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More DMing analysis from Lewis Pulsipher

In the early numbers of White Dwarf Lewis Pulsipher (who posts on these boards as [MENTION=30518]lewpuls[/MENTION]) had a series of advice articles on playing D&D. I talked about one of these in an earlier thread. In this thread, I want to talk about the following passage (first published in White Dwarf 24, April 1981 - reprinted in Best of White Dwarf 2):

Basic D&D styles range from the "simulation" through "wargame" to "absurd" and finally "novel". As one moves along this continuum the DM's procedures become less rigorous. . . .

The simulationist wants to reflect reality as much as possible. A fight with a broadsword and chainmail ought to work just as it did in the Middle Ages. . . . These people have no place in D&D; D&D is solidly in the wargame camp, and simulationists should try Chivalry & Sorcery or make up their own games.

The "wargame" style is how D&D is designed to be played. . . . As much as possible, all that happens should be believable . . . if you read it in a fantasy novel. . . .

[T]he "absurd" style condones unbelievable occurences. . . . Monsters such as a "spelling bee" may appear, causing magic-users to foul up spells by misspelling them. This style is great for laughs when played occasionally . . . The average game tends to fall between wargame and absurd game.

Finally we have the "novel" style. . . . [T]he DM writes an oral novel in which the players are participating characters. This can be pretty bad, but the players don't mind because they're helping "write" it. In such games the DM may make up everything as he goes along.

As one passes along the continuum one finds that players are most passive in the novel style and most active in the wargame style. (The simulation style stresses realism so much that the characters tend to be hostage to the dice, the rules, and the DM.)​

I think this is pretty interesting stuff, especially considering it was written over 30 years ago!

I like the basic analysis of the styles. As someone who has GMed a lot in the "simulation" style (not C&S, nor my own game, but Rolemaster, which was published in 1982), I agree that there are challenges in preserving player agency in that sort of system. Rolemaster achieves this through three main devices - rather widespread magic, which allows the players to head off or reverse undesired but "realistic" outcomes; a skill system that makes it fairly easy for a player to get big numbers in the abilities s/he wants for his/her PC, thereby dominating over the vagaries of the dice in action resolution; and a rather complex combat system which makes player choices about how to allocate combat bonuses from round to round very important in determining how the declared actions actually resolve.

I also like the "novel" style, however (and have combined it with the "simulation" style in GMing RM, and the "wargame" style in GMing 4e). I think there are two main devices for preserving player agency in the "novel" style. The first is putting limits around when and how the GM can make things up: a clear distinction has to be drawn between making up backstory and framing scenes by reference to it, and action resolution. A GM has to do the first if the players are to get the experience of being their characters in the story; but if the GM also just makes up outcomes, then the players didn't exercise agency at all (except perhaps at PC generation).

The second device is the complement to this restraint on GMs: the action resolution mechanics have to let the players actually make their mark on the story. Of mainstream FRPGs 4e is the best game I know for this. Once you move into indie territory there are a range of other options (eg Burning Wheel or HeroWars).

The problem with railroading-type "novel" games like the original Dragonlance modules, or a lot of Planescape material, is that they tend not to use these devices. There tends to be an emphasis on pre-plotting, which of course means that outcomes have to be pre-determined, which means that the GM is not just controlling framing but resolution. And the actual game systems tend to lack action resolution mechanics that the players can use to affect the content of the fiction (especially outside of content) - most action declarations are mediated through very strong and wide-ranging GM judgement calls, which once again means that the players aren't exercising agency.

Conversely, once a game includes rules that the players can use to affect the fiction, and that are not hostage to free-ranging GM judgement calls, then we have something the mechanically looks very like the "wargaming" style, even if the purpose and aesthetics of play isn't quite the same as what Gygax and Pulsipher had in mind.

