*The setting* as the focus of "simulationist" play

pemerton

Legend
Various threads - eg the "why rules?" thread, and the agency threads - have prompted some conversations with RPGing friends.

At least from my perspective, a recurring theme or element in discussion has been a contrast, between:

*Play where the players establish dramatic needs for their PCs, and these drive play (in part because the GM presents situations that speak to those dramatic needs);

*Play where the GM establishes the drivers of play.​

There are different ways of doing the second. One popular one involves the GM preparing, presenting and adjudicating a setting. One of my friends offered the following description of this way of using setting, which I though was pretty good. Here it is (as paraphrased by me):

In this sort of setting-focused play, what is central is the GM's orientation towards framing, and towards content introduction more generally. The GM is akin to a guide. (Which contrasts with the first approach above, where the GM is provoking the players to action based on the player-established dramatic need, and using the relevant system tools.) And the setting is the default protagonist: each NPC, each faction, each "side-quest" that the GM presents to the players, has its own dramatic need that propels play; and it's the players' job to get in on the action, and hopefully to find some overlapping interest with one or more of these setting elements.​

This approach also brings some related expectations and techniques (and here's some more paraphrase):

*Players must be willing to accept the role of the setting as default protagonists. In this sort of play, it is disruptive for a player to subvert the focus on the GM's presented elements, and to try and make play about their PC's own dramatic needs. (A label I've seen for such disruptive play is main character syndrome.)

*There is a very "breezy", relaxed approach to free play - ie the players declaring low-stakes exploratory actions for their PCs (basically wandering around the world), which the GM responds to by revealing appropriate elements of the setting. The ethos is one of "We'll get there when we get there." In this sort of play, for the GM to be pushy or obviously proactive about one of the setting elements they have established is seen as tantamount to railroading, or at least to be the thin edge of the railroading wedge.​

It is sometimes assumed that the only alternative to this sort of play is "linear", railroad-y, adventure path-style RPGing. But that's obviously not true - see the first entry of my two contrasted approaches at the top of this post. Once we put aside that assumption, and try and describe the setting-sim approach on its own terms rather than in terms of some single conjectured contrast, I think we can get a clearer picture of how it works.
 

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Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I'm trying to grok how the setting drives play without everything being a hook, from the way the leaves change in the fall at the emperor's palace, to the beer served in the tavern. When I think about bringing the setting into focus, that's what I think of. If each element presented to the players must propel play, then the density of hooks becomes so high that you end up with option paralysis. If only certain elements are meant to propel play, then you are stuck with either the GM telling the players what is actually important, or forcing the players to interrogate every detail to figure what matters.

I am guessing that I don't entirely understand what you mean, though. Could you explain it indore direct terms, or with an example?
 


Various threads - eg the "why rules?" thread, and the agency threads - have prompted some conversations with RPGing friends.

At least from my perspective, a recurring theme or element in discussion has been a contrast, between:

*Play where the players establish dramatic needs for their PCs, and these drive play (in part because the GM presents situations that speak to those dramatic needs);​
*Play where the GM establishes the drivers of play.​

There are different ways of doing the second. One popular one involves the GM preparing, presenting and adjudicating a setting. One of my friends offered the following description of this way of using setting, which I though was pretty good. Here it is (as paraphrased by me):

In this sort of setting-focused play, what is central is the GM's orientation towards framing, and towards content introduction more generally. The GM is akin to a guide. (Which contrasts with the first approach above, where the GM is provoking the players to action based on the player-established dramatic need, and using the relevant system tools.) And the setting is the default protagonist: each NPC, each faction, each "side-quest" that the GM presents to the players, has its own dramatic need that propels play; and it's the players' job to get in on the action, and hopefully to find some overlapping interest with one or more of these setting elements.​

This approach also brings some related expectations and techniques (and here's some more paraphrase):

*Players must be willing to accept the role of the setting as default protagonists. In this sort of play, it is disruptive for a player to subvert the focus on the GM's presented elements, and to try and make play about their PC's own dramatic needs. (A label I've seen for such disruptive play is main character syndrome.)​
*There is a very "breezy", relaxed approach to free play - ie the players declaring low-stakes exploratory actions for their PCs (basically wandering around the world), which the GM responds to by revealing appropriate elements of the setting. The ethos is one of "We'll get there when we get there." In this sort of play, for the GM to be pushy or obviously proactive about one of the setting elements they have established is seen as tantamount to railroading, or at least to be the thin edge of the railroading wedge.​

It is sometimes assumed that the only alternative to this sort of play is "linear", railroad-y, adventure path-style RPGing. But that's obviously not true - see the first entry of my two contrasted approaches at the top of this post. Once we put aside that assumption, and try and describe the setting-sim approach on its own terms rather than in terms of some single conjectured contrast, I think we can get a clearer picture of how it works.
I think you almost seemed to introduce a third type there, the 'railroady game', but I want to emphasize that this is simply a point on the range of gameplay within the overall category of GM-driven play. Thus you often (probably in this thread) will see some attempt to cast 'railroad' and 'sandbox' as sort of two completely different things, but as you say, the actual contrast is with narrativist play in which, generally speaking, the GM is only empowered to introduce elements in respect to the characters, who thus sit at the center of the activity at all times. IMHO opinion this last is the true diagnostic of the divide, does the GM introduce elements in respect to the characters, or in respect to some external imperative (setting or non-character-derived plot for example).

