Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Simulationist, I

Admittedly, I am a simulationist.

I’m not sure how that came about. I have never questioned, from the beginning of playing D&D, that that was fundamentally what the game was about, the creation of a ‘world’, a place where adventures were meant to take place. For me, that meant a whole interactive milieu, without borders. It seems silly to contemplate a world of disconnected localities, as the marketers successfully sold to the playing public beginning in the 1980s, because it suited their bottom line and created the demand for more and more product.

But I do understand why the simulation was not the popular conception. It is, without question, utterly impossible. The construction of a world is too vast a project, an unending one, and it takes little imagination to feel completely daunted before one begins. Manage the construction of a huge civilization, pulled from one’s mind? And do it during a lifetime where one expects to work, love, raise children, maintain a house, travel, see the world? Ridiculous.

I do it because, well, I’m obsessed. My world is an excuse to research virtually every subject, which in turn gets applied to my world in ways most wouldn’t bother. To make my obsession work, I’ve had to take shortcuts, such as using the Earth as a template in order to avoid having to create my own imagined landscape ... but of course the shortcut backfires because I find myself installing overarching economic systems and anthropological explanations for the existence of troglodytes.

Still, this is how I get my jollies.

I believe that a simulation, even one that is weakly developed, serves to enhance the activities of a player characters. I don’t think that is a particularly insightful point – I don’t doubt that nine tenths of DMs believe the same. And so they start ‘worlds’. They conceive of a unifying ideal – a post-apocalyptic landscape, a bronze era culture, what have you – and begin making maps. The maps include a scattered array of cities, plotted ruins, holy places, mountains, rivers, seacoasts. A particular kingdom is selected and mapped out in greater detail. The DM spends a few weeks, off and on, sketching out a cultural background, then sets down to invent an adventure.

And most times that is as far as it goes. Because an adventure which breaks down to Jack and Jill going up a kill to fetch a pail of coin doesn’t flesh out a simulation. In creating the hook, moving the party to location, solving the puzzle and killing the bad guy, the best we’ve done is create a level from Mario Bros. All that we’re left with is to create another level. Which is what most DMs do.

Which explains why for the most part it’s easy to create another NEW world every other month and retain the same players. Since they have nothing invested in the Mario scenarios that have been run up to now, they have no reason to disregard a new scenario. Gets so that players crave a change in milieu, since repeated adventures in the same formula begins to drag.

Often, however, a DM really does get into world construction. Some of those I’ve seen are extensive and detailed, with tens of thousands of words of description. It is clear that the maker is as obsessed as me ... and I trust that they conceal most of this data as something they themselves use. It does no good to dump it on players.

When mastering a game, I am nothing like I am here on this blog. You might get some sense of my style from the blog-campaign I started, but not really – since that format gave me plenty of time to think before answering. The offline campaign I run is faster paced, higher on combat than I’d like, lower on role-playing that I’d like (the players want it that way, and I go along), but very intricate in terms of plot development. There are always several adventures on the go at any one time ... very rarely to they include a linear set up where players are expected to go to a place, kill a monster and collect a treasure. Most often, players are stumbling around, trying to get out of some situation they’ve blundered into or created, with no clear path in sight.

Invariably the players are running the campaign, deciding what to do and where to go. My simulationist model doesn’t give them lengthy descriptions on how to behave in particular cultures, since its assumed that most people in those cultures don’t care about individuals. This is helped considerably by the fact that players are often familiar with these cultures.

Not completely, of course. The on-line campaigners admitted that their experience with actual feudal/renaissance culture was limited, along with their familiarity with the church and with Germany. I did not think this was a big problem. I didn’t expect the party to behave as Germans so much as I expected them to tweak to odd behaviours displayed by NPCs – perhaps unfairly. But having dropped them into Germany, it was my responsibility to set the stage. If a player wants to go out and do research to enhance their character as an ethnic stereotype, that is up to them. But I don’t insist on it.

In short, the NPCs will be stereotypical in general ... it helps set the stage. A few odd NPCs will not fit the mould, so as to muddy up the water. I play by the ‘North By Northwest’ method of plot development. Players are mistaken for somebody else, or they stumble into a game played by much bigger players. They’re blown back and forth, cutting and hacking their way from clusterfuck to clusterfuck until light dawns, the situation clarifies and everyone gets a chance to rest.

This is the simulationist’s method. The worst moments in any person’s life come when something happens that’s wildly unexpected, and unavoidable. You’re injured, your benefactor dies, you’ve lost your job, someone close to you creates a situation that you have to help manage ... in every situation there’s no clear solution. You have to try different things, make the most of the situation, manage others as best you can and put your priorities in order.

In a D&D campaign, one without quests, the emphasis is for the DM to create those situations for the player, almost always from outside the player’s sphere of control. A spontaneous revolt arises in the countryside against the local lord – join or flee? A dishonest villain plots to push an innocent farmer off his land – help or oppose? Forces seek to undermine the local church and establish a blood thirsty cult – defend the innocent or join the bloodbath? Your friend is inexplicably your enemy – cut him down or investigate the reason why? And once you discover why, forgive or condemn?

It is much less about how NPCs around the players interact with the players, and how NPCs interact with each other. Players are not and should not be the center of the universe. Picture every culture and every place, having created them in your simulated world, as various factions struggling for power against each other, then force your players to make moral decisions about which side to oppose, or whether to let them hack each other to pieces. Make it clear that EVERY action will have, in the end, the possibility for reward – titles, power, wealth – and then watch them squirm as they wonder if they made the right decision.

Join the lord against the peasants and possibly receive a knighthood and reward. Or join the peasants against the lord and have a chance at plunder. Or do nothing and sell weapons to both sides at fabulous profit. Make it clear to your players that ALL are possibilities, without knowing which one will be the most lucrative in the end. Throw hints constantly that they’ve backed the wrong horse and the fun begins.

So, I’ve begun with an admittance that simulation is virtually impossible and ended with explaining why it works for me. At least, I hope I’ve done that.

The rest is up to you.


  1. You are not alone. It kinda of what I do with my stuff. The good news (for me) that I have 30 years of notes and musings on the Majstic Wilderlands to fall back on when players go poking around.

  2. Really awesome post. I love having an open campaign with all sorts of interesting consequences, my players vary between following quests and deviating into completely unknown and unexpected places, and adapting to this is half the fun!

  3. I too have always run my campaigns this way. In my view I've considered it my fun to have the players give me a story, not the other way around.


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