an intelligent, meaningful activity. If you can’t convince yourself about your material being interesting, don’t expect others to care, either.

Princess Play

This is a common content strategy for Sim games as well, but unlike railroading, it doesn’t really have a traditional theory label. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because traditional rpg theory is almost entirely GM-driven, and thus the character players are only considered as objects of GM manipulation. A theory issue like “why the player enjoys pretending to be an elf” just hasn’t been in vogue much.

“Princess play” is a Simmy play structure strategy where a character player is encouraged to develop a character they find entertaining to occupy as a thespian role. During the game they have opportunities to exercise the role in various fictional circumstances. The role is affirmed by the way the SIS reacts to the role.

Because this has been asked about in the past: no, the term “princess play” is not intended to be disparaging. I do not think that playing princess is a shameful activity. If you do, you might need help, because you’re criticizing a very common childhood game. The name comes, of course, from the common role-adoption game that children like to play, which I believe to present a creative agenda that is essentially similar to the enjoyment a roleplayer gets from a role meaningful to them. That is, it is exciting to pretend to be a princess or a fireman or rock star or astronaut or whatnot because you get to pretend to engage in exciting activities and be treated differently from usual.

Simmy games that particularly rely on princess play as entertainment usually encourage players to develop their characters quite freely, and often offer very empowering character roles. The ideal princess play game will feature a wide variety of appropriate situations where the player gets to “act out” the role, with the other players offering affirmative reactions and feedback that make the role feel more real. The veritable philosopher’s stone for princess play games is the question of how to get players to rely on each other as interactive companions; the history of the traditional roleplaying game is a history of adventuring parties; there is a clear desire for inter-party role-affirming play (the dwarf and elf should both want to bicker to affirm their roles as the dwarf and the elf), but how do you actually get the players to do the legwork in a foundationally passive rpg culture? It’s a conundrum.

Although rpg tradition doesn’t really speak much about princess play as an intentional activity, the phenomenon is recognized as a sort of shameful creative quirk. The reader might be familiar with player “typecasting” where a single player seems to always end up playing similar characters. For example, there is the “wolverine player” who always seems to be playing the superhero Wolverine as their character: a loner who excells in violence. There are elf players, dwarf players, wizard players, like this, and I think that while there are other reasons to get stuck on a type, one reason very well can be that the character concept delights the player and they’re striving for a princess play fulfillment out of the role. Possibly successfully, but maybe playing the same role over and over for years can be a sign of not quite managing to capture it and therefore ending up unable to move on.

Probably the most archetypal Sim roleplaying game is created by combining GM story hour with princess play: the GM’s task is to bring an exciting story (a series of scenes with content, that is; having a plot is technically speaking just a stylistic issue), while the players’ job is for each to create a character inherently exciting to play. Fun is had when the GM gets to put out their play, and the players get to enjoy playing a role emotionally meaningful to them in the GM’s story. Success requires understanding how both the GM story hour and princess play work as core activities, so the game can be structured in a way that makes justice to both. Definitely possible.

Dollhouse Play

A bit less common content strategy, but a vital one nevertheless; Dollhouse play is found in games that have a distinct focus on building virtual environments, such as slice of life and other lifestyle rpgs. In a rpg culture that orients very strongly through a narrative conception of the rpg activity dollhousing becomes all but invisible; games where you can actually spend hours upon hours building stuff and running it through simple base interactions do not even acknowledge the activity, framing it as simply a prerequirement for starting “actual play”.

“Dollhouse play” is a joint activity, usually not strongly chairmanned, where the players build something together. There might be a reason for the building, some sort of purpose to which the project of planning and designing is directed.

Creatively enjoyable dollhouse play obviously requires the focused attention to detail to engender an elevated appreciation of the thing being built; whether a superhero (or a superhero HQ), a city, a wizard tower, a sports stadium or anything else, the combination of the building process (the game system used to detail and define the building) and the subject matter should provide a sense of satisfaction when finished. It’s similar to concrete material building hobbies, really.

Dollhouse building projects can naturally be used for further play with other content strategies, but it’s also possible to basically just have your game be the dollhousing project. The project can be demonstrated in action via simple scenes that feature the various features of the thing, and its construction obviously continues throughout play. Having the dollhouse feature in play is its own reward, really, just like a literal dollhouse is a pleasure for its caretaker regardless of the specific game it’s being used in. Some very powerful Sim games, often point-buy based, basically revolve around continuous building like this.

Substantial Exploration

There is a distinction between a game that is simple and internally complete, and one that is directed towards an external subject matter greater than itself. The big difference is that in the latter case the relationship the players have to the subject matter arises as a major structural issue for the game: it matters quite a bit whether the players of a franchise-based game are familiar with the franchise or not. While the practical phenomenon is well-known to GMs, it’s not usually discussed as a distinct technical creative issue.

“Substantial exploration” is a type of game that involves a major external reference source. This is not just a big pile of GM notes; every player may or may not be familiar with the source material, but either way, exploring this material is core to the game’s creative purpose.

The tools and understanding of substantial exploration are historically relatively primitive. A game might have a short and practical “player’s guide to this setting” (this is different from what “player’s guide” means in modern supplement threadmill games) that describes what a player (not GM) needs to know, which is already a significant technique. Most don’t. The game might have a special tutorial campaign intended for players not already familiar with the material. Most don’t. The game might have special techniques the GM uses to teach and facilitate learning during play. Again, most don’t. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a substantial exploration game that didn’t assume the GM to be an expert already, but it’d be quite cool if you designed with that possibility in mind, frankly.

