Once upon a time (about six months ago), I stumbled on some pretty good games via reviews on RPG.net and 20×20 room. The first of these was My Life With Master, which was so different in a lot of ways from what I tended to think of as a role-playing game that I wasn’t even sure if it really was a roleplaying game.
It was, however, cool as hell. That I knew.
Reading through the thing and the notes in the back led me to some sites I’d been to before, off and on, but never really delved into too much — Momento-Mori and the number of games available for download there (notably InSpectres, which was a real mind-blowing ‘investigation’ game), and the Forge.
Stuff on the Forge led me to reading up on quite a number of other games whose goals all seemed to be pretty novel and very interesting to me as a GM and even moreso as a player: Sorcerer, Urge, Trollbabe, Dust Devils, Donjon, Paladin, Universalis, et cetera.
These were, I found out, products of folks working on building “Narrativist” games, a style (dare I say “movement”) of games built not (usually) to test out new game mechanics or (necessarily) to create an incredibly detailed setting — but to explore a character dealing with conflict.
“Umm… dude… that’s like… every RPG… ever?”
Well, that’s not to say that other games… older games… didn’t give you a session or a campaign where you got to deal with character conflict. Most every game out there does… that’s sort of the point.
What the narrativist guys were doing was talking about the Literary definition of conflict — that means “a question is posed within the story (overtly or covertly), and the protagonist answers that question through his or her actions.”
So: A ballroom full of hobgoblins that you have to get through to save the princess is not a conflict in these terms; it’s a challenge (which those Forge guys then associated with “Gamist” styles of player).
A conflict by this definition would be something like: “You’ve been given great power. How will that change you?”
The players then play the game, and their characters’ actions define their answers.
Peter Parker’s actions say: Great Power means I must now be responsible.
Bruce Banner’s actions say: Great Power exposes my greatest faults.
Logan’s actions say: Great Power just raises more questions for me.
What I’m going to do below is talk about three styles of play that the folks on the Forge use when talking about game group dynamics, and use examples of both Games and Example Moments from Actual Play to illustrate what I think each style means in the real world.
I don’t know if any of this will be useful to anyone but me — that’s okay, since it’s mostly just me working on figuring it out.
Let’s start with Gamism:
Gamism is expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters, both short-term and long-term, that reflect on the people’s actual play strategies. The listed elements provide an arena for the competition.
What’s the point?
I think it’s really more important to illustrate the kinds of situations that a Gamist player is going to enjoy. The key thing with Gamist play is the ability of the player to build a character that can face the challenges of the setting competently, because facing those challenges are where they really enjoy themselves.
Key point: this isn’t hack-n-slash. This isn’t being a munchkin. This is using the game system to address a situation tactically, beating the challenge through use of those tactics and by taking on measured risk (via your character).
I’ve seen this style of play in practically any system, because it’s been built into the hobby pretty much since it’s inception, but just to really stick in the craw of everyone else reading this, I’m going to say that the two best Actual Play examples I have that illustrate this style of play come from d20 and Amber DRPG.
Randy tells a story (with no small amount of justifiable enjoyment) of a scene he had as a player in (I think) one of John Barne’s games. His character (or his character’s house, I’m not entirely sure of the details) was attacked while in a bathtub. Dripping wet, unarmed, naked, he had to get through the house, dealing with the challenges as he encountered them, using only the tools immediately at his disposal (including judicious use of his Power Words) in order to recover the situation and win the day.
A Great story. Not in the narrative/lit sense of the word, but a great story, and perfect illustration of Gamist play… Randy used his knowledge of the system and his character (as abstracted within the ADRPG rules) as well as measured amounts of Character Risk in a tactical way to face the challenge and win.
In one of the last sessions I ever played with my Living Greyhawk character Gwydion, Jackie and I participated in a “classic” style game: lots of monsters, lots of clues, lots of traps, lots of magic, lots of careful resource management to be able to counteract attrition and be ready for the Big Ending Fight.
