A Comprehensive Treatise on Simulationism in RPGs

Simulationism does not exist in RPGs.

(Enter Auburney, stage left.)

Ok, that was completely and utterly unprovo— hold ona sec, lemme grab my things…

Ok, done. Carry on.

not sure if troll bait or not …

if this isn’t the case delicious copypasta:

Simulationism refers to a style of play where the main agenda is the recreation of, or inspiration by, the observed characteristics of a particular genre or set of source material. Physical reality might count as source material for these purposes, but so might superhero anthologies, or any other literary, cinematic or historical milieu. Its most frequent concerns are internal consistency, analysis or modeling of cause and effect, and informed speculation or even extrapolation. Often characterised by concern for the minutiae of physical interaction and details of setting, Simulationism shares with Narrativism a concern for character backgrounds, personality traits and motives, in an effort to model cause and effect within the intellectual realm as well as the physical.

Simulation-inclined players are inclined to talk of their characters as if they were independent entities with minds of their own, and model their behavior accordingly. (For example, they may be particularly reluctant to have their character act on the basis of out-of-character information, and indisposed to tolerate such behavior in others.) Basically similar to the distinction between actor and character within a film or play, this stems from the sense of objectivity that a Simulationist strives for. Character generation and the modelling of skill growth and proficiency can be very complex and highly detailed.

Like Narrativists, Simulationists are intolerant of obvious railroading, but for different reasons: because it betrays the implied agreement that “internal cause is king”. However, many Simulationist RPGs recommend “Illusionism” to create a story – in essence, the subtle manipulation of in-game probability and environmental data to point PCs toward predefined conclusions. For example, Call of Cthulhu’s foremost concern is recreating the mood of brooding horror and cosmic insignificance of the Cthulhu Mythos, and makes heavy use of illusionism to craft grisly fates for the players’ characters, thereby maintaining consistency with the source material.

Much of the Simulationist aesthetic revolves around maintaining a self-contained bubble universe that operates independently of player volition, with the result that many Simulationist techniques are both deterministic and relatively hands-off: events unfold on the basis of internal rules. Combat might be broken down into discrete, semi-randomised steps for modeling the input of attack skill, weapon weight, defence checks, armour, body parts and potential for critical damage, separately. However, some Simulationist RPGs focus on the exploration of entirely different aspects of their source material, and may have no concern for realism at all. Toon, for example, is solely concerned with emulating cartoon hijinks. Others, such as GURPS and FUDGE, take a moderately realistic core system as their baseline, which can be extended or modified by optional sourcebooks or special rules.

if it were^^

Well, not entirely. We got to talking about summoning rituals last night … :mrgreen:

Besides, with all the recent GNS talk, somebody has to offer a plea for sanity.

(And just in case somebody can’t tell: this is all in good fun.)

Would that it were.

Where exactly is all this analysis, modeling, and simulation that is said to be so prevalent in this hobby?

Simulationism is supposed to be a common player preference. Do you know any players (never mind DMs for the moment) who show up with their dice in hands with the primary goal of simulating something? I don’t either.

There are game genres where actual simulation is important. Sports games are a good example. Players truly care about simulation and accuracy there, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to recognize a game amid all the simming. The systems reflect this.

Those systems look nothing like what we see in RPGs.

Considering that RPGs tend to attract people of a geeky persuasion, including plenty with backgrounds in science and programing (our own little group is no exception) who are at home with simulations, it’s actually surprising how little simulation shows up in RPGs.

We don’t care about accuracy. To use a recent example from another discussion here, we want our 12’ pits to be harder to leap across than our 6’ pits. That’s all. How much harder? We don’t care. There’s nothing quantitative about any of this. All we’re concerned about are results that are just plausible enough to maintain a sense of immersion. In a sense, all these rules so often labeled simulationism can be seen as a highly narrative technique. The goal is the illusion of reality, not a depiction of reality.

We don’t simulate anything. We apparently don’t want to, either,

Not Auburney, but what the heck… Let’s have some fun here… :laughing: oh, lovely procrastination…

Simulationism does not mean realism/or modelling. Those are not the same, however there might be some overlap. It’s hard to define and contrary to common belief more difficult to identify than the other two (G and N).