Despite the lack of tools, a game could conceivably be completely about substantial exploration creatively. You might have some player characters, I don’t know, adventuring and stuff, but that’s just the excuse, and what we’re really into here is snorting this decades old tv series up our collective noses. The better the game manages to portray its source material, the more accessible, the more powerful the portrayal, the greater our appreciation. The GM is of course core here, but just imagine what you could accomplish if the other players weren’t illiterate peasants. The difference for this creative model is stark depending on if it’s “one guy teaches others about a thing” or “everybody loves the thing”.

Substantial exploration pairs up well with GM story hour, of course, but they both can fare just fine without each other, which makes considering them distinctly quite meaningful.

Mechanical Simulation

When the layman says “simulationism”, this is usually what they’re thinking about (except without considering the creative agenda): a formal game engine that, when utilized creatively by the players, simulates an interactive system. Not all Simulationistic games feature the specific activity and enjoyment of concise and insightful simulation, but many indeed do.

“Mechanical simulation” means having the players expend significant time and effort quantifying, formalizing and then calculating outcomes for all sorts of fictional things. The enjoyment is in witnessing the mathematical structure of the game engine in action, and its dance with the game fiction.

Games with heavier rules have a potential to support the players in maintaining and performing a more detailed and definitive Exploration state. In addition, the game engine itself is a self-reflective subject matter that can quite realistically be a source of curiousity for the players. These two interests, the internal and the external, do not conflict at all.

What does conflict, though, and is probably the greatest single creative difference within the Simulationist mode, is whether a player is capable and willing to shoulder the overhead of running a heavier rules system. I don’t really think of this as a creative agenda nuance as much as it is an interface issue, similar to larping: some people aren’t comfortable taking their elf story hour with a dash of spreadsheet math, while for others it is a very powerful and unique part of the way the rpg medium expresses itself. The issue isn’t that the player doesn’t want to engage, it’s that they don’t want to engage via numbers and procedures. This distinction gives rise to the “rules heavy” and “rules light” typologies, and the eternal attempt at balancing the interests. Interestingly we don’t see much game design that would formally attempt giving players asymmetric roles, even as this is common at actual gaming tables: we allow our less mechanically oriented players to ignore the technical parts of the game and participate in a more freeform manner, with other players perhaps carrying them through more technical game procedures.

Subjective Experience

It’s not really the opposite of mechanical simulation (both can be utilized side by side), but for practical purposes it seems to be the case that Simulationistic rpgs that don’t feature a modicum of mechanical simulation instead go hard for subjective experience as a content strategy. I would say “immersion”, but it’s again a term with a complex rpg theory history, so better if I just say what I mean and you can decide for yourself how it relates to immersion.

“Subjective experience” is a roleplaying activity where a player focuses on experiencing content of play rather than learning, observing, etc. The method is basically similar to image training used in some fields, and the successful player experiences an integral (undifferentiated) understanding of the subject matter produced in a partially unconscious process inside their own head.

Subjective experience is often cited as a big selling point for Sim games (or roleplaying games in general); when the game works well you have a flow experience and it’s vividly as if you were really there, in the imagined space. It’s not really that different from being highly attentive towards anything else (a good movie, say), but the psychological element does make the technique sound a bit mysterious.

Subjective experience seems to be most utilized by games with emotionally oriented subject matter. Princess play and GM story hour are common strategic combinations, as both delivered content and developed character can be focused imaginatively quite naturally. Dollhousing is likewise possible, although perhaps under-developed in the field.

One of the fundamental natural features of the Exploration technique used in roleplaying games is that the players use their analytical faculties on multiple levels of what essentially amounts to dramatic irony. The split focus interferes with subjective experience, which is why games that really focus in that as the main activity tend to feature simple, streamlined rules systems. This further aggravates the split between proponents of heavy and light Sim rules systems, as the former do not usually play well together with subjective experiencing.

Considering prominent Simulationistic games

All right, so that’s the basics. You might experience some insight about your favourite Simmy games by considering the specific “itness” (subject matter) they have, how they bring it to play, and how a player is supposed to have any sort of elevated insight from playing the game. Once you have an opinion about what a game even is trying to do, you can do a bit of a technical breakdown of the primary content strategies it uses in introducing and exploring the content it deals with. Like so:

Call of Cthulhu is a game that I traditionally analyze as an incoherent game text split between three distinct horror games: a Gamist investigative adventure game, a Simulationistic [substantial exploration + GM story hour] over “Lovecraft genre”, and a Simulationistic [personal experience + GM story hour game] about experiencing a horror story. The latter two “playstyles” share the idea that the GM brings the content, but they differ in what the players are expected to enjoy; is it about enjoying the 1920s milieu and Mythos genre stuff, or about experiencing legit horror story spooks? The difference is big enough to be a concern in how you run the game in practice, and I don’t think it’s really realistic to try for both at once.

Exalted is a good example of a game that I think prospers best if you play it as a [princess play + GM story hour] combo, with a dash of [mechanical simulation] and [dollhousing] and such here and there. The game setting has sufficient literary merit to be cause of much [substantial exploration] in itself. The core concept, however, is that the player should work on their particular character until they fall in love with how cool the character is, and then the GM should back the player up in having the character do cool stuff. All the detailed rules are there to increase the player’s detailed understanding of how, in particular, their character is cool. The GM’s plot is there specifically to provide context for the characters to react to, so they can be appreciated as ideas in motion. This is basically the same as most superhero games and such.

