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Author Topic: Let's See - Rethinking "Sim"  (Read 3103 times)
Simon C
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Posts: 510


« on: May 12, 2009, 07:09:24 PM »

I've been following with interest Vincent's discussion of "Right to Dream" play on his blog.  I agree with him that "Right to Dream" is a far more useful handle than "Sim" ever was.  The only problem is that "Right to Dream" describes a play style that I've not really experienced, and it leaves me without a good name for the style of play that made up the bulk of my gaming for a number of years.

For about two years, my friends and I played two or three long-running games loosely inspired by Traveller, Blake's Seven, and later, Firefly.  We'd play hard-living mercenaries, outlaws and entrepreneurs living aboard a run-down spaceship on the fringes of civilised space.  Play usually revolved around pulling off some heist, getting into trouble with the law, or doing jobs for shady characters.  We used a variety of rules sets, never really finding a good fit.  We tried Space Master, d20 variants, Savage Worlds, homebrews, and unholy combinations of all three.  That we had a coherant creative agenda seems likely - play was consistently fun, and there were few conflicts between players at the table.  The rules-hopping was generally a product of trying to find a balance between two aesthetic preferences - that the system provide a consistent and coherant model of the imagined world, and that it be reasonably quick and easy to use.

What we desired from play was not exactly realism, but the appearance of realism.  We wanted a system that would back up our understanding of the game's fiction, so if, for example, a character was billed as a legendary bad ass, the system would enable them to be effective in that role.  We wanted the system to tell us the results of characters' actions, and for those results to roughly (but not exactly) match our expectations. 

It's hard for me to express what the main rewards of play were.  Personally I got a lot out of playing characters that were unusual and clearly non-human, but doing so in a way that made the character feel believable and part of a real world.  My most memorable character was "Ook", an Orangutan-looking alien from a jungle planet, who piloted the ship with his prehensile feet, wore goggles, and slept in a hammok in his quarters, which were filled with a hydroponic dope-growing apparatus.  I think I had most fun when Ook's foibles and oddities butted up against the "realities" of the game world.  It was fun when "just playing my character" got us into trouble.  I think all the players enjoyed these moments to some extent, and each character had their own traits that could be relied upon to cause trouble.

The majority of play though, was about getting out of trouble.  We'd invest a lot of time in planning elaborate heists, working out the details of contingency plans, deceptions and ambushes.  Inevitably, we'd end up in firefights (and this was the source of most of the rules tension) which we wanted to be just deadly enough to make them a serious proposition, but not so deadly that there was a high rate of character turn-over.  We wanted PCs to survive gunfights much more than NPCs, but we didn't want any different rules.  We had a strong "rules are the physics of the game-world" bent at the time, and wanted the rules to reflect a gritty, hard-jawed reality.

So what was out creative agenda.  I'd always thought that it fit somewhere into "Sim".  It's not a style of play that I'm particularly interested in revisiting, so I was never hugely concerned with pinning down the fundamentals that made it work.  Vincen'ts discussion though has got me wondering.  His "Right to Dream" sounds only partly like what I'm describing, and sometimes sounds like the opposite.  On the other hand, I'm not comfortable calling this "Step on Up" or "Story Now" either.

"Step on Up" is the strongest contender, but it doesn't feel quite right.  There were definitely elements of challenge in gameplay.  When I was GMing, my usual practice was to present a situation to the players, and challenge them to "solve" the situation - "how do we get the diamonds back off the space-Yakuza?" or "how do we hide this stolen ship from the space-FBI?" A lot of the stories that got told about sessions later on were about times when the PCs survived enormous odds, or pulled off unlikely successes.  So I can see how "Step on Up" could be a valid diagnosis.  It feels off to me though, because what we were celebrating was not player success, it was PC success.  Our play didn't have a lot of the hallmarks of Step on Up play.  There was no rules manipulation, no optimization, and no real sense of winning or losing.  One time all the PCs died when their ship ran into an asteroid, and we thought it was awesome.  On the other hand, there was a great deal of revelling in the fact that our characters got no special breaks from the rules.  There was no fudging, and no handwaving.  The characters were treated just like everyone else in the setting, and if they did better than anyone else, it was because of luck and skill from the player.  It could be described as Step on Up, but it was a weird kind where you intentionally hamstring yourself to make your success more impressive, and where failure is celebrated as affirming that PCs do not have special status.  So I guess you could call it Step on Up play, with a large suite of "Sim" techniques, using the new (and incredibly useful) definition of Sim as a body of techniques, rather than an agenda.