Gamism is the easiest. The players want competition, may that be in terms of killing statistics, loot or by outplaying their fellow players/GM with cool descriptions (e.g. in Wushu). It’s about being admired for in-game achievements.

Narrativism is about human conflicts that mean something to the players and say something about the characters. Additionally the players must be willing to and be given the power to influence these conflicts and their outcome.

Simulationism is everything else that does not fit into one of the other two categories. So in fact it’s easier to define S by saying what it’s not. Having said that, as I mentioned at the beginning, it does not mean simulating realism or something like that. Rather simulatioinism is about exploration. Oftentimes the topic/style might appear to be the same as in a narrativistic game, but oftentimes it’s the GM that’s driving the the conflicts and in some cases even has an outcome in mind (-> railroading, illusionism). Simulationism is exploration for the sake of exploration. It’s about sharing a imaginative space focusing on either character, world, situation, system, color or a mix of these.
This includes playing Star Wars - because of STAR WARS WOHOOOO! “You enter a cantina, a band is playing… and yeaaah!!! wohooo Star Wars!!”
Playing Star Wars with the -H- engine by players who just wanna relive the feel of the old movie, exploring the world and tasting the dust of Tattooine would be simulationism. To hell with “accuracy” or or even illusion of reality. One doesn’t need that to be a simulationist.
If one would care about an accurate modifier for the 6’ & 12’ dilemma from your example, this would be a simulationist focus on the system. So, again playstyle simulationist, but different taste of explorationism.

And as always: There’s probably no pure form of any G, N or S. It’s usually a blend with a more or less strong flavor of one of the three. Just make sure you play the same game.

Just a recent example: Australian Tom’s (awesome!!) mystery game could have really crashed. It was a risky thing, cause in the beginning one could think this mystery thing would have been of flavour S. Usually these things are (or at least try to be) but in the end we the players were pushing the creative agenda towards G. If Tom would have had tried to enforce S on us, I personally would have had a hard time playing it all to the end. But I’m generally more of a G and N type, which is why I kept being super intrigued and willing to stay to the very end till we put this f@#$%g riddle together.

That said, i also think that it’s quite curious that we don’t see any heavy stimulationism games (the ones you mean -H-). But let’s be honest. Those are kind of contrary to why we end up playing these games in the first place. There’s already enough realism in reality. :sunglasses:

Enough laws of thermodynamics, beurocracy and shit in the real world…

I remember though that Kay was a pretty heavy sim player (with focus on system) that he disliked some of the games we played that had a different creative agenda (than his preferences). That’s why he went into The Riddle of Steel with Auburney. Not judging anything here. Just an observation that i made.


I was just going by Darth’s quote (and recent discussions here). But if you want to get all Edwardsian …

Got it. Simulationism in this sense doesn’t have anything to do with simulation (which is a bit like me creating a food theory in which “lunchism” has nothing to do with food eaten at noon, but rather food that contains either zucchini or is served on green plates, isn’t it?), but with exploration. Except that “exploration” doesn’t mean exploration, either, but rather dreaming. Except that nobody is asleep. :slight_smile:

Seriously, though, you’re absolutely right about simulationism being hard to define in this model. Perhaps the problem is that with narrativism defined so narrowly, any definition of simulationism is bound to be essentially meaningless?

But if there’s no accuracy in regard to the source material, you won’t get the feel of the movie, either, will you?

Could you explain this a bit more? I’m not sure I understand. Aren’t all mysteries gamist in the sense that solving the case is essentially a victory condition? What does enforcing S mean in this instance?

I’m trying, really I am …

But for now, I’m still not sold on any of this.


Got it. Simulationism in this sense doesn’t have anything to do with simulation (which is a bit like me creating a food theory in which “lunchism” has nothing to do with food eaten at noon, but rather food that contains either zucchini or is served on green plates, isn’t it?), but with exploration. Except that “exploration” doesn’t mean exploration, either, but rather dreaming. Except that nobody is asleep. :slight_smile:

Seriously, though, you’re absolutely right about simulationism being hard to define in this model. Perhaps the problem is that with narrativism defined so narrowly, any definition of simulationism is bound to be essentially meaningless?[/quote]
Well, yes :wink: The term is a bit misleading, i admit. Probably originating In the old times BE (before Edwards) where it was used to describe something similar but different.

