Monday, May 22, 2006

Simulationist, gamist, or dramatist?

I used to participate in, and even initiate, discussions about how Harshlands might be run, but I always ended up regretting it. Every time I did, it didn't go how I wanted; instead of having my ideas become useful input, they always got lost somewhere in the muddle, and often the result was unintentionally upsetting or offending someone. Partially it's because Harshlands has been around so long that I'm still the new kid on the block; I've only played one character in one area and one trade, so there's just so much of the game I don't know about. But mostly it's my own fault, or more to the point, the fault of my own disabilities at communication. So I have had to stick firmly to my resolution not to participate in those discussions.

There's a few active ones going on in the forums about which I have lots of ideas, and which spring from some events in the game in which I was involved, so it's hard not to get involved. And I'm not posting here to get involved in a roundabout way. I don't think anyone else from the game regularly reads my blog (except my wife) but you never know.

However, I do want to use that as a springboard to muse some on a related subject that was inspired by those discussions.

One useful model of gamer behavior divides attitudes into three categories, noting that every player or GM includes some of each, with virtually no one being a "pure" one of any of the three. They are:

  • Simulationist: If you set up the world properly as a complete and accurate simulation, or as close as you can get, to an actual world that makes sense and tends to support the kind of activities you want to see, you can, and should, just step back and watch it unfold. The GM/admin does not interfere with the unfolding story, but only is there to keep cranking the handle that makes it all turn.

  • Gamist: Players should all get a fair chance, which means they should be as close as possible to being equal to one another, and also to the challenges they face, the opponents they fight. The GM/admin should only intervene to ensure fairness and to provide ongoing challenges to the players calibrated to be fair but challenging.

  • Dramatist: The point of the game is an interesting and dramatic story. It's rarely enough to set up a game or a world and let it play out; you have to get involved all the time to keep shepherding the plot to make sure things go in a direction that, while it may be unexpected, is nevertheless satisfying.
Of course, it's just a model for describing behavior and attitude, which helps clarify similarities and differences; it's not some kind of causal description of people's inner workings.

Often simulationists and gamists will ally against dramatists. They might insist that if you stick your fingers into the story too much to manipulate it, you give the players the sense that the outcome is predetermined and therefore meaningless. Only by letting the chips fall where they may can you make the outcome mean anything. The dramatist might retort that what players really want is a big payoff of triumph; they want to go up against impossible odds and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and if you just allow them to march into a dreary failure at the hands of realism, they'll walk away saying, "I get too much of this already in real life!"

But simulationists and gamists, unified in opposing dramatists, would disagree with each other on everything else. Gamists would support a continuing pattern of GM/admin "interference" to ensure that the players are given fair but challenging obstacles and opponents as they progress; it wouldn't be "fair" (the gamist byword) for a newbie to have to fight a dragon, or a seasoned pro to have nothing but weak opponents. A simulationist would decry this kind of interference; real life sometimes hands us unbalanced opposition and we should let that play out. A gamist would insist on players starting out the game about equal, while a simulationist would have no problem pairing a poor, disabled street urchin with a rich, powerful, skilled mogul.

I have never heard of a dramatist MUD or MMORPG, and I don't think it's really feasible for several reasons:

  • Game admins just don't have the time to be that intimately involved in shaping the unfolding storyline.
  • Most MUD/MMORPGs encourage players to play characters on both sides of any conflict, while other kinds of roleplaying usually have players united on one side of any fight.
  • Dramatist involvement by admins would be seen as unfair by some of the players, and "whine fatigue" usually encourages admins towards whatever minimizes complaints.
  • MUDs and MMORPGs generally don't allow any conflict to ever finally resolve; no one ever fully wins or loses in any way that can't be reversed next month.
Many MUDs and MMORPGs are very gamist. Consider Lusternia: it's widely accepted that there are glaring holes in the simulation, but that's all right, as long as they are distributed equally.

Harshlands, however, is very strongly simulationist. The first thing that made me realize this was that chargen allows people to start very unequally in power levels. The simulationist tone is ubiquitous in how the game is run. This isn't a criticism by any means! After dealing with a few games heavily imbalanced towards being gamist, a simulationist game is very refreshing.

The trouble with undiluted simulationism is that any flaws or gaps in the simulation tend to become more important, if they can't be countered or cancelled out. The main reasons why MUDs and MMORPGs always have gaps are:

  • Technical limitations in codebases, such as lack of real AI for NPCs.
  • Insufficient player base to reflect all the parts of a society, an economy, etc.
  • Some parts of a completely simulated world are simply boring and tedious, and no one wants to play them out.
  • Players can't be logged on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Sometimes you can use these gaps to cancel each other out. For instance, in Harshlands, we all know apprentices have to spend a lot of their time doing chores for their masters, and sleeping. No one wants to play out sleeping, or sweeping floors, so the game doesn't actually require those things. Instead, people usually use them as an excuse for why they're not around while they're logged out; they're off doing those things that we like to have happen "off camera". An elegant solution, provided you can make sure that any disparity between how much time you can't spend online and how much off-camera work your character has to do falls within the fudge factor of plausibility and suspension of disbelief. (And also provided simulationist-extremists in the guise of roleplaying advocates don't start insisting if you don't play out every time your character goes to the bathroom, he didn't go, so he should get dysentery.)

Most of the tricks of designing a game like Harshlands, and most of the ideas I've tried to contribute, are about ways to cover the gaps. For instance, to encourage a player-driven economy in which people's products will sell appropriately well, you need to drive people to buy their goods from other players whenever possible; however, to keep a missing player from grinding an economy to a halt, there need to be alternative sources for all required goods. (One solution: have NPCs sell all goods required for any craft, but ensure they always cost slightly more than PCs can sell the same goods at.)

Of course I wouldn't mind seeing a little bit more dramatist-leaning involvement by the admins -- creating events, or ensuring they have satisfying resolutions -- but I don't put any stock in that wish, because it's always easy to volunteer other people's time. Unless I'm willing to put in the time and effort to do that myself (and I'm not -- in my realspace games I do my share of the GMing already, so I go to MUDs for a chance to not do that) I've got no right to ask for others to do it.

But all in all, I think that discussions about how Harshlands should run would be improved by people recognizing this three-way model. Often people are coming at the question from different perspectives and not really realizing that, which makes the discussions less fruitful. If people realized that there were these three viewpoints, that not everyone shares the same balance of preferences for them, and that they are not innately reconcilable save by balancing them, it might help the discussions focus on balancing them (and on choosing a balance point to aim for that attracts the players and play that we want) rather than on talking sometimes at cross-purposes without realizing the disparity in viewpoints between different speakers.

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