Simulationism: The Right to Dream
by Ron Edwards
Many thanks are due to Clinton R. Nixon, Paul Czege, Jared A. Sorensen, Ralph Mazza, Christopher Kubasik, and Mike Holmes for comments on the manuscript. Several points, key text quotes, and nuances of argument wouldn't be in the article without their input. All inconsistencies or argumentative flaws, on the other hand, may be laid at my door.
This is the first of three essays about the three GNS modes of role-playing. Each one is about both play and game design, with the former as the basic issue, and each one is intended to develop the points made in my "GNS and related matters of role-playing design" essay. I'm also drawing upon ideas I didn't express in that essay and many, many points of debate at the Forge over the last year. The original essay cleared up a lot of acrimony and misunderstanding that had arisen in the previous years, and I'm hoping that the current series plays an even more positive role in the current context - not only to remove negative connotations and interpretations (which are now much fewer anyway), but to encourage mutual understanding and appreciation among all role-players about all the available modes of play.
Each essay isn't a segregated unit only about that one mode. Each will include more general issues, especially if they pertain especially if not uniquely to the mode under discussion, and each one is intended to clarify and develop "GNS and related matters" as a whole. Also, each one concludes with a Hard Question for those who prefer that mode of play. Each Hard Question is supposed to be interesting on its own, but I hope that the three taken together will be much more than merely "interesting."
Simulationist role-playing has a great deal of power and potential. In the previous essay, I wrote that it "... is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration."
Obviously the thing to do is to get as clear an understanding of "Exploration" as possible. It's our jargon term for imagining, "dreaming" if you will, about made-up characters in made-up situations. It's central to all role-playing, but in Simulationist play, it's the top priority.
I need to stop th'flow for a moment to explain some background, though. My original notions were mainly laid out in "System Does Matter," my first essay about all this stuff, based on my readings about the Threefold Model proposed in the r.g.f.a. discussion group. At the Gaming Outpost, lots of debate ensued about my essay, and eventually a poster called the Scarlet Jester objected to the term Simulationism in terms of its connotations, offering "Exploration" as the replacement - defined as the enjoyment of the "dream" or the imagination as an act in itself. He called his model "GENder" as an alternative to the then-existing GNS.
GENder made a lot of sense to me, with one exception: Exploration, to me, seemed to be involved in all of role-playing. I decided to modify GNS severely and "float" the three modes on a "sea" of Exploration. In that context, Simulationist play priorities suddenly made more sense - as I saw it and still do, unlike Narrativist and Gamist priorities which are defined by an interpersonal out-of-game agenda, Simulationist play prioritizes the in-game functions and imagined events.
From the introduction to RuneQuest, second edition (The Chaosium, 1978, 1979, 1980; specific author for this text unknown; game authors are Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Steve Henderson, and Warren James):
What is a fantasy role-playing game?
[In fairness, later text in the introduction brings in some adversarial GM/player context that sounds more Gamist, but the above quote is reinforced more often throughout the book's rules and text.]
From the introduction of Skyrealms of Jorune, 3rd edition (Chessex Publications, 1992, author is Andrew Leker):
Is it possible to win at role-playing? The whole idea of role-playing is to have a good time. Players work toward a common goal, often survival, but sometimes helping a friend in need, or accomplishing a task of unquestioned importance. Although there will be no winner or losers in an absolute sense, you will have the satisfaction of watching your character think through challenges, survive confrontations with other races, grow, and develop new skills.
[Note the synecdoche: the "whole idea."]
From the introduction to Marc Miller's Traveller (1996, author is Marc Miller):
... the players' enjoyment comes from identifying with the character and vicariously experiencing the situation with that character, just as the reader of a novel and the viewer of a movie identify with the character ...
[The above text is followed by some Impossible Thing Before Breakfast text which will be discussed in the Narrativism essay.]
What's fun or good about that? Simulationist play looks awfully strange to those who enjoy lots of metagame and overt social context during play. "You do it just to do it? What the hell is that?"
However, contrary to some accusations, it's not autistic or schizophrenic, being just as social and group-Premise as any other role-playing. The key issues are shared love of the source material and sincerity. Simulationism is sort of like Virtual Reality, but with the emphasis on the "V," because it clearly covers so many subjects. Perhaps it could be called V-Whatever rather than V-Reality. If the Whatever is a fine, cool thing, then it's fun to see fellow players imagine what you are imagining, and vice versa. (By "you" in that sentence, I am referring to anyone at the table, GM or player.) To the dedicated practitioner, such play is sincere to a degree that's lacking in heavy-metagame play, and that sincerity is the quality that I'm focusing on throughout this essay.
Sincere shared creativity: all role-playing has to have it. For some, it's the whole point.
Is the term fatally flawed?
More than once, people have called for abandoning the term "simulation" in its entirety. Most of the objections arise from connotations of one sort or another, since it gets used for all sorts of recreational or applied things. If it's Simulationism, then what's it Simulating, and what form does the resulting Simulation take?
For better or for worse, this issue has never really struck home for me. My call is that the term is is defined locally and historically, and not really descriptive as such ("simulating") in nearly any application. Here's the variety that I see:
Taking it role-playing specifically, a new issue arises: it's awfully hard to get at goals of any kind right out of the texts. A good place to start is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, in just about the first text ever that tried to explain what was going on (Dungeon Master's Guide, first edition, 1979, TSR; the author is Gary Gygax):
Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best described as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. 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. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity.
How to parse this? It seems unequivocal. However, first, this text is palpably disingenuous regarding "simulates nothing" - the immense efforts devoted in this book to the importance of in-game time and in-game justifications of hit-points, retainer/hireling opinions, costs for castle parts, and much more, do not support his claim. Second, and more importantly, Gygax is speaking from a 1970s perspective of role-playing existing as a subset of wargaming. What he calls simulation or realism, I call historical accuracy; what he calls "game" (imaginative, creative), I call Exploration. As an "umbrella point," although D&D and AD&D of this era were procedurally mainly Gamist, all accompanying text by Gygax in any publication represents, I think, very hard-line post-wargame Simulationism as conceived by GNS theory.
A somewhat lesser issue concerns whether I'm doing great violence to the term Simulationism as proposed in the original Threefold Model. My answer to this has two parts. (1) The Threefold definitions, for all three modes, tend to benefit in this debate from being moving targets over the years. (2) My set of theorizing, usually called "GNS" although I'm starting to wish for a better umbrella term, explicitly disavows any need for consistency with the Threefold.
However, although I'm not convinced it's necessary, one possible solution has arisen. Jack Spencer proposed "Emulation" for the goals of play that I currently call Simulationism. If I felt any need for a wholly new term, this would probably be it.
Baseline Simulationist practice
The five elements of role-playing as laid out in my GNS essay are obviously where we start. Modelling them is the ideal. My first point about that is that the model need not be static; dynamic characters and settings, for instance, are perfectly valid Simulationist elements. My second point is that different types of Simulationist play can address very different things, ranging from a focus on characters' most deep-psychology processes, to a focus on the kinetic impact and physiological effects of weapons, to a focus on economic trends and politics, and more. I'll go into this lots more later.