But a lot of what we were doing was also about celebrating the setting, and the "rightness" of the characters.  It was about enjoying the experiences of play, and about skillfully portraying the characters as a part of the setting.  This goes back to my enjoyment of playing Ook coming from portraying something interesting in the fiction.  It's also related to something that was a high priority as a GM - impressing the players.  It wasn't enough just to present an interesting and challenging situation - the situation had to feel natural and logical as part of the setting.  I think this is the stuff that would previously have been called a Simulationist agenda, that we now recognise as techniques.

Calling it Step on Up still kind of rankles with me though.  At the time we would have rejected the idea out of hand.  Competitive play was for those "other" roleplayers, the juvenile ones who hadn't figured out how to play properly yet.  We knew that "real" roleplaying was about portraying a character accurately, about simulating a coherant world, about creating interesting ingredients and throwing them together to see what happened.  That idea that what we were doing was "real" roleplaying makes me think that what we were doing was a distinct creative agenda.  I think you recognise a different Creative Agenda when what people are doing seems like not really roleplaying.

What I keep coming back to is the idea of "throwing elements together and seeing what emerges".  This looks a bit like Step on Up because it has a strong element of challenge, of testing, but the point is not to beat the challenge with your awesome skills, it's to have the system affirm or deny your vision - the point is not victory, it's exloration.  You turn up with a character who you claim is a legendary badass, and we say "Let's See".  You play your character to type, the GM plays the world in a logical fashion, and the system tells us if the character is a badass or not.  We play a gang of space-misfits, and we see what happens to them.  Not because we're trying to beat the world, but because we're curious to see what happens. 

That's why I'm pretty sure this isn't "Right to Dream" as Vincent describes it, where the point is that your vision of your character is not challenged.  If you play a badass, we all work together to show off what a badass you are.  If there are challenges, they only serve to re-enforce the vision of the character.  The way we played, nothing was sacrosanct. 

So I guess I'm not sure what to call what we played.  I'd be ok with it being called Step on Up, but it doesn't feel quite right.  Right to Dream seems to capture some of what we were doing, but the more Vincent describes it, the more it seems wrong.  Reading back over this, the phrase that stands out is "Let's see".  That seems as best a summary of the agenda of play as any.


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Caldis
Member

Posts: 392


« Reply #1 on: May 12, 2009, 08:33:24 PM »


I think the following bits are the most relevant bits of what I see as a creative agenda.



It was fun when "just playing my character" got us into trouble.  I think all the players enjoyed these moments to some extent, and each character had their own traits that could be relied upon to cause trouble.

The majority of play though, was about getting out of trouble.  We'd invest a lot of time in planning elaborate heists, working out the details of contingency plans, deceptions and ambushes.  Inevitably, we'd end up in firefights (and this was the source of most of the rules tension) which we wanted to be just deadly enough to make them a serious proposition, but not so deadly that there was a high rate of character turn-over.  We wanted PCs to survive gunfights much more than NPCs, but we didn't want any different rules.  We had a strong "rules are the physics of the game-world" bent at the time, and wanted the rules to reflect a gritty, hard-jawed reality.

This is a bit of guessing and reading in on my part so I may be totally out to lunch or just off on some of the details but let me know if it makes sense.  If not give me some more details about where I'm off.