Beyond that, these kinds of discussions are often fraught because its very easy to get caught up in fairly absolutist conceptions of things, or contrariwise to think that because maybe in a Simulationist type of game the GM sometimes has the action reflect consequences of character actions, or, like in a sandbox, that the character's path choices determine which things are revealed that this is equivalent to narrativism. In all RPGs, the PC's actions (player choices) CAN be effective, otherwise why play (and we all generally assume games that lack this basic feature are flawed, though perhaps not always fatally so) at all? Likewise we get claims that narrativist games are 'just the same as simulationist' ones simply because a few premises are established or that GM scene framing will honor existing fiction (again, how could it not).
 

How would you define "dramatic need" ?
The form may vary somewhat depending on the exact premises of the game in question. I would just say they are 'internal' in some fashion. But in terms of what, precisely qualifies? Something that drives the character to action, which is a primary motivation and explanation for what they are doing, who they are, etc.

Meda the Seeker is DRIVEN by insatiable curiosity about magic. She is motivated by a need to find her father, which is probably tied to that curiosity as well. During play she evinced a strong need to 'fix' her helping to put an NPC in danger by going after him, which was related to pretty ordinary social feelings of guilt and responsibility. She NEEDED to perform that rescue, it was a dramatic need. It helped drive the story forward, and then discovering some magical stuff on the way drove some other parts of the story, etc.
 

I'm trying to grok how the setting drives play without everything being a hook, from the way the leaves change in the fall at the emperor's palace, to the beer served in the tavern. When I think about bringing the setting into focus, that's what I think of. If each element presented to the players must propel play, then the density of hooks becomes so high that you end up with option paralysis. If only certain elements are meant to propel play, then you are stuck with either the GM telling the players what is actually important, or forcing the players to interrogate every detail to figure what matters.

I am guessing that I don't entirely understand what you mean, though. Could you explain it indore direct terms, or with an example?
I'm not sure I follow. Actually, I think the sentence I bolded is exactly what happens! Or its lack is often a major stumbling point for, often inexperienced, GMs. How often have we heard the tale of the party that ran off the rails and focused on some trivial minor detail of setting color that a GM happened to convey? GMs IME very quickly learn to telegraph what is and isn't important in this sort of play! There are a variety of ways that can work, but it is obviously not too hard to do.
 

The form may vary somewhat depending on the exact premises of the game in question. I would just say they are 'internal' in some fashion. But in terms of what, precisely qualifies? Something that drives the character to action, which is a primary motivation and explanation for what they are doing, who they are, etc.

Meda the Seeker is DRIVEN by insatiable curiosity about magic. She is motivated by a need to find her father, which is probably tied to that curiosity as well. During play she evinced a strong need to 'fix' her helping to put an NPC in danger by going after him, which was related to pretty ordinary social feelings of guilt and responsibility. She NEEDED to perform that rescue, it was a dramatic need. It helped drive the story forward, and then discovering some magical stuff on the way drove some other parts of the story, etc.
Are you familiar with Trophy Gold? It's a kind of dungeon-crawler story game. In the game you are meant to be a) acquiring gold and b) doing a particular thing to move to the next scene. That is, the drives of the PCs are given by the game. Would this be a game about dramatic need or about setting?
 

Are you familiar with Trophy Gold? It's a kind of dungeon-crawler story game. In the game you are meant to be a) acquiring gold and b) doing a particular thing to move to the next scene. That is, the drives of the PCs are given by the game. Would this be a game about dramatic need or about setting?
Trophy Dark I've skimmed. Its a game with a strong and fairly simple premise. I think its maybe going to depend on how you play it, and I don't think I'm really qualified to comment much since I haven't, and honestly don't have a complete recollection of all the details of how it frames its process of play.

But, I don't think that narrativist character-driven play requires that the SETTING, the THEMES, or the COLOR need to be defined by or relative to the characters and their dramatic needs. The focus of the trajectory of play, what that talks about, does.

So, another way of defining character-driven vs GM-driven or other forms would be whether or not play challenges and potentially transforms who the character is. And does so at the behest and direction of the player. Classic D&D DC play doesn't do that. Its about an environment, the characters are simply assumed to be greedy adventurers risking their lives for gold. No other sort of motivation is ever contemplated in D&D pre-2e at all. Alignment is just a set of proscriptions. Anything else is mere color. I mean, you can IMPOSE other motivations, sort of, via GM action. Mostly those will be in the form of possible added rewards. Maybe some players will respond to "the town is in danger, you must save it" or somesuch. Pretty thin stuff from a story perspective.

Now, consider BitD, the setting and color are quite well established, as are the themes. The game casts the characters as a crew of scoundrels, but WHY, how they operate, what that means to them, their goals, etc. are all up to them. The system gives you some help, vices, and traumas in particular, plus a rival and enemies/allies you can build off of, but your character's motivations are pretty much your own to author, and the GM is bound to respond to those signals with story elements, which are not prepped ahead.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I'm trying to grok how the setting drives play without everything being a hook, from the way the leaves change in the fall at the emperor's palace, to the beer served in the tavern. When I think about bringing the setting into focus, that's what I think of. If each element presented to the players must propel play, then the density of hooks becomes so high that you end up with option paralysis. If only certain elements are meant to propel play, then you are stuck with either the GM telling the players what is actually important, or forcing the players to interrogate every detail to figure what matters.

I am guessing that I don't entirely understand what you mean, though. Could you explain it indore direct terms, or with an example?
  • create sandbox elements -
    • Most obvious:
      • encounter tables
      • maps
      • specific detail maps
    • Less obvious
      • text about places on maps
      • bestiary
      • travel rules
  • Provide metaplots
    • via setting text
    • via explicit callouts as the "point of the setting" - such as deadlands being the fight with The Reckoners.
    • via tracking systems, such as Good vs Evil in AD&D 1e's DragonLance Adventures.
    • via MetaConflict action systems such as Invasion system in Burning Empires.
    • via linked adventure stubs to be expanded by the GM.
  • Provide Archetypes for players to pick
    • This can drive specific types of character goals, as is done in most Year Zero Engine games, especially strong in T2K 4.0..
      • T2K has players pick 3 personality statements, one of which is a goal. Pursuing it in play is a source of XP...
    • This can also, at least in less politically correct games, trigger certain character issues that in and of themselves are plot drivers. Such as someone running a proper Victorian setting, include a freed slave archetype, modeled after Mr. Frederick Douglass. Or modeled after less noble but far more common situations.
  • Provide things that players may want to face off with and/or seek out to experience
    • In Alien, one of my players was intrigued by the mention of the Arcturans, and wanted to go see them. this lead to jobs in that region of space being prioritized. (Didn't change a thing about how I used the mission generator, only changed which offerings he argued for; he also usually won those.)
    • In the Ringworld RPG, the Ringworld itself is such a thing, but further, once there, the various canonical cultures can be quite interesting... or hazardous... goals of exploration. One bloke I knew who played it, his character sought out Speaker to Animals on the Map of Kzin... and upon his character escaping the Kzinti, wrote on a T-shirt, "My PC survived crossing the Map of Kzin" and drew the ringworld....
    • In any murder-mystery game, the methods of setting up those mysteries and how PCs get clues can be very much a setting element...
      • In L5R, the easiest way to solve a mystery is for a shugenja to ask the kami... but that's not admissable evidence, even if the kami in question is the previous emperor... I've had players resort to it to know how to find the clues needed to force a confession.
      • in Blade Runner, the setting provides a number of means by which to examine clues that don't yet exist... changes the feel of a mystery.
      • In a Party playing lawmen in Deadlands, you don't need to convince the judge of the varmint's guilt if you can goad him into drawing on you so you can quickdraw and drop him! (But you had better «bleep» well drop him!)
That help?
 

pemerton

Legend
How would you define "dramatic need" ?
In pretty standard terms - the desire or motivation that drives a character into action.

In play that follows the first dot point of my post, the players provide the dynamism, by establishing characters with strong, clear dramatic needs.

In play that is setting-sim, as I have outlined it in the OP, the GM establishes factions, NPCs, and the like with dramatic needs - these are what produce the "living world", as setting-sim is often described. Players make headway in the game by identifying these dramatic needs (eg working out what motivates the various faction, or NPCs) and then engaging with them.

There can be RPGing in which no dramatic need is present at all - @AbdulAlhazred has identified classic dungeon crawling as an example, and I reckon classic hexcrawling could also be an instance of this - but I don't think that sort of RPGing is all that common. I think some degree of drama, even pathos, is pretty popular!

I'm trying to grok how the setting drives play without everything being a hook, from the way the leaves change in the fall at the emperor's palace, to the beer served in the tavern. When I think about bringing the setting into focus, that's what I think of. If each element presented to the players must propel play, then the density of hooks becomes so high that you end up with option paralysis. If only certain elements are meant to propel play, then you are stuck with either the GM telling the players what is actually important, or forcing the players to interrogate every detail to figure what matters.
I think @AbdulAlhazred's reply to this was pretty solid: a risk of setting-sim play is that the players aren't able to work out what is a sign of action (eg a courier from one faction to another that might provide an entry point for the players, via their PCs, into the action of the setting) from what is mere colour (eg the GM is just narrating a messenger going from A to B to establish the "feel" of the setting).

Some sorts of scenarios actually depend on trading on this risk of confusion (eg mysteries where the players miss an early clue or cue, but in retrospect can see how it was one), but I think in true setting-sim play which really aims to eschew railroading then the GM probably wants it to be clear which is which ("hook" or mere colour). But won't want to just say so, as that is too pushy/proactive. Thus it will probably take a group a little bit of time to develop a stable group "culture" or set of shared expectations about which is which.
 

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