by John H. Kim
January 25, 2004
"Simulationism" is a term coined in February 1995 on the newsgroup on the forum rec.games.frp.advocacy (rgfa). Here I want to explain it, and put it into context. Over the next two years on rgfa, it was defined negatively as the rejection of certain methods. The definition was that it was against using meta-game information (like whether a character is a PC, whether this is on-screen or background, or who the players are) to affect in-game resolution. Thus, it rejects methods like die-roll bonuses for how cool a maneuver sounded to the GM, or requiring drama points to allow players to alter background. Instead, what happens should be based on thinking only about what would happen in the game-world as a alternate reality.
Based on discussion, a number of people have found this style to be rewarding. However, it has been difficult to analyze in terms of why it is interesting. In part, this is because Simulationism rejects simple analogies. Simulationist role-playing is not storytelling and is not game-playing per se. In revisiting the style, I want to try to analyze what it is about -- in particular my own observations from games which tended towards pure Simulationism.
Simulationism was later made a part of encompassing typologies that culminated in the "Threefold Model". However, here I am treating it as simply a style unto itself -- a method of decision-making, parallel in some ways to artistic styles such as Impressionism or Surrealism. There are characteristics and tendencies of Simulationism which may be as important as the formal definition.
A central feature of Simulationism is that it rejects closely identifying role-playing with either fiction writing or other types of games. This is important, because role-playing is often viewed and judged by external standards. For example, an RPG might be judged poor if the events it produces would not make a good book or movie of that type. Conversely, an RPG might be judged poor if it isn't fairly balance like a board game or card game.
Rejecting this identification is important to finding out what is interesting about RPGs uniquely. Thus Simulationism calls for throwing out preconceptions about what the game should be like, and instead requiring people to form their opinion about how they like play as itself. Simulationism allows that individual techniques might be borrowed from other activities -- like mechanics from card games, or inspiration from novels. However, that doesn't mean that role-playing is any of those other activities, or that the essence of role-playing is the same as them.
In some ways, this might be viewed as transitional. Once you have learned about role-playing free from analogies, you can try mixing it and relating it more with other activities. But it is vital to try throwing out preconceptions for a while, at least.
The most radical aspect of Simulationism is its approach to GM preparation. Traditional RPGs call for the GM to prepare a customized adventure which will be appropriate and compelling for the players. The GM should prepare dramatic "hooks" to encourage the PCs to engage with the planned adventure. Typical hooks include:
This hamstrings GM control over the plot. Since there are no dramatic hooks to draw the PCs, the GM has little control over what the PCs will do. The GM is reduced to control over background, and this may not be a driving force of the plot. In fact, neither the GM nor the players may know where the plot is going. It is possible for it to head in directions completely unexpected by anyone -- because the GM created background without planning for what the players would do, and the players act without knowing what the complete background. This is one form of what Liz Henry calls dialogic collaboration as opposed to hierarchical.
Many gamers worry that this approach will lead to nothing happening. The PCs will walk around and look in different places, not find anything special, and be bored. Indeed, if the players are conditioned to expect a prepared adventure, this can be just what happens. The players search around for hints about what the GM wants them to do, and fail to find it. But by adjusting play, a different dynamic emerges.
In Simulationist play, the onus is more on the players to drive play. Without contrived situations to force the PCs into action, the PCs need to be more pro-active. They need to be rebellious, in the sense that faced with a stable status quo, they will take risks to upset that status quo. In GM-driven adventures, there is an unusual event (a melodramatic hook) which spurs the PCs to action. But in Simulationism, there will not usually be such unusual events. Without such hooks, the PCs need to seek out conflict.
Now, some people may still say that most players won't be pro-active enough. Players are generally passive until prodded. There are a number of techniques which may apply to this:
In the end, you are likely to have a more historical or biographical feel to a Simulationist campaign. In narrative terms, it will often lack dramatic closure to events, with some plots trailing off and others only dipped into. However, it will also have an ever-increasing depth of detail and relations. This makes the plots complex and rich in meaning. Again, Simulationism holds it central not to judge the game as novel or play-writing, but rather an experience unto itself.