Mapping Pulsipher's terminology onto Ron Edwards' terminology, I would say that:

simulaton = purist-for-system simulation
wargaming (on its own) = skill-based step-on-up
absurd = luck-based step-on-up
novel (on its own) = high concept simulation
wargaming + novel (combined as described above) = story now

Given that D&D didn't really set out to facilitate "story now" play until 4e, and that "story now" clearly remains a very contentious approach to playing D&D, I think Pulsipher's classification does a pretty good job. It seems to me to capture the same distinctions in GMing and RPGing that Ron Edwards thought were worth drawing 20 years later.
 

wedgeski

Villager
Very interesting post.

pemerton said:
The simulationist wants to reflect reality as much as possible. A fight with a broadsword and chainmail ought to work just as it did in the Middle Ages. . . . These people have no place in D&D; D&D is solidly in the wargame camp, and simulationists should try Chivalry & Sorcery or make up their own games.
Can you only imagine what would happen if that passage appeared in a modern D&D rulebook?
 

Emerikol

Villager
Very interesting post.


Can you only imagine what would happen if that passage appeared in a modern D&D rulebook?
That is because nowadays the "simulationists" are the GNS kind and not the Avalon Hill/SPI kind.

The wargame group is probably where most of the self proclaimed "simulationists" sit nowadays. I"ve tried to get away from the term because I think people misunderstand the forge definitions (including me at times) and thus I've charted my own course.

Brad Wylie (Bawylie on here and wotc) came up with some terms that I've found useful. I found them useful because they tended to encompass a few things that other classifications didn't. For example, I don't consider damage on a miss a Dissociative mechanic but I do believe it lacks Narrative Mechanical Unity. To qualify as a DS mechanic the character has to be unaware and I would consider that a requirement in the DoaM case. Whereas it fails the NMU test right out of the gate.

So I've come around to saying that I want
1. A high degree of narrative mechanical unity.
2. I do not want any dissociative mechanics.
3. Corrollary to #1: I want to be able to narrate my damage and my healing however I want at any time.
4. DM empowered.
5. Players acting through their actors and not making metagame decisions outside the character viewpoint.


From a mechanics perspective that is my "playstyle" minimums. Obviously there are tons of other things that a DM does to make a game his own.
1. Sandbox (players choose their adventures)
2. Living World (intense prep up front and lots of Npcs/monsters with agendas independent of the PCs)
3. World Design: Top Down on the big stuff and bottom up on the finer details.
4. Realistic monster play based on their intelligence and known tactics and not on what the PCs are doing necessarily unless that fits into what the monsters could know.
 

Savage Wombat

Adventurer
Hmm. Every article or discussion I remember about GNS and game style tends to focus on the desires of players, or of the group/campaign as a whole.

I'd be interested to hear more about how the desires of the DM specifically are reflected by game style.

(If anyone has a good link, please post it.)
 
I take issue with the idea that those labels lie along a continuum, which implies that they are exclusive or near-exclusive elements.

Instead, I see all of those elements present in all RPGs, to varying amounts. Some games may stress the novel over simulation, or the absurd over the game mechanics, but all games must account for all of these elements to some degree or another. The particular mix of elements is what defines an RPG genre (broadly) or individual RPG (specifically).

D&D over the years has reduced its "absurd" content; seen its "simulation" content rise and then fall; and seen it "game" content fall and then rise (to a peak with 4E) and now fall again somewhat with 5E. I'd argue that 5E is less "novel" than either of the two editions that preceded it.

None of these observations are judgments; individual gamers will favor different mixes of elements, which explains why and how so many different types of RPGs can exist side by side, and why despite many generations of D&D all of them continue to be played side-by-side.
 

Ed_Laprade

Villager
I remember this from back in the day. Thought it was one of Lew's better pieces. Of course, people ragged on him some for being too linear, but I think most of us took the idea of most games having a little of several styles mixed in with the main style as a given by then. Or not. :)
 
Hmm. Every article or discussion I remember about GNS and game style tends to focus on the desires of players, or of the group/campaign as a whole.

I'd be interested to hear more about how the desires of the DM specifically are reflected by game style.

(If anyone has a good link, please post it.)
I haven't got any links, but I can say a bit more how Pulsipher's article addresses this. (In parts that I didn't quote.)

