Drifting toward a better Sim

Started by John Adams, January 10, 2008, 03:33:25 PM

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John Adams

Well let's break it down. At the highest level it's a simple as ...

1) Find out what the player cares about, which for this game is almost the same as what the PC wants.
2) Give it to them!

So I actively solicit input from my players and work it into the game. I also try to find out how they view the PC, what makes him unique and such so I can hit them with situations that challenge or illuminate that aspect of the PC. (Much like Ephriam and the healing.) Basically, communicate, is all.

If and how that gets worked in depends entirely on what it is and how well it fits into the Setting. We changed Mark's idea for Tusk a little before it was ready to play. So I don't have any structured, specific method for doing any of this.



I think you pretty clearly laid it out in your point #1.  No resorting to social negotiation with the gm to get things to happen in the game.  I agree it's poison and whether you're playing sim, nar or gam it's a poor way to handle the whole RP experience.  I think any game that has one person act as guardian of all content in the game and the only person responsible for bringing content into the game is inherently weaker than a more collaborative version.

I'm not saying that you have to change the way you play and use funky new mechanics that force your players to list off conflicts before the game starts, or that they have to break out of the SIS to talk about where they want the game to move next.  What is necessary is for the gm and players to both be bringing content into the game.  If the GM is the gatekeeper he has to be freely letting the players input into the game and then using that to create reactions in the game.


Ok, so I know this conversation pretty much stopped at the beginning of the month, but I've been reading it as reference for prepping my own game, and its been a huge help for me. I'm in a very similar situation, with a simulation game and system, and trying to mod all the ideas of the game into a more indie narrative style.

My experience in the past with indie games has been awesome! Particularly Burning Wheel, which is pretty popular. But... taking the ideas from those narrative games and meshing them together with a simulationist game takes some finesse.

A good way my group has found? Take the part from Burning Wheel that is the most helpful with making plot that players care about - Beliefs and Instincts - and make all your players make them for their characters. This creates player driven conflicts automatically. I think if you were to look at this game, and how it functions, it would help alot of the issues you seem to be having with your own game. Heh, no I don't work for BW, I just think they're hot stuff.

Thanks for posting all these great thoughts, though, John. You've really helped me think about conflict in my game. I have the same loving respect for Dogs in the Vinyard that you do as well, and I keep wanting to insert those ideas... which I think are totally cool. Dave, your little writeup on prep work was really helpful too, I'm using alot of it now in my session creation. If you want to follow my developing game, go to http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?p=8391803. We've only had one session so far, and one of my players dug it so much she posted it on RPGnet. Which caused much blushing on my part. There's not much technical gaming jargon in the writeup since the player wrote it, but its a colorful summary and maybe you'd dig that.


John Adams

Thanks Kira, and thanks to everyone who took time to post. I wish I could post a happy "everything's rocking!" update, but we're not so lucky.

Long story short, this thread and the last 2 months of gaming helped me come to an important self-realization: I really, REALLY want to play Nar. I gave my current game a long hard look and decided that even with a more fun, functional system I just wouldn't enjoy the same old Sim. That's not fair to my players, so it's either jump into full-fledged Nar (in the same or a new game) or break up the group. Unfortunately, this brought us right into CA clash and I finally found out where my players really stand. Some of them had been playing along with "all this new stuff" but they really weren't having fun.

1) Here's what CA clash looks like from someone who doesn't use Big Model terms: "I don't know what this is, but it's NOT ROLE-PLAYING."

2) Understanding the Big Model helped me diffuse the situation so it never got ugly. You like chocolate, I want vanilla, no right or wrong here, just different goals.

3) Drifting would have been fine, and frankly the game would be rockin' if the group could agree on a Nar CA. I suspect the same "Nar" techniques I wanted to use to enhance Sim would sabotage the Sim CA, at least that's the feedback I got from some of my Sim players. I need to talk to them about it and figure out what in particular rankled. The main culprit might have been FiTM of all things, which would be very specific to these players. I'm sure lots of Sim folks enjoy FiTM.