The second point is that the mechanics-emphasis of the modelling system are also highly variable: it can handled strictly verbally (Drama), through the agency of charts and arrows, or through the agency of dice/Fortune mechanics. Any combination of these or anything like them are fine; what matters is that within the system, causality is clear, handled without metagame intrusion and without confusion on anyone's part. That's why it's often referred to as "the engine," and unlike other modes of play, the engine, upon being activated and further employed by players and GM, is expected to be the authoritative motive force for the game to "go."
The game engine, whatever it might be, is not to be messed with. It is causality among the five elements of play. Whether everyone has to get the engine in terms of its functions varies among games and among groups, but recognizing its authority as the causal agent is a big part of play. (To repeat, the engine's extent and detail aren't the point; I could be talking about a notecard of brief "stay in character" requirements or a 300-page set of probability charts.) By the way, moving the GM into a position of authority over the rules/system is a derived state of the rules' authority; I'll discuss that later.
Many Simulationist systems also emphasize modularity - you've got the baseline engine for what happens, so for specialty phenomena, whatever new rules go on top must not violate or devalue that baseline. When a system is very strong in this regard, it's what most people call "universal" or "generic," by which they mean customizable through addition.
My final point is that this mode requires clear player-character/real-person boundaries, in terms of in-character knowledge and metagame knowledge. There's no single set of boundaries that applies to all ways to play Simulationist, but whatever they are in a given instance, they must be clear and abided by.
A lot of game texts in this tradition reach for a fascinating ideal: that reading the book is actually the start of play, moving seamlessly into group play via character creation. Features of some texts like the NPC-to-PC explanatory style and GM-only sections are consistent with this ideal, as well as the otherwise-puzzling statement that character generation is a form of Director stance. It supports the central point of this essay, that the value of Simulationist play is prioritizing the group imaginative experience, to an extent that expands the very notion of "play" into acts that from Narrativist or Gamist perspectives are not play at all.
This ideal poses two problems: one for the GM in particular, and one for the group as a whole.
The GM problem, only partly solved by GM-only sections, is that it makes it very hard to write a coherent how-to explanation for scenario preparation and implementation. Putting this sort of information right out "in front of God and everybody" is counter-intuitive for some Simulationist-design authors, because it's getting behind the curtain at the metagame level. The experience of play, according to the basic goal, is supposed to minimize metagame, but preparation for play, from the GM's perspective, is necessarily metagame-heavy, and if reading the book is assumed to be actually beginning to play ... well, then a certain conflict of interest sets into the process.
The usual textual solution is to assume that the GM is already on the same page and to address him or her as a co-conspirator. In many games, however, such information is outright punted, such that a GM must bring a particular set of experiences and values to the text in the first place in order to play the game.
The whole-group problem is that individually-conducted character creation often produces differing conclusions about the point of play from player to player, which is to say, the characters are fully plausible and created by the rules, but are also manifestly incapable of interacting in terms of any one person's desired genre/setting. The classic example in fantasy-adventure play is the party including a paladin and an assassin; the one in superhero play is the super-team that includes both a Spider-Man clone and a Wolverine clone.
The usual textual solution is to urge that all character creation be subject to the approval of the GM, which in practice poses some problems. For instance, it assumes that the Social Contract of the game group permits such authority and presents no procedure to follow if that happens not to be the case. Also, I have never seen any text explaining what a GM is supposed to do or to say to the player regarding how to re-write the character or to design a new one; every example, and there are many, seems to assume that the GM "just knows" how to communicate the je ne sais qua to the player.
I suggest that genuinely helpful, teaching-oriented text that does not fall into synecdoche ("real role-players," etc) would be a tremendous benefit to presenting straightforwardly Simulationist games. Such text would include methods for GMs to prepare scenarios from a fully-metagame perspective - which is to say, the ideal of the book "being play" would have to be lost temporarily - as well as methods for the GM's work during character creation itself. Furthermore, this text would have to be practical and compelling to players in a way that "All character creation is subject to the approval of the GM" is not - for instance, it would inspire players to avoid the paladin-assassin problem on their own, during the creation of the first characters rather than the second ones.
Historically, such text has been rare. Well, actually, it's rare for any mode of play, but I submit that Simulationist-oriented games have tended to have special trouble with it due to the widely-held ideal of treating the text experience as play.
Internal Cause is King
Consider Character, Setting, and Situation - and now consider what happens to them, over time. In Simulationist play, cause is the key, the imagined cosmos in action. The way these elements tie together, as well as how they're Colored, are intended to produce "genre" in the general sense of the term, especially since the meaning or point is supposed to emerge without extra attention. It's a tall order: the relationship is supposed to turn out a certain way or set of ways, since what goes on "ought" to go on, based on internal logic instead of intrusive agenda. Since real people decide when to roll, as well as any number of other contextual details, they can take this spec a certain distance. However, the right sort of meaning or point then is expected to emerge from System outcomes, in application.
Clearly, System is a major design element here, as the causal anchor among the other elements. As I outlined in the previous essay, System is mainly composed of character creation, resolution, and reward mechanics.
During character generation, layering and overt currency are frequently employed to engage the player in Simulationist play during the process.
Layering may be employed to establish and identify the character's plausibility in terms of the game-world itself. For a look at the historical differences among games, compare the methods for establishing player-character skill competence in early RuneQuest (Simulationist) with those of Hero Wars (Narrativist). In Hero Wars, the system limits how many of the thirty or so starting abilities are assigned high values (two really good ones and one great one), but not which ones. Whereas in RuneQuest, every skill has a starting-character value based on its commonality and difficulty to learn, and every skill is rated in money regarding learning higher values of competence, based both on difficulty to learn and who teaches the skill. Hero Wars character creation, which is minimally layered, isn't concerned with the implausibility of having a mastery-level in Greatsword be just as "likely" as having it in Farming; RuneQuest character creation, which is maximally layered, emphatically is.
To repeat, the above point is historical. Whether the distinction I've drawn holds for any and all Simulationist play potential, I don't know.
A related issue is prerequisite attributes and abilities for a given ability, which represent a further step of layering. Prerequisites are common in historical Simulationist and Gamist design, and in the former, I think they are present specifically to reinforce the same plausibility/likelihood issue.
For currency, consider Champions or many of the games based on its principles. From a Simulationist perspective on play, if a given feature costs more than another, or if it can be traded off with some other feature, or if it plus another feature mathematically yield a third, then it's all built to focus attention and assign cause from "is" to "does" in the imagined game-context. That cause must be (a) engaging (as for any RPG) and (b) causally continuous through the layers, providing for many equally-functional, equally-plausible, and potentially equally-enjoyable options.
I think this combined approach and perceived purpose of layering and currency is why attribute + skill systems have remained entrenched - a strong sub-set of the Simulationist perspective demands that the in-world ontogeny of a character's ability be integrated into the process of establishing it on the character sheet.