He mostly takes for granted that the GM will be the main determinant of playstyle. He gives the following advice to GMs:

When you choose a style, keep the preferences of your potential players in mind.​

And he gives the following advice to players:

The most important thing to remeber about D&D is that the nature of play depends on the DM. If you try it once and dislike it, in many cases it will be dislike of a particular style rather than of the game itself. I have known players who tries "absurd D&D" and decided D&D was a lousy game; but when persuaded to try "wargamer's D&D they loved it.​

And in an earlier article in the same series, he writes:

I know of people who tied D&D and didn't like it, but who becamse enthusiastic about it as played by my group; and there were those who played frequently elsewhere but never cared for our kind of game.​

Personally, I think this is all pretty good stuff. It's down to earth. It's up-front about the author's own preferences. And it's ecumenical about what counts as RPGing.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Hmm. Every article or discussion I remember about GNS and game style tends to focus on the desires of players, or of the group/campaign as a whole.

I'd be interested to hear more about how the desires of the DM specifically are reflected by game style.

(If anyone has a good link, please post it.)
However, aren't the DMs players also? Whatever the game design or style, it is usually cooperative, in my experience - or at least is best served when it is.
 

Savage Wombat

Adventurer
However, aren't the DMs players also? Whatever the game design or style, it is usually cooperative, in my experience - or at least is best served when it is.
Well, for starters, any statement about "character immersion" is moot when it comes to a DM. So he's clearly not going to be in it for that.
 
Very interesting post.
Thanks.

That is because nowadays the "simulationists" are the GNS kind and not the Avalon Hill/SPI kind.

The wargame group is probably where most of the self proclaimed "simulationists" sit nowadays.
GNS "simulatinists" includes (but isn't limited to) Avalon Hill/SPI simulationists. DragonQuest, RQ, Rolemaster, C&S, HARP, GURPS - all are example of what Edwards call "purist-for-system" simulation.

Self-proclaimd simulationists on these boards probably do sit mostly in the "wargame" camp, but most of them are not simulationists in the GNS sense (at least, not purist-for-system sim). For instance, they tolerate hit points as a health mechanic and turn-by-turn initiative as an action economy - whereas I think it is probably universal across purist-for-system simulationist RPGs is getting rid of these D&Disms.

Can you only imagine what would happen if that passage appeared in a modern D&D rulebook?
Mmmm.

I think in the 80s games like RQ, RM, C&S etc were on many more radars than they are now. I could be wrong, but I get a sense that many D&D players who think of themselves as "sim" have no real exposure to these serious simulationist systems.
 

Starfox

Villager
I take issue with the idea that those labels lie along a continuum, which implies that they are exclusive or near-exclusive elements.

Instead, I see all of those elements present in all RPGs, to varying amounts.
I agree very strongly. I feel an important aspect of game design is how much of these elements you mannage to squeeze into your game without making it mechanically cumbersome. A good design has more of both G, N, and S (or whatever metrics you choose to measure it by). A poor design is either overloaded and becomes cumbersome, or too lightweight in some aspect I feel is needed.
 
I take issue with the idea that those labels lie along a continuum, which implies that they are exclusive or near-exclusive elements.

Instead, I see all of those elements present in all RPGs, to varying amounts. Some games may stress the novel over simulation, or the absurd over the game mechanics, but all games must account for all of these elements to some degree or another.
I feel an important aspect of game design is how much of these elements you mannage to squeeze into your game without making it mechanically cumbersome. A good design has more of both G, N, and S (or whatever metrics you choose to measure it by). A poor design is either overloaded and becomes cumbersome, or too lightweight in some aspect I feel is needed.
You two seem to be talking about the design of an RPG.

Pulsipher (and also Edwards, to whom I drew a comparison) is talking about playstyle - with an assumption that is the GM, first and foremost, who drives playstyle.

When you are talking about what it is that is prioritised by a particular GM, it's hard to prioritise (say) realism-simulation and (say) absurdity at the same time.

I explained in the OP what I think a game looked like that tried to prioritise story together with wargame-style player agency (ie Story Now).

