Friday, January 17, 2014

Errors That Don't Count

Many of my readers believe that I am a simulationist ... which, according to the stumbling mess that is GNS Theory says that I am most concerned with the recreation of reality. Well, GNS doesn't actually say that, but since GNS doesn't actually say anything, beyond broad strokes of disclarity that would make a gypsy fortune-teller blush, but that is the general idea. My world is the 'real' world (I play my game on planet Earth), so obviously when things about my world don't match up with the reality - like some of the prices on my market tables - someone bitches at me.

Fiddlesticks. I'm not a simulationist, nor am I a narrativist nor a gamist. All three facets must be embraced - nay, it would be impossible not to embrace them - and therefore the weakness in the theory is its inability to classify. At any rate, I would not turn to gaming theory to describe myself, because in all honesty gaming theory takes a pie in the face where it comes to role-playing. Role-playing has an underlying structure that IS a game, and must be treated as a game, but the overall process of play does not take place as a game. It is both a presentation and a performance, the stage manager, director and actors working jointly to produce a show for a ghost audience. The actors themselves are the audience. The DM is the audience. The state of affairs, the manner in which the 'game' stacks up, defies metaphor.

If I am anything, where it comes to the manner in which my world is made, or the purpose to which it is put, that would be 'set designer.' I don't care if the result simulates reality, I only care that the result produces a theatrical effect. My description of an Islamic bureaucracy is free to be utterly, wildly, ridiculously inaccurate, in the extreme ... but if it carries across the annoyance, the frustration, the dismissiveness of a group of strangers for the party who is forced to wait and does not dare to raise their ire, then I have succeeded as a set designer. To hell with simulation.

As such, it bothers me when someone says that the price of a suit of armor is too high or too low compared with the price of a suit of clothes. What material difference does it make to role-play? The price of either must be some amount; the price of either is, after some manner, ultimately affordable. If the price doesn't match up what Walmart would sell either for, that is a matter of complete indifference to me. My concern is that the players spend their wealth to buy things at prices that fit a system in my setting. They see the price for clothes. They look at their money. They make a judgement. The frame has no error.

There is a tremendous push in the present day for deciding there are errors in things where no real error exists. The fan boy smugness, for instance, of declaring that a hub cap in a film supposed to take place in 1964 was not actually invented until 1966. As if to say, "My, what a crappy film!" As opposed to the simple reality that the set designer was able to find that hub cap, it was more or less from the approximate period, and the exactitude of the hub cap's presence has no influence on whether the lead has realized in scene 34 that the friend he has always relied upon is, in fact, the murderer of his father. The average fan boy is rather in the dark about the purpose of theatre, or hub caps. Particulars DON'T matter. Details that do not apply expressly to the action are of scant importance.

Without question, there's a certain superiority in knowing that this hub cap was made by this company in 1966, but it is a vague, pathetic superiority. I find some humour in the thought that the set designer in the film knew perfectly well that it was the wrong year, but didn't really care. The total number of audience viewers who could conceivably know as well, reduced to those who thought the matter important, reduced further still to the sprinkling of numbnuts who might despise the movie on account of it, hardly makes for a reason to spend another half day searching for a hub cap made two years earlier.

So in the making of my world, I comfortably fudge, fake, scrimp on the details and outright dismiss reality because I'm not interested in reproducing reality. I'm interested in producing a set upon which players can feel close enough to reality to get worried, excited, shocked, angry and thrilled. I have an agenda. That agenda is to produce a world that can operate as a playground. My agenda is NOT to win the nobel prize of world creation. If there were such a thing, I wouldn't be interested. That's not my thing.

I work hard on my world. It is extensive and complex and filled with detail. It's remarkable, really. It doesn't need to be honest, too.


Anonymous said...

Hey, :)

Been reading your blog for some time, actually went back to the first post and started reading all of it. (Kind of frustrating that many things you've linked to over the past few years are no longer up, but that's hardly on you...)

Anyway, on this one, a couple of things are worth saying.

First, for the benefit of other readers (and yours if you didn't know this, but I'm not going to assume you don't), GNS has been discarded by its author. Its replacement, the Big Model, currently lives here: I'll concede that, at first glance, and for the purposes of this post, most of the changes won't seem to matter, but they did go a long way in clearing up a lot of misunderstandings.

Second, the GNS wikipedia page is, well, not brilliant at explaining this stuff. It wasn't when it was first written, and successive attempts at clearing it up haven't really made it all that much better. I have opinions about why that is, but they don't matter here...

Thirdly, while I know some players that have strong, almost exclusivist preferences for one of the three agendas, it's perfectly possible to not subscribe to just the one. However, (the theory states, and I subscribe that) at any one gaming table, for any one player, over any one cycle of play, one of the agendas will be in place.

Most importantly, Simulationism is not and has never been about simulating reality. Simulationism is about prioritizing the fictional content of the game for its own sake, as opposed to prioritizing the use of the fiction to present and/or address meaningful choices and explore the consequences of those choices (Narrativism), or the use of the fiction to present and/or address challenges (Gamism).

It's worth noting that the mere presence of challenges and choices does not determine the presence of Gamism or Narrativism, any more than the mere presence of interesting, detailed and engaging fiction determine the presence of Simulationism. Any sufficiently interesting fictional content is going to have both, in spades. The point is, are the moments of challenge the highlight of the game? Does the quality of the fiction serve to enhance the quality of the challenge and the immersion therein?

