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Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist Outlook

Started by marcus, November 20, 2003, 12:15:12 PM

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In the "Appendixes" to Sorcerer, three styles of play are identified: "Gamist", "Narrativist" and Simulationist", and it is said that there is "some, but not much, crossover possible" between them. The thesis is then advanced that an RPG cannot meet all three outlooks at once, and "a good system is one which knows its outlook and doesn't waste any mechanics on the other two outlooks".

I have "actually, truly played" quite a large number of RPG systems over the years- although I should confess that as I only bought Sorcerer last week I cannot yet add it to the list. Having done so, although I definitely agree with Ron's statement that "system does matter", I disagree with his idea that a good system should focus solely on a single outlook to the exclusion of the others. My contention, on the contrary, is that a good system, although it certainly may emphasize one of these outlooks over another, is good because it pays adequate heed to each of the three outlooks. I further contend that one of the strengths of the Sorcerer system is, ironically, that it does exactly that.

There are certainly systems that strongly empasize one outlook over another. Phoenix Command, for example, is essentially a very detailed modern combat system with a only lip-service played to roleplaying- really no Narrative at all and very Simulationist (although with a definite Gamist element as well- I can't actually think of any Simulation-based system without strong Gamist elements). AD&D, as has been observed, is highly Gamist (although with its many armour classes and weapon lists, surely Simulationism is alive and well too, and there is much more room for Narrative in a game like Phoenix Command). In terms of pure Narrativist games, the truest examples I can think of fall within the realms of "free form" games- pure story, next to no mechanics to get Gamist about or to Simulate things with. I would say, however, that although all these games have their fanbase (I've certainly played a good many games of each before moving on to other things), they will ultimately satisfy less than more balanced games.

I consider that each of the three outlooks are things one wants to see in a game system, just like in a film one wants to see not just good cinematography, a good plotline, or a plausible premise, but all three together. Although some films might get by without one or more of the above, I would say the best are where the film has the lot.

RPG stands for "Role-Playing Game". What is a Role-Playing Game without the Game? No more, I would say, than an actors' or scriptwriters' workshop, or a book in which authors take turns in writing chapters. Throw out the Game and... well... you quite literally have no game.

What is Simulationism? Surely it is no more or less than ensuring that the probability of a thing in the game approximates the probability of a thing in the universe being simulated. If you are playing, say, a Star Trek game, Simulationism dictates that the universe of the game corresponds to a reasonable degree with the universe of the show (and movies); that the sort of things that are plausible in the show are plausible in the game; and that what is implausible in the show is implausible in the game. Certainly one can take the correspondence between game and show too far (the extreme being forcing the players to simply re-enact the show), but without this correspondence what do you have? Imagine the Enterprise being rowed past the Death Star by a horde of evil teddy bears and you will have some idea of the importance of a good measure of Simulationism in an RPG.

As for Narrativism- here I would surely be preaching to the converted! Without story, one might as well be playing model soldiers.

Getting back to Sorcerer, what do we have? It is a game concerning demons and their uses by humans. There is a real (and I consider successful) attempt to match the rules for what characters can do to demons (summoning, binding etc) to what sorcerers do in fiction. Simulationism! The action resolution system, including for combat, is also designed to be at least plausible within a real world context. Indeed, by allowing one roll to support another by adding dice, the world can be more accurately Simulated than by a cruder set of game mechanics (such as in AD&D, for example). So the game passes the Simulation test.

As for Gaming, there is plenty of that in Sorcerer. Rolling to face down demons, rolling in combat against opponents- all exciting contests where each side has a chance to win. With snappy mechanics allowing fast-flowing battles (the system of combining initiative determination with hit determination being a notable example), rules that enourage cunning tactics to get the edge on the opposition (supporting rolls again!)- it's all there for the Gamist.

And then there is Narrative. I think I need to persuade no one that Sorcerer is well suited to the development of Narrative.

So there you have it- a good-looking game system, although in my humble opinion not for the reasons that the author himself suggests! Now I just need to go and play the thing...

joshua neff

Hey, Marcus, have you been over to the Forge's GNS forum? There's a whole lot of discussion about Gamism, Narrativism, & Simulationism there, including more recent stuff than what's in the Sorcerer book. If this interests you, I suggest you check it out. You may also want to read Ron's big essays on Gamism & Simulationism. (The Narrativism essay is forthcoming.)

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes


Ron Edwards

Hi Marcus,

You've presented a very common first reaction to System Does Matter, which is good - I see it as, "Coming in and getting engaged." However, there are lots and lots of things to discuss.