Are their other particular combinations that are viable?

You can't prioritise wargame (skill) and absurdity (luck) at the same time. They're in opposition.

Wargame and realism-sim are possibly at odds, for the reasons that Pulsipher gives. I think those reasons apply to Runequest, for instance. I tried to explain in my OP how I think it is that RM can be used to try and support both at once - but it's still an issue even using that system (eg "realistic" crit roles are a much bigger burden on player agency than D&D's hp system; I gather many pre-Saga Star Wars players had the same problem with wound/vitality).

I don't think you can aim for both absurd and novel/story, because luck and randomness are at odds with storytelling.

That leaves realism-sim and the novel/story style. I think these are very deeply at odds, because fundamental to stories is contrivance (which in RPGs means metagame), whereas fundamental to realism-sim is the absence of contrivance/metagame. But I think my view on this point is contested by some, perhaps many, who think that you can get a novel/story game out of realistic sim. I think experiences playing Traveller or RQ could shed light on this (I've played both, but haven't tried to get novel/story style play out of either).
 

Emerikol

Villager
Thanks.

GNS "simulatinists" includes (but isn't limited to) Avalon Hill/SPI simulationists. DragonQuest, RQ, Rolemaster, C&S, HARP, GURPS - all are example of what Edwards call "purist-for-system" simulation.

Self-proclaimd simulationists on these boards probably do sit mostly in the "wargame" camp, but most of them are not simulationists in the GNS sense (at least, not purist-for-system sim). For instance, they tolerate hit points as a health mechanic and turn-by-turn initiative as an action economy - whereas I think it is probably universal across purist-for-system simulationist RPGs is getting rid of these D&Disms.
There is little benefit to arguing about what GNS means versus what I'd call dictionary defined simulation. Personally I the they aren't that related.

I have quit calling myself a simulationist because there is so much confusion whether it is mine or others doesn't matter. The word repeatedly fails to convey what I mean and it represents all kinds of things to other people some of which have to be confused since they don't agree.

My own playstyle is primarily focused on maintaining actor stance as much as possible. I also want narrative mechanical unity. I want to avoid dissociative mechanics and if anyone wants to argue that I'm fine for purposes of my game defining it as anything I say it is. My players and I all agree on what it is anyway so we are good.

I prefer a well designed living world that the players discover. I do not want players creating the world as the game unfolds. I want a DM empowered game with an open ended system.

So however you want to define me is fine. I know what I want and it is great fun for me and my players. We are not bound at all to playing a "supported" game.
 

Starfox

Villager
You two seem to be talking about the design of an RPG.
Well, yes. I was talking about which playstyles (creative agendas in Forge-speak) a system can support. Which was at least an angle in the original quotation, as it was mentioned that Chivalry and Sorcery supported playstyles that DnD did not.
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
It's funny, I recall a lot of old articles about types of players or DMs - what today we'd call playstyle - and they didn't generally call out this or that game as an appropriate place of exile for a disfavored one. It's interesting to see this one case where the author does just that: he exiles simulationists to C&S. I had recalled articles like this being in the context of a single game - usually D&D, though there was a good one for Champions! that I recall, too - and painting a picture of many types of players & GMs using that game.

I thought the idea that stylistic preferences should break up groups, sub-divide fanbases, build echo chambers, and segregate gamers into various option ghettos was a very new one, a child of the Edition War. I guess not. Rose colored hindsight and all, I suppose.



I have quit calling myself a simulationist because there is so much confusion whether it is mine or others doesn't matter. The word repeatedly fails to convey what I mean and it represents all kinds of things to other people some of which have to be confused since they don't agree.
Probably a good idea. A simulation isn't even a game. In a game, the goal is to have fun. In a simulation, the goal is to be accurate. They're often incompatible goals.