Dungeon World offers us the opportunity to do “dungeon fantasy” (the D&D subgenre of literature) in a more genre-emulative rules system than D&D itself boasts. The game revolves around [substantial exploration], [princess play], its own brand of [mechanical simulation] and maybe a bit of [GM story hour], but not in such intense amounts as many other games; it’s overall a rather casual game, I might say, which may well be its greatest virtue.

Pendragon is a prime example of a [substantial exploration] game, as the purpose of its existence is to be this massive exegesis and love letter to the Matter of Britain. If the players don’t appreciate it yet, they will. Aside from folklore studies, the game features [GM story hour] in a big way. The character player side is interesting in that it’s [subjective experiencing + dollhousing] without as much as [princess play] focus as you’d normally expect; the characters are intentionally relatively generic.

I guess I could say a few words about the Simulationistic ideal strategies of other games, too; let me know if you’re interested in something, and perhaps I’m familiar enough to say. As always, discussion of a game text’s creative agenda is a discussion of the perceived utility of the text; the agenda is not in the text, strictly speaking, so much as it is in how you understand it.

The lesson to take away here, though, is that just as is the case with rpgs in general, Sim games aren’t necessarily played in a very purposeful manner out in the wild, which means that re-explaining the game has some potential for improving performance. What I’ve found most useful in Simulationistic theory is the same thing that’s helped me with the other GNS modes: by understanding the actual creative concern that I’m supposed to be on the lookout for, it becomes much easier to analytically understand what I’m doing at the game table. And I can make plans, and have clarity: once I know that the specific game’s Exploration strategy is supposed to rely on a successful GM story hour or subjective experience or whatever, I can concentrate on perfecting that particular mechanism (in the current context; particular technical details often need to be adjusted for different games) and thus finally engage in that holy grail of Forgite gaming: the deliberate performance of a creative agenda you understand.

16 thoughts on “Observations on GNS Simulationism”

  1. Heikki Hallamaa

    The Bartle taxonomy of player types is often offered as an alternative for GNS in RPG design, but they are clearly about different things. However, it seems like the Bartle categories could be retrofitted for describing Sim play preferences in particular. Do you think there’s any contact surface between the two?


    1. The Bartle taxonomy is similar to Robin’s Laws and various other typologies in that it is a model of “favoured activities”: the basic premise is that the game under consideration has a variety of phases, stages, alternate play modes, and that players find some of those activities to be more enjoyable than others. After the researcher has defined their categories, they can attempt empirical study to find out how players relate to their categorization scheme. Bartle specifically concerns himself with MUDs, which are pretty different from tabletop roleplaying games in various ways, so a direct comparison is obviously infeasible.

      GNS analysis occurs on a higher level of abstraction, and concerns a more long-term issue, as possible core activities of play are understood in a goal-oriented way: you might like or dislike e.g. fighting monsters in a roleplaying game, but how does that monster-fighting activity relate to the creative reward cycle? That is, do you advance your goals in playing the game by fighting those monsters? If so, what is it about fighting monsters that is necessary for those goals? Forgite analysis presumes that players may participate in a wide variety of ephemeral activities as part of a wider “project” of achieving their creative agenda. In this sense we can say that Bartle’s or Law’s “favoured activities” do not really have any fixed relationship to GNS analysis: as far as GNS is concerned, activities like fighting monsters, rolling dice, keeping a log of game events, having in-character dialogues or whatever are merely technical means to achieve a purpose. You’re not doing the core activity because you enjoy it for its own sake, but rather because of what the activity signifies in the wider context of the game.

      I could just say that Bartle classification relates aesthetic preferences related to ephemeral game activities, and that Forgite theory considers this a technique issue, a matter of choosing play tools that are relatable to the players. However, I think that both theoretical frameworks involve deeper conflicting assumptions about the purpose and internal structure of games. Perhaps the most prominent conflict is that a favoured activities analysis assumes that the ephemeral activity preferences are signs of player identities, while Forge theory assumes that they are signs of currently relevant play goals. For Bartle the fact that you enjoy a combat encounter and self-report yourself consistently enjoying combat encounters indicates an essential combat-related player nature, while for Edwards it indicates that you have a history of successful play involving combat, and that you’ve learned to associate combats with good times due to that. The differences in this regard make much more sense when you keep in mind that one is discussing MUDs and the other is discussing tabletop rpgs; in a MUD what “combat” means is relatively fixed, and even different MUDs are ultimately very similar to each other compared to tabletop rpgs.

      To illustrate this difference in analysis, consider a Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game campaign. Favoured activility analysis tells us that player A likes fighting monsters and, secondarily, exploring the game world. They dislike let’s say game plot and dialogue scenes. (Bartle doesn’t really address “plot” as such, as MUDs don’t have that, but for tabletop rpgs it’s a prominent thing to like or dislike.) However, what we don’t know is why the player reports these likes and dislikes, and this is where Bartle (or Robin Laws, as a rpg specific equivalent) and Edwards go into completely different directions:

      Bartle: The game has certain inherent activities available, and players naturally gravitate towards the activities they enjoy. Player A is of a “fighter-explorer” type as we can see from their self-reported preferences; they enjoy the game most in those activities, and least when the game is offering some other things. To serve player A’s interests, the game should have less plot and dialogue, and more fighting and exploration.