That essay was written in late 1998.

See also, GNS and other matters of role-playing theory (2001) - still the "main text," although it was not written for the newcomer but rather to a bunch of people who were arguing about System Does Matter
Simulationism: the Right to Dream (2002) - written for people who'd worked their way through a bunch of issues from the GNS essay
Gamism: Step on Up (2003) - ditto
A Narrativism essay is planned for posting by January 1, 2004

And very importantly, because in some ways they are the best introduction to all of the above, the more recent threads GNS: what is it? and The big model - this is it.


M. J. Young

Welcome to the Forge, Marcus.
Quote from: YouWhat is a Role-Playing Game without the Game?...Throw out the Game and... well... you quite literally have no game.
Ah, but Gamism is more than just shall we play a game. It's about testing yourself against the challenge, rising to meet it. There are games available in which that's not a factor at all. Legends of Alyria is a brilliant game (coming soon--playtest copies have been floating around and creating a lot of excitement). The mechanics of the system are designed such that no character ever has an advantage over any other character--every character strength is also a character weakness. What emerges is a story built on character conflicts. For example, there are characters in the game who have incredibly powerful mental abilities. In describing what happens, it's entirely possible for these characters to destroy buildings and knock down city gates--yet in the things that matter, they are no more powerful than ordinary children. What matters is the issues, not the kewl powerz of the characters. It is almost impossible to make the game play gamist--there is no way to make your character more powerful that does not also make him more vulnerable to exactly the same degree.
Quote from: Similarly, youWhat is Simulationism? Surely it is no more or less than ensuring that the probability of a thing in the game approximates the probability of a thing in the universe being simulated.
That would be emulation, or modeling. Simulationism is much more and much less than what you suggest. It's exploring and discovering what the world is actually like. Sure, you want the Enterprise to work the way it does in the show no matter how you play; but for Simulationism, you want to be able to do things like figure out how to use the antimatter flow as a weapon against the alien invasion, or restructure the dilithium crystals through ultrasonic forces--you want to be able to ask what happens if you do this, and find out.

As for Narrativism, I suspect that after you've played a game of Sorcerer, you may discover that it gives an entirely new meaning to the word "story", at least as compared with most of the games you've played.

I'm all for games which support all three (and I think Multiverser does); but please read the essays and threads and realize that those words don't mean what you think they mean. These three ideas are entirely distinct (and often incompatible) play goals. The "why we play" can be so disparate among gamers that we can't play together at all, because we're always working at cross purposes.

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much more there is to simulationism, gamism, and narrativism than you've imagined. The thinks you can think, as Dr. Seuss said--there are no limits to the imagination.

--M. J. Young


Thanks for all the references. It will take me a while to read them all, and I'll say nothing more until I do, except to note the uncanny similarity of the previous poster's name to my own- as I am also an M Young.

Mike Holmes

And he's also a Mark.

Random thoughts about GNS and Sorcerer (trying to keep slightly on topic, here).

One thing that you'll find, Marcus, in the newer theory, is that it's likely that all three priorities exist in every game to some extent. What the theory now says is that, when push comes to shove and you can't have both agendas satisfied at the same time, then one mode of play tends to rise above the others. Or, if not, then either the group will likely have problems, or they're playing in a very complicated way.

The point is that what the essay in Sorcerer should have said, is that it's not so much that a text should only try to deliver one mode of play as that the mode or modes that it supports shouldn't be presented in such a way as that different participants have very different ways of interpreting what's supported in play. Because if they do interpret things very differently, then that's when problems in play occur.

For example, a text might say, "Use the resolution system to determine if a character succeeds only when it's important." This is common. Often followed by examples that say that a player shouldn't roll for crossing the street, but should roll for combat stuff. The problem is that this usually leaves a big grey area, and doesn't really give you a direct answer as to when to use the resolution system. Basically, what's "important" for each participant will be determined by a lot of factors. So, left in this condition, you tend to get a system that doesn't give the participants a clear vision of how to play the game that they can share. They might create their own vision, but then, they might not - but the text isn't helping. The extent to which this causes problems is hotly debated. Further GNS isn't only about resolving this sort of problem; it's also about how to improve games through this same sort of analysis.

This vision of how to play in a shared manner, is called the game's Creative Agenda. It can be G or N or S, or some combination, and might even have other elements attached to it. The point is, if it's clear, you tend to have less problems. And Sorcerer's mechanics do provide that single clear way to play.

