Tuesday, November 29, 2005


More Discussion About Sim

Coming from the comments to my Simulationism post.

Elliot sez:

"After warming a little to GNS following my initial exposure, I'm back to being pretty critical of the concept of Sim (and thus of the entire categorization system). This is motivated largely by the many times that I've seen people claim that their games are "Sim" yet include moral decisions or challenges. Of course they're always told that they're really playing Nar or Gam."

Uh....*shrugs* I'm a proponent of the idea that there's "little-letter" moments of each CA in all instances of roleplay, and I don't think this is too controversial a claim. Of course Sim can include moral decisions and challenge - all roleplay contains all of the CA processes. It's when it's mindful is when it tips over into "a Nar instance of play", or whatever. I think that the tendency to slide many Sim accounts into Gam or Nar is a combination of the Forge focus and, as Mark W. says, talking about Sim play is oftentimes just not very interesting to those not involved.

For the record, I think that illusionism is bad roleplay, so I'm not gonna really talk about it.

"If that's all there is to Sim, then I certainly agree with Ron when he says that (based on his own categories), Sim is smaller than originally implied by the essays, and that Sim's "functional manifestations are quite rare"."

I have no idea. I think Forge AP posts are a bad metric to go by, b/c of various reasons from the last post. Maybe it is quite rare - but then again, intentional play itself is fairly rare as well, right? I will say that I think the theoretical scope of Sim encapsulates a wider variety of play preferences than the scope of Nar or Gam, but it's more difficult to articulate those preferences.

"By contrast, Sim
designs may still be ubiquitous even if Sim play is rare. Why? While Sim play entails not Addressing Premise or Stepping Up, Sim design just has to avoid facilitating those activities. If they happen, they happen, but that's up to the players. Based on a review I found, as well as your own comment (last paragraph) it sounds like Timestream falls into this category, rather than the more "positive" variety of Metal Opera-type Sim."

I dig it.

Mark W. sez a lot of good things, but basically "...there's a huge epistemic barrier to intelligent discussion about what happens in Sim play."

Well put.

Jim sez:

"I think Mike Holmes is right when he suggests that it's better to stop worrying about "sim qua sim" and start worrying about "participationism" or "virtuality" or whatever particular flavor of sim that interests you. Because you can't design for virtual nonfiction and illusionism at the same time, nor can you make illusionist and virtual nonfic-ers happy at the same table with some perfect social contract, any more than a high point-of-contact nar design squares with the vanilla narrativism that I prefer."

Yeh, I definitly see this. It's a product of the large scope of play preference - but, I would argue, to the extent that different flavors of Sim can be so different that they don't even agree they're doing something similar, while most Nar players have an easier time seeing a design as Nar-supporting, even if it's not their thing.

Rob: Cool! I definitely want to talk about your stuff, but in it's own post, hopefully soon.

Thursday, November 17, 2005




I'm not really sure how to start this post, as I'm not sure whether it wants to be a rant or more productive. In any case, it's about Sim, and how I really wish it wasn't the Big Model black sheep.

Now, this automatically triggers the "identity politics" thing , I suppose. But put that aside for now - I realize that comments about Sim are not comments about me or my choices as a roleplayer. And I know, personally, that I enjoy all CAs in various proportions, depending on my mood and group composition and all that kind of stuff. So I have a hard time understanding people who "don't enjoy" a CA, but thats another issue, and comes down to subjective experience, and basically isn't really worth getting into here. But, if someone put a gun to my head and said I had to choose one over the others, I would choose Sim.

The Ranty Bit

But. I really, truly don't think that Sim gets equal weight to the other CA's at the Forge. Now, this is due to a lot of factors - the background it grew out of, the preferences and focus of the early members, Sorcerer itself, the excellent suite of mostly Nar-supporting games that have come out of it and feed back into it, etc. And, unlike some, I don't think it's because Sim isn't understood, or defined, or whatever. It is. But, and this is key, I think that the primary dynamics in Nar and Gam play are both more similar to each other, and more easily described with tools we've borrowed from other areas of analysis, than that of Sim. Combined with the Forge's Nar-inertia, it almost necessarily falls into third place.

I'll get to the productive part in a second, it's about those dynamics.

Anyway, I think it's sad and pretty frustrating that people on the Forge act like Sim is on the same level as Nar/Gam, when, developmentally, theoretically and system-wise, its not. I know it's not a hundred percent of case, but I perceive an atmosphere that assumes that if you have a question about Nar or Gam, you can ask it and have it explained. If you have a question about Sim, it turns into a big deal - both because Sim identifiers/defenders/apologists jump on it, and because it's assumed by others that not "getting" Sim is a defensive reaction of someone who is really a closet Narrativist, or whatever. Not all the time, but enough that it feels like all the time.

