Tag: theory

Faith in Play #19: Simulationism

This is Faith in Play #19:  Simulationism, for June 2019.


One of the complications of discussing whether what’s called “simulationism” in Ron Edwards’ Big Model is that even Ron Edwards has had trouble figuring out what it is.  We have looked at gamism and narrativism, and decided that there are Christian values in those approaches to play, even if there are also pitfalls.  Yet if we’re going to consider simulationism, we’re going to have to understand what it is.

As I covered in the third part of Theory 101 for Places to Go, People to Be some years back, Creative Agenda (or the French translation Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives), simulationism is driven by the desire to learn, to know, to experiment and understand.  That’s why it seems to have so many expressions–from the players who have their characters leap off cliffs because they have calculated that the fall won’t be fatal to those who become involved in the minutiae of combat to those who explore geography and culture.  Simulationism is expressed in other activities, in participating in war reenactments, watching travelogues and cooking shows, even taking college courses as a recreational activity.  For many people, the drive to know is what controls the way they play their games.  It is something of a vicarious experience, the feeling of being there, and so coming away with some notion of what it would be like to be there.

Simulationism is walking a mile in the other man’s shoes.  It is exploring what life would be like in another time or place.  It is learning, gaining knowledge.

I once had a debate with my brother in which he put forward as a premise that knowledge was inherently good, and that it was always good for knowledge to be disseminated to as many people as possible.  I objected to the premise.  Knowledge, I asserted, was a useful tool which could be used for good.  I think that is where this discussion ultimately takes us:  how will we use the knowledge we gain from our play, our experimentation, our vicarious experience?

That doesn’t mean that such play, such motivation, is wrong if we can’t identify the benefit before we play.  Scientists (and there’s a simulationist motivation if ever there was one) speak of the importance of “basic research”, that is, experimenting in directions with no immediate obvious value because when you don’t know what you might learn you can’t predict how it might be useful.  Many of our modern conveniences have their roots in someone simply wanting to know what would happen if, and then asking how that could be used.  Learning has value, even when we don’t always see the value immediately.  The high school student who challenges that he’s never going to need to know the math or science or history lessons he is forced to learn is short-sighted, and life will probably surprise him at some point.  Not everything we learn is useful, but it is often the case that we learn useful things from unexpected sources.

There are pitfalls in this.  Sometimes we want to know some things that it is better not to know.  We have all heard the idea that you “can’t unsee” something, and there are undoubtedly things you wish you’d never learned.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have learned them–only that sometimes what we know is not always an encouragement to us.  We would like to keep our minds always on the good, pure, honorable, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise, but then, we are also to be wise as serpents while being innocent as doves.  Maybe there are things you don’t need to know, that would tear down rather than build up–I am persuaded that I don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of horror movies, although I do need a working knowledge of some of the important ones (Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Alien, Terminator) just to do my job.  Maybe you need to know more; maybe you don’t need to know as much.  Yet learning is valuable, and simulationism is about wanting to learn.

So we find once again that Christians can find value in all three of the “creative agenda” that drive our play.  It’s just a matter of understanding how to do this to the glory of God and the edification of ourselves and others.


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Faith in Play #17: Narrativism

This is Faith in Play #17:  Narrativism, for April 2019.


Two months back we started seeking what might be a Christian approach to what is called Creative Agenda, by discussing gamism. Our conclusion was that gamism was not inimical to Christian faith, insofar as it encourages us to be our best and meet the challenges we face.

We did not conclude that it was “The Christian Way” to play; we did not touch on the other two identified agenda, narrativism and simulationism, at all. This month we’ll continue in the order in which they are commonly listed and look at narrativism.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers. 1812 Henry Fuseli

People mistakenly equate narrativist play with storytelling, but the gamist group will tell of the time they rode into the mountains, trapped the dragon in its cave, and after a hard-fought battle killed it, and how is that not a story? What distinguishes narrativism is more the focus of the story. Narrativists thrive on moral and ethical issues, emotional responses, and human relationships and interactions. Did you risk your life because you were in love with the princess? Did the sorceress accompany you because she hoped to tap some of the dragon’s power for herself? Was the dragon a proven danger to the community, or was this done simply because we wanted to be famous as dragonslayers? Stories of love and betrayal, of ambition and greed, of nobility and flaws, plots which could be ripped from the pages of Shakespeare, are the heart of narrativist play. It isn’t that you risked your life but why you risked your life that forms the story.

In that sense, narrativism is about posing life questions and exploring possible answers—and in that sense we discussed this long ago in Faith and Gaming:  Answers, that role playing of this sort allows us to practice making moral, ethical, and personal decisions, in a petri dish environment that allows us to consider the consequences without suffering them. It permits us to communicate about our beliefs and explore alternatives in ways that are non-confrontational.

Anything that facilitates communication about beliefs is a worthwhile pursuit for Christians, both among ourselves and in groups with unbelievers. Narrativism thus has much to commend it as a Christian approach to play.