BTW, a game can also theoretically promote more than one Creative Agenda. It's like including two games in one, however.

Also, there are some who say that RPPGs with a Narrativist or Simulationist primary bent aren't games at all, but a slightly different form of entertainment. That is, the apellation Role-Playing Game is historical, and accidental. If you want to keep the definition of "game" intact, you'd want to call these efforts Role-Playing Activities or somesuch. Sorcerer is one of these to be sure. There's no player challenge to playing Sorcerer, other than to come up with a good story (and no way to measure even that). So, perhaps if you think of it as something other than a game, you'll understand the theory better.

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OK, some five reading hours later and I've read through all the references.

As I now know there is a separate forum devoted to GNS debate, it is probabably not appropriate for me to say too much here, but I will permit myself a few brief points:

1. Ron's essays certainly get one thinking about RPG design, which is a major achievement in itself. The terminology available for use in discussion with respect to RPG design has also been greatly enriched in the course of these essays.

2. It is not altogether clear to me what Ron's current thesis is. The "whole model" of 12 November 2003 is, I gather, supposed to be a significant revision of the previous thesis, yet its text strikes me as consisting of little more than outlining a hierarchy of terminology. Perhaps the rewrite Ron is apparently contemplating will make the thesis clearer. Not being sure of the thesis, I should refrain from either agreeing or disagreeing with it.

3. Although my first posting on this topic was made in ignorance of the developments in GNS theory over the last 5 years, I consider that, notwithstanding the contents of the various essays since "System Does Matter", that my thesis (that there needs to be some combination of simulation, competitive gaming, and narrative structure to make a good RPG) remains valid for the reasons I outlined. I do not belive that I have misunderstood the basic meanings of Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism as used in the essays, although I was ignorant of the various sub-categories of these outlooks as defined in the later essays.


Ron Edwards

Hi Marcus,

Actually the "big model - this is it" isn't a revision at all. These are all attempts at different angles or contexts for communicating the same thing.

With respect, I don't see how it's possible to reconcile the material you initially posted with anything I've written.

Here's my take on some misconceptions that your initial post is based on, and I should also say that I receive a message pretty much identical to that post pretty regularly. It is classic "starters" for reading my stuff.

1. "Game" in my terminology doesn't refer simply to the process of play (dice, talking, checking numbers, etc). It refers to some pretty fierce social interactions.

2. Simulationist play is difficult for people to understand ... take the necessary imagination and creation that goes on in all role-playing, then strip out any "me and you" elements of play except for that creation itself.

3. When I say "produce" a story, I mean a whole lot more by "produce" than merely "end up with a story somehow." People can make stories through role-playing about 1000 ways, up to and including pure coincidence. Narrativism is about a specific and reliable approach to that production, not about the product.

All of these things need a System to work with. All of them operate in terms of interacting with one another during play.

Finally, you're clearly a dedicated thinker and sharp person. If you're weren't, I wouldn't say the following: no one assimilates what I'm saying in a day's reading. If you're interested in discussing this stuff, I suggest that it's going to be a much longer-term process and we should get very concrete about it, in terms of real play.




I was not suggesting that my comments could be reconciled with your essays, merely that having read through the essays and forum discussions I have been directed towards I remain unpersuaded by your original thesis (which I now gather is still your thesis) that an RPG should concentrate itself on a single outlook rather than trying to accomodate all outlooks to at least a certain degree.

I agree that to debate these issues properly requires far more than the short postings I have made so far, and I agree that concrete examples from play are vital to ensure the debate is about something real, not merely a sterile disagreement about how the terminology is or should be defined.

If I decide to say more on this, I will do so on the GNS Forum, now I know it exists, as it appears to be more appropriate than the Sorceror Forum.


Ron Edwards

Hi Marcus,

QuoteI remain unpersuaded by your original thesis (which I now gather is still your thesis) that an RPG should concentrate itself on a single outlook rather than trying to accomodate all outlooks to at least a certain degree.

I urge caution about your perception of the "thesis." It's not quite as it may seem. If it were as black-and-white as you're seeing it, and as I admit it's possible to read from that old essay, then I'd disagree with it too.

Here are some good readings about that ...

G, N, or S - caution, do not mix? (pretty old)
Seven major misconceptions about GNS (posted just after the "big" essay)
Can a game have all three G/N/S revisited (soon after that)
Things NOT GNS - including g, n, and s (pretty recent)

See you in the GNS forum!




In the light of your last post, it may be that our differences are more apparent than real. I will mull over your further references and, indeed, see you in the GNS Forum.