Resolution mechanics, in Simulationist design, boil down to asking about the cause of what, which is to say, what performances are important during play. These vary widely, including internal states, interactions and expressions, physical motions (most games), and even decisions. Two games may be equally Simulationist even if one concerns coping with childhood trauma and the other concerns blasting villains with lightning bolts. What makes them Simulationist is the strict adherence to in-game (i.e. pre-established) cause for the outcomes that occur during play.
Before talking about dice or other specific resolution mechanics, I'll discuss two elements of Resolution which are rarely recognized: the treatment of in-game time and space. These are a big deal in Simulationist play as universal and consistent constraints, which must apply equally to any part of the imagined universe, at any point during play.
To talk about this, let's break the issue down a little:
Game time is of the utmost importance. Failure to keep careful track of time expenditure by player characters will result in many anomalies in the game. ...
That latter point bears close, close examination. Gygax is not talking about winning, I think, but about a quality. This is his value judgment about how to play this game. His "true to life quality," I think, is synonymous with his earlier reference to creativity and imagination, or Simulationism (prioritizing Exploration) as defined by me.
Gygax's text perfectly states the Simulationist view of in-game time. It is a causal constraint on the other sorts. One can even find, in many early game texts, rules that enforce how in-game time acts on real time, and vice versa. However, most importantly, it constrains metagame time. It works in-to-out. In-game time at the fine-grained level (rounds, seconds, actions, movement rates) sets incontrovertible, foundation material for making judgments about hours, days, cross-town movment, and who gets where in what order. I recommend anyone who's interested to the text of DC Heroes for some of the most explicit text available on this issue throughout the book.
So much for time; now let's talk space. Rules for characters' movement in the imagined space of the situation go all the way back to wargaming, in the (to us oldies) familiar forms of grids and hex-maps, counters, and even rules or tape-measures. The original context was pretty large-scale: the movement of troops, heavy vehicles, squadrons, and so on. For role-playing in the "new" sense, the scale got bumped down to the individual level, and so came to emphasize facing, movement rate, turn rate, number of personal actions, and similar.
The interesting thing is that most of these specific details have been lost in most, although not all, Simulationist rules design over the decades, with nary a whimper. Why? Because second-to-second kinetics ceased to be (or rarely were) the issue of Exploration at hand, particularly in genre-heavy play (see later). The Situation of interest typically isn't "facing" when we want Character, Setting, System, Situation, and Color to fire on shared cylinders with full internal-consistency and agreed-upon thematic outcomes.
It's significant, I think, that movement-specific mechanics do remain in many Gamist RPG design as an element of tactical challenge.
Now for the more nitty-gritty resolution mechanics, or DFK (Drama, Karma, Fortune). Historically speaking, the System has been based on task resolution, not conflict resolution, regardless of scale. Don't mistake "conflict" for "large-scale task." This point is independent of the system's complexity; it applies to rock-paper-scissors and GM-fiat as well as to dice and tables.
The causal sequence of task resolution in Simulationist play must be linear in time. He swings: on target or not? The other guy dodges or parries: well or badly? The weapon contacts the unit of armor + body: how hard? The armor stops some of it: how much? The remaining impact hits tissue: how deeply? With what psychological (stunning, pain) effects? With what continuing effects? All of this is settled in order, on this guy's "go," and the next guy's "go" is simply waiting its turn, in time.
The few exceptions have always been accompanied by explanatory text, sometimes apologetic and sometimes blase. A good example is
classic hit location, in which the characters first roll to-hit and to-parry, then hit location for anywhere on the body (RuneQuest, GURPS). Cognitively, to the Simulationist player, this requires a replay of the character's intent and action that is nearly intolerable. It often breaks down in play, either switching entirely to called shots and abandoning the location roll, or waiting on the parry roll until the hit location is known. Another good example is rolling for initiative, which has generated hours of painful argument about what in the world it represents in-game, at the moment of the roll relative to in-game time.
The most common Simulationist resolution is handled through Fortune, specifically Fortune-at-the-End. This term refers to a dice roll (or cards, or whatever) which is consulted after all possible pre-resolution description of the actions in question has been delivered. Its alternative, Fortune-in-the-Middle, is not historically observed in Simulationist game design. (See glossary for definitions and links.)
A useful way to look at Fortune in much Simulationist play is to think of anything that isn't rolled as being a 100% outcome on an implied roll. The extreme view (see the Purist for System category below) is to interpret the whole shootin' universe as tacitly operating according to the d100 or the 3d6 or whatever that's used to handle character task resolution.
An entire discussion awaits concerning the shape of dice curves, modifiers' effects, separate vs. incorporated effects, and more. I look forward to this on the forums. Also, more details about resolution in Simulationist games are presented below, when I break down the sub-types in detail.
Finally, reward mechanics remain a topic of vast debate and design potential in Simulationist games. I think the following historical categories barely scratch the surface.
BRP style: character improvement is literally a function of play just as any other action, via practice and study. This is the famous "if you succeed with a skill during play, roll over your skill percent between sessions in order to improve." The pitfall is graininess, such that one can then start debating about whether one should learn more or less across ten "hits" against one opponent vs. one hit each for ten opponents, why one does or doesn't learn from a failed attempt, and how study is to be rated and applied (much less how it's to be played) relative to the "experience" methods.
Hero style: the player gains points simply for being there (despite attempts at parsing it, that's what it amounts to), and the point-allocation based cost of character creation continues to be applied. The character is added to in terms of the points that were originally used to assemble him, and arguably as an expression of the same in-game developmental processes involved. In this case, the point-gains are metagame, but the spending is supposed to use in-game logic, sometimes reinforced by "corralling" sections of the character off from one another. The pitfall is reaching degrees of improvement which themselves violate the genre-level standards of that particular play, which some games overcome by making the intersession correspond to substantial in-game time.
In either case, the key issue is that character change potentially disrupts the current relationship among the components of the character. Options to fix the problem are generally unsatisfactory: (1) slow it down, and (2) permit only tiny changes. One option, rarely seen, is to include kind of a secondary, add-on game with its own set of components, as with Rune status in RuneQuest. (I realize that not everyone knows all of the games I'm referencing, and I certainly don't have all historical RPGs memorized. This topic definitely calls for more discussion in the forums, where we have room to describe all the various examples in detail.)
The diversity of Simulationist game design
Here's a quick overview of existing diversity in Simulationist play. I'm focusing on fun, functional, coherent play - none of the following is a criticism or indictment. Also, I've tried to represent as many creator-owned titles as possible, but I'll refer to others as needed.
My overall point is that, although Simulationist play is defined as prioritizing Exploration of the five elements, its diversity is not a five-headed, one-element-per-submode hydra. All five elements are always involved. In defining the subtypes of this mode of play, here are the issues: (1) whether Exploring System is primary, and (2) which of the other elements are necessary "support" or "chassis" and which ones are diminished in emphasis.
Purists for System
What games are these? EABA, JAGS, SOL, Pocket Universe, and Fudge are deliberately "generalist" regarding setting. The big commercial models are GURPS, BRP (in its "unstripped" form), DC Heroes (now Blood of Heroes), Rolemaster, D6 (derived and considerably Simulationized from Star Wars), and the Hero System (as such, mainly derived from Danger International and Fantasy Hero rather than early Champions). Whether D20 should be included in this category is a matter for some debate.