It’s true that Nar is most narrow term and you barely see it in its purest form, if at all at any of our games.

If you mean that kind of accuracy then yes. There needs to be a certain kind of truthfulness to the source material.

Could you explain this a bit more? I’m not sure I understand. Aren’t all mysteries gamist in the sense that solving the case is essentially a victory condition? What does enforcing S mean in this instance?[/quote][/quote][/quote]

Maybe i mixed up the terms mystery and horror (crime?) a bit. In my opinion most of the horror/mystery games as i understand them are not about winning at all. The players let themselves be immersed in a game where the outer boundaries, the plot, is already determined. The goal of the game, so to say, is to completely absorb the case, the victim’s story, the detectives (and their stories and quirks) or the general scenery to explore what they think a good mystery story should look like. While there naturally is a general will to “win” (because most good stories should have a happy ending) this is never the premise. The players would rather lose than give up the immersion of the imagined content, the integrity or plausibility of the story they created.

For a gamist the plot or solution may be predetermined too, but he doesn’t care much about setting, stories or feeling of the particular puzzle. He’s in to come up with a solution faster than the other players or even the GM would have anticipated. He’s competitive in a “friendly” way not to discredit his company but because that’s what he gets his fun from. The situation, world, system, character are means of having that sort of competition, not the pupose. and this isn’t seen as “bad” roleplaying.

Back to the example. If we would have done the scenario Sim style, there might have been more elaborate background stories of player characters (exploring character!) or the police proceduals might have been more nuanced and tailored to the specifics of the Brisbane (world!). The tragedy of the family’s conflict and the circumstances might have been put more inti the spotlight (situation!) or a realistic approach for simulating investiggative and interrogation skill by employing mechanics that do so (however that might look like/system!). Last but not least we could’ve focused on playing everything out with elaborate descriptions (color). We didn’t do that and believe me I’m glad we didn’t. We quickly jumped into figuring out what was going on, using the above mentioned aspects as tools to do so.

Please, please don’t take this too serious and/or as any form of criticism. I’m glad with the scenario as it was!

I’m afraid it’s late. Maybe more tomorrow…

Yeah, and as you can see, analyzing actual gameplay according to GNS is not so easy. I’ve mentioned it a couple times before: There almost never is a pure form of G, N or S in a single game. At least in the games we’ve played so far in Spielbar that was not the case.

This makes pointing out how simulationist/gamist/narrativistic a game is really hard, if not impossible. One of the reasons, I and most others quickly (OK it took us some years) turned our backs on the terminology of GNS is because we found what we were looking for and moved on. Well, and because it was provoking conflicts. Everytime you point out that something in a particular game was SIM, someone else would say: “Yeah, but isn’t this and that also a sign of GAM?”

For a time it gave group of mostly NAR-oriented folks a common dictionary for naming stuff that happened at the table. Usually people that would be considered as SIM-oriented players had a different opinion about what the definition of the used terms should be. Some even felt insulted.

That of course was never the purpose. It was simply created to have a common terminology among a particular group. These people used GNS, CA and whatnot to identify problems in apparently dysfunctional groups. Some of these players turned towards Edwardism because they lost the fun in playing over the years and wanted to find out why. And (for these particular folks) that freaking worked!

This was pretty much the only reason why the whole bogus-rpg-theory was created.

The majority of roleplayers never developed this loss of fun playing the game. So it’s quite useless for them. And trying to lecture those about the holy trinity of GNS might even scare them, insult them or will be met with refusal or another theory entirely.

Back in 2005/06 I first encountered GNS, CA, system does matter, The Big Model. At that time I was indeed frustrated in most of my games (SIM heavy - Das Schwarze Auge Meister) and of course curious to try out all those shiny new games that surrounded The Forge. This experience changed my roleplaying completely. I met people who had exactly the same problems and it turned out they were interested in exactly the same stuff as I was. We started playing a lot of NAR games, and I was hooked. This was not cut NAR, this was pure shit. Then we turned to playing GAM and played some hardline D&D that some people in the community wouldn’t call roleplaying at all. With one of these guys (who is responsible for the quote in my signature) I have played more or less on a weekly basis since I met him on the internet in 2005, playing quite pure forms of NAR and GAM with other like-minded folks. Among a ton of different NAR-indies did we manage to play through 30 levels in D&D 4 with a slightly accelerated advancement. Actually one of the old team just came back a couple of weeks ago (we’re doing 13th Age now, but I hope that we can fit in one or two PtA episodes once in a while).