During the last big encounter, I pulled a couple of ‘tricks’ with the d20 system (which I know passing well) in order to… well, let’s say I did a number of things that would normally have stood a damn good chance of killing me but, thanks to my knowledge of the system, I managed to pull all of them off largely unscathed and left a couple of the other players sort of staring and shaking their heads in awe (well, that’s how I saw it, anyway 🙂 It was just knowing and using commonly-known rules that everyone is familiar with and no one remembers in the heat of a fight.
Gamist players I know:
Randy. Jackie. Myself. This isn’t to say that this is the only style of game these folks play — the fact of the matter is everyone does a little bit of every style, all the time. That said, in my nascent understanding of the term, this is the style of play they instinctly move toward.
Simulationism is expressed as enhancing Character (a fictional person or entity), Setting (the place where the character is, in the broadest sense (esp. including history as well as location)), Color (any situation or details or illustrations or nuances that provide atmosphere); in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play. The players are usually greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.
What’s the point?
Setting & Situation is a huge deal for Sim play: the main point of a Sim-style game is that it provides the ability for the character to dig down into the setting and wallow around in it — it’s very important for a Sim-style player to be able to build characters that really feel like they “fit” in the setting and work as an illustration of the setting or situation. If the system itself fights against your ability to build an ‘accurate’ character for the setting (if you’re forced to shoe-horn a pre-designed faux-medieval Cleric class into a role as a tribal witchdoctor), that’s bad.
Once upon a time I said Amber would be a good example of this kind of game style, but I don’t think that’s really true — most Amber players I know are not in it to “feel like they’re in Amber” — there’s other stuff going on.
No, for Sim, setting & situation is King, so I’m going to point out Star Wars (regardless of game system) as probably the best example of a popular Sim (at some point, anyone I game with has heard me say “Star Wars gaming is like sex — even if it’s bad, it’s still Star Wars.” That said, any very popular game-setting would probably qualify for some players: Forgotten Realms, In Nomine, Vampire, Shadowrun… whatever. Everyone has their own interests in this regard — sometimes this interest can be seen in folks who really jones on the quantitative in-game differences between different gun calibers in a Twilight 2000 game — it’s depends on where your feeling of ‘being there’ comes from.
If you’ve ever heard someone say some variation of: “I don’t really care what system we use as long as we’re doing a [setting] game, and it can do that setting right.” Well, that’s a Sim priority talking.
Sim players I know:
What’s interesting about Sim is that it’s the Grand-daddy that no one really knows — it’s so much at the heart of most role-playing (and the very definitions of role-playing) that it’s almost too big to think about — no matter what game you’re playing, you’re going to be playing within a setting, right?
Right. So, in this instance, you’re looking for the players whose main ‘instinct’ is interest the setting. To that end, I’d say Margie and Dave have strong Sim interests. Of course, as I mentioned above with regards to Star Wars (as well as a detail-obsession with firearms), I’m very into Sim at times as well.
Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme*. The characters are formal protagonists in the classic Lit 101 sense, and the players are often considered co-authors of events within the game. The listed elements provide the material for narrative conflict (again, in the specialized sense of literary analysis).
* – First, one of the most-common complaints about this definition is the line about ‘creating story’, since almost any set of events create a story, in the sense that you can recount what happened. That’s why I inserted a line into the definition that the Forge-definition assumes: In this definition, a “story” is one with a Theme, and a Theme is defined as “an answer to the question posed by the Premise. Lots of GMs and gaming groups don’t futz around with defining such things for their game — and that’s just fine: you still get a story, just not this kind of story that we’re talking about. Neither one is better or worse — it’s just a question of what you’re aiming for.
What’s the Point?
Narr (as a defined style of play) is the baby in the family. DnD started out being (mostly) equal parts Gamist and Sim, and that’s been the whole of the industry for a long time. It’s only been in the last five years or so that folks have started to recognize/realize that there’s a play-goal out there in the community that doesn’t match either of those goals above — it’s had lots of names: “Actor”, “Drama”, and most recently “Narrativist.”