The Productive Bit

I argue that the problem is that Sim really is harder to grasp with the tools we have at our disposal. Which gets into my primary processes argument/analysis/whatever. What is a primary process? It's the dynamic that defines the CA, as well as the engine that makes it go. It's a determinent - the primary process is that which defines the CA. As per usual Big Model stipulations, this is all assuming functional play, looking at enough play to see reward cycles, etc.

Ron Edwards has catchy phrases for the CAs:
Narrativism is about Story Now.
Gamism is about Step on Up.
Simulationism is about The Right To Dream.

Now, except kinda sorta for Gamism, those phrases aren't really processes. Those are descriptions and indicators, but a process is an active thing (a dynamic!) that requires someone, or a group of someones, to generate input to get it started. As I understand it, these processes have been hashed out on the Forge like so:

Narrativism is defined by the process of Addressing Premise.
Gamism is defined by the process of stepping up to Challenge.
Simulationism is defined by the process of Celebration of Source Material. Or Emulation. Or Prioritizing the Fiction. Or...

See what I mean? The basic debate about the process of Sim is still ongoing. Each of the posited processes means the same general thing, and its all pointing towards the same place, but evidently it's a lot easier to agree that Nar is about Addressing Premise than to agree that Sim is about Celebrating Source Material.

I argue that this is not because Sim is fundementally different in nature or harder to understand conceptually, but rather because Sim is both harder to describe with the tools we have at hand, and because the range of activity that falls under Sim is broader in scope than that which falls under Nar or Gam. And these feed into each other, compounding the problem.

We have other examples of Addressing Premise and Stepping up to Challenge outside of RPGs. Premise comes from the world of literary analysis, if I understand it correctly. A novel can address premise. A movie can address premise. [Obviously, not in the same way as an instance of play, etc]. Challenge, I think, is the easiest to conceptualize in terms of other activities - sports, card and board games, all that stuff where the point of the activity is to win and/or gain prestige. But, in what other source do we have, as Ron frames it, Exploration for its own sake?

Sim doesn't necessarily have to be "about" anything in the same way that a novel or movie is supposed to be "about" something. Or, to rephrase - if a movie isn't about anything, its generally considered not to be a very good movie. Not exactely the most compelling parallel. So, what tools to we have already available that we can use to describe the process of, as I call it, Exploration on Purpose? Not many. Definitely not as many as we do for Nar and Gam.

Sim is also broader in scope, in terms of actual activity that happens. What I mean by this is that both Nar and Gam consistently and by definition prioritize a certain element of roleplay. Sim, on the other hand, by definition encapsulates putting priority on any element of Exploration proper, as well as all the various combinations and degrees of emphasis between the elements of Exploration. I think many of the conversations I've seen on the Forge bear this out. When someone "gets" Nar, its like suddenly they're on the same page with everyone else who gets Nar. But two people who both consider themselves very Sim can totally clash when talking about it, because one of them enjoys (say) prioritizing Exploration of Character, and doesn't really care about exploring System, and the other is into exploration of Setting, but not Character. Or something along those lines. This is in addition to the recurring problem of mapping Techniques to CA in any kind of reliable manner.

So, we have a CA that has the least ability to map to other forms of entertainment, along with the intrinsic property of "holding" a very wide spectrum of technique and exploration preferences. This is just both harder to talk about and harder to come to consensus on than Nar, f'rex, which has a tight relationship to literature and "holds" a narrower range of play preference.

Something Concrete

I consider myself a person that prefers Simulationist play. I consider myself a designer that strives for games that support Simulationist play. So I'm going to take what I just said and do a little self-analysis and see how it fits.

When I was running my Adventure! game over the summer, I was aiming for Genre emulation both in terms of how the world worked, and in terms of how the story would progress. In GNS terms, I wanted to Explore Color and Situation, and to a lesser extent Character and Setting. System was something that I tweaked in able to enable more fun for the group, and to encourage more kibbitzing, but it definitely wasn't something to Explore. I feel like that game was fairly successful - not a complete blast, but definitely fun and enjoyable for all of us. We wanted to create a narrative that paralleled our understanding of the pulp genre, but I personally didn't feel that Premise was being addressed in anything but an occasional or accidental fashion. There were elements of Challenge, but mainly in service of exploring Character (how cool can you guys be taking down these 30 ninjas?) or in creating that story arc (you need to have a big fight with mooks before you get to the main bad guy).