Or instead, does the quality of the fiction work primarily to serve the richness of choices and consequences?

Or, conversely, is it the game as a whole, the fiction itself, that shines through, enhanced by the aforementioned tough challenges and meaningful choices?

Of course all three must be embraced, but not at the same level. Two of them will be in service of the one, pretty much always. Not always the same two and one, sure, but always two and one. (Though I do defend that, for any one player playing any one game with any one group, the two and one will be pretty consistent over a large number of cycles of play, probably the whole campaign/arc/series/whathaveyou.)

Anonymous said...

"I only care that the result produces a theatrical effect. My description of an Islamic bureaucracy [...] if it carries across the annoyance, the frustration, the dismissiveness of a group of strangers for the party who is forced to wait and does not dare to raise their ire, then I have succeeded as a set designer."

This is the essence of setting-based Simulationism. Sure, you don't care whether the particular brand of Islamic bureaucracy present in your game mimics the one that exists in reality. But, neither do you care whether it presents interesting challenges for the party to overcome, nor do you care that it presents harsh moral dilemmas for the party to address. You care that it contains meaning, in and of itself, and that it conveys message. Then, it's up to the party to do with it what it will. They can strive against it and revel in the challenge, or they can appreciate the moral predicament of needing the help of the Bureaucracy to help with a problem related to some other NPC's freedom of religion, or whatever, or they can just smile appreciatively at the whole thing and turn their backs and walk away and find some other means to carry out whatever goals happen to be on hand at the time.

Screw reality, this is unabashed Simulationism, through and through!

"I'm interested in producing a set upon which players can feel close enough to reality to get worried, excited, shocked, angry and thrilled. I have an agenda. That agenda is to produce a world that can operate as a playground."

Well put indeed!

To close, it's also worth noting that there are more kinds of Simulationsm than just setting-based Sim. I've observed at my tables the emergence of character-based Sim, for instance, based on the priority of creating believable, internally consistent characters, and putting those characters through their paces. Genre-based Sim is intent on recreating stories with the same flavor, structure or "feel" of a particular literary genre. Most people that long for good horror-based role-playing, for instance, are looking for this kind of agenda at the table. I've even seen Color-based Sim, where the priority was the coolness of the immediate moment, the witty one-liners, the moving speeches, the breathtaking descriptions, the riveting action sequences, regardless of why they came about.

Anyway, been a while since I've written a wall of text online. I know you like to change your mind, if and when presented with enough compelling arguments to do so. I don't know that I did that here, but I hope it was at least a start. :) And if it wasn't, hey, it's your blog and your opinion and I certainly respect that, but I still thought this stuff was worth sharing with your readership.


P.S. I do have an RPG blog, over at It's largely defunct. In fact, it's more of a repository of posts. I only link it because, if it were a blogspot or blog, you could probably find it through my OpenID profile, but because it's self-hosted, you can't...

Alexis Smolensk said...

We more or less have a meeting of mind, J. I don't have any use for detailing the differences between RPG elements; I relate simulationism not only to RPG, but also to those people who pretend to replay out the events of congress and the battle at Gettysburg; and while I may embrace your definition, this will not stop people who whine at me that vanadium should obviously be more expensive than titanium.

But we are, regardless, on the same page.

Read your blog, for which I'll add an html link to make it easier for others. Very sad about your friend. It is downright shocking how fast all this happens. One moment you're there, and then you are not.

Be well.

YagamiFire said...

Since I became aware of it (before it was discarded) I challenged the GNS Theory as being utter & complete shit. The Big (Dumb) Model is no different.

That said, I find the actual topic of the post to be rather interesting. The exactitude and precision that some turn into a fetish...that CRIPPLING need to find "error" among background details like the aforementioned hubcap, comes across to me as nothing but someone desperately trying to prove some form of superiority while simultaneously avoiding any intellectual discourse on the MEANINGFUL content of what they are being presented...because they are ill equipped to engage.

Essentially: let's bitch about hubcaps because I can look that up on wikipedia and verify it via some other persons work. Let's not discuss the greater themes of the story because I'm too fucking stupid to understand such things.

Simple as that.


Most importantly, however, zoogy you have my condolences for your loss. Strength to you, your friends and his family.

Anonymous said...

Hey, :)

Alexis, thanks for your words, and for putting up the link. You're right, it was blindingly fast.

S'cool to be on the same page. :) I'm with Yagami in agreeing with the core point of your post. Whyners (typo intended) are indeed a disruptive lot. I only put up the wall of text because you opened your post with the words "stumbling mess". :D To be honest, the GNS/Big Model school of thought saved me for RPGs. I was drop dead ready to quit the whole mess when I found The Forge and the games that spawned therein. Primetime Adventures and Shadow of Yesterday renewed my interest in the hobby, to a point where I found new ways to enjoy even D&D. I play 4E, now, among other things, and much as I agree that it's not a system that would support your playstyle, it serves ours immensely well. Mostly for this reason, I always feel a driving need to defend GNS whenever I see it being put down or discarded. :)

Yagami, thanks for your words as well. :)

Game on.