      Edwards: Player A enjoys some parts of the game because they relate meaningfully to A’s overall conception of the game, and dislikes other parts because they are irrelevant to what A thinks the game is about; a person cannot relate to what they do not appreciate and understand. Further questioning of A’s gaming experiences and ideas may reveal that they consider D&D to be a war game of sorts, and they resent the GM trying to force them to “roleplay”. The situation could be improved by removing the parts of the game that A is disinterested in, but the group could also improve their war gaming by better understanding and appreciating the contributions that dialogue scenes make to the game. Ideally we would fix the game so that all of its parts act in service to an unitary purpose, and it’s a purpose that player A appreciates and understands, such that they’re not only being coincidentally entertained during play.

      If you just want to know how a Forgite theory framework could use Bartle-type favoured activity data, though, I think that the answer is that the activity preference polls favoured by this type of game theory could theoretically be used to construct a hypothesis about the reward cycles active in the games that are being discussed. Like, you have this Bartle-style player typology poll where ten thousand players of a specific MMORPG tell us what they like in the game; Bartle would use this data to provide statistics about how N% of the players are “killers” or such, but we could also conceivably use this data as hints towards understanding the creative reward cycle in that particular game: players are reporting that they enjoy killing other player avatars – why would they? The poll doesn’t know (it just knows what activities the players themselves think they like), but it might be able to provide us some hints.

      Often, though, player typology research data is relatively useless for GNS analysis, as the theoretical framework of a favoured activity analysis comes in the way: because the theory believes games to fundamentally consist of core activities, it has no reason to distinguish between individual games, and therefore the gathered data usually disregards the specifics of the games being played. A typical favoured activity poll question is something like “how much do you enjoy combat encounters in games?” – essentially useless for GNS purposes in that without knowing which game the player is thinking about we don’t know what significance “combat” has in that game. This doesn’t matter for Bartle or Laws or similar theories, as they believe that the core activity already captures the essential significance of that player preference; it’s enough to know that the player relates to “combat” or “puzzles”, which are considered to be universal activities that are the same in all games where they show up at all.

      All in all, I don’t think that favoured activity analysis is too relevant to GNS theory. Disregarding issues like which is more useful or correct, it just seems to me that they’re interested in such different aspects of the phenomenon of gaming that they translate hardly at all.

  2. That’s a fantastic analysis and a perfect companion piece/follow-up to Ron’s Right to Dream. I think it has the potential to lay to rest the debates, not least because it is fittingly passionate about the ugly duckling / garbage bin agenda. Makes me want to pursue it again, too!
    Some remarks and questions:
    I think the lack of “evidently meaningful” Simulationism back at the Forge might also be attributed to the perhaps less overt nature of Sim satisfaction: In the case of Subjective Experience/Immersion it’s largely internal (and Ron never cared much for that, as far as I remember and as I understand you to be saying when writing that “Ron isn’t really big on ‘roleplaying as personality vehicle’”).
    In many other cases Sim satisfaction is arguably not as focussed on a particular moment: a Gamist victory will typically be recognizable in the fiction (the dragon is dead, the Ministry of Defense has chosen the contractor your faction favored etc.) as will a hard/surprising/powerful choice in Narrativist play. I do not doubt that such moments of truth are to be found in Sim, but I also suspect it’s more about ‘details that are just right’ accruing to transform, say, the evening’s adventure into one that totally nails what Star Wars is all about.
    I love how you put various points, whether it’s the “asshole Gamist” who “doesn’t get that we’re doing theater, not sports” or Simulationism being “just the thing for learning about and refining understanding of a given cultural phenomenon” or, better yet, “what we’re really into here is snorting this decades old tv series up our collective noses.”
    I’m not sure I understand the following bit: “And contrariwise: the Narrativist game will only ever tell you the scholastic, artistic, personal truths about the subject matter accidentally, while on the way towards self-realization.” Could you elaborate?
    I have an undercooked pet theory about Simulationism (which I personally like to think of as Celebrationism, though “elevated appreciation and understanding” is both broader and more precise, wow!): It seems to me that it is intrinsically more … harmonious? feel-good? safe?? than the other CAs. As an insecure teen, I was drawn to RPGs precisely because I couldn’t imagine stepping up, let alone winning. And I’ve experienced, read about and seen the phenomenon of being intimidated by Narrativism’s need to produce Story NOW, let alone INSPIRED/CAPTIVATING/INTIMATE Story Now. By comparison, appreciating the same things like everyone else at the table is small beans, and understanding can be shared (unlike some victories or a personal statement). I’m not quite sure about any of this because my early preferences might have more to do with traditional play and illusionist techniques, which guaranteed it was “Us” against the world as well as happy endings.
    (5) What are the Simulationistic ideal strategies for Rolemaster (or MERP, if you prefer, albeit without a primary focus on Middle Earth)?

    1. (1) I think the lack of “evidently meaningful” Simulationism..
      Yeah, I suppose Sim can be a bit less overt, at least compared to Gamism. Narrativism can be subtle as well, depending on whether you talk about the experience with the other players.

      I’ve found that Sim, as the other modes, gets much clearer if you talk frankly about your interests with the other players. Like, don’t hide the fact that you’re interested in e.g. warcraft, and are currently enjoying the fiddly times as the group figures out how to use cavalry screens correctly. And if you figure out something interesting, tell the others. I think this goes for subjective, integral experiences as well; if nothing else, you can tell the others that you’re really into staring at the wall and immersing in the situation right now, so please feel free to move on while I daydream here.

      (I’ve been spitballing the question of immersive rpgs on occasion. I do know that my take on it will include some sort of cards that the players have in front of them, that they use to signal non-verbally whether they’re bored or entranced moment to moment. Fixes much about the non-communicative nature of freeform immersive gaming if you can train the players to signal like this.)