4) We have serious logistical challenges ahead too. Our host is moving another 30 minutes away from me and I already drive an hour to this game, so we'd need a new meeting place. That's proving to be difficult. Real Life.

My group hashing this out tonight so I'll have another post soon with the final fallout.

Good luck with your group Kira! I'm glad you're all on the same CA page, looks like you have hella good fun ahead.


Hi John!

Name's Jay.  Nice to meet you.  Read all 90 pages or so of your struggles.  I am amazed with the clarity with which you have approached this whole process.  Congratulations on finding the CA that really resonates with you.  Your level of gaming enjoyment is going to improve and be consistently better.  Having said all that; I have some questions for you...

...it seems to me that you were looking to spice up a "Sim" game that had gone rather stale for you and  were looking to resolve that issue by increasing/mandating greater player input on all levels but most especially during play proper.  It also seemed to me, though you did not say it, that you were looking for more from you gaming time than just pointing the players/characters in a direction and having them kill X for person/reason Y.  Especially after many years of play together.  Fifteen, was it?  So you went looking for processes that would allow you and your players(!) to bring in really juicy conflicts – which you indeed found in the mechanics of certain Narrativist supporting games.  You found some really good techniques like metagame discussions – heck just talking to your players about what they are looking for in their gaming experience!  ... but it never really gelled for your group.

Part of the problem was, as was mentioned, that hybrids just don't work.  Different CA's want to come at a given conflict from incompatible directions.  Plus players with different CA's  are going to find interesting conflicts/situations where another doesn't and just wants to push on until they find an interesting conflict/situation.

May I make some observations about Sim that maybe you haven't considered that may give you some insight into your players' interests.  I do understand that you have found and come to terms with your inner Narrativist – yay!

First mechanics that "control" or "drive" play are anathema to Sim.  These types of mechanics are essential to functional Narrativist supporting games, but actually conflict/cock up the Sim game process.  Sim play does not, I repeat, does not spring forth from the mechanics but rather from the source material first.  This means do not look to mechanics to make a Sim game interesting or fun, because they can't and won't.  At best they don't get in the way too much, at worst they make the game virtually unplayable.  Theoretically, instead of the players reading and becoming effective with the mechanics ala Narrativist games i.e., MLwM or DitV, the players should read or watch the source material before sitting at the table.  Everything else flows or ought to flow from the source material and further down the line the SIS material created through play.

Regarding your desire to have at least on big juicy moment for each player per game I don't know if that stems from some Narrativist type of interest or that you are just plain looking for "more" from your Sim game sessions.  For my purposes I am going to argue from the latter position simply because I believe that your game never really got to a functional expression of the Sim CA.

The first tip off was the extreme concern over mechanics.  In Sim "mechanics" should mostly be a product of play not a director of play.  There is this deeply entrenched idea about Sim that is as pernicious to the agenda as "the story" was regarding Narrativism and that is mechanics matter so much that they are central to the game play.  The truth couldn't be farther from that assertion.  Sim is sloppy, imprecise with slapdash ad hoc solutions that slowly become part of the game itself if they are useful and are basically consistent with the established "world."  Yes, there are constraints in Sim but they reside in the fictional material not in the mechanics. 

Second was your preoccupation with "the plot."  Another notion, and this is one you seemed to wrestle with mightily was with "plot."  Sim does not work well with anything rigid and unyielding.  Everything is open and subject to negotiation at one point or another.  Sim functions at the "edges" of the known – and that can be truly anything - up to and including the players.  In Sim everything expands, that which was unknown becomes known, through the resolution of conflicts.  Because there are "persons" and conflicts involved the resolution has a passing resemblance to a story but is no real story.  Take living breathing cultures add NPC's with their own agendas which are at cross purposes throw in the player characters with all their baggage make it a closed system for that night turn up the pressure cooker and see what yields.  It's usually pretty interesting!