These games' five-element structure is consistent: System + Color thereof, Setting, then Character + Situation. I'm trying to think of one which switches the role of character before setting, which might include some some superhero games. It might seem odd that Color is placed so high in priority, but consider the engineering-text model for the game text of GURPS - this is, actually, Color for System.
A lot of people have trouble with the notion of "Exploring System." They argue that playing a game like Fudge is necessarily Setting-first. I disagree, but this debate properly belongs in the forums.
In these games, the System is all about Fortune and all about Currency.
Regarding Fortune, probabilities are the key to achieving the basic Simulationist internal-cause priority. Consider both comparative probabilities among characters at a given moment as well as probabilities in transition within a character over time - in action (actually resolving tasks), these are what drive the game. For these games, a unified probability mechanic to handle any game-modelled instance is the ideal, usually resulting in a single tables-based concept such as the Universal Table in DC Heroes.
Purist-for-System designs tend to model the same things: differences among scales, situational modifiers, kinetics of all kinds, and so forth. The usual issues surrounding incorporated vs. unincorporated effects, opposed vs. target number mechanics, the interaction of switches and dials, and probability-curvature shape are therefore the main things to distinguish these systems from one another. Compared to other designs, high search and handling times, as well as many points-of-contact, are acceptable features. (Please see the Glossary for the definition of points-of-contact).
Here's some text from the introduction to SOL: the Omniversal Role-playing System (1994, Heraldic Games; the author is Keith W. Sears):
I wanted to make an RPG that went beyond those described as "Universal", "Generic", or "Multi-genre." Many of the games with these tags fall short of what they're supposed to be...playable in any genre of fiction.
Regarding Currency, in these games, the imagined universe is made of "points." Therefore character creation and often resolution are often characterized by layering: paying points to get values for named scores, which themselves are mathematically derived to produce effective values. Interestingly, in-game money and possessions are often considered merely another facet of the universe that can be expressed in these points. This relationship between points and reality seems very well entrenched in Purist for System design, which is understandable, as it provides concrete insights to the internal-cause heart of the game that a player can latch onto prior to play.
In terms of character/player roles, characters in these games are solidly defined in terms only of my third and fourth categories: in-game character occupation, and the specific abilities that are associated with or in addition to that. (See the glossary for a discussion of these terms.)
In this sort of design, there's no possible excuse for any imperfections, including scale-derived breakdowns of the fundamental point/probability relationships. The system must be cleanly and at the service of the element(s) being emphasized, in strictly in-game-world terms. A good one is elegant, consistent, applicable to anything that happens in play, and clear about its outcomes. It also has to have points of contact at any scale for any conceivable thing. It cannot contain patch-rules to correct for inconsistencies; consistency is the essence of quality.
As I see it, Purist for System design is a tall, tall order. It's arguably the hardest design spec in all of role-playing.
In play, these games offer a lot of diversity because both the character-to-player relationship and the GM-to-outcomes relationship are fully customizable. Players might well utilize Pawn stance as Actor stance or any other, and the GM may care greatly about a given goal or situation to be set up during play, or not at all. The only required priority is to enjoy the System in action. (I'm not claiming here that the other four elements are irrelevant, though.)
In cinema, "High Concept" refers to any film idea that can be pitched in a very limited amount of time; the usual method uses references to other films. Sometimes, although not necessarily, it's presented as a combination: "Jaws meets Good Will Hunting," or that sort of thing. I'm adopting it to role-playing without much modification, although emphasizing that the source references can come from any medium and also that the two-title combo isn't always employed.
The key word is "genre," which in this case refers to a certain combination of the five elements as well as an unstated Theme. How do they get to this goal? All rely heavily on inspiration or kewlness as the big motivator, to get the content processed via art, prose style, and more. "Story," in this context, refers to the sequence of events that provide a payoff in terms of recognizing and enjoying the genre during play.
This sort of game design will be familiar to almost anyone, represented by Arrowflight (Setting), Pax Draconis (Setting), Godlike (Setting), Sun & Storm (Setting + Situation), Dreamwalker (Situation), The Godsend Agenda (Character-Setting tug-of-war), The Collectors (applied Fudge, Situation + Character), Heartquest (applied Fudge; Character), Children of the Sun (Setting), Fvlminata (Setting), and Dread (Situation + Character), Fading Suns (Setting), Earthdawn (Setting), Space: 1889 (Setting), Mutant Chronicles (Setting), Mage first edition (Character), Mage second edition (Setting), Ironclaw (Setting), and Continuum (Setting with a touch of System). Many Fantasy Heartbreakers fall into this category, almost all Setting-based. Some of the best-known games of this type include Tekumel, Jorune, Traveller (specifically in its mid-80s through mid-90s form), Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, Nephilim, Feng Shui, the various secondary settings for AD&D2 like Al-Qadim, and quite a few D20 or WEG games which rely on licensing. I am coming to think of D20 as a kind of High Concept chassis, a very new and interesting development in RPG design.
Also, most incoherent game designs are partly or even primarily High Concept Simulationist as well, with AD&D2 and Vampire (first edition) as the best-known examples.
At first glance, these games might look like additions to or specifications of the Purist for System design, mainly through plugging in a fixed Setting. However, I think that impression isn't accurate, and that the five elements are very differently related. The formula starts with one of Character, Situation, or Setting, with lots of Color, then the other two (Character, Situation, or Setting, whichever weren't in first place), with System being last in priority.
I also recommend examining Theme carefully. In this game, it's present and accounted for already, before play. The process of prep-play-enjoy works by putting "what you want" in, then having "what you want" come out, with the hope that the System's application doesn't change anything along the way.
Character creation is far more delimited as well, relying heavily on Setting and Situation. In this case, the "points" are pure metagame for purposes of making characters; they don't reflect or underly the universe in action as in the Purist for System games. Starting characters tend to be very colorful and described by many terms and numbers, but relatively static: waiting for their hook, so to speak. Hooks are often built-in; unlike the Purist for System methods, the player-to-character relationship usually includes my second "role level" in addition to the third and fourth.
Quantitatively, the more common character creation methods (which are not unique to Simulationist design) include less layering but more nesting (i.e. options within options, as well as the one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B approach established by Vampire), and almost always the relatively clumsy "GM approval" proviso. The specific method is usually based on points, but sometimes with Fortune methods to render a character role/type less likely to occur (making them more expensive with points also aims at this function). Notably, in-game money isn't modeled by the point-system during play.
The System is not all about Fortune, either, and these games can be very uneasy in this regard. Dice-based resolutions sometimes represent much noise and effort about not much effect, i.e., random factors tend not to deviate from expected results very much. Some games display a small range of possible Effect (i.e. damage rarely harms an opponent very much at a time), slight metagame adjustments to minimize extreme results, or a lot of offered strategies for the GM to soften or redirect the effects that occur.
