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

clearstream

(He, Him)
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.
It feels like this can be read in two ways, one of which I heartily agree with! Two recent essays on simulationism that have influenced me are Tuovinen and Macris.

Pursuing the reading that I agree with - I feel you are right that once we set aside the dichotomy we possibly assumed (as contrasted by you at the top of your post) it opens our eyes to a much broader range of approaches. Two recent game texts that speak to this are Fantasy Flight's Legend of the Five Rings, and Chaosium's RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. You've focused on setting, but let me shift that a bit and say that the essence of simulationism is focus on subject.

In L5R players are "samurai, who are torn between their personal desires and their sworn duties" while RQ "lets you experience that [mythological] state of mind and explore that [sacred] way of life through the mythic realm of Glorantha." Defining features of the L5R setting (of Rokugan) include the celestial order and the code of bushido, in RQ, Genertela is part of a mythological world in which gods, spirits and sacred acts are visible, active, and necessary. In both game texts, considerable investment is made up-front to situate your character into setting... but is it setting that is the focus, or the affordances for roleplay that separates characters from our ordinary world and make them suitable for exploration? That is, of the tension between their desires and duties in a strictly organised society, or of their sacred heroism in a vividly mythological reality. I don't think we have to answer this question in just one way: the game designs offer utility for multiple modalities.

Anyway, long-story short, to me your closing thought in your OP is superb. It might be you specifically want to focus on setting-sim, but I am not sure that it is quite that simple. I suspect that setting itself is serving purposes connected with what it is possible to explore via roleplay. It seems easy to think "well, I want to explore Glorantha" but that is not at heart what RQ is about. Not that simply. Exploring Glorantha is about exploring the sacred and mythological. You can easily see the similar argument with regard to Rokugan.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
At least half of all players can't do it: they are passive people in general. Though though of doing nearly anything is impossible for them. As players, they just want to show up and have the game happen.
I find players want different things at different times. Especially over long campaigns.

Intense one-shots are certainly a thing. In a longer campaign some sessions or sequences of sessions may be intense, others more reflective, and so on.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
But in any case, in terms of the subject of the thread, while not everyone may use the term 'simulationist' for your play, it is certainly fundamentally driven from the GM end of the table. I think the OP described it well. It can work pretty well, IF you you and the players are well enough aligned in terms of what activities are desired.
That would be one of the cases I make: while for sure there is a form of traditional-simulationism that is GM-driven, there truly is no inevitable conflation of GM-driving and simulationist creative purposes.
 

pemerton

Legend
I found some old posts of mine that seem relevant to this thread:
If the thing that a person enjoys in RPGing is a sense of being in the GM's world, then why would you explain that in terms of agency? The notion of audience membership seems like a more fruitful starting point.

I enjoy going to movies, and I enjoy listening to music, but I don't explain that pleasure in terms of my agency.
Many early posts in this thread said that the purpose of worldbuilding is to underpin exploration, which means - more-or-less - learning stuff from the GM about the setting s/he has established and is curating.

Now that's not my favourite style of play. But if I was going to explain why it can be appealing as a type of RPGing, I wouldn't begin by emphasising how much agency it gives the players over the content of the shared fiction, because it seems to me almost self-evident that there are other approaches to RPGing that give the players greater agency of that sort.

I would begin by explaining what the virtues are of having someone else tell you stuff about the setting they created. Presumably that has at least something in common with the virtues of storytelling, and the pleasures of being an audience member.

Likewise, I would want to explain how players have the capacity - by choosing, eg what moves they declare for their PCs which, in the fiction, will result in those PCs moving from place to place - to trigger GM narration is a good thing. How is learning about the duergar (to pick an example) by having the GM narrate a scene in which one's PC is present different from learning about the duergar by reading an imaginary encyclopedia entry? Presumably there's an answer to that question - but is it connected to the second-personality of the narration? The imaginative projection of oneself into the narrated scene (which is not normally part of reading an encyclopedia)?

It doesn't seem to me that there's nothing to say along these lines.
If the purposes of worldbuilding include establishing material for the GM to present to the players, is anyone interested in explaining why that is worthwhile?

If the purpose of worldbuilding is - in metaphorical terms - to give the players stuff to interact with via their PCs, which means - in literal terms - to establish frameworks for declaring actions which then affect the way the GM narrates his/her setting - is anyone interested in explaining why that is worthwhile?

And here is something that relates to action declarations in "sim-setting" RPGing:
a player says "I do X", where "I" denotes the PC; the GM narrates results/consequences, having regard to the parameters of the world.

I think there are three main types of X in RPGing.

(1) I go to . . . .. The relevant parameters are the world map/key/encyclopedia-like description. The GM tells the player what his/her PC see/encounters. There is a difference between this and just reading the notes/description the GM is working from. What underpins the difference? I've conjectured that second-personality is part of that.

(2) I look for/recall information about . . .. Knowledge and search checks are the paradigm here. This is more likely to involve a check than (1). If things go according to plan, the GM tells the player what it is that his/her PC discovers or recalls. Again, there is a difference between this and just reading the description the GM is working from. Is it related to fact that the player is seeking the information so as to solve a problem?

(3) I inflict condition PQR on such-and-such a part of the gameworld. This includes attempts to attack, to persuade, to demolish, etc. In this sort of action declaration, the outcome is extrapolated by some combination of application of the mechanics and GM intuition about the "physics" of the situation. The more the GM is relying on intuitions about the "physics", the more this can start to resemble (1) and (2). The more there is reliance on mechanics, the less it will resemble those.​

Even if the above was reasonable as a starting sketch, there's a lot more to be said - eg what motivates the player to declare an action for his/her PC? How does the GM's narration of results/consequences feed back into that motivation?

But any analysis has to start somewhere!
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I was thinking about the idea of GM dramatic needs. Probably more study needs to be given to GM motives. However, when a group faithfully explore Rokugen they're exploring a designed setting... one not authored by GM. Player choices - beginning with the game of twenty questions - set the direction of exploration.

Toward the creative purpose of elevated appreciation, choice of situation, topic, and question are - in playful forms - pertinent expressions of agency. Not of course as it would be if defined in terms of dramatic needs.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I was thinking about the idea of GM dramatic needs. Probably more study needs to be given to GM motives.
GM-authored dramatic needs are not, or at least need not, be connected to GM motives. The latter are mental states of that person. The former are complex relational properties of the fiction that person has authored. I don't see any reason that they should be closely connected. Someone might even author something being unaware of the dramatic needs implicit in what they author.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
GM-authored dramatic needs are not, or at least need not, be connected to GM motives. The latter are mental states of that person. The former are complex relational properties of the fiction that person has authored. I don't see any reason that they should be closely connected. Someone might even author something being unaware of the dramatic needs implicit in what they author.
I mean more to say that the meaningfulness of the relevant agency can't really be seen through a lense of dramatic needs.
 

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