By the way: We barely talk about GNS or that stuff in our group anymore. We found our Creative Agenda some time ago and it works.

Sorry to derail the original topic here a little bit. I tried to give an explanation of what I think the purpose of rpg theory is and how it helped me personally.

Retrospectively, I think it’s fair to say that it was created by a weird guy with weird thoughts for weird people that had the same weird thoughts but didn’t know that. The Theory helped them to find a common language to talk about the weird stuff they like. And everyone else is just like: “Well, that’s weird!”

Since that was not very helpful for kicking off a discussion… Here’s a question for those of you who never liked the “definitions” of GNS, think they are not fitting or simply wrong:

Do you have a kind of categorization of players? Do you use it? Have you ever found it relevant or useful for making your game better?

Realism, method actor, ROLLplayer, ROLEplayer, detective type or adventuorous. Any categories you would label player types? And can that be helpful for figuring out everyone at the table is playing the same game?

People have been thinking and talking about these things for ages. Here’s what Gary Gygax had to say all the way back in the 70s in the Dungeon Master’s Guide:

“Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best described as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school.”

Of course, Gygax uses the word “simulation” to mean “simulation,” which might strike today’s theorists as a bit odd, but that was a long time ago and people didn’t know any better.

Interestingly, Edwards quotes this passage in his essay on simulationism. Gygax continues: “AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the latter school. It does not stress any realism … It does little to attempt to simulate anything either” (which speaks to the point about there not being any simulation in RPGs).

So what does Edwards think of this? He writes: “this text is palpably disingenuous regarding ‘simulates nothing’.”

Now aside from being rather rude, that’s a somewhat odd response, isn’t it? Edwards has determined that there’s a lot of “hard-line post-wargame Simulationism” in AD&D, and therefore Gygax must not be telling the truth?

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll believe the guy who actually wrote the game.

This is where this all becomes so murky. I think that’s a great take on games like the one Tom 2.0 ran, but I think you can equally legitimately see things differently. For some people, solving the case and thereby winning will be the premise, and all the details and scenery will only be of interest if it directly affects the puzzle to be solved. And those are both perfectly fine points of view that can coexist with one another, and at most tables, probably do. Ask three people at the same table to characterize a game in these terms, and you’ll probably get three completely different answers.

Dear Summoner,

We regret having to inform you that due to the very recent consumption of humungous amounts of alcoholic beverages, followed by a sudden and utterly unexpected surge of real life consequences (also commonly known as “hangover” and “work” if our sources inform us correctly), the entity specified as “Auburney” was unable to answer your conjuration attempts.

Please hold your spell - the target entity will get back to you as soon as its unearthly schedule and astral health permit.

Thank you for summoning us.


the Department Below

Hungover until Wednesday?

Wow. That must have been some party.

Hey, you guys earned it!

I sort of feel we have reached a productive point in our discussion yesterday, where we ended up postulating the GNS model as being flawed in the following respects:

  • the three elements (G, N and S) are not exactly “equal ingredients” to the mix, and should therefore not be positioned in a triangle.

  • Simulationism seems to be an essential part of most all roleplaying (as “realism” will always be there as a reference, whether you are aiming for your game to be “realistic” (at least in some regards) or “surrealistic” (think Hitchhiker’s Guide :wink: , where realism is only used as a reference by absence, so to speak))

  • G and N can be identified as “creative agendas” or “goals of play” much more easily than S could.

  • but they are probably not the only possible “player agendas”. Others that are imaginable are, e.g., Explorationism, Humorism, and probably more besides…

So I’m inclined to postulate a New Model now:

Sim is underlying all RPGing. It is a necessary prerequisite for even having something where(in) the other categories (goals, agendas) can happen/apply/feature.

The others, G, N, E, H and so on… can feature or be implemented in (most) any RPG, but don’t have to. Also, they are non-exclusive to each other (at least in principle).

Why “in principle”?
Well, I guess the more of these elements a group wants to include, the harder it is to keep the game from fraying around the edges, so to speak. For example, if you have one player hell-bent on “winning” the game, maximising their stats and chances for success, and one player aiming to tell as good a story as possible within the constraints of the game… that may well be entirely possible!