Points-of-contact are far more directional; things which aren't relevant to the Explorative focus are often summarized and not "System'ed" with great rigor. When done well, such that the remaining, emphasized elements clearly provide a sort of "what to do" feel, this creates an extremely playable, accessible game text. Dread offers the perfect example for the lower points-of-contact end; Arrowflight and Godlike are similar but more reassuringly nail-even-the-irrelevant-down at the higher points-of-contact end. The truly outstanding games illustrating this latter approach are Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, and Pendragon.
However, when it's done badly, resolutions are rife with breakpoints and GM-fiat punts, and a great deal of effort during character creation yields little sense of what the character is is about to do.
Reward systems in High Concept games are typically quite slow-acting, requiring several sessions of play for any in-game benefit to kick in. Strangely, they are also often hard to find in the texts, being shoehorned in among character creation or GM instructions, or with their parts (how to award points, how to spend points) dispersed.
High Concept play can be divided neatly into those which are greatly concerned with "the big story" and those which are not. Historically, the latter used to be the most common: Call of Cthulhu, Jorune, or more recently Dread and Godlike, in which "the story" only refers to a record of short-term events and set-pieces. However, following the spearhead for this type of game text, Ars Magica, now the long-term story-type is more common. A lot of internet blood has been spilled regarding how this phenomenon is or is not related to Narrativist play, but I think it's an easy issue. The key for these games is GM authority over the story's content and integrity at all points, including managing the input by players. Even system results are judged appropriate or not by the GM; "fudging" Fortune outcomes is overtly granted as a GM right.
The Golden Rule of White Wolf games is a covert way to say the same thing: ignore any rule that interferes with fun. No one, I presume, thinks that any player may invoke the Golden Rule at any time; what it's really saying is that the GM may ignore any rule (or any player who invokes it) that ruins his or her idea of what should happen.
The functional version of such play is properly called Illusionism, which has undergone a good deal of debate and clarification at the Forge (see glossary). Most of these game texts overtly instruct the GM to practice Illusionism, for example in Arrowflight (2002, Deep 7; the author is Todd Downing).
Driving the Plot
"Story" emerges from the GM's efforts in this regard, with players being either cooperative (passively or actively), or obstreperous, in which case various "don't let them take over" methods are encouraged. Players are enjoined to immerse, by which they mean "keep your metagame agenda out of it," at the aesthetic level. It's best understood as Illusionism by full consent, which is what keeps it from being railroading, in that instead of making a story as an author does, the player is enjoying being in the story. In system and character generation terms, that's pretty much what's empowered to happen. I'll give this entire topic a full comparison and analysis in the Narrativism essay.
A final point: writing a High Concept Simulationist game is actually much easier than writing a Purist for System one, as complex Setting-prep or Situation-prep have a lot in common with writing a story and knowing "how it's supposed to go" but not finishing it. However, playing this kind of game is actually harder in some ways - everyone must be pumped about the in-game content, but without reference to a corresponding metagame. Check out Mongrel to see what you think of my take on this sort of game design.
Rules-lite Story or Character priorities
This section is likely to get me into trouble, so I'll tread carefully. I suggest that many self-described "rules-lite" or "story-oriented" role-playing games represent a derived version of the High Concept model, slanted heavily toward Situation - especially Situation which is under complete GM control, overt or covert. Players get to contribute tons of Color, even content, but never outcomes or final-resolutions, and playing the character as conceived is the first priority, sometimes taken to extremes of Actor Stance (e.g. Turku play, see the Glossary). Character and Situation are prioritized with Color, with Setting next, and lastly the formal System, which is slanted strongly toward Drama-mechanics. This mode of play may be strongly linked with LARP crossovers.
Here's my point: in application, a covert System is heavily, heavily entrenched, regardless of whatever to-hit modifiers or dice rolls have been peeled away. This system is based on Social Contract (what we all agree is "good" or "fun") and Social Context (i.e. the subculture that players belong to), and it is sternly reinforced through these means. I think it's significant that literal referees - on-the-spot judges of what can and cannot happen - are a necessary feature as soon as groups get beyond a certain size.
It's not just High Concept though. It looks like it - the heavy emphasis on story/genre, with overt eschewing of System, but it's also (a) actually pretty heavy on Drama-driven or Karma-driven System and (b) emphasizes customizable Settings as in Purist for System play. So I think it's worth its own category.
From the introduction to Theatrix (1993, Backstage Press, authors are David Berkman, Travis Eneix, and Brett Hackett):
Making a story come to life can be a difficult task. Previous generations of game systems have been rules bound, trapped within their own structure and rigidity. We wanted to produce a game that would help you in every way, not hinder you. So we developed a system of rules that is written to evolve along with your style of storytelling and roleplaying. These rules can be used to guide every facet of the game's progress, without becoming intrusive. You can use all the rules, or easily peel them away in layers, until you're running free-form games. The rules heavily encourage adopting this style of play, making themselves unnecessary.
In other words, the system helps create story by fading away, much like the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I think that this whole design effort arises from a desire for "big story" in the face of Purist-for-System design and mainly Fortune-driven High Concept design. In the effort to get out of that sort of Simulationist play, the thought is to get rid of the System that supports it, with any explicit System being perceived as that sort of system. I consider this a problematic design goal but it's widespread enough to merit a category. What makes it difficult to discuss is that its explict story-creation goals are similar to those of Narrativist play, but the operational process is stripped-down High Concept Simulationism. (See the GNS stuff below for further discussion.)
Fudge includes some text that might qualify it for this category, but operationally, the "story-oriented" reader who is captured by this text will swiftly be puzzled by the rules' emphasis on layered task resolution and repeated (and repeated) focus on scaling. I think Fudge is best described as low-search&handling-time Purist for System instead.
I'm probably going to catch heat for this, but it seems to me that The Window and Theatrix both lend themselves toward this mode of play, if Drifted a bit from their textual tenets, on the basis of their systems and the GM's ability to organize the IIEE elements of play with a free hand. (See the Glossary for the definition of IIEE.)
Some of the difficulties of this mode of play are outlined in the comparison with Narrativism and my criticisms of transparency below.
Setting-creation and universe-play mechanisms
Another derivation of the Purist for System approach brings the Setting creation process directly into play itself. The System-driven elements of the Setting are as "active" as any particular character might be, during play as well as during preparation. Basically, the setting is played, even created, as a part of regular play.
Boink! I just realized that the original Traveller, or at least one way to play it, represents an example of this approach. Star system and planet creation are written right into the process of play, such that adventures and missions become not only a means of enjoying and improving characters, but also a means of enjoying and basically mapping the game-space. This is very distinct from later versions of Traveller, which were emphatically High Concept with a Setting emphasis. (Oh, and just for credit where it's due, I should also mention that Traveller pioneered the mechanics of overt character-creation-as-play.)
This mode of play is not merely creating more setting through preparation as play progresses. It relies on doing so in a system-driven fashion much like character creation, carried out as an overt or near-overt part of actual play.