There are hazards, however. Just as the context of play enables us to express beliefs, it enables others to challenge those beliefs, to explore the weaknesses in what we claim. C. S. Lewis once said that at any given moment the weakest doctrine in Christianity always seemed to be the one he had just successfully defended, because at that moment it seemed that the truth of that doctrine depended entirely upon his own meager abilities to defend it, and not on God. Any time we put our beliefs in front of others, we can expect that they will be attacked, and the weaknesses uncovered. It might well seem that what you believe is not unassailable, as others bring their beliefs against it within the context of play. This, too, though, can be beneficial, as our beliefs are strengthened by our recognition that God, and not we, is the foundation for truth, and our understanding is imperfect but improving. Narrativism gives us this opportunity, if we can grasp it.

So again it appears that narrativism is also an approach to play that is not unchristian.

We’ll look at simulationism in a couple months.


Previous article:  Mourning.
Next article:  Order.

RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice

This is RPG-ology #8:  The Illusion of Choice, for July 2018.


Last time we talked a bit about the power of the referee, how it can be abused, and the principles that should prevent that abuse.  This time our focus is on how to use that power in a way that will enhance the game by getting outside our usual expectations.

There is a referee “style” identified as “Illusionism,” one of four identified ways of resolving the issue dubbed The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast:  if the players have complete control over all their character actions, how is it that the referee actually controls the story of the game?  You can read about all four answers at Places to Go:  People to Be, in Theory 101:  The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or in the French edition as Théorie 101 – 2e partie : Le Truc Impossible Avant Le Petit Déj’ if French is easier for you.  Most people condemn Illusionism as unfair to the players, who have no idea that their choices do not matter.  Yet Illusionism is built on the use of some very useful Illusionist techniques, and one of them might be an answer to a problem with certain kinds of play.

Many years ago a referee was bemoaning a disastrous game session.  He had designed a high-rise building in which terrorists had hidden a bomb.  The expectations of the scenario (a Trailblazing design) were that the party would move through the building and along the way collect the information needed to defuse the bomb.  Unfortunately, a few perhaps lucky or unlucky turns put them at the bomb right at the beginning of their adventure, and one of the characters decided that rather than risk letting the time run through its several hours he would attempt to deactivate it now—with a bad roll of the dice detonating it and killing the entire party right at the beginning of the game session.

And I realized that there was a much better way to run a scenario of that sort.  I wrote Game Ideas Unlimited:  Left or Right? (only the French translation, Gauche ou droite ? remains online) to explain my solution, and used it in creating a scenario in a world for Multiverser:  The Third Book of Worlds entitled Why Spy.  That book might never be published, although I run the world regularly at gamer conventions, so if you’re ever playing at my table for such a game let me know that you’ve read this.

What I realized is that such a scenario does not work well as a dungeon design.  It needs to be run like a movie director.

The scenario is about terrorists occupying a fifty-story downtown commercial office and retail building.  There are four maps, each designed so that any one of the four sides can be “north” and all the stairwells, elevators, and utilities ducts will align.  The referee is encouraged to make multiple copies of these so he can write and draw on them.  The players are free to decide how they want to enter the building—ground level entrances on each side (front door, back door, loading dock, parking entrance), roof door, or break through a window at any level.  They know that there is some unknown number of terrorists holding some unknown number of hostages, and that they claim to have a nuclear device which they will detonate if their demands are not met.

Whenever they decide where they are entering, the referee chooses one of the floorplan maps, decides which edge is north, and begins the game.  The only fixed encounter locations are the number of terrorists at each of the doors.  Once the players are inside the building, it doesn’t work that way.  The way it does work is there are nineteen encounters—the first a lone armed terrorist in the hall, the last the bomb itself.  As the player characters move through the building, the referee describes the map, inventing irrelevant details (e.g., opthamologist’s office, photography studio, planter outside the door, mirror on the wall) and decides where the first encounter will occur as they move toward it.  The tools of the game are used to determine whether the players and/or the terrorists are surprised, and the players take whatever actions they wish to resolve the encounter.  Assuming they survive, the game continues.  If the players move to a different floor, the referee repeats the process of selecting a floorplan and orienting it, and continues putting the encounters in their path as they progress.  Players can avoid encounters if they wish, provided they have seen the encounter before it has noticed them, but they will find each in the order it is listed.  Encounters include finding an office worker in hiding, finding a door with a bomb on it, encountering terrorists with and without hostages, coming to an open area visible from above or below where terrorists might be, learning that a strike team has been sent to find them, the team getting split, part of the team rescuing the other part, finding the leader with a remote detonator, and finding the bomb.

What the technique in essence does is deprive the players of control over the order in which encounters occur—that is, they can’t go directly to the terrorist leader without passing through the other events.  In doing this, it creates the fun.  You could, of course, design a dungeon crawl with only one direction through, forcing the players to face the encounters in the order you’ve decided.  This “directorial” technique accomplishes the same result, but with the feeling that they can go any direction they wish.  Indeed, they can—it’s just that which direction they go is completely unimportant to what happens next.  They can’t derail the scenario, save only by deciding to retreat from the building.

You don’t necessarily need a map to do this, if you can keep track of where everything is in your head.  There are ways to do that, too, which we will discuss in the future.


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