You are playing a band of characters who are freebooting, troublemakers trying to get ahead and usually getting into trouble.  Even if you make an absolutely perfect plan it's very likely something will go wrong that gets you into a gunfight, heck you probably even planned most scenarios to get into gun fights.  You dont have pc's suddenly deciding to settle down (or if you do it's a quick side thing that ends up as a chance for more trouble or the character is retired and replaced).  Players arent judged based on how smart and tactical their actions are but rather how appropriate they are for the character, if he's an idiot that shoots anything that looks at him funny it's ok if he gets us into trouble.  There's no questioning of a characters loyalty (or not serious questions anyways) and there's no way the characters quit the questionable jobs to settle down in a more civilized lifestyle.  It's not badassery or goodness like Vincent was talking about that's not being challenged in the game it's something else, something more like the outsider/rogue agents fixer role.  That positioning allows the gm to constantly come up with new ideas of missions for the characters  and the players know how they should react to the circumstance.

That looks a lot like Right to Dream to me.



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whiteknife
Member

Posts: 122


« Reply #2 on: May 12, 2009, 08:35:19 PM »

I'm not sure what to say about that (other than that I like the sound of "Let's see") But I think this matches my preferred play style exactly.
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2984


« Reply #3 on: May 12, 2009, 08:42:17 PM »

Quote
So I guess you could call it Step on Up play, with a large suite of "Sim" techniques, using the new (and incredibly useful) definition of Sim as a body of techniques, rather than an agenda.

It is?  This is news to me, and doesn't seem very convincing.

Quote
That's why I'm pretty sure this isn't "Right to Dream" as Vincent describes it, where the point is that your vision of your character is not challenged.

Well having now dug up and read the bulk of the thread, it seems to pretty weird IMO right there; Vincent seems to have leaped on a particular player activity as definitional of the CA, which makes little sense to me.  I don't see that as being particularly valid - one particular person may have such a desire to dream their ideal PC, in fixed and determined way, but what this has to do with the kind of social contract that is negotiated among a group is not clear to me.  It seems to me that a group seeking the right to dream of, say, a sort of Tolkienesque world, is agreeing right there to grant the right for that world, not for anything that any player might wish to dream about.

By your description it does sound like Sim to me, albeit with a side salad of semi-gamist action to liven things up.  I don't think thats unusual, you could Sim a boring day at the office where nothing happens but it has little draw in terms of imaginary content.  Similarly it is inevitable that unless you are simulating socially isolated characters they are going to encounter interpersonal problems and moral conundrums as a part of their simulated social experience, but the existence of this type of content does not convert it into Narr.
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #4 on: May 12, 2009, 08:46:03 PM »

You are playing a band of characters who are freebooting, troublemakers trying to get ahead and usually getting into trouble.  Even if you make an absolutely perfect plan it's very likely something will go wrong that gets you into a gunfight, heck you probably even planned most scenarios to get into gun fights.  You dont have pc's suddenly deciding to settle down (or if you do it's a quick side thing that ends up as a chance for more trouble or the character is retired and replaced).  Players arent judged based on how smart and tactical their actions are but rather how appropriate they are for the character, if he's an idiot that shoots anything that looks at him funny it's ok if he gets us into trouble.  There's no questioning of a characters loyalty (or not serious questions anyways) and there's no way the characters quit the questionable jobs to settle down in a more civilized lifestyle.  It's not badassery or goodness like Vincent was talking about that's not being challenged in the game it's something else, something more like the outsider/rogue agents fixer role.  That positioning allows the gm to constantly come up with new ideas of missions for the characters  and the players know how they should react to the circumstance.

That looks a lot like Right to Dream to me.