It's a pretty rare form of play and design, probably because the economics of splat-book publishing overwhelmed the hobby, and Traveller itself, from the mid-1980s onwards. The more recent examples include Aria, Multiverser to some extent, and the currently-in-development The Million Worlds. The design spec is to achieve the Color/kewl power of High Concept with the uncompromising power and consistency of the Purists for System, via inserting the explicit metagame world-creating ability. I think this approach is interesting for the level of Director stance potentially involved and I look forward to more role-playing evolution along these lines.
Historical note: BRP
Pound for pound, Basic Role-Playing from The Chaosium is perhaps the most important system, publishing tradition, and intellectual engine in the hobby - yes, even more than D&D. It represents the first and arguably the most lasting, influential form of uncompromising Simulationist design.
It's kind of hard to discuss just how it was influential, as its very first appearance as a pamphlet accompanying a boardgame wasn't widely distributed. The influence operated primarily through the popularity of both RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. Looking across the early versions of these games as well as Superworld, Questworld, and more, I think BRP is identifiable as a Purist for System design and publishing. It's really probably the precursor for the later GURPS mode of publishing.
However, that vision, plan, or phenomenon, whatever, swiftly evolved into High Concept, both in RuneQuest (Setting) and Call of Cthulhu (Situation) as they hit their early-mid-80s forms, which is what most people are familiar with, I think. Call of Cthulhu remains High Concept to the present day, whereas RuneQuest, upon being licensed to and redesigned to the specifications of Avalon Hill, essentially evolved into a new Purist for System game, with the setting, Glorantha, relegated to the background at most. Moving into the late 80s and early 90s, the new BRP games (Pendragon, Nephilim) represented fairly radical Drifting of Cthulhu-style BRP into their respective High Concepts.
GNS crossover issues
As usual for GNS-heavy text, I'll speak of games themselves in the GNS terms, but with the proviso that I'm really speaking about the play itself that is typical of or best supported by the rules of those games.
First, the FAQ
Q: Can Simulationist design be Abashed?
A: Sure. "Abashed" refers to design that must be Drifted in order to play because incompatible priorities are present among different parts of the rules. It's different from Incoherent design in that such Drift is easy and minor. Technically, an Abashed game is already at least two modes (or sub-modes); e.g. I've said that Little Fears represents Abashed Narrativist design, but it should really be called Abashed Narrativism/Simulationism.
Q: So "Abashed" means combined?
A: No. Combined GNS modes which work well together would be "Hybrid." There's a whole section on that below. Abashed games must be Drifted (i.e. their rules must be operationally changed, or some sections ignored) in order to play.
Q: Can Simulationist play be Vanilla?
A: Well, we don't say Vanilla and Pervy any more (too rude for some, apparently). Now we talk about Points-of-Contact being low or high for given portions of rules. But to lapse back into the old terminology, yes, it can. Dread is a veritable poster child for Vanilla Sim, which I would generalize to mean a High Concept Simulationist design with low Points-of-Contact and a high emphasis on Situation. Pervy Sim basically just ups the Points-of-Contact as well as the emphasis on Exploring anything regardless of topic, which pretty much describes any member of the Purist-for-System category.
Character generation text and methods are extremely diverse within each GNS mode, which is one of the reasons I favor group communication during this phase of pre-play. For instance, some Gamist-ish games utilize point-allocation systems, which looks similar to the widespread method in Simulationist-ish games. However, for Gamist purposes, this method is all about strategizing tradeoffs, rather than establishing a fixed internal-cause to "justify" the character. Similarly, Gamist character creation utilizing Fortune methods isn't the same as the few Simulationist randomized methods - in the former, it's a lot like gambling, whereas in the latter, it's about a character maturing through Fortune's vagaries represented by in-game effects like culture, weather, disease, and so forth (e.g. Harnmaster).
Narrativist character creation in some games requires a fair amount of back-story, just as some Simulationist play does, but in the former, it's about establishing a chassis for conflict, metagame, and reward, and in the latter, it's about Coloring the character and providing oppportunities for GM-created hooks. I rank the conflict between these concepts, during play, among the highest-risk situations for the survival of a gaming group. Strategies to resolve this conflict, whether social or design-oriented, are currently not well-developed in the hobby.
The term "metagame" is problematic throughout this essay for Simulationist play and rules design. Metagame mechanics, by definition, entail the interjection of real-people priorities into the system-operation. Now, it is foolish to speak of Simulationist play as lacking metagame; that would only apply if the people at the table were themselves rules-constructs as well as the rules, and that's silly. But compared to Gamist and Narrativist play, Simulationist play may be spoken of as lacking metagame [i]interpersonal agenda[/i], like "winning" or "doing well" in Gamism, or addressing a Premise in Narrativism. Its metagame, although fully social, is self-referential, to stay in-game. I recognize that it's a problematic issue and I look forward to some discussion about it.
To clarify for purposes of the essay, compare the following: (1) an in-game essence or metaphysical effect called "Karma," which represents the character's moral status in that game-universe according to (e.g.) a god or principle in that game-world; (2) a score on the sheet which has literally nothing to do with the character's in-game identity, also called "Karma," recognized and applied by the real people with no in-game entity used to justify it. In both systems, Karma is a point-score which goes up and down, and which can be brought into play as, say, a bonus to one's dice roll. But I'd say that #1 is not metagame at all, and #2 is wholly metagame.
Mechanically, how do they differ? One thing to consider is how the score goes up and down - by player-use, or by in-game effects? Another is whether the score is integrated with the reward/improvement system - does spending a Karma reduce one's bank of improvement points? In fact, is Karma a spent resource at all? Still another issue is whether in-game effects must be in place, or inserted into place, to justify its use. No one of these indicators is hard-and-fast, however; one must consider them all at once, and how they relate to Simulationism (and non-Simulationism) is a fascinating issue. At this point I tend to think that the main issue, basically, is who is considered to "spend" them - character or player.
I suggest that Trouble in Orkworld, Hero Points in Hero Wars, and Spiritual Attributes in The Riddle of Steel are Resource-based metagame mechanics, whereas Power in RuneQuest, Sanity in Call of Cthulhu, and these mechanics' many derivatives in other games, are straightforward, non-metagame Resources. Similarly, I suggest that the role-playing bonuses based on out-of-game neatness in Sorcerer are metagame, whereas the Stunt rules based on difficulty or unlikelihood in Feng Shui are not.
It's a tough discussion, though. One confounding factor is that metagame mechanics are often present as "fixes" of otherwise-Simulationist systems that proved to be mildly broken in play. The trouble with such a thing is that it can lead to serious Drift of the sort that breaks Social Contracts or renders systems incoherent.
As far as I can tell, Simulationist game design runs into a lot of potential trouble when it includes secondary hybridization with the other modes of play. Gamist or Narrativist features as supportive elements introduce the thin end of the metagame-agenda wedge. The usual result is to defend against the "creeping Gamism" with rules-bloat, or to encourage negatively-extreme deception or authority in the GM in order to preserve an intended set of plot events, which is to say, railroading. In other words, a baseline Simulationist focus is easily subverted, leading to incoherence.
