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Simulationism is 'safe'

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Simulationism is 'safe'

I'd like to share some thoughts about Simulationism (the Creative Agenda as per Forge theory).

My little pet theory - which may be nothing new as it's been a long time since the Forge days - is that this creative agenda is attractive - among other things! - because it is 'safe', i.e. it is unlikely to upset you, challenge you, or make you vulnerable.

On Simulationism
I like to think about Simulationism as Celebrationism, i.e. the point of play is to celebrate a particular subject matter, e.g. a setting (like a Superhero universe), a genre (like wuxia), a simulation (of ballistics, for instance) and so on. I'm not quite sure about it, but I think the creative vision of one participant (an auteur GM) also qualifies. Nothing new, really, and even the term celebrationism was floated at the Forge.

On the Safety of various Creative Agendas
Gamism requires stepping up and thus entails the chance of losing. Narrativism requires artistic/creative contribution and entails the chance of rejection. Celebrationism is safe by comparison: as long as you buy into the source material, you are going to do fine, socially.

Another player might out-geek you (knowing more about the MCU etc.) but that does neither sting as much as losing a character nor stress out as much as the need to improvise a cool contribution now.

I speak of experience here because I was another insecure loner as a teen, and the lack of (open) competition in my early roleplaying was a major draw for me. It was 'us' (the players) against the (game) world -- and as a cherry on top, we always won, too. This was due to illusionism, of course.

One major motivation behind illusionism is a desire for safety -- on both sides of the screen. For a GM, improvisation may seem daunting and using illusionist techniques to stay within the prepared content is one way to avoid it. For players, illusionism allows them to be covertly shielded from failure, particularly character death.

I think this desire for safety is part of a *social* agenda, not a creative one, which just happens to align well with Simulationism (which in turn works well with Illusionism, or at least better than Nar or Gam).

A social agenda pursues a social desire (e.g. hooking up with a cute co-player) and could be pursued via activities other than playing an RPG (e.g. hiking).

A common social agenda is being accepted, making friends, hanging out with other people. This is particularly important if none of these things come easy to you. A Simulationist game offers a comparatively safe venue to pursue this social agenda.


A quick observation about 'safe' entertainment…

The desire for 'safe' entertainment (i.e. unlikely to upset you or challenge you) is about as mainstream as you can get: The vast majority of Hollywood movies play it safe and audiences like it that way -- they want to turn off their brains and just enjoy the ride (hence franchises and movie stars -- you know exactly what you'll get with a James Bond movie or a Dwayne Johnson vehicle). Horror is arguably different in this respect.

…and some closing remarks on being insecure:

(1) While insecure people may be drawn to Simulationism, this does not mean the reverse is true, i.e. players who like Simulationism are not automatically insecure. It is a creative agenda, after all, and can be just as challenging creatively as the other agendas.

(2) Insecure people's desire to connect with others, fit in etc., in a safe environment is perfectly legitimate. I formed many lasting friendships through gaming.

(3) Tons of people are insecure (often at some points or in some parts of their lives). It's normal. This post is not intended to deride anyone (nor Simulationism, illusionism, or mainstream Hollywood flicks).

I recant...

This is rather half-baked, I'm afraid. I did not take into account Silmenume's accounts of Bricolage / Mythmaking which is Simulationist and not only creatively but also emotionally challenging (i.e., very intense) for the participants. This definitely warrants further thought.

"Classifying by Social Function"... the name of an old Forge thread which goes into much more depth than my little post. It can be found here.

Without tying it to Forge

Without tying it to Forge models, I agree that "The desire for 'safe' entertainment (i.e. unlikely to upset you or challenge you) is about as mainstream as you can get" is somewhat true. I'd say, that's what the majors of entertainment industry want to push on the general public. Because safe means stable income. Would you consider the unsafe incestuous and bloody traditional fairytales or greek tragedies "mainstream" ? They are well known, but they are not "a product" in the same way that an Hollywood FX movie is. So, I'd say there definitely is such a thing as safe mainstream entertainment. How people choose and play their games, as you noted, is different, because people are not statistics.
I have a parallel theory that part of our fellow hobbyist have a principle that's often left as an unspoken assumption, that goes contrary to improvisation. Namely that communication between players minds has to be near perfect to enjoy the game. That is : the less you have to alter or "correct" your mental images, the better the game. Because it means people are on the same page, etc. This is from a culture where error is a problem. And to me it's a deep misunderstanding of how communication, imagination and improvisation work. So that people who play with these principles are like riders giving spurs and pulling on the reins at the same time.

An interesting point!

I have a parallel theory that part of our fellow hobbyist have a principle that's often left as an unspoken assumption, that goes contrary to improvisation. Namely that communication between players minds has to be near perfect to enjoy the game. That is : the less you have to alter or "correct" your mental images, the better the game. Because it means people are on the same page, etc.

That's an interesting point and I fully agree. I think some players are liable to have difficulties adapting to others' improvised contributions because said players have a lot of preconceptions inappropriate to a given game. They might, for instance, settle on a backstory for a character who is not wholly theirs (due to shared narrative duties etc.).

Interesting points, and good

Interesting points, and good food for thought.

I suppose which agenda one finds "safest" depends on one's comfort zone. That is, different games are provided to provide safety from different things. I would have thought of gamism as very much motivated by a certain kind of safety - safety from loss of control. The game is designed so you always have control over your own destiny. I am thinking of a game like Pathfinder, where the rules are highly codified and the adventures are usually designed to provide a fair and balanced challenge. It is safe because the things that can happen are predictable (they are enumerated in the rulebook); the most important scenes (combat) follow the rules most strictly; and if you read the rules carefully and play smart, you will probably win. If you lose, you can see how you could have done better. As long as everyone follows the rules, you are sure to have a correct experience within certain defined boundaries.