Action resolution differs from adventure design, because it is less about GM preparation prior to the session, and more about use of rules and dice during a game session. However, it still follows the same Simulationist principle of following internal cause.
Many drama-oriented systems advise the GM to overlook or modify die rolls or rules. In particular, they suggest that cool-sounding or inspirational PC actions be allowed to succeed. There is also the alternate concept that the challenge should be fair -- meaning that if the players act intelligently, the PCs should succeed. Simulationism rejects both of these. Results are not fudged for story, so when faced with difficult odds the PCs may well fail. Alternatively, they may get lucky and breeze past the opposition. There is no bias that the PCs will be facing difficult but beatable odds.
The vital lesson to be learned from this is letting go of what you want the story to be. Often RPGs can turn into a meta-game power struggle between players and GM, or among players. The GM wants the story to go one way, and the players want it to go a different way. Simulationism encourages letting go of expectations of how you want things to turn out, and instead concentrate on enriching what does happen.
Another vital lesson is to reduce the stigma of failure. Systems which reward players with character success also necessarily stigmatize the players of PCs who fail. In these systems, if your PC fails, it is because the GM didn't think your playing was good enough to be granted a success. This makes the game judgemental, and focusses the players on performance (either as game-players or as actors). If the group agrees to stick to the Simulationist results, then the focus shifts. Players still try to have their PCs succeed, but it is more acceptable for a PC to fail because it does not imply failure on the part of the player. There is more focus on detailing what happened -- both externally and internally to the characters.
So the above explains the open nature of Simulationist play, which may turn out very different than either the GM or players expected. But this leaves undefined what games seem like in a narrative sense. What happens it not a result of a planned dramatic structure. If the characters are simply doing what they want in a background, then how does drama occur, if it does at all? What sort of events happen, and what type of meaning can be derived from it?
A common problem in traditional campaigns is a group of characters who have no strong ties to the setting, and who have no strong motivations. The typical solution for this is dramatic hooks invented by the GM, which drive the PCs into the prepared adventure. However, these depend on GM skill about what will both motivate the character and interest the player.
Simulationism rejects this as a method. Without an external agenda of goals which they are supposed to pursue, the characters should pursue goals which are personally important to them. The players must learn to create characters whose actions are interesting to play. The foremost among these is willingness to take risks. Play will then center on extrapolating the consequences of their actions. If a PC takes risks for his ambitions, then he may succeed or he may fail. Either way is interesting.
Further, these become goals relevant to the players, because character creation is a deeply personal process. Given choice and scope to make a complex character, players will invest a piece of themselves. This often represents wish fulfillment: characters who can and will do things that the player cannot. This is not a meta-game agenda separate from the character itself. Rather, the fiction character in its definition reflects the interests and wishes of the player. Extrapolating the results of these efforts inherently produces meaning relevant to the player. Rather than the GM guessing what will be meaningful to the player, it is up to the player to create a character whose actions are meaningful.
Ultimately, the meaning in the game doesn't come from whether particular actions succeed or fail. If a character decides to charge into open fire to save a fellow soldier, the most important thing is his choice to do so. Whether he succeeds or fails is secondary, and either way it is interesting.
Simulationist role-playing is concerned about accurately reflecting other personalities, cultures, and philosophies from your own. The means of doing so is not clearly reflected in the definition. This need not be a clinically-detached intellectual exercise. It can be an emotional experience as well as an educational one. Note that Simulationism rejects literary basis, so imitating how similar characters behave in movies or TV is rejected. Detailed role-playing calls for probing the motivations of the characters, not simply imitating other sources.
On rgfa, most simulationist posters were opposed to coercive personality mechanics. These are mechanics which specified what a player character should think or do independent of the player, such as having a numeric trait like "Self-control 4" which is rolled against to determine one's action in certain situations. In discussion, the primary argument was accuracy. Adding in such rules was not felt to make character behavior more real. For a skilled roleplayer it would interfere with attempts, and for a poor roleplayer it would simply add uncorrelated random reactions to the poor roleplaying -- and real people do not behave randomly. I feel this argument is strong, but there is a further reason. The emotional power of Simulationism usually stems from the consequences of player choice. For similar reasons, Simulationists tended to favor point-based character creation rather than random-roll.