      (2) I love how you put various points…

      (3) I’m not sure I understand the following bit…
      OK, so the psychological basis for Narrativism is artistic self-realization, right? I think that the best argument for the CA modes not being distinct modes all around is probably in this territory: the distinction between Narrativist self-realization and Simulationistic elevated understanding is sort of subtle; it’d be credible to argue that they in fact can cohere creatively in the right circumstances. (This would be distinct from technical Hybrid design; this is saying that Nar and Sim overlap as CA categories rather than there being some technical trick to make creative needs align in play.) The modes can be much more distinct if you specifically contrast subject matters, but a Simulationistic game about human psychology and a Narrativist game about human psychology can seem awfully similar. I think that the distinction lies solely in whether you’re pursuing an understanding of the subject or a personal artistic pronouncement; that is, if you’re looking to learn, or to transform yourself.

      So the question about whether Nar and Sim are true modes is sort of academic, and I’d personally consider it disappointing if a person completely ignored the very real artistic questions involved in how to implement these kinds of creativity, simply because they were completely obsessed with proving or disproving the GNS cohesion claims. The cohesion claims are arguably not that practically important for most roleplaying, they’re just theoretically radical and far-reaching; it’s s moderately interesting question as to how absolute the modality of the GNS modes is, precisely; does a Creative Agenda just mostly fall into a single mode, do two modes just mostly conflict? Is the GNS modality that Ron observes in his essays a qualitative or statistical phenomenon? We can consider the question, which is what I was doing in that part of the essay: given two players playing together, one pursuing a Simmy agenda, the other a Narrativist one, does agenda conflict necessarily occur?

      What I suggested in that bit you quoted is that it seems to me that there are some grounds to believe that a fundamental creative conflict exists, although I would expect it to remain unrealized in many practical situations simply because people aren’t playing hard enough.

      (As you probably know, CA conflicts generally realize socially because the players are caring much and playing well – playing “hard”. Zilchplay is sort of what happens when nobody cares that much; conflict won’t happen because everybody backs down. More obvious and extreme creative conflicts will surface in even relatively casual play, but some differences could remain covert despite existing simply because they’re subtle enough for the players to gloss over.)

      The specific conflict I predict is that a Simulationist query will be unsatisfied by a Narrativist answer because the Narrativist answer pertains to the worldview, the creative self-expression, of the narrator, while paying only notional respect to the background material as a context. This could come as a surprise for even a practiced Narrativist, but we do fudge the SIS a bit in the interest of making the thematic statement, and it’s because the statement is so much more important than respect for the material. I believe that the Simulationist query into the material is ultimately disappointed by the Narrativist self-expression because the causes for the Narrativist choice arise from the artist and not the material.

      Perhaps an example will clarify… so let’s say that we’re playing a rpg campaign that just so happens to replicate the exact events of the Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Gollum are player characters, and they’ve made their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. The players at the table uphold both Narrativist and Simulationist priorities, making grounds for a CA conflict if one is to be had. I suggest, granting the game’s structure otherwise supports this, that it’d be a natural Narrativist interest here to ask Frodo’s and Gollum’s players to put their artistic credibility on the line by choosing what their characters will do, and why, considering all that’s come before. This choice, from a Narrativist perspective, is sacrosanct in the sense that it concerns the free pronouncement of theme, made by the artist-that-is-the-player; there is no right or wrong answer as long as the player expresses understanding of the Premise and answers in a way that relates to the story. If there are game mechanics e.g. quantifying the influence of the Ring, they inform the choice rather than dictating it. Perhaps Frodo will e.g. realize that parting with the Ring would now, with the two of them conjoined so far, break him as a person, and it is personal cowardice that causes him to turn away. The player would be asserting thematically that humans (and hobbits), whom Frodo symbolizes here, are ultimately frail and flawed beings.

      Meanwhile, from a Simulationistic perspective, the situation grants us an interesting opportunity to test our ideas about how the Ring’s preternatural influence on the soul plays out in the most extreme of situations: here the Ring cannot bluff, it cannot delay, it cannot slowly work its corruption. Whatever it has accomplished so far is all put on the line as it exerts every power it has, in this place of its birth. This power is then pitted against the willpower, personal convictions and even the base personal agency of the souls present. From a Sim perspective we are looking for insight into the nature of these things: the nature of the Ring, the nature of Gollum, the nature of Frodo. There are no wrong answers in the sense of a wrong outcome, as long as our analysis is incisive. The players help each other understand the situation, perhaps argue some points of procedure or fact, apply the correct circumstance modifiers for possible game mechanics at hand, and a reasonable outcome is reached in mutual understanding. Perhaps the Ring indeed has some kind of empathetic connection to Gollum, causing the poor creature, weak-willed and used to the Ring’s bondage, to assault Frodo to save the Ring for itself. Ironic, how the fear for the Ring’s safety happens to cause its destruction where Frodo’s moral backbone fails.

      So what I suggested in the article as a cause for creative conflict in this kind of scene is that players perceiving this situation from Sim or Nar perspectives will find each other’s participation unsatisfying. I feel that from the Narrativist side this is clear, and I’ve seen it many times at real tables: it is absolutely infuriating to set up a beautifully vivacious dramatic scene and then have a player refuse to commit to a personal opinion on it. I sometimes want to slap a moron when they reach for the dice, wanting to roll for what their character will do rather than choosing. So that part’s pretty clear, I think, why the Narrativist can find non-commitment (which a Simulationist would display, although there are other reasons to refuse to commit) infuriating.

