Saturday, January 19, 2008

Defending Gamist and Simulationist play.

Ok, you should all know by now that I strongly favor story-heavy games.

Quite often the narrativist/story focused front of the RPG Theory movement takes a somewhat negative view of Gamist and Simulationist play (please excuse me if I use GNS terminology for just a moment here). Oh, sure. We give lip service to equality. "There's nothing wrong with...deep, rich hobby...different styles for different tastes...blah, blah, blah." But let's face facts. We despise anything other than our precious story.

Some of the new breed of indie games have gone to great lengths to strip their games down to their narrative core. They've strived to get rid of nearly all traces of tactical play or what is typically called "realism" in the rules.

But are Gamist and Simulationist play really that bad? Yes, we want our game designs to be consistent. Yes, we want our games to focus on our desired creative agenda. But I think that some degree of tactical play and some nod towards realism (or at least perceived realism) is important. When handled correctly, they can actually improve the story content of a game.

Let's look at tactical play first. It is an unfortunate fact about (most) games, we have multiple players but play largely progresses serially. Each person takes a turn adding something to the story. That means, for a large portion of the game, I'm stuck waiting for my turn. That's a lot of downtime.

Sure, I can listen to the story being created by my fellow players. But, let's face it. I'm far to narcissistic for that. If I'm not in the spotlight, I'm either bored or I'm rapidly becoming bored.

During a tactical game, players have more things to do during the downtime. They can analyze the situation, plan out their next move, look up rules, worry about their rapidly falling hit points. Whatever. Tactical play has the ability to engage the players. It tricks the players into investing in the story. And a story cannot succeed unless the players are both engaged and invested in it's outcome.

Problems (as I define them) only arise when tactical play begins to dominate the game. Unfortunately, each of us probably have a different threshold level for tactical domination. That's one of the things that makes RPGs so difficult.

Ok now onto simulation. Let me step back a second here. Stories require the willing suspension of disbelief. We know the story's not real, but we're willing to accept it as temporarily real. Again, this lets us become emotionally involved with the story.

Unfortunately, if something destroys our ability to suspend disbelief, we often fall out of the story.

Take the movie 300. They went to great lengths to point out how the Spartans fought in Phalanxes. How their real strength came from their ability to fight as a unit. But, as soon as the fight scenes began, they all broke ranks and began Jet Leeishly jumping and swooping about. Visually stunning, yes. but it dropped me right out of the story, and I had real trouble enjoying the rest of the movie. If they had just removed that one bit of dialog, my entire reaction to the movie would have changed.

Of course, realism in games is a tricky subject. Common wisdom often conflates realism with complex rules. However, it can be argued that these complex rules don't do any better at modeling the real world. Indeed, they may be much worse.

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the game accurately models the real world. What matters is that the game feel real to the players. That means the world and the cultures displayed, the NPCs and PCs all feel like real people and real places. This also means that the game's physics (largely defined by the game mechanics) feel real to the players.

Again, you can take this too far. The realism should serve and support the story. It's too easy to get wrapped up in recreating life during the Roman Republic, that we lose all sight of the story. Or at least, it starts to suffer under the burden of realism.

That's it. As always, please leave a comment or two. I would love to see your ideas on the subject.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly prefer nar play, if one really wishes to use that terminology. I don't find it particularly useful, especially given the issue of defining sim and it not being realism.

I find it more useful to say what kind of activities I lik and dislike when roleplaying. For example, I like making choices that move the story somewhere when I can tell where they are taking it (to some degree). I like my characters having a hard life that forces those choices. I like to be surprised by my character. I dislike tactics and puzzles. I dislike making plans. I dislike having to think. I dislike making irrelevant choices (see: character generation of many games). I dislike competition or conflict among players, but enjoy it among characters, especially when every player knows what is going on. I dislike rules that force or rely on inter-player conflict, like Universalis and to lesser extent t Mountain Witch.

GNS are simply not sufficient to describe all of these. There is little need to defend any crative agenda, because every one of them includes so many separate ways of playing that look very different.

Everyone requires a certain amount of realism. Suspension of disbelief is what the phenomenon is usually called. Nothing to do with a particular CA. I think the big model would put it somewhere around exploration.

Also: Wushu is the most realistic rpg ever, if only rules are concerned, given a group that cares about the subject. Well, aside from freeform, but maybe that doesn't count.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Thanuir, thanks again for your comments.

Let me start by saying, I really don't want this to devolve into a debate over GNS. I simply used GNS terms as a commonly understood shorthand. I hoped it would let me get to the meat of the issue faster.

This may have been a mistake.

If it really bothers you, please globally replace every instance of "gamist" with "tactical". Replace every instance of "simulationist" with "perceived realism". After all, that's what I'm talking about.

This all started because I read a forum post where someone criticized a narratively-heavy game that I love. He claimed the game was not realistic enough.

Part of me wanted to call the ignorant knuckle-dragger out. After all, I could easily show how the narrative system in question could do a much better job of modeling the real world than the tactical games he preferred.

However, it dawned on me, realism is in the eye of the beholder. If the system in question kept him from suspending disbelief, then the game design failed--at least in this one instance. You cannot have a story without the willing suspension of disbelief.

Similarly, I think RPGs as a purely narrative media can have a big problem with downtime. This can make it hard for players (or at least for me as a player) to fully invest in the story.

Now, don't get me wrong. Tactical play without any story bores the living crap out of me. But, when I think back on my favorite moments in gaming, many of them involved tactical situations embedded in a strong story. Clearly tactical play, when handled properly, can improve the story.

So, I worry that some indie games have gone to such great lengths to remove all tactical elements, that they may actually become weaker platforms for narrative play.

You cannot have a story if the players are not engaged and emotionally invested in the outcome.

Finally, I don't know Wushu. I just checked out the web page, and it looks like something I'll need to investigate further. Thank you for pointing it out to me.

However, your comment brings up another issue. Many games succeed only if you have the right GM and the right players. In general, I'm OK with that. If the game works with my group, then I really don't care what others think about it.

But, the "with the right people" argument is often used to excuse bad game design. I also feel a bit uneasy knowing that a game's quality depends entirely on the players involved. Admittedly, that's largely true in every games, but a strong rules base can provide some protection from the deficiencies and inconsistencies of others.

If I had my dream group, then I'd definitely push for a lighter, more flexible system. But, too often, I'm forced to choose between playing with a less-than-ideal group, or not playing at all.


1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Insightful. I tend to agree with you.

For me a game completely devoid of tactics is not much fun. Personally, I like to think and I like tactics. However, I agree with you that an RPG that is *only* tactics would bore me. I like both, story and tactics, and like you say, tactics embedded in strong story is the winning combination. So I prefer my RPG to balance those elements. As a GM that's what I try to do.

7:57 PM  

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