Right on! Yeah, your analysis is spot on in terms of the way things went down in play.  Absolutely if someone made a character who was all "actually what you're doing is wrong - I'm outta here", that would have been totally against the spirit of the game.  Even questioning the morality of the character's choices was not really acceptable - they're roguish outlaws, not desperate criminals.  That aspect of it gels very nicely with Vincent's description of Right to Dream.  But it seems to miss the "Let's see" aspect that we found important.  
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Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #5 on: May 12, 2009, 08:51:23 PM »


Well having now dug up and read the bulk of the thread, it seems to pretty weird IMO right there; Vincent seems to have leaped on a particular player activity as definitional of the CA, which makes little sense to me.  I don't see that as being particularly valid - one particular person may have such a desire to dream their ideal PC, in fixed and determined way, but what this has to do with the kind of social contract that is negotiated among a group is not clear to me.  It seems to me that a group seeking the right to dream of, say, a sort of Tolkienesque world, is agreeing right there to grant the right for that world, not for anything that any player might wish to dream about.


Take that up with Vincent, I guess.  I'm pretty sold on his description of agendas, I'm just not sure where the kind of play I'm describing fits into that.  I also think it'll help me understand Right to Dream better to know why this is or isn't it.  I agree with you though that this style of play sits comfortably within what I understand to be Simulationism.
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2984


« Reply #6 on: May 12, 2009, 09:27:28 PM »

Well thats fair enough and all, but the problem that you present is essentialy one that arises from Some Other Site, and so if I'm going to respond to it it seems reasonable to address the issue as presented there.  And in this case I happen to think the particular dichotomy claimed is a false one, and explained why.
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #7 on: May 12, 2009, 10:15:15 PM »

I think I've been being slightly dumb.

"Let's see" is basically exploration, and exists in all (known) creative agendas. 

In Step on Up, it's something like "Let's see who's the best"

In Story Now, it's "Let's see what meaning emerges"

In Right to Dream, it's "Let's see... something?"  I'm still not sure.  We sure as heck had a pretty big focus on exploration, on that "Let's see" aspect of play, as I've discussed.  But to what end? 
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2984


« Reply #8 on: May 13, 2009, 12:29:37 AM »

IMO its easier to approach when it deals with some external property and can be seen in the light of a kind of fandom.  Its quite easy to understand that people keen on Tolkien or Star Wars or whatever might seek out the opportunity dream that dream themselves; to re-experience or extend the original enjoyment they experienced when encountering that dream for the first time.  When we are dealing with self-authored things it gets harder to see but the same principle applies - in your case, I would suggest, its the life of the freebooter, your particular setting, and a synthesis of the SF references you mention.  To what end such imaginative activity is directed is, I guess, the same end as that of other media, from 'what would the future be like,' 'what was the past like,' 'what would it be like to be a police officer' and so forth.  There's plenty of that sort of stuff about in other media, ranging from the seriously investigative to the humorous and tongue-in-cheek.

In the deeper sense of "to what end", if mere entertainment and curiosity are not enough, or not enough for ever, you arrive at the Hard Question posed at the end of the RTD article.
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Gregor Hutton
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« Reply #9 on: May 13, 2009, 01:02:29 AM »

Hi Simon

To me that sounds like a pretty coherent Right To Dream from the group. It was repeatably fun which makes me think you were all on the same page, and when the game rules didn't match your group's needs you drifted them, ignored them and then switched them to other rules (which I think was necessary considering that the game rules weren't written to support play). However, it sounds like your system satisfied you and stayed pretty constant (no one stepped on each other's toes and you knew what the game needed and players/GM wanted at any time). In play you were all buying into playing Blake's Seven and so on -- exactly the Right To Dream. No one was looking for Story Now or to Step On Up.

I think the "sim" you were seeing before was the group's desire for the technical level to have a level of "realism" and "plausability" to it, but at the same time at that technical level you also wanted something quick and easy to use, which would cut against the traditional thinking of "sim". Is that where your initial thinking was coming from? To me that's just a choice of techniques and preferences.