The third sign was the general lack of consideration regarding the social fabric from which the PC's sprung and to a somewhat lesser extent the world at large including the major NPC's.  Yes, you had  some very good motivations for the major NPC power players in the world, but I would bet neither you nor your players could describe the cultural customs, beliefs, norms and mores from which they came.  IOW the social fabric from which the PC's grew up in.  I'm not talking about the backgrounds of each individual PC but their actual culture and it's belief systems.  Many of our own problems stem from culture clash and believe me it is a very rich vein to mine.  You commented that you were having problems getting the players to be proactive in the game part of the problem I strongly believe is that the players are not interacting with or investing in their characters precisely because they lack the social cultural details that make the characters rich entities one can empathize with and build upon.

While you finally understand what it is you are looking for from play, maybe the above will better help you understand what your Sim oriented players are looking for from play.

Best of luck!

Aure Entuluva - Day shall come again.


John Adams

Wow! Jay ... thank you for your interest and your cogent reply.

My group's play consistently tried (and miserably failed) to support all 3 CA's without recognising them as such. Because we're good friends it seldom got to the level of full-blown CA conflict; I think each of us gave up on individual CA's somewhere along the way. We figured, "heck, what I want would be great fun, but it just isn't possible" or "we almost got it that time! Let's try it just one more time ..." but without the Big Model our chances or realizing any CA were almost nil. So I agree we've never seen the Sim CA firing on all cylinders. We've come close to a CA every now and then, but never for a full reward cycle.

I can see pretty clearly now how my desire for Nar guided this last campaign especially. Unfortunately, when I started I didn't have the tools to actually get there. I've been trying to run "the GM's story" for decades and it has never really worked, so my motivation to run or play in a successful Nar game is very high.

But I also have a strong Sim impulse. I put bathrooms in my dungeons for Pete's sake! I do enjoy deep-diving into the history and culture of the world and letting that drive play. We had that in this game too, but it wasn't The Priority of play. All of the characters were tied into the fabric of the world and of their culture, they just weren't tied to each other or the "GM plot".

Someday I will have scratched my Nar itch and I'll want to go back to do some Sim; when I do I hope there is a system (or I'll write one) which focuses and drives Sim play as well as DitV drives and focuses Nar play. I disagree that "mechanics that 'control' or 'drive' play are anathema to Sim", or rather I don't see why that must be so. The designer needs to be very careful answering the question "what are you simulating?" and hammer that answer home. It's OK to have 170 pages simulating medieval combat if that's what your game is about but to use such a system for any other purpose would be madness. I freely claim ignorance here, maybe you're right but I see it as more of a "here's why we mostly ignore the rules, historically" than "this is a necessary feature of Sim." It seems to me many designers are looking at Sim now, so maybe 2008-2009 will see some amazing new Sim designs. Surely there's lots of new ground to break.


 Hi John!

It's me again.

So are you gonna run a dyed in the wool Narrativist support game for your current group or are you going to step out just so that you can get a real solid taste of what its all about?  I ask because if you are going to run a purposefully designed Nar game for your current players it might be a great opportunity to plumb your players interests.  Who is reacting how to what situations?  How do they regard the mechanics with regards to the play "experience."  Help?  Hinder?  Why...  (just a little market research – through a partially silvered mirror that is >:o)  )

Gosh!  I just went through your whole post, albeit quickly, but I could not find the section where you made a quick assessment of your players' CA interests - if it was even in this particular thread.  Doh!  I'm not sure how much back reading you've done but if you haven't you should know that interviewing you players about their CA interests doesn't work.  You have to watch your players in action.  It's the small fleeting things that give the signals that you need to look for.  If I recall these indicators are called "tells."  Another important idea, and I think it has already been brought up in this thread, you can't "sneak up" on a CA.  You just have to make a clean break of it and move on to a well designed functional game system designed for a particular CA.  Watch for tells.  IF your players agree then run a rock solid "Nar" game for a few sessions and then switch to and run a solidly "Gam" game (In the Gamism article Ron included such games as Tunnels&Trolls, Kobolds Ate My Baby and Ninja Burger as representative) for a few sessions.  Watch your players.  Note who is reacting to what.  This process should help with diagnosing the "true" CA's of your players.  It is possible for players to enjoy multiple CA's, but from what I have read this is only likely to happen once said player understands what CA's are all about and makes a conscious effort to play in these different modes of play.  Finally, there are no known functional hybrids.