      From the Simulationist side I suggest in the article that it would feel disappointing if Frodo’s player straight up invented Frodo’s action in the situation merely because they personally prefer the story to go that way. (Which is what Narrativism amounts to: expressing a personal preference for how a story should go, because that’s the story you want.) The Simulationist wants to know stuff like whether it’s even possible to destroy the Ring; Sauron believes the answer to be negative, he absolutely believes that any soul trying, including even the Maiar, would balk at the psychic pressure, for the Ring’s will is his own. The Simulationist would be absolutely excited at the clever way the story as it canonically goes sidesteps this fact; he would be horrified if Frodo’s player just decided that yeah, Frodo’s gonna do it, because from the Sim perspective the player is not engaging the real issue of how Frodo would get around the magic of the Ring. For the Narrativist it is absolutely essential that Frodo has a choice in this scene; for the Simulationist it is absolutely essential that what Frodo does is determined by causality of prior fact. The stakes are high for both, as this is both a climactic story scene and a rare and esoteric test case at the same time.

      I don’t know if this is particularly convincing, though; insofar as you insist on tracking which parts of that article I’m firmly certain about, and which I’m not, then by all means count my arguments for the modal nature of Simulationism in the latter category. Maybe it’s just a technical issue to find creative concord between Sim and Nar? I want to emphasize that this doesn’t disqualify much about our internal insight regarding the nature of Simulationism, whatever the truth here is; it is still a real creative desire, that can really be addressed by roleplaying, with the kinds of tools I sketched out in the article, even if it’s not a CA mode in the sense GNS theory posits. This being the case would mean that we should be able to construct games that are powerfully Sim/Nar at the same time, which is of course the old El Dorado hypothesis. This is a firmly empirical question in that all you need to disprove the idea that Sim and Nar do not overlap (or hybridize in some other way) is demonstrating El Dorado.

      (4) I have an undercooked pet theory about Simulationism…
      I like that observation about Sim being cozy – my experience points the same way! It’s a very interesting theory question whether we’re simply observing low-intensity roleplaying there, or if Sim inherently is socially safer. Considering the internal understanding we possess about the CA modes, Sim should indeed be socially much safer and less stressful, as you’re not playfully working out group dynamics like in Gam, or revealing yourself to yourself and others as in Nar. In comparison, it is indeed socially easy to participate in what amounts to a nerdy study session.

      But then, the counterargument would be that the nature of Sim is indeed a bit like “Exploration squared”, and that’s why it’s easy to conflate Simulationism and creatively low-energy roleplaying in any mode. When observing that Sim is often easy, we might simply be observing the obvious fact that Zilchplay is easy, and pursuing any CA with such a low intensity that it can be mistaken for Sim (because you see the Exploration in the low-intensity play, but not the actual underlying CA) is easy as well.

      For what it’s worth, high-intensity Sim exists as well, and it’s not necessarily emotionally very safe either. For example, horror roleplaying is often Sim (that is, there’s no expectation of personal creative responsibility for the character players, who are only there along for the ride), and it features such nice things as the GM intentionally trying to (consensually) unnerve you, to impose his reality in which this mundane thing is suddenly very scary. The GM is revealing a lot about himself when expressing a horror story they made themselves or believe in, even if it is in a very calculated, prepped performance, and the players are leaving themselves vulnerable to being terrorized when they immerse in the story.

      All in all, the issue of where coziness and feelings of casualness even spring from in artistic endeavour is interesting. There could even be many different causes to which we respond emotionally in similar ways, making it difficult to distinguish why exactly we’re emotionally safe and relaxed in different scenarios.

      (5) What are the Simulationistic ideal strategies for Rolemaster…
      I explored MERP quite a bit in the ’90s, but I haven’t really touched the game since then. It does belong on my list of ’80s games to re-evaluate and perhaps play, as much as C2020 does.

      Without a careful rereading, my off-hand plan for doing something useful with Rolemaster would involve putting that emblematically traditional, highly detailed complex of character spec and combat rules to work. I actually have a very detailed overall theory about how to do that for games just like this; I even conducted a playtest campaign of a wuxia epic built on somewhat similar trad chassis a couple years ago. (Its mechanical trunk was mainly Praedor – A Finnish trad rpg – combined with Runeslayers.) The basic premise is that you princess play the fuck out of the highly detailed player characters in the short time-frame between their creation and their inevitable death in a tense combat encounter. The combat encounters absolutely need to be modulated, dramatically coordinated, so that every encounter is important; players get a big say on which situations evolve into life-or-death combat, there are plenty of tutorial not-serious combats like training scenes and such, and the GM simply doesn’t introduce D&D-style low-overhead random encounter stuff. When you do indeed get into a fight and the very detailed, very lethal rules system explains to you how you died, it’s going to work well as a gaming experience because you were expecting it and lived the character’s short yet exciting life to the fullest. (This pertains closely to the Sacrament of Death stuff currently up for votes in the article poll; vote for that if you want to hear more, I guess.)

      [Mechanical simulation + princess play] and maybe some specific setting or GM story stuff to contextualize the fighting. Rolemaster is a generic fantasy adventure rules set, whence my vagueness here; you absolutely do want to have some kind of fictional topic for the game, where you’ll embed the character creation and fighting. Could be high fantasy adventure in Middle-Earth or somewhere else, but could also be e.g. a fighting tournament story. I could totally see myself doing a Soulcalibur campaign with Rolemaster, in fact; it’d be hilarious. In literary terms, consider e.g. Japanese samurai comics: sharply drawn human situations that always end up with swords drawn. Highly lethal, and the author is entirely willing to introduce a character by name and give them a personal story only to tragically cut them down after a few scenes.