But add a third player to that who is mainly interested in “exploring the environment”, playing to “experience the setting” and so on (E), and a fourth player whose chief goal is adding humor to the game experience (H, whether out-of-game jokes, or in-character humor)… the GM may end up getting headaches sooner than later… :wink:

Still, that is an extreme example, and I think an important point that is usually WAAAY underrepresented in GNS (henceforth perhaps to be known as SENGH?!) discussions is this:

  • players don’t (necessarily) fall under 1 category only
  • and neither do games
  • or sessions

… instead, there is virtually ALWAYS a mix of elements present.

Regarding the above “extreme example”: it is extreme, and in this extremity might be dysfunctional (or not, depending on the group really). But less extreme examples are certainly imaginable:
Haven’t we all been in explorative, storytelling games before? (E+N)
And don’t we all know the good-natured humorous but challenging gameplay style? (G+H)

Another distinction that I feel is important to make (and that is often overlooked by GNS’ tendency to generalize all game®s into one or another category entirely) is this:
Games can go through “phases” so to speak.
Nobody ever said that a (say) Gamist+Explorationist game only ever, through its entire run, does these two things only (plus of course the underlying, and always assumed under this model, Sim elements).

Much rather, I distinctly feel that any given game may be (for example) started with some N+E elements (the players establishing their characters while checking out the world around them a bit), then drift into more G+E styles (more exploration of the world, and some challenges ensue), and drift back to more N features for the conclusion of the story / epilogue / showdown…
Always of course (potentially) peppered with a good portion of (oog and ic) humor, perhaps…

(perhaps Interaction (with NPCs) could be seen as another category, thereby adding another letter to the theory’s abbreviation… SENGIH perhaps, then? :wink: )

There are certainly those “phases” to a game where you are talking to a bunch of NPCs for a while, then go kill a bunch of monsters in a dungeon or something, then go develop the story some more… right?

And those are important to have in a game, as well - if only to cater to the different player/character types and their various cravings. (the Socializer type, the Hard Hitter type, the Story Protagonist type, to name only a few of the possible categories here…)

Like your idea about phases. That’s something you see at tables, i agree. One might say this is a way of dealing with all the different agendas at the table. Everybody gets her piece of the cake.

However, I’m still thinking now (and especially after our discussion last night) that we have a different opinion on what NAR is. Probably my definition doesn’t exist in its narrow boundaries and is too obscure to be meaningful for the theory. But your NAR sounds more like storytelling to me… Whatever I’m fine with agreeing to disagree. The rest of your model seems solid, especially about the humorism type. That for sure exists and will oftentimes be mixed into any style, regardless which one.

yeah, about that - I’m really interested in your opinion on that. I felt we didn’t get to explicate that in detail yesterday, and there certainly is more for me to understand there… care to explain it once again, in writing perhaps? Or over a couple beers in the Spielbar some time? :slight_smile:

So far, I only got it up until the (apparent, for me) conundrum that NAR gameplay, according to your take on it, can not happen “through” the character (cause that would make it SIM, right?), but only through the player themselves… somehow…

Are you talking Author stance here? (Where the player “steers” the character from outside, instead of immersing themselves in the char…?)

Or am I missing something?

(Edited to add:
For me, NAR gaming is a lot about not having the GM be the sole author of the “story”, i.e. getting “player empowerment” (or whatever you’d like to call it) so that I as a player can steer my character in ways that will determine / change / make the story… As in, a big part of the GM’s job in my ideal NAR game would be to build situations the characters find themselves in, where the GM can honestly (!) ask the players “what do you do next?”. As opposed to steering the chars in a certain direction or three, towards pre-decided possible outcomes, that will not shatter the “prepared storyline” the GM has made up previously (and independently of player input).
For example, if the GM sets a scene where the character comes home and some mafia thugs are waiting for him, and put him before a simple, but hard decision: will he protect his family, or pursue his business interests?
Then I as a player get to decide where my characters story is going from there. Provided, that is, that the GM has not pre-determined “the one logical thing my character must say” or something like “whatever he says, the thugs are going to kidnap his daughter anyways, about 3-4 scenes later”… (because that would be railroading, and that kills NAR gaming (in my opinion)! )