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.

Both Gamism and Narrativism can be phrased in terms of "Play addresses the Situation" where "Situation" is either Premise or Challenge, respectively. Is there something that can be put into the Sim Situation, or does Sim just not fall into the "Play addresses the Situation" structure, do you think?
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. Meanwhile I rarely see real Sim identified except as:

1. Something icky--i.e., too complex, or too concerned with detail or realism for the observer's taste, or
2. Total Illusionism (nothing the players do really affects the outcome of scenarios), or
3. Token-Sim that somebody presents as an example of coherent Sim, but which on closer examination is really Gam or Nar.

The prime example of #3 is the Forge consensus that Jay (Silmenume) plays Sim. Accounts of Godlike may also fall into this category.

Aside from Illusionism, other candidates for functional, real Sim include:

1. A sort of behaviorist play where the players treat the characters as automata, modeling their actions and decisions but not judging or rooting for them. The goal would be to simply observe the interactions and outcomes. In this sense it would be similar to John Conway's Game of Life. (I've never seen any AP accounts that would fall into this category.)

2. A sort of group-participation scenario where the outcome is given but the players and GM have leeway to describe all sorts of "stuff" on the way there. Zak Arnston's free Metal Opera sounds like it works in this fashion. Frankly, My Life with Master reads as if it could be played very much in this fashion, although it's typically described as a Narrativist-supporting game.

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".

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 think you've smacked the problem with discussing Sim right on the head. It's not very interesting.

Descriptions of Sim play that's functional have a huge "you had to be there" quality to them. To an outside observer (or even to a player who is constructing an account of play post facto), the tendency is to gloss N or G elements onto play in a way that they're not typically present during play. THis follows from the reflecive nature of Sim - it is "about" the group, their shared vision, their social reinforcement of each other's 'geek cred' or equivalent, the specific characters/setting/color/situation. There's very little there for analysis to grab on to.

Which is not to say that it's not interesting to participants. It's intensely so. But there's a huge epistemic barrier to intelligent discussion about what happens in Sim play.

Mark W

I don't think you can simply peg Premise or Challenge as Situation in the one-to-one ratio you imply. The Situations in DitV and PtA, for example, are very different, though they both support Premise. I would reformulate those phrases by adding "on purpose" to the end of them, and then, I think, they sync up.

In Narrativism, play addresses the Premise on purpose.
In Gamism, play addresses the Challenge on purpose.
In Simulationism, play addresses the Situation on purpose.

You can see here, again, how I do consider Sim to include a broader range of play preference - it can be about addressing any kind of Situation, while Nar and Gam are about addressing any Situation that involves/supports Premise or Challenge, respectively. It's more bounded.

More replys to come.
Nathan, in your eye, what makes a Situation not a Premise or Challenge? What are the positive, defining features of Sim Sitch?
I think - I could be wrong - that when Joshua writes "Play addresses the Situation" he's not using "Situation" as in one of the five elements of exploration, but more like "Play addresses [direct object]." In that case the question is, what goes in the [direct object] slot for sim.

One of the things the word lost in the transition from rgfa theory to Forge theory was, as it were, coherence. You could think of rgfa sim as "virtual non-fiction," with literary models in (imagined) biography or history or travelogue rather than novels or adventure movies. To read the sim proponents in rgfa days was to find, in many cases, an active hostility to story values that they found untrue to life.

Forge Sim, by lumping plot-oriented, genre-trope styles like illusionism and participationism in with virtual nonfiction, becomes a genuine muddle. If I squint I can just about see the linkage, but then my forehead gets all creased.

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.

Hey, you probably don't know me, I am a "Token" Sim guy at the Forge from way back (Largely lapsed these days, mostly because of the overwhelming Nar fetish present there. Not to mention lapsed work on my game, T:COTEC. I find myself wanting to talk about theory in the new GD blog scene though).

Anyway, to actually discuss Sim. Now, I am interested in Sim, but not so much as it has been presented. The Sim I am interested in I call "Cool Toys" sim. In that, the focus and interest of this flavor of Sim is in designing cool world elements,say vast SF universe populated with stomping mecha, etc. and being able to play with those elements. Like making a cool action figure mecha, and then being able to scan it into a mech Combat Sim and put it through it's paces.

There is a definite attraction for many people, myself included, to create or design some kind of cool SF or Fantasy type entity and be able to explore the world it exists in, seeing what it can do. Then there is full on world creation and other elements. Basically being able to construct a fantasy world and exploring it in a concrete fashion via a game reality.

So the design spec for my game, T:COTEC calls for this design and creation aspect as a primary mode of play. (Tentatively called Meta-Play). Traditionaly such design based play has been limited to GM via Limited sub-systems. World design or creature design in Traveller,for instance. And has also shown up in Vehicle Design systems, and Traveler's Fire, Fusion, and Steel Technical Architecture.
Groups based design, which my game is built around, has included such things as Ars Magica Covenant design and shared character's, and more notably Aria's group based world creation, though they still reserved a large part of it to the "GM".