      Speaking for myself, I would be particularly excited about the detailed critical hit tables and the detailed violence depiction they imply for conducting combat stuff. Blow by blow depiction, and each blow a tense affair as long as you’ve done the groundwork well before going into the combat. The quirks of the character creation system would also be interesting, I expect. I would go over the rules with a comb to make the combat process as vivacious and dynamic as possible; I don’t remember off-hand which specific “routine fixes for trad systems” would apply here, but maybe get rid of excessive round-robin in the initiative system if it does that, and so on; I personally and the rpg culture in general have lots of foundational knowledge at this point about how to make these kinds of rules systems sing. Absolutely embrace the complexity, but do it as a general partner in the firm Rolemaster & Co; not be a victim of the rules system, but an active user.

  3. Re: Cozy Sim
    I think I fell into one of the very traps I applauded you for dismantling: using Simulationism as a dumping ground when classifying low-intensity play. I’m glad I’m getting a better handle on this now. The attractive potential for cozy Sim play not withstanding, I think it behooves us to take the potential for high-intensity Sim seriously and analyze and refine it (like you with your multi-year quest). My key take-away is that and why Sim can have teeth, intellectually and emotionally.

    Re: Nar/Sim conflict
    “For the Narrativist it is absolutely essential that Frodo has a choice in this scene; for the Simulationist it is absolutely essential that what Frodo does is determined by causality of prior fact.”
    I know this type of conflict, i.e. a nice Simulationist set-up is treated as fodder for Narrativist (or Gamist) play. Not that I and my friends were able to articulate the problem.

    Re: Players consulting the dice rather than making a choice
    I’ve seen this, too, and find it very irritating. I haven’t experienced enough Nar play to encounter it in that context, but that must be even more aggravating…

    Re: Rolemaster/MERP
    Just how do you “play the fuck out of the highly detailed player characters in the short time-frame between their creation and their inevitable death in a tense combat encounter”? I’m eagerly awaiting your C2020 take on slice-of-life princess play, as it seems closely related.
    I do wonder how/if RM/MERP’s pretty unique character advancement rules could be salvaged, though: Rapid Skill Development really only shines if you get to develop the characters over at least a couple of levels, i.e. when you feel the trade-off of developing competence fast. Two characters might end up with the same ten ranks in a skill (after which diminishing returns kick in more and more), but one got there faster, at a high price. How can you reconcile this with the system’s deadliness?
    (Which one should keep – I’m not keen on neutering this aspect with Fate Points and what not. Much better to ensure those clashes are meaningful, as you propose. Apropos of which: Can you name one or two of those Japanese samurai comics you referenced? I’m intrigued.)

    1. The main thing about playing a character more intensely, I think, is related to expectations of pacing: because rpgs mainly get their ideas of what play looks like from D&D, which originates as more of a war game than a drama game, the road towards a different play structure is kind of long. There’s all kinds of things that need to be considered, but the most important one is that you can’t keep shuffling your plans for substantial play into the future, to be implemented sometimes later in the campaign, with restrained pacing. This goes for both the GM and the character players, the expectation of how quickly things move, inherited from D&D, is much too slow for games with expensive characters (expensive, as in work-intensive to create and emotionally attached) and high lethality.

      When I GMed a Simmy wuxia game with these parameters, the player characters might expect to have a few scenes of character development before they would face their first mortal peril, that well might be their last. (The kind of game arrangement I suggest here doesn’t involve fudging, so the lethal rules really are lethal.) In that particular campaign these fights could even often be between player characters. The largest technical skill issue we had specifically that even while knowing that we only had a few scenes to truly establish the PCs and get a firm grasp of them, the players still held back and played in very restrained ways. Improving on this means leaning forward in your character presentation; something more like silver age superhero comics and less like a careful D&D adventuring party. If you simply have the characters live more in the few scenes they have, then that helps you establish them faster, so that when you get into the first fight scene, the character is ready to die in the sense that we’re invested in their fate and can appreciate the excitement of spending the next four hours resolving the dangerous situation.

      Regarding rapid skill development, wouldn’t you simply have characters in a princess play Rolemaster campaign gain a level after every “episode” of the campaign? So you get to level 2 after the first fight (or maybe two, if they’re integrally part of the same scenario), if you should survive that. Sure, some characters may not get to higher levels because they die, but there’s a reasonable expectation that you might see a few levels over even a medium-length campaign, so the character development choices might start mattering a bit. By making level-ups occur fast enough you make both options relevant even for characters who are in serious danger of death from the start.

  4. Your “modest alternative to old-fashioned railroading theory” took a while to sink in: it’s a no brainer that good prep makes for a better game, but that’s not what you were saying. Railroading all but REQUIRES high-quality content both the GM and the players care about.
    This is not the case in all set-ups: in a challenge-based sandbox, for instance, I can have a fun session if I slap down a map I downloaded five minutes earlier, and throw in some monsters. Good prep still makes for a better game, of course, but in a player-driven game, we can find something that keeps our interest. Perhaps we’ll try to flood the dungeon, befriend the golem, con NPC adventurers out of their hard-won gold, wander off the map and what not. It also helps if death is on the table.
    However, if the GM whips up some hackneyed plot to railroad us – most likely out of sheer habit – through this lackluster material, it will likely suck.
    (Nothing to add, really. Just saying it for myself, I think.)
    If we take away the players’ freedom of choice (and the consequences of exerting it) as well as the GM’s chance to be surprised by events, too, that’s a steep price and there had better be a damn good reason for that.
    Your term “GM Story Hour” perfectly captures the focus and main creative responsibility (and perhaps acknowledges that spinning a good yarn is non-trivial to sustain over a long campaign?).