While it is not part of the rgfa definition, there is often an association of Simulationism with what is called "immersion". For example, many of the simulation-oriented posters on rgfa were also in favor of what was called "deep in-character" play or immersive play. In Petter Bøckman's adaptation of the Threefold Model FAQ for Scandanavian LARP, he substituted the term "Immersionism" for "Simulationism".
There are many views on exactly what immersive play is, or even whether it exists at all. James Wallis, in his essay "Through a Mask, Darkly", discusses a type of immersive play which he calls mask-play (based on Keith Johnstone's concept of 'the Mask state' in acting). As he describes it,
'Mask-play' is the most complete way that the player can enter the game-world. Think of it as a virtual reality: when the player looks around, they see the game-world. They look at other players and see the characters. They look in a mirror and see their character's face. Only by doing this, by shutting out as much of the real world as possible, will the player be able to let their normal personality take a back seat, and allow the personality of their fictional character to take over. I can't describe what that actually means because it doesn't happen often enough to be analyzed, but personal experience makes me think it's worth striving for. This certainly relates to other narrative forms. In his book on creative writing, the Lajos Egri writes:
The first step is to make your reader or viewer identify your character as someone he knows. Step two -- if the author can make the audience imagine that what is happening can happen to him, the situation will be permeated with aroused emotion and the viewer will experience a sensation so great that he will feel not as a spectator but as the participant of an exciting drama before him. I do not mean to imply that immersive mask-play is a superior (or inferior) form of the same experience as fiction. However, I think it is important to note the similarities between them -- as opposed to considering them opposites.
The full topic of immersive play is beyond the scope of this essay. Some people (such as Wallis) consider it important, and it seems to correlate with Simulationist play.
Most game systems have emphasized either genre emulation or fair challenge in adventures. However, there has been many Simulationist or simulation-like influences. The earliest adventures were thinly veiled challenges for the players. D&D dungeons were designed as tests for the players, not based on internal logic. There has always been some dissatisfaction with this. The most common response has been to adapt literary sources or genres, suggesting that games should be like the source material. Examples include Call of Cthulhu (1981), James Bond 007 (1983), Amber (1991), and Theatrix (1993).
I would cite the three key Simulationist systems as SkyRealms of Jorune (1985), HarnMaster (1986), and Ars Magica (1987). Important predecessors include Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) and to some degree Traveller (1977) and RuneQuest (1978). These had no direct literary models for what adventures should be like. They were instead rooted in a vision of the setting, where characters were integral parts of the world and society. They at least tried to make adventures flow from real character motivations within their world, rather than being arranged from hooks. There were still packaged adventures for these games, and of course many games ranged in influence. Still, I see these as being among the most Simulationist.
For me, a key difference is having player characters who are not adventurers, superheroes, soldiers of fortune, or similar archetypes. These have fairly thin in-game motivations for their adventures, calling for dramatic hooks or simply adventure for adventure's sake. Simulationist games tend to have more social and/or selfish characters. For example, in Ars Magica the PCs are following their ambitions of learning magic as part of a small community of magi (Covenant). In SkyRealms of Jorune the PCs are trying to gain citizenship by earning engravings on their challisk.
However, Simulationism has also had an strong influence on other games. Evolving from the challenge-based D&D, many games adopted simulation-like handling of miscellaneous action resolution, but then struggled with the disconnect between this and their attempt at literary emulation. This called for various fudging and manipulation to get a proper plot to result, primarily on the part of the GM. One solution is to change action resolution to account for drama, as exemplified by games like Theatrix (1993) and Everway (1995). The simulationist solution is to drop literary emulation, and instead explore role-playing simulation as a different art form.
Threefold Simulationism is based on method and observation rather than a theoretical goal which it strives for. The tool is simulation: projecting what should happen based on the game-world as it has been imagined. Put aside what you think the story should be based on books and movies, and instead think about the game-world as an alternate reality. Many people found interesting consequences and experiences through the use of this tool.
This essay has tried to explain what the result of sticking with this tool is like -- not just what games look like, but what they mean on an emotional level. There is no single goal of Simulationism. Like many forms of art, Simulationist role-playing is not easily reduced to a single cause or essence. However, there are many further questions which can be illuminated, such as: