Why Archipelago is Sim

Silmenume's picture


When I first read the rules to Archipelago I felt it was a mostly Sim supporting game but I thought it had some design issues that were either holdovers or were in contradiction to the Sim CA. As I was requested recently to explain my reasoning I felt that I should reacquaint myself with the rules and upon completion I was even more convinced that the game is a thoroughly Sim CA supporting game. From the get go the game works to get the players to invest deeply in those elements of the setting that they decide are of interested and important. What’s important is the process is designed in such a way that players are told that they have "ownership" over these elements and while all the players may use them it is up to the owning player to make sure that those uses and further additions “fit” the nature of said element. These elements are also brought into play in personally important ways. Finally these elements are not quantified or abstracted in any way but are verbal creations that inherently come with their own internal and normative logic. This is all how myth functions. The game is set up such that the world/Setting will “grow” yet there are normative subjective processes in play to secure the integrity of the world/myth. This protecting the integrity of the world (the normative effect of the aesthetic of the myth) can be seen functioning via the “Owning” player making subjective judgment calls on his area of ownership or the players using the phrase “Try a different way.” This bothered me the first time I read it because in mythic cultures or my favorite metaphor, improve jazz, the creative individual is expected to be skilled enough not to make creations that break the aesthetic normative bounds of their respective activities. One does not want to break the flow of myth production or improv music playing to make a correction as it is extremely jarring. But there is no inherent reason why this process cannot be explicit. Yet one player reported to me that the use of “Try a different way” was extremely jarring which tells me that the player was deeply embedded in mythic thinking and was disturbed by the action that pulled him outside the myth. A very strong Sim tell.

The game designers go to great lengths to tie the characters to each other and the world at large. Not just tie them together but to make those relationships meaningful both to the character but also in a way that makes the world meaningful. This process of creating meaning is precisely what myth functions to do. It attempts to create order while establishing a normative aesthetic. It’s a way of musing about life, the world and one’s place within it using interlocking and ever growing meaning structures.

The rest is about how this myth making process is made to function in an RPG environment. There are no abstractions to signify anything about the characters. The process is extremely open ended with the general guiding rule being make this character a doer and not a homebody and that each character must have some indirect relationship with a common third character via some sort of strong emotional relationship (meaningful). Here, again, we come back to meaningful relationships. The character is to have a goal that they are working towards and the game is spent getting there with the other players taking on various GM roles. The PC is usually caught in some event larger than themselves (involving the Setting in some way – one of the spheres that the other players “own”). There is no moral question or challenge but growth of the player and the world through play as the player finds their destiny. Interesting quandaries are pushed with the “harder” phrase that another player can use. This caught me at first but then this is no different than the game I play in except the DM will amp up the dramatic pressure via NPC’s (common 3rd characters in this game) or Setting elements (an invasion by a gaggle of Orcs or an invasion by Harondor, etc.) If things are getting slow a player can call for a Fate card to spice things up. Again this bothered me at first but I later realized that in a GMless game this would be the same as a GM prepping some events before game and bringing them into play or a player rolling a ‘1’ at a particularly inauspicious moment. The result is the same, to make the game more interesting. If a player takes the easy way out of a conflict another player may call “That Might Not Be Quite So Easy”. This is usually employed when a player’s solution to a conflict starts breaking the aesthetic of the world (breaking the normative aesthetic of the myth). Normally this would be handled by a GM to find a suitable way to handle this problem but again this is a GMless game. This too troubled me when I originally encountered this mechanic because in mythic cultures (and improv jazz) good creators typically don’t make these kind of mistakes so the correction process is implicit and self controlled. However there is nothing about making this process explicit that breaks myth though it might pull a player out of the subjective moment which we’d like to minimize as much as possible.

There are a couple of other tools available to the players to use to make the game more interesting or to spotlight something of interest which is still all what myth can and does do.

Most intriguing are the resolution cards which always have entailments and that is pure 100% bricolage at work. Other non Sim games may employ such cards but what’s particularly interesting here is that frequently the entailments include the Setting becoming involved in some important and meaningful way. They are not used as Task Resolution or Conflict Resolution but are a manifestation of the idea that any action will have consequences…and that is pure myth (and bricolage!). This leads to an ever expanding world and a conflict structure that keeps growing and growing which is how myth (and bricolage) works. It’s brilliant!

I’ve written all this from an academic point of view as I’ve never played the game. When I read the rules I felt that the game would to be too slow to really get the players deeply involved but I have been told in no uncertain terms that the game does get the players deeply, personally and emotionally involved in the world! Success! One has simulated the deeply personal and subjective experience of what it is like to live in a fictional reality and it was all accomplished by focusing on the SIS with some external tools to help keep the game moving and interesting.

Just some quick thoughts.



Addenda – the map system used in the game is a brilliant method of getting the players tied to the world they are creating. Kudos! Again the game creators are making the Setting a vibrant and personally meaningful part of the game. Wonderful!

komradebob's picture

I have played it, although not as extensively as I'd like, and pretty much agree with all of your assessments.

While I tend to like the description " celebrating the source material" when talking about sim, it does tend to be a term that derails the conversation. After all, how can you celebrate source material when you're in the process of creating it? :D

Archipelago does a great job of creating and celebrating source material at the same time. It's contains a tool box full of gentle methods for getting players on the same page, helping them build up a common shared aesthetic, then further develop it through playing their characters.

The ritual phrases help create feedback loops between players' initial, individual understanding of the broadly sketched initial setting elements, while the Ownership concept still allows for there to be some sort of soft veto power individuals playing have to keep a consistent feel to their "owned" element.

The ritual phrases also gently, over time, define character capabilities through what amounts to building group consensus, while still allowing a high degree of self definition by the owning player. For example, what a PC described as physically powerful can accomplish in the game is not predefined by a pregame numerical value, but rather by what other players ask for definitions of (or challenge descriptions of ) or not, during play, especially over longer term play.

I think Archipelago also highlights what Jay was talking about in the earlier thread, in regard to the "dangerous" part of Sim gaming: You're absolutely putting yourself out there emotionally vulnerably with your contributions and descriptions. It's a GM-less game. Every time you describe something...yeah, you are going to have that contribution judged by the group as a whole, who can invoke a couple of different methods which, though polite and relatively gentle, do indeed tell you that as far as their concerned, your most recent creative input may be at least somewhat at odds with their idea of the shared aesthetic/myth/SIS/whateveryacallit.

And if that happens, you're going to have to rework, in some fashion great or small , that contribution, at that very moment, on the fly. No pressure, right?

Anyway, I don't Archipelago is, by far, the only way to do Sim supportive design. But it is the first really good example that I encountered that really, truly jumped far enough away from the wargamey mechanical roots of mainstream, 1990s Sim attempting designs and support methods that I could really start to envision other possible design directions.

I think Archipelago is also notable in that, while I first heard about it in discussion at The Forge, Archipelago really came from a different strain of rpg design thinking than what was popular either at Thee Forge or in mainstream design.

For one thing, It just wasn't the rules-wrapped, hardcore, rules-must-matter-because-system-matters, hyperfocussed designs that were popular at the time at TF. It was a bit more laid back and conversational, and, despite the "danger" I talked about regarding contributions, gives off a vibe of in-game-group supportiveness.

OTOH, it differed from mainstream design in being short but pretty much complete for what it did, rather than taking the approach of putting in all sorts of world sim/physics sim mechanics, describing a setting , then telling the tome reader in the GM section to just throw out whatever they felt like in actual game play. Since Archipelago was so removed from wargaming roots in its methods/mechanics, their lack of existence meant that sort of reflexive grasping at Gamism I've seen in attempts by groups to be a bit less game-y simply wasn't possible.

I'm not saying it's completely impossible to have a personal gamist approach and attempt to bring it into an Archipelago session, but you're going to need a whole lot of redefinition of how you interpret and enact gamism. You'd be definitely swimming against the current to do it.

OTOH, you can absolutely still have high adventure, combat, swashbuckling and derring-do as part of the session. It's just not done with the same emphasis or type of mechanical support for challenge as you'll find in other games. In Archipelago, you may well end up describing to the other players why your uber-competent PC had a horrible time trying to accomplish their short term goal and nearly died in the attempt in a scene. It won't be because of rolled results and combat tables, but due to your improvised response to the challenges presented by other players' uses of the ritual phrases, the outcome cards, if used, and possibly even the soft veto power of the aspect ownership coming into play.

Silmenume's picture

Hi komradebob,

It appears that our analyses were closer than anticipated and that's good news to me!

While I tend to like the description "celebrating the source material" when talking about sim, it does tend to be a term that derails the conversation. After all, how can you celebrate source material when you're in the process of creating it? :D

I've always had problems with the phrase "celebrating the source material" because its usage does frequently derail conversations about Sim. It certainly helps to have source material but it isn't strictly necessary as even myths have to start somewhere. The important point that I've been trying and failing to communicate is that it is the process of Sim that makes the Agenda, i.e., engaging in mythic bricolage. One of the qualities of myth production that is so very difficult to understand is the while a person is creating it feels like discovering. The new material produced feels as if it was always in the mythic corpus but just found in the moment. Myths cover all of the universe so if something novel is found it is worked into the myth as if it had always been there and see! it already was covered by the myth which "proves" that the myth does indeed cover all circumstances and events. In terms of a game we can "celebrate" (ugh, I really hate that word) the new created material as it "feels" as if it was always a part of the myth/world but just newly discovered. Its just a quirk of how the human mind and myth work. We are both creators and consumers at the same time and there is no sense of switching roles. It "feels" as all one process with no demarcations.