    1. Yeah, you got the gist of it. The problem with traditional railroading theory is that it misanalyzes the problem, claiming this false dichotomy where either railroading is evil, or it’s entirely necessary but you need to cover it up. No attention at all is paid to the notion that if you’re going to bother with it, you should actually be using it for a good purpose, and what could that purpose possibly be except that you have something so worthwhile to share that it needs a railroad to conduct the players through it.

      As a practical example, 4e D&D needs railroading because you can’t invest work into setpiece combat encounters if you can’t guarantee that they show up in play. Therefore, the value of a 4e D&D campaign is entirely dependent on your setpiece combat encounters being worth a shit. If all you have is some monster manual bullshit that might as well have come from random process on the spot, you’re asking the players to stick to your railroad for no good reason at all. The content justifies a railroad.

      And that’s something that I think applies to all of those “Simulationistic content strategies”, not just railroading: they’re features, structures and activities that need to be present in a game because the game has something to offer in regard to them. A game designer or conductor who’s offering princess play without interesting characters or mechanical engagement with a boring system is making the same error as the railroader without interesting story content.

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  6. You addressed most of this in your reply to Johann regarding Hybridization, I believe, but as a semi-historical musing, I wonder how much the explosion of “pervy Nar” that sprung from the post-Forge formalist design school may have actually ended up muddling the understanding of the Nar/Sim distinction.

    Inasmuch as the game system itself is a valid “it” for Sim play, I don’t think it’s entirely absurd to imagine someone using a Nar-focused game as a sort of participatory anthropological tool for exploring a Sim-style interest in dramatic conflict, or even just for understanding what Nar play itself is. Game designers in particular seem like they might be susceptible to treating every play experience as an immersive critique of the system itself; some playtesting practices, for example, may even explicitly encourage playing a game in this fashion!

    1. Makes sense to me – I know that I’ve certainly played Nar games with Sim goggles myself when doing game development. (That is, my subjective impression is that it’s been the same kind of enjoyment.)

  7. I’d like to ask for more advice / analysis regarding GM Story Hour.

    On account of the coronavirus, I’m now playing in a monthly traditional illusionist fantasy campaign with my high school pals via Roll20. I’m not really into traditional RPGs anymore (and have said as much) but am rather enjoying myself, and not just for the nostalgia and the people as I initially felt.

    We’ve talked about RPGs in general and when I went into more detail about the OSR and story games, the GM became very interested. He was the driving force of our group back in the day and I’d love more food for thought for our discussions (perhaps to be continued here after I have pointed him to Ron’s articles via your introductory essay here).

    I value your perspective and would like to learn more about the underpinnings, pitfalls and suitable techniques (I’m thinking of stuff like aggressive scene framing or Justin Alexander’s Three Clue Rule, for instance).

    So could you elaborate regardin GM Story Hour, especially in regard to granting limited player agency and controlling the story? We are approaching things with a participationist mindset, so I hope I’m not asking you to solve The Impossible Thing before Breakfast here. 😉

    1. It’s a good topic, but I fear that I’m awash in commitments as is, so it’s difficult for me to justify taking the time for a major treatment.

      If you’d like to chat about it at e.g. Discord, I’m sure we could workshop the theme a bit at some juncture. Others at the RPG Club Hannilus might be interested as well.

  8. Oh well, at least some of the projects you’re engaged in are right up my alley — I like reading about your Coup de Main campaign, am curious about every essay in the pipeline, and would love to support that kickstarter. Rock on and don’t worry if you have to cut or reject projects. The offer of a little chat is appreciated but I’m unlikely to find the time at the moment.

  9. This is why blorb is a TA mode rather than a CA mode;
    while it’s not conducive to GM Story Hour, we’ve seen at our table not only Princess Play, Dollhouse Play, Mechanical Simulation and Subjective Experience, but also challenge-based play.

    I guess it’s because its dedication to Substantial Exploration of the external lends itself well to being a playground for some of these other modes.

    1. I agree; far as I’ve understood the thing you call blorb, to me it sounds like something I’d call “robust sandbox environment” myself. That is indeed a technical agenda, and I very much agree that it makes for a solid platform upon which to enact various kinds of activities, among them the ones you listed.

      I also agree about the reason it works. I usually explain this with the holodeck analogy: insofar as roleplaying medium is like the Star Trek holodeck, we may expect that any skills and techniques we can bring to bear in making the holodeck better (more flexible, immersive, with better NPC AI, better graphics, whatever) will have complex follow-on benefits for a wide variety of actual creative goals in using the holodeck. The guy creating holodeck 2.0, this time with improved voice acting, may have been just thinking about his larp group’s benefits, but making the holodeck (the sandbox world simulation) better will also improve it for the other guy who wants to use it for giving lectures on dynamic ecologics.

      There are of course other technical strategies for setting up the roleplaying game, among them the variety of “no myth” theories like “GM as storyteller” and whatnot, so it’s not like the robust sandbox is the be-all end-all of the medium, but it is one powerful conceit to base things on. First, create the world and learn to referee it; the actual purpose to which this world will be put won’t be an issue if you just get the world working.

      The “Varangian Way” playtest campaign that we’ve been playing with the rpg club Hannilus over the last few months is an example of a robust sandbox applied to GMless narrativism. It’s not a very common combination, but works just fine once you decide to do it.

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