As for design, I consider Timestream to support "high-concept" Simulationist play, with that concept being "cinematic" Time Travel. It is designed to encourage Exploration of this Situation in a huge way - the rules are basically about the different ways to use, gain and explore the time-affecting powers that you have. The character creation process also, I think, encourages Exploration of your character as s/he relates to the other characters, which also shades into Situation. There's a tiny bit about exploring Setting, as you can have different "settings" for the game (Pulp, Fantasy, Apocalypic, etc). Color is hit-or-miss. There's basically no boundaries or mechanical motivations for it, so each individual can run with Color as much as they want, which could be barely at all. There's some tactical stuff in the currency exchanges in the System that could be explored, but not, I think, enough to sustain a whole instance of play.

Does it support Nar play? It can, but I think it would have to be intentional on the part of the group. One of the early comments on it was that it wasn't "dangerous" enough, that there was no gas to make it go in the same way that, say, Humanity makes Sorcerer go. And I played with that for a while, but in the end, I didn't want to make it dangerous. Everything I tried with it made me uncomfortable, so I decided that that's not a priority for the design. And I'm happy with that decision. Does it support Gam play? I seriously doubt it. Maybe as a full PvP style game, but other than that, I think it would require a good deal of effort to make it pay off for Gamist play.

And that's enough for now.

Thursday, November 03, 2005



Timestream PDF downloads are now available at Lulu.com, for those more comfortable with doing it there than over paypal. However, you'll still need to download the supplemental material seperately from my website. The storefront also still needs some work, but there's only so many hours in the day...

Also, I've finally been able to access my webspace again (a comparatively minor side-effect of the hurricanes), and my site has been updated with some more comments about Timestream, link to the review and some cleaning up. Again, plans to put up some new content soon are in the works. On the off chance, anything that anyone wants to see?


A little bit more on What We Do

Joshua's comment on my last post made my brain realize this: the key to the identity of "audience-participant" is that the point of the activity is to create payoff for those participating in it. Even improv has the point of being performed.

In all other forms of entertainment, if no-one ever sees it/reads it/experiences it, you are, at best, practicing. In roleplay, you don't give two shits if anyone outside your group even knows that your play exists.

I'm sure this is a big duh for those of you smarter than me. But wow, so simple, so important - I really needed to realize that.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005



Here's a big difference between other forms of media and roleplay. Accident. In literature and film (at least that made with some minimum amount of craft), nothing is accidental. Every word on the page or element of a scene is there for a reason. Even in live performance, accidents are things to be minimized – any change from one performance to the next is either purposeful on the part of the actor, made with the permission of a designer, or the fallout in the change in energy flow between audience and stage. Of course, in live performance there are fuckups, but thats what they are – accidents that should not have happened.

Roleplay, on the other hand, is extremely permissive of accidents. I'm thinking of Sim in particular here – there's definitely an argument to be made that if you screw up in a hardcore Gamist situation, thats your own damn fault. Nar, I'm not so sure. But in Sim – damn. One element of this is retconning.

“I kiss the girl”

“The townsfolk in the inn start grumbling and shooting you dark glares.”

“Oh, right, they don't like PDAs here. Can I hold her hand instead?”


Absolutely standard practice in roleplay. Or something more fundamental to Sim:

“Wow, we've been seeing snake symbols everywhere. Maybe the snake god is sending his cultists after us.”

GM Thinks: Snake symbols? Those were supposed to be runes. But a snake god would be pretty damn cool.

The taking of an accidental conclusion by other players and incorporating it into your input into the gamespace is something that happens all the time in Sim, and is a very important process to the way I understand it. This hooks into briocolage – “huh, I didn't know putting a pipe there would make it do this, but thats cool!” - and No-Myth. I can explain that more if need be, but I think its a pretty obvious corrolation.

In a different sense of the word (i.e. An accident of history, and accident of birth, etc), it is only an accident of the dice/cards/etc that any kind of fortune resolution resolves in any given way. While we, as designers, obviously want the outcomes of fortune to work within the larger framework of the game, it is still intrinsic to this form of mechanic that outcomes are accidental. In this sense, many games are based on accident, and only work as a chain of continuous accidents.

Can you imagine a different kind of form (theatre, film, literature) that progressed via die rolls? I mean, you can imagine one, but I doubt that it would really count as anything more than a fringe element of the form, like choose-your-own-adventure style stories.

Does this mean that theres a substantive difference between fortune and non-fortune based games? Maybe. Food for thought.