Whether this issue can be resolved by future designs and Social Contracts is unknown. Speaking historically, though, AD&D2, Vampire, and Legend of the Five Rings are especially good examples of incoherent design that ends up screwing the Simulationist. You have Gamist character creation, with Narrativist rhetoric (especially in Vampire). You have High Concept Simulationist resolution, which is to say, easily subverted by Gamism because universal consistency is de-emphasized. And finally, you have sternly-worded "story" play-context, which in practice becomes game-author-to-GM co-conspiracy. The net result is a fairly committed Simulationist GM presiding over a bunch of players tending toward more agenda-based play of different kinds.
What happens? All the wedges widen, and the unfortunate thing is that the more everyone likes the basic, fun interest of the topic ("genre") at hand, the worse the rift becomes.
Hybrids are much better off using Simulationism as a secondary design feature, rather than as the primary. The Riddle of Steel is a successful hybrid because its primary Narrativist emphasis is so mechanically influential and integrated with the reward system, that it cannot be ignored or subverted. Even so, it's interesting to observe the consistent Simulationist reading of TROS' text, rife with suggestions for repair of "obviously" inappropriate elements, by people who have not played the game.
Rifts as well as well as many fantasy-adventure games use Simulationist design features (heavy Setting Exploration) to support its primary Gamist emphasis; I'll discuss this in more detail in the Gamism essay.
Shit! I'm playing Narrativist
In Simulationist play, morality cannot be imposed by the player or, except as the representative of the imagined world, by the GM. Theme is already part of the cosmos; it's not produced by metagame decisions. Morality, when it's involved, is "how it is" in the game-world, and even its shifts occur along defined, engine-driven parameters. The GM and players buy into this framework in order to play at all.
The point is that one can care about and enjoy complex issues, changing protagonists, and themes in both sorts of play, Narrativism and Simulationism. The difference lies in the point and contributions of literal instances of play; its operation and social feedback.
I'll provide two examples, a simple one and a complex one.
The simple one: Consider the behavioral parameters of a samurai player-character in Sorcerer and in GURPS. On paper the sheets look pretty similar: bushido all over the place, honorable, blah blah. But what does this mean in terms of player decisions and events during play? I suggest that in Sorcerer (Narrativist), the expectation is that the character will encounter functional limits of his or her behavioral profile, and eventually, will necessarily break one or more of the formal tenets as an expression of who he or she "is," or suffer for failing to do so. No one knows how, or which one, or in relation to which other characters; that's what play is for. I suggest that in GURPS (Simulationist), the expectation is that the behavioral profile sets the parameters within which the character reliably acts, especially in the crunch - in other words, it formalizes the role the character will play in the upcoming events. Breaking that role in a Sorcerer-esque fashion would, in this case, constitute something very like a breach of contract.
The complex one: Consider the behavioral parameters of a knight player-character in The Riddle of Steel and in Pendragon. This one's a little trickier for a couple of reasons, first because Pendragon has two sets of behavioral rules, and second because both games permit a character's behavioral profile to change.
1) The Pendragon knight includes a set of paired, dichotomous Traits (e.g. Worldly / Chaste) which are scored numerically, and which change scores inversely. They are used either (a) as behavior-establishers (roll vs. Cruel to see whether you behead the churl for his rudeness) or (b) as record-keepers for player-driven behavior (you beheaded him? Check Cruel, which increases its chance to raise its score later). The Riddle of Steel knight has no equivalent system to (a); all character behavior is driven by the player. Its Spiritual Attributes, however, do rise and fall with character behavior much as Pendragon's (b).
2) The Pendragon knight also may develop one or more Passions, which are expressed in the form of a fixed set of bonus dice for actions that support that Passion. These are established through play and may increase, although not decrease; different Passions may conflict within a single character. The Riddle of Steel's Spiritual Attributes (Drive, Destiny, Passion, Faith, Luck, and Conscience) act as bonus dice much as in Pendragon Passions but (a) may be individually eliminated and substituted with another Spiritual Attribute by the player with very little restriction, and (b) are intimately connected to the most significant character-improvement mechanic.
I suggest that both games include the concept that personal passion is a concrete effectiveness-increase mechanic, but that Pendragon does so in a "fixed-path-upwards" fashion (when the knight's passions are involved), whereas The Riddle of Steel does so under the sole helm of the player's thematic interests of the moment. Furthermore, the latter game directly rewards the player for doing so.
I may be a little biased about this issue, but it seems to me that a character in Narrativist play is by definition a thematic time-bomb, whereas, for a character in Simulationist play, the bomb is either absent (the GURPS samurai), present in a state of near-constant detonation (the Pendragon knight, using Passions), or its detonation is integrated into the in-game behavioral resolution system in a "tracked" fashion (the Pendragon knight, using the dichotomous traits). Therefore, when you-as-player get proactive about an emotional thematic issue, poof, you're out of Sim. Whereas enjoying the in-game system activity of a thematic issue is perfectly do-able in Sim, without that proactivity being necessary.
Before anyone flips out, stop for one more point, which is that my perceived time-scale of play for all the above points is quite high. I'm talking about whole sessions and sets of sessions, not moment-to-moment combat decisons or dialogue. So the "poof" is a pretty prolonged thing (and I better not develop this metaphor any further either).
Many people mistake low time-scale techniques like Director stance, shared narration, etc, for Narrativism, although they are not defining elements for any GNS mode. Misunderstanding this key issue has led to many people falsely identifying themselves as playing Simulationist with a strong Character emphasis, when they were instead playing quite straightforward Narrativist without funky techniques.
I would very much like to participate in a detailed discussion of playing L5R, which to my mind, in the absence of Drifting, poses some irreconcilable problems in how its behavioral parameters are constructed, such that it simultaneously asks about Honor and dictates the answers.
El Dorado and Drift
El Dorado is a term coined by Paul Czege based on some ideas proposed by Joachim Buchert (see glossary for links). As originally proposed, it was essentially Narrativist play with a strong Simulationist supportive element - a functional hybrid. When I surprised this debate by shrugging and stating that hybrids, with one mode dominant, are viable, possible, and functional, and when The Riddle of Steel demonstrated an exceptionally fine example, the term changed a bit. Over time, it has come to mean as well an experientially smooth and perhaps even unnoticeable shift from Simulationist play-assumptions to Narrativist ones.
Such a goal, both for play and design, has proven attractive to people; they recognize that Simulationist assumptions are common among established role-players, and the term "Simulationist-by-habit" has been coined to describe people who might enjoy other GNS modes but don't conceive of their functional existence.
An El Dorado game-experience would not be a hybrid - it would avoid all confusion that hybrids tend to generate to some degree, and it would certainly not be Abashed, as play-goals would not clash within the rules and procedures of play. It would be operative Drift without rules-Drift, for which the term Transition was coined in discussions of Fang Langford's game in development, Scattershot.