Underlying it all you had a strong group desire to play in Right To Dream I think.
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #10 on: May 13, 2009, 01:31:56 AM »

Yeah, to me that sounds like pretty solid Sim play as well. I haven't read Vincent's articles, but bear in mind that it's always a question of angles. Some people have found one explanation or another helpful in a certain context, but that same explanation may be confusing in a different context. Plus, Sim contains a multitude of play styles that may differ significantly.

- Frank
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Frank Tarcikowski
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a.k.a. Frank T


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« Reply #11 on: May 13, 2009, 02:10:10 AM »

P.S.: I just took a look at the discussion on Vincentís blog and remembered dropping out of a similar discussion with him before. With respect, I donít think Vincent is doing Simulationism (or the Right to Dream, if you prefer) justice. Thatís a small surprise, as he says himself he doesnít like it, and doesnít really even want to explain it. But as people obviously want him to explain it, well, what can the poor man do.

If you are interested in my personal angle on Simulationism, I humbly recommend the following threads:

[Vampire 2E Sabbat] Of Evil and of Simulationism, with a bit of confusion on Big Model terminology on my part in the beginning which gets cleared later;
The Playersí Role in Partcipationist Play, which tackles Participationism as one functional way of playing Sim;
[liquid] Well, I just rolled the dice for show, which is primarily about Exploration, not Sim, but relates to your point about the role of rules and mechanics.

- Frank
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lumpley
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« Reply #12 on: May 13, 2009, 03:49:29 AM »

Hey Simon!

Here's what jumps out at me:

It was fun when "just playing my character" got us into trouble.  I think all the players enjoyed these moments to some extent, and each character had their own traits that could be relied upon to cause trouble.

What kinds of traits? What was up with Ook that put him in conflict with reality and got them into trouble, for instance? What was up with your favorite other characters?

-Vincent
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JoyWriter
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Posts: 500

also known as Josh W


« Reply #13 on: May 13, 2009, 09:53:44 AM »

This is exactly the kind of thing I love; if right to dream is about "realising the ideal", then this was about realising an unknown ideal! It was not explicitly set out before, like in Vincent's right to dream examples, you're not just expressing how your guys are the amazing strategists, and being given setting fuel to "prove it" with.

You have a challenge, as players, to portray a group of characters striving for something within a setting, portray them honestly, and build a rules system that works with them just enough. The result of that challenge, the success and reward, is when you produce setting events that are never before seen, but fit into everything that you were interested in seeing and the kind of tone you wanted. They move in the right way, the details are right, and they have the right connotations. Now there is a certain pride there too for the player, you beat the puzzle, you made the words come out just like you wanted, and like everyone else wanted too, but even if all that creativity was down to the rules, you'd still be stoked that the rules produced what you wanted.

So what about all the rules, the nuts and bolts? They are a machine and not a sculpture, there to aid you in producing these interesting and magnificent events. You're not into the weight of a pregnant seal, so it's not in the rules! Like any machine you want to fine tune it, and strip out all the dead time where the machine is just running. If you could, I imagine you'd cut handling time down to zero for the rules system, so a magical oracle immediately turns your questions and uncertainties into answers that are just right, within the range you wanted but unexpected.

Now I probably wouldn't, because I like the way that following certain forms of actions shifts how you approach stuff, but that's another story.

So have I characterised you correctly?
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Caldis
Member

Posts: 392


« Reply #14 on: May 13, 2009, 10:35:08 AM »

In Right to Dream, it's "Let's see... something?"  I'm still not sure.  We sure as heck had a pretty big focus on exploration, on that "Let's see" aspect of play, as I've discussed.  But to what end? 

The way I'd put it is this.

"Let's see if we can get something that feels right."

In your example we have the roguish outlaw sci-fi setup and we want it to feel realistic and there to be challenges for the characters.  Our goal is to mix this all together and get it to work while still being entertaining to us as participants.  That system affirming or denying your view is a big part of it. 
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