By contrast, if you play an illusionist game, you essentially need to submit to somebody else's control. That's an act of trust; if it seems safe, it is only because you trust the storyteller to provide a good story. One reason players balk at railroading is because they aren't willing to trust their game master. Relinquishing control of one's own character takes one out of one's comfort zone.

Or if you play an open-ended sandbox game (which I take to be some branch of simulationism, depending how you define simulationism), the outcomes are very unpredictable, even to the DM. Again, this means a relinquishment of control. If you are really devoted to simulation of the fantasy world, then that means you have to follow the logic of the world and the roll of the dice no matter what -- even if the results are horrific, or boring, or not at all what you wanted.

To me, certainly, narrativism is the most daunting creative agenda and would be the farthest outside my comfort zone. But I think for someone else this could be very different. After all, aren't most narrativist games designed to provide a certain defined type of experience? If you want that experience, and if you've played the game, that could be your comfort zone.


You're not wrong, and I agree with most of what you've said, but I think there is still a mostly-open frontier of game design in which aspects of narrative structure and content are approached via mechanical means.

That's actually my sweet spot: It's a lifelong fascination that took me beyond TTRPG design and into theater spaces, and then into web programming, and now back into TTRPG design again.

One level of abstraction up, where N is approached as if it is G or S.

Sim is dangerous!

I don't agree, and I think you're making a mistake in associating narrativism with artistic/creative contribution but not simulationism. In my (admittedly few, and non-mainstream) simulationist experiences, the social risk is that you are not on the same page as everyone else in the thing it is that we're creating together. If everyone else in the group are vigorously agreeing on things and you're the one contributing something discordant that doesn't fit in with the tone or content of the ""dream"" - that's really awkward and game-derailing stuff. In a lot of narrativist games that wouldn't be a big deal - a few discordant things can be accepted into the fiction easily without taking away from the real point of the game - but imagining things correctly in sim play is a big deal. Breaking the consensus on what's "correct" can feel a lot like being judged.

Plus, the elements of something that you're interested in celebrating still reveals a lot about your thinking, interests, etc. Narrativism doesn't have a monopoly on exposing your unsafe thoughts, or on having to improvise something cool..

Now, if you rob your players of all their creative agency by running some illusionist theme-park ride - yeah, of course that's safe.

Illusionism seems to be the chief provider of safety.

Good points regarding comfort zones, Billy. Looks as if people differ in regard to who or what they willingly cede control to - i.e. the GM or a rules system. I was a pretty crafty Illusionist back in the day, so in most cases, I won't trust any die rolls made behind a GM screen, for instance.

Aik, I think you may be right: Maybe it's only Illusionism that is safe, and it just happens to be a subset of Simulationist play (or more precisely, Illusionist techniques are only acceptable in a certain kind of Simulationist play).

In other words, the need to be (extra) safe is the priority, which may limit (or, more realistically, skew) the choice to Simulationism, but the crucial point is that the choice of games is further whittled down to games with Illusionist techniques.

Most Narrativist play I've seen was very tolerant of weaker contributions and took them in stride, but signifcant contributions, i.e., hard choices, were always necessary -- whereas in an Illusionist game, the 'right' choice is usually obvious and you just roll some dice for cosmetic reasons. Zero risk (provided you trust the GM).

And yet

And then it's me not agreeing on a point : namely that Narrativism entails significant contributions. Or maybe I am not understanding it as you mean it. Three arguments :
1 - "Weaker contributions" are not only tolerated, they often are the way to go.
2 - Moral choices are not necessarily "hard".
3 - Improvisation is much more unsafe when it uses techniques like endowment (pointed questions).

Maybe it's in a specific agenda, but what I see is a tradition of :
- jealous character monogamy (Inviolate characters)
- an emphasis on skills,powers, and means of action (I'm good at what I do)
That to me screams "Control!" (maybe control feels "safe" ?) ... until the GM enters the picture. The idea being that in a tradition of GM-led game, making sure you Control! your character is really like getting a grip on it, like gripping/waxing/gooing/puffing/bootstrapping in tennis/surf/skate/climbing/hiking. So maybe what we're seeing is just ordinary players dressed in overkill neon-coloured cycling gear because that's what their tradition (male, boasting) set as "normal".

Another angle

Also, maybe roleplaying with improv requires to adapt faster ?

Clarifications and linking to a relevant essay

I have come to realize that my little pet theory doesn't really hold up, thanks to you guys and Eero's essay Observations on GNS Simulationism at his new blog and the subsequent discussions here and there. Simulationism can have teeth, i.e. be emotionally and intellectually challenging and not safe at all.

By "weaker contributions" I meant courses of action and choices that are uninspiring, lazy, or try to dodge the issue at hand:

If your character must decide on a course of action because a new rival gang is taking over the neighbourhood, "we'll ramp up security" or "I'll put a price on the rival gang leader's head" are pretty weak as far as I'm concerned. Much more proactive, personal and interesting if you set an actual trap, promise your daughter's hand for the rival gang leader's head - an interesting prize and not really yours to give, so rife for conflict -, ask for negotiations _in person_ etc.

If your superhero character is faced with a 'hard' choice, like either saving her boyfriend OR a school bus full of children, saying "I guess I'll try to save both, just tell me what to roll" or "the children of course, that's what my [real-life] ethics teacher argues", that's weak in my book. Please note that I'm okay with both trying the impossible and indecisiveness a la Hamlet, but these choices should come from a passionate place.

Also, I'm interested in hearing more about the spectrum of moral choices. Do you have some examples, perhaps?

And finally, yeah, I guess flexibility likely extends to different contexts (e.g. creating content but also reacting to or integrating others' content).