My own playstyle is primarily focused on maintaining actor stance as much as possible. I also want narrative mechanical unity. I want to avoid dissociative mechanics and if anyone wants to argue that I'm fine for purposes of my game defining it as anything I say it is.
Lol. Give up on 'simulation,' and GNS but add in another forge theory, and 5 more words that people are going to have quibbles with over the definitions.
 

lewpuls

Explorer
More recent points of view

Always interesting to read something I wrote more than 30 years ago. These days I wonder whether I'll agree with stuff from my "Game Design" book published in 2012 when I read it again, let alone the 30+ year stuff.

Some styles are certainly at odds. For example, "game designer" and "fiction writer" are opposite ends of a spectrum. See my recent screencast http:[two slashes]youtu.be/Gl9EMszhYNo . Also see http:[two slashes]youtu.be/tZV8GGP5sio (Interesting Decisions vs Wish Fulfillment).

While an individual role-playing game can support many styles, if the referee chooses, some games fit a particular style more than others. See "Cinematic RPGs and Huge RPG Books"
http:[two slashes]pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2011/10/cinematic-rpgs-and-huge-rpg-books.html

Lew Pulsipher - sorry ENWorld won't let me post actual links
 

Manbearcat

Adventurer
That leaves realism-sim and the novel/story style. I think these are very deeply at odds, because fundamental to stories is contrivance (which in RPGs means metagame), whereas fundamental to realism-sim is the absence of contrivance/metagame. But I think my view on this point is contested by some, perhaps many, who think that you can get a novel/story game out of realistic sim. I think experiences playing Traveller or RQ could shed light on this (I've played both, but haven't tried to get novel/story style play out of either).
I think the realism-sim + novel/story style might be CoC.

Now the (possibly inevitable) progeny of the triumvirate of wargaming + realism-sim + novel/story style has to be illusionism. As a natural (and consistent - this is important) outgrowth of actual play, wargaming + realism-sim + novel/story style literally cannot simultaneously produce:

1) Player agency and legitimacy of the action resolution mechanics

2) Off-screen evolution of setting elements that are constrained by fidelity to (a) resolution of player-declared actions, (b) objective modelling of a stochastic system (such as a living, breathing world), and (c) the interest of dramatic conflict and its climax and denouement. A-C absolutely push against each other so they are impossible.

3) Assured dramatic on-screen conflict and in-kind dramatic outcomes.

So, I think the only way the perception of those things come together is if the GM suspends 1 (secretly) when required to attain 3, and suspends some or all of (a) or (c) in 2 as required to maintain the overall illusion of the three agendas working in harmony (rather than the total discord that inevitably emerges as they push against each other).
 

Starfox

Villager
While an individual role-playing game can support many styles, if the referee chooses, some games fit a particular style more than others. See
"Cinematic RPGs and Huge RPG Books".

Also see

Lew Pulsipher - sorry ENWorld won't let me post actual links
Tried to fix that for you.

Now the (possibly inevitable) progeny of the triumvirate of wargaming + realism-sim + novel/story style has to be illusionism...
Illusionism is somewat derogatory; I prefer protagonism. Basically it is the same thing, but openly declared; "We're going to play out this story, please make this kind of characters and I might give you pointers now and then if the story derails". Most of my games are like this, and most of the games I've played in, with a fairly sandboxy setting. You can do whatever you want within the constraints of the agreed-upon story. I use a story (like an adventure path) as the basics and then add "filler" either at PC request or (much more common) that fit the situation. My players know this is how it is done and agree to it.

The Paizo adventure paths, and specifically the players guides that come with them, are very much in this vein, so I think it can be said to be pretty mainstream.

Basically, I am saying you're right, and that it is not a problem.
 

LostSoul

Villager
So, I think the only way the perception of those things come together is if the GM suspends 1 (secretly) when required to attain 3, and suspends some or all of (a) or (c) in 2 as required to maintain the overall illusion of the three agendas working in harmony (rather than the total discord that inevitably emerges as they push against each other).
I played in that game on Friday night.

Funny thing is that I knew that going in and was okay with it, but the DM made it difficult: I had a pretty good idea of where he wanted to take his story, and I was cool with that, but he kept bringing up 2.b (maintaining the fidelity of the world) in a way that made it difficult for me to go along with his dramatic pre-set plot. And then he'd throw in 3 in a post-hoc way.