Is it possible, theoretically? Sure! I think it's much harder than most people think it would be. The System actually has to facilitate the process of changing priorities during play, Drifting on procedural "tracks" as it were. A couple of games point the way. The Riddle of Steel is explicitly based on a rather brutal selection philosophy, insofar as people who do not recognize the dominance of the Spiritual Attributes over the more Simulationist-appearing baseline mechanics will see their characters die horribly. Players who start with Simulationist priorities will have to change or stop playing (I suspect, rather, that many of them will "Drift to remain in place," actually). Scattershot, in development, is the only Transition-oriented game design I know of that's based on the rules themselves shifting and altering as a function of play. (See Glossary.)
I'll discuss this issue in much more detail in the Narrativism essay, but I'll pose the most serious problem facing the seekers of El Dorado: idealizing story creation but refusing to do it. Oh, am I going to catch it for this section ... well, people are just going to have to disagree about whether stories can "create themselves."
Personally, I don't think they do, and we won't get anywhere by pushing and pulling. In practical terms, lots of hassles and possibilities arise when expecting story to "emerge" from metagame-absent play. Here are the two extremes which arise.
Pitfalls of design
The first and most serious problem in Simulationist design is to rely on habit and imitation for some mechanics features of the game and then to try to tack on one's own ideas. I'm not talking about simple influence, which is part and parcel of any RPG design, but the porting of whole assumption-sets out of their integrated contexts with all aspects of the parent game. This is very common in Fantasy Heartbreakers and usually results in a lot of broken math. Obviously this problem is not unique to Simulationism, but when it occurs in that context, it's really painful.
Another serious problem is the ideal of "transparency," especially as applied to the High Concept approach. I cannot help but be blunt: System is experientially inescapable. One cannot make Character, Setting, Situation, and Color "go" without it. Drama-driven systems are just as System as any other, for instance. (See the Transparency entry in the Glossary.)
Really to remove System requires that anything and everything that happens during play be mediated solely through the Social Contract, without any formalized method even to do that. I think that such play would be awfully difficult, requiring so much negotiation regarding how to play per unit of play as to be hopeless. (Again, I am not discussing well-organized systems based mainly on Drama, which are perfectly wonderful and not subject to these criticisms.)
Therefore, I advise that design not ask, "How is System made invisible," but rather, "How is System directed toward particular Explorative goals." The degree of complexity then becomes an aesthetic and focused issue, not something to chop away at blindly. Instead of transparency, let Coherence and an eye toward the desired Points of Contact be your guide.
The third problem is the Realism tautology: setting "realism" as a goal of play, which often gets brought up in debates about in-game events. Never fall into this one - you cannot win. Plausibility, which is to say, not violating a specific degree of contrivance-limits, is a fine thing; it's central to the role-playing element of Situation. All role-playing requires whatever degree of plausibility is necessary to support the respective GNS goal. Reinforcing it can be a valid feature of some Simulationist play and design (just as of some Narrativist and some Gamist play), when that matters for specific goals for that play. But to reverse it, to claim that the play itself exists at the service of the "realism" among the components of the game, is madness, especially for Simulationist play - such a statement presents a quagmire of debate much like "balance" or "story."
Another common problem is rules-bloat, which usually creeps into Simulationist game text as a form of anti-Gamist defense. I suggest that adding more layers to character creation is a poor idea, as it only introduces more potential points of broken Currency. I suggest instead that the most effective "defense" is to avoid ratios in one's layering, as in Godlike. More generally, beyond a certain point, anti-Gamist defensive rules design has a negative effect: given an increased number rules and punctilios, players simply punt in terms of understanding the system, and the GM has to "be" the entire game. This is exceptionally difficult in games like Rolemaster or GURPS (perhaps less so in Dread or Call of Cthulhu). Therefore the effort - to preserve the integrity of the Simulationist experience - often backfires as play gets harder and more full of speed-bumps rather than easier.
Rules-bloat can also result from the design and writing process itself. Cogitating about in-game causes can transform itself, at the keyboard, into a sort of Exploration of its own, which results in very elaborate rules-sets for situational modifiers, encumbrance, movement, technology, prices of things, none of which is related to actual play of the game with actual people. During the writing process, "what if" meets "but also" and breeds tons of situational rules modifiers. When this effect hits Currency, you get tons of layering in the form of prerequisites and nuances of described competency (e.g. Awful vs. Really Bad vs. Mediocre). The result is often what I like to call Paying to Suck, which is to say that character creation includes paying many points merely for the character to be bad or barely-adequate at things.
My recommendation is to know and value the virtues of Simulationist play, specifically refined toward the goals of a particular subset (as listed or make up your own), and to drive toward them with gusto. Don't spin your wheels defending your design against some other form of play.
For play really to be Simulationist, it can't lose the daydream quality: the pleasure in imagination as such, without agenda. For game design to promote this goal, it must be openly valued and its virtues articulated, not assumed (as it often is) to be "good role-playing" by anyone's standards and hence left unstated. Design should be inspiring and elegant in its own right, promoting the desire to see this Setting or Character unfold, or to see this System do its stuff.
I now offer a couple of points that are probably going to draw some objections.
It's a hard realization: devoted Simulationist play is a fringe interest. It is not the baseline or core of role-playing, which is Exploration. (Here is where my interpretation of the Scarlet Jester's Exploration differs the most from his original presentation.)
Quite a bit of role-playing theory and design has taken a training-wheels approach, especially using Purist for System games like GURPS, in the assumption that role-playing at the Simulationist "level" or "type" is the necessary skill to develop or grow to any other type. I think this is both misguided and patronizing toward Simulationist play, but even worse, it has the opposite effect on new players: selective culling-out of people who bring developed Gamist or Narrativist agendas to the activity.
Another good question is whether the claim is valid that role-playing has been "Sim-dominated" through its history, whether in play or in design. Regarding play, I think all the evidence points to all the GNS modes, and much diversity within those modes, being present since the beginning of the hobby. Regarding design and publishing, I think that we need to distinguish between Simulationist elements vs. coherent design - the former have certainly been widespread, but mainly in incoherent games, with AD&D and Vampire as the chief examples.
The Hard Question
Well, here it is. Before getting bent out of shape, remember that each mode is gonna get one of these.
Role-playing is a hobby, leisure activity. The real question is, what for, in the long term? For Simulationist play, the answer "This was fun, so let's do it again," is sufficient.
However, for how long is it sufficient? Which seems to me to vary greatly from person to person. Is the focus on Exploration to be kept as is, permanently, as characters and settings change through play? Some say "sure" and wonder what the hell I'm talking about, or perhaps feel slightly insulted. Or, is Drift ultimately desirable? Is play all about getting "it" to work prior to permitting overt metagame agendas into the picture? Some might answer "of course" and wonder why anyone could see it otherwise.
So! Is there an expected, future metagame payoff, or is the journey really its own reward? Is Simulationist play what you want, or is it what you think you must do in order, one day, to get what you want?
I judge nothing with these questions. I think that they're important to consider and that answers are going to vary widely, that's all.
Most of the jargon in the essay is defined in "GNS and related matters of role-playing design." Most of the following are some terms that have arisen during the discussions since then. Some of them (the ones without links) are defined in the essay and repeated here for clarity.