Sunday, July 24, 2005

Something About the Nar/Sim Distinction

UPDATE: I'm not sure anymore 'bout anything I said in this post, after reading this thread.

I was just reading Matt Wilson's blog. I don't know how I missed out on it earlier. Good stuff. The article just linked is Matt's quick take on what GNS is all about, "My GNS." I was reading it and something came out and hit me in the teeth...

Matt writes:

Now it's been said that N play has to allow for a certain amount of player input, but I think there's a bare minimum:
the conflict at hand has to matter to the player. If my guy is all about escaping his dark past, and you as GM set up conflicts about true love, we're missing each other.
in any situation where the choice comes up, the GM can't hold any authority over which choice is the better choice.
That second one is often the deal breaker. I think in most groups getting the meat of the conflicts is no problem, but GMs will sometimes abuse their typically godlike powers in setting up conflicts where the right choice is too obvious. Who can blame 'em? Grab a random RPG book off your shelf and flip to the part where the GM is supposed to plan out the story.

Simulationism is another crap name, and it also seems to end up being a dumping ground for anything that doesn't seem to fit in either N or G play. I think of it as N play where the human choices are generally assumed up front. That means that the human choices aren't the real driver for the game. I mean, they're cool, but you know when we're playing Star Quest that my guy never surrenders, because Star Quest officers never surrender.

The trouble with S and N is that there's kind of a gray area regarding how much of the character traits are assumed up front. You could play Buffy as S, basing the characters' decisions on everything we know about them, or you could play Buffy as N, with the belief that the characters are dynamic, and there may well be a time when Buffy would choose to kill a human being, for example, even though she never does otherwise (I think. If I'm wrong, replace this with a different example).

Something hit me about this, the fact that in an important sense the distinction between Narrativism and Simulationism is whether the story is open or closed at a thematic level, dynamic or static. I know this has been said before, but it never quite hit me that this distinction was absolutely parallel to a distinction that I had been making in other parts of my life, between open and closed situations, between following a map and exploring the territory yourself, between following a recipe and making up a new recipe, between the formulaic and spontaneous, the rehearsed and improvisational. The static and dynamic.

When I formulate it in these terms, I hate to say it, but I cannot be dispassionate about the two. If this is really the distinction between the two, and I think it is at least an important aspect of it, then Narrativism crushes Simulationism like a ripe grape. (As far as I'm concerned, anyway.)

A big thing in my life lately has been abandoning a view of life where one learns the rules, and then follows them, and realizing that all the joy and fun of life is in a view of life where one explores and discovers and creates, making up one's own rules as one goes along and changing them when one feels like it. Ellen Langer calls these "mindless" and "mindful" modes of operation.

I've realized that a lot of my classic understandings of roleplaying games played into my earlier, predominantly mindless, worldview. The assumption that one can isolate the relevant rules and formularize them and follow them and generate something really cool by following the proper procedure, where the procedure is external to oneself and objective. Pre-established.

One of the big components of the mindful path is that it all comes out of the moment. You can't know before it happens how it is going to go. It is improvisational. Even playing a particular, well rehearsed piece of music is only mindful if you are there doing it, not operating on automatic, but involved in the choice of each note as if you were composing the piece at that moment.

So I was wondering if this distinction that I was seeing in Matt's description of GNS -- the dynamic versus the static, the open versus the closed, the improvisational versus the scripted, the in the moment vs the pre-established -- was there back in Ron's essays... and here ya go, in Ron's essay on Story Now --

The Now refers to the people, during actual play, focusing their imagination to create those emotional moments of decision-making and action, and paying attention to one another as they do it. To do that, they relate to "the story" very much as authors do for novels, as playwrights do for plays, and screenwriters do for film at the creative moment or moments. Think of the Now as meaning, "in the moment," or "engaged in doing it," in terms of input and emotional feedback among one another. The Now also means "get to it," in which "it" refers to any Explorative element or combination of elements that increases the enjoyment of that issue I'm talking about.

There cannot be any "the story" during Narrativist play, because to have such a thing (fixed plot or pre-agreed theme) is to remove the whole point: the creative moments of addressing the issue(s). Story Now has a great deal in common with Step On Up, particularly in the social expectation to contribute, but in this case the real people's attention is directed toward one another's insights toward the issue, rather than toward strategy and guts.
Oh dude! That's totally it! Leaving things open enough that you can make decisions in the moment rather than follow pre-established procedures!

I know people have been saying this all along but I hadn't made the connection to the other mindful/mindless concerns in my life, maybe because a lot of them have been individual rather than social.

For example, in drawing, I've been spending a lot less time doing pencil sketchy preliminary work and a lot more time going straight to ink (or paint), on the grounds that creation in the moment, without formulas, pre-planning, or scaffolding, is where all the joy and power is.

That's the same difference that exists between creation on the thematic level in Sim and in Nar.

And of course people don't think they'll like it. People think they want predictability, formula, how-to, rules, experts setting things up for them so they can paint by numbers, "For Dummies" books. People don't trust themselves to create out of themselves, out of the moment. But everyone has that power.

I don't think that this distinction sums up the whole meaning of Narrativism and Simulationism. There are a lot of other aspects of the distinction and the model, and different levels on which things take place. But this is clearly part of it, and an important part. Narrativism is improvisational on a thematic level, and Simulationism is scripted on a thematic level (the improvisation in Sim, where it happens, takes place on other levels).

I'm still not sure how exactly I regard all the Egri-derived details of how the story becomes a "polemic" for one particular answer to a deep human question. But the "open theme" vs "closed theme" thing, that I get.


Bankuei said...

I think the part that loses people with Egri is that Narrativism is whole Egri process in play- asking the question, testing answers, and then picking one(or a mixture, or none, creating a new one, open process).

Joshua BishopRoby said...

Narrativism is improvisational on a thematic level, and Simulationism is scripted on a thematic level (the improvisation in Sim, where it happens, takes place on other levels).

While in general I share your preferences for N-play for much the same reasons, there is something to be said for the collective creative worldbuilding process that S-play offers; in many ways this process is parallel to the collective creative storytelling process of N-play.

It does, however, occupy an entirely different headspace, both emotionally and intellectually, which is the cause for so much difficulty when a group tries to follow both at the same time. N-play is far more emotionally engaging (as you quoted Ron), while S-play is more of an intellectual exercise shared with friends. I don't think you're discarding S-play altogether in your post, but it strikes me as interesting how parallel and yet totally separate these two are when framed in these terms.

Ed said...

Well, I certainly don't want to disparage the art of worldbuilding. How much of that happens during play though, and how much happens during character creation (for the players) and world/scenario creation (for the GM)?

What *is* up for grabs, "open," "dynamic" in functional Sim *play*?

I don't know yet. Need to read and think more. I'm still catching up on a lot of things.