So, The sim I am interested in focuses on two things, Fantasy world design, as present in alien vistas, fascinating people and worlds, and more nitty-gritty "toys" such as vehicles, and weapons, and soldier types, supported by a heavy duty sim resolution engine. The stuff I find enthralling in SF/Fantasy fiction and media, without any concern on the "story" attached to it particularly. And the Sim Engine play with the designed entities, often combat, is in seeing these vehicles and weapons, and magic and such in action.

Ron did touch on this type of Sim back in his Right to Dream essay, back in the day, even mentioning my game by an older title

Setting-creation and universe-play mechanisms
Another derivation of the Purist for System approach brings the Setting creation process directly into play itself. The System-driven elements of the Setting are as "active" as any particular character might be, during play as well as during preparation. Basically, the setting is played, even created, as a part of regular play.

Boink! I just realized that the original Traveller, or at least one way to play it, represents an example of this approach. Star system and planet creation are written right into the process of play, such that adventures and missions become not only a means of enjoying and improving characters, but also a means of enjoying and basically mapping the game-space. This is very distinct from later versions of Traveller, which were emphatically High Concept with a Setting emphasis. (Oh, and just for credit where it's due, I should also mention that Traveller pioneered the mechanics of overt character-creation-as-play.)

This mode of play is not merely creating more setting through preparation as play progresses. It relies on doing so in a system-driven fashion much like character creation, carried out as an overt or near-overt part of actual play.

It's a pretty rare form of play and design, probably because the economics of splat-book publishing overwhelmed the hobby, and Traveller itself, from the mid-1980s onwards. The more recent examples include Aria, Multiverser to some extent, and the currently-in-development The Million Worlds. The design spec is to achieve the Color/kewl power of High Concept with the uncompromising power and consistency of the Purists for System, via inserting the explicit metagame world-creating ability. I think this approach is interesting for the level of Director stance potentially involved and I look forward to more role-playing evolution along these lines.

So to discuss your point, the Sim that interests me is

Sim as the Process of creating engaing and imaginative fictional worlds and game entities and "playing with them" via detailed system.

This particular flavor of sim has become rarer in the marketplace thanks to the idea of "Setting" sells and metaplot and splat-books and such. So you get high-concept sim focusing on pre-defined settings, and Purist for system design. Which I characterize as universal games without a universe. Since they have no obvious goal or thrust. Which they address providing more and more world books and genre play-guides to get the players onto the same page as to what to do with the system.

My system also addressed the twin goals of Illusionism/Participationism versus Virtual Non-fiction Jim Henly mentioned in it's divison of the traditional GM roles into "Guide" rolls as well as using a system of currency, similar to Universalis' coins to allow all players direct input into what happens within narrative play. There are incentives for players to introduce Entities designed by other players into the narrative, thus they can see their creations being used and "played with", avoiding the folder full of world stuff that never gets used syndrome common to GM designers.

Anyway, it rips off Universalis, Aria, Rune and Ars Magica for it's top-level play elements, and the various Universal systems for it's low-level play elements.

Which is a mash of interesting ideas, however, I always ran into a serious lack of interest/understanding when I posted about it at the forge, especially when discussing low-level system design issues, as you might imagine.

Anyway, hope I actually addressed some of your points amidsts babbling about my own game concept.
I'm going to reply to Josh here, and make a new post for continuing the convo with all the rest of y'alls.

"Nathan, in your eye, what makes a Situation not a Premise or Challenge? What are the positive, defining features of Sim Sitch?"

Well, if Jim is right, then we're talking about different things. I'm using Situation as one of the Big Model elements of exploration. And, in this case, I don't know how I could explain it better than I have.

Now, if I were to throw in a word for the Sim "direct object," right now I would say it's Bricolage - but I'm not sure that that's the most accurate way to put it. As I've said before, I think that bricolage is one of the fundemental processes of roleplay, and that Sim is when you Bricole mindfully. It's about drawing on your toolshed of source material (whatever you are simulating, as it were) and building something new and unique out of it.

Again, I don't think this totally encapsulates all of the possible range of Sim, and as such is suspect, but that's what I'm thinking right now.
When I say "Play addresses Situation" I mean both the component-of-exploration sense as well as the direct-object sense. Situation is the thing that matters, the thing on the pedestal, the thing that play is about. There's a very good sense of what situation is in Nar and Gam play -- Premise and Challenge, respectively -- but no real solid definition of what Situation is in Sim.

The reason this is important is that Nar and Gam both have a target to hit, which means they have a means of gauging quality of play -- if you address the premise in an engaging way, you have 'successful' Nar play. But Sim has no well-defined target, hence so many people who want to play Sim and are told they're doing something else -- cause they can't say "We hit the Sim target."

By my thinking, the Sim Sitch is a pretty arbitrary thing, whatever the playgroup feels like exploring, what they're fascinated with. Rob's mecha, for instance. But having little personal passion for Sim, I feel awkward trying to define what it is.
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