The game was d20 Modern. I was played a WWII vet who ended up in the Groom Lake airbase in 1948 and witnessed an extra-dimensional attack. I knew the story required my PC to head through the portal from which the aliens were attacking, so I tried to get my motorcycle on their ship in a pretty crazy manoeuvre. The DM didn't think that would work. Which left me confused - I knew he wanted me to act like a hero and do stuff like that, but then he made it impossible. Then he contrived to have an alien pod-ship crashed on the ground with all its occupants killed but somehow the pod-ship was perfectly fine.

I thought that was a very strange decision on the DM's part. I've run games like that before - Star Wars - but I think you need to make sure that, as the DM, you work with the players (and vice-versa). When they jump into the river you carry them along the current, you don't trap them in an eddy.
 
It's funny, I recall a lot of old articles about types of players or DMs - what today we'd call playstyle - and they didn't generally call out this or that game as an appropriate place of exile for a disfavored one. It's interesting to see this one case where the author does just that: he exiles simulationists to C&S.

<snip>

I thought the idea that stylistic preferences should break up groups, sub-divide fanbases, build echo chambers, and segregate gamers into various option ghettos was a very new one, a child of the Edition War. I guess not.
I think you're looking at this too pessimistically.

While there was a reasonable amount of simulation snobbery of C&S, RM etc players against D&D, I think it was also healthy that there were flourishing systems and fanbases to support a variety of playsytles. I certainly read a lot of posts from self-describes "sim" D&D players (mostly 3E) on these boards and wonder why they aren't playing one of those other systems (HARP is probably the simplest of them currently on offer, at least of the ones I know, and it has a simple Fate Point mechanic to mitigate the worst excesses of random crit rolls against PCs).

A simulation isn't even a game. In a game, the goal is to have fun. In a simulation, the goal is to be accurate. They're often incompatible goals.
This is a little unfair. I've never played C&S (though I have a copy of one of the later editions). But I've played RQ, and I've played a lot of RM. Pulsipher's characterisation of those systems, and also his comment that D&D can't deliver that, fits accurately with my experiences. And I know from experience that those systems can be fun!

I think the realism-sim + novel/story style might be CoC.
Interesting. As I said in my OP, I've tried to use RM for that, but there are problems. I can see how CoC avoids them: because the players aren't meant to exercise must agency, the fact that the system overrides that agency isn't a problem. And that loss of agency is precisely the story that is meant to be produced.

Now the (possibly inevitable) progeny of the triumvirate of wargaming + realism-sim + novel/story style has to be illusionism.

<snip breakdown>

I think the only way the perception of those things come together is if the GM suspends 1 (secretly) when required to attain 3, and suspends some or all of (a) or (c) in 2 as required to maintain the overall illusion of the three agendas working in harmony (rather than the total discord that inevitably emerges as they push against each other).
Looks right to me!

Also, [MENTION=386]LostSoul[/MENTION], I've probably been guilty of being that GM on occasions in the past - especially in my early RM days - as I haven't known properly how to keep all my balls in the air!

Illusionism is somewat derogatory; I prefer protagonism. Basically it is the same thing, but openly declared;

<snip>

The Paizo adventure paths, and specifically the players guides that come with them, are very much in this vein, so I think it can be said to be pretty mainstream.
I think you are correct that it is pretty mainstream. I think that mainstream-ness may be what informs your post upthread (and also [MENTION=5868]Olgar Shiverstone[/MENTION]) saying that a good RPG should do all 4 playstyles at once.

I guess my question is, in what sense is this sort of play really giving you wargaming or realism-sim? If the GM manipulates action resolution to produce the plot-appropriate outcomes, where is the wargaming? And how is the game being run as a sim? Those aren't rhetorical questions, they're genuine. But they're also sceptical to this limited extent: that when I've seen, or played under, GMs running this sort of game, it plays out pretty much as Pulsipher describes in his article: player skill and choice is subordinated to the GM's priorities.

But I'm sure I haven't seen everything there is to see under the sun!
 

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