Now about what I have both spent much time thinking about and playing – Sim.

For starters Sim is most certainly not "about details," ad nauseam.  While it is amusing to note that you had the care to "put bathrooms in [your] dungeons," that level of attention to detail is not particular to Sim.  Sim is a CA and as such is process oriented, just like Gam and Nar.; its something that all the players at the table are doing.

Having all the social structures in your game is "good," but I am baffled about the statement that they weren't the "Priority of play."  Social structures and such are the fabric of the fictional world in which the player characters do their thing.  They are neither the priority or not the priority of play, they are just a necessary element of play.  You need a chess board to play chess; its not "about" the chess board but it does have a vital role in the game. 

All this blather being said, I am curious as to what the Priority of your play was.

See, (pulls out, a hopefully non offensive, soap box) I find the ideas of a "GM plot" as well as the ubiquitous "adventuring group" to be as toxic to Sim as predetermined story is to Nar and as GM fudging is to Gamism.  Ultimately the "GM plot" means deprotagonizing the players because, at the end of the day, the "world" is going to end up at a certain predetermined situation irrespective of player input.  The most powerful and pernicious tool in the GM shed to accomplish this is the "adventuring group."  The rationale that a group of individuals, and frequently a group that is composed of some diametrically opposed individuals, not only does but must stick together for so long for no rational reason is ludicrous; yet such a structure is presumed to be vital to a long running a campaign.  (...or a short one for that matter.)

Because in both cases the players are deprotagonized and what is worse is that they aren't consciously aware of it, yet their play is affected as they eventually stop inputting.  They sit back and let the GM do all the thinking for them – as is necessary if one has a plot to follow AND the players have to stick together.

There are other ways to handle this that allow for real player input.  Whether or not these particular techniques are vital to Sim or are just a subset of a greater set of tools I don't know.

First get rid of the "plot" and "motivate" you major (and even minor) NPC's instead.  Think in terms of desires, not end points.  This allows events to change without the GM sitting there facing a situation where he MUST deprotagonize his players because he just doesn't know what else to do.  THE PLOT MUST BE PROTECTED AT ALL COSTS!  :)  So rather than getting into a rigid plot paradigm start to scheme and machinate instead!  Put events into play but let the players have an effect, if they do something that would have an effect, and think how the NPC would react.  Rather than forcing your players, be flexible with your NPC's.  This is where they will shine anyway.  Just as how players deal with conflict illuminates their characters so too how the NPC's react to the players illuminates them as well.

Get rid of the fixed adventuring group!  Let the players motivate their characters and let them act on those motivations (this includes giving them the freedom to respond to conflicts anyway their see fit for their characters to react).  So your saying, "how in the world do you run such a game?"  The solution is simple, the execution less so.  Aggressive framing at the beginning of the night, have the player generate a folio of characters, over time preferably.  You don't have to worry if someone gets killed, he's still in the world with other his characters.  The main (NPC) players are still in the world doing their things.  Making sure everyone is at or near the same level is no longer an issue.  The players get to play and taste all sorts of things now.  Hero one night, coward the next.  Idealist one session a cynic on another.  Don't think class – think personality.


There's more that I want to say, but I'm kinda blanking out at the moment.  However, I leave you with a gift!  ;o)  Here is a link to a post I made about 3(!) years ago with a whole bunch of links in it that you might find relevant.
Aure Entuluva - Day shall come again.


John Adams

That's a long post Jay, but I think this will answer most of it: over the last year and a half I worked in 2 sessions of Capes and a roll-up session of Dogs with the initiations. There was a strong visceral response from some of my players and they weren't shy about telling me. Not fun for them. OK then, moving on.

So I'm going to put together a new game of Dogs, network with some new players and hopefully get in on a variety of Nar games. Maybe then I'll think about some Sim.

David Berg

Hi John,
In case you ever decide to throw a different Nar wrinkle at your old play group, I just wanted to mention that the first Nar game that "clicked" for me was PTA.  I could customize it to taste, whereas Dogs is very much a certain thing, and isn't my personal cup of tea.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development