Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Justification for Simulationist RPG Rules

Yesterday the tortured Unclebear who's qualities as a gamer and as an individual are without peer posted a link to probably the most eloquent game design articles I've ever read at the Forge which is an RPG game design forum that I've never known about until now.

The article explains the differences between Simulationist, Gamist and Narrative Role Playing. These I don't think are official terms but in my experience they should be. Most gamers I know of fall into those three categories and writing off what this article states when designing is a bad idea.

The best part of the article is here:
  • "Gamist. This player is satisfied if the system includes a contest which he or she has a chance to win. Usually this means the character vs. NPC opponents, but Gamists also include the System Breaker and the dominator-type roleplayer. RPGs well suited to Gamists include Rifts and Shadowrun.

  • Narrativist. This player is satisfied if a roleplaying session results in a good story. RPGs for Narrativists include Over the Edge, Prince Valiant, The Whispering Vault, and Everway.

  • Simulationist. This player is satisfied if the system "creates" a little pocket universe without fudging. Simulationists include the well-known subtype of the Realist. Good games for Simulationists include GURPS and Pendragon.

Here I suggest that RPG system design cannot meet all three outlooks at once. For example, how long does it take to resolve a game action in real time? The simulationist accepts delay as long as it enhances accuracy; the narrativist hates delay; the gamist only accepts delay or complex methods if they can be exploited. Or, what constitutes success? The narrativist demands a resolution be dramatic, but the gamist wants to know who came out better off than the next guy. Or, how should player-character effectiveness be "balanced"? The narrativist doesn't care, the simulationist wants it to reflect the game-world's social system, and the gamist simply demands a fair playing field.

One of the biggest problems I observe in RPG systems is that they often try to satisfy all three outlooks at once. The result, sadly, is a guarantee that almost any player will be irritated by some aspect of the system during play. GMs' time is then devoted, as in the Herbie example, to throwing out the aspects that don't accord for a particular group. A "good" GM becomes defined as someone who can do this well - but why not eliminate this laborious step and permit a (for example) Gamist GM to use a Gamist game, getting straight to the point? I suggest that building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design."

The game I'm working on is Simulationist through and through, and even more than that we're going for utter realism as well which is ambitious. However my conceit is such that I honestly believe the game can appeal to Gamists and Narrative gamers as well. The mechanics are tight enough that even though things like combat have the potential to be resolved extremely quickly with a few simple player aides so Narration isn't impeded, and our rules are encompassing enough that we can accommodate an extremely wide variety of weapons, equipment, vehicles and overall trickiness in a manner that allows for a Gamist to fulfill the desire to aquire and exploit.

Ultimately I believe that a system based on simulationist foundation is superior to a system that only emulates. The reason for this lies in immersion - which is a Narrative principle. Immersion is where we as players get caught up in the game and lose track of reality to a degree. Immersion keeps people engaged in the goings on of the game. One of the ways a game can lose immersion is when a player is forced to realize that what he's trying to have his character do in the game is not the result that he expected. This might be because the Player's logic was flawed, but sometimes the simple fact is that the mechanical result of the action in the game is not what would have occurred in reality. When a player is confronted with these deviations in how the game world functions with how reality functions there can be a break in immersion.

Now some deviations from reality are preferable, things like magic for example, but magic too should be based on certain principles rooted in reality, if they aren't then again immersion breaks. An example of this is where in the game system, being trapped inside a burning building is somehow less harmful than being hit by a magic fireball because inside the building the flames are "mundane fire".

A similar argument for simulationist principles can be used in modern video games regarding physics engines. The general consensus is that physics engines help give the gamer the feel that the world works on realistic principles and helps him get into the game more. However there is an additional proponent that has only come to light recently because of game modders who are creating new scenarios and adding in additional ideas to games independent of the developer's original vision. When these unique ideas interact with physics engines often the results are quite interesting and beyond what the developer had ever considered. In this the addition of physics principle creates something greater than the sum of the developer's product + the modder's additions. Tabletop role-playing always works like this because players are not confined to what is possible within the computer script, so there will always be unexpected interactions with mechanics. This is a good thing and should be encouraged and facilitated wherever possible.

I think that one of the barriers to entry into tabletop gaming comes from people finding it difficult to swallow the rules of the new realities presented in most games. They feel like they'll be seen as incompetent by their peers because they didn't understand that his big 8 foot tall, barbarian character that's built like a brick-shit-house at 1st level can't even hope to win in a fight against the 4'7" little elf at 10th level. This is something most gamer's take for granted as fact, but someone not familiar with the rapport could become confused and frustrated by such an incongruity. This is why I advocate simulationism and make a case that it has more worth in games than many of my peers. Because I feel that a game that functions on familiar terms - no matter if you're an experienced role-player or a new girlfriend trying to find out what her geeky lover makes such a big deal about - is going to be more fun and immersive than otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Helmsmen! A nice combination of rpg's and naughtyness. Keep it up!