Archipelago does a great job of creating and celebrating source material at the same time. It's contains a tool box full of gentle methods for getting players on the same page, helping them build up a common shared aesthetic, then further develop it through playing their characters.

The genius of this is that the designers are teaching western engineering thinkers how to think mythically without drawing attention to the fact that the players are learning this new way of thinking. This teaching by not teaching is brilliant both in its subtlety and its effectiveness. One of the keys to making it work is the total lack of abstractions. There are no resolution mechanics, tables, numbers, dice, etc.; its all accomplished through assigning initial, personal and important meanings to the concrete things (the Setting via the map, the important elements that players take ownership of) that are tied back to the players or PC's. Those are all the first steps of creating a new myth. A real world object is imparted with a meaning that reflects some quality of the object yet holds some importance to the person doing the assigning. That is the first step. A thing, a concrete object, now stands in for a meaning is now available to be used in conjunction with other concrete objects that have been imparted with personal meanings to create and illuminate a more complex idea by their juxtaposition verbally. Archipelago III starts the players on this very process in a clever and direct manner. This process is shockingly easy to do but extremely difficult to articulate.

The gentleness of the methods you mentioned is inherent to myth production. That you noticed it does help to highlight the harshness of Western Abstract Thinking methods. Those hit point losses are brutal, inflexible and unyielding. 6 hit points is 6 hit points is 6 hit points. You’ve reached your sanity max so now you’re insane. There's no art or shading or loveliness to it - it just is, its objective, its emotionless, it’s without a “point of view”. It might mean something in light of the rest of the out of game abstractions but in and of itself it carries no entailments, it exists outside the SIS with its razor sharp edges and adamant hardness. Then there is the process of adapting those abstractions to the SIS as an additional step, giving those abstractions meanings within the SIS. On the other side of the spectrum there are out of SIS tools that require you to talk about the conflict you're looking to create and then bring in those elements needed to make the scene happen even if that means putting the logic of the myth in second place in order to make it happen. While there can be discussions about what to do next in Archipelago they are strictly grounded in the concrete elements of the here and now. IOW that conversation happens using the meaning structures of the myth where as in Nar those conversations happen at the abstracted level with “my character” or “I’ve got to buy off 11 points of negative karma in this scene because I’m a Wizard?” As kludgy as those example are they do serve to highlight the difference between how different the arid abstract vs the messy “concrete” of myth feels in play. It may be difficult to get to condition you want with my because of all the entailments involved but that’s half the fun but myth always functions at a deeply personal subjective level.

Anyway, I don't Archipelago is, by far, the only way to do Sim supportive design.

I totally and whole heartedly agree. I hope I didn’t give that impression. Especially given all that I’ve written about in my game and very, very different it is from Archipelago III. I does demonstrate what I’ve been pulling my hair out for years about very nicely – you do not need deterministic abstract mechanics to play Sim. In fact I’ve been arguing that such mechanics are anathema to Sim. Myth is its own “resolution mechanic” and it functions completely differently than Western Engineered deterministic mechanics. Myth and Sim operate at the concrete level for better or worse (depending on player interests) and abstracted rules completely break the subjective, first person feel and function of the myth. What’s absolutely brilliant about this game is that the designers completely embraced this idea. It could be more of an exploration of an idea game much as the early Narrativist games from the Forge were years ago. The game I play in does have numbers and such but they are not used as abstractions but rather as reminders to us players about intangibles. There’s no abstracted meaning attached to them like STR 17 means I can lift 250 lbs. It means that I am stronger than most and can lift or move a fair amount. I’ll find out from the reports of my efforts as they are reported by the GM into the SIS.

I do totally agree that the lack of any deterministic resolution mechanics makes drift in Gamism very difficult. It really forces the player to engage in a new way of thinking, which is exactly what Sim is. It forces the players to really focus on the SIS as the primary source of action and information. In some very unsatisfying way requiring tremendous creativity I suppose players could Step On Up against each other on some meta level but like I said I think it would very unsatisfying. I also think the Narrativist would be stymied by the lack of tools to keep the game focused on the important questions and issues.

Finally your last paragraph is a great summary of the power of the game. What I really haven’t discussed is how the “owners” of the aspects make their decisions of what is allowable and what isn’t. The long and short is that they are looking and thinking in myth to make those decisions. While I’m glossing over this a tremendous amount this is absolutely critical to understanding how myth works and why it is important to this game. More than anything else it is these decisions point that we see 100% myth functioning and they totally underpin the game process and game experience. There is so much to say on this topic but I’m tired and getting lazy.