It’s not better, it’s just another style. I’d say it’s not even a new style, actually: I have a baby-theory that some of the ‘recurring character’ phenomena that you sometimes see with players is a result of wanted to get that character out into actual play again so the player can take another shot at (forgive me the jargon) “answering their question”.
Just like Gamism and Sim, you’re looking for games that help you play this particular style. Until fairly recently, there hasn’t really been any game that was specifically designed with Narr goals in mind, but there were certainly games that let you ‘drift’ the rules in that direction. Champions 2nd & 3rd edition was almost equal parts of all three styles, and I think AmberDRPG is as well — I firmly believe that there are a lot of Amber players who play that game mostly because (and this is weird) Setting required a system that allowed a lot of the player-provided story-control that Narr play asks for: player (not necessarily character)-driven plots and control of scenes and events, conflict in the literary sense, et cetera.
More recently, as the definition of this style of play has matured, more games have come out that focus specifically on Narr play in general (Trollbabe, Sorcerer, Universalis) or on specific elements of Narr play (you’ve got InSpectres, OctaNe, and Donjon that play with varying levels of player-control of the session and stuff like Dust Devils, Paladin and MLWM that are all about the Conflict).
My current sorcerer game is one in which the players themselves have a tremendous amount of influence over the setting elements, plot points, and events in the game — a huge amount of that comes naturally from the rules of the game itself. I can’t do much more by way of example than point at the Actual Play for those (currently five) sessions, except to say that sessions 4 and 5 certainly started to boil away the bits of the story that aren’t scenes with real impact on the Premise (What will you give up for Knowledge and Power?) and the character’s answer to it.
Narr players I know:
Narr isn’t exactly ‘character-driven’ — that’s too easy. It is sort of the opposite of “my guy” syndrome (“My guy wouldn’t do that.”), in that it sometimes (often?) asks you to be one step removed from first person (a.k.a. “Actor) stance and make decisions based on the story, not on optimal tactics (gamist) or perfect reflection of the character (sim). Everyone I know can do this but this is really a matter of instinctively enjoying it. I think ***Dave likes this style of play as a player (he doesn’t particularly like it as a GM), which I attribute a lot to the kinds of characters he creates. Also, Narr control of scenes for players can really work for some GMs-turned-players, since they still get some of the story influence they obviously enjoy having (or they wouldn’t GM). That said, I enjoy this style of play a lot both as a GM (where it fits my style of game prep right down to the ground) and (potentially) as a player (I’ve only had one chance to try this out as a player, doing an online Paladin game recently).
Mixing it up:
I most recently put all this stuff into play in my last Sorcerer session. Knowing that I would have a couple ‘default gamist’ players (Jackie and Randy), as well as a Sim/Narr player (***Dave), and (equally important) a Narr GM (me), I prepared accordingly, making sure of gamist-style challenges open enough to encourage interesting and varied response, that the setting was sufficiently detailed, logical and coherent (sim), and that there would opportunities for the players to make thematic choices (narr).
I could go on at some length about how each player’s reactions to the session illustrated and strengthened the prep that I’d anticipated, but that’s probably grist for another post.
The astute (read: still conscious) reader will notice that I put myself in the list of “Players I know” for each of the styles. This was for a couple reasons:
- The simple fact is that no one likes to be labeled and I wanted to make it clear that I’m not assigning any “good/bad” to any of the styles of play — by acknowledging my enjoyment of each style I want to let folks know that I’m not (and never) pointing at someone and saying “Ahh, look at the funny Gamist!”
- I know myself well enough to know that I really do like all of these styles. Since I’m not a complete narcissist, I realize that this means that most folks probably like all three styles at different times as well — NO ONE is JUST ONE THING. The folks I put into those ‘example’ lists are there simply because they have an instinct preference that I’ve noticed — I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that they could just as easily be in any other group.
Hopefully this is not a complete waste of time to read. That said, it was at least useful for me to write. Thanks.